Thylacines: Getting Inside the Head of an Extinct Predator

By Gemma Tarlach | January 18, 2017 1:00 pm
Benjamin, the last living thylacine (as far as we know), photographed in 1933, three years before his death, at the Hobart Zoo in Tasmania. Credit: Photographer unknown, Wikimedia Commons.

Benjamin, the last living thylacine (as far as we know), photographed in 1933 at Tasmania’s Hobart Zoo, three years before his death. Credit: Photographer unknown, Wikimedia Commons.

While I have mixed feelings about de-extinction, particularly for animals that have been out of the picture for thousands of years (I’m looking at you, woolly mammoth), I’d argue the species with the strongest case for giving it a shot would be Thylacinus cynocephalus, better known as the Tasmanian Tiger or thylacine.

This fascinating marsupial, once found in much of Australia (particularly the island of Tasmania, as its name suggests), went extinct in the 20th century — though reports of alleged sightings continue to accumulate.

Whether any of those sightings are legit, or the thylacine earns a second chance through de-extinction, new research is giving us a novel look into the workings of the thylacine brain and how it might have lived in the wild. Read More

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Mammals: Is It Better To Be Horny or Brainy?

By Gemma Tarlach | January 10, 2017 6:01 pm
A still from a YouTube video captures the classic predator-prey faceoff: the comparatively bigger-brained lion against a horned wildebeest. Credit: Wildlife Safari TV.

A still from a YouTube video captures the classic predator-prey faceoff: the comparatively bigger-brained lion against a horned wildebeest. Credit: Wildlife Safari TV.

The arms race between prey and predator has been around since the first time one microbe evaded another; it’s a never-ending spiral of adaptations to be faster, stronger or better-defended. Now a new study looking at antipredator defenses across 647 species of mammals has found animals seem to have taken a couple different evolutionary paths to avoid being eaten. Each path came with a trade-off, however. Read More

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Deadly (And Delicious!) Nightshades Much Older Than Thought

By Gemma Tarlach | January 5, 2017 1:00 pm
The new fossil groundcherry Physalis infinemundi from Laguna del Hunco in Patagonia, Argentina, 52 million years old. This specimen displays the characteristic papery, lobed husk and details of the venation. Credit: Ignacio Escapa, Museo Paleontológico Egidio Feruglio.

The new fossil Physalis infinemundi from Laguna del Hunco in Patagonia, Argentina, is 52.2 million years old and preserves a feature familiar to anyone who grows tomatillos or groundcherries: a papery, lobed husk with visible veins. Credit: Ignacio Escapa, Museo Paleontológico Egidio Feruglio.

Preserved for more than 50 million years, a pair of fossilized tomatillos from Argentina are rewriting the story of nightshades, those sometimes deadly, sometimes delicious, sometimes hallucinogenic plants common the world over.

Nightshades include tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, peppers, belladonna, petunias and tobacco, a few of which are commonly used as plant models in scientific research, and several of which probably landed on your dinner plate recently (though hopefully not the poisonous belladonna).

Aside from the fossils’ gorgeous state of preservation, the new Physalis infinemundi specimens are significant because they push back the evolution of nightshades — way back. Read More

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Human brain and teeth evolution not linked — Surprise!

By Gemma Tarlach | January 2, 2017 2:00 pm
Researchers long the human brain (blue) got bigger as our teeth (eccru) got smaller, but a new study tells a different story. Credit: George Washington University.

Researchers long thought the human brain (blue) got bigger as our teeth (eccru) got smaller, but a new study tells a different story. Image courtesy of: Aida Gómez-Robles.

Sure, the human brain is a big deal, literally. But if you put the average human in a primate family reunion photo op that included our nearest living relatives, such as chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas, and told all of them to smile wide for the camera, one thing would be very apparent: when it comes to teeth, man, we puny humans are total lightweights.

For a long time, it’s been assumed that as our brains got bigger and more bodacious, our teeth shrank proportionately. Who needs a giant set of chompers when you’re such a smartypants that you can make tools to slice and dice your food and then cook it over a fire? But a new study says hang on, now — looks like our big brains and tiny teeth aren’t linked after all. Read More

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Did Dinosaur Eggs Lead To Their Doom?

By Gemma Tarlach | January 2, 2017 2:00 pm
Embryonic and newborn Protoceratops andrewsi (like the hatchling above) may hold the secrets to the dinosaurs' doom written in their teeth. Credit: AMNH/M. Ellison.

Embryonic Protoceratops andrewsi (like the hatchling above) may have a key to the dinosaurs’ doom written in their teeth. Credit: AMNH/M. Ellison.

For the first time, researchers have been able to peer into fossilized dinosaur eggs at such a crazyfine resolution that they’ve spotted growth lines on the embryo-dino teeth. The marks, called von Ebner lines, tell a surprising story that may help to explain why non-avian dinosaurs were wiped out some 66 million years ago.

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Check Out This Feathered Dinosaur Tail Preserved in Amber!

By Gemma Tarlach | December 8, 2016 11:00 am
INfo here credit here

A stunning piece of amber, mined in Myanmar, preserves the partial tail of a feathered dinosaur, ants and a beetle from the middle of the Cretaceous Period, about 99 million years ago. Credit: Royal Saskatchewan Museum (RSM/R.C. McKellar).

Pretty. So pretty. Pretty to look at and pretty significant: for the first time, researchers have got their hands on the tail of a non-avian feathered dinosaur preserved inside a piece of amber for almost 100 million years. Unlike dinosaur fossils found in sedimentary rock layers, this little beauty isn’t squished flat, which allows paleontologists to study the tail as it was in life. Another bonus: the amber appears to have preserved components usually lost to the ages, including what may be residual iron from red blood cells.

But before you shriek “Jurassic Park!” hang on…That’s not even the coolest thing about this find.

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Tetrapod Triumph! Solving Mystery Of First Land Vertebrates

By Gemma Tarlach | December 5, 2016 10:00 am
bizarro1

Credit: Dan Piraro.

Let’s talk about Romer’s Gap, not to be confused with the Gap of Rohan (though I would love to talk about that, too, as I am always up for a bit of Tolkien). Romer’s Gap is an intriguing question mark in the fossil record that today loses a little of its mystery.

On the far side of the gap, about 360 million years ago, we’ve got aquatic tetrapods — vertebrates with four limbs — which were at that point still pretty fishy (note: not actual scientific term). On the near side of the gap, beginning around 335 million years ago, tetrapods are already a diverse bunch of animals living quite happily on land, walking on legs and breathing air just fine, thank you very much.

Romer’s Gap is that period in between, when the tetrapod fossil record largely goes dark, leaving paleontologists to scratch their heads over the surf-to-turf transition.

“This is a time when tetrapods really got going and started walking about, and yet we had no evidence, or very little evidence, about what was going on then,” says paleontologist Jennifer Clack, professor emeritus at Cambridge University and the lead author on an exciting new study, the first to find sedimentary hints of the tetrapods living it up on land.

Published today, the research describes five new tetrapods from that mysterious gap in the record, and they matter. Because you, me, your pet dog, your pet iguana, your pet cockatoo, your fantasy pet Deinonychus that you keep asking Santa for (surely I’m not the only one…): All of us descended from tetrapods. Their fishy-to-leggy story is ours. Read More

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The Latest on Lucy: Early Hominin Spent Serious Time in Trees

By Gemma Tarlach | November 30, 2016 1:00 pm
3.2 million years ago, the member of Australopithecus afarensis better known as Lucy walked around what's now Ethiopia. How she walked — and how much time she spent on the ground — is still up for debate. Credit: AP.

3.18 million years ago, the member of Australopithecus afarensis better known as Lucy walked around what’s now Ethiopia. But researchers still debate how she walked — and how much time she spent on the ground. (Image credit: Associated Press)

Hey Lucy, you got some more explainin’ to do. A controversial study published in August proposing that a fall from a tree killed Lucy, the world’s most famous fossil, was just the opening salvo in a renewed debate. Researchers announced an even bigger breakthrough today: Analysis of micro-CT scans reveal Lucy was at home on the ground and in the trees, a finding that puts the team at odds with some of the field’s biggest names.

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The First Dinosaurs’ Surprise Neighbors: Lagerpetids

By Gemma Tarlach | November 10, 2016 11:00 am
New species Buriolestes schultzi, seen here in situ, is one of the earliest dinosaurs known — and as you can tell from its teeth, it was no plant eater. Credit: Cabreira et al.

New species Buriolestes schultzi, seen here in situ, is one of the earliest dinosaurs known — and as you can tell from its teeth, it was no plant eater. Credit: Cabreira et al.

Two new Triassic species found in Brazil and dating from the very Dawn of Dinosaurs are filling in some important gaps in the fossil record, including what one of the first dinosaurs ate (hint: not what you might think) and which other animals shared its space (spoiler alert: lagerpetids, dinosaur precursors — another surprise). Read More

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That’s a Lotta Lox: 9-Foot Salmon Once Plied Pacific Waters

By Gemma Tarlach | November 3, 2016 3:39 pm
A spiky-toothed giant salmon once prowled the ancient river and coast of California. Credit: Jacob Biewer/Society for Vertebrate Paleontology.

A spiky-toothed giant salmon once plied the ancient rivers and coast of California. Credit: Jacob Biewer/Society for Vertebrate Paleontology.

Giant salmon up to nine feet long left their homes in the Pacific to spawn in California’s ancient rivers more than 5 million years ago. But if you think the big deal about these Miocene monsters  was their size then guess again: it’s a fish story you can really sink your teeth into.

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
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