Sunday, April 7, 2019

Dinosaurs -- A Reader Writes -- April 7, 2019

Disclaimer: in a long note like this there will be factual and typographical errors. It will be difficult to separate my thoughts/comments from those of others.

Before I get started, I thought the science was settled, that the dinosaurs died off suddenly and catastrophically, but apparently that it still being highly debated. Not everyone agrees. That's why all the recent excitement coming out of Bowman, ND. And then I thought: oh, yes, that's correct: the only really "settled science" is anthropogenic global warming and we have only twelve years left." 

Again, I thought the science was settled about the demise of the dinosaurs. That's why the recent New Yorker article did not particularly excite me until I started paying attention.

So, here goes.

The #1 post trending on this blog, "The Million Dollar Way," is the post about the recent dinosaur excitement in North Dakota.

I've posted a number of notes about the story. One reader has spent considerable time in the Hell Creek formation as a volunteer working for one (or more?) paleontologists. He wrote me and I paraphrased in some cases, hoping I did not mis-quote / mis-state what he was saying. In addition, I've interspersed my own comments, but I think we are on the same page:
Among researchers, the "jealousy is terrible," the competition is fierce; "publish or perish" is not a trivial issue. Among all branches of science, paleontology may be one of the most competitive: the rewards can be huge -- after twenty years of digging a paleontologist could be an overnight-millionaire if he/she discovers an intact, huge T rex to be sold for top dollar.

The whole "field work" process is incredibly inefficient: sites are remote, just to get to nearest airfield; and then a couple of days drying to the site; thunderstorms make the off-roading impossible; and, then, short digging season in states like Montana, and the Dakotas.

Access is incredibly challenging: there's a reason ranchers and farmers in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota live there and have decided to stay -- they don't like to be bothered by humanity (don't take that out of context).

The reader was particularly "proud" (I'm using that word, not the reader) that as a volunteer, non-professional he and his wife found a site -- now named after them -- that contains Peurcan I (Paleocene) mammal fossil teeth right down almost to the K/T boundary.

To get a feeling of the importance of this finding wade through this pdf:

In that very long, exceedingly difficult article for a novice to read, "Peurcan" is mentioned twice, both on the same page. Do a google search and see how difficult it is to find anything regarding this term.

In that 2012 article, the researchers discuss the demise of the dinosaurs at the K/T boundary, and state, on page 149 of that article, that some researchers have "concluded that the terminal Cretaceous (K) extinctions were gradual and may have occurred over a period of time ranging from several years to hundreds of thousands of years." [That's why the article in The New Yorker is so incredibly fascinating and has gained so much interest. Those who accept the catastrophic, sudden demise of dinosaurs are looking for the "smoking gun" and think they have found it in Bowman, ND.]

The reader noted that the mammals he and his wife discovered were not even "supposed to be in North Dakota at this time. Instead they were limited to sites found in southern New Mexico."

The reader noted that they had "no research money" because "no prospective donor had any reason to believe there was anything there." Again, that takes me back to my original comment that this reminds me of Harold Hamm and the Bakken.

The reader says that the discovery of this particular site was based on the fossil remains of large terrestrial turtles. The mammalian fossils showed up when the reader and his wife were screen-washing the matrix in a controlled fashion all the way down to the K/T boundary. With the help of other volunteers and students/faculty from several field schools, they washed over 2,400 lbs (more than a ton) of matrix.

Prior to this time, the state of North Dakota has one (1) Peurcan mammal fossil in its entire fossil collection; by last year, the reader's small group of "diggers" had found 178 Peurcan mammal fossils.

Apparently folks thought this site was all an anomaly. The reader -- and I can almost see him rolling his eyes -- took a short walk -- two miles to the southeast of the original site and found a similar outpouring of Peurcan fossils.
Two other links, wiki:
Other links:
  • placental mammal diversification and the C-T boundary; 2003
  • mass extinction of birds at the K-Pg boundary, 2011 
    • The effect of the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) (formerly Cretaceous–Tertiary, K–T) mass extinction on avian evolution is debated, primarily because of the poor fossil record of Late Cretaceous birds. In particular, it remains unclear whether archaic birds became extinct gradually over the course of the Cretaceous or whether they remained diverse up to the end of the Cretaceous and perished in the K–Pg mass extinction. 
  • mammalian distal humerus fossils from eastern Montana with implications for the C-Pg mass extinction and adaptive radiation of placentals; link here
  • much easier to read, "Crossing the Boundary," Chapter 15, The Mistaken Extinction, Lowell Dingus and Timothy Rowe, 1998, link here;  [I have this book on my "top shelf"]
I think it's a fascinating story. Part of the reason for sharing all this: I hope the reader has a scrapbook of all this to pass down to his great-grandchildren.

The other reason for writing all this: it helps me understand better what's going on so Sophia and I have something to discuss when I drive her to TutorTime.

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