The Gradual Decline of the Dinosaurs – Earth Day Thoughts

The Gradual Decline of the Dinosaurs – Earth Day Thoughts

Today, the 46th commemoration of Earth Day, some 171 nations signed and ratified the historic Paris Agreement on climate change.  In essence, the Agreement sets out that the global increase in temperature will be limited to no more than around two degrees Celsius as countries work together to cut greenhouse gas emissions, widely believed to be responsible for a rapidly warming Earth. Some fifteen nations had already signed this international accord prior to today, mainly small island states in the Pacific, but with the addition of the 171 signatories, this is a record number for a new treaty.

Commenting on the importance of this Agreement, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated:

“Paris will shape the lives of all future generations in a profound way – it is their future that is at stake.”

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon Addresses Delegates in New York

Ban Ki-moon address the conference in New York

Ban Ki-moon address the conference in New York

Picture Credit: Getty Images

The Two Degree Limit

The Paris Agreement sets out a global action plan to put the world on track to avoid dangerous climate change by limiting global warming to well below 2°C.  Although, the implementation of the agreement will not be easy and several countries, including a number from Africa and central Asia have not signed, if the Earth continues to warm, then our own species could well be threatened.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon explained that as the planet experienced record highs in average annual temperatures:

“We are in a race against time.  I urge all countries to join the agreement at the national level.  Today we are signing a new covenant for the future.”

Yesterday, Everything Dinosaur reported on some new research conducted by scientists at Reading and Bristol Universities that looked at the extinction of the dinosaurs.  A statistical study (Bayesian analysis), revealed that the Dinosauria had been in gradual decline for some fifty million years before finally becoming extinct. To read an article on this research: Fifty Million Year Decline of the Dinosauria

Extinction of the Dinosaurs Will the Human Race Go the Same Way Due to Global Climate Change?

Unless there is a proactive plan to tackle global climate change a mass extinction event cannot be ruled out.

Unless there is a proactive plan to tackle global climate change a mass extinction event cannot be ruled out.

Picture Credit: Mark Garlick/Science Photo Library

A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur commented:

“There is already quite a strong body of evidence indicating that our planet is experiencing a mass extinction event.  Many key species are endangered or threatened and as we are top of the food chain it is in all our interests to try to limit greenhouse gas emissions so that a global climate catastrophe can be avoided.”

One of the authors of the research into the decline of the dinosaurs, that we reported upon yesterday, Dr. Sakamoto, pointed out that the research into the demise of the Dinosauria might have a significance with regards to what we are experiencing today.

He stated:

“Our study strongly indicates that if a group of animals is experiencing a fast pace of extinction more so than they can replace, then they are prone to annihilation once a major catastrophe occurs.  This has huge implications for our current and future biodiversity, given the unprecedented speed at which species are going extinct owing to the ongoing human-caused climate change.”

If the UN General-Secretary calls this a “race against time”, then this is one race that the human race cannot afford to lose.

The Fifty Million Year Decline of the Dinosaurs – It was the “Stats Wot Did It”

Bayesian Analysis Sheds New Light on Dinosaur Decline

This week has seen the publication of a splendid piece of research by scientists from Reading and Bristol Universities.  The research team, which included lead author Dr. Manabu Sakamoto and his colleague Dr. Chris Venditti (Reading University), along with Professor Mike Benton (Bristol University), conclude that far from a sudden and abrupt end to the Dinosauria, as a result of a culmination of catastrophes around sixty-six million years ago, the dinosaurs were already on their way out.  In fact, according to their calculations, the dinosaurs had been in decline for the previous fifty million years.

An Extraterrestrial Impact Might Have Been the “Last Straw for the Dinosaurs”

Scientists suggest a slow decline for the dinosaurs.

Scientists suggest a slow decline for the dinosaurs.

Long-term Decline Versus a Sudden Population Collapse

The debate regarding whether the Dinosauria declined very rapidly or whether they were in a long-term, terminal decline, has raged for decades.  Everything Dinosaur team members remember a study undertaken into the diversity of the dinosaurs from the Hell Creek Formation.  This study calculated the number of different types of dinosaur associated with different layers of rock.  It was concluded that at the point where the non-avian dinosaurs disappear from the fossil record (K-T boundary), there were much fewer species present then in rock strata that represented slightly older sediments.  The overwhelming dominance of horned dinosaurs and Hadrosaurs compared to other types of dinosaur preserved in the bedding planes studied, also suggested a relatively unhealthy balance in the ecosystem.

Two years ago, Everything Dinosaur reported on another piece of research that concluded that the demise of the dinosaurs was a result of “bad luck and bad timing”.

To read more about this study: Dinosaur Extinction – “A Perfect Storm”

Bayesian Analysis Points the Way

The difficulty with a debate like this is that palaeontologists do not have a complete data set to work with.  The fossil record is simply not complete enough to provide definitive proof, one way or another.  It’s not just that there are not enough body and trace fossils of dinosaurs around from the Cretaceous, but scientists have very limited information on other types of fauna, the mammals for example.  Mammalian diversity may have been very apparent had you or I been able to travel back in time and wander through the temperate conifer forests of northern Laramidia for example, but in the absence of a time machine, we have to work with inadequate and far from complete information.  However, in this paper, perhaps for the first time, Bayesian analysis has been applied to assess the evolutionary dynamics in terms of how quickly the dinosaurs were able to evolve into new species to replace other species that had died out.

The scientists find that their Bayesian analysis provides overwhelming support for the theory of a long-term decline across all three sub-clades of the Dinosauria (the Ornithischia, Sauropodomorpha and the Theropoda).  The rate of new species development slowed down over time and this was ultimately overtaken by the species extinction rate tens of millions of years before the Cretaceous mass extinction event.  Or putting it another may, that extraterrestrial object that smashed into the Gulf of Mexico was tens of millions of miles away when the dinosaurs actually began to die out.

A Slow Decline According to the Statistics – Dinosaurs Did Not Go Out with a Bang!

Cataclysmic impact event that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Cataclysmic impact event that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs?

Picture Credit: Don Davis commissioned by NASA

Commenting on the implications for other terrestrial vertebrates, one of the authors of the scientific paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Chris Venditti stated:

“The decline of the dinosaurs would have left plenty of room for mammals, the group of species which humans are a member of, to flourish before the impact, priming them to replace dinosaurs as the dominant animals on Earth.”

What is Bayesian Analysis?

It’s complicated, named after the mathematician Thomas Bayes (1701-1761), Bayesian analysis is a statistical methodology that takes into account the absence of complete data.  By looking at the existing information, a more complete picture can be built up using information inferred from the data that you do have.  Bayesian analysis relies upon interpretations of probability which are based on degrees of belief.  There are a number of different forms of analytical technique that can be applied based on these principles.

In simple terms, imagine you have a dinosaur themed jigsaw that is made up of 24 pieces:

  • If you have all 24 pieces then it is easy to put together the jigsaw puzzle and see 100% of the picture.
  • BUT… if you were to ask another person to complete the puzzle but only gave them 12 pieces (50%), then that person would only have half the data to work on.
  • To solve the puzzle, that second person would have to examine the patterns made by the 12 pieces, to look at their shapes, their size, their colours and to use their existing knowledge about what the complete picture might be in order to compensate for the lack of all the jigsaw pieces to play with.
  • Using the Schleich Mini Dino Landscape “Discovery” Set seen below as an example, the second person would have to infer from the information available what the completed jigsaw puzzle would actually look like – this is essentially what Bayesian analysis permits you to do.

A Dinosaur Jigsaw Puzzle Helps to Explain Bayesian Principles

Green Velociraptor,  Torosaurus, Stegosaurus and Quetzalcoatlus are included.

Green Velociraptor, Torosaurus, Stegosaurus and Quetzalcoatlus are included in this Schleich jigsaw puzzle set.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Professor Mike Benton, explained that the dramatic impact event was probably the last straw for the remaining types of dinosaur:

“All the evidence shows that the dinosaurs, which had already been around, dominating terrestrial ecosystems for 150 million years, somehow lost the ability to speciate fast enough.  This was likely to have contributed to their inability to recover from the environmental crisis caused by the impact.”

The Bayesian analysis shows that the Sauropodomorphs, the long-necked, super-sized herbivorous Titanosaurs were declining the fastest, whilst the Theropods (mostly meat-eaters), were declining at a more gradual rate.

A Stylised Graph Indicating Rate of Decline for the Three Main Sub-Clades of the Dinosauria

Plotting the demise of the dinosaurs.

Plotting the demise of the dinosaurs.

Graph Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The graph above is intended to illustrate that, in this new Bayesian analysis, the Sauropodomorpha clade was shown to be declining most rapidly.  The Theropoda was in decline but the speed of de-speciation was lower and the Ornithischia was also in decline too but the rise of the Hadrosauriformes (duck-billed dinosaurs) and the rapid diversification of the Ceratopsidae (horned dinosaurs), temporarily bucked the downward trend.

Exceptions to the Rule

The only exceptions to the general trend are the Cretaceous herbivores, the duck-billed dinosaurs and the horned dinosaurs.  These two types of dinosaur show rapid species proliferation throughout the Late Cretaceous.  However, the research team conclude that overall, the Dinosauria showed a marked reduction in their ability to replace species that had died out with new species.  This made the dinosaurs vulnerable to extinction and unable to evolve quickly enough to allow them to recover from the catastrophic events that mark the end of the Mesozoic.

Countdown to the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival

Countdown to the 10th Lyme Regis Fossil Festival

Just a few days to go until the start of the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival.  The festival, celebrating its tenth year kicks off with two days dedicated to supporting science teaching in schools before opening to the public on Saturday 29th April.  In a packed programme, there are a wide variety of family themed activities and events aimed at all ages to celebrate the natural and cultural history of this Dorset town and its prominent place on England’s Jurassic Coast.

This Year Marks the Tenth Anniversary of the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival

The Lyme Regis Fossil Festival - lots of activities to explore.

The Lyme Regis Fossil Festival – lots of activities to explore.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The theme for this year’s Fossil Festival is getting young people enthused by STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects. Everything Dinosaur knows STEM very well, our own dinosaur and fossil workshops are prominently displayed within the STEM directory of school activities.  Indeed, our educational workshops have recently been revised and upgraded to further enhance science learning objectives.  All part of our support for the Royal Institution, who now manage the on line STEM database.

Down on the seafront, three marquees will host a range of displays and activities, with experts on hand to answer questions and provide advice on careers in the Earth Sciences.  The Palaeontological Association will provide a tactile introduction to fossils and the Geological Society might be able to tempt you with some fossil casting, whilst the Scott Polar Research Institute will be looking for volunteers to dress like an explorer and if you fancy it, you can see how you measure up against a penguin with the British Antarctic Survey.

Will You Get Lucky and Find a Fossil?

Will you find a fossil at Lyme Regis?

Will you find a fossil at Lyme Regis?

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Fossil Walks

Over the weekend, the festival will also be running a series of guided fossil walks.  There will also be a programme of talks and presentations given by leading scientists and academics.  A highlight will be the fossil polishing workshops planned by the Lyme Regis Museum, you can also pick up tips on how best to display your own fossil discoveries.  Local fossil expert Brandon Lennon has promised to send us some pictures, as our own teaching and field work commitments mean that we can’t make the festival this year, so disappointing, especially when Brandon tells us that there have been some exciting fossil finds over the winter and this spring.

Brandon explained:

“The winter storms and the high tides have battered the cliffs once again and there have been a large number of fossils washed out onto the foreshore, it looks like it is going to be a very exciting time to be visiting the Dorset coast looking for fossils and with the festival taking place there is going to be plenty of experts on hand to provide advice, support and assistance.”

One of the best ways to explore the geology of this beautiful part of the world, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is to participate in a guided fossil walk.  For further information on fossil walks and tours: Lyme Regis Fossil Walks

A Wonderful Family Friendly Festival

Prehistoric animal drawing fun at the Lyme Regis fossil festival.

Prehistoric animal drawing fun at the Lyme Regis fossil festival.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Commenting on the large number of august scientific institutions attending this year’s event, Heather Prior, the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival co-ordinator stated:

“Teams will also be attending from the Jurassic World Heritage Site, The Geological Society, Natural England and universities.  The festival will provide plenty of information and inspiration so that young people can learn about educational and career opportunities.”

Look out too for “Iggy the Iguanodon Restaurant” which is making its debut at the festival.  Iggy is a thirty foot long replica of a Victorian representation of Iguanodon, reminiscent of the Crystal Palace model constructed by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins.  This dinosaur (the second to be formally named), provides the stage for an innovative and educational piece of street theatre.  We suspect that the “restaurant” bit refers to the fact that a New Year’s Eve banquet was once held in part of the Iguanodon material destined for permanent display in the south of London.

To read more about this strange feast: Dinner Inside a Dinosaur

We at Everything Dinosaur would like to wish the organisers and everyone taking part in this year’s festival the very best of luck and we look forward to hearing more about the fun activities and events as well as posting up some pictures of this, the tenth, Lyme Regis Fossil Festival.

For further information on the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival and to view the programme of events: 2016 Lyme Regis Fossil Festival

Congratulations to Palaeontologist Dean Lomax

Honorary Scientist at The University of Manchester Wins Award

Palaeontologist Dean Lomax, an honorary scientist at Manchester University has been awarded the prestigious Edward Forbes Prize by the Palaeontographical Society.  This annual award aims to encourage young palaeontologists (or those within ten years of completing their doctorate), and it recognises Dean’s contribution to the advancement of our knowledge about life in the past.  Established in 1847, the Palaeontographical Society promotes the publishing of monographs on British fossils as well as supporting taxonomic research into British fossil faunas and floras through its own research fund.

Dr. Paul Barrett (President of the Palaeontographical Society) Presents the Award to Dean

Dr. Paul Barrett congratulates Dean Lomax on his award.

Dr. Paul Barrett congratulates Dean Lomax on his award.

Picture: courtesy of Dean Lomax

It has been a busy twelve months for Dean, at the moment he is in the United States ready to start work on examining the fossils of a new dinosaur, but the Edward Forbes Prize was awarded to Dean principally in recognition for his work on a Jurassic marine vertebrate specimen that once resided in one of those places where one would least expect to make a scientific breakthrough concerning ancient sea creatures – Doncaster, located in the heart of South Yorkshire.

South Yorkshire’s Fossil Heritage

Doncaster may not readily spring to mind when it comes to Mesozoic fossils but a specimen of an Ichthyosaur thought to be replica residing in the collection of the Doncaster Museum and Art Gallery caught Dean’s attention.  The sub-adult, “fish lizard” turned out to be a new species and this led to Dean co-authoring a scientific paper on Ichthyosaurus anningae last year.  The trivial name honours Mary Anning, the 19th Century Lyme Regis-based fossil collector, who coincidently died the same year that the the Palaeontographical Society was founded.

To read more about the discovery of Ichthyosaurus anningaeNew Ichthyosaurus Species Honours Mary Anning

This is not the first time that talented Dean has had his research recognised by his peers.  Dean has recently received a multitude of awards, including the Marsh Award for Palaeontology (November, 2015), The School of Earth, Atmospheric and Environmental Science (SEAES) Postgraduate Research Student Excellence Award (University of Manchester) – Best Contribution to Society for 2015 (November, 2015) and the Gold Medal (G.J. Mendel Award) – Set for Britain 2015 (March, 2015).

Dinosaurs of the British Isles

Readers of this blog, may already be quite familiar with Dean’s work.  Last August, he appeared in the two-part television documentary “Dinosaur Britain”, that explained the role of these islands in the history of dinosaur research.  The programmes were largely based on the highly acclaimed book “Dinosaurs of the British Isles” by Dean Lomax and Nobumichi Tamura.

If you have missed out on this excellent book all about British dinosaurs, it can be found here: Purchase “Dinosaurs of the British Isles” Courtesy of Siri Scientific Press

Dean Has Written a Book All About British Dinosaurs

A comprehensive guide to British dinosaurs over 400 pages.

A comprehensive guide to British dinosaurs over 400 pages.

Picture Credit: Siri Scientific Press

A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur stated:

“Congratulations to Dean Lomax, it is always a pleasure to see that research is recognised in this way.  Palaeontology is blessed with a myriad of young, dedicated researchers just starting out on their careers and we predict exciting times ahead for Dean and his contemporaries.”

We suspect that Professor Edward Forbes himself, a palaeontologist and ardent supporter of the nascent Palaeontographical Society, would approve of Dean winning the award, after all, Professor Forbes spent much of his life studying the marine biology of the British Isles and he would have been very aware of the Ichthyosaur research undertaken by Conybeare, Georges Cuvier and Richard Owen.

New Dinosaur Track Exhibit Opened at Moab (Utah)

Dinosaur Tracks and Other Trace Fossils on Display

After reporting on fossil thefts, vandalism and other sad incidents from the Moab area (Utah), it is a pleasure to write about the opening this month of a new dinosaur track and trace fossil trail.  In a short presentation, Bureau of Land Management personnel hosted the opening ceremony for the new trace fossil site, one that preserves life on an algae covered mudflat some 112 million years ago or thereabouts.  The new tourist attraction, named the Mill Canyon Dinosaur Tracksite Trail, features more than two hundred individual dinosaur prints, representing eight different types of tracks and some six different types of dinosaur.

Some of the Prehistoric Animal Tracks on the Trail

Trace fossils (dinosaur footprints) preserved at Moab (Utah).

Trace fossils (dinosaur footprints) preserved at Moab (Utah).

Picture Credit: Bureau of Land Management

Fossil Thefts and Vandalism

Sadly, over the years this blog has reported on the destruction of a number of the fossils found in this part of Grand County, eastern Utah.  For example, last year Everything Dinosaur reported on an aborted attempt to make copies of three-toed dinosaur tracks in the Moab area, this resulted in extensive damage to these rare dinosaur fossils: Dinosaur Tracks Vandalised, worse still, was the case of a dinosaur footprint theft from the Hell’s Trail location near to Moab, this print (another three-toed, tridactyl footprint) was never recovered, although an arrest was made and local Moab resident Jared Ehlers was sentenced to six months house arrest and one year of probation with a $15,000 USD fine.

To read the story of the dinosaur fossil footprint theft: Dinosaur Fossil Footprint Stolen

The Mudflats Preserve the Footprints and Trace Fossils from a Number of Prehistoric Animals Including Armoured Dinosaurs

An armoured dinosaur crossing the Moab (Utah) mudflats.

An armoured dinosaur crossing the Moab (Utah) mudflats.

Picture Credit: Brain Engh

A Unique Insight into Early Cretaceous North America

The strata forms part of the Ruby Ranch Member of the Cedar Mountain Formation, the mudstones were laid down in an inland floodplain environment with seasonal extremes of wet and dry.  A film of algae formed over the mudflats and it is thanks to this algal mat that the fine details of the trace fossils have been preserved.  Individual claw marks can be made out and there are other remarkable trace fossils too, such as the gashes in the mudstone, evidence of an ancient crocodile’s tail drag.

Ancient Crocodiles Thrived in this Lacustrine (Lake) Environment

The tail drag made by an ancient crocodile preserved in the Red Ruby mudstones of the Cedar Mountain Formation (Utah).

The tail drag made by an ancient crocodile preserved in the Ruby Ranch mudstones of the Cedar Mountain Formation (Utah).

Picture Credit: Bureau of Land Management

In the picture above the brushes and scale marker provide a visual guide to the size of the crocodile tail drag.

Commenting on the importance of the site and the vital role that the algae played in fossil preservation, Bureau of Land Management palaeontologist Rebecca Hunt-Foster stated:

“The algal mat that covered the mud helped to preserve the detail of the tracks when a finer-grained sediment washed over the mudflat.  This preserved the imprints in great detail, the algal covering helped to keep the finer details of the tracks, such as the impact rims made when the animals stepped into the soft mud, along with foot pad impressions, from being eroded away or damaged during this covering event.” 

2009 Discovery

The site was discovered in 2009, when a local person travelling over the area in a jeep noticed strange impressions on the ground.  Since 2013, a team of palaeontologists have been recording and mapping the location and thanks to funding from the Canyonlands Natural History Association, private donations and a contribution from the Bureau of Land Management itself, a tourist trail with dedicated walkways and helpful information boards has been established.  Dinosaur tracks include the large three-toed prints of a substantial Theropod, rounded tracks of a Sauropod, plus the tell-tale two-toed tracks of a big Dromaeosaur, something akin to a Utahraptor (U. ostrummaysorum) fossils of which are found in the older Yellow Cat Member of the Cedar Mountain Formation.

Visitors to the Site Can Use Walkways to Get Close to the Fossils

At least six different dinosaur tracks have been deciphered at Moab (Utah).

At least six different dinosaur tracks have been deciphered at Moab (Utah).

Picture Credit: Bureau of Land Management

The site is particularly important as it preserves activity (trace fossils) and very few body fossils of large vertebrates have been found in the Ruby Ranch Member, when compared to other parts of the Cedar Mountain Formation.  The trace fossils provide a guide to the dinosaur fauna that inhabited this part of the world during the latter stages of the Early Cretaceous.

Which Armoured Dinosaur(s)?

Intriguingly, the site preserves the tracks of an armoured dinosaur.  The rounded, five-toed prints are quite distinct and form parallel lines in the mudstone, where the slow moving, plodding dinosaur passed by.  Palaeontologists are not sure what type of armoured dinosaur made the prints, the strata is too old for it to represent the tracks made by a Sauropelta and although fossils of the polacanthid Gastonia have been found in Grand County, Utah, most of the fossil material ascribed to the only species assigned to the Gastonia genus (G. burgei) are associated with the older Yellow Cat Member.  The tracks could have been made by, an as yet, unnamed species of Gastonia or perhaps a different type of polacanthid altogether.

An Illustration of Gastonia (G. burgei)

Gastonia model (Collecta).

Gastonia model (CollectA).

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur commented:

“It is wonderful to be able to report on some positive news from Grand County, we wish the site’s management team every success and we hope that this remarkable window into the Early Cretaceous attracts lots of visitors and helps to preserve the amazing fossils to be found in this part of the western United States.”

Canadian Dinosaur Proves Dinosaurs were Show Offs

Apatoraptor pennatus – Helps to Tie Together the Caenagnathidae

A University of Alberta PhD student working in collaboration with one of the world’s most respected palaeontologists has helped to unravel the connections between a bizarre toothless dinosaur from Alberta and its relatives from Asia.  In doing, so student Greg Funston was able to identify a new species of dinosaur, one that would have been at home in the steamy Late Cretaceous swamps that once covered southern Canada.  The new dinosaur has been named Apatoraptor pennatus, the genus name means “deceptive speedy thief”, as it was originally mistaken for another, more common dinosaur.

An Illustration of the New Feathered Dinosaur Apatoraptor pennatus

The presence of ulnar papillae on the ulna (bone of the forelimb) indicates the presence of long feathers on the arm.

The presence of ulnar papillae on the ulna (bone of the forelimb) indicates the presence of long feathers on the arm.

Picture Credit: Sydney Mohr

A near complete and partially articulated dinosaur specimen was discovered in 1993 by a field team exploring strata that makes up the Horseshoe Canyon Formation of southern Alberta.  The fossil material consisted of part of the lower jaw (mandible), articulated neck and back bones (cervical and dorsal vertebrae), elements from the forelimbs, a partial ilium (bone from the hip) and parts of the back legs.  Gastralia (stomach stones) were also found in association with the fossilised bones.  Although no traces of feathers were found with this specimen, marks on the ulna (a bone in the forearm), indicated that this 1.8 metre long dinosaur probably had feathers on its arms.

Misidentified as an Ornithomimidae Member

The fossil was originally thought to represent an ornithomimid (bird-mimic) dinosaur, as several genera of ornithomimid had been reported before (Ornithomimus, Struthiomimus and Dromiceiomimus).  As a result, the material was not studied extensively but stored at the Royal Tyrrell Museum (Drumheller, Alberta).  Much later the fossil was identified as a member of the Oviraptorosauria, a clade of very bird-like dinosaurs but ones that were not closely related to the ornithomimids – the bird-mimics.  Specifically, the fossil was assigned to the  Epichirostenotes genus (pronounced Ep-ee-ky-row-sten-oh-tees), a member of the enigmatic Caenagnathidae family.  Student Greg Funston, had the opportunity to conduct research on the bones as part of his PhD thesis and he began to realise that this specimen did not resemble other fossil material assigned to Epichirostenotes that he had examined previously.  Greg, with the support and collaboration of his PhD supervisor (Professor Phil Currie), concluded that this was indeed an example of a dinosaur more closely related to Oviraptor than to Ornithomimus,  but it was sufficiently different from Epichirostenotes to have a new genus – Apatoraptor erected.

Introducing the Caenagnathidae

The Oviraptorosauria are a clade of dinosaurs very closely related to modern birds.  They are part of a much larger group of dinosaurs the Maniraptora, which includes the sickle-toed, clawed “raptors” such as Deinonychus and Velociraptor.  The different dinosaur families that make up the Oviraptorosauria are usually split into two groups*:

  1. Caenagnathidae
  2. Oviraptoridae

*The classification of the Oviraptorosauria is controversial, most genera are only known from fragmentary remains and exact phylogenetic relationships are difficult to determine.

Caenagnathids (pronounced see-nag-na-fids) differ from oviraptorids in a number of ways.  There are differences in the jaws, the skulls tend not to be so deep and the finger proportions are different.  These and other subtle anatomical help to distinguish the two families.

A Simplified Cladogram Showing the Phylogenetic Relationship between the Caenagnathidae and the Oviraptoridae

A simplified cladogram of the Oviraptorosauria.

A simplified cladogram of the Oviraptorosauria.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

A Feathered Dinosaur that Probably Liked to Display

A study of the arm bones of Apatoraptor revealed large muscle scars indicating that the relatively short arms were strong.  Prominent notches on the ulna (ulnar papillae) suggest that the arms possessed long, quill feathers.  Greg concluded that this dinosaur moved its arms quite vigorously, probably some form of display with its long feathered arms, perhaps these displays were used in mate selection or to intimidate potential predators.  As Apatoraptor pennatus fossil material represents the first articulated caenagnathid skeleton from anywhere in the world (meaning the bones are still in the same position as when the animal died) and is by far the most complete caenagnathid skeleton from Alberta.  Apatoraptor has helped palaeontologists to understand more about the taxonomic relationships within the Caenagnathidae.  It turns out that A. pennatus (the name means deceptive, winged speedy thief), may be more closely related to Asian dinosaurs than to other caenagnathids from North America.

Commenting upon the significance of this research, Greg stated:

“This is my first time naming a new dinosaur.  It’s really exciting on a personal level, but what I am most excited about is what it means for this field of palaeontology.  In future studies, it will help us to better understand these dinosaurs.  It’s a really important specimen, because it is a relatively complete skeleton. it helps resolve the relationships of caenagnathids, which have always been problematic.  Most caenagnathids are represented by isolated material or single bones, which means that we can’t tell if they came from the same animal.  Apatoraptor gives us a better idea of what these animals looked like, which tells us if the features we have been using to separate species are significant or not.”

Greg Funston with a Model of the Jawbone

Greg with a model of the Apatoraptor jawbone.

Greg with a model of the Apatoraptor jawbone.

Picture Credit: University of Alberta

Apatoraptor pennatus – A Prehistoric Heron?

Dating from around 70 million years ago (Maastrichtian faunal stage of the Late Cretaceous), Apatoraptor roamed the swamplands of southern Alberta.  The climate was sub-tropical and the region resembled the Florida Everglades of today.  It may have waded through shallow water feeding on crustaceans, fish and amphibians as well as grazing on water weeds.  It may have resembled a heron as it carefully picked its way through the water.  It was likely covered in a coat of shaggy feathers, although it was far to big to be able to fly.

Greg added:

“Oviraptorosaurs, the bigger group to which Apatoraptor and other caenagnathids belong, were probably some of the flashiest dinosaurs.  We know of three separate ways—head crests, tail feathers and now arm feathers—that they would display to their mates.”

Adding Another Diplodocus Drawing to our Portfolio

Everything Dinosaur Adds Another Diplodocus

There are a number of species assigned to the Diplodocus genus, at least three, but potentially there may be several more (nomen dubium, Seismosaurus and Amphicoelias notwithstanding).  Everything Dinosaur has commissioned almost as many Diplodocus illustrations as there were potential species.   Our latest Diplodocus drawing is going to be used in several projects including within an updated Diplodocus fact sheet (Diplodocus longus).

Everything Dinosaur’s Illustration of Diplodocus (D. longus)

A drawing of Diplodocus.

A drawing of Diplodocus.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Named As a Result of Its Tail

There are a few dinosaurs that have been named as result of their tails.  Diplodocus is one such dinosaur*.  Under a number of caudal vertebrae (tail bones), there was a length of bone that played a role in strengthening the extraordinarily long tail (estimated to have exceeded fifteen metres in length in some specimens) and protecting blood vessels.  This is the “double beam” that gave Diplodocus its name.  The first Diplodocus fossils were found in Colorado and this Sauropod dinosaur was named and described by the great American palaeontologist Othniel Charles Marsh (1877).

This quadrupedal herbivore may have been known to science for nearly 140 years but we thought it time to add a new Diplodocus drawing to our database.  Just as “Dippy” is relocated from the main, central gallery at the Natural History Museum (London), so we have added a new representation of this Sauropod to our collection of illustrations.

* Cauditeryx (Tail Feather) is another, can you name a dinosaur named from its tail?

All Eyes on Ancient Arachnid

Ancient “Spider” Reveals “Eye-opening” Secrets

Amazing three-dimensional images resulting from the interpretation of CT scans of a 305 million-year-old fossil have revealed that the forerunners of today’s arachnids had two sets of eyes rather than one.

Researchers from the University of Manchester, in collaboration with colleagues from the American Museum of Natural History (New York), say the highly magnified images reveal exquisite anatomical details not often found in invertebrate fossils.  Writing in the journal “Current Biology”, the scientists report that this research will add a great deal to the evolutionary story of the diverse and very successful group of Arthropods, the group that includes spiders, mites, scorpions, harvestmen and ticks.

A False Colour Image of the Prehistoric Arachnid H. argus

Hastocularis argus - an ancient harvestmen (arachnid) that had lateral eyes unlike modern harvestmen.

Hastocularis argus – an ancient harvestmen (arachnid) that had lateral eyes unlike modern harvestmen.

Picture Credit: Manchester University

Hastocularis argus

The specimen represents the primitive harvestman called Hastocularis argus.  The specimen is part of a collection of Late Carboniferous (Pennsylvanian Epoch), fossils from eastern France.  The CT scans and resulting computer generated images reveal that this tiny creature not only had median eyes (eyes found near the centre of the body), but eyes located on the side of the body as well (lateral eyes).

Commenting on the research, one of the co-authors of the scientific paper, Dr. Russell Garwood (University of Manchester) stated:

“Although they have eight legs, harvestmen are not spiders; they are more closely related to another arachnid, the scorpion.  Arachnids can have both median and lateral eyes, but modern harvestmen only possess a single set of median eyes – and no lateral ones.  These findings represent a significant leap in our understanding of the evolution of this group.”

Fossil Evidence Supported by Genetic Data

In order to confirm their analysis, the scientists examined the genes for the expression of eye stalks in extant harvestmen.  They found that modern harvestmen embryos had evidence of a “switched off” part of the genetic code that hinted at lateral eye formation.  Modern harvestmen have lost their lateral eyes, but the genetic evidence suggests that way back in the evolutionary history of these creepy-crawlies, lateral eyes were present.

Postdoctoral researcher, Prashant Sharma (American Museum of Natural History) commented:

“Terrestrial Arthropods like harvestmen have a sparse fossil record because their exoskeletons don’t preserve well.  As a result, some fundamental questions in the evolutionary history of these organisms remain unsolved.  This exceptional fossil has given us a rare and detailed look at the anatomy of harvestmen that lived hundreds of millions of years ago.  What we were also able to establish is that developing modern harvestmen embryos retain vestiges of eye-growth structures seen only in the fossil.”

Dr Garwood added:

“Harvestmen fossils preserved in three dimensions are quite rare and our X-ray techniques have allowed us to reveal this exceptional fossil in more detail than we would have dreamed possible just a couple of decades ago.”

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

Heard the One About An Ancient Dolphin Ear Scan?

CT Scan of Ancient Whale Reveals Evolution of Echolocation

There are many different types of dolphins, porpoises and toothed whales around today.  These sleek, marine mammals are characterised by their superb adaptations to their environment, social behaviours, their intelligence and also their ability to use a complex sensory system to make sense of their underwater world.  Modern toothed whales (Odontocetes), use sonar frequencies (echolocation) to communicate with each other, for navigation and to locate and capture prey.  These are the only marine mammals to have evolved the ability to hear and make sense of such high frequency sounds.  But how did this super sensitive system evolve?  This is a question that we are part way to solving thanks to a remarkable piece of research carried out by scientists at Monash University and  Museum Victoria (Australia).

An Illustration of a Prehistoric Whale – Dorudon

Digital painting and photographic composite showing Dorudon.

Fossils of ancient whales trace their evolution, but when did echolocation evolve?

Picture Credit:  Julius Csotonyi.

CT Scan of Oligocene Inner Ear Bone

In a paper published in the Royal Society’s journal “Biology Letters”, the researchers which included PhD student Travis Park (School of Biological Sciences, Monash University and Geosciences, Museum Victoria, both in Melbourne, Australia) explain how they borrowed a fossilised inner ear (cochlea) from the vertebrate fossil collection of the Smithsonian Institute and subjected the object to a CT scan (computerised tomography) to see inside and reveal the intricate structures that made up the hearing mechanism.

Student Travis Park Compares the Fossil Bone to the Inner Ear of an Extant Dolphin

The fossil cochlea (left) compared to the cochlea of a modern dolphin (right). Study suggests ancient toothed whales had echolocation.

The fossil cochlea (left) compared to the cochlea of a modern dolphin (right). Study suggests ancient toothed whales had echolocation.

Picture Credit: Ben Healley

Today’s dolphins and toothed whales produce high frequency sounds in their nasal passages.  These are transmitted through air sinuses and a specialised organ, the melon, which consists of a mass of fatty tissue.  It is the melon that propagates these sounds into the surrounding environment.  These sounds “bounce” of objects in the animal’s surroundings and the reflected signals reach the inner ear (cochlea) via acoustic fat pads that are located at the end of the lower jaw bone and the middle ear.  The CT scan produced a three-dimensional image of the cochlea and an assessment of the ancient creature’s hearing abilities could then be made using the cochlea of modern, extant dolphin as a benchmark.

The 26 million-year-old fossil ear bone from a xenorophid (one of the earliest Odontocetes known) revealed internal structures that were remarkably similar to those found in extant toothed whales.  The team concluded that ancient Oligocene whales had ears tuned for hearing high frequency sounds and therefore the ability to use echolocation.

A Computer Model Generated from the CT Scan Reveals the Intricate Structure

CT scan shows sophisticated cochlea of Oligocene fossil whale.

CT scan shows sophisticated cochlea of Oligocene fossil whale.

Picture Credit: Biology Letters

The picture above shows (a) the fossil bone with the inner ear structure superimposed on the transparent image, (b) a cross-sectional element from the CT scan showing key features of the inner ear.  Images (c) and (d) are computer models created from the CT scan that shows the shape and structure of the ancient cochlea.  From an assessment of the morphology and the structure of this cochlea, scientists have been able to determine the likely hearing abilities of the long extinct animal.

Commenting on the outcomes of the research, Travis Park stated:

“When I first looked at the inner ear of the xenorophid, I was blown away by just how similar this incredibly old toothed whale was to a modern echolocating dolphin.”

Intriguing Questions Remain

This means that even the most ancient ancestors of today’s toothed whales and dolphins had ears tuned for hearing high frequency sound, and therefore the ability to echolocate like their living relatives.  It is likely that echolocation evolved in the ancestral Odontocetes but the fossil record is incomplete and a number of tantalising questions remain, as explained by co-author of the study Dr. Erich Fitzgerald (Museum Victoria):

“Our paper shows even the earliest known fossil Odontocetes have all the tools for echolocation seen in living dolphins.  But they must have evolved from something that didn’t quite have all the tricks of the Odontocete trade.  What were those animals like and how did they start down the path to sonic super senses?  The quest for the origins of this extraordinary group of creatures continues.”

Plotting the Evolution of Echolocation in the Toothed Whales

Plotting the evolution of whale echolocation using a 26 million-year-old fossil inner ear bone.

Plotting the evolution of whale echolocation using a 26 million-year-old fossil inner ear bone.

Picture Credit: Biology Letters

The diagram above charts the evolution of the inner ear in cetaceans (whales).  The fossil bone used in the study has been assigned to the Xenorophidae family (fossil specimen used in the study is USNM-534010).  The researchers suggest that over millions of years, the inner ear of these creatures evolved into organs more capable of hearing high frequency sounds.

Everything Dinosaur has written a number of articles that feature the research of Dr. Fitzgerald (Senior Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology at the Museum Victoria), he has certainly been involved in an eclectic range of studies including mapping Australia’s dinosaur diversity, looking at the origins of seals and examining the fossilised bones of a bird with “pseudo teeth” in its beak.

Australia’s diverse dinosaurs: Australia – A Dinosaur Melting Pot

The first seals of Australia: Australia’s First Seal – A Pliocene Pinniped

Giant bird with a toothy grin: Giant “Toothed” Birds Once Soared Over Australia

JurassicCollectables Wild Safari Models Unboxing

Wild Safari Carcharodontosaurus, Masiakasaurus, Iguanodon and Shunosaurus Unboxing

The latest video from JurassicCollectables features a number of Wild Safari Prehistoric World animal models, mainly dinosaurs but the excellent Doedicurus replica, a re-issue of the glyptodont model that was retired by Safari Ltd a few years ago now, does make a brief appearance.  Team members at Everything Dinosaur carefully packed up the new for 2016 models and this video is an “unboxing video” with the narrator giving the viewer the opportunity to see the models as they come out of the packaging.

The Safari Ltd Models Unboxing Video by JurassicCollectables

Video Credit: JurassicCollectables

The video is around seven and a half minutes in duration and it does provide a wonderful opportunity to view Safari Ltd models close up.  There is also a fleeting appearance of the 1:40 CollectA feathered Tyrannosaurus rex model that we sent JurassicCollectables.  This particular Theropod replica was reviewed a few weeks ago, if you haven’t had chance to see this video, we do recommend it and you can catch it here: CollectA 1:40 Scale T. rex Dinosaur Models and a JurassicCollectables Video Review.

New for 2016 Wild Safari Prehistoric World Models Examined

The video provides a detailed view of each of the new for 2016 dinosaur models, the eagerly anticipated Carcharodontosaurus,  the snaggle-toothed Masiakasaurus, a stunning Iguanodon and Shunosaurus, one of the most remarkable members of the Early Jurassic Sauropoda.  Safari Ltd are to be congratulated for adding such a diverse set of models to their award winning model range.  The excellent lighting and clear narration provides the viewer with a comprehensive overview of each model.

To see the complete Wild Safari Prehistoric World range available from Everything Dinosaur: Wild Safari Prehistoric World and Rare Carnegie Collection Replicas

With the retirement of the “Carnegie Dinosaurs”, a range or prehistoric animal models that were approved by the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Safari Ltd have been able to concentrate on extending their not to scale collection and we can expect a number of new additions to this diverse model range over the next few years.  We at Everything Dinosaur, predict exciting times ahead for the Florida based manufacturer.

Some of the Dinosaur Models Featured in the Unboxing Video

New dinosaur models for 2016.

New dinosaur models for 2016.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The JurassicCollectables YouTube channel is packed with lots of well made and very informative dinosaur and prehistoric animal videos, if you have not already checked out this most impressive YouTube site we urge you to take a look and to subscribe: Check out the JurassicCollectables YouTube Channel

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