Category: Palaeontological articles

Prehistoric Parasites from the Silurian

 Rare Discovery Provides Insight into Ancient Parasite

A team of international researchers have got up close to a prehistoric parasite, one that is perfectly preserved along with its 425 million-year-old host.  The ancient parasite, known as a “tongue worm” provides scientists with a glimpse of life and the interactions between species in a warm tropical sea that existed in Britain back in the Middle Silurian.  Fossils of tongue worms are extremely rare, examples have been recovered from Ordovician as well as older Cambrian deposits, the Silurian fossils are exceptionally well preserved, we at Everything Dinosaur believe the fossils to be part of the Wenlock Epoch biota.  The actual location of the fossil find has not been disclosed in order to protect the site from amateur fossil hunters and those keen to exploit the fossil deposits commercially.

The fossils come from a deposit in Herefordshire, close to the border with Wales, scientists from the University of Leicester, who took part in the study stated that the tongue worm represents a new species and they range in size from 1mm to 4mm in length.  Tongue worms have tongue shaped bodies, a distinct head and two pairs of limbs.  At least 140 species are known to exist today, most are respiratory or gut parasites of vertebrates (usually reptiles), these fossils provide scientists with information on how these creatures evolved before they made the move onto land to become parasites of terrestrial vertebrates.

The Computer Model Showing the Ostracod Shell (grey) with the Tongue Worm attached (orange)

Looking at the micro-fauna of the Silurian.

Looking at the micro-fauna of the Silurian.

Picture Credit: Siveter, Briggs, Siveter and Sutton

The picture above shows the pentastomid Invavita piratica and its host, the Ostracod Nymphatelina gravida.

The newly described fossils show the tongue worm species in association with its host, in this case a species of Ostracod (an Arthropod).  It was professor David Siveter, (Department of Geology) at Leicester University, who  made the discovery.  An academic paper describing the new species, named as Invavita piratica, (the name translates as ancient, pirate intruder) has been published in the journal “Current Biology”.  As well as academics from the University of Leicester, the research team included scientists from Imperial College (London), Oxford University and Yale.  Tongue worms belong to the Pentastomida Family, part of the Subphylum Crustacea, although for many years the taxonomic relationship between this group of obligate parasites and other parts of the Arthropoda was disputed.

Professor Siveter, explained that the tongue worms were not “worms” at all, they got their name because one genus resembles the tongue of an animal.  They are an unusual and widespread group of mainly obligate parasites.  An obligate parasite is an organism that cannot complete its life-cycle without finding a suitable host.

The professor stated:

“This discovery affirms that tongue worms were “external” parasites on marine invertebrates animals at least 425 million years ago.  It also suggests that tongue worms likely found their way into land-based environments and associated hosts in parallel with the movement of vertebrates onto the land by some 125 million years later.”

The Computer Model with the Ostracod Shell Removed to Reveal the Internal Parasites

Internal parasites identified by high powered scans and computer modelling.

Internal parasites identified by high powered scans and computer modelling.

Picture Credit: Siveter, Briggs, Siveter and Sutton

The computer image above shows the Ostracod with its shell removed, showing the external pentastomids and a pentastomid near the eggs of the Ostracod (parasites in orange).  The picture shows how this group of parasites got their name.  ”Penta” refers to the number five and these parasites have five anterior appendages.  One is the simple mouth, the others are two pairs of hooks which they use to attach themselves to their host.  The large pentastomid  (top left) is a highly magnified image of a single parasite, not to scale with the rest of the image.

Using sophisticated microscopic scanning techniques and three-dimensional computer modelling, the scientists were able to reconstruct the Ostracod and its parasites.  Some of the tongue worms were found inside the Ostracod’s shell , near its eggs, on which they probably fed.  Other tongue worms are attached to the external surface of the Ostracod’s shell, a unique position for any fossil or living tongue worm.  These tiny fossilised creatures are helping the scientists to understand a little more about inter-relationships between parasites and potential hosts in ancient marine environments.

Back in 2012, Everything Dinosaur reported on the discovery of another ancient Ostracod from the same location.  The fossil had been identified using the same techniques to discover the parasites.  Professor Siveter, named this new genus of Ostracod after his wife.

To read more about this: Ostracod from Herefordshire, reconstructing the Silurian

Fossil Site Threatened (Hall Dale Quarry)

Former Quarry Could be Transformed into Housing and Commercial Development

The huge Hall Dale Quarry near Matlock, Derbyshire, could be transformed, with the potential loss of an amazing fossil location, if the local authority grants permission for a mixed residential and commercial development on the site.  Hall Dale Quarry is a disused limestone quarry.  We at Everything Dinosaur, don’t know when the quarrying of limestone blocks ceased, what we do know is that the rocks exposed at this location contain a huge diversity of Carboniferous invertebrate fossils.  Fossils are extremely common at the quarry, whilst many amateur collectors split the boulders with heavy-duty chisels to access the fossil material, just a few minutes exploring the scree on the quarry floor will yield plenty of specimens.  Fossils of a variety of Brachiopods, Crinoid stems and large Corals litter the site and with careful searching some nice examples of marine Gastropods (mainly internal moulds), can be discovered too.

The strata represents a shallow, marine environment and the rocks at the quarry are part of the Eyam limestone formation.  They date from the Early Carboniferous (Visean faunal stage of the Middle Mississippian Epoch [345-328 mya]).  The site is hidden from the road and is approached via a small path leading through a wooded area, although it is just a few minutes’ drive from the bustling centre of the Derbyshire market town of Matlock, once at the quarry face, it’s a different world.  On the day Everything Dinosaur visited, the quarry was deserted, we did not see a single person for the best part of three hours.

A View from the Helicopter Pad at Hall Dale Quarry

Hall Dale Quarry (Derbyshire)

Hall Dale Quarry (Derbyshire)

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The rock strata forms a series of platforms (three in total), Hall Dale Quarry is a popular location with climbing clubs, the sheer rock faces and huge piles of stone provide plenty of different climbing routes to explore.  We would advise that fossil collectors stay on the ground level, there are plenty of fossils to be found and there is no need to climb the boulders.

Enormous Boulders at Hall Dale Quarry

Huge boulders - can you see our rucksack?

Huge boulders – can you see our rucksack?

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

During our research, prior to our fossil hunting trip, we visited the excellent website of UK Fossils: UK Fossils.  As we prepared for our visit, we came across a news article from November 2014 that outlined plans for the development of this rural space, what is termed a brownfield site.  4M Property Partners had submitted plans to convert the quarry into a development consisting of mixed residential and commercial properties.  Plans had been submitted to the council to build some 220 houses, and to convert 400 square metres into a restaurant and a café.  In addition, the planning proposal contained details of some 6400 square metres of office space.  We at Everything Dinosaur are not sure exactly how fossil collecting would be affected by these developments, we are also unsure as to how the planning application has progressed.  However, we would like to express our concern that such an amazing place might be lost forever.

Whilst we can appreciate that Matlock, like many towns in the UK, may have a need for more houses and that such a development might boost the local economy, as we stood in the quarry, totally in awe of the spectacular scenery and surrounded by evidence of a tropical, marine environment that existed some 340 million years ago, it seemed such a shame that this location might soon be unrecognisable.

Many Different Types of Invertebrate Fossil can Be Found in the Scree

Fossils can be found in the scree.

Fossils can be found in the scree.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

There may be an urgent need for more local housing.  The town of Matlock might desperately require additional commercial properties.  We feel that we are unable to comment with regards to these development plans, but we sincerely hope that the developers have at least considered the need to preserve some part of this remarkable location’s fossil heritage.  There are fewer and fewer places in this country, where people can simply stop and stare and admire rock formations and the fossil treasures they contain within.  These special sites demonstrate the rich geology of our landscape and allow visitors to explore life in the past.  We hope that any development is undertaken in sympathy with the astonishing geology of this location.

A Few Minutes Collecting and So Many Fossils

A multitude of fossils can be picked out from the scree.

A multitude of fossils can be picked out from the scree.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Wishing to express our concerns, the team member who visited the site contacted the planning department of Derbyshire Dales District Council.  A very helpful person in the department explained that the planning team could be emailed, allowing concerns about the need to develop the location in sympathy with the geology of the area to be put on record.  Everything Dinosaur subsequently did this and in addition, emailed Natural England to raise awareness of the development of this brownfield site with that organisation.

Raising Awareness About the Potential Loss of the Quarry

If you have collected fossils at Hall Dale Quarry and wish to make a point with reference to the re-development of this site and the potential loss of this fossil collecting location, then we would urge you to do so.

Planning application reference: 14/00541/OUT (please quote this reference when emailing the planning department or Natural England).

Email: planning@derbyshiredales.gov.uk to contact Derbyshire Dales District Council (we would advise that you include a contact telephone number in your email, so that a planning team member can get in touch)

Email: consultations@naturalengland.org.uk (again quoting planning reference: 14/00541/OUT) to get in contact with Natural England

Whilst we do understand the difficult and often challenging job of district councils and we aware of the potential economic benefits to the local community this project may bring.  We at Everything Dinosaur feel that it is important, to at least place on record a desire to consider the development of Hall Dale Quarry which takes into account the remarkable fossil bearing strata to be found at this location.

Please share.

Retracing the Beak of Birds to the Snout of Dinosaurs

Reverse Genetic Engineering to Produce a Dinosaur Snout

A team of scientists based in the United States have tweaked the developmental processes that take place in chicken embryos to re-engineer the snouts of their dinosaur ancestors.  The research team led by University of Yale palaeontologist, Bhart-Anjan S. Bhullar and developmental biologist Arhat Abzhanov (Harvard University), have produced the first bird embryos that possess a snout similar to a dinosaur’s nose rather than a beak.  The chicken embryos developed palatial bones and a jaw configuration that resembles that seen in the fossil record, specifically in the Dromaeosauridae, a group of dinosaurs that are closely related to modern Aves.  The Dromaeosaurs, sometimes referred to as the “raptors” belong to the Sub-order Theropoda.  They are part of a clade of agile dinosaurs that reduced their tails, lost their teeth and evolved into Aves (birds).  Typical dromaeosaurids are Velociraptor, Deinonychus and the recently named Saurornitholestes sullivani.

To read an article about the newly described Saurornitholestes sullivaniSniffing Out a New Dinosaur Species

As the Yale University press release states: “Just don’t call them Dino-chickens!”

Tweaking the Beak from Dromaeosaurs to Modern Birds

From the Dinosauria (left) to the beaks of modern Aves (right).

From the Dinosauria (left) to the beaks of modern Aves (right).

Picture Credit: John Conway

The scientists were not in the business of trying to create a living dinosaur.  Manipulation of chicken embryos has taken place for several years, all part of research to help the understanding of how molecular processes affect the development of organisms.

Commenting on this research, which has just been published in the journal “Evolution”, lead author Dr. Bhart-Anjan S. Bhullar (Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Yale) stated:

“Our goal here was to understand the molecular underpinnings of an important evolutionary transition, not to create a “dino-chicken” simply for the sake of it.”

For the young doctor, this is all part of his on-going research into cranial development in very young animals.  It is not part of a concerted effort to bring back the Dinosauria, a sort of “Jurassic Park from the embryo upwards”, as explained by a spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur.

There are a huge variety of bird beaks, from the curved, tearing and cutting beaks of eagles, to the sophisticated sieves of flamingos.  The beak is an essential component of avian anatomy and the researchers are trying to unravel how the beak evolved from its reptilian ancestry.  A quantitative analysis of fossils closely associated with the origins of birds was undertaken along with a study of extant animals including lizards, crocodiles and birds.  This examination allowed the scientists to develop a hypothesis as to how the bird beak may have evolved from the Dinosauria and the developmental stages that were involved.

The team identified that both major living lineages of birds, the abundant Neognathae (which includes virtually all species of extant birds) and the much rarer  Palaeognathae (which comprises the Tinamou family of birds from South and Central America plus the flightless ratites – cassowary, ostrich, kiwi, rhea, for example), differ from reptiles that are not closely related to birds and from mammals in that they have a unique, median gene expression zone of two different facial development genes early in embryonic development.  This median gene expression had previously only been identified in chicken embryos.

Turning Back the Evolutionary Clock

In order to have an embryo revert to its ancestral state, before the beak as it were, the gene expression for beak formation in the young chicken had to be turned off.  Microscopic beads coated in a molecule inhibiting substance were used to inhibit the activity of the proteins produced by the bird specific, median signalling zone in the chicken embryos.  This led the embryo to revert back to its reptilian ancestry with a more dinosaur-like snout forming and surprisingly, the palatine bone in the root of the mouth was also altered.

Changing the Faces of Embryos (Modified Chicken Embryo with Snout)

Normal chick (left), modified chicken embryo (centre), alligator embryo (right)

Normal chick (left), modified chicken embryo (centre), alligator embryo (right)

Picture Credit: Evolution

Dr. Bhullar was surprised by the additional changes seen in the palatine bone, he stated:

“This was unexpected and demonstrates the way in which a single, simple developmental mechanism can have wide-ranging and unexpected effects.”

Commenting on the research, Professor Michael Benton (Bristol University), someone who knows a great deal about bird evolution, explained that this new study shows that the beak of birds develops very different from the snouts, noses and jaws of reptiles.  A different set of genes are involved.

He stated:

“That’s what proves the beak is a real adaptation or “thing”, not just a slightly different nose shape”

Why Beaks?

Intriguingly, although the fossil record for bird evolution is far from complete, the fantastically well preserved bird fossils of Lower Cretaceous deposits from China, specimens of Confuciusornis for instance, show that by around 125 million years ago the toothless beak had evolved.  Why the beak came about remains a point of significant debate, however, one of the most often cited reasons for a lighter, toothless structure is that as birds became more efficient fliers and spent more time in the air, the loss of a heavy, bony jaw lined with teeth was just one of a number of anatomical adaptations that occurred to help improve powered flight.

The “Early Bird” Confuciusornis sanctus from China

Confuciusornis sanctus a primitive bird but it had a beak.

Confuciusornis sanctus a primitive bird but it had a beak.

The American based researchers are confident that their work has important implications for other geneticists and for palaeontologists.  For example, if a single molecular mechanism was responsible for this transformation, there should be a corresponding, linked transformation in the fossil record.  The flightless, man-sized Hesperornis, a genus of prehistoric bird known from the Late Cretaceous of North America could demonstrate that link.

An Illustration of Hesperornis (Traditional View)

Hesperornis catching a fish.

Hesperornis catching a fish.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur/Brooke Bond

Dr. Bhullar said:

“This is borne out by the fact that Hesperornis, discovered by Othniel Charles Marsh of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, which is a near relative of modern birds that still retains teeth and the most primitive stem avian with a modern-looking beak in the form of a fused, elongate premaxillae, also possesses a modern bird palatine bone.”

The premaxillae are the bones that form the tip of the upper jaw (anterior portion) of most animals, but are enlarged and fused to form the beak of birds.

Moving forward, the quantitative analysis to establish a proposed hypothetical developmental path of a lineage of animals which could be tested by inhibiting the behaviour of proteins in embryos can be probably be used to investigate a wide range of underlying developmental mechanisms in organisms.

The dinosaur/bird link is now well established, a theory once proposed by the likes of Henry Govier Seeley back in the 1880′s is widely accepted.  Back in 2013, Everything Dinosaur reported on research from an international team of scientists, including researchers from the Royal Veterinary College (London), that looked at how the posture of birds was derived from the gait of small, cursorial dinosaurs.

To read more about this study: The Birds Have the Dinosaurs to Thank for their Crouching Gait

Everything Dinosaur notes the support of Yale University in the compilation of this article.

It was a Worm’s World Back in the Cambrian

Palaeontologists Name New Species of Ottoia Worm

Whilst many a television documentary or published article on the fauna of the Burgess Shale focuses on the nektonic predators (actively swimming creatures above the sea floor), such as the formidable Anomalocaris, lurking in the soft mud of the sea floor itself was another very nasty hunter, one that left an extremely rich fossil record.  The most abundant type of creature preserved in the Burgess Shale is a type of worm, a member of the Phylum Priapulidae and now thanks to a detailed study of the teeth, hooks and spines on this tubular predator, scientists have discovered a method of identifying new species and also of determining just how abundant these creatures actually may have been.

An Ottoia Fossil (Burgess Shale)

An Ottoia fossil (Burgess Shale).

An Ottoia fossil (Burgess Shale).

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Ottoia fossils from the Burgess Shale of British Columbia (Canada), measure just a few centimetres in length and they are one of the few types of creature preserved in those 5o5 million year old sediments that can be associated with a living animal group, the entirely marine priapulids.  At least fifteen hundred specimens have been excavated from the Burgess Shale deposits.  These creatures may have lived in “U” shaped burrows and ambushed other creatures that wandered or swam to close to the burrow’s entrance.  It could grab food with a proboscis, an extendible mouth which was equipped with tiny hooks and lined with teeth and spines.  The team of scientists from Cambridge University and the University of Leicester, writing in the on line Journal “Palaeontology” used a variety of techniques to examine micro-fossils to identify different types of teeth from Ottoia  It is from this analysis that the team discovered that the most common type of priapulid associated with the Burgess Shale, Ottoia prolifica, actually represented two species.

As a result of this research, a new species of Ottoia worm has been identified in the Burgess Shale deposits - Ottoia tricuspida.  O. tricuspida has been so named as it has distinctive, three-pronged teeth.  Using various microscopy techniques to examine the tiny teeth recovered from drill cores and from other samples, the scientists propose that subtle variations in the teeth could help to identify more species in Cambrian biota and in addition, as the teeth are more likely to be preserved than the soft bodies of these creatures, the teeth could help to establish how widespread such worms were in the Cambrian geological period.

Ottoia prolifica was named by Charles Doolittle Walcott in 1911.  Walcott,  an American invertebrate palaeontologist, discovered the Burgess Shale deposits in the Canadian Rockies back in 1909.  These bands of mudstone and shale are very rich in fossils.  The frequency of Ottoia fossil material might not be anything to do with the abundance of these types of animals in the biota, the numbers found could reflect the fact that these animals lived in soft sediment.  If one of these worms died in their burrow, then they could set in motion the fossilisation process.  The soft mud would act as an excellent medium to promote the preservation of creatures that lived in the sediment.

A Model of Ottoia (Safari Ltd Cambrian Life Toob)

A model of Ottoia (Safari Ltd Cambrian Life Toob).

A model of Ottoia (Safari Ltd Cambrian Life Toob).

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Safari Ltd have a wonderful model of Ottoia in the Cambrian Life Toob.  This Toob contains a set of eight prehistoric animals that represent the bizarre fauna of the Cambrian explosion.

To view this Toob and other prehistoric animal model sets: Prehistoric Animal Toobs and Model Sets

A Teeth, Hooks and Spines Associated with Ottoia spp.

The variety of fossil teeth, spines and hooks associated with Ottoia spp.

The variety of fossil teeth, spines and hooks associated with Ottoia spp.

Picture Credit: Palaeontology Journal

How to Clone a Mammoth (Book Review)

How to Clone a Mammoth by Beth Shapiro – Book Review

There is a saying “may you live in interesting times”, thought by many to be an ancient Chinese proverb.  We may not be too sure as to the derivation of this phrase, but for a geneticist, the early years of the 21st Century are most certainly “interesting times”.  Our understanding of DNA, that double helix shaped set of building blocks for life itself has come on in leaps and bounds over the last two decades.  Our species is on the brink of some startling developments in genetics, one of which is the ability, through the manipulation of an organism’s genome, to bring back once extinct creatures, or at least to produce a population of closely related living things that have characteristics of organisms that existed in the past.

Evolutionary biologist and ecologist Beth Shapiro, neatly summarises the current research and sets out some of the hurdles – scientific, moral and ethical, that mankind will have to overcome if the likes of a Woolly Mammoth will ever roam the Earth again.  Her book “How to Clone a Woolly Mammoth”, published by Princeton Press sets out to explain how state-of-the-art science can lead to genetic modification, consequences of which, include the possibility of the return of the Passenger Pigeon to North America or the Mammoth to the tundra of Russia.

How to Clone a Woolly Mammoth by Beth Shapiro

The science of de-extinction by Beth Shapiro.

The science of de-extinction by Beth Shapiro.

Picture Credit: Princeton Press

Written in an informative but never patronising style, Beth an Associate Professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, takes the reader on a journey beginning with the tricky subject of which species to consider for “de-extinction” and then how to go about finding a suitable specimen for the all important donation of genetic material.  Her frank and knowledgeable account of Pleistocene fossil hunting expeditions in the Yukon and on the Taimyr Peninsula in the far north of Russia provides a fresh perspective on the difficulties involved in hunting for long extinct Ice Age creatures and the potentially game-changing genetic treasure that they may contain.

For further information and to purchase this book visit: Princeton Press

“How to Clone a Mammoth” provides a comprehensive account of the current research and sets out the role that genetically modified organisms will play in conservation.  Beth has skilfully blended cutting edge science with an overview of the ramifications that resurrecting lost fauna might have for the restoration of declining ecosystems.  This book will be of interest to a very broad audience, from academics and students, to the general reader with a lay person’s curiosity for the ways in which genetic engineering is shaping life on Earth.

The Author Associate Professor Beth Shapiro

A well-written and comprehensive account.

A well-written and comprehensive account.

Picture Credit: Kris Krug

 This field of scientific endeavour is moving at a rapid pace.  Recently, an international team of scientists, including Dr Love Dalén, from the Swedish Museum of Natural History (Stockholm), successfully sequenced the Woolly Mammoth genome.  In a separate study, researchers have highlighted the alarming decline globally of large herbivores, that might lead to “empty landscapes”.  Associate Professor Shapiro argues that elephants which have been genetically modified so that they are able to tolerate cold conditions could well play a significant role in habitat and ecosystem preservation in the near future.  ”How to Clone a Mammoth” may soon date as the science of “de-extinction” progresses, but it provides the reader with a road map for understanding the path that genetic research developments may take us down.

A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur commented:

“This is a skilfully and conscientiously crafted book that explains the challenges and potential pit falls that lie ahead.  The author has done much to de-bunk the myths and misleading information that surrounds this topic and “How to Clone a Mammoth” provides the reader with a comprehensive account of the state of current research as well as tantalising glimpses with regards to what risks and potential rewards “de-extinction” might facilitate.”

Highly recommended.

For further information on “How to Clone a Mammoth” or to purchase a copy: Princeton Press

Yi qi – The Dinosaur That Thought it was a Bat

Chinese Dinosaur Unveil Yi qi Another Weird and Wonderful Theropod

Hot on the heels of Chilesaurus* comes the second bizarre Theropod dinosaur to be named this week, the wonderful and weird Yi qi (pronounced ee-chee) from the Hebei Province of northern China.  A single specimen is known, this was discovered by a local farmer and subsequently sold to a museum in Shandong Province, careful preparation of the specimen, which although fractured, does reveal most of the anatomical details of this little dinosaur.  Remarkably Y. qi possessed a long, rod-like bone on each wrist that extended backwards.  No other Theropod dinosaur (or any dinosaur for that matter), had a bone quite like this.  Comparative analysis with extant animals suggests that this bone helped to support a flap of skin that could be stretched out to form a structure like a bat’s wing.  The absence of evidence for large muscles around the chest probably rules out any form of active, powered flight, but it is likely that this pigeon-sized dinosaur could have been a glider.  Not the dinosaur equivalent of Batman, more like a dinosaur equivalent of a flying squirrel.

The Second Bizarre Theropod Announced this Week – Yi qi

Mid Jurassic flier.

Mid Jurassic flapping flier no but glider yes (probably).

Picture Credit: Dinostar/Chinese Academy of Sciences

To read Everything Dinosaur’s earlier article about the research into Chilesaurus: Chilesaurus – A Dinosaur Designed by a Committee

The fossil material has been studied (and fully prepared) by scientists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology – IVPP) and researchers from Linyi University (Shandong Province).  Unlike a number of other feathered dinosaur specimens from China, the palaeontologists are confident that this specimen (STM 31-2) currently housed at the Tianyu Museum of Nature in Pingyi County, (Shangdong Province), had not be tampered with or augmented by unscrupulous fossil dealers hoping to inflate any purchase price.

The Holotype Fossil Specimen (STM 31-2) Yi qi

The only known specimen of Qi yi (holotype).

The only known specimen of Yi qi (holotype).

Picture Credit: Zheng Xiaoting

This little dinosaur probably weighed less than 400 grammes and that bat-like wingspan was around sixty centimetres across  The short, deep skull was less than four centimetres long.  It forms part of an amazing fauna that thrived in a forested environment some 160 million years ago.  Over the last ten years or so, Chinese scientists have built up a very detailed picture of the palaeoenvironment in this part of northern China during the Mid to Late Jurassic.  The forests consisted of ancient ferns, ginkgos and conifers and breaking up the sub-tropical woodlands were large, shallow lakes.  Nearby volcanoes occasionally erupted and buried the surrounding area with a huge layer of very fine dust trapping and killing everything that got buried.  It is thanks to these frequent eruptions that such a wealth of ancient material has been so exquisitely preserved.  The Yi qi fossil shows evidence of long, filamentous feathers on the limbs as well as signs of a membrane of skin attached to that rod-like wrist bone and between the three digits.  The tiny claws on those digits suggest that this dinosaur could have climbed up trees, certainly an arboreal existence has been proposed.  Yi qi probably hunted insects up in the branches, climbing up the trunks of trees and gliding from tree to tree.

A Close up of the Skull of Yi qi

The large eye (orbit) and the peg-like teeth at the front of the jaws can be clearly made out.

The large eye (orbit) and the peg-like teeth at the front of the jaws can be clearly made out.

Picture Credit: Zheng Xiaoting

The large orbit (eye socket) seen in the picture above suggests that this little dinosaur had big eyes providing stereoscopic vision, all the better to judge distances and to spot its insect prey amongst the dark, leafy canopy,  Those short, peg-like teeth would have been more than a match for any insect that this gliding dinosaur encountered.  It probably was not agile enough to catch prey in mid flight but probably scurried along branches looking for insects and spiders.

It would have had plenty of company in its forest home.  There were lots of Pterosaurs around, along with numerous feathered dinosaurs and a large number of bizarre mammals including some recently described Docodonts.  To read an article about the remarkable fauna from the  Daohugou Beds of the Tiaojishan Formation: Unravelling the Sequence of Deposition in North-eastern China

To read about the peculiar mammals from this part of China (Mid to Late Jurassic): Widespread Ecological Diversity Amongst Early Mammals from China

An Example of Convergent Evolution

This anatomy is not found in other Theropods.

This anatomy is not found in other Theropods.

Picture Credit: Zheng Xiaoting

The rod-like bone extending from each wrist is not found in any other known member of the Dinosauria, but similar features are found in a number of gliding and flying Tetrapods.  At first the scientists were stumped by this strange anatomy, Xu Xing, one of the authors of the academic paper stated:

“We spent quite some time to identify the body structure of Yi qi, because the specimen is so different.  At first we did not have the slightest idea about what was the rod-like bone.”

It was only after a researcher undertook a study on extant flying vertebrates that the connection was made.

Zheng Xiaoting (Linyi University), another co-author of the study explained:

“Living in the mid period of the Jurassic, the dinosaur Yi qi could be a pioneer in the evolution of flying ability.”

The rod-like wrist bones are an example of convergent evolution, that is, when unrelated organisms evolve the same adaptations, such as tail flukes in dolphins and Ichthyosaurs.  Not only is this one of the most remarkable Theropod fossils discovered to date, Yi qi is one of the smallest dinosaurs so far described.  It also has several other claims to fame, for example, with a binomial, formal scientific name of just four letters, it has the shortest name for any member of the Dinosauria that we at Everything Dinosaur can think of.  In addition, as the fossil material is part of the Tianyu Museum of Nature’s Collection, it is part of the largest dinosaur fossil collection housed in a single museum anywhere in the world.  Back in 2010, the Guinness Book of Records announced that this museum had the greatest number of dinosaur specimens on exhibit at any one time.  The museum has over 28,000 square metres of exhibition space, a large proportion of which is dedicated to the Dinosauria.  The museum claims to possess over 1,100 different dinosaur specimens and tens of thousands of other vertebrate fossils in its collection.

Yi qi has been phylogenetically assigned to the clade Maniraptora, specifically being placed in the Family Scansoriopterygidae, a very odd group of dinosaurs, known for their small size, assumed arboreal habits, long arms and elongated third fingers.  In all other members of the Theropoda it is the second digit that is the longest. The Scansoriopterygidae contains a number of genera, with Epidexipteryx (E. hui) being perhaps the best known since it appeared in an episode of the BBC documentary series “Planet Dinosaur” back in 2011.  Epidexipteryx hui was named and described in 2008.

An Illustration of Epidexipteryx

Epidexipteryx hui

Epidexipteryx hui

Picture Credit: Nature

Did Boy Stegosaurs have Bigger Plates than the Girls?

Evidence for Sexual Dimorphism in the Stegosaurs

Show most five year olds, a picture of a Stegosaurus and the chances are they will be able to name it.  The plated plant-eater with its small head, stout limbs and its tail spikes is one of the most recognisable of all the dinosaurs.  However, palaeontologists still know remarkably very little about this Late Jurassic herbivore.  A new paper, written by a researcher from Bristol University and published in the on line academic journal PLoS One (public library of science), suggests that the shape and size of those famous back plates varied between the males and females.  If the researcher’s conclusions are correct, male Stegosaurs had back plates that were more rounded and up to 45% bigger than the females.

One of the Best Loved but Not that Well Understood Dinosaurs

Still lots to learn about this Ornithischian dinosaur.

Still lots to learn about this Ornithischian dinosaur.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

In Everything Dinosaur’s annual survey of popular prehistoric animals, Stegosaurus is nearly always recorded in the top five.  It seems most popular with girls.  In this new research, University of Bristol MSc student Evan Saitta proposes that skeletal evidence from a bone bed in central Montana referred to as quarry JRDI 5ES, suggests sexual dimorphism in a Stegosaur species known as S. mjosi.  Evan spent a total of six summers working as part of a field team from Princeton University (New Jersey), excavating the Stegosaurus fossils as part of his undergraduate thesis.

To view the results of Everything Dinosaur’s most recent prehistoric animal survey: Top Ten Prehistoric Animals of 2014 (Part 1)

The top five in our most recent survey can be found here: Top Five Most Popular Prehistoric Animals of 2014

Professor Michael Benton, Director of the Masters in Palaeobiology at Bristol University commented:

“Its very impressive when an undergraduate makes such a major scientific discovery.”

This is certainly true, but let’s not get too carried away for the moment at least.  Take for example the species name Stegosaurus mjosi, there is some uncertainty whether the fossils represent a Stegosaurus.  About thirty years ago, palaeontologists discovered the fossilised remains of a large Stegosaur during field work on the oldest part of the Morrison Formation exposed in Montana.  This dinosaur was formally named in 2001 as Hesperosaurus mjosi.  Although there have been many fossils found, including an almost complete skull, it is still debated whether these fossils represent a distinct Stegosaur genus or a species of Stegosaurus.  The strata from which the fossils come from has been estimated to be around 155 million years old, it has been suggested that Hesperosaurus mjosi, or if you prefer the junior synonym Stegosaurus mjosi, is a basal member of the Stegosaur family.  Its exact phylogenetic place in the Stegosaur family tree remains controversial.

However, this issue does not detract from the research carried out into the shape and size of the plates.  The dig site known as JRDI 5ES, as it is one of the sites managed by the Judith River Dinosaur Institute, provides a fascinating and tantalising glimpse into the lives of these large, Late Jurassic plated dinosaurs.  The site contains the remains of at least five individuals preserved in mudstone.  Although two distinct types of plates can be observed, the rest of the bones indicate that this group of Stegosaurs represent a single species.  The bones, although disarticulated for the most part, are found within the same stratigraphic horizon and they were probably not transported very far prior to burial.  This is indicated by the presence of many smaller bones such as unguals and skull elements as well as a lack of wear on the bones from transportation.  The absence of shed crocodilian and Theropod teeth indicate that the corpses were not scavenged and so burial must have been quite rapid.  It could be inferred that this was a group of Stegosaurs that died together, could this species of Stegosaur have lived in social groups?  Does this suggest Stegosaur co-existence?

Suggested Silhouettes of a Male and Female

Females may have had reduced plates that were more spiky.

Females may have had reduced plates that were more spiky.

Picture Credit: Evan Saitta (additional annotation by Everything Dinosaur)

Detailed measurements and quantitative analysis indicated that there were two distinct types of plates present.  Of the fairly complete plates found within the bone bed, four could be described as large and wide, whilst five more could be classified as being taller and more spiky in appearance.  These are distinct characteristics and what is more, Mr Saitta’s analysis suggests that there are no plates present that show traits of both wide and spiky characters.

Evan commented:

“Simply looking at them by eye, you can identify two varieties.  But then you can also measure them and do a more quantitative analysis and demonstrate that, yes, there are two distinct varieties of plates, and that there don’t appear to be any clear-cut intermediates.”

Two Distinct Plate Morphologies have been Described

The widest plate morph compared to the tallest plate morph (scale = 10cm)

The widest plate morph compared to the tallest plate morph (scale = 10cm)

Picture Credit: PLoS One

The plate shapes suggest sexual dimorphism in Stegosaurs, males and females evolved different shaped plates.  But which is which?  The Bristol based scientist cannot say for sure whether the males or the females had the broader, larger plates however he speculates that the boys had the bigger more rounded plates.

“We know from modern animals that males typically invest more into their ornaments than do the females.  In this case, the broader variety reaches sizes 45% larger in surface area than do the tall plates.  And I argue that these wide plates would create a great ‘billboard’ for male Stegosaurs if they were using them to attract a mate.”

If the fossils represent a single species, then sexual dimorphism seems the “best fit” for an explanation.  Analysis of the fossil material indicates that the animals were fully grown and so the shape of the plates cannot be put down to dinosaurs at different stages of growth.  Plates from all positions on the body can be classified as being of the rounded or taller shape so the variation cannot be due to the location of the plate on the animal.  Other isolated Stegosaur fossils found in Wyoming and ascribed to the same genus/species support the idea of sexual dimorphism in plate shape as these specimens too show only one plate shape.

Evan Saitta Cutting a Thin Section of Stegosaur Plate for Ontogenetic Analysis

Evan Saitta prepares a section of plate for cross-sectional study.

Evan Saitta prepares a section of plate for cross-sectional study.

Picture Credit: Judith River Dinosaur Institute

A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur commented:

“This is a remarkable study.  We made one of our “palaeontological predictions” that 2015 would bring Stegosaurus into the limelight once more and this new research provides tantalising evidence of sexual dimorphism in Ornithischian dinosaurs.  We can speculate that the plates evolved as defensive armour or possible temperature regulators and over countless generations of females selecting mates with the most impressive plates, two distinct sets of plates formed in the species.  At first glance the spiky, taller plates associated with the females may have offered better defence against predator attack.  The more rounded plates ascribed to the males may not have been as effective.  The male Stegosaurs sacrificing some defensive capability in order to have a more impressive visual display to woo a female.  Although sexual dimorphism is not common in extant reptiles and birds, there are examples seen today.  For instance, the male peacock has sacrificed the ability to camouflage itself from predators by evolving a very obvious, huge tail feather display, all for the purpose of attracting a mate.”

Female peacocks may have influenced the tail length and plumage of the males by selecting males in the peacock population that had slightly longer tails and more flamboyant plumage. These traits are then passed onto offspring and this form of sexual selection by females leads to more ornate tail feathers in males as they have an advantage in terms of mating success.  It could be inferred that sexual selection by female Stegosaurs led to the evolution of larger, broader plates on the backs of the males.  The bigger more rounded plates providing the males with an advantage when it comes to mating, despite being less helpful when it came to fending off an attack from a Theropod.

The conclusions from this study are likely to be debated for a very long time.  This new paper provides a new “angle” on the purposes of those enigmatic plates and further research into “Sophie” the Stegosaurus stenops specimen at the Natural History Museum in London may help to “round off” the debate.

To read more about “Sophie” the Stegosaurus specimen exhibited at the Natural History Museum: All about “Sophie”

To see the list of Everything Dinosaur’s “palaeontology predictions” for 2015: Palaeontology and Fossil Predictions for 2015

Dinosaur Nest Site Vandalised

Vandals Destroy Dinosaur Nests and Footprints

Everything Dinosaur has received press reports that vandals have smashed a number of dinosaur eggs and footprints that made up part of an outdoor display at the Mirador del Cretáceo dig site  in Coll de Nargó, Catalonia (north-eastern Spain).  The tourist attraction was opened in 2005 and combines a serious palaeontological study of Upper Cretaceous highly fossiliferous sediments with a tourist attraction, which permits onlookers to walk round the site and to view some of the fossil specimens in situ as well as other exhibits that show how dinosaurs nested.

Some of the items believed to have been smashed include dinosaur eggs that had been reassembled from the fossil remains to give the impression that they had just been laid.

Sites containing dinosaur egg remains and evidence of nesting behaviour are extremely rare and the dig site in the Pyrénéen village is believed to represent the largest location of its kind yet discovered in Europe.  In addition, the fossils are very well preserved and these in conjunction with the numerous dinosaur footprints that have been mapped in the area indicate the presence of at least six different types of dinosaur present in this Late Cretaceous ecosystem.

One of the Fossilised Eggs Preserved at the Site

An important Late Cretaceous dig site.

An important Late Cretaceous dig site.

Picture Credit: (Xavier Delclòs, Faculty of Geology UB)

Sadly, this is not the only example of vandalism reported upon by Everything Dinosaur, back in 2012, team members from Everything Dinosaur published an article about an act of dinosaur vandalism in Alberta, Canada.

To read more about this incident: Hooligans smash duck-billed dinosaur fossils

More recently, a Sauropod bone at the Dinosaur Monument in Utah was broken and a piece stolen, this theft and the damage to that part of the bone that remained led to the specimen having to be removed.

Salvador Moyà, the manager at the Palaeolithic Institute of Catalunya (ICP) called the destruction of the fossils “inconceivable” and the mayor of Coll de Nargó, Senor Benito Fité stated that this was a “catastrophe”.

These incidents are all to frequent, especially at sites which are relatively open and allow public access.  Back in 2013, the site was raided by a local resident and several specimens stolen.  These were only returned when it became public knowledge that whoever was responsible for the theft would face prosecution for their criminal action.

Those Highly Adaptable Humans

Research Suggests that H. sapiens Adapted Quickly to Different Environments

If the onset of a period of deforestation resulting from climate change provided the stimulus for the evolution and development of that part of the Homo genus that would eventually give rise to our own species H. sapiens, then how did our species cope when encountering extensively forested habitats?  The answer according to new research conducted by scientists from Oxford University, Sri Lanka and the University of Bradford is that our big-brained ancestors coped remarkably well.

Writing in the on line edition of the academic journal “Science” the research team report on carbon and oxygen isotope analysis carried out on the teeth of twenty-six individuals whose remains are associated with archaeological sites in Sri Lanka that date from the Pleistocene into the Holocene Epochs.  The isotope analysis provides evidence of human diet and it seems that humans as far back as 20,000 years ago were obtaining a significant proportion of their food requirements from the rainforest.

Early Homo sapiens – Made their Home in the Forest

Some early humans made the rainforest their home.

Some early humans made the rainforest their home.

Tropical rainforest environments are nutritionally poor and their dark and often treacherous interiors are difficult to navigate.  They would have represented challenging environments for human hunter/gatherers and up until now they had been little concrete evidence presented to suggest human habitation of rainforest environments prior to the advent of the Holocene, some 10,000 years ago.  This new study suggests that humans were exploiting rainforests for food, rather than more open habitats at least 20,000 years ago and in the scientific paper, the research team postulate that our species could have been making a home in tropical forests perhaps as far back as 45,000 years ago.  Previous archaeological research provides “tantalising hints” that humans could have been occupying rainforest ecosystems back in the Late Pleistocene (Late Tarantian stage), although it is not clear whether these early rainforest inhabitants were seasonal visitors or whether they permanently occupied the forests.   The research represents a collaborative effort between Britain-based scientists and their counterparts from Sri Lanka (The Institute of Archaeology and the Department of Archaeology, both based in Colombo).

Commenting on the research findings, co-author Professor Julia Lee-Thorp (Oxford University) stated:

“The isotopic methodology applied in our study has already been successfully used to study how primates, including African great apes, adapt to their forest environment.  However, this is the first time scientists have investigated ancient human fossils in a tropical forest context to see how our earliest ancestors survived in such a habitat.”

If the “Out of Africa” theory of H. sapiens evolution is accepted, then it is from Africa that modern humans migrated, this migration eventually leading to the colonisation of the rest of the world.  Fossils found in south-west Asia, Jordan for example, indicate a complex pattern of human and Neanderthal migrations most likely driven by climate change.  From around 60,000 years ago, modern humans moved eastwards across Asia into India, south-east Asia and eventually into Australia.  This migration may have taken as little as fifteen thousand years.

The scientists examined the fossilised teeth of humans from three archaeological sites in Sri Lanka, which are today surrounded by rainforest or more open terrain.  The isotope analysis revealed that all of the humans in the study had a diet sourced from slightly open, “intermediate rainforest” environments, only two individuals showed signs of a diet mainly sourced from an open grassland habitat.  However, the teeth that showed the “grassland signature” were dated to around 1,000 B.C. (Late Bronze Age to Early Iron Age), some of the youngest teeth used in the study.

Early Humans Exploited Different Environments

A Prehistoric Scene

A Prehistoric Scene

This new research supports the notion of just how adaptable early, modern humans were.  Back in 2011, Everything Dinosaur published an article about a remarkable discovery in East Timor that suggests as early as 40,000 years ago humans were catching Tuna.

To read this article: Prehistoric Fisherman Able to Catch Fast Swimming Tuna

Lead author of the scientific paper, Patrick Roberts (Oxford University) explained:

“This is the first study to directly test how much early human forest foragers depended on the rainforest for their diet.  The results are significant in showing that early humans in Sri Lanka were able to live almost entirely on food found in the rainforest without the need to move into other environments.  Our earliest human ancestors were clearly able to successfully adapt to extreme environments.”

The rapid spread of our species across the globe after the initial out of Africa migration does seem to support the idea that early H. sapiens were extremely adaptable, although they are not the only member of the Homo genus to have made the rainforest their home.  Homo erectus,  was the first widespread hominin species.  Fossils have been found in China and Indonesia.  It is very likely that H. erectus also adapted to forested regions.  In addition, the mysterious Homo floresiensis, fossils of which come from the remote Indonesian island of Flores was very well adapted to its mostly forested island home.  H. floresiensis may have survived to 13,000 years ago, but islanders talk of stories of strange little people living in the forest from much more recent times, perhaps until just a few hundred years ago.

The Very Complicated Human Family Tree

New Research and New Discoveries Shed Light on our Ancestry

If anyone has had an opportunity to trace their family tree, then they know that given the wealth of data around today, a few clicks of the keyboard can provide a great deal of information about your family.  However, when it comes to tracing the origins of the “human family”, the evolution of our own species, then things are much more tricky.  New research published today in the journal “Nature” is helping to unravel the complicated journey that hominins have taken, a journey that eventually saw the emergence of our species, Homo sapiens sometime around 220,000 years ago.

Using a fossilised very human-like partial jawbone found at Ledi-Geraru, (Ethiopia), which has been dated to around 2.8 million years ago, in addition with already described material, an international team of scientists have reconstructed the skull of the early hominin Homo habilis (handy man) and looked at the ancestry of this species.  The research team included scientists from the University College London, in collaboration with the National Museums of Tanzania and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (Leipzig, Germany).  This new research helps to establish the human lineage and to determine what makes H. habilis so distinctive from the early Australopithecines such as the famous “Lucy” fossil –  A. afarensis which ironically, was discovered not too far from where the 2.8 million year old hominin lower jaw was found.  However, the fossils of “Lucy” are much older.  The partial skeleton of “Lucy” has been dated to around 3.2 million years ago.

To read more about an exhibition that features the remarkable preserved remains of “Lucy”: Pictures from an Exhibition

The first fossils of “handy man”, Homo habilis were described in 1964.  They consisted of a distorted lower jaw, hand bones and a highly fragmented braincase, all representing the bones of a single individual.  These fossils were catalogued as Olduvai hominin (OH7).   The rarity of early human bones, along with the very distorted remains associated with the earliest evidence of H. habilis made determining the unique characteristics and features of this species extremely difficult.  However, this research team utilised state-of-the-art computerised tomography and sophisticated computer modelling to unscramble the distorted remains and to piece together a reconstruction of the skull and jaws of Homo habilis.

The question that has puzzled palaeoanthropologists since the scientific description of Homo habilis and the subsequent discovery of more Australopithecine fossil remains was, could the likes of “Lucy” have evolved into the very first human-like creatures? Professor Brian Villmoare (University of Nevada), believes that the discovery of this 2.8 million year old jaw bone, complete with five teeth helps to confirm this hypothesis.

The Fossilised Jaw Bone (2.8 million years old)

Something for the palaeoanthropologists to get their teeth into.

Something for the palaeoanthropologists to get their teeth into.

Picture Credit: Brian Villmoare (University of Nevada)

The problem is this, the fossil record between the time period when “Lucy” and her kin were alive and the emergence of Homo erectus (with its relatively large brain and human-like body proportions), some two million years ago, is extremely sparse.  What has been found, is also very fragmentary, making tracing evolutionary links difficult.  The ancient human-like jawbone is highly significant.  The molar teeth are much smaller and less robust than those of other hominins known from the fossil record.  It is the size of the jaws and the teeth wherein that helps scientists to distinguish more human-like species from those which are more ape-like.

Commenting on the significance of this fossil find, scientists have stated that this new discovery pushes back the human evolutionary line by some 400,000 years or so.  The fossilised jawbone with its mix of primitive and more advanced traits makes it a candidate for a transitional species between the Australopithecines and the human family tree.

The Digital Reconstruction of the Skull and Jaws of Homo Habilis

The digitally mapped and reconstructed skull of H. habilis.

The digitally mapped and reconstructed skull of H. habilis.

Picture Credit: University College London

The “handy man” fossil material having undergone its computer modelling reveals new information about the jaw shape.  The computer having reassembled the distorted jaw described in 1964, to provide a more accurate reflection of the living bone.  The research published in “Nature” suggests that Homo habilis has older evolutionary roots than previously thought.  This research supports the idea that many different types of Homo species existed in Africa between 2.1 and 1.6 million years ago.  Climate change, leading to a much drier, deforested habitat may have led to a spurt in evolutionary experimentation as species adapted to the new environment and exploited new niches in the changing ecosystem.  The modelled lower jaw reveals primitive traits such as seen in Australopithecine fossil material, but it also has more advanced features, distinguishing H. habilis from its contemporary Homo rudolfensis.

The potential transitional link between hominins and Australopithecines remained elusive until the University of Nevada discovery of the 2.8 million year old jawbone.  The fossil, known as LD 350-1 is an excellent candidate for the ancestor of Homo habilis and other early hominins.

 Commenting on the fossil jawbone discovery, Dr. Villmoare stated:

“LD 350-1 reveals that many of the anatomical patterns we see in two million year old Homo were established much earlier in the evolution of the genus.  At 2.8 million years ago we see relatively evolved Homo traits in combination with other, much more primitive anatomical features, a result that is particularly interesting in light of the shape of the OH7 reconstruction.”

Staypressed theme by Themocracy