Postscript On Leaky

Over the decades, Leakey inspired countless scientists and activists through his books and talks. Photograph by William Campbell / Getty

We do not normally link to obituaries, but since I felt compelled to recently, this one seems a must also. Nearly two years ago we linked to a profile of Richard Leakey and the author of that profile has written a moving postscript:

On the night of January 2nd, I got a text from Paula Kahumbu, the Kenyan conservationist. “Dear friends, sad news,” she wrote. “Richard Leakey just passed away at his home in Kona Baridi.” Leakey, the renowned paleoanthropologist and wildlife conservationist, had been her mentor—a mercurial, controversial advocate for African wildlife, whose tumultuous career was central to Kenya’s history in the past half century. Continue reading

Species Discoveries Of 2021

Eurythenes atacamensis, a giant new crustacean endemic to the Peru-Chile ocean trench, identified by scientists in 2021. Photograph: Weston et al 2021

The work of species discovery continues, even as extinction continues unabated:

‘Hell herons’, metallic beetles, tiny shrimp – scientists have been busy describing unusual creatures despite Covid restrictions

Two newly described species of spinosaur dinosaurs discovered on the Isle of Wight, named ‘hell heron’ and ‘riverbank hunter’. Photograph: Anthony Hutchings

Six new dinosaurs, an Indian beetle named after Larry the cat, and dozens of crustaceans critical to the planet’s carbon cycle were among 552 new species identified by scientists at the Natural History Museum this year.

In 2021, researchers described previously unknown species across the tree of life, from a pair of giant carnivorous dinosaurs known as spinosaurs – nicknamed the “riverbank hunter” and “hell heron” – to five new snakes that include the Joseph’s racer, which was identified with the help of a 185-year-old painting. Continue reading

Natural History, Artists & Detectives

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This Tyrannosaurus bataar dinosaur was at the center of a lawsuit demanding its return to Mongolia. Credit U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York

97803163825331.jpgMammoth-hunting is the closest anyone in our immediate circle has gotten to the kind of story that is on my mind today. Searching the word dinosaur on our platform I see that the story told in the book to the left has had a long trail that I have been following for years. If like me you had youthful dreams of becoming a hunter for pre-history’s wonders you might have thrown around phrases such as “whatever it takes.”

This cautionary tale by Paige Williams might be the antidote for any kid whose instincts are for this kind of sleuthing adventure, which requires rules just like any good game. Speaking of which, longform tale-telling is as much an interest of mine as natural history, and the way this book came to my attention was through an interview with its author.

The Bizarre Tale of the ‘Dinosaur Artist’ Who Trafficked in Stolen Fossils

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John Marshall Mantel for The New York Times

As far as case law goes, there are more consequential decisions than The United States of America v. One Tyrannosaurus Bataar SkeletonFew, however, feature a more charismatic defendant.

In 2013, the United States literally arrested the skeleton of a giant apex predator dinosaur slumbering in a warehouse in Queens. But understanding how this came to be first requires a panoptic survey of everything from the world of the Late Cretaceous period to the 1990s rise of right-wing politics in Mongolia. This is the dizzying task that Paige Williams, a staff writer for The New Yorker, has set for herself in “The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate Trophy.”

What began for her as the tale of an unusual court case involving a rogue fossil hunter unspools in this book into a wide-ranging examination of the ways that commercialism, ambition, politics and science collide. (Just a glance at some of the index’s entries reveals the scope: Genghis Khan, Newt Gingrich, St. Augustine, Stegosaurus and Preet Bharara.) Continue reading

Citizen Science, Children & Bees

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Scientists expected bees to gradually cease buzzing as the sky darkened during an eclipse. Instead, they stopped altogether. Credit Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

After following the work of Nicholas St. Fleur for a couple years now–his beat includes archaeology, paleontology, and space among other of the things we care about on this platform, including conservation–his most recent story below is my favorite for one reason, namely citizen science. Specifically the participation of youth in such an important scientific investigation:

The Moon Eclipsed the Sun. Then the Bees Stopped Buzzing.

Researchers worked with a small army of elementary school children to collect audio recordings of bees as they visited flowers along the path of last summer’s total eclipse.

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National Forest Service workers at the Bridger-Teton National Forest Office in Jackson, Wyo., took a break to watch the Great American Eclipse last year. Credit Celia Talbot Tobin for The New York Times

Last year’s Great American Eclipse drew hundreds of millions of eyes to the sky. But while people across the country “oohed” and “aahed” at the phenomenon, it appears the bees went silent.

So found a new study that monitored the acoustic activity of bees before, during and after totality — the moment when the moon completely blocked the sun — during the solar eclipse on Aug. 21, 2017. Researchers at the University of Missouri, along with a small army of elementary school children and other volunteers, collected audio recordings of honeybees, bumblebees and other types of bees as they visited flowers along the path of totality Continue reading

Crowdfunding as a Branch of Citizen Science

An artist’s rendering of a Utahraptor, several specimens of which were found in a massive slab of sandstone in eastern Utah in 2001. Scientists are seeking to raise money to remove the remaining bones from the giant trove of fossils, a slow and painstaking process. Credit Elena Duvernay/Stocktrek Images, via Science Source

There’s no age limit to the human fascination with dinosaurs, so it’s good news for science that interest translates to collaborative efforts when public funding for exploration and documentation run low.

Raptor Cam? Sounds enticing!

Utah Paleontologists Turn to Crowdfunding for Raptor Project

Millions of years ago, on a mud flat somewhere in Cretaceous Utah, a group of Utahraptors made a grave mistake: They tried to hunt near quicksand. The pack’s poor fortune has given modern paleontologists an opportunity to decode the giant raptor — its appearance, growth and behavior — but only if they can raise the money.

Enter “The Utahraptor Project,” started on GoFundMe last year with a $100,000 goal. It offers backers access to a field worker’s blog, a live “Raptor Cam” and digital models of the find put together through the process of photogrammetry. While it is far from reaching its goal, the team is optimistic.

“Once we get this up and running, with all the cameras and gizmos to record the action on a micro and macro level,” said Scott Madsen, a fossil preparator, “I think we can give the public a good show for their money. Continue reading

Paleo Diet – Served Up Straight

Banksy’s “Caveman”. Credit: Lord Jim Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Thanks to Scientific American‘s Guest Blog feature for this interesting fodder for thought.

The “True” Human Diet

From the standpoint of paleoecology, the so-called Paleo diet is a myth

People have been debating the natural human diet for thousands of years, often framed as a question of the morality of eating other animals. The lion has no choice, but we do. Take the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras, for example: “Oh, how wrong it is for flesh to be made from flesh!” The argument hasn’t changed much for ethical vegetarians in 2,500 years, but today we also have Sarah Palin, who wrote in Going Rogue: An American Life, Continue reading

Patagonia, Geological Time & Food History

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Two fossils of a newly discovered species of tomatillo that are 52 million years old. CreditPeter Wilf

They had us at Tomatillo. But mention fossils, geological timeframe, discovery and Patagonia all in the same headline and there we go:

Tomatillo Fossils, 52 Million Years Old, Are Discovered in Patagonia

By Nicholas St. Fleur

The nightshades have an ominous reputation, but this large plant family is more than just its most poisonous members, like belladonna. It contains more than 2,400 different species, including some of the most widely consumed fruits and vegetables in the world, such as potatoes, tomatoes and peppers. Continue reading