Category: Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories

The “Black Sheep” of the Ichthyosaur Family

Making Heads or Tails of Sclerocormus parviceps

No sooner has the likes of Oliver Rieppel, (Rowe Family Curator of Evolutionary Biology at the Field Museum, Chicago) and Nick Fraser (National Museums of Scotland), in collaboration with scientists from China “unzipped” the bizarre Triassic marine reptile Atopodentatus unicus*, another academic paper comes along introducing the equally peculiar looking Sclerocormus parviceps to the world.  A number of media outlets have already covered this news story, but in this article we will take a slightly different approach, focusing on the rapid evolutionary changes that seem to have taken place in marine ecosystems following the End Permian mass extinction event.

The Complete Specimen of Sclerocormus parviceps (Holotype Reference AGB6265)

Sclerocormus parviceps fossil material.

Sclerocormus parviceps fossil material.

Picture Credit: Da-yong Jiang (Peking University)

The photograph above shows the various components that make up the holotype specimen.  The scale bars to the left and in the centre each  measure 25 centimetres in length.  The long, thin, whip-like tail is on the left of the photograph, the skull on the right.

The specimen was excavated from Bed 719 in the Majiashan Quarry, near the city of Chaohu in Anhui Province (eastern China).  These, predominately limestone beds are highly fossiliferous and a huge variety of invertebrate and vertebrate fossils are known from this location.  The strata was laid down in a shallow, tropical sea environment not long after the End Permian extinction event and as a result, the fossils found in these rocks have provided palaeontologists with a unique opportunity to examine how marine fauna bounced back after the extinction that is believed to have wiped out around 95% of all marine life.

Sclerocormus parviceps – Not Your Typical Ichthyosauriform

Writing in the on line journal “Scientific Reports”, the researchers describe this new type of marine reptile as a basal member of the ichthyosauriforms.  The fossil material dates from around 248 million years ago (Olenekian faunal stage of the Lower Triassic), it suggests that if a long-tailed, short-snouted marine reptile existed at this time, then these reptiles must have diversified rapidly during the Early Triassic.  Although, related to the Ichthyosaurs, those dolphin-like, super sleek animals with their long jaws and fishy tails, as S. parviceps was so different from the typical Ichthyosaur body plan it indicates that there must have been a period of very rapid evolution.

A Scale Drawing of Sclerocormus parviceps

A scale drawing of Sclerocormus parviceps.

A scale drawing of Sclerocormus parviceps.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur modified from an illustration by Nicolay Zverkov

Measuring around 1.6 metres long from that stubby snout to the end of the serpentine tail Sclerocormus parviceps is one of the largest types of marine reptile known from the Lower Triassic.  Based on an analysis of the fossil material, in comparison to Late Triassic Ichthyosaurs, Sclerocormus would have been a relatively poor swimmer.  In addition, whilst many of the later Ichthyosaurs evolved into apex predators, the short -snouted Sclerocormus seems to have specialised in eating small, soft-bodied creatures.  The scientists speculate that the toothless Sclerocormus used its short snout to create pressure and suck up food like a syringe.  It looks very different from its relatives and it probably behaved very differently too.  Sclerocormus could be considered the “black-sheep” of this particular group of marine reptiles and as it was so very different from its relatives it tells palaeontologists a lot about the rapid exploitation of ecosystem niches by vertebrates after the mass extinction event.

The Skull of Sclerocormus parviceps (b) and a Line Drawing Illustrating the Individual Bones (b2)

The skull of Sclerocormus parviceps (b) with an explanatory line drawing identifying individual bones (b2).

The skull of Sclerocormus parviceps (b) with an explanatory line drawing identifying individual bones (b2).

Picture Credit: Scientific Reports

The picture above shows (b) a close up of the skull material and (b2) a line drawing indicating the individual position of the bones.  Although, crushed the palaeontologists can make out a lot of detail regarding the skull morphology of this marine reptile.  The scale bars represent 1 cm (b) and 2 cm (b2).

Key

Skull elements. Abbreviations: a?, angular; ar?, articular; d?, dentary; f, frontal; j?, jugal, l?, lacrimal; m, maxilla; n, nasal; p, parietal; pm, premaxilla; po, postorbital; pof, postfrontal; prf, prefrontal; q, quadrate; sa?, surangular; scl, scleral ossicles; sq, squamosal and st, supratemporal.

Commenting on the significance of this discovery, Dr. Rieppel stated:

“Sclerocormus tells us that ichthyosauriforms evolved and diversified rapidly at the end of the Lower Triassic period.  We don’t have many marine reptile fossils from this period, so this specimen is important because it suggests that there’s diversity that hasn’t been uncovered yet.”

The Triassic Timescale and Marine Reptile Diversity

Although, the marine reptile fossil record for the Lower and Middle Triassic is poor, scientists have been able to use recent fossil discoveries from China to help plot the evolution of this important group of marine reptiles.  The authors of the scientific paper plotted the diversity of species during the Triassic and their evidence suggests that there was not a single burst of evolution during the Early to the Middle Triassic, but at least two waves of marine reptile diversification, separated by a decline in speciation.  In addition, the scientists conclude that the first burst of evolution led to a rapid increase in the Ichthyosauromorpha, the ichthyosauriforms such as  Sclerocormus and the related Hupehsuchia.  This was followed by a second period of rapid marine evolution, but this time it was the Sauropterygia (Placodonts and their relatives) and the closely related Saurosphargidae that seem to have evolved most rapidly.

Two Bursts of Marine Reptile Evolution in the Early to Mid Triassic

The diversity of Triassic marine reptiles.

The diversity of Triassic marine reptiles.

Picture Credit: Scientific Reports with additional annotation by Everything Dinosaur

The graph above shows species diversity over time through the Triassic.  The black line in the graph shows raw data from the fossil record, however, as the fossil record for marine reptiles from this time is far from complete, the scientists have inflated the stratigraphic ranges of species to account for gaps in the fossil record.  The red dotted line plots the data where half of the species are assumed to have their records missing from the faunal sub-stages of the Triassic.  The blue dotted line shows a more extreme view where all species known to date are assumed to be missing records from the faunal sub-stages before and after the actual date of a fossil discovery.  The data, however it is plotted, does show two distinct evolutionary phases, lots of new species in a relatively short time.

Explaining the team’s findings in the context of Darwinian evolution, Dr. Rieppel explained:

“Darwin’s model of evolution consists of small, gradual changes over a long period of time, and that’s not quite what we’re seeing here.  These ichthyosauriforms seem to have evolved very quickly, in short bursts of lots of change, in leaps and bounds.”

Gradual change, a sort of slow, creeping evolution may not have taken place in shallow seas immediately following the End Permian extinction event.  With so many vacant niches to exploit, those vertebrates that survived the extinction seem to have radiated rapidly, evolving a myriad of specialist forms such as Sclerocormus parviceps.  This may be an example of “punctuated equilibrium” a form of evolution proposed by the famous palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould and others whereby evolutionary change occurs relatively rapidly, alternating with longer periods of relative evolutionary stability.

The Triassic Timescale – An Explanation

In the line graph above, Everything Dinosaur team members have labelled the three Epochs that form the Triassic on the horizontal timeline (Lower, Middle and Upper).  Underneath the graph, we have annotated the faunal sub-stages listed by providing a key showing the faunal stage that each sub-stage is associated with (Olenekian, Anisian, Ladinian, Carnian and Norian).  For some readers the term faunal sub-stage may be unfamiliar to them, here is a brief explanation.

Biostratigraphic in conjunction with relative dating and more recently methods such as radiometric dating and palaeomagnetism have enabled scientists to date events preserved in the geological record.  These time intervals allow a geological period, in this case the Triassic to be established.  However, to explore in more detail the geological record laid down over the tens of millions of years represented by a geological period, this immense amount of time is further divided up into epochs, faunal stages and sub-faunal stages.  It is just like the pages of a book being divided up into paragraphs, the pages themselves being grouped into chapters.

The Triassic comprises of three Epochs (also called series): Lower, Middle and Upper

These in turn are divided into seven faunal stages:
Lower = Induan, Olenekian
Middle = Anisian, Ladinian
Upper = Carnian, Norian, Rhaetian

As the faunal stages themselves represent many millions of years, changes in the geological record are used to divide these stages themselves into a series of smaller units called faunal sub-stages:

The seven faunal stages of the Triassic are further divided into fifteen faunal sub-stages namely:

Induan = upper Griesbachian and the Dienerian

Olenekian = Smithian and the Spathian

Anisian= Aegean, Bithynian, Pelsonian and the Illyrian

Ladinian =Fassanian, Longobardian

Carnian = Julian and the Tuvalian

Norian = Lacian, Alaunian, Sevatian

*To read an update on the bizarre Triassic marine reptile Atopodentatus unicus: Atopodentatus unzipped

Palaeontology Student Finds “Super-sized” Eotyrannus Tooth

Tooth Leads to Re-think over Eotyrannus lengi

Megan Jacobs, a palaeontology student from the University of Portsmouth, has something to remember from her trip to the Isle of Wight, for whilst exploring Compton Beach on the western side of the Island she discovered a 2.8 centimetre long dinosaur tooth that has been identified as belonging to the Early Cretaceous tyrannosaurid Eotyrannus lengi.  The size of the tooth, the biggest found to date to be associated with Eotyrannus, may lead to a re-think about this Early Cretaceous meat-eater.  Previously, fossil evidence suggested that this dinosaur grew to around six metres in length, however, based on this single tooth, this predator may have been considerably bigger.

Student Megan Jacobs Holding the Dinosaur Tooth

Palaeontology student Megan Jacobs holding the Eotyrannus tooth she found.

Palaeontology student Megan Jacobs holding the Eotyrannus tooth she found.

Picture Credit: Dinosaur Exhibition Centre

Eotyrannus lengi – A British Tyrannosaur

Eotyrannus is a member of the Tyrannosaur family, a distant relative of the most famous dinosaur of all – T. rex.  It is known from only one partial specimen discovered in 2006 by amateur fossil collector Gavin Leng.  Vertebrae, limb bones and elements from the skull and jaws were excavated from an exposed plant debris bed at Brighstone Bay about a mile from where Megan found her dinosaur tooth.  It is one of the earliest Tyrannosaurs known and its discovery supports the idea that the Tyrannosauroidea had a wide geographical dispersion during the Late Jurassic and the Early Cretaceous.  Analysis of the holotype fossil material IWCMS. 1997.550 suggests that some of the bones had not fully fused together.  This lead the palaeontologists studying the fossils to consider this four-metre long animal as a juvenile, Everything Dinosaur published an estimated length for E. lengi at approximately 6 metres in 2010.  Megan’s Eotyrannus tooth discovery further supports the theory that Eotyrannus was a large predator, it may have actually exceeded 6 metres in length.  Until more fossils are found, the size of E. lengi remains open to debate.

A Model of Eotyrannus by CollectA

Eotyrannus dinosaur model by CollectA.

Eotyrannus dinosaur model by CollectA.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

To view the CollectA Prehistoric Life Eotyrannus dinosaur model and the other not to scale replicas in the CollectA range: CollectA Prehistoric Life Dinosaur Models

This discovery of a pristine Eotyrannus tooth hints at the possibility that more fossil remains associated with this Theropod may exist in the cliffs on the western side of the Island.

A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur commented:

“This fossil find raises the intriguing possibility that more Eotyrannus material may yet be found.  If further evidence comes to light, then palaeontologists will have the opportunity to learn more about this Early Cretaceous Tyrannosaur.”

To discover more about Eotyrannus, palaeontologists will have to wait for time and tide to do their work.

How Strong was a Stegosaurus Bite?

Don’t Get Bitten by “Sophie” the Stegosaurus

Last year, Everything Dinosaur predicted that with the acquisition by the Natural History Museum (London), of the superb Stegosaurus stenops specimen nicknamed “Sophie”, there would be a plethora of new research published regarding this Late Jurassic herbivore.  Sure enough there was and we have already produced a number of articles on this blog summarising the work done.  This week, a new paper has been published, it assesses the bite force of Stegosaurus stenops, comparing it to other dinosaurs, which although not closely related, were herbivorous too and had similar shaped skulls.

The study carried out by scientists from Bristol University, Manchester and Birmingham Universities as well as Dr. Paul Barrett from the Natural History Museum reveals that this Stegosaurus species had a strong bite and that it would have been capable of feeding on a very wide range of different plants.

Stegosaurus Famous for Having a Small Head but the Skull and Jaws Made it a Very Efficient Herbivore

A word mat for the Jurassic herbivore Stegosaurus.

A word mat for the Jurassic herbivore Stegosaurus.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The picture above shows one of the word mats Everything Dinosaur created for teachers to help them with dinosaurs as a term topic in schools.  Stegosaurus is featured and the skull is disproportionately small compared to the body.  However, in this study, lead author, Dr Stephan Lautenschlager, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Bristol’s School of Earth Sciences, proposes that the range of bite force that a Stegosaur could generate is at least comparable to today’s efficient mammalian grazers such as bovines (cows).

Stegosaurus stenops compared to Plateosaurus engelhardti and Erlikosaurus andrewsi

The Three Types of Dinosaur Skull Used in the Computer Modelling Study

Dinosaur Skull Types

The three types of dinosaur skull used in the computer modelling study of dinosaur bite force.

Picture Credit: Bristol University

The picture above shows digital images of the three types of plant-eating dinosaur skull used in the study, left E. andrewsi, centre S. stenops and right P. engelhardti.  Although these dinosaurs are all plant-eaters they are not closely related, skull shapes vary, most notably Stegosaurus stenops lacks a antorbital fenestra (a large hole in the skull in front of the eye socket), but the morphology of the skulls is generally the same, i.e. the snouts are long, the skull tending to be quite narrow and in proportion to the body the head of these dinosaurs is quite small.

“Sophie” The Stegosaurus Specimen Used in this Study

Sophie the Stegosaurus

Milan used this picture to illustrate his dinosaur documentary.

Picture Credit:  The Natural History Museum (picture chosen by Milan)

“Sophie” the Stegosaurus

The Stegosaurus currently on display at the Natural History Museum represents one of the most complete fossil specimens of a Stegosaur every found.  Everything Dinosaur received a lovely report on this new dinosaur exhibit from Milan and Alisha and we published an article on the children’s research.

To read Alisha’s and Milan’s excellent article on “Sophie” the Stegosaurus: Information about “Sophie” the Stegosaurus at the London Natural History Museum

All of the dinosaur skulls studied had a scissor-like jaw action that moved up and down.  Processing of any plant material in the mouth was relatively limited, the large digestive systems and the enormous stomach accounted for most of the digestive process.  The team of UK-based scientists explored the bite force and potential skull stresses induced by the process of eating in these three dinosaurs using computer modelling.  The intention was to gain an insight into the potential diets and feeding behaviour of the herbivores.  The study has also provided information on how Stegosaurus stenops may have fitted into its ecological niche.  For example, the Late Jurassic of the western United States was home to a large variety of enormous Sauropods, the scientists were curious to see if a bite force study could provide information on the niche occupied by large Stegosaurs in an environment dominated by a variety long-necked dinosaurs.

Phylogenetic and Stratigraphic Relationships Between the Dinosaur Studied

The bite force of Stegosaurus analysed

Digital images of the skull of Plateosaurus engelhardti, Erlikosaurus andrewsi and Stegosaurus stenops showing their in phylogenetic and stratigraphic context.

Picture Credit: Nature Scientific Reports

The picture above shows the phylogenetic relationship (how closely related) the dinosaurs were as well as a stratigraphic comparison (how old the fossils are in relation to each other).

In Summary

  • Plateosaurus – member of the Prosauropoda, part of the dinosaur lineage related to the Sauropoda.  It was lizard-hipped and lived during the Late Triassic.
  • Erlikosaurus – a member of the Theropoda, specifically a member of the Therizinosauridae family (scythe lizards).  It was lizard-hipped and lived during the Late Cretaceous.
  • Stegosaurus – a member of the Thyreophora, a sub-group of the bird-hipped dinosaurs.  Stegosaurus stenops lived during the Late Jurassic.

The three-dimensional scans of the fossil skulls and the computer models created permitted the team to examine the forces the jaws could create and the subsequent stresses on the skulls that feeding would have induced.  Data from a study of crocodilian teeth was used to help factor in the role of the teeth in the feeding operation.

Dr. Lautenschlager explained:

“Using computer modelling techniques, we were able to reconstruct muscle and bite forces very accurately for the different dinosaurs in our study.  As a result, these methods give us new and detailed insights into dinosaur biology, something that would not have been possible several years ago.”

Professor Paul Barrett, (Natural History Museum) added:

“Far from being feeble, as usually thought, Stegosaurus actually had a bite force within the range of living herbivorous mammals, such as sheep and cows.  Our key finding really surprised us, we expected that many of these dinosaur herbivores would have skulls that worked in broadly similar ways.  Instead we found that even though the skulls were fairly similar to each other in overall shape, the way they worked during biting was substantially different in each case.”

Stegosaur Seed Dispersal

Depicted as a browser on horsetails and ferns, the bite force of Stegosaurus stenops would have made it quite capable of tackling a much wider range of vegetation, including tough cycads.  This reinforces the belief that the tough scales associated with the throat of this dinosaur served as protection as it fed on the robust leaves of the cycads, the relatively small head might have evolved to enable this dinosaur to thrust its head deep into the heart of such plants to get at the most nutritious leaves.  In terms of how Stegosaurus fitted into an ecological niche, these armoured dinosaurs may have played an important role in dispersing the seeds of woody, evergreen cycads.

The Impact of a Beak

As well as examining skull shape and structure, the impact of having a keratinous beak was also considered.  Although the overall stress applied on the skull remained relatively unchanged, the presence of a beak seemed to reduce the amount of stress in the dentary, rostral and premaxilla, confirming results from earlier studies.  The beaked Stegosaurus possessed a relatively high bite force with only moderate associated skull stress, indicating that it would have been capable of foraging on a wide variety of different plants.  The scientists conclude that despite superficial similarities in skull and jaw shape, S. stenops had access to a much greater range of potential foods than other species incorporated within this study.

Stegosaurus Had a Powerful Bite

A skull of a Stegosaurus.

A Stegosaurus skull.

Picture Credit: Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

It seems that Stegosaurus could more than hold its own when compared to the enormous Sauropods, with which it shared its habitat.  This research does raise an intriguing question though, the stegosaurids seem to decline in the Early Cretaceous.  The reduction in stegosaurid fossils as the Cretaceous progressed is put down to, by a number of academics, as a result of a transition in the fauna.  The increasing dominance of angiosperms (flowering plants) playing a role in the demise of the Stegosaurs.  However, other scientists have plotted the decline of the stegosaurids in relation to a decrease in the amount of cycads (Cycadophyta) present.  This bite force study may help to provide palaeontologists with further data on the impact of changing fauna on the range of herbivorous dinosaurs that could adapt to new types of vegetation.

Machairoceratops Plugs a Four-Million-Year Gap

Machairoceratops cronusi – “Bent Sword Horned Face”

The discovery of skull bones that have proved to represent a new species of Late Cretaceous horned dinosaur has helped palaeontologists to plug a four-million-year gap in the Ceratopsidae fossil record.  Researchers, writing in the on line, open access journal PLOS One, describe Machairoceratops cronusi, believed to be relatively basal member of the Centrosaurine group of horned dinosaurs.  The fossils, from Utah, help to fill an evolutionary gap in the horned dinosaur fauna known from southern Laramidia, with Machairoceratops fitting in between the earlier Centrosaurine Diabloceratops and the later Centrosaurine Nasutoceratops.

An Illustration of the Bizarre Bent-Horned Centrosaurine Machairoceratops cronusi

An illustration of a small herd of  Machairoceratops dinosaurs by Mark Witton.

An illustration of a small herd of Machairoceratops dinosaurs by Mark Witton.

Picture Credit: Mark Witton

A wide variety of North American ceratopsid dinosaurs have been described over the last decade or so.  Last week for example, Everything Dinosaur reported on the discovery of a new species of horned dinosaur from the Judith River Formation of Montana – Spiclypeus shipporum.  To read an article about this dinosaur: New Horned Dinosaur from the Late Cretaceous of Montana.

A field team first unearthed fragments that represented elements of the skull in 2006 at the famous Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, in southern Utah.  A further three seasons in the field were required to complete the exploration, sadly no post cranial material could be found.  However, from the configuration of the epiparietals and the horn cores the scientists were soon convinced that they had found a new species.

The Fossils of Machairoceratops cronusi and a Ghost Outline of the Complete Skull

Machairoceratops fossils

A right lateral view of the fossil material associated with Machairoceratops.

Picture Credit: Lund et al (PLOS One)

The picture above shows (A) a right lateral view of the fossil material associated with Machairoceratops cronusi mapped against a ghosted outline of the inferred skull.  To the left of the picture the braincase (BC) is shown.  Diagram B shows the skull in dorsal view, whilst diagram C shows a complete reconstruction of the entire skull, note the curvature of the central parietals (p1 left and p1 right), it is these curved elements that gave this dinosaur its name.

Head Spikes More Than a Metre Long

Each curved head spike (represented by p1 left and p1 right in diagram A above), would have measured around 1.2 metres in length, that’s slightly longer than a driver in a set of golf clubs used by a professional, male golfer.  However, despite this impressive headgear, the researchers estimate that Machairoceratops was not huge by horned dinosaur standards.  Based on skull comparisons with more complete specimens, palaeontologists have suggested that this dinosaur would have been around six metres in length and would have weighed around two tonnes.  Lead author of the scientific paper, graduate student Eric Lund (Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine), suggests that the head crest ornamentation may have had a role in visual signalling, such as selecting mates and establishing a social position within the herd.

Stratigraphic Assessment of the Position of Machairoceratops in Relation to Other Horned Dinosaur Fossils

A stratigraphic profile of the Wahweap and the Kaiparowits Formation.

A stratigraphic profile of the Wahweap and the Kaiparowits Formation.

Picture Credit: Lund et al (PLOS One) with additional notation by Everything Dinosaur

Filling a Four-Million-Year Old Gap in the Centrosaurinae

The discovery of M. cronusi in strata that was laid down some 77 million years ago has helped to plug a four-million-year gap in the Centrosaurine fossil record from the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.  Fossils of an earlier Centrosaurine called Diabloceratops eatoni have been found in rocks that date to around 80 million years ago.  The fossil material related to Machairoceratops fills the gap between Diabloceratops and the later, almost equally bizarrely horned Centrosaurine Nasutoceratops titusi, whose fossils are associated with the overlying Kaiparowits Formation and date to around 75-76 million years ago.

Commenting on the naming of this new type of Late Cretaceous herbivorous dinosaur, Eric Lund stated:

“The  finding fills in an important gap in the fossil record of southern Laramidia, an area that included Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Mexico during the Late Cretaceous period.  The discovery of Machairoceratops not only increases the known diversity of Ceratopsians from southern Laramidia, it also narrows an evolutionary information gap that spans nearly 4 million years between Diabloceratops eatoni from the lower middle Wahweap Formation and Nasutoceratops titusi.”

Once again, palaeontologists have gained fresh insight to the amazing diversity and variety of horned dinosaurs from North America.  The genus name is from “ceratops”, meaning horned face and the Greek “machairis” for bent sword, in deference to those curved central parietals.  The species name is from the mythical Greek titan (Cronus, also known as Kronos), whose symbol is a scythe or curved sword.

“Spiked Shield” Horned Dinosaur from Montana

Spiclypeus shipporum – Adding to the Judith River Formation Biota

When Dr. Bill Shipp, a retired nuclear physicist, invested in a property in Montana, he little thought that he would be making a significant contribution to palaeontology.  However, thanks to the chance discovery of some disarticulated fossil material found on his land, a new species of horned dinosaur has been named and described.  The fossilised bones of a new type of Chasmosaurine ceratopsid were found in 2005 and purchased by the Canadian Museum of Nature last year.  The material which includes about fifty percent of the skull, rib fragments, dorsal vertebrae and limb bones was studied by an international team of scientists including our chum Pete Larson (Black Hills Institute of Geological Research), David Evans (Royal Ontario Museum) and lead author of the academic paper published in the open access on line journal PLOS One, Jordan Mallon of the Canadian Museum of Nature.

An Illustration of the Newly Described Horned Dinosaur Spiclypeus shipporum

An illustration of the new species of horned dinosaur from Montana - Spiclypeus.

An illustration of the new species of horned dinosaur from Montana – Spiclypeus shipporum.

Picture Credit: Mike Skrepnick

One Very Tough Dinosaur Indeed!

The beautiful illustration of S. shipporum above depicts the dinosaur with its left forelimb raised off the ground.  The left humerus showed extensive pathology – acute arthritis and osteomyelitis (bone infection).  This dinosaur would have been in a great deal of pain and it was likely that the left forelimb could not support the animal’s weight.  Dr. Edward Iuliano, a radiologist at the Kadlec Regional Medical Centre (Richland, Washington), one of the authors of the scientific paper conducted an in-depth analysis of the pathology.  It is likely that the animal lived for a number of years but was effectively crippled.

Dr. Mallon explained:

“If you look near the elbow, you can see great openings that developed to drain an infection.  We don’t know how the bone became infected, but we can be sure that it caused the animal great pain for years and probably made its left forelimb useless for walking.”

Some of the Fossil Bones (Limb bones and partial Ilium) from Spiclypeus shipporum

Limb bones and ilium of Spiclypeus shipporum.  The infected end of the humerus can be seen (d).

Limb bones and ilium of Spiclypeus shipporum. The infected end of the humerus can be seen (c and d).

Picture Credit PLOS One

In addition to the severely damaged left forelimb, this dinosaur nicknamed “Judith” after the Judith River Formation, had suffered a head injury.  The left squamosal bone shows two distinct holes.  Although holes in the head shield of Chasmosaurine dinosaurs are quite common, they do not normally occur so close to the margins.  The skull of this dinosaur is unique in having multiple squamosal fenestrae and the ones close to the left side of the head shield are probably more evidence of pathology.  Signs of bone infection (osteomyelitis) support this hypothesis.  Although the scientists cannot be certain how the injury occurred, it has been speculated that the wound could have been the result of intra-specific combat, that is, a fight with another Spiclypeus.

Dr Jordan Mallon with a Cast of the Dinosaur Skull (CMN 57081)

The circled area shows the injury to the skull on the dinosaur Spiclypeus shipporum.

The circled area shows the injury to the skull on the dinosaur Spiclypeus shipporum.

Picture Credit: The Canadian Museum of Nature with additional notation by Everything Dinosaur

The picture above shows Dr. Jordan Mallon next to the cast of the skull, we have ringed the damaged element of the squamosal.  In the excellent illustration by Mike Skrepnick, the wound to the skull is depicted but many media outlets have failed to pick up this detail in the drawing.

A Close up of the Mike Skrepnick Illustration Showing the Wound to the Side of the Head

The ringed area in the picture shows the wound on the head of Spiclypeus.

The ringed area in the picture shows the wound on the head of Spiclypeus.

Picture Credit: Mike Skrepnick with additional notation by Everything Dinosaur

Not Much Better for Spiclypeus Post-mortem

Dr. Shipp arranged for the fossil material to be professionally collected, the material was scattered across a bedding plane and two tyrannosaurid teeth found nearby and associated bite marks on the bone indicate that the carcase was scavenged before burial.  The crushed and broken nature of the bones suggest that the bones were trampled upon, most probably by other herbivorous dinosaurs.  The dinosaur may have been nicknamed “Judith” after the Judith River Formation from which the fossils come, but it is not possible to determine whether the specimen represents a male or a female.  A special exhibition is being held at the Canadian Museum of Nature that features the fossilised bones of this new species of horned dinosaur.  The exhibition starts on May 24th.

Landowner Dr. Shipp Next to a Cast of the Fossil Skull

Dr. Bill Shipp with a cast of the skull of Spiclypeus.

Dr. Bill Shipp with a cast of the skull of Spiclypeus.

Picture Credit: Canadian Museum of Nature

The massive skull measures 254 centimetres in length, stands 116 centimetres high and is 122 centimetres wide at its widest point.  Spiclypeus shipporum is estimated to have been around 4.5 to 5 metres long and to have weighed around 2,000 kilogrammes.  A cross-sectional analysis of the bone structure of the femur indicates that this individual was fully grown when it died and was between seven and ten years of age.

Dr. Mallon and his colleagues named the dinosaur Spiclypeus shipporum.  The genus name is a combination of two Latin words meaning “spiked shield”, the trivial name honours Dr. Shipp.  The dinosaur’s name is pronounced (spick-lip-ee-us ship-or-rum).

What distinguishes Spiclypeus shipporum from other members of the Chasmosaurinae such as the later Torosaurus and Triceratops is the orientation of the horns over the eyes.  The brow horns stick out sideways from the skull.  In addition, there is also a unique arrangement to the bony epiparietals (the horns and spikes that surround the head crest), some of the medially located epiparietals curl forward while others project outward.

76 Million-Year-Old Horned Dinosaur

Commenting on the significance of this fossil discovery, Dr Mallon Stated:

“This is a spectacular new addition to the family of horned dinosaurs that roamed western North America between 85 and 66 million years ago.  It provides new evidence of dinosaur diversity during the Late Cretaceous period from an area that is likely to yield even more discoveries.”

As the fossil material were excavated from the Coal Ridge Member of the Upper Cretaceous Judith River Formation, the fossil material is around 76 million years old (Campanian faunal stage).  Phylogenetic assessment suggests that Spiclypeus was closely related to Kosmoceratops and Vagaceratops and its discovery will help scientists to assess the evolution of the head crest and head crest ornamentation within Chasmosaurine dinosaurs.  Spiclypeus is one of only six valid Ceratopsidae genera described from the Judith River Formation, whereas, the contemporaneous Belly River Group (southern Alberta, Canada) has provided evidence of at least fourteen types of horned dinosaurs.  In comparison, the Ceratopsidae fauna from the Judith River Formation is relatively poorly understood, but the discovery of Spiclypeus does support the hypothesis that there was rapid evolution in this part of North America towards the end of the Cretaceous and that many regions supported their own unique dinosaur fauna.  The unique fauna may have come about as species evolved different dietary specialisations, in biology this is known as a form of niche partitioning.

The other five valid Ceratopsidae species currently recognised from the Judith River Formation are:

  1. Avaceratops (Centrosaurine) – named in 1986.
  2. Albertaceratops (Centrosaurine) – named in 2007.
  3. Judiceratops (Chasmosaurine) – named in 2013.
  4. Medusaceratops (Chasmosaurine) – named in 2010, to read an article about the naming of Medusaceratops: New Horned Dinosaur from Montana
  5. Mercuriceratops (Chasmosaurine) – named in 2014, to read an article on the discovery of Mercuriceratops: Mercuriceratops gemini

Life “Loomed Large” 1.56 Billion Years Ago

Multicellular Eukaryotes from  1.56 billion-year-old Rocks (Gaoyuzhuang Formation)

A team of Chinese and American scientists have confirmed the presence of large (several centimetres long in some cases), communities of eukaryotic cells preserved as impressions within rocks laid down in a shallow marine environment some 1.56 billion years ago.  This suggests that organisms had begun to form such structures during the Mesoproterozoic, some five hundred million years or so after the very first eukaryote cells evolved.

Macro-Fossils Preserved in the Mudstones of the Gaoyuzhuang Formation (Northern China)

Examples of various eukaryotic communities preserved in the mudstones of the Gaoyuzhuang Formation.

Examples of various eukaryotic communities preserved in the mudstones of the Gaoyuzhuang Formation.

Picture Credit: Nature Communications/Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology

Scale bar information for the picture (above) 5 cm (in a,b,g), 20 mm (in c), 40 mm (in d) and 5 mm (in e,f).

The scientists, which included Professor Andrew Knoll (Harvard University), a co-author of the academic paper published in the journal “Nature Communications”, identified a variety of different shaped fossils, some were linear, others wedge-shaped, whilst some were oblong and yet another group were described as tongue-shaped.  In total, fifty-three fossil communities were identified.  Although it is difficult to assign these structures to a place in standard Linnaean classification, a spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur suggested that these ancient life forms could be linked to the Kingdom Protoctista, a biological kingdom which includes certain large, multicellular eukaryotes, such as red algae and kelp.

What is a Eukaryotic Cell?

Eukaryotes have their genetic material enclosed within a nucleus, this is a distinct area within the confines of the cell where the genetic instructions and information can be found.  They also have organelles which are specialised structures within the cell that are responsible for specific areas of activity such as mitochondria for energy production or chloroplasts that convert sunlight energy into sugars (photosynthesis).  The first cells to form lacked a nucleus and specialised structures (organelles), these cells are referred to as prokaryotes (from the Greek which means “before the nucleus”), the DNA of prokaryotic cells is held in the cytoplasm of the cell.

Prokaryote Cells Compared to Eukaryote Cells

Simple diagram showing differences in Eukaryote cells and Prokaryote cells.

Simple diagram showing differences in Eukaryote cells and Prokaryote cells.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The diagram above shows the basic differences between prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells.  Note the different scales, due to their unstructured form, prokaryotic cells are much smaller than eukaryotic cells.  Fossil evidence for cyanobacteria (prokaryotes) suggest that these cells first formed some 3.5 billion years ago (Archean Eon)*.  The first eukaryotic cells may have formed around 2.1 billion years ago**.

Eukaryote cells most likely evolved from prokaryote cells at some point in the Paleoproterozoic.  How this came about is a subject of much debate.  One theory proposes predatory prokaryotes engulfed other smaller prokaryote cells.  Instead of these cells being consumed, a symbiotic relationship resulted with the smaller cells becoming the specialised elements of the larger cell.  Another theory suggests that more complex cells came about due to mutations during cellular division.  The presence of DNA strands in mitochondria which are not exactly the same as the DNA found within the host cell nucleus suggests that the mitochondria were once single-celled organisms in their own right.

The Significance of the Gaoyuzhuang Formation

Fossils described as macro-fossils are exceedingly rare in rocks older than the Late Neoproterozoic Era, but uranium – lead (U to Pb) radiometric dating suggests that the biota identified from the mudstones from the Gaoyuzhuang Formation (Yanshan area in the Hebei Province of northern China) are around 1.56 billion years old.  Other geological formations dated to over a billion years old which contain macro-fossils have been identified before, but it is the number and variety of the different types of fossil that marks out this strata as being something special.

Researchers Exploring the Exposed Mudstones Looking for Evidence of Ancient Life

Researchers examine the fine-grained mudstones which form part of the Gaoyuzhuang Formation.

Researchers examine the fine-grained mudstones which form part of the Gaoyuzhuang Formation.

Picture Credit: Nature Communications

Some of the fossilised structures measure up to thirty centimetres in length and eight centimetres wide.  The researchers conclude that the specimens may not represent the oldest know eukaryotes but they are the oldest eukaryotes that exhibit multicellular structures.  These organisms lived in a shallow marine environment and they were probably benthic (lived on the sea floor).  Analysis of the cells indicates that they may have been capable of photosynthesis and although large by Precambrian standards these organisms cannot be described as complex life.

Explaining the difference between complex life and these large multicellular structures, Professor Knoll stated that the Chinese fossils were:

“Large but I doubt that they were complicated – it’s an important distinction.”

Eukaryotic cells are capable of becoming specialised with different cells being responsible for different systems, functions and processes, a vital step on the path to complex life forms.  These cells, preserved as carbonaceous impressions in the rock show no signs of fundamental differentiation at the cellular level.  These fossils provide the best evidence to date that multicellular eukaryotes of large size (greater than a centimetre in length), with a regular shape existed in marine environments at least a billion years prior to the Cambrian explosion.  They are multicellular but they are not the complex, more specialised and differentiated cells associated with more advanced organisms.

Treated Sections of the Fossils Showing the Cell Structure

Treated sections of the Gaoyuzhuang Formation fossils showing cellular structures.

Treated sections of the Gaoyuzhuang Formation fossils showing cellular structures.

Picture Credit: Nature Communications

The picture above shows various views of the cell structure.  Pictures b and d show organic fragments with preserved cellular structure, the scale bar representing 100 μm (microns).  Pictures c and e show polygonal cells forming a multi-layered network (scale bar 20 μm).

The existence of these structures provides further evidence of the diversity of life during the Proterozoic, it also suggests that an increase in oxygen levels in conjunction with the establishment of a protective ozone layer in the Earth’s upper atmosphere may have permitted these multicellular organisms to form.

*/**The dates given for the first fossil evidence of prokaryotes and eukaryotic cells are speculative.

Rare Horseshoe Crab Fossil Discovery from Nova Scotia

The Important Role Enthusiastic Amateurs Play in Palaeontology

Last week Everything Dinosaur reported on the concerns being raised over the extensive amount of digging into cliffs on north Norfolk beaches by fossil collectors.  Whilst we frown upon such activities and urge all fossil collectors to follow the fossil collecting code, today, we report on the significant contribution made to palaeontology by a couple of enthusiastic fossil hunters from Nova Scotia.  Their dedication has resulted in a number of important discoveries, the latest being a new species of ancient horseshoe crab, which is known from just two specimens.

To read the article about concerns over coastal Norfolk fossil sites: Experts Fear for Safety of Fossils and Fossil Collectors

Say Hello to Paleolimulus woodae – A 360 million-year-old Horseshoe Crab

Paleolimulus woodae fossil from Blue Beach (Bay of Fundy)

Paleolimulus woodae fossil from Blue Beach (Bay of Fundy)

Picture Credit: CTV News Atlantic

Lower Carboniferous Sandstones and Silts of the Bay of Fundy

The Blue Beach area of the Bay of Fundy (Nova Scotia), is one of the most important Late Palaeozoic fossil locations in the world.  The strata is being constantly eroded by the exceptionally powerful tides (a macro tidal environment) and the eroding cliffs are giving up the fossilised remains of animals and plants that lived in the very Early Carboniferous period (Lower Mississippian Epoch – Tournaisian faunal stage).  The body and trace fossils found here record life in a estuarine environment bordered by dense swamps that existed some 360 million years ago.  Thanks to the efforts of husband and wife team Chris Mansky and Sonja Wood, tens of thousands of fossil specimens have been retrieved from the beach.  The rocks have such significance as they preserve fossils of some of the very first Tetrapods – primitive amphibians that were the first terrestrial vertebrates.  Working in conjunction with scientists from the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, an extremely rare horseshoe crab has been identified and described as a new species.  The species name honours Sonja, the ancient Arthropod has been called Paleolimulus woodae (pronounced pay-leo-limb-mew-lus wood-i).

A Natural Goldmine for Fossils

Commenting on the significance of the fossil find, co-author of the scientific paper that has just been published in the academic journal “Neues Jahrbuch für Geologie und Paläontologie”, Chris Mansky stated:

“We’re sitting on an unrealised bonanza or mother-load of information.  It’s a very small scarp that shows probably one of the most important pieces of evolutionary information.”

The powerful tides scour the beach and cliffs twice a day exposing fossil material all year round.  The work of Chris and Sonja is vital, as without their help, many important fossil specimens, such as the ten pence sized horseshoe crab fossil would be lost.  The couple have run the Blue Beach Fossil Museum since 2002, and they have amassed a collection of some 90,000 lbs of rocks containing body fossils of early Tetrapods, ancient fish, molluscs, as well as important trace fossils, preserving tracks in the mud made by both back-boned animals and invertebrates.

Sonja Wood of the Blue Beach Fossil Museum Holding One of the Specimens of  Paleolimulus woodae

Sonja Wood Holding a specimen of her namesake - P. woodae

Sonja Wood Holding a specimen of her namesake – P. woodae

Picture Credit: Colin Chisholm – Hants Journal

Romer’s Gap* and All That

Horseshoe crabs are marine Arthropods, (Order Xiphosurida, Family Limulidae), known as living fossils as they seem little changed since their evolutionary origins some 450 million years ago.  A number of genera exist today, but populations are threatened due to habitat destruction and the removal of eggs for human consumption.

An Illustration of a Extant Horseshoe Crab

An illustration of a Horseshoe Crab (a living fossil).

An illustration of a Horseshoe Crab (a living fossil).

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The Blue Beach location is regarded as one of the most important Lagerstätte (strata with an abundance of fossils), of the Late Palaeozoic.  The Lower Carboniferous rocks are helping to provide scientists with information about vertebrates to fill in “Romer’s Gap”, a discontinuity in the fossil record between the end of the Devonian and the first fifteen million years of the Carboniferous, a time when terrestrial ecosystems were rapidly evolving and the first land animals with back-bones were becoming widespread.  The gap in the geological record is named after the American palaeontologist Alfred Sherwood Romer who first recognised this discontinuity.

Explaining just how rare the horseshoe crab fossils are, Chris Mansky said:

“Out of the tens of thousands of fossils that have been gathered [from the Blue Beach area] only two were horseshoe crab.”

The fossil material including body impressions and tracks made by the horseshoe crabs in the soft mud are helping scientists to piece together more information about this ancient palaeoenvironment.  Today, we pay tribute to Chris and Sonja whose efforts are helping scientists to learn more about a crucial period in the evolution of life on Earth.

Romer’s Gap* An Explanation

The gap in the fossil record that marks the beginning of the Carboniferous geological period.  In sedimentary rocks fractionally older than Romer’s Gap palaeontologists have unearthed evidence of very primitive Devonian Tetrapods , fish with fingers, lots of fingers.  Tetrapod fossils found in slightly younger rocks provide evidence of Carboniferous Tetrapods that all had five fingers and toes and they are much better adapted to terrestrial habitats.

Stone Tools and Fossil Bones From Sinkhole Revises American History

The Oldest Floridians

The discovery of ancient mammal remains plus stone tools in association with them is helping a team of scientists to redraw the map of human settlement in the Americas.  Evidence suggests that the north-western part of Florida (United States), was inhabited by humans some 1,500 years earlier than previously thought.  The research paper detailing the discoveries and the dating information has just been published in the open access journal “Science Advances”.

Lead author of the scientific paper, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Florida State University Jessi Halligan, had to employ her skills as a diver to reach the site, as the evidence of pre-Clovis existence has come from a sinkhole in the middle of the Aucilla River some ten metres below the water surface.  Radiocarbon dating of the artefacts excavated suggests that humans inhabited this part of Florida some 14,550 years ago.

Assistant Professor Halligan with Some of the Fossil Bones

Scientists state that humans occupied the south-eastern United States 1,500 years earlier than previously thought.

Scientists state that humans occupied the south-eastern United States 1,500 years earlier than previously thought.

Picture Credit: Bruce Palmer/Florida State University

The picture about shows Jessi Halligan and some of the prehistoric mammal bones recovered from the site.  In the foreground (left) is a vertebra from a Mastodon, in the foreground (right) is the lower jaw (dentary) of a prehistoric Llama.

Prior to this research, it had been widely believed that the first people to live in this part of the Americas were the Clovis people which reached this part of the continent some 13,000 years ago.  The Clovis people are believed to have migrated across the Bering land bridge from Asia as the Last Ice Age ended, they moved through Canada and into the northern parts of the United States and over many generations gradually moved further and further south.  The Clovis culture is believed to represent the first widespread human culture in the New World and it is likely that the Clovis people were the ancestors of the native American Indians.  It is from the Clovis culture that the various native American cultures evolved.  Named from the distinctive stone tools such as finely crafted spear points found at Clovis in New Mexico, many Clovis sites have been excavated and DNA evidence suggests that more than three-quarters of all living native Americans in North and South America are directly related to the Clovis people.

Human Migration Through the Americas a Complex Picture

As the last Ice Age ended and the ice sheets retreated, so humans migrated across the Bering Strait land bridge (Beringia) and into the New World.  However, mapping the extent of this colonisation and the journey south has proved extremely difficult, with a range of dates given for different sites.  There has been evidence presented before that suggested humans lived in parts of the Americas earlier than 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, but the evidence had been controversial.  However, at the Aucilla River site, some seventy-one items have been radiocarbon dated and they all support the idea that the stone tools and bones, many of which show cut marks made from tools , indicate human habitation as early as 14,550 years ago.

Commenting on the significance of this research, Assistant Professor Halligan stated:

“This is a big deal!  There were people here.  So how did they live?  This has opened up a whole new line of inquiry for us as scientists as we try to understand the settlement of the Americas.”

The Remarkable Page-Ladson Site

The excavations took place at a site on a bend in the Aucilla River some twenty miles east of the Florida State capital Tallahassee.  Animal bones had been found in this region for many years but it was first explored and mapped extensively by diver Buddy Page who found Mastodon remains and brought the site to the attention of archaeologists and palaeontologists.  The site is owned by the Ladson family and as result the sinkhole and subsequent cores that have been taken from the river bed are collectively referred to as the Page-Ladson prehistory site.  The location represents a water hole that was filled in by deposits and these deposits represent Late Pleistocene material at the bottom, leading up through to younger Early Holocene deposits that are exposed on the river bed.

Working up to Ten Metres Underwater to Find Traces of Human Activity

Underwater excavation reveals evidence of the earliest humans from the south-eastern United States.

Underwater excavation reveals evidence of the earliest humans from the south-eastern United States.

Picture Credit: Florida State University

There are a cluster of sites dotted all over North America that date to around 13,200 years ago, but there are estimated to be only about five in all of the New World that are believed to provide older evidence of human habitation.

Assistant Professor Halligan worked in collaboration with Michael Waters from Texas A&M University and Daniel Fisher (University of Michigan) to excavate the site.  The research team were aware that a number of fossil bones and other finds had already been excavated from the site, but between 2012 and 2014 the Page-Ladson prehistory site was once again opened up and explored.  One of the team’s most significant finds was a biface, a stone tool flaked on both sides to produce a knife-like instrument with two cutting edges.  Daniel Fisher (vertebrate palaeontologist), also took a close look at the Mastodon tusk that had been retrieved in the 1980’s and he was able to identify cut marks indicating that the tusk had been removed by people.  The scientists are not certain whether the Mastodon was killed by humans or its carcase was scavenged.

Michael Waters ( Texas A&M’s Centre for the Study of the First Americans) explained:

“The new discoveries at Page-Ladson show that people were living in the Gulf Coast area much earlier than believed.”

Examples of Stone Tools Recovered from the Page-Ladson Prehistory Site

Examples of stone tools excavated from the Page-Ladson site (Florida).

Examples of stone tools excavated from the Page-Ladson site (Florida).

Picture Credit: Science Advances with notation by Everything Dinosaur

The picture above show examples of the stone tools recovered from the Page-Ladson location.  The biface stone tool “top” has two flaked cutting blades and would have performed the role of a small knife, similar to the type of tool that created the butchery marks in the animal bones.  The stone tools (middle and bottom) are typical flakes, the middle flake shows signs of wear (use).

Pleistocene Marine Transgression

Florida in the latter stages of the Pleistocene Epoch was much drier than it is today.  Sea levels were over one hundred metres lower.  The Page-Ladson site represents a spring fed waterhole that existed in a ravine.  It may have been the only reliable water source for miles around and as such, it attracted animals and people to it.  With the rise in global temperatures, the great ice sheets that covered much of the northern hemisphere began to melt.  This led to a rise in global sea levels resulting in low-lying areas becoming flooded (the Late Pleistocene marine transgression).  The Page-Ladson site was buried with an influx of sediment and left submerged.  This location in north-western Florida is helping anthropologists to understand more about the migration of humans into the New World and also provides further information with regards to the megafauna that shared this Late Pleistocene habitat.

An Illustration of the Page-Ladson Prehistory Site

An Illustration of the Page-Ladson Prehistory Site (Florida 14,500 years ago).

An Illustration of the Page-Ladson Prehistory Site (Florida 14,500 years ago).

Picture Credit: Greg Harlin

New Species of Fossil Dog Identified from Tooth

Tooth Reveals New Dog Species

A PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania has identified a new species of prehistoric dog based on the analysis of a single tooth found by an amateur fossil hunter exploring a beach on the Maryland coast. The tooth provides new evidence to help support the scarce fossil record of carnivores from the Middle Miocene of eastern North America and it extends the fossil record of these types of canids in the United States by several million years.

An Illustration of a Prehistoric Dog Similar to the New Species (Cynarctus wangi)

An illustration of the Miocene canid Cynarctus wangi.

An illustration of a typical Mid Miocene canid such as Cynarctus wangi.

Picture Credit:  Mauricio Antón from “Dogs, Their Fossil Relatives and Evolutionary History.”

The fossil tooth, thought to be second molar from the right side of the upper jaw. comes from a type of prehistoric dog that would have been roughly the same size as an English Springer Spaniel.  It was a member of the extinct subfamily of the Canidae called the Borophaginae.  These dogs are referred to as “bone crushing dogs” as they possessed short, but very strong jaws and they probably could deliver a very powerful bite.  The species name erected honours Xiaoming Wang, the Curator at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and an expert on extinct mammalian carnivores of the northern hemisphere.

Lead author of the scientific paper published in the “Journal of Paleontology”, student Steven Jasinski, explained the shape of the dog’s jaw:

“In this respect they are believed to have behaved in a similar way to hyenas today.”

The Choptank Formation

The fossil tooth was found on a beach which underlies cliffs representing the Choptank Formation, (part of the Chesapeake Group), it was stored at the Smithsonian Institute.  Measuring a little over one centimetre in length it had not been studied in great detail, however, the fine details on the surface of the tooth (the biting surface) enabled the researchers to distinguish this tooth from the fossils of another, older member of the Borophaginae known as Cynarctus marylandica.

A Picture and Accompanying Line Drawing Showing the Fossil Tooth

A fossil molar from the newly named dog species Cynarctus wangi.

A fossil molar from the newly named dog species Cynarctus wangi.

Picture Credit: The University of Pennsylvania/Journal of Paleontology

Working in collaboration with co-author Professor Steven C. Wallace (East Tennessee State University), Jasinski was able to establish that their initial assumption about the tooth being from an already described species of prehistoric dog was incorrect.  They had presumed that the tooth represented material from another borophagine dog called Cynarctus marylandica, fossil teeth of which had been found in the same area but from much older strata (the Calvert Formation, also part of the Chesapeake Group).  C. marylandica is only known from teeth associated with the lower jaw.  It was when the researchers compared the features on the occlusal surfaces (the biting surfaces) of the teeth, where the top and bottom teeth would have met, they found significant differences, enough to suggest that, in all probability this tooth from the upper jaw was an entirely new species.

Speculating on the importance of their research, Steven Jasinski said:

“It looks like it might be a distant relative descended from the previously known borophagine.”

The Demise of the Borophaginae

Once widespread in North America, the fossil record of the Borophaginae covers a period of approximately twenty-eight million years (Oligocene Epoch to the Late Pliocene).  Once a diverse sub-family of the Canidae, represented by numerous species, it seems that the migration of predatory cats into North America from Asia along with the evolution of modern canids, the ancestors of today’s wolves and domestic dogs may have led to the decline and eventual extinction some 2.5 million years ago.

The shape of the tooth and from what has been inferred from other borophagine fossil material, it is likely that this prehistoric dog was not entirely reliant on meat to sustain itself.

The student stated:

“Based on its teeth, probably only about a third of its diet would have been meat.  It would have supplemented that by eating plants or insects, living more like a mini-bear than like a dog.”

PhD Student Steven E. Jasinski Working on a Fossil Site

Student Steven Jasinski of Pennslyvania University.

Student Steven Jasinski of Pennsylvania University.

Picture Credit: The University of Pennsylvania

This new borophagine canid expands the sparse fossil record of this group in north-eastern North America and extends further our knowledge of the fossil record of terrestrial taxa in the eastern part of the United States.  The PhD student explained that most of the vertebrate fossils associated with this strata represent marine animals as they have a higher probability of becoming fossilised than land animals.  He explained that fossil finds such as this tooth, are very rare but they help scientists to understand more about the terrestrial ecosystems that existed during Miocene Epoch.

Ancient dog fossils have not been the sole preoccupation of the student from the Dept. of Earth and Environmental Sciences, last year Everything Dinosaur reported on Steven’s research that led to the identification of a new type of North American predatory dinosaur: Sniffing Out a New Dinosaur Species

Concerns for the Coastal Norfolk Fossil Sites

Experts Fear for Fossils and Safety of Fossil Hunters

Scientists at the Norfolk Museums Service along with British palaeontologists and geology societies have expressed concern over the rise in unscrupulous fossil hunting activities being reported from parts of the Norfolk coast.  These famous Pleistocene age deposits have yielded an extensive array of vertebrate fossils including many large mammals such as rhino and elephant.  One of England’s most important fossil finds, the spectacular West Runton elephant (more correctly termed a Steppe Mammoth – Mammuthus trogontherii), was found in the cliffs.  The discovery, the first bones were found in 1990, represents the largest and oldest nearly complete fossil mammoth from the UK.  Bones and teeth can still be found on the foreshore but sadly, there has been a rise in reports of fossil hunters digging into the cliffs in a bid to find more specimens.

A spokesperson for the Norfolk Museums Service advised against such excavation, not only would the digging potentially damage any fossil material but as the cliffs were unstable, working so close to the cliffs was very dangerous.  He expressed grave concern following reports of a rise in the number of fossil hunters “hacking into the cliff tops”

The Foreshore and Cliffs at West Runton (North Norfolk)

A view of the famous West Runton beach, a great place to find fossils.

A view of the famous West Runton beach, a great place to find fossils.

Picture Credit: ukfossils.co.uk

The freshwater Pleistocene deposits and associated Cretaceous chalks yield a large number of different types of fossil.  As well as freshwater molluscs and mammal remains from the freshwater beds, the chalk is highly fossiliferous and different types sea urchin and fossil sponges can be found.  The picture above shows a view of West Runton beach and the dangerous cliffs, the pier at Cromer can be seen in the background.

A team member from Everything Dinosaur commented:

“This part of the Norfolk coast is subject to high levels of erosion, we would urge all fossil collectors to stay on the beach and look for fossils at low tide along the foreshore, the rapidly eroding cliffs are delivering lots of fossil material onto the beach area and this is a wonderful location for a family fossil hunt.  However, please don’t dig into the cliffs and we urge all visitors to follow the fossil collecting code.”

For an article on the fossil collecting code and a guide to safe collecting: Everything Dinosaur’s Guide to Fossil Collecting Safely

Register Fossil Finds with the Norfolk Museums Service

A partial Mammoth tooth was found nearby last month and no doubt other finds will be reported over the summer at this popular tourist attraction.  Palaeontologist Dr. Waterhouse of the Norfolk Museums Service and the leader of the Cromer Forest-bed Fossil Project reminded fossil hunters that it was good practice to report finds to the Norfolk Museum Service, the museum at Cromer just a few miles from West Runton, was a good place to take any fossil finds and team members from the Norfolk Museums Service would be happy to assist with identification.  As Mammoth fossils, especially tusks and teeth are very popular with collectors, it is likely that many of the overzealous fossil hunting activities have been driven by the high prices such fossils make on auction sites.

A Model of a Woolly Mammoth (M. primigenius)

A model of a Woolly Mammoth.

A model of a Woolly Mammoth.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Dr. Waterhouse said:

“Norfolk is the best place in the country and probably Europe to find Mammoth remains because they went through about six sets of teeth in their lifetime, so there is a lot more teeth than there were Mammoths.  Something that I think needs highlighting is poor and even dangerous fossil collecting by people hacking into the cliffs at places like West Runton.  Ethical collecting is high on my agenda, and also recording fossil finds as part of the Cromer Forest-bed Fossil Project, so that important scientific information isn’t lost forever.”

At Everything Dinosaur we echo the views of Dr. Waterhouse and we urge fossil hunters to take care and to abide by the fossil collecting code as well as local bye laws and regulations.

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