Category: Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories

Reconstructing the Brains of Ancient Lungfish

Comparing the Brains of Extant Lungfish to their Ancient Relatives

The lungfish might be regarded by some as a “living fossil”, a term that we at Everything Dinosaur prefer not to use, as it implies that a species has remained present in the fossil record for a very long time.  However, the six species of lungfish alive today, do represent an extremely long lineage of fishes, that have remained relatively unaltered since they first evolved back in the Devonian.  How similar extant lungfish are to their ancient counterparts has been determined by a team of researchers from South Australia (Flinders University) and Sweden (Uppsala University) who have used a combination of computerised tomography and computer modelling to map and compare the brains of living lungfish species with fossils dating back some 365 million years.

A Very Ancient Lineage of Fishes – Lungfish

A lungfish from Australia.

A living Australian lungfish (Neoceratodus forsteri).

Picture Credit: Getty Images/Tom McHugh

Ancient Vertebrates

Lungfish belong to the Class Sarcopterygii part of the huge bony fish group of vertebrates, that is most closely related to Tetrapods and that includes our own species H. sapiens.  Today’s lungfish, all six species, are becoming increasingly rare and scientists still do not know a great deal about them, their behaviours and how they are able to survive in extreme environments.  One thing we do know, is that for a fish, they are relatively big brained.  Of course, brain size does not necessarily reflect cognitive function, but lungfish brains tend to occupy about 80 percent of their cranial cavity.  Compare this to the somewhat more sedentary and a close relative of lungfish, the Coelacanth (Latimeria).  Studies of Latimeria have shown that less than 5% of their cranial cavity is occupied by their brains.

Using Technology to “Brain-warp” Lungfish Fossils

Having a cranial cavity which is mostly filled by brain tissue is a trait more associated with mammals than with fish.  Knowing this, scientists can use the endocast of lungfish fossils that have been preserved in three-dimensions to map the brains of these ancient creatures.  That is exactly what the Swedish and Australian researchers did and their paper has been published on line in the open source directory of the Royal Society.

The fossilised remains of a Late Devonian lungfish (Rhinodipterus) excavated from the Gogo Formation of western Australia have been subjected to high resolution computerised tomography and the data has been used to “brain-warp” cranial soft tissues so the brains of long extinct creatures can be constructed.

A Three-dimensional Skull Fossil of the Sarcopterygian Rhinodipterus from the Gogo Formation

A Skull of the Lungfish Rhinodipterus.

A three-dimensional Rhinodipterus skull from the Gogo Formation.

Picture Credit: ABC

The picture above shows a right lateral view of the skull of Rhinodipterus excavated from the famous Gogo Formation .  The three-dimensional preservation of fossils has permitted the cranial research to take place.

Flinders University evolutionary biologist and lead author of the scientific paper, Alice Clement commented:

“These fishy cousins of ours offer a great insight into our ancient ancestors who first crawled out of water and onto land some 370 million years ago.”

The research team used the endocast from a fossil lungfish to form a three-dimensional diagram of the brain and surrounding tissue.  From this, the scientists could develop ideas regarding brain function and phylogeny of the lungfish family as a whole.  An ancient lungfish brain reconstructed in virtual reality is one thing, built in conjunction with the team’s own sophisticated and novel distance mapping software, but it is hoped these techniques can be applied elsewhere in the fossil record.

Mapping the Brains of Lungfish

Brain mapping in Lungfish.

The Queensland Lungfish brain compared to an ancient relative (Rhinodipterus).

Picture Credit: The Royal Society

The picture above shows brain comparisons between an extant Queensland lungfish (Neoceratodus) and the extinct lungfish Rhinodipterus of the Late Devonian.   Colour coded distance map (a) for the relationship between brain and cranial cavity in Neoceratodus, (b) a three-dimensional endocast of Rhinodipterus.  The reconstructed brain of Rhinodipterus (c) presented as a colour coded brain endocast distance map and (d), a spatial overlap of the reconstructed Rhinodipterus brain (grey) with the endocast (pale red).  The reconstructed brain of Rhinodipterus viewed from the top (dorsal view) is diagram (e).

Brains are Difficult Things to Study

The new “brain-warp” method is important because when it comes to ancient anatomy, brains are extremely difficult to study.  Soft tissue such as brains is highly unlikely to fossilise, although brain shape and structure can be inferred if the bones that surround the brain are preserved.  By examining the hollow, a lot of information about brain morphology can be obtained.

Palaeontologist John Long, an expert on the fossils of the Gogo Formation and co-author of the scientific paper commented:

“Animals’ soft tissue usually breaks down, so discovery of a fossilised brain is very rare.”

The Strategic Professor of Palaeontology at Flinders University went onto explain that lungfishes have a very long evolutionary history, first evolving some 410 million years ago and having a peak diversity of about a hundred species during the latter part of the Silurian and through to the Devonian.

Weird Facts about Lungfishes

  • Molecular studies using living lungfishes and the Latimeria genus of Coelacanth have shown that lungfishes are more closely related to Tetrapods than Coelacanths.
  • Six species of lungfish are know, the Queensland lungfish (Neoceratodus forsteri) from Australia, four species from Africa and one species from South America.
  • The South American lungfish (Lepidosiren paradoxa) when first scientifically studied in the mid 1830’s was thought to be a reptile due to its close affinity with Tetrapods.
  • The West African lungfish (Protopterus annectans) can go without food for more than three years.  When this lungfish was scientifically described by Sir Richard Owen, it was placed at first with the Class Amphibia (amphibians).

Did Humans Evolve Independently in Asia?

Asia’s Role in Human Evolution May Be More Significant

Scientists from the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology (IVPP) have challenged conventional theory by claiming that humans may have evolved independently in Asia as well as Africa.  Asia’s role in our own evolution may be underestimated, that is the verdict given by Research Fellow Zhao Lingxia (IVPP) who led a field team exploring the limestone caves of Bijie, in south-west China’s Guizhou Province.  Three hominin teeth the team found in one of the caves were discovered in sediments that have been dated to 178,000 years to 112,000 years ago, some 70,000 years or so earlier than when the first modern humans (H. sapiens) are believed to have entered western Europe.  The study has been published in the Chinese academic journal Acta Anthropologica Sinica.

Scientists Study Caves Around the World to Gain a Better Understanding of Human Evolution

Inside Imanai Cave (Urals)

Scientists carefully examining in situ evidence.

Picture Credit:  Pavel Kosintsev

Tentative Dates

Before anthropologists re-write human history, more work needs to be done to establish the true age of the ancient teeth.  Re-distribution of the sediments and geological upheaval may have skewed the estimated dates.  However, other recent fossil finds (October 2015), by Zhao’s colleagues, Liu Wu and Wu Xiujie, from Hunan Province (central China), indicate an age of perhaps as old as 120,000 years.  The forty-seven teeth found in Daoxian county (Hunan Province) remain the oldest fossils of modern hominins to have been found in eastern Asia.

Commenting on the significance of these ancient human remains, Liu Wu stated:

“There is overwhelming evidence from the fossil record that China was populated with humans before the arrival of African settlers.”

Homo erectus in China

According to a number of Chinese media agencies, the fossilised skull of a Homo erectus was found in Dongzhi county in Anhui Province (eastern China).  The skull has been tentatively dated to 150,000 to 412,000 years ago.  A number of H. erectus sites are known from China (Shaanxi Province, Jiangsu Province as well as Anhui Province) and a spokesperson for the IVPP stated that over the last decade our understanding of human evolution in eastern Asia had been revolutionised.  Human fossils have been discovered across much of southern China, many of which date back 100,000 years or more, but which share similar anatomical features with modern Chinese people.

Homo erectus Skull found in China

Homo erectus skull fossil.

The skull of a H. erectus found in China.

Picture Credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences

Stone tools found in association with a number fossilised bones indicate that there was a thriving stone tool manufacturing culture in this part of the world, but it was distinct from what has been identified from African migrants into the Near and Middle East and into Europe.

The stone tool cultures and the large amount of ancient hominin fossils uncovered in China suggested a “seamless evolution” toward the present-day Chinese people.  Even if the arrival of African migrants might have introduced certain new genes, no replacement or mass extinction had happened.  There is a growing consensus that the evolutionary story in Asia is much more interesting than previously considered.

A Forgotten Continent

Renowned palaeoanthropologist Chris Stringer (Natural History Museum – London),  stated that Asia has been a forgotten continent.

Professor Stringer said:

“Its role in human evolution may have been largely under-appreciated.”

A Selection of Homo erectus Fossils from China

H. erectus fossils from China.

Homo erectus fossil material including teeth.

Picture Credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences

Homo floresiensis

A discovery made in 2003 in a cave on the Indonesian island of Flores led to the establishment of a new type of early human species – Homo floresiensis.  Their diminutive size led this hominin species to be nicknamed “Hobbits”.  The discovery of H. floresiensis demonstrates that our evolutionary history may yet reveal some intriguing surprises.

Homo floresiensis (female based on skeletal remains LB1)

Homo floresiensis female

Homo floresiensis female based on skeletal remains LB1.

Picture Credit:  Reconstruction of female H. floresiensis based on LB-1 fossil material by John Gurche

To read an article suggesting that modern humans may have driven H. floresiensis to extinction: Did H. sapiens’s arrival make H. floresiensis extinct?

Getting Our Claws into the Megaraptora

The Consequences of the Leggy Murusraptor

With the publication of the scientific paper announcing the discovery of Murusraptor (M. barrosaensis) in the on line access journal PLOS ONE, palaeontologists might be one step nearer to identifying where in the Theropoda the Megaraptora clade fits.  One thing is for certain, the Megraptoridae family and those dinosaurs closely related to them, are not closely related to the dromaeosaurids – the likes of Velociraptor.

An Illustration of the Newly Described Murusraptor barrosaensis

Roaming Patagonia 80 million years ago

A leggy, Late Cretaceous carnivore (Murusraptor).

Picture Credit: Jan Sovak (University of Alberta)

Before we discuss the phylogeny of Murusraptor and how it relates to other types of meat-eating dinosaur, lets quickly provide an outline of this newly described dinosaur.

Large Claws and Pneumatised Bones

The fossilised remains of a large, meat-eating dinosaur were spotted eroding out of a steep sandstone cliff that makes up a part of the Upper Cretaceous Sierra Barrosa Formation of Neuquén Province, southern Argentina.  The permineralised, white bones were clearly identifiable against the sandy rock matrix, but extracting the specimen proved troublesome for palaeontologists Professor Phil Currie (University of Alberta) and co-author of the scientific paper, Dr. Rodolfo Coria (Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas, Argentina).  The first fossils were discovered during fieldwork sixteen years ago, but it has taken time to extract the disassociated fossil material from the various layers that it was deposited in.  Having to work half-way up a remote canyon impeded the progress of the field team.  The discovery of a single, poorly preserved manual ungual, (claw from the third finger of the hand), would hardly make the layperson scream “Megaraptor”, however, at forty-two millimetres long it is comparable in size to the third-finger claw of Megaraptor (M. namunhuaiquii), fossils of which come from Patagonia too.  The real giveaway that these fossils represented a new member of the Megaraptoridae family were the air-filled (pneumatised) bones.  These light, air-filled bones are very reminiscent of modern bird and typical of the Megaraptora clade.

Biostratigraphic Diagram Showing Approximate Location of Patagonian Members of the Megaraptora Clade

Identifying members of the Megaraptora clade in a rock sequence.

Stratigraphic table and geologic section indicating the provenance of the megaraptorins recorded in the Neuquén group

Picture Credit: PLOS ONE

The diagram above shows some of the layers of rock that comprise the Neuquén Group of Upper Cretaceous strata that make up the Neuquén Basin of southern Argentina.  A  number of different types of meat-eating dinosaurs have been discovered in these rocks including Megaraptor (M. namunhuaiquii), the discovery of which led to the establishment of the Megaraptoridae, a new family of Theropods.  Megaraptor fossils come from the slightly older Portezuelo Formation of the Neuquén Group, the huge claw associated with Megaraptor was thought to have been a sickle-like toe claw, hence the initial description of a dromaeosaurid dinosaur.  However, this claw was later interpreted as actually being from the hand (first digit).  Another member of the Megaraptora clade, the nine metre long Aerosteon (A. riocoloradense ), is known from slightly younger rocks.  However, scientists remain uncertain as to where in the Order Theropoda these lightly built, large handed dinosaurs fit.

Where do the Megaraptoridae Fit In?

With the discovery of Murusraptor, palaeontologists hope to find out more about where within the Theropoda the Megraptoridae fits.  Once the remains of Murusraptor were in the preparation laboratory, the researchers, Currie and Coria, were able to establish some interesting facts about this particular dinosaur.  For example, they were able to conclude that the fossils represented a single animal, that it had come to rest lying on its right side and from the length of the tibia, it was a strong runner.

Two main theories have been put forward with regards to the Megaraptoridae and their phylogeny;

  1. Megaraptoridae family members and their close relatives making up the Megaraptora clade  are the last surviving members of the once ubiquitous Allosauria clade.  If, thanks to the discovery of Murusraptor, this is proved correct, then this would alter all the existing theories about the demise of the Allosauria.
  2. That Megaraptor, Murusraptor et al are members of the Coelurosauria clade and therefore related to modern birds, certainly studies of the breathing systems of similar dinosaurs Australovenator (Australovenator wintonensis) from Australia for example, indicate that these dinosaurs had respiratory systems very similar to extant Aves.  If this theory proves to be correct then the likes of Murusraptor would be related to the tyrannosaurids.

To complicate matters further, some of the anatomical traits found in the Megaraptora are similar to those of spinosaurids.  This hints at a possible link to a much older group of Theropod dinosaurs, the Megalosaurs.

Palaeontologists Phil Currie (red shirt) and  Rodolfo Coria Examine the Fossils 

Palaeontologists examine the matrix surrounding the fossils of a dinosaur.

Currie and Coria examine the fossils of Murusraptor in the canyon wall.

Picture Credit: University of Alberta

“Wall Thief”

As for the name, the genus comes the Latin word “murus” which means wall, a reference to the fossil being located halfway up the wall of a canyon (see photograph above).  The trivial name honours the location of the fossil find – Sierra Barrosa.  Southern Argentina has proved a happy hunting ground for vertebrate palaeontologists, especially those who specialise in studying the Dinosauria.  Rodolfo Coria was one of the scientists who helped describe two of the most iconic dinosaurs of recent times the enormous Argentinosaurus and one of the largest, terrestrial predators ever to walk the Earth – Giganotosaurus.  Last week, Everything Dinosaur reported on the describing of Gualicho shinyae, fossils of which come from the Huincul Formation, which underlies the strata from which Megaraptor and Murusraptor are known.  Researchers are suggesting that this meat-eater was as a member of the neovenatorids, a branch of the Allosaur family tree.

To read more about the tiny-armed Gualicho: Gualicho Sticks Two Fingers Up at T. rex

Dr. Coria hopes that by studying the fossils of Murusraptor the mystery of the Megaraptor phylogeny will be finally resolved.  He explained:

“Our current strategy includes two ways to get into this problem.  One way to get close to the solution of this controversy is to review all different species and build a whole new data set, avoiding biases and preconcepts.”

The Braincase

None of the bones associated with the front of the skull or the jaws were found, although some 31 teeth were recovered from the matrix.  The largest teeth are more than twelve centimetres long.  Bones from the back of the skull including those that make up the braincase were found.  This is the only known braincase material from a Megaraptor-like dinosaur.  A study of these braincase bones indicate that this specimen was a sub-adult, size estimates vary but this long-legged predator could have been between 6.5 and 8 metres long when fully grown.

Skeletal Drawing of M. barrosaensis

Murusraptor a South American dinosaur.

A drawing of the skull and body fossils associated with Murusraptor.  Scale bars 10 cm (A) and 1 metre (B).

Picture Credit: PLOS ONE

The picture above shows a close up of the skull bones (posterior part of the skull in right lateral view) and a skeletal drawing of the dinosaur (fossil bones in white).

Professor Currie commented:

“This is a super-cool specimen from a very enigmatic family of big dinosaurs.  Because we have most of the skeleton in a single entity, it really helps consolidate their relationships to other animals.” 

Professor Currie went onto state:

“A lot of people have been waiting for this paper.  When you have most of the skeleton, it takes a long time to do all the work on it.  It turns out this animal is related to Megaraptor, found only thirty kilometres away in a different rock formation.  The upshot was the more we looked, we could test whether Megaraptor was a Dromaeosaur, which it isn’t in the strict sense, and what was thought to be the foot claws—the big can-opener claw of a Dromaeosaur or raptor—were actually from the hands.  We discovered all sorts of things through the course of our research.”

“A New Megaraptoran Dinosaur (Dinosauria, Theropoda, Megaraptoridae) from the Late Cretaceous of Patagonia” was published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

Note

Everything Dinosaur is switching to PLOS ONE from the previous nomenclature PLoS One.

The Turtle Shell Evolved to Help with Burrowing

Fossorial Origins of the Turtle Shell – Eunotosaurus africanus

Writing in the “Current Biology” a team of international scientists, led by Dr. Tyler Lyson (Denver Museum of Nature and Science), have concluded that the “shell” of turtles, terrapins and tortoises evolved not for protection but as an adaptation for burrowing and living underground.  As the feather did not evolve for flight, so then the carapace (top) and plastron (underneath) of the SuperOrder Chelonia, may not have evolved as shield.  Like flight feathers, the shell of a tortoise and its use in defence was a secondary outcome of an evolutionary process.

Fossils excavated from the famous Permian-aged deposits of the Karoo Basin (South Africa) suggest that the earliest evolutionary beginnings of the turtle’s shell resulted from adaptations to accommodate a burrowing or fossorial (digging) lifestyle.

Karoo Basin Fossils of the Proto-Turtle Eunotosaurus Indicate Fossorial Adaptations

Eunotosaurus adapted to a burrowing lifestyle.

The proto-turtle Eunotosaurus burrows into the banks of a dried up pond to survive in the harsh, arid South African environment about 260 million years ago. In the background, a herd of Bradysaurus, a type of reptile, crowds around some muddy water.

Picture Credit: Audrey Atuchin

A Widening of the Ribs

Dr. Lyson had the opportunity to learn more about Chelonian evolution when he, along with collaborators form the Smithsonian Institute studied the fossilised remains of a highly specialised parareptile, Eunotosaurus africanus, back in 2013.  These fossils, which also came from Late Permian aged deposits in South Africa, indicated that a widening of the ribs was the first stage in the evolution of the shell.

To read more about the origins of the shell in turtles: How the Turtle Got Its Shell

Tyler Lyson explained:  “We knew from both the fossil record and observing how the turtle shell develops in modern turtles that one of the first major changes toward a shell was the broadening of the ribs.”

However, for a quadruped, the widening of the ribs has a very serious effect on mobility.  Breathing is restricted and movement becomes more difficult.  Ribs are primarily used to support the torso during locomotion and they play a vital role in lung function.  Broader ribs, means a stiffer body which will lead to a shortening of stride length and less efficient breathing.  In the harsh and dangerous world of the Permian, these modifications would have seriously disadvantaged any Tetrapod.

Rib bones in vertebrates show hardly any variation, team members at Everything Dinosaur have recently been examining the rib bones of a prehistoric elephant, these ribs are very similar to the ribs of a large dinosaur such as a Stegosaurus.  The Chelonia are an exception, their ribs are highly modified as they form the majority of the shell.

Significant Fossil Discovery

The discovery of several, exceptionally well-preserved specimens of Eunotosaurus africanus allowed the team to examine shell evolution in much more detail than before.  A number of the fossils were found by the study’s co-authors, doctors Roger Smith and Bruce Rubidge (University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg).  However, the most important specimen used in this study was found by a young boy on his father’s farm in the Western Cape.  Eight-year old Kobus Snyman, took the fossil that he found to his local museum, the Fransie Pienaar Museum in Prince Albert (Western Cape).  The articulated fossil measures around fifteen centimetres in length, the body (and those all important ribs) are preserved along with the hands and feet but the skull is missing.

Dr. Lyson praised young Kobus for his observational skills and for taking his find to the local museum, he stated:

“I want to thank Kobus Snyman and shake his hand because without Kobus both finding the specimen and taking it to his local museum, this study would not have been possible.”

The Eunotosaurus Fossil Found by Kobus Snyman

Fossil of Eunotosaurous found by an 8-year-old.

The fossil of Eunotosaurus found by eight-year-old Kobus Snyman.

Picture Credit: Dr. Tyler Lyson

Extant turtles, terrapins and tortoises have shells that serve mainly as protective devices.  These armoured animals are notoriously slow.  However, in this new study, developmental evidence from embryos combined with these newly described Karoo Basin fossils suggest that one of the first steps towards the shelled body-plan was a widening of the ribs.  Eunotosaurus africanus is thought to be a basal member of the Chelonia and the broad ribs of this animal have been proposed as support and stabilising mechanisms to help support a powerful forelimb digging action.  The adaptations for a fossorial lifestyle would have facilitated the movement of stem turtles into aquatic environments early in the group’s evolutionary history.

In the scientific paper, entitled “Fossorial Origin of the Turtle Shell”, the researchers propose that adaptations related to digging provided the initial impetus for shell development and that the fosssorial lifestyle may explain why basal turtles survived the catastrophe that marked the end of the Palaeozoic (End Permian mass extinction event).

To read an article from Everything Dinosaur that suggest that turtles and their kind evolved from diapsid reptiles: Study Suggests Chelonia Evolved from Diapsids

An Illustration of Eunotosaurus africanus 

A drawing of Eunotosaurus.

An illustration of the stem turtle Eunotosaurus.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

An article on a Mid Jurassic turtle discovery: The Grandfather of All Tortoises and Turtles

Gualicho Sticks Two Fingers Up at T. rex

Gualicho shinyae – A Dinosaur with Arms Reminiscent of Tyrannosaurus rex

With the formal publication of the scientific paper describing a new species of carnivorous dinosaur from Argentina, the Theropoda just became a little bit more curious.  Gualicho shinyae has been erected and it shows both Tetanuran (stiff tailed) and Ceratosaurian anatomical traits.  G. shinyae can also lay claim to being the most basal member of the Tetanurae clade to exhibit the reduction of digit III on the hand.  Reports in the media have compared this new Late Cretaceous South American dinosaur with Tyrannosaurus rex.  These two dinosaurs may have had very reduced arms and only two fingers on each hand, but Gualicho is not closely related to the “King of the Tyrant Lizards”.  In fact it seems that Gualicho shinyae is an example of convergent evolution, that is, not closely related organisms evolve independently similar traits as a result of having to adapt to similar environments or ecological niches.

Just why many large meat-eating dinosaurs had reduced arms and vestigial digits remains a mystery.

An Illustration of a the New Dinosaur from Argentina

gualicho_shinyae_illus

Picture Credit: Jorge González and Pablo Lara

In the picture above two predatory dinosaurs (Gualicho shinyae) ambush a flock of hypsilophodonts.

The Mystery Over Short Arms and Reduced Digits in Theropod Dinosaurs

The third digit is reduced to nothing more than a metacarpal splint, very reminiscent of tyrannosaurids and just like all the known Late Cretaceous Tyrannosaurs, the arms are also reduced in proportion to the body size.  Gaulicho is estimated to have been at least six metres long, but the forelimbs are no bigger than those of a child.  The left forelimb was recovered along with a short section of vertebrae from the back, the end portion of the tail, elements of both hind limbs including an articulated foot plus a left scapulocoracoid  A couple of rib bones and some gastralia (belly ribs) were also excavated.  The rest of the skeleton had been lost to erosion, but from these remains the researchers, which included scientists from the Field Museum (Chicago), the Dinosaur Institute of Los Angeles as well as palaeontologists from  Buenos Aires and Rio Negro Province, suggest that this new dinosaur is a neovenatorid with close affinities to the North African dinosaur Deltadromeus.

An Illustration of the Likely Skeleton of G. shinyae

Gualicho dinosaur drawing.

The white shaded bones show the fossils of Gualicho that have been found.

Picture Credit: PLoS One with additional annotation by Everything Dinosaur

Discovered back in 2007, the specimen, which consists of around 5% of the total skeleton was excavated and prepared by staff of the Museo Patagónico de Ciencias Naturales.  The genus name is derived from “Gualichu”, a spirit revered by Patagonia’s Tehuelche people.  The field team encountered quite a lot of misfortune during the 2007 expedition and during the subsequent preparation work.  Researchers joked about the “curse of Gualichu”.  The species name honours Ms Akiko Shinya, the Chief Fossil Preparator at the Field Museum (Chicago).  It was Ms Akiko who found the first fossil evidence of this new type of dinosaur during the 2007 expedition to the Neuquén Basin of Patagonia (southern Argentina).

Chief Fossil Preparator Ms Akiko Shinya Showing where the Fossils were Found

akiko_shinya_with_gualicho_shinyae

Picture Credit: PLoS One (Photo by Peter Makovicky)

Corresponding author Peter Makovicky (Field Museum) stated:

“Gualicho is kind of a mosaic dinosaur, it has features that you normally see in different kinds of Theropods.  It’s really unusual, it’s different from the other carnivorous dinosaurs found in the same rock formation, and it doesn’t fit neatly into any category.”

Estimated to have weighed around 450 kilogrammes and to have been about six metres long, Gualicho has been assigned to the Allosauria clade and placed within the Neovenatoridae family, however, its exact taxonomic position remains unclear.  The scientists conclude that it resembles Deltadromeus, a contemporaneous Theropod known from North Africa.

Cenomanian Faunal Stage

The fossils of G. shinyae were excavated from sandstone strata located close to the base of the Huincul Formation.  Everything Dinosaur estimate that this dinosaur roamed what was to become Patagonia some ninety-five million years ago (Cenomanian faunal stage of the Late Cretaceous).

The New Dinosaur Discovery Adds to the Faunal Diversity of the Lower Part of the Neuquén Group

Gualicho adds to the faunal diversity of the Upper Cretaceous sediments.

A schematic stratigraphic diagram showing the position of the Gualicho fossil find.

Picture Credit: PLoS One

The picture above shows a schematic diagram of the lower part of the Neuquén Group of Upper Cretaceous strata exposed in the Neuquén Basin with the approximate level at which the holotype of Gualicho shinyae was collected from the base of the Huincul Formation.  The rocks contain a variety of vertebrate remains including a number of dinosaurs, especially Saurischian (lizard-hipped) forms.  The discovery of G. shinyae adds to the diversity of Theropods known, for example a number of carcharodontosaurids are known from this formation (Mapusaurus and Taurovenator), along with several abelisaurids such as Skorpiovenator and Ilokelesia.  There has even been some fossils found that were described as belonging to a giant raptor (Megaraptoran), this dinosaur was named Aoniraptor (A. libertatem) earlier this year, but similarities between the caudal vertebrae found and those now assigned to Gualicho, indicate that the Aoniraptor material may be synonymous with the holotype material of G. shinyae.

There have also be a large number of Sauropod remains associated with this strata.  For example, a number of rebbachisaurids have been described along with several Titanosaurs, including Argentinosaurus.

A Map Showing the Approximate Location of the G. shinyae Quarry

Showing the location of the G. shinyae fossil discovery.

A map showing the approximate location of the fossil discovery (star).

Picture Credit: PLoS One

The black star in the diagram to the left, indicates the approximate location of the G. shinyae quarry.

A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur commented:

“This new dinosaur discovery adds to the Theropod diversity known from the Late Cretaceous terrestrial strata of the Neuquén Basin, northern Patagonia.  It also reinforces the belief of the close affinities between the Huincul Formation and rocks of a similar age laid down in North Africa.  In addition, with the discovery of a short-armed, two-fingered dinosaur that lived some twenty-five million years or so before the end Cretaceous tyrannosaurids, palaeontologists can perhaps learn why reduced forelimb size was so prevalent in large carnivorous dinosaurs.”

The scientific paper from which this article was compiled is: “An Unusual New Theropod with a Didactyl Manus from the Upper Cretaceous of Patagonia, Argentina”.

A New Type of Horned Dinosaur Named “Hannah”

“Hannah” A New Species of Late Cretaceous Ceratopsian

PhD student Scott Persons (University of Alberta, Canada) is one of that admirable breed of young scientists, someone who simply exudes enthusiasm and passion for his work.  In the summer of 2015, at a dig site just outside the Dinosaur Provincial Park, Scott spotted the large nasal horn of a dinosaur sticking out of the ground.  The site the field team were exploring, had not been visited for decades, a couple of harsh Canadian winters would have reduced the nasal horn to frost shattered fragments but luckily Scott happened to spot the fossil and as a result a missing piece of the horned dinosaur family tree might get filled in.

Finding a Dinosaur Fossil “Nose First”

PhD student Scott Persons showing the location of the fossil skull.

Scott Persons must have a “nose” for dinosaur discoveries.

Picture Credit: Amanda Kelley

The matrix surrounding the horn corn was carefully removed and gradually more of the skull came into view.  The remarkably near complete skull represents a new type of Centrosaurine dinosaur, part of the horned dinosaur group.  Once the skull had been prepared, then a helicopter was brought in to airlift the specimen out of the remote canyon in southern Alberta, where it had laid since that part of the world was a lush, tropical paradise that teemed with prehistoric life.

A Dinosaur Named after a Dog

Fans of the Flintstones cartoon programme may remember a pet dinosaur called “Dino” that behaved very like a dog.  Well, thanks to Scott, things have gone full circle as he has nicknamed this new dinosaur “Hannah” after his own pet dog, that sometimes accompanies him on fossil digs.  We are not sure what Hannah the dog will make of her namesake, let’s hope that she does not chew on any of the bones.

The Top Part of the Skull Nearly Excavated

Ceratopsian dinosaur skull partially excavated.

The as yet, undescribed dinosaur skull partially unearthed.

Picture Credit: Amanda Kelley

The picture above shows the skull of “Hannah”, Scott is resting his hand close to where the eye socket is, the snout of this pick-up truck sized dinosaur is facing to the right.

An Important Transitional Fossil

A field team from the University of Alberta have returned to the quarry site in a bid to recovery post cranial fossil material.  The team are confident that a lot more of the skeleton remains embedded in the steeply sloping canyon side.  Already, a number of bones have been excavated including a complete scapula (shoulder blade).  The large nasal horn combined with evidence of forward projecting eppocipital elements from the top of the neck frill suggest that “Hannah” may possess a combination of traits leading scientists to tentatively propose that the specimen represents a transitional form from the older Centrosaurus genera to the younger and spectacular Styracosaurus.

Everything Dinosaur Attempts a Tentative Illustration of “Hannah”

"Hannah" the horned dinosaur.

Our interpretation of “Hannah” centrosaurine in nature with forward projecting epoccipital bones as part of the frill ornamentation.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Fossils of Centrosaurus,  a dinosaur with a large nasal horn are found in older rocks, whilst fossils of the dinosaur known as Styracosaurus (another Centrosaurine) are found in younger rocks.  Biostratigraphically, this new specimen comes in between these two and it may represent a transitional form, allowing palaeontologists to potentially, fill in a piece of the Ceratopsian family tree.  Much more work has to be done before “Hannah” can be scientifically described but this does represent a significant discovery.

As a PhD candidate, Scott is well used to field work but he describes this specimen as by far the most exciting thing he’s ever discovered.

He commented:

“I’m incredibly thrilled, but discovering it in the field, it’s a really slow burn.”

Although there is a lot of work at the quarry still to be done, for every hour spent in the field, another ten hours will be spent in the preparation laboratory, cleaning and examining the fossils.

It might be a while before “Hannah” has a binomial name, but it looks very likely that this will be a new genus of horned dinosaur, one of a plethora of Centrosaurines and Chasmosaurines known from the Late Cretaceous of North America.

A Dinosaur with a Facial Deformity

Dwarf Duck-billed Dinosaur with Facial Tumour

Scientists have identified the first recorded evidence of a benign facial tumour in the fossilised jaw bone of a duck-billed dinosaur (Telmatosaurus transsylvanicus).  The dinosaur died before adulthood, it is not known whether the facial tumour contributed to this dinosaur’s demise.

The paper published in the journal “Scientific Reports”, was written by an international team of scientists, which included PhD students Mihai D. Dumbravă (Babeș-Bolyai University, Romania) and Kate Acheson (Southampton University), along with  Dr Zoltán Csiki-Sava (University of Bucharest, Romania), who led the field trip that found the jaw bones of this unfortunate reptile.  The facial tumour known as an ameloblastoma is a non-cancerous growth known to afflict mammals and reptiles, including our own species too.  This is the first time such a deformity has been documented in the fossil record.

An Artist’s Impression of the Juvenile Telmatosaurus with the Facial Tumour on the Left Dentary

Dinosaur with a facial tumour (Telmatosaurus).

A drawing of the facial features of Telmatosaurus showing the tumour on the left dentary.

Picture Credit: Mihai Dumbravă with additional annotation by Everything Dinosaur

Commenting on the significance of the discovery, student Kate Acheson stated:

“This discovery is the first ever described in the fossil record and the first to be thoroughly documented in a dwarf dinosaur.  Telmatosaurus is known to be close to the root of the duck-billed dinosaur family tree, [Hadrosauridae] and the presence of such a deformity early in their evolution provides us with further evidence that the duck-billed dinosaurs were more prone to tumours than other dinosaurs.”

Telmatosaurus – A Primitive Member of the Hadrosauridae

Telmatosaurus lived on the Hateg archipelago, a series of islands in the middle of the Tethys Sea.  A number of different dinosaurs are known from the Hateg Island group and the fossils of Telmatosaurus date from around 69-67 million years ago (Maastrichtian faunal stage of the Late Cretaceous).  Like many of the prehistoric animals known from these deposits, the four-metre-long Telmatosaurus exhibits “island dwarfism”, a lack of resources led to a decrease in the size of individuals within the population.

An Illustration of Telmatosaurus (T. transsylvanicus)

A Illustration of the Hadrosaur Telmatosaurus

Telmatosaurus a primitive Hadrosaur of the Hateg archipelago.

Picture Credit: Mihai Dumbrava

Deformed Jaw Fossil

The fossil jaws were discovered more than ten years ago.  Comparison with other Telmatosaurus jaw material indicated that the lower portion of the left dentary was deformed but the reason for the deformity was not made clear until the fossil was subjected to high resolution scans at the Switzerland based SCANCO Medical AG.  The scans revealed that the juvenile Telmatosaurus had been suffering from a condition known as “ameloblastoma”, a benign tumour which is known to affect the jaws of mammals and some modern reptiles.

Scans Reveal the Presence of an Ameloblastoma in a Dinosaur Fossil

Scans of the Telmatosaurus facial tumour.

Scientists scan the jaw fossils and compare the jaw to a human mandible.

Picture Credit: Scientific Reports

The picture above shows (A) the two lower jaw fossils (dentary) of the Telmatosaurus in frontal view (anterior).  The abbreviation exo on the left jaw indicates the position of the tumour growing on the bone (exostosis).  The computer model (B) shows the left jaw bone with elements colour coded, for example, red shows the primary neurovascular canal, yellow the secondary neurovascular pathways, orange – functional teeth, blue – replacement teeth, light blue – segmented dentary bone, purple – lytic density areas.  Pictures C and D show three-dimensional micro CT scan images with a rectangular section cut out to show the exostosis (C) and (D), the portion of the dentary showing the external exostosis.

Close up Examination of the Fossil Bone

Cross-sectional micro CT scans reveal the presence of a facial tumour.

Cross-sectional scans reveal the presence of abnormal bone growth.

Picture Credit: Scientific Reports

In the image above, (E) shows a cross-section of the jaw, with a highly magnified section (F), in the picture labelled “Scans Reveal the Presence of an Ameloblastoma in a Dinosaur Fossil”.  The middle image (G) is a cross-section of a second micro-CT and (H) provides a close up detail of that section.  Image (I) represents a cross-section of another CT image and (J) is a radiograph of the left dentary of a person exhibiting an ameloblastoma and (K) a further image showing a left jaw (H. sapiens) with an ameloblastoma.

Abbreviations:

cb = cortical bone; cbe = cortical bone expansion; cbt = cortical bone thinning; dt = dentary tooth; exo = exostosis; im = internal margin; itrb = internal trabeculae; lda = lytic density areas; mgr = mandibular groove; pnvc = primary neurovascular canal; rb = resorbed bone; rt = resorbed tooth; rtr = resorbed tooth roots; sba = soap bubble appearance; snvc = secondary neurovascular pathways.

Scale bars (A,B): 50 mm. Scale bars (C–I): 5 mm. Scale for (J,K) not reported.

A Simplified View Showing the Approximate Placement of Telmatosaurus within the Hadrosauridae

Telmatosaurus is a basal hadrosaurid dinosaur.

A simplified Hadrosauridae family tree showing Telmatosaurus as a basal member.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Mihai D. Dumbravă explained:

“It was expected, due to the impoverished nature of the fauna, that our project to investigate diseases of the bone in the dwarf dinosaurs of the Haţeg County Dinosaurs Geopark would reveal some interesting results, but the discovery of a rare modern tumoural condition, and one that is so far unique in the fossil record, was a wonderful surprise.”

The Cause of Death?

As only the jaws of this dinosaur have been discovered, it is not possible to determine the impact of the ameloblastoma on the animal’s life, however, Dr Zoltán Csiki-Sava, another of the authors of the scientific paper postulated:

“We know from modern examples that predators often attack a member of the herd that looks a little different or is even slightly disabled by a disease.  The tumour in this dinosaur had not developed to its full extent at the moment it died, but it could have indirectly contributed to its early demise.  The particular make-up of the rocks allowed us to identify that this fossil was preserved near the channel of an ancient river.”  

Student Kate Acheson added:

“In a setting like this, it is extremely rare to find the complete specimen, and so it is almost impossible to determine the specific cause of death.  One can only make an informed guess based upon the evidence we have.”

The academic paper published in the journal “Scientific Reports” and it is entitled:

“A dinosaurian facial deformity and the first occurrence of ameloblastoma in the fossil record.”

Cambrian Suspension Feeder Provides Clue to Common Ancestor

The Secretive and Solitary Oesia disjuncta

Research carried out by UK and Canadian academics has shed light on how Cambrian life-forms may have led to more complex creatures including vertebrates and ultimately our own species.  It turns out that a small sea worm Oesia disjuncta with its mix of anatomical traits, might point the way towards a better understanding of the Kingdom Animalia.  The fossils of Oesia have also provided evidence about how these worms kept themselves safe against the ever increasing number of predators by building long, tube-like homes to live in.

According to the scientists, whose work is published in the academic journal “BMC Biology”, the ancient Cambrian sea bed may have been marked by perforated tubes that resembled “exceedingly thin brandy snaps”, as one Everything Dinosaur team member reported it.  Some of these structures may have been more than five hundred millimetres in length, gargantuan by Cambrian standards.  The study, undertaken by scientists from the Royal Ontario Museum (Toronto, Canada), Cambridge University and two other Canadian universities (Toronto and Montréal), originated from a reassessment of fossils that were thought to have represented a type of marine green algae (Margaretia dorus).

Marble Canyon Quarry Oesia Fossil

A fossil of the worm Oesia (primitive hemichordate)

Oesia fossil with labels (anterior – front end, posterior – rear end)

Picture Credit: Royal Ontario Museum with additional annotation by Everything Dinosaur

To give an impression of scale of the specimen, the width of the photograph above is approximately three centimetres.

Learning More About Oesia disjuncta

Oesia disjuncta, the only species within the Oesia genus, has been known to science for more than 100 years.  It was described in 1911 by the great Charles D. Walcott, the American geologist who had discovered the Burgess Shale deposits (British Columbia, Canada) and the abundance of Cambrian fossils that they contain, two years earlier.  It had been described as a type of annelid marine worm (segmented worm), but this classification had subsequently fallen out of favour and a number of affinities had been suggested such a Oesia representing a basal chaetognath (arrow worm).  Recently, it had been proposed that this creature was taxonomically closer to the hemichordates, animals like acorn worms that have closer affinities to the chordates than they do to the Echinodermata (starfish, sea lilies, brittle stars and sea urchins.  This research supports the hypothesis that O. disjuncta should be placed within the hemichordates, which means it forms a link between marine worms and all the animals with backbones (vertebrates) and this includes our own species – H. sapiens.  The genus name for this worm, which lived a solitary life inside the protection of its tube, comes from a small lake (Lake Oesia), located just a few miles from the Burgess Shale quarry where the first fossils of this ancient animal were found.

An Illustration of Oesia Worms in their Tubes

The Oesia worm in its tube.

An illustration of the Oesia worm living in its tube.

Picture Credit: Marianne Collins

The Importance of the Marble Canyon Site

In 2012, a new highly fossiliferous site was discovered, around 25 miles from the original Burgess Shale fossil quarries excavated by Walcott.  This location has yielded many more examples of Oesia and they are generally better preserved than the specimens discovered in the previous Century.  The new quarries have yielded a number of new species as well as shedding more light on already described genera.  A study of these specimens has confirmed that Oesia was most likely a basal member of the hemichordates.  As such, being a hemichordate, it is nested within the superphylum Deuterostomia which also includes the vertebrates (amongst others).

Lead Author Karma Nanglu Pausing on the Trail up to the Marble Canyon Quarry

Student Karma Nanglu (University of Toronto)

University of Toronto PhD student and lead author Karma Nanglu on the trail leading up to the Marble Canyon site.

Picture Credit: Joe Moysiuk

Unravelling the Origins of Today’s Phyla

The bulk of the Kingdom Animalia which are more complex than the Cnidarians (jellyfish), with their radial symmetry, are divided into two main groups:

  1. Deuterostomia – bilateral symmetry mainly, with only the echinoderms showing radial symmetry, this group includes the vertebrates and acorn worms etc.
  2. Protostomia – bilateral symmetry including the molluscs, arthropods, nematodes and worms.

These lineages are believed to share a common ancestor that lived during the Ediacaran geological period.  With the placing of Oesia within the deuterostomes, scientists hope that they may be able to identify the distant common ancestor of all the Deuterostomia.

A Filter Feeder

With more data on Oesia, it suggests that this common ancestor was very probably a “filter feeder”, sucking in water and straining out nutrients that were trapped on gill structures.  Oesia was such a filter feeder with “u-shaped” gills running down most of its body length.  The tube-like structure it lived in was highly porous, this would have allowed water to flow in and out of the tube aiding filter feeding.

Lead author of the research Karma Nanglu (University of Toronto) stated:

“Hemichordates are central to our understanding of how deuterostomes evolved.  Through them, we can get clues about the anatomy and lifestyle of the last common ancestor that we all share, and this adds further evidence to the hypothesis that the ancestor was a filter-feeder like Oesia.”

The tubes were quite spacious for Oesia, they are at least twice as wide as the creature’s body and many times longer.

Co-author of the scientific study, Professor Simon Conway Morris (Cambridge University) added:

 “Oesia fossils are pretty enigmatic,  they are very rare and until now we could not prove which group they belonged to.  Now we know that they were primitive hemichordates – perhaps the most primitive of all.”

This new research establishes Oesia was similar to extant marine acorn worms.  These worms have a proboscis, a reproductive collar region and a long, narrow body.  The tube may have acted as a sanctuary protecting the soft-bodied worm from an array of rapidly evolving predators.

Not Associated with Margaretia dorus

The researchers realised that Oesia must have lived in tubes because among the Marble Canyon finds there are dozens of examples where the fossil remains of the worm are found within those of what was thought to be the remains of the green algae Margaretia dorus.

Oesia also hints that at some point, acorn worms underwent an evolutionary development that led to them leaving their tubes and opting for an existence burrowing in the mud of the sea bed.  The researchers suggest that as more efficient predators evolved, living in the mud at the bottom of the sea may have been a more advantageous lifestyle.  Extant acorn worms occupy this niche, rather than an epifaunal, filter feeding habit, they live in the sediment and feed on the nutrients that it contains.

Fossils Reveal the Tube-Like Structures of Oesia

Fossils of the tube-like structures associated wit Oesia.

Fossils of the tube-like structures once thought to be algae but now identified as the home of Oesia worms.

Picture Credit: BMC Biology

Professor Conway Morris explained:

“In its own depressing way this is a story of Darwinian competition.  The levels of competition and predation increased, life sped up and got harder and animals had to protect themselves more.  One way of doing this was to abandon life filter feeding in a tube, and instead to dig into the sediment and eat mud.  Once there, they found a new niche and were able to make a perfectly good life for themselves.”

The study, “Cambrian suspension-feeding tubicolous hemichordates”, is published in the journal BMC Biology.  Everything Dinosaur acknowledges the assistance of the Royal Ontario Museum in the compilation of this article.

Pterosaur Fossil to Return Home to Lebanon

Pterosaur Fossil Set to Fly Home

A new species of Pterosaur is due to be named shortly, one based on an almost complete fossil specimen that was discovered in a limestone quarry in Lebanon.  Pterosaur remains from this part of the world are exceptionally rare and this would constitute only the second Pterosaur to be named from a Lebanese fossil discovery.  The first Pterosaur from this part of the Middle East (Microtuban altivolans) was described in 2011.  Like this new species, Microtuban was most likely an inhabitant of the isolated islands that were dotted around a vast, but ultimately shrinking Tethys Ocean that covered this part of the world for much of the Cretaceous.

University of Alberta Scientists Helped to Prepare the Lebanese Specimen for Further Study

Rare Pterosaur fossil to be returned to Lebanon.

Michael Caldwell (left) and Phil Currie with the new Pterosaur prior to its return to Lebanon.

Picture Credit: University of Alberta

The Pterosaur fossil was discovered in a privately owned limestone quarry more than ten years ago.  The limestone is well-known for its fish fossils, but other vertebrate fossils are exceptionally rare.  The palaeoenvironment of the Middle East during the Late Cretaceous was similar to the marine environment found off the coast of Queensland, Australia, where the Great Barrier Reef can be found.  Today, the Mediterranean Sea is the only remnant of the once great Tethys Ocean that remains.   University of Alberta palaeontologist Michael Caldwell teamed up with colleague Phil Currie to organise the preparation and cleaning of the fossil, after it was sent to the museum by the quarry owner.  A great deal of care was needed to help expose the delicate, hollow bones from the surrounding limestone matrix.  The fossil was extremely fragile and broken into several pieces when it was discovered as a limestone block was cut.  The Pterosaur even received a fracture to its skull from the pickaxe of a quarry worker as the rock was split.  The University of Alberta prep team under the supervision of Professor Caldwell were able to stabilise the fossil and skilfully reveal the 95-million-year-old flying reptile in all its exquisite detail.

Commenting on the importance of this Lebanese Pterosaur, Professor Caldwell stated:

“This is the first complete Pterosaur from Lebanon and the very first Pterosaur from this age of marine-deposited rocks.”

The as yet, unnamed Pterosaur lived during the Cenomanian faunal stage of the Late Cretaceous.  The rocks laid down form a sequence of sedimentary strata that mark the oldest rocks classified as Upper Cretaceous deposits.  At the time sea levels were changing and the Tethys was vast, stretching from Europe all the way to south-eastern Asia.

Professor Caldwell said:

“That chunk of ocean was huge, think ten or twenty times the size of the Great Barrier Reef and chock-full of living things.  I’m sure our little Pterosaur was living on one of the reef islands.”

The Specimen as it Arrived at the University of Lebanon for Preparation

Unnamed species of Pterosaur from Lebanon.

The unprepared fossil as it arrived at the University of Alberta.

Picture Credit: University of Alberta

Donated to the Mineralogy Museum at Saint Joseph’s University in Beirut

The specimen was subsequently sold but the buyer has donated it to the Mineralogy Museum at Saint Joseph’s University (Beirut).  The fossil Pterosaur will, in effect, be returning home to Lebanon.  Commenting on the preparation work undertaken at the University, Professor Caldwell stated:

“It is in immaculate condition as a result of a lot of delicate preparation work.  We can really see how this animal was built.  It’s a nice little piece of science and a great story about rescuing this specimen from certain doom.”

The University of Alberta palaeontologists teamed up with Pterosaur specialist Alexander Kellner (National Museum of Brazil) and Italian Fabio Dalla Vecchia, a paper describing the Pterosaur is due to be published soon.  It may have taken the best part of ten years to prepare the specimen but at least it is returning to its country of origin where it will form the centrepiece of the vertebrate fossil collection of the Mineralogy Museum.

Everything Dinosaur acknowledges the help of the University of Alberta in the compilation of this article.

Bird Wing Preserved in Amber

Early Bird Wings Preserved in Amber from Myanmar

A team of international scientists including researchers from Bristol University, have published research on two specimens of 99 million-year-old amber from Myanmar (called burmite), which have revealed the preserved remains of two tiny, baby birds.  The scientists conclude that these birds were active shortly after hatching (precocial) and that sadly they met their demise when they became trapped in sticky tree resin.

The Amber Has Preserved the Feathers in Exquisite Detail

Preserved in amber, the remains of a bird's wing.

The remains of the wing can be clearly made out trapped in the amber.

Picture Credit: Royal Saskatchewan Museum (R.C. McKellar)

The photograph above shows a close up of the feathers preserved in one of the burmite specimens.  The researchers led by Dr. Xing Lida (China University of Geosciences), along with colleagues from the USA, Canada and Professor Mike Benton from the School of Earth Sciences (Bristol University), have identified three long fingers, each tipped by a sharp and strongly curved claw, one of which can be seen in the top right of the picture above.

Amber fossils from Myanmar (formerly called Burma), have provided palaeontologists with a fascinating insight into life in the primordial forests of the Cretaceous.  In the spring, Everything Dinosaur published two articles regarding remarkable fossil discoveries which had only been possible due to fossil finds within burmite.  In one article, we reported on the potential origins of the malaria parasite, in the second we provided information regarding the discovery of the fossilised remains of tiny lizards.

To read about the evolutionary origins of the malaria: The Origins of Malaria Traced Back 100 Million Years

To read more about the lizard fossil discovery: Lizards Preserved in Amber

Although Burmese amber has produced fossils of isolated feathers, this is the first time in which portions of birds have been discovered.

One of the Fossil Specimens Has Been Nicknamed “Rose”

Enantiornithes wing and skin sections encased in amber.

Pieces of skin and parts of an ancient wing preserved in amber.

Picture Credit: Royal Saskatchewan Museum (R.C. McKellar)

Tiny Fossil Wings

The fossil wings are very small, between two and three centimetres long. the long, bony fingers can be made out along with the three digits on each wing.  The anatomy of the hand has allowed the scientists to identify these as members of the Enantiornithines (Enantiornithes), group of birds, a diverse clade of toothed birds that possessed prominent wing claws.  The Enantiornithines, thrived during the Cretaceous and some eighty species have been named, although a number are only known from single bones.  These birds became extinct at the end of the Cretaceous and they are thought not to have been very closely related to modern Aves (Neornithes).

Under High Magnification the Fine Details of the Feathers Can Be Clearly Made Out

Minute details on the feathers were preserved.

Tiny details on the feathers have been preserved. Ultra violet light and X-rays were used to analyse the fossil material.

Evidence of Precocial Behaviour in Enantiornithes

The two specimens have been nicknamed “Rose” and “Angel Wings”.  After careful polishing, the fossils were analysed using white light, UV light and powerful X-rays.

Commenting on the research, one of the authors of the paper published in the academic journal “Nature Communications”, Professor Mike Benton stated:

“These fossil wings show amazing detail.  The individual feathers show every filament and whisker, whether they are flight feathers or down feathers, and there are even traces of colour – spots and stripes.”

The scientists conclude that the birds, although babies were highly mobile.  This indicates that these birds were very well developed when they hatched and capable of being independent from their parents.  Sadly, their mobility seems to have been their downfall.   As the clambered around the branches and trunks of trees they became trapped in sticky tree resin.  Larger animals would have had the strength to pull free, but these youngsters were doomed.  The amber even preserves claw marks and scratches as the birds tried to pull themselves free.

A Desperate but Ultimately Doomed Struggle

Fossils from Myanmar show bird's wing.

Preserved in amber the wings of baby birds that once became trapped in tree resin.

Picture Credit: Chung-tat Cheung

The beautiful illustration above shows an imagined scene in which one of these young birds find itself trapped and unable to break free of the glue-like tree resin.

Lead author of the study, Dr. Xing Lida added:

“The fact that the tiny birds were clambering about in the trees suggests that they had advanced development, meaning they were ready for action as soon as they hatched [precocial].  These birds did not hang about in the nest waiting to be fed, but set off looking for food, and sadly died perhaps because of their small size and lack of experience.  Isolated feathers in other amber samples show that adult birds might have avoided the sticky sap, or pulled themselves free.”

Scientists Can Identify Different Pigments in the Fossilised Remains of the Feathers

Feathers preserved in Burmese amber.

Different pigments in the feathers can be made out quite clearly in this feather preserved in Burmese amber.

Researchers Hope to Learn More About Aves/Dinosaur Evolution

Exquisite details on the fossilised feathers can be made out.

Fine details of the fossilised feather can be clearly seen in the amber.

Picture Credit: Royal Saskatchewan Museum (R.C. McKellar)

Everything Dinosaur acknowledges the help of Bristol University in the compilation of this article.

The scientific paper from which this article is drawn: “Mummified precocial bird wings in mid-Cretaceous Burmese amber” by Lida Xing, Ryan C. McKellar, Min Wang, Ming Bai, Jingmai K. O’Connor, Michael J. Benton, Jianping Zhang, Yan Wang, Kuowei Tseng, Martin G. Lockley, Gang Li, Weiwei Zhang and Xing Xu.

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