03 July 2014

Fossil (Gondwanan) Vertebrate(s) of the Month: Palorchestes & Diprotodon

'Giant Kangaroos & Wombats' by Charles R. Knight
Field Museum of Natural History
When the great paleoartist Charles R. Knight painted the mural at left in the 1920s, he thought he was depicting two unrelated marsupials from the Pleistocene of Australia.  Certainly the two animals would have been familiar to Knight's audience of natural history dilettantes at Chicago's Field Museum; they were among the first fossils ever to be described from Australia - by no less a luminary than Sir Richard Owen - and had become icons of Victorian paleontology.  This is particularly true of Diprotodon, the animal lumbering into view on the right hand side of the mural, which remains one of the most familiar members of the Australian megafauna.  Diprotodon is often referred to as a giant wombat, which is not too far from the truth, as its closest (though still somewhat distant) living relatives are koalas and wombats, and it certainly was a behemoth.  In fact, at around the same size as a large rhinoceros, it was the largest marsupial ever to have lived.  When Owen described Palorchestes 1873, it seemed like a similarly superlative animal: a giant kangaroo, hence its genus name, meaning 'Ancient Leaper' and its appearance in Knight's mural.  Owen was the greatest comparative anatomist of his day and once famously reconstructed the appearance of a moa on the basis of a single bone, but even the best get it wrong sometimes.  It took nearly a century, but in 1958 the Australian paleontologist Jack Woods recognized that the teeth of Palorchestes indicated that it was not, in fact, a kangaroo, but a fairly close relative of Diprotodon.  If an ancient Australia without giant kangaroos seems dull, don't fret: there WERE truly enormous kangaroos in the Pleistocene, and subsequent discoveries have shown that Palorchestes was even weirder than first thought.  The structure of its nasals suggests that the skull supported a tapir-like trunk to go along with its tapir-like teeth, though its elongated, powerful forelimbs, large claws, and grooved lower jaw apparently indicative of a long, flexible tongue impart an appearance that defies comparison to any living mammal (the closest comparisons that spring to mind are extinct ground sloths and chalicotheres).  Incidentally, palorchestid and diprotodontid fossils are often found near billabongs and other bodies of fresh water (possibly due to congregation and mass mortality during droughts), and it's been suggested that their fossils gave rise to the bunyip legend and thus, indirectly, the greatest childrens' book of all time.

15 June 2014

An Exhibit for the Ages: 100 Years of the Laysan Cyclorama

Laysan Cyclorama
Courtesy International Panorama Council
Exactly 100 year sago, on June 15th, 1914, the University of Iowa opened a new exhibit: a cyclorama of the wildlife of Laysan, an atoll at the tail end of the Hawaiian Islands and, at that time, a major seabird rookery.  Many other displays have come and gone at the UI Museum of Natural History, some of which - most notably Rusty the Giant Sloth - have replaced the Laysan albatrosses and frigatebirds as the public "faces" of the museum, but the centenarian exhibit remains the most remarkable of the bunch.  There are probably as many ideas about what makes a great natural history exhibit out there as there are natural historians and museologists, but in my estimation there are five criteria for a really outstanding display, and the Laysan Cyclorama meets each and every one.

  • Historically interesting - The Laysan Cyclorama really got its start in 1902, when UIMNH director Charles Nutting visited the island.  He was enchanted by the nesting birds he saw there and in 1911 he sent taxidermist Homer Dill on an expedition to Laysan (an expedition that was, delightfully, funded in part by proceeds from a skit put on by the football team).  When the specimens collected in 1911 were put on display three years later, the cyclorama became the first exhibit in the museum to depict an entire ecosystem.  This may not sound terribly remarkable, but given that Carl Akeley had only just introduced the concept of creating dioramas that represented ecological snapshots rather than simply displaying individual animals in glass cases, the Laysan Cyclorama was, in fact, part of the leading edge of a major change in the way natural history exhibits were designed.
  • Scientifically important - When the UIMNH expedition visited Laysan in 1911, it was already a dying ecosystem.  The introduction of rabbits to the island in 1903 wreaked havoc on the native plant, insect, and bird life.  Most severely affected were the endemic species that had depended on the vegetation that was decimated by the rabbits.  Three species - the Laysan rail, millerbird, and honeycreeper - went extinct and two - the Laysan finch and duck - survived but remain endangered to the present day.  Specimens of these species on display in the cyclorama and preserved in the collections of the UIMNH and a handful of other museums are the last remaining evidence of the extinct birds and a source of valuable information about the surviving taxa.
  • Educationally effective - The gorgeous, narrow, wood-panelled passageway that leads into the cyclorama leaves little doubt as to the vintage of the exhibit, but the display was ahead of its time in its efforts to teach visitors about the effects of human activity on island ecosystems.  Perhaps the most remarkable thing about about the Laysan Cyclorama is that age has made it an even more valuable educational tool.  Over the course of the intervening century, the last remaining rabbits have been extirpated from Laysan, some native species have begun to recover, and the island has become a natural laboratory for studying the ecology of island ecosystems.  Instead of a window into a lost world, then, the cyclorama represents a look at the beginning of an ecological epic that continues to unfold today.  The modern signage in the exhibit does a nice job showing how this story has developed since 1914 and very effectively demonstrates that ecosystems are not static and that time is an important variable in biology (a lesson near and dear to my heart as a paleontologist).
  • Aesthetically pleasing - A trend in modern biodiversity exhibits is to develop large, walk-through environments rather than classic "window on the world" dioramas (and lest you all think I'm being characteristically curmudgeonly, I think this is generally a trend for the better).  The cyclorama format of the Laysan exhibit anticipates the immersive exhibits of today, but it also retains the artistry and almost obsessive attention to detail that characterize the great dioramas of the early 20th Century.  Dill didn't just bring back bird specimens from his expedition: he brought back sand from Laysan's beaches and rocks, which would literally form the groundwork of the exhibit.  The authenticity of the cyclorama is augmented by the background mural by Charles Corwin, who was not only a talented painter but also a member of the 1911 expedition.  The end product is not only very authentic, but extremely detailed (if you ever have a chance to visit, see if you can pick out the nesting sea turtle) and beautiful to look at.  The intent of the exhibit was to make visitors to feel as though they'd been transported to Laysan, and the fact that it conveys that feeling even today is a testament to how well the designers succeeded.
  • Unique - Other museums have dioramas depicting Pacific island rookeries (the Denver Museum of Nature & Science has a particularly impressive example), but both the cyclorama format and Laysan setting of the UIMNH exhibit make it unique.  Many natural history exhibits are repeated between museums, the best example being the "African watering hole" diorama pioneered by the aforementioned Carl Akeley in Chicago and New York and then repeated ad nauseum by museums across the globe; each iteration is impressive, but the sheer number of them makes each less remarkable than it would otherwise be.  The uniqueness of the Laysan Cyclorama makes it truly stand out.  Not only is the exhibit groundbreaking, important, and educational, but it's something that can only be seen in Iowa, and if you're ever in the area you should do yourself a favor and pay it a visit.
As mentioned above, everyone with an opinion on such things probably has a slightly different idea of what constitutes a great natural history exhibit, and I welcome peoples' comments on favorite displays and criteria for evaluating them.  However, regardless of how you judge exhibits, it's hard to imagine that anyone would find the Laysan Cyclorama to be anything less than remarkable.  So, join me in wishing a Happy 100th Birthday to an exhibit that was ahead of its time, that has told generations of Iowans an important ecological parable, and that looks as good today as it did a century ago!

08 May 2014

Fossil (Gondwanan) Vertebrate of the Month: Thylacosmilus atrox

Thylacosmilus atrox
By Mauricio Antón
Some animals are not as weird as we often think they are (zebras, for example, are really just horses with stripes, a not-uncommon color pattern among mammals).  Some animals are far stranger than people tend to realize (elephant trunks are like no other structure that has ever evolved).  Among my favorite animals, though, are those that people tend to recognize as being strange but that are, in fact, even more bizarre than they might appear at first glance.  The prime example among living animals is the platypus, which is aberrant in almost every single way possible.  This month's featured fossil vertebrate provides a nice paleontological example of an animal who's outer coating of weirdness just hides more profound weirdness underneath.  Thylacosmilus atrox lived in the savannas of South America in the Mio-Pliocene of South America.  A reasonably well-known fossil mammal, it is often referred to as the marsupial sabertooth, a name that highlights the two superficially strange things about it.  Thylacosmilus had among the largest sabers of any predator ever to have lived, and this trait has drawn comparisons to saber-toothed cats and to the cat-like Barbourofelis.  Unlike cats and barbourofelids, though, Thylacosmilus was not a carnivoran.  In fact, it wasn't even a placental mammal, but rather a metatherian more closely related to kangaroos and opossums than to cats.  So, was Thylacosmilus a marsupial that evolved convergently with cats on a continent without carnivorans?  This is certainly how it is often described and depicted (perhaps most notably by the great Czech paleoartist Zdenek Burian), but this view of Thylacosmilus does not do its weirdness justice.  To begin with, it wasn't actually a marsupial, but a member of the Order Sparassodonta a group of stem metatherians endemic to South America.  This means that, while Thylacosmilus was more closely related to marsupials than to placentals, it and its sparassodont kin were only distantly related to both groups.  Secondly, while Thylacosmilus certainly had its share of cat-like features, it was not a perfect felid analog.  As Julie Meachen has shown, there is more than one way to be a sabertooth: some carnivorans have sturdy sabers and gracile arms, while some have long, delicate sabers and robust arms, and some (such as Xenosmilus) don't fall neatly into either category.  With its long, thin sabers, it is tempting to think of Thylacosmilus as the South American version of Smilodon or Barbourofelis, but does the rest of the body follow suit?  As mentioned in a previous post, my student Laurel Perper has been looking into this question by visiting the type specimen of T. atrox at the Field Museum.  Her results show that some aspects of the forelimbs of Thylacosmilus are similar to those of saber-toothed cats, but the robustness of its humerus turned out to be literally off the charts, meaning that Thylacosmilus had arms so beefy that they compare better to those of bears than to even the burliest of cats.  So why is Thylacosmilus so similar to cats in some ways but so different in others?  Is it because it was descended from a very different group of mammals, from which it would have inherited a very different "evolutionary toolkit" than did cats?  Were differences in the environment and climate between North and South America responsible for the weirdness of Thylacosmilus?  Were its robust arms an adaptation to preying upon the unique megafauna of the Pampas, which would have included armored glyptodonts, enormous toxodonts, and sloths and rodents orders of magnitude larger than their living relatives?  Perhaps Thylacosmilus evolved as it did because of competition with other South American predators, most notably the giant "terror birds."  Between the measurements Laurel has made at the Field Museum and those that I intend to make in my upcoming trip to South America, my students and I are hoping to have sufficient data to be able to start answering these questions soon, so if they piqued your curiosity as much as they did mine, stay tuned!

04 May 2014

An Appreciation of Mexican Fossils

It's May 5th, or, if you prefer to use Spanish, el Cinco de Mayo, which means it's time for perhaps the stupidest of all "holidays" (Mexico has a cultural and historical legacy that we in the US can only dream of and yet, generally speaking, the only time we celebrate our neighbor to the south is by getting drunk on cheap margaritas, bad tequila, or Corona on what is not even a major holiday in the country the day allegedly honors).  That said, there are many aspects of Mexico that deserve to be celebrated: the dazzling scientific achievements of the Maya, the monumental architecture and sculpture of the Aztecs, the stunning Baroque design of Spanish colonial buildings, and the powerful modernist art of Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and their contemporaries all spring to mind.  However, Mexico has a heritage that predates its oldest archaeological artifacts.  I can hardly do justice to the entire Mexican fossil record in one off-the-cuff blog post, but here are some highlights of the country's 200+ million year history of vertebrates :

Helicoprion by Ray Troll
The oldest vertebrate fossil in Mexico (or at least the oldest that I could find in the Paleobiology Database) is a specimen of the whorl-toothed "shark" Helicoprion.  Not only is the age of the specimen noteworthy, but the location from which it was recovered, in the central Mexican state of Puebla, is as far south as this most bizarre of chondrichthyans has ever been found, making it geographically superlative as well.

Huehuecuetzpalli mixtecus from Reynoso 1998
Puebla is also home to the most spectacularly-preserved fossils in all of Mexico.  Tlayúa Quarry near Tepexi de Rodríguez represents a Cretaceous reef and preserves a primarily marine fauna, though a few terrestrial vertebrates have been found there as well.  Tlayúa has drawn comparisons to Solnhofen, which is very high praise.  While visiting the collections at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México a few years ago, I was fortunate enough to be able to be able to view some of the specimens from this site, and I can vouch for the fact that they are nothing short of spectacular.  The bulk of the vertebrate fossils from the site are fish, but several reptiles have been uncovered as well.  UNAM has a long-standing research program at the site and has established a museum there as well, making this one of the best-studied localities in the country.  The icing on the cake of this spectacular site is that many of the new genera and species from Tlayúa have been named in Nahuatl, giving them marvelous names to match their marvelous preservation; my personal favorite is the early iguana relative Huehuecuetzpalli mixtecus.

Baja California in the Cretaceous, by William Stout
The best place to find dinosaurs in Mexico is the north, particularly in Baja California and Coahuila.  This dinosaur fauna dates to the latest Cretaceous and is dominated by hadrosaurs, some of which grew extremely large.  Incidentally, if this post gets you really excited about Mexican fossils but you lack a passport or the money or time to fly south of the border, you can always check out the Fossil Mysteries exhibit at the San Diego Natural History Museum, the Cretaceous section of which focuses on fossils from the Two Californias (Alta and Baja) and features an excellent mural of Mexican dinosaurs by William Stout.

Mexican fossil horses, UNAM Museo de Geología
Volcaniclastic sediments throughout Mexico preserve a Miocene fauna of which the most impressive and abundant members are horses.  When I travelled to UNAM, it was these fossils that I was visiting, as they were part of my dissertation research on body size evolution in mammals.  Interestingly, and counter to any predictions that one would make based on modern mammals, horses in central Mexico and Oaxaca were much more similar in size to those from Oregon than to those from California or Nevada (an observation for which I have - as yet - no good explanation, though it is intriguing that both landscapes are highly volcanic).  However, my work is just a small, fairly inconsequential drop in the bucket of Miocene mammal studies in Mexico; the one person who has done more to fill the bucket than anyone else is Ismael Ferrusquía-Villafranca, whose lab is responsible for much, if not most, of what we know about the Mexican Neogene (who, besides being a hugely important figure in the field, also happens to be a really nice guy to whom I am still exceedingly grateful for allowing me to work with the collections he has helped amass).

Mexican megafauna mural by Iker Larrauri
Museo Nacional de Antropología
When the Isthmus of Panama closed, Mexico became part of the land bridge connecting North and South America.  Much of the wildlife that migrated north colonized Mexico before the rest of the continent, meaning that South American migrants such as sloths and glyptodonts are well-represented in the Mexican Pleistocene, as are native taxa such as mammoths and saber-toothed cats.  This Panamerican fauna forms the bulk of the displays in the UNAM's fantastic Museo de Geología, as magnificent an example of a classic academic museum as you will find anywhere (also the home of most of the important works of José María Velasco, who really should be one of your favorite old-school paleoartists).  Mexico's Pleistocene fossil record also overlaps with the country's incomparable archaeological record.  To cite just two examples, a mammoth skeleton from Santa Isabel Iztapan shows evidence of butchery by humans, while a camel sacrum from Tequixquiac carved to resemble the head of a wolf or coyote represents one of the earliest works of art in Mesoamerica.

01 May 2014

Conference Review: North Central GSA

Smilodon Mosaic in the Nebraska State Capitol
Ask a random person on the street what state they most closely associate with fossils and, after having stared at you you just long enough to determine just what kind of lunatic you are for asking such a bizarre question, they will probably respond with one of the Northern Rockies states (I'd bet that the most common response would be Montana, though I have no actual data to back this up).  However, a case could be made that they all should be answering Nebraska, which is probably the best place on Earth to find Cenozoic mammal fossils (it's also very good for Cretaceous marine fossils, if that's the sort of thing that floats your boat).  This is best illustrated by proboscideans, which have been found in 91 of the state's 93 counties, but mammals of all kinds have been found throughout the state.  The University of Nebraska has had an active paleontology program since E.H. Barbour's arrival in 1891, and the quality of the collections and research at the university have made Lincoln a paleontological mecca ever since.  Needless to say, then, when the Geological Society of America holds a regional meeting in town, paleontology is going to headline the program.  I attended the North-Central GSA in Lincoln last week, and here are some of my thoughts on the paleontology currently being conducted in the middle part of the continent (the abstracts and presentations can be viewed here if you want more detailed information on any of the talks):

  • Nebraska professor Jason Head spoke about a subject very near and dear to my heart: how the fossil record can inform models of future ecological change.  Ecological niche models take the climatic conditions in which an organism lives today and use these to predict where the range of that animal might shift as climate warms in the future.  However, many studies have shown that these models generally fail (sometimes spectacularly) to predict ranges of species during periods of past climate change.  Jason Head's study was interesting because he used fossil occurrence data and paleoclimatic reconstructions for boid snakes to augment ecological niche models, and found that the models that included paleoecological data predicted somewhat wider ranges for rubber and rosy boas in the future than did models based purely on modern data.
  • Did you know sloths have an especially high rate of dental anomalies (i.e., they frequently have either fewer or extra teeth)?  I didn't until I saw Robert McAfee's talk last week.  What's more, not only do living tree sloths often have abnormal numbers of teeth, but so did extinct ground sloths.  In fact, McAfee suggested that rates of caniniform tooth loss in Paramylodon from Rancho La Brea were so high that the population may represent the beginning of a speciation event that was nipped in the bud by the Pleistocene megafaunal extinction.
  • Joseph Peterson spoke about dinosaur paleopathology, and in particular on the use of 3D reconstructions of a hadrosaur vertebra with tooth marks on it (as well as theropod jaws) to determine the identity of the animal that bit the vertebra.  Turns out it was most likely a juvenile Tyrannosaurus.
  • My old officemate Jonathan Calede spoke about his dissertation work in the Cabbage Patch Beds of Montana.  The Cabbage Patch Fauna (named after a bar, not the creepy dolls, to paraphrase Jonathan) has been uncovered from several sites, which Jonathan found to be broadly similar in terms of geology and quality of preservation, suggesting that any trends observed between these sites represent genuine ecological patterns rather than taphonomic bias.
  • Nebraska's Shane Tucker discussed one of the coolest fossil sites of which I've ever heard: the Happy Jack Mine in the central part of the state.  The tunnels of the mine intersect infilled rodent burrows from the Miocene, allowing the 3D structures of these burrows to be observed.  On balance, the burrows most closely match those of ground squirrels, though gophers may have been responsible for some.  Shane and George Corner also presented talks about Miocene faunas from elsewhere in the state, underscoring the absurd richness of the Nebraska fossil record.
  • Ross Secord and his student Tom Baldvins both spoke about isotopic records across two important intervals of climate change: the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum and the glacial-interglacial cycles of the Pleistocene, respectively.  I was particularly interested in Baldvins' talk, which showed that C4 grasses were more abundant in the northern Great Plains during interglacial periods.  More intriguingly (to me, at least) his analysis of horse body size from the same sites showed a positive correlation with temperature (i.e., horses were larger in warmer climates).  Always nice to see another study that shoots holes in Bergmann's Rule, though I'd be curious to see if the trend would persist with a larger sample size and using tooth-based estimates of body size.
  • An entire session was devoted to the White River Group and its fossils, which was not only interesting in and of itself, but gave some great ideas for the design of the Sedimentology & Stratigraphy class I'll be teaching next year.  Particularly intriguing to me was Kurt Spearing's talk on the first evidence of inner ear bones in nimravids.  Ear morphology is hugely important in carnivore phylogeny, and I have high hopes that more nimravid ear ossicles will turn up in the coming years, which could potentially help determine where in the feliform tree these enigmatic animals belong.
  • I also spoke at the conference (on the humerus morphology of felids and whether or not it can be used to identify the huge cat that was present in the Late Miocene of western North America), but perhaps more importantly, for the first time I had a student presenting.  Laurel Perper discussed some of the early findings of our project comparing the morphology of the bizarre South American marsupial sabertooth Thylacosmilus, the subject of this month's upcoming Fossil Vertebrate of the Month feature.
Carnivore reconstructions by Mark Marcuson
I would be remiss if I finished this post without mentioning that, as expected, the University of Nebraska was an excellent host.  Besides pulling off a very well-run conference, Lincoln remains an excellent place to spend a few days (if nothing else, it's one of the only places in the northern Plains where you can reliably find good food and drink after 8:00).  As I always do when I'm in town, I spent some time in the University of Nebraska State Museum, home of, among many other things, the largest collection of fossil proboscideans in the world.  They were also featuring an exhibit on the paleoart of Mark Marcuson, whose murals I'd seen in the museum before but with whom I had been largely unfamiliar.  Another paleoartistic effort of which I'd previously been ignorant but that I visited this time on the suggestion of Nick Famoso is the mosaic on the floor of the Nebraska State Capitol (see picture above), which depicts reconstructions of fossils animals from trilobites to mammoths.  Any state that puts prehistoric life front and center in the rotunda of its capitol is a good one in my book, and as far as I'm concerned cements Nebraska's status of most fossily of fossiliferous states.

08 April 2014

Fossil (Gondwanan) Vertebrate(s) of the Month: Notosuchia

I'll be heading to the Southern Hemisphere twice this (northern) summer, in honor of which my Fossil Vertebrates of the Month between now and August will all be from Gondwana, the former southern continent of which Australia, South America, Antarctica, Africa, India, Madagascar, and New Zealand are the primary remnants.  I was going to start this series in May, but this recent publication inspired me to start this month.
Pakasuchus, among the most mammal-like notosuchians.
The traditional story of vertebrate life on land in the Mesozoic is a relatively simple one, particularly in regards to mammals (small and shrew- or rat-like according to this view), dinosaurs (diverse and dominant), and crocodilians (aquatic ambush predators, then as now).  The beauty of nature, of course, is that it is seldom simple, and one of the more exciting accomplishments of paleontology in recent decades has been the elucidation of the glorious complexity of ecosystems from the woefully misnamed "Age of Dinosaurs."  Several mammalian paleobiologists, spearheaded by Zhe-Xi Luo, have shown that mammals were much more diverse than had previously been thought (some of them even preying upon dinosaurs).  Even crocodiles, long used as the exemplar of a group that found its niche early on and succeeded by staying there, were not all swamp lurkers in the Mesozoic.  In fact, one group of Cretaceous crocodilians on the southern continents evolved to inhabit ecological roles generally associated with mammals today.  Known as notosuchians (literally 'southern crocodiles'), their most remarkable features can be found in and around the jaws.  Much has been made of the complex teeth of mammals and how this allowed them to diversify to take advantage of a wide variety of diets, but notosuchians show that our own class does not have a monopoly on such adaptations.  Unlike most reptiles, many notosuchians had heterodont dentition, as do mammals, and the wide ranges of niches into which the group evolved led to some of the strangest animals that have ever lived.  Some members of the group were likely predatory, making them at least superficially similar to living crocodilians, but other members of the group have been interpreted as omnivores or even herbivoresMalawisuchus likely processed food through a forward-backward motion of the jaw, Anatosuchus had a duckbill, Yacarerani had huge, procumbent incisors, and the eponymous Notosuchus may have had cheeks and a pig-like snout.  Not all bizarre adaptations among notosuchians were related to eating: as its name suggests, Armadillosuchus evolved interlocking, flexible armor that anticipated that evolved by armadillos millions of years later.

03 March 2014

Fossil Vertebrate of the Month: Carcharodon/Carcharocles megalodon

Sharks jaws (C. megalodon at right)
Florida Museum of Natural History
No matter how you define the term, fish make up the overwhelming majority of vertebrate diversity (as has been the case as long as there have been vertebrates), but they have been woefully underrepresented as Fossil Vertebrates of the Month.  To begin remedying that imbalance, I am bringing the feature back from its hiatus by featuring the fish to end all fish.  There have been innumerable strange sharks through time, but none as spectacular as Megalodon, the "mega-toothed" shark.  As I always caution my students, referring to a species solely by its specific epithet without appending it to a genus is a cardinal sin in biology, but I am doing so here for a reason.  Despite being unquestionably the most famous of all fossil fish, Megalodon is a surprisingly enigmatic animal.  The great paleoichthyologist Louis Agassiz interpreted it as a member of the same genus as modern great white sharks, Carcharodon, naming the species Carcharodon megalodon.  However, other studies have since suggested that it was in fact a member of the extinct family Otodontidae, possibly making it a closer relative of mako sharks and a member of the genus Carcharocles.  The debate continues to this day.  One of the major reasons for this confusion is the fact that, like all chondrichthyans, C. megalodon had a cartilaginous rather than a bony skeleton, and as such its fossil record is composed predominately of teeth.  These teeth are, however, fairly abundant and among the more spectacular vertebrate fossils out there.  They have been found worldwide in rocks dating to the Late Miocene and Pliocene, but they are perhaps best represented in the Southeast US.  One of the first questions asked when the earliest C. megalodon teeth were identified was just how big the full animal would have been.  Reconstructing body size based solely on isolated teeth can be difficult to begin with and this is even more true when uncertainty exists as to exactly what type of shark C. megalodon was.  The most conservative estimates place the largest specimens at roughly 12 meters (40 feet) in length, though some researchers have suggested that much larger individuals existed.  The logical assumption is that a marine predator of such enormous size would prey on other large animals, particularly cetaceans and this hypothesis is borne out by what appears to be C. megalodon tooth marks on whale bones.  As illustrated by a handful of presentations at last month's North American Paleontology Convention, material being uncovered in Panama (Which may represent a C. megalodon nursery!) is helping shed light on other aspects of the species' biology, such as body size trends through time and the factors that led to the extinction of the largest shark ever to have lived.

23 February 2014

Conference Review: NAPC 2014

Conditions in what locals routinely assured
me was the coldest Florida winter in ages
The first Olympics I followed closely were the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer.  The games happened to coincide with a school break and a meeting my dad had in Colorado, so I was in the enviable position of being on vacation, skiing during the day, and watching the Olympics in the evening.  As a 12/13 year old (the games happened to encompass my birthday that year, making the whole thing seem even more exciting) I was a terrible judge of my own abilities and talents, so I started scheming ways to become a Winter Olympian.  The fact that my skiing was, to put it delicately, not of quite the same caliber as that of the athletes I was watching on TV was not completely lost on me, so somehow I got it into my head that bobsled was the sport that would make me famous (this despite the fact that I hadn't been on a sled of any kind in years).  Since then, I've come to accept that, until clumsiness becomes an Olympic sport (please make this happen, IOC, because I have no doubt I would contribute a truly legendary performance), a medal of any color is not likely to be in my future.  Fortunately, the world of paleontology has its major quadrennial events as well, giving all of us who have chosen fossils for their vocation rather than skis, skates, or sleds a chance to stand on a podium in front of peers from across the globe.  One of these was held last week in Gainesville, Florida, where the 10th North American Paleontological Convention was convened.  This year's conference overlapped with the waning days of the Sochi Games and, since I am consequently brimming with Olympic Spirit, let us imagine for a moment that for the purposes of my review a hypothetical paleontological governing body has, for some hilariously misguided reason, given me the authority to hand out medals to the three aspects of the conference that I felt were most deserving.  If you would approach the podium, please...

The State of Florida (Bronze)
Sunset with gator, Lake Alice
With all the development that has occurred in parts of Florida and a general lack of topography, it's easy to overlook the fact that the Sunshine State remains one of the great natural areas in North America.  Florida wildlife is truly spectacular, which makes it a perfect place for a convention of natural scientists.  The host hotel was buzzed by flocks of ibis, vultures, and sandhill cranes, while the pond just across the street was home to a little blue heron that seemed to be very fond of displaying its fish-spearing prowess.  I made a couple of trips further into the UF campus, to Lake Alice, where nature puts on such a great show around sunset that you can't help but wonder why anyone ever bothered to build Disney World.  Large flocks of waterfowl roost at the lake and return to their trees at dusk, just as the healthy population of alligators (and a few massive soft-shelled turtles) move to within a few feet of shore.  The University maintains a colony of Mexican free-tailed bats nearby, and while watching them emerge from the bat houses is spectacular in and of itself, the local red-tailed hawks have figured out that the colony represents a chiropteran smörgåsbord, and the aerial show put on by the raptors and their evasive prey is "red in tooth and claw" nature at its finest.  The fossil record of the state is no less impressive.  The planners of NAPC took advantage of this by running several field trips to sites throughout the state.  I was only able to go on one of these, to a phosphate mine east of Tampa that was rich in shark and ray teeth, dugong ribs, and even a few scattered horses molars.  From what I heard of the other trips, they were equally productive, underscoring just how many fossils you can find when you work in a state composed entirely of sedimentary rocks.  Of course, the classic allure of Florida is its climate, which was, for the most part, a wonderful distraction from the record-cold temperatures that we've been enduring in much of the country.  Ironically, though, it's weather that hurt Florida in the final reckoning, as many flights down were delayed or cancelled due to snow in neighboring states and those of us that stuck around for a few days after the conference were treated to a spectacular and delay-inducing thunderstorm system (that, for the first time, allowed me to experience the pure terror of a zero-second delay between lightning bolt and thunderclap).  However, even the arrival and departure chaos had a silver lining, at least for me.  My flight down was cancelled and I was rerouted to Tampa, which gave me the opportunity to drive up the Gulf Coast past Crystal River, home of the largest concentration of manatees in the world and a display of cooperative hunting of mullet by dolphins and pelicans that made Gainesville's hawks look like amateurs.  As far as the delay in my return to Iowa, well, any day not spent in the snow is a worthwhile one in my book.

The University of Florida (Silver)
The Hall of Florida Fossils
I heard from a few people that the UF paleo program saw NAPC as their coming-out party that would establish them as major players on the paleontology scene, both nationally and globally.  I found this a little puzzling, as I'd already thought of them in this light for some time, but if this was their goal, they certainly succeeded.  The opening event of the conference was held in the Florida Museum of Natural History and while it was under-attended due to delayed flights, the museum is an especially sparkly jewel in UF's crown.  I am perhaps a bit biased, as the the exhibits heavily feature Neogene mammals, but I can think of few other places that so effectively combine classic, specimen-heavy displays with interpretation that puts those specimens in context and makes them valuable educational tools (this is even more true of the other exhibit halls, which seamlessly combined ecology and anthropology).  At the end of the conference the vertebrate paleontology collections staff at the museum were kind enough to let me in on short notice to photograph cat humeri, in which they are exceptionally rich.  In fact, they seem to be exceptionally rich in many types of fossils, from gators to ground sloths.  Not only that, but for a collection as massive as UF's, the specimens are remarkably well-curated and organized, making it a pleasure to work there and an even more valuable resource for those of us who conduct collections-based research.  In between the ice breaker and my collections visit, this meeting did nothing to alter my opinion that NAPC is the best-run conference in paleontology.  Everything from the snacks provided to the registration process had clearly been well thought-out and was efficiently executed.  When the aforementioned snowstorm along the East Coast reared its ugly head, the conference organizers rolled with the punches and accommodated presenters that missed their time slots as well as (or, in fact, better than) could be expected.  No conference is perfect, and in this case the one flaw was the host hotel, which was isolated from the rest of Gainesville and was operated by staff that were either incompetent or possibly just inflexible.  Like a fine Turkish rug, though, no conference should ever be completely perfect, and in any case NAPC can hardly be blamed for the hotel's shortcomings.  On the off-chance that any of the organizers read this blog, let me just offer a hearty 'well done.'  The 2009 NAPC in Cincinnati set the bar very high, and you met their challenge admirably.

My Fellow Paleontologists (Gold)
Paleontologists in their element
Probably the greatest thing about NAPC is that, unlike certain conferences (I'm looking pointedly at you, SVP), it embraces the diversity of backgrounds and interests among its attendees.  Instead of shoehorning presenters into sessions based on the organisms they study, NAPC is organized by the overarching questions being asked by paleontologists and by the methods they use to answer those questions.  This allows you to interact with people whose work might be related to your own but that you might not normally ever encounter, fulfilling the most important function of a conference: to get lots of paleontologists together to share ideas, collaborate, and advance the science.  I always attend fewer talks at conferences than I should, but here are a few highlights of what was being presented this year:
  • I was fortunate enough to be selected for a session on large-scale bias and fidelity of the fossil record, a crucially important topic to understand because of its implications for conservation paleobiology, an emerging discipline that focuses on using the fossil record to predict future ecological change.  The keynote talk in the session, by Matthew Kosnik, showed that due to mixing of sediments at sites along the Great Barrier Reef, interpreting changes through time in "normal" marine communities may not be as straightforward as it might seem.  I followed Josh Miller's talk on comparing live and dead assemblages in Amboseli National Park, Kenya just as I often used to follow his solos back in high school when we played in the same jazz band.  Josh is an even better taphonomist than a trumpeter, which is saying something, and his talk was one of the highlights of NAPC.  His findings suggest that the traditional view that body size is a huge, if not dominant, determining factor in the preservation of fossils mammals is not necessarily true.  In fact, the least well-preserved taxa in his sample were not small mammals as might be expected, but rather cavity-dwelling predators that are active at unusual times during the day, suggesting that when we think about bias in the fossil record we should be thinking in more nuanced ecological terms.
  • Rebecca Terry (bizarrely, another graduate of the same fairly small high school as Josh and myself) spoke on small mammal communities in the Great Basin.  Because most of the small mammals present in the Pleistocene are extant today, they are often the focus of conservation paleobiological studies of change through time.  However, Rebecca suggests that in fact a major ecological restructuring took place in the Great Basin characterized by the preponderance of generalist taxa that may reflect the influence of humans in the area and that underscores the importance of remembering that conditions in the past- including the very recent past - are not always perfect analogs for those of the present and future.
  • Both Felisa Smith and Jonathan Marcot spoke on mammal body size, a topic near and dear to me.  Smith used body size as an example of an ecological trait that can be studied across large spatial and temporal scales through what she referred to as a "macroscope."  Marcot provided a great example of a case study in macroscopic analysis by looking at body size through time in several groups of ungulates and found a roughly synchronous increase in body size in the vicinity of the Oligo-Miocene, suggesting the importance of environmental factors in driving body mass.
  • Of all the sessions at NAPC, none was more interesting to me than the one focusing on the evolution and grasslands and grazers and that that neatly integrated talks by researchers working on vertebrates, plants, soils, and geological processes.  The recurring theme in this session was that one of the oldest "just-so" stories in paleontology is wrong.  Many herbivorous mammals have high-crowned (hypsodont) teeth, and this was long assumed to be an adaptation to eating grass, which contains large amounts of silica in its blades and consequently wears down teeth faster than would a diet of leaves.  Paleontologists have been poking holes in this scenario for years, but the flood gates have really opened recently.  Several talks by Caroline Strömberg and her colleagues detailed the timing of grassland appearance in the Americas and showed that there is no correlation with the evolution of hypsodonty.  Sam Hopkins showed that herbivorous rodents and lagomorphs evolved hypsodonty well before ungulates, suggesting that a grazing diet alone cannot account for high-crowned teeth.  Deborah Rook and Richard Madden both looked at mechanisms by which grit, likely an important factor in the evolution of hypsodonty, could be introduced into grassland environments, and Brian Beatty (standing in for Matt Mihlbachler) addressed the phylogenetic and ecological factors that should be taken into account when studying tooth wear in herbivores.  Another perspective on hypsodonty was provided by Nick Famoso (presenting in the "Blizzard Session"), who showed that within horses there seems to be no connection between hyposdonty and enamel complexity.
  • The grassland session ended with a talk by Lars Werdelin who, along with Mikael Fortelius, is developing a project that will look at the top-down influence of predators in their ecosystems through time.  Several major changes have taken place in predator guilds through the Cenozoic, such as the replacement of creodonts by carnivores in North America and the arrival of placental mammals, including carnivores, in South America but studies of how such events have effected other mammals within paleocommunities are lacking.  Teasing apart biological interactions such as predation from other potential causal factors can be difficult, but if anyone is up to the task it would be Werdelin and Fortelius and I am enormously excited to see what happens as this project unfolds.
  • Probably the most cutting-edge session focused on the use of 3-D imaging in paleontology.  Several talks in this session fell towards the implementation end of the spectrum, about which I am not really able to comment intelligently, but both Aaron Wood and Dave Polly provided really interesting examples of how 3-D scans can augment paleoecological analyses.
This isn't an exhaustive list of the presentations I saw, let alone of everything that was presented at NAPC, and in the interest of limiting this post to a reasonable length I have gone into criminally little detail on them (my apologies to all of these researchers whose work I have turned into short blurbs that do not come close to doing their work justice).  I won't even scratched the surface of all the excellent conversations, both academic and otherwise, that I had with other paleontologists (though I must give a tip of my cap to Caitlin Syme, whose talk I really wish I'd seen, as purely through speaking with her she accomplished the monumental task of convincing me that Mesozoic taphonomy can actually be relevant to what I do and that categorizing preservational environments is much more gloriously complex than I'd given it credit for).  The best way for me to sum it all up is that conferences like NAPC are what make life as a paleontologist worthwhile.  There's a lot of really exciting research going on out there and finding ways in which your work can help build up our understanding of life on Earth in the past, present, and future is thrilling and a very effective way of recharging one's academic batteries.

At this point, my Olympics analogy founders a bit because traditionally this is where a national anthem would be played, and of course there is no anthem for paleontologists...or is there?