Understanding the past to predict the future

Ten paleontological breakthroughs made by scientists of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History

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Since 1899, when Andrew Carnegie dispatched his famous fossil hunters west to get a dinosaur "for Pittsburgh," Carnegie Museum of Natural History has amassed one of the world's best paleontology collections, has established the most scientifically accurate dinosaur displays and has been at the forefront of paleontological research both in the field and in the lab.

From Oct. 10 through 13, Pittsburgh will host the 70th anniversary meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. In recognition of this international gathering of today's greatest thinkers in paleontology, Carnegie Museum of Natural History looks at some of the most significant contributions of its renowned scientific staff.

1. A bridge to Europe

Carnegie paleontologist Mary Dawson, a living legend in the field, has been with the museum for nearly half a century. Ms. Dawson has worked for many years in the Canadian Arctic, where her fossil discoveries have been vital to several important realizations about Earth's history. The theory of animal migration between North America and Europe 50 million years ago has become well-supported thanks in large part to Ms. Dawson's Arctic research. Her discoveries - such as Arctic fossils of alligators and other animals that can survive only in warm, temperate climates - provided critical evidence that Earth was once much warmer and that North America and Europe were once connected by an ancient land bridge, making migration possible.

2. First in flight

The 2004 discovery of dozens of superbly preserved specimens of the 110-million-year-old bird Gansus yumenensis in China, found by a team co-led by Carnegie paleontologist Matthew Lamanna, has proven to be one of the gold mines of 21st-century paleontological research. Not only are the skeletons of these ancient birds preserved, even some of their feathers and skin have been fossilized (the latter showing that Gansus had webbed feet). Gansus was previously known only from a few bones of a single individual bird. Mr. Lamanna and colleagues' discovery of numerous individuals together provides extraordinary information about the evolution of modern-style birds, ultimately from dinosaurs. Gansus is now seen as the most evolutionarily advanced birds of the Mesozoic era. With such well-preserved specimens, Mr. Lamanna and his collaborators have been able to reconstruct the bird's appearance and establish its evolutionary relationships with respect to its dinosaur ancestors and avian descendants.

3. Proving Pangaea

The Bromacker Quarry in Germany has proven to be one of the richest fossil finds in recent times, researched since 1993 largely by teams led by Carnegie paleontologist David Berman. Together with museum colleague Amy Henrici, Mr. Berman has discovered 290-million-year-old fossils from Bromacker that match fossils previously found only in North American rock formations from the same period. It's further evidence of the existence of Pangaea - the supercontinent that ultimately fractured into the continents we know today.

4. The dawn monkey

In one of the most important paleontological discoveries of the past two decades, Carnegie paleontologist Christopher Beard found fossils of the ancient primate Eosimias in China, in the 1990s. His work points to an ancient Asian origin for anthropoids - the group that includes monkeys, apes and humans - making that continent, not Africa, the birthplace of mankind's earliest ancestors. (For this groundbreaking research, Mr. Beard was awarded a MacArthur Fellow "genius" grant in 2000.) Mr. Beard's award-winning book, "The Hunt for the Dawn Monkey" - supplemented with illustrations created by the museum's Mark A. Klingler, an award-winning illustrator - has helped make the search for human origins a topic of intense discussion far beyond paleontological circles.

5. Dirt or DNA

Dating the appearance of placental mammals - the group that includes humans - is a hotly contested goal of evolutionary biology, sought by both organismal biologists and molecular researchers who study mammal DNA. In 2007, based on a newly discovered fossil species of placental mammal, Carnegie mammalogist John Wible, a world-renowned expert in mammalian anatomy, estimated the emergence of placentals at roughly 65 million years ago - the time of the dinosaurs' mass extinction. It's an important step towards understanding placental mammal evolution and diversification, which seems to have been stimulated by the opening of ecological niches as dinosaurs faded and died out.

6. Sink or swim

The fossil of the platypus-like Castorocauda, discovered in Inner Mongolia in 2006 and described by Carnegie paleontologist Zhe-Xi Luo, provides the first clear evidence that some dinosaur-age mammals were adapted to a life in and around water. Castorocauda shares many adaptations with swimming mammals we know today, such as seal-like teeth and a broad, flat, beaver-like tail, establishing beyond a doubt that this creature spent much of its time in water hunting aquatic prey. The Castorocauda fossil also includes remarkably preserved hair impressions, revealing that the fur of this 160-million-year-old mammal was already similar to that of its modern relatives, with short, dense under-fur and longer hairs on top.

7. Rock star

In 2010, a cross-disciplinary team of Carnegie scientists, consisting of paleontologists David Berman and Amy Henrici and geologists Albert Kollar and David Brezinski, identified a new species of archaic amphibian, Fedexia striegeli, that contributes new knowledge about the North American continent's ancient climate. Fedexia represents the extinct amphibians Trematopidae. It remains one of only three trematopid specimens in the world to be discovered from the late Pennsylvanian Period - approximately 320 million to 300 million years ago. Trematopids reveal that some of the earliest North American amphibians were adapted to a mostly land-based existence. The group also offers strong fossil evidence for past climate change. Scientists believe this shift from water- to land-living in amphibians may have been a result of a long-term, global trend toward drier, warmer conditions that reached its climax near the end of the Pennsylvanian Period.

8. Challenging Ida

In 2009, the fossil primate skeleton "Ida" garnered worldwide attention as a potential "missing link" in human evolution. However, later that same year, Carnegie paleontologist Christopher Beard discovered Ganlea megacanina, a new fossil primate from Myanmar (previously known as Burma). Because of the structure of its canine teeth, Mr. Beard believes Ganlea is more likely than Ida to be a common ancestor of humans, monkeys and apes. If this proves so, Ganlea is another important milestone in the scientific quest to retrace the earliest roots of human evolution. Ganlea and additional fossil discoveries support the hypothesis that anthropoids, the primate group that includes humans, originated in Asia rather than in Africa as previously believed.

9. Arise, Laonastes

When a group of related fossil animals disappears from the fossil record for a substantial interval of time only to reappear much later, scientists call it "the Lazarus effect." But what happens when a long-lost group of animals known only in the fossil record is found to have a living relative? This happened recently when a team of European researchers described Laonastes as the only member of a new family of rodents living in the Southeast Asian nation of Laos. Carnegie paleontologists Mary Dawson and Christopher Beard saw the paper describing this "new" family and immediately recognized the animal as a member of the Diatomyidae, a group of Asian rodents long thought to be extinct for 11 million years. Ms. Dawson and Mr. Beard have called for the creature to be governmentally protected as a unique part of Asian biodiversity. This reclusive rodent provides a striking example of "the Lazarus effect" in the modern world.

10. Southern exposure

Name a dinosaur off the top of your head - T. rex, Diplodocus, Velociraptor, Triceratops - and chances are it's from North America or Asia. And that's true not only for us in the United States. Most of the world's best-known dinosaurs come from these comparatively well-researched continents. But it appears that dinosaurs were plentiful elsewhere as well. Carnegie Museum of Natural History paleontologist Matthew Lamanna has spent the past decade searching remote regions of Antarctica, Argentina, Australia and Egypt for the mysterious dinosaurs of Gondwana, the supercontinent that broke apart about 100 million years ago to form the continents of today's Southern Hemisphere. Fossilized bones of one of his team's latest discoveries - a nearly complete skeleton of a 70-million-year-old, 40-ton, long-necked Patagonian plant-eater called a titanosaur - have been brought to Pittsburgh for preparation in the museum's PaleoLab. This and other finds will help to decipher major events in the Earth's history: exactly how Gondwana broke apart and how this radically shifting geography influenced dinosaur evolution and extinction.

To learn more about paleontology at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, visit the museum's website at www.carnegiemnh.org.


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