Paleontology in the News, 2010
This is a selection of stories, subject to the following rules. First, I don't guarantee close daily coverage of everything that happens (because I have things to do apart from maintaining this Web page). Second, the site has to be generally accessible. (Many journals, like Science and Nature, make new papers accessible only to people or institutions who have paid a subscription to the written version.) Third, I choose newspapers and news sites that tend to keep their pages accessible for more than two weeks over those that do not. Fourth, I keep older articles archived for varying lengths of time, depending how important I think they are (or interesting, at least); whether they have been updated or made redundant; and whether the site has dropped them.
Similar pages on my web site are
and Here is a site for Anthropology in the News from Texas A & M.
Paleontology in the News, 2010
December 30, 2010. A new marine crocodile from the Jurassic of Italy. National Geographic News
December 22, 2010. Optical illusions built into Paleolithic art? I'd be sorry if this hypothesis turns out to be wrong: it's such a great idea by the author, and a wonderful suggestion about Paleolithic artists. National Geographic News
December 22, 2010. A new lineage of early humans, alongside "moderns" and Neanderthals. These are the Denisovans, known from a cave in Siberia. This is a major discovery, only possible because DNA could be extracted from a Denisovan bone. The paper is in Nature.
December 22, 2010. Several lineages of theropods became vegetarian. The paper is in press at PNAS. Terra Daily
December 21, 2010. A Neanderthal family group from El Sidron, Spain, killed and eaten by other Neanderthals. John Hawks comments on a paper that is in press at PNAS. John Hawks blog
December 21, 2010. Many gene families may date back to a burst of genetic innovation around 3 billion years ago. Well, that's the claim, and it's certainly possible. I wonder how they calibrated it, given that it's based on gene analyses made on *living* organisms. The paper is said to be online at Nature, and I'll modify this entry when I read it. Terra Daily
December 21, 2010. A Neanderthal family killed and eaten by other Neanderthals. The discovery was made in Spain, and the paper is in press at PNAS. BBC News
December 15, 2010. Life during a Precambrian glaciation. The headline says this paper shows how life survived Snowball Earth. In fact, it has been clear for several years that there was no late Precambrian "snowball earth", and that what we had was a Slushball Earth. The new paper significantly improves the documentation of Slushball Earth: it is in Geology. BBC News
December 14, 2010. "The Day The Algae Died". I read this, trying to find some science in it. There is none. It's a puff piece about some research that NASA money is going to fund. It's not just that they don't have any results yet, they haven't done any research yet!!! NASA's record of science by press release reaches a new low. Terra Daily
December 14, 2010. Humans arriving in New Zealand - the Maori about 800 years ago, and the British about 150 years ago, radically altered the native vegetation by fire. The paper is in PNAS. Terra Daily
December 11, 2010. A bacterium that can use arsenic instead of phosphate (if it has to). Science journalists were fed juicy quotes that the scientists were unwilling to put in the paper. When I hear a scientist saying how humble she is in the face of her brilliant discovery, I reach for my book of great quotes. Winston Churchill, describing a political rival: "A humble little man, wth much to be humble about."
Here's what the paper actually says. A bacterial community lives on the floor of Mono Lake in arsenic-rich sediments (the lake chemistry is really weird). Culture a spoonful of those bacteria in the lab. Pick out one colony, artificially decrease its phosphate supply, and give it arsenate instead. Those bacteria don't grow half as quickly, and they place arsenic in biochemical positions where phosphorus used to be (the elements are close in properties). But they do survive and they do grow, even with arsenic in their DNA where phosphprus used to be. That is extraordinary, and was only found because the members of the team had predicted it, and looked for it.
BUT these were ordinary bacteria until they were force-fed arsenic, and they would surely replace their arsenic-laden molecules if provided with a new phosphate supply (for some reason, the team did not do that experiment).
It's perfectly possible that the biochemical tolerance of arsenic evolved long ago because of occasional phosphorus starvation in the muds of Mono Lake. In fact, I hereby predict that the same sort of biology will be found in many other "toxic" environments if NASA would fund the $$$ to finance such a search. This is NOT the "shadow biosphere" that seems to be the new mystical catch phrase. This is not a "second Genesis", a phrase that I have also seen. This has no relevance to searching for life elsewhere, because, again, these are Earth bacteria with Earth DNA that have evolved a specific, and desperate, reaction to arsenic poisoning.
In summary, this paper describes an extraordinary tolerance mechanism, but not a new kind of alien life. The paper is in press in Science. Wired.com
ADDENDA. Dr. Rosie Redfield has written a blog that contains lethal objections to the paper. If the objections are valid, then the evidence presented by the authors does not support their extravagant claims. The blog is being revised and polished continuously to take into account relevant comments. Wait and see....
Rrresearch blog by Rosie Redfield, version as of December 4, 2010
And here is a different but equally devastating critique: Guest blog by Dr. Alex Bradley, December 5, 2010.
And here is an informal poll of major scientists on the paper, taken by Carl Zimmer for Slate magazine: Slate magazine, December 7, 2010.
And here is an overview of an eventful week: Ed Yong's blog in Discover, December 11, 2010.
December 8, 2010. It's too simplistic to say that crocodiles are living fossils. This is documented in a new SVP Memoir. BBC News
December 7, 2010, Giant fossil marabou stork found on the island of Flores. The paper is in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society. BBC News
December 6, 2010. Unique preservation of fossils in the Ordovician Soom Shale Lagerstätte in South Africa. The paper is in Geology.
December 3, 2010. The diets of giant ground sloths. Blog essay by Brian Switek. Laelaps blog on Wired.com
November 30, 2010, The collapse of rain forests in the late Carboniferous seems to have triggered a radiation in the early reptiles. There is a persuasive paper in Geology. BBC News
November 28, 2010. Review article about Thylacosmilus, the saber-toothed marsupial from South America. The excuse for writing it is the new paper (see item below), but Switek's essay is actually a stand-alone fine piece of science writing. Brian Switek's Laelaps blog
November 24, 2010. The diversity of marsupial carnivores: a new analysis and review. The paper is in the proceedings of the Royal Society B. BBC News
November 23, 2010. Early wild speculation about Smilodon. Of course, modern paleontologists never speculate wildly :-) Brian Switek's Laelaps blog
November 18, 2010. Reconsideration of the life style of giant pterosaurs. The all flew well, and their mass estimates should usually be scaled down from some extreme cases. The paper in in PLoS, so you can all read it! The paper
November 18, 2010. The cave lion and the scimitar-toothed cat. A wonderful story of paleontological inference from Brian Switek's blog. Laelaps blog site
November 18, 2010. A mysterious, primitive-looking green alga is found growing in very dim light. It may be a "living fossil" from a group of very early algae. The paper is in the Journal of Phycology. BBC News
November 12, 2010. The oldest dinosaur embryos (early Jurassic). They are also the oldest land vertebrate embryos. The dinosaur is Massospondylus, an early prosauropod, from South Africa. The paper is in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, but our copy has not arrived yet. BBC News, with stunning images!
November 9, 2010. Human and Neanderthal brains developed very differently during the first year of life. Finally, this may be the defining character that clearly differentiates the two species. The paper is in Current Biology, but I haven't read it yet. Science Daily press release
November 8, 2010. Polar bear evolution. Polar bears evolved from normal brown bears less than a million years ago. But they evolved very quickly into a semi-aquatic and purely carnivorous ecology. The skull became low and flat, and because they feed mostly on young blubber-rich seals, the molars weakened, and the bones of the skull became weaker too. Now that polar bears are in trouble associated with global warming, they may find that their very successful specialization will now be harmful to them.
November 5, 2010. Liverworts and fungi. Experiments on living liverworts show that they grow much better in association with symbiotic soil fungi. Liverworts are the oldest land plants in the fossil record. So I guess we are invited to infer (without direct evidence) that the invasion of the land by green plants was aided by a fungal symbiosis. I still have to read the paper, which is in Nature Communications. Terra Daily
November 4, 2010. The jaws of Anomalocaris were so weak that they may have had an exclusive diet of worms. So says Whitey Hagadorn in a presentation to the annual meeting of GSA. Remember, this is not yet a paper, so we can't properly evaluate the interpretation. Anomalocaris is NOT an "ancient shrimp"!!!
November 3, 2010. A new early sauropod from China. This is a very important fossil, because it is a more-or-less complete skull, unique for an early sauropod. It is being called Yizhousaurus, though it has not yet been formally named according to international rules. One hopes that a real paper will appear quickly.
November 3, 2010. "A potential landing site for NASA's next rover could be a fossil hotbed." Who writes this stuff? Read this, and count the numbers of "if", "model", "could be", "may be", "might have", "hints", "possible", and other weasel words. The paper is said to be in Icarus. National Geographic News
November 2, 2010. New species of Pliocene dolphin described from sediments on the North Sea floor. Looks like a sonar specialist! Brian Switek on Laelaps blog site
October 31, 2010. Phosphorus and the metazoan radiation in the Ediacaran and Cambrian. A mess of a news item. The paper goes like this. You can guestimate phosphorus levels in ancient oceans by looking at iron-bearing minerals deposited at the time (with filtering for "good" samples, and some assumptions). This suggests that phosphorus levels jumped to uniquely high levels after the "snowball Earth" glaciations. At the same time, metazoans radiated dramatically after the glaciations. AHA! say the authors. The glaciations eroded the continents savagely, phosphorus is a nutrient, so after the glaciations there was lots of energy, lots of photosynthesis, lots of burial of organic matter, ots of oxygen freed, and all that allowed metazoans to increase in size, numbers, and diversity. We already a lot some of this. What was missing was a decent proxy for phosphorus levels in the ocean. The paper is in Nature, but only the abstract is freely available.
October 29, 2010. Evidence of pressure-flaking is reported from the edges of a stone axe dating to 75,000 years ago. The previous oldest evidence was 20,000 years ago. The discovery is on tools at Blombos Cave, in South Africa. Now archaeologists will have to re-examine tools all through the intervening time, to see where that ancient technology went! The paper is in Science. Wired.com
October 29, 2010. Mitochondria as essential to the later evolution of complex life (maybe). The paper was in Nature last week. It's a hypothesis. It's interesting that a symbiosis between two different cells should be necessary for complex life: that also does not bode well for the chances of extra-terrestrial aliens... Space Daily
October 29, 2010. Another optimistic forecast of finding "Earth-like" planets and extraterrestrial life. A team has estimated, apparently in Science, that one in four stars like ours could have Earth-sized planets. At least, that's what the first sentence of the first news story says. But, later on we read that the scientific head of the team says that the estimate is currently impossible to back up using existing data. The second news story is better written, and I'm happy to accept that there are a lot of small rocky planets out there. That is a long way from saying that they are "Earth-like".
October 27, 2010. New fossils from North Africa are said to show that anthropoids evolved first in Asia, then migrated to Africa where they radiated. There seem to be problems with the dates, but that will be cleared up eventually. The paper is in Nature this week.
October 27, 2010. A modern-looking human from a Chinese cave around 100,000 years ago. This seems to contradict the current thought that modern humans did not leave Africa until about 60,000 years ago. There are several ways in which the story could be re-written, if this holds up to scrutiny. John Hawks is cautious about the "modern human" identification, for example. First and most essential, we need more Chinese fossils: we have a piece of the lower jaw (the chin), and a couple of teeth so far. The paper is in press in PNAS.
October 26, 2010. Eocene amber from India, rich in beautiful fossils. The paper is said to be in PNAS. Wired Science
October 20, 2010. How early horses ran. The paper is in the Journal of Mammalian Evolution. Brian Switek on his Laelaps blog site, Wired Science
October 18, 2010. Interpreting marks on bones: made by tools, or teeth? It's an important question for interpreting early humans. Excellent discussion by Pat Shipman. American Scientist, November/December issue 2010.
October 18, 2010. Tyrannosaurus rex was at least an occasional cannibal. This has been demonstrated by Nick Longrich and colleagues. The paper is open access at PLoSOne.
October 12, 2010. Earliest land plants : spores of liverwort ancestors, from the early Ordovician in Argentina. The paper is in New Phytologist.
October 9, 2010. "Ingredients of life" on Titan Maybe, but that's not the same as "life". Ingredients for life are found in meteorites as well. But life needs cell walls and fluid to contain its life-support chemicals and chemical reactions. And that doesn't happen without liquid water. I've no doubt that the experiments that simulate Titan's atmosphere produce "ingredients for life". But that's the end of the story. Period. Life could not have begun "in the sky", especially not Titan's "sky". (And, by the way, Ron Cowen is no relation of mine.) Wired Science
October 8, 2010. Trying to work out the posture and gait of Triassic archosaurs. Nice summary of the state of the art by Brian Switek, Laelaps blog site. Based on a paper by Padian and colleagues in Palaeontology. Wired.com
October 9, 2010. A new little theropod from China. People's Daily OnLine
October 8, 2010. The Pleistocene megafauna of Australia. Article in National Geographic Magazine, October 2010, with Photogallery. Related story: New dates suggest more strongly than ever that the Oz megafaunal extinction was related in time to the arrival of humans. Whether the proximate mechanism was hunting or fire remains to be discussed. The paper was in Science recently. Press release, Adelaide University, February 2010
October 6, 2010. Sarahsaurus. Strangely constructed news items about this new dinosaur. The paper is in press in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Here's what the paper really says. Sarahsaurus is a stem sauropodomorph. It adds to data that show dinosaurs immigrating to North America from elsewhere in the late Triassic and early Jurassic. They perhaps took advantage of the geographical changes associated with the gigantic Central Atlantic eruptions at the end of the Triassic. Claims that dinosaurs were fairly uniform world-wide, and became more provincial in the later Jurassic and Cretaceous were based on incomplete data, and should be abandoned. This is a really nice paper for what it says. BUT there is NOTHING in the paper about the hands of Sarahsaurus, nor is there any speculation about its diet! This is once again assertion and speculation, by way of two science journalists, of material that you dare not put in your paper. I don't see how the two journalists could write what they did if they had read the paper.
October 5, 2010. Dinosaur-like footprints found in early Triassic rocks in Poland. No skeleton, but this implies that the rise of dinosaurs may be somehow related to the Permo-Triassic mass extinction. The paper is in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, and I haven't read it yet.
October 1, 2010. Was Microraptor a four-winged glider? There was a discussion in PNAS recently, but this blog summarizes the arguments fairly. I'd only add that given any kind of preference for the simplest hypothesis as opposed to a more complex one, my take would be that Microraptor has to be shown to be four-winged before that suggestion can be considered the preferred one. That hasn't happened yet. Brian Switek's blog on Wired.com
September 30, 2010. Another "Earth-like" exoplanet. This one is a planet of Gliese 581. Three to four times Earth's mass, a 37-day orbit that means it's very close to its cool star, and it has one side that is permanently fried and another side that is permanently frozen. If that's the best they can do..... In addition to that, "habitable" is a flexible concept. The Moon is in the "habitable zone" of our Solar System but is completely uninhabitable. Venus would be habitable except for its enormous greenhouse atmosphere. The new planet is in the "habitable zone" as long as you assume it has an Earth-like greenhouse atmosphere. But without knowing its geology, one can't really tell.
September 30, 2010. Quick update on research about the formation of the Panama land bridge. BBC News feature
September 29, 2010. Increased Devonian oxygen levels fuelled such competition in the sea that it drove some animals on to land. Beware!!! thats what the news headline says, but it is NOT in the actual paper. But then maybe the reporter didn't read the actual paper! I don't believe the suggestion anyway: those first tetrapods weren't just scaredy-poo refugees. I do think that extra oxygen in the atmosphere would have encouraged (pre-tetrapod) fishes that used air breathing. The paper is in press at PNAS. It is a very good paper, giving evidence about oxygen levels from real indicators, not from geochemical computer models. It's open access, so you can read it.
September 22, 2010. Hypercarnivorous marine Mesozoic crocodiles from the Cretaceous. The paper is said to be in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, but it hasn't reached my university yet.
September 22, 2010. Did volcanoes kill off Neanderthals? No. The story here is that eruptions in Italy and in the Caucasus killed off the Neanderthals about 40,000 years ago. The story further says that it would have killed off modern humans too, but they were spread world-wide, so survivors outside the volcanic zone could have then moved in. It's extremely unlikely. For one thing, Neanderthals were firmly entrenched in areas where volcanic ash would not have fallen or blown: Spain, France, Belgium. The problem is that this news story is based on a paper which has not been published yet. When it is, it will be in Current Anthropology. I hope, without much optimism, that the manuscript was reviewed by volcanologists familiar with large eruptions. When there's something more to report, I'll update this item. National Geographic News
September 22, 2010. Ceratopsians from the American Southwest: a local radiation. New exploration in recent years in southern Utah has found a new dinosaur fauna. This paper looks at the ceratopsians. Ceratopsians evolved and radiated in a mini-continent now called Lauramidia. It was separated from the rest of the northern continent Laurasia for about 25 million years. The newly described dinosaurs from Utah are part of a southern fauna within Lauramidia, separate from a northern fauna in Montana and Alberta. Apart from that, the new Utah ceratopsians have dramatically ornate horns!
September 21, 2010. Early stages of the origin of life in cold environments. This idea has been gaining momentum for several years, because complex organic molecules tend to break down in hot environments. But it's always good to have new confirmation. I have one quibble: life is extraordinarily unlikely to form in ice: you need at least some liquid water around too‹esecially if that life is to evolve more complexity. So the author's comments to the reporter about looking for extraterrestrial life in icy planets or moons or asteroids, etc., is too simplistic. What this research deals with is pre-biotic chemistry: the formation of the components. The origin of cells came inside membranes, not cracks between ice. The paper is in Nature Communications. Wired Science
September 21, 2010. Big new find of familiar Pleistocene fossils in the Los Angeles area. Los Angeles Times
September 17, 2010. The 70th anniversary of the discovery of the painted caves at Lascaux. National Geographic blog
September 17, 2010. Fire aided the spread of the early flowering plants. Angiosperms have a built-in advantage over other groups of higher plants in being able to colonise open space quickly. It's an old suggestion that early angiosperms may have been aided by storms toppling trees and opening clearings in the forest. But the fire idea is new, and much more testable because fire leaves traces in soils and sediments, and is much more pervasive an ecological disturber than the occasional storm. I look forward to reading the paper, which is in The New Phytologist. BBC News
September 16, 2010. A new giant fossil seabird, Pelagornis chilensis, from the Miocene of Chile. The paper is said to be in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
September 16, 2010. How early land plants may have absorbed nutrients. Extrapolation from living plants, but we do that all the time in paleontology. The paper is in the American Journal of Botany. Terra Daily
September 9, 2010. A visit to the Stone Age caves of Niaux, in France. (Blog.) National Geographic
September 8, 2010. A new theropod dinosaur, Concavenator from the Cretaceous of Spain: it has a "hump" over its hips and has traces of feather attachment on its arms. It is a relatively "basal" theropod, so the feather attachment were unexpected. The paper is in tomorrow's Nature. BBC News
September 6, 2010. Yet again: Red Planet may not be lifeless!!! Rubbish. This research was done in the Atacama Desert of Chile. What that has to do with Mars is at the end of a long string of assumptions. And once again, when will science journalists (and scientists, too, for that matter) get it into their heads that the phrase "organic compounds" does not imply life? BBC News
September 2, 2010. John Alroy's epiphany on the history of different groups of organisms. The paper is in Science this week. Wired.com Guess what? Different groups of organisms have different histories!! And if there's a mass extinction, the survivors of a badly hit group may have a different evolutionary course than the original members did!! I like this because people who count taxa have tended recently to downplay, or underestimate, or simply ignore, the fundamental importance of one particular body plan or way of life versus another (let me use the forbidden phrase "functional morphology"). The founding taxon counter, Jack Sepkoski, saw this importance because he looked for it. While he analyzed diversity in time in the marine record, he also recognized that "inarticulate" brachiopods in the "Cambrian Fauna" had a different trajectory than "articulate brachiopods" in the Paleozoic Fauna; and that trilobites in the "Cambrian Fauna" had a different trajectory than crustaceans in the "Modern Fauna". As I pointed out in History of Life in 1990, he could also have pointed to the different history of "Paleozoic" crinoids and corals versus their "Modern" counterparts. And in each of these cases, there are functional and ecological differences too. Charles Thayer pointed out the effect of strong burrowers as agents of functional change on soft sea-floors. Sepkoski's successors stopped worrying about function altogether and concentrated on worrying about numbers of taxa in time and space, and biases of the record. The problem was that Steve Gould had essentially shut off "functional" study of fossil invertebrates with his idiotic "Just So Stories" calumny. Vertebrate folks cheerfully continued to extend our understanding of the functional paleobiology of extinct vertebrates on land, in the sea, and in the air, but invertebrate paleontology changed dramatically. Thirty years later, perhaps we can look forward to a new understanding of marine ecosystems, emphasizing their function as well as their diversity!
September 1, 2010. A Stone Age funeral feast site in Northern Israel: tortoise and wild cattle on the menu... The paper is in press at PNAS. BBC News
August 31, 2010. The dromaeosaur Balaur from the late Cretaceous of Transylvania, in Romania. It has two big slashing claws on each foot, compared with the usual one. To its credit, the BBC posts an image of the feet, not an artist's rendition of them. There is no skull, but it is clear this dinosaur was closely related to Velociraptor. It lived on a Cretaceous island with an unusual fauna, and is part of a new insight into the wonderful evolutionary events that can happen on isolated isands. The paper is in press in PNAS.
August 31, 2010. There is now NO evidence that there was an impact at the Younger Dryas that killed off the North Ameircan megafauna and changed the climate. All the impact indicators that were claimed to be present have been falsified. The newest paper is in press in PNAS. BBC News.
Previous stories: The first item here is a re-analysis of the carbon spherules that have been cited as evidence for an impact. They are not: they are carbon particles from wildfires, and not just from one single catastrophic wildfire either. For the second one: Sid Perkins is an excellent reporter for Science News, so my incredulity is not directed toward him but toward Adrian Mellott, who has (in my view) a history of dubious (non-scientific) claims. The paper, in Geology, calls for a cometary impact to set off the Younger Dryas. It's clear now that the impact postulated by Firestone et al. a few years back did not happen, so this paper (which piles assumption on assertion and assumption) provides an hypothesis we don't need for an event that did not happen. For the third one, another excellent reporter, Jeff Hecht for New Scientist, writes a very sane critique of yet another comet-impact story: again, one we don't need. And then see the last item, a blog for Discovery, by Michael Reilly, who is called a "geologist/reporter". The title says, "COMET THAT KILLED MAMMOTHS COULD STRIKE AGAIN", and it's labelled "analysis". The title presupposes that a comet killed mammoths, which is an enormous supposition to build an "analysis" on!!! Discovery's understanding of the word "reporter" needs revision!!
August 30, 2010. A new facies of the Burgess Shale is discovered along strike, away from the underwater cliff that was part of the setting of the original Burgess find. There is less diversity (so far), and the paleoecology (so far) is subtly different. Very nice study, with more to come as the new area is explored further. The paper is in Geology, the usual 4-page short essay. Wired Science
August 27, 2010. A second meteorite impact at the KT boundary? The crater is in the Ukraine. The paper is in Geology, and I'll amend as necessary after I've read it. BBC News
August 26, 2010. The "oldest arrows" (or their stone points at least) are described from a South African site dated about 100 ka. The paper is said to be in Antiquity. BBC News
August 25, 2010. The Great Oxidation Event revisited. This is a really nice paper in Nature Geoscience. It documents substantial production of oxygen surface waters at 2.5 to 2.6 Ga, enough to diffuse downwards into shallow water, but not to oxygenate the deep sea or the atmosphere in sufficient volume to be easily setectable. Therefore the Great Oxidation Event is 2.45 Ga or so. Given this, it seems increasingly likely to me that there were indeed small oxygen "oases" long before this, in which significant microbial action could have occurred "under the radar". These are called stromatolites! I hasten to add that this latter is my own (eminently reasonable) speculation: the authors of the paper properly confine themselves to data and inference from rock sequences they have studied. Terra Daily
August 23, 2010. Paleontologists take their fossils wherever they can find them: this time in a Canadian sewer... BBC News
August 23, 2010. The amazing life of Marie Stopes, who among other contributions to Western society made a huge contribution to paleobotany. BBC News feature
August 20, 2010. A new form of chlorophyll can absorb infrared light. It was discovered in macerated stromatolite goop from Shark Bay. This doesn't mean that Precambrian cyanobacteria had the compound: it moght have been evolved in cyanobacteria more recently, or in fact, it might not even be from a cyanobacterium. There is a paper in press in Science (their Science Express page). It is very short, and concentrates on the chromatography that led to the discovery of chlorophyll f, an infrared absorber. The paper is shoddy science in the sense that the authors don't reference their predecessors in the real world. We already knew that there must be chlorophyll that absorbs in the infra-red: here are just three examples. Nisbet et al. suggested 15 years ago (Nisbet et al. in Nature, February 9, 1995) that thermosynthesis of this kind might occur (Science News. In 1998 a cyanobacterium with chlorophyll living in total darkness at a sea-floor vent was discovered (abstract of Turkov and Beatty 1998. In 2005 green sulfur bacteria were reported that have chlorophyll in totally dark deep water (abstract of Beatty et al. 2005). So in fact the new paper identifies the chemistry of "infrared chlorophyll" and documents it in shallow water. It would have been much better to have laid all that out to give the scientific context as well as to give credit where it is due.
August 18, 2010. Andalgalornis, a phorusrhacid from South America, and its fearsome beak. The paper is in PLoSOne, the open-access journal.
August 18, 2010. Argument over proposed sponge-like "fossils" from the late Precambrian. The paper is in press in Nature Geoscience.
August 18, 2010. Career choices from the Stone Age. (Thanks to John Hawks' blog for the link.) MSNBC
August 17, 2010. A mosasaur with flukes on its tail. You get this from a lucky find with exceptional preservation, but it shows an exciting convergence with ichthyosaurs and whales. The paper is in PLoS, and I'll soon add that URL for its open access. Terra Daily
August 17, 2010. Meiolania, an extinct tortoise known best from Lord Howe Island near Australia, survived until much more recently in the islands of Vanuatu. They were wiped out quickly about 1000 BC by the arrival of humans belonging to the Lapita culture. The paper is "in press" in PNAS. Wired Science
August 17, 2010. The problems of cloning in more-or-less geological time: the particular case study is for aspen groves. The paper is in PLoS, so I'll add the open-access URL soon. Wired Science
August 12, 2010. Mica World: a stage in the evolution of life? Perhaps significantly, the paper is not in a journal for experimental protochemistry, or for Precambrian geology: it's in the Journal of Theoretical Biology. Terra Daily
August 11, 2010. Some tantalising evidence that Australopithecus afarensis ("Lucy"'s species) was using tools more than 3 million years ago. The paper is in Nature this week.
August 10, 2010. Drakozoon, a Silurian blob reconstructed from the cavity it left behind. The paper is in Biology Letters, but I haven't read it yet. Terra Daily
August 6, 2010. Neanderthal bedroom found in a Spanish cave. The paper is in the Journal of Archaeological Science. Discovery
August 4, 2010. A small Cretaceous crocodile from Gondwana had "mammal-like" teeth. Quite a trick for an archosaurian reptile! The paper is in Nature this week.
August 4, 2010. Valley of the whales. A National Geographic article on the Eocene deposits of the Fayum that have yielded ancestral whales.
August 3, 2010. Why many male spiders are much smaller than females. The paper is in BMC Evolutionary Biology
July 30, 2010. The ancestor of donkeys: apparently a wild ass in the Sahara, 5000 years ago. The paper is in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Terra Daily
July 30, 2010. The evolution of the neck, and its importance. This is about an evolutionary chenge in the way that the nervous system changes along with the limbs as fishes evolve into tetrapods. The paper is in Nature Communications. Terra Daily
July 30, 2010. Bizarre story about a fossil whale and Egyptian customs officers. You try to work out the motives here.... BBC News
July 29, 2010. Whipping up more furor about the possibility of life on ancient Mars. Some rocks on Mars look from a satellite survey very much like those of the Pilbara Craton in Western Australia, which is about 3.5 billion years old. So far, so good. The Pilbara Craton has stromatolites, trace fossils of ancient microbial life. Then we come to the speculation: what if the Martian region has stromatolites? (We haven't seen them: in fact we can't see them.) Then the hypothetical stromatolites would be evidence of life on ancient Mars. On the basis of this flimsy pseudo-logic, proponents are pushing for NASA to risk a multimillion dollar lander to make a difficult landing in that area. The mind boggles. There isa paper in Earth and Planetary Science Letters making the argument for rock similarity. Of course, it does not contain the wishful thinking attributed to the researchers in the news report! The reporter certainly attributes the wishful thinking to the researchers. They should be ashamed of themselves! BBC News
July 29, 2010. The largest rat that ever lived. The Indonesian islands had a rodent radiation that produced, among others, a 6-kilogram (13-pound) rat on the island of Timor that survived until about 1000 years ago. Terra Daily
July 27, 2010. New genetic evidence supports the arrival and radiation of Australian marsupials from a single invasion from South America. This is not a new idea, but the new evidence adds confirmation from a new type of genetic analysis (of retroposons, or "jumping genes").
July 27, 2010. The "primitive" jellyfish eye is formed by the same gene family that forms eyes elsewhere in the animal world. That implies that the genes for vision were evolved very early in metazoan history. The paper is in press at PNAS, apparently. Wired Science
July 22, 1010. New specimen of a small extinct Pleistocene monkey from the Caribbean. The paper is in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. BBC News
July 19, 2010. Another brilliant find from the World Heritage site at Riversleigh, in Queensland: a set of fossils from a marsupial species at all stages from newborns to adults. The paper is in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
July 15, 2010. A "primordial" sperm gene is found in animals from cnidarians to vertebrates. Great piece of genetics, and a well-written paper. Of course, the message is more nuanced than the reporter had room to describe. But it seems to me that' there are further questions. Did anyone check sponges? (Yes, they did, and a DRAFT sponge genome seems to lack this gene -- but it's only a draft.) The paper is in PLoS Genetics and is open access (URL to be posted here). Wired Science
July 14, 2010. Torosaurus is simply a old Triceratops, with a bigger horn and frill system. The paper is in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. Press release
July 14, 2010. Saadanius, a fossil primate skull from the Oligocene of Saudi Arabia. It is a catarrhine from just before the split between monkeys and apes (28-29 Ma. The paper is in Nature. Wired Science
July 13, 2010. Another paper about clockwork extinctions every 27 million years. This kind of result has been turning up in analyses for decades, and previous explanations included the notorious Death Star "Nemesis". The new paper (not cited in this news reports) seems to come up with the old 27 m.y. cycle, but without explanation. That's probably because it's an artefact of the data base, and I would bet (without seeing it) that the new study uses Fourier analysis. Fourier analysis will give you a periodicity of some sort in ANY set of data. I've already argued this privately with Muller, the Nemesis proponent. The new study by Mellott and Bambach is described here: Wired Science
July 12, 2010. Scientifically illiterate story about dinosaur finds in Thailand. New York Times
July 8, 2010. Mojoceratops is a new ceratopsian with a beautiful skull. The paper is in the Journal of Paleontology. Terra Daily
July 1, 2010. The mountain adaptation of the Tibetans. The dates may not be good - i.e. this may not be the fastest human evolution known, but it's still a fascinating study. The new paper is in Science this week.
June 30, 2010. Dinosaurs that nested in a hydrothermal area (Cretaceous of Argentina). The paper is open access (thank you). Nature Communications
June 30, 2010. Leviathan, a huge extinct sperm whale with monstrous shark-like teeth. The Miocene of Peru continues to turn up interesting marine creatures. The paper is in Nature tomorrow. Wired.com
June 30, 2010. An apparently multicellular organism found in rocks 2.1 billion years old. This looks like a strong case. The paper is in Nature tomorrow. Wired.com
June 29, 2010. New study helps the idea that Tyrannosaurus moved in elephant-like fashion. The paper is in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. National Geographic News
June 28, 2010. Ants, plants, and ©Velcro. Not paleontology: natural selection. Tropical ants often live on plants and protect them from nibbling herbivores. The plants may provide habitat and/or plant juices to the ants. But they still need some protein. In this case, the plant has evolved a downy underside to its leaves, with fibers that are exactly right for the ants' little clawed feet to stick to, like Velcro©. Insects that land near the edge of a leaf and pounced on by ants that have been lined up just under the edge of the leaf. Hanging on by their feet, the ants drag really big insect prey under the leaf and chop it into insect hamburger. The paper is in PLoSOne, so is open access.
June 27, 2010. Largest ever Clovis point found in a creek bed in Kentucky. Without context, it can't be dated, but it's a very fine artefact. American Archaeologist site
June 23, 2010. A new 3-D mechanical analysis finds that humans (and their ancestors) have an unexpectedly powerful bite compared with other hominoids. Another interesting paper by Stephen Wroe and his colleagues. The paper is in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Science Daily
June 23, 2010. World's largest dinosaur graveyard: Alberta, Canada. LiveScience
June 22, 2010. A new Australopithecus afarensis looks even better adapted to bipedal walking than previous specimens. The paper is in press in PNAS.
June 22, 1010. Discovery of the complex molecule anthracene in interstellar space. Christian Science Monitor
June 3, 2010. How was the early Earth warm enough to be watery? The early Earth should have been very cold, lying under a weak early Sun. But other evidence suggests is was warm enough to be a watery planet hospitable to life. How? A new suggestion is that the early Earth had a fractal haze in its atmosphere, physically but not chemically rather like the current haze of Titan. The paper is in Science. Wired Science
May 28, 2010. A new giant pterosaur from Morocco, Alanqa. It is an azhdarchid (like Quetzalcoatlus), and probably hunted on foot like a giant stork. The paper was in PLoSOne recvenly, so is open access.
May 28, 2010. A new ceratopsian from Mexico with very long horns. Live Science
May 27, 2010. The Burgess Shale fossil Nectocaris is not the arthropod its name suggests, it seems to be an ancestral cephalopod mollusc. The paper is in Nature today. While I'm happy with the cephalopod story, it does leave Nectocaris way on its own: no radula, no shell, a long time gap between Nectocaris and shelled cephalopods... so there are sure to be discussions about this paper! Science News
May 26, 2010. Homo gautengensis is a newly named species for South African specimens that used to be called Homo habilis (which was named from East Africa). So the flag has been run up the flagpole, and we'll see who salutes! The paper is in press in the journal Homo, and is very long (and long-winded) for the relatively simple conclusion it reaches. National Geographic News
May 24, 2010. "Habitable zones" and the Drake Equation. New models of other planetary systems show that they are not all as well-behaved as ours. That means that the Drake Equation offering odds on the probability of life elsewhere in the Universe gets another nasty jolt. Wired Science
May 23, 2010. Did a mammoth extinction cool the world? The idea is that the megaherbivores (of the Americas) produced digestive methane. When they went extinct in a major extinction 13,000 years ago or so, their methane production stopped, and the world dropped into a 1,000 year cold spell. This has to be wrong wrong wrong, but if it gets you a paper in a major journal, who cares? Nature probably doesn't care, either! Terra Daily
May 20, 2010. Craig Venter's "synthetic cell". This is not paleontology, but it bears on the origin of life experiments that start with non-living ingredients. Here's my take on what this is, and is not. Craig Venter's team has done an incredibly difficult technical job. They sequenced a species of Mycoplasma mycoides, a tiny bacterium, and then they assembled its DNA in a machine, to make a facsimile of the orginal chromosome. They then stripped a*different* Mycoplasma species (M. capricolum) of a vital part of its own chromosome, and inserted the artificial one. The artificial chromosome essentially took over the original cell, destroying the remnants of the capricolum chromosome, and the artificial DNA programmed it to reproduce, generating clones not of Mycoplasma capricolum but of Mycoplasma mycoides. So this is not a synthetic cell, it's a cell with an artificial chromosome. That doesn't stop the Venter team from defining a cell with an artificial chromosome as a "synthetic cell": see their paper. The new cell presumably does everything that the original DNA donor species does, though I'm not sure that's been tested. Mycoplasma mycoides causes a vicious pneunomia in cattle that is typically 50% fatal. The disease has been largely eradicated in Western countries by slaughtering herds with affected animals. Mycoplasma capricolum, by contrast, does the same thing in goat lungs. It would be a difficult test to justify, ethically!
No-one has come close to assembling a cell entirely from non-living ingredients, though several teams including Szostak and Chen at Harvard are getting closer.
The next steps for the Venter team, according to a press release, are to whittle away at the artificial chromosome to find what the minimal genome is that a living organism must have. These steps will produce mutants of Mycoplasma mycoides, with unknown properties. I wrote a sardonic essay back in 1999 when Venter's team started trying this with Mycoplasma genitalium, and it still reads well (to me). God's Mind Revealed Through Genetics At the time, you could buy cultures of M. genitalium for high-school laboratory experiments! (Wash your hands before you go to the bathroom!)
Note that it's only by chance that Venter's team didn't use Mycoplasma genitalium for its new experiment! (see story from Wired Science, below). Venter's Institute is trying to patent the so-called Mycoplasma laboratorium that they produced in their efforts to slim down the genome of M. genitalium.
Now for the Venter program to find the minimal genome, it depends what you mean by "minimal genome". Let's go to 150-year-old anatomy for a moment. What is the minimal anatomy needed by a free-living animal/plant/bacterium? We have know for many decades that those plants/animals/bacteria that are parasitic or symbiotic have an anatomy that is reduced from what they'd need as free-living organisms, because their hosts willingly or unwillingly supply the missing components: protection, nutrients, chemical environment, and so on (See Carl Zimmer's book on Parasite Rex.) So parasites don't tell us about requirements for free-living life forms. It's the same for genomes. Genomes of parasites are often reduced because there are vital life functions that they do not have to code for. So to run experiments that spend years stripping the genes from parasitic bacteria is futile in answering the question, unless you are the Venter team and use the semantic trick of defining Mycoplasma species as free-living organisms (even when they also describe Mycoplasma as "obligate parasites"! Mycoplasma genitalium is parasitic within the reproductive tract of humans, M. mycoides is parasitic within the lungs of cattle, and M. capricolum in the lungs of goats.
We already know about the minimal genomes of parasitic organisms: viruses, which have a minimal genome much smaller than that of Mycoplasma.
What is potentially dangerous is that Venter will at some point go ahead and engineer zombie bacteria produced by the new technique, but with new artificial genes or foreign genes inserted in the chromosome in order to produce specific bacterial action. This will deliberately engineer new properties into an articifial cell, rather than stripping away some that it already has. This time it really will be a synthetic organism, though not a cell assembled from scratch. Venter has talked about making oil-eating bacteria: just what you don't need in your car engine. And there are truly horrific bioterror scenarios that one could easily conjure up that would involve artificially enhanced disease bacteria. Now Venter is a consummate engineer, not a deep-thinking scientist. Let's hope he starts thinking deeply before the next step!
May 18, 2010. The global vertebrate record changes dramatically at the Devonian-Mississippian boundary. This comes from a new paper: Sallana, L.C., and M. I. Coates. 2010. End-Devonian extinction and a bottleneck in the early evolution of modern jawed vertebrates. PNAS, in press. It looks to me to be a breakthrough publication. It also happens to be open access.
May 14, 2010. The feathers of Archaeopteryx and Confuciusornis were too weak to support the stresses of flight. The paper is in Science this week.
May 13, 2010. There was only one ancestor for all living organisms on Earth. Darwin said that in 1859, but the first rigorous test of the proposition shows that the single ancestor is by far the simplest and most likely hypothesis. The paper is in Nature this week.
May 13, 2010. A new discovery in Morocco of a flourishing, rich fossil assemblage that contains many "Burgess Shale"-type organisms with soft-part preservation. The exciting part is that it is early Ordovician in age. The paper is in Nature this week.
May 10, 2010. The "American lion" best known from the La Brea tar pits is not related to the African lion but to the jaguar. It doesn't change its name (Panthera atrox) but it does call up theimage of an 800-pound jaguar! National Geographic blog by Hans Dieter Sues
May 10, 2010. The feathers preserved on Archaeopteryx are not just impressions: they carry chemical fossils of the actual tissue. This is not a surprise: some Chinese theropods have evidence of color variation on their feathers, which automatically implies survival of feather tissue. But it is the first time this has been established for Archaeopteryx. The paper is in press at PNAS.
May 6, 1010. How sharks can smell so well. (Hammerheads in particular.) New Scientist
May 6, 2010. Neanderthal and human interbreeding: the evidence strengthens. The new evidence comes by extracting Neanderthal DNA from bones from Croatia. The Neanderthal genome has stretches of DNA that are closer to non-African human DNA than they are to African human DNA. That suggests there was gene exchange (Neanderthal to human), that occurred outside of Africa, after humans had left Africa. However, it took place before these human emigrants spread to Asia and Australia, because those pioneers took the bits of Neanderthal DNA with them. This narrows the time zone and the area: Middle East, at or before 50,000 years ago. On the face of it, that implies that there was no later exchange, say in Europe where humans and Neanderthals were in contact for another 20,000 years, until 30,000 years ago. However, the sampling of ancient human DNA is not yet dense anough to say that for sure. For example, the only European human DNA used for comparison in this study was a modern-era Frenchman. The paper is in Science this week.
May 5, 2010. Evolution in action: some weeds are evolving resistance to the herbicide Roundup. Carl Zimmer's blog
May 4, 2010. Mammoth hemoglobin had a genetic adaptation which allowed it to work much better at low temperature. This is said to have helped mammoths live in arctic climates. The evidence comes from ancient DNA. The paper is in Nature Genetics.
April 29, 2010. Feathers changed dramatically during ontogeny in at least one theropod dinosaur. (As long as the skeletons are correctly attributed to the same *species*.) But those feathers (on the reconstruction) look like display structures to me!!!!! The paper is in Nature.
April 28, 2010. New pterosaur from Texas. The paper is in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. National Geographic News
April 27, 2010. Retreating ice exposes ancient artefacts in Canada. Terra Daily
April 22, 2010. Short stretches of nucleic acid replicate slower if they make errors. This gives a huge advantage in "chemical selection" to error-free replication. This paper is another from the Jack Szostak/Irene Chen research group at Harvard. Wired Science
April 21, 2010. Humans and Neanderthals interbreeding. Warning: paper at a meeting, not a publication yet. Rex Dalton on Nature news.
April 20, 2010. People began wearing clothing perhaps 190,000 years ago. The date is estimated from the DNA of human lice! Wired Science
April 8, 2010. Australopithecus sediba, a new species dating around 2 Ma, from South Africa. The paper is in Science.
April 8, 2010. Tiny seafloor metazoans that can live without oxygen. There must be some astounding new physiological trick that allows them to do that! Anatomically, they do not have mitochondria, but have hydrogenosomes. The paper is in BMC Biology.
April 7, 2010. A new large varanid lizard discovered living in the forest of the Philippines. The paper is in Biology Letters. Susan Milius in Wired Science
April 7, 2010. Human evolution: why Japanese digest seaweed so well! The paper is in Nature. Wired Science
April 6, 2010. A Velociraptor scavenging a Protoceratops. The paper is in Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, and Palaeoecology. BBC News
March 30, 2010. A very small alvarezsaurid from the late Cretaceous of China. Its legs suggest fast running, so the scientists and journalists couldn't resist a comparison with a roadrunner. (That's probably not entirely far-fetched, ecologically speaking.) No skull yet found, so don't believe the reconstruction! BBC News
March 26, 2010. Dark asteroids: they can hit Earth, too. NASA's latest project will identify how real the dangers might be. Science News
John Hawks blog with a careful discussion of what the authors say and don't say. Hawks thinks there is no demonstration that this is a new species.
March 23, 2010. Rise of dinosaurs linked to the CAMP basalt flows (Central Atlantic Magma Province). These were immense flows that occurred as Pangaea split apart along much of the Atlantic toward the end of the Triassic. "The largest known basalt flows in the Solar System"! (He could equally correctly have said "the Universe".) Now coincidence doesn't mean cause, and it doesn't explain how the dinosaurs were blessed with survival when many other "stem" archosaurs and dinosauriforms became extinct. See a recent review in Biological Reviews on early dinosaurs. The paper is in PNAS, and is mainly concerned with establishing the coincidence in time, rather than discussing mechanisms. BBC News
March 19, 2010. New theropod Linheraptor from Mongolia.
March 19, 2010. Neat story about a startling fossil found by an amateur collector. Terra Daily. The fossil is a plumulitid machaeridian, if that turns you on....
March 18, 2010. Homo floresiensis, the so-called "hobbits" or their ancestors seem to have lived on the island for a million years. The new age comes fom caches of tools dating to 1 Ma: no bones yet. The paper is in press in Nature. National Geographic News
March 15, 2010. Fedexia, a carnivorous amphibian from the Pennsylvanian of Pennsylvania.
March 4, 2010. Review of the Chicxulub impact at the end of the Cretaceous. The review convincingly argues that the asteroid impact was the primary trigger for the end-Cretaceous extinction. It is published in Science today. National Geographic site
March 2, 2010. Asilisaurus, a Middle Triassic archosaur from Tanzania. It is said to be closely related to the Polish Silesaurus, in a family Silesauridae that is the sister group of Dinosauria. According to the paper, dinosaurs were already diversified into sauropods, ornisthischians, and theropods in the Upper Triassic. The paper is published in Nature.
March 2, 2010. Caught in the act: a large Cretaceous snake is killed and fossilised in the act of attacking a baby sauropod. The paper is in PLoS Biology.
February 25, 2010. A large horned man-eating crocodile from Olduvai Gorge, contemporary with Pleistocene hominids.
February 24, 2010. A very large shell-crushing shark is discovered in the Cretaceous of Kansas. The paper is in Cretaceous Research. BBC News
February 23, 2010. Abydosaurus, a new sauropod from Utah. It has a complete skull, unusual in sauropod fossils. The paper is in Naturwissenschaften.
February 21, 2010. Earliest evidence of surface locomotion in the Ediacara fauna, at about 565 Ma. The paper is in the February Geology 38: 123-126.
February 19, 2010. Before baleen whales, there were giant Mesozoic fishes, now recognized as a clade of huge filter-feeding marine vertebrates. Leedsichthys was the largest, from the Middle Jurassic of England. But they have now been recognized as a continuous line of predators in the marine realm, with all the implications that may have for marine productivity. The paper is in Science this week.
February 18, 2010. "Big, beautiful" fossil cells are recovered from 3.2 billion-year old rocks in South Africa. They are too big to be comfortably archaeans or bacteria, so they may be by far the earliest eukaryotes. An astounding find. The paper is in Nature. I believe you can read the abstract here.
February 17, 2010. The DNA of the extinct aurochs, a relative of today's cattle. The news report is mostly fluff. The paper is in PLoSOne, so it is open access. There's not much discussion of the implications of being able to assemble the ancient DNA, because the position of the aurochs is already well known. BBC News
February 16, 2010. The early plant fossil Prototaxites consists of a mass of rolled-up dead liverworts. This identification actually simplifies the early plant fossil record. American Journal of Botany
February 15, 2010. The astonishing diversity of organic molecules in the Murchison meteorite. This opens up a massively greater list of possible ingredients for organic soup. The paper is in PNAS. Jennifer Viegas for Discovery.
February 10, 2010. The Xenocarida, which turn out to be the sister group of hexapods (insects). They live today in underwater caves in the Bahamas, and while they may not resemble the earliest insects, they are going to be studied extensively to see just what characters they share and why. The paper is in Nature. Carl Zimmer blog
February 10, 2010. The ethnic history and body features of an ancient Greenlander are reconstructed from the DNA in his hair. The major advance here is the analytical techniques that delivered the complete mitochondrial DNA of this individual from just a tuft of his hair (plus radiocarbon dating too!). He was from the first human wave to reach Greenland about 4000 years ago, and the DNA certifies that he and his group originated in northeast Siberia. The details of the genes, compared with those of living Siberian tribes, suggest the features and body morphology reconstructed here. A really nice piece of science. The paper was published in Nature, and for once it is open access!
February 8, 2010. What mosses can suggest about the first land plants. The paper is in Science. Terra Daily
February 5, 2010. A more comprehensive study of feather coloration in dinosaurs. This offers a complete color restoration of the plumage of the little dinosaur Anchiornis (with extraordinary imagery at National Geographic News photogallery). Surely no-one can doubt what Jere Lipps and I have been saying for nearly 30 years: that the origin of flight feathers was preceded by their adaptation for display! The new paper is in press in Science.
February 4, 2010. Life under the ice on Europa? No surprise here: the answer is no, because it's far too cold. BBC News
February 2, 2010. Survival of the cutest: rapid selection in domestic dogs. The paper is said to be in American Naturalist. I have one niggle. Having grown up in sheep country in Northern England, I can tell you that the Border Collie shown in the image was bred (selected) for intelligence and sheep-herding skills, not for being cute. But never mind: it is a cute image. Terra Daily
February 1, 2010. Ratites may have taken over the ecological niches of small dinosaurs in the early Cenozoic, becoming flightless in the process. Well, yes, but that is the speculation at the very end of a perfectly good new analysis of ratite phylogeny. This latest analysis firmly includes the flying tinamous within the main clade of ratites. So, unless tinamous are ratites that re-gained flight, it implies that ratites lost flight from some ancestor at the root of this clade [ratites + tinamous]. At this point in the logic the timing becomes important, and the *best guess* is that the ancestral ratites were already distributed widely, and several ratite lineages lost flight *independently*. The timing is also such that it is reasonable *speculation* that ratites lost flight as they became larger and took over dinosaur niches, but at the moment the fossil record isn't good enough to make that a hypothesis. The paper is in Systematic Biology and I believe it is open access. National Geographic News
January 29, 2010. Bistahieversor, a new tyrannosaurid from the Cretaceous of the American Southwest. The paper is in the new issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. National Geographic News
January 28, 2010. Haplocheirus, a new alvarezsaurid from China. The news item inflates its importance a bit, but this is a very nice find. BBC News OnLine
January 27, 2010. A giant bone bed of dinosaurs in the Late Cretaceous of China. There are predictable vivid quotes about the end-Cretaceous catastrophe, but no evidence is mentioned that would tie these deposits to that event. In fact, the statement that there are (at least) 7 different layers argues against that interpretation. There are other dramatic dinosaur bone beds that are natural in origin, like the Bernissart excavation in Belgium that yielded massive quantities of iguanodont bones. There is no publication, either, it seems. Washington Post
January 27, 2010. The tail feathers of Sinosauropteryx were colored. Any normal person would think that was for display, though you can always find a way to wiggle out of an obvious conclusion! The paper is online at Nature.
January 27, 2010. The last Neanderthals in Iberia are now dated at no later than 37,000 years ago. We have known for some time that Neanderthals survived in a "refugium" in Spain and Portugal after they became extinct everywhere else. New dates now suggest that the "refugium" lasted no more then 5000 years. The new date also calls into question the suggestion that a child's body found in Portugal might be a Neanderthal/sapiens hybrid: its date, about 30,000 years ago, is far too late for that. The paper is in PLoSOne. Science Daily
January 26, 2010. Dramatic evolutionary radiation of carnations in Europe. The paper is in press at Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Science News
January 26, 2010. The gliding flight of Microraptor? The little dromaeosaur Microraptor from China has feathers on its hind limbs. Chinese paleontologists claim that it was a four-winged flying creature. This paper describes making models of the animal: the models glided. Then you add the interpretation and speculation, to give the conclusion that this is how bird flight originated. Probably not. The anatomical position of the hind limbs in the gliding position used by the modelers is extremely unlikely, verging on impossible, according to some commentators familiar with the fossils of Microraptor. At the very least, this paper depends on the structure of fossils that have not been properly described, which rings alarm bells. The only reasonable position I can take here is that I am still waiting to be convinced of the flight of Microraptor, let alone this version of it. The paper is in press at PNAS. Oh, and by the way, co-author Burnham thinks that Microraptor had a venomous bite, too...
January 25, 2010. Life outside the Earth? This piece which contains remarks by Britain's Astronomer Royal and President of the Royal Society, Lord Rees. Have you ever read such a string of pretentious nothing? It must be the elevation to the peerage: probably the former commoner Martin Rees, or even the newly minted Sir Martin Rees, would have recognised the lack of anything resembling science in these vapid speculations. One hopes, probably in vain, that the conference he is touting will have better content. BBC News
January 20, 2010. How did lemurs reach Madagascar? The old vegetation raft idea? It turns out that at the right time, the currents were aligned to allow that. The paper is said to be on-line at Nature. National Geographic News
January 19, 2010. Dinosaur "death pits": sauropods made wallow holes in shallow water, then small dinosaurs were trapped in them. This is the convincing reconstruction of an environment in the late Jurassic of northern China. (I suspect the artist's image underestimates the breadth of the pit.) The paper is in Palaios.
January 18, 2010. Dressing up dinosaurs. Fun article by Sid Perkins, in press for Science News in late January. Your assignment is to read the article and then decide whether the interpretations are well-founded, or reasonable guesses, or wild speculation. And then feel sorry for paleo instructors, science journalists, or illustrators, who have to thread the minefield and present the best science of paleontology, as opposed to flashy science fiction! Science News
January 14, 2010. Alligator lungs are bird-like in some respects: they have unidirectional air flow, for example. This stunning discovery implies that unidirectional lungs evolved deep in archosaur ancestry, so it's now a given that dinosaurs had them, and perhaps other Triassic "archosauromorphs". A brilliant paper by Colleen Farmer and Kent Stevens is in this week's Science, and will no doubt be followed by a longer paper.
January 13, 2010. A living site 500,000 years old is found in Israel. That date means that it is pre-sapiens, even though the evidence suggests that the living site was organized in what we think of as a "modern" arrangement. Combine that with the new evidence from Neanderthals (see next story below), and the behavioral characters of Homo sapiens become less novel and distinct. National Geographic News
January 8, 2010. Neanderthal art, plus perhaps make-up or artists' palettes! Very persuasive paper in PNAS.
January 7, 2010. Trackways of tetrapods are found, much older than known skeletal vertebrates. This is a very important paper. It seems to be immediately accepted as good science, so the story of the evolution of tetrapods is tweaked once again, without disturbing any fundamental evolutionary concepts. I suspect that my story about the importance of basking behavior in the earliest tetrapods (see my History of Life) can only be strengthened by the taphonomy of these footprint sediments! The paper is the cover story in this week's Nature.
January 6, 2010. Did we mate with Neanderthals, or did we murder them? Both, of course! Feature article in Discover magazine
January 5, 2009. Prussian Blue and the origin of life. Lots of chemistry, not much explicit reference to the origin of life. Terra Daily
January 5, 2010. A small Miocene whale from Australia may have fed by vacuuming clams out of seafloor sediment. The paper is in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society of London.
January 2, 2010. DNA extracted from a 30,000 year old Homo sapiens from the Russian site at Kostenki. The paper is in Current Biology. BBC News
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