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paleo

Down to Earth With: Paleoanthropologist and underground astronaut Lindsay Hunter

In 2013, Lindsay Hunter found herself at a personal and professional crossroads. She had gone through a divorce, left the paleoanthropology doctoral program at the University of Iowa, where she had received her master’s in 2004, and moved, along with her three dogs and two cats, to live with her parents on a farm outside Austin, Texas.

25 Mar 2019

Frogs fill in post-Gondwana picture

The positions of landmasses after the breakup of Gondwana during the late Mesozoic and early Paleogene are highly debated, especially the configurations of the Indian and Australian plates around the newly opening Indian Ocean. In a new study, the paleogeographic and genetic distributions of a group of frogs called Natatanurans were used to test the various post-breakup models — and the results bring additional clarity to the post-Gondwana puzzle.

22 Mar 2019

Neanderthals and humans suffered similar levels of head injuries

Paleolithic Neanderthals have traditionally been depicted as more aggressive than Homo sapiens, and reliant on inferior hunting techniques with close-range weapons that would have put them at greater risk of suffering gruesome injuries and shortened life spans. A seemingly high incidence of Neanderthal remains bearing evidence of traumatic injuries has helped shape the narrative that they lived harder, more violent lives and died younger than their modern human neighbors. But a new study in Nature looking at skull injuries in Eurasian hominids casts doubt on this brutish stereotype.

19 Mar 2019

Hard-knock hominid skeletons tell harsh tales

The Pleistocene was a hard time for hominids. Homo fossils from this period, when humans evolved and expanded from Africa and across Eurasia, are riddled with an unusual number of skeletal abnormalities. Swollen braincases, bowed femurs, twisted long bones, pronounced dwarfism and malformed teeth are just a few of the unusual skeletal features found in many Pleistocene hominid fossils. A new statistical study has confirmed that these anomalies occur at higher-than-expected rates in the Pleistocene fossil record. But whether this elevated incidence was mainly caused by nutritional stress or inbreeding, or if it’s an artifact of preservational bias, is unknown.

15 Mar 2019

Dinosaur soft tissues preserved as polymers

Since 2005, several samples of ostensibly soft tissue, such as blood vessels and bits of organic bone material, have been gleaned from dinosaur bones. The finds have stirred debate because the notion that intact dinosaur proteins could survive tens of millions of years has proved a tantalizing but difficult pill to swallow for many paleontologists. In a new study, however, researchers have identified a chemical pathway — well known in food science but not seen before in paleontology — that may be the key to long-term preservation of soft-tissue structures.

12 Mar 2019

Earliest bird-like lungs found in China

Before birds took to the air, a number of anatomical features evolved that allowed them to get off the ground. While many of these features were skeletal adaptations that have been well-documented in the fossil record, when exactly the large-volume lungs needed to power flight developed has long been a mystery. But the recent discovery of a unique fossil bearing a significant amount of preserved soft tissue, including lung tissue, has shed light on how early birds adapted to breathe in flight.

26 Feb 2019

Benchmarks: February 17, 2017: Arkansas Gets a State Dinosaur

In 1972, the first dinosaur remains ever found in Arkansas — a fossilized foot — were pulled out of a gravel and sand pit near the Sevier County town of Lockesburg in the southwestern part of the state. Though the foot remained a scientific mystery for decades, it became something of a local celebrity.

17 Feb 2019

Free swimmers came back first after Great Dying

About 252 million years ago, at the boundary between the Permian and Triassic periods, the vast majority of marine and terrestrial life died out in the most devastating extinction event in Earth’s history. Earth’s ecosystems eventually recovered, but not in the way — or as quickly as — scientists thought. In a new study looking at how marine species reemerged in the Triassic, researchers report a surprising trend of recovery from the top of the food chain down.

14 Feb 2019

"Cradle of Humankind" fossils can now be dated

Robyn Pickering was taught as an undergraduate about a collection of limestone caves in northern South Africa known collectively as the Cradle of Humankind for the trove of early hominin fossils discovered there. She learned that, unlike hominin fossils unearthed in East Africa, whose ages have been constrained by dating the surrounding layers of volcanic ash, the fossils in the Cradle — including well-preserved specimens of Australopithecus africanus and the recently discovered Homo naledi, among others — were impossible to date independently. Now, Pickering, an isotope geochemist at the University of Cape Town, and her colleagues have figured out a way to date the South African fossils after all. In a recent study published in Nature, the researchers report ages for flowstones — horizontal deposits of calcium carbonate that form natural cements on cave floors — across eight caves in the Cradle of Humankind. The flowstones sandwich fossil-bearing sediment layers, allowing age ranges for the fossils to be determined.

05 Feb 2019

Mesosaurs may have spent time on land

Mesosaurs are famous for being the earliest-known fully aquatic reptiles. With their whip-like tails, webbed feet and nostrils on top of their heads, the 2-meter-long reptiles appear to have been well adapted for life in the water. But in a new study, scientists have found fossil evidence that mesosaurs may have spent some of their adult lives on land.

21 Jan 2019

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