Dr. Possum: Ritual Seals, Short Is Wrong, Miocene Munchies

(It’s a new year, and here at red we are thinking in new ways, trying new things. Among these new things shall be the appearance in this space of the science-news collections posted each week by the wise and kind marsupial, esteemed Science Man, and red regular, he who is known as possum. Dr. Possum has been devoting these Diaries to Daily Kos for some time, but it seems to the red brain trust that they should show here, too. And so, each Monday, they shall. Below the inaugural offering. Read, review, reflect.) 

Monday morning here in Possum Valley and the time has arrived for science talk. New discoveries, new takes on old knowledge, and other bits of news are all available for the perusing in today’s information world. Over the fold are selections from the past week from a few of the many excellent science news sites around the world. Today’s tidbits include mammalian evolution in North America tracked climate change, ancient seal found in Jerusalem linked to ritual, the perils of ‘bite-sized’ science, and ‘head-first’ diversity shown to drive evolution. Pull up that comfy chair and grab a spot near the fireside. There is always plenty of room for everyone. Another session of Dr. Possum’s science education, entertainment, and potluck discussion is set to begin.

Featured Stories
Climate change was a distinct and major force in at least six major mammalian evolutionary changes over the course of millions of years in North America.

By the numbers, the research showed correlations between species diversity and temperature change, but qualitatively, it also provided a narrative of how the traits of typical species within each wave made sense given the changes in vegetation that followed changes in climate. For example, after a warming episode about 20 million years in the early Miocene epoch, the dominant vegetation transitioned from woodland to a savannah-like grassland. It is no surprise, therefore, that many of the herbivores that comprised the accompanying “Miocene fauna” had high-crowned teeth that allowed them to eat the foods from those savannah sources.

To the extent that the study helps clarify scientists’ understanding of evolution amid climate changes, it does not do so to the extent that they can make specific predictions about the future, (researcher) Janis said. But it seems all the clearer that climate change has repeatedly had meaningful effect over millions of years.

A rare find in Jerusalem, an ancient seal, is linked to rituals performed in the city 2000 years ago.

…it dates from between the 1st century B.C. to 70 A.D. — the year Roman forces put down a Jewish revolt and destroyed the second of the two biblical temples in Jerusalem.The find marks the first discovery of a written seal from that period of Jerusalem’s history, and appeared to be a unique physical artifact from ritual practice in the Temple.

Archaeologists say the seal was likely used by Temple officials approving an object for ritual use — oil, perhaps, or an animal intended for sacrifice. Materials used by Temple priests had to meet stringent purity guidelines stipulated in detail in the Jewish legal text known as the Mishna, which also mention the use of seals as tokens by pilgrims.

The modern pressures of publication leads to many scientists offering shorter papers in larger quantities.

Proponents laud the increased influence authors gain from more citations. Precisely, say the two (researchers)—but two short papers do not equal twice the scientific value of a longer one. Indeed, they might add up to less.

The reason: The smaller the experimental sample the greater the statistical deviations—that is, the greater the inaccuracy of the findings. The results are sometimes flukes, with a bias toward false positives—errors a wider ranging study with multiple experiments, plus replication in the same and in other labs, could correct. Strict word limits, moreover, mean cutting the details about previous research. The new results sound not only surprising but also novel. Write the authors: “A bit of ignorance helps in discovering ‘new’ things.”

Over the course of time evolution has been marked by explosions of diversity. At least two of those radiations were driven by ‘head-first’ diversity.

…two different adaptive radiations in the fossil record. The first was the explosion of ray-finned fishes after the Hangenberg extinction, an event 360 million years ago that decimated ocean life on Earth. The second group was the acanthomorphs, a group of fish that exhibited a burst in diversity around the time of the end-Cretaceous extinction that ended the age of dinosaurs.

In both datasets, the researchers used a method called geometric morphometrics to quantify differences in features such as body depth, fin position and jaw shape between species. Crucially, (researchers) Sallan and Friedman separated head features from body features in their analysis, to better detect the timing of when each compartment showed a burst of diversity in the record.

The results of the two analyses were in agreement: Diversification in cranial features preceded diversification in body types. Unusual head features such as jaws lined with sharp teeth or blunt teeth for crushing appeared before diverse body shapes on a spectrum from slender and eel-like to broad and disc-shaped.

Other Worthy Stories of the Week
The physics of a touchdown flip
Titan: A wet world not far from Earth Photo diary.
First ever direct measurement of the Earth’s rotation
Sensing the deep ocean
New theory for where some fish became four-limbed creatures
Sensational bird discovery in China
Brain glial cells help store memory in addition to being ‘glue’
Echoes from Eta Carinae’s great eruption
Irikaitz archaeological site host to a 25,000-year-old pendant
Sunlight and bunker oil a fatal combination for Pacific herring
Glowing scorpion exoskeletons may be giant eyes
Pions don’t want to decay into faster-than-light neutrinos
New material cools under pressure

For even more science news:
General Science Collectors:
Alpha-Galileo
BBC News Science and Environment
Eureka Science News
LiveScience
New Scientist
PhysOrg.com
SciDev.net
Science/AAAS
Science Alert
Science Centric
Science Daily
Scientific American
Space Daily

Blogs:
A Few Things Ill Considered Techie and Science News
Cantauri Dreams space exploration
Coctail Party Physics Physics with a twist.
Deep Sea News marine biology
Laelaps more vertebrate paleontology
List of Geoscience Blogs
ScienceBlogs
Space Review
Techonology Review
Tetrapod Zoology vertebrate paleontology
Science Insider
Scientific Blogging.
Space.com
Wired News
Science RSS Feed: Medworm
The Skeptics Guide to the Universe—a combination of hard science and debunking crap

NASA picture of the day. For more see the NASA image gallery or the Astronomy Picture of the Day Archive

SXP 1062, NASA, Public Domain

15 Responses to “Dr. Possum: Ritual Seals, Short Is Wrong, Miocene Munchies”


  1. 1 bluenred January 2, 2012 at 11:42 am

    Humans have hectored me for decades, claiming that the stuff I write is too often too long. I have tried to explain that it is ofttimes a requirement, length, in order to more closely approach the Real. It is good that there is now Science Man proof of this.

    Of course, there are limits. When James Joyce published Finnegans Wake, a friend remarked that people wouldn’t possibly devote the time necessary to understand it. Joyce replied that he fully expected people to spend as much time reading it, as he expended in writing it. That is, 14 years.

    • 2 possum January 7, 2012 at 2:18 pm

      Hey….. I represent that. Too long? Never! Joyce is right. People need to take the same amount of time to read as we take in production.

      Thanks for putting up the piece. More next week.

  2. 4 soothsayer January 2, 2012 at 12:35 pm

    This is an excellent addition – Thanks to both you and possum!

    And, since i believe i have only recently been pardoned for the introduction of the dreaded Elvirus, i will refrain from posting either bad Thomas Dolby science songs or The Mighty Mos Def “Mathematics” in celebration..

    So i will Just Go Read .. not for 14 years though : )


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