First Annual Paleontology Update at AMNH

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Dinosaurs Extinction and commercial dinosaurs fossils hunters are a big concern!
A group of extraordinary paleontologists agreed on a couple of things: 2000 was a slow year in paleontology, commercial fossil hunters are causing problems, molecular biology is very important to paleontology, the Cambrian/Pre-Cambrian boundary is the hot thing to study, and 30% of all living animals may be extinct by the end of the century.

Michael J. Novacek, Senior Vice President and Provost, Curator, Division of Paleontology at the AMNH; Mark A. Norell, Chairman and Curator, Division of Paleontology; Andrew H. Knoll, Curator of Paleobotanical Collections Harvard Univeristy; and Warren D. Allmon, Director, Paleontological Research Institution all gathered at a little table in the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) near a display of fossils while about two dozen reporters sipped orange juice and ate granola with berries. Despite the fact that reporters got more breakfast than they did, these fine scientists explained what's been going on in paleontology for the past year.

The biggest dinosaur news, of course, were some new papers in Nature about new bird (avian) fossils found in China that helped to fill in our knowledge of the evolution of birds: especially one about Apsaravis ukhaana, a Mesozoic ornithurine bird. There was also a huge new dinosaur discovered in Argentina, and a now infamous "forgery" of a Chinese bird fossil.

On the dinosaur front once again, Dr. Mark Norell pointed out that so many new dinosaurs have been found in so many countries -- China, Africa, Venezuela and more -- that we will have to revise our idea of when certain famous dinosaurs lived. It was once thought that some sauropods only lived during one era, but as more digging is done, paleontologists find fossils like Ceratopsians, for example, that cross the Triassic and Jurassic.

Drs. Novacek and Knoll both agreed that commercial fossil hunters are creating problems. For the first time ever, paleontologists must take security measures at their dig sites to prevent fossils from being stolen. In addition, several auctions for dinosaurs fossils encouraged people to dig them up without proper care and documentation just to make money. If amateur paleontolgists followed good procedures, the information about what surrounds the fossils would not be lost to science.

Dr. Knoll explained that paleobiology is becoming very important and useful. There are new techniques for studying microscopic evidence that surrounds or is a part of fossils. This evidence lets scientists correlate theories about evolution with much better evidence (biochemical responses to environment, especially) that tells us things about extinct animals that are not obvious from just looking at their shape. Apparently, some of this evidence will make us reconsider just how animals evolved! Also, the biochemical evidence shows that the world was not always the same: the atmosphere and climate in the time of the dinosaurs may have been so different from out own that it would have been impossible for people to exist back then.

What career should young paleontologists choose? Dr. Allman recommend the study of the Cambrian and Pre-Cambrian boundary (about 5,700,000 years ago). While there are no dinosaurs back then, there are amazingly well preserved fossils including whole embryos! Many of these are just being found around the world. Using the tools of developmental biology, there is much to be learned about how early evolution took place.

Once considered to be sort of outsiders, Paleontologists are now consulted by modern conservationists to help understand how animal and plant species are becoming extinct. Paleontology has studied dinosaurs extinction for almost 2 centuries, but conservationists are only beginning to understand how the destruction of the rain forests in South America or pollution in the United States may resemble events that happened at the K/T (Cretaceous/Triassic) extinction.

They have a scary message. Within the next 50 to 100 years, nearly 30% of the life forms (animals and plants) now alive on earth may become extinct! This is because human beings so dominate this planet that they have stopped being careful of what they do and how it affects other living beings. Humans are using up all the land area that other animals used to live in. People use it to build houses or grow food, but the other animals have no place else to go.

They've all promised to come back next February to tell us what's new. We only hope that they get some breakfast before then.


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