Video Game Paleontology: Piranha Plants, Yoshi, and the Fossil Record

Recently, my brother asked me a burning question: If a carnivorous plant ate an animal, would we be able to see that in the fossil record? That question is misleading. He was really asking “If a piranha plant ate Yoshi, would you be able to see it in the fossil record?”

So, let’s break this question down into three parts: did carnivorous plants coexist with dinosaurs, could carnivorous plants grow large enough to eat a dinosaur, and could we recognize this interaction in the fossil record? Here is the quick and messy, Wikipedia driven answer.

Did carnivorous plants coexist with dinosaurs?

That is a complicated question. There are many different types of carnivorous plants (pitfall traps, flypaper traps, snap traps, etc) and they do not constitute a monophyletic group; carnivory has arisen independently multiple times in plants (though some instances of carnivory are due to shared ancestry). To simplify, let’s focus on the species most similar to the piranha plant: the Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula).

It closes more slowly than you expect. (Gif by Mnolf)

The Venus flytrap is in the family Droseraceae, which includes 2 species of snap trap plants and the sundew. The fossil record for Droseraceae dates back to the late Cretaceous, which means that there was some overlap between the last non-avian dinosaurs and early Venus flytrap relatives. Yes, carnivorous plants coexisted with dinosaurs.

Could carnivorous plants grow large enough to eat a dinosaur?

Let’s ignore that fact that humans and dinosaurs didn’t coexist (We’re sorry, but the fossils are in another sedimentary layer). To answer this question, we need to make a few assumptions. Firstly, let’s assume that Mario is the height of an average Italian man (just for the sake of the math). That’s about 1.75 m or 5 ft 9 in. Secondly, we want this dinosaur to be some sort of theropod from the late Cretaceous that would be large enough for that average guy to ride. We’ll use Erlikosaurus, a herbivorous theropod, as our Yoshi (T. yoshisaur munchakoopas) stand-in.

Not quite Yoshi. (Erlikosaurus by ArthurWeasley)

So, how big do carnivorous plants grow today? The largest carnivorous plant is Nepenthes rajah, a type of pitcher plant. However, in this respect “large” is a drastic overstatement. The pitcher can only grow up to 41 cm (~16 in) tall and 20 cm (~8 in) wide, meaning that it’s only large enough to trap small animals. No, carnivorous plants couldn’t grow large enough to eat a dinosaur large enough for a person to ride.

Nepenthes rajah (By Rbrtjong)

Could we see a carnivorous plant eat a dinosaur in the fossil record?

This is the most complicated question. If we assume that carnivorous plants could coexist with dinosaurs and that a snap trap plant could (and did) grow large enough to eat a decently sized theropod, would we recognize what we were seeing? Now, many of the fossil occurrences of Droseraceae come from pollen or seeds rather than leaf impressions. It requires remarkable preservation to preserve a recognizable leaf impression. By itself, fossilization is an uncommon outcome for remains. When comparing the likelihood that a particular structure will fossilize, bone ranks higher than leaves.

This is an oversimplification that ignores many realities of paleontology. Most of what happened in geologic time has not been preserved in the geological record; different environments preserve material better than others and some materials are more easily preserved than others. Many fossils will simply weather away or otherwise never be found. Some will be found by people with little or no interest in fossils or interest only in vertebrate remains. Others will sit in boxes on museum shelves for decades because there is no money to prepare them.

But again, let’s assume perfect conditions. While paleontology is pioneering better 3D imaging and study of fossils, many fossils-particularly plant leaf impressions-are 2 dimensional. Depending on how the fossil is uncovered and who is doing the excavating, it might not be clear what has been preserved. For example, if the fossil was found laying horizontal, the bones might appear to be laying on leaf litter. However, if the fossil had a demonstrably different part and counterpart with bone surrounded by leaf material, high-tech imaging might be able to piece together the story. However, some scientists might see that interpretation as overly fantastical. Paleontologists can be conservative with their interpretations due to the nature of the materials they work with. There is the possibility, though remote, that if the perfect fossil was ever found of a carnivorous plant eating a dinosaur we would be able to recognize it.

The moral of the story is this: any carnivorous plants that did live at the same time as the dinosaurs wouldn’t have been big enough to eat one, but we might be able to recognize it if it did. 


Experiment, JapaDog, and Vancouver: GSA 2014

Last weekend I was lucky enough to attend the GSA Annual Meeting in Vancouver, Canada. The decision was relatively last minute and I wouldn’t have been able to go without the support of my backers on (I recommend using Experiment. It was really simple and I got lots of help). You can read my summary from last year’s meeting here.

I flew from Detroit to Dallas, then from Dallas to Seattle. I had a window seat on the flight from Dallas to Seattle and enjoyed watching the plains change to mountains. I took a lot of pictures.

After a beautiful drive from Seattle to Vancouver, I checked in to the conference and flipped through the program book trying to figure out how I would spend my week. As always, all of the paleontology sessions were clustered together in a corner, but I must admit it was a beautiful corner.

Unsurprisingly, I spent the vast majority of the conference in paleoclimate sessions. From using phytoliths to reconstruct canopy cover to paleomycology, and from the Pleistocene African Rift Valley to the Eocene Arctic Circle, I learned a lot about what is going on in paleoclimate and paleoecology research right now. I came away with pages of notes and renewed motivation to work on my research. On Tuesday night I went out to dinner with the Friends of Fossil Plants. That was the first time that I had ever spent time with a group of people who I could bounce paleoclimate ideas off of and it was a very rewarding experience.

I also branched out and went to talks by some of my friends. I went to a handful of talks on Paleogene mammals and spent an afternoon in a session of talks on phylogenetics (most of which went right over my head).  If nothing else, I filled the margins of my notebook with terms that I didn’t understand to look up later.

Like last year, I was able to meet up with the people behind one of my favorite podcasts: Palaeo After Dark. James and Curtis kept me entertained throughout the conference and it was a pleasure to finally meet them face to face.

When I wasn’t sitting in sessions, I was eating. I tried to eat as many new things as I could while I was in Vancouver. My first night I tried Indian food for the first time, and almost every day for lunch I took advantage of the abundant food trucks (including JapaDog, see photo below). If nothing else, I definitely ate very well in Vancouver.


After a long, exciting week I headed back to Michigan. Here’s one last glimpse of Canada (Windsor this time) before I settled home. I had a great time at GSA this year and I hope to go again next year!

Help Me Present My Research in Vancouver!

When I’m not writing blog posts or hanging out on Twitter, I research paleoclimate.

I spent this summer at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument as a GeoCorps Paleontology/Museum Intern where I studied the paleoclimate of Eocene Colorado. To do this, I took the lists of fossil plants that have been identified from the area and figure out where the modern relatives live today. Then, I narrow it down to where all the plants can coexist. That gives us an idea of what the paleoclimate was like.


My abstract was accepted for presentation at the Geological Society of America Annual Meeting in Vancouver, Canada. I went last year and wrote about what happened. I’d like to go again so that I can meet with colleagues and potential Ph.D. advisors, as well as spread the word about climate and paleoclimate research.

You can help me! I started a project on, which is a crowd-funding site for scientific research. You can help to support me here. Every little bit helps.

Thank you so much for reading my blog and for any help you can give me.

Some Days I Feel Lucky

Some days I feel lucky.

Some days I marvel because I have had the chance to travel across the country because of my research. I spent two amazing summers at the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, South Dakota. During my Master’s, I spent two years at the Gray Fossil Site in Gray, Tennessee. This summer I spent three months at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument in Florissant, Colorado studying paleoclimate. I’ve driven across some of the most beautiful parts of this continent pursuing my passion and I look forward to more of these trips in the future.

Some days I get excited by all of connections I’ve made. I’ve met friends and colleagues both in person and through Twitter.  I know that I have people from all sorts of backgrounds, in different stages of their careers, who I can go to for advice or with questions. If I travel or get stranded somewhere in the US I know that I probably wouldn’t have to work too hard to find someone I know to help me.

Most days I am thrilled to do my research. I get to study what I love. I get to do what I’ve wanted to do for as long as I can remember. When I tell children that I’m a paleontologist, their eyes light up; they probably have never met a paleontologist before.

Some days I don’t feel so lucky.

Some days I wish that I didn’t have to travel so far. With every step of my career I travel farther and farther from my family and friends. In the past 4 years I’ve spent at least 3 months in 4 different states and I know that this will only get more extreme in the future.

Some days I get discouraged because my friends are spreading farther and farther apart. Without the internet, it would be very difficult to keep tabs on my friends across the world. And, like my own travel, they will also continue to spread apart as they move forward in their careers.

Some days I get told no. No, you can’t actually be a paleontologist. No, your research isn’t relevant. No, we can’t afford to fund you. Academia is a tough gig and a very competitive field; it’s hard to make it. Some days seem harder than others.

Today I feel lucky.

Don’t Squish the Turtles!

Here in Michigan, turtles can be seen crossing the roads in the spring and summer. These turtles are on a mission: to find a mate, to find nesting grounds, to find a place to hibernate. Turtles are amazing and ancient creatures. Sixteen states have at least one turtle species as a state symbol, and Florida has two! This obviously means we should be saving turtles, not squishing them.

So, how do you save a turtle? To put it simply, very carefully. It’s important that if you see a turtle  on the road that you take precautions for your own safety. Don’t put yourself in danger to rescue a turtle! This means pulling into a driveway or pulling completely off of the road to rescue the turtle. 

When moving a turtle off the road, be sure to move it in the direction it was headed. It might be tempting to turn the turtle around and take it to the closer side of the road, but that risks the turtle trying to cross the road again. Also, don’t try to relocate it. Turtles have a home range and might try to return home if you relocate them. 

When picking up the turtle to move it, grab it firmly on either side of the shell behind the front legs. Don’t pick it up too high off the ground just in case it falls. Even small turtles can be surprisingly strong when they want to escape and they can have very long, sharp nails. Don’t pick up turtles by their tails or legs because this could hurt them. 

Florida Redbelly Turtle (by Dr. Tibor Duliskovich)

Snapping turtles are a little more complicated. They have long tails, sharp claws and a mean bite. Don’t pick them up by their tails! If you have a something like a snow-shovel, use it to gently lift the turtle and scoot it off the road. 

When I drive anywhere I make sure that my passenger understands the drill: if there is a turtle in the road, they are expected to help it cross the road. Please do your part to save the turtles on the road and encourage others to do the same!


Lots o’ Links: Graduation and Moving Edition May 3-23 2014

Finally moved from my apartment in Tennessee to my temporary place in Colorado, with a quick stop in Michigan. Lots of driving, but I’ve successfully graduated!

Great explainer for the differences between similar animals.

Animal skulls are super diverse and very beautiful.

Biology is biased toward penises.

More from TwilightBeasts: Mr. Darwin’s lost sloth, The one with the sabretooth, The mouse-goat crocodile chimera, and Galloping across the steppes.

How to transport a rhino.

The real story of the jackalope.

The toilet sloth.

How cougars survived the Ice Age‘.

Whales v. dinosaurs: which ones were bigger?

Speaking of whales, dead ones are vital to science and for nature.

This should be obvious, but don’t pet strangers’ dogs.

How the birds survived.

Kiwis and elephant birds are closely related.

Another way to survive a mass extinction: get body armor and become marine.

Sorry Jurassic Park: that T. rex could probably see you really well.

We get too hyped about dinosaurs being the biggest.

Turtles are confusing: new evidence shows that they’re more similar to birds and crocodilians than to snakes and lizards.

The more snakes, the better.

However, Titanoboa was terrifying.

It might be time to rethink what it means to use tools: can fish use tools?

‘24 species of sharks that have killed fewer people than Jack Bauer on 24‘.

Why octopus arms don’t get tangled‘.

The case of the sleeping snail.

Insect pollinators are in trouble.

Have you ever seen an anemone eat a bird?

Thousands of years ago, a girl died in a cave and now she is helping science.

Whatever happened to Francis Crick?

You can thank dead horses for your morning shower.

What if we told kids the truth about sex?

Why humans recognize faces and constellations.

The science behind the 1 inch punch.

Your smartphone is covered with bacteria.

The discovery of element 117 has been confirmed!

See the Earth from space, live!

How to eavesdrop on aliens.

This Alaskan aurora is gorgeous.

Time-lapse of a supercell forming is scary, but cool.

California fires are unique and that’s bad.

May the Fourth was chock-full of Star Wars science. Here are 3: forcefields,  Han Solo and the Kessel Run, and Yoda’s advice was pretty terrible.

The important ring of Canadian engineers.

Correlation does not imply causation.

Should your robot car be able to sacrifice your life?

The Library of Congress wants to destroy your old cds (for science)‘.

Stop using products with microbeads.

The only water where the Coast Guard won’t save you.

Before Pantone: the original color book.

This is petrichor.

That’s okay, everyone draws eyes wrong.

This Week I Found: April 26-May 2 2014

Emily Graslie of the Brain Scoop started a new Tumblr: …is not a dinosaur.

Check out the new blog Twilight Beasts! They’ve had 3 blog posts this week: ‘The forgotten sabertooth‘, ‘The elk that wasn’t an elk‘, and ‘Clan of the cave hyena‘.

Too bad so many cool species went extinct.

Paleo parodies are the best: ‘Do You Want to Build a Phylogram?

How Sheep Became Livestock‘.

Chimpanzees make comfy beds.

Megaherbivores are essential for the environment.

Are lab mice afraid of men?

Mantises wearing 3D glasses.

Plants are tough and can communicate.

Humans grew 4 inches in 100 years. Why?

What do moose milk and ulcers have to do with each other?

3D printed casts are beautiful and practical.

How to dance in prosthetics.

March in Michigan was the coldest in the world.

Sweden should beware the eye of Sauron.

A cold star, right next door.


This Week I Found: April 19-25 2014

Do April showers bring May flowers?

Why do Hammerhead Sharks have hammer heads?

Meet to the sailfish: the fish with a deadly weapon on its face.

I always forget about amphisbaenians. (They’re reptiles.)

Sometimes turtles eat bones.

Because sloths spend much of their lives upside down, they ‘tape’ their internal organs to their ribs so they can breathe.

How do you study the evolution of animal intelligence?

The phases of the moon impact animal behavior.

Why humans and Neanderthals had different spines.

Icarus should have flown closer to the sun.

The story of Einstein’s brain.

How well do you understand IUDs?

Are you up to date with your vaccinations?

How to get rid of old prescriptions.

A simple explanation of poop transplants.

How to live forever“.

10 fun facts about the Earth.

7 things we learned between Earth Day 2013 and 2014.

How much warmer has your state gotten since the first Earth Day?

What was the world actually like in 4004 BCE? (Hint: that wasn’t the day the world was created.)

Shooting lasers at the moon during the lunar eclipse.

The US military is preparing for a ‘climate change war‘.

I add my thesis to lol my thesis.

Things I Found This Week: April 12-18 2014

La Brea’s megafauna attracts the visitors, but a fossil bee tells the real story of California’s past.

A grad student recreated a fossil plant and it’s beautiful.

And the debate continues: Commercialization of fossils.

Geological maps of Middle-Earth.

A map of the United States based on the nearest National Park.

A map of the places in the United States where no one lives.

Dying in a Living Room‘: the exotic pet trade is a dangerous thing.

How living walls save lions and cattle.

Another GoPro, this time a view from beneath a giraffe, and another inside a leopard’s mouth.

Stop calling hyenas disgusting.

Sleeping on the job: guard dogs mated with wolves.

Best job I’d never heard of: polar bear poop tracker.

Alligator snapping turtles turned out to be 3 different species, but either way they’re endangered.

What do golf courses have to do with salamanders?

Don’t worry, you don’t actually swallow spiders in your sleep!

The discovery of a new insect sex organ!

How ferns became masters of shadow.

The truth about the Gulf oil spill.

Human Races May Have Biological Meaning, But Races Mean Nothing About Humanity‘.

How is Captain America like a Wood Frog?

Your cell phone can hear if you’re depressed.

Brazil is a dangerous place for environmentalists.

Clouds blocked my view, but did you get to see the lunar eclipse ‘Blood Moon’?

Really, you should watch Cosmos.

What do we know about ‘The Waters of Mars‘?

Saturn may have spawned a new moon.

Like 2048, but with chemistry.

The eastern United States might have been cold, but for the rest of the world, this winter was warm.

Ontario, Canada has stopped using coal to generate electricity.

What happens to a Peep in a vacuum?

A statistical analysis of paintings by Bob Ross.

People Like Their Music Served Medium Funky‘.

The best gif. Ever.

Alex Dainis finally has another Bite Sci-zed video!

This Week I Found: April 6 – 11 2014

The Cambrian Carnival of Animals.

How much do you know about pterosaurs?

Some prehistoric animals look like aliens to us.

This is why you should document everything: a reunited, reconstructed slab of dinosaur footprints.

When Evolution’s Controversial, Declaring a State Fossil Can Get Tricky‘: the battle for South Carolina’s state fossil.

Hummingbirds have got it going on and diversity is booming.

The Tet Zoo manifesto: even the most ordinary creatures are amazing.

Drunken Prairie Voles Help Explain Alcohol’s Demons‘.

How one species of bat became seven.

White-nose syndrome has spread to bats in Wisconsin and Michigan.

Nature’s deformities can be beautiful and enlightening.

Shark fin imports may have dropped 90% in Hong Kong and China, but that’s not the whole story.

19 fish not to eat (and their sustainable alternatives).

The importance (and revival) of studying anatomy.

The Aunt who inspired the evolutionary theory that proved the value of aunts.

Confident memories can be completely wrong.

Do color blind people see more colors when they take hallucinogens?

Chemophobia can be more dangerous than chemicals.

Why it’s difficult to recycle cell phones.

10 reasons you should be watching Cosmos.

How the Cosmos remake came to be.

Star deaths are beautiful.

How to Turn a Pencil Into a Diamond‘.

What a computer background can show us about climate change.

Ditch plastic water bottles, 23 national parks have!

A geological map of Westeros.

Timelapses of glaciers show how they flow.