Category: Palaeontological articles

Life “Loomed Large” 1.56 Billion Years Ago

Multicellular Eukaryotes from  1.56 billion-year-old Rocks (Gaoyuzhuang Formation)

A team of Chinese and American scientists have confirmed the presence of large (several centimetres long in some cases), communities of eukaryotic cells preserved as impressions within rocks laid down in a shallow marine environment some 1.56 billion years ago.  This suggests that organisms had begun to form such structures during the Mesoproterozoic, some five hundred million years or so after the very first eukaryote cells evolved.

Macro-Fossils Preserved in the Mudstones of the Gaoyuzhuang Formation (Northern China)

Examples of various eukaryotic communities preserved in the mudstones of the Gaoyuzhuang Formation.

Examples of various eukaryotic communities preserved in the mudstones of the Gaoyuzhuang Formation.

Picture Credit: Nature Communications/Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology

Scale bar information for the picture (above) 5 cm (in a,b,g), 20 mm (in c), 40 mm (in d) and 5 mm (in e,f).

The scientists, which included Professor Andrew Knoll (Harvard University), a co-author of the academic paper published in the journal “Nature Communications”, identified a variety of different shaped fossils, some were linear, others wedge-shaped, whilst some were oblong and yet another group were described as tongue-shaped.  In total, fifty-three fossil communities were identified.  Although it is difficult to assign these structures to a place in standard Linnaean classification, a spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur suggested that these ancient life forms could be linked to the Kingdom Protoctista, a biological kingdom which includes certain large, multicellular eukaryotes, such as red algae and kelp.

What is a Eukaryotic Cell?

Eukaryotes have their genetic material enclosed within a nucleus, this is a distinct area within the confines of the cell where the genetic instructions and information can be found.  They also have organelles which are specialised structures within the cell that are responsible for specific areas of activity such as mitochondria for energy production or chloroplasts that convert sunlight energy into sugars (photosynthesis).  The first cells to form lacked a nucleus and specialised structures (organelles), these cells are referred to as prokaryotes (from the Greek which means “before the nucleus”), the DNA of prokaryotic cells is held in the cytoplasm of the cell.

Prokaryote Cells Compared to Eukaryote Cells

Simple diagram showing differences in Eukaryote cells and Prokaryote cells.

Simple diagram showing differences in Eukaryote cells and Prokaryote cells.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The diagram above shows the basic differences between prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells.  Note the different scales, due to their unstructured form, prokaryotic cells are much smaller than eukaryotic cells.  Fossil evidence for cyanobacteria (prokaryotes) suggest that these cells first formed some 3.5 billion years ago (Archean Eon)*.  The first eukaryotic cells may have formed around 2.1 billion years ago**.

Eukaryote cells most likely evolved from prokaryote cells at some point in the Paleoproterozoic.  How this came about is a subject of much debate.  One theory proposes predatory prokaryotes engulfed other smaller prokaryote cells.  Instead of these cells being consumed, a symbiotic relationship resulted with the smaller cells becoming the specialised elements of the larger cell.  Another theory suggests that more complex cells came about due to mutations during cellular division.  The presence of DNA strands in mitochondria which are not exactly the same as the DNA found within the host cell nucleus suggests that the mitochondria were once single-celled organisms in their own right.

The Significance of the Gaoyuzhuang Formation

Fossils described as macro-fossils are exceedingly rare in rocks older than the Late Neoproterozoic Era, but uranium – lead (U to Pb) radiometric dating suggests that the biota identified from the mudstones from the Gaoyuzhuang Formation (Yanshan area in the Hebei Province of northern China) are around 1.56 billion years old.  Other geological formations dated to over a billion years old which contain macro-fossils have been identified before, but it is the number and variety of the different types of fossil that marks out this strata as being something special.

Researchers Exploring the Exposed Mudstones Looking for Evidence of Ancient Life

Researchers examine the fine-grained mudstones which form part of the Gaoyuzhuang Formation.

Researchers examine the fine-grained mudstones which form part of the Gaoyuzhuang Formation.

Picture Credit: Nature Communications

Some of the fossilised structures measure up to thirty centimetres in length and eight centimetres wide.  The researchers conclude that the specimens may not represent the oldest know eukaryotes but they are the oldest eukaryotes that exhibit multicellular structures.  These organisms lived in a shallow marine environment and they were probably benthic (lived on the sea floor).  Analysis of the cells indicates that they may have been capable of photosynthesis and although large by Precambrian standards these organisms cannot be described as complex life.

Explaining the difference between complex life and these large multicellular structures, Professor Knoll stated that the Chinese fossils were:

“Large but I doubt that they were complicated – it’s an important distinction.”

Eukaryotic cells are capable of becoming specialised with different cells being responsible for different systems, functions and processes, a vital step on the path to complex life forms.  These cells, preserved as carbonaceous impressions in the rock show no signs of fundamental differentiation at the cellular level.  These fossils provide the best evidence to date that multicellular eukaryotes of large size (greater than a centimetre in length), with a regular shape existed in marine environments at least a billion years prior to the Cambrian explosion.  They are multicellular but they are not the complex, more specialised and differentiated cells associated with more advanced organisms.

Treated Sections of the Fossils Showing the Cell Structure

Treated sections of the Gaoyuzhuang Formation fossils showing cellular structures.

Treated sections of the Gaoyuzhuang Formation fossils showing cellular structures.

Picture Credit: Nature Communications

The picture above shows various views of the cell structure.  Pictures b and d show organic fragments with preserved cellular structure, the scale bar representing 100 μm (microns).  Pictures c and e show polygonal cells forming a multi-layered network (scale bar 20 μm).

The existence of these structures provides further evidence of the diversity of life during the Proterozoic, it also suggests that an increase in oxygen levels in conjunction with the establishment of a protective ozone layer in the Earth’s upper atmosphere may have permitted these multicellular organisms to form.

*/**The dates given for the first fossil evidence of prokaryotes and eukaryotic cells are speculative.

Rare Horseshoe Crab Fossil Discovery from Nova Scotia

The Important Role Enthusiastic Amateurs Play in Palaeontology

Last week Everything Dinosaur reported on the concerns being raised over the extensive amount of digging into cliffs on north Norfolk beaches by fossil collectors.  Whilst we frown upon such activities and urge all fossil collectors to follow the fossil collecting code, today, we report on the significant contribution made to palaeontology by a couple of enthusiastic fossil hunters from Nova Scotia.  Their dedication has resulted in a number of important discoveries, the latest being a new species of ancient horseshoe crab, which is known from just two specimens.

To read the article about concerns over coastal Norfolk fossil sites: Experts Fear for Safety of Fossils and Fossil Collectors

Say Hello to Paleolimulus woodae – A 360 million-year-old Horseshoe Crab

Paleolimulus woodae fossil from Blue Beach (Bay of Fundy)

Paleolimulus woodae fossil from Blue Beach (Bay of Fundy)

Picture Credit: CTV News Atlantic

Lower Carboniferous Sandstones and Silts of the Bay of Fundy

The Blue Beach area of the Bay of Fundy (Nova Scotia), is one of the most important Late Palaeozoic fossil locations in the world.  The strata is being constantly eroded by the exceptionally powerful tides (a macro tidal environment) and the eroding cliffs are giving up the fossilised remains of animals and plants that lived in the very Early Carboniferous period (Lower Mississippian Epoch – Tournaisian faunal stage).  The body and trace fossils found here record life in a estuarine environment bordered by dense swamps that existed some 360 million years ago.  Thanks to the efforts of husband and wife team Chris Mansky and Sonja Wood, tens of thousands of fossil specimens have been retrieved from the beach.  The rocks have such significance as they preserve fossils of some of the very first Tetrapods – primitive amphibians that were the first terrestrial vertebrates.  Working in conjunction with scientists from the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, an extremely rare horseshoe crab has been identified and described as a new species.  The species name honours Sonja, the ancient Arthropod has been called Paleolimulus woodae (pronounced pay-leo-limb-mew-lus wood-i).

A Natural Goldmine for Fossils

Commenting on the significance of the fossil find, co-author of the scientific paper that has just been published in the academic journal “Neues Jahrbuch für Geologie und Paläontologie”, Chris Mansky stated:

“We’re sitting on an unrealised bonanza or mother-load of information.  It’s a very small scarp that shows probably one of the most important pieces of evolutionary information.”

The powerful tides scour the beach and cliffs twice a day exposing fossil material all year round.  The work of Chris and Sonja is vital, as without their help, many important fossil specimens, such as the ten pence sized horseshoe crab fossil would be lost.  The couple have run the Blue Beach Fossil Museum since 2002, and they have amassed a collection of some 90,000 lbs of rocks containing body fossils of early Tetrapods, ancient fish, molluscs, as well as important trace fossils, preserving tracks in the mud made by both back-boned animals and invertebrates.

Sonja Wood of the Blue Beach Fossil Museum Holding One of the Specimens of  Paleolimulus woodae

Sonja Wood Holding a specimen of her namesake - P. woodae

Sonja Wood Holding a specimen of her namesake – P. woodae

Picture Credit: Colin Chisholm – Hants Journal

Romer’s Gap* and All That

Horseshoe crabs are marine Arthropods, (Order Xiphosurida, Family Limulidae), known as living fossils as they seem little changed since their evolutionary origins some 450 million years ago.  A number of genera exist today, but populations are threatened due to habitat destruction and the removal of eggs for human consumption.

An Illustration of a Extant Horseshoe Crab

An illustration of a Horseshoe Crab (a living fossil).

An illustration of a Horseshoe Crab (a living fossil).

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The Blue Beach location is regarded as one of the most important Lagerstätte (strata with an abundance of fossils), of the Late Palaeozoic.  The Lower Carboniferous rocks are helping to provide scientists with information about vertebrates to fill in “Romer’s Gap”, a discontinuity in the fossil record between the end of the Devonian and the first fifteen million years of the Carboniferous, a time when terrestrial ecosystems were rapidly evolving and the first land animals with back-bones were becoming widespread.  The gap in the geological record is named after the American palaeontologist Alfred Sherwood Romer who first recognised this discontinuity.

Explaining just how rare the horseshoe crab fossils are, Chris Mansky said:

“Out of the tens of thousands of fossils that have been gathered [from the Blue Beach area] only two were horseshoe crab.”

The fossil material including body impressions and tracks made by the horseshoe crabs in the soft mud are helping scientists to piece together more information about this ancient palaeoenvironment.  Today, we pay tribute to Chris and Sonja whose efforts are helping scientists to learn more about a crucial period in the evolution of life on Earth.

Romer’s Gap* An Explanation

The gap in the fossil record that marks the beginning of the Carboniferous geological period.  In sedimentary rocks fractionally older than Romer’s Gap palaeontologists have unearthed evidence of very primitive Devonian Tetrapods , fish with fingers, lots of fingers.  Tetrapod fossils found in slightly younger rocks provide evidence of Carboniferous Tetrapods that all had five fingers and toes and they are much better adapted to terrestrial habitats.

Stone Tools and Fossil Bones From Sinkhole Revises American History

The Oldest Floridians

The discovery of ancient mammal remains plus stone tools in association with them is helping a team of scientists to redraw the map of human settlement in the Americas.  Evidence suggests that the north-western part of Florida (United States), was inhabited by humans some 1,500 years earlier than previously thought.  The research paper detailing the discoveries and the dating information has just been published in the open access journal “Science Advances”.

Lead author of the scientific paper, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Florida State University Jessi Halligan, had to employ her skills as a diver to reach the site, as the evidence of pre-Clovis existence has come from a sinkhole in the middle of the Aucilla River some ten metres below the water surface.  Radiocarbon dating of the artefacts excavated suggests that humans inhabited this part of Florida some 14,550 years ago.

Assistant Professor Halligan with Some of the Fossil Bones

Scientists state that humans occupied the south-eastern United States 1,500 years earlier than previously thought.

Scientists state that humans occupied the south-eastern United States 1,500 years earlier than previously thought.

Picture Credit: Bruce Palmer/Florida State University

The picture about shows Jessi Halligan and some of the prehistoric mammal bones recovered from the site.  In the foreground (left) is a vertebra from a Mastodon, in the foreground (right) is the lower jaw (dentary) of a prehistoric Llama.

Prior to this research, it had been widely believed that the first people to live in this part of the Americas were the Clovis people which reached this part of the continent some 13,000 years ago.  The Clovis people are believed to have migrated across the Bering land bridge from Asia as the Last Ice Age ended, they moved through Canada and into the northern parts of the United States and over many generations gradually moved further and further south.  The Clovis culture is believed to represent the first widespread human culture in the New World and it is likely that the Clovis people were the ancestors of the native American Indians.  It is from the Clovis culture that the various native American cultures evolved.  Named from the distinctive stone tools such as finely crafted spear points found at Clovis in New Mexico, many Clovis sites have been excavated and DNA evidence suggests that more than three-quarters of all living native Americans in North and South America are directly related to the Clovis people.

Human Migration Through the Americas a Complex Picture

As the last Ice Age ended and the ice sheets retreated, so humans migrated across the Bering Strait land bridge (Beringia) and into the New World.  However, mapping the extent of this colonisation and the journey south has proved extremely difficult, with a range of dates given for different sites.  There has been evidence presented before that suggested humans lived in parts of the Americas earlier than 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, but the evidence had been controversial.  However, at the Aucilla River site, some seventy-one items have been radiocarbon dated and they all support the idea that the stone tools and bones, many of which show cut marks made from tools , indicate human habitation as early as 14,550 years ago.

Commenting on the significance of this research, Assistant Professor Halligan stated:

“This is a big deal!  There were people here.  So how did they live?  This has opened up a whole new line of inquiry for us as scientists as we try to understand the settlement of the Americas.”

The Remarkable Page-Ladson Site

The excavations took place at a site on a bend in the Aucilla River some twenty miles east of the Florida State capital Tallahassee.  Animal bones had been found in this region for many years but it was first explored and mapped extensively by diver Buddy Page who found Mastodon remains and brought the site to the attention of archaeologists and palaeontologists.  The site is owned by the Ladson family and as result the sinkhole and subsequent cores that have been taken from the river bed are collectively referred to as the Page-Ladson prehistory site.  The location represents a water hole that was filled in by deposits and these deposits represent Late Pleistocene material at the bottom, leading up through to younger Early Holocene deposits that are exposed on the river bed.

Working up to Ten Metres Underwater to Find Traces of Human Activity

Underwater excavation reveals evidence of the earliest humans from the south-eastern United States.

Underwater excavation reveals evidence of the earliest humans from the south-eastern United States.

Picture Credit: Florida State University

There are a cluster of sites dotted all over North America that date to around 13,200 years ago, but there are estimated to be only about five in all of the New World that are believed to provide older evidence of human habitation.

Assistant Professor Halligan worked in collaboration with Michael Waters from Texas A&M University and Daniel Fisher (University of Michigan) to excavate the site.  The research team were aware that a number of fossil bones and other finds had already been excavated from the site, but between 2012 and 2014 the Page-Ladson prehistory site was once again opened up and explored.  One of the team’s most significant finds was a biface, a stone tool flaked on both sides to produce a knife-like instrument with two cutting edges.  Daniel Fisher (vertebrate palaeontologist), also took a close look at the Mastodon tusk that had been retrieved in the 1980’s and he was able to identify cut marks indicating that the tusk had been removed by people.  The scientists are not certain whether the Mastodon was killed by humans or its carcase was scavenged.

Michael Waters ( Texas A&M’s Centre for the Study of the First Americans) explained:

“The new discoveries at Page-Ladson show that people were living in the Gulf Coast area much earlier than believed.”

Examples of Stone Tools Recovered from the Page-Ladson Prehistory Site

Examples of stone tools excavated from the Page-Ladson site (Florida).

Examples of stone tools excavated from the Page-Ladson site (Florida).

Picture Credit: Science Advances with notation by Everything Dinosaur

The picture above show examples of the stone tools recovered from the Page-Ladson location.  The biface stone tool “top” has two flaked cutting blades and would have performed the role of a small knife, similar to the type of tool that created the butchery marks in the animal bones.  The stone tools (middle and bottom) are typical flakes, the middle flake shows signs of wear (use).

Pleistocene Marine Transgression

Florida in the latter stages of the Pleistocene Epoch was much drier than it is today.  Sea levels were over one hundred metres lower.  The Page-Ladson site represents a spring fed waterhole that existed in a ravine.  It may have been the only reliable water source for miles around and as such, it attracted animals and people to it.  With the rise in global temperatures, the great ice sheets that covered much of the northern hemisphere began to melt.  This led to a rise in global sea levels resulting in low-lying areas becoming flooded (the Late Pleistocene marine transgression).  The Page-Ladson site was buried with an influx of sediment and left submerged.  This location in north-western Florida is helping anthropologists to understand more about the migration of humans into the New World and also provides further information with regards to the megafauna that shared this Late Pleistocene habitat.

An Illustration of the Page-Ladson Prehistory Site

An Illustration of the Page-Ladson Prehistory Site (Florida 14,500 years ago).

An Illustration of the Page-Ladson Prehistory Site (Florida 14,500 years ago).

Picture Credit: Greg Harlin

Concerns for the Coastal Norfolk Fossil Sites

Experts Fear for Fossils and Safety of Fossil Hunters

Scientists at the Norfolk Museums Service along with British palaeontologists and geology societies have expressed concern over the rise in unscrupulous fossil hunting activities being reported from parts of the Norfolk coast.  These famous Pleistocene age deposits have yielded an extensive array of vertebrate fossils including many large mammals such as rhino and elephant.  One of England’s most important fossil finds, the spectacular West Runton elephant (more correctly termed a Steppe Mammoth – Mammuthus trogontherii), was found in the cliffs.  The discovery, the first bones were found in 1990, represents the largest and oldest nearly complete fossil mammoth from the UK.  Bones and teeth can still be found on the foreshore but sadly, there has been a rise in reports of fossil hunters digging into the cliffs in a bid to find more specimens.

A spokesperson for the Norfolk Museums Service advised against such excavation, not only would the digging potentially damage any fossil material but as the cliffs were unstable, working so close to the cliffs was very dangerous.  He expressed grave concern following reports of a rise in the number of fossil hunters “hacking into the cliff tops”

The Foreshore and Cliffs at West Runton (North Norfolk)

A view of the famous West Runton beach, a great place to find fossils.

A view of the famous West Runton beach, a great place to find fossils.

Picture Credit: ukfossils.co.uk

The freshwater Pleistocene deposits and associated Cretaceous chalks yield a large number of different types of fossil.  As well as freshwater molluscs and mammal remains from the freshwater beds, the chalk is highly fossiliferous and different types sea urchin and fossil sponges can be found.  The picture above shows a view of West Runton beach and the dangerous cliffs, the pier at Cromer can be seen in the background.

A team member from Everything Dinosaur commented:

“This part of the Norfolk coast is subject to high levels of erosion, we would urge all fossil collectors to stay on the beach and look for fossils at low tide along the foreshore, the rapidly eroding cliffs are delivering lots of fossil material onto the beach area and this is a wonderful location for a family fossil hunt.  However, please don’t dig into the cliffs and we urge all visitors to follow the fossil collecting code.”

For an article on the fossil collecting code and a guide to safe collecting: Everything Dinosaur’s Guide to Fossil Collecting Safely

Register Fossil Finds with the Norfolk Museums Service

A partial Mammoth tooth was found nearby last month and no doubt other finds will be reported over the summer at this popular tourist attraction.  Palaeontologist Dr. Waterhouse of the Norfolk Museums Service and the leader of the Cromer Forest-bed Fossil Project reminded fossil hunters that it was good practice to report finds to the Norfolk Museum Service, the museum at Cromer just a few miles from West Runton, was a good place to take any fossil finds and team members from the Norfolk Museums Service would be happy to assist with identification.  As Mammoth fossils, especially tusks and teeth are very popular with collectors, it is likely that many of the overzealous fossil hunting activities have been driven by the high prices such fossils make on auction sites.

A Model of a Woolly Mammoth (M. primigenius)

A model of a Woolly Mammoth.

A model of a Woolly Mammoth.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Dr. Waterhouse said:

“Norfolk is the best place in the country and probably Europe to find Mammoth remains because they went through about six sets of teeth in their lifetime, so there is a lot more teeth than there were Mammoths.  Something that I think needs highlighting is poor and even dangerous fossil collecting by people hacking into the cliffs at places like West Runton.  Ethical collecting is high on my agenda, and also recording fossil finds as part of the Cromer Forest-bed Fossil Project, so that important scientific information isn’t lost forever.”

At Everything Dinosaur we echo the views of Dr. Waterhouse and we urge fossil hunters to take care and to abide by the fossil collecting code as well as local bye laws and regulations.

Antarctic Expedition Provides Window into Late Cretaceous Seacape

Fossilised Birds, Ammonites and Giant Marine Reptiles

A team of international scientists including researchers from the University of Queensland and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, have been showing off their vast collection of fossils after a very successful expedition to Antarctica earlier this year.  The fossils, estimated to weigh over 1,000 lbs, provide evidence of life in a shallow sea close to land some 71 million-years-ago (Late Cretaceous).  The specimens were collected from James Ross Island, a forty mile long island on the south-eastern side of the Antarctic peninsula, a long finger of land that points towards South America, although the island itself is more than six hundred miles from the Chilean mainland.

Some of the Fossils Found During the Two-Month Long Antarctic Expedition

Spectacular fossils preserved in nodules found in Antarctica.

Spectacular fossils preserved in nodules found in Antarctica.

Picture Credit: University of Queensland

The picture above shows a number of split nodules that contain invertebrate fossils of various kinds including a number of Ammonite specimens.  The geological hammer, probably the one used to split the nodules provides scale.  Over two hundred different fossils have been collected by the scientists.

Marine Reptiles and Dinosaurs

One of the main objectives of the research team over the two month period of the expedition (February to March) was to search for vertebrate fossils to provide information on the marine and terrestrial fauna that existed in this part of Gondwana towards the end of the Cretaceous.  Giant shark vertebrae the size of saucers, as well as Plesiosaur and Mosasaur remains along with bird fossils were discovered, these fossils along with the other specimens are currently being stored in Chile prior to onward transport to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) for preparation and study.  It is likely that a number of new species will be identified.

Palaeontologists Working on a Plesiosaur Shoulder Girdle

Palaeontologists carefully excavate the shoulder girdle of a Plesiosaur (James Ross Island).

Palaeontologists carefully excavate the shoulder girdle of a Plesiosaur (James Ross Island).

Picture Credit: Dr.  Matthew Lamanna (Carnegie Museum of Natural History)

The picture above shows graduate student Abby West (American Museum of Natural History) working alongside Dr. Steve Salisbury (University of Queensland) and marine technician Julia Carlton as they carefully prepare the shoulder girdle of a Plesiosaur for extraction by helicopter.  The location of the fossil sites are so inaccessible that they only way such large specimens could be removed was by helicopter.  The choppers used to support the field team were called “raptors” – very Jurassic Park as one expedition member quipped.

The photograph was taken by Dr. Lamanna (Assistant Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology), an expert on the terrestrial fauna of Gondwana, a few days ago, Everything Dinosaur reported on the naming of a new giant Titanosaur from Argentina that had been named based on the extensive study of a beautifully preserved skull and neck elements that had been found some years before (Sarmientosaurus musacchioi).

To read more about this story: Late Cretaceous Titanosaur from Patagonia

Identifying New Fossil Sites

The scientists are part of an international Antarctic research project – Antarctic Peninsula Paleontology Project (forgive the Americanised spelling), or AP3 for short.  Consisting of specialists in vertebrate palaeontology and geology, the team heralds from universities and museums from the United States, Australia, South Africa, Chile and the UK.  Located a gruelling six mile hike from the team’s base camp the main fossil bearing beds are located on the steeply sloping south-western flank at Sandwich Bluff on Vega Island, which is located just a few thousand metres to the north-west of James Ross Island.  Much of the strata exposed around James Ross Island dates from the very Late Cretaceous and from the very Early Palaeogene.  A number of new fossil bearing sites have already been located including several plant remains beds and two previously undocumented Cretaceous exposures that were targeted for future field work.

The Late Antarctic Summer – Hiking Looking for Fossils

Isolated and very difficult to reach - fossil hunting in Antarctica.

Isolated and very difficult to reach – fossil hunting in Antarctica.

Picture Credit: The Carnegie Museum of Natural History

The Antarctic A Potential Treasure Trove of Fossils

The James Ross Island basin is one of the few parts of Antarctica where the snow and ice melts sufficiently to expose the rock strata below.  The absence of soil helps with the exploration, although we tip our hard hats to the research team members who braved freezing temperatures, howling gales and sea sickness just to reach the fossil quarries.  The specimens were excavated from the Upper Cretaceous Sandwich Bluff Member of the López de Bertodano Formation.  The beds here represent deposits in a shallow, marine environment with occasional occurrences of terrestrial material (particularly plant remains) that would have been washed into the sea from the nearby land.  Dinosaur fossils were found, although fragmentary, the palaeontologists are confident that these fossils will help to extend our understanding of the Late Cretaceous dinosaur fauna of Antarctica.

Commenting on the research, Dr. Salisbury explained:

“It’s a very hard place to work, but it’s an even harder place to get to.  A lot of the bigger bones will need quite a bit of preparation before we can do much research on them.  Working in Antarctica is tough!”

Fossilised remains of birds were also found, including early ducks dating from the end of the Cretaceous period.

It’s a Tough Job – Searching for Fossils in the James Ross Island Basin

Lying down on the job!  Looking for fossils in the Antarctic.

Lying down on the job! Looking for fossils in the Antarctic.

Picture Credit: Carnegie Museum of Natural History

A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur paid tribute to the research team and their supporters stating:

“The Antarctic provides vertebrate palaeontologists the opportunity to explore pristine fossil bearing environments without the risk of damage from vandals or illegal fossil hunters.  This treasure trove of fossils, currently in Chile, will provide scientists with a great deal of data regarding the fauna and flora at what was a pivotal moment in the history of life on Earth.”

In the summer of 2015, Everything Dinosaur reported on the discovery of a Plesiosaur, but this time from the other end of the world – the Arctic.

To read an article about this amazing fossil find: Elasmosaur Fossil from Alaska

A New Late Cretaceous Titanosaur from Patagonia

Sarmientosaurus musacchioi – A “Drop Head” Dinosaur

The beautifully preserved skull of a new type of Titanosaur is helping scientists to understand the evolution of these herbivorous dinosaurs.  Titanosaur skull fossils are exceptionally rare, but thanks to the skull of Sarmientosaurus musacchioi, palaeontologists have got a “heads up” on basal Titanosaurs, ironically computer modelling and an analysis of the skull morphology suggests that this dinosaur may have specialised in feeding on low growing vegetation.  If that was the case, then this long-necked dinosaur probably spent a lot of its time with its head pointing downwards towards the ground.

An Illustration of Sarmientosaurus musacchioi

New basal Titanosauriform from Argentina (Sarmientosaurus).

New basal Titanosauriform from Argentina (Sarmientosaurus).

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur (background from the artwork of Julius Csotonyi

Rare Titanosaur Skull Fossil Discovery

Reporting in the on line academic journal PLOS One, the team of palaeontologists which includes lead author Dr. Rubén D. F. Martínez (National University of Patagonia), describe a beautifully preserved and almost complete skull specimen excavated from strata which makes up the Lower Member of the Upper Cretaceous Bajo Barreal Formation in south, central Chubut Province, Patagonia (southern Argentina).  The fossils, comprising the skull plus elements from the neck are believed to date from around 95 million years ago (Middle Cenomanian stage of the Late Cretaceous).

Scientists Show Off the Beautifully Preserved Dinosaur Skull

Dr. Martinez (right) and Dr. Lamanna (left) with Sarmientosaurus skull.

Dr. Martinez (right) and Dr. Lamanna (left) with Sarmientosaurus skull.

Picture Credit: Carnegie Museum of Natural History

The skulls of members of the Sauropodomorpha, the Sub-Order of Dinosaurs to which the Titanosaurs belong, tend to be disproportionately small when compared to the size of the body.  In addition, the skulls of these dinosaurs are at the end of a long neck.  When an animal died and the carcase rotted away, then the skull bones were likely to become detached from the rest of the skeleton.  Skull fossils of Sauropods are exceptionally rare.  In Titanosauriforms, only three other skull fossils are known:

  • Rapetosaurus (from the Late Cretaceous of Madagascar)
  • Tapuiasaurus (from the Early Cretaceous of Brazil)
  • Nemegtosaurus (from the Late Cretaceous of Mongolia

The discovery of an almost complete Titanosaur skull will help scientists to understand more about the anatomy, evolution and behaviour of these dinosaurs.  For example, analysis of the orbit within the skull and the relative position of the eye suggests that this dinosaur had particularly good vision.  Such is the completeness of the fossil material that the scientists, which included Gondwana Titanosaur specialist Dr. Matthew Lamanna (Carnegie Museum of Natural History), have been able to piece together an endocast of the brain and demonstrate the shape of the inner ear.

Views of the Skull of Sarmientosaurus (Sarmientosaurus musacchioi)

A view of the skull (lateral views)

A view of the skull (lateral views)

Picture Credit: PLOS One

The picture above shows the prepared skull seen in right lateral view (photograph A and line drawing B) and left lateral view (C).  The naris slopes gently downwards towards the premaxilla and the orbit (eye-socket) is quite large.  The simple, peg-like teeth (57 teeth associated with the fossil), project forward, an adaptation perhaps to assist with the combing action of feeding.  The scale bar in the picture above represents ten centimetres.

Dr. Lamanna noted:

“Titanosaurs included the biggest land animals ever, so we want to know as much about them as we can.  But to truly understand a creature, you need to have its head and because Titanosaur skulls are super-rare, lots of important aspects of how these dinosaurs lived and behaved have really been anybody’s guess.”

CAT Scans Reveal Previously Unseen Features in Titanosaur Fossil Material

The skull fossil has provided palaeontologists with their first really good view of a basal Titanosaur and it has provided new information regarding the shape of the brain case and the senses of these dinosaurs.  For example, CAT scans have enabled the researchers to model the structure of the inner ear, from this they have deduced that this dinosaur had good hearing, able to detect a wide range of low frequency airborne sounds.  This perhaps provides a clue to how these herding animals communicated.

The Excavation of the Rare Titanosaur Fossil Material

Sarmientosaurus fossils at the dig site.

Sarmientosaurus fossils at the dig site.

Picture Credit: PLOS One

The photographs above show the articulated skull lying upside down partially eroded out of the rock (A), note that the skull is seen in ventral view (viewed from underneath) and that the geological hammer provides an approximate scale.  The black arrow in photograph A shows the position of an ossified cervical tendon lying very close to the back of the skull.  Photographs B and C show two views of the articulated skull and the partial cervical series (neck bones) exposed in the rock (ventral view).  The black arrows indicate the position of cervical tendons.  Photograph D shows a cervical rib (white arrow) and its relationship in the matrix to an ossified cervical tendon (black arrow), the field instruments provide an approximate scale.

Ossified Bony Tendons

When compared to the Tapuiasaurus fossil skull from Brazil which dates from around 115 million years ago, the teeth and skull morphology of Sarmientosaurus are relatively primitive.  The researchers have concluded that radically different Titanosauriforms probably co-existed for much of the Cretaceous.  This suggests that different types of Titanosaur evolved to fill different ecological niches and perhaps this might help to explain why these types of plant-eaters made up a substantial portion of the herbivorous mega fauna fossils associated with the southern hemisphere in the Late Cretaceous.

Views of the Restored Skull of Sarmientosaurus

Views of the prepared skull of Sarmientosaurus (scale bar = 10cm).

Views of the prepared skull of Sarmientosaurus (scale bar = 10cm).

Picture Credit: PLOS One

In the picture above, A, C and E are photographs of the skull in various views.  A frontal view (A), a view of the back (B) and a caudodorsal view (C) which is a view of the back of the skull from the orientation of looking down on it from the top.  The images B, D and F are diagrams that show the individual bones and skull features as preserved in the fossil material.  Sarmientosaurus is the first non-avian dinosaur to show evidence of a very long bony tendon in the neck.  The research team compare the thin ossified tendon with that found in extant Cranes.  The function of this structure is not known.

Superior Senses When Compared to Other Sauropodomorphs

The CAT scans provided a remarkable amount of detailed information regarding the sensory capabilities of this Titanosaur.  The large eye-socket indicated good eyesight and the orientation of the balance organ of the inner ear suggests that this dinosaur probably held its head with the snout facing downward.  From this it has been inferred that Sarmientosaurus fed mainly on low-growing plants.

Professor Lawrence Witmer, a specialist in cranial anatomy and one of the co-authors of the scientific paper explained:

“The Sarmientosaurus skull is beautifully-preserved, which meant that we could tease out a ton of information.  It was really exciting for us to work through the CT scan data because it gave us a glimpse into the biology and lifestyle of this animal like we rarely get with dinosaurs.”

What’s in a Name?

The genus name honours the small town of Sarmiento in Chubut Province which is close to the fossil quarry where the skull was found.  The trivial name is in tribute to the late Dr. Eduardo Musacchio, a palaeontologist and professor at the National University of Patagonia who was a mentor to Dr. Martínez as well as a close friend.

Seed Eating May Have Helped Birds Survive

Seed Clue to How Birds Survived the Cretaceous Extinction Event

The birds that are around today, might have the seed-eating habit of an ancestor to thank for enabling their kind to survive the extinction event that saw the demise of the dinosaurs.  A study published in the scientific journal “Current Biology” suggests that whilst the meat-eating and insectivorous feathered Maniraptoran dinosaurs did not survive into the Tertiary, toothless, beaked birds may have coped with the devastation that wiped out 70% of all terrestrial vertebrates, by eating seeds.  The study, conducted by scientists from the University of Toronto and the Royal Ontario Museum, involved the analysis of 3,104 Maniraptoran fossil teeth from eighteen different sites in western North America (Montana, USA and Alberta, Canada).

Late Cretaceous North America – Survival of the Seed Eaters?

Study suggests the evolution of a toothless beak ideal for seed eating may have had evolutionary advantages at the end of the Cretaceous.

Study suggests the evolution of a toothless beak ideal for seed eating may have had evolutionary advantages at the end of the Cretaceous.

Picture Credit: Danielle Dufault

The beautiful illustration above, depicts an imaginary scene in the forests of Late Cretaceous North American (Maastrichtian faunal stage).  There were probably large numbers of Maniraptoran dinosaurs represented by numerous families but these types of dinosaur along with the toothed birds did not survive the End Cretaceous mass extinction.  Those members of the Maniraptora clade that had evolved an edentulous (toothless) beak capable of holding, manipulating and cracking seeds may have had an evolutionary advantage.  In the picture above, a large dromaeosaurid dinosaur pursues a toothed bird in the background, whilst a smaller dromaeosaurid pounces on an unsuspecting lizard resting on a log.  Emerging from the hollow log is a hypothetical, toothless bird, closely related to the earliest modern birds.

A Nuclear Winter

Many scientists believe that after the extraterrestrial impact that marked the beginning of the end for the non-avian Dinosauria, the impact threw up huge amounts of dust and debris into the atmosphere.  This would have blocked out sunlight, leading to a nuclear winter with plant populations (reliant on photosynthesis to make food), crashing.  The loss of the plants led to a collapse of the entire food chain.  The plant-eaters would have died out and once there were no carcases left to scavenge, the meat-eaters would have perished too.  This new paper is one of a number of recent studies that attempts to explain why some types of animals survived, whilst other, often closely related species did not.

Toothed Dromaeosaurs Faced Extinction

A typical dromaeosaur dinosaur.

A typical dromaeosaur dinosaur.

Picture Credit: John Sibbick

The Maniraptora fossil record (dinosaurs and the birds) is very incomplete.  The research team knew that they only had a limited number of fossils of Late Cretaceous Maniraptorans to examine and that in all likelihood there were many more species living towards the end of the Age of Dinosaurs than have been identified to date.  In addition, there was very little direct evidence of fossil species surviving the extinction event.  So to help unravel the puzzle as to why some animals died but their close relatives survived, the scientists examined the fossil record of isolated teeth.  Shed teeth tend to be more robust than the delicate and light bones of Maniraptorans and they are more numerous, so the research team had a more substantial data set to work with.

The team concluded that seeds would have survived the global devastation that occurred.  Seeds already in the ground would have been available as a food source for anything with a beak capable of eating them.

Commenting on why some animals survived whilst others went extinct, lead researcher, Derek Larson (University of Toronto) explained:

“We came up with a hypothesis that it had something to do with diet.  Looking at the diet of modern birds, we were able to reconstruct a hypothetical ancestral bird and what its likely diet would have been.  What we are envisaging is a seed-eating bird, so you’d have a relatively short and robust, strong beak, which would be able to crush these seeds.”

In August 2014, Everything Dinosaur published a study which had been conducted by an international team of researchers that looked at the rapid evolution and diversification of the  Maniraptora.   These dinosaurs evolved very rapidly and probably made up a significant proportion of the terrestrial vertebrate fauna in a number of Late Cretaceous ecosystems.

To read more about the rapid evolution of the Maniraptora: Downsizing Dinosaurs the Key to Survival

The challenge to palaeontologists is to find fossil evidence of seed-eating birds being prevalent prior to the End Cretaceous extinction event and then evidence of radiation and diversification in strata laid down in younger sediments deposited beyond the famous K-T extinction boundary.

What About the Mammals?

This very interesting piece of research raises a number of other questions.  For example, a number of Cretaceous  small mammals would also have very probably eaten seeds, just like many kinds of small mammals do today.  Could seed-eating also have helped several different types of mammal survive the extinction event?  Given the success of the Maniraptora and their diversity it seems peculiar that no member of the Dinosauria evolved to take advantage of seeds as a source of food.  Many members of the Maniraptora were small, around the size of many seed-eating birds today, why weren’t these dinosaurs also able to take advantage of this food source to help them endure the nuclear winter?

Teeth Representing a Variety of Different Members of the  Maniraptora Were Studied

No evidence of teeth adapted to seed-eating were found in the study.

No evidence of teeth adapted to seed-eating were found in the study.

Picture Credit: Royal Ontario Museum/University of Toronto with additional notation by Everything Dinosaur

The picture above shows a typical selection of the shed teeth used in the fossil study.  Four different types of Maniraptoran were incorporated into the study.  Firstly, there were the Troodontidae, (top left) with their proportionately broader and much more prominent tooth serrations (denticles), an example of a typical Late Cretaceous North American Troodontidae would be Troodon inequalis.  Secondly, there were members of the genus Richardoestesia (top right).   These Maniraptoran dinosaurs are known from a pair of jawbones and many shed teeth, two species have been assigned, based on tooth differences.  Then there are the dromaeosaurids (Dromaeosauridae).  The teeth tend to be much more finely serrated than troodontid teeth and a typical North American dromaeosaurid would have been the two metre long Saurornitholestes langstoni.  Even though only a handful of fossil bones ascribed to Aves (birds) have been found in places such as the Dinosaur Provincial Park (southern Alberta), those bones that have been discovered indicate that some volant (flying) birds as big as modern-day raptors existed during the Late Cretaceous.  Many examples of teeth from toothed birds are known from the Dinosaur Provincial Park, and at least three types of Neornithine birds have been described.

This research, that examined Maniraptoran teeth across the last 18 million years of the Cretaceous, supports the idea of a sudden extinction event and the survival of Neornithine lineages as a result of some forms having evolved to exploit seeds as a food source.

Spectroscopic Studies on Organic Matter from Triassic Reptile Bones

More Evidence of Organic Matter Preserved in the Mesozoic Fossil Record

Over the last few years, Everything Dinosaur has reported on a number of fascinating research projects from around the world that suggest that there may be more to the fossil record than first meets the eye.  As more and more sophisticated research methodologies are employed, so there has been an exponential increase in our understanding of ancient life.  On of the most controversial areas of research are those studies concerning the finding and identification of traces of organic material preserved in the fossilised bones of long-dead animals.  A team of Polish scientists have recently published in the on line academic journal “PLOS One” a paper detailing the discovery of blood vessels and traces in protein in the bones of Triassic reptiles.

As far as we are aware at Everything Dinosaur, this is the oldest organic material identified to date.

One of the Fossil Limb Bones Used in the Study

One of the limb bones used in the study of Triassic vertebrates from Poland.

One of the limb bones used in the study of Triassic vertebrates from Poland.

The scientists, which include researchers from the University of Silesia (Faculty of Earth Science), Jagiellonian University and the Polish Academy of Sciences report on the finding of preserved blood-vessel-like structures enclosing organic molecules that could be amino acids and fragments of other proteins including fibrils of collagen.   It is thought that the organic material had been preserved in the 247 million-year-old specimens as the bones were rapidly mineralised.

The Shores of the Ancient Tethys Ocean

For much of the Early and Middle Triassic, the central northern portions of Europe, including the countries of Poland and Germany were submerged under a shallow sea (the western edge of the mighty Tethys Ocean).  The limestone strata that was formed during this time preserve evidence of a rich and varied vertebrate fauna as a number of different types of diapsid reptile lived on the shoreline.  The most common large vertebrate fossils are Nothosaurs and the evidence of organic material preservation came from a study of Nothosaur limb bones.  In addition, the fossilised vertebrae (specifically a centrum) of an as yet unidentified Protanystropheus species was also studied.

A Model of a Triassic Marine Reptile a Nothosaurus

One of the models in the Safari Prehistoric Sealife Toob.

One of the models in the Safari Prehistoric Sealife Toob.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Protanystropheus is a member of the Tanystropheidae family of Archosauromorphs, a strange group of reptiles characterised by extremely long and stiff necks that in some species represent more than half their entire body length.  It is likely that both Nothosaurs and Protanystropheus were fish-eaters (piscivores).

An Illustration of a Typical Member of the Tanystropheidae (T. longobardicus)

A drawing of the bizarre Triassic reptile Tanystropheus.

A drawing of the bizarre Triassic reptile Tanystropheus.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Finding Fossil Biomolecules

The team, some of which had identified potential organic material in the fossilised remains of dinosaurs from the Gobi Desert, used an array of advanced and highly sophisticated research methods to identify the biomolecules.  The team used several analysis methods including X-ray photo-electron spectroscopy (XPS), an environmental scanning electron microscope (ESEM) and fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR).  Amino acids including hydroxyproline and hydroxylysine were found.  This discovery provides the oldest evidence yet of preservation of complex organic molecules in vertebrate remains from a marine environment.

Commenting on the team’s findings researcher Dr. Andrzej Boczarowski (Faculty of Earth Science, University of Silesia) stated:

“Among other proteins, we managed to find collagen, one of the most important proteins in the bodies of animals in general and vertebrates in particular.”

Highly Magnified Images Showing Demineralised Blood Vessels from the Fossil Material

Organic matter potentially identified in Triassic vertebrae fossils.

Organic matter potentially identified in Triassic vertebrae fossils.

Picture Credit: PLOS One

The pictures above show some of the images of demineralised blood vessels identified from the fossil samples.

  • Picture (a) – parallel-orientated fossilised blood vessels from the Protanystropheus centrum.
  • Picture (b) – fossilised “floating” blood vessels from the Protanystropheus centrum revealed during the demineralisation process (removing the calcium in a EDTA solution).
  • Picture (c) – and ESEM image of branching (bifurcated) blood vessels mounted on a carbon conductive tab – this organic material was identified from a Nothosaurus femur.
  • Pictures (d, e and f) – stereoscopic microscopic images of isolated branch-like blood vessels from the Nothosaurus femur.

Highly Magnified Fragment of Mineralised Blood Vessel with Tubular Morphology Preserved

Highly magnified image of a blood vessel-like object showing preservation of tube shape.

Highly magnified image of a blood vessel-like object showing preservation of tube shape.

Picture Credit: PLOS One

The picture above shows three ESEM images (g) a potential blood vessel mounted on a carbon conductive tab, (h) mineralised blood vessel showing preservation of a tubular shape from the Nothosaurus femur and (i) an image of a mineralised, damaged wall of a blood vessel from the Protanystropheus centrum.

Complex molecular analysis using highly sophisticated research techniques has yielded evidence of organic material in a number of Pleistocene specimens.  Some organic material including the remnants of blood vessels and collagen has been reported in studies of Cretaceous aged fossil material, but such findings have been questioned and contamination or an infiltration of bacteria have been put forward as more likely sources of organic material.  However, this new study further extends the age range of such potential organic material discoveries and may provide palaeontologists with further insight with regards to the biology of Early Triassic diapsid reptiles.

New Model to Help Find Fossils

Serendipity Taken Out of Fossil Finding

Very often a major fossil find is attributed to serendipity, someone being in the right place at the right time.  Even the most experienced palaeontologist needs a little bit of luck, take for example the discovery of the ancient hominin Homo floresiensis on the Indonesian island of Flores.  Had the research team excavated an area just one metre either side of that part of the cave they did excavate they would never have found the beautifully preserved skull and partial skeleton of an individual (the holotype LB-1).  Yes, “lady luck” does play a part in many new scientific discoveries.  However, an international team of scientists, including researchers from the University of Adelaide, have created a mathematical model to help fossil hunters find the remains of long-extinct animals.

Combining Scientific Disciplines to Predict Where Fossils Can Be Found

The international team, that included researchers from Kiel University (Germany), as well as Australia, looked at the estimated ages of the fossils from a number of extinct Australian megafauna and plotted known fossil find locations for these creatures against data for the prehistoric climate of Australia.  This provided a guide to the maximum likely ranges of the animals in the study.  This information was then mapped against the geology of Australia to provide an indication of what suitably aged, likely fossil bearing strata was exposed.  Weighting for the erosion potential of the rocks was built into the mathematical model and this data set could then be used to help determine the best areas in the country to look for the animal’s fossil remains.

A paper detailing the research has been published in the on line journal PLOS One, the research team confidently state that their model can provide fossil hunters with guidelines on how to find fossils elsewhere in the world too.

Determining the Best Places to Hunt for Fossils

Combining palaeoclimate data with erosion studies and known fossil finds to predict where fossils can be found.

Combining palaeo-climate data with erosion studies and known fossil finds to predict where fossils can be found.

Picture Credit: Sebastián Block, Frédérik Saltré,  Marta Rodríguez-Rey, Damien A. Fordham, Ingmar Unkel, Corey J. A. Bradshaw

The picture above provides an illustration of how the mathematical model was constructed and how to implement it.  For any given type of extinct animal (in this example, the giant marsupial Diprotodon), the red map at the bottom shows the likely places to hunt for fossils of that animal.  The darker the red shading the more likely that location is to be a “fossil finding hot spot”.   The red map has been created by looking at certain variables, namely:

  • Where the animal used to live – a map created by assessing ancient climate data and known fossil finds (the brown map).
  • Where the fossils could be preserved – using an assessment of the geology of the local area (blue map).
  • Where it is now possible to find the fossils of that particular animal, building in an assessment of erosion profiles of the likely fossil bearing strata (green map).

The scientists are confident that this systematic approach to fossil finding is more likely to be successful than random approaches to fossil hunts, even out-doing sophisticated approaches such as using satellite data to identify likely fossil bearing outcrops and exposures.

Five genera of Late Pleistocene megafauna were selected for this study.  All had an extensive and relatively widely distributed fossil record on the continent and since all had become extinct relatively recently there was plenty of evidence to support an assessment of the ancient climate.  The creatures studied were Thylacoleo (the marsupial lion), Protemnodon (a giant wallaby), the cow-sized, giant marsupial  Zygomaturus, the flightless bird Genyornis and Diprotodon, the largest marsupial known to science.

Diprotodon Played a Role in the Study

Diprotodonts - Giant Marsupials

Diprotodon – A Giant Marsupial.

Picture Credit: Australian Museum/James King

Although all these five genera are unique to Australia, the scientists had sufficient fossils to create an accurate map of the creatures prehistoric distribution.

Commenting on the reasoning behind their model, project leader, Professor Corey Bradshaw, (Sir Hubert Wilkins Chair of Climate Change at the University of Adelaide) stated:

“A chain of ideal conditions must occur for fossils to form, which means they are extremely rare, so finding as many as possible can tell us more of what the past was like, and why certain species went extinct.  Typically, however, we use haphazard ways to find fossils.  Mostly people just go to excavation sites and surrounding areas where fossils have been found before.  We hope our models will make it easier for palaeontologists and archaeologists to identify new fossil sites that could yield vast treasures of prehistoric information.”

Lead author of the scientific paper Sebastián Block explained that the team made use of modelling techniques already used widely in ecology.  They looked at the past distribution of these prehistoric genera, where fossils were likely to have formed and the probability of making field discoveries.  The model may not make the back-breaking work of excavating fossils any easier, but at least palaeontologists will be looking in the most likely places.

The Probability of Finding Fossils

Combining disciplines increases the probability of finding fossils.

Combining disciplines increases the probability of finding fossils.

Graph Credit: Sebastián Block, Frédérik Saltré,  Marta Rodríguez-Rey, Damien A. Fordham, Ingmar Unkel, Corey J. A. Bradshaw

The bar chart above shows how the model increases the likelihood of fossil discovery for the five genera studied.  The chances of finding a fossil of that particular genus compared to a random search is plotted on the vertical (Y axis).  The blue bars represent the probability of finding a fossil based on an assessment of ancient climate.  The green bars show the probability of a successful fossil hunt using just geological data and erosion assessments.  The red bars show the increased likelihood of success after the application of the variables used in this assessment (ancient climate, preservation potential and known discoveries).  The dashed line outlines the probability of finding a fossil using a random search in a known fossil bearing locality.

Likely Fossil Preservation Sites Accounted For

The team added into their data relevant predictors for the likelihood of fossil discoveries.  For example, many Late Pleistocene fossils are found in caves so the number of caves in the areas studied were also plotted.  In addition, as Australian megafauna (indeed most terrestrial animal fossils), are found in association with ancient lakes and rivers, areas where sedimentary material can be built up were given greater weighting as indeed were areas that tended to be more open and devoid of extensive plant cover as this would make fossil finding easier.

Using the model, likely fossil “hot spots” identified include the area south of Lake Eyre (South Australia), the land to the west of Lake Torrens (also South Australia) and the Shark Bay locality in Western Australia.

Kiel University’s Professor Ingmar Unkel added:

“Our methods predict potential fossil locations across an entire continent, which is useful to identify potential fossil areas far from already known sites.  It’s a good “exploration filter”; after which remote-sensing approaches and fine-scale expert knowledge could compliment the search.”

Luck will still play a role in fossil discoveries but at least this mathematical model helps to swing the odds in the scientists favour.

Extinct Bird of New Caledonia Mystery Solved

Giant Bird Mystery Solved But Heaps of Problems

Scientists including researchers from Flinders University (South Australia), have solved the mystery of an extinct flightless bird that once roamed the island archipelago of New Caledonia.  For the first time, the post cranial skeleton has been reconstructed using fossils from a number of cave sites, however, the strange heaps found on the island may not have been nesting mounds created by this large bird, the mounds remain a mystery.

The bird named Sylviornis neocaledoniae, was about the size of a Dodo, but with much longer legs and a longer neck, large individuals may have reached 80 centimetres tall and weighed as much as 34 kgs.  It survived on these isolated islands until very recently, there is evidence to suggest that these birds were around 2,500 years ago.  The arrival of humans in New Caledonia led to the extinction of Sylviornis, but a mystery remained.  Large earth mounds were believed to be nesting sites excavated by these flightless birds but an analysis of foot bones reveals that this extinct New Caledonian resident was not a member of the Megapodiidae (incubator birds), if it did not build these mounds than what or who did?

Scientists have Reconstructed the Skeleton of Sylviornis neocaledoniae

Scale bar = 50 cm, a skeletal reconstruction of the giant, flightless bird from New Caledonia Sylviornis.

Scale bar = 50 cm, a skeletal reconstruction of the giant, flightless bird from New Caledonia Sylviornis neocaledoniae.

Picture Credit: PLOS One

Known bones are shaded white in the illustration above, bones not associated with known remains are shaded grey.  Previously, only the skull had been reconstructed, this robust bird probably fed on small animals including invertebrates.

The islands of New Caledonia in the south-west Pacific lie some 750 miles to the east of the coast of Queensland.  Dinosaur enthusiasts might remember that New Caledonia was the location chosen to shoot episode three of the ground-breaking BBC television series “Walking with Dinosaurs” that first aired back in 1999.  The exotic fauna of these tropical islands contains a number of unique trees and plants, that are descended from species that once existed on the super-continent Gondwana.  The isolation of the islands permitted several types of ancient flora to survive, for example the New Caledonia Pine (Araucaria columnaris) is descended from ancient trees once grazed by dinosaurs.  The islands became Oxfordshire in the Late Jurassic some 149 million years ago, for the purposes of episode three of the television series – “The Cruel Sea”.

The research, published in the on line journal PLOS One suggests that S. neocaledoniae is not closely related to megapodes, birds such as the Australian Brush Turkey (Alectura lathami) or the Malleefowl (Leipoa ocellata), it had feet more like a chicken than the feet of birds that construct large mounds of earth and vegetation which they then lay eggs in, relying on the mound to incubate the eggs.

Comparison of Foot Bones S. neocaledoniae (left) with a Malleefowl (Leipoa ocellata)

Sylviornis foot bones (left) compared to the extant, mould building Malleefowl of Australia (right).

Sylviornis foot bones (left) compared to the extant, mould building Malleefowl of Australia (right).

Picture Credit: PLOS One

The two black bars are scale bars, each one equates to ten centimetres.  The foot of Sylviornis may have been much bigger than the extant Malleefowl, but the toes are proportionally much smaller, the claws less sharp and indeed, the pedal unguals (bones that make up the digits) are also proportionally smaller than that found in the Malleefowl.  The scientists conclude that these feet were not adapted to creating nesting mounds and that S. neocaledoniae probably incubated its eggs by sitting on the nest in the same way as Ostriches and Emus.

Commenting on the study, one of the authors of the scientific paper, Miyess Mitri (Flinders University) stated:

“I was privileged to study this amazing bird, whose large legs and tiny wings made it look like a turkey on steroids.  The tell-tale muscle scars showed that the muscles for the toes were weak and the claws were just like those of chickens — nothing like the mini-spades of mound-builders.”

A phylogenetic analysis using characteristics observed from more than 600 bones studied, suggests that the closest relative of Sylviornis neocaledoniae was Megavitiornis altirostris, colloquially known as the Noble Megapode, that was once resident on the island of Fiji some 850 miles east of New Caledonia.  Sadly, the flightless Megavitiornis seems to have suffered the same fate as Sylviornis, it too became extinct once humans settled on Fiji.  It is likely that both birds, believed to be from the same bird family as the chicken, were hunted to extinction because they tasted good and being flightless they would have been relatively easy to catch.

As for those strange heaps of earth, the research team suggest that they could have been caused by a phenomenon of natural erosion.

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