The Western Interior Cretaceous Seaway

Between 70 and 100 million years ago, much of central North America was covered in a shallow, inland sea known as the Western Interior Cretaceous Seaway.  While the ancestors of Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops roamed the fragmented continent, an amazing array of fascinating marine reptiles prowled through the waves.  Sea turtles the size of a small car, long-necked plesiosaurs, and fifty foot long relatives of the Komodo dragon.  Check out the documentary by clicking on the link below!

The first stop in the documentary is to visit Dinosaur Ridge, a very exciting fossil site just a few minutes drive from where I live in Colorado.  Dinosaur Ridge has a number of very interesting points of geological and paleontological interest, but the portion of the ridge that we visit in the documentary are the fossil dinosaur trackways on the eastern side of the ridge.  Here, just before the area was completely inundated by the seaway, a number of different dinosaurs (paleontologists believe some sort of large, iguanodont-like ornithopod; an ostrich-like ornithomimosaur; and a large Acrocanthosaurus-like theropod) left their footprints in the once-squishy beach sand.  In other, nearby rock layers, we can find the remains of lithified ripple marks, showing exactly where the waves would lap gently at the shore.

Fossil dinosaur trackways preserved at Dinosaur Ridge in Colorado ornithopod theropod and ornithomimosaur tracks from the Early Cretaceous on the shores of the Western Interior Seaway Photo Credit Zack Neher

Fossil dinosaur trackways preserved at Dinosaur Ridge in Morrison, Colorado.  The majority of the footprints are thought to belong to some sort of ornithopod dinosaur like the famous Iguanodon, although some are attributed to an ornithomimosaur, and others to a large, Acrocanthosaurus-like theropod.  Crocodilian tracks are also reported.

Lithified petrified ripple marks from the shore of the ancient Western Interior Cretaceous Seaway preserved at Dinosaur Ridge in Colorado Photo Credit Zack Neher

Petrified ripple marks from the shore of the ancient Western Interior Cretaceous Seaway, preserved at Dinosaur Ridge.

Zoomed in lithified petrified ripple marks from the shore of the ancient Western Interior Cretaceous Seaway preserved at Dinosaur Ridge in Colorado Photo Credit Zack Neher

 

A mounted skeleton of the theropod dinosaur Acrocanthosaurus at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Texas with Cian Kinderman Photo Credit Zack Neher

A mounted skeleton of the theropod dinosaur Acrocanthosaurus, on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Texas.  This dinosaur gets its name from the enormous, elongate neural spines running down its back, which would have made the animal look much larger and more intimidating than a relative without them.

Next, I visited Doug Hartshorn, the Museum Coordinator at the Morrison Natural History Museum, so that he could tell us more about some of the Western Interior Seaway’s inhabitants.  He told us about the mosasaurs, such as Tylosaurus, and the Pteranodon, a species of pterosaur, a group of winged reptiles that were closely related to dinosaurs.

Mounted skeleton of the mosasaur Tylosaurus on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Texas with Cian Kinderman Photo Credit Zack Neher

Mounted skeleton of the mosasaur Tylosaurus on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Texas.  Tylosaurus and the other mosasaurs were not dinosaurs, and in fact were close cousins of modern day monitor lizards, such as the Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis).  In this shot, you have an excellent view of the pterygoid teeth, situated on the roof of the mouth of the animal.  These twin rows of teeth could be used like a conveyor belt, to pull prey back into the belly of the beast.

Zach Evens and Zack Neher for scale next to a mounted skull of the mosasaur Tylosaurus at the Morrison Natural History Museum in Colorado with Masaki Kleinkopf Photo Credit Mona Kamath

My friend Zach Evens and I next to the Tylosaurus skull at the Morrison Natural History Museum in Colorado.  Although Tylosaurus, one of the biggest members of the group, could grow up to fifty feet long, this is still much smaller than the monster-sized mosasaur featured in the movie “Jurassic World.”  Photo Credit: Mona Kamath

Mounted skeletons of the sea turtle Toxochelys and the mosasaur Plioplatecarpus on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Texas with Cian Kinderman Photo Credit Zack Neher

Mounted skeletons of the sea turtle Toxochelys and the mosasaur Plioplatecarpus, on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Texas.  Toxochelys, the most common sea turtle in the Western Interior Seaway, had evolved a bite that was perfectly adapted to consume hard-bodied prey, such as clams and ammonites.

Dumeril's monitor lizard Varanus dumerilii attacks a plastic Megalodon like in Jurassic World at the Morrison Natural History Museum in Colorado Photo Credit Zack Neher

Herkimer, the Dumeril’s monitor lizard (Varanus dumerilii) at the Morrison Museum attacks a plastic shark as he reenacts his favorite scene from Jurassic World.  Herkimer, like all monitor lizards, is a close relative of the mosasaurs.  The white dot on top of Herkimer’s head (just a little bit behind his eyes) is actually a third eye known as the pineal eye, something that we see on the skull of mosasaurs, as well.

Mounted skeleton of a female Pteranodon on display at the Morrison Natural History Museum in Colorado Photo Credit Zack Neher

Mounted skeleton of a Pteranodon, on display at the Morrison Museum.  Pteranodon is one of a group of flying reptiles called pterosaurs, closely related to dinosaurs and crocodilians.  There appear to be two different morphs of Pteranodon, those with a small crest on their head like that featured here, and those with larger crests, as in the photograph below.  In a classic case of sexual dimorphism, many paleontologists suspect the small-crest morph to be female, and the large-crest morph to be the male.

Masaki Kleinkopf next to a mounted skeleton of Pteranodon sternbergi on display at the Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center in Woodland Park, Colorado Photo Credit Zack Neher

The large-crest morph of Pteranodon, most likely the male, with my friend Masaki Kleinkopf for scale.  Scale is important for these animals, as many of them are a good deal larger than any flying animals we have alive today.  Modern albatross have the largest wingspan of any flying creature today, somewhere around eleven feet wide.  An good-sized Pteranodon would have a wingspan much wider than that, and some other pterosaurs grew even bigger still.  This cast is on display at the Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center in Woodland Park, Colorado.

After speaking with Doug for a bit, we briefly look at a few other animals that lived in the seaway.  I’ve included those images here, as well as several more fascinating creatures that I didn’t get the chance to cover in the documentary.

Zack Neher for scale with the famous Xiphactinus gillicus fish-within-a-fish Inception fossil on display at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History in Kansas Photo Credit Mark Neher

The famous “Fish-within-a-fish” Inception fossil, on display at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History in Kansas.  It appears that the larger fish, Xiphactinus, died shortly after ingesting a smaller species of fish, Gillicus. Photo Credit: Mark Neher

African dwarf clawed from Hymenochirus sp. after choking to death on some sort of algae eater Photo Credit Zack Neher

Although I always thought it a bit hard to swallow that the Xiphactinus choked to death on prey that was simply too large for it, a startling encounter with my pet African dwarf clawed frog (Hymenochirus sp.) a few years ago changed that.  Apparently, it had decide that going after the algae eater in the tank was a good idea, despite the fact that the algae eater was much larger than it could reasonably expect to handle!

The teeth of the prehistoric shark Cretoxyrhina on display at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History in Kansas with Mark Neher Photo Credit Zack Neher

The teeth of the prehistoric shark Cretoxyrhina on display at the Sternberg Museum in Kansas.  This shark is thought to resemble the modern great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) in size and general shape.

Model of the ammonite Jeletzkytes on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Texas with Cian Kinderman Photo Credit Zack Neher

This is a model of the ammonite Jeletzkytes on display at the Houston Museum.  This ammonite genus was one of many that inhabited the Western Interior Seaway.  Although ammonites resemble the modern genus Nautilus, they are only distantly related to one another.

Mona Kamath sitting on a specimen of Placenticeras meeki, a giant ammonite, at the Kremmling Cretaceous Ammonite Locality in Kremmling Colorado Photo Credit Zack Neher

Mona Kamath sitting on a specimen of Placenticeras meeki in the field at the Kremmling Cretaceous Ammonite Locality.  Placenticeras is a giant genus of ammonite, and are fairly abundant at the site.  To learn more about KCAL, check out this post from the The Natural World Archives, by guest blogger Wayne Itano.

Didymoceras cheyennensis ammonite attached to an Inoceramus simpsoni clam from North Dakota on display at the Mace Brown Museum of Natural History in South Carolina Photo Credit Zack Neher

The bizarre fossil shell of the ammonite species Didymoceras cheyennensis, attached to a specimen of the fossil clam Inoceramus simpsoni, on display at the Mace Brown Museum of Natural History in South Carolina.  In my opinion, Didymoceras is one of the most ridiculous and impractical animals that I can imagine.

Mounted skeletons of Archelon ischyros Elasmosaurus and other extinct sea monsters on display at the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, Inc. in South Dakota with Mikaila Bloomfield Seamus Kieran and Emily Barber Photo Credit Zack Neher

Mounted skeletons of the giant sea turtle Archelon ischyros, the long-necked plesiosaur Elasmosaurus, and an assortment of other extinct sea monsters on display at the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, Inc. in South Dakota.

Mounted skeleton of the enormous car-sized sea turtle Archelon ischyros on display at the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, Inc. in South Dakota with Mikaila Bloomfield Seamus Kieran and Emily Barber Photo Credit Zack Neher

A closer shot of the enormous car-sized sea turtle Archelon ischyros.  Archelon is the largest species of sea turtle ever discovered, and is thought to be fairly closely related to the modern leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea).

Mounted skeleton of the plesiosaur Elasmosaurus on display at the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, Inc. in South Dakota with Mikaila Bloomfield Seamus Kieran and Emily Barber Photo Credit Zack Neher.jpg

The enormous and ridiculously elongate neck of the plesiosaur Elasmosaurus.  Reminiscent of the terrestrial sauropods, the heads of these creatures look almost comically small at the end of their necks, the length of which could vary considerably between different genera.

Despite the mountains and the mile-high elevation that we see today, it is always a startling reminder to come across a fossil seashell or shark tooth while out hiking and enjoying the Colorado outdoors.

The Flatirons and the Rocky Mountains covered by clouds in Boulder Colorado Photo Credit Zack Neher

 

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Introducing “The Natural World: Connections”

On June 27th, 2012, I posted for the very first time on my original blog, The Natural World.  I was going into my senior year of high school, and was very eager to talk about dinosaurs and other animals on the World Wide Web.  It’s been almost four years now since I first started that blog, and I’ve changed a lot (at least I keep telling myself I have).  Last year, I decided to try and go through the several hundred blog posts I had posted and attempt to bring them up to date, both with any recent scientific advances, but also with a greater sense of academic rigor.  This task was daunting, to say the least, and difficult to do.  I was essentially rewriting posts that I no longer had a great deal of interest in, which kept me from trying to create new and interesting posts that were more relevant to my life today.  My friends suggested starting over, and the idea of a fresh start definitely appealed to me, so here we are.  I’m changing the name of my old blog to “The Natural World: Archives,” and this new blog is “The Natural World: Connections.”*  I’m really looking forward to being able to take advantage of the exciting features that WordPress has to offer, and I think I’ll be able to offer up a better system of picture viewing, as well.

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The new blog, replete with a brand new blog logo.  Over the next few weeks, I’ll probably start explaining where some of the images in the logo actually came from.

The main focus of the blog has not changed, I still aim to promote fun and educational natural history reading.  However, the scope of my topics has definitely broadened, and some posts may be a little more off topic than others.  From everything that I’ve ever learned about learning, I believe that making connections is one of the best ways to learn about something new.  If you can connect a topic to something that you understand better, it will take less time and energy to understand.  It’s with these ideas in mind that I’m going to haphazardly construct my posts.

I have just returned from the study abroad program “Semester at Sea,” where we got to visit a number of different countries around the world, and make some amazing friends in the process.  For this introduction post, I thought I would share a few of the pictures that I got over the last four months, more or less in order.

Real talks in the Pacific Ocean with Michael Collett Photo Credit Zack Neher

Crossing the majestic Pacific Ocean.  It was easy to sit out on deck and watch the waves for hours.  During the Pacific crossing, we were able to spot a number of different seabirds, including several species of albatross and booby, several whales, a number of dolphins, flying fish, and believe it or not, a random owl an entire day out from Japan (and yes, I do have the photos to prove it).

Sunset on the Pacific Ocean Photo Credit Zack Neher

Sunrise on the Pacific.

Glorious Mt. Fuji as viewed from a road along the bus route in Hakone with Michael Collett Lacey Gasaway and Michael Sharp Photo Credit Zack Neher

Our first foreign stop was Japan.  On day three, I went with a few of my friends to Hakone to try and see the stratovolcano Mount Fuji.  We got really lucky, and fortunately it was a pretty clear day.

Zack Neher on a boat in Ha Long Bay in Vietnam Photo Credit Sonia Szeton

In Vietnam, I got the opportunity to check out the fascinating karst landscape of Ha Long Bay.

Michael Collett and Zack Neher in Munnar in Kerala in India Photo Credit Teddy Castro

In India, our group and I stayed in the southern state of Kerala the entire time, and we spent most of our time in local national parks and nature reserves.  Here is me with my buddy Michael Collett near the beautiful town of Munnar.

Two ships of the Indian Navy, the research vessel A74 INS Sagardhwani and the Sukanya class offshore patrol vessel P53 INS Savitri, pass each other in the waters of Cochi or Cochin in Kerala India Photo Credit Zack Neher

Our ship, the MV World Odyssey, was docked in Cochin, which is also the location of the Southern Naval Command of the Indian Navy.  As such, we got the opportunity to spot a number of the Navy’s ships steaming through, sometimes even conducting exercises.  In this photograph, we have the INS Sagardhwani (A74) on the left, and the Sukanya class offshore patrol vessel INS Savitri (P53) on the right.

An Olive Ridley sea turtle Lepidochelys olivacea in the Indian Ocean Photo Credit Zack Neher

For the most part, the seas were very calm between India and Mauritius, and by spending a lot of time out on deck, I was able to see some pretty exciting animals!  I’m fairly confident that this is an olive ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea), based on the asymmetry of the costal scutes on the back of the animal.

The gang after snorkeling in Mauritius from left to right Teddy Castro Kim Kassander Mark Oldani Meghan with an H Adams and Zack Neher

Mauritius was a refueling and resupplying stop for us, and we only spent one day on land.  I was in a Field Lab (each class you take has one full-day field lab associated with it) for my Marine Biology class, and we got to go snorkeling!  This is me with a few of my friends, as we wait in line to get back on the ship.  From left to right, we have Teddy Castro, Kim Kassander, my roommate Mark Oldani, Meghan (with an “H”) Adams, and myself.

The Mountains of Mauritius seen behind the funnel of the MV World Odysseys Deutschland Semester at Sea Photo Credit Zack Neher

A few of the mountains of Mauritius from the top deck of our ship, the MV World Odyssey (or the MS Deutschland for you German fans of Das Traumschiff).  Until recently, Mauritius was the only home of the flightless pigeon-cousin, the dodo.

A pair of long beaked common dolphins Delphinus capensis porpoising in the waters two days out from Cape Town in South Africa Indian Ocean Photo Credit Zack Neher

Dolphins are not my specialty (and neither are sea turtles), but with the help of the Internet and the interpretive labels at the Iziko South African Museum, I have identified this dolphin as a long-beaked common dolphin (Delphinus capensis).  In the days leading up to our arrival in Cape Town, South Africa, the marine life became increasingly more abundant.  For the first time since we departed Mexico, we were able to see seals, and we also spotted several enormous pods of dolphins, a very high concentration of seabirds, and even two sharks!

Zack Neher at the Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town in front of the mounted skeletons of the spinosaur theropod Suchomimus and the juvenile sauropod dinosaur Jobaria

Here I am at the Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town.  They had a fantastic exhibit on paleontology, focusing a lot on the local Permian Karoo fauna.  They had some dinosaur fossils as well, including these mounted casts of the spinosaur Suchomimus attacking a juvenile Jobaria, a type of sauropod, long-necked dinosaur.

Zack Neher in Kruger National Park South Africa

I was also fortunate enough to be able to fly to Kruger National Park and take a safari, which was an experience that I had wanted to do since childhood.  Unfortunately, I got very ill the night before the full-day safari, but modern medicine saved the day, and I was able to lean against the back window thing and have some fun.

Baby African elephnat Loxodonta africana in the wilds of Kruger National Park South Africa Photo Credit Zack Neher

Here is a baby African elephant (Loxodonta africana) in Kruger.  Unfortunately, elephant overpopulation has become a real issue in the park.

Zack Neher and Michael Collett on top of Table Mountain National Park in the Cape Floral Kingdom in Cape Town South Africa Photo Credit Zack Neher

My buddy Michael Collett and I on top of of Table Mountain in Cape Town.  Table Mountain National Park is home to the Cape Floral Region, one of six of the world’s floral kingdoms.

A trio of African Penguins Spheniscus demersus on the beach at Simon's Town in Cape Town South Africa with Michael Collett and Teddy Castro Photo Credit Zack Neher

I wasn’t about to leave South Africa without getting my first chance to see penguins in the wild, even if it meant getting back to the ship late (a possibility that, for a period of time, we thought might be reality).  We got lucky, and were able to see a number of African penguins (Spheniscus demersus) relaxing on land in Simon’s Town.

A view of the tropical rainforest in the Kakum National Park in Ghana from the top of a treehouse with Michael Collett and Caleb LarnerdPhoto Credit Zack Neher

Our next stop was Ghana, where we spent our first night in a treehouse in Kakum National Park.  We got to do the canopy walk early in the morning, which was an amazing experience as well.

Caleb Larnerd Haley Collins and Zack Neher in the Shai Hills Resource Reserve in Ghana

My friends Cal Larnerd and Haley Collins and I visit the Shai Hills Resource Reserve in Ghana, where we had a guide who worked at the park drive around with us in the taxi (on the right is our taxi driver, Yaw).

Sand dunes in the Sahara Desert with Kim Kassander Michael Collett Meredith Leung Haley Collins Emily Kaplan Photo Credit Zack Neher

In Morocco, we spent a very long time on bus rides to get to the Sahara Desert.  It was pretty crazy to think that just a week and a half before, we had been in a rainforest.

The infamous Loch Ness near Inverness in Scotland United Kingdom Photo Credit Zack Neher

Before I went home to Colorado, I spent a few days in England, Ireland, and Scotland.  Here’s a picture of the famous Loch Ness.  Unfortunately, I saw no sign of the Loch Ness Monster.

 

This is just a few brief snapshots of what I’ve been up to the last few months.  I’ve got a big summer planned and there’s a lot to do, so stay tuned for some exciting content coming up soon!