Tag Archives: paleontology

Paleontologists did discover fossilized brain tissue in 520 million year old specimens

It was a finding that sent ripples throughout the entire paleontology community: in 2012 the University of Arizona professor’s team discovered preserved brain tissue in the fossil of the sea-dwelling arthropod Fuxianhuia protensa, an animal that lived over 500 million years ago and was rather similar to modern shrimps. The finding was disputed and met with heavy criticism, because it was thought that brains decompose long before they can fossilize, but now, a new study proves the critics wrong.

The original 520-million-year-old Fuxianhuia protensa specimen from the Chenjiang fossil beds in southwest China. Image credits: XIAOYA MA, LONDON MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY

The original 520-million-year-old Fuxianhuia protensa specimen from the Chenjiang fossil beds in southwest China.
Image credits: XIAOYA MA, LONDON MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY

Nicholas Strausfeld and his colleagues didn’t back down when their ideas were contradicted by most researchers, and instead, they set out to find new evidence. Working with Xiaoya Ma, a paleobiologist from the Yunnan Key Laboratory for Palaeobiology at China’s Yunnan University, and Gregory Edgecombe, a paleobiologist from the Natural History Museum in London, he found seven other Fuxianhuia specimens with preserved neural tissues. Now, vindication is sweet.

“I felt that a subset of paleontologists were simply hide-bound: couldn’t countenance the possibility that brains might fossilize,” Strausfeld said about his 2012 discovery. “I think the three of us who have coauthored these various papers — Greg Edgecombe, Xiaoya Ma and myself — feel vindicated.”

They even went one step further, and described the conditions that can preserve these ancient brains before they disintegrate. You need an anoxic environment (very low in oxygen) which suppresses the microbial activity that alters the tissue. They believe that this environment was created by a rapid mudslide, that buried everything inside it.

“The kind [of fossil] we look at from the lower Cambrian obviously underwent very rapid burial, probably when still alive,” Strausfeld said.

Tracings of two of the newly discovered fossilized brains. Image credits: STRAUSFELD ET AL. AND CURRENT BIOLOGY

Tracings of two of the newly discovered fossilized brains. Image credits: STRAUSFELD ET AL. AND CURRENT BIOLOGY

Furthermore, pressure from the mud likely kept the tissues dry, again helping to keep them intact. All that was left there was a thin layer of carbon and some pyrite crystals – the mineral popularly known as fool’s gold. To confirm their hypothesis, researchers went all out on sandworms and cockroaches, burying them alive in clay (yikes!). They found that the creatures were compressed and thinned, but their neural tissue was still there.

Destroying cockroaches and destroying older theories sometimes go hand in hand, it seems.

“People, especially scientists, make assumptions,” he said in a statement. “The fun thing about science, actually, is to demolish them.”

Xiaoya Ma et al. Preservational Pathways of Corresponding Brains of a Cambrian Euarthropod, Current Biology (2015). DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2015.09.063

Scientists find Permian fauna from Gondwana

Some 270 million years ago, the world was entirely a different place, and even with numerous paleontological findings, we’re still finding more and more evidence of the fauna that inhabited the world. Now, researchers have found new fauna in northern Brazil, in what used to be the continent of Gondwana.

Image via Cisneros et al, 2015.

“Almost all of our knowledge about land animals from this time, comes from a handful of regions in North America and western Europe, which were located near the equator. Now we finally have information about what kinds of animals were present in areas farther to the south, and their similarities and differences to the animals living near the equator,” said Dr Kenneth Angielczyk from the Field Museum of Natural History, a team member and a co-author of a paper in the journal Nature Communications.

 

During the late Paleozoic and early Mesozoic eras, Pangaea was the place to be; well, technically speaking, it was the only place to be, because it was the only supercontinent – all the continents were merged into it. But some 300 million years ago, it started to split, initially into two parts: Laurasia and Gondwana. Gondwana formed prior to Pangaea, then became part of Pangaea, and finally broke up after the breakup of Pangaea. Gondwana is believed to have sutured between about 570 and 510 Mya, thus joining East Gondwana to West Gondwana. But just like the tectonic structure of the planet was different, so too were the ecosystems that populated the continents.

Juan Cisneros from the Universidade Federal do Piauí and his team found a new early Permian continental tetrapod fauna from South America in tropical Western Gondwana that sheds new light on patterns of tetrapod distribution. Based on the characteristics of the animals they found, north-eastern Brazil was a lacustrine system inhabited by a unique community of amphibians and reptiles.

“Our findings demonstrate that tetrapod groups common in later Permian and Triassic temperate communities were already present in tropical Gondwana by the early Permian (Cisuralian). This new fauna constitutes a new biogeographic province with North American affinities and clearly demonstrates that tetrapod dispersal into Gondwana was already underway at the beginning of the Permian,” they write in their article.

These new findings provide unparalleled window into tropical wetland faunas of Gondwana at the time – the fact that we can indirectly know so much about an environment so far away in time is absolutely amazing to me.

Journal Reference.

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New evidence that T-Rex was indeed a cannibal

Tyrannosaurus was one of the fiercest land predators ever, despite claims that the dinosaur was mostly a scavenger. While this is true to a degree, T-Rex was most definitely a hunter at heart even though the predator might have munched on a carcass or two from time to time. Apparently, the dinosaur even ate its own kind, a new study suggests.

tyrannosaurus_1

Loma Linda University paleontologist Matthew McLain and colleagues found bone fossils belonging to T-Rex which had clear cut marks on them which could have been made by no else but another T-Rex. These marks show the bone was gnawed, and this is possible only with serrated teeth. Now, most  theropod dinosaurs – a group of biped dinosaurs which includes T-Rex, but also Velociraptor, Spinosaurs and, uhm, birds – have serrated teeth. However, considering the length of the cut marks the suspect list was narrowed down to two dinosaurs: Tyrannosaurus rex and the Nanotyrannus lancensis. These are the only two theropods in the Lance Formation – a division of Late Cretaceous rocks in western US. Upon further investigation, the researchers posited that the cut marks could have only been made by a T-Rex, hence evidence of cannibalism.

“We’re sure it was feeding, these are feeding traces,” McLain said. “The marks were made either near death or after death, because there is no sign of healing on them. If the animal was bitten and survived then the spots would heal.”

In other words, the prey could have either been already dead when the other T-Rex took for free lunch (scavenging tricks again) , or was killed by the other theropod.

 The Tyrannosaur long bone laced with serrated teeth marks. Image: MATTHEW MCLAIN

The Tyrannosaur long bone laced with serrated teeth marks. Image: MATTHEW MCLAIN

This is the third paper that suggests T-Rex sometimes may have engaged in cannibalistic practices. In 2010, paleontologist Nicholas Longrich found three foot bone fossils belong to T-Rex, including two toes, and one arm fossil all retained big tooth marks made by some other T-Rex. The cut marks were made by feeding. Then, earlier this year,  Dr David Hone from Queen Mary, University of London found a T-Rex skull littered with numerous injuries, many of which came from bites.  There is even a circular, tooth-shaped puncture hole in the back of the head from a particularly savage bite. The creature was bitten by other T-rex even after it was killed, as it was decaying.

It seems cannibalism was quite common among Tyrannosauruses, which isn’t necessarily surprising. Male lions will sometimes kill and eat the cubs of their rivals, in order to establish dominance in the pack and ensure the survival of their own bloodline. Even before they’re born, sand tiger sharks will cannibalize each other in the mother’s womb, the biggest baby shark (with the biggest teeth) devouring its unfortunate siblings.

 

Eurypterid systematics. Source: Lamsdell & Braddy (2010).

Ancient six foot-long sea scorpion was an apex predator 460 million years ago

This bizarre creature looks like a cross between a scorpion and a boat, which is pretty accurate considering it was actually as big as a boat. Pentecopterus decorahensis, named after the ancient Greek warship, likely dominated the Ordovician ocean waters some 460 to 248 million years ago, paleontologists say. Sporting a thick head shield, a paddle for a tail, large grasping limbs and 1.7 meters in length (5.5 feet), this sea beast was a force to be reckoned with.

Two adult sea  scorpions (is one of them a ghost?) that lived during the Ordovician period about 460 million years ago. Image: Yale

Two adult sea scorpions (is one of them a ghost?) that lived during the Ordovician period about 460 million years ago. Image: Yale

Pentecopterus was an incredibly bizarre animal, with a long head that looked somewhat like the prow of a ship, a narrow body and massively enlarged limbs that it used to capture prey,” says Yale paleontologist James Lamsdell. “It would have been the largest predator in its environment and would have grabbed prey with its large, spiny legs and then pulled it towards its mouth.”

Lamsdell and colleagues found unexpectedly well preserved fragments of Pentecopterus trapped inside a thick sandy shale layer found in Iowa. Analysis quickly revealed the researchers were on to something big. First of all, the dating suggests Pentecopterus is at least 460 million years old, which makes it the earliest discovered eurypterid by a margin of 10 million years.

Eurypterids are commonly called “sea scorpion” for rather obvious reasons. This has led some scientists in the 1920s to claim that these animals are scorpions. A later train of thought put this conjecture on its head and claimed that scorpions were in fact eurypterids. More recently, some think eurypterids and scorpions are distinct lineages who shared a common ancestor. The present consensus is that neither of these conclusions hold. Instead, it’s most likely eurypterids are more basal chelicerates than scorpions. Those eurypterids that resemble scorpions are actually a minority.

Eurypterid systematics. Source: Lamsdell & Braddy (2010).

Eurypterid systematics. Source: Lamsdell & Braddy (2010).

All eurypterids were predators, and very large for those times on top. They were pretty high up on the food chain, eating animals such as trilobites and even the contemporaneous placoderms. In fact, they were so successful that they overly predated their ecosystem and started eating each other. This is based on coprolites findings (fossilized feces) of Eurypterids which contained the body parts of other Eurypterids. We don’t know that much about Pentecopterus, though.

Pentecopterus fossil fragments. Image: Yale University

Pentecopterus fossil fragments. Image: Yale University

For what it’s worth, the fossils were found preserved in pristine condition. Lamsdell and colleagues found even scales, follicles and stiff bristles that once covered the animals. So well preserved that, in fact, the researchers could peeled the fossils off the rock and studied them under a microscope. Remember, we’re talking about an apex predator that lived 460 million years ago. Never ceases to boggle the mind.

A detail of a thin section through the tooth of a large theropod, Gorgosaurus, from Alberta. Credit: Danielle Default

T-rex and other top dinosaur predators had serrated teeth to butcher their prey

A novel analysis reveals T-rex and other theropods – the top land predators that dominated the planet for no less than 165 million years – had teeth of unrivaled complexity. The long and powerful teeth were serrated like steak knives to disembowel prey easily, while on the inside tissue supported the teeth for maximum resistance against the powerful sheering stress which followed each bite.

Gorgosaurus feeding on a young Corythosaurus in Alberta, Canada, 75 million years ago. Image: Danielle Dufault

Gorgosaurus feeding on a young Corythosaurus in Alberta, Canada, 75 million years ago. Image: Danielle Dufault

Over millions of years, theropods developed an unrivaled arsenal. Though not very fast, these huge beasts would overwhelm any prey, no matter how large, which had the misfortune of encountering a theropod. Among the fossil teeth analyzed by University of Toronto Mississauga paleontologist Kirstin Brink and colleagues were those belonging to the smaller Coelophysis and bird-like Troodon, but also large predators Allosaurus, Gorgosaurus, Daspletosaurus, Tyrannosaurus and Carcharodontosaurus, along with those of semi-aquatic Spinosaurus.

“[..] The serrations were most efficient for piercing flesh and gripping it while ripping off a chunk of meat, called the ‘puncture and pull’ feeding style,” Brink said.

A detail of a thin section through the tooth of a large theropod, Gorgosaurus, from Alberta. Credit: Danielle Default

A detail of a thin section through the tooth of a large theropod, Gorgosaurus, from Alberta. Credit: Danielle Dufault

The researchers carefully section fossilized teeth, either alone or confined in the ribs and other bones of prey, then used a scanning electron microscope and a synchrotron. This offered an unprecedented view both of the meat eaters’ tooth structure and chemical composition. Like a very strong saw, the teeth of T-rex and its cousins were disposed in a manner that allowed each teeth to be supported by those surrounding it. When and if a tooth happened to come out, it would be replaced. T-rex, for instance, took two and a half years to grow a new tooth.

“It could take up to two years for a tooth to grow back in the big theropods like T. rex. Therefore, having specially reinforced teeth means less tooth breakage and less gaps in the jaw, leading to more efficient eating,” Brink said.

Today, only one animal with serrated teeth is still alive: the infamous Komodo dragon. The 10 foot long Indonesian lizard has teeth that closely resemble those of ancient theropods. It uses them to chomp  huge prey, life buffalo. Interestingly enough, the Komodo isn’t a descendant of dinosaurs and evolved its serrated dentures independently.

This claw had ancient red blood cells inside. Image: Laurent Mekul

Blood and collagen found in 75-million-year-old ‘crap’ fossils

Traces of soft tissue and red blood cells were discovered by accident by a team of paleontologists and biologists while they were playing around in the lab with so-called “crap” fossils dug up more than 100 years ago in Canada. Usually, museum curators are very proud and picky about the works they display or hold in storage, and any analysis that involves breaking or sectioning a fossil is most often than not strictly forbidden. But these fossils – like a claw from a meat-eating therapod, the limb  from a duck-billed dinosaur and even the toe of a  triceratops-like animal – were fragments in poor conditions that nobody really cared about. One man’s trash, another man’s treasure.

This claw had ancient red blood cells inside. Image: Laurent Mekul

This claw had ancient red blood cells inside. Image: Laurent Mekul

The bits and pieces nobody thought too impressive, to say the least, were dug up from the  Dinosaur Park Formation in Alberta, Canada more than a century ago. Somehow these made their way into the massive storing rooms of the National History Museum in London.  Susannah Maidment, a paleontologist at the Imperial College in London, got ahold of eight such fossils and together with Sergio Bertazzo, a materials scientist at Imperial, analyzed them. To their surprise, when the fossils were studied using an electron scan microscope they found evidence of soft tissue. ‘Wait – that looks like blood!’,” Bertazzo said.

Suffice to say this sort of finding is extremely rarely reported, especially in fossils these old – at least 75 million years old. At first, Bertazzo thought that maybe the blood cells were actually from some human who had accidentally got cut and sprayed blood over the ancient bones. If it was human blood he was seeing on the microscope, and not dinosaur blood, then the red cells should have lacked a nucleus (a mammalian trait). But they did found a nucleus. “That ruled out someone bleeding on the sample,” said Maidment.

The team also spotted bands of fibers on the fossils. Tests showed these contained certain amino acids associated with collagen – the basis for skin and tissue. This proteins are thought to degrade completely after 4 million years This begs the question, is there some DNA too? Is this the holy grail scientists have been waiting for – the foot stone for a real-life Jurassic Park?

“We haven’t found any genetic material in our fossils, but generally in science, it is unwise to say never,” said Maidment.

Bertazzo skeptically added: “This opens up the possibility of loads of specimens that may have soft tissue preserved in them, but the problem with DNA is that even if you find it, it won’t be intact. It’s possible you could find fragments, but to find more than that? Who knows?”

Mineral fibers of collagen extracted from the ribs of an unidentified dinosaur. Image: Sergio Bertazzo

Mineral fibers of collagen extracted from the ribs of an unidentified dinosaur. Image: Sergio Bertazzo

Nevertheless, the findings are quite important if we consider how often something like this could happen. I mean, if they found such amazingly preserved tissue samples in random fossils, what about the hundreds of thousands of other items? How common is this? Intuition tells us that this is far from a needle in a haystack success story. As such, the paper published in Nature Communications will likely serve as an inspiration for other pathologists to brush up some of the fossils from their dusty drawers and start inspecting for similar clues. Of course, this means sectioning some of the items, but there’s load of ancient ‘crap’ lying around in museums all over the world. Make some good use of them.

Also, the blood samples are particularly intriguing. Birds are the direct decedents of dinosaurs, but while the latter were cold blooded, the avian family is worm blooded. How did this evolutionary transition happen? What were the mechanism involved? Further findings might shed light.

Artist’s impression of the new dinosaur Yi qi. Credit: Dinostar Co. Ltd

Newly discovered dinosaur had bat-like wings… but could it fly?

Every year, hundreds of millions people fly by plane to meet their family, do business or for leisure. Quite a feat, considering that you know… we don’t don’t have any wings. Like all advanced technology we have at our disposal today, flying is taken for granted. In the early days, however, just getting a few feet off the ground for a couple of seconds was considered a triumph. Like human pioneering flight, nature also had to experiment a lot before flying creatures could evolve. One newly discovered dinosaur species fits well into this story. Unearthed in 160 million year old sediments in China, this queer dinosaur strangely had bat-like wings. It’s uncertain however if it was able to fly or even glide, owing to the degraded state of the fossil records. One thing’s for sure, it makes the evolution of flight much more interesting to study.

Artist’s impression of the new dinosaur Yi qi. Credit: Dinostar Co. Ltd

Artist’s impression of the new dinosaur Yi qi.
Credit: Dinostar Co. Ltd

Scansoriopterygids are among the smallest dinosaurs known. The juvenile specimens of Scansoriopteryx are the size of house sparrows, about 16 centimeters long, while the adult type specimen of Epidexipteryx is about the size of a pigeon, about 25 centimeters long (not including the tail feathers). Scientists studying these tiny dinosaurs found compelling evidence that suggests these were astute tree-climbers. A hallmark of scansoriopterygids is their long hand and strongly curved claws, which makes them adapted  for climbing. These features, however, have also prompted some scientists to suggest that what we might actually be seeing are protowings that sparked the evolution of a wing capable of flight.

Skull of the new dinosaur Yi qi. Credit: Zang Hailong/IVPP

Skull of the new dinosaur Yi qi.
Credit: Zang Hailong/IVPP

The new dinosaur unearthed in China is also a scansoriopterygid, called  Yi qi (meaning ‘strange wing’). Each wrist of the animal was crossed by an unusually long rod-like bone, not seen in any dinosaur thus far. Patches of membranous tissue preserved between the rod-like bones and the manual digits suggest the arm was covered in a bat-like wing. This may have had a role in flight, but it’s all rather fuzzy judging from these fossil records alone. If they’re in good fortune, the Chinese paleontologists might find a new specimen or, at least, some fragments in the Tiaojishan Formation of Hebei Province, China where Yi qi was discovered.

Findings appeared in Nature.

brontosaurus

Brontosaurus is back! New research puts the genus back into the spotlight

Just like Pluto, the iconic dinosaur genus was demoted decades ago and classified under another sauropod genus. But a more sophisticated taxonomy recently published by researchers in the UK and Portugal warrants a revisit of the shelved, but never forgotten Brontosaurus.

A long-necked giant on its own

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Artist impression of Brontosaurus. Image: io9

Brontsaurus or the “thunder lizard” was first unearthed by famed paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh from the 150-million-year-old rock of Como Bluff, Wyoming. In his  1879 paper, Marsh described the remains as belonging to a “monster” of a dinosaur which he called Brontosaurus. This was a Gold Rush time in paleontology – when science came in second, and everyone just wanted to find things. We have to keep in mind that Darwin had only recently published his seminal Origins of Species which explained evolution and geologists were only beginning to measure the age of the Earth with accuracy. Imagine their surprise when they found the Earth was more than four billion years old… ooops! Back to the Brontosaurus, amid these troubled times, the huge, long-necked dinosaur quickly grew in popular appeal. In 1905 in New York City, it was one of the first dinosaurs to be assembled in a museum. Once people got to visit the museums and saw the huge dino on display, the name Brontosaurus stuck.

Beginning with 1903, however, another paleontologist called Elmer Riggs found that the so-called Brontosaurus was barely distinguishable from another sauropod Marsh had discovered earlier, Apatosaurus ajax. According to measurements made during those times, the only distinguishable hallmark were the number of sacrum bones which connect the tail to the spinal chord. Apatosaurus had three such bones, while Brontosaurus had five. Riggs concluded that the two dinosaurs species were actually two specimens belonging to the same species. The Brontosaurus, Riggs concluded, was in fact a younger version of an adult Apatosaurus and the extra sacrum bones would had fused together as the dinosaur aged. Eventually, Riggs came around and acknowledged that there were some other differences between the two dinosaurs, but not enough to warrant a new genus. So Brontosaurus was turned into Apatosaurus excelsus, and by the 1970s every scholar had forgone the Brontosaurus. Yet, even to this day the public still recognizes the Brontosaurus even though many aren’t aware that, scientifically at least, there’s no such thing anymore.

This taxonomy might not be correct, however, according to a new research which studied  the digital libraries containing high-res scans of every diplodocid bone ever dug up. Some 500 anatomical landmarks were identified in 81 species. These include things like neck bone size, shoulder blade shape and so on. Surprisingly, the general shape of the diplodocid tree as described by paleontologist remained virtually unchanged with one notable exception: the fossils first described by Marsh as belong to Brontosaurus differed from the two Apatosaurus species.

“The most obvious and visual feature would be that Apatosaurus has a wider neck than Brontosaurus,” says says study co-author Emmanuel Tschopp of the Universidade Nova de Lisboa. And despite the title of “thunder lizard,” Brontosaurus was not quite as robust as Apatosaurus.

 

“We were very surprised when we got these results that Brontosaurus was valid again,” the researchers concluded in PeerJ.

To be sure, the team enlisted the help of Roger Benson at the University of Oxford, who is an expert in using statistical analyses to verify speciation. His work found no fault in the model, supporting the claim that Brontosaurus deserves his own genus after all.

“It was a number of small differences that were important, but probably the most obvious features that would help distinguish the two is that the Apatosaurus has an extremely wide neck, where Brontosaurus‘ is more high than wide,” Benson said, echoing Tscopp’s conclusions.

This is far from a settled matter. Some researchers may look at the result and conclude that Brontosaurus should still be an Apatosaurus because of their close relationship, forming what paleontologists call a monophyletic group, others might emphasize the diversity at play and call for a separate genus. But this is a good thing, because the debate might generate a new standard used to better differentiate species, genus, orders or families.

Artist impression of the "Carolina Butcher," Carnufex carolinensis. Credit: JORGE GONZALES

Croc ancestor was the top two-legged predator on Earth, long before T. Rex and other dinosaurs

Long before T-rex claimed the top dog spot among terrestrial predators, a vicious crocodile ancestor that walked on its hind legs was at the top of the food chain during the Triassic. The fossils of the Carnufex carolinensis, also known as the the “Carolina Butcher,” were discovered decades ago  in the Pekin Formation, a geological formation in North Carolina’s Chatham County. It was only recently that researchers reanalyzed the fossils and concluded they were dealing with an all new predator that roamed the Earth several million years before dinosaurs were even around.

Artist impression of the  "Carolina Butcher," Carnufex carolinensis. Credit: JORGE GONZALES

Artist impression of the “Carolina Butcher,” Carnufex carolinensis. Credit: JORGE GONZALES

Lindsay Zanno, an assistant professor at North Carolina State University and the lead author of a paper describing the research, was among those who first analyzed the ancient fossils. She and her team dated the ancient croc as being 231 million years old. Using a high-resolution surface scanner, the team mapped the croc’s skull and created a 3-D model which revealed it was littered with dozens of blade-like teeth. In all likelihood, it used them to slice meat from the bones of the animals it killed or scavenged.

The model also showed that the Carolina Butcher stood at least 9 feet tall and most likely walked on two legs, judging from the forelimb to skull ratio (very similar to T. Rex). Sometime in the Late Triassic, however, the beasts went extinct following a massive wipe-out. In the end, its place was taken by large dinosaurs. But the smaller ancestors of crocodiles made it through the extinction, and eventually evolved in today’s crocs and alligators.

Reconstructed skull of Carnufex carolinensis

Reconstructed skull of Carnufex carolinensis.

The discovery is important since it fills an evolutionary gap. Even so, there are still unknowns further up the ladder, like who’s the common ancestor of the dinosaur line and the crocodile line?

A paper was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

madagascar cave

Madagascar cave is a graveyard for extinct giant lemurs

Paleontologists diving beneath the surface of a water-filled cave in Madagascar made a monumental find: a graveyard filled with the bones of a wide variety of species,some very rare, other extinct for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Some of the remains that dot the bottom of the Aven Cave in Tsimanampetsotse National Park include those of the extinct elephant bird, a flightless giant similar to an ostrich, but most bones belong to the long-lost giant lemurs.

Madagascar’s long-lost giants

Researchers dived to the bottom of a cave in Madagascar to uncover the hidden bonny relics. Image: Laurie Godfrey)Researchers dived to the bottom of a cave in Madagascar to uncover the hidden bonny relics. Image: Laurie Godfrey)

Researchers dived to the bottom of a cave in Madagascar to uncover the hidden bonny relics. Image: Laurie Godfrey)

“It’s just phenomenal,” researcher Laurie Godfrey, a paleontologist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said in a phone interview with The Washington Post. “A huge cache of fossils like this has never been explored before. Now that we know that it’s there, it’s opening up a new era in paleontological exploration.”

These extinct lemurs could grow to be as big as a gorilla! There were many such species of giant lemurs, called sloth lemurs, koala lemurs, and monkey lemurs by scientists depending on the lifestyle and modern-day animal they most closely resembled. Judging from subfossil material (when bones are too young to have completely fossilized and still contain some organic matter), experts conclude the the giant lemurs were almost all diurnal and had large areas of occurrence relative to lemurs today. Palaeopropithecus ingens ate leaves and fruit, and was adapted for slowly climbing trees and extended periods of suspension, earning it the name sloth lemur. The monkey lemur, Hadropithecus stenognathus, was omnivorous, terrestrial, and lived in open grasslands.

These diverse giant lemurs were all alive when humans arrived in Madagascar 2,300 years ago. The monkey lemur persisted until as recently as 500 years ago and may even live on in oral histories of people from southeastern Madagascar. So, what happened to the giant lemurs? We know from the spores of fungus that only grows in the dung of very large animals that Madagascar’s megafaunal population crashed a suspicious 500 years after human arrival and continued to decline over the next few centuries. Knife-cut giant-lemur bones, found in great number, are particularly suggestive towards a human-sprung demise. Today, there are only 100 species of lemurs still alive in the world – all  are endemic to Madagascar.

A giant lemur skull from the Natural History Museum is displayed on January 19, 2011 in London, England.Source: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images Europe)

A giant lemur skull from the Natural History Museum is displayed on January 19, 2011 in London, England.Source: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images Europe)

Surprisingly, the giant lemur remains recently discovered in the Aven Cave seem to suggest most of them died of natural causes,  with hardly any sign of post-death damage like the kind you’d see when something is trying to eat you (knife mark, bite mark etc.).

“The preservation is really incredible,” says Brooklyn College anthropologist Alfred Rosenberger, a National Geographic grantee who is leading the project.

A treasure trove

Size comparison of bird eggs. Left to right: chicken egg, ostrich egg, extinction Elephant bird egg.  The eggs of the extinct giant Elephant bird were the largest single-cells that ever existed on Earth -- as big as any dinosaur egg. Scientists believe the last of the Elephant birds went extinct fairly recently -- around 1700.

Size comparison of bird eggs. Left to right: chicken egg, ostrich egg, extinction Elephant bird egg.
The eggs of the extinct giant Elephant bird were the largest single-cells that ever existed on Earth — as big as any dinosaur egg. Scientists believe the last of the Elephant birds went extinct fairly recently — around 1700.

Rosenberger and colleagues believe the remains they found come from periods both before and after humans first came on the island of Madagascar. Moreover, while the giant sloth were the prize attraction, they were far from being alone. The list includes birds, turtles, crocodiles, rodents, carnivores, and more. So, the real question is: how did all these animals washed up there?

A while back, a team from the Dominic Republic explored two  other caves in Madagascar that preserve different animals from the same time as those in Aven Cave. One of this animals is the now extinct Cryptoprocta spelea, a carnivore known as the giant fossa. Clearly, there is an entire treasure trove to be found in the Madagascar caves. In the meantime, paleontologists have their hands full as it is. Complete skeletons of extinct species previously identified only from a couple of bone fragments are now at hand. Particularly, the giant lemur lineage and ancient way of life can now be traced more accurately, as well as their extinction.

“I hope the fossils will yield dates and perhaps [ancient] DNA that will bear upon the extinction process that took place,” says Stony Brook University anthropologist William Jungers.

Lemurs are the most threatened mammal species on Earth, according to a policy paper published last year in the journal Science.

“It’s a very sad situation in Madagascar. The threat to species is tremendous, there’s a high rate of extinction,” Rosenberger said in a video for National Geographic. “We’d like to know what the interaction was between people, climate change, habitat change … that contributed to the demise of the giant lemurs. Because knowing that might give us some perspective on what we have to prepare for the future.”

Story via National Geographic

The 415-million-year-old fish Janusiscus provides evidence of a common bony and cartilaginous fish. Credit: SAM GILES, MATT FRIEDMAN, AND MARTIN BRAZEAU

Ancient 420-million-year-old fossil hints of bony fish and cartilaginous fish common ancestor

As far as charting the tree of life goes, a basic indicator used to distinguished between classes of animals is the skeleton. Fish, for instance, can have a cartilaginous skeleton and here were remind sharks, rays and skates, or a bony skeleton like the sturgeon or ocean sunfish. In fact, bony fish or Osteichthyes as they’re also known represent the largest class of vertebrates in existence today. Based on fossil evidence and genome analysis, scientists know that the two groups diverged from a common ancestor around 420 million years ago, but we’ve yet to find actual fossil of it. Things are shaping up though after paleontologists have identified  an Early Devonian fish from Siberia, approximately 415 million years old, which bears features of both classes.

In search of the common fish ancestor

The 415-million-year-old fish Janusiscus provides evidence of a common bony and cartilaginous fish. Credit: SAM GILES, MATT FRIEDMAN, AND MARTIN BRAZEAU

The 415-million-year-old fish Janusiscus provides evidence of a common bony and cartilaginous fish. Credit: SAM GILES, MATT FRIEDMAN, AND MARTIN BRAZEAU

Initially, the specimen was classified in a 1992 paper as a bony fish belonging to the genus Dialipina, based on the scales and the head bones’ similarity to those of bony fish called Dialipina from the New Siberian Islands. Martin Brazeau at Imperial College London found it odd, however, that a bony fish was this old, so he requested more details. Eventually, him and his team were convinced that this was worth a thorough investigation.

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The scientists performed micro CT scans to peek inside the delicate structure of the bones that encase the fragile head of the fish, whose fossil was only one centimeter long.  Because of the shape of the skull roof and the enamel on the scales, the fish was naturally classified as a bony one. Inside, however, things are a bit different. The CT scans showed how the skull is traversed by  nerves and blood vessels around the brain more closely resembled those of cartilaginous fish. As such, the fish has features of both classes. The fossil was eventually named Janusiscus schultzei, in honor to  the two-faced Roman god Janus.

The feeds previous speculations that suggested that both classes of jawed fish  had features of bony fish, but the cartilaginous ones eventually lost these. It also supports a 2014 study that showed that a 325-million-year-old fossil shark had a surprising number of bony fish features, suggesting that the ancestor also had these features and that sharks may be more specialized than originally believed.

“[…] Both groups evolved different adaptations, and they’ve also retained different primitive features from their ancestor,” Giles explains. “Each group has found a different way of approaching the problem of living in the sea.”

Janusiscus is a fascinating discovery,” says John Long, a paleontologist at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia. It’s also one that couldn’t have been made without the use of a detailed CT scan, he notes. “Such use of modern technology is transforming the way we do paleontology by revealing new layers of information in these critical transitional fossils.”

Findings appeared in Nature // via Science

Scientists find 240 million-year-old parasite that infected mammals’ ancestor

It’s very small and incredibly old – scientists have found the egg of a 240 million year old parasite – a pinworm, to be more precise. It’s the oldest pinworm ever found, and one of the oldest evidences of parasitism ever found.

Scott Gardner (Craig Chandler | University Communications)

The pinworm, also known as threadworm, is a parasitic intestinal worm, pretty common in humans. The pinworm has a virtually global distribution, with infections occurring everywhere. But as researchers found, the relationship between pinworms and mammals goes way back – back to when there weren’t any mammals, in fact.

Scott Gardner, a parasitologist and director of the Harold W. Manter Laboratory of Parasitology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln was a member of the team which found the parasite egg in a coprolite – fossilized feces.

“This discovery represents a first for our team and I think it opens the door to finding additional parasites in other species of fossil organisms,” he said.

A cynodont – Thrinaxodon from the Early Triassic of South Africa. Image via Wiki Commons.

The coprolite was collected in 2007 at an excavation site in Rio Grande do Sul state in southern Brazil. The site had abundant fossils of cynodonts (therapsids that are believed to be among the ancestors of mammals), and the coprolite probably belongs to a cynodont. Early cynodonts have many of the skeletal characteristics of mammals and probably had some sort of primitive warm blood metabolism. Some paleontologists believe they had fur, though others disagree; some cynodonts also featured whiskers.

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It’s likely that as cynodonts started to evolve into mammals, the parasitic relationship also evolved. It’s remarkable that pinworms were “loyal” for such a long period of time – over 240 million years. As for the pinworm itself, it is a “new” species – a species currently unknown to science. So far, it has been temporarily named Paleoxyuris cockburni, in honor of Aidan Cockburn, founder of the Paleopathology Association.

Paleoparasitology (the science of studying very old parasites) started to emerge in the 20th century, and since then, scientists have identified parasites as old as 500 million years. It is a mix between parasitology (the study of parasites) and paleontology (the study of very old organisms). The primary sources of paleoparasitological material include mummified tissues, coprolites (fossilised dung) from mammals or dinosaurs, fossils, and amber inclusions. But most of the time, paleoparasitologists have to work like criminal detectives – establishing if the creature was in fact a parasite, and if yes, then what was its relationship to its host and how this relationship evolved through the ages. This study is important not only for understanding our biological and geological past, but also for understanding how parasites may evolve in the future.

Via University of Nebraska Lincoln.

 

 

New species of dinosaur discovered lying forgotten in a museum

Dr Nick Longrich from Bath University was studying bones from two horned dinosaurs from the ceratopsian family (related to Triceratops), when he discovered that the two were actually previously unknown species. The findings highlight that dinosaurs in area were more diverse than previously thought, and they also show that sometimes, museum archives can yield surprising information.

Pentaceratops aquiloniua (artistic representation)

“We thought we had discovered most of the species, but it seems there are many undiscovered dinosaurs left,” said Dr Nick Longrich from the University’s Department of Biology & Biochemistry. “There are lots of species out there. We’ve really only just scratched the surface.”

Ceratopsians were a group of herbivorous, beaked dinosaurs with elaborate facial horns and frills extending over the neck. The horns and frills served as a defense mechanism protecting the neck, but some paleontologists believed they also played a role in thermoregulation and display. Ceratopsians ranged in size from 1 meter (3 ft) and 23 kilograms (50 lb) to over 9 meters (30 ft) and 5,400 kg (12,000 lb). The most famous member of the family is Triceratops – who was very common in some parts of today’s America. Forty-seven complete or partial skulls were discovered in just that area during the decade 2000–2010.  Paleontologist John Scannella, not involved in this study observed:

“It is hard to walk out into the Hell Creek Formation and not stumble upon a Triceratops weathering out of a hillside.”

But some ceratopsians are more elusive – like the two species discovered by Longrich. The first one, Pentaceratops aquilonius is a smaller cousin of Triceratops with long brow horns, member of the chasmosaur family. About as big as a buffalo, it roamed the plains of today’s western North America 75 million years ago, during the Cretaceous period. The other species represents a new species of Kosmoceratops. There is still some doubt whether or not it is a new species – new fossils would likely settle this case for good.

What we call today North America, especially in its western parts, hosted a great diversity of dinosaurs during the Cretaceous. The Cretaceous was a period with a relatively warm climate, with high sea levels and very gentle temperature gradient from the equator to the poles. Sediments showed that temperatures were higher than they are today.

Especially remarkable is the ceratopsian population in the area. Up until now, ten chasmosaur species have been recognized there alone, with different species in southern and eastern areas. Longrich proposes that distinct northern and southern provinces existed during the Campanian, but that there was exchange between them. Dinosaurs would move from one place to the other, and following different environmental pressures, they would then diverge to form new species. Longrich added:

“The distribution of dinosaur species was very different from the patterns seen in living mammals. In living mammals, there tend to be relatively few large species, and they have large ranges. With Cretaceous dinosaurs, we see a lot of large species in a single habitat. They also tend to be very regional – as you move from one habitat to another, you get a completely different set of species.”

This explains why paleontologists keep finding new species – and will likely find even more in the future. Longrich believes dinosaur biology may also play a key role in this.

“In this sense dinosaur biology seems quite different from mammal biology. It could be that mammals are more intelligent and so they tend to have more flexible behaviour, and adapt their behaviour to their habitats. On the other hand, dinosaurs may have had to adapt themselves physically to survive in a different habitat, and evolved new species. Perhaps that’s the reason why there are so many species.”

To me, this shows once again that many valuable findings still lie in museums, forgotten – or waiting to be discovered. I applaud the patience and inspiration of looking through old archives; sometimes, the results can be remarkable.

Journal Reference: Nicholas R. Longrich. The horned dinosaurs Pentaceratops and Kosmoceratops from the upper Campanian of Alberta and implications for dinosaur biogeography. Cretaceous Research, Volume 51, September 2014, Pages 292–308.

Via University of Bath.

Fossils Reveal “Beer-Bellied” Dinosaur

It was about as big as T-Rex, but not quite as fit – new fossils have revealed that Deinocheirus mirificus had quite a beer belly.

Image via Scientific American.

“This is an entirely new body plan” for such dinosaurs, says Stephen Brusatte, a vertebrate palaeontologist at the University of Edinburgh, UK.

Indeed, few scientists would have imagined such a scientific appearance. The first fossils of Deinocheirus mirificus (which means ‘unusual horrible hand’ in a mixture of Greek and Latin) were dug in 1965 in the Gobi Desert, in Mongolia. The fossils were quite significant: a few rib and vertebra fragments and a remarkable set of shoulder girdles and 2.4-meter-long forelimbs, the longest yet found for a bipedal animal of any era (although some flying animals, notably pterosaurs, had longer wings).

After analyzing the bones, paleontologists placed in a group of therapod dinosaurs called ornithomimosaurs – bird-mimicking dinosaurs. They believed Deinocheirus was related to T-Rex and Allosaurs – some of the most fierce creatures to walk on Earth, explains Yuong-Nam Lee, a vertebrate palaeontologist at the Korea Institute of Geoscience and Mineral Resources in Daejeon, South Korea, and a co-author of the study.

However, in a later expedition, Lee and his colleagues unearthed a much more complete skeleton – 95% intact. Some of the bones had been gathered by poachers but were further recovered by Lee from a private collection. These new fossils were shocking.

For starters, the spinal vertebrae have blade-like projections that extended upward and served as anchors for a network of ligaments; but there would not be a need for such a strong and well fitted system unless the animal had a huge belly. Deinocheirus measured about 11 meters long and tipped the scales at more than 6.3 tons. That’s much more than you would expect for this size.

“This is definitely an unusual animal,” says Thomas Holtz, Jr., a vertebrate palaeontologist at the University of Maryland in College Park, who wrote an accompanying News & Views piece. “It had more of a ‘beer belly’ than your typical ornithomimosaur,” he suggests.

There is still no explanation or theory for why it was built like this. What researchers do know is what it ate. With its 1 meter long toothless head, Deinocheirus ate lots of things. The content of its stomach were also found fossilized: fish vertebrae and scales suggest that Deinocheirus also consumed large quantities of aquatic prey. But the way its head is built suggests that it also feasted on vegetation – it was likely omnivorous, eating both plants and other animals.

Paleontologists believe that throughout Earth’s history, several dinosaurs were omnivorous, though that was likely pretty unusual. The physical build also had a lot to do with its diet – it’s likely that the dinosaur initially evolved as carnivorous, only to change its way and to eat more plants. It seems plausible to me that if this was the case, then it would need to eat more plants to satisfy its energy needs, and therefore develop this “beer belly”.

The beast was a slow mover, but it had long feet with hooves, which would have prevented it from sinking into the boggy wetlands where it lived. Commenting on the research Prof John Hutchinson, a palaeontologist from the UK’s Royal Veterinary College, said:

“Many dinosaur fans have seen pictures of the 8ft-long arms and hands, and they really are amazing and wonderful. People were really wondering what the rest of this animal looked like. Now we know, and it’s just so freaking weird – we never would have expected this animal to look so bizarre. It really is shocking to see how many weird features it has. It changes our view of what kind of forms dinosaurs can even take.”

Yep, when scientists call something “freaking weird” – that’s when you know something’s up.

Microbrachius dicki fossils are very common, yet nobody noticed these vertebrates bore differentiated sexual organs. Photo: ROGER JONES

Ancient 385-million-year old Fish pioneered Sex

Paleontologists have identified the first known animals that used internal fertilization instead of spawning – armor-coated swimmers, called antiarchs, which lived around 385 million years ago in lakes in what is now Scotland. The discovery is truly monumental since its the earliest known example of sexual dimorphism or differences in appearance between the sexes in the fossil record.

Sex emerged in a Scottish lake

Microbrachius dicki fossils are  very common, yet nobody noticed these vertebrates bore differentiated sexual organs. Photo: ROGER JONES

Microbrachius dicki fossils are very common, yet nobody noticed these vertebrates bore differentiated sexual organs. Photo: ROGER JONES

Flinders University paleontologist John Long and colleagues were also involved in the discovery of another ancient creature capable of self fertilization; a 380-million-year-old fish they named Materpiscis (“Mother Fish”) that carried embryos inside its body. After studying related fish belonging to a greater group called placoderms, the team found specialized male claspers, which function like a penis, and female genital plates that the fish used to copulate. This latest discovery, a type of placoderm called an antiarch and named Microbrachius dicki, puts vertebrate sex evolution even a step downward.

“We have defined the very point in evolution where the origin of internal fertilisation in all animals began,” Long said.

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“That is a really big step.”

Artist impression of an antiarch couple mating. Researchers believe the two had to sit side by side to copulate.

Artist impression of an antiarch couple mating. Researchers believe the two had to sit side by side to copulate.

Long was startled at first by a peculiar isolated plate with a strange tube of bone attached to the rear of a M. dicki fossil specimen. He later realized he was looking at a clasper, which contains grooves that facilitate sperm transfer into the female. After studying other specimens from collections all over the world, Long and team also discovered the female equivalent –  small bony structure at their rear that locked the male organ into place. Early sex was no easy task, however. The strange genitalia geometry means the antiarchs mated sideways, as reported in the journal Nature.

“They couldn’t have done it in a ‘missionary position’,” said Prof Long. “The very first act of copulation was done sideways, square-dance style.”

“The little arms are very useful to link the male and female together, so the male can get this large L-shaped sexual organ into position to dock with the female’s genital plates, which are very rough like cheese graters.

“They act like Velcro, locking the male organ into position to transfer sperm.”

What’s weird is that antiarchs have been studied for well over a century, but it’s only recently that this highly important observation was made. Everybody kept assuming that the ancient fish reproduced in another manner, but evidence speaking otherwise was right there under their noses all the time. Another important insight is that the antiarch’s internal fertilization didn’t last for too long. As fish evolved, they reverted back to spawning, in which eggs and sperm to fertilise them are released into the water by female and male creatures respectively. It took another couple of millions of years before copulation made a come-back, reappearing in ancestors of sharks and rays.

This method of reproduction didn't last very long. Fish soon reverted to spawning.

This method of reproduction didn’t last very long. Fish soon reverted to spawning.

Not everything’s about sex, though. These ancient armored fish were also among the first to evolve important bodily components like  jaws, teeth, paired limbs, and internal fertilization, which we can see to this day. It’s enough to notice your body. Yes, in some weird way, you’re the product of fish sex. Congratulations!

 

Artist impression of Rhinorex - the Jimmy Durante of dinosaurs. Image: Julius Csotonyi/NC State University

Newly discovered dinosaur had one of the biggest noses in prehistory

Artist impression of Rhinorex - the Jimmy Durante of dinosaurs. Image: Julius Csotonyi/NC State University

Artist impression of Rhinorex – the Jimmy Durante of dinosaurs. Image: Julius Csotonyi/NC State University

A new dinosaur species was reported by paleontologists belonging to a duck-billed class of dinosaurs called hadrosaurs. What’s interesting about the discovery is that the newly reported dinosaur used to sport an exceptionally large nose even by hadrosaur standards, yet scientists are still uncertain what purpose it served. It’s name, Rhinorex or “King Nose” gives again to show that paleontologists have a knack for stating the obvious.

Left to gather dust in a storage facility of Brigham Young University’s Museum in Provo, Utah since 1990, scientists have only recently come across the Rhinorex  fossils. Terry Gates of North Carolina State University and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences is one of the members of the team that made the discovery. He describes the intricate process of extracting the fossil remains from the sandstone “like digging a dinosaur skull out of a concrete driveway.” Their efforts paid off eventually, and the researchers were able to reconstruct an almost complete skull of the specimen.

Judging from the size of its skull and in relation to other similar species, the researchers estimate an adult Rhinorex was 30 feet (9 meters) long and weighed roughly 8,500 pounds (3,000 kilograms). The dinosaur lived about 75 million years ago during the Late Cretaceous period, most likely in a swampy environment where it fed on a herbivore diet. It’s unclear, however, how its unusually large snout – the largest of any hadrosaur described thus far, and possibly the largest in prehistory – helped the Rhinorex in any way. Ironically, scientists believe the Rhinorex didn’t have that much of a keen sense of smell.

“The purpose of such a big nose is still a mystery,” Gates said in a statement. “If this dinosaur is anything like its relatives then it likely did not have a super sense of smell; but maybe the nose was used as a means of attracting mates, recognizing members of its species, or even as a large attachment for a plant-smashing beak.”

The researchers hypothesize that its may have adapted such a peculiarly large nose for knocking down plants or attracting mates. Regarding the specimen in question, the researchers believe it was killed by ancient crocodiles lurking in the swamps, as reported in the paper published in the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology.

“It seemed like a great possibility that such an attack could have caused the rapid death of a large dinosaur and helped it to be buried quickly by taking it to the bottom of a river,” Gates said. “We have evidence of giant crocodiles in the same environment as well, making the ambush attack even more tempting to speculate.”

Rivaling the Rhinorex in snout size is Qianzhousaurus sinensis also known as “Pinocchio Rex”, discovered just recently in China. It also bore a large snout, but unlike the Rhinorex, the Pinocchio Rex was a formidable predator.

 

Artist’s impression of living Protulophila polyps in a worm tube. Dennis Gordon and Erika MacKay [NIWA].

An animal that was thought extinct for the past 4 million years has resurfaced

Artist’s impression of living Protulophila polyps in a worm tube. Dennis Gordon and Erika MacKay [NIWA].

Artist’s impression of living Protulophila polyps in a worm tube. Dennis Gordon and Erika MacKay [NIWA].

Talk about a comeback! An international group of scientists report they’ve encountered evidence that suggests a long lost marine animal whose lineage can be traced back hundreds of millions of years ago and which was thought extinct for the past 4 million years is actually alive and well. The findings were made in Picton, New Zealand and marks a splendid demonstration of how geology, paleontology and biology join together to solve a big puzzle!

The animal is questions is called Protulophila – a tiny tentacled polyp – that was previously encountered only in fossil deposits in the northern hemisphere, specifically Europe and the Middle East. It was thought to have been extinct for four million years following a long geological history extending back 170 million years into the Middle Jurassic period in Europe.

Scientists believe Protulophila was colonial hydroid (resembling a hydra), being related to corals and sea anemones.

Scanning electron microscope photo of the openings of the ‘living fossil’ (Protulophila) in a worm tube. Photo: Paul taylor, Natural History Museum, London.

Scanning electron microscope photo of the openings of the ‘living fossil’ (Protulophila) in a worm tube. Photo: Paul taylor, Natural History Museum, London.

This year, however, an international team of researchers, comprised of scientist from New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research in Australia, London’s Natural History Museum, and the University of Oslo, found Protulophila in a tubeworm from geologically young rocks less than a million years old, while conducting fieldwork at Wanganui.

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Amazed by the finding, researchers at the NIWA decided to investigate their private collection for more insight. What they discovered was examples of preserved Protulophila that had been overlooked, some which originating from samples collected in 2008 in about 20 meters of water near the town of Picton on the northeast corner of South Island. And indeed, the findings prove the tiny tentacled polyps are indeed a colonial hydroid related to corals and sea anemones, as suspected.

“Finding living Protulophila is a rare example of how knowledge of fossils has led to the discovery of living biodiversity,” said NIWA marine biologist Dr Dennis Gordon.

“It’s very exciting. Our detective work has also suggested the possibility that Protulophila may be the missing polyp stage of a hydroid in which only the tiny planktonic jellyfish stage is known. Many hydroid species have a two-stage life cycle and often the two stages have never been matched. Our discovery may thus mean that we are solving two puzzles at once.”

Animals built reefs 550 million years ago

These reefs were built by Cloudina ~548 million years ago, from the Nama Group, Namibia. Credit: Fred Bowyer

Corals have been around for hundreds of millions of years, but even before them, 550 million years ago, animals were building reefs. A new study has found that Cloudina, the first animals to have hard shells built reefs too. Cloudina lived towards the end of the Ediacaran period – the last geological period of the Proterozoic Eon, immediately preceding the Cambrian Period. They covered a wide geographical range and fossils are abundant in some areas of the world. During that time, life was already starting to boom, and more and more environmental niches were starting to be covered. Creatures were diversifying, and nature was “experimenting” new things.However, finding good samples of this age is extremely difficult – even when you’re dealing with hard shell marine animals.

The study reveals the fact that Cloudina attached themselves to fixed surfaces — and to each other — by producing natural cement composed of calcium carbonate, to form rigid structures. They were the first creatures to build reefs (non-living reefs). Fossil records indicate that all creatures had a soft body until them – they were the real road openers. These findings support the idea that environmental pressures caused species to develop new features and behaviors in order to survive – developing a hard shell turned out to be a great thing, as even today, 550 million years later, there are a myriad of hard shelled animals. It is believed that this feature initially develoed in order to protect animals from predators, but a reef provided safe access to nutrient-rich waters riddled with currents. Professor Rachel Wood, Professor of Carbonate GeoScience at the University of Edinburgh, who led the study, said:

“Modern reefs are major centres of biodiversity with sophisticated ecosystems. Animals like corals build reefs to defend against predators and competitors. We have found that animals were building reefs even before the evolution of complex animal life, suggesting that there must have been selective pressures in the Precambrian Period that we have yet to understand.”

Following the Ediacaran period came the Cambrian – where life really started to diversify. The rapid diversification of lifeforms in the Cambrian, known as the Cambrian explosion, produced the first representatives of all modern animal phyla.

Journal Reference: A. M. Penny, R. Wood, A. Curtis, F. Bowyer, R. Tostevin, K.- H. Hoffman. Ediacaran metazoan reefs from the Nama Group, Namibia. Science, 2014; 344 (6191): 1504 DOI: 10.1126/science.1253393

Fossil of Earliest Bird Pollinator Found

Researchers have discovered the earliest evidence of a bird pollinator visiting flowers, presumably to feed on the nectar – if true, this means that bird pollinator/plants interactions were already taking place 47 million years ago.

pollinator bird

When you think about pollinators, you mostly think about bees or butterflies – but birds are significant pollinators too. Birds, particularly hummingbirds, honeyeaters and sunbirds accomplish much pollination, especially of deep-throated flowers. Even some monkeys, lemurs, possums, rodents and lizards act as polllinators, though at a much smaller scale.

However, researchers don’t know that much about the evolutionary history of pollinating birds. Now, Gerald Mayr and Volker Wilde from Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum Frankfurt report the earliest evidence of flower visiting by birds.

As you might guess, finding such evidence is really hard – you basically have to catch them fossilized in the act, or have a fossil so well preserved, that you can make some indirect deductions; in their new study, they describe such a well perserved fossil.

The complete skeleton of a small, ancient bird (Pumiliornis tessellatus) from the middle Eocene of Messel, Germany, was found in oil shale pits in 2012. The fossil is so immaculately preserved that you can actually observe the contents of its stomach: pollen grains from eudicotyledonous angiosperrms. Researchers believe the grains were ingested when the bird was hunting for nectar in the flowers. Here’s a picture of the fossil, with the pollen grains highlighted. The stomach contents also feature an iridiscent insect.

pollinator bird2

The nectar guzzling bird in case was pretty small, measuring about 8 centimeters long and weighing probably between 5 and 10 grams – comparable to the hummingbirds we see today. Furthermore, its general physiology suggests that it was a nectar collector: it had long, slender nasal openings and a fourth toe that could be turned backward meant the bird could clasp or climb branches, and was also very useful for visiting flowers.

P. tessellatus was not that well understood, as it was only known through two other specimens, and none of them was as well preserved as this one. According to Mayr, pollinating birds probably existed before 47 million years ago, and this began shortly after birds started to take flight.

Photo: Julius Csotonyi

Why birds survived the dinosaur apocalypse: they were small enough

Photo: Julius Csotonyi

Photo: Julius Csotonyi

Some 65 million years ago an asteroid impact caused countless species of land, marine and plant life to become extinct, including the mighty dinosaur which dominated the planet for millions of years. Not all species of the dinosaur group vanished, however. You’ve guess right: birds! Now, a new study sheds light on why birds were able to survive – they shrunk in size well before the apocalypse hit.

Movies like Jurassic Park cause people to imagine dinosaurs as huge and scary reptile-like beings, which is true in a way, but not quite. Dinosaurs comprise an extremely diverse groups of animals and some 230 million years ago, the largest dinosaur didn’t weigh more than 35 kilograms, most being the size of a modern day dog. Within just a couple million years, however, a niche explosion caused dinosaur species to diversify and grow ever bigger until they reached startling heights, like the case of the mighty Argentinosaurus, which stretched some 35 meters from nose to tail, weighed in at a staggering 90,000 kilograms.

One group of dinosaurs, however, became content to only grow in diversity of species and not in size like the rest of the other dinosaurs – the maniraptorans, feathered dinos that also include the famous Velociraptor from the aforementioned Jurassic Park. A group of researchers at Oxford University estimated the body size of 426 different species of dinosaurs, using the thickness of their fossilized hind leg bones as a proxy for their overall weight.

The findings are nothing short of remarkable. While dinosaurs, across all groups, expanded both in size and diversity of species, at some point that trend slowed down fairly quickly. Dinosaurs stopped growing (thank goodness!) and sported a constant body size and weight, with one exception. Maniraptorans, apparently, continued to evolve bigger and smaller species as they expanded into an ever wider variety of ecological niches over a period of 170 million years.

When a huge rock from outer space collided with our planet some 65 million years ago, only feathered maniraptorans which were small enough to cope and adapt with the changing conditions were able to survive out of all the dinosaurs. These feathered dinosaurs, which didn’t weight more than a 1 kg, were none other than the birds we all know today. Presently, there are some 10,000 species of these feathered fliers, making them the most diverse of all the four-limbed animals.

So, basically because the rest of the other dinosaurs were too fat for their own good, only the maniraptorans were capable of surviving and adapting in those hellish conditions, all because they started diversifying and, most importantly, didn’t neglect growing light bodies long before the asteroid came. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, says the dinosaurs.

Findings appeared in PLOS Biology.