Dinosaurs on stage


This video says about itself:

13 November 2014

A behind-the-scenes look at how the cast and crew of Walking – The Arena Spectacular with Dinosaurs brings life-size dinosaurs to life in an theatrical setting.

From Science Friday:

Nov. 13, 2014

How to Build a Dinosaur

by Julie Leibach

The Brachiosaurus lowers its long neck, creased with wrinkles, and briefly surveys the human crowd staring back at it.

“That thing looks so realistic,” says a young voice from the audience.

The dinosaur settles back on its massive haunches and lets out a low bellow, as if saying, “I sure do.”

This dino is a high-tech puppet and one of the stars of Walking With Dinosaurs, a live production that grew out of a BBC television series by the same name and that’s currently on a six-month North American tour.

In the show, the only human character—based on the British biologist Thomas Henry Huxley—time travels through prehistory, starting with the Triassic period. Over the course of two hours, or the theatrical equivalent of 165 million years of evolution, 10 types of dinosaurs make appearances, from the herbivorous Plateosaurus, to the armored Ankylosaurus, to the iconic Tyrannosaurus rex. (See them in action in the SciFri video.)

“We wanted to find some emblematical, representative creatures in each of the three major periods of dinosaur evolution,” says Sonny Tilders, creative director of The Creature Technology Company, which designed and constructed the puppets.

Totaling 20 dinosaurs in all, the creatures are approximately life-size. While the larger ones are motorized, such as the Allosaurus, suit performers embody the smaller ones, including Utahraptors.

Admittedly, this writer’s mouth dropped a little when a curious Liliensternus stepped out on stage early during a show at the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn, New York. Granted, no one’s seen a live dinosaur (unless you count birds), but these puppets evoke a convincing “dino-ness.”

“I’ve worked with gators, crocodiles—all manner of beasties,” says Phil Manning, a professor of natural history at the University of Manchester who was invited to see the show in Northern Ireland about a year ago, where he got up close and personal with one of the T-rexes, “and [the puppet] installed the same fear as an 800-pound gator did in me in Florida a few years ago.”

For inspiration, The Creature Technology Company team pored through scientific and popular science literature to understand, generally, what various dinosaurs might have looked like. They also observed the way large, living animals, such as elephants and giraffes, move.

Constructing the puppets required working “from the inside out,” as Tilders puts it. Autopsy one of the behemoths, and you’ll find architecture somewhat similar to a real animal’s. For starters, the larger puppets have a skeleton made of steel, complete with points of articulation that allow their bodies to move in a way that seems natural.

The dino’s bulk consists of a system of custom-made muscle bags, constructed from netting and filled with styrene beads. “They stretch and contract like real muscles would,” says Tilders, “so you get all this subtle movement that transfers through the creature.”

On top of their bulging muscles, the puppets wear a special skin made of lycra, “but with a trick that I can’t tell you about,” adds Tilders. Hand painting lends a prehistoric veneer.

But for these dinosaurs to really convince audiences, they’ve got to walk like they’re flesh and blood. Indeed, the puppets’ lifelike natures are based largely on the success of a critical illusion: a sense of hefty mass. Many of the dinosaurs we know and love weighed tons, so “every puppet has to look balanced and grounded,” says Tilders, otherwise “we would lose that sense of mass.”

In fact, while the dinosaurs appear to plod, their limbs don’t actually bear weight. Rather, in the case of the larger puppets, a sturdy rod anchors each body to a motorized chassis, shaped like a ship’s anchor and painted to match the floor, and a driver inside steers the creature around the stage. The puppets’ steps are preprogrammed to coincide with the speed and direction of the vehicles’ speed and direction.

The drivers communicate via radio with so-called “voodoo puppeteers,” who stand out of sight in a balcony, using several devices to control multiple aspects of dino dynamism (see the video above). For instance, a puppeteer wearing a robotic arm-like instrument can operate up to 25 axes of mobility, while a colleague manipulating a joystick controls finer movements, such as eye blinking or teeth gnashing, as well as sounds. (Meanwhile, the suit performers control their puppets’ movements and sounds and provide the legwork.)

A system of passive hydraulics lends fluidity to the larger puppets’ movements. “You can actually go up to one of our creatures and grab his nose and push [it] out of the way, and [it’ll] slowly come back to position,” says Tilders. In other words, these aren’t your typical amusement park animatronics that shudder and shake. “That’s probably one of the things that I’m proudest of,” says Tilders.

Paleontological nitpickers might quibble with certain dino details. For instance, the puppets roar, growl, and grunt. But scientists can’t definitively say what sounds real dinosaurs made—if they uttered any at all, according to Lindsay Zanno, a paleontologist at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences who was hired by the show to promote its educational merits. Birds—which Zanno refers to as living dinosaurs—have a “really sophisticated vocalization system,” she says, “but we don’t know how far down the tree that goes.” But, she adds, “how could they not [make sounds] in a show?”

“You will be able to find a pile of paleontologists who I am sure will give you a list as long as your arm on what is ‘wrong’ with the [puppet] reconstructions,” wrote Manning in a separate email. “However, they would generate equally long lists when comparing their very own ‘scientific’ reconstructions with each other.”

Consensus in the paleontological community did inspire an updated look for some of the puppets for their North American tour—feathers. A combination of real and manmade flair, plumes adorn the T-rexes (there are two), the Liliensternus, and the Utahraptors.

While the new ’dos may look a bit kitschy, they’re a nod to our ever-evolving picture of dinosaurs, based on more than 150 years of research.

Perhaps a few audience members will grow up to add their own discoveries. “I always say dinosaurs are the gateway drug to science,” says Manning. “We need more shows out there that inspire kids about science, evolution, and life on earth.”

*This article was updated on November 13, 2014, to reflect the following corrections: An earlier version stated that the human character in the show depicts an Australian archaeologist. The character is actually based on the British biologist Thomas Henry Huxley. The article also stated that the live show covers 180 million years of evolution. It actually covers 165 million years if birds, which make an appearance at the end, aren’t counted. If they are, then it covers 230 million years, according to paleontologist Lindsay Zanno.

Origins of insects and flying


This video from the USA is called Evolution – Part 2 of 7 – Great Transformations (PBS Documentary).

From Wildlife Extra:

Insects were first to fly

Insects were the first type of living creature to develop wings and learn to fly, new research shows.

“Our research shows that insects originated at the same time as the earliest land-based plants, about 480 million years ago,” Director of CSIRO‘s Australian National Insect Collection and one of the authors on the paper David Yeates said.

“Then, about 400 million years ago, ancient ancestors of today’s dragonflies and mayflies were the first to develop wings – giving them the ability to fly long before any other animal could do so.

“This was at about the same time that land-based plants developed height, showing they were able to rapidly adapt to their changing environment.

The findings also confirm that while biodiversity crises led to mass extinction events in many other groups, such as dinosaurs, insects continued to survive and diversify by quickly adapting to new situations and opportunities that arose.

Lead researcher for the study, Professor Bernhard Misof from the Zoological Research Museum Alexander Koenig in Bonn, Germany, said that insects were the most species rich organisms on Earth.

“They are of immense ecological, economic and medical importance and affect our daily lives, from pollinating our crops to vectoring diseases,” Professor Misof said.

“We can only start to understand the enormous species richness and ecological importance of insects with a reliable reconstruction of how they are related.”

See also here.

Birds, dinosaurs, eggs and evolution


This video is called Hundreds of Dinosaur Egg Fossils Found in Spain.

From Wildlife Extra:

Egg shapes could be key to explaining evolution of birds

Research by scientists suggests that bird egg shape could be key in explaining their evolution

Next time you sit down to your breakfast of hard-boiled egg, you might want to take a moment to stop to consider why it is so perfectly ‘egg-shaped’. Evolutionary biologists have been studied [sic] the difference in the eggs of modern day birds compared to those of their extinct relatives, Theropod dinosaurs. The difference in their shape could be the key to explaining why some birds were able to survive the extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs.

Researchers from University of Lincoln examined eggshells looking at the transition of Theropods into birds based on fossil records and studies of modern birds.

Their findings suggest that the early birds from 252 to 66 million years ago laid eggs that had different shapes to those of modern birds. This might suggest that embryonic development was different in the earliest birds, so could have implications for how some birds survived while the dinosaurs perished.

The author of the study was Dr Charles Deeming of Lincoln’s School of Life Sciences. He explains, “These results indicate that egg shape can be used to distinguish between different types of egg-laying vertebrates. More importantly they suggest Mesozoic bird eggs differ significantly from modern day bird eggs, but more recently extinct Cenozoic birds do not. This suggests that the range of egg shapes in modern birds had already been attained in the Cenozoic.”

The origin of the amniotic egg, which is an egg that can survive out of water, is one of the key adaptions underpinning the vertebrates’ transition from sea to land over 300 million years ago.

Dr Deeming suggests that the different egg shape of birds both past and present could be associated with different nesting behaviours or incubation methods, but points out that not much research has been carried out into this due to insufficient fossil data. “We hope that future discoveries of associated fossil eggs and skeletons will help refine the general conclusions of this work,” he says.

Fossil giant tortoise discovery in Madrid, Spain


This video is called Evolution of the Turtle Shell (Illustrated).

From daily The Guardian in Britain:

Researchers discover new genus of giant tortoise

Titanochelon was 2 metres long and roamed the ‘streets of Madrid’ between 20m and 2m years ago, study finds

Ashifa Kassam in Madrid

Thursday 6 November 2014 18.23 GMT

These days it is dominated by shops and throngs of people. But millions of years ago, Madrid’s Gran Via belonged to herds of 2-metre-long tortoises.

That’s the conclusion of a study published by Spanish and Greek researchers in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society. Wrapping up a 10-year study, researchers describe a genus of giant tortoises, previously unknown to science, that lived in Europe and western Asia between 20m and 2m years ago.

“We’re not just talking about any tortoise; this is the largest that lived in Europe, whose size likely exceeded that of the tortoises living today in the Galapagos Islands,” said researcher Adán Pérez-García, of Spain’s National University of Distance Education and the University of Lisbon.

The Titanochelon – a name inspired by their titanic size – was short, wide and strong, and its large shell was covered with ossified scales for protection, he said.

Spanish palaeontologists hinted at the existence of the Titanochelon genus in the 1920s, but the civil war ended their research. Pérez-García and his team picked up where they left off, assuming that most of the material had disappeared.

But they found a wealth of fossils in Madrid’s National Museum of Natural Sciences, most of which had been untouched since the war. “The fossils were broken, samples were mixed up, it wasn’t clear where the material had come from,” he said. “But that’s what happens in a war. At least the material was there.”

The material turned out to be some of the best ever found of giant tortoises in Europe, said Pérez-García, citing the discovery of near-complete skeletons. “It allows us to imagine, with great precision, how millions of years ago, herds of giant tortoises wandered around what is now Gran Via.”

Stegosaurus killed allosaurus, 147 million years ago


This video says about itself:

The Smell of Prey – Walking With Dinosaurs – BBC

An insight into the hunting habits of one of the most successful breeds of Dinosaur, the Allosaurus.

From Science News:

Stegosaurus landed a low blow in dino brawl

Fossil shows that allosaurus was maimed by tail spike attack

Thomas Sumner

3:19pm, October 22, 2014

VANCOUVER — In a story worthy of CSI: Jurassic Period, researchers have solved the mystery of what killed a predatory allosaurus dinosaur 147 million years ago.

The allosaurus fossil contains a circular hole in its pelvis flanked by a well-preserved, fist-sized abscess where the infected wound spread. The only murder weapon around that time that would create the circular hole is a tail spike on a stegosaurus.

The plant-eating dinosaur used its flexible body to whip its barbed tail into the allosaurus’s crotch during a fight, proposed paleontologist Robert Bakker of the Houston Museum of Natural Science on October 21 at the Geological Society of America‘s annual meeting. The allosaurus didn’t die right away, probably limping for weeks expelling pus, Bakker said.

The research could help scientists learn the fighting styles of the two dinos and reconstruct how the two species might have interacted.

Extinct giant kangaroos, new research


This music video is called Saint Saens: Carnival of the Animals~Kangourous (Kangaroos).

From daily The Independent in Britain:

The mystery of the extinct giant kangaroo is solved – it didn’t hop

The giant Sthenurus – dead for 30,000 years – was three times the size of the modern-day kangaroo

Steve Connor, science editor

Wednesday 15 October 2014

It looked like something out of the pages of Alice in Wonderland but this giant, short-faced kangaroo hid another peculiar characteristic down its pouch – it walked rather than hopped on its hind legs.

The extinct marsupial, which was nearly three times bigger than the largest living kangaroos, died out 30,000 years ago, but only now have scientists been able to tie its locomotion down.

With a leap of the imagination, the researchers were able to visualise how the giant Sthenurus kangaroo, which weighed up to 240kg, moved around by putting one foot in front of another rather than hopping on both legs.

Bipedal hopping is a quintessential feature of kangaroo locomotion, but the Sthenurine group of extinct ‘roos was clearly made for walking, according to Christine Janis of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, who led the study published in the on-line journal PlosOne.

“When I first saw a mounted skeleton of a Sthenurine I was struck by how different it was in the back end to modern kangaroos, despite the superficial similarity of long hind legs,” Dr Janis said.

“My work emphasises that the large modern kangaroos are highly specialized in their anatomy for hopping in comparison with other large extinct kangaroos,” she said.

“Sthenurines almost certainly did hop, except perhaps for the very largest ones. The issue is that their anatomy is also suggestive of bipedal walking, which is the unexpected issue here,” she added.

Modern kangaroos use hopping to move around at speed but when moving slowly they walk mostly on all fours, using their massive tails as support – so-called “pentapedal” locomotion.

The extinct Sthenurus, however, must have walked on its hind legs because its anatomy does not fit with the notion of hopping or pentapedal locomotion, Dr Janis said. For a start, it had “robust”, heavier bones compared with the more slender anatomy of modern kangaroos, which would have made hopping hazardous.

“If it is not possible in terms of biomechanics to hop at very slow speeds, particularly if you are a big animal, and you cannot easily do pentapedal locomotion, then what do you have left? You’ve got to move somehow,” Dr Janis said.

An analysis of the giant kangaroo’s anatomy suggests it was well suited to bearing the animal’s entire weight on one leg, which is crucial for bipedal walking. Its ankle bone, for instance, had a flange over the back joint to provide extra support – something missing in modern kangaroos.

Sthenurus has proportionately bigger hip and knee joints than today’s kangaroos and the shape of its pelvis – broad and flared – suggested that it had large gluteal muscles in is backside, which would have allowed it to balance on one leg as it moved the other leg forward, Dr Janis said.

“I think that they originally took this up as an alternative slow gait to the way that other kangaroos move slowly on all fours using their tail to propel their hind legs past their front legs [because] hopping is biomechanically impossible at very slow speeds,” Dr Janis said.

“This requires a flexible back and supporting their weight on their hands, whereas sthenurines had a stiff back and specialized hands for feeding. So they had this unique walking gait,” she said.

Sthenurine kangaroos died out around the same time that modern humans arrived in Australia and began to spread across the continent, suggesting that their demise may have had something to do with human hunting.

Walking rather than hopping would have been a slower and less efficient means of moving fast, which may have been one of the reasons by the giant, walking kangaroo went extinct, leaving their hopping cousins to fill the void, Dr Janis explained.