Breaking Science News – Major Announcement

Welcome to the American Museum of Natural
History thank you for joining our Google+
hangout today to talk about some really interesting research about placental mammals, a group of animals that includes bats
whales and us. I’m Suzann Goldberg, a resarch assistant at
the American Museum of Natural History. I’m one of this new paper’s authors. We’re joined
today by a few of the other members of our international research team. With me at the Museum is doctor Michael Novacek, senior vice president, provost for
science and curator of paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History. Joining us from Stony Brook University
is doctor Maureen O’Leary an associate professor in the school of
medicine and research associate at the American Museum of Natural History and the lead author of this paper; participating from Brooklyn, New York is Seth Kaufman, a software developer at MorphoBank, the powerful cloud-based tool that
this scientific collaboration used to conduct their work; and from the University of Toronto
Scarborough is doctor Mary Silcox an assistant professor of anthropology. If you have questions that you would like to
ask one of us, please submit a comment on the hangout event page or on the YouTube page where you are watching this live stream. So, let’s start by talking to lead author,
doctor Maureen O’Leary. Maureen what’s todays announcement about and
why is it significant? Well the paper that’s become available today, makes a
couple of major points about mammal evolution, in particular we reconstruct the ancestor of all placentals, and we do that, that is the ancestor of all placental mammals, we do that using a combination of anatomical and DNA data and this is the largest anatomical data set, by far, that’s ever
been put together. And we also document the date of divergence of
placental mammals from other mammals and we show that it’s after one of the big extinction
events in earth history, which is the Cretaceous- Paleogene extinction. And the origin of placental mammals
comes later than that. So Mike, maybe you can tell us, collaboration is
an integral element of a discovery like this. Maybe you can tell us a little about
the scope of the project, how many researchers, institutions, and countries were
involved? So, we we had a lot of institutions
involved, several institutions and at least six countries. There was a team here, of course, at the
American Museum. Maureen O’Leary who just spoke is at Stony Brook and also an
Associate here at the American Museum of Natural History. We had a team at
Carnegie, we had teams in Brazil, some workers from Argentina, Canada. Mary is online here with us
today and she’s broadcasting from Canada. It was a big enterprise. One of the reasons we needed this is that when there are 23 authors of the paper. One of the reasons we really had to have to have this this big team, is because not only
was it a lot of work, but the expertise ranged all across mammals. Even very ancient mammals that lived at
the time of the dinosaurs that are outside of the placental mammals group.
The placental mammals are the most successful, or the most diverse mammals today with many many species, and they include us. They include humans, but also whales and all kinds of other things. So, we had to have a lot of experts ranging across this diversity of both living and fossil mammals, thus the participation. Seth, maybe you can tell us a little about MorphoBank and how did it help with our study? Well MorphoBank is a web based software that helps with the collaboration
between all these diverse groups. They’re all over the world and they use the internet. So this was a platform that let them collaborate over the
internet on categorizing the images and the
specimens, making assertions about the anatomy and then recording all the demographic citations; commenting to each other, instant messaging each other. So, I think, it seemed to greatly accelerate the pace at which this
research was done just by using standard web tools. And so we made it up as we went, so we
learn a lot as we went and the platform evolved over the last several years as the research has progressed. Okay, thank you. Mike maybe you can tell us a little bit about what kind of data MorphoBank uses. So, MorphoBank is, as Mauareen said, we’ve used a lot of
anatomical or morphological data. We call this data actually phenomic data, it’s sort of a comparison with genomic data because the phenome represents all the
aspects of an organism, all the parts of an organism outside of the gene, above the level of the gene. So, that could pertain to even proteins to cells, to tissues, to organs, to
organ systems, aspects of the physiology and even behavior. In this
study we emphasize a lot of the anatomical features at the organ or organ
system level; partly because a lot of that, of course, is preserved in fossils and there are many many good mammal fossils. The fossil record is quite
rich, so there are a lot of characters that
focus on the skeleton, his teeth and the skull, but there are many other characters
that represent soft anatomy skin, soft organs, many of those are not
preserved in fossils, although we do we have endocasts
from fossils that actually preserve brain features; that is the internal cast of fossil skulls show us sometimes what the brain looked like. So, we can get some remarkable information from fossils. We even have characters that refer to the reproductive behavior and
aspects of physiology in there too. There are over 4,500 characters in this data set,
as Maureen said, it’s huge and it’s unprecedented in its size, and
enriched with illustrations, which is very important. Maureen, could you please describe the common ancestor of placental mammals, a little about the size, the appearance, habitat, diet and maybe tell us why this small animal is so important? Well I think that to name a few of
the characters that we can highlight, we used, as
we’ve been discussing we used over 4,500 observations or characters
to reconstruct this. Some are primitive are some are derived, and what the algorithms told us was
that this animal had kind of a fleshy nose and there it is on screen right there, it had a
white underbelly to its fur, it had a long furry tail, it was an insect-eating mammal. It was probably
scampering in its behavior, so in other words it didn’t fly or swim or do any of the
specialties that came along a little bit later. It had a full complement of
teeth that were fairly generalized. In it’s ear region we could
reconstruct some of the bones there that are very important for studying
mammal species, such as the the tiny bones that are involved in hearing
called ossicles, we can reconstruct that this animal had a stirrup shaped ear ossicle. And we can also tell that it
didn’t have what are called epipubic bones, these are a special kind of bone
that we see in some of the extinct mammals that are not part of placentals, but
that did live in the Mesozoic with dinosaurs. The placental
ancestor did not have epipubic bones so that was one of its bony specialties. And it was a small animal, bigger than a mouse probably smaller
than a rat just to put in a very rough context. Maximum size about 245 grams. And in the scene that we reconstruct it in
we show it among plants that were on the earth during what’s called the Paleocene which is the beginning of the Cenozoic. Great, thanks Maureen. Mary, maybe you can tell us what this study tell us about diversification and the evolution of placental mammals? What it tells us is that this diversification happened in a way that differs from models based purely on DNA. We basically demonstrated that
there’s nothing from the Mesozoic period that seems to be related directly to modern placental mammals so that diversification happened after the extension the dinosaurs, and that has big implications in terms of thinking about how that event actually
occurred. It means that those groups were diversifying in that period, when niches were opening up, when things were changing because of the fact that this big group
is going extinct among other groups. So, from that perspective it really changes
the picture in terms of how this diversification happened and gives us a
better understanding of the overall picture of the history of modern mammalian groups. And in particular it seems like it happened very rapidly. Within a matter
of a relatively short time frame we had at a huge explosion of evolutionary change
occurring in the mammalian group, which is an exciting thing to think about,
and it’s an exciting thing to then create scenarios about, in terms of
why that might have happened. So, I think that this study from that
perspective allows us to ask some deeper
questions about not just the tree, but about why these
changes were occurring in groups including the one that I’m most interested in,
primates, which, of course, gets back to our ancestry. We’re in a position now to kind of think about
from this specific time period, what was leading to this diversification,
so it’s really a springboard for a lot of really exciting types of studies in
the future in terms of evolution of placental mammals. And we’ve just been joined from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, doctor Michelle Spaulding who is a post-doctorate fellow in this section of mammals and vertebrate paleontology, and here’s Michelle Are you there? Can I ask you a question? Maybe you can unmute your microphone. Maybe you can tell us how this changes our thinking in the field, for example about Gondwana? One thing that changes our thinking in the field, Gondwana, this was when the continents were in one mass that was called Pangea, and they broke up into two major parts and the lower continents, South America, Africa, Australia, Antarctica was Gondwana. And today, a lot of animals that live in Africa
are in this group called Afrotheria, there is a large amount of extinct mammals that were
quite large as well that lived in South America, the notoungulates, and they have been
historically not really well known where they fall in the mammal tree of life
because it’s just such a massive amount of work to start placing them. If
it’s something that could go with almost any group of mammal
and various amounts of the Southern American notoungulates have been put with almost any living group of mammals, you need to have a study of this magnitude, which
incorporates all living mammals, incorporates all orders of living mammals, in order to
test where they go, and what we found is a subgroup of these animals did fall with animals that are today in Africa, the afrotheres, so it points again to some bigeographical implications
of linking these southern animals in the past with southern animals that are alive today, and it shows, that perhaps it was the break-up of Gondwana, which led to some of
these originations. Thanks Michelle. So Mike, the American Museum has over
thirty two million specimens and artifacts in the collection how would you say they were involved in this study? Well I should say that, yes we have a great collection and
one of the world’s most important collections of living and fossil mammals, but we used the important collections of many of the institutions involved, for example the Carnegie
Museum of Natural History. I think another aspect of this study really we really have to emphasize is that a lot of the information, a lot of the
information, we used was from the literature was published but it wasn’t
organized in a way where workers can use it, so what’s going to be very
exciting as this paper is published and we release the MorphoBank super matrix, this massive matrix with all this
information that people have ready access to these images and these
discussions of the characters and the bibliographies associated with them, so
we have the access to all that information, which we collected
and organized in a way. There was a lot of this stuff in the literature it just
wasn’t easy to extract. So, is finding the culmination of
the research or do you think this is just the beginning? Maybe Maureen should answer that. Well I think that for a lot of groups this is going to
be the beginning, I think that beyond mammals I think that the
the software that we’re leaving behind his generalized enough that philogeneticists or
evolutionary biologists who are working on all kinds of different groups can use
it to ask other questions and to look at other parts of the evolutionary tree. And indeed that’s already happening so that’s one thing that will I think grow from this,
and I think in other areas members of our very own team are going
to be expanding parts of this matrix and in fact I think, for example, we have just a few
bat species in there, and bats are some of the most specious mammals that are alive today and for example Dr. Nancy Simmons who is one of the coauthors is going to be adding a lot of bat species to really expand that part of the tree. And in fact I might hand it to Mary Silcox
because I believe that there’s really
interesting questions in Primates that you and your collaborators
might be exploring, isn’t that the case? Yeah, I mean, I think for us, we’re
really interested in incorporating more fossil primates into this tree, because one of the huge benefits it has, is because there’s such a broad range of other mammals in there it
really helps you characterize what’s primitive in a deeper level in a way
that that was impossible when we were just looking at analyses that had a small
range of species, so we’re already planning basically, as soon we can,
to take the matrix and start adding fossil taxa into it. Not only Primates, but things that are closely related to Primates. And the huge benefit for us is because
people like Myung Jin who’s an expert on rodents and
Brian Kraatz who’s an expert on rabbits contributed to the part of the matrix
that is relevant to the next group out from Euarchonta, the group that
primates consists of. We have much better information on the broader
context of Primate evolution in which to put future fossil discoveries, so really for us it’s going to be a
jumping off point for future research, and in fact, we already have two fossil
skeletons that we are looking foward to coding into this, that we
frankly don’t really know where they belong. So really this is going to be a
foundation for ten to fifteen years of really productive research, I think, on
the relationships of mammals. Thanks Mary. Actually, I want to ask Seth, how the project has been supported and
for the future when there are going to be so many more matrices added, what kind of equipment are you using? Want to say anything about that? Well we have servers at the State University of New York at Stony
Brook with full backup and then we have some
data backup mirrors at other locations. In terms of scaling we’ve
planned for that and as the data set has we’ve added storage and capacity and hopefully as this project gains more and more recognition and traffic we’ll keep on upgrading. But the traffic on MorphoBank has been growing steadily for awhile so we’ve been
keeping up with it. And you’ve definitely been doing an amazing job of supporting the software. It’s not just me. So, let’s answer a few questions.
Just a reminder that if you’d like to ask us something, if you could please
submit a comment on the hangout event page or on the YouTube page where you are watching this. So, our first question How long did this project take? Actually, I noticed that as of this week the project was started
officially six years ago. Oh wow. Yeah that’s a good milestone for us. Yeah six years, and fairly intense and
continued work on that from all of the investigators involved, it was a lot of work. This is a kind of interesting question. How would this project have been done twenty years ago? Maureen? Well, I think that the short
answer to that is that it couldn’t be done twenty years ago. We really didn’t have the computer infrastructure to do this.
This is really twenty first century, I mean this is
something that is enabled completely by the web and and by applications that allow
interactivity on a scale that was really not possible before. And in fact we’ve seen software grow with MorphoBank to some
degree in terms of how interactive we need to make it and we have take
catch up and revised things as we go for that reason, but I think it wouldn’t have been possible
and that’s why it’s exciting to scientists. We had to be more
conjectural about our ideas of an ancestor or a clade or something like that, now we can say, you know, this is what the data
tell us and this is through an algorithm these were our explicit assumptions, and this was our explicit data set, and this is what I mean by a particular
qualitative feature,and that is a whole other different way of
doing comparative anatomy. I think that and in fact maybe Michelle as one of the, you know, who came up from a student
member of the project to a faculty member on the project through her Ph.D I think that, you know, maybe you can comment a little on the perspective of a younger generation of scientists working in a more
sharing environment than maybe a generation before. It seems like it’s
something that younger scientists feel very comfortable with, would you agree?
Yeah, I would agree and the great thing about this project is it shows, a lot of times you’re limited by how many people you can
work at one time, working to build a matrix that you then analyze. Because, quite simply, you can’t work at the same time if you don’t have
a web application like we have. The idea of doing this project without MorphoBank is
not one I want to think about. We can so easily communicate exactly the features we
want to look at, but also we are not risking overriding each other’s work.
Everything is in a database that works in real-time and for the future this is
great for graduate students coming in because six years ago I was in my second year of grad school and when I was going to work on someone’s matrix
previously, I didn’t actually have an electronic version of the matrix, I had to
retype it in and then start adding it myself. That’s something I’m going to be telling graduate students and they are going to be like, what? Why would you ever do that? When you do stuff like that, every step where you have to replicate someone else’s work without having full information is a place for error. So, it’s just going to be better and better going
forward, not only in just work flow, but in collaboration. Right, and I think it’s important that
National Science Foundation really supported both this mammal project and the development of MorphoBank and the development of MorphoBank extends back over a decade so it’s been growing and, in fact Seth,
maybe you can comment on some of the directions we’re moving in, in terms of
tablet operation and expansion like that? Sure, I started on this project almost twelve years ago, so it was the early 2000’s and at that time you know the web was there, we we wanted to do a browser tool and we progressed since and, you know, every few years
something new comes along and now clearly where it is is mobile and tablets, and that’s not just a fad, it’s what
people are working with now, and I know I’ve been amazed at how people will
say I want to use this in the field, in Madagascar and I’ll say, but there’s no
cell phone service in the hills of Madagascar, and its like yeah, there is. So, we’re moving more towards
mobile applications now. just taking the tools we have and making them
work on touch screens and small screens and and over places where you just have in a little bit of bandwidth on a cell signal. and it changes the way people work in the field. They’re able to snap pictures of things that
they find, with their phones, and send them to people in labs, you know, half a world away and get an opinion really quickly, and, you know, it’s kinda cool and it makes
people feel happy, but it also actually helps them make decisions that typically they might not have figured out until they got back from the field, and now they can do it. And as a result the work turns out better and more productive. So we’re moving toward supporting that
kind of operational capability now essentially. Great. was there anything special about the
mammalian tree that lends itself to this project? Just to be a pragmatic about it we care
a lot about mammals because we are them, so from that perspective I think, you know, obviously there are other aspects of the tree of life project
that deal with other groups, but I think as a person who studies anthropology there are very good reasons why we
tend to see the world from our own perspective and why we tend to think
about it from that perspective. So, it’s probably not the most
scientific answer in the world but I think that a big part of what makes this
interesting is because of the fact that, you know, we put humans in the tree of
life and that is something that the lizard group can’t do. So I think that
that’s a big part of it. I mean I think another aspect of this is the nature of
the evidence because of the fact that a large part of my mammalian fossil record
is teeth, and that is something for which images are really very informative. MorphoBank works especially well
with with this particular type of data, so I mean, I think what we’ve kind of
produced in terms of this almost encyclopedia of life for mammals because of
the fact that so much of what we look at is characteristics of things that
are imaged, you know, effectively in that context. I think what
we produced as a very explicit sort of hypothesis that would be more difficult to
do for other groups in some ways. Yeah, I would add Mary, isn’t it true that
as you said about the nature of the eveidence is that in the case of mammals too there’s so much of it in contrast to many other groups, the fossil record is extremely rich. We have a lot more gene data on mammals than many other groups, than most other groups, and we certainly
have all this morphology that you’ve just
described the teeth, in many cases, skeletons and skulls from the fossil record, so
there’s an enormous amount of data here to work with, and it’s a great model system. Where, as Maureen said, other studies om
other kinds of groups. Okay, we have another question. Did you learn anything about marsupials or monotremes? I think what happened is that we concentrated on placentals. One of the reasons for that is that some of the major issues on the relationships of placentals; what are the nearest relative of whales, or
primates, or sloths, or elephants those questions have been much in focus
in the literature over the last twenty years, largely because a lot of
the gene data that’s been mustered and studies that have been
arrived at have come up with strikingly different branching patterns in these trees than some of the older
morphological studies, the older anatomical studies. Now, we’re seeing a lot of
convergence in that segment, in fact our tree which, as Maureen says, combines both gene
data and phenemic or morphological data, that combinined tree
does show a lot of these relationships that molecules suggest, but then as Mary said, we
also see differences, and as Maureen said, the morphology signal can really
dominate too, in some important cases. So, we concentrated on placentals. Our
coverage of marsupials is not as great. We were likely, there were only a few taxa
in there, but we were interested in marsupials in
relation to a lot of the other basic mammalian groups that extend way back
into the Mesozoic, and in a sense, what we’re saying there
is work rooting the tree will buy it defining some of these are
the addressee organs not all the taxi from major tax reform as a sober cover
here by any means because we had to score so many characters of the
morphology so marsupial there’s a lot of opportunity i guess
what i’m saying in using this matrix now a study marsupial species because we just took a smattering of
that sample in our study and something else outside hounded species he has said well we study the eighty sixth taxa you
know so that that’s is that many species book
living in stank wants that but we we chose those taxes very
carefully they were taxes that were uh… those species were represented by
gene data when they in the case of liban tak as species and are and they were also the close they’re
important fossil uh… species as well maybe someone else would like to expand on that michelle well the reason we chose the tax is when he representation of all major
living clades personal mails abruptly orders but like in order to orders monica
lewinsky china and vastly different out of apples each wife summit sample like
the artwork is the only living species in its order and you have
overreacting accredited ngo which has over two thousand threats if you’re
looking at twenty percent of all species of animals
with it order and yet we can get a hundreds in the
sampling for art work harder but we can’t really
even approach a hundred percent their events however it’s heading capture the
amount of variation within the or upgrades we don’t need to include the two thousand species being used at
the major body plants so with their living animals the cage
order and get some cases where you multiple animals from each order for
example it up or at work most on particularly that
cabinet all of which gets a lot of the variation of it there and in the final tax the rich chosen for
taxes that meenu that represent more primitive
features uh… interna more primitive conditions of animals in
the notes was related to them for example at off those that are that kind of the ancestors at both
doesn’t taxing user features that we don’t see and living on staff is lester lately but i think that was as well as fossils that are well
preserved that we don’t right now where they go recaptured meeting included all those
animals obviously he’s there are a lot more powerful simple included later he said i’m quite
interestingly secretly go assault reply does the nature rationale for selecting except thank you um… and also something once you know that
the findings tell us anything about living species about living spaces yes express uh… yes they do because the telus or a group that mike works on them as
you start your technique area about improving contains living species in the
uh… species like the elephants and seek out as and when we look at d_n_a_
alone we don’t see that that is saying what we
call a natural group or that they are closely related to each other and ivy
natalie shows that so we are planning things about living species and in fact
the fossils can inform us about living species to and like every night when i had to happen to
me i i think it’s fair they’re basic questions that for a long time uh… the question word of whales come
from water that yours relatives of wales an area that you’re working on uh… season have revealed interesting patterns that
are now supported by morphology but that doesn’t tell the whole interesting story when you include the prosecutor better sense of some of the transitions that led to the
uh… portion of what we put two of the to modern whales as we see them today so the fossils are are extremely important in informing us about the rooster there
goes our groups that these were the groups but it’s interesting to see in the chart
that we’ve published in the paper hide enlistment group names within mammals
and to ask and who again initially described these
groups and it’s interesting to see how many early comparative anatomy us who
are working well before we had in good ability to
study d_n_a_ how by using comparative anatomy the identified uh… hypotheses
are groups that word that we have turned out to support our study it’s it’s
actually very impressive what should i really compared it
encompass any shielded absolutely and uh… some people are interested in our how to
figure out what the comment and sister looks like winners state that maintain starting at included that what
difference between ideas about this in the past and what we
did is that it’s based on data and in the past we set up an image in
our minds about what that means that you might have looked like but in this case
what we’re able to do is based on all of the information we collected for all
these different groups we can extrapolate back to the part of the tree
that represents this ancestor and use all of that information to figure out
what it would likely have looked at so there’s no possible looks exactly like
this animal has the space-time inference from this huge arrangements homocore
data that we’ve collected and as a result of something that it’s a
hypothesis for different processes backup lots of data so event of any
better artists was able to turn that into something that that looks like you
know in an animal that would debbie and all of our ancestral
smoothly so and so i think i think we’re going to emphasize is that this isn’t
story telling you know sometimes you see these reconstructions that could get an
entire animal recruited on one tell them this is gays backed up with an enormous
wealth of data that that is the efforts upon which this reconstruction is uh… did the common ancestor have any case
that needed capable of surviving during this time period well that’s something that you know we
really don’t know the answer to this lots of interesting questions that that come from this research that damned
woman we haven’t figured out a way to test that yes so we don’t really know
white it might have been um… you know any sense coincidence of uh… diet and an ability
to live in particular temperatures these are all interesting questions that will
grow out of this research but this paper in particular didn’t address that
question and like you you’ve probably got a of the the largest and you know
written him most on uh… the big picture evolutionary uh… trend seen do you wanna comment on
that are alive and well we can save courses the cretaceous extinction event the so
called dinosaur extension at haven’t worked out the ninety in dinosaurs
non-permanent dinosaurs but uh… also wiped out at seven percent yes baat seventy to seventy five percent of all
species involved in reading and the two
restaurant on both on land and in the city and others uh… well something survived and one of
the things that made it through that cretaceous exchange of event was administered eventually are
ultimately the percival mammals you know led to
this ancestor uh… their lineage leading to this
ancestor that intern gave rise to all the placetas so why did that manages
weller servant hurdles and reserves and other things survivors of that but we go to store
stand legomezv that their r_t_c_’s some people
it’s that well if you’re a parent mammal
you’d be insulated from the thermal shock the thermal fee of one of the this when
these humongous asteroid the size of mount everest crashed into the air but
uh… you know then why did some of the mammals to extend to a wider did some of
those lineages not survive there but many of them could have been brewing
mammals so this is this this is not a complete hola plus there
are since the bikers and why they were survivors and while they were victims of this is the is is really apostle science there been a lot of
theories elena explanations well i have to pick this situation is worse off at all their interesting might be an ask question one will there
be any citizen science opportunities time tomorrow morning that’s yours well i mean we have in no funding from
the national science foundation into work with uh… different groups not not
explicitly just more from eight and a broader razor via initiatives that were there to
compare the nanny and will be buildings in the schools to explore building
bringing in crowds to that is that in krajina any internets and spending when
biting says the scientist into work on problems
that scientists set out then and i just wanted to set a little bit because sex
team of developers and artists i should say christine the designers are more for
bank come with the i’m fairly strong background in in art and that is hasn’t
made the software really strong and and quite beautiful an easy to use it seventy eight at a few comments and i
thinking behind new crowd sourcing projects well you have with the crowd sourcing
the challenge us to make some of the state of activity quite complicated and also com is requires back our knowledge of the
actual specimens uh… comprehensible to to people and store or developing tools that work
on offer to the licensed that will let
citizen scientists contribute to research by doing that a lot more
that right now it takes x too much time for or inside is clean
at the top it china’s biggest you know that you
have to have tools that and slide people into the probable and teach them about
the need to know i think will work so we’re working on some on some
applications now at the moment for excited connected by bio-data steroelab
some instant through the play politics paid pounds thank you so much thanks for
joining us inherited this video will be our
institute cannot to its six hundred arlene in perhaps

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