All about dinosaurs, fossils and prehistoric animals by Everything Dinosaur team members.
3 05, 2012

“Oetzi” the Iceman Reveals More Secrets

By | May 3rd, 2012|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories|0 Comments

Italian Researchers Claim to Have Found the Oldest Human Blood

One of the world’s best known and most ancient of murder mysteries took yet another twist when scientists studying “Oetzi”, the mummified body of a 5,300-year-old man found frozen in the Italian Alps by hikers back in 1991 found red blood cells around his wounds.  The researcher’s work published in the scientific journal of the Royal Society Interface show that the corpse had remarkable preservation, with even traces of blood, which normally degrades very quickly, being found.  The discovery represents the oldest red blood cells ever observed.

Earlier this year, scientists published details of the genome of this ancient person, part of an intensive study of the “Iceman of the Alps”.

To read more about the genome of “Oetzi”: Genome of “Oetzi” is Published

Although the body of this 45-year-old man, an inhabitant of Earth when stone tools were beginning to be replaced with ones forged from metal (copper), has provided scientists with a great deal of data, how he died remains a mystery.  Analysis of pollen grains found in association with the corpse indicate that “Oetzi” died in the spring, even his last meal (the contents of his stomach having been analysed), is known.  However, whether he was murdered or whether he was given a ceremonial burial remains a mystery.

The Iceman known as “Oetzi”

Ancient body reveals amazing insights into the New Stone Age

Picture Credit: BBC News

The discovery of an arrow head embedded in this man’s back sparked intense media interest.  Could this be the world’s oldest “whodunnit”?

Scans in the late 1990s failed to reveal substantial traces of blood, as scientists from the Eurac Institute in Bolzano, Italy strived to find out as much about this person as they could.  A detailed examination of a wound on the man’s hand showed evidence for haemoglobin, a protein found in blood.  Haemoglobin carries oxygen, transporting it round the body and delivering it to muscles and tissue.  However, a more advanced, sophisticated and sensitive technique referred to as atomic force microscopy has led to the discovery of red blood cells.  It had been thought that delicate blood cells would not have survived for 5,000 years.

Professor Zink and his colleagues, who had published the genome back in February, collaborated with researchers at the Centre for Smart Interfaces at the University of Darmstadt in Germany to apply what is known the atomic force microscopy to thin slices of tissue taken from an area surrounding the arrow wound in “Oetzi’s” back.

This technique uses a minute metal tip with a needle-like point just a few atoms across, being dragged across the surface of a sample.  As the tip interacts with the surface material, data is fed into a computer and a detailed three-dimensional image of the surface can be built up.

The team found that the samples contained structures with a “doughnut” shape, just as red blood cells have.

Evidence of the World’s Oldest Red Blood Cells

The oldest blood samples found to date

Picture Credit: Journal of Royal Society Interface

To ensure the structures were preserved cells and not contamination of some kind, the European research team confirmed the find using a laser-based technique called Raman spectroscopy, the subsequent results also indicated the presence of haemoglobin and the clot-associated protein fibrin.

The evidence of fibrin in association with a wound would prove helpful to a modern forensic scientist investigating a homicide today.  Fibrin usually degrades very rapidly and it is normally associated with fresh wounds so it seems less likely that poor “Oetzi” died some days before he ended up buried on top of a mountain.

Professor Zink outlined what the presence of detected fibrin means:

“Because fibrin is present in fresh wounds and then degrades, the theory that “Oetzi” died some days after he had been injured by the arrow, as had once been mooted, can no longer be upheld”.

Based on this evidence, it suggests that “Oetzi” met a violent end in the Italian Alps being killed relatively near to where his body was found.

It is not just palaeoanthropologists that are benefiting from this scientific research.  The methodologies employed to examine this New Stone Age potential murder victim are helping modern-day forensic specialists to establish the exact age of blood samples found in association with modern murder victims.

2 05, 2012

Dinosaurs Already on “their way out” before Mass Extinction Event

By | May 2nd, 2012|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Palaeontological articles|2 Comments

New Research Suggests some Types of Dinosaur already Facing Extinction before the end of the Cretaceous

A new study suggests that some types of dinosaur were already facing extinction before all the Dinosauria were wiped out in the Cretaceous mass extinction event that ended the Mesozoic.

For many years, scientists have speculated on what finally caused the dinosaurs to die out, in what has been termed the Cretaceous mass extinction event, one of five major extinctions preserved in the fossil record.  Sixty-five million years ago, a number of global climatic events – including sea level change, extensive volcanic eruptions and the impact of a huge extraterrestrial object saw the demise of the dinosaurs – a group of reptiles that had dominated life on Earth for the previous one hundred and fifty million years.

It was not just the dinosaurs that became extinct, their Archosaur relatives the Pterosaurs (flying reptiles) also perished, along with the marine reptiles and many types of invertebrate.  Palaeontologists have estimated that no major Order of life was entirely unaffected by the Cretaceous extinction.  For example, some palaeobotanists have calculated that something like fifty percent of all land plant genera died out at this time in Earth’s history.

However, a study led by researcher Steve Brusatte, from Columbia University (New York, United States) indicates that some types of dinosaur were already in decline before the end of the Cretaceous.  It may not have been a serious of cataclysmic incidents that saw off the Dinosauria, but some groups of these reptiles were already endangered and highly vulnerable to climatic and environmental change.

Steve Brusatte, is a highly respected academic and author with degrees in geophysical sciences from the University of Chicago and palaeobiology from the University of Bristol (England).  A researcher based at the palaeontology department at Columbia University with strong connections to New York’s American Museum of Natural History, Steve has written extensively about the anatomy and the evolution of the Dinosauria.

This new study, adds to the huge volume of work done by scientists trying to understand the dynamics of extinction event.  The question as to whether the dinosaurs went out with a bang or with a whimper has intrigued scientists for over one hundred and fifty years.  A study of the fossilised remains of vertebrates, including dinosaurs found in the Maastrichtian age deposits of the famous Hell’s Creek formation of the western United States, showed that at the very end of the Cretaceous only a few types of dinosaur seem to have been present.  This research carried out in the 1980s showed that there were fewer different types of dinosaur around – dinosaur diversity was in decline, providing evidence that the Dinosauria were under considerable stress prior to any asteroid impact.

Now this new study, which also analysed the fossil record found in Upper Cretaceous deposits of the United States, also suggests that dinosaurs were in decline and that some groups were faring worse than others before the advent of a mass extinction.

Dinosaur Diversity – Under Threat in the Late Cretaceous

Not all the Dinosaurs were Thriving in the Late Cretaceous

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Large, herbivorous dinosaurs such as the Hadrosaurs (duck-billed dinosaurs) and the Ceratopsians (horned dinosaurs such as Triceratops) were already beginning to disappear in North America over the last twelve million years or so of the Cretaceous Period.  The mega predators such as the Tyrannosaurids, including the famous dinosaur known as T. rex, smaller herbivores and the gigantic Titanosaurs seem to have remained as relatively stable populations, or indeed diversified further.

Steve stated, that whilst most members of the public perceive the dinosaurs suddenly and dramatically coming to an end and that the Late Cretaceous was some sort of “Lost World that was violently interrupted by an asteroid impact”, this new study reveals a different picture.

He added:

“Some dinosaurs were undergoing dramatic changes during this time, and the large herbivores seem to have been mired in a long-term decline, at least in North  America.”

A paper published in a scientific journal, summarises the work undertaken by the research team.  It remains uncertain as to whether the mass extinction event was the final straw for the Dinosauria, or whether they would have survived without the intervention of a global catastrophe.  The study team looked at the biodiversity in seven major dinosaur groups.  They concluded that a number of types of dinosaur were already very vulnerable to extinction, certainly those in North America were under a great deal of population pressure.

This view contrasts with the popular belief that the non-avian Dinosaurs were thriving in the world of sixty-five million years ago.  As an Order, it is certainly true that there were more different groups of dinosaurs in the Cretaceous than in the Jurassic.  Avian dinosaurs (otherwise known as the birds) seem to have been thriving, although a number of families of birds did not survive into the Cenozoic.  Titanosaurs, believed to have been absent from North America for much of the Late Cretaceous, seem to have been making something of a comeback in the Campanian and Maastrichtian faunal stages (76 million years ago to 65 million years ago approximately).  A number of Titanosaur genera seem to have migrated up from South America across land bridges and re-populated the United States.  Although many palaeontologists have speculated that these huge, long-necked creatures were limited in the geographical spread by the harsher and colder climate of more northern latitudes, the Titanosaurs may have been able to increase their range in response to the demise of Ornithischian herbivores such as the horned dinosaurs and the duck-bills who may have been declining in number.

It is likely that the debate as to how fast the dinosaurs became extinct is going to continue.  Similar studies of Late Cretaceous European dinosaurs for example, show a different picture with a very dynamic ecosystem with large Hypsilophodontid dinosaurs sharing their environment with many other types of mega fauna, including other dinosaurs, giant birds and large mammals.

1 05, 2012

Giant Fleas “Bugged” the Dinosaurs

By | May 1st, 2012|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories|0 Comments

Chinese Palaeontologists Identify Mesozoic Parasites that Plagued the Dinosaurs

A team of scientists have been busy studying the remains of ancient pseudo-fleas preserved in amber that would have made dinosaur lives a misery back in the Cretaceous.  Amber is fossilised tree resin.  It is produced by certain types of trees to help seal wounds on the tree and to protect against disease, the sticky substance traps organisms which when the resin hardens into amber are preserved as fossils.

Researchers in China have named and described two primitive flea-like insects that probably fed on the blood of dinosaurs, their large size, several times the size of extant fleas that plague mammals today, indicates that even the biggest dinosaur may have been pestered by these Cretaceous critters.  The two types of blood sucker, assigned to the same genus have been named Pseudopulex jurassicus and Pseudopulex magnus.

Commenting on the recent discoveries of large parasites that fed on dinosaurs and other reptiles, zoologist George Poinar Junior of Oregon State University stated:

“They have this large beak.  Oh, it looks horrible.  It looks like a syringe when you go to the doctor to get a shot or something.”

Emeritus professor Poinar, specialises in analysing and examining the preserved remains of insects that have been preserved in amber.  He regards these insects as pseudo-fleas, they are similar to modern-day fleas but sufficiently different to be distinguished from extant genera.  The legs for example are much longer, they are not designed for jumping, but perhaps these large bugs were able to use their long legs to latch onto and secure themselves to the hides of passing dinosaurs.  The long, beak-like proboscis could then be used to probe between the scales to tap into blood running just underneath the skin.

Giant Mesozoic Parasites of Dinosaurs

Blood-sucking Insects Plagued the Dinosauria

Picture Credit: Wang Cheng/Journal of Current Biology

A number of dinosaur parasites have been discovered and described over the last couple of months.   In March, Everything Dinosaur team members reported on some further Chinese research concerning the fossilised remains of huge insects that had probably “bugged” dinosaurs.

To read more about the recent Chinese discoveries: Giant Fleas from the Age of Dinosaurs

With work published in the scientific journal “Current Biology”, Poinar went onto to speculate how the evolution of many different types of insect during the Mesozoic changed the world in which the dinosaurs lived.  He went onto explain that insects from the Late Jurassic onwards probably had a huge impact in at least two ways.  Firstly, insects such as beetles were pollinators, and they encouraged the evolution of Angiosperms (flowering plants).  This may have affected dinosaur evolution with the Ornithischians emerging as the dominant plant-eating dinosaurs in the latter part of the Mesozoic.  Other types of dinosaur,ones that could not adapt to the changing fauna would have become vulnerable to extinction.

Secondly, as Poinar points out, dinosaurs had diseases, parasites and intestinal worms.  They probably got some of these conditions from insects such as these primitive flea-like creatures.  The evolution of many new types of parasite could have weakened the dinosaur genetic pool, thus adding to the woes of the Dinosauria.

Poinar went onto add:

“To a lot of them [the dinosaurs], this was something brand new they hadn’t been exposed to before and it would have decimated the population.  And it wasn’t just one disease but a combination of diseases.”

Parasites such as these super-sized fleas could have played a role in the extinction of the dinosaurs.

A number of studies have been carried out recently looking into how the Order Insecta diversified during the Age of Reptiles.  In one recent study, scientists looked at how biting lice that today “bug” birds became more diverse, probably as a result of feeding on feathered and non-feathered members of the Dinosauria.  It seems that one of the drawbacks of the short arms on Theropod dinosaurs was that they could not scratch themselves very effectively.  How these animals coped with the irritation caused by these parasites can only be speculated upon – T. rex having a favourite scratching post perhaps?

To read more about other parasites affecting the dinosaurs: The Tree of “Lice” – parasites of the dinosaurs

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