Blogger busts dinosaur myths

The Science Life

For Brian Switek, the arrival of warm weather means it’s time to grab a case of beer, jump in the car and head out for the first dinosaur dig of the season. As a blogger who writes mainly about dinosaurs, he’ll spend days at a time camped out with paleontologists in America’s premier dino-hunting territory.

Recent years have brought a surge of new dino research. Analyses of fossils such as this Microraptor, for instance, have given clues to dinosaur colors. M. Ellison; Ed T

Courtesy B. Switek

The actual fieldwork isn’t always so romantic — “looking for crumbs” is how Switek describes it — but he says there’s nothing more rewarding than spotting an interesting bit of bone.

As new finds emerge, scientists continually renovate theories on dino biology. “The pace of discovery is almost impossible to keep up with,” says Switek (below). He has spent the last seven years writing about all things paleontological, and the fast-moving field has provided him with plenty of material to work with.

Switek started blogging about science in the fall of 2006 while studying marine science at Rutgers University in his home state of New Jersey. What began as a hobby eventually led to freelance writing, and his blog Laelaps has built up a readership of hard-core paleontology fans.

Until recently, Switek balanced writing with an office job at Rutgers’ agricultural regulation department. (He finished his first book, Written in Stone, by working nights and weekends.) In 2011 he quit to pursue writing full time, leaving the East Coast for Salt Lake City in the fossil-hunting heartland.

“I accidentally created a sort of career,” he jokes, “where I can write like crazy during the winter and go out in the field in summer.”

In his early blogging days, Switekvolunteered to do fieldwork anywhere he could. Now scientists invite him on field expeditions. He has hunted fossils at well-known sites like Ghost Ranch in New Mexico and Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument in Utah. One of his favorite places is Dinosaur National Monument, which straddles the border between Utah and Colorado. There, he says, you can climb a ridge “and see over 500 million years of natural history.”

Switek’s second book, My Beloved Brontosaurus, hit bookstores in April (SN: 5/4/13, p. 34). In it, he takes on popular misconceptions about dinosaurs(there’s no such thing as a Brontosaurus, for example) and catches readers up on the latest dino research. For his next project, he might explore what the fossil record reveals about how species respond to climate change and habitat loss. But that’s just one option. “I have more ideas than I know what to do with,” he says.

Dinosaurs in flux

Forget one-shot finds of new species. Author and blogger Brian Switek is more interested in discoveries that open up new biological and evolutionary questions about dinosaurs. Here are a few of the discoveries that he finds most intriguing from recent years.

Dinos growing up  A 2010 study proposed that two species of three-horned dinosaurs, Triceratops and Torosaurus, were actually different life stages of the same animal. Skulls thought to belong to full-grown Triceratops (left), the authors noted, might actually be from young adult Torosaurus. If true, this would mean the animals endured major physical changes during their lifetimes; Torosaurus, for instance, sports large holes in its bony frill, but Triceratops doesn’t. The find fits with the idea that other dinos that were once considered different species might represent one animal across a lifetime.

A hint of hue Dinosaur colors have been a long-standing mystery for paleontologists. “As kids, we were told we’re never going to know what color they were,” Switek notes. But recently, researchers examining fossilized melanosomes — pigment-producing organelles found in feathers — have started reconstructing the hues of the birdlike dinosaurs Archaeopteryx, Sinosauropteryx, Anchiornis and Microraptor.

Mesozoic moms A broken Tyrannosaurus rex femur reported in 2005 made it easier to determine the gender of some dinosaur fossils. Mary Schweitzer of North Carolina State University in Raleigh and her colleagues noticed that the inner cavity of the bone was lined with a special type of tissue called medullary bone, which stores calcium in egg-laying birds. The team surmised that the tyrannosaur was pregnant when she died. With a reliable way to identify some females in the fossil record, scientists can start studying new facets of dinosaurs’ sex lives.

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