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Pictures of fossils, fossil hunting trips, fossil sites and photographs relating to fossil hunting and fossil finds.

12 04, 2017

Chinese Fossil Sites Under Threat

By | April 12th, 2017|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Main Page, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Mining Operations Damage Famous Fossil Site

An article in the South China Morning Post highlights the growing concern expressed by the scientific community over damage to a globally important fossil site in Guizhou Province (south-western China).  Phosphorous mining operations are wiping away fossil evidence of some of the earliest organisms classified as animals known to science.  The tiny micro-fossils preserved in strata exposed in Weng’an county, represent the remains of multi-cellular organisms, marine sponges that once thrived in an ancient sea some 600 million years ago.

A False Colour Image Showing One of the Sponge-Like Micro-fossils (Doushantuo Formation)

Sponge-like Ediacaran micro-fossil.

A scanning electron microscope image of the 600 million-year-old sponge-like animal fossil (false colour image).

Picture Credit: NIGPAS (Chinese Academy of Sciences)

Professor Zhu Maoyan and his colleagues at the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology have called for urgent measures to be taken to help protect the Weng’an biota.  The world-renowned fossil site, one of the few places that preserves traces of Ediacaran fauna, is threatened as hundreds of mining trucks are transporting rocks from the area every day.  Weng’an county has one of Asia’s largest phosphorus reserves.  The mining business contributes more than sixty per cent of the county government’s annual tax income.  Intensive mining in the area has led to cases of massive subsidence.

The professor, who has led a number of field teams to explore the fossiliferous sediments, that first came to the attention of palaeontologists less than twenty years ago, stated:

“Six hundred million years of life’s evolutionary history is being traded to help produce a bowl of rice.”

The demand for phosphorous to make fertiliser is increasing, unfortunately, the rocks that form the Doushantuo Formation of Guizhou Province are a rich source of this important element.  However, local officials in Weng’an county have promised action after a fossil site covering about three square kilometres was nearly destroyed and buried under huge heaps of debris caused by subsidence.

The micro-fossils preserved in the phosphorite rocks of the Doushantuo Formation, preserve the remains of 600 million-year-old, sponge-like organisms.  Professor Zhu commented that the Weng’an biota was remarkable because of the abundance of fossils and their fine state of preservation, with details shown down to a cellular level.

The professor added:

“There may not be another place like it in the whole world.”

Features of the Fossils are Similar to Extant Sponge Anatomy

Precambrian sponge-like fossils.

Views of the sponge-like fossils from south-western China.

Picture Credit: NIGPAS (Chinese Academy of Sciences)

The picture above shows various views of micro-fossils from the Weng’an county location including highly magnified views of what be a holdfast structure (c, d, e, f, g and h).

Professor Zhu stressed that both local government and the public had failed to realise that the exposures in Weng’an county are unique and very valuable to science.  It was suggested that a “core area” be chosen and then this site given protection.

To read an article featuring research by Virginia Tech College of Science and the Chinese Academy of Sciences which looks at the fossil evidence from the Doushantuo Formation: New Research Suggests Multicellular Life Started Earlier Than Previously Thought

9 04, 2017

Chicxulub Impact Event Not Responsible for Dinosaur Extinction

By | April 9th, 2017|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Mexican Tracksites Indicate Decline of Dinosaurs Prior to Impact Event

A team of scientists based in Germany and Mexico have published a paper that challenges the commonly held belief that the extraterrestrial impact event marked by the Chicxulub crater resulted in the extinction of the dinosaurs and their flying cousins the pterosaurs.  In addition, studies of marine sediments indicate that at least one species of ammonite Sphenodiscus pleurisepta may have survived into the Palaeogene.

Chicxulub Extraterrestrial Impact Not the Cause of Global Mass Extinctions

Chicxulub impact event.

Did the extraterrestrial impact event wipe out the dinosaurs and pterosaurs?

Exploring the Fossil Assemblage of the Cretaceous/Palaeogene Boundary

Writing in the journal of the “Geological Society of America Bulletin”, the researchers which include lead author Professor Wolfgang Stinnesbeck of Heidelberg University, Professor Eberhard Frey (State Museum of Natural History, Karlsruhe) and scientists from the Museo del Desierto, Coahuila, (Mexico), postulate that the dinosaurs and the flying reptiles were in long-term decline before the Chicxulub impact and the global mass extinction that marked the end of the Mesozoic.  The scientists also postulate that Aves (birds), had spread and diversified at the same time as the Dinosauria was in decline.  Furthermore, based on fossil evidence, the team contend that at least one type of ammonite, Sphenodiscus pleurisepta persisted into the Cenozoic.

These conclusions were drawn from a comprehensive study of upper Cretaceous sedimentary sandstone rocks, laid down at the very end of the “Age of Dinosaurs”.  The tracks and body fossils found at two localities in the Mexican state of Coahuila, depict life on the shore and the surrounding waters of a shrinking inland sea.  Both sites represent sandstones within the Las Encinas Formation of north-eastern Mexico.

Remote Fossil Site in North-eastern Mexico (Las Encinas Formation)

Fossil site in north-eastern Mexico

One of the remote and isolated sites where the fossils were found.

Picture Credit: Professor Stinnesbeck/Heidelberg University

The trackway assemblages at Amargos and Rancho San Francisco respectively, were produced by at least six different types of birds, while trackways of azhdarchoid pterosaurs are rare.  Only a single footprint made by a dinosaur (Theropod) was recorded.

Professor Stinnesbeck commented:

“Dinosaur tracks, however, are rare.  Only a single footprint comes from a predatory dinosaur.”

Lack of Pterosaur Fossil Evidence

The scarcity of Pterosaur fossils was also noted.  The scientists state that azhdarchoid pterosaur fossils are rare.  Azhdarchids include some of the most famous and largest pterosaurs of all – Quetzalcoatlus Hatzegopteryx and Arambourgiania.  Most of the Pterosauria had become extinct by the Maastrichtian faunal stage of the Late Cretaceous.  From their heyday in the Early Cretaceous when at least ten pterosaur families existed, by the very end of the Cretaceous only two families of pterosaur are known in the fossil record.

Pterosaur Fossils Such as These Tracks are Very Rare

Pterosaur fossil tracks.

Pterosaur fossil tracks (north-eastern Mexico).

Picture Credit: Professor Stinnesbeck/Heidelberg University

The photograph above shows prints of Azhdharchidea pterosaurs in a sandstone of the Upper Cretaceous, location – Rancho San Francisco near Paredon, north-eastern Mexico.

Research into the two locations Amargos and Rancho San Francisco, indicate a gradual decline of the dinosaurs with a simultaneous increase in the diversity of birds even before the end of the Cretaceous.

Professor Stinnesbeck added:

“Until now, it was generally assumed that the dinosaurs died out first and bird species diversified afterwards.  Our data, however, substantiate the theory that birds ascended before dinosaurs became extinct.”

The team postulate that the extraterrestrial impact event was not the cause of the dinosaur and pterosaur extinction, these reptiles were already on their way out, long before that event took place.  This idea of only a few dinosaur species persisting until the very end of the Mesozoic has been proposed before.  A count of dinosaur fossils found in the famous Hell Creek Formation of Montana supported the theory that the Dinosauria were already in decline by the end of the Cretaceous, the fossil assemblage in the very youngest rocks was dominated by just a handful of species.

Ammonites Survived into the Cenozoic

In the scientific paper, the researchers comment that the ammonites were not wiped out by the asteroid/comet/meteor strike.  Professor Stinnesbeck and his colleagues suggest that the species Sphenodiscus pleurisepta, a type of ammonite known from the United States and Mexico, survived, albeit in a declining state into the Palaeogene.

The geology professor stated:

“The effects of the Chicxulub impact were therefore not the cause of a global mass extinction, which probably came about considerably less catastrophically than previously assumed.”

The power of the extraterrestrial impact is evidenced by the abundance of crystalline clay minerals that are rounded in shape (smectite spherules), within a two-and-a-half metre-thick layer of strata.

The Last Ammonite (Sphenodiscus pleurisepta)?

Sphenodiscus pleurisepta fossil ammonite.

Sphenodiscus pleurisepta ammonite fossil.

Picture Credit: Conrad

The picture above shows a typical fossil of S. pleurisepta (picture of the holotype fossil), scale bar equals 1 cm.

The fifty million year decline of the Dinosauria: Bayesian Analysis Sheds New Light on Dinosaur Decline

To read about other ammonites that may have persisted into the Cenozoic: Unravelling an Ammonite Mystery

10 03, 2017

Late Jurassic Crocodile Eggs and Meat-Eating Dinosaurs

By | March 10th, 2017|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Palaeontological articles, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Crocodylomorph Ootaxa and the Theropod Connection

A number of media outlets have reported upon a paper published in the on line journal PLOS One which describes two new ootaxa (the name given to a species described just from egg fossils), of crocodilians from the Upper Jurassic rocks of western Portugal.  The focus on many of these reports has been on the age of the fossilised crocodile eggs.  Having been laid more than 150 million years ago, they are the oldest crocodilian eggs described to date.  However, the research paper itself, hints at a remarkable potential relationship between these ancient reptiles and their close cousins, Theropod dinosaurs.

A Clutch of Unhatched Late Jurassic Crocodylomorph Eggs (Lourinhã Formation)

Suchoolithus portucalensis fossil eggs.

The unhatched crocodylomorph eggs (Cambelas) ascribed to Suchoolithus portucalensis.

The Famous Lourinhã Formation

The first crocodylomorph eggs were found in 1987 and over the years a number of egg and egg shell fragment discoveries have been made.  The eggs are very similar to the eggs of extant crocodiles but the scientists have been able to identity distinctions between the fossil specimens (not least the size).  This has led to the erection of two new ootaxa.  The eggs of the smaller of the two crocodylomorphs – Suchoolithus portucalensis are shown in the photograph above.  The eggs are quite small and the researchers estimate that the adult female that laid these eggs would have been around seventy centimetres in length.  The second ootaxa to be named – Krokolithes dinophilus, which is known from a number of fossil specimens collected from four locations, is represented by larger but broken eggs and shell fragments.  The research team estimate that the female croc that laid these eggs would have been around the size of a female American Alligator (A. mississippiensis), probably more than two metres long.

Location of the Egg Fossil Finds Referred to in the New Study

Map showing the location of the fossil finds.

A map showing the location of the crocodylomorph egg fossil sites.

Picture Credit: PLOS One with additional annotation from Everything Dinosaur

Key

The picture above shows the five fossil locations that are covered in the scientific paper as well as indicating the position of the Lourinhã Formation in relation to the rest of Portugal.  A total of thirteen fossilised eggs collected at the Cambelas site have been ascribed to the ootaxa Suchoolithus portucalensis (the name translates from Latin as “egg stone crocodile from Portugal”), the fossils represent a clutch of unhatched eggs.  Eggs laid by a much larger crocodylomorph are associated with the other four locations, namely North and South Paimogo, Casal da Rola and Peralta.  These fossils comprise broken eggs and numerous shell fragments, they have been ascribed to the ootaxa Krokolithes dinophilus (which is from the Greek and means “crocodile eggs found in association with dinosaurs”).

Holotype of Krokolithes dinophilus (Specimen Number ML760 from Paimogo N, Praia da Amoreira-Porto Novo Member, Lourinhã Formation)

Krokolithes dinophilus fossil material.

Holotype of the oospecies Krokolithes dinophilus.

Found in Association with Theropod Dinosaur Nests

All the egg fossils (except for the Cambelas site fossils), were found in association with Theropod dinosaur nests and eggs.  So in essence, the palaeontologists, which included João Russo and Octávio Mateus (Museu da Lourinhã, Portugal), have identified four occurrences where the fossils of the large crocodylomorph K. dinophilus are found in the same place as the eggs and nests of large, meat-eating dinosaurs.  This could suggest some sort of biological relationship between the crocodiles and the Theropods.  This is certainly an intriguing thought and there are no parallels that can be drawn between this idea and the behaviour of modern crocodiles.  Extant crocodilians tend to lay eggs in relatively secluded places and a parent (usually the female), will stand guard helping to protect the nest and the subsequent hatchlings from predators.

It can be speculated that these prehistoric crocodiles preferred to nest in close proximity to large meat-eating dinosaurs as perhaps the presence of two different types of large predator helped to protect all the nests from potential danger.  With so many threats to eggs and recently hatched animals around in the Late Jurassic, it could be suggested that there was a degree of mutual benefit between various species – a symbiotic relationship with both the Theropods and the crocodilians gaining an advantage.

Some of the K. dinophilus egg fossils come from sites associated with the nests of Lourinhanosaurus (Lourinhanosaurus antunesi), a formidable Late Jurassic hunter, which may have reached lengths of eight metres or more.  The beautifully preserved Theropod embryos were the inspiration behind the limited edition “Baby Bonnie” 1:1 scale replicas created by Rebor.

The Rebor “Baby Bonnie” Scale Model of a Lourinhanosaurus antunesi Embryo

"Bony Bonnie" from Rebor.

The Rebor Club Selection Lourinhanosaurus replica.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Other Krokolithes dinophilus fossils have been found in proximity to the nests and eggs of the ootaxon Preprismatoolithus coloradensis (which could represent the eggs of a large Allosaurus).  We expect palaeoartists to have a field day illustrating nesting site scenes featuring a mix of large predators together.

The Theory has Drawbacks

The absence of any modern parallels and the incomplete fossil record provides considerable drawbacks when it comes to the plausibility of crocodiles nesting alongside meat-eating dinosaurs.  Some of the fossil eggs shell fragments from the Paimogo locations might have been transported and deposited close to the Theropod nests, therefore their placement in the strata is not necessarily their original nesting context.  We at Everything Dinosaur have proposed that it is possible that crocodiles and Theropod dinosaurs preferred to use the same nesting locations, but they may not have bred at the same time.  After all, using an already dug out nest, one that had been used recently by a large, carnivorous dinosaur might prove advantageous for a wily crocodile.

The scientists conclude that this potential egg-laying symbiosis is a mystery and that going forward, further findings and studies are needed to ascertain if there was indeed some kind of reproductive relationship between crocodylomorphs and Theropods in the Late Jurassic of Portugal.

Views of the Lourinhã Formation

Views of the Lourinha Formation.

(A), location of Paimogo, Northern Lourinhã Formation, Praia da Amoreira-Porto Novo and Praia Azul Members. (B), location of Cambelas, Southern Lourinhã Formation, Assenta Member.

Picture Credit: PLOS One

24 02, 2017

Penguins Lived Alongside Dinosaurs (Probably)

By | February 24th, 2017|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Main Page, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Giant Prehistoric Penguin 1.5 metres Tall

Ancient leg bones, found in Palaeocene-aged deposits located on the shoreline of Pegasus Bay near the city of Christchurch (New Zealand), has led scientists to propose that dinosaurs would have been familiar with penguins.  In addition, the leg bone fossils indicate that after the dinosaurs died out, some penguins became super-sized, standing around 1.5 metres tall.  The avian fossil material was excavated from sediments along the Waipara River, close to where this river meets the sea (Pegasus Bay).  It has been estimated that this giant, primitive penguin lived in a coastal environment some 61 million years ago.

Researchers from the Senckenberg Society for Natural Research (Frankfurt, Germany), have concluded that the penguin lineage is much older than previously thought, suggesting that these marine birds very probably evolved during the Late Cretaceous and the first kinds of penguins would have been very familiar to dinosaurs that wandered the remnants of the southern continent Gondwana.

A Super-sized Palaeocene Penguin

Penguin fossil comparison.

New specimen (left) compared to W. manneringi and an extant Emperor Penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri) on the right.

Picture Credit: Senckenberg Society for Natural Research

The picture above compares the fossil leg bones of the newly discovered penguin species, with that of another, smaller Palaeocene penguin found in the same area Waimanu manneringi, which was formally described in 2006.  The bones on the right are from the largest living species of penguin, the Emperor penguin (A. forsteri).   This fossil supports the theory that the ancestors of modern Aves rapidly diversified after the end Cretaceous extinction event occupying a number of niches that had previously been occupied by other types of bird and Theropod dinosaurs.

An Illustration of Waimanu manneringi

Waddling with dinosaurs.

Penguins probably waddled next to dinosaurs.

Picture Credit: Senckenberg Society for Natural Research

Although, Waimanu manneringi was a contemporary of the giant penguin, it had a different body plan, resembling a cormorant.  The two types of penguin were very different, this suggests that basal penguins probably evolved prior to the end of the Cretaceous.

Co-author of the scientific paper, Dr Paul Scofield (Canterbury Museum, New Zealand), explained:

“We believed up until this specimen was discovered that there was very little variation amongst these Palaeocene penguins.  We are now starting to understand that shortly after the extinction of the dinosaurs there were in fact two quite different groups of penguin.”

No Scientific Name as Yet

The lack of autapomorphies (distinctive features) and the fragmentary nature of the fossils has deterred the researchers from seeking to name their new prehistoric bird.

A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur stated:

“The fossils probably represent a new species, however, with so few fossils to go on and with a lack of distinctive characteristics in the bones, it is not possible to erect a new species at the moment.  Should more fossil material be found, especially skull material, then a new prehistoric bird species could come about.”

The Prehistoric Penguin Compared in Size with a Modern Human

New Zealand giant penguin size comparison.

South Island giant penguin compared to modern human.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The orientation of the leg bones suggests that, just like modern penguins, this ancient feathered friend probably waddled, walking in the same manner as its extant, smaller cousins.  The fossil discovery is highly significant as it will likely be used as an “anchor point” to determine how the penguin family evolved.  It is also very likely that other penguin species existed during the Palaeocene Epoch in this part of the world, but their fossilised remains have not yet been discovered.

The scientists are optimistic that the fossil site, just twenty miles north of the city of Christchurch, will yield further evidence of ancient sea birds.  Although, around twenty-five percent bigger than the largest penguin species around today (Emperor penguin), these fossils do not represent the largest penguin known to science.

To read more about one of the largest known penguin species: Picking up a Giant Prehistoric Penguin

Penguins were not the only creatures around today, that would have been familiar to the dinosaurs.  Everything Dinosaur wrote an article after research had been published back in 2008 that suggested the bizarre duck-billed platypus co-existed with duck-billed dinosaurs.

To read the article: Duck-billed Platypus and the Duck-billed Dinosaurs

13 02, 2017

Spiny, Armoured Slug Provides Best Evidence for the Ancestry of Molluscs

By | February 13th, 2017|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Main Page, Palaeontological articles, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Spiny but Slimy and with a Radula – Calvapilosa kroegeri

Scientists from the University of Bristol have uncovered a 480-million-year-old slug-like fossil in Morocco which sheds new light on the evolution of molluscs, a diverse group of invertebrates that includes clams, snails and cephalopods like squid and cuttlefish.

A Model of the Newly Described Calvapilosa kroegeri

Viewed from the top (left) and the bottom (right) - Calvapilosa kroegeri.

Calvapilosa kroegeri dorsal and ventral views.

Picture Credit: Dr Jakob Vinther

One of the defining characteristics of the molluscs is the possession of a radula, a kind of toothed-tongue which is used to rake up or rasp food.  The radula houses hundreds of teeth, the patterns of which can be used to determine diet and identify species.  Whilst not all molluscs have a radula, a radula cannot be found in any other group of animals.  It is a characteristic of the Mollusca Phylum.

Dr Jakob Vinther, from the Schools of Biological Sciences and Earth Sciences, is lead author of the study, which is published today in the academic journal Nature.

Dr Vinther stated:

“The molluscs are amongst the earliest animals identifiable in the fossil record, however determining what their ancestor looked like is difficult since many of the groups appear within a small window of time, making the sequence of evolutionary events difficult to piece together.”

The recent discovery of a new species of mollusc in the Anti-Atlas region in Morocco has enabled palaeontologists to revisit this problem and infer the appearance of the ancestor of all molluscs.  The new species discovered, Calvapilosa kroegeri, is part of the Fezouata Biota, a group of organisms from the early Ordovician period (485-470 million years ago), which are found in rocks in south-eastern Morocco.  The Fezouata Biota is famed for its exceptional preservation, allowing palaeontologists to identify details not preserved from any other fossil site.

Co-author of the scientific paper, Luke Parry, a PhD student at the University of Bristol, added:

“Calvapilosa kroegeri resembles a slug covered with short spines all over its upper body and with a large ‘fingernail-like shell’ over its head.  In the centre of the head of this species are two rows of teeth which we demonstrate is a radula.”

The discovery of this feeding structure firmly identifies Calvapilosa kroegeri as a mollusc.  Additionally, it suggests that similar fossil forms, such as Halkieria, a two-plated slug-like fossil, are also molluscs and possessed a radula.  Following an analysis to determine the family tree of molluscs, Calvapilosa kroegeri was revealed to be the most primitive member of the lineage leading to chitons.  Chitons can still be found today and are characterised by their possession of eight shell plates and spines around their margin, similar to what is seen covering the body of Calvapilosa.

Looking Like a Hairy Fingernail Calvapilosa kroegeri Fossil

Calvapilosa looks like a "hairy fingernail".

The fossil of Calvapilosa kroegeri, preserving the feeding apparatus (radula) and all the spines that covered the body.

Picture Credit: Peter Van Roy

Dr Vinther concluded:

“If we trace back the evolution of chitons, we can see that the number of their shells has increased with time.  It is therefore likely that the ancestor to all molluscs was single-shelled and covered in bristle-like spines, not dissimilar to Calvapilosa kroegeri.”

The Scientific Paper: “Ancestral Morphology of Crown-group Molluscs Revealed by a New Ordovician Stem Aculiferan” by J. Vinther, L. Parry, D. Briggs and P. Van Roy, published in Nature.

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

6 02, 2017

Fossil Hunting at Nuremberg Airport

By | February 6th, 2017|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Educational Activities, Geology, Main Page, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Fossil Hunting at the Airport

Waiting at an airport can be quite boring.  Once check in and the security searches have been completed, then there is not much more to do prior to boarding your flight.  However, for Everything Dinosaur team members returning from Germany, one airport provided them with the opportunity to go on an unexpected fossil hunt.  The polished limestone floors at Nuremberg Airport (southern Germany), are full of Jurassic marine invertebrate fossils.

A Fossil Spotted at the Airport (Nuremberg Airport)

The stone floors at Nuremberg airport are full of fossils.

A cephalopod fossil (ammonite) on the airport stone floor.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The Jurassic of Germany

In southern Germany, particularly the state of Bavaria, in the region from Nuremberg in the north to Munich in the south, there are many limestone exposures and limestone quarries to be found.  Formed from carbonate rich muds that once existed at the bottom of salty lagoons and shallow coastal margins, the rocks are famous for their fine-grained structure and flat cleaving.  These properties help to make this limestone ideal building material and the stone in this part of Germany (known as Plattenkalk), has been quarried for thousands of years.

Most of the limestone represents sediments laid down in the Middle and Late Jurassic and large areas are highly fossiliferous.  Travellers at Nuremberg Airport were quite surprised to see members of Everything Dinosaur on their hands and knees, examining and photographing various floor tiles.

Jurassic Invertebrate Fossils in Abundance at Nuremberg Airport

Jurassic fossils at Nuremberg Airport.

An ammonite fossil with the cross section of a belemnite guard.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

In the picture above, the cross section of a belemnite guard can be clearly seen on one tile, abutted up against it is another tile that shows the cross-sectional outline of an ammonite.  There are also numerous bivalve and brachiopod fossils preserved in the stone floor.  Thousands of people visit Nuremberg Airport every week, but we wonder how many of them actually notice what they are walking on!

 Ten years ago, Everything Dinosaur blogged about an innovative fossil hunting tour that could be undertaken by travellers at John Lennon Airport (Liverpool).  The ancient remains of long extinct sea creatures can be seen in the stone of the walls and floors of the concourse.  John Lennon Airport introduced the “JLA Fossil Mystery Tour” in collaboration with the Liverpool Geological Society.

To read more about the John Lennon Airport Fossil Hunting Tour: Why Not go on a Fossil Hunt Whilst Waiting at the Airport?

Perhaps the Nuremberg Airport authorities have missed a trick, with such a wonderful stone floor, travellers could be encouraged to have a go at finding fossils for themselves.  There are certainly many hundreds of fossils to see, perhaps if a tour could not be organised, then it might be a good idea to put up some information boards and displays.  You never know, it might encourage more tourists to visit the museums in the area such as the Naturhistorisches Museum of Nuremberg.

Ancient Traces Preserved in the Limestone Floor

Two fossils in the airport.

Fossils at Nuremberg airport.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The picture above shows two more ammonite fossils, although it is difficult to identify genera, the larger specimen (bottom left), still shows its fine, straight ribs that would have adorned the outside of the shell.  The smaller ammonite cross section (right), shows some preservation of internal structure, could those be suture lines we are seeing?

What an Ammonite Actually Looked Like

A model of an Ammonite.

A great ammonite model for use in schools, museums and for model collectors.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The picture above shows the excellent Wild Safari Prehistoric World ammonite model.  If you look carefully at the stone floors at Nuremberg Airport you can spot the preserved remains of Jurassic ammonites and other extinct marine creatures.

To view the range of prehistoric animal models including the Wild Safari Prehistoric World ammonite available from Everything Dinosaur: Wild Safari Prehistoric World Models

27 01, 2017

The Oldest, Most Complete Iguanian of the Americas

By | January 27th, 2017|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Magnuviator ovimonsensis from Egg Mountain

Palaeontologists picking through a bounty of fossils from Montana have discovered something very unexpected, a new species of lizard from that lived near to the end of the Age of Dinosaurs, whose closest relatives roamed in faraway Asia.

This ancient lizard, which lived 75 million-years-ago in a dinosaur nesting ground, is described in a paper published this week in the academic journal “The Proceedings of the Royal Society B”.  Named Magnuviator ovimonsensis, the new species fills in significant gaps in our understanding of how lizards evolved and spread during the Mesozoic, according to palaeontologists at the University of Washington and the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture who led the research.

Postdoctoral research associate, David DeMar, lead author of the paper stated:

“It is incredibly rare to find one complete fossil skeleton from a relatively small creature like this lizard.  But, in fact, we had two specimens, both from the same site at Egg Mountain in Montana.”

Magnuviator is reshaping how scientists view lizards, their biodiversity and their role in complex ecosystems during the Cretaceous some seventy-five million-years-ago.

An Illustration of Magnuviator ovimonsensis

Magnuviator ovimonsensis illustrated.

An illustrated life reconstruction of Magnuviator ovimonsensis at the Egg Mountain site.

Picture Credit: Misaki Ouchida

The picture above shows a pair of Magnuviator lizards at the Egg Mountain fossil site.   One Magnuviator eats a wasp, on the ground is a tooth from the bird-like, Theropod dinosaur Troodon.  The arid-adapted plant is based on fossil pollen found near Egg Mountain.

An Ancient Lineage of Iguanian Lizards

Based on analyses of the nearly complete fossil skeletons, Magnuviator was an ancient offshoot of iguanian lizards.  The fossils are the oldest, most complete iguanian fossils from the Americas.  Today, iguanians include chameleons of the Old World, iguanas and anoles in the American tropics.  Based on its anatomy, Magnuviator was at best a distant relative of these modern lizard families, most of which did not arise until after the non-avian dinosaurs and quite a few lizards and other creatures became extinct some sixty-six million years ago.

The Holotype Fossil Material (M. ovimonsensis)

Magnuviator holotype fossil and line drawing.

Holotype fossil (A) with interpretative line drawing (B).

Picture Credit: David DeMar and Morgan Turner

The researchers came to these conclusions after a meticulous study of both Egg Mountain specimens over a period of four years.  This included a round of CT scans at Seattle Children’s Hospital to narrow down the fossil’s location within a larger section of rock and a second round at the American Museum of Natural History to digitally reconstruct the skull anatomy.  The fact that both skeletons were nearly complete allowed the team to determine not only that Magnuviator represented an entirely new species, but also that its closest kin weren’t other fossil lizards from the Americas.  Instead, it showed striking similarities to other Cretaceous Period iguanians from Mongolia.

The Second Magnuviator Fossil Specimen

Second Magnuviator ovimonsensis specimen.

The second Magnuviator ovimonsensis fossil specimen.

Picture Credit: Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture

DeMar commented:

“These ancient lineages are not the iguanian lizards which dominate parts of the Americas today, such as anoles and horned lizards.  So, discoveries like Magnuviator give us a rare glimpse into the types of ‘stem’ lizards that were present before the extinction of the dinosaurs.”

A Resident of Egg Mountain

But Magnuviator’s surprises don’t end with the Mongolian connection.  The site of its discovery is also astonishing.  Egg Mountain is already famous among fossil hunters.  Over thirty years ago, palaeontologists discovered the first fossil remains of dinosaur babies there, and it is also one of the first sites in North America where dinosaur eggs were discovered.

Senior author Greg Wilson (University of Washington, associate professor of biology), stated:

“We now recognise Egg Mountain as a unique site for understanding Cretaceous Period ecosystems in North America.  We believe both carnivorous and herbivorous dinosaurs came to this site repeatedly to nest, and in the process of excavating this site we are learning more and more about other creatures who lived and died there.”

The team even named their new find as homage to its famous home and its close lizard relatives in Asia.  Magnuviator ovimonsensis means “mighty traveller from Egg Mountain.”

A View of the Famous Fossil Location in Montana – Egg Mountain

The famous Egg Mountain fossil site.

A distant view of Egg Mountain and the basin in which it lies.

Picture Credit: David Varricchio

A distant view of Egg Mountain and the basin in which it lies.  Egg Mountain is in the centre-left of this image, within the basin.  Clearly visible at its top are black rectangular shapes, which are tarps erected near the excavation site

The Spectacular Egg Mountain Fossil Site

Through excavations at Egg Mountain led by co-author David Varricchio at Montana State University and meticulous analysis of fossils at partner institutions like the University Washington and the Burke Museum, scientists are piecing together the Egg Mountain ecosystem of around seventy-five million-years-ago.   In those days, Egg Mountain was a semi-arid environment, with little or no water at the surface. Dinosaurs like the duck-billed Hadrosaurs such as Maiasaura and the bird-like, carnivorous Troodon nested there.

To read about a study mapping the lives of a population of Maiasaura: Mapping the Lives of a Population of Plant-eating Dinosaurs

The Egg Mountain Ecosystem

Researchers have also unearthed fossilised mammals at Egg Mountain, which are being studied by Wilson’s group, as well as wasp pupae cases and pollen grains from plants adapted for dry environments.  Based on the structure of Magnuviator’s teeth, as well as the eating habits of some lizards today, the researchers believe that it could have feasted on wasps at the Egg Mountain site.  Though based on its relatively large size for a lizard, in excess of thirty centimetres long, Magnuviator could have also eaten something entirely different.  It might have been a herbivore.

Whatever its diet, Magnuviator and its relatives in Mongolia did not make it into the modern era.  DeMar and co-authors hypothesise that these stem lineages of lizards may have gone extinct along with the non-avian dinosaurs.  But given the spotty record for lizards in the fossil record, it will take more Magnuviator-level discoveries to resolve this debate, and, unfortunately, part of the excitement surrounding Magnuviator is that it is a very rare find.

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

24 01, 2017

Super-sized Otter as Big as a Wolf

By | January 24th, 2017|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Ancient Otter Species Amongst Largest Known to Science

South-western China some 6.25 million years ago (Late Miocene Epoch), was home to a giant river otter that grew to the size of a Grey Wolf.  That is the conclusion of a team of researchers which includes Dr Denise Su (curator and head of palaeobotany and palaeoecology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History).  The new species, named Siamogale melilutra would have weighed around fifty kilogrammes, making it one of the largest otter species known to science.  The largest extant otter species is the South American Giant Otter (Pteronura brasiliensis), it can reach a similar size, but it is much more lightly built, weighing around two-thirds as much as the Late Miocene species.

An Illustration of the Giant River Otter Siamogale melilutra

Siamogale illustration.

Yunnan Province (south-western China), in the Late Miocene was home to a giant otter (S. melilutra).

Picture Credit: Mauricio Antón

Mustelidae Fossil Record

Otters are members of the Mustelidae family (weasels and their kin).  These agile, aquatic predators are grouped into a sub-family, the Lutrinae and there are around a dozen or so species alive today.  The fossil record for the Mustelidae (weasels, ferrets, stoats, polecats, minks, martens, badgers, honey-badgers, wolverines and otters), is relatively poor.  Siamogale melilutra belongs to an ancient lineage of extinct otters that was previously known only from isolated teeth from a different, much older species that was recovered in Thailand (Siamogale thailandica from the middle Miocene basin of Mae Moh in northern Thailand).

What’s so special about this new discovery is that researchers were able to recover a complete cranium, mandible, teeth and various post-cranial skeletal elements, providing a wealth of insight into the taxonomy, evolutionary history and functional morphology of this new species.

Dr Su, co-author of the paper published in “The Journal of Systematic Palaeontology”, explained:

“While the cranium is incredibly complete, it was flattened during the fossilisation process.  The bones were so delicate that we could not physically restore the cranium.  Instead, we CT-scanned the specimen and virtually reconstructed it in a computer.”

The Holotype Fossil Material of S. melilutra Cranium in Right Lateral and Dorsal Views with the Digital Reconstruction

Fossil reconstruction and digital images (Siamogale).

Siamogale fossil reconstruction (digital images).

Picture Credit: The Journal of Systematic Palaeontology

The scale bar in the above image is 30 millimetres.  The fossil skull is shown on the left (right lateral view top and dorsal view bottom), with the digital reconstruction of the fossil generated from the CT-scans.

The Phylogeny of Mustelidae

Where the otters sit on the Mustelidae family tree has long been debated.  Since most of the Mustelidae fossil record is very poor, palaeontologists have struggled to assess taxonomic relationships.  The digital reconstruction of the crushed and flattened skull revealed that Siamogale melilutra had a combination of otter-like and badger-like characteristics, hence the species name “melilutra” which is derived from the Latin for otters (lutra) and the Latin for badgers (meles).

Siamogale melilutra had a large, powerful jaw with the enlarged, bunodont (rounded-cusped) teeth typical of many otter lineages.   It has been suggested that this giant otter specialised in eating freshwater mussels and clams, using its strong jaws to crack open the shells.

The discovery of this fossil material raises the question of whether these bunodont teeth were inherited by all otters from a common ancestor, or evolved independently in different otter lineages over time because of the evolution of similar adaptations to thrive in similar environments, an example of convergent evolution.   Dr Su and her co-workers which included Dr Xiaoming Wang (Dept. of Palaeontology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County), through their analysis, found that bunodont teeth independently appeared at least three times over the evolutionary history of otters, suggesting convergent evolution to be the cause.

A Skull Size Comparison Between S. melilutra and P. brasiliensis and Lutra lutra

Otter skull comparisons.

Siamogale skull size comparison with South American giant river otter (middle) and European otter (right).

Picture Credit: The Journal of Systematic Palaeontology

Further Questions

The completeness of Yunnan province specimen allows researchers to better understand the evolutionary history of otters, however, lots of questions about this super-sized river otter remain.

Dr Su summed up the questions that the researchers would like to answer:

“Why did this species grow so large?  How did its size affect its movement on land and in water? And most importantly, what types of advantages did its size give?”

Although, much larger than modern-day otters, Siamogale melilutra is not the largest otter known from the fossil record.  Fossils of a much bigger “bear-otter” have been recovered from the Hadar Formation of Ethiopia.  The enormous Enhydriodon dikikae, would have been familiar to our hominin ancestors and it is estimated to have reached a total length in excess of two metres and weighed perhaps as much as 180 kilogrammes.

Otter Size Comparisons (Extinct versus Extant)

Otter Size Comparisons

Otter size comparisons (extinct species compared to living species).

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The grey silhouettes represent living species, whilst the black silhouettes represent extinct species, two of the largest species of otter known from the fossil record.

Everything Dinosaur acknowledges the help of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in the compilation of this article.

The scientific paper: “A New Otter of Giant Size Siamogale melilutra sp. nov. (Lutrinae: Mustelidae: Carnivora), from the latest Miocene Shiutangba site in north-eastern Yunnan, south-western China, and a total-evidence of phylogeny of Lutrines.” published in “The Journal of Systematic Palaeontology”.

11 01, 2017

Hyoliths Find a Home

By | January 11th, 2017|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Main Page, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Ancient, Long Extinct Animal Finds Place on Tree of Life

A bizarre shelled marine creature’s place in the Animal Kingdom has finally been resolved thanks to the efforts of a remarkable student at the University of Toronto.  Undergraduate student Joseph Moysiuk has identified Hyoliths, not as members of the Mollusca, which many palaeontologists had previously believed, but as lophophores and as such, they are closely related to brachiopods.

An Illustration of the Hyolith Haplophrentis

The Hyolith Haplophrentis.

An illustration of the Hyolith Haplophrentis.

Picture Credit: Royal Ontario Museum/Danielle Dufault

In the Hyolith illustration above, a tiny brachiopod can be seen attached to the nearest appendage of Haplophrentis.

The distinctive appearance and structure of the Hyolith skeleton has obstructed previous attempts to classify these animals.  All Hyoliths had an elongated, bilaterally symmetrical cone-shaped shell and a smaller cap-like shell that covered the opening of the conical shell (known as an operculum).  Some species also bore a pair of rigid, curved spines (helens) that protruded from between the conical shell and operculum (the shell cap), structures with no equivalents in any other group of animals.

Extensive Fossil Record

The mineralised external skeletons (argonite) and their sessile/semi-sessile habit (living on the seabed), gives these animals, which range in size from 1 cm to around 5 cm in length, a good fossil preservation potential.  The earliest fossil evidence for this type of creature occurs in rocks dating from around 540 million years ago (Cambrian).  These filter feeders seem to have persisted throughout the Palaeozoic and the Hyolith fossil record is relatively abundant and geographically widespread.  The Hyolitha were very diverse during the Cambrian and the subsequent Ordovician geological period, before their fossil record and their presence as an important member of marine benthos communities (animals and plants living on the sea floor) declines.  Hyoliths are one of many types of marine invertebrate that failed to survive into the Mesozoic.

The Cambrian Hyolith Haplophrentis

Burgess Shale Hyolith fossil.

Soft tissue of a Cambrian Hyolith (Haplophrentis) has been preserved.

Picture Credit:  Royal Ontario Museum

In the picture of a Hyolith fossil above, (genus Haplophrentis – H. carinatus), the conical shape of the shell can be clearly made out and the partially extended lophophore (feeding organ) can be seen.  The lophophore consisting of numerous, blackened, thin, finger-like extensions is highlighted against the operculum.  The curved spines are the helens.

Writing in the academic journal “Nature”, student Joseph Moysiuk and his fellow authors, Durham University’s Martin Smith and Burgess Shale fossil expert Jean-Bernard Caron, studied over 1,500 fossil specimens from the mid-Cambrian strata that represent elements of the Burgess Shale (British Columbia) and the Spence Shale Formations (Idaho and Utah).  The Hyolith material (Haplophrentis) and its exceptional state of preservation permitted the team to assess the soft tissue structures and from this information the team were able to deduce their taxonomic affinities.

Dr Caron explained:

“Burgess Shale fossils are exceptional because they show preservation of soft tissues which are not usually preserved in normal conditions.”

Not Closely Related to Snails, Cephalopods and Other Molluscs

The analysis showed that Hyoliths are not closely related to snails, squid or other members of the Mollusca.  They are instead, more closely related to the Brachiopoda, a group of animals with a rich fossil record but with few extant representatives.  Brachiopods have a soft body enclosed between upper and lower shells (valves), unlike the left and right arrangement of valves in bivalve molluscs.  Brachiopods open their valves at the front when feeding but otherwise keep them closed to protect their feeding apparatus and other body parts.

Student Moysiuk commented:

“Our most important and surprising discovery is the Hyolith feeding structure, which is a row of flexible tentacles extending away from the mouth, contained within the cavity between the lower conical shell and upper cap-like shell.  Only one group of living animals – the brachiopods, has a comparable feeding structure enclosed by a pair of valves.  This finding demonstrates that brachiopods, and not molluscs, are the closest surviving relatives of Hyoliths.”

The undergraduate added:

“It suggests that these Hyoliths fed on organic material suspended in water as living brachiopods do today, sweeping food into their mouths with their tentacles,”

A Diagram Showing the Proposed Anatomy of a Hyolith

Haplophrentis anatomy.

Diagrams showing the anatomy of the Cambrian Hyolith Haplophrentis.

Picture Credit: Royal Ontario Museum/Danielle Dufault

The Function of the Helens

Examination of the orientation of the helens in multiple Hyolith specimens from the Burgess Shale suggests that these spines may have been used like stilts to lift the body of the animal above the sediment, elevating the feeding apparatus to enhance feeding.

Dr Caron led recent field exhibitions to the Burgess Shale.  This resulted in the discovery of many specimens that form the basis of this research.  The key specimens came from recently discovered deposits near Stanley Glacier and Marble Canyon in Kootenay National Park, about twenty miles south-east of the original Burgess Shale site in Yoho National Park.

Exploring the Burgess Shale

Exploring the Burgess Shales.

Student Joseph Moysiuk (left) in the field with Dr Jean-Bernard Caron.

Picture Credit: Joseph Moysiuk

Palaeontology lecturer Martin Smith expressed his delight at being able to help solve a 175-year-old palaeontological puzzle.  Hyolith fossils have been included in a number of fossil studies previously, but until now, where these creatures featured in the tree of life remained open to speculation.

Dr Smith stated:

“Resolving the debate over the Hyoliths adds to our understanding of the Cambrian Explosion, the period of rapid evolutionary development when most major animal groups emerge in the fossil record.  Our study reiterates the importance of soft tissue preservation from Burgess Shale-type deposits in illuminating the evolutionary history of creatures about which we still know very little.”

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

19 12, 2016

Mapping the Microscopic Life Preserved in Rhynie Chert

By | December 19th, 2016|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Main Page, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Exploring a Microscopic World 407 Million Years Old

Very often, it is the news about giant prehistoric animals that grab all the attention from the media.  Dinosaurs, Woolly Mammoths, Pterosaurs and monstrous fish such as prehistoric sharks, get all the headlines, but today, we want to highlight a new paper published in the online, open access journal PLoS One, a paper that looks at the discovery of an exquisitely preserved fungus found in association with the minute eggs of a prehistoric freshwater crustacean.  This freshwater fungus, lived far earlier in the history of our planet than any hominin, Woolly Mammoth, Pterosaur or member of the Dinosauria for that matter.  In fact, this newly discovered species of fungus, a fungus that helped to breakdown freshwater plant matter, thrived at around the same time as the very first sharks.

A High Magnification View of the New Species of Fungus

A highly magnified view of the Devonian fungus.

Cultoraquaticus trewini, a new Early Devonian Chytridiomycota.

Picture Credit: PLoS One

The fossils were discovered by a team of international scientists which included researchers from the Natural History Museum (London), the University of Copenhagen and the University of Maine.  The team analysed microscopic slices of Rhynie Chert from Aberdeenshire, Scotland.  The chert represents sedimentary deposits formed when volcanic material from hydrothermal vents periodically erupted and covered an area that featured a braided river channel and an alluvial flood plain.  These hot, viscose fluids preserved both primitive terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems, providing a window into the life that existed in both these types of habitat in the Early Devonian.  Various types of fungi have been identified in the Rhynie Chert, this Lagerstätte has provided palaeontologists with evidence of fungal parasitism and symbiosis with early land plants and algae.  Fossils of the earliest freshwater branchiopod crustaceans (fairy shrimps and their close relatives), have also been discovered.

Cultoraquaticus trewini

The new species has been named Cultoraquaticus trewini, the genus name refers to the aquatic habitat of the fungus.  The specific epithet honours Professor Nigel Trewin (University of Aberdeen), for his contribution to the understanding of the geology of the Rhynie Chert.  The fungus has been attributed to the Phylum Chytridiomycota, based on its internal structure, the associated papillae and its size.  The exquisite preservation of this 407 million-year-old fossil has enabled scientists to assess this ancient species’ resemblance to extant fungi.  It seems that these fungi were a parasite of algae and primitive prehistoric freshwater plants.  The tiny, spiked structures seen in the photograph above (B, C and E) are (most likely), the eggs of the Early Devonian freshwater shrimp Lepidocaris rhyniensis.

Laser Scans Show the Fungus and the Eggs of the Early Devonian Crustacean (L. rhyniensis)

Crustacean eggs and the fungus revealed by laser scanning.

Confocal laser scanning images of resting eggs of Lepidocaris and of the fungus Cultoraquaticus trewini.

Picture Credit: PLoS One

The tiny, rounded and very spiky eggs of Lepidocaris reaffirm the idea that ancient branchiopods adapted to freshwater environments early in the Devonian.

Comparison Between Lepidocaris (Extinct) and Linderiella (Extant)

Ancient freshwater crustacean compared to an extant freshwater form.

Lepidocaris rhyniensis (A) and its resting egg (B) compared to modern anostracean Linderiella occidentalis (C) and resting egg of Linderiella santarosae (D). Brood pouch is indicated by an arrow. Scale bars represent 20 μm in (B) and 95 μm in (D).

Picture Credit: PLoS One

The Earliest Eggs of the Branchiopoda

Although the research team cannot be one hundred percent certain that the tiny, spiky shapes are the eggs of Lepidocaris, they have made this conclusion based on the fact that L. rhyniensis fossil remains, including individuals at various growth stages, are relatively abundant in the Rhynie Chert deposits.  The fossils closely resembles the egg cysts of various members of Anostraca (fairy shrimps) and they, most probably, represent the earliest eggs of freshwater branchiopods discovered to date.

Sometimes, micro-fossils are not given the prominence they deserve in the mainstream media.  We praise the efforts of the research team for providing more information on the remarkable Rhynie Chert Lagerstätte and for identifying a new fungal/plant matter interaction that helped in the breakdown and mobilisation of nutrients in early freshwater food webs.

The scientific paper: A New Chytridiomycete Fungus Intermixed with Crustacean Resting Eggs in a 407-Million-Year-Old Continental Freshwater Environment

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