Fossilised Bee Provides Clue to Orchid Evolution
Scientists working at Harvard University have published evidence suggesting that Dinosaurs could well have enjoyed the sight and smell of orchid flowers. In a report printed in the journal – Nature, the university team led by Dr Santiago Ramirez have estimated that the orchid family may have first evolved in the late Cretaceous.
An analysis of DNA extracted from pollen found on the back of a fossilised bee (preserved in amber) indicates that orchids could have been well established at the time of the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 mya. The amber that contains the beautifully preserved bee fossil was found in the Dominican Republic in 2000. The fossil itself dates back 15-20 million years (Miocene Epoch) and captures a moment in time when a sting less worker bee, got stuck in some pine tree sap having just visited an orchid flower, picking up some of the orchid's pollen on its back.
The Fossilised Bee Preserved in Amber
Picture courtesy of Discovery Channel (Dr Santiago Ramirez)
The picture above clearly shows the pollen grains preserved on the back of the worker bee. The bee has been identified as a Proplebeia dominicara an extinct species but a close relative to modern bees. The distinctive orchid pollen has been classified to belonging to Meliorchis caribea. Using the DNA extract scientists have been able to calculate the age of the orchid family with greater accuracy, placing the origin of the orchid at between 84 mya to 76 mya (Campanian stage of the late Cretaceous).
Previously, claims as to the age of the orchid family, a plant family that makes up about 8% of all flowering species on the planet, varied widely. Some scientists estimated that they first appeared 112 mya, whilst others claimed that they were much more recent appearing around 26 mya.
Dr Ramirez stated that this wonderfully detailed micro-fossil has provided a fresh insight into the evolution of this diverse group of flowering plants. Many scientists had suspected that orchids were a group of very ancient flowering plants, citing their complex relationships with social insects as evidence of their age. Indeed, the fact that orchids are found all over the world suggest that they first evolved when the continents were joined together in larger land masses such as Laurasia. Orchid pollen is too heavy to be spread by the wind and relies on insect transfer and pollination, therefore it makes sense to suggest that these flowers first appeared when continents like America and Europe were much closer together.
Fossils of orchids are extremely rare, soft plant material is rarely preserved as it is soon broken down and decomposed, the pollen however, is much more robust and much knowledge has been gained by teams of scientists as they assess pollen micro-fossils at palaeontological sites.
It has been reported that orchids become very successful and diversified as a group during the Palaeocene epoch (65mya to 55 mya), the period immediately after the Cretaceous extinction. Just after the K/T boundary (this marks the end of the Mesozoic and heralds the start of the Cenozoic era), 80% of all the pollen micro-fossils are of fern spores. Ferns are often the first plants to re-establish themselves after a natural disaster, this can be seen today as ferns are usually the first plants to re-colonise an area that had been subjected to a volcanic explosion. The large proportion of fern spores in the micro-fossil record has been termed the “fern spike”, but as the world recovered from the mass extinction and the climate became hot and humid, orchid species quickly diversified taking advantage of the favourable climate and the lack of large herbivores.
Perhaps the diversity of orchid species today is a legacy of the mass extinction event 65 million years ago and it is intriguing to think that a dinosaur with its excellent colour vision may have marvelled at an orchid flower just as we do today.
Stegosaurus gets a New Look
To celebrate 130 years since the naming and scientific description of Stegosaurus, Schleich of Germany have introduced a new model of this famous dinosaur. The new 1:40 scale model of Stegosaurus (based on a Stegosaurus stenops), incorporates the latest scientific thinking about this huge Jurassic herbivore. The animal is depicted with a more hunched back than previous models and this latest version depicts greater mobility in the shoulders, helping to give this animal a less corpulent look than earlier models.
The 1:40 Scale Model of Stegosaurus
Picture courtesy of Everything Dinosaur
The trend to place the biggest and broadest of the plates over the pelvic area is continued and the plates are given a red hue in recognition of theories about their use. On closer examination the fossil plates reveal that they were made of quite thin honey-combed bone full of blood vessels. This type of bone structure would have limited use in defence and the plates seem to be placed too high up the back to protect a Stegosaur from attack. Could they have been used as a thermo regulator? Such large herbivores would have lived out on the fern plains and on the conifer scrub land, the ability to control body temperature may have been extremely useful as there would have been little shelter for such a large creature on the Jurassic flat lands. A quick blast of heat from the early morning sun could have warmed up Stegosaurus enough to give it the edge over any early morning marauding Allosaurs, and in the heat of the day turning into the any breeze passing between the rows of plates would have cooled Stegosaurus, just like African elephant's ears.
The plates may also have been used as a display board. Rivals could be intimidated, or predators put off by the Stegosaur flushing blood into its plates to turn them bright red in an aggressive display. A 25 foot Stegosaurus stenops stomping around flashing its blood-red plates and swishing its tail would probably have deterred all but the most determined carnivores.
To see the model of Stegosaurus: Dinosaur Toys for Boys and Girls – Dinosaur Models
Stegosaurus stenops means (narrow faced roof lizard), Marsh, the American palaeontologist who named and described this animal wanted to emphasis the narrow, almost delicate jaws of this species. The model seems to have captured this feature very well. There are over 50 specimens of this Stegosaur known, the majority of these having been recovered from the famous Morrison Formation exposures that cover much of the remoter parts of Utah and Colorado. In recognition of the amount of Stegosaur material recovered from this area, Stegosaurus stenops was made the state fossil of Colorado. The decree was passed by Colorado state in 1982 and Stegosaurus is celebrating its silver jubilee this year.
Ironically, S. stenops is not the biggest Stegosaur known, that honour goes to another Stegosaur from the Morrison formation – Stegosaur armatus. This animal was believed to have grown to exceed 30 feet in length and like stenops was armed with four tail spikes but its back plates were not as broad.
Is Tarbosaurus actually a Tyrannosaurus rex in Disguise
We get many e-mails and letters from dinosaur enthusiasts all over the world asking us lots of questions about prehistoric animals. It is hard work but we do try to respond to them all and provide what information we can.
An example of this was when we received a phone call asking about Tarbosaurus, could we provide a little more information on this animal.
Tarbosaurus or to give this animal its full name Tarbosaurus bataar (means Alarming reptile) is a member of the Tyrannosauroidea family. Fossils of this large meat-eater were first unearthed in 1948 by a Russian led expedition to Mongolia, however, it was another 7 years before Tarbosaurus was officially named and described. So Tarbosaurus bataar (alarming reptile from Bataar) was named and described in 1955. It was a Russian palaeontologist – Evgeny Maleev, who was at the fore-front of Russian theropod studies who was given the honour of naming Tarbosaurus and publishing a scientific paper on it.
At the time the west led by the USA and the Soviet Union were in the middle of the “cold war”. NATO had been formed in 1948 to counter the Soviet threat and in response 1955 saw the formation of Soviet led military alliance, the Warsaw Pact. Tensions were running high between the two ideologies, relations were distinctly cold and often hostile between these two superpowers. Unfortunately, dinosaurs may have become pawns used by both sides in their political manoeuvring. Tyrannosaurus rex was the most famous dinosaur of all and reputed to be the biggest meat-eater known at the time. T. rex heralded from the Western USA (although we now know it lived in Canada as well). The Russians were delighted when they too had discovered a huge meat-eater, just about as big and as fierce as T. rex. The state sponsored Palaeontological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow had their own star attraction – a huge meat-eating dinosaur, just like Tyrannosaurus rex!
In the 1950s a number of fossils of Tarbosaurus were found, again in Mongolia but discoveries were also made at sites in Western and Southern China. It seemed that Tarbosaurus was quite widely distributed, dominating the late Cretaceous of Asia as the region’s top predator.
Today, scientists are divided as to whether Tarbosaurus is a genus in is own right or whether it should be classified as a Tyrannosaurus. Close study of the fossils show that it was very closely related to Tyrannosaurus rex, so closely related that it may, indeed be a sub-species of T. rex. The name Tyrannosaurus bataar has been proposed, and indeed some textbooks have started to use this name, dropping Tarbosaurus.
Analysis of the skulls show that there are subtle differences, enough to warrant giving Tarbosaurus a separate genus, but more finds may prove conclusive in this debate.
The argument as to whether Tarbosaurus is actually a Tyrannosaurus rex is confused further by studies of the first fossils of Tarbosaurus. It seems that some of the earliest finds were of a juvenile and at the time the Russian scientists thought they had actually discovered two meat-eating dinosaurs.
For sure, it seems that Tarbosaurus was anatomically very similar to T. rex. It was certainly a very impressive looking animal, reaching lengths of up to 40 feet and weighing perhaps as much as 5 Tonnes. It lived during the Maastrichtian stage (70 mya to 65 mya), of the Cretaceous, at the very end of the age of Dinosaurs, although it may have been around for about 2 million years before the US Tyrannosaurus rex showed up.
As fossils have been found at a number of sites in Asia, we know that it was very widely distributed living in forested regions as well as semi-arid and desert areas. Recent comparative studies between Tarbosaurus and T. rex have led scientists to believe that there may have been other subtle differences between these huge carnivores. The biggest Tarbosaurus so far discovered seems to be slightly smaller than the biggest T. rex, it also seems slightly lighter built. This could be because it had evolved into a more nimble hunter than T. rex to catch the different prey animals that lived with it in Asia (mostly duck-bills). The difference in skeletal size could also reflect the fact that Tarbosaurus lived in a harsher environment, or perhaps its just because nobody has yet found a really big Tarbosaurus fossil!
Some scientists have also speculated that the arms of Tarbosaurus were proportionately smaller than T .rex’s; the debate looks set to continue. Surprisingly, despite the changes made to T. rex displays around the world as palaeontologists re-design them to show the animal with its tail off the ground, the Tarbosaurus display at the Palaeontological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, which depicts an adult Tarbosaurus and a juvenile has yet to be updated. The display, in what may be the biggest palaeontological collection in the world, still shows these animals with their tails firmly on the ground.
The Tyrannosaurus family tree is still very unclear. Recent discoveries in Portugal indicate that the Tyrannosaurs evolved in Europe during the late Jurassic and it took them millions of years before they moved to the top of the food chain.
A new poster has just come up which depicts a number of members of the Tyrannosaur family and attempts to put them into a family tree.
Tyrannosaur Evolution Family Tree
Picture courtesy of Everything Dinosaur
To view the Tyrannosaur Evolution Poster:
Dinosaur Posters: dinosaur posters and books
70 Million Year Old Dinosaur saves US Agriculture
Many farmers and growers in Europe and the USA are facing tough times as changes to agricultural support payments and reduced subsidies take effect. During the 1970s and 1980s farmers received extensive support from Governments, they were encouraged to become more efficient and to increase production. Now things have changed and the emphasis is on world prices for agricultural commodities and payments to support environmental initiatives.
Farmers have seen their incomes fall, and to help increase their revenues many have diversified, moving away from raising livestock and growing crops into all sorts of enterprises such as Bed & Breakfasts, maize mazes and other tourist attractions.
For the ranchers on the bad lands of Montana and South Dakota they have another potential source of revenue – Dinosaurs!
The enthusiasm for quality dinosaur fossils from museums and the numerous private collectors has led to an alarmingly increase in the prices paid for fossils. With their cattle peacefully grazing over what is the Hell Creek geological formation, some ranchers have taken to selling the dinosaur fossils they find on their lands or even opening up their farms to “Dinosaur Tourism”. Helped by the likes of “Paleo Pete” – Peter Larson and his team from the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research many ranchers have shed their reserve and welcomed visitors to view and purchase their finds. The Hell Creek formation dates from the very end of the Cretaceous period and has provided many prehistoric animal fossils. As well as fish, turtles and crocodilians the formation has also yielded many dinosaur specimens such as duck-bills, ankylosaurs and ceratopids.
The really big bucks can be earned if a Tyrannosaurus rex fossil is unearthed. However, with the big money can come big problems. Pete Larson knows all about the disputes over ownership and fossil rights that can arise. His team were responsible for the finding of the most complete and largest T. rex known to date. This fossil nicknamed “Sue” after Sue Hendrickson who first discovered it, was at the centre of a fierce dispute over ownership. The fossil was forcibly removed from the Black Hills Institute by the FBI as part of a legal dispute that lasted many years. “Sue” was eventually auctioned at Sotherby's in October 1997 for the sum of $8.36 million dollars.
With big prices being paid for the best finds, some of the ranchers are able to support their farming activities by selling fossils or by taking a percentage of the profits made on sales of specimens recovered from their land.
“Paleo Pete” Peter Larson with a T. rex Skull
Picture courtesy of David Noble/Greg Latza
Some ranchers have adopted a very unorthodox approach to making money from palaeontology. One of the team members at Everything Dinosaur recalls a story being about a rancher who was offering tourists the chance to work on the excavation of dinosaur at a dig site on his land. We don't know whether the story is true or apocryphal but parties of excited tourists would arrive at the site, work all day, carefully picking away at the matrix surrounding the specimen with brushes and small picks. Then in the evening the proprietor would cover up the fossil once more, in readiness for the next day's excavation.
It must be a funny way to earn a living, but when the land around you is only suitable for grazing livestock, yet underneath your feet there may be an extremely valuable dinosaur awaiting discovery…
Ancient Mammoth Remains found in the Sunshine State
Researchers in Florida are studying the remains of ancient mammoths found on a Seminole Indian reservation. Workers digging a canal found fossilised molars and work was stopped to permit a team of local archaeologists to excavate the area properly. Within a few days over 100 bones including more Mammoth fossils were uncovered.
To find such a congregation of fossils is extremely rare, particularly in a state like Florida with large areas of low-lying ground and marshland as many sites are affected by water movement.
Further research is required to identify all the species present at the site. The ancient mammoth remains may have come from a Columbian mammoth (M. columbi). An adult Columbian mammoth would have stood nearly 4 metres tall at the shoulder and could have weighed as much as 10 Tonnes.
Preliminary site surveys, have estimated the age of the fossils to be about 10,000 years old, dating these finds to the very end of the Pleistocene epoch. If tusks can be recovered analysis of their growth rings can provide scientists with valuable climate data and using a method of measurement pioneered by American scientists at Michigan University the age of these Mammoths when they died can also be determined.
Mammoths like modern elephants, continued to grow until about the age of 40, examination of the fossilised dentine layers within the fossilised tusks should provide data on how old these animals were when they died.
It is too early to tell whether this collection of fossilised animal remains is as a result of a natural phenomenon such as a flood or the work of the stone age people who lived in the area at the time. Perhaps this was a “butcher’s yard” were the carcasses of animals that had been hunted were cut up, as yet no tell-tale scratches or marks on the bone made by tools have been identified.
Mammoths may have been an important food source for many early peoples. Their lives could have revolved round the annual Mammoth migrations. European cave paintings show how important these animals were to our ancestors.
Ironically, the enigmatic Mammoth is still very popular today, it often features in Everything Dinosaur’s surveys of children’s popular prehistoric animals (actually it ranked ninth in our 2006/7 survey).
American scientists who have studied a number of bone beds of this nature have speculated that the Columbian Mammoth may have been hunted to extinction by early man. Analysis of other US finds show that these Mammoths reached maturity earlier and grew faster – indications of a animal population under pressure. It has been argued that if these Mammoths had gone extinct due to climate change, tusk analysis would show evidence of food shortages such as a slower growth rate and the age of maturity to increase.
Could over hunting led to the extinction of this mega fauna?
The team at Everything Dinosaur submitted suggestions about the type of animals that should be depicted in the new Ice Age Mammals box set. We suggested a Woolly Rhino and wanted to include a South American Terror Bird such as a Phorusrhacid as we wanted to depict some of the mega fauna around at the time. The Rhino model was made but the Terror Bird rejected, it proved too difficult to sculpt a two-legged model – a perennial problem when it comes to creating models of bipeds.
The Ice Age Mammal Box Set
Picture courtesy of Wild Republic and Everything Dinosaur
Prehistoric Mammals: Prehistoric Mammals Models and Toys
New Schleich Parasaurolophus
Schleich the German based model manufacturers have added three new dinosaurs to their Saurus range of 1:40 scale model prehistoric animals. The models are of a Stegosaurus, the duck-billed Parasaurolophus and a new Tyrannosaurus rex. Each model is hand-painted and based on research from palaeontologists.
New Parasaurolophus 1:40 scale Model from Schleich
Picture courtesy of Everything Dinosaur
Dinosaur Models: Dinosaur Models for Boys and Girls
We had the opportunity recently to put some questions about the new Saurus range models to the designers at Schleich, for example we wanted to know why Parasaurolophus had been given a spotted coat. A great deal of thought goes into the colours used by the artists, the black spots on a tan skin tone support a theory held by some palaeontologists about the lifestyle of this large herbivore.
The large backward pointing crest may have been used as part of an “ice-breaker” system for travelling through forests. In the dinosaur’s backbone there is an unusual feature, a notch just between the shoulders. This notch was placed just where the tip of the crest would have rested. Scientists have put forward the hypothesis that Parasaurolophus may have used the crest to push its way through woodland and undergrowth. Anchored into the notch, the crest would have acted like a plough or an ice-breaker on the bow of ship, parting the leaves and branches making it easier for this dinosaur to move.
It is certainly, an interesting theory, compared to the hadrosaur,Corythosaurus, fewer Parasaurolophus fossils have been found indicating that Corythosaurus may have lived near water (where there is a greater likelihood of fossilisation occurring), whereas, Parasaurolophus may have preferred a forest habitat.
If Parasaurolophus spent most of its time in woodland, then a spotted coat would help break up it’s outline and would provide effective camouflage, just as a Leopard’s spots would do. This big spotted animal would be difficult to see in dense forests and if they travelled in a group the spotted pattern would make it difficult for predators to single out individuals.
The previous Schleich Saurus model of Parasaurolophus showed the animal rearing up onto its hind legs. We know that duck-billed dinosaurs such as Parasaurolophus were capable of walking on two legs. They may have adopted this stance to reach higher branches so they could feed or to escape quickly from predators such as Daspletosaurus, Gorgosaurus or Albertaceratops. Close analysis of the bones in the shoulder area (scapula and coracoid) so large scars where big muscles were attached. Parasaurolophus had strong muscular front legs so it has been speculated that this animals spent most of its time as a quadruped – hence the new model from Schleich depicts it in this pose.
Cretaceous Crocodile unearthed in Dorset
The beautifully preserved skull of an ancient crocodile discovered on the Dorset coast has just gone on display at the Swanage Museum and Heritage Centre. The 58cm skull is of a Goniopholis, a broad snouted semi-aquatic crocodilian the lived in the early Cretaceous, sharing the riverbanks with herds of Iguanodon.
The skull was found in April by Richard Edmonds, the Earth Science Manager for the Jurassic Coast World Heritage site, whilst inspecting a cliff fall at Swanage on the Dorset shoreline. The post cranial elements were lying in the rubble with the rest of the skull retained with the cliff. Working with local fossil hunters the skull was carefully removed, cleaned and will be on display for a few weeks at the local museum. Scientists from Bristol University and the London museum of Natural History will then take the specimen away for further study, to see if this find represents a new species of ancient crocodile.
The Goniopholis Skull
Picture courtesy of 24hourmuseum.org.uk
A number of species of Goniopholis are known from late Jurassic and early Cretaceous sediments. These animals are classified in the mesoeucrocodylia family, these ancient crocodiles ranged in size from 2-4 metres in length and are believed to be the direct ancestors of extant crocodilians. The skull could have belonged to a G. crassidens. Goniopholis crassidens was the first of this genus to be named and described. It was Richard Owen who was given the task of classifying this animal, he completed this paper in 1841. At around this time, Richard was beginning to comprehend that the huge extinct reptiles – Megalosaurus, Iguanodon and Hylaeosaurus were so different from the crocodiles, pterosaurs and marine reptiles that they deserved to be put into their own distinct order. Richard Owen (along with many of his contemporaries) was beginning to recognise that these extinct animals needed their own order, the thought process that led to the naming of the Dinosaurs had begun!
Click here to read about the rivalry between scientists at the time the word Dinosauria was first used: What’s in a name – the Classification of Dinosauria
Why is the Silurian called the Silurian?
Recently we took a small party to some locations we know in the county of Shropshire where you can find fossils of brachipods, bivalves, coral and such like. Shropshire's geology is strongly associated with the Silurian period (it lasted from approximately 435mya to 410 mya), indeed two of the epochs within the Silurian are named from places in the county – the Ludlow and Wenlockian epochs. However, geologists in North America have different terms for rocks of this age from the Silurian (the Lockportian and the Tonawandan).
The Silurian marks a period of sea level rises (called marine transgressions), much of the county was covered in warm, shallow seas, during this time and marine life flourished. The beginning of the Silurian (Silurian/Ordovician boundary) is marked by a major extinction event but by the time the rocks that form Wenlock Edge were laid down life was once again flourishing with jawed fish such as the placoderms and acanthodians beginning to diversify. The arthropods continued to dominate and were the top predators during this period. The first corals were forming in these shallow seas, made by the now extinct rugose and tabulate corals.
Whilst on our fossil hunting trip we were asked how the Silurian got its name. The Silurian was named by Sir Roderick Murchison, the wealthy Scottish aristocrat. Sir Roderick had thought in the wars against Napoleon but when these ended he turned his attention to the embryonic science of geology. Encouraged by friends such as the Reverend William Buckland (the very same William Buckland who named and described the very first dinosaur – Megalosaurus); he explored the fossil-bearing strata of south Wales and Shropshire. Being independently wealthy Sir Roderick was able to mount expeditions to explore the geology of Europe and his connections soon saw him elected to the London Geological Society.
Sir Roderick named the rock strata that made up the chronological succession of fossils the Silurian after an ancient Welsh Celtic tribe called the Silures. At the time, his friend and colleague Adam Sedgwick (Professor of Geology at Cambridge University) had just named the much earlier rock strata where the first great abundance of fossils had been found – the Cambrian, after another ancient Welsh tribe.
Silurian strata shows the first signs of the colonisation of the land with the establishment of primitive vascular plants such as Cooksonia. During this time the first arthropods ventured onto land.