Category: Photos/Pictures of Fossils

Machairoceratops Plugs a Four-Million-Year Gap

Machairoceratops cronusi – “Bent Sword Horned Face”

The discovery of skull bones that have proved to represent a new species of Late Cretaceous horned dinosaur has helped palaeontologists to plug a four-million-year gap in the Ceratopsidae fossil record.  Researchers, writing in the on line, open access journal PLOS One, describe Machairoceratops cronusi, believed to be relatively basal member of the Centrosaurine group of horned dinosaurs.  The fossils, from Utah, help to fill an evolutionary gap in the horned dinosaur fauna known from southern Laramidia, with Machairoceratops fitting in between the earlier Centrosaurine Diabloceratops and the later Centrosaurine Nasutoceratops.

An Illustration of the Bizarre Bent-Horned Centrosaurine Machairoceratops cronusi

An illustration of a small herd of  Machairoceratops dinosaurs by Mark Witton.

An illustration of a small herd of Machairoceratops dinosaurs by Mark Witton.

Picture Credit: Mark Witton

A wide variety of North American ceratopsid dinosaurs have been described over the last decade or so.  Last week for example, Everything Dinosaur reported on the discovery of a new species of horned dinosaur from the Judith River Formation of Montana – Spiclypeus shipporum.  To read an article about this dinosaur: New Horned Dinosaur from the Late Cretaceous of Montana.

A field team first unearthed fragments that represented elements of the skull in 2006 at the famous Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, in southern Utah.  A further three seasons in the field were required to complete the exploration, sadly no post cranial material could be found.  However, from the configuration of the epiparietals and the horn cores the scientists were soon convinced that they had found a new species.

The Fossils of Machairoceratops cronusi and a Ghost Outline of the Complete Skull

Machairoceratops fossils

A right lateral view of the fossil material associated with Machairoceratops.

Picture Credit: Lund et al (PLOS One)

The picture above shows (A) a right lateral view of the fossil material associated with Machairoceratops cronusi mapped against a ghosted outline of the inferred skull.  To the left of the picture the braincase (BC) is shown.  Diagram B shows the skull in dorsal view, whilst diagram C shows a complete reconstruction of the entire skull, note the curvature of the central parietals (p1 left and p1 right), it is these curved elements that gave this dinosaur its name.

Head Spikes More Than a Metre Long

Each curved head spike (represented by p1 left and p1 right in diagram A above), would have measured around 1.2 metres in length, that’s slightly longer than a driver in a set of golf clubs used by a professional, male golfer.  However, despite this impressive headgear, the researchers estimate that Machairoceratops was not huge by horned dinosaur standards.  Based on skull comparisons with more complete specimens, palaeontologists have suggested that this dinosaur would have been around six metres in length and would have weighed around two tonnes.  Lead author of the scientific paper, graduate student Eric Lund (Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine), suggests that the head crest ornamentation may have had a role in visual signalling, such as selecting mates and establishing a social position within the herd.

Stratigraphic Assessment of the Position of Machairoceratops in Relation to Other Horned Dinosaur Fossils

A stratigraphic profile of the Wahweap and the Kaiparowits Formation.

A stratigraphic profile of the Wahweap and the Kaiparowits Formation.

Picture Credit: Lund et al (PLOS One) with additional notation by Everything Dinosaur

Filling a Four-Million-Year Old Gap in the Centrosaurinae

The discovery of M. cronusi in strata that was laid down some 77 million years ago has helped to plug a four-million-year gap in the Centrosaurine fossil record from the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.  Fossils of an earlier Centrosaurine called Diabloceratops eatoni have been found in rocks that date to around 80 million years ago.  The fossil material related to Machairoceratops fills the gap between Diabloceratops and the later, almost equally bizarrely horned Centrosaurine Nasutoceratops titusi, whose fossils are associated with the overlying Kaiparowits Formation and date to around 75-76 million years ago.

Commenting on the naming of this new type of Late Cretaceous herbivorous dinosaur, Eric Lund stated:

“The  finding fills in an important gap in the fossil record of southern Laramidia, an area that included Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Mexico during the Late Cretaceous period.  The discovery of Machairoceratops not only increases the known diversity of Ceratopsians from southern Laramidia, it also narrows an evolutionary information gap that spans nearly 4 million years between Diabloceratops eatoni from the lower middle Wahweap Formation and Nasutoceratops titusi.”

Once again, palaeontologists have gained fresh insight to the amazing diversity and variety of horned dinosaurs from North America.  The genus name is from “ceratops”, meaning horned face and the Greek “machairis” for bent sword, in deference to those curved central parietals.  The species name is from the mythical Greek titan (Cronus, also known as Kronos), whose symbol is a scythe or curved sword.

Life “Loomed Large” 1.56 Billion Years Ago

Multicellular Eukaryotes from  1.56 billion-year-old Rocks (Gaoyuzhuang Formation)

A team of Chinese and American scientists have confirmed the presence of large (several centimetres long in some cases), communities of eukaryotic cells preserved as impressions within rocks laid down in a shallow marine environment some 1.56 billion years ago.  This suggests that organisms had begun to form such structures during the Mesoproterozoic, some five hundred million years or so after the very first eukaryote cells evolved.

Macro-Fossils Preserved in the Mudstones of the Gaoyuzhuang Formation (Northern China)

Examples of various eukaryotic communities preserved in the mudstones of the Gaoyuzhuang Formation.

Examples of various eukaryotic communities preserved in the mudstones of the Gaoyuzhuang Formation.

Picture Credit: Nature Communications/Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology

Scale bar information for the picture (above) 5 cm (in a,b,g), 20 mm (in c), 40 mm (in d) and 5 mm (in e,f).

The scientists, which included Professor Andrew Knoll (Harvard University), a co-author of the academic paper published in the journal “Nature Communications”, identified a variety of different shaped fossils, some were linear, others wedge-shaped, whilst some were oblong and yet another group were described as tongue-shaped.  In total, fifty-three fossil communities were identified.  Although it is difficult to assign these structures to a place in standard Linnaean classification, a spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur suggested that these ancient life forms could be linked to the Kingdom Protoctista, a biological kingdom which includes certain large, multicellular eukaryotes, such as red algae and kelp.

What is a Eukaryotic Cell?

Eukaryotes have their genetic material enclosed within a nucleus, this is a distinct area within the confines of the cell where the genetic instructions and information can be found.  They also have organelles which are specialised structures within the cell that are responsible for specific areas of activity such as mitochondria for energy production or chloroplasts that convert sunlight energy into sugars (photosynthesis).  The first cells to form lacked a nucleus and specialised structures (organelles), these cells are referred to as prokaryotes (from the Greek which means “before the nucleus”), the DNA of prokaryotic cells is held in the cytoplasm of the cell.

Prokaryote Cells Compared to Eukaryote Cells

Simple diagram showing differences in Eukaryote cells and Prokaryote cells.

Simple diagram showing differences in Eukaryote cells and Prokaryote cells.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The diagram above shows the basic differences between prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells.  Note the different scales, due to their unstructured form, prokaryotic cells are much smaller than eukaryotic cells.  Fossil evidence for cyanobacteria (prokaryotes) suggest that these cells first formed some 3.5 billion years ago (Archean Eon)*.  The first eukaryotic cells may have formed around 2.1 billion years ago**.

Eukaryote cells most likely evolved from prokaryote cells at some point in the Paleoproterozoic.  How this came about is a subject of much debate.  One theory proposes predatory prokaryotes engulfed other smaller prokaryote cells.  Instead of these cells being consumed, a symbiotic relationship resulted with the smaller cells becoming the specialised elements of the larger cell.  Another theory suggests that more complex cells came about due to mutations during cellular division.  The presence of DNA strands in mitochondria which are not exactly the same as the DNA found within the host cell nucleus suggests that the mitochondria were once single-celled organisms in their own right.

The Significance of the Gaoyuzhuang Formation

Fossils described as macro-fossils are exceedingly rare in rocks older than the Late Neoproterozoic Era, but uranium – lead (U to Pb) radiometric dating suggests that the biota identified from the mudstones from the Gaoyuzhuang Formation (Yanshan area in the Hebei Province of northern China) are around 1.56 billion years old.  Other geological formations dated to over a billion years old which contain macro-fossils have been identified before, but it is the number and variety of the different types of fossil that marks out this strata as being something special.

Researchers Exploring the Exposed Mudstones Looking for Evidence of Ancient Life

Researchers examine the fine-grained mudstones which form part of the Gaoyuzhuang Formation.

Researchers examine the fine-grained mudstones which form part of the Gaoyuzhuang Formation.

Picture Credit: Nature Communications

Some of the fossilised structures measure up to thirty centimetres in length and eight centimetres wide.  The researchers conclude that the specimens may not represent the oldest know eukaryotes but they are the oldest eukaryotes that exhibit multicellular structures.  These organisms lived in a shallow marine environment and they were probably benthic (lived on the sea floor).  Analysis of the cells indicates that they may have been capable of photosynthesis and although large by Precambrian standards these organisms cannot be described as complex life.

Explaining the difference between complex life and these large multicellular structures, Professor Knoll stated that the Chinese fossils were:

“Large but I doubt that they were complicated – it’s an important distinction.”

Eukaryotic cells are capable of becoming specialised with different cells being responsible for different systems, functions and processes, a vital step on the path to complex life forms.  These cells, preserved as carbonaceous impressions in the rock show no signs of fundamental differentiation at the cellular level.  These fossils provide the best evidence to date that multicellular eukaryotes of large size (greater than a centimetre in length), with a regular shape existed in marine environments at least a billion years prior to the Cambrian explosion.  They are multicellular but they are not the complex, more specialised and differentiated cells associated with more advanced organisms.

Treated Sections of the Fossils Showing the Cell Structure

Treated sections of the Gaoyuzhuang Formation fossils showing cellular structures.

Treated sections of the Gaoyuzhuang Formation fossils showing cellular structures.

Picture Credit: Nature Communications

The picture above shows various views of the cell structure.  Pictures b and d show organic fragments with preserved cellular structure, the scale bar representing 100 μm (microns).  Pictures c and e show polygonal cells forming a multi-layered network (scale bar 20 μm).

The existence of these structures provides further evidence of the diversity of life during the Proterozoic, it also suggests that an increase in oxygen levels in conjunction with the establishment of a protective ozone layer in the Earth’s upper atmosphere may have permitted these multicellular organisms to form.

*/**The dates given for the first fossil evidence of prokaryotes and eukaryotic cells are speculative.

Ancient Multi-cellular Fossils from New Burgess Shale Type Deposit

Ancient Seaweed Fossils from Mongolia

Research conducted by a team of international scientists from Mongolia, Japan and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (United States), have identified two new species of ancient multi-cellular marine algae from a newly discovered Burgess Shale Type deposit located in the Zavkhan Basin of Zavkhan Province (western Mongolia).  The fossils are exceptionally rare and date from approximately 555 million years ago (Ediacaran geological period), they are helping researchers to pinpoint the development of complex lifeforms from the Kingdom Plantae, the ancestors of all plants that exist today.   A paper on the research into the thin shale beds (representing the  Zuun-Arts biota), has been published in the online, open access journal “Scientific Reports”.

Lead Author of the Study Associate Professor Stephen Dornbos Holds One of the Fossil Specimens

Ediacaran fossil specimen held by palaeontologist Stephen Dornbos.

Ediacaran fossil specimen held by palaeontologist Stephen Dornbos.

-Picture Credit: University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

The preservation of soft-bodied organisms such as these remains of algae are exceptionally rare in the fossil record.  One such method of preservation is carbonisation in fine-grained strata.  These deposits of exceptional preservation are referred to as Burgess Shale Type deposits, after the famous Cambrian site in British Columbia.  Burgess Shale Type deposits preserving the remains of organisms that lived before the Burgess Shales themselves were formed, can provide scientists with a tantalising glimpse into marine life prior to the evolution of animals with hard bodies such as exoskeletons and shells, but only a handful of pre-Cambrian (Ediacaran) Burgess Shale Type deposits are known.  The research team were exploring ancient marine rocks in western Mongolia when the thin black shales containing carbonised remnants of the prehistoric seaweeds were discovered.

Two species of multi-cellular marine algae have been identified, the most common fossils representing the newly described Chinggiskhaania bifurcata.  The other species, known from just three fossil specimens has been named Zuunartsphyton delicatum.

A Cross Polarised Light Image of C. bifurcata

Chinggiskhaania bifurcata fossil (scale bar = 5mm)

Chinggiskhaania bifurcata fossil (scale bar = 5 mm)

Picture Credit:  University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Under polarised light the structure of the fine filaments of the ancient seaweed can be clearly seen.  Contrast this picture with the photograph of Stephen Dornbos holding a specimen.  The fossils consist of aluminosilicate clay minerals and some carbon, just like the Burgess Shale fossils, and as such, spotting fossils is a very difficult task.  Natural light has to strike the fossil at the correct angle, otherwise the specimen cannot be distinguished from the surrounding matrix.

Commenting on the discovery of the Zuun-Arts biota, Associate Professor Stephen Dornbos stated:

“This discovery helps tell us more about life in a period that is relatively undocumented.  It can help us correlate the changes in life forms with what we know about the Earth’s ancient environments.  It is a major evolutionary step toward life as we know it today.”

Extremely Hard to Classify

Burgess Shale Type fossils dating from the Proterozoic Eon usually are classified as one of two categories, algae, like seaweed, which is the case of the  Zuun-Arts biota, or the remains of extinct types of organisms so unlike living organisms today, that identifying what they might have been like is very difficult to do.  As a result, interpretation of Ediacaran fossil material is a very controversial area of palaeontology.

Explaining this problem, Stephen Dornbos commented:

“If you find a fossil from this time frame, you really need strong support for your interpretation of what it was.   The further back you go in geologic time, the more contested the fossil interpretations are.”

An Illustration Depicting Life in the Ediacaran Geological Period

Life in the Ediacaran.

Life in the Ediacaran.

Picture Credit: John Sibbick

Lyme Regis Fossil Festival in Full Swing

Lyme Regis Fossil Festival 2016

The 2016 Lyme Regis Fossil Festival is in full swing.  After a successful day yesterday with around two dozen primary schools attending, Friday is dedicated to supporting secondary schools, those pupils at Key Stages 3 and 4 of the English national curriculum.  Local fossil expert Brandon Lennon reports that there were some strong winds battering the Dorset coast earlier in the week, this affected the build up to the Festival but all the marquees were erected and everything made ready for what will be four days for frenetic fossil themed activities.

The View Towards the Famous Lyme Regis Cobb

Lyme Regis prepares for the 2016 Fossil Festival.

Lyme Regis prepares for the 2016 Fossil Festival.

Picture Credit: Brandon Lennon

Even in bad weather, Lyme Regis is picturesque.  This part of the “Jurassic Coast” tends to have its own micro-climate, a phenomenon that team members at Everything Dinosaur have experienced themselves.  It can be raining in Sidmouth (Devon) to the west, but the Lyme Regis and Charmouth areas stay dry.  The weather forecast for the weekend, the public open days of the 2016 festival, is much better.  Strong sea breezes are still in the forecast but it is going to be dry and as a result, even more visitors are expected.  It is going to be a busy couple of days for the organisers and the exhibitors.

The Marquees Along the Sea Front

All is ready for the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival 2016.

All is ready for the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival 2016.

Picture Credit: Brandon Lennon

To visit the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival website: Lyme Regis Fossil Festival 2016

The theme of this year’s festival is “promoting science to young people” and there will be lots to do and see at Lyme Regis over the next couple of days or so.  However, team members at Everything Dinosaur have received reports about further minor rock falls from the cliffs surrounding the town.  A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur commented:

“The cliffs remain saturated and further rock falls over the next few days cannot be discounted.  We urge visitors to the Festival to take care whilst on the beach and to stay away from the bottom of the cliffs.”

One of the best ways to enjoy the geology of Lyme Regis and Charmouth is to take part in a guided fossil walk.  There are a number of these walks built into the programme of the Festival itself, but other walks are available throughout most of the year.

To learn more about organised fossil walks in the Lyme Regis area: Lyme Regis Fossil Walks

Amazing Fossils to Find and Lots to See (and Buy)

For those who would prefer not to explore the beaches themselves, there will be lots of fascinating fossils on display in the marquees.  Many of the specimens on display have been found in the Dorset area and can be purchased, there will certainly be many different Ammonites to choose from, if Chris Moore’s trade stand is anything to go by.

Chris Moore (Forge Fossils, Charmouth) Prepares his Trade Stand

A splendid display of Lyme Regis fossils.

A splendid display of Lyme Regis fossils.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

It looks like there will be one or two bargains to be had.  There will also be plenty of opportunities to discuss the ancient fauna of Lyme Regis with the multitude of local fossil experts who will be attending this year’s event, in addition, visitors have the chance to meet scientists from the Natural History Museum, British Antarctic Survey, Palaeontological Association, Plymouth University, Natural England, Jurassic Coast Trust, Dorset Geologists, Geological Society, Lyme Regis Museum, Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre, National Trust, Dorset Wildlife Trust and the National Oceanography Centre.

We wish the Festival every success and we look forward to hearing more about the 2016 Lyme Regis Fossil Festival over the weekend.

The “Kite Runner” from the Silurian of England

Aquilonifer spinosus – Meet the “Kite Runner” from the Silurian

A team of international researchers including scientists from Leicester University, Oxford University, Imperial College London and Yale have published a paper on a two centimetre long, ancient Arthropod that once scuttled around an ancient Silurian sea floor.  The fossil, preserved in almost three-dimensions has slowly emerged from its volcanic ash matrix and the specimen is not only a new species but it reveals a novel way of brooding its young.

The new species is named in honour of the best selling 2003 novel “The Kite Runner” by Khalid Hosseini, as the young are tethered to the adult’s body in capsules or pouches that reminded the research team of kites.

A Computer Generated Three-dimensional Image of A. spinosus

The capsules or pouches to carry young look like squashed lemons in this image.

The capsules or pouches to carry young look like squashed lemons in this image.

Picture Credit: D Briggs/D Siveter/M Sutton/D Legg

The fossil comes from a remarkable site in Herefordshire (England), close to the Welsh borders.  The limestone strata is interrupted by a finely grained bedding plane that represents the ash from a volcanic eruption that settled on the seabed some 430 million years ago.  This ash choked, buried and killed a lot of the Arthropods and other creatures that lived on or around the sea floor, and the Silurian Herefordshire Lagerstätte has provided palaeontologists with an unique opportunity to study microfossils in exquisite detail.

The genus name Aquilonifer comes from the Latin “aquila” for eagle or kite and the suffix “fer” which means to carry.  The paper describing the study has been published in the academic journal “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences”.

Lead author, Professor Derek Briggs (Yale University and Royal Society Fellow), commented:

“Modern crustaceans employ a variety of strategies to protect their eggs and embryos from predators, attaching them to the limbs, holding them under the carapace or enclosing them within a special pouch until they are old enough to be released, but this example is unique.”

Strategy for Raising Young

No member of the Arthropoda, alive today (as far as we at Everything Dinosaur are aware), adopts such a strategy towards raising the next generation.  As only one fossil specimen has been found and since no Arthropod known to science has evolved this behaviour, the fossil may record one reproduction strategy that ultimately proved to be unsuccessful, or at least less successful than other strategies employed by competing organisms.

Revealing the Tiny Fossil

The scientists were able to identify A. spinosus using a process whereby high intensity scanning photographs are taken, in a virtual slice by slice of the specimen.  The results are then fed into a powerful computer programme that generates a three-dimensional image of the animal, including soft body parts such as, in this case, the pouches or capsules that held juveniles.  The picture in this blog article is therefore an image of the “virtual fossil” that has been generated by this process.

The “Kite Runner” shows ten juveniles attached at various stages of development, all connected to the adult.  The researchers suggest that the adult delayed its moult until the juveniles were old enough to hatch, otherwise, the juveniles would have been cast adrift as the exoskeleton was shed.  It had been considered that the strange capsules/pouches with their tethers were some form of parasite, but the attachment seemed too uniform and the attachment position was not very favourable when it came to trying to access nutrients from the host.

Aquilonifer spinosus shared its marine environment with a host of other invertebrates including ostracods, brachiopods, worms, gastropods (snails), sea stars, and various shrimp-like creatures.  The scientists suggest that this animal was a mandibulate, belonging to a clade of the Arthropoda that includes crustaceans, and modern insects.  It lacked eyes and probably relied upon its long, robust antenna to find its way about, the trunk had eleven body segments which all had tiny jointed limbs to help it scuttle along the seabed.

Co-author, Dr. Legg of Oxford University stated that this bizarre creature that seems to have kept its babies close to it by thin threads may have had a segmented body and an exoskeleton but deciding where in the Order Arthropoda it fitted proved a tricky task.

Over the last few years, Everything Dinosaur has covered a number of fossil discoveries from the Silurian Herefordshire Lagerstätte made using the same techniques employed in this study.

To read about the discovery of a strange ostracod fossil: Ancient Ostracod from Herefordshire

To read about a rather nasty surprise revealed by this fossil preparation process: Prehistoric Parasites from the Silurian

“Tully Monster” Riddle Solved

Bizarre “Tully Monster” Finds a Place on the Tree of Life

The bizarre “Tully Monster” a very peculiar sea creature that swam in the tropical waters that once covered Illinois (United States), has finally been allocated a position on the tree of life.  So weird was “Tully” or to give this thirty centimetre oddity its formal, binomial scientific name – Tullimonstrum gregarium, that palaeontologists could not classify it even to a Phylum.  However, a new study published in the journal “Nature” has finally solved this riddle.  It is a soft-bodied vertebrate, one that is related to extant jawless fish such as Hagfish and the Lamprey.

The Riddle of the “Tully Monster” Solved

Fossils found in 1958, described in 1966 but not classified until 2016.

Fossils found in 1958, described in 1966 but not classified until 2016.

Picture Credit: Sean McMahon (Yale University)

Thousands of Fossils but Just From One Location

The story of this strange creature begins in 1958 when amateur fossil collector Francis Tully stumbled across a specimen whilst exploring the silt and mudstone beds of the Mazon Creek Formation that are exposed in Grundy County Illinois.  The fossil was studied by palaeontologists at the Chicago Field Museum and, with more specimens having been recovered from the same location, the first formal description of this marine animal was published in 1966.  Since then, it has been described as a nektonic mollusc, an Arthropod, a marine worm and even a Conodont (a jawless chordate, possibly related to primitive, jawless fish).  Thousands of specimens have been collected from the Mazon Creek beds, but this fossil has not been recorded anywhere else in the world.

Tullimonstrum gregarium – Described

This animal had no bones or hard parts, but seemed to have been an active swimmer, due to the fact that there is some evidence of streamlining of the body and fins to provide thrust and manoeuvring in open water.   The long body had a thin bar crossing the top (or could that be the bottom)?  This bar showed that at each end there was some sort of organ, this has been interpreted as an eye.  Reaching forward was a long, delicate proboscis which seemed to end in a mouth with up to eight primitive teeth in the jaws.  This appendage must have been quite delicate, as despite the exceptional preservation conditions associated with the Mazon Creek Formation, less than 5% of all fossil specimens preserve this proboscis in its entirety within the fossil.

A Typical Hard to Decipher “Tully Monster” Fossil

A "Tully Monster" fossil.

A “Tully Monster” fossil.

Picture Credit: Paul Mayer (Chicago Field Museum)

This enigmatic marine animal, probably lived in open water, but storms washed these creatures into the shore and they ended up stranded on the mud and silts of a river estuary.  The high levels of iron found in these sediments helped preserve these and other soft-bodied animals, providing a unique faunal record of life 300 million years ago (Late Carboniferous).

Scientists from Yale University, along with collaborators from The Field Museum, The American Museum of Natural History, Argonne National Laboratory (Illinois) and Yale Peabody Museum examined some two thousand fossil specimens and conducted an array of tests and assessments including sophisticated synchrotron elemental mapping techniques (thanks to Argonne National Laboratory).  The synchrotron study permitted the team to identify the anatomy and physical features of the creature by plotting the chemical signatures left behind by organic material preserved in the matrix.  The scientists were able to confirm that T. gregarium had gills and a rudimentary notochord, which functioned as a backbone.  Neither of these two features had been recognised before.

Victoria McCoy, lead author of the research commented:

“I was first intrigued by the mystery of the Tully Monster.  With all the exceptional fossils, we had a very clear picture of what it looked like, but no clear picture of what it was.”

The “Tully Monster” a Vertebrae Related to Jawless Fish


Tullimonstrum gregarium


Picture Credit: Sean McMahon (Yale University)

With its formal classification now assured, the celebrity status of this foot-long oddity is unlikely to diminish.  In 1989, Tullimonstrum gregarium became the official fossil of the State of Illinois.

Dr. McCoy said:

“It’s so different from its modern relatives that we don’t know much about how it lived.  It has big eyes and lots of teeth, so it was probably a predator.”

Some intriguing questions remain.  The fossils of this animal are confined to one location, no one knows when these animals evolved, or even when they became extinct, perhaps somewhere out there on the immense abyssal plain a “Tully Monster” still lurks.  Now that’s an interesting thought.

Megaloceros Fossil Exhibit

Megaloceros (Irish Elk)

One of the best exhibits in the walkway between the galleries at the National Museum of Scotland (Edinburgh), is this magnificent Megaloceros fossil skeleton.  The name of this extinct member of the deer family (Cervidae), means “great horn” and although antlers are not technically horns, it is not hard to see why this Ice Age herbivore got its moniker.  The fossils were found in the Isle of Man and we think this was one of the first if not the very first specimens to be scientifically studied.  Although a number of species have now been assigned to the Megaloceros genus, this is the largest of the species M. giganteus.

The Magnificent Megaloceros on Display at the Museum of Scotland (Edinburgh)

A Megaloceros skeleton on display.

A Megaloceros skeleton on display.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The impressive antlers grew each year and a large pair could measure more than three and a half metres wide.  The weight of the antlers was considerable putting tremendous pressure on those cervical bones and the muscles in the neck.  It has been estimated that a pair of antlers could weigh as much as forty kilogrammes.  That is heavier than the young girl in the pink coat in the picture.  Although also known as the “Irish Elk”, Megaloceros was not restricted to Ireland.  It had a very wide distribution, fossils having been found all over northern Europe and Asia.  Fossils of Megaloceros have even been found in China.  It was also not very closely related to the extant Elk, but more closely related to modern Fallow Deer.  Standing more than two metres high at the shoulders, it is one of the largest members of the Cervidae family known.  Note the elongated skull, the strong neck and the strong legs.   Sadly, this magnificent beast became extinct at the end of the last Ice Age, however, a dwarf species is believed to have survived on the Mediterranean islands of Corsica and Sardinia until about 5,000 B.C.

It is always a pleasure to find a Megaloceros exhibit on display so prominently in a museum.

Oldest Pine Fossils Reveal Link with Firestorms

Oldest Pine Tree Fossils Described

A pine tree is such a familiar object that it hardly deserves a second glance.  Walking in the park, driving into work, many people will pass these ubiquitous trees without giving them a thought.  Pine trees are also found in gardens, if you are mowing the lawn this weekend, stop for a moment and nod your head towards your pine as these types of tree originated at least 140 million years ago.  In addition, pine trees that dominate much of the northern hemisphere today might owe their success, if not their very existence to a fiery past.

Pine Trees Once Overlooked Dinosaurs

Dinosaurs once roamed Surrey (England).

Pine trees part of the faunal landscape of the Cretaceous.

Picture Credit: Natural History Museum (London)

The pine trees (Pinaceae) are a very diverse conifer genus these days, there are something like 115 species known today.  They are renowned for their ability to retain water thanks to their tough needles and their adaptations that help them withstand forest fires.  They contain highly flammable deadwood that burns very easily.  Conifers produce terpenes, which are highly combustible organic compounds, it is these compounds that make pine trees so inflammable.  They also produce cones that will only germinate in many cases after being scorched by fire.  A new generation of pine trees can then emerge, using the nutrient rich ash left by a forest fire to sustain them and without much competition from other plants as these would have been destroyed by the conflagration.

A team of scientists from the Department of Earth Sciences at Royal Holloway (University of London), have found the oldest fossil evidence of pine trees.  The discovery was due to serendipity almost as much as hard work and dedicated research.  Dr.  Howard Falcon-Lang discovered the fossils preserved as charcoal in a rock layer dated to the Valanginian faunal stage of the Cretaceous, approximately 133 to 140 million years ago.  The tiny fragments of pine tree suggest that conifers co-evolved with fire at a time when atmospheric oxygen levels were much higher than today, making forest fires much more likely and intense.

A False Colour Image of a Pine Tree Fragment Preserved as Charcoal

Fossilised pine tree fragment preserved as charcoal.

Fossilised pine tree fragment preserved as charcoal.

Picture Credit: Royal Holloway, University of London.

Commenting on the significance of the fossil find, Dr. Falcon-Lang stated:

“Pines are well adapted to fire today.  The fossils show that wildfires raged through the earliest pine forests and probably shaped the evolution of this important tree.  Modern pines store flammable resin-rich deadwood on the tree making them prone to lethal fires.  However, they also produce huge numbers of cones that will only germinate after a fire, ensuring a new cohort of trees is seeded after the fire has passed by.”

A paper detailing the research has been published in the journal of the Geological Society of America.  The fossils had been gathered several years ago and lay unexamined in a cupboard.  It was only when the rock samples were subjected to acidification to digest the matrix material that the tiny fragments of tell-tale pine tree were revealed.  Although each specimen is only a few millimetres in length they have been interpreted as being the remains of an evergreen two-needle pine.

The research is published in the journal Geological Society of America.

Big-eyed Mosasaur from Japan – A Night Time Hunter?

Phosphorosaurus ponpetelegans – New Species of Mosasaur Announced

An international team of researchers, including scientists from the Royal Tyrrell Museum, the University of Alberta (Canada), the University of Cincinnati (USA), Hobetsu Museum and Fukuoka University (Japan), have announced the discovery of a new species of Mosasaur found in Upper Cretaceous rocks in Japan.  This three metre long predator may have specialised in hunting in deep water or perhaps it evolved to fill a specific ecological niche, that of a night hunter preying on bioluminescent fish and squid.

The Newly Described Phosphorosaurus ponpetelegans

The first Japanese Mosasaur to be identified.

Rare Japanese Mosasaur identified.

Picture Credit: Tatsuya Shinmura / Ashoro Museum of Palaeontology / Trustees of the Natural History Museum, (London).

Growing to around the size of an extant American Alligator (C. mississippiensis), this large-eyed Mosasaur from the island of Hokkaido (northern Japan), was probably most closely related to another species of Late Cretaceous Mosasaur, but one from Belgium thousands of miles away (P. ortliebi).  This fossil find, consisting of beautifully preserved cranial material plus some post cranial elements, will help palaeontologists to build a better understanding of the biogeographical distribution of certain types of Mosasaur towards the end of the Mesozoic.

In 2009, scientist Tomohiro Nishimura (Hobetsu Museum), recovered a calcareous nodule from one of the tributaries of the Pankerusano-sawa Creek, about 3 miles east of the town of Hobetsu.  The rivers in this part of Hokkaido cut through sandstones which were laid down at the very end of the Age of Dinosaurs (Hakobuchi Formation of the uppermost Yezo Group), the fossil is believed to have come from the lowermost strata representing the early part of the Maastrichtian age, approximately 71 million years ago.

Mosasaur Creek!  The Rivers Cut Through the Loosely Compacted Sandstones

Small rivers cut deep channels in the sandstone.

Small rivers cut deep channels in the sandstone.

Picture Credit: University of Cincinnati

The picture above shows the topography of the area.  Shallow soils overlie sandstones and the action of rivers results in deep channels being cut in the rock which can expose fossils such as ammonites and occasionally the fossilised bones of marine vertebrates.

Views of the Remarkably Well-Preserved Skull

Dorsal view (left), ventral view (right), lateral view (bottom). Scale bar = 5cm.

Dorsal view (left), ventral view (right), lateral view (bottom).
Scale bar = 5 cm.

Picture Credit: Takuya Konishi et al.

Phosphorosaurus ponpetelegans  means “phosphorus lizard from an elegant creek”,  co-existed with much larger Mosasaurs, ten-metre plus monsters that were the apex predators.  The scientists propose that P. ponpetelegans adapted to an ecological niche, that of a night time predator or perhaps a deep water hunter.  The almost complete skull was slowly removed from its rocky matrix by being placed in a bath of dilute acid each night.  Once the skull bones had been freed from the rock, the researchers set about piecing the skull together.

Huge Eyes

This marine reptile had huge eye sockets and a reduced snout when compared to other Mosasaurs.  As the fossil skull was so well preserved the scientists have been able to determine that Phosphorosaurus ponpetelegans had binocular vision, its eyes were located on the front of its face, providing depth perception.  Most other Mosasaurs have eyes towards the side of their heads.  This gives them a large, all round field of view but they lack the depth perception to the extent demonstrated by a study of Phosphorosaurus cranial material.

The Huge Orbit (Eye Socket) of P. ponpetelegans

The skull in lateral view showing the huge eye-socket.

The skull in lateral view showing the huge eye-socket.

Picture Credit: Takuya Konishi et al.

Commenting on the significance of the size and position of the eyes, lead author Takuya Konishi explained:

“The forward-facing eyes on Phosphorosaurus provide depth perception to vision, and it’s common in birds of prey and other predatory mammals that dwell among us today.  But we knew already that most Mosasaurs were pursuit predators based on what we know they preyed upon — swimming animals.  Paradoxically, these small Mosasaurs like Phosphorosaurus were not as adept swimmers as their larger contemporaries because their flippers and tail fins were not as well developed.”

The researchers depict Phosphorosaurus has a nocturnal hunter, although the pursuit of prey in deeper water cannot be ruled out.  Phosphorosaurus could be thought of as an owl, whereas the diurnal, larger, more streamlined Mosasaurs in the ecosystem were the equivalent of day time hunters such as hawks and eagles.  The binocular vision in nocturnal animals doubles the number of photoreceptors to detect light.  Just like an extant owl, this small Mosasaur had very large eye sockets.

A Comparison of the Binocular Vision Potential of Different Mosasaurs

The forward facing vision of Mosasaurs are compared.

The forward facing vision of Mosasaurs are compared.

Picture Credit: The Journal of Systematic Palaeontology with additional notation by Everything Dinosaur


BFoV = Binocular Field of Vision

In the line drawing above, the field of vision of Phosphorosaurus ponpetelegans (c) is compared to two other Mosasaurs.  The skulls are drawn not to scale.  Plotosaurus bennisoni (a) was a much larger, more streamlined Mosasaur.  Its fossils come from Upper Cretaceous rocks found in California.  It grew to lengths in excess of twelve metres and it was very probably an open ocean predator relying on its pursuit speed to catch its prey, which probably included other Mosasaurs and marine reptiles.  The binocular field of vision for the long-snouted Plotosaurus bennisoni has been calculated to around 22 degrees.  Mosasaurus missouriensis (b)was also a large, apex predator.  Size estimates vary, but this Mosasaur, whose fossils come from North America, could have been four times the size of Phosphorosaurus.  It too, was an ocean going predator, but it is depicted as being more bulky and therefore less streamlined than Plotosaurus.  Its binocular field of vision has been calculated at around 29 degrees.  In contrast, the much smaller, shorter snouted Phosphorosaurus with its forward facing and proportionately much larger eyes had a binocular field of vision of around 35 degrees.

What Did Phosphorosaurus Hunt?

Numerous fossils of Cephalopods such as squid and ammonites have been recovered from the same strata as the Phosphorosaurus fossil remains.  In addition, fossils of ancient lantern fish have also been found.  The scientists speculate that this Mosasaur may have hunted the bioluminescent fish and squid at night, whilst larger Mosasaurs in the area hunted during the day.

Discussing the potential ecological niche of Phosphorosaurus ponpetelegans Takuya Konishi stated:

“If this new Mosasaur was a sit-and-wait hunter in the darkness of the sea and able to detect the light of these other animals, that would have been the perfect niche to co-exist with the more established Mosasaurs.” 

Such is the exquisite quality of the preserved skull, that the researchers hope to be able to piece together more details concerning the evolution and radiation of the Mosasaur group as a whole.  Phosphorosaurus has been assigned to the Halisaurinae Sub-family of Mosasaurs.  Its discovery will help to fill the gap between similar types of Mosasaur fossils found in Europe and the Middle East and those from the Eastern Pacific.

Biogeographical Distribution of Late Cretaceous Halisaurine Mosasaurs

The distribution of the Halisaurine Mosasaurs (Late Cretaceous).

The distribution of the Halisaurine Mosasaurs (Late Cretaceous).

Picture Credit: Journal of Systematic Palaeontology with additional notation by Everything Dinosaur

The red mark indicates the Phosphorosaurus ponpetelegans fossil location.  It is the most northerly Halisaurine Mosasaur discovered to date.

The Teeth of Phosphorosaurus ponpetelegans

The curved and widely spaced teeth support the idea that this Mosasaur hunted squid.

The curved and widely spaced teeth support the idea that this Mosasaur hunted squid.

Picture Credit:  Takuya Konishi et al.

Unborn Foal Identified from Ancient Horse Fossil

Eurohippus messelensis – Fossil Reveals Ancient Foetus

The fossilised remains of an ancient, prehistoric horse that once roamed southern Germany has revealed the presence of an unborn foal.  Scanning electron microscopy of the beautifully preserved fossil has revealed the bones of a foetus, this is the oldest fossilised equine foetus discovered to date and reveals that the horse reproductive system was already highly developed by the early Middle Eocene.

Ancient Horse Fossil Reveals Unborn Foal

Eurohippus foetus fossil from the Messel Shale.

Eurohippus foetus fossil from the Messel Shale.

Picture Credit: Senckenberg Research Institute

The position of the foetus in the mare is marked by the white ellipse in the picture above.  Scale bar equals 10 centimetres.  The fossil has been set in resin, this is a standard procedure to help preserve the fossils from the Messel oil shales.

Details of the research, conducted by scientists from the Senckenberg Research Institute (Frankfurt) and the University of Veterinary Medicine (Vienna), have been published in the academic journal PloS One.  The fossil, an early horse called Eurohippus messelensis, was excavated from the Messel Shales near Darmstadt (Germany) in 2000 but it was only after recent high resolution micro-X-ray studies in combination with the scanning electron microscopy that the 12.5 centimetre long foetus was found.  Most the skeleton is intact (post cranial material) and elements of the placenta can be determined.  Based on a comparison with modern horses, the position of the foetus, which was near full term at the time of death, is almost identical to that seen in today’s mares which are at roughly the same stage of pregnancy.  The death of the potential mother-to-be and the unborn foal are not related to any potential complications that arose during parturition.  It seems that this little, ancestral horse that was just thirty centimetres high at the shoulder, ended up in a large, deep lake and was quickly buried in the oxygen depleted sediments at the bottom.  These sediments eventually became the oil shales which make this part of southern Germany so famous.

A Line Drawing of the Exposed Side of the Foetus

Scale bar 10 cm (A and B)

Scale bar 10 cm (A and B)

Picture Credit: Senckenberg Research Institute, Jörg Habersetzer; line drawing (b) by  Jens Lorenz Franzen.

The picture above (a) shows the foetus position in relation to the bones of the adult and maps out the position of the placenta (line drawing b).

How did the Ancient Horse Die?

The oil shales of Messel contain a huge amount of fossils, both aquatic and terrestrial species, but how did this rich fossil assemblage come about?  This part of Germany was located ten degrees further south during the early Middle Eocene than it is today.  It is believed to have been a very geologically active area and infrequent releases of large concentrations of poisonous gases from the deep lakes in the area could have devastated the local ecosystem.  Deadly releases of carbon dioxide mixed with hydrogen sulphide would have quickly suffocated animals in the water and once these gases had reached land they would quickly overcome any animal in close proximity to the shore.  Corpses would have been washed into the lake by rains and eventually they would have drifted down to the bottom, where the lack of oxygen and bacteria would have facilitated their excellent preservation.  This theory also accounts for the number of bird and bat fossils found in these oil shale deposits.  Any animal flying over the lake and encountering the gas cloud would be affected and fall into the water.  Bat fossils are amongst the most numerous of all the terrestrial vertebrate fossils found at the Messel quarry site.

Such a scenario was depicted in the “Walking with Beasts” episode “New Dawn” made by the BBC.

Eurohippus (E. messelensis) is one of a number of early ungulates known from the Messel shales of Germany.

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