In the heart of the United States’ historically-rich southwest, three anthropological organizations met this week in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to share studies of humans, primates and associated lifestyles.
Posted by Mark Peplow | Categories: American Association for the Advancement of Science
The American Association for the Advancement of Science puts on one of the biggest science shindigs of the year, and Nature journalists will soon be blogging from the conference to bring you the freshest morsels of research news and gossip.
Martin Brasier of Oxford University jokingly referred to the ‘MOFAOTYOF Principle’ in his talk – the ‘My Oldest Fossils Are Older Than Your Oldest Fossils’ phenomenon. He makes fun of it (such competitions can perhaps get a bit silly), but it is the business that Brasier and his team are in – hunting down those oldest fossils of the old. Read more
I was slightly shocked to see a slide of ‘fossilized brains’ from the Cambrian thrown up on a slide. Brains? From the Cambrian? Turns out I was right to be shocked. “People find it hard to swallow” says Nicholas Strausfield, a neuroanatomist from the University of Arizona. He was trawling through Burgess Shale fossils of Waptia – a small shrimp-like creature from the Cambrian – looking for hints of the evolutionary relationship between insects and crustaceans, when he found 3 samples that seemed to have brain-shapes in them. “I have flattened a lobster brain, and it looks like that,” he says. You can’t tell too much from these fossils, except that the brain was apparently big enough to handle some complex sensory information from the antenae and simple eyes. Read more
The annoying thing about fossils is trying to work out what the heck the creature looked like before it was trapped in a mudslide, lost some limbs, got squashed flat, and was chemically altered by millennia of burial. This is not easy. And as Robert Sansom of the University of Leicester points out, it’s made extra difficult by the fact that some discriminating features used to identify these creatures decay faster than others. That introduces a bias in how organisms are classified, he warns. His group is doing lab tests of decay rates of different bits and pieces of animals to sort these biases out. Read more
Some of the weirder Ediacaran species might not be species after all, Alexander Liu of Oxford University has told the conference. There’s a brand of squidgy Ediacaran fossils known collectively as ‘pizza discs’. They are all round, and have bumpy bits – of up to 1-cm height in the fossil record – randomly scattered in the middle. These bumps are not consistent from one pizza disc to the next – each disc is individual. This makes it hard to identify the characteristics that define the creature that left the fossil print. So hard, in fact, that Liu wonders if it’s not a specific creature after all. Read more
Yet more history from Desmond Collins, who talked today about the work that has gone on in the Burgess Shale since the 1970s or so. Collins himself was in charge of many further explorations of the shale, and even has a quarry named after him (as does the original discoverer Charles Doolittle Walcott, and a handful of others, but only a handful). Collins is clearly on a first name basis with both all the people who have explored the shale, and also all the creatures who have turned up in the rocks. He showed a fabulous slideshow of weird and wonderful creatures preserved in the shale, most of which you can see in the Royal Ontario Museum’s online photo collection. Surprisingly (to me), many of the creatures revealed have still not been properly described – including the one called the ‘Collins monster’. Read more
Quote of the day goes to Kevin Peterson of Dartmouth College, who began his talk with a dedication to Wonderful Life, the book that popularized Cambrian creatures. “If it weren’t for Wonderful Life we all wouldn’t be here. Or at least I wouldn’t be,” he said. “I brought this book to a bar in Montanna and read it in one sitting, over 12 beers. I developed my first man crush – I was in love with Simon Conway Morris.” (He means this as a joke, of course… no actual romance here). Conway Morris was one of the researchers who reinterpreted the Burgess Shale fossils in the 1960s, unveiling their truly bizarre characteristics, and is giving a talk here tomorrow… perhaps someone should warn him of Peterson’s unrequited feelings. Read more