A Young Paleontologist Goes Viral

Hello! It’s been a long year since you heard from me. Since you heard from me last, I moved to a new city (Boston!), had a baby (who now turned 1 year old), started a new job (Suffolk University!), bought a house (#adulting) and moved again. I’m finally able to make time for DrNeurosaurus again, so hopefully I still have some readers out there.

We’ve missed a lot of great news in the past year:

  • Baby pterosaurus, or [‘flaplings’] were probably able to fly
  • [Feathers] evolved way earlier than we had imagined
  • The head of a [wolf] was found in Siberia dating to 30,000 years ago, and it almost looks like it could be sleeping
  • A new bat-winged dinosaur: [Ambopteryx]
  • And many more!

Sadly I don’t have the time to review all of these, so instead today we’re going to talk about a young paleontologist from India.

Aswatha with a fossil. From The Better India (linked below)

She recently went viral on social media as the youngest paleontologist from India, so you may have heard of her. Her name is Aswatha Biju and she’s just 12 years old. At 5 years old, she saw a picture of an ammonite in an encyclopedia and her interest in paleontology took off. Her parents brought her to the [Egmore Museumwhere she could see ammonites and other fossils and she kept wanting to go back.

Aswatha giving a lecture. From The Better India (linked below)

From there, she started learning more about fossils and paleontology. She visited places where she could collect fossils and now has over 70! She’s become such an expert in Indian paleontology that she’s been invited to give seminars at schools and universities. Aswatha is well on her way to becoming one of the most knowledgeable paleontologists about Indian fossils. 

You can read more about her story at [The Better India].


Hello friends. Instead of a new paper this week, I’m going to give you a couple of updates.

First, back in November, I started a series of posts about women in paleontology. Since then, once a month, I’ve posted a biography about a woman paleontologist. However, since my book on the same topic got funded in March, I will reserve those stories for the book. Once the book is published, I will probably continue with the series. Until then, please check out [TrowelBlazers] for biographies about women in anthropology, geology, and paleontology (also on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr). And for updates on the book, look for the new tab at the top of the page (She Found Fossils), coming later this week.

Second, summer has arrived! In addition to the book project, field work is happening, and paleontology news slows down a bit. Because of that, I’m going to be posting every other week instead of every week. Unless something big gets published, in which case there will be a timely post.

Thank you for your continued support!
– DrNeurosaurus

Diets and DNA

This week an [article] was published that examined the teeth of Homo neanderthalensis: the Neanderthal. Neanderthals and humans (Homo sapiens – us) both lived in Europe for approximately 5000 years. They evolved at different times and look different. Neanderthals were shorter and stockier, whereas humans are taller and lankier. Neanderthals evolved to deal with colder weather. They had brow ridges, smaller chins, larger noses, thicker bones, and wider chests. There are many ideas as to why they went extinct, which I won’t discuss here.

Neanderthal man versus a human man showing the differences in their body proportions. From dreamstime stock images.

This new study analyzed the dental plaque (the gunk on your teeth that the dentist cleans off) on 4 individual Neanderthals, 2 from Spain and 2 from Belgium. The authors analyzed the plaque for all sorts of DNA. Since Neanderthals probably didn’t brush their teeth, this dental plaque contained bits of DNA from everything they ate. By analyzing it, we can understand what they were eating.

A neanderthal skull. From Wikipedia.

What they found is that the individuals from Belgium ate sheep, rhinoceros, and mushrooms. The individuals from Spain ate mushrooms, pine nuts, forest moss, and poplar. This shows that Neanderthals took advantage of whatever food they came across and that their diet was different in each environment. One of the individuals from Spain may have also been treating a dental abscess (a tooth infection). How, you ask? This individual was the only one who had traces of poplar, a natural source of salicylic acid (a pain killer), and Penicillin (an antibiotic) from moldy plant material.

Neanderthal diets in each location. Sheep, rhinoceras, and grey shag mushrooms in Belgium. Pine nuts, split gill mushrooms, moss, and poplar in Spain. Maps from Google, images from Wikipedia, PFAF.org, mushroomobserver.org, Iowa State University, and NHMPL.

Lastly, the authors found one species of archaea (a group of microorganisms) that is present in both humans and Neanderthals. The interesting thing is that this species permanently split into two species (one for humans, one for Neanderthals) around 143-112 thousand years ago. Humans and Neanderthals split from each other around 750-450 thousand years ago, so this species of archaea was being transferred between humans and Neanderthals long after they evolved. This tells us that humans and Neanderthals were sharing food, maybe kissing, or interacting in some other way that led to the transfer of spit between species.

A neanderthal possibly thinking about dinner. From AFP/Getty images.

And if you haven’t checked out our [kickstarter] yet, what are you waiting for? It’s to fund the publication of an amazing children’s book called She Found Fossils, filled with stories of women paleontologists from history, present day, and up-and-coming students. It will be published in English and Spanish.

Mary Anning, drawn by Amy Gardiner.

The Fish that Lived

Marjorie Courtenay Latimer was born on February 24, 1907 in East London, South Africa. Her parent (I assume her father) was a station master for South Africa Railways. Marjorie always loved nature. When she was 11 she decided that she would be an expert on birds.

She started school at Holy Cross Convent, where her love for natural history grew. One of the sister’s there has a collection of fossil fish that fascinated Marjorie. When she finished school, there did not seem to be jobs in natural science, so she was going to become a nurse. Fortunately, the East London Museum was looking for a curator in 1931 and Marjorie took the job. She was 24 at the time.

Marjorie Courtenay Latimer. Photo from PBS.

When she started there, the museum’s collection only had a few birds, a pig, and some photos, so Marjorie quickly began collecting everything she could from places she visited. She even included her mother’s beadwork collection dating back to 1858 and her aunt’s dodo egg! She collected fossils from nearby field sites as well.

Her most important contribution came in 1938 when a call came in from the docks saying that a ship had come in with a strange fish. She rushed to the docks and picked off the slime. She revealed the most beautiful fish she had ever seen, “It was a pale mauvy blue, with faint flecks of whitish spots; it had an iridescent silver-blue-green sheen all over. It was covered in hard scales, and it had four limb-like fins and a strange puppy-dog tail.”

A coelacanth. Photo from National Geographic.

She sent a description and a sketch to a nearby ichthyologist (a fish expert), James Smith. He was stunned! This fish was a coelacanth – a fish that had been extinct for almost 70 million years. These fish were still alive! He excitedly wrote her back for more information. He named the fish Latimeria chalumnae after Marjorie and the location where the fish was caught. It took another 14 years before a second coelacanth was found, this time near Madagascar in 1952.

The sketch Marjorie sent to James. Image from PBS.

Marjorie retired from the museum and received an honorary doctorate from Rhodes University 1973. She lived the rest of her days loving natural history in all its forms.

And if you like posts like this one, stay tuned for an important announcement later in the week!

The Dinosaur Lady

Joan Wiffen was born in 1922 in New Zealand. Her father thought education was wasted on girls, so Joan didn’t get to go to high school. When she grew up, she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Airforce during World War II.

Joan got married in 1953. After a time, her husband signed up to take a geology class, but got sick and couldn’t go. Joan eagerly took his spot in the class, remembering her love of fossils as a child. She saw on a geologic map that a nearby valley had ‘old reptilian bones’ and went out fossil hunting near her house. In 1975, she found a fossil! She knew it was a vertebra, part of the backbone of an animal, but didn’t know from what animal.

A replica of the vertebra Joan found. Photo by Marianna Terezow/GNS Science.

In 1979 she went on vacation to Australia and visited the Queensland Museum. She met Ralph Monar, a paleontologist there and noticed a familiar looking bone on his desk. It was a vertebra exactly like the one she had found! He told her it was part of a dinosaur tail. She had found the first dinosaur fossil from New Zealand!

Joan Wiffen at the site where she found her first fossils. Photo by NZPA/John Cowpland.

Ralph and Joan worked together on many projects and published dozens of papers. Because of Joan’s hard work, she was known as the Dinosaur Lady. Even though Joan had not gone to school, she received an honorary doctorate from the Massey University of New Zealand in 1994. She also received a special award from the Queen.

Who Discovered the Iguanodon?

If you remember our post last month about [Mary Anning], today’s post describes the discovery by a woman who lived at the same time and in the same country – Mary Ann Woodhouse.


A portrait of Mary Ann Mantell. From Wikipedia.

Mary Ann was born in 1799 in England. She married a doctor (Gideon Mantell) in her early 20s and took his last name, becoming Mary Ann Mantell. She would accompany him to visit patients. On one of these occasions, she was waiting outside and went to examine the gravel on a recently paved road. Among the gravel she found large teeth (but see note below)!


One of the teeth that Mary Ann found. Photo from the Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand.

She showed them to Gideon, who was also an amateur paleontologist. Realizing that the teeth belonged to something new, he consulted well known paleontologists at the time to discover that these teeth belonged to a large, ancient herbivore. He named the dinosaur Iguanodon (for “Iguana tooth”) and went on to publish a book about this and other fossils of the area with the help of Mary Ann who illustrated all of the fossils.


Mary Ann’s illustration of the teeth. From Wikipedia.


Note: Even though Mary Ann did make the illustrations for the book, her discovery of the teeth is debated. Once I do more research, I’ll edit this post accordingly.

She Sells Sea Shells by the Sea Shore

This week, I’m going to tell you about Mary Anning, the first well-known woman paleontologist, and the one whose story inspired “She Sells Sea Shells by the Sea Shore”.

Mary was born in 1799 in Lyme Regis, England, which is a coastal town. The coast by Lyme Regis has a cliff with rocks from the Jurassic Period (around 200 million years ago).


Map of Lyme Regis, England.

When Mary was 15-months old she was struck by lightning and survived, leading the townspeople to think of her as a miracle child. She learned to read and write at her local school, but beyond that her education was very limited.

She lived with her parents, Richard and Molly, and older brother, Joseph. Her father made furniture and supplemented their income by going to the coast to find fossils, which he would sell to tourists. He often brought Joseph and Mary with him to find fossils along the beach. When her father died in 1810, Mary continued to hunt for fossils to provide money for her family. Together with her brother, Mary found the skeleton of an ichthyosaur on the beach. They sold it and eventually it ended up in the British Museum.


The ichthyosaur that Joseph and Mary Anning discovered as children.

Mary would go down to the beach with her dog, Tray, and look for ammonites, belemnites, vertebrae and other fossils. She’d take them home and clean them up, and in the afternoons, she’d sell her finds by the town road.


A portrait of Mary with her dog, Tray.

Eventually she made enough to open her own shop. Her finds were so good that they attracted the attention of known scientists. She found the first British specimen of a pterosaur and the first complete plesiosaur. She dissected modern squids and fish in order to better understand the animals she was finding.


Mary’s illustration and notes on the plesiosaur she discovered.

Even though she was not allowed to join the new Geological Society of London (no women were allowed to join at that time), many of her finds and research was presented there through the men she’d sell her fossils to. Often, they would not credit her at all. As her reputation grew, her scientist friends started adopting her ideas more readily. However, times were often tough for Mary, as it was hard for her to earn money. Her geologist friends, Henry de la Beche and William Buckland helped her through these moments. William even convinced the British Association for the Advancement of Science to provide her with an annual pension for her impressive work.

Mary died of breast cancer at a young age in 1847, but had a tremendous impact on paleontology. Because of her, we know that the stones in the guts of ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs are actually fossilized feces (called cololites).


Cololites are feces preserved in the body. Coprolites, depicted here by William Buckland (1835), are feces preserved outside the body.

Mary started with very little in life, and even though she had only a few years of formal education, she worked every day to learn something new, find more fossils, and share her work with others.

A New Series

This week, I am going to do something a little bit different. Instead of talking about the latest paleontology news, I want to take a minute to talk about a subject very important to me: creating a supportive environment for women and underrepresented groups in science.

Even though many young women are interested in pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and math, the proportion of women in full-time professorships in these careers remains notably small (24.3%*). Minorities make up an even smaller fraction of the full-time professorships (6.2%*).

I am a Hispanic woman (thus both a woman and a minority), and one of my career goals is to improve these numbers. One of the ways I’ve decided to do this is by joining forces with a colleague (Abby West) and an amazing artist (Amy Gardiner) to create a children’s book about Women in Paleontology! When Abby and I were growing up, we didn’t have any role models in paleontology that were women because the information was not out there. We want young women of all backgrounds to have a resource that inspires them to learn more about paleontology.

Not many people outside of paleontology realize how many women are actually in the field. This book will feature bios of women currently active in our field, talk about how they got interested in science and paleontology, and what they are researching. We will intentionally span the whole spectrum of paleontology careers (artists, professors, curators, preparators, etc.). It will also feature a history section – accurately portraying the discoveries of the first women paleontologists, featuring women like Mary Anning, Lousie Kellog, Tilly Edinger and so many more.

The purpose of this book is to show the diversity of research projects, ethnicities, interests, and paths to paleontology in a colorful and fun way that will encourage children to follow their dreams. The book will be published in both English and Spanish so that more children can read it.

We will be launching a kickstarter to fund this project early in 2017. Until then, I will be blogging about one of our featured women in paleontology once a month on this blog. If you want to be kept updated about the project, please sign up for our newsletter [here].


Famous portrait of Mary Anning and her dog, Tray.

*Statistics from National Science Foundation 2013