The most recent example of this came from analysis of a fossil of Stenopterygius, an ichthyosaur that lived during the Jurassic Period (this particular fossil has been dated to about 180 million years ago). We usually think of fossils as preserving bones and teeth, and occasionally impressions of scales or skin or feathers -- but this one was so finely preserved that researchers have been able to make some shrewd inferences about color, metabolism, and the structure of soft tissues.
Artist's conception of Stenopterygius [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Nobu Tamura (http://spinops.blogspot.com), Stenopterygius BW, CC BY-SA 3.0]
We've known for a long time that ichthyosaurs are bizarre animals. They were streamlined predators that look remarkably like dolphins, although they are only distantly related (making the two groups a great example of convergent evolution). A number of them had an even stranger feature, which is the largest eye-diameter-to-body-size ratio of any animal known -- the well-named Ophthalmosaurus (Greek for "eye lizard") was six meters long and had eyes the size of basketballs.
Stenopterygius was a bit smaller, with an average adult size of four meters. But up until recently, all we've been able to do is speculate on what it might have looked like, and how it behaved. A discovery in Germany, described in a paper in Nature called "Soft-Tissue Evidence for Homeothermy and Crypsis in a Jurassic Ichthyosaur" and authored by no fewer than 23 scientists, has given us incredibly detailed information on these oddball dinosaurs.
The authors write:
Ichthyosaurs are extinct marine reptiles that display a notable external similarity to modern toothed whales. Here we show that this resemblance is more than skin deep. We apply a multidisciplinary experimental approach to characterize the cellular and molecular composition of integumental tissues in an exceptionally preserved specimen of the Early Jurassic ichthyosaur Stenopterygius. Our analyses recovered still-flexible remnants of the original scaleless skin, which comprises morphologically distinct epidermal and dermal layers. These are underlain by insulating blubber that would have augmented streamlining, buoyancy and homeothermy. Additionally, we identify endogenous proteinaceous and lipid constituents, together with keratinocytes and branched melanophores that contain eumelanin pigment. Distributional variation of melanophores across the body suggests countershading, possibly enhanced by physiological adjustments of colour to enable photoprotection, concealment and/or thermoregulation. Convergence of ichthyosaurs with extant marine amniotes thus extends to the ultrastructural and molecular levels, reflecting the omnipresent constraints of their shared adaptation to pelagic life.So from a 180-million-year-old fossil, we now know that Stenopterygius (1) was a homeotherm (colloquially called "warm-blooded"), (2) had a blubber layer much like modern dolphins and whales, and (3) were countershaded -- dark on top and light underneath, to aid camouflage -- similar to dozens of species of modern fish.
This level of preservation is extremely unusual. "Both the contour of the body and the remains of internal organs are clearly visible," said paleontologist Johan Lindgren of the University of Lund, who co-authored the paper. "Surprisingly, the fossil is so well preserved that it is possible to observe individual cell layers inside the skin."
"This is the first direct chemical evidence of warm blood in an ichthyosaur, because a subcutaneous fat layer is a characteristic of warm-blooded animals," said Mary Schweitzer of North Carolina State University, also a co-author. "Ichthyosaurs are interesting because they have many features in common with dolphins, but they are not related at all to these mammals that inhabit the sea. But the enigma does not stop there... They have many characteristics in common with living marine reptiles, such as sea turtles; but we know from the fossil record that they gave live birth to their young... This study reveals some of those biological mysteries."
Which is pretty astonishing. I've always had a fascination for the prehistoric world, and have spent more time than I like to admit wondering what it might have been like to live in the Jurassic world. This research gives us one more piece of information -- about a fierce prehistoric predator that shared some amazing similarities to creatures that still swim in our oceans.
One of the best books I've read recently is Alan Weisman's The World Without Us. I wouldn't say it's cheerful, however. But what Weisman does is to look at what would happen if the human race was to disappear -- how long it would take for our creations to break down, for nature to reassert itself, for the damage we've done to be healed.
The book is full of eye-openers. First, his prediction is that within 24 hours of the power going out, the New York Subways would fill with water -- once the pumps go out, they'd become underwater caves. Not long thereafter, the water would eat away at the underpinnings of the roads, and roads would start caving in, before long returning Manhattan to what it was before the Europeans arrived, a swampy island crisscrossed by rivers. Farms, including the huge industrial farms of the Midwest, would be equally quick; cultivated varieties of wheat and corn would, Weisman says, last only three or four years before being replaced by hardier species, and the land would gradually return to nature (albeit changed by the introduction of highly competitive exotic species that were introduced by us, accidentally or deliberately).
Other places, however, would not rebound quickly. Or ever. Nuclear reactor sites would become uninhabitable for enough time that they might as well be considered a permanent loss. Sites contaminated by heavy metals and non-biodegradable poisons (like dioxins) also would be, although with these there's the possibility of organisms evolving to tolerate, or even break down, the toxins. (No such hope with radioactivity, unfortunately.)
But despite the dark parts it's a good read, and puts into perspective the effect we've had on the Earth -- and makes even more urgent the case that we need to put the brakes on environmental damage before something really does take our species out for good.