Courtesy M. R. Smith / Smithsonian InstituteOne of the strangest and more mysterious critters that scurried across the Middle Cambrian seafloor has baffled paleontologist since it was first identified in the 1970s. Was it a worm? Which side was up? Did it have legs or spikes or both? Was its head actually its tail? Did it have any extant descendents or was it an evolutionary dead-end? The worm-like creature was so baffling and so bizarre, it was given the very apropos name of Hallucigenia.
The tubular, spiked-worm possessed seven or eight pairs of legs and ranged in length from 2/5th of an inch to one and 1/4 inches and looks like something out of a bad dream. Early interpretations of their fossils were all over the map. The stiff spikes on it back were first thought to be its legs, and its legs misidentified as tentacles. What was thought to be its tail ended up being its head.
Using modern imaging technology, researchers from the University of Cambridge have been closely studying fossils from the famous Burgess Shale quarry located high in the Canadian Rockies, and are uncovering Hallucigenia's secrets. By studying the claws at the end of its legs they have been able to link it to modern velvet worms (onychophorans). Scientists have long suspected the two were somehow related but until now have failed to find anything significant to prove it. By studying Hallucigenia's claws they've determined that they're constructed of nested cuticle layers, very similar to how the jaws of velvet worms are organized. The similarity is no surprise since jaws are known to have evolved from a modified set of front legs.
But besides giving Hallucigenia a place in the lineage of life on Earth, the Cambridge team during the course of their study also discovered something else: that arthropods - which include crustaceans, spiders, insects and trilobites - aren't in fact as closely related to velvet worms as previously thought.
“Most gene-based studies suggest that arthropods and velvet worms are closely related to each other," said co-author Dr Javier Ortega-Hernandez. "However, our results indicate that arthropods are actually closer to water bears, or tardigrades, a group of hardy microscopic animals best known for being able to survive the vacuum of space and sub-zero temperatures – leaving velvet worms as distant cousins.”
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Courtesy Mark RyanOver in China, out of one of the richest hunting grounds for new and unusual dinosaur-era fossils, the earliest known member in the family of flying reptiles known as pterosaurs has been described in a paper published in Current Biology.
The flying reptile's name essentially means "first-born hidden serpent", the genus name Kryptodrakon referring to the popular martial arts film, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" which was filmed near the location where the fossil was discovered in the Chinese autonomous region known as Xinjiang.
Sporting a wingspan of some 4.5 feet, Kryptodrakon lived in a floodplain environment during the Middle-Upper Jurassic period, about 163 million years ago. Descendents of the newly-discovered pterodactyloid would evolve into much larger flying reptiles such as the giant, Cessna-sized Quetzacoatlus found in Late Cretaceous sediments in Texas. Pterosaurs were not dinosaurs but share a common ancestor with them.
The research increases our knowledge of pterosaur development and was led by Brian Andres from the University of South Florida (USF), James Clark of George Washington Columbia College of Arts and Sciences, and Xu Xing of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Jean-Michel Claverie and Chantal Abergel of Aix-Marseille University in France and their colleagues cut up pieces of permafrost samples - supplied by scientists from the Russian Academy of Science - and added them to petri dishes of amoebae only to see the one-celled animals ripped apart by unknown viruses. They isolated the attacking, larger-than-usual virus and named it Pithovirus sibericum, because of its resemblance to an earthenware jar. The permafrost samples had been collected from a frozen riverbank in Siberia in 2000.
The discovery brings the total number of known "giant viruses" to three. The extra-large viruses are about 25 percent larger than normal, genetically more complex, and composed of hardier stock.
"Among known viruses, the giant viruses tend to be very tough, almost impossible to break open," said Claverie and Abergel. "Special environments such as deep ocean sediments and permafrost are very good preservers of microbes because they are cold, anoxic and in the dark."
Two other giant viruses Mimivirus and Pandoravirus were also discovered by Claverle and Abergel in the last decade. The latter, in my opinion, is a disturbingly great name for this type of thing. But so far only the pithovirus has been observed in the laboratory infecting contemporary life forms. Luckily, none of them pose a threat to humans, but that's not to say future giant viruses thawed out of frozen environments or released by retreating ice caps won't be.
"I don't see why they wouldn't be able to survive under the same conditions," said Claverie.
Results of the research appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Courtesy National Portrait GalleryLast month, on November 22nd, while many people in the country were observing the 50th anniversary of president John F. Kennedy's assassination by shots fired from the Texas School Book Depository, there was another significant event happening that day involving Texas schoolbooks. That same Friday, despite objections and obstructionist tactics by creationists, the Texas Board of Education approved several public school science textbooks that included full coverage of evolution and climate change. The vote came late in the day and although the creationist faction did manage to make the adoption of two biology books contingent on a committee ruling regarding some alleged "flaws" in the text, the Texas Freedom Network (TFN), a watchdog group instrumental in countering the irrational creationist attacks, expects the passage to stand.
“It’s hard to overstate the importance of today’s vote, which is a huge win for science education and public school students in Texas,” said Kathy Miller, TFN's president. “Four years ago this board passed controversial curriculum standards some members hoped would force textbooks to water down instruction on evolution and climate change. But that strategy has failed because publishers refused to lie to students and parents demanded that their children get a 21st-century education based on established, mainstream science.”
Courtesy Mark RyanA new and troubling paper from the Committee on Understanding and Monitoring Abrupt Climate Change and its Impacts predicts possible and somewhat grim outcomes for some of Earth's natural systems from climate change that could rival the extinction event of the non-avian dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous Period 65 million years ago.
The abrupt impact could be coming faster than previously expected and would negatively affect human and physical climate systems as well. The document warns that the abruptness of the changes could be unanticipated and could find us unprepared to deal with them
Records of past climate preserved in tree rings, ice cores, and ocean sediments show that the atmosphere contains higher levels of carbon dioxide than it has in a very long time. Carbon emissions from human activity continue to add to this rising concentration. Other activities including deforestation and resource extraction place additional environmental pressures on our climate and other natural systems.
At the end of the Cretaceous, all species of non-avian dinosaurs, along with the megafauna of flying and swimming reptiles were wiped off the face of the Earth. Many dinosaur species showed signs of decline even before the Chicxlub asteroid delivered the final kibosh on their existence.
Dr. James W.C. White, a professor of Geological Sciences and of Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder chaired the committee which included more than a dozen earth scientists and ocean researchers from universities in both Canada and the United States, and from the National Academy of Science.
A prepublication copy of the entire 201-page paper is available to read without charge on the National Academies Press page. You can also download it for free although it was a little tricky getting it to my computer.
Courtesy Mark RyanA new study appearing in Biology Letters shows that trilobites - everyone's favorite prehistoric water bug - developed an effective survival strategy much earlier than previously thought.
Trilobite fossils from Early Cambrian rock formations in the Canadian Rockies and elsewhere lend evidence that some of the earliest trilobites used enrollment (i.e rolling themselves up into a ball like an armadillo) to protect themselves from predators or the environment. Trilobite fossils found here in Minnesota are several million years younger dating back to the Late Cambrian through Late Ordovician Periods (500 - 430 mya) and are often found enrolled. It was an effective survival strategy.
Trilobites were arthropods, which meant they possessed exoskeletons, segmented bodies and jointed appendages. Their closest extant relative is the horseshoe crab. Trilobite bodies - for the most part - were comprised of a head (cephalon) positioned on a body (thorax) that was divided into three lobes: essentially an axial dividing a left and right pleura, and a tail (pygidium). The mouth (hypostome) was located on the underside. It's thought that most early trilobites were predators and/or scavengers who spent their lives roaming the sea floors looking carcasses, detritus or living prey to feed upon. Most trilobites possessed complex eyes (although some were eyeless). Like other arthropods (e.g. today's lobsters), trilobites would outgrow their exoskeletons, discarding them (molting) as they grew in size or changed shape. Their newly exposed soft skin soon hardened into a new, tough, outer casing. Once hardened, their segmented exoskeletons (composed of calcium carbonate) were ventrally flexible, giving them the ability to roll up into a ball should they need sudden protection from whatever threatened them.
Some early trilobite forms from Middle Cambrian-aged fossils had been viewed as incapable of enrolling but the new research based on much older fossils found in mudstones in the Canadian Rockies in Jasper Park pushes back the origins of the strategy to some of the earliest trilobites to appear in the fossil record (Suborder Olenellus). These appeared 10-20 million years earlier at the very beginnings of the Cambrian Period and show evidence of having already developed the ability to enroll.
Trilobites in some form or another existed across a span of more than 270 million years, a very successful run by any measure. The enrollment strategy certainly contributed to their longevity. Although trilobites were already in decline, the last of their kind were wiped out in the great extinction event that marked the end of the Permian Period and the start of the Triassic. They weren't the only casualty of the extinction: nearly 90 percent of Earth's species were terminated along with them.
Even though trilobites are extinct (they died out in the Permian Mass Extinction along with around 90 percent of Earth's species) they were an extremely successful and adaptable life form. No wonder they remain today a favorite among fossil collectors.
Courtesy Mark RyanI've had the great fortune of being able to volunteer in the paleontology lab at the Science Museum of Minnesota. I'm in my fourth month there and it's been a real blast. My first project was preparing (cleaning) the skull of a small oreodont collected from the White River Formation in Wyoming. This is the same formation exposed in the fossil-rich South Dakota Badlands. By cleaning, I mean removing all the rock (matrix) in which the skull is encased. I've also helped patch up the casts of a couple of lambeosaurus skulls, and spent a few days puzzling over a crocodile skull reduced to about 1000 pieces.
Courtesy Mark RyanAt the moment, preparators been working on the remains of a 52 million year-old gar collected from the Green River Formation in southwestern Wyoming. Most of the work is being done by the more experienced volunteers in the lab but I've been able to help a little, taking my turn with the air scribe to reveal some caudal scales in their rocky grave. This particular specimen, an ancient member of Lepisosteus, was collected in Lincoln County, Wyoming. It's fascinating work uncovering something that last saw sunlight more than 50 million years ago. Now, at least, its remains can bask in the glare of the paleo lab's artificial lights.
Courtesy Mark RyanFifty some million years ago, the gar lived in a large body of water known as Fossil Lake, one of three intermountain lakes that existed at different times in a sub-tropical environment in that part of Wyoming. The intermountain basin in and around the lake teemed with both floral and faunal life that over about 4000 years lived and died and were fossilized forming one of the great Lagerstätten in the world. The surrounding mountains were composed mainly of limestone, and the rivers and streams eroding those mountains carried high levels of calcite (CaC3) into the lake, resulting in a high sedimentation rate that added to the ideal fossilization environment.
Most of the fossils coming out of the Fossil Lake strata have been fossilized by a process called permineralization, where mineral-rich water permeates all the spaces and pores in the skeleton and the minerals (in this case calcite) crystallize out of the water replacing bone material down to the cellular level. Some carbonization is also involved. This process depletes the remains of volatiles and is caused by the heat and pressure of sediment compression, which also crushes and flattens the fossils, and tends to color them either brown or black.
Courtesy Mark RyanThat's very apparent with our gar. Although only portions of the fish's remains have been exhumed (its head and tail) the fossil is already providing some information about what followed the gar's death (taphonomy). Lepisosteus favored the shallow, swampy edges of Fossil Lake and when it died it probably floated on the surface for a while giving bacteria time to enter its mouth and gills and begin their decomposition work before the corpse was buried beneath sediments.
We can deduce this scenario by the manner the remains are preserved. The bones of the gar's skull and jaws are scattered and jumbled in a mish-mash of bones and scales. The head appears to have been blown apart, and that's probably what happened. As the microbes feasted on the fish's head, they released gases inside the corpse which built up, and bloated the gar to a point where it burst from the internal pressure. The mandibles, the cranium, and other bones broke apart before settling to the bottom and are disarticulated. The very end of the tail, however, shows no such disruption. The rays of the caudal fins looking almost as fresh as they did when the gar died half a million centuries ago.
Courtesy Mark RyanThe scales of its mid-section are beginning to come to light. These diamond-shaped structures were covered with ganoin, an enamel-like tissue containing less than five percent organic material. The mineralized tissue gave Lepisosteus a very tough, predator-resistant exterior when it was alive but not so resistant to the bacteria that attacked the gar from the inside after it died. Preliminary work of the mid-section is showing signs of decomposition there but further work required.
One of the major experts on the fossils found in the Green River Formation is Lance Grande, a graduate of the University of Minnesota (and elsewhere) who has been working at Chicago's Field Museum for the past few decades. In the early '80s, Dr. Grande wrote a hefty bulletin titled Paleontology of the Green River Formation for the Wyoming Geological Survey, and has now come out with a new book titled The Lost World of Fossil Lake: Snapshots from Deep Time. In a recent television interview, Dr. Grande talked about his book and about the fossils found in the Green River Formation.
Hundreds of thousands of finely preserved fossils from Fossil Lake deposits can be found in museum displays and on rock shop shelves world-wide. The best fossils were buried quickly and preserved in near pristine condition. Many of these come from what used to be the deep center of the lake where conditions were probably anoxic and burial fairly swift. At times during Fossil Lake's history events like seasonal algal blooms or rapid turnovers of the water column occurred and caused massive die-offs of fishes. Other fish, like our gar, probably just died a regular death.
Courtesy Mark RyanEvery fossil tells a story, and our gar is no exception. Back in the Eocene epoch it lived for a short time in the then subtropic environment of southwest Wyoming, doing what gars do before it finally died along the shores of Fossil Lake. After it was buried, it was fossilized, dug up, and transferred to the collections vault of the Science Museum of Minnesota. A few months ago, it was retrieved from the vault and brought into the paleo lab where it's been worked on each week by several people. Whatever the gar was thinking when it was alive back in the late Eocene, you can be sure it was unaware that its post-mortem life would provide hours of detailed work, study and fascination for another curious life-form 52 million years later.
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Our great-ape cousins such as chimpanzees have feet that are very flexible in their middle region due to something called the midtarsal break that allows their feet to bend in the middle, enabling them to grasp at branches for easier climbing through trees. So when a chimp lifts his foot off the ground, it just flops about - there's nothing to hold the bones together. Most humans, on the other hand (or should I say foot?), have the same joint but have ligaments that stretch across it making the foot more rigid and stable for upright walking. Australopithecus sediba, a human ancestor that lived 2 million years ago, has a foot structure that is more ape-like than human, so somewhere along the line our feet evolved probably to accommodate our bipedalism.
The study was done by Jeremy DeSilva, a functional morphologist from Boston University, whose main interest is the evolution of the human foot and ankle. In this recent study, museum visitors were requested to walk barefoot across a mechanized carpet while DeSilva's team observed their gaits and the structure of their feet as they walked.
The surprising results showed that 8 percent of the nearly 400 participants possessed a flexible midtarsal break in their foot, and displayed a pressure signature in their footprint that looked like that found in the footprints of non-human primates. Perhaps more surprising is the fact that those subjects who had the unusual foot-joint structure weren't even aware of it until DeSilva revealed it to them.
The study was published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.
Courtesy Fancy Horse (underwater background)The genome of the coelacanth, the world's best known living fossil, has been sequenced by an international team of researchers and is revealing something scientists already suspected: that the primitive-looking fish has evolved more slowly than most other organisms. The coelacanth is related to the lungfish and several extinct Devonian fish species that are considered precursors to land dwelling tetrapods. Kerstin Lindblad-Toh is senior author of the study which appeared recently in the science journal Nature.
"We often talk about how species have changed over time, but there are still a few places on Earth where organisms don't have to change, and this is one of them," Lindblad-Toh said. "Coelacanths are likely very specialized to such a specific, non-changing, extreme environment -- it is ideally suited to the deep sea just the way it is."
Lindblad-Toh is scientific director of the Broad Institute's vertebrate genome biology group in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which did the genome research. The institute is linked to both MIT and Harvard.
The genetic map, which involved sequencing some 3 billion letters of DNA, also showed (via RNA content) that tetrapods - four-legged land dwelling animals - though related to both coelacanths and lungfish, are more closely related to lungfish and followed that line rather than that of the coelacanth. We humans also branched off that same line. The genome of a lungfish is composed of over 100 billion DNA letters, making it a much more difficult task to sequence, so for the time being, the coelacanth's DNA makes for a reasonable alternative for study.
"This is just the beginning of many analyses on what the coelacanth can teach us about the emergence of land vertebrates, including humans, and, combined with modern empirical approaches, can lend insights into the mechanisms that have contributed to major evolutionary innovations," said professor Chris Amemiya at the University of Washington, and the paper's co-author.
Courtesy photo by Haplochromis via Wikipedia Creative CommonsWhen Louis Agassiz named the first fossil coelacanth back in 1836, the Swiss paleontologist probably never imagined that a nearly identical descendent of the primitively constructed Devonian-aged fish would one day be found still inhabiting the world's oceans. The coelacanth was thought to have gone extinct along with the non-avian dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period. None have been found in the fossil record after that time, but two extant species are known today. The first specimen Latimeria chalumnae was netted off the coast of South Africa in 1938, near the Chalumnae river and retrieved by East London Museum curator Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer who discovered what she called "the most beautiful fish I'd ever seen" in the catch of local fisherman, Henrik Goosen. Since then several more coelacanths have been caught, including the Indonesian species, Latimeria menadoensis, from the Indian Ocean.
The remarkable prehistoric throw-back, sometimes referred to as "old four legs" because of its leg-like fins, hasn't changed much in its 350 million year history. A member of the clade of lobe-finned fishes called Sarcopterygii, coelacanths retain primitive characteristics such a notochord, a hollow fluid-filled tube made of cartilage that underlies the spine over the length of its body. In all other vertebrates, the notochord is an anatomical structure that appears briefly only during the embryonic stage but not in adults. Not so with the coelacanth. It also possesses, primitive shark-like intestines, a linear heart, and tightly-woven armor-like scales (known as cosmoid) that are only found on extinct species of fish. The coelacanth's brain case contains only 1.5 percent gray matter - the other 98.5 percent of space is filled with fat. The other end of the coelacanth body begins to taper before expanding into a strange, three-lobed tail. Its most notable features are its lobed pectoral and pelvic fins that are structured with bones that look like toes, and move in an alternating tetrapod manner. An electroreceptive rostal organ located in its snout is used to detect prey, and the coelacanth is the only living animal that can unhinge a section of the its cranium to increase the gape of its mouth, enabling it to consume larger prey.
The blue or brown, white-speckled coelacanths prefer deep-water environments, and can reach six and a half feet in length and weigh upwards to 175 pounds. For some reason no living coelacanth has managed to survive more than a single day in captivity. With a dwindling population estimated at only 500-1000 individuals, the coelacanth was declared an endangered species in 1989.
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We've all seen them, those great B-films where a giant, vicious monster from under the sea, or invaders from outer space arrive to cause mayhem across our cities and generally mess up our way of life. In the end, it seems no matter who or what it was that was attacking us, be it Mothra, Godzilla, or some race of belligerent extra-terrestrials, we could always count on the military to save our collective behind.
Unfortunately, with mosquitoes, that might now be the case anymore.
Scientists are reporting that Deet, one of the most widely used active ingredients in insect repellents, loses its effectiveness against mosquitoes shortly after those ubiquitous, blood-seeking winged vermin are first exposed to it.
Deet - the common name for N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide - was developed by the US Army after the Second World War to help combat insects during jungle warfare. It was used extensively in the Korean and Vietnam wars, but mosquitoes seem to be able to adapt quickly to it.
"Mosquitoes are very good at evolving very very quickly", said Dr. James Logan of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and co-author of the study. "There is something about being exposed to the chemical that first time that changes their olfactory system - changes their sense of smell - and their ability to smell Deet, which makes it less effective."
So what I want to know is where does that leave us here in Minnesota where the mosquito constantly competes with the Common Loon for the title of State Bird? Maybe it's time to start digging the bunker in the backyard.