Category: Palaeontological articles

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

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.

Largest Silurian Vertebrate Discovered to Date

Megamastax – Silurian Equivalent of “Jaws”

A team of scientists from Flinders University (Adelaide, South Australia) and the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology (Beijing) have announced the discovery of a new genus of primitive fish from the Silurian aged deposits of Yunnan Province (south-western, China).  There have been a number of ancient fish species described from Chinese excavations in recent years, but there has been nothing like this fish ever found before, for a start it is at least three times as big as any other Silurian vertebrate and it had a mouth and teeth designed for eating other marine creatures.  This was the Silurian equivalent of Tyrannosaurus rex, an apex predator that swam in a warm, tropical sea some 423 million years ago.

The prehistoric predator has been named Megamastax amblyodus, the name means “big mouth with blunt teeth”, one of the lead researchers and authors of the scientific paper on this new carnivore, Dr. Brian Choo, describes Megamastax as a member of the Sarcopterygians or lobe-finned fish, the group of jawed vertebrates that are believed to have given rise to the Tetrapods (four-legged, land animals and our own ancestors).  Scientists now think that the Sarcopterygians evolved in the Late Silurian and rapidly diversified, out competing the jawless fish (the Agnathans).  Fossils found in Yunnan Province in the late 1990′s proved that the Sarcopterygians did indeed have Silurian origins and they did not evolve in the later Devonian as previously thought, however, the discovery of a relative giant throws up some intriguing questions.  For example, did the Sarcopterygians evolve earlier, or did they diversify extremely rapidly giving rise to a myriad of new forms including apex predators.

An Artist’s Illustration of Megamastax amblyodus

Megamastax terrorises a group of jawless fish.

Megamastax terrorises a group of jawless fish.

Picture Credit: Dr. Brian Choo

 Three specimens have been found so far, the largest had a jaw seventeen centimetres long and a total body length of around one metre.  In the picture above, M. amblyodus is pictured attacking and feeding on a shoal of Agnathans (Dunyu longiforus).  This discovery challenges the assumption that large vertebrates did not evolve until the Devonian, Dr. Choo commented:

“It’s always been thought that Silurian fish were all small because, until now, no fossils of species more than 30cm or so in length have ever been discovered.  But from the site in Yunnan, near the city of Qujing, we uncovered a diverse collection of jawed fish from Silurian sediments, including the new Megamastax, a predator vastly larger than any other vertebrate known from this age.”

Not only does this new fossil discovery change views on marine ecosystems, but it adds a twist to the current debate about the palaeoclimate of Earth.  With only small vertebrates found, scientists thought that there was not enough atmospheric oxygen to permit the evolution of large back-boned animals.

Dr. Choo, a post-graduate research fellow at Flinders University explains:

“As modern large fish tend to be more sensitive to oxygen availability than smaller ones, the apparent absence of big Silurian fishes has been used to calibrate some models of Earth’s atmospheric history, with supposedly lower oxygen levels restricting body size prior to the Devonian.  However, evidence of a one metre-long fish swimming about 423 million years ago strongly refutes the idea.”

Megamastax would have competed with larger genera of Eurypterids (sea-scorpions) for food resources, some palaeontologists have argued that it was the evolution of large, jawed fishes that led to the demise of many forms of marine Arthropod, including the sea-scorpions and many types of Trilobite.  The rocks that make up the Silurian deposits of Yunnan Province were formed in a shallow sea that made up part of the colossal Panthallassic Ocean that covered virtually all of the eastern hemisphere.  Yunnan Province lay at the bottom of this shallow sea some more than a thousand miles west of its current location.

Holotype Fossil Material, Jaws and Teeth in Close Up

Hypothetical silhouettes of M. amblyodus.

Hypothetical silhouettes of M. amblyodus.

Picture Credit: Dr. Choo et al

The picture above shows pictures of the holotype jaw (IVPP V18499.1) in various views (A) lateral view, outside of jaw, (B) lingual (inside of the mouth view), (C) dorsal view, from the top and (D) close up of marginal teeth. Picture (E) shows a close up of the dentition if viewed from the inside of the mouth – lingual view.  Figures F to H show views of the second partial jaw recovered (F = lateral, G = lingual, H = dorsal).  Picture I shows the third jaw fragment (V18499.3) viewed from the side (lateral view).

The drawings labelled J1 represents a genus of Silurian fish found in the same layer of strata as M. amblyodus, Guiyu oneiros, G. oneiros may have been the prey.  Drawings J2 and J3 represent suggested silhouettes for this new Silurian predator, the smaller sized specimen (J2) is based on smaller jaw fossils, whilst J3 is based on the largest jaw fragment found.

Key to Diagram

Co 1–4, coronoids 1–4; coT 1–8, coronoid teeth 1–8; De, dentary; fo.add, adductor fossa; fo.gl, glenoid fossa; fo.Mk, Meckelian foramen; Id, infradentary; mpl, mandibular pit line; maT, marginal teeth; oaMx, overlap area for maxilla and quadratojugal; Pat, prearticular; sym, area for parasymphysial plate; tr, indented track bordering splenial.

Dr. Choo added:

“While by themselves, these fossils do not give an exact indication of what the atmosphere was like in the Silurian, they are still a significant new piece of the puzzle that will be incorporated into further research.  These new fossils from Yunnan represent one of the earliest well-documented vertebrate faunas and demonstrate that fish from the latter part of the Silurian were already big and varied, clearly the result of an extended span of evolution.  Unfortunately, the only fossils of jawed fish from much older sediments are a few tantalising fragments.  There is a much deeper history about which we currently know very little.”

Mercuriceratops gemini – New Horned Dinosaur from North America

Mercuriceratops gemini – Incredible Diversity of Late Cretaceous Ceratopsians

Researchers have described a new genus of Ceratopsian, based on fossils excavated from Montana (western United States) and Alberta (Canada).  The dinosaur has been named Mercuriceratops (M. gemini) and when fully grown, this heavy weight herbivore, would have weighed as much as an Asian elephant and measured around six metres in length.  Mercuriceratops lived around seventy-seven million years ago (mid Campanian faunal stage) and the formal, scientific paper describing this new genus has been published in the journal Naturwissenschaften (the science of nature).

Mercuriceratops (pronounced Murr-cure-ree-sera-tops), means “Mercury horned face”, this Chasmosaurine has been named after the wing-like protrusions on the side of its neck frill.  The “wings” are formed from the squamosal skull bones which are hatchet shaped and stick out from the side in a much more prominent manner than in any other known species of Ceratopsian.  In addition, the the back of the squamosal is modified to form a narrow bar that would have supported the side of a very robust parietal skull bone.  These unusually shaped squamosals reminded the research team of the wings on the helmet of the Roman god Mercury.

An Illustration of Mercuriceratops gemini

"winged" squamosal bones on Mercuriceratops.

“winged” squamosal bones on Mercuriceratops.

Picture Credit: Danielle Dufault

Related to Chasmosaurines such as Pentaceratops and Triceratops, the research team have proposed that this dinosaur too, had two long brow horns and a shorter nose horn, just like the later Chasmosaurine dinosaurs Pentaceratops and Triceratops.  Two large horns over the eyes (brow horns) is very typical of the Chasmosaurinae.

Models of the Chasmosaurine Dinosaurs Pentaceratops (left) Triceratops (right)

Pentaceratops model is on the left.

Pentaceratops model is on the left.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The picture above show models of typical Chasmosaurine dinosaurs, note the large horns over the eyes.  The models are from the Schleich World of History Model series.

To view Schleich’s range of prehistoric animal models: Schleich Prehistoric Animal Models

The trivial or specific name – “gemini” refers to the almost identical fossil specimens that were found and led to the description of this new genus of horned dinosaur.  One fossilised squamosal bone comes from Upper Cretaceous strata of north, central Montana, the second comes from rocks found in the famous Dinosaur Provincial Park Formation of Alberta.  Mercuriceratops represents the oldest Chasmosaurine dinosaur known from Canada and the first pre-Maastrichtian Ceratopsian to have been found in both the USA and Canada.

A Picture Showing the Two Squamosal Bones (right side of the skull)

Bizarrely shaped squamosal bones.

Bizarrely shaped squamosal bones.

Picture Credit: Naturwissenschaften 

Commenting on the unusual shape of the squamosal bones, lead author of the scientific paper Dr. Michael Ryan (Curator of Vertebrate palaeontology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History), stated:

“Mercuriceratops took a unique evolutionary path that shaped the large frill on the back of its skull into protruding wings like the decorative fins on classic 1950′s cars.  It definitively would have stood out from the herd during the Late Cretaceous.  Horned dinosaurs in North America used their elaborate skull ornamentation to identify each other and to attract mates, not just for protection from predators.  The wing-like protrusions on the sides of its frill may have offered male Mercuriceratops a competitive advantage in attracting mates.”

Recently, palaeontologists have begun to piece together a picture of the North American fauna in the Late Cretaceous.  The fauna of Laramidia (the long, narrow strip of land that made up the western shores of the Western Interior Seaway), was extremely varied.  This newly named dinosaur genus reinforces the biogeographical differences between the northern and southern faunal provinces of the Campanian of North America.  Having said that, this dinosaur must have been quite wide ranging with something like 360 kilometres between the two fossil finds.

Co-author of the Naturwissenschaften paper, Dr. David Evans (Royal Ontario Museum), explained:

“The butterfly-shaped frill, or neck shield, of Mercuriceratops is unlike anything we have seen before.  Mercuriceratops shows that evolution gave rise to much greater variation in horned dinosaur headgear than we had previously suspected.”

The new dinosaur is described from skull fragments from two individuals collected from the Judith River Formation of Montana and the Dinosaur Park Formation of Alberta.  The Montana specimen was originally collected on private land and acquired by the Royal Ontario Museum.  The Dinosaur Provincial Park specimen was collected by Susan Owen-Kagen, a preparator in Professor Philip Currie’s lab at the University of Alberta.

Dr. Ryan added:

“Susan showed me her specimen during one of my trips to Alberta.  I instantly recognized it as being from the same type of dinosaur that the Royal Ontario Museum had from Montana.”

For Philip Currie, the Dinosaur Provincial Park specimen confirmed the the Montana fossil was a true and accurate representation of the dinosaur’s squamosal.   In many instances, fossilised bones can become distorted and crushed as a result of the fossilisation process.  The altered morphology can lead to a great deal of confusion when it comes to identifying characteristics.  Pathology such as disease or damage to the bone that occurred when the animal was alive could also have led to the strange shape of the squamosal, however, with two squamosals from the right side of the skull being virtually identical there is a very strong probability that these fossils represent a new Chasmosaurine with a unique neck crest shape.

As the eminent Canadian palaeontologist Philip Currie noted:

“The two fossils – squamosal bones from the side of the frill, have all the features you would expect, just presented in a unique shape.”

A Picture of the Dig Site (Dinosaur Provincial Park – Alberta)

The red arrow in the picture highlights the Mercuriceratops layer.

The red arrow in the picture highlights the Mercuriceratops layer.

Picture Credit:  Professor Phil Currie (University of Alberta)

Dr. Mark Loewen (Natural History Museum of Utah), another co-author of the paper added:

“This discovery of a previously unknown species in relatively well-studied rocks underscores that we still have many more new species of dinosaurs to left to find.”

The wing-like flanges would have made a striking visual image, especially if the head and neck of these dinosaurs were brightly coloured.  The horns too, although, undoubtedly used for defence and intra-specific combat would also have played a role in signalling amongst members of the herd.

The Ceratopsians are spilt into two distinct groups, the Chasmosaurinae which were characterised by having long neck frills and in most cases short nasal horns but large brow horns.  The second group are known as the Centrosaurines, or the short-frilled Ceratopsians.  This does not mean that the frills on this group were small, most of the Centrosaurines had frills that were heavily augmented with spikes and horns.  These dinosaurs tended to have short brow horns but with larger nose horns as a general rule.  Both types of Ceratopsian were very common in North America during the Late Cretaceous and a number of different genera have been identified.

The Frill Size and Ornamentation of Mercuriceratops Compared to a Typcial Centrosaurine and Chasmosaurine

Centrosaurus (left) and Chasmosaurus (right)

Centrosaurus (left) and Chasmosaurus (right)

Picture Credit: Danielle Dufault

 Everything Dinosaur acknowledges the help of the press room at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in the compiling of this article.

Twenty Years of Cryolophosaurus

“Frozen Crested Lizard” Named in 1994

It was twenty years ago that the curious Theropod dinosaur known as Cryolophosaurus was formally named and described.  Back in 1994, when the academic paper detailing the research into the partial skeleton of a large, meat-eating dinosaur whose fossils had been found in rocks some 4,000 metres above sea level in the Transantarctic mountains, was published, it caused a sensation in scientific circles.  Cryolophosaurus is still the largest known, carnivorous dinosaur to have been found in rocks that date from the Sinemurian faunal stage of the Early Jurassic.  Although, twenty years have passed, palaeontologists have still got a lot to learn about this enigmatic dinosaur.

Although the name Cryolophosaurus means “frozen crested lizard”, this is a misnomer, for some 195 million years ago, Antarctica was a very different place from the frozen wilderness of today.  During the Early Jurassic, the land that we call Antarctica was six hundred miles further north and it formed the most southerly portion of a giant land mass called Gondwanaland.  Coal seams and fossils of plant material indicate that much of the land close to the sea was heavily forested with primitive conifers, cycads and ferns dominating the flora.  The presence of a large Theropod (Cryolophosaurus), indicates that there was a rich and diverse ecosystem capable of supporting, for at least part of year, large meat-eating dinosaurs.

A Model of the Theropod Dinosaur Cryolophosaurus

Fossils found in the Beardmore Glacier region (Transantarctic mountains).

Fossils found in the Beardmore Glacier region (Transantarctic mountains).

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur/Safari Ltd

A team of American scientists (Transantarctic Vertebrate Palaeontology Project), including Dr. William Roy Hammer of the Geology faculty at Augustana College (Illinois), explored layers of siltstone deposits in the Beardmore Glacier region during the southern hemisphere summer of 1990/91.  The team excavated over one hundred fossilised bones.  The jumble of bones represented evidence of Pterosaurs, primitive mammals, a small, as yet undescribed Theropod dinosaur, as well as the partial skeleton of a giant meat-eater.  The expedition had to contend with altitude sickness, extreme weather and having to work and camp out on very hazardous forty degree rocky slopes.  In addition, the matrix surrounding the fossil was so hard that no preparation work could be carried out in the field, all the rock material had to be transported to America for further study and analysis.  It took another three years of intensive preparation and hard work but the scientific description of Cryolophosaurus was published on May 6th 1994.

The fossils come from the Hanson Formation (formerly known as the Upper Falla Formation). The first Cryolophosaurus fossils were discovered by expedition member and Ohio State geologist David Elliot.  The species name honours the discoverer.

A Close up of the Strange Crest on Cryolophosaurus

The "Elvis" crest.

The “Elvis” crest.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur/Safari Ltd

The fossils ascribed to Cryolophosaurus consisted of bones the make up the back portion of the skull, two fragments of the upper jaw, neck vertebrae, ribs, dorsal vertebrae, elements from the limbs including two thigh bones and partial material representing lower limb bones, tail vertebrae, part of the hips and several tail bones along with nine teeth.  Cryolophosaurus was nick-named “Elvisaurus” after the strange, backward pointing crest of bone that was found on the top of the skull.  Although the skull remains were crushed and distorted, the scientists were able to determine that along with small horns over the eyes, this dinosaur had a thin crest that ran across the top of its head.

To view the Safari Ltd range of dinosaur models including the Cryolophosaurus: Safari Carnegie Dinosaur Models

The Skull Bones from the Specimen Described in 1994

strange "quiff-like" crest.

strange “quiff-like” crest.

A number of crests in meat-eating dinosaurs are known, but these crests usually run from the tip of the snout towards the back of the skull.  The crest of Cryolophosaurus runs across the top of the head.  Palaeontologists have suggested that this crest was too thin and delicate to be used in any form of combat.  It probably was brightly coloured and used as a signalling device amongst these dinosaurs, perhaps in a display to attract a mate.  In the Carnegie Collection dinosaur model (pictured in this article), the crest was painted blue in support of the theory that this crest was used for visual communication.  Some more fossils attributed to the Cryolophosaurus specimen were found during an expedition ten years ago, more recently, (2013) a new dig site was located on the Beardmore Glacier and fossils from a second Cryolophosaurus specimen are currently being cleaned and prepared for study.

Intriguingly the first Cryolophosaurus studied, (the 1994 holotype specimen), was a juvenile.  This dinosaur had not reached maturity when it died.  As a fully grown adult the crest may have looked very different, so scientists remain uncertain as to true shape and purpose of this unusual crest.

It is likely that the series of expeditions to Antarctica (Transantarctic Vertebrae Palaeontology Project) will identify a number of Early Jurassic dinosaurs and perhaps more will be learned about the mysterious Cryolophosaurus.

To read an article related to the discovery of a Prosauropod from Antarctica: Long-necked Dinosaurs of the Antarctic

Scientists don’t know what the crest may have been used for, the size of this dinosaur is uncertain and perhaps most exciting of all, much of the geology of the interior of Antarctica remains to be fully explored.  At the beginning of 2014, Everything Dinosaur team members put forward a series of predictions about what might happen over the next twelve months in palaeontology.  One of our predictions is that more vertebrate fossils from the polar regions would be announced – this is a safe bet!

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