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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 ‘pterosaurs’

Death of a Fossil Hunter

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 17, 2018

Junchang Lu and friend (Photos: Richard Conniff)

by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

When I travel to an unfamiliar country to report a story, I seldom know in advance about the personalities of the people I need to work with: Will they be helpful or in a hurry, plainspoken or obscure? But the moment I met the paleontologist Junchang Lü a few years ago in northeastern China, I knew I had lucked out.

So I was stunned, along with fossil lovers worldwide, to learn that Junchang Lü, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences in Beijing, had died on October 8, age 53. The night before, he was pushing students to complete their manuscripts for publication and talking with fellow fossil-hunter Xu Xing about a joint project, according to an email from Hokkaido University Museum paleontologist Yoshi Kobayashi, Junchang’s “academic brother,” from their years together as doctoral students at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “His wife heard Junchang eating and closing windows around midnight. On the next morning, she found Junchang cold. It was a sudden death. Probably heart attack, they said. It is so like Junchang that he talked about manuscripts until the last minute he was gone.”

Junchang Lü made his reputation in part for his numerous discoveries of new pterosaurs. Since parting ways in 2001, he and Xiaolin Wang of Beijing’s Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) had repeatedly one-upped each other in one of the most productive paleontological rivalries of our time, describing a combined total of more than 50 new species, roughly a quarter of all pterosaurs now known.

Among Junchang’s most celebrated finds, he and his co-authors described Darwinopterus modularis—named for Darwin of course, but also for “a remarkable modular combination” of traits from two separate pterosaur groups, suggesting that tightly-linked characteristics could pass down by a process of “modular evolution.” One Darwinopterus specimen, dubbed “Mrs. T” (for Mrs. Pterosaur), came with Read the rest of this entry »

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Posted in Notable Species Seekers | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Utah Yields a Giant Triassic Pterosaur–and It’s Largely Intact

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 15, 2018

 

Here’s the press release from Brigham Young University. (Sorry, didn’t have time to add it earlier.)  And small correction: Pterodactyl(us) is just a name for one genus of pterosaur, rather than a common name for all pterosaurs.

When Brooks Britt, a geological sciences professor at BYU, searched through the latest Triassic sandstone samples in his lab, he expected to find bones of early crocodiles and dinosaurs. Instead, he discovered the bones of a new pterosaur specimen, now named Caelestiventus (heavenly wind) hanseni. Dating back more than 200 million years, it’s one of the earliest ever found.

Until Britt’s discovery, newly published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, there were only 30 known Triassic pterosaur (more commonly known as pterodactyl) specimens known to man — and none lived in deserts. Caelestiventus hanseni predates all desert pterosaurs by 65 million years. “We’re getting insights into the beginning of pterosaurs,” he said. “Ours shows that Read the rest of this entry »

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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 »

Posted in Biodiversity | Tagged: , , , , | 7 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: , , , , | 6 Comments »

Eggs in a Basket: Fossil Find Opens Up Lost World of Pterosaurs

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 1, 2017

With apologies, I have been delayed in posting several articles I published previously this year. Attempting to update now.

by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

Thanks in part to an abundance of fossil discoveries in recent decades, scientists now recognize more than 200 species of pterosaur—the winged reptiles that dominated the world’s skies for 160 million years. But almost nothing is known about how they bred or how their young developed. As recently as 2014 the available scientific evidence on those topics added up to a grand total of just three pterosaur eggs, all badly flattened.

That dramatically changes with the description in this week’s Science of a sandstone block containing at least 215 fossilized eggs of a Cretaceous era pterosaur, Hamipterus tianshanensis. Many are preserved in three dimensions, and at least 16 contain partial embryonic remains.

Paleontologists Alexander Kellner and Xiaolin Wang

A research team led by Xiaolin Wang of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) in Beijing discovered the eggs, embedded in a rock slab more than three square meters in area, at a dig in northwestern China. Analysis of sediments in the find suggests “that events of high energy such as storms passed over a nesting site” by an ancient lake, the co-authors write, causing the egg mass to float “for a short period of time, becoming concentrated and eventually buried.”

Preservation of any pterosaur fossil is exceptional, partly because their bones were so thin. Extreme scarcity is even Read the rest of this entry »

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