Monday, September 27, 2010

New Horned Dinosaurs!

Thanks to a recent spate of papers describing new species, 2010 has been unofficially dubbed “the year of horned dinosaurs.” This past week, my colleagues (Mark Loewen, Andrew Farke, Eric Roberts, Joshua Smith, Catherine Forster, and Alan Titus) and I added two more to the list, formally announcing a pair of amazing ceratopsids discovered in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, southern Utah. The giant plant-eaters were inhabitants of the “lost continent” of Laramidia, formed when a shallow sea flooded the central region of North America, isolating eastern and western portions of the continent for about 27 million years during the Late Cretaceous Period. The newly discovered dinosaurs, close relatives of the famous Triceratops, were announced in PLoS ONE, the online open-access journal produced by the Public Library of Science.

The bigger of the two new dinosaurs, with a skull 2.3 meters (about 7 feet) long, is Utahceratops gettyi. The first part of the name combines the state of origin with ceratops, Greek for “horned face.” The second part of the name refers to Mike Getty, paleontology collections manager at the Utah Museum of Natural History and the discoverer of this animal. Mike has been the driving force behind the UMNH paleo field program, and it is a great pleasure to be able to honor him in this way. In addition to a large horn over the nose, Utahceratops has short and blunt eye horns that project strongly to the side rather than upward, much more like the horns of modern bison than those of Triceratops or other ceratopsians.

Second of the new species is Kosmoceratops richardsoni. Here, the first part of the name refers to kosmos, Latin for “ornate,” and ceratops, once again meaning “horned face.” The latter part of the name honors Scott Richardson, the volunteer who discovered two skulls of this animal. In contrast to most scientific disciplines, volunteers make a major, fundamental contribution to paleontology, helping to find and excavate specimens, prepare and curate them in museum collections, and sometimes do the research. Scott Richardson has been a one-man fossil-finding powerhouse in GSENM, discovering stunning new specimens for about a decade.

Like Utahceratops, Kosmoceratops has sideways oriented eye horns, although much longer and more pointed. In all, Kosmoceratops possesses a total of 15 horns—one over the nose, one atop each eye, one at the tip of each cheek bone, and ten across the rear margin of the bony frill—making it the most ornate-headed dinosaur known. This ancient beast is one of the most amazing animals known, with a huge skull decorated with an assortment of bony bells and whistles. For obvious reasons, we avoided use of the term “horniest dinosaur” as a descriptor when announcing this animal. The media, it seems, had no such reluctance and immediately jumped on the opportunity.

Much speculation has ensued about the function of ceratopsian horns and frills, from fighting off predators to recognizing other members of the same species or controlling body temperature. Nevertheless, the dominant—and, to my mind, most likely—hypothesis is that these features functioned first and foremost to enhance reproductive success. Certainly most of these exaggerated bone structures of dinosaurs—including hooks, horns, crests, bosses, and spikes—would have made poor weapons to fend off predators. It’s far more probable that they were used to intimidate or do battle with rivals of the same sex, as well as to attract individuals of the opposite sex. Best we can tell, both males and female ceratopsid dinosaurs had horns. But this relative lack of sexual differences does not take away from the mate competition hypothesis; females of large-bodied (> 300 kg), gregarious, open-living mammals alive today, like bison and caribou, also tend to have headgear similar to that of males, likely to reduce the risk of being preferentially selected by predators.

The dinosaurs were discovered in sediments of the Kaiparowits Formation within Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. GSENM encompasses almost two million acres of high desert terrain in south-central Utah. This vast and rugged region, part of the National Landscape Conservation System administered by the Bureau of Land Management, was the last major area in the lower 48 states to be formally mapped by cartographers. Today GSENM is the largest national monument in the United States, and now of the country’s last great, largely unexplored dinosaur boneyards.
For most of the Late Cretaceous, exceptionally high sea levels flooded the low-lying portions of several continents around the world. In North America, a warm, shallow sea called the Western Interior Seaway extended from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, subdividing the continent into eastern and western landmasses, known as Appalachia and Laramidia, respectively. Whereas little is known of the plants and animals that lived on Appalachia, the rocks of Laramidia exposed in the Western Interior of North America have generated a plethora of dinosaur remains. Laramidia was less than one-third the size of present day North America, approximating the area of Australia.

Most known Laramidian dinosaurs were concentrated in a narrow belt of plains sandwiched between the seaway to the east and mountains to the west. Today, thanks to an abundant fossil record and more than a century of collecting by paleontologists, Laramidia is the best known major landmass for the entire Age of Dinosaurs, with dig sites spanning from Alaska to Mexico. Utah was located in the southern part of Laramidia, which has yielded far fewer dinosaur remains than the fossil-rich north. The world of dinosaurs was much warmer than the present day; Utahceratops and Kosmoceratops lived in a subtropical swampy environment about 100 km from the seaway. It’s strange to contemplate giant dinosaurs making a living in a place that shares much in common with a Louisiana swamp, but that’s the emerging picture.

Beginning in the 1960’s, paleontologists began to notice that the same major groups of dinosaurs seemed to be present all over this Late Cretaceous landmass, but different species of these groups occurred in the north (for example, Alberta and Montana) than in the south (New Mexico and Texas). This finding of “dinosaur provincialism” was very puzzling, given the giant body sizes of many of the dinosaurs together with the diminutive dimensions of Laramidia. Currently, there are five giant (rhino-to-elephant-sized) mammals on the entire continent of Africa. Seventy-six million years ago, there may have been more than two dozen giant dinosaurs living on a landmass about one-quarter that size. How could so many different varieties of giant animals have co-existed on such a small “island continent?” One option is that there was a greater abundance of food during the Cretaceous. Another is that dinosaurs did not need to eat as much, perhaps because of slower metabolic rates intermediate between those of modern day lizards and crocodiles on the one hand, and mammals and birds on the other. Whatever the factors permitted the presence of so many dinosaurs, it appears that some kind of barrier near the latitude of northern Utah and Colorado limited the exchange of dinosaur species north and south. Possibilities include physical barriers such as mountains or, more likely, climatic barriers that resulted in distinct northern and southern plant communities. Testing of these ideas have been severely hampered by a dearth of dinosaurs from the southern part of Laramidia. The new fossils from GSENM are now filling that major gap.

During the past decade, crews from the University of Utah and several partner institutions (e.g., the Utah Geologic Survey, the Raymond Alf Museum of Paleontology, and the Bureau of Land Management) have unearthed a new assemblage of more than a dozen dinosaurs in GSENM. In addition to Utahceratops and Kosmoceratops, the collection includes a variety of other plant-eating dinosaurs—among them duck-billed hadrosaurs, armored ankylosaurs, and dome-headed pachycephalosaurs—together with carnivorous dinosaurs great and small, from “raptor-like” predators to mega-sized tyrannosaurs (not T. rex but rather its smaller-bodied relatives). Also recovered have been fossil plants, insect traces, clams, fishes, amphibians, lizards, turtles, crocodiles, and mammals, offering a direct glimpse into this entire ancient ecosystem. Most remarkable of all is that virtually every identifiable dinosaur variety found in GSENM turns out to be new to science, offering dramatic confirmation of the dinosaur provincialism hypothesis. Previously, our team has described two other dinosaurs from GSENM: the giant duck-billed hadrosaur Gryposaurus monumentensis and the raptor-like theropod Hagryphus giganteus. Several other animals are still under study, and will be announced in the future.

Without doubt, however, many more dinosaurs remain to be unearthed in the Western Interior of North America, once part of the island continent of Laramidia. Equally certain is the fact that some of those dinosaurs will be found within the remote canyons and badlands of GSENM. So stay tuned! (Oh, and for any fans of Dinosaur Train out there, plans are to feature Kosmoceratops early in the second season of episodes!)

Acknowledgements: I would like to express sincere thanks to the Bureau of Land Management and to the National Science Foundation, the pair of federal organizations that supplied the bulk of the funding for this project. Thanks also to the Utah Museum of Natural History for a decade of devoted support, and to all the volunteers and students who worked on this project.

Image Credits:
All dinosaur artwork, both skull images and fleshed out head reconstructions, were skillfully executed by our Italian colleague and friend, Lukas Panzarin. Reconstruction of Late Cretaceous North America by Ron Blakey (

Additional Materials:
Check out the video that describes this story.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Cosmological Concerns

The word “cosmology” has at least two meanings. One is strictly scientific: “The scientific study of the origin, evolution, and structure of the universe.”[1] The second is cultural: “A system of beliefs that seeks to describe or explain the origin and structure of the universe.”[2] Whereas cosmology in the first sense is an intellectual pursuit that aims to unravel the laws that govern the physical universe, in the latter sense it is a wisdom tradition that seeks insights not only through science but also via religion, art, and philosophy.[3] Scientific cosmologists make observations, gather facts, and advance theories, with a focus on the celestial. Conversely, the aim of cultural cosmology is much more down to Earth, no less than the transformation of the aesthetic, affective, and moral dimensions of being human. In short, although both cosmological forms may attempt to explain the origins of stars, planets, and other celestial phenomena, the latter mode seeks to apply this understanding in constructing a framework for living.

For more than 99% of human history, all cosmology was of the cultural variety, and every culture had its own cosmological origin story that informed their daily life. Only with the advent of modernism was the practice of cosmology split into two spheres. The scientific sphere became the realm of objective facts, whereas the religious sphere was deemed the realm of subjective meaning. The persistent tragedy of this split is that the two spheres became isolated from each other. Whereas science (and later, science education) divorced itself from meaning and purpose, the religious search for meaning and value in the universe was no longer informed by direct reference to our changing understanding of the universe! Even today, when conducted by major religious traditions, this search generally occurs within the context of a pre-scientific cosmos dominated by classical scriptures.

Meanwhile, science has radically and irrevocably changed our conception of who we are and how we fit into the scheme of things. For about four centuries now, we have known that the Earth revolves around the sun instead of the opposite. One and a half centuries have passed since we came to understand that all life on this planet, including us, shares common ancestry, evolving from single-celled lifeforms over unfathomable spans of time. Only during the past century, a single human lifetime, have we learned that we live in a galaxy of billions of stars, in turn merely one of billions of galaxies. For less than half a century have we realized that the earth’s surface consists of a dozen or so crustal plates that move about, bumping into each other before being resorbed into the planet’s interior. At about the same time, astronomers discovered that we are constantly bombarded with faint radiation that has traveled 14 billion years from the cataclysmic birth of the universe. And only in the past decade have biologists determined that the bacterial cells on and in our bodies outnumber human cells by a factor of about 10 to 1, which means that each of us is walking colony of trillions of lifeforms rather than an isolated self of one.

Most profoundly, science has taught us that we are living in a dynamic, evolutionary universe. We now speak of the origin and evolution of particles, galaxies, stars, planets, life, and culture. It is more than poetry to claim that we humans, offspring of this evolutionary process, are the universe becoming conscious of itself. Thus, it’s horribly ironic that we, who have arguably the most accurate understanding of the history of the cosmos, are members of the first culture to lack a cosmology.

Indeed few of us today have even the most meager comprehension of the astounding insights generated by science. Why have we failed to communicate these profound ideas more broadly? A major obstacle to dissemination is that the deepest scientific insights tend to be counterintuitive. Some of the most brilliant minds of recent history have struggled mightily with notions that scientists now take for granted. (Take, for example, Albert Einstein’s famous refusal to initially accept his own finding that the universe is expanding.) So it should come as no surprise that it requires considerable work to garner meaning from science. To grossly understate matters, it’s not easy to grasp intellectually, let alone bodily or emotionally, that we are chunks of starstuff living on the side of a giant, spherical rock hurtling through space at thousands of miles an hour.

Nevertheless, if we are to address the sustainability crisis and shift the course of civilization so as to come into harmony with nonhuman nature, an entirely new worldview is required, one that reinserts humanity inside nature. This moment in history demands no less than a transformation of what it means to be human.[4] If this pressing transformation is to occur, we must reunite the scientific and religious spheres of cosmology in order to establish a revitalized sense of meaning and purpose based upon our best understanding of the cosmos. On the one hand, success will depend on religions embracing the new view of the universe revealed by science. On the other, science must not shy away from its central role in defining who we are and where we come from, presenting this story in a grand narrative rather than a meaningless staccato of “facts.”

Critical to this endeavor will be the transformation of education. One legacy of the scientific enterprise has been the minimizing of subjective experiences in favor of objective observations. Only the latter have been considered “real,” worthy of our attention and value. At present, science education strictly adheres to its modernist heritage, concerning itself almost solely with quantifiable facts. If we are to learn to live sustainably in this world, facts alone are not enough. We must revamp science education to address the aesthetic and affective dimensions so long avoided. I see no reason why science learning cannot foster a vivid sense of mystery, wonder, and awe.

In particular, if science is to inform the meaning of our lives, we must experience key concepts bodily. Among other things, this will require that we venture outside classrooms into natural settings. Scientific ideas become meaningful when we experience and reflect upon them directly with multiple senses. An understanding of nature must enter our bodies through our pores as well as our minds. Alongside ecological literacy, or ecoliteracy[5], we must foster evolutionary literacy, or evoliteracy—that is, an understanding of the Epic of Evolution, the story of the Big Bang to the present day[6].

Let me be clear. I am not arguing that we change the way we do science, but rather the way we teach science. Nor am I advocating that humanity embrace a single, global cosmology. The beauty of the Epic of Evolution is that it allows for an endless variety of interpretations, with and without God(s). So every culture can still fashion its own unique cosmology, informed by its own unique historical, cultural, and ecological context.

I will explore experiential education in a future post, discussing the contributions of John Dewey and others. For the moment, suffice it to say that the acquisition of knowledge must be accompanied by an inner transformation.[3] Only then can we hope to raise a generation that regards the world as a meaningful place worthy of respect and nurturing. Only then can we establish new, more accurate cosmologies that reflect what we actually know of the universe. Only then can we begin the move toward a new, more viable form of human existence.

1. The American Heritage® Science Dictionary. Copyright © 2002. Published by Houghton Mifflin.
2. The American Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition. Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
3. Swimme, B. 1996. The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos: Humanity and the New Story. Orbis, New York, 115 pp.
4. Berry, T. 1999. The Great Work: Our Way into the Future. Bell Tower, New York, 242 pp.
5. Stone, M. K. and Z. Barlow (eds.). 2005. Ecological Literacy: Educating our Children for a Sustainable World. University of California Press, Berkeley, 275 pp.
6. Chaisson, E. 2006. Epic of Evolution: Seven Ages of the Cosmos. Columbia University Press, New York, 479 pp.

All images courtesy of National Geographic: