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The “Grandfather” of All Tortoises and Turtles

German Fossil Discovery Could be Transitional Fossil

How did the turtle get its shell?  It sounds like the opening line from one of Aesop’s fables but in reality this question has been vexing palaeontologists for the best part of two hundred years.  Thanks to some remarkable fossil discoveries from southern Germany (Baden-Württemberg) and the work of scientists from the Natural History Museum of Stuttgart and the Smithsonian Institute (National Museum of Natural History, Washington D.C.), we might be one step closer to solving this puzzle.

About thirty-five miles north-east of the city of Stuttgart, lies the picturesque town of Vellberg, there are a large number of quarries extracting Triassic-aged limestone and other materials in this locality, as in this part of the Germany, there are extensive outcrops of Lower Keuper sedimentary material.  In a band of claystone, which represents strata from the Erfurt Formation, (Lower Keuper stratigraphic unit), scientists have excavated eighteen specimens of a small reptile, the fossils of which, could represent a transitional fossil between basal Chelonians (turtles and tortoises) and the types of turtles and tortoises we see today.

The claystone represents sediments deposited at the bottom of a large lake that existed some 240 million years ago in the Middle Triassic ((Ladinian faunal stage).  Although the claystone layer is relatively thin, no more than fifteen centimetres deep at its thickest part, palaeontologists have been exploring these rocks since 1985 as the fossils they provide give a unique insight into the fauna of this part of the world a few million years after the End Permian extinction event, at around the time of the very first dinosaurs.

Dr. Rainer Schoch at the Excavation Site (Erfurt Formation)

Dr. Rainer Schoch working at the claystone bed.

Dr. Rainer Schoch working at the claystone bed.

Picture Credit: Dr. Rainer Schoch/Natural History Museum of Stuttgart

The reptile has been named Pappochelys rosinae, the genus name translates from the Greek meaning “grandfather turtle”, the species name honours Isabell Rosin of the Natural History Museum of Stuttgart as she was responsible for preparing the fossil specimens for study.  This little reptile measured around twenty centimetres in length, the long tail made up about fifty percent of the total body length.  Anatomical features indicate that this reptile is a transitional animal from the more primitive and older Eunotosaurus known from strata dating from approximately 260 million years ago and the more recent Odontochelys, whose fossils come from Chinese rocks and date from about 220 million years ago.

Pappochelys could be an intermediary form in between Eunotosaurus and Odontochelys.  It helps to fill the forty million year gap in Chelonian fossils.  Whilst Odontochelys, lacked the full turtle shell (carapace) it did possess a hard, flat underbelly (plastron).  P. rosinae lacks a plastron, but the gastralia (belly ribs) on its underside are broader and closer to fusing than in Eunotosaurus.

To read about the discovery of Eunotosaurus: An Insight into Chelonian Evolution

Associated Post Cranial Material of Pappochelys rosinae

Post cranial fossil material including the thickened trunk ribs.

Post cranial fossil material including the thickened trunk ribs.

Picture Credit: Natural History Museum of Stuttgart

Hans-Dieter Sues, (Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology, at the National Museum of Natural History, Washington D.C.) explained:

“In the case of Pappochelys, we see that its belly was protected by an array of rod-like bones, some of which are already fused to each other.  Such a stage in the evolution of the turtle shell has long been predicted by embryological research on present-day turtles but never observed in fossils – until now.”

An Illustration of Pappochelys and Outline Plan of Key Bones

Illustration and outline plan of bones - ribs (yellow), gastralia (red), shoulder girdle (green), pelvis (brown), femur and vertebrae (mustard)

Illustration and outline plan of bones – ribs (mustard), gastralia (red), shoulder girdle (green), pelvis (brown), femur and vertebrae (yellow)

Picture Credit: Natural History Museum of Stuttgart

The diagram shows the thickened trunk ribs of this ancient reptile and the lacustrine (lake) deposit might provide a clue as to why such creatures eventually evolved a hard shell.  The bones are thickened and more dense, if this animal was semi-aquatic, then the heavier bones would help to provide ballast and counter the animal’s natural buoyancy in water.  The more robust, heavier bones might have helped this reptile to dive deeper and to stay underwater for longer.  The pelvis and the shoulder girdle are very similar to those found in Odontochelys, which is regarded by many scientists as the earliest true turtle.

A Dorsal view of the Bauplan Showing Modified Ribs and Gastralia

Expanded ribs (yellow) gastralia (red)

Expanded ribs (mustard) gastralia (red)

 

Picture Credit: Natural History Museum of Stuttgart

The picture above shows a skeletal reconstruction of Pappochelys.  The ribs (mustard) and the gastralia (red).

Dr. Sues outlined the anatomical developments leading to modern-day turtles that could be traced from the fragmentary fossils found at Vellberg.  The paper on these specimens, which Dr. Sues co-authored has just been published in “Nature”.

He stated:

“It [Pappochelys] has real beginnings of the belly shell developing, little rib-like structures beginning to fuse together into larger plates and then ultimately making up the belly shell [plastron].”

Where do the Tortoises and Turtles Fit in with Other Reptile Groups?

The origins of the Chelonia (turtles and tortoises) remain controversial.  More modern Chelonia, such as those genera still around today do not have teeth.  Instead, they have a beak.  Pappochelys had teeth, (some cranial material including jawbones and teeth have been found) and it is known that Odontochelys also had teeth (the genus name translates as “toothed turtle with half a shell”).  However, scientists have long argued where in the Order Reptilia the Chelonia actually sit.  They are regarded as a very ancient group of reptiles.  It had been thought that turtles and tortoises were descended from ancient Parareptiles, but the skull bones of Pappochelys reveal an affinity to the Diapsid reptiles, a wide-ranging group that includes lizards, snakes, crocodiles as well as extinct marine reptiles and the Dinosauria.

It had been thought that tortoises and turtles were Anapsids, lacking temporal fenestrae (holes behind the eye socket in the skull, but the Pappochelys cranial material shows a pair of openings in the skull behind each eye socket.  This suggests that the Chelonia are not descended from Parareptiles but have phylogenetic affinities to the Diapsids.  This places them in the same clade as lizards and snakes.

Year 1 Children Become “Dinosaur Detectives”

Dinosaur Detectives at St Joseph’s RC Primary

Year 1 at St Joseph’s RC Primary had the opportunity to become “dinosaur detectives” on Wednesday afternoon as a team member from Everything Dinosaur joined their class to conduct a dinosaur workshop in their school.  The afternoon session was split into two parts.  Firstly, the children joined our dinosaur expert in the hall for a tactile exploration of fossils and all things dinosaur.  One of the key learning objectives as outlined by Miss Stanton (class teacher), was to encourage the children with their writing and vocabulary development.  The focus was on thinking of adjectives to help describe the different dinosaurs and to express just how big some of them were.  The lesson plan we had prepared dove-tailed nicely into the scheme of work the children had been undertaking in the morning.  There were some wonderful examples of great use of adjectives to describe Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus rex in the children’s work books.

Dinosaurs Help Children Develop Their Vocabulary

Children gain confidence using adjectives.

Children gain confidence using adjectives.

Picture Credit: St Joseph’s RC Primary School/Everything Dinosaur

The children had lots of questions about dinosaurs, we were even asked about Pterosaurs, so once we returned to the office we were able to send over some images of flying reptiles to help the teaching team explain what these animals looked like.  In addition, we were asked “which dinosaur is best?”  What a super question!  Rather than have our dinosaur expert answer it, we challenged the class to hold their own “dinosaur beauty contest” and vote for their favourite.

We emailed over a set of six different dinosaur scale drawings and we put a special fact on each drawing about that specific prehistoric animal.  We then challenged Miss Stanton and her enthusiastic teaching assistant Mrs Sheikh, to get each child to pick their own personal favourite.  Could the children create a table to display the results?  What about making a line graph to show the voting preferences?

Microraptor – One of the Dinosaurs Chosen for the Classroom Vote

A great way to introduce things like tally counts and line graphs.

A great way to introduce things like tally counts and line graphs.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The second part of the dinosaur workshop was located in the classroom.  We showed the children several fossil teeth and then we got them to measure various dinosaur footprints and to compare the size of dinosaur’s feet to their own hands.  Lots of measuring cubes were used in this exercise and the children added and subtracted to work out how many one centimetre cubes bigger/smaller their own hands were when compared to the footprints.

This is the first time that the teaching team responsible for Year 1 have introduced a dinosaur themed term topic.  The children were really enthusiastic and keen to learn about prehistoric animals.  As a topic it is proving flexible enough to fit in with the demands of the new curriculum.

To learn more about Everything Dinosaur’s work in schools: Contact Everything Dinosaur

A Colourful Dinosaur Theme “Wow” Wall

A colourful dinosaur themed display.

A colourful dinosaur themed display.

Picture Credit:  St Joseph’s RC Primary School/Everything Dinosaur

All to soon it was time to prepare for the end of the school day, but we did promise the children that when we got back to the Everything Dinosaur office we would email over additional teaching resources to help Miss Stanton, Mrs Sheikh and Year 1 to continue their “Dinosaur Detectives” topic.

Finally Getting to Look at the Face of Hallucigenia

Bizarre Hallucigenia Gets a Face

Growing up with an interest in fossils and prehistoric life, for many team members at Everything Dinosaur, meant that during their formative years, one of the most bizarre of all the animals that are known to have existed, would periodically enter their lives.  The mysterious Hallucigenia, fossils of which are found in the famous Burgess Shale deposits of British Columbia, would have a new research paper published and there would be a fresh perspective on this most peculiar looking creature.

Fossils of the Very Mysterious and Bizarre Hallucigenia

A fossil of Hallucigenia (Burgess Shale)

A fossil of Hallucigenia (Burgess Shale)

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The facial features and the mouth of this little animal have finally been revealed.  A study conducted by scientists Dr. Martin Smith (Cambridge University) and Dr. Jean-Bernard Caron (Curator of Invertebrate Palaeontology, Royal Ontario Museum, Canada), has led to some of the mysteries surrounding Hallucigenia being resolved.  For example, we know now which end was the head and which end was the tail.  In addition, electron microscopy has shown that Hallucigenia had a ring of teeth inside its mouth and a further set of teeth running down its throat.  These teeth in the throat probably served as ratchets.  Palaeontologists think that the tube like body of Hallucigenia was designed to digest food that it sucked into the opening at the front of its body, the simple mouth.  The teeth in the throat may have helped to push food particles down the gut as well as preventing food from being sucked out again as the animal pumped in mud and water as part of its feeding mechanism.  This previously unidentified feature (a throat lined with needle-like teeth), helps connect this Cambrian sea creature to extant Velvet Worms and the evolution of the Arthropods, which today make up more than 80% of all the animal life on Earth.

Commenting on the discovery of Hallucigenia’s facial features, Dr. Smith explained:

“When we put it into the electron microscope, we were delighted to see not just a tiny pair of eyes looking back at us, but also beneath them a really cheeky semi-circular smile.  It was as if the fossil was grinning at us at the secrets that it had been hiding.”

This new study into Hallucigenia, the first fossils of which were found by Charles Walcott who discovered the Burgess Shale fossil site in 1909, has also solved another mystery.  Although, specimens are relatively rare in the Burgess Shale biota, a number of fossils that have been found show a tear shaped blob preserved adjacent to the body.  For some years, this was thought to be the head, or possibly some sort of appendage of the animal.  However, the new paper, published in the journal “Nature”, identifies these strange blobs as gut contents.

Dr. Smith stated:

“What our study shows is that it [the blob] has a different composition from the animal.  And rather than representing part of its body, it actually represents decay fluid – the contents of its guts – squeezed out as the animal was buried and fossilised.”

 What was that Mysterious Blob?

A Hallucigenia specimen (Royal Ontario Museum).

A Hallucigenia specimen (Royal Ontario Museum).

Picture Credit: Royal Ontario Museum/Dr. Jean Bernard Caron with additional annotation by Everything Dinosaur

The arrow in the picture shows the location of the strange blob.

Compared to the bountiful fossils of other species associated with the Burgess Shale Formation, Hallucigenia fossils are rare, so much so that the first species to be formerly described in the Hallucigenia genus was named H. sparsa. It was English palaeontologist Simon Conway Morris who established the Hallucigenia genus after he reviewed the earlier Walcott study.  Walcott had thought that this little animal was some form of early bristle worm (polychaete worm), like a Lugworm, but Conway Morris decided that this creature was so unique it deserved its own genus.  He established the genus Hallucigenia, so named for its “bizarre and dream-like appearance”.   Like a number of other Burgess Shale animals, Hallucigenia was thought to be an evolutionary experiment that left no descendants.   The Cambridge University/Royal Ontario Museum team have been able to map, approximately where the alien-looking Hallucigenia fits into the Kingdom Animalia.  It seems to be a precursor to the Velvet Worms (Onychophorans), that still can be found in the tropics today.  Velvet Worms, Arthropods and Tardigrades (Water Bears), belong to a huge group of animals that all moult, these are called Ecdysozoans.  The researchers were able to establish that Hallucigenia was not the common ancestor of these moulting animals but that it was an ancestor of the extant Onychophorans.  Finding the mouth and the  pharyngeal teeth (teeth in the throat), helped the scientists to determine that Velvet Worms originally had the same configuration, but these were eventually lost.

Dr. Smith explained:

The early evolutionary history of this huge group is pretty much uncharted.  While we know that the animals in this group are united by the fact that they moult, we haven’t been able to find many physical characteristics that unite them”.

Dr. Jean-Bernard Caron added:

“It turns out that the ancestors of moulting animals were much more anatomically advanced than we ever could have imagined, ring-like, plate-bearing worms with an armoured throat and a mouth surrounded by spines.  We previously thought that neither Velvet Worms nor their ancestors had teeth.  But Hallucigenia tells us that actually, Velvet Worm ancestors had them, and living forms just lost their teeth over time.”

Team members at Everything Dinosaur have a lot of time for the Hallucigenia genus.  Most of the individuals are much smaller than people imagine.  The largest specimens are around thirty-five millimetres in length and when Conway Morris published his research in 1979, it turns out that his study depicted this animal the wrong way up and back to front.  Conway Morris illustrated Hallucigenia as walking on stiff spine-like legs, with a single row of tentacles waving around on its back.  A model was created that showed this new view of Hallucigenia.  The model can be seen at the start of the Royal Ontario Museum video featuring Dr. Caron who explains about the latest research.  Although, anatomically not correct, the model remains a curiosity that is kept at the Museum along with a large number of Burgess Shale specimens including many of the fossils collected by Charles Walcott.

The Original Simon Conway Morris Model of Hallucigenia

The very alien-looking Hallucigenia model.

The very alien-looking Hallucigenia model.

Picture Credit: Royal Ontario Museum

The bulbous head turns out to be the rear end of the creature and thanks to this new research (plus some similar types of Chinese fossils that have been extensively studied), we have a very different interpretation of this marine creature.  It looks quite graceful and delicate.  A picture of Charles Walcott can be seen in the background.

Based on the New Research The Reconstructed Hallucigenia

Scientists have been able to stare into the face of Hallucigenia for the first time.

Scientists have been able to stare into the face of Hallucigenia for the first time.

Picture Credit: Danielle Dufault

Those spines, once thought to be legs probably evolved as a number of predators shared Hallucigenia’s marine habitat.  The spines would have been an effective deterrent against attacks from nektonic Arthropods.

Hallucigenia remains one of the most remarkable animals within the Burgess Shale biota, but thanks to this new study some of the mysteries surrounding it have been solved.  It remains an enigmatic little creature and after more than a Century since its discovery it is still capable of springing a few surprises.  The story of Hallucigenia and how it has been interpreted and reinterpreted over the years provides a fascinating example of how new techniques and study methods can lead to a reinterpretation of the fossil evidence.

Year 1 Go “Walking with Dinosaurs”

“Walking with Dinosaurs” with Year 1

Class One and Class Two (Year 1), at Thorpe Hesley Primary School (South Yorkshire), have been studying dinosaurs over the summer term and Everything Dinosaur were invited in to help enthuse pupils and teachers alike with the term topic entitled “Walking with Dinosaurs”.  The children had lots of questions about prehistoric animals and over the course of the two workshops, our dinosaur expert did his best to answer them all.  We had some super questions from the children and even the teachers asked a few questions.  For example, Mrs Oakley, the teacher of Class Two asked what colour were dinosaurs?

As part of the scheme of work prepared for this topic, the dedicated teaching staff had laid out a number of dinosaur themed workstations for the children.  There was part of the well-organised classroom dedicated to dinosaur art and the children were encouraged to have a go at drawing dinosaurs.  There were some lovely examples of the children’s drawings on display.

A Well Thought Out Workstation Encouraging Children to Draw

Well thought out dinosaur themed workstation

Well thought out dinosaur themed workstation

Picture Credit: Thorpe Hesley Primary/Everything Dinosaur

The workstation was well lit, and roomy.  All the resources were handy to help the children with their illustrations.  Mr Docherty, told us about a little boy who loved Megalodon “C. megalodon“,  was an extinct type of shark, that may have measured more than fifteen metres long.  The children looked at some super-sized shark fossils as we explored how fossils feel and thought of suitable adjectives for them.   In addition, amongst the prehistoric animal extension resources Everything Dinosaur emailed over to the school after our visit, we made sure to include a Megalodon fact sheet and scale drawing.

We also included a set of marine reptile drawing materials, as well as pictures of Ammonites so that the children could create their very own prehistoric seascape.

Dinosaurs Appeal to Kinaesthetic Learners

Lots of tactile handling of different materials.

Lots of tactile handling of different materials.

Picture Credit: Thorpe Hesley Primary/Everything Dinosaur

Extension Ideas and Activities

Our dinosaur expert explored herbivores and carnivores and we looked at dinosaur teeth.  Some of the children’s names are very similar to the names of prehistoric animals, this permitted us to send over some additional information on armoured dinosaurs such as Lexovisaurus and Scelidosaurus harrisonii.  Perhaps these additional extension resources sent over to Mrs Oakley and Miss Moran (Class One teacher), will inspire the budding young palaeontologists to have a go at designing their very own dinosaur.  If they do, we would want to see lots of labels on their model or drawing, an opportunity to utilise more adjectives.  As for the colours the children choose, the information we emailed over to Mrs Oakley in answer to her question about dinosaur colouration may help.  The children could also be encouraged to think about habitat and environment.  What colour might a plant-eating dinosaur living in a forest be?  What colour might a meat-eating dinosaur that lived in a desert be?  Can we introduce ideas like camouflage, perhaps looking at animals alive today to help inspire the classes?

For further information on Everything Dinosaur’s work in schools: Contact Everything Dinosaur

Sir Richard Owen

The pronunciation of prehistoric animals and all the terms that palaeontologists use can be a bit of a challenge.  Hopefully, the guide we gave Mrs Marshall (teaching assistant) will help.  Having met a young boy called Owen we explained that the word “dinosaur” was first coined by an Englishman (Richard Owen, later Sir Richard Owen).  We sent across some information all about this famous Victorian scientist, who recently had a blue plaque erected at his former school in Lancaster.  May be the children could create their very own blue plaque for Thorpe Hesley Primary, to celebrate studying “Walking with Dinosaurs”.

Blue Plaque Erected at the Former School of Sir Richard Owen

Sir Richard Owen honoured.

Sir Richard Owen honoured.

Picture Credit: LRGS

The Year 1 teaching team which also includes Mr Meares, Mrs Burns along with school visitor Mrs Hawkins even provided the children with some bones of animals to explore.  Our dinosaur expert enjoyed looking at the various skulls of farm animals that had been brought in.  We even recognised the T. rex soft toy that had been placed next to the cranial material (skulls and jaws).  We are not sure what a real Tyrannosaurus rex would have made of it all.

Year 1 Children Can Explore the Bones of Animals

Wonderful use of different materials to show different properties.

Wonderful use of different materials to show different properties.

Picture Credit: Thorpe Hesley Primary School

New Sauropodomorph Dinosaur from South Africa

Sefapanosaurus – Another Piece in the Dinosaur Jigsaw Puzzle

Yet another example of a new genus of dinosaur found lurking in a museum collection, this time from South Africa.  Team members at Everything Dinosaur often state that one of the best places to find a new dinosaur species is not out in the field but by re-examining fossil material already within a museum’s collection.  New techniques have enabled palaeontologists to gain a much better understanding of known fossils, many of which might have been excavated and prepared decades earlier.  As the number of dinosaur discoveries grows, so scientists can use new fossil finds to compare and contrast already studied specimens, this can provide fresh insight and help to place a museum specimen into a wider context within the Dinosauria.

That’s exactly what happened in the case of the newly described Sauropodomorph dinosaur named Sefapanosaurus zastronensis.   The team of South African and Argentinian palaeontologists who made this discovery, re-classified the fossils, which had been thought to represent another South African Sauropodomorph called Aardonyx (A. celestae).  Aardonyx had been named and described six years ago.

To read Everything Dinosaur’s article announcing the discovery of Aardonyx celestae: New Basal Sauropod Described

Researchers from South Africa’s University of Cape Town, the University of Witwatersrand, Museo de La Plata (Argentina) and Museo Paleontológico Egidio Feruglio (also Argentina) have published a scientific paper about this new dinosaur in the Zoological Journal of the Linnaean Society.  It is hoped that S. zastronensis will help palaeontologists to better understand the phylogenetic relationships between basal Sauropodomorpha and their spread and diversity during the Late Triassic/Early Jurassic.

A Reconstruction of Sefapanosaurus zastronensis

The bones shaded in grey represent actual fossil material.

The bones shaded in grey represent actual fossil material.

Picture Credit: University of Witwatersrand

The fossils represent at least four individuals and consist of post cranial material (limb bones, foot bones and some vertebrae) and they were found back in the 1930′s and resided in the collection of the Evolutionary Studies Institute (University of Witwatersrand).  The Evolutionary Studies Institute houses the largest fossil collection in Africa, there are over 30,000 catalogued plant fossils and approximately 6,000 fossils from the Karoo Basin, most of the fossils originate from Africa, but there are a number of important specimens from elsewhere in the world housed at the Institute.

The Sefapanosaurus fossils were excavated from the Upper Elliot Formation (Zastron locality), the strata in this area dates from the very end of the Triassic to the beginning of the Jurassic geological period.   The fossils are estimated to be around 200 million years old and they were located more than one hundred miles south of where the Aardonyx celestae fossils were found.

One of the most distinctive features of this dinosaur are the ankle bones (astragalus), they are shaped like a cross.  This unique autapomorphy (distinct anatomical feature), accounts for this dinosaur’s name.  The genus name comes from the word “sefapano” in the local Sesotho dialect, it means “cross”.  The species name honours the small agricultural town of Zastron, which is close to where the fossils were found.

The Incomplete Left Foot (Pes) showing the Ankle Bones (Proximal View)

Holotype fossil material (386) showing ankle bones.

Holotype fossil material (386) showing ankle bones.

Picture Credit: University of Witwatersrand with additional annotation from Everything Dinosaur

One of the unique morphologies found in the fossil bones is the tall ascending process of the astragalus (ankle bone).

Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan (University of Cape Town), one of the co-authors of the scientific paper stated:

“The discovery of Sefapanosaurus shows that there were several of these transitional early Sauropodomorph dinosaurs roaming around southern Africa about 200 million years ago.”

A subsequent phylogenetic analysis of basal Sauropods from South American and southern Africa places Sefapanosaurus within the group of Sauropodomorphs more closely related to Sauropods than to the genus Massopondylus (Sauropodiformes).

Argentinian palaeontologist and lead author, Dr. Alejandro Otero, explained that Sefapanosaurus helps to fill in the gap between the earliest Sauropodomorphs and the gigantic Sauropods that are so well known, dinosaurs such as Brontosaurus, Apatosaurus, and Brachiosaurus from the Late Jurassic.

“Sefapanosaurus constitutes a member of the growing list of transitional Sauropodmorph dinosaurs from Argentina and South Africa that are increasingly telling us how they diversified.”

The discovery of Sefapanosaurus and other recent dinosaur fossil finds in the southern hemisphere reveals that the diversity of plant-eating dinosaurs in Africa and South America was remarkably high in the early Jurassic, a time when these two continents were joined together as part of a single super-continent known as Gondwana.

A picture of the Right Scapula (shoulder blade)

Scale bar =

Scale bar = 8cm

Picture Credit: University of Witwatersrand

Early European Had Close Neanderthal Ancestor

Early Modern European Humans Interbred with Neanderthals

The very last of the Neanderthals may have died out some 28,000 years ago but their legacy lives on as the modern human genome (Homo sapiens) contains traces of Neanderthal genetic material.  The Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) are the closest related species to our own, we share a common ancestor but this fact alone does not account for the one to three percent contribution to the genome of Eurasians, scientists believe that some time in the recent past these two species interbred.  It seems that interbreeding between these two related species may have taken place much more recently than previously thought.  A new scientific paper published in the journal “Nature” reports on the study of an ancient human jawbone, this research suggests that interbreeding took place as recently as some 40,000 years ago.

The Ancient Human Jawbone Used in the Genetic Study

DNA analysis reveals very recent Neanderthal ancestor.

DNA analysis reveals a very recent Neanderthal ancestor.

Picture Credit: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology/Svante Pääbo

A robust human mandible was discovered in a cave system close to the town of Anina in south-western Romania back in 2002.  The cave contains a huge amount of mammal bones including large numbers of Cave Bears (Ursus spelaeus) which probably used one of the chambers in the cave system as a hibernation den.  The explorers found that a number of bones had been placed on nearby rocks, this suggested human activity and sure enough, the remains of early modern humans were found.  A beautifully preserved human jawbone (mandible) and part of a skull were discovered.  Radiocarbon dating estimates that the jawbone is around 37,800 years old, making these fossil materials the oldest modern human bones to have been found in Europe.  The cave, was called the “Peștera cu Oase”, which translates from the Romanian to mean “the cave of bones”.

Even if more conservative dating methods are used, the human remains come out at between 37,000 and 42,000 years old.  The jaw is definitely H. sapiens as it shows a number of modern human morphologies including a prominent chin.  However, a genetic analysis carried out by an international team of researchers which included scientists from Harvard Medical School, the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, indicates that between six to nine percent of this person’s genome originates from Neanderthals.  This is far greater than any other human sequenced to date.  As large segments of this individual’s chromosomes are Neanderthal in origin, it suggests that a Neanderthal was among this person’s most recent ancestors, perhaps just four to six generations back in this Romanian’s family tree.  This new study provides substantial evidence that the first modern humans that arrived in Europe interbred with local Neanderthals.

Put simply, the person whose jawbone was found in the cave may have had a Neanderthal great grandparent!

A Researcher Carefully Extracts Fragments of Bone for the DNA Analysis

For their analysis the researchers used 35 milligrams of bone powder from the jawbone.

For their analysis the researchers used 35 milligrams of bone powder from the jawbone.

Picture Credit: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology/Svante Pääbo

A previous study had suggested that early modern humans migrating out of Africa mixed with Neanderthals in the Middle East between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago.  Modern humans spread eastwards into Asia and westwards into Europe.  Eventually, it was our species that spread to all parts of the world, the last of the Neanderthals dying out around 28,000 years ago.

One of the lead authors of the report Qiaomei Fu (Chinese Academy of Sciences), stated:

“The data from the jawbone imply that humans mixed with Neanderthals not just in the Middle East but in Europe as well.”

Svante  Pääbo (Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology), added:

“It is such a lucky and unexpected thing to get DNA from a human who was so closely related to a Neanderthal.”

The research team had to very carefully sift out all the contaminating DNA before being able to assess the presence of remnants of Neanderthal genetic material.  Most of the contamination was caused by microbial DNA in contact with the bone whilst it was in the cave, most of the hominin DNA recorded came from researchers who had handled the fossil bone.  Only a very tiny proportion of the genetic material analysed could be traced back to its Neanderthal origins.

The robust jaw and teeth do show some Neanderthal morphologies, this is to be expected given the close relatedness of this person to H. neanderthalensis.  The scientists hope to continue their studies and identify more Neanderthal genetic material from ancient human remains.  This will help them map potential Neanderthal/human interactions across Europe and Asia.

2,000 “Likes” on Everything Dinosaur’s Facebook Page

2,000 “Likes” on Facebook for Everything Dinosaur

Over the last few days or so, the Everything Dinosaur Facebook page has passed the 2,000 “likes” mark.  We just want to say a very big thank you to all our customers, readers and dinosaur enthusiasts who have given our page a “like”.  Every “like” is greatly appreciated and unlike many companies, we have never purchased “likes” or manipulated the site to add fake likes.  All these endorsements have come from people who genuinely think that we are good at what we do.

Two Thousand “Likes” on Everything Dinosaur’s Facebook Page

Two thousand likes on Everything Dinosaur's Facebook page.

Two thousand likes on Everything Dinosaur’s Facebook page.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Recently, there have been a number of studies undertaken into how businesses can purchase endorsements such as positive reviews, favourable blog articles, Facebook “likes” and so forth.  BBC journalists have even tracked down individuals who have posted up company reviews and been paid for doing so.  We at Everything Dinosaur believe that good companies don’t need to mislead customers and potential new customers in this way.  We let our good service and hard work speak for us.

To read a recent article about misleading company and product reviews being posted online: Fake Reviews Mislead Customers

We are truly grateful for all the Facebook “likes” that we receive.  We really enjoy posting up pictures, articles and information on our Facebook page, we have lots of friends and last year we accumulated 1,580 “likes” so we are truly honoured to have added nearly five hundred more this year.  At Everything Dinosaur we believe that Facebook “likes” have to be earned and not purchased we shall continue to work hard to earn every appreciative “like” that we receive.

At the start of 2015 we set ourselves a few “targets” for Everything Dinosaur’s Facebook page, let’s see how we are doing:

Targets:

  1. Increase “likes” to “2,000″ by the end of 2015 (we have reached this target by the third week of June)
  2. Increase the number of friends we have on Facebook to 400 by the end of the year (gaining more Facebook friends all the time and we should pass this target later on this year)
  3. Run at least three competitions and free giveaways to show our gratitude to our Facebook fans (just like we did last year), a new competition will be announced shortly
We believe customer service is the key to getting "likes".

Target for 2015 was 2,000 earned “likes”.

Feel free to “like” our page by clicking on the Facebook logo – that would be brilliant!!

Perhaps we should reset our Facebook “likes” target for 2015 to 2, 500!

Dinosaur Day with Year 1

Abbey Hey Primary Academy and Dinosaurs

Another busy week with lots of dinosaur workshops with team members travelling to Staffordshire, Derbyshire and Lancashire.  There was just enough time to squeeze in a trip to Abbey Hey Primary Academy to meet all the budding young palaeontologists in Year 1.  The children in classes 1Wh, 1G and 1W have been studying dinosaurs and learning all about these amazing prehistoric creatures with the help of their enthusiastic teaching team.  Out in the playground our dinosaur expert spotted some wonderful dinosaur shaped chalk boards

Playground Jurassic Park

Fun and creative dinosaur themed playgrounds.

Fun and creative dinosaur themed playground accessories.

Picture Credit: Abbey Hey Primary Academy/Everything Dinosaur

With three classes to teach there was no time to lose, so it was straight into the Infants Hall to conduct the first dinosaur workshop with Miss Whitty’s class (1Wh) assisted by Miss Ahmed and Mr Jackson.  We were most impressed with the pictures that had been posted up onto Abbey Hey’s school website.  Clearly the children enjoyed themselves and they certainly had learned a lot.

Next it was onto class 1G, to visit the children in their classroom and to conduct a second dinosaur and fossil themed session.  Our dinosaur expert marvelled at the wonderful examples of dinosaur inspired writing he saw posted up around the classroom.  The children had focused on two dinosaurs, the armoured Stegosaurus and the fearsome Tyrannosaurus rex, they had been working out what these dinosaurs were like and compiling a list of dinosaur facts on flip charts.

Stegosaurus and T. rex Inspired Facts 

Learning facts about dinosaurs.

Learning facts about dinosaurs.

Picture Credit: Abbey Hey Primary Academy/Everything Dinosaur

Teacher, Miss Ellison explained that the pupils had been really engaged with this term topic and they had loved working out just how big some dinosaurs were.  Miss Russell and Miss Farrington took plenty of photographs during the dinosaur workshop, these would help in the planned recall and recount activity that the teaching team had prepared for the afternoon.  There was even a model of a big dinosaur egg in the classroom, this topic certainly seems to have captured the imagination of the teachers.

Year 1 Children Have Been Learning About Dinosaur Habitats

Year 1 explore dinosaur habitats.

Year 1 explore dinosaur habitats.

Picture Credit: Abbey Hey Primary Academy/Everything Dinosaur

A number of the classes had created their own dinosaur habitats, learning about what animals need to keep them healthy and happy.  Good job the children knew how to distinguish the carnivores from the herbivores.

In the afternoon, it was time to work with class 1W.  Miss Sarwar (the teacher), had briefed our dinosaur expert on exactly where the children were on the term topic, as a result we were able to help reinforce learning and check understanding as we explored prehistoric animals with the class.  Miss Heap and Miss Statham (teaching assistants) were on hand to help the enthusiastic children learn how Triceratops used its horns, how Ammonites caught fish and the special, secret powers of armoured dinosaurs.

A spokesperson for the school, commented on the school’s class pages:

Year 1 had a visit from a dinosaur expert [Everything Dinosaur].  They were shown dinosaur fossils dating back over 150 million years.  The children thoroughly enjoyed the day and they learnt some much more about dinosaurs.”

To learn more about Everything Dinosaur’s school visits and to download free dinosaur themed teaching resources: Dinosaurs in School

Study Suggests Sixth Mass Extinction Phase

Our Planet is Entering New Mass Extinction Phase

A team of international scientists based in the United States and Mexico have published a report declaring that a sixth mass extinction event is well under way and our species is running out of time to reverse this trend through conservation efforts.  Everything Dinosaur team members have written a number of articles on this blog about reports detailing the current rate of extinctions being recorded and the irreversible loss of ecosystems and biota.  This latest research takes a more conservative approach to calculating species loss than many earlier studies and this study focuses on the impact on vertebrates.  Even so, the team conclude that animals with back bones are becoming extinct more than 114 times faster than the “normal”, background extinction rate.

Scientists from Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico, (Mexico), the University of California, Stanford University, Princeton University and the University of Florida state that the Earth is entering the sixth great mass extinction event, some sixty-five million years after the fifth mass extinction which ended the reign of the dinosaurs.

Report States This is the Greatest Extinction Phase Since the Demise of the Dinosaurs

Cataclysmic impact event that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Cataclysmic impact event that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Picture Credit: Don Davis commissioned by NASA

The fossil record suggests that there have been five major extinction events in the Phanerozoic Eon which represents the last 545 million years or so of our planet’s history.  The term Phanerozoic is derived from the Greek, for “visible life”, this reflects that the preserved fossilised remains of organisms become much more plentiful in rocks dated from 545 million years ago and younger.  Over this huge amount of time, there have always been extinctions.  Scientists are aware of the fact that there is a “background” level of extinction, but in this new research, the scientist report that amongst vertebrates the current trends suggest extinction rates 114 times faster than normal.

A Table Showing the Five Previous Mass Extinctions

Mass Extinction in Summary

Table Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Gerrado Ceballos, (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico), lead author of the paper, that has just been published in the academic journal “Science Advances” commented:

“We are now entering the sixth great mass extinction event.  If it is allowed to continue, life would take many millions of years to recover and our species itself would likely disappear early on.”

The report concludes that since 1900, more than four hundred species of vertebrates have died out.  Such a loss would normally occur over 10,000 years if extinction rates were at the normal, background level.  The rapid loss of biodiversity is put down to the effect of an increasing human population on our planet.   The number of humans living on our planet is estimated to have been around 1.9 billion in 1900, today, the human population is estimated to be around 7.325 billion, an increase of 385% over the last one hundred and fifteen years.  The expansion of urban populations, pollution, loss of habitats, deforestation and climate change are some of the reasons for the dramatically increasing loss of vertebrates according to the paper’s authors.

With the disappearance of key vertebrate species from an ecosystem, the other components such as insects and plant life will also be affected.   The report states that beneficial insects such as pollinating bees could be lost to humanity within three human generations.  The loss of these pollinators would have a huge impact on human food resources and place our own species Homo sapiens very much under threat.

To read an article written in 2014 about potential mass extinctions: Heading for a Sixth Mass Extinction?

The number of global mass extinction events preserved in the fossil record has been challenged recently.  Back in April of this year, Everything Dinosaur reported on a new study that suggested that there had been an additional, major extinction event around 260 million years ago in the Permian geological period.  This extinction phase preceded the End Permian extinction event that is believed to be the most devastating extinction known from the Phanerozoic.  Some 95% of all life is believed to have died out.

To find out more: A Sixth Mass Extinction Event?

Woman Killed by Rock Fall at Popular Fossil Hunting Location

Fatal Accident at Llantwit Major (South Wales)

A twenty-four year old woman has been killed after a rock fell on her at Llantwit Major, Vale of Glamorgan (South Wales).  The accident happened yesterday evening and emergency services were called to this popular walking and fossil hunting location just before 5.30pm. A spokesperson for the Welsh ambulance service stated that they had received a report of an incident where a rock from the cliffs had fallen on a person’s head.  Unfortunately, the impact proved fatal and the woman was pronounced dead at the scene.  The cliffs are extremely dangerous and there are numerous signs posted up along the beach warning visitors of the potential hazards.

Very Dangerous Cliffs along the Welsh Coast

Rock falls are a constant hazard.

Rock falls are a constant hazard.

Picture Credit: UK Fossils Network

Each year, the beautiful beaches to be found in this part of south Wales attract thousands of visitors, many of whom are keen to explore the area looking for fossils.  There are a lot of different types of fossil to be found, including giant Gastropods and numerous bivalves.  Occasionally, vertebrate fossils can be discovered, fish scales and teeth as well as isolated bones from marine reptiles.  The blue lias rocks date from the Early Jurassic and they are approximately 200 million years old.

A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur stated:

“This is very sad news.  We will soon be at the height of the holiday season with thousands of tourists flocking to locations such as the Vale of Glamorgan, Ravenscar and the Dorset coast.  However, many of the cliffs at these places which are so popular with tourists, are extremely dangerous.  Rock falls and land slips are very common around the Lyme Regis and Charmouth areas for example and we urge all visitors to heed the warning signs and to stay away from cliffs.”

 Back in 2012, Everything Dinosaur reported on a fatal accident that took place at Hive Beach (near Bridport, Dorset), this latest terrible incident demonstrates that care and precaution must be taken at all times and visitors to locations such as Llantwit Major are urged to stay clear of the cliffs.

If you are looking for fossils, Everything Dinosaur advises that visitors limit their searches to the rocks along the foreshore and the shales exposed on the beach away from the cliffs.  Fossils are being constantly eroded onto the beach and there are always plenty of specimens to find.

Our team members are happy to provide advice and guidance to fossil hunters, in addition, we wrote an article a few years ago now that provided hints and safety tips for fossil hunters.

To read Everything Dinosaur’s tips on safe fossil collecting: Fossil Collecting Code – Safety Tips

The accident occurred just a few miles to the west of Lavernock Point, it was at Lavernock Point that the fossilised remains of an Early Jurassic meat-eating dinosaur were discovered in 2014.   These fossils have just been put on display at the National Museum of Wales.  This exceptional fossil find might persuade more people to visit these sites along the Welsh side of the Bristol Channel, whilst fossil hunting can be a wonderful hobby, all the team members at Everything Dinosaur strongly urge that visitors take great care and that they do not approach the cliffs. No fossil collecting should be attempted from the cliffs themselves or any adjacent scree slopes.

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