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Bigger is better in the sea

Since first appearing in the fossil record more than 550 million years ago, complex animals have steadily grown in average size, from millimeters to meters to many meters in length. This tendency of species to evolve toward larger sizes over time — known as Cope’s rule — has been studied before in individual species, such as horses and clams, but a new dataset of thousands of marine animals is giving scientists their first large-scale look at how Cope’s rule applies to whole ecosystems over hundreds of millions of years.
28 Jun 2015

Tiny plant fossils offer big view of ancient ecosystems

A key part in understanding a terrestrial ecosystem is analyzing its vegetation structure: How dense is the foliage? Is its canopy open or closed? How much sunlight reaches the ground? Answering these questions about a modern plant community is relatively easy, but for paleoecosystems, such analysis has not been possible until recently. Now, a new study published in Science reports a novel way to create what lead author Regan Dunn calls a “3-D look” at ancient ecosystems.
13 Jun 2015

The new anthropology: From bones and stones to biology and behavior

Paleoanthropology is embracing a more integrated approach to understanding our ancestors’ biology and behavior, overturning long-held narratives of human evolution.

15 May 2015

Amber-encased plant could be oldest known grass: Specimen may also preserve a Cretaceous-aged hallucinogen

Delicate grasses don’t preserve well in the fossil record, and evidence for grasses coexisting with dinosaurs is scant. But according to a new study, a chunk of 100-million-year-old amber recently discovered in Myanmar appears to contain the world’s oldest grass fossil — far more ancient than any fossil grasses previously found. What’s more, the specimen seems to be topped with the world’s oldest known ergot — a fungus containing ingredients used to make lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as LSD. But while the image of a 100-metric-ton sauropod grazing on hallucinogen-laced grass is intriguing, not everybody is convinced that the specimen is the real deal.

12 May 2015

Earliest primates were tree dwellers

The first primates evolved shortly after the mass extinction of the dinosaurs about 66 million years ago. But whether these small mammals lived on the ground or in trees has puzzled paleontologists, who only had fossil teeth and jaws to examine, which left much of the animals' appearance and behavior a mystery.

24 Apr 2015

Soft-bodied fossils cast in fool's gold

Most of the fossil record is composed of hard bones and shells — only a handful of places preserve fossils of soft-bodied organisms from early in Earth’s evolutionary history. The processes by which these delicate fossils form are not well understood, but a new study looking at an assemblage of 550-million-year-old soft-bodied fossils found in China sheds light on one potential mechanism.

10 Apr 2015

One-of-a-kind dinosaur skull goes digital

Some dinosaur species are only known from a single skull, and gaining access to study such rare and fragile fossils can be difficult, especially if the skull is stored in a far-flung place like a museum in Mongolia. Now, a new technique using medical CT scans and digital imaging to create a digital model of fossils will allow such rarities to be studied by lots of eyes, all over the world, without damaging or transporting the delicate original.

14 Mar 2015

Tricky take-off limited pterosaur size

Pterosaurs are the largest flying animals in Earth’s history — some boasted nearly double the wingspan of the largest flying birds. But just how big the airborne reptiles grew and what kept them from achieving even greater sizes are outstanding questions. Now, a new study examining the mechanics of pterosaur flight suggests that taking off was perhaps the trickiest part of flying for pterosaurs, and likely constrained their size more so than other factors.

12 Mar 2015

Early horse history written in Indian coal mine

Modern horses, rhinos and tapirs — all ungulates with an odd number of toes — belong to a group of animals called Perissodactyla. The oldest Perissodactyla fossils date from the Early Eocene Epoch about 56 million years ago, but the animals’ earlier evolution remains a mystery. Now, a discovery in India suggests that the group likely originated on the Indian subcontinent when it was still an island on a collision course with Asia.

10 Mar 2015

Fossil leaves reveal effect of "impact winter"

When the Chicxulub bolide struck the Yucatán Peninsula at the end of the Cretaceous about 66 million years ago, widespread extinctions of land and marine animals resulted. However, the blast’s lasting effects on plants, which tend to be more resilient against impact-related fallout, have been less clear. Now, a new analysis of fossil leaves dating to around the end-Cretaceous offers some of the first quantitative evidence of a substantial shift in plant communities — toward more deciduous plants — following the impact.

05 Mar 2015