Dinosaur update

BBC-2’s Live from Dinosaur Island (4-16 June 2001) brought palaeontology into Britain’s living rooms.  Centred on a frantically excavated series of Jurassic sites on the Isle of Wight, and fronted by the irrepressible Bill “Birdman” Oddie and genuinely excited (and sometime irascible) professional palaeontologists, the series used the now familiar approach of Channel 4’s Time Team, with the added frisson of being unedited and live.  The BBC was in debt to its viewers after the truly dreadful, if visually astonishing, Walking with Dinosaurs, and has repaid them handsomely by showing the bone-people working in their natural habitat.  It should help repopularize geology after a century of our being the brightly coloured anoraks seen dimly in the drizzle.

Dinosaurs are perhaps the main link between the popular imagination and the Earth’s past.  However, leaving them at the level of awesome animals that a comet strike snuffed out 65 Ma ago may enthuse, but does not really educate.  Live from Dinosaur Island began to break the T rex – My Little Pony connection, by also showing how we can recreate the environments that long-dead creatures inhabited, and how they changed.  Climate and life (above), hints that dinosaur breath may even have affected climate during the Mesozoic.

Barely a month passes without dinosaur news.  The latest concerns the rediscovery of the Egyptian site, from which Ernst Stromer von Reichenbach gathered  a rich collection of animal fossils between 1911 and 1936.  Stromer’s collection, housed in the Bayerische Staatssammlung museum in Munich, was destroyed by wartime bombing.  Because Stromer left no clues regarding the precise location of his site, except that it was near the Baharyia Oasis in the Western Desert, it seemed unlikely ever to be found again.  A team from the University of Pennsylvania, let by Josh Smith, more or less tripped over the site by luck, when combing the area for coastal Upper Cretaceous sedimentary outcrops, after Smith’s inspiration by Stromer’s monographs (Smith, J.B. and 7 others 2001.  A giant sauropod from an Upper Cretaceous mangrove deposit in Egypt.  Science, v. 292, p. 1704-1706).  The highlight of their excavations is Paralititan stromeri, a sauropod reckoned to be the second most massive animal that lived, after South America’s Argentinosaurus.  The tidal sediments also yielded a diversity of lesser animals that matches and will certainly transcend Stromer’s destroyed collection.

See also:  Stokstad, E.  2001.  New dig at old trove yields giant sauropod.  Science, v. 292, p. 1623-1624.

Doubts cast on the increase in diversity with time

The late John Sepkoski of the University of Harvard painstakingly spent 20 years trawling the palaeontological literature to build an archive of the duration of every marine fossil known.  Others did similar work for terrestrial fossils, but Sepkoski’s database stands out, head and shoulders, for its comprehensiveness.  It is largely from his work that the record of extinction events took on semi-quantitative form.  Plotted against Phanerozoic time, his counts of genera also seem to show patterns that chart the fluctuations of biodiversity; rapid rise from the Cambrian Explosion to plateau in the mid-Palaeozoic, a decline in the late Palaeozoic and early Mesozoic, and then a post-Jurassic explosion in diversity.  Much speculation has hung on Sepkoski’s empirical data, such as the influence of “modern” evolutionary designs on the number of ecological niches that life can exploit.

Enormously important as Sepkoski’s work was, inevitably it rested on the selective nature of fossil collecting, itself partly determined by the variable quality and quantity of preservation, but also by the limited numbers of active palaeontologists, the manner in which they worked and their selection of sites.  There are gross biases in fossil collections, but how can archivists possibly allow for their influence?  Without a superhuman effort to re-collect more intensively, to plunder every conceivable stratum wherever it crops out and perhaps standardise what is meant by a genus, the only available means is through statistics.  Palaeontologists at the universities of California (Santa Barbara) and Harvard, led by John Alroy and Charles Marshall respectively, are compiling information along more comprehensive lines than did Sepkoski, including the dimension of geographic occurrence as well as duration, in the Palaeobiology Database.  Their first attempts to allow statistically for the welter of biases, published in the 25 May 2001 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, all point in the same direction.  The Cretaceous to Tertiary genera show patterns of change that are little different those for the Silurian to Carboniferous, compared with Sepkoski’s suggestion of explosive diversification in the first and a plateau in the second.  The main problem remains; vast as they are, fossil collections are not truly representative of life in the past.

Source:  Kerr, R.A. 2001.  Putting limits on the diversity of life.  Science, v. 292, p. 1481.

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