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Giant Triassic Amphibian of the Algarve

Metoposaurus algarvensis – Triassic Predator the Size of a Door

Portugal may have earned a deserved reputation for being the Jurassic dinosaur fossil capital of Europe, but more ancient sediments provide equally fascinating insights into life on our planet just as the Dinosauria were beginning to diversify and dominate terrestrial ecosystems.  Step forward (or more appropriately waddle forward), Metoposaurus algarvensis a new species added to the Metoposaurus genus described from a bone bed found in the Algarve region of southern Portugal.  A team of international scientists which include Dr. Steve Brusatte (University of Edinburgh) and J. Sébastien Steyer (Centre de Recherches en Paléobiodiversité et Paléoenvironnements, Paris), Dr.Richard Butler (Birmingham University) and Professor Octávio Mateus (Museu da Lourinhã, Portugal) have been studying the fossilised remains of several individuals that apparently died together when their lake dried up.

A Pair of Super-sized Amphibians Await Their Fate as the Lake Dries Up

Two metre long amphibious predator.

Two metre long amphibious predator.

Picture Credit: Joana Bruno

Metoposaurid fossils are known from Europe, Africa, North America and India, although this is the first time fossils relating to this genus have been discovered in the Iberian peninsula.  Some of the fossil specimens indicate that these amphibians reached lengths in excess of two metres and the shape of the skull along with other anatomical differences between the Portuguese fossils and other material known from Poland and Germany has permitted a new species to be erected.  The bone bed that contains the remains of numerous individuals, ten skulls have been excavated so far, was discovered more than thirty years ago, but not properly mapped and explored until 2009 when the dig site was relocated.  Although, these predators superficially resemble a modern salamander, scientists debate whether the Order Temnospondyli which the metoposaurids are part of, are actually closely related to extant amphibians.

The Scientists at Work Excavating the Bone Bed

Scientists carefully extract blocks containing fossil material.

Scientists carefully extract blocks containing fossil material.

Picture Credit: Steve Brusatte/Richard Butler/ Octávio Mateus/J. Sébastien Steyer

Although the mouth was large and lined with many sharp teeth, the thick-set body was supported by relatively weak limbs.  It is very likely that M. algarvensis spent a great deal of time in water, the fossils of these large amphibians are associated with strata laid down in lake or river environments (lacustrine and fluvial environments).  These animals were probably ambush predators catching fish with rapid movements of their large mouths from side to side.  They may also have ambushed unsuspecting small creatures, even some small early dinosaurs as these animals came down to the waters edge to drink.  They would have been very capable swimmers but the small legs would have made movement on land rather clumsy and awkward.

Three European species of Metoposaurus have now been described (M. diagnosticus from Germany,  M. krasiejowensis from Poland and M. algarvensis from Portugal).  Some of the German fossil specimens indicate amphibians approaching 3 metres in length, however, the majority of the Temnospondyls became extinct by the end of the Triassic.  The Portuguese bone bed evidence further supports the theory that these large animals were confined to very wet habitats with lots of freshwater and therefore the sort of areas that these creatures could live in was much more restricted when compared to the rapidly evolving reptiles such as the crocodiles and the Dinosauria.

As an Order, the Temnospondyls probably evolved sometime in the early Carboniferous and their fossils represent some of the most widely distributed terrestrial fossils recorded in Permian/Triassic strata.  Their global range seems to have been limited to low latitudes during the Middle to Late Triassic, a distribution similar to but not identical to the Phytosaurs (crocodile-like reptiles that most probably become extinct at the end of the Triassic).  Phytosaurs are Archosauriforms and provide plenty of evidence that the long-snouted, fish grabbing, swimming predator form has evolved in lots of different types of animal over the course of the history of our planet.  Their more primitive ankle configuration (when compared to extant crocodiles), did not prevent the Phytosaurs from evolving into a myriad of different forms.

However, apart from some controversial fossils, which most scientists claim are Late Triassic and not Early Jurassic the Phytosaurs along with most of the Temnospondyls were extinct by around 200 million years ago.  However, viewers of the seminal television series “Walking with Dinosaurs” will remember that in programme five “Spirits of the Silent Forest”, which focused on life in the southern polar regions around 106 million years ago, a Koolasuchus makes an appearance.    Two fossil jaws found in Victoria, Australia suggest that at least one type of Temnospondyl survived into the Cretaceous.

William Smith Map – Re-discovered

Founding Father of Geology and His Remarkable Map

One of the very first editions of arguably one of the most significant maps in the history of the study of our planet has been re-discovered.  A pristine copy of William Smith’s 1815 map of the geology of England, Wales and parts of Scotland has been found in the archives of the Geological Society (London).  It seems that the map was placed in storage, carefully sealed inside a leather wallet but just where in the vast archive it was stored had not been recorded.  Ironic really, when you consider the dedication and attention to detail shown by Smith, the son of a blacksmith who so meticulously mapped the strata of most of the British Isles.

The archives of the Geological Society are vast, after all, it is the oldest body of its kind in the world (founded in 1807).  This year marks the bicentenary of the publication of William Smith’s great geological survey, only about 370 or thereabouts were ever produced and with this re-discovery, it is estimated that at least seventy are still in existence, not bad considering this map first went into production in the same year as the battle of Waterloo.  It is believed that this particular copy last saw the light of day around forty years ago.

Indexing the map, which comprises of fifteen sections would not have been easy.  It was customary in Georgian times to use very long titles for scientific publications, a trend that in some academic institutions still exists today.  Try cataloguing a map with the catchy title of:

“A  Delineation of the Strata of England and Wales with part of Scotland, exhibiting the collieries and mines, the marshes and fen lands originally overflowed by the sea, and the varieties of soil according to the variations in the substrata, illustrated by the most descriptive names by W. Smith.”

It is thought that William Smith, nick-named “strata-Smith” by his contemporaries spent fifteen years travelling the United Kingdom and carefully recording the rock formations exposed on the surface of the land.  His map when published, helped land owners and mining companies exploit this nation’s natural resources as the map helped surveyors identify potential areas for drainage, sites for new building work and most importantly which layers of strata indicated the presence of coal seams nearby.

Commenting on the discovery, John Henry (Chairman of the Geological Society’s History of Geology Group), stated:

“It just wasn’t where people expected it to be.  I guess the person who put it away knew where it was, but then they left and that was it, it became lost.”

Having been hidden away in the archives the map, which was printed from copper plate engravings with the details painted in with water colours, has not faded and the colours depicted are as vivid today as when the map was first completed.  Archivists are puzzling over just what number in the sequence of maps produced might this copy be?  There is the exquisite hand finished painting with the lower edge of each formation saturated and then the paint is faded to indicate the formation’s edge, a technique used by Smith to make his maps easier to read, but the map itself, unlike later editions, has no serial number.

Geologists are aware that the very first maps produced were not numbered.  Another clue as to just when this map was made can be seen in how the geology of the Isle of Wight is depicted.  Over the production period of Smith’s map, the way in which the geology of the Isle of Wight was shown changed several times.  This map shows a very early effort to map the geology of the island.  All this suggests that this particular example of cartography might be amongst the first dozen or so ever produced.

A Clue to the Age of the Map – The Strata of the Isle of Wight

The Isle of Wight illustrations suggests an early print.

The Isle of Wight illustrations suggests an early print.

Picture Credit: The Geological Society (London)

The Geological Society has had the map fully restored and digitised.  As from today, it will be available to view on line on the Geological Society’s website.  This copy of the map itself will be stored back in the archives, this time properly catalogued.  A paper copy of the “Smith map” will be put on display in Burlington House, (London) the home of the Geological Society.

The Beautifully Illustrated Geological Map of the Cotswolds (William Smith)

Beautifully illustrated geological map.

Beautifully illustrated geological map.

Picture Credit: The Geological Society (London)

To see the map and other important geological images on line: The Picture Library of the Geological Society

Now, we at Everything Dinosaur don’t want to be cynical but today, March 23rd, is the anniversary of the birth of William Smith.  He was born on this day in 1769 in the county of Oxfordshire.  We think the timing of this announcement regarding the re-discovery has a lot to do with publicising an event taking place later on today, when Sir David Attenborough will be unveiling a plaque in tribute to the “Father of English Geology” at his former London residence – 15 Buckingham Street.  During his life, as William Smith strived to forge a reputation amongst academics, his lowly beginnings as the son of a blacksmith meant that his views and findings were often disregarded by those who perceived themselves to be of a higher class.  Class distinctions blighted the lives of many pioneers in geology and palaeontology during the Georgian and Victorian times.  However, William Smith and his contribution to our understanding of the world is now recognised and his map of England, Wales and parts of Scotland remains one of the most significant maps ever produced.

Why was the Map So Important?

The map certainly helped landowners and that part of Georgian society that owned mines.  It helped stoke (literally) the Industrial Revolution but it did something else, as William Smith traversed the British Isles making his map, he noticed that certain types of sedimentary rock, although far apart contained the same types of fossils.  We shall let John Henry explain just how significant this realisation was:

“The concept which enabled him to do the mapping and that drove him along almost obsessively was this realisation that specific fossils were unique to a specific stratum, and that you knew where you were in a sequence if you could see what the fossils were.  That was the breakthrough.  People had been collecting them for a long time and naming them in the Linnaean way, but without any real idea that they were in a sequence.  But Smith knew it.”

Smith explored the deep excavations taking place as canals and other major works were being constructed and found that he could correlate apparently dissimilar and geographically dispersed strata based on the fact that they contained similar fossils.  Going up through the strata, William Smith observed a succession of different fossils and proposed that each stage of this succession represented a specific period in the history of the Earth.  This is termed the “principle of faunal succession”.  In this way, the relative age of rocks could be determined and the types of fossils that characterise strata led to the concept of biostratigraphy.  Smith developed and built on the idea of a Law of Superposition, postulated by the great scientist Nicolas (sometimes spelled as Nicolaus), Steno in the 17th Century.

To read more about the work of Nicolas Steno: Google Doodle Commemorates Nicolas Steno

The 1815 Geological Map of England, Wales and Parts of Scotland

Can you see the geology in your part of the world?

Can you see the geology in your part of the world?

Picture Credit: The Geological Society (London)

Originally produced as a map in fifteen sheet sections, the geological map of the British Isles (most of it) measures approximately 180 cm by 250 cm.  We at Everything Dinosaur, don’t know why northern Scotland was not mapped by Smith, we suspect it was much more difficult to travel the highlands and islands of northern Scotland and during the early 19th Century, there was simply not the demand for detailed geological maps of that part of the British Isles.

Spring Low Tides Uncover French Dinosaur Footprints

The Dinosaur Footprints at Veillon Beach (Vendée)

The low tides brought about as a result of the spring equinox has exposed a remarkable series of Early Jurassic trace fossils, giving residents of the town of Talmont-Saint-Hilaire the chance to go “Walking with Dinosaurs”.  The exceptional low tides on France’s North Atlantic coast have revealed 200 million year old footprints as well as ripple marks preserved in the mudstone and sandstone which were laid down at the very beginning of the Jurassic (Hettangian faunal stage).  The site represents an estuary, or shallow bay area and this was criss-crossed by many different types of dinosaurs.  Hundreds of footprints have been recorded, a large number have been removed to prevent further damage by erosion, but at very low tides, especially in the spring when the seaweed and algae growth is not extensive, many three-toed prints can still be seen.

“Walking with Dinosaurs” – Some of the Footprints Revealed at Low Tide

One of the many three-toed prints that can be seen at very low tide.

One of the many three-toed prints that can be seen at very low tide.

Picture Credit: GeoWiki

The site was discovered in 1963 by a local engineer and chemist Gilbert Bessonnat, but it was not until March 1965 when a team of French palaeontologists mapped the area in earnest that the full significance of the location was revealed.  The mapping project begun on March 19th that year, taking advantage of the very low tide associated with the spring equinox, allowed the scientists to discover what has turned out to be the largest single concentration of dinosaur ichnofauna in the whole of France.  Dinosaur trace fossils from the Lower Jurassic are exceptionally rare, the site is protected and no fossil collecting is allowed.  After all, the sandstones and mudstones preserved here record terrestrial life shortly after the End Triassic extinction event, those footprints were made some fifty million years before the likes of Stegosaurus and Diplodocus and other iconic Jurassic dinosaurs roamed the Earth.

In all, about a dozen different ichnospecies have been identified, including large and small Theropods.  Some footprints may not represent dinosaurs, for example, some trace fossils have been assigned to the Order Rauisuchia and ascribed to the Postosuchus genus (a type of ancient, terrestrial Crocodylomorph).  Ichnospecies associated with the site include: Eubrontes veillonensis tentatively described as a Megalosaur, Talmontopus tersi which could be a bipedal Ornithischian dinosaur and several dinosaurs assigned to the coelophysids (ichnogenus Grallator).

It seems that low tides on the North Atlantic coast of France, are providing scientists with a unique opportunity to learn about life in the Early Jurassic, well at least over the spring and autumn equinox anyway.

A Close Up of One of the Many Hundreds of Dinosaur Footprints Preserved at the Site

This print has been assigned to the ichnospecies Eubrontes.

This print has been assigned to the ichnospecies Eubrontes.

Picture Credit: GeoWiki

The Crocodile Problem of Costa Rica

Latest Attack on Surfer Highlights Growing Crocodile Problem

The number of crocodiles inhabiting the mangrove swamps, rivers and estuaries of Costa Rica continue to give the local authorities cause for concern.  The problem of potential fatal attacks by American crocodiles (Crocodylus acutus) was highlighted again this month after a surfer narrowly escaped the jaws of a crocodile whist waiting to catch a wave  near the mouth of the Tamarindo estuary on the county’s Pacific coast.  Apparently, the crocodile had swam down river out into the estuary and it grabbed the surfer’s leg.  The surfer, identified as Canadian Val Muscalu, was able to free his foot from the crocodile’s jaws and escape.  This is the second reported crocodile attack in the Tamarindo Bay area in the last two years.

The American crocodile is widely distributed throughout the tropical areas of the New World. It ranges from Florida to the Caribbean, including Cuba. It is also found in southern Mexico,  Guatemala through to Nicaragua, Costa Rica, the Isthmus of Panama and the most northerly parts of South America.  Males can grow up to more than five metres in length and American crocodiles can be distinguished from Alligators and other large species of Crocodylians as they tend to have a proportionately smaller, more narrow snout.  Attacks on people and livestock are rare, but Costa Rica has seen a dramatic rise in crocodile attacks over the last few years and this has been put down to the feeding of crocodiles as part river tours.

A Picture of an American Crocodile (C. acutus)

Long-snouted crocodile that prefers brackish, salty water.

Long-snouted crocodile that prefers brackish, salty water.

Picture Credit: Lindsay Fendt/The Tico Times

Tourism plays a significant role in the economy of Costa Rica and as American crocodiles are able to tolerate brackish water and even seem to prefer salt-water habitats.  As a result, attacks on people who come to explore the beaches and the surrounding coastlines are always a possibility.   The crocodile suspected of carrying out the attack, will remain in the estuary according to officials from Costa Rica’s National Park Service (SINAC).  There had been calls from hotel owners and locals to have the crocodile removed, but as the estuary is part of a national park, crocodiles cannot be relocated without scientific evidence of overpopulation.

Commenting on the potential conflict between humans and crocodiles, Rotney Piedra, the administrator of Las Baulas National Marine Park, just up the coast from where the attack took place stated:

“The Tamarindo Estuary that leads into the mangrove forest is a protected area.  We can’t remove crocodiles, but we want to work with the community to manage the issue.”

Back in April last year, a fatality occurred at the Tárcoles River, located on the eastern side of the Gulf of Nicoya, some forty miles to the south-east of the latest surfer attack.  A man, who was apparently drunk, attempted to swim near the main river bridge.  A crocodile grabbed the swimmer and despite the efforts of onlookers, the victim, later identified as Omar de Jesús Jirón was killed.  His body has not been recovered.

A four-part plan is being implemented by authorities to try and reduce such incidents.  It is hoped that SINAC will be able to educate the local community and tourists about crocodile behaviour.  More warning signs are being posted up at the mouth of the river, replacing those that were stolen, most probably by tourists looking for an unusual souvenir from their stay.   A helpline is being set up to help the authorities to be alerted when crocodiles stray out of the park, these animals can then be relocated.  In addition, a survey is being conducted to try to determine whether the estuary is over populated.

Perhaps most importantly of all, the officials from SINAC hope to educate river tour operators not to feed the crocodiles as part of their crocodile spotting river cruises.  These river trips are very popular with tourists and provide a significant boost to the economy, but by feeding the crocodiles, on some occasions, hand-feeding them, these reptiles begin to associate humans with food and this could lead to further attacks.

Although the American crocodile is not regarded as a very aggressive species, hand-feeding these animals could be modifying their natural behaviour and making them much less afraid of humans and more likely to approach.

American Crocodile Posing an Increasing Threat to the Tourist Industry of Costa Rica

Adverse publicity about crocodile attacks could impact upon the country's tourist industry.

Adverse publicity about crocodile attacks could impact upon the country’s tourist industry.

Picture Credit: Lindsay Fendt/The Tico Times

A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur explained:

“Although American crocodile attacks are statistically very rare and the American crocodile is not known for its aggressive behaviour, not when compared to the likes of the Nile crocodile or the Estuarine for example.  These animals can grow up to five metres in length and at a little over a metre long they would be capable of causing very serious injury should a person be grabbed by one.”

The “Carolina Butcher”

Carnufex carolinensis – Three Metre Long Crocodylomorph Challenged Early Theropod Dinosaurs

Palaeontologists from North Carolina State University and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences have published a paper in the open access journal “Scientific Reports” about their research into one of the most fearsome predators that roamed the Americas during the early stages of the Late Triassic some 231 million years ago.  The reptile, identified as an ancestral crocodile has been named Carnufex carolinensis and it probably occupied an apex predator position in the lush, humid, tropical ecosystem as represented by the strata of the Pekin Formation found in North Carolina.

An Illustration of the Fearsome Crocodylomorph C. carolinensis

Fearsome predator of the Triassic.

Fearsome predator of the Triassic.

Picture Credit: Jorge Gonzales

 The fossilised remains were found in Chatham County. They include a fifty centimetre long partial skull, which when digitally mapped and reconstructed in three dimensions provided the scientists with a very accurate picture of the skull of this carnivore.  It may have walked on four legs for some of the time, but it would also have been able to rear up onto its powerful hind legs, perhaps to help it run down prey.  C. carolinensis was very probably a facultative biped.

Commenting on the significance of the study, Assistant Research Professor at North Caroline State University, Lindsay Zanno said:

“Fossils from this time period are extremely important to scientists because they record the earliest appearance of Crocodylomorphs and Theropod dinosaurs, two groups that first evolved in the Triassic Period, yet managed to survive to the present day in the form of crocodiles and birds.  The discovery of Carnufex, one of the world’s earliest and largest Crocodylomorphs, adds new information to the push and pull of terrestrial top predators across Pangea.”

After the end Permian extinction that wiped out a lot of terrestrial animals there seems to have been a period of rapid evolution as new animal types evolved to exploit the vacant positions in ecosystems.  The fossil record from the Early and Middle Triassic indicates that land-living predator diversity attained new levels with a seeming overabundance of carnivorous animals due to the evolution of entirely new types of predator.  One of the most significant clades to evolve was the Crocodylomorpha that still survive today.  The crocodiles represent one of only two Archosaurian lineages that are extant.  The second lineage are the Aves (birds).  In contrast to their modern-day descendants, the earliest Crocodylomorphs were generally small, cursorial animals occupying a subsidiary role to other types of predator.  However, C. carolinensis represents a large-bodied taxon with a slender skull, lined with sharp teeth.  It was clearly a formidable hunter and these fossils from Chatham County represent the remains of one of the oldest and earliest diverging Crocodylomorphs described so far.

Roaming Pangea at the time were large terrestrial predators which formed the Rauisuchians group, amongst the rauisuchids there was a sub-group of poposauroids which were also mainly predatory.  In the southern part of the super-continent, these types of ancient crocodile-like creatures competed with the rapidly evolving Theropod dinosaurs.  The fossils of Carnufex also suggest that in the northern part of Pangea, large-bodied Crocodylomorphs, not dinosaurs were making up a large portion of the apex terrestrial predators.

Lindsay Zanno went onto add:

“These animals hunted alongside the earliest Theropod dinosaurs, creating a predator pile-up.  We knew that there were too many top performers on the proverbial stage in the Late Triassic.  Yet, until we deciphered the story behind Carnufex, it wasn’t clear that early crocodile ancestors were among those vying for top predator roles prior to the reign of the dinosaurs in North America.”

Although the skull material was fragmentary, the scientists were able to build up a picture of the features of Carnufex using comparisons with better known Crocodylomorphs from the fossil record.  Sophisticated computer modelling helped the scientists to piece together the skull of this ancient crocodile.

A 231 Million Year Old Jigsaw Puzzle

Piecing together the skull from the fragmentary bones.

Piecing together the skull from the fragmentary bones.

Picture Credit: North Caroline State University

The picture above shows the various bones associated with the fossil specimen (blue), these have been superimposed on a model of a skull (white parts relate to fossil material, grey pieces are based on related animals from the fossil record).

As the Triassic period came to an end there was another set of extinctions, although nowhere near as dramatic as the End Permian extinction.  Many of these large, apex predators did not survive into the Jurassic, only the small-bodied Crocodylomorphs and the Theropoda survived.

Lindsay Zanno stated:

“Theropods were ready understudies for vacant top predator niches when large-bodied crocs and their relatives bowed out.  Predatory dinosaurs went on to fill these roles exclusively for the next 135 million years or so.”

However, for the ancestors of today’s crocodiles, gharials, caimans and alligators there were plenty of other ecological niches for them to exploit.  As the Theropods began to get bigger and bigger, these early crocodiles continued to flourish but this time they occupied secondary predatory roles.

Graduate student Susan Drymala of North Carolina State University and a co-author of the study put it rather nicely when she explained:

“The ancestors of modern crocs initially took on a role similar to foxes and jackals, with small, sleek bodies and long limbs.  If you want to picture these animals, just think of a modern fox, but with alligator skin instead of fur.”

Perhaps the most famous member of the Order Rauisuchia is Postosuchus, fossils of this six metre long giant have been found in North Carolina.  However, it appeared around ten million years after Carnufex carolinensis roamed the Earth.  The last of the large-bodied rauisuchians became extinct at the end of the Triassic.

A Famous Early Crocodile – Postosuchus

Scale drawing of Postosuchus

Scale drawing of Postosuchus

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Dinosaur Nest Site Vandalised

Vandals Destroy Dinosaur Nests and Footprints

Everything Dinosaur has received press reports that vandals have smashed a number of dinosaur eggs and footprints that made up part of an outdoor display at the Mirador del Cretáceo dig site  in Coll de Nargó, Catalonia (north-eastern Spain).  The tourist attraction was opened in 2005 and combines a serious palaeontological study of Upper Cretaceous highly fossiliferous sediments with a tourist attraction, which permits onlookers to walk round the site and to view some of the fossil specimens in situ as well as other exhibits that show how dinosaurs nested.

Some of the items believed to have been smashed include dinosaur eggs that had been reassembled from the fossil remains to give the impression that they had just been laid.

Sites containing dinosaur egg remains and evidence of nesting behaviour are extremely rare and the dig site in the Pyrénéen village is believed to represent the largest location of its kind yet discovered in Europe.  In addition, the fossils are very well preserved and these in conjunction with the numerous dinosaur footprints that have been mapped in the area indicate the presence of at least six different types of dinosaur present in this Late Cretaceous ecosystem.

One of the Fossilised Eggs Preserved at the Site

An important Late Cretaceous dig site.

An important Late Cretaceous dig site.

Picture Credit: (Xavier Delclòs, Faculty of Geology UB)

Sadly, this is not the only example of vandalism reported upon by Everything Dinosaur, back in 2012, team members from Everything Dinosaur published an article about an act of dinosaur vandalism in Alberta, Canada.

To read more about this incident: Hooligans smash duck-billed dinosaur fossils

More recently, a Sauropod bone at the Dinosaur Monument in Utah was broken and a piece stolen, this theft and the damage to that part of the bone that remained led to the specimen having to be removed.

Salvador Moyà, the manager at the Palaeolithic Institute of Catalunya (ICP) called the destruction of the fossils “inconceivable” and the mayor of Coll de Nargó, Senor Benito Fité stated that this was a “catastrophe”.

These incidents are all to frequent, especially at sites which are relatively open and allow public access.  Back in 2013, the site was raided by a local resident and several specimens stolen.  These were only returned when it became public knowledge that whoever was responsible for the theft would face prosecution for their criminal action.

Those Highly Adaptable Humans

Research Suggests that H. sapiens Adapted Quickly to Different Environments

If the onset of a period of deforestation resulting from climate change provided the stimulus for the evolution and development of that part of the Homo genus that would eventually give rise to our own species H. sapiens, then how did our species cope when encountering extensively forested habitats?  The answer according to new research conducted by scientists from Oxford University, Sri Lanka and the University of Bradford is that our big-brained ancestors coped remarkably well.

Writing in the on line edition of the academic journal “Science” the research team report on carbon and oxygen isotope analysis carried out on the teeth of twenty-six individuals whose remains are associated with archaeological sites in Sri Lanka that date from the Pleistocene into the Holocene Epochs.  The isotope analysis provides evidence of human diet and it seems that humans as far back as 20,000 years ago were obtaining a significant proportion of their food requirements from the rainforest.

Early Homo sapiens – Made their Home in the Forest

Some early humans made the rainforest their home.

Some early humans made the rainforest their home.

Tropical rainforest environments are nutritionally poor and their dark and often treacherous interiors are difficult to navigate.  They would have represented challenging environments for human hunter/gatherers and up until now they had been little concrete evidence presented to suggest human habitation of rainforest environments prior to the advent of the Holocene, some 10,000 years ago.  This new study suggests that humans were exploiting rainforests for food, rather than more open habitats at least 20,000 years ago and in the scientific paper, the research team postulate that our species could have been making a home in tropical forests perhaps as far back as 45,000 years ago.  Previous archaeological research provides “tantalising hints” that humans could have been occupying rainforest ecosystems back in the Late Pleistocene (Late Tarantian stage), although it is not clear whether these early rainforest inhabitants were seasonal visitors or whether they permanently occupied the forests.   The research represents a collaborative effort between Britain-based scientists and their counterparts from Sri Lanka (The Institute of Archaeology and the Department of Archaeology, both based in Colombo).

Commenting on the research findings, co-author Professor Julia Lee-Thorp (Oxford University) stated:

“The isotopic methodology applied in our study has already been successfully used to study how primates, including African great apes, adapt to their forest environment.  However, this is the first time scientists have investigated ancient human fossils in a tropical forest context to see how our earliest ancestors survived in such a habitat.”

If the “Out of Africa” theory of H. sapiens evolution is accepted, then it is from Africa that modern humans migrated, this migration eventually leading to the colonisation of the rest of the world.  Fossils found in south-west Asia, Jordan for example, indicate a complex pattern of human and Neanderthal migrations most likely driven by climate change.  From around 60,000 years ago, modern humans moved eastwards across Asia into India, south-east Asia and eventually into Australia.  This migration may have taken as little as fifteen thousand years.

The scientists examined the fossilised teeth of humans from three archaeological sites in Sri Lanka, which are today surrounded by rainforest or more open terrain.  The isotope analysis revealed that all of the humans in the study had a diet sourced from slightly open, “intermediate rainforest” environments, only two individuals showed signs of a diet mainly sourced from an open grassland habitat.  However, the teeth that showed the “grassland signature” were dated to around 1,000 B.C. (Late Bronze Age to Early Iron Age), some of the youngest teeth used in the study.

Early Humans Exploited Different Environments

A Prehistoric Scene

A Prehistoric Scene

This new research supports the notion of just how adaptable early, modern humans were.  Back in 2011, Everything Dinosaur published an article about a remarkable discovery in East Timor that suggests as early as 40,000 years ago humans were catching Tuna.

To read this article: Prehistoric Fisherman Able to Catch Fast Swimming Tuna

Lead author of the scientific paper, Patrick Roberts (Oxford University) explained:

“This is the first study to directly test how much early human forest foragers depended on the rainforest for their diet.  The results are significant in showing that early humans in Sri Lanka were able to live almost entirely on food found in the rainforest without the need to move into other environments.  Our earliest human ancestors were clearly able to successfully adapt to extreme environments.”

The rapid spread of our species across the globe after the initial out of Africa migration does seem to support the idea that early H. sapiens were extremely adaptable, although they are not the only member of the Homo genus to have made the rainforest their home.  Homo erectus,  was the first widespread hominin species.  Fossils have been found in China and Indonesia.  It is very likely that H. erectus also adapted to forested regions.  In addition, the mysterious Homo floresiensis, fossils of which come from the remote Indonesian island of Flores was very well adapted to its mostly forested island home.  H. floresiensis may have survived to 13,000 years ago, but islanders talk of stories of strange little people living in the forest from much more recent times, perhaps until just a few hundred years ago.

Giant Ordovician Filter Feeder Provides Clues to Arthropod Evolution

Two Metre Long Aegirocassis benmoulae Expands Ecological Role of Anomalocarids

A beautifully preserved fossil of a giant Arthropod from Morocco is helping palaeontologists to gain a better understanding of the evolution and the development of the Arthropoda as well as providing a new perspective on the fauna that formed an extensive and diverse ecosystem in an Early Ordovician sea.

The Arthropoda are the largest phylum in the Kingdom Animalia and the first fossils of these segmented creatures with their hard, external skeletons date from the Early Cambrian.  Characteristics of these animals include that exoskeleton, a segmented body plan and paired, jointed appendages that can perform a variety of functions, such as swimming, walking and feeding.  Typical Arthropods include crustaceans, spiders, king crabs, scorpions, mites and insects, all very familiar to us today. Extinct forms include the Trilobita and the anomalocarids, one of which turns out to be a two metre long giant that fed like a baleen whale.

A team of researchers including scientists from Yale University and the University of Oxford have been examining the three-dimensional remains of this strange, new type of anomalocarid in a bid to understand how the Arthropods diversified and those highly adaptable paired, jointed appendages first evolved.  It could be argued that it is the Arthropods that dominate animal life on our planet.  As a phylum they have adapted to a huge range of different habitats and they make up over eighty percent of all described animal species.  Enter into the debate, a newly described anomalocarid named Aegirocassis benmoulae.  The anomalocarididae family are long-extinct.  However, they are regarded as basal members of the Arthropoda and their fossil record extends from the Cambrian into possibly the Devonian, although Devonian anomalocarids remain a controversial area of palaeontology due to differing interpretations of fossil material.   These marine creatures grew to very large sizes in relation to other marine fauna and the majority of them were nektonic predators.  However, A. benmoulae evolved in a very different direction.

An Illustration of the Giant Aegirocassis benmoulae – Filter Feeder of the Early Ordovician

An early, filter-feeding giant.

An early, filter-feeding giant.

Picture Credit: Marianne Collins, ArtofFact

The anomalocarids were like no living animal today.  The mouth was circular on the underside of the head and surrounded by frightening, jagged (in most cases) hard tooth plates, designed for crushing the exoskeletons of other Arthropods.  The large, compound eyes gave these active hunters an excellent all-round field of vision and at the front of the head was a pair of spiny, grasping appendages used to grab prey.  Their elongated, segmented bodies had flaps on the side that were used for propulsion.  Until the discovery of A. benmoulae it had been believed that anomalocarids had only one set of flaps per body segment and that they had completely lost their walking legs.

The fossils, which have been preserved in three dimensions, an extremely rare preservation state for an Arthropod, come from the Draa valley in south-east Morocco.  The sediments were formed at the bottom of a deep sea and the strata has provided palaeontologists with an insight into life in the Early Ordovician.  Very occasionally violent storms disturbed the seabed and buried large numbers of animals.  These events led to the formation of a very rich Lagerstätten, which has helped scientists to map the pace of evolution from the Cambrian explosion some sixty million years before these fossils formed to the end of the Ordovician some 443 million years ago.  The fossils from this part of Morocco form the Fezouata Biota, representing a marine habitat dating from around 485-480 million years ago.

To read about the discovery of a giant, predatory anomalocarid from the same region of Morocco: Giant Marine Predator of the Ordovician

The description of Aegirocassis benmoulae provides new evidence for Arthropoda evolution.  The exquisite preservation reveals that anomalocaridids had in fact, two separate sets of flaps per segment.  The upper flaps equate to the upper limb branch of modern Arthropods, while the lower set of flaps represent modified walking limbs that were adapted for swimming.  A reassessment of older anomalocarid fossilised remains also show two separate flaps per body segment.  The scientists have concluded that the anomalocaridids represent a stage of Arthropoda evolution before the fusion of the upper and lower appendages that form the double-branched limbs of extant Arthropods.

Peter Van Roy, an associate research scientist (Yale University) and an authority on the Fezouata Biota stated:

“It was while cleaning the fossil that I noticed the second, dorsal set of flaps.  It is fair to say I was in shock at the discovery and its implications.  It once and for all resolves the debate on where anomalocaridids belong in the Arthropod tree and clears up one of the most problematic aspects of their anatomy.”

As if to reflect the adaptability of the Arthropoda bauplan, it seems that this Moroccan giant evolved to exploit the abundance of small marine organisms that flourished in the Early Ordovician.  The head appendages that formed the spiky, grasping claws of this anomalocarid became modified into delicate filter feeding apparatus.  It is likely that this creature cruised the oceans feeding on tiny plankton and other organisms floating on the currents just like modern baleen whales, manta rays and whale sharks.

A Close up Showing the Delicate “Fronds” of the Filter Feeding Net

Delicate feeding apparatus.

Delicate feeding apparatus.

Picture Credit: Peter Van Roy (Yale University)

The picture shows a close up of the prepared fossil material showing the delicate fronds which the creature used to sieve sea water for food (scale bar = 10 mm).

Commenting on the implications for Early Ordovician ecosystems, c0-author of the scientific study, Dr. Allison Daley (Oxford University’s Department of Zoology) stated:

“These animals are filling an ecological role that hadn’t previously been filled by any other animal.  While filter feeding (filtering water to find food) is probably one of the oldest ways for animals to find food, previous filter feeders were smaller, and usually attached to the sea-floor [benthic].  We have found the oldest example of gigantism in a freely swimming filter feeder.”

We have Frog Spawn in our Office Pond

Frog Spawn Spotted in the Office Pond

This morning we have discovered the first frog spawn in the office pond for 2015.  Team members had seen a couple of frogs over the last few days, it was thought that these were males.  However, around dawn this morning the first frog spawn was produced.  The office pond is quite choked with weed and we had considered cleaning it out, but fearful of disturbing any frogs and other wildlife we decided the best course of action was to leave well alone.

Frog Spawn in the Office Pond (March 12th 2015)

Frog spawn spotted in the office pond.

Frog spawn spotted in the office pond.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Our thanks to everyone who advised us leaving comments on the Everything Dinosaur Twitter feed and on our Facebook page.  Apparently, the weeds have not put the frogs off and the first spawn has been produced.  In the UK, all native species of amphibian (and reptile for that matter), are protected.  The frogs in our pond are Common Frogs (Rana temporaria), the name is a bit of a misnomer as these amphibians have become increasingly rare over the last few decades.  We shall take care not to disturb any other frogs that might be ready to breed but observe the number of spawnings that occur.

Interestingly, this is very early for us to have frog spawn, looking back at our records we can see that the first frog spawn does not normally occur into the third week of March, usually between the 18th and the 20th.  The mild day temperatures, coupled with a period of rain may have stimulated the frogs to start breeding a little earlier than usual.  We shall observe and see what happens next.

How Long and Heavy was Megalosaurus?

Answering Questions from Young Dinosaur Fans

Lots of questions from dinosaur fans and model collectors this week.  Everything Dinosaur team members are spending some of today catching up with their correspondence.  One of the questions we have been asked this week concerned that Middle Jurassic Theropod called Megalosaurus (M. bucklandii).  A couple of young dinosaur enthusiasts had enquired about just how big and heavy this dinosaur was.  This is a difficult question to answer, given the lectotype for this species is a partial right dentary, not too many clues there as to maximum body mass.   Some authors suggest a length of around six metres, although most suggest that this meat-eater grew to lengths in excess of nine metres.

As for body weight, this is not easy to estimate with any degree of certainly.  However, it is very likely that this dinosaur from the Middle Jurassic weighed in excess of one tonne, possibly as much as three tonnes, according to some authors.

Providing Information on Megalosaurus (M. bucklandii)

A scale drawing of Megalosaurus.

A scale drawing of Megalosaurus.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

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