Home » 2013 » October

Monthly Archives: October 2013

Forum Friday, winging our way to LA

http___vertpaleoPaleoaerie is off to Los Angeles next week to attend the annual meeting of the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology. If it has a backbone, it will be discussed there (if it is still alive, the discussion will be linked to fossil relatives, but I didn’t want to unnecessarily limit it, because I’ve seen gators, chickens, dogs, sharks, and everything in between discussed there in relation to their fossil ancestors; I’ve even heard and presented on bacteria, insofar as they help make fossils).

As a result, I’ve only done one blog post on Paleoaerie since last Forum Friday and I won’t be able to post anything other than maybe comments about the meeting next week, so I wanted to get a forum post out before I go, although I realize that some of you reading this may not see it before Monday, what with the lateness of the hour this got posted.scalybook

So without further ado, here we go. On Paleoaerie, we talked about the book, Scaly spotted feathered frilled: how do we know what dinosaurs really looked like?” by Catherine Thimmesh, a great book for any budding paleoartist you know.

Over on Facebook, we celebrated Member Night at Mid-America Museum and their new dinosaur exhibit, Reptile Awareness Day, and Geologic Map Day. We learned about the Backfire Effect and why telling people facts is not always convincing and ways to frame your arguments that may work better.  We warned against the ResponsiveEd curriculum, as well as Stephen Meyer’s book, Darwin’s Doubt, with some interesting new studies on the preCambrian life leading up to the Cambrian explosion.

We learned more about Tyrannosaurus rex and what we still have to learn, and we met Joe the dinosaur, the most open-access dinosaur ever. We learned how rapid evolution in one organism can cause a cascade of reactions throughout the ecosystem.

Majungasaurus_FMNH-PR2100_sinuses_movie_thumb_yawWe saw a whole host of dinosaurs in 3D, as well as horses and a lot of cool videos from the Science Studio. We saw a new animation explaining how the evolution of life affected the early atmosphere, oceans, and which rocks were formed.

We learned about the usefulness of evolution in medicine, how allergies can save your life, and that sharks, contrary to popular opinion, suffer from cancer just like the rest of us. We also saw a robot made completely out of prosthetics made for humans. Where will we go from here and how much farther can we go?

May your Halloween be filled with spooky fun!

Why do artists draw dinosaurs the way they do?

Scaly Spotted Feathered Frilled: How Do We Know what Dinosaurs Really Looked Like?

scalybookBy Catherine Thimmesh

Publication date: 2013. 58 pg.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN: 978-0-547-99134-4.

Author: Catherine Thimmesh is an author of several books aimed at children in elementary to middle school. Her books have primarily focused on people, particularly women, doing science and politics, while bringing a wealth of information along with the human stories. As a result, her books should appeal to many people, helping them draw personal connections to the material. Two of her books, Girls Think of Everything and The Sky’s the Limit, have been listed as Smithsonian Notable Books, the latter book also listed as an Outstanding Science and Social Studies Trade Book for Children in 2002. Her book, Team Moon, discussing all the people besides the astronauts that made the moon landings a success, won the Sibert Award in 2007.

Iguanodon by Waterhouse Hawkins, 1850s

Iguanodon by Waterhouse Hawkins, 1850s

Illustrator: The book is beautifully illustrated by several well-known paleoartists, including John Sibbick, Greg Paul, Mark Hallett, Sylvia and Stephen Czerkas, and Tyler Keillor, as well as Charles Knight, the artist who created the classic pictures shaping the view of dinosaurs for more than a generation. Moreover, there are pictures of skeletons, sketches showing reconstruction from bone to skin, as well as Greg Paul’s classic silhouetted skeletons. As an added bonus, she includes a page at the end with a paragraph about each artist and a fun fact about each one. For instance, Mark Hallett was the person who coined the term “paleoartist.”

I have mentioned this book previously from a review by Brian Switek (for a librarian’s perspective, try the SLJ review here), but I finally got my hands on a copy so I can provide my perspective on it and I have to say, I agree with the other reviews. this is an excellent book well worth including in any elementary or middle school library or classroom. If you know someone who likes dinosaurs and likes to draw, they will like this book. This book gives a great discussion of how artists bring fossils to life, using new discoveries that are changing our views of how dinosaurs looked and comments straight from the artists crafting those visions.

KnightbrontoThe book wastes no time, providing information on the inside covers. At the beginnig is a timeline showing the different Periods of the Mesozoic Era, with a short description of the overall climate, apleogeography, and notable fauna and flora of the time for each Period. Inside the back cover is a breakdown of the three major dinosaur groups, with a few general facts describing the dinosaursin each group and listing several representative dinosaurs for each group (along with page references for where they appear in the text). Other things that puts the book on my recommended list is a nice index, glossary, and references; things not often found in childrens’ books, which makes this book a cut above. This book does not take the sadly all too common tack of using the “it’s a childrens book” excuse to talk down to the audience and not worry about the facts 9except for one point mentioned by Switek which I will get to later).

Seismosaurus. Mark Hallett, 2006

Seismosaurus. Mark Hallett, 2006

The book starts with a discussion of questions the artists ask about the fossils themselves and what scientists can determine from them, such as what can the bones tell us about how they moved and what they ate. Further questions are asked about the plant fossils found in the rocks and what the rocks themselves say about the environment. Was it a desert? A beach? Shallow marine? Once they have what is known, then they can fill in what is not known. The next few pages provide a short history of dinosaur science and the art that sprung from it, such as the early Waterhouse Hawkins Crystal Palace sculptures in London during the 1850s and the Charles Knight paintings adorning the American Museum of Natural History. The book continues with information gleaned from trackways and new technologies helping to spur more discoveries. A discussion of the skeletons leads into reconstructing soft tissues such as muscle and eyes over the bones.

One area in which views have changed significantly is in the skin, which is discussed next. The book describes how new fossils are helping to inform new views, such as feathered raptors, although the book does not mention that we even have evidence of feathers on tyrannosaurs now. This is one area in which the book could have gone farther, it did not discuss much of the diversity of feathers, quills, and assorted spines we have recently found on a variety of dinosaurs. The use of modern animals and analogs and mechanical constraints, such as skin around joints, is also discussed. The problems and possibilities of how one decides on a color is discussed, ending on a mention of new fossils that are beginning to give us amazing insight into actual colors of some dinosaurs.


Yutyrannus, by Brian Choo via nature. 2012. Not in book.

The information here is not presented as definite conclusions, but as a puzzle, in which the scientists and artists take the various clues and try to piece them together. Sometimes, mistakes are made, such as the thumb spike of Iguanodon was originally thought to be a nose horn. The descriptions demonstrate how vibrant and dynamic the work is. As new fossils and new information comes to light, views change accordingly. The workers must constantly adapt as their knowledge base grows, with each new find getting us closer to a more accurate understanding.

The one quibble I would make with the book is one which Switek also mentioned. The book begins by stating that no one has ever seen a real, live dinosaur, which is not true. We see them every day. They are in fact the most diverse group of vertebrate animals outside of fish. The book mentions that dinosaurs and birds are thought to be related. In fact, it is often said that birds are dinosaurs because birds evolved from earlier dinosaurs. So just like children are still in the same family as their parents, birds are in the same family as all the other dinosaurs. This relationship is a key point in reconstructing fossil dinosaurs. Of course, a lot of people find it bothersome to constantly have to refer to non-avian dinosaurs to refer to only those that lived during the Mesozoic, so it is justifiable to say dinosaurs and birds, so long as it is made clear at the beginning that dinosaurs in that context are only referring to the Mesozoic ones. this book doesn’t do that, which is the only big gripe about the book. Still, a relatively minor complaint compared to the rest of the book, which is done wonderfully.

Forum Friday, October 18 Edition

eswLogoVertical2013_smallTime for another Forum Friday! As always, please leave comments about what you liked and what you would like to see more about. What did you think about our stories? Do you have a book or show you want reviewed? Have any resources you would like to see discussed? Have you made an interactive or other resource that you think might be beneficial to others? Let us know.

In the meantime, we have discussed different maps showing the world through geologic time (including some great apps) and ways of showing the tree of life.

On Facebook we celebrated National Fossil Day and Earth Science Week, looking at fossilized arthropod brains, new skulls of Homo erectus and what that means to our understanding of human evolution, how cartilage helped dinosaurs get so big, and learned about the origin of flowering plants. We learned a website letting you make your own geologic time chart. We found a great video discussing what phylogenetic trees are and how to interpret them.

Going along with Earth Science Week, we found special Earth Science Week resources and a STEM Student Research Handbook put out by the NSTA, as well as resources available at Scitable. We discussed the pros and cons of the NGSS and the benefits of preschool education.

We learned about unusual deep sea creatures off the East Coast, more ways to tell moths and butterflies apart, how Black Skimmer birds can skim, and how the arapaima’s armor protects them from piranha. We saw how color evolved and its role in mimicry, how hands came before bipedalism, and how epigenetics affects evolution (it’s not just about mutations).

It’s your turn. What do you want to talk about?

Life is one big family

tolTeaching how all life is interrelated is a whole lot easier if you can show something akin to a family tree for living organisms. The Paleobiology Database has all the fossils organized by taxonomic  relationships to help you find things in the database, but it is not very useful for visualizations. The Encyclopedia of Life has lot of information and multimedia available for over a million individual species and shows how they are classified and is quite useful if one is looking for information on a particular species. But again, it is not very visual.

The Tree of Life website is an excellent website providing a great deal of information on phylogenetic relationships (for good discussion of phylogenetics, try here and here), providing abundant references on the primary literature discussing how scientists think various organisms are related. They work in collaboration with the Encyclopedia of Life, with the EOL focusing on species pages and TOL focusing on relationships. On TOL, one can start at the base of the tree and click on various branches following different groups into smaller and smaller groups, with each page providing what groups are descended from the starting group. For instance, the base of the tree starts with links to eubacteria, eukaryotes, and archaea, with viruses with a question mark. Each one is hyperlinked to a page discussing relationships within that group. It also provides a discussion of possible alternative branchings as well. Thus, the relationships are not presented as “we know this to be true,” but as an active, ongoing process of discovery and research. It is often highly technical, but would be extremely useful for high school students working on an evolutionary or biodiversity topic.


The Tree of Life and the Encyclopedia of Life are great sources for information on species and their phylogenetic relationships, but if you want better visualizations of the sum total of biodiversity, there are other websites that are definitely worth your time.

The first I would like to mention is the Tree of Life interactive by the Wellcome Trust and BBC. Watch the great video with David Attenborough first, then dive into the tree itself. The tree simplifies life to about 100 representative species. It is seriously weighted toward mammals, so provides a very skewed version of biodiversity, but the presentation should appeal to those who are most interested in the overall development from bacteria to humans. If once clicks on any individual species, it highlights the path to the base of the tree and provides a text description and in some cases pictures, a video, and locations. Click on another species and the path to the last common ancestor of the two selected species is highlighted. All the files are open source and available for free download, including the images and videos.


timetree_poster_finalAnother interesting site is the Time Tree. This site has a poster that shows 1610 families of organisms available for free download. The poster does a better job of showing the true diversity, but is still heavily weighted towards eukaryotes. However, the real purpose of the site is to provide divergence dates between two species. Simply type in two species names using either scientific (say, Homo sapiens and Gallus gallus) or common name (say, human and chicken) and it will provide how long ago their last common ancestor lived. It should be noted here that the dates listed are estimates based on molecular data. They should not be considered as conclusive dates or anywhere near as precise as listed. Indeed, the value given is a mean value of several estimates, with the median value also given, as well as what they call an “expert result” (which they sadly do not explain). In addition, they provide the scientific references the results came from and the dates provided for each, which can be quite broad. In the example above, those values range from 196.5 to 328.4 million years ago, but of the nine studies listed, all but two fall within 317.9 and 328.4 million years ago. There is also a mobile version of the site, as well as an iPhone/iPad app, as well as a book.

Another site of interest is Evogeneao.com.  They have an interesting Great Tree of Life, as they call it, which like most others is heavily weighted toward eukaryotes. They have good explanations of evolution, along with a set of resources for teachers, including an interesting suggestion for how to introduce evolution to students. The interesting part of this site is their discussion of evolutionary genealogy, in which they extend the idea of a family tree farther back than it typically seen. They provide methods to calculate how far removed you are from other species. You can pick from a list of animals and it will tell you how closely you are related. For instance, choosing dolphin returns an estimate of 27 millionth cousin, 9 million times removed. That nicely encapsulates not only the idea of relatedness, but the immense scales of time we are talking about.


itolThe Interactive Tree of Life, or iTOL, is another interesting site that may be of interest to high school teachers. This site utilizes genomic data as the basis of its trees and, unlike the others, provides a better visual indicating how truly diverse prokaryotes are in relation to us.  It also allows you to print out phylogenetic trees in different formats, depending on your preferences and what sort of information you want to display. You can even upload your own data if you wish, but most teachers will likely choose to stick with the displays already provided, as there are simpler programs to deal with trees that any but the most precocious senior high school student (or college student for that matter) may wish to create.

There are a few other interactive trees out there that may be more appropriate to younger viewers. One is at the London Natural History Museum website. This one is very simplistic, having only sixteen branches, with four of them being primates, but it gets the point across. This interactive is limited to providing the link between any two branches and the name of the group containing both. For instance, clicking on the banana and the butterfly gives the name Eukaryota.  Another site provides an interactive for the poster Charles Darwin’s Tree of Life. This interactive allows one to zoom in on any part of the tree and if one clicks on an animal, a short description of the animal is provided. Sadly, the two best interactives I have yet seen are not available on the internet. I had the opportunity to explore DeepTree at the Harvard Natural History Museum and it is truly spectacular, as is their FloTree. If you get a chance to see them, you should. Hopefully, one day they will be available in a broader format than now.

All of this assumes of course, that people actually know how to read these trees, which is a false assumption in that most people really do not. So it would be useful to spend some time getting familiar with proper interpretation of them before using them in class. There are several resources explaining this (such as here and a really excellent video here), so I will not put a tutorial on here unless there are requests to do so.

All images posted here are from the websites being discussed and are copyrighted to them.

You were here: Maps for seeing geography through time

It may seem that the earth is pretty stable. You can always count on the mountains being there when you look for them. But the Earth is a dynamic place. Volcanoes, floods, landslides, and earthquakes all change the landscape in ways we can see quickly.  What we don’t typically see is that if we expand these processes over long periods of time, those same processes alter the landscape far beyond our experiences. The surface of the Earth is covered in a crust broken up into numerous plates, which are constantly shifting and moving. The plates only move between 2.5 – 15 cm/year (the previous link contains information on how this is measured and provides activities for teachers for use in the classroom), but add this up over millions of years and the Earth looks quite different. Add into this mountain-building and erosion wearing down the mountains and you get radically different geographies for the planet.

094So what did the Earth look like in the past? There are two excellent sources providing maps of the planet through time. The first is the PALEOMAP Project, by Dr. Christopher Scotese. On this website, you will find maps ranging from 650 million years ago to the modern day and even into the future. There are 3D animated globes and interactive maps. He includes a methods section for how the maps wer put together and a list of references and publications. There is also a climate history section providing brief descriptions of the climate at various points in time. For teachers, there are several educational resources available, some of which are free, but others are available for a fee. There is even an app for the iPhone/iPad. It is not available yet for either android or Windows, but that has been admirably taken care of by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute with their Earthviewer app and they have done a wonderful job. the app is fully interactive, allowing easy scrolling through time and full rotation of the globe. You can also track atmospheric oxygen and carbon dioxide, day length, important fossils, biological and geological events, and major meteor impacts. The app even provides a bibliography of their source material. In addition to the maps from Dr. Scotese, the app extends the timeline back to 4.5 billion years (although this extension is obviously not nearly as detailed as the Scotese maps due to the greatly extended time and the greatly decreased amount of available data). All in all, a great app, also reviewed by the NSTA.


The second site that will be of interest is the Library of Paleogeography run by Dr. Ron Blakely. These maps cover approximately the same time frame as those provided by Dr. Scotese and are not animated. However, Dr. Blakely provides maps in different projections and provides regional coverage beyond that of global maps. So if you are specifically interested in paleogeographic maps of North America and Europe, this is an excellent resource.

A third site also provides paleogeographic maps which are very useful. In this case, the maps are secondary to the main purpose of mapping fossil locations. The Paleobiology Database contains records of fossil locations that have been published in  the primary literature. One can perform a search by organism or group, country, rock unit or type, time interval, paleoenvironment, or publication. The results from the search are mapped onto global maps based on the PALEMAP Project.

Dromeosaur fossils in 70 million year old rocks.

Dromeosaur fossils in 70 million year old rocks.

All of these sources are available to the public and are used by professional researchers. Therefore, one can safely assume they represent accurate assessments of current, generally accepted thoughts on our Earth through time. You may notice that maps from Scotese and Blakely may not completely agree on all aspects. This is because it is very hard to piece together all the evidence and trace the movements of the continents backwards through time. Often, the data is incomplete and they have to make judgment calls based on the available evidence. Not everyone makes the same choices. This is true even for maps of current geography and is even more so for paleogeography.  As we get more data and better techniques, those disagreements become fewer and fewer, but there is still much work to be done, so these maps can and will most likely be refined in the future to reflect new research.

Forum Friday

Time again for another Forum Friday!Image

To recap, since last time, we have given a positive review of Nic Bishop and his book, Digging for Bird-Dinosaurs: An Expedition to Madagascar, and looked at several ways you can present geological time.

Over on our Facebook page, we looked at the books Dinosaur Art; All Yesterdays; Scaly, Spotted, Feathered, Frilled; and The Smile of a Dolphin. We learned about a science cafe on reconstructing dinosaurs, Thor helping to get girls excited about science, how to study, and how to interpret evidence to avoid Bigfoot and pseudoscientific thinking.

We found a fascinating, interactive tree of life, and a new STEM education database. Sadly, the database is closed due to government shutdown, and Charlie’s Playhouse, maker of the great Giant Timeline Mat, also closed, but they have opened an educational site to introduce kids to evolution.

We learned dinosaurs did not have bunny hands, clues to the origin of multicellular life, photosynthesis, flowering plants, and how the evolution of mammals correlated with the rise of flowers. We are learning to use our knowledge of evolution to outwit viruses and the predictive power of evolutionary theory.

ImageFinally, don’t forget that Earth Science Week (October 13-19) and National Fossil Day (October 17) are coming up.

What stories did you find interesting? Join the conversation, tell us what you think and what you’ve found.

Dig up Digging for Bird-Dinosaurs

Digging for Bird-Dinosaurs: An Expedition to MadagascarImage

By Dr. Nic Bishop

Publication date 2000. 48 pg. Houghton Mifflin Company. ISBN: 0-395-96056-8.

Nic Bishop has combined his avid love of photography and his doctorate in biology into a prize-winning series of books for children. His books include a series on specific groups of animals, such as snakes, lizards, marsupials, spiders, butterflies, as well as a “scientist in the field” series. It is the latter series I am discussing today. There are plenty of books available discussing the different animals, although few with the quality of photography and biological expertise Bishop brings to his work, but there are precious few that discuss the work of the scientist in bringing that knowledge to light as the discoveries are being made, which is what particularly interests me here.

Digging for Bird-Dinosaurs was published in 2000, so it is not current, but is still topical and relevant and should stay so for some time. The only issues with the age of the book are new details that have been discovered, which further confirm the hypotheses presented in the book. When the book was written, most scientists had been convinced that birds evolve from dinosaurs for many reasons which are mentioned in the book. Since the book has been published, many new feathered dinosaurs have been found which clearly show the relationships in further detail. But the book is not really about the relationships between birds and non-avian dinosaurs, although it discusses them quite well, it is about the experience of the people on an expedition to Madagascar in 1998, what it is like being in the field and the study of some of the fossils that were discovered. If you want to know what it is like to go to another country and dig for dinosaurs, this book will be of interest and should make interesting reading for kids in elementary or middle school.

The expedition was led by Dr. David Krause, a professor at Stony Brook University in New York who has been running paleontological expeditions to Madagascar since the early 1990s and is still doing so, although the book is focused on his colleague, Dr. Cathy Forster, also of Stony Brook (at the time, but now an Associate Professor at George Washington University). She, like Krause, is a noted paleontologist and is likely the focus of the book because of the relative paucity of women in the field sciences. These days, if one goes to a meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, women are well represented, but in the 1990s, most of these women were still students looking to the few women like Dr. Forster who were forging careers.


Rahonavis. cc Wikipedia

The book follows their experiences in the field and the discovery of a particularly interesting bird-like creature they eventually name Rahonavis. The book continues with the team bringing the fossils back, preparing them out of the rock and studying them, coming to the conclusion that the animal was the closest known bird to Archaeopteryx, which is generally considered the earliest known bird. It is so close in fact, that many scientists today consider it actually closer in lineage to the dinosaurs known as dromeosaurs, which include animals like Velociraptor, than it is to birds. This placement is a great demonstration that birds really did evolve from dinosaurs. It is so hard to tell the difference between “dinosaur” and “bird” in the earliest bird-like forms because they are not distinct, separate groups. Birds are merely a subset, a type of dinosaur, in much the same way that mice are rodents, which are also mammals, which are also amniotes, which are also vertebrates, etc. Therefore, whether or not Rohanavis falls out before or after Archaeopteryx in the lineage is a mere detail, changing nothing of the story. It makes as much difference to the evolution of birds as it does which of a set of twins was born first or second, a matter of inconsequential minutes in evolutionary time.

One of the fascinating parts of the book is when Dr. Krause and Dr. Forster discuss the local people helping them. The villagers are very poor, with no access to healthcare or schools. Dr. Krause was concerned enough that he founded the nonprofit Madagascar Ankizy Fund, which supplies needed healthcare to the area, as well as building schools and providing teachers. Dr. Krause and Dr. Forster came to Madagascar to hunt for fossils. But while they have found a great many spectacular finds, perhaps their greatest accomplishment is in the humanitarian work on behalf of the people who live there.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.