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 a job to do apart from maintaining this Web page). Second, the site has to be generally accessible. (Many journals, like Science and Nature, make their pages accessible only to people 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, to minimize loading time, I take stories off and archive them after a couple of months (see bottom of page for links to archived stories). Fifth, 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.

Similar pages on the UC Davis Geology Department web site are

Paleontology in the News, 2002

  • December 30, 2002. A very complete skeleton of the huge plesiosaur Liopleurodon. BBC News OnLine

  • December 26, 2002. Rapid evolution of a very complex organ: the placenta of live-bearing guppies. Press release from UC Riverside (badly written, I'm sorry to say).

  • December 24, 2002. Religion as an adaptation among humans? Interview with David Sloan Wilson about a new book of his. New York Times.

  • December 20, 2002. Why are there so many dinosaur skeletons in the Cleveland-Lloyd quarry? National Geographic News.

  • December 19, 2002. The biology of the famous little Triassic dinosaur Coelophysis. National Geographic News

  • December 18, 2002. The first genetic code? with only two bases. Nature news service. The paper is in Nature.

  • December 18, 2002. A very early tetrapod discovered in China. National Geographic news. Sinostega. The paper is in Nature.

  • December 13, 2002. The genome of the sea squirt. Press release

  • December 12, 2002. Short pop summary of human evolution. National Geographic News. This is really an ad for an upcoming National Geographic Special, but it's short and crisp.

  • December 12, 2002. Breeding poinsettias. National Geographic News. Maybe you didn't believe my hypothesis for the origin of sex in Chapter 3. In that, I used the analogy of orchid breeders. But poinsettia producers do exactly the same thing!!! (use sex to produce new varieties, then clone like crazy).

  • December 6, 2002. Water produced by early martian impacts disappeared too fast to help life to form. Kenneth Chang in the New York Times. The paper is in Science. If it survives the inevitable challenges, it suggests very strongly that early Mars was a cold desert, with impact events that produced hot rain, dramatic short-lived flash floods, and no long-term surface water. It also kicks the props out from under proponents of a long wet warm period that could have led easily to life on early Mars...

  • December 4, 2002. Life began in ocean floor rocks. Sounds very unlikely (to me). "Impossible", says one famous (and smart) biologist. Martin is also a very smart scientist, however. The paper is in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

  • December 3, 2002. Very old human skulls from Mexico. BBC News OnLine. They have been radiocarbon dated at 13,000 years old, older than Clovis, and their skulls have a shape different from those of standard "native Americans". This article jumps to a lot of conclusions and assertions, but the skulls have no "provenance": we know nothing about their excavation site. There's a lot more to be done... as usual.

  • November 22, 2002. The origin of domestic dogs. Apparently in eastern Asia ("China"), less than 15,000 years ago. Science News. The date is based on the usual molecular clock assumption, calibrated on the alleged split between wolf and coyote in North America, at about 1 Ma. I wonder how good those assumptions are! Even so, that answer may be right. The research is published in Science.

  • November 21, 2002. More light on the origin of photosynthesis (sorry!!) Press release. The research paper is published in Science.

  • November 21, 2002. A new fossil of Carpolestes may shed light on the origin of true primates. National Geographic News. The current research is published in Science. Carpolestes is a plesiadapid, a member of a group that has been identified as belonging to "flying lemurs", Dermoptera, rather than true primates. The authors hang their argument on their analysis that Carpolestes and the other plesiadapids are indeed primates.

  • November 21, 2002. Mycoplasma again. . The latest iteration of Craig Venter's scheme to "construct" life using Mycoplasma genitalium as a template. The news this time is that he has been awarded $3 million to start the project.

  • November 20, 2002. The hoax fossil "Archaeoraptor" is now fully analysed. National Geographic News. The current research is published in Nature. Previous stories:

  • November 15, 2002. Debris from the Triassic Manicouagan impact is discovered in Britain. BBC News OnLine. The paper was finally published in Science at the end of the year. Walkden, G. et al. 2002. A Late Triassic impact ejecta layer in southwestern Britain. Science 298, 2185-2188. Note that this impact at least was NOT at the Triassic-Jurassic boundary.

  • November 14, 2002. Protein recovered from an ancient bison (preserved in Siberian permafrost). press release

  • November 14, 2002. How to jump further. National Geographic news service. OK, I don't see an immediate connection to paleontology, but this is irresistible.

  • November 5, 2002. More murmurs about multiple impacts at the K-T boundary. New York Times

  • October 31, 2002. How feathers form in chickens. Press release. The hope is (and it is only a hope) that the sequence seen in chickens is also the evolutionary sequence that took place 150 million years ago. Not guaranteed!

  • October 30, 2002. A very fine woolly rhino from Ice Age gravels in Britain. BBC News OnLine. Images: images of the rhino

  • October 23, 2002. The bacteria in the Martian meteorite may be real, but they may also be contaminants (Earth bacteria). BBC News OnLine. This could resolve the vicious arguments and the contradictory evidence. Previous stories this year:

  • October 10, 2002. Leonardo, a mummified duckbill dinosaur from Montana.

  • October 1, 2002. Prospects for life on outer solar system moons. BBC News OnLine. What this says is that subsurface water may occur inside more moons than we had thought. This is a VERY LONG WAY from saying that life is likely in any of them. Previous story:

  • September 24, 2002. Human and chimp DNA not as close as we thought. National Geographic News. 95% similarity rather than 98.5%. This may help to resolve the problem that DNA clocks put chimp/human divergence at 5 Ma, yet we're further back than that in the human line with no chimp fossils in sight. Besides the fact that molecular clocks don't run accurately in any case, this new work also points up the fact that molecular evidence may not be as good as is sometimes supposed.

  • September 18, 2002. Incisivosaurus, a gnawing oviraptosaur. These are stories about a new paper in Nature. This dinosaur is from the Liaoning area of China. First assessments say it's herbivorous. It could also be gnawing into bark for insects and grubs, IMHO.

  • September 5, 2002. Lost fossil of a Neanderthal baby is found in France. Nature news service. Obviously, it needs very careful examination.

  • September 3, 2002. Reconstructing an ancestral visual pigment. From the Science newsroom. They're probably pushing too far, but I need to think it through and read the actual paper.

  • August 31, 2002. Cold was affecting dinosaurs before the asteroid hit. BBC News OnLine. It's a weird journal to publish this material in: Chemistry and Industry????

  • August 24, 2002. Feature article on ichthyosaur biology. by Sid Perkins in Science News. This is clearly a superior article because it refers to my speculations on ichthyosaur swimming. But there's lots more than that...

  • August 23, 2002. Here we go again: this time in Georgia. A school board requires that creationist ideas be introduced along with the teaching of evolution. New York Times. It's the appalling ignorance that gets to you. I just hope their doctors believe in evolution!!!

  • August 23, 2002. Precambrian impact around 3.5 b.y. ago. The paper is in Science. National Geographic News

  • August 15, 2002. The success of modern humans: a language gene?? New York Times. Discusses research from a newly published paper. Personally, I doubt that language would be evolved from an on/off switch of a gene, but there is going to be a lot of discussion about this...

  • August 14, 2002. New ideas on the origin of eukaryotes. Article from a NASA writer

  • August 9, 2002. A new Nanotyrannus, or a baby T rex? National Geographic News

  • August 9, 2002. New Zealand had snakes, back in the Miocene. National Geographic News

  • August 7, 2002. How a gliding snake glides. National Geographic News

  • August 7, 2002. Male frogs that disperse their froglets, piggy-back. National Geographic News

  • July 31, 2002. Impact crater discovered under the North Sea. National Geographic News. Date uncertain, could be late Cretaceous or early Cenozoic: it couldn't be AT the K-T boundary, could it??? Careful about the date: this reporter got it wrong. It might be LATER than the KT boundary, but NOT older. The paper in Nature (not freely available on the Web) is really elegant.

  • July 31, 2002. Spectacular new fossil site in Australia: Pleistocene fauna. National Geographic News

  • July 29, 2002. Latest asteroid impact threat is less than first reported. BBC News OnLine. See information from JPL in Pasadena Previous stories:

    July 25, 2002. Jeholornis, a new primitive fossil bird from China, with seeds in its gut. Science news service

  • July 25, 2002. Evidence of the great late bombardment of Earth, around 4000 Ma. National Geographic News. For background to this research project see this older piece

  • July 22, 2002. Bison kill by Clovis people in Oklahoma. National Geographic News. Usual knee-jerk reactions by the folks who don't like the overkill hypothesis. Russell Graham says, and I quote, "The [..] bison kill provides ample proof that Clovis people were actively hunting bison; why didn't they become extinct?" I could ask the same question about the Indians that hunted bison for the next 10,000 years. Bison breed a LOT faster than mammoths, mastodons, etc., so are much more resistant to hunting pressure.

  • July 22, 2002. Bristles on the tail of a Psittacosaurus from China. This is from an electronic pre-print for the journal Naturwissenschaften, the German equivalent of Nature or Science. I've been able to read it because UC Davis subscribes to the journal. These structures are real, they can really only be for display :-) , and they are on an ornithischian not a theropod. Altogether, this argues for a very visual dinosaur biology, something I've been saying for a while.

  • July 18, 2002. A new pterosaur (from the Cretaceous of Brazil) that fished by skimming the water.

  • July 10, 2002. Hominid find of the century (so far). A new and well-preserved skull from 7-8 Ma, from Chad. It should alter the story of the origins and early evolution of hominids. Described in two papers in Nature: Brunet, M. et al. 2002. A new hominid from the Upper Miocene of Chad, Central Africa. Nature 418, 145-151; Vignaud, P. et al. 2002. Geology and palaeontology of the Upper Miocene Toros-Menalla hominid locality, Chad. Nature 418, 152-155. Bernard Wood's commentary on p. is a triumph of opinion and assertion over logic and evidence: I'll discuss that at more length later.

  • July 4, 2002. New, very early tetrapod. A new paper in Nature: Clack, J. A. 2002. An early tetrapod from 'Romer's Gap'. Nature 418, 72-76, and comment, pp. 35-36. Pederpes is a tetrapod from the very early Carboniferous of Scotland. It has feet better adapted for walking than the tetrapods from the late Devonian of Greenland, but apart from them it is the most primitive tetrapod yet analyzed.

  • July 1, 2002. There are jillions of Earth-like planets out there... BBC News OnLine. Course, we haven't actually found one yet...

  • June 30, 2002. The English and Welsh have different genetic ancestry. We both knew that, but here it is, confirmed as more than, shall we say, mutual respect. And while we're at it, how about bringing back the Plantagenet dynasty, the REAL English monarchs, rather than the waves of Welsh, Scottish, and German usurpers we've had since 1485!

  • June 29, 2002. Rainforest in North America only 1.4 m.y. after the K-T extinction. Science News, about a new paper in Science: Johnson, K.R., and B. Ellis. 2002. A tropical rainforest in Colorado 1.4 million years after the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary. Science 296:2379-2383.

  • June 28, 2002. New fossil animal before the Cambrian: from Namibia. BBC News OnLine

  • June 25, 2002. British Neanderthals. BBC News OnLine

  • June 15, 2002. Review of extraterestrial impacts. Science News

  • June 12, 2002. The nene lost genetic diversity when the Polynesians arrived. Press release about a new paper. Of course, the nene was luckier than most Hawaiian native birds: it survived (just).

  • June 11, 2002. Leaves and carbon dioxide across the K-T boundary.

  • June 11, 2002. Survivors of mass extinctions don't always radiate. We always knew that, but this is a thorough analysis of the phenomenon by David Jablonski. NSF press release. I can't believe that Jablonski was "surprised": it was Jablonski that coined the term "Lazarus Effect" for the late re-appearance of minor clades after an extinction. But it makes good copy for NSF.

  • June 7, 2002. The P-Tr Siberian basalt field was about twice what we thought: easily the largest basalt eruption documented on Earth. Nature news service

  • June 7, 2002. Complex early (Silurian) vascular plants. Press release

  • May 30, 2002. Sauropod tracks in England suggest herd behavior. New research, published in Nature, reported here in National Geographic News.

  • May 29, 2002. Odyssey spacecraft detects hydrogen in the Martian surface, interpreted as water ice. Press release, JPL; also the same press release here. Science by press release again: wait for the actual published paper that has been reviewed by other scientists. The discovery is hydrogen, not water;it may not be very much, and the actual amount has yet to be determined. As the NASA scientist said, "Stay tuned". Previous similar stories from March 4, 2002:

  • May 28, 2002. Richard Wrangham's cooking hypothesis. New York Times. This is a background feature article, well written, but slanted toward Wrangham. (This is not a criticism: I like the idea, and the suggested timing, but certainly the evidence is not compelling. It IS a nice idea.)

  • May 24, 2002. A new amino acid, found in methanogens. Press release

  • May 23, 2002. Chimps crack nuts with stone tools. New research, reported here in National Geographic News

  • May 23, 2002. When did life begin on Earth? It's around 3.8 billion years however you slice it: but the devil is in the details.

    May 23, 2002. There is really thick ice on Jupiter's moon Europa. Nature news service. A huge problem for the folks arguing for life in the water under that ice. Previous stories:

  • May 20, 2002. Stephen Jay Gould has died at the age of 60. New York Times obituary

  • May 16, 2002. The Triassic-Jurassic boundary: impact AND basalt eruptions.

  • May 16, 2002. How crocodiles detect prey at the water surface. An amazing detection system for surface ripples (or just a single drop of water) National Geographic News, about a new paper.

  • May 14, 2002. Another look at Sepkoski's data base. Press release about a new paper in PNAS. I think this is a really good paper, assessing Sepkoski's data base on biological/functional criteria rather than simply numbers. The results are surprising, suggesting that Earth's marine ecosystems, once established, are VERY resistant to collapse. Only twice, at the Permo-Triassic and at the K-T boundaries, were global ecosystems strikingly altered in balance. You need to read the paper rather than the press release: PNAS 99: 6854-6859.

  • May 14, 2002. What are the odds of life out there in the Universe? Nature news service. The news item prominently displays the fraction "one in three", but it turns out that that phrase refers to "planets like Earth". My question is, HOW MUCH like Earth? If it would have to be pretty much identical, the oddds against that are literally astronomical, and this is another piece of puffery. It surprises me that Nature news service would feature it, and it doesn't surprise me that the reference is not to a published paper but to a "preprint", which can mean anything. Another piece of science-by-publicity.

  • May 10, 2002. The evolution of whale ears. Whales, it turns out, have extraordinarily narrow semicircular canals in their ears. This is basically to stop them getting dizzy as they do their extraordinary acrobatic swimming in water. No land mammals have ever evolved this feature. So paleontologists checked the ears of very early whales, including those that were still capable of walking on land, in the Eocene. And ALREADY they had aquatically adapted ears, long before the rest of the body fully adapted to marine life. The paper was in Nature 417: 163-166.

  • May 7, 2002. A cosmic catastrophe is certain (!!!???). BBC News OnLine. More JUNK SCIENCE!!!! You know my attitudes by now... This has nothing to do with evidence!!

  • May 3, 2002. More about the earliest flower, Archaeanthus. A new paper in Science gives more details about Archaeanthus, the earliest known angiosperm from the Liaoning beds of China. The first specimen was described two or three years ago, but here is another new species, and a lot more detail and analysis.

    May 2, 2002. Another titan arum blooms. This is the "corpse flower", the smelliest plant in the world. BBC News OnLine. Previous stories:

  • April 24, 2002. Another stunning Early Cretaceous fossil from China: Eomaia, the earliest eutherian mammal.

  • April 23, 2002. Neanderthals: head-bashing and health care? National Geographic Today

  • April 18, 2002. Origin of primates deep in the Cretaceous? National Geographic News. This one makes me really angry. It is lousy science, and should never have been published. The news article here describes a new paper which claims that primates evolved deep in the Cretaceous. The claim depends on assumptions that include an average life of 2.5 million years for a primate species (go to Chapter 22 and check how that fits with hominids). It lumps together living species (defined by a biological species concept) with fossil species (defined by arbitrary morphospecies criteria). Before publication, one can typically test one's idea against available data (that's what science is all about.) If the authors had done that, they would have discovered that there are NO Cretaceous primates, in fact, the first primate is now agreed to be around 55 Ma. If data conflict with ideas, however well founded (and this one is not), then the ideas have failed the test and you start again. This is another example of a peculiar mind-set, centered in Chicago and Santa Barbara, which accepts all species as identical blobs, ignores biology, and uses mathematical models and simulations to arrive at extraordinary "insights" and "discoveries" that have no basis in real-world biology or paleontology. I'll expand and replace this reaction with a careful mini-essay in due course.

  • April 15, 2002. Did life begin in FRESH water? A simple experiment and a surprising result that looks strong. Won't that be interesting, especially for the people who have staked their reputations on deep oceanic hot vents? Remember that it takes a particular planetary (and regional) climate to have long-lasting freshwater pools. And almost by definition, freshwater pools don't connect with one another.

  • April 9, 2002. The first predator in the seas. This is an ad for a National Geographic video rather than a piece of science.

  • April 8, 2002. The bite of Sarcosuchus, "Supercroc". National Geographic News. National Geographic LOVES Supercroc: see the Supercroc page

  • April 1, 2002. Dramatic sealevel rise at 14,200 years ago. Press release about a new paper.

  • March 27, 2002. Forming amino acids in interstellar space.

  • March 25, 2002. A new Homo erectus skull from Africa confirms that it was a single world-wide species (Old World, that is). The paper was published in Nature on March 21. This paper is significant not only because it establishes that there were not two co-existing species H. erectus in Asia and H. ergaster in Africa: there was one species. If THAT is true, it becomes even more likely that the predecessors of Homo sapiens were also a single interbreeding species. Sure we may be dominated by genes of African origin, but the concept of limited interbreeding is still alive. See story on March 7, 2002.

  • March 20, 2002. Good news about the kakapo, featured in Chapter 24. BBC News OnLine. This is the only nocturnal flightless parrot in the world, in New Zealand.

  • March 15, 2002. The arrival of modern mammals in North America at 55 Ma. Seattle Times. Rodents and true primates, etc., walked through Alaska in a short warm period.

  • March 12, 2002. When did the Himalayas go up? Nature news service. [About 22 Ma, Miocene.]

  • March 8, 2002. The most convincing feathers yet on a dinosaur. A short paper in Nature by Mark Norell and colleagues. The dinosaur is a dromaeosaur from the early Cretaceous of China: it does not yet have a name. And these are display feathers: much too long to be just thermoregulatory!

  • March 7, 2002. Human evolution is more complex than a simple "out-of-Africa". Reports on new research by Alan Templeton, published in Nature:

  • March 6, 2002. "Snowball Earth" discredited. BBC News OnLine. This is not new: if even I knew that tillites and dropstones indicated open ocean during an alleged "Snowball Earth", so did lots of other people. See my mini-essay written a while ago. But, hey, whatever it takes to get this story removed and replaced with something realistic...

  • March 5, 2002. Destruction of a famous fossil site. BBC News OnLine

  • March 4, 2002. The world's oldest plants? Creosote bushes in Southern California. BBC News OnLine, March 4, 2002. We knew about those in the Mojave Desert. This extends the phenomenon geographically, and maybe in time as well.

  • February 28, 2002. The dodo is a pigeon from an Asian lineage.

  • February 28, 2002. Tyrannosaurus couldn't run. National Geographic News, about a new paper in Nature. However, remember that young Tyrannosaurus could have done, and probably did. For an awesome Web page with lots of information on this paper, click here (Cornell University).

  • February 26, 2002. So what makes humans truly human? Could it be (gasp!)... display? (Remember the origin of birds, Chapter 14?)

  • February 25, 2002. Re-stating the case for polar dinosaurs. National Geographic News, February 25, 2002. Nothing new here, but a nice summary.

  • February 20, 2002. Dust was not important at the K-T boundary!?! These items describe a new paper in Geology by Kevin Pope. Pope thinks that sulfate aerosols, not dust and darkness, were the main culprits.

  • February 19, 2002. A European phase in hominoid ancestry? University of Toronto press release about new papers published in the Journal of Human Evolution. New specimens from Europe suggest that ancestral hominoids migrated from Africa to Europe, and evolved there in the Miocene before re-appearing in Africa in the Pliocene as hominid ancestors.

  • February 19, 2002. Paul Sereno's new discoveries: an early dinosaur wishbone and tiny crocodile.

  • February 18, 2002. Someone was cracking nuts with stone tools in Israel, 780,000 years ago. Press release about a new paper in PNAS.

  • February 14, 2002. A new little theropod dinosaur from China. Press release from the Field Museum, Chicago. The same press release is also here. Sinovenator.

  • February 14, 2002. Where did chameleons come from, and how? Probably from Madagascar, but how did they get off that island, and when?

  • February 12, 2002. Ichthyosaur vomit? National Geographic News. The evidence is a bit circumstantial, but on the whole plausible.

  • February 6, 2002. The mini-radiation of geese on prehistoric Hawaii. National Geographic News. What's more, they were all descended from the Canada goose.

  • January 30, 2002. Trackway of a large running theropod dinosaur. BBC News OnLine, on a new paper in Nature, which is not universally available on the Web. This is the first proof that large theropods could run, though, of course, most people believed that they could on the basis of the skeleton. Reference: Day, J. J., et al. 2002. Dinosaur locomotion from a new trackway. Nature 415, 494-495.

  • January 30, 2002. Parental care encouraged flight in the first birds. Press release from UC Davis about a new paper by Jim Carey. I like the idea. My take would be that the evolution of flight encouraged parental care rather than the reverse, but this different take doesn't affect the basic ideas that Jim has produced.

  • January 26, 2002. A "horde" of jellyfish stranded on a Cambrian beach. New York Times. Must have been a slow news day!

  • January 21, 2002. Confirming four great clades of placental mammals. Press release, UC Riverside

  • January 17, 2002. Discovery of Archaea that live deep under a hot spring system in Idaho. Three news stories:

  • January 16, 2002. Neanderthals made great glue for their tool handles. Discovery news site.

  • January 8, 2002. More evidence linking the "Bushmen" of South Africa with the oldest human gene trees. New York Times.

  • January 7, 2002. Asteroid just misses Earth.

    For stories archived from 2001, see Paleontology News 2001

    For stories archived from 2000, see Paleontology News 2000

    For stories archived from 1999, see Paleontology News 1999

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