palaeontology

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I switched on the radio this morning and fortuitously caught this morning’s edition of Science in Action.  The first item in the programme was Ida, the unlikely name given to Darwinius masillae, possibly the most over-hyped fossil in recent years (check my comments to my previous blog article for links to the growing controversy).

In the radio show, one of the authors of the paper speaks briefly, but is then followed by a series of contributors who basically say – while this is a spectacularly well-reserved fossil, no this isn’t quite as important as the media puffery would make out.  Steve Jones takes exception to the use of “missing link”.

You can listen to the show through BBC iPlayer (well, you can in the UK, and maybe elsewhere, given that this is the World Service) for the next week: Science in Action, Friday 22nd May (presumably I caught a repeat broadcast)..

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The news sites and blogs have reports of a new fossil found in Germany, a 47 million year old primate, named Darwinius masillae.  The quality of preservation of this fossil is extraordinary, and even reveals what its last meal was.  PZ Myers gives the lowdown at Pharyngula (Darwinius masillae).

Of course, there’s a major PR job going on about this – check out Ed Yong’s blog (Not Just Rocket Science – Darwinius changes everything) for a refreshing view.  John Wilkins (Evolving Thoughts -No, it’s not an ancestor either (probably)) questions statements that it’s the ancestor of all primates (he cites Science Daily).

The blogosphere’s pretty full of writing about Darwinius – some buys into the hype, others question it.  one thing’s for sure, it’s a damn fine fossil.  On the downside is the confusion the news coverage may engender in the public, with buzz-words/phrases like “missing link” and “oldest ancestor of humans” flying around.

I think the BBC News website (Scientists hail stunning fossil) strikes the correct balance with comments such as:

Dr Henry Gee, a senior editor at the journal Nature, said the term itself was misleading and that the scientific community would need to evaluate its significance.

The publication is accompanied by a David Attenborough fronted BBC TV programme!  (Makes my YouTube press release via the BBSRC look really rather puny!). If you’d like to read the paper, it is publishe din the open access journal PLoS One:

Franzen JL, Gingerich PD, Habersetzer J, Hurum JH, von Koenigswald W, et al. 2009 Complete Primate Skeleton from the Middle Eocene of Messel in Germany: Morphology and Paleobiology. PLoS ONE 4(5): e5723.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0005723

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Ed Yong has a nice discussion of a recent paper about a feathered dinosaur over at his blog (Not Exactly Rocket Science -Tianyulong – a fuzzy dinosaur that makes the origin of feathers fuzzier).  The neat thing with this fossil is that it suggests that the evolution of feathers might have been a stepwise process, and indeed their origins may have predated the the last common ancestor of the Saurischian and Ornithiscian dinosaurs (see figure below).

Distribution of feathers among dinosaur taxa

Distribution of feather-like structures among dinosaur taxa

One more example of how we are gradually accumulating more and more supporting evidence for evolutionary explanations of the origins of birds.  You can clearly see the feathery “filamentous integumentary structures” in the fossil: Read the rest of this entry »

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ResearchBlogging.orgIt’s often claimed that intermediary fossils representing stages in the divergence of extant taxa are absent from the fossil record.  Such claims are often made by those with a creationist bent, and in some cases on the back of spectacular ignorance of biology.  For example Adnan Oktar’s (he publishes bizarre anti-evolution tirades under the pen name Harun Yahya) stupid offer of several trillion Turkish Lira (apparently  many times the GDP of is home nation, Turkey) to anyone who can demonstrate an intemediary fossil.  Oktar’s concept of an intermediate fossil is of course quite bonkers (Richard Dawkins has an excellent demolition of this concept) in which intermediate forms are, for example, half starfish, half fish.  In reality, of course, intermediate fossils are known, though I suppose each gap filling fossil must generate two new gaps in the fossil record!

The evolution of birds from theropod reptiles is well established, from the fossil record (this being one of the great cases of transitional fossils), with many fossils notable for the presence of feathers.  This paper analyses fossilised footprint tracks, and interprets them as being made by reptiles of this type, and makes some interesting inferences on resting posture as well as the gait of these animals.  Trace fossils attributed to theropods are quite rare, and usually don’t include impressions made by resting animals.  In this case, the authors conclude that resting postures (which reflect the anatomical arrangements of limb and other joints) of theropods indicate avian characteristics much earlier that previously recognised. Read the rest of this entry »

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ResearchBlogging.orgTodays issue of Science contains a report on the identification of bipedal hominin footprints found at Ileret in Kenya.  Of course older hominid footprints, probably of Australopithecus arafensis, were found some years ago at Laetoli and have become iconic images.

The new discovery is of fossil footprints which are morphologically distinct from the much older Laetoli footprints, and are thought to have been left by Homo ergaster or Homo erectus. These footprints were found on two distinct strata at the site.  The authors have analysed the prints in detail using laser scanning.  Stride analysis of the tracks suggests the originators were about 1.75 to 1.76m tall (though there are some sequences of prints from a smaller individual), considerably larger than A.afarensis.  Some of the footprints (see panel B in the figure below) show well-preserved imprints of individual toes. Read the rest of this entry »

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