Benchmarks: July 11, 1997: Neanderthal DNA unraveled

On July 11, 1997, six scientists announced they had sequenced DNA from a Neanderthal fossil. It was the first time anyone had analyzed the genetics of an extinct hominin, and the findings gave paleoanthropologists a new perspective on Neanderthals’ place in the human family tree.
The team, led by Svante Pääbo, then at the University of Munich in Germany, recovered the DNA from an upper arm bone. The bone was part of a collection of fossils discovered in 1856. Quarrymen working in the Feldhofer Cave in Germany’s Neander Valley found 16 bone fragments — including a skullcap, ribs, arms, legs and part of a hip — from several different individuals. The bones resembled human bones, but there were some striking differences: The skull had pronounced brow ridges and a low, sloping forehead, and the limb bones were extraordinarily thick.
11 Jul 2010

Blogging on EARTH: Ancient whale with a big bite named for Moby Dick author

In a Peruvian desert, scientists discovered the fossils of an extinct whale with a big bite. The whale's teeth and jaws were so powerful that it feasted on other whales.

30 Jun 2010

Do impacts trigger extinctions? Impact theory still controversial

The revolution started with a bang in 1980. For some, this revolution became a religion, even an orthodoxy. The true believers became proselytes and began to see signs supporting their viewpoint everywhere. But each time the proselytes claimed to have found yet another example in support of their “religion,” naysayers and doubters emerged. Two sides formed, each loudly castigating and questioning their opponents.

This back-and-forth ideological debate describes both the historical and still-ongoing struggle over a purported cause of mass extinctions: the meteor impact theory.

23 Jun 2010

Third hominin coexisted with modern humans and Neanderthals

Modern humans and Neanderthals lived side by side on the Eurasian landscape for tens of thousands of years — but it turns out they weren’t alone, much to researchers’ surprise. A team of researchers has found a hominin bone in a Siberian cave containing DNA that doesn’t match up with either known hominin species at that time, the researchers reported in Nature today, indicating that these humans shared the continent with a third, unknown hominin.

24 Mar 2010

Tetrapod tracks reset timing of four-legged evolution

About 18 million years earlier than they were thought to exist, tetrapods — vertebrates with four limbs instead of fins — walked in what is today Poland. A new study published in Nature describes tracks belonging to a tetrapod in a Polish tidal flat, dating to the Middle Devonian period, about 395 million years ago. The discovery may prompt scientists to completely reassess the environment, origins and timing of early tetrapods.

07 Jan 2010

Dinosaurs' active lifestyles suggest they were warm-blooded

Whether dinosaurs were warm-blooded or cold-blooded has been a long-standing question in paleobiology. Now, new research on how two-legged dinosaurs walked and ran adds new evidence to the argument for warm-bloodedness, and suggests that even the earliest dinosaurs may have been warm-blooded.

11 Nov 2009

Are birds dinosaurs? New evidence muddies the picture

In 1861, German paleontologist Christian Erich Hermann von Mayer excavated the fine-grained limestone layers of a quarry near Solnhofen, Germany. The 150-million-year-old limestone had already proven promising for finding fossils: A year earlier, von Mayer had found the imprint of a single feather preserved in the rock. But this time, he discovered something more spectacular: an entire skeleton of what appeared to be an ancient bird.

31 Oct 2009

New cousin joins primate family tree - but it's also no missing link

Blogging on EARTH

Darwinius — the purported primate “missing link” that made headlines last spring — is back, sort of. Scientists have now found a close cousin of the primate — and they say the new fossil is no more a missing link than Darwinius was.

21 Oct 2009

Before Lucy: Older hominid Ardi challenges thinking about human evolution

Lucy, the 3.2-million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis fossil, has long been the poster child for early human evolution. But now she’ll have to share the spotlight with an even older hominid. After spending the last 15 years studying an ancient hominid species about the size of a chimpanzee, scientists revealed details about the 4.4-million-year-old Ardipithecus ramidus in a press conference today.

01 Oct 2009

Mini-T. rex fossil found in China

The Tyrannosaurus rex — arguably the most famous dinosaur of all time — was also one of the most efficient predators to ever walk on Earth. With its powerful jaws, large eyes, strong hind limbs and even tiny arms, the T. rex was uniquely designed to swiftly run down and dispatch prey. But on Wednesday, scientists announced that those characteristic T. rex features were not as unique as once thought: A new fossil find shows that 60 million years earlier, a T.

17 Sep 2009