It rises from the dark waters like some behemoth from the deep, and lets out a blood-curdling roar. It’s feeding time. One of the most iconic scenes from Jurassic Park III is where the long-snouted, sail-backed giant theropod dinosaur Spinosaurus emerges from underwater to try, yet again, to eat our beleaguered rabble of misfortunates. It’s always been the way these dinosaurs have been portrayed, including one of Spinosaurus’ close cousins Baryonyx from the UK. With their long snouts, bulbous tips, and pointy teeth, it’s often been thought that spinosaurid dinosaurs were quite a lot like modern crocodiles. But how much of this is true?
Often the early evolution and radiation of the first dinosaurs is an overlooked part of their tale, in favour of the more dramatic but arguably no less important tales of their later radiations and extinctions. It is actually a fairly poorly understood part of their evolution too, with the timing, and actual mechanism that drove them to become the most successful land group ever still a bit of a mystery.
We are, however, learning more and more about this important phase of their history, in a time known as the Late Triassic some 231-201 million years ago. A new fossil site from this time in Poland – probably not one of the places you’d associate with important fossils – is helping to fill in the blanks. Usually, dinosaur-bearing sites from around this time are known from the southwestern United States and southern South America, so a European locality can potentially tell us quite a bit!
If there was ever an overdue discussion in palaeontology, it was how we reconcile the differences in time scales when looking at different periods in our history. This is becoming increasingly more important as scientific research is being asked to have demonstrably greater ‘impact’ in terms of some social, economic, or environmental relevance, and for palaeobiologists and palaeoecologists, this means having some sort of notable effect on our changing world.
The day kicked off with Andy Purvis summarising what we actually mean by macroecology – I mean, it’s an impressive sounding term, but what is it scientifically? It’s actually varied quite a bit in time, with new tools and datasets meaning that our analyses have diversified and become more intricate, with the ability to answer and ask new questions about how species and populations diversify and change through time, especially with respect to the environment.
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.