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The discovery of Homo naledi, a new species of hominin (the group encompassing modern humans, extinct human species, and all close human ancestors) was announced in September 2015. Found in a deep, nearly inaccessible cave system, this was the largest concentration of hominin bones ever found in Africa. The unusual distribution of bones suggested symbolic behaviour (e.g., deliberate placement by other H. naledi). The find attracted global media attention, including a feature in National Geographic. This discovery had such an impact that it was easily identified as one of the top 10 science discoveries of 2015 by numerous news outlets. The deposits, however, remain undated, leaving their evolutionary significance uncertain – were they a direct human ancestor or another branch on the family tree?

In the last talk of the 2017 Speaker Series, Dr. Eric Roberts, Associate Professor and Head of Geosciences, James Cook University, Queensland, Australia, presents an overview of the discovery of the site and discusses the efforts that went into unravelling the complex geological context of the cave system. He finishes with an overview of his team’s efforts and progress over the last two years at dating the fossils and refining our understanding of this important new hominin locality.

Alberta is home to six native species of snakes. They include the venomous prairie rattlesnake, the bull snake (that can grow up to two metres long), and the western hog-nosed snake that rolls over and plays dead when frightened. Snakes are feared and misunderstood by most of the human population and this can lead to their persecution and destruction. All of Alberta’s snakes are protected by provincial law, but this still does not stop some people from intentionally killing them, turning them into pets, or selling live ones.

Officer Zimmer spent several years working in snake country in the southeast corner of the province both protecting snakes and dealing with snake issues. In his presentation, he talks about identifying native snakes, how to prevent encounters, and protect native snake habitat. He also provides tips on what to do if you’re bitten by a snake.

The actinopterygians, or ray-finned fishes, are a substantial and significant component of modern vertebrate (animals with backbones) diversity. Ray-finned fishes are bony and have paired fins that are supported by rays (the actinosts) that insert directly in the body. Examples of modern ray-finned fishes include trout, eels, and bettas. Despite their prevalence today, the early evolution of this group is poorly understood compared to other major groups, driven by a lack of informative fossil data.

In his talk, Conrad Wilson explains how recent work on Early Carboniferous fossil sites from Nova Scotia and around the world provide new insight into the evolution of this group and how the development of the modern vertebrates may have been influenced by the mass extinction at the end of the Devonian Period (419 – 359 million years ago).

The Ediacaran Period of Earth’s history lasted from 635 to 541 million years ago and represents an important and exciting step in the evolution of life on Earth. The Ediacaran is of great interest to scientists because it is the period during which life transitioned from microscopic single cells, too small to see with the naked eye, into large and complex multicellular organisms, similar to those that inhabit much of the world today.

The Ediacaran period was only officially accepted in 2004 and as such there are many big questions that are still being debated, such as what these organisms are most closely related to, and why they disappeared.

In her talk, Calla Carbone, Royal Tyrrell Museum technician, explores the new discoveries constantly being made, which allow us to piece together the morphologies and behaviours of these enigmatic creatures, and ultimately the earliest evolution of animals.

The Royal Tyrrell Museum’s Speaker Series talks are free and open to the public. For more information, visit tyrrellmuseum.com.

 

In June of 2015, the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology revealed a new species of horned dinosaur named Regaliceratops peterhewsi, meaning ‘royal horned face,’ a discovery that turned out to be one of the most exciting dinosaur stories of 2015. The dinosaur, a member of the Ceratopsidae family, is notably different from other known relatives in both the size and shape of the horns on its face and a distinctive, crown-like frill at the back of its skull. The beaked, herbivorous dinosaur dates from the Cretaceous Period, a time that saw the highest diversity of ceratopsian dinosaurs. Nicknamed “Hellboy” due to the combination of difficult excavation conditions and hardness of the rock surrounding the skull, this specimen has provided exciting new information about the evolution of horned dinosaurs.

This talk highlights the story behind the discovery and preparation of the skull and illustrates the process involved with the description and naming of this new species. The talk also shows why the horns and frill of this new animal were so surprising, and what this means for the pattern of evolution of the horns and frill in the Ceratopsidae.

The Royal Tyrrell Museum’s Speaker Series talks are free and open to the public. The series will be held every Thursday until April 30, 2015 at 11:00 a.m. in the Museum auditorium.

Speaker Series 2016: “Over the Heads of Dinosaurs – Pterosaurs!”

Pterosaurs (“winged reptiles”) appeared at the same time as the first dinosaurs, about 230 million years ago, and went extinct with the last of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago. Pterosaurs first appear in the fossil record as fully-evolved, specialized, flying animals, so their evolutionary origins are still a bit of a mystery. They ranged from the size of a sparrow all the way up to the largest flying animals known with wingspans of 10-12 metres. They were the first backboned animals to evolve active, powered, flapping flight, and did so many tens of millions of years before birds, and 170 million years before bats. Pterosaurs have been known for over 215 years (longer than for dinosaurs), but their skeletons are very delicate and their fossils are extremely rare. Most of what we know about pterosaurs comes from just a few sites scattered across the world where exceptional preservation of many individuals, soft-tissues such as skin and “fuzz,” or  three-dimensional skeletons give us detailed views of just a  few hundreds of thousands of years out of the 160 million years that pterosaurs lived.

This presentation by the Museum’s own Dr. Donald Henderson, Curator of Dinosaurs, introduces pterosaurs and highlights many of their exceptional fossils that have been found in the past twenty years, and explains how our understanding of these mysterious animals has dramatically improved over this short time.

Speaker Series 2015:  “The Role of Beringia in the Global Dispersal of Modern Humans”

Beringia is a geographic area that surrounds the Bering Strait, Chukchi Sea, and Bering Sea, and includes parts of Russia and Alaska. It is most famous for being the location of an ancient land bridge that connected Asia with North America at various times during the Pleistocene ice ages.  Although modern humans occupied western Beringia before the beginning of the Last Glacial Maximum, as part of a broader colonization of northern Eurasia that began 50,000–45,000 years ago, they were forced into areas of isolation (refugia) in central Beringia at the onset of the Last Glacial Maximum some 30,000 years ago.

In his talk, Dr. Hoffecker discusses the “Beringian Standstill Hypothesis,” an idea that proposes that when climates warmed and coastal and interior ice sheets in North America retreated, the western hemisphere was rapidly settled by people that occupied these refugia, and who had been genetically isolated for thousands of years.

 

The Royal Tyrrell Museum’s Speaker Series talks are free and held every Thursday from January to April 2015 at 11:00 a.m. in the Museum auditorium. Please visit the website for more information about upcoming speakers.

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