Saturday, March 19, 2016

Extinct animal of the day: Quetzalcoatlus

From the time of the dinosaurs comes the largest pterasaur of all: Quetzalcoatlus. The name sounds like Quetzalcoatl, the feathered god from Mesoamerica, and there's a reason for that. 

This animal was enormous, and was the largest flying animal to have ever lived. It had the largest wingspan of any pterasaur in history, and that naturally puts it far above any bird alive today. Wingspans from observed fossils range between 40 and 50 feet. For reference, bald eagles have a wingspan of about 8 feet, and the largest bird living today, the wandering albatross, has a wingspan of about 11 feet. Quetzalcoatlus was around the size of an F-16 jet. 

For all that size, though, little is known about how it lived, or even if it could fly. Something that large would have a hard time getting off the ground, and since it roamed the planet around the time of the cretaceous, there’s little evidence to be gleaned about its actual behaviors. It may have had to run to achieve liftoff, much like a jet taxiing down a runway.

It's also debatable how it hunted. Some researchers think it was a terrestrial scavenger, feeding off dead animals. Others think it had fast, agile flight, and would skim fish from the seas with its enormous beak. Others think it was a slow flyer, relying on air currents to get airborne, and would glide as high as 15000 feet over vast distances, much like an extreme version of albatrosses today.

In the Sixth Event, the characters have a run-in with a group of Quetzalcoatlus, and they observed these animals using a very unique hunting pattern! It’s quite fun to look at research and imagine how such a creature may have hunted and fed.

So if this animal was so powerful, what made them go extinct? The same thing that made all of the dinosaurs go extinct—the meteor impact event at the end of the cretaceous. But bones from these pterosaurs can still be found, and as we discover more, we can infer more about how they lived and what the time of the dinosaurs may have been like.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Periods of Prehistory: Hadean

 No book featuring time-travel into prehistory is complete without a basic understanding of how the Earth has changed over its 4.5 billion year lifespan. Today, we’re going to talk about the earliest epoch in Earth’s history—the Hadean!

In case the name didn’t give it away, the Hadean was not a particularly fun place to be. Long before life, and after the Earth formed out of a swirling mass of rock and stardust in the milky way, the surface was formed of a mix of molten rock and magma as volcanism was constant.  The earth was forming, so heavier elements, like iron, sank down and became the Earth’s core, while lighter ones like silica began to form the crust. Gases, like hydrogen and methane, escaped into space, because there wasn’t much of an atmosphere.

And of course, the Earth was being constantly bombarded by meteorites and debris. Getting hit by huge comets is thankfully rare nowadays, but back then it was common enough to contribute to the Earth’s very structure. Water ferried along by comets boiled as it hit the ultra-hot Earth, and eventually this formed an atmosphere made up of steam.

This was all around 4.5 billon years ago, when another very important comet hit Earth. Only this wasn’t a comet—it was a planetoid the size of Mars, called Theia. The resulting strike looked a little like this:

The result? The moon!

Indeed, the moon is thought to be formed out of a combination of bits of Earth ripped off the early forming Earth and the remnants of the planetoid that struck it. The moon is closer to home than we think.

The Hadean closed out when the constant impacts began to slow and the volcanism cooled down. With the cooling came the falling of the steam atmosphere as rain, forming the oceans. Plate tectonics, or the movement of the continents, began, and the Earth’s crust finished forming, with the earliest rocks like granite and quartz. And according to a few researchers, a few proteins began to coalesce, forming the precursors to life. 

No one from the Sixth Event visits the Hadean--that would be a very short trip. But knowing a little about the earliest Earth is still fascinating. 

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Opportunity at Evernight Teen!

My book isn't released just yet, but there are plenty of other great books by talented authors over at Evernight Teen! Check out the promotion, find some new authors, and get entered for a prize!

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Extinct Animal of the day: Mammoth

Characters in The Sixth Event travel through time--and the first thing they see that convinces them of that fact is the Woolly Mammoth.

Mammoths roamed during the ice age, and evolved about six million years ago when they diverged from their closest (still living) cousin, the Asian elephant. Mammoths only went extinct about ten thousand years ago, during the end of the last ice age, when most of the megafauna (aka large animals) in North America and Europe went extinct. The last continent where megafauna can be found is Africa--think giraffes, rhinos and hippos.

We definitely hunted mammoth as we spread across Europe and North America, and some researchers think human overhunting was the reason mammoths went extinct. Others say that it was the warming accompanying the end of the ice age that sounded the mammoth's death knell. Either way, mammoths were a magnificent animal, one of the largest land mammals in history, and are emblematic of the period of prehistory just before humans rose to power.

There is, strangely, hope for mammoths, in a way. We've sequenced the entire mammoth genome. If our technology advances enough, cloning a mammoth is not outside the realm of possibility.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Sources of ideas--origin story for The Sixth Event

Writers don't write in a vacuum. Ideas have to come out of something--exposure to other people's works, tv shows, life experiences, or information about the world. Although, I suppose one could claim an idea came out of nothing if you were inspired by the idea of black holes, but the point still stands.

My upcoming book, The Sixth Event, was inspired by a story I wrote in college, which was itself inspired by a book I read as a child. I don't remember the name of the book, or even if it was a book or a short story. The passage I remember is a boy traveled back in time to kindergarten, and his mother was amazed that he could tie his shoes. That idea--of someone traveling back in time to a point in their childhood, but with all their memories intact--stayed with me for years.

The other inspiration for The Sixth Event came from my fascination with geology and the natural world. Human history is fascinating, but we are a small blip on geologic timescales. From the formation of the Earth when it was a swirling mass of magma, up to the last major ice age where we evolved, life has come and gone on a planet that only sometimes resembles the planet as it is now. I wanted a story to acknowledge that, and to acknowledge how much there is to learn about 4.5 billion years of Earth's history--and the history of life on the planet. Knowing what came before can help us figure out what may happen next, especially as we change our own world and head into a new future shaped by climate change. That is what makes humans truly unique out of all of the species that have come and gone before us--we shaped our own world. Hopefully it will turn out for the best.