Category: Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories

Mexico City Mammoth Find

Digging for Drains Unearths Columbian Mammoth

Back in December 2015, a routine drain excavation taking place north of Mexico City was halted when the fossilised remains of a giant Woolly Mammoth were uncovered.  Such finds are relatively common in this part of Mexico, a number of specimens of the Columbian Mammoth (Mammuthus columbi) have been discovered in recent years as the metropolitan area of Mexico has expanded.  The Columbian Mammoth roamed much of North America during the Pleistocene Epoch, its fossils have been found over most parts of the United States and it has been recorded as far south as Costa Rica.  Scientists from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia), in Mexico, have been working to excavate the fossils including an exquisitely preserved skull with two-metre long tusks.

The Skull and Tusks Wrapped in Plaster and Burlap Ready for Removal from the Dig Site

Columbian mammoth fossils found near Mexico City.

The Columbian Mammoth fossils found near Mexico City being prepared for removal from the dig site.

Picture Credit: AFP

This Mammoth is believed to have died around 14,000 years ago, when it became bogged down in mud surrounding a shallow lake.  Around fifty individuals have been found around Mexico City, it seems that these large elephants (Columbian Mammoths were considerably bigger than their more famous counterparts, the Woolly Mammoth, M. primigenius), were prone to getting stuck in mud, the site where the remains were found, near the village of Tultepec was once covered by a shallow lake, animals were attracted to this area and occasionally a Mammoth would have become stuck in the mud that surrounded the water.  Field team members working to remove the bones have suggested that the scattered remains may indicate that the carcase was butchered by humans for meat.  However, Everything Dinosaur team members have not been informed of the discovery of any tell-tale cut marks found on the bones.  The carcase could have become scattered as a result of other animals trampling the bones.

Field Team Members Work to Excavate Individual Bones

A field team member working on a Columbian Mammoth fossil.

Remains of a Columbian Mammoth found near Mexico City.

Picture Credit: Reuters

Back in 2009, Everything Dinosaur reported on the opening of a major exhibit at Waco in Texas which provided members of the public access to a Columbian Mammoth dig site where the remains of more than a dozen of these elephants had been discovered.

To read more about this: Prehistoric Mammoth Site Opens to the Public

Commenting on the discovery, archaeologist Luis Cordoba from the National Institute of Anthropology and History explained that these fossils were found some two metres below ground and they represent an animal that would have been between 20 and 25 years of age when it died.  The skeleton, although disarticulated is almost complete and it is in a remarkable state of preservation.  It is hoped that the specimen will be able to go on display to the public once it has been fully prepared.

Archaeologist Luis Cordoba (National Institute of Anthropology and History)

One of the vertebrae from a Columbian Mammoth.

Luis Cordoba holding a dorsal vertebra from a Columbian Mammoth.

Picture Credit: AFP

Ancestry of the Columbian Mammoth

It is likely that the Columbian Mammoth is descended from the Steppe Mammoth (M. trogontherii).  Mammoths crossed the Bering Straits land bridge (Beringia), entering the New World from Asia around 1.5 million years ago.  The very last of these Mammoths may have lived as recently as 11,000 years ago.  It is not known what role human hunting played in their extinction.

Scientists “Root Out” Oldest Plant Root Cells

Oldest Plant Roots Identified

Scientists from Oxford University and the Departamento de Biología Molecular de Plantas, Instituto de Biotecnología, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (Mexico), have identified the oldest known population of plant root cells in a 320 million-year-old fossil.  This study, published as an on line, open access article, highlights the importance of historical collections such as the Oxford University Herbaria, which as part of the University’s Plant Sciences Department, houses an extensive botany collection, with some specimens within the archive over 300 years old.

A Slide Showing Preserved Plant Remains from the Oxford University Herbaria Collection

Carboniferous root structures preserved in a thin slice (slide)

A slide made over 100 years ago preserves evidence of fossilised root structures.

Picture Credit: Oxford University Herbaria

The picture above shows a thin soil slice prepared on a slide over 100 years ago and part of the Oxford University Herbaria collection.  The fossilised soil is estimated to be around 320 million-years-old and shows the cellular anatomy of plants which were growing and decaying in the fossil soil underlying the Carboniferous coal swamp forests.

The scientists have not only revealed the oldest plant root stem cells found to date, the research also marks the first time an actively growing fossilised root has been discovered and it shows that plant root cell division in the past may have been more diverse than today.

Roots and Shoots – Getting to the Root of the Problem

The roots and shoots of plants develop from specialised groups of cells called meristems.  These self renew and produce cells that undergo differentiation.  The organisation of these cells changes when growth stops, so up until this research was published, it was impossible to compare the fossil record with the cellular structure of actively growing meristems.  Using slides from the Oxford University Herbaria that represent thin sections of fossilised soils taken from Carboniferous coal balls, researchers were able to identify the fossilised remains of an actively growing root meristem and examine in detail the stem cells and their structure.  They found that the cellular organisation of the fossilised root tip is unique.  Roots and shoots of ancient plants from the Carboniferous may have grown in a broadly similar way to modern plants such as the angiosperms (flowering plants), but the unique cellular order and structure demonstrates that the meristem growth we find today may only represent a proportion of the root and shoot growth diversity that once existed.  This research indicates that some of the biological processes and systems controlling the root development of plants have now become extinct.

A Highly Magnified Image Showing the Growing Root Apex Assigned to the Species Radix carbonica

The holotype fossil of Radix caronica (growing root).

The dark horseshoe-shaped structure is the root cap protecting the growing root apex as it pushes through the soil.

Picture Credit: Oxford University Herbaria

The structures preserved in the fossil record are similar to those found in extant species, but they are different, they represent a unique cellular arrangement not known in modern plants.

Commenting on the study, one of the authors of the paper, Oxford Plant Sciences PhD student Alexander (Sandy) Hetherington stated:

‘I was examining one of the fossilised soil slides held at the University Herbaria as part of my research into the rooting systems of ancient trees when I noticed a structure that looked like the living root tips we see in plants today.  I began to realise that I was looking at a population of 320 million-year-old plant stem cells preserved as they were growing – and that it was the first time anything like this had ever been found.  It gives us a unique window into how roots developed hundreds of millions of years ago.’

The First Global Tropical Wetland Forests

The fossil soil slides and the root structures they contain are extremely important as they provide a record of our planet’s first global tropical wetland forests.  The Carboniferous swamps and wetlands were to form the extensive coal deposits found in much of the world today, including most of the coal in the United Kingdom, exploitation of which fuelled the industrial revolution.  From a biological point of view, these huge, lycopsid (club mosses), pteridosperm (seed fern) and sphenopsid (horsetails) dominated forests represent the first time deep rooting structures evolved on Earth.  These root systems increased the rate of chemical weathering of the silicate minerals in rocks, a chemical reaction that pulled carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, leading to a period of global cooling – climate change on a worldwide scale.  Of the 139 slides studied, two root caps were identified.  The first was assigned to a known species Lyginopteris oldhamia, a seed fern (pteridosperm), the second was an unknown species, this has been named Radix carbonica, this translates as “coal root”.

Professor Liam Dolan, (Department Head of Plant Sciences, Oxford University) and lead author of the academic paper, explained:

“These fossils demonstrate how the roots of these ancient plants grew for the first time.  It is startling that something so small could have had such a dramatic effect on the Earth’s climate.  This discovery also shows the importance of collections such as the Oxford University Herbaria, they are so valuable, and we need to maintain them for future generations.”

A Highly Magnified Image Showing the Root Cellular Structure

A close up of the fossilised root structure (Radix carbonica).

Fossilised root structure preserves record of ancient root growth.

Picture Credit: Oxford University Herbaria

From examining the size and number of cells which radiate out from the tip the researchers were able to establish that the root was actively growing at the time it was fossilised.  This makes the finding the first and only discovery to date of the fossilised remains of an actively growing root meristem.

The Root Growth of Radix carbonica is Unique Compared to Living Plant Root Meristems

The schematic diagram below shows the cellular organisation of a typical member of the gymnosperm group (conifers, ginkgos and cycads).  The colours show various major tissue types within the meristem.

Mapping the Evolution of Root Systems

The origin of root evolution in the Plantae.

New study suggests different types of root growth in plants took place in the past.

Picture Credit: Current Biology with additional annotation by Everything Dinosaur

The diagram above shows (A and C) the meristem of a typical gymnosperm, compared with (B and D) the meristem of Radix carbonica.

Yellow = the root cap

Pink = the promeristem (yellow lines in the R. carbonica promeristem indicate the positions of anticlinal cell divisions within the promeristem)

Orange = ground tissue

Blue = epidermis

Green = procambium

A simplified cladogram showing the hypothesised origin of roots based on this new study (E).  The meristems of different types of lycopsids are compared to the evolution of ferns, gymnosperms and the path towards the flowing plants (angiosperms), that evolved later.

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

The paper “Unique Cellular Organization in the Oldest Root Meristem”  is published in Current Biology. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2016.04.072

Very Big Dinosaurs Bring Very Big Problems

Museum of Palaeontology Egidio Feruglio Expansion Plans

The Museum of Palaeontology Egidio Feruglio (Museo Paleontológico Egidio Feruglio), located in the city of Trelew in the Chubut Province of Patagonia (Argentina), has announced plans to expand.  Expansion is needed as this regional museum is going to be home to the world’s largest dinosaur, a Titanosaur whose fossilised remains featured in the BBC/National Geographic documentary “Attenborough and the Giant Dinosaur” which aired in January this year.

The museum was founded in 1990 and to begin with it operated with just three employees and a relatively small collection, however, after a number of important fossil discoveries in the area, the museum’s catalogue has increased substantially.  The 2011 discovery of the fossilised remains of seven giant, herbivorous dinosaurs at a location nick-named the “graveyard of giants”, really helped to put the city of Trelew and its museum on the map and in a press release, communications and marketing director Florencia Gigena explained that the cohort of scientists would increase to sixty-five by 2020.

Filming the Fossil Dig for the Documentary Programme

The giant Titanosaur dig site.

Filming the documentary “Attenborough and the Giant Dinosaur”.

Picture Credit: Museo Paleontológico Egidio Feruglio

A Giant Hall for a Giant Dinosaur

The museum intends to greatly enlarge its current exhibition space and to build an adjoining university campus that will accommodate up to twenty students.  This will help with preparation work and provide a ready source of willing volunteers for field work as well as giving the students the opportunity to work in close association with a commercial museum.  In addition, a giant hall will be constructed to house the Titanosaur exhibit.  The American Museum of Natural History (New York), already has an enormous replica of the largest Titanosaur from the fossil quarry.  This exhibit measures thirty-seven metres in length.  It is so large that part of the head and neck of the American mount sticks out of the main gallery.

Behind the Scenes at the Museum of Palaeontology Egidio Feruglio

Sir David Attenborough prepares for the next take.

Behind the scenes during the Titanosaur filming.

Picture Credit: Museo Paleontológico Egidio Feruglio

The picture above shows, presenter Sir David Attenborough and the film crew preparing to film the giant 2.4 metre long thigh bone (femur) of the giant Titanosaur.  With so many Titanosaur fossil bones to study, (over two hundred), the Museo Paleontológico Egidio Feruglio had to expand, the existing facilities were simply not large enough to house the fossils of a dinosaur that could have weighed as much as a dozen African elephants.

To read more about the Titanosaur fossil discovery: Biggest Dinosaur of All – A New South American Contender!

To learn more about the Titanosaur documentary: Attenborough and the Giant Dinosaur

Giant Titanosaur Needs a Name

The giant Titanosaur has yet to be formally described and no genus name has been erected yet.  A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur explained that a scientific paper on this remarkable fossil find was likely to be published soon and that the name of this new dinosaur would probably reflect the local area in which the fossils were found.  As part of the company’s outreach work in schools, Everything Dinosaur sets a challenge to school children to try and work out a name for this massive, plant-eating Cretaceous reptile.

To view an article about our work with schools and this giant Titanosaur: Biggest Dinosaur Needs a Name

Everything Dinosaur staff have been lucky enough to visit the Museo Paleontológico Egidio Feruglio, it is a splendid regional museum and it houses more than giant titanosaurid fossils.  For example, the museum sets out to tell the story of life on Earth and as well as a very diverse collection of dinosaur fossils from Patagonia, the museum is also home to a range of Palaeozoic specimens including ancient insects.  The Cenozoic is well represented too, with a number of excellent examples of Pleistocene mammals on display.

Everything Dinosaur is delighted to hear of the Museo Paleontológico Egidio Feruglio expansion and we wish this wonderful museum every success.

Did Dinosaurs Make Good Fathers?

Doting Dinosaur Dads?

Today, Sunday 19th June, is Father’s Day in the United Kingdom, a day to celebrate dads and fatherhood.  This led team members at Everything Dinosaur to discuss whether there was any evidence to suggest that male dinosaurs made good parents.  We suspect fishing trips and long walks down by the river were not part of being a father for the Dinosauria (although one could excuse us the thought that some baryonchids, as fish-eaters, might have indulged in this), but is there any evidence in the fossil record to support the hypothesis that males helped raise their young?  Has palaeontology shed some light on whether or not male dinosaurs assisted in raising a family?  Surprisingly, a number of research papers have been published that explore the evidence to see if male dinosaurs were doting dads.

Did Dinosaurs Make Good Dads?

Dinosaur Nest Found in Patagonia

Did dinosaur males play an active role in looking after the nest?

Picture Credit: Gabriel Lio

Modern Birds Can Provide a Clue

By looking at the parental behaviours of modern birds, scientists can perhaps get an insight into the parental behaviours of members of the Dinosauria.  For example, in extant birds (neornithes), the male parent sits on the nest and incubates the eggs in around 90% of species.  Scientists from Montana State University examined the fossilised bones of three different types of Cretaceous Theropod dinosaurs, fossils of which had been found in association with nests of their own kind.  The dinosaurs in question, the troodontid Troodon formosus along with two oviraptorids Oviraptor philoceratops and Citipati osmolskae showed no evidence of medullary bone in the fossils.  In order to produce eggshells, females need a source of phosphorous and calcium.  These minerals are sourced from their own bones.  Specialised tissue is formed inside the bones during female ovulation.  This bone (called medullary bone), provides the minerals for the eggshells.  Once egg laying has finished then this tissue is reabsorbed but it leaves clearly identifiable cavities in the bone for some time.  If these cavities are detected in fossil bone, then this is a strong indication that the bones you are studying are from a girl.

Medullary Bone Identified in a Tyrannosaurus rex

Medullary bone identified in Tyrannosaurus rex femur.

Medullary bone identified in Tyrannosaurus rex femur.

Picture Credit: Scientific Reports

The Montana State University team looked at the Theropod dinosaur bones in a bid to find the tell-tale medullary cavities, they found none and concluded that the fossil bones associated with the dinosaur nests were probably male.  It could be assumed that close association with the nest and eggs indicated some role in the brooding process, parental behaviour from a daddy dinosaur.

Commenting on the conclusions drawn from this 2008 study, one of the researchers Dr. David Varricchio explained:

“Paternal care in both troodontids and oviraptorids indicates that this care system evolved before the emergence of birds and represents birds’ ancestral condition”.

Difficult to Infer Behaviour from the Fossil Record

A number of scientists have challenged the conclusions drawn from this research.  It is difficult to infer behaviour from, what is a highly fragmentary fossil record.  For example, other papers have assessed the size of dinosaur egg clutches and compared them to living birds to see if further clues about parental responsibilities amongst the dinosaurs could be inferred.  How dependent hatchlings were from birth is also a factor to be considered.  A study from the University of Lincoln undertaken in 2013, suggested that most Theropods exhibited precociality (hatchlings are born relatively mature and exhibit a high degree of independence from their parents).

To read more about the University of Lincoln research: Doting dinosaur dads might not be the case

Were the Very First Snakes Marine Animals?

New Research on Ancestral Snake Suggests Marine Origins

Scientists from the University of Alberta (Canada), in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Toronto Mississauga, as well as with researchers from a number of academic institutions in Australia, have published a new paper on the primordial fossil snake Tetrapodophis (Tetrapodophis amplectus).  This twenty centimetre long, Lower Cretaceous snake from Brazil has attracted much controversy, but when described last year, it was thought that this animal was a burrower.  However, in this new study published in the journal “Cretaceous Research”, an aquatic lifestyle is proposed.  This suggests that snakes evolved their limbless, eel-like bodies for swimming not for burrowing.

Tetrapodophis Fossil Material (left) Compared with the Marine Animal Illustration (right)

The fossil and an illustration of Tetrapodophis.

The exquisite fossil (left) and an illustration of Tetrapodophis as an aquatic animal (right).

Picture Credit: University of Alberta and illustration credit to Alessandro Palci and Michael Lee (Flinders University & South Australian Museum)

Controversial Fossil Find

The tiny snake fossil is preserved in articulation and it has small, but clearly defined limbs, indicating that Tetrapodophis was descended from lizards but was, most likely, a transitional form towards true snakes.  Dubbed the “Archaeopteryx of snakes”, after the famous Solnhofen fossils, the specimen has attracted a great deal of controversy ever since it was spotted by Dr. David Martill (University of Portsmouth), whilst taking a party of year three students on a tour of the world-renowned Bürgermeister-Müller-Museum (Solnhofen), to view the Upper Jurassic fossils including Archaeopteryx specimens.

To read about the discovery of Tetrapodophis: First Fossil Snake with Four Limbs Described

The Australian/Canadian team included Michael Lee and Alessandro Palci (Flinders University and South Australian Museum) along with Michael Caldwell (University of Alberta) and Robert Reisz (University of Toronto Mississauga), looked again at the body shape and four limbs of the primitive snake fossil, which probably originated from the Crato Formation of north-eastern Brazil.  They agreed with the earlier research, that the limbs were probably too small to be used for locomotion, but they have challenged the idea that Tetrapodophis was a worm-like burrower and that the first true snakes evolved underground.  This new study suggests that Tetrapodophis had the wrong body shape for digging, the tail is too long and the legs too delicate.  The scientists list a series of adaptations that suggest an aquatic animal, adaptations such as wrist and ankle elements made of cartilage rather than bone and poorly developed limb joints, anatomical features that suggest living in water where buoyancy would help to support the animal.  Similar adaptations are found in extant marine animals such as seals, sea snakes and sea turtles as well as within the fossil record of the Mosasauridae (members of the Order Squamata that were aquatic).

In addition, the researchers conclude that the hands and feet were surprisingly flipper-like, with a robust and thickened first digit strengthening the leading edge of the limb, like the leading edge of an aeroplane wing or the flipper of a turtle.

Tetrapodophis Fossil Material with a Focus on the Limbs

Tetrapodophis marine adaptations.

Close up of the limb fossils with the illustration that suggests adaptations for swimming.

Picture Credit: Alessandro Palci and Michael Lee (Flinders University & South Australian Museum with fossil material images supplied by Science Journal and additional annotation by Everything Dinosaur

The picture above shows the Flinders University & South Australian Museum illustration of T. amplectus as an aquatic animal.  The fossil bones represent the pes (foot) and the manus (hand), the limbs of the illustration have been enlarged to show that this new scientific paper suggests marine adaptations including limbs that were paddle-like.

Professor Caldwell (University of Alberta) explained:

“The specimen is of a very small animal, slim, slender, certainly not a burrowing animal, that shows clear features shared with non-snake aquatic lizards from the Upper Cretaceous.  Tetrapodophis might well be a member of a group closely related to snakes amongst lizards, but it is not a snake proper.”

Known only from this one specimen, Tetrapodophis remains controversial.  The fossil most probably represents a juvenile, ontogenic changes as the animal grew might cloud any interpretations of the fossil material.  In addition, ownership of the fossil is unclear, it had been loaned from a private collection for display in Germany, but it has been illegal to export such fossils from Brazil for many years, and the specimen may be repatriated to the Brazilian Government.  The current status of the fossil may hamper access, so that further research is restricted.

Everything Dinosaur acknowledges the help of the University of Alberta in the compiling of this article, the scientific paper is:

“Aquatic adaptations in the four limbs of the snake-like reptile Tetrapodophis from the Lower Cretaceous of Brazil”

 

A Global Catastrophe Caused End Cretaceous Extinction

Study of Antarctic Fossils Provides Evidence for Rapid Extinction

The demise of the non-avian dinosaurs, their flying reptile cousins, many marine vertebrates and a whole host of other flora and fauna some 66 million years ago has been well documented.  However, debate still rages over the cause or the causes of this mass extinction event at the Cretaceous-Palaeogene (K-Pg) boundary.  Was this extinction sudden and dramatic, caused by a catastrophic event such as an extraterrestrial impact or was it a gradual decline with many genera becoming extinct but over a longer period of time, perhaps as a result of global climate change?

A new study published recently in the journal “Nature Communications” suggests that the extinctions were rapid.  Analysis of sediment from Seymour Island in the Antarctic Peninsula indicates that there was a rapid and severe decline in marine fauna, this study supports the hypothesis that rather than a slow, gradual decline the K-Pg boundary represents a very rapid mass extinction event.

A Dramatic Reduction in the Number and Variety of Fossils

Antarctic fossil study supports theory of rapid end Cretaceous extinction.

The white strip represents the Cretaceous-Palaeogene boundary.

Picture Credit: Leeds University

Working on the remote Seymour Island in Antarctica, scientists from Leeds University along with researchers from the British Antarctic Survey, mapped and explored a series of highly fossiliferous marine sediments that date from approximately 69 million years ago through to around 65 million years ago.  James Witts, a PhD student in the School of Earth and Environment (Leeds University), lead author of the scientific paper, was instrumental in identifying the various fauna that the 6,000 fossils represented.  It was then a case of ensuring that the fossils were documented in the correct stratigraphic sequence and from this, the researchers were able to conclude that there was a sudden reduction in the number of species living in Antarctic waters some 66 million years ago.  Around two thirds of the species disappear from the fossil record, at a time that coincides with the dinosaur extinction (K-Pg boundary).

In the picture above the K-Pg boundary is represented by the white paper strip.  There is a band of rocks in which no fossils can be found and in younger sediments deposited later, only a handful of different species are represented

Student James commented:

“Our research essentially shows that one day everything was fine, the Antarctic had a thriving and diverse marine community and the next, it wasn’t.  Clearly, a very sudden and catastrophic event had occurred on Earth.  This is the strongest evidence from fossils that the main driver of this extinction event was the after-effects of a huge asteroid impact, rather than a slower decline caused by natural changes to the climate or by severe volcanism stressing global environments.”

A Rich and Diverse Maastrichtian Marine Ecosystem

This study is the first to conclude that the mass extinction that marked the end of the dinosaurs, pterosaurs and many other forms of life, was a truly global event and that it was just as sudden in high latitudes as it was in lower latitudes.  In short, the polar ecosystems were hammered too.

The fossils from the Late Maastrichtian strata that pre-date the extinction event indicate a rich and highly diverse marine food web populated by a huge array of molluscs such as gastropods, bivalves and cephalopods.  In turn, there were large numbers of different types of fish, the fish shared the shallow sea with a variety of marine reptiles including Mosasaurs.  Numerous soft bodied organisms such as sea slugs, anemones, starfish and jelly fish would also have been present but their remains are not frequently preserved as fossils.  One of the more peculiar molluscs known from the Upper Cretaceous rocks of Seymour Island is the giant ammonite Diplomoceras.  This invertebrate, related to modern day cuttlefish and squid had a shell that uncoiled to a large extent.  It resembled a two-metre long paper clip.  Although Diplomoceras fossils are found in rocks older than 66 million years, just like the rest of the ammonites, its fossils are absent in rocks laid down in the Palaeogene Epoch.

An Illustration of the Bizarre Ammonite Diplomoceras

Diplomoceras (ammonite) illustration.

The bizarre Late Cretaceous ammonite Diplomoceras.

Picture Credit: James McKay

Although the majority of ammonites had coiled shells, a number of families evolved in the Early Cretaceous with shells that were uncoiled to varying degrees.  In 2012, Everything Dinosaur wrote an article detailing research undertaken by scientists from the Natural History Museum of Vienna that provided an explanation for this adaptation.

To read more: Unravelling the Mystery of the Unravelling Ammonite

A Rich and Diverse Marine Fauna – Prior to the Extinction Event

Seymour Island Late Cretaceous fossils.

A rich and diverse marine fauna preserved in the strata of Seymour Island.

Picture Credit: Leeds University

Everything Dinosaur acknowledges the help of Leeds University in the compilation of this article.  This blog post has also been constructed with reference to the academic paper: “Macrofossil evidence for a rapid and severe Cretaceous–Paleogene (K–Pg) mass extinction in Antarctica”, published in the journal Nature Communications in May 2016.

New Species of British Marine Reptile Surfaces

Wahlisaurus massarae – A New Species of Early Jurassic Ichthyosaur

Manchester based palaeontologist Dean Lomax, has identified a new species of extinct marine reptile from a near complete fossil specimen discovered in an old Nottinghamshire quarry (East Midlands).  The fossil had been found many years ago and acquired by Leicester’s New Walk Museum back in 1951, however, the unusual deposition of the specimen, the carcase seems to have “nosedived” into the seabed prior to permineralisation, had prevented a new species of English marine reptile surfacing until now.

An Illustration of the Newest Member of the Ichthyosauria – Wahlisaurus massarae

New species of Early Jurassic Ichthyosaur announced.

New species of Early Jurassic Ichthyosaur announced.

Picture Credit: James McKay

Rare Early Jurassic Ichthyosaur Fossil Find

Award winning palaeontologist Dean Lomax, an Honorary Scientist at the University of Manchester, took the opportunity to examine the specimen whilst visiting the New Walk Museum, he noticed a number of anomalies such as the morphology (shape) of some of the fossil bones.  The location of the fossil find (Nottinghamshire) and the age of the strata from which the fossils were collected, led him to suspect that this specimen might represent a new species of marine reptile.

Dean commented:

“When I first saw this specimen, I knew it was unusual.  It displays features in the bones – especially in the coracoid (part of the pectoral girdle) – that I had not seen before in Jurassic Ichthyosaurs anywhere in the world.  The specimen had never been published, so this rather unusual individual had been awaiting detailed examination.”

The Nottinghamshire Ichthyosaur fossil consists of skull elements, pectoral bones, limbs, bones from the pelvis, ribs and vertebrae.   It dates from the earliest part of the Jurassic, some 200 million years ago, (the Hettangian faunal stage).  Only a handful of Ichthyosaur species are known from the very Early Jurassic.  Dean’s discovery is significant and it is helping scientists to map the radiation and diversity of the Ichthyosauria during the Early Jurassic.  It is also the first time a species of this geological age has been found outside the counties of Somerset and Dorset.

Adding to Our Knowledge of Early Jurassic Marine Reptiles

Publishing in the “Journal of Systematic Palaeontology”, this new species will contribute to our understanding of Ichthyosaur species diversity, and their geographical distribution after the End Triassic extinction phase.  Recently, Everything Dinosaur published an account of Sclerocormus parviceps, a basal Ichthyosauriform from eastern China whose fossils are some fifty million years older than those of Wahlisaurus.  Sclerocormus indicates that marine fauna recovered relatively quickly after the devastation of the End Permian mass extinction event.

To read more about the bizarre whip-tailed, “Black Sheep of the Ichthyosaur Family”: Sclerocormus parviceps– A Strange Ichthyosauriform from the Olenikian

Ichthyosaur Fossils Can be Found at Various Locations in the British Isles

A vertebrae fossil of Dearcmhara.

Most likely a dorsal vertebra from Dearcmhara (a Scottish Ichthyosaur).

Picture Credit: BBC News

Palaeontologist and curator at the New Walk Museum, Dr. Mark Evans stated:

“Parts of the skeleton had previously been on long-term loan to Ichthyosaur specialist and former museum curator Dr. Robert Appleby, and had only returned to the museum in 2004 after he sadly passed away.  He was clearly intrigued by the specimen, and although he worked on it for many years, he had identified it as a previously known species but never published his findings.”

Dean has named the new species Wahlisaurus massarae in honour of two palaeontologists (Professor Judy Massare and Bill Wahl), who have contributed significantly to the study of Ichthyosaurs, and who first introduced Dean to studying them.  It was Professor Massare who co-authored a scientific paper on a new species of marine reptile from the Lower Jurassic of West Dorset that led to a the naming of an Ichthyosaurus species in honour of the 19th Century fossil hunter Mary Anning.

To read an article about Ichthyosaurus anningaeNew Ichthyosaurus Species Honours Mary Anning

Commenting on how he was inspired over the choice of name for the Nottinghamshire specimen, Dean said:

“Both Judy and Bill have been tremendous mentors for me.  They have significantly contributed to palaeontology, especially the study of Ichthyosaurs, and I cannot think of a better way to remember them by naming this new Ichthyosaur in their honour.  Their names will be set in stone forever, pun intended!”

The First British Early Jurassic Since Excalibosaurus

W. massarae is the first new genus of Ichthyosaur from the British Early Jurassic to be described since Excalibosaurus (E. costini) in 1986.  Excalibosaurus is known from two specimens found at a beach locality in Somerset, “Excalibur lizard” is named after the animal’s elongated snout (rostrum), that reminded the researchers of the magical sword associated with Arthurian legend.

A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur commented:

“Hundreds of thousands of people will visit beaches around the United Kingdom over the next few weeks of summer, but very few will be aware of the rich Ichthyosaur fossil heritage that such locations have.  The United Kingdom remains one of the world’s most important sites for Early Jurassic Ichthyosaur discoveries and as the Nottinghamshire specimen proves, you don’t have to visit the seaside to find marine reptile fossils.”

This article has been compiled with reference to: “A new leptonectid Ichthyosaur from the Lower Jurassic (Hettangian) of Nottinghamshire, England, UK, and the taxonomic usefulness of the Ichthyosaurian coracoid”, by Dean Lomax, Journal of Systematic Palaeontology, 2016, published by Taylor & Francis Group.

Indian Geologists Discover Dinosaur Footprints

Indian Geologists Discover Dinosaur Footprints

A team of scientists including geologists from the University of Jai Narain Vyas, (formerly known as University of Jodhpur) have discovered a series of three-toed dinosaur footprints in exposed sandstones close to the town of Jaisalmer in the State of  Rajasthan (western India).  The well-preserved fossils represent an unknown type of meat-eating dinosaur, the prints have been assigned to the ichnogenus Eubrontes.

One of the Beautiful Dinosaur Prints from the State of Rajasthan

A three-toed dinosaur footprint from India.

The tridactyl print can be clearly made out, it has been assigned to the ichnogenus Eubrontes.

An ichnogenus, is a genus assigned to an organism that is only known from its trace fossils, in this case from its fossilised footprints.  The Eubrontes ichnogenus specifically refers to Theropod fossilised prints and trackways that are associated with Upper Triassic and Early Jurassic strata.  At the time of writing, Everything Dinosaur team members are not aware of a precise dating for the strata, but extensive surveys mapping the numerous Ammonite genera associated with the marine strata of the Jaisalmer district and specifically the Baisakhi Formation, indicate that the rocks in this part of the world were laid down during the Jurassic.

Eubrontes – A “Taxonomic Wastebasket”

One of the great problems with trace fossils such as a dinosaur footprint, is that it is extremely difficult to assign a species, a genus or even a family to it.  Unless the organism that made the trace is found at the end of the trackway then it is extremely difficult to classify a print such as the ones found in Rajasthan.  Claw marks indicate a meat-eater and the field team members have suggested that the dinosaur that walked across a sandy beach many millions of years ago might have been between five to seven metres in length with a hip height of around two and a half metres or thereabouts, but in the absence of body fossils such as bones and teeth, this is about as good as it is going to get.  Dinosaur footprints assigned to the Eubrontes genus have been found all over the world.  The most famous Eubrontes ichnogenus site is in the western United States, at the St George Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm in Utah.  Everything Dinosaur has created a teaching exercise all about how to interpret fossil footprints based on the fossilised trackways found at this location.

To read more about how trace fossils can help to inspire schoolchildren: Humans and Dinosaurs – A “Handy” Way to Tell the Difference

Fossilised Dinosaur Footprints Ascribed to the Eubrontes Genus were Recently Found in France

Dinosaur footprints exposed at low tide (France).

One of the many three-toed prints that can be seen at very low tide.

Picture Credit: GeoWiki

Geologist Virendra Singh Parihar (University of Jai Narain Vyas), hopes that these fossils, along with other fossil material representing crocodiles, gastropods and fish that come from the marine deposits, will help to establish this region of the Thar Desert in western India as an important site for palaeontological research.

A Model of a Typical Jurassic Theropod Dinosaur

Wild Safari Dinos Monolophosaurus  model.

Middle Jurassic Theropod Dinosaur

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The picture above shows a model of the carnivorous dinosaur Monolophosaurus, a member of the Tetanuran Theropod clade, the tracks in India could have been made by a dinosaur that looked something like this.

Terrestrial Pterosaurs

Gladocephaloideus – Getting to Grips with Terrestrial Pterosaurs

Terrestrial Pterosaurs might sound like a contradiction in terms, after all, Pterosaurs are also referred to in popular culture as “flying reptiles”.  However, a number of Pterosaur families seem to have been better adapted to life on “Terra firma” than other types.  For example, some have stronger hind limbs, an adaptation indicating a substantial amount of time walking around rather than flying.  Others have more robust extremities, once again, suggesting a more terrestrial existence.  Although scientists still debate how the Pterosauria Order should be structured, many Pterosaur workers have united a number of families under the sub-group termed Lophocratia “crested heads”.  Lophocratia (pronounced low-foe-kray-tia), consists of the more terrestrial adapted members of the Pterosauria and new research published in the on line, academic journal PLOS One is helping to re-define one group of flying reptiles – the Ctenochasmatoidea.

Fossils and a Line Drawing of the Pterosaur Gladocephaloideus

Gladocephaloideus fossil and line drawing.

The fossilised bones and a line drawing of Gladocephaloideus.

Picture Credit: PLOS One

The Enigmatic Ctenochasmatoidea

The earliest of the Lophocratia Pterosaurs are the ctenochasmatoids (pronounced sten-oh-kas-ma-toids) a globally distributed and very diverse group of flying reptiles.  The very first Pterosaur to be described, Pterodactylus, whose fossils come from the famous Solnhofen limestone deposits of Germany, has been assigned to this family and fossils of this type of flying reptile have been found in strata that varies tremendously in age.  Ctenochasmatoids have been reported from Upper Jurassic deposits through to Lower Cretaceous deposits, representing a geological time span for the family of some fifty million years or so.

A team of Chinese scientists in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Bratislava (Slovak Republic), have published a paper on a recently discovered Gladocephaloideus jingangshanensis juvenile specimen that is helping to cement the Gladocephaloideus genus firmly within the Ctenochasmatidae.  The fossil comes from the famous Lower Cretaceous strata of the Jiufotang Formation in Liaoning Province (north-eastern China).  Although a total of nine ctenochasmatoids have been reported from this part of the world, making the Jehol Biota one of the most Pterosaur rich ancient biotas currently known, most of the fossil specimens consists of either partial skulls or post-cranial material.  This, the second fossil example of Gladocephaloideus jingangshanensis to be found, is nearly complete and as such it has allowed scientists to place the Gladocephaloideus genera firmly into the ctenochasmatoids as well as providing important clues as to how the family tree of these Pterosaurs (the phylogeny) should be constructed.

A Juvenile Pterodactylus Fossil (Ctenochasmatoid Pterosaur)

A Pterodactylus specimen from Solnhofen (Germany)

A Pterodactylus sp. fossil.

Picture Credit: Natural History Museum (London)

The researchers conclude that Gladocephaloideus is very probably a sister taxon to Pterofiltrus a Chinese Pterosaur described in 2011.

As to the ecological niche occupied by this varied group, it has been suggested that these Pterosaurs with their strange dentition may have filled the role of wading birds as found in modern ecosystems.

Time to Debunk Mammals Totally Dominated by Dinosaurs Myth

Mammals Began to Flourish Before the Dinosaur Extinction

Our congratulations to Elis Newham, a PhD student at the University of Southampton and fellow PhD candidate David Grossnickle (University of Chicago), who have published a scientific paper which effectively debunks the idea that it was only after the dinosaurs became extinct that mammals began to diversify into their myriad forms.  Writing in the “Proceedings of the Royal Society – Biology”, the scientists conclude that mammals began to diversify some ten to twenty million years before the End Cretaceous extinction event that saw the demise of the non-avian members of the Dinosauria.

The Popular Misconception that Dinosaur Extinction Led to the Rise of Mammals

Unless there is a proactive plan to tackle global climate change a mass extinction event cannot be ruled out.

A mammal takes up home in the skull of a dead Tyrannosaur.

Picture Credit: Mark Garlick/Science Photo Library

Mammalia Suffered in the End Cretaceous Extinction Event Too

In addition to concluding that the furry mammals were not destined to forever lurk and hide in the shadows whilst the dinosaurs roamed, the scientists have also noted that a number of lineages of mammals became extinct at or around the time of the demise of the dinosaurs.  It seems that the mammals too, suffered during the Cretaceous-Palaeogene extinction event, albeit not as much as the dinosaurs.

An Extraterrestrial Impact and Global Climate Change Culminated in a Mass Extinction Event Around 66 Million Years Ago

Spelling the end for most of the Squamata

Spelling the end for most of the Dinosauria (a few of our furry friends too).

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

A Popular Belief But a Mistaken One

Thanks to countless prehistoric animal books, dinosaur documentaries and films, it is a popular belief amongst members of the public that mammalian diversity was suppressed during the Mesozoic, the little, insectivorous mammals could not radiate out and become more diverse as the terrestrial ecosystems were dominated by reptiles, specifically those “terrible lizards” – the dinosaurs.  It was only after the dinosaurs died out, that the mammals were able to exploit all those parts of the food chain now vacated and this led to an explosion of different types of mammals during the early part of the Cenozoic.

Elis Newham, a student in Engineering and the Environment at Southampton University explained:

“The traditional view is that mammals were suppressed during the ‘age of the dinosaurs’ and underwent a rapid diversification immediately following the extinction of the dinosaurs.  However, our findings were that Therian mammals, the ancestors of most modern mammals [placentals and marsupials], were already diversifying considerably before the extinction event and the event also had a considerably negative impact on mammal diversity.”

Over the Last Few Decades More Fossils of Mammals Have Been Found

Early arboreal mammal from north-eastern China.

Early arboreal mammal from north-eastern China.

Picture Credit: University of Chicago (illustration by April Neander)

The picture above shows an illustration and skeletal drawing of the mouse-sized, Middle Jurassic, arboreal mammaliaform Agilodocodon scansorius, whose fossils come from China.  Over the last two decades or so, a lot more fossil material has been found relating to early mammals and this evidence indicates that throughout much of the Mesozoic, the ancestors of modern mammals were quite ecological diverse.  The research, leading to the naming of A. scansorius was undertaken in part, by scientists from the University of Chicago.

To read more about this study: New Fossil Finds Indicates Widespread Early Mammaliaform Diversity

An Old Theory

Previously, scientists had theorised that as many of the early mammal fossils represented small shrew-sized creatures that were insectivorous, there did not seem to be too much mammalian diversity.  However, as more and more early mammal fossils have been discovered, so palaeontologists have became increasingly aware of a much bigger variety of mammals living alongside the dinosaurs.

The researchers examined the teeth (specifically the molars), of hundreds of early mammal specimens in museum collections.   The pair found that the mammals that lived in the Late Cretaceous had a wide variety of different tooth shapes, indicating a wide variation in diet.  Working out the diets of Late Cretaceous mammals proved vital in the researchers identifying something unexpected regarding the extinction of mammalian genera at the Cretaceous-Palaeogene boundary.

Selective Extinction of Early Mammals

The mass extinction event may not have been the perfect opportunity for the rise of the mammals as many scientists and most members of the public had previously thought.  This study suggests that early mammals were affected by a selective extinction at the same time the dinosaurs became extinct.  Many mammals with a highly specialised diet died out, the generalists that could adapt to a wide range of food seemed better able to survive the global catastrophe.

Both authors expressed surprise when their data showed that mammals were initially negatively impacted by the mass extinction event.

Lead author of the paper, David Grossnickle remarked:

“I fully expected to see more diverse mammals immediately after the extinction.  I wasn’t expecting to see any sort of drop.  It didn’t match the traditional view that after the extinction, mammals hit the ground running.  It’s part of the reason why I went back to study it further, it seemed wrong.”

Searching for the Reasons Behind Pre-extinction Mammalia Diversification

The reasons behind the mammals’ pre-extinction diversification are unclear.  The authors comment on a possible link between the increasing types of mammals and the rise of the Angiosperms (flowering plants).  Flowering plants might have provided new sources of food for small animals such as seeds, fruit and flowers.  An increase in the number of insects as the flowers evolved may have also helped the Mammalia as many of the early mammals were insect eaters.

Back in the spring, Everything Dinosaur published a blog article which looked at some research that suggested seed eating may have helped some types of bird survive the Cretaceous mass extinction event.

To read this article: Seed-eating May Have Helped Birds Survive

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