Friday, September 19, 2014

African Wildlife: During the Cretaceous

Scientists are are learning more about Africa's wildlife: as it was some 100,000,000 years ago.
  1. Swimming Spinosaurs of the Sahara
  2. Rukwatitan Bisepultus: Newly-Discovered Sauropod Species
  3. Filling the Gaps in Africa's Sauropod Story
Maybe you've seen that "are you satisfied?" cartoon chap, Mr. Squibbs, in another 'A Catholic Citizen in America' post. If so, feel free to skip straight to my take on dinosaurs in the news.

If you're wondering what "tampering with things man was not supposed to know" and dinosaurs have to do with my faith — the short answer is that I'm Catholic, so using my brain is okay.

Despite what some tightly-wound folks seem to believe, science and Christianity, faith and reason, get along fine. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 159)

I suspect part of problem some have with science is how big the universe is — and how years it's been since life began here on Earth.

Living in an Old and Changing World

French naturalist, mathematician, and cosmologist, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, had his "Les époques de la nature" published in 1778. He said that Earth was about 75,000 years old.

Leclerc got his age for Earth by measuring how fast iron cooled in his laboratory — unlike a British Calvinist, who had pegged the time of creation at 4004 BC based on his study of the Old Testament.

The Sorbonne condemned Leclerc's ideas, and he issued a retraction.

Physicist William Thomson, using similar methods in 1862, calculated an age of Earth at somewhere between 20,000,000 and 400,000,000 years. That was pretty good work, considering that scientists didn't know about heat from radioactive decay, and effects of convection currents in Earth's mantle yet.

Since I'm a Catholic, I must believe that God created, and is creating, a good and ordered physical world: one that is changing, in a state of journeying toward an ultimate perfection. (Catechism, 282-308)

Studying of this astonishing creation honestly and methodically cannot interfere with faith, because "the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God." (Catechism, 159)

I must also take the Bible, Sacred Scripture, very seriously: metaphors and all.

Poetry, Genesis, and the Universe

The idea that Sacred Scripture includes poetry doesn't bother me:
"Poetry makes use of metaphors to produce a representation, for it is natural to man to be pleased with representations. But sacred doctrine makes use of metaphors as both necessary and useful. "
("Summa Theologica," First Part, The nature and extent of sacred doctrine, Whether Holy Scripture should use metaphors?; St. Thomas Aquinas (1265–1274))
Recognizing that Sacred Scripture isn't a science textbook keeps me from trying to believe that both Genesis creation accounts are literally, word-for-word, true: from the viewpoint of a poetically-challenged contemporary Westerner.

It also lets me focus on why the Bible is important, and what I'm supposed to do with it:
"In order to reveal himself to men, in the condescension of his goodness God speaks to them in human words: 'Indeed the words of God, expressed in the words of men, are in every way like human language, just as the Word of the eternal Father, when he took on himself the flesh of human weakness, became like men.'63"

"God is the author of Sacred Scripture. 'The divinely revealed realities, which are contained and presented in the text of Sacred Scripture, have been written down under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.'69...."

"The Church 'forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful. . . to learn the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ, by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures. Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.112"
(Catechism, 101, 105, 133)
Being Catholic, I accept God as the source of true happiness. I don't expect full satisfaction from wealth, fame, art, technology, science, or any human achievement. The idea is that we should have God at the top of our priorities. (Catechism, 1723, 2112-2114)

But there's no problem with human achievements, as long as we don't idolize them. (Catechism, 2113)

Science and technology, studying this creation and developing new tools with that knowledge, is part of being human: and a vital part of our job as stewards of this world. (Catechism, 373, 2292-2296, 2402)

As I've said before, I like knowing that Earth and the universe are almost unimaginably immense and old. But even if I didn't — God's God, I'm not, and my preferences won't make much difference.

Now, a quick look at Earth during some of the dinosaurs' days. These next two maps may help show why scientists are so interested in Africa and South America during the Early Cretaceous. Or maybe not.

Hello, South Atlantic: Goodby, Gondwana

(From Ron Blakey, NAU Geology; via Wikimedia Commons; used w/o permission.)
(Earth in the Jurassic period, about 150,000,000 years ago.)

(From Ron Blakey, NAU Geology; via Wikimedia Commons; used w/o permission.)
(Earth during the Cretaceous period, about 90,000,000 years back, after African and South America split apart.)

Before a rift valley started growing into today's South Atlantic during the Cretaceous, about 130,000,000 years back. South America and Africa were part of Gondwana. That's our name for Earth's southern continent from around the end of the Ediacaran period to the early Jurassic.

After South American and Africa separated, plants and animals that had been spread across the now-divided continent developed into increasingly-distinct species.

Hannibal, Columbus, and the Mid-Atlantic Ridge

Geologically speaking, not much has changed since we started keeping written records about 8,000 years ago. The Alps are pretty much where Hannibal found them, and the Mediterranean still connects to the Atlantic Ocean at its west end.

Turns out, the Americas are about 522 inches, just shy of 44 feet, further apart than they were when Columbus first sailed the Atlantic.

The Atlantic is getting wider by an average of 2.5 centimeters each year, as magma rises along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, forming new seafloor.

An inch a year is pretty slow by human standards. Small wonder that nobody noticed the movement until the 20th century.

Then, starting around the 1950s, geologists used new technologies to study seafloors and Earth's interior — discovering that ocean floors form along mid-ocean ridges and sink back along subduction zones like the Marianas Trench, taking continents along for a ride.

More about Earth's shifting surface:

1. Swimming Spinosaurs of the Sahara

(From National Geographic/David E. Bonadonna, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("Spinosaurus is thought to be the largest known carnivore and would have feasted on huge fish and sharks"
(BBC News))
"Spinosaurus fossil: 'Giant swimming dinosaur' unearthed"
Rebecca Morelle, BBC News (September 11, 2014)

"A giant fossil, unearthed in the Sahara desert, has given scientists an unprecedented look at the largest-known carnivorous dinosaur: Spinosaurus

"The 95-million-year-old remains confirm a long-held theory: that this is the first-known swimming dinosaur.

"Scientists say the beast had flat, paddle-like feet and nostrils on top of its crocodilian head that would allow it to submerge with ease....

"...Lead author Nizar Ibrahim, a palaeontologist from the University of Chicago, said: "It is a really bizarre dinosaur - there's no real blueprint for it.

" 'It has a long neck, a long trunk, a long tail, a 7ft (2m) sail on its back and a snout like a crocodile.

" 'And when we look at the body proportions, the animal was clearly not as agile on land as other dinosaurs were, so I think it spent a substantial amount of time in the water.'..."
Spinosaurs had long "neural spines," extensions of the critter's backbone: which may have supported a sail like Dimetrodon's: or maybe a hump.

Ernst Stromer, the German paleontologist who described the 'Egyptian' fossils, said the spines might have a fatty hump like Megacerops and Bison latifrons.

Dr. Nizar Ibrahim's team had nearly a century's worth of accumulated paleontological techniques at their disposal. They say that "...surface striations and bone microstructure suggest that the dorsal 'sail' may have been enveloped in skin that functioned primarily for display on land and in water:" which is likely enough. ("Semiaquatic adaptations in a giant predatory dinosaur," (September 11, 2014))

Eventually, we may find a fossilized Spinusaur with at least some of the soft tissue preserved: or find other evidence of what those spines supported.

Kem Kem Clues

(From Nizar Ibrahim, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("The dinosaur has a number of anatomical features that suggest it was semi-aquatic"
(BBC News))
"...While other ancient creatures, such as the plesiosaur and mosasaur, lived in the water, they are marine reptiles rather than dinosaurs, making Spinosaurus the only-known semi-aquatic dinosaur.

"Spinosaurus aegyptiacus remains were first discovered about 100 years ago in Egypt, and were moved to a museum in Munich, Germany.

"However, they were destroyed during World War II, when an Allied bomb hit the building.

"A few drawings of the fossil survived, but since then only fragments of Spinosaurus bones have been found.

"The new fossil, though, which was extracted from the Kem Kem fossil beds in eastern Morocco by a private collector, has provided scientists with a more detailed look at the dinosaur.

" 'For the very first time, we can piece together the information we have from the drawings of the old skeleton, the fragments of bones, and now this new fossil, and reconstruct this dinosaur, said Dr Ibrahim..."
(Rebecca Morelle, BBC News)
Spinosaurus may have been the largest carnivorous dinosaur ever. Nizar Ibrahim's team says the animal was more than 15 meters, or 50 feet, from nose to tail.

They also say the Kem Kem fossils show that the dinosaur was semi-aquatic:
"...Dr Ibrahim explained: 'The one thing we noticed was that the proportions were really bizarre. The hind limbs were shorter than in other predatory dinosaurs, the foot claws were quite wide and the feet almost paddle shaped.

" 'We thought: "Wow - this looks looks like adaptations for a life mainly spent in water." '..."
(Rebecca Morelle, BBC News)
Another clue about the Spinosaur's habits is its snout. Its interlocking cone-shaped teeth look like today's fish-eating crocodiles. Plus, the critter's bones were very dense: a feature we see in today's penguins and sea cows.

Spinosaur Specimens

Spinosaurus fossils from the Bahariya Formation in Egypt weren't the only specimens.

The ones described in this article seem to be the same ones found in 1996, in Morocco's Kem Kem Beds. They're with the Canadian Museum of Nature.

Spinosaurus fossils from Algeria and described in 1998 are in the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle, the national museum of natural history of France. Others, found in Tunis, weren't shipped overseas: and are in the Office National des Mines, Tunis.

A Spinosaur snout wound up in the Museo di Storia Naturale di Milano, Italy. Aside from that, scientists have about a half-dozen or so 'tentative' bits and pieces of Spinosaur fossils.


2. Rukwatitan Bisepultus: Newly-Discovered Sauropod Species

(From Mark Witton, University of Portsmouth; via Science World Report; used w/o permission.)
("New Species of Titanosaurian Dinosaur Discovered in Tanzania"
(Science World Report))
"Fossils of New Species of Titanosaurian Dinosaur Discovered in Tanzania"
Science World Report (September 9, 2014)

"A team of international paleontologists has unearthed what may be the new species of titanosaurian that thrived in Tanzaia.

"In a latest finding, paleontologists at the Ohio University presented to the world a new species of titanosaurian. This new species belongs to the group of large-bodied sauropods that existed during the last period of dinosaur-age in Tanzania. Many fossils of titanosaurian have been retrieved from all over the world, especially South America, and a few from Africa.

"The newly-retrieved fossilized species dubbed Rukwatitan bisepultus was initially noticed embedded in a cliff wall located in the Rukwa Rift Basin in southwestern Tanzania. Further excavation produced the species' vertebrae, ribs, limbs and pelvic bones.

"The researchers studied the unique features of the fossil in comparison to other sauropods using CT scans...."
Studying Rukwatitan bisepultus will help scientists understand how the African Titanosaur is related the South American species and how it is different. That won't make anyone's teeth whiter and brighter, or let you predict which team will win the next World Series: but I'm fascinated by this sort of thing.

Your experience may vary.

About the name Titanosaur: Richard Lydekker first described the genus in 1877. Then other scientists either said he was right, or that he didn't have enough data to call it a genus. That discussion was going on at least until 2003.

I think it's a cool name, and figure that paleontologists aren't through learning more about Earth's past — not even close.

We've learned a great deal in the 137 years since 1877, though.

3. Filling the Gaps in Africa's Sauropod Story

(From Eric Gorscak, Ohio University, used w/o permission.)
("This image shows the pieces of the skeleton recovered of Rukwatitan bisepultus within a silhouette of the animal. The bar equals 1 meter."
(Ohio University))
"Giant Dinosaur Could Fill Fossil 'Black Hole'"
Laura Geggel, LiveScience (September 8, 2014)

"A giant dinosaur found in Tanzania once lived during a lush, green period when flowering plants flourished, about 100 million years ago, paleontologists report. The new dino species is a rare find in sub-Saharan Africa, where far fewer dinosaur fossils are discovered than in South America, the researchers said.

"Paleontologists discovered the massive fossil in 2007 during fieldwork in the Rukwa Rift Basin in southwestern Tanzania.

"Political instability in certain parts of Africa can prevent dinosaur digs, but fossils in this part of the world are also elusive for geological reasons. As the continents drifted apart, Africa did not move as much as the other continents did, leaving its fossils buried instead of pushed up by plate tectonics, said Patrick O'Connor, a professor of anatomy at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, and one of the researchers on the new study. [See photos of the dinosaur dig in Tanzania]

"Africa also had fewer ideal areas where sediment could quickly bury a creature and begin the fossilization process. Politics and geology, 'those two things together account for why we don't know so much about continental Africa as we do about other parts of the world,' O'Connor said...."
I wondered about Africa having "fewer ideal areas" for fossil formation. That may be true, but Wikipedia's List of African dinosaurs says paleontologists have found quite a few dinosaurs from the Triassic, Early Jurassic and Late Jurassic.

The Middle Jurassic, 176,000,000 to 161,000,000 years ago, not so much. Apparently the only African dinosaur known for this period is Chebsaurus, a sauropod that lived in what's now Algeria.

Cretaceous fossils have mostly been found in the northern part of Africa. The Early Cretaceous is when the South Atlantic formed, separating Africa and South America.

Paleontologists are understandably curious about how different species developed after that happened.

Buried Twice, Excavated Once, and Nitpicking

"...About 100 million years ago, the dinosaur likely died on a muddy floodplain. Mudstone eventually covered its body, but shortly after, a river running through the plain cut away at the mudstone, exposing part of the skeleton and encasing it in sandstone...."
(Laura Geggel, LiveScience)
Maybe this is nitpicking, but I don't think the dinosaur got covered by mudstone.

Mudstone is what you sometimes get when mud or clay turn to stone. Compressed mudstone sometimes becomes shale, and that's another topic. It sounds like this Rukwatitan bisepultus got covered by mud, which turned to mudstone: you get the idea.

One more maybe-interesting detail, about the folks who helped dig this dino out —

Ohio University's Office of Research Communications says that "professional excavators and coal miners" helped paleontologists recover the dinosaur's fossilized bones from a cliff in southwestern Tanzania. (September 8, 2014)

We've learned a great deal since the days of Athanasius Kircher and Nicolas Steno, and that's yet another topic. (July 15, 2014)

Still more of my take on the last half-billion years:

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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.