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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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Did Homo naledi co-exist with our species?

Homo naledi
This Homo naledi skull is part of a skeleton dubbed “Neo.” (Wits University Photo / John Hawks)

The paleontologists who discovered a previously unknown line of human ancestors in South Africa say that they’ve found more fossils — and that the species, known as Homo naledi, could have lived alongside our own species 250,000 years ago.

The newly disclosed finds from the Rising Star Cave system could reignite the debate over the tangled roots of humanity’s family tree.

Fifty-two scientists from 35 organizations around the world, including University of Washington anthropologist Elen Feuerriegel, were part of the team behind the Rising Star research

In one of the papers published today by the journal eLife, the scientists set the age of the first Homo nadeli fossils they found at between 236,000 and 335,000 years ago, based on radioisotope dating, electron spin resonance dating and an analysis of the flowstone overlying the fossils.

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Scientists spur debate over First Americans

Mastodon unearthed
San Diego Natural History Museum paleontologist Don Swanson points to a rock fragment near a large piece of a mastodon tusk at the excavation site. (San Diego Natural History Museum Photo)

Scientists say the patterns of breakage in mastodon bones found 25 years ago near a San Diego highway suggest that humans battered the beast 130,000 years ago.

That’s a shocker, because before now, the oldest widely accepted evidence of human habitation in North America goes back only about 16,000 years. If the scientists are right, that makes the place they studied, known as the Cerutti Mastodon site, the oldest archaeological site in North America.

“It’s somewhat mind-boggling to have 130,000 years proposed,” said University of Oregon archaeologist Dennis Jenkins. He has found previous evidence for human habitation in 14,000-year-old preserved poop but wasn’t involved in the latest study, published today by the journal Nature.

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Toothy tumor found in 255 million-year-old fossil

Gorgonopsid
Sketch of a gorgonopsian head, in side view. (CCA 3.0 / Dmitry Bogdanov via UW)

A weird type of benign tumor has been discovered in an unlikely place: the fossilized jaw of a distant ancestor of present-day mammals that lived 255 million years ago.

The tumor, known as a compound odontoma, is made up of miniature toothlike structures. It’s not unusual to find such tumors in mammals, including us humans. But it’s unprecedented to find them in the kind of orgonopsid studied by researchers from the University of Washington.

“We think this is by far the oldest known instance of a compound odontoma,” Christian Sidor, a UW professor of biology and curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, said today in a news release.

Sidor is the senior author of a report on the find, published in today’s edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association Oncology. The research could have implications for cancer research as well as for paleontology.

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Mass extinction traced to a ‘one-two punch’

Image: Dying dinosaur
What led to the mass extinction that did in the dinosaurs more than 65 million years ago? Scientists say volcano-caused climate change was a contributing cause. (Credit: Zina Deretsky / NSF)

Scientists generally agree that a catastrophic asteroid blast killed off the dinosaurs and most of Earth’s other species more than 65 million years ago, but newly described evidence supports the view that there was an additional culprit: rapid climate change brought on by volcanic eruptions.

The idea that the Cretaceous-Paleogene mass extinction was a one-two punch isn’t new. For decades, scientists have debated how much the eruptions in the Indian subcontinent’s Deccan Traps contributed to the die-off, as opposed to the miles-wide space rock that hit the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

A study of ancient Antarctic fossil seashells, published online today in Nature Communications, turns the spotlight on the volcanoes’ effect.

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Five science tales that aren’t April Fool’s jokes

Image: Elasmotherium
A painting by Heinrich Harder (circa 1920) provides a view of Elasmotherium, a horned animal that went extinct tens of thousands of years ago. (Credit: Heinrich Harder via Wikipedia)

Unicorns are real! Scientists propose cloaking device to protect Earth from aliens! Glow-in-the-dark skin grown in lab! Those may sound like April Fool’s headlines, but they’re actually amped-up twists on real-life science. Check out five recent scientific revelations that take a walk on the weird side.

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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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