Tag Archives: bones

Fossil Friday: ancient shark bones turn out to be the teeth of a new species of flying dinosaur

Researchers at the University of Portsmouth have made a lucky discovery in the collections of the Sedgwick Museum of Cambridge and the Booth Museum at Brighton: a new species of pterosaur.

The fossils as seen from different angles. Scale bar represents 10 mm. Image credits Author links open overlay Roy E. Smith et al., (2020), Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association.

The fossils have been part of these collections for almost 100 years now, being first uncovered between 1851 and 1900. They were found at the height of phosphate mining activity in the English Fens area. As was regularly the practice among workmen there at the time, they quietly sold any fossils they found to collectors for some extra money.

Before we judge them too harshly, it pays to keep in mind that they had a direct hand to play in the discovery of a new species, even if unwittingly. Since their discovery, the fossils were assumed to have belonged to a species of shark. However, the work of University of Portsmouth Ph.D. student Roy Smith revealed that, in fact, they belonged to a new species of pterosaur.


Smith was examining (what we believed to be) the shark fin spines found in the fens when he noticed that they weren’t spines at all. They definitely looked the part, at least superficially, but there were also some details that didn’t fit the bill. Unfortunately, they were just teeth (connected to a bit of beak), so we don’t have enough material to describe the species it belonged to.

“One such feature are tiny little holes where nerves come to the surface and are used for sensitive feeding by the pterosaurs. Shark fin spines do not have these, but the early paleontologists clearly missed these features,” he explains. “Two of the specimens discovered can be identified as a pterosaur called Ornithostoma, but one additional specimen is clearly distinct and represents a new species. It is a palaeontological mystery.”

“Unfortunately, this specimen is too fragmentary to be the basis for naming the new species. Sadly, it is doubtful if any more remains of this pterosaur will be discovered, as there are no longer any exposures of the rock from which the fossils came. But I’m hopeful that other museum collections may contain more examples, and as soon as the Covid restrictions are lifted I will continue my search.”

Smith’s supervisor, Professor Dave Martill, explains that the material we do have “simply differs from Ornithostoma [a pterodactyl lineage] in subtle ways”, similarly to how “a great white egret might differ from a heron”. He adds that it’s unlikely that the animal had a significantly different body structure to other pterodactyls, but that it likely diverged most in areas such as “color, call, and behavior than in the skeleton”. Still, he describes the findings as “tantalizing”.

“Pterosaurs with these types of beaks are better known at the time period from North Africa, so it would be reasonable to assume a likeness to the North African Alanqa”, he adds. “This is extremely exciting to have discovered this mystery pterosaur right here in the UK.”

Part of the significance of the work is finding hints of a new species, the two researchers say. But they’re also valuable in showcasing how re-examining dusty museum collections for old material we assume was already identified can help us make whole new discoveries.

The paper “Edentulous pterosaurs from the Cambridge Greensand (Cretaceous) of eastern England with a review of Ornithostoma Seeley, 1871” has been published in the Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association.

Mammaliaform Morgauncodon

Mammals’ evolutionary success relied on our ancestors growing very tiny

Mammals cashed in big on growing smaller, new research reveals.

Mammaliaform Morgauncodon

Morganucodon, a mamaliaformes and one of the best-preserved species from which all mammals originate, grew up to only 4-6 cm length.
Image credits Bob Nicholls.

The bubbly evolution of mammal species over the last 200 million years is owed in no small part to their propensity for growing smaller, a new paper reports. This trend is most evident when compared to that of the dinosaurs — the former de-facto winners of the evolutionary lottery — which spawned some of the largest beasts to ever walk the Earth.

Smaller, better, harder, stronger

When mammals first started popping up around 200 million years ago, our planet was still dominated by dinosaurs. So for the following 150-ish million years, mammals literally and figuratively kept a low profile. While dinosaurs were growing bigger, mammals shrank in size.

An international team of researchers set out to understand why and how this shift took place. Using modern computer modeling and analysis, they analyzed the skeletons of our tiny ancestors to better document their evolutionary path.

Mammals stand out among all other vertebrates on the planet in that they have a single bone bearing teeth for their lower jaw. Everyone else has more complex lower jaws, formed from no fewer than five bones linked together, the team explains.

As mammals evolved, most of these bones shrank in size and became more simplified. The new jaw retained a single bone, and the others moved higher in the skull, into the inner ear. They now help us hear.

The team focused their research efforts on understanding how this lower jaw restructuring process took place — as they were occurring, these changes had to allow the animal to keep feeding itself and hear, else they wouldn’t be viable organisms. Starting from X-ray computed tomography (CT) scans of several fossil skulls and lower jaws, the team created digital models of the bones. Later, they ran these models through extensive computer simulations to see how they would function.

For smaller animals, the team reports, jaw bones experience reduced stress when feeding. The jaws themselves could thus become simpler and tinier while still retaining enough structural strength to bite through prey.

“Our results provide a new explanation of how the mammalian jaw evolved over 200 million years ago,” says Dr Stephan Lautenschlager, lead author of the paper and lecturer at the University of Birmingham.

“Getting very small appears to have been crucial for our mammalian ancestors. This allowed them to reduce the stresses in the jaw during feeding and made the restructuring of the jaw bones possible.”

University of Bristol Professor Emily Rayfield, who co-authored the study, says that the research addresses a 50-year-old open debate in paleontology.

“Using computational methods we can offer explanations to how our mammalian ancestors were able to maintain a working jaw while co-opting bones into a complex sound detection system,” she explains. “Our research is about testing ideas of what makes mammals unique among the animal kingdom, and how this may have come about.”

The paper “The role of miniaturisation in the evolution of the mammalian jaw and middle ear” has been published in the journal Nature.


Roman fish salting workshops reveal two whale species lost from the Mediterranean

The Roman Empire used to dine on whale fished from the Mediterranean Sea — the two species have, since then, virtually disappeared from the area and the wider North Atlantic, however.

Grey whale.

Adult grey whale.
Image credits José Eugenio Gómez Rodríguez.

Bones discovered in the ruins of a Roman fish salting compound near the strait of Gibraltar suggest that the Empire’s subjects may have hunted whales for food. The implications are interesting not only from a historical and archaeological point of view — the Romans are not traditionally regarded as accomplished sailors — but also from an ecological standpoint.

Bread, games, and salted whale

Back in Rome’s heyday, the Gibraltar region served as a central fish-processing hub. Ruins from hundreds of factories outfitted with large salting tanks (indicative of an industrial-scale endeavor) still litter the area. Based on the scale of the industry, it’s likely that the products manufactured here used to reach far and wide onto plates across the Roman Empire.

The recent discovery of whale bones amid these workshops in the Gibraltar region stands to change our understanding of the Roman fishing industry and the history of two whale species — which have now virtually disappeared from the North Atlantic area.

One team, led by researchers from the Archaeology Department at the University of York, drew on DNA analysis and collagen fingerprinting to identify the bones — their results showing the remains belonged to the North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) and the Atlantic gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus).

The findings surprised them, to say the least. On the one hand, the Mediterranean, despite housing several species of whales and other cetaceans today, was always considered outside of the historical range of both the gray and right whale. On the other hand, the Romans simply didn’t have the means to fish such large prey — none that we’re aware of, anyway.


Some fish-salting tanks in the ancient Roman city of Baelo Claudia (near today’s Tarifa in Spain). The largest circular tank is 3 meters / 10 feet wide, with some 18 meters3 / 193 cubic feet capacity. They were used to salt large fish such as tuna, but perhaps whales as well.

Right whales are listed as Endangered under the IUCN’s Red List, and are further protected by the Endangered Species Act in the US. The species is considered to be one of the hardest-pressed species of whales in the world. Populations in the western North Atlantic can only boast a few hundred individuals, while those in the eastern North Atlantic may already be functionally extinct, with under 50 members.

Gray whales technically fare much better and are listed under ‘least concern’ overall, as there are enough individuals to ensure a stable population and the last three years have seen an increase in their numbers. The western subpopulation is listed separately — based on genetic evidence showing they’re an isolated, distinct group — as ‘Critically Endangered.’ However, it must be noted that the gray whale has been completely wiped out in the North Atlantic, and the family’s range is now limited to the North Pacific exclusively.

Both species got so ragged after centuries of whaling. For context, the first records of right whale hunting come from Basque (northern Spain) whalers plying their trade in the Bay of Biscay in the 11th century. Gray whales have been hunted by indigenous populations since antiquity, although it’s likely that right whales suffered a similar fate.

Previously widespread

The findings, however, suggest that both species once inhabited much wider ranges than we ever suspected. The findings were only made possible by their use of “new molecular methods” to analyze the whale bones, the team says.

“Whales are often neglected in Archaeological studies,” says Dr. Camilla Speller, paper co-author, “because their bones are frequently too fragmented to be identifiable by their shape.”

“Our study shows that these two species were once part of the Mediterranean marine ecosystem and probably used the sheltered basin as a calving ground.”

Since both species are migratory, their presence east of Gibraltar (the strait that connects the Mediterranean sea to the Atlantic) suggests they came here to give birth in safer waters.

Southern Right Whale.

Southern Right Whale (Eubalaena australis).
Image credits Gregory “Slobirdr” Smith / Flickr.

The findings also raise the possibility that the Romans developed a form of whaling alongside traditional fishing practices. However, the evidence is far from conclusive. There is evidence that they fished for large species such as tuna, but based on what we know of their sailing and boat-building capabilities, it seems rather unlikely they would be able to hunt something as large as a whale.

“[…] perhaps the bones are evidence of opportunistic scavenging from beached whales along the coast line,” adds Dr. Speller.

“Romans did not have the necessary technology to capture the types of large whales currently found in the Mediterranean, which are high-seas species. But right and gray whales and their calves would have come very close to shore, making them tempting targets for local fishermen,” says study lead author Dr. Ana Rodrigues.

The opportunistic approach is more likely, especially since we know Basque whalers centuries later would successfully hunt for their prey using small rowing boats and hand harpoons.

The findings also help clarify historic sources such as texts penned by Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder, which describes killer whales attacking newborn calves and their mothers in the Cadiz bay. Today, such descriptions simply don’t make any sense, “but it fits perfectly with the ecology if right and gray whales used to be present,” according to co-author Anne Charpentier, a lecturer at the University of Montpellier.

The authors hope that — armed with their findings that coastal whales once formed an important part of the Mediterranean ecosystem — historians and archeologists can make better sense of other primary sources.

The paper “Forgotten Mediterranean calving grounds of gray and North Atlantic right whales: evidence from Roman archaeological records” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B.

Mammoth lyon.

“Exceptional” mammoth skeleton sold for over half a million dollars in France

The CEO of a French waterproofing company just bought a woolly mammoth skeleton — 80% of which is original bone.

Mammoth lyon.

Image via Youtube.

If you’re looking for more unusual Christmas presents, know that it cost Pierre-Etienne Bindschelder, CEO of French-based waterproofing company Soprema, €548,250 (US $646,000) to buy himself a nice, full wooly mammoth skeleton at the Aguttes auction house in Lyon. Which, I think we can all agree, will definitely make for an interesting discussion topic around the holiday table.

Bindschelder says he was motivated to buy the giant skeleton — mounted in a forward walking position, its enormous curved tusks with tones of caramel and ivory facing slightly downward — at least in part, by his line of work: his company’s logo is a woolly mammoth.

“We are going to display it in the lobby of our firm,” he said. “I think we have enough room.”

The skeleton is the largest of its kind ever found, a male standing at more than 10 feet tall. It’s also of “exceptional quality”, being spectacularly well preserved and almost complete. It’s one of only a hundred mammoths of its species we’ve ever discovered, and it stands out through its imposing size and the quality of its tusks — each roughly 9 feet long, “weighing 80 kilos and 90 percent intact,” natural history expert Eric Mickeler told The Local France.

It was unearthed roughly one decade ago by a hunter in Siberia, who found the bones sticking out from the permafrost. The once-in-a-lifetime find was made possible, in large part, by climate change — which is making Siberia’s permafrost thaw and melt at a very rapid rate. The other part is that mammoth bones are actually pretty abundant in Siberia, sometimes insanely well preserved.

“The permafrost in Siberia particularly is melting at a very rapid rate because of climate change,” David Gelsthorpe, curator of Earth Science collections at Manchester Museum, told the BBC. “So not only are we getting these incredible skeletons coming out, but also pretty much as they died as well. We’re getting things like fur, the skin, the muscles, the organs – and even the last meal.”

That bit at the beginning where I called this a ‘more unusual’ present? It’s not even an exaggeration; mammoth bone auctions take place more often than you’d believe. The first full mammoth skeleton to be auctioned off sold for US $176,000 in France in 2006. Another was sold in October 2012 in Paris for €240,750 at an auction organized by Sotheby’s. Then there was one in 2014, and, just last month, a ‘family’ of four such fossils failed to sell in the UK.

Here’s the beautiful fossil getting prepped for its big sale last month:

Do you think scientists should retain control over fossils, in the name of furthering our knowledge, or should collectors be allowed to own such artifacts just because they can afford to pay up? Let us know in the comments.

Skeletal hand.

Early Europeans may have survived the Ice Age because of arthritis

For those days when arthritis, here’s something to keep in mind: at one point in human history, it may have been the thing that kept early Europeans alive.

Skeletal hand.

Image via Pixabay.

Roughly one-half of all Europeans living today carry a variant of the GDF5 gene which nearly doubles the chance of arthritis popping up in our golden years. People from other areas of the world have it too, but in much lower percentages of the population — so what gives?

Well, achy joints may have kept the early settlers of Europe survive frostbite and prevent fractures in the new, colder climate, researchers from the US report.

Little cavemen, short and stout

The same GDF5 variant which increases the likelihood of arthritis also seems to shave roughly 1 cm in the height of people who harbor it. So why on Earth would a gene that makes you shorter and ultimately less mobile not only persist but actually proliferate in a population?

Well, it’s all about context. While those traits above are arguably disadvantages when trying to secure a mate or going about your Stone Age day, they can also help a population recently moved out of Africa better adapt to the freezing northern territories of Europe. Being short and stocky makes it easier to retain heat in cold weather, and as the old saying informs us, the shorter you are the more lightly you fall — so you’re at less of a risk of fracturing bones in the process, a life-threatening experience back in those days.

As for the evolutionary costs, arthritis may actually carry less than you’d initially assume. As the condition usually develops past reproductive ages, it didn’t actually impair people’s ability to have babies. In other words, it brought more to the table than it took — so the gene got passed down.

“This gene variant is present in billions of people, and it’s likely responsible for millions of cases of arthritis around the globe” says Dr David Kingsley, Professor of developmental biology at Stanford University and paper co-author.

“Many people think of osteoarthritis as a kind of wear-and-tear disease, but there’s clearly a genetic component at work here as well. It’s possible that climbing around in cold environments was enough of a risk factor to select for a protective variant even if it brought along an increased likelihood of an age-related disease like arthritis, which typically doesn’t develop until late in life.”

The link between arthritis and GDF5 was first established back in the 1990s, and since then research has also linked its expression to a genetic mechanism called GROW1, which signals the gene to turn off bone growth.

The team analyzed the genomes of people from across the world who submitted their genetic material to the 1,000 Genomes project. They noticed that the genetic variant and the mechanism for switching off bone growth was far more common in populations from Europe or those of European descent. In much warmer places, such as Africa for example, the gene variant was extremely rare in the overall population.

The gene variant also seems to have been pretty common in Neanderthals and Denisovans, who inhabited Europe and Asia for about 600,000 years before modern humans came around and drove them extinct — in fact, it’s likely that Europeans today inherited the gene from these initial populations.

Of course, while it could have saved our ancestors during the Ice Age, arthritis may be overstaying its welcome today.

“The variant that decreases height is lowering the activity of GDF5 in the growth plates of the bone,” said Dr Terence Capellini, associate professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University and first author of the paper.

“Interestingly, the region that harbors this variant is closely linked to other mutations that affect GDF5 activity in the joints, increasing the risk of osteoarthritis in the knee and hip.”

The paper “Ancient selection for derived alleles at a GDF5 enhancer influencing human growth and osteoarthritis risk” has been published in the journal Nature Genetics.

Startup designs cast that heals bones, lets you scratch

Three Illinois college students have designed the casts of the future. Their design, called Cast21, resembles a pretzel-like sleeve to support bones while healing.

Moy and Troutner demonstrate the cast at Chicago’s Techweek.
Image credits Cast21.

One of the worst part about breaking an arm has got to be the cast. Sure there’s pain and worrying and what not, but as far as sheer unpleasantness goes, the fiberglass cast takes the cake. You can’t shower with it, stuff gets caught under it and can’t scratch, it’s sweaty —  it’s a nightmare. So Jason Troutner, together with biomedical design engineer Ashley Moy, and electrical engineer Justin Brooks from the University of Illinois decided to bring the cast to the 21st century after partnering up at an engineering design class.

“Materials used in fiberglass casts aren’t waterproof; they absorb and trap water. Those are the two main problems we set out to solve,” said COO Jason Troutner.

“Fiberglass casts are poorly engineered and not patient friendly. For an engineer, it seems like such a lazy and impractical solution,” he adds.

The woven design of their cast makes it kinda resemble a pretzel, but it also removes most of the drawbacks of a regular cast. The sleeve has a mathematically-designed structure that gives the same support to the bones as a regular cast while allowing access to most of your skin, making for a cleaner and healthier skin — that you can scratch whenever you want. You can get it wet, so there’s no problem washing, it’s lightweight, and if needed you can remove the sleeve with some shears.

Image credits Cast21.

The sleeve is made up of hollow, interconnected silicone tubes. All a doctor has to do is put it over your arm and inject two liquids in the tubes — as they mix, the structure hardens. A lot of colors or designs can be created with the cast such as block colors, cammo patterns, even a “cookie and cream” motif. As far as the price tag goes, Cast21 will cost roughly the same as the traditional casts.

The team is now looking for investors to get them through the prototype and initial manufacturing stages. They hope to start trials on human patients by mid-2017. COO Justin Brooks has also expressed interest in expanding to the animal market.

Cavemen had much stronger leg bones than our settled ancestor who first experimented with agriculture some 10,000 years ago. However, early farmer bones differ little from modern day humans - the epitome of sedentarism. Image: Bret Contreras

Humans bones became lighter and frailer once farming became widespread

Our bones are much lighter and weaker than those of our Paleolithic ancestors (11,000 to 33,000 years ago), but it’s not our spoiled modern day lifestyle that’s to blame. Instead, a new study which closely compared homo sapiens bones, both ancient and modern, found that the most significant changes occurred once the paradigm shift from hunter-gatherer to agriculture took place, some 10,000 years ago. Humans started forming permanent settlements, worked the land and tended to flocks. Consequently, the lifestyle became more sedentary.

Cavemen had much stronger leg bones than our settled ancestor who first experimented with agriculture some 10,000 years ago. However, early farmer bones differ little from modern day humans - the epitome of sedentarism.  Image: Bret Contreras

Cavemen had much stronger leg bones than our settled ancestor who first experimented with agriculture some 10,000 years ago. However, early farmer bones differ little from modern day humans – the epitome of sedentarism. Image: Bret Contreras

One might argue that’s nothing compared to  we’re seeing in modern society. Today, one third of the population is obese, so it would seem reasonable to believe that our bones should have became even frailer in the meantime. However, according to lead researcher Christopher Ruff, professor in the center for functional anatomy and evolution at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, the differences in bone strength between Mesopotamian farmers and 20th century humans are minimal to negligible. To gives to show just how strong our hunter-gatherer ancestors were, especially in the lower limbs.

Ruff and colleagues analyzed bones from 1,842 people collected from all over Europe from the Paleolithic period  to the 20th century. The focus was on the long bones in the arms and legs, while arm strength was gauged for control. The differences in arm bones between hunter-gatherers and Mesopotamians weren’t at all noticeable. However, when it came to lower limb bone strength that was another story. The front-to-back bending strength of the leg bones was considerably greater during the Paleolithic,  while side-to-side strength changed very little. Since the front-to-back bending strength is a prime indicator of mobility, and considering arm bone strength stayed more or less constant across the ages, the researchers reason that any loss of bone strength resulted from foregoing a migrating lifestyle. If a change in diet caused a change in bone structure or strength, we should had seen this across all bones – both arm and leg bones. This drop in  bone strength in the lower limbs remained constant throughout the Iron Age and the Roman era, as well as in the 20th century.

“By the medieval period, bones were about the same strength that they are today,” the researchers note in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


This suggests that cars, airplanes and even TV dinner had minimal effects on changing leg bone density. Of course… maybe it’s still too early to see the differences.

The research is important for its medical insights. For instance, bones became increasingly thinner and prone to fractures and osteoporosis almost 7,000 years ago during the last part of the Stone Age. It would have been interesting if the researchers also looked at contemporary leg bones coming from modern day hunter-gatherer people, like those still living as they have for thousands of years in Congo or the Australian outback. Maybe in the next installment.

In any event, the researchers note that these changes aren’t genetic. In other words, you too could have leg bones as strong as  Paleolithic hunter-gatherer, if you exposed yourself to the same stresses and lifestyle. True enough, it’s enough to look at athletes today to see this happening.



This pen 3-D prints bone directly on site of injury

A handheld bio pen developed in the labs of the University of Wollongong will allow surgeons to design customised implants during surgery. (c)  University of Wollongong

A handheld bio pen developed in the labs of the University of Wollongong will allow surgeons to design customised implants during surgery. (c) University of Wollongong

Medicine and 3-d printing fit together like a glove. Imagine how many transplants and surgical procedures are so difficult to make or downright impossible because you can’t find a matching tissue or body part for the patient at hand. With 3-D printers, you can even make new bones – identical to those modeled from a patient that would require them. Now, researchers at University of Wollongong (UOW), Australia have unveiled a handheld tool, that closely resembles a pen, which doctors can use to locally 3-D print bone on the spot.

A 3-D printing ‘pen’

The bone pen delivers live cells and growth factors directly to the site of injury, like a sort of ‘stem cell’ ink, accelerating the regeneration of functional bone and cartilage. The cell material is confined inside a biopolymer such as alginate (seaweed extract),  while a second gel layer protects it at the outside. While the two layers of gel are combined in the pen head following extrusion and become dispersed upon an area of the doctor’s choosing,  a low powered ultra-violet light source is fixed to the device that solidifies the inks.

“The combination of materials science and next-generation fabrication technology is creating opportunities that can only be executed through effective collaborations such as this,” ACES Director Professor Gordon Wallace said.

“What’s more, advances in 3D printing are enabling further hardware innovations in a rapid manner.”

UOW’s Professor Gordon Wallace and his team at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science developed the device.

UOW’s Professor Gordon Wallace and his team at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science developed the device.

Once the cells are ‘drawn’ onto the surgery site they will multiply, become differentiated into nerve cells, muscle cells or bone cells and will eventually turn from individual cells into a thriving community of cells in the form of a functioning a tissue, such as nerves, or a muscle.

“This type of treatment may be suitable for repairing acutely damaged bone and cartilage, for example from sporting or motor vehicle injuries. Professor Wallace’s research team brings together the science of stem cells and polymer chemistry to help surgeons design and personalise solutions for reconstructing bone and joint defects in real time,” said Professor Peter Choong, Director of Orthopaedics at St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne and the Sir Hugh Devine Professor of Surgery, University of Melbourne.