Tag Archives: paleontology

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

An arrow marks the spot where a dinosaur lost its footing while crossing a slippery mudflat Image: Seth Hammond

Fossilized footprints reveal a clumsy dinosaur

Crossing  the riverbed of Carrizo Creek in Oklahoma, a series of tracks made by a two-legged dinosaur have been preserved in time for 150 million years. The tracks reveal a most clumsy scene, as the dinosaur in question slipped for a second before going back to his beaten path.

An arrow marks the spot where a dinosaur lost its footing while crossing a slippery mudflat Image: Seth Hammond

An arrow marks the spot where a dinosaur lost its footing while crossing a slippery mudflat
Image: Seth Hammond

When first analyzedin the 1980s, paleontologists described some 47 tracks, but due to erosion, only 14 are visible today. Nevertheless, they still capture a most interesting moment as two of the tracks show signs of the dinosaur stumbling.  One has a ridge of mud pushed out and up along its side. The other one is strangely deep — about 0.6 inches (1.6 centimeters) deeper than any of the other tracks.

“What we finally decided is, what must have happened is that the dinosaur slipped as it was walking across this really slippery mudflat, and then that’s where it caught itself,”  said  researcher J. Seth Hammond, a graduate student in geosciences at Fort Hays State University in Hays, Kan. of the second, deep track.

“In a way, what’s interesting is the everyday trivia,” Hammond said. “He’s just walking across a mudflat and slips like anyone else might.”

The species of the dinosaur is unknown, but paleontologists are fairly certain it belonged to a class of dinosaurs called Therapods, which also includes famous two-legged predators like T. rex and Deinonychus.

via Scientific American

‘Platypus-zilla’ fossil unearthed in Australia

A giant platypus fossil, measuring more than 1m long (3ft) was discovered in Queensland, Australia. The animal lived 5-15 million years ago, as paleontologists explain in the journal Vertebrate Paleontology. Until now, the oldest fossil was dated 100.000 years ago.

platypuszilla

As if the evolutionary status of the platypus wasn’t extraordinarily complicated as it is, this finding adds even more complexity to the issue. The platypus is a frequent subject of research in evolutionary biology. In 2004, researchers at the Australian National University discovered the platypus has ten sex chromosomes, compared with two (XY) in most other mammals (for instance, a male platypus is always XYXYXYXYXY). Prof Mike Archer, from the University of New South Wales believes this fossil highlights an entire branch of their family tree that we previously knew nothing about.

“Suddenly up pops ‘playtpus-zilla’ – this gigantic monstrosity that you would have been afraid to swim with. “It indicates there are branches in the platypus family tree that we hadn’t suspected before.”

platypustoothInterestingly enough, all that remains today from the fossil platypus is a single tooth – yep, paleontology is just this advanced and this good – all this information can be derived from a single, fossilized tooth. Not only did paleontologists figure out that they were dealing with a new species of platypus, two times bigger than the one that lives today, but they also figured out that it usually fed on crustaceans, turtles, frogs and fish. However, it’s still impossible to know exactly how it looked like.

“I guess it probably would have looked like a platypus on steroids,” said Prof Archer.

Platypus fossils come in very short supply, and researchers are forced to work with limited information, relying on assumptions more than facts. But this fossil shows us a bit of the larger picture.

“We have been naively led to suspect that maybe it was just one lineage of strange animals bumbling its way through time and space at least for the last 60 million years. The discovery of this new one was a bit of a shock to us. It was a wake-up call that the platypus’s story, the more we know about it, is increasingly more complicated than we thought.”

Hopefully, as more fossils are discovered in Australia, we will be able to find out more about these unique, enigmatic animals.

Illustration of a cougar-like nimravid. (c) thorthebarbarian.com

Saber-tooth-like cats ambushed and killed their own kind

Illustration of a cougar-like nimravid. (c) thorthebarbarian.com

Illustration of a cougar-like nimravid. (c) thorthebarbarian.com

Looking close at suspicious marks and cuts present in the skulls of saber-tooth like cats which roamed North America millions of years ago, paleontologist Clint Boyd of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology found what he believes are clear signs that the animals used to ambush and kill their own kind.

Fierce predators native to North American that lived some 32-34 million years ago, Nimravids are a group of extinct saber-toothed felids also known as false saber-tooths. In 1936 a peculiar skull belonging to such a cat exhibited bite marks made by the same animal’s long canine teeth. Not too much attention was given to the fact, but in 2010 a girl hiking through the Badlands National Park found a nimravid skull which also bore nimravid bite marks. Boyd, who was working at the park at that time, took interest in the find and decided to examine other skulls for collections all over the country as well.

The skull found in 2010. Red arrows show bite marks. (c) MINDY HOUSEHOLDE

The skull found in 2010. Red arrows show bite marks. (c) MINDY HOUSEHOLDE

“Some of the best specimens with bite marks were right in front of people,” he said. “Older specimens did not show the bite marks until they were cleaned up.” Some actually still had dirt in the holes made by the bite marks and others had had the holes repaired by curators unaware of their significance.

“What we found is that these bite marks are a lot more common than previously thought.”

With so many clear signs of nimravids murdered by their own kind there was no doubt that the animals were competing with each other in a highly aggressive manner. Skull analysis revealed another import insight too: all attacks thus far described were made by ambush, from behind. Kills were made either by inserting a fang into an eye socket or puncturing the skull.

Not an accurate depiction of nimravid rivalty. Most likely, the beasts would perform sneak attacks on each other.

Not an accurate depiction of nimravid rivalry. Most likely, the beasts would perform sneak attacks from behind.

A nimravid’s canine teeth were its biggest and most valuable asset, as well as its most vulnerable. If they broke, the cats would have surely been doomed, killed either by starvation or other predators. That’s why there has been no attested nimravid bite mark on its prey’s skulls. Instead the cats   used the canines to tear out the soft tissues in the throats of their prey and would have been careful not to bang them on bone, which might have damaged their most important hunting weapon.

Fatal nimravid bite marks are found on a surprising 10 percent of nimravid skulls in three species of nimravids over a range of four million years. Why? Because it’s worth the risk when dealing with competitors.  They were still careful not to damage their canines, though, since most attacks are directed towards the eye socket. Museums often present illustrated depictions of rivaling nimravids facing each other in open plain. This likely needs revision, instead a more accurate painting would depict an ambush scene.

“It’s very hard to get behavior from fossils,” said Kurt Spearing, a researcher at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, who works on fossil cats and their close relatives and was not directly involved in Boyd’s work.

But in this case, he agrees that the behavior of nimravids is remarkably clear: “These guys were incredibly aggressive towards each other.”

via Discovery

 

Armour plates and the upper and lower jaw of E. primordialis. (c) Nature

Prehistoric fish had the earliest face recognized thus far

first_face_primitive_fish

This primitive fish might be the first animal with a face. (c) Nature

A lot of complex organisms, be them long extinct like dinosaurs or still alive like mammals, present what can only be referred to as a face – a symmetrical arrangement on the head of the animal of eyes, nose and, most importantly, jaw and cheek-bones. Human are particularly adapted to recognizing faces. Thanks to our pattern solving abilities, humans have a keen talent for recognizing faces – an evolutionary treat necessary to distinguish between our peers – even in places that only look like faces (Jesus in a wood stump, human faces on Mars etc.). How did faces evolve and what animal had the first face, though?

Scientists believe the first animal currently known to us to feature what can only be called a face to be a primitive species of fish called  entelognathus primordialis (meaning “primordial complete jaw”). The fish has been dated at 419-million-years old and was found at Xiaoxiang Reservoir in Quijing, Yunnann, China. The stunning fossil was remarkably preserved for its age at the moment of discovery, helping the team of international paleontologists to determine a number of physiological characteristics. One of the first things that came to their attention was the fish’s thick exterior armor and facial bones.

Entelognathus had a rather unprepossessing face,” co-author Per Erik Ahlberg of Uppsala University told Discovery News. “The mouth was wide, the forehead low and flat, and the small, close-set and almost immobile eyes pointed forwards like a pair of car headlights.”

Jaw-dropping find puts evolution of modern face in a new light

Armour plates and the upper and lower jaw of E. primordialis. (c) Nature

Armour plates and the upper and lower jaw of E. primordialis. (c) Nature

Primitive fish older and even contemporary with e. primordialis must have looked very bizarre by today’s face-featuring standards, considering fossil records. According to Matt Friedman, a lecturer in paleobiology at the University of Oxford, these fish must have  had “broad, shovel-shaped heads with their eyes placed on top, while others had narrow bodies and skulls with their eyes on either side of the head.”  The eel-like lampreys and hagfishes, which are still alive today and which scientists commonly referred them as living fossils, are worthy examples of how these kind of prehistoric animals must have looked like.

Classic textbooks and scientific common knowledge describe the precursors to modern face-bearing animals as looking shark-like. This may be flawed information, according to the authors of the paper. The newly found prehistoric fish “puts a new face” on the original jawed species, Friedman and Brazeua write. Taking this into account, the authors revise the family tree of jawed vertebrates, showing that there is a serious possibility that the modern bony visage originated with e. primordialis’s ancestors. Sharks, it may seem, are actually more evolved organisms that retain aspects from an earlier ancestor – maybe e. primordialis itself. This would mean that humans look more like the last common ancestor of living jawed vertebrates than we thought.

“There has been a long tradition of portraying sharks as especially primitive,” Friedman said. “This is common in textbooks and documentaries that falsely claim that sharks are ‘living fossils’ and have gone unchanged for millions of years.”

It’s still unclear as to why jaw and cheek-bones appeared. A leading theory rather intuitively states that the face evolved as a superior feeding mechanism, allowing for a more flexible and adapted way of chewing on larger prey. Study co-author Brian Choo  suspects that jaws might have “evolved initially for breathing, as an apparatus to control the flow of water across the gills.”

The findings appeared in the journal Nature. [story via Discovery]

[NOW READ] Did you know there’s a fish that has human teeth? The sheepshead fish is one of a kind

Thousands of dinosaur tracks found in Alaska

Paleontologists have scratched the surface of what appears to be a very promising dinosaur site near the Arctic circle, in Alaska.

dinosaur footprint

When these dinosaurs roamed the Earth, they stepped in mud; their footprints quickly filled with sand, and were preserved in the form we see them today, like blubs with toes. In July, the scientists from the University of Alaska Museum of the North embarked on a 500-mile (800 kilometers) journey down the Tanana and Yukon rivers, bringing back almost a ton of dinosaur footprint fossils!

“We found dinosaur footprints by the scores on literally every outcrop we stopped at,” expedition researcher Paul McCarthy, of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said in a statement. “I’ve seen dinosaur footprints in Alaska now in rocks from southwest Alaska, the North Slope and Denali National Park in the Interior, but there aren’t many places where footprints occur in such abundance.”

A find of this magnitude today is extremely rare, and paleontologists have their work cut out for them, trying to understand this ecosystem of which they know almost nothing about.

yukon-dinosaur-tracks-2

“This is the kind of discovery you would have expected in the Lower 48 a hundred years ago,” Druckenmiller said in a statement. “We found a great diversity of dinosaur types, evidence of an extinct ecosystem we never knew existed.”

Dinosaur feathers found preserved in museum amber

Instead of digging through layers of rocks, a few paleontologists focused their efforts on ‘digging’ through museum collection instead – and their efforts were quite successful. Their unique approach led to the discovery of never-before seen structures, which they think are something called dino-fuzz.

dinofuzz

The fluffy structures trapped in the small bits of ancient amber may represent some of the earliest evolutionary experiments leading to feathers, according to researchers. They combed through thousands of small to minuscule samples before finding the ‘good’ 80 million years samples: 11 coin-sized amber traps with traces of ancient feathers and fuzz. Some of them resembled modern feathers (some fit for flying, some fit for diving), while some were the ‘fuzz’; unlike fossils, feathers trapped in amber have another advantage: their colors are also preserved.

dinofuzz2

The oldest bird, Archaeopterix, inhabited the Earth about 150 million years ago, and the oldest known feathered dinosaur, Anchiornis huxleyi, lived some 151-160 million years ago. Both creatures had modern style feathers, and paleontologists have little information about the earlier stages of feather evolution: the flexible, unbranched filaments—often called protofeathers, and sometimes called ‘dinofuzz’.

Ryan McKellar, a paleontologist at the University of Alberta in Canada, and his colleagues provided some much needed information, not by gathering new samples, but by reanalizing old samples. Although some of the feathers and protofeathers appear nearly transparent, others are heavily pigmented and probably were, in life, a deep brown, dark gray, or black.

dinofuzz3

The Results are published in Science.

All pictures via Science/AAAS.

Simulated probability of surface water during the last interglacial. (c) PLOS ONE

Sahara might have been crossed by three large rivers the size of the Nile 100,000 years ago

When the Sahara comes to mind, lush greenery and gorgeous, fast flowing waters might be the last scenery that crosses you. Not too long ago (geological frame), however, the region known today as the Sahara may have been crossed by three giant rivers the size of the Nile, according to a recent palaeohydrological model made by researchers at Hull University, UK led by Professor Tom Coulthard. The paper also discusses the possibility whether one or more of these rivers might have been used as migration routes by early humans leaving central Africa.

Recent evidence reported by other studies suggest that the Sahara was once quite green, dotted with numerous lakes. Considering this, it’s reasonable to assume large flowing waters might have riddled the region in ancient times. Using climate models to estimate rainfall some 100,000 years ago, the Hull researchers constructed a new model which showed ancient monsoons formed 400 miles north of where they do today, spilling rain on mountains in the central Sahara. The huge amounts of water coupled with the terrain’s geometry could have offered the perfect conditions for three large rivers to surface, each approximately the size of the Nile,  also forming vast wetlands in what is now Libya.

 Simulated probability of surface water during the last interglacial. (c) PLOS ONE

Simulated probability of surface water during the last interglacial. (c) PLOS ONE

The westernmost of the three potential ancient Saharan rivers, referred in the paper as the Irharhar, represents the most likely route for human migration from Africa into Europe. The Irharhar river flows directly south to north, uniquely linking the mountain areas experiencing monsoon climates at these times to temperate Mediterranean environments where food and resources would have been abundant – clusters of archaeological sites in Algeria and Tunisia back up the idea, according to the paper published in the journal PLoS ONE.

Unfortunately any “foot prints” these ancient rivers might have left on the Earth are hopelessly buried underneath sand dunes.

The oldest building in the world: Wyoming cabin made mostly from dinosaur fossils

dinosaur cabin

Though built in 1933, the Fossil Cabin near the dinosaur graveyard at Como Bluff is, in a way, the oldest building in the world: the walls of the building were built out of 5,796 mortared-together dinosaur bones, dug from nearby areas.

Initially, the building was part of a gasoline filling station along US 30 by Thomas Boylan, who had been collecting bones for 17 years, with the intention of creating sculptures in front of his home and the gas station.

“At first I planned to get enough of them together to mount a complete dinosaur skeleton,” he told a reporter in 1938. “However, erecting such a skeleton is a long and costly task for an individual to undertake.“

In 1973, Gracey Boylan sold the cabin to Paul and Jody Fultz of Medicine Bow, and for a long time, until the 1990s, it acted as a summer museum.

dinosaur cabin 2

The building was reopened for the public, when Mike Lewis took over as new curator, but as of 2012, it is closed because of the “pending acquisition of a suitable manager”. It seems even now, the dinosaur bones can’t get any rest.

America’s invasive species – 450 million years ago

Land clearing and human habitation put significant pressure on local species – combine this with globalization and a general recklessness of the population, and you get a big, negative impact (both environmental and economic) from invasive plants.

invasive-species-laurentia-450-million-years invasive-species-laurentia-450-million-years

But invasive plants aren’t something new – they’ve been around for hundreds of millions of years. Scientists have now analyzed 450-million-year-old fossils of marine creatures that once dwelled in Laurentia, the continent North America once was part of. You may recall the article we posted yesterday about the 350 million year old scorpion, which included a discussion about Laurentia and Gondwana – the only two existing continents on the face of the Earth in that period.

Back then, the forerunners of the Appalachian Mountains may have opened the gates for invasive species to storm Laurentia (or Laurasia). The Taconic mountains, as they were called, left a depression behind the mountain range, flooding the area with cool, nutrient-rich water. In order to better understand how these tectonic processes affected existing life, paleontologists investigated the remains of brachiopods – clam like creatures which dominated the waters during that time.

journal.pone.0068353.g001

“Our data show a very clear shift in evolutionary processes that coincides with a shift in Earth systems dynamics,” researcher Alycia Stigall, a paleontologist at Ohio University, explained.” In particular, these results shed light on the Earth system controls on how new species form, or speciation.”

As geological changes slowly took their toll in Laurentia, the fossils highlight two different patterns of evolution: vicariance and dispersal. Vicariance occurs following large-scale geophysical events such as the uplift of a mountain chain, or the separation of continents; through it, new species appear, each better suited for their new habitats.

Dispersal on the other hand involves directly invading habitats for which you are suited. Although initially biodiversity increases, in the long run, this is a very negative process, following which only a few aggressive plants dominate, thus greatly reducing biodiversity.

These findings could provide valuable insight into what drives dispersal today – as a great number of plants are threatened by invasive species.

“Only one out of 10 invaders truly become invasive species,” Stigall said in a statement. “Understanding the process can help determine where to put conservation resources.”

It’s also valuable data in the attempt to understand the emergence of new species:

“Scientists, both biologists and paleontologists, have spent a lot of time and effort studying extinction — the process by which the Earth loses species,” Stigall said. “We understand many of those controls very well — (meteor) impact, volcanism, ocean acidification, habitat destruction. It is relatively easy to envision ways to reduce a population size to zero and thereby cause a species to go extinct. “Understanding speciation is much more complex,” Stigall continued. “Species form by breakdown of gene flow between populations. This is much harder to study on short timescales and the process is explicitly tied to a geographic place and ancestors, which requires understanding both geography and evolutionary history.”

Journal Reference: PLoS ONE. David F. Wright, Alycia L. Stigall: Geologic Drivers of Late Ordovician Faunal Change in Laurentia: Investigating Links between Tectonics, Speciation, and Biotic Invasions.

New fossils throw mammalian family tree into disarray

A fossil of a small, forest-floor-dwelling animal called Megaconus puts a big question mark on the evolution of mammals – it suggests that its group predated animals, while another one, from its tree dwelling ‘cousing’ Arboroharamiya shows the group belonged to the mammals.

megaconus

Megaconus

The two fossils have paleontologists scratching their heads, not knowing where to place them in the family tree. A team analysing one fossil claims that the group belongs in mammals, but researchers looking at the other propose that its evolutionary clan actually predates true mammals. The situation requires more analysis, and, as both teams agree, more fossils.

Interestingly enough, both species were previously unknown to science; both are members of the haramiyids, a group of animals that first appeared around 212 million years ago first studied in the 1840s. Until now, the only available fossils of this group of animals were isolated examples of distinctive teeth and a single jawbone. But both fossils described today include not only the distinctive teeth, but also vertebrae and bones from the limbs, feet, and even tails.

“It’s remarkable, for such an incredibly obscure group, to have two fairly complete skeletons pop up at the same time,” says Richard Cifelli, a vertebrate palaeontologist at the Oklahoma Museum of Natural History in Norman, who co-authored a related News & Views3. “These new fossils change everything.”

Fossil no. 1

The first fossil lived about 160 million years ago in (what is today) Northern China, being well adapted for life in the trees; it easily climbed and had exceptionally long digits. Its bones also suggest it had a tail.

After investigating the fossil and its evolutionary relationships, the team concluded that the animal is well in the mammal tree, and suggested that mammals, as a group, first appeared somewhere between 228 million and 201 million years ago.

Arboroharamiya probably preferred feeding on seeds, but it was omnivorous.

Fossil no. 2

arborohayama

The second fossil was found in today’s Mongolia and probably lived on the forest floor: in each of its rear legs, the two lower bones were fused together at the top and bottom, similar to those of the modern armadillo.

Unlike Arboroharamiya, ground dwelling Megaconus and its evolutionary relationships suggest that the common ancestor of all extant mammals lived about 180 million years ago — and that the haramiyids, including Megaconus, branched away from the family tree some 40 million years before the true mammals evolved.

But here’s the kicker – neither one of the two creatures and interpretations fills in with the current mammal family tree! Megaconus and Arboroharamiya may or may not be mammals, and they may or may not be related – but they’re really shaking a big chunk of what paleontologists thought they knew about mammals.

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

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

nasuceratops

Artistic representation of Nasuceratops. Credit: Raul Martin.

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

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

nasuceratops2

Credit: Rob Gaston.

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

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

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

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

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

Rare, nearly complete triceratops skeleton suggests family was important for them

Despite the fact that triceratops are some of the most well known dinosaurs, finding a complete skeletons is an extremely rare treat. It was one of the last non-avian dinosaur genera to appear before the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event – the extinction which caused the end of dinosaurs and the Mesozoic.

triceratops

The scientists from the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research and Naturalis Biodiversity Center began work on the dig in early May, and now, they have potentially unearthed one of the most complete skeletons of a triceratops ever found.

“This triceratops could easily be one of the most complete in the world,” Larson said. “It only has to be 50 percent complete to be one of the top four most complete in the world.”

The dig also unearthed two other, smaller dinosaurs, which Larson said is also a rare occurrence. He said the three skeletons were most likely a family unit.

“The dig indicates that there was some sort of parental pair and nowhere in the literature has that ever been noted before, and that’s unprecedented,” he said.

Triceratops dinosaurs measured 7.9 – 9 meters in height, weighed 6-12 tons, and were herbivores. The most distinctive feature is their large skull, among the largest of all land animals. Hopefully, this finding, along with the other, two smaller skeletons, could complete what we know about the species.

“We should get a glimpse into these animals, especially since there was parental guidance,” Larson said. “Really there are very few triceratops skeletons that have been discovered, only three really good skeletons and many skeleton heads.”

Bird like fossil is older than Archaeopterix

The fossil, which still retains impressions of feathers, is 160 million years old, predating the oldest Archaeopterix fossil found by 10 million years. Scientits have named it Aurornis, which means “dawn bird”.

Aurornis and Archaeopteryx

aurornis xui

Aurornis enables us not only to better understand the emergence of birds, but also to understand how powerful flight originated. About 50cm tail to beak, the animal has very primitive skeletal features that puts it at the very base of bird evolution. It had claws and a long tail with front and hind legs similar to those of Archaeopteryx, but some features of its bones were more primitive.

Archaeopteryx holds a very prized position in paleontology, some considering it the most significant fossil ever found. The fossil, discovered in Germany in 1861, proved that modern birds evolved from dinosaurs, and was the first fossil to support Darwin’s theory of evolution, which had been published just two years earlier.

But this finding pushes Archaeopteryx off its pedestal.

“It’s an important fossil,” said Gareth Dyke, a senior palaeontologist involved in the study at Southampton University. “Aurornis pushes Archaeopteryx off its perch as the oldest member of the bird lineage.”

Artist's impression of the oldest known bird

Geologists working at the Yizhou Fossil and Geology Park in north-eastern China explained that the fossil has a very interesting story. It was actually bought from a local fossil dealer, who claimed they had been unearthed in Yaoluguo in western Liaoning, where sedimentary rock was laid down 153m to 165m years ago. It’s not that uncommon for paleontologists to work with dealers (especially in China), but this is a pretty risky business when it comes to gauging the age of the fossils. This usually leads to an influx of fossils to the market, out of which many are fakes, or fake dated.

But this one seems really legit. When Pascal Godefroit and others at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels revealed the intricate details of the skeleton, they noticed no signs of forgery.

Shaking up the avian group

The first Archaeopteryx fossil found.

The first Archaeopteryx fossil found.

But the real discussion is about flight and birds. Archaeopteryx could clearly fly – there’s no doubt about that. In the past few years, there trend has been to believe that Archaeopteryx was in fact not a bird. This study places it back to its rightful place.

“This work makes Archaeopteryx a bird again, and given that we have the original specimen here in London, we’re very pleased to have it reinstated,” said Paul Barrett at the Natural History Museum in London. “It makes life simpler. If Archaeopteryx was an early bird, we only have to worry about one origin of flight.”

But with, Aurorinis, the story is quite different.

“The new species is certainly an older member of the bird lineage than Archaeopteryx, and it’s fair to call it a very primitive bird. But what you call a bird comes down to what you call a bird, and a lot of definitions depend on Archaeopteryx,” said Barrett.

But it’s pretty hard to draw some conclusions with just one fossil.

“Previous phylogenetic investigations were based on maybe only 200 morphological characteristics. Here, we recognise almost 1,500 characteristics,” explained Dr Godefroit. “So it’s a much bigger and more robust analysis, and according to this new investigation Archaeopteryx is again considered an ancestor of birds and the new creature we describe is also a basal bird; and in fact it is even more primitive than Archaeopteryx,” he explained.

But this finding shakes the avian tree even more – it also re-shuffles the Troodontidae, a family of bird-like dinosaurs. Dr Godefroit and colleagues now consider these to be a sister group of the avialans.

troodontid

An example of a troodontid.

“What we’re arguing over here is actually very small, esoteric features of the anatomy,” commented Dr Paul Barrett from the Natural History Museum, London, UK. “We’re looking at a nexus of animals around bird origins – birds themselves and a bunch of dinosaurs that are almost, but not quite, birds. “There is a really grey, wobbly line between the two. Just one or two changes across a huge body of data can make the difference between an animal being on one side of this bird-dinosaur divide or the other.

Picture sources: 1 2

(c) Semyon Grigoriev

Fantastically preserved mammoth carcass with flowing blood discovered in icy Siberia

(c) Semyon Grigoriev

(c) Semyon Grigoriev

In nothing short of an astonishing find, Russian scientists have discovered a wonderfully preserved female mammoth carcass – the first in the world – in the icy tundra of Siberia. The muscle tissue was found to be extremely well preserved, but what simply caught the researchers by surprise, followed by the whole scientific community in the world, was the discovery of blood trapped in the ice. When the ice was broken, the blood flowed despite freezing -10 degrees Centigrade temperatures! It all sounds like the synopsis of a Hollywood adventure blockbuster, but it’s all as real as you and me.

The find was made in the Lyakhovsky Islands, the southernmost group of the New Siberian Islands in the Arctic seas of northeastern Russia. So far, only three adult mammoth carcasses, including the present discovery, have been discovered. The female mammoth carcass weighs about one ton, along with the bones and some ice, but the researchers assume that while she was alive, the female must have weighed about three tons. They believe she was between 50 and 60 years old when she died and must have lived from 10,000 to 15,000 years ago.

This flask has flowing mammoth blood. 'For now our suspicion is that mammoth blood contains a kind of natural anti-freeze'. Picture: Semyon Grigoriev

This flask contains flowing mammoth blood. ‘For now our suspicion is that mammoth blood contains a kind of natural anti-freeze’. Picture: Semyon Grigoriev

The degree of preservation is simply astonishing! The muscle tissue has been conserved so well by the icy cerement that it still had a natural red color of fresh meat. Such preservation can be explained by the fact that the lower part of the mammoth’s body was trapped in pure ice, while the upper part was discovered in the middle of the tundra. The trunk was found separately from the carcass. Nevermind  the flowing blood…. that’s simply mind boggling! Now, why didn’t the blood freeze? Well mammoth blood, it seems, looks a lot like anti-freeze as mammoth haemoglobin let go of its oxygen much more readily at cold temperatures than living elephants today. The dark blood was found in ice cavities below the belly of the animal.

We were really surprised to find mammoth blood and muscle tissue,’ said Semyon Grigoriev, head of the Museum of Mammoths of the Institute of Applied Ecology of the North at the North Eastern Federal University.

‘It is the first time we managed to obtain mammoth blood. No-one has ever seen before how the mammoth’s blood flows’.

He explained: ‘The approximate age of this animal is about 10,000 years old. It has been preserved thanks to the special conditions, due to the fact that it did not defrost and then freeze again.

‘We suppose that the mammoth fell into water or got bogged down in a swamp, could not free herself and died. Due to this fact the lower part of the body, including the lower jaw, and tongue tissue, was preserved very well.

‘The upper torso and two legs, which were in the soil, were gnawed by prehistoric and modern predators and almost did not survive.’

The find comes amid intense efforts of resurrecting mammoths using DNA. Last year a deal was signed giving South Korean scientists exclusive rights on cloning the woolly mammoth from certain tissue samples found in the Siberian permafrost. Attempts so far have proven to be unsuccessful, since scientists have yet to isolate clean DNA. To get the DNA they need, scientists need a lot of living cells to work with and repair DNA. Grigoriev noted that the repair of DNA is a very complex process that can take years.

If eventually stable DNA is gathered, the plan is to implant eggs into the womb of a live elephant for a 22-month pregnancy. A mammoth should came out, but maybe something entirely new too.

Bones from Lufengosaurus embryos (like this femur shown in cross-section) have yielded new information about dinosaur development.

Oldest dinosaur embryos found in China

Bones from Lufengosaurus embryos (like this femur shown in cross-section) have yielded new information about dinosaur development.

Bones from Lufengosaurus embryos (like this femur shown in cross-section) have yielded new information about dinosaur development.

Paleontologists have discovered an ancient nesting site in China where the oldest fossilized dinosaur embryos to date have been found. The find is extremely exciting from multiple perspectives. For one, many embryos in various development stages have been found which will certainly help scientists better their understanding of how dinosaurs grew (how fast, what bones grew first, how they hatched etc.), and also organic tissue has also been discovered among the fossilized bones and eggs. So, at the same time this is a double milestone as the site holds the oldest organic material ever seen in a terrestrial vertebrate.

The discovery was made in a bone bed in Lufeng County, China by researchers at  University of Toronto in Mississauga, Canada, led by Robert Reisz.  At the site, sauropodomorph fossils — bipedal dinosaurs with long necks — were discovered dating to the Early Jurassic period, 197 million to 190 million years ago. Among the  eggshells, some 200 disarticulated bones were also found or the oldest known traces of budding dinosaurs.

“Most of our record of dinosaur embryos is concentrated in the Late Cretaceous period,” says David Evans, curator of vertebrate palaeontology at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. “This [study] takes a detailed record of dinosaur embryology and pushes it back over 100 million years.”

Upon closer inspection, the paleontologists discovered the oldest organic material ever seen in a terrestrial vertebrate among the bone-tissue samples.

“That suggests to us that other dinosaur fossils might have organic remains,” Evans says. “We just haven’t looked at them in the right ways.”

The researchers can’t tell for sure what kind of dinosaurs the embryos they find belong to, however their safest best lies with a  sauropodomorph, since the remains are similar in many ways to intact embryonic skeletons of Massospondylus. Still they couldn’t pinpoint an exact match of any known dinosaur genus, so for now the embryos have been attributed to a new species dubbed Lufengosaurus.

The embryos might yield important clues that will help researchers learn how sauropodomorphs  were able to grow to be 9 metres long, larger than any other terrestrial animal alive during their heyday. When fossil embryos in various development stages  were compared, the researchers found evidence of rapid, sustained embryonic growth and short incubation times.

Findings were reported in the journal Nature.

 

A University of Alberta researcher has identified some of the strongest evidence ever found that dinosaurs could paddle long distances. (c) Nathan Rogers

Evidence found that dinosaurs could swim through coordinated leg movement

A University of Alberta researcher has identified some of the strongest evidence ever found that dinosaurs could paddle long distances.  (c) Nathan Rogers

A University of Alberta researcher has identified some of the strongest evidence ever found that dinosaurs could paddle long distances. (c) Nathan Rogers

While dinosaur walking and locomotion is a subject of great interest and study for paleontologists, whether some could swim too is a controversial matter. Recent evidence found by an US graduate student sheds new light on the subject and suggests some dinosaurs could paddle for long distances through water with coordinated leg movement.

Scott Persons, student at University of Alberta, observed some unusual claw marks on fossilized rocks found at a river bottom while on an expedition along with an international group of researchers in China’s Szechuan Province. The marks were peculiar because they stretched over distances in patterns that suggests that they were left only by the tips of a two-legged dinosaur’s feet.

By carefully analyzing the claw marks, the researchers inferred  that dinosaurs swam along in the river, and just their tiptoes touched the bottom of the river, providing one of the most tantalizing evidence that dinosaurs could swim with coordinated leg movement.

“It is not a surprise some could swim, but what is significant is that they would swim for quite a while,” said Persons, whose research was published Monday in the journal Chinese Science Bulletin.

The traces were of a carnivorous two-legged dinosaur. The researcher roughly estimates the dinosaur to be up to one meter at the hip.

“We found evidence of six or eight individual animals, all headed in the same direction, moving together as if they were part of a herd,” Persons said. “It looks as if they used the river bank as a superhighway. They were actually quite buoyant.”

Fossilized rippling from currents and evidence of mud cracks indicate the river went through dry and wet cycles, the study shows. Most likely the dinosaurs were forced during these wet seasons to cross and navigate water stretches.

(c) Miquel Crusafont Catalan Palaeontology Institute

Hundreds of dinosaur eggs found in Spain hints to common nesting ground

(c) Miquel Crusafont Catalan Palaeontology Institute

(c) Miquel Crusafont Catalan Palaeontology Institute

Paleontologists were stoked by the discovery of hundreds of fossilized dinosaur eggs, belonging to various species, in a region of Spain. The dinosaur fossil eggs were said to be about as big as a basketball, while others were smaller. Since eggs belonging to various species were found in the same are, the findings add further evidence to the theory that nesting places were shared by different types of dinosaurs.

The various eggs, eggshell fragments, and dozens of clutches in the stratigraphic layers of the Tremp geological formation from the Coll de Nargo region in Spain have been dated to be between 71 million and 67 million old. The region is thought to have been a marshy region during the Late Cretaceous Period. What’s odd and striking about the finding, however, is how so rich and diverse it is, considering that up until recently only one type of egg had been found in the region belong to Megaloolithus siruguei.

The eggs found this time around belong to sauropods – long necked dinosaurs that were among the largest beasts to have ever roamed the Earth. Eggs belonging to four never before encountered species in the region were also uncovered, belonging to Cairanoolithus roussetensisMegaloolithus aureliensisMegaloolithus siruguei, and Megaloolithus baghensis. What’s interesting to note however is that most of these eggs and related egg fragments were extremely closely packed together.

“Eggshells, eggs and nests were found in abundance and they all belong to dinosaurs, sauropods in particular,” study leader, Albert García Sellés said. “We had never found so many nests in the one area before,” he added.

“Up until now, only one type of dinosaur egg had been documented in the region: Megaloolithus siruguei,” Sellés said.

The findings surrounding the hundreds of dinosaur fossil eggs were published in the journal Cretaceous Research.

Phallus shaped fossils identified as new species [shorties]

During the geologic period called the Cambrian, life absolutely exploded, trying to fill all the ecologic niches suddenly made available. As a result, life took on many, and often times weird shapes – compared to what we know today, that is. Such is the case with Spartobranchus tenuis – a species previously unknown to science.

phallus

However, this particular species has close relatives which still live on today, showing that some of nature’s wicked experiences were actually successful.

phallus2

The fossils are just over 500 million years old, and are about as big as an earthworm, “but unlike an earthworm that’s segmented from its front end to its back end, these guys just had three distinct body segments,” said research team member Dr Christopher Cameron from the University of Montreal, Canada.

More details on BBC

Fossils of Crocodilian, Hippo-Like Species found in Panama

Paleontologists from the University of Florida have unearthed remarkably well-preserved fossils of two crocodilians and a mammal previously unknown to science during recent Panama excavations that began in 2009.

crocodile

The animals lived during the Miocene, a period that lasted from about 23.03 to 5.332 million years ago; the flora and fauna from the Miocene was relatively modern, with mammals and birds already being well established. These findings in particular expand the the range of ancient animals in the subtropics — some of the most diverse areas today about which little is known historically because lush vegetation prevents paleontological excavations and are very important for paleoclimatic studies.

“In part we are trying to understand how ecosystems have responded to animals moving long distances and across geographic barriers in the past,” said study co-author Jonathan Bloch, associate curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus. “It’s a testing ground for things like invasive species — if you have things that migrated from one place into another in the past, then potentially you have the ability to look at what impact a new species might have on an ecosystem in the future.”

Over the years, there have been several remarkable crocodile fossils found in the Panama area, including the oldest records of Central American caimans, which are cousins of alligators. This time, the species (Culebrasuchus mesoamericanus) is more primitive, and it may very well represent a transition between caimans and alligators, Hastings said:

“You mix an alligator and one of the more primitive caimans and you end up with this caiman that has a much flatter snout, making it more like an alligator,” Hastings said. “Before this, there were no fossil crocodilian skulls known from Central America.”

But if anything, these findings show us just how little we really know about the crocodiles. Christopher Brochu, an assistant professor of vertebrate paleontology in the department of geoscience at the University of Iowa, said “the caiman fossil record is tantalizing”:

“The fossils that are in this paper are from a later time period, but some of them appear to be earlier-branching groups, which could be very important,” said Brochu, who was not involved with the study. “The problem is, because we know so little about early caiman history, it’s very difficult to tell where these later forms actually go on the family tree.”

As for the other mammal, Arretotherium meridionale has been previously discovered as related to hippos, and some have theoretized that it has a connection to whales. About as big as a cow, the mammal would have lived in a semi-aquatic environment in Central America:

“With the evolution of new terrestrial corridors like this peninsula connecting North America with Central America, this is one of the most amazing examples of the different kind of paths land animals can take,” Rincon said. “Somehow this anthracothere is similar to anthracotheres from other continents like northern Africa and northeastern Asia.”

Source