Paleontology in the News 2005
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. For example, I've had to give up on the New York Times. It is a fine paper, but its new policy is to take off its stories within DAYS and then charge for access to them.
Similar pages on my web site are
and Here is a site for Anthropology in the News from Texas A & M.
Paleontology in the News 2005
December 30, 2005. New Cretaceous monotreme named after chocolate company. National Geographic News
December 29, 2005. The extinction of Steller's sea cow. A new assessment of this historical extinction argues that it's a prime example of extinction by primitive weapons in the "blitzkrieg" fashion espoused by Paul Martin. The sea cow was bigger than an elephant, but was extermunated by a few sailors and Aleuts in a few decades. The paper was published by the Royal Society of London online in December 2005. Turvey, S. T., and C. L. Risley. 2006. Modelling the extinction of Steller's sea cow. Biology Letters FirstCite Early Online Publishing.
December 27, 2005. A new and more precise estimate of the human/chimp separation. 5-7 Ma, coinciding withthe fossil record. The paper is in PNAS, and is open-access.
December 27, 2005. Homo in Asia. This is about a paper in Nature that is more of an opinion piece than a presentation of new data, or a review. The authors think that much of the evolution of early Homo took place in Asia. There's no question that Asia has been undervalued: for a fairer appraisal, see Alan Templeton's work, featured in a recent Carl Zimmer blog (RC: place URL!). National Geographic news
December 27, 2005. Locusts crossed the Atlantic to reach the New World. This goes against old biogeographic reasoning, because there are over 50 species in the New World, and only one, the desert locust, in Africa. Surely locusts evolved in the New World! However, DNA sorts it out. A swarm of locusts crossed the Atlantic sometime in the Pliocene and radiated into dozens of species spread across the Americas (including the Galapagos). There is a recent event that helps us to understand: a storm blew hundreds of locusts from Africa to the Caribbean in 1998.
December 27, 2005. The paper on Hongshanornis is published in PNAS. I think the abstract is open access. Abstract. For previous story see December 13, 2005.
December 26, 2005. Simocynodon, an ancestral red panda. Blog by Carl Zimmer. This is an engaging essay on a new find from Spain: an ancestral red panda that had a fake "thumb"‹ but not for stripping bamboo! As Zimmer points out, this is a wonderful and unexpected follow-up to Stephen Jay Gould's essay on the (giant) panda's thumb. You can't have a better example of evolution as a process of "tinkering" with what's there.
December 24, 2005. About 20 dodos, some beautifully preserved, have been found on Mauritius. BBC News OnLine
December 22, 2005. Australopithecus walked well: it didn't shuffle. This conclusion comes from a new simulation of Lucy's walking, cross-checked with the Laetoli footprints. The paper is Sellers, W. I. et al. 2005. Stride lengths, speed and energy costs in walking of Australopithecus afarensis: using evolutionary robotics to predict locomotion of early human ancestors. Journal of The Royal Society Interface 2, 431 - 441.
December 22, 2005. Important new information about Panderichthys. The paper is in Nature so won't be freely available on the Web. It is Boisvert, C. A. 2005. The pelvic fin and girdle of Panderichthys and the origin of tetrapod locomotion. Nature 438: 1145-1147. Boisvert shows that the locomotion of this pre-tetrapod stemmed (sorry! RC) from a strong pair of pectoral fins and associated pectoral bones, while the pelvic equivalent was much weaker. This means Panderichthys had "front-wheel drive", as she describes it, on the substrate. While Boisvert describes the new fossil (from Latvia) she does not try an ecological reconstruction: so I will. This is a Middle-Devonian basking fish, using its powerful pectoral kit to drag out and support its air-breathing, while basking to keep warm, and digest and grow fast. This is is a direct extrapolation of the story about the origin of tetrapod locomotion I have written since 1990 in History of Life: but the new fossil extends it backwards in time and pre-tetrapod evolution, well back into the Middle Devonian. You read it here first! Meanwhile, here's a blog from pharyngula.org
December 21, 2005. A new paper will show that 10% of all human genes have undergone recent selection. The paper will appear in PNAS early next year. This is an astounding proportion, but the data are there. Darwin would be pleased. Weblog by John Hawks. Previous story: Press release about a paper in Nature, October 23, 2005. Not only is the effect very strong, but it would be enormously increased if the human species were only 6000 years old!
December 20, 2005. Mammoths are more closely related to Asian elephants than to African ones. The paper will eventually be published in Nature, so it won't be freely available on the Web.
December 20, 2005. European faces are inherited from their Stone Age predecessors in Europe, not from invading Neolithic farmers. This is part of an ongoing argument about how much invading Neolithic farmers from the Middle East contributed to the modern European gene pool. The extremes are: a lot and only a little. Recently the evidence seems to be swinging toward "a little", though the question is very much alive.
National Geographic News. The story will be published in PNAS. For previous story see November 10, 2005.
December 15, 2005. Unexpected growth patterns in the prosauropod dinosaur Plateosaurus, otherwise known as der Schwäbische Lindwurm (in case Adrienne Mayor is reading this). Growth lines in the bones suggest growth more like crocodiles than other dinosaurs or mammals. The authors infer that Plateosaurus was still ectothermic, though I think it's premature to say that (yet). The paper is in Science, so eventually will be on the Web.
December 13, 2005. New Cretaceous bird from China. This piece is tainted. The only commentator is Alan Feduccia, who doesn't believe that birds descended from theropod dinosaurs. And the assertion that enantiornithine birds were ectothermic is sheer nonsense: they were feathered, and they were descended from endothermic theropods. So maybe it was a wading bird, but that's about all that you might take away. It's a shame. Wait for commentary by others. National Geographic News
December 13, 2005. New ideas on the tusk of the narwhal. National Geographic News This is unpublished research, due to be presented at a meeting. That means it has not had peer review. If the story is correct, it ascribes a function to the narwhal tusk that as far as I know is not found in any other vertebrate tooth, anywhere, any time. That doesn't mean the story is wrong: it means that the story had better be backed by very good evidence!
December 12, 2005. Two distinct groups of humans were the first immigrants into the Americas. The first Brazilians look different from the ?later Amerindians. This new appraisal is based on skull measurements.
National Geographic News
December 11, 2005. Feature on Peter Ward, "prophet, populist, poet of science" (!) Seattle Times. Warning: side-effects may include nausea.
December 9, 2005. Exploding "sea monster" myths. Live Science
December 8, 2005. Gigantopithecus and earlier Homo coexisted in East Asia. This has been suspected for a long time, but it's nice to have firmer dates.
December 5, 2005. The Permian extinction was the result of the Siberian Traps eruption. The paper is in Geology, so it won't be freely available on the Web.
November 30, 2005. Some eurypterids walked on land (well, at least on the shore). This is a Devonian eurypterid. The paper is in Nature, so it won't be freely available on the Web. And by the way, Blair Hedges is a molecular biologist who knows even less about eurypterids than I do. National Geographic News
November 28, 2005. Earth had VERY early continental crust. Apart from other important geochemical considerations, this means that Earth had rather mild surface conditions very early. The abstract is available: the paper will eventually be published in Science.
November 22, 2005. Paleobiology from the details in mammoth tusks. The latest from Dan Fisher's group at the University of Michigan. This isn't "more and more about less and less": these techniques open the doors for more innovative research on all kinds of Pleistocene mammals. National Geographic News .
November 21, 2005. National Geographic feature on marine reptiles. National Geographic
November 18, 2005. Dinosaurs ate grass. This claim is based on sauropod coprolites from the Maastrichtian of India. It's not clear that they were selecting grass. They may have just been vacuuming up the forest floor. The paper is in Science so will eventually be on the Web.
November 17, 2005. Komodo dragons have venom after all. But the REAL point is that the acquisition of venom is DEEP within squamates, it did NOT arise along with snakes, and it probably arose only ONCE. This is a big deal in terms of the origin, radiation, and classification of squamates, and there's likely to be some squalling over it. The biochemical evidence is strong, and the results look pretty good...
November 17, 2005. New species of the ceratopsian Centrosaurus with an impressive frill. Carnegie Museum press release. Sorry, they removed it....
November 16, 2005. A new Cretaceous lizard, Dallasaurus, looks as if it's an ancestral mosasaur. It can still get around on land, for example. The analysis in the paper suggests that aigialosaurs are polyphyletic basal mosasauroids, so the family name Aigialosauridae should be abandoned.
November 16, 2005. Early Cretaceous "early turtle" from Brazil. Depends what you mean by "turtle". The earliest member of the group is Proganochelys from the Triassic. Maybe they mean it's the first aquatically-adapted form. BBC News OnLine
November 14, 2005. Did modern humans reach India before they reached Europe? and did they outcompete Homo heidelbergensis there? National Geographic News. The answer to the first question is "Why not?" and the answer to the second question is "What's the evidence?". The paper is in Current Anthropology, and I haven't read it yet.
November 11, 2005. Dakosaurus, a spectacular marine crocodile from the Jurassic of Argentina Don't believe some of the assertions about it unless you also read evidence! The paper is NOT in this week's Science, but will eventually be published there, and also featured in the December National Geographic. Giving the creature a nickname is pure National Geographic.
November 11, 2005. The senses of Tyrannosaurus rex. A news report that WAS published in this week's science summarizes several talks at the recent Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting. Based on detailed examination of the skulls, in particular CT scans, is seems that T. rex had great smell, good stereoscopic sight, and good hearing and balance. The combo spells predator to me, though some people still claim scavanger. The real animal probably did both. There's no Web site yet. Stokstad, E. 2005. Tyrannosaurus rex gets sensitive. Science 310, 966-967. It will eventually be freely available on the Web.
November 10, 2005. Gut contents of a Cretaceous sea turtle. This paper is published online and will eventually appear in the Royal Society's Biology Letters. No Web site yet. The gut contents of a marine Cretaceous protostegid turtle from Australia contain masses of bivalve shells (mainly inoceramids if you care). This is unusual for turtles, but not an outrageous diet. Kear, B. P. 2005. First gut contents in a Cretaceous sea turtle. Biol. Lett. Published online. This is a rather confusing news story from early 2005
November 10, 2005. Modern Europeans do not carry many genes from the first Neolithic farmers. This paper WAS published in Science this week. Many people had thought that a wave of farming immigrants brought farming techniques AND genes that swamped the ancient hunter-gatherers that had inhabited Western Europe since the Ice Age. Not so, according to DNA evidence from bones. National Geographic News. However, read this astute comment from John Hawks. He doesn't deny the result, but he raises good questions about the logic.
November 8, 2005. Very rapid evolution in Adelie penguins. The paper will eventually be published in PNAS. National Geographic News.
November 8, 2005. The historical link between California condors and marine mammals. The paper will eventually be published in PNAS.
November 7, 2005. More on the role of clays in the origin of life. ABC site. The paper was in Geology, to which I don't have electronic access.
October 28, 2005. Panspermia again. Feature article in the November issue of Scientific American. Well, very briefly, the authors say that panspermia is a "serious hypothesis". Well, if so, it's testable. One could look for life on Mars or in space or anywhere else outside Earth you like (test done, no life found). You could look for "alien" life systems on Earth, i.e. not running on the DNA we are so familiar with (test done, none found). I could go on, but not here. See this set of notes associated with my Chapter 1
October 24, 2005. The earliest shoes. National Geographic News. From Europe, maybe 30,000 years ago. The evidence is not the shoes themselves, but the toe-bones that are distorted by shoe-wearing. OK, OK, so it's an inference, but a fairly sound one, I should think.
October 23, 2005. Natural selection has strongly influenced the human genome. Press release about a paper in Nature. Not only is the effect very strong, but it would be enormously increased if the human species were only 6000 years old!
October 22, 2005. Crinoids escaping from predators. Discovery by Tomasz Baumiller from deep-sea video footage. Science News
October 17, 2005. Biretia, from the Fayum of Egypt, an important stem anthropoid. On the face of it, the new specimens suggest that the last common ancestor of all living anthropoids originated in Africa. The ultimate origin of anthropoids was likely in Asia. The migration from Asia to Africa was probably Eocene. There will likely be arguments, and as usual we need more specimens, but this looks like a fair summary of the status right now. The paper was in Science last week, and will be available freely on the Web in due course.
October 14, 2005. More about the little Flores hominids. The new paper is in Nature, so won't be freely available on the Web. The new work suggests that this really is a miniaturized human, not a pathological one. However, it is not Homo sapiens, and its origin remains mysterious for the moment. The Indonesians are apparently not going to allow this team to excavate further... Meanwhile, there was an exchange in Science that Carl Zimmer reports on (see Part II below).
October 13, 2005. PAHs are widely distributed in the galaxy. NASA press release. Since PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) are thought to be critical in building early molecules, this is important stuff. The paper is in the Astrophysical Journal. Image of a PAH molecule.
October 12, 2005. New dromaeosaur Buitreraptor from Patagonia is very important. But how? It is certainly a dromaeosaur, but its closest relatives are the "bird-like" genera Unenlagia from Argentina and Rahonavis from Madagascar. Cladistic analysis puts these three together into a Gondwanan group of dromaeosaurs as opposed to the Laurasian majority we are so familiar with. In turn, that asks when the two groups separated, and where their ancestry was. It's Jurassic rather than Cretaceous.
The subplot is the fact that Rahonavis is "bird-like". A question, then: were dromaeosaurs so "bird-like" that the Gondwanan ones were evolving toward flight in Gondwana while Laurasian ones were evolving toward Archaeopteryx and all later birds? In particular, there is a largely undiscussed possibility/implication that Rahonavis was actually flying. If true, this would REALLY upset the carefully crafted stories about birds being unique. But I'm not sure what the real evidence is for ANY flight in Rahonavis, and the forelimbs of Buitreraptor are not for flight (see National Geographic story). As readers of History of Life know, I don't even think that Archaeopteryx could fly much, if at all.
So I think that the new fossil is going to be interesting for its paleogeography and for its implication that dromaeosaurs have deep roots within theropods. It also implies there are a lot of fossils still to be discovered. But maybe that's all the intellectual hurdles we have to face at the moment.
The paper is in Nature, so it is not freely available on the Web.
October 12, 2005. New flight model for pterosaurs. Basically, the novelty is in proposing a flap effect for a strip of tissue along the leading edge of the wing, manipulated by the pteroid bone. The idea was tested in a wind tunnel. The "flap" would have been used mainly on take-off and landing, but could have been used to do barrel-rolls in flight (if needed!). This function would be analogous to the flaps on an airplane (aeroplane for Brits). And all pterosaurs had it. The paper is in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. I think it is a classic. The experiments were done in Ellington's lab in Cambridge, so you can be sure about them. Some pterosaur colleagues tell me that the weak point (as often) is the original assumption. In this case, the assumption is that the pteroid bone pointed forward (and could therefore position a strip of tissue in the right position). If this is not true (and this is what my colleagues tell me), then the paper cannot test such an arrangement as an exercise in reality.
October 11, 2005. The function of the claw of Velociraptor and other deininychosaurs. I still like the dramatic version. The paper was in Biology Letters of the Royal Society of London, not freely available on the Web.
October 7, 2005. A bottom-feeding plesiosaur. Plesiosaurs have always been visualized as fish-eaters. This one has clams and so on preserved as gut contents, showing that it foraged on the bottom. The paper is: McHenry, C. R. et al. 2005. Bottom-feeding plesiosaurs. Science 310: 75.
October 5, 2005. Two new pterosaurs from the Yixian Formation in China. Apart from new genera, there seems to be an accompanying flood of speculation. The paper is to be published tomorrow in Nature.
October 4, 2005. Spider in Miocene amber, with blood inside it. National Geographic News. This was eventually published in December.
September 26, 2005. Newborns found ritually buried in Austria: they may be 27,000 years old. ABC News. This story is no longer on the Web (January 2007)
September 24, 2005. More junk science from Berkeley. In brief, a comet from a supernova killed off the mammoths. Life's too short to list the things that are wrong with this idea....
September 19, 2005. The origin of life may have been simpler than we thought. Press release. It turns out that RNA is more resistant to copying errors than we thought. Therefore "naked genes" could have been longer (with more information) than we thought. The paper is in Nature Genetics, so won't be freely available on the Web.
September 14, 2005. Deciphering right whale evolution by studying their parasites.
September 6, 2005. Finding the nearest relative of the "Irish elk". National Geographic News. The research is published in Nature.
August 31, 2005. New reconstruction of Ichthyostega. National Geographic News. I don't believe the "inchworm" component, but the alternative is fine. Maybe they meant to talk about elephant seals rather tghan inchworms: I could believe that.
August 31, 2005. Neanderthals and modern humans overlapped in time in France at about 36,000 BP. Abstract from Nature, in advance of publication
August 29, 2005. Doomsday greenhouse scenario for the Permo-Triassic. BBC News OnLine This time it's a climatic model. Judging from the news story, the model predictions are based on volcanic gas levels, which of course have to be estimated before they are put into the model. The paper is in Geology, which doesn't make its content available on the Web, and my University doesn't subscribe to the E-edition. So I can't comment further, except to issue the same warning as I do for K-T doomsday scenarios: what about the survivors?
August 25, 2005. Bacterial biofilms and Darwinian medicine. The news story deals with bacteria that make biofilms to protect themselves (see Chapter 2 of History of Life). It turns out that the vicious bacterium P. aeruginosa is stimulated to make a biofilm by low doses of the leading antibiotic used to treat it. This happens because P aeruginosa has EVOLVED that capability over who-knows-how-many million years as a soil bacterium. So a Darwinian doctor, actually believing in evolution, would always prescribe a powerful dose to try to knock it all off first time: afterwards would be too late. The paper is in Nature this week, but Nature never makes its contents freely available on the Web. Seattle Post-Intelligencer
August 24, 2005. Shoes seem to have been invented by modern Homo sapiens.
August 23, 2005. The Deccan Traps were erupting when the asteroid hit at the K-T boundary.
August 19, 2005. "Synthetic biology".
Seattle Post-Intelligencer news story August 19, 2005, about a current meeting.
Carl Zimmer article from the New York Times, August 16, 2005.
There's also a perspective in Nature this week: Check, E. 2005. Synthetic biologists face up to security issues. Nature 436, 894-895. But Nature doesn't make its contents freely available on the Web.
August 19, 2005. Ocean bacterium with the smallest genome of any free-living organism. It's also the most abundant species in the ocean. The human parasite Mycoplasma genitalium has the smallest genome, but it relies on human skin (guess where) to provide it with nutrition. The paper is in Science, so will be freely available on the Web soon. Giovannoni, S. J. et al. 2005. Genome streamlining in a cosmopolitan oceanic bacterium. Science 309: 1242-1245.
August 17, 2005. Proposal to "re-wild" North America with Pleistocene analogs. The paper is in Nature, so you won't see it freely available on the Web. The authors are deadly serious, by the way, and many of their are internationally known biologists.
August 17, 2005. Silurian brachiopod discovered with soft parts preserved. It's apparently an aberrant orthid, with a pedicle that looks unusually strong. The paper is in Nature, so you won't find it freely available on the Web. PhysOrg site
August 17, 2005. Vetustodermis from the Early Cambrian of China: mollusc, worm, or arthropod? BBC News OnLine. There's a new paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society (of London, needless to say).
August 17, 2005. Bringing Jane the Dinosaur to life (in a virtual exhibit). Ohio State. Thanks to Guy Leahy for spotting this!
August 12, 2005. Oxygenating the atmosphere: a new model. Press release, University of Washington. It's an easy read, and a simple pleasing model. The question is whether it's right or not. It depends whether the assumptions are reasonable, and I have no way of judging that.
August 11, 2005. Today's piece of useless information: a stromatolite flew into orbit on the recent shuttle flight. Sydney Morning Herald
August 3, 2005. Humans, not climate, killed off the ground sloths. This is a really neat piece of science. Ground sloths were wiped out in North and South America about the time of human arrival; but that was also a time of climate change. However, ground sloths survived on West Indian Islands for another 5,000 years. They finally went extinct when humans arrived. Beautiful piece of work by David Steadman and colleagues. The press release says it is in PNAS, but it is only on (restricted) on-line advance publication, not in the actual journal yet.
August 1, 2005. Dramatic speculation about the phorusrhacids of South America: science writers love to call them "terror birds". (I am proud to say I resisted that temptation in the book!) National Geographic News
July 28, 2005. Embryos of a prosauropod. As you know, these are the predecessors of sauropods. As adults they were capable of walking on two legs, or four. What is surprising is that the embryos, preserved almost ready to hatch, were clearly going to hatch as four-footed walkers.
July 28, 2005. Trying to save New Zealand's endangered native species by getting rid of invaders. BBC News OnLine
July 26, 2005. There is life on Mars: and it came from Pasadena. National Geographic News. I've read this warning before, sometime in 2004.
July 25, 2005. Looking for the Tasmanian tiger. National Geographic News
July 25, 2005. Stealing fossils from Federal land. ENN site. That's stealing from me (and you), by the way.
July 22, 2005. Trilobite spines that look like secondary sexual characters. Only a month late, I found this was published online on June 22 in the Royal Society of London Biology Letters. The paper is by Robert Knell (a fly researcher) and Richard Fortey: the trilobites in the case study are the Raphiophoridae.
July 21, 2005. Moths that eat snails. This isn't paleontology, but it sure is evolution, and I shall find a way to include it in my next edition of History of Life. The paper is in Science, so will be freely available on the Web in a few months.
July 21, 2005. Mars has been cold for 4 billion years. BBC News OnLine
July 20, 2005. Another team suggests that Lucy walked upright. This new analysis is based on the footprints at Laetoli. Previous studies were on the actual skeletons of A. afarensis. I suppose it's a relief that they come to the same answer! BBC News OnLine.
July 19, 2005. British genes seem to have very ancient roots. National Geographic News. This isn't in peer-reviewed journals, even though it may be true. See also this BBC site.
July 15, 2005. A rather confusing story about Kennewick Man. Seattle Post-Intelligencer The scientists were interviewed before they had a chance to integrate their observations. They should have kept quiet! This is too important a study to issue statements prematurely! And here's the danger lurking in the undergrowth, a story from the Seattle Times.
July 14, 2005. The fossil locality in Egypt that yielded "walking whales" has been named as a new World Heritage Site. BBC News OnLine
July 13, 2005. The theropod Majungatholus is reconstructed with a bird-like respiratory system. The paper is in Nature, so you won't find it freely available on the Web. Nature 436: 253-256.
July 12, 2005. New locality for 3-D Ediacaran fossils. BBC News OnLine
July 7, 2005. Humans WERE involved in Australian extinctions. Mostly by their use of fire. This paper re-affirms what in my mind at least is the most reasonable story, in spite of a recent revisionist attempt to blame it on climate. The new paper is in Science, so will be freely available on the Web in a few months
July 6, 2005. Kennewick Man will (finally!) be examined by scientists.
June 28, 2005. Sophisticated geologists at 2.34 Ma. Discovery site This has already been published in the Journal of Human Evolution. This is a very nice summary.
June 25, 2005. Thermosynthesis at deep-sea vents. Science News. The paper will soon be published in PNAS ( here's the abstract), so it will be freely available on the Web in a few months. Euan Nisbet suggested thermosynthesis as a theoretical possibility years ago, in conenction with early life on Earth, but real scientists don't usually credit mere geologists :). I'll have to wait until I see the paper before my sardonic assumption is confirmed. Here's a 1996 account in Science News. Note that Nisbet had the idea in 1995, and note Cindy van Dover's name. She's a co-author of the new paper. I'll remove all this suspicion if indeed they credit Nisbet. In his blog, Carl Zimmer manages to write about the new research without mentioning Nisbet either.
June 22, 2005. A Cretaceous mammal with a channel in its upper canine teeth, probably to inject venom into a prey. The paper is in Nature, [435:1091-1093], so will not be freely available on the Web. It is a convincing paper, even though there is no living mammal quite like it. (One wonders why not.)
June 16, 2005. The loads that Nepalese porters carry at high altitudes. National Geographic News. This is human physiology, really, and it's not clear yet whether there is a genetic component (say in hemoglobin, muscle fiber density, etc etc.). But the performance is astounding. Sounds as if there should be an Olympic event, a combo of weightlifting and running.
June 16, 2005. A mystery skull found in Kansas. Oceans of Kansas site, which is well worth visiting at length in any case. Send ideas to Mike E., not to me!
June 15, 2005. Update on Homo floresiensis. Carl Zimmer's blog site. There is no good news, just more bad behavior. For previous stories see April 9 and April 8.
June 15, 2005. How fast did moas grow? The paper is in Nature, so it wont be freely available on the Web.
June 6, 2005. DNA sequences from Ice Age cave bears. The paper will be published in Science.
June 5, 2005. Evolution of horns on dung beetles. Blog by Carl Zimmer on his "Loom" web site. This is evolution rather than paleontology, but that's OK.
June 2, 2005. Finding evidence of gender in a Tyrannosaurus. National Geographic News. This is not just a one-in-a-million discovery, but this URL is a really fine piece of science reporting. The paper is in Science, but you'll only find more detail there. Other stories:
June 2, 2005. The evolution of lactose tolerance in adult humans. Press release from Cornell. The idea is not new, but this may be the most detailed study on its distribution.
June 1, 2005. The Earth evolved to be cool and oceanic earlier than we thought. Press release: the paper is coming out soon in Science
June 1, 2005. A small, short-necked sauropod from the Jurassic of Argentina. National Geographic news. The paper is in Nature, so won't be freely available on the Web.
May 31, 2005. Fertilizer from the stars. (!!??) Nature news. This is utter nonsense. It could be given to freshman college science students for an exercise in critical thinking. And these people keep getting their stuff published. Who reviews this stuff? Maybe Philip Ball is gently telling us with his title that he doesn't believe it either. The same group gave us next item this two years ago (with my comment at the time): Did a gamma ray burst cause the end-Ordovician extinction?Nature news service, September 22, 2003, and also see April 11, 2005. 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?
May 29, 2005. Searching for the Tasmanian tiger: is it extinct or not? BBC News OnLine. This piece also contains the answer to that trivia question: what was the name of the last known thylacine? And, by the way, what was the name of the last passenger pigeon?
May 25, 2005. How many founders crossed from Siberia into the Americas? Jody Hey of Rutgers University says about 70.
Press release from Rutgers
Nature News OnLine
But read this blog by John Hawks. It's worth wading through. The message is that results are only as good as the assumptions that went into the computer. And in this case, Hawks thinks, we are no further forward than when we started. (I am persuaded, not that that matters.)
May 25, 2005. Neanderthal Museum opens at St-Césaire, in France. Agence France-Press story in USA Today. Sounds like fun!
May 25, 2005. The plates and spikes of stegosaurs are for display (only).
The paper is forthcoming in Paleobiology. Maybe, since Kevin Padian is a co-author, he may soon admit that bird feathers were used for display before they were used for flight. Having said that, I'm surprised these bony stegosaur features that were so large and so expensive to grow were "only" for display: especially as there was apparently no sexual dimorphism. Jack Horner has an uncharacteristic lapse when he talks about defense: he told National Geographic that you might not need defense very often but you need recognition every day. HOWEVER, when you need defence, it's life or death; it's not the frequency, it's the potential downside. Why do we wear seat-belts? We don't get into a car crash every year, or perhaps every decade... And if Russell Main truly believes that the horns of African bovids are "only" for recognition, it is he rather than Padian who should actually go to Africa and look. But, of course, having written all this, I should wait and read the paper.
May 23, 2005. The natural selection of skin color in humans. Blog by John Hawks, set off by a short paper by Jared Diamond in Nature.
May 21, 2005. Dinotopia: a feature article on the Chinese dinosaurs from the Yixian Formation. Jeff Hecht in New Scientist
May 20, 2005. The Mladec people, from the Czech Republic, are the oldest well-known modern humans in Europe. Press release. The paper was in Nature so won't be freely available on the Web. There are older modern humans from Rumania, but not as many or as well preserved.
May 13, 2005. More about flying snakes.
May 13, 2005. How did humans reach South Asia? Along the coast or overland? Two papers in Science give the genetics: the rest is speculative reconstruction.
May 12, 2005. The origin and spread of leprosy. National Geographic News. It seems to be a fairly recent Old World disease that was spread to the Americas at the same time the slave trade was flourishing.
May 10, 2005. The "living fossil" Wollemi pine is planted in Kew Gardens. BBC News OnLine. Previous stories:
May 10, 2005. The world's shortest-lived vertebrate: the pygmy goby of Australia. BBC News OnLine
May 5, 2005. Falcarius, the earliest therizinosaur. The paper is in Nature, so it won't be freely available on the Web. Kirkland, J. I., et al. 2005. A primitive therizinosauroid dinosaur from the Early Cretaceous of Utah. Nature 435: 84-87.
May 4, 2005. The astonishing prehistoric evolution of cichlids in a paleolake where the Okavango delta now lies. National Geographic News
May 3, 2005. Tyrannosaurs through time. Nice feature article in Natural History magazine by Mark Norell and Xing Xu.. Unfortunately the other articles in this issue aren't and won't be available on the Web except to subscribers. Previous story: The biomechanics of running in tyrannosaurs, also in Natural History, from 2002.
May 3, 2005. Neandertals and hyenas. National Geographic News. An uncharacteristically convoluted piece by Hilary Mayell. I'll have to read the paper to find out what the real messages are.
April 27, 2005. Very early ?modern? human jaw identified in Britain. BBC News OnLine
John Hawks has an authoritative comment on his weblog.
April 27, 2005. Looking after kakapo chicks in New Zealand. BBC News OnLine
April 26, 2005. Evidence for human overkill of proboscideans (mammoths, mastodons, elephants) during the Pleistocene. No Web site yet. The paper was in PNAS, and will be freely available on the Web in a few months. Surovell, T., et al. 2005. Global archaeological evidence for proboscidean overkill. PNAS 102: 6231-6236.
April 21, 2005. Another titan arum blooms. BBC News OnLine. This is the largest flower in the world, and possibly the smelliest, so it counts as an evolutionary marvel to be posted here every time one blooms.
April 20, 2005. The curse of the Iceman. Paranoids and trivia freaks will love this one. From The Guardian.
April 14, 2005. A dinosaur with two unlaid eggs inside. This is from the Upper Cretaceous of China, and it's an oviraptorosaur. The paper is in Nature, which doesn't make its papers freely available on the Web.
April 14, 2005. New whale skeleton from the Eocene of Egypt. National Geographic featured photo. It's a Basilosaurus, not a new whale to science, but the skeleton is large and fairly complete.
April 11, 2005. A gamma-ray burst caused the Ordovician extinction?
This is utter nonsense. There is no EVIDENCE at all. And I've seen it before!!!! Why does it keep on coming around? Previous story: Nature news service, September 2003. 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?
April 9, 2005. The Flores hominid is pathological (therefore all bets are off about its taxonomy). Blog by John Hawks, who is a professor at the University of Wisconsin. This doesn't affect the tools and the associated pygmy elephants, or the date. As for the rest, we shall have to wait and see... See previous stories from April 8th.
April 8, 2005. A mammoth is discovered in Southern California. AP story on CNN
April 8, 2005. Cloning a Mammoth, episode 43. National Geographic News. Just because we've heard this before doesn't make it any less nutty. Here is a great picture of the mammoth. National Geographic photo of the week of March 24.
April 8, 2005. Mars, the Dust Planet. No Web site yet. This is a news report from Richard Kerr in Science (so it will soon be on the Web here. Kerr, R. A. 2005. Rovers, dust, and a not-so-wet Mars. Science 308, 192-193. This is from a meeting in March. Note how much you've not seen about it in the papers. The firm conclusion is that Mars has been dry and dusty for billions of years, and if it was ever wet, it was wet locally and briefly.
April 8, 2005. The brain of the Flores hominid. Though small, it has distinctive features that do not automatically make it a miniaturized Homo erectus. It is certainly not a microcephalic human. The paper speculates (as have others) that Homo floresiensis may be descended from an earlier hominid than erectus: the Dmanisi hominids are one obvious possibility. The paper is Falk, D., et al. 2005. The brain of LB1, Homo floresiensis.
Science 308: 242-245. It will soon be on the Web here. Meanwhile, for Web stories from March, see
April 8, 2005. Snowball or Slushball Earth? No Web sites yet. This is a paper in Science, so it will soon be available on the Web. Bodiselitsch, B., et al. 2005. Estimating duration and intensity of Neoproterozoic snowball glaciations from Ir anomalies. Science 308: 239-242, and comment, p. 181. Will soon be on the Web at here and here, respectively. Here's what it says. A Snowball Earth would accumulate incoming space dust on the ice, loaded with iridium. When it melted, there would be an outwash of all the iridium all at once, which would give an iridium spike in the sediments. Indeed, such a spike occurs after the two main major glaciations linked with the Snowball hypothesis.
I don't see why a Slushball ice sheet on the tropical continents wouldn't also accumulate iridium that would also outwash to give an iridium spike: in other words, I don't see how this study differentiates between Snowball and Slushball. The samples were taken at sites that were along the edge of the tropical continent. So let's do a thought experiment. Antarctica today has been accumulating space dust for 30 m.y. or so. If it melts, as it must some day, won't it produce an iridium spike? Would that imply that Antarctica had been part of a Snowball Earth? I think the answers to these two questions are Yes, and No, respectively. So I'm not going to alter my piece on Slushball Earth (yet).
April 7, 2005. A Dmanisi person was cared for in old age, 1.8 million years ago.
BBC News OnLine
The paper is in Nature, which doesn't make its papers generally available on the Web. Lordkipanidze, D., et al.: The earliest toothless hominin skull. Nature 434: 717-718. This individual had lost all of its teeth except for one canine, but had survived the consequent deterioration of the tooth sockets and jaw bone. This virtually toothless individual (I'll call him Bucky) must have been fed soft food, such as bone marrow, to survive. So the group must have felt for whatever reason that this was the right thing to do. Now it doesn't mean that Bucky was old in our terms: we don't know how long a "normal" life span was. [Rank speculation: I'd like to think Bucky was the geologist: someone with a unique skill that the tribe needed: in this case for making the tools that kept the group going!].
Intelligent blog by John Hawks.
For a flashy reconstruction of these Dmanisi people, see this National Geographic feature
April 6, 2005. New reconstruction of the skull of Toumai, Sahelanthropus from Chad. A computer reconstruction of the crushed skull shows that it really is a basal hominid, and also that it probably walked upright.
April 5, 2005. The biting power of Thylacoleo, the marsupial carnivore from Australia. BBC News OnLine. Hidden in this news item is the claim that marsupials have an intrinsically stronger bite than placentals. That's much more significant and thought-provoking than the details about Thylacoleo. Previous story on Thylacoleo: National Geographic News, March 2004.
April 5, 2005. Claim that there are lots of habitable planets out there. BBC News OnLine. Sounds (to me) like special pleading by people with an agenda. But that's prejudice (too).
April 1, 2005. Chipmunk-sized mammal from the Jurassic may have eaten termites. The paper is in Science: Luo, Z.-X., and J. R. Wible. 2005. A Late Jurassic digging mammal and early mammalian diversification. Science 308, 103-107. This is Fruitafossor. My only worry is the very small size: the living analogs are MUCH bigger, therefore MUCH more powerful. Voles dig, but they don't dig for termites. I wonder how big a baby anteater (etc.) is when it begins to dig well enough to feed itself...
April 1, 2005. Two phases of extinction at the Permo-Triassic boundary. BBC News OnLine. The paper was in Nature, so it won't be on the Web.
April 1, 2005. Did the Afrotheria begin in the Northern Hemisphere rather than in Africa? Press release. The paper was in Nature, so it won't be on the Web.
March 24, 2005. Soft tissue found inside a tyrannosaur bone. There will be a flurry of excitement over this, and rightly so. Stay tuned for updates here. Schweitzer, M. H., et al. 2005. Soft-tissue vessels and cellular preservation in Tyrannosaurus rex. Science 307: 1952-1955. Will soon be on the Web at this URL
March 23, 2005. Extrasolar planets imaged directly. Nature news service. However, don't get too excited. We had detected these planets indirectly already. AND we can only see those that are so hot that they literally glow: no life on those guys! They are called "hot Jupiters".
March 23, 2005. Life on Europa? National Geographic News. So please give us money! The fact is that Europa is far too cold for life to survive. Of course, that's not part of the argument.
March 17, 2005. New data on horse evolution. National Geographic News. Bruce MacFadden is arguably the greatest living expert on fossil horses: there's nothing much here that's new, but it's a nice short piece.
March 17, 2005. Great galloping vampires, Batman! Nature news service, with a video. The paper is Riskin D. K. & Hermanson J. W. Nature 434, p. 292, so it won't be freely available on the Web.
March 16, 2005. Where Rohde and Muller's 62-m.y. cycles came from. A new update of my critique. The cycles come from a mixture of bad luck and bad judgment in data processing. For previous story, scan down to March 9, 2005.
March 11, 2005. Neuquenraptor is a new dinosaur from Argentina: it's a deinonychosaur, and a primitive one. The paper is in Nature, so it's not generally available on the Web.
March 10, 2005. Best reconstruction yet of a Neanderthal skeleton. National Geographic News
March 10, 2005. The question of the earliest evidence for life. It looks as if evidence from the island of Akilia, off Greenland, for life around 3.8 Ga, is flawed. But in a short commentary, Stephen Moorbath throws out the baby with the bathwater, and claims that "true consensus for life's existence seems to be reached only with the bacterial fossils of the 1.9-Ga Gunflint Formation of Ontario". I think that's outrageous. It implies, among other things, that ALL the BIF were deposited inorganically, and that ALL the stromatolites before 1.9 Ga were also inorganically produced. And there is at least some evidence of life from 3.8 Ga: it's at Isua, Greenland, even if Akilia is a bust. The reference is Moorbath, S. 2005. Dating earliest life. Nature 434: 155. It won't be freely available on the Web.
March 10, 2005. Reconstructing the evolutionary history of snake venoms. Press release
March 10, 2005. A new specimen of early Australopithecus from Ethiopia. The news item is in Nature, so it's not freely available on the Web. The specimen is nearly 4 Ma, so it's early. It may be Australopithecus anamensis. BBC News OnLine
March 9, 2005. A 62-million-year cycle in the fossil record? No! Look, we've been through this sort of thing before with the Raup-Sepkoski data. Richard Muller was the one who proposed that Nemesis the Death Planet set off cycles of extinction at 28-m.y. intervals. As I said in my early editions, with a limerick thrown in, there never was any evidence for Nemesis. (Muller recently stated that he has not "given up" on the idea.) See this mini-essay of his from last year. And here he is again: you notice that the great thing about comets is that you cannot expect to find actual evidence for their impact. But the paper is even worse that that. Here is my critique, updated March 16, 2005. . The paper is Rohde, R. A., and R. A. Muller. 2005. Cycles in fossil diversity. Nature 434: 208-210; and comment, pp. 147-148; Nature does not make its articles freely available on the Web.
February 24, 2005. The Flores bones are returned to their discoverers. Carl Zimmer on his "loom" Website. For previous story, see December 4, 2004.
February 24, 2005. Digging for Australia's polar dinosaurs. Christian Science Monitor
February 23, 2005. Major find of Miocene vertebrates in central California. San Francisco Chronicle
February 22, 2005. Choanoflagellates: quick guide. Current Biology
February 22, 2005. Sponges: quick guide New Scientist
February 17, 2005. No water on Mars for billions of years. This is from the European Space Agency, reflecting data from its Mars Express orbiter. Nature news service
February 16, 2005. The oldest Homo sapiens is reliably dated at 195,000 years ago. This puts the origin of the modern sapiens body (especially the skull) well before any evidence of "modern" human behavior.
February 16, 2005. The evolution of vision. A brilliant two-part essay by Carl Zimmer on his "Loom" site. Not about fossils, but certainly about evolution in deep time.
February 10, 2005. The middle ears of monotremes and other mammals evolved independently. Nature news online. The paper is in Science, so will be on the Web in a few months. It is: Rich T. H., et al. 2005. Science 307: 910-914, with a comment in the same issue. This is a convincing paper. What is surprising is that this had looked like a fairly complex sequence of changes from cynodonts to mammals: yet here it is happening twice in very similar (though not identical) ways. Perhaps the same developmental genes were involved. It implies that the separation of monotremes from other mammals happened early (VERY early, possibly). Now that we have older monotremes that still have adult teeth, unlike their living descendants, we may be able some day to identify the deep ancestors of monotremes.
February 10, 2005. Gliding ants. Astounding: but there are probably lots more of them if anyone looked.
February 9, 2005. Claim that interstellar dust caused Snowball Earth. Nature news service. Utter nonsense: where's the EVIDENCE??? Shows how easy it is to get rampant speculation published as "science". Journals and journal papers are only as good as the people who are alleged to review manuscripts for quality.
January 27, 2005. More insight into bat evolution: early and rapid, along with sonar, and probably in the Eocene. The paper and a commentary are in Science.
January 21, 2005. More bones of Ardipithecus ramidus from Ethiopia. National Geographic News. There's no new paleobiology reported here: presumably the full analysis is coming later.
January 20, 2005. A Cretaceous duck? BBC News OnLine. The paper is in Nature, so won't be on the Web. This is part of a huge argument about how many lineages of "modern" birds were present before the K-T boundary. The fossil is from the latest Cretaceous, but it is from Antarctica, so it won't be easy to try to collect more. The specimen is either an "unidentifiable bundle of bones", or has bones with unquestioned affinity to the Anatidae, the family to which modern ducks belong. I'm not willing even to guess who is right. It would be a surprise to me if the specimen really is an anatid, but stranger things have turned up.
January 12, 2005. The largest Mesozoic mammal yet: the size of a raccoon. All these stories have images. The paper is Hu, Y., et al. 2005. Nature 433, 149-152, and comment, pp. 116-117. Nature doesn't make its papers freely available on the Web. A new species of Repenomamus is called R. giganticus, because it is the size of a raccoon: gigantic for a Mesozoic mammal (but of course nowhere near the size of later mammals). In the same paper, a smaller species of Repenomamus is reported to have large chunks of a baby Psittacosaurus skeleton in its body cavity. Presumably it died with its last meal still being digested. This is an exciting and interesting paper. Some comments
1. It's overkill to suggest, as Anne Weil does in her commentary, birds "got off the ground" to "avoid rapacious mammals". The local coyotes round my place don't seem to make much impact on the quail and wild turkey populations. And even if a mammal can eat a baby dinosaur, there are snakes that eat mammals the size of cattle, lizards that eat pigs and people, and flies that eat toads (that's not a misprint).
2. This doesn't alter our global picture that Mesozoic mammals were small. It's one species, and it's not an accident that it was named giganticus.
3. It's naive of Hooker (in the Nature news piece) to suggest that Repenomamus didn't eat plants (on the grounds that it didn't have grinding molars). Foxes, coyotes, and raccoons don't have grinding molars, and they are officially "Carnivora", but they eat fruit, berries, and seeds as well as the occasional prey. (Check out coyote scat if you don't believe me!)
4. This was not a "prehistoric badger" and it wasn't discovered by "archaeologists" (Nature news service).
January 8, 2005. Jeffrey Bada reviews astrobiology. This book review is Bada, J. L. 2005. A field with a life of its own. Science 307, p. 46. There's no Web site, but I can't resist quoting one sentence. Bada writes, "scientific curiosity alone likely cannot explain the explosive growth of astrobiology. After reading The Living Universe, I came to the conclusion that one of the field's attractions was money: and lots of it." I fully recognize that LOTS of good science has come from "astrobiologists", even if they haven't discovered any astrobiology yet.
January 4, 2005. The evolution of the Haast's eagle of Ice-Age New Zealand.
The BBC news report concentrates largely on the way this giant eagle killed moas. The more exciting part of the research concerns its rapid evolution from an ancestor that was probably like the Little Eagle of Australia. If so, and if the dates are correct, the eagle was the end-product of one of the fastest evolutionary size increases ever found in vertebrates. The paper is Bunce, M., et al. 2005. Ancient DNA provides new insights into the evolutionary history of New Zealand's extinct giant eagle. PLoS Biol 3(1): e9. It's freely available on the Web (RC: add URL!).
For current stories, see Paleontology in the News
For stories archived from 2004, see Paleontology News 2004
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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