Dark Data: The Vulnerable Treasures Sitting On Museum Shelves

By Gemma Tarlach | September 4, 2018 6:00 pm
Brazil's Museu Nacional, or National Museum, in a 2015 photo. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Odair Bernardo)

The need to digitize “dark data” — fossils and other unstudied material sitting in archives around the world — takes on new urgency in light of a devastating fire at Brazil’s Museu Nacional, or National Museum. Here, in a 2015 photo, the museum in better times. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Odair Bernardo)

As curators begin the grim work of sorting through what’s left of Brazil’s fire-ravaged National Museum, a new paper quantifies the staggering number of fossils and other scientifically significant finds going unstudied — and vulnerable to loss — in museum collections. It’s a call to action, say the authors.
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The Evolutionary History Of A Malaria Parasite

By Gemma Tarlach | August 20, 2018 2:00 pm
Malaria sporozoites, the infectious form of the malaria parasite that is injected into people by mosquitoes. Credit: NIAID/Wikimedia Commons

Did malaria hitch a ride with ancient humans out of Africa? People typically develop the disease after sporozoites, the infectious form of a Plasmodium parasite, are injected into the bloodstream by mosquitoes. (Credit: NIAID/Wikimedia Commons)

Millions of people annually contract malaria after infection by nasty little parasites belonging to the genus Plasmodium. Thanks to new genomic insights, researchers believe they’ve uncovered a key chunk of the disease’s evolutionary back story — and a potential new path to fight it.
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Check Out This Beetle Trapped In Amber For 99 Million Years

By Gemma Tarlach | August 16, 2018 10:00 am
This image shows a dorsal view of the mid-Cretaceous beetle Cretoparacucujus cycadophilus, including the mandibular cavities it likely used for pollination (Credit Chenyang Cai)

The beetle Cretoparacucujus cycadophilus, trapped in amber along with grains of pollen for 99 million years, likely used highly specialized mandibles for pollination. (Credit Chenyang Cai)

A new species of beetle, preserved in a piece of amber along with several grains of pollen, is the earliest direct evidence of an insect pollinating an ancient plant group nearly 100 million years ago. It’s also just supercool to look at.
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Utah Pterosaur Was Desert-Dwelling Badass…Pelican?

By Gemma Tarlach | August 13, 2018 10:00 am
A new Utah pterosaur, skull fragments reconstructed in (b), appears closely related to another species of the flying archosaur from Britain (c). (Credit Britt et al 2018, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-018-0627-y)

Researchers say a new Utah pterosaur, skull fragments sketched in (b), appears closely related to another species of the flying archosaur from England (c). (Credit Britt et al 2018, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-018-0627-y)

More than 200 million years ago, a shadow traveled across the hot, arid landscape of what’s now the western United States. It belonged to a Late Triassic pterosaur that may have been the biggest of its time. Describing its size, features and home turf, researchers reveal this new Utah pterosaur is full of surprises.
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The Peopling of the Americas: Evidence for Multiple Models

By Gemma Tarlach | August 8, 2018 1:00 pm

 

 

A new review of evidence for the peopling of the Americas suggests multiple routes, including coastal and overland, such as through this Alaskan landscape, were likely. (Credit: Ben A. Potter)

A new review of evidence for the peopling of the Americas suggests both coastal and interior routes, such as through this Alaskan landscape, were possible. (Credit: Ben A. Potter)

Exactly how and when the peopling of the Americas took place has long been one of the hottest debates in science. For every new paper that emerges with evidence of an interior or coastal route, it seems another team publishes contradictory conclusions. Authors of a new review of archaeological, geological and paleogenetic research have concluded that both of the two main models are reasonable — and that a couple fringe theories are most definitely not.

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Flores Island’s Modern Pygmies And The “Hobbit” Homo Floresiensis

By Gemma Tarlach | August 2, 2018 1:00 pm
Indonesia's Flores Island, once home to the archaic "hobbit" human Homo floresiensis, still has some modern populations of a significantly smaller stature. Researchers sequenced DNA from several of the individuals to determine if they might be descended from the archaic hominin. (Credit: Australian Museum)

Indonesia’s Flores Island, once home to diminutive Homo floresiensis (skull cast shown above), also has modern pygmy populations. Researchers sequenced DNA from some of the individuals to determine if they might be descended from the archaic “hobbit.” (Credit: Australian Museum)

From the home of the “hobbit” (and I’m not talking about The Shire): Researchers have sequenced DNA from modern pygmy populations on the Indonesian island of Flores to determine whether they are descended from Homo floresiensis, a famously small-statured archaic human living there as recently as 50,000 years ago.
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The Generalist Specialist: Why Homo Sapiens Succeeded

By Gemma Tarlach | July 30, 2018 10:00 am
The generalist specialist, Homo sapiens (left) survived but all other hominins, including Neanderthals (right) are now extinct. Researchers say early humans' unique ecological niche may have made the difference. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Being a generalist specialist, a unique niche, is the hallmark of our species, say researchers — and the reason Homo sapiens (left) are still around but other hominins, including Neanderthals (right), are not. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Some animals are jacks of all trades, some masters of one. Homo sapiens, argues a provocative new commentary, are an evolutionary success story because our ancestors pulled off a unique feat: being masterly jacks of all trades. But is this ecological niche, the generalist specialist, the real reason our species is the last hominin standing?
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Meet Lingwulong, The “Amazing Dragon”

By Gemma Tarlach | July 24, 2018 10:00 am
Caption: An artist's rendering of Lingwulong shenqi Credit: Zhang Zongda

Lingwulong shenqi, a new dinosaur known from the fossils of multiple individuals, is a Jurassic surprise. It’s significantly older than other dinosaurs of its kind and is the earliest example found in China, challenging conventional ideas about the timing and spread of the four-legged plant-eaters. (Credit: Zhang Zongda)

Lingwulong shenqi, a newly described, 174-million-year-old dinosaur, is more than just another giant herbivore to add to the fossil record. Its age and location are unexpected, and upset notions about dino diversity and distribution during the Jurassic Period.
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Scientists Claim They Found Bigfoot (The Brachiosaur, Anyway)

By Gemma Tarlach | July 24, 2018 6:00 am
Photograph from the excavations in 1998, with the brachiosaur foot bones below a tail of a Camarasaurus. University of Kansas expedition crew member as a scale. CREDIT Photo courtesy of the KUVP archives.

Found: Bigfoot! Or at least a brachiosaur foot that researchers nicknamed Bigfoot. A field researcher poses beside its partial remains in this 1998 photo. Foot bones are in foreground; vertebrae and other bones belong to a different animal. (Credit: Photo courtesy of the KUVP archives)

I don’t know about you, but nothing wakes me up in the morning quite like an announcement from a peer-reviewed journal declaring that paleontologists have found Bigfoot in the Black Hills region of the U.S.

Sooooo…yeah. Not quite. But they are claiming the dinosaur foot they found belonged to the biggest dino ever — which they nicknamed “Bigfoot.” Sneaky clickbait? Sure. But also some interesting science. Read on: The game is afoot.
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Neanderthals Really Were All Fired Up

By Gemma Tarlach | July 19, 2018 8:00 am
Production of fire was once thought to be a skill exclusive to Homo sapiens, but new research suggests our Neanderthal relatives could light it up as well. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Production of fire was long thought to be a skill exclusive to Homo sapiens, but new research suggests Neanderthals could light it up just as well. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Fire at will! Researchers present evidence that Neanderthals were just as capable of producing fire as early Homo sapiens were, sending another long-held notion of our species’ exceptionalism up in smoke.

I’m not just fanning the flames here: The question of whether our closest evolutionary kin used fire the same way our ancestors did has been a controversial one for decades, and its debate mirrors broader trends in paleoanthropology.
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