If 2008 is remembered for anything, surely it will come to be known as the year Triassic broke.
When you were a kid, the Triassic was an impossibly dreary place peppered with some generic economy-model dinosaurs. Oh sure there were also some stupid looking synapids, a bunch of “thecodonts” and “eosuchians” or whatever, a mess of footprints, maybe a mass extinction event or two…but honestly, who gave a Morganucodon‘s ass?
While Triassic dinosaur faunae may not be as a charismatic as those of the later Mesozoic, there are still plenty of reasons to be interested in what was going on on our planet between ~250 and ~200 million years ago. Emerging from wake of the largest mass extinction event of all time, perhaps uncoincidentally, the Triassic was a time of dramatic evolutionary change. A great wealth of new clades appeared in the Triassic–including the first “true” mammals, crocodilians, frogs, turtles, squamates, dinosaurs, pterosaurs, ichthyosaurs, sauropterygians, scleractinian corals, modern sharks, coccolithophores, several important insect groups, I could go on and on–this evolutionary overdrive is so pronounced that some even speak of a “Triassic explosion.” The end of the Triassic was marked by another pronounced extinction event, which although pale in comparision to the Permo-Triassic event may have paved the way for the rise of the dinosaurs although others maintain it was the rise of dinosaurs themselves that drove the extinction.
All of which makes this classic Onion article even more hilariously poingnant. In fact, we “secular Triassicists” are witnessing something of a golden era. Nick Fraser’s spectacular Dawn of the Dinosaurs, published in 2006 is a great resource for those interested in delving into the Triassic world, as visualized by the exceptionally talented Douglas Henderson. However the pace of discovery and the renewed scientific interest in the Triassic is so pronounced that a revised edition is already needed.
In the mean time, here is my list of the top 5 Triassic news stories of 2008:
5) The Aeto-Contra scandal – The confusion and controversy surrounding the naming of a new species of the unusual armored hellasaurs known as aetosaurs exploded across the internets in early 2008 and blossomed into a full fledged “-gate” with its own website and everything. While in the end, the “resolution” of the conflict left plenty to be desired, if it’s true that there is no such thing as bad publicity then perhaps the silver-lining to the scandal is a somewhat higher profile for those wacky Aetosaurs.
4) Kryostega the Crocomander and Gerrothorax the, uh, Toiletmander? – While large, freakazoid “amphibians” (i.e. non-amniote tetrapods) were diverse and widespread in the Paleozoic they gradually trickled out during the Mesozoic leaving only the extant lissamphibians. However during the Triassic a number of impressive “amphibians” were still around kicking ass and taking names. The antarctic Kryostega a 4.5 meter aquatic predator was in the news this year, as was the rather smaller Gerrothroax whose unusual head-lifting bite inspired some choice wordsmithing by headline writers across the globe. Don’t miss Matt Celeskey’s awesome interactive Gerrothorax animation at the Hairy Museum of Natural History. (Speaking of Antarctica, the oldest known tetrapod burrows, sweet.)
3) Longisquama Lets its Freak Flags Fly – Even among the surreal host of Triassic creatures, Longisquama stands out as a weirdo. Recent work on the bizarre skin appendages of Longisquama add to our understanding of this strange animal but still leave much room for future discovery…more on this later, maybe.
2) The Triassic (Blog) Explosion – No fewer than three, that’s right three Triassic themed blogs launched this year all of which are required reading for Triassophiles:
Life of the Madygen – triassiccritters.blogspot.com – Written by a paleontologist based in Germany, this blog highlights the important Triassic fossils of Central Asia, including the aforementioned Longisquama. The outcrop photos are geo-porn at its finest.
Chinleana – chinleana.blogspot.com – The Chinle Formation is the most famous and arguably most important source of terrestrial Triassic fossils in North America. Recent discoveries in the Chinle have shed light on the origin of dinosaurs, transformed our understanding of late Triassic stratigraphy and revealed a host of interesting hellasaurs all of which (and more) are fodder for Chinle expert Bill Parker.
Paleoerrata – paleoerrata.blogspot.com – Yet another expert on North American Triassic terrestrial vertebrates, Jeff Martz’s blog thus far has covered not just the evolutionary history of the Triassic but is also a font of wisdom for aspiring young bucks and does, er, un- or underemployed paleontologists.
1) Triassic Turtle Mania – Odontochelys and Chinlechelys: a one-two punch in the ongoing turtle evolution cage-match. Confusingly each fossil is seen as a TKO by the respective rival camps, on the plus side both paint a picture of Triassic turtles as being more morphologically and ecologically diverse than ever imagined. Both fossils sent ripples across the blogosphere as usual, the Hairy Museum of Natural History is an excellent place to start.
Coming in 2009 – The Return of the Enigmatic Hellasaur (including Thalattosaurs…I swear!). See you next year!