Friday, July 12, 2013

A Brief History of Caenagnathids in Film and Television


"Skinny hands and new jaws," a caenagnathid panoply. Reconstructions by Qilong, from deviantArt.

The family Caenagnathidae derives its name from the Latin "recent jaws," as the great Charles H. Sternberg (the pater familis of a family of historic paleontologists), assigned the fossilized jaw he discovered to an advanced Cretaceous bird. It's not such an uncommon phenomenon to misidentify particularly birdlike non-avian dinosaur fossils as birds; the same has happened with a variety of alvarezsaurs, the tiny short-armed anteater theropods, as well as troodontids and other families of coelurosaurs. Of course, if we were able to observe caegnathids and other coelurosaurs in the flesh, they would even act like big birds, so the confusion is totally understandable.

Anyway, the caenagnathids were a very bizarre bunch, even compared to other oviraptors. To start, they were completely toothless, a feature not found in many non-avian theropods. This indicates a varied diet - the caenagnathids were probably herbivorous, though their toothlessness allowed them to take anything, including small prey. As most species were fairly large to absolutely gigantic in size, the likelihood for herbivory is high. Cliched though it is, it's likely that the caenagnathids had a diet similar to large extant ratites such as ostriches and cassowaries. And, like the cassowary, the caenagnathids display another odd feature - a large, bony crest on the top of their heads. Like so many bizarre skeletal features found on extinct species, we're not quite sure what the crest was used for, but it likely had some function in heat dispersal, call amplification, or courtship.

On to my main point: being as bizarre and obscure as they are, it's always a treat to see caenagnathids portrayed in documentaries and [a] movie. However, out of the variety of caenagnathids which have been discovered, only two genera have been portrayed so far: the gargantuan Gigantoraptor and, in the upcoming Walking With Dinosaurs 3D, Epichirostenotes*. 

*Although the genus has not been confirmed, Epichirostenotes was a contemporary of Pachyrhinosaurus and Edmontonia, which can also be seen in the available trailers.

The Gigantoraptor of Dinosaur Revolution, complete with
wattles and glossy feathers. You go, DR!
It makes sense that Gigantoraptor was the first to be portrayed; like Tyrannosaurus, it's the biggest of its family, which, in pop culture, gives its automatic popularity. The big beast has been reconstructed in two documentaries, Dinosaur Revolution and Planet Dinosaur (both from 2011). In both, oddly, it was depicted performing elaborate courtship displays. I only say "oddly" because, while it totally makes sense that they did engage in such displays, we have no direct evidence of any sort of courtship behavior. It just makes me wonder how both production companies making the documentaries ended up having the same animals doing basically the same thing independently of each other. Anyway, I have to say that I much prefer DR's Gigantoraptor; they even gave the male this awesome wattle clearly* based on that of a Temminck's tragopan. The 'raptor from Planet Dinosaur was a li'l too reptilian for me and looked like a big ol' rubber chicken.


A pair of Gigantoraptor performing a courtship display from
Planet Dinosaur (2011). I wasn't too impressed with these guys. Meh.
*Clearly. Jeez, I sound like such a bird snob sometimes.

A couple of days ago, yet another preview for the upcoming philm phenomenon Walking With Dinosaurs 3D was released. Although a lot of it is reused footage from the first trailer, a few interesting bits popped out (including the fact that it will probably be narrated by a pachyrhinosaur... ugh.). Among these bits was a dinosaur which I, and many others, was surprised to see: a caenagnathid, presumably representing the genus Epichirostenotes of the 72-million-year-old Horseshoe Canyon Formation. I'm especially excited to see this animal on the big screen, even though the it is portrayed in the trailer biting at some young pachyrhinosaurs in the dead of night. I don't support this notion that they were nocturnal predators, but to be fair, this is the first I've ever seen this idea and it is a movie.

Epichirostenotes from the new WWD3D trailer, seen here as a creepy nocturnal baby-killer, which it probably was not.

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