I gave a TEDx talk late last year where I chatted about taphonomy and decay in the fossil record, in Japanese Buddhist paintings, and on Mars. If that sounds interesting to you, check out the video below!
What a week it's been for palaeontology in the news, especially related to taphonomy! There's a new paper on the taphonomy of the Cleveland-Llyod Dinosaur Quarry, a paper describing featherless patches of skin on Tyrannosaurus rex, and now a mid-Cretaceous 'bird' (avialan) hatchling has been found encased in Burmese amber!
The hatchling is from a now-extinct group of avialans called enantiornithines. It is a 'bird' in the broadest sense, but just not from the same lineage that modern-day birds belong to (the neornithes).
The preservation of this specimen is fantastic. The right foot is clearly visible with the podotheca, claw sheathes, and feathers still intact. More difficult to see is the head and neck of this hatchling, but with the help of micro-CT and x-ray, Xing et al. (2017) show that they are present and also well preserved.
How did this hatchling end up in a lump of amber? Amber is preserved tree sap or resin, and while tiny animals such as insects are normally the victims of sticky-sap entrapment, small vertebrates such as frogs, lizards, and (as described by the same authors in a previous paper) a small dinosaur or bird tail have also been known to get caught in ancient resin. As for this hatchling, the authors propose that only part of the body was covered in resin (either during or soon after death), with the rest of the body remaining uncovered and exposed to the elements. Later, a second resin flow covered the remainder of the body.
Xing, L., O'Connor, J. K., McKellar, R. C., Chiappe, L. M., Tseng, K., Li, G., Bai, M., 2017. A mid-Cretaceous enantiornithine (Aves) hatchling preserved in Burmese amber with unusual plumage. doi: 10.1016/ j.gr.2017.06.001
A white-tail deer has been caught on camera eating human remains.
The remains were part of a taphonomic experiment at the Forensic Anthropology Research Facility (FARF) in Texas, USA, where they were studying what types of scavengers visit human carcasses. They were left uncovered with cameras photographing anything that came to scavenge them. Imagine being the person reviewing those images, expecting to see coyotes, or racoons, or turkey vultures, and instead uncovering the first recorded instance of human bone-munching deer.
I think what's more creepy is that the deer is chewing on a human rib, and then STARES AT THE CAMERA. "Yeah, that's right. Now you know, and I know you know..."
Image from Meckel et al. (2017).
This is not the first case of a classically herbivorous (plant-eating) animal eating bones from rotting carcasses--a behaviour called osteophagy--but it is the first time a deer has been captured nibbling on human remains.
Herbivorous animals practice osteophagy when they need more phosphate, calcium, and other nutrients in their diet. Porcupines, giraffes, cows, and even tortoises have been seen chewing on bones, most often already dry and easily accessible bones like ribs.
When recording traces of tooth-marks on bones in the modern, archaeological, or palaeontological record, it is important to remember that not all scavengers that interact with carcasses are trying to consume flesh. And that while carnivorous scavengers typically eat soft tissue and fresh bone leaving behind puncture holes and pits, bone-eating herbivores chew on the ends of older bones with teeth normally used to eat plants leaving behind long scores and forked splinters.
The end of the deer-chewed human rib. After the researchers saw the photographs of the deer visiting the human carcass, they raced out to find the bones it had left behind. Image from Meckel et al. (2017).
Meckel, L. A., McDaneld, C. P., Wescott, D. J., 2017. White-tailed Deer as a Taphonomic Agent: Photographic Evidence of White-tailed Deer Gnawing on Human Bone. DOI: 10.1111/1556-4029.13514.
Have you ever stumbled across a bone, perhaps while walking around the city or countryside, and wondered what type of bone it is, and what animal it belonged to? Maybe you're unsure if you're looking at left-over soup bones, or have found the first evidence of a rare species in your area. If so, have a look at this new database of bone photographs called BoneID.
The database is in its early days, so at the moment it only has images of mainly North American animal bones. But is still interesting to browse the website and see the variation in bone shapes between alligators, owls, and raccoons. You can always search their Facebook group page to see if other bone enthusiasts can help you with your bone identification.
Image of the BoneID 'Search' webpage. You can browse the photo collection by species or order, bone type, view angle, or geographic location.
If you have any images of animal bones you can send to the website creator, photographed from standard anatomical angles (anterior, posterior, cranial, caudal, lateral, inferior, superior, etc.), then be sure to let them know! I have quite a few saltwater crocodile bone photos I'll be sending their way...
They've done it again! The fabulous creators at Corkboard of Curiosities has a very clear and succinct run down of cladistics - how we determine which groups of animals are more closely related to one another. Head over there to find out how!
Image by Nate Carroll and Tammi Heneveld
How have I only just recently heard about the palaeontology themed comic, Corkboard of Curiosities? Given my obsession with both palaeontology and cabinets of curiosity... I'll blame my lack of awareness on working too hard on my PhD.
Now, enjoy their primer on Pterosaurs: how they aren't dinosaurs, and they certainly didn't have bat-like wings, and more! And click this link to go to the Corkboard of Curiosities website and enjoy more of their palaeontological comics.
Images via Corkboard of Curiosities
Complex but beautiful!
This incredible cartoon of vertebrate evolution was created by Albertonykus over at DeviantArt. Taxa that are still living today are coloured in, with extinct taxa left uncoloured. If you want to see a high resolution version of this image, click here (PNG)! This is a 'simplified' version of a phylogenetic tree also drawn by Albertonykus, which you can find here.
After attending the SVP conference in Berlin in November 2014, I was fortunate enough to travel around Germany and Switzerland visiting various natural history museums. It was a palaeontologists dream holiday! Over the coming months I'll write up reviews of these museums. First up, the Naturhistorisches Museum Basel.
Naturhistorisches Museum - Basel, Switzerland
Although a little more expensive than the German natural history museums I'd visited previously, if you find yourself in Basel, Switzerland, the Naturhistorisches Museum Basel is a worthwhile visit.
Built in 1842-49 by Melchior Berri, the Naturhistorisches Museum is a gorgeous mix of columns and colours. The building is listed as a heritage site of national significance on the Swiss Inventory of Cultural Property of National and Regional Significance.
The collections cover a range of topics, from zoology and entomology, to mineralogy, anthropology, osteology and palaeontology. I spent most of my time wandering the fossil galleries: while there is a hall devoted to dinosaur fossils and replicas, mammal fossils aren't left out, with large areas devoted to elephant and horse evolution as well as some lovely Chalicotherium and Megantereon models.
The display information in the dinosaur hall is perfect for school kids, where the information in the mammal fossil halls are a little more in depth. Well, from what I could tell, as I can barely read any German!
So if you are interested in zoology or palaeontology, and are particularly fond of mammal fossils, I'd recommend a visit to the Naturhistorisches Museum Basel.
Naturhistorisches Museum Basel
CH 4051 Basel
Tel.: +41 61 266 55 00
Open Tues-Sun, 10am to 5pm.
Here's a great summary of some major palaeontological discoveries, from the 6th century B.C. to today!
Image by Arcovenator
I've created a new segment on this blog: Fossil ReadMe.
Ever noticed the 'readme.txt' files that always accompany newly installed software? If you read it, you'd find useful information helping you understand the software you just installed.
The Fossil ReadMe segment will function like a readme.txt file – providing background information required to understand the wider world of palaeontology. It will provide short reviews and links to books and/or documentaries which are useful to anyone interested in fossils. These reviews won't be restricted just to recently published books or documentaries, but all useful sources of palaeo-knowledge.
The first installment of Fossil ReadMe is:
Dinosaurs and Other Mesozoic Reptiles of California, by Richard P. Hilton.
I've been reading a copy of 'Dinosaurs and Other Mesozoic Reptiles of California' that I picked up from Powell's Bookstores in Chicago. I have to admit I was surprised that I hadn't heard of Californian dinosaurs before, and in the preface, the author describes meeting a prominent geologist who thought that "perhaps" some dinosaurs had been found in California! So it's understandable that the author thought the book was sorely needed.
The first half of the book forms a great primer for understanding plate tectonics and dinosaur taxonomy before delving into more California-specific text. I'd recommend it to anyone interested in understanding the basics of geology and palaeontology, as well as those interested in the Mesozoic geological and vertebrate history of California.
The second half of the book details the history of Mesozoic reptile fossil discoveries in California. Hilton has included short biographies of the men and women who found fossils and funded expeditions, as well as field notes from his own expeditions.
This book is a great read: clear and concise without 'dumbing down' complicated geological and taxonomic theory. Check it out!
Hilton, R. P. 2003. Dinosaurs and Other Mesozoic Reptiles of California. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 356 pages.
About the author
Dr Caitlin Syme is a palaeontologist studying the taphonomy (preservation state) of fossil non-avian dinosaurs, crocodiles and fish from the Winton Formation, Queensland, Australia. Think forensic science or CSI for fossils, and you're on the right track!
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