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Thaumatodracon – the Wonder Dragon

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In 2012 I co-presented a poster at the SVP annual meeting on a new plesiosaur from Lyme Regis, UK (see my article about it here). The long awaited follow up paper was finally published this summer in the latest volume of Palaeontographica A (Smith and Araújo, 2017) and the beast now has a name, Thaumatodracon wiedenrothi, meaning ‘Wiedenroth’s Wonder Dragon’.

The Lower Saxony State Museum commissioned artist Luzia Soares to create a stylistic impression of Thaumatodracon. Copyright L. Soares 2017

Thaumatodracon was a top-predator that cruised around the shallow Tethys Ocean that covered Europe about 195 million years ago. It had a 60 cm long skull with dozens of sharp teeth, an estimated total body length of 6.5 m, and may have weighed around 2 tonnes. The specimen was collected from Lyme Regis in 1969 by Kurt Wiedenroth, an amateur German palaeontologist to whom we dedicated the new species name. The Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum Hannover (Lower Saxony State Museum) acquired the specimen later that year where it was subsequently prepared by Elijah Widmann during the 1990s.

Kurt Wiedenroth hunting for ammonites in Lower Cretaceous deposits near Hanover, Germany. Kurt discovered Thaumatodracon wiedenrothi in Lyme Regis in 1969. Photo courtesy of Sönke Simonsen.

The nearly complete skull and neck of this plesiosaur are exquisitely preserved, and Ricardo Araújo and I visited the Lower Saxony State Museum in Hanover in 2011, where we identified it as a new species that fills a gap in the fossil record of rhomaleosaurids. Diagnostic ones, anyway. The holotype of ‘Plesiosaurus’ macrocephalus, also from Lyme Regis, could well be a rhomaleosaurid, but since it is a juvenile it is difficult to diagnose. Our findings in Hanover were too late to include in my PhD thesis dedicated to rhomaleosaurids, but better late than never.

The preserved parts of the skeleton – the head and neck – are highlighted in dark grey

The holotype specimen, laid out in dorsal view.

Details and interpretation of the skull

In addition to a thorough comparative description, we conducted morphometric analyses to compare Thaumatodracon to all other rhomaleosaurid plesiosaurs. We found that the new taxon possesses transitional characteristics that are consistent with its intermediate position in the plesiosaur family tree. This is also more or less what we would predict to find because it is from the Sinemurian, which makes it stratigraphically intermediate between the older Hettangian rhomaleosaurid fauna (Atychodracon) and younger Toarcian rhomaleosaurid fauna (Rhomaleosaurus, Meyerasaurus).

The new genus is a nod to ‘Thaumatosaurus’, a powerful name that was once used interchangeably with Rhomaleosaurus. It was also widely applied to the holotype specimen of Meyerasaurus victor before I came along and made ‘Thaumatosaurus’ a nomen dubium (see my article about that here). So, I chose the name Thaumatodracon as atonement, but also because plesiosaurs were true wonders of the prehistoric world and Ricardo and I wanted to give this new species a name to reflects that.

Rhomaleosaurids have traditionally been regarded as pliosaurs. Although we called Thaumatodracon a pliosaur in our original poster presentation, the position of Rhomaleosauridae within Plesiosauria has since become disputed. Several studies now suggest that the rhomaleosaurid family diverged from other plesiosaurs before the pliosaur/plesiosauroid dichotomy, which is why we avoid calling Thaumatodracon a pliosaur in our paper.

The journal has requested that I do not share the PDF publicly, but I’m free to email it, so drop me an email if you’re interested: [email protected]

Reference
Smith, A.S. and Araújo, R. 2017. Thaumatodracon wiedenrothi, a morphometrically and stratigraphically intermediate new rhomaleosaurid plesiosaurian from the Lower Jurassic (Sinemurian) of Lyme Regis. Palaeontographica Abteilung A, 308 (4-6), 89-125. doi:10.1127/pala/308/2017/89

Written by Adam S. Smith

August 29th, 2017 at 5:28 pm

Book review: Kronos Rising: Kraken (vol. 1), by Max Hawthorne

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“[His] mind began to shut down in an effort to preserve his sanity” – Garm Braddock in Kronos Rising: Kraken (vol. 1)

Hawthorne’s mahoosive Kronosaurus imperator is back and this time she’s brought her buddies along for the ride. This sequel to Kronos Rising (which I reviewed here) is set decades after the events of the first book, in a world where pliosaurs now run amok. Oceanic ecosystems are in turmoil and it’s time to get military on these bastard reptiles! Beefcake brothers Garm and Dirk are at the heart of proceedings as they take steps to emerge victorious from the raging ‘Saurian War’. Little do they know the titular Kraken is waiting to arrive on the scene to cause even more havoc…

Kronos Rising: Kraken (vol. 1.) cover

I won’t comment in detail on the story, style, tone, characters, and so on. I have opinions, of course, but who am I, as a lowly palaeontologist, to judge? All I’ll say is that it wasn’t to my taste. What I can focus on, as I did in my previous review, is the science. The aspects of the book that only a pedant like me will get his undies in a bind over. So, that’s what I’ll do – it’s panty twisting time.

One of my criticisms of the original novel was the dubious status of the species Kronosaurus imperator. This is the sort of nit-pick that only the most hard-nosed academic would rest any importance on, but I noticed the issue is still not resolved in Kronos Rising: Kraken. It means the species is technically invalid – a nomen nudum. This strikes me as somewhat appropriate given Hawthorne’s proclivity for exposing his characters’ most intimate fleshy parts.

Generally the anatomical descriptions are very good (n.b. I’m talking about the reptiles now!) and Hawthorne has done research to ensure the scientist characters use the correct language and terminology. However, he’s also not afraid to take liberties. For example, in the book, pliosaurs lay spherical eggs in nests, whereas we know sauropterygians gave birth to live young. The pliosaur’s teeth are described as sharply ridged with razor-sharp ends, whereas the course ridges on pliosaur teeth aren’t sharp, and pliosaur teeth really taper to a blunt bone-crushing apex. The fictional monsters skin consists of a “thick hide covered with rock hard scales”, yet it “absorbs 30% of the oxygen they need from the water”. In reality, there would have to be a compromise – skin has to be thin to absorb oxygen. In my Kronos Rising review I compiled a long list of the pliosaur’s superpowers. We can now also add camouflage onto said list. Don’t get me wrong, these are not complaints per se, I’m just saying. The key word to remember here – fiction. Let it go, let it go!

As with the previous novel, there’s a worrying infatuation with large size, be it the size of the creatures, the vessels, the machinery, the architecture, Dirk’s penis, Garm’s penis. “What can I say? Size matters!” chuckles one of the characters in the book. If you, too, believe size matters, then this is the book for you!

While Kronos Rising: Kraken (vol. 1) didn’t float my boat, aficionados of maritime monster fiction should probably pick up a copy and judge for themselves. Can thousands of Hawthorne’s fanatic ‘Legions of Kronos’ be wrong? Kronos Rising: Kraken (vol. 1), is available from Amazon.com here and Amazon.co.uk here. The official Kronos Rising website is located at http://www.kronosrising.com and you can also visit and like the Kronos Rising Facebook Page here, where Hawthorne makes a special effort to engage with readers, and sometimes puts forward his own interesting pet paleontological hypotheses. Lastly, thanks go to Max for the review copy – I hope you don’t regret the kind gesture!

A quick additional note. The original Kronos Rising novel now has a swanky new front cover, featuring amazing artwork. Check it out!

Kronos Rising new cover

Written by Adam S. Smith

July 14th, 2016 at 1:24 pm

Elasmosaurus to feature in new exhibit (PART 2)

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A special exhibition entitled “Collecting Oklahoma” opened in the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, on the 16th of June 2007. The exhibition features an original painting of an Elasmosaurus by artist Debby Cotter Kaspari. The exhibit was curated by Rick Lupia, the project coordinator was Deborah Kay, and Tom Luczycki was the exhibits director. I discussed in a previous news article (see Part 1) the initial stages of the design process for this project. Kaspari worked closely with palaeontologist Kyle Davies on the elasmosaur, to make it as accurate as possible. I am now pleased to reveal the final work of art.

elasmosaurus debby
Debby ponders over the finished painting – the original piece was produced at half size…

elasmosaurus debby
… but was later blown up in a mural to represent a full-size adult Elasmosaurus in the exhibit. Notice the string of elasmosaurid vertebrae in the foreground.

elasmosaurus debby
Kaspari attended the grand opening of the event: “It went great!” explains Kaspari pictured here next to the finished Elasmosaurus exhibit, “A wonderful turnout, lots of excitement, and the mural looked really good up there. It’s big, really big. And toothy”

elasmosaurus debby
The complete painting by Debby Cotter Kaspari…

elasmosaurus debby
…and detail of the head of the Elasmosaurus.

To coincide with the opening of the new exhibit, a specially designed postal cancellation stamp featuring the head of the Elasmosaurus was released by the post office in Norman, Oklahoma. The stamp was also designed by Debby Kaspari, who was on hand at the opening event to autograph her artwork.

elasmosaurus debby
elasmosaurus debby
I would again like to thank Debby Kaspari for providing information and allowing me to use her photographs and images.

Written by Adam S. Smith

July 1st, 2007 at 12:09 pm

Elasmosaurus to feature in new exhibit (PART 1)

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plesiosaur logoArtist Debby Cotter Kaspari has produced an Elasmosaurus painting as part of a special exhibition in the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History entitled “Collecting Oklahoma”, scheduled to open on the 16th of June 2007. The exhibit will present a selection of rare and unique specimens collected around Oklahoma by the museum over the last decade. The painting was produced to be as accurate as possible:

“I worked closely with our paleontologists at the Sam Noble Museum” explains Kaspari.”I’m very happy with the finished painting which will be…presented along with the vertebrae of the elasmosaur.”

The painting will be enlarged to life-size (30 feet by 15 feet) – but even the original painting is half of that. Although only the finished painting will be displayed int the exhibit, this project provides a perfect case study examplifying the process through which palaeoatists restore prehitoric animals. The first stage involves researching the anatomy of the animal – In this case, Kaspari created a scale model of the whole animal, and a full-size model of the skull based on published reconstructions of the bones of an elasmosaurid:
Elasmosaurus model

From these models sketches can be made from all possible angles, and these form the basis for the final piece of artwork:
elasmosaurus sketches

It is also possible to experiment with colour and patterning before commiting a colour scheme to the final painting. Here is an experimental colour scheme for the head:

Elasmosaurus head
The finalized painting is now currently under wraps, but it will be featured on this page soon after the official opening of the exhibit in June. So stay tuned for part 2 of this article…

Many thanks to Debby Kaspari for providing information and allowing me to use her photographs and images.

More information:

http://www.snomnh.ou.edu/exhibits/spex.html – the official webpage of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History

http://drawingthemotmot.wordpress.com/ -Debby Kaspari’s weblog and website:

http://www.debbykaspari.com

Written by Adam S. Smith

May 23rd, 2007 at 12:21 pm