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What is a fossil? How do scientists determine dinosaurs' colors? And why did one man pay $10,000 for a piece of counterfeit feces? In this episode of The List Show, Erin answers those questions and more as she discusses 26 Facts About Fossils.

Lovers of dinosaur facts and paleontologists-in-training will want to watch. This episode, filmed inside The Big Bone Room at the American Museum of Natural History, features insider info from Senior Museum Specialist Carl Mehling and enough giant penguins to fill out a basketball team (and, possibly, your nightmares).

In case you forgot, The List Show is a trivia-tastic, fact-filled show for curious people. Subscribe here for new List Show episodes the first and third Wednesday of each month: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCpZ5qUqpW4hW4zdfuBxMSJA?sub_confirmation=1


For more fossil fun and dinosaur facts, check out article, The 10 Coolest Dinosaur Discoveries of 2014: https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/60851/10-coolest-dinosaur-discoveries-2014


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Did you know that parrots used to be three feet tall?

Hi, I'm Erin McCarthy, editor-in-chief of MentalFloss.com. In 2019, a paper published in the journal Biology Letters described the fossil of a parrot that lived somewhere around 16 to 19 million years ago.

The bones were originally found in 2008 but they were misidentified as an eagle because, you know, no one assumed there'd be a parrot that big. The bird, believed to be about 15 pounds, is now affectionately referred to as Squawkzilla. And that's just the first of many facts about fossils that I'm going to share with you today.

You may have noticed that we're not in the studio today. We're in the big bone room at the American Museum of Natural History, where more than a thousand fossil bones are stored. Which brings me to my next fact: only two hundredths of a percent of the museum's roughly 462,000 vertebrate fossils are on public display.

Most of them are stored in behind-the-scenes areas like this and used for research purposes by paleontologists around the world. I'm here with Carl Mehling, senior museum specialist at AMNH, and he's brought one of his favorite specimens to show us. This is the beak bone of a triceratops from about 66 million years ago.

It might not be obvious, but a beak is a growing tissue and needs to be supplied with blood during the life of the animal. And the rough surface shows the vascularization, or where the blood vessels were that were underneath the beak, that fed the living tissue of the growing beak. So that's how it was oriented in life on the upper beak and we call it the rostral bone.

Fossils are generally defined as the preserved remains, traces or imprints of an organism. The common definition also requires that it be ten thousand years or older. When we think of fossils most of us probably picture animal bones or teeth.

These are known as body fossils. But there are also trace fossils, which are evidence of an animal's behavior– things like footprints nests and even poop. Shout-out to YouTube commenter amtra1778 for knowing about trace fossils.

The word fossil can be traced to the Latin term fossus which means "dug up." That was also fossil's original meaning when it emerged around the 1600s. It began to mean preserved remains in 1736. It's not always easy to determine what a fossil used to be.

Microfossils are fossils of bacteria or pollen or other things that you can't study with the naked eye. In 2017, paleobiologist J. William Schopf and a team published a paper about the microfossil microbes that he found in the early 90s.

Schopf claimed these rocks showed evidence of microbes from 3.46 billion years ago, which would have made them, at that time, some of the oldest fossils ever found. Not everyone was convinced. Some said the so-called fossils were just minerals that happen to look like biological specimens.

Schopf and his collaborators worked for almost 25 years to prove that the rocks contained the right carbon isotopes to have once been microbes and their 2017 paper provided what some in the field felt was compelling evidence, using Raman spectroscopy to analyze the specimens in question. Skeptics remain, though, including scientist Dave Wacey, who had issues with both the accuracy of the methods Schopf used and with the peer review process which led to the paper's publication. Wacey, for his part, was part of the team that discovered evidence for a different microfossil that once claimed the title of the oldest discovered fossil.

It's not unusual for this kind of work to take a long time. In fact, even procuring the fossils can feel endless. For example, in 1989 William Zinsmeister found the fossil of an estimated 15 ton 40-foot long elasmosaur, which is a plesiosaur that basically looks like a sea monster.

But he found it on Seymour Island in the Antarctic, and as you might imagine excavating in the Antarctic isn't easy. Teams could only work for a few weeks out of the year, and only when they had the financial resources. Excavation wasn't complete until 2017.

But lest you think fossil finding is a modern phenomenon, humans have been discovering and using them since very early in our history. At least one member of the Homo heidelbergensis species— one of our ancestors from hundreds of thousands of years ago—created an axe that prominently featured a fossilized sea urchin. People found fossils throughout history and didn't really know what they were, which might help explain some ancient mythology.

The ancient Greeks believed in Cyclopes. One popular explanation why? Around that area ancient elephants once roamed.

The empty space in their skull where the trunk would go, when found by an ancient person, might have looked like the perfect spot for a single eye. There are many stories of people finding the large bones from creatures like mammoths and interpreting them as having once belonged to giant humans. In 1712, Puritan Minister Cotton Mather—of Salem witch trial fame—stated in a letter to the Royal Society of London that parts of a mastodon skeleton were evidence that there were giants in the Americas, and that those giants were taken out by the flood described in the Bible.

People eventually started figuring fossils out, though. The first identified dinosaur fossil belonged to a Megalosaurus. An array of its bones, including a large lower jawbone, were found around 1815, but it wasn't until 1824 that William Buckland published an article describing their previous owner as a reptile or quote "great fossil lizard." A few decades later an Archaeopteryx fossil was found, which contained both feathers and teeth— an unusual combination.

Thomas Henry Huxley, certainly inspired by Charles Darwin's recently published On The Origin of Species, was the first to claim that dinosaurs and birds were relatives. In 1985 this fossil made headlines again, when British astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle and five other scientists claimed that the fossil—then sitting in the British Museum of Natural —was a fake, that the feathers were pressed into the stone in modern times. The museum has since proven those accusations false.

Because this fossil was preserved inside limestone there are two matching halves to it. Technology can show that the halves are identical, which wouldn't be possible if it were man-made. It wasn't until 1996 that the fossil of a non-avian dinosaur was found with feathers.

This was Sinosauropteryx. The feather impressions, also called dinosaur fuzz, contain preserved melanosomes. which helps determine what colors certain dinosaurs were. Experts believe that Sinosauropteryx had a red and white tail.

They've also found that the Anchiornis had black and white feathers with some red on its head. The Ichthyosaur had dark skin. Unfortunately, this method can't be used for all dinosaurs.

Some colors, like yellow, are produced through different pathways and they're harder to identify. In 2019, paleontologists published a paper about the proverbial day the dinosaurs went extinct. Working in Hell Creek Formation, in North Dakota, they discovered fossils of fish which were part of the 75% of the Earth's plant and animal species wiped out that day.

Hell Creek is about two thousand miles from where the asteroid struck that caused this destruction, and yet the researchers claimed that it led to big enough waves in this particular River Valley that many fish became buried under sediment. Some even had rock, which had supposedly rained down from the sky, in their gills. This research isn't a sure thing, though, and some geologists argue that Hell.

Creek could have experienced these geological changes without it necessarily having to do with that asteroid. I mentioned trace fossils earlier, which are a great way to learn about how extinct animals behaved. Studying fossilized feces, also known as coprolite, is an important part of paleontology and some people are just fascinated by it.

For instance: in 2014 a collector bought a 40 inch copper light at an auction for over $10,000. That may have been a mistake. It came from a formation in Washington State where similar items have been studied and were actually just the mineral siderite.

And I have to say, if you're buying counterfeit poo for $10,000 it might be time to hand over the family credit card. This next blurb had some pretty hard to pronounce words, so we're gonna have Carl help us out. Sometimes fossil finders have a little fun with their discoveries.

In 1985, Australian scientists discovered the fossil of an ancient Python in. Riverslee, Queensland Australia which they named Monty Pythonoides Riversleigensis. Despite the apparent connection to the British comedy legends the official explanation for the name claimed that it was because quote it was found on a small hill or monti and was broadly like present-day pythons.

Hmm... Sadly for us comedy fans, it was later renamed Morelia Riversleighensis. Thanks, Carl!

In 2014, a species from 19 million years ago was discovered. It was a mammal related to the hippopotamus we know today, and it had large lips. So one of its discoverers, Ellen Miller, named it the Jaggermeryx naida, or Jagger's water nymph, after none other than Mick Jagger.

You've certainly heard of Lucy, who lived 3.2 million years ago and was found in 1974. At the time of her discovery she was the earliest and most complete skeleton of an ancient hominin. Donald Johansson was the first to see her bones in Ethiopia, and that night his team was listening to a Beatles cassette when one of them suggested her name, inspired by the song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.

For the record, we now have remains a much older hominins than Lucy. In 2018 we learned about an exciting mammalian relative that reproduced more like a reptile than a modern mammal. Researchers Ava Hoffman and Timothy Rowe found the skeleton of a K Wellesi that was buried with at least 38 offspring, which is considerably more than modern mammals have in a litter.

Thank goodness. Another exciting fill in the gap discovery was Panthera Blytheae in 2010. This was the skull of a big cat, a relative of the Snow Leopard, which showed that big cats actually lived around 6 million years ago—earlier than previous fossil evidence had indicated.

It also shows that big cats evolved in Asia, when it had been thought that they had evolved exclusively in Africa. Another interesting type of fossil is fossilized resin, or amber. In the 1990s scientists found a mosquito that had sucked on dinosaur blood, which they were able to use to extract dinosaur DNA and...just kidding— that's not the fact, that's the plot of Jurassic Park.

Anyway, many trees contain resin which can turn into fossils and when there are critters inside we can learn about their ancient lives, too. For instance, in 2017 a paper was published showing that ticks used to suck the blood of dinosaurs. Scientists already knew that ticks existed back then, but figured they went after other animals.

But fossilized amber was found containing a tick from 99 million years ago holding on to a dinosaur feather. Fossil records can demonstrate the incredible diversity of life on our planet, like the fact that some crocodile relatives were actually herbivores. A different crocodilian was only 20 inches long and so mammal like that it was named cat crocodile.

We need to get that Jurassic Park technology ASAP so I can adopt one of those cat crocodiles. I think I named it Sparkles. In 2011, construction worker Sean funk found the skeleton of a 110 million year old dinosaur at a work site in Alberta,.

Canada. This borealopelta was a victim of what experts call "bloat and float." The animal dies, which causes it to bloat with gases, then floats through the water until it loses that gas and sinks. But 1.5 tons of dinosaur sinking causes quite the disturbance, so this borealopelta got covered in sediment, preserving it amazingly.

The Bone Wars took place in the late 19th century. Many paleontologists were rushing to identify and name a bunch of dinosaur species, including, notably, Edward Cope and Othniel Marsh. Marsh named the Apatosaurus in 1877 and the Brontosaurus in 1879.

Then in 1903, paleontologist Elmer Riggs officially stated that this was the same genus, so the Brontosaurus was an Apatosaurus, because the first to be named keeps its name. But then in 2015 a 300-page study was published that examined 81 sauropods. Though it wasn't the original intention of the study, it concluded that the Apatosaurus and the.

Brontosaurus are indeed different enough to be considered separate animals. It claimed, amongst other differences, that the Brontosaurus has a higher, thinner neck. Not every paleontologist subscribes to this distinction, though.

Fun fact: as we were discussing the Bone Wars, Carl told us that AMNH actually houses the majority of Edward Cope specimens. This one is around 150 million years old and it's part of the pelvis. You know, the butt bone.

Finally, we started with a large bird so let's end with one. In 2018, a fossil of the crossvallia waiparensis was discovered in New Zealand. This prehistoric penguin lived between around 56 and 66 million years ago, and based on the skeleton researchers determined that it was about 5 foot 3 inches tall—which is taller than me.

The amazing thing? That doesn't even make it the tallest penguin predecessor in history. Palaeeudyptes klekowskii could have been 6 foot 5!

Now I can't stop thinking about a basketball team made up of penguins...and maybe we'll let Squawkzilla be the point guard. Our next episode is about things we learned in 2019. Leave your favorite scientific or historic discovery of the year in the comments for a chance to be featured in that episode.

That will go up on December 18th. Make sure to subscribe here so you don't miss it. We'll see you then!