“Where No Dinosaur Has Gone Before”

The Starship Enterprise flies over an orange planet in 'The Man Trap,' the premiere episode of 'Star Trek,' which aired on September 8, 1966. (CBS via Getty Images)

The Starship Enterprise flies over an orange planet in ‘The Man Trap,’ the premiere episode of ‘Star Trek,’ which aired on September 8, 1966. (CBS via Getty Images)

Star Trek has been a cult phenomenon for decades. The Original Series premiered on September 8, 1966, and has spawned four successor shows starting in the 1980s and 13 feature films , comic books, novels and an animated series. Star Trek also influenced generations of viewers about advanced science and engineering. Of course, geology played an important role on the show. In the episode “That Which Survives”, we met the senior geologist D’Amato when the USS Enterprise investigates a planet similar to Earth . Unfortunately, D’Amato was soon killed by the hologram of a beautiful woman, Losira, the last survivor of a Kalandan outpost.

Lieutenant D'Amato, the senior geologist aboard the USS Enterprise serving under Captain James T. Kirk.

Lieutenant D’Amato, the senior geologist aboard the USS Enterprise serving under Captain James T. Kirk.

Every incarnation of Star Trek introduced several alien life forms, including the Gorn, a reptilian alien race, a common motif in mythology, folklore, science fiction, conspiracy theories, ufology, and cryptozoology. In the episode “Distant Origin” (Star Trek: Voyager, 1997), the Voth, an ancient civilization in the Delta Quadrant, discovered  the remains of a human Voyager crew member on the planet Hanon IV. Voth scientist Gegen believes he finally has confirmation of his “distant origin” theory. According to Gegen, the Voth actually migrated to the Delta Quadrant from an original planet far away. Later, we discovered that the Voth presumably descended from Parasaurolophus.

The episode, a metaphor for the relationship between Galileo Galilei and the Catholic Church, plays with the infamous “Dinosauroid  Hypothesis” (a.k.a. Sapient Dinosaurs). In the early 1980s, paleontologist Dale Russell, curator of vertebrate fossils at the National Museums of Canada, in Ottawa, speculates about a possible evolutionary path for Troodon, suggesting that it could have evolved into intelligent beings similar in body plan to humans. Troodon, a relatively small theropod, comparable in size to Deinonychus and Unenlagiahad a very large brain for its size, stereoscopic vision, raptorial hands and an enlarged sickle− shaped claw on the foot, indicative of a predatory lifestyle. In the novel First Frontier (Star Trek, Book 75) written by Diane Carey and Dr. James I. Kirkland, a paleontologist who discovered the famous Utahraptor, we found that the U.S.S. Enterprise is caught in an alternative reality where the Earth is a vast jungle-like paradise  ruled by the Clan Ru, an alien race, descendant of Earth’s raptor dinosaurs. The Clan Ru posses two fingers on each hand with an opposable thumb as in Russell’s model for Troodon evolution.

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Russell, D. A., & Séguin, R. 1982. “Reconstruction of the small Cretaceous theropod Stenonychosaurus inequalis and a hypothetical dinosauroid.” Syllogeus 37, 1-43.

Junchang Lü; Li Xu; Yongqing Liu; Xingliao Zhang; Songhai Jia; Qiang Ji (2010). “A new troodontid (Theropoda: Troodontidae) from the Late Cretaceous of central China, and the radiation of Asian troodontids.” Acta Palaeontologica Polonica. 55 (3): 381–388. doi:10.4202/app.2009.0047.

Diane Carey, James I. Kirkland, First Frontier (Star Trek, Book 75) Paperback, August 1, 1995.

A brief introduction to the Carnotaurus family tree.


Skull and neck of Carnotaurus sastrei

Skull and neck of Carnotaurus sastrei (From Novas et al., 2013)

The Abelisauridae represents the best-known carnivorous dinosaur group from Gondwana. Their fossil remains have been recovered in Argentina, Brazil, Morocco, Niger, Libya, Madagascar, India, and France. The oldest records of abelisauroid theropods are from the Early Jurassic. These ceratosaurian theropods exhibit spectacular cranial ornamentation in the form of horns and spikes; and strongly reduced forelimbs and hands. The group was erected by Jose Bonaparte with the description of  Abelisaurus Comahuensis. Although represented by relatively well-known skeletons, the phylogenetic relationships within abelisaurids remain debated. The Argentinean record of abelisauroid theropods begins in the Middle Jurassic (Eoabelisaurus mefi) and spans most of the Late Cretaceous, from Cenomanian (Ilokelesia, Xenotarsosaurus, and Ekrixinatosaurus) to Campanian–Maastrichtian (Abelisaurus, Carnotaurus, Aucasaurus, and Noasaurus).

Abelisauroidea has been divided into two main branches: the Noasauridae and the Abelisauridae. The Noasauridae are known from Cretaceous beds in northern Argentina, Madagascar, India, and Niger. They are small and slender with sizes that range from 1 to 3 metres in length. The best-preserved and most complete noasaurid is Masiakasaurus knopfleri from the Maastrichtian of Madagascar. The Abelisaurids are medium to large, robust animals, such as the Carnotaurus and the Majungasaurus of Madagascar. The group exhibits short, round snouts; thickened teeth; short, stocky arms; and highly reduced forearms.

Masiakasaurus on display at the Royal Ontario Museum.

Masiakasaurus on display at the Royal Ontario Museum.

Carnotaurus sastrei is the most advanced member of Abelisauridae. It was collected in the lower section of La Colonia Formation, Chubut Province, Argentina, by an expedition led by Argentinian paleontologist José Bonaparte. In 1985, Bonaparte published a note presenting Carnotaurus sastrei as a new genus and species and briefly describing the skull and lower jaw. The skull of Carnotaurus is complete, measuring 60 cm from the tip of the premaxillae to the distal tip of the paroccipital process. The most distinctive features of Carnotaurus are the two robust conical horns that extend from the frontals. The horns are dorsoventrally compressed, and 146 mm long on both sides. The dorsal surface of each horn is ornamented with a series of longitudinal grooves. Because relatively few abelisaurid braincases are known, the description of the Carnotaurus braincase is important for understanding the variability of this structure within the clade (Carabajal 2011). C. sastrei would have had a comparatively weak muscle-driven bite.

The forelimbs of Carnotaurus show an extreme reduction, proportionally greater than the reduction observed in tyrannosaurids, although the radius, ulna and humerus are very robust. The hand has four digits, including a large, conical-shaped metacarpal IV lacking an articulation for a phalanx.



Novas, F.E., et al., Evolution of the carnivorous dinosaurs during the Cretaceous: The evidence from Patagonia, Cretaceous Research (2013), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cretres.2013.04.001

Bonaparte, José F.; Novas, Fernando E.; Coria, Rodolfo A. (1990). “Carnotaurus sastrei Bonaparte, the horned, lightly built carnosaur from the Middle Cretaceous of Patagonia”, Contributions in Science (Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County) 416.

Mazzetta, Gerardo V.; Fariña, Richard A.; Vizcaíno, Sergio F. (1998). “On the palaeobiology of the South American horned theropod Carnotaurus sastrei Bonaparte”, Gaia 15: 185–192.

Ruiz, Javier; Torices, Angélica; Serrano, Humberto; López, Valle (2011). “The hand structure of Carnotaurus sastrei (Theropoda, Abelisauridae): implications for hand diversity and evolution in abelisaurids”. Palaeontology 54 (6): 1271–1277.

Late Cretaceous and modern diatom ecology: implications for our changing oceans

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Photomicrographs of diatom resting spores. Scale bars =10 mm (From Davies and Kemp, 2016)

Diatoms are unicellular algae with golden-brown photosynthetic pigments with a fossil record that extends back to Early Jurassic. They live in aquatic environments, soils, ice, attached to trees or anywhere with humidity, and their remains accumulate forming diatomite, a type of soft sedimentary rock. The most distinctive feature of diatoms is their siliceous skeleton known as frustule that comprise two valves. The formation of this opaline frustule is linked  in modern oceans with the biogeochemical cycles of silicon and carbon.

Past fluctuations in global temperatures are crucial to understand Earth’s climatic evolution. During the Late Cretaceous the global climate change has been associated with episodes of outgassing from major volcanic events, orbital cyclicity and tectonism before ending with the cataclysm caused by a large bolide impact at Chicxulub, on the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico. Following a major diatom radiation after the Cenomanian-Turonian anoxic event, the development of the first extensive diatomites provides the earliest widespread geological evidence for the rise to prominence of diatoms in ocean biogeochemistry. Studies of the greenhouse Cretaceous climates are especially topical since such warm, high CO2 periods of the past are often invoked as potential analogues for present warming trends (Davies and Kemp, 2016).

A. Chain of Stephanopyxis turri (From

A. Chain of Stephanopyxis turri (From Davies and Kemp, 2016)

Because their abundance and sensitivity to different parameters,  diatoms play a key role in Paleoceanography, particularly for evidence of climatic cooling and changing sedimentation rates in the Arctic and Antarctic oceans and to estimate sea surface temperature. Like Stephanopyxis, a common planktonic genus in the present oceans distinguished by its long stratigraphic range from the Albian to modern. Stephanopyxis can be found in tropical or warm water regions and evidence suggests a similar ecological adaptation during the Cretaceous. Meanwhile, resting spore development is generally associated with the onset of unfavourable environmental conditions and sporulation generally occurs in response to a sudden change in one or more environmental factors.

Since the start of the Industrial Revolution the anthropogenic release of CO2 into the Earth’s atmosphere has increased a 40%. In this context, warming of the present surface ocean is  leading to increased stratification in both hemispheres. Based on traditional views of diatom ecology, ocean stratification would  lead to decreased diatom production and a reduced effectiveness of the marine biological carbon pump. But recent ocean surveys, and records of the stratified seas of the Late Cretaceous, suggest that increased stratification may lead to increased rather than decreased diatom production and export. This would then result in a negative-rather than positive feedback to global warming (Davies and Kemp, 2016).



A. Davies, A.E.S. Kemp, Late Cretaceous seasonal palaeoclimatology and diatom palaeoecology from laminated sediments, Cretaceous Research 65 (2016) 82-111

Martin, R. E. and Quigg, A. 2012 Evolving Phytoplankton Stoichiometry Fueled Diversification of the Marine Biosphere. Geosciences. Special Issue on Paleontology and Geo/Biological Evolution. 2:130-146.

Forgotten women of Paleontology: Erika von Hoyningen-Huene

Erika von Huene in the lates 1920s at the Tuebingen University.

Erika von Huene at the Tuebingen University.

Erika Martha von Hoyningen-Huene was born in Tübingen, Germany, on September 30, 1905.  Descendant of a noble Baltic German family, Erika grew up in a deeply religious home. Her father,  Professor Dr Friedrich Freiherr (Baron) von Hoyningen, better known as Friedrich von Huene (1875–1969), was a world expert palaeontologist, whose life and research were strongly influenced by his beliefs. Von Huene wrote several books, papers and articles, spanning 65 years, but he never gained a full professorial position. Instead, he took the position of  Konservator at the University of Tübingen. As a young girl, Erika helped her father in the Institute and Museum of Geology and Palaeontology and studied under his strong influence.

She was one of only two female vertebrate palaeontologists in the pre-World War II history of Germany.  She completed her doctorate under the supervision of Prof. Dr Edwin Hennig in 1933, the same year that Hitler came to power. She later contributed with George Gaylord Simpson with her pioneering work on early mammals. But  the Nazi regime affected her life and work. During those difficult years, her father used his influence to help persecuted colleagues, such as ‘Tilly’ Edinger. However, after the events that followed the infamous “Kristallnacht” (Night of the Broken Glass), Tilly Edinger’s paleontological career in Germany ended abruptly.

Friedrich on Huene contemplating the placement of a rib on a South African dicynodont specimen (From Turner 2009)

Friedrich von Huene contemplating the placement of a rib on a South African dicynodont specimen (From Turner 2009)

When World War II began, Erika moved to Berlin invited by her former professor Otto H. Schindewolf, and carried out some work for him in the geological survey. After the war ended, Erika lost her job. For a time, she assisted his father and published her last paper in 1949. Her last years were devoted to managing nursing homes in Tübingen and Berlin. She died in Berlin, almost a week after her father’s death, on April 9, 1969.

During her scientific career, Erika wrote only seven papers. She suffered the consequences of the discrimination against women in Germany and finally gave up. In the year that Erika gained her doctorate, promotion for women in Germany was denied and women in higher positions were downgraded, and by the time  the war ended and men returned to their jobs, most women returned to the “safety of their homes”.


Susan Turner, Cynthia V. Burek and Richard T. J. Moody, Forgotten women in an extinct saurian (man’s) world, Geological Society, London, Special Publications 2010, v. 343, p. 111-153

S. Turner, 2009, Reverent and exemplary: ‘Dinosaur man’ Friedrich von Huene (1875-1969), Geological Society London Special Publications 310(1):223-243