Which palaeontology stories in 2015 captured the public’s imagination?

Happy New Year everyone! It’s that time of year when all the summaries of an amazing year of research are coming out, and goodness, what a year it’s been! The folk over at Altmetric have been kind enough to summarise the top 100 articles of 2015, measured by their altmetrics scores – a measure of the social media chatter around articles. All the data are available on Figshare, and here I just wanted to highlight the palaeontology stories that stood out in the media this year according to the list.

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New giant ‘raptor from hell’ discovered!

For those who haven’t seen, recently a new ‘giant raptor from Hell’ was discovered! As a cousin to the infamous Velociraptor, it represents one of the largest members of the group known as Dromaeosauridae, which were the close relatives of early birds. The new giant raptor lived alongside other beasties like T. rex and comes from the latest Cretaceous Hell Creek Formation, where it would have been a mid-tier ambush predator. It comes fully equipped with the largest ‘sickle’ claws currently known from these guys, making it one helluva lethal killing machine. Perhaps most importantly, the new species, named Dakotaraptor is the largest known ‘raptor’ that possesses unequivocal evidence of a ‘true’ wing formed from feathers. Anyway, being a greedy little grad student, I wrote about the story for Discover Magazine and also for EarthTouch, so take your pick!

Beautiful reconstruction of Dakotaraptor by Emily Willoughby

Beautiful reconstruction of Dakotaraptor by Emily Willoughby

Your bite or mine?

This was originally posted at: http://blogs.egu.eu/palaeoblog/?p=1250

It rises from the dark waters like some behemoth from the deep, and lets out a blood-curdling roar. It’s feeding time. One of the most iconic scenes from Jurassic Park III is where the long-snouted, sail-backed giant theropod dinosaur Spinosaurus emerges from underwater to try, yet again, to eat our beleaguered rabble of misfortunates. It’s always been the way these dinosaurs have been portrayed, including one of Spinosaurus’ close cousins Baryonyx from the UK. With their long snouts, bulbous tips, and pointy teeth, it’s often been thought that spinosaurid dinosaurs were quite a lot like modern crocodiles. But how much of this is true?

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Another clue to the origins of dinosaurs

This was originally posted at: http://blogs.egu.eu/palaeoblog/?p=1222

Often the early evolution and radiation of the first dinosaurs is an overlooked part of their tale, in favour of the more dramatic but arguably no less important tales of their later radiations and extinctions. It is actually a fairly poorly understood part of their evolution too, with the timing, and actual mechanism that drove them to become the most successful land group ever still a bit of a mystery.

We are, however,  learning more and more about this important phase of their history, in a time known as the Late Triassic some 231-201 million years ago. A new fossil site from this time in Poland – probably not one of the places you’d associate with important fossils – is helping to fill in the blanks. Usually, dinosaur-bearing sites from around this time are known from the southwestern United States and southern South America, so a European locality can potentially tell us quite a bit!

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The greatest mass extinction in the history of life

This was originally posted at: http://blogs.egu.eu/palaeoblog/?p=1204

In palaeontology, there are so many things more important than dinosaurs. For example, the study of large-scale patterns in the history of life on Earth, commonly known as macroevolution, is all about uncovering patterns of speciation and extinction. We are currently about to enter the sixth mass extinction within the last 542 million years of life on Earth, so figuring out exactly what happened during periods of elevated extinction and ecosystem catastrophe is pretty damn important if we want to offset as much damage as possible.

Recently, a suite of new papers have been published giving detailed insight into the environmental and biological patterns and processes throughout the Permian-Triassic mass extinction, an event 252 million years ago that saw the demise of greater than 90% of life on this planet (numbers vary depending on which measure you use). What I’d like to offer here are bitesize summaries of each, and show that there is much more important research out there in palaeontology than just ‘woo new dinosaur’.

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