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Nosing Around Dinosaurs

New Study Sniffs Out Details of the Pachycephalosaur Nose

A study into the nasal passages conducted by a team of scientists from Ohio University suggests that certain types of dinosaur used their complicated noses to help cool their brains as well as to enhance their ability to smell.  The study, which focused on specimens from the Pachycephalosauridae family (the bone-heads), involved the development of computer models derived from CT scans of fossilised skulls in order to map the airflow in and out of a dinosaur’s snout.  Palaeontologists have known for some time that a number of different types of dinosaur had very complex nasal passages.  The nasal region although mostly associated with breathing (respiration), also plays an important role in helping to define and enhance a creature’s sense of smell.  In addition, the ability to bring in air at an ambient temperature into the skull may have a function in helping the brain to keep cool.  In the Late Cretaceous of North America, Pachycephalosaurs may have had small brains in their heavily armoured skulls but they did not want them to cook inside those thick heads.

A Model of a Typical Member of the Pachycephalosauridae Family

Nosing around the nasal passages of dinosaurs.

Nosing around the nasal passages of dinosaurs.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Lead author of the research, which has just been published in the academic journal “The Anatomical Record”, Jason Bourke (Ohio University) states:

“Figuring out what’s going on in their [dinosaurs] complicated snouts is challenging because noses have so many different functions.  It doesn’t help that all the delicate soft tissues rotted away millions of years ago.”

In order to gain an appreciation of the nasal passages of long extinct dinosaurs, the team examined the snouts of extant relatives of the Dinosauria, namely birds, crocodiles and other reptiles including lizards.  The study of fossil skulls of Pachycephalosaurs was supported by lots of dissections, blood-vessel injections to map blood flow as well as CT scans.  The researchers also relied upon computer models that provided a three-dimensional analysis of airflow.

A technique more commonly applied to the study of airflow in the aerospace industry, a technique called computational fluid dynamics was used to better understand how extant animals such as Alligators and Ostriches breathe.

As PhD student Jason Bourke explained:

“Once we got a handle on how animals breathe today, the tricky part was finding a good candidate among the dinosaurs to test our methods.”

The team turned to a family of bird-hipped dinosaurs known as the Pachycephalosaurs, the bone-headed dinosaurs.  These particular dinosaurs were chosen as a number of specimens were readily available to study in the United States/Canada and skulls attributed to several genera were known.   The thick skulls with their ornamentation may have been used  by these relatively small dinosaurs for head-butting or visual displays.  The skull bones, some of which are several inches thick, has helped to preserve details of the nasal passages which the scientists were able to map and analyse in great detail.

Getting Up a Dinosaur’s Nose

Airflow in the nasal passages in the Pachycephalosaur Stegosaurus validum is mapped.

Airflow in the nasal passages in the Pachycephalosaur Stegoceras validum is mapped.

Picture Credit: Ohio University/The Anatomical Record

One Pachycephalosaur that was studied was Stegoceras (S. validum) and the researchers were able to show that some of the airflow that they mapped would have carried odours to the olfactory region, helping to improve this dinosaur’s sense of smell.  In addition, the team tried to piece together the shape of the nasal concha, otherwise known as the turbinates, that help to direct and manage airflow through the nasal passage.  This small bone, superficially resembles a sea shell (hence the name) and the fossil evidence supports the presence of such a bone but it is not found in the Dinosauria fossil record (as far as we at Everything Dinosaur know).  As the researchers point out, there is the bony ridge preserved on Pachycephalosaur skulls that indicate its presence and when airflow models were created, the best and most efficient ones produced included a turbinate structure within the model.

Commenting on the research results, Jason Bourke stated:

“We don’t really know what the exact shape of the respiratory turbinate was in Stegoceras, but we know that some kind of baffle had to be there.”

Study co-author Ruger Porter (Ohio University), pointed out that turbinates may well direct air to the olfactory region, but they might have also played another critical role, helping to cool the brain or at least helping to conserve moisture that might have been lost during exhalation.

Porter pointed out:

“The fossil evidence suggests that Stegoceras was basically similar to an Ostrich or an Alligator.  Hot arterial blood from the body was cooled as it passed over the respiratory turbinates and then that cooled venous blood returned to the brain.”

Whether this new research supports the theory that these dinosaurs were warm-blooded (endothermic) is being debated, but it does suggest there was more going on within dinosaur’s noses than scientists had previously thought.  It is hoped that the research team will be able to apply their analytical methods to other types of dinosaur such as the Thyreophora (armoured dinosaurs), known for their notoriously complex nasal passages.  This research may also provide answers to the questions concerning the bizarre shape of many crests found in Lambeosaurine dinosaurs (duck-billed dinosaurs).

Giant Kangaroos Made for Walking

Giant Sthenurine Kangaroos Probably Walked Rather Than Hopped

The Pleistocene prehistoric fauna of Australia may not quite be as embedded into the public’s consciousness as the Woolly Mammoths, Cave Bears and Sabre-Toothed Cats that represent examples of European Pleistocene prehistoric animals, but if anything, ancient “Aussies” were even more amazing than the shaggy coated examples typical of the fauna of the western hemisphere.  In a new study, published in the on line academic journal PLOS One (Public Library of Science), a team of researchers propose that ancient, giant Australian Kangaroos were walkers rather than hoppers, making up part of a prehistoric fauna that was truly astonishing.

The Kangaroos in question are the heavy-weight members of the Sthenurinae (the short-faced kangaroos).  A sub-family of the Macropodidae (means “big feet”), the family to which all Kangaroos belong.  Following a rigorous comparative analysis, the research team conclude that these large animals, some of which stood over two metres tall, did not hop but were adapted to a pedestrian lifestyle, these animals were walkers.  Sadly, like most of Australia’s mega fauna these herbivores became extinct and did not make it into the Holocene.  The last of the Sthenurinae died out about 30,000 years ago, shortly before the last of the Neanderthals in western Europe.

A Comparison Between an Extant Sthenurinae Kangaroo (Sthenurus stirlingi) and a Large Extant Species

Both these types of Kangaroo can stand up to two metres tall.

Both these types of Kangaroo can stand up to two metres tall.

Picture Credit: Wells and Tedford, 1995.  Original artist Lorraine Meeker, American Museum of Natural History, with additional annotation from Everything Dinosaur

As for reasons for their extinction, that question remains to be answered, however, it is thought that the presence of man on the continent from around 60,000 years ago had a severe impact on the fauna of Australia.  Giant Short-faced Kangaroos such as Simosthenurus occidentalis (short-faced, strong tail, western Kangaroo), known from fossils found in south-western Australia, probably could not move very quickly and could be caught by human hunters.  The use of fire could also have devastated their forest habitats leaving these browsers with little food.

The research team was led by Professor Christine Janis, (Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Brown University, Rhode Island, USA).  Over one hundred comparative measurements were made, comparing the skeletons of living and extinct Kangaroo and Wallaby types.  For Professor Janis, her eureka moment occurred in 2005.  She was examining the bones of a mounted skeleton of a Sthenurine Kangaroo in a Sydney museum when she noticed how inflexible the spine looked when compared to a modern-day counterpart.  The professor began to wander whether these Pleistocene roos moved in the same way as extant Kangaroos.

Working in collaboration with the papers co-authors, Borja Figuerido of the University of Malaga (Spain) and Karalyn Kuchenbecker, a former undergraduate at Brown University, the Professor spent several years examining the fossilised remains of extinct Kangaroos to determine their method of locomotion.  In the published account of their studies, the team hypothesise that in their motion the extinct Sthenurines were very different from large Kangaroos found today.  The scientific paper is intriguing entitled: “Locomotion in Extinct Giant Kangaroos: Were the Sthenurines Hop-Less Monsters?”.

Extant Kangaroos can hop very quickly and utilise this unique form of motion to cover vast distances very efficiently.  They can also move about on all fours as their front limbs are capable of helping to support bodyweight, an anatomical characteristic absent in the larger members of the Sthenurinae.  The tail of many  members of the Macropodidae is also able to bear weight, providing additional support for many Kangaroos and Wallabies.  The use of the tail as a fifth limb has been referred to as a “pentapedal” stance.  Extinct Kangaroos such as Sthenurus stirlingi seem to lack the flexible spine need to make leaps and bounds.  Their anatomy seems best suited to putting one foot in front of the other – a walking Kangaroo!

Sthenurines had proportionally bigger hip and knee joints.  The shape of the pelvic area differs significantly as well (see diagram above).  The Sthenurines had a broad and flared pelvis that would have allowed for proportionally much larger gluteal muscles than other Kangaroos.  Those muscles would have allowed them to balance weight over just one leg at a time, as do the large gluteals of humans during walking.  Unlike modern Kangaroos with their four-toed feet, the extinct Sthenurines had just one, massive toe on the end of each foot.  The research team conclude that when the anatomy of all the Macropodidae is considered, the “weird” ones are the extant species that hop.  They are very lightly built for their size and their preferred method of locomotion may not be typical for the group as a whole.  A bit like using the Cheetah as a template for all Felidae motion.

Commenting on the research Professor Janis stated:

“If it is not possible in terms of biomechanics to hop at very slow speeds, particularly if you are a big animal and you cannot easily do pentapedal locomotion, then what do you have left?  You have to move somehow.”

An over reliance on walking, which is not as efficient as hopping, might explain the demise of these Kangaroos about 30,000 years ago.  These animals might have been easier to catch so humans took a toll on the population.  Or as the climate became more arid, these walking Kangaroos were not able to migrate far enough to find new sources of food.

An Artist’s Impression of a Short-Faced Kangaroo

Short-faced Kangaroo a pedestrian.

Short-faced Kangaroo a pedestrian.

Picture Credit: Brian Regal

The research team admit that more evidence is required to back up their anatomical study.  Ideally, if a set of “walking Kangaroo” tracks could be discovered, that would add considerable weight to their hypothesis.

Indonesian Cave Paintings Change Ideas About the Origin of Art

Oldest Prehistoric Cave Art in the World Perhaps – An Indonesian Cave Art Exhibition

The human ability to think in abstract terms is often cited as one of the key differences between our species and those in the rest of the animal kingdom.  Our love of art and visual depiction can be traced back to the Late Palaeolithic but the thought that since cave paintings are confined to France and Spain, therefore art began in Europe, has been challenged thanks to an amazing discovery on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

A joint Australian and Indonesian team of anthropologists have uncovered a series of ancient human hand stencils and paintings of animals in seven cave sites in the southern portion of Sulawesi island.  Although a rural location, these caves (Karst Maros) had been visited by a number of tourists and backpackers, but until now nobody knew just how old some of the paintings were.

A Number of Ancient Human Hand Stencils were Part of the Study

Ancient human "handy" work.

Ancient human “handy” work.

Picture Credit: Maxime Aubert

Archaeologists and palaeoanthropologists had long been puzzled by the appearance in southern Europe around 40-35 thousand years ago of a rich and varied range of artwork, including rock paintings and carved figures, but the absence or scarcity of similar art found elsewhere in the world.  Homo sapiens migrated into southern Asia and the Far East but little evidence of any form of culture in terms of works of art has been left behind on these migration routes.

Using a dating method that is based on the radioactive decay of uranium to thorium in small mineral growths that had formed on the paintings, the scientists were able to determine the minimum age of the paintings.  One hand stencil has been dated to circa 39,900 years ago, making it the oldest human hand print known to science.  A painting of a wild pig, an animal probably hunted by these ancient humans, has been dated to at least 35,400 years ago.  The artwork and images had been created by using red ochre, the materials and painting techniques used seem to be very similar to those found in caves of a similar age in western Europe.

Commenting on the significance of this study, Maxine Aubert of Griffith University (Queensland), one of the researchers stated:

“It was previously thought that Western Europe was the centre piece of a symbolic explosion in early human artistic activity such as cave painting and other forms of image making, including figurative art, around 40,000 years ago.”

This new research suggests that the rock art traditions seen on Sulawesi are at least as old as the oldest known European art.   One of the implications of this new study is that it has now been demonstrated that humans were producing very similar types of rock art by 40,000 years ago but at opposite ends of the Pleistocene Eurasian world.

The Oldest Human Hand Stencil and the Animal Drawing

Cave paintings at least 35,400 years old with hand stencils at least 39,900 years old.

Cave paintings at least 35,400 years old with hand stencils at least 39,900 years old.

Picture Credit: Maxime Aubert (green highlighting circles added by Everything Dinosaur)

The artwork is very faded in the above photograph, so we have circled in green the rock art that was studied.  It is feared, that just like the cave art in some European caves, modern pollution could damage these ancient Indonesian drawings.

To read an article about the damage being done to cave paintings in Europe due to rising levels of fungi: Cave Paintings Might Be Lost Forever

The scientists hope to use this radioactive dating technique to accurately date other rock art sites in Asia and Australia.  By doing this they hope to better understand human migration and the movement of abstract ideas through the ancient population as it migrated eastwards.

From Dinosaur Arms to the Wings of Birds

New Study Helps to Explain How Dinosaurs Got their Wings

Most scientists now agree the feathers originated in the Dinosauria and that Aves (birds) are descendants from a group of bipedal, very bird-like dinosaurs that make up a portion of a larger group of dinosaurs known as the Theropoda.  In essence, the birds we know today evolved from dinosaurs (specifically the Maniraptora).  However, despite a lot of fossil evidence to indicate that the birds are closely related to and descended from the Dinosauria there have been one or two areas that have led to some confusion.  Take for example, the wrist bones.  The numerous wrist bones in dinosaurs and their relatively immobile wrists evolved over time into the highly flexible wrists with fewer bones that scientists see today in living birds.  The wrist bones in birds helps to manage the forces involved in the movements of the wing in flight.  They also permit the wings to be folded back when the bird is not flying, so how the wrist bones of dinosaurs evolved into the specialised and highly modified wrist bones of birds has been the subject of much debate.

The Evolution of a Wrist Designed for a Wing

The evolution of a wrist bone adapted to flight.

The evolution of a wrist bone adapted to flight.

Picture Credit: Davide Bonnadonna

A new study by a team of scientists based at the Universidae de Chile (University of Chile), Santiago, Chile and published in the academic journal PLOS Biology may have solved this palaeontological puzzle.

Nine into Four Does Go

Let’s start with a very simple explanation of the problem.  Scientists studying living species, in this case birds and specifically ducks, chickens, lapwings, finches and budgerigars that were used in this study, can examine in minute detail the living organism.  They can also study embryos to see how the bones in the wrist are formed.  The scientists can also study the wrist bones and embryos of reptiles such as caiman to provide data on the wrist bones and embryonic growth of other types of Archosaurs.  The Archosauria is the Division of Reptilia that contains the dinosaurs and crocodiles, it is from the Archosaurs that the birds evolved.  These scientists can see how the anatomy of an animal develops.  Techniques such as cell and molecular biology studies can reveal all sorts of information with regards to how the wrists of extant (living organisms) form.  Palaeontologists, on the other hand, (no pun intended) only have a very incomplete fossil record to study.  So scientists are using different data sources to study wrist bone evolution.

Research to help identify the wrist bones in dinosaurs and the corresponding bones in the wrists of birds draws data from two radically different sources:

  • cell biology, extant organisms and embryology
  • fossils of birds, fossils of dinosaurs, studies of the bones of extinct animals

This new study shows how the modern bird wrist with its four bones, arranged in an approximate square shape corresponds to the nine bones found in non-avian dinosaurs.  The team have looked at how dinosaur wrists evolved and report on previously undetected evolutionary processes including loss, fusion and in one case, a re-evolution of a bone once lost in the Dinosauria.

A Critical Advance in Understanding

This new study effectively combined these two areas of research.  The laboratory run by Alexander Vargas (University of Chile) and lead author of the study, developed a new method of looking at specific proteins in the embryos and produced three-dimensional maps to demonstrate how the wrist bones formed.  This new method has been named whole-mount immunostaining.  It allows scientists to observe skeletal development in embryos much better than before.  At the same time, the research team re-examined the fossils of dinosaurs and prehistoric birds in a bid to tie the two strands of research together.

The Semilunate Bone

Back in the 1960′s the palaeontologist John Ostrom, re-ignited the bird/dinosaurs debate by proposing that fearsome, sickle-clawed predators such as Deinonychus (D. antirrhopus) were agile, active animals and very bird-like.  He proposed that the semilunate bone, one of the four bones making up the square-shaped arrangement of bones in a modern bird’s wrist had actually formed from the fusing of two bones present in dinosaur fossils, such as those bones found in the wrists of dinosaurs like Deinonychus and its relatives.  This new technique, confirms that Ostrom was right.

Deinonychus Part of the Dinosaurs to Birds Story

A fearsome Deinonychus dinosaur

A fearsome Deinonychus dinosaur

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Whole-mount immunostaining and the mapping of cartilage formation and proteins in the embryos of birds, allowed the scientists to confirm that the semilunate in Aves does form from as two separate cartilages which fuse and ossify into a single bone, proving that Ostrom was very probably on the right track nearly fifty years ago.

Dr. Vargas explained:

“These findings eliminate persistent doubts that existed over exactly how the bones of the wrist evolved and iron out arguments about wrist development being incompatible with birds originating from dinosaurs.”

This research has helped scientists to work out how the nine bones found in the wrists of some Theropod dinosaurs gradually evolved into the four bones seen in modern birds.  In addition, this study produced a surprise, a result that was not expected.  A small bone present in the wrists of a group of dinosaurs known as the Sauropoda, disappeared in the bipedal Theropods, but re-evolved when some Theropods began to fly.

Sauropods and Theropod dinosaurs are closely related.  They represent the two types of dinosaur that make up the Saurischia (lizard-hipped dinosaurs).  Sauropods walked on all fours and had a small bone in their wrist called the pisiform that had a function in their four-legged, quadrupedal stance.  Theropod dinosaurs were essentially bipeds (walking on their hind limbs).  The arms of these dinosaurs were no longer used for walking but for catching and subduing prey.  Over millions of years the pisiform bone was lost from the wrists of the two-legged Theropods.  However, the authors of this study discovered that the pisiform had reappeared in early birds, probably as an adaptation for flight, where this small wrist bone permits the transmission of force on the down-stroke of a wing beat whilst restricting flexibility on the up-stroke phase of a wing beat.

The Evolution of the Wrist from Dinosaurs to Birds

From

From dinosaurs to birds ( Dinosauria – Theropoda – Maniraptora – Aves)

Picture Credit: PLOS Biology

The chart shows the colour coded bones and how they changed over time.  For example, the pisiform bone (red) can be found in the Early Jurassic Ornithopod Heterodontosaurus (not a Theropod) and in the Late Triassic Theropod Coelophysis.  This bone is lost in later Theropods such as Allosaurus and Guanlong but evolves again in primitive birds such as Sapeornis.  Sapeornis was about the size of a seagull, it seems to have been a strong flyer.  It lived during the Early Cretaceous.

The colour coded chart also shows how the square-shaped arrangement of bones in a modern bird such as the chicken evolved, with the fusion of the distal carpal 1 and the distal carpal 2 bones (yellow and green).  In the Maniraptoran Falcarius, a member of the Therizinosauroidea and not a direct ancestor of birds, these two bones are distinct.  However, in those Maniraptorans believed to be more closely related to the birds, indeed, the ancestors of Aves, dinosaurs such as Khaan, Deinonychus and Yixianosaurus these two carpals become fused to form the semilunate found in the wrists of modern birds.

WIN, WIN with Everything Dinosaur

Competition Time Again with Everything Dinosaur

It’s competition time again with Everything Dinosaur and we have a signed copy of a fantastic new book all about British dinosaurs to win.  To celebrate the publication of “Dinosaurs of the British Isles” one of the authors of this amazing account about all things Dinosauria, palaeontologist Dean Lomax, has autographed a copy from the very first print run.  Everything Dinosaur is going to give this away to one lucky dinosaur fan.

The Front Cover of “Dinosaurs of the British Isles”

A comprehensive guide to British dinosaurs over 400 pages.

A comprehensive guide to British dinosaurs over 400 pages.

Picture Credit: Siri Scientific Press

This unique publication catalogues all the major dinosaur fossil discoveries from the British Isles.  With a foreward from Dr. Paul Barrett of the Natural History Museum, Dean and his fellow author Nobumichi Tamura provide a comprehensive account on the dinosaurs of the entire British Isles.  With hundreds of photographs, detailed skeletal reconstructions and vivid life illustrations this is a “must have” for every dedicated dinosaur fan, fossil collector and budding palaeontologist.

Competition Details

So our competition is this, if you were to discover a new species of dinosaur in the UK – what name would you call it?  That’s right, we want you to come up with a name for a new species of British dinosaur!

To enter our “name a British dinosaur” competition, a chance to win this truly unique account of the dinosaurs of the British Isles, all you have to do is “Like” Everything Dinosaur’s FACEBOOK page, then leave a comment with your suggested name for a new British dinosaur on the picture of the front cover of  the book (shown above).

Click the logo to visit our Facebook page and to give our page a "like".

Click the logo to visit our Facebook page and to give our page a “like”.

Everything Dinosaur on FACEBOOK: “LIKE” Our Facebook Page and Enter Competition

We will draw the lucky winner at random and the British dinosaur name competition closes on Friday, 31st October 2014.  Good luck to everyone and we can’t wait to see what British dinosaur names you come up!

Terms and Conditions of Name a British Dinosaur Competition

Automated entries are not permitted and will be excluded from the draw.

Only one entry per person.

The prize is non-transferable and no cash alternative will be offered.

The Everything Dinosaur name a British dinosaur competition runs until Friday, October 31st 2014.

Winner will be notified by private message on Facebook or email.

Prize includes postage and packing.

For full terms and conditions contact: Contact Us

To read Everything Dinosaur’s Review of “Dinosaurs of the British Isles”: “Dinosaurs of the British Isles” Reviewed

Can’t wait to get hold of this book!  ”Dinosaurs of the British Isles” can be ordered from Siri Scientific Press: Visit the website

New Armoured Dinosaur from New Mexico

Ziapelta sanjuanensis  From New Mexico but Closely Related to Canadian Ankylosaurs

For some strange reason, the Ankylosaurs don’t seem to be held in quite the same awe as the horned dinosaurs by most members of the public.  We at Everything Dinosaur have our own theory about this.  The horned dinosaurs are much easier for the lay person to recognise.  There is the spectacular spiked frill of Styracosaurus, the peculiar nasal boss of Pachyrhinosaurus, a dinosaur genus which came to greater prominence with the “Walking with Dinosaurs in 3-D” movie.  Then there is of course, the most famous horned dinosaur of all – Triceratops (three horned face).  Members of the Ankylosauridae tend to have the same basic body plan.  They have broad rumps, bony clubs on the end of their tails and of course, all that body armour.  Model makers often find it difficult to distinguish different armoured dinosaurs.  For example, the Saichania replica made by Schleich, to the uninitiated, resembles Ankylosaurus.

The Saichania Model made by Schleich

Saichania means "beautiful"

Saichania means “beautiful”

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

When it comes to films and television documentaries, the Ankylosaurs are rarely given star billing.  So today, in our own small way, we are going to champion the Late Cretaceous armoured dinosaurs by discussing the newest member of their family – Ziapelta, from the San Juan Basin of north-western New Mexico.  The fossils of Ziapelta consist of elements of the skull and incomplete neck rings of spiky bone and fragments of the famous, scaly Ankylosauria body armour (osteoderms).  The material was discovered in 2011 by Robert Sullivan, subsequently excavated by Dr. Sullivan and colleagues and then stored at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science.  Once extracted from its silt and sandstone matrix, the scientists had enough fossil evidence to assign these fossils to a new genera.  A thorough exploration of the surrounding area produced no further post-cranial material.  It seems the head and neck of this armoured dinosaur were separated from the rest of the body prior to burial.  How this came about, one can only speculate.

The fossils were collected from the De-na-zin Member of the Kirtland Formation which as been dated to around 74 to 72 million years ago.  At perhaps as much as six metres long, the herbivorous Ziapelta would have been a very formidable adversary for even the largest tyrannosaurid.

An Illustration of Ziapelta (Z. sanjuanensis)

New Armoured Dinosaur from New Mexico

New Armoured Dinosaur from New Mexico

Picture Credit: Sydney Mohr

To the lay person, the spiky-looking Ziapelta might just look like any other Ankylosauridae, so let’s explain why the skull and neck material have allowed scientists to erect a new genus of armoured dinosaur.  Firstly, elements of the skull have been found, the skull morphology (shape) and composition can be very helpful when looking to identify an animal new to science, dinosaurs included.  Co-author of the scientific paper, which is published in the on line academic journal PLOS One, Victoria Arbour commented:

“The horns on the back of the skull are thick and curve downwards and the snout has a mixture of flat and bumpy scales – an unusual feature for an ankylosaurid.”

Dr. Arbour (University of Alberta) is a renowned expert on all things Ankylosaur, she was invited to examine the fossils along with PhD student Mike Burns (University of Alberta).  The scientists concluded that unlike the armoured dinosaur Nodocephalosaurus kirtlandensis, which is also known from the San Juan Basin and is believed to be related to Asian genera of the Ankylosauridae, Saichania for example, Ziapelta was more closely related to the ankylosaurids of Canada.

The Formidable Spiky Cervical Rings of Ziapelta

Bony and spiky neck armour of Ziapelta.

Bony and spiky neck armour of Ziapelta.

Picture Credit: PLOS One

Dr. Arbour stated:

“Bob Sullivan, who discovered the specimen, showed us pictures and we were really excited by both its familiarity and its distinctiveness.  We were pretty sure right away we were dealing with a new species that was closely related to the Ankylosaurs we find in Alberta.”

Ziapelta has another unusual feature that distinguishes it from other ankylosaurids, a feature that we at Everything Dinosaur find quite endearing considering the size and fearsome nature of these reptiles.  The layout of the scales that make up the top of the skull are often very distinctive.  In the case of Ziapelta, it has a large triangular-shaped scale on the tip of its snout, in contrast to many other ankylosaurids which have a six-sided scale on their snouts

Views of the Skull Fossil of Ziapelta (Z. sanjuanensis)

Views of the skull fossil material of Ziapelta.

Views of the skull fossil material of Ziapelta.

Picture Credit: PLOS One

The photograph above shows various views of the holotype skull material, A – dorsal view (view from the top), B = ventral view (viewed from underneath), C = anterior view (view from the front), D = occipital view (viewed from the rear) and finally E – left lateral view (view of the left side of the skull).  In photograph A, we have highlighted in red the outline of that large triangular scale on the snout (referred to as mnca - median nasal caputegulum to use the formal scientific term).

Dr. Arbour put it very succinctly stating:

“There’s also a distinctive large triangular scale on the snout, where many other ankylosaurids have a hexagonal scale.”

The University of Alberta scientist has specialised in studying Ankylosaurs, especially those specimens which are known from the Late Cretaceous of North America.  Back in 2013, Everything Dinosaur reported on Dr. Arbour’s research into the Ankylosauridae which was helping to redefine this family of dinosaurs.

To read more about this research: When is a Euoplocephalus a Euoplocephalus?

Ankylosaurid fossils make up a small, but significant proportion of the Dinosauria fossil assemblage of southern Alberta, but to date, no ankylosaurid material has been found in the Horseshoe Canyon Formation (lower parts of this formation, the Strathmore and the Drumheller Members) of Alberta.  These rocks are roughly the same age as the strata in which the fossils of Ziapelta were found.  This New Mexico armoured dinosaur is helping palaeontologists to plug a gap in the record of ankylosaurid fossils known from North America.

Dr. Arbour explained:

“The rocks in New Mexico fill in this gap in time, and that’s where Ziapelta occurs.  Could Ziapelta have also lived in Alberta, in the gap where we haven’t found any Ankylosaur fossils yet?  It is possible, but in recent years there has also been increasing evidence that the dinosaurs from the southern part of North America – New Mexico, Texas and Utah, for example, are distinct from their northern neighbours in Alberta.”

There is a lot of evidence to support the idea of “dinosaur provinciality” in North America.  It seems that although the overall mix of dinosaurs was about the same in the regions, the actual genera that made up the dinosaur populations differed markedly.  How or why these distinct faunas came about remains something of a mystery.  The discovery of Ziapelta may help to add more pieces to the picture as palaeontologists strive to solve this puzzle.

New Research Suggests Multicellular Life Started Earlier

Evidence Suggests Multicellular Life 60 Million Years Earlier than Previously Thought

Researchers from the Virginia Tech College of Science in collaboration with counterparts from the Chinese Academy of Sciences have published new data on one of the most fundamental and significant changes that occurred in the history of life on our planet.  At some time during the Proterozoic Eon, multicellular life forms evolved.  These organisms evolved from single-celled entities and in a paper published in the academic journal “Nature”, the researchers propose that multicellular life forms evolved some sixty million years earlier than previously thought.

The team suggest that they have found fossil evidence of complex multicellularity in strata dating from around 600 million years ago, although microscopic fossils are known in Precambrian strata from several locations around the world (Australia, South Africa as well as China), this new research is helping to clarify some long-standing interpretations of micro-fossils.

Professor of Geobiology at the Virginia Tech College of Science, Shuhai Xiao explained the significance of this new fossil discovery:

“This opens up a new door for us to shine some light on the timing and evolutionary steps that were taken by multicellular organisms that would eventually go on to dominate the Earth in a very visible way.  Fossils similar to the ones in this study have been interpreted previously as bacteria, single-cell eukaryotes, algae and transitional forms related to modern animals such as sponges, sea anemones, or bilaterally symmetrical animals.  This paper lets us put aside some of those interpretations.”

It has long been known that simple, multicellular organisms evolved before more complex ones, such as red algae and sponges.  If a biological hierarchy existed (and most scientists believe that this is the case), then at some point in the past, single-celled organisms began to evolve into much larger, more complicated multicellular organisms.  The trouble is, with the paucity of the fossil record and the difficulties involved in interpreting Ediacaran fauna there is a lot of debate amongst biologists and palaeontologists as to when the solo living cells began to fuse into more cohesive, complex forms.

Evidence of Complex Multicellular Organisms from the Doushantuo Formation

Evidence of multicellular structures in 600 million year old rocks.

Evidence of multicellular structures in 600 million year old rocks.

Picture Credit: Virginia Tech College of Science

The researchers examined microscopic samples of phosphorite rocks from the Doushantuo Formation in Guizhou Province (south, central China).  This formation represents extensive marine sediments that were deposited from around 635 million years ago to around 550 million years ago.  They preserve a unique record of microscopic life (Metazoan life – animals) that existed during the Ediacaran geological period, the period in Earth’s history defined as immediately before the Cambrian and that marks the end of the Precambrian or the Proterozoic Eon.

What is an Eukaryote?

The scientists were able to identify a number of three-dimensional multicellular fossils that show signs of cell-to-cell adhesion, cells potentially performing different functions and programmed cell death.  These qualities are all found in complex eukaryotes, the organisms that dominate visible life on Earth to day, the fungi, animals and plants.  Eukaryotes range in size from single-celled amoebas to giant sequoias and blue whales.  We (H. sapiens) belong to the Domain Eukarya.   Eukaryote cells are complex, they have a distinct nucleus surrounded by a membrane.  The nucleus contains most of the genetic material.  The nucleus itself is a specialised area of the cell, it is referred to as an organelle.  Eukaryote cells have a number of specialised areas within them (other organelles as well as a nucleus).

Professor Xiao and his colleagues admit that these are not the first multicellular fossils found, nor are they probably the oldest, but the exceptional preservation permits the researchers to draw certain conclusions.  For example, it had been previously thought that these multicellular characteristics had started to develop much later in Earth’s history, perhaps as recently as 545 million years ago, a time shortly before the great Cambrian explosion.

What was the Cambrian Explosion?

The Cambrian explosion refers to the period in Earth’s history around 545 to 542 million years ago when there was a sudden burst of evolution as recorded by extensive fossil discoveries.  A wide variety of organisms, especially those with hard, mineralised body parts first appear.

This new research may help to shed some light on when multicellularity arose, but the reasons for this significant change remain unclear.  The complex multicellularity shown in these Chinese fossils is not consistent with that seen in simpler forms such as bacteria.  The scientists note, that whilst some earlier theories can be disregarded these three-dimensional structures can be interpreted in many ways and more research is required to construct the complete life cycle of these ancient organisms.

In summary, these fossils may show some affinity towards the stem-groups that led to the first members of the Kingdoms we know as Animalia, Fungi and Plantae, but much more data is needed to establish a more thorough phylogenetic relationship.

“Big Nose” Dinosaur – New Hadrosaur Species Described

Rhinorex condrupus – “King of the Dinosaur Noses”

A team of researchers from Brigham Young Museum of Palaeontology and North Carolina State University (North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences) have described a new type of duck-billed dinosaur, one with an enormous “conk”.    Duck-billed dinosaurs are well-known for sporting elaborate crests, even combs after recent research into the Edmontosaurus genus, but roaming the estuarine habitat of Utah around 75 million years ago was Rhinorex, a duck-billed dinosaur whose genus name translates as “Nose King”.

An Illustration of Rhinorex (R. condrupus)

"King nose" is surprised by a Cretaceous crocodilian.

“King Nose” is surprised by a Cretaceous crocodilian.

Picture Credit: Julius Csotonyi

Terry Gates, a post-doctoral researcher with North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and North Carolina State University, collaborated with Rodney Scheetz (Brigham Young), to analyse the skull of a specimen that had been excavated from the Book Cliffs area of east-central Utah in the 1990′s.  This strata forms part of the Neslen Formation which consists of a series of sedimentary layers of rock representing both marine and terrestrial environments.  The specimen had been studied as associated with the fossil skull bones, were some very well preserved skin impressions.  However, it was only when the scientists constructed the skull that they realised they had a new species on their hands.

Commenting on their findings, which are reported in the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology, Terry Gates stated:

“We had almost the entire skull, which was wonderful, but the preparation was very difficult.  It took two years to dig the fossil out of the sandstone it was embedded in.  It was like digging a dinosaur skull out of a concrete driveway.”

Although the skeleton is far from complete, unique morphologies of the skull indicate that this is a new species of duck-billed dinosaur,  a member of the Hadrosauridae family.  The dinosaur has been named Rhinorex condrupus.  The name translates as “king nose buried in the cliffs”, the genus name makes reference to the unique shape of the nasal bones and premaxilla.  These bones indicate that this plant-eating dinosaur had a large, fleshy nose.  Whilst it is difficult to estimate the exact size of this dinosaur from the fossil bones that have been collected, comparisons with the closely related Gryposaurus and Kritosaurus give a maximum length of around nine metres, with a body weight in excess of three tonnes.  The sandstone sediments represent a low lying, swampy, estuarine environment and to date, Rhinorex is the only substantial Hadrosaur fossil known from this locality.

Terry Gates explained:

“We have found other Hadrosaurs from the same time period [Campanian faunal stage] but located about two hundred miles further south.  They may have been adapted to a different environment.  This discovery gives us a geographic snapshot of the Cretaceous and helps us to place contemporary species in their correct time and place.”

In essence, “King Nose” helps to fill a gap in the hadrosaurid family tree.

Many different types of duck-billed dinosaur existed during the later years of the Cretaceous, scientists have found fossils of hadrosaurids in almost all the Upper Cretaceous fossil bearing terrestrial formations in western North America.  Although the vast majority of these fossils are far from complete, they suggest that the varied Hadrosauridae family evolved as each genus occupied a relatively small geographical area.

The Reconstructed Skull of R. condrupus

The line drawing shows the reconstructed skull from the fossil bones (scale bar 5cm).

The line drawing shows the reconstructed skull from the fossil bones (scale bar 10cm).

Image Credit: Journal of Systematic Palaeontology

The line drawing (A) is labelled with the autapomorphies (unique characters or traits) that distinguish this dinosaur as a new genus, namely the hook-like structure (nap) nasal anteroventral process and the expansion of bone located posteroventrally on the premaxilla (ppd).

Why Such a Big Nose?

The large and fleshy snout remains a bit of a puzzle.  It may not be related to an enhanced sense of smell.

Post-doctoral student Terry postulated:

“The purpose of such a big nose is still a mystery.  If this dinosaur is anything like its relatives then it likely did not have a super sense of smell, but maybe the nose was used as a means of attracting mates, inter-herd recognition or perhaps it supported a large plant-smashing beak.  We are already sniffing out answers to these questions.”

It certainly would have looked a little odd with its enlarged naris.  However, when you consider the weird and wonderful Saurolophines, Parasaurolophus with its enormous, backward sweeping head crest, Edmontosaurus with a fleshy comb on its head and Tsintaosaurus which may have superficially resembled a unicorn, then we think Rhinorex would have fitted right in.

Pterosaur Named after Avatar Dragon

Ikrandraco avatar – New Species of Cretaceous Pterosaur Described

An international team of palaeontologists have described a new species of flying reptile that lived in what is now China during the Cretaceous period, about 120 millions years ago, and named it after the flying dragon-like creatures from the 2009 movie blockbuster directed by James Cameron – Avatar.  The fossils, which have both been laterally compressed, were found at two separate sites, around fifteen miles apart, although one is smaller than the other, they have both been assigned to a single new species - Ikrandraco avatar, the name translates as “Ikran dragon from Avatar”.

One of the Newly Described Pterosaur Fossils

White scale bar =

White scale bar = 5cm

Picture Credit: Scientific Reports/Xiaolin Wang et al

Both fossils come from the Jiufotang Formation of north-eastern China (Liaoning Province), although the exact stratigraphic location for both specimens has been difficult to determine.  The larger of the two specimens indicates a wingspan in excess of 2.4 metres, making this flying reptile slightly larger than a Golden Eagle.  The lower jaw had a distinct, semi-circular crest on its anterior portion, it has been suggested that a large “hook” at the back of this structure helped to support either an enlarged throat or a pouch, broadly similar to that seen in extant Pelicans.   The joint Chinese and Brazilian research team that studied the fossil material and published the scientific paper on the new discoveries, propose that this Pterosaur probably fed on small fish.  It may have flown over the water catching prey by skimming its lower jaw into the water.  Once the jaw connected with a fish, it snapped shut and the fish was stored in the throat pouch prior to swallowing.

This type of feeding, a skimming over the water surface to collect fish approach has been proposed before for members of the Pterosaur family.  To read an article written by Everything Dinosaur team members back in 2007, click on the link here: Pterosaur Feeding Habits – Could they Skim Surface Waters for Fish?

Dr. Alexander Kellner of the Federal Univervisty (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), one of the senior authors of the academic paper and an authority on Cretaceous Pterosaurs commented:

“Ikrandraco didn’t have a crest on the top of its elongated head as many Pterosaurs did.  Behind the lower jaw crest was a hook-like structure that appears to have been the anchor point for the throat pouch.”

The Jiufotang Formation is a member of the extensive Jehol Group and scientists have been able to build up an detailed picture of the environment that existed in this part of the world in the Early Cretaceous.  Although the exact age of the Jiufotang Formation is still debated, most observers now believe that the majority of the strata was laid down in the Early Cretaceous (Aptian faunal stage).

A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur stated:

“It is now thought that the highly fossiliferous rocks of this part of the world were laid down around 120 million years ago.”

Ikrandraco avatar exhibits a number of anatomical characteristics that suggest it was a piscivore.  For example, the teeth in the jaw are small, sharp and pointed, ideal for grabbing and holding slippery fish.  The unusual blade-like crest on the lower jaw reminded the scientists of the crests seen on the dragon like creatures in the 2009 movie Avatar.

Creature from a Film Inspires Pterosaur Name

Note the long, orange coloured crest on the lower jaw

Note the long, orange coloured crest on the lower jaw

Picture Credit: 20th Century Fox

Most flying reptile fossils have been found in marine strata.  However, over the last twenty years or so an increasing amount of Pterosaur fossil material has been found in rocks that were laid down inland.  A number of different Pterosaur types co-existed in this part of China around 120 million years ago, intriguingly, these reptiles shared the air with a large number of primitive, enantiornithine birds.  The habitat was a tropical paradise, with verdant forests and a great many, large bodies of freshwater that teemed with fish.  Fossils found in this region include feathered dinosaurs (Saurischian as well as Ornithischian), early mammals, frogs, turtles, fish and birds.

Commenting on the habitat, Dr. Xiaolin Wang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a co-author of the scientific paper stated:

“It [Ikrandraco] lived in a warm region teeming with life that included feathered dinosaurs, birds, mammals and frogs along with a variety of trees and other plants.”

An Artist’s Impression of Ikrandraco avatar (Early Cretaceous of North-eastern China)

A flock of Ikrandraco Pterosaurs "fishing".

A flock of Ikrandraco Pterosaurs “fishing”.

Picture Credit: Chuang Zhao

Of the 130 or so genera of Pterosaur described to date, a  number of them are known to have had skull or jaw crests.  These crests were either made of bone or formed by a combination of bone and soft tissue.  However, Ikrandraco avatar is unique in that it only had a crest on its lower jaw (mandible).  There is no evidence of a crest on the skull or upper jaw.  Up until now, blade-like crests were known exclusively in the Anhangueria family and in Cimoliopterus cuvier with such crests also noted in Ludodactylus sibbicki (although the evidence of a blade-like crest in this species is debated).

The researchers also note that Cearadactylus atrox (an ornithocheirid from Brazil), also possessed a crest, but only on the front portion of the upper jaw (the premaxilla).  The crest configuration of a crest on the skull but none on the mandible is much more common in the Pterosauria.  In essence, skull crests are far more common than crests on the jaws and a single, lower jaw crest in a species was unheard of until Ikrandraco came along.

The Second Specimen of Ikrandraco avatar

Scale bar = 5cm

Scale bar = 5cm

Picture Credit: Scientific Reports/Xiaolin Wang et al

The photograph and line drawing above shows the second referred specimen of I. avatar.  The crest on the lower jaw with its distinctive “hook” at the back (labelled dcr – dentary crest) can clearly be made out.

As the specimens were found around fifteen miles apart, it could be that these two fossils represent different, but closely related species.  However, the researchers discounted this as both specimens were preserved in a left lateral view and although flattened, the team did not record any observable anatomical differences.  Both specimens revealed evidence of a unique, hook-like structure at the back of the blade-like crest.  This could have served as an anchor point for soft tissues that made up either an extended throat or a pouch.

The presence of throat sacs (pouches) in Pterosaurs has been proposed on numerous occasions.  The suggestions have been made for Late Jurassic species from the famous Solnhofen deposits of southern Germany.  It has been suggested that both Rhamphorhynchus and Pterodactylus had pouches.  In all previously described cases, the pouch starts at the posterior ventral part of the mandible and extends until the level of the third or fourth neck bones (cervical vertebrae).   Due to the difficulties of preservation of such structures, their properties, size and shape are disputed.  Some palaeontologists have proposed that these pouches were similar to those seen in extant Pelicans, others have used the more neutral term of “loose extensible skin”.  These protagonists argue that this gullet structure might have helped them swallow larger prey items whole, as seen in modern day Ostriches, for example.

It is interesting to note that the inspiration for the scientific name came from the movie Avatar. Next year sees the release of Jurassic World, the fourth movie in the extremely successful Jurassic Park franchise.  Although a closely guarded secret, the film is very likely to include a super-sized, apex predator with a large number of teeth.  We at Everything Dinosaur confidently predict that whatever the film makers come up with, it will one day be the inspiration behind the naming of another prehistoric animal that is new to science.

Ancient Mammal Named after Mick Jagger

Jaggermeryx naida – “Jagger’s Water Nymph”

It resembled something akin to a skinny hippopotamus crossed with a long-legged pig and spent most of the time in the warm, freshwaters of tropical North Africa, but the biggest claim to fame for a newly described member of the Anthracotheres (extinct family of hoofed mammals), is that it has been named after the lead singer of the Rolling Stones.  Sir Mick Jagger is famous for his big mouth and lips and it seems these are traits he shared with Jaggermeryx naida, which roamed the ancient waterways of Egypt some 19 million years ago (Burdigalian faunal stage of the Miocene epoch).  The name means “Jagger’s water nymph” and we will avoid any references to the Rolling Stone’s front man and his age.

Views of the Jaw Fragment of J. naida

Various views of the fossil material.

Various views of the fossil material.

Picture Credit: Greg Gunnell (Duke Lemur Centre)

The picture above shows views of the jawbone fragment that led to the identification of this new species of hoofed mammal.  Picture 1 is a view of inside of the jaw (medial), picture 2 shows the same fossil but in lateral view (outside of the jaw) and picture 3 shows the same fossil viewed from the top (dorsal) view.

An international team of scientists have been carefully excavating an area of the Qattara Depression (north-western Egypt).   Although the Qattara depression forms part of the Libyan desert today and it is famous for its dunes, salt lakes and arid terrain (it was the setting of the 1958 film “Ice Cold in Alex”), back in the Miocene epoch, much of North Africa was covered in lush swamplands and a number of Anthracotheres thrived.  The paper reporting on the excavation of the Anthracothere specimens has been published this week in the academic “Journal of Paleontology”, (note the American form of spelling).

The site, known as Wadi Moghra has provided the highest diversity of Anthracothere fossils when compared to other locations of Miocene aged deposits.  A spokes person from Everything Dinosaur commented that at least six different types of these hoofed mammals are now known to have been living in this part of the world nineteen million years ago.

Associate Professor Ellen Miller, of Wake Forest University (North Carolina), one of the co-authors of the scientific paper stated:

“We imagine its lifestyle was like that of a water deer, standing in water and foraging for plants along the river bank.”

 Ellen Miller (Wake Forest University) at Work Examining Fossil Material at the Site

Often palaeontology can involve lying down on the job.

Often palaeontology can involve lying down on the job.

 Picture Credit: Wake Forest University

The “Jagger” Connection

The site has revealed a number of vertebrate fossils, not just artiodactyls (even-toed mammals), but the fossilised remains of catfish, turtles and a number of water birds have also been found.   The fossil jaw fragments showed a series of eight holes.  These have been interpreted as having been the sites of large nerves that fed information back to the brain from the lower lip and snout.  Jaggermeryx naida probably had large lips (just like the Rolling Stones singer) and a super-sensitive lower lip and snout.  These adaptations would have enabled this herbivore to forage for nutritious plants in the muddy waters of this ancient Egyptian landscape.

A sensitive lower lip and snout.

A sensitive lower lip and snout.

Picture Credit: Wake Forest University

Associate Professor Miller added that the first fossils of this animal that they have described were found back in 1918, but at the time it was not recognised that these fossils represented a new type of Anthracothere.

She commented that when the team asked fellow researchers had they seen similar looking bones elsewhere:

“When people kept telling us no, we knew we were really on to something.  They’ve [Jaggermeryx naida] have been around for nearly a Century, we just didn’t know what they were.”

Mick Jagger is not the first celebrity to have a prehistoric animal named after him.   Many famous people have been honoured in this way.  For example, last summer (June 2013), Everything Dinosaur reported on the fact that an Eocene lizard had been named after Jim Morrison (lead singer of the Doors).  Earlier in 2013, we reported on a new type of Cambrian Arthropod being named after the actor Johnny Depp.

To read about the Eocene lizard named after Jim Morrison: Rock Star Honoured

To read about the Cambrian invertebrate named in honour of Johnny Depp: Film Star Honoured by Having Arthropod Fossil Named After Him

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