Thursday, February 24, 2011

Dreaming of Dinosaur Dreaming

Humans like to celebrate anniversaries during their lifetimes in fives and tens, which I like to think is a direct reflection of a much longer evolutionary heritage. For instance, why fives and tens, and not, say, threes or sevens? Look at your hands and feet, count your fingers and toes, and see what totals you get for each appendage (yakuza excluded). These numbers are a result of our having descended from synapsids (“mammal-like reptiles”) that likewise had five digits on each end of four limbs. In fact, all mammals are synapsids, and the last common ancestor synapsids shared with dinosaurs and other egg-laying reptiles was more than 300 million years ago. Humans and most other mammals don’t lay eggs (albeit, some placental mammals like to hatch from eggs), but a few still do – monotremes, such as platypuses and echindnas – thus demonstrating a lingering trait of this reptilian ancestry.

So it was this week that I was reminded of a five-year anniversary, the evolutionary history of mammals, and our long-lost connection to dinosaurs, thoughts that all coincided as they were triggered by remembering the Dinosaur Dreaming dig site in Victoria, Australia.

No, these people are not incarcerated and carrying out their sentences by cracking rocks all day in the summer sun. They actually are: volunteers at the annual Dinosaur Dreaming dig site in coastal Victoria, Australia; looking for fossils of Cretaceous dinosaurs, mammals, turtles, and other animals; and very much enjoy doing this. Really.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Of Min Min Lights and Ichthyosaurs

As loyal readers know from previous entries, following field work in Victoria, my wife Ruth and I went on a paleontologically themed “drive-about” (as opposed to walkabout) in western Queensland last July 2010. We started in Townsville, and went west from there (after all, going east would have put us in the Coral Sea). We then paused for a fun day and night in Hughenden, followed by three glorious days and nights in Winton. Where to go next for a married couple in pursuit of more knowledge about fossils and their role in inspiring the human imagination in Australia? Well, how about Boulia?

An artistic recreation of Cretaceous ichthyosaurs frolicking like dolphins at the Stone House Museum in Boulia, Queensland (Australia), thus providing a good example of how convergent evolution influences art: mural by Rona Thoragood (1997). For more about intersections between paleontology and art in outback Queensland, check out Ruth Schowalter’s (Hallelujah Truth’s) musings here and here.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Diving Down Under in the Cretaceous Sea

Cyclone Yasi - the massive tropical storm that hit Queensland, Australia last week – was a Category 5 hurricane, with winds well in excess of 250 km/hr (> 150 mph) at one point. Once it reached that place where the land meets the sea, it smashed a large area from Cairns to Townsville, its eye passing over Mission Beach, then Tully, places I have visited twice with study-abroad students from Emory University. The cyclone continued inland, bringing high winds and heaps of rain to communities inland that normally stay dry: Hughenden, Winton, Richmond, Boulia, and Mt. Isa. As expected, entire beaches vanished, coastal forests were torn apart, and property damage was excessive. Fortunately, though, very few people were injured, a direct result of excellent emergency preparedness by the Australian people and government.
The path of Cyclone Yasi (top), compared to a paleogeographic map of Cretaceous Queensland (bottom). Sometimes the sea comes back to visit, however briefly and horrifically. Cyclone track map is from Wikipedia Commons, and paleogeographic map was in the Museum of Tropical Queensland, Townsville, Australia, a place that was hit hard by Yasi just last week.