Category: Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories

Walking Fish Provides Clues to the First Tetrapods

Researchers Study Living Fish to Gain Insight Into Fossil Record

Arguably one of the most significant events in the history of life on Earth occurred when the first vertebrates walked on land.  The date when types of prehistoric fish made the move to land and began the evolutionary journey that would lead to the Tetrapods keeps changing in the light of new fossil discoveries.  Tetrapods are vertebrates, this group includes the amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals and that means, we are Tetrapods too.  One of the most important fossil discoveries in recent years, was made in a limestone quarry in Poland.  On one stone slab scientists discovered strange track-like marks about fifteen centimetres wide.  These were controversially interpreted as having been made by the limbs of an animal capable of moving around on land.  It was envisaged that whatever strange creature made these marks, it must have been more than two metres long.  This trace fossil suggests that the first animals walked on land around 400-395 million years ago, some thirty-five million years earlier than previously thought.

To read more about this Polish discovery: Clues to the First Land Animals?

A team of researchers from McGill University (Montreal, Canada), have turned to a living fish in order to gain a better understanding of the evolutionary changes that must have taken place to allow certain types of fish such as the Sarcopterygians to adapt to a more terrestrial lifestyle.  If, sometime around 400 million years ago (Lower Devonian Epoch), a group of fish began exploring terrestrial environments, the first stage on the long evolutionary journey to the Tetrapods, how did these fish do it?  What changes to their bodies and fins took place to allow them to adapt to this new habitat?  Helping to answer these questions was the aim of the research team at McGill University and to do this they turned to a living (extant) fish called Polypterus.

Little Fish Takes Part in “Ground Breaking” Experiments

A giant leap for fish-kind!

A giant leap for fish-kind!

Picture Credit: McGill University

There are ten or so species in the Polypterus genus, as far as we at Everything Dinosaur know, they are all African and freshwater fish.  Polypterus is the only vertebrate known to science that possesses lungs and is capable of breathing air but has no trachea.  These little fish have been studied for more than one hundred and fifty years, Thomas Huxley no less was involved in some of the earliest research.  He placed them in the Order Crossopterygii, now regarded as a synonym of the Sarcopterygii – although this classification has now been largely disproved.  The first successful domestic breeding programme commenced in 2005, this paved the way for laboratory studies.

The McGill team in collaboration with the University of Ottawa, studied Polypterus fish to show what might have happened when fish first attempted to walk out of the water.  These air breathing fish can “walk” on land, (really it is a bit of shuffle), but they do superficially resemble Devonian Sarcopterygians, (hence Huxley’s classification).  The scientists raised juvenile Polypterus on land for nearly a year, with an aim of revealing how these “terrestrialised” fish looked and moved when compared to Polypterus specimens raised in a more normal environment.

Project leader, Emily Standen, a former McGill University post-doctoral student stated:

“Stressful environmental conditions can often reveal otherwise cryptic anatomical and behavioural variation, a form of developmental plasticity.  We wanted to use this mechanism to see what new anatomies and behaviours we could trigger in these fish and see if they match what we know from the fossil record.”

The team discovered that these fish underwent remarkable anatomical and behavioural changes in response to their stressful environment.  These fish walked more effectively by placing their fins closer to their bodies, lifted their heads higher and kept their fins from slipping as much as fish that were raised in water.

Polypterus Showed Anatomical and Behavioural Changes

Helping to explain the evolution of Tetrapods.

Helping to explain the evolution of Tetrapods.

Picture Credit: McGill University

Fellow researcher, Trina Du (McGill University PhD student) explained:

“Anatomically, their pectoral skeleton changed to become more elongate with stronger attachments across their chest, possibly to increase support during walking and a reduced contact with the skull to potentially allow greater head or potential neck motion.”

Hans Larsson, Canada Research Chair in Macroevolution at McGill and an Associate Professor at the Redpath Museum added:

“Because many of the anatomical changes mirror the fossil record, we can hypothesise that the behavioural changes we see also reflect what may have occurred when fossil fish first walked with their fins on land.”

The “terrestrialised” Polypterus is unique and provides fresh ideas on how fossil fishes may have used their fins in a terrestrial environment and what evolutionary processes may have been involved.  Hans Larsson went onto to say that this experiment was the first example that they were aware of, that demonstrated developmental plasticity may have facilitated a large-scale evolutionary transition, by first accessing new anatomies and behaviours that could later be genetically fixed in the population by natural selection.

The study was conducted by Emily Standen, University of Ottawa, and Hans Larsson, Trina Du at McGill University and supported by the Canada Research Chairs Program, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and Tomlinson Post-doctoral fellowship.  It has been published in the journal “Nature”.  Everything Dinosaur acknowledges the help of McGill University in the compilation of this article.

Cracking the Secrets of Dinosaur Eggs

University Team Hope to use Synchrotron Light Source to Scan Dinosaur Eggs

Scientists from Mississippi State University hope to learn more about the contents of dinosaur eggs using the Diamond Light Synchrotron facility based near Didcot in Oxfordshire to “virtually dissect”  fossil material.  In an international collaboration with researchers from the National Museum of Wales, the intention is to produce three-dimensional, X-ray images of two batches of Late Cretaceous dinosaur eggs from Montana.  The first set of fossilised dinosaur eggs, each one about the size of a Galia melon, was found in 2002, the second clutch of eggs was found last year at the same location.

It is the first time, (as far as we at Everything Dinosaur are aware), that scientists will examine dinosaur eggs using a synchrotron in a bid to identify the dinosaur species from an embryo.  Leading the research, is Geosciences doctoral student at Mississippi State, John Paul Jones, he was lucky to have found the dinosaur eggs whilst exploring part of the Judith River Formation.  One of the batches of eggs has already been subjected to CT (computerised tomography) scanning, this has helped reveal evidence of dinosaur bones in some of the eggs, however, the images and data produced by the Diamond Light Source should help John Paul Jones identify the species and perhaps even the gender of the embryos.

Both the CT scans and the synchrotron method are non-destructive, the actual fossil material remains undamaged and intact.

The Geosciences student explained:

“If you cut it, then you have a damaged egg.  It’s just a rock that has been sliced in half.  With the synchrotron technology, we will get the actual image that can be used to make a model.  We should get a three-dimensional replica of the bones.”

If the images are able to provide greater clarity of the skull material along with the pelvic bones, it is hoped that the species of dinosaur that laid the eggs will be revealed.  The scientists are fairly confident that the eggs were produced by a Hadrosaur, trouble is, a number of Hadrosaur fossil remains are associated with the strata that make up this part of the Judith River Group.  Could the eggs be from a Brachylophosaurus or a Lambeosaurine duck-billed dinosaur?  Indeed, the eggs could provide evidence of other types of Hadrosaur living in this part of Montana at this time in the Late Cretaceous (between 80 and 75 million years ago), or perhaps the eggs could be from an entirely new to science species of dinosaur.

Some of the Dinosaur Fossil Eggs Having a CT Scan

Dinosaur eggs being CT scanned.

Dinosaur eggs being CT scanned.

Picture Credit: Megan Bean

Recently, Everything Dinosaur reported on a media day that took place in southern Alberta at the famous Devil’s Coulee fossil site.  A team from the Royal Tyrrell Museum took members of the public and the media on a tour of this highly fossiliferous location looking at the remains of dinosaur nests and eggs that had been found there.

To read more about this article: Updates on Alberta’s Scrambled Eggs

The Devil’s Coulee site is part of the Oldman Formation of Alberta. This strata is between 77 and 75 million years old.  These rocks are contemporaneous with parts of the Judith River Group, so it is possible that these locations may share closely related Hadrosaurine fauna.

At this stage, the scientists are reluctant to speculate on any species identification. From the lower resolution scans a potential skull crest has been identified on one embryo.  The synchrotron should be able to create a series of three-dimensional slices through the fossil material.  These slices can be used by a computer programme to build a 3-D model of the contents.  If the resolution is high enough, a species identification could be made.  If this is the case, then we at Everything Dinosaur think that this might be a first for palaeontology.

The doughnut shaped Diamond Light Source (Didcot, Oxfordshire) is in essence, a particle accelerator, with a circumference in excess of half a kilometre.  Electrons are generated and fired out into the synchrotron, these electrons are then accelerated to very near light speed.  They give off energy in the form of intense light.  This light can be channelled via “beamlines” and it is this very bright light source that enables scientists to X-ray solid objects such as rocks containing fossils to produce 3-D pictures of the contents.  As these extremely strong X-rays travel through an object, the different densities of the fossil material and the surrounding matrix absorb different parts of the X-ray light spectrum.  These different absorption rates are then used to plot data and produce the images.

One of the Images Generated by the Recent CT Scans

A labelled CT scan showing dinosaur embryo fossils.

A labelled CT scan showing dinosaur embryo fossils.

Picture Credit:  Megan Bean; submitted image highlighted by Hayley Gilmore

The picture above shows an image from a CT scan, the egg shell and fossilised bones have been labelled and highlighted.  In the other eggs, the resolution of the scanner was not high enough to create a definite internal image.  Researchers involved in this joint project between the American university and National Museum of Wales, hope to use an analysis of zircon crystals deposited amongst ash from ancient volcanic eruptions within the Judith River Formation to more accurately date the eggs.  A better idea of the age of the dinosaur eggs will help the team to assess which dinosaur species potentially produced these clutches.

Updates on Alberta’s “Scrambled Eggs”

“Egg-citing” Times Ahead for Palaeontologists on Prehistoric Egg Hunt

With the summer excavation season drawing to a close and with wet and unsettled weather forecast, fieldworkers from the Royal Tyrrell Museum (Alberta, Canada) are in a race against time to identify and protect dinosaur eggs being eroded out of the hillsides at the Devil’s Coulee dig site.  Earlier this week, the Royal Tyrrell Museum in association with the Devil’s Coulee Dinosaur and Heritage Museum held an open day, inviting the media and members of the public to tour the highly fossiliferous site located close to the small town of Warner (southern Alberta).

Palaeoecologist Dr. Francois Therrien identified a possible Maiasaura nest site at Devil’s Coulee and this week, the Drumheller based scientist conducted a tour of the Devil’s Coulee giving the media a rare insight into the current research work being undertaken.

Dr. Francois Therrien with a Cast of a Baby Dinosaur

A cast of a baby duck-billed dinosaur fossil.

A cast of a baby duck-billed dinosaur fossil.

Picture Credit: Devil’s Coulee Dinosaur and Heritage Museum

The mudstones in this area were formed around seventy-five million years ago (Campanian faunal stage of the Late Cretaceous) and they have yielded a number of fossil finds including dinosaur bones and turtle shells.  However, the site is most famous for the numerous dinosaur eggs discovered and the fossilised remains of dinosaur embryos that have been found.  Two different genera of giant, herbivorous dinosaurs used this area as a nesting site.  Maiasaura, whose fossils have been found in Montana in the main and a second duck-billed dinosaur known as Hypacrosaurus.  Dr. Therrien and his colleagues also believe that at least five different Cretaceous carnivores also nested at this location, just a dozen or so miles north of the Canadian/United States border.

The Media and Members of the Public are Taken on a Tour of the Fossil Site

An audience for an excavation.

An audience for an excavation.

Picture Credit: Picture Credit: Devil’s Coulee Dinosaur and Heritage Museum

Dr. Therrien commented:

“This is a really rich spot, the area is literally covered with dinosaur egg shells.  Earlier this summer I was walking around the Devil’s Coulee and I saw egg shells breaking through the surface.”

The significance of the Devil’s Coulee site became apparent in 1987 when a local teenager exploring the site came across some strange objects eroding out of the soft mudstones.  These turned out to be fragments of dinosaur eggs, since then, four fossilised embryos of the Hadrosaur known as Hypacrosaurus have been discovered, including “Charlie”, a beautifully preserved baby dinosaur, one the most important baby dinosaur fossils known to science.  The Devil’s Coulee site was the first and so far only, extensive dinosaur nesting site to have been discovered in Canada, although the last nest to be excavated, that of a little carnivorous dinosaur called Troodon took place six years ago.

One of the problems with Devil’s Coulee is that there is a rapid rate of erosion.  The harsh Canadian winters and hot summers have taken a terrible toll on the delicate fossils eroding out of the hillside.  If sites such as this are not explored frequently then who knows what untold ancient treasures would be lost to the elements.  The best way to recover both fossilised eggs and any potential dinosaur embryos that may have been preserved is to identify fossil material at an early stage of erosion and then to carefully excavate and remove the surrounding rock.  In this way, the large blocks containing the fossil material can be transported to a preparation lab and painstakingly excavated to reveal their fossilised secrets.

The eggs that Dr. Therrien spotted are most likely those of a Maiasaura.  The eggs are approximately the size of a galia melon.

A Model of a Maiasaura Dinosaur with her Nest

Model of "Good Mother Lizard"

Model of “Good Mother Lizard” – Maiasaura

Picture Credit: Safari Ltd

The picture above shows a Maiasaura dinosaur model with a nest.

The doctor explained:

“When the egg comes to the surface, it falls apart so in order to preserve it we have to collect a big block of rock and take it back to the lab.  We know the eggs will be inside the block.”

The Royal Tyrrell Museum field team are also examining a second, nearby location that might be the remains of a Hypacrosaurus nest.  Unfortunately, this delicate process, literally a case of “avoiding treading on egg shells”, may have to be suspended as bad weather is forecast in the area.  Once September draws to an end, the nights are getting increasingly longer and the temperature begins to drop.  The permineralised remains of the eggs of dinosaurs are then subjected to frequent freeze/thaw actions with the onset of winter.  This can lead to the fragmentation and break-up of any exposed fossil material.  Field workers help to minimise this damage by covering potential dig sites with jackets of burlap and plaster.  These afford some protection for the fragile fossils held in the rocks underneath.

One of the Most Important Vertebrate Fossils Found in Canada

"Charlie" the baby Hypacrosaurus dinosaur.

“Charlie” the baby Hypacrosaurus dinosaur.

Picture Credit: Devil’s Coulee Dinosaur and Heritage Museum

We at Everything Dinosaur wish all those involved in the excavation and study the very best of luck and we thank the Devil’s Coulee Dinosaur and Heritage Museum for sending us some photographs of the media event.

Plans to Provide a Trail to Utah’s Dinosaur Tracks

Bureau of Land Management Plans to Provide a Trail to Dinosaur Trackway Site

Residents of the town of Moab in Utah are hoping that in the very near future, visitors are going to get much better access to a number of the preserved dinosaur footprints and tracks that have been found in the area.  This part of Grand County (Eastern Utah), is famous for its extensive trace fossils of dinosaurs and other Mesozoic creatures, earlier this year, Everything Dinosaur reported on the theft of a three-toed dinosaur footprint.  Such thefts are an all too common occurrence these days and news that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is planning a properly organised dinosaur footprint trail is most welcome.

To read about the dinosaur footprint theft: Man Charged over Fossil Footprint Theft

Last month, Utah resident Jared Ehlers, who had originally denied any involvement in the theft, admitted stealing and disposing of a dinosaur footprint fossil.  By pleading guilty at a pre-trial hearing, Mr Ehlers was able to have the charges of theft, destruction of evidence and depredation of government property dropped.  Under the terms of a plea deal, he was fined $15,000 USD (£9,000 GBP) and ordered to serve a year’s probation, including six months of home confinement.

The tracks that the BLM intend to create a trail for were discovered by a hiker in 2009.  Scientists from the University of Colorado in conjunction with the BLM had began excavations last year, over the last few weeks a team of volunteers have been clearing away the last of the surface material in preparation for the first public tours.  Up until now the actual location was kept under wraps, this has helped the palaeontologists and ichnologists (specialists who study trace fossils), to map the fossil site and to prevent any potential thefts.

One of the Three-toed Dinosaur Footprints at the Site

A Three-toed dinosaur footprint (Moab).

A Three-toed dinosaur footprint (Moab).

Picture Credit: John Hollenhorst, Deseret News

Over two hundred individual tracks have been uncovered to date and in at least one area an extensive trackway left by a single dinosaur has been discovered.  This trackway consists of seventeen consecutive prints.  Scientists estimate that at least ten different genera may be represented by the trace fossil material.

For Bureau of Land Management palaeontologist, Rebecca Hunt-Foster, the opportunity to help create a tourist trail leading to a greater understanding of the importance of this area for fossils, may help deter thefts in the future.  It is all part of helping to educate and inform local residents and visitors to the area.

Commenting on the significance of the location, the palaeontologist stated:

“It helps kind of to fill in the gaps about these animals that we don’t know much about.  We know they were here, but we just don’t find their bones.”

Such is the excellent state of preservation that even the tail drag from a prehistoric crocodile has been identified.

A Picture Showing the Preserved Tail Drag Fossil

Preserved in the stone a tail drag mark left by a Cretaceous crocodile.

Preserved in the stone a tail drag mark left by a Cretaceous crocodile.

Picture Credit: John Hollenhorst, Deseret News

It is hoped that once the site has been cleared, BLM staff will finish formally mapping and plotting the extensive trackway using three-dimensional photography (photogrammetry).  The fossils were found in strata that make up part of the Ruby Ranch Member of the Cedar Mountain Formation.  The fossils are believed to be around 125 million years of age (Late Barremian faunal stage to Early Aptian faunal stage of the Cretaceous).  As such, these trace fossils are slightly younger than the majority of the dinosaur footprints and other trace fossils preserved in the exposed Wessex Formation of the Isle of Wight.

As the BLM’s regional palaeontologist, Rebecca admits that providing greater access to these sites whilst maintaining their security is a delicate balancing act.  For example, a number of the prints were made by a three-toed Theropod, these tracks are very similar to the one stolen and subsequently lost earlier this year.

Once the volunteers have finished clearing the site and the mapping is completed, then the scientific value of these trace fossils will have some measure of protection.  For having mapped and plotted the tracks very accurately the prints can be replicated, should the fossils be eroded away, damaged or even stolen the data recorded will still permit palaeontologists to study them.

Rebecca explained the importance of the systematic recording of the footprints and other trace fossils by stating:

“We will be able to replicate any of the tracks, should they ever be damaged or destroyed.  And, also people will be able to study them without doing damage to the actual surface.”

The Bureau of Land Management is currently fund raising to build a trail to the dinosaur tracks.  The agency hopes to have the site open to the public in about six weeks time.

“Great Eggspectations” Team Members Await News from the Royal Tyrrell Museum

Scientists Hope to Find More Dinosaur Eggs and Dinosaur Babies in Alberta

Palaeontologists from the Royal Tyrrell Museum (Drumheller, Alberta), one of our favourite parts of the world, have a busy few hours ahead of them.  Starting about now field staff from the museum led by the curator of dinosaur palaeoecologyy Dr. François Therrien, will begin excavating an area which could potentially contain a nest of dinosaur eggs and fossilised embryos.  If an intact or near complete nest of dinosaur eggs is found, it will be the first of its kind ever to be discovered in Canada.

The Royal Tyrrell team will be exploring two locations within the Devil’s Coulee Dinosaur Egg Site, which is in the small town of Warner, about three hours drive or so from the Museum.  Seventy-five million years ago or thereabouts, this part of southern Alberta was a duck-billed dinosaur nesting ground with at least two genera of Hadrosaurs known to have nested in the area.  The media has been invited in so that they can witness and report upon the progress of the excavation.

A Hypacrosaurus egg was discovered eroding out of a hill earlier this summer and a second site identified which contained a substantial amount of fossilised eggshells which were once part of a Maisaura’s nest.  Hypacrosaurus was a member of the Lambeosaurine clade of duck-billed dinosaurs.  It had a dome-shaped crest on its head.  Fossils of this large, herbivorous dinosaur have been found in Alberta and over the border in Montana (United States).

A Picture of Two Duck-Billed Dinosaurs (Hypacrosaurus)

Hoping to find a nest of dinosaur eggs.

Hoping to find a nest of dinosaur eggs.

Picture Credit: Ohio State University

Maiasaura was a Saurolophini clade member of the duck-billed dinosaur.  The name means “Good Mother Lizard” and this dinosaur is most famous for being sent into space (another blog article) and for providing scientists with extensive evidence of dinosaur nesting sites.  A nesting colony, nick-named “Egg Mountain” because of the wealth of fossil material, was discovered in Montana.  Dr. Therrien and the rest of the field team will be hoping to find intact eggshells and the preserved remains of dinosaur embryos or possibly dinosaur babies.

An Illustration of a Maiasaura and Her Nest

"Good Mother Lizard"

“Good Mother Lizard”

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The Devil’s Coulee site was discovered in 1987 when a local teenager found dinosaur eggshell fragments.  Since then it has been one of the best known locations in the world for dinosaur nests and embryo fossils, however, no new evidence of a dinosaur nest has been found for over six years.  The Royal Tyrrell team are hoping to rectify this and add to the research on the four Hypacrosaurus nests that have been found at this location.

Good luck to everyone involved.  Hope you have smashing time (not literally of course).

Oh yes, that reference to Maiasaura in space, for an explanation: Dinosaurs in Space

Like Mother Like Son – Mammoth Tusks Found 22 Years Apart

Son Finds Mammoth Tusk at Same Location as Mother

Sometimes there can be strange coincidences surrounding fossil finds.  On this blog we have reported the discovery of an Iguanodont dinosaur bone in Sunderland, the discovery of more dinosaur fossils in a Frenchman’s garden and how a stone ornament turned out to be the remains of a prehistoric fish.  However, this week, a story about the finding of a Woolly Mammoth tusk in Alaska caught our attention.  The discovery of the four-metre long tusk is no great surprise, after all, for hundreds of thousands of years, these ancient elephants roamed North America, but in this instance the finder’s mum had found another tusk at the same location twenty-two years earlier.

Andrew Poses with His Lucky Find

History repeats itself, son finds Mammoth tusk in same location as mum.

History repeats itself, son finds Mammoth tusk in same location as mum.

Picture Credit: Andrew Harrelson

Andrew Harrelson was having no luck fishing for Salmon on the Fish River, close to his home in the village of White Mountain about fifty miles east of the settlement called Nome.  He decided to wander along the bank to see what the river had washed out of the bank and whether there were any fossils to be found.  At a bend in the river, near to the spot where his mother had found a thirty-six kilogramme mammoth tusk back in 1992, he spotted a large Mammoth tusk eroding out of the sediment.  Andrew was only three when his mother found the tusk, he barely recalls the incident, but he did pose for a picture with the fossil, although at the time he had no idea what the strange object was.

Andrew recalled:

“This big, old log-looking thing.  I had no clue what it was until they told me.”

The square and blocky teeth (cheek teeth) of Mammoths have also been found at this location, in a bid to explain why this particular area holds a number of Mammoth remains, Mr Harrelson’s father Daniel stated:

“I think at one point, thousands of years ago, it must have been a mud hole or something that animals got stuck in and then died in it.  Everything froze in there and then slowly, over time, thaws out a little bit year by year.”

When first spotted, only the base of the tusk was exposed, Andrew returned to the spot a little while later and with the help of a relative they were able to prise the four-metre long tusk out of the riverbank.

Having weighed their fossil find on the bathroom scales the Alaskan family are now the proud owners of seventy-three kilogrammes of Mammoth ivory.  Dale Guthrie, a retired palaeontologist from the University of Alaska Fairbanks explained that the Mammoth remains could be anything from 400,000 to just 12,000 years old.  He stated that the last glacial period in Alaska occurred around 18,000 years ago with the Mammoths becoming extinct around 12,000 years ago.  Radiometric dating was the only technique that could provide a method of determining the fossil’s true age.

The 1992 Picture of Mum with Her Fossil Find

3 year old Andrew poses in front of the 1992 find.

3 year old Andrew poses in front of the 1992 find.

Picture Credit: Andrew Harrelson

Andrew hopes to sell his lucky find, a question of history repeating itself just twenty-two years after his mum found a Mammoth tusk.  He wants to raise funds so that he can use the money raised as a down payment on a family home.  Although it is illegal to trade elephant ivory, Mammoth ivory can be sold under certain circumstances, we at Everything Dinosaur believe.  Most of Alaska is public land and it is against the law to remove Mammoth fossils from federal or state property without a Bureau of Land Management permit, however, the area surrounding the Fish River is privately held and so long as permission is granted  fossils can be collected.  As with all these cases, we would urge those involved to check with the authorities with regards to the legal implications for such a sale.

New Species of Flying Reptile Identified from “Pterosaur Graveyard”

New Flying Reptile with a Crest Shaped Like a Butterfly’s Wing

Scientists have announced the discovery of a new species of flying reptile (Pterosaur) that very probably lived in colonies and had a bizarre head crest shaped like the wing of a butterfly.  The fossils were found in south-eastern Brazil, near to Cruzeiro do Oeste in Paraná State, about 300 miles west of the city of São Paulo.  The actual fossil site discovery was made in 1971, but a formal study of the extensive fossil material has only just been completed. The scientists who carried out the research were drawn together from various Brazilian museums and research institutes as this discovery represents the first time an extensive bone-bed of Pterosaur fossils has ever been found.  The fossilised remains of at least forty-seven flying reptiles have been described to date, although the strata may have preserved the remains of hundreds of individual animals.

This new species has been named Caiuajara dobruskii (pronounced Kay-you-ah-jar-rah doe-brusk-key)  and the fossils represent  mainly young animals although the remains of at least two fully grown adults have been identified.  The smallest Pterosaurs preserved had wingspans of around sixty-five centimetres, whilst the adults had wingspans in excess of 2.3 metres, making a fully grown Caiuajara about the size of Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos).

An Artist’s Impression of the New Species of Flying Reptile

The fossilised bones of at least 47 individuals have been found.

The fossilised bones of at least 47 individuals have been found.

Picture Credit: Maurilio Oliveira/Museu Nacional-UFRJ

So far, about 130 different genera of Pterosaur have been identified worldwide.  However, most of these are known from just a few fragmentary bones.  In this instance, the palaeontologists have hundreds of bones to study and they can map the growth and development of these creatures.  It seems that the bizarre “butterfly-wing shaped crest”, got bigger and more elaborate as this reptile grew and matured.  The Brazilian researchers were able to plot how the crest changed as these animals got older.  Palaeontologists think that a number of types of flying reptile sported elaborate crests.  It seems that the males of many species used their crests to display and attract a mate, as the one definite fossil of a female Pterosaur known did not have a substantial crest.

Crest Shape and Size Changed as these Pterosaurs Grew

Reconstructing the shape of adult and juvenile Caiuajara skulls.

Reconstructing the shape of adult and juvenile Caiuajara skulls.

Picture Credit: PLOS One/Everything Dinosaur

The picture on the left shows various bone fragments representing different stages of growth, from very young animals (top left) through to mature adults (bottom right).  The crest images indicate the suggested changes in the skulls of these Pterosaurs as these animals grew and matured  from a juvenile skull (light colour) to an adult (dark colour).

The fossils were found at three levels of sandstone that form part of the Caiuá Group of the Goio-Erê Formation.  A fourth layer, representing a younger geological deposit was also excavated but this only yielded a few very fragmentary remains.  The strata represents deposition in a palaeodesert environment associated with a water source, very probably a lake.  The research team have suggested that Caiuajara dobruskii lived in large colonies around an oasis which was surrounded by desert.  Since no egg shell material has been recovered it seems unlikely that this was a nesting site.  However, study of the very youngest specimens suggest that these animals were precocial (able to fend for themselves almost immediately after hatching), and that they could fly at a very young age,  although an extensive period of parental care is not ruled out by the researchers.

As the fossils were found in defined layers, the scientists have concluded that this region was home to Pterosaur populations for an extended period of time, thousands of years.  Dramatic events such as violent storms could have hit the colony from time to time carrying any bones into the lake where they would eventually be preserved.  An alternative hypothesis, not favoured by the researchers, who have published their data in the latest edition of the on line scientific journal “PLOS One”, is that this region represented a staging post and Caiuajara was migratory.

Demonstrating the Density of the Fossil Material that Accumulated

Dense fossil deposit.

Dense fossil deposit.

Picture Credit: PLOS One

The picture above shows one of the blocks of sandstone containing a large number of disarticulated Pterosaur fossil bones, at least fourteen partial skulls have been identified in this individual stone block.  Scale bar = 20 centimetres, mandible (jaw bones) = man and cranium (skull bones) = cra.

This is an important fossil discovery because:

  • This is the first time Pterosaur fossils have been found in south-eastern Brazil.  Brazil has produced some amazing Pterosaur fossils in the past but these have been located in the north-east of the country.
  • The quantity of fossils has permitted scientists to plot how the anatomy of these flying reptiles changed as the animals grew.
  • The finding of so many fossils of the same species together indicates that these animals may have lived in colonies, it suggests that Pterosaurs may have been highly social animals.
  • Caiaujara dobruskii fossil material is associated with an inland environment, most Pterosaur fossils have been found in marine sediments.
  • These fossils may represent the youngest (in terms of geological age) of this type of Pterosaur found anywhere in the world.

If Pterosaurs like C. dobruskii were indeed gregarious and highly social animals then this might help explain the evolution of those bizarre crests.  Bigger and more elaborate crests being selected for as females over generations showed a preference for larger crests in potential mates.

This new species has been assigned to the Tapejarinae sub-family of Tapejaridae Pterosaurs.  The genus name is a combination of Caiuá after the formation in which the fossils were found and the Pterosaur family name (although coincidently, there is a small town called Tapejara close to where the fossils were discovered as well).  The trivial name honours Alexandre Dobruski, who with his son, João Dobruski, found the fossil site back in 1971.

An Illustration of a Typical Pterosaur from the Tapejaridae Family

A model of Tapejara imperator (Safari Ltd)

A model of Tapejara imperator (Safari Ltd)

Picture Credit: Safari Ltd /Everything Dinosaur

The Goio-Erê Formation has proved extremely difficult to date.  It is estimated that the sandstones that make up this formation were laid down sometime in the Upper Cretaceous from around 93 million years ago to 75 million years ago.  Other Tapejaridae fossils found in north-eastern Brazil, Europe and China date from the Lower Cretaceous, making Caiaujara dobruskii potentially the youngest known member of the Tapejaridae family in terms of geological deposition.

A spokes person from Everything Dinosaur commented:

“Although the head crest makes this flying reptile look quite fierce it actually had no teeth in its jaws.  It is not known what this Pterosaur may have eaten but like other members of the Tapejara family it possessed a relatively short but robust beak.  It could have specialised in eating fruits and seeds from the flourishing flowering plants (angiosperms).  Imagine that!  Pterosaurs playing a role in seed dispersal for flowering plants.”

Dinosaur Footprints Damaged

Welsh Dinosaur Footprints Vandalised

They might be as much as 200 million years old but the thoughtless actions of fossil hunters have damaged a number of dinosaur footprints preserved at a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) in Wales.  A number of prints have been damaged including one that was filled with plaster of paris in a bid to make a cast and then an attempt was made to hammer the cast out of the rock.  The fossilised footprints form part of an important palaeontological site in the Vale of Glamorgan.  The prints can be found on a stretch of exposed coastline between the towns of Barry and Sully on the northern coast of the Bristol Channel, the trace fossils are the oldest known dinosaur tracks to found anywhere in the British Isles.

One of the Vandalised Fossilised Dinosaur Footprints

Three-toed dinosaur footprint with marks showing attempt to remove print from site.

Three-toed dinosaur footprint with marks showing attempt to remove print from site.

Picture Credit: Media Wales Ltd

The picture above shows one of the three-toed (tridactyl) prints with marks around it where an attempt was made to cut out the fossil from the surrounding rock.

The fossils, which are located in strata that form the Mercia Mudstone Group have been subjected to vandalism before.  Sadly, authorities and conservation bodies face a dilemma, do they permit free access to the site so that walkers can view the fossilised footprints and tracks in situ or should the trace fossils be removed and stored in a secure facility to prevent vandalism and fossil thefts?

Back in August 2012, Everything Dinosaur team members reported on the theft of footprint fossils from the same area, fortunately the fossils were recovered a few weeks later.

To read about the earlier fossil theft: Dinosaur Footprints Stolen from the Vale of Glamorgan

This new damage was discovered by South Wales archaeologist Karl-James Langford whilst he was conducting students around the SSSI.

Mr Langford, the founder of Archaeology Cymru (Archaeology Wales) stated:

“I took a group of ten students to give them the tour of the dinosaur footprints.  I could not hide my horror at the damage which had been deliberately caused.   We examined one print that had been filled with plaster of paris.  On a visit to inspect the damage with another group later that same day, somebody had deliberately tried to smash it out with a breeze block, damaging the 200 million year old print in the process.”

It has also been reported that fires had been lit around the site and rubbish left, calls were made last night to provide this extremely important fossil site with greater protection.

What’s so Special About this Location?

The mudstones exposed on this stretch of the coast running along the northern edge of the Bristol Channel were laid down towards the end of the Triassic Period (Upper Triassic – Norian to Rhaetian faunal stage), dinosaur footprint fossils from this time in Earth’s history are extremely rare and the site is one of the world’s most important in terms of recording the activities of Late Triassic dinosaurs.  This was an area of mud flats and silts leading towards the edge of a shallow tropical sea to the south-west.  Many different types of ancient reptile crossed these mud flats and their footprints and tracks were preserved.  Hundreds of individual prints have been recorded and something like sixty trackways have been mapped.  Most of the dinosaur tracks represent a small, three-toed, Theropod which has been given the ichnogenus Grallator.  An ichnogenus is a name given to an organism that has left trace fossils, usually tracks, prints or burrows.  Other types of dinosaur footprints have been recorded, including tracks representing a large meat-eater (Theropod) and a series of trails left by plant-eating Prosauropods.

Field Photograph Showing Preserved Trace Fossils at Barry (Vale of Glamorgan)

Dinosaur Tracks from the Late Triassic.

Dinosaur Tracks from the Late Triassic.

Picture Credit: Tom Sharpe (Dinosaurs of the British Isles)

The photograph above shows a number of rounded footprints and tracks.  The rounded prints are believed to have been made by a Prosauropod dinosaur.  Many of the tracks are quite difficult to spot, the best time to see them is in the evening when the low sun casts shadows on those tracks which represent natural casts.  In addition, if there has been recent rain, or a high tide many of the trackway depressions will be filled with water and this makes observing the prints much easier.

Team members at Everything Dinosaur would like to echo the comments made by a number of other organisations with regards to this damage.  It is essential that sites such as this are protected and safeguarded and we urge all readers to remember that this is a SSSI and as such it is an offence for any person or persons to intentionally or recklessly damage or destroy any of the features of special interest of an SSSI!

If any visitor to this location sees suspicious activity, such as damage to footprints, attempts to make casts or actions that could lead to the theft of a print, please alert the Countryside Council for Wales, the Geology Department of the National Museum of Wales or the Geologists’ Association South Wales Group.

Useful Contacts

For the Geology Department of the National Museum of Wales telephone +44 (0)29 2057 3213

Email: the Geologists’ Association of South Wales Group: webmaster@swga.org.uk

For the Countryside Council for Wales, try Natural Resources Wales (Mon-Fri) on 0300 065 3000

Early Dinosaurs of North America – Pushing the Date back 11 Million Years

New Research Suggests Dinosaurs were Living in North America Earlier than Previously Thought

A team of researchers have used radiometric dating of zircon crystals to determine that the first dinosaurs lived in North American more than eleven million years earlier than previously thought.  Publishing their work in the scientific publication “American Journal of Science”, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) scientists state that the uranium to lead decay ratios recorded in the zircon crystals indicate that there were dinosaurs living in North America as early as 223 million years ago (Carnian faunal stage of the Upper Triassic).

In addition, the team have demonstrated that these earliest dinosaurs coexisted with close non-dinosaur relatives, as well as significantly more evolved dinosaurs, for more than 12 million years.  To add to the mystery, they identified a 16-million-year gap, older than the dinosaur-bearing rocks, where there is either no trace of any vertebrates, including dinosaurs, in the rock record, or the corresponding rocks have eroded away.

During the Triassic period, most of the land masses we now know today were joined together to form a single, super-continent (Pangaea).  It had been thought that the Dinosauria evolved in the portion of this landmass that ended up becoming South America.  Fossils dated to around 228 million years ago from Argentina indicate the presence of small, Theropod dinosaurs (Eoraptor), however, the “Dinosaurs evolved in South America” theory has recently been challenged after the discovery of fragmentary fossils in southern Tanzania that may date from as early as 240 million years ago.

To read more about this: The Oldest Dinosaur?

Lead author of the paper, Jahan Ramezani, a research scientist at the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (MIT), stated:

“Right below that horizon where we find the earliest dinosaurs, there is a long gap in the fossil and rock records across the sedimentary basin.  If the record is not there, it does not mean the dinosaurs didn’t exist.  It means that either no fossils were preserved, or we haven’t found them.  That tells us the theory that dinosaurs simply started in South America and spread all over the world has no firm basis.”

The difficulty we have is that vertebrate fossil records are exceptionally fragmentary from the Triassic and what fossils that have been found such as extensive fossil material associated with the Dicynodont Placerias is very difficult to date accurately.  Another factor which can confuse palaeontologists is that during the Triassic, a number of Archosaur groups thrived and determining which fossils represent an example of a true dinosaur or a Crocodylomorph, Aetosaur or Rauisuchian is a very complicated business.

During the Triassic – All Kinds of Reptile Coexisted

All kinds of "Dinosauromorphs" existed.

All kinds of “Dinosauromorphs” existed.

Picture Credit: Journal Science

Certainly, parts of Argentina have a more recognisable stratigraphic geology than North America.  Plotting the progressive evolution of dinosaurs in the United States is therefore more problematical.  However, the research team focused on the Upper Triassic rocks of the Chinle Formation of the south-western United States.  This is where the oldest dinosaur fossils from North America can be found.  But just how old are they?

The Chinle Formation covers parts of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado. It is probably best known for the Petrified Forest National Park location (Arizona), with its extensive fossils of prehistoric trees.  Scientists had previously dated isolated beds of this formation, and determined the earliest dinosaur-like animals, discovered in New Mexico, appeared by about 212 million years ago.

Dating Strata at the Petrified Forest National Park (Blue Mesa Location)

The red arrows indicate petrified wood.

The red arrows indicate petrified wood.

Picture Credit: Malka Machlus from Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University

The picture above shows the Blue Mesa locality of the Petrified Forest National Park, a few logs of petrified wood (rust colour) can be seen eroding out of the sun-bleached sandstones (white).  We have highlighted the location of some of the chunks of petrified wood using red arrows.

Ramezani and his colleagues sought to more precisely date the entire formation, including levels in which the earliest dinosaur fossils have been found.  The team took samples from exposed layers of sedimentary rock that were derived, in large part, from volcanic debris in various sections of the Chinle Formation.  In the lab, the researchers subjected the rocks to acids and intense heat in order to break them down and isolate individual microscopic grains of zircon, a uranium-bearing mineral that forms in magma shortly prior to volcanic eruptions.  From the moment zircon crystallises, the decay of uranium to lead begins in the mineral and, as Ramezani explains it, “the chronometer starts.”  Researchers can measure the ratio of uranium to lead isotopes to determine the age of the zircon, and, inferentially, the rock in which it was found.

This is virtually the same dating technique that was used to help date Venezuela’s first dinosaur Laquintasaura.

To read more about Laquintasaura and what this discovery means: Laquintasaura – What’s All the Fuss About?

The study involved a number of researchers from MIT, including co-author of the scientific paper Sam Bowring, the Robert R. Shrock Professor of Geology at MIT.  David Fastovsky, (Professor of Geosciences at the University of Rhode Island), also assisted in the research.  It seems that dinosaurs, both primitive members of this Order and more advanced forms happily co-existed together for many millions of years.  These reptiles in turn, shared the habitat that was to eventually form the southern United States with a wide variety of other Archosaurs.

A spokes person from Everything Dinosaur commented:

“The U-PB ID-TIMS zircon geochronology dating method [uranium to lead] is very precise and this team’s study has led to a reassessment of the age of the rocks that make up the lower portions of the Chinle Formation.”

Charting the evolution of the Dinosauria in North America is extremely difficult due to the sparse nature of the fossil record and the lack of firm data to assist with the relative ages of Tetrapod fossil bearing strata.  This new study prompts a revision of the dating of the Lower Chinle Formation and provided a new temporal context for its rich and diverse Tetrapod fauna.

Everything Dinosaur acknowledges the help of MIT in helping to compile this article.

“Mega-Trove” of Dinosaur Footprints from Burgos Province (Spain)

Spanish Site – Provides Palaeontologists with the Opportunity to Follow in the Footsteps of Dinosaurs

A site some twenty kilometres south-east of the town of Burgos in northern Spain has provided a team of palaeontologists with an opportunity to study an exceptionally well-preserved collection of fossilised dinosaur footprints.  The site, known as Las Sereas part of the Quitanilla de las Viñas trace fossil beds is believed to date from the Early Cretaceous and the location, which covers some five kilometres, preserves the trace fossils from a number of different types of dinosaur – Stegosaurs, Sauropods and a variety of Theropods.  In a media briefing, the scientific director of the Las Sereas site, Fidel Torcida, heralded the huge number of footprints and regarded it as a “mega-trove” of ichnites (the term used to describe a fossil footprint).

Research Director Dr. Torcida Discusses the Fossilised Footprints

Important trace fossil site from northern Spain.

Important trace fossil site from northern Spain.

Dr. Torcida, who is also the research director at the nearby Dinosaur Museum (Salas de los Infantes), commented that some of the fossilised prints show Sauropod prints with four toes on the front feet and not five.  He stated that the four toes are not curved, unlike all the others that have been documented around the world.  In 2011, Dr. Torcida was a member of a team of researchers who described a new species of long-necked dinosaur Demandasaurus darwini.  Demandasaurus (named from the Sierra de la Demanda mountains).  It was classified as a Diplodocoid and as such it was the first to be formally described from the Iberian peninsula of Spain.

D.darwini is known from a fragmentary skeleton, including elements of the skull, jaws and vertebrae.  It has been placed in the Rebbachisauridae family of Sauropods, a bizarre family, only established in 1997 but the family now contains more than a dozen genera including species from Africa and South America.  Demandasaurus is believed to have measured around ten metres in length and perhaps weighed more than five tonnes.

An Illustration of a Rebbachisaurid (Nigersaurus taqueti)

The "Lawn Mower" Sauropod

The “Lawn Mower” Sauropod

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The site has been studied for several years, but the full extent of the trace fossil material is only beginning to be realised.  Last year, a large footprint from a Sauropod was discovered, but recent excavations revealed a trail some seventeen metres long , consisting of forty-five Sauropod prints.  Many of the individual prints are over fifty-five centimetres long and record a time some 144 million years ago when a large Sauropod made its may across a mud flat.  In total, something like eight hundred individual footprints had been identified so far, but it was reported that there was probably more than a thousand or so trace fossils in total.  The tracks of at least three different sized Theropod (meat-eating) dinosaurs had also been identified.

Over the last decade, there have been some remarkable dinosaur discoveries made in Spain.  Back in 2007, Everything Dinosaur reported on the discovery of an extensive bone bed containing the preserved remains of several Late Cretaceous dinosaurs from a site near to the city of Cuenca in western Spain.

To read more about this discovery: Dinosaur Bone bed from Spain

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