Tag Archives: fossils

Pokemon Sword and Shield’s Amazing Potential to Honor the History of Paleontology

So, Pokemon Sword and Shield have an amazing opportunity that Gamefreak shouldn’t pass up.  And that opportunity is fossils.

As a fossil maniac, I appreciate the many different fossil Pokemon Gamefreak has designed over the years.  Some of them are based on more popular ancient animals, like the T-Rex, and others not as much, like the crinoid and Anomalocaris.  I was very disappointed that Pokemon Sun and Moon didn’t introduce new fossil Pokemon.  But I can begrudgingly accept this as Hawaii isn’t really known for its fossils.  As a string of recent land masses, Hawaii does not have a long biological history.  What fossil are preserved are destroyed as the ocean washes away the oldest islands.

But Galar is different because it’s set in England.  Not only does England have fossils but it represents the beginnings of paleontology and the birthplace of the word “dinosaur.”  Since practically ancient times, humans knew about the existence of fossils but didn’t fully understand what they represented.  They could have been mythological beasts or animals once present in the Garden of Eden.  It wasn’t until the Enlightenment era that scientists, such as anatomist Georges Cuvier, realized that these fossils belonged to animals that were thousands if not millions of years old.  That through gradual change over many, many years, animals come and go and create a succession, of sorts, to the modern era.  Even more astonishingly, some of these animals were unlike anything alive today; they were so wild and out there they deserved their own classification.

Ichthyosaurus.  Image credit: John Sibbick/Science Photo Library

A Plesiosaur

By the early 1800s, English scientists were pushing the field of paleontology from a curious idea to a serious subject.  One notable collector was Mary Anning whose achievements include finding the first Ichthyosaurus (a fish-like reptile), two nearly complete Plesiosaurus (a long-neck swimming reptile), and other fossils such as shells and a Pterosaur.   The Plesiosaurus were especially important as only bits and pieces were found until her discovery.  These additions continued speculation on what these animals are, or were, and how they fit in Earth’s history.

The curious animals became more comprehensive as new specimens came to light.  In 1824, two different fossilized animals were found and described as Megalosaurus and Iguanodon.  These animals, along with the aforementioned Ichthyosaurus and Plesiosaurus, were the inspiration of English scientist Gideon Mantell’s famous paper titled “Age of Reptiles” where he placed these animals in this era and divided it up into three periods which later became known as the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous.  Just a year after this publication Mantell founded and described another ancient reptile which he named Hylaeosaurus in 1832.  However, it wasn’t until 1841 when famed anatomist Sir Richard Owen united Megalosaurus, Iguanodon, and Hylaeosaurus into one branch which he named “Dinosauria,” terrible lizard.

This of course is a rather brief review of Paleontology’s early history.  I encourage you to look into as it’s very fascinating.  I like the interpretation of Iguanodon as a lumbering, rhino-like giant iguana, to its modern appearance as a gracile, slender animal with a prominent thumb spike.  There’s also the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs which was possibly one of the first, large-scale interpretations of ancient animals.  The park contains all the previously mentioned animals and more.

Image result for crystal palace dinosaurs dinner

While the park dinosaurs were being built, a New Year’s Eve dinner was held inside the still incomplete Iguanodon specimen which is quite frankly, a great way to start the new year!

But I would like to instead pivot back to the matter at hand.  The fossil Pokemon of Galar.  It would be very remiss of Gamefreak not to include any of these animals as Pokemon Sword and Shield’s fossils.  The way I see it we can go down two, neatly packaged, routes.

The first route is to have fossil Pokemon based on Ichthyosaurus and Plesiosaurus with their respective fossils being Tail and Flipper.  These two animals lived in the same time period in the same habitat so it wouldn’t be surprising to find fossils of them next to each other.  As for typing…well that’s probably the major downside to them.

Rock/Water is the fourth most common dual type combination in Pokemon as of Generation VII.  Both of these Pokemon would solidly be in that category (as a side note, I have very mixed feelings about Fossil Pokemon’s Rock typing so we’re ignoring that for now).  But would our Pokemon have to be Rock/Water?  Sure in Generation I both Kabutops and Omastar were Rock/Water while in Generation III, Armaldo was Rock/Bug and Cradily was Rock/Grass even though their respective animal was definitely aquatic.

With that in mind I would still give the Ichthyosaur Pokemon a Rock/Water typing since it’s just too much like a fish.  It fits it so well!  Yet for our Plesiosaur Pokemon I think we can give it Rock/Dragon without batting an eye.  Just like Armaldo it could still learn Water attacks but it would stay close to home with its dual typing.  But mark my words!!!  If it wasn’t for the Rock requirement our Plesiosaur would be Water/Dragon easily and it would be soooooo gooooood.

Let’s turn our attention to our three English Dinosaurs; Megalosaurus, Iguanodon, and Hylaeosaurus.  Hmm…right away I can see a problem…there’s three of them.  Now you could do a scenario where there’s two “regular” fossils and one “special” one like in Generation I but I don’t think we have to worry about that.  Megalosaurus is a therapod dinosaur.  A very iconic group of dinosaurs who were (about 99% of the time) carnivorous and bipedal.  Some had small heads and long arms, others had large heads and short arms but they all had similar body plans.  And as I’m sure you folks can see where I’m going with this, we already have a therapod Pokemon, Tyrantrum.

Left, a modern interpretation of Megalosaurus.  Right, the mid-1800’s interpretation of Megalosaurus.  Image credit: Mark Garlick/University of Warwick.

Unfortunately, as best as we can tell, Megalosaurus was a rather “average” looking therapod.  Nothing wrong with that but it doesn’t really stand out compared to the more outlandish therapods like Spinosaurus or Therizinosaurus.  And although Gamefreak doesn’t mind reusing animals multiple times (and even using a Monkey Grass Pokemon twice!), I think it would be a waste of time for them to reuse a standard therapod when the paleontological record offers so much more.

As a side note, it would be balls awesome if Gamefreak gave us Megalosaurus but based on its original interpretation as a quadrupedal carnivore with a fat-crocodile mouth and a dragging tail.  It would be kind of horrifying and sad for the Megalosaurus Pokemon but really cool!  Like, the lore would be that due to an incomplete skeleton, the reconstructed dinosaur could not resume its original shape and instead pieced together what it had to make its now misaligned form.  That would be wild.

Image result for iguanodon

Iguanodon

Anyway, that leaves us with Iguanodon (Thumbspike Fossil) and Hylaeosaurus (Plate Fossil) and luckily we haven’t had dinosaurs based on them yet!   This is perfect and their body variation can really lend itself well to some cool type combinations.  First, Iguanodon, I imagined three different type combos with them.  Rock/Normal would be my initial suggestion as these guys are one of the most common dinosaurs you can find, they were basically the elk of the dinosaur world.  But you also have that trademark thumbspike that is so well known on Iguanodon that you just have to use it somehow.  Perhaps as an electrical rod?  So maybe Rock/Electric?  Maybe it can be used to inject poison into its foes so Rock/Poison?  Any of these three suggestions would be interesting.

Image result for hylaeosaurus

Hylaeosaurus

As for Hylaeosaurus, the armor plating, trademark of all Ankylosauria, immediately suggests a Rock/Steel type which is a nice fallback.  Hylaeosaurus also had spikes protruding from its sides which suggests a porcupine-esque defense so Rock/Poison would be delightful.  I could also imagine Gamefreak throwing a curveball and making it Rock/Fire similar to how they made Aurorus Rock/Ice.

If I had my druthers I would make Fossil Pokemon out of Iguanodon and Hylaeosaurus and make the Plesiosaur a modern Pokemon.  This works very well thanks to the folklore surrounding Nessie and the occurrence of modern fossil-based Pokemon like Aggron and Tropius.  And the Plesiosaur can be Water/Dragon which would be great!

So there you have it.  Will it happen?  I’m banking on no unfortunately.  Although Gamefreak has been doing very well lately designing Pokemon that are inspired by their respective region, I can’t imagine them going the extra mile to put that paleontology flavor in.  Now a Pokemon based on the Loch Ness Monster?  Sure, I can buy that but I won’t be holding my breath.  We shall see.  Fingers crossed!

Fossil Butte Article for National Fossil Day

Hello everyone, it’s been awhile since my last update but I figure I’ll show you what I’ve been up to.  My assignment here at Fossil Butte National Monument was to write an article about this place for National Fossil Day.  This year, every month, a Cenozoic park is featured on the National Park Service website.  September is Fossil Butte’s month and I wrote the article for it!  Check it out!

https://nature.nps.gov/geology/nationalfossilday/cenozoic_fobu.cfm

Consider this my usual Monday update.  I’ve been busy in the meanwhile working at FOBU doing the standard stuff I mentioned before such as manning the front desk and preparing fossils.  It’s still been fun here and I’ve been enjoying working with my colleagues.  I’ve also been writing some articles for the blog in the future so stay tuned for that.  Until next time!

The Lake’s Shore

The Sun rises upon the Lake’s shore
The Sun settles upon the Butte’s face

Animals stir from their slumber
Now they can seek cool relief

Fish chew on the spongy algae
Rabbits munch on the lush sage brush

The boa sleeps on the tree tops
The garter slithers by the roots

Trees wave gently from the Lake’s shore
The grass waves back

Bats stalk silently overhead
Badgers dig diligently below

A horse browses the dense underbrush
A deer grazes the sparse grasslands

Lunge, lunge, the crocodile snaps at its prey
Pounce, pounce, the lion tackles its prey

Stocky birds walk the muddy lake’s shore
The sage grouse hide beneath their namesake

Schooling fish scatter from a slight disturbance
The lone prairie dog stands alert from foes

Over the landscape loom palm fronds, they see all
In the hillside huddle aspen groves, they see few

Blue, smothered with green and unknown colors
Brown, blended with green and freckled with flowers

Larger, wetter, call her Begetter
Smaller, drier, call her Harbor

I see it now

A gar swims through the tall grass
And a turtle wades through the dry ground

A chipmunk rests on a lotus leaf
And a pronghorn laps at the lifegiver

Are they one and the same?
This butte that towers over its dry land
And this lake that rests at its bottom

The animals and plants
From two different times
From two different habitats
Yet share the same landscape

They may be dead but they’re still alive
The Begetter may be gone
But the Harbor remembers
She holds tight to what is once was
And reveals to those who only look

I only have to peer outside
And experience their lives implied

The Sun may be setting on the Lake’s shore
But the Sun is rising on the Butte’s face

Paleontology Misconceptions: Introduction, Megaloceros (the “Irish Elk”) and Orthogenesis

For the past few months, I have been stewing over what kind of paleontological articles I could write for my blog.  It’s easy to write and talk about comics, cartoons, and video games as you rely on experience and personal opinion.  Scientific articles, however, are more difficult for me as not only do they have to be interesting to the reader but they also have to be more objective and lean more heavy on up-to-date resources.  However, while I was sitting in the back row of the Introduction to Biology course (part of my requirement for being a lab TA), I was struck with an idea that was brought about my cool and collect professor.

In paleontology (and other sciences as well but I’m more attuned to the paleo ones) there is a large amount of misconceptions that many people believe to be true.  Some misconceptions are more innocently ignorant (pterodactyls and mosasaurs are dinosaurs) while others deceit even fossil enthusiasts today.  These misconceptions still hang around because they were long believed to be true, were over simplified, or were romanticized to the point that they have to be correct because it sounds so perfect.

Today, I adduce to you a fine example of a romanticized misconception.

Meet Megaloceros giganteus, a large mammalian deer that lived during the Pleistocene.  It’s also known as the “Irish Elk.”

And already, right from the get-go, we see two misconceptions that lead you astray from what this beast represents.

Irish Elk

The funny thing about Megaloceros’ common name is how plain wrong it is; Megaloceros is not exclusively found in Ireland and it is a deer not an elk.  First off, it can be found throughout Europe, North Africa, and well into western Asia (Lister 1994) so it has quite a diverse range.  Its association towards Ireland stems from its initial discovery there as well as the plentiful amount of specimens preserved in the Irish Bogs (http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/mammal/artio/irishelk.html and Gould 1977).  Irish poet Seamus Heaney even mentioned Megaloceros in his poem “Bogland” which is a short poem about the bogs of Ireland.

Megaloceros, map, distribution, biogeography, eurasia

Map from Lister (1994).

But being geographically confused seems trifling when many people assume that Megaloceros is an elk.  This doesn’t seem like a big deal until you realize that people in Eurasia use the term “elk” to refer to the animal that North American people refer as “moose.”  And THAT…is where the confusion lies.  Megaloceros is not a moose it’s a deer.  It was originally confused to be a moose because only moose were known at the time to have antlers that came even close to the size of Megaloceros (Gould 1977).

This moose-association was eventually taken down once enough viable specimens could be used for anatomical comparison.  Even the advent of genetic technology, which has the habit of shaking phylogenetic trees hard, did nothing to subvert this new-found truth and only enhanced Megaloceros’ position by placing it as a sister taxon to the fallow deer (Lister et al. 2005 and Hughes et al. 2006).

As such, many scientists nowadays call Megaloceros the “Giant Deer.” And though I think this name does not sound as majestic as “Irish Elk,” it is nonetheless 100% more correct and should be used more often.

But now let us get to the heart of the matter of the Giant Misconception for our Giant Deer.

You may be familiar with the Giant Deer in high school biological textbooks or as an example for Hardy-Weinberg sexual selection.  Similar to peacocks, males had large antlers to showcase their sexy fitness.  A display of dominance will win over any lucky gal and together, they can make adorable, small Giant Deer.

But.

For a long time, the prevailing hypothesis behind the demise of the Giant Deer was that their antlers were so huge that eventually their size drove them to extinction.  Their constant selection for bigger antlers meant they became too unwieldy, too energy costly, or just plain too heavy for the males to support.  Basically, the Giant Deer became too sexy.

This “Too Sexy for My Antlers” hypothesis was accepted as truth until the mid-20th century when paleontologists discredited it as being farfetched and countered that the antlers were the right size relative to the Giant Deer’s body (Gould 1977).   However, no one bothered to test this new hypothesis out!  This was until famous paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould stepped in and experimented with the hypothesis himself in 1973.  In his simple experiment, he analyzed modern deer specimens and compared the size of their antlers relative to their shoulder height.  He then compared his data to that of the Giant Deer.  What he found was that the antlers were not as dangerously large as everyone once thought they were.  In fact, they were at the expected level if you were to have a modern day deer of that size.

Photograph of Stephen Jay Gould from The Simpsons.

The importance of Gould’s discovery goes farther than determining the antler size of an extinct deer.  It discredited a long dead notion that continued to propagate the “Too Sexy for My Antlers” hypothesis.  There was this “theory” that existed in the late 1800s and early 1900s called orthogenesis that some scientists used to counter Darwin’s Theory of Evolution (and btw, before I forget, happy early birthday Charles).

Instead of Natural Selection, species evolve in a direct, linear path.  Species are evolving to a final end product that they are destined for.  As such, some orthogenesis scientists used the Giant Deer as an example of evolution that went too extreme and killed the species.  Taken from Gould (1977), orthogenesis supporter and paleontologist R. S. Lull said “Natural selection will not account for overspecialization, for it is manifest that, while an organ can be brought to the point of perfection by selection, it would never be carried to a condition where it is an actual menace to survival…[as in] the great branching antlers of the extinct Irish deer.”

Gould’s experiment was the final nail in a long-forgotten, already decaying coffin.  It was evidence that took down a dying idea that stubbornly eked out a living for many decades.  And yet while the scientific community had learned the new ideas and rejected the old ones, I would beg to differ that the public had been so quick to adapt as well.

Even I, who was a paleo-nut in high school, assumed that the Irish Elk died out due to its impressive antlers.  No one had bothered to correct me that it had a diverse geographical range, or that it was technically a deer, or that its antlers were the right size until I was a graduate student.  I would even go far as to argue that I was unknowingly accepting orthogenetic ideas while learning about biology and evolution.

I should try to get off my soap box before I become too preachy so I’ll end with this.  While writing this article, I was not aware of the orthogenesis hypothesis as I was never taught it before, even with all the biological courses I had taken.  I was taught Lamarckism and other discredited theories but never orthogenesis.  However, I think orthogenesis should be taught in basic biological courses as blooming scientists can learn what evolution is and is not.  They can learn why scientists thought orthogenesis is true and why it was ultimately rejected.  Learning about it can give a better understanding on how life works and why they should not accept this dead hypothesis.

And hey, if teachers were to educate their students about orthogenesis, students might even learn more about the Giant Deer and how, despite its outlandish appearance, it did not go extinct from being too sexy.

If you are interested in the crazy history of the Giant Deer, I recommend you to check out Gould’s “The Misnamed Mistreated and Misunderstood Irish Elk.”  It’s an enthralling read and greatly expands many of the concepts information I touched upon in this article.

 

Bibliography

Gould, Stephen Jay. “Positive allometry of antlers in the “Irish elk”, Megaloceros giganteus.” (1973): 375-376.

Gould, Stephen Jay. “MISNAMED, MISTREATED, AND MISUNDERSTOOD IRISH-ELK.” Natural History 82.3 (1977): 10.

Hughes, Sandrine, et al. “Molecular phylogeny of the extinct giant deer, Megaloceros giganteus.” Molecular phylogenetics and evolution 40.1 (2006): 285-291.

Lister, Adrian M. “The evolution of the giant deer, Megaloceros giganteus (Blumenbach).” Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 112.1‐2 (1994): 65-100.

Lister, A. M., et al. “The phylogenetic position of the ‘giant deer’Megaloceros giganteus.” Nature 438.7069 (2005): 850-853.