Tag Archives: fossil

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: 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: 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.


“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.

The first artists? Researchers find children handprints from 200,000 years ago

A long time ago, two kids in Quesang, on the Tibetan Plateau, had a bit of fun. They left a set of handprints and footprints on a travertine boulder between 169,000 and 226,000 years ago. Researchers now believe that these fossilized impressions, apparently left intentionally, could be the world’s oldest known cave art.

A 3D-relief model of the Quesang fossil hand and footprints with colors showing the depth of the prints within the rocks. Image credit: The researchers.

A team of researchers led by Professor David Zhang from Guangzhou University found the hand and footprints in travertine formed around a hot spring. Travertine is freshwater limestone that when is first deposited it forms a sludgy mud that you can push your hands and feed into. When it’s cut off from water, the travertine hardens into stone, keeping the impression like a form of slow-acting cement.

“How footprints are made during normal activity such as walking, running, jumping is well understood, including things like slippage,” Thomas Urban, co-author of the new paper, told Gizmodo. “These prints, however, are more carefully made and have a specific arrangement—think more along the lines like how a child presses their handprint into fresh cement.”

Researchers used uranium, a naturally found radioactive element, to date the prints. They estimated that the impressions were left in the Pleistocene epoch – which occurred 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago. The marks were likely left by two children, one the size of a modern-day 12-year-old and the other the size of a 7-year-old. 

Still, the team couldn’t tell what species of archaic humans actually left the prints. Study co-author Matthew Bennett told Live Science that “Denisovans are a real possibility,” but also mentioned that Homo erectus was also known to inhabit the region. He said “there are lots of contenders” but that they don’t know at this point. 

Is this really art?

As the researchers explain in an article, hand shapes can be commonly found in prehistoric caves. The hand is usually used as a stencil, spreading pigment around the edge. The oldest known examples are the caves in El Castillo, Spain, and Sulawesi, Indonesia. Now, whether this is art or not, that’s a big debate.

Artist’s imagining of two kids making their marks. Image credit: The researchers

Defining what is art depends on how you look at things. The ancient philosopher Aristotle, for instance, thought the Greek concept of mimesis (to mimic) provided us with a definition for what makes art. In this view, art is a copy of something else. The artist sees something and imitates it. Much of what is art fits this definition up until the early XX century when the idea of art became more debated. 

The hand and footprints meet the criterion of mimic art, the researchers argued. The artist, in this case, the two kids in the Tibetan Plateau, took a form already known through lived experience (having seen their own hands and feet) and took that form and reproduced it in a context and pattern in which it wouldn’t normally appear. 

“Whether such a behavior is artistic depends on the definition one applies—but it gets into a class of behaviors that is generally more complex that is seen with other animals,” Urban told Gizmodo. “Symbolic behaviors such as language, religion, and art must have simpler manifestations early in the human story.”

The study was published in the journal Science Bulletin

Ancient turtle embryo preserved inside thick, tough egg

Some 90 million years ago, when dinosaurs were still roaming the land, a turtle laid eggs. We’re not sure what happened with most of them, but one never hatched. Now, researchers have found and analyzed that egg.

Illustration of a nest of land-dwelling turtles in the family Nanhsiungchelyidae. Image credits: Masato Hattori.

In 2018, a farmer discovered the egg and donated it to researchers. The finding came from what is today China, and based on its size, the turtle must have been about as big as a human — or even larger.

Fossilized eggs are, in general, very rare. Fossilization tends to require specific conditions, and soft eggs normally don’t withstand the processes. But this was a fortunate exception. The dinosaur came from Neixiang county, which is well-known for its dinosaur eggs. Initially, that’s exactly what researchers thought they were dealing with.

The egg, about as big as a billiard ball, was unlike any other dinosaur egg researchers had seen. But when paleontologists Fenglu Han and Haishui Jiang took a closer look at it, they realized that not only it wasn’t a dinosaur egg, but it also had a surprise inside: an embryo.

If turtle egg fossils are rare, the odds of such fossils being preserved with an embryo inside are astronomic. With the help of the embryo, which was imaged inside the egg, the team was able to identify the fossil.

Image credits: Yuzheng Ke.

The team used micro-computed tomography (CT) and initially found a mixed jumble of tiny bones inside. They then created a 3D replica of each individual bone and then put it all together. Remarkably, the embryo turned out very similar to what can be seen in today’s turtles. It was about 85% formed, the researchers say; it may have tried to hatch, but failed. Two other eggs from the same species and the same period have suffered the same fate.

Perhaps even more striking is the shell of the egg. At two millimeters thick, this is some 4 times thicker than even the thickest turtle eggs that are produced today. This shell would have allowed water to seep through, so these ancient turtles likely buried the eggs inside the cold, moist soil, keeping them safe from the arid environment of the late Cretaceous (and any predators that would wander about).

Unfortunately for this species, while most turtles managed to survive the extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs, the thick-egged turtles didn’t make it — and this type of thick eggs was never again seen for turtles.

In fact, it may be possible that the egg itself was what brought the demise of the species, or it could be that these specialized turtles couldn’t adapt to the dramatic shifts ushered in by the Cretaceous extinction. More research is needed before we can figure out what happened.

The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

We might have discovered the oldest animal fossils yet in the Canadian Northwest

Geologists in Canada might have found the earliest evidence of life on Earth: fossilized sea sponges.

Image after Elizabeth C. Turner, (2021), Nature.

In the remote mountains of the Northwest Territories — an area reportedly only accessible by helicopter — geologist Elizabeth Turner has found the oldest evidence of animal life that we’ve ever come across. Since the 1980s, she has been excavating this area, which used to be a marine environment around one billion years ago. But after all those years of hard work finally paid off, as Turner reports finding the fossils of ancient sponges preserved in the sediments here.

Even better, they could be the oldest animal fossils we’ve ever found.

Primeval sponges

The emphasis here is on ‘could be’. Thin sections of rocks recovered from the site contain three-dimensional shapes that are very similar to the structure of modern sponges. We’re not entirely sure that they are fossilized sea sponges right now.

What we do know, based on the dating of the rock layers the samples were retrieved from, is that they’re around 890 million years old. If we can confirm that these are actually fossils, they would be roughly 350 million years older than the oldest confirmed sponge fossils we’ve found so far.

Sponges, as one of the simplest types of animals out there, are widely considered to have been the first group of animals to evolve on Earth. If not the first, at least one of the first. Sponges lack nervous systems or muscles, and their cells work more like a collective of individuals rather than a single whole. That being said, however, they do have some definitory traits of simple animals, such as cells with differentiated functions and sperm.

Still, that being said, there are still a lot of unknowns when talking about early life on Earth. Our hypothesis so far is that life emerged around 3.7 billion years ago, with the first animals likely making an appearance around 540 million years ago — sponges. However, geneticists using the molecular clock approach — which involves analyzing the rate of genetic mutation in a species to estimate where it likely diverged from its cousins — say that there are grounds on which  to assume that sponges emerged much earlier, likely around one billion years ago.

No physical evidence has been found in support of this last point so far, but if the samples unearthed by Turner are confirmed as being sponge fossils, they would go a long way towards validating it. As such, we can definitely expect researchers to thoroughly examine and debate Turner’s findings.

The paper “Possible poriferan body fossils in early Neoproterozoic microbial reefs” has been published in the journal Nature.

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.

California man finds the ‘most significant’ fossil site in the state — by accident

A park ranger from California has made what’s being hailed as the ‘most significant’ fossil find in the state’s history.

The tusks uncovered at the site. Image credits Jason Halley / California State University Photographer.

Greg Francek, a ranger naturalist with the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD), a public utility district that provides water and sewage treatment services around San Francisco, has recently been on quite an adventure. While at work in the Mokelumne River watershed area — in the foothills of the Sierra mountains southeast of Sacramento — he stumbled upon an ancient, petrified woodland. Here, he found a treasure trove of fossils.

The findings include a superbly preserved mastodon skull and the remains of a 400-pound (181 kilograms) monster salmon.

A day at work

“I happened upon a petrified tree,” Francek said in a voice recording included in a statement from the EBUMD. “This tree was partially encased in the burial sediments, and because one end was exposed, I could actually see the tree rings inside.” 

After realizing what he was looking at, Francek took a more careful look at his surroundings, finding several more petrified trees.

A few weeks later, he returned to the area for an additional survey. Further exploration of the area revealed the cache of vertebrate fossils.

Francek contacted paleontologists and geologists after discovering these specimens, who joined him at the site. After removing some of the rock and sediment, they discovered the tip of a pearly-white bone — which, eventually, turned out to be a well-preserved mastodon skull. After one more year of digging at the site, they uncovered hundreds of new animal specimens of a few dozen different species, and around 600 petrified trees in total.

Some of the most exciting vertebrate fossils discovered at the side, aside from the mammoth skull, are a giant salmon, an extinct camel (the size of a giraffe), and a gomphothere (an ancestor to modern elephants). Remains from rhinos, giant tortoises, horses, and other land creatures have also been discovered here. Given the sheer wealth of specimens here, the scientists who helped dig them out believe that they were deposited here by floods and debris from lava flow further inland.

The site dates back roughly 10 million years to the Miocene epoch, and is one of the most significant such troves ever discovered in the Golden State. During its day, the region would’ve looked a lot like a modern oak forest surrounded by the ocean. So far, they’re keeping the exact location a secret to prevent looting, but the mastodon skull will be put on display at the Gateway Science Museum later this fall.

Florida men find mammoth bone while scuba diving

A 50-pound fossilized bone that initially belonged to a Columbian mammoth was discovered by a pack of amateur paleontologists last week while they were scuba diving in the Peace River in Arcadia, Southwest Florida.

Henry Sadler and Derek Demeter with the bone they discovered. Photos via Instagram.
Henry Sadler and Derek Demeter with the bone they discovered. Photos via Instagram.

The Orlando Sentinel first reported on the discovery of the bone by Derek Demeter and Henry Sadler. It weighs around 50 pounds, is 4 ft (1.21 m) in length, is currently believed to date back to the ice age, and belongs to one of the last mammoth species to roam North America.

Big Boned

“When I saw it, I couldn’t believe it. I was in denial. It was really neat to see that be discovered,” Demeter, the planetarium director at Seminole State College, told The Orlando Sentinel. “[Henry] came up, and he’s like, ‘Derek, I found something amazing,’ and he’s just freaking out.”

Although not yet properly examined, the bone — a humerus — seems to correspond to those of Columbian mammoths. This species’ habitat ranged from current-day Costa Rica to the northern U.S., where they roamed between 2.6 million and 10,000 years ago.

It was one of the last species of mammoth to live on Earth.

But let’s get back to our day. The lucky duo found several other bones on the same day. These include parts from an extinct shark lineage and the tooth of a saber-toothed tiger. Not ones to let their luck go to their heads, Henry and Derek donated these to the Florida Museum of Natural History, where they can be examined and displayed for the public to enjoy. The mammoth bone, however, they kept; it will be displayed in a local classroom, to accompany Henry — a science teacher at St. Petersburg’s Admiral Farragut Academy — while he teaches his classes.

“It’s currently sitting in the classroom where the kids are able to see it, touch it, feel it and really get a history of the natural world,” Sadler said.

This story goes to show that if you’re willing to pay attention to the environment around you, you might just be rewarded with some astonishing findings. Now, finding fossils thousands of years old just laying around on the floor probably isn’t very likely, but, objectively speaking, the odds are never quite zero. So don’t lose heart!

Adult T-Rexs likely couldn’t keep up with their offspring, judging from their paw prints

Could T. rex keep up with its kids? New research says ‘no’.

Image credits Brickset / Flickr.

Researchers at the University of New England’s (UNE) Paleoscience Research Centre found that young tyrannosaurs were much faster than their parents, suggesting that the adults could have had actual trouble keeping up with their young. It likely all came down to the significant difference in body size between adults and juveniles, the team explains.

The findings are based on a collection of fossilized tyrannosaur footprints which helped record how these animals moved throughout their different developmental stages.

Bigger, harder, stronger, slower

“Fully grown tyrannosaurs were believed to be more robust than younger individuals based on their relatively shorter hind limbs and more massive skulls, but nobody had explored this growth pattern using fossil footprints, which are unique in that they can provide a snapshot of the feet as they appeared in life, with outlines of the soft, fleshy parts of the foot that are rarely preserved as fossils,” said UNE PhD student and lead author of the paper, Nathan Enriquez.

“The results suggest that as some tyrannosaurs grew older and heavier, their feet also became comparably more bulky,” he adds, which would reduce their top speed.

There are a lot of elements that influence the final shape of a footprint. Things like soil composition and properties, the exact position of the animal as the print was made, the geography of the surface (and a lot of others) will influence the final shape that is imparted to a surface. Unsurprisingly, this makes interpreting footprints, especially fossilized ones, a very difficult process that’s fraught with pitfalls. Due to this, fossilized tracks haven’t been used extensively to understand dinosaur growth.

This set of footprints, however, from the Grande Prairie region of Northern Alberta, Canada, were found in very good condition and sported prints that belonged to individuals of the same species but different sizes.

“Based on the relatively close proximity between these discoveries and their nearly equivalent ages — about 72.5 million years old — we suggest they may indeed belong to the same species,” says Enriquez.

“We were also careful to assess the quality of preservation in each footprint, and only considered specimens which were likely to reflect the shape of the actual feet that produced them.”

After establishing which of the prints were suitable for their research, the team analyzed their outline using an approach called geometric morphometrics. This was meant to look past the differences in overall size between the tracks, and spot the key differences in shape between these tracks.

The most important difference in shape they found was the width and surface area of the heel relative to the overall imprint size. This ratio was significantly lower in the smaller prints. The team explains that the smaller tracks were “slender”, while the larger ones were “broader” and had larger heel areas. This increase was needed as the animal increased in size as it aged, as their legs needed to be able to physically support their bulk, but it also suggests that older individuals weren’t able to reach the same speeds as their young.

“Increasingly bulky feet in the adults aligns with previous suggestions that juvenile tyrannosaurs would have been faster and more agile for their body size in comparison to their parents, and means that we can add footprints as another line of evidence in the debate over tyrannosaur growth,” Enriquez notes.

One of the most exciting parts of science, for me personally, is that if you understand how the different parts of a picture fit together, you can then draw conclusions from seemingly unrelated elements — such as judging how fast an animal was able to go based on its pawprints.

Since we don’t have many reliable sources of data regarding long-extinct species such as T. rex, any sliver of information we can get is priceless. The current paper offers up one such tidbit which will help us better understand how the dinosaur’s abilities and ways of life changed as it aged. Hopefully, such an approach will be refined in the future to make it more reliable and widely-applicable, and that it will be used on prints from other dinosaur species as well.

The paper “Exploring possible ontogenetic trajectories in tyrannosaurids using tracks from the Wapiti Formation (upper Campanian) of Alberta, Canada” has been published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Fossil Friday: 300 million-year-old “Godzilla Shark” from New Mexico finally gets an official name

A press release from the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science (NMMNHS) on Thursday announces, at long last, the scientific name of this impressive shark.

The fossil and a 3D reconstruction of the animal’s skeleton. Image credits Jesse Pruitt / New Mexico Museum Of Natural History & Science.

First discovered eight years ago, the species has so far been known by an unofficial (if cool) name: the “Godzilla Shark”. But researchers are now confident enough in their observations to place the animal on the tree of life, and with that, give it its official scientific name. The animal lived around 300 million years ago, during the Carboniferous period.

Big shark

The shark, uncovered in the Manzano Mountains of New Mexico, has been named Dracopristis hoffmanorum. It’s part of an ancient lineage that split off from the main family, but one which did not stand the test of time. It’s unofficial names include “Godzilla Shark” and “Hoffman’s Dragon Shark” in recognition of its big jaws, large spine, and in honor of the Hoffman family who own the land where the fossil was found.

“Dracopristis and other ctenacanth sharks represent a unique evolutionary branch of the sharks that split off from the modern sharks and rays approximately 390 million years ago, but that went extinct by the end of the Paleozoic Era, about 252 million years ago,” the museum explained in the release.

Judging from the fossils, the animal could grow to around 6.7 feet in length. It had 12 rows of teeth growing out from powerful jaws, and two large fin spines on its back that could reach an estimated 2.5 feet in length. These could have played a role as a defensive measure against predators, the team explains. The animal was most likely an ambush predator, lurking in shallow lagoons and estuaries where it would surprise prey like crustaceans, fish, and anything else it could find, with a tooth-lined maw.

Dracopristis was discovered by accident, when John-Paul Hodnett, a paleontologist at the Maryland National Capital Parks was poking through some limestone fragments with his knife in the Manzano Mountains to sift through them. “At first, I thought what was flipped over was the cross-section of a limb bone, which was exciting as no large tetrapod had been found at that site before,” Hodnett explains.

Still, a day later, Hodnett and his team were convinced that the discovery was in fact a new species of fish, most likely from the genus Ctenacanthus, which is today extinct. It eventually turned out to be the most complete ctenacanth ever discovered in the whole of North America.

The last seven years were spent studying the fossil, which included preparation and digital scanning at the NMMNHS’s labs. This allowed the team to describe the new fossil and identify its place in the tree of life.

The paper “Ctenacanthiform Sharks From The Late Pennsylvanian (Missourian) Tinajas Member Of The Atrasado Formation, Central New Mexico” has been published in the Bulletin of the NMMNHS

Researchers uncover the oldest known species with opposable thumbs — a dinosaur in China

Researchers have identified what is, perhaps, the oldest species to have evolved opposable thumbs; it was a dino.

 Reconstruction of Kunpengopterus antipollicatus. Image credits Chuang Zhao.

The new species, christened Kunpengopterus antipollicatus, lived during the Jurassic era in what is today China. Its most peculiar feature was the presence of opposable thumbs on its forelimbs, making it the oldest known species (and the oldest known dinosaur) to evolve such a trait. Opposable thumbs, the kind we have on our hands, are a big part of humanity’s secret to success, and a rare occurrence in nature outside of the primate family. As such, it earned the animal the nickname of “Monkeydactyl”.

Thumbs up

“The fingers of ‘Monkeydactyl’ are tiny and partly embedded in the slab. Thanks to micro-CT scanning, we could see through the rocks, create digital models and tell how the opposed thumb articulates with the other finger bones,” co-author Fion Waisum Ma said in a statement. “This is an interesting discovery. It provides the earliest evidence of a true opposed thumb, and it is from a pterosaur — which wasn’t known for having an opposed thumb.”

If the fact that a dinosaur dared copy one of our trump cards isn’t enough, then know this: Kunpengopterus antipollicatus was also capable of flight, making it, objectively speaking, better than us. It used to live in the forest ecosystems of 160 million years ago, and its name antipollicatus means “opposite thumbed” in ancient Greek. 

K. antipollicatus belonged to the darwinopteran branch of the pterosaur family, the first lineage of vertebrates that we known of which were capable of flight. The current species is the oldest pterosaur to show true opposable thumbs, which also makes it the first species we know of that evolved such a trait.

Fossils of the new species were discovered in the Tiaojishan Formation of Liaoning, China, in September 2019. The opposable thumbs (or “pollex”) on each hand were spotted through the use of micro-CT scans. The team believes this dino used its thumbs for climbing trees or grasping, which would also be a useful skill for an animal living in the canopies of trees. Its diminutive size — the whole animal had a wingspan of 33 inches at most — also suggests it was adapted to spending some or most of its time in trees.

“Darwinopterans are a group of pterosaurs from the Jurassic of China and Europe, named after Darwin due to their unique transitional anatomy that has revealed how evolution affected the anatomy of pterosaurs throughout time,” said co-author Rodrigo V. Pêgas. “On top of that, a particular darwinopteran fossil has been preserved with two associated eggs, revealing clues to pterosaur reproduction.”

” They’ve always been considered precious fossils for these reasons and it is impressive that new darwinopteran species continue to surprise us!”

The species was most likely adapted to life in the trees in order to escape predators and competitors, the team conclude, a tradition that birds have carried on through to this day.

The paper “A new darwinopteran pterosaur reveals arborealism and an opposed thumb” has been published in the journal Current Biology.

Fossil Friday: microbes discovered deep underground remain virtually unchanged since 175 million years ago

New research has identified what’s very likely the tiniest living fossils so far — a group of microbes that feed off radioactive decay.

Abandoned tin mine in Vredehoek, Cape Horn, South Africa. Image credits jbdodane / Flickr.

The team, led by the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, an independent, non-profit oceanography research institute, reports that the microbes have been frozen, evolutionary-speaking, for millions of years. Finding such a case could upturn our current understanding of how microbes evolve and why, and could potentially help guide biotechnology applications in the future (since you want these to not evolve/change over time).

We’re fine as we are

“This discovery shows that we must be careful when making assumptions about the speed of evolution and how we interpret the tree of life,” said Eric Becraft, the lead author on the paper. “It is possible that some organisms go into an evolutionary full-sprint, while others slow to a crawl, challenging the establishment of reliable molecular timelines.”

The microbe species is known as Candidatus Desulforudis audaxviator, and was first discovered in 2008 by a group of researchers led by Tullis Onstott, a co-author on the new study. They live in a gold mine in South Africa almost two miles beneath the surface, swimming merrily in the water-filled cavities inside the rock walls. They feed on chemical products formed by natural radioactive decay processes in minerals at the site, creating a completely independent ecosystem that doesn’t even rely on sunlight to function.

Given their very peculiar living arrangement, the team understandably wanted to know how the microbes evolved to where they are today. They checked other underground samples recovered from around the world and found the species in Siberia, California, and in several other mines in South Africa. Each of these environments was chemically different, the team explains, which spurred them to look for differences among the populations at each site. These groups were obviously separated, and have likely been separate for millions of years, and every one of them had unique conditions they lived in — which would make you think they evolved their own unique quirks.

“We wanted to use that information to understand how they evolved and what kind of environmental conditions lead to what kind of genetic adaptations,” said Bigelow Laboratory Senior Research Scientist Ramunas Stepanauskas, the corresponding author on the paper and Becraft’s postdoctoral advisor.

“We thought of the microbes as though they were inhabitants of isolated islands, like the finches that Darwin studied in the Galapagos.”

So they analyzed the genetic code of 126 individuals retrieved at sites on three different continents — and they were flabbergasted to find that all of them were almost completely identical.

They ruled out the possibility that these microbes could have traveled between the sites. The species is anaerobic and can’t live long in the presence of oxygen, they don’t survive well on the surface; the team also ruled out cross-contamination between these sites.

The best explanation they have so far, the team explains, is that these communities didn’t change all that much, genetically, since they first became separated about 175 million years ago as the supercontinent Pangaea split. In essence, they’re living fossils.

“They appear to be living fossils from those days. That sounds quite crazy and goes against the contemporary understanding of microbial evolution,” says Stepanauskas.

The findings offer a unique counterpoint to the much more accelerated rates of mutation and evolution seen in other microbial communities. Populations of bacteria such as E. coli have been noted to evolve (in response to environmental changes) in as little as a few years. The growing antibiotic resistance issue is an example of just how fast bacteria can evolve.

The team’s current hypothesis is that the species’ genetic freeze is due to powerful anti-mutation mechanisms in its genome. We don’t yet know whether that’s true, but if it is, we could have just discovered an extremely rare feature that we can copy and exploit. Developing this into a tool could pave the way towards more stable DNA polymerases (molecules that copy DNA strands), which are a key component of our biotechnology kit. Essentially, it would allow us to make the biological machinery that copies DNA much more stable over time, which sounds unimpressive but is actually a very big deal for the field.

But the findings also have deep implications for how we think about microbial genetics and the rate at which such microscopic organisms mutate.

“There’s a high demand for DNA polymerases that don’t make many mistakes,” Stepanauskas said. “Such enzymes may be useful for DNA sequencing, diagnostic tests, and gene therapy.”

“These findings are a powerful reminder that the various microbial branches we observe on the tree of life may differ vastly in the time since their last common ancestor,” Becraft said. “Understanding this is critical to understanding the history of life on Earth.”

The paper “Evolutionary stasis of a deep subsurface microbial lineage” has been published in The ISME Journal.

Fossil Friday: we might have found the earliest known cephalopod, extending the family’s history by 30 million years

Cephalopods, a family including animals like the octopus and cuttlefish, are definitely some of the most interesting animals on Earth today. According to new research, they could also be one of the oldest lineages on the planet as well.

 Thin section of the specimen. Red arrows point to the septa, blue to a possible other specimen. Image credits Anne Hildenbrand et al., (2021), NatCom.

The discovery of 522 million-year-old (possibly cephalopod) fossils in the Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland, Canada, could push this lineage’s history back by roughly 30 million years, a new paper reports. This would mean that cephalopods first evolved during the early Cambrian period, making them one of the earliest multicellular organisms on Earth.

Old Squid

“If they should actually be cephalopods, we would have to backdate the origin of cephalopods into the early Cambrian period,” says Dr Anne Hildenbrand from the Institute of Earth Sciences, co-lead author of the study.

“That would mean that cephalopods emerged at the very beginning of the evolution of multicellular organisms during the Cambrian explosion.”

The fossils were unearthed by earth scientists from the Heidelberg University in Germany on the eastern stretches of the Avalon Peninsula. They’re pretty chalky shells, resembling elongated cones. Individual chambers are present inside the shells, each defined by a pair of walls. A tube called the siphuncle runs along the length of the shell linking all of these rooms together.

If this fossil belonged to a cephalopod — and we’re not yet sure that it did — it could have quite a dramatic effect on our understanding of this lineage’s evolutionary history. For starters, the segmented-yet-connected structure of the shell suggests that it had a part to play in controlling the animal’s buoyancy. This is the earliest example we’ve ever seen of such a mechanism, meaning that cephalopods could have been the first lineage to be able to settle the open ocean (as opposed to the sea bed or reefs) as their habitat.

For now, we have reason to believe that the shell belonged to a cephalopod. Its structure is reminiscent of the spiral-shaped nautilus, suggesting a certain level of relatedness, but they also differ in shape from known representatives of that class. In other words it’s probably a cephalopod, but we can’t tell for sure due to some differences in shape.

“This find is extraordinary,” says Dr. Austermann. “In scientific circles, it was long suspected that the evolution of these highly developed organisms had begun much earlier than hitherto assumed. But there was a lack of fossil evidence to back up this theory.”

This discovery, however, might finally allow researchers to gain some insight into the topic, the team argues. On the one hand, it has structural similarities to other known early cephalopods. On the other, there are enough differences between it and other known cephalopod specimens to give us some information about the evolutionary process of the lineage as a whole.

The paper “A potential cephalopod from the early Cambrian of eastern Newfoundland, Canada” has been published in the journal Communications Biology.

Dino unearthed in Argentina is likely the oldest titanosaur we’ve ever seen

A titanic dinosaur discovered in Patagonia, Argentina, may be the oldest member of its lineage ever discovered.

Ninjatitan zapatai. Image credits Jorge González via Twitter/@emanuel_pujol.

The species, christened the quite cool name of Ninjatitan zapatai was a Titanosaurid, a lineage of massive plant-eating dinosaurs with long necks (they’re part of the sauropod family). All of them were quite hefty, with the smallest known titanosaurid being about as large as an elephant.

The oldest ninja titan

“During evolutionary history, sauropods had different moments, different ‘pulses’ of gigantism, which were not only related to the group of titanosaurs,” said Dr. Pablo Ariel Gallina, a paleontologist at the Fundación Azara in Maimonides University.

“There were large animals towards the end of the Jurassic period, such as Apatosaurus and Brachiosaurus. And, already in the line of titanosaurs, the pulse with the largest giants occurs towards the middle of the Cretaceous period with species such as Patagotitan, Argentinosaurus, or Notocolossus.”

N. zapatai was around 20 m (66 feet) in length, with a sizable neck and tail to go along. But its main distinguishing feature is its age — Ninjatitan zapatai lived during the Early Cretaceous, around 130 million years ago, making it the oldest known member of its lineage. Fossil records from that time are generally quite scant, not just for dinosaurs, making the discovery that much more valuable.

For starters, its existence gives us a lot of information about the wider ecology of the area during the Early Cretaceous. The specimen is proof that titanosaurian sauropods were already present and established in Patagonia at the time, likely even the wider southern hemisphere. It also supports the idea of a Gondwanan origin for Titanosauria,” the researchers said.

The 140-million-year-old postcranial remains of Ninjatitan zapatai were discovered in 2014 in the Bajada Colorada Formation in Neuquén province, Patagonia region, Argentina.

The paper “The earliest known titanosaur sauropod dinosaur” has been published in the journal Ameghiniana.

Quartz in ancient bird stomach sheds new light on what it would have eaten

Figuring out the lifestyle of animals can be difficult even for today’s creatures — but for those that lived over 100 million years ago, it’s a massive challenge. But sometimes, researchers get lucky and find unusual fossils that shed new light on these ancient creatures.

A reconstruction of the bohaiornithid Sulcavis, a close relative of Bohaiornis guoi, hunting an insect. Image credits: S. Abramowicz, Dinosaur Institute, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

A real mystery

The finding in case is a quartz-like mineral called chalcedony which was found in the stomach of a bird that lived way before T. Rex, when birds were still in their early evolutionary history. The bird is called Bohaiornis guoi.

“They’re part of an early lineage of birds from the Cretaceous, about 120 million years ago,” says Jingmai O’Connor, one of the study authors. “They still retain teeth and claws on their hands, but they’re small, about the size of a pigeon, so they’re not particularly terrifying.”

The bird was part of a group called the enantiornithines that were once the world’s most common birds, with thousands of its fossilized relatives being found in northeastern China. But although many fossils of the group have been found, none contained much information about what it would have eaten, until 2014. In 2014, a study found several rock-like structures within the creature’s abdominal cavity –and it seemed like the problem was solved.

Many living birds swallow small rocks (called gizzard stones or rangle stones) which are used to help crush up tough food. These stones, also called gastroliths, have been found in several dinosaur and bird fossils, suggesting that they consumed tough plant materials and seeds. If Bohaiornis guoi also had these gizzard stones then we have a clue what it ate, and this is what the evidence seemed to suggest at first glance.

But in a new study, O’Connor and her former Masters student Shumin Liu found that this is not likely the case.

“Based on the evidence gleaned from numerous lines of analysis, the best hypothesis for how the chalcedony got there is that it formed post-mortem, at some time during the fossilization of the specimen,” O’Connor tells ZME Science.

“Since the chalcedony forms a large, interconnected thin plate-like structure, its highly unlikely the bird would have swallowed it (it would be like swallowing a plate). Stones intentionally ingested by birds are never thin because then they would break easily and not serve their function.”

Liu and O’Connor also sampled stones from other birds and one dinosaur that are undoubtedly gizzard stones, comparing their morphology to what was found inside Bohaiornis guoi — they found no similarity.

“The size of the traces in Bohaiornis are too small to be considered rangle or gizzard stones, and they are brown – the same color as the bone, whereas ingested stones found in other birds are usually black, grey, white-ish. All in all, they are nothing like ingested stones in other birds,” O’Connor tells me in an email.

The chalcedony crystals that were found inside the fossil are sometimes found with fossils, and they have been documented as forming in the fossilization process.

“This it makes it more like the chalcedony formed during diagenesis (the process of the sediment and carcass becoming fossil and rock),” O’Connor adds.

The fossil specimen of Bohaiornis with crystals in its stomach. Image credits: Liu et al, IVPP.

Where does this leave us

The first takeaway is that we still don’t know what these primeval birds ate — but we’re getting closer and closer to figuring out.

“This paper tells us that the Enantiornithes, one important clade of fossil birds, still have no direct stomach traces or evidence,” says Shumin Liu, currently a student at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the paper’s first author. “I was excited, it is a breakthrough about them.”

But if we look at the larger picture, something still stands out: out of the many fossils, no evidence of gizzard stones has been found. To O’Connor, that suggests that they didn’t have gizzard stones at all.

“We just have this absence of evidence, and paleontologists always say absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. But I always counter with, whoever came up with that adage never imagined having thousands of specimens that are complete and articulated, some preserving soft tissue,” says O’Connor. If Early Cretaceous enantiornithines did employ gastroliths, it’s awfully strange that none of the thousands of fossils show them.

“The absence of gastroliths must mean they ate things that did not require gizzard stones to aid in digestion (soft things like larvae or fruit), or that the enantiornithine digestive system was fundamentally different and did not rely on gizzard stones (there are arguments about whether gizzard stones are actually necessary or not in living birds).”

This is often the problem in paleontology: you’re often at the mercy of fossils. Even when the evidence seems tantalizingly close, it’s hard to conclusively demonstrate something. So at this stage, things are not clear. It’s still a mystery, O’Connor concludes.

“Either way, it’s weird because so many other birds and closely related dinosaurs use gizzard stones so enantiornithines should have had the genetic potential to evolve a grinding gizzard. Of course, not all use gizzard stones, it depends on diet. But enantiornithines are also the most diverse group of Cretaceous birds so it’s odd this entire radiation of birds would eat only soft things that would not benefit from the aid of gastroliths for digestion. Neither explanation is satisfactory, it really is a mystery.”

The study was published in the journal Frontiers in Earth Science.

“Daddy, look at this”: 220-million-year-old dinosaur footprint discovered by four-year-old

Lily Wilder, aged 4, was walking with her father and per dog along a beach in south Wales, when she saw something unusual. It turned out to be a dinosaur footprint from the Triassic.

Image credits: National Museum Wales.

Although Lily doesn’t quite grasp exactly what she spotted yet, her keen eye is what found the footprint. She called to her dad who took photos and then posted them on a Facebook group, where he was directed to contact paleontologists. The incredibly well-preserved fossil is more than just a cool find: it can help researchers better understand how some dinosaurs walked around.

“It really is stunning preservation … You can see every detail of the muscles and where the joints are in the foot,” Cindy Howells, Amgueddfa Cymru National Museum of Wales paleontology curator, told NBC News. She called the footprint the “best specimen ever found” on the beach.

It’s not possible to tell exactly what species it was right now, but many things can be inferred about the dinosaur that left the footprint. It was probably about 75 cm tall, shorter than a horse but taller than a dog. The dinosaur would have walked on its two hind feet and hunted small animals, or maybe even insects.

“There are no fossilised bones from this 220 million-year-old dinosaur, but similar footprints in the USA are known to have been made by the dinosaur Coelophysis which does not occur in the UK,” reads a statement from the National Museum Cardiff, where the fossil will soon be hosted. “Many of the other footprints found at Bendricks Bay in the past have most likely not been from dinosaurs, but rather from some of the more crocodilian-type reptiles that also inhabited the area.” The museum also added that Lily will have her name listed as the one who discovered the footprint.

Dinosaurs first appeared some 230 million years ago, so this is one of the earliest ones to roam the Earth. It marks an important period, when dinosaurs were diversifying and exploring different ecological niches. They would have roamed across much of today’s Britain, but few fossils have ever been found in the area. As it enters the custody of the museum, it will be analyzed in greater detail by palaeontologists.

Meanwhile, Howell says that people should learn from this episode and try to spend more time in nature, especially in this very challenging pandemic period, when meeting with others can be so complicated. You never know what you may find, she says.

“Obviously, we don’t all have dinosaur footprints on our doorstep but there is a wealth of nature local to you if you take the time to really look close enough,” she says.

Fossil dino discovered in Argentina might have been the largest-ever animal on dry land

The remains of one dinosaur unearthed in Argentina, while yet unidentified, could have belonged to an immense creature.

Argentinosaurus huinculensis, a closely-related species of the new dinosaur. Image credits Nobu Tamura / Wikimedia.

Paleontologists have discovered the 98 million-year-old titanosaur in northwest Patagonia (the tip of the South American continent) in the Neuquén Province. The trove included 24 vertebrae from the tail, alongside elements of its pelvic and pectoral girdle, found in sedimentary deposits in the local Candeleros Formation. Titanosaurs, as their name suggests, were immense animals; believed to have been the largest animals to have ever walked on land.

Argentinian titan

“It is a huge dinosaur, but we expect to find much more of the skeleton in future field trips, so we’ll have the possibility to address with confidence how really big it was,” Alejandro Otero, a paleontologist with Argentina’s Museo de La Plata, told CNN.

Titanosaurs were part of the sauropod family, a group of dinosaurs known for their impressive size, long necks, and long tails. These four-legged animals were herbivores and were only contested by the most deadly top predators during their heyday — between the Late Jurassic and into the Cretaceous. So far, titanosaurs have been discovered on all continents except Antarctica.

The authors of the paper believe that the fossils could have belonged to “one of the largest sauropods ever found”, larger even than a Patagotitan, a species of dinosaur that grew up to 37.2 meters (122 feet) in length. Patagotitans have so far been found only in Patagonia (hence, the name) and they were really, really plump, growing to around 77 tons.

Without access to one of the newly-discovered dinosaur’s humerus or femur for a proper, in-depth analysis, it’s impossible to say for sure how much it weighed. Judging by the relative size of the bones they did find, however, it could very well be “considered one of the largest titanosaurs,” the team explains. It likely grew heavier than the Patagotitans or Argentionaurus (another local dino species that could grow up to 110 tons).

The authors say that the new discovery points to the co-existence of large and medium-sized titanosaurs alongside small-sized rebbachisaurids, a relatively obscure family of sauropods, in the area at the beginning of the Late Cretaceous period. Still, for now, they don’t believe we’re looking at a new species of dinosaur, but they haven’t been able to identify it either.

“These size differences could indeed explain the existence of such sauropod diversity in the Neuquén Basin during the Late Cretaceous in terms of niche partitioning,” they wrote.

The paper “Report of a giant titanosaur sauropod from the Upper Cretaceous of Neuquén Province, Argentina” has been published in the journal Cretaceous Research.