I’ve been traveling here and there lately, so I’ve missed a fortnight’s FFFs. So to atone, this post is a threefer.
Last week I was visiting my family in Kansas City, and was debating whether to get a badass dinosaur tattoo. Right on cue, the cover of last week’s Nature featured this feathery friend (right): the 11th Archaeopteryx skeleton. From the previous 10 skeletons, we know that this 150 million year old dinosaur had feathers on its upper limbs and tail. But this new specimen from China, described by Foth and colleagues, also has plush pennaceous plumage bedazzling its neck, lower legs and feet. So decked in down, this new fossil suggests that Archaeopteryx and other dinos originally evolved feathers for some function besides flight, such as social displays (some living birds have taken this to ridiculous extremes). Later species of winged theropods (i.e., birds) eventually adapted feathers for flying (the concept of exaptation).
Also, this closeup, under ultraviolet light, of the specimen’s wing (impressions) and phalanges shows how badass and clawed birds used to be. They just don’t make them like they used to.
Taking this Nature cover as a sign, I went ahead and got a different fossil permanently etched somewhere on my person:
This, as described in the title of the 2012 paper, is an “exceptionally preserved juvenile” of the dinosaur species Sciurumimus albersdoerferi. This little buddy is one of the most complete dinosaur skeletons in existence, and even preserves some skin and “protofeathers” (not as full and feathery as in the Archaeopteryx described above). And that little bar beneath the lower jaw is the hyoid bone. THEY HAVE ITS HYOID! If only more hominin fossil juveniles were so well preserved (and badass).
Finally, although CNN is usually insufferable, Thursday they reported that more than 18 dinosaur skeletons that had been smuggled out of Mongolia and into the U.S. have been returned to where they belong. The coverage doesn’t really get into it, but for me this highlights a major paleontological problem – private collectors (and often a black market) make scientifically important fossils unavailable to researchers (many of the Mongolian fossils were very complete skeletons). Fossils are the only direct evidence of life in the past (would you ever believe that this was a real animal if there wasn’t physical evidence?), so the theft and private trade of such important evidence is problematic. This hit home in paleoanthropology with the announcement of Darwinius masillae five years ago (the fossil was purchased for scientific study for a large sum of money). I don’t know what the Mongolian government will do with their returned fossils, but their repatriation is probably good for paleontologists.