All about dinosaurs, fossils and prehistoric animals by Everything Dinosaur team members.
//June
10 06, 2013

Adding to the Triceratops Assemblage

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

Potentially Most Complete Fossil of Triceratops Discovered to Date

With all the new horned dinosaur discoveries it can be misleading to think that palaeontologists already have a comprehensive understanding of some of the more famous Ceratopsians, giant prehistoric beasts such as Triceratops for example.  However, this is not the case as a number of gifted and talented year six and seven school children will discover when Everything Dinosaur takes part in a special science day at their school this week.

Triceratops may have been described as long ago as 1888, but “three horned face” is still full of mystery for palaeontologists.  The recent discovery of three sets of Triceratops fossils, alongside leg material from a Tyrannosaur (probably T. rex) will help researchers to learn more about these giant Late Cretaceous herbivores.  One specimen may prove to be the most complete example of Triceratops (T. horridus) found to date

The discovery was made in May, near to the town of Newcastle, Wyoming.  Up until now, only two relatively complete Triceratops skeletons have been found, this famous dinosaur has been pieced together and become a mainstay of dinosaur galleries in museums from fragmented and disassociated fossils.

Field Workers Carefully Wrapping the Triceratops Bones in Plaster

Carefully preparing the fossils for transport.

Carefully preparing the fossils for transport.

Picture Credit: Black Hills Institute

Commenting on the discovery, which includes the lower limb bones and foot of a Tyrannosaur’s left leg, Black Hills Institute President Pete Larson stated:

“We have been given a rare, I would say unprecedented, opportunity.”

The excavation will take the Black Hills Institute working in collaboration with co-workers from the Naturalis Biodiversity Centre from the Netherlands, around a month to complete as at least two of the specimens represent an adult animal.

Dr. Larson went onto add:

“If you could imagine a person, 6-foot tall, inside the stomach of one of these adult Triceratops, they couldn’t reach each side of the rib cage.”

This newly discovered site could yield some important data.  Preliminary work indicates two adults and one potential juvenile, this could be interpreted as a family group indicating parental care, although it is too early to make conclusions.

We, at Everything Dinosaur look forward to hearing about this dig and we are also looking forward to working with the students this week as we explore some of the mysteries of Triceratops with them.

9 06, 2013

Collecta 1:40 Scale Model of Parasaurolophus Reviewed

By | June 9th, 2013|Everything Dinosaur Products, Product Reviews|5 Comments

Everything Dinosaur’s Review of the Collecta Scale Parasaurolophus

Easily recognised due to its distinctive crest, Parasaurolophus is one of the better known of the duck-billed dinosaurs when it comes to public perception.  However, it may be one of the more recognisable members of the Lambeosaurine Hadrosaurs but fossils of the species that make up this genera are less common than those from a number of other Hadrosaurine genera.

The Scale Model of Parasaurolophus from Collecta

Colourful and well made dinosaur model.

Colourful and well made dinosaur model.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Known from North America, New Mexico in the USA to Alberta in Canada, this Late Cretaceous herbivore may have reached lengths in excess of ten metres.  The backward, sweeping head crest in some of the larger specimens found to date measures nearly two metres in length.  For Collecta, a Parasaurolophus dinosaur model has been a part of their not-to-scale model series for many years, but they have posed this dinosaur on its hind legs.  The new scale model of Parasaurolophus is posed on all fours (quadrupedal stance).  The pose probably helps to stabilise this large model, but it also demonstrates nicely that adults probably spent most of their time on four legs, demonstrating their facultative bipedal behaviour only when they really needed to.

The model is indeed quite hefty, recent Hadrosaurine finds from the western United States have suggested that these duck-billed dinosaurs had very powerful back legs and deep, broad tails, traits which are well picked out by this new Collecta replica.  The dappled skin texture on the model also reflects evidence from the fossil record.  Measuring in at thirty centimetres, we estimate the scale to be around 1:33 rather than the stated 1:40 by Collecta.  However, since fragments of very large specimens are known and that it is possible for Parasaurolophus to have grown larger than ten metres, the scale stated by Collecta is fine by us.

To view the range of scale model prehistoric animals (Collecta Deluxe) available from Everything Dinosaur: Collecta Scale models of Prehistoric Animals

Like all the Collecta models, it is well painted and shows lots of detail.  There is a small flap of skin attached to the crest from the neck (painted blue) and the crest itself is coloured a vivid red and blue with nicely defined white eye patches around the face.  The stripes along the body would make excellent camouflage in this dinosaur’s woodland home and the colourful crest with its red, white and blue markings would have been clearly visible to any other Parasaurolophus that might have challenged it.

A Close up of the Head of the Collecta Parasaurolophus Scale Model

A red, white and blue crest, perhaps a patriotic "British" Hadrosaur.

A red, white and blue crest, perhaps a patriotic "British" Hadrosaur.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

In summary, an excellent model, an excellent addition to an excellent range.

8 06, 2013

Planning for Christmas Already

By | June 8th, 2013|Press Releases|0 Comments

Everything Dinosaur Plans the Christmas Rota

We may not have reached high summer here in the northern hemisphere, but today, Everything Dinosaur team members have been working out the Christmas staffing rotas.  Christmas for us is all about planning.  We have to fit our own plans around the need to pack and despatch orders from customers as quickly as we can.  In a bid to make sure that we have just about everything covered, staff have been working out who is going to be in the office and when.  In this way we can pack and send out orders rapidly avoiding any unnecessary delays.

With on line shoppers tending to leave their Christmas shopping later each year, at least we know that we have already got plans in place to help out where we can.  Our advice is to shop early and to take note of the last recommended posting dates (information that we will publish on this blog nearer Christmas), especially when sending gifts overseas.

There are just under two hundred days to go until Christmas day itself.  We intend to be working seven days a week in the busy run up to Christmas and all rotas and staffing plans are now in place.

Everything Dinosaur Getting into the Christmas Spirit

Plans already in place to help out with Christmas orders.

Plans already in place to help out with Christmas orders.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

 So whether it is customers looking for dinosaur models, dinosaur toys or dinosaur games, we know that our plans are in place to assist customers when it comes to their Christmas shopping.

 

7 06, 2013

Neanderthal Rib Bone Shows Signs of Cancer

By | June 7th, 2013|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories|1 Comment

Earliest Evidence of Cancer Discovered in Hominid Fossil Record

With a report out today from Macmillan Cancer Support stating that by 2020 nearly half the population of the United Kingdom will get cancer during their lifetime, scientists from the University of Kansas have been looking at the oldest incidence of hominid cancer yet found in the fossil record.  Many types of cancers today are associated with a diet which contains too much fat, or exposure to pollution, radiation or other toxins.  However, a fragment of rib bone found in a cave in Krapina, Croatia shows evidence of a fibrous dysplasia (bone cancer) in a Neanderthal.

Finding evidence of pathology is rare in the human fossil record.  Something such as a fleshy tumour would not be preserved as a fossil, but the evidence of a tumour can be seen as it has affected the internal structure of the rib bone.  The rib specimen is believed to date from around 120,000 years ago, a paper on its discovery and its implications has been published in the on line, peer reviewed journal, PLoS One (public library of science).

A Picture of the Diseased Bone (Top) Compared to Healthy Neanderthal Bone (Bottom)

Abnormal bone (top) compared to healthy fossil bone (bottom).

Abnormal bone (top) compared to healthy fossil bone (bottom).

Picture Credit: University of Kansas

Professor of Anthropology at the University of Kansas, David Frayer, one of the co-authors of the scientific paper commented:

“It’s evidence that Neanderthals suffered tumours — that they were susceptible to the same kinds of diseases that we see in modern humans.  Before this, the earliest tumour in bone that we’ve seen goes back to an Egyptian mummy.  So this is 100,000 years older[at least] than the previous tumour that has been found.  There is no evidence of cancer older than this in the human fossil record.”

The bone fragment is one of over 900 different hominid bones which have been found in the cave, along with other items such as stone tools.  The bone is not associated with a complete skeleton so it is impossible to say how severe the cancer was, or indeed whether or not it was the cause of death.  Researcher are not able to identify whether the bone comes from a male or female.  It does suggest that even in a pristine environment cancers were still present.

The Neanderthal (H. neanderthalis), is believed to be our closest relative, we share a common ancestor with the Neanderthals and in recent years study of both the Neanderthal and H. sapiens genome show that most people possess about 4 percent of Neanderthal genes in their genetic make up.

Neanderthals were short, stocky and heavily muscled.  Evidence of the heavy musculature appears in the extremely large muscle attachment scars on the fossil bones and the bowing of some of the limb bones.  Neanderthals were tough, used to hard physical work and suffered many injuries, although contrary to popular opinion they were not the brutish apemen often depicted in the early 20th Century.  They had large brains, were very well adapted to life in a cold climate and they made sophisticated stone tools.

Neanderthals Suffered from Cancers Too

Evidence of cancer in H. sapiens closest relative.

Evidence of cancer in H. sapiens closest relative.

According to the researchers, the Neanderthal bone is a 30-millimetre-long fragment of the left rib that shows a fresh break.  The break in the rib exposes a chamber that is 18 millimetres in length and 7.6 millimetres wide.  This cavity in the bone is highly unusual — ordinarily a rib is packed with cancellous bone.  After a detailed analysis with radiographs and CT scans, the investigators came to believe it was the site of a benign tumour associated with a bone cancer.

Fibrous dysplasia (bone cancer), is a developmental disorder of bone in which lesions develop fibrous tissue and spicules of woven bone.   However, it’s difficult to know for certain how severely the tumour affected the Neanderthal involved.

Detailed Analysis of the Bone Fragment Revealed the Pathology

Detailed analysis revealed the tell-tale signs of a bone tumour.

Detailed analysis revealed the tell-tale signs of a bone tumour.

Picture Credit: University of Kansas

Professor Frayer added:

“It wasn’t a small tumour.  It was a fairly large one, probably bulging at the base of the rib.  We’re not sure how far along it was, but it was well-expressed in the bone.  It was in the upper third of the back, and muscles attach there that are associated with raising the arm.”

This discovery will help scientists to understand a little more about how cancers could have affected our ancestors.  It also demonstrates that cancer is not a modern phenomenon and that although rare in the fossil record, it provides a clue to the complicated relationship between early humans and forms of cancer.

6 06, 2013

Oldest Primate to Date?

By | June 6th, 2013|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Palaeontological articles|0 Comments

Archicebus achilles – World’s Oldest Primate Fossil Named after Greek Hero

An international team of researchers has announced the discovery of the world’s oldest known fossil primate skeleton representing a previously unknown genus.  It has been named Archicebus achilles.  The fossil was unearthed from an ancient lake bed in central China’s Hubei Province, near the course of the modern Yangtze River.  In addition to being the oldest known example of an early primate skeleton, the new fossil is crucial for illuminating a pivotal event in primate and human evolution—the evolutionary divergence between the lineage leading to modern monkeys, apes and humans (collectively known as Anthropoids) on the one hand and that leading to living Tarsiers on the other.  This new species seems to be basal to the lineage that led to both Tarsiers and the true monkeys, the fossils have been dated to approximately 55 million years ago, a time when much of the northern hemisphere was covered in tropical rain-forest.

This tiny creature, with a body little more than seven centimetres in length, died and its remains were buried in the muddy sediments at the bottom of a shallow lake.  It must have been buried quickly as the carcase seems not to have been disturbed by scavengers.  Like most other fossils recovered from ancient lake strata, the skeleton of Archicebus was found by splitting apart the thin layers of rock containing the fossil. As a result, the skeleton of Archicebus is now preserved in two complementary pieces called a “part” and a “counterpart,” (slab and counter slab), each of which contain elements of the actual skeleton as well as impressions of bones from the other side.

Three Dimensional Images of the Holotype Fossil Material

The slab and counter slab, images produced by scanning the fossil material.

The slab and counter slab, images produced by scanning the fossil material.

Picture Credit: Dr. Ni Xijun

The picture above shows an image created following the scanning of the type specimen IVPP V18618.

Dr. Ni Xijun of the famous Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences led the research, a paper has just been published in the academic journal “Nature”.  Working alongside Dr. Xijun was Dr. Christopher Beard (Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh); Dr. Daniel Gebo (Northern Illinois University); Dr. Marian Dagosto of (Northwestern University, Chicago); Dr. Jin Meng and Dr. John Flynn of the American Museum of Natural History in New York; and Dr. Paul Tafforeau of the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF), in Grenoble, France.

In order to study the entire fossil, the scientific team first had to scan the specimen at ultra high resolution using the state-of-the-art facilities of the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France.  Three-dimensional digital reconstruction of the fossil using the synchrotron scans allowed the team of scientists to study the tiny, fragile skeleton of Archicebus in intricate detail.

Dr. Tafforeau explanined:

“During the past few years, we at the ESRF have developed the technology to look at those parts of the fossil that are still buried in the rock at a level of detail that is unique in the world.  Speaking virtually, we made the skeleton stand up.”

The skeleton of Archicebus is about seven million years older than the oldest fossil primate skeletons known previously, which include Darwinius from the Messel shales of Germany and Notharctus from the Bridger Basin in Wyoming (United States).

To read about the discovery of Darwinius masillae and the consequences for primate evolution: The Consequences of Darwinius masillae Discovery

In addition, Archicebus is potentially very important as it belongs to an entirely separate branch of the primate evolutionary tree that lies much closer to the lineage leading to modern monkeys, apes and humans.  Darwinius and Notharctus, are believed to be Adapiform primates that are early relatives of living lemurs, the most distant branch of the primate family tree with respect to humans and other Anthropoids.  

A spokesperson for the research team stated:

“Archicebus marks the first time that we have a reasonably complete picture of a primate close to the divergence between Tarsiers and Anthropoids.  It represents a big step forward in our efforts to chart the course of the earliest phases of primate and human evolution.”

An Illustration of A. achilles

Tree dwelling ancestor.

Tree dwelling ancestor.

Picture Credit: Dr. Ni Xijun

Dr. Christopher Beard, whose earlier work on other fossil primates from China and Myanmar (Burma), has placed Asia at the heart of early primate evolution, commented:

“Archicebus differs radically from any other primate, living or fossil, known to science.  It looks like an odd hybrid with the feet of a small monkey, the arms, legs and teeth of a very primitive primate, and a primitive skull bearing surprisingly small eyes.  It will force us to rewrite how the Anthropoid lineage evolved.”

Calculating the weight of this tiny creature at around 20-30 grammes, the research team conclude that this very small, light, animal probably lived in the tree canopy.  Studies of the teeth suggest that this mammal was an insectivore.  It probably hunted during the day (a diurnal habit), and Archicebus would probably have had to consume a lot of insects to keep its tiny body going, perhaps eating its own body weight in insects a day.

The basal evolutionary status of this new fossil, challenges an earlier theory that the first members of the Anthropoid lineage were quite large, the size of extant monkeys.  In fact, A. acihilles was slightly smaller than the smallest extant primate – the Pygmy Mouse Lemur from Madagascar.

One of the most significant observations made by the research team relates to the shape of the heel bone.  Far from being like a Tarsier’s calcaneus, the bone is more reminiscent of what one would expect in an Anthropoid.

Commenting on the importance of A. achilles anatomy, Dr. Beard said:

“The heel, and the foot in general, was one of the most shocking parts of the anatomy of this fossil when we first saw it; because, frankly, the foot of this fossil primate looks like a small monkey, specifically like a Marmoset.”

The international team have taken the best part of ten years to complete their studies.  This new basal member of the evolutionary line that would eventually lead to our own species takes its name from the Greek “arche” (meaning beginning or first; the same root as archaeology) and the Latin “cebus” (meaning long-tailed monkey).  The species name achilles (derived from the mythological Greek warrior Achilles), highlights the new fossil’s unusual heel bone.

Everything Dinosaur is grateful to the Chinese Academy of Sciences for their help in the compilation of this article.

5 06, 2013

Palaeogene Herbivorous Lizard Named after “The Doors” Lead Singer

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

Jim Morrison Honoured by Having a Prehistoric Lizard Named After Him

A few weeks ago we reported on the naming of a new genus of Arthropod after the film star Johnny Depp.  The Cambrian creature, a distant relative of today’s lobsters was named Kooteninchela deppi, as the scissor-like appendages found at the front part of the animal’s body reminded scientists of the titular character in the film Edward Scissorhands, a role played by Johnny Depp.

To read more about the Arthropod named in honour of this actor: Fossil Named after Actor in Edward Scissorhands Role

Now the singer/songwriter Jim Morrison, the front man of the “The Doors”, who died in 1971, is being honoured with the naming of an extinct, giant herbivorous lizard after him.  Jim Morrison had the epithet “The Lizard King” and this newly described Squamate, a member of a group whose extant members include Agamids and Iguanas, was certainly a “king-sized herbivore”, weighing in at near to thirty kilogrammes.

The terrestrial reptile, lived in south-east Asia from between 40 and 36 million years ago (Eocene Epoch), it has been named Barbaturex morrisoni, the name means “Morrison’s bearded king”, in reference to ridges found on parts of the creature’s mandible, its large size and the American rock star.

Barbaturex morrisoni – Able to Compete Against Mammalian Ungulates

Giant, vegetarian lizard discovered.  A plant-eater from the Eocene.

Giant, vegetarian lizard discovered. A plant-eater from the Eocene.

Picture Credit: Angie Fox

This large lizard was very probably herbivorous, the research team led by Dr. Jason Head from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (United States), claim.  The warmer temperatures of the Late Eocene Epoch permitted lizards to reach such large sizes and although the mammals were diversifying rapidly, it seems this large, plant-eating lizard was more than able to hold its own against them.  The scientists have stated that this is the largest, herbivorous lizard known to science.   The research team examined the fauna of this ancient jungle ecosystem and found that Barbaturex was larger than most of the carnivorous mammals and bigger than many of the mammalian herbivorous that shared its habitat.  Competition for resources did not appear to restrict its evolution.

Many types of lizard today, such as the Agamids and the Iguanas are much smaller than mammalian herbivores in their environment, they are also predated by larger mammalian carnivores.

Co-author of the study, Professor Russell Ciochon (University of Iowa), commented:

“Reptiles and mammals co-exist most places on the Earth today.  What is interesting about the “Lizard King” is that it was a large vegetarian co-existing and competing with other herbivorous mammals.  Large lizards on the Earth today, such as Indonesia’s Komodo Dragon, and in the past, such as the Late Cretaceous Chinese Chianghsia nankangensis and the Pleistocene Australian Varanus priscus, are all carnivores.  These large carnivorous lizards were eating the mammals they co-existed with, not competing with the mammals.  The large size of the “Lizard King” certainly protected it from many predators. But there is no doubt that it was hunted by mammalian carnivores of the day.”

Examples of the Fossil Material – Elements of the Jaw

Fossil evidence suggests a herbivorous diet.

Fossil evidence suggests a herbivorous diet.

Picture Credit: Proceedings of the Royal Society B (Biology)

The Order Squamata (lizards and snakes) can still surprise scientists even today, with new species being found occasionally, after all this Order of reptiles is the most diverse, most numerous Order of reptiles on the planet.  In 2010, scientists working on the Philippine island of Luzon announced the discovery of a new species of Monitor Lizard, one that could reach lengths in excess of two metres.  This lizard, named Varanus bitatawa, lives in the tree canopy and rarely ventures onto the ground, it too, like Barbaturex morrisoni is a vegetarian, although it weighs less than ten kilogrammes and much of its impressive two-metre length is made up of its long tail.

To read about the discovery of this new Monitor species: New Species of Vegetarian Lizard Discovered in the Philippines

Dr. Head explained that it was important to study past climates and ecosystems so that scientists can learn about today’s habitats and the interactions between faunas and floras.  During the Eocene, the average global temperature on the Earth was much higher than today, at around 20 degrees Celsius, the warm climate allowed the evolution of a large body size and the ability of lizards to successfully compete against the rapidly diversifying mammalian faunas.

The doctor then went onto explain how this new species got its name:

“I was listening to The Doors quite a bit during the research.  Some of their musical imagery includes reptiles and ancient places, and Jim Morrison was of course ‘The Lizard King’, so it all kind of came together.”

Average global temperatures today are around 14 degrees Celsius, however the scientists did not rule out the evolution of giant, herbivorous lizards in the future.  If global warming continues and the Earth does warm up and rain-forests and other tropical habitats come to dominate than the Squamata may well have representatives within it that are regarded as giant forms.

The fossils found in strata associated with the Pondaung Formation (Burma otherwise known as Myanmar), suggest that back in the Eocene this part of the world may have been as much as 5 degrees Celsius warmer than it is today.  The fossils, which include a lot of cranial and jaw material were found close to the village of Mogaung in the district of Sagaing, the scientists are keen to continue to their studies so that they can learn more about the ancient fauna that once roamed Eocene jungles.

4 06, 2013

From a Forest Based Diet to a Savannah Smorgasbord

By | June 4th, 2013|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories|0 Comments

Complimentary Studies Show Change in Hominin Diets Around 3.5 Million Years Ago

A series of scientific papers have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) that shed light on the changing dietary habits of prehistoric primates, including hominins in eastern and southern Africa.  From these studies, it seems that 3.5 million years ago (Pliocene Epoch), these creatures began to expand their diets, leaving behind a forest-based diet similar to that seen in extant Great Apes today and moving towards diets which indicate more time spent on the savannah.

The change in dietary habits may help explain why so many species of large primate were able to co-exist in Africa during the Late Pliocene, it seems that with more types of food on the menu and more habitats being called home, these hominins may not have directly competed with each other.

Fossilised Teeth Provide Clues to Ancient Eating Habits

You are what you eat!

You are what you eat!

Picture Credit: AFP

In four new research papers, scientists analysed the carbon isotopes found in the fossilised tooth enamel from eleven species of hominins and other primates.  The fossils spanned a period of geological time from approximately 4.1 million years ago to the beginning of the Holocene Epoch (10,000 years ago).  The researchers found that there was an increase in the consumption of grasses and sedges, plants from the savannah, or perhaps animals that fed on these plants were being consumed by these species.

University of Utah geochemist, Thure Cerling, the principal author of two of the new studies stated:

“At last, we have a look at four million years of dietary evolution of humans and their ancestors.  For a long time, primates stuck by the old restaurants – leaves and fruits – and by 3.5 million years ago, they started exploring new diet possibilities – tropical grasses and sedges – that grazing animals discovered a long time before, about 10 million years ago.  Tropical grasses provided a new set of restaurants.  We see an increasing reliance on this new resource by human ancestors that most primates still don’t use today.”

This leaves the scientists with an intriguing question.  As the average global temperature on the planet fell to around 15 degrees Celsius as the Miocene Epoch progressed, so extensive grasslands began to form and forests shrank back.  However, if grasslands were widespread by 6 million years ago, why didn’t the primates exploit this new habitat earlier?

The diets were analysed from the chemical make up of their teeth, identifying the carbon isotopes within them.  Broken fossil teeth were used in the study, with tiny amounts of fossil material extracted to make up each sample.

Chewing Grass and Sedges – Our Hominin Ancestors

At home on the plains.

At home on the plains.

The ratios of different types of carbon atoms, or isotopes, in fossils can give clues to what a fossil creature ate because different foods have different carbon isotope signatures.  In simple terms, when it comes to carbon isotopes “you are what you eat”.

Commenting on the study, Dr. Zeresenay Alemseged (California Academy of Sciences), a co-author on two of the papers stated:

“What we have is chemical information on what our ancestors ate, which in simpler terms is like a piece of food item stuck between their teeth and preserved for millions of years.  Because feeding is the most important factor determining an organism’s physiology, behaviour and its interaction with the environment, these finds will give us new insight into the evolutionary mechanisms that shaped our evolution.”

The isotope analysis methodology cannot determine what parts of grasses and sedges hominins ate – leaves, stems, seeds and-or underground storage organs such as roots or rhizomes.  This technique is also unable to determine when human ancestors began getting much of their grass by eating grass-eating insects or meat from grazing animals.  Direct evidence of human ancestors scavenging meat does not appear until approximately 2.5 million years ago, and definitive evidence of hunting dates to only about half a million years ago.

Professor Cerling explained that although this study provides some useful information there were still many puzzles to solve, he pointed out that:

“We don’t know exactly what they ate.  We don’t know if they were pure herbivores or carnivores, if they were eating fish [which leave a tooth carbon isotope signature that looks like grass-eating], if they were eating insects or if they were eating mixes of all of these.”

The scientists have concluded that species such as Australopithecus afarensis and Kenyanthropus platyops around 3.5 million years ago began to have a diet which was more grass based, they also tended to live in more open habitats.  The new studies show that these species not only lived on the savannah, but began to consume progressively more foods from their grassland homes.

Professor Cerling’s second study shows that while human ancestors ate more grasses and other apes stuck with trees and shrubs, two extinct Kenyan baboons represent the only primate genus that ate primarily grasses and perhaps sedges throughout its history.  Theropithecus brumpti ate a sixty-five percent tropical grass-and-sedge diet when the baboons lived between 4 million and 2.5 million years ago, contradicting previous claims that they ate forest foods.  Later, Theropithecus oswaldi ate a seventy-five percent grass diet by 2 million years ago and a 100 percent grass diet by 1 million years ago.  Both species became extinct, possibly as a result of increased competition from ungulates which were more efficient at processing grasses in their large guts.

The professor noted that primate grass-eaters such as the Theropithecus and the robust Australopithecines, also referred to as the Paranthropus, went extinct while modern human ancestors ate an increasingly grass-based diet.  Why?

He added:

“We now have good evidence that some early hominins began using plant foods that are not used in abundance by living African apes today, and this probably led to a major change in the way they used the landscape.  One consequence could be that the dietary expansion led to a habitat expansion, as they could travel to more open habitats more efficiently.”

The professor went on to add:

“We know that many early hominins lived in areas that would not have readily supported chimpanzees with their strong preference for forest fruits.  It could also be argued that this dietary expansion was a key element in hominin diversification.”

The study has also provided a possible answer to why there were so many different large primates able to co-exist in Africa during the Pliocene and early Pleistocene Epochs – they were not competing for the same food stuffs.

The researchers hope to be able to build on their isotope studies and gain access to new hominin discoveries so that evidence from new specimens can be added to their research programme.

3 06, 2013

New Research into Australia’s “Marsupial Lion”

By | June 3rd, 2013|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories|0 Comments

Teeth Study to be Undertaken to Discover the Diet of the Marsupial Lion

New research on the unique teeth of a 100-kilogram lion-like marsupial that lived 50,000 years ago is opening the way to understanding what may have been the most specialised carnivore Australia has ever seen.

Museum Victoria and Monash University Honours student Angela Olah has begun a research project that aims to understand the peculiar teeth of Thylacoleo carnifex – an Ice Age-era animal often referred to as a marsupial lion – by studying fossils collected from across Australia, now in the collection of Museum Victoria.

Research into the Diet of the Marsupial Lion

New research project to be undertaken.

New research project to be undertaken.

Picture Credit: Peter Trusler/Australian Post

“Thylacoleo was originally thought to be a herbivore because of its lack of canines (fang teeth) and because it belongs to the order Diprotodontia, which also includes kangaroos and other herbivores,” said Olah.  “However, Thylacoleo had long blade-like teeth along its upper and lower jaws that could have acted as scissors for meat.  They would have been useless for chewing vegetable matter.”

She went onto add:

“Thylacoleo’s blade-teeth suggest it had a limited carnivorous diet and was therefore a specialised hunter.”

To determine the nature Thylacoleo’s diet, Angela will be comparing the marsupial lion’s blade-teeth to teeth from living animals whose hunting methods can be directly observed, such as lions, hyenas and leopards.  She will also be using advanced laser scanning techniques and 3-D printing in her research.

“Thylacoleo’s teeth set it apart from every other living animal, so this research will shed some light on the evolution of Australian marsupials,” Angela said.  “In addition to that, by learning about Thylacoleo’s diet we also learn about the ecology of the area it lived in, which is key to unravelling the mystery of its extinction along with other Ice Age beasts.”

To read about a recent discovery of giant Diprotodont fossil bones in Australia: New Research into Megafauna of Australia Hints at Extinction Theory

Everything Dinosaur is grateful to the Museum Victoria (Melbourne, Australia) for sending us this news.

2 06, 2013

“Blood” from a Woolly Mammoth Carcase but Cloning a Long Way Off

By | June 2nd, 2013|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories|0 Comments

Woolly Mammoth Carcase from Siberia Holds Evolutionary Clues

The discovery of a partial female Woolly Mammoth carcase by scientists from the North Eastern Federal University, the Research Institute of Applied Ecology and the Russian Geographical Society may prove to be the best preserved found to date.  The carcase, when examined provided samples of blood and the tissue is still pink and “flesh-like” in parts.  This fossil find in the Lyakhovsky islands of the Novosibirsk archipelago in the Eastern Siberia sea moves the possibility of being able to clone a mammoth one step nearer, but cloning still remains a long way off.

Although a significant proportion of the creature’s body had been lost and there were signs of scavengers having attacked the corpse, the scientists were able to remove the head, the torso and one of the hind legs.  An assessment of the molars indicate that this Woolly Mammoth was between 50-60 years of age when she died.

Semyon Grigoriev, the leader of the field team working in the extreme conditions, commented:

“The fragments of muscle tissues, which we’ve found out of the body, have a natural red colour of fresh meat.  The reason for such preservation is that the lower part of the body was underlying in pure ice, and the upper part was found in the middle of tundra.  We found a trunk separately from the body, which is the worst-preserved part.”

Scientists Excavate Woolly Mammoth Carcase

Semyon Grigoriev busy studying the Woolly Mammoth carcase.

Semyon Grigoriev busy studying the Woolly Mammoth carcase.

Picture Credit: Semyon Grigoriev/Mammoth Museum

When the corpse was probed with a pick, some reddish liquid, originally described as blood began to ooze from it, a phenomenon not recorded before as far as we know and it is remarkable how well preserved some of the soft tissues may be on this particular fossil specimen. The researchers were able to collect samples of  this blood-like liquid.  It looks very dark and since the temperature at the time of the excavation was between -7 to -10 Celsius, it is remarkable that the blood would still be liquid at these temperatures.  The scientists have speculated that the blood may have some anti-freezing properties, perhaps an adaptation to living in extreme climates.  Alternatively, the flowing blood could be explained by the presence of bacteria with cryo-protective properties in the samples.  The carcase may have been contaminated and the blood has remained liquid in part due to the presence of these contaminants.

Liquid “Blood” was Recovered from the Corpse

Woolly Mammoth blood may yield important genetic material.

Woolly Mammoth blood may yield important genetic material.

Picture Credit: Semyon Grigoriev/Mammoth Museum

The blood,  or indeed the liquid containing elements of the constituents that make up Woolly Mammoth blood, which was found in ice cavities below where the belly would have been, will help scientists to understand more about the unique properties of cold-adapted mammals.  The Russian team are hoping that their discovery will further the research of University of Manitoba Professor Kevin Campbell, who has theorised that the haemoglobin of Woolly Mammoths had special properties that made it very efficient at delivering oxygen to tissues even at extremely low temperatures.  Recently, a phial of Mammoth blood has gone on display in a Canadian museum, to read more about this and the work of Professor Campbell: Woolly Mammoth Blood Goes on Display

The blood and tissue samples have been sent to Yakutsk so that they can be screened for any potential harmful bacteria and then it is hoped that other international Mammoth experts will be able to join the Russian team as they study this specimen.

Although the scientists had to work in very harsh conditions, being able to find carcases in the cold weather is very important as it aids the preservation of specimens.

Semyon Grigoriev explained that it was important to find Mammoths in cold conditions as the specimen would be thawed and subsequently damaged in the summer.  Such finds would not be as valuable to scientists as they attempt to plot the Woolly Mammoth genome with the long-term aim of cloning one of these Ice Age giants in the future.

Professor Campbell, has had the opportunity to study some of the photographs taken by the research team as the carcase was carefully excavated.  He noted that the soft tissues looked particularly well-preserved and he stated:

“The animal’s muscle tissue is pink rather than the brown colour it turns when the proteins are damaged and oxidised, indicating that it is “extremely well preserved.  The blood also appears reddish, it may be possible to look at any preserved haemoglobin.”

Evidence of Very Well Preserved Soft Tissue

Mammoth steaks anyone?

Mammoth steaks anyone?

Picture Credit: Semyon Grigoriev/Mammoth Museum

One of the objectives of the researchers is to identify intact, undamaged cells in the specimen.  Although fragments of genetic material have been recovered from some specimens, if an intact cell could be found then it would help to increase the possibility of being able to clone a living Mammoth.  An intact cell could be used to generate more cells and this would make cloning much easier than by trying to use fragments of DNA and piece data together from the DNA alone.

Does this Mean that Cloning a Woolly Mammoth is Closer?

Will the Woolly Mammoth return?

Will the Woolly Mammoth return?

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

However, many observers doubt that even a carcass this well preserved could yield any intact cellular material.  Enzymes in bacteria that normally live inside animals such as mammals rapidly break down cells and DNA shortly after death occurs.  To have any chance of finding such material the carcase would have had to be frozen solid very quickly, just a short time after death.  This said, the specimen does offer the intriguing possibility that our ability to clone an extinct animal from genetic material recovered from a fossil may be one step closer.

To read another recent article on the discovery of a Siberian Woolly Mammoth fossil: Russian Scientists Study Mammoth

1 06, 2013

How the Tortoise Got Its Shell

By | June 1st, 2013|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Palaeontological articles|2 Comments

New Research Sheds Light on the Evolution of the Chelonians

The Chelonians, the group of reptiles that includes tortoises, turtles and terrapins are very ancient, with origins dating back to the Permian geological period.  However, the fossil record for early types of these shelled reptiles is extremely poor and scientists had very few transitional fossils to study to provide data on how and when these reptiles evolved their unique shells on the outside of their bodies.   Chelonians possess a shell, it is made up of highly modified ribs, vertebrae and shoulder girdle bones.   These reptiles have a unique skeletal structure amongst vertebrates, their shoulder and hip girdles are inside their rib cage.  Some tortoises for example, can pull their heads and limbs and tail inside their protective shell, some species even have hinges within their shells allowing them to close the aperture for the head completely.

Critics of the theory of evolution had cited the complex carapace and plastron of turtles as being evidence to counter the evolution hypothesis, where over thousands of generations incremental changes lead to the development of new features and characteristics and hence new species.  How could such a complicated structure come about?  A team of researchers from the Smithsonian Institute (United States), have been studying a fossil of an animal from the Late Permian of South Africa that provides new information into the evolution of the Chelonia.

Fossils of turtles and tortoises from the Late Triassic, animals such as Proganochelys from Germany already had fully formed shells, what the scientists needed were earlier fossils of ancestral Chelonia that would provide information on the transition from a non-protected body to the evolution of an enclosing carapace and plastron locked together.  Five years ago, the first of the clues was unearthed in China.  The fossilised remains of an early turtle, one that lived ten million years before Proganochelys was discovered.  This creature named Odontochelys semitestacea, lacked the characteristic beak of extant turtles, instead it had teeth in its jaws and although it had a fully developed plastron (belly plate), the carapace was only partial, made up of extended and widened ribs and vertebrae but not fused together.  O. semitestacea was a transitional fossil, but what the research team really needed was a much older specimen, not Triassic material but fossils dating from the Permian to show the initial evolutionary line of the turtles and tortoises.

An Illustration of the  Late Triassic Tortoise Proganochelys

Triassic Tortoises already had evolved fused carapace and plastron.

Triassic Tortoises already had evolved fused carapace and plastron.

With newly discovered fossils of a modified parareptile known as Eunotosaurus africanus, from Late Permian aged deposits in South Africa, the Smithsonian team had an opportunity to study the origins of the turtle evolutionary line.  The team’s detailed study showed that this species also had distinctively broadened ribs and it  shared many anatomical features only found in the Chelonia, such as no inter-costal muscles that run in between the ribs, paired belly ribs and a specialised mode of rib development.  This suggests that E. africanus is basal to the Chelonia and represents an early step on the evolutionary path to the turtles, tortoises and terrapins that we know today.

Fossil Discovery Helps Scientists to Understand the Evolution of the Chelonian Shell

The tortoise shell - fossil evidence suggests the shape of things to come.

The tortoise shell – fossil evidence suggests the shape of things to come.

Picture Credit: Dr. Tyler Lyson

Peter Buck Postdoctoral Fellow at the Smithsonian’s department of Vertebrate Zoology, Tyler Lyson one of the authors of the study commented:

“Eunotosaurus neatly fills an approximately 30–55-million-year gap in the turtle fossil record.   There are several anatomical and developmental features that indicate Eunotosaurus is an early representative of the turtle lineage; however, its morphology is intermediate between the specialised shell found in modern turtles and primitive features found in other vertebrates.  As such, Eunotosaurus helps bridge the morphological gap between turtles and other reptiles.”

The ribs in most other animals protect internal organs and help ventilate the lungs to assist breathing.  Because the ribs of turtles have been modified to form the shell, they have also had to modify the way they breathe with specialised muscles.  This presents the scientists with their next challenge.  They plan to examine the novel respiratory system in turtles and see how it evolved in conjunction with the evolution of the turtle’s shell.  Studies of the embryos of turtles in the laboratory can assist them in this work, it seems that with the discovery of the South African fossil material, researchers are finally able to explain how tortoises and turtles got their unique shells.

In this short video sequence produced as an accompaniment to this scientific research, the evolution of the shell of Chelonians is demonstrated.  The computer generated images take the viewer through a series of evolutionary steps from Eunotosaurus africanus to a number of extinct forms, each with a more complete carapace and plastron.  This video shows how the ribs, shoulder girdle and back bones were slowly modified over time to help form the protective outer shell of the Chelonia.

An Extant South African Tortoise Compared to the E. africanus Fossil Material

Comparing extant with extinct.

Comparing extant with extinct.

Picture Credit: Luke Norton

The picture above shows an extant South African sideneck turtle next to its 260-million-year-old relative, Eunotosaurus africanus.

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