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.
Similar pages on my web site are
Paleontology in the News
December 19, 2003. "Snowball Earth" takes another hit. Press release from NSF. The paper was in Nature.
December 19, 2003. Paul Sereno has found a well-preserved pterosaur in Africa. National Geographic News. This gets up my nose a bit. Just ask yourself how much scientific information there is in this piece, compared to the oft-repeated hagiography of Paul Sereno.
December 19, 2003. Gustave the hungry crocodile. New York Times. Not really paleo, but crocs are living fossils...
December 17, 2003. Even more evidence that there was oxygen-producing photosynthesis at 3800 Ma. BBC News OnLine
December 17, 2003. 30,000-year-old ivory figurines carved by CroMagnons, discovered in Germany. The paper was published in Nature.
December 17, 2003. Profile of Gerta Keller. New York Times. No new insight into the K-T boundary, but some insight into Gerta Keller. (Keller strongly opposes the idea that the Chicxulub impact caused the K-T extinction.) Previous stories from September 2003:
December 12, 2003. The oldest metatherian (stem marsupial) yet: from the famous Liaoning beds of north China, early Cretaceous. This is another wonderful fossil: Sinodelphys is a complete skeleton, still with hair attached. It means that the split between placentals and marsupials goes all the way back to the early Cretaceous, 50 million years earlier than we had thought. And it took place in Laurasia, according to this new find. The fourth edition has gone to the publisher: I hope I can slip this new date in! Published in Science, which means it won't be generally accessible on the Web for about a year. But you can find nice pictures on the Web site below.
December 11, 2003. Red ochre associated with skeletons (?burial) at Qafzeh cave, 100,000 years ago. BBC News OnLine. It's not as shocking as the reporter makes it seem. It is another piece of evidence showing the deep roots of symbolism (a lot longer than this, probably). And the stuff about loss and re-appearance is nonsense: there's no evidence of that.
December 10, 2003. Panspermia again. BBC News OnLine. And as usual, theory and wishful thinking, no evidence.
December 10, 2003. A wonderful trace fossil: a huge cache of chestnuts, 17 million years old, most likely made by a Miocene hamster.
December 9, 2003. New doubts about the wildfire story for the K-T boundary. . This is about a new paper published in Geology. I had already abandoned the wildfire story in the 3rd edition, but it's nice to have more new evidence suggesting it's wrong. BBC News OnLine.
December 7, 2003. My penis is smaller than yours! Older, too! In October, with great fanfare, the discovery was announced of the oldest fossilized penis. National Geographic News, October 6, 2003. No, it's not a relic of Brian Boru. It's still attached to a fossil harvestman: a type of spider, from the 400-million year old Devonian-age Rhynie Chert of Scotland (see Chapter 8). I have a vague memory that the ostracods of the Cambrian Orsten deposits in Scandinavia have soft parts preserved in phosphate, including sex organs: but I have to go back and check that. The paper is in Nature, so is not generally available on the Web.
HOWEVER, the stakes have now been raised? lowered? by a new paper, this time in Science. This records the presence of a smaller, older penis in a Silurian ostracod.
December 3, 2003. Africa shortly before it collided with Eurasia. National Geographic News. Unexpected finds: arsinoitheres survived longer than we thought in the island continent of Africarabia; elephants were radiatinf even before they migrated into Eurasia.
December 2, 2003. Dinosaur family footprints? BBC News OnLine. A claim that dinosaur footprints from the Jurassic of Scotland show an adult ornithopod accompanied by many youngsters.
December 2, 2003. An object which looks like a piece of Neanderthal art. BBC News OnLine. This is potentially a big deal, because many people have said (on no evidence) that Neanderthals were too dim to have had the concept of art.
November 30, 2003. A new book by Simon Conway Morris.
November 30, 2003. Vegan planets? (I love that concept.) BBC News OnLine
November 24, 2003. A dinosaur with a brain tumor. National Geographic News
November 21, 2003. Strong evidence for meteorite impact at the PT boundary. This is a report in Science by Asish Basu and colleagues. There's the usual carping, sometimes by people who don't know anything about impacts. But you can't brush this evidence aside lightly, and stay tuned for much more....
November 20, 2003. When did the dodo go extinct? BBC News OnLine. We don't know, within a large time period, and this does not help at all. This is statisticians playing games with themselves.
November 14, 2003. More bashing of Bill Schopf and the Warrawoona fossils. No web site yet, but this is a paper in Science 302: 1194-1197, with news comment, p. 1134. Briefly, it describes making objects in the lab that look vaguely like Schopf's species from the Warrawoona cherts. Of course, you have to cook them in the lab at 125°C in phenol and formaldehyde for at least 15 hours to get the desired results, and that's somewhat stretching it to simulate microfossils that we know were living in normal seashore environments.
The whole logical structure of the paper goes like this. We worry about the claims that certain objects (called A) were really the first cells. So in the lab we'll make objects (called B) that look like A. Therefore the A objects were the same things as our B objects, and made the same way. The paper may be correct, but that logic is insufficient. Compare the toothpick logic (see below, November 6).
And don't forget that the whole "Martian bacteria" fiasco was based on the same type of logic. These things from a Martian meteorite look like bacteria, so they are bacteria...
For previous Schopf-baiting (it's becoming quite an industry), scroll down to April 7, 2003.
November 14, 2003. Craig Venter builds a virus. Nature news service. This is building a known virus, several thousand bases long, by gluing together pre-selected short chains of nucleotides. But it only took two weeks. The next step, they say, is making a cellular genome. It would be at least 300,000 bases long, and that's not a cell but a genome. Nevertheless, the techniques are in place. Scary. Craig Venter and his group have already done a quick-and-dirty human genome (Venter's, according to gossip), and a complete dog genome (Venter's poodle). You can't make up stuff like this! Hubris.
November 13, 2003. The zonozono tree. Press release. The press release is vague, but this is much the same story as that of the tambalocoque tree of Central America (Chapter 24), except that it's happening now.
November 13, 2003. Alaskan Ice Age horses were killed off by climate change, not by humans. BBC News OnLine I have no quarrel with this. Just be aware that it does not extrapolate to other Pleistocene mammals in other areas of the Americas, at a later time!
November 13, 2003. A Carboniferous "spider" has structures on its body that might be related to web spinning. (If so, it would be the earliest web spinner.)
November 7, 2003. Controversy over the BBC's latest paleo program "Sea Monsters". BBC News OnLine It's apparently a "docudrama" which has about as much credibility as the Jessica Lynch or the Princess Di docudramas.
November 6, 2003. Quick update on "the first Americans": the arrival by sea along the West Coast, before Clovis. National Geographic News site
November 6, 2003. Ancient toothpicks again. BBC News OnLine This suggests that early Homo used grass blades for tooth hygiene. We've seen this sort of thing before for Neanderthals. It's equally, or perhaps, even more likely (IMHO) that people were stripping fibers or sinews before using them to bind, tie, sew, weave, etc etc. You need something to mount spear points on a spear (for example), or to make game traps or fish nets... I could go on. There is a more general point. Time and time again you see people showing that a feature could fit THEIR idea, and concluding that there idea is therefore true.
That's poor science. You have to show that your idea is better than competing ones in explaining the evidence.
November 5, 2003. Hydrogen sulfide may have been the killer at the Permo-Triassic boundary. Press release from Penn State. Well, yes, but you will search in vain for any EVIDENCE. In fact, the authors say that they are starting to think about maybe looking for some. Do I need to say anything more?
October 27, 2003. A trilobite with huge eyes. Discover news site. Great photo. The paper itself was a quick sloppy job. (I know this because they distorted what I had written about such eyes!). I also think that Niles Eldredge described a similar eye in a trilobite from Bolivia years ago, but I have to go and burrow in the library to check that. And these trilobites were certainly NOT generally thought to have been nocturnal: you can't use a camera at night without flash...
October 30, 2003. New insight into pterosaur brains, head posture, and behavior. This is a terrific study, published in Nature. An accompanying comment by David Unwin is mainly a self-serving ad for the "broad-wing" interpretation of pterosaurs, which is neither denied nor supported by the research project reported here. Here's what I've drafted for edition 4 on this research:
A team of researchers led by Larry Witmer of Ohio University made CT scans of two uncrushed pterosaur skulls. The scans revealed the size and shape of the pterosaur brain. In both brains, the lobes associated with balance were very large, and this allowed the researchers to reconstruct the head to be arranged in the usual, or preferred, attitude it had in life. While the little early Jurassic pterosaur Rhamphorhynchus apparently held its head horizontally (as birds do in normal flight), the later and larger Cretaceous pterosaur Anhanguera seems to have held its head angled downward, perhaps in fishing position. This is not unreasonable. Herons spend hours in this kind of attitude as they stand waiting for fish, even though they fly with their heads horizontal. In completely different ways of life, pelicans and kites (at least the white-tailed kite and the white pelican of California) hold their heads "normally" as they fly from place to place, but kites hover over potential prey sites, and pelicans go into slow searching flight mode, both with their heads tilted dramatically downward.
October 25, 2003. "Earliest chordate" claimed from the Ediacaran of Australia.
No reasonable person can say anything sensible on the basis of the text of these news reports. The quality of reporting is terrible. Gehling comes across as a complete idiot in the quotes he is alleged to have made, though he is a respected worker on Ediacaran fossils. So let's make a start. This specimen is NOT a vertebrate, it does NOT have a backbone, it is NOT 26 inches long, If it has a head, it's not a chordate but a craniate, so it probably doesn't have a head either. The way Gehling is alleged to have described it to reporters, it's clear he believes it's a chordate like Branchiostoma. Why he went on about backbones I can't imagine, because that set off a feeding frenzy among these scientifically illiterate reporters. And it's obvious that Gehling didn't make it clear that he was talking about Ediacarans, not vertebrates, that may be related to jellyfish, crustaceans etc. Where did whales come into it? And he said "head end" which they heard as "head". Jim Gehling is probably hunched over a Stubbie somewhere wondering what went wrong. Next time, Jim, for heaven's sake give them a bit of paper with the real story written down for them, in little words and short sentences!!!
The immediate reaction among American Web pundits is that the new fossil is probably Kimberella, a bilaterian that may well be an early lophotrochozoan, not related to deuterostomes at all. I hope that Gehling gets out some details soon, with better images. Until he does, I'd guess it is a Kimberella.
Here is the new fossil.
Here is Kimberella
October 24, 2003. More evidence that Mars is cold and dry, and has been for 3 billion years. (Did you ever doubt it?) USGS Press release. There are very large outcrops of olivine on the Martian surface. On Earth, olivine doesn't last long, because it breaks down easily by weathering, with water playing the major role in that process.
October 23, 2003. Another nice paper on prebiotic chemistry from the laboratory of Jack Szostak. His new experiments showed that montmorillonite clay increased the rate of forming lipid membrane-vesicles by about 100 times. Bits of clay ended up (with RNA attached to them) *inside* the vesicles. The paper is in Science accompanied by a commentary: but that's not accessible on the Web unless you or your institution are subscribers. The commentator says that the experiments simulate *alkaline* hot springs on the ocean floor. But remember that the Szostak group didn't say that! the commentator did, and then went on to push some of his own ideas. The paper is in Science accompanied by a commentary: but that's not accessible on the Web yet unless you or your institution are subscribers.
October 21, 2003. Very old tools found in Ethiopia. New York Times. The tools are associated with butchered bones, and they are at 2.6 Ma. This is more evidence that some Australopithecus, probably A. garhi, was technologically advanced. This is not a huge breakthrough (it pushes back the date by 100,000 years or so), but any site of this quality is welcome. The paper is published in the Journal of Human Evolution.
October 17, 2003. Some bats have evolved ultraviolet vision. Press release about a new paper in Nature. Here is another version of the release with a picture of the bat. Mammals lost color vision: only primates as a major clade re-evolved it. This bat from tropical America searches for nectar in the dark, and is also color-blind. What it has done is to "push" its black-and-white vision into the ultraviolet (the flowers it visits bloom at night, and their petals reflect whatever little light there is, with very high reflections at ultraviolet wavelengths). This looks like impressive co-evolution to me. We will have to wait for more studies on more nectar-sipping bats to see how common it is. It is a very laborious business to do the experiments, however. The paper is at Nature 425: 612-614, but of course Nature does not make its contents universally available on the Web.
October 17, 2003. The Australian marsupial Diprotodon may have been close to 3 tonnes. National Geographic News. I said close to 2 in the book. OK, the new estimate is 50% bigger than previous estimates. But it doesn't put it out of range of early human hunters! You wound it, or snare it, or poison it: you don't run up and try to stick a spear in it.
October 15, 2003. A "living fossil" frog and the history of Gondwana. National Geographic News. First, a piece of exciting routine science. Two scientists report the disovery of a new frog species in southern India. It is so different from any other known frog that it is a member of a new family of frogs. Its nearest relative lives in the Seychelles Islands, in the middle of the Indian Ocean. It's clear that the ancestors of these related frogs lived in the supercontinent Gondwana, and have been separated ever since that portion of Gondwana broke up. The paper is in Nature.
It reminds me of a limerick I didn't write, which was an ode to plate tectonics:
There once were two frogs of Gondwana
Who vowed to be true till Nirvana
Bit each met its fate
On a separate plate:
He lies in Brazil, she in Ghana.
But, more seriously, the authors and also Blair Hedges, in a commentary on the new paper make all sorts of arguments about the timing of the break-up of Gondwana, based on the alleged time of separation of these frog ancestors, which in turn is based on molecular analysis of their DNA. HOWEVER, molecular clocks don't run reliably, and give fuzzy dates (a lot fuzzier that geology does at this scale of continental break-up). However, if you read the paper, you find that the molecular estimate for separation date of Africa and South America from frog DNA is around 150 Ma, when geology puts it around 100 Ma. India separated from the Seychelles around 65 Ma (see the Deccan Trap evidence in Chapter 18), while the frog DNA says 130. My take on this is that the frog DNA clock is running at high speed, not that the geologists have got it wrong. There's no question that this new discovery has "considerable biogeographical significance", as Hedges writes. But the frog DNA dates look really dubious.
October 14, 2003. Fighting between bull mastodons.
October 14, 2003. The extinction of North Atlantic albatrosses. Nature News service. In brief, their nesting sites were destroyed by sea level rise as the ice sheets melted after the last ice age.
October 8, 2003. A sphenodont from the Cretaceous of Argentina. National Geographic news Why is this important? The only surviving sphenodont is the tuatara of New Zealand. Sphenodonts evolved in the Triassic, so the tuatara is a living fossil. The new discovery shows that sphenodonts were doing very well in the late Cretaceous of South America (the new one is a meter long), and also shows how the tuatara got to New Zealand, across Gondwana before it split up.
October 6, 2003. Evidence of use of fire in Britain around 250,000 years ago. Very brief story. It doesn't compare with the age of evidence from China for Homo erectus, but it is worth noting that if true, this fire was probably being tended by Homo heidelbergensis.
October 2, 2003. Evidence that a Galapagos tortoise population survived a huge explosive eruption. The paper is in Science.
October 2, 2003. NASA begins an expensive new project studying comets. National Geographic news. First, I think it's a great idea: we need to know more about them. But to justify it the way they do is plain hypocritical. Just for a start, I doubt that any reasonable scientist has thought for 30 years that you needed methane and ammonia in origin-of-life reactions... (See Chapter 1).
October 1, 2003. A beautifully preserved early shark. National Geographic News. It's NOT the earliest shark (writers sometimes suffer from headline editors who don't read the text). But it is the earliest almost-complete one. We'll probably be changing the classification of early chondrichthyans soon, when the full details are published and analyzed. This is a short quick report (it was in Nature), so is not universally available on the Internet.
October 1, 2003. A new specimen of Leedsichthys, the largest fish of all time. BBC News OnLine. This new one would have been about 22 meters long (70 feet) in life (the fossil's tail is missing). Leedsichthys is Jurassic in age. Previous story: The world's largest fish goes on display. BBC News OnLine, September 19, 2003.
September 30, 2003. The dingo of Australia has very little genetic variability. BBC News OnLine. The most likely explanation is that all dingoes surviving today were descended from a very few ancestors (which probably arrived by boat from Indonesia). (They didn't sail the boat: at least, if they did, they have lost that ability in later generations.)
September 30, 2003. The Borneo elephant: certainly genetically different from other Asian elephants. But is that enough to call it a separate species? New York Times
September 29, 2003. When did people begin to wear clothes routinely? BBC News OnLine. What you do is ask our lice: head lice and body lice have had time to diverge ecologically. The tentative answer is about 70,000 years ago. What?? Adam and Eve had LICE???
September 24, 2003. New Romanian fossils are the oldest Homo sapiens in Europe. The age is about 35,000 years old, which makes them contemporary with late Neanderthals. And the single jaw has very large molars, leading to the suggestion that there may have been some interbreeding (very much a guess, but not an impossible suggestion).
September 23, 2003. Neanderthals and CroMagnons in SW France. Press release. This study shows that there were practically no differences in hunting practices between Neanderthals and CroMagnons. The data deal with prey species found in caves that were occupied first by Neanderthals and then by CroMagnons.
September 23, 2003. A rich new find of coelurosaurs in Queensland, Australia. BBC News OnLine
September 22, 2003. Did a gamma ray burst cause the end-Ordovician extinction? Nature news service. This is a bunch of astronomers with an idea but no data, looking for something to explain. The answer is NO. Why use some untestable idea from outer space when there are perfectly reasonable mechanisms here on Earth?
September 18, 2003. The largest rodent that ever lived. From the Miocene of Venezuela. The paper is in Science.
September 18, 2003. Good evidence that the first land plants were Ordovician. BBC News OnLine
September 11, 2003. There were only two species of large moas in New Zealand, and the females were much larger than the males. National Geographic News, based on two new papers in Nature: v. 425, 172-175 and 175-178. Quite a number of bird species have larger females (raptors are nearly always biased that way if there is a difference at all). It's sometimes related to the fact that females can lay more eggs at larger body size. But the difference in moas is larger than anything among living birds (females can be more than twice the weight of males). How do we know? The Maori killed off the moas so recently that we can get enough DNA from the bones to make the tests.
September 11, 2003. Some echinoderm larvae clone themselves in the plankton. Press release. The paper is in Nature, and not freely available on the Web. Nature 425, p. 146. This is important (to me) because, if ancestral deuterostomes did this, it would be completely compatible with my idea of a plankton paradise during Slushball Earth right at the base of the metazoan (amd deuterostome) radiation. See the book Web site, Chapter 4, for an E-essay.
September 9, 2003. Pollinating cycads with a turkey baster. BBC News OnLine. I went on and on in the book about the ways in which plants can persuade pollinators to help them reproduce. But this is a new twist. My respect for cycads deepens.
September 5, 2003, So the newest asteroid won't hit us after all. What do we do about these asteroid scares?? BBC News OnLine. The stories last week:
September 5, 2003. Robosnail: brought to you by MIT. Press release
September 3, 2003. Skulls from Baja California don't look Amerindian. These are hundreds of years old, not thousands, and they look like Southeast Asian rather than like NE Asian and Amerindian skulls. So far, this is morphology, but it's the interpretation that is going to be fought over. The authors suggest that these skulls came from historical relic people who retained "Palaeoamerican" characters from the fisherfolk that seems to have colonized the entire west coast of the Americas BEFORE Clovis and/or Paleoindian populations arrived (see Chapter 23). You can see that this interpretation is a) daring, and b) potentially explosive (especially for the vociferous but unscientific spokepersons for Amerindian tribes who are anxious to quash any scientific study of Kennewick Man). The paper is González-José, R., et al. 2003. Craniometric evidence for Palaeoamerican survival in Baja California. Nature 425: 6265, and comment, p. 2324. Dillehay is cautious in his comments, but warns us that the answer is not likely to be simple.
September 3, 2003. The unique ear of Ichthyostega. A new paper from Jenny Clack and colleagues. A large air-filled pocket in the skull of this very early tetrapod probably amplified any underwater sound reaching it, then transmitted the signals through a long thin stapes bone to the inner ear. No other tetrapod has anything quite like it, and that means Ichthyostega cannot be the direct ancestor of other tetrapods. No Web site yet, and Nature doesn't do universal access to its content. The paper is Clack, J. A., et al. 2003. A uniquely specialized ear in a very early tetrapod. Nature 425: 65-69.
August 28, 2003. A methane belch at the Permo-Triassic boundary. I've read this paper, (it is in Geology) and IMHO it is the bad paper of the decade (so far). (Like the current California election, there are many candidates, and it's a judgment call.) First, this is not a new idea: for example, my Davis colleagues Dan Dorritie and Gary Vermeij published a much cleaner methane hypothesis in Science several years ago. So, to start with, this is SHODDY scholarship, to put it mildly. Second, there is no justification for the claim that methane would be released practically instantaneously and would then explode. Third, if methane was involved in Noah's Flood, there should be a carbon isotope spike ‹ has the author looked for it (NO!). And fourth, whoever said (for the press release) that a single mammal swimming in the ocean could set off a methane disaster may well be unaware that there were NO mammals (count them) in the Permian, let alone swimming ones, and is likely influenced by the science FICTION idea that a butterfly flapping its wings can set off a hurricane. Who reviewed this???
August 25, 2003. Carnivorous deer. National Geographic News. This is a wonderful piece of natural history (and natural selection), though it's a mere speck in the global scheme of things.
August 25, 2003. More evidence that Mars is (and has been) cold and DRY. (The paper is in Science, v. 301: 1084-1087.)
August 24, 2003. When did humans lose body hair, and why? (And what skin color did they have at that point?)
August 21, 2003. Most planets are "waterlogged" as they form. Nature News disservice. A catchy title that is completely misleading if we are worrying about habitability. Water is no *** good for life if it is vaporized, frozen, or chemically locked up in rocks (or sulfuric acid).
August 21, 2003. Xenoturbella. Nature news service. This is a strange "worm" from a muddy seafloor on the Swedish coast. It turns out to be a VERY primitive deuterostome, roughly at the root of the echinoderm/vertebrate clade genetically. Obviously it's 550 m.y. or so evolved from any deuterostome ancestor, but it is clearly going to receive a lot of attention in the next year or two. The paper is in Nature [v. 424: 925-928], with a commentary by Henry Gee, pp. 885-886.
August 15, 2003. A new dinosaur from India: Rajasaurus. This is a big theropod from the latest Cretaceous, a chronological and ecological equivalent of Tyrannosaurus.
August 15, 2003. An archaean that can survive at 130°C and reproduce at 121°C. The discovery is reported in Science.
August 7, 2003. Interview with Jack Horner. The Guardian
August 7, 2003. Australopithecus afarensis had less sexual dimorphism than we thought. Does that mean it was like us (Homo sapiens) in some behavioral aspects, such as monogamy? There will be some entertaining arguing over this. The paper is in PNAS. Press release
August 6, 2003. Spider silk found in Cretaceous amber. National Geographic News.
August 5, 2003. Gut contents of a Cretaceous ichthyosaur. National Geographic News. These included fishes, hatchling turtles, and a bird. I would guess the ichthyosaur was trolling just off the beach, waiting for its annual feast of baby turtles (and the fish and the bird were doing the same thing). Now I should go and read the paper when it's published and see what kind of sedimentary environment it's preserved in. Should be shallow water!!
July 10, 2003. The earliest sauropod: from the late Triassic of South Africa.
June 19, 2003. Slow evolution of Gingko. Nature news service. New Cretaceous fossils from China document the slow evolution of Gingko trees.
June 13, 2003. Impact at a Mid-Devonian extinction level. Nature news service. The extinction is small in the great global scheme of things.
June 11, 2003. The earliest known Homo sapiens, from Ethiopia around 155,000-160,000 BP.
May 14, 2003. New mitochondrial evidence that modern humans do not have Neanderthal genes. It's evidence, but it's not proof.
April 25, 2003. South African Australopithecus as old as 4 Ma? Well, maybe. This is a new technique of dating, the assumptions are many, and the cave geology in these deposits is very complex. I and others are likely to wait, perhaps a long time, before accepting this. The paper is in Science. Partridge, T. C., et al. 2003. Lower Pliocene hominid remains from Sterkfontein. Science 300, 607-612, and comment, p. 562. News articles:
April 19, 2003. Ancient DNA from Siberian Pleistocene. BBC News. The research is to be published soon in Science.
April 11, 2003. Methane hydrate and the Ice Ages. BBC News OnLine. Jim Kennett of UC Santa Barbara suspects that methane hydrate release was a major player in boosting the climate swings of the Ice Age. That theory came under attack at a conference in France. My money's on Jim Kennett. See here for more information about methane hydrate.
April 7, 2003. More reasons to believe in the genuine age of the Warrawoona fossil bacteria. From space.com site Previous stories:
New insight on the breakdown of bacterial fossils. A new, short, elegant paper in Nature discusses changes in fossilized cyanobacterial cells from the Silurian, ~400 Ma, and shows that they are on the way to the even fuzzier objects that have been identified as these first cells. The study is notable because it relies on careful observation and careful analysis, not on fancy machines. It won't get any Web sites, probably, because it's published by a couple of Polish scientists. It is a model piece of science, in my opinion, and it saves Bill Schopf's butt: it was in Nature in December 2002.
Cells from 3500 Ma: real or not? There are conflicting assessments of the "cyanobacteria" from the Warrawoona beds of Western Australia. However, denying that the cyanobacteria are real includes an associated dismissal of the "stromatolite" from Warrawoona too. This question will take a while to settle.
April 3, 2003. The big theropod Majungatholus may have been a cannibal. The paper is in Nature: Rogers, R. R. et al. 2003. Cannibalism in the Madagascan dinosaur Majungatholus atopus. Nature 422, 515-518. As Bill Clinton might have said, "It depends what you mean by cannibalism." Certainly Majungatholus chewed Majungatholus bones. But was it scavenging a corpse, or had it killed a Majungatholus to eat? Either is possible, though I would have thought that only the latter would really count as cannibalism. The Donner Party ate corpses, but I don't think they offed one another for that purpose.
April 2, 2003. Earliest fossil lorises and bushbabies. Press release: the paper is in Nature. These are from the Eocene Fayum beds in Egypt.
April 2, 2003. The oldest human mtDNA lineages may be in East Africa. BBC News OnLine.
April 1, 2003. The intensity of belief in the SETI project that there are aliens out there. Interview with Seth Shostak of SETI. National Geographic News. I don't need to comment: just read it.
March 28, 2003. Kenyanthropus might just be a flattened Australopithecus. Nature news service . The paper is in Science. White, T. 2003. Early hominids - diversity or distortion?. Science 299, 1994-1997.
March 27, 2003. Jurassic salamanders: and beautifully preserved. National Geographic News. The paper is in Nature: Gao, K-Q, and N. H. Shubin. 2003. Earliest known crown-group salamanders. Nature 422, 424-428.
March 26, 2003. An exquisite pink quartzite hand axe from 350,000 years ago. BBC News OnLine. Several things. First, this axe is an object of beauty, comparable aesthetically and functionally with the hardwood javelins made in Germany around the same time. Homo heidelbergensis, then, was a formidable species. AND if indeed this axe was placed with a pile of bodies in some sort of ritualistic gesture (rather than being dropped by accident), it implies a mental capacity for abstract thought that you might not expect to find in a Neanderthal ancestor: not, at least, if you are as sapiens-centered as many anthropologists seem to be!
March 26, 2003. Neanderthals had dexterous hands and fingers (along with incredible strength). National Geographic News. They would have made awesome golfers. Cherish that thought, but remember that you read it here first: I claim and retain all film rights to the concept. The paper is in Nature. Niewohner, W. A., et al. 2003. Manual dexterity in Neanderthals. Nature 422, 395.
March 14, 2003. Weird dinosaurs. National Geographic News backgrounder.
March 13, 2003. Robotic dinosaurs. National Geographic News feature.
March 12, 2003. Dinosaur dung. National Geographic News, backgrounder.
March 11, 2003. Impact in India set off the K/T Deccan Traps eruption??? New York Times. More lousy science related to the K/T extinction. Why is this bad science? It calls for an impact even larger than Chicxulub, with the crater now conveniently covered by the Deccan Traps eruption that it allegedly started. Any theory that destroys the evidence by which you might test it is suspect, but why is there no mention of the global impact layer that this event must have caused. (People have looked up and down from the K/T boundary and have found NO (that's ZERO) sign of another impact, let alone a bigger one. Finally, there is no need for any impact to set off the Deccan Traps eruption: it's the breakthrough of a plume, the plume is still active (at Réunion Island), and the environmental insult of the Deccan Traps, coincident with the Chicxulub impact, already is larger than you need for the extinctions that occurred. But then, none of these folks understand paleontology or biology or ecology, and you can bet that the editors did not ask a paleontologist to review the paper(s) mentioned in this story. For more on Abbott and Isley's paper, see this press release from January 2003.
March 11, 2003. Dinosaur artists. National Geographic News, backgrounder.
March 10, 2003. Dinosaur trackways. National Geographic News. backgrounder.
March 6, 2003. Neanderthals may have lacked symbolic thinking. National Geographic News. News story on a short paper by Richard Klein in Science.
March 6, 2003. A Miocene ancestor of the orangutan? A paper in Nature about a new fossil from Thailand. Lufengpithecus is already known from China, but this is a new species.
March 5, 2003. Bringing back the "Tasmanian tiger" by cloning? Special series from the Sydney Morning Herald
February 26, 2003. New argument against Clovis "overkill". Press release. What this says is that Clovis points have not been found stuck in many fossil animals, therefore they didn't kill them off. This sounds like a classic "straw man" argument: you require some impossible standard of evidence in order to reject a hypothesis. For example, I wonder how many sub-fossil wolf skeletons there are from medieval England with spear points in them? yet we know from documentary evidence that humans hunted out the last British wolves. Good hunters simply don't leave weapons stuck in prey: medieval archers used to go around the battlefields scavenging the ground and the dead for arrows that could be used again.
February 20, 2003. When did "modern human behavior" arise? National Geographic News, reporting on a recent conference.
February 20, 2003. A new jaw from Olduvai Gorge. National Geographic News. The paper is in Science. The jaw is said to be intermediate between Homo habilis and Homo rudolfensis, implying that the latter is not a real species.
February 19, 2003. Counter-intuitive effects on life of the end-Paleocene heating event. Press release from the University of Michigan
February 19, 2003. First Australians at or a little after 50,000 years ago.
February 19, 2003. Big bang formation of the Moon. BBC News OnLine. This is not new, but it is a quick snappy summary.
February 18, 2003. The first hint of a head: in cnidarians. New York Times. The new evidence comes from evo-devo: the study of the genetic system that underpins development in larval animals.
February 16, 2003. Estimates of more water on Mars. BBC News OnLine. Come on, folks, let's be real: the equivalent number on Earth is not ankle-deep but 3 kilometers deep! And Earth's water isn't lost to space the way Mars water would be if we let it loose.
February 12, 2003. Tyrannosaurus was a scavenger (?). BBC News OnLine. Not a new idea, just a new re-statement. It's a bit of a non-question, since today "scavengers" like hyenas are also powerful predators, whereas "predators" like lions can be scavengers too.
February 12, 2003. New theory on the origin of bird flight. The observations on living birds are fascinating, but the application to the origin of bird flight is wrong, in my opinion. See the third item below. The paper is Dial, K. P. 2003. Wing-assisted incline running and the evolution of flight. Science 299: 402-403, and comment, p. 329.
February 11, 2003. The "evolution" of the Darwin fish symbol. New York Times
February 5, 2003. Deinotherium fossils may have been a basis for the Cyclops myth. National Geographic News
January 31, 2003. New information on South African australopithecines. BBC News OnLine. This is a very old (3.5 Ma) australopithecine, which apparently had characters linked with both walking and tree climbing. (No real surprise in this.)
January 28, 2003. The chances of inhabitable Earth-like planets out there drop again. BBC News OnLine
January 27, 2003. Enormous fossil nautiloid found by undergraduates. Press release. This is an actinoceratoid from the Mississippian of Arkansas.
January 24, 2003. Tusks, sexual dimorphism, and inferred display/fighting in a Permian therapsid from South Africa. Press release
January 22, 2003. New dromaeosaur with feathers on all four limbs and on the tail. The fossil is beautiful and the reconstruction looks bizarre. Published in Nature. I'm not convinced from the photos that the drawing is reasonable. This creature is doing something bizarre, I would argue that its feathers on tail and legs are display feathers, and (in my opinion) it is NOT on the evolutionary lineage that led to birds.
January 21, 2003. Repeated evolution of flight in insects. New York Times
January 20, 2003. The aardvark is close to basal among living placental mammals. BBC News OnLine. Well, OK, but there are hundreds more basal placentals in the fossil record. Obviously, the paper (in PNAS) was written by a geneticist.
January 13, 2003. DNA is made from TNA in a lab experiment. American Chemical Society site. Previous stories: TNA, a possible precursor to RNA and DNA. From the Science newsroom, November 16, 2000; also see a news article from NASA.
January 10, 2003. Backgrounder on the 1.8 Ma skull from Dmanisi, Georgia. BBC News OnLine. Previous stories from July 2002:
An exciting new skull from Dmanisi, Georgia. A new paper in Science: Vekua, A., et al. 2002. A new skull of early Homo from Dmanisi, Georgia. Science 297: 85-89, and comment, p. 26-27. This skull is around 1.8 Ma. Other skulls from Dmanisi from the same beds have been assigned without much controversy to an early Homo erectus lineage that had recently migrated out of Africa. The new skull is small, and has more primitive features, more like Homo habilis. So what do you do? It seems really far-fetched to suppose that two species were living there at the same time, so these authors suggest that the population was variable, but was all the same species, an early Homo erectus. The tools are sort of Oldowan-looking. I love it. It is the feature story in the August 2002 National Geographic.
January 7, 2003. "White Mars" again. Press release. This is the idea that the fluid flow that produced gullies on Mars was not water, but liquid carbon dioxide. A re-statement by its main protagonist, Nick Hoffman.
For current stories, see Paleontology News
For stories archived from 2002, see Paleontology News 2002
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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