Category: Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories

Scotland’s Very Own Ichthyosaur

Dearcmhara shawcrossi - An Ichthyosaur from the Isle of Skye

No it’s not a dinosaur, contrary to some media reports.  It certainly is not “Nessie”, but it does mark the culmination of a tremendous effort by Scottish palaeontologists to collate and study marine reptile fossils that have been found in Scotland.  A new species of Ichthyosaur (marine reptile), has been described from fossils found on the Isle of Skye.  The “wee beastie” has been named Dearcmhara shawcrossi, the name comes from the Scottish Gaelic for marine lizard and the trivial name honours amateur fossil hunter Brian Shawcross who found the creature’s fossils at Bearreraig Bay in 1959.  Bearreraig Bay is part of a highly fossiliferous coastline which can be found on the eastern side of the island.  As far as we at Everything Dinosaur know, this is the first marine reptile to be given a Gaelic name, Dearcmhara is pronounced “jark vara”.

 A Model of an Ichthyosaur (Fish Lizard)

An Ichthyosaurus Model

An Ichthyosaurus Model

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

 Around 170 million years ago, much of the Isle of Skye was underwater.  A shallow sea separated the landmasses of Europe and North America, this sea formed when rifts in the Earth’s crust led to the break-up of the super- continent Laurentia.  Marine reptiles like Dearcmhara shawcrossi were part of a diverse ecosystem, Dearcmhara grew to around 4.5 metres in length, motor boat size as described by Dr. Steve Brusatte (University of Edinburgh School of GeoSciences), who led the study.

Fossil Vertebra of the Newly Described Species

Most likely a dorsal vertebra from Dearcmhara.

Most likely a dorsal vertebra from Dearcmhara.

Picture Credit: BBC News

 Dr. Steve Brusatte (holding the fossil in the photograph) went onto comment:

“During the time of the dinosaurs, the waters of Scotland were prowled by big reptiles the size of motor boats.  Their fossils are very rare, and only now, for the first time we’ve found a new species that was uniquely Scottish.”

The Isle of Skye is a very important part of the world to palaeontologists.  Exposures along the shoreline and inland are strata that was laid down during the Middle Jurassic.  There are very few places in the world where such rocks are exposed and this makes any fossil discovery from the island very significant indeed.

Recently, Everything Dinosaur wrote about a new initiative to try and protect the island’s geological heritage in the wake of fears that unscrupulous fossil dealers might want to remove rare and valuable fossil bones of Plesiosaurs and Ichthyosaurs.

To read the article: Action Taken to Safeguard Scotland’s Fossils

The discovery of a new species of Scottish Ichthyosaur is just part of a collaborative effort being undertaken by researchers from the University of Edinburgh, the Hunterian Museum, the National Museums of Scotland, Staffin Museum (Isle of Skye) and Scottish National Heritage to try and catalogue significant vertebrate fossil finds.

A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur commented:

“Without the donation made by local fossil enthusiast Brian Shawcross, this new species of Ichthyosaur would not have been recognised.  This goes to show how important amateur fossil collectors can be when it comes to learning about life in the past.”

To read an article that explains the importance of the Isle of Skye from a palaeontological perspective: Scotland’s Mid Jurassic Heritage

One Nine Tonne Block Potentially Six Plus Utahraptors

Utahraptor Predator Trap Promises Fresh Insight into Dromaeosaurs

Lots of media coverage in the last few days concerning the efforts of a research team from Utah and their remarkable work to remove a nine tone block of mixed mudstone and sandstone that may contain the fossilised remains of a pack of Utahraptors from an isolated Mesa located in the Arches National Park (eastern Utah).  The block is believed to represent what is known as a “predator trap” and it may contain the fossilised remains of six Utahraptors, a fleet-footed, feathery hunter, related to the Velociraptor of Mongolia, but much, much bigger.  If the sandstone/mudstone block can be prepared, then palaeontologists will be able to gain further information about the growth habits (ontogeny) of these Theropod dinosaurs.  It may be difficult to ascertain whether the fossils represent a pack of dinosaurs that perished together, or whether the concretion represents the demise of a number of dinosaurs over a prolonged period, i.e. individual dinosaurs becoming fatally trapped rather than the whole group succumbing together.

The Fearsome Utahraptor ostrummaysorum

Utahraptor is the largest genus of Dromaeosaur described to date.  Although regarded by many scientists as being the “Arnold Schwarzenegger” of this particular type of meat-eating dinosaur, it was very typical of the group.  It was a fast running, bipedal predator and most likely feathered.  Adults reached lengths of around five and a half metres with a skull length in excess of fifty-five centimetres.  The sickle-shaped second toe claw was up to thirty-eight centimetres long and like other “raptors”, palaeontologists have postulated that Utahraptor could lift up its sickle claw whilst running, with toes three and four bearing the weight of the animal.  Utahraptor was named and described in 1993, one of the scientists involved in the formal scientific description was James Kirkland. James Kirkland, now one of the best known American palaeontologists, was leading a field trip involving University of Utah students back in 2001, when the first dinosaur bone, a leg bone was found indicating that a site on a 240 metre high Mesa in the Arches National Park, might yield an exciting dinosaur discovery.

The Location of the Utahraptor Fossils

The inset shows a close up of the nine tonne boulder in situ.

The inset shows a close up of the nine tonne boulder in situ.

Picture Credit: James Kirkland/St. George News

The inset and the red arrow indicates the location of the fossil find on the Mesa which is managed by the U.S National Parks Service.  Removing fossils from such locations is prohibited without special permits issued by the Government.

An Illustration of a Fearsome Utahraptor

Speedy, dinosaur hunters

Speedy, dinosaur hunters

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Further expeditions to the site, indicated that this was something special.  Back in 2004, it was confirmed that there was a mass of disarticulated and associated fossil bones preserved and over the last decade or so, the on-going investigation led scientists to believe that the best option was to remove the majority of the fossils in one massive block.  The excavation culminated in the removal of an 18,200 lb mass of boulders, carefully protected by burlap and plaster.  It was a tricky job negotiating the steep slopes of the Mesa but after heavy plant was brought in the huge rock was loaded onto a low loader for transportation to the Utah Department of Natural Resources (Salt Lake City).

One of the Utahraptor Jawbones Found at the Site

Slab and counter slab.

Slab and counter slab.

Picture Credit: James Kirkland/St. George News

Commenting on the fossils, which may represent at least six different aged Utahraptors, James Kirkland (Adjunct Associate Professor, University of Utah) stated:

“We realised all the raptors were intertwined.  As we tried to separate the bones from the ground, we kept running into more skeletons.  We ended up with a giant mass.”

Amongst the fossil material listed so far is a nearly two foot long adult skull, along with elements from a baby Utahraptor’s ten centimetre long skull.  These fossils will help scientists to work out how these animals changed as they grew and developed.  This discovery, part of an extremely rich fossil heritage from the American State has been described as a “Rosetta stone of dinosaur fossil hunting for Utah.”

A Predator Trap?

In conjunction with the Utahraptor remains, scientists have uncovered fragmentary fossils of a herbivorous iguanodontid.  It has been proposed that the stench of the rotting carcase of the herbivore attracted the predators who were hoping to scavenge on the rotting corpse.  However, these creatures too, become stuck in what was effectively quicksand and what killed them helped preserve their bodily remains.  Predator traps occur when large number of meat-eaters congregate around the corpse of a prey animal that has become stuck in mud or quicksand.  A number of predator traps are known from the fossil record, the Early Cretaceous tyrannosaurid Guanlong has been associated with a predator trap, the tar pits at La Brea (Los Angeles), are effectively one huge predator trap, they still catch out unwary birds and small mammals today.

To read an article about how scientists think large dinosaur footprints could have proved deadly for smaller animals: Did Dinosaur Footprints Trap Small Animals?

Commenting on the Utahraptor fossil discovery, a spokesperson for Everything Dinosaur stated:

“These fossils represent a remarkable opportunity for palaeontologists to learn about one of the most formidable predators of the Cretaceous.  Around 120 million years ago, this part of what is now the desert of Utah, was covered in a series of large and often seasonal lakes.  As the water evaporated over the long, dry season, so herbivorous dinosaurs would run the risk of getting stuck in the mud and soft sand on the shore.  With water seeping away from such sites, quicksand was quickly formed and these would ensnare unwary dinosaurs.  It will be difficult for the scientists to state with any degree of certainty whether or not this fossil site provides evidence of pack behaviour in  Dromaeosaurs, but we suspect that the debate over this type of dinosaur behaviour, already inferred by other fossil finds, will come to fore once more.”

The Most Popular Blog Articles of 2014

Everything Dinosaur’s Top Ten Blog Articles of 2014

One of the things we like to do at this time of year is to review this blog site and pick out those blog articles and news stories that we have featured that have proved to be the most popular.  Of the three hundred and sixty articles written in 2014 (we try to write one article per day), picking out just ten has proved to be quite a challenge.  However, we have looked at page views, comments, Facebook likes, retweets and a whole range of other factors to help us compile a top ten.  The subjects covered this year have been as diverse as in previous years, with features ranging from three dimensional printers, the origins of life on Earth, crocodile attacks, World Heritage sites, shrinking Sauropods as well as fossil discoveries, new dinosaur models, and Everything Dinosaur updates.  Our top ten list reflects the breadth of the topics that we try to cover on this web log and although we would not want to claim any statistical validity for this particular piece of research, here is our top ten countdown.

 10). A Special Year for Ichthyosaur Research

There have been a number of new marine reptiles named and described this year, including some Early Triassic animals whose fossils have been found in China.  However, 2014 marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of the first academic paper that described an Ichthyosaur and in at number ten is a short article we wrote back in June commemorating this anniversary.

Two Hundred Years of Ichthyosaur Research

9). Neanderthals Get a Mention

Christmas is a time of year when families get together.  In 2014, research into the “human family” has continued at a pace.  Team members predicted that there would be more news stories this year about developments in hominin genetic research and it turns out that some diseases associated with our population are linked to our Neanderthal ancestry.  One of the first articles we published on the blog looked at a study that had concluded that some diseases associated with H. sapiens can be related to our inherited H. neanderthalensis genes.

Study suggests That Some Diseases in Humans are Linked to Neanderthal DNA

8). Pushing the Origins of the Pterosauria Back in Time

A fragmentary fossil of an ancient flying reptile that had been discovered in 2001 got fans of the Pterodactyloidea in a bit of a flap this year when a scientific paper was published describing a new type of Pterosaur.  The fossil came from north-western China and it pushed back the evolution of the Pterodactyloidea by at least another five million years.  Kryptodrakon progenitor, (the name means ancestor of the hidden dragons), is the most primitive, basal member of the Pterodactyloidea Pterosaur family known to science and Everything Dinosaur wrote about this exciting fossil find back in April.

Pushing the Evolution of the Pterodactyloidea Back in Time

 The Fragmentary Fossils of K. progenitor

New Pterosaur named after "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon" Film.

New Pterosaur named after “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” Film.

Picture Credit: Brian Andres

7). Welcome to the “Metal Age” of Palaeontology

Readers of this blog site may well be familiar with the term genome.  A number of ancient creatures have had at least part of their genome mapped, Neanderthals, Woolly Mammoths and such like, but in at number seven is an article all about the work of Manchester University and their research into mapping elements such as Zinc, Copper and Nickel that can be preserved within the fossil record.  University of Manchester researchers used a synchrotron particle accelerator to bombard a fifty million year old fossil leaf to help them calculate the chemical composition of an ancient plant.  They then compared this data with the metallome of a modern species from a related plant.  This was heralded as the start of the “metal age of palaeontology”.

To read this article: Exploring the Metallome of Ancient Leaves provides an insight into Plant Biochemistry

6). Dinosaur Fossil Footprint Stolen

This is the first article in our top ten that concerns the Dinosauria.  Sadly, Everything Dinosaur has written about a number dinosaur fossil thefts in 2014.  Thieves stealing fossils, especially those of dinosaurs, is a trend we see continuing over the next few years and our story at number six concerns the theft of a dinosaur footprint from Bureau of Land Management managed land in Utah.  We first reported on the theft on February 22nd, a local man, the owner of a construction company, was accused of the theft, which he at first denied but in a court hearing (July) he pleaded guilty to stealing the fossil.  Moab resident Jared Ehlers (35), was sentenced on October 20th to six months house arrest and one year of probation.  In addition, he was ordered to pay over $15,000 dollars in restitution to help cover the expenses incurred by the Utah Department of Public Safety as they searched the Colorado River for the fossil.  Fearing prosecution, Mr Ehlers, who claimed that he had stolen the three-toed footprint as he wanted to make a coffee table out of it, threw the fossil into the river, unfortunately the fossil has never been recovered.

Moab Resident Pleaded Guilty to Trace Fossil Theft

Six months house arrest plus probation and substantial fine for fossil theft.

Six months house arrest plus probation and substantial fine for fossil theft.

Picture Credit: Grand County Jail

To read about the fossil theft and to see a picture of the dinosaur footprint that was stolen: Dinosaur Footprint Stolen from Bureau of Land Management Land

5). Everything Dinosaur School Website Launched

Into the top five and at number five is an article that featured the launch of Everything Dinosaur’s new website aimed at helping teachers and other educationalists when it comes to teaching about fossils and prehistoric animals.  The specially commissioned website – Everything Dinosaur for Schools contains lots of helpful articles, free downloads and teaching tips aimed at helping teaching professionals and museum staff.

Helping to Teach About Dinosaurs and Fossils in School etc.

Teaching tips, articles, resources and free downloads.

Teaching tips, articles, resources and free downloads.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The new site was launched at the end of August to coincide with the start of the autumn term and lots of schools have already benefited from the articles featured as well as the example lesson plans and downloadable teaching resources.

Everything Dinosaur’s New School Website is Launched

4). Jurassic World (Official Trailer)

Dinosaur fans young and old have been eagerly looking forward to the release of the fourth film in the “Jurassic Park” franchise, “Jurassic World”.  The film is due to be premiered in June of 2015, but back in November, a trailer for the movie was finally released and sure enough, Everything Dinosaur’s blog site was one of the first to feature it.  The film is bound to be a huge success when it finally comes out and the trailer certainly whetted the appetite and teased viewers about the new, mysterious, genetically engineered dinosaur that is the big villain of this latest instalment of “Jurassic Park”.  We can’t wait to learn more about “Diabolus rex”.

The “Jurassic World” Official Trailer

Video Credit: Universal Studios

The original blog article featuring the trailer was published on November 25th.  Had the trailer come out slightly earlier  in the year, it could well have made it to the number one spot on our list.

3). New Prehistoric Animal Models from Collecta (2015)

2015 sees the introduction of a lot of new dinosaur and prehistoric animal models.  Collectors can expect new models from Schleich, Papo and Safari Ltd.  All our posts about new replicas did well in our survey of the top blog articles of this year, but our only top ten entry concerns the new 2015 releases from Collecta.  We first revealed the list of models back in late October, over the following weeks we wrote several articles providing more information about these new additions to the highly successful Collecta “Prehistoric Life” model range.

A Chalicothere is to be Included in Collecta’s New Models for 2015

Wonderful prehistoric animal model.

Wonderful prehistoric animal model.

Picture Credit: Collecta/Everything Dinosaur

New range of Collecta models announced for 2015: Collecta Announce New Prehistoric Animal Models for 2015

2). New Armoured Dinosaur from Mexico

Runner up is an article we published on the 27th September.  Everything Dinosaur team members had blogged about the fact that dinosaurs in the Ankylosauridae don’t seem to attract that much attention when compared to other Ornithischians.  How wrong we were as the naming and describing of a new type of heavily armoured dinosaur sparked a great deal of interest amongst readers.  Fragmentary fossils including beautifully preserved cranial material found in 2011 in strata related to the Kirtland Formation were described this year and a new type of armoured dinosaur named.  Ziapelta sanjuanensis at over six metres in length, would have made a very formidable adversary for even the largest, hungriest Theropod dinosaur.

An Illustration of Ziapelta sanjuanensis (Ankylosaur)

New Armoured Dinosaur from New Mexico

New Armoured Dinosaur from New Mexico

Picture Credit: Sydney Mohr

This ankylosaurid that roamed New Mexico between 74 and 72 million years ago (Campanian faunal stage), is extremely important as the fossils indicate affinities with better known ankylosaurids whose fossils have been found in Canada (Alberta).  This spiky herbivore, described as a “living tank” certainly caused a stir when the scientific paper was published.

To read the article about Ziapelta sanjuanensisNew Armoured Dinosaur from New Mexico

Before we reveal our top blog article posting of the year, time for a few honourable mentions.  The research into the giant Titanosaur known as Dreadnoughtus schrani proved very popular, as did a number of articles published earlier in the year about Patagonian fossil finds.  The introduction of the new, high quality dinosaur replica range from Rebor got collectors very excited along with our video review of the new for 2014 prehistoric animal models, including a short video we made showing how to ease the articulated jaw on the Papo Dilophosaurus.

1). Carnegie T. rex (2014) Reviewed

Top of the tree, our number one article was published on the 18th of March.  It concerned a review of the new Tyrannosaurus rex model made by Safari Ltd.  This model, the only new Carnegie Collectible replica introduced by the company this year was reviewed by Everything Dinosaur team members and despite being introduced with a number of Wild Safari models, it was this T. rex figure that drew most of the attention.  We also made a short video review of this very well made model, it also proved popular.

Everything Dinosaur’s Written Review of the Carnegie Collectibles Tyrannosaurus rex at Number One

Fearsome dinosaur 1:40 scale figure.

Fearsome dinosaur 1:40 scale figure.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

This model featured in one of our Outlook signatures created for our emails, it must have been seen thousands of times and we also made several reviews of this particular scale replica.  The red colouring around the head and its fearsome pose were commented upon by a number of blog readers and we received lots of correspondence about this model from professional collectors and from young dinosaur fans.

Everything Dinosaur reviews the T. rex model: A Review by Everything Dinosaur of the Carnegie Dinosaurs 2014 Tyrannosaurus rex Model

A very big thank you to everyone who commented, retweeted and “liked” our articles.  We look forward to writing more in 2015, a year that should, if everything goes to plan, feature our 3,000th published article on this site.

A strange “short-necked” Hupehsuchian Bounces Back

Evidence of Recovery after End Permian Extinction Event

A very strange member of a little known group of ancient marine reptiles has been formally described by a joint team of American and Chinese scientists.  The new genus described as “platypus-like” is a Hupehsuchian, part of a group of Early Triassic diapsid reptiles, that may have been ancestral to the much better known Ichthyosaurs.  The fossil has been named Eohupehsuchus brevicollis, the name means “early short-necked crocodile of Hubei Province” and it was excavated from strata laid down around 248 million years ago (Olenikian faunal stage), as the world recovered from the “Great Permian Dying”, a mass extinction event that is believed to have wiped out around 95% of all the species on the planet.

Fossils associated with Hupehsuchia have been found in two counties within Hubei Province (eastern, central China).  The Order Hupehsuchia was named after the alternative name for Hubei Province (hupeh), E. brevicollis is unlike any other known member of the Hupehsuchia as it possessed a short neck, with only six cervical vertebrae.  Other Hupehsuchians had much longer necks, with at least ten neck bones.  The forty centimetre long specimen is believed to represent an adult animal, it is somewhat smaller than the better known Nanchangosaurus (fossils dated from the Middle Triassic) and it lacked teeth.  Analysis of the skull and jaws indicate that this little reptile probably had a beak like a duck (hence the platypus analogy), it paddled its way through the shallow sea using its strong limbs.  The bones are thickened and heavy, indicating some adaptation to a marine environment.  Heavy bones would have helped these animals dive, although it did possess extensive dermal armour, perhaps a remnant of its terrestrial ancestry.  Scientists are unsure as to whether the extensive armoured scales evolved in the Hupehsuchia after they adapted to a marine existence or whether these tough scales evolved in this group’s reptile ancestors, which lived on land.

The Fossilised Remains of E. brevicollis

The holotype material for E. brevicollis.

The holotype material for E. brevicollis.

Picture Credit: PLOS One

One of the lead authors of the scientific paper, published this week in the on line journal PLOS One, Professor Ryosuke Motani (University of California Davis), commented:

“Although it’s a very different animal, it had a skull and beak like a duck without teeth, a very heavily built body with thick bones and paddles to swim through the water.  The details are different, but the general body design looks similar to a platypus.”

With at least four genera identified as Hupehsuchia, researchers are beginning to piece together how marine ecosystems recovered after the Permian mass extinction.  Intriguingly, this specimen indicates that there were most probably large vertebrate predators in the habitat 248 million years ago.  The left forelimb is incomplete, with several bones missing and those present are broken. This has been interpreted as a bite from a larger predator that could only have occurred pre-burial.  This little reptile may have been attacked by a predator and escaped only to perish and to be buried a short while after.

This fossil find adds to the growing body of evidence that suggests a rapid radiation and diversification of vertebrates after the mass extinction event.

The University of California researchers have been prominent in the research into Lower Triassic marine reptiles from China.  Back in November, Everything Dinosaur published an article on a fossil of a basal Ichthyosaur that had been studied by this team.  Unlike, Eohupehsuchus which comes from Hubei Province, the basal Ichthyosaur fossil was found in the neighbouring province of Anhui (to the east of Hubei Province).

To read more about the Anhui basal Ichthyosaur: Tracing the Origins of the Ichthyosaurs

Dinosaurs – Going through the Motions

Fossilised Dinosaur Wee and Poo Mapped In Brazil

A lot can be learned from the skulls, teeth and jaws of prehistoric animals.  However, what goes in one end has to come out the other.  Quite exactly how the dinosaurs voided their digestive tracts (went to the toilet), remains a mystery, but a pair of scientists based in Brazil have mapped the fossilised excreta associated with a number of Mesozoic formations in that South American country.  The research has just been published in the “Journal of South American Earth Sciences”.

So let’s get down and dirty with the Dinosauria.  Many people might be aware that fossilised faeces are called coprolites.  The word coprolite comes from ancient Greek, it means “dung stone” from the words kopros for dung and lithos for stone.  We suspect that rather less people are aware that trace fossils believed to represent displaced sediment as a result of a stream of urine coming from a vertebrate are referred to as urolites.  The word urolite is also derived from the Greek.  Uro meaning urine and lithos for stone.

The Joy of Studying Coprolites

"Shiny side up" the joys of "dino dung".

“Shiny side up” the joys of “dino dung”.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Back in 2004, the two scientists responsible for this latest research paper, Marcelo Adorna Fernandes (University of São Carlos), and Paul Roberto Figueiredo Souto (University of Rio de Janeiro), published a ground-breaking study (no pun intended) into trace fossils believed to be represent the disturbance caused in sand when a stream of urine hits that spot.  These traces of animal behaviour were preserved as fossils and so scientists had the opportunity to study the patterns made from splashes of urine.  The urolite fossils studied in 2004 and also examined in this latest paper, come from Cretaceous sandstone deposits of São Paulo State, in south-eastern Brazil (Botucatu Formation).  They have been found in association with the fossilised footprints of two different types of dinosaurs, a meat-eating Theropod and an Ornithopod.  It is not known which type of dinosaur created the urolites.

Studies of Urolites and Experiments to Recreate Sediment Redistribution

Study into the trace fossils made by the elimination of water from ancient creature's bodies.

Study into the trace fossils made by the elimination of water from ancient creature’s bodies.

The Society of Brazilian Palaeontology (2004)

The above photographs show three trace fossils that are believed to correspond to liquid wastes (A,B and C).  Photograph D shows an excavation created by dropping two litres of water from a height of eighty centimetres as the scientists experimented to try to recreate the impressions.  In all of the photographs the scale bar is in centimetres.

One of the reasons why scientists believe that the dinosaurs came to dominate life in the Mesozoic is that they were very efficient at retaining moisture inside their bodies compared to other types of terrestrial vertebrates .  Most types of birds excrete very little water with their faeces.  In fact, the way in which birds and reptiles deal with processing waste products, particularly those wastes and toxins associated with protein digestion, differs from the way that mammals handle the problem of expelling waste.

Ammonia, a by product of protein digestion, is toxic, it has to be got rid of.  Mammals convert ammonia in the body into a concentrated form (urea), this is expelled as urine, but it means we lose water.  Reptiles and birds tackle the problem of getting rid of ammonia in a slightly different way.  These other types of amniotes convert the ammonia into uric acid, which is much less toxic than urea.  It therefore does not need to be diluted with water to such an extent.  Indeed, uric acid does not need to mix with any water at all, it can be excreted as a semi-solid and thus, a lot of water can be conserved in this way.

The internal plumbing of birds and reptiles also varies.  Crocodiles and some types of Ratite, such as the Ostrich, can expel urine and faeces separately, the urine first followed by the solids (usually).  Most birds and most reptiles tend to expel what liquid they wish to get rid of as well as any solids at the same time.  Kind of a “one flush system” as we call it.  The mystery about dinosaur waste elimination is this – did the Dinosauria expel urine and faeces separately like ostriches and crocodiles or were they to a “one flush system”?

Perhaps different types of dinosaur expelled waste in different ways.  Ostriches for example, can store their urine in a urodeum, an organ similar in function to the mammalian bladder.  The solid waste is stored in another organ called a coprodeum, this is eliminated subsequently to the urine expulsion.  Observations of Ostriches spending a penny as it were, shows that they produce a strong jet of urine that hits the ground with quite a force. They create similar patterns in unconsolidated soil as seen in the trace fossils found in the Botucatu Formation (pictures A, B and C above).

So why bother to map the places in Brazil where coprolites and urolites are found?  These fossils provide important evidence to palaeontologists. They help scientists build up a picture of the diet of vertebrates and evidence of plant remains as well as depositional data can provide information about the palaeoclimates.  For example, the sandstones of the Botucatu Formation where the urolites were found, represent a dune environment interspersed with oasis and wadis.   In this latest research paper, coprolites from Upper Cretaceous as well as potential Jurassic aged deposits have been mapped.  This all helps to extend our knowledge with regards to the Gondwana biota during the Mesozoic.

Putting Brazil’s Coprolites and Urolites on the Map

The location of coprolite and urolite fossil specimens included within the 2014 study.

The location of coprolite and urolite fossil specimens included within the 2014 study.

Picture Credit: Journal of South America Earth Sciences/annotation by Everything Dinosaur

This area of research is often overlooked.  There is a lot we do not know about the Dinosauria.  Take for example the Late Cretaceous Hadrosaurine dinosaur Maiasaura (Maiasaura peeblesorum).  The Two Medicine Formation of Montana provided an extraordinary amount of evidence about this Ornithopod and its nesting behaviour.  The fossil deposit location was referred to as “egg mountain”, as these sediments preserved evidence of huge nesting colonies.  In addition, this location is one of very few in the world where large amounts of coprolite directly associated with a single genus was discovered.  It seemed appropriate as well as polite to nick-name these highly fossiliferous sites “egg mountain”, naming the location “*h!# mountain” would have been scientifically valid, but perhaps not as acceptable in popular literature.

Lots of Coprolite Fossils Associated with Maiasaura (M. peeblesorum)

Model of "Good Mother Lizard"

Model of “Good Mother Lizard”

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The only other locations where urolites associated with the Dinosauria have been described (as far as we know), are France and Germany.

The Penarth Ichthyosaur

Amateur Fossil Hunter Finds Welsh Ichthyosaur

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

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

The Fossilised Remains of the Ichthyosaur (after preparation)

Penarth's very own prehistoric monster.

Penarth’s very own prehistoric monster.

Picture Credit: Jonathan Bow

Mr Bow, a keen fossil collector explained that:

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

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

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

Ichthyosaurs – Marine Reptiles Known as “Fish Lizards”

Dolphin-like prehistoric animals.

Dolphin-like prehistoric animals.

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

Ichthyosaurus Fossils Come to Light

Ichthyosaur fossils from this part of South Wales are rare.

Ichthyosaur fossils from this part of South Wales are rare.

Picture Credit: Jonathan Bow

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

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

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

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

The Weird and Wonderful Cambrian

Ancient Balloon Shaped Animal Sheds Light on Cambrian Fauna

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

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

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

The Bizarre Nidelric pugio – Like Nothing on Earth Today

An ancient pin cushion N. pugio

An ancient pin cushion N. pugio

Picture Credit: Leicester University

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

A Close Up of the Spikes that Surround this Animal

Ancient defences?

Ancient defences?

Picture Credit: Leicester University

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

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

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

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

Cambrian Creature Named in Honour of Professor Aldridge

Honoured for his contribution to palaeontology.

Honoured for his contribution to palaeontology.

Picture Credit: Leicester University

Time to Focus on an Edmonton Bonebed

The Danek Edmontosaurus Bonebed – Learning About Dinosaur Communities

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

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

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

An Illustration of Edmontosaurus regalis

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

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

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

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

Students and Supervisors Working at the Danek Edmontosaurus Bonebed

The site is ideal for field work.

The site is ideal for field work.

Picture Credit: Victoria Arbour

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

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

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

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

The Earliest Horned Dinosaur in North America?

Aquilops americanus – The Implications

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

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

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

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

 A Tiny Skull that is Making a Big Difference

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

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

Picture Credit: Reuters

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

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

Line Drawing of the Skull and a Reconstruction of the Dinosaur

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

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

Picture Credit: PLOS One, life restoration by Brian Engh

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

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

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

 An Illustration of Aquilops americanus

Earliest horned dinosaur known from North America.

Earliest horned dinosaur known from North America.

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

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

Dr. Farke added:

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

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

Walking with Dinosaurs – Birth of a Dinosaur Footprint

Getting Under the Skin of a Dinosaur’s Foot

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

Providing a Deeper Understanding About Fossil Footprints

Sauropod footprint, the hand provides scale.

Sauropod footprint, the hand provides scale.

Picture Credit: AFP Photo/Igor Sasin

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

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

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

Cutting edge research combined with a Guinea Fowl.

Cutting edge research combined with a Guinea Fowl.

Picture Credit: Royal Veterinary College/Brown University

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

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

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

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

The Simulated Footprint (Guinea Fowl Footprint)

The footprint mapped at 1cm below the surface layer.

The footprint mapped at 1cm below the surface layer.

Picture Credit: Royal Veterinary College/Brown University

Professor Gatesy added:

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

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

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