Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Quick and to the points

Shark family trees are a thorny issue. There has been a long-running disagreement over the relationship between Carcharocles megalodon and modern Great Whites, Carcharodon carcharias, for example. That one seems to have been largely settled now, with a little distance placed between their respective branches. It had been assumed megalodon was a close relative or ancestor of Great White, but there isn't the evidence to support this in the fossil record, and it seems meg was an evolutionary dead end.

Great Whites are of the mackerel shark family, and their ancestry lies instead alongside that of the makos, the genus Isurus. The two living species of mako are sleek and powerful sharks, known for their speed and leaping ability - there are numerous examples of them jumping over or into boats, frightening fishermen. Great Whites and makos share a common ancestor sometime in the Eocene; there are a few Isurus species developing through the Oligocene and into the Miocene, but the one it's thought led to Carcharodon is Isurus hastalis. The teeth pictured above are from Isurus hastalis, from the Pliocene of South Carolina. They're not the biggest you get from this species, but are still around 2 1/2" along the diagonal, about as large as modern Great White teeth get, and considerably bigger than most. These teeth are smooth along the edge, whilst Great White teeth are serrated, better for cutting into the flesh of its largely mammalian prey. Makos today eat fish, and it's likely their ancestors did, too. Serration aside, the teeth of the two sharks are incredibly similar in root shape, thickness, blade form and positioning through the mouth. To nail the story down, a discovery a few years ago in Peru neatly plugged the gap between hastalis and carcharias. Eventually named Carcharodon hubbelli, the transitional Peruvian find was of a complete set of jaws, a rare find, which not only displayed the serration but also the positioning of teeth throughout the mouth, allowing a direct comparison.

Isurus hastalis must have been quite a sight. It was probably more similar to the White than modern makos in body form, bulkier and less streamlined. It was also a good deal bigger than both, probably five or six feet longer than today's Great Whites. It'd have been a scary proposition for fishermen. But anyway, what I really wanted to say was - 'Look at these shark teeth! Aren't they cool?'

Friday, 20 December 2013

Oh No! Viruses!

'Good afternoon, Mr Wood's Fossils.'

Long pause, some mumbling and muffled sounds.

'Hello, is that Mr Dale?'

'Yes it is.'

'I am phoning from Microsoft, because our searches have found a problem with your Windows.'

'My Windows?'

'Yes sir. You have downloaded some malicious files which have caused viruses to appear on your computer, which have made it work more slowly. And they may destroy your files.'

'But I have anti-virus on my computer.'

'Sir, anti-virus is not enough, because new viruses are created all the time, and some may have got into your computer. We can help you with a great service. Are you in front of your computer?'

'Oh no. Well I don't want viruses on my computer. What can be done?'

'Sir I am phoning from Microsoft and we can provide you with a free service where we will check your computer for viruses and remove them for you.'

'Oh, that sounds good. Thank you. Should I post it to you? How long will it take? I use my computer quite a lot. Almost every day.'

'Sir, we are in America. Are you in front of your computer at the moment?'

'I am, but I can have it boxed up pretty quickly. What's your address? If I just put Microsoft, America, will that work? How long will you need, because I'd like back pretty quickly. What's your zip code? Do you have a zip code?'

'Sir.... sir it's 1585455. Sir, are you in front of your computer?'

'Microsoft, America 1585455. Ok, great. I will have it boxed up with lots of bubble wrap and in the post to you tomorrow morning, but please - once you've removed the viruses can you get it back in the mail to me as soon as possible? I'll put a return address label in the box. Thanks for you help with this - I have to go now.'



Tuesday, 15 October 2013

First class

I collect teeth and £2 coins. I used to collect the little grey rubbery bits from the inside of fizzy drink bottles. Despite once being given a packet of sticky, fiddly little paper hinges and an envelope of stamps of the world, I've never collected stamps.

This morning, as my normal Post Office is closed for refurbishment, I went a little further afield. And there, off-guard, in the unfamiliar surroundings of St Mary's Street Post Office, I accidentally collected some stamps. It was a set of ten, in a clear envelope, called Dinosaurs - Fossil Reptiles From The UK. Of the ten, only six are actually dinosaurs, but I guess Dinosaurs makes for a more immediate title, and it'll surely sell more than Massive Reptiles of the Olden Days would have.

The set I got comes on a fold-out backing card, with lots of information on the timeline of dinosaur discoveries, pioneering palaeontologists, important localities, and then stuff on the reptiles themselves. I suppose I should actually get some to use as stamps, too. I had a look at the Royal Mail site to see how they were being sold. Being new to stamp collecting, I didn't realise there was a considerable range of options. Framed sets, canvas prints, badges... Anyway. I suppose my point is that were you ever to consider collecting stamps, these ones are nice. 

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Fake fin film fuss

I like sharks. I like megalodon teeth and the idea of a 60ft shark. I also like yeti, Nessie, oran pendek and cryptozoology in general. It's nice to think there's a chance there's something mysterious out there, still waiting to be formally discovered; that those fuzzy glimpses of a guy in a gorilla suit might turn out to be bigfoot, that El Chupacabra might eventually be trapped on a Chilean goat farm and paraded on YouTube. I know* that's not going to happen. But I'd still like to believe that... So I can see that there might be a great market for a mockumentary on megalodon, suggesting the giant shark might still haunt the oceans waiting for some unlucky divers and battling enormous squid.

The Discovery Channel recently aired just that, with Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives for Shark Week - a celebration of all things sharky, and a big deal in the US, which unfortunately doesn't get much press over here. The fake documentary seems to have caused a bit of an upset, angering Twitterland for blurring the fact/fiction lines. Discovery stuck in a a few disclaimers, and with actors playing scientists and some cheesy dramatic music I can't imagine it'll have resulted in thousands of people cancelling their beach holidays or buying a harpoon gun for their canoe. If megalodon hadn't actually died out two million years ago and was still swimming around somewhere we'd know about it by now. With marine exploration reaching new depths and the accessibility and connectivity of modern research it would be very difficult to keep a gargantuan eating machine hidden away.

I haven't seen the show, but I'd like to. If the program wasn't perhaps as factual as might be expected from what purports to be an educational channel, I think it's acceptable to have a balanced approach to conveying information, with entertainment an effective tool in moderation. There's room for both. Spinal Tap didn't put me off going to see live music. Now if you'll excuse me, the skies are darkening and I must retreat to my sharknado bunker.

*In the acceptable degree of certainty, based on all available evidence type of knowing, for all you pedants.

Monday, 29 July 2013

It was boys

'Do you have any meteorite geodes?'
'Geodes? Do you mean meteorites that have been cut in half?'
'Well, we saw some once that you opened up and there was meteorite inside, like an explosion.'
'Oh. Well we don't have any like that, but there are some sectioned pieces and some slices I can show you.'

We walk to the cabinet.

'Here - see these rectangular slices towards the back of this shelf? Those are pieces of a Swedish meteorite, and the ones in front are from Russia.'
'The metal-coloured ones?'
'Yes. They are mostly iron.'
'No, these were more like a sort of explosion inside the rock. You opened them up and it was all sticking out. Like an explosion.'

I slide the door closed.

'On the drive back to Peebles one day we saw three stones sitting in a line, in the road. Do you think they might have been meteorites that had just fallen?'
'No, I don't think so. Even small meteorites would leave a noticeable mark on the ground when they hit.'
'So it must have just been boys putting them there, then.'
'Maybe boys.'

Monday, 3 June 2013

Missing people

There are considerable differences between humans and our closest relatives, chimps and bonobos. It might not always seem like it at a kids party or on the night bus, but there are. They are smaller, in general, and hairier. They are less organised. There are plenty more differences, despite the surprising similarity of our genetic make-up. So it's perhaps only natural we're so keen to find out about our long-lost cousins, the Neanderthal. Someone much more like us.

I've bemoaned the Neanderthal's poor reputation before, but they seem to have been experiencing a gradual rehabilitation as we learn more. Public perception always takes a little while to catch up to the current thinking of those working in the field, of course, and we now know our close relative wasn't the club-wielding, grunting imbecile we had painted him. They used advanced tools, hunted large herbivores, and even cooked their meals. Neanderthal survived in Europe, often in harsh climates, for hundreds of thousands of years. So why, at sometime around 30,000 years ago, did this competent cousin of ours disappear? 

There's a conference in London this week to try to get to the bottom of it all. Of course we're curious - can you imagine how  Possibly the key question is the level of our own culpability. Was Neanderthal just a species ill-adapted to its time and environment or did Homo sapiens play a part in their downfall? We await the verdict.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Malawania - swimming against the tide of 'informed' opinion.

Sometimes, analyses don’t give you the results you are expecting.  Sometimes that is down to human error – but at other times it is simply because the model you have in your head is wrong.

The slab as originally found, near Chia Gara, Amadia.
Take the new ichthyosaur published in Biology Letters today, Malawania anachronus.  It was discovered in 1952 by British petroleum geologists working in Iraq – walking down a mule track, they were engaged in an argument, when one of them happened to look down at the slab of rock that he was standing on.  Dragged into position to dam a small river, the block (right) contained the remains of an ichthyosaur, consisting of some skull remains, much of the postcranial skeleton, and critically including significant pectoral girdle material.  As this was the only ichthyosaur known from the Middle East, the geologists realised its importance, and brought it back with them to (what is today called) the Natural History Museum (London).  There, it came to the attention of Robert Appleby, who up to the early 1970s was the only person working on ichthyosaurs in Britain

Robert Appleby's original text figure of the 
skull region, submitted for his description.
Appleby was fascinated by the specimen – it had been recorded at the museum as Lias (Early Jurassic) in age, but he recognised it as having an archaic form, and wondered if it might actually be Late Triassic.  He started his investigations around the end of 1974, contacting members of the original survey team, in an attempt to constrain the age of the specimen, and identify which formation the slab could have come from.  Over the next 4 years, the authorities who had worked in the region told him repeatedly that the Triassic in that area was barren of fossils, and it must have come from the Jurassic Sargelu Formation.  As Appleby prepared his manuscript to submit to the journal Palaeontology in summer of 1979, he sent photographs of some isolated pollens from the block to the Cambridge palynological authority Norman Hughes, asking him if he could determine whereabouts in the Jurassic sequence the specimen could have come from.  He got an unexpected reply.

Hughes queried whether he had received the correct images, as the samples from the ichthyosaur block clearly indicated a Cretaceous (probably pre-Aptian) age. 
Some of the images of the 1979 sampled
palynomorphs that led Norman Hughes
to identify their source as undoubtedly
Early Cretaceous.
This just did not fit with what Appleby was expecting at all.  He had been told by one of the geologists that the Cretaceous beds were some distance away from the locality where the slab was found, and (in somewhat derogatory terms) that the local people simply would not have expended the effort required to transport the slab that far.  Hughes attempted a further sample from the block, but this time could only obtain organic residue.  Appleby appears to have decided that the first sample had in some way become confused, and with Hughes’ second sample proving inconclusive, abandoned further palynological attempts at dating the slab.  Instead, he tried to pursue the age of the slab based on invertebrate fossils in the area….in effect, he was becoming distracted into trying to determine the age of the local geology, rather than the slab containing the ichthyosaur.

Appleby eventually had his paper accepted for Palaeontology in the late eighties – provided he could tick one final box: resolve the age of the specimen.  Busy working on his massive monograph of the ichthyosaurs, he decided to leave the Iraq specimen (which he had planned to call Iraqisaurus kurdistanensis) until his monograph was completed.  Sadly, he died only five days after he had written the last pages, some years later, so never returned to work on the date for the Iraq ichthyosaur.

When I came across this unresolved work in his archives, I determined to try to complete the journey of this publication (and others).  The first thing that I did was take a new sample
The slab NHMUK PV R6682 in July 2007, prior to matrix being
resampled for pollen/spores/dinoflagellates.  White boots for scale.
from the slab (left) – although it first of all yielded the organic residue that Hughes had obtained, further processing by Steve Brindley and James Riding (BGS) yielded a sample whose pollen/spore assemblage perfectly matched Hughes’ assessment over thirty years earlier: Early Cretaceous (specifically, late Hauterivian-Barremian).  At this point, I approached Valentin Fischer (a specialist on Early Cretaceous ichthyosaurs) to join Darren Naish on writing duties.  Fischer was a perfect choice, as he was not only familiar with the development of literature and new specimens over the last twenty years (and the changes to our understanding of ichthyosaur relationships), but he had already seen signs that the end Jurassic extinction had not been quite so rough an experience for ichthyosaurs as had previously been thought.  As such, he was not trapped in the orthodox mindset that only a very few closely-related ichthyosaurs (all members of Ophthalmosauridae – a family Appleby was extremely familiar with) actually made it through to the Cretaceous.  It is conclusively not a member of that family (lacking all derived features), and structures of its scapula and forepaddle clearly show it to be archaic, as recovered time and again from our analyses.  It is – if you like – a fossilised ‘living fossil’: when the coelacanth was recovered off the coast of South Africa in the early twentieth century, it was thought to have been extinct for more than 70 million years.  So finding Malawania almost 70 million years after it was thought to be extinct is a similar surprise.  And just as that one specimen was incontrovertible evidence of the survivial of the coelacanth, so this single specimen is also true of the survival of Malawania’s kind.

There is a certain unity to the assessment of the specimen by Appleby, and Fischer’s work: both recognised the specimen as unusually ‘archaic’ in its morphology.  Fischer, however, was neither constrained by poor advice from local ‘experts’ on the limitations of the age, nor by a narrow view of the diversity of taxa that made it through the Jurassic-Cretaceous extinction. Not all ichthyosaur workers might find it so easy to move on with this very necessary paradigm shift, being ‘stuck in the past’ very much as Malawania’s skeletal anatomy was. 

But they will have to – because there are more specimens to come. 

At left, Malawania, the Jurassic-style Cretaceous ichthyosaur from Iraq; 
at right, fellow Jurassic extinction survivor  Acamptonectes
Illustrations by Robert Nicholls (www.paleocreations.com); 
colouring by C. M. Kosemen (www.cmkosemen.com).
Guest post by Jeff Liston, Co-Author, Yunnan Key Laboratory for Palaeobiology, Yunnan University, Kunming, Yunnan Province, People’s Republic of China.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Happy landings

As well as being the anniversary of Charles Darwin's birthday, February the twelfth is the 66th anniversary of the fall of the Sikhote-Alin meteorite.

It was a big fall; an estimated 30 tons have been recovered so far from what is probably a total mass of at least twice that. Despite the landing being in a remote expanse of Russian taiga - the Sikhote-Alin mountains in Primorye, Siberia - the fall was so big, bright and noisy that it was seen from as far away as 300km. A trail of smoke and vapour, miles long, was left across the sky for hours.

As meteorites go, it's nothing special. A course octahedrite, mostly iron with about 6% nickel, small amounts of cobalt, sulphur and phosphorous, and some traces of rarer things. But as a commercial meteorite, it's been an industry standard for quite some time. As it fell, it burst into a shower of twisted, blackened metal, peppering the forest with a spray of craters. The little, gnarled chunks of space iron fit most people's image of a meteorite far more neatly than, say, a dull, stony chondrite, and have provided an affordable stock line for shops like mine to put on our shelves. The price has been going up for a while as it becomes harder to come by. I'm sure there will be a supply for a while yet, though. Hope so.

Here's a nice short film put out by the Soviet government about the initial expedition to recover the material, take pictures, and get all scientific about it. добро пожаловать!

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Mr Leeds’ Blood-Biting Super-Predator: Recognition, After a Hundred Years.

The report of a new ‘super-predator’ – a carnivore well-adapted to feeding on prey as large or even larger than itself – in the fossil record is not particularly rare as a news story.  However, this week’s publication in the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology, revealing the oldest known metriorhynchid (marine crocodile) super-predator, is surprising because it was recovered from the Middle Jurassic Oxford Clay.  Many hundreds of specimens of marine crocodiles are known from this ancient seabed sediment, and they have been recovered from an area of just under 50 square miles around Peterborough on a large-scale basis for almost 150 years, courtesy of collectors like Alfred Nicholson Leeds (1847-1917).  You might think that after so many years of fossil hunters searching through the Oxford Clay as it was exposed by excavators digging the clay for bricks, all the truly large animals from the ecosystem of that Middle Jurassic sea would have been found by now.  And yet in the 21st century it is still possible to find the fossilised remains of previously undiscovered genera – from bony fish over 2m long to crocodiles greater than 3m in length. 

It is worthwhile noting that the type specimen of this newly-described genus and species, excavated by Alfred Leeds between 1907 and 1909, was already regarded by Leeds as being something special, prior to his death in August 1917.  Leeds worked closely with Charles W. Andrews on the material for the lavishly-illustrated A Descriptive Catalogue of the Marine Reptiles of the Oxford Clay. It was published in two volumes - part one in 1910 dealing with the ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs, and part two in 1913 dealing with the pliosaurs and crocodiles.  Although throughout his career he refused to formally publish or be a co-author, his anatomical opinion was clearly highly respected by Andrews and other scientists that published on Leeds’ collection.  In private correspondence, Leeds gently rebuked Bill Smellie for creating a new plesiosaur taxon Apractocleidus out of one of his specimens, pointing out – long before the true advent of palaeopathology - that in his opinion this was simply an old or diseased individual of the plesiosaur Cryptoclidus.  With the passing of time, Leeds’ opinion was proved correct.

After the first batch of Alfred’s collection was sold to the British Museum (now the Natural History Museum London), Leeds started a catalogue of his specimens, logging date of discovery, pit number and the depth at which they were found in the pit.  He also recorded their fate – whether sold to a museum or to the Bonn dealer Stürtz, a regular house-guest in the Leeds family home of Eyebury – and identified the specimens, where possible, down to species level.  As someone who had handled so many thousands of marine reptile bones, he was intimately familiar with their variations and could confidently attribute them to a given species – his understanding of anatomy perhaps reflecting his unfulfilled desire to study to become a medical doctor. 

The 670 mm long right lower jaw of the holotype of Tyrannoneustes lythrodectikos. Photograph courtesy of Mark Young
Leeds specimen 146 - registered as GLAHM V972, the metriorhynchid that forms the type specimen of this week’s new genus Tyrannoneustes lythrodectikos or ‘blood-biting tyrant swimmer’ – is a real oddity within his catalogue.  Although having a series of vertebrae, rib fragments and isolated teeth, the main component of this specimen is a prodigious right mandible, 670 mm long, yet still incomplete (see above).  Whereas Alfred Leeds throughout his handwritten catalogue confidently assigns specimens to particular species, and is also satisfied to leave an entry identified only to the level of ‘Metriorhynchus sp.’ where he feels it is not diagnostic beyond genus level, 146 has the unique record of ‘Metriorhynchus ?species’.  This type of annotation is distinct, occurring nowhere else in his catalogue.  In this regard, it looks very much as though he recognised that this fossil was different, but could not assign it to any of the known species. 

The journey that was begun around a hundred years ago by Alfred flagging up this specimen as not fitting within the recognised species of Metriorhynchus is completed with this week’s publication of the full description of the fossil as a new taxon in the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology.  In that spirit, we as authors recognised his contribution, and his first priority as a worker that correctly identified this animal as a taxonomic anomaly, by giving him a co-authorship when this paper was first submitted to the journal.  The reviewers – in my opinion, quite wrongly – disagreed with this, and insisted that we removed his name from the authorship.  The inclusion of posthumous authors on scientific works that have entirely separately been picked up and finished by other workers is far from without precedent, and it is a shame that the journal has not seen fit to let Alfred Leeds receive some small recognition for the huge contribution that he as a collector made to the science of vertebrate palaeontology.  Again, it is worth noting that this would not have been the traditional authorship recognition of a collector, whereby a collector is simply rewarded for discovery of a specimen through being included as an author on the scientific description: this would have been acknowledging his anatomical expertise, and his recognition of a new taxon.

Andrews’ second volume of A Descriptive Catalogue of the Marine Reptiles of the Oxford Clay came out in 1913, and amongst the crocodiles therein was his suite of new Metriorhynchus species based on Alfred Leeds’ specimens.  For decades afterwards he was recognised as the authority on these animals, the first serious revision only being undertaken  by Susan Adams-Tresman in the mid 1980s.  This week’s publication serves as a fitting opportunity to belatedly and publicly recognise that, even in the time of Charles Andrews, there was perhaps one man that knew and understood the variety of different marine crocodiles present in the Oxford Clay, better than he.

Guest post by Jeff Liston, Co-Author, Yunnan Key Laboratory for Palaeobiology, Yunnan University, Kunming, Yunnan Province, People’s Republic of China.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Dino crisis

Tomorrow is the day of the talk at the Botanics. I've put more time into preparing for this thing than anything since university, but I'm still very nervous. It's quite possible there will only be about eight people there, which will ease the pressure a little bit.

Aside from the pages of text that is mostly lodged in the part of the mind that stores things for a maximum of two weeks, I have some blurry images (that I need to make appear on my laptop screen at the right time), some fossils and some toys. The toys, I think, may be the key. I can hold them up as props, use them to illustrate some important points, wave them around. And if all else fails and things are going badly, I can use them to stage a big dinosaur battle. In the interests of education, of course.

There's scope for audience participation there, too. Always goes down well.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

In the garden

 I've been asked to give a talk on fossils to accompany an art exhibition currently running at the Botanic Gardens. It's by the artist Andy Hope 1930, and called When Dinosaurs Become Modernists. He is fond of superheroes, dinosaurs and the collision of cultural iconography. I went to have a look a couple of weekends ago.

I have to tailor the talk to echo the themes of the exhibition somehow, which means I can't very easily rework talks I've given in the past on the fossil trade, and fossils in general. I thought maybe a way in would be to look at how dinosaurs are effectively the pop stars of palaeontology, and how perhaps that draw can be used to engage people with the less spectacular aspects of the science. There's no denying the appeal of dinosaurs. The artist is happy to place them in the same frame of reference as superheroes - though dinosaurs have the added benefit of having actually lived. Their reality is at the comfortable distance of tens of millions of years, but these icons once walked the same planet we do.

Our perception of dinosaurs is undeniably influenced by popular culture, and probably more than popular culture is influenced by scientific discovery. It'd be nice to have the bulk of our information a little more first-hand, but realistically that's not likely to happen, despite the success of such series as Walking with Dinosaurs and Planet Dinosaur. There's a celebrity pecking order of dinosauria which has changed a little over the years. The hall of fame of twenty years ago - Tyrannosaurus rex, Triceratops et al - that informed the production of plastic toys and the cast of movies has lost Brontosaurus to the rigours of scientific nomenclature, but gained (a heavily made-over) Velociraptor and Spinosaurus. Entry to the hall of fame requires a prominent role in a blockbuster, not an 80% percent complete spinal column or well-preserved dentition.

Moving away from dinosaurs I think I'll be able to drift into the role of fossils in mythology and folklore. There are plenty of stories there - ammonites as snakestones, belemnites as thunderbolts, the origins of dragons, Nessie, and so on. I'll see what I can find by way of physical example to illustrate a few points. That always helps. Anyway. The talk is at Inverleith House in the Royal Botanic Garden, on Saturday the 15th of December. By then, hopefully, I'll have worked out what I'm going to say.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

On shaky ground

Six Italian seismologists and a civil servant were sentenced to six years in prison yesterday for manslaughter. For failing to predict an earthquake. The L'Aquila quake in April of 2009 killed three hundred and nine people. Could the deaths have been prevented by totally evacuating the city? Probably, but that's not something happens often, even when seismologists advise it.

There was some confusion over governmental announcements in the lead up to the disaster. I wrote about this last year. The team established to assess the risk to the city felt that while there was a threat, the on-going series of smaller seismological events meant there was a smaller chance of a large earthquake. The public announcement of these findings was carried out by a non-geologist - a public official - who interpreted the findings as relatively positive, suggesting a big quake wasn't probable. The city was not evacuated. The earthquake happened and a lot of people died.

That does not mean the geologists were wrong. Just because it happened does not mean the earthquake was statistically likely to happen. So I found it both bizarre and horrifying that the team were charged with manslaughter. All the way along I presumed the international condemnation and ridicule would make someone, somewhere along the line see sense and ensure the matter was dropped. But no. The case went to trial, in a makeshift court beside the ruined city centre (for added dramatic effect?), and geologists were given six years for manslaughter. The unlawful killing of a human being without malice aforethought. Because their findings were not accurate they were judged to have killed 309 people. It's ridiculous and disgraceful. Who is likely to want to offer their opinion on the likelihood of seismic activity now?

Friday, 19 October 2012

Just deserts

That global warming is currently happening should not be a matter for debate any more. It is happening, and the evidence for that, from many different observable factors, is conclusive. The extent to which human activity is influencing the speed of climate change is a legitimate subject, though. Is there a tipping point? Probably. Have we reached or passed it? We'll have to wait and see. How much of it is 'our fault'? Very difficult to gauge. How much can we do to slow or halt its effects? Personally, I don't know if we as a species are able to curb our excesses to the extent that we can have a dramatic positive effect. In the short period of time we've been 'civilised', we've grown accustomed to having things our own way, and that's a very difficult trend to reverse.

Climate change has happened regularly throughout the planet's long history, and we've only been here for the blink of an eye. A few hundred thousand years of self-awareness, and far, far less with any sense of our position within a wider biological system. But now we're able to have some idea of the timescales involved and look to the past to see what it can tell us about what may lie ahead. Humans have been through an Ice Age before. I'm sure it wasn't very nice, but we made it through without all having to be rescued by mammoths, sloths and sabretooths. Human society as it is now, though, has yet to experience such an all-encompassing meteorological event. We don't know what might happen and we're afraid.

Just to cheer you up, let's look at what happened at the start of the Triassic, 250 million years ago. The mass extinction at the end of the Permian - affectionately known as The Great Dying - had killed off almost everything and left the place looking fairly barren. Volcanoes were getting carried away, spewing lava, ash, smoke and grumpiness all over the planet, and plants - not normally heavily hit by extinction events - began to suffer. Once vegetation began to die off, the carbon dioxide levels rose and this caused temperatures to spiral, making things even worse. A recent study showed that around the equator during this long, hot summer the sea water was around 40°C, ten to fifteen degrees more than now. This the researchers describe as 'lethally hot', so it's probably a bad thing. The Earth in the Early Triassic was nasty. Hot, dry, sandy and empty. It was nice at the poles, apparently, though real estate value there has dipped somewhat since. It took a while - a few million years - for the planet's ecosystems to recover from these unfortunate circumstances. A few million years is a very, very long time to us, so an extinction and resultant greenhouse effect would be a difficult time for humans. If anyone asks if you want a global mass extinction event, say no. It'd be rubbish.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Stan Wood

Stan Wood died yesterday. He was an amazing man and a hero of palaeontology. He wasn't a fossil collector, he was a fossil hunter. His finds over the years have changed the way we understand the colonisation of land, the development of four-legged creatures, the very evolution of life. It's no surprise to anyone who knows him that the new material he has amassed over the past few years should turn out to be his most important yet. His dogged persistence and innate feel for the rocks led him to discovery after discovery where many had given up before him. His loss is a loss to science, and will be felt deeply.

I knew him first by reputation, then for a long time as my boss. It was always interesting working for Stan. I think it's fair to say he was an idiosyncratic man. Field work was hard, physical work and he led by example. It usually involved wading in waist deep water and crushingly heavy rucksacks. He was happy in the field, though, and it was a genuine pleasure to share that with him. Working in the shop, on the other hand, didn't appeal quite so much. He was a reluctant last resort mostly, and it was in everybody's interest to keep it that way. Often, he'd leave the door propped open and go wandering, returning to find bewildered would-be customers standing by the counter with fossil in hand. He did enjoy the conversations with interested customers, though, and there were always plenty of those.

Lastly, though, I was lucky enough to be able to consider him a friend. He did a great deal for me and I'll never forget that. I'll miss him terribly. Goodbye, Stan.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012


Siccar Point is a cliff in Berwickshire, not far from Cockburnspath.

James Hutton, known by many as the 'father of modern geology', noticed an unconformity there that helped convince him of the vast periods of time involved in the formation of rocks. And then, subsequently, to consider the age of the the Earth and other such important things. It's a bit of an iconic spot in geology. Oh, and it turns out James Hutton is buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard, behind the shop. Didn't know that until recently.

Last week I got an email saying there were plans submitted by a vegetable processing firm to lay a pipeline across the foreshore by Siccar Point to pump all their leftover sprout leaves* into the sea. The deadline for objections to be submitted was that afternoon. Now, I'm pretty lazy by nature, but it struck me as strange that something along those lines would even be considered appropriate for one of our national scientific landmarks. So I looked into it, felt it was a bad idea in general and took the time to register on the Scottish Borders Council site, wait for my confirmatory email and lodge my comment. At the time, there were two objections showing.

Less than a week later, there are currently nearly two hundred. From all over the world - the US, Brazil, Germany, France, Switzerland, Aberdeen, Ireland, The Netherlands, Belgium, and so on. You can see them, by visiting the site and putting in the reference number of the plans - 12/00929. Click on the attached documents and have a browse - it's interesting reading. The depth of feeling is heartening. The process was certainly helped along by the website set up to alert those concerned to the potential development - many of the comments reference the site, certainly. But also the various geological research and general interest groups had spread the word quickly. Quite an impressive rallying call, as befits an international treasure.  I regularly get visitors to the shop asking how to get to Siccar Point. I've even drawn a map to help them...

Anyway. I hope the proposal will at least be looked at very, very carefully. The deadline for comment has been extended to the 23rd of September. The eyes of the geological world will be watching now and it would be careless to allow the integrity and dignity of such an attraction to be marred by an ill-considered industrial development. I'm not against the firm's expansion at all - I just think there has to be an alternative to dumping tons of rubbish into the sea. 

*And/or other such greenery. You can read the finer details in the proposal, and on the savesiccarpoint site..

Monday, 20 August 2012

Watch the birdy!

Charles Darwin wasn't an expert on birds, and we can forgive him that. He collected a huge pile of birds on the Galapagos, but didn't pay them much attention at the time. On his return home, they were passed to an ornithologist friend for identification. The ones that have passed into the scientific history books - later known as Darwin's Finches - aren't actually proper finches, but a group of twelve or more species of fairly dull-looking birds that turned out to be very important in demonstrating some of Darwin's ideas.

What he noticed about these finches is that while at first glance they were fairly similar, their beaks were adapted to suit their individual lifestyles and diets - adaptive radiation - and the species varied from island to island. Darwin noted "one might really fancy that one species had been taken and modified for different ends." This idea was expanded on in 'Origin'.

 A few years ago, a study of one of the group - the excitingly named medium ground finch - showed their beaks had changed noticeably over two decades, as individuals with shorter beaks were better able to cope with competition with the recently arrived large ground finch. Shortbeaks fed better and bred more successfully, meaning... well, you get the idea. Recently, the genome of of Medium (for short) has been determined, and and further adaptation will be carefully tracked at genetic level.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

A man in time

Homo rudolfensis had been known from solitary skull found by Lake Turkana in Kenya in 1972, and has seen a couple of name changes since. On discovery, it was thought the skull belonged to Homo habilis and was maybe 3 million years old, but the differences were significant enough to merit a new name, Pithecanthropus rudolfensis, in 1978. A change of heart shortly after led to its 'promotion' back to the human genus and it became Homo again, while further date testing gave an age of 1.9 million years old.

Part of the assignation problem was that the skull had to be reconstructed from lots of little bone fragments. A 3d jigsaw without all of the pieces and with the picture on the lid long since lost. The first assembly give Rudolf a flat face and a relatively large brain capacity. A computer make-over carried out in 2007 threw in some observations on mammalian facial features that had been made since the initial work and the result was quite a different face. The jaw was now far more pronounced, and the team rather cruelly shrank the brain in accordance with the slope of the jaw. This proved a controversial decision, with a few skullologists ( I made that word up. There might be such a thing as a craniologist, though. Look it up.) rushing to the defence of Rudolf. So, the 2007 lobotomy might not stand.

Recently, more H. rudolfensis material has been found, from three individuals, again in Kenya. These finds support the decision to give it a separate species name, with dental details differing from other species. They date between 1.95 and 1.78 million years old, which makes rudolfensis contemporary with not only Homo habilis, but also H. ergaster and H. erectus. It's been a while since we threw out the old idea of a single lineage of human ancestry leading back to some crouching, grunting apeman, but our understanding of the story is filling out all the time. It's nice to think our ancestors had a few related species kicking around as they considered a long walk North, and I'm sure there are still more finds to be made.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012


The idea that birds and dinosaurs were closely related actually appeared fairly early on - Archaeopteryx had been named in 1861, two years after Darwin had published some book or other, and the first complete specimen was discovered later in the same year. From the same Solnhofen limestone, the little theropod Compsognathus had been known for a couple of years, and Thomas Huxley compared the two, concluding birds were obviously descendants of carnivorous dinosaurs.

There was some opposition to this idea at the time, and thinking on the origins of birds drifted for a while before more evidence was uncovered in the 1960s and 70s. By the end of the 70s the academic world had been convinced and the concept that birds were pretty much dinosaurs began to filter through to general public consciousness. The ash deposit finds at Liaoning in China in the 90s proved a real treasure trove and are still producing a string of important feathered dinosaur discoveries. I was at the Tucson trade fair when National Geographic's Archaeoraptor was bought by The Dinosaur Museum. The magazine were contacted and made a big splash with this supposed dinosaur-bird, which embarrassingly turned out to be two animals pieced together. The story had a happy ending, though, as a trip to the source turned up the other half to one of specimens - Microraptor - which in itself was hugely significant. 

A recent find from the Solnhofen formation, the awkwardly titled Sciurumimus albersdoerferi, is the first theropod found with feathers that's not a close relative of birds. This seems to confirm suspicions that feathers were more than just the privilege of a certain group - coelurosaurs - and were more widely developed amongst theropods in general. There will be a lot more to learn about dinosaur feathers - as more are found, and as the techniques for studying them develop.

Monday, 11 June 2012


There's a story on The Guardian's site at the moment that's not of great interest for its content, but is well worth a look for the strange title and sub-heading that have been chosen to introduce the piece.

The article itself is about the recent research which suggests dinosaurs may have been lighter than we'd previously thought. Not really a huge surprise, and obviously our understanding of dinosaur anatomy has always been an on-going process. The title, weirdly, is:

If dinosaurs weren't actually that big, what else don't scientists know?

Firstly, the article doesn't refer to any new perception of their size - just their weight. Dinosaurs were actually 'that big'. If anything, estimations of size have tended to be on the increase recently as soft tissue in the spinal column is factored into the figures a little more heavily. Secondly, there's an awful lot scientists don't know. Is that any surprise? Not to scientists. Moving on to the sub-heading:

News that dinosaurs were not the lumbering beasts that Jurassic Park led us to believe shows that science is not infallible

Again, slightly bizarre, certainly in relation to the actual content of the piece below it. Jurassic Park didn't really hold itself up as a documentary based on cutting edge palaeobiology. It was a blockbuster movie. Besides - a few of the dinosaurs featured weren't really lumbering much of the time. Often it was the jumping, running and biting that made them exciting and the film such a success. And then to the end of the sentence - 'shows that science is not infallible'. There really seems to be an agenda here; science doesn't claim to be infallible. Far from it. Palaeontology is a science, and like other sciences, it's largely dependent on new information, new finds informing a constantly changing (evolving?) best-fit scenario. Mistaken ideas and views from the past are tweaked or discarded as and when we find out more, and the process moves on. The author spends pretty much all of his article discussing the history of dinosaur anatomical theory, so the clash in tone of the body of the piece with its headers is so jarring you have to assume they were written by somebody else. I think I'd be more than a little irritated were I the journalist. Headlines are written in bigger type for a reason; they catch the eye and give the reader some indication of whether or not the text below will be of interest to them. Those that don't bother reading the piece will be left with an unrepresentative and unfair perception of the author.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Rinky dink

The Pink Panther was a diamond, first of all. In the original 1963 film, with Peter Sellars and David Niven, a famous diamond was stolen and Inspector Clouseau had to track down the thief and recover the stone. It was called the Pink Panther because it was a rare pink diamond and it had a flaw that supposedly looked a bit like a panther. Over the opening credits, to Mancini's brilliant theme, a dancing cartoon Pink Panther got his big break. The cartoons followed when the film company executives loved the intro and commissioned an animated short The Pink Phink, which in turn won an Oscar in 1964. More followed, thankfully.

I've moved away from the subject of diamonds a little here. Point was that there was a pink diamond up for auction today, by Christie's in Hong Kong. It's called Martian Pink, named by an American jeweller, Harry Winston, in the 70s, who cut it in honour of a Martian satellite being launched at the time. Pink isn't the rarest colour for diamonds, but along with blue they are among the most valuable gemstones in the world. The pink colour is caused by flaws in the crystal structure, rather than in some cases where the presence of trace amounts of other elements  - blue is due to boron, yellow to nitrogen.

Estimates for today's sale varied between $8-12million, but a pink diamond about twice the size sold in 2010 for £29m, so it might go a little higher than the estimate. I don't have any pink diamonds.