All about dinosaurs, fossils and prehistoric animals by Everything Dinosaur team members.
//April
11 04, 2013

Carnegie Collectible Concavenator Model Reviewed

By | April 11th, 2013|Dinosaur Fans, Everything Dinosaur Products, Product Reviews|2 Comments

A Review of the Carnegie Collectible Concavenator (Safari Ltd)

Named and described back in 2010 from a single fossil specimen, Safari Ltd have been quick to create a model of the fearsome predator Concavenator  and add it to their Carnegie Collectibles scale model range of prehistoric animals.  Concavenator fossil material consists of a partial skull, some vertebrae and bones from the hip region.  Although this dinosaur is known from just one fossil specimen and a fragmentary one at that, when discovered, the fossils were some of the best preserved Theropod fossils to have been found in Europe.

The fossils of Concavenator (Concavenator corcovatus) were discovered in Lower Cretaceous strata in the Iberian mountains of Spain (Las Hoyas site).  During the Early Cretaceous, this part of Europe was covered in lush, verdant forests with rivers feeding a number of large lakes.  It is likely that the carcase of this dinosaur was washed into a lake and quickly buried, hence its excellent state of preservation.  Estimated to have measured more than five metres long, Concavenator was a formidable hunter.  Palaeontologists have speculated that this meat-eating dinosaur specialised in hunting smaller animals that shared its forest home.  The lithe model figure gives the impression of an agile hunter with strong grasping hands, ideal for snatching up prey.

The Carnegie Collectibles Concavenator Dinosaur Model

Carnegie Collectibles Concavenator dinosaur model.

Carnegie Collectibles Concavenator dinosaur model.

The model measures twenty-five centimetres although the long tail of this dinosaur makes up nearly half of the total length of the replica.  In the literature related to this Safari Ltd model a scale of 1:25 is stated and this reflects the scientific view based on current fossil material.  The model is supplied with a clear plastic stand to support it in its dynamic pose with head tilted and mouth wide open.

To view Everything Dinosaur’s range of Carnegie Collectible dinosaurs: Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal Models

Perhaps the most striking feature of this Cretaceous dinosaur is the long sail-like structure that is depicted in bright red and contrasting sandy hues on the Carnegie Collectibles model.  Palaeontologists found that the eleventh and twelfth vertebrae of the fossil specimen looked very different to the other back bones. It was speculated that these enlarged vertebrae supported a structure such as a short sail-like anatomical feature or a fleshy hump.

Why Concavenator possessed such a feature remains a mystery.  It could have been a storage area for body fats to help this dinosaur survive leaner times, as seen in today’s extant camels and bison, but although a number of theories have been proposed there has still not been a definitive answer provided.  The lack of fossil material is hampering scientists in their investigations.

Safari Ltd Carnegie Collectibles Concavenator Dinosaur 

Fearsome Early Cretaceous predator.

Fearsome Early Cretaceous predator.

The long, narrow, teeth-lined jaws of the Concavenator have a considerable gape, the body is painted with brown stripes, ideal camouflage for a forest hunter.  This suggests that the design team at Safari Ltd have taken great care when choosing this model’s colour scheme.

All in all, a delightful addition of an unusual Theropod dinosaur to the Carnegie Collectibles range of prehistoric animal scale models.  One that will prove popular with dinosaur model collectors, especially those who specialise in collecting models of European prehistoric animals.

10 04, 2013

New Study Suggest Human Ancestor Had Human and Chimp Characteristics

By | April 10th, 2013|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories|0 Comments

South African Scientists Making a Family Portrait of Ancient Hominid Australopithecus sediba

A series of ancient hominid fossilised bones have been at the centre of an intensive research programme as scientists attempt to piece together a better understanding of the evolution of hominids and ultimately the rise of our own species H. sapiens.  Several academic papers have been produced that suggest that the Australopithecine known as Australopithecus sediba had a combination of early human traits and those anatomical characteristics more closely associated with other apes such as chimpanzees.

To read about the discovery of A. sediba: New Fossils May Help Define Human Ancestry

One of the 1.95 million year old fossils, believed to represent a young male, was nick-named “Karabo” after a competition amongst South African school children to find an appropriate moniker for this important South African fossil discovery.  A seventeen year old student was declared the winner with the “Karabo” name, which means “answer” in the local dialect of the region where the fossils were found. It seems that this specimen and that of a female in conjunction with studies of a single leg bone (tibia) found at the same collapsed cave site are going to help palaeoanthropologists come up with “answers” as to how closely A. sediba is to the line on the hominid family tree that ultimately led to us.

A Reconstruction of A. sediba (Actual Fossil Material is shown in Brown)

Reconstructing the skeleton

Reconstructing the skeleton.

Picture Credit: Professor Berger/University of Witwatersrand

The fossils were found at Malapa, part of the famous Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, which lies just to the north-west of the city of Johannesburg.  The fossils were found back in 2008.  Since then they have been the subject of intense scientific study, with much of the work being carried  out by researchers based at the University of Witwatersrand, which has built up a substantial reputation for research into early hominid fossils.

The fossils were discovered by a University of Witwatersrand field team as they explored the fissures and pits left in the ground after the collapse of the roof of an ancient limestone cave system.  The more complete fossil specimens, a more mature female and a sub-adult male may have died together and it has been speculated that they were mother and son.  They could have stumbled into the pit by accident or become trapped in some other way.  When they died their bodies were washed into a pool and became deposited amongst a large amount of other animal remains including Sabre-Toothed Cats, antelope, hyenas and even birds.

The research teams have produced six separate reports, with each report focusing on a specific area of anatomical research.   This new analysis, summarised in the journal “Science” suggests that A. sediba had a human-like pelvis, very human-like hands and teeth but a foot much more like an extant chimpanzee.

The fossilised skeletal material (juvenile male = MH1), adult female (MH2) and the isolated tibia bone (MH4) was studied so that palaeoanthropologists could establish where in the Australopithecines (southern apes), A. sediba should be placed and in addition, whether or not this particular hominid played a direct role in the evolution of more advanced hominids such as Homo et al or whether this was effectively a sub-branch that led to an evolutionary dead end.  Scientists from Boston University (United States) examined the leg and pelvic bones and assessed A sediba’s locomotion.  This team concluded that this South African species walked in a unique way.   The small heel of the foot, more chimpanzee-like than human, suggests that  Australopithecus sediba walked with an inward rotation of the knee and hip, upright walking but not an efficient form of locomotion.

Comparing A. sediba with a Modern Human and a Chimpanzee Skeleton

A. sediba is in the middle, the human to the left of the picture with the chimp skeleton on the right.

A. sediba is in the middle, the human to the left of the picture with the chimp skeleton on the right.

Picture Credit: University of Witwatersrand

This primitive way of walking might represent a transitional phase from tree climbing limb development to lower limbs more suited to a bipedal form of movement.  Other anatomical features such as the long, strong arms suggest that this species of Australopithecine was at home in the trees and would have been well suited to an arboreal life style but also capable of walking upright.  When compared to other Australopithecine fossils from southern and eastern Africa it seems that some of these ape-men lived in trees, some walked on the ground and some did both.

A team of researchers based at Liverpool John Moores University (Liverpool, England), led by Joel Irish has been studying the dentition (teeth) of this hominid.  Just like other parts of the skeleton, the teeth show both human and ape-like characteristics.  The teeth are similar to another South African Australopithecine, known as A. africanus.  It has been proposed that these two species form a sub-group of southern Australopithecines, distinct from other early hominids that have been found in East Africa.

Such is the state of preservation of the specimens that Professor Lee Berger (University of Witwatersrand) has been investigating a thin layer of potential organic material found in association with the specimens.  It has been suggested that this represents fossilised skin from these ancient creatures.  Other scientists examined the shape of the ribcage and suggested that the thorax of these creatures was very similar to large simians today.  The proposed shape of the rib cage probably limited these animal’s arm movement when walking or running upright and this would have further hampered their ability to move efficiently as bipeds.

9 04, 2013

Bowhead Whales Reveal Link to the Last Ice Age

By | April 9th, 2013|Animal News Stories, Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories|0 Comments

Scientists Use  Computer Model to Assess the Future of the Bowhead Whale

The extinction of the large mammalian megafauna that roamed much of western Europe and North America around 11,000 years ago is well documented.  There have been extensive scientific studies undertaken into the extinction of iconic Ice Age mammals such as the Woolly Mammoth (M. primigenius), as the world suddenly warmed at the end of the last glacial period that marked the beginning of the geological Epoch referred to as the Holocene.  However, in comparison, little research had been carried out into how marine megafauna fared with the transition from a cold climate to a much more temperate one.

A team of European scientists have attempted to address this imbalance by studying the ancient DNA and extant populations of Arctic Bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus).  It seems these giant Cetaceans not only survived the end of the last Ice Age but the retreating ice sheets opened up extensive new habitats for these large mammals and their population subsequently boomed.

The Arctic Bowhead whale is the only whale species alive today that spends its entire life in Arctic waters.  Known also as the Russian whale these creatures, some of whom can weigh more than seventy metric tonnes are believed to be the longest lived of all the mammals.  It has been estimated that some individuals can reach the age of two hundred years or more.  These cold-adapted mammals have the thickest blubber of any extant whale species, given their adaptations, the warming of the Earth at the beginning of the Holocene should have spelled trouble for these krill-feeding giants but the research team discovered that those whales that had once swum off the coast of the United Kingdom had a population boom.

The Modern Day Arctic Bowhead Whale

Once swimming in British waters.

Once swimming in British waters.

Picture Credit: Dr. Andy Foote

Dr. Andy Foote, (Natural History Museum of Denmark) and his co-authors set out to discover how these whales coped with the climate change.  The scientific paper which details their research has just been published in the academic journal “Nature Communications”.

Using DNA from extant whale populations, the team compared this data with DNA extracted from partially fossilised material found in the North Sea.  To the team’s surprise, the fossils found indicate that these mammals lived in the southern North Sea during the last Ice Age.  In total fossil remains from the North Sea and from the waters around Denmark and Sweden were studied.  From this work, a computer model could be created, one that predicted the change in sea ice levels and the subsequent movement of whale populations over thousands of years.

Dr. Foote, who is based at the University of Copenhagen (Denmark) commented:

“Based on all previous studies using ancient DNA to estimate the population size it seems the trend was for cold-adapted species either [to] go extinct or decline in numbers at the end of the Ice Age as the temperature increased.”

However, whilst the likes of Megaloceros (giant elk), the Woolly Rhino and the Mammoths declined and became extinct it seems that some species of whale actually thrived as the Pleistocene gave way to the Holocene Epoch.  The researchers were able to demonstrate that the Bowhead whales essentially moved their range, migrating northwards to follow the retreating ice.  It is why these creatures are found in the Arctic today, but their numbers are threatened due to hunting and of course the changing climate of our modern world.

To read an article about Woolly Mammoth blood included in a museum exhibition: Canadian Museum to Display Woolly Mammoth Blood

Dr. Kristin Kaschner, a research affiliate at the University of Freiburg (southern Germany), stated that:

“The retreat of the ice in that particular case actually opened up very large areas where you all of a sudden had these ideal habitat conditions for these Arctic species.”

Marine animals such as members of the whale family are used to migrating very long distances, in this instance the ability to travel great distances probably worked in the mammal’s favour, they were simply able to move to more suitable habitats.  The retreating ice very probably opened up extensive new habitats for them and the population increased as a result.

The scientific data shows that today’s Arctic Bowhead whales can be genetically linked to the same population identified in the fossil material.  These Cetaceans have a direct link to whale populations that once swam around the British coast during the last glacial period.

This study does not just reflect on past populations, the model can be used to predict whale populations as climate change threatens the Arctic.  This research proposes that this whale’s “core habitat” will be greatly reduced in the next fifty years or so.  The environment that these whales have to live in could be halved by the end of the 21st Century.  If whale populations boomed when the habitat got bigger in the past, then the model predicts with shrinking habitat extinction would be a real possibility.

Loss of suitable core habitat in conjunction with the continued whaling could see the end of the Arctic Bowhead whale.

8 04, 2013

Australia’s First Seal – A Pliocene Pinniped

By | April 8th, 2013|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories|0 Comments

Fossil Donation to Museum Helps to Identify Australia’s First Seal

Many museums receive donations from fossil collectors and geologists.  These collections can prove to be invaluable and provide scientists with new material to study as well as providing a safe and secure home for much loved collections that can represent many years of fossil hunting.  One such collection donated to the Museum Victoria (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia), by a keen fossil and mineral collector has helped palaeontologists to identify the first fossil evidence of a seal (Pinniped) on the continent.

Ross Wilkie of Tooradin, a small town to the south-east of Melbourne, donated the mineral and fossil collection, the majority of which were found in Victoria in the Beaumaris cliffs, an area of Pliocene aged strata located approximately twenty miles from Melbourne.  The seal bone, part of an upper arm (humerus) has been dated to around five million years ago (Pliocene Epoch) and it is very similar in appearance to the equivalent bone in an extant Mediterranean Monk Seal (Monachus monachus).  The Mediterranean Monks Seal is one of the rarest large mammals in the world.  It has been estimated that there are only about five hundred individuals left in the eastern Mediterranean, however, it is remarkable to think that Australia’s first seal fossil should resemble a genus found on the other side of the world and not one from the southern hemisphere.

Beaumaris Bay – A Good Place to Find Fossils

Fossil site gets "seal" of approval.

Fossil site gets "seal" of approval.

Picture Credit: David Hastie/Museum Victoria

Dr. Erich Fitzgerald, the Senior Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology at the Melbourne based museum commented that fur seals and seal lions of the Otariidae family live in the waters around southern Australia.  Back in the Pliocene the situation was different, the area was inhabited by a completely different clade of seals, these now are found in the Old World.

Dr. Fitzgerald went on to explain that the humerus specimen was very important as it provided evidence of unexpected biodiversity in the Pliocene of southern Australia.

The fossil bone, is just part of a large collection built up over forty years by amateur fossil collector Ross Wilkie.  The collection also consists of fossils of prehistoric dolphins, sharks, whales and even penguins.  The collection will provide scientists with more material to study and it will help them to understand more about the marine fauna that existed in this part of the world approximately five million years ago.  For Mr Wilkie, he was prompted to donate his collection after reading a newspaper article about the importance of fossil finds in the Beaumaris cliffs area.

Mr Wilkie explained that he has always had an interest in rocks, minerals and fossils, his fascination starting in his childhood, when he came across a fossilised shark’s tooth whilst skin-diving in Beaumaris Bay.  The museum staff are always delighted to receive such donations and they are the first to acknowledge the contribution made to geology and palaeontology by amateurs, after all, if the material was not collected from Beaumaris, it could easily be destroyed by erosion and lost to science forever.

Dr. Fitzgerald, praised Ross Wilkie for his kind gesture and stated:

“Palaeontology is one of the few branches of science where literally anyone can make a big impact by finding just one fossil.  By donating his remarkable fossils to a public museum collection, Mr Wilkie ensured they will be studied, which will shed light on their broader significance and preserve them for future generations.”

7 04, 2013

New “Scariest Dinosaur of All” to Feature in Jurassic Park IV

By | April 7th, 2013|Dinosaur Fans, Movie Reviews and Movie News, Press Releases|14 Comments

Hyperbole about New Jurassic Park Film has Started – Which Scary Dinosaur?

With a release date for Jurassic Park IV already announced (June 2014) and a director already on board (Colin Trevorrow), it seems that the rumour mill has started in earnest.  With some filming having been completed already and more location work in the swamps of Baton Rouge (Louisiana), under way, it seems the question as to which dinosaurs will actually appear in the new feature film has raised its ugly head.  The CGI teams are keeping their creations under wraps for the moment, but the new film, the fourth in the Jurassic Park franchise; has some way to go to beat the scary dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals featured in the first three movies.

Jurassic Park, released in 1993 had T. rex and the man-sized Velociraptors as the scariest dinosaurs, although a case could be made for the Dilophosaurs and their habit of spitting poison at their victims.  We all know that the movie makers departed somewhat from the known fossil record, but the first film was truly scary in parts, with lots of “jump out of your seat moments”.  In the sequel, “The Lost World” the T. rex and the raptors were prominent once again.  The Tyrannosaur and its baby even made their way to America for the finale of the film.

Which New Scary Dinosaur for Jurassic Park IV?

Candidates for scary movie dinosaur wanted

Candidates for scary movie dinosaur wanted.

Picture credit: Everything Dinosaur

For Jurassic Park III, released in 2001, a new super predator was introduced, a Spinosaurus which promptly attacked and killed a T. rex before causing havoc amongst the human actors.  Although very few fossils of Spinosaurus have been found, those associated with the holotype having been destroyed in World War II, palaeontologists believe that Spinosaurus may have been the largest, terrestrial carnivore that ever lived.  Some scientists estimate that this monster could have been more than seventeen metres in length and weighed more than twenty tonnes.

With possibly the largest land living carnivore known to science featuring in the third movie in the franchise, how will Colin Trevorrow and his team trump the previous Jurassic Park outings?  In an interview given this week, John (Jack) Horner, one of the palaeontologists that has advised the franchise makers, stated that Jurassic Park IV will feature a new dinosaur species one that is more scary than anything else seen in the previous three films.  But which type of dinosaur could the American palaeontologist have been referring to?

Since 2001, there have been a number of new Theropod dinosaur discoveries so there are plenty of candidates.  Could the new “scary” dinosaur be the man-sized Tyrannosaur known as Raptorex, or could the bizarre Late Cretaceous meat-eater with its double-sickle shaped killing claws known as Balaur bondoc be the new star?  With B. bondoc, think Velociraptor but a more robust, heavy-weight version.

The Fossilised Remains of the Left Foot of B. Bandoc

Candidate for scary dinosaur.

Candidate for scary dinosaur.

Picture Credit: Mick Ellison, Zoltan Csiki, Matyas Vremir, Stephan Brusatte, Mark Norrell, American Museum of Natural History

There are certainly a number of other potential movie monsters in the dinosaur fossil record.  Given the liberties taken by the franchise in the past it is difficult to predict what new horrors they may invent.  One of the longest and most established rumours concerning the making of a fourth film is that there are going to be dinosaur/human hybrids featured.  Drawings of such dino-man creatures were made many years ago and we at Everything Dinosaur have been lucky enough to have seen some of these fearsome creations.

One of the Abandoned Concept Drawings

Dinosaur Human Hybrid

Dinosaur Human Hybrid.

Picture Credit: Total Film

Other potential new stars for this fourth film include the likes of Giganotosaurus and Mapusaurus from South America, ow how about the USA’s own home-grown super predator, the Early Cretaceous Acrocanthosaurus (A. atokensis).  This hump-backed, fearsome carnivore was probably the apex predator in the southern part of the United States in the Early Cretaceous, there is some evidence to suggest it hunted in packs and the movie series has not featured large Theropods hunting in packs, so why not include some footage in the new movie?

Will the USA’s very own Acrocanthosaurus be the New Star?

A new dinosaur film star?

A new dinosaur film star?

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

We would welcome comments and suggestions, we have not touched upon the Ornithischian dinosaurs or considered prehistoric crocodiles, marine reptiles or indeed the Pterosaurs.  If you were making a dinosaur film and had to include a scary dinosaur which ones would you choose?

6 04, 2013

Extinction Theory of the Woolly Rhino – Big and Too Heavy for Deep Snow

By | April 6th, 2013|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories|1 Comment

Female Woolly Rhino from Late Pleistocene Gives up Her Secrets

The fossilised remains of a female Woolly Rhino which was discovered as a Russian gold mine was extended, is providing scientists with a unique insight into the anatomy of these large prehistoric mammals.  The carcase is so complete that the stomach contents have been studied and a team of scientists from the Russian Academy of Sciences (Yakutsk), have proposed an interesting theory as to why these herbivores from the Ice Age became extinct.

The corpse, preserved in the frozen permafrost, was found during excavations at a gold mine, the fossilised remains of the Woolly Rhino (Ceolodonta) was found at a depth of between five and nine metres.  The fossil was first discovered in 2007 and since then it has been moved from the lower reaches of the Kolyma River were the corpse had laid for the best part of 39,000 years back to a laboratory so that the large specimen could be studied in detail.

Lead researcher, Gennady Boeskorov (Russian Academy of Sciences) stated that the fossil consisted of the head, the two characteristic horns of Coelodonta antiquitatis, much of the body and all four stubbly legs.  The stomach contents had been preserved but most of the other internal organs were absent.  The Russian team have also postulated a new theory to explain the extinction of the Woolly Rhino at the end of the last Ice Age.  The team suggest in a detailed paper published in the academic journal the “Biology Bulletin” that the sudden warming of the atmosphere led to more moisture in the air which subsequently fell as snow or rain.  Heavy snow falls would have made the stubby-legged, heavy footed Woolly Rhino very uncomfortable as they probably could not move very effectively in snow more than thirty centimetres deep.  These animals would have become immobile and the snowfall  may have led to their demise.

An Illustration of a Woolly Rhinoceros

Doomed by deep snow?

Doomed by deep snow?

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Studies of the load bearing properties of the female rhinoceros show that these heavy animals placed a pressure on the ground of 1.8 kilogrammes per square centimetre of the three-toed hooves of this Perissodactyl ungulate.  This is three times higher than a modern-day moose.  This suggests that in snow these animals would have sunk and struggled to make progress in particularly deep snow.

Scientists have thought for sometime that the extinction of Coelodonta was due to their inability to adapt to rapid climate change.  This large, stocky rhino is believed to have been an animal of grasslands or open woodland, where snow would lie on the ground for only a few weeks per year.  Heavy snowfalls due to the rapidly warming atmosphere would have seriously hampered these animals and when the snow thawed, the Woolly Rhinos were probably cut off from other populations by flooding.  Such heavy, short-legged creatures would have become stuck in hollows caused by melting ice and many of them could have died from starvation, drowned in the rising ground water or simply been picked off by predators once they were trapped.

Scientists from the Russian Academy of Sciences studied the anatomy of extant large mammals of the High Arctic, grazers such as the Saiga and the Musk Ox.  They discovered that once snow levels got up to these animals stomachs, they found it very difficult to move.  This suggests that the Woolly Rhino would have had similar problems.

The carcase of this female Woolly Rhino has also given the Russian team a good idea of how this extinct species is related to those rhinos alive today.  They propose that Coelodonta was similar to the very rare Javan Rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicus).  The female probably weighed around 1,500 kilogrammes and as she had two mammary glands it is likely that these large animals gave birth to one calf or very rarely twins.  Their slow breeding could also have led to their demise.

The ears have been preserved on this Woolly Rhino.  They are shaped differently from the ears of modern rhinos.  They are more narrow and lancet shaped, an adaptation to a cold environment where narrow ears would have reduced heat loss from the body.  This is why Woolly Mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius) had smaller ears than today’s living elephants.  A number of western European cave paintings depict Woolly Rhinos and the ears of this Russian specimen are just like those in the cave art.  It seems that these early artists had an eye for detail, especially when it came to depicting these large herbivores.

Woolly Rhinoceros as Depicted in Cave Art (France)

Cave art depicts a Woolly Rhinoceros

Cave art depicts a Woolly Rhinoceros.

Picture Credit: BBC/inocybe

Dr. Boeskorov commented that as the Late Pleistocene gave way to the early Holocene, climate change and the threat of increased snow fall would have led to prolonged “white overs” and this may have hastened the demise of this animal.

It was stated:

“It is quite likely [this] factor played an important role in the extinction of the Woolly Rhinoceros.”

With the ice and snow melting, the landscape would have become increasingly saturated with water and pitted with deep hollows and bogs, these would have formed natural traps that the short-legged rhinos could not have got out of.

“In addition, the natural traps presented certain danger for such a short-legged and heavy creature.”

5 04, 2013

Thank you from School after Dinosaur Teaching Session

By | April 5th, 2013|Educational Activities|0 Comments

Thank you card from School after Learning All About Fossils and Dinosaurs

We received a big thank you card from Year 1 pupils a couple of days ago.  The very colourful dinosaur themed card had been sent into Everything Dinosaur after a recent school visit.  Each of the children had coloured in a dinosaur picture and this had been stuck to the card with their teacher adding a brief thank you note inside.

The card arrived with some thank you letters that the children had composed, an extension activity following a visit from one of our dinosaur experts that was aimed at helping to develop expressive writing amongst these Key Stage one pupils.

The Thank you Card we Received

A thank you card after a school visit.

A thank you card after a school visit.

We enjoyed reading all the letters and we are always keen to hear from young dinosaur fans.  A dinosaur themed term topic, aimed at Primary school children is a great way to help these enthusiastic young palaeontologists develop writing skills as they learn to express feelings, emotions and to extend their vocabularies.  We are pleased that the children and the teaching staff enjoyed our dinosaur workshop.

5 04, 2013

Scientists Set Off In Search of Coelacanths

By | April 5th, 2013|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories|0 Comments

Sea Caves to be Explored – The Lair of the Coelacanth

A joint French and South African expedition is setting out today to attempt to learn more about the elusive Coelacanth, a fish once believed to have died out with the demise of the dinosaurs and is often referred to as a “living fossil”.  Whilst the term “living fossil”, a phrase once popular with academics during the 19th and 20th Centuries, may be out of favour with many scientists today, after all, it implies that some species stop evolving and remain unchanged for millions of years, the Coelacanth remains a truly remarkable fish.  However, very little is known about the habits and behaviour of this relatively deep water predator.

The team, a joint expedition of the French National Museum of Natural History (Paris) and the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity intend to explore a series of deep water caves off the east coast of South Africa (Sodwana Bay) which is where a population of these ancient types of fish are believed to live.  Just like a military operation, the expedition has been given a code name – “Gombessa”, the local name for the Coelacanth in fishing communities of the Comoros Islands and the KwaZula Natal coast.

Coelacanths belong to a group of lobe-finned fish known as the Actinistians, part of the larger Sarcopterygian clade, which includes lobe-finned as well as lung-fish.  These fish originated during the Devonian geological period and some of the earliest Coelacanth specimens from the fossil record date to around 375 million years ago.  The Coelacanths were thought to have become extinct with the last known fossil genus Macropoma at the end of the Cretaceous period some 65 million years ago.  A Coelacanth was caught off the coast of eastern South Africa in 1938, this caused a sensation.  A trawler boat fishing off the Chalumna river estuary caught a bizarre looking fish in its nets and once the vessel had returned to port, the curator of a nearby museum was notified and it was from her notes and sketches that led to this specimen being identified as a Coelacanth.

A Picture of the Coelacanth Caught in 1938

The discovery of the Coelacanth in 1938.

The discovery of the Coelacanth in 1938.

Picture Credit: Sciencecases.org

Occasionally, these fish are caught by fishermen, catches have been made off the Comoros Islands and other deep water channels off the coast of east Africa.  A second species has been discovered in the waters surrounding Indonesia.  It has been speculated that other populations and species may exist but as these fish live in depths of more than one hundred metres and seem to be mostly active at night, very little exploration of likely habitats has actually been undertaken.

The “Gombessa” expedition intend to dive around the Jesser Canyon, a relatively deep, sea-water trench in Sodwana Bay.  There are  caves in this area and it is thought that these fish, some of which can grow to more than 1.5 metres in length may lurk in the caves, using them as lairs to hold up during the daytime before venturing out to hunt at night.  The first Coelcanth caught on film was one that was filmed by a BBC Natural History Unit, which happened to be in the Comoros filming for the ground breaking BBC television series, narrated by David Attenborough called “Life on Earth”.  The camera crew were alerted that a Coelacanth had been caught and it was still alive.  The team were able to get some footage of the creature the following morning,  but it was very weak and near death.  More recently some footage of Coelacanths has been shot during deep water dives.

This new expedition will attempt to film these animals in their natural habitat using low intensity light cameras.  They plan to take three dimensional moving images of the strange fins of these creatures, perhaps proving or disproving once and for all whether or not these fish actually “walk on their fins”.  The team will also attach harmless acoustic tracking devices so that they can track their movements and learn about where these prehistoric fish go.

The Coelacanth is an example of a “Lazarus taxon”, an organism once thought to have died out only to be found living in modern times.  Recently, Coelacanth numbers have been causing concern, extensive dredging and pollution in the waters of eastern Africa as the area is developed for commercial shipping in conjunction with increased fishing may have led to a reduction in the Coelacanth population.  The expedition will be working over the next few weeks to try to learn as much as they can about this peculiar fish, in the hope that the knowledge gained may help with their conservation.

Commenting on the scientific importance of the Coelacanth (Latimeria), John F. Graf, a palaeontologist at the Southern Methodist University (Dallas, United States), stated:

“What makes the Coelacanth interesting is that they are literally the closest living fish to all the vertebrates that are living on land.  They share the most recent common ancestor with all of terrestrial vertebrates.”

In 2010, those clever people at Safari Ltd introduced a wonderful Coelacanth replica into their Wild Safari Dinos model series.  The model measures a little over sixteen centimetres in length and it is painted a vivid blue.

The Wild Safari Dinos Coelacanth Replica

Ancient fish model - Coelacanth

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The model is a very accurate depiction of a Coelacanth, the white dots on the model are typical of those seen on extant Latimeria.  One of the things the expedition hope to find out is what the dots are for, as all the specimens caught to date have their own unique white markings.  The model depicts the bizarre fringed tail, made up of three distinct lobes perfectly and it is a super detailed replica of a creature which we can trace its origins back to the Devonian.

A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur stated:

“Diving to depths in excess of one hundred metres can be very hazardous, but the research is desperately needed if we are to understand more about these very ancient creatures.  Data obtained during this expedition could help to protect the existing population and prevent the Coelacanths from becoming effectively extinct for a second time.”

4 04, 2013

Wild Safari Dinos Gastornis Model Reviewed

By | April 4th, 2013|Dinosaur Fans, Everything Dinosaur Products, Product Reviews|0 Comments

A Review of the Gastornis Replica from the Wild Safari Dinos Model Range

One of the new additions to the diverse range of prehistoric animal models offered by Safari Ltd in their Wild Safari, Dinos and Prehistoric Life model series is an exciting replica of the “Terror Bird” known as Gastornis.   This American based manufacturer of figures and models has built up a very strong reputation for the quality of their creations and this new model of a giant, flightless bird is no exception.

The genus of flightless birds ascribed to Gastornis have fossils that date from the Late Palaeocene Epoch to the Late Eocene (58 to 41 million years ago).  During this period in Earth’s history, the mammals may have radiated and diversified, but in many habitats the largest terrestrial creatures were giant, flightless birds.  Some specimens of Gastornis for example, may have exceeded more than two metres in height.  Fossil remains found in Europe, notably France and Germany indicate a robust, heavy bird with relatively short legs.  The Safari Ltd replica has the head bent down and forward somewhat, as if this prehistoric creature was about to grab some unsuspecting Creodont (an extinct Order of mammals).

The Gastornis “Terror Bird” Model

Model of a giant, flightless bird but was it a predator?

Model of a giant, flightless bird but was it a predator?

The broad beak is beautifully painted and the design team have made sure to include lots of detail around the mouth, including the creature’s pink tongue.  Having the bird posed with its beak open permits this detail to be shown, but in real life most birds don’t wander round with their mouths open.  Ironically, a significant proportion of prehistoric animal replicas are posed with their  mouth’s wide open, one of the unusual aspects of model collecting when comparing figures to extant creatures.

The paintwork on the model shows the usual care and attention with the striking, almost metallic blue of the skull contrasting well with the dark overtones of the bird’s plumage.  It was particularly pleasing to note that the feathers immediately behind the head have been painted a much darker colour than the rest of the body.  Many birds, such as those of the Crane family (Gastornis may be related to Cranes), show variation in feather colouration around the back of the head and neck.  With many living species of birds that show this trait, the colouration differences are used in courtship displays, perhaps the giant Gastornis had an intricate and graceful courtship, unfortunately, since this genus of prehistoric bird has no near extant relatives this can only be speculated upon.

The model is supplied with a clear plastic stand that can be used to support the figure if needed.  As with all bipedal models it can be quite tricky sculpting a replica that remains stable even on  a deep pile carpet.  Individual feathers can be picked out, a nice touch, they give the impression of a shaggy, feathery coat, but the feathers seem more asymmetrical in shape when compared to the bristle-like feathers of modern-day flightless birds such as the Kiwi and Rhea.

A Close up of the Head of the Model Gastornis

Vivid paintwork on the back of the skull

Vivid paintwork on the back of the skull.

The tiny wings are very well depicted and each wing has a black margin of feathers running along the rearward edge, the wings are vestigial, the likes of Gastornis evolving into a cursorial animal, a creature of the hot and humid tropical forests that stretched around the world during the early Cenozoic.

To view the range of Safari Ltd models available from Everything Dinosaur: Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal Models

Scientists remain uncertain as to the diet of this particular “Terror Bird”.  Academics studying fossils in the 19th and 20th Centuries were broadly in agreement that this four hundred kilogramme bird must have been carnivorous.  Biomechanical studies carried out on the beak and the skull suggested that this creature had a bone-crushing bite.  However, more recent studies have suggested that the lack of talons on the feet and relatively slow running speed of this bird may indicate a herbivorous or omnivorous diet.  For example, the huge beak with its immense rostrum would have made a very effective nut cracker.  Perhaps, this giant of the Palaeocene/Eocene fed on seeds and nuts with the odd small mammal or lizard thrown in for good measure.

Diatryma or Gastornis – An Explanation

Growing up it was often confusing when it came to this particular flightless bird.  In some textbooks, it was referred to as Gastornis, whilst in others it was named as Diatryma.  The first fossils ascribed to either genus were scientifically described in 1855 and the species G. parisiensis was erected.  The species name refers to the fact that the first Gastornis fossils were discovered near Paris.  In 1876, the famous American palaeontologist Edward Drinker Cope named and described a new type of giant, flightless bird from fossils found in the western United States.  The genus of Diatryma came into being.  In the late 19th Century and into the 20th Century more fossils of Gastornis/Diatryma were found and it was discovered that the fossilised bones were very similar anatomically.  So similar that in fact the  fossils of birds known as Diatryma could just as well be ascribed to the Gastornis genus.  As the name Gastornis was established first, it is regarded as the senior synonym of Diatryma.  Scientists still debate whether the fossils from the United States are sufficiently different from those found in Europe to allow a distinct genus (Diatryma) to be validated.

These flightless birds, predatory or not could be regarded as the very last descendants of the Theropod dinosaurs to hold a position amongst the megafauna in terrestrial habitats.  As the Palaeocene ended and the Eocene started mammals had begun to take over the dominate ecosystems.

Everything Dinosaur’s Scale Drawing of Gastornis (G. parisiensis)

1.75 to 2 metres tall.

1.75 to 2 metres tall.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

It is was a pleasure to see a Gastornis added to the Wild Safari Dinos model collection.  The figure measures a fraction under eleven centimetres in length, so it represents something like a 1:15 scale replica of the extinct bird.  This model will no doubt, prove popular with dinosaur model collectors and those enthusiasts who prefer to collect more unusual prehistoric animal figures.

3 04, 2013

Fossilised Feathers Helping to Identify the Colour of Dinosaurs – It’s a Bit of a Blur

By | April 3rd, 2013|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Palaeontological articles|0 Comments

Shape of Melanosomes and Hence Plumage of Dinosaurs Questioned 

Over the last couple of years or so, a number of scientific institutions have published academic papers revealing evidence of melanosomes preserved in fossil specimens.   As the shape and structure of these microscopic fossil features can provide evidence of the pigmentation and colour of an organism, the geometry of these melanin-loaded specialised elements within a cell, effectively acts as a colour chart for the animal the fossils represent.

Feathered Microraptors – Still Uncertain Regarding Colouration

New research casts doubt over previous colour claims.

New research casts doubt over previous colour claims.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Perhaps one of the most famous fossils of all, material ascribed to the Late Jurassic transitional bird/reptile fossil known as Archaeopteryx (Archaeopteryx lithographica) has had melanosome evidence presented.  In this case, a single feather preserved in the fine grained lithographic limestone of the area suggested that the tip of the feather may have been coloured black.  The research was carried out in 2012 and undertaken by a team from Yale University, Brown University, the Carl Zeiss Laboratory (Germany) and the University of Akron (Ohio, United States).  Using extremely high-powered microscopy, the international research team identified the colour of a single fossilised feather, very likely from an Archaeopteryx.  They concluded that the feather, most probably a wing feather was black at the tip.  Their conclusions were based on the geometry (shape) of the remains of melanosome structures that they had observed.

To read more about the Archaeopteryx research: Archaeopteryx – Back in the Black

However, the colour of Archaeopteryx or any other animal in the fossil record with preserved evidence of melanosomes is not quite as “black and white” as it seems.  A new paper, published in the scientific journal “Biology Letters” suggests that over millions of years, the shape and structure of the melanosomes can be distorted under heat and pressure and the fossilised shape may not have much of a resemblance to the structure of these pigmentation organelles when the organism was alive, and in the case of Archaeopteryx, flapping around.

Debate Likely to Continue over the Colour of Archaeopteryx

Getting into a flap over the colour of feathers

Getting into a flap over the colour of feathers.

Picture Credit: Carl Buell

The theory about melanosomes providing a guide to the colour of an extinct animal is on the surface very simple, but the trick, as with most aspects of palaeontology is the analysis of the data.  Melanosomes contain melanin and these specialised cell structures are present in skin, hair and feather cells.  The colour of the melanosome relates to a specific pigment.  Although the fossilisation process may have degraded all signs of actual colour, the ghostly shapes of the melanosomes themselves are often visible using specific lighting and optical devices such as high powered electron microscopes.  The preserved size, layout and shape can give palaeontologists some suggestions about the original colour in the organism.

Maria McNamara et al (University of Bristol), have published a study which suggests that the properties of melanosomes preserved in such fossils as the remains of dinosaur feathers, could become distorted and therefore provide scientists with misleading clues as to the original colour.  Under Professor Mike Benton (University of Bristol), some of the initial research into the colour of feathered dinosaurs was undertaken.  Professor Benton, in collaboration with Chinese colleagues provided evidence of the first colouration of a member of the Dinosauria back in 2010, when it was announced that the cursorial Chinese Theropod Sinosauropteryx may have been ginger.

To read more about the potential colouration of dinosaurs: Ginger Dinosaurs?

Maria and her fellow researchers mimicked the fossilisation process of feathers by simulating burial by placing modern-day bird feathers into an autoclave and then subjecting them to temperatures in excess of 250 degrees Celsius.  The chamber which held the experiment, was pressurised to 250 atmospheres, the intense heat and extreme pressures would be similar to the forces applied to strata and the fossils within them over millions of years.

When the melanosomes were studied under high magnifcation, the structure and shape of many of them had changed.  In effect, they had become distorted and withered.  This could lead to misinterpretations of fossil material if the melanosomes found preserved were taken at face value.

Ryan Carney, a research scientist based at Brown University, one of the team members who worked on the Archaeopteryx case study, black feathers and all, commented that shrinkage had been taken into account when he and his co-workers prepared their Archaeopteryx paper.  Their black feather conclusion was based on observations made using hundreds of melanosome structures that the team studied under very high magnification.  Although, the melanosomes may shrink a little during the fossilisation process, their original shape can still be determined by examining an imprint left in the matrix by the organelle (organelle – specialised area of a cell with specific functions).

Referring to the Archaeopteryx study he stated:

“We found that the length and width of melanosomes were significantly smaller compared to those of the imprints, the shrinkage was actually quite similar to that of the McNamara et al experiment”.

McNamara and her team remain confident in the validity of their data and they have provided intriguing evidence which requires careful analysis in the light of the current research.  For example, another important conclusion from this research is that melanosomes survive the heat and pressure of fossilisation even after the destruction of other non-melanin colour traces such as carotenoids (organic pigments, responsible for example for the colour of carrots and apricots).  Carotenoids can create vivid shades of orange, green, yellow, red and blue in feathers, however, in the University of Bristol experiments the multi-coloured feathers tested gave results indicating that they were just black.  This was because their non-melanin organic pigments had been destroyed and only the melanosomes survived to give the false reading of black.

With this conclusion in mind, the discovery of melanosomes in a fossilised feather such as that from a 150 million year old specimen such as Archaeopteryx might not necessarily mean that the original feathers were coloured black, reddish or brown.

McNamara commented:

“The bottom line is that until we understand how the fossilisation process affects these colour-producing chemicals and structures, and until we know how to look for evidence of these in fossils, there’s really no point in attempting to reconstruct colour of feathers based on melanosomes alone.”

Being able to determine the colour of an extinct animal would be very helpful in trying to work out its behaviour or how it reacted to its environment.  Knowing the true colour of a Velociraptor for instance, would enable palaeontologists to assess how it camouflaged itself or used visual signals to communicate with other members of its kind.  If a number of fossil specimens of different aged individuals could be studied, scientists might be able to see how the colouration changed as the animal grew, what differences there may have been between males and females etc.

Examining a Highly Magnified Image Showing Melanosome Structures

Interpretation of melanosomes.

Interpretation of melanosomes.

Picture Credit: Brown University

The Archaeopteryx study also led to some conclusions related to the development of avian flight.  The melanin in the wing feathers may not only have provided colouration but also helped to increased the strength of the feather, very helpful to have strong feathers with core strength if you are trying to evolve into a more active and efficient flier.

There is still so much to learn about fossils, new techniques and new areas of research are providing some astonishing data but we still have a long way to go before we can say definitively what colour a feathered dinosaur may have been.

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