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Fossil Rises From its Grave 192

gokulpod writes "Scientific American reports that a family of animals known as Diatomyidae thought to have been dead for 11 million years has been discovered in Laos. From the article: 'Fossilized remnants of this group have been found throughout Asia with a distinctive jaw structure and molars. It represents a rare opportunity to compare assumptions derived from the fossil record and an actual living specimen to determine overall accuracy of the techniques involved. This discovery also provides a compelling argument for preservation efforts in Southeast Asia.'"
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Fossil Rises From its Grave

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  • i'm sorry (Score:3, Funny)

    by circletimessquare ( 444983 ) <{moc.liamg} {ta} {erauqssemitelcric}> on Saturday March 11, 2006 @10:56PM (#14900913) Homepage Journal
    but i would have preferred something called a "rat-squirrel" remain extinct
  • by justanyone ( 308934 ) on Saturday March 11, 2006 @11:04PM (#14900928) Homepage Journal
    Let's introduce this little guy to the TRS-80, a '59 Chevy, and the reincarnated ghost of Archie Bunker!
  • by goldfita ( 953969 ) on Saturday March 11, 2006 @11:06PM (#14900932) Homepage
    You don't have to find an animal previously believed extinct. There are millions of species around. Just put together case studies of known living animals. Then have a group unfamiliar with the species of interest try to predict its characteristics from genealogical family members.
    • by Saven Marek ( 739395 ) on Saturday March 11, 2006 @11:23PM (#14900984)
      You don't have to find an animal previously believed extinct. There are millions of species around. Just put together case studies of known living animals. Then have a group unfamiliar with the species of interest try to predict its characteristics from genealogical family members.

      This was done on a national geographic special several years ago. Individuals and Groups of knowledgeable biologists were given the same details they'd get from just the fossilized remains of different unique animals and given the task of reconstructing the live animal in behaviour, habitat and so on. One example was a kind of lemur I think from madagascar. The group were given a partial crushed fakely fossilized skeleton along with information on where it was supposedly found and some of the fossilized plant remains found with it in this scenario. Overall the groups working together came up with an accurate picture of the real animal where individuals had a success rate that varied from complete nonsense right up to accurate. Some other groups had bird types or reptiles and so on.
    • by TubeSteak ( 669689 ) on Saturday March 11, 2006 @11:31PM (#14901000) Journal
      I think you're missing the point.

      Fossils usually only provide a limited insight into the physiology of the animal being studied. Comparing the fossil records to "genealogical family members" is just more educated guessing.

      Think of this as a super-collider. Up to a certain point, physicists (fossil hunters) can play with numbers (fossils) and essentially guess at what they think is going to happen. Then they get a multi-billion dollar super-collider (or find an animal that shouldn't exist) to test their theories & see if the guess matches the reality.

      Yes, the guesses are educated and based in hard reality, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't validate your guess given the chance.
    • by Kjella ( 173770 ) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @12:21AM (#14901131) Homepage
      Well, I think all the monkey species are 95%+ like us humans. Yet they cover a big variety in apperance, living conditions, diet and behavior. The closest ones are 99%+ us, but they're still pretty far from being human. What you're saying just doesn't make any sense if you don't have any close genetic relatives, you can't interpolate or extrapolate from elephants and tigers and lizards to end up with monkeys.

      What these rare opportunities are is a chance to see how accurate the methods is. Normally, you do exactly the kind of logic that you do, you have a fossil and you retrofit it with characteristics of current animals which may or may not be accurate. So how much information is in the fossil itself, and how much is you simply making the theory fit the data? Which is exactly what your panel would do as well, one educated guess "validating" someone else's educated guess. Here's the chance when you haven't had any current close relatives, no bias. How accurately have they predicted this animal? That is what's interesting here, not that you can make something fit the data.
  • Is this another Coelacanth?

    • by Anonymous Coward
      Less annoying would have been: "I know how to spell coelacanth!" In case you really aren't sure, the answer to your question is, of course, YES!
  • "extinct" (Score:5, Funny)

    by Dark Fire ( 14267 ) <clasmcNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Saturday March 11, 2006 @11:07PM (#14900936)
    "You keep using that word. I do not think that it means what you think it means..."
  • 11 Million? (Score:2, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward
    Diatomyidae thought to have been dead for 11 million years

    Or 3,900 years...depending on whether you are wrong or not. Jesus saves!

    • Hmmm, I thought the general American consensus was 6000 years?
    • Next thing you know, some one will discover a BSD installation in the wild.
  • by Anonymous Coward
  • ......hmmm (Score:2, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward
    .....you say fossil rising from the grave.....

    I call her my wife...
    • About what I was thinking. Christ, the zombies weren't bad enough, now we have fossils rising from the grave too? I guess I need to go buy more bullets. Lots more.
  • by SynapseLapse ( 644398 ) on Saturday March 11, 2006 @11:14PM (#14900959)
    But has it POWERED UP [webmagic.com] yet?
    Sorry, couldn't resist....
  • bob (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 11, 2006 @11:16PM (#14900968)
    Much like Bob the dinosaur, the Diatomyidae has simply been in hiding.

    And also

    The reports of Diatomyidae's extinction have been premature. To correct this, the Museum of Natural History has offered $1000 for every dead Diatomyidae brought to them, as this is cheaper than correcting the records of Diatomyidae's extinction. And would make the scientists right again.
  • by The Waxed Yak ( 548771 ) on Saturday March 11, 2006 @11:22PM (#14900980)
    Does this mean I can finally have my Ribwich again?
  • Correction (Score:5, Informative)

    by brian0918 ( 638904 ) <brian0918@gmail.cLIONom minus cat> on Saturday March 11, 2006 @11:41PM (#14901030)
    Knowledge of the Laotian rock rat [wikipedia.org] has been around for about a decade now, but it was originally classified in a new family, prior to its connection to the 11 million year old family.
  • Why... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by AWhiteFlame ( 928642 ) on Saturday March 11, 2006 @11:51PM (#14901055) Homepage
    Why is it that a species thought to be extinct for 11 million years has now just been found, but somehow we seem to think we know the exact number of panda bears and such?
    • Re:Why... (Score:5, Informative)

      by brian0918 ( 638904 ) <brian0918@gmail.cLIONom minus cat> on Sunday March 12, 2006 @12:00AM (#14901076)
      "Why is it that a species thought to be extinct for 11 million years has now just been found, but somehow we seem to think we know the exact number of panda bears and such?"

      RTFA. The species wasn't just found. It's been around for at least a decade, but was originally classified in a new family, rather than being connected to the ancient family.

    • Re:Why... (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Daniel Dvorkin ( 106857 ) * on Sunday March 12, 2006 @12:04AM (#14901086) Homepage Journal
      Pandas are a lot easier to spot, and therefore to count, than rats.
      • Pandas aren't spotted.

        They're black and white and red all over.
        • The GP said they are EASY to spot. It doesnt matter what colour they are now.

          If one wanted to paint spots on animals, a big panda would be a much easier target than some small Laotian rock rat which one probably wouldn't even be able to chase.
      • I seem to remember that Pandas live in the most remote areas of the great bamboo forests of china.. which are very dense and difficult to navigate and that we have had every difficulty in finding them to date. I'm fairly certain that their actual numbers are far from certain.. though still very low (course we can't be certain that this hasn't always been the case since they each require huge amounts of food and therefore territory).

      • He remains safely undiscovered.

        -Eric

    • Easy. Pandas are cute, herbivore, peaceful - gentle giants, with child-like features that make you want to hug them and go "awww, that's so cute".

      Rat squirrels, on the other hand... that doesn't exactly sound like a terribly attractive species. And even when they're really just another kind of small rodent (not necessarily terribly rat-like), they don't stand out in any way.

      Pandas, on the other hand, do. So call me cynical, but I think that yes, there is indeed a reason why we know the exact number of big p
    • by jd ( 1658 ) <imipak&yahoo,com> on Sunday March 12, 2006 @02:44AM (#14901400) Homepage Journal
      And the habitable niches of a lot of living animals is extremely small. Due to urbanization and habitat destruction, there are only really two types of region left for animals - the virtually surrounded and the utterly remote.


      Panda bears, polar bears, African elephants, all of the surviving Great Apes etc, fall into the former category. This makes the territory easy to explore. It also means that the region will likely be heavily surveyed by both corporations and environmentalists, each trying to win concessions to their perspective.


      (Having said that, even well-studied populations aren't necessarily as well-understood as thought. At least one species of dolphin off the coast of New Zealand has turned out to really be two distinct species - drastically reducing the population of the first group. A group of Right Whales off the coast of Australia has also been demonstrated to really be multiple, genetically distinct species.)


      Extremely remote locations aren't as well-studied. It's much harder to send undergraduates to remote islands around Papau New Guinea. No beer. Very remote locations are extremely difficult and expensive to study, so they generally aren't. This is where the bulk of "new species" and "rediscovered species" are found. These locations are generally under much less pressure, which means that amateur and semi-professional researchers are unlikely to take the time and effort to go - they're generally needed much more elsewhere.


      Then, you've the problem of extremely small animals. The rediscovered woodpecker in North America is not the biggest bird on Earth, is highly mobile (duh!), blends in well with the environment, and is very probably terrified of people - the only people who go into that particular woodland being hunters. This rat-squirrel is likely smaller still, probably bleds in a lot better, and has had 11 million years of practice at running away.


      Finally, numbers are very important. If you mis-count by 10 out of 1000 elephants, the number is basically still the same. If you mis-count by 10 the number of Yahtzee River dolphins (of which there are somewhere between 0 and 33 left), it is somewhat more significant. The scientists have not seen any of these rat-squirrels alive and only the one that was caught. As far as anyone is concerned, that may have been the last one alive - at present, we have no evidence to the contrary. If populations have been extremely low and highly localized, which is likely the case, then it was sheer chance that it was ever seen at all. See the story behind the discovery of the Wollemi Pine for other such discoveries.


      (Numbers are absolutely critical when it comes to observing small species. It's easier to see one rhino from a mile off than ten dormice from a hundred feet, or a hundred fairy shrimp from five paces. As such, you need comparitively VAST numbers before you are likely to ever see anything at all.)


      I don't completely trust the population counts (see my comments about genetically distinct species) but the observations I've seen would imply the counts may be far too high in some cases, NOT the other way round. There will unquestionably be more "living fossils" discovered over time, but the numbers will remain insignficant compared to the number of species that have genuinely been driven extinct - by "natural causes" or by human activity. This find ADDS to the urgency of efforts to save what there is, not the other way round.


      (For a start, if its nearest cousin died off 11 million years ago, the population is likely genetically very similar, leaving it vulnerable to disease and genetic disorders. There is also no possibility of bolstering numbers through cross-breeding efforts - a rescue tactic used by some conservationists when "pure" populations are simply not possible any longer, as there's nothing left on Earth that will be even remotely close enough.)

      • Yeah, but sometimes size isn't everything ...

        One of the interesting "living fossils" is the Metasequoia, known from fossils, but believed to have been extinct for tens of millions of years. The only known living sequoia species were the two in North America. Then, back in the 1940s, a single stand was discovered in western China. Botanists mailed seeds to other botanists, and now there are millions of them living all over the world.

        A metasequoia isn't tiny. A full-grown individual is one of the largest li
    • There are many reasons I can think of for this. Size; economic importance of the creature and its habitat along with the habitat's accessibility; size of their egesta (easier tracking larger animals). Large creatures usually have a larger range because of the greater food needs. Or they live in highly productive areas which are often attractive to humans for economic reasons. And finally, Pandas are extremely well-recognised around the world. A small rodent with a tail to a casual observer looks like a rat.
  • Millions of years in the grave and it didn't even notice.
  • by tktk ( 540564 ) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @12:24AM (#14901137)
    I thought we were going to discuss the clothing line.

    A few of their watches are nice though.

  • I thought my watch was coming back into style.
  • Ice Age (Score:2, Funny)

    by Koohoolinn ( 721622 )
    So Scrat really did survive the Ice Age.
  • by The Cydonian ( 603441 ) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @01:46AM (#14901298) Homepage Journal
    Until last year, the guy who's posted this story to Slashdot used to live in the very room I am posting from. In all my interactions with him, he didn't quite strike as a person who'd be looking up fossil-ized rat-squirrels, and seeing if they were indeed alive, much less pick them from the local wet-market and make kebabs out of them.

    So, gokulpod, while it's a known fact that I've dirtied the room more than you could ever imagine, should I nevertheless investigate the nether regions of your old wardrobe and really find out what's inside? Now that your true inclinations are out of the closet, I foresee a few skeletons dropping out of that cupboard.

  • by Macka ( 9388 ) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @04:46AM (#14901653)
    ... why isn't this thing walking on two legs, wearing glasses and solving quadratic equations ?

    • Maybe because those things wouldn't help it survive in it's current habitat? Evolution doesn't lead to all species becoming more similar, quite the opposite. Just because standing on our hind legs is a good trait for humans in our particular ecological niche, doesn't mean it's a good trait for every other species that inhabit other niches.

      Is this article linked from some anti-evolution website, or what? I don't think I've ever seen so many posts by people that misunderstand evolution in one place.

    • ... why isn't this thing walking on two legs, wearing glasses and solving quadratic equations ?

      It is, but we only see the part of the creature that protrudes into our 3-dimensional understanding of space/time.
  • argument for preservation efforts in Southeast Asia. And if you believe in Intellgent Design, it provides compelling argument that the earth is very young, or how could they have survived.
  • From TFA:
    When wandering through a hunter's market in Laos, Robert Timmins of the Wildlife Conservation Society happened upon a previously unknown rodent.
    Why do these always start with a scientist in a street market in Laos or Korea, and then go on to "The locals call it {whatever}, which translates as {whatever}"? Does anybody else remember the fish (or whatever sea creature it was) that was found this way a few months ago?
    • Oh yeah, and one more thing -- maybe it's time for biologists to stop spending time in labs, on boats, and in the forest; and instead, go to Laos and Korea and wander around in markets...since that seems to be the most productive way of finding stuff worth studying.
      • [M]aybe it's time for biologists to stop spending time in labs, on boats, and in the forest; and instead, go to Laos and Korea and wander around in markets...since that seems to be the most productive way of finding stuff worth studying.

        Actually, biologists doing such field research often do hire locals and use them as expert consultants. It usually turns out that the locals know and correctly distinguish most of the species in their vicinity, while only occasional merging closely-related species. They ca
  • Really, now - I think you meant "Rat Not Dead Yet"
  • It represents a rare opportunity to compare assumptions derived from the fossil record and an actual living specimen to determine overall accuracy of the techniques involved. This discovery also provides a compelling argument for preservation efforts in Southeast Asia.

    It also provides a compelling argument that the world might not be as old as we think it is.

    • It also provides a compelling argument that the world might not be as old as we think it is.
      Indeed. With only nuclear physics and such on one side and the full weight of a newly discovered squirrel-rat on the other, it's easy to see that the balance of evidence has just tipped decisively.

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