Author Interview: Kimi Chapelle & Massospondylus Skull Anatomy

0000-0002-8715-2896 I’m a huge anatomy geek, and love papers that figure and describe the nooks and crannies of skulls. The increasingly widespread use of digital scans, coupled with the unfettering of page and color limitations

News about ancient humanity: Humans in California 130,000 years ago? Homo naledi find is much younger than expected

0000-0002-8715-2896 News about ancient humanity: Humans in California 130,000 years ago? Homo naledi find is much younger than expected   Posted May 5, 2017 by Tabitha M. Powledge in Uncategorized post-info AddThis Sharing Buttons above

Gone Fishin’ in the Cretaceous: A New Species of Acanthomorph from Canada

fishFiguring out fish relationships is no small feat. From Near et al. 2013) For being one of the largest groups of vertebrates, and having one of the richer fossil records among organisms, the relationships of

Read All About it: PLOS ONE in the News

Polar_Bear_AdF Polar Bear jumping, in Spitsbergen Island, Svalbard, Norway. Arturo de Frias MarquesThis December, the Press team is reflecting on some of the PLOS ONE articles covered in the news in 2015. Over the past year ~2,000 PLOS ONE publications were covered in over 6,000 news stories.

Printing the Past: Putting a Prehistoric Mystery Lizard Back Together Again

The size, shape, and solidity of an egg can tell us a lot, but until we can see inside, there is still an opportunity for surprise. Unfortunately, when you have an ancient fossilized lizard egg, you can’t just crack it … Continue reading »

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All about the fossilized bones of (maybe) Homo naledi

SIX WOMEN UNEARTHED A NEW HUMAN SPECIES As you know, most fields of science, especially the ones best beloved by media, are dominated by white guys. Paleoanthropology, for example. Unless you are pretty familiar with human paleontology, Meave Leakey is … Continue reading »

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Sunday Science Poem: How Fossils Inspire Awe

Lindley Williams Hubbell’s’ “Ordovician Fossil Algae” (1965)

To become a fossil, it takes a lot of luck. Your carcass needs to be buried rapidly and then lie undisturbed for tens of thousands, hundreds of millions, or even billions of years. It’s a process that seems best suited to tough, hardy organisms – ancient sea shells, armored trilobites and giant dinosaur bones are what typically comes to mind when we think of fossils. Delicate and beautifully detailed fossils of the gently curved leaves and stems of exotic plants, the veined wings of strange insects, and the mussed feathers of dinosaurs defy our expectations. Fossils that capture such fragile details are a startlingly clear window to an alien world. At the same time they make that world seem very familiar.

In Lindley Williams Hubbell’s poem about fossils, it’s this defiance of expectations that induces a sense of awe and a feeling of the continuity of life across “some odd billion years.” Hubbell is particularly inspired by the fern-like fossil algae from the Ordovician Period, which followed the Cambrian, beginning about 490 million years ago and lasting for about 45 million years. The Ordovician was a great period of invertebrates and algae, all living in the oceans. Vertebrates, particularly jawless, armored fish, were also beginning to show up in greater numbers. And by the end of the Ordovician, there was a major development: the earliest fossils of land-dwelling organisms appear. It was a time of major change and and also major extinction.

Hubbell’s poem beautifully captures how the delicate fossil algae bring together opposite impressions, a sense of fragility and permanence, distance and immediacy (“a billion years at my elbow”), and thereby inspire a tremendous sense of awe and pleasure.

Ordovician Fossil Algae

This is the oldest book
That I can read with pleasure.
The Cambrian trilobite
Is an unpleasant sight,
As for Pre-Cambrian algae I look and look
And cannot see them, though I'm told they're there.

But these
Exquisite fern-like forms
Printed on the rock,
These fragile plants that have survived the storms
Of some odd billion years
Move me almost to tears.

So I come here often
To see these delicate stems
Breathed on the rock like frost crystals on a window,
But permanently,
But forever.
This rock is my favorite book, my favorite picture,
My dependable scripture,
My sense of wholeness, a billion years at my elbow.

From American Poetry: The Twentieth Century, Vol. 2 (New York: The Library of America, 2000), originally published in Seventy Poems (Denver: Swallow Press, 1965). Reprinted in accordance with the Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Poetry.

Image of Lake Winnipeg fossil algae, via the University of California Museum of Paleontology.


Filed under: Follies of the Human Condition Tagged: fossils, science poetry, Sunday Poem

Fossilized Footprints Lead Scientists Down a Prehistoric Path

Whether tromping alone or running in a pack, all prehistoric creatures got around somehow. Paleontologists can use fossilized bones to learn more about what dinosaurs ate, what they looked like, and even how they might have moved, but bones are … Continue reading »

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The Figure Makes the Fossil

As I wrap up revisions on a manuscript, as well as continuing the day to day work in “my” museum collection, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a good figure of a fossil. The thought is driven in …

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Sharing is Caring: Varied Diets in Dinosaurs Promoted Coexistence

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Everyone loves a good dinosaur discovery. Though they’re few and far between, sometimes we get lucky, finding feather imprints, mohawks, or birthing sites that reinvigorate public interest and provide bursts of insight about how they ruled the Earth …

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