Courtesy AlexeyDrWhile working on a river as a guide last summer I was able to tell many stories, one of which was about the infamous prout. A prout is a cross breed of piranha and trout produced by the US government in World War II. With the carnivorous teeth of the piranha and large, fast body of the trout the government hoped that the fish would become a water defence system if the war ever came to our shores and rivers. While some people will fall for this outlandish story (you would be surprised what people will believe when you speak confidently) there have been new findings in a fossil of one of the missing links between plant eating fish and present day piranhas.
Plant eating fish have two rows of flat, square teeth but, the meat eating piranha has one row of triangular teeth with sharp edges. The fossil of a Megapiranha paranensis was found in the early 1900's on a river bank in Argentina and was left sitting in a drawer unstudied until the 1980's. It consists of the jaw bone and shows a zig-zaged line of teeth that could be proof of the transition from two to one row of teeth.
Further research continues to support that this fish is a long lost ancestor of our piranha having lived 8 to 10 million years ago in the South American rivers. Although its diet is unknown it would still be an unpleasant visitor at a length of about 3 ft, much larger then any prout you may run into.
Courtesy JGordonJK. The war has already been fought, Bigfoot totally won, you missed it, and remarkably little blood was spilled. Go figure.
A professor of the history of science at Kean University in New Jersey is arguing that Bigfoot, in fact, killed the werewolf. Not for really real, but in the collective mind of our society. However, Bigfoot had a secret weapon: Charles Darwin. (I’m assuming it was a silver-tipped Charles Darwin, at least.)
See, everybody has to be afraid of something, pretty much. And for a long time we were all, “I have to be afraid of something, huh? Well… I’m already sort of afraid of wolves, so why don’t we throw in this unnatural wolf/man mix thingy. I’ll be afraid of that.” And because we were too dumb to know about stuff like flesh eating disease and giant crocodiles and cancer, we were pretty satisfied being afraid of werewolves.
But then, says New Jersey science historian Brian Regal, then along comes ol’ Charles Darwin (and his silver tongue?), and begins to popularize evolution with On the Origin of Species. People start thinking, “Hey… wolf-man? Why did I ever think that was scary? That’s old, magicky nonsense. No, what makes sense is an ape-man. I’ll be afraid of that now.”
Science gave the supernatural a little boost of legitimacy, in a roundabout way. And at the cost of poor, dear wolf-man.
Or so says Brian Regal. Take it for what it’s worth; he’s an assistant professor, after all. I don’t trust assistant anythings. Especially not dental assistants. Regal will be presenting his theory to the British Society for the History of Science in Leicester, UK in July. He’s going to show how period artwork also reflects this werewolf to Bigfoot transition, which sounds pretty neat. So if you can make it to Leicester and into the British Society for the History of Science sometime in the next month, maybe you should check it out.
Courtesy JGordonI’m more than a little disappointed in the lack of an epic, bloody monster-on-monster battle here, though. So I’ll be drawing one for y’all just now, on the back of some paper I pulled out of my trash.
Courtesy Public domainIn commemoration of the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England has just opened a new exhibit called Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts. The exhibition centers on how Darwin was influenced by the visual arts and how artists in turn were influenced by Darwin’s work. The show opened today and runs until October 4, 2009. Not planning a trip to England this year? Then you’ll just have to be happy watching a preview of the show here.
Courtesy Joe ShlabotnikFor years now, members of the robust camp of biologists—paleontologists in particular—arguing that birds evolved directly from dinosaurs have kneeled on the thighs and arms of paleontologists who believe that birds did not evolve from dinosaurs, slapped their scrawny bellies pink, and rubbed dirt and grass in their bifocaled faces. And it was only right—the birds from dino people are bigger, and their veiny biceps ripple with the science of a substantial fossil record, while the clammy palms and toast-rack ribcages of the alternate theory paleontologists positively reek of onions and contrary opinions for the sake of argument. It’s only natural.
I mean, we have fossil impressions of feathers on dinosaurs, analogous bones and body-structures in birds and theropod dinosaurs (theropods, again, are two-legged meat-eaters, like T-Rex, velociraptor, etc.), similar bird-dinosaur proteins (take a look at that last link—Liza listed a bunch of other stories in that post)… the list goes on. Some paleontologists pretty much consider birds to be dinosaurs themselves (little dinos that never went extinct). The book is closed. It’s not even fun beating up on those other paleontologists anymore, because… what’s the point? You wouldn’t beat up on a worm, would you?
Ah, but these worms may have gotten their hands on something soft in this fight, and they’re about to give it a twist…
Check it out—like a hammer from nowhere, or sudden and blatant disregard for the no-scratching rule, the birds-didn’t-evolve-from-dinosaurs people have a new weapon, and they’re back on their feet.
Before we go on, I’m just going to emphasize something real quick here: nobody is saying that birds didn’t evolve, or that they didn’t evolve from something very different from birds as we know them. The question is, from what did birds first evolve, and when?
See, the winning theory is that some theropod dinosaurs began getting smaller and more birdlike in the Jurassic period (with a couple interesting exceptions eventually getting bigger and more birdlike later on, but that’s a different story.) These dinosaurs got little, and feathery, and probably started living in trees, and adapted to leaping, gliding, and eventually flying. By the late Jurassic, we have the archaeopteryx, a feathered, toothed, clawed, and bony-tailed flying machine. By the Cretaceous, there are plenty of pretty normal-looking birds around. Easy-peasy, and there are all those fossils I mentioned before.
“Oh yeah?” say the other paleontologists, “Well what about… this?!” And with that, they flick the back of their hand into the crotch of the unsuspecting bird-dino scientists.
“What are you… aaaaaaahh….” They ask.
Birds, say the alternate theory dudes, don’t have the right legs to be descended from dinosaurs. It’s so obvious, even jerks like you should have seen it.
See, birds need to breath lots of air to be able to fly (it’s hard, I’ve tried). To breath more efficiently, birds have air-sacs in addition lungs. Running all over their bodies (even in their bones) the air-sacs help pump lots of air through the birds' respiratory systems. Fossilized bones appear to show the presence of air sacs in some dinosaur species, too, and this has been seen as further evidence for the bird dinosaur link.
The new argument doesn’t dispute that everybody loves air-sacs. It points out that birds can only move their legs in a very limited way, to keep from collapsing some of their air-sacs when they breath. Birds’ femurs (their thigh bones) are largely fixed—when they walk or run, most of the movement comes from their lower legs. All other walking and running animals—including dinosaurs—have moveable thighs.
This difference, some scientists believe, is great enough that fixed-legged birds couldn’t have evolved from moving-legged dinosaurs. They might have evolved alongside dinosaurs, sharing a common ancestor, possibly one of the thecodonts. Thecodonts were dinosaur-like (but definitely not dinosaurs) and they lived during the Triassic period. Some thecodonts evolved into dinosaurs, and the group died off by the end of the Triassic.
“That’s… all?” says mainstream paleontology, straightening up and cracking its knuckles. “Someone is about to get slapped.”
“…Hiss!” say the other guys, squaring their Gollum-like shoulders.
Until I know a little more about the research, I think I have to side with the traditional birds evolved from dinosaurs argument. The alternative theory folks point out that birds are found much earlier in the fossil record than the dinosaurs they are supposed to have evolved from, but it seems to me that that’s more of a problem of overlap than of a gap—couldn’t later bird-like dinosaurs just be the descendants of the dinosaur-to-bird transitional species? It’s not as if anyone thinks that we look at individuals in the fossil record and say, “ok, you evolved from this one, which evolved from this one” etc. If birds didn’t evolved from dinosaurs like the ones we find from the Cretaceous, then we’re left with a huge gap between thecodonts and archaeopteryx and his pals. And it would have to be some pre-dinosaur thecodont, because I feel like the independent evolution of air-sacs, feathers, and everything else in both lines would be a little too much convergent evolution otherwise.
Plus… I’m not clear on why dinosaurs couldn’t have just evolved to have a fixed leg later on, when they needed more efficient respiratory systems for flying. Their mode of locomotion would have necessarily been changing anyway…
Interesting, though, right?
What do y’all think? Is this ridiculous? Or are we too attached to the mainstream model of bird evolution that we’re unable to keep an open mind to new ideas?
What makes humans unique? Do we have characteristics that make us different from other animals? PBS will be broadcasting a three-part series on the topic this fall. In advance of the series premiere, the producers want you to tell them why humans are special. You can submit a photo, a video, or text. Some entries will appear on screen, so make a grab for your 15 seconds of fame, and send in your ideas.
Courtesy sly06 (adapted by Mark Ryan)Evolution of mosquitoes on the Galapagos Islands could endanger the islands’ famous giant tortoises and other reptile wildlife. On the mainland the black marsh mosquito Aedes taeniorhynchus normally feeds on mammals and birds, but scientists from the University of Leeds, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), the University of Guayaquil and the Galapagos National Park have discovered that the island version of the blood-sucking insect has evolved a craving for reptilian blood, particularly that of the Galapagos tortoises and marine iguanas.
Genetic studies show the mosquitoes arrived on the archipelago about 200,000 years ago, giving them plenty of time to adapt to the island environment. Unlike its mainland counterpart which lives and breeds mainly in the lowlands and coastline salt marshes, the island mosquito can also breed as much as 15 miles inland and at altitudes up to 2000 feet above sea-level.
“The genetic differences of the Galapagos mosquitoes from their mainland relatives are as large as those between different species, suggesting that the mosquito in Galapagos may be in the process of evolving into a new species,” said Arnaud Bataille, PhD student at the University of Leeds and ZSL.
Mosquitoes can carry diseases such as West Nile and avian malaria that could potentially devastate the island fauna. Although none of these diseases have been detected in the Galapagos mosquitoes the researchers fear an infected mosquito brought in from the mainland via such modes as tourist transportation could potentially infect the island mosquitoes. If that happens the islands’ wildlife population could be at risk, because the long isolated Galapagos fauna wouldn’t have built up immunities to such an invasion.
But as a countermeasure, the Ecuadorian government has introduced a requirement for planes flying to Galapagos to be treated with insecticide before each flight, although similar controls have yet to be implemented for ships traveling to the islands.
“It is absolutely vital that these control measures are maintained and carried out rigorously, otherwise the consequences could be very serious indeed,” said Dr Simon Goodman, of Leeds’ Faculty of Biological Sciences and Co-author of the study which is published online in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Courtesy PLoSThere you were, thinking that lemurs were barely your relatives. It’s okay, I understand. I mean, Prosimians? Really? Sure, we’re all members of the primate family, but, like, two steps removed, like those cousins in Kentucky your mom pretends don’t exist. Or something. Prosimians are the non-human evolutionary line, how primitive. Prosimians are like NASCAR, and Anthropoids, like apes and humans, are like the DAR.
But, just like every president has an embarrassing brother, so too are we related to those furry simple primates. Now, we have proof! Scientists have found a 47 million years old human ancestor, the link between these early primates and human evolutionary lineage.
“Ida,” or Darwinius masillae, was actually discovered in 1983 by a private collector, although the fossil now belongs to the Natural History Museum of Oslo. An international team of scientists has been secretly conducting an in-depth study of Ida for the past two years. Now her skeleton is 95 percent complete.The fossil is significantly older than most fossils that explain human evolution, and, unlike Lucy and other famous primate fossils, this fossil was not found in Africa’s Cradle of Mankind; Ida is a European fossil (someone call Guinness, I just set a world record for using the word “fossil” the most times in a sentence).
Courtesy PLoSIda was preserved with a full stomach, so we know that she was an herbivore. I hope that in 47 million years, scientists discover me and determine that humans subsisted mainly on a diet of Cheetos and grape soda. That would be pretty awesome. Her skeleton is pretty similar to that of modern-day lemurs, but she lacks a grooming claw and a row of teeth fused together called a “toothcomb.” She also has nails instead of claws, and teeth similar to small monkeys. She had forward facing eyes, like ours, and opposable thumbs.
Courtesy PLoSWhat really links Ida to humans is a bone in her foot, called the talus. Her talus is nearly identical to your talus, only a lot smaller. Ida serves as a sort of “missing link,” a key part of the story of human evolution. So, you know, no big.
Courtesy mer de glaceRegular folks across Europe are being asked to take part in what’s being touted as one of the largest studies of evolution ever done.
Evolution MegaLab is requesting people living in the United Kingdom and the European continent to check the snail population in their areas and report their findings to the MegaLab website. The research study which was just launched by The Open University, will end six months from now and hopefully show how changes in climate and predation have affected the snail population over a relatively short span of time. Project researchers are specifically interested in two banded snail species, Cepaea hortensis and Cepaea nemoralis.
“Banded snails wear their genes on their backs,” said Professor Jonathan Silvertown of The Open University. “Their colors and banding patterns are marvelously varied – but the darker shell types are more common in woodland, where the background color is brown, while in grass banded snails tend to be lighter-colored, yellow and stripier. These differences are thought to have evolved over time because they provide camouflage from thrushes, which like to eat the snails.”
“However, there has been a big decrease in the numbers of song thrushes in some places over the last 30 years and we’d like the public to help us to find out whether, with fewer predators about, the different snail types are less faithful to their particular habitats.”
As this video explains, it’s fairly easy to distinguish one snail species from the other. The edge of the shell opening (known as the lip) is white on C. horntensis, and brown (or black) on C. nemoralis. The species come in three different colors, yellow, pink, and brown, and can display three different styles of banding: no bands, single band (mid-band), or many bands. These variations in coloring and banding help the snails survive in the environments they happen to be living and the MegaLab researchers are interested in how recent changes in climate and predator populations have changed the snails’ appearances.
Everything the public needs to participate in the study can be found at the MegaLab website, including instructions and downloadable documents to help gather data. Observers are asked to look for snails in their areas, record specifics characteristics about what they find, and then report the findings to the Evolution MegaLab site. The collected data will then be compared with historical records to see if any noticeable evolutionary changes have taken place. The site cautions that only adult snails should be studied and recorded as many of the snails’ specific characteristics are missing in the juvenile or infant stages of the animals.
Kids in the UK are already showing interest. Here’s a cute video documenting one group’s efforts to help gather data.
For now the banded snail observation project, which is supported by the Royal Society and British Council, is limited to the United Kingdom and Europe but who knows, maybe a similar project will be started up in the United States.
Now a new fossil has emerged from China that is complicating the picture. Tianyulong confuciusi was a small, two-legged plant-eater that lived in northeastern China about 130 million years ago. Its recently-discovered fossil included clear signs of feathers. This is nothing unusual—lots of dino fossils, especially from this part of China, have feathers.
What is unusual is that Tianyulong is not related to any previously known feather-bearing dinosaur. Not even remotely. All previously know dino feathers come from theropods, the two-legged meat-eaters like T. rex. Tianyulong was a type of hadrosaur—sometimes known as a “duck-billed dinosaur.” And the last time hadrosaurs and theropods shared a common ancestor was 230 million years ago!
This discovery raises several intriguing possibilities:
1. Perhaps feathers evolved very early in dinosaur history, far earlier than we now suspect. If the very first dinosaurs had feathers, then all other dinosaurs could inherit them, even after the various branches of the dino family tree split up and went their separate ways. But if that’s true, then why have we not found feathers on more dino skeletons?
2. Perhaps feathers evolved twice—once in the theropods, and once in the hadrosaurs. That would be pretty unusual. Right now, there seems to be no information on whether these new feathers are very similar to previously-known feathers, or completely different.
3. One thing has always bugged me about the whole bird-dino link. All dinosaurs fall into two major groups: those with hips shaped like those found in modern lizards, and those with hips shaped like those found in modern birds. But all the previous bird-like features, including feathers, come from the lizard-hipped group. Seems odd to me that nature would evolve bird-like hips twice. Maybe—just maybe—birds evolved from the bird-hipped dinosaurs.
Now, there’s tons of other evidence besides just hips to link birds to theropods, so nobody is going to be re-writing the bird family tree any time soon. All we can do is keep our eyes peeled for more interesting discoveries.
Courtesy tim ellisA dozen years ago guards at a Swedish prison north of Stockholm discovered a secret cache of weapons hoarded by an inmate named Santino. Certain that some kind of trouble was brewing, prison officials put the otherwise model prisoner under close observation. And it was fortunate they did. Santino was observed several times using his rock arsenal as missiles that he hurled at visitors to the prison. No one was seriously injured in the assault and Santino was disciplined for his actions. But since then subsequent lockdowns have resulted in the discovery and confiscation of hundreds of similar ammunition stockpiles in Santino’s cell. And officials fear the prisoner is planning other attacks.
Normally this wouldn’t be that unusual a scenario. Prison life can be difficult and sometimes the frustrations of incarceration cause detainees to act out against their captors and society in general.
But in this case the prison is actually a zoo and the trouble-making prisoner is a chimpanzee.
When the male chimp’s weapons cache was first discovered, zoo officials called in Mathias Osvath, a cognitive scientist from Sweden’s Lund University and Santino’s behavior was monitored closely. Not only was the 31 year-old ape observed throwing stones at zoo visitors, but was he also observed searching out weaknesses in the walls of his enclosure, digging out loosened chunks of concrete, and hiding them for future barrages.
"These observations convincingly show that our fellow apes do consider the future in a very complex way," Osvath said. "It implies that they have a highly developed consciousness, including lifelike mental simulations of potential events."
And if that’s not disturbing enough:
“It could be that he is a genius, only more research will tell. On the other hand our research showed the same in orangutans and bonobos so he is not alone," said Joseph Call, a co-author of the study, which appeared in the journal Current Biology.
Oh, Santino’s a genius all right – an evil genius – and one with a nasty grudge against humanity.
“It is extremely frustrating for him that there are people out of his reach who are pointing at him and laughing," Osvath said. "It cannot be good to be so furious all the time."