For some years now, Mary Schweitzer and her team have been researching the idea that organic molecules can be preserved for millions of years, specifically within dinosaurs. They have used a plethora of chemical and biotechnological techniques to demonstrate that, within animals like Tyrannosaurus rex, it is possible to find the residue of structures such as blood vessels and even proteins. Naturally, her research has been met with a whole wad of stiff resistance from the scientific community, seemingly for no other reason than “We don’t like the sound of that..”. Scientific rigour ftw!
Let’s go meta. Recently, ecologist extraordinaire Dr. Jacquelyn Gill (or is it Professor cos of that weird American system?) wrote a wonderful review article on the extinctions that affected many large mammal species during the last 50-10,000 years. This period is known as the Quaternary, and was a time when ice ages were running rife between warmer periods, and herds of enigmatic mammals roamed the steppes. It’s also a time when many wonderful animals, such as mammoths, disappeared from our planet forever, apart from rare fuzzy sightings from drunk Russians that later turn out to be a bear, or nothing. The result is that although we have a spectacular range of mammals decorating our landscapes today, this is but a shadow of mammals’ true splendour back just a few thousand years.
There’s a lot of talk these days about science communication. Some people spend their lives debating the differences between outreach, public engagement, and science communication, and how they all mean different things. As a scientist, and I’m quite sure I can speak on behalf of the entire community, we don’t give a toss what you call the model – let us interact with people. And by interact, we mean get reciprocal. This is true science communication or whatever fancy name you want to call it, and it’s where people give something back and get physical with the science. Great platforms for this include discussion sessions, café scientifiques, science festivals, and of course, citizen science.
Last year, a throng of palaeoecologists from the world around descended into Oxford to discuss what the 50 most pressing questions in palaeoecology are. I was happy to see some great scientists and communicators among them, including Anson Mackay, Jacquelyn Gill, and Gavin Simpson, which gives me real hope that these questions were crafted with more than just ‘science for the sake of science’ in mind, and I think this really shines through in their article.
Back in the Mesozoic, lavatories probably didn’t exist. In fact, dinosaurs and other animals were probably pretty poorly mannered and just pooped wherever they felt like. But what or who cleaned up after them? In modern biomes, poop is decomposed by insects and bacteria of all breeds, and actually forms quite an important part of energy flow within ecosystems. But was it the same million of years ago during the reign of the dinosaurs?
Imagine a natural world without decomposers. Carcasses would litter landscapes, and there’d be a neat smattering of faeces decorating everything like jam. Humans have adapted beyond this need for decomposers by creating the loo – dinosaurs weren’t so technologically efficient, and one can only imagine the issues T. rex would have trying to flush anyway.
Dinosaur skeletons are a thing of pure beauty. Being able to see and touch something that has been dead for millions of years instills a sense of wonder; what did they look like, how did they behave, were they like anything we see today? Palaeontology is a science that raises more questions than it answers, but these questions are the ones that drive the science, but also maintain that sense of fascination that no other scientific field can lay claim to.
Every now and then, we are blessed with a true jewel. Many can lay claims to the discovery of a dinosaur bone, even fewer to that of a whole skeleton. Celebrity status is achieved when one finds something that truly stands out, a dinosaur preserved in immortality with flesh, and these are the rarest of all.
Back in the Late Cretaceous, the USA was divided. Not politically, but by a vast continental sea called the Western Interior Seaway, splitting the continent into two separate landmasses. The western one of these, known as Laramidia, played host to some of the popular dinosaurs like Parasaurolophus, or ‘Elvis’ in Pete Postlethwaite dialect, and the ceratopsian Chasmosaurus. One of the cool things about Laramidia though, is that you had a whopping great amount of these megaherbivorous dinosaurs, or omnomnomosaurs, living together in the same time and place. How could one area contain such a vast number and range of dinosaurs?