Thursday 25 June 2020

My Trip to the Dinosaur Museum of Frick

Switzerland is not particularly well-known for its dinosaurs. A good example of that is that the center-pieces of the most prominent Swiss dinosaur museum, the Sauriermuseum of Aathal, owned by the Siber family of Big Al-fame, are not Swiss fossils, but dinosaurs that came from a quarry in the American Morrison Formation. In large part this has to do with the fact that throughout most of the Mesozoic the pieces of land that would one day become central Europe were mostly underwater, so most fossils one can find here are of invertebrates, fish and marine reptiles. Nonetheless, in certain places dinosaurs did live here and can even be found in rather spectacular quality. One such place is Frick in the Kanton of Aargau. Beginning in the 1970s, mining operations here found various skeletons of the Late Triassic dinosaur Plateosaurus and other animals, almost all coming from the same clay-pit. With the find of a complete Plateosaurus in 1985 it was decided to build a small museum next to the community’s school to house the discoveries. It was finally opened in 1991. I had already been to the museum once with my parents, but around the age of five, so I had barely any recollection of it. As my birthday was approaching, my girlfriend and I decided to therefore repay it a visit.

The presence of Plateosaurus in Frick extends far beyond the museum and the clay-pit. As one leaves the highway and enters the municipality, they are already greeted by a big grey statue of the sauropodomorph prominently standing on the first roundabout. The sculpture’s posture is of course a bit questionable to modern eyes, but I cannot help but love the big guy. It reminds me a lot of those charming Sinclair Oil dinosaur-models from the 50s, but it was actually erected in 2001. Apart from the statue, the dinosaur has also become part of benches and even the community’s trash-bins. On the path from the museum to the clay pit also stood eight pillars with dinosaur-facts written on them for guide-tours. Because we arrived a bit too early in Frick, we went to the pit first. Part of it, called the Klopfplatz, is a public digsite of marine invertebrates where people can freely dig and keep the fossils they find. At the Klopfplatz was even an employee from the museum who helped the visitors (mostly young children with their parents) identify what they found. If you want to see what fossils I found there, I talk more about it in the video I made. 

After that we finally went to the museum. Entering it, we were first met with a big wall displaying the dinosaur family tree. It is pretty late 80s/early 90s with the dinos looking fairly Sibbick-esque and most theropods still being split up into carnosaurs and coelurosaurs. Stegosaurus also still has its Fibonacci-scale back. Stegosaurs making it to the latest Cretaceous may also raise some eyebrows today, though there is actually still no consensus on that, with some finds (not just the controversial Dravidosaurus but also trace-fossils) still suggesting that they did make it that far in India. I do however know some abelisaurs who would object to the Jurassic ceratosaur-end, though I believe they were not yet included in Ceratosauria or well-known enough yet when this family-tree was made. This picture has likely not been updated since the museum first opened, but given how this is a fairly small museum with small funds that is excusable and there is something nice about having such a relic of science-history on a big display. And in the end, this has not aged so badly as to give visitors any majorly wrong ideas. Dinosauria is monophyletic and birds clearly descend from them. No thecodont-nonsense in sight. “It could have been worse, John.”

After that we entered the main hall. Above the entrance on the wall behind us hung what was probably the center-piece of the exhibit: An 8 meter long, nearly complete skeleton of Plateosaurus, the largest dinosaur-skeleton found in Switzerland. There is not really much you can comment on seeing a big dinosaur skeleton, beyond the fact that it is always awe-inspiring and makes you feel like a seven-year-old again. Of course, a nit-picky person like me may notice that the posture of the hands (you may not see it well here but the right wrist is pronated) is not quite up to date. For the longest time Plateosaurus and its close relatives were reconstructed as animals that could switch between bipedal and quadrupedal motion. While this is still true for at least some early sauropodomorphs, a biomechanical study from 2007 by Phil Senter and Matthew Bonnan found out that Plateosaurus in particular could not pronate its wrists and was therefore unable to walk on all fours (unless it weirdly splayed its hands outward or knuckle-walked, but that seems unlikely). I actually talked with one of the museum employees there and he told me that there definitely are plans to renovate the skeleton to rectify this.

To the left of the entrance was a small cinema that would have shown educational movies, but it was understandably closed due to current health-safety risks. To the right was the femur of a Plateosaurus visitors were allowed to touch, as well as a large hip-girdle, legs and a tail. In the center of the hall was the complete fossil of a Proganochelys quenstedti. It was not found in the clay-pit like the other fossils, but instead came from the nearby mountain of Frickberg. Proganochelys used to be the oldest turtle known to science and still is the oldest one found in Switzerland. Only since 2008 have older ones been found in the form of Odontochelys and Pappochelys, but even these have not been able to fully resolve the true origin of turtles. 

The sign above the fossil tells about this mysterious origin, but also shows the (thankfully credited) life-reconstruction of the animal made in 1964 by none other than Zdeněk Burian. It was a neat surprise to see his work here. How dated his reconstruction is I cannot say, though I do not think it can be that bad, given how Proganochelys already looked a lot like modern turtles (apart from the spikes that make it resemble Bowser).

To the right of the turtle was the skeleton of a juvenile Plateosaurus, nicknamed Fabian. In front of it was the skeleton of a small theropod also found in Frick in 2006. It was however only officially named in 2019, when it got the fancy name Notatesseraeraptor frickensis. So far the only known dinosaur unique to Switzerland (Update: the redescription of Amanzia greppini has made this outdated), the name means “Mosaic-trait-raptor” and refers to the fact that it shares traits from both dilophosaurs and coelophysids, likely being somewhere in-between as far as phylogeny goes. The fossil is accompanied by a very nicely made model, made by Beat Scheffold in 2006, though note it is only 40% of the actual animal’s size, as a sign tells the visitors. It is again fairly 90s in its style of reconstruction, being somewhat shrink-wrapped and Greg Paul-esque (if it should be reconstructed with proto-feathers or scales we still do not know, though there was a very recent study which found epidermal insulation in Coelophysis-type dinosaurs very likely based on metabolic levels), but apart from that it is quite good. It is accompanied by a small tuatara, as the fossil was preserved well enough to determine what the small theropod last ate, which happened to be a Triassic rhynchocephalian. In 2017 another unknown theropod was found in Frick, which is currently being worked on.

The left wall of the hall was made up of display cases showing various anatomical and biological aspects of Plateosaurus. If read from left to right one first learns about the hands and feet of the dinosaur, then its legs, then its skull, then the spine and pelvis and finally the animals and plants it lived with. I was surprised to learn that scutes of aetosaurs have been found in Frick as well. For some reason it never occurred to me that they lived in this part of the world too, though it should have been obvious given that we are talking about the time of Pangea here. I guess popular paleo media has conditioned me to think that the really strange and exotic things can only be found in far-off places like South America, China or Wyoming. I also did not know that aetosaurs, like surprisingly many extinct reptiles, have a common name in German: Adlerkopfechse (eagle-head-lizard), a somewhat literal, but misleading translation of the scientific name. 

At the end of the hall sat another large, nearly complete skeleton of Plateosaurus engelhardti, though this time positioned as it was found in the ground. As such it was actually best to look at the skeleton not from up close but from the upstairs platform where one could look directly down onto it. The end of the hall was decorated with a large mural, showing Plateosaurus in its native environment. I unfortunately could not find out who made it, but I did find out that it was made in 1999 (Edit: I have since found out that this was most definitely made by Beat Scheffold). As is typical of the time, the dinosaurs are a bit on the skinny side and we see a common trope of Plateosaurus-depictions that was really popular from the 70s onward until 2007: Two Plateosaurus standing next to each other, one on all fours, the other on two legs, to show off the dinosaur’s supposed mobility. Ignoring how dated this has become, the mural is still a lovely piece of art. The panoramic view and the convincing atmosphere of the dry and desolate Triassic make it look like a window through time, with the two surprised sauropodomorphs looking back at us as if they are also observing the equally desolate Holocene. Or I guess Anthropocene, as the cool kids call it nowadays. The background of the muddy bone-bed also blends in nicely with the actual skeleton lying in front of the wall. Seeing how this was made before the discovery of Notatesseraeraptor, the theropods in the background are probably meant to be Liliensternus, which is known from teeth in Frick and a few bones elsewhere in Switzerland. The small herd of running dinosaurs in the background are perhaps meant to be generalized “fabrosaur”-type ornithischians, which have never been found in Frick and according to recent finds may have possibly never even existed in the Triassic. Thanks a lot for that, Pisanosaurus, you silesaurid bastard!.

A staircase led to a small platform hanging above the hall on which marine fossils from the area were displayed. Among them were various invertebrate shells and minerals but also the ribs of some unnamed marine reptile and the bones and skull of an ichthyosaur. The highlights however were a series of pillars on which gigantic ammonite shells were attached, as well as a huge sediment-wall of smaller ammonites and giant clamshells. Down at the hall again a second stairwell right of the entrance led to this year’s special exhibit of the museum: Crinoids in all their beauty! There were large fossils of entire crinoids, as well as cross-sections of singular bone-pieces to show off their radial symmetry. There were diagrams of their anatomy and their lifestyles (including those of the extinct floating and driftwood-attaching ones) and even a small video-screen showing them in life. As someone who really likes crinoids and echinoderms in general I absolutely loved this. Now if only there was also a brachiopod-exhibit…

Unsurprisingly, I really liked our trip to the Sauriermuseum. Some of the exhibits and artwork may be outdated, but not outrageously so (thinking of the raptor-animatronics from a certain British museum) and the staff is aware of and working on it. While it may be small and feels somewhat “local”, for the lack of a better word, this is exactly what gives it its charm. Here Plateosaurus and its contemporaries are local town heroes akin to Willhelm Tell, something which you really have to appreciate. If for whatever reason you happen to stop by in Aargau this is a visit I would definitely recommend. As a souvenir I got myself a little toy plateosaur. I never had one as a child, which is somewhat surprising. Plateosaurus is actually among my favorite dinosaurs, but not due to some feeling of nationalistic pride (the genus was first found and is most common in Germany and has also been found in France). Plateosaurus and its close relatives, the basal sauropodomorphs, have this bauplan which, while basic, also has something really appealing to it. They combine the tail and legs of theropods, the head and neck of sauropods and the teeth and hands of ornithischians all in one body, creating an animal whose shape becomes that of a quintessential dinosaur. Plateosaurus is also large enough to be impressive, but not so gargantuanly titanic as to go insane from just looking at it. Combine these two traits with it being a seemingly placid plant-eater (at least as far as we know, though its smaller South American relative Buriolestes was a carnivore and it has often been suggested that Plateosaurus itself was an occasional scavenger) and you get a perfect, friendly, mass-appealing dinosaur-mascot. Why nobody outside of Frick has capitalized on this yet is beyond me. 

“My goodness, you’ve grown!” old Plateosaurus tells its nephew.
Apart from the Sauriermuseum in Frick there are at least two other major fossil museums in Switzerland: The Sauriermuseum Aathal in Kanton Zürich and the Museo dei fossili di Meride in Kanton Ticino. I definitely plan on (re-)visiting those somewhen in the future, so stay tuned for that!

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Literary Sources:
  • Barrett, Paul/ Naish, Darren: Dinosaurs. How they lived and evolved, London 2016 (2. Edition).
  • Bonnan, Matthew/Senter, Phil: Were the basal sauropodomorph dinosaurs Plateosaurus and Massospondylus habitual quadrupeds?, in Barrett, P.M.; Batten, D.J. (eds.). Evolution and Palaeobiology of Early Sauropodomorph Dinosaurs (Special Papers in Palaeontology 77). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. pp. 139–155.
  • Hallett, Mark/Wedel, Matthew: The Sauropod Dinosaurs. Life in the Age of Giants, Baltimore 2016.
Online Sources/Further Reading: 
Image Sources:
  • All images taken by me

Monday 8 June 2020

The problem with generic titles in Dinosaur Media

Fig. 1: You can barely get more blunt with a title like that, which is a shame as this was quite a good and charming book for the time.
Ever been in a situation where you remember a paleontological book, movie or documentary from a long time ago but cannot for the life of you remember the name because it was just something along the lines of “Something something Dinosaurs”? In the rare case that you did end up rediscovering it again, did you also find out that it shares the same or a similar name with a bunch of other media, so to avoid confusion in discussions you have to specify the date or author? At least I had these situations a number of times. Just to demonstrate how much this has irked me I wanted to list some of the most notable examples I have encountered over the years:
  • When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth is the name of a 1970 stop-motion caveman movie, but also of a 1999 documentary narrated by none other than Jeff Goldblum and of a popular 1985 book by David Norman and John Sibbick. Dinosaurs of the Earth is also the name of a 1965 children’s book by John Raymond. The name is also similar to the 2001 Discovery Channel documentary When Dinosaurs Roamed America.
  • Dinosaur Planet is the name of a 2004 Discovery Channel documentary, but also of two novels, one by Anne McCaffrey and the other by Stephen Leigh. Planet Dinosaur is a 2011 BBC documentary, while Planet of the Dinosaurs is a 1977 sci-fi movie. Planet of Dinosaurs is the name of a 1993 documentary made in Italy. As a little bit of trivia, the Rare-game Starfox Adventures was also originally going to be called Dinosaur Planet.
  • The Age of Reptiles is the name of the famous Rudolph Zallinger mural (as well as the accompanying guidebook), but also of a series of comics by Ricardo Delgado. Recreating an Age of Reptiles is also the name of a Mark Witton book about paleoart. Age of Dinosaurs is the name of an awful mockbuster made by The Asylum.
  • The Warm-Blooded Dinosaurs by Julian May and The Hot-Blooded Dinosaurs by Adrian J. Desmond are both books that dealt with the Dinosaur Renaissance and came out around the same time. The difference is that the former was mainly aimed at children and featured original paleoart while the latter was aimed at adults and featured other artists’ works. Nonetheless this was so far the one case where I accidentally ordered the wrong one online, mistaking it for the other.
  • Dinosaur Island is the name of a 1994 B-movie as well as that of a 2014 one. Dino Island is also the name of a 2002 zoo-simulation game.
  • Carnosaur, a 1984 novel by John Brosnan and Carnivore, written in 1997 by John Leigh, are both horror stories dealing with resurrected dinosaurs (the former being notably six years older than Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park). Carnivores is also the name of a series of dinosaur-hunting videogames.
  • The Lost World is the name of the famous 1912 Arthur Conan Doyle novel and all of its adaptations, but also of the second Jurassic Park novel and its movie adaptation. The similar-sounding Land of the Lost is also the name of a 70s TV show, its 90s revival and its 2009 movie adaptation. The Lost Lands also happens to be the name of the home-dimension of Turok, our favorite native American dinosaur-hunter.
  • The Land before Time is a 1988 Don Bluth animated movie, The Land That Time Forgot is a novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs. If you are German, the latter also comes awfully close to The Lost World, as that title is usually translated to “Die Vergessene Welt” (The Forgotten World) by convention.
  • Prehistoric Monsters Revealed and Monsters Resurrected are both awful documentaries made by the History and Discovery Channel respectively. Both titles are also similar to Prehistoric Predators and Prehistoric Creatures, two documentary series produced by National Geographic. Then there was also a 2009 Discovery Channel documentary literally just called Prehistoric.
  • The New Dinosaurs is the name of both the Dougal Dixon spec-evo book and of a regular dinosaur-book by William Stout.
  • The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs is a famous book by David Norman with illustrations by John Sibbick from 1985 but some variation of that title has also been the name of what feels like every dinosaur book made by Dougal Dixon since the 90s. Many other books abound which are just called “The (illustrated) Dinosaur Encyclopedia”, “The Dinosaur Atlas” or some variation thereof, the most recent example being Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs: The Theropods by Ruben Molina-Perez and Asier Larramendi.
  • In a similar vein, 1983 saw A Field Guide to Dinosaurs by David Lambert, while in 2010 Gregory S. Paul wrote The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs (sometimes also just called Dinosaurs: A Field Guide). There also exists the Jurassic Park Institute Field Guide and the Jurassic World Dinosaur Field Guide, both written by Thomas R. Holtz Jr.
  • Both in paleontology and history various titles exist which pay homage to Edward Gibbons’ The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The most recent one is Steve Brusatte’s The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs. Most will however be a variation of “The Rise of X”, such as The Rise of Birds by Sankar Chatterjee, Rise of Amphibians by Robert Carroll or The Rise of Reptiles by Hans-Dieter Sues.
  • The number of books simply named “Dinosaurs”, “Dinosaur”, “Dinosaurs!” or “Dinosaurs: [Insert generic subtitle]” is too big to list, as is that of B-movie-titles trying to rip off Jurassic Park.
At least two problems are created by this vast amount of similarly named media. The first is the aforementioned confusion that this causes in us, the readers/viewers/customers. Imagine trying to easily look up Dinosaurs (the 90s Jim Henson sitcom) or Dinosaur (the 2000 Disney movie) on the internet, especially when chances are high that you don’t even remember their names for being so bland or when exactly they were made by whom. Numerous times I had to differentiate Planet Dinosaur from Dinosaur Planet by also naming the networks, years and who made them to avoid confusion in discussions. In a sort of poetic way the lack of original names resembles the trouble paleontologists have to deal with when a certain genus is overlumped (just think of all the theropods which have been mistakenly classified as Megalosaurus throughout history). The second problem is that behind some of these generic and bland names lie actual notable and great pieces of media, but because of their naming they become easily forgotten or confused with others, obscuring the prominence and legacy they could have had. A book should not be judged by its cover, but many unfortunately are.
Fig. 2: Paleontology books with memorable and/or intriguing titles. Vintage copper-dinosaurs added for further entertainment (Image taken by me).

Now is there a way to fix this problem? On one hand it seems that such situations just become unavoidable. The number of names you can come up with for media centered around one particular subject simply is finite. If you write a book that is an encyclopedia of dinosaurs it becomes quite difficult to name it something that differentiates it from other dinosaur encyclopedias. Same goes with books aimed at children which are just meant to be an introduction to dinosaurs. On the other hand, there have always been good pieces of paleontology-related media with unique, interesting and memorable names. Just take one of the all-time classics of dinosaurology: The Dinosaur Heresies by Robert T. Bakker. Even if you do not know anything about its contents, the title evokes interest and especially intrigue. “What exactly could be so heretical in the study of dinosaurs?”, the reader asks themselves as they look at the cover of two fighting John Gurche behemoths. Stephen Jay Gould’s essay-collections concerning dinosaurs have also had eye-catching titles, such as Dinosaurs in a Haystack and Bully for Brontosaurus. Now you could argue that one can only name their book in such a way if they are, for example, arguing for a certain view. Bakker was not writing a general introduction to dinosaurs, but making a big-scale argument for the warm-bloodedness of dinosaurs which ran contrary to the time’s orthodoxy, hence the name. However, there are a lot of notable books about general subjects, or which serve as general introductions, that possess unique and intriguing titles. Oceans of Kansas by Michael J. Everhart is a great overview of life in the Western Interior Seaway of the Late Cretaceous. A Sea without Fish is a book by David Meyer and Richard Arnold Davis about life during the Ordovician period. Splendid Isolation by George Simpson and Horned Armadillos and Rafting Monkeys by Darin Croft are two good books about the extinct mammals of South America. Gaining Ground is Jenny Clack’s great book on the evolution of early tetrapods. Jurassic West is John Foster’s book about the dinosaurs of the Morrison Formation. Wonderful Life by Stephen Jay Gould is perhaps the best-known book about life in the Cambrian. Notice what they all have in common? None actually name the general subject of the book in the title, but circumscribe it in a poetic, eye-catching way that gives it character. They do not use simple keywords like prehistoric, monster or dinosaur. Apart from Jurassic West, none of those paleontology books however have dinosaurs as their focus and for many other books that do, it can become quite difficult to create a title that does not mention its subject-matter by name. This makes he titles easily fall into the trap of sounding generic. Nonetheless, do you think the Jurassic Park franchise would even have half the success it enjoys today if Michael Crichton named his original novel something like “The Dinosaur Zoo”? I would rather read Billy and the Cloneosaurus than that. Even if the word dinosaur has to be used in a title, there are methods to avoid falling into generics, such as not making it the the main focus. A good example of this is the documentary Walking with Dinosaurs. The focus in the title is not the word dinosaur, but rather the concept of the show, which is that the creatures are filmed as if real cameramen were there alongside them. This way, the dinosaur-part of the title also becomes interchangeable, allowing for shows under the same name and format, but about different subjects, such as Walking with Beasts and Walking with Monsters. This is likely one of the reasons why this BBC documentary managed to become such a well-known franchise with multiple spin-offs, books and even a live show under its name. Even simple books aimed at children can follow such naming conventions, such as Prehistoric Monsters did the strangest things from 1974, which seems to be well-remembered by many people probably still wondering what those prehistoric monsters were up to.

All of this was just a long-winded way for me to tell aspiring authors/filmmakers/videogame-developers to please just be more creative with their titles. It is not only helpful for us but also worth it if you want things to be remembered.

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Image Sources:
  • Fig. 1: Jackson, Kathryn/Matternes, Jay: Dinosaurs. Books for Young Explorers National Geographic Society 1972, cover.