STL Science Center

STL Science Center

22 October 2017

Cannibalism on Display

How do we know an animal that is now a fossil was a cannibal? As with much evidence of cannibalism, even in extant animals, we must look at the teeth, the wounds, and how these two pieces of evidence are correlated. In the past, ichthyosaurs (specifically Shonisaurus and the ichnospecies Ichthyosaurolites) and Coelophysis were suggested to have been extremely cannibalistic in their behaviors. A little over 11 years ago, the cannibalistic tendencies of Coelophysis were analyzed and refuted; the supposedly cannibalized animasl turned out to be a basal crocodile and outside of the body of the second Coelophysis specimen accused. Ichthyosaurolites, on the other hand, is an ichnospecies based entirely on ichthyosaur coprolites that contain the skeletal remains of other ichthyosaurs; the name literally means "ichthyosaur coprolite (fossilized feces)".

From Rogers, et al. 2003. Caudal tail chevron of Majungasaurus. White arrows indicate drag marks and black arrows indicate impressions initial biting marks from Majungasaurus teeth.
In the skull of Majungasaurus, the teeth are characteristically shaped, spaced, and serrated. All of these identifiers have helped paleontologists to recognize the marks of Majungasaurus feeding on a number of other animals from Madagascar. Chief among the animals possessing numerous bite marks from Majungasaurus teeth are the sauropod Rapetosaurus and Majungasaurus itself. No other theropods are known from Madagascar during the 70 - 66 MYA time frame during which Majungasaurus is known to have lived. This was used as the first inference concerning the tooth marks on Majungasaurus bones. This in turn led Rogers, Krause, and Curry Rogers to look at the teeth of Majungasaurus and at the marks that they had left on Rapetosaurus bones in 2003; Curry Rogers had led the description of Rapetosaurus in 2001. The initial bite marks that we see (look at the black arrows) are spaced and shaped identically to the teeth known from the multiple Majungasaurus skulls that have been recovered. The drag marks (white arrows) indicae areas where the serrated denticles have been dragged across the bones.

The first argument that is made here, often, is that the results of interspecies combat might look something like this. However, there are two important aspects of these wounds that make the case for cannibalism more compelling. The first is that these wounds show no sign of healing; the bone would have likely attempted to heal itself, at least, a little, after a traumatic bite in which humerous teeth insulted and scratched the bone deeply enough to clearly score the skeletal material. The second is that these chevrons, and many other limb and vertebral elements that also contain bite marks like these, are inaccessible during combat as they are in areas that could only be (easily) bitten when other elements of the body were exposed either through decomposition or predation.

The remaining question, however, is whether this cannibalism occurred as a result of scavenging behaviors or if Majungasaurus actively hunted members of its own species. The two activities have been documented in various extant species including lions and chimpanzees, so neither would be exceptionally abnormal or unique to Majungasaurus. For more reading on the exact findings of the Rogers, et al. team, read the following paper:

Rogers, R.R.; Krause, D.W.; Rogers, K.C. (2003) “Cannibalism in the Madagascan dinosaur Majungatholus atopus.” Nature, Vol. 422, pp. 515-518

21 October 2017

An Old Ugly Dinosaur

©Nobu Tamura
One thing that creeps into horror movies and the Halloween season every year is the act of cannibalism. There are cannibalistic animals throughout the animal world but it is a taboo in most human societies and that makes many of us cringe when we hear about cannibalism in animal groups. Dinosaur cannibalism is rarely documented, but one theropod is particularly well known for its cannibalistic behaviors. Majungasaurus crenatissimus was an abelisaurid theropod and the apex, and possibly only large, predator of Madagascar during Late Cretaceous. At the time Madagascar was already an island separated from both the Indian subcontinent and African continent. As the largest predator on the island Majungasaurus had only other members of its species to truly challenge its supremacy as a predator on the island. Whether these clashes led to the evidence of cannibalism or it was a result of scavenging we do not know. However, Majungasaurus' cannibalistic behaviors and its abelisaurid body plan and often craggy frightening skull morphology make this theropod one of the ugly and frightening fossil animals that deservedly we are discussing during October and during the week leading into the Halloween week.

20 October 2017

Portrait of an Ugly Therapsid

One of the best things about very odd animals is that they tend to inspire a lot of interpretations and illustrations because they tend to spark the imagination. Estemmenosuchus certainly inspires fantastical illustrations; Dinocephalian fossils have a tendency to inspire fantastical illustrations because a number of them possess very intriguing and unique skulls. The reconstructed skeleton of Estemmenosuchus is equally intriguing; we will not look at illustrations only today however.

©Dmitry Bogdanov
It is important to note that the realistic nature of illustrations can be affected by the type of illustration we are looking at. Dmitry Bogdanov's style, like Nobu Tamura's, is very soft and often portrays the animal in sterile conditions on white backgrounds; this is not true for all of either artist's illustrations. However, this is not detrimental to the art and, in fact, the implied simplicity of the illustration of this Estemmenosuchus uralensis alows us to more thoroughly take in the entire animal and appreciate the posture, the size of the head, and the stout character of the overall animal. Estemmenosuchus, as we knew before seeing the animal as portrayed here, was a sprawling and squat animal with large canine teeth, which are very visible here. This illustration is labeled as a male animal. The largest canines are used as evidence to support hypotheses of sexual dimorphism in Estemmenosuchus in at least one paper.

©Vladimir Nikolov
More realistic appearances of Estemmenosuchus are as reliant on a stark and bold illustration style as the first is on a softer and cooler colored style. These are most realized in the line drawings that accompany the description papers, but can also be found in the styles of artists like Raul Martin, Dinoraul, and Walter Myers. The illustration included here as a representative of the more realistic appearing (because of its hard lines and high contrast as well as lack of soft tones) was drawn by Vladimir Nikolov. The description of this piece by the artist states that the scene depicts two male members of the genus are engaged in territorial combat. The fierce looking faces and skulls of the animals were apparently not enough to warn one another off from actual physical fighting, as we see in many extant species today.

18 October 2017

Sprawling Horned Faces

From Chudinov 1965
Estemmenosuchus has a crown of horns. The crown of horns has been hypothesized to have been used for intraspecific signalling and display short of combat; combat with the horns was probably used as an absolute last resort by these animals. The reason that it would have been used as a last resort is that the horns were massive bone structures. Unlike antlers, horns are composed of bone and insult or injury to these structures can be much more traumatic to the animals than damage to antlers (injuries to antlers are serious of course though). The horns of Estemmenosuchus were composed of extremely thick outgrowths of the frontals and cause the skull to appear even more massive than it is. Known skulls of Estemmenosuchus are approximately 65 cm (26 in) in length. That is not the only thing that is large and unique about Estemmenosuchus though. This large therapsid (approximately 3 m  or 10 ft long) also had a sprawling posture; this is somewhat typical in therapsids and Permian reptiles as well. Some have used this sprawling posture as evidence for an herbivorous diet, saying that the sprawling posture enabled the animal to hold a large fermenting gut with more support than if it had a posture like cattle or a similar mammal; this seems less than ideal given what we know about extant mammals. The canines of Estemmenosuchus are used as evidence to a different, more omnivorous but not quite carnivorous, dietary regimen.

17 October 2017

Working Hard to Find Papers

Finding papers that are about, reference, or even vaguely mention Estemmenosuchus is actually a lot more difficult than I had initially thought it would be. The majority of the papers that make mention of the interestingly shaped therapsid are descriptions of faunal assemblages of Eastern Europe, Russia, or simply Permian fauna in general. These papers are exemplified online by Chudinov's (Tchudinov) 1965 paper Deinocephalians of the U.S.S.R. and Battail's 2000 paper A comparison of Late Permian Gondwanan and Laurasian amniote faunas. Chudinov actually described the two species of Estemmenosuchus in 1960 and 1968; these descriptions are not available online. Unfortunately, Chudinov's treatments of Estemmenosuchus are possibly the best and are certainly the best online at the moment.

16 October 2017

Ugly Animals Get All the Love

Whenever a fossil animal is bizarre enough to be a little scary or to be called ugly outright it appears to gather an awful lot of attention in the media and within the general population. Estemmenosuchus is an animal that exemplifies this sort of massive interest across the lines of professional and amateur as well as including the typically disinterested portion of the population. Despite knowledge of the animal and its respected, if not well known, existence in the fossil record, it has not made am impact in the animation or documentary community that typically brings dinosaurs and other fossil animals to life. A Permian Monsters exhibit was once outfitted with an animatronic Estemmenosuchus and Gondwana Studios captured the statue in motion and displaying all the small conical teeth it was installed bearing. Seeing an interpretation in action is important to understanding how scientists envision this animal moving around its environment, regardless of the actual motions that this statue is engaged in (what I mean here is that it is roaring and moving its head around perfectly well, but there is no locomotion aspect to the animatronics). Maybe someone should have suggested this rather intriguing animal for a role in the Walking with Monsters series from 2005. It would have been contemporary with other Permian animals like Gorgonops, Dimetrodon, and  Edaphosaurus, to name a few. Perhaps this age will be revisited by television and film, but until then the movies for Estemmenosuchus are sadly lacking overall.

14 October 2017

News Then Therapsids

In the somewhat recent past I  found myself thinking that perhaps we could use a name change here at Dinosaur of the Week. The fact of the matter is that we have covered a lot of dinosaurs and fossil animals in the past 7 years (give or take a week or two off a year for vacations and conferences we are talking about ~50 animals a year for 7 years) and the number of well known, well documented, and well represented dinosaurs have become rarer and rarer for us to cover. We could easily cover only dinosaurs, but there is a point, and we are very near it, where we will start to cover dinosaurs that are represented by singular fragments of singular bones and are highly hypothetical. In exploring other fossil animals we have extended the life of this blog beyond a few years and have been able to explore a much larger range of life on the history of this planet.

Why haven't we changed the name in all that time then? I have seriously considered it a number of times in the past year or two because I realize that we discuss much more than dinosaurs. There could be any number of good names: Fossil Animal of the Week, Extinct Animal of the Week, to name a few. So far I have decided that the fact that Dinosaur of the Week is acceptable as a name, though we could rebrand ourselves without losing an audience. The reason that I am reluctant to do so at the moment is that we have recently become more widely known. The site has been cited in scientific and educational presentations at conferences and it has been used in classrooms in public schools for an extended period of time. All of that said, should a name change occur, the change would be effected in the first week of the new year. This will give me time to make a final decision on a new name, how to rebrand the site, and to illustrate all of the necessary materials for the site. Now, on with the animal for this week:

©Roland Tanglao
Estemmenosuchus is a genus of Dinocephalian ("terrible headed") therapsid. Two species are known; E. uralensis Tchudinov, 1960 (type)and E. mirabilis Tchudinov, 1968. These two species are both known from the Perm region of Russia, an area near the Ural mountains in the center of the country. The name Estemmenosuchus means "Crowned crocodile" in Greek, but therapsids like these two species are actually mammals, and not at all related to crocodiles. A body measuring approximately 3 m (10 ft) that looked something like the body of sprawling hippopotamus was attached to this crowned reptilian looking head. Important questions remain: What are all of these growths made of? What were their purpose? What did this animal eat? What makes it a therapsid?