2009: The Year in Dinosaurs

The past year has been a good one for dinosaur science, yielding some excellent new species and some intriguing new ideas. Some of them were bitterly contentious, while others changed the way we looked at dinosaur evolution and behavior. And some of them were just cool. With the close of 2009, it’s time to look back at the year in dinosaurs.

2009 was the year of the tyrannosaur. With three new tyrannosaurids described (among them the infamous Raptorex) we gained an excellent look at Tyrannosaur evolution. With it came discoveries about Tyrannosaurus rex itself. T.rex, we now know, was an even nastier creature then previously thought. Its mouth was infested with infectious bacteria that persist in modern birds. Young tyrannosaurs regularly bit each other in the face, and may well have cannibalized each other. One myth got thrown out the window, though; Tyrannosaurs did not chew bones as was previously thought.

2009: The Year in Dinosaurs

Clockwise from Left: Hesperonychus, Anchiornis, Tianyuraptor

Other carnivores also got their time to shine; a bevy of protobirds were announced, most of them quite small indeed. Among them was the tiny Hesperonychus, the smallest American meat eater known. It was joined by Tianyuraptor, a small chinese predator, and the primitive four winged Anchiornis.

Other meat eaters were of a greater magnitude. The massive ostrich dinosaur Beishanlong was easily 1400 pounds and likely got a good deal larger. A second species of the sloth-like Nothronychus was announced. The primitive Tawa rewrote the early history of dinosaurs. Taken all around, it was an excellent year for theropod dinosaurs.

2009: The Year in Dinosaurs

Clockwise from left: Nothronychus, Limusaurus, Tawa

Limusaurus deserves a special mention. A bizarrely shaped herbivore, it was a member of a family that was happily carnivorous. Known from two well preserved skeleton, it was toothless, had tiny hands, and big eyes.

Duckbilled dinosaurs, or Hadrosaurs, had a good year. Since Hadrosaurs are by far the most common group of dinosaurs, the wealth of bone and fossilized soft tissue make them very useful subjects of study. The announcement of a new dinosaur mummy (a Brachylophosaurus nicknamed Dakota) and some excellent studies of preserved skin and blood vessels yielded great insights into the soft tissues of dinosaurs. A dwarf hadrosaur from Italy made the rounds. A study of Hadrosaur locomotion posited that the most efficient method of movement for a duckbill was hopping, although it is unlikely that they did so.

Tianyulong made waves when it was announced, for the simple reason that it was an heterodontosaur (a very primitive herbivorous dinosaur) with feathers. This is the first conclusive proof that feathers may have been common in all dinosaurs, not just theropods. Another primitive herbivore, Aardonyx, was announced late in the year. It was a late surviving prosauropod, an evolutionary grand uncle to the massive long necked dinosaurs. An even earlier creature, Panphagia, provides a look at what the very earliest sauropods looked like.

2009: The Year in Dinosaurs

Clockwise from top left: Panphagia, Tianyulong, Aardonyx

One place where 2009 was not auspicious was in the portrayal of dinosaurs in cinema and television. Land of the Lost gave us a freeze dried Allosaurus and a Tyrannosaur with an admittedly rather funny grudge against Will Ferrell. The movie wasn’t a huge hit with either audiences or critics, in part because of an oddly dirty tone and in part because, well, Will Ferrell. Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs aired rather better commercially, but lost points because of the ugly designs on the dinosaurs. The ITV television show Primeval (a drama about prehistoric creatures, soap melodrama, and conspiracies) wrapped up with a decent third season, was canceled, and has now been uncanceled. The miserably bad “documentary” Clash of the Dinosaurs aired, whipping up a firestorm in the blogosphere with its rampant quote mining. To balance the scales, we got Ponyo, a dreamy animated film crawling with prehistoric sea life.

Listing the entire spectrum of discoveries and theories would take a good while, so we’ll end it here. Here’s looking toward 2010!


Asher Elbein has been writing about dinosaurs in one capacity or another for five years, most recently in the magazines Prehistoric Times and Teen Ink. He’s collaborated with Fernbank Museum of Natura ...read more

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