Friday, January 9, 2015

Fossils in 2014: Weird Mouth, Feathers, and More

That zipper-faced critter isn't, I think, the weirdest thing that's lived. Not when things that look like lily pads or mushrooms, and may be animals; and other critters with five eyes; are in the running.

That animal with the weird mouth is one of's 'top paleontological discoveries' for 2014.

The discovery of color vision in a 300,000,000-year-old fish came out in late December: which may be why it didn't make the 'top discoveries' list.
  1.'s Top Paleontological Discoveries of 2014
  2. Color Vision: 300,000,000 Years Ago
If you've run into my reasons for accepting reality 'as is,' fee free to skip down to's Top Paleontological Discoveries of 2014 — or take a coffee break, or whatever.

Basically, I think that fearing knowledge is irrational.

Scientific Discoveries: An Invitation, Not a Threat

I think the universe is billions, not thousands, of years old; Earth isn't flat; Adam and Eve weren't German; poetry isn't science; and thinking is not a sin. (November 21, 2014)

I'm a Christian, and a Catholic.

I don't have to be interested in God's creation: but scientific discoveries are an invitation "to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator...." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 283 [emphasis mine])

My faith is, or can be, fairly simple. The basics are in the Apostles and Nicene Creeds (Catechism, The Profession of the Catholic Faith)

How I apply that faith to everyday life is fairly simple, too:
For two millennia now, folks have been trying to weasel out of those simple rules: which I think helps explain the 85 kilometers of shelving in the Vatican's office library, and that's another topic. (January 11, 2013)

Albertus Magnus, Copernicus - - -

Science and technology, studying the universe and applying that knowledge, is part of being human. We can misuse these tools, but whether we help or hurt each other is our decision. Blaming the tools doesn't make sense. (Catechism, 1730-1738, 1942, 2292-2293, 2493)

Neither, I think, is assuming that God must conform to our assumptions about the universe. That would be pretty much the opposite of humility.
"HUMILITY: The virtue by which a Christian acknowledges that God is the author of all good. Humility avoids inordinate ambition or pride, and provides the foundation for turning to God in prayer (2559). Voluntary humility can be described as 'poverty of spirit' (2546)."
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, Glossary, H)
Humility, Catholic style, isn't being despondent or delusional, and that's yet another topic. (September 1, 2013)

James Ussher pegged 4004 BC as the year the universe and Earth were formed. Ussher, a Calvinist and no friend of "papists," got his date for creation by studying the Bible — and some folks still insist he must be right. Remarkably, some of them are Catholics.

Ussher's "Annales veteris testamenti, a prima mundi origine deducti" ("Annals of the Old Testament, deduced from the first origins of the world") was pretty good scholarship: in 1650, in the British Isles.

Meanwhile, folks like Copernicus and Galileo were following up on speculation that we aren't standing on the only world. What got Galileo in trouble, and resulted in a book by Copernicus getting banned, wasn't an aversion to knowledge.

As near as I can tell, Galileo's abrasive personality and insistence that his theories be accepted as fact were a major issue. Critics of Copernicus apparently had a shaky understanding of distinctions between poetry and science. Stress from events of the 16th through 19th centuries didn't help folks think clearly, either. My opinion.

A bit over two centuries back, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon was condemned for saying that Earth is about 75,000 years old: based on how fast iron cools. (September 19, 2014; July 15, 2014)

He was wrong, by several powers of ten. Earth is 4,540,000,000 years old, give or take 50,000,000.

- - - and Mr. Squibbs

Some Catholics, like Albertus Magnus and Copernicus, took a lively interest in God's universe; while others denounced them for 'tampering with things man was not supposed to know.'

Real-life analogs of Mr. Squibbs, the intense chap in that cartoon, may be sincere. But that doesn't make them right.

Since God made the universe and the things of faith, and isn't a liar, honest study of the universe can't interfere with faith. (Catechism, 159, 214-217)

I like what Pope Leo XIII wrote: "truth cannot contradict truth." ("Providentissimus Deus," Leo XIII (November 18, 1893))

I've discussed humility, reality, and getting a grip, before. Fairly often. (August 10, 2014; July 18, 2014; February 7, 2014; September 27, 2013)

Heraclitus, Change, and Accepting Reality

(Ron Blakey, NAU Geology, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Earth, 300,000,000 years ago, about a million years before the end of the Carboniferous period.)
"Nothing endures but change."
(Heraclitus, Greek philosopher, 540 BC - 480 BC)
That's one of my favorite quotes.

Millennia after Heraclitus of Ephesus earned epithets like "the obscure" and "the riddler," we're learning more about how much has changed — and is changing.

That still upsets some folks, but I figure it's better to accept reality 'as is.' (September 21, 2014)

Earth was quite different during the Carboniferous. The day was about 22 hours and 24 minutes long, the air was thicker, and was up to 35% oxygen: compared to 21% today. That may be one reason insects got so large back then. (Apathetic Lemming of the North (November 3, 2010))

More about Carboniferous air and big insects:

Lycopsids, Zosterophylls, and Cockroaches

One of Earth's lesser extinction events, the Carboniferous rainforest collapse  happened about 305,000,000 years ago. Scientists are still discussing why many Lycopsids and Zosterophylls died out, and Lepidodendrons didn't.

I think scientists who figure that the Carboniferous rainforest collapse and other extinction events have multiple causes are on the right track.

The Great Dying, about a quarter-million years back, may have been caused by massive volcanic eruptions and impacts, which led to a severe drop in the ocean's oxygen level. Think of it as a global fish kill. (November 21, 2014)

Then there were the three impacts, and volcanic eruptions in what's now west-central India, right around the time the dinosaurs died out. (August 1, 2014)

Life went on, though. Scorpions were around 430,000,000 years ago, long before the Carboniferous: and still are. They've been joined by other durable critters; like cockroaches, rats, and — I think — us. And that's yet again another topic. (November 29, 2013)

We've still got club mosses, which are lycopsids, by the way. Lepidodendrons, tree-sized lycopsids, aren't "giant club mosses:" but they're a similar sort of plant. They're also extinct.

As Heraclitus said, change happens.

1.'s Top Paleontological Discoveries of 2014

(From Nobu Tamura, 2014 (, via, used w/o permission.)
("This is an artist's impression of Atopodentatus unicus. © Nobu Tamura (2014)"
"Top Paleontological Discoveries of 2014"
(January 5, 2015)

"Here's a list of the top dinosaur and fossil finds of 2014, from a small cat-sized dinosaur to the most complete giant titanosaur yet discovered and the largest-ever flying bird....

"...7. Atopodentatus unicus, a bizarre reptile from China:

"Atopodentatus unicus lived in what is now China during the middle Triassic, between 247 and 242 million years ago.

"The reptile was about 3 m long and had a long body, short neck and special adaptations for a fully aquatic or semi-aquatic lifestyle.

"The most distinguishing characteristic of Atopodentatus unicus is its bizarre mouth...."
Atopodentatus was probably a filter feeder, scooping water and suspended particles, then squeezing the mouthful out through that vertical slit in its upper jaw. Its mouth is shaped a little like today's flamingos, filter-feeding birds — Except for that zipper-like 'smile.'

Atopodentatus was about 3 meters, 9.8 feet, long; and probably semi-aquatic, like the platypus: which also has a weird mouth.

The Atopodentatus upper jaw could have been stranger. The left and right halves apparently weren't hinged: so it didn't have a horizontal bite, like a chewing insect's mandibles.

That variation on jaw movement apparently isn't in the vertebrate repertoire. Even snakes have an upper jaw that rotates up-and-down, not horizontally. Then there's the disturbing double-jaw arrangement of moray eels, and that's still another topic.

(Ron Blakey, NAU Geology, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Earth, 240,000,000 years ago. This Atopodentatus lived in the northeastern part of the continent.)

(From Long Cheng et al., via, used w/o permission.)
(Atopodentatus unicus fossil. The head's (top,center) weird snout is pointing to the viewer's right.)

Today's world has weird animals, too: including a snake with tentacles it 'sees' with; and something that looks like a head with eight tentacles and two wings. I am not making this up. (Apathetic Lemming of the North (February 16, 2010; February 1, 2010))

Getting back to's "Top Paleontological Discoveries of 2014," their list runs past the usual 'top 10.' Theirs has 14 items: from Dreadnoughtus schrani, the big Argentinian dinosaur; to Eocasea martini, the oldest known land herbivore.

The next-to-last item is a cute critter called Kulindadromeus zabaikalicus.

Dinosaur Feathers, Little Streamers, or — Something Else

"...12. Kulindadromeus zabaikalicus, a feathered herbivorous dinosaur:

"Kulindadromeus zabaikalicus roamed lake-dotted lowlands of Jurassic Siberia, between 169 and 144 million years ago.

"It was a small plant-eater, only about 1 meter long, had long hind legs and short arms.

"It had scales on its tail and shins, and short bristles on its head and back. It also had complex, compound feathers on its arms and legs...."
Scientists may decide that this dinosaur's fuzz was feathers: or come up with a new name for the feathers, or little streamers, or whatever, it had. Feathers have a branching structure, this critter's covering didn't, and it's not one of the dinosaurs whose descendants are today's birds. (August 8, 2014)

Meanwhile, it's easier — shorter, anyway — to call the Kulindadromeus coat "feathers," than write "feathers, or little streamers, or whatever" each time.

The critter's name comes partly from where it was found: a site called Kulinda on the banks of the Olov River, in Zabaykalsky Krai, in Siberia: which is more than you need to know about the name. I've got more, though. The rest of this cute little critter's name comes from δρομεύς, dromeus, Classical Greek for "runner". Okay, now I'm done.

Kulindadromeus 'feathers' don't look like anything that grows on today's birds. It doesn't resemble any of the steps scientists think feathers went through on their way to today's models either.

That may mean that we're looking at another option animals had for insulation: or that today's theoretical models for feather evolution need reevaluation — or both.

Like I've said before, there's much more left to learn.

2. Color Vision: 300,000,000 Years Ago

(From Gengo Tanaka et al, via, used w/o permission.)
("Carboniferous fish Acanthodes bridgei."
" Paleontologists Find Carboniferous Fish Fossil with Well-Preserved Retina" (December 24, 2014)

"According to a team of paleontologists from the United Kingdom and Japan led by Dr Haruyoshi Maeda of Kyushu University Museum, color vision evolved in animals as early as 300 million years ago (Carboniferous period).

"Dr Maeda and his colleagues studied the tissues in the fossilized eye of a 300-million-year-old fish, named Acanthodes bridgei.

"The specimen – an extinct species of fish that resembles a small shark – was uncovered from the Upper Carboniferous Hamilton Formation in Kansas, the United States.

"It was scanned under an electron microscope and further chemical analysis on the fossil showed evidence of cone cells and rods in the retina...."
Acanthodes of one sort or another lived from 409,000,000 to 284,000,000 years ago. They're a bit like osteichthyes, bony fish; and a bit like chondrichthyes, fish with cartilage skeletons.

It's possible that these critters are the the most recent common ancestor of sharks and bony fish. Bony fish include lobe-finned fish, some of which are the ancestors of tetrapods: land vertebrates, including us.

Thinking that we're made from the stuff of this world is hardly a new idea. What's changed is how much we know about the "clay" God used. (Genesis 2:7)

Even if I didn't approve of God's design choices, it wouldn't make any difference: except to me. God's God, I'm not. (Catechism, 302-304)

More about this page in life's story:

Eyes and Elegant Design

Eyes are basic equipment for arthropods and vertebrates. Our eyes look different now, but we have the same genetic modules for retinas: including the SHH and PAX6 genes.

Scientists call the SHH gene the Sonic Hedgehog gene. Scientific terms are a whole lot less stuffy than they were in my youth, and that's — you guessed it — another topic.

As I've said before, life on Earth is very modular at the genetic level. Humans, zebrafish, and Drosophilidae, a family of flies, all use the PAX6 gene.

I could be offended that God's designs are elegant, once we start analyzing underlying structures and principles: but that doesn't make sense. Not to me, and I've been over that before. (September 21, 2014)

These fish eyes are important from a paleontological perspective because they're evidence that critters saw colors 300,000,000 years ago:
  • "Mineralized rods and cones suggest colour vision in a 300  Myr-old fossil fish"
    Gengo Tanaka, Andrew R. Parker, Yoshikazu Hasegawa, David J. Siveter, Ryoichi Yamamoto, Kiyoshi Miyashita, Yuichi Takahashi, Shosuke Ito, Kazumasa Wakamatsu, Takao Mukuda, Marie Matsuura, Ko Tomikawa, Masumi Furutani, Kayo Suzuki, Haruyoshi Maeda; Nature Communications (Received February 20, 2014; Accepted November 21, 2014; Published December 23, 2014)
More of how I see change and life:

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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.