Monday, 15 November 2010

Pterosaurs are not dinosaurs!

Just a quick little rant, as I saw two articles discussing Mark Witton's latest paper on pterosaur flight, referring to them as dinosaurs.

The Sun went with "How dinos soared.." and declared that "WINGED dinosaurs WERE capable of flight". This deplorable article can be seen here.

The Telegraph went for "Dinosaur the size of a giraffe could fly across continents" though oddly enough the article is not too bad as it pretty much just quotes Mark constantly, see here.

So, for the last time, PTEROSAURS ARE NOT DINOSAURS!!!

The artwork featured with the articles.

Not long ago I blogged about how pterosaurs took off, based on the writing of Mark Witton. See here.

Googling "fossil plants" has interesting results...

Some time last week I was busy searching Google, not for fossil plants, but for something else (should I offer a prize for anyone who guesses?). As I typed in "fossil pla..." Google naturally tried to pre-empt me with fossil plants, allowing me to see something which amused me greatly:

Zoom in if you have to, as the first image that comes up is not a fossil plant, but a crinoid. I don't know how many palaeontologists joke about crinoids being flowers, but it is a habit amongst my group of friends, so finding this was hilarious. We have a crinoid loving mate, who naturally was tagged in this image on Facebook. Ah Google, how I love thee....

I also love the irony of the fact that I am one of the main people to mock crinoids by calling them flowers, when I actually do like them and am obsessed with Ediacaran forms, many of which are frond-like and are easily mistaken for plants (my girlfriend, to my dismay, exclaimed that Charnia was a leaf as we were watching First Life).

Dolomite? Pretty?

Whenever I hear the word "dolomite" I want to run away. I don't know any palaeontologist who likes the stuff and I feel like it has been following me around a fair bit. Back home I live on top of the Magnesian Limestone, which is dolomite, and because of that fossils are sparse. Dolomite is limestone which has been altered (to simplify a tad) and the process is not good for any fossils in the rock. Dolomite was also heavily present during my mapping trip in Spain, though it did give quite a dramatic landscape.
The dolomite ridge known as "Las Cuchilleras". 
Even though the dolomite has created some interesting topography, I still couldn't have imagined anyone thinking of it as nice to look at. Until today that is. We were shown images of the results of cathodoluminescence on dolomite:
On the left are the samples before luminescence. 

How nice are they! To me they conjure up images of the classical understanding of Hell, the sort found in Dante's Inferno. Have some more:

Friday, 12 November 2010

Oldest Fossil Terrestrial Vertebrate Embryos Found! (they're dinosaurs too...)

Found in South Africa, the fossilised eggs date back to the Jurassic, 190 million years ago, and are a dinosaur known as Massospondylus, a prosauropod. They were discovered during preparation, which required high powered microscopes to achieve. Their exceptional preservation allowed for full reconstruction, giving incredible insight into dinosaur ontogeny. The almost hatchlings show how much of the skeleton had become bone and show that dinosaurs began life much like we do - with odd proportions. They had disproportionally large heads and walked on all fours, whereas their older form used bipedal locomotion to get around. They also had shorter necks and this data suggests that their necks and hind limbs grew faster than their heads and forelimbs during their life.

They also lacked teeth, which when combined with the awkward body proportions suggests that they received parental care after hatching (unlike pterosaurs which could fly soon after hatching). If so, then this is not only the oldest example of terrestrial vertebrate embryos and of dinosaur embryos, but also the oldest record of parental care. 

For more, see this press release.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Frustration is spelled T-H-R-U-H-Z-D-R-A-Y-S-H-U-N

On Saturday I had to pop upstairs in the student union for a band photo-shoot (shudder) and ended up waiting for a bit in 3rd space, an area for just chilling out, maybe working, things like that. It turned out that it was Dino Day, an event organised mostly for kids in honour of the dinosaur statue which was destroyed a couple of months ago. There were pretty girls painting dinosaurs on faces, activities to take part in, pictures to draw, things to make and whatever else you might expect from such a day. How could it go wrong?

Where I was sitting there were word-searches with dinosaur themed words. I chuckled at the fact that they used the American spelling of palaeontologist (spelled paleontologist) and jokingly corrected it. I then noticed that the artwork of a course-mate was on display, so I wandered over to admire them and peruse the other information. I was horrified. Spelling mistakes were rife and factual errors abounded. If I had a pen on me I would have scribbled all over it. I thankfully don't remember what many of the errors were, though spelling Mesozoic as "Mesozaic" is forgiveable, as long as you don't also add "Palaeozaic" and "Cenozaic" as well, which they did! I also cannot fathom how they ended up calling Gallimimus an oviraptor.....

Such lack of care by the student union is surprising, considering many of the mistakes could easily be corrected with a simple spell checker and the use of children's books on dinosaurs. Or they could have made use of the roughly 50 palaeontologists wandering around the university (1 professor, around 3 lecturers, a couple of post-doc researchers on a good day, a couple of doctoral and masters students, plus  around 40 undergrads). If only one had gotten involved then such mistakes would not have been made. *sigh*

Friday, 5 November 2010

First Thoughts on First Life

Sir David Attenborough's newest documentary, First Life, has just aired on BBC2 and naturally I watched it excitedly. I've not seen the Ediacaran fossils covered properly in a documentary, even though Attenborough has looked at some of them before. The last time I saw them getting a good mention was when the delectable Liz Bonnin looked at them in Bang Goes the Theory, but that did not give them much coverage. The latest series of Sir David made them the main focus, touted as the first examples of complex life and of our own animal kingdom. There is another episode to come next week and accompanying the series is a book which I intend to read and review at some point. Until then I shall provide a very brief review of the episode I just watched.
Sir David Attenborough and Charnia masoni. 

When watching documentaries about a subject I am fond of I have a bad habit of trying to predict what they are about to say, so when I come away having learnt a few things I love it. This is often true of Attenborough documentaries, which he narrates over stunning visuals which keep us gripped. I am pleased to say that I learnt a few things. I have not yet got to grips with how the Ediacaran forms relate to each other temporally, which this documentary did well, introducing the fractal and frondose forms first, ghost-like in appearance and living in the deep sea (they say quite confidently what colour they might have been, which bugged me a little). I didn't even know just how big Charnia could grow, as I was more familiar with the classic Charnwood forest example. It was also mentioned that the fractal form of Fractofusus used only 6 to 8 genetic commands, something I would love to know more about.
Fractofusus from Mistaken Point.
They then moved forward in time, showing the shallow water icons of Ediacara such as Spriggina, Dickinsonia and Kimberella. This is where I started to disagree with them a little. They showed a beautiful Dickinsonia which appears to be at the end of a trail (making it a mortichinia trace) showing that it was mobile, though likely very slow. This is another thing I know little about, so I can't comment right now. Whenever Spriggina was mentioned I was not as impressed, for they kept referring to it as bilateral even though it shows glide symmetry, in which each side is slightly offset and not an exact mirror image. The animations showed it as some sort of proto-arthropod confidently moving around, which is hardly surprising with Jim Gehling as an advisor. I'm not completely against this interpretation as it is a simple shoehorn, but it is not without its difficulties. Kimberella on the other hand is one I don't mind being shoehorned, as its morphology and likely radula marks do make it seem very molluscan.

Before the documentary was shown in full I watched a few clips on Youtube, one of which intrigued me rather a lot and made me quite sceptical. Mary Droser was shown discussing Funisia, a fossil which she claims as the first providing evidence of sexual reproduction. The clip showed that the evidence for this were clusters of traces which varied little in size, showing that they were of the same age. At first I couldn't figure out why this would indicate sexual reproduction, so it was fortunate that the documentary showed why. Corals reproduce in the same way, occasionally asexually, but then sometimes sending out large amounts of sperm and eggs to found new colonies, all of which would be the same age, just like the Funisia found. See here for a little more.
Funisia fossils and a reconstruction.

The next really fascinating bit showed the research of Phil Donoghue from the University of Bristol, using an enormous synchrotron to look at fossil embryos. Using the powerful technology he is able to see the developing organism inside the egg sac, even after half a billion years. The reconstructions show that the worm inside had teeth at the front and a gut running right through the middle. This thing was both complex and predatory. Early embryos are yet another area I really need to look into, perhaps I could pester him in Bristol when I go next week.....

Overall the documentary is well worth watching; as ever the visuals are great, the reconstructions are not amazing but are quite fascinating, the insight is excellent and the fossils are beautifully filmed. Although I disagree with some aspects I know that is inevitable when it comes to Ediacarans and I learnt a lot from this, giving me new areas to research. If you missed it, then BBC iPlayer is your new best friend.

Seeing Dinosaurs in a New Light

A controversial view in dinosaurology is the idea that the king of the tyrant lizards itself, Tyrannosaurus rex, was a scavenger rather than the expert hunter we all think of. If you want to annoy dinosaur palaeontologists, then express this as your own view and watch their blood boil. (For the record I do believe it scavenged, a lot too, but also hunted as it would have been very opportunistic and from time to time likely did not have to fight too much for its food, stealing off of others instead, but I have digressed from the point.) Another interesting view, one which I have only just stumbled upon and which, as far as I am aware, has not been published on, is the idea of those peaceful, grazing ceratopsians (Triceratops and friends) as omnivores, tearing the flesh off of carrion violently every now and again.

I found this idea when I saw an article on the Guardian website about dinosaurs having feathers, where the accompanying artwork by Mark Witton showed a Styracosaurus albertensis depicted scavenging a dead tyrannosaur. Some of the comments show that people found this outrageous, but when he first drew the picture he spent time justifying it, as you can see on his Flickr site.
I must admit that I like the idea, as the line between carnivory and herbivory is blurred in extant animals, with many herbivores occasionally eating meat, especially those which require a lot of calcium - acquiring it by munching on bones now and again. Ceratopsians appear to have had jaws which would have been quite effective at devouring flesh, perhaps even being overkill if used solely on plants. Of course, it is not being suggested that they only ate meat, far from it, but that they might occasionally have tore into some flesh if they happened upon it, giving them a more balanced diet. An implication of this is that they may have been much more aggressive creatures, as opposed to the docile grazers we usually imagine. Most large herbivores, not least the hippo, are quite aggressive creatures, especially when the need calls for it. Imagining a herd of Triceratops fighting over a carcass is quite thrilling compared to the classic plant munching and may even have actually happened.

For some interesting discussion about this, also see the Tet Zoo blog which featured the image and read the ensuing discussion here.

A Luis Rey image with some bone munching going on.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Mystery Solved!

In my previous post I finally talked about my trips to France and Spain, which I really should have finished a long time ago. Whilst there my girlfriend stumbled across something which had me baffled. Whilst walking in the field next to where our tents were pitched, she suddenly asked me if she had found a fossil. At the time I laughed but almost immediately saw what she meant:

I was quite baffled by it. I could tell it was not a body fossil, but there was the thought that it could be a trace fossil, a remnant of animal activity. The near regularity of the ridges were what intrigued me, especially when I found another (sadly not pictured) which matched. I knew of no mineral process which could result in this and wondered if it might be some bizarre sedimentary structure which I had not come across.

It is two months since this was found and the study I have done in that time would have enabled me to say that it is neither a trace fossil nor a sedimentary structure. It is, however, possibly a result of animal activity. I had it looked at and was told that it is most likely the result of stone age man making flint axes, something my girlfriend found more exciting than fossils. In order to confirm it I would need to have it looked at by an archaeologist who knows a thing or two about flint carving. To round off, here is Lizzie posing with the find:

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

When in need of something to say, why not critique a creationist?

In a previous blog I decided to critique some creationist blogs, one of which was by a feller called Daniel Mann. To see my first critique of his blog, see here. I occasionally see his other posts and wonder if I should respond to them, though I then decide that it is better not to. I've discussed with him before, he tends not to pay much attention. Earlier today I noticed that he has posted twice in the last couple of days  on evolution, one blog attacking the theory, the other attacking theistic evolution. Naturally I struggled to resist, so here I am.

The Wonders of Evolution

Mann's blog criticising evolution, The Wonders of Evolution, explores the principle of optimisation, where nature contains systems which are as functionally optimal as possible - they just could not get any better. He quotes from an article in the New York Times which mentions photoreceptor cells as an example, along with many other excellent examples. This single aspect of the eye does seem to be functionally optimal, but this does not mean that eyes as a whole are functionally optimal. His reasons for discussing these are encapsulated in this statement:

Obviously, these findings do not point to the expected messiness of a mindless evolutionary process.

Personally I do not see why messiness must be expected in evolution, it is just that evolution can account for it occurring due to its often co-optive nature - it must use what is available and that sometimes involves cobbling something together, as long as fitness is increased. When the variation is available then co-option might not occur, allowing for the possibility of optimal function. So what we should expect from evolution is a mix, where some functions are examples of co-option and exaptation (the now eponymous panda's thumb for example) and some have achieved functional optimality. If something can be altered quantitatively rather than qualitatively, in other words tweaked bit by bit a degree at a time, then resulting in the optimum is not difficult. Mann continues:

In fact, evolutionists have always been ready to capitalize on any findings that might demonstrate the sloppiness of an evolutionary process: “You see, here’s evidence for evolution. Just look at the vestigial organs (useless organs left-over from prior stages in our evolutionary past)!”

A sloppily constructed adaptation becomes evidence for evolution when the alternative is design by an omnipotent and omnibenevolent Creator. If a human designer could do better, why should we think that the omnipotent Designer would do the same? A vestigial organ, contrary to what Mann thinks, is one which does not serve its proper function, as opposed to one which is completely functional. Mann then goes from vestigial organs to that other creationist favourite, junk DNA:

Then you heard about “junk DNA,” our useless sets genetic baggage bequeathed to us by our former relatives! Well, now they don’t look so junky after all. Science has found that they do have a function. However, finding leftovers and junk is just the thing that the blindness and messiness of evolution would expect to find.

Mann is not completely wrong, but misses the mark significantly. Many areas of junk DNA do have functions which have recently been discovered, but what Mann is doing is selective reading. Junk DNA does not necessarily serve no function, it does not code for proteins, which is how we recognise it. Further to this, there are many areas of junk DNA which are both functionally useless and provide great evidence for evolution, such as pseudogenes and retroelements. Mann has lumped all junk DNA together and ignored the differences within. He then goes on to do the same with the eye, taking the optimally functioning photoreceptors and ignoring the whole.

Overall, his argument was sorely disappointing.

How Does Evolution Give Glory to God?

In the second blog I am looking at, How Does Evolution Gives [sic] the Glory to God? Mann looks at a blog on the Biologos website After watching the video he decided to write a message to them:

“While I agree with you that science reveals to us the glory of God (Romans 1; Psalm 19), the same doesn’t hold true for the theory of evolution. Evolution instead says, ‘Mindless, purposeless processes have created what you see around you.’ As such, it deprives God of His glory!! Please don’t confuse the two things—science and evolution!”

Ironically it is Mann embracing confusion by conflating atheistic interpretations of evolution with the theory itself. Evolution does not say 'mindless, purposeless processes' as that is a metaphysical claim, beyond what science can say. It is a valid understanding, but of equal validity with a Christ centred view, such as that which Kathryn Applegate (from the video he is responding to) espouses in response to Mann:

I don’t see evolution as mindless and purposeless at all - rather God is intimately involved in the process by His providential upholding of creation, just as He is in our lives... A thoroughly God-centered view of evolution is elegant, beautiful, and intellectually satisfying. We are fearfully and wonderfully made!

In his response to Applegate, Mann continues to misunderstand evolution and how God acts. He sees the randomness of mutation, along with natural selection, as incompatible with God. The randomness of mutation is observable and there are numerous possible theological responses formulated centuries ago to answer this. When taken with natural selection we get evolution, so as selection is not random neither is evolution as a whole. Having an issue with natural selection baffles me, for why can the acts of nature not also be the acts of God? Or why can nature not have autonomy? 

Mann's criticisms of theistic evolution lack any theological vigour, they are based on utter misunderstandings of both the theory of evolution and theistic evolution.

The Southsea Ultrasauros Sculpture is Back!

Well, not exactly. For those of you who don't remember this, there was an enormous, arty sculpture of an Ultrasauros erected on Southsea Common in Portsmouth over summer, which was then tragically razed to the ground in September. I blogged about it at the time, see here. Many in Portsmouth wanted it to become a permanent resident of the common and have banded together to keep its memory alive. A calendar of the model has been made and has gone on sale. See the press release for more details.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Exciting Footage of First Life

These video clips have got me very excited for the next series by Sir David Attenborough, First Life. As the title suggests, he discusses the evolution of early life and the first animals - all right up my alley. Enough talking, just watch:

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Doncaster, Ichthyosaurs, and Dodgy Journalism

I always like writing about things which are close to home, whether it is my family home in Doncaster or down here in Portsmouth where I study. I've known about this particular piece of news for quite some time now and had a look at the published paper a couple of weeks ago. Finally the press release has been printed, so I can hop on that wagon and follow suit (erk, mixed metaphor). Up in the Doncaster Museum and Art Gallery is a beautiful ichthyosaur specimen known as Fizzy (chosen by a young girl in a competition) which is near complete and contains gastric contents - the last meal of the hapless marine reptile.

Aside from the specimen being beautifully preserved, it is also important for another reason. It extends the temporal range of Ichthyosaurus by 3 million years into the Pliensbachian (Early Jurassic). This incredible specimen had been in the museum collections for a few decades before my friend and colleague (can volunteers be colleagues?) Dean Lomax recognised its scientific worth.
Dean Lomax in Whitby, in front of a huge dislodged rock.

If I had the time I could flesh this out into an intriguing and insightful story about palaeontology, twisting and turning like a Thalassinoides trace fossil. We'd be able to look into the history of ichthyosaur discoveries, with such luminaries as Mary Anning making an appearance. We'd learn about the frivolity with which museum specimens used to change location, often with no information, rendering them almost useless to science. We'd hear all about how the specimen was misplaced, misidentified and misunderstood for many years, before it became pride of place on display in the museum. Major finds are usually thought to be done in the field, yet we would find that this one occurred in a small museum storage room. We could look at the preservation of the fossil and get insights into the life and death of old Fizzy. We could even take a look at Dean's career thus far and how he is taking what I call the "autodidact palaeontologist" route, now able to call himself a research palaeontologist with a peer reviewed publication under his belt (to see some of his other publications, check out Deposits magazine). We could also peer into the world of biostratigraphy, with the use of the belemnite to identify the age and location of Fizzy - information which was previously lost.

Instead, we can take a look at an area which some palaeontologists fear, one which can become hilarious and cringe-worthy - the press! Our local newspaper, The Star, mentioned the discovery on the front page and dedicated the whole of page 3 to it (imagine if The Sun did it, as if they were declaring fossils to be better than boobies!). I was once told that if you want to get quoted in a newspaper about palaeontology, or if you want an article published, then it is more likely if dinosaurs are mentioned. In an article on an ichthyosaur there is no reason to mention dinosaurs really, sure they were contemporaries and are not too distantly related, but their interactions would have been rare. In the article in question they are mentioned twice within the first two paragraphs, whilst also referring to Dean as Dino Dean. The article even contradicts itself by calling it a "sea dwelling dinosaur" but later mentioning that they are "often mistaken for swimming dinosaurs". They even get the news about the extra 3 million years wrong!

The Star press release.
So if you read the article you might wonder why a dinosaur expert is discussing a dinosaur which is not really a dinosaur and may get a little confused. Although the article is a tad ridiculous, it does bring publicity to our beloved museum and will hopefully cause people to come see Fizzy and the rest of the display collection.

Dean's article was published in Paludicola, a New York based journal. The press release can be seen here. Also check out Dean's site Palaeocritti for more details.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Benoit Mandelbrot Dies at 85

The great mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot has died at the age of 85 from pancreatic cancer. He is famous for his work on fractal geometry, which has been used in numerous disciplines, from biology to economics. This news has only just been announced, with the first obituary being published online during the time I was planning on writing this piece, see here. Fractal geometry has been used to explain cloud formations, the folding of mammalian brains, the branching of trees, crystal growth and more, it even suggests that the coastline of Britain is infinite! Fractals are also very aesthetically pleasing, mesmerising even, so, in memory of Mandelbrot, here is a video of a fractal zoom.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Like Vulgarity? If the answer is no, look away...

Personally I found this website hilarious as it is such a ridiculous idea. The website in question is Dinosaurs Fucking and shows images of, well, dinosaurs fucking robots. Some of them are terrible, but quite a lot of them are of high quality. They also include inspirational phrases and quotes, bringing more depth to each image. Here are a couple I particularly like:


Thursday, 14 October 2010

Words of the Week

Since getting the internet at my house I was meant to be updating regularly, yet I haven't. I have a lot planned but don't appear to be implementing anything (except a new post on Kale Ktisis today). I've had some commitments taking up my time: the band; the girlfriend; the work for the course; and lots of hanging around with friends. So, in order to contribute at least once a week, I have a new idea. I have a bit of a passion for words; I've been called a logophile in the past and that is quite accurate. I'm also a trainee palaeobiologist (a fancy way of saying I study it) so I come across lots of new terms from geology to biology. Whenever I come across a new term which I find aesthetically pleasing I will share it here, allowing me to briefly talk about the subject. Here's a round-up of some of my favourite words of the last few weeks:

Diplocraterion yoyo: This is not strictly a term, but is an ichnospecies (meaning it is the name of a type of trace fossil). Trace fossils are not classified by exactly what made them (most of the time) as different species can produce the same tracks, whilst conversely a single species can produce a range of tracks. The form of Diplocraterion yoyo is a vertical burrows with spreiten (curved lines within the burrow) which show that the organism, likely a bivalve mollusc, had to move up and down in the burrow, adjusting its position to maintain equilibrium. This is indicative of high energy marine environments. 
Not the most useful picture, but I might be going there in a couple of weeks.
My lectures on trace fossils yield a lot of interesting names such as Spongeliomorpha and Maiakarichnus, or today's Coprinisphaera, which means "spherical poo". 

Synchotron Radiation X-ray Tomographic Microscopy (SRXTM): I can't say much about this, I just liked how long it was. 

Ichnocoenosis: Another trace fossil term, which means 'the trace fossil assemblage produced by what approximates to the work of a single community of trace fossils'. It reminds me of another good palaeo term: thanatacoenosis (death assemblage). 

Allochthonous: Defined by the Oxford Dictionary of Earth Sciences as 'not indigenous; acquired. In the Earth sciences the term is applied to geological units that originated at a distance from their present position.'

Zosterophyllophyta and Trimerophytophyta: Two classes of early terrestrial plants found in the Devonian. The zosterophylls have dichotomous branching, with lateral sporangia showing dehiscence, with often curled terminations to the branches. The trimerophytes show dichotomous and trifurcate branching, with terminal sporangia aggregated on fertile branches and are thought to have given rise to all vascular plants except the lycopods. Is it obvious that I just copied this from my palaeobotany notes because I liked the names?

Gelbstoff: This German portmanteau can be translated as yellow stuff and refers to some yellow stuff found in the ocean (polyphenolic compounds). I like this term because I am gaining a fondness for German words and phrases (me and some of my friends have a habit of shouting random German phrases, especially strong sounding ones like this, but also my girlfriend is studying German and I am going there with uni next year, perhaps I could also learn to read Seilacher papers in German...). Another German phrase I keep trying to use lately is Weltanschauung, which pretty much means world-view. 

I'll end with this imposing picture of a chaetognath head, though I wanted to end with an amusing picture of a polychaete trochophore, but the exact image I wanted is being elusive:

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Pink Dinosaurs - The Best Way to Raise Money!

Ladies and gentlemen, spread the news and get out your pens and pencils, our time to draw pink dinosaurs and contribute to society has finally come! The Art Evolved group are raising money for cancer research and you can join in. For every picture they receive of a pink dinosaur they will donate $1 to the Canadian Cancer Society. I've not yet drawn my own pink dino, but once I get my hands on some pink pencils I shall do it! So, head here and join in! Fight cancer with palaeoart!

Normally I would not want to simply repeat someone else's blog post, but this was worth mentioning. I read about it over on where you can see Mark Witton's pink pterosaur contribution.

Monday, 4 October 2010

How Did Giant Pterosaurs Take Off?

In case you didn't know, some pterosaurs were enormous. Standing as tall as giraffes, and not too dissimilar (see here), means that their ability to fly has often been brought into question (see here for a negative, poppy article). Instead of wading straight into the debate, which gets pretty catty as the protagonists hail from different fields (from palaeontology to physics), we might start by supposing that they could fly (a paper in favour of this will be published soon, or so I hear....) as we would still have a pretty huge question to answer: how did they get up into the air?

For a longer discussion on this, see this excerpt from an upcoming book by palaeontologist Mark Witton (out next year by the looks of it). Put simply, the problem is as follows: pterosaurs appear to have not had strong enough legs to launch themselves into the air as birds do. This might not seem like a problem if you imagine the huge beasts diving off of cliffs and catching the air like a paraglider might, however, the larger pterosaurs are most abundant in flat, terrestrial environments, even preying on small dinosaurs. Without the use of powerful leg muscles, or cliffs to sail off, how on Earth did they launch themselves?

It turns out they very well might have used their incredibly strong flight muscles in their arms to do the job, using some acrobatics which to us might seem insane, yet are the same sort of movement used by some vampire bats. There are even rumours of a trackway showing this sort of movement. Trying to explain what this would look like seems like a lot of effort, especially considering that there is this excellent video:

I'd love to show the video side by side with another of a vampire bat taking off, as seeing the action for real is great for lessening incredulity, plus it shows how informed palaeontologists need to be about the extant zoological world. Instead, as finding a good video at short notice is not always easy, this short clip of a bat running on a treadmill can give you an idea of how bats achieve their previously unique launch.

Imagining the brobdingnagian pterosaurs launching themselves in this fashion would truly be a sight to behold, though when we remind ourselves that it is highly possible that pterosaurs were able to fly quite soon after hatching, then we get to imagine cute, little pterosaurs doing exactly the same. I'd pay to see it.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Breaking News - Apparently Portsmouth and Dinosaurs Do Not Mix!

Over the summer the city of Portsmouth was graced by the visit of a life-sized sauropod model, standing proud on Southsea Common. The model stood 53ft (16m) tall and 72ft (22m) long and was apparently visible from the Isle of Wight. This was no scientific model, but an artistic sculpture based on brutalist architecture, evident by its square legs and curved forms. Its purpose on Southsea Common was both pragmatic and aesthetic; it functioned as both artwork to admire and a shelter on the common.

The model, called Luna Park, was designed and constructed by Heather and Ivan Morison, two Serbian car factory workers. It was transported from Serbia to Southsea by ship and lorry, separated into six parts, made from a steel skeleton and a hard polyester shell. The model was due to be moved to Colchester on the 10th of October and then on to Cardiff, before it could have potentially returned to Portsmouth permanently.

I first heard about this model due to Facebook, as over summer some friends had seen it. Sadly I had no idea that it was staying for so long, so I never visited it. Sadly, I never will.

The sad bit

This morning, during my palaeobotany lecture, we were told that the sculpture had been set on fire at around 2.00 in the morning (2.40am according to the local newspaper). My lecturer quipped that it might have been some of the vertebrate palaeontologists who work in conjunction with the university, annoyed at some anatomical mistake or some such thing. Sadly the razed dinosaur is likely the handiwork of local idiots engaging in a spot of arson, leaving only a mangled, black frame.

In my opinion this is bad news for Portsmouth. The model had a lot of potential, which interestingly could have some amusing ironic twists accompanying it. The model was steadily becoming iconic and much loved by the locals, but any chance of a permanent model has been ruined. It would have been interesting to have a model dinosaur, despite the fact that none are found in Portsmouth, whereas the Isle of Wight has yielded plenty. The other source of amusement, for me at least, would be the idea of an anatomically incorrect (or rather, simply artistic) dinosaur on the common, when there are qualified vertebrate palaeontologists just down the road. However, even that would not be as amusing as the fact that Genesis Expo is a stone's throw away - the creationist "museum" in Portsmouth, happily promoting the idea of dinosaurs and man living side by side.

The nomen dubium issue

The design of the dinosaur is based on Ultrasauros, which is not a typo for Ultrasaurus. Sadly the BBC News story gets the background to this dinosaur wrong, labelling it a fraud, "fabricated" by Professor Jim Jenson. The only thing they seem to get right is that it was a composite (or chimera) of two different species. The real story is one which any palaeontologist can be sympathetic with and not one of glory-seeking deception.

In 1972 Jensen discovered an enormous sauropod which he named Supersaurus vivianae. He also discovered another huge sauropod in 1979, which he named Ultrasaurus macintoshi, which was nomen nudum as it had not been published. Ultrasaurus was thought to be one of the biggest sauropods. Then in 1983 a palaeontologist called Haang Mook Kim believed he had discovered another species of Ultrasaurus and gave it the name Ultrasaurus tabriensis; Kim did actually publish with this name, which caused problems when it turned out that his analysis was mistaken and these two dinosaurs were not of the same genus. As Kim was the first to publish, due to ICZN regulations the original Ultrasaurus could not be given this name, so in 1991 George Olshevsky renamed it Ultrasauros. 

It later turned out that Ultrasauros was not an actual dinosaur, but an accidental combination of the bones of two separate dinosaurs, which were then identified as the already existing genera Supersaurus and Brachiosaurus. The name Ultrasauros is now a junior synonym for Supersaurus as those were the main bones used to "type" the specimen. Interestingly the name Ultrasaurus is now considered nomen dubium as not enough is known about it to warrant it its own genus.

It is startling that the BBC News site got this so wrong, instead stating that it was a case of fraud. Instead it is the usual case of mistaken identity, which happens often with such incomplete fossils.

For the BBC article from before the dinosaur was displayed in Portsmouth see here. For the post-arson article see here. For the local newspaper article, see here.

The Palaeobabbler has landed.

So, I've been absent from blogging for the last month, something which I have found very frustrating. So to start off I thought I would plug myself a little bit. Here's my band Rh'edlion, with a demo for new song Educate Yourself. I'm not on this one, so if you want to hear my guitar playing check out the Myspace page.

Also, as my posts lately have simply been apologies and not much more, I thought I would give links to some of my older posts which I think make for good reading. It can be hard to find something worth sinking your teeth into on a blog like this, so here are the sciencey posts I think newcomers would most enjoy.


The following is a blog about discerning metaphysical views in explanations of evolution:

In the early days of my blog I wrote this explanation of punctuated equilibria as it is very often misunderstood:

Here's a piece about the evidence for evolution, using only whales:

A couple of months ago I decided to do a series on how evolution works, yet I have only done part one. Part two will follow soon hopefully (I wanted a specific book from the library to reference). Here is part one:

Here's a recent piece which fits very well with the whale one as it is about sharks and dolphins:


Here's a quick list of popular science books which I think give a good perspective of palaeontology:

This is a relatively recent piece I did about Martian palaeontology which whips through a few interesting topics:

This is a personal piece about my own findings and my local geology:

Here's a random piece about a particular Ediacaran fossil:

Followed by a second random part:

Some Ediacaran ramblings:

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

I have returned!

I'm back from my hiatus and intend to get things running again, though it may be a bit slow. I went to Taizé for a week, which has inspired some topics which would do better on Kale Ktisis than here (I want to get that blog into a good pace and have some interesting stuff prepared). I also gained a girlfriend due to my trip to Taizé so I will get distracted at times. I then went to Spain for two weeks and will write about that at some point. Right now though I am tired and will save the longer posts for another day. It may even take a couple of weeks to get back to regular posting as I return to university at the weekend and will be very busy getting settled back in and sorted down there. Phew!

Friday, 20 August 2010

I apologise, I am about to absquatulate!

I won't be posting anything over the next 3 weeks as I won't be in the country and won't have computer access. After that I will resume posting and will try to pick up the slack - I've been a bit slow this August.

I will be heading off to the Taizé community in France tomorrow for some spiritual relaxation. Then I will return for just over a day before heading out to Spain for a field trip with uni for 2 weeks. It is going to be a fantastic 3 weeks and hopefully I will have a lot to write about when I return.

For now, I bid you adieu.

Creationist Research

I had to laugh at this. Over at Creation Science Evangelism, the brainchild of Kent Hovind and run by his son Eric, they had a blog about the Animal Planet show Dragons. Not a lot is to be expected of them, after all, Kent is one of those who flaunts the title of "Dr" despite the fact that he is not a medical practitioner and his PhD was from an unaccredited degree mill. Most PhD holding scientists only use the title on rare occasions; slapping it on every book and website is usually because their points cannot stand for themselves without an appeal to authority. What's worse is that Hovind calls himself "Dr Dino" despite knowing next to nothing about palaeontology or dinosaurs. However, it is his son making the daft comments today.

In his blog he states that "It blew my mind that they [Animal Planet] would depict dragons and dinosaurs living at the same time when there is so much evidence that dragons and people lived at the same time. Don’t the producers/writers realize that this is evidence that will help us kill the sacred cow of Evolutionism? Don’t they see that this evidence and information goes against the grain of what many scientists believe today?" It would blow my mind too, if it were happening that is. Animal Planet has done programmes about dragons, but they are pure fantasy, they do not believe dragons existed and certainly not alongside man. Just the tiniest amount of research, less than is required to even find the show, would have let Hovind know this, yet he didn't do it. Instead he demonstrated what creationist research is like - ignoring the complicated stuff which contradicts you.

The Saltwick Haul

Here is a preview of the fossils I brought back from my recent trip to Saltwick Bay, Whitby. I took some close up photos, but my camera is poor so they came out blurred. There were ammonites, belemnites, bivalves, wood and even a crustacean.

My favourite was this death assemblage of ammonites and belemnites (albeit blurry):
Ignore the dates on the images, my camera seems to be muddled.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Trip to Saltwick Bay - 16/08/10

Just hours after having been tattooed, I went on a trip to Saltwick Bay near Whitby on the Yorkshire coast. After spending the day there, I have to say that it is one of the best locations I have been to for fossil collecting. You are guaranteed to find something; ammonites and belemnites are ubiquitous, joined by the promise of more tantalising finds such as ichthyosaurs and crocodiles. In addition to this the bay is geologically and ecologically attractive; there is plenty for all to see and do. This week has been a busy one for me, so this will be a quick photographic run through of the trip and the sites to see. I have not yet taken pictures of the numerous fossils I brought back, so those will be saved for the future.

The view on the left is the south of the bay where we spent the second half of the trip. The weather was not brilliant, it was actually quite cold, as I found when I ate my dinner.

This is the view to the north of the bay, which is where we started looking for fossils, finding hundreds all over the place.

If you know where to look on the north side of the bay you will come across some dinosaur tracks on a rock which has fallen from the uppermost layers. This one is likely an ornithopod dinosaur, though with most fossil tracks it is difficult to determine exactly what made it (except in rare circumstances where the animal itself has fossilised too).

Most of the fossils were lying around amongst the fallen and washed up rocks, though occasionally some good finds were impossible to extract. These belemnites look great, but from under this boulder they like to tease.

Many fossils can be found in situ, difficult to extract but great to look at. Examples like these belemnites are found all over the bay.

Around the rocks, especially in the water, can be found plenty of wildlife. I spotted lots of anemones in attached to rocks.

As we headed to the south in the bay, we came across a seal carcass which was rather big and had its head buried. It was not easy to spot, but when downwind of it the stench was obvious. I may blog on this again as I recently got the pictures from when I found a dead porpoise on the beach a few years ago (I have an odd interest in dead things and I don't just mean fossils).

One of the most interesting things to look at on the beach is this wrecked ship. It looks like a mangled carcass of metal waiting to be picked by scavengers.

Throughout the day rocks were falling from the cliffs, so we often stayed clear of them. Fortunately none as big as this one, being modelled by Dean, fell whilst we were there, otherwise I might not be writing this right now.

On the left is a rather nice pyritised ammonite, next to my foot. There were some interesting fossils found that day. A lad called Ben, who I met that day, was finding many crustaceans; there were hundreds of ammonites, belemnites and bivalves found, including an impressive ammonite by John; a couple we came across might have found some sturgeon bone; and the best find came right at the end whilst we were talking to a group about the fossils they could find, when suddenly one of the girls popped up with a fossil she had just found, wondering if it was anything worthwhile. She had a vertebra of an ichthyosaur. Naturally we went scrambling over the rocks where she found it in search of another, but to no avail. If you want beginner's luck, or just any sort of fossil finding luck, head to Saltwick Bay in North Yorkshire, you won't regret it.

Monday, 16 August 2010

New Tattoo

I've had a busy couple of days. On the Saturday night I stayed over at my cousin's house, then we came through to church on the Sunday morning. My Sunday was spent how I normally spend it, except that during the evening I hung about in the tattoo studio for hours. Earlier in the day my friend had said that he wanted to tattoo a dinosaur on my arm, so we picked one for him to do when he was finished with his other customers. He started tattooing at 2am and finished around 5am. After that I went home and didn't sleep, as I was going fossil collecting at 8.30 at Saltwick Bay, Whitby (which I may blog about tomorrow). So here is my new tattoo, a Dromaeosaurus:

The tattoo.

Close up of the head. It needs moisturising in this picture.

The top of the beast, with a free nipple shot.

The rear end.