The Most Exciting (and Frustrating) Stories From This Year in Dinosaurs

From feathers to black market fossil controversies, 2012 was a big year for dinosaurs

A restoration of Nyasasaurus in its Middle Triassic habitat, based on the known bones and comparisons to closely related forms. The description of Nyasasaurus was one of the year’s most important dinosaur stories. Art by Mark Witton.

There’s always something new to learn about dinosaurs. Whether it’s the description of a previously-unknown species or a twist in what we thought we knew about their lives, our understanding of the evolution, biology, and extinction is shifting on a near-daily basis. Even now, paleontologists are pushing new dinosaurs to publication and debating the natural history of these wonderful animals, but the end of the year is as good a time as any to take a brief look back at what we learned in 2012.

For one thing, there was an exceptional amount of dino-hype this year. A retracted paper that mused on the nature of hypothetical space dinosaurs, a credulous report on an amateur scientist who said he had evidence that all dinosaurs were aquatic, and overblown nonsense about dinosaurs farting themselves into extinction all hit the headlines. (And the less said about the Ancient Aliens dinosaur episode, the better.) Dinosaurs are amazing enough without such sensationalist dreck, or, for that matter, being transformed into abominable human-raptor hybrids by Hollywood.

Not all the dinosaurs to wander into the media spotlight were atrocious, though. The glossy book Dinosaur Art collected some of the best prehistoric illustrations ever created, and the recently-released All Yesterdays presented dinosaurs in unfamiliar scenes as a way to push artists to break from severely-constrained traditions. Dinosaurs were probably much more unusual than we have ever imagined.

Indeed, new discoveries this year extended the range of fluff and feathers among dinosaurs and raised the question of whether “enfluffledness” was an ancient, common dinosaur trait. Paleontologists confirmed that the ostrich-like Ornithomimus–long suspected to have plumage–sported different arrangements of feathers as it aged. New insight on the 30-foot-long carnivore Yutyrannus affirmed that even big tyrannosaurs were covered in dinofuzz. And while both Ornithomimus and Yutyrannus belonged to the feathery subset of the dinosaur family tree that includes birds, the discovery of fluff on a much more distantly related theropodSciurumimus–hints that feathers were a much older, more widespread dinosaur feature than previously expected. Paired with previous finds, Sciurumimus suggests that protofeathers either evolved multiple times in dinosaurian history, or that the simple structures are a common inheritance at the base of the dinosaur family tree that was later lost in some groups and modified in others.

While some traditionalists might prefer scaly dinosaurs over fuzzy ones, feathers and their antecedents are important clues that can help paleontologists explore other aspects of paleobiology. This year, for example, researchers reconstructed dark, iridescent plumage on Microraptor on the basis of fossil feathers, and, as display structures, feathery decorations will undoubtedly have a role to play in the ongoing debate about how sexual selection influenced dinosaur forms.  Feathers can also be frustrating–a new look at the plumage of Anchiornis and Archaeopteryx will undoubtedly alter our expectations of how aerially capable these bird-like dinosaurs were and how they might have escaped predatory dinosaurs that dined on the prehistoric fowl. Such lines of inquiry are where the past and present meet–after all, birds are modern dinosaurs.

Feathers aren’t the only dinosaur body coverings we know about. Skin impressions, such as those found with the ankylosaur Tarchia, have also helped paleontologists discern what dinosaurs actually looked like. Pebbly patterns in Saurolophus skin can even be used to differentiate species, although paleontologists are still puzzled as to why hadrosaurs seem to be found with fossil skin traces more often than other varieties of dinosaur.

And, speaking of ornamentation, a damaged Pachycephalosaurus skull dome might provide evidence that these dinosaurs really did butt heads. How the adornments of such dinosaurs changed as they aged, though, is still a point of controversy. One of this year’s papers threw support to the idea that Torosaurus really is a distinct dinosaur, rather than a mature Triceratops, but that debate is far from over.

Other studies provided new insights into how some dinosaurs slept, the evolutionary pattern of dinosaur successionwhat dinosaur diversity was like at the end of the Cretaceous, and how dinosaurs grew up, but, of course, how dinosaurs fed is a favorite place that lies at the intersection of science and imagination. A poster at the annual Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting deconstructed how Tyrannosaurus rex–suggested to have the most powerful bite of any terrestrial animal ever–tore the heads off of deceased Triceratops. The herbivorous Diplodocus, by contrast, munched soft plants and stripped branches of vegetation rather than gnawing on tree bark, and the tiny, omnivorous Fruitadens probably mixed insects with its Jurassic salads. Studying dinosaur leftovers also explained why paleontologists didn’t find more of the mysterious Deinocheirus, which thus far has been identified by only one incomplete fossil–the long-armed ornithomimosaur was eaten by a Tarbosaurus.

We also met a slew of new dinosaurs this year, including the many-horned Xenoceratops, the archaic coelurosaur Bicentenaria, the sail-backed Ichthyovenator, the stubby-armed Eoabelisaurus, and the early tyrannosaur Juratyrant. This is just a short list of species I wrote about–a few that add to the ever-increasing list.

To properly study dinosaurs and learn their secrets, though, we must protect them. One of the most important dinosaur stories this year wasn’t about science, but about theft. An illicit Tarbosaurus skeleton – pieced together from multiple specimens smuggled out of Mongolia–has brought wide attention to the fossil black market, as well as the poachers and commercial dealers who fuel it. The fate of this dinosaur remains to be resolved, but I’m hopeful that the dinosaur will be returned home and will set a precedent for more vigorously going after fossil thieves and their accomplices.

Out of all the 2012 dinosaur stories, though, I’m especially excited about Nyasasaurus. The creature’s skeleton is as yet too fragmentary to know whether it was true dinosaur or the closest relative to the Dinosauria as a whole, but, at approximately 243 million years old, this creature extends the range of dinosaurs back in time at least 10 million years. That’s another vast swath of time for paleontologists to examine as they search for where dinosaurs came from, and those discoveries will help us better understand the opening chapters in the dinosaurian saga. That’s the wonderful thing about paleontology–new discoveries open new questions, and those mysteries keep us going back into the rock record.

And with that, I must say goodbye to Dinosaur Tracking. On Tuesday I’m starting my new gig at National Geographic’s Phenomena. I’ve had a blast during my time here at Smithsonian, and I bid all my editors a fond farewell as I and my favorite dinosaurs head off to our new home.

Editor’s Note: Best wishes to Brian on his future travels and we all thank him for his hard work over the past 4 (!) years, writing every day about something new on dinosaurs. It’s not nearly as easy as he makes it look. – BW

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