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  • Richard Conniff

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    Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife: “Conniff is a splendid writer–fresh, clear, uncondescending, and with never a false step; one can’t resist quoting him.” (NY Times Book Review)

    The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff is “a swashbuckling romp” that “brilliantly evokes that just-before Darwin era” (BBC Focus) and “an enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes” (New Scientist). “This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story” (Wall St. Journal)

    Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time by Richard Conniff  is “Hilariously informative…This book will remind you why you always wanted to be a naturalist.” (Outside magazine) “Field naturalist Conniff’s animal adventures … are so amusing and full color that they burst right off the page …  a quick and intensely pleasurable read.” (Seed magazine) “Conniff’s poetic accounts of giraffes drifting past like sail boats, and his feeble attempts to educate Vervet monkeys on the wonders of tissue paper will leave your heart and sides aching.  An excellent read.” (BBC Focus magazine)

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Posts Tagged ‘fossils’

Dawn of The Flying Murder Heads

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 15, 2018

The bristling teeth of Anhanguera piscator were for snagging fish. (Photo: Robert Clark)

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By Richard Conniff/National Geographic

Heading out into the geological layer cake of Big Bend National Park in southwestern Texas, British pterosaur researcher Dave Martill proposes a “to do” list for this brief reconnaissance: 1.) Find a rattlesnake to admire. 2.) “Find a complete Quetzalcoatlus skull sitting on the ground.” The odds are almost infinitely better for item one.  But he and Nizar Ibrahim, a fellow paleontologist, promptly fall into a detailed discussion about how to obtain a research permit in the event of item two.

This is the first rule of pterosaur research: You need to be an optimist. Thinking you will go out on a given day and find any trace of pterosaurs—the winged dragons that ruled Mesozoic skies for 162 million years–is like buying a Powerball ticket and expecting to win. Pterosaur fossils are vanishingly rare. Their whole splendid world, built on hollow bones with paper-thin walls, has long since collapsed into dust. Scarcity is especially the rule for Quetzalcoatlus northropi, thought to be one of the largest flying animals that ever lived, nearly as tall as a giraffe, with a 35-foot wingspan, and a likely penchant for picking off baby dinosaurs.  It’s known from a few fragments discovered at Big Bend in 1971, and not much else.

Ibrahim and Martill at Big Bend (Photo: Richard Conniff)

Martill and Ibrahim spend three days bone-hunting among the fissured hillsides. They cross and re-cross the promisingly named “Pterodactyl Ridge,” frequently consulting the “x-marks-the-spot” on maps left by the discoverer of Quetzalcoatlus. They decipher the nuances of geological strata (“Look at that Malinkovitch-controlled cyclicity!” Martill exclaims, referring to the way the Earth’s shifting movements show up in the rock), and they conjure up forgotten worlds. On a sandstone ridge with no obvious way down, Martill remarks, “Haven’t found a mountain yet we can’t fall down,” plunges forward, and emerges unscathed below, eyes fixed on the passing landscape.

They do not, however, stumble across any rattlesnakes, nor even the faintest whiff of a pterosaur. The femur of an Alamosaurus, the largest North American dinosaur that ever lived, turns up, by way of consolation. But dinosaurs are not pterosaurs, or vice versa. Leaving the park, the two paleontologists are already mapping out a return search for Quetzalcoatlus, permanently hooked on the tantalizing pterosaur mix of extreme biological richness glimpsed through the rarest of fossil remains.

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Optimism against all odds has, however, lately begun to look almost reasonable in pterosaur research, with a rush of discoveries revealing Read the rest of this entry »

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Posted in Biodiversity | Tagged: , , , , | 5 Comments »

Inside China’s Motherlode of Ancient Monsters

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 26, 2018

Junchang Lü and friend (Photo: Richard Conniff)

by Richard Conniff/Smithsonian Magazine

Not long ago in northeastern China, I found myself being driven in a Mercedes Benz SUV down a winding country road, trailed by a small motorcade of local dignitaries, past flat-roofed brick farmhouses and fields full of corn stubble. Abruptly, we arrived at our destination, and my guide, a stylishly-dressed woman named Fangfang, slipped out of her high heels into fieldwork gear: pink sneakers with bright blue pompoms on the Velcro straps.

We were visiting a dinosaur dig, but it was also a museum in the early stages of construction—steel beams riveted together to form oddly birdlike layers, stacked one atop another, climbing a hillside in two parallel rows. At the top, a central pavilion connecting the two rows looked like a bird about to take off.  The new museum didn’t have a definite name yet, though it is due to open sometime next year.  But it was unmistakably huge.  It was also expensive (Fanfang thought $28 million for construction alone).  And it was in the middle of nowhere.

We were in a rural village called Sihetun, in the western part of Liaoning Province.  And in the exuberant fashion of a lot of modern development in China, the new museum is going up in anticipation of visitors arriving by speed train from Beijing, 250 miles to the southwest, except that the speed train hasn’t been built yet.  More sensibly, the new museum is going up to celebrate the epicenter of modern paleontological discovery, an area that is at least as rich in fossils, and in some ways as wild, as the American West during the great era of dinosaur discovery in the late nineteenth century.

Liaoning Province (pronounced “lee-ow-NING”) is an area about the size of Michigan, sandwiched between Inner Mongolia and North Korea.  It used to be known mainly for coal, corn, and decrepit factories, which have given it a reputation as “China’s rust belt.” That’s put it off the usual itinerary for the average tourist. But developments over the past quarter-century have made it a point of pilgrimage for people interested in fossils.

Liaoning farmer and fossil hunter Lang Shi Kuang (Photo: Stefen Chow)

In the mid-1990s, on that hillside in Sihetun, a farmer planting a tree stumbled onto the world’s first known feathered dinosaur, a creature now named Sinosauropteryx (meaning “the China dragon wing”).  Actually, the farmer found two halves of a slab, each preserving a mirror image of this dinosaur.  In the freebooting spirit that has characterized the fossil trade in the area ever since, he promptly sold half to one unwitting museum, and half to another. It was the start of a fossil gold rush.

Since then, the region has produced more than 40 dinosaur species, and they have inevitably grabbed the headlines. Standing on a hillside a few minutes from the new museum site, my guide pointed out the low hills of a nearby farm where Yutyrannus, a 3100-pound feathered dinosaur, turned up a few years ago. (Think Tyrannosaurus rex, but plumed like a Mardi Gras Indian.)  This was also the former home range of Anchiornis huxleyi, a chicken-size creature with enough preserved detail to become the first dinosaur ever described feather-by-feather in its authentic colors—an event one paleontologist likened to “the birth of color tv.”

What has emerged from beneath the fields of Liaoning (and parts of neighboring provinces) is, however, bigger than dinosaurs: A couple of decades of digging have yielded Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Evolution, New Species Discoveries | Tagged: , , , , | 5 Comments »

Tyrannosaurs: It’s Not Just About Rex

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 16, 2016

Jane_Tyrannosaurusby Richard Conniff/Wall Street Journal

Given that tyrannosaurs are the most studied of all dinosaurs, and familiar to almost everyone above the age of 5 (or maybe make that 3), it’s extraordinary how little we really know about them: huge bodies, big spiky teeth, tiny arms, scary as hell. That’s about it for most of us.

Go a little deeper and we mostly go wrong, according to David Hone, a paleontologist at the University of London. “Tyrannosaurs,” he writes, in “The Tyrannosaur Chronicles,” “were not pure scavengers; they didn’t spend their lives battling adult Triceratops, they did not have poor eyesight, they could not run at 50 km/h, females were not bigger than males,” and they weren’t all Tyrannosaurus rex, that flesh-rending, scenery-chomping, lunkheaded box-office giant of our nightmares.

Mr. Hone’s unsensational and resolutely middle-of-the-road account lists 29 tyrannosaur species. He adds that Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Kill or Be Killed | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Ancient Insects in Flagrante

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 7, 2013

Eternal love (Photo: Li S, Shih C, Wang C, Pang H, Ren D/Many Hands Snapshot Co.)

Eternal love (Photo: Li S, Shih C, Wang C, Pang H, Ren D/Many Hands Snapshot Co.)

People always say it’s a good way to go.   But I’m pretty sure this happy couple didn’t expect to be together for 165 million years.  Hmm.  Yeah, it starts with casual sex and next you know you’ve been married forever.

Also, unusually for insects, they seem to be making the two-backed beast. I was thinking this was just an artifact of being buried in mud halfway through the act.  But apparently froghopper insects still do it this way.

Here’s the press release:

Scientists have found the oldest fossil depicting copulating insects in northeastern China, published November 6th in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Dong Ren and colleagues at the Capital Normal University in China.

Fossil records of mating insects are fairly sparse, and therefore our current knowledge of mating position and genitalia orientation in the early stages of evolution is rather limited.

In this study, the authors present a fossil of a pair of copulating froghoppers, a type of small insect that hops from plant to plant much like tiny frogs. The well-preserved fossil of these two froghoppers showed belly-to-belly mating position and depicts the male reproductive organ inserting into the female copulatory structure.

This is the earliest record of copulating insects to date, and suggests that froghoppers’ genital symmetry and mating position have remained static for over 165 million years. Ren adds, “We found these two very rare copulating froghoppers which provide a glimpse of interesting insect behavior and important data to understand their mating position and genitalia orientation during the Middle Jurassic.”

Shu Li, Chungkun Shih, Chen Wang, Hong Pang, Dong Ren. Forever Love: The Hitherto Earliest Record of Copulating Insects from the Middle Jurassic of China. PLoS ONE, 2013; 8 (11): e78188 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0078188

Posted in Sex & Reproduction | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »