Friday, March 28, 2014

A Giant Turtle, the "Chicken from Hell," and a Cretaceous Stick Insect

We've learned a bit more about Earth's past: from fossils found in New Jersey, the Dakotas, and Inner Mongolia.
  1. Together Again: A Serious Tale of the Humerus Halves
  2. Looks Like a — Chicken? Cassowary? Ostrich With Hands??
  3. 'Nobody Here But Us Sticks'
I still run into folks who say evolution is the "religion of the antichrist," so maybe an explanation is in order. Then again, maybe not —

Turtles, Snakes, and a Cosmic Coffee Cup

Folks in ancient Mesopotamia imagined that the world we live on is a sort of plate sitting on enormous pillars, under a really big inverted bowl. Plato, Aristotle, and others thought the cosmos was a series of nested spheres, with us in the middle.

Mythic turtles, snakes, and elephants appear in other accounts of how the universe works. Many of these cosmologies have more to do with allegory and myth than the natural philosophy that became science.

We've learned that the "Biblical" Mesopotamian cosmos is about as accurate as imagining that we live on a doughnut suspended over a cosmic cup of coffee. That doesn't bother me, partly because I don't insist that poetry must be literally true.

Thinking: Not a Sin

I believe that God created, and is creating, the universe. (Genesis 1:1-2:7; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 279-308, 268-269)

But I'm not required to think that Genesis is a science textbook.

We're made in the image of God, able to use our brains: which is just as well, since we're expected to manage this world. (Catechism, 36, 286, 355-373, 2293, 2402)

Thinking isn't a sin, by the way. Not for Catholics.

Faith and reason get along just fine: but we're responsible for our actions, and that's another topic. (Catechism, 159, 1730-1738)

God could have designed a cosy little world-on-a-plate, or made my doughnut-and-coffee cosmos work. The Almighty is — all-mighty. What God says, goes. Psalms 115:3 and all that.

But it's long since become obvious that God's creation is vast and ancient: on a scale that's — well, cosmic. I'm okay with that.

I'm fascinated by our growing knowledge of this creation's 13,700,000,000-year-old story. My faith doesn't require that knowledge: but it's not threatened by facts.

1. Together Again: A Serious Tale of the Humerus Halves

(From Drexel University, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
"The two halves were discovered at least 163 years apart"
"Monster turtle fossils re-united"
Jonathan Amos, BBC News (March 24, 2014)

"Two halves of a fossil bone found more 160 years apart have finally allowed scientists to scale one of the biggest sea turtles that ever lived.

"Atlantochelys mortoni was originally described from a broken arm bone, or humerus, found in the 1840s in the US state of New Jersey.

"Remarkably, the missing portion has also now been unearthed.

"The fossil fragments are a perfect match, and indicate A. mortoni must have been 3m from tip to tail.

" 'When we put the two halves together, we were flabbergasted,' recalls Dr Ted Daeschler, from the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, Philadelphia.

" 'We said, "no - that can't be!" We even turned them around trying to show they didn't match, but they're obviously supposed to be together,' he told BBC News.

"The re-united fossils will be described anew in a forthcoming issue of the Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia...."
It's been a while since my high school days, so I looked up Bones: Arm in Wikipedia. The humerus is the bone between our shoulder and elbow: the long tan or brown ones in this drawing.

(From Волков Владислав Петрович, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Arm/front leg/wing/flipper of a human, dog, bird, and whale: with bones color-coded.)

The pale yellow and red ones are the ulna and radius, each of the wrist bones has a name, and that's yet another topic.

I'd have called the forelimb of a sea turtle a flipper, but it's a 'tomayto, tomahto' situation. The forelimbs of amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals have pretty much the same bones: with very different shapes and sizes.

That's understandable, since all tetrapods share the basic design of the prototype: lobe-finned fish in the Devonian. By now, about 395,000,000 years later, we've got more than 30,000 species of frogs, bats, birds, and other variations on the basic model.

I figure that God is smart and patient enough to run a changing universe. But ever since upper-crust British assumptions and effluvia from the Enlightenment percolated through On the Origin of Species, we've had an odd situation.

Science and Silliness

Scientists decided that critters are similar because life has changed in a measurable, observable, and orderly way. I don't have a problem with that. I've been around long enough to know that change happens.

Some folks decided that evidence of orderly change is proof that an orderly God doesn't exist. That's a bit of an oversimplification, of course.

Others insisted that the evidence can't be true, because it's not in the Bible. Some of this lot makes the "change happens, therefore God doesn't exist" crowd seem almost sensible by comparison.

We got some moderately amusing cartoons out of the mess, so it wasn't a complete waste of time and effort.

Me? I take the Bible very seriously, but I don't use it when I need help sorting out tangled software. (January 14, 2011)

Understanding the Monmouth Turtle

(From Jesse Pruitt/Idaho Museum of Natural History; Drexel University, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
"A 3D scan of the broken turtle limb: There is evidence of shark damage"
"...Both parts come from Cretaceous sediments, 70-75 million years old, in Monmouth County, New Jersey.

"Very little is known about the discovery of the distal end - the end nearest to the elbow.

"It received its first description from the famed naturalist Louis Agassiz in 1846. For years, it was assumed the bone was picked up in Burlington County.

"But then amateur fossil palaeontologist Gregory Harpel picked up the proximal end - the end nearest the shoulder - from a brook in the neighbouring Monmouth district.

" 'I picked it up and thought it was a rock at first - it was heavy,' Mr Harpel said.

"Rocks tend not to have markings from shark bites, and so he quickly realised the find was something far more significant.

"Together, the bone fragments give a much clearer view of A. mortoni, a species that would have looked very similar to the modern loggerhead - apart from its size...."
(Jonathan Amos, BBC News)
Louis Agassiz described half of the turtle's humerus in 1849. He might have found it, too: but the Drexel University news release didn't say.

In my part of the world, Louis Agassiz's chief claim to fame is his proposal that Earth had endured an ice age. He knew how to do field research, unlike some fossil-hunters.

Sloppy documentation, and the occasional outright frauds like the Piltdown Man, didn't help make evolutionary science seem plausible. (March 7, 2014)

Then there was the embarrassing case of the misplaced iguanadon thumb. The Crystal Palace dinosaurs didn't include details we've learned since 1854, but at the time they were reasonable reconstructions.

Getting back to this big turtle bone, putting the two pieces together is a big step forward in understanding the critter. For starters, scientists now know which rock formation the bone came from: which lets them narrow down its age. It's even possible that we'll find more turtle parts there.


2. Looks Like a — Chicken? Cassowary? Ostrich With Hands??

(From Carnegie Museum of Natural History, via Reuters, used w/o permission.)
"A mounted replica skeleton of the new oviraptorosaurian dinosaur species Anzu wyliei on display in the Dinosaurs in Their Time exhibition at Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in this handout image courtesy of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History."
"Weird 'chicken from hell' dinosaur lived alongside T. rex"
Will Dunham, Reuters (March 19, 2014)

"If you're a dinosaur with a nickname as funky as 'the chicken from hell,' you had better be able to back it up.

"A dinosaur called Anzu wyliei that scientists identified on Wednesday from fossils found in North Dakota and South Dakota does just that. It had a head shaped like a bird's, a toothless beak, an odd crest on its cranium, hands with big sharp claws, long legs for fast running and was probably covered in feathers.

"It is the largest North American example of a type of bird-like dinosaur well known from Asia. Its extensive remains offer a detailed picture of the North American branch of these dinosaurs that had remained mysterious since their first bones were found about a century ago, the scientists said.

"What would someone think if they encountered this creature that lived 66 million years ago? 'I don't know whether they would scream and run away, or laugh, because it is just an absurd-looking monster chicken,' said University of Utah paleontologist Emma Schachner, one of the researchers.

"Anzu wyliei measured about 11 feet long, 5 feet tall at the hip and weighed about 440 to 660 pounds (200 to 300 kg), the researchers said...."
Five feet tall at the hip? That's a really big chicken. Actually, it looks more like a cassowary, but "cassowary from hell" doesn't have quite the same appeal.

I"m guessing that the "type of bird-like dinosaur" mentioned in the second paragraph is ornithischia, or bird-hipped dinosaurs.

More about this critter:
Getting back to it's nickname and what Anzu wyliei looked like, it's a little like an oversize ostrich: with arms and hands instead of wings. My guess is that many folks would think it looks funny, if they saw it in a zoo.

Hurrying home after dark, turning a corner, and looking one of these critters straight in the neck? "Scream and run away" seems more likely.

Anzu Wyliei: "What a weird looking bird"

(From Scott Hartman, Klingler, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, via Reuters, used w/o permission.)
"The new oviraptorosaurian dinosaur species Anzu wyliei is shown in this illustration...."
"...'It has the nickname "the chicken from hell." And that's a pretty good description,' said paleontologist Matt Lamanna of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, who led the research published in the journal PLOS ONE.

" 'If you could get in a time machine and go back to Western North America at the end of the age of dinosaurs and see this thing, I would say your first reaction might be, "What a weird looking bird," ' Lamanna added. 'It would not look like most people's conception of a dinosaur.'

"Scientists think birds arose much earlier from small feathered dinosaurs. The earliest known bird is 150 million years old. This dinosaur's bird-like traits included a beak, hollow leg bones and air spaces in its backbone, paleontologist said Hans-Dieter Sues of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History...."
(Will Dunham, Reuters)
We don't know that Anzu wyliei had feathers, but some fossilized Asian oviraptors did, so their North American cousins probably did, too.

About screaming and running: that might not be a good idea.

Oviraptors almost certainly ate eggs. We're not eggs: but some of today's egg-eaters, like foxes, also eat meat.

So we could be looking at the bones something equivalent to an 11-foot-long two-legged fox: with a beak, feathers, and hands. Pleasant dreams.

3. 'Nobody Here But Us Sticks'

(From O. Béthoux, F. Jacques/National Museum of Natural History in Paris, via Reuters, used w/o permission.)
"A fossil stick insect referred to as Cretophasmomima melanogramma, in Inner Mongolia at the Jehol locality, a site from the Cretaceous period (L), and a plant fossil, Membranifolia admirabilis (R)...."
"Leaf me alone: ancient insect blended in with foliage"
Will Dunham, Reuters (March 19, 2014)

"Sometimes it is better not to be noticed.

"A number of insect species look so much like sticks or leaves that they simply blend in with the foliage, providing camouflage that helps keep them out of the beaks of hungry birds hankering for a big bite of bug.

"But this is no recent adaptation. An international team of scientists said on Wednesday they have discovered the fossil of an insect in China that lived about 126 million years ago whose appearance mimicked that of a nearby plant. It is the oldest-known stick or leaf insect that used such natural trickery, they said.

"The insect, named Cretophasmomima melanogramma, was found in Liaoning province in northeastern China, part of the Jehol rock formation that has yielded many stunningly detailed fossils of creatures like early birds and feathered dinosaurs...."
Cretophasmomima melanogramma doesn't look much like the plants, now that both are dead and fossilized. The wings and legs probably weren't quite so blatantly obvious while it was alive, though. They'd most likely be swung around to line up with surrounding leaves and sticks.

We've got quite a variety of walking sticks and walking leaves today. They generally act like sticks and leaves, as well as looking the part. Not that they decide "I'm going to act like a stick," any more than ancestors of bombardier beetles decided that they'd develop steam cannons. (January 31, 2014)

Sticks that Walk, Fish that Glide: Earth's Story Continues

(From Alan Gilchrist, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
A prickly stick insect in Fairfield, Otago, New Zealand. Photo by Alan Gilchrist. (2012)
"...The researchers realized the insect looked remarkably like the leaf of a plant that grew in the same place at the time that was a relative of the Ginkgo tree.

"The fossil showed wings with parallel dark lines that, when the bug was in the resting position, seemed to produce a tongue-like shape that could hide its abdomen, they said. The plant had similar tongue-shaped leaves marked with multiple lines.

"The researchers think the insect evolved to look like these leaves - even their green color - and concealed itself from predators by mingling with the foliage. Females of this insect were estimated at about 2.2 inches (55 mm) long and the males a bit smaller...."
(Will Dunham, Reuters)
Alan Gilchrist's photo of a prickley stick insect shows how they pose to blend in. Some insects like that have wings: but my guess is that they either look like sticks or have their wings deployed.

I suppose there isn't much point in making 'flight mode' look like a stick. We don't have flying sticks. Gliding snakes and fish, yes. Quite a bit has happened in the 2,000,000,000 or so years since oxygen from cyanobacteria caused a chemical catastrophe. (August 30, 2013)

Camouflaged insects, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals weren't entirely successful in avoiding predators: which is just as well for us, and that's yet again another topic. Topics.

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Background:Posts in this blog: In the news:

What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.