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Posts from the ‘paleontology’ Category

14
Oct

Research sheds new light on 150-year-old dinosaur temperature debate


Press Release 15-127
Research sheds new light on 150-year-old dinosaur temperature debate

Evidence shows some dinosaurs elevated their body temperatures using heat sources such as the sun

artist rendition of a dinosaur with eggs and two babies

Scientists used a new technique to find out dinosaurs’ body temperatures based on their eggshells.
Credit and Larger Version

October 13, 2015

Were dinosaurs fast, aggressive hunters like those in the movie “Jurassic World”? Or did they have lower metabolic rates that made them more like today’s alligators and crocodiles?

For 150 years, scientists have debated the nature of dinosaurs’ body temperatures and how they influenced activity levels.

Research by National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded scientists, including John Eiler of the California Institute of Technology, indicates that some dinosaurs had the capacity to elevate their body temperatures using heat sources in the environment, such as the sun.

The researchers also believe the animals were probably more active than modern-day alligators and crocodiles, which can be energetic, but only for brief spurts.

The evidence shows that some dinosaurs had lower body temperatures than modern birds, their only living relatives, and were probably less active.

The research results are published today in the journal Nature Communications.

“These scientists used a relatively new isotope analysis technique on fossil eggshells to investigate thermal regulation in non-avian dinosaurs,” says Rich Lane, program director in NSF’s Division of Earth Sciences, which funded the research. “Comparing the results to modern birds sheds light on the evolution of this trait.”

Led by Robert Eagle, a researcher at UCLA, the scientists examined fossilized dinosaur eggshells from Argentina and Mongolia. Analyzing the shells’ chemistry allowed them to determine the temperatures at which the eggshells formed.

“This technique tells you about the internal body temperature of the female dinosaur when she was ovulating,” says Aradhna Tripati, a co-author of the study and a UCLA geologist. “This presents the first direct measurements of theropod body temperatures.”

The Argentine eggshells, which are approximately 80 million years old, are from large, long-necked titanosaur sauropods, members of a family that includes the largest animals to roam the Earth–relatives of Brontosaurus and Diplodocus.

The shells from Mongolia’s Gobi desert, 71 million to 75 million years old, are from oviraptorid theropods, much smaller dinosaurs that were related to Tyrannosaurus rex and birds.

Sauropods’ body temperatures were warm–approximately 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The smaller dinosaurs had substantially lower temperatures, probably below 90 degrees.

Warm-blooded animals, or endotherms, produce heat internally and maintain their body temperatures, regardless of the temperature of their environment; they do so mainly through metabolism. Humans and other mammals fall into this category.

Cold-blooded animals, or ectotherms, including alligators, crocodiles and lizards, rely on external environmental heat sources to regulate their body temperatures. Lizards, for example, often sit on rocks in the sun to absorb heat, which allows them to be active.

Scientists have long debated whether dinosaurs were endotherms or ectotherms. The research indicates that the answer could lie somewhere in between.

“The temperatures we measured suggest that some dinosaurs were not fully endotherms like modern birds,” Eagle says. “They may have been intermediate–somewhere between modern alligators and crocodiles, and modern birds. That’s the implication for the oviraptorid theropods.

“This could mean that they produced some heat internally and elevated their body temperatures above that of the environment, but didn’t maintain as high temperatures or as controlled temperatures as modern birds. If dinosaurs were endothermic to a degree, they had more capacity to run around searching for food than alligators would.”

The researchers also analyzed fossil soils, including minerals that formed in the upper layers of soils on which the oviraptorid theropod nests were built. That enabled them to estimate that the environmental temperature in Mongolia shortly before the dinosaurs went extinct was approximately 79 degrees Fahrenheit.

“The oviraptorid dinosaur body temperatures were higher than the environmental temperatures–suggesting they were not truly cold-blooded, but intermediate,” Tripati says.

Eagle, Tripati and their colleagues initially looked at modern eggshells from 13 bird species and nine reptiles to establish their ability to determine body temperatures from the chemistry of eggshells.

The researchers measured, in calcium carbonate minerals, the subtle differences in the abundance of chemical bonding between two rare, heavy isotopes: carbon-13 and oxygen-18.

They studied the extent to which these heavy isotopes clustered together using a mass spectrometer–a technique that enabled them to determine mineral formation temperatures. Minerals forming inside colder bodies have more clustering of isotopes.

The scientists analyzed six fossilized eggshells from Argentina, three of which were well-preserved, and 13 eggshells from Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, again selecting three that are well-preserved.

The answers offered new insights into dinosaurs’ body temperatures–and a long-standing debate.

Co-authors of the journal paper are also with the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa; Germany’s University of Mainz; Columbia University; California State University, Fullerton; California State University, Los Angeles; Orcas Island Historical Museum; CONICET, Argentina; Boise State University; University of Utah; and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

-NSF-

Media Contacts

Cheryl Dybas, NSF, (703) 292-7734, cdybas@nsf.gov

Stuart Wolpert, UCLA, (310) 206-0511, swolpert@support.ucla.edu

Related Websites
NSF Grant: Insights into Dinosaur Body Temperatures, Physiology, and Environments from Clumped Isotope Thermometry: http://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/showAward?AWD_ID=1024929HistoricalAwards=false

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2015, its budget is $7.3 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives about 48,000 competitive proposals for funding, and makes about 11,000 new funding awards. NSF also awards about $626 million in professional and service contracts yearly.

 Get News Updates by Email 

Useful NSF Web Sites:

NSF Home Page: http://www.nsf.gov
NSF News: http://www.nsf.gov/news/
For the News Media: http://www.nsf.gov/news/newsroom.jsp
Science and Engineering Statistics: http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/
Awards Searches: http://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/

 

17
Jan

Tiny plant fossils offer window into Earth’s landscape millions of years ago


Press Release 15-003
Tiny plant fossils offer window into Earth’s landscape millions of years ago

Fossilized plant pieces tell a detailed story of our planet 50 million years ago

“Hemispherical” photograph of an open habitat at Rincon de la Vieja National Park, Costa Rica.
Credit and Larger Version

January 15, 2015

Minuscule, fossilized pieces of plants tell a detailed story of what Earth looked like 50 million years ago.

Researchers have discovered a way of determining density of trees, shrubs and bushes in locations over time–based on clues in the cells of plant fossils preserved in rocks and soil.

Tree density directly affects precipitation, erosion, animal behavior and a host of other factors in the natural world. Quantifying vegetation structure throughout time could shed light on how Earth’s ecosystems have changed over millions of years.

“Knowing an area’s vegetation structure and the arrangement of leaves on the Earth’s surface is key to understanding the terrestrial ecosystem,” says Regan Dunn, a paleontologist at the University of Washington’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. “It’s the context in which all land-based organisms live, but we didn’t have a way to measure it until now.”

The findings are published in this week’s issue of the journal Science.

New method offers window into distant past

“The new methodology provides a high-resolution lens for viewing the structure of ecosystems over the deep history of our planet,” says Alan Tessier, acting director of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Division of Environmental Biology, which funded the research along with NSF’s Division of Earth Sciences.

“This capability will advance the field of paleoecology and greatly improve our understanding of how future climate change will reshape ecosystems.”

The team focused its fieldwork on several sites in Patagonia, which have some of the best preserved fossils in the world.

For years, paleontologists have painstakingly collected fossils from these sites and worked to precisely determine their ages using radiometric dating. The new study builds on this growing body of knowledge.

In Patagonia and other places, scientists have some idea based on records of fossilized pollen and leaves what species of plants were alive at given periods in history.

For example, the team’s previous work documented vegetation composition for this area.

But there hasn’t been a way to precisely quantify vegetation openness, aside from general speculations of open or bare habitats, as opposed to closed or tree-covered habitats.

“These researchers have developed a new method for reconstructing paleo-vegetation structure in open versus dense forests using plant biosilica, likely to be widely found in the fossil record,” says Chris Liu, program director in NSF’s Division of Earth Sciences.

“Now we have a tool to look at a lot of important intervals in our history where we don’t know what happened to the structure of vegetation,” adds Dunn, such as the period just after the mass extinction that killed the dinosaurs.

“Vegetation structure links all aspects of modern ecosystems, from soil moisture to primary productivity to global climate,” says paper co-author Caroline Stromberg, a curator of paleobotany at the Burke Museum.

“Using this method, we can finally quantify in detail how Earth’s plant and animal communities have responded to climate change over millions of years, vital for forecasting how ecosystems will change under predicted future climate scenarios.”

Plant cell patterns change with sun exposure

Work by other scientists has shown that the cells found in a plant’s outermost layer, called the epidermis, change in size and shape depending on how much sun it’s exposed to while its leaves develop.

For example, the cells of a leaf that grow in deeper shade will be larger and curvier than the cells of leaves that develop in less covered areas.

Dunn and collaborators found that these cell patterns, indicating growth in shade or sun, similarly show up in some plant fossils.

When a plant’s leaves fall to the ground and decompose, tiny silica particles inside the plants, called phytoliths, remain as part of the soil layer.

The phytoliths were found to represent epidermal cell shapes and sizes, indicating whether the plant grew in a shady or open area.

The researchers decided to check their hypothesis by testing it in a modern setting: Costa Rica.

Dunn took soil samples from sites in Costa Rica that varied from covered rainforests to open savannas to woody shrublands.

She also took photos looking directly up at the tree canopy (or lack thereof) at each site, noting the total vegetation coverage.

Back in the lab, she extracted the phytoliths from each soil sample and measured them under the microscope.

When compared with tree coverage estimated from the corresponding photos, Dunn and co-authors found that the curves and sizes of the cells directly related to how shady their environment was.

“Leaf area index” and plant cell structures compared

The researchers characterized the amount of shade as “leaf area index,” a standard way of measuring vegetation over a specific area.

Testing this relationship between leaf area index and plant cell structures in modern environments allowed the scientists to develop an equation that can be used to predict vegetation openness at any time in the past, provided there are preserved plant fossils.

“Leaf area index is a well-known variable for ecologists, climate scientists and modelers, but no one’s ever been able to imagine how you could reconstruct tree coverage in the past–and now we can,” says co-author Richard Madden of the University of Chicago.

“We should be able to reconstruct leaf area index by using all kinds of fossil plant preservation, not just phytoliths. Once that is demonstrated, then the places in the world where we can reconstruct this will increase.”

When Dunn and co-authors applied their method to 40-million-year-old phytoliths from Patagonia, they found something surprising–vegetation was extremely open, similar to a shrubland today. The appearance of these very open habitats coincided with major changes in fauna.

The paleobiologists plan to test the relationship between vegetation coverage and plant cell structure in other regions around the world.

They also hope to find other types of plant fossils that hold the same information at the cellular level as do phytoliths.

Paper co-authors are Matthew Kohn of Boise State University and Alfredo Carlini of Universidad Nacional de La Plata in Argentina.

In addition to NSF, the research was funded by the Geological Society of America, the University of Washington Biology Department and the Burke Museum.

-NSF-

Media Contacts

Cheryl Dybas, NSF, (703) 292-7734, cdybas@nsf.gov

Michelle Ma, University of Washington, (206) 543-2580, mcma@uw.edu

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2014, its budget is $7.2 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives about 50,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes about 11,500 new funding awards. NSF also awards about $593 million in professional and service contracts yearly.

 Get News Updates by Email 

Useful NSF Web Sites:

NSF Home Page: http://www.nsf.gov
NSF News: http://www.nsf.gov/news/
For the News Media: http://www.nsf.gov/news/newsroom.jsp
Science and Engineering Statistics: http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/
Awards Searches: http://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/

 

13
Dec

‘Big bang’ of bird evolution mapped by international research team


Press Release 14-170
‘Big bang’ of bird evolution mapped by international research team

Genes reveal histories of bird origins, feathers, flight and song

Peregrine falcon

Peregrine falcons are more closely related to parrots and songbirds than to hawks, eagles, or owls.
Credit and Larger Version

December 11, 2014

The genomes of modern birds tell a story: Today’s winged rulers of the skies emerged and evolved after the mass extinction that wiped out dinosaurs and almost everything else 66 million years ago.

That story is now coming to light, thanks to an international collaboration that has been underway for four years.

The first findings of the Avian Phylogenomics Consortium are being reported nearly simultaneously in 23 papers–eight papers in a special issue this week of Science, and 15 more in Genome Biology, GigaScience and other journals.

The results are funded in part by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Scientists already knew that the birds that survived the mass extinction experienced a rapid burst of evolution.

But the family tree of modern birds has confused biologists for centuries, and the molecular details of how birds arrived at the spectacular biodiversity of more than 10,000 species was barely known.

How did birds become so diverse?

To resolve these fundamental questions, a consortium led by Guojie Zhang of the National Genebank at BGI in China and the University of Copenhagen; neuroscientist Erich Jarvis of Duke University and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute; and M. Thomas P. Gilbert of the Natural History Museum of Denmark has sequenced, assembled and compared the full genomes of 48 bird species.

The species include the crow, duck, falcon, parakeet, crane, ibis, woodpecker, eagle and others, representing all major branches of modern birds.

“BGI’s strong support and four years of hard work by the entire community have enabled us to answer numerous fundamental questions on an unprecedented scale,” said Zhang.

“This is the largest whole genomic study across a single vertebrate class to date. The success of this project can only be achieved with the excellent collaboration of all the consortium members.”

Added Gilbert, “Although an increasing number of vertebrate genomes are being released, to date no single study has deliberately targeted the full diversity of any major vertebrate group.

“This is what our consortium set out to do. Only with this scale of sampling can scientists truly begin to fully explore the genomic diversity within a full vertebrate class.”

“This is an exciting moment,” said Jarvis. “Lots of fundamental questions now can be resolved with more genomic data from a broader sampling. I got into this project because of my interest in birds as a model for vocal learning and speech production in humans, and it has opened up some amazing new vistas on brain evolution.”

This first round of analyses suggests some remarkable new ideas about bird evolution.

The first flagship paper published in Science presents a well-resolved new family tree for birds, based on whole-genome data.

The second flagship paper describes the big picture of genome evolution in birds.

Six other papers in the special issue of Science report how vocal learning may have independently evolved in a few bird groups and in the human brain’s speech regions; how the sex chromosomes of birds came to be; how birds lost their teeth; how crocodile genomes evolved; and ways in which singing behavior regulates genes in the brain.

New ideas on bird evolution

“This project represents the biggest step forward yet in our understanding of how bird diversity is organized and in time and space,” said paper co-author Scott Edwards, on leave from Harvard University and currently Director of NSF’s Division of Biological Infrastructure.

“Because this information is so fundamental to our understanding of biodiversity, it will help everyone–from birdwatchers to artists to museum curators–better organize knowledge of bird diversity.”

The new bird tree will change the way we think about bird diversity, said Edwards. “The fact that many birds associated with water–loons, herons, penguins, petrels and pelicans–are closely related suggests that adaptations to lakes or seas arose less frequently than we thought.”

Added paper co-author David Mindell, an evolutionary biologist and program director in NSF’s Division of Environmental Biology, “We found strong support for close relationships that might be surprising to many observers.

“Grebes are closely related to flamingos, but not closely related to ducks; falcons are closely related to songbirds and parrots but not closely related to hawks; and swifts are closely related to hummingbirds and not closely related to swallows.”

Genome-scale datasets allowed scientists to “track the sequence of divergence events and their timing with greater precision than previously possible,” said Mindell.

“Most major types of extant birds arose during a 5-10 million year interval at the end of the Cretaceous period and the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs about 66 million years ago.”

It takes a consortium…of 200 scientists, 80 institutions, 20 countries

The Avian Phylogenomics Consortium has so far involved more than 200 scientists from 80 institutions in 20 countries, including the BGI in China, the University of Copenhagen, Duke University, the University of Texas at Austin, the Smithsonian Institution, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Louisiana State University and others.

Previous attempts to reconstruct the avian family tree using partial DNA sequencing or anatomical and behavioral traits have met with contradiction and confusion.

Because modern birds split into species early and in such quick succession, they did not evolve enough distinct genetic differences at the genomic level to clearly determine their early branching order, the researchers said.

To resolve the timing and relationships of modern birds, consortium scientists used whole-genome DNA sequences to infer the bird species tree.

“In the past, people have been using 10 to 20 genes to try to infer the species relationships,” Jarvis said.

“What we’ve learned from doing this whole-genome approach is that we can infer a somewhat different phylogeny [family tree] than what has been proposed in the past.

“We’ve figured out that protein-coding genes tell the wrong story for inferring the species tree. You need non-coding sequences, including the intergenic regions. The protein-coding sequences, however, tell an interesting story of proteome-wide convergence among species with similar life histories.”

Where did all the birds come from?

This new tree resolves the early branches of Neoaves (new birds) and supports conclusions about relationships that have been long-debated.

For example, the findings support three independent origins of waterbirds.

They also indicate that the common ancestor of core landbirds, which include songbirds, parrots, woodpeckers, owls, eagles and falcons, was an apex predator, which also gave rise to the giant terror birds that once roamed the Americas.

The whole-genome analysis dates the evolutionary expansion of Neoaves to the time of the mass extinction event 66 million years ago.

This contradicts the idea that Neoaves blossomed 10 to 80 million years earlier, as some recent studies have suggested.

Based on this new genomic data, only a few bird lineages survived the mass extinction.

They gave rise to the more than 10,000 Neoaves species that comprise 95 percent of all bird species living with us today.

The freed-up ecological niches caused by the extinction event likely allowed rapid species radiation of birds in less than 15 million years, which explains much of modern bird biodiversity.

For answers, new computational tools needed

Increasingly sophisticated and more affordable genomic sequencing technologies, and the advent of computational tools for reconstructing and comparing whole genomes, have allowed the consortium to resolve these controversies with better clarity than ever before, the researchers said.

With about 14,000 genes per species, the size of the datasets and the complexity of analyzing them required new approaches to computing evolutionary family trees.

These were developed by computer scientists Tandy Warnow at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, funded by NSF, Siavash Mirarab of the University of Texas at Austin, and Alexis Stamatakis at the Heidelburg Institute for Theoretical Studies.

Their algorithms required the use of parallel processing supercomputers at the Munich Supercomputing Center, the Texas Advanced Computing Center, and the San Diego Supercomputing Center.

“The computational challenges in estimating the avian species tree used around 300 years of CPU time, and some analyses required supercomputers with a terabyte of memory,” Warnow said.

The bird project also had support from the Genome 10K Consortium of Scientists (G10K), an international science community working toward rapidly assessing genome sequences for 10,000 vertebrate species.

“The Avian Genomics Consortium has accomplished the most ambitious and successful project that the G10K Project has joined or endorsed,” said G10K co-leader Stephen O’Brien, who co-authored a commentary on the bird sequencing project in GigaScience.

-NSF-

Media Contacts

Cheryl Dybas, NSF, (703) 292-7734, cdybas@nsf.gov

Karl Bates, Duke University, (919) 681-8054, karl.bates@duke.edu

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2014, its budget is $7.2 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives about 50,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes about 11,500 new funding awards. NSF also awards about $593 million in professional and service contracts yearly.

 Get News Updates by Email 

Useful NSF Web Sites:

NSF Home Page: http://www.nsf.gov
NSF News: http://www.nsf.gov/news/
For the News Media: http://www.nsf.gov/news/newsroom.jsp
Science and Engineering Statistics: http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/
Awards Searches: http://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/

 

9
Sep

Paleontologists discover new species of titanosaurian dinosaur in Tanzania


Press Release 14-115
Paleontologists discover new species of titanosaurian dinosaur in Tanzania

Rare find of sauropod dinosaur skeleton from Africa

Where did Rukwatitan live? This artist’s rendition shows the dinosaur’s likely paleoenvironment.
Credit and Larger Version

September 8, 2014

For video b-roll associated with this discovery, please contact Dena Headlee at dheadlee@nsf.gov.

Paleontologists have identified a new species of titanosaurian, a member of the large-bodied sauropods that thrived during the final period of the dinosaur age, in Tanzania.

Although many fossils of titanosaurians have been discovered around the globe, especially in South America, few have been recovered from the continent of Africa.

The new species, named Rukwatitan bisepultus, was first spotted embedded in a cliff wall in the Rukwa Rift Basin of southwestern Tanzania.

With the help of professional excavators and coal miners, the scientists unearthed vertebrae, ribs, limbs and pelvic bones over the course of several months.

CT scans of the fossils, combined with detailed comparisons with other sauropods, revealed unique features that suggested an animal that was different from previous finds–including those from elsewhere in Africa, according to a paper published today in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

“This titanosaur finding is rare for Africa, and will help resolve questions about the distribution and regional characteristics of what would later become one of the largest land animals known,” says Paul Filmer, a program director in the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Division of Earth Sciences, which funded the research.

“Titanosaurians make up the vast majority of known Cretaceous sauropods, and have been found on every continent, yet Africa has so far yielded only four formally recognized members.”

Rukwatitan bisepultus lived approximately 100 million years ago during the middle of the Cretaceous Period.

Titanosaurian sauropods, the group that includes Rukwatitan, were herbivorous dinosaurs known for their iconic large body sizes, long necks and wide stance.

Although not among the largest of titanosaurians, Rukwatitan is estimated to have forelimbs reaching 2 meters and may have weighed as much as several elephants.

“Using traditional and new computational approaches, we were able to place the new species within the family tree of sauropod dinosaurs and determine its uniqueness as a species–and to delineate other species with which it is most closely related,” says lead paper author Eric Gorscak, a biologist at Ohio University.

The dinosaur’s bones exhibit similarities with another titanosaurian, Malawisaurus dixeyi, previously recovered in Malawi.

But the two dinosaurs are distinctly different from one another, and from titanosaurians known from northern Africa, says co-author Patrick O’Connor, an anatomist at Ohio University’s Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine.

The fossils of middle Cretaceous crocodile relatives from the Rukwa Rift Basin also exhibit distinctive features when compared to forms from elsewhere on the continent.

“There may have been certain environmental features, such as deserts, large waterways and/or mountain ranges, that would have limited the movement of animals and promoted the evolution of regionally distinct faunas,” O’Connor says.

“Only additional data on faunas and paleoenvironments from around the continent will let us further test such hypotheses.”

In addition to providing new data about species evolution in sub-Saharan Africa, the results contribute to fleshing out the portrait of titanosaurians, which lived in habitats across the globe through the end of the Cretaceous period.

Their rise in diversity came in the wake of the decline of another group of sauropods, the diplodocoids, which include the dinosaur Apatosaurus.

“Much of what we know about titanosaurian evolutionary history stems from numerous discoveries in South America–a continent that underwent a steady separation from Africa during the first half of the Cretaceous Period,” Gorscak says.

“With the discovery of Rukwatitan and study of the material in nearby Malawi, we are beginning to fill a significant gap from a large part of the world.”

Co-authors of the paper are Nancy Stevens of the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine and Eric Roberts of James Cook University of Australia.

The study was also funded by the National Geographic Society, the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine and the Ohio University Office of the Vice President for Research and Creative Activity.

-NSF-

Media Contacts

Cheryl Dybas, NSF, (703) 292-7734, cdybas@nsf.gov

Andrea Gibson, Ohio University, (740) 597-2166, gibsona@ohio.edu

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2014, its budget is $7.2 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives about 50,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes about 11,500 new funding awards. NSF also awards about $593 million in professional and service contracts yearly.

 Get News Updates by Email 

Useful NSF Web Sites:

NSF Home Page: http://www.nsf.gov
NSF News: http://www.nsf.gov/news/
For the News Media: http://www.nsf.gov/news/newsroom.jsp
Science and Engineering Statistics: http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/
Awards Searches: http://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/

 

5
Sep

T. Rex times seven: New dinosaur species is discovered in Argentina


Press Release 14-111
T. Rex times seven: New dinosaur species is discovered in Argentina

Drexel researchers uncover immense, remarkably complete dinosaur skeleton; research team includes three NSF Graduate Research Fellows

Kenneth Lacovara surrounded by the skeleton of Dreadnoughtus schrani.
Credit and Larger Version

September 4, 2014

For video b-roll associated with this discovery, please contact Dena Headlee at dheadlee@nsf.gov.

Scientists have discovered and described a new supermassive dinosaur species with the most complete skeleton ever found of its type. At 85 feet long and weighing about 65 tons in life, Dreadnoughtus schrani is the largest land animal for which a body mass can be accurately calculated.

Its skeleton is exceptionally complete, with over 70 percent of the bones, excluding the head, represented. Because all previously discovered super-massive dinosaurs are known only from relatively fragmentary remains, Dreadnoughtus offers an unprecedented window into the anatomy and biomechanics of the largest animals to ever walk the Earth.

Dreadnoughtus schrani was astoundingly huge,” said Kenneth Lacovara, an associate professor in Drexel University’s College of Arts and Sciences, who discovered the Dreadnoughtus fossil skeleton in southern Patagonia in Argentina and led the excavation and analysis. “It weighed as much as a dozen African elephants or more than seven T. rex. Shockingly, skeletal evidence shows that when this 65-ton specimen died, it was not yet full grown. It is by far the best example we have of any of the most giant creatures to ever walk the planet.”

Lacovara and colleagues published the detailed description of their discovery, defining the genus and species Dreadnoughtus schrani, in the journal Scientific Reports from the Nature Publishing Group today. The new dinosaur belongs to a group of large plant eaters known as titanosaurs. The fossil was unearthed over four field seasons from 2005 through 2009 by Lacovara and a team including Lucio M. Ibiricu of the Centro Nacional Patagonico in Chubut, Argentina; the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Matthew Lamanna, and Jason Poole of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, as well as many current and former Drexel students and other collaborators. These included three current NSF Graduate Research Fellows–current GRF Kristyn Voegele, and former GRFs Elena Schroeter and Paul Ullmann–all co-authors of this paper.

“The quality of this specimen has allowed us to study this new species in numerous aspects giving us closer to a holistic view than is possible for most dinosaur species,” said Voegele. “This could only be accomplished by collaborating with multiple experts–and without this collaboration our knowledge of this taxon would be fragmentary and not live up to the completeness and quality of the specimen. The NSF GRFP has enabled myself and two fellow collaborators to preform detailed analyses of this new species.”

“The fellowship awarded in 2013 acknowledged Kristyn’s scientific potential, and supports her contributions to this exciting discovery,” said Gisele Muller-Parker, program director for the Graduate Research Fellowship Program. “In addition to her research on dinosaur anatomy and biomechanics, Kristyn has been involved in a variety of related outreach activities, including an annual Community Dig Day and a Fossil Discovery Station for school visits at a fossil site in New Jersey.”

NSF funding also included an Earth Sciences award of the Geobiology and Low-Temperature Geochemistry program.

For more information on this research, please go to the Drexel press release.

-NSF-

Media Contacts

Maria C. Zacharias, NSF, (703) 292-8454, mzachari@nsf.gov

Rachel Ewing, Drexel University, (215) 895-2614, re39@drexel.edu

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2014, its budget is $7.2 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives about 50,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes about 11,500 new funding awards. NSF also awards about $593 million in professional and service contracts yearly.

 Get News Updates by Email 

Useful NSF Web Sites:

NSF Home Page: http://www.nsf.gov
NSF News: http://www.nsf.gov/news/
For the News Media: http://www.nsf.gov/news/newsroom.jsp
Science and Engineering Statistics: http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/
Awards Searches: http://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/

 

23
Mar

Before Dinosaurs’ Era, Volcanic Eruptions Triggered Mass Extinction


Press Release 13-046
Before Dinosaurs’ Era, Volcanic Eruptions Triggered Mass Extinction

Increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, global warming, ocean acidification killed 76 percent of species on Earth

Road passing through snow covered ancient rocks in Hartford Basin, Conn.

Back to the future? Ancient rocks in Hartford Basin, Conn., offer a look into geologic time.
Credit and Larger Version

March 21, 2013

More than 200 million years ago, a massive extinction decimated 76 percent of marine and terrestrial species, marking the end of the Triassic period and the onset of the Jurassic.

The event cleared the way for dinosaurs to dominate Earth for the next 135 million years, taking over ecological niches formerly occupied by other marine and terrestrial species.

It’s not clear what caused the end-Triassic extinction, although most scientists agree on a likely scenario.

Over a relatively short time period, massive volcanic eruptions from a large region known as the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province (CAMP) spewed forth huge amounts of lava and gas, including carbon dioxide, sulfur and methane.

This sudden release of gases into the atmosphere may have created intense global warming, and acidification of the oceans, which ultimately killed off thousands of plant and animal species.

Now, researchers at MIT, Columbia University and other institutions have determined that these eruptions occurred precisely when the extinction began, providing strong evidence that volcanic activity did indeed trigger the end-Triassic extinction.

Results of the research, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), are published this week in the journal Science.

“These scientists have come close to confirming something we had only guessed at: that the mass extinction of this ancient time was indeed related to a series of volcanic eruptions,” says Lisa Boush, program director in NSF’s Division of Earth Sciences.

“The effort is also the result of the EARTHTIME initiative, an NSF-sponsored project that’s developing an improved geologic time scale for scientists to interpret Earth’s history.”

The scientists determined the age of basaltic lavas and other features found along the East Coast of the United States, as well as in Morocco–now-disparate regions that, 200 million years ago, were part of the supercontinent Pangaea.

The rift that ultimately separated these landmasses was also the site of CAMP’s volcanic activity.

Today, the geology of both regions includes igneous rocks from the CAMP eruptions as well as sedimentary rocks that accumulated in an enormous lake. The researchers used a combination of techniques to date the rocks and to pinpoint CAMP’s beginning and duration.

From its measurements, they reconstructed the region’s volcanic activity 201 million years ago, discovering that the eruption of magma–along with carbon dioxide, sulfur and methane–occurred in repeated bursts over a period of 40,000 years, a short span in geologic time.

“This extinction happened at a geological instant in time,” says Sam Bowring, a geologist at MIT. “There’s no question the extinction occurred at the same time as the first eruption.”

In addition to Bowring, the paper’s co-authors are Terrence Blackburn and Noah McLean of MIT; Paul Olsen and Dennis Kent of Columbia; John Puffer of Rutgers University; Greg McHone, an independent researcher from New Brunswick, N.J.; E. Troy Rasbury of Stony Brook University; and Mohammed Et-Touhami of the Université Mohammed Premier (Mohammed Premier University) Oujda, Morocco.

Blackburn is the paper’s lead author.

More than a coincidence

The end-Triassic extinction is one of five major mass extinctions in the last 540 million years of Earth’s history.

For several of these events, scientists have noted that large igneous provinces, which provide evidence of widespread volcanic activity, arose at about the same time.

But, as Bowring points out, “just because they happen to approximately coincide doesn’t mean there’s cause and effect.”

For example, while massive lava flows overlapped with the extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs, scientists have linked that extinction to an asteroid collision.

“If you want to make the case that an eruption caused an extinction, you have to be able to show at the highest possible precision that the eruption and the extinction occurred at exactly the same time,” Bowring says.

For the time of the end-Triassic, Bowring says that researchers have dated volcanic activity to right around the time fossils disappear from the geologic record, providing evidence that CAMP may have triggered the extinction.

But these estimates have a margin of error of one to two million years. “A million years is forever when you’re trying to make that link,” Bowring says.

For example, it’s thought that CAMP emitted a total of more than two million cubic kilometers of lava.

If that amount of lava were spewed over a period of one to two million years, it wouldn’t have the same effect as if it were emitted over tens of thousands of years.

“The timescale over which the eruption occurred has a big effect,” Bowring says.

Tilting toward extinction

To determine how long the volcanic eruptions lasted, the group combined two dating techniques: astrochronology and geochronology.

The former is a technique that links sedimentary layers in rocks to changes in the tilt of the Earth.

For decades, scientists have observed that the Earth’s orientation changes in regular cycles as a result of gravitational forces exerted by neighboring planets.

The Earth’s axis tilts at regular cycles, returning to its original tilt every 26,000 years. Such orbital variations change the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth’s surface, which in turn has an effect on the planet’s climate, known as Milankovich cycles.

This cyclical change in climate can be seen in the types of sediments deposited in the Earth’s crust.

Scientists can determine a rock’s age by first identifying cyclical variations in deposition of sediments in quiet bodies of water, such as deep oceans or large lakes.

A cycle of sediment corresponds with a cycle of the Earth’s tilt, established as a known period of years.

By seeing where a rock lies in those sedimentary layers, scientists can get a good idea of how old it is. To obtain precise estimates, researchers have developed mathematical models to determine the Earth’s tilt over millions of years.

Bowring says the technique is good for directly dating rocks up to 35 million years old, but beyond that, it’s unclear how reliable the technique is.

He and colleagues used astrochronology to estimate the age of the sedimentary rocks, then tested those estimates against high-precision dates from 200-million-year-old rocks in North America and Morocco.

The geologists broke apart rock samples to isolate tiny crystals known as zircons, which they analyzed to determine the ratio of uranium to lead.

The technique enabled the team to date the rocks to within approximately 30,000 years–a precise measurement in geologic terms.

Taken together, the geochronology and astrochronology techniques gave the geologists precise estimates for the onset of volcanism 200 million years ago.

The techniques revealed three bursts of magmatic activity over 40,000 years–a short period of time during which massive amounts of carbon dioxide and other gas emissions may have drastically altered Earth’s climate.

While the evidence is the strongest thus far for linking volcanic activity with the end-Triassic extinction, Bowring says that more work can be done.

“The CAMP province extends from Nova Scotia all the way to Brazil and West Africa,” he says. “I’m dying to know whether those are exactly the same age.”

-NSF-

Media Contacts

Cheryl Dybas, NSF (703) 292-7734 cdybas@nsf.gov

Jennifer Chu, MIT (617) 715-4531 j_chu@mit.edu

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2012, its budget is $7.0 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives over 50,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes about 11,000 new funding awards. NSF also awards nearly $420 million in professional and service contracts yearly.

 

 Get News Updates by Email 

Useful NSF Web Sites:

NSF Home Page: http://www.nsf.gov
NSF News: http://www.nsf.gov/news/
For the News Media: http://www.nsf.gov/news/newsroom.jsp
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9
Feb

Placental Mammal Diversity Blossomed After Age of Dinosaurs


Press Release 13-022
Placental Mammal Diversity Blossomed After Age of Dinosaurs

Scientists build new ‘tree of life’ for placentals, visualize common ancestor

Graphic rendering of the hypothetical placental ancestor, a small insect-eating animal.

Artist’s rendering of the hypothetical placental ancestor, a small insect-eating animal.
Credit and Larger Version

February 7, 2013

Scientists have reconstructed the common ancestor of placental mammals–an extremely diverse group including animals ranging from rodents to whales to humans–using the world’s largest dataset of both genetic and physical traits.

In research results published today in the journal Science, the scientists reveal that, contrary to a commonly held theory, placental mammals did not diversify into their present-day lineages until after the extinction event that eliminated non-avian dinosaurs and about 70 percent of all species on Earth, some 65 million years ago.

This finding and the visualization of the placental ancestor, a small, insect-eating animal, was made with the help of a powerful cloud-based and publicly accessible database called MorphoBank.

The Science paper is the result of a multi-year collaborative project funded by the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Assembling the Tree of Life initiative.

“Molecular clock estimates and the fossil record do not agree on the time of origin and diversification of many modern and extinct biotic groups,” said H. Richard Lane, program director in NSF’s Division of Earth Sciences, which co-funded the research with NSF’s Division of Environmental Biology. “Data from the NSF-supported Assembling the Tree of Life initiative have been the key to these conclusions.”

Analysis of this massive dataset shows that placental mammals didn’t originate during the Mesozoic Era, according to the paper’s lead author, Maureen O’Leary of Stony Brook University and the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH).

“Species like rodents and primates did not share the Earth with non-avian dinosaurs but arose from a common ancestor–a small, insect-eating, scampering animal–shortly after the dinosaurs’ demise.”

There are two major types of data for building evolutionary trees of life: phenomic data, which includes observational traits such as anatomy and behavior, and genomic data encoded by DNA.

Some researchers have argued that integration of both is necessary for robust tree-building because examining only one type of data leaves out significant information.

The evolutionary history of placental mammals, for example, has been interpreted in very different ways depending on the data analyzed.

“This discovery about the diversification of placental mammals is remarkable, highlighting that resolution of the complete tree of life requires data from both molecules and morphology,” said Robb Brumfield, program director in NSF’s Division of Environmental Biology. “In this case, the inclusion of fossils was a key to understanding timing and branching history deep in the tree.”

One leading analysis based on genomic data alone predicted that a number of placental mammal lineages existed in the Late Cretaceous and survived the Cretaceous-Paleogene (KPg) extinction that occurred about 66 million years ago.

Other analyses place the start of placental mammals near this boundary, and still others set their origin after this event.

“There are more than 5,100 living placental species and they exhibit enormous diversity, varying greatly in size, locomotor ability and brain size,” said Nancy Simmons of the AMNH and a paper co-author.

“Given this diversity, it’s of great interest to know when and how this clade first began evolving and diversifying.”

The new study combines genomic and phenomic data in a simultaneous analysis for a more complete picture of the tree of life.

“Despite the considerable contributions of DNA sequence data to the study of species relationships, phenomic data have a major role in the direct reconstruction of trees,” said Michael Novacek, a paleontologist at the AMNH and paper co-author.

“Such data include features preserved in fossils where DNA recovery may be impossible. The mammalian record is notably enriched with well-preserved fossils, and we don’t want to build trees without using the direct evidence these fossils contribute.”

“Discovering the tree of life is like piecing together a crime scene,” said O’Leary.

“It’s a story that happened in the past that you can’t repeat. Just like with a crime scene, the new tools of DNA add important information, but so do other physical clues like a body or, in the scientific realm, fossils and anatomy. Combining all the evidence produces the most informed reconstruction of a past event.”

The tree of life produced in this study shows that placental mammals arose rapidly after the KPg extinction, with the original ancestor speciating 200,000-400,000 years after the event.

“This is about 36 million years later than the prediction based on purely genetic data,” said Marcelo Weksler, also a co-author and a researcher at the National Museum of Brazil.

The finding also contradicts a genomics-based model called the “Cretaceous-Terrestrial Revolution” that argues that the impetus for placental mammal speciation was the fragmentation of supercontinent Gondwana during the Jurassic and Cretaceous, millions of years earlier than the KPg event.

“The new tree indicates that the fragmentation of Gondwana came well before the origin of placental mammals and is an unrelated event,” said John Wible of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and paper co-author.

As part of the study, researchers used MorphoBank, an initiative funded primarily by NSF, with additional support from Stony Brook University, the American Museum of Natural History and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to record phenomic traits for 86 placental mammal species, of which 40 were fossil species.

The resulting dataset has more than 4,500 traits detailing characteristics such as the presence or absence of wings, teeth, certain bones, type of hair cover and structures found in the brain, as well as more than 12,000 supporting images, all publicly available online.

The dataset is 10 times larger than what has previously been used for studies of mammal relationships.

Because phenomic datasets are built on physical objects like fossils that are limited in number and take time to excavate, prepare and analyze, evolutionary trees based on anatomy usually don’t exceed several hundred traits.

Large-scale collection of such data for tree-building is now being called “phylophenomics.”

“Cyberinfrastructure for organizing molecular biology has historically outstripped infrastructure for phenomic data, but new technologies like MorphoBank allow scientists working with phenomic data to produce larger and more complex projects, and to enrich these databases with images, references and comments,” said Andrea Cirranello, paper co-author and researcher at Stony Brook University and the AMNH.

The team reconstructed the anatomy of the placental common ancestor by mapping traits onto the tree most strongly supported by the combined phenomic and genomic data and comparing the features in placental mammals with those seen in their closest relatives.

This method, known as optimization, allowed the researchers to determine what features first appeared in the common ancestor of placental mammals, and also what traits were retained unchanged from more distant ancestors.

The researchers conclude that the common ancestor had features such as a two-horned uterus, a brain with a convoluted cerebral cortex and a placenta in which the maternal blood came in close contact with the membranes surrounding the fetus, as in humans.

In addition, the study reveals that a branch of the placental mammal tree called Afrotheria, whose living members include animals — ranging from elephants to aardvarks– that live in Africa today, did not originate on that continent but rather in the Americas.

“Determining how these animals first made it to Africa is now an important research question, along with many others that can be addressed using MorphoBank and the phylophenomic tree produced in this study,” said co-author Fernando Perini of Minas Gerais Federal University in Brazil.

Added co-author Mary Silcox, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto Scarborough, “this project exposes a way forward to collect data on other phenomic systems and other species.”

-NSF-

Media Contacts

Cheryl Dybas, NSF (703) 292-7734 cdybas@nsf.gov

Kendra Snyder, AMNH (212) 496-3419 ksnyder@amnh.org

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2012, its budget is $7.0 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives over 50,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes about 11,000 new funding awards. NSF also awards nearly $420 million in professional and service contracts yearly.

 Get News Updates by Email 

Useful NSF Web Sites:

NSF Home Page: http://www.nsf.gov
NSF News: http://www.nsf.gov/news/
For the News Media: http://www.nsf.gov/news/newsroom.jsp
Science and Engineering Statistics: http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/
Awards Searches: http://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/

 

9
Feb

Looking for a ‘Smoking Gun’ in Dinosaur Die-off


Press Release 13-023
Looking for a ‘Smoking Gun’ in Dinosaur Die-off

Scientists determine most precise dates yet for dinosaur extinction 66 million years ago

Rock strata in northeastern Montana.

Rock strata in northeastern Montana; they span the time of the dinosaur extinction.
Credit and Larger Version

February 7, 2013

The demise of the dinosaurs has been called the world’s ultimate whodunit.

Was the cause a comet or an asteroid impact? Volcanic eruptions? Climate change?

In an attempt to resolve the issue, scientists at the Berkeley Geochronology Center (BGC) at the University of California, Berkeley, and at universities in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, have determined that an impact event occurred at about the same time as the mass extinction of the dinosaurs.

Using a recalibrated technique for dating Earth minerals, the researchers hypothesize that impact happened 66,038,000 years ago, and that it produced the final atmospheric conditions needed to wipe out the dinosaurs.

The newly determined date of the impact is the same, within error limits, as the date for the mass extinction event, which also occurred about 66 million years ago, according to Paul Renne, BGC director.

He and colleagues report their findings in this week’s issue of the journal Science.

The dates are so close, the researchers say, that it was likely that a comet or asteroid that, if not wholly responsible for the global extinction, at least dealt the death blow.

“An impact was clearly the final straw, the tipping point,” said Renne. “We’ve shown that [the impact and extinction] are synchronous to within a gnat’s eyebrow, and therefore an impact clearly played a major role in the extinction. But it probably wasn’t just the impact.”

The revised date clears up lingering confusion over whether the impact actually occurred before or after the extinction, which was characterized by the almost overnight disappearance from the fossil record of land-based dinosaurs and many ocean creatures, Renne said.

“Accurately dating this major extinction, including that of the dinosaurs, has long been controversial,” said H. Richard Lane, program director in the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Division of Earth Sciences, which funded the research. “These new results give us a sharper view of what happened in Earth’s distant past.”

Renne decided to recalculate the date of the boundary between the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods–the KT boundary–after recalibrating the argon-argon method used to date rocks, which relies on the decay rate of a radioactive isotope of potassium.

The impact in question left a 110-mile-wide crater in the Caribbean off the Yucatan coast of Mexico.

Called Chicxulub (cheek’-she-loob), the crater was excavated by an object some six miles across. It threw debris into the atmosphere that can be found around the globe in the form of glassy spheres or tektites, shocked quartz and a layer of iridium-enriched dust.

“Everybody had always looked at the age for the KT boundary and compared it with the ages that we had gotten for the tektites and the melt rock from the Chicxulub crater and said, ‘oh yeah, this is pretty much the same age,'” Renne said.

“But they’re not. They differ by 180,000 years. From this calibration issue, I started to realize, ‘Wow, there is a real problem here.'”

Renne and colleagues dated tektites from Haiti, analyzing them using the recalibrated argon-argon technique to determine how long ago the impact occurred.

The tektite results agreed with previously recalibrated data but were more precise.

The geologists then did the same for altered volcanic ash collected from the Hell Creek Formation in Montana, the source of many dinosaur fossils–and one of the best sites to study the change in fossils from before and after the extinction.

The new extinction date is precise to within 11,000 years, and is 200,000 years earlier than the recalibrated date determined in 1993.

Despite the synchronous impact and extinction, Renne cautions that this doesn’t mean that the impact was the sole cause.

Dramatic climate variation over the previous million years, including long cold snaps amid a general Cretaceous hothouse environment, probably brought many creatures to the brink of extinction.

“The impact was the coup de grace,” said Renne.

“These precursory phenomena made the global ecosystem much more sensitive to even relatively small triggers, so that what otherwise might have been a fairly minor effect shifted the ecosystem into a new state.”

One cause of the climate variability could have been a sustained series of volcanic eruptions in India that produced the extensive Deccan Traps, ancient rock formations that represent one of the largest volcanic features on Earth. The Deccan Traps are believed to have formed between 60 and 68 million years ago.

Renne plans to re-date those volcanic rocks.

He and colleagues also dated rocks above the KT boundary. They concluded that Earth’s atmospheric carbon cycle returned to normal within about 5,000 years of the impact.

This is in stark contrast to the world’s oceans, which studies show took between one and two million years to return to normal.

Renne attributes this to a sluggish recovery of pre-impact ocean circulation patterns.

The study’s results also clarify some inconsistencies between different estimates for the age of the KT boundary based on Earth’s orbital rhythms recorded in sedimentary rocks.

Dutch colleagues Frederik Hilgen of Utrecht University and Klaudia Kuiper of Vrije University had previously determined an age of 65,957,000 years for the boundary using this approach, which agrees with the new independent results within the margins of error.

“This study shows the power of high precision geochronology,” said paper co-author Darren Mark of the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Center in Kilbride, UK, who conducted independent argon-argon analyses on samples provided by Renne.

“Many people think precision is just about adding another decimal place to a number. But it’s far more exciting than that,” he said.

“It’s more like putting a sharper lens on a camera. It allows us to dissect the geological record at greater resolution and piece together the sequence of Earth history.”

The paper’s co-authors, in addition to Mark, Hilgen and Kuipler, are William Mitchell III at UC Berkeley, Alan Deino and Roland Mundil at BGC, Leah Morgan of the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Center and Jan Smit of Vrije University in Amsterdam.

In addition to funding from NSF, the work was also supported by the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation and UC Berkeley’s Esper S. Larsen Jr. Fund.

-NSF-

Media Contacts

Cheryl Dybas, NSF (703) 292-7734 cdybas@nsf.gov

Robert Sanders, UC-Berkeley (510) 643-6998 rsanders@berkeley.edu

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2012, its budget is $7.0 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives over 50,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes about 11,000 new funding awards. NSF also awards nearly $420 million in professional and service contracts yearly.

 Get News Updates by Email 

Useful NSF Web Sites:

NSF Home Page: http://www.nsf.gov
NSF News: http://www.nsf.gov/news/
For the News Media: http://www.nsf.gov/news/newsroom.jsp
Science and Engineering Statistics: http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/
Awards Searches: http://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/

 

14
Aug

Current Community Science Projects

CURRENT AND ONGOING:

The Arlington Archosaur site is closing for the remainder of the summer (as is usual) — in August it’s just Too Darned Hot to dig.  They will return later in the year.

Trinity River Audubon Center’s Third Thursday will have Frogwatch, Amphibian Watch, and National Phenological Database expedition as well as a Chimney Swift watch and possibly an Owl Prowl (whew!)  This time we’ll also be doing a “transect survey” for dragonflies.

Botannical Research Institute of Texas (BRIT) has an ongoing need for volunteers to help with their databases (indoor work!) and do some field research.  Contact them for details.

 

GENERAL EDUCATION, public welcome

Connemara Conservacy has an astronomy walk (August 18th) and an evening Open House (September 23.)  See website for details.

The John Bunker Sands Wetland Center has a First Saturday Walk & Talk Bird Tour.    9:00 – 11:00 am; $10 includes admission if you’re not a member; $5 for members.

Botannical Research Institute of Texas (BRIT)’s Science Saturday – open plant ID, exhibits, demonstrations, tours, etc First Saturday of every month at  10:00 – 2:00.  This is a fun place to visit, even if you’re not really into plants.

 

PLANNED:

The John Bunker Sands Wetland Center is planning to start some Citizen Science initiatives in the near future.  I will be in a planning meeting about this effort at the end of August.

 

6
Jul

Crikey! It’s a croc!

 

There’s all sorts of timeless truths that people offer, like “Life’s short — eat dessert first” and “Never pass up a chance to go help dig up a crocodile.” Maybe the second one isn’t quite as tried and true as the first one, but I’m a firm believer in never passing up a chance to get out in the sun and do some research. So, when the opportunity came up to help dig out a croc skull at the Arlington Archosaur site, I madly shuffled my schedule so I could head out.

You never know when you’ll get another chance to work on a croc, right?

Derek’s got an Earthforce team there for the next 10 days or so — a really fun pack of high school seniors from the Los Angeles area who aren’t afraid to get out and get hot and sweaty and dirty in the name of paleontology.

We were onsite and ready to roll at 10:30 am (Derek took them to a local lake to show them the geology first, and then back to the site.  He gave them a good overview of what’s out here and then assigned them dig jobs.  Some of them surveyed an area for fossils, others helped us dig at the croc skull area, and still others sifted dig soil for fossils.  Since I’m an experienced fossil preparator, I started work on clearing the ground around the back of the jaw, part of the preparation to get it to sit up on its own little “island.”  Once it’s isolated from the rest of the ground, they will finish digging underneath and then remove the block of peaty rock and fossil as a single “lump.”  Back in the lab, preparators like myself finish the fun of digging the whole thing out of the matrix with a variety of tools.

Derek and the Earthforce gang at the site

Derek and the Earthforce gang at the site

I love this sort of work — it’s CSI Earth — ancient forensics.  You go slowly and carefully, but the excitement of seeing something that has never been seen before by human eyes never wears off.  My favorite tools for this kind of formation is actually paint scrapers because I can take off very thin layers of the matrix and be very gentle about it.

The croc site team, carefully trenching the fossils

It looked for awhile like we might have the upper half of the skull as well, but what looked like bone turned out to be the ubiquitous sheets of calcite crystals.  They lie, like bits of clear cellophane throughout the layer, and when you pick catches one, it scratches to the white color of bone. Sometimes you spend ten minutes digging an intriguing bit of something only to discover it’s still another calcite crystal.

Right now, we’ve just got the right side of the jaw of an adolescent (teenaged) croc. The other half of the jaw may be somewhere underneath, but I won’t be able to get out there again until long after this skull has been worked out of the ground.

As is typical with many public archaeology and paleontology digs, we called a halt at 2 pm, just before the hottest part of the day.  But there’s more crocs out there, and as schedule permits, I’ll find another day to get out there and play with 90 million year old crocodiles.

You can find out more about the Arlington Archosaur site here: http://www.arlingtonarchosaursite.com/