Bird Melanosome Stories Flocking Together

Keratin and Melanosomes Preserved in Eoconfuciusornis

A team of international scientists led by researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in collaboration with colleagues from North Carolina State University and Linyi University (Shandong, China), have reported finding the oldest fossil evidence of beta-keratin and melanosome preservation in the feathers of a 130 million-year-old primitive bird from the famous Early Cretaceous Jehol Biota of north-eastern China.

Writing in the journal “The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (United States)”, this new study extends the time frame in which evidence of original organic molecules may be preserved and has provided new data on how to distinguish melanosome structures from similarly shaped microbes.  This is the second article related to the melanosomes having been identified in ancient birds that Everything Dinosaur has published the week.  The earlier article related to a bird fossil identified as a member of the Enantiornithes clade excavated from the Lower Cretaceous strata (Jiufotang Formation), that showed evidence of iridescence in its feathers.*  It’s almost as if stories relating to melanosome structures in birds are flocking together!

The Lower Cretaceous rocks exposed in the Chinese provinces of Hebei and Liaoning have provided palaeontologists with a huge number of vertebrate fossils to study.  The fine-grained strata, laid down in a lacustrine (lake environment), surrounding by active volcanoes provided ideal body fossil preservation conditions and many specimens have revealed exquisite details.  One of the most important group of fossils associated with these deposits are the many different types of bird fossil that have been found.   This new study was carried out on the fossilised remains of one such primitive bird, a specimen of Eoconfuciusornis.

Scanning transmission microscopy was undertaken to identify structures within the fossil and the surrounding matrix, chemical analysis including the use of antibodies that react to specific proteins, helped pinpoint the identity of the structures that had been found.

The Fossilised Remains of Eoconfuciusornis Used in the Research

Eoconfuciusornis fossil bird.

The fossilised remains of a Lower Cretaceous bird from China (Eoconfuciusornis).

Picture Credit: Dr Xiaoli Wang (Linyi University)

What Sort of Bird was Eoconfuciusornis?

Eoconfuciusornis was a crow-sized member of the primitive bird group the confuciusornithids that thrived in China during the Early Cretaceous.  It was one of the first birds to possess a pygostyle (the last five tail vertebrae fused together) and to have a keratinous beak lacking teeth, features found in all modern birds (Neornithes).

Previous studies had striven to prove that tiny, round or sausage-shaped structures preserved in association with fossilised remains were melanosomes, organelles found in animal cells that contains the light-absorbing pigment melanin responsible for colour and protection from harmful rays emitted from the sun.  However, although melanosome-like structures had been discovered in a number of specimens, there was an element of doubt as to the authenticity of the research findings.  It was difficult to definitively proved that these structures were not just microbes that had become associated with the feathers during decomposition and fossilisation.

Mary Schweitzer, a leader in the field of identifying traces of organic materials from within the fossil record and a co-author of this research paper explained the problem:

“If these small bodies are melanosomes, they should be embedded in a keratinous matrix, since feathers contain beta-keratin.  If we couldn’t find the keratin, then those structures could as easily be microbes, or a mix of microbes and melanosomes, in either case, predictions of dinosaur shading would not be accurate.”

The scientists used both scanning and transmission electron microscopy to map minute details of the feather’s surface and its internal structure.  They also utilised immunogold tagging, a technique which involves gold, non-reactive particles being attached to antibodies that bind to particular proteins in order to make them visible in electron microscopy.  This helped to show that the fine filaments within the feathers were keratin.

An Illustration of a Typical Confuciusornithid Bird of the Lower Cretaceous (Confuciusornis sanctus)

Confuciusornis sanctus.

Confuciusornis sanctus a primitive bird but it had a beak.

Picture Credit: University of Manchester

Further tests were carried out, including one which involved the mapping of the presence of copper and sulphur in association with the feathers when viewed under high resolution.  Sulphur was broadly distributed, reflecting its presence in both melanin molecules and keratin.  However, the distribution of copper (only found in modern melanosomes and not part of keratin), was only observed in the fossil melanosome structures.  The data produced supports the identity of melanosomes and indicates that these structures are not the result of contamination or microbial action.

Fellow author, Yanhong Pan (Chinese Academy of Sciences) stated:

“This study is the first to demonstrate evidence for both keratin and melanosomes, using structural, chemical and molecular methods.  These methods have the potential to help us understand, on the molecular level, how and why feathers evolved in these lineages.”

If melanosomes can be positively identified within the fossil record and as the shape of melanosomes can provide an indication of animal colouration, then palaeontologists may be able to hypothesise with greater confidence the colouration of extinct animals including dinosaurs and primitive birds.

* To read Everything Dinosaur’s recently published article on the study of a member of the Enantiornithes clade that shows evidence of iridescence in preserved feathers: A Prehistoric Bird with Bling

The scientific paper: “Molecular Evidence of Keratin and Melanosomes in Feathers of the Early Cretaceous Bird Eoconfuciusornis”, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (United States of America).

Ginkgo “Living Fossil” Has Remarkable Genome Sequenced

The Genome of the Ginkgo Reveals Secret of Success

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

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

A Ginkgo biloba tree.

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

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

What is a Genome?

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

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

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

Human genome compared to the Ginkgo genome.

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

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

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

The Extraordinary Biology of G. biloba

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

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

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

Fossilised Ginkgo Leaves (Jurassic)

The carbonised fossil leaves of a Jurassic Ginkgo tree.

Ginkgo fossil leaves.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

A Very Resilient Plant

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

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

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

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

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

The CollectA Ginkgo biloba Model

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

The CollectA Prehistoric Life Ginkgo biloba Model

 CollectA Ginkgo biloba model.

The CollectA Ginkgo biloba tree model.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

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

Just When Did the Dinosaurs Dominate the Land?

Ixalerpeton polesinensis and Buriolestes schultzi Co-existed

New fossil evidence suggests that the rise of the Dinosauria was more gradual than previously thought.  Many people’s perception of the dinosaurs is that they are all super-sized monsters, dominating life on land and rapidly out competing the other, more primitive Triassic reptiles.  Scientists writing in the journal “Current Biology” challenge this view, as they describe the discovery in the same rock formation of an early dinosaur and a lagerpetid, a member of a group of animals that are recognised as precursors of dinosaurs.  This is the first time that a dinosaur and a dinosaur precursor have been found together, indicating that true members of the Dinosauria Order and their near relatives co-existed.

The Skull of the Dinosaur (Buriolestes schultzi) in Situ

Buriolestes skull at the dig site.

The skull of the sauropodomorph Buriolestes.

Picture Credit: Cabreira et al

A Sauropodomorph and a Lagerpetid

 A team of researchers including Sergio Furtado Cabreira (Museu de Ciências Naturais, Universidade Luterana do Brasil, Brazil) and Alexander Wilhelm Armin Kellner (Departamento de Geologia e Paleontologia, Museu Nacional-UFRJ, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) have described two new species of Dinosauromorpha from Upper Triassic rocks in central, eastern Brazil (the Paraná Basin).  The fossil material represents a lagerpetid, which has been named Ixalerpeton polesinensis and a new basal sauropodomorph (Buriolestes schultzi), the remains of these animals were found in the Alemoa Member of the Santa Maria Formation, specifically, within the Hyperodapedon (rhynchosaur) Assemblage Zone which dates from the Carnian faunal stage of the Upper Triassic.  Ixalerpeton has been assigned to the family Lagerpetidae which together with the Dinosauria and other closely related Archosaurs, make up the clade Dinosauromorpha.  B. schultzi has been assigned to the Sauropodomorpha, a clade of lizard-hipped dinosaurs that would evolve into the long-necked giants such as Diplodocus, Apatosaurus and Brachiosaurus.

Line Drawings and Photographs of the Fossilised Remains of the Two New Species of Dinosauromorph

Fossils and drawings of the two Dinosauromorpha.

Line drawing (A) of I. polesinensis and fossilised remains of (B-H) and line drawing (I) of B. schultzi with fossil remains (J-P).

Picture Credit: Current Biology

The lagerpetid (Ixalerpeton) has been described from skull bones including the braincase, vertebrae, one shoulder blade, the left humerus, parts of the pelvis, a thigh bone (femur) and some lower leg bones.  This biped is estimated to have measured around half a metre in length. The larger Buriolestes is estimated to have measured around 1.8 metres long and it has been described from a partial skull, which includes the premaxilla, maxilla and the dentary, a large number of vertebrae including posterior dorsal vertebrae and caudal bones, the left arm, parts of the pelvis and a nearly complete left hind leg.

Etymology

Ixalerpeton polesinensis – The genus name means “leaping reptile”, whilst the trivial name references São João do Polêsine, the town where the fossils were found.

Buriolestes schultzi – The genus name means “Buriol robber”, a reference to the family name of the land owners and recognises that this dinosaur was most likely carnivorous.  The species/trivial name honours Cesar Schultz (professor of vertebrate palaeontology at the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul).

A Timeline Showing the Relationship between B. schultzi and I. polesinensis within an Overview of Early Dinosauromorphs

A timeling showing the evolutionary relationships of early dinosauromorphs.

Phylogeny of early dinosauromorphs.

Picture Credit: Current Biology

The research team are confident that further analysis of the Ixalerpeton fossil material will add to our understanding as to how the dinosaurs evolved their anatomical characteristics.  The teeth of Buriolestes indicate that this sauropodomorph, a distant ancestor of the huge herbivorous Sauropods, was actually carnivorous.  This evidence supports the theory that the giant plant-eating dinosaurs such as Diplodocus were descended from small, bipedal, meat-eaters.

A Close View of the Teeth of Buriolestes Indicating that this Dinosaur was a Carnivore

The teeth of Buirolestes

A close view of the teeth of Buriolestes. The highly recurved and serrated teeth indicate that this sauropodomorph was a carnivore.

Picture Credit: Cabreira et al

The Dietary Preferences of Dinosauromorphs

An analysis of the fossil teeth of these newly described Archosaurs has helped scientists to assess the dietary preferences of a range of dinosauromorphs.  This research suggests that the very first dinosaurs were all meat-eaters and over time there was a move towards herbivory and an omnivorous diet within certain groups.

The Dietary Preferences of Dinosauromorphs

The diets of dinosauromorphs.

The dietary preferences of members of the Dinosauromorpha.

Picture Credit: Current Biology

The diagram above shows a cladogram of dinosauromorphs and photographs of their teeth.  The top photograph shows the teeth of the dilophosaurid Theropod Dracovenator (Neotheropoda), a carnivore.  Next comes a picture of the teeth of Buriolestes, assigned to the Sauropodomorpha but regarded as carnivorous by the researchers.  The third photograph features the teeth of Pampadromaeus, which coincidentally, was named by Sergio F. Cabreira, Cesar L. Schultz et al.  This little dinosaur has been assigned to the Sauropodomorpha too, it is also believed to be meat-eater.  The final set of teeth belong to the later sauropodomorph Plateosaurus, that lived some fifteen million years after Buriolestes and Pampadromaeus.  The teeth of Plateosaurus seem to be adapted to a plant-eating diet.

The hypothesis about feeding preferences advocated by the researchers in this paper is shown on the left of the cladogram, with alternative arrangements shown on the right.

Key

green coloured line = herbivory and/or omnivory

black coloured line = unknown or ambiguous

orange = carnivore (faunivory – feeding on other animals)

An Illustration of a Buriolestes Catching a Hyperodapedon whilst a Group of Ixalerpeton Scatter

A Buriolestes and Ixalerpeton illustrated.

A Buriolestes catches a Rhynchosaur whilst a group of Ixalerpeton hunt for lizards and grubs in the undergrowth.

Picture Credit: Oliveira Maurílio

This research lends weight to the hypothesis that dinosaurs evolved in the southern hemisphere and that the Dinosauria were carnivorous in their basal forms, it also supports the idea that lagerpetids and early dinosaurs were contemporaries since the first stages of dinosaur evolution.

The scientific paper: “A Unique Late Triassic Dinosauromorph Assemblage Reveals Dinosaur Ancestral Anatomy and Diet” published in Current Biology.

Exploring Life in the Past with Year 2/3

Dinosaurs and Fossils with Year 2/3

For the children in the three classes of Year 2/3 at Pebble Brook Primary School, the autumn term has been dedicated to learning all about prehistoric life.  Over the last eight weeks or so, the dedicated teaching team have introduced a wide range of cross-curricular activities all linked to learning about dinosaurs, prehistoric animals and the Stone Age.  As part of the challenging scheme of work that had been devised, the children were asked to make a dinosaur themed model over the half-term break.  A member of the Everything Dinosaur team visiting the school had the opportunity to view some of the amazing dinosaurs and prehistoric scenes the children had created.

On Display Outside the Year 2/3 Classrooms – Prehistoric Scenes

Dinosaurs on display.

Dinosaur and prehistoric scenes outside the classrooms.

Picture Credit: Pebble Brook Primary School/Everything Dinosaur

The collection of prehistoric landscapes and dinosaur dioramas made a very attractive exhibit and several of the children’s models were used in a special assembly following our dinosaur and fossil workshop.  The Year 2/3 children presented some of the fascinating facts that they had learned about dinosaurs to other classes as well as the mums and dads.

A Very Sparkly Dinosaur Created as a Half-term Project

A very sparkly armoured dinosaur.

A very sparkly armoured dinosaur spotted in Year 2/3 AP classroom.

Picture Credit: Pebble Brook Primary School/Everything Dinosaur

The well-appointed classrooms highlighted lots of fiction and non-fiction writing exercises and each of the three classrooms had a special “wow wall” with a wonderful dinosaur and Stone Age people illustration surrounded by lots of topic themed words to help the budding young palaeontologists expand their vocabularies.

Prehistoric theme for a special topic about life in the past.

A colourful dinosaur and cavemen display board.

Picture Credit: Pebble Brook Primary School/Everything Dinosaur

Carnivores, Omnivores and Herbivores

The children were keen to demonstrate their knowledge and they enthusiastically explained the foods that carnivores, omnivores and herbivores ate, all linking nicely into that part of the Year 2 science programme in the English national curriculum that relates to living things and their habitats.  In addition, the Year 3 children enjoyed learning about the properties of fossils, which dove-tails into the lower Key Stage 2 science programme that covers soils, rocks and fossils.

Exploring Life in the Past

Dinosaurs and cavemen.

A Dinosaur and cavemen themed display board.

Picture Credit: Pebble Brook Primary School/Everything Dinosaur

All three classes would be getting to grips with the use of rulers for measuring in the very near future, the extension activity we provided which involves measuring and comparing the footprints of different dinosaurs should work well with the teaching team’s lesson plans.  The dinosaur coprolite certainly proved to be very popular and it helped reinforce the children’s learning after they had examined some “dinosaur poo” in a previous classroom activity.

Mini “Jurassic Worlds” on Display

Colourful dinosaur scenes.

Several prehistoric scenes on display outside the classroom.

Picture Credit: Pebble Brook Primary School/Everything Dinosaur

All too soon, it was time to leave the enthusiastic pupils and their dedicated teachers.  However, we did set the children a special challenge.  As they had lots of questions and since we were unable to address them all during the day, it was suggested that the children could write into our office or email us and we would do our best to provide them with answers.  This provided yet another non-fiction writing activity for the children to undertake, as well as giving the teachers the opportunity to explore the differences between writing a letter and sending an email with their pupils.

New CollectA Models for 2017 (Part 3)

CollectA Excalibosaurus and Basilosaurus

Today we reveal the next two new for 2017 prehistoric animal models to be introduced by CollectA, both are marine creatures, and predators but they are separated by some 150 million years of our planet’s history.  First up is the splendid Excalibosaurus, a wonderful replica of this Early Jurassic member of the Order Ichthyosauria.  This marine reptile had an elongated rostrum, its upper jaw was much longer than its lower jaw.  Palaeontologists have suggested that it used its bizarre jaws to slash at shoals of fish, the stunned and wounded fish would have then been easier to catch.

New for 2017 the CollectA Excalibosaurus Model

CollectA Excalibosaurus.

The CollectA Excalibosaurus model.

Picture Credit: CollectA

Known from two specimens, both found in Lower Jurassic strata exposed on the Somerset coast of England, this rare Ichthyosaur would have been an apex predator some 190 million years ago.  The holotype material is in the vertebrate collection of the Bristol Museum (England), whilst a much larger and more complete specimen is housed at the Royal Ontario Museum (Toronto, Canada).

Each prehistoric sculpture is approved by Anthony Beeson, a highly-respected expert in palaeoimagery and Anthony commented:

“Excalibosaurus is a local Somerset favourite of mine.  As the holotype is in Bristol Museum and is local to me, I have been able to spend some time studying it.  I think that both the name with its allusions to King Arthur’s magic sword and the animal’s own unusual swordfish-like upper jaw, make it a fascinating Ichthyosaur and one that is not well known amongst children.  It is certainly one of Bristol Museum’s star attractions.”

The colouration of this model reflects some of the latest research into the skin colour of marine reptiles and the new Excalibosaurus compliments the wide range of marine reptile models that have already been introduced by CollectA into their “Prehistoric Life” collection.

CollectA Excalibosaurus Measurements

The official measurements for this new for 2017 marine reptile model are: length just under 13 cm and a height (top of the dorsal fin) of just over 3 cm.

CollectA Basilosaurus Model

The second model to be announced this week is a fantastic replica of the early toothed whale Basilosaurus and what an amazing model it is.

New for 2017 the CollectA Basilosaurus Model

An early whale model - CollectA Basilosaurus

The CollectA Basilosaurus model.

Picture Credit: CollectA

We know that prehistoric animal model collectors and fans of the CollectA range have long been after such a replica and CollectA have certainly delivered with this carefully crafted figure.

Anthony explained:

“Basilosaurus is another animal that I have been intending to produce for some time.  Basilosaurus was a strange colossal early whale, with its vestigial back legs and evolving front flippers.  The colour scheme again veers away from the ubiquitous black and white of many reconstructions and towards the colouring of sperm whales, dolphins and dugongs.”

The colouration is fascinating, at the time Basilosaurus roamed the oceans (Eocene Epoch) a number of other mammal groups had taken to a marine existence, for example, the first sea cows, had evolved.  The grey patches in the picture seen behind the head and along the back are patches of barnacles.  Scientists have concluded that Basilosaurus was not capable of diving to great depths and spent most of its life swimming near to the sea surface (the Epipelagic Zone).  As this part of the sea is inhabited by barnacles it seemed logical for CollectA to give their model a few patches of barnacle infestation.

A Closer View of the Head Shows the Barnacle Patches Behind the Skull

The CollectA Basilosaurus model.

The Basilosaurus early whale model by CollectA.

Picture Credit: CollectA

The picture above shows a close up of the head of the model, several patches of barnacles can be seen on the figure.

CollectA Basilosaurus Measurements

The model measures over 35 cm long and it is approximately 3 cm high.  The very large size of a fully grown Basilosaurus has meant that, for practical reasons, CollectA were unable to make this figure to the same scale as the terrestrial models in their range.  The model is described by CollectA as “extra-large”, since it is longer than the CollectA Deluxe Feathered T. rex, this description does not do this fantastic figure justice.  As for a scale, we estimate that a male of the species could reach a length of around 18 metres, this would make the CollectA Basilosaurus to be around the 1:50 scale mark.

As for when these models will be available, we are expecting our first stock of the Excalibosaurus sometime around the end of February, or perhaps the first week of March.  The Basilosaurus replica is due out sometime in the middle of 2017, perhaps as early as June or July.

To view the CollectA Prehistoric Life range including 2016 models: CollectA Prehistoric Life Collection

To view the CollectA Deluxe model range: CollectA Deluxe Scale Models

A Video Review of the Paleo-Creatures Concavenator Replica

The Paleo-Creatures Concavenator Model Reviewed

It’s fascinating to see the interpretation of an unusual dinosaur by a talented model maker, especially a dinosaur which is synonymous with the country in which that model maker resides. That is exactly what has happened with the excellent Concavenator corcovatus designed by Jesús Toledo as part of his Paleo-Creatures prehistoric animal model series.  In this short video (just under three minutes and twenty seconds duration), the artist talks us through the inspiration behind his choice of colour scheme and provides some further information about this enigmatic Spanish dinosaur that was formally named and described just six years ago.

The Video Review of the Concavenator Replica

Video Credit: Paleo-Creatures

Concavenator corcovatus by Paleo-Creatures

Although known from just one specimen found in the Iberian Mountains of Cuenca Province, (Spain), the fossils attributed to this genus represent one of the most complete Theropod skeletons ever found in Europe.  The excellent state of preservation and the articulation of the fossils suggests that the carcase of this meat-eater was washed into a lake not long after the animal died.  Once in the lake, the corpse was rapidly buried by other sediment and these conditions permitted much of the animal’s remains to be preserved.  At around six metres in length, Concavenator would have been a formidable predator, in the video sculptor Jesús explains that he wanted to give the impression of a swift and dangerous hunter, hence the quite dynamic pose.

The Paleo-Creatures Concavenator Replica by Jesús Toledo

Paleo-Creatures Concavenator

The Paleo-Creatures Concavenator model.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Concavenator has been given a set of “tiger stripes”.  Obviously, the colouration of prehistoric animal models is a speculative business but it is not hard to imagine a Concavenator using tree cover and brush to sneak up onto a herd of unsuspecting iguanodonts.  In a forest environment, such camouflage would have been very effective.  In addition, the detail on the head is nicely done and all the teeth on our hand-painted models have been painted with great care.

Quill Knobs

The ulna (one of the bones in the forearm), of Concavenator shows evidence of what may have been the connection points for a series of quills or quill knobs.  In accordance with this, the artist has added some small feathery ornamentation to the forelimb.  The video gives the viewer the opportunity to view the limbs and to see the feathers.  That distinctive hump is well-crafted too.  Quite why the eleventh and twelfth vertebrae were twice the size of the other back bones remains a mystery.  The Paleo-Creatures Concavenator replica certainly shows off this dinosaur’s hump, given that this Theropod also possessed cranial crests (also depicted in the model), it has been suggested that the hump may have played a role in visual communication, perhaps to win a mate or to deter rivals.  Other palaeontologists have suggested that the hump may have evolved to assist with thermoregulation.

The Paleo-Creatures Concavenator is described as being in approximately 1:32 scale, it forms part of a hand-crafted and hand-painted prehistoric animal model range created by Spanish artist Jesús Toledo.

To see the Paleo-Creatures Concavenator and the rest of the Paleo-Creatures model range currently available from Everything Dinosaur: The Paleo-Creatures Model Range

To read Everything Dinosaur’s 2010 article about the discovery of Concavenator: A New Theropod Dinosaur from Spain. One Lump or Two?

Prehistoric Bird with “Bling”

Study Suggests Early Cretaceous Bird Had Flashy Feathers

Fossils from the Jiufotang Formation of Liaoning Province (China), have provided scientists with an extensive data set that records life in the Early Cretaceous.  The highly fossiliferous strata (referred to as a Lagerstätte), has given palaeontologists a deep understanding of the fauna of a forested habitat with many large lakes.  Numerous fossils of turtles, pterosaurs, fish, mammals and dinosaurs have been described, but perhaps the Jehol Biota’s greatest contribution to our understanding of vertebrate evolution has come from the large numbers of bird fossils that have been found.  A team of international researchers have studied the ancient feathers of one such bird and deduced that it had sparkly, iridescent feathers probably for display in a bid to attract a mate.

Ancient Prehistoric Bird Provides Evidence of Iridescent Feathers

Ventral view and line drawing of the bohaiornithid bird specimen.

Ventral view of the new bohaiornithid specimen (CUGB P1202, primary slab). A, photograph of the primary slab. B, interpretive drawing.

Picture Credit: Jennifer A. Peteya (University of Akron)

A Bohaiornithid Bird with Bling

Scientists from Akron University (Ohio), the University of Texas at Austin in association with Chinese colleagues have studied the slab and counter slab of a beautifully preserved primitive bird.  Using high magnification and a non-destructive chemical technique to identify molecule signatures (Ramon spectroscopy), the team have identified melanosome structures that are associated with iridescent colouration in modern birds.

The image above shows a view of the primary slab showing the bird fossil (A), whereas (B) shows an interpretative line drawing of this enantiornithine.  The bird has been classified as a basal member of the Enantiornithes clade and the teeth in the tiny beak have led to the fossil being assigned to the Bohaiornithidae family (predatory birds).  As far as we at Everything Dinosaur are aware, no genus name has been assigned as yet.

The Rich and Diverse Early Cretaceous Forests of Northern China

The rich and diverse Daohugou Biota.

A rich and diverse environment dominated by small mammals, Pterosaurs, primitive birds and feathered Theropods.

Picture Credit: Julia Molnar

What are Melanosomes?

Using electron microscopes to look inside the feathers of the ancient bird, the research team were able to identify strange shapes and structures.  These are melanosomes, which when the animal was alive would have contained the pigment melanin.  This light-absorbing pigment is what gives colour to human hair and animal fur, as well as to the feathers of dinosaurs and birds.  The shape of the melanosome suggests the colour.  The crown, neck, and body contour feathers retain elongate melanosome structures associated with weakly iridescent colouration in living birds, so the team have concluded that this prehistoric bird was also iridescent.

Identifying Melanosomes in a Fossil Bird

Evidence of preserved melanosomes in Early Cretaceous bird.

The right wing and body contour feathers of the primitive bird (specimen CUGB P1202). Photographs B and C are highly magnified sections showing preserved melanosomes.

Picture Credit: Jennifer A. Peteya (University of Akron)

The photograph above shows part of the fossil from the primary slab (specimen number CUGB P1202).  Part (A) shows a close up of the right wing and the long contour feathers next to the tibia (lower leg bone).  The white triangle and white circle show the location of melanosome sampling sites.  Long, linear structures can be seen under high magnification in (B), the scientists have concluded that these are melanosomes, Photograph B is a highly magnified section or contour feathers near the tibia – the white triangle sampling spot.  Photograph (C) shows potential degraded melanosomes from the right wing sampling site – the white circle.  Scale bars represent 1 cm (A); 1 μm (B, C).

A Showy Sub-Adult Specimen

Colourful displays are commonplace in extant birds and many species use bright feathers for courtship display.  This specimen provides evidence of potential intraspecific communication using plumage in a member of the Bohaiornithidae.  Unfused bones in the skeleton indicate that this individual was a sub-adult, it seems these primitive birds did not hang about when it came to finding a mate.

Commenting on the significance of the study, lead researcher Dr Jennifer Peteya (University of Akron) stated:

“Many enantiornithine birds possessed ornate feathers.  This new specimen shows that some enantiornithines also had iridescent feathers and unlike most modern birds, these flashy ornaments developed before the animal was fully grown.”

The scientific paper: “The Plumage and Colouration of an Enantiornithine Bird from the Early Cretaceous of China”, published in the journal “Palaeontology”.

To read an article on the discovery of melanosome structures in a Chinese dinosaur fossil: Sinosauropteryx – A Ginger Dinosaur!

A Video Review of the Paleo-Creatures Torvosaurus

Paleo-Creatures Torvosaurus tanneri Video Review

One of the best reasons for making a replica of a dinosaur is because it happens to be one of your favourites.  That’s the reason given by talented Spanish artist Jesús Toledo for adding the gorgeous Torvosaurus tanneri model to the Paleo-Creatures range of prehistoric animals.  In this short video (2:37), Jesús explains a little about the two species in the Torvosaurus genus (T. tanneri from the United States and Torvosaurus gurneyi from Portugal).  In addition, he provides viewers with a close up look of this well-crafted figure.  The genus name means “Savage Lizard” and one glance at this Paleo-Creatures model convinces you that this Late Jurassic Theropod was a formidable predator.

The Paleo-Creatures Video Review of Torvosaurus tanneri

Video Credit: Paleo-Creatures

 Paleo-Creatures Torvosaurus tanneri

For someone based in Spain, choosing the Torvosaurus species known from the Morrison formation of western North America might seem a little strange, especially when the European species is believed to have been larger and heavier.  Still, it is fascinating to consider where in the food chain Torvosaurus was and how it competed with the several other types of large, carnivorous dinosaur that shared its habitat.

When T. gurneyi was formally described in 2014, many media outlets described it as the largest carnivorous dinosaur from Europe known to science.  Theropod fossils from Europe tend to be fragmentary at best, however, based on an assessment of the upper jaw bone and a partial femur, this species of Torvosaurus from the Upper Jurassic of Portugal (Lourinhã Formation) may have grown to lengths in excess of ten metres.

A Scale Drawing of Torvosaurus gurneyi

Torvosaurus gurneyi scale drawing.

A scale drawing of Torvosaurus gurneyi.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

In the video review, dinosaur model fans get the chance to view this Paleo-Creatures replica close up.  The proportions of the model have been carefully thought out and the articulated jaw is a nice touch.  The vivid colouration is very striking and it is worth remembering that every single Torvosaurus is hand-painted, it is a beautiful dinosaur figure.

The Paleo-Creatures Torvosaurus Dinosaur Model

The Paleo-Creatures Torvosaurus dinosaur model.

The Paleo-Creatures Torvosaurus model.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Jesús Toledo has managed to produce a well-balanced figure, the feet are not too oversized and the replica is very stable on its sandy coloured base.  Getting large bipeds to stand in a realistic pose can be a headache for designers and sculptors, but Jesús has achieved an excellent result with his Torvosaurus.

To view the range of Paleo-Creatures figures, including the Torvosaurus available from Everything Dinosaur: The Paleo-Creatures Range at Everything Dinosaur

The Monster of Minden – Wiehenvenator albati

Fittingly, we wanted to conclude this article on the ferocious Torvosaurus tanneri by mentioning a recently described Theropod that might challenge T. gurneyi for the title of the biggest meat-eating dinosaur known from Europe.  A team of researchers writing in the journal “Palaeontologica Electronica” in August of this year (2016), have described the fragmentary bones of a super-sized carnivore, one that may have rivalled T. gurneyi in terms of size.  Nick-named the “Monster of Minden”, the scientists, which included Dr Oliver Rauhut, from the Bavarian Collection for Palaeontology and Geology, have named this dinosaur Wiehenvenator albati (the name means hunter from the Wiehen Hills).  Although size estimates do vary, Wiehenvenator has been estimated to have been about ten metres long.  It has been classified as a sister taxon to Torvosaurus, although it lived at least ten million years earlier.

To read an article about the discovery of Torvosaurus gurneyiEurope’s Largest Meat-Eating Dinosaur Described to Date

For further information about Wiehenvenator albatiThe “Monster of Minden”

Dinosaur Claw Proteins Preserved for 75 Million Years

Researchers Get Their Claws into Citipati osmolskae

Researchers at North Carolina State University have published a paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. (biology), that once again challenges the idea that organic material cannot survive the fossilisation process and persist in the fossil record for millions of years.  One of the authors of this study, Mary H. Schweitzer caused a sensation when in 2005 she claimed to have found T. rex soft tissue and proteins preserved in fossil bone.  Dr Schweitzer’s research has put her at the heart of a new area of palaeontology, the search for evidence of organic remains within the fossil record.  It is another Theropod that takes centre stage this time, a dinosaur called Citipati osmolskae.  Citipati was a member of the Oviraptoridae, a very bird-like family of Late Cretaceous dinosaurs.   A number of C. osmolskae specimens are known, including individuals found preserved along with nests of their own eggs.  One such beautifully preserved specimen, MPC-D 100/979, nick-named “Big Mamma” was studied using scanning and transmission electron microscopy to identify minute details of both the fossil’s surface and its internal structure in a bid to assess whether any organic material persisted in the fossilised claws.

The Citipati osmolskae Specimen Studied “Big Mamma”

Citipati osmolskae fossil.

The Citipati fossil sitting on a nest “Big Mamma”.

Picture Credit: M. Ellison/The American Museum of Natural History

The researchers have identified tell-tale signatures that suggest the preservation (on a microscopic level), of the original keratinous claw sheath that covered its digits.  This study adds to the growing body of evidence that original organic materials can be preserved over time.

The Oviraptorid Citipati osmolskae

Citipati osmolskae was a Theropod dinosaur that lived in what is now Mongolia during the Late Cretaceous.  In 1995, a particularly well-preserved specimen of Citipati was recovered from the Djadokhta Formation of Mongolia.  The specimen was found in a brooding position on a nest of eggs.  It is thought that the adult and nest were rapidly buried when a sand dune collapsed on top of them.  The nearly complete remains have been beautifully preserved and it had been noted that there was a thin lens of white material extending beyond one of the bony claws on a forelimb that differed in texture and colour from both the surrounding matrix and the bone.  It was also located where a claw sheath would be.   At around three metres in length (mostly tail), Citipati is one of the largest oviraptorids known, it is thought to be very closely related to Oviraptor.

An Illustration of a Typical Oviraptorid

A model of an Oviraptor.

A typical oviraptorid – Oviraptor philoceratops.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Studying the Claws of “Big Mamma”

Alison Moyer, former PhD student at North Carolina State University, who is currently a postdoctoral researcher at Drexel University and lead author of a paper describing the research, wanted to find out if the material from Citipati was a claw sheath and if so, whether any original beta-keratin had preserved.  In extant Aves, (birds), claw sheaths cover the claw at the end of a digit much like fingernails in humans. The sheaths in modern birds are composed of two types of keratin, alpha-keratin, the softer form found on the interior of the sheath; and beta-keratin, a harder and more durable keratin that comprises the sheath’s exterior.  The team set out to discover whether they could detect the presence of beta-keratin.

Moyer and her university colleagues first used powerful scanning electron microscopy to assess the material.  The results showed that the sample was structurally similar to claw sheaths from modern birds, so the team decided to proceed with immunohistochemical (IHC) testing, this would identify the nature of the material preserved.

Highly Magnified Images Comparing the Internal Structure of Citipati Claw Sheath with the Internal Structure of an Ostrich Claw Sheath

Citipati dinosaur claw sheath studied.

TEM micrographs of (a) ostrich claw sheath and (b) Citipati claw sheath show similar structure.

Picture Credit: Alison Moyer

The images above are highly magnified micrographs of (a) ostrich claw sheath and (b) Citipati claw sheath which show a similar structure.  In both samples, parallel fibres can be seen running diagonally, and identical voids (yellow outlines) were observed among the fibres in both samples.

Immunohistochemical Testing (IHC)

IHC testing utilises antibodies that react against a particular protein.  If the protein is present, the antibodies bind to small regions of the protein and indicate where the protein is located in the tissue.  Moyer used beta-keratin antibodies derived from modern bird feathers.  In initial IHC testing, results were inconclusive, which led Moyer to look more closely at the specimen.  She found an unusually high concentration of calcium in the fossil claw, much higher than would be found in claws from the living birds used in comparison (such as Ostrich claw material), or from the sediment surrounding the fossil.  The team postulated that the calcium might be affecting results.  The calcium was eliminated and further IHC testing on the claw sheath material was conducted.  After the calcium was removed, the antibodies reacted much more strongly, indicating the presence of beta-keratin and preservation of original molecules.

Moyer explained:

“It’s probable the incorporation of calcium in the tissue helped preserve it, but that same calcium had to be removed in order to see the underlying molecular composition.  Because this study used multiple, well-tested methods, it not only supports the longevity of proteins in the rock record, it reveals a lot about how these might be preserved.”

The researchers conclude that calcium chelation greatly increased antibody reactivity, suggesting a role for calcium in the preservation of this type of fossil material.

The scientific paper: Microscopic and Immunohistochemical Analyses of the Claw of the Nesting Dinosaur, Citipati osmolskae, Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Everything Dinosaur acknowledges the help of North Carolina State University in the compilation of this article.

Mineralised Blood Vessels in a Hadrosaur: Duck-billed Dinosaur Blood

Details of a Documentary about the work of Dr Schweitzer: The Search for Dinosaur DNA

Appreciating Dunkleosteus

Dunkleosteus Exhibit at the Naturmuseum Senckenberg

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

The Anterior Portion of Dunkleosteus on Display

Dunkleosteus on display.

The spectacular Dunkleosteus exhibit.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

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

Standing Guard at the Fish Gallery Entrance – Dunkleosteus

A Dunkleosteus exhibit.

A Dunkleosteus cast on display.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

A Powerful Placoderm

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

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

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