Tag Archives: jurassic

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.

Rare, delicate fossils show butterflies emerged before flowers did

After an unusual set of events, paleontologists have discovered fossil evidence that Lepidoptera — a group of insects which features butterflies and moths — emerged at least 200 million years ago. This contradicts the idea that flowers drove the evolution of butterflies and moths.

The common jezebel butterfly, Delias eucharis. Image in public domain.

Butterflies and rocks

Boston College Research Professor Paul K. Strother was visiting a colleague in Germany. He was also gathering cores from sedimentary rocks, looking especially for vestiges of freshwater algae, but also pollen, spores, pieces of plants and insect legs — anything that could help him recreate the area’s history. Among these samples, he noticed several rather odd-looking flecks of material.

It wasn’t the first time something like this was observed. Paleontologists typically ignore such features, focusing instead on things like pollen or spores, which offer more consistent information. But the specks were abundant in Strother’s  samples, so he analyzed them more carefully. He dissolved the cores in a solvent, preserving only the organic matter. He was able to isolate the strange features but wasn’t able to identify them. Until luck struck, that is.

After about a year, Strother found himself seated next to Torsten Wappler, a University of Bonn scientist who specializes in extinct insects. As it so often happens when social events bring scientists together, a partnership was struck. Strother showed the images to Wappler, who said that it would be possible to identify them, though it wouldn’t be easy. Identifying microorganisms, especially in unusual samples, typically involves a lot of routine, monotonous work. So again, as it so often happens… the two asked an undergraduate to do the brunt of the work. Timo J. B. van Eldijk was up for the task

“Timo is the guy that did all the work,” Strother remembers.

Examples of the oldest wing and body scales of primitive moths from the Schandelah-1 core photographed with transmitted light (magnification 630x). Credit: Bas van de Schootbrugge, Utrecht University.

As it turned out, the features were scales from the wings of moths and butterflies. Using a light microscope, and later a scanning electron microscope, he concluded that they were the wing scales that give butterflies their characteristic, brightly colored aspect. In total, Timo discovered 70 specimens in the 201-million-year-old sample taken from 300 meters below Earth’s surface. But there was even more.

The real shocker

The investigation revealed that there were two types of scales. The first one was the “primitive” one, with a set of scales that was solid all the way down. But there was another discovery: a different type of scales, which was hollow. This was “the real shocker,” researchers say, as it represents modern Lepidoptera, a group of insects which were thought to have a tight evolutionary history with flowers.

As theory has it, this group evolved their proboscises (long and mobile sucking mouthparts) as a response to flowering plants. Plants had nectar, and the insects wanted that nectar, so they adapted in order to better reach it. But the theory, it seems, is wrong. According to the fossil record, plants didn’t develop flowers until 130 million years ago, and this sample is 201 million years old, from the Jurassic.

“The consensus has been that insects followed flowers,” said Strother, a co-author of the paper. “But that would be 50 million years later than what the wings were saying. It was odd to say the least, that there would be butterflies before there were flowers.”

Example of a living representative of a primitive moth belonging to moths that bear a proboscid adapted for sucking up fluids, including nectar. Size of the scale bar is 1 cm. Credit: Hossein Rajaei, Museum für Naturkunde.

During the Jurassic, the dominant group of plants was the gymnosperms, a group which includes conifers such as pine trees — not what you’d expect to find butterflies around. Researchers aren’t exactly sure why insects would have developed proboscises without flowers. The best theory is that they were trying to drink pollen from conifer cones. It could also be that the flower fossil record is missing, or that these elongated mouthparts had another purpose entirely.

Still, it’s not without precedent for one biological part to emerge for one purpose only to later change its purpose completely. The rocks date from a period right around the Triassic–Jurassic extinction event, when numerous creatures went extinct. Butterflies might have taken advantage of this and diversified, filling up all the ecological niches they could. The new research suggests that butterflies are survivors.

Butterflies are survivors. Credits: Momentmal / Pixabay.

Science at its finest

It will take more cores, more samples, and more grunt work before the story of the early Lepidoptera is solved, but this is a great example of classic science: starting not with a plan, but rather with a curiosity. Researchers were intrigued by what they found, and after one thing led to the other, they might have changed the evolutive history of an important group of insects. In my view, modern science needs much more of this.

“This is the old-fashioned science of discovery,” said Strother. “We’re looking at this microscopic world of things that lived hundreds of millions of years ago and we don’t know what they are. The challenge is: can we figure out what they are? Part of it is piecing together the tree of life, or the evolution of organisms through time. It is more like a puzzle or a mystery.”

Journal Reference: Timo J. B. van Eldijk et al. A Triassic-Jurassic window into the evolution of Lepidoptera. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1701568.

Dinosaurs were warm-blooded, new study finds

New controversial research concluded that dinosaurs weren’t the cold blooded lizards we tend to see them today – instead, they had much in common with mammals, and were warm blooded.

Image via Science Daily.

Dinosaurs first emerged in the Triassic, 231.4 million years ago, and were the dominant terrestrial vertebrates for 135 million years, from the beginning of the Jurassic (about 201 million years ago) until the end of the Cretaceous (66 million years ago). We tend to think of dinosaurs as giant lizards, but the truth may be more complicated (and surprising) than that.

“Upon re-analysis, it was apparent that dinosaurs weren’t just somewhat like living mammals in their physiology — they fit right within our understanding of what it means to be a ‘warm-blooded’ mammal,” author Michael D’Emic, a Stony Brook University paleontologist, said in a press release.

Dinosaur blood is a controversial issue; in 2011, CalTech researchers proposed the same thing – that dinosaurs were warm-blooded, and the study was met both praised and contradicted by other paleontologists. Now, more and more analysis seems to back that idea up. For this study, D’emic re-analyzed a huge dataset published in a previous study on growth and metabolism of hundreds of living animals, a dataset which he calls “remarkable” and “unprecedented”.

The first question mark arose from studying growth rates.

“This is problematic,” D’Emic said, “because many animals do not grow continuously throughout the year, generally slowing or pausing growth during colder, drier, or otherwise more stressful seasons. Therefore, the previous study underestimated dinosaur growth rates by failing to account for their uneven growth. Like most animals, dinosaurs slowed or paused their growth annually, as shown by rings in their bones analogous to tree rings.”

Seasonal environments and extreme circumstances could also impact growth.

Vertebrate paleontologist Michael D’Emic says were warm-blooded just like today’s mammals.

The other aspect is rather straightforward, and was discussed before: birds evolved from some dinosaurs, and birds are warm blooded, so why wouldn’t dinosaurs:

“Separating what we commonly think of as ‘dinosaurs’ from birds in a statistical analysis is generally inappropriate, because birds are dinosaurs–they’re just the dinosaurs that haven’t gone extinct,” D’emic added.

His conclusions were actually based on a previous study published in Science, which found that dinosaurs were neither warm or cold blooded, but instead occupied a middle position and were mesotherms. But the authors of the original study stand by their initial conclusions.

“We disagree with his central criticisms and we emphasize that all of our original conclusions stand,” said University of New Mexico biologist John Grady. “Comparing dinosaur growth with the observed growth rate of living vertebrates clearly shows that non-avian dinosaurs were mesotherms,” added Grady, using the term for an intermediate metabolism.

But D’Emic raised another point, that of adaptations to overheating.

“The Earth was generally warmer during the time of the dinosaurs, and so overheating could have been a problem for them. However, most large dinosaurs had some hollow, air-filled bones in their skeleton and likely had large air sacs in other parts of their bodies, just like birds today,” D’Emic said.

If he is right in his theory, then this means we have to re-evaluate what we think about ornaments that some dinosaurs had, like the spinal sails of the Stegosaurus. But either way, the idea of cold blooded dinosaurs seems less and less likely.

Another interesting aspect of this study is that it might provide new insight into the growth and development of human bones, including treating diseases such as osteoporosis.

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

Turkey Sized Vegetarian T-Rex Discovered

A seven year old has discovered the fossil of a turkey-sized dinosaur that roamed South America over 140 million years ago. The tiny dinosaur was related to T-Rex, but had few similarities to it; aside for its size, the dinosaur was a vegetarian, munching on plants instead of terrorizing other creatures.

Chilesaurus diegosuarezi grew up to ten feet long Photo: Reuters

At the end of the Jurassic period, the Earth was very different from what it is today. Average temperatures were a whopping 3 degrees Celsius higher than today, there was virtually no frozen landmass, and of course, dinosaurs ruled the planet. But while most dinosaurs were huge and terrifying Chilesaurus diegosuarezi was nothing of sorts.

It had short arms and hands with two fingers, like T-Rex, but feet that resembled long-necked dinosaurs. It could grow up to ten feet, but the discovered specimen was about as big as a turkey. It was part of the same group as Velociraptor and Tyrannosaurus, from which modern birds evolved, but it’s just strange.

“Chilesaurus is so unexpected, so drastically different than anything else we’ve seen before. It’s an anatomical Frankenstein,” says Lindsay Zanno of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh.

Photo: Reuters

The species really riddled paleontologists, who have rarely seen such a hybrid and enigmatic dinosaur. So strange was the dinosaur that initially, scientists believed they were dealing with several different species.

“It’s like a T. rex that’s been shrunk but not shrunk equally,” says Pete Makovicky, an associate curator and dinosaur specialist at The Field Museum in Chicago, who was not involved in the new find. “This animal would’ve looked more silly than fearful … more similar to an ostrich than to T. rex.”

The fossil was actually discovered 11 years ago, when Diego Suarez was only 7 and he was accompanying his geologist parents on an expedition, and the little boy playing actually discovered the dinosaur, who was named in his honor – a remarkable case of beginner’s luck.

“Out of nowhere, two small things appeared. … They were fossils,” Suarez says by email. He ran to show his mother. His parents, he says, “were amazed. You (can) imagine it was, to them, like wining the lottery.” The family sent the fossils to dinosaur specialists in Argentina.

Diego Suarez has a passion for fossils. (Photo: Manuel Suarez)

In terms of evolutionary significance, Chilesaurus seems to throw a curveball. Its ancestors were meat eaters, its living relatives were meat eaters, but it ate plants. It had vertebrae and front limbs like T-Rex and velociraptor, but its feet, ankle and some of its pelvis looked like they belonged to a completely different branch of plant-eating animals. In a way, it’s like a platypus – a creature that embodies distinctive traits from entirely different species.

Martin Eczurra, a PhD student at Birmingham University said:

“Chilesaurus can be considered a ‘platypus’ dinosaur because different parts of its body resemble those of other dinosaur groups due to mosaic convergent evolution. In this process a region or regions of an organism resemble others of unrelated species because of a similar mode of life and evolutionary pressures.”

It might also provide some insight into evolution itself.

“Chilesaurus provides a good example of how evolution works in deep time and it is one of the most interesting cases of convergent evolution documented in the history of life. It comes as false relationship evidence may arise because of cases of convergent evolution – such as that present in Chilesaurus.”

Journal Reference: Fernando E. Novas et al. An enigmatic plant-eating theropod from the Late Jurassic period of Chile. Naturedoi:10.1038/nature14307

Jurassic Predator found in Scotland – It Munched on Sharks and Dinosaurs

A giant reptile which looked somewhat like a dolphin but had the behavior of a dinosaur was discovered around what is now the Isle of Skye, in Scotland. The predator, an Ichtyosaur lived 170 million years ago and its diet probably consisted of fish and invertebrates, but it may have also eaten sharks and even dinosaurs.

An artist’s impression of the ichthyosaur recently unearthed in Scotland Photo: Todd Marshall/PA

They were near the top of the food chain, feasting on pretty much everything that ventured in their waters. Large marine reptiles, Ichtyosaurs first appeared approximately 250 million years ago and at least one species survived until about ninety million years ago. Their evolutionary pattern is very interesting – it is believed that they evolved from a group of, as yet, unidentified land reptiles that returned to the sea, in a development parallel to that of the ancestors of modern-day dolphins and whales, which they gradually came to resemble in a case of convergent evolution.

Ichthyosaurs averaged about two to four metres (6 – 13 ft) in length. Some individual specimens were as short as one foot; some species were much larger. For example, Shonisaurus sikanniensis was estimated to have been twenty-one metres in length (almost 70 ft!). Ichthyosaur forelimbs and hindlimbs had been fully transformed into flippers and some species even had a fin on their back.

Remains of the animal were found at the Isle of Skye’s Bearreraig Bay, where amateur collector Brian Shawcross found them. Laudably, Shawcross didn’t keep the fossils to himself (as it often happens), but instead donated them to the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow. This allowed researchers to study and describe the species, which was ultimately named Dearcmhara shawcrossi – in honor of his name.

“We are honoured to name the new species after Mr. Shawcross and will do the same if any other collectors wish to donate new specimens”, said Steve Brusatte, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences, who led the study.

While the Island of Skye area is noted for Jurassic fossils, this is actually the first time that a marine reptile has been found in Scotland.

The Island of Skye is a remarkable place from a geological and paleontological perspective. Image via Style Favor.

“During the time of dinosaurs, the waters of Scotland were prowled by big reptiles the size of motor boats,” Brusatte added. “Their fossils are very rare, and only now, for the first time we’ve found a new species that was uniquely Scottish. Without the generosity of the collector who donated the bones to a museum instead of keeping them or selling them, we would have never known that this amazing animal existed.

The study is a collaboration involving the University of Edinburgh, National Museums Scotland, the University of Glasgow’s Hunterian Museum, Scottish National Heritage and Staffin Museum, Isle of Skye. Not only is the finding spectacular, but this collaboration is also remarkable. Dr Nick Fraser, of National Museums Scotland, said:

“Not only is this a very special discovery, but it also marks the beginning of a major new collaboration involving some of the most eminent palaeontologists in Scotland. It has brought together key organisations, local collectors on Skye and specialists from further afield. We are excited by the programme of work and are already working on additional new finds. This is a rich heritage for Scotland.”

 

ancient_insect_sex

Fossilized insects trapped in the act of mating for 165 million years [SFW]

ancient_insect_sex

(c) PLOS ONE

Fossils that capture a kinetic moment are truly fascinating because they surprise a scene or picture from millions of years ago, effectively acting as a time capsule. Paleontologists have found along the years all sorts of such scenes, be them dinosaurs engaged in battle before an unlikely event engulfed and preserved them or some other preservation in the heat of action. Some capture some weird and intimate stances too. For instance, in northeaster China researchers have found an unlikely fossil: two insects fully engaged in mating. Since its 165 million years old, this makes it the oldest record of insect sex so far.

The insects in question are froghoppers, a group of insect species still alive today. After closely studying the fossils, the researchers were able to determine the insects’ genitalia and mating habits have remained largely unchained since the Middle Jurassic. So, yeah, there’s actually an added scientific bonus to studying insect porn. Jokes aside, these insights are really valuable to entomologists who study modern insect species and paleontologists alike.

As far as mating is concerned, it very difficult to determine the extent of both mating organs and behavior millions of years ago. Fossils that trap ancient beings in close moments such as these, though very few in number, are thus very valuable.

Froghopper genitalia. (c) PLOS ONE

Froghopper genitalia. (c) PLOS ONE

Froghoppers get their name from their formidable ability to jump from plant to plant; some species can jump up to 70 cm vertically: a more impressive performance relative to body weight than fleas. The froghopper can accelerate at 4,000 m/s2 over 2mm as it jumps (experiencing over 400 gs of acceleration). There are some 20,000 species of froghoppers, and are best known to farmers who consider them as pests. They’re also known as spittlebugs because their nymphs are covered in … spit. This secretion is activated by moving or pumping their bodies. Once the bubbles have formed, spittlebugs use their hind legs to cover themselves with the froth. The ‘spittle’ serves multiple purposes.

  • It shields the spittlebugs from predators
  • It insulates them from temperature extremes
  • It prevents the spittlebugs from dehydrating

The study, elegantly titled “Forever Love: The Hitherto Earliest Record of Copulating Insects from the Middle Jurassic of China,” was published in the journal  PLOS ONE

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.

Jurassic records warn of risk to marine life from global warming

The massive, global risk that global warming poses has once again been highlighted by researchers – this time, by geologists studying fossil records.

Fossil ammonites analyzed in the study. Ammonites are an extinct group of vertebrates that lived 400 to 65 million years ago.

Fossil ammonites analyzed in the study. Ammonites are an extinct group of vertebrates that lived 400 to 65 million years ago.

It’s good to learn from your mistakes, but it’s even better to prevent than treat, and learn from the past (even though it’s not your past) – and paleontology is really good at this. After all, we have over billion years of fossil evidence of life (though “only” a few hundred millilon years of evolved life). Ancient geologic evidence doesn’t only preserve animal information, but also climatic and environmental changes, as well as all sorts of other useful information.

Now, researchers from Plymouth University have shown how higher temperatures and lower oxygen levels caused drastic changes to marine communities, and that even though the Jurassic seas eventually recovered from the effects of global warming, the marine ecosystems that returned were noticeably different from before.

Professor Richard Twitchett, from the University’s School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, and a member of its Marine Institute, explained:

“Our study of fossil marine ecosystems shows that if global warming is severe enough and lasts long enough it may cause the extinction of marine life, which irreversibly changes the composition of marine ecosystems.”

He analyzed marine sedimentary rocks and the fossils they contained – which provided information about the environment in which the rocks were deposited and the creatures lived. After this, working with Dr Crispin Little from the University of Leeds, they correlated their initial results with other ecological data, ultimately reaching some conclusions on changes in temperature, sea level and oxygen concentrations.

“Back in the laboratory, we broke down the samples and identified all of the fossils, recording their relative abundance much like a marine biologist would do when sampling a modern environment. Then we ran the ecological analyses to determine how the marine seafloor community changed through time.”

Most notably, the team found a ‘dead zone’ recorded in the rock – showing virtually no evidence of fossils. After this period ended, the emerging life forms were much different than those initially there.

“The results show in unprecedented detail how the fossil Jurassic communities changed dramatically in response to a rise in sea level and temperature and a decline in oxygen levels. Patterns of change suffered by these Jurassic ecosystems closely mirror the changes that happen when modern marine communities are exposed to declining levels of oxygen. Similar ecological stages can be recognised in the fossil and modern communities despite differences in the species present and the scale of the studies.”

So basically, a significant change in environmental conditions will dramatically affect marine life, and even if it bounces back eventually, we’re talking about an entirely different equilibrium, and entirely different species. Also, another thing that’s worth noting is that the fact that this change took place in geologic time – millions of years; this is definitely something worth keeping in mind, as we are doing comparable changes to environment in hundreds or even tens of years – changes which will most likely change the fact of the Earth as we know it.

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

Dinosaurs were plagued by giant fleas ten times bigger than today and a lot meaner

During the tumultuous  Cretaceous and Jurassic periods if you could only choose one word to describe the world, it would’ve certainly be ‘big’. Big dinosaurs, big plants, big trees, big fish and big insects, of course. Chinese scientists have found almost perfectly preserved fossils of two previously unknown extinct flea species in Inner Mongolia, which are roughly ten times the size of modern fleas and were adapted for sucking dinosaurs’ blood. These fleas were giant by all of today’s standards, and very mean.

“These were insects much larger than modern fleas and from the size of their proboscis we can tell they would have been mean,” said George Poinar, Jr., a professor emeritus of zoology at Oregon State University, who wrote a commentary on this find.

“You wouldn’t talk much about the good old days if you got bit by this insect,” Poinar said. “It would have felt about like a hypodermic needle going in – a flea shot, if not a flu shot. We can be thankful our modern fleas are not nearly this big.”

Today 94 percent of the 2,300 known species of fleas attack mammals, while the remainder feed on birds. However, 160 million years ago, the Pseudopulex jurassicus and Pseudopulex magnus fleas had a different menu – dinosaur. The creatures had bodies that were flatter than those of present-day fleas, like a bedbug or tick, as well as long claws that could reach over scales on the skin of dinosaurs so they could hold onto them tightly while sucking blood, compared to modern fleas which are more laterally compressed and have shorter antennae, and are adapted to move quickly through the fur or feathers of their prey.

“These are really well-preserved fossils that give us another glimpse of life into the really distant past, the Cretaceous and Jurassic,” said Poinar, who has also studied “younger” fleas from 40-50 million years ago preserved in amber.

Something of their likes have never been encountered so far, and while the newly discovered giant flea species might be the ancestors of modern fleas, the researchers believe most likely they belong to a different lineage all together.  It would be interesting to find out if these giant fleas were something more than a pest to dinosaurs, and whether they plagued more damage than just a nasty itch. Modern fleas have been a known carrier of deadly disease, responsible for spreading the black plague which killed a third of the Europe’s population in the middle ages.

The findings were reported in the journal Current Biology.

Geologists press recognition of Anthropocene – Earth changing human epoch

We are living epoch changing times – literally. According to an influential and evergrowing group of geologists, there are more and more signs that we are living in an epoch that is like no other in the history of the Earth, and therefore it is required that we acknowledge it as so – the Anthropocene.

Humans and the Anthropocene

If millions of years from now, humans or some other alien geologists were to look into our planet, they would find significant layers of human influenced rocks, in the same way that we can see the impact of dinosaurs in the Jurassic or the impact of trilobites in the Paleozoic. As a result, scientists are pushing to have it recognized.

“We don’t know what is going to happen in the Anthropocene,” says geographer Professor Erle Ellis of the University of Maryland. “But we need to think differently and globally, to take ownership of the planet.”

Anthropocene, a term coined in 2002 by Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen, literally means ‘the age of man’, and it basically places our species on the same scale with earth shattering asteroid and planet cloaking volcanoes. Geologists claim, for example, that human traces will be observable in the atomic bomb tests (or launches), plastic pollution, and the human driven mass extinction – let’s not beat around the bush, this is what we are doing.

“Geologists and ecologists are already using the term ‘Anthropocene’, so it makes sense to have an accepted definition,” says geologist Dr Jan Zalasiewicz of the University of Leicester. “But, in this unusual case, formal recognition of the epoch could have wider significance beyond the geology community. By officially accepting that human actions are having an effect on the makeup of the Earth, it may have an impact on, say, the law of the sea or on people’s behaviour.”

While some geologists disapprove with it, pretty much everybody agrees with one thing: we made a huge mark on our planet; we changed it, we sometimes broke it. Now we have to man up and take responsibility for what we have done, save what can be saved, and start improving what can be improved. If we want to own the planet, we have to take care of it first.

Meet the horniest dinosaur ever

Fossil hunters have recently unearthed the fossil remains of a species that can easily claim the title of the horniest dinosaur ever to be found. Kosmoceratops lived some 76 million years ago, in the warm and wet swamps of (what is today) Utah; but what’s really fascinating about him is the fact that he has no less that 15 full size horns on its head.

The 15 horns Kosmoceratops had evolved as a form of sexual display. Reconstruction: Lukas Panzarin/PLoS

It’s skull was really huge for their body size (2 meters), and it probably weighed somewhere around 2.5 tonnes. The lesser known relative of the triceratops had a staggering 10 horns on the back of its head, as well as two over its eyes, one over its nose and one from each cheek bone

“These animals are basically oversized rhinos with a whole lot more horns on their heads. They had huge heads relative to their body size,” said Scott Sampson a researcher at the Utah Museum of Natural History

Scientists have long speculated about the purpose of so many horns, and they reached the conclusion that they can only play a decorative part in sexual rituals. So really, what title can be more appropriate than the “horniest dinosaur” ?

“In this case, we think these horns were really about competing for mates and more akin to peacock feathers or deer antlers, where it’s males trying to attract females or intimidate other males,” Sampson said. “Sometimes it’s good to have a way of visually ranking yourself relative to other animals. You can avoid unnecessary conflicts and that is probably what they were doing with all these bony bells and whistles.”

What was also interesting about this species was that females also showcase the same horny display. But paleontologists found an explanation for that too:

“The most obvious explanation is that the females don’t want predators to pick them off so they mimic the males,” he said.

Well the only thing I can add is… this is one nice species !

Missing flying reptile link found

200910132132512An international team of researchers from the University of Leicester (UK), and the Geological Institute, Beijing (China) managed to identify a new type of a flying reptile that can prove to be a crucial step in understanding evolution, or at least a big part of it. Pterosauria was the general name given for flying or gliding reptiles, and pterodactyls are the most famous example of them. They roamed and ruled the sky in the Jurassic area for more than 130 million years.

Researchers have already separated this group into two significantly different parts for a long time now: the primitive long-tailed forms and their more evolved, advanced short tail pterosaurs, some of which could reach amazing sizes. However, the gap between these two groups was so large that it seemed it could never be filled – until now.

In a study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, scientists described a newly found animal that fits exactly in the middle of that gap;the pterosaur was named Christened Darwinopterus, as an homage to the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th celebration of his publication that changed the world, On the origin of species.

Gaps in fossil records are really not that uncommon, because only a smart part of the animals that lived becomes fossilized, and a small part of that small part gets found by researchers. Our understanding of those animals, as a result is seriously impaired. Such was the case with the pterosaurs. However, more than 20 skeletons of Darwinopterus (some of them complete) were found earlier this week in North-Eastern China in rocks that were dated to approximately 160 million years old. It had rows of sharp teeth, a flexible neck and long jaws, all of which suggest that this animal (who was about as big as a crow) hunted other contemporary flying animals.

“Darwinopterus came as quite a shock to us” explained David Unwin part of the research team and based at the University of Leicester’s School of Museum Studies. “We had always expected a gap-filler with typically intermediate features such as a moderately elongate tail – neither long nor short – but the strange thing about Darwinopterus is that it has a head and neck just like that of advanced pterosaurs, while the rest of the skeleton, including a very long tail, is identical to that of primitive forms”.

Dr Unwin added: “The geological age of Darwinopterus and bizarre combination of advanced and primitive features reveal a great deal about the evolution of advanced pterosaurs from their primitive ancestors. First, it was quick, with lots of big changes concentrated into a short period of time. Second, whole groups of features (termed modules by the researchers) that form important structures such as the skull, the neck, or the tail, seem to have evolved together. But, as Darwinopterus shows, not all these modules changed at the same time. The head and neck evolved first, followed later by the body, tail, wings and legs. It seems that natural selection was acting on and changing entire modules and not, as would normally be expected, just on single features such as the shape of the snout, or the form of a tooth. This supports the controversial idea of a relatively rapid “modular” form of evolution.

200910132132510

However, this research doesn’t actually solve a problem, it just shows that it can be solved. In order to fill all the steps that need to be filled, researchers have a lot of work ahead of them. However, the importance of this should in no case be underestimated, because if solved, it wouldn’t only show how it works, but also how massive rapid evolution took place on a large scale.

Dr Unwin concludes200910132132511: “Frustratingly, these events, which are responsible for much of the variety of life that we see all around us, are only rarely recorded by fossils. Darwin was acutely aware of this, as he noted in the Origin of species, and hoped that one day fossils would help to fill these gaps. Darwinopterus is a small but important step in that direction.”

Enormous Jurassic Sea Predator, Pliosaur, Discovered In Norway

biggest pliosaur

About a year and a half ago, the Natural History Museum in Oslo, Norway had announced the discovery of one of the largest dinosaur-era marine reptiles ever found; we’re talking here about a 15 meters (50 feet) feet long sea predator known as a pliosaur.

This fossil (of over 150 million years of age) was found in the summer of 2006 by a team of Norwegian paleontologists and volunteers from the University of Oslo Natural History Museum, led by Dr. Jørn Hurum. It was not far away from the shore, 1300 km (800 miles) from the North Pole. Meanwhile, they have not been just standing around; they’ve been preparing and studying this fossil, conserving it really well.

Pliosaurs were large reptiles that averaged 5-6 meters (16-20 feet) in length. One of the largest pliosaurs known is the Australian giant Kronosaurus , which measures in at 10-11 meters (33-36 feet) long. But since this one was about 15 meters that makes it the biggest pliosaur. More details can be found here

“Not only is this specimen significant in that it is one of the largest and relatively complete plesiosaurs ever found, it also demonstrates that these gigantic animals inhabited the northern seas of our planet during the age of dinosaurs” said Dr. Patrick Druckenmiller, a plesiosaur specialist at the University of Alaska Museum, and a member of the expedition that found and excavated the fossil.