Category: Palaeontological articles

Downsizing Dinosaurs – The Key to Survival

Sustained Miniaturisation in the Dinosauria the Key to their Survival as Birds

A new study led by the University of Adelaide but involving scientists from a number of universities including Bristol University and the University of Southampton has mapped the evolution of meat-eating dinosaurs and identified how these large creatures gave rise to the birds (Aves).  The Theropoda, or at least parts of this meat-eating dinosaur group kept shrinking in size for at least fifty million years before the evolution of Archaeopteryx.

Archaeopteryx may not have been the first bird, but the dozen or so fossils of this enigmatic dino-bird, all of which come from Germany, provide evidence of a transitional creature that shows anatomical features of both dinosaurs and birds.  Most scientists now accept that birds are descended from the dinosaurs, one particular group of meat-eating dinosaurs called the Maniraptora.  Dinosaurs in the family Dromaeosauridae, fearsome, aggressive predators such as Velociraptor (V. mongoliensis) are members of the Maniraptora clade, but over what time period did the evolutionary changes take place to result in a small bird from larger Dinosaurian ancestors?

 Shrinking Dinosaurs over Fifty Million Years Gave Rise to the Birds

Sustained miniaturisation gave rise to the birds.

Sustained miniaturisation gave rise to the birds.

Picture Credit: Davide Bonnadonna

The international research team, led by Associate Professor Michael Lee (School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Adelaide University), including Gareth Dyke and Darren Naish (both from the University of Southampton) and Andrea Cau (from the University of Bologna and Museo Geologico Giovanni Capellini), have published their work in the latest edition of the academic journal “Science”.  Professor Michael Benton (Bristol University) provides an adjunct to this research “How Birds Became Birds”.

In professor Benton’s perspective he explains the importance of this new study by placing it into the context of existing research into Theropoda evolution.  Professor Benton states that although it is now widely accepted that the birds evolved from a particular branch of the dinosaur family tree, it is not certain how quickly this evolutionary transition took place.  One of the first birds known from the fossil record (A. lithographica) from the Upper Jurassic of Germany, was thought to have evolved its wings, feathers and the ability to fly within just ten million years or so.  However, over the last two decades, scientists have been able to trace the thirty or so characteristics that distinguished the small, Archaeopteryx with its aerial abilities from its larger, ground-dwelling dinosaur ancestors back through the Theropoda.  This new study reinforces the thinking that the anatomical changes needed to convert a terrestrial predator into an agile, creature capable of powered flight began to emerge much earlier in this group of meat-eating dinosaurs.

Mathematical Models to Trace the Evolution of Archaeopteryx

New from Papo for 2014 a model of Archaeopteryx.

New from Papo for 2014 a model of Archaeopteryx.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

How much earlier?  This new work suggests that changes began to take place in the Theropoda at least fifty million years before Archaeopteryx.  This means that as far back as 200 million years ago, at the beginning of the Jurassic, evolutionary changes in meat-eating dinosaurs were beginning to occur that would eventually lead to today’s birds.

The team used a complex mathematical modelling technique more associated with the study of the geographical spread and evolution of viruses to assess the changes in the skeletons of Theropod dinosaurs.  In total 1549 skeletal, anatomical characteristics were mapped from over 120 specimens of Theropod dinosaurs and birds.  Two main drivers leading to the transition of dinosaurs into birds were identified.  The group of Theropod dinosaurs directly related to the birds undergoes sustained miniaturisation across fifty million years.  Average body weights are gradually reduced from around 160 kilogrammes in Early Jurassic direct Theropod ancestors to the very light Archaeopteryx, estimated to have weighed less than one kilogramme.  Secondly, this particular group of dinosaurs seems to have been evolving skeletal adaptations such as feathers and wishbones up to four times faster than other types of dinosaur.

A spokes person from Everything Dinosaur stated:

“This highly informative new research, has applied a sophisticated mathematical model to help unravel the evolutionary relationship between the birds and their dinosaur ancestors.  Instead of thinking about dinosaur/bird evolution as a quick leap into the air derived from a relatively small component of the Dinosauria, it seems like dinosaur/bird evolution is more akin to a long runway leading to an eventual take off”.

The distinct and prolonged miniaturisation of the Theropod/bird stem across tens of millions of years would have facilitated the evolution of many unique characteristics associated with smaller body size.  This would have permitted these dinosaurs to exploit a variety of different ecological niches which their larger cousins could not.  Small size also infers a more agile lifestyle, faster reactions, sharper senses – steps towards the evolution of enhanced balance, large eyes and more sophisticated brains that could eventually manage the complex body movements required to coordinate powered flight.

New Study Examines the Dinosaur to Bird Evolutionary Pathway

Maniraptora evolving faster than other types of dinosaur.

Maniraptora evolving faster than other types of dinosaur.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Associate Professor Michael Lee, the lead author on the mapping of this part of the Dinosauria family tree commented that the branch of the Theropoda that gave rise to the Aves was the only group of dinosaurs that kept getting smaller.

He explained:

“Birds evolved through a unique phase of sustained miniaturisation in dinosaurs.  Being smaller and lighter in a land of giants, with rapidly evolving anatomical adaptations, provided these bird ancestors with new ecological opportunities, such as the ability to climb trees, glide and to fly.”

It can be argued that these evolutionary characteristics, miniaturisation and more rapid anatomical adaptations were the reasons for the survival of the birds at the end of the Cretaceous.

The University of Adelaide staff member added:

“Ultimately, this evolutionary flexibility helped birds survive the deadly meteorite impact that killed off all their Dinosaurian cousins.”

So why were a group of Theropod dinosaurs able to evolve quicker than other types of dinosaurs.  We may have to look at bird-hipped dinosaurs for an answer.  As far as we know, the lizard-hipped Theropod dinosaurs were the only meat-eating dinosaur group.  The bird-hipped members of the Dinosauria (Ornithischians) were all plant-eaters.  Their hips evolved in a different direction (literally) to the Saurischians (lizard-hipped forms).  The pubis bone got pushed backwards, purportedly to accommodate a larger gut to help digest all that tough plant material.  A big gut meant a bigger body, so part of the Theropoda, the allosaurids for example, evolved bigger and bigger forms so that they could hunt and kill the herbivores which themselves were getting bigger and bigger.

The Dinosauria Classified as Two Distinct Sub-Groups

Classifying dinosaurs by the shape of their hip bones.

Classifying dinosaurs by the shape of their hip bones.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

As Associate Professor Lee points out, the Theropod dinosaurs were the only group to continually push the envelope when it came to size of their skeletons.  It is possible that the herbivorous dinosaurs simply could not shrink, since a plant-based diet requires a larger gut for digestion.  In the meantime, the Theropoda could explore alternate resources, habitats and even prey.  All of these new activities, such as chasing insects, climbing trees and gliding would in turn, have led to other novel anatomical adaptations.

“So as the dinosaurs shrank, their other features evolved more quickly, which led to faster shrinking to take advantage of these new abilities and so on.”

There is one further, rather intriguing point to be made when the consequences of this research are considered.  If miniaturisation in a branch of the Theropod dinosaurs began as far back as the Early Jurassic around 200 million years ago, could the ultimate driver for these changes have been the Triassic/Jurassic extinction event that marked the demise of a very large number of terrestrial Archosaur groups?

Did All Dinosaurs Have Feathers?

Kulindadromeus Discovery Gets Palaeontologists into a Flap

The embargo has been lifted and we can now talk about the amazing new fossil discovery from Siberia, details of which has just been published in the academic journal “Science”.  News of the discovery of the first ever plant-eating dinosaur with feathers as well as scales has been announced.  So what does this mean?  Feathered dinosaurs have been discovered before right?  True, but and it is a big “but“, feathers have only been associated with one group of dinosaurs up until now, the Theropods, the group of dinosaurs most closely related to birds.

The dinosaur has been named Kulindadromeus zabaikalicus and at just over a metre in length, it is not going to be breaking any size records when it comes to extinct prehistoric animals.  Indeed, if we had the technology to travel back 175 million years or so, to the area surrounding what was to become the Siberian city of Chita, this little dinosaur would have probably gone almost unnoticed.  However, the publication of this long-awaited scientific paper is very important and over the next few paragraphs we will try to put this fossil discovery into perspective.

The Order Dinosauria (the dinosaurs) can be split into two distinct groups based on the structure and position of their hip bones.  These two sub-divisions are the Ornithischia (bird-hipped dinosaurs) and the Saurischia (lizard-hipped dinosaurs).  Those Theropods many of whom were feathered, belong to the Saurischians.   The Siberian fossils show that a member of the Ornithischian group also had feathers.

Feathers Amongst the Dinosauria

Ornithischians had feathers too.

Ornithischians had feathers too.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The picture above shows the dinosaurs split into two groups, on one side of the dinosaur family tree are the lizard-hipped dinosaurs, the long-necked Sauropods and the Theropods, those mainly meat-eating dinosaurs who are the closest related to birds (Aves).  The other part of the Dinosauria consists of the bird-hipped Ornithischians, an almost entirely vegetarian group consisting of the horned dinosaurs, duck-bills, armoured dinosaurs and such like.  Kulindadromeus, described as a neoornithischian dinosaur and definitely amongst the bird-hipped dinosaurs, shows that other types of dinosaurs, not just the Theropods had feathers too.

The terms “bird-hipped” and “lizard-hipped” can be a little confusing, especially when we are trying to identify the ancestors of birds.  These terms were first coined by Henry Govier Seeley in 1887.  He divided the dinosaurs into two groups, based on the fact that all the dinosaurs known at the time (and the majority of dinosaurs discovered to date for that matter), had a pelvis that followed one of two distinctive shapes.  There was a bird-like pelvis, where the pubis bone points backwards and the lizard-hipped configuration where the pubis bone points forward.  It is the lizard-hipped dinosaurs,the Theropoda, that are most closely related to the Aves and indeed one group of Theropods, the Maniraptorans that are the direct ancestors of today’s birds.

Classifying the Dinosauria

Classifying dinosaurs by the shape of their hip bones.

Classifying dinosaurs by the shape of their hip bones.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Back in 2010, a scientific team led by Sofia Sinitsa, a geologist at the Institute of Natural Resources, Ecology and Cryology from the Siberian city of Chita, explored some highly fossiliferous strata located in the nearby Kulinda valley.  The site represented a low energy depositional environment with freshwater crustaceans, insect larvae and plant fossils.  The strata was laid down by the edge of a large lake, evidence of ash in the layers of rock indicated that there were volcanoes in the neighbourhood too.  Fragmentary fossils indicating the presence of small dinosaurs were also discovered but their poor state of preservation led the scientists to focus on other fossil material.  Expeditions to the same locality found more fossils of dinosaurs over the next two summers and as a result, Pascal Godefroit, a palaeontologist at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (Brussels) was contacted along with other scientists as the implications of the discovery began to dawn on the Russian team.

Dr. Godefroit commented:

“We were completely shocked by the discoveries.”

Pictures from the Dig Site and Some of the Fossil Material Collected

A vast amount of fossil material was collected.

A vast amount of fossil material was collected.

Picture Credit: Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences

Bristle-like and brush-like structures had been identified in a number of Cretaceous species of Ornithischian dinosaur, most notably in dinosaurs such as Psittacosaurus and Tianyulong, but these quills, brushes and bristles have been described by researchers as representing the very earliest development stage of feathers, what scientists call proto-feathers.

To read an article by Everything Dinosaur on the evidence of quills and bristles in later Ornithischian dinosaurs:

Evidence of feathers in psittacosaurids: Upsetting the Apple Cart

The scientists claim that these new fossils differ from the the bristle-like structures found in much later Ornithischian dinosaurs as they have complex, multi-filamented structures typical of the feathers associated with the Theropoda.

Kulindadromeus zabaikalicus (pronounced Cul-lin-dah-dro-me-us zah-bay-cal-lik-us) had been named after the Kulinda valley locality and from the Greek “dromeus”, which means runner.  The trivial name honours the Zabaikal krai region of Siberia in which the Kulinda valley can be found.

An Illustration of Kulindadromeus zabaikalicus

Feathered dinosaur down amongst the horsetails.

Feathered dinosaur down amongst the horsetails.

Picture Credit: Andrey Atuchin

Dated to around 175 to 160 million years ago (Aalenian to Early Callovian of the Mid Jurassic), this one metre long plant-eater had filamentous structures covering most of its body, including its head, neck and chest.  The more complex feather-like structures are confined to the upper arms and upper legs, an arrangement found in a number of fossils of small Theropod dinosaurs excavated from Cretaceous strata in the famous Lioaning Province of north-eastern China.

Explaining the significance of this discovery, Dr. Godefroit stated:

“For the first time we found more complex, compound structures together with simpler hair-like structures in a plant-eating dinosaur that really resemble the proto-feathers in advanced meat-eaters”.

Multiple Filamentous Structures Associated with the Femur (Thigh Bone)

Complex feather-like structures on the thigh

Complex feather-like structures on the thigh

Picture Credit: Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences/ Dr. Pascal Godefroit

The scientists are confident that these little, fast-running creatures could not fly, so why evolve feathers then?  The answer is quite simple, feathers first evolved for other purposes and they only became adapted for flight much later.  These feathers probably helped to keep these small animals insulated and warm.  This suggests that contrary to popular opinion, most dinosaurs were endothermic (warm-blooded  like mammals and birds) and not cold-blooded like today’s reptiles.  The longer, more complex feather structures may have had some role in display and visual communication.  In total, at least six fossil skulls have been found along with a large number of fossilised bones from many individuals and lots of different growth stages have been recognised.  The abundance of fossil material will give the palaeontologists the chance to study how feathers changed as animals grew and matured.

If this neoornithischian had complex feathers then this also throws up an intriguing set of possibilities.  The common ancestor of both the Ornithischian and Saurischian dinosaurs could have been feathered, or perhaps, feathers evolved in different types of dinosaur, an example of convergent evolution.

Chinese palaeontologist Xing Xu of the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology (Beijing), someone who has intensively studied the Lioaning feathered dinosaurs commented:

“The finds are a fantastic discovery”.

However, he warns against getting too carried away, stating that the fossils are too fragmentary to be certain that the more complex feathery structures actually correspond to those found later in birds.  We suspect that further research is going to be carried out into the nature of these branched integumentary structures, before palaeontologists will agree that feather-like structures were widespread amongst the Dinosauria.

One of the co-authors of the scientific paper, Professor Danielle Dhouailly from the Université Joseph Fourier in La Tronche (France ), has been examining these ancient structures and comparing them to the down and feathers found in modern birds.  The lake sediments also preserved scales, so scientists now have evidence that both scales and feathers could be found on individual dinosaurs.  In addition, scientists now know that the leg scales found in modern birds are essentially aborted feathers.

The Ancient Lake Sediments Preserved Evidence of Scales

Fossilised bone (sandy colour) surrounded by evidence of small scales on the foot.

Fossilised bone (sandy colour) surrounded by evidence of small scales on the foot.

Picture Credit: Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences/ Dr. Pascal Godefroit

Professor Dhouailly added:

“Developmental experiments in modern chickens suggest that  avian  scales are aborted feathers, an idea that explains why birds have scaly legs.  The astonishing discovery is that the molecular mechanisms needed for this switch might have been so clearly related to the appearance of the first feathers in the earliest dinosaurs”.

There is more research to be done, but this discovery has potentially huge implications for our view of the Dinosauria.  Ironically, back in the beginning of 2014, Everything Dinosaur team members were asked to predict what news stories might occur over the year and they did predict that a discovery regarding feathered Ornithischian dinosaurs would be announced.

To read Everything Dinosaur’s full list of 2014 predictions: 2014 Palaeontology Predictions

Team members congratulate all those involved in this exciting fossil discovery and the subsequent research.

Evolution and Extinction of the African Carcharodontosauridae

“Shark Toothed Lizard” – The Rise and Fall of Carcharodontosaurus

The Carcharodontosaurus genus currently consists of two species, the first of which Carcharodontosaurus saharicus  (originally called Megalosaurus saharicus), is known from fossil material found in North Africa.  The second species, named and described in 2007, was erected following fossil finds, including skull material from the Echkar Formation of Niger, this species is known as C. iguidensis.  Although both species are known from fragmentary material and a few isolated teeth, differences in the shape of the upper jaw and the structure of the brain case enabled scientists to confidently establish Carcharodontosaurus iguidensis as a second, distinct species.

An Illustration of a Typical Carcharodontosaurid Dinosaur

Fearsome "Shark Lizard"

Fearsome “Shark Lizard”

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Carcharodontosaurus means “shark-toothed lizard”,  a reference to the fact that the teeth of this huge carnivore, reminded scientists of the teeth of sharks belonging to the Carcharodon genus of sharks, such as the teeth of the Great White Shark (C. carcharias).  It is ironic that this terrestrial predator should be named after a marine carnivore, as changing sea levels very probably influenced the evolution of these dinosaurs and may have ultimately led to their extinction, at least from Africa.

To view Everything Dinosaur’s range of Collecta dinosaur models including a 1:40 scale Deluxe Carcharodontosaurus: Collecta Scale Dinosaur Models

Pronounced - Car-car-oh-dont-toe-sore-us, the oldest dinosaur currently assigned to the Carcharodontosauridae family is Veterupristisaurus (Vet-ter-roo-pris-tee-sore-us).  This dinosaur was named and described in 2011, although the fossil material was discovered over seventy-five years ago.   The fossils come from the famous Tendaguru Formation of Tanzania, it lived during the Late Jurassic and the trivial name V. milneri honours the now retired Angela Milner who worked at the Natural History Museum (London).

Carcharodontosaurus lived during the Cretaceous (Late Albian to mid Cenomanian faunal stages).  During this time, the great, southern super-continent called Gondwanaland continued to break up and as sea levels rose, so populations of dinosaurs became separated by the inflow of sea water.

Rising Sea Levels Influence Dinosaur Evolution

Rising sea levels but off dinosaur populations.

Rising sea levels cut off dinosaur populations.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Communities became isolated and this may have provided a boost to the evolution of new species.  The map shows the approximate location of fossil material associated with C. saharicus and C. iguidensis.  Populations of carcharodontosaurids may have become cut-off from each other and this gave rise to new species of Carcharodontosaurus.  This may help to explain the abundance of super-sized predators that lived in this part of the world during the Cretaceous.  Both species of Carcharodontosaurus shared a common ancestor, but their separation led to the evolution of two, distinct species.  This natural process is called allopatric speciation.

Sadly for the mega fauna that inhabited the coastal swamps and verdant flood plains of North Africa, rising sea levels in the later stages of the Cenomanian led to the destruction of much of this habitat.  The loss of habitat probably led to the demise of the ecosystem and the vulnerable apex predators such as the carcharodontosaurids and the spinosaurids became extinct.

To read an article on the discovery of C. iguidensisNew Giant Meat-Eating Dinosaur from Africa

Brain of World’s First Super Predator Studied

Brain Provides Clue to the Descendants of the Cambrian Anomalocaridid Lyrarapax unguispinus

An international team of scientists, including researchers from the University of Arizona have identified and mapped the brain in an anomalocaridid that swam in the ancient seas that existed in the Cambrian geological period.  Their study of the brain of this twelve centimetre long predator provides clues as to the taxonomic relationship that this extinct group has to extant members of the Animalia Kingdom.  In addition, the remarkably well preserved fossil that is around 520 million years old, suggests that the brains of the anomalocaridids were relatively simple, the brains of their prey were, in many cases more complex.  This leads to the intriguing thought that the evolution of apex predators could have given a boost to the evolution of better senses and ultimately bigger and more sophisticated brains.

The scientific paper, published in the journal “Nature” describes for the first time, the brain of an anomalocaridid, a group of extinct, early members of the Arthropoda that evolved into the first group of animal super-predators known in the fossil record.  The largest specimens of Anomalocaris measure around a metre in length and it is now known that this group of nektonic predators survived into the Ordovician.

An Illustration of a Typical Anomalocaridid

The Terror of the Trilobites - Anomalocaris

The Terror of the Trilobites – Anomalocaris

Picture Credit:  BBC Worldwide/Framestore

An extensive analysis of the beautifully preserved fossils of a new to science, species of anomalocaridid predator discovered in Yunnan Province (China), suggests that these creatures have an affinity with the bizarre velvet worms (Onychophorans).  These strange little creatures are found in the southern hemisphere and they are classed in the taxon Panarthropoda.  Unlike true Arthropods these creatures do not have an exoskeleton and they live in the undergrowth and leaf litter feeding on smaller animals such as insects and mites.

An Illustration of a Velvet Worm (Peripatus)

Peripatus - creatures like this may have been the first to walk on land.

Peripatus – creatures like this may have been the first to walk on land.

Picture Credit: BBC

The fossil material comes from the famous Chengjiang Formation (Yunnan Province), which rivals the Burgess Shale of British Columbia in terms of the variety of Cambrian fauna that is preserved.  First explored by Chinese palaeontologists in 1984, the members that make up this part of the Chengjiang Formation have preserved in exquisite detail ancient marine creatures.  The degree of fossil preservation is so good that even internal structures such as nervous systems can be studied.

One of the Fossils of the Newly Described L. unguispinus Showing Brain Morphology

This photograph and corresponding drawing show the flattened, fossilized trace of the brain of the world's earliest known predator; the X-like structure in the head denotes the fossilised brain.

This photograph and corresponding drawing show the flattened, fossilised trace of the brain of the world’s earliest known predator; the X-like structure in the head denotes the fossilised brain.

Picture Credit: University of Arizona

The “X-shaped” structure seen clearly in the line drawing interpretation of the fossil denotes the fossilised brain.  Two dark round spots represent the optic ganglia with nerves that lead from the eye-stalks into the head.  The smaller, almond-shaped areas just in front would have supported the creature’s grasping appendage.  The main brain region is in front of the mouth, giving rise to two nerve cords leading down along the animal.

Commenting on the research, lead author of the scientific paper, professor Nicholas Strausfeld (Director of Arizona University’s Centre for Insect Research) stated:

“It turns out the top predator of the Cambrian had a brain that was much less complex than that of some of its possible prey and that it looked surprisingly similar to a modern group of rather modest worm-like animals.”

The new species has been named Lyrarapax unguispinus, this translates from the Latin to mean “spiny clawed lyre shaped predator”.  It is likely that this creature was an active predator hunting other invertebrates and perhaps preying on the recently evolved primitive, jawless vertebrates, the fore-runners of the first fish.

Lyrarapax Attacks a Shoal of Primitive Fish

Artist's impression of Lyararapax, one of the species of the world's first predators, the anomalocaridids, chasing its possible prey, primitive fishes that also existed in the Lower Cambrian

Artist’s impression of Lyrarapax, one of the species of the world’s first predators, the anomalocaridids, chasing its possible prey, primitive fishes that also existed in the Cambrian

Picture Credit: Professor Nicholas Strausfeld/University of Arizona

Professor Strausfeld and his colleagues have made some remarkable discoveries amongst the Chengjiang biota, back in the autumn of 2013, Everything Dinosaur reported on the mapping of the brain and nervous system of a Cambrian Arthropod, fossils of which had been recovered from the same location as the Lyrarapax fossil material.

To read more about this remarkable discovery: Mapping the Ancient Brains and Nervous Systems of Cambrian Arthropods

By examining in minute detail the brain morphology of this long extinct species, the scientists were able to compare the neuroanatomy with extant velvet worms (Onychophorans).  The terrestrial velvet worm, such as Peripatus, has a simple brain located at the front of the mouth and a pair of ganglia, a group of nerve cells, located in the front part of the optic nerve and at the base of long, sensory feelers.

The anomalocaridid fossil resembles the neuroanatomy of today’s Onychophorans (velvet worms) in several ways, according to Strausfeld and his collaborators. Onychophorans have a simple brain located in front of the mouth and a pair of ganglia – a collection of nerve cells – located in the front of the optic nerve and at the base of their long feelers.  Anomalocaridids do not have these feelers, but they do have a pair of grasping claws extending out from the front of their heads.

Professor Strausfeld explained:

“Surprise, surprise, that is what we also found in our fossil.  These top predators in the Cambrian are defined by just their single pair of appendages, these wicked-looking graspers, extending out from the front of their head.  These are totally different from the antennae of insects and crustaceans.  Such frontally disposed appendages are not found in any other living animals with the exception of the velvet worms.”

Study Suggests Velvet Worms are Descended from Anomalocaridids

A side-by-side comparison reveals the similarity between the brain of a living Onychophoran (green) and that of the anomalocaridid fossil Lyrarapax unguispinus (grey)

A side-by-side comparison reveals the similarity between the brain of a living Onychophoran (green) and that of the anomalocaridid fossil Lyrarapax unguispinus (grey)

Picture Credit: Professor Nicholas Strausfeld

The relatively simple brain structure of these large, apex predators may have driven the evolution of more sophisticated senses and brains in their intended prey.

Professor Strausfeld concluded:

“With the evolution of dedicated and highly efficient predators, the pressure was on other animals to be able to detect and recognize potential danger and rapidly coordinate escape movements.  These requirements may have driven the evolution of more complex brain circuitry.”

A Close up of the Head of Lyrarapax Showing a Powerful Grasping Claw

The grasping claw on this specimen can clearly be seen.

The grasping claw on this specimen can clearly be seen.

Picture Credit: Peiyun Cong

Everything Dinosaur acknowledges the help of a University of Arizona press release in the compilation of this article.

New Type of “Four Winged” Flying Dinosaur – A Liaoning Surprise?

Changyuraptor yangi – Let’s Not Get into Too Much of a Flap

And so on the 15th July, the paper on a new type of airborne dinosaur was published in the journal “Nature Communications”.  The world was officially introduced to Changyuraptor yangi or to interpret the genus name, “long feathered raptor”.  At about the size of a European Herring Gull (Larus argentatus), this newest member of the microraptorines, is the largest Theropod dinosaur discovered to date with long pennaceous feathers attached to the hind limbs.  At an estimated weight of around three to four kilogrammes, it is three times heavier than the largest species of Microraptor – M. zhaoianus (if indeed the fossils discovered to date do indeed represent three different species and not a single species but with extensive intra-specific variation), and four times heavier than that extant gull we mentioned earlier.  Changyuraptor has other claims to fame.  For example, its tail feathers are extremely long, measuring nearly thirty centimetres in length.  The longest tail feather is around 30% the length of the entire skeleton.

However, for us at Everything Dinosaur, the announcement of this fossil find comes as no real surprise.  The fossil material is from north-eastern China and it forms part of the amazing Jehol Biota which represents an Early Cretaceous ecosystem which has been preserved in strata that date from around 133 million years ago to 121 million years ago or thereabouts.  All the Microraptorine fossil material comes from this part of the world and the fossilised fauna and flora portray a habitat that had distinct seasons with a temperate forest habitat interspersed with large bodies of freshwater and swamps.  The area teemed with life and with the finding of one predatory Dromaeosaurid dinosaur with aerodynamic abilities (Microraptor), finding other examples of dinosaurs filling this ecological niche was always likely.

These hunters may not have caught their prey on the wing, but they probably spent a great deal of their lives high up in the tree canopy living an arboreal existence and stomach content analysis from Microraptor specimens indicate that these dinosaurs, closely related to the likes of Velociraptor, ate small mammals, lizards and even primitive birds.  One poor unfortunate perching bird seems to have been swallowed whole.

An Illustration of Changyuraptor yangi (Silhouette of Person shows Scale)

“Four winged” terror

Picture Credit: S. Abramowicz

The international team of scientists behind the scientific paper, such as Luis M. Chiappe (Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County), Michael Habib (University of Southern California), Gang Han, Shu-An Ji, Xueling Liu and Lizhuo Han (Bohai University, Liaoning Province), in collaboration with colleagues based in New York and South Africa have described the beautifully preserved fossil material and then analysed this animal’s flight characteristics. Why, for example, did this “four-winged terror” have such long feathers on its tail?

The Holotype Fossil Material (C. yangi)

The slab (a) and the counter slab (b) of the Holotype

Picture Credit: Nature Communications

At 1.32 metres in length and weighing close to four kilogrammes, taking to the air may not have been too much of a problem for our feathered friend here.  Especially if this dinosaur launched itself from the branches of trees and glided around.  However, controlling itself in flight and coming into land may have been somewhat more difficult for such a heavy, large-bodied animal.  The international research team examined the aerial competency of Changyuraptor and concluded that the tail may have acted as a pitch control structure, reducing air speed and helping to ensure a safe landing.  Those hind limbs with their feathers too, would have assisted with gliding and with the legs rotated down and underneath the body as it descended, then the feathers could have made effective air brakes, in a similar way to the “trousers” on Archaeopteryx.

To read an article on the feathered legs of Archaeopteryx: Feathers Evolved Before Flight – Archaeopteryx Had Feathered Trousers

Dr. Michael Habib (University of Southern California) stated:

“It makes sense that the largest microraptorines had especially large tail feathers, they would have needed the additional control.”

Dr. Alan Turner of Stony Brook University (New York), a co-author of the paper added:

“Numerous features that we have long associated with birds in fact evolved in dinosaurs long before the first birds arrived on the scene.  This includes things such as hollow bones, nesting behaviour, feathers…and possibly flight.” 

Bone structure analysis undertaken concluded that this was a fully grown, mature animal that rivalled the largest Pterosaurs known from Liaoning Province in size as it glided in the sky above this ancient Chinese landscape.  The holotype material was found back in 2012 and since its discovery the notion that flight preceded the origin of Aves has been consolidated.  Birds inherited flight characteristics from their near relatives the Dinosauria.  For the time being we shall give the last word to Luis Chiappe:

“This new fossil documents that dinosaur flight was not limited to very small animals but to dinosaurs of a more substantial size.  Clearly far more evidence is needed to understand the nuances of dinosaur flight but Changyuraptor is a major leap in the right direction.”

Ancient Creepy-Crawlies Resurrected

410 Million Year Old Arachnid Walks Again

A team of international researchers have used fossils of ancient Arthropods from the London Natural History Museum to recreate the movements of some of the world’s first terrestrial predators.  Researchers from the Museum für Naturkunde (Berlin) and Manchester University have used an open source computer programme called Blender to model the walking motion of a 41o million year old ancient Arachnid.  The video shows the most likely gait that this tiny prehistoric predator could achieve as it stalked across the Devonian landscape.  The paper, which details this research has been published in a special edition of the academic publication the “Journal of Palaeontology”.

The scientists took minute slices of the fossils of these early Arachnids and once the limb segments and their joints had been identified they worked out the range of limb motion possible.  From these measurements and using comparisons with extant Arachnids, the researchers modelled the walking action using the Blender software programme.  In this way, a creature dead for over 410 million years could once again walk.

Dr. Russell Garwood, (palaeontologist at Manchester University), stated:

“When it comes to early life on land, land before our ancestors came out of the sea, these early Arachnids were top dog of the food chain.  They are now extinct, but from about 300 to 400 million years ago, they seem to have been more widespread than spiders.  Now we can use the tools of computer graphics to better understand and recreate how they might have moved – all from thin slivers of rock, showing the joints in their legs.”

Supplemental Data Video 2 – Palaeocharinus Locomotion

Video Credit: University of Manchester Press Room

The video shows the ancient Arthropod (Palaeocharinus genus) walking.  Although a formidable looking animal, this early creepy-crawly was less than half a centimetre in length.  The fossils used in this study came from the famous Lower Devonian strata at Rhynie (Aberdeenshire, Scotland).  The Rhynie chert deposit contains evidence of one of the earliest terrestrial ecosystems known to science.  More than twenty primitive plant species have been identified along with Arthropods such as mites and trigonotarbids such as Palaeocharinus that hunted amongst the miniature forest made up of Rhyniophytes (primitive plants).

Co-author of the scientific paper, Jason Dunlop (Museum für Naturkunde), added:

“These fossils,  from a rock called Rhynie chert, are unusually well-preserved.  During my PhD I could build up a pretty good idea of their appearance in life.  This new study has gone further and shows us how they probably walked.  For me, what’s really exciting is that scientists can make these animations now, without needing the technical wizardry and immense costs of a Jurassic Park-style film.”

Although not true spiders, trigonotarbids are related to modern spiders but they lack certain spider features such as silk producing spinnerets.  As a group, they first appear in the fossil record in the Late Silurian.  The oldest trigonotarbid specimen, that we at Everything Dinosaur know about, comes from the Upper Silurian deposits of Ludow , Shropshire (Ludlow epoch around 420 million years ago).  It was Jason Dunlop who was responsible for describing this discovery (1996).

A Highly Magnified Image of a trigonotarbid (Palaeocharinus)

The highly magnified section shows leg segments clearly.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The scale bar in the picture represents 2 mm.

Dr. Dunlop stated:

“When I started working on fossil Arachnids we were happy if we could manage a sketch of what they used to look like, now we can view them running across our computer screens.”

The development of sophisticated computer programmes is permitting scientists to re-create three-dimensional images of spectacular fossils.  In addition, new generation programming technology is now capable of bringing long extinct creatures back to life, at least in cyberspace.  The predatory Palaeocharinus might be quite frightening, but at half a centimetre long it would probably not even had got a second glance if you spotted on in the garden.  However, other specimens from Upper Devonian strata, as yet not fully described fossils, indicate that there were much larger creatures at home amongst the primitive plants such as the Rhyniophytes and Lycopsids (clubmosses), some fossils indicate Arthropods nearly an inch in length.  These creatures may not be trigonotarbids but perhaps represent an entirely new family of Arthropoda.

Dr. Garwood concluded:

“Using open source software means that this is something anyone could do at home, while allowing us to understand these early land animals better than ever before.”

Everything Dinosaur acknowledges the help of the Faculty of Engineering and Sciences (University of Manchester) in the compilation of this article.

A Neanderthal-like Inner Ear in Ancient Chinese Skull

Let’s Hear it for the Neanderthals

A team of international scientists including palaeoanthropologists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, have been puzzling over the distinctive shape of the structures that make up part of the inner ear preserved in an ancient skull.  The 100,000 year old human skull has a similar inner ear structure to that thought to have only occurred in our near relatives the Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis).  CT scans have revealed to the researchers, something of a mystery, none of the other prehistoric human skulls dated to around 100,000 years ago and found in China show this inner ear formation.  This discovery opens up the debate between H. sapiens and Neanderthal interaction and blurs the line between these two hominin species.

The extremely detailed three-dimensional images revealed by the study, has raised important questions regarding the nature of late archaic human variation across Europe and Asia.  It also suggests, that the inner ear shape once ascribed as being diagnostic of Neanderthal skull material may be present in other types of ancient human.  This characteristic may not be a distinctive Neanderthal feature.

Researchers from the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology (IVPP – Chinese Academy of Sciences), in collaboration with Washington University (St Louis) and Bordeaux University (France), discovered the controversial evidence after a meticulous CT scan of a skull found in the Nihewan Basin of northern China.  The skull, found in the late 1970′s along with other bone fragments and human teeth is known as Xujiayao 15, it was named after the archaeological dig site where it was discovered.  The skull morphology indicates that it comes from an early non-Neanderthal form of late archaic human.  It is probably the skull of a male.

Over the last two decades or so, the evolution of our own species and our relationship with other hominins has become somewhat blurred.  For example, it was thought until very recently that Europe around 250,000 years ago was inhabited by just two species of humans, ourselves and the Neanderthals.  New fossil discoveries and research on museum specimens has revealed that there may have been four different types of human in Eurasia at this time.  As well as H. sapiens and H. neanderthalensis, evidence for the presence of Homo erectus and the enigmatic Denisovans has also been found.

To read an article that suggests the Denisovan hominins and the Neanderthals were closely related: Denisovan Cave Material Hints at Mystery Human Species

The inner ear, also known as the labyrinth is located within the skull’s temporal bone.  It contains the cochlea, which converts sound waves into electrical impulses that are transmitted by nerves to the brain.  The inner ear also contains the semicircular canals, these chambers help us to balance and to co-ordinate our actions.  These structures although small, have been found preserved in a number of mammal skulls including prehistoric human fossils.  Research published almost two decades ago, which relied on less powerful CT scans and computer technology, established the presence of a particular pattern of the semicircular canals in the temporal labyrinth as being diagnostic of Neanderthal skull material.  The same pattern of the semicircular canals is found in all known Neanderthal labyrinths.  As a result, the labyrinth has been used extensively as a marker to distinguish Neanderthal skull fossil from other hominins.

The Fossil Location with an Overlay of the Temporal Bone and CT Scan showing the Inner Ear Structure

Temporal bone found at the Xujiayao site and inner ear structure

Picture Credit: Wu Xiujie (Chinese Academy of Sciences)

The academic paper that details the international team’s research has just been published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences”.   The shape of the skull and structures such as the arrangements seen in the semicircular canals could be used to help resolve the evolutionary relationships between a number of closely related human species.

Dr. Erik Trinkaus (Washington University), one of the lead authors of the scientific paper, suggests that whilst it may be tempting to speculate on potential cross-breeding between the lineage that would lead to modern humans and Neanderthals, this may be over simplifying what is in effect a very complex relationship between different populations of prehistoric humans.  The finding of a Neanderthal-shaped labyrinth in an otherwise distinctly “non-Neanderthal” sample should not be regarded as evidence of population contact (gene flow) between central and western Eurasian Neanderthals and eastern archaic humans in China.  Dr. Trinkaus and his colleagues state that the broader implications of the Xujiayao skull CT research remain unclear.

Neanderthal-like Ear Structures Found in a Non Neanderthal Skull

Determining the shape of the inner ear structures.

Picture Credit: Wu Xiujie (Chinese Academy of Sciences)

The picture above shows the temporal bone of the Xujiayao specimen (brown) and CT scans (green) with the shape and position of the temporal labyrinth outlined in purple.

Dr. Trinkaus commented:

“The study of human evolution has always been messy, and these findings just make it all the messier.  It shows that human populations in the real world don’t act in nice simple patterns.  This study shows that you can’t rely on one anatomical feature or one piece of DNA as the basis for sweeping assumptions about the migrations of hominid species from one place to another.”

It looks like the human “family tree” has a more twisting branches than previously thought.

Everything Dinosaur acknowledges the help of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in the compilation of this article.

How Triceratops Got its Horns and Beak

Insights into the Evolution of Triceratops

It might sound like a Rudyard Kipling “Just So” story but scientists from Montana State University have been working out how Triceratops got its beak and horns.  The team of researchers had spent the past fifteen summers mapping and excavating Triceratops skull material from the Badlands of eastern Montana, from the world famous Hell Creek Formation.  University PhD candidate John Scannella and his three co-authors have published a paper in the “Proceedings of the  National Academy of Sciences”, that reports on the study of more than fifty Triceratops specimens and plots how this dinosaur gradually changed over two million years.

The team recorded the precise stratigraphic location for each Triceratops fossil.  The shape and characteristics of any skull material was then carefully analysed and this permitted the researchers to see evolutionary trends in the Triceratops genus through the Late Maastrichtian faunal stage.

The team noted that over one to two million years, the Triceratops skull specimens slowly changed.  They went from having a small nose horn and a long beak to having a longer nose horn and a shorter beak.  The two recognised species of Triceratops can be distinguished from each other by the shape and size of the beak and the shape and size of the nose horn.  Triceratops horridus has a small nose horn and a long beak, whereas, the second species in the genus Triceratops prorsus has a longer nose horn and a shorter beak.  Triceratops horridus fossils were confined to the older strata, the lower portions of the Hell Creek Formation, whilst fossils of T. prorsus were found in younger rocks at the top of the Hell Creek Formation.  Skulls found in the middle portions of the Formation displayed characteristics of both Triceratops species.

New Study Plots the Evolution of the Triceratops Genus

New study charts the evolution of Triceratops.

New study charts the evolution of Triceratops.

Picture Credit: Montana State University

The picture above shows that at rock layers dated to around 67.5 million years ago, fossils of Triceratops horridus with its large beak and short nose horn can be found.  In the Middle Hell Creek Formation, Triceratops skulls display a mix of T. horridus and T. prorsus traits.  In the youngest, top sediment layers, it is the T. prorsus skull morphology that dominates.

Commenting on this research, student John Scannella stated:

“This study provides a detailed look at shifts in the morphology of a single dinosaur genus over time.”

The Triceratops research, identifying that specimens of T. horridus and T. prorsus are found at different horizons, specifically Triceratops prorsus is confined to the upper third portion of the Hell Creek Formation.  The fact that these fossils are restricted to different stratigraphic levels confirms that there are indeed at least two species of Triceratops present.  A number of hypotheses had been proposed previously to help explain the different skull morphology, for example it had been suggested that the skull morphologies were a result of differences between males and females or due to ontogenetic (growth) variations between individuals of a single species.

 The Triceratops Family Tree is Explained

A colourful "Three-horned Face" Replica

A colourful “Three-horned Face” Replica (big beak, small nose horn = T. horridus)

Picture Credit: Safari Ltd

A number of academic institutions have been working together to map and record the flora and fauna preserved in the Hell Creek Formation.  The Hell Creek project involved Montana State University, The University of California plus the universities of North Dakota and North Carolina with the support of a number of academic and professional bodies.  The strata covers Montana, North and South Dakota and Wyoming in the Western United States and it represents a series of freshwater and brackish deposits laid down on the edge of the Western Interior Seaway.  The geology records the very end of the Cretaceous with the very youngest rocks ascribed to the Danian faunal stage (Palaeocene) , the first faunal stage after the Cretaceous mass extinction event.  The project examined both vertebrates, invertebrates and plants in a bid to learn about the changing ecosystems in that part of the world from the latter stages of the Cretaceous and into the Age of Mammals (Cenozoic).  Over the course of the project, the team discovered that the Triceratops species were the most common dinosaur in the Hell Creek Formation.  Although, it is very difficult to give an accurate figure, something like forty percent of all the dinosaur fossil material recovered from the Hell Creek Cretaceous layers represent the Triceratops genus.

Discussing the relative abundance of Triceratops fossil material, Scannella explained:

“Most dinosaurs are only known from one or a handful of specimens.  Some dinosaurs are known from a large number of specimens, but they’re often found all in one place – on a single stratigraphic horizon.  The great thing about Triceratops is that there are a lot of them and they were found at different levels of the Hell Creek Formation.”

The importance of the relatively large sample size (in excess of fifty specimens), was emphasized when he added:

“So we can compare Triceratops found at different [stratigraphic] levels.  When you have a larger sample size, you can learn much more about variation, growth and evolution.”

Evidence of a Genus Transformation in the Late Maastrichtian

Triceratops changed over time.

Triceratops changed over time.

Picture Credit: Holly Woodward

Other authors of the research paper that appears in the latest edition of the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences, include Regents Professor of Palaeontology Jack Horner, Montana State University graduate student Denver Fowler and palaeontologist Mark Goodwin (University of California).

In July 2010, Everything Dinosaur team members reported on a paper produced by Scannella and John “Jack” Horner that proposed that Triceratops underwent such dramatic changes in its skull shape as it grew and matured that the dinosaur known as Torosaurus (T. latus), was not a separate genus at all, but the fossils of elderly Triceratops specimens.

To read more about this research: Torosaurus Extinction Second Time Around

PhD student Scannella added:

“The new study finds evidence that not only did Triceratops change shape over the lifetime of an individual, but that the genus transformed over the course of the end of the age of dinosaurs.”

This study represents one of the most thorough and detailed examinations yet on Ceratopsian head shields, their skulls and growth patterns.  Many of the specimens recovered from the Hell Creek Formation did not show signs of distortion or crushing, factors that could have skewed any analysis into skull shape and morphology, although a number of specimens were fragmentary and many others shattered into numerous pieces.  The project team are to be congratulated for the painstaking work carried out as scientists attempt to learn more about the evolution of one of the most famous dinosaurs of all “three horned face”.

It is fitting that the last word on Triceratops evolution (for now) should go to John Scannella.  He stated:

“The study emphasized how important it is to know exactly where dinosaur fossils are collected from.  A beautiful Triceratops without detailed stratigraphic data cannot answer as many questions as a fragmentary specimen with stratigraphic data.”

Two Hundred Years of Ichthyosaurs

200th Anniversary of the First Ichthyosaur Scientific Paper

This week saw the 200th anniversary of the first scientific description of an animal that was later named as an Ichthyosaur.  On June 23rd 1814, Sir Everard Home published the first account of the Lyme Regis Ichthyosaur that had been found a few years earlier by the Anning family (Mary and her brother Joseph).  The paper was published by the Royal Society of London, it had the catchy title of “Some Account of the Fossil Remains of an Animal More Nearly Allied to Fishes than any Other Classes of Animals”.

In the account, Sir Everard Home, an anatomist who held the distinguished position of Surgeon to the King, attempted to classify the fossilised remains of what we now know as a “Fish Lizard”.  Reading the paper today, one can’t help but get a sense of utter confusion in the mind of the author.  Sir Everard, had one or two secrets and although two hundred years later, it is difficult to place in context what was behind the paper, after all, at the height of the Napoleonic war there was intense rivalry between the French and English scientific establishments, an assessment of this work in 2014 does little to enhance Sir Everard’s academic reputation.

A Model of an Ichthyosaur and One of the Plate Illustrations from the Scientific Paper

The illustration from the paper and a model interpretation of a "Fish Lizard"

The illustration from the paper and a model interpretation of a “Fish Lizard”

Picture Credit: Safari Ltd top and the Royal Society (William Clift) bottom

Back to those secrets.  Whilst notable figures in the history of palaeontology such as the Reverend William Buckland was corresponding with Georges Cuvier, the French anatomist and widely regarded as “the founder of modern comparative anatomy”, against a back drop of war between Britain and France, in a bid to understand the strange petrified remains found on England’s Dorset coast, Sir Everard raced into print, to be the first to describe this creature.  Just like today, if you are the first to do something than fame and fortune can await.  Trouble is, Sir Everard, by a number of accounts, was relatively incompetent.  He was also a cheat!

In 1771, when the young Everard was a teenager, his sister married John Hunter, an extremely talented surgeon and anatomist who had already built a reputation for himself as being one of the most brilliant scientists of his day.  He was able to learn a great deal from his brother-in-law and this coupled with his wealthy background soon propelled the ambitious Everard to the forefront of London society.  However, the much older John Hunter died suddenly from a heart attack in 1793 and it has been said that Everard used his brother-in-laws untimely death to his distinct advantage.

Having removed  ”a cartload” of John Hunter’s unpublished manuscripts from the Royal College of Surgeons in London, Everard began publishing them but under his own name.  This alleged plagiarism enhanced the young surgeon’s reputation and led to his steady rise in scientific circles, permitting Everard to gain the fame and good standing amongst his peers that he so craved.  Such was his desire to keep his plagiarism a secret, that it is believed that he burnt Hunter’s original texts once they had been copied out.  So enthusiastic was he to get rid of the evidence that on one occasion he set fire to his own house.

And so to the published account of the Ichthyosaur.  Sir Everard explained his willingness to examine the fossilised remains by writing:

“To examine such fossil bones, and to determine the class to which the animals belonged comes within the sphere of enquiry of the anatomist.”

In the paper, Sir Everard describes the fossil remains in some detail, although his descriptions lack the academic rigour found in other papers later published by Cuvier, Mantell and Owen.  The author states that the fossil material was found in the Blue Lias of the Dorset coast between Charmouth and Lyme Regis, the fossil discovery having been made after a cliff fall.  The paper claims that the skull was found in 1812 with other fossils relating to this specimen found the following year.  The role played by the Annings in this discovery is not mentioned by Home.  This assertion itself, may be inaccurate.  Many accounts suggest it was Joseph Anning who found the four foot long skull in 1811, as to whether Mary was present at the time, we at Everything Dinosaur remain uncertain.  Although Mary and Joseph together are credited by many sources for finding other fossil bones related to this specimen in 1812.

The potential mix up in dates, pales when the rest of Sir Everard’s paper is reviewed.  At first, the idea that these bones represent some form of ancient crocodile is favoured.  Embryonic teeth ready to replace already emerged teeth were noticed.  However, to test this theory one of the conical fossil teeth was split open.  He mistook evidence for an embryonic tooth ready to replace a broken tooth in the jaw as an accumulation of calcite and hence, Everard wrongly concluded that this creature was not a reptile.  The sclerotic ring of bone around the eye reminded the anatomist of the eye of a fish, but when the plates were counted that make up this ring of bone (13), he commented that the fossil may have affinities with the bird family as this number of bones is found only in eyes of birds.

The position of the nostrils and the shape of the lower jaw is considered to be very like those seen in fish.  The freshwater Pike is mentioned, although there are other parts of the skeleton that seem to confuse Sir Everard still further.  The shoulder blades both in their shape and size are reported as being similar to those found in crocodiles, part of the fossil material is even compared to the bones of a turtle.

One of the Illustrative Plates from the Original Paper

One of the illustrations by William Clift.

One of the illustrations by William Clift.

Paper Credit: Royal Society (William Clift)

The paper concludes by stating:

“These particulars, in which the bones of this animal differ from those of fishes, are sufficient to show that although the mode of its progressive motion has induced me to place it in that class, I by no means consider it wholly a fish, when compared with other fishes, but rather view it in a similar light to those animals met with in New South Wales, which appear to be so many deviations from ordinary structure, for the purpose of making intermediate connecting links, to unite in the closest manner the classes of which the great chain of animated beings is composed.”

Our baffled author had described a few years early the Duck-billed Platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) after specimens were brought back from eastern Australia.  Sir Everard is referring to the Platypus when he writes of “those animals met with in New South Wales”.

Much of the French scientific establishment (and a significant number of British scientists) pilloried this paper.  The difference being, the French who were at war could do it openly, however, in Britain, such was the power and influence of Sir Everard Home, no one dared challenge his assumptions openly.

It was perhaps because of Sir Everard’s influence and strong standing within the Royal Society, that the Reverend William Buckland along with the Reverend Coneybeare supported by up and coming geologists such as Henry de la Beche published a rival scientific paper on the Annings’s discovery in the journals of the Geological Society.  This paper correctly identified that the fossils were reptilian.

Sir Everard, although ridiculed by other academics continued to work on the puzzling Ichthyosaur specimens.  Five years after his 1814 paper, he thought he had finally solved the mystery as to this strange creature’s anatomical classification.  A new vertebrate to science, referred to as a “Proteus” had been described by a Viennese doctor some years earlier.  This was a blind, amphibian of the salamander family (Proteus anguinus) that lived in freshwater streams and lakes deep in caves.  Sir Everard mistakenly concluded that the Lyme Regis fossils were a link between the strange Proteus and modern lizards.  From then on he referred to the 1814 specimen as a “Proteosaurus”.  However, this name never was accepted by scientific circles as the moniker Ichthyosaurus (Fish Lizard) had been erected a year earlier by Charles Konig of the British Museum where the Ichthyosaur specimen resided.

Ironically, as our knowledge of the Ichthyosaur Order has grown over the years, so the Lyme Regis specimen has been renamed.  It is no longer regarded as an Ichthyosaurus, as the fossils indicate a creature more than five metres in length, much larger than those animals that make up the Ichthyosaurus genus today.  In the late 1880′s it was renamed Temnodontosaurus (cutting tooth lizard).  The Lyme Regis specimen, studied all those years earlier by Sir Everard Home, was named the type specimen with the species name Temnodontosaurus platyodon.

A Close up of the Head of a Typical Ichthyosaur

An Icththyosaurus with an Ammonite that it has caught.

An Ichthyosaurus with an Ammonite that it has caught.

Picture Credit: Safari Ltd

The 1814 paper might say more about the petty rivalries and snobbery that dogged British scientific circles than it adds to our knowledge of the Ichthyosauria.  However, there is one final point to be made.  Accompanying the notes were brilliant illustrations of the fossil material, carefully and skilfully prepared by the naturalist William Clift.  The child of a poor family from Devon, William had shown a talent for art from a young age.  His illustrative skills were noticed by one of the local gentry, a Colonel whose wife happened to know Anne Home, the sister of Everard who had married John Hunter.  When John Hunter was looking for an apprentice to help classify and catalogue his growing collection of specimens at the Royal College of Surgeons, Clift was recommended.  He quickly rose to prominence and despite being hampered by the removal of many of John Hunter’s manuscripts by Everard, Clift’s reputation grew and grew.  His daughter, Caroline Ameila Clift married Professor Richard Owen (later Sir Richard Owen), the anatomist who is credited with the naming of the dinosaur Order and the establishment of the Natural History Museum in London.

Neanderthals Ate Plenty of Plants

The Diet of Spanish Neanderthals – Plenty of Vegetables

Amongst the many theories put forward for the extinction of our closest relative the Neanderthal (Homo neanderthalensis), is one hypothesis focused on their diet.  The theory suggests that as these humans had a much more meat-based diet than our ancestors, once their prey animals went into terminal decline, the Neanderthals themselves were doomed.  The Neanderthals over reliance on big game to hunt has been put forward as one of the reasons why they became extinct, whereas, we, more adaptable humans (H. sapiens) did not.

A number of studies have been conducted.  Micro-fossils extracted from the teeth and jaws of Neanderthals have indicated that in some communities the diet was much more varied with evidence of a number of wild plant species being consumed or even used as medicines.  In addition, analysis of cave floor sediments has supported this idea that the Neanderthals, at least in some parts of the world, had a much more varied diet.

To read an article from 2010 on the diet of Neanderthals: Neanderthals Ate Their Greens

Now a new study, conducted by Spanish scientists and involving sophisticated gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, undertaken at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology supports the theory that for Neanderthals living in Spain, 50,000 years ago, plants contributed significantly to their food intake.

Research into omnivorous Neanderthals involved a study of faecal matter (poo) found at a Middle Palaeolithic Neanderthal camp site, located at El Salt, close to Alicante on Spain’s Mediterranean coast.

The El Salt Site During Excavation

The site of the Neanderthal study.

The site of the Neanderthal study.

Picture Credit: Ms Ainara Sistiaga (University of La Laguna, Tenerife)

Lead author of this scatologically based study, Ms Ainara Sistiaga, a PhD student at the University of La Laguna stated:

“Poo is the perfect evidence, because you’re sure it was consumed.”

Ms Sistiaga and her co-workers collected a number of samples from a layer of sediment associated with camp fires at the El Salt dig site.  These samples were taken to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and analysed at the molecular level using the technique of gas chromatography-mass spectrometry.  Faecal matter studied provided evidence of plant material intake as well as meat.  The fossilised faecal material was identified as several of the samples had high concentrations of an ester called coprostanol, presence of this ester is diagnostic of human faeces.  The Neanderthal faecal matter represents the oldest hominin faeces known to science.  The 50,000 year old poo came from the very top layer of an area which had evidence of camp fires.  Although the faecal remains showed signs of having been slightly burnt, the research team are confident that the deposits were left behind after the fire was extinguished.  Perhaps, this “dumping ground” was used later as a camp fire site, or perhaps the “deposit” took place near to the periphery of another camp fire.

A Photograph Identifying the Position of the Faecal Matter

Field photograph of sediment block (El Salt).

Field photograph of sediment block (El Salt).

Picture Credit: Ms Ainara Sistiaga (University of La Laguna, Tenerife)

The picture above shows the faecal layer surrounded by darker layers which indicate the ash residues from camp fires.  Sediment analysis also led to the identification of more substantial amounts of Neanderthal poo.  The fossil poo (coprolite) had a high phosphate content, typical of human excrement.  When studied under blue light, small slices of the coprolite glowed, indicating the presence of phosphates in the sample.

Images of the Faecal Matter Used in the Study

Microphotographs of a slightly burned coprolite of putative human origin identified in El Salt (Neanderthal camp site).

Microphotographs of a slightly burned coprolite of putative human origin identified in El Salt (Neanderthal camp site).

Picture Credit: Ms Ainara Sistiaga (University of La Laguna, Tenerife)

The two images (top) show the samples when viewed under standard lighting conditions.  These pictures show the pale brown colour of the coprolite as well as the common presence of inclusions, which could represent the eggs of parasitic nematodes.  When viewed under blue light fluorescence, the phosphate glows.  The images on the right are highly magnified sections.  Analysis of soil sediments from 5 locations across the dig site, each one representing different ages of occupation by Neanderthals suggest that meat was extremely important in the diet of the Neanderthals, but the faecal evidence also indicates that a substantial quantity of plant matter was also consumed.

This study suggests that the Neanderthal extinction theory based on a reliance on game to hunt may be an oversimplification.  Neanderthals probably had a varied diet taking advantage of seasonal food resources and exploiting them as efficiently as Homo sapiens.

Intriguingly, many of the earlier Neanderthal dietary studies were based on Neanderthal remains found at northern latitudes and at different stratigraphic levels.  The Neanderthals thrived in Europe for over 300,000 years, it is very likely that across their extensive range, dietary differences did occur.  Recently, studies of stone tools have suggested distinct technologies as being the basis for different Neanderthal cultures.  In addition, just as we see today in nomadic human populations, it is likely that northerly populations relied  more heavily on meat in the diet than southerly populations which were able to exploit the flora of more temperate, milder climates.

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