Wednesday, October 31, 2012

SVP Highlights: Biodiversity Hotspots

Hello, blog world! NaNoWriMo starts tomorrow, so today I begin my recap posts from the 72nd Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Annual Meeting. (Fingers crossed that I've correctly read all their fine print about what I'm allowed to post about.) Without further ado, I present to you the first of a series of brief SVP highlights that I'll post throughout the month as I work on my NaNoWriMo novel. Here we go!

Biodiversity Hotspots: Centers of Evolution?

Biodiversity hotspots are where oodles of animals live—levels of variety seen nowhere else on Earth. There are hotspots of biodiversity in the world today, such as the rainforests of Indonesia and the Amazon. Likely, there were hotspots in the past as well.

Around 150-100 million years ago, it seems there was such a hotspot actually fairly close to the modern day Amazon. It was located in what is now Columbia and it is the focal point of this blog post.

In Hans Larsson’s SVP talk on October 17th, 2012, he proposed that hotspots of biodiversity are actually the cradles of evolution. They might be where most new species originate. This makes a certain amount of sense: the more species already there, the more likely different morphs will turn up and speciate into new lineages. 

To test this, Larsson looked at the fossil record of Columbia during its hotspot time. He found tons of fossils and huge diversity among the remains, solidifying the idea that this area was a hotspot. Beyond this, he also found that this fossil locality happens to be where the earliest members of many animal lineages are found (including possibly the earliest true sea turtle!). 

So is this evidence that hotspots are also the places where evolution tends to leap forward? Possibly. Personally, I think it’s a really cool idea, but it needs to be tested further. We need to make sure there isn’t another reason they’re finding the earliest members of modern lineages in that area. Could it be that these early sea turtles, for instance, could actually be found many other, non-hotspot places that just didn’t end up preserving in the fossil record? I don't know the answer to that, but I'm certain qualified people are looking into this. Probably even Hans Larsson himself. After all, this is a question that the fossil record can answer better than any study of modern living things.


Larsson H. "THE CRETACEOUS NEOTROPICS: COLOMBIAN VERTEBRATES AT THE BOUNDARY OF SHIFTING ENVIRONMENTS AND THE MESOZOIC MARINE INTERCHANGE". Talk. Society of Vertebrate Paleontology 72nd Annual Meeting. Raleigh Convention Center, Raleigh, North Carolina. 17 October 2012.

Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Program and Abstracts, 2012, p. 8.

Monday, October 22, 2012

SVP Highlights and November Blog Plans

Two thoughts converge into one!

1. I've been trying to collect all my notes from SVP (the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology annual meeting I was at last week) and put them together into one super cool post. However, even by cutting out discussions on over 3/4s of all the talks I went to, there's still way too much.

2. Since November will be filled with NaNoWriMo, very soon I will have zero time for blogging.

Thus...idea born! For the next month,watch this blog for posts every other day that focus on one new idea or discovery in paleontology. I’ll get them all prepared ahead of time, so I won’t be swamped with blogging during NaNoWriMo, and you will get to see them over the course of November, so there won’t be any dry spell on my blog. It’s genius! Or at least, it’s a reasonably well thought-out plan.

The posts will be under the header “SVP Highlights”, and will be filled with cool fossil science that I guarantee will get you thinking about paleontology in a whole new way. The first of these posts will begin this week, even though it’s not November yet. One month of every-other-day posts just isn’t enough! I have tons of awesome things to share with you all, and to fit it all in, I’ll need to get a move on these highlights in late October. So keep your eyes peeled!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Musings on SVP

Imagine, for a moment, that you once studied an obscure language for many, many years. You studied this language to the point of near fluency, but then were suddenly cut off from anyone who spoke it. You adjusted. You went back to speaking the language spoken natively in your country. Years later, however, you were kidnapped and dropped off in a nation where the primary language just so happened to be the one oddball one you'd studied previously. It all comes crashing back to you in a way you didn't realize your brain could even manage.

This is what the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Annual Meeting has been like for me.

© 2012 The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.

I left the world of academic paleontology three years ago with a Masters instead of a PhD. And when I sat down Tuesday to listen to the first paleontological conference talk of the mind was blown. Not just by the talk...but by what I understood from the talk. I had completely forgotten that I knew all those words! Paleo geek-speak is like another language--a language I had forgotten I'd ever known in the first place.

And beyond merely exercising a vocabulary that's been collecting dust in my brain, this week I've gotten the rare chance to witness what my life would have been if I hadn't left grad school. Two roads diverged, and I chose the road less traveled, but what would've become of me if I hadn't? Now I think I know.

I would've been here. Just as I am now. At this conference.

Except I would've been presenting research. I would have new results on Miocene ape locomotion, using new fossils that hadn't been discovered when I left grad school three years ago. I would've been using new analytical methods, like geo-morphometrics (an increasingly popular method I've seen and semi-drooled over during several talks this week). I would've swarmed the tables of free reprints, snatching up all ape-related journal articles like someone was handing out cash.

Oh wait. I just did that last one. Old habits are hard to break?

Ahem. Anyhow. In a lot of ways, I've gotten a glimpse at what PhD-me would've been like this week. It's...weird, to say the least. But in other ways, it's also helping me to bring closure to that horrifically difficult decision I made three years ago.

I made the right decision. I've known that this entire time, but being back in the academia environment confirms it. I love paleontology. I've loved this week. I've geeked out over pretty much every talk I've been at (and believe me, I've been at a lot...there are twenty four possible talks to see each day if you time things right). And while I've enjoyed being back and catching up on all the newest research...I have had zero wishes or desires to contribute to the research.

And that's why I know I made the right choice.

I love learning about prehistoric life and evolution. I love teaching about it. I love writing about it. I love introducing others to it.

But I do not love tearing my hair out as my statistical analyses all contradict one another, having professors breathe down my neck about my data collection methods, or finding out my dig site has been closed due to overseas rioting, therefore putting research on hold. None of that is any fun. And to me, publishing my very own research was just not worth any of that stress.

This isn't to say I didn't like my research. I did. And at times, I miss it. Just not badly enough to make a lifetime career out of it. If you're going to get a PhD, you must love what you're doing enough to put aside all other interests. I couldn't do that. I like too many different things. And what I love wasn't research at all...

...It was teaching. And so here I am. Three years later, back at SVP. This time, as a representative from my museum instead of as a grad student. It's been an identity-crisis kind of week. I know I'm here from my museum where I work a professional full-time job, but I keep reverting back to "grad school" me. (Case in point: I seriously do have a stack of reprints on my hotel desk right now that I scavenged from the freebie table. Am I ever going to use these? No. Could I resist grabbing them in a race against other students? No. "Grad school" me is kind of a scary person.)

So I guess the moral of all this is that while it's been nice to visit, I'm glad I no longer live in the world of academic paleontology. Science education and communication is where I belong. It's where I'm happy, comfortable, and productive. I'm glad I've retained the skills needed to survive a week of paleontological discussions (you gotta log-correct your data for those principal components analyses if you're going to rule out body mass in your efforts to demonstrate axial skeletal morphological variation, or you'll never resolve that paraphyletic tree...and then how would you even begin sorting out how much vertebral loading changes anterior-posteriorly throughout ontogeny within each clade?). It's nice to be able to keep up with what's being said in the talks. So for the ability to do that, I thank you, grad school.

And I tip my hat to the new generation of grad students, and especially to doctoral candidate Ashley Hammond of the University of Missouri. She's working on a lot of the things I was hoping to work on in my own PhD pursuits. She gave a fantastic talk this week on suspensory adaptations in Miocene apes, using measurements of hip abduction from living taxa. I now feel I can retire from the world of paleontological research without guilt. She's got this Miocene ape locomotion stuff covered (and, dare I say, much more impressively than I likely would've managed).

Stay tuned for SVP highlights (read: cool new paleo discoveries!) to be posted in a few days.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Weekly Science Roundup #10

They extract the preserved blood from the mosquito, and bingo: dino DNA!

...or not. It's Weekly Science Roundup Time!

1. Jurassic Park Just a Dream?

New research shows that DNA, like other chemical substances, has a decay rate known as a half-life. This research shows that DNA's half-life is 521 years. That means every 521 years, half of its bonds break (or decay away). Then 521 years later, half of what's left decays away. And so on, and so forth.

Practically speaking, this means DNA over 1.5 million years-old would be unreadable and basically just a mess of mostly broken bonds. After 6.8 million years, every single bond would have been broken and there'd be nothing left to even pick at. Therefore, 65 million year-old dinosaur DNA would be impossible to read, much less use to clone a dinosaur.

However, with this research being done on the bones of extinct moa (giant birds from New Zealand that died out thousands of years ago), it actually proves that cloning an extinct dinosaur is totally plausible. The moa DNA is less than 1.5 million years-old. We could therefore use it to bring back their species! Since birds are dinosaurs, we'd have actually achieved the Jurassic Park dream. It might not be a T. rex, but it'd still be bringing back an extinct dinosaur from the grave, which would totally count as awesome in my book.

2. Asteroid Fly-By

Lines point to the asteroid. Copyright: Gianluca Masi

Asteroid 2012 TC4 flew by Earth on Friday, just about 60,000 miles away from Earth's surface. That's only a quarter of the distance from here to the Moon!

However, the asteroid itself was only about the size of a house. Yes, a house is big, but a house-sized asteroid hitting Earth wouldn't mean worldwide devastation. Local devastation, sure, but not worldwide. ;)

In any case, scientists were positive it wouldn't hit our planet, despite flying by so close to us. But this is a great reminder of why we need to keep pushing forward with space missions and research. There are asteroids that come close to Earth, and at some point there's sure to be one that puts our world at risk. We know asteroid collisions are possible, we've got the brainpower to figure out how to stop them, we just need the funding to get the programs in place. Vote science! It may save your life! </minipoliticalstatement>.

3. Curiosity Finds Another Cool Rock!

In other space news, Curiosity is still shooting lasers at rocks and has yet again found something unexpected. 

Similar to a bizarre type of igneous rock from Earth, this rock likely formed from (possibly water-rich) magma getting pushed up through Mars' mantle. On Earth, the crystals in this only form when magma is water-rich, so this adds to the growing pile of evidence that H20 was present at least at some point in Mars' past, and possibly still around today. Eep! It's just getting more and more likely that water played a real role in Mars' past.

I hope I get to report again next Roundup about another cool rock Curiosity finds! Go, Curiosity, go!

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Weekly Science Roundup #9

Back in action! This week, meet a spiky dinosaur face-to-face, learn the truth about Vitamin C, and holy cow, a new comet!

1. The Newest Fanged Plant-Eating Dinosaur of AWESOME

Pegomastax africanus is the newest heterodontosaur dinosaur discovery, and is possibly the most bizarre one yet. Heterodontosaurs are dinosaurs that have differently shaped teeth, and were some of the earliest dinosaurs to ever evolve. This new specimen dates to around 200 million years ago.

Pegomastax has a beak-like front to his jaw, curved like a parrot's, then has big sharp fangs (possibly for battling other Pegomastax), and finally in the back, several tall teeth good for eating plants.

Paleontologists aren't completely certain that the fangs weren't for meat-eating, but it seems unlikely based on their wear patterns. There are modern animals (muntjacs, anyone?) that both have fangs and live as herbivores, and that seems to be the case here.

Also, did I mention this dinosaur is tiny? It's only around the size of a house cat. And it's covered in bristly spines. Is there anything about this animal that isn't amazing to imagine?

2. You don't need to take daily Vitamin C and D pills. Really.

Really. Yes, we need these vitamins in our lives, but at least for people who eat a typical diet (read: almost everyone), you get all you need from your food.

"But what about when preventing colds?" you ask, "Doesn't extra C help keep you from getting sick?"

No. Taking vitamin supplements doesn't prevent colds. This has been demonstrated time and time again with Vitamin C, and the newest study takes down Vitamin D as well.

There's zero evidence that either type of supplement lower your risk for getting sick. There is possibly evidence that Vitamin C speeds up your recovery during a cold by potentially up to 12 hours, but that result hasn't been replicated with much accuracy. The bottom line, is that as long as you're drinking OJ/eating a piece of fruit/enjoying some broccoli in your life with some frequency, you're golden on your vitamin levels.

Still unconvinced? Hoping to harness the (possible, maybe half-day speedier) beneficial effects of Vitamin C when you're sick? Just drink an extra half glass of OJ, and you're more than set. It's cheaper, more natural, and tastier. Done and done.

3. New Comet Discovered!

A new comet has been sighted! The Russian discoverers saw comet 2012 S1 passing by Saturn last week, and it's been since revealed that this comet should pass by Earth at the end of next year. That is, if it survives its trip past our sun in a few months.

The comet is over a mile wide, and could potentially be one of the brightest comets in history. As it sails past the sun, gas and dust will be blasted off it, giving it a huge tail and creating conditions for it to be super reflective as it goes by Earth. Scientists can't be certain of just how bright it will actually look (or even if, once again, it'll survive long enough to pass us), but if things go as predicted, it should put on a seriously awesome show next year. How awesome? Well, imagine a ball of ice dashing past us and shining as bright as---

Wait. No. I must restrain myself from over-hyping how cool this thing will look could end up being until the actual flyby date gets closer...


Still restraining...

...This is going to be a long year.

Friday, October 5, 2012


My friend and fellow member of my writers' group interviewed me on her blog today. You can find the interview here!

Tara Sullivan is an amazing author whose debut novel, GOLDEN BOY, will be hitting the shelves next summer. GOLDEN BOY follows the story of Habo, a 13 year-old albino boy in Africa, as he struggles to discover his own self worth while others hunt him down for a twisted form of "luck" medicine. It's a suspenseful, heart-tugging, beautifully written story, and I can't wait for everyone to get a chance to read it next year.

As it's debut date gets closer, I hope to repay Tara and do an interview with her on my own blog! Additionally, I'll be posting a special blog entry next spring about the genetics of albinism, and what it means, medically, for those who are albino.

Thanks again for the interview, Tara! I look forward to hosting you on Discoverific! in a few months!

Monday, October 1, 2012

Curiosity Discovers an Ancient Streambed

There's conglomerate on Mars.


In the newest update from Curiosity, they've gotten the first photographic evidence of an ancient streambed with actual rounded gravel cemented together as solid rock over time. This cemented-together gravel is known as conglomerate, and is a type of sedimentary rock that forms from river deposits.

These stones were rounded via liquid water at some time in the past, and were left behind when the river dried up. Only a quickly traveling liquid could round these stones in this way and leave them deposited in streaks like those Curiosity has discovered. Previous study from earlier rovers (Spirit and Opportunity) proved that the most common liquid on Mars in its history would've been H20, because of the mineral deposits found in the dirt on Mars. Therefore, it's almost certain that the liquid that rounded these stones was from a stream of water.

All photo credits to NASA

And not just any stream. Before now we just knew some water was possible some time in Mars' past. Now we know it's not just "some" water. This was a stream at least ankle deep, but possibly even knee deep in sections, and moving at three feet per second. Three feet per second! And it likely stretched on a long, long ways across the crater where Curiosity is hanging out. This was a serious stream. The thick layers of stone also suggest this wasn't a one time deal: this stream existed for a long period of time, with cycles of flooding and drying.

Wow. This is amazing.

It's been less than two months and Curiosity has already found an ancient, fast-moving stream that could easily have hosted some sort of life. However, the question of whether life was possible on Mars (which is Curiosity's most important job) is still up in the air. Curiosity has found signs of significant amounts of water, but there are many other requirements still missing.

Good thing Curiosity is designed to last at least two entire years more. I can't wait to see what she finds next.