Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Bayn Zag - The Flaming Cliffs

More photos from this summer's Gobi trip run through Nomadic Expeditions. If you'd like to join me for two weeks next August digging up dinos in the Gobi check out the Nomadic web page.

The Flaming Cliffs at mid-afternoon.

Camel rides make for a full, but odd, experience at the Cliffs.

Victoria Arbour (U Alberta) shows off her skills.

Tom Owen was the official photographer for the camel rides

The kids at the camel ride ger sold handicrafts.

Miriam (U Alberta) & her camel.

Ito shows off the Velociraptor he found at the Cliffs.

Clive Coy and Eva Koppelhus wait for the sun to go down.

At the 'golden hour' of sunset Bayn Zag does indeed burst into flames!

Phil and Eva examine a partial Protoceratops.

An obo (shrine) on top of the cliffs.

Born This Day: Sir John William Dawson

October 30, 1820 - November 20, 1899

Dawson was a Canadian geologist who made numerous contributions to paleobotany and extended the knowledge of Canadian geology. Dawson was born and raised in Pictou, Nova Scotia, where the many sandstone and coal formations provided fertile ground for his first scientific explorations, which culminated in the publication of Acadian Geology. He made many important discoveries of fossil life, great and small. These included fossil plants, trackways of lowly invertebrates, footprints, skeletons of reptiles and amphibians, millipedes and the earliest land snails. When the famous geologist Charles Lyell visited coal deposits in Pictou, Dawson acted as his guide.

In 1851, Dawson and Lyell teamed up again to examine the interiors of fossil tree trunks at Joggins, Nova Scotia. They discovered the remains of some of the earliest known reptiles, Hylonomus lyelli, along with other rare fossils, propelling this part of the world into the international spotlight.

Dawson became principal of McGill College in Montreal in 1854, which he made into a reputable institution. He remained there, teaching geology and palaeontology and acting as librarian, until his retirement. One of his lifelong dreams was realized in 1882 when Peter Redpath gave money to McGill for the construction and establishment of a museum, naming Dawson as director. Today the Peter Redpath Museum of Natural History houses many specimens from Dawson's personal collection.

Info from HERE and HERE. Images from HERE and HERE.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Burrowing Dinos

From Sid Perkins at Science News:

Paleontologists in Montana have unearthed an ancient, sediment-filled burrow that holds remains of the creatures that dug it. The find is the first indisputable evidence that some dinosaurs maintained an underground lifestyle for at least part of their lives.

Excavation revealed that the sandstone mass was S-shaped and about 2.1 meters long. For most of its length, the sinuous feature had an oval cross section about 30 cm wide and about 40 cm tall. However, at its lower end it broadened to a width of 45 cm. Varricchio and his colleagues propose that the anomalous mass of sandstone represents a sudden influx of material that filled in a burrow, trapping its occupants.

Varricchio and his colleagues dubbed the new species Oryctodromeus cubicularis, which, in Greek, means "digging runner of the lair." They reported their find at the recent meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology in Austin, Texas.
Varricchio, D., A. Martin, and Y. Katsura. 2007. Burrowing behavior in a new ornithopod dinosaur from the mid Cretaceous of Montana. Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting. Oct. 17-20. Austin, Texas. Also in Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 27 [Supplment to No. 3): 162A.
Thanks to Sukie C!

Born This Day: Othniel Marsh

Marsh (center)
Oct. 29, 1831 - March 18, 1899

From Today In Science History:

Marsh was an American paleontologist who discovered and described 100’s of new fossil species. He made extensive scientific explorations of the western U.S. and contributed greatly to knowledge of extinct North American vertebrates. Marsh spent only four seasons in the field, between 1870 and 1873.

"The Great Bone Wars," were the result of his rivalry with Edward Drinker Cope, America's other great vertebrate paleontologist of the period. Each scientist hired field crews to unearth and ship back fossils as fast as possible. The rival crews were known to spy on each other, dynamite their own and each other's secret localities (to keep their opponents from digging there), and occasionally steal each other's fossils.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Red-headed Neanderthals

A Melanocortin 1 Receptor Allele Suggests Varying Pigmentation Among Neanderthals. 2007. Carles Lalueza-Fox, et al. Science Express, Oct 25, 2007.

Anthro © DC Comics
From the press release:

Ancient DNA retrieved from the bones of two Neanderthals suggests that at least some of them had red hair and pale skin. The international team says that Neanderthals' pigmentation may even have been as varied as that of modern humans, and that at least 1 percent of Neanderthals were likely redheads.

The scientists extracted, amplified, and sequenced a pigmentation gene called MC1R from the bones of a 43,000-year-old Neanderthal from El Sidrón, Spain, and a 50,000-year-old individual from Monti Lessini, Italy.

"Together with other genes, this MC1R gene dictates hair and skin color in humans and other mammals," says Römpler. "The two Neanderthal individuals we studied showed a point mutation not seen in modern humans. When we induced such a mutation in human cells, we found that it impaired MC1R activity, a condition that leads to red hair and pale skin in modern humans."

With Neanderthals' surviving bones providing few clues, scientists have long sought to flesh out the appearance of this hominid species found across Eurasia some 28,000 to 400,000 years ago. While anthropologists had predicted that Neanderthals might have had pale skin or red hair, the new work by Römpler and colleagues offers the first strong evidence to support this hunch.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

UT Austin CT Facility

I'm pretty busy this week but here's an update from Eric Snively who stayed in Austin after the SVP to do some CT work at UT:

The CT facility at the University of Texas at Austin (CT at UT) has benefitted palaeo- and neontology since it came into operation 10 years ago. At this year's SVP meeting, Drs. Matt Colbert and Jessie Maisano held a workshop with enlightening guidance for CT scanning, at Austin and elsewhere. They also scanned Gobekko cretacicus skulls for Aaron Bauer (Villanova University), Magdalena Borsuk-Bialynicka (Polish Academy of Sciences), and myself.

Here are photographs of the operation behind so much great science and imagery. Not depicted are the facility's official Palaeoblog awards for Best Music and Coolest Work Lighting of any CT lab anywhere.

CT wrangler Dr. Matt Colbert prepares specimens for scanning
in the giant brown box to the right, built by Bio-Imaging Research.

The scanner itself consists in part of a detector (left), turntable on which smaller specimens are placed (middle), and x-ray source (right).

Much fancier monitors than previously. (I'm sure Eric is referring to the computer moniters!)

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Ancient Bats Could Not Echolocate

Kamandi © DC Comics
From Nature News comes this report from this year’s SVP conference in Austin, TX.

The most primitive bat ever discovered is finally being scientifically reported from two fossils, years after the first fossil was found and snapped up by a private collector. The 52.5-million-year-old bat unusually had a claw on all five digits of each limb, earning it the nickname '20-clawed bat'. Its anatomy shows that it captured its prey without the use of echolocation — the strongest evidence yet that some bats flew before this skill evolved.

Read the whole story of the discovery and purchase of the new material from commercial collectors HERE

Chinese Dam Saves Dino Fossils

From News.Cn:

Workers have spent three years building a huge earth dam to protect valuable dinosaur bones from being washed away by one of China's most famous rivers. A horde of dinosaur bones lies buried in a mountain that sits right on the river that forms the boundary between China and Russia - the Heilongjiang River. So far, thousands of dinosaur fossil bones have been unearthed from the mountain and assembled into 13 dinosaur skeletons, which are now exhibited in several museums nationwide.

Archaeologists believe there are enough fossil bones buried in the mountain to put together at least 100 more dinosaur skeletons. Every summer, rising waters and strong currents erode parts of the mountain, leaving dinosaur fossils exposed. Many fossils have been washed away in the past. So the Land and Resources Department of Heilongjiang Province ordered the building of a 1,450-meter-long embankment on the Chinese bank of the river to stop the fossils being washed away.

Building the embankment has been hard, with workers battling cold and long winters at a high altitude in China's cold northernmost province. Rising water levels in the summer also limit construction times, and it has taken workers three years to complete the 1,450-meter-long, 5.5-meter-high and 10-meter wide embankment around the dinosaur fossil site.

Dinosaur Mountain, which used to be called Mountain of Dinosaur Bones, is inside Jiayin Dinosaur National Geologic Park at Jiayin County, northeast China's Heilongjiang Province.

Created This Day: The Earth

From Today In Science History:

In 4004 BC, according to biblical interpretation by church leaders in 1650, the Earth was supposed to have been created.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Oldest Known Reptile Tracks Found In NB

From National Geographic News:

The footprints are preserved in sediments in New Brunswick, Canada, that lay nearly a kilometer deeper than the oldest known (315 Ma) reptile bones—which suggests they were made by an animal that lived one to three million years earlier.

Howard Falcon-Lang from the U.K.'s University of Bristol said it was lucky that his team even found the fossil. The slab of rock had fallen from a remote stretch of sea cliffs, and a low sun shining across the surface cast revealing shadows.

Distinctive digits told the tale. Because the tracks showed five fingers and some evidence of scales, they had to have been made by a reptile, the team reports in a recent issue of the Journal of the Geological Society of London.

Futalognkosaurus dukei

Image by Academia Brasileira de Ciencias/Handout/Reuters
From National Geographic News:

The third largest dinosaur fossil ever found has been unearthed in the Patagonia region of Argentina by a team of Brazilian and Argentine paleontologists. The fossil likely represents a new dinosaur species dating back 90 million years, and it is among the most complete ever found of a large dino, the scientists said.

The giant herbivore measured 32 to 34 meters long, stood as tall as a four-story building, and weighed 60 to 70 tons.

Researchers named the dinosaur Futalognkosaurus dukei, meaning "giant chief of the dinosaurs" in the Mapuche language, and the second being a nod to the Duke Energy Corporation, a sponsor of the excavation.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Today In History: Darwin Goes To School (Almost)

From Today In Science History:

In 1827, Charles Darwin was accepted into Christ's College at Cambridge, but did not start until winter term because he needed to catch up on some of his studies. He had entered the University of Edinburgh in 1825 to study medicine, intending to follow his father Robert's career as a doctor. However, Darwin found himself unenthusiastic about his studies, including that of geology. Disappointing his family that he gave up on a medical career, he left Edinburgh without graduating in April 1827. His scholastic achievements at Cambridge were unremarkable, but after graduation, Darwin was recommended by his botany professor to be a naturalist to sail on HM Sloop Beagle

Saturday, October 13, 2007


Tetsuto Miyashita recently gave me copies of this new manga series that he had picked up in Japan.

Yuta of the Lands of Dragons - Story of Another World of Dinosaurs” by author and artist Juzo Tokoro is set in the Late Cretaceous of western North America.

The young hero, Yuta, is eager to become a dragon (dinosaur) master. After a series of adventures with both people and dinosaurs he discoveres he has a special sense – to read dinosaurs' minds!

According to Tetsuto, “the author is a keen Japanese amateur palaeontologist, and his insightful ideas about dinosaurs are everywhere in the books. Note that Dromaeosaurus is hopping, ceratopsids have holes in their frills, juvenile tyrannosaurids are feathered... etc. He had to compromise the setting a little bit so that he can put dinosaurs from Campanian and some Asian dinosaurs. He keeps it updated as he already made Albertaceratops and Dracorex pay their debuts in vol. 3. Gregarious Albertosaurus and Gorgosaurus are based on the bonebed of Albertosaurus in Dry Island, Alberta. Volume 5 is out now in Japan.”

What I like about the series are the dino fact sheets interspersed amongst the stories. Here are a couple of examples:

Click image to enlarge

The Trouble With The Neanderthal Genome

Inconsistencies in Neanderthal genomic DNA sequences. 2007. Wall JD, Kim SK., PLoS Genet 3(10): e175.

2001 © Marvel Comics. Art by Jack Kirby.
Were Neanderthals direct ancestors of contemporary humans or an evolutionary side branch that eventually died out? This is one of the enduring questions in human evolution as scientists explore the relationship of fossil groups, such as Neanderthals, with people alive today. Two recent papers describing the sequencing of Neanderthal nuclear DNA from fossil bone held promise for finally answering this question (see below). However, the two studies came to very different conclusions regarding the ancestral role of Neanderthals. Jeffrey D. Wall and Sung K. Kim from University of California San Francisco now reveal in PLoS Genetics what they found when they reanalyzed the data from the two original studies.

Wall and Kim’s reanalysis reveals inconsistencies between them and they believe that possible contamination with modern human DNA and/or a high rate of sequencing errors compromised the findings of one of the original Neanderthal DNA studies. The authors therefore recommend that we carefully evaluate published and future data before arriving at any firm conclusions about human evolution.
Noonan JP, Coop G, Kudaravalli S, Smith D, Krause J, et al. Sequencing and analysis of Neanderthal genomic DNA. Noonan JP, Coop G, Kudaravalli S, Smith D, Krause J, et al. Science 314: 1113-1118.

Analysis of one million base pairs of Neanderthal DNA. 2006. Green RE, Krause J, Ptak SE, Briggs AW, Ronan MT, et al. Nature 444: 330-336.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Nomadic Expedition Gobi Trip Photos 4

Ukha Tolgod

Once the remote locality that producued Mononykus and other new dinosaur taxa, Ukha Tolgod is now just one more stop on the tour of the Gobi. Just how productive it is can be evidenced by all the poached quarries in this tiny bit of outcrop.

Phil and crew check out the bits picked up during our hour or so stop. Since it's an AMNH research locality we just looked around but did not collect anything - the poachers had got all the significant material anyways.

Just some of the various types of eggshell seen at the site.

One of the lizards I haven't checked to id yet.

Julia poses at the site of "Big Mama", the oviraptorid + nest.

Aleg Teg

Aleg Teg has been the site of an on-going project to collect and describe new Pinacosaurus material. The locality was worked by the Russians back in the 70's and numerous other crews have been through over the years.

We were more than devastated this year to see that poachers had come and trashed the grid areas that we had excavated last year. On the plus side, we had removed most of the material from these areas so they probably did not get much. We were disheartened enough to abandon our work there for this year.

The tell-tale signs of poaching: empty water and cyanoacrylite bottles, white cotton gloves, and cigarate packages.

We salvaged what we could from the site and moved on....

Hongorin Els (The 'Singing Sands' Dunes)

Jumping out of sequence a bit, here are some photos from the end of trip en route back to the Three Camel Lodge via the Hongrin els dunes. This is a lunch break spot, chosen because of the bushes around that provided a spot for a bathroom break - very important on the overwise flat, barren gobi!

Victoria and Miriam celebrate our arrival at the pass through the dunes.

The soothing sands comfort Nick's head - still recovering from the previous night's wrap-up 'happening'.

Our very own "What, Me Worry" student, Miriam, shows off the bedding planes in the dunes. The Hongorin Els dunes (over 100 km long and probably visible from space) are feed by the erosion of a 10000+ year old dune system on the opposite side of the pass. (Yes, I know els=dunes)

Why Fish Are Different Than People

The amniote primitive streak is defined by epithelial cell intercalation before gastrulation. 2007. O. Voiculescu et al. Nature: published online 10 October 2007.

From the press release:

Embryologists have helped solve an evolutionary riddle that has been puzzling scientists for over a century. They have identified a key mechanism in the initial stages of an embryo’s development that helps differentiate more highly evolved species, including humans, from less evolved species, such as fish.

The Sea Devils © DC Comics
Early on in development, the mass of undifferentiated cells that make up the embryo must take the first steps in deciding how to arrange themselves into component parts to eventually go on to form a fully developed body. This is a process known as ‘gastrulation’. During this stage, the cells group into three layers, the first is the ‘ectoderm’ which then in turn generates the ‘mesoderm’ and ‘endoderm’ layers. In higher vertebrates, such as mammals and birds, the mesoderm and endoderm are generated from an axis running through the centre of the embryo. However, in lower vertebrates, such as amphibians and fish, the two layers are generated around the edge of the embryo.

Using chicken eggs and a state-of-the-art imaging device which can reveal how cells move in three dimensions, the researchers demonstrated a key difference in the way gastrulation occurs between higher vertebrate species and less evolutionarily advanced animals. They discovered that the reason why higher vertebrates form their axis at the midline of the embryo is because during evolution they acquired a new mechanism of “cell intercalation” which positions the axis at the midline. They also discovered the molecules used by the embryo to control these cell movements. In humans this process occurs during week 3 of embryonic development, and forms the cut-off point for scientific research on human embryos in the UK.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Nomadic Expedition Gobi Photos 3

Photo © M. Ryan
This is the most comprehensive group shot that I've got. From left to right: Christie Lucero, Astrid Schelde, Phil Currie, Julia Sankey (behind Phil), Singa, Eva Koppelhus, Nick Longrich (with dog), Miriam Reichel, Victoria Arbour, Mary Anne Wentink, Clive Coy, Susan Owen Kagan, Fukui.

Photo © M. Ryan
Nick makes a friend.

Photo © M. Ryan
A typical view out of the van window. Too bad the gobi was not always this flat!

Photo © M. Ryan
A gas station in Bolgan.

Photo © M. Ryan
The famous pink ger just outside Bolgan.

Specimens in the Paleontological Institute:

Photo © M. Ryan

Photo © M. Ryan

Photo © M. Ryan

Photo © M. Ryan
The new Mongolian parliament building.

Photo © M. Ryan
Rotating 180° from the above photo you get this view of Ulaanbaatar's city square. The construction cranes in the background indicate the incredible growth and rebuilding that the city is undergoing.