14 June 2008

The Wide World of Paleontology: Spring 2008

At the end of last quarter, I summed up the high points of our department's paleo discussion group. While the group didn't meet this spring, I thought that it might be fun to sum up the major developments in paleontology during the last few months for the sake of whoever out there still reads this blog. Enjoy!
  • The term "missing link" is generally frowned upon, and with good reason, but it can't be denied that discoveries of transitional fossils are always exciting. It may not have the glamor of Lucy or Archaeopteryx, but paleontologists from the University of Calgary described an animal very near the common ancestor of salamanders and frogs this May. Dubbed Gerobatrachus, it lived in the Permian and looked very much like what a salamander/frog would be expected to.
  • South America and Australia are both island continents (or at least South America was until Panama appeared on the scene in the Pliocene), and as such have been of interest to paleontologists as long as there has been a science of paleontology. This spring, two papers showed that the continents have more in common than many people may realize. A Cretaceous dinosaur from Victoria and an Eocene mammal from Queensland both show affinities with South American animals; this is no shock, as the two continents were connected until relatively recently, but the results are nonetheless biogeographically interesting. Other extinct Australian organisms to make the news this spring were the giant marsupial Diprotodon, which may be represented by only one species rather than several as had previously been thought, the placoderm fish Gogonasus, a specimen of which was found with an unhatched embryo preserved within it, and the so-called Tasmanian tiger, from which genes were isolated and inserted into a mouse embryo.
  • Northwest fossils also found their ways into the headlines in the last few months. Dinosaur bones found in British Columbia several years ago have been revisited by a University of Alberta student, and they may represent a new species. The paleoecology of BC's most famous fossil site has also been revisited, and the result is a food web for the Cambrian Burgess Shale fauna. While not entirely paleontological, coprolites from eastern Oregon have yielded the oldest human DNA from the New World and show - not surprisingly - that the earliest Americans were genetically similar to Siberians.
  • The seemingly inexhaustible quarries of Liaoning, China just keep on producing exquisitely-preserved fossil birds and feathered dinosaurs. The early bird Eoconfuciusornis was described by researchers at the University of Bristol, including my former master's supervisor. A former Bristolian made further paleornithological waves by describing a fossil parrot from the Eocene of Denmark, which he nicknamed "Danish Blue" after Monty Python's famous 'Dead Parrot Sketch.'
  • My favorite paper this spring was the one that suggested the giant pterosaur Quetzalcoatlus and its relatives did not, in fact, spend much time in the air, but were likely terrestrial predators. This is an interesting hypothesis, as the diet of giant pterosaurs has long been a matter of some debate. It is not unheard of for flying animals to become predominately land-living hunters; the most spectacular example are the flightless, extinct phorusrhacids, but modern storks, secretary birds, and seriemas live similar lifestyles, making the image of Quetzalcoatlus as a predator is at least plausible.

12 June 2008

I'm back and you're all brilliant!

blog readability test
I have no idea what precisely this means; if you click on the banner above, it will take you to a website that tells you the reading level of your blog. This 'genius' rating means either that the language I use here is far too stilted or that my audience, small though it may be, is the intellectual cream of the crop. I choose to believe the latter.
Incidentally, if any of you are reading this post, it means you are not only very bright (apparently), but very patient as well. I have been terrible about posting lately, and in the off-chance that any of you look to The Oregon Trail for part of your day's entertainment or edification, I will try to be much better about updating things. Welcome back to my weird little world!