‘Mammoth Weevil’ Found Preserved in Mid-Cretaceous Amber

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Rhamphophorus legalovii. Image credit: Poinar & Brown, doi: 10.1016/j.cretres.2021.104948.

A fossilized long-bodied weevil found in mid-Cretaceous amber from northern Myanmar represents a new tribe, genus and species and dates back some 100 million years.

Weevils are plant-eating beetles known for their elongated snouts. They are usually small, less than 6 mm in length, and herbivorous.

Over 97,000 species of weevils are currently recognized. Well-known North American species are the boll weevil that attacks cotton, the alfalfa weevil and the strawberry root weevil.

Weevils with straight antennae are categorized as primitive weevils, and those whose antennae feature an elbow-like bend are known as true weevils.

The new species, named Rhamphophorus legalovii, is a primitive weevil with an 11-segment antenna.

“We call the male specimen a ‘mammoth weevil’ because of its ‘monstrous trunk’ — also known as the weevil’s rostrum or beak,” said Professor George Poinar Jr., a researcher in the Department of Integrative Biology at Oregon State University.

Rhamphophorus legalovii probably wielded its trunk as a weapon while in combat with other males over females.”

Rhamphophorus legalovii was is 5.5 mm long, almost half of which is head and rostrum. It likely lived on the ground rather than in trees.

“It had extended middle foot segments that might have increased its ability to grasp plant surfaces or better reach its foes during fights for females. It would be interesting to know if females also had this feature,” Professor Poinar said.

Rhamphophorus legalovii belongs to the sub-family Cimberidinae, consisting of particularly long-nosed weevils whose physical characteristics are developed like highly specialized tools.

Of the 70 known species of Cimberidinae, many are sexually dimorphic — males and females look quite different from one another. Thus the female of Rhamphophorus legalovii probably had a much shorter rostrum.

Professor Poinar and his colleague, Alex Brown, placed the new species in the newly-established tribe Rhamphophorini in the family Nemonychidae, whose members are known as pine flower weevils.

“The story of the family’s ancient history is told by species in Mesozoic amber deposits, although no extinct or extant species with such elongated rostrums are known,”

“The larvae and adults of many nemonychids eat pollen from developing male cones of pines and other conifers.”

paper on the findings was published in the journal Cretaceous Research.


George Poinar Jr. & Alex E. Brown. 2021. A new tribe, genus and species of weevil, Rhamphophorus legalovii gen. et sp. nov., (Coleoptera, Nemonychidae, Rhamphophorini tribe nov.) in mid-Cretaceous Burmese amber. Cretaceous Research 127: 104948; doi: 10.1016/j.cretres.2021.104948


Paleontologists Digitally Reconstruct Skull of Whatcheeria deltae

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Digital recreation of the skull of Whatcheeria deltae. Image credit: James Rawson / Laura Porro / Elizabeth Martin-Silverstone / Emily Rayfield.

Using cutting-edge techniques, paleontologists have produced the first complete 3D skull reconstruction of a primitive tetrapod called Whatcheeria deltae.

Whatcheeria deltae lived in what is now Iowa, the United States, some 340 million years ago (Early Carboniferous period).

First described in 1995, the animal was up to 2 m (6.6 feet) in length including the tail.

Whatcheeria deltae is among the earliest-branching limbed tetrapods represented by multiple near-complete specimens, making it an important taxon in understanding the vertebrate water-to-land transition,” said University of Bristol researcher James Rawson and colleagues.

The fossils of Whatcheeria deltae were originally squashed flat after being buried by mud at the bottom of an ancient swamp, but the paleontologists were able to use computational methods to restore the bones to their original arrangement.

The fossils were put through a CT scanner to create exact digital copies, and software was used to separate each bone from the surrounding rock.

These digital bones were then repaired and reassembled to produce a 3D model of the skull as it would have appeared while the animal was alive.

The researchers found that Whatcheeria deltae possessed a tall and narrow skull quite unlike many other early tetrapods that were alive at the time.

“Most early tetrapods had very flat heads which might hint that Whatcheeria deltae was feeding in a slightly different way to its relatives, so we decided to look at the way the skull bones were connected to investigate further,” Dr. Rawson said.

By tracing the connecting edges of the skull bones, known as sutures, the scientists were able to figure out how this animal tackled its prey.

“We found that the skull of Whatcheeria deltae would have made it well-adapted to delivering powerful bites using its large fangs,” said University of Bristol’s Professor Emily Rayfield.

“There are a few types of sutures that connect skull bones together and they all respond differently to various types of force,” added Dr. Laura Porro from the University of Bristol and University College London.

“Some are better at dealing with compression, some can handle more tension, twisting and so on.”

“By mapping these suture types across the skull, we can predict what forces were acting on it and what type of feeding may have caused those forces.”

The authors found that the snout of Whatcheeria deltae had lots of overlapping sutures to resist twisting forces from struggling prey, while the back of the skull was more solidly connected to resist compression during biting.

“Although this animal was still probably doing most of its hunting in the water, a bit like a modern crocodilian, we’re starting to see the sorts of adaptations that enabled later tetrapods to feed more efficiently on land,” Rawson said.

The team’s paper was published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.


James R.G. Rawson et al. Osteology and digital reconstruction of the skull of the early tetrapod Whatcheeria deltaeJournal of Vertebrate Paleontology, published online July 22, 2021; doi: 10.1080/02724634.2021.1927749


Why Did Birds Survive Extinction While Dinosaurs Died Out?

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

A transparent 3D model of the skull and brain of Ichthyornis. Credit: Christopher Torres / University of Texas at Austin

  • A new study looked at a well-preserved fossil of an Ichthyornis that lived about 70 million years ago. 
  • The scientists compared the brain of the ancient bird to that of modern birds. 
  • Modern birds' brains are structurally different, which might have allowed them to survive the mass extinction that killed the dinosaurs.

That beautiful singing bird on your fence is a descendent of dinosaurs. As all dinosaurs have gone extinct, what allowed the birds to adapt and survive? New research published in Science Advances points to a special feature of birds’ brains that could explain why they are still with us today.

Are birds dinosaurs?

Bird origins have been traced to a mostly meat-eating group of two-legged dinosaurs known as theropods (“beast-footed”) that lived about 231 million years ago in the Triassic Period. The mighty Tyrannosaurus rex also belonged to that group. Theropods and modern birds share a few traits in common, such as feathers and the ability to lay eggs. Of course, one big difference is flight, which is the defining characteristic of birds.

And just like humans are part of a larger group (mammals) with whom we share key characteristics, birds too are part of a larger group that includes dinosaurs.

“Birds are living dinosaurs, just as we are mammals,” explained the study’s co-author paleontologist Julia Clarke of the University of Texas at Austin in a 2020 interview. “They’re firmly nested in that one part of the dinosaur tree,” she stated. “All of the species of birds we have today are descendants of one lineage of dinosaur: the theropod dinosaurs.”

Most birds are much smaller than dinosaurs, so researchers believe that a process of miniaturization started to take place about 200 million years ago. As discussed in Scientific American, coelurosaurs — the subgroup of theropods that resulted in modern birds — began getting smaller and smaller due to an intense evolutionary process that favored smaller animals rather than larger ones.

Differences in brain shapes likely influenced the survival of birds during the mass extinction that killed off non-avian dinosaurs. Credit: Christopher Torres / The University of Texas at Austin

The fossil discovery

In the current study, a fossil from about 70 million years ago may help explain the survival of birds. The fossil is a nearly complete skull belonging to a bird named Ichthyornis, which lived in the late Cretaceous period in what is now Kansas. Ichthyornis had characteristics resembling both birds and dinosaurs. For instance, its jaws were full of teeth, yet it had a beak. The well-preserved nature of the skull allowed scientists to compare the prehistoric bird’s brain to those of birds today.

“Living birds have brains more complex than any known animals except mammals,” said lead researcher Christopher Torres. “This new fossil finally lets us test the idea that those brains played a major role in their survival.”

The phases of the evolving avian brain shape. Credit: Christopher Torres / The University of Texas at Austin

Adaptable brains

The researchers used CT-imaging data to make a 3D replica of the bird’s brain, known as an endocast. This allowed them to make comparisons to endocasts of various living birds and their dinosaur ancestors.

Their research revealed that Ichthyornis‘ brain was more similar to those of dinosaurs than to those of modern birds. In particular, the cerebral hemispheres — the area of the brain responsible for higher cognitive functions like thought and emotion in humans — of Ichthyornis‘ brain were much smaller than those found in birds today.

Different brains may have helped birds survive the mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs. “If a feature of the brain affected survivorship, we would expect it to be present in the survivors but absent in the casualties, like Ichthyornis,” said Torres. “That’s exactly what we see here.


Dinosaur-Killing Chicxulub Asteroid Came from Outer Part of Main Belt, Study Suggests

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Ankylosaurus magniventris, a large armored dinosaur species, witnesses the impact of an asteroid, falling on the Yucatan peninsula 66 million years ago. Image credit: Fabio Manucci.

A team of planetary scientists from the Department of Space Studies at the Southwest Research Institute has combined computer models of asteroid evolution with observations of known asteroids to investigate the frequency of so-called Chicxulub events.

At the end of the Cretaceous period, about 66 million years ago, a 10-km impactor crashed into Earth near the site of the small town of Chicxulub in what is now Mexico.

The impact unleashed an incredible amount of climate-changing gases into the atmosphere, triggering a chain of events that led to the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs and 75% of life on the planet.

Over the last several decades, much has been learned about the Chicxulub event, but every advance has led to new questions.

“Two critical ones still unanswered are: ‘What was the source of the impactor?’ and ‘How often did such impact events occur on Earth in the past?’” said Dr. William Bottke, co-author of the study.

The Chicxulub impactor was similar to the carbonaceous chondrite class of meteorites, some of the most pristine materials in the Solar System.

Curiously, while carbonaceous chondrites are common among the many large bodies that approach the Earth, none today are close to the sizes needed to produce the Chicxulub impact with any kind of reasonable probability.

“We decided to look for where the siblings of the Chicxulub impactor might be hiding,” said Dr. David Nesvorný, lead author of the study.

The researchers used computer models that track how objects escape the main asteroid belt, a zone of small bodies located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

Over eons, thermal forces allow these objects to drift into dynamical ‘escape hatches’ where the gravitational kicks of the planets can push them into orbits nearing Earth.

Using NASA’s Pleaides Supercomputer, they followed 130,000 model asteroids evolving in this slow, steady manner for hundreds of millions of years.

Particular attention was given to asteroids located in the outer half of the asteroid belt, the part that is furthest from the Sun.

To their surprise, the scientists found that 10-km-wide asteroids from this region strike the Earth at least 10 times more often than previously calculated.

“This result is intriguing not only because the outer half of the asteroid belt is home to large numbers of carbonaceous chondrite impactors, but also because the team’s simulations can, for the first time, reproduce the orbits of large asteroids on the verge of approaching Earth,” said Dr. Simone Marchi, co-author of the study.

“Our explanation for the source of the Chicxulub impactor fits in beautifully with what we already know about how asteroids evolve.”

Overall, the authors found that 10-km-wide asteroids hit the Earth once every 250 million years on average, a timescale that yields reasonable odds that the Chicxulub crater occurred 66 million years ago.

Moreover, nearly half of impacts were from carbonaceous chondrites, a good match with what is known about the Chicxulub impactor.

“This work will help us better understand the nature of the Chicxulub impact, while also telling us where other large impactors from Earth’s deep past might have originated,” Dr. Nesvorný said.

The findings appear in the journal Icarus.


David Nesvorný et al. 2021. Dark primitive asteroids account for a large share of K/Pg-scale impacts on the Earth. Icarus 368: 114621; doi: 10.1016/j.icarus.2021.114621


Most Bizarre Dinosaur Movies From Around The World

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Most movie fans can name all the best dinosaur movies without needing a prompt: the "Jurassic Park" franchise, the 1933 and 2005 versions of "King Kong," and even "One Million Years B.C." and "The Valley of Gwangi," both featuring groundbreaking stop motion animation by the legendary Ray Harryhausen. They may even cite cult favorites, like Roger Corman's gonzo "Carnosaur," or kid-friendly titles like "Walking with Dinosaurs" and "The Good Dinosaur."

That list represents only a small faction of the dinosaur movies that have been made since the dawn of motion pictures. It doesn't include "mockbusters" like The Asylum's "Triassic World," '50s sci-fi features like "Lost Continent," and the enjoyable if threadbare UK fantasy "The Land That Time Forgot" from 1973. But again, that lineup barely scratches the surface of dino cinema. There are also countless Cretaceous features made in Europe, Asia, and all points on the globe, as well as ultra-low-budget American titles seen only by the most dedicated movie archaeologists. Following is a list of the strangest saurian flicks from around the world.

Spoilers are sure to follow.

Legend of Dinosaurs and Monster Birds is kaiju on a budget

In the 1977 Japanese fantasy-horror film "Legend of Dinosaurs and Monster Birds," the simultaneous discovery of fossilized eggs and a hungry lake monster near Mount Fuji prompts an investigation by the least capable people possible — namely, a dad-obsessed, woman-hating geologist, his constantly screaming ex-girlfriend, and another woman whose primary role is to also scream with abandon. Their haphazard research results in the death of nearly everyone they encounter, from the secondary screaming woman to the entire audience at a lakeside country festival (guns with hair triggers and depth charges don't mix) and finally, the scientist and long-suffering ex themselves, though this last element is left to the audience's imagination. Large puppets meant to represent an aquatic creature — though not a dinosaur — and a flying reptile (also not a dinosaur, nor a monster bird) are tangentially involved.

"Legend" is a shameless "Jaws" steal from Japan's Toei Company, which found considerable success during its long history with ghost stories and tokusatsu like the "Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot" and "Super Sentai"/"Power Rangers" series. It was not particularly adept at kaiju films, as this feature clearly indicates, though attempts here to cover up that deficiency with copious gore and monster-on-human action — along with a tone-deaf disco score – provide enough laughs or quizzical reactions to obfuscate its shortcomings.

No, World of Wonders is not a '90s PC game

As the advertising for this Tamil-language feature noted with great insistence, 2012's "Adhisaya Ulagam" ("World of Wonders") was India's first dinosaur movie in 3-D, which is perhaps the only superlative that's applicable to the film. A nominal kids' adventure which sends a pair of bratty pre-teens and their dotty scientist grandfather (comic actor Livingston) back to prehistoric times courtesy of his experimental time machine, "World of Wonders" announced its problems early with the introduction of the grandfather's sidekick, a talking dog rendered in computer animation that wouldn't have passed muster in a mid-priced laptop game from the late '90s.

Things get progressively worse with the arrival of various dinosaur species, which stiffly roar and stomp (and consume each other) while the three leads gamely go through the motions of seeming to interact with their CGI co-stars via shoddy green screen. The 3-D effects are relegated to objects hurled at the viewer, much as it was a half-century before when 3-D was still a novelty. Critical reaction to "World of Wonders" seems to vary from disbelief to dazed acceptance.

Dinosaur from the Deep: backyard moviemaking at its weirdest

In the distant future of "Dinosaur from the Deep" — the year 2004 — the death penalty has been outlawed. So the answer for punishing a notorious criminal is to send him into the past, when capital punishment remains an option! As a cost-saving measure, the portly, balding bad guy carpools with a scientific research team (led by French exploitation director Jean Rollin) to the prehistoric past, which goes completely awry. He flees into the Jurassic landscape, requiring the scientists to track him down while being stalked by various dinosaurs.

Sounds pretty good, or at least like bad fun, but that, friends, is where you would be wrong. 1993's "Dinosaur from the Deep" is one of several amateur films made by French magazine publisher and comic/video store owner Norbert Moutier, whose understanding of the most rudimentary filmmaking techniques can be charitably described as non-existent. Think of the crummiest backyard movie you've ever seen (or made) — Moutier's directorial capabilities are on par, if not worse. Scenes run on forever, change from day to night within a single edit, and are frequently out of focus or framing objects in the least appealing way.

Moutier's mix of rubber toys, crude, herky-jerky clay models, and hand puppets inspire dropped jaws not only for their ineptitude, but for how much screen time they're afforded. Astonishingly, "Dinosaur from the Deep" isn't Moutier's only film: he also made slasher movies ("Mad Mutilator") and action titles ("Operation Las Vegas"), many of which are available online for your enjoyment (?).

King Kong's FX creator also gave us The Giant Behemoth

Thousands of dead fish -– and one dead fisherman –- off the coast of Cornwall, England, lead American scientist Gene Evans and his UK counterpart, Andre Morell, to the discovery of a huge marine dinosaur that can emit a electrical pulse like an eel, only with an added and lethal dose of radiation. "The Giant Behemoth" — a 1959 US/UK production — owes more than a tip of the hat to "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms," from which it borrowed co-writer/director Eugene Lourie, co-writer Daniel James, and more than a few plot developments.

The picture's chief selling point is its stop-motion special effects supervisor, Willis O'Brien, who attained movie immortality as the man who designed and animated the 1933 "King Kong." O'Brien and assistant Pete Peterson, who handled most of the actual animation work on the monster, completed their effects in a studio in Los Angeles, which was then edited into the live-action footage from England. The effects are decidedly subpar, especially when compared to O'Brien's previous work and that of his former protégé, Ray Harryhausen, on "Beast," but the monster's unique abilities add an entertaining wrinkle to the city-wrecking element.

Was it necessary to Return to the Lost World?

Shot back-to-back with the 1991 adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Lost World," Timothy Bond's "Return to the Lost World" is essentially a retread of its predecessor, trotting out John Rhys-Davies and David Warner to reprise their roles as squabbling explorers who lay claim to a stretch of the Congo that houses prehistoric animals. With the Lost World already discovered, the focus here is saving it from a diabolical oil operation that inadvertently triggers a volcano which could destroy the area and its inhabitants.

As with its predecessor, "Return to the Lost World" is a co-production between Harry Alan Towers and Frank Agrama's Harmony Gold USA. Both filmmakers have a long history of producing schlock and landing in hot water on the legal front, and their penchant for cost-cutting is evident here in the atrocious special effects. Dinosaurs are rendered with puppets and performances are risible; Rhys-Davies, Warner, and Eric McCormack have the look of actors biding their time until the production runs out. If there's something good to be said about "Return to the Lost World," it's far better than Asylum's mockbuster "King of the Lost World," which folds a giant ape into the mix.

The Witches Cave: swords, lasers, and mammoths

Prolific Soviet science fiction author Kir Bulychyov adapted his own novel for the 1989 Russian/Czech feature "The Witches' Cave", which whips various sci-fi tropes — interstellar travelers, Lost World planet — into a frothy frappe and liberally salts the brew with poverty-strapped special effects. The premise — which has been noted for its passing similarities to the "Star Trek: Original Series" episode "A Private Little War" –- pits an upstanding young spaceman against a brutal warlord who threatens a primitive tribe and a survey team of researchers on a distant planet.

How the warring tribes live Stone Age lives but possess steel weapons requires lengthy and ultimately dull plot convolutions. Far more astonishing is the planet's flora and fauna, which range from giant spiders to pterosaurs and wooly mammoths, as well as an ape man who would fit in well with a '50s-era prehistoric epic. All of these are rendered with astonishingly poor stop-motion animation and puppets, which may be the picture's primary appeal.

Adventures in Dinosaur City was a '90s TV staple

If you spent any amount of time in front of a television during the '90s and 2000s, it's likely that you stumbled upon the 1991 American kids' fantasy film "Adventures in Dinosaur City," most likely on the Disney Channel. It's also likely that after watching a few minutes of the film, you may have experienced deep pangs of regret for that lost time. A barn door-broad comedy with a goofball premise — three kids (including Omri Katz from "Hocus Pocus") are inadvertently transported into their favorite TV series, "Dinosaurs," which plays a lot like the Jim Henson series of the same name — "Dinosaur City" is saddled with an inert storyline, anthropomorphic "cool" dinosaurs, and eye roll-inducing dialogue.

All of which is a surprise, given that the film has a lot of behind-the-scenes talent. Co-writer/co-producer Lisa Morton is a successful and award-winning horror author, while director Brett Thompson helmed the enjoyable documentary "The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood, Jr.." The dinosaur designs — which are the highlight of the film — were courtesy of second unit director John Criswell, who worked on the Henson "Dinosaurs" series and "Where The Wild Things Are," among many other films. Of course, all the talent in the world can't save a movie as DOA as "Dinosaur City," but its pedigree is impressive.

My Pet Dinosaur sure loves Steven Spielberg

The 2017 Australian children's adventure "My Pet Dinosaur" delivers the saurian goods via an offbeat premise: aliens shower a small town with glowing globs that transform into prehistoric creatures when exposed to water. One such critter is adopted by lonely Jordan Dulieu, who sees the spiky quadruped as a buffer for his family issues (jerky big brother, absent dad who stuck the kids with his last girlfriend). Standing in the way of his boy-and-his-dog bliss with Magnus (the moniker he gives the dinosaur) is a military commander (Rowland Holmes) who goes to some extreme lengths to add the creature to his collection.

Though reviewers have not been kind to "My Pet Dinosaur," the feature, directed by Matt Drummond (a visual effects supervisor on "Grimm" and various direct-to-video creature features) isn't terrible. Yes, it wasn't the best decision to set the story in America, which requires the Australian cast to adopt spotty accents, but the CGI effects are acceptable, and Magnus has enough personality to appeal to pet-loving (or pet-hopeful) kid viewers).

The chief issue is the script's slavish devotion to all things Spielberg, which awkwardly pushes the film into an contrived tribute to "E.T.," with a dash of "Jurassic Park" for not-very-good measure. Those who see past the drawbacks of "Pet Dinosaur" may consider a double bill with Drummond's previous kid-friendly feature, "Dinosaur Island."

Yor, the Hunter from the Future has dinos, cavemen, and UFOs

Actor Reb Brown – best known for playing Captain America in a pair of NBC TV-movies in the 1970s — dons a loincloth to play a seemingly primitive warrior in the Italian/French/Turkish production "Yor, the Hunter from the Future," which was adapted from an Argentine comic book and whittled down from a four-hour TV miniseries. The nominal plot — in which the Stone Age-styled Yor fights blue tribesmen, androids, mummies, and flying saucers to discover that he is the son of survivors of a nuclear war (!) — is made exponentially more awesome by the appearance of several dinosaurs, though how they returned to life after millions of years and an atomic apocalypse is never quite explained. Does it matter? It's future cavemen with lasers fighting dinosaurs!

Paleontology experts and dino movie devotees will note that the creatures depicted in "Yor" are a mix of science fact and fantasy. The Triceratops that attacks Yor's female companion, Kala (Corrine Clery from "Moonraker"), sports the dorsal plates of a Stegosaurus, though the Dimetrodon that tangles with Yor is a fairly accurate representation. There's also a giant bat/flying lizard thing that Yor turns into a hang glider, but so far, it hasn't turned up in the history books.

Return of the Dinosaurs is an odd TV series from Godzilla's creator

According to "Return of the Dinosaurs," an asteroid passed Earth in 1996 and unleashed a torrent of natural disasters, which in turn freed an army of dinosaurs that had been living under the planet's surface for centuries. Enter the Born Free team, a group of scientists (and the obligatory kid who gets to pal around with them) charged with rounding up the dinosaurs while also contending with King Buttler, a big game hunter fixated on the idea of adding a dinosaur head to his collection.

"Return" was a 1976 small-screen effort from Tsuburaya Productions — the film and TV company launched by special effects legend Eiji Tsuburaya, who created Godzilla and his friends. The feature-length "Return of the Dinosaurs" was compiled from the series "Kyoryu Tankentai Born Free," which hinged on an odd, cost-saving measure: the human cast of the series was depicted with 2-D animation, while the dinosaurs, elaborate sets, and wealth of vehicles were rendered with stop-motion animation and miniatures. Depending on your affinity for either form, they clash mightily or work together effortlessly; but reducing the series to a single feature and strapping it with atrocious English dubbing, as seen in "Return," only makes matters worse.

"Born Free" was followed by two additional series — "Dinosaur War Izenborg," which pitted evil dinosaurs against a giant robot and its crew, and "Dinosaur Squadron Koseidon," which abandoned the 2-D animation in favor of an all-tokusatsu/suitmation approach.

Dinosaurs are the least bizarre aspect of Iron Sky: The Coming Race

In a movie packed to the gills with lizard people, hollow earth theories, Nazis on the moon, the Holy Grail, and a cult that worships Apple founder Steve Jobs (played by Tom Green), you might think that there wouldn't also room for dinosaurs. But the 2019 Finnish-German-Belgian sci-fi/fantasy "Iron Sky: The Coming Race" is the work of Finnish director Timo Vuorensola, for whom absurd excess is a point of pride. There are plenty of dinosaurs on hand in the film, including a Lost World filled with impressive CGI saurians and a Tyrannosaur named Blondi that serves as faithful steed for none other than the revived Adolf Hitler (played by cult favorite Udo Kier).

"The Coming Race" — which was largely crowdfunded by fans — is the sequel to Vuorensola's equally out-to-lunch 2012 film "Iron Sky," which set in motion the whole moon Nazi premise. Though "Coming Race" stumbled at the box office, be forewarned: a third film in the series has been announced/threatened.

Peacock King pits demon dinosaurs against martial arts

It's important to note that the scene in the 1988 Hong Kong/Japanese fantasy "Peacock King," which pits martial arts legend Yuen Biao against magically reanimated dinosaurs, is only the fourth or fifth most jaw-dropping moment in the picture. That's because "Peacock King" -– based on the long-running manga series by Makot Ogino –- is chock full of the absolutely insane fantasy and action sequences that made Hong Kong films a must-see in the late '80s and early '90s.

The effects here aren't quite on par with such Hong Kong cinema high water marks as "Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain" or "A Chinese Ghost Story," and director Lam Ngai Kai – who oversaw such berserk HK films as "The Seventh Curse" and "Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky" — seems overwhelmed. But he's also trying to traffic-control a movie which pits two monks (Biao and Hiroshi Mikami) against the Hell Witch (Siu-Fung Wong), who unleashes the Hell Virgin (Gloria Yip), armies of evil spirits and possessed warriors, and the aforementioned dinosaurs in an attempt to free the King of Hell. The resulting mayhem is never less than entertaining, even when the flurry of action — did we mention that '70s Shaw Brothers superstar Gordon Liu of "Kill Bill" is in the mix, too? — threatens to overpower the viewer.

Reptilicus: the marionette that massacred Copenhagen

In 1961's "Reptilicus," the tail of an enormous prehistoric reptile, found frozen in Lapland, produces fresh blood when damaged. So it's sent for study to Denmark, where it regenerates into a complete creature that puts a considerable dent into the Old World charm of Copenhagen and its surrounding towns. American producer Sidney W. Pink's infamous Danish science fiction thriller was filmed twice – once in Danish for director Poul Bang and once in phonetic English by Pink — but neither version can compensate for its jaw-dropping monster, a ceaselessly squalling dragon of sorts, depicted at various times in the film by a floppy marionette and a stiff, wooden model.

The curious are encouraged to seek out both versions for their respective oddball moments: the Danish "Reptilicus" features scenes of the monster in flight and a long musical number featuring comic Dirch Passer and a group of children celebrating the monster in song. The American edit trims away both of these scenes (and much of not one but two romantic subplots), yet adds a "Godzilla"-like touch to the creature with crude animation that suggests that it can spew up a toxic green venom. However, neither Bang nor Pink saw fit to excise a long travelogue sequence that visits various tourist spots in Copenhagen while pop singer Berthe Wilke warbles "Tivoli Nights."

Mystery on Monster Island makes ill use of cult actors

"Mystery on Monster Island" is a very loose adaptation of Jules Verne's 1882 novel "Godfrey Morgan" (and not "Mysterious Island," as is often suggested) by Spanish director Juan Piquer Simon, whose previous credits include two of the most disgusting and inept horror movies of the 1980s, the slasher film "Pieces" and the nature-gone-amok thriller "Slugs." Simon reins in the gruesome stuff for this Spanish-U.S. production, and benefits from the presence of three cult icons — actors Peter Cushing, Terence Stamp, and Spanish horror hero Paul Naschy – but still proves incapable of making anything but a laughable mess, despite the source material.

Chief among the problems is that the name actors are barely in the film: Cushing turns up briefly as the wealthy uncle who dispatches hapless Ian Sera on an adventure in order to prepare him for marriage (!), while Stamp is glimpsed briefly in the conclusion as the film's resident heel. Naschy fares even worse as a pirate who is dispatched after mere minutes of screen time.

As for the "monster" part of "Monster Island," there are some dinosaur-like creatures — a toothy quadruped and a bipedal hulk — as well as more exotic animals, including goo-spewing centipedes and some seaweed-draped marine monstrosities. Their ludicrous construction pushes the picture into kids' matinee territory, which is perhaps the best audience for this pulpy wreck.


How Were The Dinosaurs In Jurassic Park Made In 1993?

Monday, August 2, 2021

Dinosaurs were made very differently back in 1993 than their 2015 counterparts. A behind the scenes look reveals the process.

For Steven Spielberg's 1993 adaptation of Jurassic Park, the director wanted to use as many practical effects as possible. If it was up to Spielberg, there would have been no CGI in Jurassic Park at all, but that would have been too expensive. Spielberg even opted to do a form of blurred stop-motion for the more difficult dinosaur scenes before eventually settling on a mix of animatronics and CGI. In the 1993 classic movie that runs a total of 127 minutes, there are actually only about 15 minutes total screen time for the dinosaurs, and in only about one-third (or 5 minutes) of that screen time were the dinosaurs fully computer-generated.

If any fans have time on their hands, they can look up the behind-the-scenes for the making of the dinosaurs, which showcases the enormous labor that went into making the creatures from conception to completion. Compare that to the behind-the-scenes featurette for Jurassic World, and the process looks a lot different. It's true that acting side by side with a giant mechanical dinosaur would probably be a little easier and inspire more fear in the actors than having to pretend the large creature is there.

In Jurassic World and other films that rely heavily on green screen and CGI, the actors have to pretend to see whatever they are supposed to see. Actors often say that for this process, there is a lot more acting involved as it is not enough to simply react. The actors need to believe in whatever they are supposedly seeing so that the audience can believe it. The reason for this need from the actors is because there is always going to be something fake looking about a CGI creature (no matter how skillfully rendered) as opposed to something that was actually filmed (like an animatronic dinosaur).

Jurassic Park was the first film to ever incorporate both CGI and Animatronics into a live-action movie, and the finished film product was critically acclaimed for its innovations in both CGI and Animatronics. The film also led to an immediate increase in interest for both dinosaurs and paleontology as a career among adults and children. Steven Spielberg knew he would need a skillful visionary artist and team to pull off the movie, so he enlisted the help of legendary Stan Winston. Spielberg had seen Winston's work on James Cameron's 1986 film Aliens for the Queen Alien (also animatronic) and was very impressed.

But as Winston said, "There was just no comparison in the difficulty level of building that alien queen and building a full-size dinosaur." The alien queen is a fictional character with a hard exoskeleton, meaning it was lightweight and didn't have to look like a real-life version of something. Compare that to a dinosaur (a real-life animal of the past) and one can see how daunting the task must have been to make it believable. The iconic Tyrannosaurus—once finished—weighed about 9,000-12,000 pounds, and it along with some of the other animatronic dinosaurs took up to 20 puppeteers to control.

How were the dinosaurs made? Well, it started with conceptual drawings that were full-scaled. The team built the metal skeletons powered by hydraulics and electric motors. Then the team sculpted full-sized dinosaurs with clay, molded the sculpt, and made the foam latex skin for the robots. The latex skin was fitted over the animatronics and painted. The measurements for each dinosaur were calculated precisely so that the latex would work with the mechanics. Some of the dinosaurs (like the T-Rex) were so big and heavy that they became a safety hazard, and the cast and crew had to be warned when it was about to move.

Although sometimes, the cast and crew were not able to be warned when the giant Tyrannosaurus was about to move, as there were reports of the dinosaur moving on its own. This of course scared the pants off of anyone around when the animatronic creature would suddenly come to life unexpectedly on its own. It was later discovered that the T-Rex would move because of a malfunction caused by water. The scene where the Titan-sized, carnivorous animal breaks out of its cage and attacks the jeeps was a rainy scene to shoot.

Stan Winston and his team didn't account for the water absorption the foam latex skin would be doing. The Tyrannosaurus' skin filled with the rainwater, making the skeleton animatronic shudder and shake uncontrollably (how terrifying). The animatronic T-Rex had to be hand dried with towels and blow dryers in between takes to keep it from shaking. Steven Spielberg sort of wanted to make the T-Rex the heroine at the end of the film, even though it had been a villain the majority of the film. The final shot of the giant dinosaur would have looked a lot different had Spielberg not made the script change to have the T-Rex save the characters from the Velociraptors.

The Tyrannosaurus was definitely the most impressive animatronic made for Jurassic Park, and it was so heavily featured that the special effects crew even had to create two versions of the creature—one full-scale animatronic, and one of just the T-Rex head. The head was created for more intimate shots, which the full-bodied robot was not suited for due to issues with safety and control. The head had the ability to produce more intricate movements to add to the realism. Not only did the dinosaurs themselves have to be realized from nothing, but so did the dinosaur sounds.

There is little evidence to suggest what a Tyrannosaurus might have sounded like, but sound designer Gary Rydstrom took his inspiration from other sounds in nature. The T-Rex from Jurassic Park has an iconic and mighty roar that fans can instantly recognize. But that roar was actually created using the sounds of falling trees, air from a whale's blowhole, alligators, lions, and baby elephants. That entire scene where the T-Rex first appears is done so masterfully because the director allowed for the scene to be built upon sound design and tension.

Audiences don't see the T-Rex first—they hear it. As Alfred Hitchcock said, "there is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it." The other famous director always spoke of the craft of suspense, where he preached the power of anticipation over shock. Spielberg knew he could either get a few seconds of a shocking big T-Rex reveal, or several minutes of the anticipation of what is to come by introducing the threat with teasing sounds and subtle environmental changes. All of these reasons and more are why fans always say that no other dinosaurs in movie history look and sound as real as they do in Jurassic Park.


Sponge-Like Animals May Have Lived in Oceans 890 Million Years Ago

Saturday, July 31, 2021

The 890-million-year-old tube-shaped structures occluded by clear blocky calcite enclosed by cloudy calcite groundmass of slightly smaller crystals. Image credit: E.C. Turner, doi: 10.1038/s41586-021-03773-z.

Paleontologists have found possible sponge body fossils in 890-million-year-old microbial reefs in northwestern Canada. If verified, they may pre-date the next-oldest undisputed sponge fossils by around 350 million years.

Genetic evidence from modern sponges suggests that sponges emerged during the Neoproterozoic era, between one billion and 541 million years ago.

However, fossilized sponge bodies from this period have been lacking.

“The search for definitive physical evidence of pre-Cryogenian multicellular animals is confounded by uncertainty about what to look for, but preserved physical evidence should be small, subtle and possibly altogether unfamiliar,” said Professor Elizabeth Turner, a paleontologist in the Harquail School of Earth Sciences at Laurentian University.

“Given that sponges are the most basic of known animals, physical evidence of Neoproterozoic sponges could be sought, but effort focused on the characteristics of mineralized sponge skeletons overlooks sponges with only spongin or keratin skeletons.”

“Early evidence of multicellular animals might instead resemble preservational products of sponge soft tissue rather than mineralized sponge skeletal components.”

“Although molecular clock data suggest that sponges emerged in the early Neoproterozoic, the oldest undisputed sponge body fossils are from the Cambrian period.”

Characteristics and distribution of Little Dal structures in stratigraphically oriented 30-μm-thick thin sections. Image credit: E.C. Turner, doi: 10.1038/s41586-021-03773-z.

In the new research, Professor Turner examined rock samples extracted from Little Dal reefs in northwestern Canada.

The reefs, which are part of the Stone Knife Formation, were built by calcifying cyanobacteria 890 million years ago.

Within the samples, the researcher identified branching networks of millimetric-to-centimetric tube-shaped structures that contained, and were surrounded by, crystals of calcite.

These structures closely resemble the fibrous skeleton found within demosponges and structures previously identified in calcium carbonate rocks that are thought to have been created by the decay of demosponge bodies.

Professor Turner proposes that the Little Dal structures may be the fossilized remains of demosponges that lived on, in and beside calcium carbonate reefs approximately 90 million years before Earth’s oxygen levels increased to levels thought to be necessary to support animal life.

If the structures are accepted as sponge body fossils, the findings could imply that the evolution of early animals occurred independently of this oxygenation event and that early animal life survived severe ice ages that occurred between 720 and 635 million years ago.

“If the vermiform-microstructured masses in the Little Dal reefs are accepted as early sponge body fossils, their approximately 890 million-year age would imply that the evolutionary emergence of metazoans was decoupled from the Neoproterozoic oxygenation event and early animal life was not catastrophically affected by the Neoproterozoic glacial episodes,” Professor Turner said.

“If the Little Dal objects are truly sponge body fossils, they are older than the next-youngest undisputed sponge body fossils by approximately 350 million years.”

The findings were published in the journal Nature.


E.C. Turner. Possible poriferan body fossils in early Neoproterozoic microbial reefs. Nature, published July 28, 2021; doi: 10.1038/s41586-021-03773-z


The True Heart of the Jurassic Park Franchise Isn't the Dinosaurs

Friday, July 30, 2021

The Jurassic Park series focuses on the science and ethics of making dinosaurs, but its success is owed largely to a certain set of characters.

Now more than ever, the Jurassic Park franchise has shed a massive light on the constant scientific and ethical dilemmas that come with creating creatures that have been extinct for millions of years. The most recent films have also dealt with how people often look at them as property rather than living creatures. However, they are much more than that. In fact, dinosaurs represent the wonder and excitement of seeing something that shouldn't be possible, a reaction best experienced through the children of the series.

Over five films, the children of Jurassic Park have been a bit of a sore spot among fans because they are often at the center of some of the more dangerous parts of the series. This includes Kelly from The Lost World: Jurassic Park stowing away to an island where dinosaurs roam free, or the young girl at the beginning of the film unwittingly feeding a pack of compies. While they don't always have the best ideas in the films, kids can be excused because of their innocence and wonder in seeing these creatures firsthand. For better or worse, there is a level of excitement that is rarely seen in adults and always seen in children.

This excitement is best seen in the first film, when Timmy speaks with Dr. Alan Grant about everything he has learned regarding dinosaurs. Even though Grant doesn't want to hear it, it's hard to ignore and helps prove why John Hammond created the park for dreamers in the first place. That same knowledge and excitement are also shown with Gray in Jurassic World, who doesn't hide his adoration of dinosaurs and makes sure to mention every fun fact about the species he sees.

While that same knowledge and excitement can sometimes get the kids of the films into trouble, it has more often saved them and the other humans. In the first film, Lex, while terrified, is able to use her fascination with the computers that helped bring the park to life to help return power to the entire island. That survivor instinct is also seen with Eric Kirby in Jurassic Park III, who spends eight weeks on Isla Sorna with nothing but his knowledge and will to survive. Similar knowledge from Gray also spurred Claire Dearing to get the T-Rex to fight the Indominus Rex because he said they needed "more teeth."

The wonder of the dinosaurs is often lost on the adults of the franchise. But if there is one character who never lost their wonder, it was Dr. Grant. Even after his ordeal in the first film and his hesitation to return in the third, he never stopped working to understand dinosaurs. His love and, most importantly, respect for these creatures comes full circle with Maisie Lockwood in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.

Like the other dinosaurs in the film, Maisie is the product of genetic cloning and, more than anyone, understands that the dinosaurs deserve a chance to live. Like Dr. Grant, she knows that while they are out of place in modern society, they are animals that deserve respect and understanding instead of profit. If she didn't take the time to admire them as living miracles, they would have died at the end of the film instead of been set free. In the end, it took a child to see their importance and how they deserve a chance like any other living thing.

The children of the Jurassic Park franchise may not always have the best ideas, but they understand the importance and gravity of the situation and the creatures they are surrounded by. Most of the adults in the franchise only see the profit and scientific opportunity of dinosaurs. But the children see the wonder of creatures that shouldn't be alive looking back at them. That same wonder is what drives them to learn and understand more and make choices that help save the lives of others. Children are the heart of the Jurassic Park franchise and without them, the wonder that makes films special would go extinct.


Dinosaur-Killing Asteroid May Have Made Earth’s Largest Ripple Marks

Friday, July 30, 2021

The Chicxulub asteroid (illustrated) slammed into Earth where today’s Yucatán Peninsula sits. That impact formed a tsunami that spread across the Gulf of Mexico that may have left giant ripples in rock under present-day Louisiana.  MARK GARLICK/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/GETTY IMAGES

Impact created a tsunami that etched massive structures under what’s now Louisiana, study says.

The asteroid impact that slew the dinosaurs may have also indirectly sculpted the largest ripple marks ever found on Earth.

A series of ridgelike structures more than three stories high and spaced nearly two Eiffel Towers apart appear to be buried about 1,500 meters beneath central Louisiana. The oversized features are megaripples shaped by a massive tsunami generated by the Chicxulub asteroid impact, researchers report in the Sept. 15 Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

“It’s just interesting that something that happened 66 million years ago could be so well preserved, buried 5,000 feet down in the sediments of Louisiana,” says geologist Gary Kinsland of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

Ripple marks are repeating sequences of ridges typically found on sandy beaches or stream bottoms that form as wind or water flows over and moves loose sediment. But ripple marks on the beach are often centimeters in height, while the structures found by Kinsland’s team have an average height of 16 meters and are spaced about 600 meters apart.

The marks’ shape, size, orientation and location suggest that they formed after the Chicxulub asteroid crashed into what is today’s Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico, generating a tsunami that washed across the sediments of the Gulf of Mexico and over what is now Louisiana, which was underwater at the time (SN: 11/2/17). Despite the tsunami’s width, no one has ever found ripple marks formed by the wave before.

Geologist Kaare Egedahl initially discovered the newly described ripples while searching for coal deposits. Studying at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette at the time, Egedahl had been combing through seismic reflection data – 3-D images of buried rock and soil generated by underground sound waves — provided by the Devon Energy company. Egedahl, now at the oil and gas company Cantium, found the ripples atop a layer of rock thought to have formed from debris shaken up by the Chicxulub asteroid impact. He then shared his finding with Kinsland.

Subsurface megaripples (most pronounced near the red line) under Louisiana were imaged using reflected sound waves that traveled through Earth’s crust MARTELL STRONG

“I knew where that layer was from in geologic time, and I knew what happened there,” Kinsland says. “I knew there should be a tsunami.”

The supposed ripple marks were preserved all this time thanks to the depth at which they formed underwater, Kinsland says. Other studies suggest that the region of present-day Louisiana in which the ripples took shape was 60 meters below the sea surface at the time. At that depth, the ripples would have been beyond the reach of tumultuous storm activity that could have erased them. Then, over millions of years, the marks were slowly buried by other sediments.

A smaller, analogous set of structures may exist off the east coast of Japan. There, a repeating sequence of underwater dunes was reported to have appeared after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Those dunes look nearly identical to the ripple marks buried beneath Louisiana, except for their size, Kinsland says, supporting the notion that the taller structures were also produced by a tsunami, though one of a much larger magnitude.

Still, there is contention over whether the features beneath Louisiana really are megaripples formed by the Chicxulub tsunami.

“It’s hard to see how such a high-energy event could form ripple marks because they are usually associated with much calmer environments,” says sedimentologist Pedro J.M. Costa of the Universidade de Coimbra in Portugal. And ripple marks typically form from frequent and recurring wave motion, while tsunamis don’t have many waves, he explains. Costa, who is an expert on tsunami deposits, says that reconstructing the lay of the seafloor at that time of the impact and conducting experiments could help unravel the origins of the structures found by Kinsland’s team.

This new work is important because it opens a discussion, Costa says. “Maybe [the Chicxulub impact was] such a high-magnitude event that what we see in normal tsunami events don’t apply to this one.”

A version of this article appears in the August 28, 2021 issue of Science News.



G.L. Kinsland et alChicxulub impact tsunami megaripples in the subsurface of Louisiana: Imaged in petroleum industry seismic dataEarth and Planetary Science Letters. Vol. 570, September 15, 2021. doi: 10.1016/j.epsl.2021.117063.


Paleontologists Find Thousands of Jurassic-Period Echinoderm Fossils

Friday, July 30, 2021

Some of the exquisitely preserved 167-million-year-old echinoderms from the Cotswolds area, England. Image credit: Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.

Over 1,000 perfectly-preserved echinoderm specimens dating back 167 million years (Jurassic period) have been excavated in a quarry in the Cotswolds area of England.

Echinoderms are a group of animals including starfish, brittle stars, feather stars, sea lilies, sea cucumbers and echinoids (sea urchins and sea potatoes or dollars).

Surprisingly, and highly unusually, species belonging to all these groups have been discovered at a quarry in the Cotswolds.

“The exceptional preservation of so many individuals belonging to diverse echinoderm groups is exceptional and makes the site comparable to the best in the world,” said Dr. Tim Ewin, senior curator at the Natural History Museum, London.

The new fossil-bearing site was discovered by two amateur paleontologists Sally and Neville Hollingworth.

“We were looking for new sites to explore once lockdown ended. We do this by scrolling through Google maps around areas we know fossils have been found,” Sally Hollingworth said.

“The site we eventually discovered, a small quarry, seemed perfect.”

“We thought we would find a few interesting specimens but never expected the site to be so special,” Neville Hollingworth added.

“As soon as we realized what we were dealing with, and the scientific importance of it, we contacted the Natural History Museum.”

The new site would have been a warm, relatively shallow sea some 167 million years ago (Jurassic period).

“It seems likely that a river was flowing into the sea nearby bringing in high levels of nutrients which attracted the large numbers of echinoderms we are finding,” Dr. Ewin said.

Many of the other species being unearthed at the site are already known to science, however, many were described over 100 years ago and based on incomplete or poorly prepared specimens.

However, three echinoderm species — a type of feather star, a brittle star and a sea cucumber — are new to science.

“Many of the specimens we have excavated are trapped in large slabs of clay in groups,” said Mark Graham, senior fossil preparator at the Natural History Museum, London.

“We now need to carefully explore these blocks to discover the most scientifically important specimens and prepare them for public display.”