It's been a while since I've written here, and for that I apologize. A lot has happened in the meantime. Even when you're studying animals that have been dead for millions of years new things are discovered all the time. There is no better place to see that than at the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.
The SVP meetings were held in Las Vegas at the beginning of November. Academic meetings are a part of any field of study. Once a year we all gather to discuss our latest studies, see old friends, make new ones, and get new studies started by being inspired by what we see and hear at the meetings. The core of any meetings are the talks and posters. During scientific talks someone gets up in front of a room of their colleagues and talks for 15 minutes about their latest work. Often this work is in its formative stages, and may never even see the light of day as a published work, but it's a chance to get ideas out there and get feedback. Posters work similarly. These aren't the tri-fold cardboard science posters of your grade school science fairs. These are distillations of your work that to share with others in your field.
I was at the SVP meetings this year, and saw a number of great talks and posters. The most interesting session for me was a symposium on the evolution of limbs. If you think about it, this was an amazing step in evolution. Previously animals moved through an aqueous environment, supported by the buoyancy of the water, with fins as a propulsive device. The move to land presented a number of challenges, not least of which was supporting a body against gravity AND moving with the same appendages.
I like learning about the evolution of limbs because it's a perfect place to encounter the exciting field of Evo-Devo - Evolution and Development. One of the greatest additions to the field of evolution in the last 30 years has been the addition of developmental data to the study of evolutionary processes. We have discovered that studying the development of organisms can give us insight into their evolutionary history.
This isn't actually that new of an idea. Ernst Haeckel, with his Biogenetic Law, had come up with a similar idea in the 19th century. "Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" he said - that is, the development of an organism retells the story of its evolution. Haeckel's original view of the intersection of development and evolution was overly simplistic, but we know today that he was onto something. Development does give hints to ancestry. From the tail we had as embryos to the genes that control development in you that are the same genes in mice, flies, chickens, and jellyfish, they all hint to a shared evolutionary history.