Monday, May 22, 2017

Triassic Fossils of the East Coast: The Long-Necked Reptiles

Here's another article I wrote for the Spring 2017 issue of Tracks and Trails, The Dinosaur State Park newsletter.

First a little introduction. In the Connecticut Valley, the majority of fossils are trackways. Bones and body fossils of large tetrapods are quite rare with a few exceptions such as the partial remains of Podokesaurus, a Coelophysis relative found near Holyoke, Mass, and the hand and hip bones of the early prosauropods Anchisaurus and Ammosaurus (there are, however, abundant full-body fossils of Jurassic fish, but that's an article for another time).

Tetrapod bones have, however, been found in a number of other Triassic-Jurassic rift valleys along the East Coast. Since these valleys all date from the same time period- during the break-up of Pangea- it is highly likely that these creatures also inhabited the Connecticut Valley.

There are a lot of interesting fossils along the Atlantic Coast, but I only had so much space for the article. So I decided to spread it out into several pieces covering groups of related animals.  This first article talks about the Tanystropheids, a diverse group of reptiles with unusually long necks.

I also did a couple black-and-white illustrations of the creatures I talk about. It's nice to finally be getting back to some paleoart after such a long hiatus.

Anyway, without further ado:

by John Meszaros

The Triassic period can be thought of as a time of “evolutionary experimentation”. The preceding Permian Age ended with a massive extinction event- the largest known extinction in Earth’s history, in fact- that wiped out ninety percent of life on Earth. In the wake of this Great Dying, innumerable ecological niches were left vacant. Life evolved to take fill these gaps, often in forms that seem bizarre to us in the modern day.

Although evidence of Triassic life is rare in Connecticut, fossils from other sites along the East Coast of North America allow us to construct a reasonably accurate picture of the animals that would have lived here. Dinosaur State Park’s Triassic diorama and its accompanying background painting by William Sillin depict a few of these prehistoric creatures: the crocodile-like Rutiodon; the giant amphibian Metaposaurus; bearded dragonesque Hypsognathus; pig-nosed Stegomus and the early dinosaurs Coelophysis and Sileasaurus. These are but a small sample, however, of the unique and unusual Triassic beasts lying buried in rocks all along the Atlantic coast.

One of the more distinctive reptiles of the Triassic was Tanystropheus (Greek for “long vertebrae”). Sometimes described as a “living fishing pole”, this creature was characterized by its extremely long neck- at 10 feet, it was longer than the rest of the animal’s body and tail combined. Despite this length, however, Tanystrophus's neck had only 12  elongated vertebrae. The exact reason for this strange anatomy is not known, but since fossils of Tanystropheus are usually found near marine sediments, it is speculated that the animal hunted for fish from the shore by dipping its head and neck into the shallows.

Tanystropheus bones are known primarily from Europe, the Middle East and China. However in 2014 paleontologists Paul Olsen and Hans-Dieter Sues described the discovery of a single Tanystropheus neck vertebra from the coast of Nova Scotia along the Bay of Fundy, thus establishing the presence of these reptiles on our side of the Atlantic. This is actually not that surprising considering that during the Triassic the lands that would become North America and Europe were close together within the super-continent Pangea.   

In contrast to the single Tanystropheus bone from Nova Scotia, fossils of its smaller cousin, Tanytrachelos, are abundant
in fossil sites along the East Coast- primarily in the Solite Quarry of Virginia. Nine-inch long Tanytrachelos resembled a long-necked lizard with powerful webbed hind legs that it used to kick-swim in a frog-like manner through the shallow lakes of the Triassic rift valleys. It likely fed on aquatic insects, which are themselves abundantly preserved in fine detail at the Solite Quarry.

Tanytrachelos is thought to be the maker of a type of fossil footprint called Gwyneddichnium, found abundantly in Triassic sandstones from Pennsylvania. It is, of course, not possible to determine exactly what creature made these tracks- just as it is not possible to say definitively that Dinosaur State Park’s own Eubrontes tracks were made by Dilophosaurus. However, the foot structure of Tanytrachelos is a close match to Gwyneddichnium, making it- or a very similar reptile- the most likely candidate.

The same Virginia quarry where Tanytrachelos fossils are so abundant has also yielded fossils of another possible Tanystropheus cousin, the gliding lizard Mecistotrachelos . This creature lived among the boughs of the ancient forests, hunting insects and sailing from tree to tree on wings formed from elongated ribs much like those of the “flying lizard” Draco volans of South-east Asia.
Mecistotrachelos shared the Triassic skies with a number of similar wing-ribbed gliding reptiles, including Kuehneosaurus (known from fossils found in southwestern England) and Icarosaurus (known from a single specimen unearthed in New Jersey). It differed from these other gliding lizards in a few ways. For one thing, it had an elongated neck similar to Tanystropheus- though it’s neck was much less exaggerated than the “fishing rod” of the latter animal Mecistotrachelos also appears to have had better maneuverability in the air than its contemporaries. The base of the first wing-ribs were significantly thickened- much thicker, in fact, than the leading ribs in other gliders. This suggests that they may have been anchors for strong muscles that would have allowed the creature to flex its wings, giving it the ability to bank and alter its direction as it descended. 

Mecistotrachelos is notable for being the first fossil to be analyzed with a CT scanner- a necessity since the skeleton was too delicate to be removed from its stony grave through typical paleontological procedures.

Though none of the species  discussed here have yet been found in the Connecticut Valley, as was said before, the presence of these fossils in other East Coast fossil Triassic river valleys gives good evidence that frog-like Tanytrachelos once swam the waters of our state in the shadows of the predatory phytosaurs whilst wing-ribbed Mecistotrachelos glided through the gingkos and conifers along the shores. And where the rivers met the sea, it is quite possible that there were Tanystropheus dipping their fishing-pole necks into the surf to snap up fish.   


Window Into The Jurassic World by Nicholas G. MacDonald

Dawn of the Dinosaurs: Life In The Triassic by Nicholas Fraser, illustrated by Douglas Henderson

The Great Rift Valleys of Pangea in Eastern North America: Sedimentology, Stratigraphy and Paleontology (Volume 2) edited by Peter M. LeTourneau and Paul E. Olsen

Last Days Of Pangea: In The Footsteps Of Dinosaurs by Daniel T. Ksepka and Kate Dzikiewicz
(This is a slim informational booklet to accompany an exhibit on Triassic fossils at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, CT)

Quantitative Taphonomy of a Triassic Reptile: Tanytrachelos ahynis from the Cow Branch Formation, Dan River Basin, Solite Quarry, Virginia. Michelle M. Casey. Master's Thesis in Geosciences. 2005 Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Stratigraphy, Sedimentology and Paleontology of the Upper Triassic Solite Quarry, North Carolina and Virginia. Cynthia M. Liutkus-Pierce, Nicholas C. Fraser and Andrew D. Heckert. Geological Society of America Field Guides 2014; 35; 255-269

Stratigraphic and Temporal Context and Faunal Diversity of Permian-Jurassic Continental Tetrapod Assemblages from the Fundy Rift Basin, Eastern Canada. Hans-Dieter Sues and Paul E. Olsen. Atlantic Geology 51; 2015; 139-205 


Friday, May 19, 2017

Review: Ghost Machine: A Gothic Steampunk Novel by Kristen Brand

(The author sent me a free copy of this book in return for an honest review)

The combination of Gothic and Steampunk isn’t as unusual as one might at first think. The genre of science fiction actually has its origins in the early gothic pulps, many of which incorporated scientific elements in their plots. See, for example: Frankenstein; Dracula; The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; Poe’s novella “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” and so on.

Ghost Machine begins in that most gothic of locals- an isolated asylum ( in Transylvania, no less! Though, there are no vampires to be found). Ella Rosenfeld has been brought to Auttenberg Asylum by her parents to cure her of the visions she’s been suffering from ever since she was caught in an accident involving her father’s automata creations. Ella is having hallucinations of ghosts, you see.  Well, she and her family would like to believe they’re only hallucinations. But Ella soon realizes the unquiet spirits she sees are quite real. And, unlucky for her, the head psychiatrist of the asylum, Dr. Grünewald, fully believes in her abilities too and furthermore intends to turn her into his prized test subject whether she is willing or not. After enduring several days of the doctor’s excruciatingly painful experiments, Ella escapes and manages to make it to the castle of Baron Szarka, a local noble and her inventor father’s current benefactor. But Dr. Grünewald will not let Ella go that easily and soon comes after her with a small army- including a gigantic iron war automaton (a surprising technological marvel for a seemingly ordinary medical doctor to have at his disposal...)

Ghost Machine starts off as a mostly gothic story with little dashes of Victorian “mad science” here and there. But as the novel progresses the steampunk elements become more pronounced, including the appearance of lightning guns, flying metal giants and that classic of the genre- airships. Brand seamlessly melds both genres together in her tale, and indeed supernatural and super-science eventually come together in an excellent denouement.

I really like the character of Ella Rosenfeld. Despite all the danger and pulpy action happening around her, she never feels like an unrealistically over-the-top “badass”. She is, rather, a very real normal young woman surviving a dangerous situation through resourcefulness and not a little bravery.

I appreciate that injury is handled realistically. A quarter of the way through the book, Ella’s foot is severely frostbitten and the pain and risk of infection continues to plague her throughout the rest of the story, though she does her best to deal with it.

I also appreciate that, although Grünewald and his staff are cruel and corrupt, the book portrays institutions for the treatment of mental illnesses as essentially good and positive places if they have genuinely compassionate administrators. 
 Ghost Machine is a great blending of gothic and steampunk that will please fans of either genre. You can get a copy on Amazon

And check out Kristen Brand's website here.


Monday, May 8, 2017

Edward Hitchcock: The founder of ichnology

Since I started working at Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill, CT, I've learned a lot about the history of paleontology in Connecticut. A lot of milestones in the study of ancient life happened right here in the Nutmeg state, not the least of which is the founding of the Yale Peabody Museum which houses many of the spectacular finds of Othniel Charles Marsh.

But another great contributor to the study of ancient life was Edward Hitchock, a professor at Amherst College who did the first scientific study of the dinosaur footprints that are abundant in the Connecticut Valley.

For the Winter issue of Dino State Park's newsletter, Tracks and Trails, I wrote a brief biography of Hitchcock in the hopes of exposing this paleontological pioneer to a wider audience.

Here's the article in its entirety (I should add that this article was written to accompany another series of articles talking about a lecture series by Dr. Robert Bakker, who came to Dinosaur State Park as part of our celebration of the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the tracks):

A bust of Edward Hitchcock at the Bekinski Museum at Amherst College in Massachusetts


by John Meszaros

In his guest lecture to the Geological Society of Connecticut, Dr. Robert Bakker talked about the achievements of renowned geologist Edward Hitchcock. But just who was Hitchcock, exactly?

Born to a farming family on May 24th, 1793 in Deerfield, Massachusetts, Edward Hitchcock was fascinated by the natural world from a young age. He spent his free time during the day engaged in scientific pursuits, and his nights outside lost amid the stars.  This nascent naturalist was, however, stricken from the beginning with poor health, often suffering from “dyspepsia”- acute problems with indigestion coupled with feelings of anxiety and depression. In 1814 he was even temporarily blinded by a severe case of mumps. Nature brought the young Edward solace from his maladies. He would often take long hikes in the mountains surrounding Deerfield, a habit that would instill in him a deep fascination with the natural history of the Central Connecticut Valley.  This fascination would continue into adulthood and eventually lead to his position as one of the foremost geologists in New England.

Young Hitchcock wrote multiple papers on his observations and submitted them to the American Journal of Science, one of the first publications in America exclusively devoted to science. Thanks to these papers, Hitchcock gained a reputation among scientific circles that would eventually lead to the Trustees of Amherst College inviting him to take the position of Professor of Natural History and Chemistry. In this position he continued to make geological discoveries, including the realization that the basaltic ridges so prominent in the Connecticut Valley were formed from magma pressing up through fissures in the crust rather than exploding out of volcanoes. His most well-known discovery came around 1835 when he saw the first of the dinosaur tracks that would become his life’s work.

The trackway discovered by Pliny Moody in 1802. It was nicknamed "Noah's Raven" in reference to the raven that was initially released by Noah to find land after the Deluge in the Bible. The tracks are taxonomically identified as Anomoepus, and were probably made by a small ornithiscian dinosaur similar to Scutellosaurus. Currently on display in the Bekinski Museum.

Some weird dork posing with the tracks.

People living in the Connecticut Valley had long been aware of the strange footprints embedded in the red sandstone all around them. The first recorded evidence dates from 1802, when a teenager named Pliny Moody made a doorstep out of a large track-covered slab that he dug out of his father’s field.  Hitchcock, however, was the first person to make a formal scientific investigation of the tracks. He learned of the prints via a physician named James Deane, who had heard of them himself from a man who, much like Moody, had used a slab of trackway as a paving stone in front of his house. Once Hitchcock got a look at the tracks himself, he began a search up and down the Valley, hunting for more of the mysterious fossils and finding them everywhere- in quarries and eroded hillsides, in manmade walls and laid flat inside walkways.  After collecting dozens of track-bearing sandstone slabs, Hitchcock began a long, comprehensive study of the prints, eventually developing a new science, Ichnology, which is the study of animal behavior through traces such as footprints, burrows, droppings and so on.

The term “dinosaur” did not exist at the time that Hitchcock was studying the Connecticut tracks. It would be several years before anatomist Sir Richard Owen would formally introduce the term. Hitchcock, therefore, hypothesized that the prints had been made by gigantic moa-like birds- and to a lesser extent by strange prehistoric frog- and marsupial-like creatures. Even when dinosaurs became widely known, he clung until the day he died to the idea that the mystery print-makers were great birds rather than Terrible Lizards.  The exact reasons for his stubborn attachment to enormous avians as the culprits is unclear.  But it is an amusing irony that within the past few decades the old model of dinosaurs as lumbering, rotund reptiles has been discarded in favor of images of swift, active, feathery creatures much more closely related to birds than lizards.

A spectacular example of the ichnogenus Grallator from the Bekinski Museum. These may have been made by Podokesaurus, a Jurassic relative of Coelophysis whose fossils have been found in the Connecticut Valley.

To fully understand Hitchcock, it’s important to know that he was as much a man of faith as of science. He was a devout Christian and considered himself a scholar of Natural Theology- the study of Nature in an attempt to better understand God. He scorned the works of Lamarck and Darwin which advocated for evolution and natural selection, preferring instead the idea that God had created and then destroyed several sequences of animals perfectly adapted to their environment. Like many of his fellow natural theologians, though, Hitchcock did not take the word of the Bible literally. He viewed many passages as metaphor or interpretation and worked diligently throughout his life to bridge the words of Scripture with his scientific observation.

Hitchcock's "Stone Book", made from several layers of sandstone slabs held together with iron staples. Designed to illustrate how a dinosaur stepping into soft mud could leave footprint impressions on several layers. From the Bekinski Museum.

Though Hitchcock was in many ways a man of his time, there was at least one area where he was socially ahead of his contemporaries. At a time when higher education was considered unfit for women, Hitchcock tutored many of them in his classes. Among his students were the poet Emily Dickinson- who often included scientific terms in her works- and Mary Lyon, the founder of Mount Holyoke College (which was known at the time as a Women’s Seminary). Lyon, especially, was a close friend of Hitchcock and his family and would often live with them for several months at a time. Upon Lyon’s death Hitchcock wrote “A Chapter in the Book of Providence”, a tribute to her life that he later expanded into a full biography, The Life and Labours of Mary Lyon.

Another remarkable woman in Edward Hitchcock’s life was his beloved wife Orra White who was, for a time, an assistant teacher at Deerfield Academy. She was also an accomplished watercolor artist and created hundreds of illustrations for her husband’s writings and lectures. In the dedication to his book The Religion of Geology, he wrote that “your (Orra’s) artistic skill has done more than my voice to render that science attractive to the young men whom I have instructed.”

Edward Hitchcock’s work on the Connecticut Valley trackways has left an indelible mark on paleontology and New England geology. At Dinosaur State Park you can view two of his classic footprint studies alongside a replica of “The Bones From the Well”, one of the few dinosaur skeletons found in Connecticut. You can also see Hitchcock’s complete collection of fossil footprints in a special dedicated gallery at the Beneski Museum of Natural History in Amherst, Massachusetts.

You can learn more about Hitchcock from the book Curious Footprints: Professor Hitchcock's Dinosaur Tracks & Other Natural History Treasures at Amherst College by Nany Pick and Frank Ward 

Brendan Hanrahan also gives a good summary of the life of Hitchcock and other significant Connecticut Valley paleontologists in his book Great Day Trips in the Connecticut Valley of the Dinosaurs

A view of the Edward Hictchcock Trackway Room at the Bekinski Museum. Seriously, if you ever get the chance, go see this place.

Another view of the track room.

A really cool fossil of the Anomoepus trackmaker sitting down. You can see the elongated ankle stretching out behind the prints, and even the impression of the pubis bone at the bottom.