Paleontology in the News, 2004

  • December 31, 2004. Carl Zimmer on the evolution of the vertebrate antibody system. Posted on his Corante Loom site. The paper will appear in PNAS. It's a very nice paper, arguing convincingly that the complexity of the vertebrate immune system evolved gradually by genetic tinkering. It's interesting that the authors seem pleased by their demonstration that the immune system is lacking in lampreys and hagfish but present in jawed fishes. That's a huge amount of evolution if you look at Figure 7.5a, but the authors are biologists looking at Figure 7.5b or its equivalent: no wonder they think they have it nailed!

  • December 23, 2004. Game theory of snails that drill holes in clams. Press release from University of California, Davis. This is an elegant study. It's a quick read, so I won't summarize it. The three authors contributed equally, but the elegance stems from Greg Herbert, who is perhaps the best paleontology graduate student my Department has ever produced (and no, he wasn't my student!). The paper is Dietl, G. P., et al. 2004. Reduced competition and altered feeding behavior among marine snails after a mass extinction. Science 306, 2229-2231, so it will be freely available on the Web sometime in 2005.

  • December 22, 2004. The banded iron formations at Isua (3.8 Ga) are sedimentary in origin. Press release from the University of Chicago. I'm glad. I'm just surprised that it took so much work to establish it. After all, it's clear that the vast majority of later BIF are sedimentary, so it should always have been the simplest hypothesis that older ones were too.

  • December 18, 2004. Patching together an object that works like a cell from a mixture of biological parts. BBC News OnLine. This is clever, though it doesn't try to reconstruct pre-biotic pathways.

  • December 13, 2004. A 35,000-year-old flute made from a mammoth tusk has been found in Germany. This puts the age at the earliest possible date for modern people in the area. It seems to be a pretty good flute! Nature news.

  • December 12, 2004. Published doubts about a Permo-Triassic impact. A team looking for impact evidence in P-Tr boundary sediments in Europe found none. As you know, Asish Basu and Luann Becker and colleagues have found impact evidence in Antarctica, and have linked it to the Bedout structure off Australia, which they infer to be the imoact scar. So what do we do with this new paper? I haven't read it yet, because my institution doesn't get Geology on-line. I'll make three comments now, and amend them if necessary after I've read the real paper. 1. The P-Tr evidence is four times as old as the K-T evidence, and Basu and colleagues have noted this carefully. There may be no K-T type evidence in the Austrian sequences: that doesn't mean there wasn't an impact. 2. More generally, it's a given in logic that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. 3. The Chronicle story implies there's very bad behavior going on.

  • December 8, 2004. An early wet Mars. The papers are in Science. So far, no answers for: how long ago was Mars wet? How long was it wet? What was that water like? (possibly very acid.) The whole tenor continues to be irrationally optimistic. But maybe that's OK. I've just finished a fine little book, Overconfidence and War, by Dominic Johnson (Harvard University Press). He argues that "positive illusions" are to some extent advantageous in the games people play against one another. In general, if you don't think you can win, you don't fight, or at any rate don't fight with full efficiency. So many times, optimists win because they are optimists. Johnson argues that this can be a problem when leaders become so overconfident that they get themselves into really bad situations. He cites General Custer, Napoleon and Hitler in their dictator years, and successive American Presidents in Vietnam. And you can guess who and what his final chapter discusses. Anyway, my point is that the superoptimistic Mars folks may yet discover evidence for life, though (as you probably have guessed by now), I doubt it. As someone has written, there is life on Mars: it consists of bacteria from JPL in Pasadena.

  • December 8, 2004. Neanderthals and modern humans. This is a new paper in PLoS Biology, an on-line journal. (I forgot to record the URL, but will place it here soon.) There's no evidence of Neanderthal DNA in modern human DNA. As with the item just above, is absence of evidence evidence of absence? This is a nice paper because it asks what the chances are for the random loss any Neanderthal DNA that might have been passed to modern humans via interbreeding. For example, Nenderthal mitochondrial DNA or mtDNA is passed down through the female line only. So if only a few hybrid daughters (of a modern human male and a Neanderthal female) ever existed, the Neanderthal mtDNA would have been lost from any later line in which one of these females had no children, or had sons only. And the same would apply in the male lineages for Neanderthal Y-chromosome DNA. The answer from the calculations is that if there has been interbreeding, we would see Neanderthal DNA in modern humans unless the number of hybrid children has been very small indeed. The strong implication is that humans and Neanderthals were genuinely different species that did not interbreed. Reference: Currat, M., and L. Excoffier. 2004. Modern humans did not admix with Neanderthals during their range expansion into Europe. PLoS Biology 2, Issue 12.

  • December 8, 2004. Snakes and cane toads. BBC News OnLine. This is not paleontology, but it is an example of extraordinarily rapid evolution in Australian snakes exposed to the introduced (and poisonous) cane toad. The snakes that survived were those that ate small cane toads or none at all: they were the snakes in two separate species that had smaller heads (and jaws) than others. Sugar can has been a Bad Thing for Queensland: for the native forests that were cleared to make way for sugar plantations; for the workers that were imported to work the fields; for the rivers that were filled with sediment from the erosion of the cleared land; for the Great Berrier Reef, which receives far more sediment and pollutants from the fertilisers and pesticides used in the plantations; and because the "cane" toad was introduced in an attempt to keep down pests.

  • December 7, 2004. Reconstructing ancestral genomes with astonishing accuracy. The news stories (below) and the paper itself (in Genome Research) are astonishingly different, which shows you the power of a press release in contrast with the paper it's supposedly based on. The paper is an abstruse account of a breakthrough in the methods used to compare (bits of) genomes and worry through the data to compute the most likely ancestral state. All kinds of cross-checks allow one to be very confident in the results. The results of the computations are not discussed in any depth here, though I hope they will be, and in plain English! The establishment of differential rates of evolution in different parts of the genome is going to fuel a much better understanding of genomic evolution, and this new tool will help that enormously. So this paper doesn't make me run off and rewrite anything in my text: but the papers that will follow from it certainly will.

  • December 7, 2004. The evolutionary advantage of lefthanders? Nature news. It's an evolutionary relic, associated with hand-to-hand combat, argues this paper. (And there's even some evidence.)

  • December 4, 2004. The "hobbit" has been "kidnapped" by Sauron -- no, I mean an Indonesian anthropologist. The Times. The skeleton of Flores Man has been taken to the private vault of an Indonesian anthropologist who has made no secret of his opinion that is it a human with a birth defect, not a genuine small new species. Opinions are one thing, but bad behavior is another. Even among anthropologists, this is pretty bad. For the fossil itself, scroll down to October 27.

  • December 2, 2004. Two new pterosaur eggs with embryos inside. National Geographic news. One is from the Cretaceous of China, and the other from the Cretaceous of Argentina.

  • November 30, 2004. The American bison in the Ice Age. National Geographic News. Good science, bad interpretation. The paper reconstructs the population history and geographic distribution of the bison. Before the last glacial advance, they had reached North America and prospered. They were split by the ice into an Arctic population in Beringia, and a continental population south of the main ice sheets. The crux of the paper is to document that something began to hammer these northern bison before the peak of the glaciation, and the interpretation is that it must have been the change in climate and vegetation. Therefore human hunters did not kill affect the bison (or anything else). And that's what gets into the press releases, and that's what the authors probably believe too HOWEVER, they do mention, as briefly as they can, that there are hints of human arrival among these unfortunate Beringian bison, JUST AT THE SAME TIME that their populations begin to crash. Well, fancy that!.....

  • November 25, 2004. What killed the creatures found fossilized at Messel? A toxic plankton bloom in the lake?. Press release. The paper is in Paläontoligische Zeitschrift.

  • November 24, 2004. Neanderthals, Homo sapiens, and language. National Geographic News. This reports on a review paper in Nature (which won't be freely available on the Web). It's a nice review paper on the timing and geography of the replacement of Neanderthals by modern humans. It includes a (very) small section of speculation that language, or lack of it, was the defining difference between Neanderthals and humans. Of course, it's perfectly OK for Mellars to include it as long as it's labelled as speculation.

  • November 22, 2004. There are bacteria in the soil of the Atacama Desert in Chile. Press release. Two comments: 1. Well, of course there are. 2. The authors suggest that this makes life on Mars more plausible. Well, the Atacama Desert, one of the driest area on Earth, is orders of magnitude wetter than any place on Mars. So I don't follow that logic either.

  • November 18, 2004. Miocene ape from Spain (Catalunya, actually). It dates from just after the collision of Africa with Eurasia. The authors claim it as the best candidate yet for the ancestor of all great apes. Since it's not just a skull, but has a pretty good associated skeleton, they make a strong case. If there is a problem, it's that this fossil is from Spain while the main evolutionary action (at least on present evidence) was going on in tropical Africa. You'd have to postulate rather extraordinary migrations to say that this WAS the ancestor of all later great apes.

  • November 18, 2004. Man in North America 50,000 years ago? Press release. Maybe: what was dated was the sediment. It depends whether the geology of the site has been assessed carefully. There will have to be more evidence than this before we (I) rewrite the (section in the) textbook. Moreover, the New York Times later reported in December some opinions that the tools were not tools but naturally broken rocks.

  • November 17, 2004. Human evolution shaped by long-distance running? The paper is in Nature, so won't be freely available on the Web. I think it's a convincing paper.

  • November 17, 2004. Embryos found inside the bodies of some pachyplesiosaurs from the Triassic of China. (No Web site yet.) The paper was in Nature, so won't be freely available on the Web. The pictures are not as impressive as some baby ichthyosaurs I've seen, but the case is real. These are plesiosaur ancestors, so it opens the case that most Mesozoic marine reptiles had live birth at sea.

  • November 17, 2004. The armor plating of Ankylosaurus: 'bulletproof', says one story.

  • November 15, 2004. New coelacanth finds up the East African coast. Planet Ark

  • November 12, 2004. Seismosaurus is maybe 110 feet long, not 170. Press release Well, just turn to page 159 and you'll find this isn't exactly new... And I also say there that it's probably a very large Diplodocus.. That statement is also already in the literature.

  • November 11, 2004. Bees survived the K-T disaster. Press release. Well, we knew that too (see p. 209). Are you seeing a pattern in press releases? Well, it's good publicity for Ms. Kosicek, and it's probably worth hammering the point that the K-T survivors are as important as the deceased.

  • November 9, 2004. Freshman geology student finds a new species of tetrapod. ABC News

  • November 3, 2004. The earliest fish with a choana: the earliest definite tetrapod ancestor. This is Kenichthys, from the Devonian of China. The paper is in Nature, so won't be freely available on the Web.

  • November 29, 2004. Complex and often rapid evolution of dolphin brains. New Scientist

  • October 27, 2004. A pygmy Homo erectus from the island of Flores: and only 18,000 years ago!.. This is a very important find, though it doesn't justify the naming of a new species any more than one would put today's pygmies into a species other that Homo sapiens. But that's a minor quibble: we will be following the implications of this find for a long time. It's certainly worth an Update for Chapter 20 when I've digested the two papers in Nature. They are not freely available on the Web, but Nature did post several stories and comments, listed below.

    I had an astral communication from the young lady in question. The translation software delivered it in the unmistakable form of a limerick, which I transcribe below. It's not the best limerick in the world, but what can you expect from someone who a) isn't British; b) has been dead since the Stone Age; and c) has a brain half the size of a can of Budweiser.

    I'm glad that you're telling new stories
    About us, the first people of Flores,
    We weren't very tall,
    And our brains were quite small,
    But our diet was elephantivorous.

  • October 21, 2004. A feathered bird chick from the Lower Cretaceous of China. It is tucked up as if it died inside the egg at a very late stage, and it's strong-boned and feathered. If it's feathered at this stage, it would have hatched as a precocial chick. That means (to me) that the bird was NOT nesting in a tree, but on the ground. Yet the artist, Zongda Zhang, has portrayed the birds as hatching in a nest in a tree! I can't think of a precocial chick today that hatches from a nest in a tree. Maybe there's some inscrutable logic that requires (maybe even permits) such an interpretation, but I don't see it. The Beijing group working on early birds seem to be fixated on an arboreal origin for flight (so maybe for birds?), and this may be an offshoot of that viewpoint, in the face of the evidence. Or maybe I am biased: I am on record in the book as saying the arboreal origin of flight is nutty (to paraphrase). Anyway, read the blurb, read the paper (which is in Science), and decide for yourself.

  • October 13, 2004. Fossil of a sleeping dinosaur. This is Mei long, a young troodontid from the Yixian Formation of China (again). It is published in Nature this week. The authors write: "The neck curves posteriorly on the left side of the body so that part of the head lies medial to the left elbow at the side of the trunk." Translated into plain English, this says: the dinosaur [was preserved with] its head tucked underneath the wing (well, OK, forelimb). Anne Boleyn's ghost walks about in the Bloody Tower (of London) "wif 'er 'ed underneaf 'er arm," but birds sleep that way: and apparently so did some dinosaurs. National Geographic News, with images.

  • October 13, 2004. Andrew Parker promotes his book, and his theory of the Cambrian explosion. The Independent. There's a lot going on in the sea, then and now, that has little to do with vision. Parker's work is relatively harmless, as long as people recognise it as a bright idea that doesn't answer the questions.

  • October 11, 2004. The Irish elk survived longer than we thought. (Until about 7700 years ago, in Siberia.) You can tell which reporters didn't actually read the paper. They say "7000 years", which is in radiocarbon years, not real calendar years. And the answer is, neither of them did.

  • October 7, 2004. Volcanic gas helps peptides to form. OK, BUT it's a real stretch to say, as John Roach does twice in the National Geographic piece, that there have been no plausible ways to form peptides until this study. That's a gratuitous piece of misinformation that Roach probably got from one of the authors. The paper is in Science.

  • October 6, 2004. A feathered tyrannosaur from China. This is another fossil from the early Cretaceous Yixian Formation. The paper is in Nature, so it won't be on the Web: Xu, X. et al. 2004. Basal tyrannosauroids from China and evidence for protofeathers in tyrannosauroids. Nature 431: 680-684. The paper itself consists of a detailed analysis of the fossil, to show that it is without question an early, small tyrannosaurid (called Dilong). And, by the way, at the end the authors describe "protofeathers" associated with the new creature.

  • October 6, 2004. Early humans and lice. This story sounds contrived and unlikely. I have read the original paper (it's on the Web at PLOS, look that up in Google), and it is as confused (or perhaps I should say confusing) as these news reports. The whole house of cards depends on "molecular clock" arguments, and then on assumptions of the working population size of head lice that are assumed to be interbreeding globally and at random. The scenario suggested doesn't explain the most interesting discovery: that human head lice differ between the Americas and the rest of the world. Furthermore, the scenario doesn't fit the dates for the origins or migrations of Homo erectus and Homo sapiens, let alone others such as H. antecessor and H. heidelbergensis. But make up your own minds.

  • October 4, 2004. The Pleistocene extinction. Press release. Review written by a committee, so not likely to be forthright in its conclusions. Because climate seems to be involved some of the time, the conclusion is that it's a major component in the extinctions (which, of course, contradicts the evidence as I read the record). They mention and then ignore the fact that close to 20 climatic swings before the last one had little or no effect on global life.

  • October 1, 2004. Homo erectus had reached north China by 1.66 Ma. Press release. No bones, but characteristic tools in abundance, and the level is well dated. This strengthens the case for a very early migration out of Africa (remember the skeletons at Dmanisi), but the arrival in such a cold climate region is surprising. To me it says Fire, but that's a speculation. The paper is in Nature, so it won't be on the Web any time soon.

  • September 30, 2004. New data on microbial mats in South Africa at 3400 Ma. San Francisco Chronicle. The paper is in Nature, so it won't be on the Web.

  • September 29, 2004. The common ancestor of all living humans lived about 1000 years ago!!???. Rubbish!!! As a commentator pointed out in Nature, the calculations are appallingly simple-minded. Press release.

  • September 24, 2004. Solution proposed for the biology of tanystropheids.

  • September 16, 2004. Ongoing evolution among Tibetans.
    This paper documents strong differential survival of ethnic Tibetan babies that seem to have a gene linked with oxygen uptake into the blood. If this is confirmed, it would be a wonderful example of Darwinian selection operating strongly TODAY. It also implies that the mutation(s) responsible are recent, otherwise the genes would already have come to dominate among ethnic Tibetans, many of whom live at altitudes over 4 km (you work it out). The paper is in PNAS.

  • September 8, 2004. An adult dinosaur preserved together with 34 babies. From China: Psittacosaurus.. The paper is in Nature, so it's not freely available on the Web.

  • September 6, 2004. Australians colonized Baja California before Clovis (?!?!). Nature news This is obviously improbable, to say the least. In its first incarnation, in Nature in 2003, the people were not identified as "Australians". It's not clear to me whether the authors have changed their minds, or whether Zeeya Merali is looking for an eye-catching headline. There is a quote that suggests the former, which makes the science even more suspect. Previous story:
    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 seem to have colonized the entire west coast of the Americas BEFORE Clovis and/or Paleoindian populations arrived (see Chapter 21). You can see that this interpretation is daring, and 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 2, 2004. Orrorin walked upright. Judging from the paper, which is in Science, the statement is correct. We need to know whether it was occasional or preferred, or perhaps obligatory. The controversy is whether Orrorin was MORE advanced in its posture than many later australopithecines, and that is still to be fought out. It sounds unlikely, on the face of it.

  • August 25, 2004. A new sphenosuchian from the Jurassic of China. National Geographic News. This is not the first land-adapted crocodilian (see my p. 198), but it's a nice example of a land-adapted crocodilian rather late in their Jurassic evolution toward life in water. Jim Clark hosts a wonderful Web site on the Xinjiang expeditions here.

  • August 23, 2004. Carl Zimmer on the different ages of Y-chromosome (male) ancestors and X-chromosome (female) ancestors in human groups. Blog on Corante site

  • August 18, 2004. Dinosaurs for sale. Discover magazine news.

  • August 18, 2004. British cave art, 13,000 years old or so. National Geographic News. The Brits are very pleased about this. The art is a lot younger than the French and Spanish cave art, but Britain had not long been inhabitable after the Ice Age melting of the ice that had covered much of Britain, including this region. (Cynics like me would gleefully point out that the art was most likely carved by "French" immigrants, but since I'm a Brit I can get away with such a comment. There goes my knighthood, however.)

  • August 18, 2004. Our solar system may be very unusual (with all that implies for the origin of life). Press release. For previous story coming to a similar conclusion by another route, see Earth-like planets may be rare, episode 3554. Nature news service, July 30, 2004. Obviously, otherwise aliens would be here already. But it's refreshing to see it stated clearly.

  • August 16, 2004. Three-dimensional Ediacaran fossils from Newfoundland. BBC News OnLine. The paper was eventually published in Science in mid-August, a month after this news item. The new fossils are beautiful, and Narbonne has presented a simple, elegant and convincing new synthesis of the frond-like Ediacaran animals. There is a careless and slightly nasty comment from Martin Brasier's group in Oxford. I'll soon write a more detailed note to justify this assertion on the History of Life Web page for Chapter 5.

  • August 12, 2004. Clearer picture of the evolution of whale ears. This is a new paper by a team headed by Hans Thewissen. It's in Nature, so won't be generally available on the Web. It's a really fine study, so much so that I will probably devote several pages to the origin of whales in the next edition of History of Life (assuming there will be one). Meanwhile, I'll try to write a Web essay sometime soon.

  • August 12, 2004. Gusev crater on Mars did NOT ever contain a large lake, as the NASA teams had hoped. Press release. A set of papers in Science will eventually be generally available on the Web.

  • August 11, 2004. Tyrannosaurus rex grew VERY fast. This is a study published in Nature (so you won't find it freely available on the Web). It's from an all-star cast, lead author Greg Erickson. And it's the most thorough study yet of the growth of T. rex and other tyrannosaurids. Compared to the others, T. rex is off the scale. This means that it grew to its enormous size and was in old age by age 30. There seems to have been a tremendous growth spurt in T. rex and other tyrannosaurs over about 4 years in the "teens", though the implications of this for biology, sociology, maturity, diet, and locomotion can only be subjects for speculation at this point. A very clean and convincing study.

  • August 4, 2004. CT scan of an Archaeopteryx brain. The paper and a commentary by Witmer are in Nature, so won't be freely available on the Web. HOWEVER, you can get the CT scans from the Digimorph site at the University of Texas, Austin; and you can find many other CT scans of fossil skulls there. The reference is Dominguez Alonso, P., et al. 2004. The avian nature of the brain and inner ear of Archaeopteryx. Nature 430: 666­669, with commentary by Larry Witmer, pp. 619­620. This is a very fine study. The brain is very bird-like, though as you might imagine is primitive bird-like. No matter what the authors hint, this is not proof that Archaeopteryx flew (and Witmer says that too). The study does show clearly that Archaeopteryx is at least very close to the origin of flight. I have written a longer comment here.

  • August 2, 2004. Origin of the Australian dingo: in Eastern Asia. BBC News OnLine. The surprising thing to me is that the dingo arrived in Australia so late: long after the Aboriginals did. So whatever the Aboriginals did to the indigenous flora and fauna, they did it without dogs. (Firesticks is the obvious answer in any case.)

  • July 28, 2004. FBI arrests dinosaur eggs. Nature news service

  • July 27, 2004. Life on Mars? Not yet, says this quick overview. Nature news online. And in particular, ignore this recent story: There is ammonia on Mars (and that means life [maybe]). BBC News OnLine, July 15, 2004. At that time, I wrote: "This has been floated before. And such ideas have failed before. Wait and see." Usually the wait is longer!

  • July 22, 2004. The smallest vertebrate ever found. It's a fish from the Great Barrier Reef. Conodonts were probably smaller (writing as a paleontologist!).

  • July 21, 2004. Seed dispersal on Madagascar. National Geographic News. In the book, I write about the guanacaste trees of Central America: here is another set of possible examples, dealing with seed dispersal on Madagascar. Related story: also from National Geographic News

  • July 21, 2004. It may not be that simple to extract information from the Kennewick Man skeleton. BBC News OnLine For previous stories, scroll down to July 16.

  • July 20, 2004. Songbirds had their origin (all of them) in Australasia. Press release. The paper is Barker, F. K., et al. 2004. Phylogeny and diversification of the largest avian radiation. PNAS 101: 11040-11045, and will soon be on the Web.

  • July 20, 2004. Short feature on Sir Richard Owen. BBC News OnLine

  • July 19, 2004. Men live nasty, short, brutish lives: and it's all the fault of our evolutionary heritage.

  • July 16, 2004. The Indian tribes give up on Kennewick Man. The Oregonian. Finally! Maybe now we will be able to have a proper scientific investigation of this skeleton. Previous stories:

  • July 14, 2004. Chimp teeth develop more slowly in the wild. Press release. I'm not sure that the new information is as Earth-shattering as the press release indicates, but let's wait for the paper in PNAS on July 20.

  • July 13, 2004. Bacteria under Icelandic icecap. Gasp!! Nature news service. Here's the story: there are bacteria under this icecap. [We are not told what kind of bacteria.] THEREFORE we should look under ice on Mars for life. The implication here is that this is some sort of pristine environment that ought not to have bacteria at all, and the fact that they are there carries some sort of implication about the ubiquity of life.
    Well, nonsense. Any geologist knows that this ice-cap (Grimsvötn) has a great big volcano under it, which erupts in a big way from time to time. That gives plenty of opportunity for contamination.

  • July 6, 2004. Human longevity evolved around 30,000 years ago. Press release about a paper to be published in PNAS. If true, this has astonishing implications. This is the time when modern humans took over from Neanderthals, for example. It also shows dramatic evolution within a species (however you slice it, these were not the first Homo sapiens by a long way): yet another nail in the coffin of punctuated equilibrium, for those who might still believe it.

  • July 5, 2004. Ernst Mayr turns 100.

  • July 5, 2004. Lampreys have evolved an immunity system independent of other vertebrates. Nature news service. Of course, we now need to know when, and why. Lampreys split off the vertabrate line before they evolved their system. I suspect that lampreys needed to evolve their own system as they took up their disgusting parasitic way of life (but that was probably still way back in the Paleozoic). So I see this as a fascinating discovery and confirmation that organisms will do whatever it takes to evolve what they need. Henry Gee uses the new piece of work to go on a riff about the flawed concept of Intelligent Design

  • July 3, 2004. A piece of a pterosaur skeleton with a dinosaur tooth embedded in it. The (short) paper is in Nature, so it won't be freely available on the Web. The facts are laid out in my header. It's the interpretation that sorts out the men from the boys. This is NOT evidence of predation. It could equally be scavenging, and that's the interpretation I'd think is more likely. Our dogs will chew on the remnants of bird carcasses that Cooper's hawks have dropped: it does NOT mean that they caught the birds, either on the ground or on the wing. Granted, the dogs don't leave odd teeth embedded in the things they chew, but they are not randomly tooth-shedding reptiles. I think the National Geographic reporter must have pushed hard to get the quotes he did from people I otherwise respect. The original author, Buffetaut, got it right.

  • June 25, 2004. Hearing (and speech) in Homo. The paper is due to be published in PNAS, so is by now generally available on the Web. The study looked at ear bones from Homo heidelbergensis from Spain, a probable ancestor of Neanderthals but not of Homo sapiens. The ear bones suggest a hearing system tuned to the same frequencies as our speech, so the implication is that heidelbergensis also had some kind of speech. If so, then Neanderthals did too. And furthermore, if speech only evolved once, then the point at which it evolved is AT LEAST as old as the common ancestor of us and heidelbergensesis, which would be some variant of Homo erectus. Course, I said that in the book, but based on common sense, not evidence. Here is some EVIDENCE, even if it is indirect.

  • June 23, 2004. A lemur that hibernates. National Geographic News. This is in Madagascar, so the hibernation is not a response to temperature, but to seasonal lack of food supplies during the drought season. This is the first primate recorded as hibernating. It's worth reading the article carefully: it's a clear logical story. The paper is in Nature, so you won't find it freely available on the Web.

  • June 23, 2004. First steps toward farming: Israel, 23,000 years ago. BBC News OnLine. The paper was published later in PNAS, so it will be freely available on the Web soon. This is NOT farming as you or I would understand it. It does record wide-ranging collection of many seeds for food; and it would not be long before the same seeds started sprouting close to the huts these people were living in...

  • June 21, 2004. Sea sloths. A blog by Carl Zimmer

  • June 18, 2004. More island mammoths. These survived on St. Paul, in the Bering Strait, long after mammoths had died out on the mainland. Press release. The paper is in Nature, so will likely not be freely available on the Web.

  • June 16, 2004. Magnificent Mihirungs. This book was recently published (Indiana University Press, "2004"), and I've just had a chance to look through it. I suspect it describes every bone ever discovered from the giant Australian dromornithids, and there's a trememndous amount of detail. There are two main surprises (to me), but the authors, Peter Murray and Pat Vickers-Rich, make their case convincingly. First, dromornithids are not ratites: they are gigantic descendants of primitive geese (Anseriformes). Andors said that in the early 1990s but I missed it. Dromornithids are NOT geese, but they are related to them. They are dominantly vegetarian, of course. Second, the South American diatrymas, analysed in the light of the dromornithids, were also vegetarian. (The phorusrhacids are a different lineage, and a different story.) I'll try to find a snappy review that's available...

  • June 10, 2004. A pterosaur embryo inside a pterosaur egg. Nature news service It is from the Yixian Formation of northeast China.

  • June 8, 2004. Calcite shells in the Cambrian explosion. Nature news service . The story, briefly, is that there was a great deal of submarine volcanism, which led to high calcium levels in the ocean, so organisms had to get rid of it, so they formed it into calcite and shoved it out, and this led to calcite skeleton formation. This doesn't sound right (to me). First, there must have been many times in Earth history, at times of continental splitting, when submarine volcanic rates were high, so I can't believe that calcite levels in ocean water were uniquely high at this time. Second, organisms evolved skeletons of many different chemistries in the Cambrian explosion: they weren't just calcite. And third, the Burgess Fauna tells us that many organisms did just fine without forming skeletons at all: soft-bodied creatures flourished just like anyone else. The paper is in Geology, so you won't see it freely available on the Web.

  • June 7, 2004. Pachycephalosaurs did not butt heads. This is about a paper by Mark Goodwin (Ph.D. student at UC Davis) and Jack Horner. They show that the skull features that used to be seen as ways to avoid injury in head-to-head combat actually occur in young skulls only, so they can't be anything to do with adult skull-bashing. The paper is in Paleobiology.

  • June 6. 2004. More about the giant release of methane at the Paleocene/Eocene boundary (associated with a major change-over of faunas in some areas). The paper, and a commentary, are in Nature, so you won't see them freely available on the Web. ENN site.

  • June 4, 2004. Synthesis of geology, life, and climate on the early Earth. Press release. The paper is in Geology, so it's not available freely on the Web.

  • June 3, 2004. Bilaterians from 600 Ma? The paper was eventually published by Science on July 9. This is an extreme claim, and I'm not convinced by the picture.

  • June 2, 2004. Paul Sereno announces the new dinosaur Rugops. National Geographic News.

  • May 25, 2004. Life in the clouds of Venus? BBC News OnLine. It seems to be a good week for really bad science (see last story). Once again, this one is astrobiology, and once again, it is magnificent and arrogant speculation based on no data at all. Completely worthless scientifically, but a wonderful vehicle for extracting more taxpayer dollars out of NASA. Furthermore, I've commented on this idea before, in 2002: BBC News OnLine At least temporarily, you can read the full wretched story in New Scientist at this URL

  • May 24, 2004. Heat pulse and the K-T extinction: the dinosaurs were fried in a few hours. Yes, I've dealt with this before, when it was suggested in the 1980s by Jay Melosh. Briefly, what about birds? They were neither underground nor underwater. There's a disease that geophysicists are prone to. When you do a calculation, you tend to believe the result, and think of it as evidence, instead of seeing it as only a hypothesis to be tested against REAL evidence. So these folks find that there are REAL pieces of evidence that are potentially dangerous to their conclusions, so they pile cockamamie idea on top of cockamamie idea to explain away the contrary and REAL evidence. In the end the whole construct is a shoddy pile of cardboard (in my opinion).

  • May 23, 2004. Feathers on the back and legs of Archaeopteryx. New Scientist. I don't think it can support the interpretation they suggest...

  • May 20, 2004. New light on the Burgess animal Wiwaxia.: it's a mollusc. Wiwaxia is a worm-like animal that crept along the seafloor. But it was covered by little plates. In 2004 a paper on some strange late Paleozoic fossils found that they were plated molluscs like living chitons, but they were similar enough to Wiwaxia, and to halkieriids too, to place ALL these creatures as molluscs. It's not clear that they are "chitons", but at the very least, they are molluscs. Reference: Vendrasco, M. J., et al. 2004. Nature 429: 288­291. And you won't find it on the Web unless you or your institution subscribe.

  • May 19, 2004. 28 skeletons at Atapuerca, in Spain, seem to have been dumped into a cave all at once, around 400,000 years ago. Catastrophe? Massacre? We don't know yet. BBC News OnLine. Note that this is the site where someone placed or threw an exquisite pink quartzite axe on top of the bodies BBC News OnLine, 2003.

  • May 19, 2004. How the chameleon's tongue works. National Geographic News. I won't even try to relate this to paleontology. But it's such a beautiful story that you should look at it.

  • May 18, 2004. First evidence of flint mining by ancient people. Nature news service. This is in Israel about 300,000 years ago. Again, note that this is not Homo sapiens, if you believe the molecular biologists. The paper will appear in PNAS, and will be freely available online soon.

  • May 17, 2004. The idea that sex evolved to evade parasites takes a beating. BBC News OnLine. The paper is in Science, so it will be freely available on line in a year. Aficionados of my Chapter 3 will recognize immediately that the damage to the parasite theory makes my insurance" theory (even) more reasonable.

  • May 17, 2004. The EDIACARAN becomes an official division of geological time, a PERIOD. BBC News OnLine. The Russians are ticked off that their equivalent term Vendian was not chosen, and I sympathise with them: it was used earlier.

  • May 14, 2004. A dinosaur dig that you can follow on-line. It is described in National Geographic News. The URL for the dig itself is here

  • May 13, 2004. The Permian/Triassic boundary impact crater? Bedout, off the Australian coast. This site seems to have a crater scar about the same size at the Chicxulub crater of the K/T boundary. If true, it clinches the hypothesis that you need both an impact and a giant basalt eruption to cause a mass extinction. Notice that some of the critics quoted in the first item don't give their names: that's a sign that they are willing to criticize but only from behind a curtain. If you're not willing to put your name on it, you don't deserve a hearing, IMHO. And science writers should refuse to pass along anonymous comments: this is science, not some dirty political game ‹ or is it? Need I say that I think this is an elegant and convincing piece of work.

  • May 12, 2004. "Junk" DNA is anything but junk. BBC News OnLine. This isn't strictly paleontology, but it deals with fundamental evolutionary biology. Arrogant geneticists have argued that much of our DNA is "junk" because they couldn't figure out what it did. They still can't, but a team of analysts from UC Santa Cruz found that long stretches of DNA were IDENTICAL in vertebrates as different as humans, rodents, birds, and fish. Given that DNA can be mutated, it's clear that this "junk" was being strictly maintained (because mutants disappeared). That means it's not only doing something, but it's doing something vital. David Haussler thinks it's probably associated with the control of growth and development. This is a real breakthrough. And you should read the paper. It's a very cool and calm presentation that is utterly convincing.

  • May 12, 2004. New sauropod dinosaur from the Morrison formation. Press release from the University of Pennsylvania. Suuwassea. No huge surprises here, but it's a nice find.

  • May 10, 2004. Argument about the status of Australian carnivores through time. BBC News OnLine. Maybe you can pick away at Flannery, but his ideas seem very reasonable to me. There's more than just statistics in assessing ancient ecosystems.

  • May 8, 2004. The oldest "modern" hummingbird: and it's in Germany! As I'm sure you know, hummingbirds today live only in the Americas. This one is 30 m.y. old, from Germany. Who knows when we will have the evidence to figure out the biogeographical history of this group! It's really great when something turns up that would never have been predicted! The paper is in Science, so will be freely available on the Web in a year.

  • May 6, 2004. The Cambrian arthropod Marrella caught in the act of molting. BBC News OnLine. This news item doesn't stress the fact that molting is a time when an arthropod is very vulnerable. Any arthropod caught in the act of molting by a predator is likely to be eaten: another reason for the rarity of finds like this one.

  • May 5, 2004. Tuna and sharks have evolved similar mechanisms for high-performance swimming. It may be "remarkable" but it's not a miracle: just an adaptation for the same way of life. The paper is in Nature so you won't see it on general access on the Web.

  • April 29, 2004. Human use of fire at about 800,000 years ago. BBC News OnLine. The paper is in PNAS. These are home fires, built in association with settlements in the Jordan Valley, in what is now northern Israel. At this date, the fires were built by Homo erectus. They used wood branches from olive and ash. This is better evidence than the older claims for Peking Man.

  • April 28, 2004. Neanderthals grew faster and matured earlier than Homo sapiens. At least, that's the interpretation from studying growth lines in Neanderthal teeth. But read the comments by sceptics. The paper is in Nature, so it won't be generally available on the Web.

  • April 27, 2004. The first recorded wildfire: in the Silurian. BBC News OnLine. The paper is in Geology, which is not freely available on the Web. Dianne Edwards should not have expressed surprise that small plants could accumulate enough fuel to support a fire: there are plenty of cottages in Wales and Ireland that burn peat!! See also, from 2002, these two news items:
    and you'll get more information than you want by Googling "peat wildfires".

  • April 24, 2004. Nicholas Toth and Kathy Shick, and the Stone Age Institute at the University of Indiana. press release

  • April 22, 2004. Possible borings in volcanic glass made by bacteria: but at 3.5 billion years ago! The paper is in Science 304, 578-581, and comment, p. 503, so it won't be freely available on the Web for several months. This discovery may be unlikely, but it's not impossible!

  • April 22, 2004. How many glaciations occurred during "Snowball Earth"? (assuming there WAS a "Snowball Earth"!) Press release about a new paper in Geology (which is not freely available on the Web).

  • April 21, 2004. Dinosaurs and sex and the K-T extinction. This is a disaster of a paper, arguing that dinosaurs had environmental sex determination: therefore when temperatures went haywire at the K/T boundary, all eggs hatched into males and the group went extinct. It's an old idea anyway, which never did have any credibility. If you look at the groups which CERTAINLY had ESD, they were the turtles, lizards, and so on, main-stream reptiles, and they did just fine at the K/T.

  • April 21, 2004. Archaea have analogs (perhaps precursors) of hemoglobin. Press release about a paper in PNAS. The precursor hemoglobins probably had functions as NO binders, rather than, or in addition to, binding oxygen. I'm not enough of a biochemist to process this information, but it is a very important step in understanding why hemoglobin evolved, as well as how.

  • April 15, 2004. The earliest ornamental beads. About 75,000 years old, from Blombos cave in South Africa; some of them are stained with ochre. The paper is in Science, so it won't be on the Web for a few months.

    April 14, 2004. Evidence that trilobites were preyed on by Cambrian lobopods. BBC News OnLine. This implies that the predator had more crunch in its jaw system than most lobopods: I'd like to see some evidence of hard jaw parts. But this is only a little quibble...

  • April 8, 2004. The oldest pet cat. National Geographic site. The cat was buried with a very early Stone Age settler on Cyprus. Not really a fossil, but a neat story.

  • April 8, 2004. Trilobites and Siberia. Press release. Frankly, I don't see the connection between the two studies, but maybe that's the fault of the press release. You'll notice that the press release also says that Cambrian rocks were dated using carbon dating, which is utter nonsense. It certainly means, I hope, that the authors did not read this before it was inflicted on the world.

  • April 5, 2004. New dinosaur from Patagonia. National Geographic News A small-to-medium sized ornithischian.

  • April 1, 2004. A humerus from a very early tetrapod. The rest of the animal is not there, but the humerus is enough to show that it was capable of powerful "push-ups". I find it delicious that none of the authors or commentators has a clue why. For the readers of my textbook, see the section on Basking in Chapter 8, and you'll see immediately that this is just another clue about the importance of basking to a set of fairly large-bodied cold-blooded predators living in shallow water. I won't give the whole quote here, but will soon prepare a min-essay for the Web notes on Chapter 8 to go along with the analog with living crocodiles and with the clues from nitrogen loss that basking was likely a feature of the lives of the earliest tetrapods.
    The paper is in Science, so it won't be generally available on the Web for a few months. Shubin, N. H., et al. 2004. The early evolution of the tetrapod humerus. Science 304, 90-93, and comment with many Web links from Jenny Clack, pp. 57-58.

  • April 1, 2004. Ferns have evolved dramatically since the appearance of angiosperms. This doesn't alter the fact that ferns are very early land plants. But shade-tolerant ferns (most of those alive today) radiated dramatically in Cretaceous and Cenozoic times, after (presumably) angiosperms evolved to provide shade (more likely, to monopolize well-lit space). The paper is in Nature, so it won't be freely available on the Web: Schneider, H., et al. 2004. Ferns diversified in the shadow of angiosperms. Nature 428, 553-557, and comment, pp. 480-481. NSF press release

  • March 29, 2004. Backgrounder on polar dinosaurs. National Geographic news. No new information, but a nice quick summary.

  • March 25, 2004. There is life on Mars. It's been put there by our spacecraft. ENN site

  • March 25, 2004. Small jaws and big brains in human evolution. We know that modern humans have small weak jaws and big impressive brains compared with our closest living relatives, the chimps. Fossil evidence puts the transition between 2.5 Ma and 1.7 Ma, in the transition from one or other species of Australopithecus to Homo erectus, with two or three species events in that million-year span.
    The authors of this new study have found a genetic difference between chimps and living humans. Humans lack a gene which turns on powerful growth of the masseter and temporalis muscles that work the lower jaw in chewing. But when was that gene lost? Chimp ancestors and our ancestors diverged maybe 7 Ma, and you can't do genetics on old hominids. The authors magic their data into giving a date of 2.4 Ma for the mutation that allegedly gave our ancestors suddenly weak jaws, and they then call on weak jaw muscles to allow growth of a big brain.
    Now geneticists don't do evolution very well. Certainly this group talks about "an abrupt evolutionary alteration in the size and ...force" of chewing muscles, and they talk about "effects on craniofacial morphology in the first homozygous [mutant] human ancestor" [I added the bold face]. They are using the old "hopeful monster" kind of argument.
    Now the fact of the genetic difference is real and important. But the interpretation of the authors is terribly naive. So I'll tell you what really happened, for free, and it's worth every penny you paid for it. Remember that there are regulatory genes that turn structural genes on and off (Chapter 4).
    The suite of discovery, innovation, and increasing intelligence that gave some australopithecine a better ability to hunt, prepare food, and so on, happened perhaps around 2.5 Ma at a brain size that was typically australopithecine (evidence: A. garhi and/or A. africanus). That suite changed the diet toward meat, higher protein, less chewing, etc., and at some point the evolving jaw reached a morphology where the Big-Muscle gene wasn't being turned on much at all; it was turned on only enough to give typically Homo jaw muscle size. Any time after that, the Big-Muscle gene could be lost without penalty ‹ and without any obvious morphological jump in the skull. The larger brain came later, but it perhaps came more easily because the jaw musculature was smaller.
    You can see that this story is not far from the one the authors put forward. The difference is that mine is truly evolutionary (it happens over a long time); it does not demand a Hopeful Mutant; it does not call for an Event; and it is not tied to statistical magic that gives a one-time miracle. The paper is in Nature, so is not freely available on the Web. Stedman, H. H. et al. 2004. Nature 428: 415-418; and uncritical comment, pp. 373-374. News stories:

  • March 22, 2004. Evidence of human use of fire at Swartkrans, around 1.5 Ma. BBC News OnLine. That would be Homo erectus.

  • March 22, 2004. "Meat-eating genes" in human evolution. Press release. I find the press release confusing. Certainly the attributed quotes about Mad Cow disease make no sense at all. I guess it's a toss-up whether the researcher actually said that, or whether the reporter misquoted it. I haven't read the paper yet... it is worth my time?... but I am not optimistic that it helps our understanding of human evolution.

  • March 19, 2004. Paul Allen puts another $13 million into SETI. Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Well, as I've already said on the Chapter 1 web page, I'm very glad it's not (my) taxpayer's money. Any of you who have bought anything from Microsoft may approve (or not) of this use of what used to be your money!

  • March 18, 2004. Did the break-up of Rodinia set off Snowball Earth? Nature News service The answer depends on whether you trust the computer modelling.

  • March 16, 2004. More evidence that modern humans and Neanderthals did not interbreed. Nature news service. Maybe it's just the repetition of this mantra, but I'm beginning to believe it! The evidence cannot yet rule it out, but some proposed "hybrids" have been examined and found to be entirely modern human.

  • March 8, 2004. A fungal spike at the K-T boundary. Press release. The paper is in Science (so won't be available freely on the Web for a few months). The fungal spike is in New Zealand. There's a huge fungal spike at the P­T boundary, especially in Europe, and is attributed in that case to the decay of forests killed in the extinction event. One of the things that looks quite clear is that the K­T forests were NOT burned up in a giant wildfire, otherwise there would have been nothing left to rot. Vajda, V., and S. McLoughlin. 2004. Fungal proliferation at the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary. Science 303, p. 1489.

  • March 5, 2004. Thylacoleo, the Australian marsupial, was a pretty good carnivore. National Geographic news. There's a bit of a "straw man" here. Thylacoleo has been regarded as a pretty good carnivore for quite a while. Also, it's difficult (for me) to believe that the giant Australian monitor was only as big as the Komodo dragon: we have bones, after all. The world's expert, Peter Molnar, suggests that it about as big as a large crocodile.

  • March 4, 2004. Fossil feathers found inside fossil louse. BBC News OnLine. It's therefore a pretty good bet that the louse was living on a bird (of Eocene age, in this case).

  • February 27, 2004. Another "world's largest dinosaur" found (in Spain this time, but not in the plain).. BBC News OnLine

  • February 17, 2004. Australopithecus had a more advanced brain than we had thought. BBC News OnLine.

  • February 11, 2004. The earliest insect: and apparently it had wings. This is important. If it is true (and the specimen looks very poor to me in the photographs), then insects with wings were present in the Rhynie Chert. The specimen itself doesn't have wings. It consists only of a pair of jaws, but the structure of those jaws is found only in winged insects today. In turn, that implies that the first terrestrial insects were early, perhaps even Silurian: and that they had wings. The paper is in Nature, which doesn't place its papers on the Web.

  • January 29, 2004. Discovering and collecting a Miocene whale on the Chesapeake Bay shore. News item from the Calvert Marine Museum. This is a really nice story on how field collecting works (sometimes).

  • January 26, 2004. Skull morphometrics suggest that Neanderthals are not Homo sapiens. The paper is in PNAS.

  • January 25, 2004. Oldest land animal from the Devonian of Scotland: not surprisingly, a millipede. It's not surprising because millipedes eat decaying plant material. BBC News OnLine

  • January 24, 2004. L.A.'s first tourist trap: a really nice feature article by Sid Perkins on the La Brea tar pits. Science News

  • January 15, 2004. Embryos from Cambrian "worms". BBC News OnLine.

  • January 9, 2004. How to form ribose easily on the early Earth. Press release. This is a paper from Steven Benner's lab in Florida. Sugars have been difficult to form in pre-biotic experiments. Benner has cracked this problem. It turns out that in the presence of borate minerals (borax is the best-known one), riboses (a vital component of RNA) form and persist. Borates form naturally: Death Valley is one place. You need evaporation to concentrate them in layers, but serious desert lake beds are not rare on Earth, now or then. This is a neat demonstration that pre-biotic synthesis of important organic materials is still being improved in the lab, and therefore looks more and more likely to have happened on Earth. The paper itself, Ricardo, A., et al. 2004. Borate minerals stabilize ribose. Science 303, p. 196 will be available on the Web soon.

  • January 9, 2004. Strong evidence for EVOLUTION in mitochondrial DNA during the existence of Homo sapiens. This is important on all kinds of levels. If any of you still believed that changes in mitochondrial DNA could operate as a uniform clock for evolution, you can now safely abandon the idea. If any of you still believed that significant evolution only occurred at species boundaries (punctuated speciation), you can now safely abandon the idea. If any of you still believed that evolution is not occurring now among modern populations of humans, you can now safely abandon the idea. If any of you thought that it was not a good idea to point out that different human groups may have different medical problems, forget that too. The paper is in Science 303, 223-226, so will be freely available on the Web soon.

  • January 8, 2004. Bad hypothesis for the Ordovician extinction (again). ENN site. I saw this first on the Nature news service last September, and wrote this: This is a bunch of astronomers with an idea but no data, looking for something to explain. Why use some untestable idea from outer space when there are perfectly reasonable mechanisms here on Earth?

  • January 2, 2004. Very early human arrival on the north shore of Siberia. These are tools and bones of tundra animals, at a site almost on the shore of the Laptev Sea, in north Siberia. However, the dates are 30,000 BP in radiocarbon years (so the real age in calendar years is older than that!). This is during the last Ice Age, and about the same time that CroMagnons arrived in Europe. This has implications for the invaders of the New World. Were these folks the ancestors of the humans who crossed into Alaska maybe 13,000 years ago? We do not know yet. The paper and comment are in Science, so they will universally available on the Web soon.

    For stories archived from 2003, see Paleontology News 2003

    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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