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A teacher can never tell where his influence stops…

by Donald Prothero, Nov 23 2011

JIngmai O'Connor '04 collecting fossils in the Triassic Ichigualasto Formation, Argentina

A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.

—Henry Adams

In teaching you cannot see the fruits of a day’s work. It is invisible and remains so, maybe for 20 years.

—Jacques Barzun


Having taught at small liberal arts colleges (first Vassar, then Knox College in Illinois, now Occidental College in Los Angeles and also Caltech in Pasadena) for over 30 years now, I’ve experienced all sorts of highs and lows. Sure, there are the bored unmotivated students, the nasty administrators and colleagues, the grind of teaching all my own labs with no help, and teaching the same intro courses year after year, the low pay for long hours with no support for research, the difficulty of getting any time off from teaching to attend essential professional meetings. But there are also the pluses: flexibility of schedule, freedom to teach what I want to teach with minimal interference from above, the small classes where I really get to know the students, and can make sure they understand the material,

But the best benefit of all is the outstanding students who want to do research as undergrads. Since we have no grad program, for years I’ve been treating undergrads as grad students and getting them involved in research. I include them in my field crews or museum research trips (where they find their own projects), help them attend professional meetings and do their own presentations, and help them publish their research. I’ve had many such students over the years, including over 50 different student coauthors on quite a few of my papers. Some, like John Foster ’89, have made it professionally (he’s Curator of Paleontology at the Museum of Western Colorado), and many others are working in environmental or energy firms, earning twice what I make. One never knows how you change the lives of your students when you work closely with them. Of the recent grads, Linda Donohoo-Hurley ’00 finished her Ph.D. at Univ. New Mexico—and I inadvertently introduced her to her future husband, John Hurley, when she presented  our research at a Penrose Conference I organized. Others are about to finish their doctorates. These include Jonathan Hoffman ’03, who came specifically to study with me (M.A. at Florida, nearly done with his Ph.D. at Wyoming);  Josh Ludtke ’04. who took care of my eldest son at times (M.S. at San Diego State, finishing his Ph.D. at Univ. Calgary); and Kristina Raymond ’08, just finishing her master’s at ETSU. Our program is small (only 3-7 graduating geology seniors each year, yet we have 5 full-time tenured faculty), but we turn out a lot of good grad students per capita.

Continue reading…

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Bird Fossils and Clueless Creationists

by Donald Prothero, Sep 07 2011

About a month ago, there was big publicity about the discovery and description of a new fossil bird from China, Xiaotingia zhengi. It is one of a long line of amazingly preserved bird fossils that have come from Jurassic and Cretaceous beds in Liaoning and other areas in China, and have completely revolutionized our understanding of early bird evolution. Where we once had only the few specimens of Archaeopteryx and a handful of isolated bones from other regions, now we  have hundreds of beautifully preserved specimens which are completely articulated with their feather impressions and sometimes even evidence of coloration and stomach contents. Even more surprising, these fossils show not only the stages in bird evolution after Archaeopteryx, but also demonstrate that many non-avian dinosaurs more primitive than Archaeopteryx had feathers as well. In fact, some of these fossils are so clearly rooted in the base of the theropod family tree that it’s reasonable to assume that all predatory dinosaurs had some kinds of feathers (including T. rex, Velociraptor, and other popular favorites), although some may have lost them in large adults. Furthermore, some specimens have been found to suggest that feathers were widespread among all dinosaurs, including the ornithischian branch (herbivorous dinosaurs like the horned dinosaurs, duckbills, stegosaurs, etc.).

Xiaotingia is particularly interesting in that it comes from Upper Jurassic beds in China, making it nearly contemporaneous with Archaeopteryx and much earlier than most Chinese birds that come from the Cretaceous. It is more primitive than Cretaceous birds, exactly as predicted by evolution. More importantly, it shows a suite of features that make it a very close relative of Archaeopteryx, and (according to Xu et al., 2011), make both creatures more primitive than the bona fide birds in the group Avialae. Xu et al. suggest that they are closer to their dinosaurian ancestors, the dromaeosaurs, than they are to more advanced birds (see figure).


The announcement was hailed as important by many paleontologists, and added to the many other important discoveries that were made this year. All this new discovery claims is that Xu et al. (2011) suggest switching  Archaeopteryx from within the pigeonhole we call birds (Avialae) to the next nearest pigeonhole, the bird-like dromaeosaurs. It’s just a tiny shift in classification, not an earth-shaking debunking of bird evolution. Such a conclusion is very tentative (as the authors suggest), and needs to be evaluated when others study the same specimens, but it is intriguing. But count on the creationists to read just the brief summary of the article and completely misinterpret every bit of it. Continue reading…

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Pluto, Triceratops, Brontosaurus:
What’s in a Name?

by Donald Prothero, Aug 17 2011

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

—William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

ITEM: A few years ago there was a big fuss in the media about the fact that astronomers had demoted Pluto from one of the classic nine planets to a “minor planet,” just another body in the solar system. Some people were shocked and upset, since they had always learned that Pluto was the ninth planet and didn’t want to unlearn it, no matter what astronomers said. Astronomers pointed out that numerous other small icy objects had been found in the Kuiper belt outside Neptune, including some that were larger than Pluto—but no one was ready to promote 2060 Chiron to the 10th planet. Instead, the logical solution was to demote Pluto to the class of “dwarf planets” along with these other objects, since it really didn’t have much in common with the other eight planets. The state legislatures of Illinois (where Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh was born), New Mexico, and California passed resolutions against the change (despite the fact they had no legal authority in the matter). Caltech astronomer Mike Brown, who spearheaded the change, wrote in his book How I Killed Pluto and Why it Had it Coming that “I’ve been accosted on the street, cornered on airplanes, harangued by e-mail, with everyone wanting to know: why did poor Pluto have to get the boot? What did Pluto ever do to you?” In 2007, the American Dialect Society recognized the neologism “to pluto” (meaning “to demote or degrade”) as the 2006 Word of the Year.

ITEM: In 2010, paleontologists Jack Horner and John Scannella suggested that Triceratops was just the juvenile form of the longer-frilled dinosaur Torosaurus. Once again, there was public outrage and protests. People complained that their beloved three-horned dinosaur was being snatched away from them. Unfortunately, the public and the media got the story completely backward. IF other scientists eventually agree with Horner and Scannella, and formally decide to ratify the idea that Triceratops and Torosaurus were the same animal, then the invalid name would be Torosaurus, not Triceratops. As Brian Switek pointed out in his blog “Relax—Triceratops really did exist”, Triceratops was named by Yale paleontologist O.C. Marsh in 1889; the same scientist named Torosaurus in 1891. According to the rules of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN), Triceratops has priority over Torosaurus, so no one will weep or gnash their teeth if Torosaurus becomes the invalid synonym and is officially demoted. Continue reading…

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A living dinosaur in the Congo? (Part 2)

by Donald Prothero, Jun 29 2011

Although not as well publicized as Bigfoot, Nessie, or the Yeti, the legends of Mokele Mbembe, the alleged dinosaur in the Congo, have a long history. The name is from the Lingala language, and translates to “one who stops the flow of rivers”. It is most often reported in the upper reaches of the Congo Basin in Congo, Zambia, and Cameroon, and in Lake Tele and surrounding regions. Most accounts describe it to be the size of an elephant with a long neck, hairless, with a tail five to ten feet long, although the descriptions are highly discrepant between different sources. The color has been described as reddish-brown, brown, or gray, depending upon the account. It is said to live in deeper water of the lakes in the Congo Basin, and in the deep channels in the cutbanks of the rivers as well. Some descriptions suggest it has pillar-like legs and leaves tracks with a three-clawed foot impression, although other accounts differ about its trackways.

The history of accounts and descriptions of the beast from both native peoples and missionaries goes back to at least 1776, with a book by the French missionary Abbe Lievain Bonaventure, who reported huge footprints a meter in diameter with claw prints. In 1909 Lt. Paul Gratz collected legendary accounts of a creature from Zambia known to the locals as Nsanga and Lake Bangweulu, the first account that describes it as dinosaur-like. As detailed by Mackal, numerous other accounts have accumulated over the years, although they differ greatly in details, and are highly inconsistent about many important features. Most of the accounts come from a variety of native peoples, and it is hard to tell how much of their description is based on actual experience, and how much is legend that has been passed down and distorted through retelling. A few westerners (mostly missionaries) claim to have caught brief glimpses the creature, but their accounts are also highly inconsistent and hard to interpret. Every attempt to obtain reliable photographs, film, or footprint casts of this alleged beast has failed to show anything conclusive. The 1985 shots by Rory Nugent were too blurry to be interpreted. The film shot by zoologist Marcellin Agnagna in 1983 was also useless. Agnagna first claimed it was because he failed to remove the lens cap, but later claimed it was because the camera was set at macro-focus rather than telephoto. Continue reading…

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