In our 109th episode, we had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Eric Morschhauser, who got his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania under Peter Dodson. He’s an Assistant Professor at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania who has worked with early birds, theropods and recently basal neoceratopsians.
Episode 109 is also about Eustreptospondylus, a megalosaurid that lived in the Middle Jurassic in what is now England.
Do you like dinosaurs? Help us keep our podcast going on Patreon!
Big thanks to all our current Patreon supporters!
You can listen to our free podcast, with all our episodes, on iTunes at:
In this episode, we discuss:
- The dinosaur of the day: Eustreptospondylus
- Name means “true Streptospondylus” (Streptospondylus means “turned vertebra)
- Megalosaurid that lived in the Middle Jurassic in what is now England
- Fossil found in 1870, and at first was assigned to other genera
- In 1870 some workers found a theropod skeleton at Summertown Brick Pit, north of Oxford, England. James Parker, a local bookseller, acquired them and then showed them to John Phillips, an Oxford professor. Phillips described the fossils in 1871 but did not give them a name (at the time, it was the most complete skeleton of a large theropod found)
- Baron Franz Nopcsa reassigned the skeleton to Streptospondylus cuvieri in 1905-1906 (Richard Owen first described in 1842), based on it being related to the type species Streptospondylus altdorfensis (unfortunately S. altdorfensis was named based on very incomplete remains). Also Friedrich von Huene apparently sometimes called the specimen Streptospondylus cuvieri and other times Megalosaurus cuvieri
- Alick Donald Walker renamed it to a new genus in 1964: Eustreptospondylus oxoniensis
- Species name refers to Oxford
- Walker also named a second species, Eustreptospondylus divesensis in 1964, based on a French find. But in 1977 this was reclassified as the genus Piveteausaurus
- Eustreptospondylus is the most complete large theropod from Jurassic Europe (so far)
- Only one skeleton of Eustreptospondylus has been found so far
- In 2000, Oliver Rauhut found that there are only minor differences in the hip bones between Eustreptospondylus and Magnosaurus (another megalosaurid), and in 2003 he suggested they should be the same genus, so Eustreptospondylus would be Magnosaurus oxoniensis (not everyone agrees)
- In 2010, Gregory Paul suggested it was the same as Streptospondylus altdorfensis
- Rudyard Sadleir published a modern description of Eustreptospondylus in 2008
- Found on an island, and lived when Europe was mostly made of islands, so it may have been able to swim (not everyone agrees, and some think it was just swept out to sea when it died, instead of swimming to an island before it died)
- Holotype is of a pretty complete skeleton, and is probably a sub adult
- In 1924 the holotype was prepared and put on exhibit, in an erect position (this was changed to a more horizontal position in the early 2000s)
- Used to be thought to be a dwarf species, but in 2000 David Martill and Darren Naish pointed out that it was a subadult, not a dwarf species (island dwarfism)
- Eustreptospondylus fossil found was of a juvenile, and Gregory Paul estimated in 1988 that it was 15.2 ft (4.63 m) long and weighed about 481 lb (218 kg)
- Could potentially grow up to 29.5 ft (9 m) long
- Had large hind limbs and small forelimbs
- Had a pointed snout and large horizontal nostrils
- Had a thick skull, and tall, wide jaws (no teeth found, but based on the toothsockets it had an enlarged third tooth in its lower jaw)
- Carnivorous, bipedal, and had a slightly stiff tail
- Ate smaller dinosaurs and pterosaurs, and may have scavenged for fish, marine reptiles, and other dinosaurs
- Can see Eustreptospondylus in episode 3 of BBC’s Walking with Dinosaurs (shows it swimming, also one is eaten by Liopleurodon while fishing, and then two of them eat a beached Liopleurodon)
- Also Eustreptospondylus is featured in the Primeval novel Fire and Water
- Huxley named the family Megalosauridae in 1869
- It was a “wastebasket” group, meaning it included a large variety of unrelated species (Dryptosaurus, Ceratosaurus, Indosaurus, Velociraptor)
- Lived in the mid to late Jurassic about 170-148 Ma
- Lived in Europe, North America, South America, and Africa
- Cousins of spinosauridae
- Thomas R. Holtz offered an alternate group definition as all dinosaurs more closely related to Megalosaurus than to Spinosaurus, Allosaurus, or modern birds
- They are primative theropods; small to large sized, with sharp teeth and had three claws on each hand
- Big predators are usually harder to find than prey, so not much is known about megalosaurs
- Fun fact: The deepest dinosaur fossil discovery is at 2,256 meters (~1.4 miles). It’s a portion of a Plateosaurus from Norway that was discovered while drilling for oil and was also apparently the first dinosaur found in Norway.
This episode was brought to you by:
Artemesia Publishing. They not only publish award-winning dinosaur books, but also “coloring puzzles” which can be put together and then colored using markers, crayons, or colored pencils. You can get more information at apbooks.net and you can purchase the “coloring puzzles” at http://www.paleoartisans.com/Catalog/fuseaction/ListProducts/classid/152603.
For those who may prefer reading, see below for the full transcript of our interview with Dr. Eric Morschhauser:
Garret: And now onto our interview with Dr. Eric Morschhauser. He got his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania under Peter Dodson and he’s now an assistant professor at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and he’s worked with early birds, theropods and most recently basal neoceratopsians. So do you have a favorite dinosaur with all these different groups you’ve worked with?
Eric Morschhauser: Do I have a favorite dinosaur? It’s always—again, I’m going to do this like everybody does, it’s always a tough one. Actually though growing up and—not even growing up actually growing up as a paleontologist I should say, when I was an undergrad, I was a little people really interested in theropods, I’ve since reformed, but now I was really interested in theropods and one of my favorites, it’s actually Deinnoychus.
Garret: That’s a good one.
Eric Morschhauser: And it’s one of my favorites because of the original paper because one of the very first scientific papers I read was Ostrom’s Monograph of Deinonychus. I had gotten a copy, I don’t even know how, but I bought a copy of it, had it when I had very little other like real serious dinosaur material not the number of books, bookshelves that shall remain nameless, but not the piles and piles that I have now, but I was on the first ones I got, and it was really interesting because it was really interesting to read Ostrom walking through the idea of what’s going on functionally with the foot, what’s going on functionally with the tail, because everybody knows about the retractable claws, the elevated claws of dromaeosaurs now with philosopher after Jurassic Park and everything, but nobody knew about it in the 60s and Ostrom was the first—Deinonychus was the first animal they really figured out.
They had lots of [inaudible 00:01:54] foot already, but it turns out that the second toe was one of the phalanges that really tells you what it was doing when the toe was broken and the foot wasn’t completely propelled out, and you can see that in the original papers from the original Velociraptor paper back in the 20s and so Ostrom’s doctors monograph, he’s really just kind of thinking through that and talking about that functional capability and I thought that was really interesting. And it’s so interesting that it’s actually not only one of my favorite dinosaurs, but the second failings of the pital [ph] digit is actually one of my favorite in Deinonychus is one of my favorite bones.
Eric Morschhauser: Because that’s the exact bone that has the morphology that tells you, you’ve got something with one of these reportorial claws. So you just need to find that, you don’t even need the rest of the animal. It could be like. “Oh I’ve got a theropod probably but it’s a variance, we got something with one of these retractable toe claws.” And so I think that’s really cool. I think it’s one of those things that’s really interesting in paleontology and comparative anatomy is the types of inferences you can make sometimes with limited evidence. Sometimes you can’t, sometimes you do, but you shouldn’t.
Eric Morschhauser: Or at least some people do and they should, but it’s really powerful just to be able like in some instances, no, really you can know a lot about what’s going on with an organism from a relatively small piece.
Garret: Oh yeah. There was a recent review of some track ways in South, I think it was in Southern China and there were a few theropod prints that had two toes, and they’re like, “Well there’s a good chance that’s some kind of dromaeosaur, because what else has two toe prints like these?” There are like, “There’s a chance that one just washed away, but really what are the odds?”
Eric Morschhauser: Yeah, I think that’s interesting and you get this very distinctive morphology in places.
Garret: Yeah, cool. So switching gears to neoceratopsians and since that’s your current bread and butter, so you were on the team that described Archaeoceratops, did you have to go over to China to do all that work, or did you manage to do it from the US?
Eric Morschhauser: No, I spent a fair amount of time in China. So I actually wasn’t—I didn’t name all Archaeoceratops, that was before I was involved in ceratopsians, but when they named Archaeoceratops, [inaudible 00:04:23] and Peter Dodson and actually Mark Romano was on that paper who’s down to Carnegie just Southeast, he’s kind of my neighbor now, not in a literal sense but at least he’s not across the state anymore, but when they named all Archaeoceratops they had a skull and a mandible, and the thing for me that’s really odd is that most of the world still thinks of Archaeoceratops as that skull and mandible.
A number of years after that my Chinese colleague Linda Chin, his field crew collaborating with a number of people, they found numerous specimens on a slightly different locality that is only about, I think 100 kilometers away from the type locality, they got a new locality and it was just full of Archaeoceratops, and so we put out a little paper in 2012 Just to kind of flash out some of the anatomy of Archaeoceratops using a—just describing one specimen and they had another, a different skull but still a decent skull and partial post cranium, but we just have so much more.
And so I kind of—I feel like if I keep walking around until these papers come out, most of the world doesn’t know that in fact Archaeoceratops is one of our—one of the dinosaurs we have been—it’s up there probably in the top ten or 20 best represented dinosaurs, but nobody knows that yet so and that’s on me and I’m working on it, but yeah so I really in terms of opening up Archaeoceratops and really describing its anatomy, and figuring out the whole animal, that’s kind of the project that’s been going on for a while, and so my contribution to Archaeoceratops so far.
Garret: Cool. So are they all—there’s the one head basically from one part of China and then you’ve got a whole group of them in another spot and that’s so far all the places they’ve been discovered?
Eric Morschhauser: Yeah. I think we only have material from these two, they are in these two little structural basins but again aren’t that far from each other. This part of China, the geology is a little bit challenging in terms of the actual biostratigraphy, they’re sort of figuring out exactly where in a particular set of rocks each specimen lies relative to each other, because what happened is basically long before India collided with Asia, you actually had some like island arcs, imagine like something like Indonesia that was plowing into the South of Asia at this time, squishing it up to the North and then what that does on the sides, right? If you have something like ramming, if you imagine like a really bad car accident, I don’t know, like one of the Batman’s movies or something, you have sometimes that something gets t-boned, right?
The thing that’s getting hit sort of bends around the part that is coming in, this is basically what was happening but with continents and so these little basins are getting torn open basically really slowly and not nearly as dramatic as Christian Bale in Batman, but they’re getting torn open and so you’ve got these two basins that are opening at nearly the same time, just sort of a little bit separated from each other. So it gets really hard to trace rocks from one to the other and to get the relative dates.
Garret: [inaudible 00:07:52].
Eric Morschhauser: But anyway—so yes, so they’re from right next to each other and as far as we know we haven’t found the real Archaeoceratops anywhere else.
Garret: Interesting. So that whole tearing apart was happening in like the middle of the continent as well as farther towards the ends?
Eric Morschhauser: Yeah. Well again you have to remember that again this stuff is joining essentially Asia from the South, but there was no India there, right? So you can take everything from the border, from Nepal or South and that just wasn’t there, right? And so these things that are joining Asia are—we’re meeting it up somewhere in the middle of where the Tibetan Plateau is today and again you’ve got numerous little things that sort of—I like the term for it, when you have things start to join a continent, a geologic term called docking.
And so you had—we had—there was some stuff docking in the Cretaceous and that’s partly why we have these some of these sedimentary basins in Western China from the early Cretaceous. So you get Archaeoceratops from there, there’s been [inaudible 00:09:00], I think [inaudible 00:09:02] is from another one of these basins, a little bit further to the East and so that’s how you get some of this stuff that’s in Western China. But yes a lot of Archaeoceratops is only found in these two little localities that are approximately two hours from the nearest substantial set of them.
Garret: Yeah. I looked at a 360 degree picture from one of those basins and it looked just like the Gobi Desert, is that in the Gobi Desert?
Eric Morschhauser: It is in the Gobi. We’re in the Western Gobi, so [inaudible 00:09:33] is called the Trans-Altai Gobi; because you get the Eastern Gobi which is where say like the original Cetakasaurus [ph] locality is Eastern Gobi. I think the Chinese sort or Cretaceous red beds where you’re getting Protoceratops, Hellenic Helaines as well as a number of other things really similar to stuff that we sort of think of as classic Mongolian.
Eric Morschhauser: Sort of late Cretaceous dinosaur honus [ph], those are sort of more Eastern Gobi where you get these big basins and not as many mountains in between. And you get into the Western Gobi and the basins start to get chopped up and actually some of the other classic Mongolian stuff is also in the Trans Altai Gobi, so things coming out of the marked basin like Tarbosaurus or Saurolophus that are coming from Mongolia, those are all also in this Trans-Altai Gobi, they’ll cause there a lot later in time.
Garret: Cool. So is there a lot of differences when you have to go a couple 100 miles for a Ceratopsians or do you have to go between Asia and North America before you start to see big differences or are there not even significant differences anywhere?
Eric Morschhauser: Well it partly depends on what sample sizes you get, so again the Archaeoceratops, we’ve got one skull from one basin and about a dozen good skulls and 70 or 80 individuals from the other basin. But with that being said, it’s like what’s the variation you’re going to see, things that are roughly contemporaneous.
I wouldn’t necessarily expect a lot but I feel like in a lot of those places time is more important than distance when you’re talking about things that are only a few 100 kilometers apart. So you’ve got Archaeoceratops there, Archaeoceratops came from the same basin as the original Archaeoceratops skull. It’s a little bit different place in the section and you’ve got a different early horned dinosaur there.
Garret: Okay. So it’s within a couple of 100 kilometers there isn’t too much of a difference, you’ve got to go a little bit further?
Eric Morschhauser: Yeah. I think so. Again it’s hard because again our record, you can sample place A and place B, but you’ve got to make sure you’re sampling at the same time.
Eric Morschhauser: Just a short distance in the rock records like, “Oh I’m like four meters, five meters above,” well if rocks are being deposited fast, that’s not a big deal, if rocks are being deposited slowly it’s like, “Oh yeah, I’m like half a million years later, or a million years later.” I always tell people that one of the things about working in the Cretaceous is I have trouble with really short periods of time. Like the entire length of human history or the plasticine, it’s like people get all excited about plasticine [inaudible 00:12:27] tigers and I’m like, “Yeah, it’s really interesting what happened yesterday.”
Eric Morschhauser: Because it’s like in the Cretaceous it’s hard to resolve time scales less than a quarter of a million years.
Eric Morschhauser: It depends on how good your rock record is. North America I’m sure we could probably get better resolutions there. If you’re really careful with your stratigraphy, the stratigraphy isn’t as well resolved in my part of the world, so we’re working on trying to make that better, but it can be difficult to try and find things we can actually pin down your dates.
Garret: Yeah, what do you use, I’ve seen some things where they use like marine fossils that were only around for a really short period of time, what other things could you do to try and narrow that down?
Eric Morschhauser: Yeah, so marine beds are really great and that’s probably one the best things. That’s one of the reasons why I say, it’s easier to do in North America because of course we had that big Cretaceous seaway and it was transgressing, it was regressing, it was getting wider and shallower and so all of your—you’ve got all of your dinosaur bearing beds, and you’ve got these big tongues of marine fossils and then you can correlate those, the marine animals typically at much larger geographic ranges when they’re alive at least some of them.
And so it becomes really easy to correlate a rock in Montana that let’s say, don’t have volcanic ash foam, so you can’t radiometrically date it, like you get a number, but you can correlate it through these marine organisms to a rock in Italy where you do have ashes or a rock in China where you have ashes, and one of the things we don’t have in Western China is we don’t have a lot of datable ash beds, and we don’t have a lot of these marine intratongues, and so we’re trying to use the ashes and volcanic beds that we have as best we can.
And the other things you can use, some people use pollen. You can look, try, and nail down plant evolution and sort of use that, you can use oyster cards which are these little crustaceans which the oyster card you can get fresh water in lakes and things. So people use those for biostratigraming when they can’t get marine sediments. The other thing that we’re working on is we are working on using carbon isotopes to do it.
Garret: Oh really?
Eric Morschhauser: Yeah, because there are at least a couple of events since the carbon isotopes, they get incorporated into organic material, they also get incorporated into calcium carbonate, they’re getting incorporated in the minerals, and they’re getting pulled out of the atmosphere, they interact with the global carbon cycle. So if you have times when you’re burying lots of carbon somewhere like in the marine realm, you maybe have a big marine, extinction or marine an oxic event where lots of stuff is dying in the ocean and all that, carbon is just falling into the bottom of the ocean basin and getting buried, you mess with the proportion of different carbon isotopes in the global carbon cycle.
And so you can pick up on that if you’ve got big enough events. And so we’ve been trying to use that actually there’s a paper I’m co-author with—it’s really Marina Suarez who’s at the University of Texas at San Antonio, she’s really done a lot of that work. And we took some samples from [inaudible 00:15:35] basin, from this basin in Western China, we’ve got Auroraceratops trying to correlate it to other basins at Western China and then to the global carbon cycle, this global carbon isotope record in the early Cretaceous just again to try and get the time frames and in the better ballpark.
Garret: Okay. So you’re not necessarily looking at kind of typical carbon dating where you’re looking at the half life of Carbon-14 or whatever, you’re looking at the ratios of different isotopes and trying to correlate that to other known places?
Eric Morschhauser: Right, exactly.
Eric Morschhauser: So you got—you can get these carbon isotope records looking at stable—these are stable isotopes as opposed to radioactive ones. It’s carbon…
Garret: Like 12?
Eric Morschhauser: 12 and 13 as opposed to dealing with Carbon-14 which is of course all decayed long ago.
Garret: Yeah, that’s why I was surprised when you started talking about carbon isotopes
Eric Morschhauser: Yeah, so these are stable ones, but again plants sort of preferentially will use Carbon-12 over Carbon-13, and so if you start burying a bunch of plant matter you start to enrich the global carbon pools, and I really hope I’m getting my numbers straight because I’m not a geo chemists on the paper. But I think plants, many plants are preferentially they use the Carbon-12 and so when you burry a bunch of dead plant material and really photosynthesizes in general, you bury a bunch of dead plant material and then you start to see these shifts, they get the entire—it’s the entire carbon cycle.
So there’s lots of things that can affect it. People use it as proxies for a number of different things not just—we’re just trying to use it as, look there’s an event in the Carbon cycle and we can see that event in these rocks in say Italy, we can see this event in early Cretaceous rocks in Utah which is where I know Marina Suarez has done a lot of work as well, working with Jim Kirkland looking at dates and at sequence in Eastern Utah and we can look at it now in Western China.
Garret: That’s really cool and it’s handy that you don’t have to care what is causing these changes, you just care that there was a change and you can see it everywhere.
Eric Morschhauser: Yeah and again in terms of the dating, it’s like we’re just looking for an event that appears to be reproducible in a bunch of rock sequences where you can date it really well, it’s like, “Oh this event seems to be synchronous, roughly it appears to be global, now we can go to these rock sequences look at these places we’re finding dinosaurs or anything really, and say, “Okay, we can try and now line up these two records of the isotope changes and see if it fits in with any known events.”
Eric Morschhauser: Yeah, and it really helps because some of these Asian localities in particular where they’re far from the ocean, we’re not getting even in the Cretaceous we’re not getting this marine influence, they’ve been incredibly hard to date. And so the original age on Archaeoceratops is two periods in the Cretaceous [inaudible 00:18:32]. It’s a 25 million year period of time, so there was somewhere in this 25 million year window and we’ve got it down to a little bit better in there, so which is good.
Garret: So how do things fossilize, like how do you get so many fossils in a spot where there’s so little water because from my layman’s understanding the easiest way to fossilize something is kind of in a marine environment.
Eric Morschhauser: In the marine environment it’s easy. In a lot of the things we’re getting contrastual environments, they are fairly wet and actually the present day landscape to the contrary it was a pretty well watered place at the time of Archaeoceratops. So this is part of Western China which is incredibly dry today, we’ve got the only thing that happens, two things happen in our field area today. There’s a coal mine not too far away in lower in the sequence in the Jurassic rocks that are there, and apparently we actually are excavating and prospecting across pasture land which I look around in there’s really just not enough vegetation for it to wrap my mind around, but it’s camel pastures.
And so occasionally will wake up in the morning and they’ll be camel footprints that are over the entire tracks that came in the night before or whatever, so we know that the camels have been wandering around, I’ve never actually got to see them, they’re pretty skittish.
Garret: That’s really funny.
Eric Morschhauser: Yeah, I’ve seen evidence of the shepherds too, they drive around in motorcycles. So we’ve got these like dirt bike tracks as well that again from people and their bikes that we never see. But it’s really dry now but there was—there are stream beds, there are river beds, there’s evidence of abundant plant roots, we’ve got root casts all around so when Archaeoceratops was there, it’s not as though it was doing a scrub or anything, it was pretty well watered and pretty humid or at least somewhat humid, humid enough for abundant plants.
It’s really kind of funny I think the rocks they’re buried in a very different than what I was used to working in when I was doing stuff in Montana, but part of that is when you’re looking at the rocks in Montana, you are 30 miles, 40 miles, 50 miles from the mountains front in the Cretaceous. The entire basin that these Archaeoceratops are coming out of is only about 30 kilometers across, and so the rocks look completely different because they basically just fell off the mountain and got carried down. And so it gives them a very different consistency but the environments actually probably weren’t all that different except that the streams are a little bit smaller because it’s a smaller catchment, smaller basin closer to the source, that sort of thing.
But it was actually pretty wet time years we can tell and people have sort of interpreted there’s being a large lake in the basin I’m not sure, I haven’t seen any of the lake sediments in that basin I was in. In some other basins well yeah, there are like evidence of big lakes, things that geologically they look just like fossil lake in Wyoming if you remember—if you’ve heard of that one, that’s in the EC, but you get those really laminated shells, and you pick them apart, and you can find insects and some of the early birds from Western China are actually coming out of lake deposits that are approximately contemporaneous to Archaeoceratops, just a couple of basins over.
Garret: So what is the basin that Archaeoceratops is in? It looks like a river kind of thing or can you tell us?
Eric Morschhauser: Yeah, so those rocks are all basically rivers and the deposits from flood plains adjacent to rivers.
Eric Morschhauser: So the rivers are small for the most part, it’s not like you get this big river deposit, it’s a meter, two meters across, you can actually—in some places you can see the cross-section of the river channel that filled in because the river is carrying coarser grain material than the stuff around it, so you’ve got these channels, you can even follow because they’re a little bit more resistant to erosion than the rest of the landscape.
So a lot of times you’ll have the channel just kind of there snaking across the Badlands and this little pillar of rock or the small hill underneath it that is sort of protecting from being eroded away. You don’t find too many of the dinosaurs in those street bedrocks, at least not the Archaeoceratops. This bone you find in there tends to be pretty beat up, but they are coming from that stuff that would have been the floodplain, it would have been next to the river basin, adjacent to the river, in between the rivers.
Garret: Got you and then you don’t get all the marine, I shouldn’t say marine, but you don’t get the freshwater, I don’t even know how to call them, freshwater fossils, I guess because it’s near the source of the river, so it’s doesn’t have a whole lot of life living in it, is that kind of the issue?
Eric Morschhauser: Well, usually it’s more of a preservation problem, right?
Eric Morschhauser: You think of the stuff that you would find, you’ve got things living in say a mountain stream. This is even a mountain stream, but imagine this is some kind of small stream that’s coming out of the mountains and you’ve got stuff living there. There’s going to be fish, there’s going to be probably some kind of crustaceans, something like a clay fish, there’s going to be insects, but what do they get preserved in, right? They are sitting among rocks that are larger than they are, right? They’re sitting amongst pebbles and really coarse grain stuff. It doesn’t really preserve small things very well, sometimes it does, you can sometimes get it in there, but usually things don’t get preserved where there’s that much energy.
Garret: Got you.
Eric Morschhauser: If the stream can move pretty big rocks, it can move dead fish or dead insects or parts of them really easily, and so things just tend to get mashed up. That’s why you’ve got those—that’s why people love those lake deposits because the water is relatively quiet out there, and so you get this really fine sediment coming down and that’s what can help sort of preserve in the detail of some of these fossils, but you don’t often get in more coarse grain stuff.
Garret: Got you. Okay, that’s interesting.
Eric Morschhauser: Yeah, so yeah there you go. Dave Ricky would be proud now. He was one of my teachers long ago and so I’m talking tough on me, [inaudible 00:24:57] please do this.
Garret: Cool. So speaking of learning new things I guess, at SVP you presented on the phylogenetics of neoceratopsia and you had at least 32 taxon [ph], how did you analyze so many different species and try to classify them?
Eric Morschhauser: Well, the thing with a lot of these phylogeny is, right is that you’re part of it, you go and visit them, and that’s one of the fun things I think about doing this type of sort of taxonomy and phylogenics work where it’s like, “Okay, I have to figure out—I want to figure out the evolutionary relationships of these species. I have the descriptions, a lot of them are great, some of the published descriptions might not be so great or I might want to look at things that just aren’t in the figures, nobody talked about, I’ve got to go see it.”
So you get to go and travel. And so I was visiting early horned dinosaurs in Boltzmann Montana at the Museum of the Rockies and Canadian Museum of Nature and over in Poland and the things in museums in China in addition to the animals I worked on in the field, animals and collections in China, so you get to go and see a lot of these specimens. So that’s pretty standard, but it’s a lot of fun. But you go and you also build off of what other people have done.
So my analysis, I tried to take all of the different trees and character matrices that people have done, looking at early horned dinosaurs and bring as many of those characters together as I could. I also went through and people haven’t—people write these diagnosis of species, like you’re describing a species, you try and talk about, “Well here are all the characters that make these species distinctive,” right? If someone finds a new species, “Oops,” some of the things that you thought were distinctive and they were when you wrote it like that’s legitimately something no one had ever seen before.
Well now we’ve got two things with it and if you wait long enough sometimes it goes from being well only this species has it too, now in fact these 15 species that are all in somewhat related, they all share this characteristic. You almost have to go back then and say, “All right, I want to identify that species, I have to write a new diagnosis, I have to write this new description of no, this is what’s definitive on this particular species.”
It’s important work to do and it’s work that doesn’t get a lot of credit many times and so for early horned dinosaurs, it’s just—we’ve just been finding so many in the last 16 years really. You go back, the first really horned dinosaur was Leptoceratops in 1913 and then there was—again for not counting Protoceratops which I’ll kind of ignore that Protoceratops and everything up for right now, but you’ve got Leptoceratops 1913, you’ve got Montanoceratops eventuality which is really close to Leptoceratops.
It was originally thrown in with Leptoceratops, but in 1951, there’s the really beautiful Leptoceratop specimens that they have in the Canadian Museum of Nature were found and so they realized, “Oh this thing in Montana from the two medicine formation is different than what we’re finding in the later Cretaceous,” so this later Cretaceous Ceratops, the other one is Montanoceratops. Okay we’ve got two genre now and it more or less stays that way. You’ve got Stegosaurus bouncing around, and accumulating species and becoming the taxonomic mess that I don’t touch, but you’ve got a lot of Stegosaurus but otherwise you don’t get a lot until the 1990s.
And then all of a sudden we’ve got Archaeoceratops shows up and we’ve got new specimens of Montanoceratops and I’m trying to think papers are alluding me now, but it starts to snowball in the 90s and then in the 2000s it starts going faster and faster and so we’ve got now—again we’ve got tens of these early horned dinosaurs. But the last time anyone went through and actually went species by species, how do we diagnose these, was Peter Mark [inaudible 00:29:04], he did it in 2002 in his PhD, and it hasn’t really been published independently of that because again I think there’s just not a lot of—you don’t get a lot of credit for doing that sort of thing.
Eric Morschhauser: It’s kind of useful technical work but you don’t get a lot of credit. So for my PhD, what did I do? I did a lot of the same thing and the tree that you saw was kind of the result of that where I went through and I evaluated everybody’s characters including all the characters that defined all these species by formally recording them for all of the different specimens that I could get my hands on or that I could check in the literature, and then I assembled this new set of characters and then developed some—got a new tree out of that.
Garret: Cool. When you’re looking at all these species were there, anywhere you looked at them and thought that one of them might be a juvenile of another one like how Triceratops and Torosaurus are potentially?
Eric Morschhauser: I try to think there is. Well there was actually one just back when I started. There was one that was published and I haven’t gotten a chance to visit the specimens, so it’s entirely possible the publication isn’t representative. But this animal published out of Russia and it’s a Mongolian specimen and it’s called, Gobiceratops, and it’s incredibly, the skull is incredibly small, which I mean sizes and everything as Jack Horner would say, as John Kernel would say, as I would say, but it has really large orbits for its body size.
It has a really short snarl, it’s got a tooth count that’s a lot lower than most other adults horned dinosaurs, it doesn’t have a frail, again I call—I think of it like a little golf ball with eyes, and it looks a lot like individuals that have been identified, those kind of features, large eyes, short snarl, lack of frail, reduced tooth count. You see that in lots of things that no one is really arguing are juvenile members of other ceratopsian groups. So there’s the adorable little Stegosaurus skulls that are in New York, that are on display in the [inaudible 00:31:18. I love that they’re out there.
Garret: Yeah those are great. Is that the one where they have a magnifying glass in front of one of them?
Eric Morschhauser: Right exactly. They’re just so small, Gobiceratops, the skull is supposedly an adult which the paper claims it as an adult, it’s just that small. So I think that one again, I haven’t seen it in person, so there’s still the chance that I’m wrong, I don’t think they really marshaled a lot of evidence in terms of the fact, the age of that specimen, but a lot of those features are a constellation of things that we see in juveniles. So there’s probably one or two species out there that may be juveniles of others. But at the same time a lot of them, a lot of these animals are coming from different, just different places in different places in the stratigraphic column.
I can think of Aquilops as one, it’s a North American horned dinosaur, it’s actually the oldest horned dinosaur from North America, was described back in 2014 I think. And Aquilops is great because you can go in 3D and print it. They’ve got the skull out, the data is free from on plus one, the paper is on plus one, you just go, you can get the 3D data for the skull and you could 3D print your own little Aquilops and I actually did because it’s great.
But the entire skull of Aquilops is only about five or six inches long and they admit in the paper that it’s like it’s possible but it’s a relatively young individual. It’s hard to age skulls in terms of we like to use histology, you like to look at—or micro-structured to do it, the features that we use work best on long bones.
Eric Morschhauser: You can pick some rough inferences from skull that’s really hard to get a real solid age on a skull at least right now, again people could look at it more and hopefully will be able to but—so that’s kind of hard because you have things that it’s like it might be a juvenile but it’s still valid, it’s still its own thing. So we’ll have to see whether anything get shaken up on the tree certainly my analysis don’t shake up a whole lot of things but nothing, I haven’t found anything controversial that other people haven’t considered as controversial.
Garret: Okay. What do you think of Triceratops and Torosaurus in terms of whether or not they’re distinct?
Eric Morschhauser: I think it’s a really interesting idea and a really compelling idea, and I really want it to be right. But I’m—and I think there are a lot of specimens that I haven’t seen yet, and so I’m kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop as it were. I think the argument that Nedoceratops isn’t something distinctive is good and fine, it’s a something. It’s probably a Triceratops, it’s also an awful lot of plaster which is a bit [inaudible 00:34:18], but a lot of old specimens people are just like, “Oh there is a hole there, and they put some plaster on that,” they want the useful information on that part of the thrill. And I think—so I think some of the features that have been identified are really interesting.
And again I think it’s a very much alive hypothesis and a good hypothesis. I just—I want those transitional ones, I want really good definitive transitional especially transitional forms of the frail where it’s not an incomplete like we’re just sitting there and just try to an open [inaudible 00:34:55] “Okay, good.” And they’re small and there’s just a logic evidence that they’re expanding and here’s the pridol [ph] and it’s tied up with one of these transitional [inaudible 00:35:03] they talk about and I just—I want all together and I want limbs that you can thin sections and get histology off of the limbs that are associated with the heads which is the thing that Triceratops never gives you enough of. It’s always—you almost always like Triceratops postcranium associated with skulls would be really nice. I do that or like everyone says it’s like a baby Torosaurus or so just something, something that gives us a nice let.
Garret: Maybe easier to find because then you just need the skull.
Eric Morschhauser: It’s true. Really you really just need the [inaudible 00:35:39].
Garret: Yeah, that’s true.
Eric Morschhauser: You might need some more, but, yeah. So I guess I’m in the camp that it’s like I really want more evidence because it’s—I think it makes a lot of sense but at the same time it really is one of these hypotheses that’s sort of pushing our understanding of living organisms as well because it kind of goes against our general understanding of how a lot of living organisms develop. These major changes in skull architecture that are proposed in the Torosaurus is Triceratops hypothesis are happening relatively late in life.
Eric Morschhauser: And while they’re not like theoretically impossible, it’s not like this happens in every organism that we see, we have a lot of organism state that have this kind of determinant growth where it’s like it grows and then morphology stops changing in a big way.
Eric Morschhauser: We may get some changes but you don’t have things dramatically elongating these big cranial features late in life.
Garret: Yeah, big holes opening up in the skull.
Eric Morschhauser: Right. And so there’s a sense in which like it’s—I think it’s fair to be conscious and again to be fair everyone is going out and is going and testing this, folks from Yale have looked at cranial fusion, you’ve got folks from Montana State and elsewhere are looking at the bone histology more closely to see is there evidence of bone resolving big bone growing, is there actually evidence in the skulls of this major remodeling, and so I think that’s good but all those tests now have to come back in, I think.
So I’m a bit hesitant and again it’s really hard because it’s like well the other thing is we have to distinguish between our competing hypotheses of, is this morphologically distinct thing a rare but different taxon which happens, and someone has or is it just a certain age stage of an existing taxon and so I think it’s hard to distinguish that sometimes. You’re waffling, and basically saying that I think it’s a really compelling hypothesis and I think I’ve—but I think the papers are out that are building it piece by piece, but I think there’s room still for caution in it.
Eric Morschhauser: So I think they’ve certainly done that with the Psittacosaurus [ph], I think there’s a better case for some of the Psittacosaurus that they’ve synonymized. But actually it’s interesting you point that out. One of the other things I’ve been working on with Archaeoceratops, you’ve got juveniles and juveniles in a world of ceratops aren’t following the pattern that’s kind of been put forward by Jack Warner, John [inaudible 00:38:28] looking at Triceratops and ceratopsians and Dave Evans and his colleagues who are looking at duckbill dinosaurs and they’re finding is really parallel patterns of, yeah, the juveniles have this distinctive morphology.
They often have a bunch of characteristics that look like they belong in members from the base of the clad, sort of primitive characteristics if I can use the term and they—these juveniles don’t look at all like the adults and so you have to be really careful if you using juveniles in your—trying to do your family trees and things, because they tend to fall away from the adults in the same species, Archaeoceratops doesn’t do that.
Garret: All right.
Eric Morschhauser: I’ve got skulls that are half the size of the adult and they look like they’re young, they’ve got these big orbits, they’ve got these short snarls, but they’ve got a reduced tooth count, nobody uses those things as phylogenetic characters because everybody knows that skulls, vertebrates are born with these sort of cute faces, they’ve got these big eyes and these short snarls. And so nobody uses those types of characteristics but all the discrete characters that are distinctive of Auroraceratops are present in these little skulls.
And so these juveniles are falling exactly with the adults and I think what might be going on there is, I think the work by Evans and Horner, they’re looking at dinosaurs with these elaborate cranial structures that are also appearing relatively late in life, these sort of possibly whatever their function is, whether it’s species recognition or sexual selection, or some kind of sort of social role in terms of identifying who is the dominant whatever in your particular social grouping, but these all appear really late whereas the characteristics that define Archaeoceratops are actually mostly in the lower jaw and mostly related to chewing. And so you’ve got this situation where it’s like that probably doesn’t change.
Eric Morschhauser: And so these statements about well you need a really adult dinosaur to make sure you know what you have, but these situations where you have a sort of need a really adult dinosaur to know what you have, that might only be true if your particular group of dinosaurs depends on these elaborate structures to figure out who’s related to who, because sauropods, it’s like, if you had a sauropod with all kinds of crazy cranial horns and things, you’d have no idea, we could probably have an entire clad of sauropods that had crazy cranial ornamentation and we wouldn’t know it because most of them are not known from any heads.
And so I think it’s interesting sort of counterbalance that it’s like I think they’re absolutely right that you have to be careful depending on what your characters are that distinguishe your species.
Garret: Yeah, it makes sense and if it’s something functional like if you were arguing that Torosaurus needed those extra blood vessels or whatever in its frail in order to thermal regulate, then you would say well then it’s probably not the same as Triceratops because it would have wanted it when it was two thirds the size as well or something.
Eric Morschhauser: Yeah, or even if it was something you know totally unrelated that had to do with some something functional, trying to think if you had radically different jaw mechanics between the two or something like that, where it’s like, no it’s eating, like you can’t have dietary shifts through growth. Herbivores tend to do that less then than other vertebrates at least in the basic sense of they’re eating plants and they’re eating plants as opposed to things like juvenile crocodilians what are they eating? They’re eating insects, they’re eating little fish like adult crocodilians, what are they eating? Some of them are eating turtles.
Eric Morschhauser: Right. Turtles, deer, invasive pythons, you get these wider ranges. Some of them eat mollusks, you’ve got caymans and even actually American crocodiles will eat mollusks, when they’re adults they’ll just throw them back on those rare teeth and crack the shells, so you can get these dietary shifts, but it’s less likely that you’re going to have fundamentally different types of eating, you’re not going to be radically moving muscle attachment points around between juveniles and adult’s.
So I think that’s interesting that when you get to these sort of less spectacular dinosaurs, it might not matter as much exactly what on a genetic stage you’re in, and again all these limits on that as well. Hatchlings, you should probably never use hatchlings if that’s your only specimen, and you don’t know what the adult looks like because they’re going to be really different than the adult.
Garret: Yeah. Speaking of eating, did you see the recent article by [inaudible 00:43:31] where he was talking about how ceratopsians might have had nose balloons?
Eric Morschhauser: Yes I did.
Garret: What do you think about that?
Eric Morschhauser: I think they have to be doing something with their nasal cavities because the ceratopsids, again things like Triceratops but all of it, centrosaurines as well have these really big, just these enormous, in some cases really enormous bony nostrils. There’s got to be something going on there and you certainly can have enormous bony nasal openings with a relatively straightforward simple sheet of skin covering it and tiny little nostrils there, and you’re still doing exciting things with that. You’re doing lots of thermal regulation, you can have all these blood vessels and you’re dumping—it’s a great heat dump for things like Triceratops, adult Triceratops or Torosaurus or whatever Torosaurus is, they’re big animals, they’re the size of an elephant which [inaudible 00:44:34] thought of them as short being shorter, but they’re almost as tall as an elephant at the shoulders.
Their [inaudible 00:44:40] are really massive animals that are going to be generating a lot of heat and they’ve got to dump it somewhere and sure they can dump it, they’ve got flails, they’ve got tails, they’ve got some things you can dump heat in, but the respiratory system is really your best way to dump heat, so certainly that’s going on, but things like Triceratops, it gets really confusing. I’ve worked on some Triceratops but actually working on Triceratops process specimen analysis, I think it’s the process specimen.
But the premaxilla, it’s been—the specimen I’m working on, it’s being described by one of my co-authors as yeah the Triceratops is sort of a grenade. So it saved its friends with its skulls blown to pieces and the premaxilla around that nasal opening, it just gets very confusing, it’s heavily sculpted and there are all these excavations and when you have just little pieces of it, it can be really disorienting as to exactly where you are in this one bone where it’s like the nose and the edge of the mouth on both ends of its bone.
But again these cavities and these structures, it’s really pretty amazing. So the possibility that you’ve got some kind of elephant seal like proboscis or a snude or something like you have of turkeys, right,something that it could get engorged with blood or something like that, I think it’s certainly within the realm of possibility. We just had Thanksgiving, look at a turkey. That’s from an asteological standpoint, that’s a pretty boring bird actually for the most part my favorite description now of Thanksgiving. Somewhere I saw a greeting somewhere of, “How to have a happy day eating your ugly dinosaur,” and I think I’m going to do that in the future. But yeah I think it’s certainly something is possible, but I don’t know why Triceratops, some like Triceratops would need that with a frill and horns.
Eric Morschhauser: But it certainly could have something not huge and dramatic but it’s like it could have some kind of inflatable nose pouches or something like that, or it could just all be blood vessels and a heat dump and It looks like how we always thought Triceratops looked but functionally it’s still a little bit cooler.
Garret: Yeah. It’s got like a radiator upfront like a car.
Eric Morschhauser: Exactly where again you get that big, you got to put heat somewhere. I think that’s one of the beauties of sauropods actually to switch taxon yet again is that it’s Iike so massive, like we’ve got to get heat somewhere but then you’re like, “Oh wait, you got a long skinny neck, that’s got a lot of surface area and you can dump some heat there, you’ve got a long skinny tail, that’s some more surface area, that’s good.” And they’ve got their respiratory system weirdness. But anyway yeah dumping heat some [inaudible 00:47:29] so when you get that big.
Garret: Cool. I think I’m all out of questions, is there anything else that you want to add.
Eric Morschhauser: The other cool thing about Archaeoceratops is that we actually now know what these early horned dinosaurs looks like, because everybody else that’s around Archaeoceratops is just heads and we now know actually what the body of one of these early horned dinosaurs looks like. It’s a little bit more portly than I was expecting, not too much but it’s not this long thin skinny body, it’s actually a fairly stocky little body, still by [inaudible 00:48:10], still has your standard.
I feel like there is this sort of standard more efficient hands that look like tiny little short fingers mittens. But Archaeoceratops still has that but the body is a little bit shorter than we would necessarily expect it. So it looks like something that has kind of a bit of a big head for its body size, not huge but still a bit of a big head. And again I just—I mention this because you have Stegosaurus and you have long and stuff further down the tree and you’ve got Leptoceratops but really those are like really far from these animals that are actually leading to most ceratopsians. Leptoceratops contemporaneous with Triceratops, it’s being doing its own thing for a good 40 million years. So that’s the cool thing about Archaeoceratops, but I don’t know.
Eric Morschhauser: Yeah, it’s fun, so I don’t know, I’m trying to be a champion of boring dinosaurs, because I feel like the little guys can actually still teach us a lot.
Garret: So if people want to follow your work or see some of the stuff you’re working on, is there anywhere they can go to see it?
Eric Morschhauser: Well if you have a lot of money and you can fly, my colleague Linda Chin did some work with the Ganzhou Geological Museum in Lanzhou, China. And so you can go there and you can see some Archaeoceratops there. The Archaeoceratops are actually it’s really funny, if you want to go and see an Archaeoceratops, if you can get to China, there’s a lot of different places you can go and see Archaeoceratops, it’s sort of interesting. They’ve kind of gotten around from my colleague and so there’s—trying to think now, there’s one on display in the Paleontological Museum of the China University of the Geo sciences which is in Beijing.
I don’t think the Museum gets a lot of foot traffic but there’s an Auroraceratop there in a glass case, there’s one unlabeled in Nanjing, I’m trying to remember the institution that is in now, but you can see them in Nanjing, there’s a specimen in Hangzhou which is a fantastic natural history museum. Hangzhou is just outside of Shanghai and they’ve got the Hangzhou Museum of Natural History which is a really first rate museum, it’s got really nice facilities.
Garret: Is that one really new?
Eric Morschhauser: It is relatively new, yes. It’s in this big cultural center that they’ve built in Hangzhou. It kind of has an observation tower that’s kind of the square looking thing and then a semicircle of buildings and just part of that huge complex is the Natural History Museum.
Garret: Yeah that place looks really cool. I remember I was trying to add it to our map, we’ve a map of all these dinosaur museums, and I was looking at satellite pictures because I was trying to make sure that the address is right and that the latitude and longitude is working out, and one picture I found was just a town, and then you could tell where the photo got updated and it was like brand new re-developed all sorts of big fancy [inaudible 00:51:21], I was like, “Something happened here, I’ll just assume it’s right.”
Eric Morschhauser: Yeah, that’s the story of a number of places in China. I first went there in 2005 as Beijing was ramping up for the 2008 Olympics, and driving around Beijing to go from one airport to a hotel to another airport and there were just cranes, tower cranes everywhere all across different parts of the city. They’re just building, building, building. Hangzhou is relatively new and they got a lot of eggs there, lots of fossil eggs, thousands and thousands of fossils eggs, there are in Guangdong Province, and so there’s a lot of fossil egg localities near there. So you can see Archaeoceratops in a number of places around China, whether or not they’re labeled is a bit of a different story, but that’s where most of it is right now.
Some of my other things I think perhaps travel around a bit, the Diana Museum of Natural History which is where I did some work on that second specimen of mahjong, and may occasionally have traveling exhibits. So I saw a bunch of a lot of their stuff in Montreal Canada in a tent which I was a little bit distressed about, but it was all there.
Garret: It’s good.
Eric Morschhauser: But anyway, yeah so most of my stuff you would have to buy a plane ticket to China to go see.
Garret: Okay, I’m sure some of it will make it over here eventually.
Eric Morschhauser: One of these days, eventually.
Garret: Cool. Well thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me, that was a great discussion.
Eric Morschhauser: Yeah, well I appreciate it. You’ve got a great thing here.