Category: Photos/Pictures of Fossils

Fossilised Bacteria Shed Light on Life Before Oxygen

Ancient African Rocks Provide Evidence of Life Before Oxygen

The fossils of ancient bacteria that existed in deep water environments during the Neoarchean Era some 2.52 billion years ago, have been identified by an international team of researchers.  They don’t represent the oldest known life on our planet, recently, Everything Dinosaur published an article on some new research that postulates that microbial colonies existed on Earth some 3.7 billion years ago*, but these South African fossils may represent the oldest evidence of a bacteria capable of oxidising sulphur (within the Class Gamma Proteobacteria), found to date.

A Highly Magnified Image of a Fossilised Bacteria

Fossilised bacteria.

A view of one of the spherical structures identified as fossil bacteria.

Picture Credit: Andrew Czaja

This discovery is significant as it sheds light on a time in Earth’s history, when, essentially, all the microbial forms that exist today had probably evolved, but the fossil record for their existence is particularly sparse. Writing in the journal of the Geological Society of America, the researchers which include scientists from the University of Cincinnati and the University of Johannesburg, report on large, organic, smooth-walled, spherical microfossils representing organisms that lived in deep water, when our planet’s atmosphere had less than one-thousandth of one percent of the oxygen we have today.

Microscopic Life in the Archean

The research team discovered the microscopic fossils preserved in black chert that had been laid down at the bottom of a deep ocean, in the Griqualand West Basin of the Kaapvaal craton of South Africa (Northern Cape Province).  Geologist Andrew Czaja (University of Cincinnati), explained that this part of South Africa was one of the few places in the world where rocks of this great age were exposed.  The fossils are very significant as they represent bacteria surviving in a very low oxygen environment, the bacteria existed prior to “Great Oxygenation Event”, sometimes referred to as the GOE, a period in Earth’s history from about 2.4 billion to 2.2 billion years ago, when water-borne cyanobacteria (blue-green bacteria), evolved photosynthesis and as a result, oxygen was released into the atmosphere.  More oxygen in our atmosphere helped drive the evolution of complex organisms, eventually leading to the development of multi-cellular life.

Commenting on this research Assistant Professor Andrew Czaja stated:

“These are the oldest reported fossil sulphur bacteria to date and this discovery is helping us reveal a diversity of life and ecosystems that existed just prior to the Great Oxidation Event, a time of major atmospheric evolution.”

Radiometric dating and geochemical isotope analysis suggest that these fossils formed on an ancient seabed more than one hundred metres down.  The bacteria fed on sulphates that probably originated on the early super-continent Vaalbara (a landmass that consisted of parts of Australia and South Africa).  With the fossils having been dated to 2.52 billion years ago, the bacteria were thriving just before the GOE, when shallow water bacteria began creating more oxygen as a by-product of photosynthesis.

Czaja’s fossils show the Neoarchean bacteria in plentiful numbers while living within the muddy sediment of the seabed.  The assistant professor and his co-researchers postulate that these early bacteria were busy ingesting volcanic hydrogen sulphide, the molecule known to give off a rotten egg smell, then emitting sulphate, a gas that has no smell.  This is the same process that goes on today as extant microbes recycle decaying organic matter into minerals and gas.  The team surmise that the ancient oceanic bacteria are likely to have consumed the molecules dissolved from sulphur rich minerals that came from the land rocks associated with Vaalbara or from volcanic rocks on the seabed.

Andrew Czaja Points to the Rock Layer where the Fossil Bacteria was Found

Indicating the layer of rock from which the fossil bacteria was collected.

Andrew Czaja (University of Cincinnati), points to the rock layer from which fossil bacteria was collected.

Picture Credit: Aaron Satkoski

Sizeable Bacteria

These fossils occur mainly as compressed and flattened solitary shapes that resemble a flattened, microscopic beach ball.  They range in size from 20 microns (µm), about half the thickness of a human hair, up to a whopping 265 µm, that’s some very large bacteria, about forty times bigger than a human red blood cell, making the fossils exceptionally large for an example of bacteria.  The research team hypothesis that these ancient bacteria were similar in habit to the modern, equally large-sized bacteria Thiomargarita, which lives in oxygen-poor, deep water environments.

Described as being morphologically similar to Proterozoic and Phanerozoic acritarchs and to certain Archaean fossils interpreted as possible blue-green bacteria (cyanobacteria), these fossils are the oldest reported sulphur processing bacteria described to date.  They reveal that microbial life was diverse as early as 2.5 billion years ago and provide further evidence that organisms can thrive in very low oxygen environments.  This may have implications for astronomers as they search for evidence of life on other planets and moons within our solar system.

Images of the Microstructures (Dark, Round Spots within Ancient Rocks)

Microstructures indicate sulphur oxidising bacteria.

Images of microstructures that have physical characteristics with the remains of spherical bacteria.

Picture Credit: Andrew Czaja

*To read Everything Dinosaur’s recently published article (September 2016), about the possible identification of evidence of microbial colonies in strata some 3.7 billion years old: 3.7 Billion-Year-Old Microbes

The scientific paper: “Sulfur-oxidizing Bacteria prior to the Great Oxidation Event from the 2.52 Ga Gamohaan Formation of South Africa”, published in “Geology” the journal of the Geological Society of America.

Ginkgo “Living Fossil” Has Remarkable Genome Sequenced

The Genome of the Ginkgo Reveals Secret of Success

A team of international scientists writing in the open-access journal “GigaScience”, have published a paper that maps the genome of a “living fossil” – the Ginkgo tree.  The extant Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), is the only representative of a division of the Plantae Kingdom called the Ginkgophyta.  Native to China, this slow-growing tree with its distinctive fan-shaped leaves has a fossil record that dates back to the Permian.  Also called the Maidenhair tree, Ginkgo biloba is the only living species of a once diverse and widespread group that thrived during the Mesozoic.  The evolutionary origins of the Ginkgophyta are unclear, with the huge genome of G. biloba mapped, it may be possible to trace the ancestry of this enigmatic plant.

The Genome of the “Living Fossil” Ginkgo Biloba has been Mapped

A Ginkgo biloba tree.

A small Ginkgo tree (G. biloba). The genome of Ginkgo biloba has been mapped.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

What is a Genome?

A genome is a complete set of genetic instructions required to build an organism, allow it to grow, develop and function properly.  The instructions are comprised of DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid), which itself consists of four nucleotide bases adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine (plus other materials that make up the DNA molecule such as phosphate and sugars).  The DNA is contained in chromosomes, which are found in the nucleus of most cells. The four nucleotides are arranged in pairs, adenine binds to thymine and cytosine unites with guanine.  The gene is the unit of inheritance, sections of the DNA consisting of an arrangement of the four base pairs make up a single gene and it is this gene that provides the instructions to build and maintain the organism.

Each organism has a unique genome and the length of these genetic instructions varies.  For example, the human genome is comprised of around 3.2 billion base pairs, if the genome of H. sapiens was printed out and put into paperback books, the stack of books would be over sixty metres tall, about as high as the monument to the Great Fire of London adjacent to London Bridge.  However, the Ginkgo has a much bigger genome, consisting of approximately 10.6 billion base pairs.  If the genome of G. biloba was printed into paperback form, the stack of books would reach over 200 metres high, that’s as tall as the giant cooling towers of the Fidlers Ferry Power station that dominates the Cheshire landscape.

The Human Genome Compared to the Much Larger Genome of Ginkgo biloba

Human genome compared to the Ginkgo genome.

If the human genome and the Ginkgo genome were printed as paperbacks, the tower of books representing the Ginkgo genome would be more than three times higher.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

In the picture above, the human genome if printed out into paperback books, would make a stack some 62 metres tall.  The much larger genome of G. biloba would make a tower of books over 200 metres high.  A Brachiosaurus is shown for scale.

The Extraordinary Biology of G. biloba

The research team, which included members of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and scientists from Zhejiang University, are trying to find out why individual trees can live so long and how they overcome insect and fungi attacks.  The Ginkgo genome mapping study is part of a much larger research project studying plant defences against pathogens.  This investigation will help palaeobotanists to better understand the evolutionary history of the Ginkgophyta and how they relate (phylogeny) to other plant groups.

Professor Yunpeng Zhao (Zhejiang University), one of the authors of the scientific paper commented:

“Ginkgo represents one of the five living groups of seed plants, and has no living relatives.  Such a genome fills a major phylogenetic gap of land plants, and provides key genetic resources to address evolutionary questions like phylogenetic relationships of gymnosperm lineages, evolution of genome and genes in land plants, innovation of developmental traits, evolution of sex as well as history of demography and distribution, resistance and conservation of the Ginkgo.”

Fossilised Ginkgo Leaves (Jurassic)

The carbonised fossil leaves of a Jurassic Ginkgo tree.

Ginkgo fossil leaves.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

A Very Resilient Plant

The resilience of the Ginkgo has fascinated botanists.  It has survived dramatic climate change including mini Ice Ages in its native China and Ginkgo trees in the Japanese city of Hiroshima were one of the few organisms to survive the atom bomb blast and resulting radiation, the oldest recorded individual tree germinated back in the Bronze Age.

Ginkgo trees are also able to fend off attacks from insects, bacteria and fungi.  The leaves contain an arsenal of complex chemicals that provide an effective defence.  To better understand the Ginkgo’s defensive systems, the authors analysed the repertoire of genes present in the genome that are known to play a role in the defence of the plant.  An initial analysis of the tree’s more than 40,000 predicted genes showed extensive expansion of gene families that provide for a wide range of defensive mechanisms.

Genes that enable resistance against pathogens are often duplicated.  In addition, Ginkgo trees have an extra weapon in their battle against Arthropods.  As well as having their own array of insecticides within their leaves, they also defend themselves against attack by releasing volatile organic compounds that specifically attract enemies of plant-eating insects.

The term “living fossil” is not one readily used by scientists.  It implies that a species has survived unchanged of millennia.  This is not true, the fossilised leaves preserved in Mesozoic and Cenozoic strata represent a wide variety of genera, but the tree’s basic body plan, its design has remained relatively unchanged for millions of years.

This new data, indicating that the Ginkgo has a formidable array of weaponry to keep it safe from harm, defence measures that seem to have come about as the genes were duplicated, might be linked to the plant’s remarkable resilience.  By undertaking a study of the Ginkgo and its genome, scientists may find useful pointers to assist them in helping to produce more robust crops that can resist diseases and pests.

The CollectA Ginkgo biloba Model

CollectA added a twenty-five centimetre high model of a Ginkgo tree into their “Prehistoric Life Collection” a couple of years ago.  This replica works well with the 1:20 scale range of prehistoric animal models and is very useful when creating realistic prehistoric scenes and dioramas.

The CollectA Prehistoric Life Ginkgo biloba Model

 CollectA Ginkgo biloba model.

The CollectA Ginkgo biloba tree model.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

To view the CollectA Ginkgo biloba replica and the other scale models in this range: CollectA Scale Models and Replicas

Appreciating Dunkleosteus

Dunkleosteus Exhibit at the Naturmuseum Senckenberg

At the Naturmuseum Senckenberg (Frankfurt, Germany), visitors are treated to a spectacular gallery featuring that most diverse group of vertebrates, the fish.   Fans of Palaeozoic fossils can see several specimens on display, including a beautiful Dunkleosteus exhibit.

The Anterior Portion of Dunkleosteus on Display

Dunkleosteus on display.

The spectacular Dunkleosteus exhibit.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Greeting you at the gallery entrance area is a cast of the plated skull and jaws of the giant Devonian predator Dunkleosteus.  It certainly is a most impressive sight.  Sharp-eyed readers can spot the John Sibbick illustration that can be seen behind the replica skull with its shear-like jaws.  In the background part of the fossil fish display can be seen.  It features a life-size model of a Coelacanth (Latimeria).

Standing Guard at the Fish Gallery Entrance – Dunkleosteus

A Dunkleosteus exhibit.

A Dunkleosteus cast on display.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

A Powerful Placoderm

Dunkleosteus was a huge, prehistoric fish with an armoured head made up of several bony plates that covered over thirty percent of the entire animal’s length. Larger specimens had dermal armour that was up to five centimetres thick.  The Placoderms (armoured fish); evolved in the Silurian period from ancestors that had no teeth, instead this group of fish developed a pair of extremely sharp bony plates that hung from the top jaw, the edges of the lower jaw were also bony and as sharp as a razor.  The jaws could be slammed together like a pair of self-sharpening shears.  Dr John Newberry formally named and scientifically described this apex predator in 1873.  The genus name honours the famous American palaeontologist Dr David Dunkle of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

As for size, a number of estimates have been published.  The Everything Dinosaur fact sheet sent out with Dunkleosteus model purchases suggests a maximum length of about nine to ten metres, with a maximum body mass of around four tonnes.

Visit to the Senckenberg Natural History Museum

The Senckenberg Natural History Museum (Naturmuseum Senckenberg)

When in Frankfurt, take the opportunity to visit one of the largest natural history museums in Germany, the Naturmuseum Senckenberg (Senckenberg Natural History Museum).  Team members at Everything Dinosaur did just that, visiting the museum just prior to the commencement of a major refurbishment programme.  The spacious dinosaur gallery is perhaps, the most popular gallery in the museum and it is certainly worth a look around, but in addition, there are plenty of other gems to spot amongst the extensive collection of The Senckenberg Research Institute.

Tyrannosaurus rex Greets Visitors to the Naturmuseum Senckenberg

T. rex replica outside the Frankfurt museum.

A well-known Frankfurt landmark. The T. rex outside the Naturmuseum Senckenberg .

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The Dinosaur Gallery

With a life-size replica of T. rex to be found opposite the main entrance, visitors to the museum will not be surprised to discover that a cast of Tyrannosaurus rex can be found in the ground floor dinosaur gallery.  The near forty-foot long replica positioned on a landscaped area over the road from the entrance to the museum, is in very good condition, given the amount of attention the Frankfurt T. rex was getting from young dinosaur fans who were delighted to get up close to the statue and run between the Theropod’s giant legs.

A Cast of a Tyrannosaurus rex Skeleton in the Dinosaur Gallery

T. rex skeleton at the Frankfurt Natural History Museum

The museum’s dinosaur gallery. Naturmuseum Senckenberg

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The Dinosaur Gallery

Although the gallery is quite large and all the life-size dinosaurs that occupy the floor space are mounted on raised platforms, visiting the gallery later in the afternoon, affords the visitor the best views as towards closing time the galleries are much less busy.

For us, a highlight of the dinosaur gallery was being able to view the marvellous Bob Nicholls replica of Psittacosaurus, the dinosaur featured in a recently published scientific paper that examined the idea of counter shading in forest dwelling dinosaurs.  This beautiful model demonstrates how our views about the appearance of dinosaurs has changed.  Contrast, for example, Bob’s remarkable replica with some of the painted images of dinosaurs that occupy the walls of the dinosaur gallery.

The Life-size Psittacosaurus Replica on Display

Life-size Psittacosaurus replica.

A model of the dinosaur called Psittacosaurus.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The beautifully preserved fossil Psittacosaurus specimen that was used in the recent study into dinosaur colouration can be found in the Senckenberg Research Institute’s vertebrate fossil collection.  The fossil probably came from the Yixian Formation of Liaoning Province (north-eastern China), most likely from an illegal smuggling operation.  However, the specimen was purchased by the Frankfurt museum (see photograph below).

To read an article from Everything Dinosaur about this exciting area of research: Calculating the Colour of Psittacosaurus

A Cast of the Psittacosaurus Fossil on Display at the Museum

A Psittacosaurus fossil.

Psittacosaurus fossil on display at the Senckenberg Naturmuseum (Frankfurt).

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

As well as specimens of Diplodocus, Iguanodon, Triceratops (T. prorsus) and Euoplocephalus, look out for the wall-mounted Plateosaurus and the collection of dinosaur eggs.

An Oviraptor on Display Next to Examples of Dinosaur Nests and Eggs

An Oviraptor and dinosaur eggs exhibit.

An Oviraptor and its nest.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

With many of the information panels written in both German and English, these thoughtful displays are most illuminating.

Other Museum Highlights

The mammal gallery is most impressive, look out for the Quagga display (an extinct sub-species of plains Zebra), one of just a handful of specimens in the world.  In the marsupial area, a Thylacine can be found, standing amongst its close relatives the Tasmanian Devil and the Quoll.

The Thylacine is Included in the Marsupial Mammals Display

A Thylacine on display.

A Thylacine is included in the Australian mammals part of the gallery (Senckenberg Museum).

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Spectacular Displays of Ancient and Not So Ancient Prehistoric Elephants

Large elephants on display.

Prehistoric elephants on display at the Senckenberg Museum (Frankfurt).

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Messel Oil Shales and Marine Reptiles

For the keen fossil fan, there is a substantial display of invertebrate fossils helping to get across the concept of deep time as well as explaining biostratigraphy (check out the ammonites that help to illustrate this).  An entire side gallery has been dedicated to the remarkable fossils from the Messel Oil Shales.  We suspect this part of the museum has been recently modernised, the displays were well lit and the many different types of animal and plant fossil from the Messel pits were thoughtfully showcased and grouped by Phyla and Orders.

Part of the Messel Oil Shales Gallery

Part of the Messel gallery (Senckenberg Museum).

The atmospheric Messel gallery at the Senckenberg Museum (Frankfurt).

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The marine reptile gallery was also most impressive.  There were a large number of replica fossils on display including spectacular examples of Ichthyosaurs, Placodonts, Plesiosaurs, Turtles and Nothosaurs.  Visitors to the museum also have the opportunity to view examples of giants of the sea around today with a most informative Cetacean gallery.  It was also a pleasure to see explanation panels on the evolution of the whale family along with specimens representing Basilosaurus and Ambulocetus, the Ambulocetus tying in nicely with the Messel fossils exhibit.

 An Exhibit Explaining How the Plesiosauria “Flew” Underwater

An underwater flyer (Plesiosauria).

A display explaining how marine reptiles “flew” underwater.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

One of the Displays from the Spectacular Cetacean Gallery

Ancient whales on display.

The spectacular ancient whales gallery (Senckenberg Museum).

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

We look forward to learning more about the refurbishment programme for this museum and whilst we appreciate there will be some disruption during this work, we recommend this museum.  It is well worth a visit.

Carcharodontosaurus – A Very Popular Dinosaur

Carcharodontosaurus – An Enormous Carnivorous Dinosaur

Paleo Paul has been busy with his camera again as this week, team members at Everything Dinosaur were emailed some photographs of the latest addition to his fossil collection, a magnificent broken tooth from a very large Theropod dinosaur.  In his email, Paleo Paul explained that the tooth was from a North African, meat-eating dinosaur called Carcharodontosaurus, a dinosaur whose fossils first came to the attention of the scientific community in the early part of the 20th Century, although Carcharodontosaurus was not named and formally described until 1931.

The Large Theropod Tooth (Carcharodontosaurus)

Dinosaur fan sends picture of dinosaur tooth into Everything Dinosaur

The large, broken Theropod dinosaur tooth identified as Carcharodontosaurus.

Picture Credit: Paleo Paul

Carcharodontosaurus saharicus

Paleo Paul wrote to say that this dinosaur was named and described by the famous German palaeontologist Ernst Stromer von Reichenbach and this is a beautiful specimen.  In many of the fossil carcharodontid teeth that we have examined, the tip of the tooth is often missing and Paleo Paul is lucky to have this specimen in his fossil collection.  This is a broken tooth, the root is missing, this tooth was most probably shed when this dinosaur was alive.  The tooth may have been lost when this carnivore was either feeding or fighting.  Scientists now know that North Africa around 98 million years ago (Late Albian to Early Cenomanian faunal stages) was home to a number of large predatory dinosaurs.  Carcharodontosaurus saharicus is regarded as an apex predator, some of the teeth associated with this species are nearly twenty centimetres long!

A Close up of the Denticles (Serrations on the Teeth)

A close up of the denticles on the side of a Theropod dinosaur tooth.

A close up of the serrations on the side of the tooth.

Picture Credit: Paleo Paul

The photograph above shows a close up the tooth serrations (denticles) which are found on the carinae (sharp edges) of the tooth.  The shape, number and size of these denticles are helpful when attempting to identify which dinosaur the tooth likely came from.  Denticles can be found on both the leading edge (anterior) and the rear edge of the tooth (posterior), most Theropod teeth have two carinae therefore, in bilateral symmetry, but not always, the carinae can be offset or even split in some genera.  Being able to see clearly defined denticles such as these reflects the high degree of preservation of this particular fossil tooth.  Well done to Paleo Paul for getting a super close up photograph!

An Apex Predator

Carcharodontosaurus saharicus was very probably the top predator in its environment.  In the Everything Dinosaur database, we record C. saharicus as being potentially, up to fourteen metres long, reaching a head height of nearly six metres and weighing in excess of 6,000 kilogrammes.  It really was a formidable animal.  Carcharodontosaurus is very popular amongst dinosaur fans and Paleo Paul also sent in a couple of pictures of his CollectA Deluxe Carcharodontosaurus model

The CollectA Deluxe Carcharodontosaurus in a Dinosaur Diorama

The CollectA Carcharodontosaurus dinosaur model.

The CollectA Carcharodontosaurus provides an excellent example of what palaeontologists think this dinosaur looked like.

Picture Credit: Paleo Paul

The CollectA Carcharodontosaurus provides an excellent example of what palaeontologists think this dinosaur looked like.

To view the CollectA Deluxe range of scale prehistoric animal models: CollectA Deluxe Scale Prehistoric Animal Models

Paleo Paul likes to modify and repaint his prehistoric animal replicas, but in this instance he has decided that the CollectA Carcharodontosaurus needs no such makeover. It is just fine as it is.

The CollectA Deluxe Carcharodontosaurus on the Prowl

CollectA Carcharodontosaurus model.

CollectA Carcharodontosaurus prehistoric scene.

Picture Credit: Paleo Paul

Our thanks once again to Paleo Paul for sharing his photographs with us.

Titanosaurs Crossing Continents – Savannasaurus elliottorum

“Wade” Finally Gets a Name – Savannasaurus elliottorum

An Australian Titanosaur, nicknamed “Wade”, whose fossilised bones were discovered in 2005, has been formally described and named.  Say hello to Savannasaurus elliottorum, the scientific name may not be as catchy as its nickname, but this specimen does represent one of the most complete Titanosaurs discovered in Australia to date and its discovery is helping palaeontologists to piece together how these giant, herbivorous dinosaurs crossed continents, spreading out from South America and reaching Australia via Antarctica.

An Illustration of the Newly Described Titanosaur Savannasaurus elliottorum

Savannasaurus elliottorum

An illustration of the newly described Australian Titanosaur Savannasaurus.

Picture Credit: Travis Tischler/Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum

An Australian Giant

David Elliot, one of the co-founders of the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum, the museum established close to the town of Winton in Queensland that exhibits many of the Cretaceous fossils found in this region, spotted some fossil bones sticking out of the ground early in 2005.  Mr Elliott returned to the site later in the day with his wife Judy to take a closer look at the fossil fragments.  He hoped that the bones might represent a Theropod, but this idea was quickly put to one side when his wife “clicked” two bones together to make a distinctive metatarsal (toe bone) of a Sauropod.

The site was excavated in September 2005 by a joint Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum and Queensland Museum team and seventeen pallets of bones encased in rock were recovered.

The Location of the Savannasaurus elliottorum Fossil Find

Savannasaurus fossil site.

The quarry from which the fragmented bones later identified as Savannasaurus were excavated.

Picture Credit: Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum/Site photo circa 2005

It has taken more than ten years or preparation work for the fossilised bones to be removed from the single silt stone concretion that encased them.  Everything Dinosaur has regularly reported on Australian dinosaur fossil discoveries and kept tabs on the progress of the “Wade” preparation work.

To read an earlier article (2013), on the preparation work: An Update on Wade the Aussie Dinosaur

Why “Wade”?

The nickname for this new species of Titanosaur honours Australian palaeontologist Dr Mary J. Wade.  During her long career, Dr Wade did much to help conserve and promote the extensive, exposed fossil bearing strata of Queensland.  She worked on a number of iconic Australian dinosaurs including Muttaburrasaurus as well as helping to map and study Precambrian fossils that were later to be described as Ediacaran biota.

Although one of the more complete Australian Titanosaur fossils yet described, the material is highly fragmentary and only about five percent of the skeleton has been recovered.  The fossils consist of one neck vertebra, several cervical ribs, eight dorsal vertebrae making up a partial sequence, several rib fragments, sacral vertebrae and at least five fragmentary tail bones (caudal vertebrae).  Limb bones are represented, several toe bones, elements from the ankle, bones from the manus (front feet) as well as incomplete humeri (upper arm bones).  The research team and volunteers were also able to recover a partial left radius and a highly fragmentary ulna and parts of the hip girdle.  Although no cranial (skull) material was recovered, the team were confident, almost from the start, that these bones represented a new species.  The fossils come from a site called “Belmont Station”, ironically, nearby cranial material from another, previously described Titanosaur was found (Diamantinasaurus matildae).  In the scientific paper which describes Savannasaurus, published in the journal “Nature”, the authors, which include lead researcher Dr Stephen Poropot, (Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum), describe the braincase and neck bones of Diamantinasaurus.

The Fossil Bones of Savannasaurus elliottorum Mapped onto an Outline of the Dinosaur

Savannasaurus elliottorum skeletal material.

Savannasaurus elliottorum outline of skeleton.

Picture Credit: Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum

Plotting the Distribution of the Titanosauria

These two Titanosaurs are being used to help map the dispersal of the Titanosauria across the super-continent Gondwana as this huge landmass began to break up.  Although the fossil record remains patchy to say the least, the fossils, which have been dated to around 98-95 million years ago (Cenomanian faunal stage of the Late Cretaceous), suggest that by this time in Earth’s history Titanosaurs had dispersed from South America, migrated across Antarctica and entered the landmass that was later to become Australia.

Commenting on the significance of these fossils, Dr Stephen Poropot stated:

“We get a much better idea of the overall fauna.  And as a result, we can start piecing together how climate affected these dinosaurs, how the positions of the continent affected those dinosaurs and how they evolved through time as well.”

The Dispersal and Spread of Titanosaurs Across High Latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere

Mapping the dispersal of the Titanosauria

The spread and dispersal of Titanosaurs across southern latitudes.

Picture Credit: Ron Blakey (Colorado Plateau Geosystems Inc)

Although, palaeontologists have discussed a number of potential dispersal routes, it is likely that these types of dinosaurs had entered Australia from South America, presumably crossing Antarctica.  During the late Early Cretaceous the Earth went through a period of global warming.  Prior to this climate change, Titanosaurs, which were globally widespread in the Early Cretaceous were prevented from reaching Australia by the cold conditions in Antarctica.  Global warming facilitated the dispersal of Sauropods from South America to Australia via Antarctica.

David Elliott Co-founder of the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum Poses with the Savannasaurus elliottorum Fossil Material

David Elliott poses with the bones of Savannasaurus.

David Elliott holds one of the metatarsals (toe bones) of S. elliottorum.

Picture Credit: Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum

Etymology

The genus name is derived from the Spanish (Taino) “zavana”(savanna), a reference to the grassland and pasture in which the specimen was found.  The species name honours the Elliott family for their continuing contributions to Australian palaeontology.

Differences between Savannasaurus and Diamantinasaurus

Although Savannasaurus and Diamantinasaurus were contemporaneous of each other and these giant herbivores may have been roughly the same size, living in the same habitat, preliminary measurements indicate that the forelimbs of Savannasaurus are proportionally quite different from those of Diamantinasaurus.  This may suggest adaptation to a different feeding platform, allowing these large dinosaurs to co-exist without competing with each other for food.

Graduate Student Unlocks the Secrets of Sea Turtle Evolution

Ctenochelys acris Comes Out of its Shell

Palaeontologists have long puzzled over the origins of today’s extant species of sea turtle.  Thanks to the efforts of a post-doctoral student at the University of Alabama (Birmingham, Alabama, USA), scientists have been able to confirm the existence of a marine adapted turtle representing the oldest known member of the lineage that gave rise to modern sea turtles.  In a paper published in the academic publication “The Journal of Systematic Palaeontology”, lead author Drew Gentry, has been able to identify several 80-million-year-old fossils as Ctenochelys (tee-no-key-lees) acris, thus helping to piece together the evolutionary history of sea turtles.

Researchers from the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Biology worked with two relatively complete turtle skeletons, along with several smaller pieces, that are housed at Birmingham’s McWane Science Centre, the study confirms the existence of Ctenochelys acris, previously known only from a few isolated fragments.

A Scale Drawing of Ctenochelys acris Showing Some of the Fossils Used in the Research

Scale drawing of Ctenochelys.

A silhouette showing the proposed outline of Ctenochelys with a frogman providing scale.

Picture Credit: University of Alabama

The McWane fossils help solve a long-standing debate as to whether this animal was a unique species.  They also provide insights into the evolutionary history of living species of sea turtles, animals such as the Ridley, the Leatherback, the Green and the Loggerhead, all of which are, sadly, classified as vulnerable or endangered or critically endangered according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Alabama During the Late Cretaceous

The area of the south-western United States was covered by a shallow, tropical sea for much of the Late Cretaceous.  The fossils ascribed to C. acris have been excavated from marine strata dated to around 80 million years ago (Campanian faunal stage), a time when sea levels were much higher than today and the Western Interior Seaway covered most of the United States.  During this time sea turtle diversity was very high and lead researcher on the project Drew Gentry explained:

“Climatic warming during the mid-Cretaceous resulted in elevated sea levels and temperatures that, in turn, provided an abundance of new niches for marine turtles to invade.  Represented today by only seven living species, sea turtles were once one of the most diverse lineages of marine reptiles.  Before the cataclysm that claimed the dinosaurs, there may have been dozens of specialised species of sea turtle living in different oceanic habitats around the world.”

A Diagram Showing North America Approximately 75 million years ago

The Western Interior Seaway.

A map showing the Western Interior Seaway of North America circa 75 mya.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Not Sure of the Validity of Ctenochelys acris

Prior to the assessment of the McWane fossil specimens, palaeontologists were unsure as to the validity of Ctenochelys acris.  Not only do the newly discovered fossils prove C. acris existed, they may also be a critical piece in a much larger puzzle of sea turtle evolution.

Drew Gentry added:

“There is strong evidence which indicates freshwater turtles may have evolved to occupy marine environments at several points in the past.  But most of those lineages went extinct, making the exact origins of living or ‘true’ sea turtles somewhat of a mystery.”

The study suggests that the earliest ancestors of today’s sea turtles may have originated from waters covering the south-western United States.  By comparing the skeleton of C. acris with those of both extinct and living species of turtles, Gentry discovered that C. acris possessed traits of both sea turtles and their closest living turtle relatives, snapping turtles.

“This animal was a bottom-dwelling sea turtle that fed primarily on molluscs and small invertebrates.  Unlike the ‘rudder-like’ hind-limbs of today’s sea turtles, C. acris had large, powerful hind-limbs to help push it through the water, a lot like a modern-day snapping turtle.”

Scientists are hopeful that by learning more about the origins of sea turtles, this may lead to better protection for those species still found today.  Studying the diversity and evolutionary history of marine turtles during previous periods of climate change can provide meaningful insights into what effects climate and environmental changes might have on modern marine turtle populations.

The fossils that led to this research were discovered in 1986 and contributed to what was then the Red Mountain Museum.  The McWane Science Centre was founded in 1998 by the merger of the Red Mountain Museum and a nearby children’s museum, Discovery Place.

The palaeontological and archaeological collection at McWane is one of the largest in the south-eastern United States and houses a number of significant finds from across Alabama, including the recently announced Eotrachodon, a type of duck-billed dinosaur.

To read an article about Alabama’s very own duck-billed dinosaur: Duck-billed Dinosaurs – Sweet Home Alabama!

Everything Dinosaur acknowledges the assistance of the University of Alabama in the compilation of this article.

A Photograph of a Trilobite Fossil

A Trilobite Fossil

We were contacted by a teacher to help explain how Trilobite fossils formed, how old they were and what Trilobites actually looked like.  We were happy to email over a fact sheet all about the Trilobita and to send over some pictures of Trilobite reconstructions along with some photographs of fossils.

A Photograph of a Trilobite Fossil

A fossil of an Trilobite.

A beautiful Trilobite fossil.

We received a lovely email in return thanking us for providing such a lot of useful teaching material and for being so responsive.  The fossil above shows the headshield (cephalon) and the trunk but the tail-piece (pygidium) is missing.  We are not sure what family of Trilobita this fossil comes from.  As Trilobites shed their exoskeletons in order to grow (moulting), most Trilobite fossils are actually shed shells, rather than the corpses of dead animals.  Whatever the species, we are always keen to see pictures of Trilobites and we were happy to help out the teacher.

The Food Chains of Messel

Fossil Preserves Snake ate Lizard, Lizard ate Beetle

Scientists from the Senckenberg Museum of Natural History have published a paper on a spectacular fossil from the famous Messel oil shales that shows evidence of a food chain preserved from the Eocene.  A fossil snake contains the preserved remains of its last meal, a lizard inside its stomach, astonishingly the exquisite fossil has also preserved evidence of the unfortunate lizard’s last supper too – a beetle.  The discovery of a tripartite fossil food chain is unique for this UNESCO World Heritage site and the only other tripartite food chain known in the fossil record dates from the Early Permian*, coincidentally, it also was found in Germany.

Who’s Eating Who?  Remarkable Three Party Trophic Chain (Food Web)

The Messel Tripartite Food Chain fossil.

The snake fossil which contains a lizard fossil which contains a fossilised beetle.

Picture Credit: Dr. Krister Smith (Senckenberg Museum of Natural History)

Scientists from the Senckenberg Museum of Natural History in collaboration with colleagues from Argentina were able to study this “Russian Doll” of a fossil, that dates from around 48 million years ago and gain new information about the diets of these ancient creatures.  For example, the twenty centimetre long lizard, identified as Geiseltaliellus maarius, is only known from the Messel shales.  Specimens found to date with preserved stomach contents, only had plant remains within the body cavity, this new research indicates that G. maarius was not entirely herbivorous, insects such as beetles were also on the menu.

Commenting on the study, published in the Museum’s scientific journal, Doctor Krister Smith, one of the authors of the paper stated:

“In the year 2009, we were able to recover a plate from the pit that shows an almost fully preserved snake. As if this was not enough, we discovered a fossilised lizard inside the snake, which in turn contained a fossilised beetle in its innards!”

A Magnified View of the Snake Gut with Line Drawings Indicating the Presence of Other Fossil Specimens

Tripartite food chain in Messel fossil.

The orange represents the lizard fossil, the blue the beetle remains.

Picture Credit: Dr. Krister Smith (Senckenberg Museum of Natural History)

The picture above shows the bones of the snake outlined with the lizard shown in orange (skull to the left of the picture), the blue shape in the lizard gut indicates the fossilised remains of the lizard’s last meal- a small beetle.  Unfortunately, the scientists were not able to identify the beetle genus.  The way in which the lizard remains were overlapped by the ribs of the snake prove that the body of the little reptile was definitely inside the snake when the snake, identified as a type of early constrictor (Palaeopython fischeri), met its own demise.

There was an Old Lady who Swallowed a Fly…

This beautifully preserved fossil specimen reminds team members at Everything Dinosaur of the song “there was an old lady who swallowed a fly”.  For the scientists, the Palaeopython specimen provides a new insight into the feeding habits of these Eocene snakes.  The snake fossil measures around 89 centimetres in length, but adult Palaeopythons exceeded two metres in size and they were amongst the largest terrestrial predators known from the Messel shale biota.  Just like modern constrictors and pythons, the authors suggest that the diet of these snakes changed as the animals got bigger.  The juvenile Palaeopython represented here (specimen number SMF ME 11332), may have fed on small rodents and lizards, whilst the adult snakes may have taken larger vertebrates such as young Propalaeotherium (an ancestral horse).

Based on an assessment of the degree of preservation of the lizard’s remains when compared to digestive speeds in extant snakes, the researchers conclude that the snake died within 48 hours of consuming the lizard.  That’s a remarkable insight considering the age of the fossil itself (approximately 48 million-years-old).

The scientific paper: “Fossil Snake Preserving Three Trophic Levels and Evidence for an Ontogenetic Dietary Shift”.

Early Permian Trophic Chains

* The first direct evidence of a three-level vertebrate trophic chain was published in the “Proceedings of the Royal Society Biology” in January 2008.  The fossilised remains of a species of Xenacanthiformes freshwater shark (Triodus sessilis) contained the remains of two ancient amphibians (Archegosaurus decheni and Cheliderpeton latirostre) preserved within its gut.  The C. latirostre specimen contained the remains of a small fish, inside its digestive tract.  The small fish was identified as a juvenile Acanthodes bronni.

Xenacanthiform (T. sessilis) with Ingested Prey Items

Xenacanthiform ate amphibians which ate fish.

Three level trophic levels in Early Permian fossil.

Picture Credit: Proceedings of the Royal Society Biology

The picture above shows the siderite concretion that preserves the remains of the freshwater shark and evidence of a three-level food chain from the Early Permian of south-western Germany.  Below the fossil specimen photograph is a line drawing that highlights the material representing the shark as well as the fossils of two ingested Temnospondyl larvae.  One of the amphibian fossils contains the preserved remains of its last meal, a small fish (acanthodian).

Illustrating an Early Permian Food Chain

Fish east amphibians which ate fish.

Xenacanthiform eats amphibians which in turn consumed fish.

Picture Credit: Proceedings of the Royal Society Biology

The illustration above depicts the three level trophic food chain.  Its a question of fish eats amphibian which ate fish!

T. rex Skull Goes on Display

Burke Museum Hopes T. rex Skull Gives New Museum a “Head Start”

The partially prepared, jacketed skull of an adult Tyrannosaurus rex which wandered the plains of Montana some 66.3 million years ago has gone on public display at the Burke Museum (Seattle, Washington State).  One of only fifteen T. rex skulls known, the Hell Creek Formation specimen is described as “pristine” and is part of the fossilised remains of an individual animal, representing some 20% of the entire skeleton which was discovered on Bureau of Land Management land by two Burke Museum volunteers – Jason Love and Luke Tufts.  As a result, this Tyrannosaurus rex has been nicknamed “Tufts-Love Rex”.

Arriving at the Burke Museum (Washington State)

The T. rex skull fossil arrives at Burke Museum.

Arriving at the Burke Museum (T. rex skull specimen).

Picture Credit: Burke Museum

The Fossil Find of a Lifetime

The volunteers were exploring a sandstone ridge in northern Montana when they spotted several fragments of bone on the surface.  They followed the trail of tiny fossil bones until they came across a partly exposed vertebrae.  The size of the fossils and their honeycomb texture indicated to Jason and Luke that they had found the remains of a Theropod dinosaur.  The pair alerted their colleagues and what could be the most important excavation in the Museum’s one hundred and seventeen year history, began.

A Bone Fragment Showing the Typical Honeycomb Internal Structure (Theropod Dinosaur)

The tell-tale honeycomb structure of fossil bone indicates Theropod dinosaur.

A close up of the fossil bone shows the typical honeycomb structure indicative of a Theropod dinosaur.

Picture Credit: Jason Love/Burke Museum

Some twenty tonnes of rock has had to be removed to expose the disarticulated skeleton.  So far, teeth, ribs, vertebrae and that beautifully preserved skull have been identified.  The skull was removed in a single block, which in itself weighed more than a tonne.  A local farmer was called in to help provide the lifting gear to remove the plaster jacketed fossil.  The skull has gone on display at the Burke Museum and it is hoped that the Tyrannosaurus rex specimen will form the centrepiece of a new dinosaur exhibit when the refurbished museum fully opens in 2019.

Jacketed Ribs of the T. rex Lie Next to the Skull Block

T. rex fossils in the field being prepared for transport.

Ribs of a T. rex in their plaster jacket next to the skull block.

Picture Credit: Dave DeMar/Burke Museum

For the time being, visitors will have to content themselves with looking at the partially prepared skull fossil.  Dr. Greg Wilson (Burke Museum Adjunct Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology and University of Washington associate biology professor), helped with the first phase of the excavation and he is very excited about this meat-eating dinosaur fossil discovery.

Dr. Wilson stated:

“When we started to see those teeth with the skull, we knew we had a fantastic specimen.  Not only is it a fantastic specimen, it is incredibly rare.  Although arguably the most iconic and well-known species of dinosaur, the T. rex skull is one of only about fifteen reasonably complete ones known to exist in the world.”

Field Team Members Located the Squamosal Bone (Bone from the Back of the Skull)

The squamosal bone of a T. rex is exposed.

The back of the skull of a T. rex (squamosal bone exposed).

Picture Credit: Larry Mose/Burke Museum

An Average-Sized Skull for a Tyrannosaurus rex

Although the exact dimensions of the skull have yet to be calculated, this can wait until the rock matrix has been removed, researchers estimate that the skull measures about 1.2 metres long by about a metre wide.  The bones represent an adult animal, one that may have been around fifteen to twenty years of age and with an estimated length of more than ten metres, the fossils represent a sizeable beast.  The strata represent deposits laid down in an ancient riverbed.  The dinosaur might have drowned in the river, or more likely the corpse of the T. rex was washed downstream and buried before it could be scavenged by other predators.

Given the excellent state of preservation of the bones discovered so far, the scientists involved with the “Tufts-Love Rex” are confident that they will be able to learn much more about this particular dinosaur, perhaps even if the fossils represent a male or a female “Tyrant Lizard King”.

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