Sunday, December 29, 2013

Paleontology Wish List for 2014

Everyone has a wish list for their friends or their family to give them.  Some people have political wish lists, or try to get in touch with their spirituality through goals. I myself have wish lists for Christmas and my birthday. However, this is a paleontology wishlist, a list of all the discoveries and insights I hope will happen in 2014.   I know most paleontology is based on the combination of persistence and luck, but here’s hoping at least one of these will happen in the next year

1. Distinct transitions for Pliosaurs to big Mosasaurs and Carnosaurs to big Tyrannosaurus in the
 Cenomanian.  There’s always been a gap between Acrocanthosaurus and Gorgosaurus in terms of large American predators, and we came closer this year with the news of two new species from Utah. Lythronax,  a tyrannosaur, has joined  Diabloceratops and Acristavus from the past few years in the 80 Million year old Wahweap fauna. On the other side, we have Siats, a carnosaur who coexisted with Deinonychus, Eolambia, Abydosaurus and Cedaropelta in the Mussenicht member of the Cedar Mountain formation about 100 million years ago. That, each way, cuts the gap by 15 million years. Still, I’d like to see that gap of 20 million years close further. How about a big carnosaur and big Tyrannosaur living alongside each other?   Likewise, there’s a transition in the sea. There’s a gap between the 90 million year old pliosaur Brachauchenius and the 85 Million year old Tylosaurus. It would be interested to see when the turnover happened or if they might have actually coexisted.

2.    The head of Deinocheirus. This year, the big news story was that the rest of Deinocheirus was found. Yuong-Nam Lee, Phil Currie,  and Yoshitsugu Kobayashi, returning to the site, found not only arms, but the rest of the skeleton in a remarkable complete find. Unfortunately during the excavation, a poacher stole the skull.  I hope we catch that son of a bitch and get back that skull.

3.       The rest of Andrewsarchus. Andrewsarchus  is uncertainly placed-is it like Arctocyon? Pakicetus? Mesonyx?  All we have is the skull without a mandible. It was originally classified as a giant Mesonychid,, but a recent rediagnosis suggests either an Arctocyonid  or something ancestral to the entelodonts. However, entelodonts have also been placed with hippos at the base of the whales. Was Andrewsarchus part of a group ancestral to them all? What did it really look like? Hopefully, we’ll find the rest of it.  Considering the amazing amount of fossils from China and Mongolia in the past decade, I hope Andrewsarchus will join Deinocheirus in being a Mongolian mystery brought to life.

4.       The rest of Gigantopithecus. Gigantopithecus is famous in some circles, particularly primatologists and cryptozoologists, as the real life King Kong. Unfortunately, all we have is the teeth and some mandibles. All we know is the existence of a giant ape that ate durian and bamboo. That’s it.  Nothing on its true dimensions. Bigfoot fans propose it was a biped since the rest of the body has not yet been found. Teeth have been found in Vietnam, China, and India. Hopefully, the rest will be found to finally bring this magnificent animal to life.  With India and Vietnam become more prosperous and the fossil lodes of China continue to provide quality fossils, I hope we will find more of this animal.

5.       A resolution on “Meganthropus”. The discoverer of Gigantopithecus, Gustav von Koeningsvald, also worked in Java as well as China. He found a big, robust jaw similar to his “Java Man” Pithecanthropus (Homo erectus), and called it Meganthropus. He suggested that Gigantopithecus was a human ancestor and that Meganthropus acted as a transitional form. Of course, this fairly ridiculous with today’s science. However, there is something about a big human jaw. A freak of nature?  A tall population? Something else?  Flores Island gave us “hobbits”, a Homo erectus descendant adapted to tiny size. Could the same forces that give us insular dwarfism also give us insular gigantism? Keeping my fingers crossed.

6.       A non-coluerosaur mummy or something that would prove or disprove feathers.  Ever since the outpouring of feathered coelurosaurs, people have argued that other dinosaurs had protofeathers. Now, this has been decisively disproven in terms of hadrosaurs with several mummified specimens, but not for any others. Heterodontosaurus and Psittacosaurus have been found with quills, leading to the assumption of ornithopods and ceratopsians being given quills or feathers in reconstructions.  What I would love is confirmation one way or another. Yutyrannus proved that Tyrannosaurs had feathers. Dakota and Leonardo proved that Hadrosaurs didn’t. I would just like some evidence one way or another

7.       Description of Maastrichtian Chrirostenotid. The Carnegie museum is in possession of a big oviraptorosaur. To be precise, a caenagnathid (a more gracile type). There is medium one from the Dinosaur Park formation, Chirostenotes, a big one called Hagryphus from the Kaiparowitz formation, Leptorhynchos from the Aguja formation, Ojoraptorsaurus from Ojo Alamo, and Epichirostenotes from the Horseshoe Canyon. However, there’s a big one, bigger than Hagryphus and second only to Gigantoraptor among oviraptors, from Hell Creek. This animal lived alongside Acheroraptor, Tyrannosaurus, and the classic Hell Creek fauna. The full mount is at the Carnegie Museum, but further specimens have been found by the Burpee Museum in Rockford and are being analyzed. I hope we get a clarification of this new giant and a name.

8.       Description of Polish Dicynodont and resolution on Smok.  In 2008, Jerzy Dzik, Tomasz Sulej, and Grzegorz Niedźwiedzki of the Polish academy of sciences excavated a late Triassic quarry site near Lisowice. The two main stars were huge-one was a mysterious predator showing features of dinosaurs, rauisuchids (check my Teratosaurus blog), and their common ancestors named Smok. I’ve talked about Smok before, and I’d love to see some resolution on what it actually was. The other big animal was a Kannemeyerian (aka cow-sized) dicynodont, its full description and name pending. The other two dicynodonts that made up the last of the once-great order were similar giants-Ischigualestia from Argentina and Placerias from North America. I’d like to see this Polish one round out the trio.

  Dwarf Hatzeg Abeliosaur. One of my favorite faunas is of Hatzeg Island and the archipelago of Europe, with its double-clawed dromeosaur, giant pterosaur, and dwarf dinosaurs. Now, elsewhere in Europe, particularly in France and Spain, Abeliosaur (big predator dinosaurs) have been found, Tarascosaurus, Arcovenator, and two unnamed French specimens from Pourcieux and La Boucharde. What got me thinking was an episode of a TV series Dinosaur Planet featuring a Pyroraptor who wound up stranded on Hatzeg Island and confronting dwarf versions of the mainland animal, including Tarascosaurus and Rhabdodon. Now, Rhabdodon is on Hatzeg in the San Petru formation, but there are no big dinosaur theropods found as of yet. Unless Hatzegopteryx was really the top predator, I strongly suspect there’s a Abeliosaur there. Furthermore, the great Baron Nopsca found a dinosaur’s tooth in Hungary which he identified as Megalosaurus hungaricus. This could be a part of a new, unique theropod. One can only hope.

10.   More American probiscideans. There’s a strong record of Probiscideans in the Old World throughout their entire evolutionary history, but there seems to be a gap in the new World. One minute, we have Gomphotherium, Rhynchotherium, and the shovel-tuskers in the early and Middle Miocene. Then there seems to be a little bit of a gap before Mammut and Mammuthus showed up and we see probiscideans in South America. There’s been remains identified as Mastodon material, but I remain skeptical. I would like to know more about the elephants of America.

11.   More Mexican species. I just like to hear about new fossils from Mexico. Part of it is my half-Mexican heritage, but part of it is wishing the third North American country would have more dinosaurs and prehistoric animals. Mesozoic, Cenozoic it doesn’t matter. We’ve been getting some Cretaceous stuff from Coahuila, Sonora, and Baja California, but it would be great to see more.

12.   Another Bahariasaurus. Spinosaurus was once some enigmatic claws and spines, lost almost a century ago in the second World War.  Recent discoveries have made it into a dinosaur superstar for its huge size and bizarre adaptations. Another such dinosaur lost in the war was Bahariasaurus, another big theropod. It’s obscure now, but I hope it has the same rescue as Spinosaurus and a new specimen is found to determine what kind of animal it was.

13.   Late Permian North America.  There’s a temporal and geographical gap. While South Africa and Russia have provided a wealth of Late Permian fossils, North America is lacking. While North America has rich deposits of early Permian and late Triassic faunas, there is a huge gap between them.  One minute Cotylorhynchus, the next Coelophysis. I hope this is rectified in some way.

14.   A big prehistoric octopus and squid.  I’m a sucker for kraken. The best there is in prehistory is a big basal cephalopod in the late Cretaceous Tusoteuthis (more on it later). Thing is, it’s only known by a few fossilized pens. How about some beaks? Impressions? More fossils of huge cephalopods? The whole “Triassic Kraken” was laughable science, but it was a cool idea. Here’s hoping for a real prehistoric kraken next year!

15.   More on the Monster of Aramberri. So, the Svabelard pliosaur is now Pliosaurus funkei. Very impressive specimen, and a truly terrifying sea beast. However, that’s not the only giant mystery pliosaur  29 Years ago, Dr José Oliva of the University of Nuevo Leon found the remains of a huge pliosaur. Copies were sent to Karlsruhe and Saltillo, where they are still being studied. With three institutions involved, you’d think they’d come up with something. Alas, Mexico is dying and the budget is low in both museums, while there’s not enough room for the full specimen at Karlsruhe. Hopefully, we’ll finally get some closure on that spectacular find next year

16.   More on “Willy” the whale.  Ten years ago, a southern California road crew  uncovered a fossil bed containing the remains of several early Miocene whales. The early Miocene was the hotbed of aquatic mammal evolution-giant fish-eating walrus, aquatic bears, strange tusked mammals called Desmostylans and a variety of sword-nosed dolphins have all been found in California. The Cooper Archaeological and Paleontological Center has been able to identify three of the four whales as Morawanocetus, a toothed Japanese whale that was ancestral to the baleen whales of today. This primitive group of aquatic predators contains Mammalodon, Janjucetus, Aetiocetus, Willungacetus, Chonecetus, and Ashorocetus. A new, orca-sized member of the family makes up the fourth whale, distinguished from the others by sheer size and teeth that looked as if they had been scraped by shark skin.  Nicknamed “Willy”, this formidable predator has not yet been assigned a species when it was mentioned at the AAAS meeting last February. Hopefully, this February will have an update, a new name, and a description of the whale.

17.   More Torosaurus, Nanotyrannus, Dracorex and Stygimoloch. Ontological morphing, the normal change in form as an individual matures, has become an excuse to lump species. This should really have its own article, so I’ll be brief. What we need are more specimens that could lead to conclusions on whether these challenged species are legitimate or not. Torosaurus is the strongest supported as its own species on one end, with Dracorex and Nanotyrannus on the other end. I hope we get more specimens, better preserved ones. That also includes young Tyrannosaurus, young Pachycephalosaurus and old Triceratops that either look very similar but not identical to the questioned specimens, or are completely different-looking from them.  This has been a very annoying question for the past few years, and has provided more than a little fuel for fights and slurs between supporters of different palaeontologists. Hopefully, we’ll get some clarity.

18.   More from Tendaguru. From 1906 to 1911, the German empire excavated Tendaguru quarry in Tanzania. Such animals like Janeschia, Torneria, Dicreosaurus, Elaphrosaurus, Dysaltosaurus and Kentrosaurus have emerged. Tanzania seems to have been as rich as the USA or China in Late Jurassic, and the Tendaguru could possibly rival the Shanximiao and Morrison formations. Alas, while the Natural History Museum and the Humboldt Museum have done extensive research with their current fossils (theropod fossils have now been reassigned from Allosaurus and Ceratosaurus to two new species but are only represented by a few pieces), there has been relatively little new material. Hopefully, we’ll see more fossils from this site after a century

19.   More Saurophaganax and Amphicoelias. More giant fossils. More enigmas. More fascinating species known only from fragments. More species that might only be supersized versions of common animals. Yep, we need more fossils of these. A Tyrannosaurus-sized allosaur and an even more enormous sauropod would be fantastic finds, and the scant fragments we’ve seen provide tantalizing glimpses. With a little luck, we’ll see more of these.

20.   Late Cretaceous African and Australian material.  The Late Cretaceous is represented in every continent but one. Europe has French and Hungarian material. There’s a fairly thorough record of North America’s last 15 million years. Mongolia’s been a treasure trove. Even South America, Madagascar and India have their own faunas of giant ceratosaurs and titanosaurs. But there are two places missing late Cretaceous material-Australia and Africa. Both continents have excellent early and middle Cretaceous faunas, but nothing from the end of the Mesozoic. It would be fantastic if someone found a site with either. What happened to the lines of Spinosaurus and Carcharodontosaurus? Did Hadrosaurs and Ankylosaurus evolve in Australia? Did the last of the Hypsilophodonts, Carnosaurs, and Iguanodonts hang on in the Southern hemisphere until the very end?



  1. For an up-to-date list of vertebrzte fossils from the Neogene of Sonora, Mexico, see:

    1. Gracias! I'm glad Mexico has proven itself a great bed for Pleistocene megafauna.