Category: Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories

Not a Wishing Well and Not a Dinosaur Either

Beijing Museum of Natural History Exhibit (Lotosaurus Confusion)

Team members have read with interest the various media reports about a Chinese museum exhibit being used as a wishing well.  Such is the hold that the Dinosauria seems to have over us, that any vertebrate fossil in a museum, ends up being described as a dinosaur by the media.  We can understand why this happens, but let’s try to put the record straight.

First the story, the Beijing Museum of Natural History has a huge collection of fossils and an amazing array of exhibits of long extinct animals.  Both vertebrates and invertebrates are exhibited, the vast majority of the displays highlighting the extremely diverse fossil assemblage from this part of Asia.  There are lots of dinosaurs to see.  However, the Museum has encountered a problem, it seems that tourists (and we suspect some superstitious locals too), have a habit of putting coins and notes inside the glass case of one of the many Chinese prehistoric animal mounted fossils on view.  The animal concerned is a Lotosaurus adentus, it might sound like a dinosaur but a member of the Dinosauria this reptile most certainly was not.

Museum Exhibit Treated like a Wishing Well

Lucky Lotosaurus?

Lucky Lotosaurus?

Picture Credit: ECNS

The picture above shows the mounted exhibit of the quadruped L. adentus.  Tourists and other visitors have taken to stuffing notes and coins through gaps in the glass case, the specimen makes a rather unusual “piggy bank”.  According to the media reports this practice has been going on for about a year, we suppose it’s a question of one person doing it and others following the trend.

A security guard at the Museum, one of Beijing’s leading tourist attractions stated:

“Most of it is five or ten Yuan bills [around £0.50 GBP to £1.00 GBP] and coins from kids and grown-ups…they do it for fun.  We usually don’t stop them since it doesn’t damage the booth or the exhibits.”

The Director of the Museum Zhou Ying has been quoted saying that people might be tossing in money as they believe the specimen will bring them wealth, good luck or better health.  This habit of “donating” to the glass case is going to come to an abrupt end as the Museum has taken steps to prevent this from happening.  Construction workers have been hired to seal the glass case and make it “coin and note proof”.

Perhaps it might be sensible to position a donation box close by.  We are not sure of the Museum’s policy on such matters, but if visitors wish to make a donation, perhaps something could be installed to enable them to do so.  Funds raised could support the educational work of the museum, that’s just a suggestion, but you never know.

Lotosaurus Not a Dinosaur

If you look at the display panels behind the Lotosaurus skeleton in the picture above, you can see some pictures of dinosaurs.  Lotosaurus may be displayed alongside the dinosaurs but it was not a member of the Dinosauria.  Let us explain…

Lotosaurus might be being exhibited in the dinosaur gallery as it was around at approximately the time when the very first basal members of the Dinosauria are believed to have evolved.  The fossils of this barrel-chested reptile come from Hunan Province (south-central China) and date from between 245 and 237 million years ago (Anisian faunal stage of the Triassic).  Most palaeontologists now believe that this bizarre creature is a member of the Poposauroidea clade, part of the Archosaur group, but this phylogenetic analysis has been disputed.  Trouble is, Lotosaurus is such a bizarre creature.  It measured in size from 1.5 to 2.5 metres long, the neural spines were many times taller than they were wide and this suggests that this animal had some sort of sail or large hump running down from its neck, down the back to the tail.  The top jaw is curved over and the robust skull suggests a powerful bite, but there are no teeth in the jaws.   What this animal ate has been debated, the fossil material is associated with having been laid down in a swampy environment.  Lotosaurus could have been a herbivore, but it has also been suggested that this slow-moving reptile might have specialised in eating the abundant shellfish, fossils of which are also associated with sediments to be found in the Hunan Province.   The species was formally named and described in 1975.

 The Very Peculiar Lotosaurus adentus – Definitely Not a Dinosaur

Very strange Triassic reptile.

Very strange Triassic reptile.

Picture Credit: Wikipedia

Although, there may be some debate as to the exact phylogenetic position of Lotosaurus, it was not a dinosaur.  The genus name (we think) means “Lotus lizard” and whilst to some observers it might look like a dinosaur and its genus name does end in “saurus” but it was most definitely not a dinosaur.

A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur commented:

“Whilst we doubt much of the exhibit in question consists of actual fossil material, we can’t condone this behaviour as money being thrown into a display case would have to be retrieved and the opening of the case and working in close proximity to any fossils could lead to their accidental damage.  In addition, if coins are thrown in and they hit the preserved fossil bone then this could result in the fossil material being chipped and scratched.”

Kronosaurus – Down on the Farm

Queensland Farmer Discovers Kronosaurus Jaw Fossil

A Queensland farmer, out spraying weeds on his farm near Nelia in the north-western part of the State, has unearthed the fossilised remains of the lower jaw of a huge marine reptile known as a Kronosaurus.  Although the jaw measures 1.6 metres long, it came from a sub-adult, most of the teeth may be missing, but this is one of the best preserved Pliosaur jaws found anywhere in the world.

Robert Hacon of Euroba Station, was taking advantage of the recent rains that have occurred in this drought hit part of Australia to spray some prickly Acacia plants when he noticed some shiny objects in amongst the weeds.  At first, he dismissed them thinking that they were fossilised mussel shells, which are relatively common in this part of the world, evidence to support the idea that much of the land mass we call Australia was part of a warm, tropical, shallow sea back in the Early Cretaceous.  However, curious to find out exactly what the objects were, he returned to the spot a few minutes later and discovered that the recent downpour had exposed a near complete lower jaw bone of a huge marine reptile.

Dr. Timothy Holland (Kronosaurus Korner) Poses Next to the Fossil Jaw

Dr. Timothy Holland provides a scale next to the massive Kronosaurus jaw.

Dr. Timothy Holland provides a scale next to the massive Kronosaurus jaw.

Picture Credit: Patricia Woodgate

 The first fossils of this apex, marine predator were discovered in Queensland in 1889.  At the time, the fragmentary remains were identified as a type of Ichthyosaur, but in 1924 they were reassigned to the short-necked Sub-Order  of the Plesiosauria, the Pliosauroidea.  Most of the fossil material related to the two species of Kronosaurus so far described, have been crushed, severely weathered and distorted, but pliosaurid specialist, Dr. Timothy Holland of Kronosaurus Korner, a museum that exhibits a number of marine reptile fossils found in Queensland, stated that this specimen was one of the best found to date.

An Illustration of Kronosaurus (K. queenslandicus)

A fantastic replica of the huge marine reptile Kronosaurus.

A fantastic replica of the huge marine reptile Kronosaurus.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The picture above shows a superb model of the marine reptile Kronosaurus (Safari Ltd).  This replica is part of the now retired Carnegie Collectibles model series.

To see more prehistoric animals in the Carnegie Collectibles model range: Prehistoric Animal Models including Marine Creatures

The fossilised jawbones have been donated to the Kronosaurus Korner museum, they will shortly be put on display to the public.

Commenting on the fossil find, Dr. Holland stated:

“The scary thing is that this creature wasn’t even an adult when it died, it still had a lot of growing to do.  We are thrilled to display the specimen, it’s a timely reminder of Australia’s rich geoheritage and I marvel to think what else lies waiting to be found.”

The skull of this ancient marine reptile made up about a quarter of the animal’s entire body length, a spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur commented on the excellent state of preservation and estimated that the total length of the animal would have been approximately seven metres.

A Close up of the Beautifully Preserved Jaw Bones

Some teeth can still be seen in the rounded sockets.

Some teeth can still be seen in the rounded sockets.

Picture Credit: Patricia Woodgate

Posterior parts of the jaw are up to eighteen centimetres thick, indicating that this powerful predator had very strong jaws.  It was most likely the top predator in the marine environment, eating fish, cephalopods and other reptiles.

Over the last few years, Everything Dinosaur has reported on a number of marine reptile fossil finds from Queensland, Australia.  Some of these fossils turn up in very unexpected places, such as the case of Ichthyosaur fossil bones being found in the vegetable patch of a school.

To read more about this amazing discovery: Marine Reptile Fossils Found at School

In Everything Dinosaur’s fossil and palaeontology predictions for 2015, we predicted that there would be some exciting new dinosaur discoveries reported from Australia.  This is certainly an exciting fossil find, but Kronosaurus was not a member of the Dinosauria.  Still, more than half of the year to go so we have plenty of time left to be proved right (just for once).

To see the full list of Everything Dinosaur’s predictions: Everything Dinosaur’s Palaeontology and Fossil Predictions for 2015

The Chinese Pompeii – Dinosaur Fossils Can be Confusing

Death of Dinosaurs in the Early Cretaceous of China (Lujiatun Unit of the Yixian Formation)

At Everything Dinosaur we define science as the “search for truth” and one of the fundamental principles of scientific working is the examination and assessment of evidence which leads to conclusions being drawn and theories put forward.  However, different scientists can examine the similar evidence and come to contrasting conclusions.  Let’s illustrate this point by looking at two scientific papers published recently that both seek to explain the remarkable degree of fossil preservation seen in a sequence of Lower Cretaceous strata laid down in north-eastern China.  Let’s explore the mystery of the “Chinese Dinosaur Pompeii”.

Last year, a team of international researchers led by Associate Professor of Palaeontology and Stratigraphy at Nanjing University, Baoyu Jiang published a paper that concluded the remarkably well-preserved dinosaur, bird and mammal fossils that form part of the Jehol Biota were created “Pompeii-style” by pyroclastic flows.  A pyroclastic flow is an immense, fast-moving cloud of extremely hot gas and dust that can occur with some types of volcanic eruption.  It would have swept everything before it and killing instantly any unfortunate animal or plant that was in the way.   The research team cited evidence such as criss-crossed cracks on the edges of fossilised bones, evidence of heat stress, microscopic debris showing plant remains that had been blackened by being exposed to very high temperatures prior to fossilisation and hollow bones filled with fine quartz grains, tell-tale signs of a pyroclastic flow.  Although the fossils are some 120 million years old, the same evidence can be found in the bodies of citizens of Pompeii who perished when this Roman town was engulfed by a pyroclastic flow which erupted from Vesuvius back in 79 AD.

Evidence of Sudden and Dramatic Death – Caught in Pyroclastic Flows

Evidence for pyroclastic flows from the Jehol Biota.

Evidence for pyroclastic flows from the Jehol Biota.

Picture Credit: Baoyu Jiang

The picture above shows photomicrographs (photographs of images produced under a microscope), showing thin sections of fossilised bone of two relatively common vertebrate fossils from the strata that was investigated.  The pictures show a dinosaur, Psittacosaurus and a thin section of the bone fossil from an ancient bird, Confuciusornis (top Psittacosaurus spp. and bottom Confuciusornis spp.).  The white arrows indicate missing bone material and cracks can be seen at both the dorsal and ventral edges of the bone.  This evidence supports the idea that the bones were subjected to intense heat, such as that found in volcanic pyroclastic flows.

Victims of a Pyroclastic Flow?

a).

a = Psittacosaurus, b and c = Confuciusornis fossil material

Picture Credit: Baoyu Jiang

Note the position of the limbs in the photographs of the fossils (above), particularly those fossils representing the bird Confuciusornis.  The pose is like that of a boxer.  This pose results from the shortening of muscles and tendons that occurs postmortem and this boxer-like box has been cited as further evidence to support the idea of mass mortality as a result of a pyroclastic event.

Conflicting Views as to How these Fossils were Formed

Associate Professor Baoyu Jiang and his colleagues have studied the flora and fauna preserved in the Lower Cretaceous deposits for many years.  It had been known for some time that volcanoes were active in the area at around this time in the Cretaceous, testament to the frequent eruptions were the many layers of fine, volcanic ash that could be identified in the rock layers.  The paper citing pyroclastic flows as the reason for the remarkable, often three-dimensional preservation of vertebrates led to considerable debate amongst scientists at the time of its publication.  Now another paper has been written, which argues that the fossils of the Lujiatun Member of this Formation do not owe their existence to violent clouds of hot ash, rocks and dust travelling at hurricane speeds, but are the result of slightly more gentle, (but equally dramatic), deposition forces.

A team of scientists from Bristol University in association with the IVPP (Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology – Beijing) and University College, Dublin have reassessed the “Chinese Pompeii” deposits and their fieldwork suggests that the fossils were transported in water which was choked with volcanic ash, rather than have the fossils forming as a result of sudden airborne ash fall.

A New Study Suggests Vertebrates such as Psittacosaurus were Buried by Ash that was Deposited by Water

Overcome by ash carried in water flows not pyroclastic flows.

Overcome by ash carried in water flows not pyroclastic flows.

Picture Credit: Bristol University Press Release

The fossils of the Jehol Biota come from the Lower Cretaceous Yixian and Jiufotang Formations.  Both freshwater and terrestrial creatures are found in the same horizons and some scientists have interpreted these deposits as evidence for mass mortality events.  The research group that included the Bristol-based team, set out to explore the events and mechanisms that led to the exceptional preservation.  By analysing in microscopic detail the sediments and residual fossils from the Lujiatun Member (the vicinity of Lujiatun village) and comparing the strata to fossils in the collections of Chinese museums, the scientists concluded that the beautifully preserved specimens of the Lujiatun Unit are not the result of one single, massive catastrophe caused by a volcanic eruption.  Their study suggests that the fossil-bearing sediments were remobilised and deposited by water.  If this is the case, the Psittacosaurs, other dinosaurs, primitive mammals and birds for example, were not wiped out by one huge, airborne delivery of volcanic ash, but in multiple flood events which carried very high loads of ash and other debris from volcanoes sweeping all before them and burying the unfortunate animals and plants.

One of the problems that occurs when trying to conduct a study such as this, is that many of the fossils in museum collections have been found by local farmers who then sell on the fossil material.  Not very accurate excavation records are kept and therefore it is often extremely difficult to match up a museum specimen with the actual horizon from which it originated.

Commenting on the research, lead author of the scientific paper that has just been published in the journal of “Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology”, PhD student Chris Rogers of Bristol University said:

“Without stratigraphic information of the fossils in the field, it was impossible to accurately establish a mode of death for these animals.  Once we established proper placement of these fossils in the sedimentary sequence it became clear that these animals had been buried by sediments that were deposited by water and not by volcaniclastic flows.”

It is likely that the debate over the nature of the Jehol Biota will rumble on (just like a pyroclastic flow), this is an example of groups of scientists building on each other’s work to better understand how certain fossils are formed.  However, they were formed, the Jehol Biota provides palaeontologists with a unique insight into the flora and fauna of this part of the world back in the Early Cretaceous, a time when the Aves were rapidly diversifying and there were important revisions undergoing in both the Mammalia and Reptilia.

Retracing the Beak of Birds to the Snout of Dinosaurs

Reverse Genetic Engineering to Produce a Dinosaur Snout

A team of scientists based in the United States have tweaked the developmental processes that take place in chicken embryos to re-engineer the snouts of their dinosaur ancestors.  The research team led by University of Yale palaeontologist, Bhart-Anjan S. Bhullar and developmental biologist Arhat Abzhanov (Harvard University), have produced the first bird embryos that possess a snout similar to a dinosaur’s nose rather than a beak.  The chicken embryos developed palatial bones and a jaw configuration that resembles that seen in the fossil record, specifically in the Dromaeosauridae, a group of dinosaurs that are closely related to modern Aves.  The Dromaeosaurs, sometimes referred to as the “raptors” belong to the Sub-order Theropoda.  They are part of a clade of agile dinosaurs that reduced their tails, lost their teeth and evolved into Aves (birds).  Typical dromaeosaurids are Velociraptor, Deinonychus and the recently named Saurornitholestes sullivani.

To read an article about the newly described Saurornitholestes sullivaniSniffing Out a New Dinosaur Species

As the Yale University press release states: “Just don’t call them Dino-chickens!”

Tweaking the Beak from Dromaeosaurs to Modern Birds

From the Dinosauria (left) to the beaks of modern Aves (right).

From the Dinosauria (left) to the beaks of modern Aves (right).

Picture Credit: John Conway

The scientists were not in the business of trying to create a living dinosaur.  Manipulation of chicken embryos has taken place for several years, all part of research to help the understanding of how molecular processes affect the development of organisms.

Commenting on this research, which has just been published in the journal “Evolution”, lead author Dr. Bhart-Anjan S. Bhullar (Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Yale) stated:

“Our goal here was to understand the molecular underpinnings of an important evolutionary transition, not to create a “dino-chicken” simply for the sake of it.”

For the young doctor, this is all part of his on-going research into cranial development in very young animals.  It is not part of a concerted effort to bring back the Dinosauria, a sort of “Jurassic Park from the embryo upwards”, as explained by a spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur.

There are a huge variety of bird beaks, from the curved, tearing and cutting beaks of eagles, to the sophisticated sieves of flamingos.  The beak is an essential component of avian anatomy and the researchers are trying to unravel how the beak evolved from its reptilian ancestry.  A quantitative analysis of fossils closely associated with the origins of birds was undertaken along with a study of extant animals including lizards, crocodiles and birds.  This examination allowed the scientists to develop a hypothesis as to how the bird beak may have evolved from the Dinosauria and the developmental stages that were involved.

The team identified that both major living lineages of birds, the abundant Neognathae (which includes virtually all species of extant birds) and the much rarer  Palaeognathae (which comprises the Tinamou family of birds from South and Central America plus the flightless ratites – cassowary, ostrich, kiwi, rhea, for example), differ from reptiles that are not closely related to birds and from mammals in that they have a unique, median gene expression zone of two different facial development genes early in embryonic development.  This median gene expression had previously only been identified in chicken embryos.

Turning Back the Evolutionary Clock

In order to have an embryo revert to its ancestral state, before the beak as it were, the gene expression for beak formation in the young chicken had to be turned off.  Microscopic beads coated in a molecule inhibiting substance were used to inhibit the activity of the proteins produced by the bird specific, median signalling zone in the chicken embryos.  This led the embryo to revert back to its reptilian ancestry with a more dinosaur-like snout forming and surprisingly, the palatine bone in the root of the mouth was also altered.

Changing the Faces of Embryos (Modified Chicken Embryo with Snout)

Normal chick (left), modified chicken embryo (centre), alligator embryo (right)

Normal chick (left), modified chicken embryo (centre), alligator embryo (right)

Picture Credit: Evolution

Dr. Bhullar was surprised by the additional changes seen in the palatine bone, he stated:

“This was unexpected and demonstrates the way in which a single, simple developmental mechanism can have wide-ranging and unexpected effects.”

Commenting on the research, Professor Michael Benton (Bristol University), someone who knows a great deal about bird evolution, explained that this new study shows that the beak of birds develops very different from the snouts, noses and jaws of reptiles.  A different set of genes are involved.

He stated:

“That’s what proves the beak is a real adaptation or “thing”, not just a slightly different nose shape”

Why Beaks?

Intriguingly, although the fossil record for bird evolution is far from complete, the fantastically well preserved bird fossils of Lower Cretaceous deposits from China, specimens of Confuciusornis for instance, show that by around 125 million years ago the toothless beak had evolved.  Why the beak came about remains a point of significant debate, however, one of the most often cited reasons for a lighter, toothless structure is that as birds became more efficient fliers and spent more time in the air, the loss of a heavy, bony jaw lined with teeth was just one of a number of anatomical adaptations that occurred to help improve powered flight.

The “Early Bird” Confuciusornis sanctus from China

Confuciusornis sanctus a primitive bird but it had a beak.

Confuciusornis sanctus a primitive bird but it had a beak.

The American based researchers are confident that their work has important implications for other geneticists and for palaeontologists.  For example, if a single molecular mechanism was responsible for this transformation, there should be a corresponding, linked transformation in the fossil record.  The flightless, man-sized Hesperornis, a genus of prehistoric bird known from the Late Cretaceous of North America could demonstrate that link.

An Illustration of Hesperornis (Traditional View)

Hesperornis catching a fish.

Hesperornis catching a fish.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur/Brooke Bond

Dr. Bhullar said:

“This is borne out by the fact that Hesperornis, discovered by Othniel Charles Marsh of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, which is a near relative of modern birds that still retains teeth and the most primitive stem avian with a modern-looking beak in the form of a fused, elongate premaxillae, also possesses a modern bird palatine bone.”

The premaxillae are the bones that form the tip of the upper jaw (anterior portion) of most animals, but are enlarged and fused to form the beak of birds.

Moving forward, the quantitative analysis to establish a proposed hypothetical developmental path of a lineage of animals which could be tested by inhibiting the behaviour of proteins in embryos can be probably be used to investigate a wide range of underlying developmental mechanisms in organisms.

The dinosaur/bird link is now well established, a theory once proposed by the likes of Henry Govier Seeley back in the 1880′s is widely accepted.  Back in 2013, Everything Dinosaur reported on research from an international team of scientists, including researchers from the Royal Veterinary College (London), that looked at how the posture of birds was derived from the gait of small, cursorial dinosaurs.

To read more about this study: The Birds Have the Dinosaurs to Thank for their Crouching Gait

Everything Dinosaur notes the support of Yale University in the compilation of this article.

Sniffing Out a New Dinosaur Species

Saurornitholestes sullivani – Don’t Turn Your Nose Up When It Comes To The Dromaeosaurids

Steven Jasinski, a PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania (Department of Earth and Environmental Science), has identified a new species of North American Dromaeosaur, one that may have had a very keen sense of smell.  Saurornitholestes sullivani was not the largest predator known from that ecosystem, but with its sharp senses, grasping arms, turn of speed, large claws and jaws full of dagger-like teeth it was very probably a formidable hunter.

Steven made the discovery whilst studying cranial elements (skull fossils) that had been assigned to the genus Saurornitholestes but to another species, (S. langstoni).  Up until now, Saurornitholestes langstoni was the only species assigned to this genus, now there are two.  This is yet another example of a new dinosaur species being erected from a reassessment of previously described fossil remains.  The Saurornitholestes genus was established in 1978, following the description of a partial skeleton discovered in Alberta (Canada).  Although, no complete or near complete fossil specimen has been found to date, fossil material from both the Judith River Formation (Montana) and the Dinosaur Provincial Park Formation (Alberta) have been assigned to this genus.  The huge number of broken teeth found, indicate that this dinosaur was probably one of the most common predators in this part of North America approximately 75 million years ago (Campanian faunal stage).

An Illustration of a Pair of S. sullivani Attacking a Juvenile Parasaurolophus

Fearsome predator of the Late Cretaceous.

Fearsome predator of the Late Cretaceous.

Picture Credit: Mary P. Williams

 The picture above depicts a pair of feathered dinosaurs attacking a juvenile duck-billed dinosaur.  Although no evidence of feathers have been found preserved alongside fossil material assigned to this genus, it is likely, that this small, agile dinosaur was feathered.  A report on Saurornitholestes sullivani has been published in the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science bulletin.

The fossil material was originally found by American palaeontologist Robert Sullivan in 1999, when a field team was exploring the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness in northern New Mexico.  The fossils were initially described as Saurornitholestes langstoni and represented the southernmost location for this species.  However, Steven Jasinski conducted a comparative analysis of these fossils with those of S. langstoni from Montana and Alberta and he observed a number of differences in skull anatomy.  When the brain shape and volume was calculated, the student noted that the proportion of the brain dedicated to interpreting and analysing smells was unusually large.  The enlarged olfactory bulb indicates that this two metre long dinosaur had a powerful sense of smell.

Jasinski commented:

“This feature [enlarged olfactory bulb] means that Saurornitholestes sullivani had a relatively better sense of smell than other dromaeosaurid dinosaurs including Velociraptor, Dromaeosaurus and Bambiraptor.  This keen olfaction may have made S. sullivani an intimidating predator as well.”

 Steven Jasinski Holding a Replica of the Skull and Upper Jaw of S. sullivani

Student Steven Jasinski.

Student Steven Jasinski.

Picture Credit: University of Pennsylvania

The picture above shows Steven holding a replica of the fossil material, the large eye socket (orbit) also suggests that this little hunter had keen eyesight.

At the time S. sullivani lived, North America was split into several parts separated by an inland sea (the Western Interior Seaway).  This dinosaur lived on the landmass known as Laramidia.  S. sullivani represents the only named Dromaeosaur from the Late Cretaceous of southern Laramida, but the wealth of micro-fossil evidence, consisting of broken teeth suggests that there may have been several different species of Dromaeosaur inhabiting the floodplains on the eastern shores of Laramidia.

Although a distinct species, Saurornitholestes sullivani was very closely related to S. langstoni.  Finding two distinct species of this genus hundreds of miles apart supports the hypothesis that distinct but closely related megafaunal communities existed on Laramida (supporting the concept of ethnicity within the Dinosauria of Late Cretaceous North America).

Approximate Location of Saurornitholestes Fossil Material from Laramidia

Saurornitholestes fossil material mapped.

Saurornitholestes fossil material mapped.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Having an exceptional sense of smell would have helped this agile dinosaur to sniff out potential prey.  Although, in the illustration above Saurornitholestes is depicted attacking a duck-billed dinosaur, it may not have hunted large prey.  The sense of smell could have helped this dinosaur, that probably measured around one metre high at the hips, to sniff out mammals living in burrows or to find lizards and other small creatures in the undergrowth.  In addition, an acute sense of smell could have helped Saurornitholestes find carrion that it could then scavenge.

It was a Worm’s World Back in the Cambrian

Palaeontologists Name New Species of Ottoia Worm

Whilst many a television documentary or published article on the fauna of the Burgess Shale focuses on the nektonic predators (actively swimming creatures above the sea floor), such as the formidable Anomalocaris, lurking in the soft mud of the sea floor itself was another very nasty hunter, one that left an extremely rich fossil record.  The most abundant type of creature preserved in the Burgess Shale is a type of worm, a member of the Phylum Priapulidae and now thanks to a detailed study of the teeth, hooks and spines on this tubular predator, scientists have discovered a method of identifying new species and also of determining just how abundant these creatures actually may have been.

An Ottoia Fossil (Burgess Shale)

An Ottoia fossil (Burgess Shale).

An Ottoia fossil (Burgess Shale).

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Ottoia fossils from the Burgess Shale of British Columbia (Canada), measure just a few centimetres in length and they are one of the few types of creature preserved in those 5o5 million year old sediments that can be associated with a living animal group, the entirely marine priapulids.  At least fifteen hundred specimens have been excavated from the Burgess Shale deposits.  These creatures may have lived in “U” shaped burrows and ambushed other creatures that wandered or swam to close to the burrow’s entrance.  It could grab food with a proboscis, an extendible mouth which was equipped with tiny hooks and lined with teeth and spines.  The team of scientists from Cambridge University and the University of Leicester, writing in the on line Journal “Palaeontology” used a variety of techniques to examine micro-fossils to identify different types of teeth from Ottoia  It is from this analysis that the team discovered that the most common type of priapulid associated with the Burgess Shale, Ottoia prolifica, actually represented two species.

As a result of this research, a new species of Ottoia worm has been identified in the Burgess Shale deposits - Ottoia tricuspida.  O. tricuspida has been so named as it has distinctive, three-pronged teeth.  Using various microscopy techniques to examine the tiny teeth recovered from drill cores and from other samples, the scientists propose that subtle variations in the teeth could help to identify more species in Cambrian biota and in addition, as the teeth are more likely to be preserved than the soft bodies of these creatures, the teeth could help to establish how widespread such worms were in the Cambrian geological period.

Ottoia prolifica was named by Charles Doolittle Walcott in 1911.  Walcott,  an American invertebrate palaeontologist, discovered the Burgess Shale deposits in the Canadian Rockies back in 1909.  These bands of mudstone and shale are very rich in fossils.  The frequency of Ottoia fossil material might not be anything to do with the abundance of these types of animals in the biota, the numbers found could reflect the fact that these animals lived in soft sediment.  If one of these worms died in their burrow, then they could set in motion the fossilisation process.  The soft mud would act as an excellent medium to promote the preservation of creatures that lived in the sediment.

A Model of Ottoia (Safari Ltd Cambrian Life Toob)

A model of Ottoia (Safari Ltd Cambrian Life Toob).

A model of Ottoia (Safari Ltd Cambrian Life Toob).

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Safari Ltd have a wonderful model of Ottoia in the Cambrian Life Toob.  This Toob contains a set of eight prehistoric animals that represent the bizarre fauna of the Cambrian explosion.

To view this Toob and other prehistoric animal model sets: Prehistoric Animal Toobs and Model Sets

A Teeth, Hooks and Spines Associated with Ottoia spp.

The variety of fossil teeth, spines and hooks associated with Ottoia spp.

The variety of fossil teeth, spines and hooks associated with Ottoia spp.

Picture Credit: Palaeontology Journal

Early Birds Winding Back the Clock

Early Birds from the Early Cretaceous

Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences have published information about a new species of ancient bird which suggests that the clade of Aves that produced today’s modern feathery friends, the Ornithuromorpha was around at least five million years earlier than previously thought.  The new species comes from strata that is estimated to have been laid down around 130.7 million years ago (Barremian faunal stage of the Early Cretaceous).  This new type of early bird, named Archaeornithura meemannae has been described from two beautifully preserved fossils (mostly, see below), discovered in the Protopteryx horizon, part of the Huajiying Formation (Sichakou basin, Fengning County, Hebei, north-eastern China).

 Archaeornithura meemannae – A Very Early Bird

Archaeornithura meemannae - believed to adapted for wading.

Archaeornithura meemannae – believed to adapted for wading.

Picture Credit: Institute of Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology (Beijing)

The picture shows an artist’s illustration of this little bird that measured around fifteen centimetres in length.  The fossil has been preserved in fine-grained volcanic sediments and much of the plumage surrounding the delicate bones can still be seen.  Sadly, the skull and neck bones are not well preserved in either specimen and the researchers have been unable to confirm whether this bird had teeth in its jaws or not.  However, writing in the academic journal “Nature Communications”, the scientists identify this creature as the earliest known example of the Ornithuromorpha, the branch of the bird Order that led to the Neornithes (modern birds).  The previous earliest known example of a member of the Ornithuromorpha dates from rocks around 125 million years ago, this fossil too, was found in China.

The Holotype Fossil of  Archaeornithura meemannae

The slab and counter slab showing the holotype.

The slab and counter slab showing the holotype.

Picture Credit: Nature Communications

The picture above shows the slab (left) and the counter slab (right) of the holotype fossil, which like the second specimen is part of the vertebrate fossil collection at the Tianyu Museum of Nature (Shandong Province, China).  These early birds should feel very much at home at the museum, as it houses one of the most extensive collections of vertebrate fossil material excavated from Lower Cretaceous sediments in the world.  The binomial name Archaeornithura meemannae comes from the Greek “Archae” for ancient and “Ornithura”, so the genus name means “ancient Ornithuromorph”.  The species name honours Dr. Meemann Chang in recognition of her work in the study of the Jehol Biota.

The environment of this part of north-eastern China during the Early Cretaceous was one of a sub-tropical climate, dominated by extensive forests interspersed by numerous large bodies of fresh water. The absence of feathers on the legs of A. meemannae and the long legs has led to speculation that this bird may have lived in a lacustrine habitat and been adapted to a wading life-style.  Little is known about the skull, so the diet can only be guessed at, but perhaps this ancient bird ate insects or pecked at water plants.  Although the research team cannot be certain, it has been stated that this early bird was not that interested in catching worms, as the proverb goes,  but it probably was a herbivore.

The Remarkably Well-Preserved Plumage (Wings)

A close up of the feathers on the wings.

A close up of the feathers on the wings.

Picture Credit: Nature Communications

The picture above shows:

a). Left wing main slab holotype

b). Right wing main slab holotype

c). Feathers on the remnants of the head and neck

d). Alular feathers on the left digits with one very clearly visible wing claw.

Alular feathers are found on the leading edge of the wings of birds (they are also associated with the limbs of some feathered dinosaurs, we think).  They help direct air over the upper surface of the wing, thus improving control and lift.  More primitive birds such as the confuciusornithids lack these feather adaptations.  Ornithuromorpha are believed to have comprised about half of the bird species that lived during the Mesozoic, the descendants of some of these birds from the Ornithuromorpha clade survived the Cretaceous mass extinction and evolved into modern birds.  The other major bird clade of the Mesozoic Era was the Enantiornithes, although common, this group died out and are not directly ancestral to modern birds.

Co-author of the study Wang Min (Chinese Academy of Sciences) stated:

“The new fossil represents the oldest record of Ornithuromorpha.  It pushed back the origination date of the Ornithuromorpha by at least five million years.”

To the casual observer, if you had travelled back in time to view Archaeornithura meemannae, it would have looked very similar to modern wading birds, except for the small claws visible on its wings.

The Chinese scientists conclude that by around 130 million years ago a number of avian lineages had already evolved and that it was quite likely that the Aves rapidly diversified during the early part of their evolutionary history.

Dinosaurs and More Dinosaurs in 2015

“Dinosaur Britain” Documentary Commissioned by ITV

By now it could not possibly have escaped your notice that “Jurassic World”, the fourth in the “Jurassic Park” movie franchise opens next month (June 12th).  Another teaser trailer has just been put out and the film is certainly one of the most eagerly awaited cinema events of this year.  However, you don’t have to visit Isla Nublar to view dinosaurs, travel back in time and “dear old blighty” was home to a huge range of prehistoric animals including three types of Tyrannosaurs*.

The very first scientific descriptions of dinosaurs in the early to mid 19th Century were all based upon fossil discoveries made in the UK.  To mark the United Kingdom’s contribution to this sub-division of vertebrate palaeontology, ITV has commissioned the production company Maverick Television to transport Britain back to the Mesozoic to depict how this part of the world was once home to a myriad of prehistoric animals.

“Dinosaur Britain” A New Television Documentary

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Different dinosaurs and approximate locations.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

 Over one hundred different species of dinosaur have been identified so far from fossils found in the British Isles.  This includes those three Tyrannosaurs as mentioned above* [Eotyrannus lengi (Isle of Wight), Proceratosaurus bradleyi (Gloucestershire) and Juratyrant langhami (Dorset)].  Back in 2014, Everything Dinosaur reported on the first formal survey of British dinosaurs undertaken by a group of scientists, which included the very talented Darren Naish, a vertebrate palaeontologist from the University of Portsmouth.  In August of last year, we reviewed the excellent “Dinosaurs of the British Isles”.  This book provided a comprehensive guide to the different types of Dinosauria that once roamed around Britain.

To read Everything Dinosaur’s review of “Dinosaurs of the British Isles by Dean Lomax and Nobumichi Tamura: “Dinosaurs of the British Isles” Reviewed

“Dinosaurs of the British Isles”

A comprehensive guide to British dinosaurs over 400 pages.

A comprehensive guide to British dinosaurs over 400 pages.

Picture Credit:  Siri Scientific Press

For further information on this fantastic book and to order a copy: Siri Scientific Press

Britain = Dinosaur Island

Not entirely accurate as for much of the Mesozoic, this part of the world was underwater and when dry land did occur in the past, it formed part of a much larger continental landmass, but that’s not the point, for the last eight thousand years or so, Britain has been an island and there is a wealth of dinosaur and other prehistoric animal fossils to be found in the British Isles, so much so, that it has inspired the commissioning of a new two-part television documentary series.

ITV has commissioned Maverick Television (creators of programmes such as ”Embarrassing Bodies” and television make-over shows such as “How to Look Good Naked”), to make two, one-hour long documentaries examining the types of different dinosaur that existed in the British Isles.  Everything Dinosaur understands that the working title for this series is “Dinosaur Britain” and CGI techniques will be used to place ancient creatures in modern-day settings.  So if you fancy seeing an Iguanodont wandering around Kent or a Megalosaurus taking a stroll through the centre of Oxford then this new television series might just float your boat!

Director of Factual Output for ITV, Richard Klein has ordered the programmes which will attempt to educate viewers not only on the types of dinosaur that once existed in the UK, but also to provide information about the habitats and ecosystems of the UK during the Age of the Dinosaurs.  Dinosaur fans can expect lots of hunting and fighting sequences too.

A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur stated:

“Britain has a rich fossil heritage, of which the Dinosauria makes up only a small part.  However, with more than one hundred different dinosaurs identified from fossils found in the British Isles, documentary makers have a huge cast list to choose from.  Giants like Pelorosaurus and Brachiosaurs to fearsome predators like Becklespinax and Megalosaurus, which was the first dinosaur to be scientifically named and described.”

At the time of writing we are not sure when these programmes will be shown, but one thing is for sure, with all the hyperbole surrounding “Jurassic World”, we can expect dinosaurs to have a much bigger media footprint (even bigger than usual), over the next couple of years.

Cretaceous Cockroach – A Deadly Night Time Predator

Predatory Cockroach  Manipulator modificaputis – An Insect Chimera from the Cretaceous

Stalking the forest floor, most probably in the dead of night around 97 million years ago, was a little Cretaceous critter, a predatory cockroach that possessed a range of characteristics making it look like an insect chimera.  At around one centimetre in length, it was not going to break any records for size but with its triangular shaped head, elongated legs and mouthparts it would have been a formidable hunter of other nocturnal Arthropods.  The fossilised remains of this insect, a new species, were found in a piece of amber collected from a mine in Noije Bum, northern Myanmar (Burma).  It had a narrow body resembling that of an extant Crane fly, graceful wings and it grasped prey using its modified front legs that were covered in short, strong spines.  The insect has been named Manipulator modificaputis, placed in a new family of extinct cockroaches (the Manipulatoridae) and it represents the first cockroach family to be reported exclusively from Burmese amber.

A Fearsome Night Time Predator of the Late Cretaceous

Cockroach predator of the Cretaceous.

Cockroach predator of the Cretaceous.

Picture Credit: Peter Vršanský 

Peter Vršanský (Geological Institute in Bratislava, Slovakia), along with co-author Günter Bechly (The Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde Stuttgart), have produced a paper on this new discovery.  The paper has been published in the academic journal “Geologica Carpathica”.  Readers of this blog may recognise the Stuttgart Museum as being the institution that co-operates with the German figure manufacturer Bullyland to make their museum line prehistoric animal models.

To view the Bullyland range of dinosaur and prehistoric animal models: Bullyland Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals

A Close Up View of the Predatory Insect

Preserved in amber.  The delicate wings, long neck, large eyes and modified mouthparts can be clearly made out in this dorsal view (top down) of the specimen.

Preserved in amber. The delicate wings, long neck, large eyes and modified mouthparts can be clearly made out in this dorsal view (top down) of the specimen.

Picture Credit: Peter Vršanský 

During the Cretaceous there was an extensive radiation of the Insecta Order.  Many new families evolved to take advantage in fundamental changes in flora as the Angiosperms (flowering plants) evolved and became the dominant land plants.   During this geological period, several different types of predatory cockroach-like lineages evolved, but only one Order survives today – the Mantodea (the Mantises).  The scientists conclude that this insect was probably not a direct ancestor of the Praying Mantis, but that it probably represents a early side branch of the stem group that makes up the first of the Mantodea.

An Exquisite Line Drawing of the Fossil Material

Potentially an ancestor of the extant Praying Mantis.

Probably not an ancestor of the extant Praying Mantis.

Picture Credit: Peter Vršanský 

A further four specimens have been reported including an immature individual.  These specimens are just a few of the dozens of preserved insect remains that have been preserved in amber found in this part of Asia.  Dr. Vršanský commented that the Noije Bum area, of northern Myanmar is the most important site of dinosaur-age amber in the world.  Many amber pieces contain complete adult insects, this fossil evidence is providing scientists with extensive information about some of the smaller creatures that inhabited terrestrial, arboreal environments that were dominated by the Dinosauria.

The etymology of the name Manipulator modificaputis alludes to the extremely long extremities that this insect possessed. These were used to capture, hold and manipulate prey.  The large eyes which gave this little insect excellent vision would have helped it to spot predators, after all, it would have made a tasty snack for a small dinosaur on a night time patrol.

Yi qi – The Dinosaur That Thought it was a Bat

Chinese Dinosaur Unveil Yi qi Another Weird and Wonderful Theropod

Hot on the heels of Chilesaurus* comes the second bizarre Theropod dinosaur to be named this week, the wonderful and weird Yi qi (pronounced ee-chee) from the Hebei Province of northern China.  A single specimen is known, this was discovered by a local farmer and subsequently sold to a museum in Shandong Province, careful preparation of the specimen, which although fractured, does reveal most of the anatomical details of this little dinosaur.  Remarkably Y. qi possessed a long, rod-like bone on each wrist that extended backwards.  No other Theropod dinosaur (or any dinosaur for that matter), had a bone quite like this.  Comparative analysis with extant animals suggests that this bone helped to support a flap of skin that could be stretched out to form a structure like a bat’s wing.  The absence of evidence for large muscles around the chest probably rules out any form of active, powered flight, but it is likely that this pigeon-sized dinosaur could have been a glider.  Not the dinosaur equivalent of Batman, more like a dinosaur equivalent of a flying squirrel.

The Second Bizarre Theropod Announced this Week – Yi qi

Mid Jurassic flier.

Mid Jurassic flapping flier no but glider yes (probably).

Picture Credit: Dinostar/Chinese Academy of Sciences

To read Everything Dinosaur’s earlier article about the research into Chilesaurus: Chilesaurus – A Dinosaur Designed by a Committee

The fossil material has been studied (and fully prepared) by scientists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology – IVPP) and researchers from Linyi University (Shandong Province).  Unlike a number of other feathered dinosaur specimens from China, the palaeontologists are confident that this specimen (STM 31-2) currently housed at the Tianyu Museum of Nature in Pingyi County, (Shangdong Province), had not be tampered with or augmented by unscrupulous fossil dealers hoping to inflate any purchase price.

The Holotype Fossil Specimen (STM 31-2) Yi qi

The only known specimen of Qi yi (holotype).

The only known specimen of Yi qi (holotype).

Picture Credit: Zheng Xiaoting

This little dinosaur probably weighed less than 400 grammes and that bat-like wingspan was around sixty centimetres across  The short, deep skull was less than four centimetres long.  It forms part of an amazing fauna that thrived in a forested environment some 160 million years ago.  Over the last ten years or so, Chinese scientists have built up a very detailed picture of the palaeoenvironment in this part of northern China during the Mid to Late Jurassic.  The forests consisted of ancient ferns, ginkgos and conifers and breaking up the sub-tropical woodlands were large, shallow lakes.  Nearby volcanoes occasionally erupted and buried the surrounding area with a huge layer of very fine dust trapping and killing everything that got buried.  It is thanks to these frequent eruptions that such a wealth of ancient material has been so exquisitely preserved.  The Yi qi fossil shows evidence of long, filamentous feathers on the limbs as well as signs of a membrane of skin attached to that rod-like wrist bone and between the three digits.  The tiny claws on those digits suggest that this dinosaur could have climbed up trees, certainly an arboreal existence has been proposed.  Yi qi probably hunted insects up in the branches, climbing up the trunks of trees and gliding from tree to tree.

A Close up of the Skull of Yi qi

The large eye (orbit) and the peg-like teeth at the front of the jaws can be clearly made out.

The large eye (orbit) and the peg-like teeth at the front of the jaws can be clearly made out.

Picture Credit: Zheng Xiaoting

The large orbit (eye socket) seen in the picture above suggests that this little dinosaur had big eyes providing stereoscopic vision, all the better to judge distances and to spot its insect prey amongst the dark, leafy canopy,  Those short, peg-like teeth would have been more than a match for any insect that this gliding dinosaur encountered.  It probably was not agile enough to catch prey in mid flight but probably scurried along branches looking for insects and spiders.

It would have had plenty of company in its forest home.  There were lots of Pterosaurs around, along with numerous feathered dinosaurs and a large number of bizarre mammals including some recently described Docodonts.  To read an article about the remarkable fauna from the  Daohugou Beds of the Tiaojishan Formation: Unravelling the Sequence of Deposition in North-eastern China

To read about the peculiar mammals from this part of China (Mid to Late Jurassic): Widespread Ecological Diversity Amongst Early Mammals from China

An Example of Convergent Evolution

This anatomy is not found in other Theropods.

This anatomy is not found in other Theropods.

Picture Credit: Zheng Xiaoting

The rod-like bone extending from each wrist is not found in any other known member of the Dinosauria, but similar features are found in a number of gliding and flying Tetrapods.  At first the scientists were stumped by this strange anatomy, Xu Xing, one of the authors of the academic paper stated:

“We spent quite some time to identify the body structure of Yi qi, because the specimen is so different.  At first we did not have the slightest idea about what was the rod-like bone.”

It was only after a researcher undertook a study on extant flying vertebrates that the connection was made.

Zheng Xiaoting (Linyi University), another co-author of the study explained:

“Living in the mid period of the Jurassic, the dinosaur Yi qi could be a pioneer in the evolution of flying ability.”

The rod-like wrist bones are an example of convergent evolution, that is, when unrelated organisms evolve the same adaptations, such as tail flukes in dolphins and Ichthyosaurs.  Not only is this one of the most remarkable Theropod fossils discovered to date, Yi qi is one of the smallest dinosaurs so far described.  It also has several other claims to fame, for example, with a binomial, formal scientific name of just four letters, it has the shortest name for any member of the Dinosauria that we at Everything Dinosaur can think of.  In addition, as the fossil material is part of the Tianyu Museum of Nature’s Collection, it is part of the largest dinosaur fossil collection housed in a single museum anywhere in the world.  Back in 2010, the Guinness Book of Records announced that this museum had the greatest number of dinosaur specimens on exhibit at any one time.  The museum has over 28,000 square metres of exhibition space, a large proportion of which is dedicated to the Dinosauria.  The museum claims to possess over 1,100 different dinosaur specimens and tens of thousands of other vertebrate fossils in its collection.

Yi qi has been phylogenetically assigned to the clade Maniraptora, specifically being placed in the Family Scansoriopterygidae, a very odd group of dinosaurs, known for their small size, assumed arboreal habits, long arms and elongated third fingers.  In all other members of the Theropoda it is the second digit that is the longest. The Scansoriopterygidae contains a number of genera, with Epidexipteryx (E. hui) being perhaps the best known since it appeared in an episode of the BBC documentary series “Planet Dinosaur” back in 2011.  Epidexipteryx hui was named and described in 2008.

An Illustration of Epidexipteryx

Epidexipteryx hui

Epidexipteryx hui

Picture Credit: Nature

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