Paleontology in the News, 2009

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, 2009

  • December 23, 2009. Alleged argument for the origin of life in a shallow marine hydrothermal system. Not, perhaps, a "warm little pond", but close. The paper is in Astrobiology, but be warned: it is entirely a laboratory chemistry paper, nothing about any prebiotic environmental setting. That speculation was saved for the press release. Make you wonder: was the speculation caught and rejected by the reviewers, or did the authors always mean to add it to the press release? Moral : if you cannot make a convincing argument for a paper, put it in the press release: you can always blame the journalist! Terra Daily

  • December 21, 2009. The little theropod Sinornithosaurus is said to have had venom, based on evidence from teeth. The paper is said to be published in PNAS, but I can't find it. It was online before print on December 14th.

  • December 17, 2009. Review of Ardipithecus and what it means. Nice article by Pat Shipman, from the January/February edition of American Scientist. American Scientist

  • December 16, 2009. A new exoplanet that seems to be mainly water. Totally strange and interesting but NOT another Earth!! The paper and a commentary are in Nature this week (so won't be generally available on the Web.) Both items are very good. Science News

  • December 15, 2009. The sad story of Nate Murphy, dinosaur hunter and crook. New Scientist

  • December 15, 2009. DO NOT believe anything you see on TV about dinosaurs (or other science topics). A deeply disturbing blog by Matt Wedel.

  • December 14, 2009. The confusing state of research on the Pleistocene megafaunal extinction in North America. Good summary by Charles Choi. Scientific American Website. Previous stories:

  • December 12, 2009. The Triassic marine reptile Placodus, and the whole placodont group. For nearly 40 years I taught that Placodus, with its big flat palatal plates, sieved molluscs from the sea-floor and broke them up, spitting out the sand and shell fragments. Now, it seems, that may be wrong. Placodont reptiles have a set of adaptations much more like those of Cenozoic and living dugong mammals, which eat sea-grasses in today's shallow warm waters. The convergence isn't dramatically close, because dugongs do a lot of food manipulation with a powerful tongue, whereas placodonts did it only with teeth. The new interpretation is backed up by taphonomic and paleoenvironmental data, especially from the German Triassic basin where placodonts were first described. The plants that placodonts ate are not preserved in the clean shallow-water sands where they presumably grew, but they must have been macroalgae because sea-grasses did not evolved until the Cenozoic. The author is Cajus Diedrich and the paper is in press in PPP. I would guess that the old interpretation would fit better the peculiar jaws and teeth of placodonts. The name "Muschelkalk" for the sediments they occur in means "clam limestone": in other words, there is *direct* evidence of lots of meat lying in the surface sediments. Abstract.

  • December 11, 2009. The end-Cretaceous impact did NOT have a big enough heat spike to start global wildfires. What is neat about this new model is that it was co-authored by Jay Melosh, who produced the first, apocalyptic computer model. The new study, with Tamara Goldin, takes into the fact that if you have a jillion little spherules re-entering the atmosphere after an impact, only those on the lower levels radiate heat directly to the Earth: those above are shielded by the lower ones and radiate mainly upward to space. The new model fits well with the data over the past ten years or so, which says that there simply isn't the charcoal in the impact stratigraphy that would have been left by global wildfires. So the heat shock was relatively muted: that doesn't mean it wasn't significant. It certainly was not THE killer. I suspect that the heat shock now calculated is less than that to big old trees in a forest fire: redwoods, eucalypts, and so on, which survive because they are fire-adapted. But I'd have to look it up. The paper is in the December Geology, so is not freely available on the Web. It is accompanied by a comment by Claire Belcher, who gracefully refrains from writing, "Nyah nyah! Told you so!" Science News (stupid title!).

  • December 10, 2009. The end of the "Irish elk". I reported this nearly a month ago, but have now read the paper. The authors analysed 14 teeth from 7 animals, and did all kinds of isotope and tooth microstructure studies. These data were supposed to tell them what happened to cause the extinction of the "elk". But since they do not know the geological age of the animals they sampled, they do not know whether they were sampling "good times" elk or "bad times" elk. So I do not understand how they can say worthwhile at all about the problem, and I think this is a worthless paper. It is in press in Palaeoecology.... (PPP). BBC News

  • December 10, 2009. A new Late Triassic theropod from New Mexico clears up the early evolution of theropods. This is Tawa hallae, a small, perhaps sub-adult dinosaur. It's important because it changes the current cladograms of early dinosaurs. The characters of Tawa suggest that the two slightly older iconic genera from Argentina, Eoraptor and Herrerasaurus, are genuine theropods, not basal forms off the main line of theropod origins. Tawa also shows that the group "coelophysoids" is not a clade but a group of basal theropods that are still to be sorted out. But as Kevin Padian and others have noted in a dinosaur chat site, our understanding will change again when the next good specimen turns up. Many of our colleagues forget that a cladogram is a hypothesis! The paper is in Science, so will become generally available sometime next year.

  • November 25, 2009. The international trade in stolen fossils. Like many other crime industries of this type, it's the willingness of the buyers that makes it possible. It is a very real problem. Thanks to Dan Chure for the link. New Zealand Herald

  • November 20, 2009. Paul Sereno and colleagues describe a diverse set of crocodilian fossils from the Cretaceous of Africa. It is, of course, pure coincidence that the publication came out only days before a TV special on the National Geographic Channel. "Blending art, forensics and biology, Sereno's team recreates a lost world of strange Cretaceous crocs that paleontology forgot." All the different genera have cute nicknames so that paleontologists with the social development of 10-year-olds can keep track of them. The paper is in Zookeys.

  • November 20, 2009. Giraffes have a specialised cardiovascular adaptation to supply blood to their brains. Sauropods? We may never be able to tell. BBC News

  • November 16, 2009. A prehistoric goat isolated on the Spanish island of Majorca seems to have had a very strange, low-budget physiology. The conclusion is based on bone histology. The paper is on-line at PNAS. It's very convincing, assuming the authors did their bone histology correctly. The concept of slow growth and small size in isolated mammal populations on Mediterranean islands is not new (dwarf elephants and hippos, etc.), but a link to very low metabolic rate is a new idea. Mammals, of course, can tune down their metabolic rates seasonally (hibernation, estivation) or even overnight (torpor in bats), though it may be a stretch to call these goats "lizard-like". In fact, even this piece suggests that the low-metabolic periods were seasonal or crisis-mediated. There is NO rule that says low-metabolic periods give tiny babies (hibernating bears, for example, have "ordinary"-sized young). One intriguing suggestion by the authors is that we should look at other dwarf mammals on Mediterranean islands to see whether the same story can be demonstrated on hippos, elephants, etc. Or is one goat on one island the only example of such extreme physiological evolution? National Geographic News

  • November 16, 2009. Life in the oceans of Europa, Jupiter's frozen Moon??? First, this piece is just about a talk at a meeting, and talk is cheap. Second, once you read it, you see how it is simply a pile of speculation, with no facts at all. Frankly, I'm disappointed with Greenberg and Pappalardo, who are first-rate scientists when they do real experiments in real laboratories with real chemicals. National Geographic News

  • November 12, 2009. More analysis showing that early theropods were endothermic. The paper is open access in PLoS.

  • November 11, 2009. A new dinosaur from South Africa shows how an early sauropod still has legacies of its bipedal ancestry. The new fossil Aardonyx is too late in time to be the first quadrupedal sauropod, but it is useful for putting together informed hypotheses about how that transition took place. The paper is in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B

  • November 9, 2009. Large changes in the bones of the skull mean that young pachycephalosaurs may not look like adults. This means, among other things, that the pachycephalosaur "genera" Stygimoloch and Dracorex are actually young individuals of the standard of Pachycephalosaurus. The paper is in PLoS One, so is open-access.

  • November 4, 2009. An early relative of Tyrannosaurus has been identified from the Middle Jurassic. CT scanning of the skull of Proceratosaurus, from England, shows the relationship. The paper is in press in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society. BBC News

  • October 31, 2009. The oldest fossilized spider web, from the Cretaceous of England. BBC News

  • October 28, 2009. Algeripithecus, from the Eocene of North Africa, is now seen as a lemur/loris relative, not a monkey/ape relative. This opens up the possibility that early primate evolution was centered more in Asia than Africa. The paper is in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, and I haven't seen it yet. National Geographic News

  • October 27, 2009. Huge pliosaur skull found in southern England. BBC News

  • October 26, 2009. Another paper casting serious doubt on the supposed impact at the end of the Younger Dryas that allegedly killed off the North American megafauna, and maybe the Clovis culture too. The criticism is understated but savage. They looked at some of the same sites, and others, and simply could not find any significant evidence of impact debris at the right stratigraphic level. The paper is online at Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, not freely available on the Web.