WBEZ | fossils http://www.wbez.org/tags/fossils Latest from WBEZ Chicago Public Radio en Natural history experts help people identify flora, fauna, and fossils http://www.wbez.org/news/science/natural-history-experts-help-people-identify-flora-fauna-and-fossils-112921 <p><p>Many of us wonder about that cool rock we kicked up on the shore of Lake Michigan, or the weird-looking bird we once snapped a picture of.</p><p>That&rsquo;s why the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago held its second annual ID Day &mdash; so people could bring in specimens and have them identified by experts.</p><p>Just past the ticket counter, the normally wide-open space had tables for each category &mdash; insects, rocks, birds, mammals, and fossils, to name a few &mdash; and lines snaked along.</p><p>Paul Mayer is the museum&rsquo;s fossil invertebrate collection manager. He said his record ID&#39;ing things for the day wasn&rsquo;t too bad.</p><p>&ldquo;Oh yeah, I&rsquo;m definitely batting over 800, I think. I got a good 80 to 90 percent of what I&rsquo;ve identified, &nbsp;and I&rsquo;m really good on fossil invertebrates,&rdquo; Mayer said. &ldquo;But it&rsquo;s other things that can be trickier.&rdquo;</p><p>David Keenan, 19, brought in two cigar boxes full of &ldquo;other things&rdquo; &mdash; in this case, tiny coin-shaped plant fossils with star-shaped bursts inside them.</p><p>Mayer was totally stumped. Which means Keenan got to take an &ldquo;I Stumped a Scientist!&rdquo; sticker that was on hand.</p><p>Keenan, for his part, wasn&#39;t disappointed by the mystery. Instead, he was even more intrigued by his unknown fossils.</p><p>&ldquo;I don&rsquo;t know, it&rsquo;s just encaptured beauty, I guess? Like, flowers and stuff from an age long forgotten. Like, it&rsquo;s way longer than we&rsquo;re gonna last,&ldquo; Keenan said.</p><div class="image-insert-image "><div class="image-insert-image "><img alt="" class="image-original_image" src="http://www.wbez.org/system/files/styles/original_image/llo/insert-images/Bones%20and%20Things%201_150914_GJ%20copy.jpg" title="Layla, Dayna and Kayla Chavez admire a millipede with their mother. (WBEZ/Greta Johnsen)" /></div></div><p>Jim Holstein manages the mineral collection for the Field Museum. That means he&rsquo;s the guy who has to tell everyone their special rocks are not, in fact, that special.</p><p>&ldquo;I had one guy that came in today, he had a piece of quartz,&rdquo; Holstein said. &ldquo;It was obvious it was quartz, But he was convinced it was a $50 million diamond. So I had to break the news to him. He refused to believe me.&rdquo;</p><p>But Holstein says 99 percent of the people who come for IDs are willing to accept the truth. But that 1 percent is tenacious.</p><p>&ldquo;Some people, you cannot convince them otherwise, They have their hearts set.&quot;</p><p>A museum spokesperson said about two thousand people came to ID Day.</p><p><em>Greta Johnsen is a WBEZ anchor/reporter. Follow her </em><a href="https://twitter.com/gretamjohnsen"><em>@gretamjohnsen</em></a><em>.</em></p></p> Mon, 14 Sep 2015 11:03:00 -0500 http://www.wbez.org/news/science/natural-history-experts-help-people-identify-flora-fauna-and-fossils-112921 South African cave yields strange bones of early human-like species http://www.wbez.org/news/south-african-cave-yields-strange-bones-early-human-species-112885 <img typeof="foaf:Image" src="http://llnw.wbez.org//main-images/09_ngm_1015_mm8345_mystery_man_robert_clark.jpg" alt="" /><p><p>Scientists have discovered the fossilized remains of an unusual human-like creature that lived long ago. Exactly how long ago is still a mystery &mdash; and that&#39;s not the only mystery surrounding this newfound species.</p><p>The bones have a strange mix of primitive and modern features, and were found in an even stranger place &mdash; an almost inaccessible chamber deep inside a South African cave called Rising Star.</p><p>&quot;It is perhaps one of the best-known caves in all of South Africa,&quot; says&nbsp;<a href="http://profleeberger.com/">Lee Berger</a>, who studies human evolution at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.</p><p>In 2013, some local cavers found some fossils inside Rising Star cave. Berger had asked them to be on the lookout, so they brought him photos.</p><p>&quot;And there I saw something I perhaps thought I&#39;d never see in my life,&quot; recalls Berger. &quot;That is, clearly primitive hominin remains lying on the floor of a cave.&quot;</p><p>A jaw and a skull were just sitting there in the dirt &mdash; usually such bones are encased in rock.</p><p>Berger was excited, but he knew he personally could never reach this fossil site. To get into the cave chamber, you have to climb a steep, jagged rockfall called Dragon&#39;s Back, then wiggle through a small opening that leads to a long, narrow crack.</p><p>The crack is only about 7 1/2 inches wide and goes down more than 30 feet. Squeezing through it is the only way to reach the chamber of bones at the bottom.</p><p>Since he couldn&#39;t go, Berger sent in his tall, skinny 16-year-old son. &quot;When he came out after 45 minutes, he stuck his head out. And to tell you how bad I am, I didn&#39;t say: &#39;Are you OK?&#39; I said: &#39;And?&#39; And he says, &#39;Daddy, it&#39;s wonderful.&#39; &quot;</p><div id="res438945783"><div data-crop-type="" style="text-align: center;"><img alt="A composite skeleton of H. naledi is surrounded by some of the hundreds of other fossil elements recovered from the Dinaledi Chamber in the Rising Star cave in South Africa." src="http://media.npr.org/assets/img/2015/09/09/06_ngm_1015_mm8345_mystery_man_robert_clark_custom-0854a19816576c7bc2d402322204aceaf282e69c-s700-c85.jpg" style="height: 364px; width: 600px;" title="A composite skeleton of H. naledi is surrounded by some of the hundreds of other fossil elements recovered from the Dinaledi Chamber in the Rising Star cave in South Africa. (Robert Clark/National Geographic via Lee Berger, Wits, photographed at Evolutionary Studies Institute)" /></div><div><p>Berger got funding from the&nbsp;<a href="http://voices.nationalgeographic.com/blog/rising-star-expedition/?order=asc">National Geographic Society</a>&nbsp;to excavate the site. And he advertised for research assistants on Facebook &mdash; for skinny scientists who weren&#39;t claustrophobic. Six women took the job.</p></div></div><p>They worked in the chamber almost like spacewalkers, communicating with researchers outside via cameras and about 2 miles of fiber optic cable. The team in the chamber used paintbrushes and toothpicks to gently unearth fossil bones &mdash; there were more than 1,550 of them, an incredible treasure trove. The researchers describe their find Thursday in a journal called&nbsp;<a href="http://elifesciences.org/">eLife</a>.</p><p>&quot;Often I was wondering, &#39;How on Earth are we going to get that fossil out?&#39; because the density of bones in that chamber was so great, it was like a puzzle to get each fossil out,&quot; says&nbsp;<a href="http://www.american.edu/cas/anthropology/resources/student-profiles.cfm">Becca Peixotto</a>, one of the scientist-cavers and a doctoral student in anthropology at American University.</p><p>The bones come from at least 15 individuals, says&nbsp;<a href="http://www.anthropology.wisc.edu/people_hawks.php">John Hawks</a>, a paleoanthropologist from the University of Wisconsin, Madison who was on the team that studied the bones.</p><p>&quot;We have every age group represented&quot; among the fossils, he says. &quot;We have newborns; we have children of almost every age; we have adults and old adults.&quot;</p><p>He says these creatures were short &mdash; less than 5 feet tall &mdash; and thin. They have a particular combination of features that has never been seen before. &quot;It&#39;s a new species to science,&quot; says Hawks. Researchers have named it&nbsp;Homo naledi,&nbsp;because &quot;naledi&quot; means &quot;star&quot; in a local South African language.</p><div id="res438944467"><div data-crop-type="" style="text-align: center;"><img alt="National Geographic paleoartist John Gurche used fossils from a South African cave to reconstruct the face of Homo naledi, the newest addition to the genus Homo." src="http://media.npr.org/assets/img/2015/09/09/01_ngm_1015_mm8345_mystery_man_mark_thiessen_custom-138000c9c30470d3b4e4ce404ca9e38ce1fff07c-s700-c85.jpg" style="height: 693px; width: 600px;" title="National Geographic paleoartist John Gurche used fossils from a South African cave to reconstruct the face of Homo naledi, the newest addition to the genus Homo. (Mark Thiessen/National Geographic)" /></div><div><p>&quot;They have a very small brain &mdash; they are not human-like at all in their brain,&quot; Hawks says. &quot;It&#39;s around a third the size of a human brain today.&quot;</p></div></div><p>But the creatures had feet like us and walked in a very human-like way. Their hands were also like ours, but their fingers were more curved.</p><p>The researchers also tackled this question: How did these human-like creatures get into such a crazy spot? It looks as though the cave chamber has always been hard to reach.</p><p>There are no animal bones there, except for a handful of bits from birds and mice. There&#39;s no evidence that a carnivore dragged the human-like creatures in, or that they somehow got washed in. And there&#39;s no evidence of a mass death, such as a cave accident.</p><div id="res438946461"><div><p>Berger believes someone had to have put the bodies there.</p></div></div><p><img alt="More details of the discovery of H. naledi appear in National Geographic magazine. All images in this post are from the magazine's October issue." src="http://media.npr.org/assets/img/2015/09/09/ngm_october_2015_cvr_custom-9525fdc11898c4803e43927284b9f3a65c868ea9-s200-c85.jpg" style="margin-left: 10px; margin-right: 10px; float: left;" title="More details of the discovery of H. nalediappear in National Geographic magazine. All images in this post are from the magazine'sOctober issue. (Mark Thiessen/National Geographic)" /></p><p>&quot;Homo naledi&nbsp;was deliberately disposing of its dead in a repeated, ritualized fashion in this deep underground chamber,&quot; he says.</p><p>That&#39;s quite a claim &mdash; that kind of ritual has been thought to be unique to modern humans or our very close relatives.</p><p>And really, the whole discovery &mdash; from the bones to their bizarre location &mdash; has perplexed experts on human evolution.</p><p>&quot;To be honest, I would really distrust anyone who thinks they understand what the significance of these finds is,&quot; says&nbsp;<a href="http://cashp.columbian.gwu.edu/bernard-wood">Bernard Wood</a>, a paleoanthropologist at George Washington University.</p><p>Usually scientists can tell how old fossilized bones are, but, in this case, the geology of the cave gives no clues. The bones could be less than 100,000 years old or several million years old.</p><p>&quot;These folks do not have an age, yet they have some remarkable fossils, and the context of them is also remarkable,&quot; says Wood. &quot;It&#39;s not only remarkable, it&#39;s also rather weird. But nonetheless, the fossils are important. So the community is, I think, struggling to work out what it all means.&quot;</p><p>He notes that only a small section of the cave chamber has been excavated, and it looks like many more bones are down there.</p><p>&quot;There is the potential for thousands of specimens in that cave,&quot; says Wood. &quot;Intellectually, it&#39;s a real puzzle. And I think it&#39;s going to take scientists quite a time to get their heads around what the real significance of these discoveries is.&quot;</p><p>&mdash; <em><a href="http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2015/09/10/437249183/south-african-cave-yields-strange-bones-of-early-human-like-species">via NPR</a></em></p></p> Thu, 10 Sep 2015 10:23:00 -0500 http://www.wbez.org/news/south-african-cave-yields-strange-bones-early-human-species-112885 Clever Apes #27: Breaking the fossil record http://www.wbez.org/blog/clever-apes/2012-03-08/clever-apes-27-breaking-fossil-record-96971 <img typeof="foaf:Image" src="http://llnw.wbez.org//blog/photo/2012-March/2012-03-07/Orgel2.JPG" alt="" /><p><p><img alt="Joseph Orgel holds his sample of T. rex tissue. (WBEZ/Michael De Bonis)" class="caption" height="450" src="http://llnw.wbez.org/blog/insert-image/2012-March/2012-03-07/Orgel2.JPG" title="Joseph Orgel holds his sample of T. rex tissue. (WBEZ/Michael De Bonis)" width="600"></p><p>Dinosaurs loom large in our imaginations not just because they were in fact enormous, but also they are so ridiculously old. There has always been a big, impenetrable curtain separating us from prehistoric life. Sure, we have some ancient bones, but those had long since turned to stone. Any actual tissue, the stuff of flesh-and-blood creatures, is irrevocably lost, lasting only a few tens of thousands of years in most cases. Maybe a few stray organic molecules could persist for a few million if, say, they were frozen deep within primeval ice.</p><p>So, needless to say, it came as something of a shock when Mary Schweitzer <a href="http://www.sciencemag.org/content/307/5717/1952.abstract">discovered that she had some 68-million-year-old dinosaur tissue </a>on her hands.</p><p><img alt="Researchers at Argonne lab use tricycles to get around the Advanced Photon Sourc" class="caption" src="http://llnw.wbez.org/blog/insert-image/2012-March/2012-03-05/Orgel trike.jpg" style="margin: 10px; width: 350px; float: right; height: 267px;" title="Researchers at Argonne lab use tricycles to get around the Advanced Photon Source. (WBEZ/Michael De Bonis)">The find was and is controversial. <a href="http://genome.fieldofscience.com/2009/06/dinosaur-proteins-from-t-rex-and.html">Many scientists are skeptical or outright dismissive </a>of the idea that tissue could have persisted inside the partially fossilized thigh bone of a T. rex. But since then Schweitzer and her collaborators have gradually built up evidence that the find is real. And most recently, <a href="http://www.iit.edu/csl/bio/faculty/orgel_joseph.shtml">Joseph Orgel of the Illinois Institute of Technology </a>has begun to understand how mummified dino-flesh could possibly have survived a thousand times longer than was thought possible.</p><p>Orgel used <a href="http://aps.anl.gov/">x-ray diffraction</a>, a kind of molecular imaging technique, to understand how the dinosaur tissue is structured in detail. The particular stuff they have in hand is collagen, a material found in our bones, tendons, blood vessels and skin. It is itself a hardy molecule, and Orgel found that the protein sequences preserved in their fossils came from the innermost, protected part of the collagen fiber. So it’s possible that <a href="http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0020381">collagen’s tough, ropelike structure preserved a tender bit of dinosaur jerky inside.</a></p><p>Keep in mind, this is not DNA. We will not be cloning Barney from this stuff. But understanding how these proteins can be shielded from decay for so long could hold practical lessons for modern medicine. If you’re repairing, say, a bone or cartilage, you might be able to leverage or mimic nature’s ability to make durable organic materials that don’t degrade, in effect, forever.<img alt="Phillip Messersmith designed a medical glue based on the blue mussel's natural a" class="caption" src="http://llnw.wbez.org/blog/insert-image/2012-March/2012-03-05/Messersmith.jpg" style="margin: 10px; width: 250px; float: left; height: 333px;" title="Phillip Messersmith designed a medical glue based on the blue mussel's natural adhesive. (WBEZ/Michael De Bonis)"></p><p>Also in today’s episode, we consider another example of design inspired by biology. <a href="http://biomaterials.bme.northwestern.edu/mussel.asp">Dr. Phillip Messersmith’s muse is the blue mussel </a>– a bivalve that secretes a unique adhesive to stick itself to rocks or boat hulls or wherever it feels like sticking. (They form their connective threads and tacky pads through a kind of shellfish injection-molding process. The video below, provided by the Messersmith lab, captures an amazing example.) This stuff turns out to have some key qualities that a surgeon would envy. It starts as a liquid and solidifies quickly, it functions well under water and it’s sticky as hell.</p><p>That’s a big advantage over the medical glues out there that doctors use to attach or repair tissues. The safest ones are too weak. The strongest ones (basically, super glue) are toxic. <a href="http://biomaterials.bme.northwestern.edu/">Messersmith and his lab-mates at Northwestern University </a>are using the fundamentals of the mussel glue to design their own version, which they demonstrated for us on some sausage casing.</p><p>So someday, maybe they’ll be able to install a dino-inspired bone patch in your body, and lock it down with some mussel glue. Until then, don’t forget to subscribe to our <a href="http://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/wbezs-clever-apes/id379051174" target="_blank" title="http://feeds.feedburner.com/CleverApesPodcast">podcast</a>, follow us on&nbsp;<a href="http://twitter.com/#%21/cleverapes" target="_blank" title="http://twitter.com/#!/cleverapes">Twitter</a>, and find us on&nbsp;<a href="http://www.facebook.com/pages/Clever-Apes-on-WBEZ/118246851551412" target="_blank" title="http://www.facebook.com/pages/Clever-Apes-on-WBEZ/118246851551412">Facebook</a>.</p><p><iframe allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="451" mozallowfullscreen="" src="http://player.vimeo.com/video/38034455?color=ff0179" webkitallowfullscreen="" width="601"></iframe></p></p> Wed, 07 Mar 2012 16:30:00 -0600 http://www.wbez.org/blog/clever-apes/2012-03-08/clever-apes-27-breaking-fossil-record-96971