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So, I had this idea for a video game: “Dino Poacher: The Estate of Lord Humongousaurus Rex!”  In the game, your character would get all outfitted with special cool weapons and camouflage gear in preparation to hunt super awesome dinosaurs on the Cretaceous forest estate of Lord Humongousaurus Rex!

However, it is all a ruse, no matter what you do, as soon as you hop over the fence, Lord Humongousaurus’ bailiffs catch you and drag you into the basement of his mansion where they force you to carefully polish antique silver for hours and hours.

As soon as your polishing is done you are free:  you can re-outfit and once again try to break into the estate for ultimate dino-poaching adventures…but, as soon as you cross onto the estate, the game wardens grab you and you are back to polishing silver.  You have different brushes, rags, and polishing pastes and the sneering butler says unhelpful things like “If you miss your shot you have to buff the coffee pot!” You never do get to hunt dinosaurs (although there are lots of exciting teasers and action clips) but you do get to polish increasingly elaborate and hard-to-polish silver culminating with the Dowager Duckbill’s’ baroque spinosaurus epergne!

The game’s tag phrase hints at the bait and switch.  Lord Humogousaurus, in all of his aristocratic theropod glory says “Can YOU polish off all of the monsters?” Then he laughs derisively.  I drew a colored pencil sketch of how the game package should look in my little sketchbook today.

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Imagine a relaxing pine forest with a soft carpet of orange needles and gentle green boughs waving in the breeze. Wood ears grow on fallen logs, and little insects scurry around the ferns and the air is filled with the slightly spicy smell of pines. There are whistles, songs, and clicking squeaks–not unlike the chatter of squirrels and the familiar melodies of passerine birds, but when a chipmunk darts by, you realize that it is no chipmunk at all but a weird miniature running pheasant. Then a further shock comes when you see the miniature pheasant has teeth and claws—it is a tiny dinosaur!  You are in a Cretaceous pine wood, and though, there may be primitive birds somewhere, the rustling all around you and the darting russet forms running through the undergrowth are little dinosaurs. Is that crashing noise coming towards you a larger predator?

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Paleontology lets us travel to the past and reconstruct such scenes with increasing accuracy.  As we gain further fossil evidence and our grasp of zoology, biology, and genetics deepens, we can see further into this vanished world.  However, sometimes a literal piece of the past falls directly into our hands.

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Look at this incredible piece of amber obtained in a market in China!  In addition to beautiful yellow-orange amber and glistening air bubbles, there is a gorgeously preserved ant, some bits of bark & plant matter, and…some sort of weird feathered tail!  This is not a recent piece of amber, either, it comes from an amber mine in northern Myanmar, but it really comes from a pine forest 99 million years ago in the Cretaceous: the world I described above.

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The tail seemed like the tail of a small bird, but CT scans revealed eight vertebrae from the middle or end of a long narrow tail which was not fused into a bird’s pygostyle (an anatomical feature which allows birds to move their tail feathers as a single unit like a fan).  Scientists realized that the amber contains the feathers, skin, and soft tissue of a dinosaur—a juvenile coelurosaur—about the size of a sparrow.

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If one of these things got into the office and the office manager had to remove it, I suspect people would say there was a bird in the copy room.  Yet it was definitely a dinosaur. The best preserved fossils of this sort of ecosystem come from East Asia—China, Mongolia, and Myanmar. Look at the hints of Chinese ink drawing which have found their way into the paleontological drawing of a coelurosaur below.

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As scientists unravel the secrets trapped in the amber, we will be learning a lot more about this particular dinosaur, but other wonders may lie ahead.  Myanmar is emerging from isolation, civil wars, and turmoil to rejoin the community of nations.  What else lies buried in that mine or others like it?

As mentioned previously, I am a toymaker who crafts the Zoomorphs mix-and-match animal toys (you can check them out here).  I always try to make the characters whimsical but with a strong basis in reality–which means color is one of the hardest things to figure out.  If the animals’ colors are too realistic and drab, children (and other toy aficionados) will not gravitate towards the toys, but if the colors are too bright the animals become surreal.

Zoomorphs Jurassicmorphs! (*cough* available at finer toy stores)

Fortunately I have always been helped out by our magnificent extinct friends, the dinosaurs.  Paleontologists have ideas about what color dinosaurs were (based on the coloration of living reptiles and birds), but the scientists still haven’t found any conclusive answers—which means I can paint my dinosaur characters with all of the gaudy 80s colors I can find in the Pantone book!

Microraptor Fossil with plumage--found in rural China (AP Photo/Mick Ellison, American Museum of Natural History, Science /AAAS) Photo: Mick Ellison, American Museum Of Natural History, Science/AAAS / AP)

Or at least that was true until now.  On Thursday, the scientific journal, um, Science reported that an international team of Chinese and American scientists have discovered the color of microraptor, a small feathered dinosaur about the size of a crow which lived 130 million years ago.  By studying the patterns of pigment-containing cell fragments known as melanosomes which were present in an exceptional microraptor fossil, the scientists determined that the ancient animal was black with an iridescent shimmer—a common pattern for many of today’s birds.  Microraptor apparently also had two long streamer feathers on its tail.  The little dinosaur likely used its iridescence and ornate tail feathers for social signaling with other microraptors over important concerns like territory and mating.

Artist's conception of Microraptor (Photo: Mick Ellison, American Museum Of Natural History, Science /AAAS / AP)

Many of the articles I have read about the microraptor’s coloration have playfully noted that the small predator hews to the fashion adage of wearing basic black with accents.  The articles also compare the tiny dinosaur (which had two pairs of wings—on both its legs and arms) to crows, grackles, starlings and the like.  However it is important to remember that microraptor was not yet a bird—it had sharp claws on nimble little hands and a mouthful of cruel teeth (so the fashion metaphor may be even more appropriate than the bird analogy).

A grackle shows off the same colors worn by microraptor 130 million years ago.

Conifers are amazing! Also happy holidays from Ferrebeekeeper.

It is the holiday season and decorated conifers are everywhere. Seeing all of the dressed-up firs and spruces reminds me that Ferrebeekeeper’s tree category has so far betrayed a distinct bias towards angiosperms (flowering plants). Yet the conifers vastly outdate all flowering trees by a vast span of time.  The first conifers we have found date to the late Carboniferous period (about 300 million years ago) whereas the first fossils of angiosperms appear in the Cretaceous (about 125 million years ago) although the flowering plants probably originated earlier in the Mesozoic.

The first known conifer trees resembled modern Araucaria trees.  They evolved from a (now long-extinct) ancestral gymnosperm tree which could only live in warm swampy conditions—a watery habitat necessitated since these progenitor trees did not cope well with dry conditions and also probably utilized motile sperm.  Instead of relying on free-swimming gametes and huge seeds, the newly evolved conifers used wind to carry clouds of pollen through the air and were capable of producing many tiny seeds which could survive drying out.  Because the evergreen cone-bearing trees could survive in drier conditions, the early conifers had immense competitive advantages.  These advantages were critical to survival as the great warm swamps of the Carboniferous dried out.  The continents, which had been separated by shallow oceans and seas, annealed together into the baking dry supercontinent of Permian Pangaea.  In the arid deserts and mountains, the conifers were among the only plants which could survive.

Pay attention to the Trees in this Painting not the Dinosaurs (art by Jon Taylor)

This ability to live through any condition helped the conifers get through the greatest mass extinction in life’s history—The Permian–Triassic (P–Tr) extinction event, (known to paleontologists as “the Great Dying”).  Thereafter, throughout the Mesozoic they were the dominant land plants (along with cycads and ginkgos which had evolved at about the same time).  The Mesozoic saw the greatest diversity of conifers ever—the age of dinosaurs could just as well be called the age of conifers.  Huge heard of sauropods grazed on vast swaths of exotic conifers. Beneath these strange sprawling forests, the carnosaurs hunted, the early birds glided through endless green canyons, and the desperate little mammals darted out to grab and hoard the pine nuts of the time.

The Great Boreal Forests of Canada (photo by Chad Delany)

Although flowering plants rapidly came to prominence towards the end of the Cretaceous and have since become the most diverse plants, today’s conifers are not in any way anachronisms or primitive also-rans.  They still out-compete the flowering trees in cold areas and in dry areas. Conifers entirely dominate the boreal forests of Asia, Europe, and North America—arguably the largest continuous ecosystem on the planet except for the pelagic ocean.  They form entire strange ecosystems in the Araucaria moist forests of South America—which are relics of the great conifer forests of Antarctica (the southern continent was once a warmer happier place before tectonics and climate shift gradually dragged its inhabitants to frozen death).

Contemporary Araucaria Forest in South America (photo by Garth Lenz)

The largest trees—the sequoias and redwoods–are conifers.  The oldest trees—bristlecone pine trees and clonal Spruces–are conifers (excepting of course the clonal colonies).  Conifers are probably the most commercially important trees since they are fast-growing staples of the pulp and the timber industries. Timber companies sometimes buy up hardwood forests, clear cut the valuable native deciduous trees and plant fast growing pines in their place to harvest for pulp.  In fact all of the Christmas trees which are everywhere around New York come from a similar farming process.  The conifers are nearly everywhere—they have one of the greatest success stories in the history of life.  It is no wonder they are the symbol of life surviving through the winter to come back stronger.  They have done that time and time again through the darkest and driest winters of the eons.

A Grove of Giant Sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum)

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