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The trouble with turtles: Paleontology at a crossroads

Turtles are the last big vertebrate group to be placed firmly on the tree of life, and the arguments are getting messy. Scientists in three fields in particular — paleontolgy, developmental biology and microbiology/genomics — disagree about how, and from what, turtles may have evolved. 

31 Mar 2014

Hominin skull discovery fuels debate about early human evolution

Hailed as a find for the ages, a rare skull of a 1.8-million-year-old human relative could provide answers to longstanding questions about the lineage of our species. It also fuels debate over what differentiates one hominin species from another, and could mean that Homo habilis, Homo rudolfensis and other early bipedal hominins may all be members of Homo erectus, rather than distinct species.

17 Oct 2013

The Lizard King rises

The trouble with being a lizard is that your mammal neighbors are always trying to eat your dinner, or make you into their dinner, wielding a competitive advantage scientists have long attributed to their warm-blooded metabolism. For this reason, large lizards like the Komodo dragon are extremely rare, and only occur in isolated island environments that lack other predators. Now, a giant fossil species of herbivorous lizard that appears to have happily coexisted with various large mammal species has been identified in Eocene-aged rocks from Myanmar.

11 Nov 2013

CSI La Brea: Tiny traces reveal big secrets of the tar pits

The La Brea tar pits in the middle of Los Angeles are known for turning up spectacularly preserved specimens of dire wolves, saber-tooth cats and woolly mammoths. But how long it took for the animals to sink down into the sticky tar after they became trapped has long been a mystery. Now a new study looking at the traces left by hungry bone-eating insects is providing a minimum time span for burial, as well as confirming some long-held suspicions about when the tar pits were at their most lethal.

27 Oct 2013

Mediterranean mammals migrated prior to the Messinian Salinity Crisis

The people of the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa share a long and complicated history, evident in culinary and genetic similarities, due in large part to their close proximity. Now it appears that the animals of the region have shared an even longer history. Researchers studying mammal fossils in Spain and Morocco recently determined that a migration event between the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa occurred more than 6 million years ago — more than half a million years earlier than previously thought.

19 Jul 2013

Bringing dinosaur biology into the 21st century

We may know a lot about dinosaurs, but there’s an awful lot we don’t know yet, especially about their biology. How heavy were the dinosaurs? Were they fast or slow? Recent research poses new answers to these long-standing questions.

06 Jul 2012

Ecosystem collapse in Pleistocene Australia

Between 50,000 and 45,000 years ago, in the Late Quaternary, Australia suffered a major loss of its megafauna. Sixty taxa of mammals, predominantly large leaf- and twig-eating animals called browsers, went extinct, including all 19 species exceeding 100 kilograms, like the half-ton Palorchestes azael, a marsupial similar to a ground sloth, and the rhinoceros-sized Diprotodon.

05 Jun 2012

Odd crests helped dinos communicate

Paleontologists have puzzled over the lambeosaur, an odd-looking duck-billed dinosaur, since its fossils were discovered in 1914. In particular, scientists were curious about the distinctive crest on the lambeosaur’s head: Elongated and complex nasal passages led air from the dinosaur’s nostrils up into the hollow crest and back down into its lungs. But what purpose these nasal passages served was a mystery — until now.

31 Oct 2008

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

There and back again: Alien From Earth tells the tale of the Hobbit

For many years, local legend on the Indonesian island of Flores told of an elflike creature with large feet and a voracious appetite that lived alongside humans. Flores was already a mythical sort of place, featuring (now-extinct) dwarf elephants, Komodo dragons and giant rats the size of rabbits.

11 Nov 2008