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Co-author of extinction study looks ahead

Walter Alvarez and Mark Richards
Geophysicists Walter Alvarez (at left) and Mark Richards (in the background) examine a piece of impact ejecta at the North Dakota fossil site. (Jackson Leibach Photo via University of Kansas)

After days of puzzling over secondhand reports, anyone with an internet connection can now read a research paper about a fossil graveyard in North Dakota that appears to document the day nearly 66 million years ago when an asteroid pushed the dinosaurs and many other species into extinction.

Even scientists who criticized the way the news about the site came out on March 29 acknowledged that the discovery, as described in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was astounding.

“I am very much looking forward to the crowd-sourced opinions of everyone,” University of Edinburgh paleontologist Steve Brusatte said in a tweet. “There is a real thrill and a real mystery around this discovery, and it is EXCITING! Let’s see where the evidence leads.”

The study documents fossil evidence for a catastrophic fish kill that did in many other organisms as well. Intermixed with the fossilized remains were tiny beads of glass that had turned to clay. Some of those beads were found embedded in the gills of the fish.

The evidence led the research team, headed by paleontologist Robert DePalma, to conclude that the Cretaceous creatures were washed up onto a sandbar by a giant wave of water. Then they were pelted by hot droplets of molten rock, known as tektites, which were thrown up into the stratosphere by an asteroid impact thousands of miles away.

In the paper, the research team lays out a scenario suggesting that the impact produced a magnitude 10 to 11 earthquake, which sparked a standing wave in the body of water where the fish had lived. Such a wave, known more scientifically as a seiche (pronounced like “saysh”), could have done as much damage as a tsunami within an hour after the asteroid hit. That scenario would leave enough time for the tektites to deliver the coup de grace.

One of the study authors who came up with that scenario is Mark Richards, a geophysicist who left the University of California at Berkeley last July to become the University of Washington’s provost and executive vice president for academic affairs.

Today, Richards said the seiche scenario isn’t the only possibility for explaining what happened in North Dakota during what’s known as the Cretaceous-Paleogene or Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction.

“I think that the surge, unless it was some freak coincidence with something else, was likely seismically induced,” Richards told GeekWire. “Now, it could have been from a seiche. Also, for example, you could have had a local landslide that was triggered by seismic waves. We have to be pretty cautious.”

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A killing field from the day the dinosaurs died

Cretaceous inundation
Scientists say a meteor impact 66 million years ago generated a tsunami-like wave in an inland sea that killed and buried fish, mammals, insects and a dinosaur. (Illustration courtesy of Robert DePalma)

First, there was a violent shock. Then, there was the roar of a 30-foot-high wave of water, throwing fish onto a sandbar in what is now North Dakota. Then there was a hail of molten rock, pelting dying fish and soon-to-be-dying land creatures. Then the fires began.

That’s how the doom of the dinosaurs began, nearly 66 million years ago, according to a study to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences next week.

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Get an inside look at the New Burke Museum

New Burke Museum
The New Burke Museum rises from its construction site on the University of Washington campus. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Stealing a sneak peek at the University of Washington’s new Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture is like looking at the mastodon skeleton in the old Burke Museum: It’s not fleshed out, but it gives you an idea how impressive the real thing can be.

In the mastodon’s case, we’re talking about a creature that lived 10,000 years ago. But when it comes to the New Burke, we’re talking about a modernistic, airy museum that’s 66 percent larger than the Old Burke next door.

The exterior construction part of the $99 million project is essentially complete, and the next phase — creating the exhibits and workspaces, and transferring an estimated 16 million objects from the Old Burke to the New Burke — will begin within just a few weeks.

To mark the transition (and kick off a fundraising campaign), the Burke’s staff gave journalists as well as museum members and donors a first look at the new building, plus a behind-the-scenes look at the collections in the 56-year-old building that currently serves as the museum’s home.

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Triassic fossils get their day in the sun

Triassic creatures
An artist’s conception shows Teleocrater, an early dinosaur relative, feeding on a Cynognathus carcass while hippo-like dicynodonts look on. All of these creatures lived in Tanzania during the mid-Triassic period, about 240 million years ago. (Mark Witton / Natural History Museum, London),

“Jurassic Park” may be all the rage this summer, but a research team led by the University of Washington’s Christian Sidor is kicking it up a notch with a batch of 13 studies focusing on fossils from the Triassic period (252 million to 199 million years ago), which came just before the Jurassic.

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Burke Museum lifts curtain on T. rex skull

T. rex skull
Burke Museum fossil preparator Bruce Crowley and volunteers Jean Primozich and Ben LeFebvre work on the museum’s T. rex skull. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

The only Tyrannosaurus rex skull to go on public display in Washington state is getting its unveiling at Seattle’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture – and the best part is that you can watch as more and more of the skull is revealed.

“You can see those teeth coming out,” University of Washington biologist Greg Wilson, the museum’s curator of vertebrate paleontology, told GeekWire today at the big reveal. “And those teeth are gorgeous.”

As he spoke, a team of paleontologists and trained volunteers worked methodically in a glassed-in room, chipping at and brushing away the rock and sand that surrounded the fossil skull.

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How to scan a T. rex skull for $150

Researchers ran into a problem when they tried to scan and study the hole-ridden jawbone from Sue, the Field Museum of Natural History’s famous T. rex skeleton in Chicago. The jaw was just too big for their high-resolution 3-D scanner. So they turned to MIT Media Lab’s Camera Culture group, which has created a low-cost 3-D scanning system that uses Microsoft’s Kinect video-game camera. The MIT team scanned the entire 5-foot-long skull to a resolution of 500 micrometers, taking advantage of free software and a hardware rig that cost only $150.

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T. rex delivered to Seattle, with more to come

Image: T. rex skull in plaster
Workers unload a plaster-wrapped T. rex skull at the Burke Museum. (GeekWire photo by Alan Boyle)

Seattle’s Burke Museum took delivery of what’s recognized as one of the finest Tyrannosaur rex skulls in the world today, but there are still more bones out in Montana to add to the treasure.

“We’ll go back again,” Greg Wilson, a University of Washington biologist who led the excavation team at Montana’s Hell Creek Formation, told GeekWire at the arrival ceremony. “There’s more in the hill.”

It’ll take more than a year to do the preparatory work on the skull and more than 50 other T. rex bone specimens that have been recovered over the past couple of months, including vertebrae, ribs, hips and lower jaw bones.

The haul so far appears to account for about 20 percent of the complete skeleton. That puts the Burke Museum’s set of fossils among the world’s top 25 T. rex finds, Wilson said. He told reporters that the museum’s T. rex skull will be the only one to go on public display in Washington state.

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Seattle’s Burke Museum is getting a T. rex

Image: Lifting T. rex skull
Among the treasures found in Montana’s Hell Creek Formation was a reasonably complete T. rex skull, which was encased in plaster for shipment. (Credit: Burke Museum)

Paleontologists from Seattle’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture have discovered the fossil remains of a Tyrannosaurus rex, including a 4-foot-long skull, and they’re bringing the goods home with them.

The plaster-encased dinosaur skull, which weighs 2,500 pounds, will be unloaded from a flatbed truck at the museum on Aug. 18.

The Burke Museum says the research team excavated the reasonably complete skull, as well as pieces of the T. rex’s lower jawbone, vertebrae, ribs and teeth, during this year’s field season at the Hell Creek Formation in northern Montana.

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Robo-tail shows how dinosaurs cracked the whip

Image: Sauropod tail
Researchers assembled a quarter-scale sauropod tail, using 3-D-printed vertebrae and a bullwhip popper, to show that dinosaurs could create sonic booms. (Credit: D. Sivam / P. Currie / N. Myhrvold)

Nathan Myhrvold, the Microsoft millionaire who went on to found Intellectual Ventures, is a huge dinosaur geek. But not just any dinosaur geek: He funds paleontological digs, gets heavily involved in research and keeps a life-size T. rex skeleton in his living room. Now he and other scientists have built a quarter-scale dinosaur tail to show that giant sauropods really could snap their tails at supersonic speeds.

Myhrvold and University of Alberta paleontologist Philip Currie first made that claim 18 years ago, based on computer modeling. But their hand-operated contraption – a 44-pound tail section that’s assembled from 3D-printed vertebrae and tipped with a bullwhip popper – provides an ear-splitting demonstration of the effect.

“Personally, I think one of the most interesting aspects of this is the process of using physical simulations to try to ascertain the behavior of extinct animals,” Dhileep Sivam, a bioinformatics specialist who works at Intellectual Ventures, said in an email.

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