Archive for the 'Paleontology' Category

I’ve Been Frittering My Life Away…

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Interpretation

I just discovered the blog Life Before the Dinosaurs, all about the wild and wacky world that existed pre-Triassic. That’s more than enough for nerd in me to get excited, but then I learned that the blog is written by a seven year-old. Seven!

When I was seven, I spent most of my time playing with My Little Pony and taking naps. And, if we’re being honest, not much has changed.

From Life Before the Dinosaurs:


Wiwaxia was one of the weirdest of all the oddball animals of the Burgess Shale. It had a foot like a snail, a shell like a limpet, and scales like a fish on its shell. And the weirdest of all is that it had twelve glowing spines sticking out the top.


Kimberella was a strange creature that could have been a mollusc and lived in the Vendian Period. It had a strange lasagna-shaped foot and a flattened shell on top. It was 1/2″ to 4″.

Kimberella crawled along the sea floor looking for edible scraps because organisms didn’t start predation until the Cambrian Period.

Kimberella was a very weird creature because it had a shell and why would something have a shell if there was no predator? It did have a pretty hard shell.

This is definitely a blog to bookmark – author ABC knows his stuff and appreciates the absolute coolness of the giant bugs from the Carboniferous Period.

I’m off to invent a time machine so I can travel back to 1990 and tell my seven year-old self to get on it. But I’ll probably take a nap first.


Science Wednesday: You’re Never too Young to be a Scientist

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

What do you think the qualifications to be a scientist are? A PhD? A labcoat? Awesome Einstein-like hair? What about age?

Most scientists are adults, it’s true. But there’s no reason that anyone, kids included, can’t use the scientific method to ask questions, make observations, design experiments and gather results. Two recent stories in the news show us just how fantastic kids are at being scientists.

Kathryn Gray Discovers a Supernova

On Sunday, January 2, 2011 (three days ago!), 10-year-old Kathryn Grey discovered Supernova 2010lt.

Kathryn was examining photographs of the galaxy UGC 3378
taken on December 31, 2010.  Comparing photographs of the galaxy taken at different times, Kathryn noticed a bright spot that was present in the newer picture that was absent from the older picture (go here to see the images). That bright spot? A supernova.

A supernova is a star that’s blowing up. When a star dies in supernova, an incredible amount of energy is released. So much light and radiation can emit from a supernova that the star becomes brighter than the rest of the galaxy it’s in. With something that bright happening in the sky, you might think finding a supernova is pretty easy. It’s not. First, supernovae are rare. In a galaxy the size of our Milky Way, a supernova happens about once every 50 years. Second, the universe is the biggest thing there is. That’s a lot of sky to take pictures of and a lot of pictures to look through. Less than 2,000 supernovae have ever been officially discovered, and Kathryn’s hard work and sharp eyes make her the youngest person to ever find one.

Primary School Students Publish a Scientific Paper on Bees

Did you know that buff-tailed bumblebees are able to solve color and pattern puzzles? No? Well, neither did anyone else…until a group of 8-10 year old students figured it out.

Students from Blackawton Primary School in Devon, England, are now the youngest scientists to have their work published in the peer-reviewed journal Biology Letters with their new paper, “Blackawton Bees.”

The paper, which looks at the ability of bees to find food using visual cues and concludes,

…bumblebees can use a combination of colour and spatial relationships in deciding which colour of flower to forage from…

is based on a question the students developed themselves, is written in their voices (included the Methods section titled: “The Puzzle…duh duh duuuhhh”), and includes diagrams the children drew (read the full paper here).

The scientists who reviewed the students’ paper say that their finding is unique, and the data they presented is compelling. And while one referee was quoted as saying they thought “the kids couldn’t do it,” the students’ results have proved them wrong.

So if you’re a kid, how can you become a scientist?

  • Find questions about the world that interest you
  • Figure out how to make solving those questions fun. Can it be a game? a puzzle?
  • Don’t feel frustrated about things you don’t know – be excited at the change to learn something new
  • Find adults to help you if you need it. Kathryn Grey and the students at Blackawton didn’t work alone – they had adults there to help them learn how to use equipment, design experiments, and just be an extra brain or two if they got stuck.

And if you want to experience another example of fantastic kid-lead scientific discovery? Stop by the museum and try out our Parasaurolophus cranial crest interactive.

For years paleontologists debated the role of Parasaurolophus’s cranial crest. They thought it had worked like a snorkel, a weapon, a way to tell males and females apart, and a tool for temperature regulation.  Then, 14-year-old Della Drury came along. Della hypothesized that the space inside the crest worked as a resonating chamber, amplifying the sounds the dinosaurs made to make communication easier. Della tested the idea for her 9th grade science fair project, and her results support the hypothesis. Today, paleontologists think that the Parasaurolophus’ crests may have served multiple functions, but a resonating chamber may very well have been one of them.  So stop by the museum and blow into the cranial crest – can you call out like a dinosaur?


Friday Quick Links

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

Hoekman's blunt-snouted dolphin (Platalearostrum hoekmani)

Researchers have proposed pulleys, sleds and wooden rollers as possible tools to move the huge slabs of rock needed to create Stonehenge. Now there’s a new mechanism added to the mix: balls. A combined system of ox-power, grooved rails and wooden ball bearings may have been just the trick to move 45 ton stones.

Planetary scientists in Boulder, Colorado, hypothesize that the origin of Saturn’s rings may be ice stripped off  a long-gone moon that crashed into Saturn 4 billion years ago (note: the link includes a podcast).

A new prehistoric dolphin species (and a balloon-headed dolphin at that!) was just described based on a bone found by a Dutch fisherman. You never know who’s going to be a part of the next scientific discovery…

Still looking for that perfect holiday present for that special someone? Why not name a mathematical theorem after them? After all, nothing says love like a whole bunch of cosines.

Meet the Clusterwink snail: a snail that looks, and acts, a lot like a Christmas tree light. When threatened, the fingernail-sized snail generates pulses of bioluminescent light from a single spot on it body and the snail’s opaque shell diffuses the blue-green spectrum of that light, making the whole shell glow.

2,400 year old pot of soup found by archaeologists in China.

Massive volcanic activity may have played a big role in the Permian Extinction and the death of the dinosaurs.


Science Wednesday: Prehistoric Parasites

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

A few months ago, a coworker asked me if there were prehistoric parasites. Since parasitism is a common form of life that’s evolved independently multiple times – almost every free-living species is host to at least one parasite, and some estimates say that approximately half of all the animals on earth have a parasitic stage of their life cycle – I was sure that there had been ancient parasites, but I didn’t know of any. Since most parasites are small – invertebrates, microscopic, and even single-celled – finding evidence of them in the fossil record is difficult.

It turns out, most of the evidence we find for prehistoric parasites isn’t the organisms themselves, but the damage they did to their hosts.

Zombie Ants

Fossilized leaf with evidence of an ant's "death grip" bite

Ophiocordyceps unilateralis is a fungus that can turn an ant into a zombie. Once inside an ant, the fungus consumes the ant’s non-vital tissues and, when it’s ready to spore, sends thread-like branches called mycelia into the ants brain. The mycelia take over the ant’s brain and causes it to climb to the top of a tall stem of grass, bite down onto the main vein of the grass in what’s known as the “death grip,” and stay there until the ant dies. The fungus then keeps growing, spores and infects other ants.

The “death grip” bite leaves very distinctive scars on a plant, and those scars have just been found on a leaf specimen fossilized 48 million years ago. You can read the published report here.

Pigeon Parasites

"Sue" the T. rex. Note the holes in her lower jaw

For years scientists thought that the holes in the jawbone of the famous T. rex “Sue,” and other dinosaurs, were bite marks caused by predation. A new hypothesis is that the holes are too smooth to be caused by teeth and were caused by a relative of Trichomonas, a single-celled parasitic microbe that infects the throats and beaks of modern birds. Since parasites are known to evolve with their hosts, it wouldn’t be surprising if ancient parasites that once infected dinosaurs are now common in modern birds. Pigeons carry trichomonosis with no complications, but when raptors become infected the result is lesions that can wear through bone and inflammation that can block the animal’s ability to eat and breathe. Read more about the findings here.

Gut Worms

In 2006, paleontologists at the University of Colorado found evidence of parasitic worms in duck-billed dinosaur poop. Tiny white burrows inside the gut of a brachylophosaur named “Leonard” are evidence of soft-bodied organisms moving through the gut of a prehistoric animal.

For more information on prehistoric parasites, George Poinar’s What Bugged the Dinosaurs? Insects, Disease and Death in the Cretaceous and Conrad C. Labandeira’s Paleobiology of Predators, Parasitoids and Parasites: Death and Accomodation in the Fossil Record of Continental Invertebrates are two good resources.

P.S. While not a known parasite of dinosaurs, the tropical leech T. rex, Tyrannobdella rex, shares a name with the famous reptile king. And if I had to pick which T. rex I’d rather have try to fit up my nose, I’m going with the leech.

Friday Quick Links

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

Fossilized Massospondylus embryo

Researchers at CERN have captured antihydrogen atoms in a magnetic trap

Bill Warren went to a garage sale and may have purchased a pelt of the extinct Tasmanian tiger

Pocohontas’ wedding chapel found at Jamestown

Astronomers discover  the youngest nearby black hole

Paleontologists find the oldest known dinosaur embryos.

Gamma rays found coming from the center of the Milky Way

March 2023

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