The Tale of a Lost Whale and Human Evolution

He wasn’t just a little lost – he was really lost. And he was really big – twenty-three feet long.

In 1964, fossil hunters found the skull of a 17 million-year-old whale in Kenya.The fossil was not found on the ocean floor or even near the ocean, but far inland. It was the skull of a beaked whale – one of the deepest divers in the ocean.


Credit: Southern Methodist University


The fossil was not found in marine rock as most whale fossils are. Instead, the Kenyan whale was found embedded in river deposits.

Apparently, the whale made a fatal wrong turn out of his home in the Indian Ocean and headed inland, up an ancient river in east Africa. Unable to change his course, the wrong-way whale kept going.

It is not common, but whales occasionally become stranded in rivers. In 2006, a sixteen feet-long northern bottlenose whale was found about 43 miles inland, stranded in the Thames River in central London.


The Kenyan whale was found much further inland – 460 miles inland from the present African coast – a long trip for an ill-fated ending. But the length of the trip is not what makes this story so incredible. Although whales occasionally travel long distances up rivers, they won’t swim uphill – maybe three feet above sea level, at most.

The Kenyan whale was found at an elevation of 2, 100 feet!


How He Get There??

The whale was found in the Turkana region of Kenya and was a member of the deep-diving, ocean-dwelling beaked whale family called Ziphiidae. Here’s a photo of a modern beaked whale cousin:


NOAA Photo Library


This area of Kenya lies within the East African Great Rift system: a lake-filled grassland with high plateaus and deep rift valleys. But it wasn’t always so…

About 20 million years ago, Africa looked quite different. The eastern part of Africa was at sea level and was covered in thick, dense, well-watered forests. The (non-bird) dinosaurs had been gone for about 45 million years, and it would be another 14 million years before the earliest ancestors of modern humans made their east African debut.

East Africa sits on top of a hotspot of magma. The magma heats up the earth’s crust, causing it to split down the middle like an apple pie when it bakes. Sometime between twenty million years ago and now, the earth’s crust (like the pie crust) started splitting in northeastern Africa in a geologic process called rifting. The rifting produced a deep hanging valley a half-mile above sea level and mountain ranges on either side up to two miles high.

As the uplift occurred, moist air from the Indian Ocean was blocked from reaching east Africa, and gradually the wet, dense, tree-filled forests gave way to dry grasslands.

But when? When in the time frame of twenty million years until now did the uplift occur that changed east Africa from a sea-level forest to an elevated grassland? Clues were few – until the whale was found. The discovery of a whale so far inland and at such a high elevation means that east Africa was a forested land still near sea level when the whale was stranded. Using the current elevation of the plateau where the whale was found and case studies of the steepest river grades, the elevation of the area at the time of the whale can be calculated.

Amazingly – calculations indicate that our wrong-way whale was stranded at ground zero of east African environmental change. The discovery of the Kenyan whale fossil essentially time-stamps the initial transition from thick forest to grassland at 17 million years ago.

The Whale and Us

About five or six million years ago, our unique history began in east Africa. The east African Rift Valley is literally the cradle of our species. The lost Kenyan whale reveals a marvelous clue – a key piece of the puzzle – in our own story, the story of modern humans.

As the east African landscape was gradually changing from dense forest to flat open grasslands, our earliest ancestors were evolving to be bipedal: upright walkers on two feet.

One of our early ancestors, Ardipithicus ramidus, called “Ardi”, lived 4.4 million years ago in the Afar region of Ethiopia. Ardi’s upper pelvis was very like ours, the kind of pelvic shape you would expect in an upright walker. But – her lower pelvis was built for climbing. In addition, Ardi had a grasping foot. Ardi could walk on two legs (but not as good as we can) and she was a much better climber.


Smithsonian NMNH


The plant and animal fossils found with Ardi indicate that she lived in a wooded environment. Wherever fossils of Ardipithicus ramidus were found, fossils of woodland creatures were also found: monkeys, parrots, and peacocks. Apparently, our early ancestors began to walk upright while there were still some forested areas in east Africa.

The fossil record indicates that after the time of Ardi, our ancestors became increasingly bipedal, and modern humans are exclusively bipedal. Our bipedalism sets us apart from our closest living primate relatives. Bipedalism was a huge event for our species.

As the environment of east Africa was changing to flat grasslands, our ancestors had to walk longer distances across open land to gather food and bring it back to home base. Bipedalism gave an exceptional evolutionary advantage to our ancestors. Our bipedal ancestors could carry large amounts of food in their hands. Animals that run on all fours can run faster than bipedal humans, but humans have far more endurance. Endurance was also a tremendous evolutionary advantage in a wide open grassland – large animals could be tracked and hunted to provide an abundant source of food.

Bipedalism was a key evolutionary adaptation in an environment that was increasingly dry, flat, and grassy.

“It’s Amazing”

The Kenyan whale was stranded at a point in time when east Africa was at sea level and was deeply covered in forests and jungles. Louis Jacobs is a paleontologist at Southern Methodist University, one of the primary researchers in the study of the whale, and was actually responsible for locating the fossil after it had been lost in storage for more than three decades.

Here’s Dr. Jacobs:  

The whale is telling us all kinds of things. It tells us the starting point for all that uplift that changed the climate that led to humans. It’s amazing.

Scientists have known for years that there had been uplift and climate change in east Africa, but the date for the uplift eluded them. All that changed with the rediscovery of the Kenyan whale fossil. The uplift could  now be “time-stamped”.  Henry Wichura of the University of Potsdam in Germany, also a primary study researcher, called the whale’s story “more or less the story about bipedalism”.

In a recent presentation for the Dallas Paleontological Society, Dr. Jacobs made this powerful point: the story of the lost whale demonstrates that climate was a physical driver of the environment, resulting in the evolution of us – the modern humans.

Dr. Jacobs called the story “a whale of tale in human evolution”, and so it is!


New book alert! I have preordered my copy, and I’m looking forward to the read…I’ll let you know what I think!


ccat reading


The heavens declare the glory of God;

the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech;

night after night they reveal knowledge




She Sells Seashells: A Deep-Time Story

Victorians loved their curiosities.

They were particularly fond of taxidermied animals – in fact, many of the displays we see in natural history museums are artifacts of pre-PETA days when animals were stuffed and collected as a hobby.

Amateur taxidermist Walter Potter, however, took the cake. In a peculiar blending of Victorian whimsy and Victorian fascination with death, Potter created tableaus with his handiwork:

Bunnies hard at work writing their school lessons.bunny school

Kittens at a proper tea party.kitten tea party

Card-playing squirrels.card playing squirrel single

And of course, a cat wedding

Victorians also loved to collect objects from nature. They called these prizes “curiosities”. They often displayed their curiosities in a cabinet (the “curio cabinet”) or in a special room in their home.

Lyme Regis, a seaside resort in Dorset county in England was a favorite vacation spot for those with enough money to take a holiday on the coast. In addition to the beauty of limestone and shale cliffs, the area was noted for an abundance of fossils. No one knew exactly how to explain these fossil curiosities, so they made up stories:

  • Fossilized vertebrae were called “verteberries” or “crocodile teeth”
  • Beautiful ammonites (an extinct mollusk) were called “snakestones” or “serpent stones”jurassicAmmoniteShowingSuturesNHM
  • “Devil’s fingers” or “St. Peter’s fingers” were actually extinct mollusks similar to modern squids.

“Angels’ wings”, “Devil’s toenails”, and more – the Victorians didn’t know what they were, but they loved the mystery and they loved to collect them.

The Bone Girl

Richard Anning was a poor cabinet maker in Lyme Regis. In the endless struggle to keep his family fed, he collected fossils to sell. He set up a little table in front of his shop and sold his curiosities to the vacationers – small fossils and sea shells. Fossil hunting and extracting in the cliffs could be dangerous work, but Anning’s two children often accompanied him as he searched. He even made his little daughter Mary a fossil extractor of her very own. When Mary was only eleven, her father died from consumption following a fall from a cliff. The little family edged closer to destitution.

Not long after their father’s death, Mary’s brother noticed a skull with a ring of bony plates around the eye socket – they thought it was a crocodile – but in England??

A year later, twelve-year-old Mary returned to the site and found the rest of the creature’s skeleton on a cliff high above where the head was found. Young Mary lead a group of men to dig out the skeleton – an almost perfectly preserved seventeen-feet-long reptile. It was not a crocodile: it was a 175 – 200 million-year-old marine reptile, an ichthyosaur (“fish-lizard”).ichthyosaurus

Scientists in the fledgling fields of geology and paleontology often came to Lyme Regis, but with the discovery of the pristine ichthyosaur fossil, several stars in the fields specifically sought out the teenaged Mary. And there were many more discoveries by Mary over the years: long-necked plesiosaurs (including the first two specimens ever found), more ichthyosaurs, a squid-like cephalopod, an ancient starfish, ancient fish. She even discovered the first pterosaur (a flying reptile) found in Britain.

NaturalHistoryMuseum_PictureLibrary_004719_preview dimorphodon

Dimorphodon macronyx, a pterosaur that lived during the Lower Jurassic period. Collected by Mary Anning.


During the Jurassic geologic period (about 206 – 144 million years ago), the Lyme Regis area was submerged in a vast shallow sea teaming with life, a banquet for large carnivorous marine reptiles and for the pterosaurs living along the shoreline. Mary, who travelled out of Lyme Regis only once in her life, was a smart woman in the just the right place.

The Greatest Fossilist the World Ever Knew

In class-conscious Victorian England, she was poor. She was a woman, and an unmarried woman at that. She had little formal education. Because she sold her finds to museums and collectors, she was considered “in trade”. Mary was religious and deeply faith-filled, but she belonged for most of her life to a “Dissenters” church – not the respectable Church of England. She never married, but she supported her mother and was devoted to her little dog, her fossil-hunting companion. To her sorrow, the little dog was killed in a rock slide which narrowly missed Mary.

And she worked in a field unheard of for women: science.

Although Mary had little formal schooling, she was far from uneducated. She read and educated herself in her field – particularly comparative anatomy. She was respected by the early leaders in the field of paleontology. These geologists and paleontologists and collectors regularly acknowledged her work, but never named the finds for Mary. Late in her life, a Swiss paleontologist named a fossil fish for her, but during her lifetime, no British collector bestowed this honor.

In 1835, the British Association for the Advancement of Science awarded her a modest lifetime annuity in recognition of her work – remarkable for the time, since women were not expected to be highly educated, much less scientists.

Mary died twelve years later at age 47 from breast cancer.

There is a breathtaking sun-drenched gallery hall with high, large windows in the Natural History Museum in London. Both sides of the hall are filled, floor to ceiling, with fossilized marine reptiles found in England: ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, and more. On the plaques of some the finest fossils in the gallery, you’ll see the name “Mary Anning”, time and time again. Some days, a museum docent dresses as Mary and interacts with museum visitors.

NHM plesiosaur

I took this photo! July 2, 2016 Natural History Museum (London)


Have you heard of Mary Anning? Probably not. But I’m sure you’ve heard this:

She sells sea shells on the sea shore,

The shells she sells are sea shells, I’m sure,

For if she sells sea shells on the sea shore,

Then I’m sure she sells sea shore shells

This children’s tongue twister was written about Mary Anning!

Deep Time

Mary stood at a much more profound crossroad of science than she could have fathomed.

Scientists of Mary Anning’s day really could not comprehend deep time. Geology was a new field – naturalists were just beginning to understand the forces that shaped the planet. Paleontology was even newer: when Mary was born, dinosaurs had not yet been found. Dinosaurs were not identified as a group and named Dinosauria until just a few years before Mary’s death.

A few naturalists considered the possibility that life had changed over time, but there was no way to frame such changes given the age the earth was assumed to be.

Here’s more perspective: Mary lived, worked, and died before Charles Darwin burst onto the scene. Although she and Charles Darwin were contemporaries, Darwin did not publish Origin of Species until 10 years after Mary’s death. Mary found her first ichthyosaur twenty years before Charles Darwin boarded the Beagle for his game-changing round-the-world voyage.

Pretty little seashells on a table in front of a curiosity shop threatened no one. Small fossilized marine animals were curious – but weren’t terribly threatening. Victorians loved them and the mystery: were they medicinal? Were they sinners turned to stone?

But giant fossilized marine reptiles buried deep in the rock were threatening.

These creatures indicated that the earth was much older than anyone had imagined and that life on earth had been very, very different in the past. As Mary found specimen after specimen, the challenges to existing beliefs about creation and the meaning of the Genesis stories grew stronger. It was unavoidable: time was unfathomably deep. Life on earth had changed. Victorians loved the fossil curiosities, but could no longer ignore the implications.

This is the only portrait of Mary we have – Mary on the coast of Lyme Regis, extractor in hand, with her little dog and fossil-hunting companion, Tray.

portrait mary anning

Mary Anning: “The greatest fossilist the world ever knew”


ccat reading


The heavens declare the glory of God;

the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech;

night after night they reveal knowledge

*****science cat explores gravity edited


Evolution’s Toolkit and the Dinosaur on your Thanksgiving Table

If something chases you…run!


Jurassic World opens this weekend and I’ll be there! (go for the fun; critique the science.)

Dinosaur-mania is nothing new. People have long been fascinated with the mysterious bones buried beneath them. When a particularly strong earthquake hit first-century Rome, a series of colossal skeletons was exposed. The locals assumed it was a graveyard for ancient giants, but they dutifully sent the emperor Tiberius one enormous tooth. Tiberius ordered his mathematicians to recreate a to-scale model of the giant, calculated from the “tooth” (probably a mastodon).

The Chinese thought they had found dragon bones; American Indians told tales of the “Thunderbird” (probably skeletons of pterodactyls). The Victorians loved fossils and collected them and identified them in earnest. They collected and reconstructed fossilized skeletons of dinosaurs as well as the dinosaur cousins: the long-neck sea-dwelling plesiosaurs, the shark-like ichthyosaurs, and the flying pterosaurs.

Plesiosaur fossil found by Mary Anning in 1821

Plesiosaur fossil found by Mary Anning in 1821

Dinosaurs in your Backyard

There are three main groups of dinosaurs: the horned and frilled plant-eaters (like Triceratops), the giant long-necked, long-tailed plant-eating sauropods (like Brontosaurus), and the raptor-clawed, razor-toothed meat-eaters called theropods (T. Rex is the most famous in this group).

Almost all (if not all) theropods were feathered – yes! even T. Rex most likely sported at least a fuzzy covering. Feathers helped keep the theropod dinosaurs warm and possibly helped them attract the ladies – theropods didn’t use their feathers for flying.

a shaggy-feathered theropod

Until they did.

The hummingbirds in your backyard, the grackles covering the parking lot, the ducks in the park pond, and the turkey on your Thanksgiving table are all descended from small meat-eating theropod dinosaurs. In most current biology writings, birds are referred to as “avian dinosaurs”.

T. Rex is more closely related to your Thanksgiving turkey than it is to Triceratops.

Wishbones and Dinosaur Moms

In humans and other vertebrates, the clavicles or “collar bones” connect the sternum to the scapula. In birds, however, the two bones are fused together in a “y” shape. The fused bones are called the furcula, better known as the “wishbone” in birds.

The only living animals with a wishbone are the birds.
The only extinct animals with a wishbone were the theropod dinosaurs.

And that’s not all. We have found a wealth of fossilized theropod dinosaur nests – complete with eggs and fossilized dinosaur babies. Some of the fossilized nests have fossilized dinosaur moms, brooding over eggs, arranged nicely in a circle…just like birds.

Fossilized Oviraptor brooding her nest

Fossilized Oviraptor brooding her nest


Even the inside of dinosaur bones looks like the inside of bird bones. Both bird bones and dinosaur bones have air pockets. Both also have bone growth rings (like the growth rings of trees), indicating that dinosaurs, like their bird descendants and unlike their reptile cousins, were warm-blooded.

Mesozoic Rock Star

Nineteenth century paleontologists suspected that birds evolved from dinosaurs based on the multiple bird-like dinosaurs that had been found, many with fuzzy-feathery coats.

In 1860, an unmistakable, perfectly preserved flight feather was found in Germany, in Mesozoic rock – far predating any known fossils of modern birds. In the next two decades, more were found, but this time, the feathers were attached to their owners: animals with a wishbone, wings, and feathers but also with teeth, fingers, and a long tail.

One of the rock-stars of the fossil world had been found: Archaeopteryx.

Archaeopteryx looked like a small raptor dinosaur, but with the unmistakable feathers, wings, and bone structure of a bird. In the last few decades, other primitive bird species have been found in China and Madagascar – retaining their dinosaur looks but with distinctive bird features.




No one knows for sure why all of the non-avian dinosaurs were wiped out 65 million years ago but the avian dinosaurs (birds) survived. (Gary Lawson, the undisputed king of dinosaur humor, chalked it up to smoking).

real reason dinos extinct

The avian dinosaurs survived, expanded, and evolved traits seen in modern birds: short tail, no teeth, fused fingers.

Dino-Chickens, Anyone?

And just when you thought Jurassic World’s recreation of dinosaurs from mosquitoes trapped in amber was great movie fiction, this: dino-chickens.

Biologists at the University of Chicago recently created chicken embryos with dinosaur-like faces by tinkering with the proteins that build chicken beaks.


In reptiles, there are two bones in the face that form the snout. In birds, the two bones fuse, grow longer, and form a beak. The proteins that form a snout in an embryo reptile are the same proteins that form a beak in an embryo bird. In reptiles, the proteins are active only in two small places on the face. In birds, however, the proteins are active in a wide band across the face.

The biologists blocked the activity of the proteins in dozens of developing chicken embryos. In some of the chicks, the bones only partially fused. In others, the bones were significantly shorter and separate. The biologists did not created full-out snouts in the chicks, but pretty close to it.

Evolution’s Toolkit

The dinosaur-to-bird transition wasn’t straight-forward, all neat and pretty. That’s not how evolution works. Contrary to the famous monkey-to-man evolution poster, evolutionary change does not happen in noticeable leaps from animal to animal. Change occurs in tiny steps that over time, add up.

Evolution is a tinkerer. Every new trait, every new characteristic that eventually results in a new species was fashioned from what was already there. Nature doesn’t start from scratch. Nature modifies old genes for new purposes or reuses old genes in a new way. Evolution doesn’t need new tools – it makes do with what is already in the toolkit.

In the case of birds, a dinosaur didn’t just wake up one morning with a beak instead of a snout. A dinosaur hatchling didn’t break out of its egg with a fully-formed beak. The dino-chicken research demonstrates that something as minor as a small change in protein expression can interrupt snout formation.

Nature’s thriftiness is evident throughout the entire tree of life. In a fascinating trip through the branches of the tree of life, Neil Shubin (author of Your Inner Fish, book and popular PBS series) explains how evolution has re-fashioned and re-purposed structures already in existence: “tinkering with mammal-ness to get whales, tinkering with fishy-ness to get tetrapods”.

Sometimes evolution’s re-purposing has little to do with original function. For example, a light-bending protein called crystallin makes up the lenses of complex eyes. But crystallin existed well before the first complex eyes evolved. Sea squirts, primitive ancestors of vertebrates, also have cystallin. In sea squirts (who have no heads, much less eyes), crystallin forms a gravity-sensing organ.

sea squirt

sea squirt

But Aren’t Some Things Too Complex to Have Evolved?

Creationists (including Intelligent Design advocates) claim that certain aspects of life are so complex they could not have possibly evolved. The eye, the blood clotting system, the bacterial flagellum – these and more are considered “irreducibly complex” – all parts must be in place or the structure is useless.

But that is not how evolution works. Crystallin did not have to be created specially for complex eyes. The protein was already in the ancient toolkit, doing another job. Precursor parts and pieces of the blood clotting system and flagellum have also been identified. Nature doesn’t start from scratch.

A Planet Bursting with Evolutionary Possibilities

Dr. Kenneth Miller is a cell and molecular biologist and the co-author of one of the most widely used biology textbooks in the country – the text at the center of the Texas State School Board’s evolution controversy. He is an outspoken critic of creationism and intelligent design. He has been an expert witness for science in multiple high-profile court cases involving the teaching of evolution.

And he is a committed Christian.

Dr. Miller was awarded the 2014 Laetare medal by Notre Dame University in recognition of his witness to excellence in science and religious belief.

Here’s Dr. Miller:

Like many other scientists who hold the Catholic faith, I see the Creator’s plan and purpose fulfilled in our universe. I see a planet bursting with evolutionary possibilities, a continuing creation in which the Divine Providence is manifest in every living thing. I see a science that tells us that there is indeed a design to life, and the name of that design is evolution.

Kenneth Miller

Kenneth Miller


Dinosaurs aren’t extinct – they’re flocking all over town. There may even be some waiting for you in the parking lot when you leave Jurassic World.

Watch them and marvel at a planet bursting with creation.


ccat reading

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.

Science Cat

Science Cat

Science this Week: Paleo Summer and the Original Big Tex

In the 1960s, if you were lucky enough to get the snack-sized Fritos in your lunchbox (as opposed to the more frugal handful from a regular-sized bag in a baggie), you were no doubt a collector of the free prizes tucked inside the Fritos six-pack box. Pencil-top erasers (the unfortunate Frito Bandito) were big, as well as various collector series. My husband’s favorite was the pterodactyl from the dinosaur series.

frito dinosUh-oh. Snack-food science fail.

A Pterodactyl Is Not a Dinosaur

This summer I visited my favorite pterosaur at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
Lumped in with the dinosaurs and mistakenly identified as forerunners of birds and bats, pterosaurs struggle for a little paleo respect. Pterosaurs lived with dinosaurs and went extinct about the same time, but they were not dinosaurs.
Pterosaurs were winged reptiles and were the first flying vertebrates. The commonly used term “pterodactyl” is actually just one kind of pterosaur.

No flying animal has approached the size of the pterosaurs. Birds and bats took to the skies in the 66 million years since the pterosaurs went extinct but none have even come close to the largest of the pterosaurs.

Pterosaurs started small during the Triassic Period (230-200 million years ago). During the Jurassic and the Cretaceous (200 to 65 million years ago), enormous pterosaurs evolved.

The Original Big Tex

The largest found so far is Quetzalcoatlus northropi, with a wingspan of 10 meters (35 feet). Quetzalcoatlus is my favorite.
Quetzalcoatlus is a Texan, a native of Big Bend National Park. The largest animal ever to fly is from Texas. Of course he is.

Howdy, Folks!
Howdy, Folks!

The Houston Museum of Natural Science has amazing Quetzalcoatlus casts on display in their Hall of Paleontology. The Houston Museum is unique in that its paleo skeletons are not displayed in boring, lunch-line rows. Rather, the fossils and casts are in action: predators and prey – pursuing, eating, menacing.

This leads me to yet another reason to love Quetzalcoatlus: the display in the Houston Museum.

Usually, museums hang pterosaurs from the ceiling.

Houston displays a nesting pair on the ground.

Here’s why that’s cool:
Pterosaurs’ wings are made of skin stretched over the arm, hand, and fingers of the fore-limbs. The fourth finger (like our ring finger) was especially long. In Quetzalcoatlus, it was extremely long.

Although Quetzalcoatlus flew, they were too large for tree-dwelling. They nested on the ground.

How would you sit down if your ring finger was almost as long as your body? Think about it, then look at this photo of my recent visit with Quetzalcoatlus :

janet with quetzalcoatlus
The seated display of Quetzalcoatlus allows you to understand visually that her wings are fingers (with an extremely long ring finger) as she sits near her nest.

The Quetzalcoatlus in the background is standing on all fours (remember, he is a reptile). What would you look like, standing on all fours with a ring finger almost as long as your body? Look at the photo and see how he stands and what he does with that long fourth finger.
Fossilized footprints of pterosaurs indicate that they walked on all fours. The Houston display reinforces this in a way that a traditional hanging display cannot.

New This Summer! Pterosaurs in 3D!

Pterosaurs had very thin bones, making them lightweight and maximizing their strength-to-weight ratio. Thin bones means they do not fossilize very well. As a result, we have few good pterosaur skeletons and rarely have more than one example per species.

Until now.
Announced this summer (but found in 2005) was a spectacular find in northwestern China. The forty complete adult pterosaurs, multiple bones of others, and a clutch of five beautifully preserved eggs were found near an area of a large freshwater lake.
The newly identified species has been named Hamipterus tianshanensis. Hamipterus had a crest, pointy teeth, and a wingspan of more than 3.5 meters (11+ feet).

Until this find, we only had four pterosaur eggs – and they had all been flattened during fossilization. But the five found in China are the first eggs preserved in 3D. The eggs were pliable with a thin eggshell outside and a thick membrane inside – similar to the eggs of a modern snake.

This magnificent find also indicates that pterosaurs lived in large colonies, often near shorelines where they could eat fish and lay eggs in moist sand. Large pterosaurs would have had a hard time flying in wooded or mountainous terrain and are most often found in places that would have been open and near water.

There’s An App For That

Are you ready to go on a pterosaur hunt? There’s an app for that!

A new website links a huge pterosaur database with Google Earth. PteroTerra lets you see where in the world your favorite pterosaurs were found. Clink on a link and you’ll see a map, wingspan, and when it lived. Look at the big world map and you’ll see the distribution of pterosaur fossils around the world. Paleontologists can use this tool to map trends in pterosaur evolution.
Bookmark it on your smart phone, tablet, or computer now!

Here’s one more. Want something to do while waiting in life’s lines? Download the new Pterosaurs iPad App created by The American Museum of Natural History (free!). While you’re at it, download Pterosaurs: The Card Game (also from AMNH; also free for iPad).


Hipster ScienceCat

Hipster ScienceCat

Science This Week: Mammoths, Mosquitoes, and a Movie I Don’t Want to See

Mammoth Problems in South Carolina

She’s eight years old and she spends her recess time hunting for fossilized shark teeth on the playground. Her name is Olivia McConnell and she LOVES science.

Olivia McConnell  CBS News

Olivia McConnell
CBS News

When Olivia found out that her home state, South Carolina, had an official state bird, a state tree, and even a state spider but no official state fossil, she went to work.

Olivia knew that one of the first fossils ever discovered in North America was an ancient woolly mammoth, dug up from a South Carolina swamp in 1725. Olivia wrote Governor Nikki Haley and other state lawmakers and made the case for the woolly mammoth.

Here’s Olivia:

I wanted it to be the state fossil because I didn’t want that history to be lost, and our state to not get credit for it.

Olivia’s state senator thought it was a great idea and started a bill through the senate, expecting it to fly through.
Not so fast, little miss.

The bill is currently stalled in a House committee. Several state lawmakers are balking because the bill is not consistent with a literal reading of Genesis.

Here’s the original bill:

The woolly mammoth is designated as the official state fossil of South Carolina.

And here is the most recent (April 9) version of the bill that came out of committee:

The Columbian Mammoth, which was created on the Sixth Day with the other beasts of the field, is designated as the official State Fossil of South Carolina and must be officially referred to as the ‘Columbian Mammoth’, which was created on the Sixth Day with the other beasts of the field.

This latest iteration was voted down, so for now, South Carolina still has no state fossil. But Olivia is not deterred – she has vowed to fight on. Olivia says she will keep lobbying until she’s “23 or even 40” in the quest to have South Carolina join the majority of other states with paleo symbols. (By the way – Texas has two: a state dinosaur, Pleurocoelus and the state stone, petrified palm wood).

Coming to a Theater Near You 

On September 26, A Matter of Faith is scheduled to hit the theaters. matter of faith movie

Here’s what we know from the movie trailer: Wistful dad says one of the hardest things for a father to do is “send your little girl off to college”. College girl is loving life, especially her classes, especially her biology professor.

Concerned dad researches daughter’s professors.
Dad meets with the dean, and in a tone of voice usually reserved for revealing the true identity of a super-villain, dad says (cue ominous music):

The guy’s an evolutionist!  phantom_scooby_doo_unmask_1_1750


Dad goes on to say that “nothing in the whole course description says that Biblical creation is even a plausible alternative”.

This film does not have the big names of Noah or Heaven Is For Real, but it will most likely gather a following. A Matter of Faith will appeal to the demographic who liked Fireproof, God’s Not Dead, and Facing the Giants – Christians who want to see family-friendly, God-honoring movies at an actual cineplex.
Christians will be encouraged to support the film so “Hollywood will make more movies like that”. The target audience is committed believers.

For eighty-nine minutes, viewers will be submerged in the concept that science (and specifically evolution) is the enemy of faith, sweetly played out on the big screen.

Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis are promoting this film big-time. Several AIG staff have consulted or previewed the movie.
Here’s Ken Ham:

Atheists and compromising Christians are going to hate A Matter of Faith! It’s a great new movie!

Rachel Held Evans, in her faith memoir Evolving in Monkey Town (recently rereleased as Faith Unraveled) described the fear she felt as she faced the first cracks in her “worldview”, a worldview in which she had a ready (Biblical) answer for everything.

Rachel asked this question:

If all truth is God’s truth, then why are we so afraid to confront the mountains of scientific evidence in support of evolution?

Who’s Ready for Skeeternado?

It probably wouldn’t have quite the flamboyance of a sharknado or the white-knuckleness of snakes on planes, but I don’t think there has been a man-against-nature movie made about the actual “world’s deadliest animal”: the mosquito.
Mosquitoes kill 725,000 people a year.
Snakes kill 50,000 people per year and sharks a paltry ten (yet they get their own TV week).

In a cool graphic posted by Bill Gates, the world’s deadliest animals are charted by number of people killed per year. Among the four-legged animals we know best, “man’s best friend” comes in first – killing 25,000 people a year. Second place? – the hippopotamus at 500/year (still want one for Christmas?).

Mosquitoes (Spanish for “little fly”) threaten half of the world’s population with death and disease. Malaria is the worst, killing 600,000 people every year. Many non-profits and faith-based organizations provide opportunities to purchase a $10 mosquito net, a simple and effective yet often unavailable tool in the fight against malaria.

In his Gates Notes on World Malaria Day (April 25), Bill Gates focused on the deadly mosquito and what is being done to combat mosquito-borne disease. For example, in Indonesia, dengue fever is being fought by inoculating the mosquitoes, not people.

Now come on Bill, make this movie:


I believe that the heavens declare the glory of God.
I believe that day after day the cosmos pours forth speech and night after night the cosmos reveals knowledge.
I trust that the evidence and knowledge that is revealed is true because the Creator of the cosmos is Truth.



Fossils and the Design of Life

cynodontI found this guy three weeks ago at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.
He is definitely a reptile… …but Grandma! What BIG TEETH you have!   little red and wolf

Reptile teeth are all the same shape – spiky and great for grabbing and swallowing things whole, but not so good for chewing. Reptiles swallow their food whole.

But not this guy. His teeth are not reptilian, they’re mammalian. Mammalian teeth have different shapes and surfaces, allowing the teeth to tear, crush, and shear… in other words, chew.

Meet Cynognathus, a lovely transitional fossil. Cynognathus is a reptile that lived 230-225 million years ago. This guy and his cousins are called Cynodonts (“dog-toothed”). As a group they are informally known as the “mammal-like reptiles”.

The Fossil Record

The fossil record is unambiguous in two aspects: there is a sequential character to the appearance of life on earth, and newer species are descended from species that preceded them (p. 47).
There is a widely held perception that to believe evolution means to believe that one day a fish gave birth to an amphibian, a reptile gave birth to a mammal, or a cow gave birth to a whale. And of course, a chimpanzee gave birth to a human baby.
But that is to misunderstand the process of evolution, even basic biology. And it is certainly to misunderstand the nature of the fossil record.
Changes from one species to a different species, especially changes across classes or phyla or kingdoms, occur due to accumulated mutations over hundreds of thousands, millions, and billions of years. It is a continuum, not a jump.

So, according to the theory of evolution, what we would expect to see in the fossil record would be transitions, not sudden leaps…and that is exactly what we see.

The earliest recognizable amphibians have many fishy characteristics (gills, skulls). And in between, we find animals “in transition”. The older the rock, the more fish-like and less amphibian-like the animal. The newer the rock, the more amphibian-like and less fish-like. And on it goes…the earliest reptiles had many amphibian features. The earliest mammals were reptile-like mammals (and preceding them were the mammal-like reptiles, like my friend at the museum).

More examples? Land dwelling animals with definite whale characteristics are found in older rocks, but whales in newer and newer rocks show diminishing hind and fore limbs. Modern whales have unused pelvic bones not attached to anything and some even have skeletal rudiments of hind limbs.
We see the same transitional pattern in dinosaurs to birds – oldest fossils are bird-like dinosaurs, newer fossils are reptile-like birds.


“Evolution of Horses” at the American Museum of Natural History, New York

Within specific animal groupings we also see transitioning. Nearly 55 million years ago, horses were no larger than house cats. Over the next 30 million years, horses diversified and many species of horses emerged. At one point, there were hundreds of horse species. Today, only one genus of horse remains (Equus) which includes all of the modern species (horses, zebras, donkeys). Three dozen distinct horse genera have lived on earth, but all are extinct except Equus (pp. 47-50).

Similarly, there have been twenty-two distinct elephant species in the last 6 million years. Only two species live today.

Suddenly, or Slow?

Is natural history a record of the sudden emergence of our living world in a single burst of creative energy? (p. 122).

Young Earth Creationism says that is exactly what happened – everything in six days, fully formed.
Intelligent Design says that each species of horse (for example) was designed separately and despite appearances, was not related to the other horse species in history. Intelligent design says that each of the animals in the fish to amphibian transition (as well as all other transitional fossils) were designed separately and were no relation to each other.

Intelligent Design claims that evolution could not be the mechanism for the diversity of life, but Intelligent Design does not pose an alternative mechanism.

Did each of the millions species (both extinct and modern) that lived across millions of years appear suddenly out of nowhere?

Was a newly designed species birthed by an existing species?

dog and kitten

Over and over again, the imposition of intelligent design on the facts of natural history requires us to imagine a designer who creates successive forms that mimic evolution (Finding Darwin’s God, Kenneth R. Miller).

The Spark of Life

The natural history of the earth suggests that life unfolded in a process of change and adaptation. The first living organisms appeared about 3.5 billion years ago.

Over billions of years, life changed. Bacteria, insects, plants, animals…species lived, then became extinct. Sometimes the extinctions were dramatically catastrophic, but were then followed by great diversifications.

Life probed, explored, and colonized. Once lit, the spark of life spread everywhere on this great blue planet and has never ceased its endless process of change and adaptation (p. 123).

The reality of natural history is that living things are not one-case-at-a-time design projects.

Life doesn’t resist change but favors it, tolerates it, and channels it into useful variations. Ironically, the design of life is to change its own design (p. 124 – 127).

Americans and Scientific Confidence

Just a few weeks ago, an AP poll summarized Americans’ confidence in various scientific statements. You’ll be glad to know that only four percent of Americans doubt that smoking causes cancer. smoking
Unfortunately, as religious belief rose, confidence fell regarding scientific evidence of evolution, the big bang, and the age of the earth. (An alarming number of Americans also doubt the safety and effectiveness of vaccines – there are definite similarities in the thought processes of anti-evolution folks and anti-vaccinators, but that is a topic for another post!).

It is not surprising that the more religious Americans are, the less they trust science. The originators of the Intelligent Design model very intentionally chose the term “design” for their movement. “Design” implies purpose, order, and meaning (p. 112-113). By contrast, any other explanation (i.e. evolution) is cold, purposeless, and meaningless. Traditional Creationism and its newest incarnation, Intelligent Design, have been tireless in making evolution the enemy of faith.

The good news for those of us who believe both science and God is this:

As it turns out, there really is a design to life, but it’s not the clumsy, interventionist one in which life is an artificial injection into nature, a contradiction of its physical laws. Rather, it is a design in which life emerges from the laws of the universe around us. That conclusion is unavoidable, robust, and scientific. The elegant universe is a universe of life. And the name of the grand design of life is evolution (p.134).

An elegant universe is not the enemy of faith.

Quite the contrary.


This series is a chapter by chapter overview of Kenneth R. Miller’s Only a Theory, with my discussion and commentary.


I believe that the heavens declare the glory of God.
I believe that day after day the cosmos pours forth speech and night after night the cosmos reveals knowledge.
I trust that the evidence and knowledge that is revealed is true because the Creator of the cosmos is Truth.


Can We Really Know the Earth is Billions of Years Old?

Can We Really Know the Earth is Billions of Years Old?

Kids love dinosaurs. They are big and scary and growl-y and dangerous. Proud parents beam as their precocious little paleontologists recite their wealth of dinosaur facts. The trouble starts when the little paleontologists learn that dinosaurs roamed the earth between 65 – 230 million years ago, a timeline that is hard to squeeze into an earth that is only 6,000 years old.

That’s when dinosaurs really become dangerous.

It wasn’t until the 20th century that a “young earth” (between 6,000 and 10,000 years old) became a widespread belief among evangelicals. A young earth created many problems: how do you reconcile apparently ancient events with a fairly short earth history? To make the math work in the case of the dinosaurs, dinosaurs and humans had to coexist. Maybe not exactly in the way they did in the town of Bedrock, but close.

fred and dinosaur

Apologetics Press (AP) is a prolific source of Young Earth Creationist (YEC) literature. An AP published science book for children, Dinosaurs Unleashed: The True story About Dinosaurs and Humans, includes illustrations of men fighting a vicious T-Rex, baby dinosaurs climbing a ramp to Noah’s Ark, and an idyllic scene of a young girl and her dinosaur pet. Not exactly Fred and Dino, but not too far from it.

               pet dino           dinos on ark           trex

When the age of the earth is a tenet of faith, conflict arises when scientific evidence doesn’t fit the faith-required parameters. The most common response is to somehow make the evidence fit the belief.

All scientific evidence points to an earth and a universe of immense age:

There are no scientific arguments of any consequence that point to the earth being just a few thousand years old. Not one isolated piece of nontrivial data, in any form, points in this direction (p. 54).

How Old is the Universe? How Do We Know?

The age of the universe is around twelve to fourteen billion years. Scientists arrived at this number because several unrelated lines of evidence converge on that number. Let’s look at two lines of evidence:

speed limit of light The speed of light: Light travels 186,000 miles per second. Our sun is 93 million miles away. When light leaves the sun, the light has to travel 93 million miles before we can see it. If you do the calculations, you will find that it takes eight minutes for light from the sun to reach the earth. When you see the sun, you are actually looking back in time. If the sun went dark, we would not know for eight minutes.

Our sun is relatively close to us, but other stars are unimaginably further away. They are so far away that it takes millions, even billions of years for the light from these distant stars to reach us. One way to estimate the age of the universe is to calculate how long it would take for the light we see from distant stars to reach us. The fact that we are seeing light from stars so far away tells us the universe  is billions of years old.

The Big Bang: Edwin Hubble (for whom the telescope was named) discovered in 1928 that virtually all of the galaxies in the universe are moving away from us. If the universe is expanding, it must have been smaller in the past. And since the universe is not infinitely large, there must have been a point in time when the expansion started from a single point – The Big Bang. (This is where you start to sing the opening lines of the sitcom Big Bang Theory to yourself: “…the whole universe was in a hot dense state then nearly fourteen billion years ago expansion started. Wait!”).

We know how fast the galaxies are traveling. The speed of the galaxies is measured in the same way a police officer measures the speed of your car – using radar to measure the Doppler effect. Knowing the rate of expansion and the average distances between galaxies, we can calculate how long the universe has been expanding from the starting point until now.

What if (as Young Earth Creationists suggest) God created light “in transit”?

Then what we see is not what actually is.

What about supernova – exploding stars – that are millions of light-years away? Those stars never actually existed according to YEC reasoning. Of course God could have created a universe with the appearance of age. God could have created everything ten minutes ago and placed a lifetime of memories in our brains.

Or, stars, galaxies, and supernova appear to be billions of years old because…they are.

How Old is the Earth? How D0 We Know?

As with the universe, the age of the earth has been determined using multiple, disparate lines of data that all converge at the same number. Here are some of the ways the age of the earth is determined:

Tree rings: We can determine the age of a tree by counting the rings on their trunks. The oldest living things on earth are six-thousand-year-old bristlecone pines in the Sierra Nevada. Dead trees lying nearby are almost twice as old.

Lake beds: Lake beds accumulate sediments according to the season: minerals in spring and pollens and plant materials in fall. Lake beds as old as 35,000 years have been found.

Ice rings: Similarly, glacial ice has layers that indicate changes in seasons. Ice cores have been drilled in ice as old as 740,000 years.

Using the simple skills of visual observation and counting, tree rings, lakebeds, and ice cores place the earth well past the 6,000 to 10,000 year age proposed by Young Earth Creationists. Using patterns in the orbit of the earth and patterns of magnetic field reversals, we find dates for the earth going back 30 million to 170 million years (Language of Science and Faith, pp. 62-63).

Dating methods for the way way back – radioactive clocks: In the nucleus of an atom are particles called protons and neutrons. Usually an atom will have equal numbers of protons and neutrons, and all is happy and stable in the atomic world. Sometimes, however, there are extra neutrons in the nucleus of an atom, making the atom unstable. Atoms will “throw off” the extras protons to form a more stable atom.

For example, atoms of uranium-235 are unstable. Uranium-235 will throw off neutrons until it has changed into a more stable element, lead-207.

We know how long it takes for unstable uranium to decay into stable lead. When we want to date a rock containing uranium-235 and lead-207, we can measure the ratio of uranium-235 to lead-207 and determine the age of the rock. Using the uranium-lead clock, the age of the earth is about 4.566 billion years old.


The heavens declare the glory of God;
    the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge

(Psalms 19:1-2)

Everything in the cosmos pours forth speech and reveals knowledge.  Do you believe the speech is true? Do you believe the knowledge is Truth? Do you believe that the cosmos actually is what it reveals itself to be?

Three Kinds of Creationists

Young Earth Creationists: Young Earth Creationists (YEC) believe that Genesis is a scientific and historical account of origins. Adding up genealogies (the begats) and assuming seven literal 24-hours days of creation, YEC conclude that the earth is less than 10,000 years old.  These assumptions are based almost entirely upon English translations of the Old Testament. Many scholars in Hebrew, Old Testament, and ancient cultures insist that the YEC position is not even close to what the text of Genesis is saying.

Old Earth Creationists:Old Earth Creationists (OEC) also believe that Genesis is a scientific and historical account of origins, but they accept scientific evidence for the age of the earth. Although OEC allow for an earth that is billions of years old, OEC believe that living things were created by direct and separate events – no natural processes were involved and they reject evolution.

BioLogos: The view of the authors of The Language of Science and Faith and many Christians who want to be biblically based and scientifically accurate is BioLogos: God’s creative activity is executed within the natural order (Language of Science and Faith, p. 72), using and respecting established natural laws.

Reading Genesis

A literal reading has not been widely accepted as the only way to interpret Genesis for most of the history of the church. Important Christian writers like Origen, Augustine, and Aquinas, although all lived in a pre-scientific time, did not support a literal reading. Even William Jennings Bryan, famous for arguing against evolution in the Scopes trial, did not believe in a young earth.

The Genesis Flood, published in 1961, was wildly popular in evangelical circles and was responsible to a great extent for defining the terms that still exist: serious, Bible-based Christians believe in a young earth and special creation. Deny any aspect of a literal interpretation, and your faith is suspect.


In an auspicious courtroom in 1633, one of the major players in the scientific revolution faced an inquisition by Church authorities. Galileo Galilei was on trial for heresy. Galileo wrote and taught that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the solar system – an obviously false idea because it is directly contradicted by the clear teaching of scripture: The Earth Does Not Move.

After all, Psalm 104:5 says:

He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.

Although Galileo eventually recanted (with fingers crossed behind his back) rather than face the full penalty of the Inquisition, it wasn’t long before his clearly observable astronomical discoveries were widely accepted by Christians.

New science discoveries, new evidence, new data – Christians were compelled to reexamine a biblical text – and faith survived.

Twenty-first century Christians are faced with the evidence that much of life lived and went extinct before humans came along, with Darwin’s discoveries, with evidence of the Big Bang, and with the genetic evidence that all species are related.

These are our Galileo moments.

This series is a chapter by chapter discussion of The Language of Science and Faith by Karl W. Giberson and Francis S. Collins, with commentary and my observations.


I believe that the heavens declare the glory of God.
I believe that day after day the cosmos pours forth speech and night after night the cosmos reveals knowledge.
I trust that the evidence and knowledge that is revealed is true because the Creator of the cosmos is Truth.