Montana State University

MSU researcher visits dinosaur kin to learn family secrets

August 10, 2005 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service


Ewan Wolff holds a crocodile displayed at the Australian conference he attended. (Photo courtesy of Ewan Wolff).   High-Res Available

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If you want to understand dinosaurs, stop by the family farm and visit their cousins, says Ewan Wolff, a graduate student at Montana State University. Some of them may try to run you off, but even the grumpy ones have traits and behaviors that might run in the family.

Wolff took such a trip this summer. In Australia for the annual conference of the Wildlife Disease Association, Wolff called on thousands of crocodiles as well as emus, turtles, lizards, marsupials and cassowaries to see what these primitive animals and birds could teach him about dinosaurs.

He dropped by crocodile farms and zoos, including the Australia Zoo run by Steve Irwin, the animated "crocodile hunter" who appears in movies and talk shows. Wolff photographed crocodile homes and the belly marks the crocodiles left by sliding down muddy river banks. He consulted veterinarians who treat crocodiles in captivity or encounter them in the wild.

"There's a lot of stuff you can read about, but it's a lot more useful to actually see what they do," said Wolff, a doctoral student who normally studies wounds and lesions in dinosaur jaws.

Australians raise crocodiles for meat and leather, so it seemed logical to investigate the animals while he was in the country, Wolff said. He observed crocodile personalities, their injuries and wounds. He gained new perspectives by watching crocodiles eat, move, sleep and snap at each other.

"I spent a lot of time trying to go to various habitats," Wolff said. "It definitely gives you an idea of what they (the dinosaurs) were dealing with when you see the ecology."

Wolff noticed, among other things, that a crocodile's life isn't always dramatic. It was probably the same for dinosaurs, Wolff said. Just because a paleontologist finds a punctured dinosaur jaw doesn't necessarily mean it resulted from a fierce battle, for example. The dinosaur could have hurt himself by ramming into a tree or chewing a rib. In the same way, most of the infections Wolff saw in crocodiles had more to do with diet than injuries. Perhaps it was that way with dinosaurs.

The findings Wolff presented at the wildlife conference resulted from analyzing 56 Tyrannosaurid jaws from Montana, South Dakota and Montana. Tyrannosaurids are a group of dinosaurs that include Tyrannosaurus rex and Albertosaurus. Wolff found that one-fourth of the jaws contained abnormalities, making him think that gashes, lesions and pittings were fairly normal for Tyrannosaurids.

"They look very symmetrical, kind of round cavities in the lower jaw," David Varricchio said of the pittings in the lower jaws. Varricchio is an MSU paleontologist and Wolff's advisor.

Wolff said that so far, the dinosaur jaw abnormalities he examined look more like those found in crocodiles than in primitive birds, but he could find more links to birds as he continues his research. Wolff noted, too, that scientists tend to compare the diseases they find in ancient animals with the diseases they've seen in humans. He prefers to compare animals to animals, thus the comparison between dinosaurs and crocodiles.

It's possible that diseases, like animals, change over time, he added. Or perhaps the organism that caused the disease evolved.

"I think he has a very good approach," Varricchio said. "He is trying to put it in an evolutionary framework and trying to see if he can actually see changes in diseases through time."

Wolff is also trying to fit his findings into a broader framework, Varricchio said. "Is what we observed in Tyrannosaurid unique to them or more broadly to other fossil groups?"

Wolff said he'd like to attend future wildlife disease conferences because they rotate among countries. That would give him the chance to visit more dinosaur relatives and maybe uncover more family secrets.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu