Early Dinosaur in Africa

Early Dinosaur in Africa

Original NatGeo photograph courtesy Erin Fitzgerald; art by Tyler Keillor
One of the first dinosaurs to roam earth lived in southern Africa and the discovery announced last week raises considerably Africa’s evolutionary importance.

It’s common knowledge that man and his broader family of primates arose in Africa, but until now it was thought that the myriad of the earliest land life forms – particularly reptiles and dinosaurs – arose on the western hemisphere.

Last week dinosaur guru Paul Sereno of the University of Chicago confirmed that Pegomastax africanus lived in southern Africa about 200 million years ago.

The creature like all of the early dinosaurs at the beginning of their reign was neither large or meat-eating. With a presumed behavior and appearances more like a big reptile, the little parrot-headed creature was less than 2 feet long and hardly the size of a house cat.

It would be another 130-150 million years before the August creatures like Tyrannosaurus Rex ruled the earth, and then for a relatively short dozen million years or so before a giant meteor hit the earth and wiped them out.

But the creatures that attract museum members and figure prominently in child’s play all started much smaller. Large dinosaurs have been found in Africa, but few compared to those in the western hemisphere.

And Pego was actually found in 1983 and then its fossil got filed away in a Harvard cabinet. Sereno was recently combing through old fossils in Cambridge when he discovered this critically important piece that had been considered insignificant at the time.

Pego’s importance aside from its curious own anatomy and significance in filling the many gaps in the early dinosaur evolutionary line is that Africa now provides a similar age range of dinosaur finds that until now has been restricted to the western hemisphere.

Current science suggests the dinosaurs emerged in South America about 230 million years ago. The oldest finds have been in Argentina and they were similar in anatomy and size to Pego. As a species, though, paleontology suggests they exploded in North America around the time Pego lived, and over the next hundred million years or so began to radiate all over the world.

Well, perhaps not. Perhaps Africa provided parallel evolutionary tracts to South America, or perhaps Africa even contributed somehow to the emergence of the grandest beasts in North America.

Speculation might have to be left to us untrained enthusiasts, though. Looking back that far in time reduces the certainty of many presumptions. It’s just harder to know the actual weather, geology, existing full ecosystems than we can with the much later evolutionary story of primates to ourselves.

And the more primitive the life form (however big it might have been) may also mean that its ability to radiate was greater. It might have been easier for a reptile-like creature to have been thrown across the ocean on stick than for a monkey-like creature to have crossed a large lake.

Nonetheless, the great strides palaeontologists like Sereno have made in just this generation are truly mind-boggling. Early earth was much more elaborate show than we might have thought when I was a boy.

And Africa seems to be holding its own through virtually all of its wondrous ages.

AFRICA, Show us The Way!

AFRICA, Show us The Way!

In this age of belt tightening and budget angst the impoverished State of Kentucky is going to give $37½ million dollars to a wacko anti-science group to build a creationism theme park.

Sub-Saharan Africa is the cradle of mankind. The earliest known hominid, our direct evolutionary ancestor, is at least 6 million years old. Olduvai Gorge, where so much of these marvelous discoveries were made, is top on my list of things to see on safari.

Natural selection is not immediately intuitive. It takes some study. But once you get into it, the rush is unbelievable! The majesty of living things, and man’s unique position within that, is awesome. Complexity and simplicity seem to merge in an array of life forms that is unbelievable.

No doubt what many describe as art which consumes and inspires is relational to the patterns and designs of the natural world. “Beauty” is natural engineering at its finest. To me much of the greatest beauty of the world is in Africa, where it just stands to reason, so much of it began.

Roll your cursor back and forth over the graphic below. African flower mantids have so remarkably adapted to African flowers that without a graphic like this one you’d never in a million years find them! This is beauty, complex mathematics and natural selection all rolled up into a powerful single lesson.

I’ve labored for years with people and clients who don’t believe that natural selection explains life on earth, most of whom squander in the cartoons of creationism. Only 39% of Americans believe in evolution. This is worse than embarrassing. There is no other educated population in the world with such a miserable statistic.

And the number is increasing, not decreasing. We’ve countered the limited beliefs of the critics fact-by-fact. We’ve politely and consistently tolerated the position of those arguing against evolution, giving “equal voice” to nonsense. I know, now, how wrong that was.

Creationism is wrong. It’s a lie. It’s perfectly legal to believe lies, so I’m not so insane as to suggest that people who believe lies should be somehow punished. But the time has come to firmly not reward them.

Kentucky already has a Creationism Museum that commercially is doing very well. It’s not certain and will never be known if its financial success is for the same reason that people used to pay to go to freak shows, or if there really are believers in support. But either way, institutions like it should not be subsided by public funds.

In other words, I guess we can tolerate lunacy but we sure ought not support it.

The weakness with which scientists, teachers and politicians have defended such concepts as natural selection against fringe idiots has produced a terrible legacy. Natural selection is just one of many issues like woman’s rights and child poverty and national health care that have suffered in my lifetime because their advocates have cowered to baseless critics.

Our legacy of poor defense has resulted in the U.S. dropping from Number 1 when I was in high school to 18th of 36 nations whose high school students graduate on time.

And those who do graduate are getting dumber and dumber.

As you enter the gates of the United States Grand Canyon National Park, you can purchase in their shop a “guide book” that says the Grand Canyon was formed by Noah’s flood and is only a few thousand years old.

In the last year alone, the Texas State Board of Education has ordered text books used in public schools there to question the American separation of church and state, to remove Thomas Jefferson as an influential political philosopher, to study the “unintended consequences” of Affirmative Action and Title IX, to replace “capitalism” with “free-enterprise system” and to describe the U.S. government as a “constitutional republic” rather than “democratic.”

This is the state of education in America. It has struggled to reach this nadir for more than a generation. We have allowed it to sink, because we haven’t defended with the vigor of certainty that which is science.

There is a lot of talk these days about compromise and purism. We made a mistake in my life time by tolerating as equals those who disbelieved evolution.

I don’t know if there’s time to turn it around. But if there is, there can be no compromise on the struggle.

Thanks to http://dududiaries.wildlifedirect.org/.

Spielberg, the paleoWhatever!

Spielberg, the paleoWhatever!

No, this is not King Julien XIII.
I was hired by Dreamworks’ ad agency to help promote the first Madagascar. The original screenplay had lemurs living in Kenya! Well, we got that one corrected, but guess what?!!

Original lemurs may have come from Kenya!

Spielberg’s amazing.

Madagascar’s biomass is more unique than any other area in the world, except Australia which is 13 times larger. There are about 35 species of lemurs and twice that number if subspecies are differentiated. The lemur is a fuzzy little svelte panda-squirrel found only in Madgascar.

In fact, 90 percent of all the country’s mammals, amphibians and reptiles are found nowhere else!

How did this happen?

First, natural selection at its most basic can explain Madagascar’s biological uniqueness. Most of the current life forms on the island began evolving 65-62 million or so years ago.

Isolate any ecosystem for that long and you’re going to get some very neat things.

In fact, lots of neat things began to evolve 65 million years ago, including us! This was right around the time that huge meteorite crashed into the Yucatan ending the reign of the dinosaurs and plunging earth into a nuclear winter for hundreds of thousands of years.

Jay Gould’s still controversial theory of punctuated equilibrium add-in to natural selection can make things even clearer: with so much wiped out, there were enhanced opportunities for rapid evolutionary development.

So if Madagascar was really isolated – like Australia – from the rest of the world but large enough to provide a viable ecosystem, then all sorts of marvelous things could happen!


tku, UofCal - Berkeley
Only about ten percent of Madagascar’s life forms seem to have really started out there. Among them were the ancestors of the dodo bird. But lemurs? Sorry. They’re ancestral to the African continent’s prehistoric bushbabies, the lorises, many of whose fossils have been found in Kenya.

These original conclusions were all originally taxonomic, but current DNA studies have affirmed them.

No one has ever disputed the 1861 assertion by Austrian scientist, Eduard Suess, that Madagascar came from the giant single continent of Gondwana, then broke off from India long before the dinosaur extinction. Seuss’ simple observational deductions have been affirmed numerous ways by modern science.

Madagascar has been a lonely isolated island for almost 90 million years.

So how did the Madagascar’s lemur’s gene stock (and most of its other life forms) from the prehistoric African continent get to the island 65 million years ago?

Rafts. (Sort of like Madagascar, eh?)

The idea was floated (pun intended) as early as 1915, but in 1940 George Gaylord Simpson, a famous paleontologist and geologist, published a detailed rafting theory.

Given the vast periods of time available (nearly 30 million years) during which ancestral bushbaby forms didn’t seem to be evolving very much, Dr. Simpson surmised that it was statistically likely that enough ancestral biota rafted to the island to allow for such subsequent unique evolution of lemurs.

Two problems. Why did the rafting stop? Or more specifically even if it didn’t, why did its effects on evolution in Madagascar stop 65 million years ago?

And oops two. The prevailing winds are off the island to the south and southwest, and climatologists have no reason to believe those jet streams have changed even over the last hundred million years.

Ancestral lemurs should have been rafting to Africa, not ancestral bush babies to Madagascar!

How’d Spielberg know?

Ahoy! exclaim Profs Jason Ali of the U of Hong Kong and Matthew Huber of Purdue in a February article in Nature.

Ali is a plate tectonics specialist, and Huber, a palaeoclimatologist who reconstructs and models the climate millions of years in the past. Their collaboration proves that as Madagascar swam away from all the other continents on earth, it “disrupted a major surface water current running across the tropical Indian Ocean, and hence modified [the] flow around eastern Africa and Madagascar.”

See their complete article in Science.

Huber using his super algorithmic computer modeling genius then proved that just about the time Madagascar started evolving its mythic biota, that these currents were strong enough – like a liquid jet stream in peak periods – to get the animals to the island without dying of thirst. The trip appears to have been well within the realm of possibility for small animals whose naturally low metabolic rates may have been even lower if they were in torpor or hibernating.

And then, well then some 60 million years ago, Madagascar’s movement slowed into its current position where the ocean currents are weaker than the prevailing winds off the island. Whap! The little feisty island shut its door to the outside world of evolution.

And that let all sorts of marvelous things grow and evolve into the magical, near mythic world we know today as Madagascar.

Kudus (or Dodos!) to Dr. Simpson for thinking it up in the first place. And hey, what’s a half century or more for the techies like Ali and Huber to evolve, anyway, in order to prove it. It took lemurs 65 million years to do it in the first place!

And Spielberg? Heh, this meets all Liberty University’s criterion for an honorary degree!

This is not the movie Madagascar.