Fossils have fired the human imagination for thousands of years. To ancient civilisations they were objects of fear and wonder. Now, the legends these strange, beautiful relics inspired are celebrated in a major exhibition.Ancient bones and other fossilised remains have been known to humans for millennia but it is only over the past 300 years or so that their true origins have been revealed. Until then, a rich folklore sought to explain these enigmatic relics from the past. Every culture in every country, it seems, wanted an explanation for the unusual objects and bizarre shapes that often seemed to emerge, as if by magic, from theground.Imagine a group of prehistoric hunters, whose trail has brought them to a remote cave in northern Europe.
They discover a cave and in it they find the empty skull of a huge, unrecognisable beast sitting on top of a pile of bones.
It is easy to how the myth of cave-dwelling dragons who fed on other large creatures might have come about.
In fact, the mysterious
beast would have been a woolly rhinoceros, which roamed Ice Age Europe
before it went extinct about 10,000 years ago. Like many animals before
it, the rhino would have used caves to take refuge from the elements -
unaware that its bones would become entombed for thousands of years.
In Japan, fossilised
sharks' teeth were said to be the pointed thumbnails of Tengu Man, a
mythical mountain goblin. In India, the fossilised shell of ammonites -
marinemolluscs - were known as saligrams, symbols of the god Vishnu,
which were kept in temples to purify water. In China, the fossils of
mollusc-like brachiopods were known as Shih-yen, or stone swallows,
which were said to be able to fly during thunderstorms.
Some fossils were ground
into powder and taken as a potion to cure a rich variety of ailments.
Others, like the saligrams of Hindus and the " tonguestones" of
Christians, were dipped into drink to ward off evil.
Fossils were given exotic
names in the many attempts to try to explain their existence. "Names
such as thunderbolts, tonguestones, toadstones, snakestones and devil's
toenails became widely used for different types of fossils in Britain,"
says Paul Taylor, a fossils expert at the Natural History Museum in
London. Many resembled parts of the human body, and sobecame
associated with t......
For the first time, researchers have read what they say is the biological signature of a tyrannosaur — a signature that confirms the increasingly accepted view that modern birds are the descendants of dinosaurs.The signature doesn't come from studying the shape of the 68 million-year-old dinosaur's fossilized bones, but from analyzing the organic material found inside those bones.It's not DNA — despite what you've seen in movies like "Jurassic Park," that genetic material couldn't be recovered. Butresearchers say it's the next-best thing: collagen proteins that were isolated using techniques on the very edge of what's possible today.
techniques, detailed in Friday's issue of the journal Science, could
open up "a new window into an entirely new approach" for paleontology,
one expert told MSNBC.com.
What's more, researchers say the methods are
already being incorporated into improved tools for detecting
“We don’t know what the
possibilities are,” said Mary Schweitzer, a paleontologist at North
Carolina State University and the North Carolina Museum of Natural
Sciences who was one of the principal authors behind the studies.
“We’re starting right now with a particular goal in mind, but the
spin-offs … how this might apply to human health and ourunderstanding
of disease … all of that is yet to be seen.”
Schweitzer and her
colleagues emphasized that the protein analysis was just the first step
in what could become a worldwide effort to categorize extinct species
according to their molecular makeup. Famed paleontologist Jack Horner,
another member of the research team, said he would embark on a
world-girdling series of expeditions this summer to see if further
samples could be found.
“All of our morphological
hypotheses based on fossils need to be tested. Every one of them,”
said Horner, a paleontologist at Montana State University and the
Museum of the Rockies.
Tale of a T. rex
The tale of the T. rex
began with Horner, back in 2003: He and his team found the
tyrannosaur's massive legbone bene......
For such an iconic animal, it seems strange that we know next to nothing about the dodo - except, of course, that it is dead. We don't know how it lived, what it ate, how many eggs it sat on or even whether it was fat or thin.But that could all change with a scientific expedition just begun in Mauritius, the remote island in the Indian Ocean where the dodo lived for millions of years before being driven to extinction in the late 17th century, just 80 years after it was sighted by European sailors.British and Dutch scientists have joined forces to excavate a unique dodo burial ground where the bones of hundreds and possibly thousands of birds have beenpreserved in marshland for more than 10,000 years.
It will be the first time scientists have had access to well-preserved dodo remains that have remained untouched.
some light maybe shed on a mysterious and emblematic creature that has
come to epitomise how easy it is for man to wipe out a species.
The Mare aux Songes area of
Mauritius was once a dry coastal forest which later became marshland.
Last year scientists said they thought the site contained a mass of
bones from a rich variety of animals - giant tortoises, dodos and other
extinct birds and reptiles - all of which long pre-date the arrival of
the first humans to inhabit Mauritius in 1598. "The discovery is of
huge importance and will give us a new understanding of how dodos
lived," explained Julian Hume, a postdoctoral research fellow at the
Natural HistoryMuseum in London who has helped to organise the
"For the first time we will
be able to answer questions like how many dodos lived on the island and
what did they eat? Young dodo remains may also reveal how they bred and
what kind of parents they might have been," Dr Hume said.
"We still don't even know
what it ate and why it had that unusually large, hooked bill. It may
have been for sexual display or was it to dig out roots for eating?
These are some of the questions we want to answer."
The first written
description of a dodo comes from a Dutch sailor called Heyndrick
Dircksz Jolinck, who led an expedition to the island in 1598. He
described large birds with wings no bigger than a pigeon's - the wings
were so small they rendered the birds flightless. Jolinck also gave a
strong hint about why thedodos ......
They were the most successful animals on the planet – and the most ferocious. They ruled the world for 100 million years. Some grew to a gigantic size: stegosaurus, diplodocus, Tyrannosaurus rex. Others became fearsome underwater predators, like icthyosaurus and plesiosaurus, while pteradons, with their vast wing-spans, dominated the skies. And then they died and left the way clear for shrew-like mammals to evolve into lions, lemurs and lemmings.The debate about what killed the dinosaurs has been equally fearsome. Depending on who you believe, it was an asteroid impact, a supervolcano, or a gamma ray. Theywere starved, poisoned, frozen, boiled, drowned, dried, asphyxiated, irradiated or all of the above.
"A colleague of mine said, 'Paleontologists are responsible for the third law of mass extinctions: for every extinction, there's an equal and opposite mechanism,'" says Shanan Peters, a professor of geology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.Peters has come up with a new theory to explain the demise of the dinosaurs, and all the other extinctions that have written their fragile, fossil messages within the bones of the earth. "One of the remarkable things about this work is that it is a statistical smoking gun.
It's in the
background for all extinctions, but it's predictive about which species
are more likely to survive and which will go extinct," Peters says. His
study was published in the journal Nature.
Sincelife began 3.5
billion years ago, there have been five mass extinctions. The dinosaurs
died in the last one, 65 million years ago, but the worst was at the
end of the Permian period, 250 million years ago. Known as "The Great
Dying", it wiped out 95 per cent of all species. Some scientists
suggest we are now on the brink of a sixth mass extinction.
Peters's theory is that it
was changing sea levels that did for the dinos as well as other species
throughout evolutionary history. A few years ago, in geological time,
the world looked rather different. Europe was a shallow sea, 100 metres
deep, and a band of ocean ran through the middle of America. This
stretch of sea teemed with giant sharks and mosasaurs – massive marine
predators. As the sea drained away, the sharks and mosasaurs became
Clearly, a rise or fall in
sea level can......