Sunday, 23 January 2011

A spot of news

I stopped blogging about various bits of palaeo news quite a while ago when I slipped way behind and couldn't be bothered to catch up. Well, now I can, so here are the stories which have been catching my eye recently:

Darwinopterus is sexy

As my university is involved in pterosaur research I do like to keep my eye out for new information on those flying beasts (occasionally being privy to info before it has been published). This particular story is exciting for several reasons: the pterosaur in question is Darwinopterus, which is the rather recently found intermediate form between the two major groups of pterosaurs; it provides insight which is usually difficult (or impossible) to glean from fossils; and it simply is a beautiful fossil to look at. "Mrs T" as the fossil has been dubbed, is a Darwinopterus fossil which has been found with an egg. The egg appears to have been expelled from the body, probably due to the usual build up of gas after she died. This find allows palaeontologists to sex pterosaurs accurately for the first time; before now trying to determine the males and the females was based on conjecture. Mrs T lacks a crest, showing that pterosaurs are sexually dimorphic and lending support to the idea that pterosaur crest evolution was driven by sexual selection. Amusingly, Attenborough's ambitious pterosaur documentary in 3D apparently shows two crested pterosaurs mating (I intend to review his documentary at some point, as palaeontologists attending the premier in London recently were heavily critical of it). The females also had larger pelvises than the males, which naturally fits with their need to lay eggs. For more info on pterosaur sex, see here. For the press release, see here.

Palaeobiology is important for conservation

For a while now I have been making the claim that palaeobiology is important for our understanding of how organisms respond to environmental change and that this data is important for conservation efforts. (I most often make this claim to creationists when they claim evolutionary biology is not fruitful.) It is good to see that this is occurring, see here.

Two oxygen related stories for the price of one

It turns out that the early oceans were oxygen-free, which puts considerable constraints on what sort of life can exist. This helps explain why the Earth has been barren with regards to complex life for the majority of its history. See here. Oxygen has also impacted the early evolution of animals more than we realised as it has fluctuated a fair bit. See here.

Pterygotus dethroned

Last summer, while volunteering at Doncaster museum, I had the pleasure of carefully examining and photographing around twenty eurypterid fossils. Eurypterids are extinct sea scorpions, one group of which - the pterygotids - grew incredibly large, reaching lengths of eight or nine feet. All of the pterygotids I looked at were tiny in comparison, but they are still a fascinating group. It has long been thought that Pterygotus was a terror of the Silurian seas, the top predator, causing chaos as it consumed other hard-bodied prey with ease. Attenborough's recent documentary, First Life, depicted them this way, surprising other eurypterids by snapping them up voraciously. This view is already out of date. A study has shown that they would not have had the strength to do this and had limited movement. Instead they could only have preyed on small, soft-bodied animals, and may even have been scavengers or herbivores.

Their sheer size has led to at least one imaginative rendering:

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