The release of Jurassic World has reignited our love for paleontology. Many of us share a longing to understand the dinosaurs that roamed the Earth long before we arrived. But paleontology is a discipline much broader than this.
Dinosaurs dominated the land for 135 million years, but what happened during the rest of the Earth’s 4.6 billion-year history? The role of paleontologists past and present has been to unravel the mysteries of life on Earth, and in doing so they’ve found a lot more than just dinosaur bones.
Depending on who you talk to, Kennewick Man is either among the most important archaeological finds in North American history, or the desecrated body of a distant forebear known as “The Ancient One.”
Kennewick Man’s remains have fueled a nearly two-decade-long showdown between science and cultural rights, and now those tensions are at the forefront once again. On Thursday, archaeologists who sequenced Kennewick Man’s genome announced that he is more closely related to modern Native Americans than any other population on the planet.
The finding, scientifically speaking, appears to settle a fierce, decades-old debate among researchers regarding the man’s lineage.
But for the Pacific Northwest tribes demanding a proper burial for Kennewick Man, the results corroborate what they already knew from their oral traditions, and may renew their call for repatriation.
No Jurassic Park franchise film would be complete without an appearance by T. rex, but in both the original films and the new Jurassic World, the real terror over the course of the film is carried on much smaller forelimbs: the bloodthirsty, agile, intelligent velociraptors.
Of course, much of the attention on the new film has been devoted to the Indominus Rex, a terrifying fictional dino genetically engineered to be bigger and scarier than T. rex.
But once again, the makers of Jurassic World rely on velociraptors for the low-level guerilla warfare in the depths of the island – this time with a twist. The velociraptors are on the good guys’ side.
We’re not giving anything away that’s not in the previews to say that leading man Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) has an unusual talent: he is a velociraptor trainer. Using a clicker-and-treat method evocative of trainers at Sea World, Owen has trained his four velociraptors to come, stay, and crucially, to not do what would come naturally when a human enters their cage: pounce and kill with their razor-sharp teeth and horrifying sickle claws.
But would it really be possible, based on what we know about velociraptors, for them to be tamed by humans? This sounds highly implausible, but there are many things about Jurassic World that are – according to Jack Horner, the paleontologist that advises these films – more “scientifically plausible” than the original. So what would it take?
Brain tissue is very soft and full of water, and through autolysis it usually begins to decompose rapidly after death. Nevertheless, it can sometimes be preserved.
In 1998, archaeologists excavated the fossilized remains of an 18-month-old infant from a burial site near Quimper in France. The child had died about 700 years previously, and its body was found wrapped in leather and placed in a wooden coffin with a pillow under its head. The skull had a large fracture, suggesting a brain hemorrhage as the probable cause of death – and still contained the shriveled remnants of the left-brain hemisphere.
The brain tissue had lost about 80 percent of its original volume but was otherwise extremely well preserved. The frontal, temporal and parietal lobes retained their original shape, and other brain structures, such as the characteristic grooves and ridges of the cerebral cortex, were visible to the naked eye. Furthermore, the researchers could easily distinguish between grey and white matter in CT and MRI brain scans. Microscopic examination of the tissue revealed that it even contained intact cells.
Last year, a team of Russian researchers reported another remarkable find – the partial carcass of a 39,000-year-old woolly mammoth, excavated from permafrost in the Sakha Republic, Russia, complete with a well-preserved brain.
Vampires walk among us. But these people aren’t the stuff of nightmares – far from it actually. Just sit down for a drink with one of them and ask for yourself. That’s if you can find one. They aren’t necessarily looking to be found.
I’ve spent five years conducting ethnographic studies of the real vampires living in New Orleans and Buffalo. They are not easy to find, but when you do track them down, they can be quite friendly.
“Real vampires” is the collective term by which these people are known. They’re not “real” in the sense that they turn into bats and live forever but many do sport fangs and just as many live a primarily nocturnal existence. These are just some of the cultural markers real vampires adopt to express a shared (and, according to them, biological) essence – they need blood (human or animal) or psychic energy from donors in order to feel healthy.
Nearly all species of sea turtles are globally endangered, plagued by habitat loss, hunting and illegal trade. About 230 rescue centers around the world do their best to treat sick turtles and return them to the wild. But their success rates are distressingly low, because sea turtles are especially difficult patients.
However, one rescue center has come up with a simple solution that could save many sea turtles’ lives: a special turtle IV system. Tests so far show that the approach drastically cuts turtle deaths, ultimately allowing more of the animals to be returned healthy to the wild.
Name a smart animal. Perhaps dogs, or dolphins, or chimpanzees came to mind. But why not goldfish, salmon, or moray eels?
Most people don’t associate intelligence with fishes. Blame it on the misconception that evolution is linear, with fishes sunk at the primitive end and primates raised near the top. Increasingly, though, scientists are appreciating the full spectrum of fish behaviors in their natural environments, thanks to advances in technology such as underwater ROVs and better recording equipment.
“In the past ten years, there has been a sea change in how scientists view fish intelligence,” says Culum Brown, who studies fish behavior at Macquarie University. Brown notes that some scientists would still deny that fishes possess basic cognitive skills.
Scientists have found that not only can fishes perceive their environments using complex senses, but that they can also coordinate hunts, use tools, and remember and learn – sometimes better than rats and toddlers.
It’s difficult to deny that humans began as Homo sapiens, an evolutionary offshoot of the primates. Nevertheless, for most of what is properly called “human history” (that is, the history starting with the invention of writing), most of Homo sapiens have not qualified as “human”—and not simply because they were too young or too disabled.
In sociology, we routinely invoke a trinity of shame—race, class, and gender—to characterize the gap that remains between the normal existence of Homo sapiens and the normative ideal of full humanity. Much of the history of social science can be understood as either directly or indirectly aimed at extending the attribution of humanity to as much of Homo sapiens as possible. It’s for this reason that the welfare state is reasonably touted as social science’s great contribution to politics in the modern era. But perhaps membership in Homo sapiens is neither sufficient nor even necessary to qualify a being as “human.” What happens then?
This article was originally published on The Conversation.
In his 1879 account of wanderings in the Orient, the travel writer James Hingston describes how, in West Java, he was treated to a bizarre experience:
I am taken by my kind host around his garden, and shown, among other things, a flower, a red orchid, that catches and feeds upon live flies. It seized upon a butterfly while I was present, and enclosed it in its pretty but deadly leaves, as a spider would have enveloped it in network.
What Hingston had seen was not a carnivorous orchid, as he thought. But the reality is no less weird or fascinating. He had seen – and been fooled by – an orchid mantis, Hymenopus coronatus, not a plant but an insect.
We have known about orchid mantises for more than 100 years. Famous naturalists such as Alfred Russell Wallace have speculated about their extraordinary appearance. Eschewing the drab green or brown of most mantises, the orchid mantis is resplendent in white and pink. The upper parts of its legs are greatly flattened and are heart-shaped, looking uncannily like petals. On a leaf it would be highly conspicuous – but when sitting on a flower, it is extremely hard to see. In photos, the mantis appears in or next to a flower, challenging the reader to spot it.
When we fall ill we visit a clinic or a pharmacy. Our ancestors, however, didn’t have that luxury. Instead, early humans likely observed and learned from sick animals that healed themselves by eating certain plants. Yet, only in the past two decades have biologists and chemists begun to recognize that animals do self-medicate – select and use substances specifically to cure themselves of parasites and ailments.
Early accounts of animal self-medication came in the late 1980s from Michael Huffman, a primatologist at Kyoto University. His decades-long research on chimpanzees, which revealed that they use plant compounds to rid themselves of parasites, helped established self-medication as a fundamental animal behavior.
“Any animal species alive today is alive in part because of its ability to adapt and to fight off diseases,” Huffman says. Self-medication does not require high intelligence, but was simply the reaction of animals to remove an ailing symptom that evolved into strategies to expel parasites. “Self-medication is a very basic behavior that’s important to the survival of so many species,” he says.
And animal self-medication points to a treasure larger than mere fascination. By following the animals’ lead, we tap into a medicine vault furnished by millions of years of natural selection. The world’s best bio-prospectors – the animals themselves – may very well show us new pharmaceuticals to improve the health of our livestock and ourselves.