Tag Archives: Dinosaur

The Silurians – Lost in Time

The Silurians, a classic Doctor Who “monster” have returned to our screens in Chris Chibnall’s new story The Hungry Earth. Sadly, the story has not done anything, so far, to correct an unfortunately horrid series of errors placing them in geologic time. In fact, by adding one more piece, he’s compounded the error yet again.

For the sake of this post, I’m going to call them “Silurians” but as you’ll see, as things stand now, we’re no closer to giving them a correct name as we were when they first appeared 40 years ago.

Consider: These reptilian creatures were first dubbed “Silurians” in the original series story, “Doctor Who and the Silurians.” This is clearly a misnomer. The Silurian Period spanned from 430 million years ago (mya) to 408 mya. By the end of the Silurian period, land-dwelling reptiles didn’t exist yet. A gross misnomer.

It was also pointed out that the so-called Silurians went into hibernation when a small planetoid threatened the Earth. The planetoid instead went into orbit and became the moon. Although not known that the time of the writing of that story, the moon is the result of collision with the primordial Earth, over 4 billions years ago. One this is for sure, the moon has orbited Earth for as long as life has been present.

Later, the Silurians cousins turned up in the story, The Sea Devils. The Doctor helpfully pointed out that the Silurians should have been called The Eocenes.

Problem: The Eocene Epoch spans from 57.8 mya to 35.6 mya. That’s over 7 million years after the extinction of the dinosaurs. We know that the Silurians co-habitated the earth with dinosaurs which must put them into the late Triassic, the Jurrasic or the Cretaceous periods roughly 220 mya to 65 mya. Most likely they must have come from the end of that time as they have a pet Tyrannosaur, which only dates back about 68 mya.

Next problem: Even the original Silurians recognized apes, which didn’t evolve until just after the Eocene, in the Oligocene.

You’d think it couldn’t be any worse and then Hungry Earth comes along and not only does the Doctor call them Silurians and Eocenes, but he also refers to them as Homo Reptilia, and then suggest they’re from 300 mya – which is in the Carboniferious Period!

While the Carboniferous did have amphibians, the major reptilian lines didn’t really get going until the next period, the Permian.

Finally, I don’t know where he pulled the name Homo Reptilia from, but in biological classifications, you don’t just slap “homo” in front of a name if the creature is vaguely anthropomorphic. For it to be Homo Reptilia, these creatures would have to be our very close, mammalian relatives.

One could almost think Chibnall threw this stuff in just to push my buttons. Maybe he’ll fix it all better next week.

One thing in the original story’s favor. Although it was clearly intended and stated to have been the moon, time has given us an out. When the first Silurian story came out, nobody knew about the asteroid that struck the Earth at the end of the Cretaceous, now widely thought to have been the final straw in the extinction of the dinosaurs. It would be easy to retrofit the original explanation and say that it was that asteroid instead of the moon that the Silurians hid from.

But that just adds more fuel to the argument that the Silurians really should be called The Cretaceans.

Follow-up June 2, 2010:

There was no magical explanation in the final episode, Cold Blood and they even re-enforced the wandering moon problem, too. I guess I really was giving them too much credit.

Primeval – Here’s a twist I never expected!

From Variety:

In a high-six-figure deal, Warner Bros. has acquired screen rights to “Primeval,”the ITV series that airs in the U.S. on BBC America and Sci Fi Channel.

Akiva Goldsman and Kerry Foster will produce through Goldsman’s WB-based Weed Road banner. Emily Cummins will also be involved in a producing capacity.

Goldsman, who scripted the Ron Howard-directed “Angels and Demons” withDavid Koepp, will hire a writer to draft “Primeval.”

Movie? Primeval? Why do I almost fear this more than the Land of the Lost movie?

Of Dinosaurs and Birds

The week before last was Michelle’s spring break, so I took a day off to take her down to the Mesa Southwest Museum (AKA Arizona Museum of Natural History) to see the traveling “Feathered Dinosaurs” exhibit.

There is a province in Northeastern China called Liaoning, where, 120-odd million years ago a lake and a volcano combined to preserve an abundance of unique and exquisitely preserved fossils. Probably the most important finds coming out of the Liaoning fossil beds are… well, let’s call them “feathered dinosaurs”, since that’s what the exhibit is called.

Ever since the discovery of Archaeopteryx in the 19th century, it’s been clear that birds evolved from reptiles. Specimens have been few and far between, but in the later part of the 20th century, dromeosaurs were discovered.

No, that’s not a good place to start, let’s try again. A long time ago there were Archosaurs, the ancient reptiles that came before dinosaurs. Archosaurs led to dinosaurs, marine reptiles, flying reptiles and crocodilians amongst others.

Dinosaurs broke into two major groups – bird hipped and lizard-hipped. Bird-hipped dinosaurs are somewhat unfortunately named as they have no connection to birds and have no further part in our story, but are represented by familiar dinosaurs such as Iguanodon, stegosaurus and triceratops.

The lizard-hipped dinosaurs further branched into theropods and sauropods. The sauropods being the gigantic diplodocus and other long-necked forms. The theropods are the great two-legged meat eaters – the Tyrannosaurs and such.

Then they discovered Dromeosaurs. Which are classified as theropods, although they are generally smaller and have some unique characteristics, such as long arms, and often a wicked retractable killer claw on the hind feet. Think Velociraptor from Jurassic Park, and you’ve conjured up the image of a dromeosaur.

Perhaps you noticed between Jurassic Park and Jurassic Park III, the ‘raptors suddenly gained feathers.

For most of the 20th century, Archaeopteryx was thought to be a parallel line of development, alongside the dinosaurs – just as marine reptiles and flying reptiles were. The problem was, not enough evidence to say where they branched from.

When dromeosaurs were discovered in the 1960’s, it became obvious that significant physiological similarities existed between them and birds. The branching point where birds began to separate from reptiles was found. Or was it?

The case for the dromeosaur/bird relationship has been strengthening steadily over the years, and increasing number of dromeosaurs have now been identified (or extrapolated) as having feathers.

Now, the researchers who put together the “Feathered Dinosaur” exhibit, based on the amazing finds in Lioaning have arrived at a new conclusion and turned things on their head: Dromeosaurs aren’t theropod dinosaurs on the way to becoming birds at all. They’re not dinosaurs at all. They’re flightless birds, like ostriches. These are creatures whose ancestors developed true feather and wing flight, but who, through some form of evolutionary selection pressure, became land-dwelling creatures, similar in appearance to theropods, but not related any closer than the Archosaurs.

I’ve read the (rather sparse) material associated with the exhibit and it makes a logical case. No evidence is presented to counter the hypothesis, and I don’t know what the reaction has been in the paleontological community has been.

What I do know is that, if this were such an obvious slam dunk of an hypothesis, I would imagine I would have to have heard more about it than I have. Has consensus been achieved this quickly? Or is this hotly contested? I can only imagine the latter. That’s the way science works, in fact, that’s probably how science works best. If there’s any lesson to be learned in science for the general public, it is that science is a self-correcting system that arrives at conclusions via evidence, multiple independent verifications and a lot of academic debate.

So, why am I bothered?

I’m bothered because the museum was rather full of kids on field trips and they were stocked up on docents, and they were telling everyone about this theory as if it were completely proven. The materials accompanying the exhibits were not much less certain, but the book that can be purchased separately does at least pay some lip service to the notion of academic debate on these findings. I don’t blame the authors, exactly, for they are putting forward their case, and doing a convincing job – at least to this layman, but at the same time, as far as I can tell, dromeosaurs are still considered theropod dinosaurs – for now.

Anyway, despite that, it is an amazing exhibit! These are some of the most exquisite fossils ever found. The preservation is such that you can see intricate details on the wings of bugs. It’s astounding.

How sad that these fossil beds are stuck in China. The local farmers can make a comparative fortune finding and smuggling out fossils. The fields aren’t well guarded and, well, let’s be brutally honest: Chinese officials are corrupt to the core. A payoff here and there and who knows how many incredible finds are in the hands of some private collector?

No pictures are allowed in the exhibit (and armed guards will stop you if you try*) and no pictures are available for purchase, although the companion book, Feathered Dinosaurs by Stephen A Czerkas and Sylvia J. Czerkas has photos of all the exhibits and the text of the placards, along with some additional material.

I strongly recommend anyone with an interest in paleontology to see this exhibit if you get the chance. For most people, it’s probably a once in a lifetime exhibit.

*Or is the purpose of the armed guards to stop political activists from unfurling “Free Tibet” banners?

Book Selection: Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before… as I was approaching college age as the 80’s were dawning on us, I had three areas of interest that I explored for my future life’s work. Each would set the course of my adult life in three very different ways and each would have been a different University.

I was interested in forestry, which would have taken me to Northern Arizona University, paleontology, which would have started at my home town university, the University of Arizona, or computer science at Arizona State University.
Forestry was the long shot and got eliminated early, and plays no further part in this story.
My deep and abiding interest was paleontology – I wanted to be a fossil hunter, but my aptitude was more computer science.
Computers won because as I learned more about the coursework required for paleontology, I realized that there were large parts (like biology and zoology) of it that would really be painfully dull for me.
Looking back, I didn’t make the wrong choice. Paleontology has developed significantly since the days of Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh. Parallel developments in other fields, such as genetics and evolutionary biology have dovetailed with the old bone diggers and brought us to a quantum leap in our understanding of past life. (Yuck, I apologize for that sentence. Must be too much sugar in my iced tea.)
That’s my long way of saying, I love a good book on the evolution of life, especially when there’s a paleontological adventure involved.
Neil Shubin’s book Your Inner Fish (and Shubin himself, for that matter) first came to my attention when he plugged the book on the Colbert Report. Colbert, in his role as a conservative fundamentalist host, always throws his guests a few curve balls (or googlies, if you prefer a cricket analogy over baseball) and I was really impressed at how well Shubin comported himself on the show.
That alone made me want to give him money by reading his book, but Shubin has another important claim to fame: He was an instrumental part of the team of paleontologists who discovered Tiktaalik, the important fish to amphibian transitional fossil.
The book’s subtitle is “A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body” and, as such, isn’t strictly about Tiktaalik, or even fossil-hunting. It is an excellent, and easily accessible book that gives a good primer into how genetics and fossils tell us why life is the way it is.
As such, I’d recommend the book to anyone with even a passing interest in understanding “how it all comes together.”
Your Inner FishA Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body
by Neil Shubin
Pantheon BooksISBN 978-0-375-42447-2