Category: Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories

Titanosaurs Crossing Continents – Savannasaurus elliottorum

“Wade” Finally Gets a Name – Savannasaurus elliottorum

An Australian Titanosaur, nicknamed “Wade”, whose fossilised bones were discovered in 2005, has been formally described and named.  Say hello to Savannasaurus elliottorum, the scientific name may not be as catchy as its nickname, but this specimen does represent one of the most complete Titanosaurs discovered in Australia to date and its discovery is helping palaeontologists to piece together how these giant, herbivorous dinosaurs crossed continents, spreading out from South America and reaching Australia via Antarctica.

An Illustration of the Newly Described Titanosaur Savannasaurus elliottorum

Savannasaurus elliottorum

An illustration of the newly described Australian Titanosaur Savannasaurus.

Picture Credit: Travis Tischler/Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum

An Australian Giant

David Elliot, one of the co-founders of the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum, the museum established close to the town of Winton in Queensland that exhibits many of the Cretaceous fossils found in this region, spotted some fossil bones sticking out of the ground early in 2005.  Mr Elliott returned to the site later in the day with his wife Judy to take a closer look at the fossil fragments.  He hoped that the bones might represent a Theropod, but this idea was quickly put to one side when his wife “clicked” two bones together to make a distinctive metatarsal (toe bone) of a Sauropod.

The site was excavated in September 2005 by a joint Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum and Queensland Museum team and seventeen pallets of bones encased in rock were recovered.

The Location of the Savannasaurus elliottorum Fossil Find

Savannasaurus fossil site.

The quarry from which the fragmented bones later identified as Savannasaurus were excavated.

Picture Credit: Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum/Site photo circa 2005

It has taken more than ten years or preparation work for the fossilised bones to be removed from the single silt stone concretion that encased them.  Everything Dinosaur has regularly reported on Australian dinosaur fossil discoveries and kept tabs on the progress of the “Wade” preparation work.

To read an earlier article (2013), on the preparation work: An Update on Wade the Aussie Dinosaur

Why “Wade”?

The nickname for this new species of Titanosaur honours Australian palaeontologist Dr. Mary J. Wade.  During her long career, Dr. Wade did much to help conserve and promote the extensive, exposed fossil bearing strata of Queensland.  She worked on a number of iconic Australian dinosaurs including Muttaburrasaurus as well as helping to map and study Precambrian fossils that were later to be described as Ediacaran biota.

Although one of the more complete Australian Titanosaur fossils yet described, the material is highly fragmentary and only about five percent of the skeleton has been recovered.  The fossils consist of one neck vertebra, several cervical ribs, eight dorsal vertebrae making up a partial sequence, several rib fragments, sacral vertebrae and at least five fragmentary tail bones (caudal vertebrae).  Limb bones are represented, several toe bones, elements from the ankle, bones from the manus (front feet) as well as incomplete humeri (upper arm bones).  The research team and volunteers were also able to recover a partial left radius and a highly fragmentary ulna and parts of the hip girdle.  Although no cranial (skull) material was recovered, the team were confident, almost from the start, that these bones represented a new species.  The fossils come from a site called “Belmont Station”, ironically, nearby cranial material from another, previously described Titanosaur was found (Diamantinasaurus matildae).  In the scientific paper which describes Savannasaurus, published in the journal “Nature”, the authors, which include lead researcher Dr Stephen Poropot, (Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum), describe the braincase and neck bones of Diamantinasaurus.

The Fossil Bones of Savannasaurus elliottorum Mapped onto an Outline of the Dinosaur

Savannasaurus elliottorum skeletal material.

Savannasaurus elliottorum outline of skeleton.

Picture Credit: Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum

Plotting the Distribution of the Titanosauria

These two Titanosaurs are being used to help map the dispersal of the Titanosauria across the super-continent Gondwana as this huge landmass began to break up.  Although the fossil record remains patchy to say the least, the fossils, which have been dated to around 98-95 million years ago (Cenomanian faunal stage of the Late Cretaceous), suggest that by this time in Earth’s history Titanosaurs had dispersed from South America, migrated across Antarctica and entered the landmass that was later to become Australia.

Commenting on the significance of these fossils, Dr. Stephen Poropot stated:

“We get a much better idea of the overall fauna.  And as a result, we can start piecing together how climate affected these dinosaurs, how the positions of the continent affected those dinosaurs and how they evolved through time as well.”

The Dispersal and Spread of Titanosaurs Across High Latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere

Mapping the dispersal of the Titanosauria

The spread and dispersal of Titanosaurs across southern latitudes.

Picture Credit: Ron Blakey (Colorado Plateau Geosystems Inc)

Although, palaeontologists have discussed a number of potential dispersal routes, it is likely that these types of dinosaurs had entered Australia from South America, presumably crossing Antarctica.  During the late Early Cretaceous the Earth went through a period of global warming.  Prior to this climate change, Titanosaurs, which were globally widespread in the Early Cretaceous were prevented from reaching Australia by the cold conditions in Antarctica.  Global warming facilitated the dispersal of Sauropods from South America to Australia via Antarctica.

David Elliott Co-founder of the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum Poses with the Savannasaurus elliottorum Fossil Material

David Elliott poses with the bones of Savannasaurus.

David Elliott holds one of the metatarsals (toe bones) of S. elliottorum.

Picture Credit: Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum


The genus name is derived from the Spanish (Taino) “zavana”(savanna), a reference to the grassland and pasture in which the specimen was found.  The species name honours the Elliott family for their continuing contributions to Australian palaeontology.

Differences between Savannasaurus and Diamantinasaurus

Although Savannasaurus and Diamantinasaurus were contemporaneous of each other and these giant herbivores may have been roughly the same size, living in the same habitat, preliminary measurements indicate that the forelimbs of Savannasaurus are proportionally quite different from those of Diamantinasaurus.  This may suggest adaptation to a different feeding platform, allowing these large dinosaurs to co-exist without competing with each other for food.

Hiding in Plain Sight the “Higgs Bison”

Cave Paintings Reveal Surprising Clues to Bovid Evolution

The cave paintings left by our ancestors can be very evocative.  The often elaborate and highly stylised frescoes represent life in the very distant past, a life so far removed from today.  However, the paintings, in most cases, a record of the animals that shared the environment with these hunter/gatherers, hide hidden clues regarding prehistoric animals that modern-day researchers are only just beginning to appreciate.

A report published in the journal “Nature Communications” by scientists from the University of Adelaide, documents the study of DNA recovered from fossil bones in order to map how climate change affects large animals.  A surprise awaited the scientists, they have discovered a previously unknown species of bison, only to find out that this bovine was already recorded on the walls of caves across Europe, such as in the Niaux Cave (south-western France).  These cave paintings are dated to around 17,000 years ago (Late Upper Palaeolithic).

Cave Paintings Thought to Be Stylised and Symbolic May Reflect Anatomical Accuracy

A Woolly Rhino depicted in a cave painting.

Cave art depicts a Woolly Rhinoceros

Picture Credit: BBC/inocybe

In 1999, the Australian-based research team commenced the study of DNA extracted from bison bones excavated from a number of sites located in the northern hemisphere, where the Steppe bison (Bison priscus) roamed.  The objective of the study was to assess the impact of changing global climate upon animal populations and in North America the fossil record for bison reflected the impact of a changing world.  Bison numbers crashed around the Last Glacial Maximum (between 18,000 and 21,000 years ago.)  Such data supports the idea that climate change played a significant role in the extinction of “megafauna”.

The scientists then expanded the boundaries of their research by examining data from South America, this also revealed that rapid warming events were a significant factor in large animal extinctions, often with species being further pushed towards extinction by the effect on animal populations by human hunters.

A Puzzle from Europe

When the focus of the research was directed at the fossil record and climate data from Europe, a rather puzzling picture emerged.  By studying mitochondrial DNA (which is inherited exclusively through the maternal line), recovered from fossilised remains, the team realised that the genetic signatures they were finding did not match those expected if the fossils had come from the Steppe bison (Bison priscus).  This was something of a puzzle as palaeontologists had thought that the Steppe bison was the only species to have been present in Europe before 10,000 years ago.

The researchers realised that there were looking at the genes of something novel, an unknown species distantly related to modern cattle and to the exceptionally rare European bison (Bison bonasus), also called the Wisent.  The European bison is Europe’s largest, native, extant terrestrial mammal.  Once widespread, this bovine is now found in a few, remote and protected forests, particularly the Białowieża Forest between Belarus and Poland.  In a story, somewhat similar to the more famous Przewalski’s horse, the last wild Wisent was shot in 1927, but the species clung on thanks to a handful of animals kept in protected reserves.  Modern herds are descended from just a dozen individuals, including one bull from the Caucasus.

The European Bison Also Known as the Wisent (Bison bonasus)

The Wisent (European bison).

The European bison.

Picture Credit: Rafał Kowalczyk

To read about the conservation of Przewalski’s horse: Przewalski’s Horse – A Conservation Success Story

The Elusive “Higgs Bison”

That famous Australian dry sense of humour came to the fore, when the DNA from the fossil bones proved to be neither Steppe bison or modern European bison, the team thought they had a new species but they could not be certain.  The elusive animal was nick-named “Higgs bison”, after all, the team had found evidence of something new, but they were not quite sure what this animal looked like, a parallel with physicists and their search for the Higgs boson particle.

In order to unravel this “Higgs bison” puzzle, the University of Adelaide research team set out to confirm their mitochondrial DNA results by obtaining nuclear DNA from the sixty-four European bison bones involved in the study.  Although, much harder to retrieve, nuclear DNA records all aspects of ancestry, not just the maternal line.  The small amount of nuclear DNA retrieved from the samples demonstrated that the “Higgs bison” was a hybrid, a cross between a female wild cow (extinct Aurochs) and a male Steppe bison.  The team dated this hybridisation event to more than 120,000 years ago.  This ancestry was the same for the Wisent and even though the mitochondrial DNA was different, a consequence of the recent near extinction event for the European bison, the “Higgs bison” was revealed as the ancestor of the Wisent.

Pressure on bovine populations as a result of rapid fluctuations in climate could have triggered the hybridisation process.

Male offspring of the Aurochs/Steppe bison cross were sterile, a common outcome for mammal hybrids.  As a result, several generations of females back-crossed with Steppe bison males (maybe even the same bull), resulting in a genetic ancestry of about 10 percent Aurochs and 90 percent Steppe bison.

Hybridisation Between Female Aurochs and Male Steppe Bison Leads to a New Species

The Evolution of the European bison.

Wisent evolution.

Picture Credit: Nature Communications

Genetics and cave art reveal the assymmetric hybridisation between female Aurochs and male Steppe bison. Male hybrid offspring are sterile, and female offspring backbred with Steppe bison for several generations, possibly the same bull.

Looking for More Evidence – the North Sea and Cave Paintings

Having reached this conclusion, the Australian team then set about finding other sources of evidence to support the idea of a newly discovered species of prehistoric bison, resulting from the cross breeding between wild cattle and Bison priscus.  Two strands of supporting evidence were identified, both from surprising sources.

  1. Scientists from Holland reported that amongst the many numerous Steppe bison and Aurochs bones dredged up by fisherman from the North Sea (for much of the Pleistocene Epoch sea levels were much lower and Scotland was joined to Denmark by a wide and extensive plain), bones of a less common, smaller bovine had been found.
  2. French cave art researchers had identified two distinct forms of bison depicted in the artwork of our ancestors, one type resembled the hump-backed, massive Steppe bison, whilst the other depiction was of a more evenly shaped animal with reduced horns, much like a modern-day Wisent.

Depicted in Prehistoric Cave Art – the Newly Discovered Species of Bison

A Wisent (European bison) depicted in Cave Art

820 examples of bison depicted in European cave art are known, two distinct forms have been identified, representing two different species.

Picture: D. Viat/Tourismeoccitanie

Radiocarbon dating of the artworks showed that the wedge-shaped form was drawn when Steppe bison were present on the landscape (around 18,000 years ago), while the small-horned version was drawn when the newly discovered species dominated Europe (after 17,000 years ago).  Each species appears to have dominated Europe for long periods of time, alternating in response to major climate changes.  Thanks to the accurate artwork of Stone Age people, scientists have a good understanding of what this new species of bison looked like.  It had been hiding in plain sight all along.

This study has thrown up a number of surprises.  Apparently, mammals can form new species by hybridisation, even if only rarely.  It also shows that despite the huge bison fossil record the depictions of these ancient creatures made many thousands of years ago, still have a lot to tell us about life in the past.

Everything acknowledges the help and support of “The Lead South Australia” in the compilation of this article.

The scientific paper: Soubrier, J. et al. Early cave art and ancient DNA record the origin of European bison. Nat. Commun. 7, 13158 doi: 10.1038/ncomms13158 (2016).

Did a Comet Aid the Rise of Mammals?

A Change in Sorting Tray Colour Leads to New Comet Conclusions

The idea that a period of rapid global warming that occurred some 56 million years ago was caused by an extraterrestrial impact event has been postulated before.  However, a team of American scientists, writing in the journal “Science” have published a new paper that supports the idea that a comet striking the eastern coast of North America may have played a role in a dramatic climate change.  A change that greatly benefited the Mammalia and helped to establish them as the dominate megafauna on our planet.  Indeed, it could be argued that one group of mammals, the primates, did particularly well in the resulting “hot house Earth”, our ancient ancestors got a boost, which in the long-term contributed to our evolution.

Fresh evidence to support the idea of a body from outer space crashing into Earth which resulted in a spike in global temperature (referred to as the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum or the PETM for short), came when scientists switched from black sorting trays to white-coloured ones when examining drill core sediments from three sites located off the Atlantic coast of the United States.  The white sorting trays allowed the researchers to identify many more black-coloured, glassy, silica spherules (called microtektites).  These objects suggest that there was some sort of high energy impact event, perhaps a six-mile wide comet crashing into the ocean.  This would have instigated a rapid release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere which led to global temperatures rising by around six degrees Celsius over the next thousand years or so.   As temperatures soared, great swathes of the planet became densely forested, the poles were ice free, thus providing a whole range of new habitats for the mammals to exploit.

Spotting Tiny Black Objects Against the Background of a Black Sorting Tray

Finding black microtekites in a black sorting tray.

Microtektites as first seen in a sediment sample from the onset of the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM).

Picture Credit: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Finding Microtektites

The tiny, glassy, tear-shaped or round objects, the microtektites have been found in marine sediments from three locations near to the stratigraphic level of the Palaeocene-Eocene boundary.  The characteristics of these spherules are consistent with microtektites associated with debris caused during an extraterrestrial impact.

Morgan Schaller, an Assistant Professor of Earth and environmental sciences at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and corresponding author of the scientific paper, explained that the microtektites provide evidence of a catastrophic impact event having taken place.

He explained:

“This tells us that there was an extraterrestrial impact at the time this sediment was deposited, a space rock hit the planet.  The coincidence of an impact with a major climate change is nothing short of remarkable.”

Assistant Professor Schaller was helped in the research by Professor Miriam Katz and graduate student Megan Fung, (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), along with James Wright and Professor Dennis Kent (Rutgers University).  Professor Kent first postulated the idea that a comet impact could have led to the release of large amounts of CO2 that resulted in climate change back in 2003.  He based his theory on magnetised clay particles found in New Jersey that he proposed were altered by the space impact.  However, his views have been challenged by a number of other scientists.  The idea of a comet striking the Earth has gained further credence following the discovery of relatively large amounts of microtektites from the Palaeocene-Eocene boundary.  These objects could have formed when molten material flung out by the impact solidified in mid-air.

A Photograph of One of the Microtektites from the Drill Cores

A close-up of a microtekite.

A close-up of one of the microtektites identified in the study.

Picture Credit: Megan Fung (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute)

Black Trays and White Trays

The researchers were searching for micro-fossils in the drill cores (Foraminifera).  Assistant Professor Schaller was the first to notice a microtektite in the sediment he was studying.  Microtektites have not been found in Palaeocene-Eocene boundary strata in previous studies.  Schaller and his team suggest that this is so as microtektites being typically black are very difficult to spot against the dark colour of sorting trays.  When the sediment from the cores was put into white sorting trays the team were able to identify many more.  At peak abundance, the research team found as many as three microtektites per gramme of sediment examined.

Comets are known to contain a lot of carbon, an impact from a comet would release a lot of carbon dioxide, the lack of any iridium layer makes an impact from a rocky body such as an asteroid less likely.  Hence the suggestion that a comet hit the Earth some 56 million years ago.

Doubts Expressed

A number of scientists remain sceptical with regards to this idea.  The size of the microtektites has been noted.  They are all extremely small.  Professor Christian Koeberl, of the University of Vienna is an impact specialist and although he was not involved in this study, he states that the size of the spherules suggests that either they came from a long way away or that they were produced from a rather small impact event, one that would not have had the power to influence the global climate.  It is also possible that the particles may have been displaced from their original deposition, in the absence of dating information it cannot be confirmed that the microtektites come from the Palaeocene-Eocene boundary.

Rapidly Rising Temperatures May Have Helped the Evolution and Radiation of Primates

Ancient Anthropoid fossils from Asia.

The evolution and radiation of primates could have been helped by an extraterrestrial impact event.

Picture Credit: Nancy Perkins

This is an intriguing paper, an extraterrestrial impact very probably played a role in the ending of the “Age of Reptiles”, now it is suggested that ten million years later another impact event provided a stimulus to the radiation and diversification of the mammals.

Families Find Fossils of a Cretaceous “Swordfish”

Australopachycormus hurleyi – Rare Fossils Found

The fearsome marine reptiles that once inhabited the Western Interior Seaway of North America led to this shallow, Cretaceous-age, inland sea being described as “Hell’s Aquarium”, but at the same time much of the land we know now as Australia was covered by an equally dangerous marine environment.  Amongst the myriad of marine reptiles, cephalopods and other exotic creatures, a three-metre fish with a head like a swordfish and dagger-like teeth swam, thanks to two sharp-eyed families scientists have more fossils of this fast-swimming predator to study.

An Illustration of the Giant Predatory Fish Australopachycormus hurleyi 

Australopachycormus illustrated.

An illustration of Australopachycormus.

Picture Credit: Dr. Patrick Smith

The Importance of Amateur Fossil Hunters

It is thanks to two families that scientists have some more of these extremely rare fossils to study.  Australopachycormus was a member of an extinct, diverse group of fishes called the Pachycormidae, first described in 2007 from fossils found some several hundred kilometres south-west of the new discoveries.  This group of fish, believed to be basal to the teleosts, evolved into a number of forms including plankton-eating giants such as Bonnerichthys and Leedsichthys.   Australopachycormus hurleyi was the first of the Pachycormidae to have been found in Early Cretaceous sediments in the southern hemisphere, it was not a gentle filter feeder, it would have been a fast swimming, active pursuit predator most likely preying on smaller fish species.

To read an article from 2010 that looks at some of the giant members of the Pachycormidae: Giant Bony Fish Swam in Prehistoric Seas

 An almost complete snout (rostrum) was found by the Johnston family and then, about a week later, the Amos family were walking in the same area and they discovered elements from the skull, backbones, teeth and portions of the front fins.

A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur commented:

“Tourists and amateur fossil hunters have made a huge contribution in this part of the world.   Fossils are often brought to the surface as agricultural machinery prepares the soil for crops and it is thanks to keen-eyed walkers that many rare and scientifically significant fossils have been found.”

Staff from Kronosaurus Korner, a local fossil museum helped to identify the specimens.

The Fossils Are United in a Single Specimen

Australopachycormus hurleyi fossils.

Australopachycormus hurleyi fossils found by two families.

Picture Credit: Dr. Patrick Smith

Dr. Patrick Smith, the curator of Kronosaurus Korner explained that thanks to these two families an outline of the skull, the anterior part of the body and that long sword-like rostrum had been assembled.

Dr. Smith stated:

“We know that it was a high-tier carnivore and that it ate other large, fast-moving fish, a bit like marlin do today.  Because it does fit that swordfish-like shape we know he [Australopachycormus] probably lived in that same ecological niche”.

The bony rostrum would have been used as a weapon to stun potential prey before they were snapped up in those formidable jaws.  Dr. Smith said he wanted to encourage other amateur palaeontologists and tourists to make their way to the tiny outback township of Richmond, as there were plenty of other amazing fossils just awaiting discovery.

What Does Australopachycormus hurleyi mean?

Whilst compiling this article Everything Dinosaur was emailed and asked how this ancient fish came to be called Australopachycormus hurleyi?  The genus name reflects the fact that despite being a very numerous group of prehistoric fishes, Australopachycormus was the first Early Cretaceous pachycormid to be found in strata from the southern hemisphere.  The genus name means “southern pachycormid”.  The species name honours Tom Hurley who found the holotype material near Boulia in central, western Queensland when exploring the Toolebuc Formation of the Rolling Downs Group (Eromanga Basin).

So, if the Western Interior Seaway is known as “Hell’s Aquarium” we shall have to think of a suitable colloquialism to use when describing the marine biota of Queensland during the Cretaceous.  Suggestions would be most welcome.

Ancient Bird Voice Box Sheds Light on the Voices of Dinosaurs

The Oldest Bird Voice Box – Honking in Antarctica

The identification of the vocalisation organ in the fossilised remains of a Late Cretaceous bird has provided scientists with an insight into the sounds you might have heard had you visited Antarctica around 66 million years ago.  This bird voice box (called the syrinx), is the oldest known vocalisation organ from the Aves, it suggests that the bird – Vegavis iaai, very probably honked like a modern day goose, to which Vegavis is very distantly related.  As such a structure has not been found in non-avian dinosaurs, the research team hypothesise that dinosaurs may have vocalised in a similar way to today’s ostriches which also lack a syrinx.

Ancient Antarctic Bird May Have Honked Like a Goose

Ancient bird voice box discovered.

Vegavis iaai with the location of the syrinx highlighted.

Picture Credit: Nicole Fuller/Sayo Art for University of Texas at Austin.

What is a Syrinx?

Most tetrapods such as humans and reptiles make noises by vibrating vocal folds in their larynxes, which is located at the back of the throat, but for most birds, the sounds that they make, be they, chirps, coos, quacks, tweets or honks are produced by a specially evolved organ called the syrinx, located in the windpipe where it branches left and right to the lungs.  This organ is not constructed from bone but from calcified cartilage that typically does not fossilise well.  Writing in the scientific journal “Nature”, the research team which includes palaeontologist Dr. Julia Clarke (University of Texas at Austin), describe the oldest syrinx found to date and compare it to the vocal organs of both extinct and extant Aves, as well as making comparisons with Alligators and in turn, making some intriguing conclusions about the sounds that dinosaurs may have produced.

The Syrinx of Vegavis iaai is Constructed and Compared to that of Passerines and Alligators

The syrinx of Vegavis.

The shape of the syrinx of Vegavis is modelled and compared to living birds and reptiles.

Picture Credit: Dr. Julia Clarke (University of Texas at Austin)

Vegavis iaai

In 1992, a scientific expedition to explore the Upper Cretaceous deposits exposed on the isolated and remote Vega Island (a small island to the northwest of James Ross Island, on the Antarctic Peninsula), found the jumbled remains of an ancient bird.  Several years later the concretion containing these bird bones was passed to Dr. Julia Clarke to study.  Dr. Clarke and her colleagues named and described Vegavis iaai in 2005, just one of a number of birds known from the highly fossiliferous strata that make up the Upper Cretaceous rocks that preserve an almost unbroken sequence from the Campanian faunal stage, through to the extinction of the dinosaurs into the first faunal stage of the Palaeocene (the Danian).

The Holotype Material for Vegavis iaai

Vegavis iaai Fossils

The jumbled remains representing the holotype material for Vegavis iaai.

Picture Credit: University of Ohio

 In 2013, whilst working on a project on the evolution of dinosaur and bird vocalisation, Dr. Clarke decided to take another look at the specimen’s vertebrae before returning it.  Embedded in the rock, she discovered the tiny syrinx.  This part of the Vegavis specimen was then carefully scanned using micro-CT technology, high energy X-rays that can penetrate the rock and reveal the structures of delicate fossils without damaging them.

Dr. Clarke explained the reason for the research:

“While we have looked a lot at the evolution of the wings in birds, we have done very little with looking at the origin of what is perhaps one of the most striking characteristics of living birds – their songs.”

The three-dimensional computer model that was produced was then compared with the voice boxes of younger avian fossils and with a dozen living bird species.  From this analysis, the team concluded that the shape of the syrinx in Vegavis iaai suggests that this ancient bird probably quacked or honked.

What Sound Did Dinosaurs Make Then?

Vegavis iaai has been classified as a member of the Anseriformes, a group of birds that consists of the waterfowl.  Vegavis shared its environment with a number of terrestrial dinosaurs including Theropods, Ornithopods and possibly armoured dinosaurs.  The apparent absence of a syrinx in dinosaur fossils of the same age, indicates that this organ may have originated late in the evolution of Aves, long after powered flight had evolved.  The researchers suggest that since there is no evidence of syrinx in the Dinosauria, dinosaurs may not have been able to make the sort of sounds that we associate with the close, living relatives the birds.  Instead, dinosaurs may have been able to make closed mouth sounds, like the booming sound produced by today’s ostriches which also do not possess a syrinx.

Did Dinosaurs Vocalise in a Similar to Ostriches?

Did dinosaurs vocalise in a similar to extant ostriches?

Ostriches vocalise in a closed mouth fashion.

Picture Credit: University of Texas at Austin/Motie Shirinkam

Male ostriches are able to produce a low frequency “booming” sound by inflating its neck to three times its normal diameter.  Female ostriches can produce a hissing sound, but are not known to produce the “booming”.  The discovery of the sound producing vocal organ in a fossil bird from the Late Cretaceous provides anatomical evidence that could lead onto scientists inferring aspects of prehistoric bird behaviour and social structure.

Vegavis Takes Flight Whilst a Male Theropod Dinosaur Vocalises Nearby

The vocalisation of dinosaurs and birds.

Vegavis takes off whilst a male Theropod dinosaur vocalises close by.

Picture Credit: Nicole Fuller/Sayo Art for University of Texas at Austin

Brazil’s Biggest Dinosaur To Date

Austroposeidon magnificus and Llewellyn Ivor Price

This week has seen the formal naming and scientific description of Austroposeidon magnificus, the largest dinosaur, indeed the largest terrestrial animal known to science to have ever lived in Brazil.  Writing in the on line academic journal “PLoS One”, the researchers, which include Dr. Alexander Kellner of the Federal University (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) and the director of the Earth Sciences Museum, Diogenes de Almeida Campos, also based in Rio de Janeiro, announced the latest edition to the Titanosauria clade.

An Illustration of Austroposeidon magnificus a New Brazilian Dinosaur

An illustration of Austroposeidon magnificus.

Austroposeidon magnificus size estimate.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Fossils Found in 1953

The fossil material which consists of two cervical vertebrae (neck bones), a fairly complete first dorsal vertebra and several other partial dorsal vertebrae with at least one sacral element was found by pioneering Brazilian palaeontologist Llewellyn Ivor Price in 1953.  Sadly, Llewellyn Ivor Price died in 1980, although he made a major contribution to the advancement of geology and palaeontology in Brazil, these particular, giant fossilised bones and their significance was not recognised during his lifetime.  Ironically, the paper on this new herbivorous dinosaur “A New Giant Titanosauria (Dinosauria: Sauropoda) from the Late Cretaceous Bauru Group, Brazil”, was published in the same week of October that Llewellyn Ivor Price passed away.  The paper being published on the 5th October 2016, the palaeontologist passing on the 9th October 1980.

Museum Director Diogenes de Almeida Campos with the Partial Backbone

Elements from the partial vertebral column of Austroposeidon.

The museum director poses with the giant bones of Austroposeidon.

Picture Credit: Silvia Izquierdo/Associated Press

In numerous cases, fossils are stored for many years prior to their formal description.  A lack of funds or indeed trained staff to examine fossils within a collection can mean that it can be decades before fossils are scientifically examined.  In the 1950’s, little was known about the Titanosauria clade compared to what we know today, although Titanosaurus, the dinosaur after which this clade was named, had been described back in the late nineteenth Century (T. indicus 1877) – although most of the material associated with Titanosaurus indicus is regarded as nomen dubium (concerns raised over validity).

The Tenth Brazilian Titanosaur

With the naming of Austroposeidon magnificus, Brazil has a total of ten Titanosaurs (we think), although based on these fossil remains A. magnificus is by far the largest, with the researchers estimating that it would have reached lengths of around twenty-five metres.  The name of this new Late Cretaceous dinosaur reflects its impressive size, the name means “great, elevated, noble southern earthquake lizard”.  The fossils come from Upper Cretaceous strata of the Presidente Prudente Formation (Bauru Group, Paraná Basin), São Paulo State, south-eastern Brazil.  This unit has also produced the fossilised remains of two other Brazilian Titanosaurs, Brasilotitan nemophagus (which was named in 2013) and Gondwanatitan faustoi (named in 1999).  Although Brasilotitan and Gondwanatitan are only known from fragmentary remains they are likely to have been considerably smaller than the newly described Austroposeidon.  Gregory S. Paul has estimated Gondwanatitan to have been around seven metres in length, whereas, Everything Dinosaur team members estimate Brasilotitan to have been slightly bigger perhaps as much as ten metres long.  Prior to the naming of Austroposeidon, the largest Titanosaur known from Brazil (we think), was Maxakalisaurus topai, fossils of which come from another member of the Late Cretaceous Bauru Group.  Once estimated to be around thirteen metres long, in June 2016 a fossilised jaw bone and other cranial elements were ascribed to Maxakalisaurus and the size of this dinosaur was revised upwards to around twenty metres.

The Fossilised Fragmentary Vertebrae on Display

Austroposeidon fossil material.

The fossilised vertebrae of Austroposeidon on display.

Picture Credit: Silvia Izquierdo/Associated Press

The large bone in the centre of the picture is cervical vertebrae 13, the number represents the place in the neck that this bone was located.  This bone shows some of the four autapomorphies (unique traits) that led to the identification of the new dinosaur genus.  Cervical thirteen was one of the bones subjected to CT scans in order to reveal internal structures, the research team identified dense growth rings, a first for the Sauropoda.  Austroposeidon shows that giant Titanosaurs were present in Brazil during the Late Cretaceous, as well as further south in South America (Argentina).

Although the fossil material is very fragmentary, the scientists were able to undertake a phylogenetic analysis, in the Sauropoda the bones that make up the spine are highly diagnostic.  The researchers concluded that Austroposeidon magnificus is nested within the Lognkosauria, a clade of Titanosaurs that includes a number of super-sized genera.  Based on this research, the authors of the paper conclude that this dinosaur was probably related to Puertasaurus, another enormous Titanosaur that lived at approximately the same time as Austroposeidon, but its fossils are found further south.

Llewellyn Ivor Price may have died many years ago, but his fossil finding exploits are still helping to shape our understanding of Brazil’s prehistoric past.

Graduate Student Unlocks the Secrets of Sea Turtle Evolution

Ctenochelys acris Comes Out of its Shell

Palaeontologists have long puzzled over the origins of today’s extant species of sea turtle.  Thanks to the efforts of a post-doctoral student at the University of Alabama (Birmingham, Alabama, USA), scientists have been able to confirm the existence of a marine adapted turtle representing the oldest known member of the lineage that gave rise to modern sea turtles.  In a paper published in the academic publication “The Journal of Systematic Palaeontology”, lead author Drew Gentry, has been able to identify several 80-million-year-old fossils as Ctenochelys (tee-no-key-lees) acris, thus helping to piece together the evolutionary history of sea turtles.

Researchers from the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Biology worked with two relatively complete turtle skeletons, along with several smaller pieces, that are housed at Birmingham’s McWane Science Centre, the study confirms the existence of Ctenochelys acris, previously known only from a few isolated fragments.

A Scale Drawing of Ctenochelys acris Showing Some of the Fossils Used in the Research

Scale drawing of Ctenochelys.

A silhouette showing the proposed outline of Ctenochelys with a frogman providing scale.

Picture Credit: University of Alabama

The McWane fossils help solve a long-standing debate as to whether this animal was a unique species.  They also provide insights into the evolutionary history of living species of sea turtles, animals such as the Ridley, the Leatherback, the Green and the Loggerhead, all of which are, sadly, classified as vulnerable or endangered or critically endangered according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Alabama During the Late Cretaceous

The area of the south-western United States was covered by a shallow, tropical sea for much of the Late Cretaceous.  The fossils ascribed to C. acris have been excavated from marine strata dated to around 80 million years ago (Campanian faunal stage), a time when sea levels were much higher than today and the Western Interior Seaway covered most of the United States.  During this time sea turtle diversity was very high and lead researcher on the project Drew Gentry explained:

“Climatic warming during the mid-Cretaceous resulted in elevated sea levels and temperatures that, in turn, provided an abundance of new niches for marine turtles to invade.  Represented today by only seven living species, sea turtles were once one of the most diverse lineages of marine reptiles.  Before the cataclysm that claimed the dinosaurs, there may have been dozens of specialised species of sea turtle living in different oceanic habitats around the world.”

A Diagram Showing North America Approximately 75 million years ago

The Western Interior Seaway.

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

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Not Sure of the Validity of Ctenochelys acris

Prior to the assessment of the McWane fossil specimens, palaeontologists were unsure as to the validity of Ctenochelys acris.  Not only do the newly discovered fossils prove C. acris existed, they may also be a critical piece in a much larger puzzle of sea turtle evolution.

Drew Gentry added:

“There is strong evidence which indicates freshwater turtles may have evolved to occupy marine environments at several points in the past.  But most of those lineages went extinct, making the exact origins of living or ‘true’ sea turtles somewhat of a mystery.”

The study suggests that the earliest ancestors of today’s sea turtles may have originated from waters covering the south-western United States.  By comparing the skeleton of C. acris with those of both extinct and living species of turtles, Gentry discovered that C. acris possessed traits of both sea turtles and their closest living turtle relatives, snapping turtles.

“This animal was a bottom-dwelling sea turtle that fed primarily on molluscs and small invertebrates.  Unlike the ‘rudder-like’ hind-limbs of today’s sea turtles, C. acris had large, powerful hind-limbs to help push it through the water, a lot like a modern-day snapping turtle.”

Scientists are hopeful that by learning more about the origins of sea turtles, this may lead to better protection for those species still found today.  Studying the diversity and evolutionary history of marine turtles during previous periods of climate change can provide meaningful insights into what effects climate and environmental changes might have on modern marine turtle populations.

The fossils that led to this research were discovered in 1986 and contributed to what was then the Red Mountain Museum.  The McWane Science Centre was founded in 1998 by the merger of the Red Mountain Museum and a nearby children’s museum, Discovery Place.

The palaeontological and archaeological collection at McWane is one of the largest in the south-eastern United States and houses a number of significant finds from across Alabama, including the recently announced Eotrachodon, a type of duck-billed dinosaur.

To read an article about Alabama’s very own duck-billed dinosaur: Duck-billed Dinosaurs – Sweet Home Alabama!

Everything Dinosaur acknowledges the assistance of the University of Alabama in the compilation of this article.

Two New Species of British Ichthyosaur Swim into View

Two New Species of Jurassic Ichthyosaur Described After Six Years of Research

Much has been written about the “bone wars”, the rivalry between two distinguished and very eminent pioneering American palaeontologists Charles Othniel Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope as they competed with each other to excavate and describe the fossilised bones of dinosaurs from the western United States.  However, during Georgian and Victorian times in Britain, a race was on between well-to-do landowners to excavate and put on display a myriad of strange antediluvian creatures, the remains of which were being found in quarries and construction sites as the industrial revolution transformed the countryside.

Thanks to some dogged detective work, palaeontologists Dean Lomax (Honorary Scientist at The University of Manchester) and Professor Judy Massare (Brockport College, New York) have identified two new species of Ichthyosaur (fish-lizard), from fossil material excavated more than 150 years ago.  These two, very modern scientists are helping to write a new chapter on the evolution, radiation and diversification of British Ichthyosaurs, a story that links back to the early pioneers of palaeontology.

Palaeontologist Dean Lomax Peruses an Ichthyosaur Specimen

Dean Lomax (palaeontologist) studies Ichthyosaur fossils.

Palaeontologist Dean Lomax with one of the Ichthyosaur specimens from the study, BRSUG 25300, the holotype specimen of Ichthyosaurus larkini.

Picture Credit: University of Manchester

Britain During the Jurassic

For much of the Jurassic, the area now known as the British Isles was covered by a warm, tropical sea.  Scattered across this seascape were a number of small islands, this area superficially resembled the Caribbean of today, but instead of green iguanas, basilisk lizards, wild pigs and capuchin monkeys typical of islands such as Barbados, Puerto Rico and Grenada, the terrestrial landscape back in the Jurassic was dominated by dinosaurs.

For further information on the different types of dinosaur that once thrived on the landmass now known as the British Isles we recommend “Dinosaurs of the British Isles” by Dean Lomax and Nobumichi Tamura, available from Siri Scientific Press: Dinosaurs of the British Isles can be ordered here.  The marine environment was also home to an array of exotic prehistoric animals and amongst the most successful of the Early Jurassic marine reptiles were the Ichthyosaurs, formidable predators that had streamlined bodies similar to those of modern dolphins.

An Illustration of a Typical Ichthyosaurus

"Fish Lizard" Found in Australia

A typical Ichthyosaurus (Fish Lizard).

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Tracking Down Ichthyosaurs

Many of the specimens excavated by early palaeontology pioneers on behalf of wealthy landowners and benefactors were poorly documented, several specimens have become lost, whilst a significant proportion have not been studied fully.  Dean and Judy set about tracking down examples of British Ichthyosaurs, no mean feat as over the years, many fossils had been acquired by museums from all over the world  and a considerable amount of Ichthyosaur material that originated from the British Isles is housed in Europe and elsewhere.  After six years of research, examining hundreds of fossils from all over the UK, Europe and North America, the intrepid pair have been able to identify two new species of British marine reptile.

Analysing Anatomical Features – Hiding in Plain Sight

By analysing features in the skull and post-cranial material, the scientists were able to identify a new species of Ichthyosaurus from a specimen at the University of Bristol.  This almost complete skeleton, had been on public display in the School of Earth Sciences for many years and thanks to Dean and Judy, this specimen has been identified as a new species of Early Jurassic Ichthyosaur.  The animal has been named Ichthyosaurus larkini. The species honours British palaeontologist Nigel Larkin.  The name ‘Larkin’ means “fierce”, which is quite fitting for what was a fast moving, nektonic predator!

Commenting on the outcome of this research, Dean Lomax stated:

“It’s quite amazing, hundreds of people must walk past this skeleton every day, yet its secrets have only just been uncovered.  This specimen has received little in the way of scientific study, although this is not uncommon as there is so much material to see and only a finite amount of funding to see and study everything – in fact, much of my research is self-funded”.

A View of the Holotype Specimen of Ichthyosaurus larkini

Ichthyosaurus larkini.

The holotype specimen of I.larkini.

Picture Credit: University of Manchester

The Second Species – Ichthyosaurus somersetensis

The second new species to be described, making a total of six species within the Ichthyosaurus genus, has an equally interesting story.  The key specimen was probably collected from a quarry in Glastonbury, Somerset, sometime in the 1840’s.   It was sent to Delaware in the United States by Edward Wilson of Tenby, South Wales, for his brother, Dr. Thomas Wilson, who donated the specimen to Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences in 1847.  The fossil has remained within the Academy’s vertebrate fossil collection ever since.  It was kept in storage and few people knew that it even existed.

Dean explained:

“In my opinion, this specimen is the best example of Ichthyosaurus collected to date.  It paints such a cool picture too, having been found in a quarry in the Somerset countryside, cleaned, and then sent by boat to Philadelphia, and only now for it to be rediscovered – it’s like a good mystery book, piecing the story together!”

As so many Ichthyosaurus specimens have been found in Somerset, it was decided to honour the south-west of England county by naming the new species Ichthyosaurus somersetensis.

The Holotype Specimen of Ichthyosaurus somersetensis

Ichthyosaurus somersetensis holotype.

ANSP 15766, holotype specimen of Ichthyosaurus somersetensis.

Picture Credit: E. Daeschler Academy of Sciences of Drexel University.

The picture above shows the holotype specimen of Ichthyosaurus somersetensis a practically complete skeleton lying on its right side; from Glastonbury, near Street, Somerset, the white scale bar represents 10 cm.

As part of their extensive search, Dean and Judy were keen to visit collections that were not known for their marine reptile fossils, which meant other scientists may not have visited them previously.  All examples of the new species come from locations that can no longer be accessed, for example, old quarries.

Dean concluded by saying:

“It is our hope that other similar fossils will be rediscovered in uninspected collections and brought to the attention of palaeontologists.  Who knows what else is waiting to be (re)discovered?” 

To read an article about the naming of a new species of marine reptile to honour Mary Anning: New Species of Ichthyosaurus honours Mary Anning

The Paper (published in Palaeontology): Two New Species of Ichthyosaurus from the Lowermost Jurassic (Hettangian) of Somerset, England by Dean R. Lomax and Judy A. Massare.

Dinosaurs Copied Triassic Reptiles

Triassic Reptile Shows Example of Convergent Evolution with Dinosaurs

A team of scientists including researchers from Virginia Tech College of Science and the University of Chicago have identified a new species of Triassic Archosaur (potentially), one that shared some remarkable anatomical characteristics with its much later and very distant relatives, the bone-headed dinosaurs.  The little reptile, fossils of which were excavated from Upper Triassic chalk deposits in Howard County (Texas, USA), has been named Triopticus primus, it’s skull shows a similar shape and morphology to the much later, Late Cretaceous pachycephalosaurid dinosaurs, animals that lived more than 100 million years later.

A Graphical Representation Showing Convergence Between Triassic Archosaurs and Later Archosaurs (Dinosauria)

Convergent evolution in Archosaurs.

Triassic Archosaurs showed striking similarities to later Archosaurs.

Picture Credit: Current Biology

Similarities in body plan evolution are relatively common place in the history of animal life on our planet.  For example, the wings of Pterosaurs, bats and birds are superficially similar as they are all adapted to providing powered flight.  Icththyosaurs and dolphins have very similar shaped, streamlined bodies, adaptations to a nektonic marine existence.  Surprisingly, the researchers identified numerous additional taxa in the fossil deposits of Howard County (Otis Chalk assemblage from the Dockum Group of Texas), that demonstrate the early acquisition of morphological novelties that were later to appear in other members of the Archosauria, most notably the Dinosauria.

Dominating Terrestrial Environments

Developing similar body plans in Triassic Archosaurs, comparable to those seen in later members of this extensive reptilian group, for example, the Dinosauria is not all that of a turn up for the books, when you consider it.  Towards the end of the Triassic the Archosauriformes had established themselves as the dominant terrestrial vertebrates, a position that one specialised group of Archosaurs, the Dinosauria, were to take up and not relinquish for another 150 million years or so.  A number of authors have challenged some of the conclusions from the paper entitled “A Dome-Headed Stem Archosaur Exemplifies Convergence among Dinosaurs and Their Distant Relatives”, nesting Triopticus primus within the basal Archosauriformes as in the paper, is not without its controversy.  The skull is very different from other Archosaurs.  It is only until the likes of the pachycephalosaurid Stegoceras appears in the Late Cretaceous, that Archosaurs with such expanded craniums that lack an upper temporal fenestra, that a skull shape like Triopticus is seen again.

Corresponding Author of the Scientific Paper Michelle Stocker and a Cast of the Triopticus Skull

The skull of Triopticus primus.

The skull of the bizarre Late Triassic reptile Triopticus.

Picture Credit: Virginia Tech College of Science

Although the exact taxonomic affinity of Triopticus is controversial, the Otis Chalk deposits may reveal more examples of convergent evolution.  If Triopticus is classified as a member of the Archosaur group, then its fossils may demonstrate that some types of dinosaur evolved body plans very similar to their Triassic-aged relatives.  If this is the case, then early evolution of body plans may have constrained later Archosaurs in the type of body plans that they could evolve.

Whatever the relationship to Archosaurs, Triopticus primus evolved a very thickened skull, quite what for remains a mystery.

It Looks Like Pachycephalosaurs were not the First “Bone Heads”

CollectA Pachycephalosaurus model.

A lithe Pachycephalosaurus dinosaur model.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The Extremes of Tetrapod Forelimb Modification

You Have Just Got to Hand it to Drepanosaurus unguicaudatus

A team of international scientists including researchers from a number of eminent American scientific institutions (Stony Brook University, The Dinosaur Institute at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum and the Natural History Museum of Utah, have published a remarkable description of a Late Triassic, diapsid reptile that overturns the rule book when it comes to Tetrapod limbs.  Writing in the journal ” Current Biology”, the small-bodied, possible arboreal, reptile called Drepanosaurus unguicaudatus had the most astonishing forelimbs, the configuration of the bones that make up the forelimb are quite unlike anything previously seen.

Forelimb Specimens of Drepanosaurus unguicaudatus from the Chinle Formation (New Mexico)

Drepanosaurus  forelimb fossils and an illustration.

Forelimb Specimens of Drepanosaurus unguicaudatus from the Zorzino Limestone and Chinle Formation.

Picture Credit: Current Biology

Upsetting the Tetrapod Blueprint

Tetrapods, in essence all four-limbed vertebrates and that includes us, have shown remarkable consistency in the structure and anatomy of their limbs over the 375 million years or so since the very first Tetrapods evolved (Late Devonian).  Tetrapod limbs may have become adapted for all sorts of functions, such as locomotion, climbing, swimming, digging or even manipulation of small objects via being able to pronate the limbs (something that we humans can do very well), but despite this enormous array or functions, the bones of the forelimb have remained largely unchanged.  Most Tetrapods have parallel shafts of bone (the radius and ulna), in the forelimb.  The ulna is the medial bone, the radius is the bone furthest away from the centre of the body.  The forelimb bones of D. unguicaudatus are very different.  Examination of a number of specimens excavated from a quarry that forms part of the Petrified Forest Member of the Chinle Formation of northern New Mexico, revealed that this Late Triassic reptile had a flattened, crescent-shaped ulna and shaft-like carpal bones.  The second digit (the index finger if you like), supported an enormous and strongly curved claw somewhat reminiscent of the claw on a Silky Anteater (Cyclopes didactylus).  It has been proposed that the bizarre Drepanosaurus lived in trees and used its long claw and strong arms to rake the bark and to prise insects out of cracks and crevices.  The scientists conclude that the forelimbs of this small reptile (it grew to about sixty centimetres in length, possibly a little more), were adapted to a “hook and pull” niche seen in extant arboreal animals such as the Silky Anteater.  This huge claw gave Drepanosaurus its genus name “sickle lizard”, the claw on the second digit was bigger than the whole of the rest of the hand.

One Very Bizarre Reptile

Named and described in 1979 from a single, badly crushed specimen found in Italy, Drepanosaurus may represent an “experiment” in Tetrapod evolution, with this animal adapting to a very specific niche. How specialised Drepanosaurus was has only been revealed following extensive CT scans of more fossils, this time excavated from a site known as Hayden Quarry from northern New Mexico.

An Illustration of Drepanosaurus unguicaudatus

Drepanosaurus Illustrated

An illustration of the strong-limbed, scorpion tailed diapsid Drepanosaurus.

Picture Credit: Victor Leshyk

Drepanosaurus has been described as having a bird-like head, on the body of a chameleon with a humped back (possibly to anchor strong back muscles), disproportionately oversized forelimbs and a long tail with a claw on the end (presumably to help the animal gain a grip on a tree branch).  We like to think of Drepanosaurus as a reptilian equivalent of Popeye!

What Would Darwin Think?

Charles Darwin used the similar anatomies found in Tetrapod forelimbs to support his idea that all these animals shared a common ancestor.  This biological principle of common, shared traits is called homology. Charles Darwin argued that the consistencies found in the bones and their configuration in four-limbed creatures supported the idea of evolution.  We wonder what the great man would have made of Drepanosaurus?

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