Ancient Fossils from New Guinea Help Scientists to Understand Distribution of Prehistoric Sea Cows
Fossilised Eggs and Large Dinosaur Bones Discovered
Sources at the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology (IVPP) in Beijing, China have reported the discovery of a large number of dinosaur fossils at a site in Laiyang City, in Shandong Province (East China). Over 130 fossils including fossilised egg fragments and large dinosaur bones were unearthed at an excavation adjacent to the village of Jingangko. Fossils were first discovered at the site back in 2010 and palaeontologists working for the IVPP have stated that many of the fossils are in an excellent state of preservation. Field workers have sealed off the fossils and their exposed matrix with gypsum to protect them before the site can be properly mapped and formal excavation work begun.
Wang Xiaolin, a researcher with the Institute and the scientist in charge of this site declared:
“Most of the fossils are relatively intact, and this is favourable for assembly of a complete dinosaur skeleton.”
Amongst the many fossilised bones the researchers have already recovered is a sixty centimetre long humerus (upper arm bone). The strata is particularly rich in fossil vertebrates and this latest excavation is one of a number going on in the area as palaeontologists have already unearthed many dinosaur fossils from at least twenty different layers of strata. Two years ago, the Chinese state set up the Laiyang region as a national park for dinosaur fossil remains.
Great Wealth of Dinosaur Fossils in Eastern China
Picture Credit: Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology
The picture above shows acclaimed Chinese palaeontologist Xing Xu amongst a bone bed of Hadrosaur fossils.
Shandong Province has been regarded as one of the most important dinosaur sites discovered in the last one hundred years or so. A number of important discoveries have been made, including a new genus of Tyrannosaurid and in 2010, Chinese scientists uncovered the fossilised remains of a new genus of large horned dinosaur which was named Sinoceratops zhuchengensis.
To read more about this discovery: New Genus of Chinese Ceratopsid Discovered
Toby Sends in his Prehistoric Animal Drawings to Everything Dinosaur
At Everything Dinosaur, we get lots of letters, emails, drawings and pictures sent into us. We do try to respond to all that we receive, even though there are quite a few mail sacks in the office. We get asked lots of questions about dinosaurs and other extinct creatures and we email out replies and explanations as quickly as we can. A typical example came in yesterday from Toby (aged 5) and his mum. Toby very kindly sent in a couple of drawings of some of his favourite prehistoric animals, a prehistoric crocodile and a drawing featuring Inostrancevia (a sabre-toothed predator of the Late Permian) and Scutosaurus, a huge, armoured reptile that weighed more than a 1,000 kilogrammes.
Toby’s Drawing of a Prehistoric Crocodile
Picture Credit: Toby (aged 5)
We note the careful way that Toby drew the nostrils on the tip of the upper jaw. Based on studies of prehistoric crocodiles such as Sarcosuchus, scientists believe that these enormous crocodiles could lie almost completely submerged waiting to ambush dinosaurs as they came down to the water to drink. The long jaws of Toby’s crocodile would make this particular croc a fearsome hunter.
Toby Sketches the Permian
Picture Credit: Toby (aged 5)
Inostrancevia was a member of the Gorgonopsid group of reptiles. We think that in some parts of the world, places like northern Russia for example, Gorgonopsids and Scutosaurs lived together. It is likely that the carnivorous Gorgonopsids preyed upon herbivores like Scutosaurus. We don’t get many pictures of Permian creatures sent into us and Toby must know his prehistoric animals as he has pictured these two animals together.
A Picture of a Typical Gorgonopsid (Inostrancevia)
Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur
The Armoured Herbivore Scutosaurus
Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur
Toby sent in a thank you note, he did very well with the spelling, indeed, we encourage mums and dads to get their young charges to write about dinosaurs. This is a great way to help children practice their hand writing skills. Our thanks to Toby and his mum for sending in these items to us.
One point raised in the letter that accompanied Toby’s drawings, was that Toby thinks that we at Everything Dinosaur post all the dinosaurs and prehistoric animals by hand, this is the point that Toby’s mum raised.
Toby Believes You Post Dinosaurs by Hand
Picture Credit: Toby’s Mum
This is an interesting point, Toby is right, we do check customer’s orders and post out all the dinosaurs and prehistoric animals by hand. For an explanation, we asked Sue (our leader), to highlight how customer’s orders get packed and despatched.
“When it comes to sorting out customer’s orders very specialist knowledge is needed, after all, our packing team have to be able to tell their Pachycephalosaurs from their Pachyrhinosaurs so we check over each other’s work to make sure we have put the right prehistoric animals in the right parcel. This also means that we can inspect and check the models to make sure they are in tip-top condition when they get sent out. An occasional problem we have found is that some items, such as large dinosaur models, can arrive in our warehouse with a little bit of damage after their journey to us from the factory, all deliveries get inspected, but by checking over the models before they get packed into an order, we have an extra safeguard in place. Everyone at Everything Dinosaur gets involved, it’s all about trying to provide the best service we can.”
So Toby is right, we all get involved with checking, packing and despatching parcels. Also, we all get the chance to view and admire the many pictures and drawings that get sent into us. We are grateful for all that we receive, so our thanks to Toby and his mum for taking the time to send in the drawings.
Estimating the Size of Leedsichthys
Regarded by many scientists as possibly the largest fish of all time, the filter-feeding teleost Leedsichthys is known from just a few fragmentary remains. With a skeleton made from cartilage, a material that has a poor preservation potential, scientists have struggled for more than a century to try to piece together data on this immense bony fish. The specific name for Leedsichthy is L. problematicus, which reflects the problems palaeontologists have had in interpreting the fossil evidence. After all, it was once suggested that fossils found in eastern England and now ascribed to Leedsichthys belonged to an armoured dinosaur.
A new study carried out by scientists at the University of Bristol in collaboration with the University of Kunming in China have estimated the growth rates of these Jurassic creatures. The research indicates that these animals ranged in size from 12 metres to 16 metres when fully grown. At the top end of this range, Leedsichthys is indeed capable of claiming the title of the largest, bony fish of all time. The animals that occupy a similar niche in today’s marine environment are also of an impressive size, filter feeders such as the Baleen whales, manta rays as well as basking and whale sharks.
There has been a lot of debate about just how big Leedsichthys actually was, to read an earlier article: Leedsichthys Subjected to Fish Shrink Ray
Professor Jeff Liston a member of the research team that reviewed the known Leedsichthys fossil material stated:
“Leedsichthys skeletons preserve poorly, often only as isolated fragments, so previous size estimates were largely historical arm-waving exercises. We looked at a wide range of specimens, not just the bones but also their internal growth structures – similar to the growth rings in trees – to get some idea about the ages of these animals as well as their estimated sizes.”
The Giant Filter-Feeder Leedsichthys
Picture Credit: Robert Nicholls
Occasionally, elements of the cartilaginous back bone are preserved. These parts of the skeleton can become mineralised and thus have a better chance of surviving the fossilisation process. Just like in shark species today, the discs that make up the back bone can show preserved internal rings that permit scientists to estimate the age of the animal when it died and how quickly it grew. Using data from documented Leedsichthys fossil finds, including evidence from a recently discovered specimen found near Peterborough (East Anglia, England), the team estimated that an, adult fish of 8-9 metres would be around twenty years of age. Lengths in excess of 16 metres would have been reached when the animal was around 38 years of age. Scientists are not sure how long these animals lived, but it has been suggested that these leviathans could leave for forty years or more.
The project began in Glasgow with a review of the remains of the giant Jurassic fish Leedsichthys, in conjunction with the excavation of a new specimen of this creature (the Peterborough specimen). Professor Liston, who ran the excavation in Peterborough, wanted to explore an anomaly as before Leedsichthys, most vertebrate suspension feeders did not grow much larger than half a metre in length. It seems sometime around 165 million years ago, the ocean’s ecosystem changed, which permitted these large vertebrates to evolve.
Professor Liston stated:
“The existence of these large suspension-feeding fish at this time is highly significant as it would seem to be clear evidence of a major change in plankton populations in the oceans of Jurassic Earth: a ‘smoking gun’ that something new, widespread and highly edible was around, possibly related to the first appearance of small crustaceans called copepods. This has implications for our understanding of biological productivity in modern oceans, and how that productivity has changed over time.”
The researchers also looked at specialist structures on the gills as a means of how Leedsichthys grew so large.
Professor Liston added:
“One of the truly fascinating aspects of this fish as a suspension feeder, is that it seems to have developed a unique mesh structure on its gills to help it extract plankton as the seawater passed through its mouth. Extremely delicate and rarely-preserved, it resembles the honeycomb pattern in a bee-hive. It functioned like a trawler’s net to trap plankton, and obviously was very effective, given the large sizes this animal achieved. This mesh structure is very different to what we see in today’s suspension-feeding fish and whales. It had a unique way of solving a similar problem.”
Filter feeding seems to have enabled Leedsichthys to grow to a very large size. Its bulk would have made it almost invulnerable to attack, very helpful when you shared the sea with predators such as Pliosaurs, Plesiosaurs and marine crocodiles.
Professor Liston had been involved in a related project reported upon by Everything Dinosaur in 2010. The fossil record is so poor for cartilaginous fish that there was a huge gap in the fossil record from the likes of the Middle Jurassic Leedsichthys to the filter feeders known from the Cenozoic. A discovery of a giant, filter-feeding fish of the Late Cretaceous (Bonnerichthys) helped plug what was a 100 million year gap in the fossil evidence.
To read more about Bonnerichthys: Filter-Feeder from the Western Interior Seaway (Cretaceous)
Crocodile Victim – Police Recover Body
A spokesperson for the police services in the Northern Territory (Australia) has confirmed that the body of a man snatched by a Saltwater crocodile has been recovered. The victim, named as 26 year-old Sean Cole, was attacked by a large four metre plus crocodile as he and a friend attempted to swim across the Mary River during a birthday party. Despite numerous signs indicating the danger of crocodile attacks and warnings from locals, it seems that Sean chose to go for a swim in a river renowned for having one of the highest densities of large crocodiles in the whole of Australia.
Crocodile Attack Victim
Picture Credit: NT News
Sean was celebrating a friends 30th birthday and he another male party goer decided to swim the river, Sean was attacked as he swam back having reached the opposite bank. Onlookers watched in horror as Sean was suddenly attacked. The attack took place on Saturday afternoon, the body was recovered today just a few yards from where the attack took place. In a statement, the police claim that the body was recovered around 5.30am this morning (local time).
Senior Sergeant Geoff Bahnert stated:
“Several of the group in the party witnessed the male being taken in the jaws of the croc for a period of time, and then he was out of sight. The Mary River is known worldwide to have the greatest saturation of adult Saltwater crocodiles in the world. You don’t swim in the Mary River.”
At least four crocodiles have been shot in the area following the incident, rangers say, including one believed to be responsible for Mr Cole’s attack. The Mary River Wilderness Retreat, just seventy miles south-east of Darwin is a popular destination for tourists and locals seeking a break from the city. As there are a number of large crocodiles known to be in the vicinity there are plenty of warning signs alerting visitors to the potential danger of a crocodile attack.
Swimmers Ignored Warning Signs
Picture Credit: Michael Franchi
This latest fatal incident comes at a time when the Northern Territory Department of Land Resource Management has released figures that show that there have been eighteen fatal Saltwater crocodile attacks since the legal protection of the species came into force in 1971.
Contrary to popular belief, it is not tourists who seem to be the most at risk from crocodile attacks. Wildlife scientist Yusuke Fukuda, who compiled the report, said sixteen of those fatalities were Territorians (local residents). The data is based on sixty-two confirmed attacks, fourteen of the victims were male. The department’s figures do not include attacks by crocodiles in captivity or when capturing crocodiles or collecting their eggs. The figures also do not include attacks with no reported injuries or unconfirmed attacks such as suspected drownings or missing persons. The data excludes any attacks from the smaller Freshwater crocodile (C. johnstoni).
Map Showing Location of Crocodile Attacks 1971 to 2013
Picture Credit: Northern Territory Department of Land Resource Management
Reflecting on how the local crocodile population has recovered since hunting was banned, Charlie Manolis, chief scientist at Crocodylus Park, a tourist attraction and crocodile research station in the Northern Territory, commented that during the days of hunting from the 1940s to the end of the 1960s, the Mary River region was one of the best spots to find large crocodiles. By the time the hunting ban came into force in 1971, there were very few crocodiles left in the river system. He went onto add that large crocodiles were regularly seen in the Mary River these days, the vast majority have moved into the river system from other parts of the Northern Territory.
“Slowly the population has increased. In a lot of the areas, the Mary River is quite different from other rivers. There is very little breeding that goes on, a lot of those animals that live there came from somewhere else. They are a bit like ‘boat crocs’ I suppose. That is why there are so many, there are a lot of large crocodile males, so the population is biased towards the males. As the population has increased over the last ten years, so more of the reptiles are moving into the upper freshwater areas.”
When asked to consider the action of the birthday party guests who tried to swim across the river, the chief scientist added:
“When you try and swim across a river that has ten crocs or one, there is still a chance you are going to get attacked.”
Dr. Manolis stated that culling opened the chance for people to get a false sense of confidence of going into the water and urged caution before considering a cull as a method of managing the crocodile population. He also said the consumption of alcohol was a factor in about half the crocodile deaths nationwide.
Amongst the myriad of books published on the subject of long extinct creatures, it is the dinosaurs that seem to have had the lion’s share of the limelight, their Mesozoic contemporaries the Pterosaurs, have largely been overlooked. However, this new publication, written by palaeontologist and science writer Mark Witton entitled “Pterosaurs” goes a long way to redressing this imbalance. These “winged lizards”, as that is what the term Pterosaurs means once translated from Greek, were the first vertebrates to develop powered flight, nothing like them exists today but thanks to Mark’s skilful writing accompanied by a number of his own original paintings and some exquisite close up shots of these enigmatic animal’s beautifully preserved fossil remains, the reader is rapidly brought up to date with developments in flying reptile research.
The book is essentially split into three distinct parts. The first nine chapters are dedicated to providing a broad understanding of Pterosaur evolution, the fossil evidence, their flight abilities and locomotion. If you have ever wondered how an animal as tall as a giraffe could possibly get off the ground, or where the Pterosauria fit into the Sauropsida (reptiles and birds) family tree, then these pages will go a long way to providing you with the answers. The bulk of the rest of the book is then dedicated to introducing and discussing the numerous Pterosaur groups currently recognised by the majority of “Pterosaurologists” and what a bizarre, eclectic collection the Pterosaurs prove to be. From the stout jawed, long-tailed Dimorphodontidae, through to the flamboyant Tapejaridae culminating in those giraffe-sized Azhdarchids, Mark attempts to introduce each group roughly in chronological order, focusing first on the earliest types of Pterosaurs and concluding with the very last of their kind. Most members of the public can recognise one or two types of flying reptile, thanks largely to their role as flying terrors in films, on television and the ubiquitous use of Pteranodon as a flying reptile model included in most dinosaur toy sets. By the end of chapter twenty-five, the reader has been given a comprehensive run down of the cast of characters that currently make up the Pterosauria Order.
Pterosaurs – Natural History, Evolution, Anatomy by Mark P. Witton
Picture Credit: Mark Witton
The picture above shows the front jacket illustration, the Pterosaur featured is the “antler crested” Nyctosaurus (chapter 18).
Some knowledge of biology, anatomy and scientific terminology would be useful, but to Mark’s credit he works hard to simplify and explain the nuances of these bizarre creatures in a language that enables the lay person to follow the points that are being made without necessarily dumbing down the scientific tone of the book. From our own perspective, with some knowledge of vertebrate palaeontology already, we found some of the details on the latest fossil discoveries, most notably from the Crato Formation (Brazil) and China’s Jiufotang Formation truly enlightening. In each chapter dedicated to a specific type of Pterosaur, Mark provides a skeletal reconstruction and life restoration of a typical member of this part of the Pterosaur family tree. This permits the reader to flick backwards and forwards thus comparing the different anatomical features of each type of Pterosaur with relative ease. A personal bugbear of ours, a fault found in many a technical tome on palaeontology that attempts to reach out to a wider audience, that of having illustrations supporting points made in the text, placed on subsequent pages and not adjacent to the text that the illustration refers to, is largely avoided. The excellent drawings and diagrams, including a number of Mark’s own paintings help to explain some of the more complex points made.
One diagram that we found ourselves constantly referring to occurs in chapter six, the part of the book that attempts to answer the most fundamental questions regarding the Pterosauria, why did they fly and were they any good at it? The author has very helpfully reproduced a graphical representation that compares and contrasts Pterosaur wing loadings and aspect ratios with modern fliers (birds and bats). From this single graph, the reader is given the opportunity to view the different morphologies of Pterosaurs in terms of their adaptations to certain types of aerial activity. Thus, one can see at a glance those members of the Pterosauria that most likely filled an ecological niche similar to some of today’s sea-birds as marine soarers as well as those flying reptiles more adapted to inland, arboreal habitats where they filled an ecological niche similar to extant aerial predators.
A Curious Sordes pilosus investigates a Late Jurassic land snail
Picture Credit: Mark Witton
The book has an extensive reference section, inviting the reader to explore the world of the Pterosaurologist further. A couple of small quibbles on our part, a glossary of terms at the back of the book would have been helpful as would a Pterosauria pronunciation guide but apart from these ever so minor points, Mark is to be congratulated for casting a comprehensive spotlight onto these remarkable reptiles.
The last chapter of “Pterosaurs” deals with the decline and final extinction of these leathery-winged creatures, although a little brief, it does leave the reader with a real sense of loss. These were not the misfits of vertebrate evolution, not simply a stop-gap before the Aves could step into their flying boots and dominate the skies, the book does much to change attitudes towards the Pterosauria. Yes, they were bizarre, but as a group they persisted for something like 150 million years, a lot longer than us hominids and that’s a sobering thought.
A Review of the Papo Dimetrodon (Pelycosaur) Model
The last of Papo’s 2013 releases in the company’s prehistoric animal model range is Dimetrodon, Papo’s first model of a animal that lived before the dinosaurs existed. Dimetrodon is not even closely related to the Dinosauria, it is a synapsid, a member of the Pelycosaur group of reptiles. Models of this sail-backed reptile have appeared very frequently in dinosaur model ranges and this is Everything Dinosaur’s review of the Papo Dimetrodon replica.
Why Dimetrodon should be so strongly associated with the Dinosauria alludes us, but a few years ago team members at Everything Dinosaur wrote a short article about this: Why is Dimetrodon regarded as a Dinosaur?
The Papo Dimetrodon Model
Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur/Papo
Dimetrodon was a large predator of the Permian geological period, a number of species are known, one of the largest of which, Dimetrodon grandis measured over 3.5 metres in length and would have weighed up to 200 kilogrammes when fully grown. The genus Dimetrodon was named by the American Edward Drinker Cope, it is one of over 1,000 prehistoric animals that this famous palaeontologists named in his lifetime.
The most prominent feature of Dimetrodon is its enormous sail which stretched across the animal’s back. This sail was supported by spines and the sail was actually quite thin. Papo have taken care to depict the spines and thin sail very carefully on their replica. This structure was most likely used to help regulate body temperature, although it may also have a played a role in courtship displays or other forms of visual communication between individuals, this perhaps helps to explain the patterning that the Papo design team have given the sail on their model.
The detailing on the skin is exquisite with individual scales clearly picked out. The presence of skin folds and the detailed scaling gives this model a very lizard-like appearance. The Papo Dimetrodon has a relatively long tail, early reconstructions of Dimetrodon showed this reptile with a short, stubby tail, but palaeontologists now know that this Pelycosaur did indeed have a long tail.
The lower jaw is articulated and Papo have been careful to depict the different sized teeth in the jaws with a reasonable degree of accuracy, the prominent notch in the upper jaw is present, providing a space for the oversized teeth in the lower jaw to fit into when the mouth is closed. Like the rest of the model, the head is very well painted and there is lots of detail to admire.
This new Dimetrodon model measures approximately 16.5 centimetres in length. If we assume that this is a model of Dimetrodon grandis, then we can conclude that this replica is in approximately 1:21 scale. Although, we are not aware of any scaling actually being stated by the manufacturer, this model would work well with any other replicas produced in a 1:20 scale format.
To view Papo models available at Everything Dinosaur: Papo Dinosaurs and Other Models
Intriguingly, Papo have chosen to give their Dimetrodon model only four toes on the hind feet. We think that this reptile had five toes on its feet, the front limbs of the model do have five digits which is correct. Trackways, trace fossils assigned to the Dimetrodon genus, showing a large animal with five digits on each foot have been discovered in North America.
All in all, this is an excellent Dimetrodon model and one that is a welcome addition to the Papo range of replicas. Perhaps, Papo will be encouraged to introduce other non-dinosaurian models into their prehistoric animal model series.
A Review of the Pachycephalosaurus Model from Collecta
The Pachycephalosaurs, often referred to as the “bone-headed dinosaurs” due to their greatly thickened skulls are a group of Ornithischian dinosaurs known almost exclusively from Upper Cretaceous deposits of North America and northern Asia. Although the majority of this group are only known from fragmentary fossil remains, most notably frontal and parietal bones of the skull, a number of Pachycephalosaur models have been made and this is a review of the Pachycephalosaurus dinosaur model manufactured by Collecta.
No complete skeleton of Pachycephalosaurus has been found, so interpretations of this dinosaur, the largest of the “bone-headed dinosaurs” discovered to date, are usually based on a scaled up version of the Pachycephalosaur known as Stegoceras. Collecta have depicted their Pachycephalosaurus in a bipedal pose with strong hind legs, five fingered hands and with a tail a fraction longer than the length of the shoulder girdle to the pelvis, although the actual body proportions are unknown.
The Collecta 2013 Pachycephalosaurus Dinosaur Model
Skull fossil fragments ascribed to Pachycephalosaurus are known from Canada and the western United States, mainly from the Province of Alberta and the states of Wyoming and Montana. The thickened skull dome is over 25 cm thick on larger specimens, exceptional protection for what was a relatively small brain inside the skull. The model makers at Collecta have elected to give their Pachycephalosaurus a more rounded skull, rather than the very domed shape seen in some reconstructions.
The skull dome was edged with a number of bony protrusions and spikes, these were most prominent towards the back of the skull. The muzzle was relatively short and it ended in short beak, in the Collecta replica, the beak is ever so slightly pointed and can be clearly made out on the model. The spikes and bony projections have been painted a bright yellow colour which contrasts nicely with the muted, camouflaged tones of the body.
The Collecta Pachycephalosaurus Viewed Close Up
Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur
The model measures a little over ten centimetres long, although the size of this dinosaur is not certain from the fossil evidence, based on a 4.6 metre long adult animal we estimate that this Pachycephalosaurus is in approximately 1:46 scale. The replica has a row of prominent, triangular spikes running from the base of the skull to the almost the very tip of the tail, a single line of spikes is also depicted on the neck, presumably providing some protection from attack and to protect the soft tissue of the neck when browsing on thorny plant material.
The neck looks quite long and stiff. The total number of vertebrae is unknown for any member of the Pachycephalosaur family, indeed how the neck bones articulated with the skull of Pachycephalosaurus is open to speculation. It had been thought that the thickened skulls and stiffened dorsal vertebrae of this type of dinosaur were adaptations for head-butting contests between individuals, although recent studies and biomechanical analysis of the skull domes have led to this form of intra-specific conflict being disputed.
To read more about the disputed theory regarding head-butting Pachycephalosaurs:
Evidence for head-butting dinosaurs: Head-Butting Dinosaurs After All
Contrasting evidence, Pachycephalosaurs may have used their reinforced skulls in different ways: Bone-headed Dinosaurs “bashed” in Different Ways
This model is supplied on a base, this prevents the feet from having to be oversized and the effect is to depict Pachycephalosaurus as an agile, strong-running dinosaur. The number of fragments of skull bone found in locations such as the Dinosaur Provincial Park Formation of Alberta suggest that Pachycephalosaurs were the most common, small-bodied dinosaurian herbivores in those ecosystems where their fossils have been found.
This is a fascinating re-creation of Pachycephalosaurus and an excellent addition to the Collecta range of prehistoric animal models. The Pachycephalosaurus replica and the rest of the Collecta prehistoric life range is available from Everything Dinosaur, the UK based retailer of dinosaur models, toys and games that is staffed by parents, teachers and real dinosaur experts.
To view Everything Dinosaur’s range of Collecta models: Collecta Prehistoric Animal Models
Dinosaur Fossil Sites in Heilongjiang Province Flooded
The important dinosaur excavation sites located at the foot of mountains in Jiayin County, Heilongjiang Province (north-eastern China), are in danger of being irreparably damaged as flood waters have covered much of the area where palaeontologists and field scientists have been working. All four dinosaur dig sites have been immersed in flood waters since the Heilong river burst its banks last week. The water levels, a record high for this part of China, could damage the delicate fossil material, cause exposed fossils to break up and others to be washed away in sediments. The strata in this part of China has revealed a number of important Mesozoic vertebrate fossils, some found nowhere else on Earth. A fossil record of a rich ecosystem could be seriously damaged, with much material lost forever.
Ironically, much of the fossil material was deposited in the region as a result of the action of river water and periodic flooding, now nature seems bent on taken back what it once gave. A spokes person has stated that the losses caused by the flooding would be “inestimable”.
Over the last few years, the state has invested in a number of flood defences and water management systems near the fossil sites, but dikes built to arrest any flood waters have not been able to cope with the volume of water. Flooding has also inundated the nearby Heilong River Basin Museum. Water first entered the building on Saturday August 17th and parts of the first floor of the museum are now under over a metre of water. Staff and volunteers have been working hard to remove artefacts and specimens to the second floor in order to prevent further damage. The museum was built on an island in the river, but no one envisaged such high water levels. Some parts of the Heilong River Basin are now covered in several metres of water and the authorities are concerned that water levels could rise further leading to more damage to the Province’s infrastructure and the important fossil rich strata of the area.
Chinese state media has reported that at least 105 people have died and a further 115 are missing after floods and a typhoon hit parts of China. Heavy rain in the north-east of the country has been falling since Wednesday of last week and this has caused substantial flooding and devastation. Typhoon Utor hit southern China, making landfall in Guangdong Province and this has caused devastation and at least a further 22 people have lost their lives.
Picture Credit: Reuters
Described as some of the worst flooding seen in living memory, volunteers, officials and state workers are working hard to strengthen flood defences in those parts of the country affected.
Dinosaurs – The Hunt for Life
Horizon, the documentary series regarded by many as the flagship science programme for the BBC is venturing into the world of the dinosaurs once again with a programme dedicated to the remarkable work of Dr. Mary Schweitzer and her colleagues. Scientists have had the fossilised bones of dinosaurs to study and over the last one hundred and eighty years or so much has been learned about these long extinct reptiles, but could there be more than just permineralised, long-dead material present in the fossils of dinosaurs? Could biological material such as cells, soft tissue, blood and possibly DNA from dinosaurs still exist?
The Hunt for Dinosaur DNA
Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur
On Monday 26th September at 9pm (BST) on BBC2, Horizon will focus on the work of Dr Schweitzer who believes that soft tissues and other organic material has been recovered from deep inside the long, dead bones of iconic animals such as Tyrannosaurus rex. Perhaps the idea of a Jurassic Park such as the one envisaged by the author Michael Crichton will one day be more than fiction, could the research carried out by scientists such as those at the North Carolina State University lead to the resurrection of some members of the Dinosauria?
DNA – Defined
DNA is deoxyribonucleic acid, a molecule of genetic material that determines the inherited characteristics of most living organisms. The vast majority of examples of the DNA molecule consist of a double helix made up of two long chains which are made up of nucleotides, these in turn are made up from 4 proteins referred to as nucleobases (thymine, guanine, adenine and cytosine) represented by the letters T, G, A, and C. Almost every cell of every organism from many viruses, amoebas, dinosaurs and humans has its own set of molecular instructions. The function of each cell is encoded in the chromosomes, these carry the hereditary data in the form of genes.
On this blog, team members at Everything Dinosaur have reported on a number of studies that claim that organic material has been recovered from the fossil record, although many scientists have been sceptical about such research. Mary made the initial discovery of T. rex soft tissue remains back in 2005, since then she has argued that organic material may actually be relatively common in well-preserved, robust fossils, but since very few people expected to find such material, it has been rather overlooked. Mary and her team are not alone when it comes to exploring the soft tissues of extinct animals. Montana State University has pioneered research into ancestral DNA through the study of bird embryos, confirming a now, well established view that Aves (birds) and the Dinosauria, especially Theropoda are very closely related.
One of Dr. Schweitzer’s co-authors on a number of soft tissue studies, Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School John Asara agrees with Mary, that there may be more organic material awaiting discovery. He has been working on a number of projects related to the study of fossilised proteins, which have reaffirmed the dinosaurs close affinity to the birds.
To read a short article on this work: Are You Going to Call T. rex Chicken?
A number of scientists and other academics have challenged these studies. It had been thought that DNA could not survive more than 10,000 years. It, like all other organic material would be rapidly degraded and broken down unless it was subjected to a very unusual manner of preservation, such as being entombed in ice, for example in the case of Woolly Mammoth remains from Siberia. In 2012, Everything Dinosaur reported on a piece of highly controversial research carried out on the fossilised bones of the Moa (a giant, flightless bird that once inhabited New Zealand). Analysis of the robust bones of three extinct species of New Zealand Moa by a team of international researchers led to the publication of the estimated half-life of DNA. Under the very best conditions for preservation, it was calculated that the proteins that make up DNA could persist in the fossil record and permit detectable traces still to be found in fossils as old as 6.8 million years.
Controversial research suggests a half-life for DNA: Calculating the Half-life of DNA using Moa Fossils
Still to recover DNA from a Tyrannosaurus rex would require DNA to remain preserved, uncontaminated and viable for nearly ten times as long. After all, the last T. rex went extinct around sixty-five million years ago.
Could what the suggests have found preserved in the fossilised bones of dinosaurs, be organic material from another source? Tests have shown that some of the material recovered reacts in the same way as organic material from birds. Is there contamination? How can the delicate organic material such as blood, collagen and proteins be preserved for so long? Do the tiny, microscopic fragments recovered really represent organic material from a long dead dinosaur?
Intriguingly, animals very far removed from Tyrannosaurus rex have lent support to Schweitzer’s and Asara’s claims. Researchers from the University of Copenhagen (Denmark), co-authored a paper that was published in the journal “Nature” about a study to sequence a portion of the ancestral horse genome from an equine fossil that was more than 700,000 years old. The research dramatically extended the limit for viable DNA survival in the fossil record. Recently, a fragment of a tibia (lower leg bone), recovered from 3.5 million year old deposits on Ellesmere Island (Canada) was proved to belong to an ancient camel, thanks to collagen finger printing carried out by University of Manchester scientists.
Recently Published Studies Push Back the Date of Viable Genetic Material from the Fossil Record
Picture Credit: D.G. Froese/Nature Journal
The horizon programme will focus on the research into dinosaur DNA, however, the implications of this soft tissue recovery will have far reaching consequences and may well lead to a reappraisal of what we do and don’t know about a whole host of extinct fauna.
Watch and enjoy.
To read a related article on the extraction of dinosaur proteins from an Ornithischian dinosaur: The Search for Proteins in the Femur of a Duck-Billed Dinosaur