Stories tagged fossils

Mar
09
2008

A couple of "very large" bats: And do you know what they're thinking about? They're thinking about watching you when you're asleep, and maybe climbing into your hair.
A couple of "very large" bats: And do you know what they're thinking about? They're thinking about watching you when you're asleep, and maybe climbing into your hair.Courtesy robotbreeder
A recent issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology reports the discovery of half a dozen new (that is to say extinct) species of “giant” fossilized bats in Africa. The bats date from the Eocene, about 35 million years ago, and will no doubt shed great light on bat evolution. For instance, it has been thought that the northern hemisphere was the site of most bat evolution—that bat species went through the greatest diversification only after reaching the northern hemisphere—and now it seems that bats evolved into their modern forms in Africa before dispersing across the world.

The six new fossils are some of the most recent products of more than 25 years of fieldwork in Africa, and the largest of them would have weighed just less than half a pound in life; it was a “giant.”

The discovery and associated press release leads me to a single, important conclusion: people toss around the term “giant” way too freely. I realize that it’s something of a relative term (too be fair, the paleontologist said that the fossil was a “giant among bats”), but I think things have simply gone too far. Nothing that weighs less than half a pound is “giant” (unless it’s, like, a paperclip. That would be a pretty big paperclip), and some guidelines need to be set forth. I propose the following as a starting point, and I would appreciate additional points from readers.

1)Objects that are normally small (equal to or lesser than a 30 pound bag of dog food), to obtain the descriptor of “giant,” must be equal to in size or larger than a dog. Which dog? My brother’s dog, Morgan.

2)Objects normally of normal size (“normal size” being defined as a mass differing from my own by no more than forty pounds) may be called “giant” only if they exceed said forty pounds, or are of a “normal” mass, but are physically large enough to make me uncomfortable.

3)For food items to be accurately termed “giant” they must be at least twice their normal size, and potentially pose a physical threat to nearby humans. For example, while I might be able to choke on a normal sized hamburger in the course of chewing and swallowing, a truly “giant” hamburger would have to pose a suffocation risk while still outside of my mouth. A food item like a pancake, which could cause suffocation at its normal size, would then have to be large enough to, say, weigh a body down to the point where the victim could no longer reach another source of food or water (obviously a dangerous situation).

4)For monsters, a creature must be large enough to cause significant structural damage to a building of no less than three stories. So something like Bigfoot, while certainly still “big,” is not technically “giant.” At least not until it obtains demolition tools—who would argue with it then?

“Giant” rules aside, I’m still not sure that this Eocene fossil quite qualifies, even as a “giant among bats.” Flying Foxes, for instance, can achieve a wingspan of nearly six feet, and weigh up to a kilogram. Even though this wouldn’t place the Flying Foxes in the category of “giant” according to my rules (see guideline #1—giant fruit bats remain smaller than Morgan), they certainly blow the fossil bats out of the water. Or out of the sky. Or out of the dirt, I guess.

This may seem like a petty concern to raise, but I only do it for the good of society. When something really giant shows up (and something will—watch Godzilla if you don’t believe me), we’ll need some potent adjectives to deal with it. What we’re doing now is like abusing antibiotics. Potentially worse.

Jan
08
2008

An alternate theory holds that dinosaurs died of embarrassment: A Fredrogersaurus, obviously wishing he were dead, extinct, or just anywhere but here.
An alternate theory holds that dinosaurs died of embarrassment: A Fredrogersaurus, obviously wishing he were dead, extinct, or just anywhere but here.Courtesy Elston

Biting insects spread all kinds of diseases. (You can learn all about this in the Science Museum’s newest exhibit, Disease Detectives.) Now a scientists thinks they may have also helped kill off the dinosaurs. George Poinar, a professor of zoology at Oregon State University, notes that many insects from dinosaur times have been preserved in amber. Many of them carry microbes that can cause malaria, dysentery and other illnesses. He speculates that these illnesses could have been the major cause of the dinosaurs’ long, slow demise. The asteroid impact / volcanic activity / climate change simply finished them off.

Poinar and his wife Roberta have published a book, What Bugged The Dinosaurs? Insects, Disease And Death In The Cretaceous. In it they also note that, late in the dinosaur era, flowering plants spread rapidly, helped along by newly-evolved insect pollinators. This sudden change in available food may have also played a hand in the dinos’ extinction.

Jan
06
2008

A bear practices its fighting skills on a monkey: What a strange picture.
A bear practices its fighting skills on a monkey: What a strange picture.Courtesy scottobear
Fantasy cage matches, I have found, are a good way to pass the time. Bear vs. robot got me through most of junior high. How would that turn out? Robot would probably win, really, with all that mechanical strength, and maybe laser eyes, but you never know; bears are tenacious, and the Terminator series has set a long precedence for against-the-odds robot defeats.

The possibilities for these match ups are endless: bear vs. robot, robot vs. vampire, right brain vs. left brain, toaster vs. bread – you get the idea. Just let your imagination run free, and hypothetical combat scenarios can forever replace the humdrum activities of everyday life.

Every so often, I’ve found, the real world will even throw out a match for the ages. Recently discovered fossils in China suggest that around 400,000 years ago giant pandas and an extinct species of giant ape were in direct competition for the same ecological niche.

Pandas 400,000 years ago were more or less like modern pandas. They were a little bit bigger, but, like the pandas of today, they ate bamboo almost exclusively. The apes in question, gigantopithecus blacki, were probably the largest that have ever lived. Gigantopithecus was about ten feet tall, weighed twelve hundred pounds, and probably ate… bamboo.

So we have huge bears and super huge apes both looking to get their paws on the same sweet, juicy, ancient Chinese bamboo. Would they have ever actually thrown down, though? And would it matter if they did, without someone there to see it? It would have been like a tree falling in the woods, with no one around (if falling trees weren’t so boring). Except, it turns out, there may have been someone around after all.

Some archaeologists believe that ancient human may have been a third contender in the competition for food (bamboo?) and habitat in region. Gigantopithecus and early humans probably had about half a million years of overlap before the ape went extinct around 300,000 years ago, and if humans “migrated like the panda through what is now southern China, they likely had contact with the giant apes.”

Spectacular. Human/giant ape interactions are usually pretty interesting, and with a big bear thrown in the mix… well, anything could happen.

No, not quite anything. The apes went extinct, humans came out of it pretty well, and the bears did so-so.

New fossil evidence indicates that the ancestors of modern kangaroos walked on four legs, had fangs and climbed trees -- a sobering thought. Meanwhile, scientists studying marsupial flatulence have discovered that kangaroo gas contains no methane, and thus does not contribute to greenhouse gasses. A spokesman for kangaroos said he was glad no kangaroos were involved in changing the Earth's climate.

Nov
30
2007

Dinosaurs are lurking everywhere: This photo of a Chinese dinosaur was taken over two years ago at The Pink Palace Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. It was the last roll of 35mm film I ever shot.  I only had it developed this week.
Dinosaurs are lurking everywhere: This photo of a Chinese dinosaur was taken over two years ago at The Pink Palace Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. It was the last roll of 35mm film I ever shot. I only had it developed this week.Courtesy Gene

Three unrelated stories, or a frightening pattern?

A geology student in England discovered a new dinosaur species --
in a museum storeroom.
The fossil had been collected in 1894 but never fully studied.

A scientists in Germany, looking through a museum’s fossil collections, stumbled across a rock slab that captured a shark eating an amphibian, while the amphibian was in the act of eating a fish. Again, the fossil had been lying in a museum cabinet for years before a researcher stumbled across it and recognized its meaning.

Meanwhile, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto rediscovered an 80-foot dinosaur skeleton they forgot they had. A nearly-complete skeleton of a Borosaurus arrived in 1962. But because the museum didn’t have enough space to display it, the bones went into storage, spread over many cabinets until workers lost track of what was where. An employee, looking for skeletons to borrow from other museums, ran across an old newspaper clipping describing the fossil.

So, when your Mom tells you to keep your room clean, there’s a reason – she doesn’t want you to lose any dinosaurs!

About 290 million years ago, a prehistoric shark ate an amphibian, which in turn ate a frog—and all three were preserved in one of the first food-chain fossils ever discovered (National Geographic News). Click here to see Berlin Museum of Natural History images.

Nov
07
2007

For most people, the scariest part of the hit movie Jurassic Park was when a pack of Velociraptors was hunting down the two little kids in the kitchen. (For me, the most disappointing part of the movie is the fact that the kids got away – they were so annoying, I was rooting for the raptors to eat them for lunch!)

You dare to question the wisdom of Steve?: The omnipotent Spielberg knows all!  All hail, magnificent and mellifluous Steve! Photo by felinebird at Flickr.com
You dare to question the wisdom of Steve?: The omnipotent Spielberg knows all! All hail, magnificent and mellifluous Steve! Photo by felinebird at Flickr.com

Scientists, wet blankets that they are, complained. Velociraptors, they said, were about the size of a turkey. The creatures in the movie were nearly the size of an adult human. Ah, said Spielberg. If you think there were no large raptors, it’s only because you haven’t discovered them yet. Sure enough, almost at the same time the movie was released, paleontologists uncovered a new species, Utahraptor, that fit the movie version to a T.

Suitably cowed, the scientists learned not to question Sir Stephen again. But, over the years, other nagging complaints arose. The movie showed the dinosaurs hunting in packs. But dinosaurs are reptiles, not known for social behavior, and there was no evidence to support this portrayal. Furthermore, each raptor had a huge claw on one toe, and Spielberg showed them walking with the claw held high, not touching the ground. Again, grumblings were heard – there is no evidence to support this hypothesis.

But such is the power of Saint Stephen that he was able to foresee additional paleontological discoveries fourteen years into the future! For now comes word from China of a fossil track way – dinosaur footprints fossilized in stone. The tracks show six Dromeosaurs – another species of raptor – walking side-by-side as a group along a stream bank. Furthermore, the tracks show complete toe prints for two toes on each foot, but only a half-print for the third toe – the toe that held the claw. This indicates that these dinosaurs did walk with their giant claw held erect -- just like the movie said they would!

Scientists have learned their lesson. No longer do they question the word of the Mighty Spielberg. Instead, they are engaged in a mad scramble to find evidence that Dilophosaurus really did have a neck frill and could spit venom.

Wayne Knight is not returning phone calls.

(NOTE: The November Object of the Month at The Science Museum is a set of fossil animal tracks. You can read all about them here. These are much older and much smaller than dinosaur tracks – but no less interesting!)

The Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta, Canada led a fossil-hunting expedition to Mongolia. The trip just recently ended, but you can read all about it on their blog.

Aug
28
2007

Lucy: Image courtesy of the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
Lucy: Image courtesy of the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
This Friday the Houston Museum of Natural Science is opening an exhibit called Lucy’s Legacy: The Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia. The exhibit features the 3.18 million-year-old hominid skeleton Lucy, which remains the oldest and most complete adult human ancestor. The exhibit will also feature over 100 artifacts that highlight Ethiopia's rich cultural heritage. The exhibit has generated a lot of media attention, and not just because this will be only the fourth time the fossil hominid has been on display.

Some scientists and researchers fear that involving Lucy in a 6 year North American tour puts the delicate fossil at an unnecessary risk as it travels from Ethiopia, around North America and then back to Ethiopia. Some museums have refused to host the exhibit for this very reason, and several members of the scientific community have spoken out quite openly about their objection to the exhibit and the tour. Some Ethiopian immigrants in Houston are urging a boycott of the exhibit. And the exhibit goes against a 1998 UNESCO resolution, signed by scientists from 20 countries, that says fossils such as Lucy should not be moved outside of the country of origin except for compelling scientific reasons.

The president of the Houston Museum of Natural Science disagrees. “The display of original artifacts is crucial to the educational impact of museum exhibitions. Anyone can make a copy. But the experience of standing before an authentic historical artifact, whether ancient parchments or multi-million-year-old fossils, is a call to the intellect, to discover more about the world and perhaps even more about yourself. The Lucy fossil in particular evokes a strong response from everyone who sees her, and as such, she is the ultimate goodwill ambassador for Ethiopia. Lucy not only validates Ethiopia’s claim as the Cradle of Mankind, she also introduces viewers to the rich cultural heritage that has flourished in Ethiopia over the course of the last 3,000 years, and to the vibrant country that Ethiopia is today.”

Part of the reason Ethiopia agreed to send Lucy on this tour is financial – Ethiopia, one of Africa’s poorest countries, received an undisclosed amount of money to release the fossil for the tour, and also gets a portion of the ticket sales. In addition, government officials hope that people who see the exhibit and who learn not only about Lucy, but also about Ethiopia, will be inspired to visit the country.

What do you think? Does the tour of Lucy put the fossil at unnecessary risk? Or, does the value of exhibiting Lucy and allowing people to learn and be inspired by the fossil outweigh the risk?

An interesting side note: Lucy was named after the Beatle’s song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds which was playing when the researchers were discussing what to name the fossil. In the Ethiopian language, she is called Dinknesh, which means the wonderful, the fabulous, the precious. And, Ethiopia does have some really interesting stuff – check out the amazing monolithic Church of St. George, for just one example.