Well, paleo fans....... happy new year, and time to round out what's been hot (and not so much) for the past year! 2009 has been a very tumultuous year in world events (not least because of this, this, and THIS). BUT, this isn't a politics or pop culture blog and there's plenty of those out there who could chronicle such events in far more detail than myself, so I am (obviously) only going to focus on the Paleo side of things for the year's BEST and WORST - uncut and uncensored.
So let's kick it off:
Well, this one's a doozie to say the least. There have been so many good ones to choose from this past year. We've got the odd emu-like Limusaurus, as well as the "missing link" Aardonyx, the spike-tailed sauropod Spinophorosaurus, and the transitional pterosaur Darwinopterus (yeah it's not a dinosaur... but I'm not making a separate "year's best pterosaur discovery" category since it's obvious there would be only one eligible contestant!). But in the end I'll have to hand the award to.... Qiaowanlong! Why is this guy so special? Well, let's see:
1. It's the first truly definitive brachiosaur found in Asia (yeah there have been rumors of older fragments and random teeth... but nothing like decent articulated, identifiable remains, and Qiaowanlong certainly has that).
2. It's the first and ONLY brachiosaur with bifid (split) neural spines known to science! Diplodocids, camarasaurids, euhelopodids, basal eusauropods, and perhaps even a few basal titanosauriforms had them. But this is the first evidence that a brachiosaur evolved this feature. Yeah, it's not a missing link. So what? It's still VERY unexpected and unusual given what we thought we knew about sauropods.
3. The bones are INSANELY well-preserved, and there's almost no crushing in most of them. Even in their unrestored state, the remains would make Marsh and Cope's jaws drop if they were alive today.
4. It's a brachiosaur. From the Cretaceous. And it seems to be a dwarf species from an island habitat. That, in and of itself, makes it 1000% cooler than just about anything else that was dug up in 2009! Of course, I admit I do have a huge brachiosaur bias, but chalk it up to the fact that brachiosaurs are just plain badass.
Ida the Adapid, formally genus Darwinius (yep, we can't forget mammals in the Paleo Kingdom!)
Ida the Adapid (lol two awards in a row! She sure gets around...)
BTW, for all of you who THINK you know, Ida is not a missing link, nor should she be used as some kind of holy grail to "prove" human evolution to Creationists. Just don't do it, you'll become a laughingstock. Ida is not a hominid, she's not an ape, heck she's not even a monkey, but something far more primitive. Basically she's far closer to lemurs than humans, and the press has shown far less intelligence than a lemur in over-sensationalizing this discovery as a "direct human ancestor" to boost TV ratings, when in fact we don't even know for sure if Ida had any evolutionary descendants, let alone if any of them led to humans! In fact, there's ample possibility that Ida is nothing more than a dead-end side branch of primate evolution, not a human ancestor. Sorry to bust your bubble CNN, but you're not a "most trusted name in news". At least not as far as primateology and the scientific community are concerned.
Raptorex! Yeah, call it a lame name if you want. I think it's total badassitude :) You've got the two most famous names in all of the Dinosauria welded together, raptor and rex - even though this little guy is neither raptor nor T. rex, at least he's small enough to be the one, and actually seems to be related to (and built like) the other. Which is a lot better in terms of a descriptive name than most of the half-baked attempts we see at naming extinct animals, from Therizinosaurus cheloniformis ("turtle-form"? Yeah, I bet the turtles beg to differ on that one...), to the not-so-saurian whale Basilosaurus, to the insanely long and convoluted Macroelongatoolithus xixianensis, the poorly understood egg-genus whose adult characteristics are ironically as unknown as its name is needlessly tongue-twisting - to the all-too-vague Pleurocoelus ("side cavity"? - come on, all neosauropods have those in their vertebrae! The name tells us nothing about the creature!)
BTW, I'm also not a huge fan of dinosaurs that were simply named after a country or state (in their genus anyway) - it just sound like the authors of the description got lazy, but still I can't avoid the fact that names like Albertosaurus and Argentinosaurus just sound irresistible. Same with Lusotitan, which is interestingly also the pun of an oxymoronic portmanteau... It's either loose or tight, not both! Of course my patience for regional name sources does not extend to what's being done with sauropod studies in Pakistan, where nationalist fervor has lead government-sponsored scientists to rename entire worldwide clades like Titanosauria to "Pakisauridae" and Saltasauridae to "Baluchisauridae" (after Baluchestan province) and to inanely redefine them (wrongly) as mutually exclusive groups with the representative taxa changed to those found in Pakistan (which are not surprisingly called Pakisaurus and Baluchisaurus, go figure...). This odd renaming scheme (see more details HERE, under Khetranisaurus) has never been recognized outside of Pakistan, and indeed most titanosaurs are not from Pakistan.
Without a doubt, it's Tatankacephalus. I'm sure its describers (the husband and wife team of Bill and Kris Parsons) are being truthful when they say it's taken from some Native American term for "buffalo", combined with the Greek word for "head", but regardless, the punnery in the name itself is lame as hell. We all know it's built like a tank. Every ankylosaur is built like a tank. Ta-tank-a-cephalus is just ramming it down a bit too hard. There are thousands of words in indigenous languages the world over to choose from when naming a dinosaur, many of which are perfectly fine and original... just look at the Mongolian discoveries, you just don't get a cooler ankylosaur name than Saichania or Tarchia! Which respectively mean "beautiful" and "brainy", so you know that whoever had the stones to give Ankylosaurs (of all creatures) such names, really has an admirable passion for their work! Kudos to their originality. Makes you wonder why Bill and Kris Parsons chose the one obvious boring, lame name that sounded strangely like 'tank' or 'tank-head'.
I'm not claiming to know their motives for choosing this incidentally pun-loaded name, but one does wonder... especially when the horn-less head of Tatankacephalus doesn't resemble a buffalo head at all.
*I considered putting Aardonyx here first, but then I realized that nobody had ever really compared a dinosaur to an Aardvark before, so at least that's somewhat original even if it's horribly inaccurate. But as for "tankylosaurs" (lolz).... we've all heard that worn-out analogy gazillions of times. And if you're a paleontologist working on armored dinosaurs, don't you even THINK of naming your next discovery "tankylosaurus".
What Darwin Didn't Know (NOVA special) - this is a very colorful and succinct program about how our understanding of evolution has changed and become far more complex since Darwin. I don't know if they will do reruns of this show, but it was very interesting and fun to watch. There were, as you might always expect, some small errors and a few boring spots. But overall the show was jam-packed with good info and plenty of vibrant footage of live animals and fossils. Not totally a "paleo-program" but certainly it's worth a viewing or two. It's not very pleasant to admit this, but there haven't been all that many paleo-programs in 2009, and not many good ones. There are ironically a great many better ones from previous years...
This year there's no contest - the worst of the worst is... Clash of the Dinosaurs. Aside from the beautiful CG animation (which has a few odd problems of its own) the show makes a plethora of false claims about dinosaurs (like the discredited "second brain" hypothesis) and also portrays events and behaviors which are flat-out IMPOSSIBLE (like a Sauroposeidon teenager the size of a house being killed by a few scratches from a couple of dog-sized Deinonychus. Sure, two Deinonychus could easily kill something the size of a human, but not something in the range of thirty tons.) And let's not forget the whole uncovered nest fiasco, the urine-seeking infrared Quetzalcoatlus, and the paradoxical portrayal of T. rex as both a sluggish scavenger and a very dumb impulsive predator that inexplicably attacked Triceratops head-on instead of going for its weak spots. The
Oh, and did we mention their unethical, dishonest quote mining and manipulation of Dr. Matt Wedel's words?
Taylor, Wedel, and Naish (2009) on sauropod neck posture.
This paper shows conclusively (with some very nicely illustrated diagrams) that sauropod necks were designed for vertical feeding, and the notion that sauropods couldn't raise their necks past horizontal is BUNK. There's been a lot of bad science out in the past few years that seems to favor "vertical neck denialism" or as I like to call it, the cult of SNAFU (Sauropod Necks Are Flaccid Universally) which is a bit like Alan Feduccia's BAND movement that denies the dinosaur-bird link.
So props to Taylor, Wedel, and Naish for using solid science based on living animals to debunk the "sauropods could never do this or that" hype and for proving that "neutral poses" are anything but accurate live postures for an animal, and that vertical or near-vertical necks are the anatomical rule among land tetrapods, not the exception - regardless of what ONP (osteological neutral pose) seems to indicate...
This paper has also gotten much-deserved MASSIVE press coverage both in print and online.
Initially I wanted to follow the cue of SV-POW and give this award to Calvo et. al.'s paper on the anatomy of Futalognkosaurus dukei. As Matt Wedel points out, the inconsistent measurements in this paper are atrocious. The scale bars used for the photos of the bones wildly conflict with the measurements given for the skeletal diagram, which itself isn't all that well-posed or proportioned. So due to the sloppy measurements, there's no way to tell how big this creature really was, which is a shame given it's probably one of the biggest dinosaurs on record, and certainly the biggest known from such good material.... (though it's probably unfair to pick on Calvo et. al. alone, it reflects an annoying trend in recent dinosaur publications - negligence in measurements, which would have been unthinkable in the days of Charles Gilmore and Barnum Brown, when every detail on a bone was precious and worth multiple cross-checking measurements!)
BUT then I realized that Calvo's paper came out in 2008, so it doesn't qualify for Worst Paper of 2009. So instead I present to you this little article of interest:
Horner and Goodwin's (2009) paper on the cranial ontogeny (or rather, rampant taxonomic lumping!) of pachycephalosaurs.
Jack Horner really outdid himself this time (and not in a good way). Basically he claims that small, spiky-headed pachycephalosaurs like Dracorex and Styigimoloch are not actual genera or species, but instead merely juvenile individuals of Pachycephalosaurus. Then follows a convoluted argument of how these "bonehead dinosaurs" grew spikes around their domes in childhood but re-absorbed them and radically morphed the entire shape of the head as they became adults. A bit odd to say the least, especially since this flies in the face of everything that is known about the adult bone growth, tooth wear, and fusion patterns in specimens of Dracorex and Stygimoloch (and Prenocephale, and Tylocephale, and Stegoceras, need I go on....?)
Horner and his "school" of paleontology have gradually earned a "fringe" reputation because they take a very extreme "lumper" view on species taxonomy (not to mention their stubborn persistence in considering T. rex a sluggish scavenger rather than an active predator). They will lump several different species into one, or claim that they are simply males/females/juveniles/regional forms or "races" of some other species. I believe he's made exactly the same mistake with duckbills and ceratopsians. Now while it IS true that many dinosaurs do go through morphological changes in horn structure as they grow up, this does not mean that every three-horned ceratopsian is a growth stage of Triceratops, nor does it mean that all "bonehead" dinosaurs are actually the same genus.
It's not the sort of reputation I would wish on Horner or anyone for that matter - he's done (and continues to do) decades of valuable research on many Late Cretaceous dinosaurs, far beyond what many others have accomplished - but a number of his recent papers (as well as his escalation of commitment to the T. rex scavenger hypothesis in the face of mounting evidence against it) have sadly made a substantial dent in his credibility.
The winner here would without doubt have to be Dr. Mike Taylor's (2009) re-evaluation of Brachiosaurus brancai as a separate genus, Giraffatitan. While I knew it had some important differences from Brachiosaurus altithorax, and I've been aware of the usage of Giraffatitan for a long time now, I didn't expect such a sudden revision and official adoption of the name over twenty years after it was first proposed (somewhat more tentatively) by Gregory Paul. I grew up with "Brachiosaurus" brancai - it was my favorite of all dinosaurs. It was really all I cared about the first time I watched Jurassic Park (but I admit seeing Wayne Knight get plastered with sticky black toxic Dilophosaurus goo was pretty cool too, despite being totally bogus). It was my childhood ream to go to Berlin and see HMN SII, the famous skeleton of B. brancai. For most people in the world, that skeleton is Brachiosaurus. The many scientists who perished of various horrible tropical diseases in the original expedition to Tanzania to uncover the fossils, referred to it as such. So while Taylor does indeed write a top-notch paper and give ample convincing proof that it was a different genus, it is truly very bittersweet to say goodbye to B. brancai and a permanent hello to "G. brancai". Farewell old friend. I for one shall not stamp out your legacy, for you are no Brontosaurus.
"Dinosaur" George Blasing seems to have differing opinions on whether T. rex or Spinosaurus would win in a fight. Now, as he acknowledges, they lived in totally different times and places, but since a lot of people saw Jurassic Park III, it's obviously a very popular question.
Here's one clip where Dinosaur George tries to answer that question:
Now listen closely to the part where he says: "...there is no comparison in my opinion. Tyrannosaurus rex was like a grizzly bear, Spinosaurus was like a panda bear. And if you meet the two together the grizzly bear would win, so Spinosaurus would just obliterate the other guy."
Wait a minute! Shouldn't he have said "T. rex would obliterate the other guy"? I thought he said the "grizzly bear" (i.e. the T. rex) would win!
It's clear that T. rex was by far the more dangerous dinosaur, Spinosaurus had narrow fragile teeth and jaws more suited to catching fish than crunching through bones. And it had far weaker jaw bones and muscles than T. rex, and a much more delicate skull structure. This delicate build is true even for the record-sized new Spinosaurus specimen, which *may* have been longer then T. rex (we can't really tell, since the specimen is so fragmentary). So that epic scene in Jurassic Park III where a huge Spinosaurus kills T. rex by breaking its neck with one bite, is totally FALSE and nothing more than some deceptive computer-animated movie magic. And I'm sure Dinosaur George is perfectly aware of this -which is why this clip gets the award for the oddest dinosaur blooper of the year!