Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Restoring that sense of wonder

These can be depressing times for a paleontologist - funding is poor for most, the job market is dim for many talented friends and colleagues, and rhetoric-ridden battles for scholarly publishing rage. That's enough to suck the joy right out of the field. In instances like this, it's nice to step back for a second and think about the really cool stuff going on.

So, I've put together a list of wondrous things that have happened in paleontology over the past several years. Why are they cool to me? Mostly because they challenge ideas that I acquired while a little, dinosaur-obsessed kid. And they also challenge ideas I've acquired as an "educated" professional. Sometimes it's nice to have our comfort zone stretched.

Symbols of the new paleontological revolution: an eye-catching Sinosauropteryx crouches on top of mammoth DNA, overlain on a thin-section of dinosaur bone (sources at end)
In no particular order:
  • We know what colors were on parts of the body of some dinosaurs. Really. How cool is that? Sure, it's not perfect, and there is lots we'll never know, but the mere fact that you can plausibly reconstruct parts of the pelage of a feathered dinosaur is amazing. Especially because I had always believed the truism that we'd know the texture of dinosaur skins, but never the color.
  • I can download a genetic sequence from a woolly mammoth. Or a Neanderthal. Or any number of extinct organisms. I had always known that Jurassic Park would never be a reality. It probably never will be (at least for non-avian dinosaurs). But to stare at the A's, T's, G's, and C's of an extinct organism still gives me some goosebumps.
  • I can listen to a Jurassic katydid. Yes, yes, there are some assumptions in the reconstruction. But let's suspend criticism for a moment, and accept that it's probably at least a decent approximation. These are noises that haven't been heard in 165 million years.
  • We know the sex of some individual dinosaur specimens. Thanks to studies of medullary bone and comparative anatomy, the seemingly impossible is made real. Wow!
  • Similarly, we know the age of some dinosaur individuals at death (give or take a few years). The notion that sauropods only got big because they grew for a century can't be supported anymore. Once again - wow!

This is just my personal list - what's on yours?

Sources for image: Mammoth DNA sequence in background from GenBank Accession FJ655900 (published by Enk et al., 2009); dinosaur bone histological section modified from Woodward et al. 2011 Figure 1C (colors inverted and adjusted); Sinosauropteryx modified from original by Marty Martunuik. Image released under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


Mike Keesey said...

As a corollary to the second one, I can have my genome compared to that of Neandertals and see that ~3.0% of my DNA is of Neandertal origin. How mind-blowing is that?

Ben said...

Great post. Little reminders of how vert paleo is awesome and how far it has come are always appreciated.

It's not exactly new, but my 8-year-old self would be impressed by the more global understanding we have of dinosaur evolution and ecology. Old ideas, like sauropods being phased out as dominant megafaunal herbivores at the end of the Jurassic, turned out to be limited to North American fossils and totally wrong.

Doug said...

Dinos are cool, but I'll show the mammals some love:

The possibility that ice age megafauna may have developed in the frigid highlands of Tibet and radiated from there when the climate cooled in the rest of the world.

Fossils from the Chilean Andes show that 30 million years ago South America was home to an open grassland ecosystem, a few million years before they showed up elsewhere.

And don't forget using isotopes to try and figure out what ancient animals ate!

Mike Keesey said...

Doug, got a ref for that Tibetan hypothesis?

Ian said...


Deng, T., Wang, X., Fortelius,M., Li, Q., Wang, Y., Tseng, Z. J., Takeuchi, G. T., Saylor, J. E., Säilä, L. K., and Xie, G. 2011. Out of Tibet: Pliocene woolly rhino suggests high-plateauo origin of Ice Age megaherbivores. Science 333 no. 6047: 1285-1288 (DOI: 10.1126/science.1206594).