Friday, 29 May 2009

Marie marie

Finally got all my plans set for the French show. It's in St Marie aux Mines, in Alsace. Very pretty part of the world. It's always sunny when the show's on - hot, usually. This is broken sporadically by huge thunderstorms and very heavy downpours, but they are normally short-lived. Doesn't seem like it when you are trying to get back to sleep in your tent.

There are other shows in Europe, but this one has most of the exhibitors I want to see and it's not too expensive to go. I don't have to spend anything like as much as in Tucson to make it worthwhile and that's just as well with the Euro currency rate at the moment.

I try to tie my flights in with those of friends and travel on together, but that hasn't worked this year. So I'll be flying on my own to Switzerland and getting a train to a town a few miles from where I want to end up. Which is on a cider apple orchard/farm somewhere near a road. By some fields. This is going to be easy.

Last year there was an armed siege right beside the show. I watched it all. Exciting, in parts. I'll post about it next time.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

How much?

Some friendly Canadians.

'Can we have this ammonite, please?'
'Of course. Would you like a stand to go with it? They're sixty pence.'
'How much is that?'
'Sixty pence. 60p.'
'But how much is that?'
'Em. Well. A bit more than 50p; a bit less than 70p. Point six of a pound. What do you mean?'
'Oh - like sixty cents?'
'A bit, yes.'
'Ok. We'll have one.'

Wednesday, 20 May 2009


Yesterday, with some fanfare, the fossil primate Darwinius masillae was displayed in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. There has been a great deal of hype about this fossil, which, given it was actually found in 1983, seems a little contrived. It's a very important fossil, without doubt, but a lot more study needs to be done before it quite lives up to its billing. It had been in a private collection until is was bought by the univeristy of Oslo a couple of years ago.

The site it came from is a famous fossil locality - Messel, near Frankfurt in Germany. The Messel pit its home to an oily shale that contains fossils preserved with incredible detail. The deposits are Eocene, and are roughly 46 to 50 million years old. Aside from thousands of fish, the site has yielded birds, crocodiles, insects and a number of different mammals - bats, mice, horses, pangolins and more. Fur, feathers, scales are all beautifully preserved, but the shale is so delicate that fossils are usually given some form of supportive backing. I currently have a fish that is set in a sort of fibre glass sheet. The Messel pit was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the mid-90s.

Ida, as she's been called, was at first thought to be a relative of lemurs, but had a number of simian characteristics, leading some to trumpet her as a 'missing link' fossil in the human lineage. The presence of opposable thumbs, fingernails and dental details suggest she lies somewhere around the division between prosimians (modern lemurs, bushbabies, etc) and simians (higher primates, like Old World monkeys, apes and you). So while she might not be a direct human ancestor, she's likely to be a close cousin to our ancestral monkeyman.

Thursday, 14 May 2009


This week a South African blue diamond was sold at auction in Geneva for £6.2 million after a bit of a bidding war. This makes it the most expensive blue diamond ever. It's set in a platinum ring, and doesn't look very big. If I was spending that much, I'd probably want something a little bigger. Car-sized, maybe, or at least the size of an overweight cow. The diamond will be named by its new owner. Unlike Cabbage Patch dolls, they don't come with a wee label with their name, hobbies, etc. What will it be called? Is it like a show dog or racehorse where they have their 'stage' name, like Fragrant Broccoli Starfield for example, and then their 'pet' name, such as Stumpy? I don't know the answer to this.

Diamonds, in their purest form, are colourless. They are pure carbon. The presence of trace elements during formation, radiation and also slight physical deformations can influence the colour, though, and diamonds can be found in a number of colours. After clear, the most commonly found are brown and yellow, where Nitrogen is present. Red, pink, orange, violet, green, purple, blue and black varieties are also found. Black diamonds are usually the result of inclusions of graphite, the 'lead' in a pencil and another form of pure carbon, but as soft as diamond is hard. Blue diamonds are formed when there is boron present.

Diamonds form when carbon-rich rocks are subjected to high pressures at (geologically speaking) relatively low temperatures. While almost all are formed deep under areas of the Earth's continental plates (not oceanic), very small diamonds can be formed on meteorite impact. It's no use squeezing a lump of coal to form a diamond. That doesn't work. Even after 37 minutes. I got bored.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

And another thing

On Saturday, a Jehovah's Witness came into the shop and told Riley that all the fossils on Earth were deposited during the flood that Noah floated about on. Now - I've heard this argument many times before and more than one religion sticks to this demonstrably wrong line.

When Riley asked what happened to the animals found in the fossil record that are no longer running around, the answer was that the wicked animals had not been saved. Whether this slight twist is the party line or not, I have no idea. But I like it as an explanation...

The dinosaurs all died because they were naughty.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Red in tooth and claw

There's a very rich Cretaceous site in the Kem Kem area of Morocco. Lots of dinosaur teeth are found there. Lots. The stone is mostly a crumbly, pinkish sandstone and while the teeth and bones found are quite fragile, the preservation can be remarkably good. There are a few animals found in the stratigraphy - the T.rex-like Carcharodontosaurus, the sauropod Rebacchisaurus, the raptor Deltadromeus, crocodiles and a pterosaur, Sirrocopteryx.

For me, though, the most notable find of this area is Spinosaurus aegyptiacus. Spinosaurus was originally found and named in Egypt in the early 1900s but the original holotype was destroyed during WWII. Other examples have been found in Egypt and Tunisia, but the Kem Kem churns out bucketloads of Spino teeth and some claw and bone material.

Spinosaurus is thought to be the biggest carnosaur found so far. Estimates put the weight between 7 and 9 tonnes, and between 50 and 60 feet in length. It is related to the Baryonyx of England and Brazil's Irritator, has a long, crocodilian snout, simple, smooth teeth with slight vertical ridges and a large 'sail' on its back.

The skull and jaws show a long muzzle with raised nostrils - a little like crocodiles. It's thought Spinos may well have eaten fish as well as smaller dinosaurs and probably scavenging. More recent research has suggested that the shape of the extended vertebral bones that form the 'sail' is consistent with those in modern buffalo with large fatty humps on their backs. Spinos may have had more of a lump than a sail. Not quite so dashing.

Bit of a side note here. As with many dinosaur genera, there are arguments about many aspects - range in size, purpose of sail/hump, palaeoenvironment, etc. Recently it was realised that modelling of dinosaurs and creation of assemblages from articulation of bones etc left too little allowance for intervertebral discs. With a more realistic spacing of vertebra, most dinsoaurs may well have actually been much bigger than previously thought.

Spinosaurus was one of the stars of the Jurassic Park series, appearing in the third film to smash the T.rex about, and bite his face off. Bragging rights to the Spino.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Bilbo finds his feet

This month more light was shed on the origins of the hobbit - Homo floresiensis. It's a hominid species that was discovered six years ago in caves on an Indonesian island. They're a little controversial, these guys. And little. About a metre tall - hence the hobbit tag. Nobody knows if they had hairy feet.

Anyway - they are very interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, bones have been found dating between 95,000 years and 12-13,000 years. That's not very long ago, even within the human evolutionary timeframe. It's thought they lived alongside modern H. sapiens. Well, possibly in different caves.

Secondly, a number of scientists argue that they are not a distinct species. Some have said the solitary complete skull found is a bit of an anomoly, others saying the whole colony was a group of pinhead dwarf humans. More recent study has shown considerable differences between the hobbit skull and human microcephalic skulls, pointing towards the distinct species theory. Further research on the bones of the arms and wrists support this and would seem to provide conclusive evidence that the hobbits split from the hominid line earlier than H. sapiens.

Similarities to Australopithecus, a hominid that died out in Africa about 1.5 million years ago have led to suggestions that an ancestor of Australopithecus or Homo habilis left Africa earlier than it was previously thought. As with other species living on isolated islands, they remained separate and distinct from other species. The Out of Africa migration of modern humans is thought to have taken place between 80,000 and 50,000 years ago. By this time, clearly, hobbits had already been established in their Indonesian caves. The rapid spread of Homo sapiens into Europe and across the globe led to the disappearance of all other hominid species. (Something we said?) Seems like the hobbits lasted a bit longer than the rest.