Dr. Bonnan is moving East

I wanted to wait until I could make this announcement official.  Now that everything is in place, I can.  Starting this fall semester 2012, I will be a new Associate Professor in the Biology Program at the Richard Stockton College in New Jersey.  I am honored to be stepping into the position previously held by Dr. Roger Wood, a noted turtle paleontologist, and I am thrilled about the new opportunities this position will give me both in teaching and research.  Of course, as a paleontologist it is exciting to be on the East Coast and close to so many major institutions and museums.  I have already received a very warm welcome from the Stockton community, and I am looking forward to working with my new colleagues at Stockton.

This decision, however, means I will be departing my current position as Associate Professor at Western Illinois University in the Department of Biological Sciences.  WIU gave me an opportunity to begin my career fresh out of graduate school in a tenure-track position, and to build both my teaching and research experience.  I will miss many colleagues and friends at WIU, and I have fond memories of overseeing and advising numerous undergraduate and graduate students in scientific research.

To all my former undergraduate and graduate students, you should know that you have helped me become a better teacher, and a professor always learns more from his students than he imparts to them.

In the near future, I will be updating The Evolving Paleontologist to include information about my courses, office hours, and other ways for students at Stockton to reach and interact with me.  I will also continue to post commentary on all-things evolutionary (but especially dinosaur-y … is that a word?) and in my own lab.

I again feel honored and fortunate to have a career that allows me to continue walking alongside sauropod dinosaurs while exploring the bigger picture of vertebrate functional morphology and evolutionary anatomy.

Complete with feathers

Despite the opening scene in the movie Jurassic Park where a team of paleontologists and their field hands sweep dirt (which looked like kitty litter) off a completely articulated “Velociraptor,” it is actually quite rare to get anything even remotely complete and articulated from the fossil record.  We paleontologists are often ecstatic if we get over 50% of a skeleton, and the higher that number creeps, the bigger our grins get.  As someone who has had the good fortune to find and name two dinosaurs, believe me — even a 40% complete skeleton is enough to throw a party about.  And that’s just if the skeleton is in pieces, let alone articulated in any semblance.

Hence the eternal question, “how do you really know what you have?  Aren’t you just speculating?”  The answer to that question involves cars and trip to the junkyard.  If you were an expert on automobiles, and you went to a junkyard and found bits and pieces of cars, you could still have some very good approximations of what was in the scrap heap.  You might, from pieces of engine block and chassis undergirding, be able to get down to the make or model, and even have a fair idea of how large the car was.  So it is with dinosaur skeletons.  Many of us know our anatomy well, and so even if the whole animal isn’t there, we can often say a lot, factually, about what was probably or almost certainly there.

Therefore, when we do find a complete or nearly complete dinosaur, it is truly rare and mind-blowing.  Such is the case with the newly discovered predatory dinosaur, Sciurumimus albersdoerferi, reported in the journal PNAS by Oliver Rauhut and colleagues.  The genus name, by the way, essentially translates to “squirrel mimic.”  This little, post-hatchling dinosaur was discovered in the same Late Jurassic sediments from Germany as its more famous feathered relative, Archaeopteryx.  This animal is complete, and I do mean complete.  To put this in the proper perspective, bear in mind that the delicate bones of the hands and feet and nearly every single tail (caudal) vertebra, elements that are normally lost to time, are preserved.  In fact, even the hyoid bone, the splint-like tongue-anchoring bone in all jawed vertebrates, is present, tucked just behind and beneath the chin.

This little predator is not on the line of dinosaurs that led to the birds (birds are dinosaurs?).  Instead it belongs to a family of predatory dinosaurs called megalosauroids that share more deeper, distant common ancestors with the coelurosaur line that led to birds.  And here’s where things get truly weird: this little predator had filamentous proto-feathers preserved at the base of its tail and along parts of its body.  Given the position of this predatory dinosaur in the family tree, it strongly suggests that all or nearly all predatory dinosaurs had some kind of feathers, proto-feathers, or filamentous structures adorning their bodies.  And here again, we have an animal with no hope of flying (the arms are much too small to have been effective wings) still sporting plumage or its equivalent.

With hindsight, we might now say that not only was Jurassic Park a bit off the mark with how it portrayed dinosaur discoveries, but it was also, perhaps, too conservative with its predatory dinosaurs, who might have sported filaments and feathers.  Perhaps this is something Steven Spielberg and friends could fix with the magic of CG when Jurassic Park is re-released on some future date in ultra hi-def surround holographic discs that do not yet exist.  Until then, you could always watch the parts with Velociraptor through a feather duster.