Category Archives: Paleontology

A Missing Link Found (and subsequently Lost) at the SciAm Guest Blog

Here is a treat for you at the Scientific American Guest Blog. Today’s contribution is by Brian Switek – check out Breaking Our Link to the March of Progress. Read, enjoy, comment (at the registration the system suggests that you need a confirmation e-mail – you don’t, just log in and start posting).

Iguanodons old and new, at SciAm Guest Blog

Check out the complete series of posts by Darren Naish on the Scientific American Guest Blog:

The Iguanodon explosion: How scientists are rescuing the name of a “classic” ornithopod dinosaur, part 1

The explosion of Iguanodon, part 2: Iguanodontians of the Hastings Group

The explosion of Iguanodon, part 3: Hypselospinus, Wadhurstia, Dakotadon, Proplanixoca …when will it all end?

More posts coming to the blog daily. If you are interested in guest-blogging, send me a story pitch at or

Written In Stone: interview with Brian Switek

2010 is an incredible year for science books, many written by people who daily write on blogs.

The latest in this fantastic streak is Written In Stone (homepage, IndieBound, Amazon) by Brian Switek (blog, Twitter).

Written In Stone is officially published today. If you pre-ordered it, it should hit your mailbox in a few days and bookstores should get it soon after (watch Brian’s blogs for updates – there was a small delay in shipping). I got the book earlier, have read it and loved it – my review is coming here later today. But first, I wanted to catch up with Brian and ask him a few questions about his book, his blog, and how the two are connected.


A few years ago, you were a student and blogging was a hobby – something you did on the side, out of love. At what point did you realize that you could do writing as a profession? Was there a precipitating event or did that gradually dawn on you?

There wasn’t any single event or cause – I just fell into it. Now that we’re mostly beyond the blogger vs. journalist sniping – I hope – I can look back and say that I was acting like a science writer even before it became a viable career option. Making the transition required a change in attitude and a realization that I could actually get paid for what I like to do, and I feel exceptionally lucky that I have been able to turn my hobby into a nascent science writing career (even though I still work an unrelated day job to keep the lights on at home).

The more detailed story goes like this – After blogging for two years, I got serious about my science writing and started to pitch to magazines. My performance was abysmal. Most of the time I didn’t even hear back from the publications I pitched to. Still, I kept using my blog as a writing laboratory and tried to fine-tune my writing. Then, in May of last year, everything changed almost instantaneously. It was at that time that I started working with my literary agent – Peter Tallack of the Science Factory – and Mark Henderson of the Times was kind enough to give me my first formal op-ed about the Darwinius controversy. Those breakthroughs, paired with the earlier acceptance of my first academic paper (just published), allowed me to build up enough momentum to start making some headway into more formal channels of science writing outside the blogohedron.

I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without blogs, Twitter, or the web in general. Blogging allowed me to practice writing, plug into a community of fellow science enthusiasts, and has otherwise made it possible for me to become a professional – if still part-time – science writer. If I tried to do the same thing just a few years ago, or otherwise tried to jump into science writing without developing my writing online, I would have almost surely failed. As I mentioned above, though, I did not think of my efforts as a career change. The only major difference was that people started paying me for the sort of work I had been doing anyway!

How did you decide to write a book? You were already a well-known blogger and have started appearing in more mainstream media on occasion – why a book?

Written in Stone had a relatively long gestation and significantly changed since the time that I was first inspired to write a book. I knew that I wanted to write a book about evolution from the time I started blogging, but I was pretty clueless as to how to go about it. I used my blog as a way to practice writing, keep up with the literature, and organize my ideas. Blogging gave me an incentive to keep learning, researching, and sharing that information with whoever cared to read it.

This went on for about three years. I kept notes and wrote parts of a few chapters, but I didn’t have a story to tie things all together. I knew that I wanted to write about evolution from the perspective of the fossil record, but that’s not a book – I needed a more specific angle from which to approach the bigger story of life through time. I knew that I didn’t want to write a comprehensive textbook – we’ve already got plenty of those – but what examples should I choose to help people understand what fossils tell us about how life has changed?

Unfortunately I can’t remember the moment the idea struck me, but I settled on looking at some of the major transitions in the history of vertebrates that transfixed me as a child. The evolution of the first tetrapods from fish, the evolution of birds from dinosaurs, the evolution of whales from terrestrial mammals, the evolution of humans, and others – they were classic examples of evolutionary change, but as I became more familiar with the scientific literature I felt that the public wasn’t being presented with the latest science about these examples. Even in recent popular books about evolution, a few of these transitions would be presented but usually in such paltry detail as to be unconvincing to anyone who didn’t already agree that evolution is a reality. More than that, these changes have been debated for a very long time but we often talk about them only in reference to recent discoveries. I wanted to dig into the long history of debate and show how our understanding has changed. In distilling everything down to simple, step-by-step diagrams of evolutionary change, I felt like other authors had missed something, and I wanted to plug that gap in the popular literature.

Once I figured all that out, writing the book wasn’t too difficult. I had been rummaging through the literature for my own education for several years already – it was mostly a matter of writing the thing. With three chapters in hand, I signed with Bellevue Literary Press in September and completed the first full draft of the manuscript just two days before Christmas. The manuscript went back and forth a few times over the following months for edits, but, looking back, I am still a little baffled as to how I put the whole thing together so quickly!

Your writing – both on the blog and in the book – looks at evolution, focusing mainly on fossils, in the context of history of science. This is a pretty unique combination of themes – where did that come from? Was that a conscious decision or something that just happened as it combined your existing passions?

The mix of evolution, paleontology, and the history of science happened organically. They all overlap and feed into each other. Since I wanted to write about what the fossil record tells us about evolution, those aspects of the story came together very easily. I could have left it at that, but then I would have done the same thing as everyone else by divorcing recent discoveries from their context. I didn’t want to do that. I did not want to act as a figure of authority, handing down data for the public to digest and accept.

Instead of taking the more traditional approach, I wanted to give the book a warmer tone – I wanted to present science in the way that I might talk to a curious friend about evolution, or in terms of what I might say if I were walking with someone through a natural history museum. The history of science allowed me to do this by providing me with a flowing narrative which encompassed the scientific points I wanted to talk about. This served the dual purpose of placing recent discoveries in context and also gave me a way to lead readers through the tangled process of scientific discovery. This was especially important in the historical chapters about the beginnings of paleontology and evolutionary theory (Ch. 2 and 3). I found the idea of simply laying out the nuts and bolts of stratigraphy, natural selection, the nature of the fossil record, etc. repulsive – as I mentioned, I had no intention of writing a textbook – but by tracing the history of science I could use stories to introduce readers to those same concepts in a more palatable way.

Naturally, my own interests played a role, as well. I am fascinated by vertebrate paleontology, and both evolutionary theory and the history of science remain important in the field for understanding the patterns of life on earth and how our perspective of those patterns has changed. It was not a stretch to bring it all together. Paleontology is an evolutionary science, and paleontologists are constantly reexamining old specimens and localities. Given all these available perspectives, it was mostly a matter of choosing where to place the emphasis.

The book grew out of your blog. What proportion of the book, can you estimate, comes directly from edits of your older posts, and how much was brand new material? Was it difficult to repurpose the bloggy format into something that will work well in the book form?

The book grew out of my blog in the sense that I used my blog to practice writing about some studies and ideas which eventually became incorporated into the blog. The book is not just a stitched-together collection of posts. It was written as a story unto itself – containing many smaller stories – and even when I covered something I had blogged about earlier I disregarded what I had already said and wrote something fresh. Sometimes I would dig back into my posts for something I had referenced which I had trouble remembering, but in no instance did I edit any of my posts to place that material in the book. I wanted to write in such a way that the story flowed, and I felt that if I was going to start incorporating material directly plucked from the blog I would jeopardize that. Readers of my blogs will see some familiar subjects, absolutely, but, barring quotations, the book is 100% new writing.

Reading the book, it struck me how unique it is and how much it fills a glaring gap in the literature. There are many books on evolution. There are many books on the history of science. There are many books about fossils (though usually narrower in subject, focusing on a single group like dinosaurs, or even a single fossil like Tiktaalik or Darwinius). Yet I cannot remember another book that combines these three topics until today (literally today!). While it is fortunate for you that this niche was wide open for you to fill, do you have any thoughts as to why this niche was empty to begin with? Aren’t there other scholars who could have, perhaps should have, covered this area in this way?

I think some historians of science have written similar books, but they have usually been focused on a particular time period of group of researchers (such as Adrian Desmond’s Archetypes and Ancestors about Victorian paleontology, Peter Bowler’s Life’s Splendid Drama about early 20th-century paleontology, or Eric Buffetaut’s sadly out-of-print A Short History of Vertebrate Paleontology). When you’re dealing with the history of paleontology, you have to include biological details as well as historical ones, and in many ways this historical subgenre was very influential in determining how I should go about telling my story.

You’re absolutely right about the gap in the literature, though. I intentionally wrote this book to fill it. There’s no single reason why the gap was left open to start with. From a practical perspective, the history of science is often left out of popular books because there is a common assumption that the public doesn’t care about it. One publisher I spoke to about the book early on, in fact, wanted me to cut all the historical material from the book and focus only on new discoveries – from science magazines to book publishers, there is a major push to cover what is new and exciting and leave the historical bits for people who want to track them down (despite the success of some books, such as Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, which have a heavy emphasis on history!). An exception is Sean B. Carroll’s recent book Remarkable Creatures, but, while I greatly enjoyed it, the treatment of significant people and specimens was a collection of snapshots which did not illustrate the importance of paleontology to our understanding of evolution. There are gaps and jumps in my narrative too – if I included everything I wanted Written in Stone would have rivaled The Structure of Evolutionary Theory in length – but it was very important to me to trace ideas through multiple shifts in understanding over the past 150 years.

The fact that many recent, popular-audience books about evolution – such as Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne, The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins, and Only a Theory by Kenneth Miller – have been written by lab-based evolutionary scientists is another reason for the persistence of the “paleo gap.” Paleontology isn’t their field and so, understandably, doesn’t get much attention from these authors outside of transitional forms in the fossil record. More than that, though, there is something of a conceit that genetics and microbiology are more important to evolutionary science than paleontology is. Paleontology is still often viewed as the search for old bones to fill museums with – it can demonstrate the reality of evolution by do little else. This appraisal of paleontology has been around since the beginning of the 20th century, at least, and Dawkins even downplayed the importance of the fossil record to understanding evolution in his book The Ancestor’s Tale.

Since Stephen Jay Gould died in 2002, we haven’t really had a strong public advocate for paleontology as an essential evolutionary science. I’m no Gould, but I was inspired by his work to communicate the relevance of the fossil record to understanding of evolution (as well as similar efforts made before him by George Gaylord Simpson). Not only does paleontology provide the essential context to understand why life is as it is now – it is the science which showed us that extinction is real and that life has been changing for vast periods of time – but has become arguably the most interdisciplinary evolutionary science. Paleontologists regularly use ideas and techniques from genetics, molecular biology, embryology, histology, geochemistry, and other sciences in addition to comparative anatomy and geology. Having just attended the 70th annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology just last month, I can tell you that paleontology is an exceptionally vibrant field in which everything from the color of dinosaur feathers to the tempo and mode of evolutionary change are being investigated. This makes the rather brief treatment of paleontology in many recent books on evolution all the more irritating – paleontology, as I know it, is not being reflected in discussions about evolution, and I wanted to write a book to help remedy that.

One thing that struck me as I was reading the book is how well fleshed are the characters in the story, people like Lamarck, Darwin, Owen and Huxley, among others. You present them with a nuance that is rarely seen in usual discourse on the history of evolution. How much did you use biographies of these people, their letters and diaries, in trying to understand them as complex personalities, not just cardboard caricatures that we usually see?

I have to admit that I actually did not get to include the amount of detail I wanted – I mostly restricted biographical sections to the period a given authority was working on a particular problem or idea – but I thought it was essential to provide some background as to who these people were and why they did what they did. In the case of Lamarck, for example, I didn’t know anything about his life outside of his ideas about evolution before writing the book, so I thought including a little more information about him would be a small way of helping his public image since he is so often trotted out to be a contrast to Darwin and nothing else.

The sources I used varied from figure to figure. For Cuvier, I relied on various historical papers and Martin Rudwick’s selected translations of his work in Georges Cuvier, Fossil Bones, and Geological Catastrophes, whereas I used Adrian Desmond’s biography Huxley and the naturalist’s original research papers for sections about the man famously called “Darwin’s Bulldog.” The most difficult challenge was Charles Darwin. So much has been written about him that I could not possibly read it all, so in addition to biographical accounts I used the Darwin Correspondence Project and The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online to dig into his original writings as much as possible. Of course my account of Darwin’s work is framed in terms of paleontology – I could not comprehensively cover everything he did, especially since he was such a prolific naturalist and correspondent! – but I tried to hit the major points of his career leading up to 1859 without derailing the paleontological thread of the book.

Finally – what’s next? I know you will be busy traveling the country promoting the book, but I am wondering if you already have the ideas for the next book?

I actually don’t have many travel plans. I’ll be giving a few talks in the NY-NJ-PA area, but I don’t have the budget to allow for a full-scale book tour. I am going to focus on doing what I do best – keeping up my blogs and trying to find more stories to tell in more formal science publications and journals. If opportunities to travel and talk about the book pop up, I’ll jump, but I have no idea when or where such opportunities will arise.

If anything, I have too many ideas for future books. Some are just the seeds of future projects which will require significantly more background than I presently have to cultivate, whereas others I am already in the process of starting. Right now I am trying to choose between two different projects – one on the “Dinosaur Enlightenment” which is rapidly changing our understanding of the charismatic creatures, and another on the controversial idea of “Pleistocene Rewilding.” I fully intend on writing both, but which comes first depends on an array of factors from my ability to travel to places relevant to the books to the willingness of publishers to jump at the projects. Beyond those, I have at least three more ideas for long-term book projects on three disparate subjects, so with any luck I will be writing for some time to come!

And, as a closing note, thank you for your help and support, Bora. You have been behind my writing from the very beginning, and it has been a pleasure to talk to you about a book which has grown directly from my work online. Your ongoing encouragement has helped drive me to become a more professional science writer, so I am genuinely thrilled that you enjoyed the book.

Thank you so much for the interview. And let’s hope that book sells very well – it surely deserves it.

Why are dinosaur fossils’ heads turned up and back? (repost)

From the ArchivesThis is an old post from June 2007 (click on the button to see the original), but I thought it would be a good one to re-post for the next edition of Carnal Carnival:

OK, it’s been about 20 years since I was last in vet school and I have fogotten most of the stuff I learned there. But I remember a few things.

I clearly remember the Pathology class (and especially the lab!) and the Five Signs (or stages) of Death: pallor mortis (paleness), algor mortis (cooling), rigor mortis (stiffening), livor mortis (blood settling/red patches) and decomposition (rotting). The linked Wikipedia articles are pitifully anthropocentric, though, and there is much more cool stuff to learn when comparing various animals.

The most interesting (at least to me) of the five signs of death is Rigor Mortis. If you go back to the very basic physiology of muscle contraction, you may remember that ATP is needed for the cross-bridges to be released (i.e., to separate actin from myosin). After death, ATP breaks down, the cross-bridges cannot be released, and the muscles remain stiff for a period of time until decay and decomposition start breaking down muscle proteins. Exactly when rigor mortis sets in, and when the muscles start softening up again depends on a number of factors, including species, body size, proportional muscle mass, physical condition, physical activity prior to the time of death, age, cause of death, environmental temperature and humidity.

I also remember the word Opisthotonus, a backward arching of the head and neck caused by injury of the cerebellum, meningitis, and some types of poisoning (e.g., strychnine). Opisthotonus also occurs after death as a result of rigor mortis.

Back in vet school, all I was interested in was equine medicine (so I studied other species only as much as needed to pass the class), so I spent some time studying that all-important Ligamentum nuchae in the horse. If you ride and train horses, that is one of the most important pieces of equine anatomy, the biggest and strongest ligament (actually a fused composite of hundreds of smaller ligaments) in the horse’s body, connecting the poll (top of the head, a ridge on the occipital bone), the top-line of the neck, withers, back, loins, rump and dock (the base of the tail).

I thought back then that the contraction of the nuchal ligament was the cause of the occurrence of opisthotonus after death. The ligament is so large and powerful, no groups of muscles are supposed to be able to counteract this movement. Particularly in later stages after death, as the muscles start decomposing, nothing would stop the ligament to pull the head and neck up.

Apparently, I was wrong:

Smith (1921) mentioned the function of the funicular ligamentum nuchae. He believed it assisted the muscles in keeping the head extended as, for example, when grazing. He also said that shortening of the ligament was responsible for the dorsiflexion (opisthotonus) of the head/neck after death. This is not the case since severing the ligament does not release such dorsiflexion; rigor mortis of the dorsal cervical muscles causes opisthotonus after death.

Now, Grrrl and Brian Switek point to and discuss at length a new paper by veterinarian Cynthia Marshall Faux, and famous dinosaur paleontologist Kevin Padian, who argue that the opishtotonus seen in many dinosaur fossils is not a result of rigor mortis, but a result of pre-death brain injury or poisoning. Contrary to the quote above, they did not observe opisthotonus in dead horses.

I am intrigued. Not persuaded yet, but open to changing my mind if their evidence is persuasive. Perhaps opisthotonus has different causes in different fossils, depending on the species and the individual case: some got poisoned or brain-injured, while others curved due to rigor mortis. After all, an Archaeopterix is not exactly built like a horse. What do you think?

Apparently, Kevin Padian promised to come by Grrrl’s blog and answer questions in the near future. I’ll let you know when this happens. Update: Kevin Padian responds and Brian has an update – see the comment by the ostrich breeder there as well stating that these birds assume the position, which is similar to their sleeping position, many hours before death, thus eliminating both rigor mortis and poisoning as causes of opisthotonus. I remember similar position of the neck of quail I worked with when they were not feeling well and were going to die within a day or so.

Science Cafe Raleigh – March of the Fossil Penguins

March of the Fossil Penguins

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

6:30-8:30 p.m. with discussion beginning at 7:00 followed by Q&A

Tir Na Nog, 218 South Blount Street, Raleigh, 833-7795

RSVP to kateyDOTahmannATncdenrDOTgov

Penguins are familiar faces at zoos and aquariums, but they evolved long before humans. These fascinating birds have been around for more than 60 million years, during which they survived dramatic changes in climate, wholesale re-arrangements of the continents, and the rise of new mammalian competitors. Thanks to their dense bones, penguins have left behind a rich fossil record that we can use to trace their geographical expansion and morphological evolution. In this Science Cafe we will get to know some of the diverse cast of extinct penguins, including primitive species from the deep past, spear-billed penguins from Peru, and giants that would have towered over today’s Emperor Penguins.

About our Speaker:

Dr. Daniel Ksepka (blog) is a paleontologist at North Carolina State University and a research associate at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. His research focuses on reconstructing the evolutionary tree of birds and understanding the transition from aerial flight to underwater wing-propelled diving in groups like penguins and the now extinct plotopterid birds. Ksepka has traveled to South America and New Zealand to collect and study fossil penguins. He is the author of numerous scientific papers on penguin evolution as well as the science blog “March of the Fossil Penguins.”

For the coverage of Dr.Ksepka’s latest paper, see How the Penguin Got His Tuxedo and Inkayacu – Peru’s Giant Fossil Penguin and the Stories Its Feathers Tell and Giant extinct penguin skipped tuxedo for more colorful feathers, How the penguin got its tuxedo and A fossil penguin gets its colours.

Watch Dr. Ksepka discuss his research: March of the Fossilized Penguins

PLoS ONE Blog Pick of the Month….

…for October can be found here.

A new Longneck discovered

Longneck.jpgToday PLoS ONE published a paper describing a very cool new fossil of a sauropod from Niger – an exquisitely preserved, almost complete skeleton. Of course, you can read it for free at:
A New Basal Sauropod Dinosaur from the Middle Jurassic of Niger and the Early Evolution of Sauropoda:

The early evolution of sauropod dinosaurs is poorly understood because of a highly incomplete fossil record. New discoveries of Early and Middle Jurassic sauropods have a great potential to lead to a better understanding of early sauropod evolution and to reevaluate the patterns of sauropod diversification.
Principal Findings
A new sauropod from the Middle Jurassic of Niger, Spinophorosaurus nigerensis n. gen. et sp., is the most complete basal sauropod currently known. The taxon shares many anatomical characters with Middle Jurassic East Asian sauropods, while it is strongly dissimilar to Lower and Middle Jurassic South American and Indian forms. A possible explanation for this pattern is a separation of Laurasian and South Gondwanan Middle Jurassic sauropod faunas by geographic barriers. Integration of phylogenetic analyses and paleogeographic data reveals congruence between early sauropod evolution and hypotheses about Jurassic paleoclimate and phytogeography.
Spinophorosaurus demonstrates that many putatively derived characters of Middle Jurassic East Asian sauropods are plesiomorphic for eusauropods, while South Gondwanan eusauropods may represent a specialized line. The anatomy of Spinophorosaurus indicates that key innovations in Jurassic sauropod evolution might have taken place in North Africa, an area close to the equator with summer-wet climate at that time. Jurassic climatic zones and phytogeography possibly controlled early sauropod diversification.

What are dino-bloggers saying so far:

….But this … this blew me away
….That animal is just flat badass.
…..It has a goddamn thagomizer!!!

Now THIS is Open Science!!!

OpenDinosaurProject logo.jpgDinosaur fossils have been dug out for a couple of centuries now. They have been cleaned up and mounted in museums and described in papers and monographs. The way this is all done has evolved over time – the early techniques were pretty crude compared to what palaeontologists do today. One of the important techniques is actually quite simple: making measurements of bones. And yes, many such bones have been measured and the measurements reported in the literature. And that literature is scattered all over the place in many different formats in many different journals. Nobody has put all the measurements in one place where one could do statistics with the numbers and perhaps learn something from the exercise.
Now Andy Farke, Matt Wedel and Mike Taylor want to do just that:

We want to put together a paper on the multiple independent transitions from bipedality to quadrupedality in ornithischians, and we want to involve everyone who’s interested in helping out. We’ll get to the details later, but the basic idea is to amass a huge database of measurements of the limb bones of ornithischian dinosaurs, to which we can apply various statistical techniques. Hopefully we’ll figure out how these transitions happened — for example, whether ceratopsians, thyreophorans and ornithopods all made it in the same way or differently.

So, in order to accomplish this enormous project, they founded the Open Dinosaur Project – you can be a co-author of the resulting paper if you contribute! What is the idea? To crowdsource the effort. Published measurements need to be all copied into a single place for analysis. Bones not yet measured as well – if you are at a museum or university or in some other ways have access to the fossils, you can take your measuring tools and go down to the vaults and send in the numbers. They explain:

Constructing the Database
A huge, virtually untapped resource of skeletal measurements resides in the published scientific literature. In order to put these measurements to good use, it is necessary to place the data into a form that can be analyzed mathematically. Essentially, we aim to construct a giant spreadsheet with as many measurements for ornithischian dinosaur limb bones as possible. For simplicity, we will focus on bone lengths and maximum diameters along the shaft. From the forelimb, we will look at the scapula, coracoid, sternal plates, humerus, radius, ulna, and manus (“hand”). Within the hind limb, we will look at the femur, tibia, fibula, and pes (“foot”).
In the old days, this would require a lot of time in the library stacks. Some aspects of the project may still require this. But, a number of scientific papers are now freely available to the general public! So, anyone with an internet connection can help out.
Who Can Participate?
Anyone! We do not care about your age, education, previous paleontological experience, or geographic location. You don’t have to be a professional paleontologist – just a person who is willing to act professionally in the accurate and ethical collection, analysis, and interpretation of real scientific data.
What Can I Do?
It’s simple! Just locate the necessary scientific papers, and start entering data into our spreadsheet. If you have access to real specimens, you may enter these data.
What Do I Get Out of This?
Two things – 1) the thrill of participating in real scientific research; and 2) an opportunity for authorship on a scientific paper. Yes, you read that correctly. All contributors to the database are given the option of joining us as authors for the final published paper. If you opt out of authorship, you will still be listed in the acknowledgments (unless you request otherwise).
How Do I Sign Up?
Simply drop an email to project head Andy Farke – – with your name and preferred email address. If you have an institutional affiliation, please include that also. . .but remember that a formal academic affiliation is not required! In all aspects of the project, we ask that you use your real name rather than an on-line handle or other pseudonym. This is important both for personal accountability, as well as a professional standard. We may not all be professionals, but we will certainly conduct ourselves professionally!
Help! I’m Lost!
Never fear. . .we’re going to publish a series of tutorials in the next few days outlining how to search for scientific literature, what measurements to look for, and other important introductory pieces for those new at the research game.

So if you can, participate. And if the analysis uncovers a new species – there’s a little paper right there as well. And if the project works well for ornithischians, then future projects may turn to theropods or whatever else strikes the paaleontologists’ fancy.
Also nice – the resulting paper(s) will be published in Open Access venues. I am salivating at the prospect of seeing these things published in PLoS ONE and joining the fast-growing Paleontology Collection….

Now this is bloggy scholarship!

Zombies of the mammoth steppes. Read it now. Can you find something as riveting, yet scholarly and trustworthy, in your newspaper today?

Charles Darwin Lecture Series – Dale Russell: “Islands in the Cosmos: The Evolution of Life on Land”


How did we come to be here? Answers to this question have preoccupied
humans for millennia. Scientists have sought clues in the genes of
living things, in the physical environments of Earth – from mountaintops
to the depths of the ocean, in the chemistry of this world and those
nearby, in the tiniest particles of matter, and in the deepest reaches
of space. On Tuesday, September 29, Senior Curator of Paleontology Dale
Russell presents a talk based on his new book “Islands in the Cosmos:
The Evolution of Life on Land,” which follows evolution from its origins
to the present day. The talk begins at 6:30 p.m. at the North Carolina
Museum of Natural Sciences in downtown Raleigh and is the fourth
offering of the Museum’s Charles Darwin Lecture Series.
In “Islands of the Cosmos,” Russell traces a path from the dawn of the
universe to speculations about our future on this planet. He centers his
story on the physical and biological processes in evolution, which
interact to favor more successful, and eliminate less successful, forms
of life. It remains to be seen, Russell notes in the book, whether the
human form can survive the dynamic processes that brought it into
Russell is also author of “A Vanished World: The Dinosaurs of Western
Canada” and “An Odyssey in Time: The Dinosaurs of North America”.
Science author David E. Fastovsky calls Russell “one of the great
creative thinkers of all time in paleontology.” Russell played a key
role in the discovery of the world’s first dinosaur specimen with a
fossilized heart, which became international news when it was reported
in the April 21, 2000 issue of the journal Science. The
66-million-year-old Thescelosaurus, nicknamed Willo, is on display in
the Museum’s Prehistoric North Carolina exhibit hall.
Please RSVP to This lecture is free of
charge and seating is on a first come, first served basis. Doors to the
Museum and auditorium will open at 6 p.m. Signed copies of the book will
be available for purchase.
The Museum, in collaboration with the National Evolutionary Synthesis
Center (NESCent) and the W.M. Keck Center for Behavioral Biology at
North Carolina State University, is presenting this lecture series
throughout 2009 to commemorate the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s
birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of “The Origin of
Species.” On Tuesday, November 24, Museum paleontologist and Darwin
scholar Paul Brinkman presents the fifth and final lecture in the
series: “Charles Darwin’s Beagle Voyage and the Origin of ‘The Origin’.”

The exciting history of history of science. And mammoths!

Scientific facts are fun. But probably to a limited number of people.
It’s more fun to know how scientists got those facts – their thoughts, motivations and methods. How they did it. Why they did it. Where did they get the idea to do it in the first place.
It’s even more fun, for a broader number of people, if that finding is placed in a historical context – how work of previous generations of scientists, meandering around various age-specific ideas, led to the work of this particular group.
But it is even more fun watching the historians of science at work. Most recent science is pretty easy to figure out. But going into the past, it gets harder and harder. The unit of information today is the peer-reviewed scientific paper in a journal that is for the most part easily obtainable online. But in the past, books were more important. The standards of evidence were not as stringent. The various pseudoscientific and borderline scientific ideas were mainstream. Many scientific findings were made by adventurous explorers, not people with long and sophisticated scientific training. The line between science and fiction was not very clear. While today English is the language of science, in the past many languages were used, and not everyone could read all of them. Transport of books around the world was slow and difficult. Plagiarism was harder to detect, thus rampant. History of science, and even more the work of science historians, reads like a detective thriller! Now that’s exciting!
Which is why I regularly read John McKay at Archy, who is a professional historian, slowly working on his book. And occasionally putting some of the essays on his blog for the commenters to help with corrections, ideas and additional information. See his latest output – all riveting reads:
Fragments of my research – VIII
A mammoth literary mystery
A very brief history of plagiarism
The intellectual dishonesty of Allan Quist
Quist, Antarctica, and all that
Mammoth on ice
Mammoth illustrations

Behold the Mammoth

As you may remember, a beautiful mammoth fossil was discovered in Serbia a couple of months ago. I promised I’d try to go and see it myself on my recent trip to Belgrade. And I did get to see it. But the story is more fun than just that…. 😉
First, I tried to get in touch with Dr.Miomir Korać, the Director of the Archaeological park Viminacium to ask for permission to photograph the fossil as well as to interview him. After a couple of e-mail addresses bounced, I got what I think is the correct address…but got no response.
Once I got to Belgrade, I asked my contacts there about this and, as is usually the process there, a friend of a friend of a friend was willing to take me to the site. They also tried to contact Korać, as well as their own bosses, but nobody returned their calls. It is vacation time in Serbia right now, and people are not easily reachable (even by cell phones, not to mention the Web – Serbia has a distressingly low rate of Internet use for Europe). So, what to do? They decided to take me there anyway, and deal with the bosses later. Thus, I will not use their names or photos here (in case they get in trouble) and I told them that I am still interested in talking to and interviewing both Korać and their bosses if they want to contact me.
Why all this worry about bypassing the protocol? Because the fossil is in the middle of a huge open-pit coal mine Drmno (you see, there are maps and satellite images all over the Web), near Kostolac, a mine that provides something like 1/8th of electrical power of Serbia and is thus of strategic importance. For all they knew, I could have been an American spy! But fortunately they trusted the friends of friends of friends that I was not.
So, last Thursday, I got up early and went to the bus station. I took a bus to Pozarevac, a trip I took a million times as a kid. But this time, it was different. The bus was new and modern and clean and comfortable and smelled good. The music was discrete and not the worst of the worst of the newly-composed “folk”. The bus also started the trip exactly on time (to the second!) and arrived exactly on time. Not whenever the bus driver felt inspired to drive as it used to be once upon a time. Capitalism, baby!
It took a couple of hours in Pozarevac until our car that was to take us to Drmno arrived. So we sat in a cafe and got to know each other….over four huge shots of home-made slivovitz! I did not even have breakfast yet! I tried to dilute it by having a couple of big Turkish coffees, a couple of Cokes, some mineral water and a couple of handfuls of peanuts, but still, it was a tough and heroic deed.
Instead of going to Viminacium or even the town of Kostolac, we went straight to the mine (where we had yet another shot of brandy). The office building is nice, large and clean – and powered (yes, right next to all that coal) by a large battery of solar panels. The titles on all the office doors we passed indicated to me that quite a lot of science (mainly geology, but also stuff like vibrations, etc.) is going on there.
Then we got in a jeep and went into the mine itself. I took a lot of pictures of the mine – it is huge and it looks very tidy (I’ve seen a bigger one, Kolubara, when I was a kid, and remember it being, in my childish eyes, quite a mess). As such pictures may compromise (at least in some eyes) the national security and since they are not too related to the fossil, I will not post them here. But here is one, taken from a considerable distance (as much as my little camera could zoom in), showing just a small segment of one side of the open pit – the arrow points to the enclosure where the mammoth is:

Drmno kop.jpg

As you can see, there are at least 50 meters of the mine ‘wall’ hanging right above it – something that mine engineers are now trying to figure out how to secure against sliding, as the mammoth will stay in the spot and be seen by tourists.
The fossil was discovered in a part of the mine that is not in use any more – the coal extracted now is deeper down in the pit. It was found in a layer of yellow sand by a bulldozer driver for a local road-paving company that has a contract with the mine to come in and take away, for free, the sand and gravel they need for road construction. He was happily bulldozing the gravel when he heard a ‘clang’ noise at the blade. He immediatelly stopped the machine, went down to see and, upon seeing a small tip of something that looked like a bone, decided to call the mine bosses who, in turn, called the people from the Archaeological park Viminacium. The archaeological treasure of the area is a source of everyone’s pride there, of course.
It turned out that this is an amazingly well-preserved and almost completely articulated fossil of Mammuthus meridionalis, the Southern Mammoth that is thought to have migrated from North Africa to Southern Europe around 2 million years ago and is probably the ancestral species of all the other, younger species of mammoths found in the Northern hemisphere. The Southern Mammoth had much shorter and finer hair than the later Woolly Mammoth and probably went extinct when the next Ice Age appeared in Europe.
Being a much older species, the Southern Mammoth has not left as many or as complete fossils as the Woolly Mammoth either. Several have been found around Europe (Spain, Bulgaria, Sweden) and one has been mounted and is on display at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris. Thus the Serbian fossil, with its exquisite level of preservation, will be carefully studied by Serbian and international teams of scientists for years to come.


This fossil, found at the depth of 27 meters, was about 4m high, 6m long and weighed about 10 tons. It is a female and was named ‘Vicky’. There has been probably no big tectonic activity in the area for about 1 million years – how old this one is estimated to be (the more precise measures of age will be performed soon) – as earthquakes would, over time, have disassembled a fossil embedded in sand.
The fact that the fossil is in sand is on one hand a great gift – cleaning up is easy and fast – but on the other hand it is a big headache as well – how do you move it!? If it was embedded in rock, they could cut the entire slab out and move it to a museum for cleaning and restoration. This is a major mine, close to major roads – there is plenty of heavy machinery, people who can competently use it, and engineers who can figure out how to do it. This is not like finding a dinosaur in the middle of nowhere – technology is at hand and can be used on the spot. But this fossil is not embedded in rock – it is in sand. So what can one do?


First, they could disarticulate the skeleton, take each separate bone to a museum and rearticulate it there. That would take a lot of people, a lot of effort and a lot of time – and something would be lost in the process: the exact position and location of the fossil in the place where it was buried. Another way would be to freeze the sand around it, lift the whole slab and take it to a museum where the sand would thaw. This they think is too risky – the freezing and thawing may damage the fossil.

ulaz u sator.jpg

So, the mine and the museum struck a compromise. The fossil will stay in place. The mine will secure the 50 meters of overhanging soil above the fossil and build two roads: one for the tourists who come to see Vicky, the other for the mine to use for driving around its heavy machinery into the pit. The museum will finish the cleaning and the analysis of the fossil and build an enclosure that will protect the fossil and accommodate the visitors (I am assuming that a museum shop will be built to bring in some revenue).
If any of my palaeontologist readers have better ideas for either preservation or moving, leave them in the comments or contact me. They are all ears.

ulaz u sator2.jpg

Right now the fossil is protected from immediate weather and light by a small canvas tent, which also means that I was not able to take pictures from a distance greater than a couple of feet. I had to crouch to get inside and could only take close-shot photos. I also could not find a good object to include in some shots as a size reference. But I took a lot of pictures from many angles and I hope you can see how wonderfully intact and well-articulated the fossil is. The rest of the pictures are under the fold, followed by a YouTube video (not shot by me) where you can see the fossil as it looked when it was first shown to the media:

Continue reading

Waltzing Matilda – why were the three Australian dinosaurs published in PLoS ONE?

As I was traveling, I only briefly mentioned the brand new and exciting paleontology paper in PLoS ONE – New Mid-Cretaceous (Latest Albian) Dinosaurs from Winton, Queensland, Australia that was published on Thursday. Bex has written an introduction and will post a Media/Blog coverage (of which there was a lot!) summary probably tomorrow.
The fossils were discovered, cleaned and analyzed by the Australian Age Of Dinosaurs non-profit organization, with a help of thousands of volunteers – the ‘citizen scientists’. You can learn more from their press release.
The importance of the publication of this paper from the angle of its scientific significance has been covered by several bloggers already. Also, several notice how good it is that the paper was published in an Open Access online-only journal. For example, Andy Farke writes:

This paper is a fantastic example of the real benefits of an on-line, open access journal like PLoS ONE. Without page limitations, the authors were allowed to truly monograph the heck out of the bones. Virtually every element is illustrated from multiple angles (with high resolution photos downloadable from the website!) and accompanied by thorough text descriptions and measurements. The editors of most journals would freak out over such a “waste” of precious space – but I have a feeling that future researchers are going to thank the authors for their thoroughness. As a PDF, the paper weighs in at 51 pages – and this doesn’t include the supplementary information!

The lead author Scott Hocknull, in an interview for us, said:

“One of my major motivations for submitting to PLoS ONE was the fact that my research will reach a much wider community, including the hundreds of volunteers and public who gave their time and money to the development of natural history collections. They are the backbone of our work (excuse the pun) and they usually never get to see their final product because they rarely subscribe to scientific journals.”

In the comment on the post at Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week, Scott Hocknull said:

This project is almost a 100% volunteer effort, with thousands of volunteer preppers working endlessly to get the bones ready for publication. This was one of my main reasons for choosing PLoS ONE to publish in. One of my others was the opportunity to provide detail images and descriptions (as best I can).
Most of our volunteers have no access to scientific journal subscriptions, therefore having it online and free for them to look at meant that they could see for themselves the fruits of their labours. They need more credit for the beautiful bones than I.

And all of you can read it for free as well – all 51 pages of it, plus all the great images and supplemental information. And you can add ratings, notes, comments and trackbacks on the paper as well.

Banjo, Clancy and Matilda

I am running to the Lindau Harbor for the last day’s trip and will be offline for the next 12 or so hours. So I don’t have time for a long post right now about this cool new dinosaur paper we just published in PLoS ONE.
So please check it out – see what it is all about and read the paper itself.

A beautiful Mammoth fossil discovered in Serbia

mamut1.jpgAn almost complete and beautifully preserved fossil of the Southern Mammoth, Mammuthus meridionalis was discovered a couple of weeks ago by a team of archaeologists led by Miomir Korać from the Archaeological Institute Belgrade and the Director of the Archaeological park Viminacium in Eastern Serbia.
The fossil, pretty much articulated and all in one place, was discovered at a depth of 27 meters (about 88.5 feet) in sand, which indicates that this area did not experience a serious earthquake for at least a million years or more since the animal died. It was identified as a female. She was about 4.5 meters tall, about 6 meters long, and weighed about 10 tons.
Southern Mammoth is one of the oldest and one of the largest species of mammoths. It is thought to have migrated from Africa into Europe between 1 and 2 million years ago. It was hairy, but not nearly as much as the later Woolly Mammoth, and thus not as adapted for the cold climate of the Ice Ages.
It will probably take only a couple of months to clean up the fossil, analyze it and articulate the skeleton, as it is so well preserved in sand. It will be displayed near the site of discovery, i.e., it will not be shipped to a bigger museum elsewhere.
I will be visiting Belgrade next month for a few days and I am trying to figure out if I could go to Kostolac, see (and photograph) the fossil and interview the researchers. I will let you know how that turns out.

Creative reuse of OA materials

Last week also demonstrated another benefit of Open Access. Not just that everyone could re-use the images from the Ida paper without wondering “is this too much for Fair Use principles?” (yes, I have seen people re-post every single image from the paper into their articles/posts, plus lengthy excerpts of text), but people could do fun stuff to them as well, and even use it for commercial endeavors.
And I am not talking just about the Google logo last Wednesday!
First to make a creative reuse of an article image was Ed Yong in his brilliant and hilariously funny post Darwinius changes everything in which Ida appears on toast:
Richard Carter was next, depicting Ida playing saxophone:
But then, there is also a way to use the hype to counteract hype…and make some money in the process. The first store I saw that is selling t-shirts and other merchandise with Ida on it was this one. You can get This Mug Which is Not Missing:
Darwinius mug.jpg
Or you can choose one of the t-shirts for which the proceeds go to a good cause, the Beagle Project, with a good message “There is no such thing as a missing link”:
Darwinius nomissinglink shirt.jpg
And you can find other t-shirt designs in this shop and this shop and this shop – perhaps walking around wearing one of these will be a conversation starter, or will get a kid to want to become a palaeontologist when s/he grows up, who knows.
Now, if I were a palaeontologist and got my hands on such a spectacular, one-in-a-lifetime fossil, I’d milk it for all it’s worth, too. I’d certainly not put all of the analysis in one paper – then what, retire? I’d also publish the description first, with a lot of fanfare if I could get it. Then I would spread all sorts of other analyses over several more papers – as it appears they are planning to do – including the cladistic analysis for those who think science without numbers is not scientific enough (forgetting the GIGO law and that every single thing input into the cladistic analysis programs is an assumption – I was astonished when I took a dinosaur class with Dale Russell some 10 years ago how the palaeontologists’ assumptions about traits – which are hard to evolve, thus likely to show up only once, and which are easy to evolve, thus could re-appear in independent lineages over and over again – differed dramatically from my thinking of developmental switches; who knows who was right about any trait – we both had our assumptions).
Now, I really hope they choose Open Access venues (perhaps PLoS ONE again) for the subsequent papers so the entrepreneurs in the future can print t-shirts with cladograms – imagine the street-fights inevitably breaking out between t-shirt wearing palaeontologists arguing the correctness of the depicted tree! Can’t do that if the journal holds the copyright to the images!

Night, night, Ida…

Some 47 million years ago, Ida suffocated in the volcanic ashes. I feel the same way at the end of this week – I need to get some air. And some sleep.
But watching the media and blog coverage of the fossil around the clock for a few days was actually quite interesting, almost exhilarating – and there are probably not as many people out there who, like me, read pretty much everything anyone said about it this week. Interestingly, my own feel of the coverage was different if I assumed an angle of a scientist, an angle of an interested student of the changes in the media ecosystem, and an angle of a PLoS employee. It is far too early to have any clear thoughts on it at this point.
But if you want to catch up with me, I have put together a sampling of the blog and media coverage over on the everyONE blog.

Wow! Check

…and you’ll see this:
ida google.JPG

Introducing Ida – the great-great-great-great-grandmother (or aunt)

Another super-cool day at PLoS (one of those days when I wish I was not telecommuting, but sharing in the excitement with the colleagues at the Mothership) – the publication of a very exciting article describing a rarely well-preserved fossil of a prehistoric primate in a lineage to which we all belong as well:
Complete Primate Skeleton from the Middle Eocene of Messel in Germany: Morphology and Paleobiology by Jens L. Franzen, Philip D. Gingerich, Jörg Habersetzer, Jørn H. Hurum, Wighart von Koenigswald and B. Holly Smith
The fossil, named Ida (the scientific name is Darwinius masillae, a new genus), was discovered in Messel Pit, Germany and lived around 47 million years ago. The fossil is 95% complete – an incredibly complete fossil for an early primate – and along with the skeleton also contains the outline of the body and the contents of the gut. From such rich information, the scientists were able to deduce that Ida was a herbivorous female of about nine months of age.
Ida fig-s62.jpg
[The image is Fig. S6 of the PLoS ONE article, published under the Creative Commons Attribution License; any reuse should cite the authors and journal.]
Unlike lemurs, Darwinius masillae does not have a “toothcomb” and a “grooming claw,” but like primates in the lineage that also contains humans, Ida has opposable big toes, nail-bearing fingers and toes, and a foot bone called the talus bone.
Check out Bex’s blog post on everyONE for more details as well as the interactive Ida website and, of course, read the paper itself – 27 pages of details, Open Access, thus free for all to see!
As always, you should rate the article, post notes and comments and send trackbacks when you blog about this paper. You can also easily place this article on various social services (CiteULike, Connotea, Stumbleupon, Facebook, Digg and Mendeley) with just one click. Bex and I will collect all the media and blog coverage and post the links to the best on everyONE blog later this week, and that will be linked from the PLoS ONE homepage as well.
I would like to use this opportunity to thank the PLoS ONE production team who did a tremendous job in getting the paper out in record time. Despite the paper being available for only minutes, the mainstream media has already run with the story. I expect that science bloggers, with their expertise, will provide more detailed and in-depth coverage of the paper (and skip the silly “missing link” trope) once they digest the scientific information in the paper.

Continue reading

Last Extinction on PBS

Check out the show’s web page:

Fifteen thousand years ago North America was like the Serengeti on steroids, with mega-creatures roaming a continent teeming with incredible wildlife. But then, in a blip of geologic time, somewhere between 15 and 35 magnificent large types of animals went extinct. In a television exclusive, NOVA joins forces with prominent scientists to test a startling theory that may finally explain the Last Extinction, on Tuesday, March 31 at 8pm ET/PT on PBS (check local listings). The program features scientists representing all sides of this debate.

Paul Sereno: What can fossils teach us? (video)

A very brief history of plagiarism

Archy does an amazing detective job on who stole what from whom in the old literature on mammoths, going back all the way to Lyell!
Then, as much of that literature is very old, he provides us with a history and timeline of the ideas of copyright and plagiarism so we could have a better grasp on the sense of the time in which these old copy+paste jobs were done.

Fossils! Fossils! Fossils!

You may be aware that PLoS ONE has started making Collections of papers in various areas of research. The older PLoS journals have been making collections for a long time. PLoS ONE is just starting. Last month we put together the first such collection – Stress-Induced Depression and Comorbidities: From Bench to Bedside.
Today, we are happy to unveil our second collection – the PLoS ONE Paleontology Collection!
It is important to keep in mind that there are two types of collections: the first type is a one-off, closed collection, often associated with a conference, where we ask for or are offered a whole set of manuscripts (10-20 papers) which are all submitted roughly at the same time, peer-reviewed in a normal fashion, then, if accepted, published roughly at the same time. Then, the collection is closed – there are no more additions to it.
The Paleontology Collection is different – it is an open collection. This means that all of our papers to date (PLoS ONE only, not other PLoS journals) that deal with fossils in any way, 26 of them so far, are included in the collection. Furthermore, all the future palaeo papers will be automatically added to the Collection as soon as they are published. Thus, such papers will always be placed together, prominently displayed and easy to find – just a single click is needed to get there.
We are hoping that the open style of this Collection will motivate people in the field to submit palaeo papers to us in the future.
A second note: as it’s my job to check all the user activity on PLoS ONE, I have noticed that palaeo folks are unusually willing to use the comments/notes/ratings tools. Several of our fossil papers already have quite a lot of comments, notes, ratings and/or trackbacks (you should go to this blog post to see the examples). So, I would like to use this occasion to try to urge people to register, login and post comments, notes or ratings on palaeo papers, or send trackbacks if their blogging platforms allow it ( can’t do it). I think that the palaeo community can be an example to others for the good and vigorous use of these tools. So, if you blog about this new Collection (and I hope you will help us spread the word) I would appreciate it if you would also encourage your blog readers to start using these tools on our fossil papers.
Greg Laden immediatelly understood why Collections are so useful:

PLoS ONE is a veritable fire hose of OpenAccess research. Which is nice, but how do you browse a fire hose?
By using the PLoS ONE collections you can track your favorite topic or delve into the earlier literature or just browse around. And now, starting just moments ago, there is a PLoS collection on paleontology.

Andy adds:

Why should we care? Speaking selfishly, this will allow us to easily access all articles in our field. All future articles are automatically added to the collection. This means that if you don’t want to wade through all of the other contributions on the PLoS ONE list (although there are some very interesting ones!), you can just keep an eye on the paleontology collection for any and all exciting developments. In a broader sense, this collection will help paleontologists to reach an even broader audience.
And once again–take advantage of the comment, note, and rating features at PLoS ONE (as outlined in my previous post). It’s really a unique opportunity to interact with authors, make your thoughts known, and help science march onward. If you have that really cool piece of research, submit your manuscript!

Finally, a word or two on my own musings about this Collection. As these 26 papers were published over the past two years, I knew I personally liked them very much, but only now that they are all in one place I realized why: they are all incredibly inter-disciplinary! These papers are not just simple descriptions of new species. They tend to combine insights and techniques from several disciplines, e.g., comparative anatomy and molecular systematics, biogeography and physiology and more. These are kinds of papers that don’t readily find home in other, more specialized journals, except in Science and Nature. PLoS ONE is, almost by definition, a perfect place for publication of such works. And Open Access ensures that such papers are widely read, covered by media and blogs, and later, hopefully, more often cited than papers hidden behind pay-walls.
So, go ahead and enjoy – introducing the PLoS ONE Paleontology Collection!

History of Mammoth discoveries in Asia

John McKay has been blogging his research on the early days of mammoth discoveries in Asia and it is an amazing read! Who ever said that academic writing has to be dull!?
Fragments of my research – I:

Studying early knowledge of mammoths presents two problems. The first, is that the people who found mammoth remains were almost never literate and the people who wrote about mammoth remains were so far removed that they almost always got their information second or third hand or worse. The second problem is that, lacking a common name for mammoth remains, it is a huge task to sort out references to mammoth ivory from similar materials used in carving. Giles Fletcher’s fish tooth ivory is most likely walrus ivory. Notice how close his description is to Kashghari’s and Kirakos’. Does that mean they were all describing walrus ivory? Could they have each been describing something different? And, while Fletcher’s description is clearly of a walrus, can we be sure that all of the ivory he saw came from the same source? Was he throwing mammoth ivory in with walrus ivory and calling them the same thing? More research is in order.

Fragments of my research – II:

At this point, an interesting fact to notice is that none of the Chinese sources have mentioned ivory yet. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the various shu are not mammoths. Although European naturalists had enthusiastically studied the mammoth since about 1700, it wasn’t until the twentieth century that they knew how the tusks were positioned. The reason for this was that they had never recovered a skull with the tusks still attached. Though generous bounties were offered for mammoth remains, the Siberian natives never reported them until after they had removed and sold the tusks. It’s possible that a similar process was at work in rural China.

Fragments of my research – III:

The generation of men who conquered Siberia were mostly illiterate and, even if they could write, they had little time for natural history, anthropology, or anything else not related to surviving, extracting wealth, and making it back alive. By the middle of the next century, a different type of person began to arrive in Siberia. Along with a more settled population came educated administrators, diplomats, and higher church authorities who had time to more closely look at the land and its treasures. At some point, they became interested in the giant bones and ivory that the natives called “mammoth.”

Fragments of my research – IV:

For centuries, if not millennia, before 1600, carvable materials had been coming out of northern Eurasia along with descriptions of large buried monsters. Of the surviving written descriptions, it’s clear that many of them refer to fossil mammoth ivory and frozen mammoth carcasses, but, with many of the descriptions, it’s less clear what the writers referred to. For historians and biologists, one of the biggest problems in sorting these descriptions out is, that the ancient writers used a large number of different terms and, lacking a common terminology, it’s almost impossible to determine what they were referring to. In the 1690s, the word “mammoth” came out of Siberia and was adopted by the intellectual community of Western Europe. While this improved matters considerably, it also created some ambiguities of its own.

Fragments of my research – V:

Witsen’s narrative of his journey, with the explanation of mammoths, was only a small part of his total work. Besides being buried inside a mountain of other material, the dissemination of Witsen’s information on mammoths was handicapped by the book’s publication history. Witsen never finished with the project. For the rest of his life, he continued to add new material. Only a few copies of each edition were printed, probably for his circle of friends. Only ten copies of his map are known to exist. Nevertheless, the Republic of Letters was a small enough community that word of his new word spread throughout Europe.

Fragments of my research – VI:

Several things stand out in Avril’s account. His translation of mammoth (or mamout or mamant) as Behemot is something that many later travelers will also do. The mention that Persians and Turks use Behemot ivory for knife handles ties into the earlier Arab sources who wrote about the substance khutu, imported from the North and used knife handles. His description of Behemot as a living animal on the shores of the Arctic ocean, suggests that he was applying the word to something other than fossil mammoth ivory. However, the mouth of the Lena River is one of the richest grounds in Siberia for collecting mammoth ivory, which suggests he was. We’ll examine all of these points after we hear from the rest of the Russian travelers.

More still to come, so stay tuned….read Archy.

An Awesome Whale Tale

ResearchBlogging.orgWhen I was a little kid, almost nothing was known about evolution of whales. They were huge, they were marine and they were mammals, but their evolutionary ancestry was open to speculation. Some (like Darwin himself) hypothesized that the terrestrial ancestor of whales looked like a bear. Others favored the idea of a hippo-like or even a pig-like ancestor.
Over the decades, two things happened. First, the revolution in molecular biology and computing power allowed scientists to compare many genes of many mammals and thus infer genealogical relationships between whales and other groups of mammals. Second, some smart palaeontologists decided that a good place to look for fossil whales would be Pakistan. The rest is, as they say, history. Digs in Pakistan unearthed a wealth of whale fossils over the years, so many of them, in fact, that the fossil record of prehistoric whales is now one of the best examples of the bushy tree of mammalian evolution in any lineage.
We now know that there were several gradual changes in whales over their evolutionary history from terrestrial animals to a number of branches of aquatic animals – some of these branches went extinct over time, while others have living descendants today. They tended to increase in size. Their front legs evolved into flippers. They gradually lost their hind legs: the large, strong hind legs of early whales were used for swimming by paddling, but later decreased in size as the undulating mode of swimming (and the evolution of the flat horizontal tail) took over. Today’s whales have remnants of hind legs still hidden deep inside their large bodies, in the form of two smalish bones.
While genetics discovers evolutionary relationships, and fossils can tell us about evolution of morphology, it is much more rare that a fossil find allows us to infer much about an extinct animal’s physiology, behavior or ecology. And the discovery of one such fossil was just published in PLoS ONE today: New Protocetid Whale from the Middle Eocene of Pakistan: Birth on Land, Precocial Development, and Sexual Dimorphism (also watch the accompanying video of the fossil). Here is the abstract:

Protocetidae are middle Eocene (49-37 Ma) archaeocete predators ancestral to later whales. They are found in marine sedimentary rocks, but retain four legs and were not yet fully aquatic. Protocetids have been interpreted as amphibious, feeding in the sea but returning to land to rest.
Methodology/Principal Findings
Two adult skeletons of a new 2.6 meter long protocetid, Maiacetus inuus, are described from the early middle Eocene Habib Rahi Formation of Pakistan. M. inuus differs from contemporary archaic whales in having a fused mandibular symphysis, distinctive astragalus bones in the ankle, and a less hind-limb dominated postcranial skeleton. One adult skeleton is female and bears the skull and partial skeleton of a single large near-term fetus. The fetal skeleton is positioned for head-first delivery, which typifies land mammals but not extant whales, evidence that birth took place on land. The fetal skeleton has permanent first molars well mineralized, which indicates precocial development at birth. Precocial development, with attendant size and mobility, were as critical for survival of a neonate at the land-sea interface in the Eocene as they are today. The second adult skeleton is the most complete known for a protocetid. The vertebral column, preserved in articulation, has 7 cervicals, 13 thoracics, 6 lumbars, 4 sacrals, and 21 caudals. All four limbs are preserved with hands and feet. This adult is 12% larger in linear dimensions than the female skeleton, on average, has canine teeth that are 20% larger, and is interpreted as male. Moderate sexual dimorphism indicates limited male-male competition during breeding, which in turn suggests little aggregation of food or shelter in the environment inhabited by protocetids.
Discovery of a near-term fetus positioned for head-first delivery provides important evidence that early protocetid whales gave birth on land. This is consistent with skeletal morphology enabling Maiacetus to support its weight on land and corroborates previous ideas that protocetids were amphibious. Specimens this complete are virtual ‘Rosetta stones’ providing insight into functional capabilities and life history of extinct animals that cannot be gained any other way.

What does this all mean? Unlike the gradual loss of hind legs, graudal increase in size, gradual evolution of front legs into flippers and gradual evolution of the horizontal tail, we did not have information about the way the prehistoric whales gave birth. We know that all large terrestrial mammals give birth head-first, while all aquatic mammals (not just whales, but also manatees and such) give birth tail-first. But we did not know when did this switch occur.
This paper shows that some early whales, already well along the way of evolving into creatures recognizable as whales but still possessing sizeable hind legs they used for swimming, gave birth head-first. This indicates that these animals, at least on those rare occasions when they were giving birth to their young, had to go up onto dry land. Thus, we now have the timing a little better on the question of when exatly did the whales become completely aquatic, i.e., never coming to land at all, and it is somewhat later than we thought until now.
I tried to explain this in as simple language as possible – suitable for complete laymen or middle-school students, but if you want a little more detail and some better expert opinion on this fossil find and the paper that describes it, please read what others have written about it:
Carl Zimmer
Mike Dunford
Ed Yong
Brian Switek
Greg Laden
Cosmos Magazine
WIRED Science
Philip D. Gingerich, Munir ul-Haq, Wighart von Koenigswald, William J. Sanders, B. Holly Smith, Iyad S. Zalmout (2009). New Protocetid Whale from the Middle Eocene of Pakistan: Birth on Land, Precocial Development, and Sexual Dimorphism PLoS ONE, 4 (2) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0004366

Dinosaurs under the microscope: New ways to look at old bones


The next Sigma Xi Pizza Lunch is noon, THURSDAY. Jan. 22. The title: “Dinosaurs under the microscope: New ways to look at old bones.”
Come hear NC State University paleontologist Mary Schweitzer explain why she rocked science not long ago with evidence that soft tissue survived in a 68-million-year-old dinosaur fossil. Not all fossil experts accept it, but many do. If Schweitzer is correct, she’s found a whole new route to explore the biology and evolutionary lineage of extinct life.
Pizza Lunch is free and open to science journalists and science communicators of all stripes. Feel free to forward this invitation to anyone you would like to see included. RSVPs are required (for a reliable slice count) to
Directions to Sigma XI:

…the girl on a half-shell…

Now I finally understand the lyrics! Joan Baez was really singing to Bob about prehistoric turtles!

Aerosteon riocoloradensis – the new dinosaur with hollow bones

I always get excited when Paul Sereno publishes a paper in PLoS ONE and today is one such day – his third paper in this journal within a span of less than a year (the first was the paper with detailed description of Nigersaurus and the second was the article on Green Sahara cemeteries). Today’s paper is also the second time PLoS ONE publishes a taxonomy paper, i.e., a monograph that describes a new species:
Evidence for Avian Intrathoracic Air Sacs in a New Predatory Dinosaur from Argentina:

Living birds possess a unique heterogeneous pulmonary system composed of a rigid, dorsally-anchored lung and several compliant air sacs that operate as bellows, driving inspired air through the lung. Evidence from the fossil record for the origin and evolution of this system is extremely limited, because lungs do not fossilize and because the bellow-like air sacs in living birds only rarely penetrate (pneumatize) skeletal bone and thus leave a record of their presence.
Methodology/Principal Findings
We describe a new predatory dinosaur from Upper Cretaceous rocks in Argentina, Aerosteon riocoloradensis gen. et sp. nov., that exhibits extreme pneumatization of skeletal bone, including pneumatic hollowing of the furcula and ilium. In living birds, these two bones are pneumatized by diverticulae of air sacs (clavicular, abdominal) that are involved in pulmonary ventilation. We also describe several pneumatized gastralia (“stomach ribs”), which suggest that diverticulae of the air sac system were present in surface tissues of the thorax.
We present a four-phase model for the evolution of avian air sacs and costosternal-driven lung ventilation based on the known fossil record of theropod dinosaurs and osteological correlates in extant birds:
(1) Phase I–Elaboration of paraxial cervical air sacs in basal theropods no later than the earliest Late Triassic.
(2) Phase II–Differentiation of avian ventilatory air sacs, including both cranial (clavicular air sac) and caudal (abdominal air sac) divisions, in basal tetanurans during the Jurassic. A heterogeneous respiratory tract with compliant air sacs, in turn, suggests the presence of rigid, dorsally attached lungs with flow-through ventilation.
(3) Phase III–Evolution of a primitive costosternal pump in maniraptoriform theropods before the close of the Jurassic.
(4) Phase IV–Evolution of an advanced costosternal pump in maniraptoran theropods before the close of the Jurassic.
In addition, we conclude:
(5) The advent of avian unidirectional lung ventilation is not possible to pinpoint, as osteological correlates have yet to be identified for uni- or bidirectional lung ventilation.
(6) The origin and evolution of avian air sacs may have been driven by one or more of the following three factors: flow-through lung ventilation, locomotory balance, and/or thermal regulation.

Wow! Read the whole thing!
For more, read Greg Laden’s thoughts.

LOL Pterosaurs!

The Pterosaur paper is really hitting the media and blogs today. Of course, it is kind of a blogospheric “baby”. One of the authors is my SciBling Darren Naish, the other author is Mark Witton, and even the Academic Editor who handled the manuscript is a scienceblogger.
Darren first broached the idea on his old blog two years ago. He got feedback (the modern version of peer review) in the comments of his post and set out to work on it. Two years later, the paper has passed the ‘traditional’ peer review and got published.
In short, the idea is that gigantic adult pterosaurs did not fly, or at least not very often. They probably could if needed, but they preferred to walk instead. And, as their beaks are as long as 2 meters, a bitesize prey could include some animals of quite decent size, e.g., baby dinosaurs. It would take a very large, very ferocious and very angry Mother Dinosaur to attack and successfully repel an entire flock of these guys!
Darren gives more details in his today’s post. Mark added more images and text onto his Flickr site (go through all images to see text), and they even started a brand new blog just about this paper – Azhdarchid Paleobiology – where you can get even more background and details on their work.
Predictably, other bloggers picked up on it. Check out what they say as well: Greg Laden, Will Baird, JMC Natural History Blog, Zach Miller, El PaleoFreak, Daniel Cressey and I am sure more are in the works. If you intend to write about it (or any other PLoS ONE paper), please, if your software allows it, send trackbacks.
Also, feel free to rate the paper, post notes and comments on it, ask questions – I bet Darren, being a blogger, will not be reluctant to answer right there on the paper itself.

Dino Stars in their own words

Brian Switek has managed to grab some big blogospheric scoops – he interviewed Robert Bakker and Jack Horner and promises more such interviews in the future.

Interview with Svante Paabo

Imagine: An Interview with Svante Paabo:

Svante Paabo works on the edge of what’s possible. He ignites our imagination, unlocking tightly held secrets in ancient remains. By patiently and meticulously working out techniques to extract genetic information from skin, teeth, bones, and excrement, Paabo has become the leader of the ancient DNA pack. Sloths, cave bears, moas, wooly mammoths, extinct bees, and Neanderthals–all have succumbed to his scrutiny.
Paabo (see Image 1) broke ground in 1985, working surreptitiously at night in the lab where he conducted his unrelated PhD research, to extract, clone, and sequence DNA from an Egyptian mummy.

Olduvai George on NPR

I was lucky to be in the car at the right time this morning to catch a story about Mastodons in Manhattan: A Botanical Puzzle, i.e., why honey locust trees in NYCity have long thorns – an interesting story (click on the link and click on “Listen Now”) which, among others, features our blog-friend Carl Buell.

Tiktaalik on audio

Karl Mogel interviews Neil Shubin. Paleontology makes testable predictions, with cool results.

Palaeontologists needed!

Can you help identify this fossil? The experts are baffled.

Who’s scooping whom and why this matters?

Aetosaurs. No, I have not heard of them until now. But that does not matter – the big story about them today is the possibility – not 100% demonstrated yet, to be fair – that some unethical things surround their discovery and naming. And not just Aetosaurs. Some other fossils as well.
As I am not on the inside loop of the story, you need to first read the background story on Aetosaurs by Darren Naish – Part 1 and Part 2.
Then, carefully read Darren’s today’s post and responses by Laelaps, Cryptomundo and Paleochick.
For the ethical side of the story, read Janet’s take.
For the gory details of the story, read the timeline, the entire collection of information and the brief summary of it.
Finally, this was all made public today in an article in Nature. In short, it appears that a group of people have made it a habit to scoop their colleagues by publishing other people’s information (shown by colleagues in private) and naming species faster by using their in-house Journal.
Now imagine a world in a not-so-distant future….
You just spent a long, hard, but exciting day in the Gobi desert. You finally get to eat dinner and shower and get back to your tent and turn on your computer. You post on your blog:
“Gobi. Day 23. It was a very exciting day today – we struck gold: an apparently well-preserved fossil of something that is clearly in the X family, and perhaps related to Y species, but astragalus is so weird – look at this picture of it [insert a photo of the bone]. This is most certainly a new species. It will take a year or two to dig this thing out, clean it up, analyze it and publish the full description, but for now, we name it Blogosaurus….”
And there is a time-stamp on the blog post. And a bunch of palaeo-colleagues post congratulations in the comments. And it is aggregated by a bunch of sites (, Connotea, etc.).
Scoop that if you can!
Everyone knows that you, indeed, are in the Gobi, as they know about your grant proposal for it and they have been following your blog daily, including all the pictures from the trip. They know they did not just see you two hours ago sipping tea in the faculty lounge at your University. They post congratulatory posts on their own blogs. They discuss the pictures and early descriptions that you posted. Over the next months and years, they keep up with the digging, cleaning and analysis by reading your blog. They come to visit and help with analysis. They teach about it in their classes. Finally, when you publish the official description of the Blogosaurus, they add comments on the paper itself.
Of course, as they all also keep blogs, they have changed the official rules of naming, allowing for official publication no matter how many times the name has been mentioned elsewhere, offline or online (as long as the description was not published in another taxonomy journal). And if they discovered that you kept another fossil find a secret, at least for a while, that would raise all sorts of red flags: was there something fishy about the fossil? Why didn’t you immediately tell the world about it if everything was legit? That kind of secretive behavior is automatically suspect, and considered unethical and anti-social.
Sunlight is the best disinfectant…

Dinosaurs! At National Geographic

As usual, they made a great website and you can have fun with the “hidden camera” and try to figure out how many little movies did they have to make for the trick to work (i.e., try to “roar” when the people are on different places on the screen):

In support of this upcoming special, National Geographic has asked that I invite you to experience Dino Central Park []. Featuring a hidden “webcam” in Central Park, the website allows users to scare the pants off of unsuspecting New Yorkers walking through the park by controlling a virtual Dino hidden in the bushes.
Dino Death Trap, premiering Sunday December 9th at 8:00 pm, digs up brand new species of dinosaurs from a lost age of the early Jurassic. Join National Geographic as they travel to western China, deep in the dry and desolate Junggar Basin, when the graves never-before-seen Dinos are uncovered. Some scientists are calling it “The Pit of Death”, others, “Dinosaur Pompeii”. Envision dinosaur corpses stacked one on top of each other, piled four and five high. A bizarre T. Rex ancestor, a Triceratops ancestor, an ancient Crocodilian, and nearly 40 more different species dating back 160 million years ago are uncovered in front of National Geographic cameras. Follow a team of paleontologists, led by Dr. Jim Clark, of George Washington University, and Dr. Xu Xing, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences as they unearth answers to a virtual black hole in dinosaur evolution. Watch as the bones are examined, reconstructed and brought back to life, using high resolution CGI, and slowly probe the mystery of who these dinosaurs were, how they died and what they can tell us about the Lost Age of the Dinosaurs.
Want more Dinosaurs? From, head over to [] where you’ll find 3-D Dino renderings, a fossil hunt game, a Dino mummy timeline, and six video previews of the show. National Geographic even created a “Dino Widget” to help you and your friends determine what kind of Dino they are!
*Disclaimer: Dino Central Park is for entertainment purposes only, and does not feature an actual webcam.

Extreme Dinosaur: Nigersaurus, the Mesozoic Cow!

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research

Today is a super-exciting day for me and I hope you will find it exciting as well. Why?
Because today PLoS ONE published a paper I am very hyped about – Structural Extremes in a Cretaceous Dinosaur by Sereno PC, Wilson JA, Witmer LM, Whitlock JA, Maga A, et al.
Simultaneously with the publication of the paper at 10:30am EST today (and such perfect synchrony took a LOT of work, sweat and nail-biting!), the fossil itself will be unveiled at the National Geographic in Washington D.C. (and you’ll see some snippets from there on TV tonight – more information on channels and times later).
First, why is this dinosaur exciting and then, below, why is the publication of this paper so exciting to me personally.
A French paleontologist, Dr. Philippe Taquet, who led the first fossil expeditions to Niger in the 1960s., brought home some bone fragments that he never named. It took three decades until more of this dinosaur was found. In 1997., a member of Paul Sereno’s team discovered the skull of a bizzare-looking dinosaurus which they named Nigersaurus taqueti in honor of their French predecessor. In 1999., Sereno brought in a crew that dug out an almost complete skeleton of this animal, a younger, smaller cousin of the Diplodocus, one of my favourite dinos since I was a little kid.
[image copyright Todd Marshall, courtesy Project Exploration – click for high-res image]
It usually takes some time for a big dinosaur skeleton to get cleaned and prepared, but in this case it also took some time to do serious head-scratching! The animal was so strange and difficult to interpret!
Although this is a large dinosaur, about elephant-sized, the bones, especially the vertebrae, are extremely hollow – mostly air. Obviously the animal existed and did fine (I believe they found remains of more than one, including babies) although it is hard to fathom that such a large animal could have such a hollow vertebral column without collapsing under the slightest outside pressure. This calls into question the understanding of what the minimal requirements for bone mass are for the skeleton to be useful.
Nigersaurus%20skeleton%20.jpg[image copyright P. Sereno and C. Abraczinskas, courtesy Project Exploration]
The same goes for the skull which is so hollow and minimalistic in its structure that the bones are transparent (see pictures below)! Yet this extremely light-weight skull fed this large animal – again, questioning the current understanding of what the minimal requirements are for a skull to be functional.
The jaw was extremely wide, with about 500 teeth set in a ruler-straight line, being regularly replaced as they wore out. Moreover, the head is positioned in such a way that it strongly suggests that animal was feeding very close to the ground. Apparently, since Marsh uncovered the first Diplodocus in the 1800s, there has been a debate about the mode of feeding in diplodocids, some taking a “long neck = giraffe” view of high tree browsing, while others argued for low-browsing or even grazing close to the ground. The inability of Marsh and later Holland in 1924 to mount the skull of Diplodocus in straight line with the neck (the way usually portrayed in the books of your youth) suggests that the heads of animals in this group tended to point downward, indicating close-to-grouond feeding. Nigersaurus, with the most extreme example of such angle between the head and neck reinforces this notion further. A CT scan of the endocast shows the positioning of the inner ear that also supports this notion.
You can find a LOT of information about the find, pictures and movies, on a beautifully designed Nigersaurus homepage put together by Project Exploration, the science education organization led by Paul Sereno and his wife Gabrielle Lyons.
I got to know Paul Sereno some years ago through his wife who went to grad school at U of Chicago together with my brother. I met Paul in person at SICB meeting in 2000 and then again this summer at Scifoo. Remember this picture:
Yes, that is the Nigersaurus skull in a case I carried from the hotel to the Google campus in August. Here are the pictures I took there that I had to sit on for months now:
During Scifoo, Paul became a strong proponent of Open Access and the publication of this paper in PLoS ONE is a big victory for PLoS, for Open Access and for me personally. In one of roughly 5 billion e-mails I exchanged with Paul over the past couple of months, when he first actually went to PLoS ONE and looked around at papers and author instructions, etc. he wrote back to me [a strong, exclamatory word omitted in order to retain the G-rating of this blog]:

“I have been looking over the PLoS ONE site, what can be attached, how it prints, how it reads online, how it cites, how it allow flexible organization and headings plus it’s commenting and rating tools, it’s so very nice, I don’t think I will ever leave!”.

So, if Sereno likes it, you should, too! Go and read the paper. Rate it. Annotate and comment. Blog about it (I will make a linkfest of all the blogospheric responses) and send trackbacks.

Other blog and media coverage:

Pixelshot: Dinosaur build
University of Chicago News Office: Dinosaur from Sahara ate like a ‘Mesozoic cow’
Latest from the Ann Arbor News: Eureka! New dinosaur discovered
Africasia: Anatomically odd African dinosaur sucked up the greenery
The Associated Press: Dinosaur Found With Vacuum-Cleaner Mouth U-M researchers had role in Nigersaurus puzzle
Kalamazoo Gazette: Dinosaur hunter has deep roots in Kalamazoo
Newswise: Dinosaur from Sahara Ate Like a ‘Mesozoic Cow’ (press release)
EurekAlert: Dinosaur from Sahara ate like a ‘mesozoic cow’
New York Times: A Dinosaur That Grazed Like a Cow
Science Blog: Dinosaur from Sahara ate like a ‘mesozoic cow’
Raw Story: Anatomically odd African dinosaur sucked up the greenery
National Geographic: Dino With “Vacuum Mouth” Revealed
National Geographic: Bizarre Dinosaur Grazed Like a Cow, Study Says
Pharyngula: Nigersaurus, a Cretaceous hedge-trimmer
Scientific Frontline: Dinosaur From Sahara Ate Like A ‘Mesozoic Cow’
Tetrapod Zoology: The world’s most amazing sauropod
Health, Science, & Libraries: Very Interesting …
ScienceDaily: Dinosaur From Sahara Ate Like A ‘Mesozoic Cow’
Raeilgh News & Observer: Dinosaur had mouth like a vacuum cleaner
New Scientist: Odd-jawed dinosaur reveals bovine lifestyle
Pondering Pikaia: Nigersaurus: just when you thought you’d seen everything…
The Esoteric Science Resource Center: ‘…while Nursie is a sad, insane old woman with a dinosaur fixation.’
PLoS Blog: The Nigersaurus has landed
Reuters: Weird dinosaur was ‘cow of the Mesozoic’: report
Panda’s Thumb: Nigersaurus, a Cretaceous hedge-trimmer
Not I, Spake the Soothsayer: Meet A New Dinosaur Dinosaurus bizarrus
Nonoscience: Nigersaurus, the Open Access Dinosaur
Laelaps: Nigersaurus taqueti!
eFluxMedia: CT Imaging Sheds Light on Saharan Nigersaurus taqueti
Chicago Tribune: U. of C. scientist unveils skeleton of plant-eating dinosaur
Hairy Museum of Natural History: A Great Day for Goofy Sauropods
Clioaudio: The Open Access Dinosaur
Effect Measure: Lightweight dinosaur, heavyweight publishing event
Billy the Blogging Poet: The Mesozoic Nigersaurus Dinosaur
Integrated Sciences: The Open Access Dinosaur
Pixelshot: Nigersaurus – raising the bones!
Science After School: Youth Involved in New Dinosaur Discovery
Transcription Factor: Thanks, Bora!
The Esoteric Science Resource Center: More on Nigersaurus
The Beagle Project Blog: Open access science publishing lands a big one
The Tree of Life: Open Access dinosaurs and way to go Paul Sereno
The Great Beyond (Nature): Dinosaur of the Day: a ‘Flintstones lawnmower’
Wired Science: This Week in Dinosaurs: A Mesozoic Vacuum Cleaner, An Accidental Find
Popular Science Blog: Dinosaur That Munched Like a Cow
NPR Morning Edition: ‘Mesozoic Cow’ Rises from the Sahara Desert
Business|bytes|genes|molecules: Dinosaurs come with Creative Commons licenses too
When Pigs Fly Returns: Lawnmowers of the Early Cretaceous
Microecos: Pod People
DailyKos: Open Science Thread
Greg Laden’s blog: Hey, Sb Readers, Get With It!
Crooks And Liars: Mike’s Blog Round Up
Be openly accessible or be obscure: Nigersaurus, the OA dino
Braving the Elements: Strange New Dinosaur
Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week: Xenoposeidon week, day 5: the quest for glory
Curious Cat: Nigersaurus
Gypsy’s Blog: Dinosaur – Living Mower?
Hairy Museum of Natural History: Extreme, Bizarre, Goofy, and Strange
Self-designed Student: Nigersaurus…and a question…
Ocmpoma: I heart PLoS
Everything Dinosaur: Nigersaurus – An unusual long-necked Dinosaur that grazed like a cow
Project Exploration

Dinosaurs are coming to Raleigh!

OK, I live here, yet I had to learn from Brian that the AMNH dinosaur exhibit is coming to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in downtown Raleigh. The exhibit will be open from October 26, 2007 till March 2, 2008 and I will make sure to go and see it while it is in town (and take pictures if they’ll let me and then blog about it). If you come from out of town to see the exhibit, don’t forget to also see the dinos that are on permanent display at the Museum: the Acrocanthosaurus (the only skeleton of its kind displayed anywhere – and it is not a cast either but the real thing) and Thescelosaurus ‘Willo’, the dinosaur with a heart.

Archy digs a mammoth

It’s like letting a kid into a candy store. John McKay, whose favourite blogging topic is the study of extinct pachyderms, finally got to go on a dig. And, as one could expect, his account of it is as excited and as well-informed and detailed as one can expect from him. The Obligatory Reading of the Day.

A Mastodon

Greeting the visitors.

Sean Digs It

I am sometimes not aware that my blogospheric friends know each other well. So, for instance, I had no idea that Sean Carroll of Cosmic Variance blog and the crew at Project Exploration (see the brown square on my left side-bar) are friends. But apparently they are. So, Sean went dinosaur digging and dug out a bunch of bones of a new genus (and took pictures of the process).

Project Exploration at Science Foo Camp

pe-logo.gifAs more and more people are slowly coming out of the woodwork and revealing they are going to Science Foo Camp, I am getting more and more excited about it! Yes, I have registered and reserved my hotel room already.
Sure, people like Neal Stephenson and Carl Djerassi are going to be there (as well as all those bloggers I linked to before – see the link above), but I am so excited to be able, for the first time, to meet in person Gabrielle Lyons, the power behind Project Exploration (the link to their site has been on my sidebar – scroll down – for about a year now). I wrote about it in more detail before.
They are gearing up for a busy summer season, taking inner-city kids to labs, museums and dinosaur digs. That, of course, costs something, but it is a cause worth supporting, so if you can, go here and see how you can help.


China finds new species of big, bird-like dinosaur:

Eight meters (26 ft) long and standing at twice the height of a man at the shoulder, the fossil of the feathered but flightless Gigantoraptor erlianensis was found in the Erlian basin in Inner Mongolia, researchers wrote in the latest issue of Nature.
The researchers said the dinosaur, discovered in April 2005, weighed about 1.4 tonnes and lived some 85 million years ago.
According to lines of arrested growth detected on its bones, it died as a young adult in its 11th year of life.
What was particularly surprising was its sheer size and weight because most theories point to carnivorous dinosaurs getting smaller as they got more bird-like.
“It had no teeth and had a beak. Its forelimbs were very long and we believe it had feathers,” Xu Xing at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology & Paleonanthropology said in a telephone interview.
Through analyzing its skeleton, the researchers believe the Gigantoraptor shared the same ancestor and belonged to the same family as the Oviraptor.

Read the whole thing….
Update: Grrrrl, PZ and NYTimes have more info.
Laelaps, Laelaps again, Tetrapod Zoology and The Hairy Museum of Natural History have more.

Why are dinosaur fossils’ heads turned up and back?

OK, it’s been about 20 years since I was last in vet school and I have fogotten most of the stuff I learned there. But I remember a few things.
I clearly remember the Pathology class (and especially the lab!) and the Five Signs (or stages) of Death: pallor mortis (paleness), algor mortis (cooling), rigor mortis (stiffening), livor mortis (blood settling/red patches) and decomposition (rotting). The linked Wikipedia articles are pitifully anthropocentric, though, and there is much more cool stuff to learn when comparing various animals.
The most interesting of the five signs of death is Rigor Mortis. If you go back to the very basic physiology of muscle contraction, you may remember that ATP is needed for the cross-bridges to be released (i.e., to separate actin from myosin). After death, ATP breaks down and the muscles remain stiff for a period of time until decay and decomposition start breaking down muscle proteins. Exactly when rigor mortis sets in, and when the muscles start softening up again depends on a number of factors, including species, body size, proportional muscle mass, physical condition, physical activity prior to the time of death, age, cause of death, environmental temperature and humidity.
I also remember the word Opisthotonus, a backward arching of the head and neck caused by injury of the cerebellum, meningitis, and some types of poisoning (e.g., strychnine). Opisthotonus also occurs after death as a result of rigor mortis.
Back in vet school, all I was interested in was equine medicine (so I studied other species only as much as needed to pass the class), so I spent some time studying that all-important Ligamentum nuchae in the horse. If you ride and train horses, that is one of the most important pieces of equine anatomy, the biggest and strongest ligament (actually a fused composite of hyndreds of smaller ligaments) in the horse’s body, connecting the poll (top of the head, a ridge on the occipital bone), the top-line of the neck, withers, back, loins, rump and dock (the base of the tail).
I thought back then, that the contraction of the nuchal ligament was the cause of the occurence of opisthotonus after death. The ligament is so large and powerful, no groups of muscles are supposed to be able to counteract this movement. Particularly in later stages after death, as the muscles start decomposing, nothing would stop the ligament to pull the head and neck up.
Apparently, I was wrong:

Smith (1921) mentioned the function of the funicular ligamentum nuchae. He believed it assisted the muscles in keeping the head extended as, for example, when grazing. He also said that shortening of the ligament was responsible for the dorsiflexion (opisthotonus) of the head/neck after death. This is not the case since severing the ligament does not release such dorsiflexion; rigor mortis of the dorsal cervical muscles causes opisthotonus after death.

Now, Grrrl and Laelaps point to and discuss at length a new paper by a veterinarian, Cynthia Marshall Faux, and a famous dinosaur paleontologist Kevin Padian, who argue that the opishtotonus seen in many dinosaur fossils is not a result of rigor mortis, but a result of pre-death brain injury or poisoning. Contrary to the quote above, they did not observe opisthotonus in dead horses.
Apparently, Kevin Padian promised to come by Grrrl’s blog and answer questions in the near future. I’ll let you know when this happens. I am intrigued. Not persuaded yet, but open to changing my mind if their evidence is persuasive. Perhaps opisthotonus has different causes in different fossils, depending on the species and the individual case: some got poisoned or brain-injred, while others curved due to rigor mortis. After all, an Archaeopterix is not exactly built like a horse. What do you think?
Update: Kevin Padian responds.

So, why did the mammoths REALLY go extinct?

A paper in press in Current Biology (press release here) looks at mitochondrial DNA of mammoths and advances a primarily environmental cause for the mammoth extinction. Razib explains why such a black-and-white dichotomy is unhealthy.
Looking at a different hypothesis, also environmental, for the mammoth extinction (comet impact), Archy places the black-and-white dichotomy in the historical context and tries to figure out why the environmental hypotheses are so popular nowadays, while extinction at the hands of human hunters is not a popular idea any more.

More on the Pinon Canyon expansion

In response to my previous post on the subject, I received a following e-mail (personal information omitted) from Colorado:

I’m active in opposing this for many reasons including the forced removal of American citizens from their homes and lands by the U.S. Military, the reality that the expansion serves the purpose of a multinational miltary-industrial complex, the use of the military as a tool of economic development for Colorado Springs, and the destruction of thousands of pre-historic and historic sites including world-class dinosaur digs and track ways.
Here are a couple of things that can be done. Key legislators to communicate concern to are:
Senator Ken Salazar
Rep. Mark Udall
Everybody tells us that (because of the collegiality of the Senate), if one of our Senators will oppose the expansion, it will not happen. So far Senator Salazar has taken a “wait an see”, “let’s work out a win-win arrangement between ranchers and the military” approach. Udall is running to fill a vacant Senate seat and appears likely to win.
Rep. Wes McKinley
Wes sponsored a bill in the Colorado legislature which was signed by the Governor. It withdraws the States consent to the feds to take land for this expansion.
There’s a good documentary on YouTube on the subject.
Another place where you guys might be effective to weigh in is the Environmental Impact Study process. The NEPA person at Fort Carson who will send you a copy of the draft EIS is Robin Renn,

Stop the Pinon Canyon expansion!

These two articles in Colorado Springs Independent and Denver Post are just the latest in an ongoing saga about the move by the U.S.Army to expand its Fort Carson base to include an additional million acres of land full of historical and prehistorical monuments, from wall paintings to dinosaur fossils.
The Fort Carson base, as it is now, is partially a nature preserve (like many military facilities are), but expansion, apart from kicking out many local farmers by using eminent domain, will intrude into areas rich with historical artefacts, not to mention dinosaur bones and tracks, most still not excavated and studied yet.
Lealaps, John Wilkins, MJS and PZ Myers have more information, as well as thoughts about possible motivation, i.e., not just obtuseness and ignorance, but active intent to destroy the area by the increasingly fundamentalist leadership of the Army.
The comparison between this move by the Army and the destruction of Buddhas by the Taliban is apt. Actually, it is worse: Buddhas were hundreds, perhaps thousands of years old and they were human artifacts – they can be rebuilt the way they were before from pictures and blueprints. But the dino bones are millions of years old and are important data towards understanding the history of Life on Earth – they cannot be replaced, even if we knew exactly how they looked like – and we don’t. We don’t have the pictures and blueprints for them.
The Colorado legislature and congressional delegation are, for the most part, against the expansion, but they are probably not strong enough to pull it off by themselves. But you can help. First go to the Pinon Canyon homepage and look around to get informed and see the maps of the place. Then sign the petition and contact elected officials on this matter. Finally – be creative! Make a YouTube movie, or start a Facebook group, or spread the petition through other social networking sites. E-mail your friends. And post about it on your blog if you have one, linking to the official site and petition.

U.S. Army to bomb fossils?!

Are they completely insane?

Ice Age Floods and Mammoths

When Archy writes about mammoths that is automatically the Obligatory Reading of the Day – an amazing post!

Mammoths, many mammoths….

An Ancient Bathtub Ring Of Mammoth Fossils:

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory geologists have put out a call for teeth tusks, femurs and any and all other parts of extinct mammoths left by massive Ice Age floods in southeastern Washington.
The fossils, in some cases whole skeletons of Mammathus columbi, the Columbian mammoth, were deposited in the hillsides of what are now the Yakima, Columbia and Walla Walla valleys in southeastern Washington, where the elephantine corpses came to rest as water receded from the temporary but repeatedly formed ancient Lake Lewis. PNNL geologists are plotting the deposits to reconstruct the high-water marks of many of the floods, the last of which occurred as recently as 12,000 to 15,000 years ago.
“Now is the perfect time to collect geologic and paleontologic data,” said George Last, a senior research scientist at the Department of Energy laboratory in Richland, Wash., whose sideline is researching the ice-age floods. “Winter has eroded the slopes, exposing new evidence. We’re interested in researching any known or suspected mammoth find, to collected additional evidence and to improve documentation of those sites.”

Well, Archy is in that neck of the woods and mammoths are his Big Blogging Topic, so I hope he’ll write something about this soon.