0 Paleontology in the News

Paleontology in the News

This is a selection of stories, subject to the following rules. First, I don't guarantee close daily coverage of everything that happens (because I have things to do apart from maintaining this Web page). Second, the site has to be generally accessible. (Many journals, like Science and Nature, make new papers accessible only to people or institutions who have paid a subscription to the written version.) Third, I choose newspapers and news sites that tend to keep their pages accessible for more than two weeks over those that do not. Fourth, I keep older articles archived for varying lengths of time, depending how important I think they are (or interesting, at least); whether they have been updated or made redundant; and whether the site has dropped them.

Here also is a site for Anthropology in the News from Texas A & M.

Paleontology in the News

  • October 18, 2013. Important new paper about the hominids from Dmanisi. Dmanisi, in Georgia, has already yielded 4 Homo skulls dating from about 1.8 Ma, but now there is a fifth, better preserved than the others, that alters our understanding of early Homo. The Dmanisi skulls belong to the earliest group of Homo to leave Africa. Together, they strongly suggest that the species we have been calling Homo habilis, Homo ergaster, and Homo erectus are better identified as one rather variable species, Homo erectus. My take on this is as follows.

    Homo erectus, in this new framework, is a species that gradually evolved from about 2 Ma from a crafty little scavenger into the large, advanced, hunting predator that made the wonderful Acheulean tool kit, including hand axes. Erectus spread out of Africa into Eurasia, and its fossils are found from Spain and France to northern China and Indonesia.

    In Africa and Europe, erectus evolved into Homo heidelbergensis, which in turn evolved in Europe and western Asia into Homo neanderthalensis. In Siberia, erectus evolved into the Denisovans, and in Indonesia, a small isolated offshoot of erectus is seen at the "hobbits" of Flores, Homo floresiensis.

    African heidelbergensis evolved into Homo sapiens, which then took over the world. But there was enough inbreeding with previous Homo in Africa, Europe, and Asia that non-sapiens genes were transmitted to sapiens at low percentages. (Intensive research continues on this aspect.)

    This story is simpler and cleaner than the older multiplication of early Homo species, and allows us to concentrate on the story of erectus as a major breakthrough in hominid evolution. (See the news update on the shoulder of erectus below.)

    The paper is in Science this week, so is not freely available on the Web.

  • October 17, 2013. An Eocene mosquito fossil with a blood-filled abdomen. The fossil is from an oil shale formation in the Middle Eocene of Montana. The gut contents are no longer blood, but iron-rich, and a mass spectrometer showed that the contents included heme, clear evidence of the former presence of hemoglobin (and therefore blood). No DNA!!! And there's a neat photograph of the specimen. The paper is in press in PNAS.
  • October 17, 2013. The human shoulder. Within primates, Homo has a unique set of characters of the shoulder that allow powerful and efficient throwing. This comes from features of the joint that allow elastic energy storage and rapid release. What is particularly interesting is that those features appear first in Homo erectus, the first large species of Homo that altered the ecology of Africa and spread over much of the Old World. The paper is in Nature: Roach, N. T. et al. 2013. Elastic energy storage in the shoulder and the evolution of high-speed throwing in Homo. Nature 498, 483–486. Long, detailed pop article by Neil Roach, the lead author.

  • October 17, 2013. The arapaima of South American rivers is piranha-proof, thanks to an astonishing microstructure of its scales. The arapaima is a remarkable, though endangered fish (see Wikipedia entry). More generally, it will be fascinating as people play closer attention to the microstructure of fish scales to see whether this arapaima stucture is unique. Already, people are thinking the newly discovered structure may lead to lighter and better bullet-proof vests for soldiers and police. The paper is in Nature Communications, but I don't have access to its full text.

  • October 17, 2013. A nervous system preserved in a Cambrian arthropod. Alalcomenaeus died and was preserved in the early Cambrian Chinese lagerstatte of Chengjiang. The nervous system was preserved chemically along with other soft parts, but it stands out in CT because it is richer in iron. The pattern of the nervous system, along with other characters, shows that two great arthropod groups had already split by 520 Ma: the Chelicerata and the Mandibulata. The paper is in Nature.

  • September 13, 2013. The Cambrian explosion. A new study assesses rates of morphological and rates of genetic change in Cambrian times versus later times. Obviously information is incomplete for both. By using arthropods as a test case, however, information is as complete as one can get because arthropods were so important in Cambrian seas, and were morphologically diverse, and because there are living representatives of many Cambrian groups to provide genetic data. The data show that rates or morphological AND genetic change in the Cambrian were about 5 times as fast as they were in later times. And that result is statistically very strong. That means that the Cambrian evolution really was an "explosion". It doesn't explain the explosion, but it shows that it was real. The paper is Lee, M. S. Y. et al. 2013. Rates of phenotypic and genomic evolution during the Cambrian Explosion. Current Biology 23: 1-7. It is available as a .pdf file, with nice clear diagrams. Here is a press release

  • September 12, 2013. Tamu Massif, the largest volcano on Earth. This is important for Chapter 6 in History of Life, where I discuss plate tectonics and giant volcanic eruptions in the context of mass extinction. Besides, it's a great story.
    Shatsky Rise is a large region of underwater volcanic rocks, on the Pacific Ocean floor between Japan and Hawaii. It was formed, perhaps at a hot spot or triple junction, around the Jurassic/Cretaceous boundary. The largest component of Shatsky Rise is an area now called the Tamu Massif. New geophysical surveys have revealed that it was most likely formed as one single volcano on the deep ocean floor. The lava flows behaved as they usually do in deep water: they flow fast and shallow, spreading rapidly in sheets. Many repeated flows built a huge structure, much wider than the height. Building up on thin and weak ocean crust, the volcano depressed the ocean crust by isostasy as it grew, so that it always remained deep under the ocean surface even as its volume grew to a huge size. As it stands now, Tamu Massif has about the same volume of lava as the largest known volcano in the Solar System, Olympus Mons on Mars. The difference is that Olympus Mons built up high because it was on old, strong, cold thick Martian crust.
    There are all kinds of questions which will surely be discussed as time goes by. Here are three.
    We didn't see the significance of Tamu Massif until it was investigated by modern geophysical methods. Are there others like it, formed in the past, or forming now, at triple junctions or hot spots on deep ocean crust?
    Tamu Massif is a huge block of rock on and in the ocean crust. Sooner or later this part of the Pacific ocean floor will reach a trench. Will Tamu Massif go down? And if it does, will it eventually generate a huge volcano behind the trench? Or if it won't go down, will it make a dent in the line of the arc?
    Huge volcanic eruptions are known to play a part in crises in the history of life: the Siberian Traps at the P-Tr boundary, the CAMP basalts at the Tr-J boundary, and the Deccan Traps at the KT boundary. But Tamu Massif was erupted into deep water, so didn't release gases or ash into the atmosphere. Did that make all the difference between calm and crisis among the organisms alive at the time?
    Stay tuned.
    News item in Nature. The paper is Sager, W. W. et al. 2013. An immense shield volcano within the Shatsky Rise oceanic plateau, northwest Pacific Ocean. Nature Geoscience, in press, but it is not freely available on the Web.

  • September 10, 2013. Summary of recent evidence about an impact that may have set off the Younger Dryas climate change. Robert Kunzig for National Geographic News

    Just a little while ago, this impact idea seemed dead. But two new papers present strong evidence that there was some sort of impact. Petaev et al. show that there is a large platinum spike in dust particles in the Greenland ice cap, right at 12,800 BP, the time when the anomalous cold climate of the Younger Dryas begins. The platinum was deposited in perhaps 20 years, in keeping with the lifetime of very fine dust in the stratosphere. The impactor may have been an iridium-poor iron meteorite, the authors say.
    Then Wittke et al. report analyses of 700 spherules from 18 sites at the Younger Dryas boundary. They infer a relatively large asteroid impact, though their calculations are based on relatively few sites compared with the KT data.
    So we have new studies that are not necessarily compatible with one another. Clearly there is more going on than we had thought, and one or more impacts seem to have occurred. Having established that, we can go on to worry about the nature and mass of the impactor(s), and then what their effect on climate and humans and ecosystems might have been.
    Petaev, M. I. et al. 2013. Large Pt anomaly in the Greenland ice core points to a cataclysm at the onset of Younger Dryas. PNAS 110: 12917-12920
    Wittke, J. H. et al. 2013. Evidence for deposition of 10 million tonnes of impact spherules across four continents 12,800 y ago. PNAS 110: E2088-2097.

  • August 26, 2013. The Ice Ages and the connection with North America. A new model incorporates the classical Milankovitch theory but also watches the way the ice sheets influence the continents they cover. It turns out that the particular geography of North America sets up very rapid ends to an ice age. It's yet another example of the truth that Earth is not a planet that lends itself easily to overall computer modelling. Details count, and can easily make dramatic changes to our too-clean theories. (For example, a small asteroid may help to cause a mass extinction if it happens to strike an unusual target locality -- see the next story below.)

    The new paper is in Nature, so it is not on the Web. Abe-Ouchi, A. et al. 2013. Insolation-driven 100,000-year glacial cycles and hysteresis of ice-sheet volume. Nature 500, 190–193; and comment, pp. 159-160. So see this news story from a strange Japanese site comment from Science, and watch this video of one computer run: Video showing the computer model of ice ages

  • August 26, 2013. Finally! A convincing crater from the Permian-Triassic boundary. The Araguainha crater in Brazil dates to the PT boundary within measuring error. But it is only 40 km across, too small for the impact to have generated a global crisis -- except for some very special circumstances. The crater was blasted into formations that contained very large oil and gas concentrations, so the impact ejecta would have included huge amounts of hydrocarbons. In addition, there are sedimentary features in Permian rocks for hundreds of miles around the crater, showing that the hydrocarbon-bearing sediments slumped, slid, churned, and were caught up in tsunami, all from the enormous seismic shocks generated by the impact AND by the collapse of the surrounding sediments into the crater. These effects also occurred in the Caribbean after the KT impact at Chicxulub, and here is a previous episode in Permian sediments at the PT boundary. Estimates of the yield of hydrocarbons around the Araguainha crater suggest that this relatively small impact had effects that were greatly multiplied by the particulars of the impact site. If the hypothesis holds up under the scrutiny that will now be focussed on the Araguainha crater, then we have a powerful (and convincing) trigger for the PT crisis that was already primed to occur because of the eruptions of the Siberian Traps. As at the KT boundary, it may have taken a random combination of a huge eruption and an asteroid strike to generate a global extinction.

    And, of course, there's a teaching moment here. The similarity of the PT and the KT mass extinctions means a lot in terms of a general theory. There will be more encouragement for looking for a convincing end-Triassic impact (there are already papers about candidates). The hydrocarbon factor becomes important too. Is Earth more likely to suffer mass extinctions through time as organic productivity has increased? Probably yes, but carbon has to be buried where it is geologically vulnerable to disturbances such as impacts. It's a bit scary that a fairly small impact like Araguainha could be part of the largest ever mass extinction, but it happened at the best (worst) time and place.

    If you write a textbook, something will eventually happen which makes you wish you could rewrite a chapter. This is one of those times, and it's only months since it became too late to change Chapter 6 of History of Life!

    This is a careful study and it is likely to be a landmark paper. Tohver, E. et al. 2013. Shaking a methane fizz: Seismicity from the Araguainha impact event and the Permian–Triassic global carbon isotope record. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 387, 66–75. Here is a news story from The Economist by Matt Kaplan: The Economist

  • August 25, 2013. The earliest multituberculate mammal, Rugosodon from the Late Jurassic of China. This is a beautifully preserved specimen, completely consistent with later multituberculates. News story: National Geographic News. The paper is in Science, so will not be freely available on the Web for a while.

  • August 25, 2013. The necks of sauropods, reconstructed by comparison with the necks of ostriches. Sauropod necks have been reconstructed using bones alone, by computer modelling, and by comparison with ostriches, camels, and giraffes. A new study has looked at the influence of cartilage on the necks of ostriches. Ostriches, as dinosaur descendants, might be better models than mammals. It turns out that the cartilage has more effect than one would expect in limiting the neck flexibility, so that sauropod necks were like not as flexible as some computer models have suggested, nor as stiff as other suggestions. The study is open access: PLoS One. Here also is a news article: BBC News

  • August 25, 2013. Neanderthals had regional differences in hand-axe styles. A new study shows that Neanderthals in different parts of Western Europe fashioned hand-axes in different styles that had nothing to do with the stone materials, but were culturally patterned, probably because tool-makers taught their pupils their local methods. (The same thing happened in the style and structure of homes before modern times.) The paper is Ruebens, K. 2013, Regional behaviour among late Neanderthal groups in Western Europe: A comparative assessment of late Middle Palaeolithic bifacial tool variability. Journal of Human Evolution, in press. Here is a press release: University of Southampton

  • July 17, 2013. Nasutoceratops, a new ceratopsian from Utah. Fairly full summary by Brian Switek The paper is in press: Sampson, S. et al. 2013. A remarkable short-snouted horned dinosaur from the Late Cretaceous (late Campanian) of southern Laramidia. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 280:

  • July 16, 2013. Head-butting in pachycephalosaurid dinosaurs. The most comprehensive study yet of bone damage to the skeletons of pachycephalosaurids shows that it was concentrated in precisely those areas and specimens (skulls of adult males) that a head-butting behavior would be likely to impact. Furthermore, the paper is open-access on PLoS ONE, with very fine illustrations. Peterson JE et al. 2013. Distributions of cranial pathologies provide evidence for head-butting in dome-headed dinosaurs (Pachycephalosauridae). PLoS ONE 8: e68620. Nice perspective piece by Ed Yong, and here is the paper

  • July 16, 2013. Reining in the Red Queen. A favorite theme in evolutionary theory is the Red Queen scenario for promiting evolutionary change. It's based in the story in Alice in Wonderland, where the Red Queen complains that everyone has to keep running to stay in the same place. In evolutionary theory, organisms may adapt to become better predators, but in response their prey may adapt to become more difficult to catch: so both species evolve but their relative status does not change. In Paleobiology, Gary Vermeij and Peter Roopnarine argue convincingly that the Red Queen situation only very rarely happened in the real world. Those familiar with Gary's work will recognize that the pun in the title is vintage Vermeij! No Web site for this paper. Vermeij, G. J. and P. D. Roopnarine. 2013. Reining in the Red Queen: the dynamics of adaptation and extinction reexamined. Paleobiology 39: 560-575.

  • July 16, 2013. A Tyrannosaurus tooth embedded in the skeleton of a hadrosaur (Anatosaurus). However, the tooth broke off and the wound healed. This is most easily explained by saying that there was an unsuccessful attack on the hadrosaur. The paper is in PNAS, so it won't be on open access for a year. Brian Switek's Laelaps blog

  • July 14, 2013. A giant Late Cretaceous marine turtle with suction feeding. A new genus of fossil turtle from the Late Cretaceous of Morocco is called Ocepechelon. Apart from its great size, it is unique because it has a very long extended skull, with the jaws forming a long projecting tube. The only reasonable explanation is that it was a suction feeder. This feeding style is known in whales, but they have a much larger relative gape as they feed. Brian Switek's blog. The paper is in PLoS ONE, so is open access. the paper

  • July 12, 2013. Helicocystis, from the Cambrian of Morocco, is the earliest echinoderm with 5-fold symmetry. It fills a morphological gap between the strange helicoplacoids of the Early Cambrian and the later "crown group" echinoderms with 5-fold symmetry. It helps to explain the anatomy and evolution of helicoplacoids, and fixes more precisely the appearance of "modern" echinoderms. Amazing what one new species will do to textbooks on invertebrate paleontology. Short news story. Smith, A. B. and S. Zamora. 2013. Cambrian spiral-plated echinoderms from Gondwana reveal the earliest pentaradial body plan. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 280, in press.

  • July 6, 2013. Eunotosaurus and the origin of turtles. Eunotosaurus is a Permian reptile from Gondwana that seems to have close affinities to the ancestors of turtles. It's a complex argument related to how the turtle shell evolved. Lyson, T. R. et al. 2013. Evolutionary Origin of the Turtle Shell. Current Biology 23: 1113-19. News story

  • July 3, 2013. Latest on the Pleistocene extinction in Australia. This has been contentious over the last few years. This latest paper happens to support (rather indirectly) my biased view that the extinction was human-related. Lopes dos Santos, R. A. et al. 2013. Abrupt vegetation change after the Late Quaternary megafaunal extinction in southeastern Australia. Nature Geoscience in press, published online 30 June 2013. Abstract of article

  • June 13, 2013. Preserved muscles in placoderm fishes and their importance. The Gogo Formation from the Devonian of Western Australia has beautifully preserved fishes. But in recent years Kate Trinajstic and colleagues have been studying preserved muscles in Gogo placoderms. The latest paper is in Science: Trinajstic, K. et al. 2013. Fossil musculature of the most primitive jawed vertebrates. Science 341: 160-164. This news story is a good summary: New Scientist.

  • June 10, 2013. Aurornis, a new fossil from China close to the origin of birds. This is a paper in press in Nature. The paper is based on a new specimen which is the basis for a new genus, Aurornis. It lies within a clade of dinosaurs called paravians. These include birds (avialans), and the dinosaur groups dromaeosaurs and troodontids. Aurornis is certainly a paravian, and the authors place it as a basal avialan, more basal than Archaeopteryx. The best overview is in a blog by Ed Yong. But a lot of the impact of the new fossil is that it is said to come from a Jurassic formation, rather than the early Cretaceous Yixian Formation that many of the Chinese feathered dinosaurs come from. Deep in the Supplementary Information for the paper, the authors mention that they are not totally sure where Aurornis was collected, because the fossil was bought from a dealer. They don't think it's a fake, but it might be Cretaceous, and 20 million years younger than their claimed Jurassic age, which might cause some doubt about its claimed relationship as more basal than Archaeopteryx. We shall have to wait and see!

  • June 8, 2013. Archicebus, the oldest well-preserved primate. A very small fossil (astonishing that anyone even noticed it) from the early Eocene of China (about 55 Ma) shows enough detail to clear up some issues of primate relationships. The nearest similarity of Archicebus is with tarsiers, but there are some features that link it with anthropoids. The fossil is best seen as a basal tarsiiform, but also as a basal haplorhine, very close to the divergence between anthropoids and tarsiers. It confirms the recent results that place tarsiers and anthropoids as sister groups (see my entry for May 1, 2013), but it means that their divergence is earlier than we had thought, and also that the divergence between haplorhines and strepsirhines is earlier also, probably back in the Paleocene. It also clarifies that plesiadapiforms are not primates. Archicebus is about the size of a pygmy mouse lemur, and probably weighed ony 20-30 grams. Obviously, it now acts as a model for all early primates, with a dirunal insect-eating life style. The paper is in Nature. Ni, X. et al. 2013. The oldest known primate skeleton and early haplorhine evolution. Nature 498, 60≠64.

  • May 2, 2013. Australopithecus sediba. A whole series of papers came out in Science a couple of weeks ago on this species, and I've now read them all. There were also several blogs, and a huge number of newspaper stories. So here's a set of links, and then my take on the issues that were raised.

  • May 1, 2013. Tarsiers and anthropoids are sister groups of primates in the Haplorrhini. This is further confirmed by a major new genetic analysis. The paper is in Nature Scientific Reports, and is open access. Hartig et al. 2013

  • May 1, 2013. A wonderful new bird fossil from the Green River Formation of Wyoming. Eocypselus is a tiny Eocene bird, almost completely preserved, with feathers. Its skeleton places it in the bird lineage that includes living swifts and hummingbirds, but it has not yet evolved any of the specializations of those two groups. The paper is in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

  • April 30. 2013. Brian Switek muses on the changes in our understanding of Stegosaurus over the years. Brian Switek's blog

  • April 29, 2013. Turtles are archosaurs, related to the bird/dinosaur lineage. This result confirms and extends previous suggestions, based on sequencing the genomes of two different turtles, and comparing the embryology of turtles with that of chickens. Science Daily news item with a nice diagram of the embryology. The paper is open-access at Nature Genetics.

  • April 29, 2013. Black Sea floods late in the last Ice Age. There has been a lot of speculation about Black Sea floods and early human settlement around its shores. Now comes some real science. There were Black Sea floods, caused by the catastrophic drainage of a huge glacial lake in central Russia, and this paper explains their origin and end. (These documented floods are far too early to be those that allegedly disturbed human settlement.) The new paper is in PNAS, so it will eventually be on the Web. No news stories that I could find. Soulet, G. et al. 2013. Abrupt drainage cycles of the Fennoscandian Ice Sheet. PNAS 110: 6682-6687.

  • April 25, 2013. Homo erectus had a precision grip, probably related to the ability to make sophisticated tools like Acheulean axes. It is difficult to see the evolution of the hand because hands are rarely preserved. We can now see that Australopithecus did not have a precision grip, but Homo erectus, the earliest Homo to show a well-preserved hand, did. So far, this is a news item in Science: there's no paper yet. Gibbons, A. 2013. When Early Hominins Got a Grip. Science 340: 426-427.

  • April 5, 2013. Evidence of planktonic autotrophs at 3.0 Ga, with implications of much greater age. This is a paper in press: House, C. H. et al. 2013. Carbon isotopic analyses of ca. 3.0 Ga microstructures imply planktonic autotrophs inhabited Earth's early oceans. Geology, in press. Spindle-shaped microfossils have a morphology and a carbon isotope signature which identifies them as photosynthetic planktonic cells. Cells like then also occur at 3.4 Ga. If the claim holds up, this makes Archaean microecology in shallow water much more modern-looking. So far only the abstract is available. House et al. abstract
  • April 4, 2013. More about the origin of multicellularity. Back on January 17th, 2012, I posted an entry which I called the breakthrough of the year. I described the work of William Ratcliff's team in Minnesota on the formation of multicellular colonies of yeast under quite simple selection. Now Ratcliff and others have completed more experiments that take the story further. The bottom line is that multicellular structure is not that difficult to evolve if the genetic underpinnings for the process already exist in the genome of the species being selected. Early on, those genetic underpinning had to have evolved slowly. But then there was geological time in which to do it...

  • March 26, 2013. A giant Miocene sperm whale with tremendous teeth -- named Leviathan!!!! The modern giant sperm whale Physeter is big enough, but it eats "soft" food such as giant squid by sucking them in. Leviathan had a skull 10 feet long (3 m), equipped with huge teeth: the authors call it "the largest tetrapod bite". The paper is Lambert, O. et al. 2010. The giant bite of a new raptorial sperm whale from the Miocene epoch of Peru. Nature 466, 105≠108. For images see BBC News


  • November 26, 2012. A Jurassic hanging-fly that mimicked a Jurassic gingko leaf cluster. The paper is in PNAS. Brian Switek's Laelaps blog

  • November 24, 2012. The effects of the huge Manicouagan impact in the late Triassic were not global. The paper is in PNAS.

  • November 21, 2012. A rhinoceros killed and cooked in a volcanic eruption 9 million years ago in Turkey. The paper is open-access in PLOS One.

    November 18, 2012. A new Cambrian Burgess Shale basal arthropod Nereocaris helps to suggest that arthropod skeletonization was linked with stabilizing the muscular system that allowed swimming. Therefore arthropods were originally swimmers and all their adaptations to benthic life on and in the substrate came later (say the authors). The paper is in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B

  • November 16, 2012. The strange Burgess Shale animals Wiwaxia and Odontogriphus have a jaw structure that can be interpreted as a molluscan radula. The paper is in the Proiceedings of the Royal Society B.

  • November 15, 2012. The Miocene ancestors of the great white shark. The paper is in Palaeontology. Brian Switek's Laelaps blog

  • October 31, 2012. Eukaryotes are Archaea -- at least, their nuclear DNA says so. This view is increasingly popular, as far as I can judge from the literature. This latest paper is in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, and is currently open access. Royal Society

  • October 31, 2012. The earliest gliding fish, from the Middle Triassic of China. Potanichthys has all the right fin adaptations to glide, plus an asymmetrical tail fin to blast it out of the water for take-off. Very nice paper in press in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Right now it is open-access. Nature news item and the paper

  • October 31, 2012. How to reconstruct a strange dinosaur skull. This would make a neat discussion on how one moves from hard facts (the fossils) to reconstruction and on to speculation/reasoned inference about the life appearance. Nice blog by Jaime Headden. Qilong blog

  • October 29, 2012. A "bone-bed" in the Jurassic of China contains probably close to 2000 turtle shells. The animals were killed in a desert lake environment, probably by a drought, and were quickly buried under a flash flood as the drought ended. Really nice piece of paleoenvironmental reconstruction. The paper is in press in Naturwissenschaften. Science Daily

  • October 27, 2012. The development of priapulids is unusual, even for a worm. It doesn't mean they are not Protostomes, but it does mean that the term protostome covers a great range of morphological development than we thought it did. Nature News item

  • October 26, 2012. Why (some) choanoflagellates divide and stay together to form colonies. These two papers (research report and a commentary) are in the new online journal eLife. Choanoflagellates are likely the unicellular ancestor of sponges and all other metazoans. Some chanoflagellates stay attached after they divide, and keep on dong that until they form multicellular colonies. These colonies are then very like a group of choanocytes, the filtering cells that line sponge chambers. The agglomeration in both cases makes the cell groups more powerful pumps to filter bacteria from the water than a single cell could be. The focus of these new papers is the discovery of a substance included in and extruded by the prey bacteria of choanoflagellates. This molecule is a sulfonolipid, and it is as powerful a chemical as the famous sex attractants put out by various moths to attract mates. The stress in the research papers is to show how the molecule can induce the choanoflagellates to form rosettes of multicellular colonies, rather than stay unicellular. However, I've read this over several times, and it's clear that the message is, how powerfully the bacteria are affecting the choanoflagellates! THIS IS TOTALLY BACKWARDS!! Why would a bacterium release a chemical that makes its predator into a more powerful and effective bacterial consumer??? Instead, THE EMPHASIS SHOULD BE ON THE CHOANOFLAGELLATE!!! It's astonishing that the choanoflagellate can detect, process, and react to minute chemical traces of its prey, then change its developmental pathway to form a rosette that is a more powerful feeding machine. (And then it reverts when the chemical disappears below a critical level, and drops back to being unicellular.) What this says is that choanoflagellates (and probably sponges, too, if we looked) are more sophisticated than we thought. But then the carnivorous sponges are pretty impressive, too.... commentary and paper

  • October 25, 2012. The water cannon of the archer fish. This isn't paleontology, but it is another tribute to the power of natural selection. The archer fish knocks insects off leaves hanging over the water with a jet of water. For the first time, we know how that works, and it's astonishing! The paper is in PLoSONE, on open access. Nature news item

  • October 25, 2012. The ornithimimosaur Ornithomimus had feathers. This is not just another theropod: it's another major clade to be added to the list of (potentially) feathered dinosaurs. The paper is in Science this week.

  • October 24, 2012. How Tyrannosaurus ate a Triceratops. Very dramatic. But surely the first thing a predator does to a prey is to eat the juicy soft parts, not worry about neck muscles. That first munching doesn't leave scars on bone, however..... Nature news item

  • October 18, 2012. Extreme high temperatures at and after the Permo-Triassic extinction. A paper in Science this week, and an accompanying comment, document extreme high temperatures by isotope analysis of the teeth of conodonts living in shallow water in China across the boundary, and well afterward. The authors generalize these extreme temperatures to the Triassic world, arguing that the tropics were largely uninhabitable, land and sea, for millions of years in the early Triassic. As they point out, this probably means that the Siberian Trap eruptions lasted into the Triassic, though this is not yet documented in the volcanic record. My comments: First, look at the map in the news story, and you'll see that the effects on vertebrates were more intense in PaleoTethys than in the rest of the world. In fact, if I were drawing their "Dead Zone", I would draw its edges differently, to stress this point. Second, the DATA are all from the China sections. We have no idea what temperatures the conodonts in the rest of the world were experiencing, so the authors' extrapolation to the whole world is based on speculation rather than data. There's a great story here, but we haven't got it all yet. In the forthcoming 5th edition of my History of Life, I have already focussed on PaleoTethys as an anomalous region during the P-Tr extinction, because of its largely enclosed geography, and its proximity to the Siberian Trap eruptions. Stay tuned.

  • October 18, 2012. An ancestral relative of grebes and flamingos built a nest on a lake in Miocene times in northern Spain. It was sunk and drowned in shallow water, still largely intact and with eggs in it. This study describes the egg-shells, which are flamingo-like, and the nest, which is grebe-like, and relates the paleobiology to a detailed reconstruction of the lake setting. The paper is open-access at PLoSONE. Live Science, news story

  • October 17, 2012. More on pachycephalosaurs head-butting. This is from a talk at the annual SVP meeting, so no paper yet. Discovery

  • October 17, 2012. The Komodo dragon has extreme sexual dimorphism. Males are large and fast-growing, and live to an average age of 60. years. Females are smaller, slower-growing, and die at about 30 years at one-third the body weight. The research team thinks that the male size and fast growth is a result of male-male competition for females (sexual selection). The females grow slowly because they fast during the long period over which they guard their nests, and perhaps this jeopardizes their longevity too. The paper is in PLoS, open access. Science Daily

  • October 12, 2012. A bird colony drowned in the Late Cretaceous of Romania left a lens of fossilized eggshells in the local rocks. The paper is in Naturwissenschaften.

  • October 8, 2012. Dazzling new find in amber: a spider closing in on a wasp that has been trapped in its web. The amber is from the Early Cretaceous of Burma (Myanmar), about 100 Ma. The paper is in Historical Biology, but only adds taxonomy and detail to the press releases. Live Science

  • October 6, 2012. Another mammoth found in Siberian permafrost. THis is a young mammoth far up along the north coast. MSNBC

  • October 5, 2012. A new analysis of molecular data says that crown-group rodents evolved AFTER the KT extinction, not before it as some studies have claimed. The critical difference between the new study and the older ones is that the research team used far more evidence from the fossil record to calibrate their estimates of divergence times. There's a less there that many molecular geneticists haven't learned yet! The paper is open-access at PLoS ONE PLoS ONE

  • October 4, 2012. When did Neanderthals and humans interbreed? A new and complex statistical treatment suggests dates broadly between 86 ka and 37 ka, and probably between 65 ka and 47 ka. This fits best with interbreeding in the Middle East as modern humans with Late Paleolithic tools arrived from Africa. The paper is open access in PLoS Genetics but is not for the faint-hearted, Science Daily

  • October 4, 2012. Discovery of intricate tooth structure in hadrosaur dinosaurs. They independently evolved wonderful plant-grinding teeth at least as good as those of bison and mammoths. From a team led by Greg Erickson of Florida State, the paper is in Science.

  • October 3, 2012. A small heterodontosaur from the early Jurassic had "fangs" that look as if they were for interspecific fighting. This is not unusual in small herbivores, but this is the clearest argument for it in heterodontosaurs. This news story concentrates on one snippet from a much larger, comprehensive monograph-sized review of these small early ornithischians by Paul Sereno. ScienceNow

  • October 3, 2012. Yet another wonderful 3D fossil from the Silurian Herefordshire Lagerstatte in England. This time it's a mollusc that combines features of a chiton and a worm-like aplacophoran. The paper is in Nature this week. Science Daily

  • October 2, 2012. An unexpected new fossil in the ancestry of horseshoe crabs. Dibasterium, another wonderful 3D fossil from the Silurian Herefordshire Lagerstatte in England. The paper is in PNAS. Brian Switek on his Laelaps blog site

  • September 27, 2012. A new specimen of the little Chinese dinosaur Mei long. The new one is also preserved in a "sleeping" position. The paper is in the open-access journal PLoS ONE. PLoS ONE

  • September 25, 2012. Three-D preservation of a Carboniferous insect nymph. The paper is open-access in PLoS One. Science Daily

  • September 24, 2012. More about the idea of panspermia. Look at this and see whether this is anything more than playing with ideas and computer models. There is no advancement of science. And the questions still persists: in "microorganisms" are to arrive on Earth from somewhere else, where is that somewhere else and how did life evolve there? The simplest idea is still the best: that life evolved here on Earth. Science Daily.

  • September 24, 2012. Geochemical evidence suggesting that there were bacteria on land at 2.75 Ga. The paper is said to be in Nature Geoscience. Science Daily

  • September 20, 2012. The Khoi-San ("Bushmen") may have been one of the first-branching diverging lineages of Homo sapiens, perhaps 100,000 years ago. The paper is in press in Science. Science Daily

  • September 18, 2012. Cooking up pre-biotic molecules in conditions of deep space. Science Daily

  • September 18, 2012. More evidence that there may have been a Clovis-era impact in North America after all. The paper is in PNAS. Science Daily

  • September 4, 2012. Evolution in modern humans: the case of malaria in Southeast Asia. The paper is in PLoS Medicine (available online). Science Daily

  • September 4, 2012. Profile of Xing Xu, CHina's leading dinosaur specialist. Nature

  • September 4, 2012. New pterosaur from the Jurassic of Germany. New Scientist

  • August 31, 2012. The complete genome of the Denisovan girl. DNA from the bone at the tip of her little finger! No great surprises, though the technique itself opens tremendous possibilities for paleogenomics. It also shows without any doubt at all that introgression -- in this case, the interbreeding of humans, Neanderthals, and Denisovans -- did occur. The paper is in Science this week. Wired Science

  • August 29, 2012. A new dinosaur from the Yixian Formation in China has preserved stomach contants, including bits of birds and small dinosaurs. The paper is open access at PLoS One. PLoS One

  • August 20, 2012. A more complete story of the Komodo dragon and its relatives. Neat summary by Brian Switek in his Laepaps blog

  • August 17, 2012. A Carboniferous survivor of the Cambrian Burgess Fauna? Brian Switek's Laelaps blog

  • August 2, 2012. Fossil rodents from the Oligocene of Chile have teeth that indicate a grassland diet: the earliest grasslands on Earth, perhaps, at 32 Ma. The paper is on-line in the American Museum Novitates. National Geographic News

  • July 27, 2012. The structures along the spine of Longisquama. I missed a new paper in Palaontologische Zeitschrift claiming that these structures were like feathers. But are they homologous or analogous? Several years ago I had a chance to take a quick look at the holotype, only 5 minutes, and I think the structure are one per vertebra. This implies they are "deeper" structures than feathers, so I would say "analogous" and unrelated to feathers, New Scientist, March 2012.

  • July 25, 2012. The most basal snake is Coniophis, from the Cretaceous. It suggests that snakes evolved from lizards on land. Coniophis basically has s snake-like stucture but a lizard-like skull, suggesting that the events that led to the radiation of snakes were the evolution of the jaws and teeth. The paper is in press in Nature. Scientific American news item

  • July 23, 2012. An improved scenario for the evolution of polar bears from brown bears. The new date is 4-5 Ma, and the story is much more complex than before. The paper is on-line, in press at PNAS. Ed Yong for The Scientist

  • July 20, 2012. If you scrape the tartar from Neanderthal teeth, you sometimes find traces of bitter but medicinal plants. Assuming they didn't consume these by accident, you have to conclude that they dosed themselves with herbal medicine. The Neanderthals were from Spain. The paper is in Naturwissenschaften. National Geographic News

  • July 19, 2012. Gliese 581g is the new best candidate for an Earth-like exoplanet. Arecibo Observatory

  • July 13, 2012. A new and very complete skeleton of Australopithecus sediba, from South Africa. Nowhere near publication! But a global blaze of publicity by Lee Berger.

  • July 12, 2012. A Western American culture the same age as, or slightly older than, Clovis, made very different tools. It's not clear yet whether these two groups were genetically related. The paper is in Science. Science News

  • July 11, 2012. The Americas received a major influx of "Oldest Americans" who gave rise to almost all "native Americans". Some Inuit groups followed later, along with Chippewa. The new analysis is in Nature. Scientific American blog

  • July 10, 2012. Cosmic air bursts at the Younger Dryas boundary. There have been extensive discussions of a suggestion that there was a significant impact in North America, coinciding with the Younger Dryas cooling and megafaunal extinction. Many of the authors of that suggestion have now identified a somewhat different geological event at that time. These seem to have been "cosmic air bursts": explosive blasts as meteorites/comets/asteroids blew up on entry into and passage through the atmosphere. These produced heat shocks that left exotic partices in the sediments at at least three sites, all the same age: in Pennslyvania, South Carolina, and Syria. There is abundant evidence for the events, and perhaps the closest comparison would be with an atom bomb explosion (without the radioactivity). Now, that doesn't lead to a conclusion for a world-altering event, either to climate or to extinction. But that may show up if more of these events can be identified -- not a trivial thing! So, as things stand, the Younger Dryas "impact" has gone away, and we have something else that is still to be more fully investigated. The paper is open access at PNAS this week. Open access at PNAS

  • July 9, 2012. In 2010, with a blaze of NASA publicity, a paper in Science announced that a microbe in Mono Lake, California, had substituted arsenic into its DNA in place of phosphorus. This would have been an astounding evolutionary novelty. The study was dismissed right away in blogs by respected scientists, (notably Rosemary Redfield), but we needed either confirmation from the original authors, or repeated unsuccessful attempts by the critics to replicate the results, before the situation was resolved. That has now happened: the observations were faulty, and the arsenic life form does not exist. The rebittals are in Science. National Geographic News

  • July 2, 2012. Sciurumimus, a young dinosaur from the Late Jurassic of Germany, has a superb feathered tail. But it's not a coelurosaur, it's a megalosaur, a different branch of theropod dinosaurs. This adds to the growing suspicion that all dinosaurs may have had feathers, or at least the genes to build feathers. The paper is in PNAS. National Geographic News

  • June 21, 2012. A mass of Australian Pleistocene megafauna fossilixed in what may have been a drying billabong. Live Science

  • June 20, 2012. Eocene turtles fossilized in the act of mating. This is from the world-famous Messel Lagerstatte in Germany. The paper is in press in Biology Letters, and is open access.

  • June 4, 2012. When did our anthropoid ancestors reach Africa, and where from? A new fossil from South East Asia says it was Eocene, from tropical Asia. Look, it's only one new fossil, but it's in the right place at the right time, and you do what you can with sat you've got..... The paper is in PNAS, but it is still in press, I believe. Smithsonian blog
  • June 1, 2012. Only another 4 billion years, then our galaxy the Milky Way meets the Andromeda Nebula head-on. Nasa News

  • May 31, 2012. The jaw of a tuatara: how to saw the head off a seabird. New Scientist

  • May 29, 2012. The bird-bone flutes from Swabia, in Germany, are close to 40,000 years old, which places them among the first modern human artefacts in Europe. It doesn't mean they are primitive: replicas can be made and played. The paper is in the Journal of Human Evolution. Phys.org

  • May 23, 2012. Motion in the limbs of Ichthyostega, reconstructed by computer. This shows that the forelimbs provided support and some movement, but the hind limbs were not very good at either. As far as I'm concerned, this says "Basking!!" as the function that brought Ichthyostega out of the water (just as I've said for years)..... The paper is in press in Nature.

  • May 23, 2012. The newly discovered sensory system that allows rorqual whales to gulp huge volumes of water as they feed. The paper is in Nature this week.

  • May 18, 2012. A gigantic Paleocene turtle from South America. This is about 5 m.y. after the KT extinction. It was the size of a Volkswagen, and was likely the top predator in its freshwater environment. The paper is said to be in press in the Journal of Systematic Paleontology. Christian Science Monitor

  • May 15, 2012. A huge Late Cretaceous waterbird nesting colony, drowned in place. The site is in Romania. Scientific American blog by Darren Naish, one of the authors. Strangely enough, he seems to like the paper.

  • May 10, 2012. Living turtles are the sister group of living archosaurs. The genetic evidence is overwhelming. However, there are a lot of extinct archosaurs and archosauromorphs to fit into the picture, for which we can't call on genetic evidence. No Web site: the paper is in press in Biology Letters.

  • May 9, 2012. A huge Pliocene crocodile in East Africa, contemporary with hominids. Brian Switek's Laelaps blog

  • May 9, 2012. Human whalers caused a huge bottleneck in the population of California grey whales early in the 20th century, during the desperate death throes of the whaling industry. I forgot to write down the URL, but it's a Scientific American blog by Kate Harmon.

  • May 9, 2012. The smallest mammoths of all time. On the Mediterranean island of Crete, only about 3 feet high at the shoulder. The paper is in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. BBC News

  • May 8, 2012. Nebraska man legally changes his name to Tyrannosaurus Rex. You can't make up stuff like this! Thanks to Mike Brett-Surman, who passed this on to the dinosaur discussion group. York News Times

  • May 8, 2012. Dinosaur guts produced methane, which warmed the Mesozoic Earth, There are so many assumptions, and extrapolations from small amounts of data, that this is fun but scientifically worthless. The paper is in Current Biology.

  • May 7, 2012. Origins of domestic horse: on the steppes of Eurasia. The paper is in PNAS. Abstract of the paper

  • May 3, 2012. Albertonectes, an elasmosaur, the longest of all the plesiosaurs. Brian Switek's Laelaps blog

  • April 30, 2012. Latest on the Permian extinction. New York Times

  • April 30. 2012. Underground fossil forest in a Caboniferous coal mine in Illinois. New York Times

  • April 28, 2012. Why are pygmies short? Natural selection, of course, but in a fascinating way. The paper will be on open access in PLoS Genetics.

  • April 25, 2012. Did the rise of the genus Homo mean the end for some East African plains carnivores? Kate Wong, Scientific American blog, featuring work by Lars Werdelin. This was a talk at a conference: presumably the paper is coming soon.

  • April 4, 2012. Evolution in the three-spined stickleback. Since the end of the Ice Age, the three-spined stickleback has moved between marine and fresh water as coastlines in northern regions changed with rising sea levels. Many local populations have evolved rapidly in isolation. Now it is clear that much the same mutations have arisen in parallel in many populations, often hitting the same regulatory genes again and again. So massively parallel evolution can occur readily in the right circumstances. Rather a scary thought for cladistics (morphological or genomic), but this is the real world, folks. The paper is in Nature. Nature News

  • April 4, 2012. Large new tyrannosaur from China had feathers. THis is Yutyrannus. It nails down the display hypothesis that Jere Lipps and I suggested years ago.!

  • April 2, 2012. Evidence of human use of fire one million years ago. There have been claims for older fire use, back close to 2 Ma, but this evidence is more firmly based. The paper is in press at PNAS. The site is a cave on the edge of the Kalahari Desert. Science Daily

  • March 29, 2012. A hominid contemporary with Australopithecus afarensis (Lucy) had feet that were more tree-friendly than Lucy's. The paper is in Nature this week.

  • March 26, 2012. The disappearance of the Australian megafauna (coinciding with human arrival) caused mega-changes in the vegetation. New study looks as if it is going to be published in Science. Australian Broadcasting Corporation

  • March 8, 2012. A bad day in the Solnhofen lagoon. A pterosaur (Rhamphorhynchus) caught a little fish, probably by snatching it out of the surface water during low-level flight. While the fish was still in the pterosaur's throat pouch, possibly within one wing-beat, a large fish (Aspidorhynchus) struck at the pterosaur's wing and pulled it into the water. The pterosaur struggled, and so did the fish, because the pterosaur was too large for it to swallow. But the fish teeth were stuck fast in the elastic fibers on the ptrosaur wing, and the fish couldn't release itself. The pterosaur probably drowned, but the fish would have had a slower death. All participants sank to the anoxic floor of the Solnhofen lagoon, preserving the entire episode for clever paleontologists to reconstruct. And by the way, I seriously doubt that the pterosaur was skimming the water surface, otherwise the big fish would have struck at its beak. I think the pterosaur was clawing for height after its fish catch, and may have touched the water surface with a wing-tip; or the shadow of the wing-tip very near the surface could have triggered the fish to strike. The paper is in PLoS ONE, so is open access.

  • March 8, 2012. The little feathered dromaeosaur Microraptor from the Lower Cretaceous of China seems to have had iridescent feathers. This is a big deal, because the only reasonable interpretation of those feathers is that they had a display function (as Jere Lipps and I suggested 30 years ago for the origin of feathers). The paper is in Science.

  • March 2, 2012. Some conifers survived the ice age in Scandinavia, presumably by surviving on nunataks that projeted above the ice sheet, or by occupying isolated refuges that received marine air from the North Atlantic. The evidence is genetic. The paper is in Science. Abstract of paper

  • March 1, 2012. Bats begin flight with strong tail-flapping at take-off, associated of course with wing movements. This unique adaptation is (I think) likely the secret to the mysterious origin of flight in bats, and I also think this is a breakthrough paper! It is published in PLoS ONE, so is open access. The paper in PLoS ONE

  • February 29, 2012. Otzi, the ice-man from the Tyrol, was a "medical mess". This comes from sequencing his genome. Science, news piece

  • February 29, 2012. Giant Cretaceous fleas. Science News

  • February 29, 2012. Strongest bite of any terrestrial creature: Tyrannosaurus rex. The paper is in Biology Letters. BBC News

  • February 29, 2012. Beautiful new pterosaur from China: Guidraco. Wired Science

  • February 29, 2012. The Lord Howe stick insect: survival story! NPR

  • February 27, 2012. New large penguins from the Miocene of New Zealand. Slightly taller than the emperor enguin, but slimmer. National Geographic News

  • February 23, 2012. The first horse is now called Sifrhippus. But the science here is that its size dropped during an unusually warm time in Earth history, then increased again afterward as the climate cooled again. This is usually called Bergmann's Rule. The paper is in Science.