Parasitic Infection Linked to Tyrannosauridae

Parasitic Infection may be Responsible for Death of Tyrannosaurus “Sue”

A new study by joint team of Australian and U.S. based scientists has put forward a theory explaining why some Tyrannosaurs may have died, they suffered from a single- celled parasitic infection that caused them to have breathing difficulties and starve to death.  A series of small, circular holes in the jaw bones of Tyrannosaurus rex fossils may be evidence of infection by a parasite that causes the death of modern birds such as raptors.  The T. rex skeleton known as “Sue” may show signs of this parasitic infection and this may have been what finally killed this 7 tonne monster.

“Sue” or to more appropriate SUE-BHI2033/FMNHPR2081 (the specimen number), was discovered by Susan Hendrickson on August 12th 1990.  This T. rex skeleton is perhaps the most complete found to date with approximately 80% of the skeleton recovered in the subsequent excavations.  The mounted exhibit is on display at the Field Museum in Chicago (USA).  The animal, believed to be female, is 42 feet long.  This particular exhibit opened in May 2000, the fossil skeleton of “Sue” was auctioned at Sotheby’s in October 1997, it fetched $8.36 million USD, a world record for a palaeontological item at auction.

The fossilised remains of animals can provide scientists with an insight into the lives and traumas of prehistoric creatures.  Signs of disease, traumatic injuries such as broken bones can be seen, this is called the pathology of a fossilised skeleton.  In many cases, researchers can see signs of recovery, such as healing of broken bones but perhaps those examples of pathology that are not healed or show no sign of improvement may have been the cause of death of that particular animal.

Tyrannosaurus “Sue” Do Holes in the Jaw Indicate Parasitic Infection?

Picture Credit: Associated Press

This particular study, published in the online scientific journal PLoS One was led by Dr. Ewan Wolff of the University of Wisconsin and Dr. Steven Salisbury of the University of Queensland, Australia.  In total they studied ten Tyrannosaur fossils plus the fossilised remains of a number of extinct Archosaurs.  They concluded that T. rex and other Tyrannosaurid fossils often display signs of lesions and even holes in their jaw bones.  These lesions and holes in the dentary, angular, surangular and other bones of the lower jaws have been explained away previously as being the results of face biting by other Tyrannosaurs or possibly from a bacterial bone infection (Actinomycosis).  However, this joint Australian and American team have speculated that the holes could have been caused by a parasite, one that regularly attacks and damages the mandibles of birds such as eagles and hawks.

The lesions and holes could be a result of the avian parasitic infection called Trichomonosis.

Commenting on the newly published paper, Dr Wolff stated:

“What drew my attention to Trichomonosis as a potential candidate for these mysterious lesions on the jaws of Tyrannosaurs is the manifestation of the effects of the disease in birds”.

It is true that similar pathologies have been found in the mandibles of birds that have suffered from this parasitic infection.  However, despite newspaper articles and some dramatic headlines, this parasite was very probably not responsible for the demise of an entire species.  A severe infection in an individual would have caused respiratory problems and impaired the animal’s ability to eat.  It may have succumbed to starvation or been weakened to such an extent that its death was a consequence of having this infection.  The evolution of Tyrannosaurs is not well understood, there is a paucity of evidence in the fossil record, however, it is possible that this particular taxonomic family originated in the Late Jurassic and as such it would have evolved as part of an environmental ecosystem exposed to all sorts of other organisms that were evolving with it.  It is unlikely that parasitic infections were the cause of an extinction of an entire species, but undoubtedly dinosaurs suffered from parasites and the holes in the jaw bones could be explained by an attack of Trichomonosis, certainly in studies of birds who have had this parasite, the marks on the bone do resemble those found on Tyrannosaur fossils.

T. rex Dentary, Angular and Surangular bones (lower jaw) with Evidence of Trichomonosis

Parasites attacked Tyrannosaurs

Picture Credit: John Weinstein (FMNH)

In the picture, the left mandibular ramus of a the Tyrannosaurus rex specimen at the Field Museum (Sue), is shown.  Photographs labelled A and B show the lower jaw bones from the lateral (viewing the bone from outside the jaw) and the medial viewing the jawbone from inside the mouth.  The suspect holes and lesions are indicated by the white arrows.

Diagram C shows the view of the left side of the skull of the Field Museum T. rex, the part shaded indicates the area that has been examined closely.  The diagrams labelled D and E show the composition of the jaw bones and lower part of the skull with the various specific bones labelled.

The scientists have reported that their study provides evidence of an avian transmitted disease in non-avian Theropod dinosaurs.  The team have also concluded that, based on the amount of lesions found in Tyrannosaur fossils parasites such as Trichomonosis may have been endemic in the Tyrannosaur population.  The disease may have been transmitted as Tyrannosaurs fought with other members of their species, or if they fed on prey animals infected with the parasite.  For example, many pigeons carry the parasite but do not seem to be outwardly affected whereas raptors that feed on pigeons can die from a parasitic infection of this nature.  The parasite could also be transmitted if Tyrannosaurs were cannibals and there is some fossil evidence indicating that Tyrannosaurs did each other members of their kind.

A fascinating paper, one that perhaps sheds new light on Tyrannosaur pathology.

Acrocanthosaurus – Name a mid Cretaceous Theropod

Acrocanthosaurus – Naming a mid Cretaceous Theropod

In the course of our work at Everything Dinosaur we get involved in all sorts of activities involved with dinosaurs and prehistoric animals.  We can be advising a teacher on a dinosaur themed science project, proof reading some text, or replying to a specific query related to the Mesozoic or some other aspect of palaeontology.  It is all in a day’s work for us.

Take for example, a recent query from a games manufacturer, they requested we supply them with information on typical large, meat-eating dinosaurs from the early and/or mid Cretaceous and provide details on one such animal.  Happy to oblige, although what is a “typical” carnivorous Theropod from the Cretaceous is difficult to define.

In general terms, the Sauropods were slowly but surely being replaced in many ecosystems by the diversifying Ornithopods.  The Ornithopods were becoming more prominent and replacing Sauropoda as the dominant herbivorous dinosaurs in many parts of the world.  Many of these animals were much smaller and as a result smaller Theropods evolved to predate on them.

For example, there was the early Tyrannosaurs such as Dilong (Dilong paradoxus) a predator less than two metres long.  Eotyrannus, another member of the Tyrannosauroidea (fossils of which are associated with the Isle of Wight, England) has been dated to the early Cretaceous (Barremian faunal stage).  These types of dinosaurs were agile, but had the Tyrannosaur features of broad, robust skulls.

A Scale Drawing of Dilong

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

To view a model of Dilong and dinosaur models: Dinosaur Toys for Boys and Girls – Dinosaur Models

However, interesting these small Theropods may be, our client requested information on a real show stopper, as it were – a large meat-eating dinosaur.

We chose to supply information on Acrocanthosaurus (pronounced Ak-row-can-tho-sore-us), the name means “high spined lizard” as a result of this animal’s very tall neural spines that run along the backbone.  Although known from just a handful of skeletons and the taxonomic relationship between this dinosaur and other Theropods is unclear, it fits the bill as a large predator.  Measuring between 8-12 metres in length this animal was the top predator in its environment and may have been around as early as 120 million years ago.

Further Debate on Theropod Locomotion – The Velocity of T. rex

Just how Fast a Runner was Tyrannosaurus rex

It seems that the debate over the top running speed of Theropod dinosaurs is continuing unabated.  These stars of stage (Walking with Dinosaurs) and screen (all those dinosaur movies), the big, meat-eating dinosaurs such as T. rex continue to puzzle scientists as to the top running speeds and their walking pace.  The difficulty lies in the fact that there is nothing around on the planet, any extant animals for example that resemble them.  This coupled with the relatively poor fossil record for many large Theropods and the fact that no one has ever seen the likes of T. rex is going to cause this debate to rumble on and on.

However, perhaps one of the most detailed studies into dinosaur locomotion has been carried out by scientists at Manchester University and one of the papers detailing some of the scientist’s work is being presented at the annual conference of the Society of Vertebrate Palaeontologists at Bristol University.

Karl Bates, a PhD student, nominated for the Society’s Romer Prize (recognising the contribution of newcomers in the field of Vertebrate Palaeontology), has been using sophisticated computer modelling to calculate the running and walking speeds of one such Theropod.  The Theropod in question is Acrocanthosaurus (A. atokensis), a  large member of the Tetanurae, whose fossils have been found in the USA.  This 8-12 metre long giant lived many millions of years before T. rex (125-100 million years ago approximately).  It was the apex predator and would have been an active hunter, but just how fast it could run was not known until Mr Bates, combined anatomical measurements and assumptions with a sophisticated computer programme that permitted the cursorial speeds of this dinosaur to be estimated.

Safari Carnegie of the USA have produced a scale model of the American dinosaur, to view the model and other dinosaur toys: Dinosaur Toys for Girls and Boys – Dinosaur Models

A Scale Drawing of Acrocanthosaurus

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Safari Ltd have also introduced a Wild Safari Dinos Acrocanthosaurus dinosaur model.

Commenting on the issue of Theropod locomotion, Karl stated:

“The speeds you see in Jurassic Park are just ridiculous.  Even a really simple biomechanical model shows that a T. rex chasing down a jeep that is going at 50 mph [80kph] is beyond the realms of all possibility”.

Using measurements taken from an Acrocanthosaurus skeleton at the Natural History Museum in North Carolina, plus we suspect some data from the superb fossil cast of the hip bones and sacral vertebrae of an Acrocanthosaurus we were given the opportunity to see at Manchester University, Karl was able to produce a computer model estimating the travelling speed of this dinosaur.

This young scientist’s model indicates that an adult Acrocanthosaurus would have had an average running speed of 15.2 mph (24.2 kph) and would have walked at around 5.6 mph (9kph).

Similar studies have been carried out by University of Manchester researchers and a number of Theropods plus living animals today have been put on the University’s virtual race track.  For example, Tyrannosaurus rex when modelled in this way produced a slightly faster top running speed, about as fast as a professional footballer.  The longer femur making it better adapted for running than the Acrocanthosaurus.

To read an article about T. rex outrunning footballers: T. rex Chasing Down David Beckham

The article link above also includes a table that compares T. rex locomotion with other animals extinct and alive today.  The computer models produced by the University of Manchester team have proved very accurate in their assessment of the top speeds of animals around today.  The computer models predicting the maximum velocities of extant creatures such as emus and human beings.

A similar biomechanical model allowed Dr Hans Eriksen and colleagues at the University of Oslo to predict a time of below 9.6 seconds in the 100m sprint for Usain Bolt. Bolt’s world record time is 9.58 seconds.  This athlete is certainly exceptional, for example he takes just 41 steps to compete 100 metres whilst the rest of the field in an Olympic final would take nearer 48 steps.  However, the computer models are proving to be very accurate and such data helps to reassure palaeontologists that the information produced from studies on extinct animals must be near the mark.

One unresolved problem with the computer simulation is that the model dinosaur relies almost entirely on the muscles in its upper legs, without flexing muscles around its ankles, which is not physiologically plausible.

By including more prior knowledge about what types of movement are realistic, Mr Bates hopes to refine the model to give a more realistic portrayal of how large predators would have moved.  There is one other specific problem associated with Acrocanthosaurus.  We must acknowledge that in common with most other large Theropod dinosaurs there is little fossil material to study.  However, Acrocanthosaurus means “high spined lizard”, it got its name from the neural spines that run down the backbone from the neck to the tail.  The purpose of these spines is unclear.  We can’t remember whether there are ossified tendons associated with these spines, but perhaps these spines in some way supported a flexible sail-like structure that stored energy in the hip region like a giant shock absorber.   A sort of spring device to help reduce the energy and effort required to move this giant dinosaur.  Kangaroos have tendons in the legs that help them save energy when bounding along, we are not suggesting that this dinosaur hopped like a Wallaby but maybe the swinging motion of the body coupled with the neural spines helped it to reduce the amount of energy used as it ran.

Trackways attributed to Acrocanthosaurus can provide supporting evidence of locomotive speed (the Alexander formula), once an estimate of hip height has been made.  These footprints always look so dainty to our eyes.  The feet of Acrocanthosaurus also seem relatively small considering the size of the animal.

Like we said earlier, the mysteries surround Theropod locomotion are going to rumble on.

Worlds Most Complete Apatosaurus Skeleton On Display

Apatosaurus “Einstein” on Display

The most complete fossilised skeleton of an Apatosaurus ever found is going on display in Mexico.  The dinosaur nick-named “Einstein” as it was found with most of its skull material intact, rare indeed for a Sauropod, is on display at the Lewis Hall in Fundidora Park, Monterrey, northern Mexico.

An article was written in 2007 by Everything Dinosaur team members describing the discovery at the small town of Ten Sleep in Wyoming.  It seems that this unfortunate Sauropod fell into a “predator trap” some 140 million years ago and this led to the exceptional state of preservation and to almost 80% of the entire skeleton being found.  The “predator trap” occurred as volcanic eruption covered a depression with a fine layer of ash, herbivores and other animals stumbled into it and their dead and dying bodies attracted predators such as Allosaurus and these too also became stuck in the mixture of mud and ash.

To read the original article: Exciting New Find of Apatosaurus

“Einstein” on Display

Picture Credit: Xinhua/Reuters

The picture shows “Einstein” in all its glory.  The 23 metre skeleton weighs over 4,000 kilogrammes and visitors can get a excellent impression of what this giant Jurassic Sauropod looked like.  Remarkably, the skull of this dinosaur was found almost intact.  Skull material in Sauropod dig sites is exceptionally rare and very few fossil skulls and skull material are known from the existing fossil record.  The neck is held in a more horizontal position, the pose now favoured by palaeontologists as compared to the “swan-neck” stance that was still popular in the1980s.  The tail is held off the ground.  The tiny head is over 4 metres off the ground and would have permitted this huge dinosaur to graze on low trees and scrub.  Scientists have estimated that it would have needed several hundred kilogrammes of plant material a day to keep this particular Jurassic giant well fed.

The latest Apatosaurus model from Schleich of Germany is posed in the now accepted posture of a Sauropod.  The earlier model had a tail drag (tail on the ground), but the new sculpt lifts the tail completely off the ground.

To view the new Schleich Apatosaurus: Dinosaur Toys for Boys and Girls – Dinosaur Models

Older than Archaeopteryx – Evidence supporting Birds Evolved from Feathered Dinosaurs

New Species of Ancient Jurassic Feathered Dinosaurs Unveiled

A team of Chinese researchers have revealed a total of five new types of feathered dinosaur.  Nothing too surprising with this considering the rich fossil finds of the Liaoning Province, however, these new feathered dinosaur fossils pre-date Archaeopteryx and prove that feathered Theropods were around long before the first bird.

Archaeopteryx fossils are known from the fine lithographic limestones of Bavaria and date from approximately 150 million years ago (Tithonian faunal stage), the late Jurassic.  These new species of feathered dinosaur have been found in two separate rock formations, the Tiajishan Formation (dating from 168-151 million years ago) and the Daohugou Formation (164 -158 million years ago).  These finds prove that there were feathered dinosaurs before birds like Archaeopteryx evolved, so it is possible that birds are the direct ancestors of dinosaurs.

Archaeopteryx displays a mix of characteristics in the fossilised skeleton that links birds and dinosaurs, it is described as a transition fossil.  The first fossils of Archaeopteryx have played a very important role in the acceptance of Darwinism as a mainstream scientific theory.  The first nearly complete fossil of Archaeopteryx was found just two years after the publication of the “Origin of Species”.  As predicted by Darwin’s theories on natural selection, if species evolved from the passing on of favourable characteristics from one generation to another, transitional forms would be found in the fossil record.  The Archaeopteryx fossils represent such an animal – a transition between Dinoauria and Aves.

The new dinosaur discoveries have all got feathers or feather-like structures associated with the fossil skeleton.

One of the “New” Ancient Feathered Dinosaurs

Picture Credit: CAS

The skull can be made out in the top left corner and the dark impressions are the preserved, fossilised feathers.

These discoveries were revealed at the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Palaeontologists, which was being held in Bristol.  Dr. Xu Xing (Chinese Academy of Science), one of the researchers behind these new fossil finds commentated on the situation regarding the fact that until now now feathered dinosaur fossils were known that dated before Archaeopteryx.

“These exceptional fossils provide us with evidence that has been missing until now.  Now it all fits neatly into place and we have tied up some of the loose ends”.

One of the dinosaurs, named Anchiornis huxleyi, has extensive plumage and profusely feathered feet.   It has been classified as a primitive Troodontid dinosaur, an animal that was feathered but could not fly.  The feathers were most probably used to keep these animals warm, indicating that many small dinosaurs were warm-blooded.  The feathers may also have been brightly coloured an perhaps used for display.

Dr Xing said these new finds had provided important new information on the origins of birds and the evolution of feathers.

Dr Xing went on to add:

“This fossil provides confirmation that the bird-dinosaur hypothesis is correct and supports the idea that birds descended from Theropod dinosaurs, the group of predatory dinosaurs that include Allosaurus and Velociraptor”.

The Fossil Skeleton of Anchiornis huxleyi

Ancient Feathered Creature

Picture Credit: CAS

Feathered dinosaurs may have been much more common than the current evidence in the fossil record suggests.  Dinosaurs such as Velociraptor may also have been feathered.

View Feathered Velociraptor: Dinosaur Models for Girls and Boys – Dinosaurs

Dinosaur Quiz Box Game – How Much do you Know about Dinosaurs?

Dinosaur Quiz Box Game – Dinosaur Inspired Game

Test your knowledge about dinosaurs and prehistoric animals with this super fun, family game.  Learn about prehistoric animals using this dinosaur based memory game, suitable for children from 6 years and upwards, although during our testing, children as young as five years got the hang of it and dazzled us with their knowledge.  To be played by one or more players, each competitor has ten seconds (as timed by the sand egg timer provided in the set), to memorise the prehistoric animal information on the card they have selected.  They are then challenged to answer a question on what they have just read and seen.  If they answer correctly they get to keep the card, if they don’t the card goes to their opponent.  The winner is the one, who after an agreed playing time has the most cards.

The Dinosaur Quiz Box Game

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

To view the game and other dino board games and puzzles: Dino Board Games, Puzzles

Packed full of fascinating dinosaur themed facts and figures, this is a super game to help develop young minds, help them with their memory and to assist in the development of concentration.  We found that children were learning whilst having fun.

A great Christmas present or general gift idea for budding palaeontologists.

Bedtime Stories

Bedtime Stories – Persuading a Three Year old to Sleep in Their Own Room

One of the amazing things about bringing up children is that unlike a new TV or computer they arrive without a set of instructions.  We are all thrust into the joys of parenting, and as we struggle to raise our offspring all sorts of problems are encountered and parents have to find a way of overcoming them.

For example, we were contacted by a Mum and Dad who were getting a little fraught, their young son (aged 3), was having trouble sleeping alone in his room at night.  He kept coming into the parent’s bedroom and he just wouldn’t settle.  This is quite a common problem with children having to get used to sleeping in their own room.  At three years of age, they are striving to become independent in so many ways, but at night many young children feel uncomfortable alone and seek the reassurance of their Mum and Dad.

This little boy is obsessed with dinosaurs, so the parents decided to provide him with a dinosaur mural so that his bedroom could become his very own “dinosaur land”.  Everything Dinosaur supplied the wall mural (10 feet by 8 feet tall) and this was duly put up over the weekend.

On the Monday night, the little boy slept right through the night, happy to be in his own room surrounded by his dinosaurs and his fantastic new bedroom mural.

The Dinosaur Wall Mural

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The wall mural features lots and lots of different dinosaurs and prehistoric animals.  It makes a very attractive and inexpensive addition to a dinosaur fan’s room.  Great news for Mums and Dads, it is easy to put up, we even put one up on our warehouse wall, next to our dinosaur soft toys.

To view the dinosaur mural and dinosaur bedroom accessories: Dinosaur Bedding & Dinosaur Bedroom Accessories

This little boy is so taken with his new “dinosaur land” that anyone who visits the house is now taken upstairs to see it and the Mum and Dad tell us that they now have a slightly different problem, getting the little boy out of his room.

All’s well that ends well, nice to know that dinosaurs can have a role in helping parents with toddlers and getting them to settle down for the night.

Quaternary Period Just Gained 800,000 Years

Geologists and Earth Scientists Agree to change the start date of the Quaternary

The International Commission on Stratigraphy has formally agreed to re-define the boundary dates for the Quaternary, back dating the start of this particular period of geological time to approximately 2.6 million years ago.  This new ruling super-cedes the ruling made in 1983 when the Quaternary period, the most recent period of geological time was set as lasting from 1.8 million years ago to the present day.

The debate over where the boundary for the Quaternary/Neogene periods should be has raged for decades with the origins of the argument lost in the confusion that arose when the science of geology first began.  Back in the days of Cuvier, Barrande, Sedgwick, Darwin et al geological time was divided into four epochs, the Primary, Secondary, Tertiary and the present epoch the Quaternary.  If you read any of the original texts from these scientists and their contemporaries you will come across these terms when the ages of fossils are discussed.  The terms Primary and Secondary have long since been renamed (the eras of the Palaeozoic and the Mesozoic), but the term Tertiary representing a sub-era that dates from the end of the Cretaceous to the beginning of the Quaternary is still used widely today.  This particular interval of geological time consists of five epochs.  The first three are the Paleocene, Eocene and Oligocene (forming the Palaeogene period) and the final two are the Miocene and Pliocene (Neogene period).

A number of attempts have been made in the past to agree the start date for the Quaternary.  The old boundary of 1.8 million years ago, does not represent a significant natural event.  Major cooling of the Earth began approximately 2.6 million years ago, much of the northern hemisphere became covered in ice sheets and many scientists have long argued that this point in geological time would make a more appropriate boundary.

Commenting on the change of dates, Professor Philip Gibbard stated:

“It has long been agreed that the boundary of the Quaternary Period should be placed at the first sign of global climate cooling.  What we have achieved is the definition of the boundary of the Quaternary to an internationally recognised and fixed point that represents a natural event, the beginning of the ice ages on a global scale”.

Until this new agreement was reached, it has been widely felt within the scientific community that the Quaternary boundary should be located earlier, at a time of greater change in the earth-climate system. (rapid and extensive cooling).

The Professor added:

“For practical reasons, such boundaries should ideally be made as easy as possible to identify all around the world.  The new boundary of 2.6 million years is just that”.

Looks like a lot of textbooks are going to be re-written.  The formal start date of the Quaternary is now 2.58 million years ago and a paper has been published in the scientific journal “Journal of Quaternary Science”, clarifying the new position.

Extract published in part from Science Daily.

On the Cusp of the Phanerozoic

On the Cusp of the Phanerozoic (Visible Life)

Geological time is divided into a number of specific segments.  Most people are familiar with terms such as the Cretaceous and Jurassic.  A few may have heard of the Devonian and Silurian but not many can put these periods (for that is what they are) in the right order.  However, although a geological period can cover millions of years, for example the Cretaceous 144-65 million years ago approximately and the relatively short Silurian in comparison (443 to 417 million years ago), periods themselves are sub-sections of much larger tracts of time called eras.  We are currently living in the Cenozoic era (means recent time).  This began approximately 65 million years ago when the Mesozoic ended.  Eras themselves, are sub-sections of even larger intervals of time, these are called eons.

Two eons are generally considered to make up all of geological time since the formation of the Earth around 4.6 billion years ago.  Firstly, there is the Cryptozoic (means hidden life), this is by far the largest of the eons, lasting over 4 billion years.  It begins at the formation of our planet and ends approximately 550 million years ago.  The second Eon, the one we are living in; is called the Phanerozoic (means visible life).  Sometime around 545-570 million years ago, one of the most important and dramatic events in the history of life on Earth started to happen.  There was a sudden burst of evolution and a much wider diversity of life suddenly shows up in the fossil record.  A whole array of new organisms appear in the fossil record, especially those with hard, exoskeletons and other robust parts that can be mineralised.  Life on Earth seems to explode, hence the term the “Cambrian Explosion”.

Body fossils with hard shells and other robust appendages become abundant and the fossil record goes into overdrive.  This event is so important in the study of geology and life on Earth that it marks the end of Cryptozoic and the beginning of a new Eon, the Phanerozoic.  This is a good a place to divide up Eons, an explosion of life forms.  There were a number of soft-bodied organisms, multi-cellular organisms having evolved sometime in the Precambrian (an alternative name for the Cryptozoic), but by their very soft-bodied nature little is known about this fauna.  Collectively, this fauna is known as Ediacaran fauna -after a range of hills in Australia where soft-bodied animal fossils dating from the Precambrian have been found.

Team members at Everything Dinosaur have had chance to look at some of the remarkable fossils of early life from Canada.  These are known as the Burgess shales.  Many of these fossils are on display at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.  Researchers and scientists from this Canadian museum are working in another remote part of that huge country to help make casts and replicas of some of earliest hard, shelled animals from the Cambrian Explosion.  At a site called Mistaken Point, on the Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland, scientists are carefully making casts of fossils that date to around 565 million years ago.  Casts allow scientists to study the copies and help preserve a record of fossil material before it suffers from erosion or other damage.  By casting fossils, duplicates can be sent to other scientists to study or to be put on display all over the world.

Commenting on the casting work being undertaken at Mistaken Point, Royal Ontario Museum Associate Curator of Invertebrate Palaeontology, Jean-Bernard Caron stated:

“One advantage of casting is, obviously, is to show similar objects to a wider audience, which is the case here.  We are going to show the casts, not only in Newfoundland close to the site, but also at the Royal Ontario Museum, where a million visitors come through our doors every year”.

Some of the Rare Early Phanerozoic Fossils in Newfoundland

Picture Credit: CBC

The fossils were formed at the bottom of a shallow sea.  They consist of the discarded exoskeletons of a number of invertebrates.  The casting process will help preserve this precious fossil data as walkers have inadvertently damaged a number of specimens and some fossil thefts have occurred as enthusiasts have chiseled individual fossils out of the rock.

Once the casting work is complete, technicians from the Royal Ontario Museum will cover over part of the site, helping to protect the fossils from further damage.

Tracing Human Ancestry – Our Complicated Family Tree

Genetic Studies will Help to Unravel Hominid Evolution

The paucity of the early human fossil record has hampered scientists in their search to understand more about the evolution of our own species (Homo sapiens) and our taxonomic relationship with other early hominids such as Homo neanderthalensis, Homo erectus and H. heidelbergensis.  Our human family tree is constantly being revised as more hominid fossils are found in various parts of the world.  Although most of these fossils are fragmentary, it is hoped that genetic material extracted from these fossil samples will provide a powerful insight into the relationships between different species.

Geneticists have refined search techniques to such an extent that in the very near future, molecules of DNA recovered from fossilised remains such as femurs and other large bones from hominids that lived more than a hundred thousand years ago, will be enough to provide data on the genome.  The genome is the entirety of an organism’s hereditary information, a DNA (also RNA included), based map of an organism, that when compared to other genomes will show how closely related (how similar) those organism are at the genetic level.

Just How Closely Related are Modern Humans to Neanderthals?

Research into the genetics of ancient hominids.

Research into the genetics of ancient hominids.

For example, analysis of the Neanderthal genome from material many thousands of years old, will help scientists to understand the differences between ourselves and this species of hominid, which is believed to be the most closely related to us.  The genetic differences discovered, may help researchers to identify behaviours and other traits that led to the extinction of some hominid species and to the survival of H. sapiens to the present day.

One of the problems likely to be encountered is that there is evidence of interbreeding between different species.  This interbreeding will blur the boundaries between different species and this coupled with the wide geographical spread of some early hominids such as Homo erectus for instance, will make mapping probable lines of descent at the species level very difficult.

A spokes person from the dinosaur toy company Everything Dinosaur stated:

“The study of the genetic make up of human ancestors will help to shed light on the relationships between different species on the hominid family tree.  However, it is likely that such studies will raise almost as many questions as answers.  Our evolutionary path and the patterns of hominid development are not going to be easy to unravel even with advances in the study of genetic information.”

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