Tag Archives: Cretaceous

Galagadon.

Paleontologists discovered a new species of ancient shark — and it was so, so tiny

Researchers at the North Carolina State University have discovered a new species of ancient shark. While related to the megalodon, the largest shark ever to prowl the oceans, the new species — dubbed Galagadon nordquistae — is quite small.

Galagadon.

An illustration of what Galagadon nordquistae might have looked like.
Image credits Velizar Simeonovski / Field Museum.

The same silt that held the world’s most famous and complete T. rex fossil (specimen  FMNH PR 2081, or, more-pronounceably, “Sue“) yielded a surprising new find: a previously unknown species of freshwater shark. Christened Galagadon nordquistae, the species was remarkably small, growing to approximately 12-18 inches (30.5-45 cm) in length.

One of its most striking features also gave the species its name: this shark’s tiny teeth resemble alien spaceships from the 1980s video game Galaga.

Small shark, tiny teeth

“The more we discover about the Cretaceous period just before the non-bird dinosaurs went extinct, the more fantastic that world becomes,” says study lead author Terry Gates, lecturer at North Carolina State University and research affiliate with the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.

G. nordquistae is related to both the huge (and now-extinct) megalodon and modern-day carpet sharks, such as the “whiskered” wobbegong. It lived during the Cretaceous in what is today South Dakota — likely in rivers and ponds, the team writes. South Dakota was very different 67 million years ago, with sprawling forests, deep swamps, and winding rivers, says Gates.

During its day, G. nordquistae likely didn’t pester the big folk at the top of the food chain — rather, he dealt with those living at the bottom. Quite literally: Galagadon had teeth that were good for catching small fish or crushing snails and crawdads, not for munching on dinosaurs.

Over two dozen of the shark’s tiny, fossilized teeth — each one measuring less than a millimeter across — were recovered from the same sediment in which paleontologists at the Field Museum uncovered Sue. Gates sifted through the material (almost two tons of it) with the help of volunteer Karen Nordquist, whom the species name of nordquistae, honors. Despite their very tiny stature, Gates says the discovery of Galagadon is an important step towards fleshing out our understanding of the fossil record.

“Every species in an ecosystem plays a supporting role, keeping the whole network together,” he says. “There is no way for us to understand what changed in the ecosystem during the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous without knowing all the wonderful species that existed before.”

Gates himself says that finding these microscopic teeth “sitting right beside the bones of the largest predators of all time” is nothing short of amazing.

“These teeth are the size of a sand grain. Without a microscope you’d just throw them away.”

Gates credits the idea for Galagadon’s name (based on the video game Galaga) to middle school teacher Nate Bourne. Bourne worked alongside Gates in paleontologist Lindsay Zanno’s lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.

The paper “New sharks and other chondrichthyans from the latest Maastrichtian (Late Cretaceous) of North America” has been published in the Journal of Paleontology.

New Antarctic Dinosaurs on Display at Field Museum

The world-renowned Field Museum of Chicago, Illinois has a new prehistoric creature display gracing their halls and galleries. The place has been decked out with fossil reconstructions and artistic representations of a variety of prehistoric animals. Most famous, of course, are those of the dinosaurs — and one of the newest additions is Antarctic Dinosaurs.

Around 195 to 235 million years ago (an era which encompasses the Triassic period as well as a small portion of the Jurassic period), Antarctica was quite different from its modern-day appearance. The Antarctic would have been closer to the equator, making for a lush habitat filled with “rhinoceros-sized dinosaurs and crocodile-sized amphibians,” says Kate Golembiewski, the public relations/science communications manager at the museum.

The exhibition includes hands-on interactive sections which can bring out the child in everyone. A significant portion of the exhibit is dedicated to the history of Antarctica in respect to man’s journeying there and learning how to survive the harsh, frigid conditions. Altogether, there are four dinosaur species appearing in the exhibit.

Glacialisaurus, a herbivorous dinosaur, is included as is a group of small sauropodomorphs which were ancestors of the massive long-necked sauropods. The titanosaur Maximo, which is also on display at the Field, is an example of the towering sauropods which are thought to have evolved along this lineage.

A life-like replica of the sauropodomorphs. Source: Of Intellect and Interest. Photo by John Tuttle.

Two of the dinosaur species on display were classified as sauropodomorphs. As yet, these new species have not been assigned personal scientific descriptions. The pride and joy of this entire display, however, is likely the Cryolophosaurus, a formidable predator of the area and era.

This carnivorous brute was a fierce hunter. The specimen present in Antarctic Dinosaurs measures 25 feet, which is not something you’d want to meet in a dark alley. Aside from the dinosaurs, there are other wondrous creatures which found their place in the exhibit.

It also features specimens of lichens, large amphibians, and even the skeleton of a sizeable aquatic carnivore known as Taniwhasaurus. It was a mosasaur, a relative to the giant marine animals depicted in the Jurassic World films, and is believed to have been able to reach lengths of close to 39 feet. It would have been a dangerous foe for any smaller swimmers of the Cretaceous period.

Altogether, the exhibit has something to offer everyone of every age, from child to adult, and of every interest, from history to paleontology, and is a great way to spend an afternoon or a day off.

Triceratops may have had horns to advertise good genes and attract mates

Much like a peacock flaunts its brightly colored tail, ancient Triceratops would have used their massive horns to attract mates, a new study suggests.

Image credits: Nobu Tamura / Wikipedia.

Despite its ferocious appearance, the triceratops was a gentle, herbivorous giant. This dinosaur emerged during the late Cretaceous, some 68 million years ago, being one of the last known genera of dinosaurs (not considering birds, which are still technically dinosaurs). The most noticeable features of the triceratops are the armored frill and the three horns on its head. Paleontologists have long debated and speculated on the purpose of these features.

For starters, it seems very plausible that they served as an armor and defense, as was first proposed more than 100 years ago by amateur paleontologist C. H. Sternberg. There’s some evidence supporting this theory: researchers have found fossil evidence of battles between triceratops and tyrannosaurs, with the triceratops coming on top despite suffering serious wounds. But most paleontologists believe that while the triceratops got in a scrap every now and then, defense wasn’t the principal purpose of these features.

Some scientists have proposed that triceratops males locked horns with each other in a duel, fighting over the right to mate with females. However, there’s not much in the fossil record to support this theory. Another idea is that the horns were used to differentiate between species — it’s not always easy to tell if someone is the same species as you, and no one really wants to waste time and effort only to mate with the wrong species. However, a new study found this isn’t really the case.

“We find no support for the hypothesis that sympatry correlates with higher ornament divergence in ceratopsian dinosaurs,” the authors wrote in the recent study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

So if it’s not defense, it’s not for duels, and it’s not for identifying your species… what’s left? Well, as it’s so often the case in the biological world, the one promising thing that’s left is sexual advertising. In other words, in this new study, researchers say triceratops grew horns to advertise their strength and good genes in an attempt to sway mates.

“Individuals are advertising their quality or genetic make-up,” explained Andrew Knapp, lead author of the research reports. “We see that in peacocks too, with their tail feathers.”

They also found that both males and females had similarly developed horns, which is impressive in itself — although it’s always hard to discuss an animal’s behavior from fossils alone, this says quite a bit about their behavior, indicating similar lifestyles between males and females.

“Possibly they’re both quite invested in raising their young, like we see in birds,” concluded Mr. Knapp.

Journal Reference: Andrew Knapp, Robert J. Knell, Andrew A. Farke, Mark A. Loewen, David W. E. Hone. Patterns of divergence in the morphology of ceratopsian dinosaurs: sympatry is not a driver of ornament evolution. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2018.0312

Four-legged snake is missing link between lizards and serpents

An “absolutely exquisite” fossil of a juvenile snake with limbs has been discovered by paleontologists, forgotten in a museum. The fossil dates back from the early Cretaceous, 110 million years ago, and is the oldest evidence of a definitive snake.

Snakes are elongated, legless, carnivorous reptiles that evolved in the late Cretaceous; the earliest evidence (before this) of a snake was 94 million years old, but the fossil record of snakes is relatively poor because snake skeletons are typically small and fragile making fossilization uncommon. Based on comparative anatomy, there is consensus that snakes descended from lizards, and these legged snakes further strengthen this theory.

Dr Dave Martill from the University of Portsmouth who conducted the study, says this fossil can show how and why snakes lost their limbs.

“It is generally accepted that snakes evolved from lizards at some point in the distant past. What scientists don’t know yet is when they evolved, why they evolved, and what type of lizard they evolved from. This fossil answers some very important questions, for example it now seems clear to us that snakes evolved from burrowing lizards, not from marine lizards.”

The first observation that they made is that the limbs show adaptation for burrowing, not swimming, which indicates that snakes evolved on land, not in water, as was proposed by some scientists.

“This is the most primitive fossil snake known, and it’s pretty clearly not aquatic,” said Dr Nick Longrich from the University of Bath, one of the study’s authors.

Researchers were actually surprised by how clear the features of the fossil are – they were expecting something more ambiguous, more “in between”. Instead, he saw “a lot of very advanced snake features” including its hooked teeth, flexible jaw and spine – and even snake-like scales.

Furthermore, the fossil also reveals that the ancient snake had ingested a vertebrate – a clearly snake behaviour.

“And there’s the gut contents – it’s swallowed another vertebrate. It was preying on other animals, which is a snake feature. It was pretty unambiguously a snake. It’s just got little arms and little legs.”

The snake, named Tetrapodophis amplectus by the team, measured just 20 cm from head to tail, though it likely grew much bigger than that in adulthood. The head was about the size of a fingernail and the limbs were actually very little, but still useful.

“They’re actually very highly specialised – they have very long, skinny fingers and toes, with little claws on the end. What we think [these animals] are doing is they’ve stopped using them for walking and they’re using them for grasping their prey.”

The fossil had a history as strange as the snake itself. It was simply acquired by a private collector, where it languished for decades before a museum in Solnhofen, Germany, acquired and exhibited it with the label “unknown fossil”. It was actually when Dr David Martill, another of the paper’s authors, took his students out for a field trip that the fossil was rediscovered and properly appreciated.

“All of a sudden my jaw absolutely dropped, when I saw this little fossil like a piece of string,” said Dr Martill, from the University of Portsmouth. He immediately asked for permission to study the fossil more closely. “The fossil was part of a larger exhibition of fossils from the Cretaceous period. It was clear that no-one had appreciated its importance, but when I saw it I knew it was an incredibly significant specimen.”

Journal Reference:

  1. Dave Martill et al. A four-legged snake from the Early Cretaceous of Gondwana. Science, July 2015 DOI: 10.1126/science.aac5672

 

Creationist finds Paleocene fossils in his basement, claims they’re 4,500 years old

An Alberta citizen discovered a trove of rare fossilized fish while digging up his basement. But Edgar Nernberg isn’t a man who “believes” in science – instead, he claims that the fish are 4,500 years old, from Noah’s flood, and the media seems OK with that. We’re not.

Darla Zelenitsky, palaeontologist and assistant professor at the University of Calgary, left and Edgar Nernberg, look over some of the fish fossils. Image via Calgary Herald.

Darla Zelenitsky, the University of Calgary paleontologist who was brought in to examine the five ancient fish dated the fossils at 60 million years, from a period called the Paleocene, the period that came after the Cretaceous. She was also delighted to find such well preserved fossils.

“I would give it a 10 out of 10 for significance,” said Zelenitsky. “There’s not very many complete fossils known in rocks of this age in Alberta,” she said about the fish, which are each about the size of a smartphone.

Because they lived relatively soon after the dinosaurs went extinct, they could answer some questions about evolution, and how life adapted after the catastrophic event at the end of Cretaceous.

Image via Global News.

“Plants and animals were actually recovering from the extinction at that time, so any fossils, particularly if they’re complete, are going to help us reconstruct what was going in the environment after a major mass extinction.”

But Nernberg, who is quite a well known person in the community, says he isn’t buying it.

“I subscribe to the creationist position, and I believe they were laid down in Noah’s flood, about 4,500 years ago. But we agree to disagree.”

The problem with this is that it’s not something you can agree or disagree on. You can discuss whether or not green is a nice color, or whether or not bears are cute – but whether or not some fossils are tens of millions of years old, or 4,500 years old is not really up for debate. Sure, they might not be 60 million years old, they may be 57, or 63, or 50 million years old, if Zelenitsky is really wrong, but four thousand years is simply not an option, and this is one of the main problems with how media portrays science: on the one hand, you have mister Edgar Nernberg, a known creationist without any education or expertise in the field of paleontology, and Darla Zelenitsky, who’s basically dedicated her life to studying fossils and has decades of learning and applying what she’s learned – and the media gives them equal coverage, and makes it seem like this is an actual uncertain debate. Spoiler alert: it isn’t. Some things simply aren’t up for debate, and this is one of them.

Snakes evolved on land, possibly with toes and feet

A new analysis conducted by Yale researchers revealed that the first snakes may have actually evolved on land, not in water. These proto-snakes were likely night hunters that might have had hind legs and even toes.

“We generated the first comprehensive reconstruction of what the ancestral snake was like,” said Allison Hsiang, lead author the study published online May 19 in the journal BMC Evolutionary Biology. Hsiang is a postdoctoral researcher in Yale’s Department of Geology and Geophysics.

Image via Smithsonian.

Snakes emerged about 128.5 million years ago, during the early Cretaceous. The Cretaceous was a period with a relatively warm climate, with high sea levels and numerous shallow inland seas. Some paleontologists proposed that snakes actually evolved in these seas, ultimately differentiating in the over 3,000 species we see today.

However, this study claims otherwise. Researchers integrated genetic sequencing and fossil analysis, adding it to the anatomical comparison of 73 lizard and snake species. With this, they believe they’ve created the most comprehensive snake family tree to date. Furthermore, they propose that ancestral snakes had sharp, needle-like teeth with which they grabbed small, rodent-like creatures and swallowed them whole.

“We infer that the most recent common ancestor of all snakes was a nocturnal, stealth-hunting predator targeting relatively large prey, and most likely would have lived in forested ecosystems in the Southern Hemisphere,” Hsiang said.

But it gets even better – according to their analysis, the first snakes also had tiny hind limbs, and even toes.

“Our analyses suggest that the most recent common ancestor of all living snakes would have already lost its forelimbs, but would still have had tiny hind limbs, with complete ankles and toes. It would have first evolved on land, instead of in the sea,” said co-author Daniel Field, a Yale Ph.D. candidate. “Both of those insights resolve longstanding debates on the origin of snakes.”

This was actually the most surprising result for paleontologists, but the science seems to back it up.

“I was most amazed by how strongly we inferred that the common ancestor retained hind limbs,” Field said. “Sometimes evolution plays out in unexpected and strange ways,” he added. “We think we’ve got a strongly supported idea, and based on the mathematical reconstruction it is what is most likely to be true.”

The study was published in BMC Evolutionary Biology.

Journal Reference: Allison Y Hsiang, Daniel J Field, Timothy H Webster, Adam DB Behlke, Matthew B Davis, Rachel A Racicot and Jacques A Gauthier. The origin of snakes: revealing the ecology, behavior, and evolutionary history of early snakes using genomics, phenomics, and the fossil record, BMC Evolutionary Biology 2015. DOI: 10.1186/s12862-015-0358-5

Velociraptor’s cousin was an even better predator

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania have discovered a new species of dinosaur, closely related to the famous velociraptor. This new species, Saurornitholestes sullivani was a bit bulkier, probably had a better sense of smell, and researchers believe it was an even better predator than its cousin.

Steven Jassinski and the skull fragment.

“This was not a dinosaur you would want to mess with,” said University Pennsylvania doctoral student Steven Jasinski, author of a study of the new species, said in a press release.

 

Velociraptors got their fame thanks to Jurassic Park, but they weren’t actually that prevalent – they only lived for about 4 million years, and they didn’t live in the Jurassic, heh. They inhabited the Earth approximately 75 to 71 million years ago during the later part of the Cretaceous Period, after the Jurassic.

Jasinski analyzed a skull fragment which was initially found in 1999 and considered a member of Saurornitholestes langstoni, another species of therapod dinosaurs. Jasinski wasn’t convinced, so he ran a comparative analysis of the specimen to other S. langstoni specimens, and he found some small, yet significant differences.

For starters, the surface of the skull responsible for the sense of smell was unusually high – which indicates that it probably had an excellent sense of smell.

“This feature means that Saurornitholestes sullivani had a relatively better sense of smell than other dromaeosaurid dinosaurs, including Velociraptor, Dromaeosaurus, and Bambiraptor,” Jasinski said. “This keen olfaction may have made S. sullivani an intimidating predator as well.”

 

Measuring less than 3 feet in length, the dinosaur wasn’t intimidating through sheer size, but was likely quick and agile, and possibly hunted in packs, which made it a fearsome predator, even more so than the more well known velociraptor.

Source: University of Pennsylvania

Predatory cockroach found in 100 million year old amber

Geologists have found a praying-mantis-like cockroach that lived at the side by side with the dinosaurs, 100 million years ago, during the mid Cretaceous. The insect was preserved in amber.

Peter Vršanský from the Geological Institute in Bratislava, Slovakia, and Günter Bechly from the State Museum of Natural History in Stuttgart found the insect at a mine in Noije Bum, Myanmar. The specimen was one of many found in the area, and is related to today’s praying mantises. Out of all the predatory cockroach lineages that evolved in the Cretaceous, only praying mantises survive today.

According to the two researchers, its long neck, which allows the head to rotate freely, and unusually long legs area a good indication that it actively hunted prey.

“The new species exemplifies the reverse trend to that observed in the mantodeans, namely an elongation of extremities, including palps. This elongation especially applies to the elongation of tibia. In addition to the pursuit predatory lifestyle, it can be inferred that these insect were autochthonous inhabitants of the Cretaceous Araucaria amber forest in Myanmar. This inference is mainly based on the fact that four additional specimens of this new taxon (with one early immature specimen) are known to us from traders of Myanmar amber inclusions,” the study reads.

The Cretaceous was a period with a relatively warm climate, resulting in high sea levels. It is the period when many new groups of mammals and birds, as well as flowering plants, appeared.

Journal reference: Geologica Carpathica, DOI: 10.1515/geoca-2015-0015

Turtle fossil unearthed in New Mexico

Fossil hunting can be exciting and highly rewarding, but sometimes, fossils are also found through a fluke. Jeff Dornbusch, a volunteer with the Truth or Consequences museum in southern New Mexico (a museum of local history and tradition), was taking a hike on his day off when he stumbled on what he initially thought was a pile of rocks.

n this undated photo, people from the New Mexico Museum of Natural History pictured from left to right, fossil preparer Tom Suazo, geosciences collections manager Amanda Cantrell, volunteer Jake Sayler and student researcher Asher Lichtig excavate a turtle fossil east of Turtleback Mountain, N.M., a well-known peak near Truth or Consequences. The fossilized remains of the turtle are believed to have lived in a swampy environment tens of millions of years ago. (AP Photo/The Las Cruces Sun-News, Robin Zielinski)

n this undated photo, people from the New Mexico Museum of Natural History pictured from left to right, fossil preparer Tom Suazo, geosciences collections manager Amanda Cantrell, volunteer Jake Sayler and student researcher Asher Lichtig excavate a turtle fossil east of Turtleback Mountain, N.M., a well-known peak near Truth or Consequences. The fossilized remains of the turtle are believed to have lived in a swampy environment tens of millions of years ago. (AP Photo/The Las Cruces Sun-News, Robin Zielinski)

“I never really knew this area as a place for marine fossils — shells and stuff in the mountains,” he said.

The turtle fossil dates from approximately 90 million years back, during the mid Cretaceous. The Cretaceous was a period with a relatively warm climate, with high sea levels and low ice caps. It was also the evolutionary peak of the dinosaurs, with well known creatures such as T-Rex and the velociraptor. Dinosaur diversity reached its supreme moment while New Mexico looked very different than it does today. Tom Suazo, fossil preparer for the New Mexico Museum of Natural History said:

“Basically, what this is a swampy, near-shore environment”. Suazo and his team helped excavate the site last week.

The fossil belongs to the genus Adocus. Adocus is an extinct genus of aquatic turtles with contoured shells with horny sculptured plates. The shells could reach a length of about 80 cm. These large freshwater turtles had an omnivore diet and survived millions of years after the dinosaur extinction, ultimately fading out during the Oligocene, some 30 million years ago.

When Dornbusch found the fossil, he contacted the U.S. Bureau of Land Management scientist about the fossils (which ironically, was located about 6 miles east of Turtleback Mountain). Vertebrate fossils on federal land are protected and you are not allowed to remove them on your own. A team of experts came to the site soon afterwards, carefully extracting the fossil so that it doesn’t suffer any damage.

Turtle fossils are pretty rare, and now geologists plan to clean it up and exhibit it in the Museum of Natural History.

Amber discovery shows Lyme disease is older than human race

Lyme disease is a stealthy disease, which can be very dangerous, especially if misdiagnosed. It was only recognized officially 40 years ago, but now, a new amber research has shown that the bacteria causing it may have been around for over 15 million years – long before any human was walking on Earth. The study indicates tick-related illnesses have been around for the entire history of the human race.

Researchers from the Oregon State University (OSU) were studying amber from the Dominican Republic when they came across samples with Borrelia, a type of spirochete-like bacteria that to this day causes Lyme disease. The results were published in Historical Biology.

“Ticks and the bacteria they carry are very opportunistic,” said George Poinar, Jr., a professor emeritus in the Department of Integrative Biology of the OSU College of Science, and one of the world’s leading experts on plant and animal life forms found preserved in amber. “They are very efficient at maintaining populations of microbes in their tissues, and can infect mammals, birds, reptiles and other animals.

In a related study, published in Cretaceous Research, the same team announced the first fossil record of Rickettsial-like cells, a bacteria that can cause various types of spotted fever. The samples they analyzed however were much older – over 100 million years old.

As summer arrives and millions of people start heading for the outdoors, it’s important to be aware of the danger posed by ticks. Given the long period in which the bacteria has been around, researchers think that Lyme disease did much more damage than previously believed – but the diseases was never diagnosed.

“In the United States, Europe and Asia, ticks are a more important insect vector of disease than mosquitos,” Poinar said. “They can carry bacteria that cause a wide range of diseases, affect many different animal species, and often are not even understood or recognized by doctors. It’s likely that many ailments in human history for which doctors had no explanation have been caused by tick-borne disease.”

In 30 years of studying diseases revealed in the fossil record, Poinar has documented the ancient presence of such diseases as malaria, leishmania, and others. The oldest documented case of Lyme disease is the Tyrolean iceman, a 5,300-year-old mummy found in a glacier in the Italian Alps.

“Before he was frozen in the glacier, the iceman was probably already in misery from Lyme disease,” Poinar said. “He had a lot of health problems and was really a mess.”

Interestingly enough, at a 1909 research conference, Swedish dermatologist Arvid Afzelius presented a study about an expanding, ring-like lesion he had observed in an older woman following the bite of a sheep tick. He named the lesion erythema migrans – but it wasn’t until 1975 that the disease was properly identified and started being treated. Still, numerous cases are misdiagnosed even today. If you are bitten by a tick, be sure to visit your doctor!

Journal References: George Poinar. Spirochete-like cells in a Dominican amberAmbylommatick (Arachnida: Ixodidae). Historical Biology, 2014; 1 DOI: 10.1080/08912963.2014.897699
George Poinar. Rickettsial-like cells in the Cretaceous tick, Cornupalpatum burmanicum (Ixodida: Ixodidae). Cretaceous Research, 2014; DOI: 10.1016/j.cretres.2014.02.007

Meet ‘Pinocchio rex’ – the 9 meter long, ferocious cousin of Tyrannosaurus Rex

A new type of Tyrannosaur with a very long “nose” has been nicknamed “Pinocchio rex” – but this dinosaur was nothing to laugh about. It measured some 9 meters in length, was a ferocious carnivore, and had a long, distinctive snout – which possibly made it even more dangerous.

Artistic depiction of “Pinocchio Rex”

Interestingly enough, the skeleton was found at a construction site in China, and was identified and reconstructed by scientists at Edinburgh University, UK. The 66 million year old predator officially named Qianzhousaurus sinensis, is described in Nature Communications.

“Pinocchio” looked very different to other tyrannosaurs. It had the familiar toothy grin of T. rex, but its snout was long and slender, with a row of horns on top,” said Edinburgh’s Dr Steve Brusatte. It might have looked a little comical, but it would have been as deadly as any other tyrannosaur, and maybe even a little faster and stealthier. We thought it needed a nickname, and the long snout made us think of Pinocchio’s long nose.”

Researchers believe several different tyrannosaurs competed side by side in what is today China during the Cretaceous period. The enormous Tarbosaurus (up to 13m) was extremely strong, being able to overpower most of the giant herbivores which inhabited the area. Pinocchio Rex was lighted, and probably fed off of smaller creatures, such as lizards and feathered dinosaurs. But at 9 meters and almost a ton – it was still huge.

“The iconic picture of a tyrannosaur is T. Rex, the biggest, baddest dinosaur of all. “But this new species was lighter, less muscular. It breaks the mould. Perhaps it had a faster bite and hunted in a different way.”

But why did it have such a big, elongated snout – 35 percent longer than any tyrannosaur?

“The truth is we don’t know yet. But it must’ve been doing something different,” Dr Brusatte explained.

In recent years, two juveniles from the same species were dug up, raising the first questions about a new tyrannosaur.

“The trouble was, they were both juveniles. So it was possible their long snouts were just a weird transient feature that grows out in adults,” said Dr Brusatte, an expert in tyrannosaur evolution.

But this one is an almost mature dinosaur, almost 2 times bigger than previously excavated specimens, and confirms hunches about the large snouts – it also seems to suggest that Pinocchio Rex wasn’t an isolated species, and in fact, was quite widespread in what today is Asia.

“Although we are only starting to learn about them, the long-snouted tyrannosaurs were apparently one of the main groups of predatory dinosaurs in Asia,” he said.

Amber fossil shows early reproduction in flowering plants

  • A cluster of 18 flowering plants from the Cretaceous (100 million years ago) has been found preserved in amber
  • Among the flowers, one shows the earliest reproduction of flowering plants
  • Based on microscopic imaging, paleontologists conclude that the pollination mechanism has remained virtually unchanged

Flowers of Micropetasos burmensis in a 100-million-year-old piece of amber. Image credit: Oregon State University.

Amber is fossilized tree resin, valued as a gem since prehistoric times. It is also used as an ingredient in perfumes, as a healing agent in folk medicine, but it’s even more valuable for scientists. Sometimes, mosquitoes, bugs, or even plants can get trapped inside the resin and fossilize alongside it, being preserved incredibly well by the amber, providing valuable clues as to how life was millions of years ago.

Such is the case with this 100 million year old fossil, dating from the Cretaceous. This is the oldest evidence of sexual reproduction in a flowering plant — a cluster of 18 tiny flowers, with one of them caught in the process of making some new seeds for the next generation.

The scene itself is perfectly preserved; it’s as if a painter was observing the scene and immortalized it to the smallest detail to capture its beauty for eternity. In the mid Cretaceous, flowering plants were in the process of changing the face of the Earth forever, adding biodiversity, food, and beauty to a relatively monotonous world.

“The evolution of flowering plants caused an enormous change in the biodiversity of life on Earth, especially in the tropics and subtropics,” said dr. George Poinar, Jr., a professor emeritus in the Department of Integrative Biology at the OSU College of Science. New associations between these small flowering plants and various types of insects and other animal life resulted in the successful distribution and evolution of these plants through most of the world today.”

Microscopic imaging revealed pollen tubes growing out of two grains of pollen and penetrating the flower’s stigma, the receptive part of the female reproductive system. This would basically start the egg fertilization process, which in turn would generate seed formation… had the reproductive act been completed.

“In Cretaceous flowers we’ve never before seen a fossil that shows the pollen tube actually entering the stigma,” Poinar said. “This is the beauty of amber fossils. They are preserved so rapidly after entering the resin that structures such as pollen grains and tubes can be detected with a microscope.”

But they were able to find out even more about this scene: the pollen appears to be sticky, which suggests it was carried around by a pollinating insect, adding further insights into the biodiversity and biology of life in the Cretaceous. At the time, the dominating plants were conifers, ferns, mosses, and cycads. Towards the end of the era mammals, birds, and flowering plants were gaining ground, but dinosaurs still pretty much dominated the planet. It’s fascinating to see that the biological mechanism has remained virtually unchanged for such a huge period of time.

“It’s interesting that the mechanisms for reproduction that are still with us today had already been established some 100 million years ago.”, Poinar concluded.

However, the bad news is that the seeds can’t actually be grown. DNA has a half life of about 500 years and it’s estimated that even if perfectly preserved anything older than 6.8 million years wouldn’t germinate.

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Oregon State University.

Crocodilians use sticks to attract prey

  • Two distinct groups of crocodilians have been reported to use tools for hunting
  • They balance sticks on their snouts, baiting birds who want to use the sticks for nests
  • Crocodiles actively search for the sticks (which are usually rare) and do this more often during the birds’ mating season

Mugger crocodile (Crocodylus palustris) at Madras Crocodile Bank, Tamil Nadu, India, with sticks on its head. Image credits: Dinets et al. (2013).

It’s been known for quite a while that the usage of tools isn’t restricted to humans. Monkeys (of course) also use tools, but this type of behavior has also been reported in other species, including crows, dolphins, elephants and otters. Now, a new study has reported that crocodiles and alligators also use sticks to attract prey.

In recent years, reptile research has provided some stunning results, showing that they are not only cold-blooded efficient killers, but that they exhibit a myriad of remarkable behaviors. Play behaviour, complex social interactions, gaze recognition, pair-bonding and monogamy, social hunting, speedy learning abilities and good memories – they have all been reported in reptiles.

Now, another very interesting unexpected adaptation has been demonstrated across these groups: tool usage.

As described by Dinets et al. (2013), Mugger crocodiles Crocodylus palustris in India and American alligators Alligator mississippiensis in the USA have been observed to lie, partially submerged, very close to birds they want to hunt, with sticks balanced carefully on their snouts. Birds want to take the sticks to use them in their nests and… let’s just say it usually has a very bad ending for the birds.

But what’s remarkable is that this occurrence of stick usage by crocodilians isn’t random! Stick displaying took place consistently more often with crocodiles living closer to rookeries, and it also took place more often during mating season – when birds are more inclined to construct nests. It’s also noteworthy that sticks are pretty rare in this type of environment – the reptiles actively search for them, especially during the birds’ mating period.

Baiting behavior was demonstrated before in archosaurs (the big group of species which includes crocodiles, birds and all extinct dinosaurs). Green herons (Butorides virescens) often do it: they use feathers, twigs and even berries and bits of bread to attract fish, while burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia) use mammal dung to attract dung beetles. Also, anecdotal reference suggests that crocodiles also use fish fragments to attract birds. But the fact that this has been consistently reported in two separate groups seems to suggest that this type of behavior is mainspread.

If you think about it, crocodiles have been around for over 70 million years – since the Cretaceous. They are incredibly well adapted to the environment, being able to live as scavengers and survive for months without food. They can even go into a state of hibernation when conditions aren’t favorable, waking up when things are looking up. So it makes sense that they learned a trick or two about hunting.

Colossal New Predatory Species Terrorized Early Tyrannosaurs

When herbivorous dinosaurs went to sleep, they had bad dreams about Tyrannosaurs. But what where Tyrannosaurs afraid of? If you’re thinking “Nothing”, then you’re really wrong. A new species of carnivorous dinosaur (one of the three largest ever discovered in North America) competed with them 98 million years ago – the newly discovered species, Siats meekerorum; as a matter of fact, the species was the apex predator for millions of years, bullying pretty much all other species – Tyrannosaurs included.

This is an illustration of Siats meekerorum. (Credit: Artwork by Jorge Gonzales)

This is an illustration of Siats meekerorum. (Credit: Artwork by Jorge Gonzales)

Named after a cannibalistic man-eating monster from the Ute Indian tribe, Siats was a member of the Carcharodontosauridae – a group of dinosaurs which includes some of the largest predators ever discovered. They lived in the Cretaceous, from about 127 million years to 89 million years ago. After that, they started being overcome by smaller, more niched predators. The discovery of Siats comes after a long period of wait.

“It’s been 63 years since a predator of this size has been named from North America,” says Lindsay Zanno, a North Carolina State University paleontologist with a joint appointment at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, and lead author of a Nature Communications paper describing the find. “You can’t imagine how thrilled we were to see the bones of this behemoth poking out of the hillside.”

The described individual measured more than 15 meters in length and weighed at least four tons – but despite its giant size, it was still a juvenile! Zanno and colleague Peter Makovicky, from Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History believe that a full grown specimen would have easily measured over 10 meters.

Siats terrorized what is now Utah during the Late Cretaceous period, showing that the reign of the Carcharodontosaurids lasted much longer than previously believed. This fossil fills in a huge 30 million year gap in the fossil record; only after they started to decline did the Tyrannosaurs finally start to claim the top spot.

“The huge size difference certainly suggests that tyrannosaurs were held in check by carcharodontosaurs, and only evolved into enormous apex predators after the carcharodontosaurs disappeared,” says Makovicky. Zanno adds, “Contemporary tyrannosaurs would have been no more than a nuisance to Siats, like jackals at a lion kill. It wasn’t until carcharodontosaurs bowed out that the stage could be set for the evolution of T. rex.”

The team is confident that they will soon find other fossils which will help them understand the Cretaceous environment.

“We have made more exciting discoveries including two new species of dinosaur,” Makovicky says.

“Stay tuned,” adds Zanno. “There are a lot more cool critters where Siats came from.”

Journal Reference:

  1. Lindsay E. Zanno, Peter J. Makovicky. Neovenatorid theropods are apex predators in the Late Cretaceous of North AmericaNature Communications, 2013; 4 DOI:10.1038/ncomms3827

Dino impact also wiped bees

A group of paleontologists believe that the same event that killed off the dinosaurs some 66 million years ago also caused a widespread extinction in bee populations.

bees

Currently, the widely accepted theory is that an asteroid or comet struck our planet 66 million years ago (the Cretaceous-Paleogene event, or K-Pg event), the impact and its effects basically wiping out dinosaur populations. This extinction however was selective – in that it affected some groups much more than it affected others.

The main problem when studying bees is that they leave behind a smaller fossil record than dinosaurs, and therefore it’s very hard to trace patterns. The paleontologists used molecular phylogenetic analyses (evolutionary relationships) to show that one bee group, the Xylocopinae, which originated in the mid-Cretaceous was all but wiped out by the catastrophic event. Previous studies had suggested a widespread extinction among flowering plants during the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event, and many assumed that this plant downfall also left marks in pollinator populations, but until now, this remained a theory.

But the data scientists obtained was conclusive.

“The data told us something major was happening in four different groups of bees at the same time,” said the paper’s lead author Sandra Rehan, a biologist at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, US. “And it happened to be the same time as the dinosaurs went extinct.”

The event which wiped out the dinosaurs led to the demise of many species, but it also provided an ecological niche for many animals – most notably, mammals.

mammals kpg

The findings could be useful considering today’s worrying decrease in bee numbers and diversity.

“Understanding extinctions and the effects of declines in the past can help us understand the pollinator decline and the global crisis in pollinators today,” Dr Rehan explained.

Scientific reference: First Evidence for a Massive Extinction Event Affecting Bees Close to the K-T Boundary. Sandra M. Rehan mail, Remko Leys, Michael P. Schwarz. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0076683

Nasutoceratops: ‘Big-nose, horn-face’ dinosaur

A new, unusual species of dinosaur has been discovered in the deserts of Utah.

nasuceratops

Artistic representation of Nasuceratops. Credit: Raul Martin.

The 5m-long is a member of the triceratops family, and as fierce as they may look, this dinosaur was a herbivore. The huge ‘nose’ and exceptionally long horns are unlike any other dinosaurs previously described, which explains its name – Nasutoceratops titusi, which basically means big-nose, horn-face.

“This dinosaur just completely blew us away”, explained Dr Mark Loewen, from the University of Utah and Natural History Museum of Utah. “We would never have predicted it would look like this – it is just so outside of the norm for this group of dinosaurs.”

nasuceratops2

Credit: Rob Gaston.

The fossils were unearthed in 2006, but it took a long time for them to be prepared and for the study to finish. The rocks in which it was found are some 75 million years old, so we can trace its origins to the late Cretaceous. But its facial features draw all the attention.

“The horns are by far the absolute largest of any member of its group of dinosaurs – they curve sideways and forwards,” explained Dr Loewen. “In addition it has the biggest nose of its group too.”

The area in Utah where it was found once belonged in a continent called Laramidia – an island continent that existed during the Late Cretaceous period (99.6–65.5 Ma), when the Western Interior Seaway split the continent of North America in two. Laramidia stretches from modern-day Alaska to Mexico, and the area is typically very rich in dinosaur fossils.

Other plant-eating species, including two other kinds of horned dinosaurs and duck-billed hadrosaurs, were found close to Nasutoceratops titusi, suggesting that these creatures coexisted, eating tropical plants side by side for millions of years – which is kind of strange. These dinosaurs were really big, and they were fighting for the same food – how they got along with it is somewhat a mystery.

“All of these animals are upwards of three tonnes… You have an environment where you have all of these large herbivores competing for food. We aren’t really sure how you can support all of these animals, but you do find them all in the rock at the same time.”

A word about the Cretaceous hot period

Almost always I happen to discuss global warming, something that often comes up. Still, the Earth was hotter in its history, like say right after the Cretaceous, so what’s the problem? In this article, we’re gonna clarify the aspects that differentiate those geologic periods from nowadays.

cretaceous

Some sixty million years ago, there was virtually no ice on Earth; palm trees thrived from equator to poles, and as fossils showed, crocodiles and water loving plants happily lived in the outer polar regions. This world had warmer oceans, featuring deep ocean temperatures 12 degrees Celsius higher than now – an absolutely huge difference. Also, the warming cycle that led to this situation took place in geologic period (millions of years, not hundreds of years).

What’s interesting is that unlike today’s climate, only a small difference (gradient) in temperature existed between the equator and the poles of the ice-less Earth. So how could this be explained ? The main hypothesis claims that weak temperature gradient results from the increasing efficiency of the atmosphere at transporting heat from the equator up to the poles in a warmer climate. However (and this is where it gets really puzzling), the atmospheric turbulence required from this kind of efficient transport could only work in the case of a high gradient, so this is not really the answer here.

“That’s the confusing part. To explain the weak gradient you need a strong gradient,” says David Ferreira, research scientist in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences at MIT, whose potential solution to this paradox appears this week in Journal of Climate.

So he and his team set out to try and develop a model that can explain this paradox. The key was water vapor.

“One way around it,” Ferreira says, “could be if the ocean warms the poles efficiently without transporting heat directly to them.”

So in their ice-free model the ocean transports heat poleward, but not all the way. When it gets midway to the poles, a part of the water evaporates and creates water vapor. As more and more vapor is created in the lower atmosphere, increased injection of warm moist air is pushed into the upper troposphere. This vapor acts like a greenhouse gas, creating an effect that then picks up the warming job where the ocean left it off.

Dorian Abbot, assistant professor of geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago, who also models exotic climates believe this approach is “creative”:

“This paper is an excellent example of the harvest one can reap by approaching climate research from a ‘scientia gratia scientae’ perspective, allowing oneself to play with abstractions and follow them where they may lead rather than being tied too closely to explaining the details of specific phenomena.”

The unfortunate thing is, that this model relied on data which can’t offer information for the near future, as it relied on a world where no ice exists and palm trees grow all over.

Via MIT

How some dinosaurs got enormously long necks

The longest creatures to ever walk the Earth were the long-necked, long-tailed dinosaurs known as the sauropods. But why did these huge vegetarians grow such huge necks, reaching up to 15 meters? That’s six times longer than that of the current world-record holder, the giraffe.

 

“They were really stupidly, sauropodabsurdly oversized,” said researcher Michael Taylor, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Bristol in England. “In our feeble, modern world, we’re used to thinking of elephants as big, but sauropods reached 10 times the size elephants do. They were the size of walking whales.”

The secret, according to him and his team was mostly hollow neck bones. To find out just how sauropod necks could get so long, scientists analyzed other long-necked creatures and compared sauropod anatomy to that of their closest living relatives – birds and crocodiles.

“Extinct animals — and living animals, too, for that matter — are much more amazing than we realize,” Taylor explained. “Time and again, people have proposed limits to possible animal sizes, like the five-meter (16-foot) wingspan that was supposed to be the limit for flying animals. And time and again, they’ve been blown away. We now know of flying pterosaurs with 10-meter (33-foot) wingspans. And these extremes are achieved by a startling array of anatomical innovations.”

Unsurprisingly, Taylor and his colleagues found several adaptations that supported long necks. The most notable feature was that air often made up 60 percent of these animals’ necks, with some of them as light as birds bones, making it easier to support the giant lengths. The muscles, ligaments and tendons were also positioned in a way that helped maximize leverage, making neck movements more efficient. Furthermore, their giant torsos and four-legged stances helped provide a stable platform for their necks; in contrast, giraffes have really small torsos compared to the rest of their bodies. The number of vertebrae was also important: while most mammals (with the exception of the sloths and manatees) have maximum 7 vertebrae in their necks, sauropods had 19 (which is still not that much comparing the sizes).

sauropod2

Another interesting fact which enabled them to grow such big necks was their small head size; sauropods didn’t even had cheeks to store food for chewing. As a matter of fact, they didn’t even chew food, they just swallowed it and let the gut digest it.

“Sauropod heads are essentially all mouth. The jaw joint is at the very back of the skull, and they didn’t have cheeks, so they came pretty close to having Pac Man-Cookie Monster flip-top heads,” researcher Mathew Wedel at the Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, Calif., explained. “It’s natural to wonder if the lack of chewing didn’t, well, come back to bite them, in terms of digestive efficiency. But some recent work on digestion in large animals has shown that after about 3 days, animals have gotten all the nutrition they can from their food, regardless of particle size. And sauropods were so big that the food would have spent that long going through them anyway,” Wedel said. “They could stop chewing entirely, with no loss of digestive efficiency.”

But the question remains: why did they evolve like this? Well, there’s no clear answer so far, but there are three theories: either to reach leaves from high trees, either to graze large portions of vegetations by sweeping, with lower effort or… because it made them more sexually attractive. Taylor’s research however, didn’t provide an answer for this question.

Bus sized Triassic marine monster sheds light on ecosystems

A new species of “sea monster” was unearther in Nevada – a predator so fierce that it often hunted prey as big or bigger than itself.

ichthyosaurus-sea-monster-secrets-revealed_62934_600x450

Thalattoarchon saurophagis translates into “lizard-eating sovereign of the sea” – and boy is that a good name. It measured well over 8 meters and lived some 244 million years ago, during the Triassic, before the Jurassic period. The creature was an early ichtyosaur, giant marine reptiles that resembled dolphins but were the dominant marine predators for tens of millions of years.

Paleontologists from the Berlin’s Museum of Natural History said the fossil is unusually well preserved, maintaining its skull, fins, and entire vertebral column.

“It is pretty amazing, particularly for an animal this size,” said Fröbisch, who is also a National Geographic explorer.

ichtyosaur fossil

Ichtyosaur fossil

If Thalattoarchon would have any equivalents today, those would be sharks and killer whales (oracas). But what’s truly interesting about the fossil is that it shows how species and even ecosystems could bounce back from the most catastrophic event.

Nature’s struggles

“This animal occurs only eight million years after the biggest mass extinction event in Earth’s history, the Permian extinction, which literally wiped out up to 95 percent of all the species in the ocean,” Fröbisch explained. “The ocean was a pretty empty place afterward.”

permian_extinct5_hThe Permian extinction was indeed the most tragic event in our planet’s history; it occured 252.28 million years ago and its exact cause (or causes) are still unknown. It was a key moment for all life on Earth, much more difficult than the event that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. But fossil records showed that life quickly bounced back after this event, despite all odds.

Where does Thalattoarchon fit in ? Well, when ecosystems bounce back, they bounce from the bottom up. If a top predator like itself appears, that means there’s a whole lot of food for it available, which means that the ecosystem has pretty much recovered; to put it another way, top predators are the last ones to reemerge.

“So with the appearance of Thalattoarchon we know it was complete and that it had the same structure as modern ecosystems, the same structure we’ve seen in place, with different players, ever since.”

Despite thriving for over 160 million years as the top predator, Thalattoarchon and his fellow ichtyosaurs vanished without a trail, without leaving any indication as to what led to their demise, and without leaving any descendants.

“Toward the end of the Cretaceous, they declined more and more, and their diversity also declined—and then they finally disappeared,” Fröbisch said.

It’s actually possible that at one point, they became too good for their own sake – virtually eliminating all the food sources available.

Via National Geographic

Amber spider and wasp

Fantastic 100 million year-old time capsule traps ancient clash between spider and wasp

Amber spider and wasp

Trapped in the web, the wasp knows it’s done for, as it counts the seconds to its impending doom. The spider snatches its prey, and is prepared to act its revenge upon the ancient wasp, which is a parasite of spider eggs. But just as the final killing blow is imminent,  resin oozes from a tree bark and engulfs them both , trapping and freezing the pair in time. One hundred million years later, the scene is still there to tell the story – preserved in pristine condition, the amber fossil showcases not only tiny hairs on the spider, but also 15 intact strands of spider silk.

“This juvenile spider was going to make a meal out of a tiny parasitic wasp, but never quite got to it,” George Poinar, Jr., a zoology professor at Oregon State University, said in a statement.

“This was a male wasp that suddenly found itself trapped in a spider web. This was the wasp’s worst nightmare, and it never ended. The wasp was watching the spider just as it was about to be attacked, when tree resin flowed over and captured both of them.”

The event, which took place in  Myanmar’s Hukawng Valley in the Early Cretaceous, is the first and only fossil evidence of a spider attacking prey in its web. Amazingly, this perfectly preserved fossil was excavated in a Burmese mine. Both the spider and wasp species are today extinct, however.

The amber fossil findings were described in the journal Historical Biology.

via Gizmodo