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 (; 
colouring by C. M. Kosemen (
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.