Spectacular Insect Fossil Find in Eastern USA

Ancient winged Insect left Impression in Carboniferous Mud

The western part of the United States may have a higher profile than the eastern part of the USA when it comes to fossils, this may be due to the large number of dinosaur fossils found in states such as Utah and Montana, but the east of the USA can produce some amazing fossil finds as well.

Careful research combined with a little luck has helped fossil hunter Richard Knecht find an amazing fossil of a flying insect near Emerald Square in Massachusetts.  Locked away for over 310 million years, the oldest known imprint of an insect, a trace fossil,  has been found, whilst Richard was lost.

The three-inch-long Arthropod, which scientists believe may be a distant relative of the modern mayfly, apparently made its mark by briefly landing on a pool of soft mud over 310 million years ago, the trace fossil has preserved the moment it landed and rested on the soft, sticky ground.  The fossil is so well preserved that individual body segments of the long abdomen can be seen and the imprints made by the insect’s six legs are clearly visible.

Knecht and his professor, palaeontologist Jacob Brenner of Tufts University, are hoping that this rare find, along with the subsequent discovery of a fossilised wing at the site last week, will yield new insights into insect behaviour at a time when such creatures dominated life in the air.

“The level of detail is really unseen in continental deposits,” commented professor Brenner. “It’s unusual to see a flying insect make such a deep impression in this muddy sediment . . . and we don’t have many good body fossils from this time period with these early flying insects.”

Ancient Wing – the Fossilised Insect Impression

Picture Credit: Tufts University/Knecht/Brenner

The picture may look a little indistinct but if you look carefully the impression of the dragonfly-like creature can be seen.  The head of the animal is facing to the right of the picture and the six impressions either side of the long, stick-like structure are the legs , behind the last pair of legs the abdomen can clearly be seen.  The wings are not preserved as they did not touch the mud when the creature landed.  The legs look quite stubby, but only part of them was preserved.  This is a trace fossil, a fossil that shows evidence of the activity of an organism, such as their tracks, trails, burrows or borings.

This is a truly remarkable discovery, it is very rare for delicate creatures like insects to become fossilised in rock, if they do the fossils that are preserved are usually fragmentary in nature, compressed, distorted and subsequently difficult to interpret.

Talking about his find Richard said:

“It’s not squished. It’s not deformed. We don’t have to try to piece it back together. We can see it as it was, and we get the behaviour,”.

Richard Knecht and professor Brenner went hunting in that area because research they had carried out enabled them to uncover a 1929 thesis that indicated that fossils may be found in the strata of the region.   New England isn’t a particularly rich source of prehistoric remains.

This really is a lucky find, firstly because these types of impressions were not made very often and the chances of one being preserved is extremely remote.  In addition, Richard has been trying to find another site and got lost, simply finding this fossil location by accident.

As Richard wandered around trying to get his bearings, at one rock outcrop, he gripped a broken edge, it came off in his hand, revealing the insect fossil.  The outer part of the rock was already split and had it been exposed to the cold of a New England winter, ice and frost action may have damaged this fossil, perhaps destroying if forever.

It really was a lucky find.

Increased levels of oxygen in the Carboniferous enabled Arthropods to grown to huge sizes, many times bigger than their modern counterparts.  According to some researchers, atmospheric oxygen may have been as high as 30%.  To stay in the air, flying insects need to burn up a lot of oxygen in their muscles, the maximum size of a flying insect is governed by the extent to which oxygen can reach the tissues in the animal that require oxygen.  A higher level of oxygen in the atmosphere would have helped increase the efficiency of the insect’s metabolism and allowed them to evolve into larger sizes.  At the time, no other creatures flew; (Pterosaurs for example did not come along until the Triassic), so insects such as the one found by Richard Knecht would have dominated the air.

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Feedback from Customers

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Nothronychus – A Dinosaur Designed by Committee

The Bizarre Therizinosaurids such as Nothronychus

There are a great many different types of dinosaur, ranging from tiny crow-sized species up to the huge leviathans such as the Sauropods.  One particular group of these incredible creatures has proved particularly difficult to classify and study.  This is because their fossils are exceptionally rare and they seem to have possessed a mixture of characteristics – a sort of dinosaur made up from features of other dinosaurs.  We are referring to the unusual Therizinosaurids, a rare, exclusively Cretaceous group which is still not well understood today, despite the first of their kind (Therizinosaurus), being named and described more than fifty years ago.

These dinosaurs seem to show a mixture of meat-eating and plant-eating characteristics, the name Therizinosaur means “scythe lizard”, a reference to the huge claws on each of their fingers (three-fingered hands).  The technical term for these hand claws is manual ungual.  The claws are long, slightly curved and in the case of Therizinosaurus, the largest member of this group discovered to date; the fossilised claws are over 70 cm long.  In life they would have been covered with a horny sheath, so they in reality would have been even longer.  It has been suggested that these claws may have been used to help break open termite mounds, indicating that these animals were insectivores, however, the more favoured theory at present is that the claws were used to pull branches down in a giant-sloth like manner and these creatures were largely vegetarian.

Incidentally, Therizinosaurus has a number of unique characteristics amongst Therizinosaurs, so much so that it may be reclassified into its own group – the Segnosaurs.

Illustration of a Typical Therizinosaur (Nothronychus)

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

To view a model of a Therizinosaur (model of Nothronychus) you can visit the Everything Dinosaur website: Dinosaur Toys for Boys and Girls – Dinosaur Models

Nothronychus shows the features that characterise this particular group of dinosaurs.  The small head, with leaf-shaped teeth in the jaws (indicating a plant-eating diet), a long neck, powerful arms with the three-fingered hands and long claws.  The body was quite stocky and these animals although members of the Theropoda (Saurischian dinosaurs), have a swept back hip girdle more reminiscent of the plant eating Ornithischian group.

Nothronychus would have been up to 6 metres long and represents the first member of this group to be found outside Asia.  Two partial specimens have been discovered in the western USA.  Nothronychus means “sloth like claws”, as the scientists that named and described this animal thought that it resembled a ground sloth with its upright stance, big belly and enormous claws.

Scientists still debate about the taxonomic position of this bizarre and unusual group, although most artists depict these animals covered in simply proto-feathers, indicating warm-blooded creatures with a need to keep insulated.  They really are most peculiar animals and as such many a palaeontologist has remarked that they are like a dinosaur designed by a committee.

Prehistoric Crocodile Fossils Discovered in Switzerland

Switzerland – Famous for Cuckoo Clocks, Army Knives and now Jurassic Crocodiles

The village of Courtedoux in the district of Porrentruy, Switzerland may be hundreds of metres above sea-level today, but rocks dating from the Jurassic show that this area was once part of a shallow, tropical sea full of dangerous marine reptiles.

For much of the Jurassic period (206 – 144 million years approximately), Europe was covered in warm, shallow seas that teemed with ancient life.  Swimming amongst the Ammonites, Belemnites and Ichthyosaurs was a species of marine crocodile, the remains of one such specimen have been found near the village of Courtedoux.

A team of researchers have announced the discovery of a 150 million-year-old fossil of an ancient crocodile, a genus called Metrioryhnchus, the first time that such a specimen has been found in Switzerland.

The area around Courtedoux is well-known for its dinosaur and other ancient fossils.  In fact fossilised trackways of Diplodocus-like footprints have been found nearby, along with a total of nearly 4,000 vertebrate fossils , all dating from the Jurassic period.  The foot prints indicate that the geology of this area has strata deposited in terrestrial as well as marine environments.  The area has been thoroughly researched over the years but new discoveries are being made all the time, such as this new crocodile.

Fossils of Metriorhynchus have been found in the UK, France and in South America (Metriorhynchus potens).

A distant relative of modern crocodiles this animal had adapted to an almost entirely marine existence, perhaps females only returned to land to lay eggs, like marine turtles.  The limbs had evolved into four strong flippers and the tail had broadened and flattened out to provide propulsion through the water.

This marine crocodile grew to lengths of over 3 metres and the many needle-like teeth in the narrow jaws indicate that it was a specialised fish and cephalopod eater.  Perhaps it fed on the many different types of Ammonite and Belemnite that shared its habitat.

An Illustration of Metriorhynchus

Picture Credit: Illustrations of Prehistoric Animals of South America

Metriorhynchus is pronounced met-ree-oh-rink-us, the name means “moderate snout”.  This particular fossil, found in the Porrentruy district in the west of Switzerland is dated to approximately 150 million years ago, although other fossil finds of this particular genus of marine crocodile have been dated from as early as 165 million years ago (Bathonian faunal stage).

Porrentruy district is in the canton of Jura, the Jurassic period is named after the Jura Mountains that cover much of this region.  It was the French chemist Alexandre Brongniart who named the Jurassic.

Scientists believe that this type of marine reptile was an opportunistic feeder, catching Ammonites and Belemnites as well as being capable of snatching Pterosaurs as they swooped low over the sea.

Ammonites and Belemnites are cephalopods, related to squid and cuttlefish.  As a group these type of creatures are extremely important to scientists as Ammonite and Belemnite fossils can help to identify the relative age of widely separated areas of sedimentary rock.  Fossils of these creatures are very common and particularly diverse, scientists can use the different types of Ammonite/Belemnite fossil found in layers of rock to work out the sequence in which the sediments were laid down and thus, the relative age of the rock deposits.  This process is known as biostratigraphy – using key fossils to date rocks.

A Metriorhynchus Meal – Ammonites and Belemnites

Prehistoric Crocodile Sea Food

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The picture above shows two Ammonites and a Belemnite, these nektonic (means they live above the sea floor), cephalopods would have been the stable food of Metriorhynchus and other marine crocodiles.

For dinosaur toys and games, plus prehistoric models including accurate models of Ammonites and Belemnites visit Everything Dinosaur’s website: Everything Dinosaur Homepage

To view the dark brown Ammonite: Dinosaurs for Boys and Girls – Dinosaur Models and Toys

Scientists have been able to build up a detailed picture of the ecosystem within these shallow, Jurassic seas that covered much of Europe during this period.  As well as marine crocodiles, there were many different types of Ichthyosaur and Plesiosaur.  At the top of the food chain, the top predators were the huge Pliosaurs.  These animals were marine reptiles, a number of fierce meat-eating genera are known, perhaps the most famous is Liopleurodon.  This enormous predator, has been claimed by some sources to be the largest carnivore to have ever existed on the planet.  A number of species of Liopleurodon are known, but whether they really did reach lengths in excess of 25 metres as some scientists and journalists have claimed is still open to debate.   With their crown of front teeth, some of which exceeded 18 inches in length they would have been formidable hunters and a 3 metre Metriorhynchus would have been no match for this mighty Pliosaur.

Close up of a Liopleurodon (the business end)

The fearsome Liopleurodon

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

To view the model of Liopleurodon (Liopleurodon ferox): Dinosaur Toys for Boys and Girls – Dinosaur Models

Filling Christmas Stockings – Dinosaur Toys and Gifts

Go Easy on Your Budget this Christmas (Christmas 2008 made Easy)

 

Fill a Christmas Stocking for £20.00 

Everything Dinosaur Logo

Dear Customers,

Less than 25 shopping days to Christmas, so why not take it easy on yourself (and the family budget) and let Everything Dinosaur take the stress out of Christmas shopping for Dinosaurs toys and gifts.

Fill a stocking with “Spino” our exclusive, cute and cuddly dinosaur hat, T. rex and Triceratops glow in the dark bedroom stickers, a metal pencil case, with dinosaur eraser, pencil and pen, plus our 2009 dinosaur calendar – all this for just £20.40 including packing and postage to anywhere in the U.K.

All Nine Items for just £20.40 Including Postage*

Fill a Christmas Stocking – Excellent Value

Value for Christmas

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Cost of all nine items @ £17.37 plus post and packing @ £3.03 = £20.40

See for yourself: Everything Dinosaur Web Site

Whether it is nieces, nephews, sons, daughters or grandchildren you don’t have to spend a fortune to make their Christmas with educational and thoughtful dinosaur themed gifts.

Our staff (parents, teachers and dinosaur experts) appreciate that sometimes it can be difficult to browse whilst the little ones are around so why not contact us in the evenings – we are working until 10pm (GMT) most nights (including weekends) so why not give us a call or drop us an email:

Contact: Contact Us

We would be happy to provide advice and assistance, when it comes to dinosaur stocking fillers.

So that’s some of the Christmas shopping sorted out, quick, convenient and excellent value for money too.  If you are looking for dinosaur toys and dinosaur themed gifts, Everything Dinosaur has it covered.

Q. What does Wyoming and the Isle of Skye have in Common? A. Jurassic Dinosaurs

Scotland’s Mid Jurassic Heritage

The Isle of Skye is a beautiful island off Scotland’s rugged west coast, approximately 640 square miles of idyllic Scottish scenery, an island known for its Scottish heritage and tourism, so what does it have to do with the state of Wyoming in the American mid-west.

Well for a start, both places are sparsely populated and both areas have spectacular scenery and surprisingly the Isle of Skye has evidence of prehistoric animals that once roamed across the western USA.  The data gathered on this Scottish island’s dinosaurs is helping to provide information regarding the Jurassic fauna of Wyoming, in fact Skye is fast becoming recognised as a place of great interest to palaeontologists.  The same types of dinosaur roamed across Skye and Wyoming approximately 170 million years ago (Bajocian faunal stage), in a geological period known as the mid-Jurassic – but how is this possible?

During the Jurassic the American and European continents were very much closer together than they are today.  There was no Atlantic ocean (this did not begin to form until towards the end of the Jurassic period),  a series of rifts began to open up in the continental plates, separating the giant continent of Laurentia into the Americas and Eurasia.  However, that part of the world that was eventually to form the rocks in areas like Staffin Bay on the Isle of Skye was still joined to the North American continent.  A dinosaur could have walked from central Europe to Alaska had it had the mind to do so.

The Isle of Skye’s importance to palaeontologists, particularly those studying the middle Jurassic is enhanced by an article published in the current issue of the Scottish Journal of Geology.  The article suggests that fossil footprints found on Skye and others across the Atlantic in Wyoming were left by the same type of dinosaur – or at least a closely related species – dating back to the mid-Jurassic period, when Scotland and the United States were both part of the same landmass.

The authors of this study into the fossil trackways, Dr Neil Clark, the curator of palaeontology at Glasgow University’s Hunterian Museum, and Dr Michael Brett-Surman of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, state that the tracks found in rock formations in Wyoming’s Bighorn Basin are very similar to footprints found in the Valtos sandstone beds on the Isle of Skye.

The footprints have been classified as having been made by a Coelophysid, an agile Theropod dinosaur.  Coelophysids were the most common type of meat-eating dinosaur in the late Triassic and survived into the Jurassic before finally being replaced by new types of Theropod such as the Megalosaurs.

An Illustration of a Coelophysid (Coelophysis)

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The illustration above shows a typical Coelophysid, Theropod, with its long neck, slender jaws lined with sharp, needle-like teeth.  The best-known of these dinosaurs is Coelophysis, a Triassic carnivore with its slender, muscular body, hollow bones (Coelophysis means “hollow form”) and long legs.  A number of articulated skeletons of this dinosaur are known, mostly recovered from the famous Ghost Ranch site in New Mexico.

Commenting on the link between Wyoming and the Isle of Skye, Dr. Clark stated:

“The importance of this apparent link between Skye and Wyoming is that the Americans don’t actually have any dinosaur remains, apart from these footprints, from this particular period, the mid-Jurassic, whereas we have the bones of a number of different animals from that period here in Scotland.  So, basically, we’re enabling the Americans to see what sort of dinosaurs were probably roaming about North America at the same time”.

He added:
“The Americans do have the animal called Coelophysis, but their fossils of them are all from the lower Jurassic or upper Triassic periods, so they are a lot older than what we have in Skye, which is a representative of that group of dinosaurs which was still alive in the middle Jurassic.  It seems to be associated with a particular type of footprint which also occurs in Wyoming at that particular time, so it’s quite possible they have a similar animal.”

While the footprints remain America’s only mid-Jurassic traces of the creature, Skye’s fossil beds from the same period have revealed a tooth and a tail bone, as well as the footprints.  Although most associated with the Ghost Ranch discoveries, it seems that the Isle of Skye can claim to have important evidence too, regarding the evolution of meat-eating dinosaurs.

The island has afforded palaeontologists other rare glimpses into prehistoric life, footprints of a large Ornithopod dinosaur were discovered in the 1980s along with more evidence of Coelophysid dinosaurs (fossil bones) and a fragment of bone that is believed to have come from a Sauropod (long-necked dinosaur).

Whilst the rock formations in the mid-western USA are vast and have a wealth of fossil information, the finds on Isle of Skye are somewhat limited, although this does not diminish their scientific importance.  The island’s Jurassic strata is overlaid by igneous material and the palaeontologists have only a few exposures to explore.  They are situated in places such as the exposed Trotternish peninsula where the rocks are weathered by harsh winds and strong tides.  It is often a battle with nature to find and preserve specimens before weathering destroys them for ever.

Scotland’s Jurassic Park – the Isle of Skye

The Isle of Skye

Picture Credit: The Scotsman

The Isle of Skye may be a wild and rugged place, but it can hold its head up high when it comes to Jurassic dinosaur fossils, helping the likes of Wyoming to piece together its own ancient past.  Not bad considering that Wyoming is much more associated with dinosaurs than Scotland, after all, the state dinosaur (yes, they do have a state dinosaur), of Wyoming is Triceratops.

The Jaws of Plant-Eating Dinosaurs

Evolution of the Ornithischian Jaw

The earliest plant-eating dinosaurs from the Triassic geological period had thick teeth covered with enamel.  More advanced herbivores that evolved in the Jurassic and the Cretaceous had enamel on one side of the tooth only.  As the teeth from the upper and lower jaws ground up the tough plant material, the softer side of each tooth wore down more quickly.  This made the teeth, effectively, self-sharpening.  The teeth were also ever-growing and ever-replacing.  Mammals such as ourselves only have a few sets of teeth in lifetime, dinosaurs were able to constantly replace teeth that had been broken and shed from the jaw.

A Tooth from a Triceratops (Late Cretaceous Plant-Eating Dinosaur)

A typical tooth of a Ceratopsian with its two distinct dental roots.

A typical tooth of a Ceratopsian with its two distinct dental roots.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The strongly rooted teeth of Ceratopsian dinosaurs were very efficient teeth for grinding up plant material.  The beak on the front of the jaw grabbed the plant material and the teeth towards the back of the jaw ground down the tough plant material.

Open Wide – The Bite Force and Attack Strategy of Smilodon

New Study Sheds Light on the Bite Force and Gape of Smilodon spp.

The large, sabre-like teeth of Smilodon (Sabre-Toothed Cat) were too fragile and likely to be damaged if this member of the Machairodontinae bit down onto bone.  How the large canines of these predators were used, has been the subject of considerable debate.  Some scientists have even suggested that the sabre-teeth were highly ornamental and only used for display, perhaps to intimidate other members of the pride and to establish a social hierarchy.  It had been argued that the row of forward pointing incisors in the upper jaw were the main killing teeth and these teeth were also the most effective at stripping meat from any kills.

An Illustration of Smilodon (Sabre-Tooth Cat)

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

What has been established, is that Smilodon was able to open its jaws far wider than any species of extant Felidae.  The wide gape was an adaptation to having over-sized teeth in the jaws.  But how strong a bite and indeed, how the jaw muscles evolved to permit such a gape have been the subject of a new study, the results of which have been published in this month’s edition of the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.

The new analysis, carried out by scientists from Aalborg University (Denmark), reveals that the Smilodon’s jaw muscles evolved into a specialised pattern, which allowed them to open their mouths so wide.  The study was led by Dr. Per Christiansen, who used a complex model to assess how the muscles in the jaws evolved.

A Comparison of the Jaws of Members of the Felidae versus Smilodon

Smilodon’s Big Jaws could open Wide

Picture Credit: Per Christiansen

The picture shows a modern big cat’s jaws on the left with the lower jaw opened as wide as it can be without damage to the jaw and the jaw muscles.  This is compared in the picture above to the jaws of an extinct Smilodon spp.  The jaws of Smilodon can be opened to a much wider angle than a jaws of a modern extant big cat.

His model revealed how the cat’s jaw muscles were aligned to pull its jaws closed, very directly and efficiently.  But Smilodon would also have done something that every cat-owner can see a relic of in their own pet.

Dr. Christiansen explained:

“When you put a piece of food on the floor for your cat, you’ll see it bobs its head forward as it eats it.  And we know that [Smilodon] probably closed its jaws by twisting its head downward and throwing its head forward.  Its neck was longer than that of modern cats and its neck muscles would have been stronger.”

The study also examined the earliest and most primitive members of the Machairodontinae, although Dr. Christiansen did state that Smilodon in particular was “outrageous in terms of its anatomy”.

A Close up of a Model of the Head of a Smilodon

Superb Smilodon replica

Picture Credit: Crawley Creatures

He went onto add that Smilodon:

“Was the most [highly evolved and therefore] different from modern cats, so to understand this animal from a biological sense, you need to study more primitive animals to work out why they have become that way through evolution.”

He examined hundreds of skulls, drawing an evolutionary map showing why Sabre-Tooths evolved such different jaw anatomy from modern cats.

Dr. Christiansen explained that what he termed “killing ecology”, was the driving factor, the evolutionary pressure to kill prey with a deep and efficient stab to the throat.

He stated:

“The cat species became gradually more and more specialised, culminating with monsters such as Smilodon.”

As Sabre-Toothed cats evolved longer canine teeth, their jaw muscles actually grew smaller, but the fibres became more vertically orientated and thus probably more efficient in closing the jaw.

Dr Christiansen explained:

“At the same time, changes in the way the muscle fibres inserted on the lower jaw meant that the animals could stretch their muscles more – the fibres became re-orientated so as to allow a higher gape, necessary for gaping with huge fangs.”

However, as specialist carnivores, dependent on large, relatively slow moving prey that they could ambush, this could have been the reason for their demise whilst other members of the Felidae such as leopards, tigers and lions are the apex predators in their environments today.

Anger over Dinosaur Tail up for Sale in Portugal

Portuguese Builder hopes to Cash In on his Lucky Find

With increasing prices being paid for dinosaur fossils and other artifacts from the past, sometimes scientific research can be thwarted by an entrepreneur out to make a quick profit.

One such scenario is currently being played out in Portugal, where the owner of a construction company has put his dinosaur discovery up for sale to the highest bidder.

Gonsalo Ribeiro, the finder of the dinosaur fossils, believed to be an articulated Sauropod tail that dates from the Late Jurassic, has put this rare find up for sale on the internet.  Commenting on his discovery, Mr Ribeiro stated:

“I own an excavation business, and one day when we were out digging, we came across some stones, but when I looked closer, I noticed that they were not stones”.

Ever since the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton found to date was auctioned by Sotheby’s in 1997, dinosaur fossils up for sale have hit the headlines and prices have rocketed.  That particular fossil was the famous “Sue” T. rex discovered in August 1990 by Susan Hendrickson, it was auctioned on October 27th 1997 and fetched $8.36 million.

A number of other widely publicised auctions of ancient prehistoric animal remains have taken place, there are major sales at least once a year.  Some of these sale items are purchased by the public purse or by philanthropists who later donate these items to museums.  This enables scientists to carry out research on them, but many are bought  by private collectors and they are then no longer available for study.

To read about a marine reptile fossil being auctioned: Fancy a Mosasaur for Christmas? Prehistoric animals under the hammer

Recently, an almost complete Triceratops skeleton was sold (T. horridus), although the reserve price of 500,000 Euros at the original auction was not met, it did eventually sell for nearly 600,000 Euros a few days later.

Triceratops article: Triceratops for Sale

The advertisement for this particular fossil sale reads: “For sale, dinosaur spine 90 per cent intact”.  It sounds to us like these are elements of the caudal vertebrae, perhaps those located immediately posterior to the sacral vertebrae, (the tail bones immediately behind the hips).

The tail section is estimated to be 3.6 metres long and has been dated between 152 and 146 million years (Kimmeridgian to Tithonian faunal stages).

When asked to comment on the auction, leading Portuguese palaeontologist Dr Octávio Mateus of the Museum of the Lourinhã stated that this particular find was of “huge scientific value”.

Mr Ribeiro has refused to hand over his treasure to a museum, claiming “the figures they offer are far off the mark.” A bold statement as setting a monetary value on such an item is a very difficult business.  It is believed that he has already turned down an offer of 100,000 euros (£84,000).

For Mr Ribeiro, this may be an opportunity to make some money, perhaps a lot of money, but this is really a sordid business as his actions are denying scientists the opportunity to study precious late Jurassic Sauropod material and eventually such a set of fossils could be put on public display at a museum for everyone in the community to see.

Dr Mateus, a specialist in the Jurassic dinosaurs of Portugal having worked on a number of specimens including the Brachiosaurid Lusotitan that he helped name and describe in 2003,  has published a note on the website denouncing what he called the “sale of our heritage as if it were a car or a pair of shoes”.

Palaeontologists are calling for legislation to help protect fossils so that they can be declared “public heritage” and protected from being sold to the highest, wealthiest bidder to the detriment of the scientific community and the public.

Such instances are likely to become more and more common as internet sites and specialist auction companies provide a ready market for such valuable items.  We wish Dr Mateus and his colleagues well and hope their case is given a fair hearing by the Portuguese legislature.

Cambrian Trace Fossils – It was the Single-Celled Life Forms that Made Them

Single Celled Giant – Responsible for Ancient Trace Fossils?

One of the most momentous events in the history of life on our planet took place around 545 million years ago, at a time when the Earth looked very different than today.  For a start it was spinning faster on its axis, meaning that our 24-hour orbit was something unimaginable back then, days would have lasted something like 20 hours.  The atmosphere would have been completely alien to us, in fact had a human being been able to travel back in time to the Cambrian, they would have needed to bring breathing apparatus as the air with its lack of oxygen would have been quite toxic to us.

The continents with which we are so familiar today, would have been unrecognisable, in the western hemisphere; the fragmented parts of a super continent were being pulled apart by an ocean ridge, in the east, another, larger remnant of this huge landmass stretched almost pole to pole.  Most of the United Kingdom lay off the coast of Gondwana, the name given to the area of land in the eastern hemisphere, although rock that is found in Scotland today was actually thousands of miles away in the western hemisphere.    The geological period we now know as the Cambrian was first defined in 1835 by an English professor of geology – Adam Sedgewick.  He mapped rock strata in Wales and showed that it was formed after older Precambrian rocks but before the rocks believed to have been formed in the Silurian period.

As our understanding of geology has improved, these Welsh rocks are not used anymore to delineate the start of the Cambrian, strata in Newfoundland are regarded as indicative and distinctive enough to be seen as forming the boundary between the Precambrian and the Cambrian.  The starting point of the Cambrian is marked by the appearance of trace and body fossils, indicating diverse animal life.  Trace fossils are preserved evidence of activity, for example a fossil cast of a worm burrow or a trail left in soft mud on the ocean floor that has become preserved.

During the Cambrian, there was a rapid acceleration in evolution and a vast array of new creatures suddenly appear in the fossil record.  Animals with hard parts such as shells and external skeletons evolved and this phenomenon has been termed the “Cambrian Explosion”.  Prior to the evolution of hard parts that have a higher potential for fossilisation, only a very few types of fossil were known – many of which were trace fossils, such as tracks preserved in mud as a creature crawled over the seabed.  The first Trilobites appear, amazing arthropods, distant ancestors of spiders, mite, insects and crustaceans.  Trilobites are one of the “star turns” in the fossil record.  These marine creatures evolved into at least nine Orders and survived right through the Palaeozoic, with the very last of their kind becoming extinct at the end of the Permian approximately 250 million years ago.

An Illustration of a Typical Trilobite

Illustration Credit: Everything Dinosaur

To view a model of a Trilobite – from Everything Dinosaur’s fossil replica series:-

Model Trilobite: Dinosaur Models for Boys and Girls – Dinosaur Toys

Up until now, the trace fossils, many of which are preserved trackways, are believed to have been made by complex, soft-bodied organisms, perhaps ancestors of the armoured Trilobite.  This has been an appropriate assumption as; in a relatively short period of geological time, the Cambrian explosion occurs and a myriad of life forms are recorded as fossils.  It had been widely accepted by palaeontologists and ichnologists that trace fossils such as these trackways were made by soft bodied, complex, bio-symmetrical organisms, a fair assumption, since just a few million years later a great diversity of complex life occurred and these animals must have had complex ancestors and life would have been abundant.  Being soft-bodied there is little fossil evidence to be found, the fossils were thought to be disproportional to the amount of life forms that had already evolved.

However, new insight into the habits and lifestyle of a very ancient creature has cast doubt on this assumption, it appears that single-celled, very simple organisms are capable of leaving tracks in soft mud and it could be these life forms, not more complex ones that left the early Cambrian and Precambrian tracks in mud that became trace fossils.

New research into a little known, distant relative of microscopic amoebas called Gromia sphaerica has proved that these little organisms travel across the sea floor and as they do, they leave trackways behind.  These tracks are very similar to the fossilised tracks found in Precambrian rocks.  It has been suggested that the Precambrian trace fossils may not be evidence of complex organisms but the preserved trails of an ancient type of Gromia.

If this is the case, then the Cambrian explosion becomes even more of a mystery, as what evidence we have of complex organisms in Precambrian strata may be reduced if some of these tracks are attributed to types of single-celled organism.

G. sphaerica was believed to be sessile and of a epifaunal habit (living on the sea floor, either on soft sediment or attached to rocks, but not moving).  Observations from the bottom of the Arabian Sea indicated this.  However, a group of researchers have located a colony of the coast of the Bahamas and these creatures are vagrants (move over the sea floor), leaving trails up to half-a-metre in length.

A Picture of Gromia sphaerica

Gromia

Picture Credit: Matz/NOAA/Harbour Branch Oceanographic Institute

Gromia sphaerica is gigantic for a single-cell eukaryote (cell enclosed by a membrane), some specimens have been measured with diameters in excess of 30 mm, about the size of a large marble.  These creatures were recorded wandering across the seabed by Mikhail Matz of the University of Texas at Austin and a group of fellow researchers

A distant relative of amoebas, these strange organisms have left trails in the Caribbean seabed that resemble the trace fossils found in Precambrian rocks.

On the Trail of Ancient Trace Fossils

Gromia track.

Picture Credit: Matz/NOAA/Harbour Branch Oceanographic Institute

The red arrow in the picture is pointing to a trail left by a Gromia sphaerica.  The round lump is the organism itself, covered in a light coating of sediment.  The trail consists of two small ridges on the outside, and one thin bump running down the middle.  This pattern is consistent with certain trace fossils.  Scientists are confident that prior to the Cambrian, life forms were exploiting the surface layers of marine sediments, now this new evidence may indicate that multi-celled, bio-symmetrical organisms were not as abundant as the fossil record indicates, if some of these trace fossils can be attributed to the ancestors of Gromia sphaerica.

Commenting on the research, Matz stated:

“If these guys were alive 600 million years ago, and their traces got fossilised, a palaeontologist who had never seen this thing would not have a shade of doubt attributing this kind of trace to the activity of a big, multicellular, bilaterally symmetrical animal”.

“This is a very important discovery,” Shuhai Xiao of Virginia Polytechnic Institute added. “The fact that protists can make traces has important implications for how we interpret many trace fossils.”

This research could have dramatic implications for the Cambrian Explosion, if single-celled organisms were making some of the trackways, complex animals were not as abundant as previously thought.   To quote the researcher Matz, every type of animal phyla around today “suddenly burst out of a magic box.  It wasn’t a gradual development”.

In addition, genetic analysis of the water-filled cells of G. sphaerica reveal tantalising evidence that it could be one of the oldest type of organism on the planet – a living fossil.

“There’s a 1.8 billion year old fossil from the Stirling Formation in Australia that looks just like one of their traces, and with a discoidal body impression similar to these guys [G. sphaerica]“.  Matz commented.

“We have not proved anything, but we might be looking at the ultimate living macroscopic fossil”.

The Stirling Formation in south-western Australia is famous for its fossils of Precambrian life, many types of soft-bodied animal are preserved in what was a shallow, tidal, sandy sea bottom.  Sharing this ancient world, a part of the geological time scale called the Cryptozoic (time of invisible life due to the paucity of the fossil record), were jellyfish.

Jellyfish are another example of a living fossil, this type of animal may have swam in prehistoric seas, as much as one billion years ago.

To read a related article on jellyfish and life before the Cambrian explosion:

Jellyfish – an example of a living fossil

We supply a model of a Medusa type jellyfish, part of a set of fossil animal replicas that include Belemnites and Ammonites.

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