Stone Age Scousers – The Stone Age People of Liverpool

Archaeologists working on M62 Improvement Scheme find evidence of Stone Age Settlements

2008 may be the year that the city of Liverpool in north-west England celebrates its status as a “Capital of Culture” but it seems that parts of Merseyside had a thriving culture 7,000 years ago.

Archaeologists working on the Highways Agency’s M62 Junction 6 improvement scheme have uncovered 7,000-year-old evidence of Stone Age settlements at Huyton on Merseyside – the earliest signs of human activity ever discovered in the area
The finds were made by a team carrying out archaeological excavations on behalf of the Highways Agency as part of preparation for the scheme.  Flints and burnt hazelnuts are just some of the evidence pointing to hunter-gatherer prehistoric tribes living in the area.
The area would have been an ideal location for hunter-gatherer tribes during the latter part of the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) and the early part of the Neolithic (New Stone Age).  The low lying marshy ground would have been a haven for wildlife and the highly tidal Mersey estuary would have provided lots of opportunity for hunting and beach-combing.Recognising the public interest in the finds, which also include some Roman pottery and other artifacts, the Highways Agency is holding a number of open days in early February.  These open days will enable members of the public to view the plans for the development of this part of the M62 motorway and to examine some of the rare objects discovered during the course of the excavations.

Alongside the archaeological finds will be an exhibition featuring photos and general information about the construction scheme; details of the measures being taken to reduce the impact on the environment; information about the traffic management arrangements during the work; and a computer simulated drive through.Speaking on behalf of the Highways Agency, Project Manager Gary Hilton, said, “the Highways Agency takes its responsibility for our heritage very seriously and we are delighted to have found this window into the past. Lots of people are very excited by what has been discovered here.

“We are obviously keen to show off these discoveries and this is why we have decided to hold the open days.  We will be turning this important construction site into a museum for the day, before the artifacts are handed over to the experts who will be able to preserve them for future generations.

“The event will also give us the opportunity to pass on information about the construction scheme and the future benefits of the new junction once this work is complete.”

The team working on the excavations around the new link road have also discovered Roman pottery and tiles that are stamped to show they were made for the 20th Roman Legion based in the nearby Roman fort of Chester around 167 AD.

It was already known that the site had some archaeological importance. Excavations in 1993 ahead of the construction of the adjacent A5300 uncovered part of a Roman farm. Other finds hinted at prehistoric activity in the area – now that has been confirmed.

Korea Bids to get Cretaceous Coast listed as UNESCO World Heritage Site

Cretaceous Coastline Submitted to UNESCO for World Heritage Status

It is not just the Chinese who have been finding dinosaur fossils over the last few years in Asia, the South Koreans have been getting in on the act to.  Such is the diversity and richness of the South Korean fossil sites that the country’s Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA) has nominated part of the Korean coastline with extensive fossil bearing sediments from the Cretaceous for World Heritage Status.

Gaining World Heritage Status is a huge undertaking, it would rank this part of Korea alongside places like the Great Barrier Reef, the Grand Canyon and the Galapagos Islands.  Team members from Everything Dinosaur remember all the hard work that went into helping the Dorset and East Devon coasts to be awarded World Heritage Status.  The award was finally granted in December 2001 and the UK’s “Jurassic Coast” came into being, a world-wide recognised important scientific and conservation area.

CHA administrators report that the application for the nomination of this particular site (and one other within Korea), have taken place.  The review process is very lengthy with a decision by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee taking perhaps as long as two years.

The Korean Cretaceous Dinosaur Coast features numerous locations of fossilised dinosaur eggs, individual footprints and trackways throughout the southern coast of Korea. This area is considered the world’s largest grounds of various fossilised eggs and footprints of dinosaurs from the Cretaceous period.  It is likely the area will yield even more discoveries as much of the region’s geology has yet to be fully studied and explored.

Fossil sites are found in the provinces of  South Jeolla and South Gyeongsang.  These sites have yielded a large number of dinosaur fossil bones, eggs and trace fossils such as trackways.

Dinosaur Trackways – Typical of the Trackways to be found in the Nominated Area

Picture Credit: Korean Times

If you look carefully at the picture you can judge the scale of the tracks by observing the two scientists in the picture,one is sitting on the far left, the second is looking back over the tracks and is sitting towards the right of the picture.

UNESCO seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world, considered to be of outstanding and universal value to humanity.  Although the criteria for inclusion were revised in 2004, it is still an extremely difficult status to obtain.

We wish the Korean team every success with their efforts.  Perhaps the Korean palaeontologists will one day upstage the US and Chinese with their fossil finds.

Korean palaeontologists have already made a huge contribution to helping scientists understand more about animals from the Mesozoic.  Their work has led to the renaming of perhaps one of the largest dinosaurs ever to roam the Earth.  Partial remains of a huge Sauropod (long-necked dinosaur) were discovered in Colorado in 1979.  Estimates made at the time from the very incomplete specimens indicated a Brachiosaur-like animal with a length exceeding 30 metres.  The animal was named Ultrasaurus as a result of its huge size.  However, this dinosaur had to be renamed when it was pointed out to the Americans that the name Ultrasaurus had already been used by Korean scientists for a Sauropod (a much smaller one, only about 8 metres long), that had been discovered in Korea some years before.

The giant dinosaur remains from Colorado were named Ultrasauros to ensure that there would be no further confusion.

The name Ultrasauros is still classified as a “nomen dubium”.  This is the term used by palaeontologists to describe the name of an animal that has yet to be validated and proven to be a separate genus.  Scientists still debate whether Ultrasauros was a valid genus or just an exceptionally large Brachiosaur.  Until more remains are unearthed in Colorado the debate is likely to rumble on.

The Claws of Smilodon – Sabre-Tooth Tree Climbers

Smilodon Claw Anatomy – Sabre-Tooths Great at Climbing but Rubbish at Descending

The Sabre-Tooth cats more appropriately termed Smilodons are one of the most enigmatic of prehistoric mammals from the Quaternary.  Thanks to the remarkable fossil sites such as tar pits of Rancho La Brea, Los Angeles, California, a large volume of Sabre-Tooth fossil remains have been excavated.  Most of the Sabre-Tooth cat fossils have been identified as belonging to S. fatalis californicus, but it is not just the volume of fossils that is important, many specimens have been preserved in pristine condition.

The tar pits have formed as crude oil has seeps through fissures in the rock strata to the surface.  Water gathers on these pools of sticky, viscous oil and animals mistaken these pits for water holes get stuck.  These attract predators such as Dire Wolves and Sabre-Tooths and these animals share the same fate as the herbivores.

Some of the Everything Dinosaur team members were in Los Angeles and got the chance to examine some of the latest fossil finds.  The pits are trapping animals all the time, sometime earlier that morning a small bird had become stuck and died, the latest victim of La Brea.

More Sabre-Tooth remains have been found at Rancho La Brea than the rest of the world put together which is quite remarkable considering the extensive range of the Smilodon genera across the Old and New Worlds.  Once an animal had become trapped in the tar, it would have quickly sunk, so quickly that skeletons can be preserved with their bones in close association or even articulation.  Rapid burial without scavenging is one of the most effective methods of ensuring preservation.  Even pieces of skin and tufts of fur have been preserved in the tar.  The tar is a natural preservative preventing normal decay.  So well-preserved are the Smilodon remains that even the most delicate and fragile bones such as those within the inner ear are preserved, often intact.

To date something like sixty different species of mammals and thirty-five species of birds have been identified, even human remains have been found.  The fossils date from between 40,000 years to about 10,000 years ago.

Thanks to these fantastic fossils and the dedicated staff who uncover them a great deal is known about Smilodon anatomy.  The Sabre-Tooths that roamed California 10,000 years ago did not resemble modern members of the cat family (Felidae).   These animals were about the size of an African Lion (Panthero leo) but with a much stockier build.  They may have weighed up to twice as much as a modern Lion.  They had shorter limbs, a deep, barrel like chest and a bob-tail.  The forelimbs were massive and heavily muscled, much stronger than the hind-limbs.  This indicates that Sabre-Tooths were ambush predators, they were not built for pursuit of prey animals but used their extremely powerful front quarters to bring down quarry.

The fossil specimens demonstrate that these big cats had retractable claws, in common with most members of the cat family including the domestic cat (Felis silvestris catus).  The Sabre-Tooth claws were long and re-curved in shape making them the animals most formidable weapons, ideal for spearing the body of prey and holding on enabling the victim to be pulled down to the ground, for despatching with those massive canines, which would have severed arteries in the neck.  Smilodon like a domestic cat could also dig its claws into the skin further by closing the extended claws, much in the same way as we might close our fingers around an object when we pick it up.  This would dig the points of the claws further into the animal’s hide and make escape much more difficult.

Sabre-Tooth cats were fierce predators and likely to have hunted our ancestors, however, children remain fascinated with them and the Sabre-Tooth cat appears regularly in our top ten prehistoric animal surveys.

To see the latest survey results: Best Selling Prehistoric Animals 2007/8

Despite its fearsome reputation, young children seem to be fascinated with this big cat.  It has had a recent episode of Primeval dedicated to it and it has appeared in a number of cartoons and other features, Fred and Wilma Flintstone even had one as pet.  When the wooden prehistoric animal jigsaw range was being designed as well as the Woolly Mammoth and Woolly Rhino, a Sabre-Tooth cat jigsaw had to be included as well.

The Wooden Sabre-Tooth Cat jigsaw: Dino Board Games and Puzzles

Although as a genus, the Sabre-Tooths are not entirely associated with the Ice Ages, these animals also thrived in temperate grassland areas.  For example, Smilodon populator is known from several sites in Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia and some fossil remains have been dated to over 1.5 million years ago.  This particular species, even larger than its North American cousin hunted the grasslands of South America preying on herbivores such as Macrauchenia.  Macrauchenia was a distant relative of modern ungulates (hoofed animals), with a distinctive trunk on the end of its nose to help it browse on grasses and low growing bushes.

To see a model of Macrauchenia and other prehistoric animals: Dinosaur Toys for Boys and Girls – Dinosaur Models

This ability to close the claws and dig the points further in may also have helped smaller Sabre-Tooths climb.  It is unlikely that a fully grown, heavy adult would do much climbing but there is no evidence in the fossil record to confirm or deny that Sabre-Tooths climbed.

Certainly, the anatomy of the claws and manus (the hand) permit Sabre-Tooths to climb objects like trees should they have wished to do so.  Domestic cats are very effective climbers and can scurry up trees with no problem at all.  However, this arrangement of the claws being able to “grasp” is excellent during the ascent and provides plenty of purchase, leverage and grip.  The trouble comes when the cat wishes to descend.  Claws when deployed in the descent of a tree provide very little grip.  This explains why your local moggy can run up a tree one minute and then get stuck having to be rescued as they cannot get down without risk of falling.

The anatomy of the claws of Sabre-Tooths also shows that they suffered from this design drawback.  Should one have climbed a tree, perhaps looking for prey or to avoid being attacked by another predator, then they would have struggled to get down again.  Perhaps they would jump, landing on their powerful front quarters using them to cushion the shock on landing.  For a small Sabre-Tooth climbing up a tree getting down again could be hazardous, after all, in the Pleistocene they could not wait for the fire brigade to rescue them.

Aussie Palaeontologist’s Struggle to Keep up with Fossil Finds

Dinosaur Enthusiasts are Finding more Dig Sites than Museums can Handle

Those Australian dinosaur buffs are difficult to keep out of the headlines.  No sooner do we dedicate January 26th (Australia Day) to celebrating the contribution made to palaeontology by Australian scientist and their dinosaurs from down under then the Australian Associated Press releases a news story about more finds in Queensland.

Dinosaur enthusiasts in the western Queensland town of Winton claim to have found enough potential dinosaur dig sites to keep them and the local museum staff busy until at least 2058.

Cattle farmer, turned dinosaur fan David Elliott says there are thirty sites waiting to be excavated in the local area.  Winton is rapidly becoming a hot spot for dinosaur finds in Eastern Australia.  A number of important finds have already been documented and excavated from sites such as the nearby Lark Quarry (famous for its trace fossils of dinosaur footprints – the only record of a dinosaur stampede).

We have commented on the importance of the area before, a number of fossil bones have been found, many in association with each other.  These represent important clues in helping palaeontologists understand the fauna and flora of this part of Gondwanaland.

To read more about the work going on at Winton: Putting Aussie Dinosaurs on the Map

David Elliott commented; “we are finding sites at the moment at the rate of two to three a year and we are digging sites at the moment at the rate of one every two to three years”.

“So there’s the difference, we are finding faster than we can dig it and we are digging them much much faster than we can display and study them.”

Mr Elliott’s fascination with prehistoric creatures has grown exponentially since he discovered the first fossilised bones on his property Belmont in 1995.

He has since located 16 dinosaur sites on Belmont alone and is working with the Queensland Museum to prepare the bones of two Sauropods excavated on the property in the past few years.

The dinosaurs, nicknamed Wade and Matilda, are unique specimens representing new genera, previously unknown to science.

Work is underway to raise about AUS $20 million needed to establish the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum of Natural History just outside Winton, north-west of Longreach.

Queensland Premier Anna Bligh visited Winton on Friday, inspecting fossils housed on Mr Elliott’s property before contributing AUS $500,000 of government funds towards the museum.

Mr Elliott hopes the museum will aid excavation work and fossil preparations in order to educate more Australians and tourists to the area about the continent’s natural history.

He also wants to see the fossils remain in the outback, injecting new life into the region through tourism.

“Dinosaur bones out here are going to actually do something good for western Queensland, because it’s really a necessity out here to keep the country viable, to keep the town viable,” he said.

“It is the tip of the iceberg and that’s all it is at the moment. It’s going to become quite massive.”

So hats off to those Australians, their dinosaur fauna may be less well known when compared to the western USA or Europe for example but they do seem to be catching up fast.

Geologists Get to the Bottom of the Chicxulub Impact Crater

Chicxulub Crater gets Seen in a Whole New Light

A big rock splashing down into water deeper than first thought may be the simple explanation as to why something like 70% of all life on Earth perished at the end of the Mesozoic.  This is the conclusion of a team of researchers from the University of Texas who have carried out the most detailed study yet of the impact site using three-dimensional seismic images of the Chicxulub crater.

The Chicxulub crater is a mostly submerged and buried impact crater on the coast of Mexico.  This new study, led by Sean Gulick (research scientist at the Institute for Geophysics at the University of Texas Jackson School of Geosciences), may modify a theory explaining the extinction of the dinosaurs, pterosaurs, marine reptiles and nearly three-quarters of life at the end of the Cretaceous 65 million years ago.

The End of the Dinosaurs? – The Moment of Impact

Picture Credit: Astro-Virginia.edu

It was the American father and son team of Luis and Walter Alvarez who first put forward the theory of an extraterrestrial impact being the cause of the  mass extinction event 65 million years ago.  Their study of the worldwide layer of clay rich in the rare Earth element iridium, which was present in rocks dating from the K-T boundary (the geological time border between the end of the Cretaceous and the beginning of the Palaeocene) led them to conclude that an asteroid or meteorite impact must have occurred.  The discovery of the Chicxulub crater, on the coast of the Yucatan peninsula, Mexico, a huge impact crater dated to this period in Earth’s history provided the “smoking gun” evidence to add weight to their theory.

Debate still continues amongst scientists as to the actual cause of this mass extinction event.  The Earth was going through an extensive period of geological activity and the asteroid impact may have been just one factor in the extinction of the dinosaurs.  The huge amounts of volcanic activity in India, in an area known as the Deccan Traps  may also have played a significant role.

To read more about the Deccan Traps: Asteroid Impact Theory Challenged – Blame the Deccan Traps

Other contributing factors to the demise of large land animals at this time in Earth’s history have also been put forward.  A book recently co-authored by George Poiner blames the emergence and increasing presence of biting and blood sucking mites and insects on the demise of the dinosaurs.

Article: New Book Claims Biting Insects and Bugs helped in Dinosaur Demise

Now a new study into the Chicxulub impact crater indicates that the object from outer space may have landed in deeper water than previously thought, releasing 6.5 times more water vapour into the atmosphere and exacerbating the impact.  This coupled with the fact that the rocks in the area contain sulphur-rich sediments would have made the collision even more dangerous to life on Earth.

According to Gulick and his team, the impact would have caused the sulphur-rich deposits to react with the water vapour to produce sulphate aerosols which would have been thrown high into the atmosphere.  An increase in the atmospheric concentration of these high in sulphur compounds could have made the impact more deadly in two ways:

1). Altering the Climate

Particles high in sulphur could have prevented solar radiation from getting through the “thickened” atmosphere and this would have led to a cooling effect – perhaps contributing to a nuclear winter.

2). Acid Rain

Increased levels of water vapour once cooled at altitude would then fall back to Earth, the high sulphur content of the atmosphere would have formed dilute sulphuric acid and the Earth would have been subjected to extensive acid rain.

Earlier studies into the geology of the Yucatan peninsula had indicated that the sulphur contained in the rocks could have contributed to the scale of the natural disaster.  When the higher volume of water is factored into models predicting the environmental consequences, the effects of atmosphere cooling and acid rain are magnified.

“The greater amount of water vapour and consequent potential increase in sulfate aerosols needs to be taken into account for models of extinction mechanisms,” stated Gulick.

An increase in acid rain might help explain why reef and surface dwelling ocean creatures were affected along with large vertebrates on land and in the sea. As it fell on the water, acid rain could have turned the oceans more acidic. There is some evidence that marine organisms more resistant to a range of pH survived while those more sensitive did not.  Increased amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere today is being blamed on the acidification of the oceans.  If this process continues unchecked it could spell disaster for marine plankton and corals, which in turn would severely disrupt food chains and ecosystems.  Could the increase in acidity due to the higher levels of acid rain have led to the demise of the ammonites and other shelled creatures?

Gulick says the mass extinction event was probably not caused by just one mechanism, but rather a combination of environmental changes acting on different time scales, in different locations. For example, many large land animals might have been baked to death within hours or days of the impact as ejected material fell from the sky, heating the atmosphere and setting off firestorms. There is evidence to suggest that much of the planet’s vegetation was burnt at this time, again adding more green house gases into the atmosphere and exacerbating changes in the environment and climate.  More gradual changes in climate and acidity might have had a larger impact in the oceans.

Gulick and his collaborators originally set out to learn more about the trajectory of the asteroid. They had hoped the crater’s structure in the subsurface would hold a tell-tale signature. Instead, the structure seemed to be most strongly shaped by the pre-impact conditions of the target site.

“We discovered that the shallow structure of the crater was determined much more by what the impact site was like before impact than by the trajectory of the impactor,” says Gulick.

If scientists can determine the trajectory, it will tell them where to look for the biggest environmental consequences of impact, because most of the hazardous, shock-heated and fast-moving material would have been thrown out of the crater downrange from the impact.

A 3-D Image of the Chicxulub Crater

“Big Bang”

Picture Credit: Map from Nature Geoscience / illustration courtesy of NASA

Researchers at Imperial College in London are already using computer models to search for possible signatures in impact craters that could indicate trajectory regardless of the initial surface conditions at the impact site.

“As someone who simulates impact events using computers, this work provides valuable new constraints on both the pre-impact target structure and the final geometry of the cratered crust at Chicxulub,” says Gareth Collins, a research fellow at Imperial College.

The study “Importance of pre-impact crustal structure for the asymmetry of the Chicxulub impact crater” appears in the February 2008 print edition of the journal Nature Geoscience.

Collaborators on the project included Gail Christeson of the Institute for Geophysics, Penny Barton at the University of Cambridge, Joanna Morgan and Mike Warner at Imperial College, and several graduate students.

So it seems that the prehistoric animals around 65 million years ago were doubly unlucky.  Not only was planet Earth struck by a large object, but it was hit in the wrong place as well.

This article has been extracted from work of the University of Texas at Austin (2008, January 24). Seismic Images Show Dinosaur-killing Meteor Made Bigger Splash.

Happy Australia Day! A Tribute to Australian Dinosaurs

January 26th – Australia Day A Tribute to Australian Prehistoric Animals

Australia Day is celebrated on January 26th each year.  It is a public holiday throughout the country as Australians celebrate all that is great and good about their unique country.  Although, only adopted fairly recently as a national holiday, there has been a tradition of celebrating on January 26th right back to the earliest times of settlement by Europeans.

The date marks the first landing of the British convict ships in 1788 at Sydney Cove and the raising of the Union Jack flag over this part of the territory.

Australia has been the focus of extensive palaeontological interest in recent years as this huge continent is explored for fossils.  A number of dinosaurs are known from this part of the world, along with a number of other prehistoric animals including marine reptiles such as the Pliosaur Kronosaurus.  Kronosaurus was not a dinosaur but a short-necked Plesiosaur (termed Pliosaur).  This huge carnivore swam around a shallow sea (now Queensland) in the early Cretaceous.  Estimates as to the size of this animal vary but most scientists state the this animal was up to 10 metres long, with a head making up over 25% of the entire body length.

Despite the extensive fieldwork and on-going digs in various parts of the continent, Australian dinosaur fauna is little known when compared to the evidence amassed about dinosaurs in Europe, the Americas and Asia.  Many scientists see the Australian fauna as an unusual blend of ancient genera long extinct elsewhere in the world and other types of dinosaur more commonly associated with the northern hemisphere.

For example, evidence has been uncovered previously that indicated that Allosaurs (large bipedal meat-eaters) survived in Australia into the Cretaceous whilst elsewhere in the world this particular family of dinosaurs died out.  Fossils that could be from a member of the Allosauridae family have been found in Victoria and South Australia.

Allosaurus was relatively slow moving.  It has been estimated that Allosaurus was capable of running at 30 km/h for a short distance; however, the forested terrain of Cretaceous Australia would have given this animal plenty of ambush opportunities.  When Allosaurs lived in Australia, the continent was situated much nearer the South Pole, forming part of the super-continent Gondwanaland. There was no ice at the pole at this time but thick conifer and fern forests – like what you may see in a picture book of the New Zealand rain forest.  It was still chilly and scientists are still unsure whether these carnivores lived in Australia all year round or migrated there in the Summer following large herbivores like the Iguanodontid Muttaburrasaurus.

A Typical Illustration of an Allosaur

Allosaurus illustrated

Picture Credit Everything Dinosaur

Visit Everything Dinosaur: Everything Dinosaur Website

The Australian Allosaurus was smaller than its North America cousin, perhaps reaching lengths of 7 metres and weighing about 1 Tonne.  It has been named A. astragalus after a piece of fossilised ankle bone, the first piece of evidence that this predator lived in Australia.

Perhaps the most famous dinosaur fossil site in Australia is the Dinosaur Cove, a part of the Otway Ranges of western Victoria.  Here under the supervision of world renowned palaeontologists such as Dr, Tom Rich and his wife Dr. Pat Vickers-Rich a number of dinosaurs that would have lived in harsh, “polar” type environment with a seasonal period of darkness have been found – most famously the little Hypsilophodontids such as Leaellynausaura.

Happy Australia Day and keep digging!

Not a Sabre-Tooth Tiger – A Sabre-Tooth Cat Instead

A Confusing Name – The Sabre-Tooth Tiger

In episode three of Primeval (ITV1) being shown tomorrow (26th January) a Sabre-Tooth cat makes its debut on the show.  It is seen stalking the poor visitors to a UK theme park, but not to worry the brave team of evolutionary zoologists are on their way to rescue the situation.

Sabre-Tooths are perhaps one of the best known prehistoric mammals, they feature regularly in our annual surveys into people’s most popular prehistoric animals.  In fact, the Sabre-Tooth competes with the Woolly Mammoth for the most popular prehistoric mammal.  In the last survey, this big cat just pipped the Mammoth and was number six on our top ten list.

Latest survey results: Best selling Prehistoric Animals 2007/8

Often these animals are referred to as Sabre-Tooth Tigers, we do use this terminology in order to assist customers with queries and product searches but the name is confusing as Sabre-Tooths (genus name Smilodon), are not actually that closely related to Tigers.

The genus name – Smilodon means “knife tooth” in recognition of the large upper canines these animals possessed.  In a large Smilodon; such as Smilodon fatalis, the upper canines could be up to 18cm long. The jaws on Sabre-Tooth cats were specially adapted to open wide and could gape to 120° (an African lion can open its jaws to about 70°), this would have permitted Smilodon to close its jaws around the neck of its victim and puncture vital blood vessels to the brain and sever the windpipe leading to a quick kill. However, these teeth are quite delicate and could shatter if they bit down onto bone.

As well as having huge canines, many Sabre-Tooth cats had protruding incisors at the front of the mouth.  These seem to have been adapted for stripping meat off a carcase as the large Sabre-like teeth would have had limited use when feeding.

These animals spread over much of the world during the Pleistocene epoch, with the last of these magnificent predators dying out 10,000 years ago, perhaps as a result of the decline in large prey for them to hunt.

The size of a Sabre-Tooth cat depends on the individual species but estimates of a total body length of around 1.7 metres and a height at the shoulder of 1.2 metres have been given for Smilodon fatalis.  Palaeontologists still debate the weight of these animals, they were stocky and very strong with powerful front limbs and shoulders – needed when it came to taking down large prey. Estimates vary but most authorities suggest a weight of around 300 kilogrammes for a large, adult Smilodon.  In contrast, a fully grown, male African Lion (Panthera leo) might weigh between 180 to 240 kilogrammes.

To see a book on a Sabre-Tooth: Dinosaur Books for Kids

The popular name “Sabre-Tooth Tiger” is misleading.  Smilodon was not closely related to modern Tigers, although they were members of the cat family – Felidae.  The Sabre-Tooths belonged to a sub-family of the cats, called the Machairodonts which can be dated back to around 12 million years ago. None of us at Everything Dinosaur can recall when the term Sabre-Tooth Tiger came into use, but technically it is inaccurate to describe these extinct predators as “tigers”.

The famous Tar Pits of La Brea in Los Angeles have yielded some of the best preserved remains of Smilodon (mainly Smilodon californicus). Something like 162,000 Smilodon bones have been recovered, representing over 2,100 individuals.  So numerous are Smilodon fossils that this big cat has been named the official state fossil for California.  The tar pits form when crude oil seeps to the surface through fissures in the ground.  Water tends to accumulate on these sticky deposits and luckless animals get trapped when they visit these pits for a drink. Hungry predators like Sabre-Tooths or Dire Wolves would have then got caught themselves as they closed in on the hapless animal. Expecting an easy meal but ending up stuck themselves.

Most Sabre-Tooths are depicted with a speckled or tan hide.  They were not built for speed so they most likely ambushed prey. This colour scheme was incorporated into the Prehistoric Mammal soft toy depicting a Smilodon.

Sabre-Tooth Cat soft toy: Dinosaur Stuffed Animals

Little is known about the social life of these big cats.  It seems that unlike Lions the sexes were roughly the same size. This may have meant they had a different social order than Lions. From the injuries found on fossils it seems that they helped sick and wounded cats, hunting for them and providing food. It is likely they lived in family groups with a territory, but further research is required into this particular aspect of Smilodon’s behaviour.

Trying to Trace the Dinosaur Family Tree

Dinosaur Evolution Poster – Tracing the Dinosaur Family Tree – A Tricky Business

Trying to organise Dinosauria into clades or family groups has kept many palaeontologists burning the midnight oil.  Unfortunately, unlike extant animals; when it comes to organising the family tree of extinct animals such as dinosaurs, a new fossil find, or some new research into existing specimens can throw everything into confusion.

What were once accepted relationships are often questioned and new fossils provide tantalising glimpses into the true nature of the relationship between different types of dinosaur.

The two great groups of dinosaurs are the Saurischians (Lizard-hipped Dinosaurs) such as the Sauropods and the Theropods and the Ornithischians (Bird-hipped Dinosaurs) examples being the Ornithopods such as Iguanodon and the Ceratopsians such as Triceratops.

Much of the general classification was carried out in the late 19th Century and this can lead to further problems.  The Victorian scientists cannot be criticised for their enthusiasm and endeavour, they worked according to the principles and practices of the era and of course their technology was very limited.  Often dinosaurs were grouped together and described using comparative anatomical measures, which is fine in itself, but we now have a lot more specimens to study.  Even the names for the sub-orders can lead to false assumptions.  For example, the Ornithopods were so named as it was thought that the feet and footprints of these type of animals resembled birds.  In contrast, the word Theropod means “Beast Foot”.  However, the common consensus amongst scientists today is that it is some of the Theropods, specifically the Maniraptorans such as Microraptor and Velociraptor who are closely related to true birds (Aves).

As our knowledge builds up of the 160 million year long fossil legacy left by the dinosaurs; a group so diverse that at one extreme tiny dinosaurs such as Micropachycephalosaurus could perch in the palm of your hand whilst others such as Seismosaurus could exceed 50 metres in length, scientists are still trying to classify these animals.

With thousands of different genera (and new ones being discovered all the time), it is quite difficult to piece dinosaur evolution together.  You can get a good idea from one of our posters which attempts so show the inter-relationships between the main dinosaur family groups.  The poster illustrates the complexity of the dinosaur family tree, as well as the diversity and it is certainly impressive to see so many different animals featured on one poster.

Dinosaur Evolution – See the Dinosaur Family Tree

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

To view the poster and dinosaur books: Dinosaur Books for Kids

One interesting viewpoint put forward recently is to re-classify all dinosaurs using our understanding of their relationship to living creatures – the birds.  Two main groups of dinosaurs would emerge but not “Lizard-hipped or Bird-hipped” as before but “Non-avian” and “Avian Dinosaurs”.  If this classification was adopted it would make the dinosaur family tree look very different and the birds in your garden, penguins, pelicans, kiwis, in fact all birds would be basically classified as dinosaurs.

Duck-billed Platypus and Duck-billed Dinosaurs side by side in the Cretaceous

The Duck-Billed Platypus – The oldest type of Mammal on the Planet?

The Platypus is a bizarre looking Australian mammal, one of the few monotremes left in the world – a mammal that lays eggs.  When this strange looking creature, which can grow up to 50 centimetres long, was first studied by western scientists they thought the bill had been glued or sewn into place, few could believe that this animal was real and many dismissed drawings as total folly or an elaborate hoax.  However, this highly specialised freshwater mammal rather than being an oddity might just have remained unchanged for 120 million years.  This would make the humble Platypus one of the oldest kinds of mammal on the planet, with its origins now traced back to the middle of the Cretaceous.

A native of Australia, the Platypus uses its highly sensitive bill to find shrimps and worms underwater.  When a Platypus dives it effectively becomes blind and deaf, the bill replaces these senses by detecting prey, first by touch and then by tiny sensors that can detect the faint electrical charges given off by living organisms.  So effective is this device that an adult Platypus can eat up to half its own body weight in a single night.  It needs to, as it requires a high calorie intake to maintain its active life style.

Scientists have known for some time that as a monotreme it shares a number of characteristics with reptiles.  For example, the shoulder bones resemble those found in fossil Therapsid reptiles.  Platypus sperm is thread-like, similar to a reptiles rather than being tadpole shaped and of course the Platypus lays eggs, just like a reptile.

However, a fossilised jaw under the study of Dr Tom Rich and his partner Professor Pat Vickers-Rich has been identified as belonging to a member of the Platypus family and as the jaw dates from 120 million years ago, this puts the little Platypus right in amongst the dinosaurs of the Cretaceous period.

Swimming with Dinosaurs – the Plucky Platypus

Picture Credit: The Age.com (Australia)

The picture above shows an adult Platypus swimming, the inset shows the tiny fragment of jaw that links the origins of the Platypus to the age of dinosaurs (coin used for scale).

Palaeontologists Dr Tom Rich from Museum Victoria and Professor Pat Vickers-Rich from Monash University have been searching the southern coastline of Victoria for the remains of early mammals for more than two decades.

New analysis of three jaw fragments found ten years ago at Flat Rocks, near Inverloch, Victoria, has enabled the husband and wife team to positively link the fossils to the Platypus family.  Using a high resolution CT scanner in Texas the scientists discovered this ancient animal (named Teinolophos) had a large internal grove or canal along its jaw to help carry nerve fibres from the bill to the brain – just like a modern Platypus.  This puts this ancient mammal into the same family as the Platypus, the Ornithorhynchidae.

Dr John Long (Museum of Victoria) commenting on the results of the CT scans stated that when these tiny fossil jaws were first discovered, it was thought that they may have belonged to an ancient ancestor of the modern Platypus, a close relative but not an actual Platypus type creature.  After all, the fossil jaws have teeth and the modern Platypus has none.

“But the recent discoveries made in the last week have shown with the high resolution CT scanner in Texas that some of these jaws that they found, they’re actually in the same family, Ornithorhynchidae, as the modern Platypus and this is absolutely outstanding,” Dr Long stated.

“It’s very interesting really because many of these early mammal groups had teeth,” Dr Long reported.

“It’s an ancestral condition for all mammal groups.  But throughout the course of their evolution, as the bill became more important and more specialised for their feeding to find worms and things, eventually they didn’t need teeth and they could just devour their food with their bill.”  For the scientists involved in this study it now seems that they can place the humble Platypus happily foraging streams and small rivers for food as dinosaurs such as the Nodosaur Minmi and the fierce Allosaurus roamed the riverbank.

“Several kinds of mammals were living in the age of the dinosaurs, but none of those families, apart from the Platypus family, is still alive today,” Dr Long remarked.  It means Australia has the oldest living family of mammals anywhere on the planet.”

The Platypus far from being some sort of accident of nature has proved itself to be a very capable survivor with the basic body plan remaining unchanged throughout the Age of Mammals.  For a large part of the Cenozoic Australia has been cut off from other land masses and this has helped ancient animals such as the Platypus to survive to see the evolution and development of the human race.  Ironically, the Platypus still can be found in Victoria, inhabiting streams just a few miles inland from where the ancient fossilised Platypus jaw bones were found.

The research is being published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences(Australia).

Perhaps young Allosaurs and other Theropods actively hunted ancient Platypus amongst the horsetails and primitive flowering plants in those times so very long ago.

A potential Platypus hunter, an Allosaurus: Dinosaur Toys for Boys and Girls – Dinosaur Models

Prehistoric Times Front Cover

Prehistoric Times Front Cover

The front cover picture showing a marine reptile.  The latest addition of Prehistoric Times magazine.

Prehistoric Times Front Cover

Issure 84 of PT

Picture Credit: Prehistoric Times/Everything Dinosaur

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