When agriculture went to our heads

The dawn of agriculture left an indelible mark on early human societies, and a new study finds that eating softer, cultivated foods subtly changed the shape of human skulls. Scientists have long suspected that the transition from hunting and foraging to farming and raising livestock would have affected our skulls, specifically the mandible and other anatomy involved in chewing, but quantifying such changes has proven difficult.

01 Nov 2017

Another whiptail dinosaur added to sauropod family tree

With their massive size, long necks and whip-like tails, the sauropods are one of the most recognizable dinosaur groups. They grew as large as 100 metric tons, and it seems their huge frames were an effective adaptation: The sauropods were among the most diverse dinosaur groups, with more than 15 species known from North America alone. That list is now one species longer, with the identification of a new species based on a specimen found in Wyoming in 1995.

25 Oct 2017

Chemical clues illuminate fossil plant relationships

To reconstruct relationships among extinct plants and animals, paleontologists often compare genetic sequences from distinct organisms or analyze differences in fossil shapes. But both techniques have limitations: DNA does not last more than about a million years in the rock record, so genetic comparisons are typically limited to relatively recent species; and finding fossils intact enough to use for shape comparisons can be difficult. In a recent study, scientists describe a new technique that could help get around these issues — for some plants at least — using molecular remnants that are more robust than DNA and are preserved in fossil leaves.

17 Oct 2017

Cretaceous collagen: Can molecular paleontology glean soft tissue from dinosaurs?

In 2005, a team of molecular paleontologists reported the discovery of soft tissue from a 68-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex femur. In the decade since that controversial find, evidence has mounted that dinosaur soft tissue — which could help paleontologists answer long-standing questions about dinosaur physiology — can be recovered.

16 Oct 2017

Can preserved proteins reveal paint-by-numbers plumage?

Some of the most compelling dinosaur fossils are those found with clearly defined feathers. Feathers may seem fragile and unlikely to be preserved, but in fact they’re composed of durable keratin, one of the toughest natural proteins. Additionally, some fossil feathers unearthed are speckled with tiny black dots, which, according to different studies, could be remnants of either bacteria or melanosomes. Melanosomes are organelles that produce and store melanin, the main source of pigment in feathers. If melanosomes are indeed preserved in some ancient fossils, they could reveal information about dinosaur coloration and plumage — and represent further evidence of preserved proteins in dinosaurs.

16 Oct 2017

Neolithic farmers impacted sedimentation

The Neolithic Revolution, also known as the Agricultural Revolution, started in the Middle East about 11,500 years ago when people moved away from nomadic hunting and gathering toward more settled agricultural communities where they raised livestock and cultivated crops. In a new study of the Dead Sea Basin, researchers found that this turning point may also mark the first time that humans made a measurable impact on sedimentation rates.

29 Sep 2017

Down to Earth With: Paleobiologist Gregory Erickson

As an undergraduate at the University of Washington, Gregory Erickson wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. He started out as an engineering major, then dabbled with getting a degree in wildlife management. In 1986, having taken numerous science courses, he happened to compare notes with his best friend, a geology major, and realized he was just a few courses shy of obtaining a geology degree himself. Eager to finish college, Erickson signed up for a class in vertebrate paleontology focusing on dinosaurs — a decision that ultimately changed his life.

22 Sep 2017

End of ice age may have been too wet for megafauna

Between 15,000 and 11,000 years ago, dozens of ice-age megafauna species went extinct. Various causes, from climate-driven habitat changes to overhunting to extraterrestrial impacts, have been cited for these extinctions. But new research looking at fossils of large herbivores such as bison, horses and llama supports the idea that a worldwide uptick in moisture was a main driver of the extinction trend.

08 Sep 2017

Asymmetrical fossil feathers fill in timeline of flight

To get off the ground and evolve into flying birds, dinosaurs got a lift from asymmetrical feathers, which are more aerodynamic than symmetrical feathers. The discovery of a new species of asymmetrically feathered dinosaur in northeastern China from the Early Cretaceous is helping fill in the timeline of adaptations that led to flight.

29 Aug 2017

T. rex's bone-crushing bite

In a landscape rife with fearsome predators, Tyrannosaurus rex carved out a bone-crushing niche. New research analyzing the force generated by T. rex’s massive jaws found that the terrible tyrant’s bite could exert a pressure of more than 30,300 kilograms per square centimeter (431,000 pounds per square inch): a world record.

24 Aug 2017