News Article | November 25, 2015
What if the dinosaur-killing asteroid never slammed into Earth and the paleo-beasts weren't vanquished from our planet 66 million years ago? That's the hypothetical that forms the basis of Pixar's "The Good Dinosaur," set to hit the big screens on Nov. 25. The movie maker's answer — that a young Apatosaurus would meet and befriend a cave boy — is cute, but totally off the mark, several paleontologists told Live Science. "It's completely impossible," said Thomas Williamson, curator of paleontology at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, referring to dinosaurs ever being alive alongside humans — something that could never happen if the dinosaurs were to survive. [Wipe Out: History's Most Mysterious Extinctions] Though there were mammals during the dinosaur's reign of the Mesozoic era, these animals were small, no larger than the size of a house cat. It's wasn't until the nonavian dinosaurs went extinct that mammals grew in size and specialty, eventually giving rise to the human lineage about 60 million years later. "Dinosaurs had been around for over 150 million years when the asteroid hit, and were doing quite well up until that fateful day," said Steve Brusatte, a paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh. If the asteroid hadn't hit Earth, "I have no doubt that they would have kept evolving and thriving." If dinosaurs hadn't perished, "mammals would have never gotten their chance to evolve in that brave new world, free of their dinosaur overlords," Brusatte told Live Science. "Without mammals getting their chance, then there would have been no primates, and then no humans." Mammals originated about 220 million years ago, about the same time as the dinosaurs during the Late Triassic. But dinosaurs got the upper hand — they diversified into thousands of species, spread around the world and grew to gargantuan sizes. "Mammals stayed in the shadows," and none of them seemed to dominate their environment, Brusatte said. Instead, early mammals mostly ate insects, maybe seeds and the occasional tiny dinosaur, according to fossil evidence. When the 6-mile-wide (10 kilometers) asteroid collided with Earth, mammals and dinosaurs alike suffered great losses. All of the dinosaurs — except birds — bit the dust, and about 75 percent of all mammals died, said Gregory Wilson, an adjunct curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle. But there were some survivors. "A few plucky mammals made it through the devastation of the extinction," Brusatte said. "These mammals seemed to be ones that were particularly small and had generalist diets, so they could survive by hiding and eating lots of different foods — traits that helped them endure the chaos after the asteroid hit." Once the nonavian dinosaurs were kaput, the mammals took over their ecological niches. Within a few hundred thousand years, mammals rapidly evolved (geologically speaking) into new species, diversified their diets and achieved new sizes. About 500,000 years after the dinosaur's demise, some mammals had reached the size of German shepherds, Williamson said. These spirited survivors are the reasons why there are more than 5,000 species of mammals today, Brusatte said. [In Photos: Mammals Through Time] "It's pretty obvious to me that none of this could have happened if the dinosaurs didn't die out," he said. "The mammals that lived with the dinosaurs had about 150 million years to make it happen, but they could never do it. But then, boom, right when the dinosaurs died, the mammals began to explosively diversify." Still, once "The Good Dinosaur" opens in theaters, Brusatte plans to see the film. "I'm not expecting the film to be an accurate portrayal of dinosaurs," he said. "It's obviously not trying to be a dinosaur documentary, and that's OK. The dinosaurs may not look or behave like real dinosaurs would have, but I hope it's a good story and an entertaining film." Copyright 2015 LiveScience, a Purch company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
News Article | December 8, 2016
When paleontologists at the University of Washington cut into the fossilized jaw of a distant mammal relative, they got more than they bargained for -- more teeth, to be specific. As they report in a letter published Dec. 8 in the Journal of the American Medical Association Oncology, the team discovered evidence that the extinct species harbored a benign tumor made up of miniature, tooth-like structures. Known as a compound odontoma, this type of tumor is common to mammals today. But this animal lived 255 million years ago, before mammals even existed. "We think this is by far the oldest known instance of a compound odontoma," said senior author Christian Sidor, a UW professor of biology and curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. "It would indicate that this is an ancient type of tumor." Before this discovery, the earliest known evidence of odontomas came from Ice Age-era fossils. "Until now, the earliest known occurrence of this tumor was about one million years ago, in fossil mammals," said Judy Skog, program director in the National Science Foundation's Division of Earth Sciences, which funded the research. "These researchers have found an example in the ancestors of mammals that lived 255 million years ago. The discovery suggests that the suspected cause of an odontoma isn't tied solely to traits in modern species, as had been thought." In humans and other mammals, a compound odontoma is a mass of small "toothlets" amalgamated together along with tooth tissues like dentin and enamel. They grow within the gums or other soft tissues of the jaw and can cause pain and swelling, as well as disrupt the position of teeth and other tissues. Since odontomas do not metastasize and spread throughout the body, they are considered benign tumors. But given the disruptions they cause, surgeons often opt to remove them. Surgery was not an option for the creature studied by Sidor's team. It was a gorgonopsian, a distant mammal relative and the apex predator during its pre-dinosaur era about 255 million years ago. Gorgonopsians are part of a larger group of animals called synapsids, which includes modern mammals as its only living member. Synapsids are sometimes called "mammal-like reptiles" because extinct synapsids possess some, but not all, of the features of mammals. The first mammals evolved over 100 million years ago. "Most synapsids are extinct, and we -- that is, mammals -- are their only living descendants," said Megan Whitney, lead author and UW biology graduate student. "To understand when and how our mammalian features evolved, we have to study fossils of synapsids like the gorgonopsians." Paleontologists have categorized many "mammal-like" features of gorgonopsians. For example, like us, they have teeth differentiated for specialized purposes. But Whitney started studying gorgonopsian teeth to see if they had another mammalian feature. "Most reptiles alive today fuse their teeth directly to the jawbone," said Whitney. "But mammals do not: We use tough, but flexible, string-like tissues to hold teeth in their sockets. And I wanted to know if the same was true for gorgonopsians." A purely external examination of gorgonopsian fossils wouldn't answer this question. Whitney had to take the risky and controversial approach of slicing into a fossilized gorgonopsian jaw: looking at thin sections of jaw and tooth under a microscope to see how the tooth was nestled within its socket. Since this technique would damage the fossil, Whitney and Larry Mose, a UW undergraduate student working with her, used a solitary or "orphan" gorgonopsian lower jaw that Sidor had collected in southern Tanzania. Mose prepared multiple thin slices from the gorgonopsian jaw -- each only about as thick as a sheet of notebook paper -- and mounted them onto slides. He and Whitney immediately noticed something unexpected within the jaw: embedded next to the root of the canine were irregular clusters of up to eight tiny, round objects. At higher magnification under a microscope, Whitney discovered that the objects within each cluster resembled small, poorly differentiated teeth, or toothlets. The toothlets even harbored distinct layers of dentin and enamel. "At first we didn't know what to make of it," said Whitney. "But after some investigation we realized this gorgonopsian had what looks like a textbook compound odontoma." At 255 million years, this is by far the oldest reported evidence for an odontoma -- and possibly the first case in a non-mammal. According to Sidor, odontomas have been reported in archaeological specimens, as well as fossilized mammoths and deer. But those cases all date to within the last million years or so. Since this synapsid had an odontoma, it would indicate that this mammalian condition existed well before the first mammals had evolved. "This discovery demonstrates how the fossil record can tell us a lot about our present-day lives -- even the diseases or pathologies that are part of our mammalian heritage," said Sidor. "And you could never tell that this creature had it from the outside." The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and a University of Washington Mary Gates Research Fellowship. For more information, contact Sidor at firstname.lastname@example.org and Whitney at email@example.com. Sidor and Whitney have also prepared answers to a list of frequently asked questions, which can be found below, regarding gorgonopsians, tooth development, odontomas and more. Prepared by Christian Sidor and Megan Whitney with the University of Washington and the Burke Museum of Natural History & Culture. Our discovery of odontoma in a gorgonopsian fossil demonstrates that this type of tumor has existed for at least 255 million years and predates mammals. National Geographic Society (NGS 7787-05) to C. Sidor (for fieldwork to collect fossils) National Science Foundation (DBI 0306158) to Ken Angielczyk, Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago (for fieldwork to collect fossils) National Science Foundation (EAR 1337569) to C. Sidor (for research and analysis) For additional information, contact Christian Sidor at firstname.lastname@example.org and Megan Whitney at email@example.com.
News Article | November 23, 2016
As if full-time research weren't time-consuming and challenging enough, nanophysicist Michael Stopa embraced a second occupation while at the bench: politics. He served as a delegate for US president-elect Donald Trump at this year's Republican National Convention. Before that, while he was a senior scientist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he blew his cover as a semi-secret conservative by running unsuccessfully as a Republican for the US Congress in 2010 and again in 2013. “My face was on the front page of the Harvard Crimson,” he says of the university's student newspaper. “At that point, I was exposed.” Stopa, who now works at a technology startup near Boston, Massachusetts, says that his outspoken politics have cost him at least one close professional collaboration — and maybe more — but that hasn't quietened him. He still talks politics on the Harvard Lunch Club weekly podcast. In each session he takes part in, he discusses his conservative views, including his belief that illegal immigration threatens the United States. The acrimonious US presidential election is over, but politics are forever, and Stopa isn't the only scientist joining the fray. Many researchers take public political stands on Twitter and elsewhere, and some are engaging with political parties or running for office (see 'Join the party'). Politically active scientists can struggle to find the time and energy to bridge both worlds, and there's always the risk that an unpopular stand could cause friction. But there are also benefits: politics can provide another avenue for networking and outreach. And, ideally, scientists will be able to give governments the kind of input needed to produce informed policy. Political involvement can also create a sense of real-world accomplishment that is sometimes hard to find in the lab. “Nothing's more rewarding than combining the two passions,” says David Mazzocchi-Jones, a neuroscientist at Keele University, UK, and a member of the local Labour Party. Despite the opportunities, few scientists have reached high office in government. Frauke Petry, chairwoman of the right-wing Alternative for Germany Party, has a chemistry PhD, as does chancellor Angela Merkel. Of 535 members of the US House and Senate, just two congressmen — a physicist and an engineer — have PhDs in the hard sciences. The UK-based Campaign for Science and Engineering counts 90 Members of Parliament who have at least some background or interest in the sciences, engineering or medicine, including Thérèse Coffey, who has a PhD in chemistry. That's down from 103 science-minded MPs in the previous parliament. “Scientists are very under-represented in politics in the UK,” Mazzocchi-Jones says. “Twenty years ago, there were quite a few more.” Researchers who manage to break into the political world could have a huge impact on policy, says Jeff Schweitzer, a former marine biologist who worked as a science-policy analyst for the US Clinton administration in the 1990s. “The biggest thing that a scientist brings is a method of thinking,” he says. “They have a vocabulary that non-scientists might not have.” Scientists in government can help to bridge the gap between policymakers and the researchers who study, in great detail, how the real world actually works, he adds. Mazzocchi-Jones, a Labour councillor for Newcastle-under-Lyme, believes that his science background has helped him to handle the issues that matter to his constituents. “When we're deciding on a new recycling system, I can say, 'Show me the numbers,'” he says. Governments are increasingly facing critical issues such as climate change and fracking (hydraulic fracturing) that call for scientific wisdom, says David Dunbar, a bioinformatician at the University of Edinburgh, UK, who is active with the Scottish National Party. “The scientists you see in the UK Parliament seem to be thinking in an evidence-based way, and that's a positive,” he says. “The party line isn't always evidence-based. And neither is public opinion.” Scientists who aren't themselves politically active can still do their bit to keep politicians informed, even if only through a quick e-mail or a chat with a local representative. “We need to engage more with politicians,” Mazzocchi-Jones says. “It's not going to get us anywhere unless we talk to them directly.” He says that his interest in politics was rekindled in 2014 when he helped to organize the UK Physiological Society's Engaging with Parliamentarians outreach programme, where he and other scientists paired up with politicians to exchange ideas. He says that both sides must find ways to identify common ground. “Scientists have to step forward and be recognized,” he says, “and politicians have to listen”. Politics can be a sticky subject, however, especially when someone is out of step with their colleagues. Stopa says he felt some tension at Harvard, and not just with the friend and collaborator who severed ties with him. When Stopa's contract wasn't renewed, he was eager to move on. “It's hard to be surrounded by people with different ideologies.” Stopa doesn't regret publicly announcing his conservatism, but he understands why some conservatives prefer to keep quiet. “There's an ongoing debate about whether or not to come out of the closet,” he says. “You have to make that decision for yourself. If you think it might negatively affect your career, you might be better off not saying these things.” Schweitzer sees political activism as a right. No one in science should be afraid to put their politics on display, he says. “If that's an obstacle,” he adds, “you're not at the right institution.” Sometimes, political anonymity isn't much of an option. “A lot of my colleagues and students live in my ward,” says Mazzocchi-Jones. “I know for a fact that they've received leaflets with my face on them.” And his dual roles occasionally collide in awkward ways. “Colleagues will tell me, 'My bin didn't get collected last week,'” he adds, by way of example. So compelling is political work for some scientists that they turn it into a full-time profession. Stacey Danckert, who has a PhD in cognitive neuroscience from the University of Waterloo, Canada, declined a prestigious two-year grant from the Alzheimer's Society in 2013 because she found it tough to balance research, politics and family commitments. “I decided to follow my passion for the environment,” she says. She left the lab and is now policy coordinator for the Green Party of Ontario and a twice-unsuccessful Green Party candidate for the Provincial Parliament of Ontario. In her view, it's almost impossible for a scientist to run for political office while staying in the lab. “It's important to get your name out, and you can't do that without spending a lot of time,” she says. “The two pursuits require endless dedication.” Similarly, Jess Spear, a former climate scientist who worked at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle, Washington, left research to join Socialist Alternative, a socialist activist group, in 2011. After running unsuccessfully for the Washington state House of Representatives in 2014, she is now a full-time organizer for the group. “The more I got involved in climate science,” she says, “the more I became aware that we don't just need more data. We need political will.” Schweitzer believes that scientists who can handle university politics have the mettle to excel at local, regional and national politics. “The skills are very transferable,” he says. “You have to show that you can get along with people, and you have to build networks.” Perhaps most importantly, scientists tend to have a track record of working with large bureaucracies. “You need to be able to manipulate the system to your will to get things done,” he says. “If you tend to get frustrated and just throw up your hands, politics probably isn't for you.” Before jumping into politics, Schweitzer briefly ran his own lab at the University of California, Irvine, an experience that he says was invaluable in his second career. “In order to have credibility in Washington DC, you have to have had at least a short career as a lab scientist,” he says. “I wasn't in the lab very long, but in their view I was a real scientist.” Mazzocchi-Jones manages, for the most part, to keep his work separate from his ideology. He says that he has a student who is an outspoken supporter of the UK Independence Party, a right-wing, anti-immigration party. “I find his politics abhorrent,” Mazzocchi-Jones says. “But in the end, science unites us.”
News Article | March 16, 2016
Three months before the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, anthropologist Margaret Mead published a prescient piece in Natural History entitled 'Museums in the Emergency'. Mead found the US citizenry “suspicious of every means of communication” — except museums. She attributed this remarkable faith to the museum practice of asking, “Is this true?” rather than, “Will this make a hit?” A stubborn insistence on truth, Mead believed, could keep the museum as “a place in which [people] can renew their trust in science and in democracy”. Two books look at truth and trust in the museum world. In Bone Rooms, historian Samuel Redman tracks the evolving role of collections of human remains and their public display in framing issues of race. Cultural sociologist Tiffany Jenkins crafts a spirited read in Keeping their Marbles, with much to offer regarding the genesis of the world's great museum collections. She transports the reader from the Napoleonic campaigns that stocked the Louvre in Paris with Egyptian treasures to British imperialists funnelling global booty to London's British Museum. Many countries now want their treasures back; Nigeria, for instance, wants the return of its bronzes, taken when the British Army flattened the then-kingdom of Benin in the late nineteenth century. Both books explore the question of who owns the past, with remarkably different answers. Keeping their Marbles advocates maintaining the finders-keepers mentality that created the museum collections. Bone Rooms argues that human remains were sometimes inappropriately acquired in the name of science, and that meaningful steps must be taken to redress the balance. Redman documents the US 'skull wars' of the late nineteenth century, when museums competed to collect human skulls, whole skeletons, mummies and fossils. Battlefield casualties became fair game, as did archaeological sites, Native American cemeteries and indigenous people unfortunate enough to pass away at a World's Fair. Even isolated body parts were accessioned, as bizarrely illustrated by the Civil War veteran who found his own amputated arm in the Army Medical Museum in Washington DC. Bone Rooms details the nascent views of racial science that evolved in US natural history, anthropological and medical museums. These debates spilled into public museum spaces, arraying human bodies in sometimes controversial, even macabre, exhibits. Redman effectively portrays the remarkable personalities behind them, particularly pitting the prickly Aleš Hrdlička at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC against ally-turned-rival Franz Boas at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Debates over racial science should have evaporated when Boas conclusively demonstrated that language, culture and biology ('race') are independent — the premise of modern anthropology. But the myth of scientific racism (typically involving questionable concepts such as 'racial essence' and 'racial genius') persisted for a century more, due in part to Hrdlička's powerful influence over widely attended exhibitions that promoted the now-discredited idea that races are immutable, with evolutionary change transpiring only within (not between) human races. Bone Rooms also highlights ethical concerns over collecting, curating and exhibiting human remains that simmered in the 1930s and boiled over after the Vietnam War. Native Americans increasingly expressed shock at the tens of thousands of ancestral skeletons appropriated without their permission or, usually, knowledge. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 required museums to inventory holdings of human remains (plus potential sacred, patrimonial and funerary artefacts), then to consult tribes about cultural affiliations and time and manner of repatriation. Although most human remains stayed in storage, tens of thousands were repatriated. A few hotly disputed cases linger on, including Kennewick Man (an 8,400-year-old skeleton now held in limbo at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle, Washington). Redman concludes (correctly, in my view) that, on balance, repatriation programmes are “successful steps forward”. Keeping their Marbles views museum truth and trust differently. Jenkins does an excellent job of portraying the extreme reactions elicited by repatriation conversations — from the smug 'we-stole-it-fair-and-square' to the angst parodied by historian Elazar Barkan as 'performance guilt' (in which “leaders theatrically say sorry for acts from the past for which they had no responsibility”). Although granting that great museum collections “were wrenched from their original contexts by means that often amounted to theft”, Jenkins bristles at returning items. Rather, she stresses three principles — preservation, truth and access — that determine what is best for objects, scholars and the public. “The mission of museums,” she argues, “should be to acquire, conserve, research, and display their collections ... That is all and that is enough.” I don't believe that is enough — particularly with respect to human remains. As a practising dirt archaeologist, I still on occasion excavate human burials. As a museum curator, I sometimes exhibit human remains. But as a museum-based researcher, I acknowledge my responsibilities to consult meaningfully with relevant descendant and stakeholding communities — and listen to what they say. Jenkins is correct that repatriation will render some human remains unavailable for research. The public display of certain human remains is likewise often inappropriate. These are limitations that many of us accept today. The alternative — the free-ranging, science-über-alles mentality articulated in Keeping Their Marbles — reprises the cavalier attitudes towards communities of descendants that characterized Americanist archaeology for most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. That sordid legacy, which necessitated reburial and repatriation legislation in the first place, seems particularly inappropriate for the responsible practice of twenty-first-century science. What of Margaret Mead's belief in modern truth and trust? Today's headlines target different 'Museums in the Emergency', from the systematic looting of the National Museum in Baghdad to the Islamist terrorist group ISIS taking sledgehammers to Syrian antiquities. The prominent Syrian scholar Khaled al-Asaad was beheaded by ISIS for refusing to disclose where ancient treasures from Palmyra had been hidden for safe keeping. The right of museums to hold and display collections is today contested at every turn. Modern museums have multiple meanings, objectives and constituencies. But one thing is certain: nowhere is there now a museum where all people “can renew their trust in science and in democracy”. No matter where the Parthenon Marbles end up, that museum world has become an artefact of the past.
News Article | April 28, 2016
After years of speculation and wrangling over his remains, Kennewick Man turns out to be closely related to contemporary, local Native Americans after all. Discovered near Kennewick, Wash., in 1996, the skeleton ended up in a tug of war between tribes in the pacific northwest who wanted to bury the remains, and scientists who wanted to study them. Five Pacific Northwest tribes pressed the Army Corps of Engineers, which has jurisdiction over the bones, to hand them over in accordance with a federal law on the repatriation of remains. However, a group of scientists sued to block the handover, arguing that the skeleton was not associated with a present-day tribe. Federal judges sided with the scientists, and as a result, the corps retained custody of the skeleton and made it available for study. Now that the studies are finished, the 380 bones and bone fragments are locked away in Seattle at the University of Washington’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. Some scientists suggested that Kennewick Man might have been a visitor from the Far North, Siberia or perhaps someplace even more exotic. But when geneticists compared DNA from a hand bone with a wide range of samples, they found that the closest match came from members of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. The burial site will be a secret, so we can have this fight all over again in a few thousand years.
News Article | December 2, 2015
The whale, named Fucaia buelli by the researchers, is transitional between ancient toothed whales and the baleen whales of modern seas. It is one of the oldest baleen whales ever found and, at a length of about 2-2.5m, also one of the smallest. The fossil, which was recovered from Olympic Peninsula, Washington State, USA, is described in a newly published paper in the UK journal Royal Society Open Science. Paper co-author Dr Felix Marx says that unlike its living baleen whale relatives, which use comb-like baleen plates to filter krill from the surrounding water, Fucaia had well-developed teeth which it used to actively hunt and chew its prey. "Once captured, prey was likely sucked deeper into the mouth for swallowing—a technique which, ultimately, may have given rise to baleen and filter feeding in the modern Mysticeti suborder of whales," Dr Marx says. Dr Marx and his co-authors Dr C.H. Tsai and Professor Ewan Fordyce say that the fossil sheds new light on one of the big questions in mammalian evolution; how, when and why did modern baleen whales lose their teeth? The complex teeth in Fucaia, and distinctive wear patterns, show that Fucaia likely chewed its food. Long-based and closely-spaced teeth in the jaw leave little room for baleen, but there are some indications that Fucaia perhaps had enlarged gums. "We think that Fucaia was similar to modern dolphins in capturing its prey using its teeth and perhaps strong suction. Suction feeding likely enabled early whales to move from a tooth-based feeding style to filter-feeding, by allowing them to capture smaller prey items than teeth alone could handle," Dr Marx says. The researchers note that suction feeding can still be seen in living grey whales. "This behaviour may have prompted the evolution of baleen from the enlarged gums, possibly as a more efficient way to expel the water sucked in with the food. As the prey became smaller, teeth became increasingly obsolete and, ultimately, were lost completely in modern baleen whales," says Professor Fordyce. What is it? A fossil partial skull, teeth, and associated skeleton of a small toothed whale, estimated 2-2.5 m long. This tiny whale was an adult individual, judging from fused bones in the skeleton. The species is new to science, and is named Fucaia buelli. Fucaia is named after the Strait of Juan da Fuca, in honour of its origin along the shores of those waters. Its second name, buelli, honours the exceptional illustrations of extinct whales produced by palaeo-artist Carl Buell. Fucaia belongs in a well-known extinct group, the family Aetiocetidae. (There is no common name for that group, but the meaning is roughly "beginning whale.") Such animals are transitional between toothed archaic whales and modern baleen whales. The specimen is from the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, at the University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, USA. Fucaia was probably an active hunter. It may have used suction to "vacuum" small prey into its mouth. Wear patterns on the teeth indicate that Fucaia used its teeth to secure and chew its food. The small body size suggests that the species had a limited range, and did not migrate like the large whales of modern oceans. The single known specimen of Fucaia buelli is from a shoreline outcrop on the north coast of the Olympic Peninsula, Washington State. Fucaia buelli lived early in Oligocene times, some 33-31 million years ago. At that time, the region that is now Olympic Peninsula was under-sea. At a global scale, this was a time of climate change. The earth changed from warm and even tropical "greenhouse" conditions to cooler "icehouse" conditions which saw ice-caps develop on Antarctica. The fossil was recovered as a cemented boulder (or concretion), by James L. Goedert and Bruce Crowley of the Burke Museum, University of Washington. Goedert is a well-known fossil collector, with many important finds to his credit. In the lab, the fossil was extracted from its surrounding matrix using pneumatic chisels and dilute acid. The preparation was carried out at the Burke Museum, University of Washington, and at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand. All the participating scientists are carrying out research on fossils to help understand the history of whales and dolphins. This study is one of several studies based on whale and dolphin fossils of the Burke Museum, University of Washington. Explore further: Researcher finds missing link between ancient toothed whales and modern baleen whales More information: Marx FG, Tsai C-H, Fordyce RE. 2015 A new Early Oligocene toothed 'baleen' whale (Mysticeti: Aetiocetidae) from western North America: one of the oldest and the smallest. Royal Society Open Science 2: 150476. dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsos.150476
News Article | January 25, 2017
Human beings share their place with lizards, they live in our gardens, garages and many other hidden corners in our homes. A new study now reveals that even dinosaurs had to share their world with this creature. Paleontologists from University of Washington and the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture have gotten hold of a fossil skeleton of an ancient lizard from a dinosaur nesting site at the Egg Mountain in Montana. The lead author of the study - David DeMar - noted that it's a little unusual to unearth a completely fossilized skeleton of such a small creature like a lizard. This ancient lizard which was probably alive 75 million years ago has thorough descriptions laid down in a paper. The name of the paper is based on the species and is entitled Magnuviator ovimonsensis. The study aids in comprehending and determining the evolution of lizards and how they increased in the age of dinosaurs. Various facets of the study have reshaped the view of scientists regarding the lizards' bio-diversity and its activity in the complex ecosystem during the Cretaceous Period. After running a complete analysis of the skeleton of the Magnuviator ovimonsensis, experts opined that the creature happens to be an ancient offshoot of iguanian lizards. It also happens to be the oldest and most complete iguanian fossil from both North and South America. In the modern world, iguanians imply chameleons, iguanas, anoles and the basilisks. However, going by the Magnuviator ovimonsensis, it happens to be more of a distant relative of modern lizards which came into existence after the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs along with other lizards and creatures, 66 million years ago. The conclusion has been drawn after a rigorous study of the specimens unearthed from the Egg Mountain. The study also involved two rounds of CT scans, one was held at the Seattle Children's Hospital while the other was at the American Museum of Natural History. While the first scan was aimed at narrowing down the fossil location within the larger sections of the rock, the second one looked to determine the digital reconstruction of the skull's anatomy. The study concluded that the Magnuviator ovimonsensis is a completely new species bearing a striking resemblance to the iguanians from the Cretaceous Period of Mongolia and not the fossil lizards from the Americas. "These ancient lineages are not the iguanian lizards which dominate parts of the Americas today, such as anoles and horned lizards. So discoveries like Magnuviator give us a rare glimpse into the types of 'stem' lizards that were present before the extinction of the dinosaurs," says DeMar. He added that Magnuviator ovimonsensis were not plant eaters since it did not possess the significant metabolism which was required to digest any plant material. Regardless of its diet, researchers have hypothesized that the species may have gone extinct almost during the same time frame as the avian dinosaurs. The study has been published in the journal - Proceedings of the Royal Society B. © 2017 Tech Times, All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.
News Article | March 30, 2016
The cabinets of the Field Museum in Chicago hold a collection of eggs that led to one of the most famous conservation discoveries of the twentieth century: that the pesticide DDT was causing widespread nesting failures in birds of prey. But such specimen troves — which are used to identify species, track diseases and study climate change — have lost a valuable means of support. Last week, the US National Science Foundation (NSF) announced that it would indefinitely suspend a programme that provides funding to maintain biological research collections. The agency will honour current grants, but it is not accepting new proposals. “It’s surprising and disheartening,” says Christian Sidor, a palaeontologist at the University of Washington in Seattle and curator of vertebrate palaeontology at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, also in Seattle. “It rattled through the entire museum yesterday.” He and other researchers are worried because the NSF is one of the only public providers of funds to maintain specimen collections. It awards between US$3 million and $5 million a year in grants for such collections, equivalent to roughly 0.06% of the agency’s $7.5-billion budget for fiscal year 2016. (Individual grants are capped at $500,000.) And although the phrase 'biological collections' might call to mind images of dusty museum drawers, these resources are as likely to include jars of fish larvae collected last week as they are pressed plants from 100 years ago. “Our fish collection, for example, is the repository for NOAA for the North Pacific,” said Sidor. NOAA — the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — uses the specimens collected each year to assess fish abundance and set fishing quotas. The NSF says that it is evaluating the collections grant programme, and is thus unable to say whether the funding hiatus is temporary or permanent. “That depends on the results of the evaluation,” says Muriel Poston, director of NSF’s Division of Biological Infrastructure. The programme “could be reinstated, but potentially with a new focus”, she adds. (In the meantime, the NSF Division of Biological Infrastructure is soliciting feedback on the programme.) That doesn’t satisfy scientists, many of whom took to Twitter to express their dismay. Felisa Smith, an ecologist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, wrote: “What gives? Biological collections are the bedrock of a lot of contemporary science!” Comparing modern plants or animals to preserved specimens can help scientists to understand how the climate is changing, how species have responded to past changes and how they are likely to behave in the future. Museum collections can also help scientists to determine a species’ historic range, which can illuminate whether a modern population is endangered or threatened. Other researchers use collections to map and study invasive or otherwise harmful species, to identify insect pests, and to track species that carry human diseases. Rodent collections, for instance, helped researchers to determine the factors that led to an outbreak of hantavirus in the southwestern United States in 1993. The virus is spread by rodent droppings and can cause a fatal lung disease in humans. “Without natural history collections, we are blind to the arrival of new pest species,” tweeted Alex Wild, curator of entomology at the University of Texas at Austin. “Without natural history collections, we are blind to both new species and species extinctions. Someone is going to have to produce funding for research collections, or we will lose the biology that lets us identify species.” As technology improves, Sidor says, scientists could use specimens for purposes that the original collectors could never have anticipated. For example, DNA sequencing of museum specimens has helped to identify previously unknown species — some collected before DNA was discovered. Many museums are pushing to digitize their collections, which improves global access to information — indeed, the NSF's programme to support digitizing collections remains unchanged. But “there’s no point digitizing if we don’t take care of the collections themselves”, says Barbara Thiers, director of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium at the New York Botanical Garden. “You certainly can’t get any DNA out of an image.”
News Article | November 18, 2015
The story of the Puget Sound’s environmental health may come from a microscopic storyteller. Foraminifera are single-celled organisms found in all marine environments. The morphology of their shell-like chambers varies immensely. According to Univ. of Washington, there are two major groups of foraminifera: one that produces shells built from calcium carbonate, and another that builds its shell by compiling tiny grains of sediment. By studying 120 shell samples, collected between 1974 and 2009 from the Bellingham Bay and the Sinclair and Dyes inlets (both near Bremerton), postdoctoral researcher Ruth Martin and associate professor Liz Nesbitt determined the diversity and number of foraminifera are on the decline. “Even though chemical analysis of the water suggest Bellingham Bay and Bremerton waters are healthy, foraminifera are telling us a different story,” said Nesbitt, who is the curator of invertebrate and micropaleontology at the university’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. “However, it is important for us to provide independent, scientific studies for society to then decide how to best address the health of the Puget Sound.” Nesbitt and Martin’s studies were published in Marine Micropaleontology and Marine Pollution Bulletin. Though some foraminifera species are particularly sensitive to environmental stressors, others are more tolerant and thrive despite pollution from sewage or industrial waste. “The embayments, Sinclair and Dyes inlets, have been subjected to contamination by military, industrial, residential and agricultural effluents for over 100 years, resulting in some of the most toxic marine sediments in Puget Sound,” the researchers write. “(We) found that benthic foraminiferal assemblages were notably of low species diversity and strongly dominated by species tolerant of various contaminants and dysoxia. Foraminiferal density and diversity deteriorated between 1974 and 2008, with Sinclair Inlet showing a near collapse of foraminiferal assemblages by 2008.” The reason behind the decline remains elusive. However, the researchers believe the shells may hold clues. A healthy shell from the foraminifera species Elphidiella hannai appears smooth, its shell completing a full spiral. An unhealthy specimen is bumpy, marred by disintegration. “The dissolved foraminifera are indirect evidence of acidity in the water,” said Maritn. “In the future, collecting pH and dissolved oxygen levels at the bottom of the water would help confirm acidification in Bellingham Bay and the inlets of Bremerton.” Currently, Martin and Nesbitt are investigating the health of foraminifera in the neighboring Commencement Bay.
News Article | February 20, 2017
Experts collaborated to create a bust showing how Kennewick Man, also known as the Ancient One, may have looked. (Sculpted bust by StudioEIS; forensic facial reconstruction by sculptor Amanda Danning; photograph by Brittany Tatchell / Smithsonian) After more than 20 years, one of anthropology’s most contentious cases was closed over the weekend with the reburial of the 9,000-year-old remains of Kennewick Man, now better known as the Ancient One. More than 200 people, including members of five Native American tribes, gathered at an undisclosed site on the Columbia River Plateau early Saturday to bury the remains in accordance with centuries-old funerary rituals, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation said in a news release. “This is a big day, and our people have come to witness and honor our ancestor,” said Armand Minthorn, a member of the Umatilla tribes’ board of trustees and Longhouse leader. “We continue to practice our beliefs and laws as our Creator has given us since time immemorial.” The reburial marks the final chapter in a saga that began in 1996, when two college students spotted the Ancient One’s skeleton along the banks of the Columbia River near Kennewick, Wash. Experts recovered and studied the remains, determining that they were roughly 9,000 years old. Archaeologists initially said the proportions of the skull were a closer match for Europeans than for Native Americans, setting off a years-long debate over the Ancient One’s origins. Five Pacific Northwest tribes pressed the Army Corps of Engineers, which had jurisdiction over the bones, to hand them over for repatriation in accordance with federal law. However, a group of scientists sued to block the handover, arguing that the skeleton was not associated with a present-day tribe. Federal judges sided with the scientists, and the 380 bones and bone fragments were made available for study. Once the studies were complete, the corps had the remains locked away at Seattle’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. The big break in the case came in 2015, when scientists announced that DNA extracted from a hand bone was a relatively close match to an individual from the Colville confederation, one of the five tribes that originally filed suit. (The others are the Umatilla, Yakama, Nez Perce and Wanapum.) Further studies confirmed that the skeleton’s characteristics were in the proper range for Native Americans, leading to a definitive ruling from the Army Corps of Engineers. Late last year, federal legislation cleared the way for handing over the remains. Representatives of the five tribes, the Army Corps of Engineers and state officials gathered at the Burke Museum on Friday for the formal handover. The remains, including a stone spear point that was found embedded in the Ancient One’s pelvis, were driven in a caravan for an overnight stop in Richland, Wash., according to a Seattle Times account. The reburial site took place the next morning. The tribes have said the location will remain undisclosed to guard against the possibility of future desecration.