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August 2014 Archives

Over the last 20 years quite a bit of evidence has accumulated indicating that at least some dinosaurs were feathered, much of it in the form of beautiful fossils from China. Up until now all the feathery dinos have been members of the carnivorous theropods, but this new paper by Godefroit et al (2014) extends that fluffiness in its description of a herbivorous dinosaur, Kulindadromeus zabakialicus. (The full paper is behind a paywall but the BBC offers a good general summary.)

It's now generally accepted that birds evolved from a theropod lineage (Michael Benton discusses the evolutionary changes that this entailed, here), although there is still debate around the origins of things like wings, feathers, and when birds/dinos first took to the air. Most people are probably familiar with at least the name of Archeopteryx, but since 1994 those Chinese fossils have shown us that many more theropods were feathered, and that feathers evolved well before the first bird-like creatures took to the air. Godefroit & his colleagues comment that

fully birdlike feathers orginated within Theropoda at least 50 million years before Archaeopteryx.

and there's even discussion around whether the fearsome T.rex may have been feathery/fuzzy.

But Kulindadromeus wasn't a theropod - it was a 'neornithischian' - an early member of the 'bird-hipped' dinosaurs, a group that includes Stegosaurus and Triceratops. (This nomenclature can get a bit confusing, especially when you consider that birds evolved from 'saurischian', or 'lizard-hipped' dinos.) And while it didn't have the sort of feathers that we're familiar with today, it did have a range of other structures in addition to the usual scales:

monofilaments around the head and the thorax, and more complex featherlike structures around the humerus [upper forelimb], the femur [thigh], and the tibia [lower leg].

It's early days yet. But if other ornithischians are found with  feathers, then then this would raise the possibility that the common ancestor of both dino groups also had some sort of feathery structures on its body, and would support the authors' suggestion that

feathers may thus have been present in the earliest dinosaurs.

In other words, feathers may well be much, much older than we've thought.

 

P.Godefroit, S.M.Sinitsa, D.Dhouailly, Y.L.Bolotsky, A.V.Sizov, M.E.McNamaram M.J.Benton & P.Spagna (2014) A Jurassic ornithischian dinosaur from Siberia with both feathers and scales. Science 345: 451-455 . doi: 1126/science.1253351

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Over on Sciblogs, Siouxsie Wiles has been writing about the spread of an Ebola virus outbreak in west Africa (here  here, for example). It's alarming stuff: a virus with a high mortality rate, in combination with the potential for infected people to travel more widely than in the past before succumbing.

Sadly, it didn't take long for the pedlars of pseudoscientific nonsense to get on the bandwagon. First it was homeopathy (apparently homeopathic concentrations of rattlesnake venom and other 'remedies' will do the trick - I wonder how they found that out?) In his blog post on this, Orac has commented

You know what they call an Ebola victim foolish enough to use these five homeopathic remedies in the hope of curing their disease? Almost certainly dead, that's what!

Indeed. 

And then there's this. I should really give that page to my first-year bio students & see what they make of it: they'd certainly pick up on the author's statement that our cells have walls! What's more:

It's impossible for a virus to live in the presence of pure, unadulterated cinnamon oil, so getting that oil into our bloodstreams to create an environment hostile to the virus is important.

Viruses are only active within living cells, and I'm fairly confident in saying that our own cells can't live in "pure, unadulterated cinnamon oil" either. (I do want to know, though, why the author feels that one must anoint one's feet with the stuff!)

However, the page does have references, and we're urged to read them, so let's look at those sources to see if they back up the claims being made for cinnamon oil. There are "13 studies on cinnamon oil and viruses" from PubMed, for example, as well as a couple of in vitro studies. 

Well yes, yes, there are - but I doubt the page's author actually read them, despite asking their readers to check the links. For several references of that PubMed list are for various studies that used LEC (Long-Evans Cinnamon) rats, while others are discussing avian flu in a range of waterfowl that includes cinnamon teal - nothing to do with using an essential oil against viruses! Of the remainder, one is a study of herbal medicines that include cinnamon bark (not oil); one looks at the efficacy of a range of traditional medicines (again, including cinnamon bark) on baculovirus in silkworms; two others look at using flavonoids (hint: not oils) from cinnamon as a potential drug in fighting HIV. 

I will confess to being underwhelmed. And concerned that anyone might take this stuff seriously.

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