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/Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories

Fossil finds, new dinosaur discoveries, news and views from the world of palaeontology and other Earth sciences.

17 03, 2018

“Attenborough’s Sea Dragon” on Display

By | March 17th, 2018|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Main Page, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Ichthyosaur Specimen on Display at Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre

The fossilised remains of a new species of Ichthyosaur are on display at the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre for the rest of this year.  The Centre, based on the famous Jurassic coast of Dorset, will be home to the partial skeleton of a four-metre-long, new species of “fish lizard”, it’s discovery and excavation was documented in a BBC television programme shown back in January.

The New Ichthyosaur Display at the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre

Ichthyosaur specimen on display.

The “Sea Dragon” fossil on display.  The head of the specimen has been lost, it probably was eroded out of the cliff face prior to Chris Moore’s discovery.

Picture Credit: Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre

Narrated by Sir David Attenborough, the programme told the story of the fossil’s discovery by experienced local collector Chris Moore.  Chris along with a team of climbing experts and geologists spent weeks excavating the rock containing the creature by hand from a Dorset cliff.  The headless skeleton, that even retained evidence of Ichthyosaur skin, was transported by boat back to Lyme Regis so that the matrix covering the bones could slowly be removed and full details of the 200-million-year-old specimen revealed.

To read Everything Dinosaur’s article about the BBC documentary: Attenborough and the Sea Dragon

Experts from Southampton and Bristol Universities studied and analysed the skeleton as well as the exceptionally well-preserved skin still on the bones.  They identified it as a new species of Ichthyosaur, probably an animal of the open ocean that for some reason had come closer to the shore, where, in the coastal waters, it was attacked and killed by a much larger animal.  The palaeontologists, preparators and researchers had a murder scene on their hands.  In the television programme, a CGI version of the unfortunate marine reptile was created and its final moments re-enacted, an attack by a super predator, one of the most dangerous animals on the planet during the Early Jurassic – a ferocious Temnodontosaurus.

Everything Dinosaur’s Illustration of Temnodontosaurus

Scale drawing of Temnodontosaurus.

Temnodontosaurus scale drawing (T. platyodon) shown giving birth.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Attacked by a Much Larger Ichthyosaur

As the fossilised skeleton was slowly but surely revealed, damaged vertebrae and broken ribs provided evidence of an attack by a much bigger marine reptile.  The assailant was probably a Temnodontosaurus, one of the largest of the Ichthyosauria, capable of growing to around ten metres in length with a body mass estimated at approximately two tonnes.  The attacker did not get its prize, the researchers speculated that the initial bite on the unfortunate victim, punctured the animal’s body cavity releasing air from the lungs and the Ichthyosaur’s body descended into the deep.  The body of the Ichthyosaur descended rapidly and it was soon out of the diving range of the attacker, coming to rest on the seabed.  The corpse was rapidly covered by fine sediment and fossilisation eventually took place, two hundred million years later, fossil hunter Chris Moore spotted part of the skeleton eroding out of a cliff and the process of excavating the specimen was begun.

Chris Moore (Foreground) with Sir David Attenborough and Sally Thompson (Producer/Director of the Television Documentary)

Chris Moore on the Dorset Coast

Chris Moore (foreground) with television programme director/producer Sally Thompson and Sir David Attenborough (background).

Picture Credit: Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre

Veteran naturalist, life-long fossil collector and highly esteemed broadcaster, Sir David Attenborough explained in the hour-long programme:

“It’s been a fascinating journey of discovery, but for me the real wonder is the bones themselves.  It is a long time spent just revealing the body of this creature, but it’s also revealed this extraordinary story of life and death, predator and prey fighting it out in the seas 200 million years ago, just down there (at the beach).”

Team members from Everything Dinosaur are hoping to visit the exhibit at the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre when they will be working on the Dorset coast in the autumn.

As the BBC television programme drew to a close, Sir David Attenborough remarked:

“For Chris [Chris Moore], this has been a labour of love and its filled in another gap in the palaeontological jigsaw.  A story that all started with an odd-looking boulder on a Dorset beach.  It’s extraordinary to think that some 200 million years ago exactly here, the greatest predator of its time was swimming around in the sea, and that’s what I love about fossils and fossil hunting, it gives you an extraordinarily vivid insight into what the world was like millions of years before human beings even appeared on this planet.”

Attenborough’s Sea Dragon is on display at Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre throughout 2018.

For further information on the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre: Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre

15 03, 2018

Pterosaurs More Diverse at the End of the Cretaceous than Previously Thought

By | March 15th, 2018|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Getting to Grips with Six New Species of Pterosaurs

The Pterosauria, that Order of winged reptiles that thrived alongside the dinosaurs were thought to have had their heyday in the Early Cretaceous. Only a single family, the Azhdarchidae (several of whom were giants), was known from the very end of the Cretaceous (Maastrichtian faunal stage).  Many palaeontologists had thought that these flying reptiles, the first vertebrates to evolve powered flight, had gone into gradual decline, slowly but surely displaced by those rapidly evolving new masters of the air, the birds.

However, a scientific paper, published this week in the academic journal “PLOS Biology”, challenges this view.  A total of six new species, representing three families of pterosaurs have been discovered in Late Cretaceous (Maastrichtian) rocks in Morocco.  This new discovery, the most diverse Late Cretaceous pterosaur fossil assemblage found to date, suggests that the Pterosauria may not have gradually faded away, as previously thought.  Their long lineage probably ended abruptly, in essence, the Pterosauria met the same fate at the end of the Cretaceous as their Archosaur cousins the Dinosauria.

A Diverse Assemblage of Pterosaurs – Late Cretaceous Morocco

Pterosaurs of the Late Cretaceous (Morocco).

Six new species of pterosaur have been identified from Morocco.  This suggests that the Pterosauria were far more diverse and speciose at the end of the Cretaceous than previously thought.

Picture Credit: John Conway

A Treasure Trove of Ancient Vertebrate Fossils

Writing in the journal PLOS Biology, the researchers from the University of Bath, Portsmouth University and the University of Texas at Austin, identified a total of seven species of flying reptile from fragmentary and largely isolated fossils found in marine rocks from phosphate mines in northern Morocco (Ouled Abdoun Basin).  Working in conjunction with local fossil hunters, the scientists were able to build up a collection of around two hundred pterosaur bones.

Over the years, commercial mining has revealed large numbers of marine vertebrates dating from the end of the Cretaceous and into the Palaeogene.  Cretaceous fauna associated with these deposits include turtles, plesiosaurs, mosasaurs, sharks and lots of different types of teleost (bony fish).  Occasionally the remains of terrestrial animals are preserved in such deposits, including the bones of Late Cretaceous dinosaurs, representing some of the youngest dinosaur fossils found.

To read our 2017 article about the discovery of an abelisaurid dinosaur: The Last Dinosaur in Africa

The pterosaurs identified by the researchers range in size with the smallest found having a wingspan equivalent to that of an extant Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), to giants with wingspans approaching ten metres, three times bigger than the wingspan of the largest volant birds alive today.  The fossil material has been dated to just over 66 million years ago, making these pterosaurs amongst the very last of their kind on Earth.

The Mandible of the Newly Described Nyctosaurid Alcione elainus

Pterosaur fossil mandible Alcione elainus.

The mandible of the newly described Moroccan pterosaur A. elainus.

Picture Credit: PLOS Biology


dgr = dorsal groove, ocl = occlusal ridge,  sym = symphysis.

Lead author of the study, Dr Nicholas Longrich, (Milner Centre for Evolution and the Department of Biology and Biochemistry, Bath University) stated:

“To be able to grow so large and still be able to fly, pterosaurs evolved incredibly lightweight skeletons, with the bones reduced to thin-walled, hollow tubes like the frame of a carbon-fibre racing bike.  Unfortunately, that means these bones are fragile and so almost none survive as fossils.”

Six New Species of Pterosaur

The researchers were able to identify six new species of pterosaur, representing three different families:

  1. Tethydraco regalis (Pteranodontidae) – the youngest member of the Pteranodontidae family described to date.  Estimated wingspan around 5 metres.
  2. Alcione elainus (Nyctosauridae) – wingspan estimated at about 2 metres.
  3. Simurghia robusta (Nyctosauridae) – a large pterosaur with a wingspan of around 4 metres.
  4. Barbaridactylus grandis (Nyctosauridae) – an even bigger pterosaur with a wingspan estimated to be about 5.2 metres.
  5. Quetzalcoatlus spp. (Azhdarchidae) – described from a single neck bone (cervical vertebra) which resembles the cervical vertebrae of Quetzalcoatlus (Q. northropi).  Size estimates for this flying reptile are very speculative, however, it could have had a wingspan of around 4 metres based on comparisons with better known azhdarchid pterosaurs.
  6. Sidi Chennane specimen (Azhdarchidae) – not scientifically named as yet, known from a single, partial ulna (arm bone), measuring 362 mm long, but when complete it would have been around 600 to 700 mm in length.  This suggests a giant azhdarchid pterosaur with a wingspan of approximately 9 metres.  This specimen has been named after the phosphate mine where it was found, formal scientific description will depend on the discovery of more fossil material.  The researchers conclude that this animal was probably related to the giant azhdarchid Arambourgiania philadelphiae, which is known from the Late Cretaceous of Jordan and the United States.

Late Cretaceous Pterosaur Faunas (Marine and Terrestrial) Compared to Late Cretaceous Birds

Late Cretaceous birds compared to Late Cretaceous Pteosaurs

Size disparity between Late Cretaceous pterosaurs and Late Cretaceous birds.

Picture Credit: PLOS Biology with additional annotation by Everything Dinosaur

The diagram above compares the size disparity between Late Cretaceous pterosaurs with those of contemporaneous birds (coeval Aves – birds that lived at the same time as these flying reptiles).  Pterosaurs shaded blue are associated with marine environments, pterosaurs shaded in brown are associated with terrestrial habitats.  The six new species from the Ouled Abdoun Basin identified in the scientific paper have been given a red star.  The one species from the Ouled Abdoun Basin that had been previously described (2003), has been labelled with a green star (the azhdarchid Phosphatodraco mauritanicus).

The giant pterosaur referred to as the Sidi Chennane specimen is estimated to have approached Quetzalcoatlus in size, but it was much more lightly built and therefore, presumably weighed less.  These proportions indicate a distinct flight mode and ecological niche, suggesting that giant pterosaurs occupied a range of niches in Late Cretaceous habitats.  In addition, the researchers conclude that this flying reptile fossil assemblage demonstrates that the Maastrichtian pterosaurs show increased ecological niche occupation when compared to earlier Late Cretaceous pterosaurs (Santonian to Campanian faunas).  This study also indicates that when it came to developing large body forms, the Pterosauria were able to outcompete coeval birds.

The Fossilised Partial Ulna of the Sidi Chennane Specimen

Fossil ulna of a giant azhdarchid pterosaur.

The ulna of the Sidi Chennane specimen.

Picture Credit: PLOS Biology


ut = ulna tubercle, vp = ventral process

5% Increase in Known Pterosaur Species

Co-author of the study, Dr Brian Andres, from the Jackson School of Geosciences at The University of Texas at Austin, commented:

“The Moroccan fossils tell the last chapter of the pterosaurs’ story – and they tell us pterosaurs dominated the skies over the land and sea, as they had for the previous 150 million years.”

With around 130 pterosaur species described to date, these fossils from Morocco have led to a 5 percent increase in the known number of flying reptile species.  This diversity of pterosaur species from Upper Maastrichtian deposits in Morocco suggest an abrupt mass extinction of the Pterosauria at the Cretaceous-Palaeogene boundary.

The scientific paper: “Late Maastrichtian Pterosaurs from North Africa and Mass Extinction of Pterosauria at the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary” by Nicholas R. Longrich, David M. Martill and Brian Andres published in PLOS Biology.

Everything Dinosaur acknowledges the help of a press release from the University of Bath in the compilation of this article.

14 03, 2018

Are Palaeontologists Naming Too Many New Species?

By | March 14th, 2018|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Palaeontological articles|0 Comments

Cautionary Tale When It Comes to Naming New Species from Fragmentary Fossils

In the 19th Century when scientists were beginning to understand that there were many different types of dinosaur, lots of new species were erected, often from the most fragmentary of fossils.  As the western United States and Canada were explored, large quantities of dinosaur fossil material came to light.  This led to palaeontologists naming many new species.  Famous dinosaurs such as the hadrosaurid Trachodon (T. mirabilis), which graced an amazing number of dinosaur books in the 1960’s and 1970’s, named in 1856 by the American palaeontologist Joseph Leidy, is a typical example.  Leidy described Trachodon from just a few teeth found in Montana (Judith River Formation).  Today, palaeontologists regard the genus Trachodon as nomen dubium (its validity is doubted).   Those teeth used to describe this iconic duck-billed dinosaur probably represent several different plant-eating dinosaurs both Hadrosaurs and even horned dinosaurs (Ceratopsians).

As Seen in Numerous Dinosaur Books in the Late 20th Century – Trachodon

Postcard with Trachodon illustration.

An illustration of Trachodon.  A genus of dinosaur regarded as nomen dubium (validity is questioned).

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Recognising new Fossil Species

It is not just the Dinosauria that has suffered from overzealous species naming, however, a comprehensive review of variations in Ichthyosaur bones will help scientists to recognise new fossil species.  Dean Lomax (Manchester University) and Professor Judy Massare (SUNY College at Brockport, New York, USA), have examined hundreds of Ichthyosaurus specimens and they urge caution when it comes to erecting new species based on the evidence of a few fragmentary elements or isolated fossil remains.

Writing in the “Geological Journal”, the pair of scientists report that by focusing on just one part of the anatomy of an Ichthyosaurus an appreciation of the variation within a species can be obtained.  Their paper looked at the hind fin, (back paddle), the purpose being to evaluate different forms amongst the six known species that make up the Ichthyosaurus genus.  In total, ninety-nine specimens were examined, providing useful information on the variations within different species of “fish lizard”.

A Fossil Specimen of Ichthyosaurus somersetensis Named and Formally Described in 2017

Ichthyosaurus somersetensis specimen.

Ichthyosaurus somersetensis fossil specimen.  The black arrow in the photograph shows the location of the hind fin.

Picture Credit: Dean Lomax/Manchester University

Large Sample Size Helps to Provide Robust Results

Early in their research, the scientists found different types of hind fin that initially appeared to represent different species.  As more specimens were studied, they found further examples of variation between the hind fins of individual animals.   The hind fins differed in a number of ways, hind fins had different numbers of bones, their shape differed and the size of the hind fin also varied.  From this work, it was concluded that a single hind fin alone could not be used to distinguish amongst the species of Ichthyosaurus, however, particular variations were more common in certain species than in others.

Palaeontologist Dean Lomax explained:

“As we have such a large, complete sample size, which is relatively unique among such fossil vertebrates, our study can help illustrate the limitations that palaeontologists face when dealing with few or even just one specimen.”

This new study shows that with only a few specimens in the sample, features can be found that differ substantially from one specimen to the next and this can cause confusion if these autapomorphies (distinctive traits) are used to classify organisms.  It can appear that there are several species.  In reality, with a much bigger sample, the gaps in the “unique” variations are filled in, showing that differences are simply the result of individual variations within a population.

Judy Massare added:

“We described a few hind fins, which might have been called a new species if they were found in isolation.  Instead, we had enough specimens to determine that it was just an extreme variation of a common form.”

How Many Types of Ichthyosaurus Existed?

A Jurassic marine scene (Ichthyosaurus).

Ichthyosaurus life restoration.

Picture Credit: James McKay

“Lumpers” and “Splitters”

Palaeontologists can be put into two distinct groups when it comes to naming new species, the “lumpers” and the “splitters”.   “Lumpers” group similar specimens together, whilst in contrast, the “splitters” opt to split specimens into new species.  In this new study, if the team opted to split-up the specimens based on the variation found, it would suggest that there were a large number of species.

Dean Lomax stated:

“If we considered the variation as unique, it would mean we would be naming about 30 new species.  This would be similar to what was done in the 19th Century when any new fossil find, from a new location or horizon, was named as a new species if it differed slightly from previously known specimens.”

Just like the example of Trachodon given above.

As more fossil material is found and better dating techniques are developed, the decision to erect a new species has to be given extremely careful consideration.  This new study into variation within an extinct group of individual specimens can help scientists to make appropriate choices when it comes to classification.

The scientific paper: “Hindfins of Ichthyosaurus: effects of large sample size on ‘distinct’ morphological characters” by Judy A. Massare and Dean R. Lomax published in the Geological Journal.

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

6 03, 2018

Jinyunpelta sinensis – Oldest Swinger in Town

By | March 6th, 2018|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Basal Ankylosaurine Dinosaur Jinyunpelta is Described

Scientists, including researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences have published details of a new genus of club-tailed, armoured dinosaur that roamed China around 100 million years ago.  The dinosaur has been named Jinyunpelta sinensis, it represents the first definitive ankylosaurid dinosaur from southern China.

An Illustration of the Basal Ankylosaurine Jinyunpelta sinensis

Jinyunpelta sinensis illustrated.

An illustration of Jinyunpelta sinensis.

Picture Credit: The Chinese Academy of Sciences

Two Fossil Specimens

This new dinosaur, very distantly related to Late Cretaceous Ankylosaurs like Euoplocephalus and Ankylosaurus (from which the group is named), has been described based on two fossil specimens.  The fossils come from Jinyun County, Zhejiang Province, China and have been excavated from rocks which form part of the Liangtoutang Formation, which covers the important boundary between Lower and Upper Cretaceous sediments (Albian faunal stage to the Cenomanian faunal stage of the Cretaceous).

The fossil material consists of an almost complete skull, parts of the jaw and postcranial remains including a beautifully-preserved tail club.

The Skull and Jaw of Jinyunpelta sinensis

The skull and mandible of Jinyunpelta sinensis.

Skull and jaw of Jinyunpelta (a) dorsal view, (b) ventral view and (c) anterior view, with accompanying line drawings.

Picture Credit: The Chinese Academy of Sciences/Scientific Reports

The generic name derives from “Jinyun” (Mandarin) honouring Jinyun County where the fossils were found and “pelta” (Latin), a small shield, in reference to the osteoderms found on all ankylosaurians.  The root of the specific name “sin” (Greek) refers to China, the country of origin.

Photographs and Line Drawings of the Spectacular Tail Club

The Tail Club of Jinyunpelta sinensis.

The tail club Jinyunpelta sinensis paratype ZMNH M8963 in dorsal (a) and ventral (b) views.

Picture Credit: The Chinese Academy of Sciences/Scientific Reports

The Oldest Swinger in Town

J. sinensis is described as a basal ankylosaurine dinosaur and it represents the oldest and the most basal ankylosaurian known to have a well-developed tail club knob.  It is quite a sizeable bony club too, getting on for nearly half a metre across at its widest part.  The researchers conclude that large and highly modified tail clubs evolved at the base of the ankylosaurine at least about 100 million years ago.

Jinyunpelta possesses unique cranial features which differentiates this Chinese dinosaur from other armoured dinosaurs known from the northern hemisphere, these autapomorphies support the establishment of a new genus.  Several other types of Ornithischian dinosaur have been reported from this part of China, including another armoured dinosaur – a  Nodosaur and basal Ornithopod that was named and described in 2012 (Yueosaurus tiantaiensis)

The discovery of Jinyunpelta expands the known diversity and palaeogeographical distribution of ankylosaurians in Asia.

The scientific paper: “The Most Basal Ankylosaurine Dinosaur from the Albian–Cenomanian of China, with Implications for the Evolution of the Tail Club” by Wenjie Zheng, Xingsheng Jin, Yoichi Azuma, Qiongying Wang, Kazunori Miyata & Xing Xu published in the open access journal “Scientific Reports”.

5 03, 2018

Watching the Birdie – Early Cretaceous

By | March 5th, 2018|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Palaeontological articles, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Early Cretaceous Enantiornithine Shines Light on Early Bird Evolution

A tiny, beautifully preserved fossil of a baby bird is helping scientists to shine a light on the early evolution of some of the first birds.  The fossil represents an enantiornithine bird and researchers, including Dr Fabien Knoll (Manchester University), have used synchrotron radiation to analyse the microscopic structure of the bird’s skeleton in order to assess at what stage of development the poor creature was at when it met its demise.

An Elemental Map of the Fossilised Skeleton was Created using Synchrotron Radiation

The enantiornithine bird fossil (elemental mapping).

Elemental mapping of the tiny bird fossil.  Mapping the slab and the counter slab of the fossil to determine the chemical composition of the skeleton.

Picture Credit: Manchester University

The Enantiornithes – Early Birds

The Enantiornithes were a clade of diverse Cretaceous birds that possessed several characteristics of modern birds (Neornithines) but were also anatomically different in a number of respects.  They retained claws on their wings and most species had teeth, in contrast to all modern Aves which are edentulous.  Despite having an almost global distribution and being regarded as the most specious and successful birds of the Cretaceous, the Enantiornithes are thought to have become extinct at the same time as the last of the non-avian dinosaurs.

A study published in 2016 proposed that the evolution of a toothless beak may have helped some types of birds to survive the end Cretaceous mass extinction event.  To read an article summarising the study’s findings: Seed Eating May Have Helped Some Birds Survive the End Cretaceous Extinction Event

One of the Smallest Mesozoic Avian Fossils Described

The specimen preserved on a slab and counter slab is one of the smallest Mesozoic bird fossils to have been found to date.  The specimen measures less than five centimetres in length and the baby bird would have been able to sit in an egg-cup.  However, it is remarkably well-preserved and the skeleton is virtually complete and what makes this fossil so significant is the fact that the baby bird died shortly after emerging from its egg.

The poor, unfortunate bird might have had an extremely short life, but it has given researchers a rare opportunity to analyse a baby bird’s bone structure and assess its skeletal development.

A Reconstruction of the Cretaceous Bird

A reconstruction of the baby Cretaceous bird.f

A reconstruction of the enantiornithine baby bird with insert showing scale.

Picture Credit: Raul Martin

Assessing Bone Structure and Development

The scientists have been able to study the ossification of the bones, how they were growing and developing.  A better understanding of the skeleton of the very young bird will help researchers to better understand whether this bird species was capable of flight soon after birth and how independent it was.

Lead author of the study, Dr Fabien Knoll (Interdisciplinary Centre for Ancient Life [ICAL] at the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Manchester University) and the ARAID Dinopolis in Spain stated:

“The evolutionary diversification of birds has resulted in a wide range of hatchling developmental strategies and important differences in their growth rates.  By analysing bone development, we can look at a whole host of evolutionary traits.”

Lead Author of the Study Dr Fabien Knoll Prepares the Specimen for Analysis

Dr Knoll (Manchester University) studying the enantiornithine bird fossil.

Dr Fabien Knoll studying the slab and counter slab of the bird fossil.

Picture Credit: Manchester University

Altricial, Precocial or Somewhere in Between

As the fossil was so small, being less than the length of the average person’s little finger, the team used synchrotron radiation to analyse the specimen at a “submicron” level.  The skeleton could be assessed in extreme detail and the microstructures of the bones observed.

Dr Knoll explained:

“New technologies are offering palaeontologists unprecedented capacities to investigate provocative fossils.  Here we made the most of state-of-the-art facilities worldwide including three different synchrotrons in France, the UK and the United States.”

New Technology Helps to Map the Elemental Composition of an Ancient Bird Fossil

Phosphorous mapping and a photograph of the fossil.

A phosphorous map of the bird skeleton and photograph of the fossil.  The fossil is around 127 million years old (Early Cretaceous).

Picture Credit: Manchester University

The synchrotron analysis determined that the baby bird’s sternum (breastplate bone) was largely composed of cartilage and had not completely ossified.  The absence of hard bone in the sternum suggests that this bird could not fly.  The patterns of ossification observed in this and the other few, very young enantiornithine birds known to date also suggest that the developmental strategies of this particular group of ancient avians may have been more diverse than previously thought.

The researchers remain cautious and don’t wish to definitively come down on one side of the argument in terms of how dependent/independent this baby bird could have been.  The lack of bone development does not necessarily prove that the hatchling was reliant on its parents for feeding and care (altricial trait).  Modern birds demonstrate a variety of behavioural responses when it comes to bringing up babies.  Some bird species like chickens and ostriches have highly precocial young.  The babies are able to leave the nest and feed themselves within hours of hatching.  In contrast, most of the passerines (song birds) such as robins, blackbirds and thrushes are helpless when they hatch and rely on their parents to feed them and to keep them warm.

Altricial and precocial behaviours tend to be at opposite ends of a spectrum, the breeding strategy employed by this enantiornithine remains obscure.  As extant Aves exhibit a variety of breeding strategies from totally altricial through to super precocial (such as the megapodes, an example being the Australian brush turkey), it is difficult to clarify the development strategy of any extinct species.

Altricial and Precocial Behaviours can be Viewed as Opposite Ends of a Spectrum

Birds - altricial and precocial behaviours.

Altricial and precocial behaviours in Aves – a spectrum.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Co-author of the study, Luis Chiappe (Los Angeles Museum of Natural History) added:

“This new discovery, together with others from around the world, allows us to peek into the world of ancient birds that lived during the age of dinosaurs.  It is amazing to realise how many of the features we see among living birds had already been developed more than 100 million years ago.”

Everything Dinosaur acknowledges the assistance of a press release from Manchester University in the compilation of this article.

24 02, 2018

In Search of a Prehistoric Landscape Under the Sea

By | February 24th, 2018|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Geology, Main Page|0 Comments

Exploring the Ancient Landscape Under the Irish Sea

A team of international scientists are setting out to map and explore the extensive submerged landscape that lies under the Irish Sea.  The research team includes members of the Irish Marine Institute and the Institute of Technology Sligo and the University College Cork and they aim to explore the prehistoric landscape and search for evidence of human activity and habitation.  At the end of the last Ice Age, huge areas of habitable land in Europe were flooded as sea levels rose.  Scientists estimate that the water rose by around 120 metres, (as a guide, St Paul’s Cathedral is around 111 metres tall), beneath the waves lies a virtually unknown palaeolandscape of plains, hills, marshlands and river valleys.

A Map Showing the Maximum Extent of the Marine Palaeolandscapes

The extent of the palaeolandscape prior to sea level changes.

Approximate maximum extent of marine palaeolandscapes off the Irish and British coasts (survey areas in red).

Picture Credit: University of Bradford

A Landscape Similar to Doggerland

The researchers are confident that the palaeolandscape between Great Britain and Ireland will be similar to that of Doggerland, an area of the southern North Sea and currently the best-known example of a palaeolandscape in Europe.  Doggerland has been extensively researched by Professor Vince Gaffney from the University of Bradford, Principal Investigator of the “Europe’s Lost Frontiers” Project.

The “Lost Frontiers” Project

Lost Frontiers is an ERC-funded Advanced Grant project based at Bradford University (West Yorkshire).   The purpose is to better understand the transition between nomadic, hunter gathering populations to sedentary farming communities in north-western Europe.  The “Lost Frontiers” team are studying the evidence for inundated palaeolandscapes around the British coast using seismic reflectance data sets to generate topographical maps of these hidden landscapes.  Environmental data from these areas is then being used to reconstruct and simulate the palaeoenvironments of these areas using ancient DNA extracted directly from sediment cores as well as traditional environmental data.

Professor Gaffney commented:

“Research by the project team has also provided accurate maps for the submerged lands that lie between Ireland and Britain and these are suspected to hold crucial information regarding the first settlers of Ireland and adjacent lands along the Atlantic corridor.”

Drilling Sediment Cores to Explore an Ancient Submerged Landscape

Around sixty sediment cores are going to be drilled at twenty carefully selected sites in Liverpool and Cardigan Bays, these cores will then be analysed by the research team in order to build up a picture of how the landscape changed over time.  Analysis of plant spores and pollen will help to establish the type of landscape that once existed under the waves, from this and using Doggerland research as a benchmark, the existence of different types of megafauna can be inferred.

The Coastal Vessel RV Celtic Voyager Will be the Base of Operations

RV Coastal Voyager

The coastal vessel RV Celtic Voyager will be the base of operations for the research team and core drilling staff.

Picture Credit: Bradford University

Commenting on the significance of this research Dr James Bonsall (Institute of Technology Sligo), stated:

“It is very exciting, as we’re using cutting-edge technology to retrieve the first evidence for life within landscapes that were inundated by rising sea levels thousands of years ago.  This is the first time that this range of techniques has been employed on submerged landscapes under the Irish Sea.  Today, we perceive the Irish Sea as a large body of water, a sea that separates us from Britain and mainland Europe, a sea that gives us an identity as a proud island nation.  But 18,000 years ago, Ireland, Britain and Europe were part of a single landmass that gradually flooded over thousands of years, forming the islands that we know today.  We’re going to find out where, when, why and how people lived on a landscape that today is located beneath the waves.”

Reconstructing Ancient Landscapes

The researchers hope to reconstruct and simulate the palaeoenvironments of the Irish Sea, using ancient DNA, analysed in the laboratories at the University of Warwick, and palaeoenvironmental data extracted from the sediment cores.  This information will help the team to build up a picture of the lives of the people who once lived on the land between what is now Ireland and Great Britain.

Mapping the Palaeolandscapes of the Irish Sea

Red triangles indicate survey sites.

Geology of the survey area and core sampling sites (red triangles).

Picture Credit: Bradford University

Dr Martin Bates (University of Wales) added:

“This is a very exciting opportunity as the cores we are collecting are the first drilled in the Cardigan Bay sea bed since perhaps the 1970’s.  They are going to provide us with material that will really help us to understand how Cardigan Bay changed as the sea flooded across the landscape during the time that people were coming back to Wales after the last glaciation.”

Everything Dinosaur acknowledges the help of a press release from the University of Bradford in the compilation of this article.

23 02, 2018

Neanderthals Thought Like Us

By | February 23rd, 2018|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal Drawings, Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Main Page|0 Comments

Iberian Neanderthals Created Cave Art

The image of the Neanderthal (Homo neanderthalensis), has changed radically over the last few decades.  Gone are the images of a brutish, “ape-man” as depicted by 20th Century artists such as Burian and Charles Knight.  A lot of evidence has emerged in recent years that supports the idea that Neanderthals, our closest cousins, were as sophisticated as us with a rich and diverse culture.  A new study, published in the journal “Science”, proposes that Iberian Neanderthals, created cave paintings as early as 64,000 years ago and that these paintings were as complex as those associated with our own species.  Neanderthal artists used symbolism, geometric shapes and linear signs just as complicated as those drawn by H. sapiens.

Abstract and Symbolic Cave Art Created by Neanderthals

Evidence of Neanderthal Cave Art (Spain).

La Pasiega, section C, cave wall with paintings.  The ladder shape composed of red horizontal and vertical lines (centre left) dates to older than 64,000 years and was made by Neanderthals.

Picture Credit: P. Saura

What Does it Mean to be Human?

Defining what it means to be human (Homo sapiens), has just become a little more complicated.  It was once thought that our ability to create abstract art, to use symbols and to develop a culture was a defining characteristic that elevated our species above all the other hominins.

Lead author of the new research, Dirk Hoffmann of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (Leipzig, Germany) explained:

“The emergence of symbolic material culture represents a fundamental threshold in the evolution of humankind.  It is one of the main pillars of what makes us human.  Artefacts whose functional value lies not so much in their practical but rather in their symbolic use are proxies for fundamental aspects of human cognition as we know it.”

Neanderthals Had a Culture Too

Early symbolic artefacts, like pigment-coloured shells that possibly served as body ornamentation, are documented for the Middle Stone Age in North and South Africa.  These have been dated to approximately 70,000 years ago (middle Tarantian stage of the Pleistocene Epoch) and are associated with anatomically and behaviourally modern humans.  There is evidence in Europe for cave art, sculpted figures, decorated bone tools and jewellery made of bone, tooth, ivory, shell or stone that dates back to the so-called “Upper Palaeolithic Revolution” around 40,000 years ago.  These artefacts, researchers concluded, must have been created by modern humans who were spreading all over Europe after their arrival from Africa.

A Shell with Traces of Pigmentation – An Object Dating from at Least 115,000 Years Ago

Shell Fragment with Signs of Pigmentation.

A shell with remnants of pigments found in sediments in Cueva de los Aviones (Spain).  It dates to between 115,000 and 120,000 years of age.

Picture Credit: João Zilhão (Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies

Cave Art Previously Only Associated with Homo sapiens

Cave paintings are a particularly impressive statement of culture and the use of symbolic behaviour.  To date, cave art and paintings have only been attributed to modern humans.  A lack of precise dating has hindered attempts to prove that Neanderthals painted on cave walls too.  The perpetrators of cave art cannot usually be identified directly, the age of the paintings is the only determinant, providing indirect evidence of who created the paintings based on their geological age.  However, a new advanced dating technique has permitted more precise dating and this research suggests that Neanderthals were just as artistic as ourselves.

Post-doctoral researcher Hoffmann added:

“Dating cave art accurately and precisely, but without destroying it, has so far been difficult to accomplish.  Thanks to recent technical developments we can now obtain a minimum age for cave art using Uranium-Thorium (U-Th) dating of carbonate crusts overlying the pigments.”

Uranium-Thorium Dating

Uranium-Thorium dating is very precise and it relies on the radioactive decay of Uranium isotopes into Thorium, this methodology can accurately date calcium carbonate deposits and formations associated with cave art and it can determine the age of calcium carbonate which is up to half a million years old – more than enough scope to chronologically test all forms of cave painting.

Dating Cave Art Using Uranium-Thorium Analysis

Calcium Carbonate deposits help to date cave art.

Calcite crust on top of the red ladder shape sign.  The U-Th method dates the formation of the crust which gives a minimum age for the underlying painting.

Picture Credit: João Zilhão (Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies

The international team of researchers, which included scientists from the University of Southampton, analysed more than sixty carbonate samples from three different cave sites in Spain: La Pasiega in north-eastern Spain, Ardales in southern Spain and Maltravieso in the western part of the country.  All three sites contain paintings mostly in red, sometimes in black, that show groups of animals, dots and geometric signs, hand stencils, hand prints and engravings.

Commenting on the team’s findings Alistair Pike (Southampton University), stated:

“Our dating results show that the cave art at these three sites in Spain is much older than previously thought.  With an age in excess of 64,000 years it predates the earliest traces of modern humans in Europe by more than 20,000 years.  The cave art must thus have been created by Neanderthals.”

Neanderthal hand stencil.

Stencil of a Neanderthal hand on a cave wall in Maltravieso (colour enhanced), almost completely covered with calcite.  It is older than 66,000 years

Picture Credit: H. Collado (Quaternary-Prehistory Research Group, Spain)

Evidence of a Complex Thought Process

The early cave paintings created in red pigments comprise of dots, lines, discs and hand stencils.  The hand prints were made by the artist blowing red paint over the hand, using it as a form of stencil.  To create such intricate artwork, the perpetrator would have had to plan their work, provide a suitable light source and mix pigments.  Choice of location was essential too.

Cave art specialist and co-author Paul Pettitt (University of Durham) asserted:

“Neanderthals created meaningful symbols in meaningful places.”

The research team concludes that Neanderthals possessed a much more rich and complex symbolic behaviour than previously assumed.  This new research will help to change the long-held prejudices against the intelligence and intellectual abilities of these hominins that are so closely related to ourselves.

Fellow author João Zilhão (Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies), explained the implications of this and other research that reveals a more sophisticated Neanderthal.  It can be concluded that modern humans and Neanderthals shared symbolic thinking and must have been “cognitively indistinguishable”.

Research Professor Zilhão commented:

“On our search for the origins of language and advanced human cognition we must therefore look much farther back in time, more than half a million years ago, to the common ancestor of Neanderthals and modern humans.”

As the weekend approaches, why don’t you take time out to create some artwork, harness your inner Neanderthal…

The scientific paper: “U-Th Dating of Carbonate Crusts Reveals Neandertal Origin of Iberian Cave Art” by D. L. Hoffmann, C. D. Standish, M. García-Diez, P. B. Pettitt, J. A. Milton, J. Zilhão, J. J. Alcolea-González, P. Cantalejo-Duarte, H. Collado, R. de Balbín, M. Lorblanchet, J. Ramos-Muñoz G.-Ch. Weniger, A. W. G. Pike published in the journal “Science”.

Everything Dinosaur acknowledges the help of a press release from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in the compilation of this article.

22 02, 2018

Ground-Dwelling Birds Provide Clues to Theropod Dinosaur Locomotion

By | February 22nd, 2018|Animal News Stories, Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Palaeontological articles|0 Comments

Observe How Ground-Dwelling Birds Move to Learn About Theropod Locomotion

Just how fast could T. rex run?  Over the years, there have been a number of papers published that looked at the locomotion of big Theropod dinosaurs.  Computer models, three-dimensional analysis of trackways using state-of-the-art LIDAR (light detection and ranging), biomechanics, kinetic studies, so many disciples and so many areas of research.  One way of obtaining a better understanding of the movements of large, bipedal dinosaurs is to take a look at the dinosaurs that are still with us today, the birds.  By studying extant Aves, scientists can gain an insight into the locomotion of non-avian members of the Theropoda.

How Did Big Theropod Dinosaurs Move About?

Birds provide clues to Theropod locomotion.

T. rex locomotion.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Writing in the academic on-line journal PLOS One, a team of international scientists, which included Professor John Hutchinson from the Royal Veterinary College, Hertfordshire, set about gaining a greater appreciation of just how birds move by examining in detail the locomotion of twelve types of ground-dwelling bird, some of them flightless, such as the emu and ostrich, whilst others are accomplished flyers such as the Japanese quail and the Australian white ibis.  Aerial ability or the lack of it was not important, the team were interested in examining how birds of various sizes and body weights moved about, effectively recording their body movements using high speed cameras as these birds walked or ran across a track.  The species were selected based on the fact that these birds spend a lot of time on the ground.   By virtue of spending most of their lives (in the case of the emu and ostrich, all of their lives), on the ground, these feathered friends have well-developed hind limb locomotor systems.

Scaling Up to a Seven Tonne Theropod

There was a considerable variation in body size amongst the participants.  The smallest species represented being the Chinese painted quail, that weighed in at around 45 grammes, the largest being the ostrich which at 80 kilos represents a body mass some 1,780 times heavier.

The scientific paper deals with some of the problems of trying to use birds to test the locomotive abilities of big meat-eating dinosaurs.  Any studies using an 80-kg ostrich would require nearly a 100 fold extrapolation to equate to the body weight of a fully-grown Tyrannosaurus rex for example.  The researchers comment in the paper that the absolute range of body masses encompassed by modern birds is small compared to that encompassed by extinct, non-avian Theropod dinosaurs.  They postulate that whilst it may be reasonable to extrapolate to a 200-kilogramme flightless moa from New Zealand, is it reasonable to extrapolate to an eight tonne Tyrannosaur?

The Skeleton of an Ostrich (left) Compared to a Dinosaur Skeleton (right)

Ostrich skeleton compared to Guanlong dinosaur skeleton.

The skeleton of an extant ostrich compared to a Theropod dinosaur (Guanlong).

That point notwithstanding, birds are closely related to the likes of Tyrannosaurus rex and as such they make a better test subject than that other animal that is an obligate biped – us.  Data on how humans walk and run was also collated and studied, but Homo sapiens does move differently when compared to ground-dwelling birds, there are some very significant differences.   This research looked at the kinetics of bipedal movement, that is, those forces that cause motion (gravity, torque, friction and so forth).  It also examined the kinematics of motion, the study of describing movement, usually by measuring the precise motion of parts of the body such as the joints.  Kinematics involves looking at acceleration, velocity and braking.

When it comes to examining the differences in terrestrial motion between Aves and ourselves, perhaps the most significant difference is that in birds, all kinematic and kinetic parameters analysed changed continuously as velocity increased, whilst in humans all but one of those same parameters changed abruptly at the walk-run transition.  Think of it as birds being able to move through the gears a little more smoothly than their two-legged human counterparts.

The Locomotion of the Australian White Ibis was Examined

The Australian white ibis helps explain dinosaur locomotion

The Australian white ibis (Threskiornis molucca).

Ground Reaction Force

Particular attention was devoted to the ground reaction force (GRF), the force that the feet exert upon the ground.  The research team confirmed previous assessments of bird locomotion.  Birds have a highly continuous locomotor repertoire compared to humans.  Our discrete “walking” and “running” gaits are not easily distinguishable based on kinematic patterns alone.  If birds have a more continuous locomotion profile based on body mass and the speed of movement, then this means that scientists can develop equations that allows them to predict the potential locomotor capabilities of extinct creatures – Tyrannosaurus rex for example.

Lead author of the scientific paper, Peter Bishop (Queensland Museum) explained:

“Since birds, also known as “avian dinosaurs”, are actually just dinosaurs that didn’t become extinct, they were ideal models to study how their extinct cousins would have moved.  So, you’d be foolish to start anywhere else.”

The predictive model that the team has produced is able to explain 79–93% of the observed variation in kinematics and 69–83% of the observed variation in Ground Reaction Forces.  When used in extrapolation tests to examine the gaits of extinct animals, the results produced were within expected levels.  There are caveats however, this study also found that the location of the whole-body centre of mass may exert an important influence on the nature of the Ground Reaction Forces, some caution is needed before applying this model to a thirteen metre monster like T. rex, after all most extinct Theropod dinosaurs had substantial tails, whilst birds have a reduced tail in the form of a pygostyle and the presence/absence of a tail will have a bearing on locomotion.  The research team conclude that further investigation of the movement of dinosaurs is required.

A couple of years ago, a group of scientists mounted prosthetic tails on chickens and assessed how the presence of a tail altered their locomotion.

To read an article on this study: Walking Dinosaurs Chicken Run

Differences in Muscles and the Skeleton

Extant birds also have a very different skeleton compared to Theropod dinosaurs such as Allosaurus, Giganotosaurus, Megalosaurus and Tyrannosaurus rex.  The anatomy of birds varies considerable from that of a dinosaur, although there are striking similarities, the presence of a wish bone and a digitigrade stance for example.  Extinct non-avian Theropods have different limb proportions and their leg muscles and their position (as influenced, in part by that long tail), are different.  Theropod dinosaurs also had a different centre of gravity compared to birds.

For an article that looks at the evolution of the stance of birds from their dinosaur ancestors: Standing Dinosaur, Crouching Bird

The Research Will Help with the Locomotion of Extinct Flightless Birds (Sylviornis)

Sylviornis from New Caledonia.

Scale bar = 50 cm, a skeletal reconstruction of the giant, flightless bird from New Caledonia Sylviornis.

The Queensland Museum scientist Peter Bishop added that understanding the locomotion of giant, extinct Theropods such as the Late Cretaceous tyrannosaurids not only excited the curiosity of the public but was crucial to understanding a wide range of scientific questions.

He stated:

“Locomotion is important for understanding other parts of dinosaur ecology, how you find food, how you find mates, how you avoid becoming food yourself?  It could also help contribute to models of dinosaur migration and even help settle debates about whether they were warm-blooded.  But for me, the most interesting part of dinosaur locomotion is that it’s the most critical part of how dinosaurs evolved into birds.  There were a lot of changes in locomotion … including the development of powered flight.”

Next Steps

The research team hope to test their equations on more species of birds and also to develop computer programmes that can model how large bipedal dinosaurs would have moved.

An article published in 2013 that looks at the evolution of the gait of birds: Birds Have the Dinosauria to Thank for Their Crouching Gait

21 02, 2018

Plants May Have Originated 100 Million Years Earlier

By | February 21st, 2018|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Main Page, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Pushing Back the Origins of Plants by 100 Million Years

An analysis of the genes of living plants has revealed that the very first plants may have evolved 100 million years earlier than the fossil record suggests.  Writing in the academic journal “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA)”, researchers conclude that the first plants to colonise the Earth evolved around 500 million years ago, whereas, the current known fossil record provides evidence of plant spores from Ordovician-aged rocks and the first Rhyniophytes, Bryophytes and Lycophytes originated in the Silurian approximately 420 to 400 million years ago.

The Research Team Examined the Origins of Early Land Plants

Researching into the origins of early land plants.

Early land plants would have resembled the flora found in this Icelandic lava field.

Picture Credit: Paul Kenrick (Natural History Museum, London)

Lead author of the study, Dr. Philip Donoghue (Department of Earth Sciences, Bristol University) commented:

“Land plants emerged on land half a billion years ago, tens of millions of years older than the fossil record alone suggests.”

The current theory is that true plants, capable of surviving in a terrestrial environment evolved from “pond scum”.  Plants play a hugely important role in shaping the climate of our planet through photosynthesis and respiration.  The greening of the Earth permitted terrestrial environments to be opened up for exploitation by the first land animals.  Plants can help to establish and maintain soils and the roots of plants play a vital role in the physical and chemical weathering of rocks.  The breaking down of rocks is a key process in the carbon cycle that regulates the Earth’s atmosphere and climate.

Tracking Evolution Using a Molecular Clock

The scientists, which included Dr Mark Puttick from the Natural History Museum (London), used a molecular clock which analysed the combined evidence of genetic differences between related living species and the fossils of ancient ancestors.   The concept of a molecular clock works on the assumption that evolutionary changes occur at regular time intervals.  If the rate of genetic change (mutation), in the DNA of an organism can be compared to the genome of a closely related species then their relationship can be tracked back through time, identifying the characteristics of a common ancestor.  Tracking back using this methodology, the team concluded that the first plants evolved much earlier than previously thought.

Co-lead author of the research, Dr Jennifer Morris (Bristol University), explained:

“The global spread of plants and their adaptations to life on land, led to an increase in continental weathering rates that ultimately resulted in a dramatic decrease the levels of the “greenhouse gas” carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and global cooling.  Previous attempts to model these changes in the atmosphere have accepted the plant fossil record at face value, our research shows that these fossil ages underestimate the origins of land plants and so these models need to be revised.”

An Incomplete and Sparse Fossil Record

The fossil record of early plants is particularly poor.  It is far too incomplete to act as a reliable guide to the evolution and origin of land plants.  The molecular clock allowed the team to compare differences in the genetic make-up of extant plant species, these relative genetic differences were then converted into geological ages using the sparse fossil record as a loose framework.  This work suggests that the ancestor of land plants was living in the middle of the Cambrian and it is similar in age as the first known terrestrial animals.

A Cross Section of the Devonian Land Plant Rhynia gwynne-vaughanii from Scotland

An image of the early vascular plant Rhynia gwynne-vaughanii (Devonian).

A cross section of the early vascular plant – Rhynia gwynne-vaughanii.

Picture Credit: Natural History Museum, London

A Taxonomic Conundrum

The research into the origins of land plants has been complicated as the taxonomic relationships between the earliest land plants are not clear and distinct.  Using similarities in the shape and structure of land plants, scientists have mapped a number of conflicting outcomes for a cladistic analysis of early plant relationships between the most primitive groups such as the Bryophytes (liverworts and mosses) and the vascular plants (Tracheophytes) and a primitive sub-group of vascular plants, the Lycophytes.  Using the molecular clock model to map phylogenetic relationships the team identified several evolutionary family trees for the early plants.  The liverworts could be a sister clade to all other land plants, with either mosses, hornworts or a moss-hornwort grouping as the sister group to the Tracheophytes.

Seven Alternative Cladistic Relationships for Early Plants were Considered in the Study

The possible cladistic relationships between early land plants.

The possible cladistic relationships between early land plants.

Picture Credit: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

However, when each of these phylogenetic relationships was tested in turn, against the molecular clock model, the end result still indicated an origin of land plants some 100 million years earlier than previously thought.  The researchers conclude that the first land plants may therefore have originated during the Late Cambrian or at the latest during the Early Ordovician.

The scientific paper: “Timescale of Early Land Plant Evolution” by J. L. Morris, M. N. Puttick, J. Clark, D. Edwards, P. Kenrick, S. Pressel, C. H. Wellman, Z. Yang, H. Schneider and P. C. J. Donoghue, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA).

16 02, 2018

Lizards Up on Two Feet in the Early Cretaceous

By | February 16th, 2018|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Lizards Sprinted to Safety to Avoid Predation

A team of international scientists writing in the journal “Scientific Reports”, have described the oldest lizard trackways known to science that record bipedal behaviour.  The little lizards lived around 110 million years ago, in what is now South Korea, it has been speculated that just like extant lizards, they took to their hind legs to avoid being eaten.  The mudstone slab preserves a total of twenty-nine prints, representing four trackways made by lizards.  The lizard trackways occur in the same horizon as the pterosaur ichnotaxon, Pteraichnus koreanensis, it has been speculated that these small animals were taking to their hind legs and sprinting away to avoid the attention of marauding flying reptiles.

A Lizard Escapes from a Pterosaur (Early Cretaceous of South Korea)

A lizard takes to its hind legs to avoid the attentions of a Pterosaur.

A lizard sprints away from an attacking Pterosaur (Pteraichnus koreanensis).

Picture Credit: Zhao Chuang

Rare Lizard Trace Fossils from the Hasandong Formation

The researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Seoul National University, the Korea Institute of Geoscience and Mineral Resources along with Anthony Fiorillo of the Perot Museum of Nature and Science (Dallas, Texas) studied the mudstone slab, which measures approximately seventy centimetres by thirty centimetres in size and identified the tiny tracks, as that of a basal member of the Iguania Infraorder of lizards.  The team came to this conclusion as living iguanians, such as those in the Basiliscus genus (basilisk lizards), have strong hind legs and are facultative bipeds, that is, capable of running on their back legs when the need arises.  The fossil record also shows that these types of lizards were present in Asia during the Early Cretaceous.

The Mudstone Slab with Trace Fossils and Accompanying Line Drawing

Fossilised lizard tracks and line drawing.

Photograph of the fossil slab with accompanying line drawing.

Picture Credit: Scientific Reports

The trace fossils were excavated from an old quarry adjacent to Hadong power station in Hadong County, in south-central South Korea.  It is believed that the strata in this area (Hasandong Formation) was laid down around 112 to 110  million years ago (Aptian/Albian faunal stages of the Early Cretaceous).  The well-preserved tracks have allowed the scientists to examine in detail the hand (manus) and foot (pes) anatomy of the ancient lizard.

When Did Lizards Develop Bipedal Capabilities?

Although, bipedal locomotion is known today and the Squamata (lizards and snakes), are the most specious of all the living reptile types, the fossil record for these creatures is particularly sparse.  Palaeontologists, remain uncertain as to when bipedal locomotion in lizards arose, although it has been inferred based on the relative proportions of front and hind limbs as seen in Tijubina pontei, an Early Cretaceous lizard, whose fossils are associated with the Crato Formation of Brazil.  The trackways discovered in South Korea suggest that bipedal locomotion in ancient lizards is deeply rooted in the phylogeny of lizard evolution.

Hand and Foot Tracks (Manus and Pes)

Hand and foot prints Sauripes hadongensis.

Manus and pes tracks of Sauripes hadongensis, (a) Enlarged photograph and drawing of a manus imprint (B1). (b) A pes imprint (A6).

Picture Credit: Scientific Reports

Sauripes hadongensis

The foot prints (pes) are plantigrade, indicating that this lizard walked on its toes and heels, just like us and all lizards today, as opposed to the digitigrade locomotion of the Dinosauria.  Although the individual prints are very small, around two centimetres in length, the five toes (pentadactyl), are clearly defined.  The lizard tracks appear in the same horizon as the pterosaur ichnotaxon Pteraichnus koreanensis and it has been speculated that the lizards could have been escaping from a flying reptile.  Behaving as a facultative biped, would also have elevated the head and this would have permitted the lizards to keep a better look out for aerial predators.

The scientists have estimated the ancient lizard’s body length by comparing the trackways to the extant lizard Tropidurus torquatus, a living member of the Infraorder Iguania.  The ichnotaxon has been named Sauripes hadongensis which translates as “lizard foot from Hadong County”.

An Illustration of the Bipedal Locomotion of the Ancient Lizard

An illustration of the running lizard (bipedal running).

An illustration showing the bipedal interpretation of the lizard trackway (SVL – snout to vent length and PL – pes length).

Picture Credit: Scientific Reports

The Palaeoenvironment of Lower Cretaceous South Korea

The mudstone strata has produced tridactyl (three-toed) dinosaur tracks as well as trace fossils representing the tracks of small pterosaurs.  Fossilised plants are also associated with these layers of rock.  It is suggested that the mudstone represents deposits from a swampy area or possibly the margins of a lake.   The Hasandong Formation has yielded numerous body fossils including several different types of vertebrate (turtles, pterosaurs, crocodilians and dinosaurs).  These fossilised bones are isolated, broken and highly fragmentary, indicating that they may have been exposed on the surface for some considerable time prior to subsequent burial.  They also may have been transported for some distance before deposition.  This taphonomy suggests that large rivers crossed this location, the mudstone slab may have been sited in an area away from a main river channel, that was subjected to periodic flooding by water with low energy, otherwise the delicate prints may not have been preserved.

Photographs of Individual Hind Foot Prints (Pes) with Digits Highlighted

Pes tracks of Sauripes hadongensis.

Photographs of the foot prints of Sauripes hadongensis with the digits highlighted.

Picture Credit: Scientific Reports

To read Everything Dinosaur’s 2014 article about the discovery of a tiny Theropod dinosaur from South Korea: Tiny Terror from South Korea

The scientific paper: “Lizards Ran Bipedally 110 Million Years Ago” by Hang-Jae Lee, Yuong-Nam Lee, Anthony R. Fiorillo and Junchang Lü published in Scientific Reports

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