BBC BLOGS - Today: Tom Feilden

Archives for January 2010

Colouring in the dinosaurs

Tom Feilden | 08:51 UK time, Thursday, 28 January 2010

Sinosauropteryx by Jim Robins Take a look at this artist's impression of Sinosauropteryx - a small flesh-eating therapod dinosaur dating from the early cretaceous period 125 million years ago.


It may surprise you to learn that this image is the first illustration of a dinosaur in which the colour the artist chose has been directly determined by evidence from the fossil record.

Until now the palette employed by artists like James Robins to bring long dead animals back to life - in everything from academic journals to children's books and films like Jurassic Park - has been based on guesswork. Educated guesswork, informed by our understanding of the natural world, but guesswork none the less.

All that has changed with the discovery of melanosomes in the fossil remains of Sinosauropteryx. Melanosomes are colour coding structures found in the feathers and hair of modern birds and mammals, and depending on their shape (from round through oval to sausage shaped) they produce black, grey and reddish brown tones. The absence of melanosomes gives you white.

Using a powerful electron microscope, palaeontologists at Bristol University have identified melanosomes in the fossilised remains of the spiny bristles - the precursors of feathers - running down the back of Sinosauropteryx.

From their shape professor Mike Benton says it's clear this dinosaur was quite a bright orange with distinctive white rings on its tail.

"There's a very clear line of feathers running down from the top of its head and along its back like a Mohican."

Professor Benton says the discovery will help us to "colour-in" a wide range of feathered and bristly dinosaurs, and to resolve a long-standing dispute about the original purpose of feathers.

"We know that feathers came before wings, so they didn't originate as flight structures" he says, "We suggest that feathers first arose as agents for colourful display. Only later in their evolutionary history did they become useful for flight."

Sadly, melanosomes don't tell the whole story. Other structures are responsible for different colours, and they're not present at all in scales and skin. We may never know if feathered dinosaurs were as colourful as many modern birds, and the discovery tells us nothing about the palette employed by the giant sauropods like Diplodocus and Brachiosaurus.

On the other hand, the children's laureate Anthony Browne is free to carry on using his imagination as he sees fit.

 Children's Laureate Anthony Browne's orange dinosaur

When E.T. comes calling

Tom Feilden | 11:32 UK time, Monday, 25 January 2010

The Monster Of Peladon from Dr Who You could be forgiven for thinking that a two-day conference entitled Is There Anybody Out There? and featuring debates on how to handle First Contact, and what aliens might look like, would be attended by some pretty strange individuals - probably wearing a good deal of silver latex and blue make up.

But you'd be wrong. The two-day conference that kicks off in London today has been organised by the Royal Society and features some of the leading international figures from the fields of astronomy, astrophysics and biology.

The discovery of hundreds (the current total stands at 424) of planets orbiting far off stars has brought the prospect of finding life elsewhere in the universe tantalisingly close.

According to Dr Alan Boss, author of The Crowded Universe, there are almost certainly billions of habitable planets in our galaxy alone.

He bases that calculation on mathematical modelling of the processes of planetary formation - something astronomers are confident they understand well - and then by multiplying the result by the number of sun-like stars. It's quite a leap, but even if he's way off, with hundreds of billions of stars to choose from the chances are still high.

"Most solar type stars are going to have something earth-like orbiting around them, and a good fraction of those planets are going to be habitable. That is orbiting at a distance from their star where liquid water can exist at or near the surface."

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Whether there will be life on earth-like planets is, of course, still an open question. But it's incredible how quickly the debate has moved on from "if" there's life elsewhere in the universe to how we should deal with its discovery.

The professor of evolutionary palaeobiology at Cambridge, Simon Conway Morris, believes we should err on the side of caution. Alien life could be disconcertingly like life on earth, and that could be a problem because we don't have a great record when it comes to exploiting new territory.

Far more likely is the discovery that life exists in a more basic form - some sort of primitive bio-chemical goo. But even that will have a profound impact on the way we think about our place in the grand scheme of things, according to John Zarnecki - who has helped to organise today's event.

"We need to start thinking about the implications for society, for religion" he says, "If, or when, we find evidence of extra terrestrial intelligence".

Whatever form alien life takes, the geneticist Sean B. Carroll believes it will have Charles Darwin's fingerprints all over it.

"If life is a replicating form of whatever it may be, then there's going to be competition among individuals for resources. That competition is going to be won by the fittest in each generation. Darwinian principles will apply."

Some things it seems, death, taxes, evolution by natural selection, are simply universal.

A vision for the future of farming

Tom Feilden | 10:54 UK time, Tuesday, 5 January 2010

A cow

When Professor John Beddington took over as the Government's new chief scientific advisor in 2008 he chose food security - rather than climate change or stem cell research - as the subject of his first public pronouncement.

The world, he warned, was facing a "perfect storm" of interrelated and escalating problems including population growth, climate change, resource depletion, and environmental degradation. Food security was the elephant in the corner.

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Well the Government's response - in the shape of a wide ranging report Food 2030 - is published today, and offers nothing short of a vision for farming that puts the consumers at the heart of a strategy to make Britain a food superpower. Speaking on the programme this morning the secretary of State for the Environment Hilary Benn said:

"We've got to produce more food, we've got to do it sustainably, and we've got to make sure that the food we eat safeguards our health".

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Stirring stuff, and behind the scenes Food 2030 is being talked-up as the kind of "big idea" to rival the post-war Labour Government's 1947 Agriculture Act - which ushered in a new era of intensive agriculture.

But the bottom line is that farmers are being asked to produce more, from less. More and better food to feed a growing population and tackle health concerns like obesity, but with fewer inputs and less use of precious resources like water and energy to ensure we don't wreck the environment or despoil the countryside in the process.

And how are they going to do that? Well, the report is a little thin on the detail, but the main thrust seems to involve getting more from the science, encouraging people to eat more healthily, cutting red tape and reducing waste.

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