Friday, March 18, 2016

Fossils, DNA, and Being Human

Some scientists say they've learned that a 300,000,000-year-old whatsit was a very early version of lampreys.

That, Neanderthal DNA, and a newly-analyzed Tyrannosaur, gave me something to talk about today:
  1. Tullimonstrum Gregarium: a Strange Fish, or Lamprey; Probably
  2. 'Pit of Bones' DNA Says: Neanderthal
  3. A Horse-Size Tyrannosaur: 'Good Ears'
I'll do my usual explanation of why God's design choices don't offend me: but first, a recap of why I don't miss the 'good old days.'

The 'Good Old Days' Weren't

Some of my kids look like me, more or less, some look like my wife and her family: and we all look like Euro-Americans. That's not surprising, since our ancestors spent a long time in northwestern Europe before resettling in central North America.

We haven't always looked this way, though. My Campbell forebears still had the clan's characteristic cam béal, wry mouth, in the family's oldest photos. I don't. I was taller by about inch than my father, and my son is substantially taller than me.

That's okay. Things change, including family characteristics.

Cultures change, too. I think nostalgia for the days of Leave It to Beaver and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is okay in small doses: but my memory's too good to yearn for the 'good old days.' (August 30, 2015; August 23, 2015; May 3, 2015)

Being Irish

Then there was the time an Irishman came sniffing around the daughter of decent family. One of my foremothers, asked about her daughter's suitor, said "he doesn't have family: he's Irish." (July 6, 2014; November 13, 2008)

I really don't miss the days of "no Irish need apply," and bias disguised as anthropology:
"The Iberians are believed to have been originally an African race, who thousands of years ago spread themselves through Spain over Western Europe. Their remains are found in the barrows, or burying places, in sundry parts of these countries. The skulls are of low prognathous type. They came to Ireland and mixed with the natives of the South and West, who themselves are supposed to have been of low type and descendants of savages of the Stone Age, who, in consequence of isolation from the rest of the world, had never been out-competed in the healthy struggle of life, and thus made way, according to the laws of nature, for superior races."
(Harper's Weekly, 1899, via Wikimedia Commons)
Most Americans have gotten over having Irish neighbors these days, some have conniptions about other 'un-American' groups, and I've been over that before. Often. (November 17, 2015; September 18, 2015; July 6, 2014)

"The Man Who Evolved," or, 'Side Effects Include...'

(From Wonder Stories, via, used w/o permission.)
(Illustrations for Edmond Hamilton's "The Man Who Evolved." (1931))

I still don't know whether some folks decided on careers in science because of — or despite — tales like "The Man Who Evolved" and "Creature from the Black Lagoon." (October 31, 2014)

Despite the durable notion that faith and reason, science and religion, get along about as well as mongoose and cobra, this is not where I start ranting about "tampering with things man was not supposed to know."

I have to believe that: God created and is creating a good and ordered universe; we're made in the image of God, rational creatures — and stewards of the physical world. (Genesis 1:27-28, Psalms 19:2; Wisdom 7:17; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 16, 341, 373, 1730)

We're supposed to be curious about where we came from and where we're going. This curiosity isn't idle. We're "called to a personal relationship with God," and can learn something of God by studying God's creation. (Catechism, 282-289, 299, 301)

Learning more about this universe, and using that knowledge to develop technologies, is part of our job. Ethics apply, of course. (Catechism, 2292-2296)

It also gives us opportunities for "even greater admiration" of God's greatness. (Catechism, 283)

1. Tullimonstrum Gregarium: a Strange Fish, or Lamprey; Probably

(From Sean McMahon at Yale University, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("Reconstruction of what the Tully Monster might have have looked like 300 million years ago"
(BBC News))
"Fishy origin of bizarre fossil 'monster' "
Helen Briggs, BBC News (March 16, 2016)

"Scientists say a worm-like fossil with mysterious origins is actually the ancestor of living fish.

"The 300 million-year-old animal was found at an Illinois mine in 1958 by fossil collector Francis Tully.

"The 'Tully monster' has been a puzzle to scientists ever since, and has been likened to worms and molluscs.

"US researchers say the fossil is a backboned animal rather than an invertebrate as once thought, based on an analysis of 1,000 museum specimens...."
The Tully monster's real name is Tullimonstrum gregarium, a bit of zoological weirdness that lived near where the Mazon Creek fossil beds are today, some 300,000,000 years back.

My part of the world looked different back then.

(From, used w/o permission.)
(Land that would be North America, Europe (upper right), and Africa (lower right), 300,000,000 years ago.)

The Tully monster isn't quite like anything alive today, but it's not as bizarre as some — things — living during the Ediacaran: that might be animals, or something else. (September 18, 2015; September 12, 2014)

Scientists have been trying to decide where the Tully monster fits into the animal kingdom since an amateur fossil hunter showed up at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History with one in 1955. The critters have been called worms, molluscs, arthropods, and conodonts.

Dr McCoy's team studied about 1,200 specimens and decided they're related to lampreys: Tullimonstrum, that is; not the scientists. Tullimonstrum and lampreys share quite a few characteristics, including a single nostril and teeth make of keratin. That's the stuff in our hair and fingernails.

Sean McMahon's reconstruction of Tullimonstrum gregarium is a reasonable guess, but makes a few assumptions.

Tully monster fossils were remarkably well-preserved, but are essentially flat: so we're not quite sure about details like that vertical fin. McMahon put the bar running across the critter's body on top: but it might have been on the bottom.

Dark material associated with the round bits at the end of the bar is quite a bit like pigments often found in eyes. The shape suggests that they worked pretty much like ours.

That proboscis with a 'jaw' at the end is complete in only 3% of the 1,000 or so specimens — but half have at least part of it, so scientists have a pretty good idea of how it was shaped.

Each 'jaw' had up to eight sharp teeth that would have been good for holding prey, but not chewing. The odds are pretty good that Tully monsters lived in deeper water, and that the lot found in Illinois had been blown into shallow water by a storm. That would explain why they've been found nowhere else. So far.

A few more factoids: Francis Tully, an amateur fossil hunter, found the first Tully monster; it's the Illinois state fossil; and the smallest ones known are eight centimeters/3.1 inches long. The biggest probably reached lengths of 35 centimeters/14 inches.


2. 'Pit of Bones' DNA Says: Neanderthal

(From Science Photo Library, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("The relationship of the Pit specimens to other ancient species has been the subject of debate"
(BBC News))
"Ancient DNA identifies 'early Neanderthals' "
Paul Rincon, BBC News (March 15, 2016)

"The oldest 'nuclear DNA' from a human has identified some early representatives of the Neanderthal lineage.

"The well-preserved ancient remains from the 'Pit of Bones' site in Spain have been known for more than three decades.

"They are about 400,000 years old, but their relationships to Neanderthals and other ancient relatives has been hotly debated.

"DNA analysis confirms that they lie on the evolutionary line to Neanderthals...."
We've been learning that humanity's family history is more complicated than Time-Life's 1965 illustration.

Hats off to Paul Rincon for calling 'Pit of Bones' (Sima de los Huesos) folks "human."

We've come a long way since František Kupka's illustration of Marcellin Boule's gorilla-like Neanderthals appeared in L'Illustration & Illustrated London News.

I've talked about cavemen, assumptions, and my Irish ancestors, before. (September 18, 2015; July 6, 2014)

Maybe Neanderthals, Denisovans, and other folks who don't look quite like we do really are distinct "species."

My guess is that regional variations among ethnic groups have become a lot less extreme, that our taxonomic system is due for another overhaul, and that's another topic. Topics. (September 11, 2015; May 29, 2015; July 11, 2014)

Distant Cousins

(From Kennis and Kennis, MADRID SCIENTIFIC FILMS; via BBC News; used w/o permission.)
("This artist's impression shows what the Pit of Bones people might have looked like"
(BBC News))
"...Analysis of the mitochondrial DNA from one individual supported a relationship to Denisovans - consistent with the previous study.

"This leads the scientists to speculate that mitochondrial DNA types seen in later, 'classical' Neanderthals may have arrived in a migration from Africa, replacing those present in the Pit of Bones people.

"Prof Chris Stringer, from London's Natural History Museum, who was not involved with the latest study, said the results shed new light on how our own species (Homo sapiens) and Neanderthals diverged from a common ancestor.

" 'There has been continuing debate about how deep in time the Neanderthal-sapiens split was, with estimates ranging from about 800,000 years to 300,000 years,' he explained.

" 'I have recently favoured a split time of about 400,000, and have argued for many years that the widespread species H. heidelbergensis at about 500,000 was probably their last common ancestor.'..."
(Paul Rincon, BBC News)
We've been finding evidence that folks who don't look at all British have been making tools, burying their dead, and creating art, for a very long time.

The earliest stone tools found so far are 3,300,000 years old, someone carved a zigzag pattern into a shell some 430,000 years back, Even the 'Neanderthals didn't do that' scientists seem resigned to acknowledging their interments as deliberate burials.

Partly because so many of my ancestors are "of low type," as a 1899 Harper's Weekly piece said, I'm willing to see folks who act like humans as people: even if they don't look "anglo-teutonic." (September 18, 2015; December 12, 2014; July 11, 2014)

I'm also quite willing to see them as relatives: distant ones, but part of the human family.

It's not that big a stretch. Think about it — how many folks don't think of their cousins as relatives, even though they're neither ancestors nor descendants?


3. A Horse-Size Tyrannosaur: 'Good Ears'

(From Todd Marshall, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
"Dinosaur find resolves T. rex mystery"
Victoria Gill, BBC News (March 14, 2016)

"A newly discovered species of Tyrannosaur - the group of meat-eating dinosaurs to which the infamous T. rex belongs - could hold the key to how these creatures grew so huge.

"Scientists from the University of Edinburgh, along with US and Russian colleagues, discovered the fossilised remains of the animal in Uzbekistan.

"They have named it Timurlengia.

"A study of the 90-million-year-old beast suggested its ears and brain were crucial in Tyrannosaurs' dominance...."
Actually, Timurlengia is the name of the genus. The type species is Timurlengia euotica.

Timurlengia is named after Timūr(-e) Lang/Timur/Temur/تیمور/Tamerlane, founder of the Timurid Empire about six centuries back. Babur, a Timurid prince, invaded Kabulistan about a century later: and eventually becoming first emperor of the Mughal Empire in India, and that's yet another topic.

Euotica means "good eared," which makes sense. Timurlengia had long inner ear canals: good for hearing low-frequency sounds, a characteristic it shares with T. rex.


Smart, Keen Senses, but Not Big: Yet

(From Todd Marshall, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
"...The team studied about 25 sections of Timurlengia's skeleton, piecing it together to work out its size and shape.

"Most revealing was a part of the animal's skull, which the team scanned to work out the shape of its brain and inner ear - an attempt to build a picture of its sensory capabilities.

" 'Its brain and ear - which we can tell from CT scans - were almost identical to T. rex,' said [University of Edinburgh's] Dr Brusatte...."
(Victoria Gill, BBC News)
T. rex had a big brain — for a dinosaur — with oversize olfactory bulbs and nerves. So did Timurlengia. The T. rex precursor's head was basically a scale model of the big version: equipped with keen eyesight, smell and hearing.

It looks like Timurlengia's descendants didn't start sizing up until after Carnosauria like Allosaurs started dying out, leaving room at the top of the food chain.

Apparently "food chains" are still what scientists call linear networks of links in a food web.

I think of it as something more like a ring, since detirivores like earthworms and decomposers like fungi break down dead critters, producing the organic components of soil.

The soil in turn nourishes plants, which are eaten by grazers, which are eaten by hunter/scavangers, which are eaten by detirivores — and the cycle goes on.

And that is — what else? — yet again another topic.

I've written about fossils, DNA, and being human, before:

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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.