Category: Dinosaurs

Book Review: Jurassic Park

I’m about two decades late to the party with this book review, but considering I was two years old when Jurassic Park was first published my interest in dinosaurs, genetics, etc. needed a little more time to develop. I have finally read Michael Crichton’s iconic Jurassic Park, and not really surprising anyone I loved it. I have been exposed to the cultural premise of Jurassic Park my whole life, but I’d never read the book or seen the movie, so really it was like my first exposure to the story in its entirety. I found my Dad’s old copy from back when it was first released and decided to rescue it from the book donation bin. I’m glad I did.

200px-JurassicparkIn case you live under a rock and are thus unaware the premise of Jurassic Park is that scientists develop a way to pull dinosaur blood samples out of mosquitoes fossilized in amber. The blood is used to decode the genetic sequence for a variety of dinosaurs and they are then grown and hatched in a lab. An eccentric billionaire funds the project because he believes he can make billions by using the dinosaurs as the main attraction in a theme park. What could go wrong genetically recreating dinosaurs for a modern day tourist attraction? Everyone involved in the project thinks nothing could go wrong, yet things do go awry on the island where the theme park is built causing much dinosaur related havoc.

I can only speculate what reading the book when it was first published must have been like and how I would have perceived the ideas and lessons in the context of early 90’s technology. Still, even in our current age of high speed genome sequencing I think the warnings in Jurassic Park continue to hold true. Things go wrong because the people working on the dinosaur project don’t give nature enough credit. They think there can’t possibly be a way for their fail-safe measures (creating only female dinosaurs and making them lysine dependent) to be overcome by the dinosaurs. They doubt the intelligence of the life forms they create and their ability to adapt. They also don’t appreciate that they have created something new instead of just recreating the past.

The desire to profit off the dinosaurs is the main priority, leading to a lack of understanding about them and the process that created them. Living in an age of even more advanced scientific ability, I think remembering that there can always be unexpected outcomes with any scientific experiment is important.   I am a firm supporter of genomic research, but the key word there is research. Creating a profitable enterprise like the one in Jurassic Park shifts the priority from understanding to economics. Understanding should always be the goal with scientific inquiry and processes, because if we are going to use technology to manipulate, change, or create we need a firm grasp on the what and the how.

Ultimately I think what I took away from Jurassic Park was a sense of respect for science and nature. We can’t take ability for granted. Ethics are important. Why we do things matters as much if not more so than just our base ability to do them. While I know (obviously) that Jurassic Park is a work of fiction, I think it gives a reader a lot to think about regarding research and real-world applications, even after so many years. It is also pretty entertaining, the plot is great but the characters are also well developed and it is definitely action packed. I now need to find the time to watch the movie, and read The Lost World. I’m totally hooked. Have you actually read Jurassic Park? Just seen the movie? How old were you? What did you think? I’d love to know what other people thought when they first encountered the story.

The Farting Dinosaur Debacle

While I know everyone in the science writing community is tuned into this story, I can bet that among my personal friends and family I am the only one who has “farting dinosaurs” as an item on their to-do list. While the science media machine has given us plenty of “say what now?” moments I found this story and how it has been handled and covered in the media face palm worthy enough to warrant a closer look.

Did Dinosaurs Fart Themselves to Death?

What the paper concludes is that the amount of methane released would have impacted climate. From the press release on this story: “Sauropod dinosaurs could in principle have produced enough of the greenhouse gas methane to warm the climate many millions of years ago, at a time when the Earth was warm and wet.” What about that says dinosaurs died from farting? There has been plenty of media attention for this story, and certainly some more even keeled coverage that actually bases the headline on the climate conclusions. Some examples include Never Stand Behind a Dinosaur on Climate Central, Dinosaur Farts May Have Caused Prehistoric Warming on RedOrbit or It’s A Gas: Dinosaur Flatulence May Have Warmed Earth on Yahoo/Reuters.The quick answer is no. Was a paper released regarding dinosaur farts? You bet (In the journal Cell Biology.) Did it conclude that farting led to the mass extinction of the dinosaurs? No. Of course with the headline potential a story like this poses how could some in the media resist, truly?

Apatosaurus louisae at the Carnegie Museum via Wikimedia Commons

Apatosaurus louisae at the Carnegie Museum via Wikimedia Commons

To draw conclusions about extinction and death when the topic of the paper is actually the amount of methane dinosaurs may have contributed to the atmosphere and thus climate change is misleading. In the media there has been the Fox News of it all whose headline “Dinosaurs ‘gassed’ themselves into extinction, British scientists say” goes right for the good stuff regardless of the paper’s conclusions. There has also been the necessary debunking on blogs like PZ Myers’ Pharyngula with “the reports of dinosaurs dying of farts are greatly exaggerated.”

Another interesting aspect of this story is the fact that is was subject to an embargo break. For the non-journalists among us an embargo is when journalists are informed about a story but asked to hold it for one reason or another. This is a common practice and in general journalists tend to abide by it, but not always. Often in science journalism the story is embargoed until the release of the paper in whatever journal it is being published. For more on this embargo break, check out the blog EmbargoWatch which does a consistently good job of keeping track of such story breaks.

Dinosaur Stopped Dead In Its Tracks, Literally.

We know a tremendous amount about dinosaurs from studying their fossilized remains, but the amount that we don’t know or haven’t seen in the fossil record far surpasses our knowledge. I’m a sure sucker for a good dinosaur fossil story, and pitched several while interning at Geekosystem over the summer. I’m still working through my list of links that didn’t make the cut this summer, and wanted to share this dinosaur discovery (that I read about in this New Scientist article).

Image credit: Grzegorz Niedzwiedzki
To say that something stopped dead in its tracks is a common phrase, but it is really an uncommon occurrence. That is what makes the discovery by Polish paleontologists of a Protoceratops fossilized alongside impressions of its final footprints so impressive. This dinosaur was literally stopped dead in its tracks. The fossils were found in Mongolia, and belong to a dinosaur that lived approximately 80 million years ago. Due to the fact that finding fossilized remains of land animals and their tracks is so rare, the discovery is particularly exciting. 
It is rare to find a fossilized land vertebrate alongside its footprints, because generally the conditions needed to preserve tracks and bone are different. It is easier to observe invertebrate marine creatures fossilized with their tracks because a single layer of sediment is more likely to be able to preserve both. Adding to the difficulty is the challenge of matching tracks with a specific creature. The pads or soft tissue that covers a foot isn’t going to be preserved on the skeleton, which will make it harder to match tracks with a species.
Identifying footprints by the creature that created them is so complex, it has its own scientific field of study. As a subspeciality of geology, ichnologists study footprints and can typically narrow a footprint down to a specific type of animal, and sometimes the species. The Protoceratops fossil was discovered by a joint Polish-Mongolian team from the Gobi Desert in 1965. Yes, 1965. It took 45 years for the fossil slab to be analyzed, but when it finally was, Grzegorz Niedzwiedzki of the University of Warsaw was shocked at what he found. 
Niedzwiedzki and colleagues discovered an impression near the dinosaur’s pelvis. The shape and size correspond with what would be expected from the Protoceratops’ four-toed foot. This is the first time that scientists have observed fossilized Protoceratops tracks from this region and time period, in addition to being the rare tracks of a land animal preserved next to that animal. If you are interested in learning more about this find, the researchers published their study in the journal Cretaceous Research.

New Method May Provide Clues To Dinosaur Body Temperature

Scientists have many questions about how the internal condition of dinosaurs (not preserved in fossilized remains) may have influenced the way those creatures lived. One of the conditions in question is whether or not dinosaurs were cold blooded or warm blooded and what were their internal temperatures. But now a team of researchers from the California Institute of Technology believe they have developed a method by which they can identify the internal temperature of dinosaurs based on fossilized teeth. 

Caltech Geochemists Rob Eagle (L) and John Eiler

The researchers, led by postdoctoral researcher Robert Eagle, studied isotopic concentrations in 11 fossilized teeth from sauropods (the long-tailed, long-necked dinosaurs). The teeth were recovered from sites in Tanzania, Wyoming and Oklahoma and belonged to Brachiosaurus and Camarasaurus dinosaurs. 

The method used for this analysis is called a clumped isotope technique. The concentrations of the isotopes carbon-13 and oxygen-18 in bioapatite, a mineral found in teeth and bone. How often these isotopes bond with each other (clump, if you will) hinges on the temperature. The lower the temperature the more the isotopes tend to bond with each other. So, the researchers measured how these isotopes clumped together to determine the environmental (in this instance the internal condition of the dinosaur) temperature. At least, the temperature of the tooth.

The study allowed the researchers to estimate the temperature of Brachiosaurus to 100.8 degrees Fahrenheit and the temperature of Camarasaurus to 96.3 degrees Fahrenheit. This is warmer than living and extinct reptile species (like crocodiles) but is cooler than birds both of which are believed to be modern descendants of the dinosaurs. According to the researchers the measurements are accurate to within one or two degrees.

Drilling a Camarasaurus tooth

Prior to this research, the best way to evaluate the internal temperature of dinosaurs was to infer what would be most likely based on the dinosaur’s behavior and physiology. However, researchers sought a method that would be more specific. That’s not to say the researcher’s new method is infallible. While they have made big claims about it being “bullet proof,” it remains to be seen whether this method is the most accurate and effective. 

The study led the Caltech researchers to conclude that dinosaurs were warm blooded (have an internal mechanism to moderate body temperature), but they warn that the issue is actually more complicated that just temperature readings. Even if the creatures were cold blooded and relied on their environment for warmth, they still could have had very warm bodies. Unfortunately knowing the temperature of the teeth don’t answer all of the remaining questions about dinosaur temperature.

The scientists hope to expand upon this study to include analysis of the teeth of other species of extinct vertebrates, in addition to determining the internal temperatures of small and young dinosaurs that may reveal more about how temperature affected the way these creatures lived. The research paper was published in ScienceExpress. More information (from a press release) is available from Caltech and in the following video (which were both used as sources for this post.) 

(All media courtesy of Caltech)