Category Archives: Fossil Friday

Fossil Friday: new armless dinosaur species unearthed in Argentina

Researchers in Argentina have discovered a new — and pretty armless — species of dinosaur.

Carnotaurus sastrei, an abelisaurid relative of the new species, and probable look-alike dinosaur. Image credits Fred Wierum / Wikimedia.

Christened Guemesia ochoai, it was a species of abelisaurid, a clade of dinosaurs that roamed today’s Africa, South America, and India, and lived around 70 million years ago. Based on its age, researchers believe that this species was a close relative of the ancestors of all abelisaurids.

The animal’s partially-complete fossil skull was unearthed in Argentina and points to a unique ecosystem that developed in the area during the Late Cretaceous. The discovery is quite exciting as the area where it was found has yielded very few abelisaurid fossils, so it fills in an important piece of its historical puzzle.

Armless in Argentina

“This new dinosaur is quite unusual for its kind. It has several key characteristics that suggest that is a new species, providing important new information about an area of the world which we don’t know a lot about,” says Professor Anjali Goswami, co-author of the study describing the species and a Research Leader at the Natural History Museum of London.

“It shows that the dinosaurs that live in this region were quite different from those in other parts of Argentina, supporting the idea of distinct provinces in the Cretaceous of South America. It also shows us that there is lot more to be discovered in these areas that get less attention than some of the more famous fossil sites.”

By the time this species emerged, the ancient supercontinent of Pangaea had already begun to break apart forming Gondwana and Laurasia. The former would, in turn, split into the major continents in the Southern Hemisphere today and India.

Despite these landmasses slowly drifting apart, species could still move between them, so researchers assume that the fauna of these landmasses remained quite similar, as animals migrated between them. Abelisaurids were among these species.

Abelisaurids were top predators in their ecosystems, preying even on the mighty Titanosaurus. One of their most defining features was the front limbs; even shorter than those of the T. rex, these were virtually useless. In other words, the species did their hunting without being able to grasp, relying instead on their powerful jaws and necks to capture and subdue prey. They seem to have been quite successful at it, too: fossils of these dinosaurs have been found in rocks across Africa, South America, India, and Europe, dated all the way to the extinction of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago.

Although Argentina is well-known for abelisaur fossils (35 species have been discovered here so far), the overwhelming majority of these were discovered in Patagonia, in the country’s south. The north-western stretches of the country have yielded precious few. The newly-discovered skull joins this exclusive list.

The fossil, consisting of the braincase with the upper and back parts of the skull, was unearthed in the Los Blanquitos Formation near Amblayo, in the north of Argentina. The rocks it was encased in have been dated to between 75 and 65 million years ago. In other words, this specimen lived very close to the end-Cretaceous mass extinction, the event that wiped out the dinosaurs.

Like other abelisaurids, the skull contains a “remarkably small” braincase, according to its discoverers; its cranium is around 70% smaller than that of any of its relatives. This could suggest that the animal was a juvenile, but this is yet unconfirmed. One distinguishing feature of the dinosaur is a series of small holes at the front of its skull, arranged in rows, known as foramina. Researchers believe these holes helped the animal cool down, by allowing blood pumped into them (and covered by the thin skin at the front of the head) to release the heat it contained.

In contrast to other species of abelisaurids, the skull completely lacks any horns. This suggests that the species is among the first to emerge in the abelisaurid clade before these dinosaurs evolved horns.

Given that there is enough evidence to distinguish it as a new species, the team christened it after General Martin Miguel de Güemes, a hero of the Argentine War of Independence, and Javier Ochoa, a museum technician who discovered the specimen.

“Understanding huge global events like a mass extinction requires global datasets, but there are lots of parts of the world that have not been studied in detail, and tons of fossils remaining to be discovered,” Professor Anjali says.

“We left some exciting fossils in the ground on our last trip, not knowing that it would be years before we could get back to our field sites. Now we are hoping that it won’t be too much longer before we can finish digging them up and discovering many more species from this unique fauna.”

The paper “First definitive abelisaurid theropod from the Late Cretaceous of Northwestern Argentina” has been published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Fossil Friday: largest triceratops skeleton ever found sold at auction in Paris

The largest triceratops skeleton ever found, a specimen christened “Big John”, has been sold at an auction in Paris for a record price: €6.65m ($7.74m).

Big John on display at the Drouot auction house in Paris.

Big John was unearthed in South Dakota, US, in 2014, and it was a stunning discovery indeed. It is the largest example of its species to have ever been discovered, and around 60% of its bones were recovered at the site, making it a relatively complete skeleton.

Big purchases

After being re-assembled by specialists in Trieste, Italy, the skeleton was put up for display at the Drouot auction house in Paris last week. The buyer, a private collector from the US who chose to remain anonymous, said through representatives that they were “absolutely thrilled with the idea of being able to bring a piece like this to his personal use”.

Triceratops were tri-horned, plant-eating dinosaurs who lived during the Cretaceous period some 66 million years ago. Their fossils are quite rare, complete specimens even more so, and complete triceratops skulls are exceedingly rare. This, alongside the size, makes Big John definitely stand out among other fossils of its kind.

The fossil was found in an area that, during the Cretaceous, was a floodplain. Its body was quickly encased in mud after the animal died, which helped preserve it. While researchers found no indications of exactly what led to the dinosaur’s death, there are signs of damage on the skull. The working theory so far is that Big John, despite his size, had been defeated by another dinosaur in battle.

The sale does, however, call into discussion the ethics of commercializing dinosaur fossils. Demand from private investors is already leading to an increase in the price of fossils, one which museums around the world are struggling to match. There is a very real risk that at some point, museums might not be able to afford fossils to showcase altogether.

The high price fetched by Big John makes this trend painfully obvious.

Fossil Friday: footprints point to surprisingly-agile meat-eating dinosaurs

Although two-legged dinosaurs are often perceived as ponderous and lumbering beasts, such as the infamous T. rex, new fossils showcase that some of them were very fast on their feet.

Image credits Pablo Navarro-Lorbés et al., (2021), Nature Scientific Reprots.

Ancient dinosaur tracks unearthed in Spain show how agile some members of the theropod family of dinosaurs could be. The fossilized tracks are approximately 120 million years old, according to a study that describes the findings. Tyrannosaurus rex is perhaps the most well-known theropod.

Estimates performed on the basis of this set of tracks point to its creator running at speeds of nearly 28 mph (45 km/h). This makes it almost the fastest dinosaur whose footprints we’ve found; that record belongs to an animal whose tracks were found in Utah and Texas, that ran at over 30 mph (48.2 km/h).

Going fast

“Behavior is something very difficult to study in dinosaurs,” said lead author Pablo Navarro-Lorbés of the University of La Rioja. “These kinds of findings are very important, I think, for improving that kind of knowledge.”

In order to calculate the running speed of the dinosaur that made these prints, the authors measured the length between individual footprints, while taking into account the animal’s hip height and the length of its stride. An animal’s stride is defined as the distance between two consecutive steps on the same foot. This produced the speed estimates above.

This finding is particularly important for paleontologists as it provides real-life, tangible evidence of dinosaur behavior. Fossils that provide evidence regarding the movements, motions, or behaviors of past organisms are known as trace fossils. Most of our understanding of such behaviors currently comes from computer modeling of their movements. Although based on the structures of their skeletons and joints, such modeling is imperfect. Examination of physical evidence, in the form of trace fossils, is key for validating these results; however, trace fossils are incredibly rare.

So far, though, this discovery means that theropods still hold the title of ‘fastest dinosaurs’ we’ve found to date. This family of flightless bipedal dinosaurs was heavily populated with carnivores. The specimens that produced these impressions were most likely around 5 to 6 1/2 feet tall (1.5 to 2 meters) and 13 to 16 feet (4 to 4.5 meters) long from mouth to tail.

The paper “Fast-running theropods tracks from the Early Cretaceous of La Rioja, Spain” has been published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.

Fossil Friday: Italy’s largest discovery of dinosaurs is a herd of 11 specimens

Every once in a while, paleontologists make some breathtaking discoveries. Recently, it was the turn of Italian paleontologists to do so, and a new paper reports on the remarkable finding: a herd of 11 fossilized dinosaurs, including the largest and most complete such reptile to ever be discovered in the country.

The fossilized skeleton of ‘Bruno’. Image credits Alfio A. Chiarenza et al., (2021), Nature Scientific Reports.

Italy isn’t known as a hotbed of dinosaur fossils. There have been a handful of discoveries here, most of them in the last 30 years or so. By and large, however, Italian dinosaur hunters generally look to places outside of their motherland when searching for fossils.

But a new paper comes to show that there are still hidden paleontological gems to be found in Italy. The fossilized herd was unearthed at the Villaggio del Pescatore site, a protected area in Italy that has yielded dinosaur fossils in the past, as well.

An impressive haul

“Italy is not known for dinosaurs and, although we had a few lucky strikes in the past, now we have a whole herd at one dinosaur site,” said Federico Fanti, a professor at the University of Bologna and corresponding author of the paper describing the findings.

Villaggio del Pescatore is the site of a former limestone quarry close to the city of Trieste. Back in 1996, an almost complete dinosaur skeleton was unearthed here, initially believed to have belonged to a “dwarf species”, which paleontologists named “Antonio” at the time. However, the new discovery calls into question the assumption that it belonged to a dwarf species.

The freshly-discovered herd consists of 11 specimens of hadrosaurids of the species Tethyshadros insularis. These dinosaurs lived some 80 million years ago and could reach up to five meters (around 16 feet) in length. The herd includes the largest and most complete dinosaur skeleton ever recovered from Italy, an individual christened “Bruno”. Beyond how spectacular the find itself is, it also helped paleontologists better identify the species of Antonio.

Unlike previously believed, Antonio was not a dwarf dinosaur, but rather a juvenile — most likely a member of the same herd unearthed now.

Geology and geographic context of Villaggio del Pescatore (VdP). The star symbol marks the relative position in the paleogeography of the Tethys (c) where VdP most likely originated. Image credits Alfio A. Chiarenza et al., (2021), Nature Scientific Reports.

“Bruno is the biggest and oldest of the group, and the most complete dinosaur skeleton ever found in Italy,” said Fanti.

“We knew there were dinosaurs at the site after the discovery of Antonio, but up until now nobody actually checked to see how many. What we have now are multiple bones belonging to the same herd.”

Around the time these dinosaurs were alive, the site at Villaggio del Pescatore was very close to water, being on the shoreline of the ancient layout of the Mediterranean sea. The discovery of fish, crocodiles, flying reptiles, and small shrimp alongside the dinosaur herd provides further evidence of this.

“This is super cool as we can figure out the kind of environment the dinosaurs lived and died in,” added Fanti. “During that period, the area was very close to the shoreline in a tropical, warm and humid environment capable of feeding herds of dinosaurs.”

The site is still closed to the public, but paleontologists hope to make at least part of it open to visitation in the future. Until then, fossil aficionados can see some of the fossils recovered so far at the site at the Civic Museum of Natural History in Trieste.

The paper “An Italian dinosaur Lagerstätte reveals the tempo and mode of hadrosauriform body size evolution” has been published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.

Fossil Friday: Early-sprouting pine cone preserved in amber

A new fossil described by researchers at the Oregon State University captured a very rare occurrence in the distant past: an example of precocious germination when seeds sprout inside a living plant.

Image credits George Poinar Jr., Oregon State University.

The seed belonged to an ancient pine tree and sprouted while still inside its cone. The plant lived around 40 million years ago and was discovered preserved in a piece of Baltic amber. Several plant embryos are seen sprouting from the cone inside the amber.

A bit too early

“Crucial to the development of all plants, seed germination typically occurs in the ground after a seed has fallen,” said George Poinar Jr. of the Oregon State College of Science, an American entomologist and sole author of the paper. “We tend to associate viviparity – embryonic development while still inside the parent – with animals and forget that it does sometimes occur in plants.”

The findings are particularly interesting because the fossil belongs to a conifer — which belongs to the greater botanical family of gymnosperms. While precocious germination is rare, it is more commonly found in angiosperms, flowering plants which produce their seeds inside fruits. Gymnosperms, on the other hand, produce “naked” seeds; seeds that are not enclosed in mature fruits or ovaries. It’s pretty common to see gymnosperm producing cones, for example.

“Seed germination in fruits is fairly common in plants that lack seed dormancy, like tomatoes, peppers and grapefruit, and it happens for a variety of reasons,” Poinar adds. “But it’s rare in gymnosperms.”

In fact, examples of precocious germination in pine cones is so rare that only one such event (from 1965) has been described in scientific literature, he adds. Their rarity is part of what makes the current discovery so exciting. Added to that, this is the first time this phenomenon has been seen in a fossilized specimen.

Based on the structure of the sprout — the bundles of five needle clusters surrounding its tips in particular — Poinar attributed this specimen to the extinct pine species Pinus cembrifolia. This species has been previously described from other specimens of Baltic amber; examples of pines in Baltic amber are rare to begin with, he adds, despite the fact that the morphology of their cones makes them ideal for preservation in amber and keeps them virtually intact through this process.

Precocious germination is the more common of two types of viviparity, Poinar explains, the other being known as ‘vegetative viviparity’. In the case of this fossil, it’s very likely that some if not all the development of the sprout occurred before the cone fell from its mother tree into resin.

“Often some activity occurs after creatures are entombed in resin, such as entrapped insects depositing eggs,” Poinar said. “Also, insect parasites sometimes flee their hosts into the resin after the latter become trapped. In the case of the pine cone, the cuticle covering the exposed portions of the shoots could have protected them from rapid entrance of the resin’s natural fixatives.”

Beyond how spectacular this specimen itself is, the finding helps us gain a better idea of the environmental conditions in the Baltic region during the time of this pinecone. Previous research on viviparity occurrence in gymnosperms suggests that such events are linked to winter frosts. Light frosts would have been possible in the region if it had a humid, warm-temperate climate; this conclusion supports previous hypotheses regarding Baltic climates in the Eocene, the period when this pine cone grew and fell into amber.

The paper “Precocious germination of a pine cone in Eocene Baltic amber” has been published in the journal Historical Biology.

Fossil Friday: giant ammonites were involved in a size battle with their predators

Ammonites, the infamous coil-shaped mollusks of Earth’s ancient seas, could grow to incredible sizes. New research found that their predators were the likeliest driver of the ammonites’ growth.

One of the specimens used in this study. Scale bar is 100 mm (10 cm, around 4 inches). Image credits Christina Ifrim et al, (2021), PLOS One.

An international team of researchers with members from Germany, Mexico, and the U.K is peering into the evolutionary history of ammonites. They focused their efforts on two related, but visually distinct species: The approach by the team was to first learn more about ammonites in general—to that end they collected 154 specimens from various institutions, all of which were of two species: Parapuzosia leptophylla and Parapuzosia seppenradensis.

Although closely related, there is a huge size difference between the members of these two species. According to the research, the root cause of this difference was pressure applied by predators.

Growing into it

Ammonites are a group of extinct mollusks that are well known for their distinctive coil-shaped shells with frilled suture lines. In general, they were quite small animals, averaging around half a meter (around 1.5 ft) in diameter.

However, one species definitely stands out, size-wise, among this group — Parapuzosia seppenradensis. Individuals of this species could grow very large for an ammonite, up to 1.5 or even 1.8 meters (5 to 6 ft) in diameter.

Up to know, their huge size remained more of a curiosity, one whose causes were poorly understood. In order to get to the bottom of things, however, the team compared a large sample of P. seppenradensis fossils to those of a closely-related species, P. leptophylla.

They report that although the former evolved from the latter after a group of P. leptophylla moved away from their traditional range — the coastlines of today’s western Europe — to new waters, corresponding to today’s Americas.

P. seppenradensis individuals became progressively larger after this shift in location, the team explains. While there are no immediately-obvious causes for this change, no climactic shifts or ecological upheavals, the authors note that mososaurs also began getting bigger at around the same time.

Mosasaurs were giant marine reptiles that lived around the same time as ammonites and were believed to be their main predators.

The researchers’ theory is that P. seppenradensis evolved to grow to larger sizes as smaller individuals were more readily captured by mososaurs. Over time, this would naturally select the group in favor of larger body sizes. However, this shift also started applying pressure on the mososaurs; larger individuals would be better able to hunt the larger ammonites. In turn, this selected the species in favor of larger size.

In other words, it’s possible that we’re seeing a curious case of predator and prey involved in an evolutionary arms race with each other, each driving the other to achieve ever-greater body sizes.

One element that the team admits they cannot explain is that prior research has shown that mososaurs continued growing even after P. seppenradensis reached their maximum size. Furthermore, P. seppenradensis eventually started to revert back to smaller proportions for reasons unknown.

The paper “Ontogeny, evolution and palaeogeographic distribution of the world’s largest ammonite Parapuzosia (P.) seppenradensis (Landois, 1895)” has been published in the journal PLOS One.

Fossil Friday: the story of how tusks evolved from teeth

What, exactly, makes a tusk a tusk? And how did they come to be? New research by U.S. paleontologists sheds light on both of these questions.

Left side of the skull of a dicynodont Dolichuranus fossil used in the study. The tusk is visible at the lower left. Image credits: Ken Angielczyk.

Multiple animal species today have tusks. From elephants to walruses, however, one thing they all have in common is that they’re mammals. This wasn’t always the case, new research reveals. The history of tusks, according to a team of paleontologists at Harvard University, the Field Museum, the University of Washington, and Idaho State University started with an ancient relative of mammals that lived before the age of the dinosaurs.

Those relatives were dicynodont (meaning “two canine teeth), a species that shared some of the characteristics of mammals but also reptiles — including sporting a turtle-like beak.

Tooth or tusk?

“For this paper, we had to define a tusk, because it’s a surprisingly ambiguous term,” said lead author Megan Whitney, a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard University and a UW doctoral alum, in a press release. “Enamel-coated teeth are a different evolutionary strategy than dentine-coated tusks. It’s a trade-off.”

For this study, the team defined tusks as being teeth not covered in enamel (i.e. they’re entirely made of dentine), that extend out past an animal’s mouth, and keep growing throughout the individual’s lifetime. Using this definition, the authors set out to determine the evolutionary history of such appendages. They worked with thin slices cut out from the teeth of several fossil species in order to determine when tusks first appeared. They investigated these using micro-CT scans, to determine how the teeth were attached to the skulls of the animals, and to check for signs of continuous growth around their roots.

Dicynodonts lived from 270 to 201 million years ago, roughly, so they’re quite ancient animals. As a group, they were very diverse, ranging in size from a rat to a modern elephant. They got their name from the two distinctive teeth in their upper jaws, teeth which were the focus of this study.

According to the findings, some dicynodont teeth were indeed tusks. One important finding is that there wasn’t a clear-cut transition between the two. The team analyzed 19 different dicynodont specimens comprising 10 species, finding that tusks evolved independently several times in this extinct clade. Another important hint that we’re looking at the first evolution of tusks was that the earlier dicynodont species only showed teeth, whereas tusks started making an appearance among the later species to arise in this clade.

The enamel layer on this Diictodon caniform (the colorful ring on the cross-section) makes it resemble teeth more than tusks. Image credits Megan Whitney.

“We were able to show that the first tusks belonged to animals that came before modern mammals, called dicynodonts,” said co-author Ken Angielczyk, a curator at the Field Museum in Chicago. “Despite being extremely weird animals, there are some things about dicynodonts — like the evolution of tusks — that inform us about the mammals around us today.”

The authors further report on some adaptations dicynodonts had to go through to enable the evolution of true tusks. These include flexible ligaments connecting the tusks to their jaws, and a reduced overall rate of tooth replacement. The roots of their tusks were hollow, as well, to allow for fresh dentine to be continuously added over time.

Apart from the findings of this study, the team’s classification of what exactly constitutes a tusk and how they’re different from regular teeth is more broadly applicable to other species. In particular, it gives us insight into the different tasks these structures are meant to serve.

The enamel layer on the surface of our teeth is harder than dentine, making it more resilient to wear and tear. But it’s also much harder to heal damaged enamel than it is to heal dentine. Its presence also prevents teeth from growing continuously, as tusks do. Animals with tusks use them for fighting or rooting through the ground, so they’re much more exposed to damage than teeth. A complete enamel covering would be impractical in this situation, as it would present a liability. Since tusks regrow, damaging or losing a tusk isn’t a death sentence. If they had the same structure as teeth, however, they couldn’t be replaced, and any damage would constitute a direct and significant threat to an individual’s survival.

An example of a true tusk in the dicynodont Lystrosaurus, with a hollow pulp cavity in its root where fresh dentine would have been created. Image credits Megan Whitney.

“Tusks have evolved a number of times, which makes you wonder how — and why? We now have good data on the anatomical changes that needed to happen for dicynodonts to evolve tusks,” said co-author Christian Sidor, a UW professor of biology and a curator at the UW’s Burke Museum of Natural History & Culture. “For other groups, like warthogs or walruses, the jury is still out.”

Most of the dicynodont fossils analyzed in this study were unearthed in Tanzania and Zambia. They’re currently stored in a range of museums in the U.S., and are scheduled to be returned to the National Museum of Tanzania and the Livingstone Museum in Zambia after the conclusion of the research project.

The study “The evolution of the synapsid tusk: insights from dicynodont therapsid tusk histology” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Fossil(ish) Friday: Minnesotans want the Giant Beaver to be their new state fossil

The people of Minnesota have just elected their new state fossil: it’s going to be a Giant Beaver (Castoroides ohioensis). Hopefully.

The specimen that the Museum enrolled in the voting competition.

Don’t you just love democracy at work? The Minnesota Science Museum certainly does. They’ve asked the people “what should our state fossil be?” using the magic of the Internet, and the people have answered. A Wednesday post on the Museum’s page together with a live broadcast revealed that the vote went to a Giant Beaver specimen in their collection.

All that’s left now is to make it official.

Big Beaver

“Thank you for voting for our state fossil! What comes next, you ask? We’ll bring your massive mammal candidate to the legislature!”

The Science Museum of Minnesota offered the public a chance to vote which among nine specimens (we’ll see them in a bit) in its collection should come to represent the state as its state fossil. The Giant Beaver received 11,000 votes. It outdid other iconic species such as the crow shark, trilobite, and scimitar-toothed cat. Overall, a landslide win — it gained around 25% of all the votes cast in the competition.

So what exactly were Giant Beavers? Unsurprisingly, they were giant relatives of today’s beavers. Outwardly and in behavior, they resembled the dam-building mammals we all know and love; they had buck teeth and an aquatic lifestyle.

But there were some differences as well: Giant Beavers grew to around 200 pounds and could reach between 1.9 m and 2.2 m (6.2 ft to 7.2 ft) in length. They lived between 2.58 million years and 10,150 years ago, during a geological Epoch known as the Pleistocene.

In many ways, they looked like oversized versions of the beavers that inhabit Minnesota to this day, although their hind legs were much shorter with bigger feet relative to their body proportions. Their teeth were much larger, although proportional to their bigger bodies, but with a rough, striated enamel texture; modern beavers have smooth-textured enamel protecting their teeth. Judging from their skulls, however, we’re pretty confident that Giant Beavers had a smaller brain volume relative to their body, meaning they were probably not quite as smart as modern beavers and had less sophisticated interactions with their environment.

The genus Castoroides was first described from a specimen found in the USA in Ohio (hence its scientific name ‘ohioensis’). All known specimens have been unearthed from the USA and Canada. They’re generally clustered around the midwestern United States in states near the Great Lakes, particularly Illinois and Indiana. However, their habitat certainly ranged between today’s Alaska, Canada, and Florida, as Castoroides specimens have been found at these sites.

“Pretty impressive right? There’s beavers still throughout Minnesota today, they’re an important part of the ecosystems here. A lot of people have seen them, and learned to love these little toothy critters, so why wouldn’t you love an even larger version of that?” said Alex Hastings, the museum’s chair of paleontology, during the livestream on Wednesday.

The specimen that won this competition was found at a site near St. Paul, Minnesota. The museum will present the fossil alongside the results of the vote to lawmakers, who will get to decide if the Giant Beaver should become the state’s first official fossil. Minnesota is one of only seven states that have yet to designate an official fossil; the others are Arkansas, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. The Giant Beaver almost became Minnesota’s official fossil back in 1988, but the measure failed in the legislature. Fingers crossed it makes it this time!

The museum also put up some cool and actually damn funny YouTube videos for each of the contenders, which you can see on their individual voting pages; they’re still up, even if the voting is closed. I will put up links to the individual pages or directly to their YouTube shorts for your convenience (the ones here are for the Giant Beaver).

Go give them a subscribe and some likes if you’re on YouTube, it really helps them out, and they really deserve it. I wish Netflix had content as good as this.

But we’re all here for fossils, and every runner-up in this competition is definitely deserving of some of our love.

Endoceras.

These squid-like creatures were among the largest animals alive during their time (during the Ordovician Period around 450 million years ago) and sported 10 arms. This specimen at the Science Museum of Minnesota was found by a local collector. Individual page and YouTube link.

Stromatolite.

Stromatolites have the honor of being the oldest fossils in Minnesota. They do look unassuming, but that comes down to their history. These clumpy fossils were formed almost 2 billion years ago by photosynthesizing bacteria. What you’re seeing here are the fossils of the first oxygen-producing organisms on Earth. They started the trend that led all the way to us breathing oxygen today. Individual page and YouTube link.

Squalicorax (Crow Shark).

An extinct species that lived during the Cretaceous Period, 90 to 100 million years ago, the Crow Shark prowled the seas as dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Judging by the serrations on its teeth, this shark used to punch high above its weight — and tooth marks found on the bones of fish, dinosaurs, marine reptiles, and even some flying reptiles tell us that it did so with frightening enthusiasm. Individual page and YouTube link.

Dikelocephalus minnesotensis (Trilobite).

Trilobites… were sea bugs. A great, very diverse family of sea bugs who lived during the Cambrian Period, between 492 and 487 million years ago. This particular species got its name for being discovered near Stillwater, Minnesota, and that specimen is now housed at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Individual page and YouTube link.

Bison antiquus.

A relatively young contender, this bison native to Minnesota lived between 60,000 and 4,270 years ago, making the transition from the Late Pleistocene to the Holocene Epoch (the one we’re currently in right now). This species eventually gave rise to the bison we all know. They were probably larger than modern bison, however. Individual page and YouTube link.

Homotherium serum (Scimitar Toothed Cat).

A large predator that stalked the tundras of Minnesota some 27,000 years ago during the Pleistocene Epoch. It had somewhat smaller canines than the infamous saber toothed cat, but more muscular shoulders and arms. Individual page and YouTube link.

Terminonaris robusta.

An extinct (and much bigger) relative of the modern crocodile that lived between 90 and 100 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period. Like modern crocs, it was very toothy and not afraid to bite. Individual page and YouTube link.

Mammuthus columbi.

The Columbian Mammoths lived during the Pleistocene Epoch, between 2 million and 12,000 years ago. They’re one species that are well represented in the state of Minnesota, as the tundra landscapes present here at that time were an ideal stomping ground for these huge beasts. This particular tusk belongs to the Lyle Mammoth which was discovered in the state and is now on display at the Science Museum of Minnesota. Individual page and YouTube link.

All images in this post are courtesy of the Science Museum of Minnesota.

Fossil Friday: two new spinosaurids have been discovered in the UK

Researchers at the University of Southampton have described two new species of spinosaurid, a group of predatory dinosaurs, on the Isle of Wight.

Image credits Chris T. Barker et al., (2021), Nature.

The two dinosaurs belong to the theropod family and are close relatives of the distinctive Spinosaurus. Judging by the crocodile-like shape of their skull, these animals hunted prey on both land and water, the team explained. The species were described based on fossilized bones unearthed near Brighstone over several years. These included parts of two skulls and a large tail section. Overall, 50 different bones from the site have been unearthed from rocks in the 125-million-year-old Wessex Formation.

Apart from these two, only one other species of spinosaurid has previously been unearthed in the UK, the Baryonyx. Virtually all other findings consisted of isolated teeth or bones.

Crocodinos

“We found the skulls to differ not only from Baryonyx, but also one another, suggesting the UK housed a greater diversity of spinosaurids than previously thought,” explains Chris Barker, a PhD student at the University of Southampton and lead author of the study.

“It might sound odd to have two similar and closely related carnivores in an ecosystem, but this is actually very common for both dinosaurs and numerous living ecosystems,” said Dr David Hone, co-author from Queen Mary University of London.

After analyzing the fossils at the University of Southampton, the authors determined that they didn’t belong to any previously identified species.

Following this, one specimen has been christened Ceratosuchops inferodios, roughly translating to “horned crocodile-faced hell heron”. This species is characterized by a series of short horns and bumps growing around the animal’s brow. The name was owed to its likely hunting style, which would be similar to that of a heron, which catches aquatic prey by lurking around the edges of waterways. At the same time, the diet of herons is much more flexible than most people would assume, and often includes terrestrial prey.

The other specimen was named Riparovenator milnerae, translating to “Milner’s riverbank hunter”. This name was given in honor of British paleontologist Angela Milner, who recently passed away. Dr. Milner was the one to study and name Baryonyx.

With the caveat that the skeletons are incomplete, so we can’t know for sure, the researchers estimate that both dinosaurs grew to around nine meters in length, and their skulls would grow to around a meter in length. Based on these fossils, the authors propose that spinosaurids likely evolved in Europe and then dispersed into Asia, Africa, and South America.

The rocks on the Isle of Wight where these fossils were found formed in an ancient floodplain environment in a Mediterranean climate. Remnants of forest fires can be seen as dark bands throughout the cliffs even up to today. However, at the time, this environment provided ample hunting opportunities consisting of fish, sharks, and crocodiles in various bodies of water.

“On behalf of the museum, I wish to express our gratitude to the collectors, including colleagues at the museum, who have made these amazing finds, and made them available for scientific research. We also congratulate the team who have worked on these exciting finds and brought them to publication” said Dr Martin Munt, Curator of Dinosaur Isle Museum.

The new fossils will go on display at Dinosaur Isle Museum at Sandown.

The paper “New spinosaurids from the Wessex Formation (Early Cretaceous, UK) and the European origins of Spinosauridae” has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Fossil Friday: ancient whale that walked on all fours found deep in the Egyptian desert

Roughly one decade ago, Egyptian environmentalists uncovered the bones of an ancient whale — in the sands of the Western Desert. Now, a new paper details this strange finding, describing a brand new species of ‘semi-aquatic’ whale ancestor.

The holotype (the specimen from which the species was described and named) of Phiomicetus anubis. Image credits Abdullah S. Gohan et al., (2021), Proc. R. Soc. B.

This four-legged whale ancestor lived around 43 million years ago, and was, by all indications, an accomplished hunter.

Grandma whale

“We chose the name Anubis because it had a strong and deadly bite,” said paleontologist Hesham Sallam, professor of paleontology at Mansoura University in Egypt, who led the research effort. “It could kill any creature it crossed paths with.”

Phiomicetus anubis is a key new whale species, and a critical discovery for Egyptian and African palaeontology,” the study’s lead author, Abdullah Gohar, told Reuters news agency.

The whale is part of the extinct Phiomicetus genus of protocetidae whales — essentially, the family from which modern whales emerged. It was given the name Anubis in honor of the ancient Egyptian god of death, as judging from its fossils, the animal was quite an accomplished killer.

The animal’s elongated snout and skull point to it being a capable carnivore both in regards to grasping prey and chewing through tough hides and bones.

Perhaps its most unusual features, for most people, would be that P. anubis was semi-aquatic, and possessed four stout legs instead of flippers. The area that makes up the Western Desert today used to be a sea 43 million years ago. P. anubis hunted in its waters and, likely, walked around its shores.

The fossil was first found in 2008, but Sallam put off investigating it until 2017, as he worked to assemble a team of paleontologists that would do the fossil justice. Their work culminated last month when they officially confirmed that the fossil belongs to a completely new species.

From a paleontological standpoint, the discovery is particularly exciting as P. Anubis is one of the last known members of the whale family that retained functional, land-going limbs. Whales as a family have evolved from land mammals that returned to the sea, also transitioning from a herbivorous to a carnivorous diet in the process. Today, all members of the whale family (cetaceans) live exclusively in the seas and oceans. Thus, they have quite an interesting story to tell.

P. anubis was a species that emerged during that transition period, making it a valuable source of information on how it took place and when. Fossils from this window of the whales’ evolutionary history are particularly valuable for helping us understand when they finally made the full transition to ocean life, and where. Currently, our best indication is that it took place around 50 million years ago in today’s India or Pakistan, but this is by no means a settled topic. The new species will undoubtedly help flesh out our understanding of this timeline.

Surprisingly for a desert, Egypt’s Western Desert is quite famous for its prehistoric whale fossils. One area in particular, the White Valley of Wadi al-Hitan, has been declared a natural World Heritage site and attracts a lot of tourist attention due to its prehistoric whale fossils.

The paper “A new protocetid whale offers clues to biogeography and feeding ecology in early cetacean evolution” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

Fossil Friday: UK couple accidentally discovers a mother lode of fossils

A UK couple has found the largest ever haul of echinoderm fossils in the country while planning future trips during the pandemic.

Some of the specimens discovered at the site. Image via Sky News.

Sally and Neville Hollingworth spent their quarantine much like all of us: wasting time, baking bread, Zooming, and daydreaming about the day they’d be free again. That last bit, unbeknownst to them, would lead to the discovery of the largest haul of echinoderms ever found in the UK, according to The Guardian.

Virtual archeology

To pass the time during quarantine, the couple used Google Earth to plan their next trips. Neville, a 60-year-old geology PhD, used the satellite-captured images to inspect fossil-bearing sites that and assess their potential for a visit. Eventually, they tried a quarry in the Cotswolds, one which Neville found promising, but didn’t have high expectations for.

“As soon as lockdown lifted, we got permission and had a look around the quarry,” said Sally, 50, who works in accounts for a construction company in Swindon.

After their journey, they took home a slab of stone — a sample. It “looked a little bit boring” initially, Sally recounts. But, after Neville spent some time in the garage preparing it as a geologist would, they were in for a surprise. The slab held a beautiful, single fossil.

“They look pretty boring and then you start revealing all this detail and the preservation is just amazing,” she said. “I’m looking at this poor little critter, 167m years old. It’s unreal isn’t it. These little guys were around when the dinosaurs were about.”

The couple then contacted the Natural History Museum, sending them some pictures of what they’ve found. Dr Tim Ewin, a senior curator for invertebrate palaeontology, said he immediately recognized that the discovery was quite special, but it took a few months for the coronavirus restrictions to ease up before they could go investigate. According to the museum, this is the largest find of Jurassic echinoderms (a family of animals including starfish, brittle stars, and feather stars) ever found in the UK.

Over 1,000 scientifically significant fossils have been retrieved from the site. The museum is keeping its exact locations under wraps to prevent visitors from damaging the site, that’s how important of a find this is. Alongside rare specimens of feather stars, sea lilies, and starfish, three completely new species have been discovered here — a feather star, a brittle star, and a sea cucumber.

“We couldn’t act straight away because of Covid restrictions and things like that, which just got worse and worse,” Erwin says. “So it was a little bit frustrating having to sort of hang on tenterhooks for the restrictions to ease so we could go out and investigate the site a bit more.”

The site, he adds, is definitely of global significance, being the greatest in terms of the numbers of individuals found, their diversity, and their quality of preservation.

Previously, the same couple discovered a mammoth skull, also while on a picnic.

Fossil Friday: the oldest kind-of-bat species seen so far, described from set of teeth found in China

Asian bats — I think we’ve all heard more about them than we’d like, these past two years. But new research comes with a twist on that subject. Researchers from the US and China have identified the oldest known bat fossil from the Asian record.

The upper molars of Altaynycteris aurora, from which the species was described. Image credits Matthew F. Jones et al., (2021), Biology Letters.

The discovery helps us better understand the evolutionary history of the only true mammalian flyers, pushing their story back to the Eocene — as far as we know. It also raises the possibility that the bat family originates in Asia entirely, although it’s too soon to say for sure.

Whence bats come from

“Bats show up in the fossil record out of the blue about 55-ish million years ago — and they’re already scattered on different parts of the globe,” said lead author Matthew Jones, a doctoral student at the KU Biodiversity Institute and Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology. “Before this, the earliest bats are known from a couple of places in Europe — Portugal and southern France — and Australia. So, when they show up early in the fossil record as these fragmentary fossils they’re already effectively worldwide.”

“By the time we get their earliest known full skeletons, they look modern — they can fly, and most of them are able to echolocate. But we don’t really know anything about this transitional period from non-bats to bats. We don’t even really know what their closest living relatives are among mammals. It’s a really big evolutionary mystery where bats came from and how they evolved and became so specialized.”

The team comprised members from the University of Kansas and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The fossil they describe was unearthed at a remote field site in the Junggar Basin, China, after quite a long digging effort. Although they suspected that the sites would be rich in Paleocene and Eocene fossils, Jones explained, various members of the team worked here for several years, sifting the sediment, before finding any actual fossils.

“We’ve been fortunate enough to be able to host our Chinese colleagues here in Lawrence for extended research visits, and they’ve more than reciprocated by hosting us for research and fieldwork in China. This work in the Junggar Basin is really trailblazing work because the fossil record in this part of China is only just barely beginning to emerge, and this area is very removed and isolated. It’s just a giant empty place. There are some camels, some snakes and lizards, but you don’t see many people there. That remoteness makes the logistics to do fieldwork there quite difficult and expensive because you’ve got to bring in all your food and water from far outside — all of that hindered research in this area previously.”

Residues from the sieving were sent to the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing for sorting. Back in 2017, they got the first sign that their work would pay off: a possible fragment of a fossilized bat — a tooth. One year later, a second tooth was found amid the sieved dirt. Their structure was distinctive enough to suggest they belonged to a yet-undescribed species; the team christened it Altaynycteris aurora.

Residue from the sifting was sent to the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing for sorting. Back in 2017, they got the first sign that their work would pay off: a possible fragment of a fossilized bat — a tooth. One year later, a second tooth was found in the dirt. Their structure was distinctive enough to suggest they belonged to a yet-undescribed species; the team christened it Altaynycteris aurora.

Still, the teeth leave us with more questions than answers. The morphological details of the species remain unknown; we can’t even say for sure whether it was able to fly, or echolocate, like bats today do. According to Jones, they look to be “in between what we would expect a bat ancestor to look like […] and what true bat looks like”.

“So, they have some features that are characteristic of bats that we can point to and say, ‘These are bats.’ But then they have some features that we can call for simplicity’s sake ‘primitive,'” he adds.

The paper “The earliest Asian bats (Mammalia: Chiroptera) address major gaps in bat evolution” has been published in the journal Biology Letters.

Several city- and state-sized asteroids impacted young Earth. Probably.

Early Earth might have caught some significantly larger asteroids than we assumed, a new paper reports. These could have ranged from a city to a small province in size, the authors explain. Still, in the end, these impacts could have helped to shape Earth into what it is today.

Rendering of Mars’ Victoria Crater. Image credits Alexander Antropov.

Take someone living today back to the days when our Earth was young, and they probably wouldn’t recognize it. Even after its crust cooled and solidified, the blue planet wasn’t particularly blue, but rather, a bit barren. It was also pockmarked by asteroid impacts and, occasionally, impacted by asteroids.

Most traces of this past have slowly been ground away by tectonics, erosion, and weathering. So we don’t have much in the way of direct evidence (i.e. craters) to study. Still, researchers are pretty confident that the Earth was hit by a significant number of large asteroids, rocks over 10 km (6.2 mi) in diameter, in the past, and that this helped shape its chemical properties, eventually culminating in the appearance of life. But new research presented at the 2021 Goldschmidt Geochemistry Conference proposes that these large asteroids were much larger than we believed.

Big Rock

While our planet slowly grinds away traces of asteroid impacts unlike, say, the Moon or Mars, we can still find evidence of them happening in the shape of spherules. These are round, glassy beads that are produced by super-heated material ejected during an asteroid impact. As they’re propelled away from the impact through the air, they cool to form a spherical shape and eventually land back on the surface. Over geological time, they become encased by rocks. The greater the impact, the more of these particles it would produce, and the wider they would spread around the crater.

A large enough impact could even spread spherules across the world.

The team developed a statistical model to analyze our records of spherule layers so far. Their model suggests that the number of known impacts in the past “severely underestimates” the real number of impacts. According to the results, there were likely 10 times more impacts between 3.5 and 2.5 billion years ago than we assumed. That’s equivalent to one Chicxulub-sized impact (the one that wiped out the dinosaurs) once every 15 million years.

The authors add that although we have very little information regarding their number and magnitude, these impacts had a profound effect on how the Earth’s surface and atmosphere evolved throughout the ages. For example, they explain that atmospheric levels of oxygen likely varied significantly during these impacts. They could help account for the dips we see in oxygen levels throughout history, before they stabilized around 2.5 billion years ago, for example.

Given how important oxygen eventually became for the evolution of both the Earth and the life upon it, a better understanding of ancient impacts could help us better understand how we came to be here.

Naturally, the impacts also caused widespread disruption and destruction, but we don’t really have enough evidence to estimate their true effect; very few rocks survive from that period. This lack of direct data is what prompted the team to develop a statistical model to study these impacts in the first place.

Researchers discover a new species of ancient beetle inside fossilized poop

Researchers at the Uppsala University have reported on an exciting find: the world’s first species identified from a piece of fossilized dinosaur poop.

Image credits Martin Qvarnström et al., (2021), Current Biology.

The 230-million-year old insect was found in excellent condition inside a dinosaur coprolite, a piece of fossilized feces. It was christened Triamyxa coprolithica in honor of this.

In-dung beetle

Coprolites are quite common in museum collections around the world, but aren’t generally examined to see if they contain any fossils. This is due to the fact that the consensus among paleontologists is that small insects (the only animals small enough to fit inside coprolites) wouldn’t have been able to survive through the digestive tract of a dinosaur intact.

Because of this, most of our knowledge regarding insect evolution in the past comes from specimens that were trapped in amber, fossilized tree resin. The downside with this is that such specimens aren’t that common, so we can miss bits of the original picture, and they’re also not very old, geologically speaking. The oldest such fossils we’ve ever found are around 140 million years old — which isn’t that old.

For the study, Uppsala University paleontologist Martin Qvarnström and his colleagues examined coprolites from Poland that were previously dated to the Triassic period (230 million years ago). They selected a particular fragment based on its external features. It was 2 centimeters long with broken ends, and their shape suggested it was once part of a larger specimen which the team believed would make it more likely to contain insect remnants.

This fragment was then examined with X-rays inside a synchrotron, which allowed the team to rotate the coprolite in the beam in order to create a 3D model of its inside structure. There, they found excellently preserved, almost complete insect bodies measuring 1.4 millimeters in length, alongside fragments including heads, legs, and antennae.

Based on the wealth and quality of the specimens found in the coprolite, the authors were able to determine that they are a new species belonging to the group Myxophaga, small beetles that live in wet habitats and feed on algae. Although this species — coprolithica — is now extinct, four lineages in the Myxophaga group are alive to this day. This is the first time we’ve found enough fossilized material of good enough quality to “describe a new species, genus, and family,” says lead author Martin Qvarnström.

The classification was made based on characteristics like the number of abdomen segments or the position of the antennae which were compared to those of modern Myxophaga.

The coprolite was most likely dropped by a Silesaurus opolensis, a beaked dinosaur ancestor that grew to about 2.3 meters in length. It’s very likely what kept the insects in such good condition, as the material creates a microenvironment that preserves organic material such as soft tissues without flattening them, like typical fossilization processes do.

All in all, this research gives us fresh information about the evolution of beetles, as well as a glimpse into the dietary habits of certain dinosaurs and the structure of food webs during the Triassic.

For T. coprolithica itself, we still can’t know for sure how or why it went extinct while some of its relatives survived into the modern period. Many factors, which can often seem unrelated, contribute to a species surviving or dying off — so its causes are never easy to understand.

The paper “Exceptionally preserved beetles in a Triassic coprolite of putative dinosauriform origin” has been published in the journal Current Biology.

Fossil Friday: 1,000-year-old egg found whole in a cesspit in Israel

Researchers at the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) report finding an unusual and exciting fossil: a 1000-year-old, unbroken chicken egg preserved in an unfortunate place.

The ancient egg. Image credits: Dafna Gazit, Yoli Schwartz, Gilad Stern, Israel Antiquities Authority.

It might be hard to imagine this today, but for the majority of human history, poultry was a rather exotic meat. Sacrificing a laying bird for its meat meant giving up all the eggs it would potentially lay in the future — an extravagant waste. Male birds, or those too old to lay eggs, were an exception to this rule. Still, chicken farming was quite common all around the world, as the birds themselves are easy to care for and provide a constant source of food.

Finding evidence of that farming as an archeologist, however, is no easy feat. Which makes the IAA’s discovery all that more exciting.

Unbroken

“Eggshell fragments are known from earlier periods, for example in the City of David and at Caesarea and Apollonia, but due to the eggs’ fragile shells, hardly any whole chicken eggs have been preserved,” said IAA archaeologist Dr. Lee Perry Gal.

“Even at the global level, this is an extremely rare find.”

The fossilized, unbroken egg was discovered at the site of Yavne, on Israel’s southern Mediterranean coast, in an Islamic-era cesspit. The “soft human waste” material it found itself in helped keep it intact over the centuries, the team explains, an example of “unique preservation”.

Poultry farming in Israel has its roots in the Hellenistic and Early Roman periods, starting roughly 2,300 or so years ago. Later, during the Islamic period (from around the 7th century CE), poultry farming became even more popular. This coincides with a noticeable decrease in the quantities of pig bones found at various archeological sites in the region.

Although faith definitely played a part in this shift (the consumption of pork is completely forbidden in the Islamic faith), sheer practicality also played a part. People living in the region around this time needed a reliable source of protein that wouldn’t need to be preserved or kept cool to prevent spoiling over short periods. Eggs, and to a lesser extent, chicken meat, served that purpose, Gal explains.

“How did the egg end up in the cesspit? We will never know,” the archaeologists said.

“Unfortunately, the egg had a small crack in the bottom so most of the contents had leaked out of it. Only some of the yolk remained, which was preserved for future DNA analysis.”

Several other items were retrieved from the same cesspit, including bone dolls typical of the Islamic period, dating back probably around 1,000 years or so.

Fossil Friday: Australia’s largest known dinosaur identified after a decade of work

A newly-identified titanosaurus, christened Australotitan cooperensis, is one of the 15 largest dino species we’ve ever found. And, so far, it seems to be the largest one ever uncovered in Australia.

Image credits Queensland Museum.

According to estimations from experts, this “southern titan” could likely grow up to 6.5m (21ft) tall and 30m (98.5ft) long, which Google tells me is just a tad longer than a basketball court. Its fossil was discovered on a farm in southwest Queensland almost one decade ago, and paleontologists spent all that time trying to distinguish it from other known species, mostly by comparing scans of it to the bones of known sauropods.

Big-boned down under

The sauropods were a lineage of plant-eating dinosaurs that grew to awesome proportions. Their bulky bodies were fleshed out with very long necks and tails, thin, somewhat stumpy legs, and quite small heads (relative to their overall size). They lived during the Cretaceous period, between 92 to 96 million years ago, and were probably the largest animals to ever walk on dry land.

The new species was christened Cooper (cooperensis means ‘of/from Cooper’ in Latin) for the area where it was unearthed: Cooper Creek. The remote location of this site, as well as the impressive size of the fossils themselves and their condition, made the identification process that much longer. They were unearthed in 2007 on a family farm near Cooper Creek, Eromanga, Australia, on a family farm owned by two of the authors of this paper, Robyn and Stuart Mackenzie.

Artist’s impression of what the dino looked like. Image credits Queensland Museum.

However, enough of the bones were found intact for researchers at the Queensland Museum and the Eromanga Natural History Museum to study and reliably identify.

It is closely related to three known sauropod species: the Wintonotitan, Diamantinasaurus, and Savannasaurus. This would mean that Australia’s largest dinosaur is, appropriately, part of one big family of big animals.

“It’s amazing to think from the first bones discovered by our son, the first digs with the Queensland Museum, through to the development of a not-for-profit museum that runs annual dinosaur digs, all have helped us to get to this point, it’s a real privilege,” Stuart Mackenzie said.

“Australia is one of the last frontiers for dinosaur discovery and Queensland is quickly cementing itself as the palaeo-capital of the nation – there is still plenty more to discover,” said Dr Jim Thompson, chief executive of the Queensland Museum Network.

The paper “A new giant sauropod, Australotitan cooperensis gen. et sp. nov., from the mid-Cretaceous of Australia” has been published in the journal PeerJ.

Fossil Friday: ancient poop offers insight into what the ancient, giant Moa birds ate

Sometimes, archeology is about finding a whole T. rex and being showered with fame and glory. Other times, it’s about analyzing fossilized bird dung. Today’s story involves the latter.

The coprolite specimen, in all of its glory. Image credits Wood et al., (2021), QSR.

Researchers at the Manaaki Whenua—Landcare Research Institute have recently discovered a deposit of moa coprolites (fossilized feces) in the Fiordland National Park, New Zealand. DNA sequencing and microscope analysis performed on the fossil, as well as our previous knowledge of where individual moa species lived, are helping us better understand what the little bush moa (Anomalopteryx didiformis) ate.

Taken at feces value

Virtually everything we know of the moa’s diets comes from coprolites and fossilized gizzard contents. These are usually run through DNA sequencing (to identify exactly which species they originate from), then dissected and examined under a microscope so scientists can get an idea of what the birds ate.

So far, most of what we know of the moa is concentrated around only three species from the South Island — the South Island giant moa, upland moa, and heavy-footed moa. Around 90% of all the material of this type we’ve found so far is related to one of these three species. The remaining six moa species, in contrast, are quite poorly understood. The new coprolite will help fill in missing parts of this picture — it belongs to one of the six latter species, the little bush moa.

This bird used to live in lowland, closed-canopy forests throughout New Zealand, growing to between 50 and 90 cm (1.64 to 2.95 ft) tall, and weighing around 26 to 64 kg (57 to 141 lbs). It’s a particularly important discovery, explains lead researcher Dr. Jamie Wood, because it comes from the southernmost site at which moa coprolites were ever discovered. The site is also the one with the longest documented timespan of coprolite accumulation, totalling around 2200 years.

“Until now, only five little bush moa coprolites have previously been identified, all from central Otago,” he adds.

“Pollen and plant DNA from the coprolites, as well as associated plant macrofossils, show that the deposit spans a period when the forest canopy was transitioning from conifers (dominated by miro, matai, totara, and mountain toatoa from the Podocarpaceae family) to silver beech (Lophozonia menziesii) dominance about 6800 to 4600 years ago.”

Evidence of red mistletoe (Peraxilla tetrapetala) was also found in the newly-discovered coprolites.

One interesting tidbit, however, is that very few seeds were found in this specimen compared to coprolites from other moa species. These birds often served to disperse tiny seeds around their habitats in their droppings, which is a very important ecological function. Regardless, the little bush moa seems instead to have been eating large conifer seeds, which get completely ground down in their gizzards, and not dispersed.

These findings seem to indicate that the little bush moa dined primarily on trees and shrubs in the forest understory, and offer reliable evidence that ground ferns made up an important part of their diet.

“While little bush moa may not have been great seed dispersers, based on our finding of ground fern DNA, frond cuticle remains and high spore counts, they may have played a previously unrecognized role as dispersers of ground fern spores throughout New Zealand forests,” according to Dr. Wood.

The paper “Mid-Holocene coprolites from southern New Zealand provide new insights into the diet and ecology of the extinct little bush moa (Anomalopteryx didiformis)” has been published in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews.

Fossil Friday: a 6-year-old UK boy finds ancient fossil in his backyard with a toy archeology kit

A six-year-old boy in Walsall, England, is probably the youngest individual to ever make it into a Fossil Friday story. His discovery: a fossilized horn coral, several hundred million years old, that he uncovered in his family’s back yard with a fossil-hunting kit he received for Christmas.

The fossil. Image via standard.co.uk.

Sid, or Siddak Singh Jhamat in full, said he was “excited” to make the discovery, and that he was just looking for worms. His father helped him identify what the fossil actually was through a fossils’ enthusiasts group on Facebook. Estimates place the specimen’s age between 251 and 488 million years old according to Vish Singh, said the boy’s father, and it is most likely a Rugosa coral.

Beginner’s luck

“I was just digging for worms and things like pottery and bricks and I just came across this rock which looked a bit like a horn and thought it could be a tooth or a claw or a horn, but it was actually a piece of coral which is called horn coral,” the schoolboy said.

“I was really excited about what it really was.”

Mr. Singh explains that his son found the “odd-shaped” horn coral in the soil in their back yard, next to “some smaller pieces”. Encouraged by his success, Sid went digging again the next day, finding a congealed block of sand. Locked inside this block were several little molluscs, seashells, and even a partial crinoid specimen.

During the time this coral fossil was still a living coral, the area that is the UK today was just one tiny part of the supercontinent Pangea, and it was also virtually all underwater — an inland lake.

Sid and his coral fossil. Image via standard.co.uk.

The finding is quite surprising because Walsall, the area where the Singh family lives, isn’t really known for its fossils. Other areas of the UK, such as its suggestively named Jurassic Coast, are hotbeds for fossil hunters. Still, Mr. Singh says their garden has lots of natural clay outcroppings, and his son found the coral in one of these.

If anything, this unlikely event showcases that it’s never too early to start looking for fossils. It’s also a good reminder that fossils can, really, be anywhere. That being said, a large specimen such as the one unearthed by Sid and his trusty toy kit is quite a rare discovery even for hardened paleontologists.

Fossil Friday: private collector wanted a dinosaur skull, but got a huge, fossilized bony fish lung

Researchers at the University of Portsmouth have run into the fossilized remains of an ancient bony fish — the coelacanth — out of sheer luck. Or bad luck, depending on who you’re asking.

The original slab as purchased. The coelacanth ossified lung in close proximity to a series of associated, but disarticulated wing elements of a large, but indeterminate pterosaur. Image credits University of Portsmouth.

In a break from our traditional story path for Fossil Friday, there won’t be much talk about anything being ‘unearthed’ today. That’s because the fossil in question is part of a private collection from a London aficionado. It was identified as having belonged to a species of coelacanth by Professor David Martill, a paleontologist from the University’s School of the Environment, Geography and Geosciences, after he was asked to take a look at the specimen and determine its origin.

Although the discovery is quite exciting from an academic point of view, the collector was (reportedly) less than thrilled: they wanted a pterosaur skull, but got a bony fish.

Old fish

“The collector was mightily disappointed he didn’t have a pterosaur skull, but my colleagues and I were thrilled as no coelacanth has ever been found in the phosphate deposits of Morocco, and this example was absolutely massive!” explains Professor Martill.

“The thin bony plates were arranged like a barrel, but with the staves going round instead of from top to bottom. Only one animal has such a structure and that is the coelacanth — we’d found a bony lung of this remarkable and bizarre-looking fish.”

The fossil corresponds to a fish that’s similar in size to a great white shark of today and is the largest fossil of its kind to ever be discovered by accident. Although they’ve been swimming around since the dinosaurs were still roaming the Earth, coelacanths are still alive to this day, although they are quite rare and rarely seen. They’re also quite endangered.

The collector bought this fossil thinking it could have been part of a pterodactyls’ skull. Professor Martill instead found that the specimen was composed of numerous, thin bone plates, not a single piece, as you’d see in a skull. Prof. Martill worked together with Dr. Paulo Brito of the State University of Rio de Janeiro, a leading Brazilian paleontologist, to study the fossil. Brito, an expert on coelacanths and their lungs, admitted to being ‘astonished’ at how large this specimen was.

It has been embedded in a block of phosphate with a plaster backing, and everything was then coated in lacquer — this, the two explain, caused the fossils to take a brown hue. It was found next to a pterodactyl specimen (which is probably why the collector thought it was part of that animal). Although they turned out to be completely different species, this does help give us a rough estimate of when the fish lived: around 66 million years ago, in the Cretaceous era.

The lung specimen and its likely position in a mawsoniid coelacanth.
Image credits University of Portsmouth.

Following an initial investigation of the specimen, its owner offered to give the researchers the remains of the bony lung off the slab, which they accepted. Later, they removed the lacquer using specialized equipment (mostly dental tools and fine brushes) to enable more thorough research on the fossils.

The very large size of the lung belonging to this animal suggests that it was a very, very big individual during its day — around five meters in length, the team reports. This is much larger than the coelacanths of today, which grow to around two meters in length, at most.

“We only had a single, albeit massive lung so our conclusions required some quite complex calculations,” Professor Martill explains. “It was astonishing to deduce that this particular fish was enormous — quite a bit longer than the length of a stand-up paddleboard and likely the largest coelacanth ever discovered.” 

The fossil will be given back to the Moroccan government, the owner explains, and will most likely be added to the collections in the Department of Geology at Hassan II University of Casablanca.

The paper “A marine Late Cretaceous (Maastrichtian) coelacanth from North Africa” has been published in the journal Cretaceous Research.

Fossil Friday: surprise teen Plesiosaurus found in ammonite mine in Alberta, Canada

Sometimes, even professional fossil-seekers can be surprised to find a fossil. That’s exactly what happened recently at the Enchanted Designs Ammonite Mine, south of Lethbridge, Canada, when workers (who mine for ammonite fossils) ran into a Plesiosaur fossil estimated to be around 75 million years old.

Image capture from a CTV coverage of the discovery.

This particular specimen was likely an adolescent at the time of its death judging from its size, local news outlets report.

Suddenly, Plesiosaurus

“The guys started scraping and noticed there were some vertebrae that appeared below the concretion line, and right away we knew we had a new fossil,” said Michael Shideler, manager of the Enchanted Designs Ammonite Mine.

Plesiosaurs were highly specialized marine dinosaurs. They had a small head on a very long neck, long tear-shaped bodies, a stumpy tail, and four wide flippers. They were pretty similar in shape to what you’d imagine the Loch Ness monster to be.

And just like with the Loch Ness monster, none of the workers at the mine expected to run into this fossil. The Enchanted Designs Ammonite Mine has been shut down during winter, so activity at the site is still picking up as the mining season is still fresh. One of the crews digging for ammonites there ran into a large and compact mass of material (a ‘concretion’) that stood out from the mine’s rock walls.

Based on the fossilized fragments recovered so far, the specimen was likely 7 meters (~23 ft) long when it died; almost half of that length is just neck. This would mean that the animal was still pretty young, likely an adolescent, when it met its end. Other plesiosaur specimens that we’ve recovered reach up to 14 m (46 ft) in length, with a similar neck-to-not-neck ratio.

What made the discovery particularly surprising is that marine reptile fossils are very rare in the Bearpaw Formation, which stretches through Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Montana, and into which the mine delves. Around 75 million years ago, when this formation was still on the surface, the area was the bottom of a shallow tropical sea. A large number of ammonites, fish and marine reptiles lived here, which is why the formation is such a rich source of fossils. However, this is the first time a specimen of this kind has been recovered from the mine.

The plesiosaur and other undetermined fossils have been collected and taken to the Royal Tyrrell Museum, where they will be removed from their rocky prisons for research.