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Stem Acrodontan Lizard – The First of Its Kind from South America

Revising Lizard Evolution in Gondwana

The Squamata (lizards and snakes), might be the most diverse and specious of all the extant reptiles but their evolutionary history remains a mystery.  The preservation potential of these reptiles can vary dependent on the characteristics of the ancient ecosystems which they inhabited.  In addition, the small size of many of the early species of lizard and snake makes finding fossilised bones and other clues as to the history of this Order all the more difficult.  However, a team of scientists including Tiago R. Simões (Dept of Biological Science, University of Alberta), have published a paper in the journal “Nature Communications” that sheds light on the evolution of the iguanas and their near relatives.

The family of extant reptiles known as the iguanians (iguanas and agamids) are one of the most diverse and widespread type of lizard today.  However, like other types of lizard, their evolutionary origins are uncertain.  There are two main divisions within this family, firstly there is a sub-group called the acrodonts, these lizards have no root or socket to their teeth and the teeth are attached to the top of the jaw bones.  In the other sub-group, the pleurodonts they do not have roots on their teeth either, but instead the teeth attach to the inside portion of the jaw.

Acrodont iguanians are confined to the Old World, while pleurodont iguanians are found only in the Americas.  A newly described fossil however, breaks this pattern.  The international team of scientists have published a paper on a Late Cretaceous acrodont iguanian, the oldest known New World acrodont iguanian.

An Illustration of the First New World Acrodont Iguanian – G. sulamericana

The fossils date from around 80 million years ago.

The fossils date from around 80 million years ago.

Picture Credit: Julius Csotonyi

The fossils, including the holotype material, a partial lower jaw come from the Goio-Erê Formation, exposed near Cruzeiro do Oeste, in Paraná State, southern Brazil.  Fossils found in this locality represent an arid, very dry environment dominated by Pterosaurs and large dinosaurs.  However, scurrying around the hot, desert-like environment was a short, rather stubby lizard.  It has been named Gueragama sulamericana, which translates from the local dialect and Portuguese as “ancient agama from South America”.

The discovery of these fossils of an ancient, New World acrodont means that in the distant past, lizards with the acrodont dentition had a worldwide distribution and were very probably widespread across the ancient landmass of Gondwana.

The Holotype Jaw Fossil (Various Views)

An ancient toothy lizard.

An ancient toothy lizard.

Picture Credit: Universidade do Contestado, Santa Catarina, Brazil.

Scale bar in the picture = 2mm.

A number of questions have been raised with this discovery, for example, if only the pleurodont iguanians are found in the New World today, then what happened to the acrodonts that once lived in this part of the world too?

Lead author of the scientific paper, Tiago R. Simões stated:

“It becomes clear acrodontan iguanians migrated throughout the southern continents much earlier than previously thought (actually reaching regions where they do not inhabit today) by the order of tens of millions of years.”

This new research extends the fossil diversity of Late Cretaceous Brazil and suggests that the arid deserts of this part of the world may have supported a greater range of lizards than previously thought.  The scientists hope to find more lizard fossils, including material representing Gueragama so that they will be better able to understand the evolution and radiation of the stem acrodontans.  As for the date given to the G. sulamericana fossil material, we at Everything Dinosaur estimate these fossils to be more than 80 million years of age.  The strata which makes up this part of the Goio-Erê Formation is believed to date from the Turonian to the early Campanian faunal stages of the Late Cretaceous (90-80 million years ago, approximately).

Late Cretaceous South America

South America in the Late Cretaceous

South America in the Late Cretaceous

Picture Credit: Nature Communications

Between the Aptian/Albian faunal stages and the Campanian faunal stage of the Late Cretaceous, sphenodontians were thought to be the dominate animals filling the iguanian niche.  Sphenodontian fossils have been found in northern Patagonia, in the provinces of Chubut (Tres Cerros), Río Negro (Los Alamitos, Cerro Tortuga, Cerro Bonaparte and La Buitrera) and Neuquén (El Chocón), these discoveries are represented by black circles on the map above.  Lizards were present in the state of Ceará in north-eastern Brazil (Araripe Basin), as well as in the south-eastern/southern states of Minas Gerais (Peirópolis), São Paulo (Marília and Presidente Prudente) and Paraná (Cruzeiro do Oeste), and in the province of Río Negro (Cinco Saltos and La Buitrera), Argentina, represented by yellow stars on the map. The red star indicates the type locality of G. sulamericana in southern Brazil.

Recently, Everything Dinosaur reported on another Brazilian Squamata fossil discovery.  Spotted by chance on a tour of a German museum, scientists have identified the first example of a four-footed snake, an animal believed to be a transitional creature between limbed lizards and true snakes.

To read this article: Fossil Snake with Four Limbs Described

Super-sized Ceratopsian Skull Might be New Species

Horned Dinosaur Skull Found in South Dakota Might Be New Species

The small town in Buffalo in the north-west of South Dakota was so named as back in the 19th Century vast herds of buffalo (American bison), roamed across this part of the world.  However, another type of horned animal has got local townsfolk excited, one that would have dwarfed even the largest of today’s hoofed giants, a very-well preserved partial skull and jaws of a huge horned dinosaur which might turn out to be a new species.

Fossil collector and dealer Alan Detrich purchased the dinosaur skull found in Harding County from another fossil collector John Carter back in 2012, but it has taken more than two and a half years to prepare the specimen ready for sale.  When the fossil skull and lower jaw were first excavated it was thought that the bones represented a very large specimen of Triceratops (T. horridus).  However, with the fossil completely exposed, Alan along with Neal Larson (Larson Paleontology Ltd) who was tasked with preparing the fossil, believe that this could be a brand new species of horned dinosaur.

Alan Detrich with the Burlap and Plaster Specimen After Transport (2012)

The fossilised skull in its protective burlap and plaster jacket.

The fossilised skull in its protective burlap and plaster jacket.

Picture Credit: Rapid City Journal

Over the last fifteen years or so, a number of new North American horned dinosaurs have been named and described, however, if proved to represent a new species, this dinosaur skull could be heralded as one of the most spectacular dinosaur discoveries of all, the nasal horn alone measures nearly forty-five centimetres long and the skull itself is over 1.82 metres in length.

Commenting on the unusually large nasal horn, Alan Detrich stated:

“They are [Triceratops nose horns] usually half that size and the skull is eight feet long, which would be a monster skull for a Triceratops.”

Neal Larson, the founder of Larson Paleontology Unlimited and a co-founder of the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research with his brother Pete Larson, who coincidently is also working on a Centrosaurine specimen at the moment, was given the task of trying to prepare the specimen.  It took over 1,000 pain-staking hours to carefully excavate the fossil from its iron siderite matrix.  The preparation work was extremely difficult, as despite the robust nature of the fossil bones, the matrix with its iron component (iron carbonate) was extremely hard.

Neal Larson Stands by the Huge Dinosaur Skull

Huge horned dinosaur skull could be a new species.

Huge horned dinosaur skull could be a new species.

Picture Credit: Rapid City Journal

A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur exclaimed:

“It’s only when you see a person stood next to the beautifully preserved skull that you can really appreciate just how big the animal actually was.  This is certainly one of the largest Centrosaurine skulls that we have seen.”

For Neal, who holds a degree in geology and has been excavating fossils for some forty years now, the Ceratopsian skull represented a tough challenge given the hardness of the surrounding matrix.

He stated:

“I immediately had my suspicions this was something new because of the size and placement of the nasal horn.  They’re usually in the middle of the nose, not the front and it’s twice as large as most of them.  On top of that, the frill at the top of the skull curves upward. They usually lay back.”

The Super-sized Ceratopsian Skull

Huge Ceratopsian skull (Harding County, South Dakota)

Huge Ceratopsian skull (Harding County, South Dakota)

Picture Credit: Rapid City Journal

The skull has a strange ridge under the jaw, something that is not seen in Triceratops skull material.  Mr Detrich is now trying to find a museum to house this specimen, preferably in the United States, potential buyers for this huge dinosaur skull are currently being contacted.

The Ceratopsians of North American seem to have evolved into a very diverse range of forms during the Late Cretaceous.  Some of the skulls of these herbivorous dinosaurs were truly immense.  As a clade, the Ceratopsians are considered to have the largest skulls in proportion to the rest of their bodies of any known vertebrate.  A few years ago, Everything Dinosaur reported on the discovery of another enormous horned dinosaur skull, this time from Alberta, Canada, a dinosaur that was believed to be an ancestor of Triceratops.

To read about this fossil discovery: Enormous Skull of Eotriceratops Discovered

The Colour of Dinosaurs?

Fossilised Dinosaur Feathers Do Contain Evidence of Original Colours

Over the last five years or so, a number of scientists from around the world have been trying to crack a dinosaur-sized puzzle.  Could fossils preserve some evidence of the colouration of long dead animals?  Could palaeontologists and that talented body of palaeoartists that work with them, finally be able to depict a prehistoric animal as it would have looked like in real life?  A new paper published in the academic journal “Scientific Reports” moves the debate forwards to some extent.  Researchers, led by Johan Lindgren (Lund University, southern Sweden), including graduate students from the aptly named Brown University (Rhode Island, U.S.A) have analysed the fossilised remains of a Middle Jurassic dinosaur and found that the melanosomes preserved within the fossil not only resemble animal pigment structures found today but they also have a very similar, almost identical chemical signature.

This study supports the hypothesis and indeed, strengthens it, that scientists can work out the colouration of long extinct animals including feathered dinosaurs.

The Specimen Used in the Study – Anchiornis Fossil

Feathers reveal chemical signatures that supports colour hypothesis.

Feathers reveal chemical signatures that supports colour hypothesis.

Picture Credit: Thierry Hubin

Anchiornis huxleyi

Named and described back in 2009, from fossil material found in Liaoning Province (north-eastern China), this little dinosaur was covered in feathers.  It stood about twenty centimetres tall and it had long flight feathers on its forelimbs and hind legs.  Three specimens have been described in detail, but there are believed to be many more examples held in private collections.  The exact geological age of this very bird-like dinosaur remains controversial.  It has proved very difficult to date the lake environment deposits where these fossils have been found.  Some palaeontologists have suggested that Anchiornis could be as young as 150 million years old, other scientists have proposed that the fossils date from around ten million years earlier.

To read about the scientific description of Anchiornis (A. huxleyi): Older than Archaeopteryx?

Colour analysis on the very well preserved second specimen (see picture above), has been carried out before, but this time, as well as finding melanosome structures, the researchers conducted two different kinds of chemical analysis to see if animal eumelanin pigment could be detected.  Melanin is a natural pigment found in most animals, there are three main sub-components of melanin, the most common form is the pigment eumelanin.   The researchers conducted an ion mass spectrometry test and also an infrared reflectance spectroscopy analysis to discern the chemical signatures of the rod-like structures that have been observed in the fossilised feathers of the dinosaur once the fossil had been subjected to electron microscopy.  The team then compared the molecular signatures of the fossil sample to the signature of melanin in living animals.  The observed signatures were almost identical.  The only small difference in the chemical make-up was attributed to the presence of sulphur in the fossil material.

Electron Microscopy Shows Tiny Structures in the Fossil Feathers

Structures identified under extreme magnification.

Structures identified under extreme magnification.

Picture Credit: Lund University (Johan Lindgren)

A Palaeontological “Hot Potato”

The hypothesis that the structures which produce the melanin pigmentation, the melanosomes could be preserved in fossils is controversial.  Electron microscope studies of a number of feathered dinosaur fossils has revealed strange structures which have been interpreted as melanosomes by some scientists.  The shape of these structures providing clues to the colouration of the animal.  For example, in the case of Anchiornis, the rod-like, sausage-shaped structures, if they are melanosomes, indicate that this little Chinese dinosaur was mostly covered in dark, probably black feathers.

Such conclusions have been hotly debated.  Some opponents have argued that the structures observed could be other types of organic residue such as the fossilised remains of microbes.  Other scientists have argued that there is a “fossilisation bias” when it comes to the colour spectrum and that melanosomes that give dark pigments may be more likely to survive the fossilisation process than other types, so there is a strong, black bias when it comes to interpreting the colour palette of a long, extinct animal.

Rod-Like Structures the Melanosomes

Sausage-shapes - potential melanosomes.

Sausage-shapes – potential melanosomes.

Picture Credit: Lund University (Johan Lindgren)

Commenting on this latest research, Ryan Carney (Brown University) stated:

“We have integrated structural and molecular evidence that demonstrates that melanosomes do persist in the fossil record.  The evidence of animal-specific melanin in fossil feathers is the final nail in the coffin that shows that these microbodies are indeed melanosomes and not microbes.”

In essence, what this team has done is to move on the debate.  Morphological evidence (structures that look like melanosomes), are no longer the only evidence being put forward to suggest the colour of feathered dinosaurs.  There is now chemical evidence to support the theory that melanosomes can be preserved in fossils.

In order to help rule out a misinterpretation of the data, the team also analysed the observed spectral signatures of the melanins produced by microbes.  The closest match the team achieved was between the fossil material and the signature from extant animal melanin.

Student Carney, went onto add:

“This is animal melanin, not microbial melanin and it is associated with these melanosome-like structures in the fossil feathers.”

To read other articles published by Everything Dinosaur which relate to the colour of extinct animals:

Melanosomes in feathered dinosaurs: Melanosomes Provide Further Evidence for Feathered Dinosaurs

Working out the colour, a problem: Working Out the Colour of Prehistoric Animals just got Harder

Marine Reptiles and colour: Marine Reptiles Dressed in “Little Black Numbers”

“Lucky Find” Puts Welsh Theropod Discovery on a Firm Footing

Fossilised Dinosaur Foot Bones Found on Welsh Beach

Serendipity and palaeontology are often strange bedfellows, but luck does play a part especially when you consider the difficulties in finding very rare and exceptional items such as Early Jurassic dinosaur bones.  Take the example of palaeontology student Sam Davis who has been lucky enough to have been in the right spot at the right time to find the fossilised foot bones of the first meat-eating dinosaur known from Wales.  The bones belong to an, as yet, not scientifically described species of Theropod dinosaur found by brothers Nick and Rob Hanigan in 2014.  The bones come from the Lower Jurassic strata exposed at Lavernock beach (Vale of Glamorgan).

An Illustration of the Newly Discovered Welsh Dinosaur

Significant dinosaur discovery.

Significant dinosaur discovery.

Picture Credit: National Museum of Wales/Bob Nicholls

To read more about the 2014 dinosaur discovery: Welsh Dinosaurs – New Early Jurassic Theropod Discovered

A significant proportion of the skeleton, including skull material, was found by the brothers after spring storms revealed the specimen last year.  However, student Sam Davies decided to visit the beach to explore the fossil location after his tutor explained to him about the geology of the area and the nature of the fossils likely to be found eroding out of the steep cliffs.  Sam duly arrived at Lavernock Point just a few hours after a rock fall had exposed the fossil.  Had he decided to visit the site just a few days later, the fossil specimen would very likely have been washed away by the tide and lost to science forever.

The Foot Bones of the Welsh Theropod Dinosaur

The bones are located on a 20cm slab of rock.

The bones are located on a 20 cm slab of rock.

Picture Credit: National Museum of Wales

Third year student Sam, had visited the beach hoping for inspiration for his third year project as part of his studies at the University of Portsmouth, it looks like he has hit the jackpot with his lucky discovery.  We suspect that Welsh Theropods are going to feature in his individual research project this semester.

Commenting on his lucky fossil find, Sam stated:

“It was pure luck that I found it.  It was just sitting on top of a slab of rock.  It was obvious the fossil was fingers or toes, because there were three in a row, but the first thing that came to mind was that it was some sort of Plesiosaur [marine reptile fossils are occasionally found in this area].”

The fossil has been donated to the National Museum of Wales, joining the rest of the Theropod material.  Sam’s tutor is renowned vertebrate palaeontologist Dr. David Martill, he has been tasked with the job of studying the Welsh fossils and producing a scientific paper on the 200 million year old dinosaur.  Everything Dinosaur expects the paper, along with a name for this three metre long, meat-eater to be published next year.

Sam admits to “jumping up and down like a little boy” when he realised the significance of his discovery.

Set for a Bright Future in Vertebrate Palaeontology

Third year palaeontology student Sam Davies.

Third year palaeontology student Sam Davies.

Picture Credit: BBC News

Dr. Caroline Butler, (Head of Palaeontology, National Museum of Wales) exclaimed:

“The dinosaur found by Nick and Rob Hanigan is the first skeleton of a Theropod found in Wales.  Sam’s find adds to its significance because we can learn more about the animal and how it is related to the dinosaurs that eventually evolved into birds.”

The fossil was actually found some weeks ago, but the announcement of this latest discovery coincides nicely with a television documentary being aired on ITV1 on Monday 31st August with part two the following evening.  The documentary entitled “Dinosaur Britain” explores the rich dinosaur heritage of the British Isles and the Welsh Theropod is featured in the second programme of this two-part documentary.

For information on “Dinosaur Britain”: Dinosaur Britain Scheduled for Bank Holiday Monday

A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur explained:

“The first dinosaurs to be scientifically studied, were described from fossils found in the British Isles, but even today something like one in twenty of all the known dinosaurs is represented by fossil material discovered in this part of the world.  The finding of the additional Welsh Theropod bones was extremely serendipitous and we wish Sam every success with his studies.”

Here’s one palaeontology student who has helped to put Welsh Theropods on a firmer footing.

Cave in the Urals Reveals Haul of Cave Lion Bones

Imanai Cave – Strange Significance to Stone Age People

A team of Russian archaeologists have been putting on display some of the huge collection of prehistoric cave lion bones and other artefacts recovered from a cave in the Russian republic of Bashkiria close to the Ural mountains.  The small cave has yielded some five hundred cave lion bones so far, plus a number of flint spearheads and a cave bear skull that shows evidence of having been pierced by a spear.  The cave, known locally as the Imanai cave, shows no signs of sustained hominin habitation and it has been suggested that prehistoric people considered part of the cave to have some special, perhaps even religious significance and these items were brought into the cave deliberately.

Scientists Show some of the Flint Tools and Cave Lion Skulls

Imanai cave lion skulls on display.

Imanai cave lion skulls on display.

Picture Credit: Pavel Kosintsev

The concentration of cave lion bones in the cave is unique, nowhere else in the world has such a mass concentration of cave lion bones been discovered.  The bone assemblage probably represents six individual animals.

Pavel Kosintsev, a senior researcher at the regional Institute of Plant and Animal Ecology (Urals Branch of the Russian Academy of Science) stated:

“We found about five hundred bones and fragments of bones of the giant cave lion, but there could be more, after we finish with sorting the collection.  Such a large quantity of giant cave lion bones at one site is really unique, the only one in the world so far discovered.”

Giant Cave Lions

The cave lion (Panthera leo) shares the same scientific name of the modern African lion of the savannah.  Although some scientists believe that it is sufficiently different from its African relative to be classified as a sub-species (P. leo spelaea) It may be classified as the same species, by many academics, but the cave lion looked very different from its modern African counterpart.  It was around 15-20% bigger and it had longer legs.  It also possessed a thick, shaggy coat which during the winter months, when snow covered a large part of this animal’s range, that coat might well have turned white to help camouflage this large predator.  It seems that in the past, the lion as we know it today lived over a much wider area of the northern hemisphere.  Its range extended out of Africa and into Europe, indeed cave lion fossils have been found in the UK, most notably Kents Cavern near Torquay (Devon).

Despite their name, cave lions were not adapted to a life in caves, they were creatures of the open tundra, forests and plains.  Their bones may have been washed into caves or brought into cave dens by scavenging animals and as a result, since the bones of these large cats are associated with caves and rock overhangs the term cave lion was adopted to distinguish them from extant species.

An Illustration of a Cave Lion (note the light coloured coat)

An illustration of a cave lion.

An illustration of a cave lion.

Picture Credit: Russian Academy of Science/Pavel Kosintsev

Earlier excavations had found isolated bones deep inside the caves, but these were interpreted as having been sick or injured lions, or lost cubs.  The researchers believe that the cave may have been an ancient sanctuary and that these sick and injured animals could have been brought to the cave by ancient people.  This suggests that the Imanai cave had some significance to the ancient humans that inhabited this part of the Urals, perhaps it was a place of worship.  A number of other such sites were bone deposits have been made are known, the scientists hope to compare their cave data with similar sites from Austria and the Czech Republic.

The human relics found include ten stone spearheads, identified as being from the Mousterian culture, previously only two such spearheads had been found in the entire Urals region of Russia.

Inside the Cave (Imanai Cave Ural Mountains)

Going down to the bone deposit site.

Going down to the bone deposit site.

Picture Credit: Pavel Kosintsev

The Mousterian culture is defined by the style of stone tools associated with European hominins.  It relates to the Old Stone Age and dates from around 600,000 years ago with the youngest tools associated with this culture dating to around 30-40 thousand years ago.  This technology has been found in sites across southern Europe, Turkey and parts of the Middle East.  Mousterian flint tools have been discovered as far west as Wales and the Imanai cave represents one of the eastern margins for this stone tool culture.  During the Mousterian, Europe was populated by a range of hominin species, including Homo heidelbergensis, Homo neanderthalensis and latterly our own species which migrated into this part of the world from Africa – H. sapiens.

Spearheads the Only Sign of Human Activity

The spearheads and the cave bear skull with its spear hole are the only signs of human activity.  If ancient hominins had lived in this cave, even for a short period, the archaeologists would have expected to find a lot more evidence of human habitation.  For example, signs of fire having been used, animal bones with cut marks from being butchered and other stone tools.  The lack of other human artefacts supports the hypothesis that this site might have been a sanctuary of some sort or perhaps a shrine.

The latest finds have not been dated, but the upper layers of the cave floor mapped during an earlier reconnaissance are believed to be around 30,000 years old.  The lower layers are much older, how much older will have a significant bearing on the study, as the scientists cannot be sure what species of people (indeed, the cave could have been an important location to more than one type of hominin) they are dealing with.  Preliminary estimates place the lower, bone yielding layers at around 60,0000 years ago, so this site could be very significant in terms of Neanderthal research.  However, different populations of humans occupied different parts of Europe as the climate swung dramatically from very cold periods to much warmer inter-glacial periods during this part of the Pleistocene Epoch.  Further dating of material is currently being undertaken by scientists from the University of St Petersburg.


Archaeologists Working in the Cave at the Bone Deposit Site

Scientists carefully examining in situ evidence.

Scientists carefully examining in situ evidence.

Picture Credit: Pavel Kosintsev

Explaining the team’s future plans Pavel stated:

“We plan to continue the excavations next year, but the amount of finds we made this year is very large.  There are about twenty sacks with ground and small fragments and about twenty to twenty-five boxes with bones.  We need to examine all this and I think that some significant updates may appear as soon as this year.”

All the bone and tool finds come from an area of just six square metres in the cave, which has been excavated to a depth of around sixty centimetres.  The research team are excited at the prospect of exploring other parts of the cave and finding many more artefacts.  The greater the number of artefacts, then more information can be obtained which should help the scientists to understand more about the cave, its occupants and how it fitted into ancient human cultures.

Dinosaur Britain Scheduled for Bank Holiday Monday

Dinosaurs Come to ITV – “Dinosaur Britain”

When asked to think about dinosaurs, most people might imagine scientists searching for giant bones and teeth in the more remote parts of the world, places like the intriguingly named “Hell Creek” of Montana or the “Badlands” of South Dakota.  What might surprise most members of the public, is, that once upon a time, dinosaurs roamed over the British Isles.  Not only that but dear old “blighty”, plus Wales and Scotland, can lay claim to having one of the best dinosaur fossil records of anywhere in the world.

Putting British dinosaur discoveries in the spotlight is the aim of a new, two-part television documentary that is being shown on ITV1 next week.  Presenter Ellie Harrison accompanies palaeontologist Dean Lomax on a whistle stop tour of dinosaurs of the British Isles and thanks to some super-duper CGI, viewers will be able to see some examples of these amazing prehistoric animals wandering around the UK.

Presenter Ellie Harrison Encounters a Theropod Dinosaur

Presenter Ellie Harrison confronts a Theropod dinosaur.

Presenter Ellie Harrison confronts a Theropod dinosaur.

Picture Credit: ITV

The first part of this documentary, “Dinosaur  Britain” created by production company Maverick TV, will be shown on Bank Holiday Monday, 31st August at 9pm.  In this episode,  Ellie, who confesses to having an interest in dinosaurs ever since she first heard about them as a child, explores the very first scientifically described dinosaur (Megalosaurus) as well as learning all about the fearsome Baryonyx, whose fossils were found in a Surrey clay pit.  Helping Ellie to piece together the clues about Britain’s ancient past is talented palaeontologist and British dinosaur aficionado, Dean Lomax.  Dean explains what fossils can tell scientists about prehistory and accompanies the naturalist and journalist on a journey around the British Isles exploring the country’s amazing dinosaur heritage.

Our Tour Guides to “Dinosaur Britain”  Ellie Harrison and Palaeontologist Dean Lomax

Dean guides Ellie through a dinosaur dominated Britain.

Dean guides Ellie through a dinosaur dominated Britain.

Picture Credit: ITV

Brave Ellie is likely to get chased by a few of the more dangerous dinosaurs to have once roamed our countryside, and we expect the camera crew to entice her into hand-feeding the occasional iguanodontid or two, but this documentary will also inform viewers about some members of the Dinosauria, whose fossils are unique to Britain.  For example, travel to the beautiful Dorset coast and visit the location where amateur fossil hunter David Sole discovered the remarkable fossilised bones of one of the first armoured dinosaurs.  The dinosaur discovered by David, now resides in Bristol Museum, it is a Scelidosaurus and there is no record of it being found anywhere else in the world, it’s the “Jurassic Coasts” very own dinosaur.

Episode Two – Tuesday 8pm to 9pm Isle of Skye, Isle of Wight and an Early Tyrannosaur

Part two of “Dinosaur Britain” is due to be shown on the following evening (8pm ITV1).  The intrepid duo travel to the Isle of Skye to learn about some of the biggest terrestrial animals ever to roam Europe.  Some of the giant, herbivorous Sauropods that thundered across our ancient landscape were as long as two London buses.  Dean explains to Ellie how dinosaur footprints are important trace fossils, fossils which actually show behaviour of long extinct creatures.

Huge Sauropod Dinosaurs Once Roamed the British Isles

Ellie Harrison says hello to a Sauropod.

Ellie Harrison says hello to a Sauropod.

Picture Credit: ITV

Not all of Britain’s dinosaurs were enormous beasts.  Some of the world’s smallest dinosaurs lived here too.  Dean reveals a tiny footprint found on Skye, the smallest in the Western world, probably just twenty centimetres in length and a tiny meat‐eater.  Next it’s a swift journey to the opposite end of the British Isles, to our very own “Dinosaur Isle”, the Isle of Wight, to learn all about predator/prey interactions.  Vertebrate palaeontologist, Darren Naish (University of Southampton and Tetrapod Zoology fame), shows fossils of the herbivorous dinosaur called Mantellisaurus, a dinosaur named in honour of Englishman Gideon Mantell (1790-1852) who named Iguanodon, the second dinosaur to be scientifically described.  The Mantellisaurus fossil material shows signs of an attack from or at least feeding by a carnivorous dinosaur.  The likely culprit is the ferocious Neovenator which Dr. Naish describes as being “quite a nasty, efficient predator.”

Dean and Ellie continue their journey around Britain, with a trip to Ellie’s home county of Gloucestershire, where in 1910, an ancient Tyrannosaur fossil was found during the excavation of a reservoir.  This beautifully preserved fossil, consisting of a nearly complete skull and jaws was named Proceratosaurus bradleyi.  It may not have been as big as the more famous Tyrannosaurus rex but this fossil does prove that early Tyrannosaurs roamed across Britain during the Bathonian faunal stage of the Middle Jurassic.  Indeed, Proceratosaurus was not the only member of the Tyrannosaur family known from the British Isles, two more are described in Dean’s fantastic book “Dinosaurs of the British Isles” published by Siri Scientific Press

Dinosaurs of the British Isles by Dean Lomax and Nobumichi Tamura

A comprehensive guide to British dinosaurs over 400 pages.

A comprehensive guide to British dinosaurs over 400 pages.

Picture Credit: Siri Scientific Press

To learn more about dinosaurs from Britain and to purchase this brilliant book: Dinosaurs of the British Isles

Concluding their journey through 160 million years of British history, the documentary ends with a visit to Cardiff to view one of the most recently discovered dinosaurs.  There were once real dragons in Wales, albeit little ones but the fossils of a Theropod dinosaur discovered by brothers Nick and Rob Hanigan might turn out to represent the earliest dinosaur known from Jurassic aged rocks.  Everything Dinosaur produced a short article announcing this discovery including pictures of the fossilised bones back in June.

To read more about this Welsh dinosaur: New Early Jurassic Theropod Dinosaur

Looks like, thanks to Ellie Harrison and Dean Lomax (plus Darren Naish et al), British dinosaurs are going to be well and truly put on the map!

Little Finger Points to Changes in Hominin Evolution

Ancestors May Have Come Down From the Trees Earlier than Thought

A tiny finger bone, representing the proximal phalanx of the fifth digit of a hominin’s left hand has led scientists to reconsider the date of our ancestor’s descent from the trees.  Put simply, the discovery of one of the world’s oldest little finger bones from a human-like species suggests that at around 1.8 million years ago hands had already become much more readily adapted to using tools than to climbing trees.  The finger bone, is not curved, curved bones in the digits are indicative of a grasping, weight bearing role very typical of apes that live in trees.  The bone is very similar in shape to that of a modern human little finger bone (Homo sapiens).

Various Views of the Little Finger Bone (Proximal Phalanx)

Various Views of the ancient hominin finger bone.

Various Views of the ancient hominin finger bone.

Picture Credit: M. Domínguez-Rodrigo

The bone was discovered in the Olduvai Gorge region of Tanzania and it is estimated to be about 1.8 million years old.  The fossil find suggests that by 1.8 million years ago, a human-like species had already made the transition to terrestrial living whilst co-existing with more arboreal hominins such as Homo habilis and a member of a distantly related sub-branch to the hominin family tree that led to modern humans Paranthropus boisei.

According to researchers such as Manuel Domínguez-Rodrigo (co-director of the Olduvai Gorge-based project The Institute of Evolution in Africa), this discovery pushes back the origin of dextrous human digits some 400,000 years.

Commenting on the fossil find, Manuel Domínguez-Rodrigo, one of the team members who analysed the bone stated:

“This bone belongs to somebody who’s not spending any time in the trees at all.  Hanging from branches tends to bend bones like this one that extend from the knuckle, whereas in modern humans, and in this case they are straighter.”

The Position of the Fossil Proximal Phalanx in a Modern Human Left Hand

The location of the bone in the left hand.

The location of the bone in the left hand.

Picture Credit: M. Domínguez-Rodrigo

The scientist, who has been involved in research projects in Tanzania since 2006 explained that this was evidence supporting a significant change in the behaviour of our ancient ancestors.  If the hands were no longer being used to climb trees, then they could be being used for other purposes such as making tools.

Biological anthropologist Brian Richmond (American Museum of Natural History, New York) and another specialist in early human history commented:

“This provides good evidence supporting the hypothesis that, by about two million years ago, our early ancestors lost the anatomy linked to our tree-climbing past.”

Although the finger bone is a different shape from the bones of contemporary Australopithecines, other scientists, such as Richard Potts of the Smithsonian Human Origins Programme (Washington D.C.) has suggested that a single bone is not enough evidence to conclude that the hand it came from truly resembles that of a modern human ancestor.

Earliest Baboon Fossil Identified from World Heritage Site

Papio angusticeps – An Ancestor of Modern Baboons

A team of international scientists including researchers from Witwatersrand University (South Africa), have discovered the fossils of the earliest known baboon.  The partial skull of a new species, which has been named Papio angusticeps has been dated to around 2.026 to 2.36 million years ago was found at Malapa, in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, which is located about thirty miles north-west of Johannesburg in Gauteng Province, South Africa.

The baboon fossils come from the same site where the partial remains of the early hominin species, named Australopithecus sediba, were discovered in 2010.

To read Everything Dinosaur’s article on the discovery of A. sedibaNew Fossils May Shed Light on Human Ancestry

Baboons and Hominins May Have Competed for Resources

Commenting on the study, lead author Dr. Christopher Gilbert (Hunter College of the City University of New York), explained that the rise of the baboons was contemporaneous with the rise of that part of the hominin family tree that resulted in our own species.

Various Views of the Skull Fossil (Papio angusticeps)

Various views of the baboon skull fossil.

Various views of the baboon skull fossil.

Picture Credit: Witwatersrand University

He commented:

“Baboons are known to have co-existed with hominins at several fossil localities in East Africa and South Africa and they are sometimes used as comparative models in human evolution.”

As one of the largest, non-hominin members of the primate Order, these intelligent animals would have competed with our ancestors for food, shelter and other resources.  The skull fossil is very similar to that found in a modern baboon species, (Papio hamadryas), one of five species in the Papio genus and the species of baboon that lives the furthest north.  Its range is from the horn of Africa across the Arabian Sea into the Arabian peninsula.

Despite the record of baboon fossils from a number of hominin sites, the evolution of modern baboons is not well understood and the fossil record for these large Old World monkeys is very poor.

Dr. Gilbert added:

“According to molecular clock studies, baboons are estimated to have diverged from their closest relatives by 1.8 to 2.2 million years ago.  However, until now, most fossil specimens known within this time range have been either too fragmentary to be definitive or too primitive to be confirmed as members of the living species Papio hamadryas.  The specimen from Malapa and our current analyses help to confirm the suggestion of previous researchers, that P. angusticeps may, in fact, be an early population of P. hamadryas.”

An Extant Male Baboon

A male baboon.

A male baboon.

Picture Credit: Andrea Baden

Dr. Gilbert, a specialist in early primate evolution explained:

“If you placed a number of P. angusticeps specimens into a modern osteology collection, I don’t think you’d be able pick them out as any different from those of modern baboons from East and South Africa.”

In addition, the estimated age of the Malapa specimen (2.026 to 2.36 million years old), is an almost perfect fit with molecular clock analyses for the initial appearance of modern baboons.  The skull may help to solve the evolutionary origins of these highly adaptive mammals.  Furthermore, as monkeys are widely recognised as key time-sensitive elements in the fossil record, the fact that the Malapa P. angusticeps specimen is well-dated allows future studies to better estimate the age of fossil sites where the species is found.  This may prove particularly helpful when attempting to date early hominin sites in South Africa.  The presence of these baboon fossils, may be able to help scientists achieve more accurate age estimates for any early hominin remains found in situ.

Little “Scarface” Late Permian Predator May Have Been Venomous

Ichibengops munyamadziensis – A Nasty Little “Critter”

Researchers at the Field Museum (Chicago, Illinois) in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Utah, The Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture (Seattle) and the University of Washington have published a scientific paper detailing the discovery of a new genus of mammal-like animals that thrived prior to the Permian mass extinction event.  This little synapsid is the first endemic Zambian member of the Therocephalia to be described in detail.  The fossils, which include a partial skull and upper jaw were discovered in a field expedition back in 2009, to the Madumabisa Mudstone Formation in the Luangwa Basin (north-eastern Zambia), at the time the field team were not aware that they had discovered a new species of mammal-like reptile.  A bizarre groove found on the animal’s upper jaw suggests that this little carnivore could have been venomous.  Potential venom glands and tooth grooves to permit the passage of venom into wounds of prey that had been bitten, have been proposed for some other members of the Therocephalia before, but this interpretation of the fossil evidence remains controversial.

A Picture of the Holotype Skull and Jaw Material (Ichibengops munyamadziensis)

Fossils date from around 252 million years ago (Late Permian).

Fossils date from around 255 million years ago (Late Permian).

Picture Credit: Adam Huttenlocker

Described as a “little critter” by Everything Dinosaur team members, the fossils are believed to be around 255 million years old (Wuchiapingian faunal stage of Permian).  Ichibengops, (pronounced itc-chee-ben-gops) comes from the local Bemba dialect for scar and the Greek suffix for face, hence this “little critter” has been nick-named “scarface”.

A paper on the 2009 discovery has just been published in the academic publication the “Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology”.  The Therocephalia, believed to be closely related to the Cynodonts are referred to as “beast heads”, on account of their robust skulls.  As a group, they survived the End Permian extinction, but were greatly reduced with only a few Families persisting into the Early Triassic.  This group died out at around the time of the very first dinosaurs, but it is unlikely that the rise of the Dinosauria had anything to do with the extinction of the Therocephalia.

Commenting on the research, one of the authors of the scientific paper, Dr. Kenneth Angielczyk (Field Museum) stated:

“Discoveries of new species of animals like Ichibengops are particularly exciting because they help us to better understand the group of animals that gave rise to mammals.  One interesting feature about this species in particular is the presence of grooves above its teeth, which may have been used to transmit venom.”

Being venomous is rare in today’s Mammalia, only a few extant species produce venom.  For example, the duck-billed platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) a monotreme, is now known to be venomous as are a number of species of shrews.  If this little animal was able to deliver a debilitating bite then this might have proved advantageous, helping to despatch victims quickly as well as providing a formidable defence against attack from larger predators.

An Illustration of Ichibengops munyamadziensis

A Late Permian predator.

A Late Permian predator.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Second Tetrapod Zoology Convention – Date Set

TetZooCon 2015 (14th November 2015)

We are very lucky in this country to have such a vibrant group of like-minded academics, writers, scientists and artists who are passionate about the living world and life in the past in all its myriad forms.   However, the opportunities to bring such dedicated and well informed people together remain few and far between.  It’s great to hear that the date for a second Tetrapod Zoology Convention has been set, what with the runaway success of the inaugural conference, organisers, renowned science-writer and all round top chap Dr. Darren Naish (University of Southampton), aided and abetted by talented palaeoartist John Conway are already finalising the impressive list of speakers for the convention scheduled for Saturday 14th November at the London Wetland Centre.

Tickets cost just £40.00 for the day, highlights of which will include short talks on all manner of zoologically-themed subjects, which as we go to press, cover topic areas as varied and diverse as marine reptiles, urban birding, the Pterosauria and crypto-mammals with a focus on pygmy elephants!  There will be time for a little bit of animal watching at the London Wetland Centre as well as a pub trip and a pub-themed social event to round off the event.

TetZooCon 2015 – Bookings Now Being Taken

Click on the logo to visit the Paypal booking service.

Click on the logo to visit the Paypal booking service.

Image Credit: Darren Naish

To book tickets via Paypal: Tickets Can Be Booked Here

The London Wetland Centre is located in Barnes, London (postcode for satnav purposes: SW13 9WT), coffee and tea will be provided and lunch can be procured from the nearby Water’s Edge Cafe.

Palaeoart Workshop – A Highlight

Building upon the highly successful palaeoart workshop that took place last year, this convention will also give delegates the opportunity to gain an insight into this fascinating area of scientific illustration with the likes of Bob Nicholls, Mark Witton and of course, John Conway leading the way.  There might even be one or two signed prints available to purchase.  So, book the date of Saturday November 14th into your diary.  The London Wetland Centre will once more be the venue for the second celebration of all things zoological and palaeontological.

For information, updates and to access the super weblog written by Dr. Naish: Tetrapod Zoology

And that booking information once again, (tickets £40.00): Book Tickets Here via Paypal

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