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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.

26 05, 2017

The Curious World of Pliosauridae Research

By | May 26th, 2017|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page|0 Comments

Bucking the Trend – Luskhan itilensis

Writing in the academic journal “Current Biology”, a team of international scientists which includes Roger Benson and Valentin Fischer (Department of Earth Sciences, Oxford University), have published details of a new species of ancient marine reptile, a short-necked Plesiosaur that bucks the trend for the Pliosauridae.  Instead of being an apex predator, roles traditionally applied to monstrous animals such as Kronosaurus, Liopleurodon, the recently described (2013), Megacephalosaurus and Pliosaurus, the first of these large-bodied, big-skulled reptiles to be scientifically described, this new species probably hunted an entirely different sort of prey.

An Illustration of the Newly Described Pliosaurid – Luskhan itilensis

Luskhan itilensis.

An illustration of the pliosaurid Luskhan itilensis from Russia.

Picture Credit: Andrey Atuchin

Feeding on Squid and Small Fish?

The rostrum of the newly described, highly unusual pliosaurid, is very narrow and it resembles the jaws of extant fish-eaters today such as the rare Gharial and the almost equally endangered (or, in the case of the Yangtze River Dolphin functionally extinct*) River Dolphins.

The Yangtze River Dolphin (Baiji)

Believed to be extinct the Yangtze River Dolphin.

The Yangtze River Dolphin.

Picture Credit: Institute of Hydrobiology (Chinese Academy of Sciences)

The long snout suggests that this newly described Pliosaur, named Luskhan itilensis specialised in catching small fish and squid.  Many palaeontologists suggest that the Pliosauridae were not capable of diving to great depths and they were confined to the Epipelagic zone (from the ocean surface to a depth of approximately 200 metres), whereas Sperm Whales, the largest toothed predators today, are capable of diving to much greater depths in pursuit of squid and other prey.

“Master Spirit of the Volga”

The fossilised remains of the marine reptile were initially discovered in the autumn of 2002 by one of the co-authors of the scientific paper Gleb N. Uspensky (Natural Science Museum, Ulyanovsk State University, Ulyanovsk, Russia).  The material comes from the right bank of the Volga, near to the town of Ulyanovsk, the bedding plane from which the fossil material, including a 1.5-metre-long skull was excavated, dates from the Lower Cretaceous (Hauterivian faunal stage).  Pliosaurids (Pliosauridae) are a family within the Order Plesiosauria.  They typically have large skulls, powerful jaws, a rigid body and propelled themselves through the water using their four flippers, although recent studies have shown that only the front pair of flippers were involved in propulsion.  The flight of the Plesiosauria: The Plesiosauria, Penguins and Underwater Flight.  The Plesiosauria swam in a unique way, not found in other vertebrates and now it seems that one group, the Pliosauridae, adapted to a wider range of ecological niches than previously thought.  Luskhan itilensis (the name means “Master Spirit of the Volga”), very probably did not specialise in hunting other marine reptiles, it filled a different role in the marine ecosystem of the Early Cretaceous.

Commenting on the significance of the discovery, Dr Valentin Fischer (Oxford University and lecturer at the University of Liège), the lead author of the study, stated that the specialised jaw:

“Is the most striking feature, which suggests that Pliosaurs had colonised a much wider range of ecological niches than previously thought.”

Not All Pliosaurs were Apex Predators

Pliosaur attacking a Plesiosaur.

Under attack – a Pliosaur attacks its relative, a long-necked Plesiosaur.

Picture Credit: Mark Witton

Postcranial Plasticity (Repeatedly Evolving Long and Short-Necked Body Plans)

Of all the types of marine reptiles that evolved during the Mesozoic, the Plesiosauria was one of the most successful, having a fossil record of some 140 million years or so.  During their long evolutionary history, Plesiosaurs repeatedly evolved long and short-necked body plans.  In general terms, the Plesiosauria can be split into two sub-groups, the short-necked Pliosauridae and the longer-necked Plesiosaurs, although this is an over simplification.  The discovery of Luskhan, further muddies the evolutionary waters somewhat, as its skull shows affinities to the very distantly related Polcotylidae.  A family of Plesiosaurs, on the long-necked lineage side of the family tree, which evolved into fast-swimming fish hunters.

Study of the skull of L. itilensis indicates an evolutionary convergence of the cranial structure of typical polycotylids such as Dolichorhynchops.  Distantly related animals evolve and ultimately resemble one another because they occupy similar ecological niches, such as the same hunting and feeding strategies.  The researchers conclude that the discovery of Luskhan itilensis demonstrates the ecological diversity of the Pliosauridae and reveals that these marine reptiles had a more complicated evolutionary history than their simple depiction as apex predators suggests.

CollectA Models Help Demonstrate Cladistic Relationships Within the Plesiosauria

Plesiosauria cladistics.

Cladistic relationships in the Plesiosauria (simplified and not to scale).

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur with the utilisation of an illustration by Andrey Atuchin

The picture above shows a simplified view of the taxonomic relationships between members of the Plesiosauria.  The length of the lines do not relate to geological age and the images of the animals are not to scale.

CollectA Prehistoric Life and Deluxe replicas have been used to illustrate the cladogram.  To view the range of marine reptile models available from Everything Dinosaur: Prehistoric Animal Models

The researchers conclude that the apex predator niche associated with the Pliosauridae does not necessarily reflect the diversity of this marine reptile family and that the Pliosaurs repeatedly evolved long-jawed, specialist fish and squid catchers during their extensive evolutionary history.

* Functionally extinct – so few animals that there is no viable breeding population.

The Scientific Paper: “Plasticity and Convergence in the Evolution of Short-Necked Plesiosaurs” by Valentin Fischer, Roger B.J. Benson, Nikolay G. Zverkov, Laura C. Soul, Maxim S. Arkhangelsky, Olivier Lambert, Ilya M. Stenshin, Gleb N. Uspensky, Patrick S. Druckenmiller.

25 05, 2017

Ceratopsid Tooth Paper Published (Part 2)

By | May 25th, 2017|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page|0 Comments

Owl Creek Ceratopsid Tooth and Palaeoenvironment Implications

Yesterday, team members at Everything Dinosaur published an article on the discovery of a single fossil tooth from a Late Cretaceous horned dinosaur that had been found in Union County (Mississippi).  This discovery, the first evidence of a dinosaur from the Owl Creek Formation, has implications for the way in which palaeontologists perceive the ecosystems that existed on the ancient landmasses of Laramidia and Appalachia.

Museum Specimen 7969- The Ceratopsid Tooth

Fossil tooth of a dinosaur from Mississippi.

Horned dinosaur tooth discovered in Mississippi.

Picture Credit:  Mississippi Museum of Natural Science (MDWFP)

To read yesterday’s article: Ceratopsid Tooth Paper Published (Part 1)

Why So Few Horned Dinosaur Fossils Found in Marine Sediments?

Palaeontologists know that during the latter stages of the Cretaceous, there were many different types of horned dinosaur (Ceratopsian).  Lots of fossil evidence has been discovered in western North America and a myriad of different forms have been described, particularly over the last ten years or so.  The likes of Triceratops may have first been described back in the late 1880’s but so many different horned dinosaur genera have been established in recently times, that numerous vertebrate palaeontologists refer to the last decade as the “Golden Age of Horned Dinosaur Discoveries”.

New Ceratopsian Faces Since 2007

So many different horned dinosaurs.

Illustrations of different horned dinosaurs that have been named since 2006.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur with artwork from Julius Csotonyi, Danielle Dufault and the Canadian Museum of Natural History/Andrey Atuchin

Despite all these horned dinosaur fossil discoveries, the Owl Creek Formation tooth, is one of only a handful of North American Ceratopsian fossils which have been found associated with marine strata.  The question is why?

Duck-billed Dinosaur Fossils in Marine Sediments

Compared to other types of Late Cretaceous dinosaur – ceratopsids, Theropods, ankylosaurids, et al, Hadrosaur fossils are the most common dinosaur fossils to be found in marine rocks laid down towards the end of the Cretaceous.  Duck-billed dinosaur fossils in marine sediments, are hardly what you would call abundant, but in relation to other large, obviously terrestrial dinosaurs, Hadrosaur fossils are more numerous in those rocks associated with having been laid down under the sea.

Although the fossil record shows a degree of bias, dinosaurs such as some of the smaller Theropods and the Pachycephalosaurs may be under-represented for example, this still does not explain why, compared to the Hadrosaurs, the almost equally specious and abundant horned dinosaurs don’t show up in marine deposits.  Ceratopsians may have preferred slightly different habitats than the Hadrosaurs.  Research undertaken in 2010 (Eberth), suggested that most of the horned dinosaur fossil remains were associated with lake, alluvial or coastal plain habitats, at least amongst the Ceratopsidae family.

Ceratopsians Such as Triceratops May Have Preferred Different Habitats Compared to Hadrosaurs

Triceratops dinosaur illustration.

Triceratops may have preferred to live away from rivers.

Picture Credit: Julius Csotonyi

The alluvial, low-lying wetland areas are strongly associated with river channels and these specific areas can be divided into two distinct parts.

  1. The riparian influenced part – the river and the river/channel margins.
  2. The floodplain – areas not adjacent to the river or the channel margins but flooded by the river when the river burst its banks.

Put into simple terms, dinosaurs such as Triceratops have left fossils associated with floodplain (muddy) deposits, whereas, duck-billed dinosaurs such as Edmontosaurus fossils are more associated with fluviatile (sandy) deposits.

If transport along river channels are the most common cause of “bloat and float” carcases, then, the lack of horned dinosaur fossils in marine sediments could be explained by ceratopsids, preferring to live on those parts of the floodplain, not very near to the river.  They may have had a preference for habitats outside of the riparian zones.

A Hadrosaur Corpse Floating Out to Sea (Bloat and Float Scenario)

Dinosaur corpse washed out to sea.

An artist’s illustration of the duck-billed dinosaur carcase washed out to sea.

Picture Credit: Masato Hattori

24 05, 2017

Ceratopsid Tooth Paper Published (Part 1)

By | May 24th, 2017|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page|0 Comments

Paper on the First Reported Horned Dinosaur Tooth from Eastern North America Published

In July 2016, Everything Dinosaur team members reported the discovery of a single tooth from a horned dinosaur in North America.  Given the dental batteries that these herbivorous dinosaurs possessed, that teeth, being extremely hard, stand up well to the fossilisation process and given the number of new North American ceratopsid species named in the last decade, this fossil find might not sound that surprising.  It’s not really about what was found, but where it was found, as the fossil tooth is the first horned dinosaur tooth to come to the attention of the scientific community from the eastern part of the United States.  To a palaeontologist this is a big deal, a very big deal indeed!

Views and Accompanying Computer Generated Images of the Single Tooth

Ceratopsid tooth from eastern North America.

Various views of the horned dinosaur tooth (Own Creek Formation, northern Mississippi).

Picture Credit: PeerJ

To read Everything Dinosaur’s earlier article about the ceratopsid tooth fossil find: Horned Dinosaur Tooth Discovered in Northern Mississippi

North America in the Late Cretaceous – A Tale of Two Landmasses

A variety of different types of horned dinosaur evolved in the western part of North America during the Late Cretaceous (Campanian faunal stage through to the Maastrichtian faunal stage).  However, during this period in Earth’s history, the landmass we now know as North America looked very different.  The continent was split into two parts, by a large, shallow sea (Western Interior Seaway).  At its fullest extent, this shallow sea stretched from the Gulf of Mexico, through the United States and Canada to the Arctic circle.  Size estimates vary, but it has been suggested (U.S. Geological Survey), that at its maximum, the sea was between 1,900 and 3,000 miles long between 600 to 1,000 miles in diameter.  Bordering the sea in the west was the long, narrow strip of land – Laramidia, whilst to the east, the landmass called Appalachia could be found.  Sea levels rose and fell over this period, eventually the Western Interior Seaway contracted, retreating south as plate movements pushed up the landmasses.  At the time of the dinosaur extinction, this once great area of tropical sea was reduced to a strip of water around the Gulf of Mexico, covering parts of the south-western USA.

The Western Interior Seaway (Campanian Faunal Stage)

The Western Interior Seaway.

A map showing the Western Interior Seaway of North America circa 75 mya.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Horned Dinosaurs Migrated from Laramidia to Appalachia

The dinosaur tooth, a single fossil specimen from the right side of the lower jaw (right dentary), was discovered by George Phillips, (curator of Palaeontology at the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science), as he explored a stream bed in Union County (Mississippi), that is known to yield marine fossils that date from the very end of the age of dinosaurs (Maastrichtian faunal stage).  The tooth was found in association with a Mosasaur tooth, ammonite remains, brachiopods and other fossils.  Based on the stratigraphic evidence and the fossil assemblage associated with the tooth, the authors of the scientific paper, published in PeerJ, conclude that this tooth provides evidence that at some time during the very Late Cretaceous horned dinosaurs were able to migrate from Laramidia to Appalachia over a land bridge.

George commented:

“A land bridge before the end of the Cretaceous could have allowed horned dinosaurs to migrate or disperse through Texas or Arkansas, right before they were all killed in the calamity [a reference to the End Cretaceous impact event].”

Chasmosaurines Went East

Migrating Chasmosaurine dinosaurs into eastern North America.

A potential horned dinosaur migration route into eastern North America.

Picture Credit: PeerJ with additional annotation by Everything Dinosaur

The picture shows two views of North America in the Late Cretaceous (A) around 73.5 million years ago (mya) and (B) around 68 million years ago (mya).  The authors suggest that horned dinosaurs were able to migrate eastwards from Laramidia into the Mississippi Embayment (Miss Emb), area of Appalachia.  Only Chasmosaurine horned dinosaurs are shown migrating into Appalachia (B).  The identity of the horned dinosaur to which the tooth belonged, is unknown, but if the land bridge existed towards the very end of the Cretaceous, then by this date Centrosaurine dinosaurs may well have become extinct in North America.  No fossils of ceratopsids assigned to the Centrosaurinae clade have been found in rocks dating from the Late Maastrichtian.

A Typical Ceratopsian Tooth

Tooth of a Triceratops.

A typical tooth of a Ceratopsian with its two distinct dental roots (Triceratops).

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The picture above shows a typical Ceratopsian tooth, from the Chasmosaurine Triceratops.  The fossil tooth from the Owl Creek Formation is the first evidence of dinosaurs to have been found in this formation, (the tooth is the first large, terrestrial animal fossil to have been found in the very well-known and thoroughly explored Owl Creek Formation).  It shows the typical ceratopsid tooth features, including the double root, and a prominent, blade-like carina (serrated edge).  The specimen (MMNS VP-7969), shows little sign of wear so it is unlikely that this fossil had been transported a great distance from where it was found.  It is tantalising to think, that perhaps, a little further upstream more horned dinosaur fossils are awaiting discovery, yet to be exposed by erosion.

Not Reworked and No Floating Carcase from Laramidia

The researchers reject the idea that the tooth has ended up in the stream bed having been eroded out of other rocks and re-deposited in the Owl Creek Formation.  The tooth is too pristine and therefore reworking from notably older Cretaceous-aged rocks is rejected.  In addition, the authors of the paper, Dr Andrew Farke (Raymond M. Alf Museum of Palaeontology, Claremont, California) and George Phillips, discount the idea that the tooth came from a carcase of a horned dinosaur that floated across from Laramidia.  The tooth, they postulate, provides evidence of a land bridge and that at least one kind of dinosaur migrated eastwards to populate the other half of the North American landmass.

A Model of the Late Cretaceous Horned Dinosaur Triceratops (T. horridus)

Pegasus Triceratops dinosaur model.

Great quality model kit to build and paint from Everything Dinosaur.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The scientific paper: “The First Reported Ceratopsid Dinosaur from eastern North America (Owl Creek Formation, Upper Cretaceous, Mississippi, USA) by Andrew A. Farke and George E. Phillips published in the journal “PeerJ”.

This fossil discovery provides an intriguing insight into Late Cretaceous palaeoenvironments and the types of dinosaurs that inhabited them, more about this in a follow-up article.

23 05, 2017

Dinosaurs of China Coming to Nottingham

By | May 23rd, 2017|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Educational Activities, Main Page, Teaching|0 Comments

Major Feathered Dinosaur Exhibition Coming to Nottingham

The idea that dinosaurs are not extinct might ruffle a few feathers.  However, the Dinosauria essentially consists of two parts, avian dinosaurs (birds) and non-avian dinosaurs, iconic prehistoric animals such as Tyrannosaurus rex, Stegosaurus and Triceratops. It is the bird lineage, that is very much still with us today.  No need to get into a flap if this statement confuses, a major dinosaur exhibition starting this summer will provide all the answers.

Dinosaurs of China Exhibition Coming to Nottinghamshire

Sinornithosaurus

One of the stars of the “Dinosaurs of China” exhibition – Sinornithosaurus.

Picture Credit: Zhao Chuang

A Once-in-a-Lifetime Event

Opening its doors on the 1st of July, the “Dinosaurs of China – Ground Shakers to Feathered Flyers” exhibition will tell the story of how one group of dinosaurs evolved into birds and you can expect to meet an incredible cast of characters on the way.  Located at two venues, (Wollaton Hall and the Nottingham Lakeside Arts Centre), this family-friendly dinosaur exhibition provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view amazing fossils and skeletons that have never been outside of Asia before.

For further information and ticket details: Dinosaurs of China Website

Ground Shakers

Highlights of the exhibition will include an enormous, rearing long-necked dinosaur Mamenchisaurus that looks down at you from a head height of thirteen metres, that’s twice as high as a giraffe!  If the mighty double-decker-bus-sized Mamenchisaurus doesn’t get your young dinosaur fans roaring with excitement then look out for Sinraptor, a vicious carnivorous dinosaur that once roamed China some 160 million years ago. With a skull almost a metre in length and a set of powerful jaws lined with serrated teeth, Sinraptor was a formidable predator, one that could probably run faster than you!  Had you been around in the Late Jurassic and been unfortunate to meet this hypercarnivore, Sinraptor would very probably have viewed you as potential prey and tried to eat you.

The Fearsome Sinraptor (S. dongi)

Dinosaur - Sinraptor dongi.

Large Late Jurassic predator Sinraptor dongi.

If you like meat-eating dinosaurs, take time out to visit the bizarre double-crested Dilophosaurus on display at the Nottingham Lakeside Arts Centre and whilst there, sign up for one of the exciting dinosaur themed activities, all aimed at educating and inspiring the next generation of young palaeontologists.  A comprehensive programme of prehistoric animal arts, crafts, fossil exploration, workshops and story-telling has been designed to run in conjunction with the exhibition.  Booking early is recommended to avoid disappointment.

Running from 1st July through the summer holidays and ending on the 29th October, the “Dinosaurs of China” exhibition provides a rare opportunity to get up close to some of the most astonishing and scientifically important fossil discoveries ever made.

Feathered Flyers

Telling the story of how dinosaurs evolved into birds, the carefully crafted exhibition will entertain, inform and enthral, with visitors getting the chance to meet a dinosaur ensemble including several bizarre members of the Dinosauria.  Take the buck-toothed Epidexipteryx (pronounced epi-decks-ip-ter-icks) for example, a dinosaur that may have lived like a squirrel and winkled grubs out of tree holes like an aye-aye.

Dinosaurs Don’t Get Much Stranger than Epidexipteryx

The dinosaur called Epidexipteryx hui.

Epidexipteryx hui

Picture Credit: Zhao Chuang, Xing Lida/Nature

For further information about this exciting dinosaur exhibition coming to the UK this summer: Visit the Dinosaurs of China Exhibition Website

21 05, 2017

Megazostrodontidae and Molars

By | May 21st, 2017|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page|0 Comments

Wareolestes rex – Uniting English Teeth with a Scottish Jawbone

This month has seen the publication of a scientific paper on one of the lesser known animals of the Middle Jurassic, a very distant ancestor of us and one that roamed the land that we now know as the United Kingdom.  The fossil collection attributed to the morganucodontan Wareolestes (W. rex), an animal named from four isolated teeth found in Oxfordshire (England), has increased with the description of a partial jawbone (left dentary), complete with several teeth. Writing in the publication of the Palaeontological Association, the researchers from Oxford University and the National Museums of Scotland, conclude that this animal had milk teeth, as adult teeth were identified that had not yet erupted through the jawline.  This means that this little mammaliaform (close to a true mammal but not quite), was a juvenile and the jaw fossil indicates that Wareolestes replaced its teeth once, just like humans, dogs, cats, horses and many other types of extant mammal.

An Illustration of the Head of Wareolestes rex

The Middle Jurassic mammaliaform (W. rex).

An illustration of Wareolestes rex.

Picture Credit: Elsa Panciroli

In addition, the pattern of tooth replacement reflects an important stage in mammalian evolution and is linked to the production of milk to feed offspring.  This discovery marks the first time that mammaliaform tooth replacement has been identified from Scottish fossil material.

Jawbone from the Isle of Skye

The two-centimetre-long jawbone was found on the Isle of Skye (Kilmaluag Formation), in rocks that were laid down some 165 million years ago, when this part of the world consisted of tropical islands surrounded by a warm shallow sea (Bathonian faunal stage).  The Middle Jurassic was an important time for mammalian evolution, unfortunately, there are very few fossil bearing exposures around the world that record evidence of life on our planet during this important period.  The Isle of Skye is one of these locations, along with a handful of other places including the western United States.

To read more about Scotland’s Mid Jurassic heritage: What Does Scotland Have in Common with Wyoming?

Linking English Teeth to a Scottish Jaw

The teeth and the newly described jawbone, although tiny by the standards of most dinosaurs, the dentary of Wareolestes is about as big an average sized tooth in the lower jaw of Megalosaurus (M. bucklandii), tells palaeontologists that Wareolestes was quite big for a mammaliaform.  Wareolestes grew to be around the size of a pet guinea pig, not massive, but most of the Middle Jurassic mammaliaforms were not much bigger than shrews.

Wareolestes rex was named and described from those few isolated teeth found in Oxfordshire.  Controversy surrounded the first tooth to be found, the holotype.  Scientists were not sure whether the tooth represented a tooth from the upper (maxilla) or lower jaw (dentary), they were not sure from which side of the mouth the tooth came from.  An analysis of the holotype tooth with the newly described Scottish jawbone clarifies the situation.  The original tooth from the Kirklington mammal beds in Oxfordshire came from the left side of the lower jaw (dentary).

The Fossil Jaw and a Line Drawing

Jawbone and line drawing of Wareolestes jawbone fossil.

The fossil jawbone from the Isle of Skye (Wareolestes).

This little fur-covered animal, may have been nocturnal, a strategy that would have helped the guinea pig-sized Wareolestes avoid predators – crocodylomorphs and Theropod dinosaurs for example.  Like other morganucodontans, it was probably insectivorous.  Careful CT scans and the creation of three-dimensional fossil images, allowed the English and Scottish-based researchers to identify the unerupted replacement teeth in the jaw.  Had this Wareolestes perished just a few weeks later, then it is very likely that the adult teeth would have been in place and scientists would not have had confirmation of the diphyodont (two sets of teeth), nature of this little beastie.

The Specialised Teeth of Mammals

Mammals have specialised teeth, canines, incisors, molars and such like.  Reptiles in contrast, have dentition that tends to be more homogeneous (all similar shapes).  Wareolestes had teeth very similar to those of a modern mammal.  This animal had “milk” teeth which were replaced by “adult” teeth as the animal grew.  It can be inferred from this that adult females looked after and nurtured their young.  Milk may have been secreted from modified pores for their offspring to lap up.  There may have been small grooves or channels in this patch of skin with the milk pore, to help the liquid pool and collect so that the baby Wareolestes could feed.

This is an exciting discovery and we are looking forward to hearing more about fossil finds from the field work on the Isle of Skye.  Researchers from Oxford University (England) and the National Museums of Scotland (Scotland), have found a jawbone fossil (Scotland) that solves a mystery surrounding some isolated teeth found decades earlier in England.  The story has a sense of closure about it, just like the fitting cusps and crowns associated with those specialised teeth of mammals.  However, we suspect that the dedicated team behind this particular piece of research will publish more papers about Middle Jurassic fossil finds, we can’t wait to get our teeth into them.

19 05, 2017

Say it with Flowers from the Danian to be Exact

By | May 19th, 2017|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Palaeontological articles|0 Comments

Flowering After a Disaster – Oldest Buckthorn Fossilised Flowers

Next week sees the start of the prestigious Chelsea Flower Show.  The great and the good will be attending this Royal Horticultural Society event, regarded by many gardeners and growers as the highlight of the year.  Today, Everything Dinosaur turns its attention to a paper published earlier this month in the journal PLOS ONE.  A team of researchers have found fossils of flowering plants that were once growing in Argentina, not long after, (in geological terms anyway), the global catastrophe that wiped out the non-avian dinosaurs.  The fossils represent plants of the Rhamnaceae family, commonly referred to as Buckthorns.  These plants have a global distribution today and a number of species can be found in parks and gardens in the UK.

Two Fossilised Flowers Identified as Members of the Rhamnaceae Family (Buckthorn)

Two Buckthorn flower fossils.

Two fossilised Buckthorn flowers next to each other were discovered in shales of the Salamanca Formation in Chubut Province, Patagonia, (Argentina).

Picture Credit: Nathan Jud/Cornell University (USA)

Flowering After the Fern Spike

A lot has been written about the mass extinction event that marked the demise of the non-avian Dinosauria, some 66 million years ago.  However, as well as the dinosaurs, pterosaurs and many kinds of marine reptile, other groups of animals (and plants), were devastated in the impact event and its aftermath.  Plant families were decimated too and researchers have been examining strata that were laid down in the years following the end Cretaceous extinction event in a bid to assess how ecosystems recovered.

Micro-fossil studies indicate that it was the ferns that were the first major group of plants to recover after the end Cretaceous mass extinction.  In the Late Cretaceous (Maastrichtian faunal stage), fern spores make up around 10 to 25% of the plant micro-fossil assemblage.  In Danian Epoch deposits, laid down at the very beginning of the Palaeocene, scientists find that in some parts of the world, fossilised fern spores make up nearly 99% of the plant micro-fossil assemblage.  This is referred to as the “Fern Spike”, ferns recovering quicker than angiosperms and other types of plants.  This recovery is echoed today, as ferns are often the first to colonise land devastated by a volcanic eruption.

The “Fern Spike” – Plotted Against Geological Time

Plotting the Danian fern spike.

A graph showing the recovery of ferns after the Cretaceous mass extinction.

Graph Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The research team including lead author Nathan Jud (Cornell University), report on the discovery of the first fossilised flowers post the Cretaceous extinction to be found in South America.  The fossils date to the early Palaeocene (Danian faunal stage), less than one million years after the extraterrestrial impact event.  The flowers and other plant fossils were found in shales which form part of the Salamanca Formation (Chubut Province, Patagonia).

Commenting on the significance of their discovery, Nathan Jud stated:

“The fossilised flowers provide a new window into the earliest Palaeocene communities in South America and they are giving us the opportunity to compare the response to the extinction event on different continents.”

The Origins of the Rhamnaceae Family

Plants of the Rhamnaceae family might have a global distribution today, but from where did this highly successful group of shrubs, trees and bushes originate?  Scientists have argued about whether early Buckthorns originated in the ancient super-continent Gondwana, which later split and includes most of the landmasses in the Southern Hemisphere today.  Or did the Rhamnaceae evolve further north on another super-continent from the Mesozoic – Laurasia?

Dr Jud commented:

“This and a handful of other recently discovered fossils from the Southern Hemisphere, supports a Gondwanan origin for the Rhamnaceae, in spite of the relative scarcity of fossils in the Southern Hemisphere relative to the Northern Hemisphere.”

Fossilised Leaves from the Salamanca Formation (Buckthorn Family)

Views of Buckthorn leaves (Danian faunal stage).

Buckthorn fossils (leaves).

Picture Credit: Nathan Jud/Cornell University and PLOS ONE

The scientists, which include Ari Iglesias (Universidad Nacional del Comahue, Argentina), and Peter Wilf (Pennsylvania State University), suggest that fossils found in southern Mexico and Columbia provide evidence that the first members of the Rhamnaceae family evolved in the Late Cretaceous, shortly before the extinction event.  Although, many types of plant died out at the end of the Mesozoic, the ancestors of extant Buckthorns were able to make it through the global catastrophe.

A plausible scenario is that the Rhamnaceae first evolved in the equatorial region of Gondwana, but survived the extinction event by clinging on in the southern most portion of South America, many thousands of kilometres from the Yucatan peninsula impact site.  These plants were then able to re-colonise other parts of the world in the aftermath of the extinction event, perhaps taking advantage of the niches in ecosystems vacated by recently extinct plant species.

The Salamanca Formation is among the most precisely-dated sites of the Palaeocene. The age of the fossils was corroborated by radiometric dating (using radioactive isotopes), the global palaeomagnetic sequence (signatures of reversals of Earth’s magnetic field found in the samples), along with the mapping of zonal fossils (relative dating).

In conclusion, Dr Jud stated:

“These are the only flowers of Danian age for which we have good age control.  Researchers have discovered other fossilised flowers in India and China from around the Danian, but their dates are not as precise.”

18 05, 2017

Time to Question Where Life on Earth Started

By | May 18th, 2017|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Geology, Main Page|0 Comments

Earliest Evidence for Microbial Life on Land

Fossils which reputedly show evidence of microbial life in hot springs have been found in Australian rocks that date from 3.48 billion years ago.  The hot spring deposits found in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, have pushed back by some 580 million years, the earliest known existence of micro-organisms living in terrestrial freshwater habitats, albeit, in a very inhospitable place.  This discovery has reignited the debate as to where the first life on planet Earth might have originated.

Tiny Bubbles Preserved in the Rocks Could Demonstrate Early Microbial Life in Hot Springs

Evidence of early microbial life (Pilbara Craton).

Spherical bubbles preserved in 3.48 billion-year-old rocks in the Dresser Formation in the Pilbara Craton (Western Australia) provide evidence for early life having lived in ancient hot springs on land.  These bubbles could have been trapped in a sticky microbial film.

Picture Credit: University of New South Wales

The remote and very beautiful Pilbara region of Western Australia has exposures of extremely ancient sandstones, some of the oldest sedimentary rocks known.  These strata were formed in the Paleoarchean Era and it has been at the centre of research for evidence of micro-fossils and signs of very early life on Earth for a number of decades.  The Australian authorities are hoping to get UNESCO World Heritage status recognition for those parts of the Pilbara Craton that have provided evidence for very primitive, organic lifeforms.

To read an article from 2011 about micro-fossils preserved in Pilbara sandstones that indicate microbial life from 3.4 billion years ago: Are These the Oldest Fossils on Earth?

A Freshwater or a Marine Origin for Life on Earth?

The debate as to when life on Earth began has caused great controversy amongst scientists.  Resolving when the very first organisms evolved has proved extremely difficult, for example, back in the autumn of 2016, Everything Dinosaur published an article about an intriguing study of ancient Greenland rocks that might show evidence of microbial life, specifically stromatolites that existed in a shallow marine environment some 3.7 billion years ago.

For the article on the research on the Greenland rocks: 3.7 Billion-Year-Old Microbes?

What is equally as controversial, is where on Earth did life begin?

Writing in the academic journal “Nature Communications”, lead author, PhD student Tara Djokic (University of New South Wales) and her fellow researchers conclude that parts of the Pilbara Craton strata were formed from hot spring deposits and these rocks provide evidence that life may not have originated in a marine environment.

The Remote and Desolate Sandstone Ridges Represent Strata Formed Some 3.48 Billion Years Ago

A view of the remote Dresser Formation, Pilbara Craton (Western Australia).

Ridges in the ancient Dresser Formation in the Pilbara Craton of Western Australia that preserve ancient stromatolites and hot spring deposits.

Picture Credit: Kathleen Campbell

Extremophiles Living in Hot Springs

Scientists are aware that microbial life such as bacteria and those other prokaryotes – archaea are capable of surviving in very hostile environments.  The specialised archaea are often referred to as extremophiles as these organisms can tolerate and thrive in environments that would prove fatal to most other forms of life.  These extreme conditions include heat and high concentrations of noxious materials, the sort of conditions you can find in a geyser or hot spring.

Tara and her co-workers, which included Professors Martin Van Kranendonk, Malcolm Walter and Colin Ward (University of New South Wales) and Professor Kathleen Campbell (Auckland University), took samples from the ancient Dresser Formation in the Pilbara Craton and employed a variety of techniques to analyse their contents.  Microscopic sections of rock were prepared and a study of these samples led the team to conclude that they had found potential biological signatures and physical evidence of organic life preserved within the ancient strata.

Tara Djokic explained:

“Our exciting findings don’t just extend back the record of life living in hot springs by some three billion years, they indicate that life was inhabiting the land much earlier than previously thought, up to about 580 million years earlier.  This may have implications for an origin of life in freshwater hot springs on land, rather than the more widely discussed idea that life developed in the ocean and adapted to land later.”

Researchers Examining the Rocks

Looking for signs of ancient life in the Pilbara Craton.

Tara Djokic and co-author Professor Martin Van Kranendonk in the Pilbara in Western Australia looking for evidence of hot springs preserved in the strata.

Picture Credit: Kathleen Campbell

Charles Darwin’s “Warm Little Pond”

Where life originated has taxed academics, religious leaders and philosophers for centuries.  There are several theories, for example, the first organisms could have come to Earth via a comet, meteorite or asteroid impact, or life could have evolved here on Earth, perhaps in the deep sea around hydrothermal vents.  Other scientists have argued that life as we know it began on land, in the extreme environments of hot springs and geysers – the “warm little pond” as Charles Darwin is believed to have indicated.

The Discovery of Geyserite

Evidence of geyseyrite in the Dresser Formation.

A microscopic image of geyserite textures from the ancient Dresser Formation in the Pilbara Craton in Western Australia.  This shows that surface hot spring deposits once existed there 3.48 billion years ago.

Picture Credit: The University of New South Wales

Evidence of Geyserite

Microscopic polished slices revealed the presence of the mineral geyserite in the Dresser Formation deposits.  Geyserite (a form of silica), is associated with mineral deposits formed from hot springs or geysers, if extremophiles can survive in these harsh habitats today, then it is possible that they could have survived in very similar conditions on the primordial Earth.

Doctorate student Tara Djokic commented:

“The discovery of potential biological signatures in these ancient hot springs in Western Australia provides a geological perspective that may lend weight to a land-based origin of life.”

Researchers Examining the Waters Surrounding Hydrothermal Vents in New Zealand

Looking for signs of life in a hot spring.

Researchers examining the hot waters surrounding the hydrothermal vents at Rotokawa (New Zealand).

Picture Credit: Kathleen Campbell

Within the Pilbara hot spring deposits, the researchers also discovered stromatolites, layered rock structures created by communities of ancient microbes.  In addition, there were other signs of early life in the deposits, including fossilised micro-stromatolites, microbial palisade textures and well preserved bubbles that are inferred to have been trapped in sticky microbial slime to preserve the bubble shape.

Out of this World Implications – The Search for Life on Mars

The researchers comment that their work has major implications with the regards to the search for extraterrestrial life, particularly the search for life on Mars.  The rocks that make up the Pilbara Craton are about the same age as much of the crust on the red planet.  Ancient hot spring deposits on Mars could be a good place to search for evidence of long-extinct life.

NASA is currently planning a news Mars Rover mission (due to launch in 2020), one of the potential landing sites for the Mars land vehicle is the Columbia Hills.  Previous Mars expeditions have identified silicates that could have been formed in the presence of hot water from a thermal vent.  If evidence of ancient life on Earth, preserved in strata formed in a hot spring environment can be found, then such life processes may well have come about on Mars too and some evidence might be preserved in the ancient Martian rocks.

17 05, 2017

“Winged Serpent” Found in Ancient Sinkhole

By | May 17th, 2017|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Main Page, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Zilantophis schuberti –  A New Species of Snake from the Gray Fossil Site

A newly described species of prehistoric snake is helping herpetologists to better understand the evolution of modern snakes.  The new species, named Zilantophis schuberti is described in a scientific paper published this week in the “Journal of Herpetology”, it lived approximately five million years ago, a time when our planet’s global average temperature was rising.  Scientists hope that this new discovery will provide helpful information so that they can better understand the ways in which today’s fauna will adapt with the onset of global warming.

An Illustration of the Newly Described Snake – Zilantophis schuberti

Zilantophisi Illustration.

A speculative drawing of the tiny snake – Zilantophis.

Picture Credit: Steven Jasinski (University of Pennsylvania)

Co-author of the paper, Steven Jasinski (PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania), explained that the fossils come from the famous Gray Fossil Site, close to East Tennessee State University, Jasinski and fellow author David Moscato (State Museum of Pennsylvania), report the discovery of highly modified, snake vertebrae, with wing-like struts, most probably to anchor strong back muscles.  The morphology (shape) of these bones do not match any living species of snake, it has been speculated that these snakes developed specialised vertebrae to help them push through compacted leaf litter as they hunted for insects and other small prey.  The specialised vertebrae may also have been an adaptation for digging or possibly swimming.  The idea that Zilantophis was aquatic is difficult to rule out.

Photograph and Line Drawing of a Highly-Modified Vertebra

Zilantophis schuberti vertebra (A) and line drawing (B).

The arrow notes the location of wing-like projections that gave the species its name (Zilantophis schuberti).

Picture Credit: Steven Jasinski (University of Pennsylvania)

PhD student Steven commented:

“Snakes don’t have arms or legs,but they have high numbers of vertebrae.  These are often the bones that palaeontologists use to identify fossil snakes.”

*Snakes and lizards belong to the Order Squamata, snakes evolved from limbed reptiles and recently Everything Dinosaur reported on the chance discovery of a 115-million-year-old fossil that provides evidence of the transition from reptiles with limbs to the serpentine form.

To read the article: First Fossil Snake with Four Limbs Described

Named After a Mythical Creature

The genus name is derived from Zilant, a winged serpent from Tatar mythology.  The trivial name honours Blaine Schubert, the executive director of East Tennessee State’s Don Sundquist Centre of Excellence in Palaeontology, who acted as mentor and adviser to the authors whilst they studied there.  The ancient snake’s name translates as “Schubert’s winged snake”.

At only a few centimetres in length, Zilantophis was no monster, the tiny vertebrae had to be meticulously separated from the dark clay sediment of the Gray Fossil Site.  The researchers conclude that this Late Miocene/Early Pliocene snake is most closely related to rat snakes (Pantherophis) and kingsnakes (Lampropeltis), both of which are relatively common in North America today.  In total, the field team found evidence of seven different snake genera at the dig site, the descendants of which can still be found in east Tennessee today.

Field Team Members Working at the Sinkhole Dig Site

Field team staff exploring the Gray Fossil Site.

Field team members excavating the sinkhole (Gray Fossil Site).

Picture Credit: Steven Jasinski (University of Pennsylvania)

Snake genera identified include:

  • Garter snakes (Thamnophis)
  • Rat snakes (Pantherophis)
  • Pine snakes (Pituophis)
  • Whip snakes (Masticophis)
  • Water snakes (Nerodia)

Zilantophis schuberti and all the snakes listed above, are members of the Colubridae snake family, the largest and most specious group of extant snakes.  The authors comment that the Late Miocene was seeing a transition in snake fauna.  Boas had dominated the serpentine fauna of North America, but gradually the boas went into decline and they were replaced by the colubrids, which are typically much smaller and more mobile than boas.  This faunal change coincided with extensive climate change, with forests being replaced by open prairies as a result of a drying climate.

Steven Jasinski explained:

“Zilantophis was part of this period of change.  It shows that colubrids were diversifying at this time, including forms that did not make it to the present day.”

The Importance of the Gray Fossil Site

The Gray Fossil Site, located close to the town of Gray in Washington County (Tennessee), represents deposits from a sinkhole that accumulated in the Late Miocene to the very Early Pliocene Epochs.  As the clay deposits straddle the Miocene/Pliocene boundary, the strata and the fossils contained therein have provided researchers with an opportunity to study changing biodiversity at a time when the Earth’s climate was undergoing rapid change.  Discovered seventeen years ago, during the construction of a road, the site represents the accumulated debris from the bottom of a large pond, that occasionally dried out.  A wide variety of vertebrate fossils have been excavated from the site, including several large mammals, transitional forms of the American alligator, turtles, snakes and amphibians.

Excavating the Skull of a Tapir from the Dig Site

The skull of a Tapir (Gray Fossil Site).

A tapir skull from the Gray Fossil Site (eastern Tennessee).

Picture Credit: University of Pennsylvania

The Gray Fossil Site, has yet to be fully explored but it has already provided a hugely important window into the changing environment of North America between 7 million years ago and 4.5 million years ago (approximately).  This new research represents the first formal survey of snake fossils at the location, the discovery of Zilantophis, which dates from the Hemphillian stage of the North American Land Mammal Ages (NALMA), is helping scientists to understand evolutionary change at a crucial time in the history of the fauna of North America, a time when modern animals and plants were becoming established.

13 05, 2017

Zuul – The Destroyer of Shins

By | May 13th, 2017|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

 Zuul crurivastator – A New Ankylosaurid from the Judith River Formation of Montana

Another day and another new dinosaur, this time an armoured dinosaur from the Coal Ridge Member of the Judith River Formation (Montana).  Researchers from the Royal Ontario Museum, describe Zuul crurivastator, pronounced Zoo-ul cruh-uh-vass-tate-or, in a paper published this week in the journal of the Royal Society.  The genus name honours a fictional monster from the 1984 movie “Ghostbusters”.  The research team, that includes Victoria Arbour and David Evans, were reminded of the monster “Zuul the Gatekeeper of Gozer”, when studying the dinosaur’s prominent horns and ridges on the exquisitely preserved skull.

A Life Restoration of the Newly Described Late Cretaceous Ankylosaurid Zuul crurivastator

An ankylosaurid - Zuul crurivastator.

Life restoration of Zuul crurivastator (Danielle Dufault).

Picture Credit: Danielle Dufault

The species name crurivastator means “destroyer of shins”, after the bony tail club, which on this specimen, was fifty-two centimetres long.  The club could inflict severe damage to the legs of any Theropod dinosaur aiming to make a meal out of Zuul.  The club may also have been used during intraspecific combat, with ankylosaurids fighting over territory or mates.

An Illustration of the Head of Z. crurivastator Compared to the Fictional Movie Character

Ghostbuster Zuul compared to the dinosaur.

Zuul compared to the Ghostbuster figure (Zuul).

Picture Credit: Danielle Dufault and CBS

Most Complete Ankylosaurid Specimen Found in North America

Entire, or very nearly entire fossilised skeletons are exceptionally rare.  This is the first ankylosaurid specimen with an almost full set of skull bones to be found, it also has a virtually intact tail club.  Z. crurivastator represents the most complete ankylosaurid found to date in the whole of North America.  The fossil material (ROM 75860) was discovered by chance during the removal of overburden as a field team excavated the remains of a tyrannosaurid.  This six-metre-long armoured dinosaur is believed to lived between 76.2 and 75.2 million years ago (Campanian faunal stage of the Late Cretaceous.

The Posterior Portion of the Specimen with Members of the Research Team

Zuul crurivastator fossil material.

From left to right Ian Morrison (palaeontology technician, Marianne Mader (Director, Centre for Earth & Space/Fossils and Evolution), Victoria Arbour (NSERC postdoctoral fellow), Danielle Dufault (scientific illustrator) and David Evans (Temerty Chair in Vertebrate Palaeontology.

Picture Credit: Brian Boyle/Royal Ontario Museum

Lots of Taxa within the Sandstone Block

The majority of the skeleton was preserved in a sandstone concretion.  The tail, pelvis and dorsal vertebrae were articulated, whilst elements of the anterior of the specimen including the skull were disarticulated but in relative close association to their position in the skeleton when this dinosaur was alive.  Assigned to the tribe Ankylosaurini, a phylogenetic analysis nests Zuul crurivastator closer to Scolosaurus cutleri and Dyoplosaurus acutosquameus than to either Euplocephalus and Ankylosaurus.

The dinosaur was found upside down and was excavated in two large blocks, the largest of which, containing the torso, weighed more than 15 tonnes and is still undergoing preparation.  The dig site also produced the remains of numerous other Late Cretaceous animals and plants, including Theropods, hadrosaurids, turtles, crocodilyforms as well as invertebrates and fossils of some of the vegetation that the armoured dinosaur might have fed upon.

The presence of abundant soft tissue preservation across the skeleton, including in situ osteoderms, skin impressions and dark films that probably represent preserved keratin, make this exceptional skeleton an important reference for understanding the evolution of dermal and epidermal structures within the Ankylosaurinae clade.

A Close View of Preserved Soft Tissue on a Bony Spike on the Tail of Zuul.

Soft tissue preservation (Zuul).

Preserved soft tissue sheath of a bony spike on the tail of Zuul.

Picture Credit: Brian Boyle/Royal Ontario Museum

Skull and Jaws

The skull and jaws represent some of the best preserved ankylosaurid material ever found.  Once the skull had been prepared, the scientists were amazed at the detail that was revealed.  It led to comments that the skull and the jaws looked like that they had sculpted just a few days earlier, rather than representing the remains of an animal that roamed the United States at least 75 million years ago.

The Beautifully Preserved Skull and Jaws of Zuul crurivastator

Zuul crurivastator skull and lower jaw.

The skull and jaws of Zuul.

Picture Credit: Brian Boyle/Royal Ontario Museum

The newest member of the ankylosaurids had four large horns on its head.  One directly behind each eye (squamosal horn) and another horn that stuck out sideways from just underneath and slightly behind each eye-socket (quadratojugal horn).  It is these horns and the arrangement of the bony scales on the snout that enable palaeontologists to identify different types of Ankylosaur.

Co-author of the scientific paper, David Evans (Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology at the Royal Ontario Museum), stated:

“The preservation of Zuul is truly remarkable.  Not only is the skeleton almost completely intact, but large parts of the bony armour in the skin are still in its natural position.  Most excitingly, soft tissues such as scales and the horny sheaths of spikes are preserved, which will be a focus of our future research.”

Royal Ontario Museum Palaeontologists Victoria Arbour and David Evans Study the Fossil

David Evans and Victoria Arbour study the bony club tail.

Victoria Arbour and David Evans study the bony club tail.

Picture Credit: Brian Boyle/Royal Ontario Museum

The scientific paper: “A new Ankylosaurine Dinosaur from the Judith River Formation of Montana, USA, Based on an Exceptional Skeleton with Soft Tissue Preservation” by Victoria M. Arbour and David C. Evans.

11 05, 2017

“Baby Louie” Dinosaur Fossil Identified as New Species

By | May 11th, 2017|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

A New Species of Giant Oviraptorosaur – Beibeilong sinensis

The mystery of the world’s largest dinosaur eggs has been solved, and an infamous baby dinosaur fossil once the property of the Indianapolis Children’s Museum, now has a family.  In 1993, a fossilised clutch of giant dinosaur eggs and an associated embryo dinosaur skeleton was discovered east of the small village of Zhaoying, close to the township of Yangcheng, Xixia County, in western Henan Province.  Like many thousands of dinosaur egg fossils found in this part of central China, the specimen was illegally sold overseas to a buyer in America.  The fossil was then sold to the Indianapolis Children’s Museum in 2001.  Subsequently, the partial nest with the small, articulated dinosaur skeleton, nick-named “Baby Louie”, was repatriated to China and it is currently housed in the Henan Geological Museum.

In a paper this week in “Nature Communications”, researchers which include Darla Zelenitsky (University of Calgary) and Professor Phil Currie (University of Alberta), have identified a new species of giant Oviraptorosaur – “Baby Louie” represents potentially one of the largest feathered creatures known to science.

The dinosaur has been named Beibeilong sinensis, the name means “baby dragon from China”.

Photographs of the Holotype Fossil Material (Beibeilong sinensis)

Beibeilong sinensis egg fossils with impression of egg size and position overlaid.

Right image shows schematic overlay of approximate locations of individual eggs. Eggs 1 through 4 are in an upper layer just beneath the skeleton, whereas egg 5 is in a lower layer of the block. Scale bar is in centimetres.

Picture Credit: Nature Communications/Darla Zelenitsky

The picture above shows two images of the holotype nest fossil from which the new species of dinosaur, B. sinensis was described.  The picture on the left shows the fossil material with the embryo fossil located just below the scale bar.  On the second photograph, the location of five of the eggs making up the clutch have been superimposed on the fossil to give an indication of their position.

Giant Dinosaur Eggs

The eggs were given their own oogenus, Macroelongatoolithus (the name means “large elongate stone eggs”).  These are the largest-known type of dinosaur eggs with some fossils measuring around sixty centimetres in length.  The eggs associated with the Beibeilong embryo measure about forty-five centimetres long.   That’s about three times as long as a typical Ostrich egg (Struthio camelus), although Ostrich eggs are more ovoid in shape.  The research team suggest that the dinosaurs which laid these eggs, giant caenagnathid Oviraptorosaurs, created nests that may have been around three metres in diameter.

An Artist’s Illustration of the Giant Oviraptorosaur Beibeilong sinensis

Beibeilong nesting scene.

A breeding pair of Beibeilong dinosaurs and their nest of giant dinosaur eggs.

 Picture Credit: Zhao Chuang

The Gigantoraptor Effect

The discovery of the giant fragmentary fossils of a strange Theropod (Gigantoraptor erlianensis) in 2005 changed views on the Oviraptorosauria clade forever.  When formally described in 2007, Gigantoraptor was at least five times bigger than any other known oviraptorid.  Palaeontologists had proof that giant, beaked dinosaurs existed.

To read about the discovery of Gigantoraptor: New Giant Member of the Oviraptorosauria – Gigantoraptor

Beibeilong becomes the second genus of giant members of the Oviraptorosauria.  If “Baby Louie” had lived, then this dinosaur might have reached a length of eight metres or more and it would have easily weighed more than a tonne.  Beibeilong has been assigned to the Caenagnathidae, an enigmatic group of beaked Theropods closely related to the Oviraptoridae and nested with them into the Oviraptorosauria clade.

A Scale Drawing of a Giant Caenagnathid Oviraptorosaur (G. erlianensis)

Gigantoraptor scale drawing.

The largest feathered animals known to science.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Originally, the Caenagnathidae family was erected to describe, what was thought at the time, a lineage of extinct birds.  Over the last thirty years or so, more fossil discoveries have been made in North America and Asia.  When first described Gigantoraptor was thought to be a member of the Oviraptoridae, however, Gigantoraptor is now joined in the Caenagnathidae by perhaps, the equally large Beibeilong.

An Abundance of Giant Dinosaur Egg Fossils

The Beibeilong material was excavated from strata from the Gaogou Formation (Upper Cretaceous, Cenomanian to Turonian faunal stages).  The research team suggest that Beibeilong roamed central China some ninety million years ago, twenty million years earlier than Gigantoraptor.  An abundance of Macroelongatoolithus eggs reported from Asia and North America is in stark contrast to the very few bones found of giant caenagnathids.  Thanks to the association between “Baby Louie” and the giant eggs, the first known association between skeletal remains and eggs of caenagnathids, palaeontologists are confident that these giant, beaked dinosaurs may have been relatively common throughout the northern hemisphere during the Late Cretaceous.

A View of the Dinosaur Embryo Skeleton (Beibeilong sinensis) and Accompanying Line Drawing

Beibeilong fossil and line drawing.

“Baby Louie” fossil (Beibeilong sinensis) and line drawing – scale bar = 5 cm.

Picture Credit: Nature Communications/Darla Zelenitsky

The picture above shows a close view of the embryo skeleton (left) and a simplified line drawing highlighting important bones.

Key

fr = frontal bone (skull), or = orbit (skull), lj = lower jaw, d = dentary, fi = fibula, ti – tibia, il= ilium, f = femur.

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