In our 90th episode, we had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. John Scannella, interim curator at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana.
To learn more about the museum, check out our video in part 4 of our #EpicDinosaurRoadTrip.
Episode 90 is also all about Byronosaurus, a troodontid that lived in what is now Mongolia.
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In this episode, we discuss:
- The dinosaur of the day: Byronosaurus
- Troodontid dinosaur that lived in the late Cretaceous in what is now Mongolia
- Michael Novacek found the bones in 1993 as part of an American Museum of Natural History expedition to the Gobi Desert
- In 1996, a second specimen (skull) was found about 5 mi (8 km) away from the first specimen
- Mark Norell, Peter Makovicky, and James Clark described Byrononsaurus in 2000
- Types species is Byronosaurus jaffei
- Species name honors Byron Jaffe (his family supported the Mongolian Academy of Sciences-American Museum of Natural History Paleontological Expeditions)
- Holotype was a partial skeleton with a partial skull
- Holotype skull was 9 in (23 cm) long
- Two skulls of young, possibly newly hatched individuals were found in 2009 and referred to as Byronosaurus (originally thought to be Velociraptor)
- The two young hatchlings (or embryos close to hatching) were found in a nest of oviraptorid eggs (an oviraptorid embryo was found in one of the eggs). Could be there as prey of the adult oviraptorid or be a nest parasite, where Byrononsaurus adult laid eggs in the Citipati nest
- Very bird-like
- Troodontids have unqiue skulls, with closely spaced teeth, and a lot of teeth. Also sickle-claws, and very smart, with keen senses
- Byronosaurus did not have serrations on its teeth (most troodontids do have serrations on their teeth), and is most similar to Xixiasaurus (also did not have serrations on teeth, discussed in episode 84)
- Teeth were needle-like, good for catching small birds, lizards, and mammals (and similar to Archaeopteryx)
- Had a highly developed sense of smell (helpful in hunting)
- Byrononsaurus showed there was diversity in Asian troodontids
- Troodontidae is a small group of maniraptorans
- Small and very bird-like (one Troodontid, called Sinovenator, is very similar to Archaeopteryx)
- Some scientists have suggested Troodontidae were ancestors of birds, but most believe it was dromaeosaurs
- Troodontid genuses include Saurornithoides (Mongolia), Troodon (North America), and Sinornithoids
- Other troodontids include Borogovia (named after Lewis Carroll poem) and Zanabazar (named after Mongolian spiritual figure), and Mei
- They have lots of teeth and closely spaced teeth in lower jaw
- Long legs, large curved claw on second toes that retracts when it runs (similar to dromaeosaurids, but smaller)
- Troodontids have sickle-claws and high EQs (very smart)
- Good hearing
- Ears were asymmetrical (one higher than the other, similar to owls), so may have hunted like owls, using hearing to locate prey
- Some may have been omnivorous though most were probably carnivorous
- Some troodont fossils show they roosted like birds (Mei), and supports theory that they probably had feathers
- Fun fact: One of the biggest problems that fossils can have after they are excavated is called pyrite disease. Pyrite, also known as fool’s gold, is a mineral made of iron and sulfur and if a fossil forms in the presence of those elements pyrite crystals can actually form inside the fossils. At first this isn’t a problem, since replacing bone with minerals is what fossilization is all about. But if it’s exposed to water and oxygen it can oxidize (basically rust) and when it oxidizes it expands and can basically shatter the fossil it’s in. This started happening to the Triceratops at the Smithsonian museum in Washington DC so they took it down to better conserve the fossil. According to the AMNH the solution to prevent the problem is to keep humidity below 45% (you may notice hygrometers in museum displays for this reason. And once damage starts bringing the humidity below 30% can help.
For those who may prefer reading, see below for the full transcript of our interview with Dr. John Scannella:
Garret: We are joined this week by Dr. John Scannella who has a Bachelor’s in geological sciences from Rucker’s and a PhD from Montana State University, MSU, in Earth Science. And the Museum of the Rockies was founded back in 1957. It has the most dinosaur fossils of any museum in the state and probably the U.S.—they claim the U.S. but I’m skeptical—including the world’s largest T-rex skull and several unique Triceratops, and John is the interim curator while they get a replacement for Jack Horner.
You did a TedX talk on Triceratops. Is that your favorite dinosaur?
John Scannella: I guess so. I kinda have to. Triceratops I guess I’ve spent the last ten years working with Triceratops so I feel like Triceratops is the dinosaur that I know the best. Like from morning to night I wake up and I’m with Triceratops and Triceratops so Triceratops. But before Triceratops I guess when I was a little kid I had this children’s book about dinosaurs, and you know how the storyline in children’s books about dinosaurs is usually the same. You start off in the Triassic and then you meet Allosaurus and Brontosaurus, and then Triceratops shows up and he fights with T-rex and then they all die. But in this one there was like an extra bonus page with this dinosaur that was in none of my other books, and his name was Gorgosaurus. And he looked pretty much like T-rex except he was standing in the rain like roaring, and he looked awesome. And I was like that’s a cool dinosaur. So Gorgosaurus was my favorite. I guess I still kinda like Gorgosaurus but I don’t work on Gorgosaurus at all. It’s just a really cool dinosaur and if it ever stood and roared in the rain I think that would be pretty cool.
Garret: So it’s your favorite basically because of one really cool piece of paleo-art.
John Scannella: Basically. Well I mean there’s cool Gorgosaurus fossils out there too and you know lots of cool science has been done on it. So for very different reasons there’s Gorgosaurus and there’s Triceratops.
Sabrina: How’d you end up focusing on Triceratops?
John Scannella: When I came out to Montana State University I told Jack that I was interested in studying dinosaur evolution and kind of these big picture questions of how dinosaurs evolved, and Jack told me that if that’s what you want to focus on then you need to work with an animal that we have a lot of. And the animal that we have the most of here at the museum is Triceratops. So Triceratops is awesome because it’s so common that you can really get into some of the deep questions about variation in dinosaurs and how they might have changed as they grew up from babies to adults and how they might have changed over geologic time, things that you can’t really do with dinosaurs if you have like one specimen. Like you can have a beautiful skeleton of a specimen and know all kinds of exciting things about it, but you can do a lot more when you have a hundred of something
Garret: Yeah, makes sense. When we talked to Jack Horner he said his favorite was Maisaura partly because of that, because he had a lot of them so you could tell these details. Cool. So since you have so many fossils and I’ve heard that you’re kind of almost out of space if not out of space where do all these fossils come from and where you gonna put new ones?
John Scannella: Almost all the fossils here are from Montana. There’s a few form just around the fringes kind of like in Wyoming but most of them are from Montana and we have a lot of them. So one of the cool things about right now at the Museum of the Rockies is that we’re actually I think next week going to start building the new curatorial center for the humanities, which is a big expansion of the museum for the history and photography collections. And basically that’s gonna open up a huge amount of new space for paleo. If you went into our paleo collections now it is very nearly full, but this will add nine thousand square feet I think of additional space for paleo collections, so we’ll be able to continue collecting massive amounts of fossils from Montana.
So in the meantime we’ve had to kind of slow down the collecting, and I think it’ll be about a year projected before that is up. But in the meantime it’s gonna be kinda cool because we’re gonna be expanding and it’ll be awesome to get more dinosaurs coming in.
Garret: Cool. So in the meantime do you do more like lab work and stuff like that?
John Scannella: Well I mean it’s not like there’s nothing to do in the meantime. There’s still jackets and jackets that haven’t been prepared, so we’re preparing jackets, some that have been sitting around for quite a while. And you open an old jacket and you can still find super cool stuff inside of it. So it’s been a good period of time to kind of I guess focus a bit on that and open up some of these jackets and organize things a bit. And then we’re going to be heading back out into the field actually in a few weeks, so slowly ramping up the field program again, and we’ll be off and running pretty soon so it’ll be pretty cool.
Garret: Nice. So you mentioned Jack Horner, and I could probably guess based on being trained partially by him, but would you consider yourself a lumper or a splitter?
John Scannella: I guess I would be considered a lumper if you had to divide it into just those two things. I worked with Jack on the Triceratops and Torosaurus work, the synonymy of Triceratops and Torosaurus. Yeah so I mean I don’t think I’ve split anything personally, but we did propose that Torosaurus is the mature growth stage of Triceratops, and that Nedoceratops is a transitional growth stage between Triceratops and Torosaurus. So if you consider that lumpy then…
Garret: It’s pretty lumpy.
John Scannella: Yeah, yeah. So I guess that would put me in the lumpy category.
Sabrina: We’ve also had people say they were middle of the road.
Garret: Yeah you don’t have to be hard left or…
John Scannella: Oh I didn’t know that there were more than two options.
Garret: It’s more exciting this way. Yeah I think if you write a paper about getting rid of a species…
John Scannella: Yeah I think that kind of, I mean if you got, I couldn’t say that I’m a splitter then I guess right?
Garret: What is the response to that whole Triceratops–Torosaurus been like? Where do you think it’s at? Are most people accepting it? Is it still a controversial…
John Scannella: I think it’s still considered to be controversial by several people, but it’s been a lot of fun to propose the hypothesis because we proposed that Torosaurus is the mature growth stage of Triceratops, and then there’s a number of researchers who say no they’re separate taxa, but it’s been kind of a great scientific experience to go through the process of proposing the hypothesis and then the hypothesis is challenged, right, and you have to find more evidence to go with the hypothesis, or it could be falsified, and the other researchers like Andy Farke, have you met Andy Farke?
Sabrina: Nope, not yet.
John Scannella: Andy is fantastic, but Andy thinks that Torosaurus and Triceratops are separate taxa. And he wrote his first paper, a paper where he said that, and he sent it to me before it was published so I could comment on it and get back to him about what I thought about it, which was like a really cool thing to do because it wasn’t like out of nowhere this paper came out attacking the hypothesis. So we have really good communication going back and forth about our ideas about things and we share ideas on ceratopsian dinosaurs. We actually gave a talk together in Boston about the hypothesis of Triceratops and Torosaurus, whether they’re the same thing or different things. So it’s a really cool relationship I think between researchers where it’s not like you know really…
John Scannella: Yeah like antagonistic and it’s very friendly and I think it’s the way that science should be. I mean here’s a hypothesis, there’s evidence to support it. Let’s see if we can falsify it. So far I don’t think it’s been falsified, but there’s certainly lots of papers going around that have presented evidence that they say would suggest that it’s not so, but I think it’ll go back and forth for at least some time before someone goes out and finds a baby Torosaurus, which…
Garret: That’s probably the only easy way to falsify…
John Scannella: That I think would be the easiest way to do it, I mean if you found a little baby Torosaurus with horns curving backwards as they do in juveniles and really spiky epis on it and like you know an unambiguously small juvenile Torosaurus, that would be awesome. Because then we would know, and this is what I said when I was working with Andy on our presentation. We’re not concerned about being right, you know, as scientists. It’s not like Torosaurus is Triceratops, I must be correct. It’s we want to know what these animals were really like and what their world was like, and so here’s an idea and let’s see how it goes. If it’s falsified then it’s falsified.
Garret: Yeah, that’s a great way to look at it. That is exactly the way science should be.
John Scannella: I think so. Yeah, but I still think that they’re growth stages of a single, and I think that there’s good evidence, histological evidence and so on to support that, but I’m sure there’ll be additional papers with evidence against that and evidence for it, so it’ll be cool to see the back and forth.
Sabrina: How long has Big Mike been out there, the T-rex? Well okay, what’s the story I guess? How did he get the name Big Mike?
John Scannella: I believe he’s named after a former president of the university, but Big Mike is a bronze statue of the Wankel T-rex MOR 555 which recently went out on loan to the Smithsonian for fifty years. So I think starting in 2019 if you go out to the Smithsonian you’ll be seeing the nation’s T-rex, which is, was MOR 555, Big Mike. So they’re one and the same. That’s kinda cool.
Sabrina: That is cool.
Garret: Yeah we’re excited about that opening up.
John Scannella: Me too.
Sabrina: And then there’s the exhibit Tyrant Kings, and when I was reading the description of it I was surprised it said it was one of the few, or this is one of the few museums that have a T-rex on display.
John Scannella: I think it’s one of the few museums that has the actual fossils of a T-rex mounted as opposed to a cast.
Sabrina: Oh okay, that’s cool.
John Scannella: Yeah, yeah that’s, I think it’s a really great exhibit because you have mount of Montana’s T-rex standing there, and then behind it there’s kind of this glass case of Tyrannosaurus rex growth, which goes from the smallest known T-rex skull in the world all the way up to the largest T-rex skull, and they’re both MOR specimens. So the biggest one is MOR 008 which was found decades ago. It was one of the first specimens here at the museum, and I guess it was in like thousands of pieces and it was pieced together over a long period of time before it was finally put together, and when they measured it when it was put together they realized that it was really big.
And then the smallest one, Chomper, was just discovered in 2010 by my former roommate Lee Hall. And so that’s really cool to have Chomper over there too. And then everything in between going from B-rex, and then there’s the cast of the Wankel T-rex, and then Montana’s T-rex is all in there. It’s cool to be able to see them all next to each other.
Garret: Yeah that’s super cool.
Sabrina: Do they all have names? You mentioned some of the names but…
John Scannella: There’s Chomper, after Chomper there’s Jane which is a Burpee specimen, so it’s a cast of the skull of Jane. After Jane is B-rex. After B-rex is I believe Montana’s T-rex MOR 980, and then after that is the Wankel T-rex which is gonna be at the Smithsonian, and then after that is MOR 008 the really big one. I hope I have that right.
Garret: You also have an exhibit right now on Triceratops that’s similar right, where it goes from the youngest all the way up to, do you have a torosaurus at the end?
John Scannella: We have an adult Triceratops.
Garret: Formerly known as…
John Scannella: Yeah, it goes from the smallest known Triceratops specimen is a University of California Museum of Paleontology Berkley specimen which was described in 2006 by Mark Goodwin and colleagues, and its skull I guess could pretty much fit in your hand. And then on the opposite end you have the toro specimen which is about the size of my car. So it really shows the size range, and then we have a bunch of growth stages in between there, and far more in collections as well in addition to what’s just on exhibit.
Sabrina: There’s also a burrowing dinosaurs exhibit.
John Scannella: Oh yes, Oryctodromeus, that just went up two years ago I think. One of the cool things about the exhibits here is that they’re always changing to try to keep up with all the research that’s going on here. So if you came here a year ago or I guess just over a year ago the new T-rex exhibit wouldn’t be there. A year before that the Oryctodromeus wasn’t there yet. I’m sure if you come back in a year there’ll be something new that isn’t here now. So we’re always adding things and switching things around. So Oryctodromeus the burrowing dinosaur which was described by Dave Varricchio and colleagues a few years ago is on exhibit, and you can look into the burrow and see little juvenile Oryctodromeus and there’s the adult up top and there’s the burrow, it’s pretty cool.
Sabrina: Yeah we spoke to Anthony J. Martin about it.
Garret: Probably a year ago.
Sabrina: In one of the earlier episodes, yeah. That’s cool. Is that, that’s the only one that’s been discovered we know for sure burrowed right?
John Scannella: Yeah, the only one I believe published in the literature of being in a burrow.
Garret: Yeah, found in its own burrow I think was the key, because they found burrows but you never know what made it unless you find the animal in it. Cool.
Sabrina: As the curator for now, you got any big plans yet? I mean it’s been a whole week so…
John Scannella: Big plans, I guess we’re going to be working on some new exhibits, keeping the exhibits changing and displaying research that’s been happening here, highlighting some cool studies that have happened in the recent past. Continue having specimens prepared so we can learn new things, coordinating with researchers from different institutions, students, and others, and just producing more research regarding one of my favorite dinosaurs, Triceratops, and then also other Montana dinosaurs and just continuing to bring information about Montana’s dinosaurs to Montana and the rest of the world.
Garret: Cool. New exhibits are always nice. Do you do a lot of updating of exhibits too, or is it usually they’re being replaced at such a rate that you don’t need to do too much.
John Scannella: I mean there’s been some updates like text updates but mostly we just kind of switch them out with a newer exhibit if that makes sense.
Garret: Cool, yeah. You guys do a fair amount of education outreach stuff too. Are you involved with any of that stuff?
John Scannella: I’m involved in so far as talking to school groups and things like that, and students. […] (00:15:06) does a lot with educational programs with local school groups, and that’s great because I mean that’s, especially for dinosaurs I mean that’s how I first met dinosaurs is my first trip, well I guess first it was a trip to the library to read children’s books about dinosaurs, to see Gorgosaurus standing in the rain. and then a trip to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, which is fantastic and it’s one of my earliest memories is my family taking me to the museum, and my mom says that I ran up to the Apatosaurus and tried to hug it. I think I was about three or four years old. I don’t remember that but I’d have to take her word for it. But that’s like an age where for some reason you can really connect with dinosaurs. I don’t know if it’s because you’re so small and they’re so big. So it’s great to always see lots of school children coming through the halls at the museum here.
One of the cool things is the new T-rex exhibit of Montana’s T-rex, and it’s kind of posed like it’s turning a corner. Right, it’s you walk down a hallway and you turn to your right and then there’s this t-rex coming at you. So what I like to do sometimes is my wife and I like to go sit upstairs right at that point, and you see little kids coming down the hallway and then they turn and there’s just like this blood-curdling scream because the T-rex is right in front of them, and it’s like, but then there’s like a joyful laughter because they’ve seen T-rex. The other day there was a little kid in the exhibit hall who was trying to communicate with the t-rex making really important snarling noises. He was pointing at it and snarling and he was waiting for a response. And I just happened to be walking through and I was like this is a magical moment. It was really cool.
Garret: That’s great. Cool. So they managed to pose the T-rex even though it’s been dead for sixty-something million years that it actually kinda sneaks up on you.
John Scannella: Kind of. I mean it’s kind of positioned, you’ll see when you go upstairs. You walk down a hall and it’s oh, there it is. Hello.
Garret: That’s cool.
Sabrina: So if you hear any screams later…
John Scannella: Yes, followed by jovial laughter.
Garret: Having so many fossils do you have just paleontologists galore? How many paleontologists are there at the museum?
John Scannella: At the museum? There’s about half a dozen people in the paleo staff. I mean there’s the administrative director of paleo, there’s the curator, Ellen Lamm who does the histology lab, preparators, so there’s a few people.
Garret: And then are there even more that are at Montana State that work with the museum?
John Scannella: For example Dave Varricchio is over at MSU and we work very closely with Dave. I mean Oryctodromeus is in large part part of his research. Yeah so it’s kinda like an extension almost to have additional paleontologists on campus which is kinda cool. Ya and so students going to MSU have a great opportunity if they’re interested in dinosaurs particularly because they have what’s going on over on campus, and then they have the Museum of the Rockies right here and it’s one of the largest collections of dinosaurs, North American dinosaurs in the world. So it’s a really great place if you want to study dinosaurs. That’s why I came here.
Sabrina: Also since you mentioned earlier about your wife and she is a geologist, and you guys had a wedding here and it was dinosaur themed which is awesome.
John Scannella: Yep, we got married in the Hall of Horns and Teeth. Which was great.
Sabrina: It was great?
John Scannella: Yeah.
Garret: Do you guys still go on digs together ever?
John Scannella: Oh yeah, yeah, yep. We like dinosaurs. It’s pretty cool.
Garret: Do you have any upcoming projects?
John Scannella: Field work wise we’re gonna be heading back out in the field in a few weeks probably working with some more Triceratops just you know because.
Garret: Because they’re there.
John Scannella: Yeah, well I mean they’re there and they’re awesome and it’s important. Every specimen of Triceratops is important for study thing variation and all that. I’m also working with an undergraduate student named Jack Wilson on horned dinosaurs from the Two Medicine formation. So that’s a bit different from Triceratops. And really Triceratops is cool because you know studying the variation within a large number of specimens so you can apply a lot of that to other dinosaurs and other animals. That’s why I say that Triceratops is sort of like a model organism for studying evolution and variation in fossil animals so we can apply some of the things we’re learning through work with Triceratops to other animals. So I’m actually starting to work on a project with Dale Hanson who works on mammals here on fossil Oreodont which is very wildly different from dinosaurs and it’s like new territory for me.
Garret: What’s that, Oreodont?
John Scannella: It’s like if you imagine like a cross between a pig and a sheep kind of from the Cenozoic.
John Scannella: Yeah so this is new. But there’s a lot of them and they have variation and see what we can learn about that. So that’s kind of exciting and new.
Garret: Yeah, that’s cool.
John Scannella: Yeah.
Sabrina: What else would you want to share about the museum?
John Scannella: Probably the museum is really involved with trying to bring Montana to the world. Like bringing the world to Montana and bringing Montana to the world is like one of the goals of the museum. So one of the ways we do that is through the exhibits that are constantly changing to reflect the research that’s going on here. But also we’re working, at least the last few years have been working with our sister institute in Japan, Mifune Dinosaur Museum. So we actually send fossils from Montana to Japan and staff from paleo here go to Japan with the fossils and they help train the staff there in how to work with fossils. So Montana dinosaurs are being prepared in kind of a viewing lab in Japan, and then they’re getting the experience of working with the fossils and the people in Japan can see Montana fossils. And then they come back here and they’re prepared so it’s kind of really cool that way. So I think the ways of engaging the public in Montana’s pre-history is one of the cool things.
Garret: Yeah that’s cool.
John Scannella: And one of the cool things about being the interim curators of paleontology is that my work with Jack in large part and the other graduate students here are focused on kind of transitions throughout either growth in Triceratops or through the evolution of Triceratops, and now I guess if you look back through the history of the Museum of the Rockies, as the interim curator between Jack Horner and whomever may be the next curator it’s kind of a transitional stage that I’m in right now. So that’s kind of, I think that’s kinda neat.
Sabrina: Yeah it is. Well thanks so much for talking with us.
John Scannella: Sure, you’re welcome.
Sabrina: It’s been fun.
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