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Week 7 Power Poll: Not Dinosaurs

Week 7 marks the official halfway point of the 2016 College Football season and our Big Ten competitors have begun to solidify their rank ranges in the conference, even through bye weeks for some major teams. For Week 7’s power poll, I’ll be taking you on a journey back through time (mostly). Let’s call this power poll a sequel to the Week 9: Dinosaur Power Poll from the 2015 season. However, this time I’ll be correlating your favorite Big Ten teams to animals often mistaken for dinosaurs. Allow me to science you for a moment... and for the rest of this Power Poll. Dinosaurs are actually a very specific group— Vertebrate Paleontologists consider dinosaurs to be reptiles with an open hip socket. That is to say that every dinosaur had holes where its thighbones, or femurs, attached to the pelvis. This is the single unifying feature of all dinosaurs. Ancient reptiles without this feature were not considered dinosaurs, but many have been thought of as such for decades and probably throughout your childhood and into your adult life. This Power Poll is not meant to ruin your childhood, but rather to give you some kick-ass knowledge on ancient life that you can use to impress your friends and to breathe some life into our Big Ten teams (and some are sorely in need of that).

We had 20 voters for this week, Week 7 of the 2016 college football season. As usual, these graphs were beautifully done by fellow OTE writer, insertname.

1. Ohio State: Quetzalcoatlus

Pronounced “KWET-zal-koh-AT-lus” and named after Aztec god Quezalcoatl. This amazing animal belong to a group called Pterosaurs (not dinosaurs), which is the group Pteranodon belongs to, and has in it animals that everyone refers to as “Pterodactyls.” It stood as tall as a giraffe and was the largest animal to ever fly. Like Ohio State this past Saturday, it often got off to a slow start because getting its huge body off the ground required thermals caused by the natural uneven warming of the Earth during the day. In spite of its massive 12 meter long (40 feet) wingspan, it had to wait a bit before it could be magnificent. I think that reflects Ohio State very well this week. Once they soar, they’re a football sight to behold.

Illustrated by Mark Witton

2. Michigan: Basilosaurus

Despite the word “saurus” in its name and its reptilian appearance, this animal is actually an early whale. Being a whale means that it existed well after the dinosaurs, and this indicates it is “recent” in Earth history. It lived in the late Eocene, 34-40 million years ago. At nearly 60 feet, this animal was without a doubt the most fearsome predator in the oceans at the time. It represents Michigan’s contemporary history very well. An animal that rises to dominance in the more recent time scale of the Earth is appropriate for a team that suffered under a bad coach for four seasons, but has rapidly risen in the B1G with a new coach. It lacked a melon, which is the big bulbous organ in modern whales that allows for their complex communication. This leads scientists to believe that it lacked the social capabilities of modern whales… This is the most Harbaugh whale ever.

3. Wisconsin: Ichthyosaurs

Wisconsin is one of two teams in this Power Poll to get a general group as opposed to a specific genus/species. Ichthyosaurs as a whole represent Wisconsin so well. For you Latin experts you probably have gathered that this word means “fish lizards.” This naming is due to their fish like shape, but these guys were reptiles! Their bodies, like dolphins, represent an amazing evolutionary pheonomenon called Convergent Evolution, where species that are very unrelated independently evolve traits that make them similar. In this case, they evolved a fish like form, right down to the caudal fin (tail fluke) that helped them thrive in their aquatic environment. Anyway, so the Wisconsin connection is this: Ichthyosaurs were super varied animals. There were small dolphin sized ones that were probably prey as much as they were predator, but then there were massive ones like Thalattoarchon saurophagis that were thirty feet long and equipped with serrated teeth. This year, Wisconsin is that one, when in the past it has certainly been lesser sized ichthyosaurs.

Art by Raul Martin

4. Nebraska: Dimetrodon

Dimetrodon is one of the most typical not dinosaur “dinosaurs.” Even if you don’t know what it was called, you have definitely seen this creature. Its sailed back is iconic and was most likely used for thermoregulation purposes with the ability to absorb and give off heat as needed. Dimetrodon lived in the Permian Period (before the dinosaurs) and belonged to a larger group, or clade, called Synapsids. Do you know what a Synapsid is? You are! More specifically, all mammals are, and mammals are the last remaining group of synapsids. These early, pre-mammal synapsids possessed many characteristics that all modern mammals have and so they are also called “stem mammals.” This guy is more related to you and a dog than it is to a dinosaur. Dimetrodon is both a fan favorite and was intimidating, so Nebraska with their overall chill fans and solid 2016 football season is deserving of such an animal.

5. Penn State: Postosuchus

Postosuchus was one of the largest predators of its time. A relative of crocodiles, this 15 foot long terrestrial animal was a member of the Rauisuchian family. Postosuchus lived in the Late Triassic (203-221 million years ago) and out-shined the smaller recently emerged dinosaurs, and other reptiles of the time. It did very well until much bigger dinosaurs came into existence. That sums up Penn State this season as they are a team that has really only fell to the teams they were expected to fall to. The difference between Penn State and Postosuchus, however, is that after the Ohio State game, Penn State should have what should be a very easy rest of their season. Postosuchus and other rauisuchids didn’t do too well as time went on, because they found themselves living in the shadows of the dinosaurs rather than casting the shadows. Come to think of it... Penn State and Postosuchus aren’t that unalike after all!

6. Indiana: Mosasaurus

You might recognize this guy from Jurassic World. Mosasaurs were massive aquatic lizards (60 feet long!) of the Late Cretaceous Period. And yes, they were actually in the lizard order (squamata) in the same way that an iguana and gecko are. However, Mosasaurus and other Mosasaurs are most closely related to snakes (snakes are in fact in the lizard family, they are just highly specialized legless lizards) and the relation is indicated by their hinged jaw just like snakes have. This relationship is how people feel about Indiana. How Indiana Football managed to snake its way into 6th place in the Big Ten is beyond me.

7. Northwestern: Rhamphorynchus

Pronounced “ram-fo-ring'-kus.” Another Pterosaur, though very unlike Quetzalcoatlus and this one falls short of true greatness. As far as pterosaurs go, many people think this one is pretty cool (just like Northwestern’s fancy writing). Its long tail with a spade at the end, not having crest on its head, and gnarly teeth make rhamphorhynchus a fan favorite for sure and this gives it some major points in the non-dinosaur category… until you see what other Pterosaurs looked like and realized how incapable it was compared to its bigger relatives. Like Rhamphorynchus, Northwestern has some stuff going for it, especially after this past weekend. But when compared to many of these other B1G teams, it just doesn’t stand a chance.

Illustrated by Ariel Orea

8. Iowa: Liopleurodon

Liopleurodon was a star until reality caught up with it. For you Discovery Channel and BBC watchers, Liopleurdon was the “main character” in one of the episodes of BBC’s Emmy winning series, Walking with Dinosaurs. In it they described Liopleurodon as a 25 meter long (~80 feet) monster and the largest predator to have ever existed. Liopleurodon, which lived in the Middle to Late Jurassic Period, was the go-to creature when one thought of ancient sea monsters. That is until it was realized that BBC heavily over inflated the size and that Liopleurodon was a mere 7 meters long. See the thing is, 7 meters is still very big, but it was the expectations and the hype that makes 7 meters vs 25 meters such an enourmous letdown. This is about as Iowa 2016 as it gets.

9. Minnesota: Inostrancevia

Pronounced, “in-ōs’-tran-cee-vee-uh.” This animal was a fearsome predator and lived before the dinosaurs in the Permian Period (254-260 million years ago) in what is now Siberia. About tiger-sized, it was a member of the Gorgonopsid family which belonged to the larger clade of Synapsids just like Dimetrodon. Inostrancevia was a “stem-mammal” and because of this connection to mammals, and the fact that Minnesota eviscerated Maryland this weekend with ease (which I assigned Inostrancevia’s primary prey item to Maryland below), Inostrancevia looks good on the Golden Gophers.

10. Maryland: Scutosaurus

Scutosaurus also existed before the dinosaurs in the Permian Period about 252-265 million years ago. This creature belonged to the group Pareiasaurs, which are suggested by paleontologists to be the ancestor of all turtles based on similar skull features and the bony scutes, or osteoderms they had on their bodies. This is the Maryland Terrapin connection! And yep, the ancestor of all turtles was terrestrial, or land dwelling. Scutosaurus was an herbivore, cow-sized, and like a cow, it was probably capable of defending itself to a good extent, but any super predator would not have much difficulty in taking one of these guys down. That’s about as Maryland as it gets, and Scutosaurus was probably the main food source for Inostrancevia… which makes a lot of sense given what Minnesota did to Maryland this weekend.

11. Michigan State: Crocodilians

Michigan State is getting the group treatment like Wisconsin. MSU being correlated to a modern group of animals probably seems cruel based on the other awesome animals in this Power Poll, but it is actually perfect. Michigan State is a team that many people, until this season, thought of as great, and crocodiles are a group that many people think are ancient, or “living dinosaurs.” However, modern crocodiles are actually highly derived- which in evolutionary biology means possessing new features. Extant, or living, crocodiles while belonging to a group that is very old, have features which have appeared relatively recently in their evolution. You can interpret crocodiles as Michigan State in several ways. One way being that Michigan State is recently bad, and another way being that Michigan State seemed great (ancient), but we’re learning this is not the case this season (not-ancient).

12. Illinois: Plesiosaurus

Illinois gets the Plesiosaurus treatment. An awkward marine reptile with a long neck, tiny head, broad body, and four fairly equal sized flippers. What a derpy looking animal. Plesiosaurus belongs to the order Plesiosauria. Some plesiosaurs were huge, but plesiosaurus itself was rather small, only about 3.5 meters long. It was hardly the most intimidating sea “monster” in the ocean and probably only fish were scared of it. Still though, there’s something endearing about this creature. Fairly appropriate to ascribe plesiosaurus to a team with a coach named “Lovie” and the most self-hating fans I have ever experienced.

13. Purdue: Edaphosaurus

Edaphosaurus, like Dimetrodon is another classic non-dinosaur “dinosaur.” Purdue, a Big Ten old, deserves a classic ancient animal. Edaphosaurus is another synapsid, lived at the same time as Dimetrodon, and also had a sail on its back likely for the same reason. The difference is, I would be scared of Dimetrodon. Edaphosaurus was a good bit smaller than Dimetrodon and possessed a laughably tiny head. Kind of like how laughably bad Purdue is at football. Of course, Purdue did just fire Darrell Hazell after four seasons. Maybe bright times are ahead for Purdue football? Then again, Edaphosaurus and others like it did completely die out in the Permian extinction, the largest scale mass extinction on Earth.

14. Rutgers: Marasuchus

Marasuchus was an early dinosauriform archosaur. Archosaurs are a broad group that includes dinosaurs (of which all birds are included- yes, birds are dinosaurs), pterosaurs, and crocodiles and their relatives. It is dinosauriform because it did not yet have all the features to make it a dinosaur, but it was starting to, and without Marasuchus and others like it, there would be no dinosaurs. Rutgers played in the first college football game, but it was a very different kind of football. College Football is indebted to this historic game, but at the same time, Rutgers cannot compete in the descendant sport of that football game. Marasuchus was also tiny and would be killed by pretty much all the other animals in this Power Poll if it interacted with them.

Illustrated by Nathan E. Rogers

I do hope you enjoyed this week’s Power Poll and learned a lot! As a graduate student studying vertebrate paleontology, I love this stuff and live to teach, so if you have any questions, let me know in the comments! Also, yay college football!