In a Flap over our Feathered Friends

What was the Biggest Creature with Feathers of All Time?

In one of Everything Dinosaur’s frequent trips to school to visit young dinosaur fans and to help them appreciate fossils and all things Dinosaur, we get asked lots of questions from the enthusiastic student palaeontologists.   Last week we were asked the rather intriguing question – which was the biggest feathered creature of all time?

A tricky question, one that can be split up into two answers, the largest bird and the largest feathered animal, they may not be one and the same.  In terms of known examples from the fossil record the largest bird could also be split into two.  The recently extinct Elephant Bird of Madagascar (Aepyornis genus) was perhaps the largest flightless bird known to science.  This huge bird has fascinated the naturalist and broadcaster, Sir David Attenborough for much of his adult life and this was the subject of a recent BBC documentary.

To read more about this documentary: Attenborough – The Elephant Bird and his Fossil Fascination

The Elephant Bird may have been up to ten feet tall.  The largest flying bird known from the fossil record, comes from Argentina.  Argentavis magnificens - a giant Condor from the Late Miocene Epoch.  Formally named and described in 1981, this giant bird had a wing span of up to eight metres, making it a rival for the largest Pterosaurs.

However, in terms of our feathered friends, the largest feathered creature of all time, may have been a dinosaur.

Gigantoraptor (Gigantoraptor erlianensis) is known from one disarticulated and incomplete fossil specimen.  It was discovered in 2005 by a team of Chinese palaeontologists from the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology (Beijing).  The fossils represent one individual animal and include the lower jaw and elements of the beak, vertebrae, a shoulder blade, parts of the fore-limbs and almost the entire hind-limbs.   This bizarre dinosaur has been classified as a member of the Oviraptor family, but it is approximately five times bigger and much heavier than any other Oviraptorid.  Gigantoraptor was formally named and described by Xu Xing and colleagues in 2007.  The species name honours the area of Inner Mongolia where the fossils were found.  It was over 8 metres in length and may have weighed as much as 1.5 Tonnes.

An Illustration of Gigantoraptor (G. erlianensis)

“Big Dino-Bird”

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The illustration above is based on the Collecta Gigantoraptor dinosaur model.

To view the Collecta range of models that features a model of this amazing Late Cretaceous dinosaur and other dinosaur models: Dinosaur Toys for Children – Dinosaur Models

So, Gigantoraptor may be the largest feathered animal of all time, at least the largest one discovered to date, but who knows what wonders lie out in the vast lands of Mongolia and other remote places awaiting discovery.

To read more about this dinosaur’s discovery: New Chinese Dinosaur Discovery – Gigantoraptor

Good luck to Brandon at the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival

Brandon and his  Fossil Walk

The annual Lyme Regis Fossil Festival starts today.  It runs from April 29th across the holiday weekend and concludes on May 1st.  This has become such an important event in the fossil collector’s calendar that even Royal Weddings are timed to coincide with this event.

Our dear chum Brandon Lennon, is taking a group of lucky people on a guided fossil walk this morning, over the fossil rich rocks on the beaches of Lyme Regis.  We are not sure which route the experienced fossil hunter will take, perhaps he will head over to Monmouth beach or maybe he will take the short trip over to Charmouth under the Church cliffs heading over towards the magnificent Black Ven.  No matter which route is chosen, those lucky people able to secure a place on Brandon’s guided fossil walk will be guaranteed to find some interesting fossils, as guided by a local expert they really can’t miss.

Maybe a Visit to the Spectacular Ammonite/Nautiloid Pavement at Lyme Regis

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Best of luck to Brandon, hope the weather stays fine for you and here’s hoping that the rest of the Fossil Festival enjoys excellent weather and record breaking crowds.

To read more about Brandon’s walks: Guided Fossil Walks

As for team members at Everything Dinosaur, this weekend we are heading further back in time…

Removing the Protection from a Crocodile

Mexican Crocodile Species Faces Loss of Protection

A number of species of crocodile are listed under international treaties with regards to their conservation status.  Although these animals are remarkably hardy, many species have suffered due to loss of habitat and as a result of hunting for their valuable skins.  The Mexican crocodile (Crocodylus moreletii), otherwise known as the Central American crocodile or Morelet’s crocodile, after the French naturalist who first recognised this animal as a distinct species, is one such crocodile that has been persecuted over the years.

A native to freshwater habitats of Mexico, Belize and Guatemala, this particular crocodile, which can grow to lengths of 4 metres or more, is closely related to the Cuban and the American crocodiles.  It has a broad snout and a row of dark bands that run down its flanks, making its skin highly prized.  It is very similar in appearance to the now extremely rare Cuban crocodile.  Although, attacks by this creature are very infrequent, it is still regarded as highly dangerous and a potential man-eater.

The Mexican Crocodile – About to Lose its Protected Status?

About to lose protection

Picture Credit: CNS

According to a statement from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the Mexican crocodile has made sufficient recovery to be removed from the Endangered Species List.  The crocodile would remain endangered under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, to which the United States is a signatory.

This crocodile species, which was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Conservation Act in 1972, is endemic to fresh water habitats along the Gulf of Mexico, from southern Mexico to Guatemala, although exact numbers of individuals is difficult to quantify.   At the time of its listing, the crocodile was endangered by habitat destruction and exploitation through the commercial trade in crocodile skin.

Because the species is not endemic to the United States, its protection under the Act was limited to a ban in the import or export of live animals, the skin from the carcase, or products made from crocodile’s skin.  In 2005, the government of Mexico petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to delist the Morelet’s crocodile, arguing that conservation efforts, including farming operations to produce skins for luxury products, made bans on trade unnecessary for the species to survive in the wild.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is asking for public comment on its proposal to remove the Morelet’s crocodile from the list of endangered species.

Under the international convention for the protection of species, Morelet’s crocodile currently has the status of being “conservation dependent”.

What happened to Palaeontology in 1907?

Looking for a Dinosaur Formally Named and Described in 1907

The early years of the 20th Century saw a huge upsurge in the number of Dinosauria scientifically named and described.  Eminent palaeontologists such as Lull, Osborn, Brown, Lambe and the first members of the Sternberg dynasty were publishing papers on a vast number of new dinosaur genera, fossils of which were being unearthed in the United States and Canada.

Expeditions to Africa were being organised and within a few years after the turn of the century, a number of exciting dinosaur discoveries were being made on this continent as well.  However, despite the amount of research that was taking place during the years between 1900 and 1910, finding a dinosaur named and described in the year 1907 proved tricky for the Everything Dinosaur team members.

We wanted to find a dinosaur that had been named and described in the same year that a school we had visited was built (hence our interest in 1907).  We thought this would have been quite easy, for example, the Hadrosaurid and Ceratopsian families were being rapidly expanded and surely, all it would have taken would have been a few minutes of searching through the database and we would find a dinosaur named and described in that year.

Not as easy as we thought, nothing came out of our first searches.  Yes, there were a number of other ancient reptiles named and described in the year in question, but we could not find any references to dinosaurs scientifically described in 1907.  We extended our search to include some Pterosaurs and marine reptiles but still no luck.  In the end we had to compromise and propose Ankylosaurus magniventris named in 1908.

An Illustration of Ankylosaurus magniventris

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Think we may have to do some more looking.

Crocodile Blood Could Help People who are HIV Positive

Crocodile Blood could Hold Key to Improving Human Immune System

Crocodiles, those ancient predators may have a reputation as being man-eaters but new research suggests that their remarkable physiognomy may prove beneficial to humans when it comes to combating AIDS and other diseases.

Researchers at Kasertsart University (Thailand) have discovered a new medicine to help HIV positive children using crocodile’s blood, which has been successfully tested on rats and is now ready for wider research on people suffering from a number of diseases including those with the HIV positive condition.

Win Cheichomsri, Chief of Crocodile Blood Research, Faculty of Zoology, has conducted an experiment to evaluate the effectiveness of crocodile’s blood in unhealthy rats.  For the university, the third oldest in Thailand, these tests mark the beginning of an extensive crocodile blood testing programme.  For years, scientists have been aware of the remarkable properties of crocodile blood.  These animals live in dirty, stagnant water stuffed full of bacteria but even though they may have open wounds their blood and it’s anti-bodies prevent infections.

A Saltwater Crocodile – Not Often Regarded as a Life Saver

Picture Credit: Associated Press

The researchers experiment involved two rats groups – one fed with supplement capsules made of crocodile’s blood and the other fed without the pills, a control group, as the scientists state.

Win Cheichomsri stated that the results indicate that the controlled group (fed without capsules) have bigger spleens than those in the experimental group.

The experimental rats (fed the crocodile supplements) became healthier and more fertile, reproducing many pups later on, the chief concludes.  The Food and Drug Administration committee has certified the crocodile-blood tablets as clean and safe supplements for consumption.

Mr. Cheichomsri believes that the crocodile-blood pills could improve the immune systems and general health of HIV positive children.  In fact, the capsules have been offered to twenty-four HIV infected children at Lorenzo Orphanage House in Panusnikom, Chonburi.

These children show remarkable physical changes after the consumption of the pills.  They show less fatigue and have more energy to play.  Their pustules are also gradually disappearing, Mr. Chiechomsri says.

He adds that those children who have suffered from hepatomegaly and splenomegaly, are presented with decreasing liver and spleen sizes.  In particular during cold weather these children do not fall ill, indicating an improvement in their immune systems, according to Mr. Chiechomsri.

Based on the results, Mitri Temsiripong (Manager of Sriracha Tiger Zoo) and Wisachini Rungtaweekchair (Wanithai Part, Ltd) donate the crocodile blood supplements to the children at the orphanage, as accepted by Sister Wichuda Kusub.  At the moment, the blood can be taken from the crocodiles without harming them and the crocodiles soon recover.

Perhaps these animals with a reputation for being man-eaters, may soon have gained a reputation for being man-savers as scientists search for new ways of combating disease and bacterial infections.

Hylonomus Returns Home

Oldest Reptile Fossil Returns to Nova Scotia

The coal deposits of Nova Scotia, laid down in the Carboniferous Geological period, some 310 million years ago, preserve a remarkable fossil record of the swamps and forests of this ancient time in Earth’s history.  Giant clubmosses and horsetails shared the landscape with strange tree-like Sigillaria and tall Lepidodendrons.  The climate was equatorial and the fossils at perhaps the most important site in Nova Scotia (Joggins, 150 miles north-west of Halifax) also preserve evidence of the animals that lived in this swampy domain.

More than 190 fossil skeletons of small amphibians and reptiles have been discovered at the Joggins site.  The Joggins cliffs were declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 2008, such is their importance to science.  Now one of the best preserved fossils of a tiny reptile, no more than 20 centimetres long is being returned to Canada for the first time since it was sent to London, more than a Century ago.

The fossil is of Hylonomus lyelli an insect eating reptile, that is believed to be one of the first of its kind.  Its head was proportionally much smaller than the amphibians from which it was descended.  However, the structure of the skull shows a significant advance over an amphibian skull as it allowed more space for the attachment of stronger jaw muscles.

An Illustration of Hylonomus

Picture Credit: Kingfisher

This fossil was uncovered by Nova Scotian geologist John William Dawson in 1859 but was handed over to the British Museum around the turn of the century. The British Museum is now known as the Natural History Museum.  The fossil is going to be on display at the Joggins Fossil Centre for the next six months.

The Joggins Fossil Centre’s chief palaeontologist Melissa Grey commented:

“If you look closely, you can see elements that you would recognise.  Bits of the jaw with teeth and the backbone and the tail and some of the legs as well.”

The fossil is so delicate and precious, it had to be delivered by hand.  Such a cargo cannot be trusted to even the most conscientious of courier firms.  A number of small reptile and amphibian fossils have been discovered at the site, many have been recovered from the tree-sized stumps of large Carboniferous plants.  How or why these creatures ended up preserved in the remains of ancient plants is a mystery.  A number of theories have been proposed, for example these small vertebrates may have made such tree stumps their homes.  Or perhaps small creatures fell into the rotten stumps and found themselves stuck, unable to crawl out again – an example of a natural “bottle trap”.

Whatever the explanation, these fossils are very important to scientists as they attempt to piece together the story of how vertebrates came to conquer the land.

Melissa added:

“This is the world’s oldest known fossil reptile.  So it is very important to our understanding of vertebrate life, animals with a backbone and that includes us.”

The fossil will form part of a special display and will be on show until October 31st.

Dinosaurs on the Beach

Dinosaur Fossil Sand Mould

Young palaeontologists can create their own Tyrannosaurus rex fossils with this super dinosaur fossil sand mould set.  Ten robust and sturdy plastic pieces that when filled with sand and laid out form the impression of a skeleton of a mighty Tyrannosaurus rex.  Available in two bright and cheerful colours (red and blue), this handy dinosaur fossil casting kit is ideal for the beach and makes a change from building sand castles.

The Dinosaur Fossil Sand Mould Set

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The geological hammer provides a scale just like we do when we find real fossils including dinosaur bones. When the dinosaur fossil sand mould is laid out it produces a sand sculpture that is over ninety centimetres long.

Dinosaur Fossil Sand Mould and other dinosaur craft ideas: Dinosaur Crafts for Kids

Let your young dinosaur fans be the envy of other children on the beach with this fun, dinosaur themed item.  The dinosaur fossil sand mould set is also available in blue.

Dinosaurs in the Sand (Dinosaur Fossil Sand Mould)

Fun on the beach with dinosaurs

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Suitable for children from three years and upwards this is a super dinosaur themed beach accessory

Review of March of the Dinosaurs

Jurassic Parka! – A Review of March of the Dinosaurs

Yes, we know that this two hour animation was set in the Late Cretaceous but we could not help ourselves going for the “Jurassic Parka” pun.  Narrated by Stephen Fry and directed by Matthew Thompson, this CGI documentary tells the story of Scar a young Edmontosaurus (duck-billed dinosaur) and his herd’s migration away from the high north of the Americas down the western shores of the huge inland sea that effectively cut North America in two for much of the Cretaceous.

Herds of herbivores would gorge themselves on the abundant vegetation in northern latitudes which would have had almost perpetual sunlight to permit plants to grow through the summer months.  However, as the year passed so the sun would dip lower and lower each day until it would no longer emerge above the horizon and the long night of winter would prevail.  The summer migrants would be heading south to avoid the worst of the winter, whilst the resident dinosaurs such as a Troodontid known as Patch would stay put.

The trek made by Scar and his herd, plus the perils of winter survival for Patch, form the basis of this CGI documentary which runs for 87 minutes in total.  The storyline is loosely based on our knowledge of the Dinosauria and other creatures from fossil remains found at locations that would have been near the High Arctic during the Cretaceous.  The behaviour of the dinosaurs and many of the dramatic twists and turns in the plot are based on conjecture and assumptions.  For example, there is no proof that Gorgosaurus (a Tyrannosaurid) was a specialist nocturnal hunter.

The story starts at the end of the summer and the first signs of a change in season for the herd of duck-billed dinosaurs. Soon the darkening skies begin to limit the amount of available plant food and the great herds of plant-eaters are forced to head south to avoid the worst of the winter and to find enough food to feed their massive bulk.  Along the way, Scar and the other dinosaurs face predation, natural disasters and death from starvation.  It was interesting to see the Azhdarchid Pterosaurs such as Quetzalcoatlus depicted as scavengers circling high above the sparse plains waiting to feed on the dying and the dead.  Although fossils of some Azhdarchid Pterosaurs such as Quetzalcoatlus are associated with inland areas and not marine environments, whether or not these huge flying reptiles really filmed the same ecological niche as vultures do today is a mute point.

For Patch and the rest of the residents of the Arctic forest they have to survive as best they can in the perpetual darkness.  The armoured dinosaur referred to as an Ankylosaur which shared the frozen forest with the Troodontids, had no tail club.  This fact would not have gone unnoticed by young dinosaur fans watching.  The animal depicted was actually a member of the Nodosauridae, a family of the Ankylosauria that lacked a bony club on the end of their tails.  Whether or not such an animal once flipped on its back could right itself again is open to speculation once more.

All in all, a diverting and entertaining tale, loosely based on scientific knowledge.  Certainly, lots of dinosaurs migrated and lived in herds, these herds in turn, would have been pursued by predators such as packs of Albertosaurs (fossils of these Tyrannosaurs have been found in close proximity to each other suggesting a pack behaviour).  The CGI although impressive in parts reminded us of the sort of computer graphics seen in computer games, the landscape and details of the undergrowth could have been much better.

As for the Mosasaurs lurking in rivers and frozen lakes, as far as we know there is not a lot of fossil evidence to support this and Troodontids laying eggs on compacted snow in the depths of winter, we thought this most unlikely.  Our team members suspect that most if not all animals would lay eggs during the period when the sunlight had returned and the temperature had begun to rise.  After all, most modern birds do this (excluding some species of penguin). So a little bit of a mixed bag or keeping our Dinosaurian/Avian thinking caps on should we refer to this documentary as a bit like the curate’s egg.

Jurassic Park with Spider Webs

Jurassic Aged Fossil Proves some Orb Spiders are “Living Fossils”

China may be a hotbed for dinosaur and other vertebrate fossils, but the beautifully formed fossil of an invertebrate, a spider has grabbed the spotlight in the last few days.   Spiders are members of the Arthropoda, invertebrates with eight legs and although they have been known since Carboniferous times, the fossil record for these creatures is extremely poor as their soft body parts do not normally get preserved.

With a leg span exceeding ten centimetres this new spider species was no tiny bug, if it produced large circular webs like its modern descendants it may have ensnared dragonflies and perhaps the occasional baby Pterosaur.  Scientists have proposed that this fossil  is one of the largest Arachnid specimens known from the fossil record.  It has been named Nephila jurassica.

A research team of Kansas University and Capital Normal University (Beijing, China) said the spider belongs to the living genus Nephila, or golden orb-weavers.  An extremely long range for any animal genus, the Nephilids are example of what many people refer to as “living fossils”.  Nephilids are the largest web-weaving spiders alive today (body length up to 5 cm, leg span 15 cm) and are common to the tropical and subtropical regions today.  This suggests that the palaeoclimate of Daohugou, China, where the specimen was found, was probably similarly warm and humid during the Jurassic.  True, global temperatures in the Jurassic were much higher than today, so perhaps the warm, humid forests of this part of China teemed with life, including large spiders spinning their webs with the aim of catching an unwary flying creature.

The Fossil Spider (left) Compared to an Extant Orb-Weaver Spider (right)

 

Picture Credit: University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute

In the image above, the figure on the left is of a fossil female golden orb-weaver spider (Nephila jurassica) from the Middle Jurassic of China.  The body length about 1 inch, front legs about 2.5 inches (= leg span more than 5 inches). Next to it is an image of a living female golden orb-weaver spider (Nephila pilipes), in Queensland, Australia, on her golden orb web. It is about the same size as the fossil specimen.

Nephila spider females weave some of the largest orb webs known (up to 1.5 metres in diameter) with distinctive gold-coloured silk to catch a wide variety of medium-sized to large insects, but occasionally bats and birds as by-catches, so the possibility of a Jurassic Nephilid catching a small Pterosaur, perhaps something like an Anurognathus, with a body length not much bigger than the fossil spider is intriguing.  Typically, an orb-weaver spider first weaves a non-sticky spiral with space for sticky spirals in between.  Unlike most other orb-weaving spiders, Nephila do not remove the non-sticky spirals after weaving the sticky spirals.  This results in a ‘manuscript paper’ effect when the orb is seen in the sunlight, because the sticky spirals reflect the light while the non-sticky spirals do not, thus resembling musical staves.

This fossil finding provides evidence that golden orb-webs were being woven and capturing medium to large insects in Jurassic times, and predation by these spiders would have played an important role in the natural selection of contemporaneous insects.

Orb spiders are common throughout the Old and New Worlds, whilst working in Kenya one of the Everything Dinosaur team members, took a photograph of a substantial spiders web that has been built outside their first floor hotel room.  The picture below shows the orb spider and the macabre remains of some of the unfortunate insects that has blundered their way into this silken trap during the night.

An Impressive Orb Spider Web (Kenya)

Large web of Orb spider

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The research was published in the online edition of Biology Letters.  Paul A. Selden, Gulf-Hedberg Distinguished Professor at Kansas University and Director of the Palaeontological Institute, as well as ChungKun Shih and Dong Ren, professors from Capital Normal University, Beijing, produced the research paper.

Review of Prehistoric Times (Spring 2011)

A Review of Prehistoric Times Magazine (Issue 97)

The latest edition of the magazine known as Prehistoric Times has just arrived in the office and what a bumper edition it is.  The front cover shows the rather gory features of an Acrocanthosaurus (Theropod dinosaur), as drawn by that talented artist Ricardo Delgado, an interview with Ricardo is featured and his work on the “Age of Reptiles” story series is discussed.  Two often neglected but much admired prehistoric animals are in this magazine.  Firstly, there is Plateosaurus, that leviathan from the Triassic, Phil Hore provides an update on the latest research and information on this member of the Sauropodomorpha.  The second prehistoric animal featured, it is really a group rather than a spotlight on a single genus – is the Champosaurs (Champosaurus), long lasting members of the Choristodera, with their crocodilian-like appearance.

Gregory S. Paul sets out the latest scientific work on the Azhdarchids (giant Pterosaurs) and asks the question - were these reptiles bigger than giraffes?  The latest palaeontology news is dealt with in depth (anything that we at Everything Dinosaur have not reported on is covered here), and there is a special section on the genus Giraffatitan.

The Front Cover of Prehistoric Times (Issue 97)

“PT” for dinosaur fans

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The magazine includes lots and lots of contributions from readers, the latest dinosaur and prehistoric animal models plus book reviews and a special feature on how to model a Giganotosaurus.

To visit Prehistoric Times website: Prehistoric Times

One article we enjoyed reading in particular, was the spread on the Museu de Paleontologia de Marilla, in Brazil.  Dinosauria are truly a world-wide phenomenon – great pictures and plenty of information about this museum in Sao Paulo state.

Staypressed theme by Themocracy