April 15 – Nothing But The Tooth

Today’s factismal: Children have fewer teeth than adults (in humans, at least).

The human tooth is an amazing thing. Made up of a meaty pulp filled with blood vessels and nerves, it is covered by a thick layer of collagen mixed with minerals known as dentin which is covered by either enamel (on the part that sticks into the mouth) or cementum (on the part that sticks into the jaw). Strong enough to last for sixty years or more (with lots of brushing and very few candy bars), human teeth are surprisingly brittle and can chip or break when the tooth meets an unexpected bit of bone or stone in your food. And, unlike bones, a broken tooth won’t heal; instead if will just sit there with its nerves exposed for all the world to poke.

We have teeth specialized for grinding grains (molars, from the Latin for “millstone”) and for cutting meat (incisors, from the Latin for “cutting”) and for pretending to be a vampire (canines, from the Latin for “sparkly”).  And amazingly, we have different numbers of teeth as we get older. Babies have no teeth (for which their mothers are eternally grateful). But that soon changes; by the age of six, the babies start teething and the parents stop sleeping. These temporary chompers are variously known as “baby teeth” or “milk teeth” or deciduous teeth (because they fall out like the leaves of deciduous trees). And, because children have smaller jaws than adults, there are only twenty deciduous teeth in the typical human where there will be thirty-two adult teeth. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, such as the case of poor Ashik Gavai who suffered from a rare form of cancer that caused him to grow 232 teeth on one side of his mouth!

The fact that children have a different number of teeth than adults is often used by forensic scientists to help identify bodies. By looking at the number and wear on teeth, they can estimate the age of a person. Or at least, they think they can. What they’d really like to do is to know that they can. And that’s where you come in!

Over at the Dental Arcade Game, a forensic pathologist is asking for people under the age off 25 to tell them about their teeth. How many deciduous teeth do you have? How many permanent teeth? When did they show up? By learning this information and linking it to other factors such as ethnicity and income, they hope to be able to give better answers when the police ask for help. To take part, head over to:
http://dental-arcade.blogspot.co.uk/

April 14 – Birds of Pray

Today’s factismal: The largest bird skull ever found was 28 inches long. Eighteen inches of that was the beak, which was used to club prey to death.

There is a joke in paleontological circles that tries to classify Big Bird. He isn’t a lark (despite what he said on Hollywood Squares) because he is too big. And he isn’t a parrot because the beak is the wrong shape to crack nuts. In fact, the group of birds that he most resembles is the Phorusrhacidae, the group whose name literally translates into “rag bearers” due to the wrinkly shape of their jaws. These flightless birds of prey ranged in size from 3 feet tall to more than nine feet tall (for reference, Big Bird is eight feet tall) and had long, sharp beaks that they used to club their prey before ripping it to shreds with their sharp talons and the tip of their beak. Like their very distant cousins the ostriches and emus, Phorusrhacidae could run quickly; unlike their cousins, the terror birds did it to catch their prey and not to escape being prey themselves. (Which brings us to the other paleontology joke about these critters: if one knocks on your door, you’d best start praying they aren’t preying!)

Not the sort of bird you'd want to meet in a dark alley (Image courtesy Michael B. H)

Not the sort of bird you’d want to meet in a dark alley
(Image courtesy Michael B. H)

The reign of the terror birds lasted for nearly sixty million years. They were an apex predator in South America from the time just after the death of the dinosaurs up until about two million years ago when South America joined up with North America. The new land bridge allowed predators from the North to head into terror bird territory; the increased competition combined with the climate changes caused by the drifting plates lead to the demise of this magnificent predator.

But many of their relatives and possible descendents still live today. And this weekend, you have a chance to see some of them and help science at the same time. That’s because this weekend is the Annual Midwest Crane Count. All you have to do to participate is go out and look for cranes; if you see any, report them to eBird (which will also help you identify any birds you do see). For more information, wing over to:
http://www.savingcranes.org/annual-midwest-crane-count.html

July 28 – Cope with it!

Today’s factismal: Edward Drinker Cope is roughly one million times younger than the dinosaur named for him.

In the annals of paleontology, two names stand before all of the others: Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope. These two got along about as well as an allosaurus (discovered by Marsh) and a amphicoelias (discovered by Cope). In part, their rivalry was because both men had egos almost as large as the animals that they dug up. And in part, their rivalry was due to their very different backgrounds; where Marsh was an old-fashioned, old-style gentleman who was astute enough to have a rich uncle, Cope was an nouveau riche entrepreneur who paid for many of his digs using the profits from a silver mine that he discovered.

Drinker (the man, not the dinosaur) (Image courtesy Oceans of Kansas)

Drinker (the man, not the dinosaur)
(Image courtesy Oceans of Kansas)

Those backgrounds showed in the quality and quantity of their publications. Cope had to publish his papers quickly between his other work; as a result, he published a lot of papers, but they were filled with errors which led to personal embarrassment when Marsh would publicly correct them. Marsh could afford to take the time to triple-check every detail before submitting his papers, and so he published fewer papers that were less likely to have errors (though Marsh did commit the biggest blunder ever in paleontology). Over the course of fifteen years, they would engage in a public “duel” in which they vied to name the most, the biggest, and the best preserved dinosaurs. Who won is debatable (unless you say it is science, thanks to all the new data we gained). Marsh found more species (80 to 56) but Cope published more papers (1,400 to 200) and found bigger specimens.

Thanks to Cope’s influence in the field, he has had a dinosaur named after him. The Drinker nisti (“Drinker from National Institute of Standards and Technology {who paid for the dig}”) is actually related to the one named for Marsh, which just means that the rivalry is older than you thought! Drinker (the man) was born 174 years ago today, and Drinker (the dinosaur) lived 155 million years ago, which means that the man is about one millionth as old as the dino.

If you’d like to get involved with your very own bone wars, why not head over to the Encyclopedia of Life and start checking out all of their neat dinosaurs? And, if you’ve got a picture or a sighting of a living critter, why not add it to their ever-growing set of data?
http://eol.org/pages/3014672/overview

May 30 – Bird Brains

Today’s Factismal: The oldest known bird dates back 135 million years ago – or does it?

One of the open secrets in science is that there are very few cases where you can say definitely categorize something. For example, what you call a “cloudy day” might not seem very cloudy at all to someone raised in foggy San Francisco. And it is very hard to tell where the estuary ends and the ocean begins. But those are clear-cut examples when compared to the definition of species and deciding when a new species starts and an old one ends.

A sketch showing the reconstructed aurornis and the fossil that preserved it (Image courtesy Discovery.com)

A sketch showing the reconstructed aurornis and the fossil that preserved it
(Image courtesy Discovery.com)

Right now, an argument over when the birds split off from the dinosaurs is raging in the paleontological community. On the one side are those who say that Archaeopteryx lithographica (“Ancient wing written in stone”) and the recently-discovered Aurornis xui (“Xu Xing’s Dawn bird”) are early birds (that did indeed eat worms, among other things). And on the other are those, including Xu Xing, who say that they are merely bird-like dinosaurs and not true birds at all. As usual, the argument is based on slightly different definitions of what a “true bird” is (can you create a definition that covers the cassowary and the wren?)  and careful measurements of the fossils.

Is this a bird or a dinosaur? (My camera)

Is this a bird or a dinosaur?
(My camera)

If that sounds like your cup of tea, then you are in luck. The Open Dinosaur Project is looking for people to measure the limbs of dinosaurs in an attempt to better define the various dinosaur groups. Though they have finished the first set of measurements, if enough people show interest, they may start on the second!
http://opendino.wordpress.com/faqs/

August 11 – Chomp!

Today’s factismal: The megalodon shark died out about 1.5 million years ago. No mater what the Discovery Channel says.

There is something sadly wrong when you get more science out of a SyFy movie than you do from a Discover Channel special. But that was the case this month, when SyFy aired Sharknado, which could almost, sorta, kinda happen, and  Discover Channel aired Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives. To put things as bluntly as possible, the Discover Channel’s show wasn’t science, it wasn’t entertaining, and it wasn’t worth a megalodon’s copralite.

A megalodon jaw, seen from the side (My camera)

A megalodon jaw, seen from the side
(My camera)

But there’s always a bright side to this sort of nonsense, and here’s the bright side for this one: it has gotten people to talking about one of the world’s coolest sharks. Megalodon (bio-speak for “huge tooth”) is mostly known from fossils of its teeth, which are typically about the size of a dinner plate (explains the name, huh?). In addition to their teeth, fossilized megalodon skeletons have been found, thanks to the fact that they had a partially calcified skeleton instead of the pure cartilage skeleton of most sharks. Though they looked a lot like a Great White shark on steroids, they were probably more closely related to the Mako (though this is still controversial in the paleontological community).

My nephews get eaten by a megalodon (My camera)

My nephews get eaten by a megalodon
(My camera)

So how big did a megalodon get? Let’s put it this way: you’d need an aquarium the size of the Gulf of Mexico if you wanted to keep one as a pet. A full-grown megalodon was up to 60 ft long and four of them would weigh as much as a blue whale. And that’s not surprising, considering that they mostly fed on whales and any other large animal foolish enough to go swimming in their neighborhood!

A megalodon hunts his prey at the Houston Museum of Natural Science (My camera)

A megalodon hunts his prey at the Houston Museum of Natural Science
(My camera)

Unfortunately for them, their prey needed large, warm, shallow oceans to thrive. And as the climate changed over the past few million years, those places became harder to find. As a result, their prey either died off or adapted to deep water existence. And when a critter’s food source goes extinct, that critter’s end isn’t far behind. As a result, the last of the megalodons died about one and a half million years ago.

But we are still finding megalodon fossils in places like Florida, Spain, and Morocco. And we’re finding all sorts of other fossils, too! If you’d like to find some of your own, why not join PaleoQuest or your local mineralogical society?
http://paleoquest.org/10.html
http://www.gcgms.org/

August 3 – In the stick of things

Today’s factismal: “La brea” means “the tar”, so the La Brea Tar Pits is “the the tar tar pits”.

Back on August 3, 1769, a group of Spanish missionaries were riding through what would become downtown Los Angeles when they noticed an awful smell. After eliminating the donkeys at the cause, the followed their noses to what would become known as the La Brea Tar Pits. A swamp of water, tar, and bitumen (hardened tar), the La Brea tar pits covered nearly two square miles with the tar seeping up through a number of small pits scattered throughout the area. The locals soon set up a tar mining operation and used the resulting hydrocarbons for everything from caulking to fuel to medicine (yuck!). As they dug deeper into the pits, they soon discovered bones scattered throughout the tar but thought that the bones belonged to cattle and other ranch animals that had gotten lost.

A mother mastodon and her child look on helplessly as daddy sinks into the tar pit (My camera)

A mother mastodon and her child look on helplessly as daddy sinks into the tar pit
(My camera)

What daddy looks like without his gooshy bits (My camera)

What daddy looks like without his gooshy bits
(My camera)

It wasn’t until 1901 that the bones were recognized as fossils. Since then, the fossilized remains of more than 650 different species of animal have been found in the 100 or so tar pits in the area. More than a million different specimens have been excavated, ranging in size from the huge American mastodon to the tiny dragonfly. Even better, you can watch as paleontologists excavate bones in the tar pits or even help with the dig!

One of the on-going excavations (My camera)

One of the on-going excavations
(My camera)

A few of the specimens on display (My camera)

A few of the specimens on display
(My camera)

Of course, if that is too far for you to travel, you can always get the fossil to come to you. The Mastodon Matrix Project is looking for people to pick through the detritus covering a mammoth skeleton so that we can learn more about the environment the mammoth lived in. To participate, head on over to:
http://www.museumoftheearth.org/research.php?page=Mastodon_Research/Mast_Matrix

July 28 – Cope With It

Today’s factismal: Edward Drinker Cope is roughly one million times younger than the dinosaur named for him.

In the annals of paleontology, two names stand before all of the others: Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope. These two got along about as well as an allosaurus (discovered by Marsh) and a amphicoelias (discovered by Cope). In part, their rivalry was because both men had egos almost as large as the animals that they dug up. And in part, their rivalry was due to their very different backgrounds; where Marsh was an old-fashioned, old-style gentleman who was astute enough to have a rich uncle, Cope was an entrepreneur who paid for many of his digs using the profits from a silver mine that he discovered.

Drinker (the man, not the dinosaur) (Image courtesy Oceans of Kansas)

Drinker (the man, not the dinosaur)
(Image courtesy Oceans of Kansas)

Those backgrounds showed in the quality and quantity of their publications. Cope had to publish his papers quickly between his other work; as a result, he published a lot of papers, but they were filled with errors which led to personal embarrassment when Marsh would publicly correct them. Marsh could afford to take the time to triple-check every detail before submitting his papers, and so he published fewer papers that were less likely to have errors (though Marsh did commit the biggest blunder ever in paleontology). Over the course of fifteen years, they would engage in a public “duel” in which they vied to name the most, the biggest, and the best preserved dinosaurs. Who won is debatable (unless you say it is science, thanks to all the new data we gained). Marsh found more species (80 to 56) but Cope published more papers (1,400 to 200) and found bigger specimens.

Thanks to Cope’s influence in the field, he has had a dinosaur named after him. The Drinker nisti (“Drinker from National Institute of Standards and Technology {who paid for the dig}”) is actually related to the one named for Marsh, which just means that the rivalry is older than you thought! Drinker (the man) was born 173 years ago today, and Drinker (the dinosaur) lived 155 million years ago, which means that the man is about one millionth as old as the dino.

If you’d like to get involved with your very own bone wars, why not join the Open Dinosaur Project? You’ll get to measure bones and make a very real contribution to our understanding of how dinosaurs evolved. To participate, head over to:
http://opendino.wordpress.com/