Category: Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories

The Penarth Ichthyosaur

Amateur Fossil Hunter Finds Welsh Ichthyosaur

The foreshore along the beaches in the Penarth area of the Vale of Glamorgan (South Wales), is one of the most popular fossil collecting locations in the whole of the British Isles.  The beaches are very accessible, there is plenty of parking nearby and the sites are loved by family holiday makers.  The strata in the area, is Lower Jurassic (blue lias) and it is highly fossiliferous.  A thirty minute walk along the foreshore can result in the finding of many specimens, mostly brachiopods, gryphaea, and the occasional worn ammonite fragment.  Vertebrate fossils, those of marine reptiles are rare, although the occasional Ichthyosaur vertebrae or paddle bone can be discovered.  Geological hammers are not necessary, the strong tides combined with the the crumbly nature of the cliffs ensures a regular scattering of fossils across the beach.  However, one very lucky amateur palaeontologist has uncovered the fossilised remains of a two metre long Ichthyosaurus, and what’s more, the specimen seems almost complete.

Jonathan Bow, made his discovery whilst walking along the beach back in September, a small inch long piece of rock took his eye after it had been exposed by a tide.   He stated that anyone could have made this find, it all took was careful observation.  Indeed, this is true, when Everything Dinosaur team members are out on fossil hunts it is often the children who are with us with their sharper eyesight, that spot the fossils.

The Fossilised Remains of the Ichthyosaur (after preparation)

Penarth's very own prehistoric monster.

Penarth’s very own prehistoric monster.

Picture Credit: Jonathan Bow

Mr Bow, a keen fossil collector explained that:

“Something this large and complete is a once in a lifetime find.”

The collections manager in the Geology Department at the National Museum Wales described this fossil as “potentially a very important find.” 

Ichthyosaurs were a diverse group of marine reptiles that evolved in the Early Triassic and thrived during the Jurassic Period.  As a group they survived into the Cretaceous but mysteriously, despite being superbly adapted to marine environments, they became extinct around eighty million years ago.

Ichthyosaurs – Marine Reptiles Known as “Fish Lizards”

Dolphin-like prehistoric animals.

Dolphin-like prehistoric animals.

2014 marks the 200th anniversary of the first scientific description of an animal that was later named as an Ichthyosaur.  In June 1814, Sir Everard Home published an account of a discovery made by the Anning family of Lyme Regis (Dorset).  This was the first scientific account ever published on an Ichthyosaur.  Fitting then, that this year, the most complete fossilised remains of a “Fish Lizard” found in South Wales have come to light.

Ichthyosaurus Fossils Come to Light

Ichthyosaur fossils from this part of South Wales are rare.

Ichthyosaur fossils from this part of South Wales are rare.

Picture Credit: Jonathan Bow

The picture shows a smaller Ichthyosaurus fossil specimen as Mr Bow found it (small picture, bottom left) and the larger picture shows the same specimen once it had been exposed and prepared.  Ribs, paddle bones and vertebrae can be clearly distinguished.

Our congratulations to Jonathan, but a word of warning to would be fossil hunters keen to visit this part of the Welsh coast.  The cliffs are dangerous and rock falls common, there are plenty of fossils to find on the beach, please avoid getting too close to the cliffs.

A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur, acknowledged that the cliffs were best avoided and that there were plenty of fossils to be found on the beach itself, particularly along the foreshore, before adding:

“We suspect that this is an example of the Ichthyosaur species called Ichthyosaurus communis, although we would need to take a closer look before a species identification could be formally made.  We anticipate further marine reptile fossil finds early next Year, but this time from the Jurassic coast of Dorset as the winter storms do their work.”

The Weird and Wonderful Cambrian

Ancient Balloon Shaped Animal Sheds Light on Cambrian Fauna

A bizarre creature that resembled a “spiky balloon”, part of an amazing marine biota that thrived some 520 million years ago, has been named in honour of  a Leicester scientist who died earlier this year.  The finely-grained, fossiliferous beds around Chengjiang (southern China), are believed to rival the famous Burgess Shale beds of British Columbia, for the rocks in this part of the world were once the muds and silts that collected at the bottom of an ancient Cambrian sea.  Preserved within the layers of rock, over half a billion years old, are the remains of strange creatures that thrived at around the time of the very first animals with a notochord, the ancestor of today’s vertebrates, were evolving.

One such creature, which has a fossil described as being like “a crushed bird’s nest” has been named Nidelric pugio in honour of the late Professor Richard Aldridge, an internationally renowned palaeontologist and keen bird watcher.  He was a prominent member of the University of Leicester’s Department of Geology.  Fragmentary specimens of this creature had been found before, but this specimen preserves the majority of the animal and even though the fossil is distorted,  it has been identified as a type of chancellorid, a group of animals that have no direct descendants alive today.

Professor Aldridge was regarded as a world leader in the research into the Cambrian fossils found in the Chengjiang locality.  This prickly specimen measures around nine centimetres in total length and is just one of an incredible number of beautifully preserved creatures that hint at a rich and diverse marine ecosystem, a record of which  has been preserved as fossils.

The Bizarre Nidelric pugio – Like Nothing on Earth Today

An ancient pin cushion N. pugio

An ancient pin cushion N. pugio

Picture Credit: Leicester University

The name of the fossil is derived from the Latin “Nidus”, meaning bird’s nest  or a resemblance to such a structure and “adelric”, the Old English name “Aedelic”, which itself means “noble ruler”, the source for the surname Aldridge.

A Close Up of the Spikes that Surround this Animal

Ancient defences?

Ancient defences?

Picture Credit: Leicester University

One of the reasons stated for the “Cambrian explosion”, a rapid radiation and diversification of creatures during the latter stages of the Cambrian, is that food chains began to be established, whereby passive grazing and feeding as a result of serendipitous circumstances were replaced with predator/prey interactions.  The spikes that surrounded N. pugio, which measured just a few millimetres high, most likely had a defensive purpose.

The strata has permitted the preservation of these creatures in such perfect detail that even traces of their rudimentary nervous systems can be identified, as well as legs, guts, eyes and even that most advance element of the central nervous system – the brain.

To read more about this remarkable research: Ancient Arthropod Brain and Nervous System Studied

Professor Aldridge, passed away in February of this year.  He had a distinguished career in palaeontology and was regarded as an expert on Conodonts and early marine invertebrates.  He became a professor at Leicester University in 1996 and served as Head of the Department of Geology from 1998 to 2004.  He held he prestigious title of the F.W. Bennett Professorship at the University from 2002 until his retirement from the University three years ago.

Cambrian Creature Named in Honour of Professor Aldridge

Honoured for his contribution to palaeontology.

Honoured for his contribution to palaeontology.

Picture Credit: Leicester University

Time to Focus on an Edmonton Bonebed

The Danek Edmontosaurus Bonebed – Learning About Dinosaur Communities

Vertebrate bonebeds are fascinating places to explore and one particular dinosaur dominated fossil site is under scrutiny as the Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences produces a special edition all about the Danek Edmontosaurus bonebed.  The exact location of this highly fossiliferous site is kept under wraps, for fear of vandalism and theft but this extensive jumble of prehistoric animal remains is providing palaeontologists with a tremendous insight into dinosaur behaviour, ontogeny and anatomy.  The site, part of the urban area of Edmonton, is called the Danek Edmontosaurus bonebed, as it was discovered by amateur fossil collector Danek Mozdzenski (March 31st 1989) and the vast majority of the fossil material has been attributed to the species Edmontosaurus regalis.  Bonebeds are known from a number of locations within the Province of Alberta, ironically during the early years of dinosaur fossil collecting in this part of Canada, many of them were ignored by palaeontologists as they strove to find, identify and extract much more complete articulated specimens for study and for museum collections.

Initial excavations at the site by the Royal Tyrrell Museum from 1989 to 1991 led to the collection of eighty specimens, including one partially articulated skeleton.  The site was reopened by the University of Alberta Laboratory for Vertebrate Palaeontology back in 2006, so far another eight hundred fossils have been catalogued.

The site, which dates from the end of the Cretaceous is stratigraphically contentious, its age has been debated (Campanian to Maastrichtian faunal stages).  Radiometric dating of microscopic zircons deposited, most likely as a result of volcanic activity and found just below the main bone bearing layer indicate the site may represent a sequence in geological time perhaps as long as 100,000 years.  Large groups of dinosaurs may have migrated along a huge river valley.  From time to time, catastrophic events would overtake the dinosaurs leading to mass mortalities.  Amongst the Edmontosaurus bones, scientists have found evidence of horned dinosaurs, Ornithomimids, evidence of tyrannosaurids (Albertosaurus) as well as smaller predators such as Troodon and Sauronitholestes.

An Illustration of Edmontosaurus regalis

Edmontosaurus a member of the Hadrosaurine group of duck-billed dinosaurs.

Edmontosaurus a member of the Hadrosaurine group of duck-billed dinosaurs.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The Danek Edmontosaurus bonebed provides an excellent location for palaeontology students to practice their field craft skills.  Due to the amount of fossil material preserved, the exceptional state of preservation and the volume of associated material the Danek Edmontosaurus bonebed lends itself to a wide range of research projects.

Students and Supervisors Working at the Danek Edmontosaurus Bonebed

The site is ideal for field work.

The site is ideal for field work.

Picture Credit: Victoria Arbour

In addition to the extensive dinosaur remains found, the sediments that make up the bonebed are rich in organic matter.  This organic matter can be studied to help reconstruct the palaeoenvironment of this part of Canada during the Late Cretaceous.  Pieces of amber (fossilised tree resin) found at the site indicate that the river valley area was surrounded by extensive conifer forests – rich feeding grounds for the highly efficient feeders – the Edmontosaurs.

The site will continue to play an important role in helping to teach and train the next generation of palaeontologists and field technicians.

Commenting on the importance of the special edition of the Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences, dedicated to the Danek Edmontosaurus bonebed, Professor Phil Currie (University of Alberta) exclaimed:

“This collection of papers represents a significant contribution to our understanding of the dinosaurs that lived in prehistoric Edmonton.”

The Earliest Horned Dinosaur in North America?

Aquilops americanus – The Implications

When it comes to the horned dinosaurs of North America, there has been a lot of focus in the last few years on mapping the extraordinary diversity of Ceratopsians that once roamed the landmass known as Laramidia.   There has been much debate over the ethnicity of the Dinosauria, as suggested by the myriad of fossil finds and indeed the debate has been reignited recently with the publication of the research undertaken by the UK’s Dr. Nick Longrich and the “northern Pentaceratops” - Pentaceratops aquilonius.  Let’s face it, ever since the publication of “New Perspectives on Horned Dinosaurs”, there seems to have been an addition to the Late Cretaceous Ceratopsidae every couple of months or so.  For instance, Mojoceratops, Kosmoceratops, Utahceratops, Nasutoceratops, Xenoceratops and so forth.

To read about the recent research of Dr. Nick Longrich: Finding a New Species of Horned Dinosaur in a Canadian Museum.

However, many scientists have been turning their attention to another part of the horned dinosaur’s family tree.  These researchers have been trying to piece together (literally), the fossil evidence that hints at the presence of basal, more primitive members of this great group of Ornithischians much earlier in the Cretaceous of North America.  The search for the Neoceratopsian dinosaurs, may not garner quite the same publicity as work on their Campanian and Maastrichtian cousins such as Styracosaurus and Triceratops, but this dedicated team are helping scientists to understand how these dinosaurs evolved and migrated out of their Asian ancestral home.

That is why the paper published this week in the academic journal PLOS One is so important.  This paper describes the partial skull and lower jaw of a horned dinosaur, the fossils represent the earliest evidence of Neoceratopsian dinosaurs recorded in North America.  Say hello to Aquilops americanus, about the size of a King Charles spaniel that roamed southern Montana somewhere between 109 and 104 million years ago.

 A Tiny Skull that is Making a Big Difference

Skull fossil that can sit in the palm of your hand.

Skull fossil that can sit in the palm of your hand.

Picture Credit: Reuters

Prior to this fossil discovery, the Neoceratopsian dinosaurs of North America were represented by isolated teeth and skull fragments, collected from places as far apart as Utah and Maryland, the Cedar Mountain Formation and the Arundel Formation respectively.  The paucity of the fossil record was severely hampering the work of scientists as they tried to understand the pattern of migrations between Asia and North America.  During the Cretaceous, Asia and North America were joined, they shared a land bridge between them, most likely there were many occasions when fluctuating sea levels and geological activity permitted a land bridge to be formed.  It seems that the horned dinosaurs evolved in Asia but migrated via what is now the Bering Straits over to Canada and the United States.  Aquilops seems closely related to Early Cretaceous horned dinosaurs known from Asia such as Liaoceratops and Auroraceratops, it has been speculated that there were at least intermittent connections between these two continents throughout the Late Early Cretaceous, likely followed by a long period of geographic isolation that permitted a number of new genera to evolve before a final reconnection towards the end of the Mesozoic.

The skull measures just 8.4cm in length, it is likely that Aquilops americanus (the name means “American eagle face”), was an unobtrusive herbivore, selectively grazing young shoots and leaves from the protection of the undergrowth.  It may even have been nocturnal or perhaps it may have lived in a burrow.

Line Drawing of the Skull and a Reconstruction of the Dinosaur

Skull sketches top and middle with an artist's impression underneath.

Skull sketches top and middle with an artist’s impression underneath.

Picture Credit: PLOS One, life restoration by Brian Engh

 The line drawings of the skull have been based on better known Neoceratopsian specimens from Asia.  Note the large orbit (eye-socket), this has led to speculation that this little dinosaur may have lived in low light conditions or might possibly have been nocturnal.

Commenting on the study, one of the authors of the scientific paper Dr. Andrew Farke (Raymond M. Alf Museum of Palaeontology, California) stated:

“This was a small plant-eater and we know from its hooked beak that it was pretty selective, nipping off whatever vegetation was around.”

 An Illustration of Aquilops americanus

Earliest horned dinosaur known from North America.

Earliest horned dinosaur known from North America.

Picture Credit: Brian Engh/Raymond M. Alf Museum of Palaeontology

One of the mysteries with the Ceratopsian dinosaurs is when did the Asian migrations occur, and where there any significant migrations of North American fauna into Asia?  Before this discovery, the oldest known horned dinosaur from North America was Zuniceratops, which roamed New Mexico and Arizona some 90 million years ago.

Dr. Farke added:

“Aquilops lived nearly twenty million years before the next oldest horned dinosaur named [and described] from North America.  Even so, we were surprised that it was more closely related to Asian animals than those from North America.”

The discovery of these fossils, does support the theory that these type of bird-hipped dinosaurs did evolve in Asia and that they spread into North America, most likely via a northern latitude route, however, as the authors of this scientific paper say themselves, more field studies and more fossils will be needed before anyone can state anything else with a degree of certainty.

Walking with Dinosaurs – Birth of a Dinosaur Footprint

Getting Under the Skin of a Dinosaur’s Foot

The footprints of prehistoric animals preserved as fossils can provide scientists with a wealth of information.  However, in a research project involving Brown University (Providence, Rhode Island) and the Royal Veterinary College, steps have been taken (no pun intended), to get a much more complete understanding of how ancient creatures walked.  It’s question of applying a number of highly technical research methods to step into the footsteps of a dinosaur, this research certainly adds a whole new meaning to “Walking with Dinosaurs”.

Providing a Deeper Understanding About Fossil Footprints

Sauropod footprint, the hand provides scale.

Sauropod footprint, the hand provides scale.

Picture Credit: AFP Photo/Igor Sasin

Dr. Peter Falkingham, a Research Fellow at the Royal Veterinary College (London) and co-author, Professor Stephen Gatesy (Brown University), attempted to map the displacement and complex re-organisation of sediment that takes place when a footprint is formed.  Put simply, imagine you are walking on the beach, across wet sand.  As you proceed across the sediment you will create footprints, these are visible impressions left in the surface layer, however, as your bodyweight moves across the sand, it will have an impact on the sand particles that surround and are underneath the area that you have just walked over.  In a unique experiment, the scientists have been able to create visual images of the re-organisation of particles involved in footprint formation.  This research can help ichnologists (the term used to describe a specialist in studying trace fossils), interpret dinosaur footprints, thus in turn providing palaeontologists with a better understanding of prehistoric animal locomotion.

A variety of techniques were used to create visual images of three-dimensional footprints.  Firstly, a Guinea Fowl (Galliformes) was persuaded to walk across a bed of poppy seeds.  The poppy seeds and the way that they were moved would mimic the action of the substrate as if it were soft sand.   The virtual footprint was created by combining two X-ray videos with a digital skeletal model of the bird’s legs derived from CT scans and a three-dimensional motion analysis called X-ray Reconstruction and Moving Morphology (XROMM), which had been developed at Brown University.  This technology enabled the research team to reconstruct the motions of the bird’s foot in three dimensions, even when the toes are hidden from sight as they sink into the sediment.

Which Came First the Guinea Fowl or the Virtual Simulation of a Dinosaur Footprint?

Cutting edge research combined with a Guinea Fowl.

Cutting edge research combined with a Guinea Fowl.

Picture Credit: Royal Veterinary College/Brown University

The picture above shows the hind limb bones of the guinea fowl, projected in three dimensions along with the footprints formed.

Commenting on this ground-breaking research (literally), Dr. Falkingham stated:

“By observing how a footprint is formed, from the moment the foot hits the sediment until it leaves, we can directly associate motions with features left behind in the track.  We can then study a fossil track left by a dinosaur and say, OK, these features of the track are similar, but these are different, so what does that mean for the way the animal was walking?”

A powerful computer programme was used to analyse and interpret the data, so that a virtual footprint that had been generated could be observed as an impression at the surface and also below the surface of the substrate.  Being able to directly associate movements of the foot with features of the footprint, both on the surface and deeper into the sediment, opens up the possibility of more accurately reconstructing the way in which long extinct creatures moved.

The Simulated Footprint (Guinea Fowl Footprint)

The footprint mapped at 1cm below the surface layer.

The footprint mapped at 1cm below the surface layer.

Picture Credit: Royal Veterinary College/Brown University

Professor Gatesy added:

“Footprints are not just simple moulds of the bottom of the foot, so it’s important to understand how the dynamic interaction between a living animal and the substrate give rise to a track’s 3-D shape”.

The team’s findings, published in the journal “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences”, could help palaeontologists better understand how dinosaurs walked and perhaps build up a picture of how dinosaur locomotion changed as the Dinosauria evolved. Moving forward, (again no pun intended), the advent of  XROMM technology could help researchers explore how early hominids adapted to a bipedal stance.

Dinosaur Bone Damaged by Vandals is Removed

Vandalised Dinosaur Bone is Removed from the Dinosaur National Monument

The 150 million year old dinosaur bone had slowly weathered out of the rock, its location, on part of the Fossil Discovery Trail at the Dinosaur National Monument (Utah), meant that thousands of visitors to the park could see the beautifully preserved fossil lying in situ.  However, the thoughtless and reckless action of vandals has resulted in the bone having to be removed from the trail for fear that it could crumble away.

Back in September, Everything Dinosaur reported on the incident of vandalism at the famous Dinosaur National Monument, one of the richest sources of Upper Jurassic fossil material anywhere in the world.  A Ranger spotted the damaged fossil bone (humerus of a juvenile Sauropod), whilst taking visitors on the 1.2 mile long Fossil Discovery Trail that runs between the Quarry Visitor Centre and the Exhibition Hall.

To read Everything Dinosaur’s report of the vandalism: Fossil Damaged at Dinosaur National Monument – Utah

A fist-sized chunk had been removed from the bone, a thoughtless act of vandalism, probably inspired by the high prices fetched for the sale of dinosaur fossils at auctions.  Palaeontologists assessed the bone and decided to remove it to prevent further damage and the possibility that the bone could break up over the winter as frost and freezing conditions would lead to cracks in the fossil widening.

Brooks Britt, a palaeontologist from Brigham Young University (department of Geological Sciences), carefully extracted the specimen, using techniques and tools that would not have been unfamiliar to the scientists who first extracted bones from this location over one hundred years ago.

Commenting on his work, Associate Professor Britt stated:

“This bone is easy to get out because it is in relatively soft rock.  The vandals took a chunk out about the size of my fist, that destabilised the fossil.  It propagated fractures, it opens them up and then the weathering process starts attacking the bone, so you can’t leave it out in the open.”

 Carefully Does It – Removing the Sauropod Humerus (Upper Arm Bone)

Vandalised bone is removed to prevent further damage.

Vandalised bone is removed to prevent further damage.

Picture Credit: Geoff Liesik/KSL TV

Daniel Chure, the Monument’s palaeontologist, described his reaction on hearing the news of the vandalism of one of “frustration and anger”.

He added:

“Hundreds and thousands of visitors have been able to come here and actually look at dinosaur bones as they are naturally exposed by erosion.  Now because of the thoughtless actions of one person, future visitors won’t have the opportunity to see this particular bone in the field.”

Park Rangers are still optimistic about finding the culprit.  They are asking for people who may have witnessed the act of vandalism to come forward.  A reward of $750 USD is being offered for information that could lead to a conviction.

What is the future for the Sauropod arm bone?  The Park Service has plans for it.  They would like the fossil to be fully prepared, stabilised and cleaned up ready for display at the Monument’s Quarry Visitor Centre.

A spokesperson for Everything Dinosaur stated:

“Hopefully this fossilised bone will serve as a reminder to visitors not to damage or to attempt to take fossils away with them.  It might prevent future fossil thefts or acts of vandalism, we sincerely hope so.”

An Illustration Showing Typical Sauropod Bauplans of the Late Jurassic of the Western United States

Long necks for different feeding envelopes.

Long necks for different feeding envelopes.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Carnivorous Plant Remains Found Preserved in Amber

The Mystery of The Very First Carnivorous Plant Fossil Leaves

Some types of organism, despite having been on our planet for tens of millions of years have such a poor preservation potential that they rarely, if at all appear in the fossil record.  One such group are the carnivorous plants, be they Venus Fly Traps, Sundews or Pitcher plants.  The trapping structures are often derived from primary growth, this reduces the preservation potential and these types of plants tend to be found in areas such as peat bogs and tropical forests where rapid breakdown of organic material occurs.  Up to now, carnivorous plant fossils have consisted of micro-fossils such as preserved pollen with the occasional fossil seed.  However, a team of scientists from the Botanical State Collection of Munich as well as Bielefeld and Göttingen Universities have found the first fossils of a proto-carnivorous plant preserved in Baltic amber.  Two leaves, trapped in pine resin over between thirty-five and forty-seven million years ago, have been identified to belonging to the family of flypaper plant traps.  These types of plant produce sticky substances that trap small insects and other Arthropods.

The sticky hairs on the leaves can be clearly made out under a microscope.  The amber was found in a mine near Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave on the Baltic coast.  Amber from this part of the world, referred to as Baltic amber is relatively common and remarkably as amber floats in sea water, from time to time pieces of Baltic amber are washed up on the coast of East Anglia (United Kingdom).

The Fossils of a Carnivore (Roridula spp.)

Leaf remains trapped in amber.

Leaf remains trapped in amber.

Picture Credit: PNAS and University of Göttingen/Alexander Schmidt.

Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (United States), the research team led by Professor Alexander Schmidt (University oGöttingen), have identified the leaves, with their long-stalked multicellular glands as being reminiscent of extant plant species in the Roridula family.  Plants in the family Roridulaceae are not true carnivorous plants in the strictest botanical sense.  In contrast to the likes of the Venus Fly Trap (Dionaea spp.), Roridula do not trap, kill and digest their animal prey.  These plants are not capable of producing the enzymes required to breakdown the bodies of their victims.  Instead, they rely on a symbiotic relationship between types of carnivorous Heteropteran insects (bugs), that feed on the trapped organisms.  In turn, the nutrient rich excretions from these scavengers are absorbed by the plant through its leaves.

Today, living members of the carnivorous plant Roridula are restricted to southern Africa, however, during the Eocene these plants must have been much more widespread.  For much of the Eocene Epoch, the world was warmer than it is today.  The discovery of these fossils provides a mystery for the research team to solve.  Firstly, it suggests that the flora in the forests that were to produce the tree resin that was to eventually become amber, must have been more diverse than previously thought.  Secondly, it had been thought that the ancestors of the Roridula evolved around 90 million years ago in Africa and these plants evolved in isolation as Africa became separated from other land masses as the southern super-continent of Gondwanaland broke up.

However, as Professor Schmidt points out:

“The new fossils from Baltic amber show that the ancestors of Roridula plants occurred in the northern hemisphere until around 35 million years ago, they were not restricted to South Africa.”

These plants seem to be have been more widespread than previously thought, the fossils also confirm molecular dating that hypothesised that these types of plant had been distinct from other plant families for at least 38 million years.

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

Chinese “Sea Dragon” Fossil Hints at Triassic Fauna Recovery

Monster Nothosaur from China Suggests Ecosystem Recovery after Mass Extinction Event

A team of Chinese scientists, supported by palaeontologists from Bristol University, Washington D.C. and Australia, writing in the academic journal “Nature: Scientific Reports”, have described the fossilised remains of a giant marine reptile.  This fearsome hunter provides evidence that by around 245 million years ago, much of the world’s marine habitats had recovered sufficiently from the Permian/Triassic mass extinction event to support complex food chains.  The Permian/Triassic extinction event is often referred to as the “Great Dying”, a huge portion of life on Earth died out, scientists debate just how many different types of organisms perished, but it has been suggested that as much as 95% of all life on Earth became extinct.

To read more about how mass extinction events are defined: When is an Extinction Event a Mass Extinction?

The fossil represent a new species of Nothosaur, it is potentially the largest Nothosaur discovered to date.  The discovery is significant as it indicates that on the eastern side of the Paleotethys Sea, marine life had recovered sufficiently to support complex food chains, with carnivorous marine reptiles as the apex predators in the environment.  As similar sized apex predators are known from the western fringes of the Paleotethys Sea and also from the eastern seaboard of the Panthalassa Ocean, this provides evidence to support the theory that by the early part of the Middle Triassic there had been a global recovery (a synchronous global recovery), of marine fauna and flora.

The Nothosaur fossil consisting of an almost complete lower jaw, isolated teeth and post cranial elements was discovered in 2008.  The only known specimen was collected from Bed number 165 of the Dawazi section of strata, a highly fossiliferous zone that represents a shallow marine environment.  The fossils are located in Luoping County, Yunnan Province in the far south-west of China.  This part of the world is famous for its Middle Triassic marine fossils, many thousands of specimens have been collected including a number of Ichthyosaurs as well as other marine reptiles.

The Nothosaur Fossil Material (a) Line Drawing (b)

The specimen has been named Nothosaurus zhangi

The specimen has been named Nothosaurus zhangi

Picture Credit: Nature: Scientific Reports

Nothosaurs were a group of marine reptiles related to the better known Plesiosaurs.  They evolved from terrestrial ancestors and typically were between one and three metres in length.  They had relatively long snouts, quite narrow skulls, and their fingers and toes may have been webbed to help propel them through water.  The were also capable of hauling themselves up onto land and although well adapted to a marine environment, they probably rested and bred on land.  The Nothosaurs evolved very early on in the Triassic Period and as a group they persisted up until the beginning of the Jurassic.

 A Model of a Typical Nothosaur (Safari Prehistoric Sealife Toob)

One of the models in the Safari Prehistoric Sealife Toob.

One of the models in the Safari Prehistoric Sealife Toob.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The picture above shows a typical Nothosaur bauplan (body plan), it is one of the models from the fantastic “Prehistoric Sealife Toob”, part of the range of prehistoric animal and plant replicas made by Safari Ltd.

To view this range: Safari Ltd Prehistoric Replicas

This new giant species of Nothosaur has been named Nothosaurus zhangi.  The species or trivial name honours the discoverer of the Luoping biota, scientist Qiyue Zhang.  Although far from complete, a comparative analysis using fossil material from the Nothosaur species known as N. giganteus, whose fossils come from Middle and Upper Triassic aged rocks in Germany, suggests that Nothosaurus zhangi was between five and seven metres in length.  Think of this ancient reptile being about the size of a large Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus).

The jaw was lined with a number of sharp, pointed teeth, many of which projected outwards to give the impression of elongated fangs.  These were adaptations to grabbing and subduing struggling prey, such as fish and cephalopods.  Given the size of Nothosaurus zhangi, it very probably hunted other, smaller marine reptiles in the shallow, tropical sea that once covered much of China.

These fossils from what would have been the eastern side of the Paleotethys Sea, when considered with the fossilised remains of other enormous Middle Triassic marine reptiles, suggests that across the world marine environments had recovered sufficiently to support complex food chains by around 245 million years ago.

A Map of the Middle Triassic Showing the Location of Apex Predator Marine Fossil Finds

Marking the location of apex predator fossils.

Marking the location of apex predator fossils.

Picture Credit: Nature: Scientific Reports with additional material from the Palaeobiology database

The map shows a whole world projection of the Middle Triassic. The super continent of Pangea is firmly established and the locations of potential apex predator marine reptile fossils have been marked.

Key

  • Thalattoarchon O – (T. saurophagis) a giant Ichthyosaur estimated to have measured 8-9 metres in length (YELLOW)
  • Cymbospondylus (several species), a basal Ichthyosaur estimated to have reached lengths in excess of 10 metres (BLUE)
  • Nothosaurus giganteus – estimated to be about 5-7 metres long (PURPLE)
  • Nothosaurus zhangi – estimated to be about 5-7 metres long (RED)

Thanks to the astonishing variety of fossils from the Luoping Province, scientists have been able to build up a great deal of knowledge about life in the seas surrounding the ancient land mass on the western fringes of Pangea, that was to eventually become China. The researchers have been able to develop a complex food chain diagram and the newly described Nothosaurus zhangi is placed at the top of the food chain as the largest predator discovered to date.

A Food Chain Constructed Using Luoping Biota Fossil Data

Nothosaurus zhangi at the top of the food chain.

Nothosaurus zhangi at the top of the food chain.

Picture Credit: Nature: Scientific Reports

It may have taken terrestrial life slightly longer to recover from the end Permian extinction event, but based on this evidence, many of the shallow sea environments had recovered fully and new types of fauna had filled ecological niches.

To read an article published in April 2014 about the discovery of a bizarre type of marine reptile (Atopodentatus) from the Luoping Biota: Bizarre Triassic Marine Reptile Described

British Palaeontologist Discovers New Species of Dinosaur in a Canadian Museum

Those Complicated North American Chasmosaurs

It has happened before and we are certain that it will happen again.  A scientist examining the fossilised remains of dinosaurs within the collection of a museum, finds that on analysis, specimens ascribed to known genera, turn out to be new species. Dr. Nick Longrich from the Biology and Biochemistry department of the University of Bath was studying Ceratopsian (horned dinosaur) specimens at the Canadian Museum of Nature (Ottawa, Canada) and thanks to his research, two horned dinosaur fossils, known from the Dinosaur Provincial Park Formation of Alberta and previously believed to represent Anchiceratops and Chasmosaurus may actually represent animals new to science.

Writing in the scientific journal “Cretaceous Research”, Dr. Longrich proposes that the fossils he studied, although from Canada, resemble dinosaurs known from much further south, from New Mexico and Utah to be precise.

How could this be?  Let’s start with by looking at the landmass we now know as North America and what it looked like some seventy-five million years ago in the Late Cretaceous.  In the Late Cretaceous, rising sea levels and tectonic forces led to the formation of an immense shallow sea that covered much of the continent.  This sea, which effectively linked the Arctic Ocean with the Gulf of Mexico, is known as the Western Interior Seaway.  The extent of the seaway changed over millions of years, shaping the landmasses and also influencing the flora and fauna that lived on them.  Towards the very end of the Cretaceous further plate movements and a phase of resulting mountain building led to the shrinking of the sea, the seaway retreated shrinking to represent a marine environment less than 10% of its maximum area by the beginning of the Cenozoic.

North America in the Late Cretaceous

North America 75 million years ago and 65 million years ago

North America 75 million years ago and 65 million years ago

Picture Credit: Dr. Ron Blakey of Colorado Plateau Geosystems, Inc

 The picture above shows how the shape of the continent is believed to have changed over the last ten million years or so of the Cretaceous Period, now back to Dr. Longrich.  The landmass that existed on the western side of this seaway is known as Laramidia.  Dinosaurs dominated this part of the world, just as they did in all the other terrestrial environments during the Cretaceous, but the fossil record preserved indicates that there was a tremendous variety of dinosaurs in this part of the world.  What is more, there seems to have been distinct faunal provinces, the southern portion of this landmass had different dinosaurs to those found on the northern parts of Laramidia.  The fossil record seems to show ethnicity in the fauna that evolved, how and why this occurred (even if it actually occurred at all), has been hotly debated by palaeontologists.  Some scientists have suggested that there must have been physical barriers between populations that over tens of thousands of years permitted new, distinct species to evolve.

To read an article related to this:  A Surge in Mountain Building May Have Led to Dinosaur Diversification

The horned dinosaur specimens studied by Dr. Longrich had previously been classified as Anchiceratops and Chasmosaurus, species known from Canada, the north of Laramidia.  However, after re-analysing these particular fossils, he realised that they more closely resembled dinosaurs from the southern part of the Laramidia landmass.  Two frill fragments from the uppermost Dinosaur Park Formation, found near Manyberries, south-east Alberta, that had thought to represent Anchiceratops have been re-classified as Pentaceratops dinosaur material.  These Canadian frill bones are sufficiently different in their morphology from Pentaceratops sternbergii, which is known from New Mexico, that they have been ascribed to a new Pentaceratops species – P. aquilonius

An Artist’s Impression of Pentaceratops aquilonius

A new species of "northern Pentaceratops".

A new species of “northern Pentaceratops”.

Picture Credit: University of Bath

Pentaceratops aquilonius may have been very closely related to the southern Pentaceratops (P. sternbergii), but it was smaller and it had differently shaped frill bones and a different arrangement of hornlets (epiparietals).  The genus name means “five horned face”, although, just like the much later and more famous Triceratops, this dinosaur only had three horns.  The elongated jugal bones on the side of the skull  had horny outgrowths, when viewed from the front, this dinosaur had the appearance of having five horns.  The species name aquilonius means “northern” – a reference to where this dinosaur roamed.

The second horned dinosaur fossil specimens, studied by Dr. Longrich had been thought to represent Chasmosaurus.  However, the British palaeontologist noted that the partial skull in the Canadian Museum of Nature’s collection closely resembled another type of horned dinosaur called Kosmoceratops.  Fossils of Kosmoceratops have been found in Utah, (Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument), this horned dinosaur was named and described back in 2010.

To read more about Kosmoceratops: Those Curious Ceratopsians

Phylogenetic analysis of the skull’s characteristics places this specimen in a sister taxon to Kosmoceratops richardsoni, the name ascribed to the Utah fossil finds.  More fossils are required from the Dinosaur  Provincial Park Formation before a new species of Kosmoceratops can be erected.

Not So Distinct Northern and Southern Provinces in Laramida

A mixing of faunas, at least amongst elements of the Ceratopsidae.

A mixing of faunas, at least amongst elements of the Ceratopsidae.

Picture Credit: University of Bath

The diagram above maps the two dinosaurs (coloured red)  in situ with other Chasmosaurine dinosaur fossil discoveries.  Dinosaurs would spread from one part of the continent to another and then diverge from their “home” ancestors to evolve into a new species.  Competition between the different species then would have prevented the dinosaurs from moving between the northern and southern provinces, although changes in climate and flora may too have had an affect.  The established populations may have been able to resist migrations as they had specifically evolved to cope with local conditions.

Dr. Longrich stated:

“We thought we had discovered most of the species, but it seems there are many undiscovered dinosaurs left.  There are lots of species out there, we’ve really only just scratched the surface.”

But why were there so many species of mega fauna in this part of the world during the Late Cretaceous.  This pattern is not seen in many ecosystems today.  Dr Longrich has a theory, he thinks:

“In living mammals, there tend to be relatively few large species, and they have large ranges.  With Cretaceous dinosaurs, we see a lot of large species in a single habitat.  They also tend to be very regional, as you move from one habitat to another, you get a completely different set of species.”

These patterns of distribution might help explain why palaeontologists keep finding more types of dinosaur, when they sample different habitats, they find different species.

Dr. Longrich speculates that the biology of these reptiles could be the reason for these patterns:

“In this sense, dinosaur biology seems quite different from mammal biology.  It could be that mammals are more intelligent and so they tend to have more flexible behaviour, they adapt their behaviour to their habitats.  On the other hand, dinosaurs may have had to adapt themselves physically to survive in a different habitat and as a result, they evolved into new species.  Perhaps that’s the reason why there are so many species.

The Ceratopsian fauna of Laramidia has posed a number of important questions for palaeontologists. For example, in Alberta bone beds of Centrosaurine dinosaurs (one group of Ceratopsians) are relatively common, a number of bone bed deposits have been found, whereas fossils of Chasmosaurines (the other group of Ceratopsians) are much rarer altogether and very little bone bed evidence has been discovered.

Why might this be?

We said at the beginning of this article that there had been previous cases of a new species of dinosaur being discovered when museum collections are re-examined, to read about a similar case, but this time involving the Sauropoda, see the link below.

Where’s the best place to find a new species of dinosaur: Look in a Museum for a New Dinosaur

Tiny Theropod Dinosaur Fossil Found in South Korea

Tiny Terror from South Korea

A South Korean news agency has reported that the nearly complete fossilised skeleton of a new species of meat-eating dinosaur has been discovered in Hadong county, some 300 miles south of the country’s capital Seoul.  A think tank, the National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage has stated that not only is this the most complete dinosaur skeleton to be found in South Korea it is also the smallest.  The specimen represents an individual animal that would probably have been around 30 centimetres in length, with a good portion of that being made up of the tail.  The miniature meat-eater’s skull measures 5.7 centimetres long and is 2.6 centimetres wide.  Palaeontologists have yet to determine whether the fossil is of a young dinosaur or an adult animal.

A Picture of the Fossil Material Released by the News Agency

Tiny fossils from South Korea.

Tiny fossils from South Korea.

Picture Credit: Yonhap News Agency

The picture above shows the partially exposed skeleton, elements from the skull as well as the ribs and part of the back bone can be made out.  From the photograph, it is difficult to determine what sort of creature this could be, it does not look particularly Theropod like with this dorsal view (view from the top looking down) of the specimen.

A number of dinosaur and other prehistoric animal fossils have been found in the Early Cretaceous rocks that are exposed in Hadong county (South Gyeongsang province).  This fossil has been tentatively dated to around 120 million years ago (Aptian faunal stage of the Early Cretaceous).  Sauropod tracks are also known from this part of the world, as well as fragmentary evidence supporting the presence of large, carnivorous dinosaurs including some remarkable bones that might have preserved evidence of dinosaur feeding behaviour.

To read about the discovery of dinosaur bones that might provide evidence of feeding:  Strange Marks in the Bones – Dinosaurs Feeding?

Back in 2008, the South Korean Government failed in their attempt to get part of the coastline of the country, with its rich and varied Mesozoic fossils, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Intriguingly, notes accompanying the press release stated that the tiny fossil had vertebrae connected to the ribs, whether this statement means that the ribs were actually fused to the backbone is unclear.  It has also been suggested that another specimen is located in the same matrix.  We at Everything Dinosaur, will look out for further press releases, hopefully more information about this discovery  will come to light.

Could the Fossils Represent a New Species of Tiny Theropod Dinosaur?

Many small meat-eating dinosaurs once roamed the British Isles

Many small meat-eating dinosaurs once roamed ancient environments.

Picture Credit: Dinosaurs of the British Isles (Siri Scientific Press)

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