David Pogue, Neanderthal

On the Wednesday edition of NOVA scienceNOW, David Pogue walks the streets of San Francisco in Neanderthal drag. Above, a actual clip from the upcoming hour, "What Makes Us Human?," in which the tech writer turned PBS host explores our relationship with Neanderthals, after being made up like a Neanderthal based on instructions from Daniel Lieberman, a paleoanthropologist from Harvard. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall during that shoot!

What Makes Us Human? premieres Wednesday, October 10 at 10PM/9c on PBS. (Thanks, Paula Apsell) Read the rest

Ancient spider never gets to finish dinner

This is a spider, which was encased in tree sap while in the act of attacking a wasp. The sap turned to amber, leaving an incredible preserved scene, with even individual strands of silk from the spider's web remaining unbroken for 100 million years.

The paper this is taken from (sits behind a paywall, unfortunately)

Learn more about the preservation of bugs in amber at the website for NOVA's "Jewell of the Earth" documentary Read the rest

Fossils in storage: How do you sort through the backlog?

Yesterday, I posted about Pegomastax africanus, a parrot-like dinosaur whose fossil was discovered not in a remote waste in some far corner of the world, but in a rock that had sat in storage at Harvard University for 50 years.

In the post, I tried to explain why something like that could happen. The simple fact of the matter: A successful archaeological or paleontological dig will produce far more material than the original scientists have time (or money) to sort through, process, and examine. So lots of stuff ends up sitting in storage.

That led BoingBoing reader Matt Fedorko to some interesting speculation:

"...This seems like a perfect opportunity to exploit 3D scanning technology to put the shapes of fossils, at least, into some kind of digital storage area where other researchers could look at a dig's haul and start to work with them spatially, or beside any of the other data that is collected in the field or logged during the cataloging procedure."

Now, Charles Q. Choi, a journalist who wrote about the discovery of Pegomastax africanus, says that Matt's idea isn't all that far-fetched. In fact, scientists already do something like this with the fossils that do get closely examined. Read the rest

Cool ceramic jewelry for scientists, skeptics, and fossil lovers

A friend pointed me today toward the awesome work of Surly Amy (aka Amy Davis Roth), who makes really neat ceramic jewelry with science/skeptic themes. Some of her pieces are really simple and not super artsy—a pendant that says "This is what an atheist looks like", for instance. That's fine, but it's not the stuff I'm super excited about.

Instead, I really dig Roth's work that focuses on archaeology and paleontology—like a necklace printed with the silhouette of an archaeopteryx fossil on a crackled background that makes me think of broken stone; earrings decorated with ammonites; and a kick-ass bracelet that manages to make trilobites look just a little punk rock.

I also enjoyed reading Roth's bio on her Etsy page. It's long, but the two key takeaways are great:

1. I'm not as surly as I used to be. 2. Life is hard and it often sucks but sometimes, if you keep trying, things will get better!

Surly-Ramics wearable art Read the rest

Dinosaurs didn't only live in jungles

And they probably didn't drag their massive tails along the ground, either. At The Guardian, Dave Hone debunks some of the most common dinosaur myths. (Via Mark Becker) Read the rest

The threat of intelligent space dinosaurs

Chirality is an interesting concept. The best way to explain it quickly is an analogy to being left-handed or right-handed. Molecules don't have hands, but they do have an inherent orientation that can be compared to having a dominant hand that you do most of your work with. Sugars are mostly right-handed. Amino acids: Left-handed.

But here's where things get weird: It doesn't have to be that way. In fact, given the randomness and chance through which evolution works, it would make more sense for there to be a lot more diversity in orientation.

All of this backstory is important so that I can tell you about the most hilarious non sequitur I've encountered in 2012.

Chemist Ronald Breslow has a new paper out in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, where he talks about why chirality might be the way it is. For the most part, his ideas are not unreasonable ones. Breslow thinks that life on Earth—and we're talking about life in its simplest forms, like molecules, not actual creatures—could have been "seeded" by material that fell to the planet on an asteroid. The idea is that, if the building blocks of life came from one place—a meteor fall—rather than arising and adapting here, it could explain why there's not the diversity of molecular "handedness" that we might otherwise expect to see.

In fact, in related news, there's another paper out suggesting that Earth could have paid that gift of life forward, with potentially microbe-and-molecule-laden rocks from here traveling far into interstellar space. Read the rest

The song about the song of the Jurassic cricket

Last week, we learned that scientists had reconstructed the song of a Jurassic-era cricket. This week, song-a-day impresario Jonathan Mann has written a ballad to that lonely insect and its ancient quest for love.

Video Link (with lyrics!) Read the rest

The song of a Jurassic cricket

Re-creation of Jurassic Cricket song, from Bristol University in the UK by qparker

Listen to this recording. It sounds a little like Sputnik, but it's actually a noise that's not been heard in 165 million years.

This is the song of an extinct species of bush cricket, the fossils of which have been found in China's Inner Mongolia region. Researchers recreated the sound by studying the fossil remains of the crickets' sound-producing organs. From the BBC:

A "plectrum" on one wing was dragged along a microscopic comb-like structure on the other. This produces a continuous "chirp" as the male insects rub, or "stridulate" their wings in a scissor-like motion. Dr Zapata described this stridulation as similar to playing a tiny violin.

Dr Zapata then set out to calculate the frequency of the tone, which denotes how high- or low-pitched it sounded. To to this, he simply compared the size and shape of its music-making or "stridulatory" instruments to those of living cricket species

There are modern bush crickets, but their songs are played at a higher pitch. The low tones produced by this extinct cricket imply that it might have been best adapted to do its singing on the ground, rather than elevated on branches or tall stalks of grass. Lower pitched sounds travel further from that elevation than a high-pitched one would.

Read the full paper at PNAS

Thanks for Submitterating, arkle! Read the rest

"My Favorite Museum Exhibit": An Archaeopteryx in Wyoming

"My Favorite Museum Exhibit" is a series of posts aimed at giving BoingBoing readers a chance to show off their favorite exhibits and specimens, preferably from museums that might go overlooked in the tourism pantheon. I'll be featuring posts in this series all week. Want to see them all? Check out the archive post. I'll update the full list there every morning.

For children of a certain nerdy persuasion, "archaeopteryx" is liable to be the first five-syllable word they ever pronounce. That's because archaeopteryx was a dinosaur with feathers, and wings. The first specimen was uncovered in 1861, and most of us probably grew up being told that archaeopteryx was the first bird. That isn't exactly true. Today, most paleontologists say it wasn't the ancestor of the birds we know, but rather a relative of that ancestor—a lower branch of the bird family tree that died away. That said, archaeopertyx is still incredibly important to our understanding of what the earliest birds might have been like, and archaeopteryx specimens are still incredibly rare, coveted things.

There are only 11 archaeopteryx specimens in the entire world, all hailing from one region of Germany. Most of them are in museums in Europe. But one archaeopteryx—in fact, one of the best-preserved of the bunch—resides in a tiny museum in Thermopolis, Wyoming. For the artistically inclined: Imagine running across a second, legit version of the Mona Lisa in a small museum in Wyoming with no crowds and no lines. In 2007, reader Mark Ryan and his brother got to see the Thermopolis archaeopteryx and took the photo of it posted here. Read the rest

Museum photos: Mummified Ice-Age bison

Kirk Johnson is a paleobotanist at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. He took this photo at the University of Alaska Museum during a recent trip to Fairbanks.

What you're looking at is a mummified bison from the Ice Age. It was frozen in solid soil and uncovered by gold miners who were artificially thawing out the surrounding Earth in 1979. There are claw and tooth marks in the mummy that have allowed scientists to finger the bison's killer: An American lion.

This is really cool, and it gives me an idea: There are lots of relatively small, locally oriented museums all over the country, harboring neat finds like this. Unlike places like the Smithsonian or New York's American Museum of Natural History, these museums don't draw in huge crowds of tourists from faraway cities, so most of us don't even know about the treasures stored there—let alone ever get to see them.

So here's my challenge to you: Visit your local science and natural history museums, photograph your favorite exhibit, and send me the pictures—along with any nifty information you picked up from reading the labels and signs. I'm at maggie.koerth@gmail.com. What beloved specimen do you want the world to know about? Read the rest

A dinosaur's teeth can be a map of its travels

Bones can tell you a lot about a creature, but there's much more they can't tell you. Bones are not behavior. We know what the skeletons of dinosaurs looked like. But there's a great deal about their appearance and behavior that we can only guess at.

Sometimes, though, bones can surprise you. Sometimes, they carry secrets locked inside. At Not Exactly Rocket Science, Ed Yong writes about a new study that's uncovered evidence about dinosaur behavior, using information stored in the dinosaurs' teeth. The paper suggests that the North American Camarasaurus had a seasonal migration.

Reptiles replace their teeth throughout their lives and the dinosaurs would have been no different. Whenever they drank, they incorporated oxygen atoms from the water into the enamel of their growing teeth. Different bodies of water contain different mixes of oxygen isotopes, and the dinosaurs’ enamel records a history of these blends. They were what they drank.

It’s easy enough to measure the levels of oxygen isotopes in dinosaur teeth, but you need something to compare that against. How could anyone possibly discern the levels of such isotopes in bodies of water that existed millions of years ago? Local rocks provide the answer. The oxygen also fuelled the growth of minerals like calcium carbonate (limestone), which preserve these ancient atoms just as dinosaur teeth do. If dinosaur enamel contains a different blend of oxygen to the surrounding carbonates, the place where the animal drank must be somewhere different from the place where it died.

Palaeontologists have used oxygen isotopes to infer all manner of dinosaur traits, from the fish-eating habits of spinosaurs to the hot body temperatures of sauropods to the chilly conditions endured by Chinese dinosaurs.

Read the rest

Meet a paleontologist

What does a scientist do all day? The Smithsonian's Matthew Carrano explains his job as a paleontologist, what he hopes to discover, and why he made a career out of dinosaurs. Read the rest

Crocodile bites human ancestor

Oldupai Gorge in Tanzania is kind of the human race's institute of higher learning. It was one of the places where our ancient ancestors congregated and changed. And it's become famous for the quantity and variety of fossil remains it still holds, giving us way more information about human evolution than we otherwise would have had. We're all alumni of OGU.

But we aren't alone. Other creatures lived in Oldupai besides proto-humans. Some were our food. And some, it seems, might have fed on us.

Crocodylus anthropophagus—that's "man-eating crocodile" for those keeping score at home—lived 1.84 million years ago. Technically, scientists can't say for sure that C. anthropophagus was actually killing people, but there is good, solid evidence that it at least gnawed on them a bit. In a newly published paper researchers analyzed a fossil left foot and a left leg that had once belonged to early hominids and which bear the marks of crocodile teeth. These fossils were found relatively close to fossils of C. anthropophagus. It's not exactly a smoking gun, but it does provide some evidence that the crocodile species and the hominids who'd been bitten by crocodiles lived around the same place and time. Correlation is not causation, but it does wink suggestively, and perhaps flash its sharp teeth.

This paper is a bit weird in that it was accepted for publication back in 2008, but only published this month. In the meantime, a paper that used this research as a source was actually published first. Read the rest