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Earlier this month, paleontologists described the newly-discovered feathered dinosaur Sciurumimus from the late Jurassic period.  Several paleoartists have already depicted this animal, including our own other admin here.  Enough feathered dinosaurs have been discovered at this point that finding yet another one might not seem to be a big deal, but Sciurumimus is unique in several ways.

First, while most of the feathered dinosaurs known at this point have been found in China, Sciurumimus was discovered in Germany.  This makes it the first nonavian dinosaur with preserved feathers discovered outside of China.  (This is not including dinosaurs where the evidence of feathers is indirect, such as the Velociraptor with quill knobs.)

Second, Sciurumimus is currently classified as a megalosaurid, although this may change in the future—it isn’t easy to tell what group of theropods it belonged to because it was so young when it died.  If it’s a megalosaurid, it is only distantly related to most of the other feathered dinosaurs discovered up to this point.  All of the other known feathered theropods are coelurosaurs, and if they share a feathered common ancestor with megalosaurids, it would mean feathers were probably an ancestral trait to all tetanuran theropods.  Tetanurans include the coelurosaurs that have been known to be feathered for several years, but they also include theropods like Spinosaurus and Allosaurus.  In other words, it would be likely that Allosaurus had a feathered ancestor, and may itself have had feathers one some part of its body, at least when it was a chick.

But the implications of Sciurumimus for how widespread feathers may have been among dinosaurs go way beyond feathered allosaurs or spinosaurs.  This is because of the third significant thing about Sciurumimus: it has what are known as “stage 1” feathers, simple hollow fibers that are the most primitive feather-like structures known to exist.  Stage 1 feathers similar to those on Sciurumimus have previously been discovered on Tianyulong, a basal ornithischian dinosaur.

Sciurumimus and Tianyulong are related to one another as distantly as it’s possible for two dinosaurs to be.  They are on opposite sides of the divide between ornithischia and saurischia, the single largest division that exists in dinosaurs.  If both Sciurumimus and Tianyulong inherited their feathers from their common ancestor, that ancestor was also the ancestor of sauropods, stegosaurs, ankylosaurs, and hadrosaurs.  It would mean that every one of these groups of dinosaur was descended from an ancestor that had feathers.

That doesn’t mean all of these dinosaurs were actually feathered—on some of them, such as the hadrosaur Edmontosaurus, skin impressions exist for the animal’s entire body showing only the scutes that dinosaurs have traditionally been depicted with.  But it would mean that feathered hadrosaurs, stegosaurs or sauropods are no longer out of the question, and also that every one of them which lacked feathers would have lost its feathers secondarily.

With that in mind, here is this month’s question: Do you think it is likely that Sciurumimus and Tianyulong inherited their feathers from their common ancestor, which was the common ancestor of all dinosaurs?  Or is it more likely that this type of feather evolved more than once?

I don’t personally have an opinion about this yet.  Sciurumimus is so recently-described that many things about it are still considered uncertain, although I’m sure that over the next few months paleontologists will be putting a lot of thought into the answer to this question.  At the moment, only one thing is certain: Sciurumimus shows that we’re still a long ways from knowing everything there is to know about dinosaurs, so new discoveries will continue bringing surprises.
Our original deadline for the recent contest was going to be today, but… we have no entries yet. So my question is, was anyone planning on entering? If so, I will consider extending the deadline.
Our last two contests were intended to celebrate benchmarks in the group - our 100-member mark and 300-member mark, respectively - but at this point it has become something of a yearly event. (Although, for anyone curious, we now have 440 members!)

The Contest: It's been said before that "a picture is worth a thousand words". One good illustration can sometimes convey a concept or argument more clearly than even the best explanation. Your task is to create a visual explanation for some aspect of evolution, or a visual refutation of a misconception about it (including creationist arguments). Optimally, we'd like the image itself to be an argument for the concept, rather than merely illustrating it. However, we will accept a broad range of submissions that fit the theme in a general sense. For example, an illustrated cladogram of a particular group of animals would be acceptable, but not a terribly creative entry.

Here are a few preexisting examples of the sort of thing we're after:
  • This comic, by Lieju, illustrates the concept of natural selection.
  • This illustration, by doctormo, illustrates the literal "evolution" of intelligent design.
  • This cartoon, by Koobine, is a humorous illustration of the absurdity of the claim that there are no transitional forms.
  • This chart, by Agahnim, is an illustrated rebuttal to the creationist designation of "kinds".
  • And this chart, also by Agahnim, shows that most creationists in the US are rejecting evolution in opposition to their church denomination's position.
  • Beautifully illustrated cladograms such as this one are also acceptable, though not preferred.

If you're not sure if an idea you have is suitable to the contest, feel free to run it by myself or Agahnim and we'll let you know.

The Rules: As is standard, works must be created specifically for the contest, and cannot be preexisting submissions.

Works must also relate in some manner to the concept of evolution. This can be from a purely biological approach, or from an anti-creationism approach. We will not accept submissions intended solely to mock religion - there must be a relevant application to evolution.

Other than that, this contest is pretty open.

The Judging: As always, the winner will be chosen by myself and the co-founder Agahnim. The winner will be chosen based on a combination of skill, style, and creativity. Though a wide range of possibilities exist for this contest, preference will be given to those illustrating a particularly clever, complex, elegant and well-executed evolutionary or anti-creationist concept. Please be creative! This contest should be a chance not just to show off your artwork and win a prize, but to also educate our viewers.

The deadline for all entries will be July 1st.

The Prize: And of course, the best part of any contest. We will select ONE entrant who will win a SIGNED, first-edition copy of Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins. Photographs of the signature can be provided upon request if there are any doubters. This is a once in a lifetime prize opportunity! However, there is one caveat: this prize will only be available if five or more people enter the contest. If we get fewer than five entrants, the prize will be a year-long DA subscription.

As with last year, you must be comfortable giving your mailing address to me in order to receive the prize. In the event that our winner is not comfortable with that, we can substitute the prize for a year's DA subscription, if you really want to be that boring. (I agree to keep your address and so on completely private, no worries.)

Good luck and have fun!
I was originally intending for this month’s featured topic to be about Yutyrannus, a one-ton feathered tyrannosaur that’s the largest dinosaur (or animal of any sort) to be found with feathers.  But as interesting as Yutyrannus is, this month has also had another piece of dinosaur-related news that’s a little more unusual—although the way in which it involves dinosaurs is pretty far-fetched.

This paper published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society discusses the concept of chirality, which is the way it’s possible for a molecule with a particular structure to exist in two different “versions”, one of which is a mirror image of the other.  The paper suggests that the reason why amino acids on earth tend to have a particular chirality might be because amino acids with that chirality were delivered to prehistoric earth on meteorites.  For the most part it’s a fairly standard biochemistry paper, but it concludes in a unique way:
An 
implication 
from
 this 
work 
is 
that 
elsewhere 
in 
the 
universe 
there 
could 
be 
life 
forms 
based
 on 
D 
amino 
acids 
and 
L 
sugars, 
depending 
on 
the 
chirality 
of 
circular 
polarized
 light 
in
 that 
sector 
of 
the universe or 
whatever 
other 
process 
operated 
to 
favor 
the 
L
α‐methyl 
amino acids 
in 
the 
meteorites 
that 
have landed
 on Earth. 

Such 
life 
forms 
could 
well 
be 
advanced 
versions 
of 
dinosaurs, 
if 
mammals 
did 
not 
have the good
 fortune 
to 
have 
the 
dinosaurs 
wiped 
out 
by 
an 
asteroidal 
collision,
 as 
on 
Earth. 

We 
would 
be 
better 
off not 
meeting 
them.

Dinosaurs are not mentioned anywhere in the paper besides the closing paragraph, so bringing them up in the last paragraph isn’t exactly well-supported in a scientific sense.  This doesn’t have to be a problem, though.  As long as other scientists understand that this was just meant to be funny, it doesn’t do any harm for a scientific paper to include something fanciful for the sake of humor… at least not until the media catch hold of it.

Here is Google’s list of news stories about this paper.  There are too many to list, but the titles should make it obvious what aspect of the paper they’re exclusively focusing on.  The article at Science Daily is titled “Could 'Advanced' Dinosaurs Rule Other Planets?”, while the article at The Register is titled “Death Star dinosaur aliens could rule galaxy”.  The first sentence of the Register article is one of the best examples of what the media has to say about this paper which was discussing molecular chirality: “Rather than dying out in the dimly lit aftermath of a ginormous asteroid impact, dinosaurs on Earth may have instead spread to other planets and built a terrifying space-conquering empire.”

Of course, the real question is whether the paper’s author, Ronald Breslow, should be blamed for any of this.  In the past I’ve tended to assume situations like this are the fault of the media alone, but there have also been a few situations like this one where scientists have clearly manipulated the media coverage of their papers in order to get as much positive press as possible.  The article’s press release, which appears to be no longer online, clearly emphasized the “space dinosaurs” idea over the actual content of the paper—it’s anyone’s guess whether that was the original author’s idea or not.

In any case, during the weeks since the paper was accepted for publication, there’s been a second problem.  As pointed out here, it was eventually discovered that a large portion of the paper had been copied word-for-word from previous papers that the author had published in other journals.  The same post also points out how surprising this is, when one considers the author’s credentials:  he’s a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the former president of the American Chemical Society, and has won numerous awards.  Plagiarizing one’s own writing isn’t as bad as plagiarizing someone else’s, but what he’s done is attempt to publish essentially the same paper in multiple journals under different titles, which goes against the American Chemical Society’s code of ethics.

Due to the self-plagiarism issue, the paper has now been removed from the website of the journal that published it.  With the original paper vanished, the news media coverage is now all that’s left.  In other words, anyone reading these news articles about space dinosaurs will no longer have any way to look up the original paper and see what it’s actually about.

We’ve had many previous posts about the errors and excesses of science journalism, but in my opinion this particular instance is one of the worst examples I’ve ever encountered.  So here is this month’s question: What should be done to prevent the science media from misrepresenting research in this manner?

In the past, I’ve suggested that one of the solutions is for scientists to write at least some of the news stories about their own research.  However, that doesn’t solve the problem of situations where scientists are deliberately trying to manipulate public perception of their research, as in the case of the arsenic bacteria paper.  In situations like that, scientists writing the popular accounts of their research would not make the problem any better.

Perhaps another solution would be news sources to require science journalists to meet a minimum requirement of training about science.  Most colleges and universities expect that in order for someone to be qualified as a professor, they should have either a master’s degree or a Ph.D in the subject they’re teaching.  Science journalists play just as important a role in informing the public about science as professors do, but the only requirement for someone to be a science journalist is that they be trained in journalism.  Perhaps someday, this double standard can be fixed.
As many of you probably already know, color studies for extinct animals have been popping up left and right lately. The first was the reconstruction of the full color pattern for the paravian Anchiornis, which showed it to look startlingly similar to modern woodpeckers. This remarkable new science involves analyzing a fossil - which has to be one with exquisitely detailed feather impressions - with an electron microscope, looking for signs of fossilized organelles known as melanosomes. These tiny structures are responsible for the many colors of integument in modern animals, and by comparing fossilized structures to extant ones with known coloration, paleontologists can reconstruct the colors, with a fair degree of accuracy, of extinct animals as well.

The newest addition to the colorful Mesozoic menagerie is Microraptor, the tiny four-winged dromaeosaur that most people in this community are probably familiar with. Analysis of a new fossil specimen of the animal has revealed a few interesting tidbits. First, that the animal apparently had a long, thin pair of tail feathers jutting out from the center of its tail fan. Second, that the structure of the fossil feathers reveals an interesting property common among modern birds but up to now unknown in extinct dinosaurs: iridescence. Microraptor was most likely a deep black from tip to tail, but with a striking sheen that may be reminiscent of that on ravens or a host of other birds. It's not possible to tell what color the iridescence was, but one thing is certain: this beautiful black biplane was shiny.

The authors of the study, Shawkey, Vinther and Clarke, speculate that this combination of iridescence and long retrices may indicate the same kind of sexual display that modern birds are known for. Indeed, tail feathers in modern birds are warped into all kinds of interesting and sometimes ridiculous shapes and structures for the purpose of attracting a mate. It is difficult to imagine that a long pair of twin retrices could be useful for an aerodynamic purpose - they may have had a detrimental effect, also similar to many modern birds. So it is reasonable to conclude that the tail feathers of Microraptor may have been especially sexy to the ladies.

But what of the iridescence? There are many reasons that an animal may evolve a unique coloration or pattern, and sexual display does not seem to have a monopoly on iridescence in modern birds. Indeed, crows, ravens and the like seem to use their black, shiny bodies as ways to communicate to one another across distance. Solid black seems to be fairly common for birds that live in gregarious colonies or flocks - their shapes are probably outlined better against the sky, which makes them easy to recognize from afar. Might Microraptor have used its color for a similar purpose? Which brings me to this month's question: What do you think was the biological or ecological significance of the coloration revealed in this recent Microraptor study?

The idea that this tiny dromaeosaur was filling a similar niche to modern corvids seems consistent with the fact that there are apparently hundreds of undescribed specimens of the animal - indicating that it was probably immensely common in its environment. It may have been opportunistic and omnivorous, as ravens are, gathering together in large, noisy flocks within tree canopies. It has always been a challenge to reconstruct dinosaur behavior in any respect, but it may be that these increasingly common color studies can give us an insight into the lives of these animals that we haven't had before.

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