Thursday, 28 October 2010

Exciting Footage of First Life

These video clips have got me very excited for the next series by Sir David Attenborough, First Life. As the title suggests, he discusses the evolution of early life and the first animals - all right up my alley. Enough talking, just watch:

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Doncaster, Ichthyosaurs, and Dodgy Journalism

I always like writing about things which are close to home, whether it is my family home in Doncaster or down here in Portsmouth where I study. I've known about this particular piece of news for quite some time now and had a look at the published paper a couple of weeks ago. Finally the press release has been printed, so I can hop on that wagon and follow suit (erk, mixed metaphor). Up in the Doncaster Museum and Art Gallery is a beautiful ichthyosaur specimen known as Fizzy (chosen by a young girl in a competition) which is near complete and contains gastric contents - the last meal of the hapless marine reptile.

Aside from the specimen being beautifully preserved, it is also important for another reason. It extends the temporal range of Ichthyosaurus by 3 million years into the Pliensbachian (Early Jurassic). This incredible specimen had been in the museum collections for a few decades before my friend and colleague (can volunteers be colleagues?) Dean Lomax recognised its scientific worth.
Dean Lomax in Whitby, in front of a huge dislodged rock.

If I had the time I could flesh this out into an intriguing and insightful story about palaeontology, twisting and turning like a Thalassinoides trace fossil. We'd be able to look into the history of ichthyosaur discoveries, with such luminaries as Mary Anning making an appearance. We'd learn about the frivolity with which museum specimens used to change location, often with no information, rendering them almost useless to science. We'd hear all about how the specimen was misplaced, misidentified and misunderstood for many years, before it became pride of place on display in the museum. Major finds are usually thought to be done in the field, yet we would find that this one occurred in a small museum storage room. We could look at the preservation of the fossil and get insights into the life and death of old Fizzy. We could even take a look at Dean's career thus far and how he is taking what I call the "autodidact palaeontologist" route, now able to call himself a research palaeontologist with a peer reviewed publication under his belt (to see some of his other publications, check out Deposits magazine). We could also peer into the world of biostratigraphy, with the use of the belemnite to identify the age and location of Fizzy - information which was previously lost.

Instead, we can take a look at an area which some palaeontologists fear, one which can become hilarious and cringe-worthy - the press! Our local newspaper, The Star, mentioned the discovery on the front page and dedicated the whole of page 3 to it (imagine if The Sun did it, as if they were declaring fossils to be better than boobies!). I was once told that if you want to get quoted in a newspaper about palaeontology, or if you want an article published, then it is more likely if dinosaurs are mentioned. In an article on an ichthyosaur there is no reason to mention dinosaurs really, sure they were contemporaries and are not too distantly related, but their interactions would have been rare. In the article in question they are mentioned twice within the first two paragraphs, whilst also referring to Dean as Dino Dean. The article even contradicts itself by calling it a "sea dwelling dinosaur" but later mentioning that they are "often mistaken for swimming dinosaurs". They even get the news about the extra 3 million years wrong!

The Star press release.
So if you read the article you might wonder why a dinosaur expert is discussing a dinosaur which is not really a dinosaur and may get a little confused. Although the article is a tad ridiculous, it does bring publicity to our beloved museum and will hopefully cause people to come see Fizzy and the rest of the display collection.

Dean's article was published in Paludicola, a New York based journal. The press release can be seen here. Also check out Dean's site Palaeocritti for more details.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Benoit Mandelbrot Dies at 85

The great mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot has died at the age of 85 from pancreatic cancer. He is famous for his work on fractal geometry, which has been used in numerous disciplines, from biology to economics. This news has only just been announced, with the first obituary being published online during the time I was planning on writing this piece, see here. Fractal geometry has been used to explain cloud formations, the folding of mammalian brains, the branching of trees, crystal growth and more, it even suggests that the coastline of Britain is infinite! Fractals are also very aesthetically pleasing, mesmerising even, so, in memory of Mandelbrot, here is a video of a fractal zoom.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Like Vulgarity? If the answer is no, look away...

Personally I found this website hilarious as it is such a ridiculous idea. The website in question is Dinosaurs Fucking and shows images of, well, dinosaurs fucking robots. Some of them are terrible, but quite a lot of them are of high quality. They also include inspirational phrases and quotes, bringing more depth to each image. Here are a couple I particularly like:


Thursday, 14 October 2010

Words of the Week

Since getting the internet at my house I was meant to be updating regularly, yet I haven't. I have a lot planned but don't appear to be implementing anything (except a new post on Kale Ktisis today). I've had some commitments taking up my time: the band; the girlfriend; the work for the course; and lots of hanging around with friends. So, in order to contribute at least once a week, I have a new idea. I have a bit of a passion for words; I've been called a logophile in the past and that is quite accurate. I'm also a trainee palaeobiologist (a fancy way of saying I study it) so I come across lots of new terms from geology to biology. Whenever I come across a new term which I find aesthetically pleasing I will share it here, allowing me to briefly talk about the subject. Here's a round-up of some of my favourite words of the last few weeks:

Diplocraterion yoyo: This is not strictly a term, but is an ichnospecies (meaning it is the name of a type of trace fossil). Trace fossils are not classified by exactly what made them (most of the time) as different species can produce the same tracks, whilst conversely a single species can produce a range of tracks. The form of Diplocraterion yoyo is a vertical burrows with spreiten (curved lines within the burrow) which show that the organism, likely a bivalve mollusc, had to move up and down in the burrow, adjusting its position to maintain equilibrium. This is indicative of high energy marine environments. 
Not the most useful picture, but I might be going there in a couple of weeks.
My lectures on trace fossils yield a lot of interesting names such as Spongeliomorpha and Maiakarichnus, or today's Coprinisphaera, which means "spherical poo". 

Synchotron Radiation X-ray Tomographic Microscopy (SRXTM): I can't say much about this, I just liked how long it was. 

Ichnocoenosis: Another trace fossil term, which means 'the trace fossil assemblage produced by what approximates to the work of a single community of trace fossils'. It reminds me of another good palaeo term: thanatacoenosis (death assemblage). 

Allochthonous: Defined by the Oxford Dictionary of Earth Sciences as 'not indigenous; acquired. In the Earth sciences the term is applied to geological units that originated at a distance from their present position.'

Zosterophyllophyta and Trimerophytophyta: Two classes of early terrestrial plants found in the Devonian. The zosterophylls have dichotomous branching, with lateral sporangia showing dehiscence, with often curled terminations to the branches. The trimerophytes show dichotomous and trifurcate branching, with terminal sporangia aggregated on fertile branches and are thought to have given rise to all vascular plants except the lycopods. Is it obvious that I just copied this from my palaeobotany notes because I liked the names?

Gelbstoff: This German portmanteau can be translated as yellow stuff and refers to some yellow stuff found in the ocean (polyphenolic compounds). I like this term because I am gaining a fondness for German words and phrases (me and some of my friends have a habit of shouting random German phrases, especially strong sounding ones like this, but also my girlfriend is studying German and I am going there with uni next year, perhaps I could also learn to read Seilacher papers in German...). Another German phrase I keep trying to use lately is Weltanschauung, which pretty much means world-view. 

I'll end with this imposing picture of a chaetognath head, though I wanted to end with an amusing picture of a polychaete trochophore, but the exact image I wanted is being elusive:

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Pink Dinosaurs - The Best Way to Raise Money!

Ladies and gentlemen, spread the news and get out your pens and pencils, our time to draw pink dinosaurs and contribute to society has finally come! The Art Evolved group are raising money for cancer research and you can join in. For every picture they receive of a pink dinosaur they will donate $1 to the Canadian Cancer Society. I've not yet drawn my own pink dino, but once I get my hands on some pink pencils I shall do it! So, head here and join in! Fight cancer with palaeoart!

Normally I would not want to simply repeat someone else's blog post, but this was worth mentioning. I read about it over on where you can see Mark Witton's pink pterosaur contribution.

Monday, 4 October 2010

How Did Giant Pterosaurs Take Off?

In case you didn't know, some pterosaurs were enormous. Standing as tall as giraffes, and not too dissimilar (see here), means that their ability to fly has often been brought into question (see here for a negative, poppy article). Instead of wading straight into the debate, which gets pretty catty as the protagonists hail from different fields (from palaeontology to physics), we might start by supposing that they could fly (a paper in favour of this will be published soon, or so I hear....) as we would still have a pretty huge question to answer: how did they get up into the air?

For a longer discussion on this, see this excerpt from an upcoming book by palaeontologist Mark Witton (out next year by the looks of it). Put simply, the problem is as follows: pterosaurs appear to have not had strong enough legs to launch themselves into the air as birds do. This might not seem like a problem if you imagine the huge beasts diving off of cliffs and catching the air like a paraglider might, however, the larger pterosaurs are most abundant in flat, terrestrial environments, even preying on small dinosaurs. Without the use of powerful leg muscles, or cliffs to sail off, how on Earth did they launch themselves?

It turns out they very well might have used their incredibly strong flight muscles in their arms to do the job, using some acrobatics which to us might seem insane, yet are the same sort of movement used by some vampire bats. There are even rumours of a trackway showing this sort of movement. Trying to explain what this would look like seems like a lot of effort, especially considering that there is this excellent video:

I'd love to show the video side by side with another of a vampire bat taking off, as seeing the action for real is great for lessening incredulity, plus it shows how informed palaeontologists need to be about the extant zoological world. Instead, as finding a good video at short notice is not always easy, this short clip of a bat running on a treadmill can give you an idea of how bats achieve their previously unique launch.

Imagining the brobdingnagian pterosaurs launching themselves in this fashion would truly be a sight to behold, though when we remind ourselves that it is highly possible that pterosaurs were able to fly quite soon after hatching, then we get to imagine cute, little pterosaurs doing exactly the same. I'd pay to see it.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Breaking News - Apparently Portsmouth and Dinosaurs Do Not Mix!

Over the summer the city of Portsmouth was graced by the visit of a life-sized sauropod model, standing proud on Southsea Common. The model stood 53ft (16m) tall and 72ft (22m) long and was apparently visible from the Isle of Wight. This was no scientific model, but an artistic sculpture based on brutalist architecture, evident by its square legs and curved forms. Its purpose on Southsea Common was both pragmatic and aesthetic; it functioned as both artwork to admire and a shelter on the common.

The model, called Luna Park, was designed and constructed by Heather and Ivan Morison, two Serbian car factory workers. It was transported from Serbia to Southsea by ship and lorry, separated into six parts, made from a steel skeleton and a hard polyester shell. The model was due to be moved to Colchester on the 10th of October and then on to Cardiff, before it could have potentially returned to Portsmouth permanently.

I first heard about this model due to Facebook, as over summer some friends had seen it. Sadly I had no idea that it was staying for so long, so I never visited it. Sadly, I never will.

The sad bit

This morning, during my palaeobotany lecture, we were told that the sculpture had been set on fire at around 2.00 in the morning (2.40am according to the local newspaper). My lecturer quipped that it might have been some of the vertebrate palaeontologists who work in conjunction with the university, annoyed at some anatomical mistake or some such thing. Sadly the razed dinosaur is likely the handiwork of local idiots engaging in a spot of arson, leaving only a mangled, black frame.

In my opinion this is bad news for Portsmouth. The model had a lot of potential, which interestingly could have some amusing ironic twists accompanying it. The model was steadily becoming iconic and much loved by the locals, but any chance of a permanent model has been ruined. It would have been interesting to have a model dinosaur, despite the fact that none are found in Portsmouth, whereas the Isle of Wight has yielded plenty. The other source of amusement, for me at least, would be the idea of an anatomically incorrect (or rather, simply artistic) dinosaur on the common, when there are qualified vertebrate palaeontologists just down the road. However, even that would not be as amusing as the fact that Genesis Expo is a stone's throw away - the creationist "museum" in Portsmouth, happily promoting the idea of dinosaurs and man living side by side.

The nomen dubium issue

The design of the dinosaur is based on Ultrasauros, which is not a typo for Ultrasaurus. Sadly the BBC News story gets the background to this dinosaur wrong, labelling it a fraud, "fabricated" by Professor Jim Jenson. The only thing they seem to get right is that it was a composite (or chimera) of two different species. The real story is one which any palaeontologist can be sympathetic with and not one of glory-seeking deception.

In 1972 Jensen discovered an enormous sauropod which he named Supersaurus vivianae. He also discovered another huge sauropod in 1979, which he named Ultrasaurus macintoshi, which was nomen nudum as it had not been published. Ultrasaurus was thought to be one of the biggest sauropods. Then in 1983 a palaeontologist called Haang Mook Kim believed he had discovered another species of Ultrasaurus and gave it the name Ultrasaurus tabriensis; Kim did actually publish with this name, which caused problems when it turned out that his analysis was mistaken and these two dinosaurs were not of the same genus. As Kim was the first to publish, due to ICZN regulations the original Ultrasaurus could not be given this name, so in 1991 George Olshevsky renamed it Ultrasauros. 

It later turned out that Ultrasauros was not an actual dinosaur, but an accidental combination of the bones of two separate dinosaurs, which were then identified as the already existing genera Supersaurus and Brachiosaurus. The name Ultrasauros is now a junior synonym for Supersaurus as those were the main bones used to "type" the specimen. Interestingly the name Ultrasaurus is now considered nomen dubium as not enough is known about it to warrant it its own genus.

It is startling that the BBC News site got this so wrong, instead stating that it was a case of fraud. Instead it is the usual case of mistaken identity, which happens often with such incomplete fossils.

For the BBC article from before the dinosaur was displayed in Portsmouth see here. For the post-arson article see here. For the local newspaper article, see here.

The Palaeobabbler has landed.

So, I've been absent from blogging for the last month, something which I have found very frustrating. So to start off I thought I would plug myself a little bit. Here's my band Rh'edlion, with a demo for new song Educate Yourself. I'm not on this one, so if you want to hear my guitar playing check out the Myspace page.

Also, as my posts lately have simply been apologies and not much more, I thought I would give links to some of my older posts which I think make for good reading. It can be hard to find something worth sinking your teeth into on a blog like this, so here are the sciencey posts I think newcomers would most enjoy.


The following is a blog about discerning metaphysical views in explanations of evolution:

In the early days of my blog I wrote this explanation of punctuated equilibria as it is very often misunderstood:

Here's a piece about the evidence for evolution, using only whales:

A couple of months ago I decided to do a series on how evolution works, yet I have only done part one. Part two will follow soon hopefully (I wanted a specific book from the library to reference). Here is part one:

Here's a recent piece which fits very well with the whale one as it is about sharks and dolphins:


Here's a quick list of popular science books which I think give a good perspective of palaeontology:

This is a relatively recent piece I did about Martian palaeontology which whips through a few interesting topics:

This is a personal piece about my own findings and my local geology:

Here's a random piece about a particular Ediacaran fossil:

Followed by a second random part:

Some Ediacaran ramblings: