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Jane’s cellar of mystery

July 1, 1993

Jane’s cellar of mystery

By Rod Myers, Naturalist

“People out East call them the cellars; of course, you Midwesterners call them basements,” said Barb Williams, volunteer biologist for Burpee Museum as she passed around her favorite “Doonesbury” cartoon strip. You never know whom you might run into in Jane, the mystery dinosaur’s cellar at Burpee Museum. Barb Williams’ lab and Mike Henderson’s lab are in Jane’s cellar, but they are there all the time.

On Monday, April 28, however, a face I had never seen was in the cellar. The face belonged to paleontologist Phil Currie, curator of the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Drumheller, Alberta, Canada. The Royal Tyrrell Museum is home to one of the finest dinosaur collections in the world. Phil looked like the drummer from the Rolling Stones, but his voice sounded like Jeff Goldblume of Jurassic Park fame.

As Barb Williams handed Phil a “Doonesbury” cartoon, Phil spoke up: “I have a big collection of cartoons. Some of them I show during lectures about dinosaurs.”

“Oh, you have a dinosaur cartoon collection,” I piped. Then I told him all about the cartoons of dinosaurs with disabilities I drew. I did about 30, but out of those, only seven are actually funny. I told Phil the best one was of a dinosaur skeleton on display that had osteoporosis. I call it osteoporosisauros.”

“That’s strange,” said Currie. “We’re looking for evidence of osteoporosis in dinosaur fossils. Dinosaurs may have had calcium deficiencies because of all the eggs they laid. A fossil of a predatory dinosaur named Oviraptor was found on its nest incubating 36 eggs. It’s believed the Tyrannosaurids laid a lot of eggs because of a Tarbosaurus nest found in Asia. The nest was nine feet across and full of eggs 18 inches long.

Phil Currie was in Jane’s cellar to examine her for a couple of days. Phil has had a lot of experience with T-rexes; he has examined 25 of the nearly 40 T-rex skeletons that exist in man’s custody. He was helping to shed some light on some of Jane’s mysteries. Phil ended the debate about some brain case-looking bones in the big pod. It was just a few weeks ago when volunteer, bone cleaner and botany paleontology student Dave Carlson showed me some pod bones. These bones looked like the brain case on the color-coded computer printout of a Tyrannosaurus rex multi-sectional skull identification diagram. The diagram hung on the wall next to Jane’s pod, and it hung there for a good reason: we needed it. The brain case looked small, but dinosaur brains were small in proportion to their bodies.

Jane, however, was a predator, and predatory dinosaurs had bigger brains than plant-eating dinosaurs. Tyrannosaurus had binocular vision for depth perception, making it easier for it to hunt. This binocular evolution meant the brain had to grow, but that’s only one reason predacious dinosaur brains are bigger. Another reason for brain enlargement is that they had to do more anticipatory thinking, for example, during a chase, fight or struggle, or predicting where food prey might move next. Throw in an acute sense of smell, and you end up with a good-sized Tyrannosaur brain. But much debate and speculation exists about how good a hunter adult Tyrannosaurus rexes were. Renowned paleontologist John Horner believes T-rex, at least as an adult, was a scavenger. He thinks Rex’s olfactory system made it the ultimate sniffer of carrion. Horner thinks Rex was too slow to catch most prey. Horner, whose persona was portrayed by Sam Neil in Jurassic Park, has calculated T-rex’s maximum speed to have been between 10-15 mph. T-rexes were too big to stride; one foot had to be on the ground at all times. In Jurassic Park, the movie, the lone shock wave in the glass of water scene meant big T.R. could take only one step at a time.

Some believe T. rexes were ambush hunters. They would simply wait for prey to come close, then lash out to inflict a fatal or infecting bite. Then the Rex could follow the bitten victim’s blood with its acute sense of smell or wait days later to pick up the scent of the bitten wound infected by Rex’s bite, much like the Komodo dragon does. Some believe that the small wells at the base of T-rex tooth serrations were excellent little cesspools for infecting bacteria. These wells probably held old rotting prey flesh from past meals. The bacteria would be transferred to the flesh of the victim during the bite. Jane, whether she was a Nano or something else, was a good runner and had teeth suited for slashing. This made her different from an adult T. rex.

I asked Phil Currie, “Is Jane a young T-rex?” “No, probably not,” he said. “I’ve studied the bones and taken a lot of measurements, and I think Jane is different than a T-rex.”

I asked him, “What about the few teeth that look like T-rex teeth?” and he replied, “That means she had some bone-crunching teeth in front, that’s all.” Then I asked if he thought Jane was a Nanotyrannus, and he replied, “Jane probably is, but it’s just too early to make the call.”

Lately, we’ve been having doubts about those brain case-looking bones in the pod actually being a brain case. Some on the Jane team think they are neck vertebrae. Phil Currie solved the mystery by declaring that the bones were indeed neck vertebrae. Before I left the museum on April 28, I showed Phil a picture I drew of Jane’s post orbital. “What do you think of the post orbital drawing?” I asked.

“Oh, that’s very artistic,” said Phil, “but that’s not a post orbital, it’s an ectopterygoid.” “Oh,” I replied. By now, I was having doubts about my theory on the glass of water shock wave in Jurassic Park being caused by an amputee Rex.

Rod Myers is a local resident with an interest in the environment and disability issues. He has an associate’s degree in science and a bachelor’s in fine arts. Rod is a member of the Audubon Society, the Wild Ones Natural Landscapers and Rockford Amateur Astronomers, Inc.

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