Sunday, 28 March 2010

Mystery Molar

This tooth needs identifying if someone can do that for me please. I know I should probably know but it is mammalian and they are not exactly the focus of my interests. If it were archosaurian, then I would not need to ask the question.

The reason it is interesting is that it was recovered from Eocene deposits, about 50 million years old, but it quite clearly isn't from that period. Indeed I believe I know the answer to that particular conundrum but a positive ID would confirm everything one way or another. Please feel free to comment and thanks in advance!



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Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Dinosaur Resurrection - The Truth

It cannot have escaped anyone’s attention that yet again there have been more stories about the recovery of DNA from extinct animals, this time from the giant elephant bird of Madagascar, as well as the moa from New Zealand.

For those of you not familiar with this latest story, scientists have developed new techniques for recovering genetic material from ancient egg shell, in one case, as old as 19,000 years old (yeah I know – not exactly Mesozoic, but still impressive). This technology has revealed that egg shell is as good, if not a better source of DNA than bone and hair and has been described by Charlotte Oskam, of Murdoch University in Perth, as an “untapped source” of DNA that can be found world wide.

So this means that we now have good DNA profiles for Neanderthal man, mammoths, moas and elephant birds as well as very recently extinct animals such as the thylacine, dodo and goodness knows what else. Albeit that most of this DNA is degraded to a certain extent, the question remains – why have no animals, of any persuasion been resurrected?

The general consensus is that we are some way off being able to bring back such animals and whether, morally, we have a right to. The technology is not available we are told. And yet it is very obvious that an enormous amount of money is being poured into DNA and cloning research. This is not new of course and it has always been well funded but we are now entering a new era and the rewards on offer are enormous.

I’m no conspiracy theorist (well not a full paid up member anyhow!) but you can’t help but wonder that there are an awful lot of red herrings being thrown about, to convince the general public that this is still some way off and that there will be full public consultation before anything could possibly happen.

Poppycock!

When you look back over the last twenty years or so, there have been innumerable stories of scientific achievement in the fields of DNA recovery, genetics and especially cloning. Indeed, the majority of stories were buried in the back pages of the newspapers with the funnies and the scientific publications were, well, read by scientists and were far away from the general publics mind with few exceptions.

Jurassic Park changed all that and the goal posts were seriously moved – and continue to be moved. The general public suddenly became aware of genetic engineering and the resurrection of long vanished animals suddenly became possible instead of impossible and the thirst for knowledge increased. This caused problems for both the scientific establishment and those very well funded privately owned genetic research organisations – namely they were not able to continue their research with their cards very close to their chests. They became aware of the public’s interest and had to start releasing “selected” news snippets to satiate this new thirst for knowledge.

And then, unsurprisingly, there were significant advances in genetic research. It was in 1996 that Dolly the sheep became the first animal to be successfully cloned. This was soon followed by both successful cloning of both horses and bulls culminating in the first cloning of a dog in Korea in 2005. And it was only last year that the first “extinct” animal was resurrected – the Pyrenean ibex. Although this animal died shortly after birth because of complications it did show that the resurrection of extinct animals was a reality.

So we appear to be at this stage where nobody will do anything without proper enquiries and public assessments and we are constantly reminded how far off any successful resurrection really is. Well, quite frankly, I don’t believe it and am quite convinced that there have been very successful cloning of both extant and extinct animals and this is being kept very hush hush.

Frankly it wouldn’t surprise me if there actually is some hidden research establishment in some remote area where some of these animals are being created a la Jurassic Park. And I suspect that human cloning has already taken place as well, which was always the ultimate aim. Scientific and computer technology has advanced so rapidly over the last twenty years as to make it inevitable.

I am firmly convinced that dinosaurs can and will be successfully revived. Everybody says that what little DNA has been recovered is so degraded that resurrection is impossible. Well I am of the opinion that computer evolution in the next five years, maybe sooner, will enable synthetic DNA to be created using markers from the original source material with the gaps filled in with extant archosaur material – birds and crocodiles.

Before you think I’m ready for the funny farm (have been for some time) I implore you to take a step back and think about human advancement over the last twenty years. Think personal computers, think television, think mobile phones – goodness think the internet itself. Advancement is rapid, astonishing, indeed frightening.

The next time another media release appears in the public domain proclaiming the next advances made in DNA recovery, genetic technology or cloning remember that you are reading something that had been achieved probably five to ten years ago but it keeps the public satiated. It will also be backed up by a statement that proclaims further advances are some years away.

Smile to yourself and just consider that whatever is meant to be “created” some years in the future has already been created and is running about on some island not too far from you! You heard it here first!

Footnote
Please don't take this article too seriously. It is purely a bit of speculation on my part, maybe a little bit eccentric *cough* but I do believe there to be an element of truth here, no matter how ridiculous it may appear.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

A Spoil Heap Wonder

Christmas 2007 came and went and Chris and I were preparing for our holiday to New Zealand in March. This left very little time for anything else and before we knew it we were heading to the other side of the world.

This is not the place for tales of the most fantastic holiday ever, but if you get the opportunity to go to New Zealand then don’t hesitate – just go! I’ve never known anywhere with so much natural contrast on so small a scale (“small” being a little tongue in cheek). Besides, where else can you walk in the forests of Gondwanaland in the present day?

I digress. We returned in early April and by the time I had recovered from the jet lag and settled into the old routines, it was time to head for Misty Bluff for the first field trip of 2008. The weather was unsettled and I was a little unsure what was in store, but the forecast indicated that we would be unlikely to see any rain. Hmmm……

On arrival I wasn’t the first, but the small group of people there looked vaguely familiar and I presumed they had visited before. As I was getting ready Peter and Joyce arrived (the organisers), and within a short time I had signed in and was heading to the Bluff.

I hadn’t seen Mark or Chris in the car park and presumed that they had got in quickly to scour the surface of the quarry, for there had been a new scraping on the north east side and I had been told that the bottom of the quarry and the west bank had suffered “significant change”.

As I walked through the brickworks I could see that the area at the top of the quarry had been thoroughly worked on. Then I realised that I shouldn’t be able to see the quarry at all! Some old buildings at the back of the works had been demolished and cleared making access to the Bluff somewhat easier. I walked to the top of the Bluff and looked down. They had certainly been busy in the winter!

The lake had been dammed and was now about half its original size and water was being pumped from the drier side into the smaller lake. They were preparing to dig deeper, which they had mentioned to us about 18 months previously. The far western end of the quarry had also received tons of overburden and was now partially filled. This wasn’t ideal (from a selfish point of view) but if any part of the Bluff is to be filled, then I’m absolutely certain that this would be everyone’s first choice.

Apart from these changes, the other surprise was that I was the only person there. Mark and Chris had obviously not made it, so it appeared that I had the Bluff to myself for a short period. I wasted no further time and headed to the bone beds of the south east face. There had obviously been no scrape here and I returned to where I was looking during my previous trip as it was here that Chris had found a couple of pieces of bone (by my rucksack if you remember!).

Within a very short time and within a yard of where I had been previously excavating I spotted a piece of bone in a rain worn gulley. It was jet black and I carefully dug into the clay hoping it would carry on into the bed, but was disappointed to find that it did not. I believe it may be a rib section, probably crocodilian, but this needs to be checked. However, I was confident it would be a nice piece when cleaned up and I was happy with my start to the day; the pressure was off.

I scoured the rest of the bed but to no avail and pretty soon the others turned up and the Bluff was being searched in all directions. I made the decision to stay where I had found the bone and started to dig into the clay in the hope of uncovering more. However, I decided to dig about a metre higher than normal, not only because this area seemed to be the “mother lode” for the bone, but also because I had been looking more into the history of the Bluff and it was apparent that the majority of the bones recovered here were in the uppermost beds, particularly the sandstone beds.

On this occasion, however, I was not lucky and the excavation proved fruitless. I decided to move to the recently scraped north east beds and prospect there for a while. At this point it started to rain which progressively got heavier and heavier – so much for the weather forecast! Those of you who have prospected in a clay pit such as the Bluff will know that after a period of rain the clay gets terribly “claggy” and you can hardly move. At one point it looked as if the rain was here to stay but after half an hour it stopped and the surface quality improved enough to continue.

After a break for something to eat, I decided to go and check on those brand new spoil heaps I had seen when I first arrived at the Bluff. Historically, these heaps have thrown up some exceptional fossils, not only here but at quarries throughout the UK. As I approached the biggest of the heaps I felt quite excited because I was fairly certain that nobody else had bothered with them.

As I stood next to the first heap, I suffered from what can only be described as a “sensory overload”. Not only were there every sort of clay and sandstones from the quarry, but this was mixed in with soil and other goodies from around the top of the quarry which meant that separating the ‘wheat from the chaff’ was difficult. However, eventually my eyes adjusted and started to assess the heap.

After about 10 minutes I decided to walk down the most vertical side of the heap in the belief that heavy bone may tumble down to the bottom. What a decision this proved to be because I’d only walked a few yards when I stopped in my tracks and looked, looked around to make sure it wasn’t a joke, and looked again.

There sitting on top of a small pile of clay was a vertebra, the black shiny enamel glistening wet, which looked as if it had been carefully placed there for all to see! This time there was no mistake and I recognised it immediately as a caudal vertebra from Iguanodon sp. Box shaped, the vertebra even has some processes attached, and almost certainly has the neural canal preserved.

Unusually though, the vertebra is also partially encrusted with matrix which appears to be a form of sandstone that, when gently tapped, feels like it is hollow although there are obvious solid elements within it. On the plus side this very same matrix is also the reason that the processes are still there, and for that I am grateful. There are also remnants of insect egg cases in the nooks and crannies and this has led me to the conclusion that this bone had been exposed previously and has been sitting on the site until the bulldozers cleared the area to make the new spoil heap, thus exposing it yet again.

Absolutely thrilled with the find, I placed my prize in my bag and continued the search. Not too surprisingly I found nothing else on the heap but I suspect that at that point I was having problems concentrating! A little later I returned to the main quarry to continue searching and indeed I began to excavate again into the south east bank but to no avail.

I looked at the sky and realised that some substantial rain was heading our way. Discretion quickly became the better part of valour and I headed back to the car. No sooner had I arrived back at the car than the heavens opened up and I probably looked a right sausage trying to take shelter under my tail gate while removing my boots!

I took my leave of the Bluff for another 5 months but, as ever, am keen to return. I just might have a look at that spoil heap again…..