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Posts Tagged ‘paleontologist’

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Photo: Reuters

Did someone read you Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories when you were a child? My father read them to me. My favorite was “The Elephant’s Child.”

“In the High and Far-Off Times the Elephant, O Best Beloved, had no trunk.” I loved hearing about the elephant’s child’s “satiable curiosity.” I loved the way the characters talked. The bi-colored python rock snake on the banks of the grey-green, greasy Limpopo River all set about with fever trees spoke just like my Uncle Jim.

Recently, an article in the Guardian reminded me of Kipling’s fanciful stories about how animals looked before they acquired their characteristic traits. It was an article about the whale.

Riley Black wrote, “Whales used to live on land. This fact never ceases to amaze me. Even though every living species of cetacean – from the immense blue whale to the river dolphins of the Amazon basin – is entirely aquatic, there were times when the word ‘whale’ applied entirely to amphibious, crocodile-like beasts that splashed around at the water’s edge. This week, paleontologists named another.

Peregocetus pacificus – as named by a seven-strong paleontologist team led by Olivier Lambert – is [a mammal] that was excavated from the bed of an ancient ocean now preserved in Peru. … This was a whale that still had arms and legs, the firm attachment of the hips to the spine and flattened toe-tips indicating that Peregocetus was an amphibious creature capable of strutting along the beach. Yet conspicuous expansions to the tailbones of Peregocetus are reminiscent of living mammals, such as otters, that swim with an up-and-down, undulating motion … different from the side-to-side swish of most fish. …

“There are two points that make Peregocetus stand out. The first, Lambert and colleagues point out, is where Peregocetus was found. This early whale wasn’t discovered in ancient Asia, like many others, but in South America. It’s the first of its kind to be found on the continent, and from the Pacific side, at that. This is something of a surprise. Clearly whales were eminently seaworthy long before they became more streamlined and lost their hindlimbs. Finds such as Peregocetus, as well as the related Georgiacetus from North America, indicate that walking whales were capable of crossing entire oceans.

“But, more importantly, Peregocetus is a reminder of what wonders still await us in the fossil record. … Peregocetus [stands] in our fossiliferous imagination with its hind feet on the land and front paws in the water. The whale certainly adds to our understanding of how and when cetaceans took to the seas, but the most powerful fact of all is simply that such an unusual and unexpected creature existed.” More here.

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Photo: Dinghua Yang/AFP/Getty Images
This pregnant Dinocephalosaurus, a long-necked marine reptile, didn’t lay eggs but instead gave birth to live young 245m years ago.

After uncovering new evidence, surprised scientists are revising a long-held understanding of the pre-dinosaur Dinocephalosaurus.

According to a Reuters story at the Guardian, “An extraordinary fossil unearthed in southwestern China shows a pregnant long-necked marine reptile that lived millions of years before the dinosaurs with its developing embryo, indicating the creature gave birth to live babies rather than laying eggs.

“Scientists said [in February that] the fossil of the unusual fish-eating reptile called Dinocephalosaurus, which lived about 245m years ago during the Triassic Period, changes the understanding of the evolution of vertebrate reproductive systems.

“Mammals and some reptiles including certain snakes and lizards are viviparous, meaning they give birth to live young.

“Dinocephalosaurus is the first member of a broad vertebrate group called archosauromorphs that includes birds, crocodilians, dinosaurs and extinct flying reptiles known as pterosaurs known to give birth this way, paleontologist Jun Liu of China’s Hefei University of Technology said. …

“ ‘I think you’d be amazed to see it, with its tiny head and long snaky neck,’ said University of Bristol paleontologist Mike Benton, who also participated in the research published in the journal Nature Communications.

“Its body plan was similar to plesiosaurs, long-necked marine reptiles akin to Scotland’s mythical Loch Ness Monster that thrived later during the dinosaur age, though they were not closely related.

“Not laying eggs provided advantages to Dinocephalosaurus, the researchers said. It indicated the creature was fully marine, not having to leave the ocean to lay eggs on land like sea turtles, exposing the eggs or hatchlings to land predators.” More here.

I admire scientists for continuously revisiting accepted wisdom when they find new data. The only complaint I have about the story concerns the Loch Ness Monster, an old friend of mine. Should one really call it mythical? Perhaps the data just haven’t floated to the surface yet.

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