Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Yearly Science Roundup: 2013

We've reached the end of the year, and it's time to round-up the best of science from the past 365 days. It hasn't been easy narrowing down my favorite five science stories of 2013, but after a lot of thought, I've settled on the following:

5. Voyager 1 in Interstellar Space

Alright, so this technically happened in 2012, but NASA only confirmed it in 2013, so it counts! I've made it my #5 story, though, since it's semi-cheating.

Thirty-six years ago, Voyager 1 launched from Earth. As of August 25th, 2012, it officially reached interstellar space (...though it is still considered to be in our solar system, as it will be another three centuries before it even begins to touch the Oort Cloud). Congratulations, Voyager!

Scientists were able to detect this major milestone by noticing the change in density of the energy particles surrounding the spacecraft. Basically, Voyager 1 is now surrounded by particles ejected from other stars, and has moved beyond the bubble of particles ejected by our sun. It has entered the "space between the stars".

Which is pretty freaking amazing. Definitely one of the coolest things humankind has ever done. If you do nothing else in your last hours of 2013, take a moment to appreciate that there is a human-made vehicle hurtling beyond the edge of the sun's influence as we speak.

4. Biggest Volcano on Earth Discovered

Location of Tamu Massif, the biggest volcano on our planet!
Geology nerd time. Back on Planet Earth, scientists have discovered a volcano that completely blows the old record for "largest volcano" out of the water. (I made a joke! Get it? ...No? Read on...)

Tamu Massif is an underwater volcano off the coast of Japan (get it now?!). It was previously thought to be an area of many smaller volcanoes, but new evidence shows that it's actually just one really, really big one. It's FIFTY times larger than Mauna Loa, which up until this year had been considered Earth's biggest volcano. (Mauna Loa remains Earth's biggest active volcano, however.)

Tamu Massif is about 75% the size of the solar system's biggest volcano, Olympus Mons (on Mars). Lucky for us, it's been dormant for 144 million years, and doesn't look like it'll ever erupt ever again.

3. Hominins...Hominins Everywhere!

What a year in Human Evolution. With DNA studies galore throwing new surprises left and right, including new origins for Native Americans, a new species of human ancestor, and Neanderthal-inherited immunities, and then the whole debacle with the Dmanisi skulls throwing everything we know about speciation 2 million years ago into question...

...it's been quite the year.

But I think my favorite thing has been the exploration of the Rising Star Cave in South Africa. This expedition, led by paleoanthropologist Lee Berger, has already become one of the most successful of all time, and is certainly the most successful for the amount of time spent excavating in this cave.

Over 1000 hominin fossils have been recovered in just a matter of weeks. This is unlike anything paleoanthropology has ever seen before. The science of these fossils is yet to be done, but the sheer numbers are mindblowing. Check out this discussion with Lee Berger to hear the amazing story from beginning to end.

2. A Universe of Water

Artist rendition of a water plume on Europa.

Okay, so you've caught me. Picking five stories was impossible. Just like in the #3 slot on this list, the #2 slot is shoehorning in several stories.

2013 saw a huge increase in our understanding of where else water may be in our galaxy. Outside of our solar system, over 1000 exoplanets have been identified, and Hubble has detected water in the atmospheres of five of those so far. This is HUGE. Trying to detect water in the atmosphere of planets out of our own solar system has been a goal for a long time. Just imagine what we'll know about exoplanets by this time next year!

Back in our solar system, Hubble has found water in plumes from Europa, a moon of Jupiter that is thought to have giant oceans under its icy surface. And on Mars, Curiosity has been going strong. From water in the soil, to the discovery of an ancient freshwater lake, Curiosity has proven that there were once places on Mars that were perfect for the existence of life. And, in case anyone has forgotten, determining if Mars could've been suitable for life was the main goal of Curiosity's mission.

Here on Earth, water is so commonplace, you'd never think it'd make the news. But even here water made headlines, when some ridiculously old H2O was found in a Canadian mine. This water dates back 2 BILLION years, and is teaching us all sorts of things about the chemistry of that area from that time.

But even all of this excitement can't top what thrilled me most in science in 2013. Without further ado, I give you the absolute coolest science story of the year...



Seriously, guys. This actually happened. I've done three different blog posts about this event already this year. I will talk about this until the end of time.

Because seriously. THIS HAPPENED.

If you want to read about the science of it, I suggest you check out my original post from February 15th. Or my follow-up post, the day after. Or my post about the origins of this space rock from August. Any of those will do. For now, though, I'd like to wrap up my 2013 blog with this gorgeous picture, supplied by NASA.

Happy New Year to everyone out there! May 2014 bring us more science excitement, a new batch of amazing discoveries, and at least one neat thing to smile about each day.

Sunday, December 15, 2013


Blogging has been slow the past couple of weeks, because some big stuff has been happening in my writing life. I'm not going to be coy and dance around this, so here goes...

I am thrilled to announce that I am now officially represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency!

Relevant gif is relevant, for many, many reasons.
It's happened! I have a literary agent, and I couldn't be more excited about it. Joan is fabulous. I know she's going to do a fantastic job representing me and my manuscript in the big scary world of children's book publishing.

For those that don't know what exactly all this means, you can think of this as the first professional step on the road to becoming published. Nowadays, it is extremely difficult to be a published author if you don't have an agent (unless you self-publish). An agent is the link between authors and publishing houses. Now that I have one, I get to move onto the next phase of my career--submitting to publishers to see if anyone wants to take on my book!

I will likely do a longer post in the future detailing how I "got my agent", because that story really deserves its own post. What I will say now, is that I had three agents read my full manuscript, and got offers from all three of them.

It was simultaneously awesome and terrifying. As you might imagine, choosing amongst them was not easy. But in the end, I went with Joan, because I felt like she was the best fit for where I wanted to take my writing career. She's extremely easy to get along with, she has an incredible success rate in the business, and she is a sci-fi author herself. Plus, she connected with my book in such a positive way, that I knew she would strive to see it succeed. Joan was the full package, and I'm still flabbergasted that she saw enough of something in my writing to offer representation.

I feel so lucky and honored to be joining the EMLA family, and can't wait to get to know everyone associated with them. If anyone is reading this and wants to follow me on twitter, my twitter handle is "@paleopaws". I will follow you back! I'm cool like that, I swear.

So that's my big news! Heading into 2014, I'll be an agented writer, getting ready to tackle editor submissions. Thank you so much to everyone who's supported me during all of this. To my friends, family, and critique partners for believing in me and in this manuscript. You were right. Apparently it was an awesome story. Next step: make it even more awesome.

Okay, 2014. Publishing houses. Editors. Let's do this.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Weekly Science Roundup #24

Weekly Science Roundup time! This time, with 100% more Thanksgivings leftovers. Eating some pumpkin pie as I write. Yum.

1. Comet ISON Only Mostly Dead

Something has survived...

Comet ISON has been talked about for over a year now. The media hyped it as a comet to rival the moon in brightness, "coming December 2013!". While that was definitely hype, scientists were quick to point out that there was a possibility the media actually wouldn't be too far off this time.

As the comet drew closer to us, it was looking pretty good, but it had a risky trip around the sun coming on Thanksgiving day. If it made it, it would loop around and come back to us, visible in the evening sky...potentially gorgeous!

Sadly, it didn't seem to survive its trip. However, NASA's SOHO spacecraft observed something swing around the sun and come back into view after the comet disappeared. So perhaps the comet wasn't as dead as it first seemed. Instead of burning up completely, it is more likely that the nucleus of the icy/dusty comet broke up and now there is a smear of leftover material hurtling through space.

Is this smear bright enough for us to see with our bare eyes? Will it be a gorgeous light show? Probably not. But it's still hard to tell for certain. Maybe it will surprise us. After all, in the wise words of Phil Plait,

"Comets and cats are equally predictable."

2. Corals Hurt by Pollution May Have Fast Recoveries

Bleached Coral. Photo by Bruno de Giusti.
The bad news: a new study has confirmed the long-suspected concept that pollution in the ocean really does hurt coral. Badly. The presence of pollution doubled the amount of bleaching in coral over a three year study period. When coral is "bleached", it means the animal is stressed (yes, coral is an animal). This often is a precursor to death.

The good news is the same study showed that once the pollution was removed, the corals recovered within ten months. WOW! This is genuine evidence that programs to remove ocean pollutants can have a serious, strong, and fast effect on marine health. This is fabulous, and I hope it lays the foundation for efforts moving forward to clean up the ocean.

3. Crocodiles and Alligators Might Use Tools

We know birds use tools, so this shouldn't be a huge shock. Birds and crocodylians are both members of Archosauria, and share many behavioral traits such as nesting tendencies, singing, and parental care of offspring.

Now, a study by croc specialist Vladimir Dinets shows that gators and crocs seem to use "lures" to catch their prey. You want to click on that link. There's a great picture of a crocodile with sticks on its head.

The trick is simple. A gator or croc will use sticks to lure in birds who are in the middle of building nests. The birds swoop down to get the sticks off the predator's camouflaged head, and SNAP. Dinner.

The reason this is likely tool use (rather than just random chance of sticks being atop crocodile heads), is that this is only noticed during nesting season for particular bird species. Also, this isn't a special time of year when sticks are more common on the water or anything, either. This appears to be a deliberate act by crocodile and alligator species to gather sticks and hang out near birds that are in need of nesting supplies.

Neat! I look forward to further study. I love learning about surprising animal intelligence.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Weekly Science Roundup #23

And we're back! It's Weekly Science Roundup time!

1. Martian Meteorite Shows Off Oldest Surface of Mars

Ancient Mars, Artist Rendition (Ittiz)
A meteorite found in the Sahara desert has not only been shown to originate from Mars, but actually includes within it a chunk of the ancient Martian crust from 4.4 billion years ago. Whoa! This is the oldest piece of Mars scientists have ever had the chance to study!

Already it's proven interesting, showing possibly ten times more water than has been found in any other Martian sample. And in reassuring news, it shows a similar composition as to what our Mars rovers have shown in their own sampling from the surface of Mars proper.

This is such a rare find, that it's estimated that to purchase even a gram of this meteorite would cost $10,000 or more. It's kind of a big deal.

2. Human DNA Wackiness

Lots of DNA-based news this week. First off, Native American genomes. Based on previous research, it had been presumed the first Americans that crossed over from Siberia and populated the Western hemisphere were originally East Asian in origin. Now, new bones from Siberia show that while a good chunk of Native American DNA does have East Asian ties, about a third of it is actually from Western Eurasian people. This might help explain some as-of-yet-remaining mysteries in the genomes of Native American populations. It also begs the question as to whether this influx of Western DNA happened in Siberia or if it actually happened in America from multiple migration events. Hmm.

This week, we've also broken further into the study of viruses encoded in our DNA. Long story short on this one, viruses sometimes wind up in our DNA, getting copied and passed down generation to generation. Researchers have discovered some of these viruses actually came from the Neanderthal portion of our DNA, and also the Denisovan portion (another group of ancient people that we interbred with). That's about half a million years ago that this stuff got lodged in our genome. And it might prove insightful for understanding modern diseases, like AIDS and even various forms of cancer. This is really cool stuff to keep your eyes peeled for. Big things could come of this.

Speaking of Denisovans, though, in a third study released this week, it's shown that not only did Denisovans interbreed with us, and with Neanderthals...they also interbred with yet another ancient group of people that is neither human nor Neanderthal. No ones knows who this mystery group might be, but they existed about 30,000 years ago in Asia. Perhaps it is one of the fossil species we haven't sequenced yet, like Homo heidelbergensis. Though keep in mind, in light of other recent findings, these varying groups might not be as distinguished as true species, but rather as isolated populations of humans. One researcher phrased this as a Lord of the Rings type scenario--one world with many different types of peoples. Except at least some of the time, this ancient world was clearly taking the motto, "Make Love, Not War" to heart far more than in the Lord of the Rings universe.

3. Happy 15th Anniversary, ISS!

This week, the International Space Station hit its 15th anniversary! On November 20th of 1998, the first piece of the station launched from Earth. Today, modern science and technology have both benefited enormously from this international effort. I'm wrapping up this week's roundup with NASA's congratulatory video. Here's to many more productive years at the ISS!

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Casual Enthusiast's Guide to SVP

Between October 30th and November 2nd, I listened to over 100 talks about the latest research in paleontology. I was at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology's 73rd Annual Meeting--or "SVP", for short.

Hundreds of paleontologists gathered from around the world to share the latest research, reveal new discoveries, and drink a lot of beer. Throughout each day, 15 minute-long presentations were given back to back to back. There were three rooms to jump between, which meant there were always three different talks you're forced to choose between. Not easy!

While I left the research world years ago, I still "speak the language"-- and "speaking the language" is pretty much a necessity at these conferences. The complexity of some of the topics demands large and obscure vocabulary.

So I've made this blog post to help translate SVP to non-paleontologists.


This year at SVP--as there is every year--there was controversy. One of the biggest was the continued debate of whether or not Archaeopteryx really could fly. One increasingly popular idea is that it may have descended from dinosaurs that could fly, and lost its flight secondarily.

There was also the controversy of a particular tooth type among mammals, known as "hypsodonty", that is claimed to evolve in response to increasing grasslands, but is now shown to have been around before grasslands were prevalent. No one quite knows what this tooth type could've been used for beforehand.

There was even a cheeky suggestion of reviving the genus "Brontosaurus", because the various species under the genus Apatosaurus may in fact be varied enough to warrant two genuses, and if that's the case, why not call one of them Brontosaurus? ...Don't get too excited, though. This idea isn't going anywhere as far as I can tell.


I learned a ton of ways that methodology is changing in paleontology. People are finally seeing that using 3D geo-morphometrics (which has been a popular analysis method this decade) has its drawbacks in addition to its awesomeness.

Paleontologists are becoming extremely conscientious of the ontogeny (growth through life) of species, to avoid future issues like the famous Torosaurus/Triceratops debate. For instance, more and more paleontologists are using "semaphoronts"--aka individuals of similar maturity level--when comparing different species to one another, for most accurate insights into their relationships.

In more computer-y news, 3D scanning is getting awesome enough that scanned fossils can be texture-mapped to look almost exactly like real ones, and that scans will make for sharing of fossils much easier, and even could be used for mapping dig sites.

And a study of why marsupials are underrepresented in fossil fauna showed that they aren't actually underrepresented...but rather that there is bias in how they're reported in literature, because they sit in drawers and often aren't given a species-level identification. Oops.

Finally, the methods of studying footprints is getting an overhaul, with discrete element modeling helping to establish what tracks look like at different depths of the substrate the animal walked on. It's super-cool.

Even the discovery of fossil sites is getting revamped with new predictive computer analyses. Seeing all these new methods kind of blew my mind.


Titanoboa Artwork by Nobu Tamura
At the meetings, I also learned more about some of our favorite fossil species. Beelzebufo, a huge Cretaceous frog, has now been shown to not be quite as huge as first predicted--it's about the size of a modern day African bullfrog (which, if you're not familiar, are pretty massive). It also has a confusing relationship to living frogs, that is throwing amphibian paleontologists for a loop.

Titanoboa (giant fossil snake), meanwhile, was shown to be even more epically gigantic, thanks to the discovery of a 15 inch-long skull. For reference, anacondas have skulls that are typically 3 inches long.

Therizinosaurs, a wacky branch of theropod dinosaurs, apparently had a great sense of balance and large olfactory capabilities, gigantic claws that could hook and pull things, and a small bite force (better for vegetation).

Big cats lost out at the end of the Pleistocene by being too specialized in their hunting, and now today we don't have nearly as many species, and definitely no saber-tooths. 

Troodon continues to impress with its huge brain, showing a cerebrum that is more than 50% of the entire brain mass.  

Rudapithecus (an early ape) had delayed maturation based on eruption of its grown-up molars, giving it longer to develop a big ape brain, even though its body size is smaller than most living apes.

And Eunotosaurus is showing even more signs of being one of the earliest known fossil turtles, thanks to its skull.


I got to see new studies about my favorite topic: limb morphology and locomotion. The ancestors of mammals had a more mobile shoulder than the ancestors of reptiles and birds. This lets us mammals have speedy running cycles, but also means we can't dig as efficiently. Reptiles appear to "swim" more on land, which makes for slow walking...but is fantastic for flying. Go birds!

Also, an analysis of bird limbs showed that large birds don't need a running start to fly, as is
commonly suggested. They can just leap into the air most of the time, which has interesting implications of the evolution of flight in dinosaurs. It's also feasible that juveniles might have flown before adults in evolution, because juvenile and adult birds today have a wide variety of different ways they use their limbs.


New discoveries included the first confirmed Allosaurus eggs, a new ceratopsian skull that indicates horned dinosaurs dispersed into North America at least one two separate occasions, a baby Chasmosaurus from Alberta, new postcranial material for several early primates (very rare!), a new primate that demonstrates the split between apes and monkeys 25 million years ago, a massive 11-meter long theropod from Kenya, a nesting ground of actual HATCHED therizinosaur eggs (with such a high hatching success rate, it implies the species guarded its nests), new fossil primate teeth that show an Arabian dispersal route for Old World Monkeys, a new species of big cat in Asia with close relationship ties to modern snow leopards, and the oldest Antarctic land mammal (54 million years old). And that's just a sampling of the new stuff presented! Wow!


And in less category-friendly news, I learned that gators have different bite patterns on bones than crocs, and this could be used as a characteristic to tell who bit what in the fossil record (gators are apparently more destructive when they feed...the pictures were...yikes).

I learned that Cope's Rule ("animals will get bigger and bigger as time goes on, unless there's a serious extinction event") is running out of actual evidence to back it up. Finally.

I learned that there are many more tar pits in the world besides the famous Rancho La Brea tar pits in California, and that it's a mistake to think of tar pits as being "pits"...often, it's just a surface-level covering of tar animals get stuck in, or even tar that covers up animals long after they've died.

And I learned that competition for sea grass was the driving force behind the evolution of sea cows. Which makes beautiful sense.


In looking towards the future, studies demonstrated that larger bodied animals are predisposed to extinction, as we're seeing confirmed today.

Taking this a step further, it was shown that body size decreased sharply during prehistoric global warming events. It also was shown that the amount body sizes changed in a species depended on how drastic of a temperature change occurred. Something to keep in mind, because hey, guess what, we're in a global warming event right now.

In fact, one of the biggest take-home messages was how paleontology has extremely important implications and applications for understanding our world today. At a tweet-up lunch, I asked a group of paleontologists what they wished laypeople would understand better about their field of study. One of the most resounding suggestions was the wish for people to understand just how much the study of the past can help us to create a better future.

So in conclusion, SVP 2013 was a wonderful, eye-opening experience, much like it has been in previous years. I'm so grateful that I got the chance to attend. It's given me a lot to think about, and I hope this summary has given you some food for thought, as well.

Citations for the information above can be found below.

Anemone, R., Emerson, C., Nachman, B. DOES PREDICTIVE MODELING WORK IN THE SEARCH FOR VERTEBRATE FOSSILS? A CASE STUDY FROM THE EOCENE OF WYOMING. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Program and Abstracts, 2013, Page79.


Bever, G. and Lyson, T. CRANIAL EVOLUTION AND THE ORIGIN OF TURTLES: INSIGHTS FROM EUNOTOSAURUS AFRICANUS. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Program and Abstracts, 2013, Page 87.



Currie, P., Holmes, R., Ryan, M., Coy, C., Koppelhus, E. THE SMALLEST, ARTICULATED CERATOPSID (DINOSAURIA). Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Program and Abstracts, 2013, Page 112. 

D'Ambrosia, A., Clyde, W., Fricke, H., Snell, K., Gingerich, P. MAMMALIAN DWARFISM ASSOCIATED WITH THE EARLY EOCENE ETM2 HYPERTHERMAL EVENT, BIGHORN BASIN, WYOMING. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Program and Abstracts, 2013, Page 112.

Drumheller, S. PHYLOGENETIC TAPHONOMY: SYNTHESIZING BITE MARK DATASETS USING STATISTICAL AND CLADISTIC METHODS. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Program and Abstracts, 2013, Page 119. 

Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Program and Abstracts, 2013, Page 119.

Evans, D., Campione, N., Brink, K., Schott, R., Brown, C. WASTED YOUTH: THE IMPORTANCE OF ONTOGENETICALLY EQUIVALENT SEMAPHORONTS IN DINOSAUR PHYLOGENETIC SYSTEMATICS. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Program and Abstracts, 2013, Page 124.

Evans, S., Groenke, J., Jones, M., Turner, A., Krause, D. BIG, BAD, AND BIZARRE: NEW MATERIAL OF BEELZEBUFO, A HYPEROSSIFIED ANURAN FROM THE LATE CRETACEOUS OF MADAGASCAR, YIELDS FURTHER SURPRISES. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Program and Abstracts, 2013, Page 124.

Falkingham, P. and Gatesy, S. USING AVIAN SUBSURFACE 3D FOOT MOTION TO SIMULATE FOSSIL TRACK DIVERSITY. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Program and Abstracts, 2013, Page 126.

Farke, A., Maxwell, D., Cifelli,R., Wedel, M. BIOGEOGRAPHY OF BASAL NEOCERATOPSIAN DINOSAURS ILLUMINATED BY A SKULL FROM THE CLOVERLY FORMATION  (LOWER CRETACEOUS) OF MONTANA. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Program and Abstracts, 2013, Page 126.

Field, D. and Lynner, C. PRECISE INFERENCE OF AVIALAN FLIGHT ABILITY FROM SHOULDER JOINT DIMENSIONS. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Program and Abstracts, 2013, Page 127.

Fisher, D., El Adli, J., Calamari, Z. 3D OSTEOLOGY OF THE AMERICAN MASTODON. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Program and Abstracts, 2013, Page 128.

Gilbert, C., Bibi, F., Hill, A., Beech, M., Rossie, J. EARLY OLD WORLD MONKEYS FROM AFRICA AND ARABIA: IMPLICATIONS FOR THE ORIGINS AND BIOGEOGRAPHY OF MAJOR CERCOPTHECID CLADES. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Program and Abstracts, 2013, Page 135.  

Gould, F. TO 3D OR NOT TO 3D: DO 3D SURFACE ANALYSES IMPROVE ECOMORPHOLOGICAL INFERENCES? Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Program and Abstracts, 2013, Page 137.



Head, J., Bloch, J., Moreno-Bernal, J., Rincon Burbano, A., Bourqe, J. CRANIAL OSTEOLOGY, BODY SIZE, SYSTEMATICS, AND ECOOGY OF THE GIANT PALEOCENE SNAKE TITANOBOA CERREJONENSIS. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Program and Abstracts, 2013, Page 141.


Holroyd, P., Rankin, B., Ferrer, E. THE MYSTERY OF THE MISSING MARSUPIALS AND THE PROBLEM OF DETECTION BIAS. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Program and Abstracts, 2013, Page 145. 

Kemp, M., Hadly, E. SIZE-BIASED EXTINCTION EXHIBITED BY QUATERNARY CARIBBEAN LIZARDS. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Program and Abstracts, 2013, Page 154.

Kobayashi, Y., Lee, Y., Barsbold, R., Zelenitsky, D., Tanaka, K. FIRST RECORD OF A DINOSAUR NESTING COLONY FROM MONGOLIA REVEALS NESTING BEHAVIOR OF THERIZINOSAUROIDS. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Program and Abstracts, 2013, Page 156.

Lautenschlager, S. UNRAVELING THERIZINOSAUR PALEOBIOLOGY - A MULTI-ANGLE APPROACH. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Program and Abstracts, 2013, Page 161. 

Mihlbachler, M., Samuels, J. LITTLE TITANS OF THE EOCENE: COPE'S RULE OR SAMPLING ARTIFACT? Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Program and Abstracts, 2013, Page 177. 

Moers, T., Gelfo, J., Reguero, M., Lorente, M., Lopez, G. THE OLDEST KNOWN (EARLY EOCENE) MAMMAL FROM ANTARCTICA. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Program and Abstracts, 2013, Page 182.



Sereno, P., Isch, A., Conroy, L. SHOULDER GIRDLE ARCHITECTURE: A MAJOR CONSTRAINT IN THE EVOLUTION OF AMNIOTE LOCOMOTION. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Program and Abstracts, 2013, Page 210.

Sertich, J., O'Connor, P., Seiffert, E., Manthi, F. A GIANT ABELISAURID THROPOD FROM THE LATEST CRETACEOUS OF NORTHERN TURKANA, KENYA. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Program and Abstracts, 2013, Page 212.

Stevens, N., Seiffert, E., Roberts, E., O'Connor, P. PRIMATE DIVERSITY IN THE LATE OLIGOCENE NSUNGWE FORMATION OF SOUTHWESTERN TANZANIA. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Program and Abstracts, 2013, Page 220.


Wang, X., Tseng, Z., Slater, G., Takeuchi, G., Li, Q. MIO-PLIOCENE CARNIVORANS FROM WESTERN TIBET AND THE EARLIEST RECORD OF PANTHERINE FELIDS. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Program and Abstracts, 2013, Page 235. 

Wood, A., Velez-Juarbe, J., Bourque, J., Bloch, J., Jaramillo, C. DIFFERENCES IN INFERRED FORAGING BEHAVIOR AMONG EARLY MIOCENE SPECIES OF DIPLOTHERIUM: EVIDENCE FROM A NEW FOSSIL DUGONG FROM THE PANAMA CANAL. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Program and Abstracts, 2013, Page 240. 


Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Dinosaur Joe and the Raymond Alf Museum

What a cool way to kick off my week of paleo-nerdery!

I was lucky enough to be invited to the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology by my friend (and curator of the museum), Dr. Andy Farke. Located in Claremont, California, it is just a quick train ride away from the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meetings happening this week in Los Angeles.

Dinosaur Joe
Lately, this museum has been in the news big time (including the New York Times yesterday), because of their newest fossil display: Dinosaur Joe.

Dinosaur Joe, if you haven't heard, is a baby Parasaurolophus--a type of duck-billed dinosaur with a tube-like crest on its head. It's ultra cool for several reasons:

1. It is a pretty complete specimen.

2. It's young, so it teaches us how the species matured (the baby dino has the beginnings of a crest on its head!).

3. It was passed over by seasoned paleontologists as a non-important bit of bone. It was a high school student that drew their attention to it so that the discovery could actually be made.

And that's what's really sets the Alf Museum apart from anyone else: their work with high schoolers. They are located on the campus of the Webb Schools--an international boarding school for grades 9-12--and often take in students to assist in the lab, in research, and out on digs. It's a great opportunity for students, and obviously a great opportunity for the museum! Without these students, Dinosaur Joe may have never been found.

The museum itself is really well put together. It's small, but it's filled to the brim with beautiful exhibits, fantastic educational experiences, and gorgeous fossils every where you turn. Designed as a loop to take you through time, it ranks among the best layouts I've ever seen for a museum of its size.

There are fossils of all sizes, all equally impressive, and one of the biggest collection of tracks and footprints I've ever seen. Not to mention beautiful (and sometimes fairly epic) art!

If you ever get a chance to swing by the area, make sure to stop in. You won't be let down (unlike the poor T. rex below).

Mammals' gotta eat, right?

Monday, October 28, 2013

Monthly Science Roundup #2

Once again an entire month managed to escape me! November should slow down, but in the meantime I have missed all of October's science updates and can't let that slide. So in the style of September's roundup, here are the top FOUR science stories of October, in no particular order:

1. Signals from the Big Bang

Hershel Space Observatory

Learning about the very beginning of the universe is obviously a bit of a challenge. But thanks to new data from the South Pole Telescope and the Herschel Space Observatory, science has taken another step closer to understanding the Big Bang.

When the Big Bang occurred, it left a radiation imprint on the universe, and a small percentage of this radiation occurs as polarized light. There are two modes of this light: E-modes and B-modes. We've found E-modes over a decade ago. B-modes have proven elusive, though, and--sadly--are also the version that would provide serious information on the initial gravitational waves that occurred during the massive "inflation" of the universe fractions of moments after the Big Bang.

But now they've detected some. As light twists, crossing the universe and getting deflected/pushed around by the gravity of galaxies and dark matter, it produces B-mode radiation. That's what has been now found, thanks to the work of many dedicated astronomers. What we're still waiting on is whether the even more primordial version of this B-mode radiation has been detected. That should be revealed in 2014.

2. Women Cave Painters

Turns out cave art wasn't a "guy thing", like has been predominately assumed. About three quarters of all cave paintings may have in fact been done by women, according to a new study.

By measuring the hand prints associated with cave paintings and analyzing them next to proportions of men and women's hands from populations of European descent, it was discovered that not only was there clear sexual dimorphism among the cave hand prints, there was also a predominance of female hands in the paintings.

These hand prints could mean anything, but a likely hypothesis is that they're used as an artist's signature. This gives an insight into early human culture that goes against common assumptions of gender roles in ancient groups. But it brings up a new question: why mostly women?

3. 441 New Amazon Species Discovered

On expeditions over the past four years have lead to the discovery of over four hundred new species in the Amazon rainforest. Of course, most of these are already in danger because of the environmental issues that region faces.

Among the new species include a piranha that doesn't eat meat, a flame-colored lizard, and perhaps most adorably, a monkey with babies that purr to one another. You read that correctly. Purring baby monkeys. If you get nothing else out of this blog post, I hope you at least have now smiled.

4. Single Species for ALL Early Humans?

Old American Museum of Natural History human evolution tree. Source.

This has been all over the news lately. A new skull has been found that has features so varying, that it seems to unite all species of early Homo (the genus of primate that humans belong to) into one single species. No more Homo rudolfensis vs Homo habilis. Just one united species.

First of all, the scoop: a new early human skull has been found in the Dmanisi region of Georgia. It's 1.8 million years in age, and is known as "Skull 5". It's preservation is spectacular. It's part of a group of skulls that are often thought of as the earliest Homo erectus, as it changed from Homo habilis.

Now take a look at the 2 million year mark on the picture above. See all the various "Homo" skulls at that time? They got split into different species based on features that are constantly argued over by paleoanthropologists. There's an age-old debate here.

Were these really different species? (Argument: modern primates have more than one species in their genus, why shouldn't we have had the same in prehistory?) Or were these different skulls all from one species that had a huge variation in skull shape? (Argument: species today can be wildly varying within their own bounds, so why not us?)

The new skull favors the second of the two arguments. And despite my eyebrow-raising at how it's been reported in the media (hype will always be hype), I'm not going to lie, this is very exciting stuff. The new skull has a variety of features shared with "different" species of Homo, young and old, and in particular, contemporary.

Basically, the traits of skull 5 should not all be in one skull. By our current understanding, and especially by the "different species" argument, they really shouldn't. And yet, here we are. Put it with the other skulls from the site, and it just makes it worse. None of that stuff should be together! Or so we thought.

John Hawks, anthropologist and web-blogger, sums it up best:

The entire early Homo sample has barely more variability than is found within the single Dmanisi site, at a single time.

What this means is that over the hundreds of thousands of years that Homo was kicking around as an early genus, at one single time at this one site, skulls have just as much variation among themselves as the entire lot of the rest of the stuff that's ever been found anywhere. Huh. Well then.

Imagine if you had never heard of Skittles, and then found a red Skittle. Maybe two. And then a couple days later, in a different place, you found a green Skittle. And maybe a week, later, a yellow Skittle in a different town. You might start assuming that each place has its own color Skittle, or that only certain colors show up at certain times. But then there's the day you discover an actual bag of Skittles. And you realize they all exist together. That's kind of what's happening here.

So it is a big deal. And it's messing with my brain, because I've always been a big fan of distinguishing Homo rudolfensis and Homo habilis. But as we've learned with Denisovans and Neanderthals, it is possible for different groups of humans to interbeed, even if they look different from one another or have other genetic distinctions. So there are ways of explaining this. I'm just not sure how to fold it into my personal version of our family tree just yet.


There were a ton of other cool stories this month that I wished I'd been able to highlight (one in particular, but I will get to that soon enough). Weekly Science Roundups will be back on track for November!

But first: SVP 2013.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

NaNoWriMo: The Best Thing Ever

In a slight deviation from my usual posts, I'm going to discuss something dear to my heart: NaNoWriMo.

For those who somehow have never heard this term before, NaNoWriMo stands for "National Novel Writing Month". The challenge: in one month (specifically, November), write 50,000 words of a new, original novel.

Now, the rules are often bent, and that's just fine. I think officially it's morphed a bit through the years and isn't as strict as it once was. But as a stickler for rules, I always followed them to the letter. I would plan, outline, and character sketch, but I wouldn't begin penning a word of my new story until November 1st hit. 

I have done NaNoWriMo for the past four years. I have won NaNoWriMo for the past four years (which means each year I hit 50K before November 30th). But I will not be doing NaNoWriMo this year.

Why am I making this decision? The answer is simple: I don't feel like NaNoWriMo can help me any more than it already has.

As an aspiring author, I started NaNo in 2009, hoping to get a full story down on the page so I could begin to seriously pursue my dream. I did that. It was such a successful and fulfilling way to write a novel, that I wrote a sequel to my NaNo novel in 60 days in Spring 2010. And I wrote the third in the series during NaNoWriMo 2010.

And then I paused. I had a lot of material. I had joined a writing group, and was getting into the nitty-gritty of revisions. I didn't really need more material.

So during 2011, I stopped writing and instead revised the heck out of my first NaNo novel. But the siren call of NaNoWriMo caught me by surprise that November, and I found myself writing a brand new story even though I had no real reason to do so. This time, it was completely unrelated to the trilogy of stories I'd already typed up. It was new, and fun, and different.

In fact, the "newness" of the story got me so excited, that I started another new story in Winter 2012... which I then abandoned in Spring 2012 when I found my real new story (aka, the one I've now polished to awesomeness and am currently agent-hunting with).

And even though I had found my Awesome Story earlier in 2012, I still couldn't resist NaNo and the allure of writing yet another new story. So in November 2012, I wrote sixth novel.

It was like an addiction. A wonderful one.

But it needs to stop. Six novels in four years is fabulous. But I don't need to turn that into seven by November 30th, 2013.

I'm working towards traditional publication, and NaNoWriMo is no longer useful in the way it once was. Back when I started, NaNoWriMo was exactly what I needed. A way to prove I could write an entire novel. A way to get over my finickiness and just get words down. A way to blow through a story from start to finish, and train my mind to think as a plotter in a pantser world.

NaNoWriMo taught me just how far I could push myself. (Record: 12K in one day.) NaNoWriMo taught me how to produce material under intense deadlines. NaNoWriMo became the model after which I did everything writing-related. It works for me.

...A terrifying deadline. A seemingly impossible goal. Go.

It's the perfect motivator for me. But I never would've known that if I hadn't taken up the challenge back in 2009, and I never would've known the satisfaction of creating an entire tale in a short stretch of time, either.

But now I know what I can do, and I've discovered that I can get just as much done when I establish my own personal deadlines as I do during November. So this year, I'm not doing NaNoWriMo. It won't give me what I need anymore. Right now, I need to shop my Awesome Story to agents. I also need to revise a NaNo from 2012. And I need to draft a particular novel that I've been promising my critique group I'd write for over a year now.

On that note, that's something else NaNo has taught me: not every book is right to draft in thirty days. Some work great. Others do not. The particular novel that I want to do next needs to be crafted into first draft-dom, and not vomited out like my others. It will be a new challenge, and it won't be possible to do in thirty days.

So, to sum up, NaNoWriMo is awesome and I encourage all aspiring writers to do it at least once. But as for me, I think I've reached the natural conclusion of my personal NaNo character-arc.

Some closing advice for anyone doing NaNo:

1. You can do it, even if you're doing other things with your life...to an extent. I worked full time each year I won. That said...

2. You will need to shut out most socialization. You need your evenings and weekends. You need those days off. Trust me. Just clear your calendar now.

3. Write during weird hours. Wake up earlier than normal. Or stay up later than normal. Get yourself something caffeinated, sit down at an odd time, and write. Because of the oddness, you won't immediately get yourself distracted with habitual Facebook checking, etc.

4. Prepare as much as you can beforehand, but don't be afraid to abandon your outline halfway through the month if you find your story going down a different road. Your characters will tell you where to go.

5. Do word sprints. If you're on Twitter, you can connect with others doing these. Or on the NaNo forums. 15 minutes can turn into 1000 words if you're racing someone else.

6. Don't worry if things aren't making sense. They won't. Your draft is going to S.U.C.K. and be riddled with plot holes. And that's fine, because no one will read that draft. You can revise it before showing anyone, if you ever chose to show people it at all.

7. When that unplanned character shows up at 25K? Let him in!

8. The first 10K are fun. The second 10K are difficult. The third 10K drag painfully, but keep pushing. The fourth 10K is where you'll start to feel like a writing robot. The fifth 10K...that's where it gets exhilarating.

9. Join the official NaNo site and enter your word count each day. It's so much fun to watch that little personal word graph climb! It's one of the only sources of satisfaction you will get for 30 days. Take it.

10. Never look back. If you stop to edit or revise, you lose precious time. Don't look back, don't delete. Just keep going. Revisions are what the other 11 months of the year are for.

Best of luck to anyone embarking on this adventure! And thank you, NaNoWriMo, for giving me the confidence to chase my dream.