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

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

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)

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.

What makes Breslow's paper unique is the odd, brief, speculative tangent he gets into at the very end, a tangent which lead to me receiving a press release titled, "Could Advanced Dinosaurs Rule Other Planets?"

An
implication 
from
 this 
work 
is 
that
 elsewhere 
in
 the
 universe
 there
could be 
life
 forms
 based 
on 
D 
amino 
acids
 and 
L 
sugars,
 depending 
on 
the 
chirality
 of
circular
 polarized
 light
 in 
that 
sector
 of 
the 
universe
 or
 whatever 
other 
process 
operated 
to
 favor
 the
 L 
α‐methyl 
amino
 acids
 in 
the
 meteorites 
that 
have 
landed 
on
Earth. 

Such
 life
 forms
 could
 well
 be
 advanced
 versions
 of
 dinosaurs,
 if
 mammals
 did
 not
 have the 
good 
fortune 
to 
have
 the 
dinosaurs 
wiped 
out
 by 
an 
asteroidal
 collision,
as
on
 Earth. 
We
 would 
be
 better 
off 
not 
meeting 
them.

I suppose it's rather hard to argue with the basic thesis that we'd be better off not meeting a hyper-intelligent T. Rex. But at Dinosaur Tracking, Brian Switek attempts to explain why it's maybe not a great idea for chemists to randomly start pontificating on paleontology. In particular, the "rule" of the dinosaurs was not inevitable and was not dependent on the outcome of a single asteroid collision.

Prior to 250 million years ago, the synapsids—our ancestors and relatives—were the dominant creatures on land. But the apocalyptic extinction at the end of the Permian Period eliminated most synapsid lineages, in addition to many other forms of life. This clearing of the ecological slate is what allowed a different group of creatures to proliferate. Early archosaurs, or “ruling reptiles,” included the archaic forerunners of crocodiles, pterosaurs and dinosaurs, in addition to various groups now extinct, and these creatures dominated the Triassic.

Despite what has been traditionally told, though, the dinosaurian branch of the greater archosaur family tree didn’t immediately out-compete its neighbors. Eoraptor and Herrerasaurus were not the Triassic terrors they were cast as during the mid-1990s. For the most part, Triassic dinosaurs were small, rare, marginal parts of the ecosystems they inhabited. It was only after another mass extinction at the end of the Triassic, around 200 million years ago, that the competitors of early dinosaurs were removed and the reign of the dinosaurs truly began.

Image: Dinosaur, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from shvmoz's photostream

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!)

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!

"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.

My brother and I had scheduled one of our regular "geo trips" out west and learned that the Wyoming Dinosaur Center, a cool museum in Thermopolis, Wyoming, had somehow acquired an Archaeopteryx specimen (one of only 10 in the world) and would be placing it on display starting the week we were going to be in Wyoming. Thermopolis is located about 2 hours southeast of Yellowstone National Park, but that didn't stop us from driving the 5 hours from Laramie just to see it. It was fantastic! They had the actual fossil on display (I've heard that most of the big museums only display casts of the Archaeopteryx specimens they own). There were no crowds, no lines, no special exhibit fees, just the "Thermopolis specimen" in a small window display in a hallway leading to the main exhibit hall.

According to Wikipedia, Thermopolis got its archaeopteryx as a donation from a Swiss collector who'd previously owned the specimen. It's also worth noting that the Wyoming Dinosaur Center seems to loan out its archaeopteryx to other museums quite frequently. So, if you're in the area, and you want to see an archaeopteryx, you should probably check with the museum before you get your hopes up.

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?

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. These atoms have acted as menus and thermometers. Now, Fricke has turned them into maps.

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.

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.

Read the rest