Episode 152 is all about Plateosaurus, a basal sauropodomorph with more than 100 skeletons found.
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In this episode, we discuss:
- The Dinosaurs of China exhibit near Nottingham, UK has set a record for the tallest dinosaur ever displayed in the UK
- A new hadrosaur, Laiyangosaurus youngi, was named in China from partial remains of five individuals
- An abelisaurid from Argentina, Viavenator exxoni, looks like a Carnotaurus without horns from 15 million years earlier
- A new Teratophoneus specimen was airlifted to the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City
- Sauropods “spread nutrients” around the world just by eating, walking, and pooping
- National Fossil Day included a set of trading cards, and a song
- The Triceratops found in Thornton, CO and now on display at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science has been nicknamed “Tiny”
- Jurassica, the dinosaur project in Dorset, UK, has been cancelled. It may live on in a new merged project called “The Journey”
- Dinosaurs in the Wild is now in Manchester, in the UK
- The Royal Ontario Museum is looking for donations to help them prepare Zuul, and you can get rewards for your donation
- In Atlanta, Georgia, a family in Candler Park had their large metal dinosaur sculpture “Rusty” stolen from their yard
- Mark Verge made a T.rex balloon animal that was 12 ft tall, 43 ft long, and took about 700 balloons to make
Wollaton Hall near Nottingham, UK Photo by @ProfChrisScott
The Dinosaurs of China represents a unique opportunity for people in the UK to see a select group of important Chinese dinosaur fossils outside their home country. This exhibition came about through the strong connections between the University of Nottingham and China. It was made possible by the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) in Beijing and the Longhao Institute of Geology and Paleontology Inner Mongolia.
This exhibition is split over two venues; Wollaton Hall and Nottingham Lakeside Arts. This is a review of the Wollaton Hall exhibition where the dinosaur remains were on display. The Nottingham Lakeside Arts’ exhibition dealt more with the question of ‘the science of bringing dinosaurs to life in art’ but as we were visiting with a 4-year-old and a baby, we had to prioritise!
Wollaton Hall itself is a well known local venue, having first opened as a museum in 1926. The Nottingham Natural History Museum claims an archive of 750,000 specimens, so exhibiting dinosaurs here seemed a natural choice. Although much of the space has currently been handed over to the dinosaur exhibition, a large fraction of the natural history specimens are still on display and visitors make their way through original galleries where faded, stuffed examples of forlorn looking animals sit in glass cages, leading me to describe it as a ‘dead zoo’.
Tickets can be booked online along with parking and a visitor guide (at a discounted price). Tickets are £7.70 for adults and £5.50 for children 5 and over (under 5’s are admitted free). The exhibition runs until the 29th October 2017.
I liked the style of the exhibition, being unashamedly advertised as a ‘touring’ show, with specimens displayed alongside their original packing cases. The museum is at the top of a long hill, the car park for which is located about half way up. As space is limited, visitors are encouraged to view the exhibits in a specific order, along a one-way system. A leisurely tour of the exhibition would probably take two hours but when you have an impatient family in tow, it will be quicker!
The preservation of the specimens was astounding. Erupting volcanoes had preserved an entire ecosystem under ash deposits like a prehistoric Pompeii. It would have been interesting to see examples of the flora too but no mention was made as to whether such specimens survived.
Mamenchisaurus on display at Wollaton Hall near Nottingham, UK Photo by @ProfChrisScott
The central exhibit is a magnificently displayed Mamenchisaurus from Sichuan Province in Central China. This sauropod (from the Late Jurassic, 160 million years ago) had an extremely long neck, reaching up to 12 metres in length. The specimen on display is 23 metres long and so the skeleton has been constructed in a 13.5 metre tall rearing posture so that it could fit inside the Great Hall at Wollaton, making it the tallest dinosaur ever displayed in the UK. It looks awesome!
Alongside this central exhibit is the smaller prosauropod Lufengosaurus (Early Jurassic, 200 million years ago), and Sinraptor (Late Jurrasic), the latter displayed as if it were pursuing the rearing Mamenchisaurus. Also on display were Protoceratops (Late Cretaceous), Guanlong (Late Jurassic, a small (2m long) ancestor of T. rex with a large delicate ornamental head crest), and (one for Garret) Pinacosaurus—an ankylosaur from the Late Cretaceous. This last specimen is displayed as it was preserved—in a crouching position, probably sheltering from the sandstorm that engulfed it.
Lufengosaurus on display at Wollaton Hall near Nottingham, UK Photo by @ProfChrisScott
Visitors are then moved into the ‘Bird Gallery’ where ‘dinosaurs that behaved like birds’ are displayed. These included specimens of Oviraptor (Mongolia, late Cretaceous), Mei long (‘Sleeping dragon as it was found in a coiled up sleeping pose with its head tucked under its arm), and Sinosauropteryx—the first feathered dinosaur ever described. The specimen was beautiful – with preserved downy feathers and in such detail that it has been possible to determine that it was ginger with a light and dark banded tail. Other specimens on display were Gigantoraptor, ‘the largest bird-like dinosaur in the world’, a cast of Linheraptor (meaning ‘exquisitely preserved thief’!), Dilong (meaning ‘surprising emperor dragon’), and Sinornithosaurus— ‘a fuzzy raptor that proves Velociraptor had feathers’. Then two specimens that I found utterly amazing; Caudipteryx (meaning ’Dong’s tail feathers’) in which was preserved the remains of the animal’s stomach including a heap of small gastroliths, and Epidexipteryx (meaning: ‘Hu’s display feather’) that, in addition to fuzzy body feathers had extraordinarily long tail feathers (as long as the head and body combined). While these specimens were all quite small, they were nonetheless quite astonishing.
The final part of the exhibition concerned ‘feathered flyers’ including the holotype of the Microraptor. This has long feathers on its arms and legs as well as a long tail. It could fly.
Microraptor on display at Wollaton Hall near Nottingham, UK Photo by @ProfChrisScott
The specimen of Yanoris on display was billed as demonstrating the evolutionary transition from feathered dinosaurs to true birds. It had tiny teeth and claws and yet this specimen also shows the preserved remains of feathers that exactly match modern birds. There was a display on the famous fake fossil ‘archaeoraptor’ including a cast of the forgery together with examples of the genuine fossils used to create it. Other amazing specimens of primitive birds included Protopteryx and Confuciusornis, both of which had long tail feathers and clawed hands.
Also on display were the more bat-like Yi qi (meaning: ‘strange wing’), which had bat-like membranous wings and fuzzy body feather and Wukongopterus (meaning: ‘Li’s Wukong wing’), an unusual pterosaur with a long tail and a long neck.
Lifts are available for wheelchair and prams but we opted to carry our youngest daughter rather than deal with the logistics. A room is set aside in which to leave pushchairs. When we visited there were lots of activities for the children. A couple of those ‘stick your head through a hole and have your photo taken as a dinosaur’ stands were within the exhibition hall along with a heap of letters to create your own ‘Daddysaurus’ or ‘Baby-raptor’. The inevitable gift shop contained some quality items amongst the mass produced tourist trappings including a very nice coffee table book of Chinese dinosaurs and several model kits of these unusual (to those of us in the west anyway!) dinosaurs.
Activity area for kids outside the museum Photo by @ProfChrisScott
When we visited in late August there was a marquee outside in which there were craft activities for the children and also several concessions selling local food and ice-cream. On selected days a volunteer tours the grounds dressed as ‘Hunter’—a rubber-raptor of some description but he was not to be seen on the day we went. I asked my 4 year old daughter what her favourite thing about the visit was. Without hesitation she said “the ice-cream!”
I really enjoyed the exhibition. Seeing dinosaurs that were almost but not quite familiar provided an important perspective for me. I had always wanted to be a palaeontologist when I was a child, even taking geology as a joint subject at university before finally settling on space physics (the former was just too badly taught). As a result, I drifted away from my early interests until my wife bought me a dinosaur DVD one Christmas and I realised how far the subject had come in the last thirty years. Thanks to you guys, I am once again enjoying finding out about ‘All things dinosaur’ and was inspired to contrive a holiday where we could visit the Chinosaurs exhibition. Long may ‘I Know Dino’ continue to excite future generations of budding palaeontologists and educate those for whom the subject is a matter of amateur astonishment!
The dinosaur of the day: Plateosaurus
- Name means “broad lizard” though sometimes it’s translated as “flat lizard”
- Basal sauropodomorph that lived in the Late Triassic in what is now Central and Northern Europe
- Two species: Plateosaurus engelhardti (type species) and Plateosaurus gracilis (though there used to be more species named)
- Johann Friedrich Engelhardt found Plateosaurus in 1834
- Engelhardt was a physician and he found vertebrae and leg bones at Heroldsberg, near Nuremberg, Germany
- Described in 1837 by Hermann von Meyer
- Plateosaurus was the fifth named dinosaur (that’s still considered to be valid)
- Described before Sir Richard Owen named Dinosauria in 1842, but it was not well known enough and too difficult to determine if it was a dinosaur, so it wasn’t included in the genera that defined the group (Megalosaurus, Iguanodon, and Hylaeosaurus)
- Since then more than 100 skeletons have been found
- Plateosaurus fossils have been found in more than 50 localities in Germany, Switzerland, and France. Three locations in particular had a large number of specimens: Halberstadt in Saxony-Anhalt, Germany; Trossingen in Baden-Württemberg, Germany, and Frick (Switzerland)
- In the 1910s-1930s, about 40-50 Plateosaurus skeletons were found in a clay pit in Saxony-Anhalt. Some of it was assigned to Plateosaurus longiceps (a species Otto Jaekel described in 1914 but is now considered to be a junior synonym to Plateosaurus engelhardti). Most of it ended up at the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin, but a lot of it was destroyed in WWII
- Trossingen, in the Black Forest in Germany (the Swabia region), had multiple excavations between 1911 and 1932, led by Eberhard Fraas and Friedrich vone Huene, and then in 1932 Reinhold Seeman found 35 complete or partially complete Plateosaurus skeletons, and fragments from more than 70 individuals.
- Because so many Plateosaurus were found there, Friedrich August von Quenstedt nicknamed Plateosaurus Schwäbischer Lindwurm (Swabian lindworm or Swabian dragon), after a type of serpentine dragon. Unfortunately, many of those fossils were destroyed in 1944 when the Naturaliensammlung in Stuttgart burned after an Allied bombing raid. But, Rainer Schoch, curator of the State Museum of Natural History Stuttgart (which was build after), found in a 2011 study that “the scientifically most valuable material is still available”
- Plateosaurus skeletons were found in a clay pit in Tonwerke Keller AG, in Frick, Switzerland, in 1976
- Plateosaurus is the first dinosaur found in Norway. In 2006, workers of an oil platform were drilling through sandstone and found a fossil they thought was plant material. The drill core with the fossil was over 7400 ft (2200 m) below the seafloor. Martin Sander and Nicole Klein analyzed it and found it was bone that belonged to Plateosaurus
- Plateosaurus has also been found in Greenland, in the Fleming Fjord Formation
- The etymology of Plateosaurus is not clear. The original description has no information, and authors have different interpretations. For example, in 1846 Hanns Bruno Geinitz said it meant “broad”, also in 1846 Agassiz said it was ancient Greet for paddle or rudder which translates to pala in Latin, which means “spade” and so he renamed the genus Platysaurus (probably from Greek, which means broad or flat) and created an invalid junior synonym. Later authors refer to this and the secondary meaning of flat, so the name is often translated as “flat lizard”. Supposedly this refers to flat bones, like its flattened teeth, but its teeth and other flat bones (pubic bones and some skull elements) were not found at the time Plateosaurus was described.
- In 1855, von Meyer published a detailed description with illustrations but didn’t include any information on the etymology. He did refer to its large size and massive limbs, and compared Plateosaurus to large modern mammals, but didn’t describe anything that fit the words “flat” or “shaped like an oar”
- There’s been a lot of changes with how Plateosaurus species have been classified. Peter Galton showed that all skull material from the three major Plateosaurus localities were part of the same species. Markus Moser did an extensive study in 2003 of plateosaurid material from Germany and Switzerland, and found Sellosaurus to be the same as Plateosaurus, but didn’t discuss if Sellosaurus gracilis (now Plateosaurus gracilis) and Plateosaurus engenhardti were the same species. Adam Yates later said that Plateosaurus gracilis might be a metataxon (means there no evidence that the material assigned to it belongs to one species or several species) because the holotype of Plateosaurus gracilis doesn’t have a skull, and other specimens with skulls are not similar enough to be sure it belongs to the same taxon. So, there may be more Plateosaurus species. Some scientists think there are more than two Plateosaurus species, such as Plateosaurus erlenbergensis, but not everyone agrees, and this doesn’t take into account Moser’s work
- Galton did a lot of the work in reducing the number of Plateosaurus species. He said that Plateosaurus trossingensis, Plateosaurus fraasianus, and Plateosaurus integer were the same as Plateosaurus longiceps
- However, Markus Moser found that Plateosaurus longiceps was a junior synonym of Plateosaurus engelhardti, and that other species in other genera also belonged to Plateosaurus engelhardti, including Dimodosaurus poligniensis, Gresslyosaurus robustus, Gresslyosaurus torgeri, Pachysaurus ajax, Pachysaurus giganteus, Pachysaurus magnus, and Pachysaurus wetzelianus
- Now down to the two species
- Plateosaurus engelhardti has a lectotype (named in 2003 by Markus Moser), a partial sacrum that was probably from near Heroldsberg
- Type specimen of Plateosaurus gracilis is incomplete and kept at the Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde Stuttgart, Germany
- Part of the family Plateosauridae (named by Marsh in 1895)
- Bipedal herbivore
- Scientists have hypothesized many ways that Plateosaurus stood. Von Huene thought they were bipedal, Jaekal thought they were quadrupedal and sprawled like lizards, though later he thought they could hop like kangaroos (German zoologist Gustav Tornier made fun of him for it), and Fraas thought they had a reptile like posture
- Later, scientists thought it was quadrupedal when moving slowly and bipedal when moving quickly, and Moser showed its tail was straight
- In 2007 Bonnan and Senter did a study that showed Plateosaurus could not pronate its hands (face the hands downward so it could walk on them), which means it was bipedal only. Also, its hind limbs are about twice as long as its forelimbs
- Walked on its toes
- Plateosaurus increased its speeds with higher stride frequencies. Plateosaurus had muscles that could not provide a “spring,” meaning one hind foot had to touch the ground at all times (so basically, it could only speed walk)
- Scientists have been able to reconstruct what its ribcage looked like when inhaling and exhaling (since ribs were connected to the dorsal vertebrae with two joints and acted like a hinge joint) and they found it was similar to birds, so Plateosaurus probably had an avian-style flow-through lung
- Plateosaurus had a bird-like respiratory system (had air sacs similar to modern birds). Because birds evolved from theropods, not sauropods, this means either the avian respiratory system evolved twice (in sauropodomorphs and theropods) or that this respiratory system evolved before dinosaurs split into theropod and sauropodomorph groups.
- Plateosaurus came in all different sizes. Adults could be between 16-33 ft (4.8-10 m) long and weighed between 1,300-8,800 b (600-4,000 kg)
- Plateosaurus gracilis (which used to be called Sellosaurus gracilis) was a little smaller, about 13-16 ft (4-5 m) long
- Plateosaurus grew rapidly as a juvenile, but had a varied growth rate and grew to different sizes, probably based on food availability. For example, some fully grown Plateosaurus were 16 ft (4.8 m) long and others were 33 ft (10 m) long
- Sander and Klein found that some Plateosaurus were fully grown at age 12, while others grew slowly until age 20, and at least one was growing rapidly at age 18. The oldest Plateosaurus found was 27 years old and still growing (most Plateosaurus found were between 12 and 20 years old)
- The youngest Plateosaurus found so far was 10 years old
- Plateosaurus may have lived lot longer than 20 years, since many of the fossils found were of Plateosaurus that died in accidents
- Plateosaurus was one of the main herbivorous dinosaurs in Europe in the late Triassic. It would have been one of the largest land animals at the time, and it probably was a common prey (for early theropods, as well as archosaurs)
- Had a small skull and a long, flexible neck
- Skull was narrow and long, with large eye sockets
- Had sclerotic rings in the eyes
- Plateosaurus may have been cathemeral (active throughout the day and night)
- Had eyes directed to the sides (all round vision to watch out for predators)
- Had a long, muscular tail
- Had short arms, especially compared to other sauropodomorphs
- Had a large thumb claw on each hand, which may have been used for defense or for getting food
- Plateosaurus was probably herbivorous
- Had broad, leaf-shaped teeth, and a skull that could have a strong bite (good for slicing and mashing plants)
- Had a large digestive system, so could eat tougher plants
- No gastroliths have been found with Plateosaurus yet (probably didn’t need them to help digest)
- In 2016, a team of researchers in the UK, led by David Button created 3D computer models of the skulls of Plateosaurus and Camarasaurus to study the evolution of sauropods and their ancestors, and how they ate vegetation. They found that Camarasaurus had a stronger bite force than Plateosaurus, and had a different shape in the lower jaw. But Plateosaurus could chew faster than Camarasaurus (had a longer tooth row), possibly because it was at least partially omnivorous, like other sauropodomorphs, and being able to close jaws faster would help with prey. Plateosaurus also had heterdont teeth (different types of teeth) that shows it probably ate different types of material, which could include small animals.
- The three main sites where Plateosaurus was found are nearly monospecific assemblages, which means they basically only contained one species (though theropod teeth have been found there, and some remains of Proganochelys, an early turtle). They also only had adults or subadults
- Scientists have had different ideas about how Plateosaurus wound up in Trossingen. Fraas thought it was because they waded too deep into mud, Jaekel thought they waded into swamps and drowned, von Huene thought the weakest ones, mostly subadults, died in the desert and sank in the mud of water holes, and Seeman thought Plateosaurus herds went to large water holes and some got pushed in and got stuck and died
- Not known for sure whether Plateosaurus lived in herds
- Later, David Weishampel suggested that a Plateosaurus herd died in a mudflow, and that Plateosaurus was common at this time, which is why they were the only species in that locality. Another scientist, Rieber, said he thought Plateosaurus died of thirst or starvation and was concentrated by mudflows
But then, a re-assessment by Martin Sander of the University of Bonn, Germany, found that Fraas’ idea of mud miring was true. Animals heavy enough sank in the mud, similar to the La Brea Tar Pits. This explains why their bones weren’t transported after they died, why juveniles and other lighter animals did not sink in with them (and were not preserved), and why scavenging theropods didn’t get stuck there (lighter and had larger feet proportionately). Also, there’s no indication of herding, or of a catastrophic burial
- Plateosaurus was in Disney’s 1940 Fantasia movie, as part of the history of life on earth segment set to Igor Stravinski’s The Rite of Spring. It shows a herd of Plateosaurus briefly digging for clams
- Walking with Dinosaurs the live show built a full sized animatronic Plateosaurus, which was 20 ft long
- Can see Plateosaurus in the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, in the Dinosaur Gallery
Luis Alvarez and his son Walter stated the Alvarez hypothesis in 1980. This is the theory that an asteroid at Chicxulub wiped out dinosaurs at K-Pg boundary. Strangely, 35 years earlier, Luis Alvarez flew over Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the nuclear bombings as a scientific observer.
This episode is brought to you in part by TRX Dinosaurs, which makes beautiful and realistic dinosaur sculptures, puppets, and exhibits. You can see some amazing examples and works in progress on Instagram @trxdinosaurs