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/Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories

Fossil finds, new dinosaur discoveries, news and views from the world of palaeontology and other Earth sciences.

11 05, 2018

A New New Zealand Pigeon from the Miocene

By | May 11th, 2018|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Main Page, Palaeontological articles|0 Comments

The Zealandian Dove Related to the Dodo

Scientists from the Canterbury Museum (New Zealand), in collaboration with colleagues from the University of New South Wales, Flinders University and the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, have described a new species of prehistoric pigeon that flapped around South Island during the Miocene Epoch, some 16-19 million years ago.  The new species has been named the Zealandian Dove (Deliaphaps zealandiensis) and it may have been related to the extinct, giant, flightless pigeon of Mauritius – the Dodo.

Part of the Dodo Collection from the Canterbury Museum 

Canterbury Museum Dodo exhibit.

Casts of the Oxford Museum Dodo specimen which is part of the Canterbury Museum collection.

Picture Credit: Canterbury Museum

New Zealand only has two species of native pigeons, the aptly named New Zealand pigeon, otherwise called the Kereru (Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae) and the closely-related Chatham Island pigeon, or Parea (Hemiphaga chathamensis).

The fossils were found at a dig site near St Bathans (Central Otago, South Island) and although fragmentary in nature, consisting of a few wing bones and part of the pectoral girdle, the researchers are confident that this material represents a new species of prehistoric pigeon and have published their paper in the “Paleontología Y Evolución de las Aves”.

The Zealandian Dove

Deliaphaps zealandiensis has been named after the landmass called Zealandia.  This large area of land is also referred to as the New Zealand continent or Tasmantis.  It consists of a mass of continental crust that sank after breaking away from Australia 60–85 million years ago, having begun to separate from Antarctica and the rest of the Gondwana supercontinent.  Most of Zealandia is submerged, but it rises above water in places, including the populated areas of New Zealand, New Caledonia, Norfolk and the Lord Howe Island group.

The fossil material has been slowly gathered over sixteen years and one of the wing bones is similar to the wing bones of members of a group (the Raphinae), that includes the Tooth-billed pigeon (Didunculus strigirostris) or Manumea which is native to the island of Samoa.  The Raphinae also includes the Crowned pigeons of New Guinea (Goura genus) and the spectacular Nicobar pigeon of south-east Asia (Caloenas nicobarica), believed to be the closest living relative of the enigmatic Dodo.

The Newly Described Zealandian Dove is Probably Closely Related to the Nicobar Pigeon

The Nicobar pigeon.

The Nicobar pigeon, the closest living relative to the Dodo. It may also be related to the newly described Zealandian Dove from the Miocene.

Picture Credit: Canterbury Museum

Co-author of the scientific paper and University of New South Wales scientist, Professor Sue Hand stated:

“Fossils recovered from the St Bathans site now number in the thousands and together document a time of great biodiversity in New Zealand’s history.  For many of New Zealand’s very distinctive bird lineages, such as moa and kiwi, the St Bathans fossils provide their oldest and sometimes first deep time records.  Discovery of the Zealandian Dove and its evident links to the dodo are fascinating additions to the unfolding picture of New Zealand’s prehistoric menagerie.”

Lead author of the research, Dr Vanesa De Pietri (Canterbury Museum), added:

“Based on the St Bathans fossils, we think that the Zealandian Dove is part of this Indo-Pacific group.  It is probably most similar to the Nicobar Pigeon and is therefore a close relative (or at least a cousin) of the famous dodo.  The Zealandian Dove is the first record of this group found in the southern part of the nearly submerged land mass known as Zealandia.”

Second Pigeon from St Bathans (Miocene Deposits)

The Zealandian Dove is only the second pigeon found at the St Bathans fossil site.  The delicate and fragile bones of birds are not strong candidates to endure the fossilisation process.  The first pigeon to be named from fossils discovered at this location was the St Bathans pigeon (Rupephaps taketake), which was described from a single coracoid bone recovered from these ancient lake deposits.  It is believed to be related to the extant, native New Zealand pigeons.

The Oxford Museum Dodo Material

Oxford Museum Dodo.

The Oxford Museum Dodo material.

Picture Credit: Oxford Museum

Commenting on the recent pigeon fossil discoveries, Dr Paul Scofield of Canterbury Museum said:

“We have now also found a leg bone that we can attribute to this species [St Bathans pigeon].  As a result, we can now confirm that the St Bathans pigeon is also closely related to Indonesian and Melanesian mountain pigeons.  It was an early offshoot within that particular group.”

Dr Trevor Worthy of Flinders University (South Australia) added:

“Some 19 to 16 million years ago, the diversity of endemic pigeons in New Zealand included at least two distinct co-existing lineages in the southern part of Zealandia taking advantage of the more diverse fruiting trees then available.  Pigeon fossils are rare in the St Bathans fauna and are outnumbered by about thirty to one by parrots, which perhaps reflects the relative abundance of these tree-dwelling birds in the St Bathans fauna.  Many small parrots form large flocks, whereas pigeons typically live in only small groups, so perhaps these traits typified the early Miocene parrots and pigeons in Zealandia.”

Evidence of Climate Change

The reduction in the number of species found in New Zealand is probably a result of climate change which affected the types of trees on the islands.  Scientists know that between approximately 14.2 and 13.8 million years ago, a period of dramatic global climatic cooling took place.  Prior to the global cooling, New Zealand enjoyed a subtropical climate which led to a very diverse and rich fauna and flora with many kinds of fruit-bearing trees that would have provided food for the pigeons.  The loss of the floral diversity as a result of climate change would have had a big impact on the fruit and seed-eating birds and this could be a reason for the reduction in pigeon species.

9 05, 2018

A Weather Forecast from the Cambrian

By | May 9th, 2018|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Geology, Main Page, Palaeontological articles, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Tiny Fossils Provide Clues to Earth’s Climate 500 Million Years Ago

A joint team of scientists from France and the UK, have plotted the temperature of our planet’s oceans over half a billion years ago using a combination of fossil data and computer-based climate models.  Think of it as a sort of weather forecast from the Cambrian.  This newly published research suggests that the first hard-bodied animals diversified in warms seas, heated by a greenhouse world.  The team’s findings help to expand our knowledge of the environment at the time of the Cambrian explosion, a period in Earth’s history that saw a huge increase in the number and type of marine animal forms.

Life in the Late Cambrian Period

Cambrian life.

Life in the Late Cambrian by Zdeněk Burian.

Picture Credit: Zdeněk Burian

Writing in the academic journal “Science Advances”, the scientists, led by researchers from the University of Leicester, used climate models and the chemical analysis of tiny, shelly fossils preserved in limestone from Shropshire (central England), to calculate the sea temperature during a time of rapid diversity of animal life in the Palaeozoic.  From around 540 to 510 million years ago, the fossil record shows a marked change, as during this period of Earth’s history, virtually all of the animal phyla (including the Chordata – our phylum) appeared.  The idea of a “Cambrian explosion” is a little misleading, the appearance of many new forms of complex animal life may have been gradual, but in terms of the fossil record, sites such as the famous Burgess Shale of British Columbia and Yunnan Province (southern China), have revealed extensive and varied marine ecosystems with large numbers of new types of animal being recorded in the strata.

Analysis of Some of the First Shelly Fossils

Scientists had thought that for much of the Cambrian, our planet was warmer that it is today with no polar ice caps present.  A study of tiny 1 mm long fossils of some of the first animals to produce a hard, shelly exoskeleton has confirmed this hypothesis.  Analysis of isotopes from the tiny shells in combination with the climate models show that at high latitudes (around 65 degrees south), sea temperatures were in excess of 20 degrees Celsius.  This might seem very warm, especially when you consider that this is an evaluation of sea temperatures at approximately 65 degrees south, today, travelling to that latitude would put you on the southernmost fringes of the Southern Ocean and close to Antarctica.  However, the data generated is similar to more recent, better understood, greenhouse climates such as that of the Late Cretaceous.

Reflected Light Microscopy – Brachiopod Fossils Used in the Study

Reflected light microscope images of Cambrian brachiopods.

Reflected light microscope images of some of the brachiopod fossils (phosphatic microfossils), used in this study.

Picture Credit: Leicester University

Co-author of the open access paper, PhD student Thomas Hearing (University of Leicester’s School of Geography, Geology and the Environment), explained:

“Because scientists cannot directly measure sea temperatures from half a billion years ago, they have to use proxy data, these are measurable quantities that respond in a predictable way to changing climate variables like temperature.  In this study, we used oxygen isotope ratios, which is a commonly used palaeothermometer.  We then used acid to extract fossils about 1 mm long from blocks of limestone from Shropshire, UK, dated to between 515 – 510 million years old.  Careful examination of these tiny fossils revealed that some of them have exceptionally well-preserved shell chemistry which has not changed since they grew on the Cambrian sea floor.” 

High Resolution Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) Images of Brachiopod Fossils Used in the Study

SEM images of brachiopods.

Electron microscope images of some of the brachiopod fossils used in this study. Electron microscopy allows much higher resolution imaging of small structures than normal light microscopy.

Picture Credit: Leicester University

Dr Tom Harvey (University of Leicester) added:

“Many marine animals incorporate chemical traces of seawater into their shells as they grow.  That chemical signature is often lost over geological time, so it’s remarkable that we can identify it in such ancient fossils.” 

Analyses of the oxygen isotopes of these fossils suggested very warm temperatures for high latitude seas (~65 °S), probably between 20 °C to 25 °C.  To see if these were feasible sea temperatures, the researchers carried out climate model simulations for the Cambrian.  The climate model scenarios suggest that the Earth’s climate was in a “typical” greenhouse state, with temperatures similar to more recent and better understood greenhouse intervals known from the Mesozoic and the Cenozoic eras.  Ultimately, this study will help to expand our knowledge of the ecosystem that existed during the Cambrian.

The Highly Fossiliferous Comley Limestones (Shropshire, UK)

A thin section of highly fossiliferous rock of Cambrian age.

A thin section slice through the trilobite-rich Comley Limestones (Shropshire, UK).

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The curves and white wavy lines in the photograph (above), are preserved exoskeletons of numerous trilobites.

Thomas Hearing concluded:

“We hope that this approach can be used by other researchers to build up a clearer picture of ancient climates where conventional climate proxy data are not available.”

The research was carried out as an international collaboration involving scientists from the University of Leicester (UK), British Geological Survey (BGS; UK), and CEREGE (France).

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

6 05, 2018

Dense Bones and Other Aquatic Adaptations in Spinosaurs

By | May 6th, 2018|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Palaeontological articles|1 Comment

South American Giant Provides Further Information on Enigmatic Spinosaurs

A partial leg bone found in north-eastern Brazil has helped scientists to better understand the adaptations members of the Spinosauridae may have evolved to help them with their semi-aquatic lifestyles.  Furthermore, the fragmentary fossil, a large partial tibia from the Aptian-Albian Romualdo Formation, (Araripe Basin, north-eastern Brazil), when compared to other Spinosaur remains, indicates an individual dinosaur much larger than other South American spinosaurids.  This single fossil suggests a sub-adult animal around ten metres in length, far larger than the other South American spinosaurids from the Araripe Basin such as Irritator and Angaturama.

A South American Lagoon Around 115-110 Million Years Ago – A Spinosaurid Attacks a Pterosaur

Spinosaur attacks a Pterosaur.

An illustration of a South American Spinosaur attacking a Pterosaur.

Picture Credit: Julio Lacerda

Sail-back Dinosaur from the Heart of the Brazilian Outback

The Brazilian dinosaur fossil is providing another piece of the puzzle as palaeontologists strive to better understand the enigmatic spinosaurids.  The discovery of the fossil bone and its implications for Spinosaur research has been published in the academic journal “Cretaceous Research”.  The research was led by a team of Brazilian palaeontologists in collaboration with colleagues from Yale University, the University of Bonn and Trinity College (Dublin).

The partial tibia (lower leg bone) was found in Ceará, a state in the heart of the Brazilian outback.  Although only a fragment of bone, its size in relation to other spinosaurid fossils suggests a dinosaur measuring about ten metres in length, considerably bigger than other South American members of the Spinosauridae.

The Partial Tibia Bone (Various Views)

Views of the Spinosaur fossil material

Views and cross-sectional analysis of the Spinosaur partial tibia fossil (LVP-PV-0042).

Picture Credit: Cretaceous Research

Large Predators with an Aquatic Lifestyle

Over the last five years or so, there have been a number of papers published looking at how these large predators lived.  Many palaeontologists believe that these Theropods adopted a specialist lifestyle, becoming semi-aquatic and essentially piscivores.  Interest in these enigmatic dinosaurs has certainly been piqued in recent years, especially with the publication of a fascinating paper in 2014 that proposed that Spinosaurus aegyptiacus was a semi-aquatic, obligate quadruped.  The partial tibia has anatomical traits previously only observed in the north African S. aegyptiacus, traits such as a reduced fibular crest and dense bones (osteosclerotic bones).  These types of bones are characteristic of the limb bones of vertebrates that spend a lot of their time in water.  The leg bones of hippos, for example, exhibit this condition.  The partial tibia from north-eastern Brazil, supports the idea that spinosaurids were adapted to an aquatic environment, in addition, the Brazilian fossil is many millions of years older than those fossils associated with S. aegyptiacus, so, this suggests that high bone compactness was already present in Brazilian spinosaurids long before S. aegyptiacus evolved.

Cross-sectional Views of LPP-PV-0042 Indicating Bone Density and Growth Rate

Growth rate and density of Araripe Basin dinosaur bone.

An assessment of the bone density observed in LPP-PV-0042 along with histology of bone indicating growth rate.

Picture Credit: Cretaceous Research

Fossilised bone cells in detail, observed under the microscope.  Different growth pulses of the animal are represented by the red arrows.  Absence of certain characteristics in the bone tissue lead palaeontologists to conclude the spinosaurid was a sub-adult and still growing when it died.

To read Everything Dinosaur’s article on the 2014 Spinosaurus paper: Spinosaurus – Four Legs are Better Than Two

“Heavy Bones” of Spinosaurs

The study was led by postgraduate student Tito Aureliano (Campinas State University, Unicamp, Brazil), along with researchers from the Federal University of Sao Carlos (Brazil).  The dense bones of the Brazilian Spinosaur would have helped the animal to dive and to move in water in a similar way to a hippopotamus.  The dense bones are analogous to the lead weights used by divers to counteract their own buoyancy.  This research suggests that osteosclerotic bones were present in the South American Spinosaurinae at least ten million years earlier than those associated with their north African cousins.  It is not known when osteosclerotic bones evolved in Spinosaurs, but this characteristic may have evolved relatively early in these types of dinosaurs.

Bone Density Comparisons

Spinosaur limb bones are much more dense than most other dinosaurs

Cross sections of vertebrate bones including many dinosaurs showing bone density versus pneumaticity within the Dinosauria.

Picture Credit: Cretaceous Research

Commenting on the significance of this study, Tito Aureliano stated:

“It may be possible that Brazilian Spinosaurs were the first to adopt this way of life.  Now we need to investigate an even older species.”

An Example of Convergent Evolution

Several types of not-closely related vertebrates have dense bones, reflecting an adaptation to an aquatic lifestyle.  Penguins, crocodiles and sealions along with hippos and spinosaurids have these types of bones, this is an example of convergent evolution.

Aline Ghilardi (Federal University of Sao Carlos) explained:

“It is interesting how this adaptation evolved multiple times in different groups of animals that adopted the same lifestyle.”

The spinosaurids evolved in a different direction when compared to most of the Theropoda.  Whilst most dinosaurs evolved ways to make the skeleton lighter, epitomised in the extreme pneumaticity observed in birds, the Spinosaurs developed a way to make their skeleton heavier.  This aided them when it came to occupying a very distinct and specialised niche amongst the Dinosauria.

South American Giants

South America might be famous for its huge Cretaceous plant-eating dinosaurs such as the titanosaurids Argentinosaurus, Patagotitan and Dreadnoughtus but the partial tibia bone hints at super-sized predators too.  An analysis of the fossilised cells showed that the studied dinosaur had not reached its maximum size by the time of its death and was still growing.  This indicates that these
dinosaurs could reach larger sizes than previously thought, the Araripe Basin Spinosaurinae could have been giants, which would make them the top predators of the Cretaceous coastal lagoons of Ceará.

South American Spinosaur Size Comparison

Spinosaur size comparison from the Araripe Basin.

Spinosaurid size comparison based on known fossil material.

Picture Credit: Cretaceous Research

The image (above), shows all the known spinosaurid fossils from the Araripe Basin.  The fossil used in this study is marked in pink (F).   Note, figure 1 shows the fossil bones not to scale but figure 2 provides a scale comparison between the Spinosaur specimens from the Araripe Basin.  The largest spinosaurid found to date (LPP-PV-0042), was the subject of the research paper.

Pterosaur Vertebrae from Ceará

The Ceará state has been synonymous with amazing Spinosaur fossil finds.  In 2004, researchers led by the famous French palaeontologist Eric Buffetaut, described a remarkable fossil find from this region, three articulated Pterosaur vertebrae (Ornithocheiridae) were found with the tooth of a spinosaurid embedded in one of the bones.  This fossil represents direct evidence that Spinosaurs included other prey items in their diets as well as fish.  The broken tooth also provides evidence that the light bones of Pterosaurs were much stronger than previously assumed.

A Food Chain of the Lagoonal Environment (Araripe Basin in the Early Cretaceous)

Araripe Basin (lagoon) food chain.

Proposed food chain showing LPP-PV-0042 as apex predator.  Pterosaurs were on the menu to.

Picture Credit: Cretaceous Research

Lots of questions about the Spinosauridae remain.  For example, whether these aquatic adaptations are related to the establishment of a large system of lagoons between South America and Africa caused by the opening of the Atlantic Ocean during this period in Earth’s history.  As with many whales today, was the adaptation of an aquatic lifestyle the trigger that enabled these Theropods to evolve into giants?

Our thanks to Tito Aureliano ((Campinas State University, Unicamp, Brazil) for their help in the compilation of this article.

The scientific paper: “Semi-aquatic Adaptations in a Spinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of Brazil” by Tito Aureliano, Aline M. Ghilardi, Pedro V. Buck, Matteo Fabbri, Adun Samathi, Rafael Delcourt, Marcelo A. Fernandes and Martin Sander published in the journal Cretaceous Research.

4 05, 2018

Please Don’t Throw Rocks

By | May 4th, 2018|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page|0 Comments

Please Don’t Vandalise our Dinosaur Tracks

Visitors to the Red Fleet State Park in Utah have been requested to refrain from throwing rocks into water as some of these rocks are actually the fossil footprints of dinosaurs from the Early Jurassic.  Tourists to the Park, which is located ten miles north of the small town of Vernal, off Highway 191 in north-eastern Utah, have been throwing lumps of sandstone into a reservoir and some of these pieces of rock contain the 200 million-year-old fossilised tracks of dinosaurs.

Examining a Dinosaur Footprint at Red Fleet State Park

Dinosaur fossil footprint (Utah).

One of the three-toed dinosaur tracks at Red Fleet State Park (Utah).

Picture Credit: Utah State Parks

Commenting on this very unusual tourist problem, Park Manager Josh Hansen stated:

“While this problem is quite alarming, often times the people who are doing this have no idea they could be destroying millions of years of history.  Some of the tracks are very distinct to the layperson, but just as many are not.  That is why it is important to not disturb any rocks at the dinosaur trackway.”

Dilophosaurus Dinosaur Tracks

The Red Fleet State Park attracts tourists from far and wide.  It is a haven for bikers, walkers, campers and for outdoor sports enthusiasts and the area is famous for its dinosaur track sites.  However, the ancient trace fossils, making this attraction a real-life “Jurassic Park”, are being damaged and destroyed, either unwittingly or through deliberate vandalism.  The large, three-toed prints (tridactyl prints) represent carnivorous dinosaurs (Theropods), a number of these tracks have been attributed to the Early Jurassic species Dilophosaurus wetherilli.

Devan Chavez, a spokesman for the Utah Division of State Parks, who has corresponded with Everything Dinosaur, has stated that at least ten of the larger footprints left by dinosaurs, ranging from eight to forty-three centimetres in size, have been destroyed in the last six months alone.  Josh Hanson explained that by deteriorating the track site, people are taking away the experience from thousands of others.  Not only that, but this act also constitutes a crime.

One of the Three-toed Dinosaur Footprints at the Park

Dinosaur fossil footprint (Utah).

A three-toed dinosaur footprint (Red Fleet State Park, Utah).

Picture Credit: Utah State Parks

Utah has very strict laws in place to help preserve its precious prehistoric heritage.  Anyone caught vandalising these fossil sites can face very severe penalties, including hefty fines and even imprisonment.  Problems with damage to dinosaur fossils are not just limited to this single tourist attraction.  Everything Dinosaur has reported on a number of incidents of fossil theft and vandalism in the state of Utah.

To read about the damage to a dinosaur bone at the nearby Dinosaur National Monument (Utah):  Fossil Damaged at Dinosaur National Monument

The Park authorities were keen to stress that it is illegal to displace rocks that contain trace fossils and disturbing fossil sites would be regarded as an act of vandalism.

Helping to Educate Visitors

Park staff have taken steps to help raise awareness, the Park’s blog site has covered this issue and the number of signs around the Park alerting visitors to the problem have been increased.  Utah State Parks believes education can play a big part in stopping this kind of behaviour.  To help combat it, they have been asking everyone to spread the word.  Everything Dinosaur is happy to help where it can to publicise this problem and to play a role in helping to prevent further damage.

Visitors are requested not to throw any rocks in the dinosaur track area at Red Fleet State Park.  Please help the authorities keep the area preserved and beautiful for visitors both tomorrow and for generations to come.

3 05, 2018

The First Beak Under the Noses of Scientists

By | May 3rd, 2018|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Palaeontological articles, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Inspiring Ichthyornis – Top of the Pecking Order

As a very young boy, I remember eagerly striving to complete my Brooke Bond “Prehistoric Animals” card collection.  This was a set of fifty cards to collect,  given away free with packets of tea.   One of the cards featured a pair of toothed, prehistoric birds, a large, reddish coloured Hesperornis which was being mobbed by a couple of tern-like birds, this was my first introduction to Ichthyornis.  Perhaps, the first time that I realised that birds (at least primitive, toothed birds), lived alongside dinosaurs.  How wonderful to read this week that Ichthyornis, thanks to a pieced together three-dimensional skull, may be providing palaeontologists with fresh insights into avian evolution.  The Hesperornis/Ichthyornis picture card may have been burned into my conscience long ago, but it is refreshing to think that this ancient bird may represent a pivotal moment in the transition from dinosaurs to modern-day birds and its significance has only just come to light.  A team of international scientists have published a paper proposing that Ichthyornis may have had one of the first, true bird-like beaks.

The Brooke Bond Picture Card

Hesperornis and Ichthyornis

Hesperornis catching a fish, with Ichthyornis in close attention.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur/Brooke Bond

Toothy Bird with the Beginnings of a Beak

Writing in the journal “Nature”, researchers report on the analysis of beautifully preserved three-dimensional Ichthyornis (I. dispar) fossil skull that is providing new evidence on the evolution of the avian head and how the skull and beaks of birds evolved from their dinosaurian ancestors.

A Three-Dimensional Image of Ichthyornis Skull Material Indicates the Tip of the Premaxillary Formed the First Beak

The tip of the premaxillary forms the first beak.

A computer generated image showing the life position of the fossil bones in the three-dimensional Ichthyornis skull.

Picture Credit: Yale Office of Public Affairs and Communications

Ichthyornis dispar

Known from fragmentary fossils from Kansas and named back in 1872 by Yale University’s Othniel Charles Marsh, it seems fitting that this new study into one of the first toothed birds described, has been led by scientists from Yale University.  Working in conjunction with colleagues from the University of Kansas, Fort Hays State University, Alabama Museum of Natural History and the McWane Science Centre (Alabama), the team report on new specimens with three-dimensional cranial remains, including one example of a complete skull and two previously overlooked cranial elements that were part of the original Yale specimen examined by Marsh.

Using CT scans and sophisticated computer modelling, individual skull and jaw bones were scanned and reproduced in three-dimensions.  This allowed a complete skull to be constructed revealing new details about the transition from dinosaur skull to a more modern bird skull.

Yale University palaeontologist and lead author of the study Bhart-Anjan Bhullar commented:

“Right under our noses this whole time was an amazing, transitional bird.  It has a modern-looking brain along with a remarkably dinosaurian jaw muscle configuration.”

Ichthyornis is part of the biota of the Western Interior Seaway, a shallow sea that split North America in two during the Late Cretaceous.  It has been regarded as an early version of a tern or gull, but its size is unknown as the few fossils found represent individuals of different sizes, however, it probably had a wingspan of no more than sixty centimetres, making Ichthyornis slightly smaller than today’s Common Tern (Sterna hirundo), a bird which fills the same ecological niche as the Mesozoic Ichthyornis.

Using the Latest Research, a New Reconstruction of Ichthyornis dispar was Produced

Ichthyornis life reconstruction.

A life reconstruction of Ichthyornis.

Picture Credit: Yale Office of Public Affairs and Communications

The Evolution of a Beak

Having built a three-dimensional model of the skull and jaw bones, the researchers were able to note that the premaxillary bone in the upper jaw had become elongated and this, working in conjunction with a keratinous tip on the lower jaw formed the first “proto-beak”.  Ichthyornis dispar shows scientists what the first type of bird beak looked like.  This beak may have evolved as the function of the hands was increasingly limited as they were adapted to form a more effective wing.  The grasping hands of the maniraptoran dinosaurs were no longer able to grasp and manipulate objects so the jaws had to take on an additional function, secondary to their main function – dispatching and consuming prey.

The Beak of Ichthyornis

The beak of Ichthyornis.

The beak of Ichthyornis evolving to replace grasping, functional hands and fingers.

Picture Credit: Yale Office of Public Affairs and Communications

Although maniraptoran dinosaurs may not have been able to pronate their hands like us and they lacked an opposable thumb, as forelimbs and hands evolved into wings, so the jaws took over the function of the digits and manus.

Bhart-Anjan Bhullar stated:

“The first beak was a horn-covered pincer tip at the end of the jaw.  The remainder of the jaw was filled with teeth.  At its origin, the beak was a precision grasping mechanism that served as a surrogate hand as the hands transformed into wings.”

The research team conducted its analysis using CT-scan technology, combined with specimens from the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History; the Sternberg Museum of Natural History in Hays, Kansas, the Alabama Museum of Natural History; the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute and the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research (South Dakota).

Bird Beaks versus Bird-hipped Dinosaur Beaks

The modern bird beak is a unique organ amongst vertebrates, although notably most derived Ornithischian (bird-hipped) dinosaurs possessed a beak, formed from the unique predentary bone in the lower jaw and a roughened, extension of the premaxilla (or the rostral in the case of Ceratopsians), in the upper jaw, which allowed the attachment of a keratinous tip which in conjunction formed the beak-like structure – believed to be an adaptation to assist with cropping vegetation.

This study of Ichthyornis suggests that the first bird beak was not the long organ seen in modern birds, but a little pincer tip to grasp and manipulate objects.

A Chasmosaurine Ceratopsian with the Roughened Rostral and the Predentary Forming a Plant-cropping Beak

The bones forming the beak of a horned dinosaur.

The beak of a horned dinosaur is highlighted.

Picture Credit: Rapid City Journal with additional notation by Everything Dinosaur

Fresh Insight into the Evolution of Extant Bird Skulls

The scientists conclude that their study offers new insights into how modern birds’ skulls formed.  Along with its transitional beak, Ichthyornis dispar had a brain similar to that seen in extant birds but a temporal region of the skull that was reminiscent of a dinosaur.  This suggests that during the evolution of Aves, the brain transformed first, possibly to adapt to a volant (aerial) lifestyle, whilst the remainder of the skull retained the ancestral features associated with the Dinosauria.  Ichthyornis retained a large adductor chamber bounded at the top by substantial bony remnants of the ancestral reptilian upper temporal fenestra (hole in the skull).  This combination of features indicates that important attributes of the avian brain and palate evolved before the reduction of jaw musculature and the full transformation of the beak.

The Beak of Ichthyornis Grasping a Mollusc

Holding a mollusc in its beak.

An illustration of an Ichthyornis holding a mollusc in its beak.

Picture Credit: Michael Hanson/Bhart-Anjan Bhullar

I may never have completed my Brooke Bond card collection, but at least, thanks to this new Ichthyornis study, our understanding of the evolution of the beak in birds is more complete.

1 05, 2018

Unlocking the Secrets of the Insect in Amber Fossilisation Process

By | May 1st, 2018|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Main Page, Palaeontological articles|1 Comment

Preservation Bias in Amber Fossilisation Examined

Fossils preserved in amber can give scientists unique insights into ancient ecosystems.  Petrified tree resin can provide a record of some of the smaller members of a prehistoric woodland habitat such as the insects, mites and spiders.  Spores and pollen grains trapped inside a nodule allow palaeobotanists the opportunity to assess the composition of the flora of a 100 million-year-old Cretaceous tropical forest, but all may not be as it seems.  Fossils in amber appear, on their surface, to be perfectly preserved, which in turn suggests that the amber fossil record is perfect and unbiased.  This is not the case, all that glitters inside an amber nodule may not be hidden palaeontological treasure.

A Mosquito Preserved in Amber – But How Much of the Insect is There?

Mosquito fossil preserved in amber.

Amber can provide a window into ancient ecosystems, but what factors affect the preservation process?

Picture Credit: Oregon State University

However, recent advances in three-dimensional imaging techniques, specifically synchrotron tomography, have allowed researchers to look inside amber-entombed fossils and observe that preservation is highly variable.  Many specimens are lacking some or all internal soft tissues, and some specimens are even lacking the more decay-resistant cuticle and are simply empty moulds stained in a life-like colour by remnant organic carbon.

With so many amazing discoveries being made, particularly in burmite from Myanmar, a team of scientists set about examining the amber fossil record in order to assess any potential preservation bias that might exist, with a focus on prehistoric insects.

In the project, the researchers used a serious of laboratory experiments to test the effect of three variables, resin (the un-fossilised precursor to amber) chemistry, gut biota, and dehydration prior to entombment, on the decay of a fruit fly engulfed in resin to better understand the controls on the fossil record of insects in amber.  The team discovered that resin chemistry has a large effect on decay: flies entombed in Wollemia (W. nobilis) tree resin retained essentially all of their external and internal morphology even after one and a half years, whereas flies entombed in Pinus (Scots Pine P. sylvestris) tree resin, were nothing but empty moulds after the same length of time.

Fruit Flies Being Entombed in Tree Resin

Fruit flies (arrowed) become trapped in tree resin.

Part of the experiment – fruit flies being embedded in tree resin.  The fruit flies are indicated by the arrows.

Gut biota had a smaller effect on decay: flies with an intact gut microbiota showed more rapid decay, as indicated by more extensive production of decay gases, than flies that were treated with an antibiotic prior to entombment.  Dehydration prior to entombment also enhanced decay, presumably because resin has very effective decay-inhibiting properties, and therefore any delay in embedding a carcass in resin enhances decay.  These three variables influence the preservation of fossils in amber, and therefore can impart a bias on the fossil record of insects in amber.  Writing in the academic journal “PLOS One”, the researchers concluded that, in particular, resin chemistry and gut biota may strongly influence the amber fossil record.

Synchrotron Images and a Three-Dimensional Reconstruction of the Fruit Fly Being Constructed

A synchrotron was used to scan the fruit flies entombed in the tree resin.

A synchrotron scan of the experiments, showing three different planes of the scan, and a 3-D reconstruction in progress.

Resin chemistry is the most likely control on whether or not a specific fossil site preserves the most decay-prone morphological features on the most decay-prone components of an ecosystem.  This could be a particularly confounding bias in the amber fossil record because the composition of the herbivore fauna (including herbivorous insects) is thought to be one control on the composition of resin chemistry; therefore, the composition of a faunal assemblage may influence whether or not it fossilises in amber.  Gut biota variations may also influence preservational variation, particularly among amber sites or specimens with similar chemistry.

Most importantly, the amber fossil record should not be viewed as a perfect record of an ancient ecosystem.  Rather, it must be viewed with a critical eye, and an understanding that information about an extinct organism can be lost during fossilisation in amber.

The scientific paper: “Unlocking Preservation Bias in the Amber Insect Fossil Record Through Experimental Decay” by Victoria E. McCoy , Carmen Soriano, Mirko Pegoraro, Ting Luo, Arnoud Boom, Betsy Foxman and Sarah E. Gabbott published in PLOS One.

Link to the paper open access paper: The Scientific Paper

Everything Dinosaur would like to thank Victoria McCoy (School of Geography, Geology and Environment, University of Leicester and the Steinmann-Institut für Geologie, Mineralogie und Paläontologie, Universität Bonn, Bonn, Germany), for her assistance with the compilation of this article.

29 04, 2018

“Puncture and Pull” Theropod Teeth Provide Insight into Dinosaur’s Diet

By | April 29th, 2018|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Palaeontological articles|0 Comments

Dinosaur Teeth Provide Information on the Diet of Theropods

Palaeontologists have speculated on the preferred prey of Theropod dinosaurs for decades.  These mainly meat-eating dinosaurs did not chew their food but bit into their victims and tore off chunks of flesh, a feeding technique named “puncture and pull”.  In newly published research, scientists have looked at the serrations on the sides of Theropod teeth and assessed their role in feeding.  An analysis of microscopic scratches and wear patterns on the teeth of several different types of Canadian and Spanish carnivorous dinosaur has revealed that the troodontid dinosaurs with their large, broad and hooked, serrations (denticles) may have specialised in hunting smaller, softer prey as their teeth might have been damaged if they had bitten into a struggling, large animal.

Study of Dinosaur Tooth Serrations Suggest Differences in Preferred Prey

Various Theropods involved in the tooth study.

The serrated teeth of Theropod dinosaurs provides evidence of preferred prey.  The teeth in the picture have been scaled to the same crown height for comparative purposes.

Picture Credit: Current Biology

The Ziphodont Teeth of Theropods

The teeth of meat-eating dinosaurs tend to be curved, with sharp, serrated edges (ziphodont), the shape and size of the tooth serrations (the denticles) varies considerably between different species.  Tyrannosaurids such as the North American Gorgosaurus and dromaeosaurids such as Dromaeosaurus both have rounded, almost rectangular denticles, despite these animals being very different sizes, with the Gorgosaurus having much larger teeth.  In contrast, the dromaeosaurid Saurornitholestes has more pointed denticles that, over time can become worn and then they resemble the serrations found on the tooth of Dromaeosaurus.  Troodontids, such as Troodon have unique hooked denticles, that are proportionally much bigger than the denticles found on similarly sized Theropods.  Troodon means “wounding tooth”, a reference to the large, distinctive serrations on its teeth.

This new study under taken by University of Alberta scientists, along with colleagues from the Universidad de Zaragoza and the Universidad de La Rioja (Spain) and the Royal Ontario Museum, examined the strength of the teeth and their serrations to see whether they provided any clues about potential prey as these dinosaurs fed using the “puncture and pull” technique.

Microscopic Scratches on Dinosaur Teeth Identified by Scanning Electron Microscopy

Scratches and microwear support the idea of a "puncture and pull" feeding technique.

Tiny scratches (highlighted in yellow) support the idea of puncture and pull feeding in Theropod dinosaurs.

Picture Credit: Current Biology

The picture (above), shows microwear patterns on three different Theropod teeth (scale bar = 100 um).  Each pair of pictures shows the same section of tooth with the microwear and scratches highlighted in yellow on the picture (right).  Two scratch orientations were present on all studied teeth, one oriented parallel to the border of the tooth, and one oriented 30°–40° to the tooth border, this supports the idea of “puncture and pull” feeding behaviour.

The photographs at the top show the denticles of Pyroraptor, a dromaeosaurid from Laño, Spain.  The middle photographs represent the tyrannosaurid Gorgosaurus from the Dinosaur Provincial Park (Alberta, Canada).  The photographs (bottom) show the denticles of Troodon (T. inequalis), also from the Dinosaur Provincial Park (Alberta, Canada).

Microwear and Finite Element Analysis

The researchers used scanning electron microscopy to map the wear and scratches on individual serrations in conjunction with a statistical method (finite element analysis), to identify stress patterns in teeth as they were involved in feeding.

Commenting on the research, one of the authors of the scientific paper, Ryan Wilkinson (University of Alberta), explained that their study supported the idea of “puncture and pull” feeding:

“We found the microwear patterns were similar in all of the teeth we examined, regardless of the size of the dinosaur, the size of the tooth or the shape of the denticles.”

It was concluded that the shape and strength of the dinosaurs’ teeth made them more or less vulnerable to breakage, forcing them to select different types of prey.  For troodontids, their tooth serrations were particularly prone to stress and therefore not suited to coping with struggling prey.  This suggests that although troodontids were of a similar size to many dromaeosaurs, they may have selected much smaller, less mobile prey, hinting at niche partitioning in those environments were dromaeosaurs and troodontids may have been coeval.

Stress Tests on Different Theropod Teeth

Stress tests on different Theropod dinosaur teeth.

Stress assessments of different Theropod teeth.

Picture Credit: Current Biology

The picture above shows plotted stress tests on three types of Theropod dinosaur teeth – Dromaeosaurus (top), the dromaeosaurid Saurornitholestes (middle) and a troodontid (bottom).  The “hotter” the colour ie. red, orange, yellow, the greater the stress on that part of the tooth during a bite.

The teeth of troodontids were identified as being particularly susceptible to breakage when biting into struggling prey.

Ryan Wilkinson added:

“The large hooked denticles of troodontids acted like a lever and caused high stress within the denticles and the tooth, which may cause the tooth to break.”

Implications for Feeding Troodontids

The researchers, which included renowned Ankylosaur expert Victoria Arbour of the Royal Ontario Museum and a former student at the University of Alberta working with Professor Phil Currie, who also contributed to the study, conclude that the microwear evidence supports the idea of “puncture and pull” feeding in Theropod dinosaurs and that troodontids may have favoured smaller prey than dromaeosaurids, as their teeth did not stand up so well to the stresses and strains of coping with struggling prey.

The “Puncture and Pull” Feeding Technique as Demonstrated by the Dromaeosaurid Saurornitholestes

The Theropod puncture/pull feeding technique.

Saurornitholestes demonstrates the puncture/pull feeding technique of Theropod dinosaurs.

Picture Credit: Sydney Mohr with additional annotation by Everything Dinosaur

Dromaeosaurus and Saurornitholestes were well-adapted for handling struggling prey, whilst troodontid teeth indicate that these dinosaurs may have had a different diet.

Troodon May Have Tackled Small Prey

Beasts of the Mesozoic Troodon.

The Beasts of the Mesozoic Mountains accessory pack, features Troodon.  New research suggests that Troodon may have fed on different prey when compared to dromaeosaurids.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The scientific paper: “Puncture-and-Pull Biomechanics in the Teeth of Predatory Coelurosaurian Dinosaurs” by Angelica Torices, Ryan Wilkinson, Victoria M. Arbour, Jose Ignacio Ruiz-Omeñaca and Philip J. Currie published in “Current Biology”.

26 04, 2018

Clever Cretaceous Lacewings

By | April 26th, 2018|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Main Page, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Evidence of Insect Mimicry and Camouflage in Burmese Amber

Researchers from the China Agricultural University, the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, have discovered a new species of lacewing preserved in 100 million-year-old Burmese amber (burmite).  The scientists have identified two lacewing larvae that show adaptations for mimicking liverwort plants.  Mimicry and camouflage is relatively commonplace in the natural world, but evidence of this within the fossil record is extremely rare.

Two views (Dorsal and Ventral) of a Preserved Lacewing Larva Camouflaged to Look Like a Liverwort

Fossil lacewing larva preserved in amber from Myanmar. Scale bar - 1 mm.

New green lacewing larva Phyllochrysa huangi in (A) dorsal view and (B) ventral view.

Picture Credit: the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology 

Lacewings and Liverworts

Lacewings are insects which are characterised by their very fine, reticulated wings.  They are globally widespread and something like 2,000 living species have been described to date.  As larvae and adults, they are voracious hunters and are popular with farmers and growers as they eat lots of pests, such as aphids.  Fossils of these delicate insects are rare but specimens are known that date from the Jurassic.  Liverworts are much older, they lack a vascular system and true roots tending to grow very close to the ground.  Liverworts are thought to be similar to the very first land plants that evolved in the Silurian geological period.  Despite liverworts having existed since the Palaeozoic, mimicry between insects and liverworts is extremely rare in both modern and fossil ecosystems.  This discovery, reported in the academic journal “Current Biology” represents the first record of liverwort mimicry by fossil insects and brings to light an evolutionary novelty, both in terms of morphological specialisation as well as plant-insect interaction.

Lacewing Larvae and Liverworts Preserved in Amber

Liverworts and lacewing larvae preserved in amber.

New green lacewing larva and potential model plants from Burmese amber. (B, E, G are larvae, the others are liverworts)

Picture Credit: the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology 

Camouflaged to Look Like Liverworts

The larvae have broad flanges on their abdomen and thorax that resemble the fleshy, ribbon-like fronds of liverworts.  The insect which has been named Phyllochrysa huangi, is the only known species of lacewing with distinctive foliate lobes on the larval body.  These newly described insects are the first evidence of direct mimicry in lacewing larvae.  This camouflage may have helped the vulnerable larvae to avoid detection by predators, or they might have used this body bauplan to help ambush potential prey.

Two Phyllochrysa huangi Larvae Hide Out Amongst the Liverworts

Phyllochrysa huangi camouflaged on the liverworts (highlighted by arrows).

A life reconstruction of two Phyllochrysa huangi hiding amongst liverworts.  The larvae are highlighted by red arrows.

Picture Credit: Yang Dinghua

The researchers conclude that these fossils preserved in amber demonstrate a hitherto unknown life-history strategy amongst these types of insect, a strategy that apparently evolved from a camouflaging ancestor but did not persist into modern times with this lineage.

A Hot and Humid Cretaceous Jungle

The amber from Burma (Myanmar) has provided palaeontologists with an astonishing insight into life in a Cretaceous tropical rainforest.  Numerous types of invertebrate have been named, including damselflies, spiders and blood-sucking ticks that may have fed on the blood of dinosaurs.  The remains of larger creatures have been found preserved in amber too, including the feathered tail of a dinosaur and a baby enantiornithine bird.

To read about the blood-sucking Cretaceous parasites: Blood-sucking Dinosaur Parasites

Fossilised baby bird preserved in amber: Watch the Birdie!

Prehistoric spiders with whip-like tails: Spiders with Tails

Dinosaur tail trapped in tree resin: The Tale of a Dinosaur Tail

The globally widespread extant liverworts consist of over 9,000 named species.  Although, like the lacewings, their fossil record is very poor, it seems likely that they began to become much more diverse during the Cretaceous as the rapidly evolving angiosperm trees provided new habitats for them.  Just like their modern counterparts, Cretaceous liverworts grew on the leaves and bark of trees as well as on other plant surfaces.  It is logical to assume that the camouflaged lacewing larvae also probably lived on trees which were densely covered by liverworts, with the lacewing’s liverwort mimicry aiding their survival.

21 04, 2018

Missing Link in Sea Turtle Evolution Identified

By | April 21st, 2018|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page|0 Comments

Peritresius martini – Missing Link in Sea Turtle Evolution

Tortoises, terrapins and turtles, collectively classified into the Order Testudines (sometimes referred to as the Chelonii), are a very ancient group of reptiles.  They were around before the crocodilians and the dinosaurs.  Surprisingly, not that much is known about the evolutionary origins of extant species, but newly published research by the University of Alabama at Birmingham, has identified an important missing link in the lineage leading to modern sea turtles.

A new species of Late Cretaceous sea turtle has been named and described in a paper published in the academic on-line journal “PLOS One”.  The turtle, which had a shell more than a metre in diameter, has been named Peritresius martini.  The turtle’s name honours amateur fossil collector and retired scientist George Martin, who discovered the specimen in Lowndes County, Alabama and donated the fossil to the Alabama Museum of Natural History (Tuscaloosa, Alabama).

The Known Fossil Material Ascribed to Peritresius martini

New species of Late Cretaceous sea turtle described.

The known fossil elements of P. martini with a line drawing showing their position in life.

Picture Credit: University of Alabama at Birmingham

In the picture (above), the known fossil elements are shown including elements from the carapace, the plastron and the pelvic girdle (centre image).  The fossil bones have been superimposed (in green) onto a line drawing showing a life reconstruction of the marine turtle.

Drew Gentry, lead author of the research and a PhD student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham stated:

“This discovery answers several important questions about the distribution and diversity of sea turtles during this period of time.  It provides further evidence that Alabama is one of the best places in the world to study some of the earliest ancestors of modern marine turtles.”

Alabama During the Late Cretaceous

The new species of sea turtle (P. martini), swam in the shallow waters off the coast of Appalachia between 73 and 70 million years ago.  It has been compared to the extant (Chelonia mydas), the green sea turtle, that can be found off the coast of Alabama today.

Alabama in the Late Cretaceous and Fossil Turtle Discoveries

Alabama and turtle fossil finds.

Alabama in the Late Cretaceous.  The picture above shows the biostratigraphy and the palaeobiogeography of the Late Cretaceous fossil turtle discoveries of North America.  Note P. martini is marked by the yellow star.

Picture Credit: PLOS One

Biostratigraphy and paleobiogeography of Late Cretaceous chelonioid species of North America.  Localities and taxon ranges for fossil occurrences key:

1).  Nichollsemys baieri – a sea turtle from the Bearpaw Formation of Canada dating from the Late Campanian.

2).  Porthochelys laticeps – a sea turtle from Kanas that lived during the Coniacian through into the Santonian faunal stages of the Late Cretaceous.

3).  Toxochelys latiremis  – a sea turtle known from western Kansas with a wide temporal distribution ranging from around 88 – 73 million years ago.

4).  Ctenochelys stenoporus – known from central Alabama.

5).  Prionochelys nauta – from the Mooreville Chalk Formation of Alabama.

6).  Toxochelys moorevillensis – from the Late Santonian and the Early Campanian which was named in 1953.

7).  Ctenochelys acris – closely related to C. stenoporus, graduate student Drew Gentry published a study that proved that C. acris was a valid species.  To read more about this research: Graduate Student Unlocks the Secrets of Sea Turtle Evolution

8).  Thinochelys lapisossea – from the Selma Formation of Alabama.

9). Zangerlchelys arkansaw –  a sea turtle from the Marlbrook Marl Formation of Arkansas.

10).  Peritresius martini – the newly described sea turtle from the study.

11).  Peritresius ornatus – a closely related marine turtle species to P. martini that was first named and described in the mid-19th Century.

12).  Euclastes wielandi – a primitive sea turtle dating from the Late Maastrichtian faunal stage of the Cretaceous.

13).  Catapleura repanda – a Late Cretaceous (Maastrichtian faunal stage), turtle associated with Greensand marine deposits of New Jersey.

Commenting on the contribution of George Martin, Drew Gentry said:

“Professional palaeontologists often spend a great deal of time in laboratories performing the in-depth research necessary to properly study extinct species.  Almost every palaeontologist would love to spend more time in the field looking for fossils.  But, without people like George Martin, many of the most significant fossil specimens ever found in Alabama would still be buried in the dirt.”

A Fortuitous Fossil Find

This important marine turtle fossil discovery happened by chance as George Martin explained;

“Finding this fossil turtle was largely happenstance as I stopped to look at the rock strata exposed by the stream.  I found a fragment of the turtle shell embedded in the marl and returned to the spot several times over the next year to recover fragments of the turtle as they were uncovered by the stream.”

However, without the skull and limb bones, the appearance and habits of P. martini can only be speculated upon.  The scientists have no information on what it fed upon, how it moved or whether this turtle was a creature of the coastal seas or deeper water.  The discovery of this new species of Peritresius helps to fill a gap in the Stem Cheloniidae, a group of ancient sea turtles that are related to the majority of sea turtles found today.

A Timeline of Turtle Evolution

A timeline of Testudine species from the Late Cretaceous to the present day.

Time-calibrated, strict consensus phylogeny of select fossil and extant Testudine species.  P. martini is highlighted by the purple star.

Picture Credit: PLOS One

Everything Dinosaur acknowledges the help of a University of Alabama at Birmingham press release in the compilation of this article.

20 04, 2018

University of California Berkeley Researchers Have a “Whale” of a Time

By | April 20th, 2018|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Main Page, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Miocene Fossil Treasure Trove at Californian Dam Site

Construction workers building a new dam on the Calaveras reservoir in California have uncovered a treasure trove of more than 1,500 fossils that depict marine life in the Miocene Epoch.  The fossils include numerous whale skulls, around twenty in total, University of California Berkeley scientists supervising the preservation of the 20 to 15 million-year-old specimens are confident that the material found to date represents at least one new species of Baleen whale.

The large Calaveras reservoir lies to the north-east of the city of San Jose in the “Golden State”, the original dam was constructed in 1925, but concerns over the risk of earthquakes has led to the commencement of a second dam several hundred metres downstream.  The first fossils were found in 2013 and brought to the attention of the University.  The fossilised remains include whales, sharks, such as Megalodon teeth, ancient seals, other vertebrates and a wealth of invertebrate fossils including gastropods, bivalves and crustaceans.  In addition, the distinctive fossil teeth of a Desmostylus have been found.  The Desmostylians are an extinct Order of hippo-like, prehistoric mammals that are distantly related to today’s sea cows.

Part of the Skull of an Ancient Baleen Whale from the Calaveras Reservoir Site

Baleen fossil material from California

Fossil skull and jaw material representing a type of baleen whale from the dam site.

Picture Credit: University of California Berkeley/Sara Yogi

A Miocene Coastal Palaeofauna

The discovery of preserved palm fronds and pine cones in the marine sediments suggest that the coastline was close by.  Desmostylus is believed to have favoured freshwater or estuarine environments, the Desmostylus fossil teeth found at the construction site adds further weight to the idea that the strata were laid down in shallow water close to land.

Commenting on the significance of the fossils, Cristina Robins, a senior scientist at the Museum of Palaeontology (University of California, Berkeley) and the person responsible for cataloguing all the fossil finds stated:

“Fossils are found all the time in the Bay Area, but the concentration of unique and varied specimens is what makes this special.”

Numerous Invertebrate Fossils Have Been Found

Shell fossils from California.

Examples of shell fossils from the Calaveras Dam site.

Picture Credit: University of California Berkeley/Sara Yogi

Providing Public Access to an Important Fossil Collection

University of California Berkeley laboratory staff are being assisted by graduate and undergraduate students.  The work of cleaning, identifying and labelling all the fossils is quite laborious, but eventually, the scientists hope to make all the fossil material digitally available via the University’s website.

A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur commented:

“It is very likely that a number of new species might be identified from this fossil deposit.  This collection is helping palaeontologists to piece together an ancient environment, a lush tropical coastal ecosystem dominated by large, prehistoric mammals with an exotic marine fauna consisting of several different types of cetacean, some of which may have  the prey of the giant shark Megalodon”.

So Many Fossils Have Been Found that an Entire Research Laboratory has been Taken Over

Fossils from the Calaveras Reservoir.

The extensive fossil collection from the Calaveras Dam site.

Picture Credit: University of California Berkeley/Sara Yogi

Ironically, the word “Calaveras” is Spanish for skulls, considering the amount of whale skull material found at the site, this is a very appropriate name for the dam and the reservoir.

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