Fecal Matters: A Stepping Stool to Understanding Indigenous Cultures


Humans differ by opinions, traits, and baseball team preferences. But one constant factor unifies all humans–we excrete feces, and scientists have recognized that number 2 is number 1 in terms of material for ancient population studies. Humans expel hundreds of … Continue reading »

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March Madness: PLOS ONE News and Blog Round-Up

1660014877_10c78dd1a9For the month of March, a variety of papers caught the media’s attention, from distracting cell phone conversations, to the devastating decline in forest elephants.  Here are some of the media highlights for this month:

Have you ever wondered where your hound originated from? In a paper featured this March, researchers have identified the fossil remains of the oldest domestic canine ancestor. In this study, researchers analyzed the DNA of a 33,000 year old tooth belonging to a Pleistocene dog from central Asia. In their evaluation of the fossil, they assessed its relationship to modern dogs and wolves’, concluding the tooth was more closely related to the domestic canine.

In another study, researchers at the Cleveland Clinic have found that football players might sustain long-term brain injuries without ever having a concussion. 67 players who had never suffered a concussion underwent testing over the course of a season.  The testing, which included blood sampling, brain scans, cognitive and functional assessments, screened for potential brain damage among the participants. The researchers searched for S100B in the blood, an antibody linked to brain damage. This antibody was found in many of the participants, with the highest levels belonging to the players with the most hits.

Have you ever found yourself distracted when a co-worker is on a phone call? In an eye-catching paper published this month, PLOS ONE authors examined the effects on attention and memory when listening to cell phone conversations, versus two-sided conversations. The participants were assigned a task while two conversations were in progress, one on a cell phone, and another between two individuals.  After the task was completed, the participants were assigned a recognition memory task and questionnaire measuring the distracting nature of the conversation. The participants who overhead the cell phone conversation measured it as much more distracting compared to the two-sided conversation.

And in a fourth study capturing the attention of many, researchers have examined the decline of forest elephants in Central Africa. The study concludes that forest elephants are being poached at increasing rates. Poaching, in addition to the human population rise and the absence of anti-poaching law enforcement, is contributing to the elephant’s population decline. The analysis revealed that 62 percent of the African forest elephants have been eliminated in the last decade due to poaching.

These four papers are just a taste of the variety of papers published this month. For more research headlines, visit our site here.



Druzhkova AS, Thalmann O, Trifonov VA, Leonard JA, Vorobieva NV, et al. (2013) Ancient DNA Analysis Affirms the Canid from Altai as a Primitive Dog. PLoS ONE 8(3): e57754. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0057754

Marchi N, Bazarian JJ, Puvenna V, Janigro M, Ghosh C, et al. (2013) Consequences of Repeated Blood-Brain Barrier Disruption in Football Players. PLoS ONE 8(3): e56805. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0056805

Galván VV, Vessal RS, Golley MT (2013) The Effects of Cell Phone Conversations on the Attention and Memory of Bystanders. PLoS ONE 8(3): e58579. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0058579

Maisels F, Strindberg S, Blake S, Wittemyer G, Hart J, et al. (2013) Devastating Decline of Forest Elephants in Central Africa. PLoS ONE 8(3): e59469. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0059469

Image: by digitalART2 on Flickr

Meet Vectidraco, a European pterosaur the size of a crow

Fossil records show that pterosaurs of all sizes and shapes flew through the skies of China and Central Asia about 145 to 66 million years ago. A new species of small pterosaurs described in a PLOS ONE paper reveals that western Europe may have had a similar diversity of these ancient animals. Author Darren Naish discusses the importance of the new species, named Vectidraco.

How did you begin studying dinosaurs (or pterosaurs in particular)?

Most of my research is and has been based on the Lower Cretaceous fossils that come from the Isle of Wight and elsewhere  in southern England. The rocks here are famous for their dinosaurs, but fossil crocodilians, marine reptiles like plesiosaurs and rare pterosaurs are found here too. I’ve always been interested in pterosaurs and for several years have had a special research interest in a highly peculiar pterosaur group called the azhdarchoids – I’ve been working continuously on this group since 2007 or so and have been especially interested in their ecology, functional anatomy and evolutionary relationships. The finding of a new azhdarchoid in the Lower Cretaceous rocks of the Isle of Wight thus combined several of my special interests.

Where and how did you find the new fossil described in your study?

Most Cretaceous Isle of Wight fossils come from a rock unit termed the Wealden Supergroup. The new specimen – we’ve called it Vectidraco – is from a different, younger unit called the Atherfield Clay Formation, and as such it’s (so far as we know) only the second pterosaur reported from this unit.

I should say that the discovery of Vectidraco itself is interesting in that the find was made by a young girl, Daisy Morris (aged just 5 at the time!), while she was on holiday with her family. Daisy’s family wanted this fossil to be studied and cared for properly, so they did what I and many of my colleagues would say is “the right thing” and donated it to The Natural History Museum in London. So, we only know of Vectidraco thanks to Daisy: for this reason we named it in her honour. It’s full name is Vectidraco daisymorrisae.

What was previously known about this group of flying reptiles, the azhdarchoid pterosaurs?

So far as we know right now, azhdarchoids are unique to the Cretaceous period (that is, they were alive between about 145 and 66 million years ago) and all were toothless. They’re actually a pretty diverse group of pterosaurs, with some – like the tapejarids – being relatively small, withwingspans of about 3 feet or slightly less and others – namely the azhdarchids – being gigantic, withwingspans of more than 32 feet.

Tapejarids have short, deep snouts while azhdarchids have incredibly long, pointed jaws, and other kinds of azhdarchoid were intermediate between these two groups. Particularly good azhdarchoid fossils are known from South and North America and China, but their remains have been found right across Europe, Asia and Africa too.

Working out what azhdarchoids did when they were alive has been one of the great questions about the group, but it seems that they were mostly omnivores or carnivores that lived in terrestrial environments.

The paper describes the new fossil as “small-bodied”. How much larger are other known pterosaurs of this kind usually?

Azhdarchoids span a diversity of species that range from ‘small-bodied’ all the way up to gigantic. The biggest kinds –  like the famous Quetzalcoatlus from Texas – were something like 10 feettall at the shoulder and over 450 pounds heavy while small ones, and Vectidraco is one of them, had wingspans of just 30 inches or so and would have been similar in size to crows or gulls. I would say that Vectidraco belonged to an azhdarchoid group where small size was normal and widespread, with large and even giant size evolving in other azhdarchoid lineages.

How did you determine that the new fossil belonged to the same group as these other specimens?

Vectidraco is known only from its pelvis, but even with only a pelvis to go on, we could see several features of the new specimen that made it especially azhdarchoid-like, mostly to do with the weird anatomy of the big, T-shaped bony structure that projects upwards and backwards from the rear part of the pelvis. In an effort to better test the idea that Vectidraco is an azhdarchoid, we included it in a few different phylogenetic analyses and it came out as an azhdarchoid in these too. It also has several unique features, not seen in any other pterosaurs, and for these reasons we were able to name it as a new species.

How does this discovery change what we know about this group of pterosaurs?

We’ve known for a while that small-bodied azhdarchoids lived in western Europe during the Early Cretaceous: a new species called Europejara olcadesorum was described in PLOS ONE last year. Now we’ve found that Vectidraco lived in the same region during the same period, so we’re seeing a pattern: small-bodied azhdarchoids were living alongside longer-snouted, small-bodied pterosaurs and also alongside large, toothy kinds called ornithocheiroids.

This is essentially the same kind of pterosaur community that we  see in Chinese rocks of the same age – the great difference is that the Chinese fossils are relatively numerous, and frequently preserved as complete or near-complete skeletons. In fact, one of the things that we comment on in our paper is the fact that western Europe’s pterosaur assemblage looks far less rich than that of China due to differences in the way these fossils were preserved. Chinese pterosaur and small dinosaur fossils were buried rapidly by volcanic ash and hence preserved whole, while those of western Europe were usually broken apart on floodplains, extensively scavenged, and eventually preserved in fragmentary form.

The western European and Chinese assemblages might actually have contained similar sorts of species, but the conditions local to both places meant that their fossil records ended up being very different.

Read more about this exciting new fossil at Darren Naish’s own blog, Tetrapod Zoology.

Citation: Naish D, Simpson M, Dyke G (2013) A New Small-Bodied Azhdarchoid Pterosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of England and Its Implications for
Pterosaur Anatomy, Diversity and Phylogeny. PLoS ONE 8(3): e58451. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0058451

Vullo R, Marugán-Lobón J, Kellner AWA, Buscalioni AD, Gomez B, et al. (2012) A New Crested Pterosaur from the Early Cretaceous of Spain: The First European Tapejarid (Pterodactyloidea: Azhdarchoidea). PLoS ONE 7(7): e38900. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0038900

Images: Specimen and speculative reconstruction of Vectidraco from 10.1371/journal.pone.0058451, Life restoration of the head of Europejara from 10.1371/journal.pone.0038900

New Paleontology Guidelines Enforce Ethics, Reproducibility

Ethics is a cornerstone of science, informing everything from how we design our experiments to what we do with the resulting data. Given the diverse nature of the research results published in PLOS ONE, no short and simple set of ethical guidelines can cover every situation. Thus, it is important for the journal to adapt and expand its ethical standards as the journal itself expands.

The field of paleontology, by its very nature, presents some special situations in ethics. Although the fossil subjects are long-dead, rendering matters of patient consent or laboratory animal care non-existent, other complicated concerns ranging from legalities to reproducibility must be taken into account. Any journal that hopes to be a major player in the study of fossils must confront these issues head-on.

As the volunteer section editor for paleontology at PLOS ONE, I am thrilled by the growth in the number of high-quality publications related to my field. I also want to make sure that all of these papers are held to the highest ethical standards, and many of my colleagues and I felt it was important to provide explicit ethical guidelines focused on paleontology. After extensive and thoughtful discussion with the journal’s internal editors and other interested parties, I am happy to announce that a specific set of editorial standards for paleontology submissions is now in place.

Critically, reproducible research in paleontology requires a long-term guarantee of accessibility and safety for fossils. This means that all fossils should be deposited in a permanent repository, such as a museum or university collection. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that collections owned by private individuals—no matter how noble their intentions—will be accessible in the long-term. In one notable recent case, the family of a fossil enthusiast sold off the bulk of his scientifically important collection after he died. Some of the specimens had even been published in the peer-reviewed literature, but there is now little guarantee that any of those fossils will be accessible in fifty years, or even five. Moreover, not everything that calls itself a museum is a permanent collection; some are little more than showroom floors for a commercial fossil business. Some of these fossils do end up in permanent museum collections, but until this happens, it is extremely hazardous to publish on the specimens. Reproducibility and accessibility are key, as reflected in the new policies.

Ethical consideration is also critical for fossil collection in the field. Stories abound of skeletons in the Gobi Desert being looted for the most marketable parts (such as skulls or claws), which then end up for auction in Europe or North America. In fact, one recent PLOS ONE paper discussed dinosaur skin impressions salvaged from the mess left by fossil poachers who carted off more enticing pieces. Legal loopholes often mean that the specimens can then be traded or sold elsewhere, often accompanied by official-looking paperwork that purports to legitimize the original export. This horrible practice drains the world of its historical heritage and destroys scientific information. Thus, the new ethics policy explicitly prohibits publication of specimens that were obtained without permission or legal export.

This is a great day for paleontology at PLOS ONE, helping to ensure the journal’s future as a trustworthy publication with the highest ethical standards. I challenge everyone—authors, editors, readers, and reviewers—to carry the torch forward into a better world.

About the Author:  Dr. Andrew Farke is a vertebrate paleontologist and an academic editor at PLOS ONE. Andy also has his own blog, The Open Source Paleontologist, and can be found on Twitter @andyfarke.

Image: The fossil reptile Captorhinus (collection of Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology)