Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Psittacosaurus and the Colorful Dinosaur Revolution

Within the last decade, paleontologists have discovered how to unlock the color of extinct organisms, and I think it is one of the most exciting and thought-provoking modern advancements in the field. I’ve written about it no less than four times on this blog (one, two, three, four!), and now I feel obligated to write about it again.

It has been about a month now since the unveiling of the “most accurate depiction of a dinosaur ever,” and the fanfare was suitably loud. Now, I’d like to take a look over what we know about this dinosaur, and where it fits into this grand paleontological revolution we're living through.

The dinosaur: Psittacosaurus

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Was Lightning a Problem for Tall Dinosaurs?

The other day I came across this question and was shocked that I hadn’t thought about it before.

Everyone knows lightning loves striking tall objects. Many dinosaurs stood 15-20 feet tall, and big sauropods holding their necks upright may have peered down on the world from 40 or 50 feet up! Were they just giant walking lightning rods?

What a great question! Let’s break it down.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

What's New In Paleontology? Highlights from SVPCA 2016. (Part 2)

Last week, paleontologists gathered in Liverpool for the 64th Annual Symposium for Vertebrate Paleontology and Comparative Anatomy (SVPCA). I was unable to attend, mostly because of that big ocean sitting in the way (actually I’ve never been to SVPCA, I’d love to go) but I did get a hold of the abstract book. Lots of great talks and posters this year.

Here, I’ll go through some of my personal favorite highlights from this year’s meeting. I won’t have all the details, since I’m mostly going by the abstracts and not the full presentations, but I will be offering a glimpse into what’s currently happening in the field of paleontological research. 

Part II: Flying and Slithering Reptiles

Monday, August 29, 2016

What's New In Paleontology? Highlights from SVPCA 2016. (Part 1)

Last week, paleontologists gathered in Liverpool for the 64th Annual Symposium for Vertebrate Paleontology and Comparative Anatomy (SVPCA). I was unable to attend, mostly because of that big ocean sitting in the way (actually I’ve never been to SVPCA, I’d love to go) but I did get a hold of the abstract book. Lots of great talks and posters this year.

Here, I’ll go through some of my personal favorite highlights from this year’s meeting. I won’t have all the details, since I’m mostly going by the abstracts and not the full presentations, but I will be offering a glimpse into what’s currently happening in the field of paleontological research. 

Part I: Dinosaurs

Floating Spinosaurus

Let's start with Donald Henderson throwing some big theropods in the water.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Beer Made With 45 Million Year Old Yeast?

The other day I came across a Reddit post entitled: “Beer Made With 45 Million-Year-Old Yeast Found in Amber.”

And I was intrigued.

The link led to an Indiegogo campaign from the Fossil Fuels Brewing Co. aiming to raise money to further their production of beer made with ancient yeast. As the story goes, the idea was born after the “chance discovery of a beautiful amber stone, replete with a 45 million year old leaf, and a single yeast spore – still alive and itching to make beer.”

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Tracking the Mighty Sabertooths

This is a modern Tiger print.
By Aiwok, via Wikipedia.
Did you hear about those newly-discovered saber-toothed cat footprints? If not, check it out over at Science (there’s an awesome picture). The tracks are apparently up to 19cm across – bigger than a Bengal tiger’s! They were discovered in Argentina (because some countries have all the luck these days), and presented at a conference in May. These tracks probably belonged to a species of Smilodon, the most famous saber-toothed cats of them all.

Sabertooth tracks are rare, but these aren’t the first. I’ll get more into that later, but first: what exactly is a saber-toothed cat? Are they really cats anyway? 

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Island of the Tiny People

In 2003, the field of human evolution was rocked by the discovery of “hobbits,” an ancient species of human relatives who stood barely more than a meter tall. Named Homo floresiensis, they lived on the Indonesian island of Flores, and for years researchers argued over whether they represented the first-known human case of “island dwarfism” or if these ancient individuals had some sort of disease causing their short stature. If they were diseased, what disease did they have? If they were a legitimate species, where did they come from?

The disease hypothesis has mostly fallen out of favor. Numerous studies have countered suggestions that H. floresiensis had microcephaly or hypothyroidism or other proposed conditions. On Wednesday, a new study provided evidence against Down Syndrome being responsible for the fossils’ appearance. So it seems the “hobbits” were their own species, but that leaves still many questions.

Friday, June 10, 2016

The Earth's Deepest Scars

No matter how thoroughly researched and well-understood a scientific theory is, there’s always room for improvement, always something we missed. Plate tectonics is one of the most powerful and comprehensive theories in modern science, but according to a new study out today, we may have missed an important piece of the geologic puzzle. According to this research, tectonic activity may be controlled by forces deeper below the surface than we’ve realized.

Plate tectonics theory explains how the Earth’s crust moves and changes. The crust isn’t a solid shell over the Earth, it’s broken into fragments: plates. Each plate butts right up against all the surrounding plates, so there’s no space in between, but they can rotate in place, or shift like conveyor belts, sliding and grinding past each other, into each other, or underneath each other. Boundaries between plates are areas of massive geologic activity. Where plates move together, they form massive mountains or deep trenches; where plates pull apart, volcanic activity creates new crust. The surface of the Earth is constantly shaking, shifting, and deforming, mostly at these boundaries.

This is a map of the major tectonic plates of the Earth.
Notice the places where the plates meet - those are the very active plate boundaries.
Image from Wikipedia.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

"Saurian" is Already the Best Dinosaur Video Game of All Time

As popular as dinosaurs are, they’ve been surprisingly under-developed in video games. Most “dinosaur video games” – Primal Carnage, Turok, ARK, etc. – fun as they may be, feature re-hashed versions of misinformed prehistoric beasts being hunted and/or fought and/or ridden by humans. And just as the same-y anachronistic lizard-monsters of Jurassic World didn’t cut it for a lot of dino-fans, the ancient beasts of those video games similarly fail to impress. They just don’t feel like real dinosaurs.

And then there's Saurian. Watch this video:

Dinosaurs don't get realer than that.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Thunder Birds and the Bees

Every Spring in the nature preserve where I currently work, we are treated to the sight of a dozen or so tiny fluffy Canadian goslings. Everywhere they go, they are accompanied by both parents, who watch over them cautiously and confidently. Getting too close will earn you a display of head-bobbing and a stern hiss from mom or dad. The reproductive behavior of these birds is one of their most fascinating and endearing qualities.

Reproductive behavior is notoriously difficult to glean from fossils, which is a shame given how important sexual traits are in living creatures. How did ancient species select mates? Did they mate for life? Who watched the nest? All of these and more questions often go unanswered. But sometimes we get just the right data, as in the case of a new study on an ancient bird called a mihirung.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Human Environmental Engineering Goes Back a Long, Long Time

An alien species visiting Earth would find a planet clearly dominated by one species. It’s no secret that humanity has a major influence on all aspects of Earth processes – we’ve covered major portions of land surface in stone and asphalt; we’ve cleared natural landscapes and driven an ever-increasing number of species to extinction; we’ve filled the oceans with plastic and the atmosphere with greenhouse gases. This planet is very firmly in the grip of human activity.

But this legacy of environmental modification goes back further than we generally appreciate. Today’s issue of PNAS has a special section devoted to human evolution, and one paper outlines the modern understanding of the many ways our species has affected the physical world around us, and just how long we’ve been doing it. The fact is that our modern explorers – the intrepid adventurers of the past few centuries who discovered lands populated only by indigenous peoples or long-gone civilizations – were alien visitors to parts of the planet already dramatically transformed by human influence.

Here are some of the ways our species has been shaping natural environments since long before written history:

Monday, June 6, 2016

The Mystery of the Sunken City of Zakynthos

This scientific discovery reads like a science-fiction mystery novel.

It starts in 2014, when a group of tourists visiting the Greek island of Zakynthos decided to go snorkeling. While exploring the shallow ocean waters close to Alikanas Bay they stumbled upon what appeared to be the remnants of a sunken civilization: flat pavement stones and the circular bases of collapsed colonnades. Perhaps these were lost fragments of a city port submerged by the sea?

The divers took pictures and uploaded them online, where they reached the attention of Greece’s Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities, who sent in an archaeological investigation team. The team discovered something very odd: there was no pottery, no coins, no signs at all of any human life. If this had once been a city, who lived there? Who built it? And why didn’t they leave behind any artifacts?

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Ghost World - Part III: Resurrection

De-extinction. It's an amazing and controversial idea, and it may even be impossible. It's also not what you think. 

In Part I of this series, I reviewed the ways in which our world is a poor impersonation of what it was thousands of years ago, haunted by the absence of the ancient giants that once provided stability to ecosystems. In Part II, I reviewed the ways in which modern researchers are hoping to fix those ecosystems, by transporting "replacement" species to fill the gaps left by extinction, and even "un-domesticate" certain species to recreate their wild ancestors. 

Isn't there another option though? Instead of trying to replace the dead, why not bring them back? Why not simply clone extinct species?

Monday, April 18, 2016

Ghost World - Part II: Revival

In my last post, I described how the modern-day world is a global version of a ghost town: the extinction of dozens of species of large animals at the end of the Pleistocene Epoch left ecosystems incomplete and unbalanced. Without mammoths, ground sloths, and the rest, some plants and animals have thrived, others have suffered or disappeared altogether, and even natural processes like fire and climate have been affected. The natural world is incomplete without them, and continues to degrade like an abandoned village.

Of course, the key to “fixing” a ghost town is quite simple: bring people back. They don’t even have to be the same people. Just about anyone can tend the overgrown gardens, drive the disused cars, and shoo away the rats and roaches. The same may be true of our ecosystems, which brings me to an ambitious – and controversial – conservation idea:

Pleistocene Rewilding.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Ghost World - Part I. Dearly Departed

Imagine walking into a ghost town, recently deserted. It wouldn’t take you long to realize what’s missing. Cars are still parked along the streets, batteries slowly failing; sprinkler systems still spring to life on schedule, watering lawns that are steadily growing out of control; untended gardens are gradually overtaken by weeds, while insects and rodents dart in and out of homes with nothing to stop them but cats turned feral now that no one is leaving food out for them. All of these things are meant to be there, but they aren’t doing what they’re meant to do. Without people to maintain the town, it has descended into disrepair and instability.

Our world is in a state of disrepair and instability for the same reason – something important is missing. We live in a ghost world.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Where Do Killer Meteorites Come From?

I was browsing through social media when I came across someone asking an intriguing question:
How do meteors leave the asteroid belt?

This question brought to mind a science story I knew – about the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs.

I'll get to that, but first, a sub-question: do meteors even come from the asteroid belt?

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Why Were Prehistoric Animals So Big?

The other day I stopped by the American Museum of Natural History to visit their newest dinosaur display: the Titanosaur!

Discovered just last year in Argentina, this new species hasn’t officially received a name yet, but it is one of the largest dinosaurs yet discovered – the museum reconstruction is 122 feet long – and a lot of the skeleton has been uncovered between several specimens, unlike most poorly-known large sauropods.

The new titanosaur mount at the AMNH,
Photo by me, standing directly under the tip of the tail.
The media-hype over this skeleton, and the recent scientific reports about massive ancient giraffes and giant marine crocodiles, has a lot of people revisiting an old question: why were prehistoric animals so much bigger than their modern-day relatives?

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Have You Seen "Prehistoric Beast?"

I only recently learned of a short film from 1984 called Prehistoric Beast.

Wait, don’t Google it yet!  Let me give you some backstory.

Dinosaurs have been a consistent feature of movies for almost as long as there have been movies. And they've played some pretty major roles in cinema history: the first well-known animated film character was a dinosaur; some of the most iconic early stop-motion animation was done with dinosaurs; and one of the most successful and recognizable movie characters of all time is a dinosaur, just to give some examples.