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Articles, features and information which have slightly more scientific content with an emphasis on palaeontology, such as updates on academic papers, published papers etc.

5 03, 2018

Watching the Birdie – Early Cretaceous

By | March 5th, 2018|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Palaeontological articles, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Early Cretaceous Enantiornithine Shines Light on Early Bird Evolution

A tiny, beautifully preserved fossil of a baby bird is helping scientists to shine a light on the early evolution of some of the first birds.  The fossil represents an enantiornithine bird and researchers, including Dr Fabien Knoll (Manchester University), have used synchrotron radiation to analyse the microscopic structure of the bird’s skeleton in order to assess at what stage of development the poor creature was at when it met its demise.

An Elemental Map of the Fossilised Skeleton was Created using Synchrotron Radiation

The enantiornithine bird fossil (elemental mapping).

Elemental mapping of the tiny bird fossil.  Mapping the slab and the counter slab of the fossil to determine the chemical composition of the skeleton.

Picture Credit: Manchester University

The Enantiornithes – Early Birds

The Enantiornithes were a clade of diverse Cretaceous birds that possessed several characteristics of modern birds (Neornithines) but were also anatomically different in a number of respects.  They retained claws on their wings and most species had teeth, in contrast to all modern Aves which are edentulous.  Despite having an almost global distribution and being regarded as the most specious and successful birds of the Cretaceous, the Enantiornithes are thought to have become extinct at the same time as the last of the non-avian dinosaurs.

A study published in 2016 proposed that the evolution of a toothless beak may have helped some types of birds to survive the end Cretaceous mass extinction event.  To read an article summarising the study’s findings: Seed Eating May Have Helped Some Birds Survive the End Cretaceous Extinction Event

One of the Smallest Mesozoic Avian Fossils Described

The specimen preserved on a slab and counter slab is one of the smallest Mesozoic bird fossils to have been found to date.  The specimen measures less than five centimetres in length and the baby bird would have been able to sit in an egg-cup.  However, it is remarkably well-preserved and the skeleton is virtually complete and what makes this fossil so significant is the fact that the baby bird died shortly after emerging from its egg.

The poor, unfortunate bird might have had an extremely short life, but it has given researchers a rare opportunity to analyse a baby bird’s bone structure and assess its skeletal development.

A Reconstruction of the Cretaceous Bird

A reconstruction of the baby Cretaceous bird.f

A reconstruction of the enantiornithine baby bird with insert showing scale.

Picture Credit: Raul Martin

Assessing Bone Structure and Development

The scientists have been able to study the ossification of the bones, how they were growing and developing.  A better understanding of the skeleton of the very young bird will help researchers to better understand whether this bird species was capable of flight soon after birth and how independent it was.

Lead author of the study, Dr Fabien Knoll (Interdisciplinary Centre for Ancient Life [ICAL] at the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Manchester University) and the ARAID Dinopolis in Spain stated:

“The evolutionary diversification of birds has resulted in a wide range of hatchling developmental strategies and important differences in their growth rates.  By analysing bone development, we can look at a whole host of evolutionary traits.”

Lead Author of the Study Dr Fabien Knoll Prepares the Specimen for Analysis

Dr Knoll (Manchester University) studying the enantiornithine bird fossil.

Dr Fabien Knoll studying the slab and counter slab of the bird fossil.

Picture Credit: Manchester University

Altricial, Precocial or Somewhere in Between

As the fossil was so small, being less than the length of the average person’s little finger, the team used synchrotron radiation to analyse the specimen at a “submicron” level.  The skeleton could be assessed in extreme detail and the microstructures of the bones observed.

Dr Knoll explained:

“New technologies are offering palaeontologists unprecedented capacities to investigate provocative fossils.  Here we made the most of state-of-the-art facilities worldwide including three different synchrotrons in France, the UK and the United States.”

New Technology Helps to Map the Elemental Composition of an Ancient Bird Fossil

Phosphorous mapping and a photograph of the fossil.

A phosphorous map of the bird skeleton and photograph of the fossil.  The fossil is around 127 million years old (Early Cretaceous).

Picture Credit: Manchester University

The synchrotron analysis determined that the baby bird’s sternum (breastplate bone) was largely composed of cartilage and had not completely ossified.  The absence of hard bone in the sternum suggests that this bird could not fly.  The patterns of ossification observed in this and the other few, very young enantiornithine birds known to date also suggest that the developmental strategies of this particular group of ancient avians may have been more diverse than previously thought.

The researchers remain cautious and don’t wish to definitively come down on one side of the argument in terms of how dependent/independent this baby bird could have been.  The lack of bone development does not necessarily prove that the hatchling was reliant on its parents for feeding and care (altricial trait).  Modern birds demonstrate a variety of behavioural responses when it comes to bringing up babies.  Some bird species like chickens and ostriches have highly precocial young.  The babies are able to leave the nest and feed themselves within hours of hatching.  In contrast, most of the passerines (song birds) such as robins, blackbirds and thrushes are helpless when they hatch and rely on their parents to feed them and to keep them warm.

Altricial and precocial behaviours tend to be at opposite ends of a spectrum, the breeding strategy employed by this enantiornithine remains obscure.  As extant Aves exhibit a variety of breeding strategies from totally altricial through to super precocial (such as the megapodes, an example being the Australian brush turkey), it is difficult to clarify the development strategy of any extinct species.

Altricial and Precocial Behaviours can be Viewed as Opposite Ends of a Spectrum

Birds - altricial and precocial behaviours.

Altricial and precocial behaviours in Aves – a spectrum.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Co-author of the study, Luis Chiappe (Los Angeles Museum of Natural History) added:

“This new discovery, together with others from around the world, allows us to peek into the world of ancient birds that lived during the age of dinosaurs.  It is amazing to realise how many of the features we see among living birds had already been developed more than 100 million years ago.”

Everything Dinosaur acknowledges the assistance of a press release from Manchester University in the compilation of this article.

22 02, 2018

Ground-Dwelling Birds Provide Clues to Theropod Dinosaur Locomotion

By | February 22nd, 2018|Animal News Stories, Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Palaeontological articles|0 Comments

Observe How Ground-Dwelling Birds Move to Learn About Theropod Locomotion

Just how fast could T. rex run?  Over the years, there have been a number of papers published that looked at the locomotion of big Theropod dinosaurs.  Computer models, three-dimensional analysis of trackways using state-of-the-art LIDAR (light detection and ranging), biomechanics, kinetic studies, so many disciples and so many areas of research.  One way of obtaining a better understanding of the movements of large, bipedal dinosaurs is to take a look at the dinosaurs that are still with us today, the birds.  By studying extant Aves, scientists can gain an insight into the locomotion of non-avian members of the Theropoda.

How Did Big Theropod Dinosaurs Move About?

Birds provide clues to Theropod locomotion.

T. rex locomotion.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Writing in the academic on-line journal PLOS One, a team of international scientists, which included Professor John Hutchinson from the Royal Veterinary College, Hertfordshire, set about gaining a greater appreciation of just how birds move by examining in detail the locomotion of twelve types of ground-dwelling bird, some of them flightless, such as the emu and ostrich, whilst others are accomplished flyers such as the Japanese quail and the Australian white ibis.  Aerial ability or the lack of it was not important, the team were interested in examining how birds of various sizes and body weights moved about, effectively recording their body movements using high speed cameras as these birds walked or ran across a track.  The species were selected based on the fact that these birds spend a lot of time on the ground.   By virtue of spending most of their lives (in the case of the emu and ostrich, all of their lives), on the ground, these feathered friends have well-developed hind limb locomotor systems.

Scaling Up to a Seven Tonne Theropod

There was a considerable variation in body size amongst the participants.  The smallest species represented being the Chinese painted quail, that weighed in at around 45 grammes, the largest being the ostrich which at 80 kilos represents a body mass some 1,780 times heavier.

The scientific paper deals with some of the problems of trying to use birds to test the locomotive abilities of big meat-eating dinosaurs.  Any studies using an 80-kg ostrich would require nearly a 100 fold extrapolation to equate to the body weight of a fully-grown Tyrannosaurus rex for example.  The researchers comment in the paper that the absolute range of body masses encompassed by modern birds is small compared to that encompassed by extinct, non-avian Theropod dinosaurs.  They postulate that whilst it may be reasonable to extrapolate to a 200-kilogramme flightless moa from New Zealand, is it reasonable to extrapolate to an eight tonne Tyrannosaur?

The Skeleton of an Ostrich (left) Compared to a Dinosaur Skeleton (right)

Ostrich skeleton compared to Guanlong dinosaur skeleton.

The skeleton of an extant ostrich compared to a Theropod dinosaur (Guanlong).

That point notwithstanding, birds are closely related to the likes of Tyrannosaurus rex and as such they make a better test subject than that other animal that is an obligate biped – us.  Data on how humans walk and run was also collated and studied, but Homo sapiens does move differently when compared to ground-dwelling birds, there are some very significant differences.   This research looked at the kinetics of bipedal movement, that is, those forces that cause motion (gravity, torque, friction and so forth).  It also examined the kinematics of motion, the study of describing movement, usually by measuring the precise motion of parts of the body such as the joints.  Kinematics involves looking at acceleration, velocity and braking.

When it comes to examining the differences in terrestrial motion between Aves and ourselves, perhaps the most significant difference is that in birds, all kinematic and kinetic parameters analysed changed continuously as velocity increased, whilst in humans all but one of those same parameters changed abruptly at the walk-run transition.  Think of it as birds being able to move through the gears a little more smoothly than their two-legged human counterparts.

The Locomotion of the Australian White Ibis was Examined

The Australian white ibis helps explain dinosaur locomotion

The Australian white ibis (Threskiornis molucca).

Ground Reaction Force

Particular attention was devoted to the ground reaction force (GRF), the force that the feet exert upon the ground.  The research team confirmed previous assessments of bird locomotion.  Birds have a highly continuous locomotor repertoire compared to humans.  Our discrete “walking” and “running” gaits are not easily distinguishable based on kinematic patterns alone.  If birds have a more continuous locomotion profile based on body mass and the speed of movement, then this means that scientists can develop equations that allows them to predict the potential locomotor capabilities of extinct creatures – Tyrannosaurus rex for example.

Lead author of the scientific paper, Peter Bishop (Queensland Museum) explained:

“Since birds, also known as “avian dinosaurs”, are actually just dinosaurs that didn’t become extinct, they were ideal models to study how their extinct cousins would have moved.  So, you’d be foolish to start anywhere else.”

The predictive model that the team has produced is able to explain 79–93% of the observed variation in kinematics and 69–83% of the observed variation in Ground Reaction Forces.  When used in extrapolation tests to examine the gaits of extinct animals, the results produced were within expected levels.  There are caveats however, this study also found that the location of the whole-body centre of mass may exert an important influence on the nature of the Ground Reaction Forces, some caution is needed before applying this model to a thirteen metre monster like T. rex, after all most extinct Theropod dinosaurs had substantial tails, whilst birds have a reduced tail in the form of a pygostyle and the presence/absence of a tail will have a bearing on locomotion.  The research team conclude that further investigation of the movement of dinosaurs is required.

A couple of years ago, a group of scientists mounted prosthetic tails on chickens and assessed how the presence of a tail altered their locomotion.

To read an article on this study: Walking Dinosaurs Chicken Run

Differences in Muscles and the Skeleton

Extant birds also have a very different skeleton compared to Theropod dinosaurs such as Allosaurus, Giganotosaurus, Megalosaurus and Tyrannosaurus rex.  The anatomy of birds varies considerable from that of a dinosaur, although there are striking similarities, the presence of a wish bone and a digitigrade stance for example.  Extinct non-avian Theropods have different limb proportions and their leg muscles and their position (as influenced, in part by that long tail), are different.  Theropod dinosaurs also had a different centre of gravity compared to birds.

For an article that looks at the evolution of the stance of birds from their dinosaur ancestors: Standing Dinosaur, Crouching Bird

The Research Will Help with the Locomotion of Extinct Flightless Birds (Sylviornis)

Sylviornis from New Caledonia.

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

The Queensland Museum scientist Peter Bishop added that understanding the locomotion of giant, extinct Theropods such as the Late Cretaceous tyrannosaurids not only excited the curiosity of the public but was crucial to understanding a wide range of scientific questions.

He stated:

“Locomotion is important for understanding other parts of dinosaur ecology, how you find food, how you find mates, how you avoid becoming food yourself?  It could also help contribute to models of dinosaur migration and even help settle debates about whether they were warm-blooded.  But for me, the most interesting part of dinosaur locomotion is that it’s the most critical part of how dinosaurs evolved into birds.  There were a lot of changes in locomotion … including the development of powered flight.”

Next Steps

The research team hope to test their equations on more species of birds and also to develop computer programmes that can model how large bipedal dinosaurs would have moved.

An article published in 2013 that looks at the evolution of the gait of birds: Birds Have the Dinosauria to Thank for Their Crouching Gait

6 02, 2018

When Did Flowers Evolve?

By | February 6th, 2018|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Palaeontological articles|0 Comments

The Origin of the Angiosperms (Flowering Plants)

Scientists have concluded that the Angiosperms (flowering plants), probably evolved between 149 and 256 million years ago.  In a paper published in the academic journal “New Phytologist”, the researchers, which included scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences as well as Bristol University, conducted a comprehensive analysis of genetic data from 644 plant taxa.  This led them to conclude that, based on this dataset, the flowering plants that dominate the terrestrial flora of the world probably originated as early as the Late Permian or perhaps as recently as the Late Jurassic.

Arguing over the Origins of the Angiosperms

This new research suggests that flowering plants are not as old as suggested by previous molecular studies, nor as recent as the fossil record for Angiosperms reveals.  The team’s conclusions underline the power of using complementary studies based on molecular data and the fossil record, in conjunction with different approaches to infer evolutionary timescales, allowing the establishment of a better understanding of the evolution of organisms.

Ancient Buckthorn Flowers Preserved as Fossils

Two Buckthorn flower fossils.

Two fossilised Buckthorn flowers next to each other were discovered in shales of the Salamanca Formation in Chubut Province, Patagonia, Argentina.

Picture Credit: Nathan Jud/Cornell University (USA)

The “Abominable Mystery”

Darwin commented that the origin of flowering plants was an “abominable mystery”, the palaeogeographical origins of flowering plants , which today are represented by nearly 300,000 species remains a controversial area in palaeobotany.  Recently, Everything Dinosaur published an article documenting research that suggested that a downsizing in the genome of plants helped the Angiosperms become the dominant flora, but when the first flowering plants evolved has proved very difficult to establish.

To read the article on the Angiosperm genome study: Downsizing DNA Brings Success to Flowering Plants

Lead author of the scientific paper, Dr Jose Barba-Montoya (University College, London) explained:

“The discrepancy between estimates of flowering plant evolution from molecular data and fossil records has caused much debate.  To uncover the key to solving the mystery of when flowers originated, we carefully analysed the genetic make-up of flowering plants, and the rate at which mutations accumulate in their genomes.”

The Paucity of the Angiosperm Fossil Record

The fossil record for flowering plants, is very fragmentary.  Angiosperms appear to have radiated and diversified very suddenly around 125 million years ago.  The expansion of the flowering plants may have precipitated substantial changes in the fauna of the Cretaceous, this rapid change in fauna and flora is termed the “Cretaceous Terrestrial Revolution”, a short period in geological time when pollinators, herbivores and their predators underwent an explosive co-evolution.

The Rapid Evolution of Flowering Plants May Have Led to the “Cretaceous Terrestrial Revolution”

When did flowering plants evolve?

When flowering plants evolved there was a burst in evolution as symbiotic relationships formed.

Picture Credit: Bristol University

A Much Older Origin of the Angiosperms

Molecular-clock dating studies, however, have suggested a much older origin for flowering plants.  This  implies a cryptic evolution of flowers that has yet to be supported by fossil discoveries.  The discovery of wing scales from 200 million-year-old representatives of the Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies), hinted that flowering plants may have originated earlier than previously thought, after all, the adult butterflies and moths might well have fed on nectar from flowering plants.

To read Everything Dinosaur’s article about the ancient wing scales from Lepidoptera: Ancient Butterflies Flutter By

Professor Philip Donoghue (University of Bristol’s School of Earth Science), a senior author of the newly published  study, stated:

“In large part, the discrepancy between these two approaches [the fossil record and molecular dating] is an artefact of false precision on both palaeontological and molecular evolutionary timescales.”

Palaeontological timescales calibrate the family tree of plants to geological time based on the oldest fossil evidence for its component branches.  Molecular timescales build on this approach, using additional evidence from genomes for the genetic distances between species, aiming to overcome gaps in the fossil record.  Molecular clocks predict the age of organisms by looking at the rate of mutation between different genomes.

Senior author of the study, Professor Ziheng Yang (University College, London) added:

“Previous studies into molecular timescales failed to explore the implications of experimental variables and so they inaccurately estimate the probable age of flowering plants with undue precision.”

As a history of the evolution of the flowering plants, the fossil record which is particularly poor, is inadequate and conclusions based on the paucity of fossils are not possible.  The scientists compiled a substantial collection of genetic data for many flowering plant groups including a dataset of eighty-three genes from over six hundred taxa.  This evidence in conjunction with an extensive review of the fossil record allowed the team to plot the potential origins of the Angiosperms within upper and lower limits of geological time.

Co-author of the study, Dr Mario dos Reis (Queen Mary University, London) stated:

“By using Bayesian statistical methods that borrow tools from physics and mathematics to model how the evolutionary rate changes with time, we showed that there are broad uncertainties in the estimates of flowering plant age, all compatible with Early to Mid-Cretaceous origin for the group.”

Scientists may be some way off, being able to pin down the origins of flowering plants, more fossils, particularly of primitive Angiosperms are needed, but at least this new study has attempted to define the uncertainties associated with the evolution of this type of flora.

The scientific paper: “Constraining Uncertainty in the Timescale of Angiosperm Evolution and the Veracity of a Cretaceous Terrestrial Revolution” by J. Barba-Montoya, M. dos Reis, H. Schneider, PCJ Donoghue and Z. Yang published in the journal “New Phytologist”.

Everything Dinosaur acknowledges the assistance of a press release from Bristol University in the compilation of this article.

31 01, 2018

Mansourasaurus shahinae the Rosetta Stone of the Dinosauria

By | January 31st, 2018|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Palaeontological articles|0 Comments

Mansourasaurus shahinae the Rosetta Stone of the Dinosauria

The Rosetta Stone, with its three different languages carved into the rock, provided the breakthrough for archaeologists, enabling them to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphic writing.  A new dinosaur discovery, which just like the Rosetta Stone heralds from Egypt, is helping palaeontologists to decipher the relationship between Late Cretaceous African dinosaurs and their counterparts elsewhere in the world.  The dinosaur has been named Mansourasaurus shahinae and up until now, no reasonably complete dinosaur skeleton from Upper Cretaceous strata in continental Africa had ever been found.

An Illustration of the Newly Described Titanosaur Mansourasaurus shahinae

An illustration of the newly described dinosaur Mansourasaurus.

Mansourasaurus illustrated.  Note the bony scales (osteoderms on the body).

Picture Credit: Andrew Mcafee (Carnegie Museum of Natural History)

Helping to Characterise the Late Cretaceous Dinosaur Fauna of Africa

As Titanosaurs go, Mansourasaurus is not a ground-shaker in terms of its size, it was approximately ten metres in length and was perhaps as heavy as Africa’s largest land animal today, an African elephant (Loxodonta).  It was not fully grown (bones not entirely fused), but it would not have reached the size of leviathans such as Paralititan (P. stromeri), which roamed North Africa some fifteen million years earlier.  However, its discovery is seismic as it permits palaeontologists to better understand the evolution of Late Cretaceous African dinosaurs and their taxonomic relationship to other dinosaurs that lived elsewhere in the world during the last few million years of the Mesozoic.

The Fossilised Jawbone of M. shahinae Photographed at the Dig Site

Mansourasaurus jawbone fossil.

Mansourasaurus jawbone in situ.

Picture Credit: Mansoura University

Conflicting Theories – Conflicting Ideas

Very few Late Cretaceous African dinosaurs have been described.  Fossil finds from Upper Cretaceous strata in this part of the world are very rare, what fossils have been found are extremely fragmentary and don’t reveal much information about the sort of dinosaurs that these seldom found bones represent.  Did the dinosaurs living on the African continent in the Late Cretaceous evolve into a distinct biota or were they closely related to other types of dinosaur living on other landmasses?

In addition, if the Late Cretaceous African dinosaurs were closely related to other dinosaurs living elsewhere, were they more closely related to those dinosaurs known from South America, Europe, Asia or even Madagascar?

A remarkable fossil discovery from strata estimated to be around 80 million-years-old (Campanian faunal stage of the Late Cretaceous), will help scientists to answer some of these questions.  Just like the famous Rosetta Stone, these petrified dinosaur bones will help scientists to decipher, at least in part, the evolutionary relationships of African Titanosaurs.  Field work at the Dakhla Oasis of the Egyptian Sahara, led by Dr Hesham Sallam (Mansoura University), in 2013, led to the discovery of the partial remains of a Sauropod dinosaur, one that was identified as a member of the Titanosauria clade – a group of long-necked, herbivorous dinosaurs that were geographically widespread during the Cretaceous.  By studying these bones, palaeontologists were able to work out which other Titanosaurs were closely related to Mansourasaurus.  The phylogenetic assessment published along with the rest of the paper in the journal Nature, Ecology & Evolution, indicates that M. shahinae is related to Titanosaurs from southern Europe and eastern Asia.

A Reconstruction of the Skeleton of Mansourasaurus

Mansourasaurus shahinae skeleton reconstruction.

A skeletal reconstruction of the newly described Titanosaur Mansourasaurus shahinae.

Picture Credit: Andrew Mcafee (Carnegie Museum of Natural History)

The Dinosaurian  Palaeobiogeography of Gondwanan Landmasses

The fossils come from rocks that make up the Quseir Formation, these sediments were laid down in a warm, humid, tropical environment.  A low-lying, verdant floodplain that was criss-crossed by large rivers and numerous lakes.  The picture (above) reveals how much of the skeleton has been excavated since the initial fossil discovery around five years ago.  Fragments of the skull and the lower jawbone have been recovered along with cervical vertebrae (neck bones), ribs, elements from the front limbs and a portion of the hind foot.  Numerous bony scales are associated with these bones, this suggests that Mansaurasaurus, like many other Titanosaurs, was covered in osteoderms.

Members of the Field Team from Mansoura University Pose Next to the Jacketed Fossil Bones

Mansoura University field team members pose next to the plaster-jacketed remains of Mansourasaurus.

The all-Egyptian field team from Mansoura University (Egypt) pose with the plaster-jacketed remains of Mansourasaurus.

Picture Credit: Mansoura University

Piecing Together the Geographical and Faunal Links Between Late Cretaceous Africa and Other Landmasses

The discovery of Mansourasaurus will help scientists to piece together the geographical and biological links between the Late Cretaceous of Africa and other continents.  The fossil bones can be used just like the Rosetta Stone, to compare and contrast with known fossil finds and future titanosaurid fossil discoveries.  The research team conclude that as Mansourasaurus was closely related to Eurasian Titanosaurs, this indicates that these dinosaurs spread between Europe, Asia and north Africa after the tectonic separation of Africa from the landmass that was to form the continent of South America.  In essence, Mansourasaurus hints at a north African dinosaur assemblage that mirrors the sort of dinosaur fauna known from the Late Cretaceous of Europe and Asia.  The team’s findings support the idea that land bridges existed between Africa and other parts of the world, allowing this faunal interchange.  The theory that the African mainland was completely isolated in the latter years of the Cretaceous has been undermined.

A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur stated:

“This is a very significant fossil discovery.  It marks a new chapter in our understanding of the evolution and spread of Late Cretaceous Titanosaurs, it might even herald a new chapter in the history of vertebrate palaeontology in northern Africa, as we are confident that more dinosaur specimens are still out there in the Egyptian Western Desert awaiting discovery.”

The scientific paper: “New Egyptian Sauropod Reveals Late Cretaceous Dinosaur Dispersal between Europe and Africa” by Hesham M. Sallam, Eric Gorscak, Patrick M. O’Connor, Iman A. El-Dawoudi, Sanaa El-Sayed, Sara Saber, Mahmoud A. Kora, Joseph J. W. Sertich, Erik R. Seiffert & Matthew C. Lamanna published in the journal Nature, Ecology & Evolution.

23 11, 2017

Scaling the Heights of Feather Evolution

By | November 23rd, 2017|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Palaeontological articles|0 Comments

How Reptilian Scales Became Feathers

Birds and alligators might look very different, but they are related, belonging to the Archosauria clade, that diverse and extensive group of diapsids that dominated life on Earth during the Mesozoic. There are a number of groups of reptiles that are more closely related to birds than alligators, for instance there is the Dinosauria.  At least dinosaurs and birds belong to the same sub-clade of the Archosaurs (the Avemetatarsalia), whereas, in contrast, alligators and their crocodilian cousins are placed in the other major sub-clade of the Archosaurs – the Crurotarsi.

A team of scientists based at the University of Southern California have shed light on the evolutionary process that led to the development of feathers from reptilian scales.  The manipulation of genes in embryonic alligator skin and developing chicks has enabled the researchers to replicate the evolutionary process that led to the development of primitive feathers within members of the Archosauria.

Numerous Feathered Dinosaur Have Been Described – But How Did Feathers Evolve?

Huanansaurus dinosaur illustrated.

A new feathered dinosaur from China, but how did feathers evolve from the scales of reptiles?

Picture Credit: Chuang Zhao

Genetic Research Maps the Transition from Scaly Skin to Filamentous Feathers

Most scientists believe that feathers evolved primarily for insulation or display and that powered flight was secondary.  Over the last two decades or so, there have been remarkable dinosaur fossil discoveries, mainly from the Cretaceous deposits in Liaoning Province (north-eastern China), that have revealed a myriad of different types of feathered dinosaur, but the mechanism for feather evolution was poorly understood.  For example, many different types of feather-like structures have been identified in the fossil record, the famous Archaeopteryx (A. lithographica) from the Upper Jurassic limestone deposits of Solnhofen, Germany, has asymmetrical flight feathers, very similar to those found in living birds.  These feathers are more complex than those seen in non-avian, non-volant dinosaurs of the Jehol Biota, that lived some 30 million years after Archaeopteryx was flying around.

Archaeopteryx Possessed Both Asymmetrical Flight Feathers and Symmetrical Feathers

Feather preservation on Archaeopteryx.

Excellent feather preservation.  Asymmetrical feathers (flight feathers on the wings), whilst the hind limbs of Archaeopteryx had symmetrical feathers that probably played very little role in powered flight.

Picture Credit: Helmut Tischlinger with additional labelling by Everything Dinosaur

What are Feathers and Reptile Scales Made Of?

The feathers of birds and the scales of reptiles are essentially, made of the same protein – keratin.  However, there are subtle differences in the composition of the keratin that makes up feathers and scales.  It has been known for more than ten years, that the type of keratin that forms feathers is present in embryonic alligator scales.  This form of feather-forming keratin, is suppressed by the expression of genetic information during the embryological development of the alligator, and as a result, as far as we at Everything Dinosaur know, the form of keratin that leads to feathers has not been detected within the dermal scales of adult crocodilians.  The presence of this homologous keratin in both chicks and alligators suggests that this trait was inherited from a common ancestor, a member of the Archosaur clade (Archosauriformes), that existed prior to the evolution of the two basic types of Archosaur based on their ankle bones (Avemetatarsalia and the Crurotarsi).

An Evolutionary Heritage Embedded in the DNA of Living Archosaurs

A team of scientists, led by researchers from the University of Southern California have started to unravel the genetic mechanisms that dictate how the outer skin and related tissues of living Archosaurs is formed.  They have been able to focus in on the variety of genes that are involved in scale and feather development.  The scientific paper detailing this research has been published in the academic journal “Molecular Biology and Evolution”.

Commenting on this new study, corresponding author for the paper, Dr Cheng-Ming Choung (Department of Pathology, Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California), stated:

“We now have a potential molecular explanation for these hypothesised missing links.  Our analyses led to the identification of five morpho-regulatory modules that are essential for modern feather formation.  We propose that these modules may originally evolve as different strategies for better adaptation.  Eventually, the integrative combination of five morpho-regulatory modules achieves the highly successful feather architecture today, allows the Aves class to claim most of the open sky as their ecological niche.”

In this study, the scientists first mapped the genes of developing chicks and embryonic alligators to identify the differences in gene expression between the two Archosaurs and to pin-point the key genes involved in the formation of feathers or scales.  Once this phase of the research had been concluded, the team then placed the genes associated with feather development in chicks into alligator eggs to see if the alligator genes for scales could be overridden by switching on the chicken feather genes.

Highly-magnified Thin Slice Through an Alligator Scale Showing Filamentous Development

Growing feathers in embryonic alligator skin cells.

Normal embryonic alligator scales (left) compared with the elongated feather-like appendage following genetic manipulation of the alligator scales (right).

Picture Credit: University of Southern California

In addition, the gene replacement led to the identification of several intermediate types of shape from scales to more complex forms of filamentous feathers.  Some of the shapes identified resemble the filamentous appendages associated with feathered dinosaur fossils, whilst other shapes formed have similar characteristics to those found in the feathers of modern birds.  This research has provided a further insight into how a new organ might evolve and has significantly increased the list of genes and molecules known to influence feather development.  It has also highlighted the growing role of developmental biology and genetic mapping when it comes to interpreting the fossil record.

The scientific paper: “Multiple Regulatory Modules are Required for Scale-to-Feather Conversion” by Ping Wu Jie Yan Yung-Chih Lai Chen Siang Ng Ang Li Xueyuan Jiang Ruth Elsey Randall Widelitz Ruchi Bajpai Wen-Hsiung Li Cheng-Ming Chuong and published in the journal of Molecular Biology and Evolution.

For an article on a recently described feathered, terrestrial dinosaur: Silky Dinosaur Ruffles Feathers

To read a recent article on the discovery of a troodontid dinosaur with pennaceous feathers: Chinese Dinosaur with Pennaceous Feathers

16 11, 2017

Cataloguing the Ancient Forests of Antarctica

By | November 16th, 2017|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Geology, Main Page, Palaeontological articles, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Permian, Triassic and Jurassic-aged Forests Explored on the Coldest Continent

Over the next few months, a team of intrepid scientists will be hoping to continue their exploration of some of the most remote fossil locations in the world.  Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee have been mapping the sedimentary deposits at McIntyre Promontory, at the head of the Ramsey Glacier in Antarctica.  To date, the team have recorded an extensive series of strata ranging in ages from the Late Permian to the Jurassic, the numerous plant fossils found are helping the scientists to better understand the evolution of forests and their flora over the southernmost portions of Gondwana.

Remains of Prehistoric Forests Uncovered in Antarctica

Prehistoric tree trunk (geology hammer provides scale).

An ancient tree trunk discovered in Antarctica.

Picture Credit: University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Antarctica in the Late Permian Period

A total of thirteen trees have been found with numerous fragmentary fossils of other plants, including Ginkgos and Glossopteris.  The oldest plants described by this research team, date from the Late Permian of around 260 million years ago.  Some of the fossils have stems and roots attached and have been preserved “in situ”.  No transport of fossil material is involved, the fossils are preserved where the plants grew.  The flora of this southerly habitat has been preserved thanks to occasional volcanic events that buried the primitive forests in ash.

Commenting on the significance of the Antarctic ancient flora, palaeoecologist and visiting assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Department of Geosciences, Erik Gulbranson stated:

“People have known about the fossils in Antarctica since the 1910-12 Robert Falcon Scott expedition.  However, most of Antarctica is still unexplored.  Sometimes, you might be the first person to ever climb a particular mountain.”

Beautifully Preserved Plant Fossils

Ancient plant fossils from Antarctica.

Ancient plant fossil remains.

Picture Credit: University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

The Late Permian forests preceded the most extensive mass extinction event in the Phanerozoic (end Permian mass extinction event),  the scientists are hoping to use their growing knowledge of the ancient Antarctic forests to look at the possible impact on global warming on extant plant communities.  In addition, as the Antarctic forests grew at polar latitudes where plants can’t grow today, Gulbranson believes that the trees were an extremely hardy species and he and his colleagues are trying to determine why they died out.

Just like their modern counterparts, prehistoric tree fossils can reveal seasonal growth rings.  These rings when examined in microscopic detail can reveal patterns of seasonal growth.  Antarctica during the Late Permian was further north than it is today, even so, despite the milder climate, the forests would have had to endure prolonged periods of darkness, when the sun never emerged above the horizon.  The research team hopes to use the ancient growth rings to learn more about how these forests coped with such extremes.

Ancient Tree Trunks Can Help Decipher Seasonal Growth Patterns

Antarctic prehistoric plant life.

Ancient trees can reveal evidence of seasonal growth.

Picture Credit: University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Climate Change and the End Permian Mass Extinction Event

The cause or causes of the end Permian extinction event remain an area of controversy within palaeontology, although many scientists now believe that a huge increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases such as methane and CO2 which resulted from extensive global volcanic activity led to world-wide climate change.  John Isbell (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee), has visited Antarctica before, on this expedition he examined the matrix and other sediments surrounding the in situ fossils to determine how these plant remains fitted into the geology of Antarctica.

To read an article written by Everything Dinosaur in 2015, that explains how rocks from South Africa are helping scientists to unravel global extinction events: Karoo Rocks Provide a Fresh Insight into Extinction Events

The Plant Fossils Might Represent New Species

The prehistoric forests of Antarctica.

Delicate plant fronds have been preserved.

Picture Credit: University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

The extensive forests may have stretched across the whole of the super-continent Gondwana.  Evidence of Glossopteris fossils and other plant remains have been used to help substantiate the theory of continental drift.  These Permian forests would have looked very different from today’s temperate woodlands, the flora would have been dominated by mosses, ferns, Pteridosperms (seed ferns) and conifers.

Erik Gulbranson explained that the Antarctic fossils have provided important information about plant diversity at higher latitudes. During the Permian, forests were a potentially low diversity assemblage of different plant types with specific functions that affected how the entire forest responded to environmental change.  This is in direct contrast to today’s high-latitude forests that display greater plant diversity.

Gulbranson added:

“This plant group must have been capable of surviving and thriving in a variety of environments.  It’s extremely rare, even today, for a group to appear across nearly an entire hemisphere of the globe.”

Tough Forests Failed to Survive Climate Change

The researchers conclude that these tough trees and plants did not survive the climate change that marked the end of the Permian.  Younger plant fossils from Triassic and Jurassic sediments provide evidence of the changing Antarctic flora over time, but many of the types of plants found in the Permian forests, despite their resilience, died out.

Erik Gulbranson Can Study the Permian Plant Fossils in the University Laboratory

Plant fossils being examined.

Examining the Permian plant fossils (Erik Gulbranson – University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee).

Picture Credit: University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee/Troye Fox

By analysing the preserved tree growth rings, the scientists have found that these trees transitioned from summer activity to winter dormancy very rapidly, perhaps within a few weeks.  Extant plants make the same transition over the course of several months and also conserve water by making food during the day and resting at night.  Scientists don’t yet know how months of perpetual light would have affected the plants’ day-and-night cycles.

The team hope to return to the various Antarctic dig sites in the early part of 2018.  They hope to learn more about the annual growth cycles of the trees and to determine how the forests coped with rising levels of greenhouse gases and a warming climate.  It is hoped that by studying the Permian flora of Antarctica, models looking at how living plants will cope with climate change can be developed.

13 11, 2017

“Thunderfoot” A Real “Ground Shaker”

By | November 13th, 2017|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Palaeontological articles|0 Comments

Brontopodus plagnensis – New Ichnospecies Named for Giant Sauropod Tracks

A series of dinosaur footprints, made by a giant, long-necked, plant-eating dinosaur have been assigned an ichnospecies name.  The tracks from the Jura plateau of France, located near the village of Plagne not too far from the Swiss border are, at around 155 metres in length, the longest Sauropod trackways known to science.  The ichnospecies has been named Brontopodus plagnensis, this translates as “thunderfoot of Plagne”.  The ichnogenus Brontopodus has had a number of ichnospecies assigned to it already, including tracks from the southern United States and dinosaur footprints found in Early Cretaceous rocks in China.

A View of Part of the Sauropod Trackway

Sauropod Tracks (Brontopodus plagnensis).

A picture of the Sauropod trackway (Plagne, France).

Picture Credit: P. Dumas/Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique

To read an article about Sauropod tracks found on the Isle of Skye: Isle of Skye Sauropods and their Water World

Enormous Stride Length = Enormous Dinosaur

The stride length of this huge Sauropod has been measured at 2.7 metres, the dinosaur was walking at around 4 kilometres/hour, which means that the average human would have had no trouble keeping up with it, however, you might have had to jog alongside, as its huge strides would have meant that it covered a great deal of ground with every pace.  From the footprints, the scientists, which included French palaeontologist Jean-Michel Mazin, have calculated that this dinosaur might have been around 35 metres in length and weighed perhaps as much as forty tonnes.

Early Tithonian Trackways

The research team, writing in the journal “Geobios” have precisely dated the tracks to the Early Tithonian faunal stage of the Late Jurassic, the prints are approximately 150 million years old.  The footprints show varying degrees of preservation along the trackway, the palaeoenvironment has been described as a littoral mudflat, a flat area close to a shoreline.  During the Late Jurassic, much of western Europe was covered by a warm tropical sea, the presence of large dinosaurs indicates that there must have been enough food resources on the archipelago of islands in the area to sustain megaherbivores.   Perhaps, these tracks represent a dinosaur crossing mudflats at low tide walking between islands.  Numerous dinosaur tracks are known from this region, including a series of tridactyl (three-toed prints), assigned to the ichnogenus Megalosauripus.  The prefix ichno- is added when a taxon is described based solely on trace fossils of an animal, rather than on anatomical remains such as its bones and teeth.

An Illustration of Brontopodus plagnensis and an Estimation of Its Size

A drawing of Brontopodus plagnensis.

An illustration of Brontopodus plagnensis.

Picture Credit: A. Bénéteau, photography Dinojura

To read Everything Dinosaur’s 2009 article about the original discovery of the trackways: On the Trail of Big Foot – Giant Sauropod Trackways Discovered in France

The scientific paper: “The Dinosaur Tracksite of Plagne (Early Tithonian, Late Jurassic; Jura Mountains, France): The Longest Known Sauropod Trackway” by Jean-Michel Mazin, Pierre Hantzpergue and Nicolas Olivier published in the journal Geobios.

24 10, 2017

The Biosignature of an Ichthyosaur

By | October 24th, 2017|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Palaeontological articles|1 Comment

Future Marine Biologists Could Study Ichthyosaur Biology

Over the last two decades or so, a number of remarkable discoveries concerning soft tissue preservation within the fossil record have been made.  Work pioneered by the remarkable Professor Mary Schweitzer (North Carolina State University), has led to evidence of dinosaur blood and traces of molecular biomarkers that represent preserved proteins such as collagen.  It may seem extraordinary, that such delicate evidence of organic remains can be preserved over huge amounts of time, but there is a growing body of data that indicates that such soft tissue preservation might be more common than previously thought.  Under exceptional preservational circumstances soft tissue remnants could persist at the molecular level.  A team of scientists led by researchers from Curtin University (Western Australia), have found red blood cells, collagen, white blood cells, platelet-like structures and cholesterol from the back-bone of an Early Jurassic Ichthyosaur.

In the future, marine biologists could study the biology of a long extinct marine reptile…

Study Finds Soft Tissue Preservation in an Early Jurassic Marine Reptile

Picture Credit: Curtin University

Carbonate Concretion Gives Up Its Secrets

The researchers, led by organic geochemist John Curtin, analysed a dorsal vertebra from a 182.7 million-year-old Ichthyosaur fossil from the world-famous Posidonienschiefer (Posidonia Oil Shales), of south-western Germany.  Although vertebrate remains tend to be disarticulated, a lack of oxygen on the sea bed (anoxic conditions) at this location led to exceptional preservation conditions, there were few organisms present to decompose organic remains. These conditions, in conjunction with rapid burial in the sediment has permitted remarkable fossil preservation to take place. Ichthyosaur carcasses have been preserved with soft tissue outlines intact, showing dorsal fins and tails, ink sacs and body outlines of belemnites such as Passaloteuthis sp. have also been preserved, allowing palaeontologists to vastly improve their understanding of the biology of these marine creatures.  The high organic material content of the sediments permitted the formation of numerous carbonate concretions, these concretions isolate fossil material contained therein and can promote exceptional preservation of fragile tissues and biomolecules.

Ichthyosaur Fossils

Stenopterygius Ichthyosaur fossil.

Important Ichthyosaur fossil showing evidence of a tail.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Stenopterygius Vertebra Studied

A single vertebra (back-bone) from a genus of Ichthyosaur known as Stenopterygius was subjected to a range of microanalytical techniques, including scanning electron microscopy and microscopic calcite deposit removal at the molecular level using focused applications of acetic acid.  Entombed inside the concretion, the internal structure of the vertebra, the spongy, trabecular bone, revealed biosignatures that represent the remnants of cholesterol, blood cells as well as straw-like structures that suggest the preservation of collagen fibres.

Scanning Electron Microscopy Reveals Collagen Fibres

Soft tissue preservation in Ichthyosaur back-bone

Early Jurassic Stenopterygius vertebra reveals soft tissue preservation. (collagen fibres).

Picture Credit: Curtin University/Scientific Reports

Co-author of the research paper, published this week in the academic journal “Scientific Reports”, Distinguished Professor Kliti Grice (Curtin University), explained:

“A carbonate concretion encapsulated the Early Jurassic period vertebra, forming a tight seal that helped protect its tissue and cellular remains from full decomposition.”

Compact and Trabecular Bone Studied

As well as the spongy, trabecular bone, the research team also examined the compact, cortical bone.  Isotopic analysis of the cholesterol biomolecules is consistent with the view that Ichthyosaurs dined on cephalopods and fish.  Helping to reaffirm studies of coprolites and stomach cavity contents as to where in the marine food web these reptiles were situated.

Red Blood Cell Structures Identified in the Fossil Material

Red blood cells in Ichthyosaur fossil bone.

Red blood cell-like structures identified in fossil bone (Ichthyosaur).

Picture Credit: Curtin University/Scientific Reports

The Size of Red Blood Cells – Adaptations to Low Oxygen Levels

The doughnut shaped objects in the photograph (above), were identified as red blood cells.  These cells were assessed to be up to five times smaller than those seen in extant animals.  This finding led the researchers to propose the small size of these blood cell structures was related to the Ichthyosaur’s evolutionary adaptation to environmental conditions – the lower oxygen levels associated with much of the Mesozoic.

Chloe Plet, a PhD student at Curtin University and a co-author of the scientific study stated:

“Ichthyosaurs evolved during a time when atmospheric oxygen levels were continuously low over a period of 70 million years.  We propose that small red blood cells were favourably produced by the species to provide efficient oxygen transport and diffusion.  For example, modern-day mammals living at elevated altitudes with lower oxygen levels make small and abundant red blood cells.”

Similarly sized red blood cells have been reported from dinosaurs (fossil material from the Upper Cretaceous), dinosaurs too, would have had to adapt to low atmospheric oxygen levels.

The team conclude that the extraordinary preservation conditions associated with carbonate concretions could play a significant role in helping scientists to investigate the palaeobiology of long extinct species.  Perhaps, one day in the future marine biologists will be able to study the biology of Ichthyosaurs.

The scientific paper: “Palaeobiology of Red and White Blood Cell-like Structures, Collagen and Cholesterol in an Ichthyosaur Bone” by Chloé Plet, Kliti Grice, Anais Pagès, Michael Verrall, Marco J. L. Coolen, Wolfgang Ruebsam, William D. A. Rickard & Lorenz Schwark published by “Scientific Reports”.

14 10, 2017

Everything Dinosaur Prepares for TetZooCon 2017

By | October 14th, 2017|Dinosaur Fans, Everything Dinosaur News and Updates, Main Page, Palaeontological articles, Photos of Everything Dinosaur Products|0 Comments

Slides Prepared for TetZooCon 2017

Not long to go now until the fourth, annual Tetrapod zoology conference (TetZooCon), opens its doors.  The conference is on Saturday, October 21st and once again the organisers have put on an amazing and varied agenda.  Everything Dinosaur is proud to be associated with this fantastic event and team members are busy finishing off the slides to be played in between the presentations, seminars, palaeoart activities and conference speaker slots.

Everything Dinosaur Prepares Slides for Use at TetZooCon 2017

TetZooCon 2017 Everything Dinosaur slides.

TetZooCon slide 3 from Everything Dinosaur (2017).

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

What is TetZooCon?

TetZooCon, is an annual meeting themed around the contents and remit of the world-famous blog “Tetrapod Zoology”, currently in its twelfth year, the blog having started at around the same time as Everything Dinosaur’s blog began.  Written by vertebrate palaeontologist and author Darren Naish, “Tetrapod Zoology” covers topics as diverse as turtle evolution, the life and times of Secretary Birds (Sagittarius serpentarius), fossil discoveries, animals of myth and legend as well as model collecting.  TetZooCon provides an opportunity for fans of cryptozoology, palaeontology, zoology and evolutionary history to indulge in their passion.  Co-organiser, talented artist John Conway, has used his considerable influence to bring together some of the great and the good in scientific illustration and a number of palaeoart workshops and book signings have been organised as part of the day of activities.  You might even be able to snap up a few signed prints too.

Everything Dinosaur Stocks a Lot of Models

TetZooCon 2017 Everything Dinosaur slides.

TetZooCon slide 2 from Everything Dinosaur (2017).

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Bigger and Better Than Ever

The fourth annual TetZooCon promises to be bigger and better than ever.  Over 120 people are expected to attend this event, held at the prestigious central London venue appropriately called “The Venue”, located on Malet Street, WC1E.  Doors open at 9 am and the packed programme includes talks on the history of zoos, marine reptiles of the Mesozoic, an update on Thylacine research and an insight into the latest developments in the fascinating world of cryptozoology.

For further information about this year’s exciting TetZooCon: TetZooCon Tickets and Conference Information

Everything Dinosaur Highlighting the Company’s Range of Replicas

TetZooCon 2017 Everything Dinosaur slides.

TetZooCon slide 1 from Everything Dinosaur (2017).

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Everything Dinosaur Supports TetZooCon

Everything Dinosaur has provided a range of wonderful, prehistoric animal themed goodies to help support this year’s event. These will be available as prizes at the end of conference quiz.  A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur commented:

“TetZooCon is getting bigger and better each year!  Fans of palaeoart, palaeontology, biology and other related academic disciplines can feel a bit intimidated by the rarefied atmosphere of many scientific conferences, but not so with TetZooCon  This annual gathering brings together genuine enthusiasts with shared passions and as such, it is a unique event.  We congratulate the organisers for compiling such an amazing agenda and we compliment all those involved, helping to educate, inform and inspire the next generation of scientists.”

20 09, 2017

Beelzebufo ampinga- Consumer of Dinosaurs

By | September 20th, 2017|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Palaeontological articles|0 Comments

Giant Prehistoric Frog Capable of Tackling Small Dinosaurs

Ever since it was formally named and described back in 2008, the beach-ball-sized Late Cretaceous frog Beelzebufo (B. ampinga) has fascinated scientists.  The fossil record of frogs (Order Anura), is very poor, although these small, usually unobtrusive creatures have a long evolutionary history.  Imagine the surprise of palaeontologists when they discovered the fossilised remains of a 68 million-year-old monster frog in Upper Cretaceous deposits in Madagascar.

The Late Cretaceous Giant Frog Beelzebufo Compared to an Extant Bull Frog

Beelzebufo (Late Cretaceous) compared to an extant Bull Frog.

Beelzebufo ampinga illustrated.

Picture Credit: Associated Press

It had been speculated that this huge frog could have eaten small dinosaurs.  Writing in the scientific journal “Scientific Reports”, a team of researchers including scientists from the University of Adelaide have concluded that “the frog from hell” had a strong bite capable of tackling relatively large prey, including, potentially, reptiles, birds and mammals.  Small dinosaurs and juveniles of larger species of dinosaur could have been on Beelzebufo’s menu!

Scaling up the Bite Forces from South American Horned Frogs

The vast majority of the frogs and toads alive today have relatively weak jaws.  Most of these amphibians specialise in attacking prey much smaller than themselves such as insects and slugs.   However, one living group of frogs, the South American horned frogs (genus Ceratophrys), are an exception.  These large-mouthed frogs have voracious appetites and their comically big heads allow them to tackle much more substantial prey items.  By scaling up the bite force readings from these types of frogs, the researchers concluded that a frog the size of Beelzebufo could have had a bite force in excess of 2,200 newtons, that’s about twice as much force as a typical adult human can generate when the force of the bite from their molars is assessed.

Measuring the Bite Force of Ceratophrys

Measuring the bite force in extant horned frogs.

An individual Ceratophrys cranwelli biting a force transducer.

Picture Credit: University of Adelaide

One of the paper’s authors, Dr Marc Jones (University of Adelaide) explained:

“Unlike the vast majority of frogs which have weak jaws and typically consume small prey, horned frogs ambush animals as large as themselves, including other frogs, snakes, and rodents.  Their powerful jaws play a critical role in grabbing and subduing the prey.”

The study found that small horned frogs, with a head width of about 4.5 centimetres, can bite with a force of 30 newtons (N) or about 3 kg of pressure.  When these readings were scaled up to take into account much larger extant species, such as the horned frogs from South America, the researchers concluded that for frogs with a head width of around 10 centimetres a bite force of almost 500 newtons could be generated.

Based on their scaling data, the scientists estimated the bite force of the giant extinct frog Beelzebufo may have been up to 2,200 N, comparable to formidable mammalian predators such as female tigers and wolves.

Dr Jones stated:

“At this bite force, Beelzebufo would have been capable of subduing the small and juvenile dinosaurs that shared its environment.”

Persuading Frogs to Bite onto a Custom-made Force Transducer

Corresponding author for the scientific paper, Professor Kristopher Lappin of the Biological Sciences Department, California State Polytechnic University, (California), outlined how the study was undertaken.  The scientists managed to persuade their amphibian subjects to bite down onto leather straps attached to a custom-made force transducer.  This device provided an accurate measurement of the amount of force being applied by the animal.

Professor Lappin said:

“This is the first time bite force has been measured in a frog and speaking from experience, horned frogs have quite an impressive bite and they tend not to let go.  The bite of a large Beelzebufo would have been remarkable, definitely not something I would want to experience.”

It seems those assumptions made by the original researchers back in 2008 were right, based on this evidence Beelzebufo would have been more than capable of snapping up a small dinosaur for dinner.

To read Everything Dinosaur’s 2008 article about the discovery of Beelzebufo and its implications for the radiation of frogs: Beelzebufo – The Frog from Hell

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