Monday, 15 November 2010

Pterosaurs are not dinosaurs!

Just a quick little rant, as I saw two articles discussing Mark Witton's latest paper on pterosaur flight, referring to them as dinosaurs.

The Sun went with "How dinos soared.." and declared that "WINGED dinosaurs WERE capable of flight". This deplorable article can be seen here.

The Telegraph went for "Dinosaur the size of a giraffe could fly across continents" though oddly enough the article is not too bad as it pretty much just quotes Mark constantly, see here.

So, for the last time, PTEROSAURS ARE NOT DINOSAURS!!!

The artwork featured with the articles.

Not long ago I blogged about how pterosaurs took off, based on the writing of Mark Witton. See here.

Googling "fossil plants" has interesting results...

Some time last week I was busy searching Google, not for fossil plants, but for something else (should I offer a prize for anyone who guesses?). As I typed in "fossil pla..." Google naturally tried to pre-empt me with fossil plants, allowing me to see something which amused me greatly:

Zoom in if you have to, as the first image that comes up is not a fossil plant, but a crinoid. I don't know how many palaeontologists joke about crinoids being flowers, but it is a habit amongst my group of friends, so finding this was hilarious. We have a crinoid loving mate, who naturally was tagged in this image on Facebook. Ah Google, how I love thee....

I also love the irony of the fact that I am one of the main people to mock crinoids by calling them flowers, when I actually do like them and am obsessed with Ediacaran forms, many of which are frond-like and are easily mistaken for plants (my girlfriend, to my dismay, exclaimed that Charnia was a leaf as we were watching First Life).

Dolomite? Pretty?

Whenever I hear the word "dolomite" I want to run away. I don't know any palaeontologist who likes the stuff and I feel like it has been following me around a fair bit. Back home I live on top of the Magnesian Limestone, which is dolomite, and because of that fossils are sparse. Dolomite is limestone which has been altered (to simplify a tad) and the process is not good for any fossils in the rock. Dolomite was also heavily present during my mapping trip in Spain, though it did give quite a dramatic landscape.
The dolomite ridge known as "Las Cuchilleras". 
Even though the dolomite has created some interesting topography, I still couldn't have imagined anyone thinking of it as nice to look at. Until today that is. We were shown images of the results of cathodoluminescence on dolomite:
On the left are the samples before luminescence. 

How nice are they! To me they conjure up images of the classical understanding of Hell, the sort found in Dante's Inferno. Have some more:

Friday, 12 November 2010

Oldest Fossil Terrestrial Vertebrate Embryos Found! (they're dinosaurs too...)

Found in South Africa, the fossilised eggs date back to the Jurassic, 190 million years ago, and are a dinosaur known as Massospondylus, a prosauropod. They were discovered during preparation, which required high powered microscopes to achieve. Their exceptional preservation allowed for full reconstruction, giving incredible insight into dinosaur ontogeny. The almost hatchlings show how much of the skeleton had become bone and show that dinosaurs began life much like we do - with odd proportions. They had disproportionally large heads and walked on all fours, whereas their older form used bipedal locomotion to get around. They also had shorter necks and this data suggests that their necks and hind limbs grew faster than their heads and forelimbs during their life.

They also lacked teeth, which when combined with the awkward body proportions suggests that they received parental care after hatching (unlike pterosaurs which could fly soon after hatching). If so, then this is not only the oldest example of terrestrial vertebrate embryos and of dinosaur embryos, but also the oldest record of parental care. 

For more, see this press release.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Frustration is spelled T-H-R-U-H-Z-D-R-A-Y-S-H-U-N

On Saturday I had to pop upstairs in the student union for a band photo-shoot (shudder) and ended up waiting for a bit in 3rd space, an area for just chilling out, maybe working, things like that. It turned out that it was Dino Day, an event organised mostly for kids in honour of the dinosaur statue which was destroyed a couple of months ago. There were pretty girls painting dinosaurs on faces, activities to take part in, pictures to draw, things to make and whatever else you might expect from such a day. How could it go wrong?

Where I was sitting there were word-searches with dinosaur themed words. I chuckled at the fact that they used the American spelling of palaeontologist (spelled paleontologist) and jokingly corrected it. I then noticed that the artwork of a course-mate was on display, so I wandered over to admire them and peruse the other information. I was horrified. Spelling mistakes were rife and factual errors abounded. If I had a pen on me I would have scribbled all over it. I thankfully don't remember what many of the errors were, though spelling Mesozoic as "Mesozaic" is forgiveable, as long as you don't also add "Palaeozaic" and "Cenozaic" as well, which they did! I also cannot fathom how they ended up calling Gallimimus an oviraptor.....

Such lack of care by the student union is surprising, considering many of the mistakes could easily be corrected with a simple spell checker and the use of children's books on dinosaurs. Or they could have made use of the roughly 50 palaeontologists wandering around the university (1 professor, around 3 lecturers, a couple of post-doc researchers on a good day, a couple of doctoral and masters students, plus  around 40 undergrads). If only one had gotten involved then such mistakes would not have been made. *sigh*

Friday, 5 November 2010

First Thoughts on First Life

Sir David Attenborough's newest documentary, First Life, has just aired on BBC2 and naturally I watched it excitedly. I've not seen the Ediacaran fossils covered properly in a documentary, even though Attenborough has looked at some of them before. The last time I saw them getting a good mention was when the delectable Liz Bonnin looked at them in Bang Goes the Theory, but that did not give them much coverage. The latest series of Sir David made them the main focus, touted as the first examples of complex life and of our own animal kingdom. There is another episode to come next week and accompanying the series is a book which I intend to read and review at some point. Until then I shall provide a very brief review of the episode I just watched.
Sir David Attenborough and Charnia masoni. 

When watching documentaries about a subject I am fond of I have a bad habit of trying to predict what they are about to say, so when I come away having learnt a few things I love it. This is often true of Attenborough documentaries, which he narrates over stunning visuals which keep us gripped. I am pleased to say that I learnt a few things. I have not yet got to grips with how the Ediacaran forms relate to each other temporally, which this documentary did well, introducing the fractal and frondose forms first, ghost-like in appearance and living in the deep sea (they say quite confidently what colour they might have been, which bugged me a little). I didn't even know just how big Charnia could grow, as I was more familiar with the classic Charnwood forest example. It was also mentioned that the fractal form of Fractofusus used only 6 to 8 genetic commands, something I would love to know more about.
Fractofusus from Mistaken Point.
They then moved forward in time, showing the shallow water icons of Ediacara such as Spriggina, Dickinsonia and Kimberella. This is where I started to disagree with them a little. They showed a beautiful Dickinsonia which appears to be at the end of a trail (making it a mortichinia trace) showing that it was mobile, though likely very slow. This is another thing I know little about, so I can't comment right now. Whenever Spriggina was mentioned I was not as impressed, for they kept referring to it as bilateral even though it shows glide symmetry, in which each side is slightly offset and not an exact mirror image. The animations showed it as some sort of proto-arthropod confidently moving around, which is hardly surprising with Jim Gehling as an advisor. I'm not completely against this interpretation as it is a simple shoehorn, but it is not without its difficulties. Kimberella on the other hand is one I don't mind being shoehorned, as its morphology and likely radula marks do make it seem very molluscan.

Before the documentary was shown in full I watched a few clips on Youtube, one of which intrigued me rather a lot and made me quite sceptical. Mary Droser was shown discussing Funisia, a fossil which she claims as the first providing evidence of sexual reproduction. The clip showed that the evidence for this were clusters of traces which varied little in size, showing that they were of the same age. At first I couldn't figure out why this would indicate sexual reproduction, so it was fortunate that the documentary showed why. Corals reproduce in the same way, occasionally asexually, but then sometimes sending out large amounts of sperm and eggs to found new colonies, all of which would be the same age, just like the Funisia found. See here for a little more.
Funisia fossils and a reconstruction.

The next really fascinating bit showed the research of Phil Donoghue from the University of Bristol, using an enormous synchrotron to look at fossil embryos. Using the powerful technology he is able to see the developing organism inside the egg sac, even after half a billion years. The reconstructions show that the worm inside had teeth at the front and a gut running right through the middle. This thing was both complex and predatory. Early embryos are yet another area I really need to look into, perhaps I could pester him in Bristol when I go next week.....

Overall the documentary is well worth watching; as ever the visuals are great, the reconstructions are not amazing but are quite fascinating, the insight is excellent and the fossils are beautifully filmed. Although I disagree with some aspects I know that is inevitable when it comes to Ediacarans and I learnt a lot from this, giving me new areas to research. If you missed it, then BBC iPlayer is your new best friend.

Seeing Dinosaurs in a New Light

A controversial view in dinosaurology is the idea that the king of the tyrant lizards itself, Tyrannosaurus rex, was a scavenger rather than the expert hunter we all think of. If you want to annoy dinosaur palaeontologists, then express this as your own view and watch their blood boil. (For the record I do believe it scavenged, a lot too, but also hunted as it would have been very opportunistic and from time to time likely did not have to fight too much for its food, stealing off of others instead, but I have digressed from the point.) Another interesting view, one which I have only just stumbled upon and which, as far as I am aware, has not been published on, is the idea of those peaceful, grazing ceratopsians (Triceratops and friends) as omnivores, tearing the flesh off of carrion violently every now and again.

I found this idea when I saw an article on the Guardian website about dinosaurs having feathers, where the accompanying artwork by Mark Witton showed a Styracosaurus albertensis depicted scavenging a dead tyrannosaur. Some of the comments show that people found this outrageous, but when he first drew the picture he spent time justifying it, as you can see on his Flickr site.
I must admit that I like the idea, as the line between carnivory and herbivory is blurred in extant animals, with many herbivores occasionally eating meat, especially those which require a lot of calcium - acquiring it by munching on bones now and again. Ceratopsians appear to have had jaws which would have been quite effective at devouring flesh, perhaps even being overkill if used solely on plants. Of course, it is not being suggested that they only ate meat, far from it, but that they might occasionally have tore into some flesh if they happened upon it, giving them a more balanced diet. An implication of this is that they may have been much more aggressive creatures, as opposed to the docile grazers we usually imagine. Most large herbivores, not least the hippo, are quite aggressive creatures, especially when the need calls for it. Imagining a herd of Triceratops fighting over a carcass is quite thrilling compared to the classic plant munching and may even have actually happened.

For some interesting discussion about this, also see the Tet Zoo blog which featured the image and read the ensuing discussion here.

A Luis Rey image with some bone munching going on.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Mystery Solved!

In my previous post I finally talked about my trips to France and Spain, which I really should have finished a long time ago. Whilst there my girlfriend stumbled across something which had me baffled. Whilst walking in the field next to where our tents were pitched, she suddenly asked me if she had found a fossil. At the time I laughed but almost immediately saw what she meant:

I was quite baffled by it. I could tell it was not a body fossil, but there was the thought that it could be a trace fossil, a remnant of animal activity. The near regularity of the ridges were what intrigued me, especially when I found another (sadly not pictured) which matched. I knew of no mineral process which could result in this and wondered if it might be some bizarre sedimentary structure which I had not come across.

It is two months since this was found and the study I have done in that time would have enabled me to say that it is neither a trace fossil nor a sedimentary structure. It is, however, possibly a result of animal activity. I had it looked at and was told that it is most likely the result of stone age man making flint axes, something my girlfriend found more exciting than fossils. In order to confirm it I would need to have it looked at by an archaeologist who knows a thing or two about flint carving. To round off, here is Lizzie posing with the find:

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

When in need of something to say, why not critique a creationist?

In a previous blog I decided to critique some creationist blogs, one of which was by a feller called Daniel Mann. To see my first critique of his blog, see here. I occasionally see his other posts and wonder if I should respond to them, though I then decide that it is better not to. I've discussed with him before, he tends not to pay much attention. Earlier today I noticed that he has posted twice in the last couple of days  on evolution, one blog attacking the theory, the other attacking theistic evolution. Naturally I struggled to resist, so here I am.

The Wonders of Evolution

Mann's blog criticising evolution, The Wonders of Evolution, explores the principle of optimisation, where nature contains systems which are as functionally optimal as possible - they just could not get any better. He quotes from an article in the New York Times which mentions photoreceptor cells as an example, along with many other excellent examples. This single aspect of the eye does seem to be functionally optimal, but this does not mean that eyes as a whole are functionally optimal. His reasons for discussing these are encapsulated in this statement:

Obviously, these findings do not point to the expected messiness of a mindless evolutionary process.

Personally I do not see why messiness must be expected in evolution, it is just that evolution can account for it occurring due to its often co-optive nature - it must use what is available and that sometimes involves cobbling something together, as long as fitness is increased. When the variation is available then co-option might not occur, allowing for the possibility of optimal function. So what we should expect from evolution is a mix, where some functions are examples of co-option and exaptation (the now eponymous panda's thumb for example) and some have achieved functional optimality. If something can be altered quantitatively rather than qualitatively, in other words tweaked bit by bit a degree at a time, then resulting in the optimum is not difficult. Mann continues:

In fact, evolutionists have always been ready to capitalize on any findings that might demonstrate the sloppiness of an evolutionary process: “You see, here’s evidence for evolution. Just look at the vestigial organs (useless organs left-over from prior stages in our evolutionary past)!”

A sloppily constructed adaptation becomes evidence for evolution when the alternative is design by an omnipotent and omnibenevolent Creator. If a human designer could do better, why should we think that the omnipotent Designer would do the same? A vestigial organ, contrary to what Mann thinks, is one which does not serve its proper function, as opposed to one which is completely functional. Mann then goes from vestigial organs to that other creationist favourite, junk DNA:

Then you heard about “junk DNA,” our useless sets genetic baggage bequeathed to us by our former relatives! Well, now they don’t look so junky after all. Science has found that they do have a function. However, finding leftovers and junk is just the thing that the blindness and messiness of evolution would expect to find.

Mann is not completely wrong, but misses the mark significantly. Many areas of junk DNA do have functions which have recently been discovered, but what Mann is doing is selective reading. Junk DNA does not necessarily serve no function, it does not code for proteins, which is how we recognise it. Further to this, there are many areas of junk DNA which are both functionally useless and provide great evidence for evolution, such as pseudogenes and retroelements. Mann has lumped all junk DNA together and ignored the differences within. He then goes on to do the same with the eye, taking the optimally functioning photoreceptors and ignoring the whole.

Overall, his argument was sorely disappointing.

How Does Evolution Give Glory to God?

In the second blog I am looking at, How Does Evolution Gives [sic] the Glory to God? Mann looks at a blog on the Biologos website After watching the video he decided to write a message to them:

“While I agree with you that science reveals to us the glory of God (Romans 1; Psalm 19), the same doesn’t hold true for the theory of evolution. Evolution instead says, ‘Mindless, purposeless processes have created what you see around you.’ As such, it deprives God of His glory!! Please don’t confuse the two things—science and evolution!”

Ironically it is Mann embracing confusion by conflating atheistic interpretations of evolution with the theory itself. Evolution does not say 'mindless, purposeless processes' as that is a metaphysical claim, beyond what science can say. It is a valid understanding, but of equal validity with a Christ centred view, such as that which Kathryn Applegate (from the video he is responding to) espouses in response to Mann:

I don’t see evolution as mindless and purposeless at all - rather God is intimately involved in the process by His providential upholding of creation, just as He is in our lives... A thoroughly God-centered view of evolution is elegant, beautiful, and intellectually satisfying. We are fearfully and wonderfully made!

In his response to Applegate, Mann continues to misunderstand evolution and how God acts. He sees the randomness of mutation, along with natural selection, as incompatible with God. The randomness of mutation is observable and there are numerous possible theological responses formulated centuries ago to answer this. When taken with natural selection we get evolution, so as selection is not random neither is evolution as a whole. Having an issue with natural selection baffles me, for why can the acts of nature not also be the acts of God? Or why can nature not have autonomy? 

Mann's criticisms of theistic evolution lack any theological vigour, they are based on utter misunderstandings of both the theory of evolution and theistic evolution.

The Southsea Ultrasauros Sculpture is Back!

Well, not exactly. For those of you who don't remember this, there was an enormous, arty sculpture of an Ultrasauros erected on Southsea Common in Portsmouth over summer, which was then tragically razed to the ground in September. I blogged about it at the time, see here. Many in Portsmouth wanted it to become a permanent resident of the common and have banded together to keep its memory alive. A calendar of the model has been made and has gone on sale. See the press release for more details.