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It’s another Monday! You know what that means, right? The end of the weekend, an extra dose of coffee to get the day started, and a new fossil for Mystery Monday. Today’s fossil is a very common fossil in Arkansas. Some people think these fossils form a kind of spooky face. Bonus points if you can say where the picture came from. Once I tell you what it is, you should check out all the other cool info they have.
Many people have an issue with scientists, particularly those studying evolution and paleontology, for making statements they feel are pure speculation. I absolutely agree that people should be upfront about what is known and what is speculation. Most scientists ARE generally clear about that. If you ask most scientists, they will tell you what we know and don’t know. That is actually one of the biggest problems that scientists have with almost all of the shows and most of the books written for the public. Those outlets are not clear about what we really know and what we don’t, what is speculation. Most scientists I know work really hard at trying to clarify that sort of thing and get very frustrated when their words are twisted around. Many scientists have refused to work with film crews for precisely that reason. So please don’t blame the scientists. Write to the shows and demand they are clear about their speculations.
Sadly, I wish I could say all scientists act this way, but it is true, not all do. Scientists are only human after all. There are problems with some scientists. Believe me when I tell you that we recognize this and try to stop it. The lab I worked in to get my doctorate had a reputation for being spoilers, as it were, because a large portion of our research involved figuring out the limits of what the data really let us say and then telling others no, you can’t say that because the data do not extend that far. Our work was very much about separating speculation from reasonable interpretation and fact. But we were hardly alone in that regard, it is something most scientists work hard to do. Paleontology is admittedly one of those fields in which it is easy to take the fossils we have and in our excitement try to say too much about them. So we do our best to restrain ourselves and other workers from extrapolating too far. Go to a paleontology conference and you will see that on display in abundance.
Unfortunately, that rarely shows up in material done for the public. The film crews and honestly, most of the public, do not want to hear we don’t know. They want to hear the fanciful stories. Most people get annoyed with scientists when they equivocate and don’t give straight answers. We frequently hear from people, well which is it? Is it this way or that way? If you can’t say with absolute certainty one way or the other, you must not know ANYTHING, when in point of fact, there is a vast difference between not being sure and not knowing anything, I am sure most will agree. But most people don’t want to hear we don’t know with certainty, we can only say this much about it. I have even seen that in my college courses. Many students are uncomfortable with the material I cover in which there are no good answers everyone agrees on. They want definitive answers. A large part of that, I think, is that science is taught in schools very poorly, as a list of facts to memorize, not as a way of thinking and an expanding body of knowledge that is constantly re-examined, with large areas we don’t know yet. In fact, and what makes science fun and interesting for people doing it, is that science is more about what we don’t know than what we do. But happily, I can say that is changing in many areas, with the introduction of more hands-on, exploratory teaching methods.
One of the challenges though, is that many things the lay person thinks are pure speculation are not speculation at all, but are backed up by lots of evidence that there is simply not enough time to go into. Many computer programmers simply tell their clients what they do is magic because to answer their questions adequately would take months of training to even get them to the point they could understand the answer. Would you tell a computer programmer what they are doing is pure speculation simply because you don’t understand it? We aren’t trying to be elitest, there is just a lot of information we don’t have time to transmit. There is simply too much going on, too much data, too much research for anyone to keep track of it at all. Even professionals who try to keep up as part of their full-time job can’t do it. So it would be foolish to think anyone who doesn’t spend most of their time studying the research could possibly have a good grasp of the intricacies and quantity of data. It therefore becomes quite the annoyance when people say you can’t know something when they have no idea how much we do know. Many of those things people say we can’t know have been studied for decades by many people who have spent their lives figuring out how to go from speculation to concrete data and hard fact. Most people don’t realize the extreme levels of simplification it takes to get some concepts across because no one can provide all the data backing up those assertions without having their audience earn a graduate degree in the process.
Is all this me telling you to just trust whatever we say? Absolutely not. But don’t expect to come in on the ground floor and know what is going on at the top any more than you could expect to speak perfect French by catching someone speak a few words on TV. Understand that you are only getting the tip of the iceberg. What you see on TV is a seriously flawed transmission of a few grains of knowledge from a mountain range of data. Learn as much as you can from reliable sources. The more you know, the richer your interactions with professionals and the more in depth we can talk to you. We will be happy to share with you everything we know, that’s our job. But what we tell you is highly dependent on the level at which you come to us and the amount of time people are willing to spend. Also understand the quantity of data is more than any one person can understand, even those whose job it is to do so. That is why we have many people studying problems. No one can have all the answers. That is why we keep asking questions. Being open about what we know and what we don’t allows us the freedom to learn more and shows us the path about where to go next. Scientists don’t leave things at speculation, they try to figure out how can we go from speculation to understanding. But if you want to understand all the steps involved, may I suggest grad school?
I have been working on lectures on early amniote evolution, along with the following reptilomorph and synapsid lectures for my vertebrate paleontology course. We will be getting into dinosaurs and the other Mesozoic animals very soon, hooray! However, in preparing these talks, it has brought to my attention just how prevalent two sites in particular are: Reptileevolution.com and Pteresaurheresies.wordpress.com.
When I did a search for “pterosaur”, Google actually responded by saying “Did you mean pterosaur heresies” and provided images that all but one are either from the site or sites complaining about the site.
This is quite unfortunate. Both sites present an abundance of beautiful artwork done by a stellar paleoartist. There is an abundance of information on the animals and their relationships. All in all, the websites look fantastic and are quite the draw for paleo-enthusiasts.
But it is all wrong.
None of the hypotheses presented on these pages is accepted by virtually any other paleontologist. The techniques used to gather the information is not considered valid and no one who has tried to reproduce the data using the methods have had any success.
I won’t get into details about why the websites are wrong. I am frankly not qualified enough to provide a step-by-step breakdown of the problems (not being an expert in either pterosaurs or basal tetrapods), nor do I really have the time. I will say that many years ago, I heard the author of these websites give a talk about his evidence for a vampiric pterosaur and even as a young undergraduate, it was clear to me that neither the technique nor the conclusions were valid. I found it very unfortunate because the idea of a vampiric pterosaur was incredibly cool and the technique, which involves detailed image study, is useful in many contexts. However, it is very easy to let personal biases enter into conclusion based on these methods, to allow oneself to extrapolate well beyond anything the data can actually support. Oftentimes, those biases are completely unknown to the observer simply due to the way our brains interpret sensory input and modifies them based on past experience. We really do not see everything we think we see, which is why the scientific method requires other scientists examining your conclusions and your methods and trying to poke holes in your ideas. So it is vital to recheck one’s conclusions with many detailed images from various angles and lighting methods and, most importantly, detailed examination of the fossil itself.
So instead, I will point you to articles written by people who are experts in the very animals that are discussed on those pages and what they have to say about them. The first is an article by Dr. Christopher Bennett, who is an expert on pterosaurs. In this article, he discusses the validity of the techniques and discusses specific claims of two pterosaurs in particular, Anurognathus and Pterodactylus. Anurognathus is a very odd-looking pterosaur and is quite aptly named “frog mouth.” Pterodactylus is probably the most famous pterosaur next to Pteranodon and is why so many people mistakenly refer to all pterosaurs as pterodactyls. Dr. Bennett does an excellent job critiquing the science in a professional and readable way.
The second article is a blog post by Darren Naish, a noted researcher and science author that has researched pterosaurs and many other animals who has a deep understanding of both the accepted science and the author of these websites and the work presented therein. Here is what he says: “ReptileEvolution.com does not represent a trustworthy source that people should consult or rely on.Students, amateur researchers and the lay public should be strongly advised to avoid or ignore it.” The emphasis is completely his. The post is quite long and discusses several aspects of the work, discussing the accepted science and the material on the websites that is not accurate, including the techniques used to arrive at the conclusions, both accepted techniques and those by the website author that are not.
The next site is an article by Pterosaur.net, a website devoted to research on pterosaurs by pterosaur researchers. It is a brief article that uses Naish’s article as a starting point and continues on with a discussion of why they think it important for people to know why these sites should be avoided. To quote: “The issue taken with ReptileEvolution.com is not that it exists, but that it’s internet presence has grown to the point that it is now a top-listed site for many palaeo-based searches. Tap virtually any Mesozoic reptile species into Google and either ReptileEvolution.com or the Pterosaur Heresies is likely to be in the first few hits. The situation is even worse for image searches, which are increasingly dominated by the many graphics that Peters’ uses on his sites.” This would not be a problem that the sites are so well known if they were correct, but their prevalence presents a highly flawed version of what scientists really think. People are taking these sites as truth, when in fact they are regarded by professionals as seriously wrong.
Finally, Brian Switek, a science writer who authors the blog Laelaps, which moved from Wired Science Blogs to National Geographic and the now-defunct blog Dinosaur Tracking for the Smithsonian, wrote a piece on the site, in which he urged more paleontologists and paleontology blogs to call out misleading websites like these. In that spirit, I hope I can help some avoid getting a mistaken impression of dinosaur science and help steer them to better, more reliable sources.
* If you are wondering why I say “the author” or “the artist” rather than using the person’s name, it is because I don’t want this to be about the person, but the information. I don’t personally know the author, nor have I ever had direct contact, so I have nothing to say about the person. The work, however, can be and should be open for criticism, just like any other researcher, including my own.
One of the questions I get often is what should you do if you find a fossil. I have been meaning to write a post discussing that, but I found that someone else had already written a very nice discussion on that very topic. I thought why duplicate the efforts of someone else who has done a fine job already? So instead of writing my own post, I am just going to refer you to their blog post. So without further ado, may I present…
Welcome back! I hope everyone had a great holiday to mark the end of a great year. 2013 marked the inaugural year for Paleoaerie. Version 1 of the website was set up, providing links to a wealth of online resources on fossils, evolution, the challenges of teaching evolution and the techniques to do it well. The blog had 26 posts, in which we reviewed several books and websites, discussed Cambrian rocks in Arkansas and the dinosaur “Arkansaurus,” and went to the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. We looked at geologic time and started a series on dinosaur misconceptions. We also had several Forum Fridays, recapping the many news stories reported on the Facebook page. One of the recent things we’ve started is Mystery Monday, posting a fossil of the week for people to try to identify. Speaking of which, to start off the new year, the first mystery fossil will be posted early. look for it at the end of this post.
In the upcoming year, we hope to expand the site, providing many more resources, along with continuing posts on Arkansas geology and fossils, including many more mystery fossils. Stick with us and you will learn about the history of Arkansas in a way that few people know. The site will be revamped to be more user-friendly and enticing to visitors. If plans materialize, we will be adding interactive activities, animations, and videos, many of which will be created by users of the site. Materials from workshops and talks will be posted for people to view and use. More scientists will be posted that have offered their services to teachers and students. We encourage you to contact them. They are there as a resource.
Of course, all of this does not come free. it takes money to provide quality services. Thus, more avenues of funding will be pursued, including other grant opportunities and likely a Kickstarter proposal. You may soon see a small button on the side of the website for Paypal donations. Any money donated will go first towards site maintenance. Other funds will go towards a student award for website design, a 3D laser scanner to put fully interactive 3D fossil images on the site, and materials for review and teacher workshops. If grant funding becomes available, additional money will be spent on research into the effectiveness and reach of the project. But even if no more funding becomes available, you can still look forward to continuing essays on Arkansas fossils, reviews of good books and websites, and curation of online resources suitable for teachers, students, and anyone else interested in learning about the endlessly fascinating history of life on planet earth.
I mentioned at the beginning about the latest mystery fossil. Here’s the first hint: it is a very common fossil found in Arkansas and lived during the Mississippian period roughly 330 million years ago. More hints and photos to come. Leave your guesses in the comments section. Don’t worry about getting it wrong, every success has lots of failures behind it. Errors are only stepping stones to knowledge.
Clue number 2: Many people think I’m a coral, but I’m not.
Clue number 3: I am named after a famous Greek mathematician and inventor.
What am I?
We began the week with our first Mystery Monday for paleoaerie.org with the picture of an interesting Arkansas fossil. Today, Forum Friday will become Fossil Friday as well as we identify the fossil. Did you guess what it was? See if you were right below the picture.
Congratulations go to Allie Valtakis, who correctly identified it as a nautiloid cephalopod. This particular one is Rayonnoceras solidiforme. It has traditionally been placed within the Order Actinocerida, although some workers have placed them into the Order Pseudorthocerida, which is known for their resemblance to the more commonly recognized orthocerid cephalopods.
What are cephalopods, much less nautiloid cephalopods, you ask? Cephalopods are the group of molluscs that include squids, octopuses, and cuttlefish. There are three major groups: Coleoidia, which includes almost all the modern cephalopods; Ammonoidea, which includes almost all the extinct ones and are known for their complexly sutured shells; and the Nautiloidea, which are mostly extinct, the only living form is the Nautilus. The ammonoids and the nautiloids both formed shells. What differs between them is how they made them. Some of those in Coleoidia also form shells, but they have been greatly reduced and internalized, such as in squids, or lost altogether, such as octopuses. For those with external shells, they have the problem that shells don’t get bigger once the mineral is laid down, so they quickly grow out of their shells. They solve this by adding mineral to the front of the opening in an ever-increasing funnel, periodically walling off the back of the living chamber (leaving a small opening for the siphuncle that goes all the way through the shell, creating a series of gradually increasing sections.
The ammonoids are well known in the fossil record, particularly the subgroup called ammonites, having a diverse array of straight, curved, and coiled shells. What makes them unique from the nautiloids is the sutures between sections are wavy, sometimes showing astoundingly complicated patterns. The nautiloids, on the other hand, sport very simple, smooth curves. It is this group in which Rayonnoceras belongs.
Rayonnoceras lived about 325 million years ago in the Mississipian Period, although nautiloids as a group have been around since the Cambrian Period over 500 million years ago. What makes this particular species so interesting to Arkansans is that the largest nautiloid cephalopod ever found (update: largest pseudorthocerid nautiloid, not largest nautiloid) was discovered near Fayetteville, AR. It was 2.4 m (8 feet) and found in a rock unit named, appropriately enough, the Fayetteville Shale, a unit of dark gray to black shale and limestone, indicative of a warm, shallow marine environment without a lot of sediment input, much like many areas within the Bahamas today.
To recap what we’ve covered over on the Facebook page, we recommended a book discussing misunderstandings in human evolution and another in how evolution affects our health. We saw a hominid fossil hand bone that helped to show how we differed from australopithecines and genetics work that showed us how we didn’t differ from Neanderthals.
We read about genetics work that informed us how flowering plants evolved by doubling their own genes and stealing genomes from other plants. We learned about a “second code” within DNA and why the hype was bigger than the story, but may help us rethink our DNA analogies.
We saw how birds defend themselves against cheaters and learned the first lizards and snakes may have given live birth. We also got some information on how teaching and testing will need to change under the Next Generation Science Standards.
On a final note, this will be the last post this year on paleoaerie.org. Enjoy the holidays and join us in January, when we will be embarking on discussion of the Ordovician rocks and fossils in Arkansas. Over the spring, we plan on discussing several vertebrate fossils found in the state. There are several books and online resource reviews coming up as well. We will be adding to our Scientists in the Classroom and adding several new resources to the links pages. As always, we will be posting a plethora of current news items on Facebook, so stay tuned! In the meantime, tell us what you liked, didn’t like, want to see more of, and any questions you may have.
Likely thanks to upgrading computer systems and the joys of trying to figure out new setups and operating systems, there seems to have been a small glitch deleting the post that was supposed to go up Friday, so it is getting posted today. So let’s see if we can make lemonade from the lemon.
On Facebook, I started a new set of posts, in which I post a picture of a fossil found in or could be found in Arkansas and see if anyone can identify it. The first one I put up was of a mosasaur, a huge aquatic reptile that swam around Arkansas seas during the Cretaceous Period. People seemed to enjoy it, so I will be doing this on a regular basis. However, it has come to my attention that many places block Facebook, including a lot of schools. So I will be posting them on the blog. I will try to post a new picture every Monday and will then provide the answer on Friday, giving people the week to see if they can come up with the answer. Don’t worry about being wrong, we learn more from our failures than our successes anyway. You can’t win if you don’t play. So with that, let’s play! here is today’s pic. Can you tell me what it is?
In the meantime, if you missed out on all the stuff we covered on Facebook, here is a brief summary of most of hte stories.
Of the many new fossils and work on fossils that were reported on this month, we saw a new fossil primate that may have been ancestral to lemurs and lorises and giant, terrestrial pterosaurs of doom. We learned about the earliest flowering plant in north America, new crests for old dinosaurs and the promise and perils of resurrecting dinosaurs and other extinct animals..We learned about some amazing animals, from snakes that shrink their own heart and intestines between meals (and the genetic switches that allow them to do it), to animals with no stomachs. We learned about tool-using crocodiles and flower-mimicking insect predators. We learned that unidirectional breathing occurs in lizards as well as crocodiles and birds and why dinosaurs developed beaks.
We learned about evolutionary ghosts, how animals colonize new territory, and how unmasking latent variation within a population can lead to rapid evolution.We learned about the end-Cretaceous extinction and how the Siberian Traps caused the largest extinction event of all time.
We learned how evolution made it easier for people to believe in God than accept evolution and why fanaticism of any stripe can lead one astray. We read a discussion about the importance of scientists in science communication, and why we shouldn’t ignore Youtube. We found help in teaching controversial subjects in hostile environments and apps to help teach hard-to-grasp subjects like astronomical distance.
We learned about how bacteria avoid the immune system to cause disease, how they form an important part of breast milk, and the four billion year history of vitamins. We learned even bacteria have a hard time living deep inside the earth and how viruses can kill even antibiotic-resistant bacteria. We also read a review of a book on evolutionary medicine.Genetics work played a big role in the above stories, but it also gave us the discovery of a second code within DNA and more support for comb jellies being the first animals. We learned why protein incompatibilities make hybrids sterile and how early hominids interbred to form modern humans.
So, what were the stories you liked? Did it spark any thoughts, either good or bad? Was there anything that you saw that we didn’t mention? Share your thoughts and don’t forget to try your luck with identifying today’s Arkansas fossil!
I attended the annual meeting of the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) last week. This is the yearly meeting where those studying anything with a backbone, from fish to furballs get together to talk about what they have been doing and see what others have found (although admittedly, most of the press goes to dinosaurs). Over the next few posts, I will share brief snippets of what I learned. If you read anything that sounds particularly interesting to you and would like me to discuss it in more detail, just let me know in the comments section and I can expound on the topic.
So what does a scientific meeting like this look like? There is always a dealers’ room, where you can find an array of book publishers, such as Indiana Press and CRC Press, and supply companies, such as Paleo-Tools and Bone Clones, and many others all hawking their wares. You will meet artists such as Luis Rey, learn about what’s going on at different publications, such as PLOS One, and upcoming meetings. There are the business meetings, social events, and award banquets. There are field trips to local paleontolgical sites (this meeting was in Los Angeles, so the La Brea tar pits and the Los Angeles Natural History Museum were highlights). There is also the chance to converse with paleontologists from all over the world, a venue wherein colleagues can talk face-to-face and forge new connections, where students can get their feet wet presenting at an international conference and talk to students of other professors to learn about potential graduate and post-graduate opportunities, which professors make good mentors and which ones to avoid. And of course, there are the talks and poster sessions, where you can hear about the research people are doing right now. If you want to know the current state of the field, this is the place to go. Every day for four days, three sessions run concurrently, each covering 16 talks a day, plus over 120 posters are presented every day. By the end of which, if you haven’t found enough new information to send your brain into overload, you simply haven’t been trying. This is also a relatively small meeting, with only 1500 or so attendees, unlike some scientific societies which have meeting attendances over 20,000.
Before I get into a short recap of the talks I attended (there were many more I would have liked to attend, but I have not yet perfected cloning myself), I will digress a moment for a quick comment about the meeting room setup. My first thought upon seeing the room arrangement was Happy day! All the meeting rooms are right next to each other; not on a different floor, on the other side of a giant building, in another building, or in another facility entirely, unlike some other meetings I’ve attended. This makes popping from one session to another to see different talks much easier. The downside to this is that hundreds of other people all have the same idea and are trying to go through the same hallway, trying to get around the other attendees who are chatting with friends and colleagues. For those of you that are accustomed to New York subways, this is no big deal, but for some of us, it can be a bit claustrophic as personal space shrinks to microscopic proportions. The other rant I have is that, after all this time, they still have not learned how to lay out a room for the talks. They insist on preparing the rooms as though everyone will calmly file in before the talks and sit there until the break, providing long rooms with the speaker at one end and two long columns of interlocking chairs set in rows up to 20 seats long. however, this is a scientific meeting with many short talks. people stream in and out constantly. So what happens is that all the edge seats are quickly taken and great, yawning chasms of emptiness are left in the center. Why no one ever thinks to place the speakers in the middle of a long wall, with many columns of seats with no more than 6-7 seats to a row, allowing ample space for people to move, is beyond me. They might not be able to put as many seats in, but that hardly matters if no one can get to the seats in the first place. Now on to the talks!
In the first session, all the talks dealt with the problems of ontogeny in interpreting the fossil record. Ontogeny, how an animal grows from fertilized egg to old age, can cause several problems in the fossil record. When all you can see is a fossil, it can be very hard to tell if you are looking at an adult or juvenile. Many animals can change so much during development that the juveniles can look like completely different species. Hans Larsson presented about a possible way to figure out rough ages of an animal by looking at how different bones in the skull covaried, or how they changed shape in relation to each other as they grew. Jack Horner warned against assuming an animal is full-grown unless you have solid evidence of that from the bones across the skeleton and Mark Goodwin showed how difficult that can be with pachycephalosaurs, but Holly Woodward found that at least some dinosaurs reached sexual maturity long before they reached “adult” size and in fact, never stopped growing, so it is important to keep in mind just how one defines “adult.” David Evans showed the problems of using juveniles and adults in the same phylogenetic analysis, in that the relationships of species identified using juveniles were very ambiguous and unstable, often showing up as more ancestral than an adult of the same species, sometimes substantially so. John Scannella found that using just one juvenile specimen of Triceratops in a phylogenetic analysis resulted in that specimen not being identified as a ceratopsian at all, but if a sufficient number of juvenile specimens of different ages were included, they all fell out together in their expected relationship. This indicated the ontogeny problem can be dealt with if you have enough samples, as well as indicating what characters are newly evolved versus being evolutionarily stable. Zachary Morris extended this to show that not all individuals grow up the same way, there was no set pattern of development that all individuals within the same species followed to adulthood, so trying to order specimens into an ontogenetic sequence requires a large sample size. Also, contrary to an earlier research that got a lot of press, Torosaurus is probably not the same species as Triceratops. Robert Reisz showed very fast growth in prosauropod embryos and P. Martin Sander estimated that sauropods could grow to sexual maturity in 16 years, attaining 90% of their maximum size within 32 years. This comes out to an average growth rate of 4 kg/day, which is similar to modern large mammalian herbivores, but he cautioned this was likely overestimating the ages and underestimating the growth rates. Ken Dial discussed the role of predation in the development of flight, with evidence indicating that if predation pressure was relaxed and there was sufficient food resources, birds commonly became flightless.He made the interesting point that everything is a transitional environment; that to truly understand an organism,one has to examine all aspects of their habitat and you can’t afford to get to narrowly focused. Denver Fowler found that animals occupying different niches at different ages were more susceptible to extinction. Caroline Stromberg found that, contrary to popular belief, the development of grasslands didn’t actually correlate very well with high-crowned, hypsodonty teeth.
Sandy Kawano looked at how locomotion changed between fin and feet and found that the total forces between front and hind limbs was fairly constant, but acceleration came from the pectoral fins at first, but as the hind limbs developed, more of that motive force came from the hind legs, with the front legs taking on more of a regulatory role guiding maneuverability. Karen Sears found that limb evolution became more modular, in that different parts of the limb evolved at different rates and times, so that each part could be considered as evolving relatively independently, with higher levels of evolution near the ends of the limbs. Paul Sereno discussed the evolution of the coracoid bone in the shoulder and how its loss in almost all mammals created a more flexible and faster, but weaker joint. He opined this is why bats don’t grow to the size of birds or pterosaurs and that it allowed dinosaurs to get bigger and carry more weight than mammals.
Ali Nabavivadeh reported on his studies on the evolution of jaws in ornithischian dinosaurs, finding they talked the problem in a variety of different ways. Lucas Spencer noticed that all early ornithischians were in Gondwana and that dispersal explains more of their biogeography than vicariance (speciation via the emergence of physical barriers). Mark Loewen reported on the biogeography and phylogeny of ankylosaurs, while Victoria Arbour discussed the evolution of the ankylosaur tail club. Philip Currie reported on the smallest known articulated ceratopsid fossil, while Andrew Farke reported on ceratopsian biogeography. Thomas Carr found evidence to support anagenesis (direct ancestor-descendant relationships) in some tyrannosaurs, but not all, while Brandon Hedrick found that fossilization processes made one species of psittacosaurs look like three different ones. Jordan Mallon found little evidence in pachycephalosaur skulls to indicate they lived in upland areas, as is often stated, and Jason Bourke did some very nice computer modeling showing how turbinates (structures within the nasal passages often associated with endothermy, aka warm-bloodedness) work to channel air through nasal passages,using that to find support for respiratory turbinates in pachycephalosaurs.
This all only recounts brief snippets of the talks I attended on the first day and doesn’t include the many posters I looked at. I will cover Day 2 in my next post. If you want more information on any of these snippets, leave a comment and I will be happy to expound upon them.
Time 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.
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?
When I worked at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science as a volunteer in the educations collection (if you ever get the chance to volunteer at a museum, do it, it was a lot of fun and very educational), I happened upon a man with a young boy by his side, whom I presume was his son, looking at an impressive skeleton. I thought how great it was the man took time to bring his son to the museum. But when the boy asked what the skeleton was and the man answered, “Allosaurus rex,” my opinion of the experience dropped. I’m still glad he brought the boy to the museum, but it could have been so much better.
So what was wrong with what he said? There is no such creature as an “Allosaurus rex.” There is an Allosaurus and there is a Tyrannosaurus rex, but not the two together. It also did not help that the man was standing directly in front of the plaque that read, “Fin whale.”
Much has been written on what a dinosaur is and what is not, but considering the extreme levels of confusion in the general populace, I thought it worth discussing it here. Not everything that is a big skeleton and/or extinct is a dinosaur. In addition to the above whale, I have heard dimetrodons, pterosaurs, saber-toothed cats, mammoths, giant rhinos, mosasaurs, modern elephant skeletons and many other things called dinosaurs, when in reality, NONE of the previous creatures qualify as dinosaurs.
So, if none of those are dinosaurs, what is? What are some of the things people think about when they try to define dinosaurs? The first thing that most people think about is a giant, scaly reptile. However, some dinosaurs were the size of chickens, so not all of them were big. Many also had feathers, so the scaly motif is not altogether correct either. They are reptiles, but unlike anything most people would consider a reptile today.
Other traits people often use to distinguish dinosaurs are that none of them were aquatic and none of them flew. These aren’t really true either. Some will say they only lived in the Mesozoic Era and died out at the end of the Cretaceous Period 65 million years ago. Again, false. It is true that most animals considered dinosaurs did indeed live only in the Mesozoic Era, but not all died out at the famous K-T extinction event. Some of you may be thinking to yourselves the author has no idea what he is talking about. Nevertheless, as we will see, some dinosaurs are quite at home in both air and water, especially the ones that lived past the Mesozoic.
Even if all these things were true about dinosaurs, none of it really matters. These traits are all distinguishing characteristics that are generally true about most dinosaurs, but not necessarily true about all. What defines an organism is not the same as the diagnosis. Definitions are done by evolutionary relationships. Diagnoses tell us how we can recognize them, what distinguishing characteristics can be used. However, distinguishing characteristics do not necessarily describe all the members of the group. For instance, one might distinguish all members of a family by their last name, but if people get married and change their last name, they do not suddenly stop being a member of the family. A daughter, for example, is defined by who her parents are, not by what name she has. Likewise, her distinguishing characteristics tell us who she is as an individual and can give us clues to her family relationships, but her definition as a daughter depends solely on her relationship to her parents.
I should note here that it wasn’t always this way. Back in the old days, organisms were grouped by similarity, who looked like whom, so at that time, there was really no difference between definition and diagnosis. But as people studied organisms more closely, they found that a lot of times, superficial similarities masked deeper differences, which indicated they weren’t really related at all. So for most of the last century, scientists have tried to find real, evolutionarily related groupings to build something akin to a geneology of life. To do so, it became evident that definitions and diagnoses of groups had to be different, so for the last couple of decades, definitions have been based on relationships and diagnoses based on characteristics. This system of classification by defining groups according to their relationships is called phylogenetic systematics.
So, how then do we define a dinosaur? The standard modern definition of a dinosaur has been stated as the most recent common ancestor of Triceratops and modern birds and all of its descendants (Padian, 1997). Note this means that all birds are, by definition, dinosaurs. So it is obvious that some dinosaurs are quite small (e.g. hummingbirds), flew (most birds), and could reasonably be called aquatic (e.g. penguins). The reason for this is because the earliest birds are clearly closely related to animals, such as Velociraptor and its close relatives, which are indisputably dinosaurs. If one took a picture of Archaeopteryx which had no feathers to a bunch of elementary school kids and asked them to identify it, the general answer is that it is obviously a dinosaur, but put feathers on it and they call it a bird. They are thus both correct answers. Dr. Thomas Holtz has proposed a slightly different definition: the most recent common ancestor of Megalosaurus and Iguanodon and all of its descendants. Both definitions encompass the same groups of animals as far as our understanding goes, but Holtz’s definition includes the dinosaurs that were first discovered, so is considered by many to be a superior definition.
Unfortunately, scientists don’t always talk about these terms correctly either, making the whole process confusing. Michael Benton, a leading paleontology researcher with numerous well-respected publications, got it wrong when he defined dinosaurs according to synapomorphies in The Complete Dinosaur. While synapomorphies are used in developing modern classifications, they are used for diagnoses, not definitions of groups, which Dr. Benton assuredly knows (as evidenced by the fact he normally states it correctly in his other works), but when someone is as prolific as Dr. Benton, the occasional error is bound to slip in now and then.
Synapomorphies are very important in figuring out relationships. Unlike any old similarity, synapomorphies are shared, derived characteristics, meaning that the character is the same in the organisms being compared because they share a common ancestor, i.e. they are derived from the same source. Of course, because it requires knowledge of the common ancestor, synapomorphies can only be identified AFTER one has a hypothetical relationship. Thus, to discover strong relationships, scientists will create (mathematically, using a computer because it is way too complex to try doing by hand for anything beyond a few species), all the possible relationships between all the organisms under consideration and then map all the characteristics they can onto every possibility. The relationships requiring the fewest inconsistencies and providing the simplest explanation is considered the most likely. Inconsistencies can occur due to convergent evolution (organisms not closely related developing similar characteristics due to similarities in environmental constraints) or homoplasies (characteristics changing back to a previous form), but with examination of enough characteristics, good relationships usually appear. Of course, the more data you can put into the analysis, the better the results normally get, which is why we continue to study and try to find new fossils and collect more data (and who wouldn’t want more fossils?).
This is all well and good, but how then do we recognize a dinosaur when we see one? Dr. Benton provided a good list of skeletal characteristics, which really won’t mean a lot to people who are not very familiar with skeletons and scientific terminology (but a basic description can be found here and Wikipedia has a surprisingly in depth description). Nevertheless, there are some generalities we can make. If we exclude birds, we can say the non-avian dinosaurs (that we know of) died out at the end of the Cretaceous Period. They all carried their legs underneath their bodies like mammals (and birds of course) and were decidedly unlike other reptiles. None were fliers, although the most bird-like ones got close, and none were aquatic, although some did indeed at least go wading. But remember, these are generalities and if we find a dinosaur with flippers, as long as it otherwise appears related to other known dinosaurs, it will still be a dinosaur. But if it does not fall within the relationships defined above, it will not be a dinosaur, no matter how much it may look like one.
I don’t have an online source for the Padian article, so here is the reference.
Padian, K. 1997. Dinosauria: Definition. pp. 175-179. In Currie, P.J. and K. Padian (eds.) Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs. Academic Press.