Category: Palaeontological articles

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

Fossilised Dinosaur Foot Bones Found on Welsh Beach

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

An Illustration of the Newly Discovered Welsh Dinosaur

Significant dinosaur discovery.

Significant dinosaur discovery.

Picture Credit: National Museum of Wales/Bob Nicholls

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

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

The Foot Bones of the Welsh Theropod Dinosaur

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

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

Picture Credit: National Museum of Wales

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

Commenting on his lucky fossil find, Sam stated:

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

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

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

Set for a Bright Future in Vertebrate Palaeontology

Third year palaeontology student Sam Davies.

Third year palaeontology student Sam Davies.

Picture Credit: BBC News

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

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

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

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

A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur explained:

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

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

Little Finger Points to Changes in Hominin Evolution

Ancestors May Have Come Down From the Trees Earlier than Thought

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

Various Views of the Little Finger Bone (Proximal Phalanx)

Various Views of the ancient hominin finger bone.

Various Views of the ancient hominin finger bone.

Picture Credit: M. Domínguez-Rodrigo

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

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

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

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

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

The location of the bone in the left hand.

The location of the bone in the left hand.

Picture Credit: M. Domínguez-Rodrigo

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

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

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

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

Second Tetrapod Zoology Convention – Date Set

TetZooCon 2015 (14th November 2015)

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

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

TetZooCon 2015 – Bookings Now Being Taken

Click on the logo to visit the Paypal booking service.

Click on the logo to visit the Paypal booking service.

Image Credit: Darren Naish

To book tickets via Paypal: Tickets Can Be Booked Here

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

Palaeoart Workshop – A Highlight

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

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

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

Four-Legged Snake Fossil Slithers into Legal Dispute

Tetrapodophis amplectus Fossil Provokes Legal Action

Back on July 24th, Everything Dinosaur reported on the publication of a scientific paper that provided an insight into how snakes evolved from limbed ancestors.  The fossil of a snake-like creature with four tiny legs had been spotted on a tour of a German museum quite by chance.  It’s significance had not been realised until Dr. David Martill (University of Portsmouth), spotted the beautifully preserved fossil whilst taking a party of his vertebrate palaeontology students on a visit to Germany to explore some of the country’s natural history museum fossil collections.

The unique specimen is believed to have been excavated from the Crato Formation of north-eastern Brazil.  The animal has been named Tetrapodophis amplectus , the name means “four-legged” embracing snake”, as the limbs probably did not have much of a locomotive function but probably served as claspers in mating or helping to control and manipulate prey.

To read more about Tetrapodophis: First Fossil Snake with Four Limbs Described

With the paper published, a legal dispute has arisen with the Brazilian authorities and an investigation has begun to try to understand more about the provenance of the fossil material.  Brazil made it illegal in 1942 to sell or export fossils without the express permission of the Government.  The snake fossil was part of a private collection on display at the famous Bürgermeister-Müller-Museum in Solnhofen.  This museum, based in southern Germany, has amongst its fossil collection, spectacular Late Jurassic fossil specimens preserved in fine-grained, lithographic limestone. By chance, during Dr. Martill’s visit, the museum was putting on an exhibition of Cretaceous fossils from similar strata, but this time from Brazil.  Both the slab and the counter slab are known, but their exact provenance remains a mystery.  That’s the problem, it may have been collected prior to the Brazilian legislation, or perhaps it was collected after 1942, nobody is really sure.

The Beautifully Preserved and Extremely Significant Tetrapodophis Fossil

A beautifully preserved early, limbed snake.

A beautifully preserved early, limbed snake.

Picture Credit: Dr. Dave Martill/University of Portsmouth with additional annotation by Everything Dinosaur

The Brazilian officials are keen to investigate to try to determine whether the snake fossil was taken out of Brazil illegally.  If this is the case, then they may have grounds for repatriation.

Commenting on the situation Felipe Chaves, (Head of the Fossil Division of the Brazilian National Department of Mineral Production, based in Brasilia), stated:

“We will formalise the request for an investigation with the Brazilian Federal Police, in order to ascertain how this fossil specimen left Brazil.  We know some details that merit being investigated.”

The twist in the tale highlights a major problem in palaeontology.  How much responsibility can scientists take when it comes to upholding the legality of the fossil specimens that they study?

Unfortunately, fossils, especially those of vertebrates, can fetch high prices.  There is a black market of illegal fossil material and many collectors are prepared to pay large sums for exquisite specimens.  This encourages the illegal excavation and trading of such artefacts.  There are a number of countries that have established tough laws to try to prevent the smuggling of fossil material, but there is a lot of evidence to suggest that illegal selling is still widespread.

To read an article about the seizing of a dinosaur fossil skeleton (T. bataar) that was put up for sale at a New York auction: U.S. Authorities Seize Dinosaur Fossil at the Centre of Auction Row

Dr. Nicholas Longrich, a palaeontologist at the University of Bath and a co-author of the fossil study stated:

“Personally, I would have liked to see the fossil go back to Brazil, but it wasn’t my fossil and so it wasn’t my choice.  We did discuss at length whether the specimen should be returned, given that we were uncertain about when it left, but the counterargument was that there was no evidence to suggest that any laws had been broken.”

It was only when the scientific paper describing the snake fossil was published in the academic journal “Science”, that Brazilian Government officials became aware of the fossil’s existence. Felipe Chaves suggests that the research team should have informed the relevant authorities when they considered that this specimen most probably came from Brazil.  However, Dr Martill, the lead author of the Tetrapodophis scientific paper sees no need to do this.

He stated:

“There are hundreds, if not thousands of Brazilian fossils [in museum collections] all over the world.  It is a bit distracting if scientists have to mess about with the legality of fossils before they study them.  I see thousands of fossils every year from all over the planet.  I am not going to write to the governments of all those countries just to check each and every fossil.”

Looking at the Wider Point of View

Protectionist laws are in place in a number of countries, most notably China, where significant steps have been taken to try to reduce the smuggling of fossil material out of the country.  Such restrictions can hamper the collection and study of fossil specimens, but at the same time there is a need to protect a country’s heritage and to crack down on criminal activities.

A Seizure of Dinosaur Fossil Eggs (China)

Confiscated dinosaur eggs taken from smugglers by Chinese customs.

Confiscated dinosaur eggs taken from smugglers by Chinese customs.

Picture Credit: Chinese News Agency

Fossils from private collections often cause the greatest concern.  It can prove very difficult to establish how or when a fossil specimen was acquired.  However, should researchers publish data on fossils that may have been obtained illegally.  A number of academic journals produce guidelines to help clarify the situation, at least in so far as publishing a scientific paper.  For example, the academic journal “Cretaceous Research”, provides assistance to authors by noting in its author guidelines that papers on fossils of uncertain origin will not be accepted for publication, even if they are part of a museum’s collection.  The specimens must have unambiguous collection or ownership data associated with them.

Given the wealth of vertebrate fossil material from the Crato and Santana Formations of Brazil in museums, it is doubtful whether the Brazilian investigation will make much progress.

A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur explained:

“We can see both sides of the argument. Firstly, there is the desire to have controls on the exportation of fossil material and other artefacts from a country.  Retaining fossils in their country of origin can do much to encourage science education and research in that part of the world.  However, it is important to allow the continuation of research into fossils housed in various collections around the world even if their provenance can be described as a bit “murky”.  The important thing is to deter illegal collecting whilst at the same time encouraging a more open attitude towards scientific study.  Owners of private collections may be tempted to hide their collections away, thus denying scientists the chance to access them and to conduct research.”

To read an article about the return of Chinese fossils by American Customs officials following a number of seizures: Returning Contraband to China

Earliest Evidence of Reproduction in a Complex Organism

Unravelling the Secrets of Fractofusus

There has been much debate over the origins of life on Earth and over the last two decades our understanding of that “slow burning fuse” leading to complex multi-cellular life forms has greatly improved, but many mysteries still remain.  During the latter stages of the Proterozoic Eon, referred to as the Neoproterozoic, the very first ecosystems were established with bacteria, algae and protists (single-celled organisms with a nucleus), still dominating but slowly and surely more complex life began to evolve and to play an increasingly important role in these food webs.  A team of scientists led by researchers from Cambridge University have identified the earliest example of reproduction in a complex organism, opening a window into life in deep water marine environments some 565 million years ago.

An Illustration of the Bizarre Ediacaran Fauna Fractofusus

An illustration showing how Fractofusus colonisised new territory.

An illustration showing how Fractofusus colonised new territory.

Picture Credit: Cambridge University

Fractofusus (two species F. misrai and F. andersoni) was the organism studied.  Fractofusus, which belonged to a group of bizarre organisms that show links to both the Plantae and Animalia Kingdoms called Rangeomorphs, thrived in marine habitats during the Ediacaran, a geological period that marked the end of the Proterozoic Eon, that lasted from around 635 million years ago to 542 million years ago.  Ediacaran fauna represent a transition from the microbially dominated food chains of the early Earth towards the modern biota that can be identified in Cambrian fossils.  More than thirty different Ediacaran faunal types have now been described providing scientists with the oldest known record of diverse, complex creatures.  Fossils of these ancient communities have been found in Russia, the Ediacaran Hills of South Australia (from which this geological period was named) and in Canada (Newfoundland and Labrador).  The Fractofusus fossils in this study come from the Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve on the coast of Newfoundland.

The research team discovered that Fractofusus took a bilateral approach to reproduction.  These lozenge shaped fossils were benthic (live on the sea floor) and sessile (attached to rocks), in addition, they were not mobile.  This means that fossils showing these strange organisms preserve them in situ, as they would have been when they were alive.  If an area is dotted with these fossils, then the scientists have a spatial map of how these organisms were distributed.  It is from these spatial maps that ideas about their reproduction strategy can be inferred.

Looking like fern fronds, Fractofusus was related to Charnia masoni, fossils of which were first identified from rocks exposed at Charnwood Forest in Leicestershire (Midlands of England).  These bizarre life-forms probably lived in deep water, far below the Epipelagic Zone of the ocean (the first two hundred metres of sea, where sunlight can penetrate).  At depth, no sunlight could reach, so these organism were not true plants as they could not photosynthesize.  They are difficult to place in the Kingdom Animalia as well.  They were fractual forms, with frond-like structures with no mouths, alimentary canal, anus or any method of locomotion.  It is likely that their large surface areas, (some of these organisms were up to two metres in length), allowed them to absorb nutrients directly from the sea water.  They probably grew extremely slowly.

Fractofusus Fossils Used in the Study

(a) = Fractofusus andersoni and (b) = Fractofusus misrai

(a) = Fractofusus andersoni and (b) = Fractofusus misrai

Picture Credit: Cambridge University

Fractofusus colonies dominate the fossil assemblage found along the coast of Newfoundland.  Two main species were analysed in this study.  Firstly, there is the more oval form (a) F. andersoni, pictured above and then there is the elongate form Fractofusus misrai (b).  Both these species exhibit the typical structures of this ancient organism, as preserved in the negative, epirelief external moulds formed in silts which were covered in volcanic ash deposits.

Analysis of the cluster patterns of the fossils revealed the likelihood of two methods of reproduction.  In one method, the organism sprouted “runners” from its body similar to the stolons produced by plants such as strawberries (asexual reproduction).  The second reproduction method (asexual or sexual reproduction), involved the release of waterborne propagules (simple buds or seeds released into the water column).  Such reproduction habits would have allowed this immobile organism to rapidly colonise a local area as well as to move to new territory.  The capacity of Fractofusus to derive the next generation by two distinct reproductive modes is a testament to its sophisticated biology.

Unfortunately, Fractofusus seems to have become extinct during the start of the Cambrian geological period around 542 million years ago, a time when more complex organisms were involving including animals with hard shells and armour with the establishment of the first complex predator/prey based ecosystems.

A Diagram Illustrating How Fractofusus Spread

Simplified diagram showing spatial distribution of Fractofusus.

Simplified diagram showing spatial distribution of Fractofusus.

Picture Credit: Cambridge University

The dual method of reproduction is illustrated in the above diagram.  Larger “grand-parent” organisms were the product of ejected waterborne propagules, while the “parents” and “children” grew from stolon like structures sent out by the older generation.

Lead author of the scientific paper, which has just been published in the journal “Nature”, Dr. Emily Mitchell (Cambridge University) stated:

“It [Fractofusus] has a very distinct body plan that is totally unique. There is nothing like Fractofusus around today, which makes trying to understand anything about it really, really difficult.  We knew very little about it, apart from the fact that it lived in the deep sea, it has a relatively large surface area, so it got its nutrients from the water column.  We literally had no idea how it reproduced prior to this study.”

Dr. Mitchell went onto add:

“Fractofusus doesn’t exhibit any of the features you associate with animals.  It certainly wasn’t a plant.  It belonged to a now extinct eukaryotic group known as Rangeomorphs.  But how Rangeomorphs relate to animals and the origins of animals is incredibly difficult to work out.”

This statistical, spatial mapping approach to the study of Ediacaran fauna is in its infancy.  The research team hope to employ this technique to explore how Fractofusus interacted with its environment and how colonies interacted with each other.

First Fossil Snake with Four Limbs Described

How Snakes Lost Their Legs

Serendipity can play a huge role in science, for Dr Dave Martill a chance encounter with a 115 million-year-old fossil whilst taking a group of third year students around a German museum, has led to a breakthrough in our understanding of how snakes evolved.   A beautifully preserved fossil snake with four limbs, the first snake fossil with four legs ever found, making this specimen a transitional form between limbed lizards and the snakes we know today, is helping scientists to piece together the puzzle of how snakes lost their legs.

Over the last fifteen years or so the University of Portsmouth has arranged a tour of German natural history museums for their third year vertebrate palaeontology students.  On a visit to one such museum, the famous Bürgermeister-Müller-Museum in Solnhofen (Southern Germany), to view the spectacular Jurassic limestone fossils including Archaeopteryx, by chance, the Museum was hosting an exhibit of much younger Cretaceous fossils from Brazil.  Dr. Martill, took his students around the exhibit and to his amazement he spotted on display a small, exquisitely preserved fossil of a snake, but this snake had tiny legs.  Enquiries were made and Dr. Martill working with Dr. Helmut Tischlinger (Bürgermeister-Müller-Museum) and Dr Nicholas Longrich (University of Bath), have published today in the academic journal “Science” a description of this unique fossil specimen.

The Four-Legged Snake Fossil

A beautifully preserved early, limbed snake.

A beautifully preserved early, limbed snake.

Picture Credit: Dr. Dave Martill/University of Portsmouth with additional annotation by Everything Dinosaur

This new snake species has been named Tetrapodophis amplectus (pronounced Tet-tra-poe-doh-fis am-pleck-tus), and it means “four-legged embracing snake”, the embracing element as the limbs were too small to be used in locomotion, they may well have served a function in holding prey or embracing mates.

Both the slab and counter slab are known but their exact provenance remains a mystery.  The fossil specimens were collected many decades ago and held in a private collection.  The fine-grained limestone matrix is dotted with occasional coprolites from an ancient fish called Dastilbe, bedding plains associated with these coprolites come from the Nova Olinda Member of the Crato Formation found in north-eastern Brazil.  The exact age of this Formation is contentious, the lack of marine zonal fossils make dating extremely difficult, but scientists estimate that this important, highly fossiliferous strata dates from between 126 to 113 million years ago (Aptian to Early Albian faunal stages).

The snake measures around twenty centimetres in length and it was very probably a juvenile.  Just how big this snake could grow to remains unknown.  The fossil is preserved in almost complete articulation indicating a low energy fossil preservation environment and a lack of disturbance by scavengers.  This little snake ended up in a hyper saline salt lake and this is what aided its fantastic preservation.

An Illustration of the Early Snake Tetrapodophis (T. amplectus) with Prey

The tiny limbs may have been used to hold prey.

The tiny limbs may have been used to hold prey.

Picture Credit: Julius Csotonyi

Evidence of the snake’s last meal was also preserved, however, it was not a small mammal as depicted in the excellent illustration by renowned palaeoartist Julius Csotonyi.  Dr. Tischlinger, is an expert in the use of UV light to help expose hidden details of fossil specimens, a technique he has used to great effect on the finely-grained, lithographic limestone specimens of Solnhofen.  When viewed under ultraviolet light, the fossil revealed the remains of a small vertebrate, most probably a salamander.

Abdomen Viewed under Ultraviolet Light Reveals Gut Contents

Viewed under UV light the stomach contents are revealed.

Viewed under UV light the stomach contents are revealed.

Picture Credit: Journal Science 

The photograph above shows the position of the gut contents (fluorescing white) – (a) and (b) phosphatised gut contents (also fluorescing white) with tiny fragments of bone (orange).

It is generally accepted that snakes evolved from lizards at some point in the distant past.

Commenting on the significance of this fossil Dr. Martill stated:

“What scientists don’t know yet is when they evolved, why they evolved and what type of lizard they evolved from.  This fossil answers some very important questions, for example it now seems clear to us that snakes evolved from burrowing lizards, not from marine lizards.”

 Dr. Longrich who has extensively studied the evolution of snakes, commented:

“It is a perfect little snake, except it has these little arms and legs, and they have these strange long fingers and toes.  The hands and feet are very specialised for grasping.  So when snakes stopped walking and started slithering, the legs didn’t just become useless little vestiges – they started using them for something else.  We’re not entirely sure what that would be, but they may have been used for grasping prey, or perhaps mates.”

Those Hands and Feet were Not for Walking

At just 4 mm and 7 mm long respectively, the tiny hands and feet were not aiding locomotion, but the well-defined claws suggest that they might have helped Tetrapodophis grasp and hold prey.  They may also have served a role as “claspers” in mating.

A Close Up of the Left Forelimb (Tetrapodophis amplectus)

A close up of the left forelimb.

A close up of the left forelimb.

Picture Credit: Science Journal

The photographs and illustrations above show the T. amplectus holotype (BMMS BK 2-2), specifically a close up view of the left forelimb and hand (manus).  Photograph (a) shows the forelimb, whilst (b) is a close up view of the manus (scale bar 1 mm).  Illustrations (c) and (d)  show the layout of the bones, the dotted line in (d) indicates a missing bone.

Key

  • hu – humerus
  • man – manus
  • ra – radius
  • ul – ulna

A Close Up of the Hindlimbs (Ventral View – Looking from Underneath)

Probably used to help grasp prey or mates.

Probably used to help grasp prey or mates.

Picture Credit: Science Journal

The pictures and diagrams above show the arrangement of the hindlimbs (ventral view), as seen from underneath the body.  Photograph (a) shows the hindlimbs, (d) an illustration of the hindlimbs, (b) is a close up of sacrum and pelvic area, illustrated by diagram (e).  Photograph (c) shows the delicate hind foot which measures approximately 7 mm long.  Diagram (f) shows a layout of the bones in the foot.

Key

  • fem – femur
  • fib – fibula
  • tib – tibia

The fossil suggests that snakes may have lost their limbs to help them burrow, either through sediment of through leaf litter, speculated a member of the Everything Dinosaur team.  Cladistic analysis places the origin of the snakes close to the Iguana and the Anguimorpha families, (the Anguidae family includes limbless lizards such as slow worms), although the exact phylogenetic relationship remains disputed.  The discovery of this fossil suggests that the snake family, a very widespread and diverse group of reptiles today, probably first evolved on the southern super-continent of Gondwana.

Dinosaur Chemical Ghosts

Manchester University Leads the Way With Mapping Elements

Studying fossils has changed radically over the last two decades.  More and more tools are being added to the palaeontologist’s armoury, many of these tools are drawn from a variety of other scientific disciplines, engineering, materials science and medicine for example.  Manchester University has been pioneering the mapping of elements including metals in fossil material.  Once an understanding of a fossil in terms of the elements preserved has been achieved, researchers can begin to piece together clues about the biology of the organism and the burial history.

Using a sophisticated piece of technology (synchrotron-based X-ray imaging), scientists can explore the composition of scales, teeth, skin and feathers from long extinct creatures.  Elements such as zinc (Zn) and Calcium (Ca) can be plotted on the fossil, providing details on features that would not be visible under normal light or ultra-violet lighting conditions.

A False Colour SRS-XRF map of an Archaeopteryx Fossil

Looking at the individual elements of a fossil specimen.

Looking at the individual elements of a fossil specimen.

Picture Credit: Manchester University

The picture above shows a close up of the skull, cervical vertebrae (neck bones) ribs and the wings of Archaeopteryx (Archaeopteryx lithographica).

Key

red = Ca (calcium, the matrix is limestone, hence, high levels of calcium surrounds the fossil)

green – Zn (zinc)

blue = Mn (manganese)

The brighter and more intense the colour the higher concentration of that element.

Blue flecks of colour on the surface of the fossil are the result or the presence of tiny precipitates of manganese minerals, which has probably been deposited by ground water.  There is some zinc associated with mineral precipitates too, but virtually all of the zinc in this image is associated with the fossil bone material.  This suggests that zinc was present in large quantities in the original bone (as found in many types of organism today).  The zinc has been locked within the bones for over 150 million years, as Archaeopteryx (A. lithographica) lived during the Late Jurassic.

 It is the application of new technologies that is opening up a whole world of new possibilities when it comes to investigating creatures that lived in the past.

Back in January, 2015 Everything Dinosaur team members made a number of predictions as to what might happen in the palaeontology over the next twelve months.  One of our “palaeontology predictions” was that there would be more research undertaken into biometals preserved as fossils, there would be more work on the metallome.  A metallome is the presence of metallic elements in relation to organic matter.  From analysis of this data, scientists will be able to learn more about the type of biological processes that once were carried out by long dead organisms.

To read more about Everything Dinosaur’s palaeontology predictions for 2015: Palaeontology and Fossil Predictions for the Next Twelve Months (2015)

For an article published in May 2014 that explains in a little more detail some of the research currently being undertaken into biometals and their presence in the fossil record: Palaeontology Enters the Metal Age

Karoo Rocks Provides Fresh Insight into Extinction Event

Shedding Light on an Extinction Event from 260 Million Years Ago

One global extinction event may have affected both terrestrial and marine biotas at the same time, some 260 million years ago.  With all the news recently of our planet entering a sixth mass extinction, studies into previous extinction events can help scientists to model and predict the impact of future events on environments and the species that live within them.

An international team led by researchers from the Evolutionary Studies Institute (ESI) at the University of the Witwatersrand, (Johannesburg), has obtained an age from rocks of the Great Karoo that shed light on the timing of a mass extinction event that occurred around 260 million years ago.  The Great Karoo refers to a enormous sequence of rocks often cited as the “Karoo Supergroup”, which consists of mostly non marine sandstones and shales that represent a vast tract of geological time, from the Carboniferous through to the Jurassic.  This research focused on exploring fossils from the Beaufort unit, a sequence of rocks that were laid down in South Africa from the Mid Permian through to the Early Triassic.  These rocks provide a record of the plants, invertebrates and vertebrates that thrived in the semi-arid conditions found in southern Africa during the Permian and Triassic.  In particular, they provide evidence of the wide variety of terrestrial vertebrates that lived at this time, the forerunners of today’s reptiles and mammals.

The mass extinction event of 260 million years ago led to the disappearance of a diverse group of early mammal-like reptiles called dinocephalians, which were the largest land-living animals of the time.  Dinocephalians, were large bodied and evolved into a variety of forms including carnivores and herbivores.  They were synapsids and as such, ancestral to modern mammals.

The research project was led by Dr. Michael Day, (postdoctoral fellow at Wits University), the findings have been published today in the Royal Society’s biological journal, “Proceedings of the Royal Society B.”  The paper is entitled:  “When and how did the terrestrial Mid-Permian mass extinction occur?  Evidence from the tetrapod record of the Karoo Basin, South Africa.”

The Karoo is very rich in fossils of terrestrial animals from the Permian and Triassic geological periods, which makes it one of the few places to study extinction events on land during this time.  As a result, South Africa’s Karoo region provides not only a historical record of biological change over a period of Earth’s history but also a means to test theories of evolutionary processes over long stretches of time.  By collecting fossils in the Eastern, Western and Northern Cape Provinces the team was able to show that around 74–80% of species became extinct along with the dinocephalians in a geologically short period of time.

Dr Michael Day with Some of the Fossils Used in the Study (Cranial Material)

Dr. Michael Day and some of the fossils used in the study.

Dr. Michael Day and some of the fossils used in the study.

Picture Credit: Wits University

The new date was obtained by high precision analysis of the relative abundance of uranium and lead in small zircon crystals from a volcanic ash layer close to this extinction horizon in the Karoo.  This provides a means of linking the South African fossil record with the fossil record in the rest of the world.  In particular, it helps correlate the Karoo with the global marine record, which also records an extinction event around 260 million years ago.

Dr. Day explained:

“A Mid-Permian extinction event on land has been known for some time but was suspected to have occurred earlier than those in the marine realm.  The new date suggests that one event may have affected marine and terrestrial environments at the same time, which could mean its impact was greater than we thought.”

The Mid-Permian extinction occurred near the end of what geologists call the Guadalupian epoch that extended from 272.3 to around 259.1 million years ago.  It pre-dated the massive and much more famous end-Permian mass extinction event by 8 million years.

Mid Permian Terrestrial Extinction Plotted Against Proposed Marine Extinction Dates

Table examining the impact of the Mid Permian extinction event on terrestrial fauna.

Table examining the impact of the Mid Permian extinction event on terrestrial fauna.

Table Credit: Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The table shows that in this new study of Karoo fauna, the demise of the Dinocephalia can be clearly mapped to a marine extinction event (marked by the yellow star).  The marine extinction event has been identified through a study in the change of marine fossils deposited in strata from China (Wuchiapingian age, which has been dated to around 260 million years ago).  The scientists have therefore concluded that one global event may have affected both marine and terrestrial environments simultaneously.  The impact of this event was greater than previously thought.

Dr. Day added:

“The South African Karoo rocks host the richest record of Middle Permian land-living vertebrate animals.  This dataset, the culmination of 30 years of fossil collecting and diligent stratigraphic recording of the information, for the first time provides robust fossil and radioisotopic data to support the occurrence of this extinction event on land.”

Jahandar Ramezani (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), was responsible for dating the stratigraphic sequences using the zircon uranium to lead degradation study (CA-TIMS method).  Dr. Ramezani, of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology commented:

“The exact age of the marine extinctions remains uncertain, but this new date from terrestrial deposits of the Karoo, supported by palaeontological evidence, represents an important step towards a better understanding of the Mid-Permian extinction and its effect on terrestrial faunas.”

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.

Fibres and Cellular Structures Observed in Dinosaur Fossils

Soft Tissue Preservation in Late Cretaceous Dinosaur Bones

When Everything Dinosaur team members were first informed of a paper being published that reported on “blood cells and soft tissue” having been discovered in dinosaur fossils the day before the film “Jurassic World ” was released, there was some scepticism around the office.  Amid the inevitably lurid and rather dramatic headlines which have been seen in some publications we thought it a good idea to try to put this fascinating piece of research into a wider context.  The study was undertaken by scientists at the Imperial College London, their findings were published in the academic journal “Nature Communications”, it is not going to herald the establishment of a number of genetically engineered dinosaur themed safari parks, but it does suggest that even poorly preserved body fossils may contain more than just permineralised materials.

Bones and Teeth Alone are Not Enough

Most of what we have learned about the Dinosauria has been gained from studying their bones and teeth.  Trace fossils too have proved useful, even permitting researchers to speculate on behaviours such as social groupings and pack hunting, but if traces of soft tissue could be analysed, then our understanding could move forward exponentially.  Such a study could provide valuable insights into dinosaur physiology, it would for example, provide strong evidence with regards to the endothermy versus ectothermy debate (warm-blooded versus cold-blooded).  Importantly, the link between the Coelurosauria and birds could be established beyond doubt.  In short, it could be proved that the Robin perched on your bird table is indeed a distant relative of Tyrannosaurus rex.

Dr. Susannah Maidment One of the Authors of the Study Holding a Stegosaurus Skull Cast

Dr Susannah Maidment, one of the authors of the study holding a cast of a Stegosaurus skull.

Dr Susannah Maidment, one of the authors of the study holding a cast of a Stegosaurus skull.

Picture Credit: Laurent Mekul

A point that we frequently make is that dinosaur biology remains very much a mystery.  What we have learned has come about through some very remarkable research that utilises techniques and scientific methods that were undreamed of even a few years ago.  It is the collaboration between different scientific disciplines that is providing so much new information on dinosaurs and other extinct creatures.  The use of computerised tomography (CT), for example, has enabled palaeontologists to explore the three-dimensional structures of fossil bone, even when it has been embedded in extremely dense rock.  In this study, samples from eight dinosaur bone specimens were subjected to scanning electron microscopy (SEM) to provide exquisite images of the fossil structures in minute detail.  A number of samples were studied using a focused ion beam  (FIB), an imaging and resolution technology more at home in a materials science lab but now finding an increasing number of applications in other scientific areas of enquiry including vertebrate palaeontology.  It is the adoption and application of different scientific methods, drawn from a whole variety of research fields that is enabling academics to make some remarkable discoveries, shedding light, or in this case electrons and ions on those most enigmatic of extinct creatures – the dinosaurs.

Any Old Fossils?

The novel approach undertaken by the Imperial College scientists sets up an intriguing possibility, one that allows us to use an analogy from the “Jurassic Park” franchise  to explain.  The eight fossils used in this study came from the Natural History Museum (London), which is conveniently located just a few hundred metres away from the College.  Specifically the fossils come from two collections at the Museum, all of them relate to Late Cretaceous dinosaur fossil material from North America (Dinosaur Provincial Park and Lance Formations respectively).  The fossils studied represent a claw bone from an unknown species of meat-eating dinosaur, a partial rib from an indeterminate duck-billed dinosaur and other bits and pieces of assorted dinosaur that would not have got a second glance had they been on display.  That’s the point.  Evidence for soft tissue preservation in a number of vertebrate fossils have been reported before, even in the Dinosauria.  This area is not without controversy, but here evidence has been presented for the potential preservation of organic remains from reptiles that died more than seventy million years ago.

Dinosaur Claw Bone used in the Study

Manual ungual (dinosaur claw) from an unknown species of Theropod used in the Imperial College London study.

Manual ungual (dinosaur claw) from an unknown species of Theropod used in the Imperial College London study.

Picture Credit: Laurent Mekul

If these fragments of fossils can possibly contain proteins and other biological structures, then maybe, just maybe there is a lot more preserved within the fossil record – we just have not been looking for it.

Jurassic Park

Let’s use that “Jurassic Park” analogy to look at this intriguing aspect further.  In the original book, written by Michael Crichton and published in 1990, the InGen scientists (the team behind the creation of various dinosaurs using DNA recovered from blood-sucking insects preserved in amber, mixed with amphibian genetic material and so forth), come up with what they think to be an infallible method of ensuring that all their engineered dinosaurs stay on their island home.  Each animal’s position is tracked and movements can be recorded using a simple receiver.  With three hundred dinosaurs on the preserve, it is just a case of asking the software that tracks the animals’ comings and goings to find three hundred dinosaurs.  Every day without fail, when asked, the computer read out states that there are three hundred dinosaurs on the island.  The flaw in this safety precaution is pointed out by Dr. Ian Malcolm, a mathematician who has been brought to the resort in order to validate it prior to the park opening to the public.  The good doctor, asks the computer programme to find three hundred and one dinosaurs, and sure enough the software reports on that number.  Dr. Malcolm continues to interrogate the team behind the computer programme asking repeatedly for the software to detect more and more dinosaurs.  The doctor, a  specialist in Chaos Theory, had predicted that the biological preserve would fail “nature finds a way” as he so eloquently states in the film.  Despite the entire dinosaur population starting out as female, the animals had started to breed and that was why there were more dinosaurs recorded than expected.

Just like in the example above, scientists may have been asking the wrong questions.  Soft tissue preserved in the fossil record of long extinct creatures might be more common than previously thought.  Similar structures have been observed before, but for most of the time, the research was focused on investigating the range of criteria that were believed to have existed to have led to the preservation of organic remains, these specimens were treated as the exception – could they be the norm?

Caution Advised

Tiny egg-like shapes identified deep within a dinosaur claw bone that have a resemblance to red blood cells, certainly deserve further analysis and investigation.  Admittedly, the red and green images of the structures with the different colours reflecting varying material densities can be confusing, after all, if a lay person reads a headline in a magazine stating that dinosaur blood may have been found and sees a picture covered in red, he or she may jump to one very obvious conclusion.  Mass spectrometry analysis, another relatively recent addition to the palaeontologist’s ever increasing technical armoury, this time from the laboratory of an analytical chemist, threw up tantalising results when the red blood cell-like materials were scrutinised.  Four different regions from the same fossilised Theropod claw were compared to the mass spectrometry report for Emu blood.  The resulting data suggested that there were indeed chemical similarities.  If this really is some form of preserved, (although quite probably severely degraded), remnant of a Theropod dinosaur’s blood then, as Ratites such as the Emu are believed to be closely related to the Theropoda then similar mass spectrometry results could be anticipated.

Potential Evidence of Preserved Red Blood Cells in Dinosaur Bone

Evidence of potential red blood cells preserved in 75 million year old dinosaur bone.

Evidence of potential red blood cells preserved in 75 million year old dinosaur bone.

Picture Credit: Laurent Mekul

Microscopic Fibres – More Caution Advised

Fibres or fibrous-like structures were reported from half the samples studied.  In one specimen, a fragment of rib bone from an unknown dinosaur revealed a structure within it that resembled collagen.  Further chemical analysis revealed traces of amino acid fragments such as glycine, alanine and proline.  This is consistent what you would expect to find if you were analysing collagen.  If a fragment of collagen could be recovered, then that would be a remarkable discovery indeed.  Like blood and other organic materials these substances are believed to degrade relatively quickly after death.  However, if a protein based structure like collagen could be found in the fossilised bones of a dinosaur then this would open up an entirely new area of research into the Dinosauria.

Potential Collagen Structures Preserved in Fossil Bone

Fibrous structures preserved in fossilised bone.

Fibrous structures preserved in fossilised bone.

Picture Credit: Laurent Mekul

The scientists behind this paper are keen to point out that further study is required.  Two of the fossil bones used in this research revealed no traces of any potential soft tissue components, a point missed by a number of media outlets that covered this story. However, if poorly preserved fossil material can retain microscopic traces of blood and other organic materials then it will change our science forever.  Dig sites will be subjected to forensic procedures, perhaps a clean room will be have to be set up in the field to help minimise the risk of organic cross-contamination.  What about the use of glues and resins that act as fossil bone stabilisers?  Could the over enthusiastic use of super glue at a dig station compromise the chances of retrieving viable traces of organic material later, back in the prep lab?

If other institutes can repeat these experiments and produce the same results consistently, then this has some dinosaur-sized implications for palaeontology.  If it can be concluded that the structures observed and analysed within the samples do indeed originate from preserved proteins from the extinct animal, then we may have an opportunity to study soft tissues in long dead creatures.  A more complete understanding of dinosaur biology may be within our grasp.

Now that would be something to make a movie about.

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