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Evolution expert honored by Texas Freedom Network

Evolutionary theory expert Ron Wetherington, an SMU professor of anthropology and director of the University’s Center for Teaching Excellence, has received the 2009 Grassroots Hero Award from the Texas Freedom Network (TFN). Wetherington will accept the award April 16 at a ceremony in Dallas.

TFN presents the award each year to “a dedicated individual who exemplifies our work to stand up for science.”

ron-wetherington-tfn-200.jpgWetherington’s research interests include population genetics, human paleontology, science pedagogy and the historical archaeology of the U.S. Southwest.

Within SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in human evolution and forensic anthropology, as well as a noncredit required course for departmental graduate students, “Learning to Teach – Teaching to Learn.”

Wetherington is the author of “Understanding Human Evolution” (West Publishing, 1992) and four other books on anthropology and archaeology.

The TFN award citation points to Wetherington’s service during 2008-09 as an expert reviewer appointed by the Texas State Board of Education to evaluate new science curriculum standards.

“Whether working behind the scenes to patiently educate board members or in front of the cameras making a vocal case for science standards free from creationist ideology, Dr. Wetherington has worked tirelessly to ensure Texas students have a rigorous science curriculum that will prepare them for the 21st century,” TFN states.

Related links:
Texas Freedom Network award
TFN: Experts charge conflict of interest
Department of Anthropology
Center for Teaching Excellence
Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences

Fossils & Ruins Plants & Animals Researcher news Student researchers

Discovery Channel: Dino young found safety in numbers

The work of SMU researchers Timothy Myers and Anthony Fiorillo was featured online March 19, 2009 on the Discovery Channel. “Mass Dino Graves Suggest Young Banded Together” by Jennifer Viegas highlighted findings being published in the April issue of “Science” magazine.


Lead author Timothy Myers, is a Ph.D. graduate student in SMU’s Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences in Dedman College.

Co-author Anthony Fiorillo is an adjunct professor in the Huffington Department of Earth Sciences and Curator of Paleontology for the Dallas Museum of Natural History.

Anthony Fiorillo


By Jennifer Viegas
Discovery News

New findings on mass dinosaur graves, where several juveniles died together, suggest that young dinosaurs banded together to improve their chances for survival, according to two new studies.

Together, two new studies present three gory ways in which the young dinosaur groups probably met their end: mud traps, droughts and predators.

Paul Sereno, a University of Chicago paleontologist, and his team studied the remains of a herd of more than 25 young, bird-like dinosaurs of the species Sinornithomimus dongi that died together 90 million years ago at what is now the Gobi Desert. …

Researchers Timothy Myers and Anthony Fiorillo of the Huffington Department of Earth Sciences at Southern Methodist University focused their attention on two other juvenile dinosaur fossil sites, which are described in a paper that will be published in next month’s Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology.

The first, at Mother’s Day Quarry in Montana, contains the remains of several young sauropods that died en masse during the Upper Jurassic. Skin impressions indicate soft tissue was still present when the animals were buried at the site.

“During droughts, modern animals tend to cluster around water sources,” Myers told Discovery News. “The herd of sauropods preserved at the Mother’s Day Quarry may have done the same.”

He and Fiorillo also studied the remains of three juvenile Alamosaurus sanjuanensis at the Upper Cretaceous site Big Bend in Texas. The minimally weathered bones suggest the young sauropods died together in a single event.

“Given their proximity to a lake shore, it’s possible that they succumbed to drought as well,” Myers said.

Read the full story at …

Related links:
Anthony Fiorillo faculty site
Anthony Fiorillo web site
Abstract: Evidence for gregarious behavior, age segregation in sauropod dinosaurs
SMU Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences
Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences

Fossils & Ruins Plants & Animals Researcher news

National Geographic: Rare fossil of pregnant whale is missing-link

Vertebrate paleontologist Louis L. Jacobs, a professor in Dedman College‘s Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences, is quoted in the February 3 online story “Early whales gave birth on land, fossils reveal” by National Geographic News Service.

Jacobs is known for his work documenting changes in fossil mammals in Pakistan, which helps scholars correlate climatic changes with evolutionary changes seen in animals, and which helps calibrate the rate of DNA evolution in mammals. He’s also credited for discovery of what’s now known as “Malawisaurus,” a plant-eating dinosaur that lived in Malawi, Africa, 115 million years ago.


By Tasha Eichenseher
National Geographic News

It’s an evolutionary discovery Darwin himself would have been proud of.

Forty-seven million years ago primitive whales gave birth on land, according to a study published this week that analyzes the fossil of a pregnant whale found in the Pakistani desert.

It is the first fetal fossil from the group of ancient amphibious whales called “Archaeoceti,” as well as the first from an extinct species called “Maiacetus inuus.”

When the fossil was discovered, nine years ago, University of Michigan paleontologist Philip Gingerich was thrown off by the jumble of adult and fetal-size bones.

“The first thing we found

[were] small teeth, then ribs going the wrong way,” Gingerich said. Later, “it was just astonishing to realize why the specimen in the field was so confusing.”

The head-first position of the fetus was especially telling.

Land mammals are generally born head first, and marine mammals are born tail first. …

Whales’ slow transition from land to sea is documented in other fossils, but this is the most complete to fill a gap during this time period…..

“This is a big discovery because it tells us about life history, or the way early whales lived their lives, [which is something] that is difficult to learn from fossils,” Gingerich said.

The most famous other seafaring animals to be found fossilized with a complete fetus were ichthyosaurs, a reptile group that lived roughly 245 to 100 million years ago.

“Not since have we seen fossils of marine-dwelling vertebrates that tell us so much about the biology of evolving an ocean dwelling way of life from a terrestrial ancestor,” said Louis Jacobs, a vertebrate paleontologist at Southern Methodist University in Texas.

“It is a missing link of the most informative sort,” Jacobs added.

“Charles Darwin would delight.”
Read the full story

Related links:
Natl Geo News: Early whales gave birth on land, fossils say
LiveScience story: Ancient whales gave birth on land Surprising whale discoveryvideo.jpg
Louis L. Jacobs
Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences
Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences

Culture, Society & Family Fossils & Ruins Researcher news Student researchers

Etruscan dig’s common objects are unprecedented finds

SMU’s Meadows Museum honors the 15th anniversary of University Distinguished Professor of Art History P. Gregory Warden‘s groundbreaking archaeological excavation in Poggio Colla, Italy with an exhibition dedicated to the Etruscans.

From the Temple and the Tomb: Etruscan Treasures From Tuscany” is the most comprehensive exhibition of Etruscan art ever undertaken in the United States, with more than 400 objects spanning the 9th through 2nd centuries B.C.

P. Gregory Warden at Poggio Collo

New Light on the Etruscans: Fifteen Years of Excavation at Poggio Colla” will offer a look into the rare and dramatic finds from this important Etruscan site.

The exhibit includes almost 100 objects from its sanctuary and from a habitation and center of ceramic production discovered in a field below its acropolis.

The excavation site spans more than 50 acres. It is the most extensive Etruscan settlement ever discovered and revealed a wealth of details about ordinary life of Etruscans, the ancestors of Rome.

Poggio Colla Field School trains students on an Etruscan site about 22 miles northeast of Florence in the scenic Mugello Valley.

The settlement on Poggio Colla spanned most of Etruscan history, from the seventh century until its destruction by the Romans at the beginning of the second century.

Students open new trenches the first week of 2008 field season.

The first 11 seasons of excavation have revealed at least three major construction phases, including an extraordinarily rich Orientalizing-Archaic phase that includes the remains of a monumental structure on the acropolis, and two later phases when the site was turned into a fortified stronghold.

Discoveries include 2,000-year-old pendant necklaces, gold hair ornaments, rings and semi-precious stones, and silver coins. The discoveries bring to life a largely forgotten people who, among other things, built the first cities in Italy and introduced Greek culture to the Romans.

Warden, co-director of the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project, says the gold discovery was significant because the riches were not buried in tombs.

“The discovery of these gold objects in this ordinary setting is unprecedented in Etruscan archaeology,” he says.

Student/staff member Rachel Julis
uncovering gold.

Etruscan civilization thrived for hundreds of years during the first millennium B.C., before assimilation by the Romans. Little is known of them because researchers have found only scattered ruins.

The gold found at the top of a hill overlooking the Poggio Colla settlement probably was used for religious ceremonies. Like many ancient cultures, the Etruscans were obsessed with symbols and rituals, and evidence says they used such rites and totems to maintain their rigid caste structure, which existed of a tiny elite, a huge slave population and a small serf class. The items found at Poggio Colla, meticulously placed and capped with temple stones, most likely were chosen to persuade — or appease — the gods.

Both exhibitions will run from January 25 to May 17. An opening reception for SMU faculty and staff is scheduled February 5 from 4:30 p.m.-6 p.m.

The shows join the Dallas Museum of Art’s blockbuster King Tut exhibit “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs” as part of a citywide celebration of ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean.

Gold pendants

Featured in “From the Temple and the Tomb” are an entire temple pediment — the terracotta decoration for the front of an Etruscan temple.

It will also include objects from Etruscan tombs, including sarcophagi, ash urns, guardian figures, and gold, silver, bronze, ivory and ceramic objects that were deposited in the tombs of the wealthy.

Also featured are several pieces of gold jewelry, created using techniques so advanced that they are difficult to reproduce today.

“From the Temple and the Tomb” is organized by the Meadows Museum in association with the Florence Archaeological Museum, Italy, the Italian Ministry of Culture, the Soprintendenza of Archaeology for Tuscany, and Centro Promozioni e Servizidi Arezzo. It was funded by a gift from The Meadows Foundation.

Related links:
WSJ: Etruscan treasures from Tuscany
USAToday: Ancient Etruscan treasures go on display in Dallas
Bryn Mawr Classical Review: Review of the exhibit
P. Gregory Warden
Meadows: “From the Temple and the Tomb”
Meadows: “New Light on the Etruscans”
Poggio Colla Field School
Student research projects
2008 field school student diaries
2008 field school directors’ diaries
Mugello Valley Region

Fossils & Ruins Plants & Animals Student researchers

Mistaken ID for official Texas state dinosaur; name to change

It’s a case of mistaken dino-identity. The official State Dinosaur of Texas is up for a new name, based on Southern Methodist University research that proved the titleholder has been misidentified.

State Rep. Charles Geren of Fort Worth filed a resolution January 7 to change the name of the state dinosaur from Pleurocoelus to Paluxysaurus jonesi to correctly name the massive sauropod whose tracks and bones litter the central Texas Jones Ranch.

Peter J. Rose is the scientist behind the name change: His master’s level study of dinosaur bones at SMU eventually led him to dispute the long-accepted notion that the large, sauropod bones found in and around the Paluxy River near Glen Rose, Texas, were the same as Pleurocoelus bones first found in Maryland in the late 1800s.

Rose determined it was a different dinosaur altogether — a previously unrecognized genus and species he named Paluxysaurus jonesi, after W.W. Jones, the owner of the land on which the fossils were found. Once Rose’s discovery was published in 2007, Pleurocelus’ grand Texas title no longer fit.

Geren filed his resolution on behalf of constituents at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, which is a partner with SMU in ongoing research at the Glen Rose site, about 60 miles southwest of Fort Worth. Aaron Pan, Ph.D., the museum’s curator of science, believes it’s crucial to get the record corrected.

“I think it’s going to be good for Texas paleontology and dinosaur research in general,” Pan said. “Peter Rose’s research has found that it is a new genus and a new species. This dinosaur is unique to Texas, and it is the most abundant dinosaur fossil found in the Glen Rose area.”


SMU geological sciences professor Louis L. Jacobs, who was Rose’s mentor, said that nobody before Rose had made an adequate study of the sauropod bones found at the Glen Rose site. Jacobs has described Texas as a kind of “free trade zone for the age of reptiles” since dinosaurs from three different geologic time periods have been found in three different geographic areas of the state. Paluxysaurus jonesi is believed to have lived 112 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period.

“It just goes to show that Texas is a great place to make great discoveries — even when you might think everything has been found,” Jacobs said.

Rose, 29, received his master’s degree in geological sciences from SMU in 2004. Currently pursuing a Ph.D. in paleontology at the University of Minnesota, he concedes he is excited about the proposal to change the state dinosaur’s name to correspond with his research.

“But when you come down to it, whether it’s a new species is not the big question. More important are some of the bigger picture ideas about how these organisms evolved and what they were doing when they were alive,” Rose said. “I hope the future work I do has some broader implications. Currently I’m doing more climate research with implications, I hope, for global climate change.”

Related links:
News-Journal: “Dino-right! Fix is in for misnamed Texas dinosaur”
DMN: “Legislature may make dinosaur official”
FW Biz Press: “Updated dino exhibit set for science museum” “U of M grad student discovers Texas state dino isn’t really”
Louis L. Jacobs
Fort Worth Museum of Science and History
Abstract: A New Titanosauriform Sauropod
DinoData: Paluxysaurus jonesi