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Putting it all together

The dinosaurs of my youth are no longer dinosaurs - science now views the fossil remains in a different light. How difficult is it to recreate a creature from the fossil remains? And how often are the results overturned as new discovered come to light?

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Thanks for the question, Paul.

Some advances that put fossils in new light come partly from finding new specimens - these fill in gaps in time and space and evolutionary history. We'll always find new fossils that adjust our thinking about old ones.

Other advances come from new technologies, or new ways to use old technologies. CT scanning is a huge help that has changed the field since I've been born. It offers ways to look inside a skull and reconstruct the sinuses, blood and nerve pathways, and the shapes of the brain, among other things. So now we have enough of these scans that a bunch of paleontologists are studying the evolution of dinosaur brains. CT was a game changer because it allowed a whole new area of research (paleoneurology) to exist.

To answer the other part of your question: Science builds on previous ideas and evidence. It's rare that one piece of information overturns years or decades of previous evidence, but it happens. When you see a news report saying THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING WE KNEW ABOUT XYZ, that's almost always an overstatement or hype. Sometimes we do get a critical piece of evidence that puts everything else in context, or unlocks whole new areas of understanding. More often, evidence builds for a while and then later we can look back and go, man, we've come a long way in ten years.

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Perhaps the best thing about paleontology is that it continually highlights how little we know about our modern world. Work in paleoneurology, time after time, has shown gaps in our knowledge of modern brains and brain evolution (especially for non-humans). So, there is definitely some synergy there.

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Exactly. Amy Balanoff (NPR link above) and her colleagues Mark Norell and Eugenia Gold at the AMNH are interested in the changes that happened in the brain in the lineage leading up to birds - basically, how did the evolution of flight affect the evolution of the brain? To do that, you need to know a lot about what the brain is like in living birds, for example, which regions are the most important during flight. Do those regions increase in size or shape when birds first took off? Or did having a big brain enable birds to get off the ground in the first place?

Paleoanthropologists study the evolution of human brains, too, by scanning the skulls of human ancestors. The shape of the outside surface of the brain is similar to the shape of the inside surface of the skull, so you can learn a lot from these fossils. You can figure out if changes in posture or diet happen at the same time as changes in the brain, so this is a really active field.

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"Perhaps the best thing about paleontology is that it continually highlights how little we know about our modern world."

Word. I long lost count of the number of times I've been trying to figure out something about sauropods, and I ask "Well, how do extant animals do this?" and the answer turns out to be that no-one knows.

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Ask me anything journal club

- with Andy Farke and Sarah Werning

On November 13th Andy Farke and Sarah Werning will be here live to answer your questions. They recently published the now famous 'baby dinosaur' paper. We welcome anyone to ask them a question regarding this paper, paleontology in general or any other topic before, during, and after the event.

When: November 13, 2013 08:00 am PST

Where: Ask me anything - with Andy Farke and Sarah Werning