Paleontology in the News

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

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, 2008

  • January 2, 2009. More evidence that supports a meteorite strike that wiped out the Clovis culture. The paper is in Science, but I haven't read it yet. There are still serious doubts about this hypothesis. BBC News OnLine

  • December 17, 2008. Austroraptor, a giant dromaeosaur from Argentina. The paper is in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. National Geographic News

  • December 15, 2008. Modern human evolution among the Amish. The question is to what extent it is positive selection. John Hawks blog

  • December 12, 2008. The strange jaw mechanism of the Triassic amphibian Gerrothorax. The paper in in JVP, and I haven't read it because it's in the December issue which hasn't arrived yet. I do have a folk memory that quite a number of other vertebrates have a bite in which the upper jaw lifts, rather than the lower jaw dropping. ?Placoderms? It will surface soon....

  • December 12, 2008. Tyrannosaurus had more air spaces than we thought in its skull. It's probably an adaptation for lightening the skull. This is from the Larry Witmer group, and the paper is in The Anatomical Record. Th paper deals also with three more dinosaurs, and there are extensive comparisons with livng archosaurs.

  • December 3, 2008. Tools associated with the "Middle Stone Age" have been found in very old sites in East Africa. You can interpret this in two ways: # 1, that these tools, conventionally associated with modern Homo sapiens, were first made by predecessors of H. sapiens; or # 2, that Homo sapiens has been around longer than we thought. Given that the fossils don't support # 2, the better explanation now is # 1. As I read the paper, it seems to me that the authors prefer # 1. But we need more soundly based dates, and more sites. The paper is in Geology, which doesn't allow general access to its papers. National Geographic News

  • December 3, 2008. Account of the Silurian Lagerstatte in Herefordshire, England, by the chief investigators. Feature article in American Scientist, last issue of 2008.

  • December 3, 2008. New pterosaur from Brazil found in German museum. BBC News

  • December 2, 2008. Spectacular new Upper Palaeolithic figurines found in Russia. The paper is in Antiquity, which is hopeless about putting its papers on the Web. BBC News

  • November 27, 2008. Cave bears seem to have died out early in Europe, around 28,000 BP. This my mean that humans were not involved, but that climate change was. The paper is said to be in Boreas. Terra Daily

  • November 27, 2008. "Most planets may be seeded with life". That's not what the evidence says. The evidence says that the simple sugar glycoaldehyde has been detected in dense dust and gas in a star-forming region of the Milky Way. Glycoaldehyde is a long way from life, and a long way from being demonstrated as "seeding planets". Even so, it's an interesting observation, and one that underlines what we have known for decades: that simple organic substances can form in interesting places. ScienceNOW. This link is good for four weeks only.

  • November 26, 2008. An Upper Triassic turtle from China that hadn't yet evolved the dorsal carapace. This seems to be a classic "missing link". The paper is in today's Nature, but I haven't read it yet.

  • November 25, 2008. How dolphins swim fast. It's not much to do with the skin. Instead, the power generated by the tail has been underestimated for decades. Now we need to see whether this applies to all whales. Beware: there's no mention of a paper, so this isn't real science yet! BBC News OnLine
  • November 25, 2008. New reconstruction of the fossilization of the Burgess Shale fossils. Clearly, this does not apply to other Lagerstätten. The paper is in Geology, so is not generally available on the Web. Press release

  • November 21, 2008. A giant protist that makes "worm tracks". This living creature may help to explain some Precambrian trace fossils that look like worm tracks but seem "too old" to have been made by real worms. That would simplify our picture of late Precambrian life. The paper is in Current Biology.

  • November 19, 2009. Sequencing half the genome of the woolly mammoth.

  • November 19, 2008. The evolutionary origin of bats. This on-line feature will be published in the December 2008 issue of Scientific American. Scientific American

  • November 18, 2008. Fossils can tell you a lot about paleogeography. In this case, evidence from invertebrate fossils from Paleozoic rocks in Alaska helps to confirm that Alaska is a pastiche of rocks that were once connected to different parts of Eurasia. Sarah Palin won't believe it, of course. I like this story because it's globally important. But similar research projects have been going on for decades. As an undergraduate, my instructors told me, and showed with specimens, how trilobites from Britain matched those across the Atlantic in North America. And this was before the plate tectonic revolution, when one either "believed in drift" or didn't. And you were damned if you gave the wrong answer. Never mind: this neat story gets exposure because Dave Rohr nailed a National Geographic grant for his work: and more power to him.

  • November 14, 2008. Homo erectus babies were born with bigger brains than we had thought. The inference comes from a 1.2-Ma well-preserved adult female pelvis found in Ethiopia, which had enough room for a big-brained baby. (Not as big as human babies today, but still big compared with previous hominids.) We know from tooth evidence that Homo erectus grew to adult size faster than we do. All this means that Homo erectus children differed from their predecessors, and from us. The differences clearly point to an "evolution of childhood" that makes sense. The paper and a news feature by Ann Gibbons are in this week's Science.

  • October 31, 2008. Innovation may have been more important than climate change in the movement of Homo sapiens out of Africa. That interpretation goes way beyond the evidence in the paper (which is in Science), but it's not outrageous as a hypothesis. I wish the Toba eruption would go away: it was a sudden disaster, but not a world-changing event.

  • October 29, 2008. The sense of smell in theropods. The results are based on CT and morphological study of theropod dinosaur skulls, trying to reconstruct how big the olfactory lobes were. Tyrannosaurs and dromaeosaurs seem to have had the best developed snese of smell, troodontids and Archaeopteryx are in the middle, and oviraptors were not as good. An interesting point for me is that Archaeopteryx is a perfectly normal theropod, whereas later birds had smaller olfactory lobes, consistent with their flying ability. That might suggest to dispassionate observers (like me) that Archaeopteryx wasn't flying much, if at all, which is also indicated by a number of anatomical features. (Its feathers were for display, of course, and maybe insulation.) The paper is in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, so won't be generally avaailable on the Web. Reuters

  • October 23, 2008. Feathered theropod had DISPLAY feathers. This is a new genus of small theropod, Epidexipteryx, from the Jurassic of China, apparently a little older than Archaeopteryx. The evidence that these were display feathers is utterly convincing, and there is an over-the-top image to brighten up your day. The paper is now published in Nature after it was mistakenly posted on their "Preceedings" page. The paper fails to mention that Jere Lipps and I suggested display as the first function of feathers way back in 1982, and in all four editions of my History of Life text (see below).

  • October 22, 2008. A Venezuelan equivalent of the La Brea tar pits of California. This could eventually be really exciting for two reasons. First, it may record a much longer time period than La Brea (though that raises the difficult problem of potential mixing of time zones within a tar pit). Second, a Venezuelan site may record any mixing and interchange between "North Aerican" animals and "South American" animals at a site not too far removed from the only reasonable avenue of faunal exchange between the two (the Panama Isthmus and its prehistoric geographical equivalent). Science News Web edition

  • October 21, 2008. The bony crests of lambeosaurs. CT scans confirm the idea that they functioned in vocal communication. This is from a talk at SVP. Terra Daily

  • October 20, 2008. A sabertooth cat that bit huge chunks of flesh from its prey. Not a gentle way to go. This is Xenosmilus from the Pleistocene of the American Southeast. Theropods would be the closest analogy, I would think. This is from a talk at the SVP meeting. Science News

  • October 19, 2008. Bizarre new idea for pterosaur take-off. This is from a talk at SVP. As one listener put it, "this idea was a little odd, but the more I think about it, the more I like it". The reporter Sid Perkins notes that the idea is speculative, but that's partly what these meetings are for. We'll see if it reaches publication quality. Science News, Web edition

  • October 17, 2008. Stanley Miller's unpublished experiment. Staney Miller, of course, did the experiment that showed amino acid production after a mixture of "atmospheric" gases had electric sparks passed through it. But he also did another experiment, which used "volcanic" gases, and also produced amino acids. Now 55 years later, his experimental vials from this second experiment have been analysed and published. The result is more relevant than Miller imagined, because his "atmospheric" gases probably didn't make up Earth's early atmosphere. But volcanic gases would indeed have been present on the early Earth. The paper was published in Science.

  • October 17, 2008. The world's first domesticated dogs? About 32,000 years old, from a Paleolithic cave in Belgium. With lots of speculation, probaby by authors as well as journalist. Dogs: the Smith and Wesson of modern humans vs. Neanderthals? The paper is said to be accepted for the Journal of Archaeological Science, which is usually a hard-nosed data-rich journal. Discovery

  • October 16, 2008. Vertebrae from the world's largest snake. The find was made in the Paleocene of Colombia. No publication yet: this is from a paper presented at a meeting. Science News

  • October 15, 2008. The skull of Tiktaalik, the late Devonian fish from Canada that is oh-so-close to the origin of tetrapods. The paper is in Nature, so it won't be generally available on the Web.

  • October 14, 2008. A new ceratopsian dinosaur with very complex (display?) structures on its skull. It's not quite clear where this is being published: maybe it will be available on the Web. National Geographic News

  • October 13, 2008. Footprints in Italian volcanic ash are 350,000 years old. That means they were made by Homo heidelbergensis, not Homo sapiens. New Scientist

  • October 9, 2008. Why sauropods were gigantic. It's not new research, it's an idea piece, and it all sounds reasonable. It's more than just not chewing, it's an intgrated package of features that includes egg-laying and (most controversial) changing the basal rate of metabolism with growth. The paper is in Science, so will be freely available on the Web in a few months. National Geographic News

  • October 9, 2008. A small arthropod from the Chengjiang Lagerstatte of China (lower Cambrian) seems to have formed a conga line of individuals for some reason. This, of course, implies some sort of behavior, but what? Migration, or at least travel, is made more efficient? The paper is in Science, so will be freely available on the Web in a few months.

  • October 6, 2008. Cretaceous theropod with "bird-like" respiratory system. Certainly this is the prevailing hypothesis for all theropods. The new specimen has a particularly pneumatic skeleton, and the paper uses it to present a thorough review of the whole question of inferring respiratory capability (essentially a soft-tissue function) from skeletal remains. The paper is in PLoS One, and is freely accessible. HOWEVER, the paper has received devastating and convincing criticism from Matt Wedel, who has written five papers in five years on pneumaticity in dinosaur bones and its implications for paleobiology. His blog critiques are the last two citations below, and are required reading.

  • September 27, 2008. Dasornis, an early member of the Pelagornithidae, is described from a new specimen from the early Eocene of England. Pelagornithids were giant seabirds best known from Miocene and Pliocene times: but this early one shows that they were already very large (5 m wingspan) as a very early date. One can speculate that they were ecological replacements of the large soaring pterosaurs. The paper, by Gerald Mayr, is in Palaeontology. Science Daily

  • September 25, 2008. Albertonykus, a tiny alvarezsaurid dinosaur that may have been a termite-eater. The paper is in Cretaceous Research, and it's a good one. National Geographic News

  • September 24, 2008. Panderichthys, the Devonian fish, already had the bones deep in its fins that later evolved into digits (fingers and toes). The paper is said to be in Nature, but it's not: it is in press. Coates's reaction doesn't make sense. Radials are round in exposed functional digits because that's the best shape for them. Who knows what the original radials were like, deep within a fin. Coates is probably just annoyed, but is that all he's got? National Geographic News

  • September 23, 2008. The evolution of the placenta: decoding the genes involved. The paper is said to be in PNAS (it isn't), and might tell me more than this press release. It's certainly not clear (to me) what that diagram/metaphor is trying to say! Terra Daily from Yale University.

  • September 22, 2008. Neanderthals ate seafood. Hardly surprising, but it's good to have it documented. The paper is in PNAS.

  • September 11, 2008. The superiority of dinosaurs over their crurotarsan relatives. The success of dinosaurs was just blind luck, says a new paper. But Kevin Padian has it right: "Organisms don't become extinct at random, and they don't succeed at random". In any case, the paper didn't, and couldn't, measure all the parameters that may make a difference in survival versus extinction. We cannot even do that among living animals today. Padian lists an impressive array of characters that differentiated crurotarsans from dinosaurs, even in the late Triassic, and it seems intuitively obvious that some or all of these would have played some role in differential survival. One more point: if you looked at Middle and Late Devonian fishes, you wouldn't find tetrapod ancestors looking particularly promising; same for mammals in the late Creaceous; same for the little Jurassic theropods that eventually gave rise to birds. The whole concept behind this research may be badly flawed. National Geographic News

  • September 11, 2008. Another fossil that helps to decipher early whale evolution. This time it's Georgiacetus, a fossil whale from Alabama, which helps to time the evolution of the tail flukes that early whales, including Georgiacetus, did not have. The paper is said to be in press in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. National Geographic News

  • September 11, 2008. Very large temnospondyl amphibian from the Triassic of Antarctica. Similar forms are known from Australia: but on any scale, this is an impressive beast, even if it is NOT a salamander! The paper is said to be in press in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. National Geographic News

  • September 10, 2008. The evolution of ratites: a lot of parallel losses of flight. This is published online on PNAS, and makes sense. Ratites were originally flying birds that dispersed widely, but some of the larger species became flightless and evolved to spectacular size and success. Rails did much the same thing, but were not as "successful". Terra Daily

  • September 9, 2008. Sequence of Carboniferous rain forests. There's a lot of spin going on here. On the face of it, the scientists are comparing and contrasting the paleobotany of a chronological sequence of Carboniferous rain forest. It's being spun into a before-and-after global warming context that may or may not be relevant to today's Earth. Obviously, if it is deemed to be relevant, there's a lot of prospective grant money. Maybe I'm just being super-cynical tonight. But why couldn't we have a paper that describes and discusses a series of Carboniferous rain-forest floras, without all the (probably unlikely) analogs? National Geographic News

  • September 8, 2008. More on Neanderthal developmental rate, paleobiology, and fate relative to modern humans. I hope the paper does a better job separating established palepntological data from interpretative speculation. I AM being cynical tonight! (BUT in the interest of good science!) National Geographic News

  • September 4, 2008. The last "Siberian" woolly mammoths were actually North American. This comes from a mtDNA study. The paper is in Current Biology. There seem to be doubts, but they mostly consist of complaints about too little data. What the authors have done is to set up interpretations: if they turn out to be wrong, they are wrong, but they are not outrageous, as far as I can tell.

  • September 4, 2008. A Cretaceous gecko foot preserved in amber. National Geographic Photo in the News

  • September 3, 2008. New set of skeletons from Mexico seems to be older than Clovis. The dating is the first claim that needs to be tested. But the apparent co-occurrence with "elephants" (?mastodons or mammoths?) and giant sloths is compatible with that assessment. If the dates are good, these are not as old as the Monte Verde sites of Chile, so the skeletons may be the oldest in Mexico, but not the oldest in the Americas. Their situation on the EASTERN coast is interesting, because one can imagine a coastal settling along the west that did not impact the inland ecosystems much. But humans on the east coast presumably had migrated to Cancun across the Mexican mountains. There is no publication yet, or any time soon, it seems, which is really annoying. It would have been nice if they had done more science before making this announcement. National Geographic News

  • September 2, 2008. Cretaceous turtle fossilized just beforeit would have laid its eggs. The paper is said to be in Biology Letters. Terra Daily

  • September 2, 2008. Introducing alien species to islands. The alien introductions may or may not drive a native species to extinction. The means that overall, on islands, the island's diversity of life may rise with the introduction of aliens. What the authors (or the reporter) don't seem to recognize is that the island species driven to extinction are gone for ever. While the ISLAND may have increased diversity, the PLANET has decreased diversity. The authors are quoted actually perpetrating this dumb conclusion: "...for birds, lots of extinctions, no change in total diversity." That's completely false on a global scale. So the generally feel-good, it's OK, message coming from this report is a travesty of scientific inference. While I'm sure their numbers are correct, the presentation of this study is sloppy science. One hopes the paper is better argued. Terra Daily

  • August 29, 2008. New giant clam species discovered in the Red Sea. Before humans arrived in the area on their way out of Africa, it made up more than 80% of the giant clams along the shore. But it grew higher up the shore than the others. Now it is "critically endangered". Another example for the second edition of Callum Ross's Unnatural History of the Oceans!

  • August 28, 2008. Old human bones found on Palau were not from a dwarfed population, says a new paper. DO NOT confuse this new discussion, which relates to Palau, with the controversy over the dwarfed bones found on Flores, in Indonesia. The Flores collection still looks genuinely dwarfed, and that controversy is over the cause of the dwarfing, and whether to call the collection a new species, Homo floresiensis (Scroll down to January 3, 2008 for more on Flores.). The new paper deals with the claims of Lee Berger about ancient Palauans. Berger has the reputation of a shoot-from-the-hip opportunist, which is fine as long as you get it right. Stay tuned. This press release from the University of Oregon should never have used the adjective "Hobbitlike", but university press flacks are not paid to be accurate: they are paid to generate publicity.
  • Terra Daily. Press release from the University of Oregon.
  • My entry from March 10, 2008: Bones from (very) small humans found on Palau. A long and well-written story. It's anybody's guess at the moment how these humans relate to the small people of Flores. The paper is in PLoS One. The authors describe the Palau specimens rather sketchily, and have not even looked at those from Flores, so it is difficult to see how they can have any credibility in suggesting that the Flores people are also Homo sapiens.

  • August 19, 2008. NASA has too much money. I really don't see how it can cost $358,000 to look at a lot of pictures. When you think what that money could buy in terms of studying life on Earth, it makes me sad and angry. Terra Daily

  • August 14, 2008. A photosynthetic bacterium that uses arsenic rather than water. Californian native, too. The paper is in Science this week. BBC News

  • August 12, 2008. A snapshot of newly arrived placental mammals to South America: Venezuela, about 1.8 Ma. No publication mentioned. Discovery News

  • August 12, 2008. New paper says that humans killed (off) giant kangaroos and other marsupials in Tasmania. The paper is said to be in PNAS. Clearly some people don't believe it. Wait and see what the paper says.... Two press releases in Terra Daily:

  • August 12, 2008. A complete Neanderthal mitochondrial genome is published. The paper is in the journal Cell. OK, we have a complete mtDNA read-out that was being transmitted through *one* Neanderthal female lineage. That's great for assessing other Neanderthal mtDNA that is more fragmentary. It says nothing about possible interbreeding between humans and Neanderthals (think about it). That doesn't stop people blabbing on to reporters with sloppy arguments. For example, in the National Geographic story, Stephen Schuster of Penn State says, "at least for *the* maternal lineage, there are no traceable genetic markers that suggest admixture of Neanderthals and modern humans". If he'd said "*this one* maternal lineage" he'd have been accurate, but the whole thrust of his argument would have collapsed. He talks as if there was only one maternal lineage among Neanderthals, which is evolutionary nonsense. But then, Schuster works on bacteria, so doesn't have to understand how evolution works in metazoans. The arguments for interbreeding with humans, by the way, call for rare matings that transfer (nuclear) genes in introgression. You wouldn't see that at all in mtDNA!

  • August 6, 2008. Hadrosaurs grew faster than tyrannosaurs. By growing fast, baby hadrosaurs would be vulnerable prey for a shorter time than otherwise.
    There's a simple logical error in the paper as it was printed. The authors wrote two critical sentences:
    1. Life-history theory suggests that prey species should experience rapid growth if juvenile mortality (caused mainly by predation) is high and resources are plentiful (or readily available) (Arendt & Reznick 2005). 2. ..we predict that Hypacrosaurus grew faster and matured sooner than coeval theropods.
    Sentence 1 is, I presume, a fair summary of a *theoretical* model. Sentence 2 is an unwarranted prediction from that model. The model suggests only that prey should grow fast if they can. It does NOT say that they should grow faster than their predators. HOWEVER:
    NOTE ADDED, September 2008: Drew Lee, in an E-mail exchange, tells me that Reznick and colleagues actually did present data on real animals, and did find that prey grew faster than predators in favorable circumstances. Thus the Cretaceous data is compatible with present-day theory and data, even though that wasn't clearly presented in the paper. The authors show unambiguously that this hadrosaur species grew impressively fast, considerably faster than a contemporary tyrannosaur. The concept of narrowing a window of vulnerability applies well to the hadrosaur growth. National Geographic News

  • August 4, 2008. The bite of the giant extinct shark Carcharodon megalodon. Another study from the tireless Stephen Wroe.

  • July 31, 2008. Diversity hot-spots and plate tectonics. This news story is a good summary of a paper that was in Science this week. I think it's really important. What's more, one of my Ph.D. students. John Pandolfi, was a co-author. Briefly, the idea is that really high diversity can evolve where permitted or encouraged by favorable conditions, set up by just the right plate-tectonic activity in just the right climatic zone. The devil may be in the details, and this is just a preliminary idea paper. But it looks great! National Geographic News.

  • July 30, 2008. How and when snakes evolved fangs. (Once, and in the Cretaceous, probably). National Geographic News

  • July 30, 2008. Some dinosaur bones contain soft tissue: is it original dinosaur tissue, or is it bacterial? National Geographic News

  • July 28, 2008. Ordovician cooling and Ordovician diversity rise? Well, maybe, but it depends what your assumptions are. Richard Norris makes some very calm and realistic comments on the new paper that was in Science recently. National Geographic News

  • July 25, 2008. Warmer Antarctic at 14 Ma? Not that much warmer, perhaps, but it's an interesting find. This is not from isotopes, but from (gasp!!) real fossils. National Geographic News

  • July 24, 2008. A new skeleton of a young Tarbosaurus (a tyrannosaurid) from Mongolia. ABC News

  • July 17, 2008. Noise-making by vertebrates: do they all use the same neural network? If so, it is very ancient.

  • July 10, 2008. UNESCO has named the Joggins Cliffs site in Nova Scotia a World Heritage site. The Cliffs are world famous for their Pennsylvanian fossils. Information about Joggins Cliffs

  • July 9, 2008. The weird eyes of flatfishes evolved gradually, not as hopeful monsters. This was discovered the old-fashioned way, by looking at Eocene fossils from Italy. The author is Matt Friedman of Chicago, and his paper and an admiring comment from Philippe Janvier are in Nature today. Sorry, no general access on the Web unless you or your institution are subscribers.

  • July 9, 2008. Revision of the Sepkoski curve of fossil diversity through time. The paper was in Science last week, by lead author John Alroy and a couple of dozen co-authors. The paper takes raw data and manipulates it to generate a summary curve. The most surprising suggestion is that diversity rise in the later Cretaceous and Cenozoic was modest. This is counter to one's experience, collecting marine fossils at least. And it is especially suprising given the increased provinciality in the world as continents separate and climate zones differentiate during the Cenozoic. So I am sceptical, and I expect others are too. The new curve may reflect one of the ways in which the team discarded real data (it's in the fine print). They threw away records from rock beds that were unlithified, or lightly lithified. Anyone who has collected the richest Cenozoic localities will recognize that this throws away real data about high and real diversity. This paper has to be concise to be published in Science, and a longer version may calm some of my angst. Though I doubt it. Terra Daily

  • July 8, 2008. Color bands on Cretaceous feathers. The paper is in Biology Letters, but I haven't seen it yet. Perhaps now people will read again the 25-year old suggestion of Cowen and Lipps that feathers evolved as display generators, and were later exapted for flight.....

  • July 2, 2008. Carbon isotopes in a diamond associated with ancient zircon are interpreted as evidence of (VERY early) life. The paper will be in Nature, maybe tomorrow. This story teeters on the edge of credibility, so I would tend not to accept it without a lot of further information. BBC News

  • July 2, 2008. The Devonian fossil Ventastega from Latvia is described in detail from new specimens. It is more "advanced" than Tiktaalik, but not much, and is not as "advanced" as Ichthyostega and Acanthostega. So it will be really important as we try to work out the details of the transition from fish to tetrapods. The paper is in Nature, so won't be freely available on the Web.

  • June 18, 2008. Meteorites may have brought DNA precursors to Earth. Sure, but if that's true, they also brought DNA precursors to every other inner planet in the Solar System. What happened? If it happened, Earth was the only hospitable planet. And if Earth was primed to make DNA precursors happy, it's much more likely that Earth grew its own. This is just whistling into nowhere! National Geographic News

  • June 17, 2008. Mass extinctions and sea-level change. The National Geographic news report and the NSF press release are the author's spin, as relayed by the NGS and NSF press corps. The actual paper came out the next day in Nature (so it won't be freely available on the Web). The paper DOES NOT say that mass extinctions are caused by sea-level change. In fact, the paper is about the sedimentary facies that certain groups of fossils are found in. It's a long stretch to read much else, in my opinion, no matter what NSF and Arnie Miller say!

  • June 17, 2008. Insight, or lack of it, into the Hadean: all we have are zircon crystals. The paper is in Earth and Planetary Science Letters. I haven't read it yet. National Geographic News

  • June 17, 2008. New dinosaurs found in the Morrison Formation in Utah. National Geographic News

  • June 17, 2008. New mitochondrial DNA data on woolly mammoths. You get the impression that the reporter didn't understand the project. The paper was finally published on June 17. PNAS often seems to announce results before people can read the paper. That does allow the spin to be controlled by the authors, which is not a good idea. The paper is based on mtDNA, which everyone knows reflects maternal descent only. It's not a surprise that there are two "clades" of mtDNA: there are, of course, multiple "mtDNA clades" in humans. The real interest is whether there are mammoth clades, which are different from the "mtDNA" clades because they reflect the actual descent of the mammoths themselves. There may not be multiple clades of the actual mammoths, just as humans are one clade even if their mtDNA is split into multiple clades. So I don't see the point of this paper for anyone except geneticists. Probably I'm missing something, but I am not sure what these results say about mammoth evolution, if anything... Anyway, here's the spin version: Terra Daily

  • June 10, 2008. Large theropod described from the Cretaceous of South Australia. But beware: the new paper (and the title of the new story) go far beyond the view of the original discoverers! National Geographic News

  • June 4, 2008. An expanded role for lipid membranes in the origin of life. The paper is said to be online in Nature, which means it should be published soon (but not freely available on the Web). Science News. Previous story: Life from Scratch, a feature article in Science News, January 8, 2008.

  • June 3, 2008. Polynesians and rats did not reach New Zealand until about 1280 AD, say new dating results. (That means the two of them screwed up New Zealand's ecology even fast than we had thought!) National Geographic News

  • May 29, 2008. Early Mars water was unfit for life. New chemical results from the Mars Rover points to the likely conclusion that the planet's water was always too salty for life. Maybe we can now stop believing NASA's hopelessly optimistic spin and concentrate on real planetology. Real planetology will tell us that Earth is the only planet we've got, so we should start taking better care of it. The paper is in Science. National Geographic News

  • May 29, 2008. Too many geneticists don't understand evolution. (So be very careful in accepting assertions about human evolution.) This is from John Hawks' blog site. John Hawks

  • May 28, 2008. Evidence of live birth in a Devonian placoderm!

  • May 28, 2008. The life style of Quetzalcoatlus and other azhdarchid pterosaurs. Think marabou stork, but much much larger...

  • May 23, 2008. An Eocene parrot: Danish Blue? Matt Kaplan writing for National Geographic News

  • May 21, 2008. A Permian tetrapod that is basal to frogs and salamanders has been found in Texas. Gerobatrachus is a temnospondyl with features of both frogs and salamanders, that is, it is the sister taxon to Batrachia (frogs + salamanders). The other group of living "amphibians", the caecilians, seems to be related to other Paleozoic tetrapods outside temnospondyls. This means that "lissamphibians" are descended from two very distantly related Paleozoic groups, so Lissamphibia is not a monophyletic clade unless it refers to a gigantic set of tetrapods. We can still use the term "lissamphibian" for living amphibians, as long as we recognise that the name covers very distantly related animals. The paper is in Nature, so it won't be freely available on the Web unless one of the authors chooses to make it available on a personal or professional Web site. National Geographic News

  • May 20, 2008. How big was the world's largest rodent? It depends on what assumptions you make... Somewhere between 500 kg and 2500 kg? or somewhere between 350 kg and 1500 kg? If we had more than a skull to work with, the problem would presumably be simplified. But 1000 kg (a ton/tonne) is a good enough guess for now. BBC News OnLine
    Previous stories from January 16, 2008: A one-ton rodent discovered in South America.

  • May 17, 2008. Evo-devo study on bat wings: by altering mouse genes! The prx1 gene in mice and bats is identical. But the REGULATOR of that gene is different. By transplanting the regulator from bat to mouse, they were able to get mice front limbs to grow longer! (The blog explains it better.) Brilliant result. Blog by S. F. Matheson

  • May 15, 2008. The platypus genome. The paper was in Nature.

  • May 15, 2008. Climbing is as easy as walking, if you are a small primate. (If I remember correctly, it's the same for squirrels.) National Geographic News

  • May 13, 2008. Intelligent beings created by God could exist in outer space (says the Vatican!). You can't make up headlines like this! BBC News OnLine

  • May 8, 2008. More information about the people living at Monte Verde, in southern Chile, about 14,000 years ago. The paper is in Science.

  • May 6, 2008. Eoconfuciusornis, a new Cretaceous bird from China. There is a maddening lack of information in this news piece, based on an article in a Chinese journal. National Geographic News

  • May 3, 2008. The Deccan Trap eruptions across the KT boundary were very rapid and therefore had dramatic pulsed environmental effects. The paper is in JGR, and I haven't read it: but here is the abstract. JGR abstract

  • May 2, 2008. The teeth of Paranthropus boisei. They are big and imposing, with thick enamel, and have been interpreted by almost everyone as signs of a diet that included very tough material. BUT microscopic examination of the microwear on well-preserved teeth shows no signs of the characteristic wear marks that should be there. So these individuals were eating foods a lot softer than we thought. One possible explanation (favored by the authors) is that the teeth were adapted for eating tough hard foods, but only in a food crisis. After all, natural selection would reward survival in a crisis: though it means that animals may be selected for something that doesn't reflect their everyday lives. The science reporters are talking about challenges to ideas on evolution, but that's eye-catching nonsense. This phenomenon is quite a common sort of thing, actually: pronghorn antelope are adapted to run very fast, but they only do that once in a while (in an emergency). Of course, this makes you wonder about all sorts of functional interpretations of fossil creatures doing this or that, whereas you'd very likely not catch them at it if you visited them in a time machine. But there's no rule that says observing and interpreting evolutionary patterns has to be easy. The paper is on open access in PLoS One.

  • May 1, 2008. The magical allure of a dinosaur coprolite. BBC News Online

  • May 1, 2008. Cambrian food webs. The paper is freely available on PLoS Biology. There may be a lot of modelling based on not much real data. Elizabeth Pennisi of Science calls it a "daring analysis." Terra Daily

  • April 26, 2008. No wildfire at the K-T boundary. Some of you know that I have blasted this idea in every edition of History of Life. Now some real science, rather than just logic, shows that the wildfire hypothesis is unnecessary. The reference is Harvey, M. C., et al. 2008. Combustion of fossil organic matter at the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-P) boundary. Geology 36: 355-358. But Geology does not put its papers on the Web for general access. The carbon particles at the K-T boundary most likely were produced in the impact from a giant oil field next to the Chicxulub crater, and spread globally in the impact cloud: no fires. All the evidence is explained better by this idea than by the wildfire idea, which becomes redundant. I will keep looking for a Web reference to this paper.

  • April 25, 2008. Praying mantis found in Cretaceous amber from Japan. They should take it to Grenoble (see story from April 4, 2008). National Geographic News

  • April 24, 2008. Human genetics in ancient African populations. The paper is allegedly in the American Journal of Human Genetics (I couldn't find it yesterday). National Geographic News

  • April 21, 2008. Life began near hot vents, says Mike Russell. Warning: this is an in-house interview in NASA's Astrobiology magazine. It's an opinion piece rather than science.

  • April 21, 2008. Very rapid evolution in a small population of lizards on an Adriatic island. The principle of potentially rapid evolution in small populations is well established. This is a neat example. A web comment I read pointed out that some of the changes might be environmentally induced, so that the genetic component might be less than it seems. That seems reasonable, but the genetic component must nevertheless be very high. Nice study. The paper is said to be in PNAS last month, but I don't remember seeing it! National Geographic News

  • April 14, 2008. "Oldest living tree" found in Sweden: estimated at 9,550 years old. Well, it's cheating a bit. Norway spruces apparently can re-sprout from the roots when the old (above-ground) part of the tree dies. So it's a bit of an act of faith that the current tree sprouted from the old radiocarbon roots. If that logic is correct, then creosote bushes in Lucerne Valley in the Mojave desert of Southern California may be as old or older, because they too can propagate from existing roots ( National Park Service. Even so, this is a good story. National Geographic News

  • April 14, 2008. Moeritherium, a proboscidean from the Fayum, was a swamp-dweller. It's always looked like that, from the make-up of the Fayum fossil fauna. But this new isotope research supports the inference. National Geographic News.

  • April 11, 2008. Death of a baby mammoth. National Geographic News

  • April 10, 2008. New smaller estimate for the size of the KT asteroid. I don't believe it. The older estimates were based on size of the Chicxulub crater, and from summing the iridium found in >100 sites. The new estimate is based on much less data, and on less well established assumptions. National Geographic News

  • April 10, 2008. What we don't know about clouds and paleoclimate. This wasn't the intent of the article, but that is what it shows us. If cloud effects can make a large difference in paleoclimate estimates, and we don't understand the processes or the inputs very well, then paleoclimate estimates are still inspired guesses (as they always have been). We're making progress, but we're not there yet! National Geographic News

  • April 10, 2008. Another fine piece of X-ray tomography from the Europeans: a snake with legs. We knew about the snake: the fidelity of the imagery is what's new. BBC News. Previous story on the technique: April 4, 2008

  • April 8, 2008. Very old stone tools found in remote northwest Australia. National Geographic News

  • April 7, 2008. A lung-less frog, for your bizarre adaptations file. National Geographic News

  • April 7, 2008. The chirality in Earth's life came from space, delivered in pre-biotic meteorite impacts.

  • April 4, 2008. Insects in Cretaceous amber revealed in astonishing detail. This is a wonderful breakthrough in studying amber. The imagery is 3-D and astounding in its fidelity. The implications for paleobiology are amazing. Plane-loads of paleontologists are no doubt racing to Grenoble to get in on the action.

  • April 3, 2008. Pre-Clovis human coprolite found in Oregon. I didn't see the paper in this week's Science, because it is in press, not published.

  • April 1, 2008. What killed off the mammoths? Climate change AND humans. The paper is in PLos Biology, which is open-access on the Web, and it looks convincing to me. National Geographic News

  • March 26, 2008. The oldest Homo in Europe. This is from the Atapuerca site in Spain and is probably about a million years old. Let's wait and see how the naming works out: the Spanish think it is Homo antecessor. The BBC site has a useful diagram for keeping track of the incrasingly branched history of Homo species through time. The paper is in Nature, so it won't be freely available on the Web.

  • March 25, 2008. The complex Ediacaran animal Funisia. The paper was in Science last week, and will be freely available on the Web in a few months. Terra Daily

  • March 24, 2008. The oldest vegetarian lizard? from the Cretaceous of Japan. It's a stretch to make this a Significant Breakthrough. There are plenty of vegetarians in the fossil record before this lizard. And why it had to eat angiosperms rather than any other plants is incomprehensible. In fact, THE AUTHORS DON'T SAY THAT: they specifically discuss it and say that angiosperms were too rare to be a stable food source for these lizards, which surely ate gymnosperms instead. All the guff about abominable mysteries and shedding light on angiosperm origins is pure nonsense. The question is where did it come from? It is a reporter trying to make a splash with the story, or it is an author trying to make a splash with the story? Either way, the end result is a bizarrely distorted news report. Whatever else might have happened, it's clear that THE REPORTER DIDN'T READ THE PAPER. National Geographic News

  • March 24, 2008. Permian extinction and toxic gases. Maybe I'm being particularly thick today, but from this story I can't tell what the results of this study are. The paper is in press in Nature Geoscience. I think it says that hydrogen sulfide wasn't the killer gas, and it didn't destroy the ozone layer. It doesn't say that the oceans didn't go anoxic, and it doesn't say that gases didn't set off the extinction (by other pathways).

  • March 18, 2008. Dakota, the mummified duckbill dinosaur. AP story, National Geographic News

  • March 17, 2008. Humans and Neanderthals diverged maybe 300,000 to 400,000 years ago. The paper is in PNAS. The date is a bit more sloppy than that, but that's the most likely window. Two comments. First, there is growing evidence that humans and Neanderthals remained interfertile, so that would affect the result to some extent (it would push it back). Second, the analysis assumes there was no natural selection, only genetic drift. I don't believe that assumption for a millisecond: the question is whether one can blithely ignore it. The answer is that you can blithely ignore it if you want to make a splash in PNAS! And on National Geographic News! National Geographic News

  • March 17, 2008. Ice Age hand axes dredged from the bed of the North Sea.

  • March 12, 2008. Pterosaurs had a life history like dinosaurs. National Geographic News

  • March 11, 2008. Cretaceous feathers in amber. Unfortunately, we don't know what animal they came from: dinosaur? or bird? So I didn't report on them when the news came out last month. However, there's a nice image here. National Geographic News

  • March 6, 2008. New Eocene bats from the Fayum, in Egypt. For the details, which really matter, we shall have to wait for the paper, forthcoming in JVP. National Geographic News

  • March 3, 2008. Earliest North American primate. The new species of Teilhardina dates from the short-lived and dramatically warm period at the end of the Eocene, when sea level dropped, climate warmed, and mammals exchanged across North America and Eurasia through regions that had been too cold for them previously. The paper is said to be in PNAS "this week": it isn't, of course, but it is in press. National Geographic News

  • February 28, 2008. Cannibalism may have wiped out Neanderthals. Bloody nonsense! Even if the premise was true, and that cannibal Neanderthals actually carried kuru or something like it, all it takes is for one population to quit cannibalism, and all will be well. Homo sapiens is only occasionally a cannibal, and there's no reason to suppose that Neanderthals from Central Asia to Gibraltar were all, uniformly, cannibals. And after having said all that, remember that the Fore did not die out from their cannibalism either. Kuru was so slow that mostly older, post-reproductive individuals died from it.

  • February 28, 2008. Kevin Padian on teaching evolution. Short, concise, well-written opinion piece on the problem and its solution. Geotimes, February 2008

  • February 27, 2008. Huge pliosaur found in Spitsbergen. It may or may not be the "sea reptile biggest on record". The length is extrapolated from one flipper, and teeth the size of cucumbers (there's science reporting for you)! Even so, 15 meters is impressive!

  • February 21, 2008. New genetic data on human dispersal. The results are in line with what we already know. But with such a large data set, the results are more firmly established. National Geographic News

  • February 18, 2008. A giant frog from the Late Cretaceous of Madagascar. Once again, the claim is made that it is in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy. Well, as usual, it isn't. I wish they wouldn't do that!!!! [It finally appeared on February 26]. National Geographic News.

  • February 18, 2008. Potentially habitable planets are common (says the headline). Don't forget, this is ENTIRELY speculation. Believe it if you like.... National Geographic News

  • February 15, 2008. Mars has been too salty for life for (at least) 4 billion years. BBC News

  • February 14, 2008. New take on human arrival in the Americas. Briefly, the new reconstruction suggests a long occupation of Beringia before the final migration into the great land mass of North America. The paper is on free access in PLoS One. Terra Daily

  • February 13, 2008. The most basal bat so far found: it flew but did not have echolocation. The paper is in Nature, and is quite convincing; but Nature does not make its papers generally available on the Web. See Carl Zimmer's blog for two great images.

  • February 13, 2008. Two more strange Cretaceous theropods from Africa. The paper is in Acta Palaeontologica Polonica.

  • February 11, 2008. New Cretaceous hadrosaur found in Mexico.

  • February 11, 2008. A new tiny Cretaceous pterosaur from China. The paper is said to be in PNAS today.

  • February 11, 2008. A cyanobacterium that invented chlorophyll d: a molecule that harvests energy from red light that is so close to infra-red that we can't see it. The cyanobacterium is symbiotic with a sea squirt on Australia's Great Barrier Reef, living under the body of the sea squirt. I'll try to find out whether the sea squirt itself is red: many are. This is not paleontology, but it is significant evolutionary biology! Terra Daily

  • February 8, 2008. Crayfish and plate tectonics.

  • February 8, 2008. Life evolved in freezing water. Very good article in Discover magazine reviewing the life-began-in cold water arguments (and evidence). National Geographic News

  • February 1, 2008. The fearsome killing bite of the extinct Australian marsupial Thylacoleo. A study by Stephen Wroe is an advanced analysis that supports previous studies. The paper is in the Journal of Zoology, and it's really convincing!

  • January 31, 2008. Oldest "horseshoe crab" reported, from the late Ordovician of Canada. It is not a limulid, but is the earliest known xiphosuran. (Other, more distantly related, fossils are known from the early Cambrian.) It does underline the "living fossil" nature of the living Limulus. The paper is in Palaeontology. National Geographic News

  • January 24, 2008. New information and speculation on the K-T asteroid. Who knows when we'll see the actual paper.

  • January 23, 2008. A more complete concise statement of the WAIR hypothesis from Ken Dial and colleagues. The paper is in Nature today. I still don't believe it: they are describing a complex and fascinating feature of the flight of extant birds that has nothing to do with the origin of bird flight (unless you use special pleading). But I will postpone full comment until I have read the full paper.