Tag Archive: paleontology

DVD cover, Waking the Baby MammothIn the spring of 2007 Yuri Khudi, a reindeer herder in northwestern Siberia, found a baby mammoth carcass, still frozen and remarkably complete, lying on the snowy tundra. Scientists named her Lyuba (little love) after Yuri’s wife – who did not appreciate the honor! Lyuba’s discovery and the scientific investigation that followed became the subject of a National Geographic program, first aired roughly two years after her discovery, and later made available as a DVD.

From a scientific point of view, the DVD is excellent. Certainly some of the scenes of the finding, disappearance and re-finding of Lyuba must have been re-enacted, but not obtrusively so. The long-distance travel, tomographic investigation and subsequent tissue sampling of Lyuba appear to have been photographed in real time, and give a much better idea of how a frozen mummy can be investigated than is generally available. Some of the discoveries included the definite identification of heat-producing brown fat in Lyuba’s hump, her age at death (only about a month) and that she died, probably by drowning, in excellent health.

The reindeer herder Yuri was able to be present at part of the autopsy, and a highlight of the DVD is Nenets culture as the scientists investigating Lyuba stayed with Yuri’s family as they examined where she had been found. The problem of how her body reached the surface of the tundra without thawing or decay is still unsolved.

As usual in National Geographic DVDs, the computer graphic imaging of mammoths in their Pleistocene setting consists of a relatively few clips repeated several times. To some extent this is offset by a series of charming vignettes of Lyuba against modern backgrounds – wandering the museum, appearing to scientists relaxing in modern settings, and interacting with Yuri’s reindeer.

Lyuba is featured a current exhibition touring the USA and the world from the Field Museum. She is just finishing a visit in Hong Kong.

If you like Pleistocene mammals, this is definitely a program to see. Of course I’m prejudiced, since I used mammoths, among other Pleistocene mammals, in Tourist Trap.

This is actually a reissue of programs aired on the Discovery Channel in 1997, though the DVD has a 2009 date. The package date is very misleading, as both the facts given and the computer animation are 15 years old – before the first airing of Walking With Dinosaurs. The computer animation, in particular, is very poor, and I would certainly not buy this DVD to watch the dinosaurs!

The DVD includes four 1-hour programs: Renaissance of the Dinosaurs, Land of the Giants, The Killer Elite, and And Then There Were None. In order, they deal with the public fascination with dinosaurs, the large herbivores, the two-legged killers such as T-Rex and raptors, and the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Luckily, the program concentrates not on the videos, but on the science of paleontology. Even that is a bit dated in describing what is known about dinosaurs, though the finding, excavating, packing and cleaning of specimens is worth watching for budding paleontologists. So is the history of our fascination with dinosaurs, including more than the usual information about how our views about dinosaurs have changed since the Crystal Palace reconstruction and the dinosaur wars between Cope and Marsh.

If you are looking for a video to entertain children, this is not it. On the other hand, the DVD does have a number of airings of scientific controversies and field operations.

One point I would disagree with. The question of whether dinosaurs resembled birds or reptiles in care of young is addressed by using fossil bone cross sections to determine whether newly hatched dinosaurs had strong enough legs to stand. I strongly suspect that some dinosaurs could stand and some couldn’t, and the same is true of modern birds. Certainly chicks and ducklings are on their legs and finding their own food almost at once, and I suspect at least some dinosaurs may have been the same. I have seen arguments in later DVDs that some pterosaurs (which admittedly are not dinosaurs) were able to fly shortly after hatching.

All in all, this is not a DVD I would consider entertainment, but it could be of interest to a budding paleontologist.

The OLLI classes are on again, and my favorite teachers are back – this time, with a course on the Alaskan Mesozoic.

What’s that? Well, the Mesozoic is the “Middle period” of multicellular life on earth, lasting roughly from 250 million years ago to 65 million years ago. It is probably better known as the age of dinosaurs, although many of the animals of the time often looked on as dinosaurs – weren’t. And the fossils of many of these animals are indeed found in Alaska – which has led to a new look at dinosaurs.

I missed the first class of the series, on the paleogeography of Alaska, but a good deal of it was put together at the Geophysical Institute, where I used to work. I already knew that the mountain ranges that make up most of Alaska were originally island chains, carried into the state on the moving Pacific and Arctic plates and crushed against it. The north slope was actually at a higher latitude than today during the Mesozoic, and while the world (and Alaska) were a good deal warmer then, the sun was still below the horizon 24 hours a day in midwinter. Plants cannot grow without sunlight, herbivores would have a lean time of it in winter, and carnivores need herbivores to survive. It is difficult to imagine cold-blooded reptiles managing this (there are no crocodiles or snakes in mainland Alaska today) so the discovery of dinosaurs, but not fossil crocodiles, at these high latitudes has forced some reconsideration of their cold-bloodedness.

So what are dinosaurs? That was the Saturday lecture.

First, they are diapsids. That means they have two holes (other than those for eyes, nostrils and ears) in their skulls. In contrast we mammals have one on each side and are called synapsids, and turtles have none and are called anapsids. Don’t think you have one? It’s behind your cheekbone, and your jaw muscle passes through it. Feel above your cheekbone and clench your jaw, and you can feel the muscle. Well, dinosaurs, crocodiles, lizards and birds have two such holes.

In order to be a dinosaur, however, something else is required. Diapsids (think reptiles) started out sprawling. At some point some brought their hind legs under themselves – somewhat earlier than we mammals learned the trick – and began to use their forelegs as grasping hands. The first dinosaur probably looked like a large (but not too large) featherless (we think) bird.

And dinosaurs, as defined by being diapsids with upright rear legs and three-toed grasping forelegs, include birds. Furthermore, discoveries over the last ten to fifteen years have made it clear that many perfectly good, classic dinosaurs had feathers. After all, feathers make excellent insulation, as demonstrated by the down parka I wear.

So far, we’ve learned also that some creatures often lumped with dinosaurs are in fact not dinosaurs. The sail-backs often included with dinosaurs, for instance, are in fact synapsids and are our own distant relatives. Pterosaurs and marine reptiles, though flourishing at the same time as dinosaurs, were not dinosaurs, though they were diapsids.

I know there were marine reptiles in Alaska, but I’ll be fascinated to hear about pterosaurs in our long, dark winters. Did they live here, even in the summer? Did their wings allow them to migrate?

Next week we’ll focus on plants, but the final week is scheduled to cover the marine reptiles and pterosaurs. If you can’t wait, there is some information on a PBS NOVA program.

(P.S. That’s a Pterosaur skull that Pat Druckenmiller is holding.)