All about dinosaurs, fossils and prehistoric animals by Everything Dinosaur team members.
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12 09, 2015

Mapping the Dinosaur Heritage of Western Australia

By | September 12th, 2015|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page|0 Comments

Dinosaur Tracks Getting Mapped in Western Australia

The extensive dinosaur tracks that can be found along the coast of Western Australia are getting plenty of tender loving care as a team of scientists led by researchers from the University of Queensland attempt to map and produce three-dimensional images of all these ancient trace fossils.

The fossilised footprints, permitting palaeontologists to go “walking with dinosaurs” are found near to the town of Broome (Western Australia) and north along the coast of the Dampier Peninsula, a relatively remote area, some nine hundred kilometres south-west of the city of Darwin.  The dinosaur trackways were granted National Heritage status, after a successful lobbying campaign, back in 2011, yet scientists have not been able to map all the tracks and prints preserved in this area, famous for its high tides.

The tides are part of the problem, this is a macro-tidal environment with tidal surges in excess of ten metres frequently occurring.  A number of prints are only exposed for a few hours a day whilst other tracks are only exposed on extremely low tides that occur just a couple of times per year.

A Jumble of Sauropod Prints Exposed on the Shoreline

These tracks could have been made by a herd of Sauropods.

These tracks could have been made by a herd of Sauropods.

Picture Credit: Dr. Steve Salisbury

Back in the spring of 2014, Everything Dinosaur reported in this blog on the calls for more research to be done on this unique fossil assemblage.   The hundreds of tracks represent many kinds of Early Cretaceous dinosaurs – Theropods, Stegosaurs, Ornithopods and Sauropods.  Some of the footprints believed to have been made by Sauropods (long-necked, large-bodied, long-tailed giants) measure over 1.5 metres in diameter, making them some of the largest dinosaur trace fossils known to science.

To read this earlier article: Call for More Work to be Done on Western Australia’s Dinosaur Tracks

Although, some of the tracks, especially the three-toed (tridactyl) prints are very obvious, the only way the extent of the tracks can be fully appreciated is by viewing them from the air.  Drones and light aircraft have been employed by the researchers to photograph and plot the dinosaur footprints.  In addition, some of the drones and aircraft have been kitted out with LiDAR equipment, which is helping to create a three-dimensional map of the terrain.  LiDAR (light detection and ranging), uses pulsating laser lights to plot features in the landscape in combination with satellite positioning technology to make highly accurate maps of the tracks.

More mundane research methods are also being employed such as photographing individual prints and making silicon rubber moulds.  All this research is very worthwhile as some of the prints are being rapidly eroded away by the action of the sea and tides.

Drones are Used to Plot the Dinosaur’s Movements

Dr. Salisbury and colleagues are using drones to plot the trackways.

Dr. Salisbury and colleagues are using drones to plot the trackways.

Picture Credit: Damian Kelly

It is believed that these tracks were made in the Early Cretaceous, around 130 million years ago (Barremian faunal stage of the Cretaceous), these fossils are something like twenty million years older than the dinosaur fossils associated with Queensland such as the Titanosaurs Diamantinasaurus and Wintonotitan.

Commenting on the mapping project, Dr. Steve Salisbury (University of Queensland) stated:

“These tracks are at least 15 to 20 million years older than the majority of dinosaur fossils that have been found at sites in eastern Australia.  We can, to a degree, accurately reconstruct scenes that happened 130 million years ago.  That’s not imagination, that’s piecing it together from the evidence found in the rocks.  It’s a powerful way of bringing these ancient worlds back to life.”

We at Everything Dinosaur wish the research team every success with their colossal mapping effort.  They are helping to preserve and to secure data from a very important Early Cretaceous fossil site.

11 09, 2015

My Changing Polacanthus

By | September 11th, 2015|Book Reviews, Main Page|0 Comments

In Praise of the Polacanthids

Not the best known of all the armoured dinosaurs perhaps, that accolade goes to the likes of Stegosaurus, or even Ankylosaurus, but the often overlooked Polacanthus is one of those prehistoric animals afforded great affection amongst many palaeontologists, fossil collectors and dinosaur fans alike.  After all, Hylaeosaurus, suspected as being a member of the Polacanthidae, was the third dinosaur to be named and described, in fact Hylaeosaurus (H.armatus) was named in 1833, several years before Richard Owen erected the Dinosauria.

The Polacanthids are being given more of the limelight as a new book all about these dinosaurs has been published by Siri Scientific Press.

More Makeovers than Most – the Polacanthidae

Lizard-like, cold-blooded with round, conical and upward pointing armoured spikes.

Lizard-like, cold-blooded with round, conical and upward pointing armoured spikes.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

This new book, entitled “British Polacanthid Dinosaurs” has been written by retired university lecturer, William T. Blows and very informative it is too.  Everything Dinosaur team members will produce a more complete review of this new publication in the near future but for the moment there is just time to reflect on the changing views regarding the Polacanthidae that have taken place.  Early interpretations of this armoured dinosaur, envisaged it as a slow-moving, cumbersome, squat animal which was very much cold-blooded and lizard-like.  However, over the last three decades or so our perceptions have changed.  Gone are the giant toad-like features, the conical horns that point upwards and that heavy, dragging tail.  The polacanthid makeover is illustrated on the front cover of this hardback.  The more modern interpretation created by renowned British artist John Sibbick is in stark contrast to the picture of Polacanthus below.  It is worth remembering that the second illustration comes from a series of images commissioned by the Natural History Museum (London) and created by artist Neave Parker back in the 1950’s.  This impression of Polacanthus held sway into the early 1990’s.

British Polacanthid Dinosaurs (Front Cover Illustrations)

The front cover of the book all about British Polacanthids

The changing appearance of the Polacanthidae.

Picture Credit: Siri Scientific Press

For further information about this excellent book and to purchase a copy: Siri Scientific Press

The reformation of Polacanthus began to gain wider appreciation when it was featured in the ground-breaking television series “Walking with Dinosaurs” made by the BBC and first aired back in 1999.  In episode four, which was called “Beneath a Giant’s Wings”, the landscape of Europe 127 million years ago was featured.  In one memorable scene, a solitary Polacanthus is tagging along with a herd of Iguanodons.  It seems that the team behind these programmes could not quite make up their minds about how Polacanthus should look.  Its tail is lifted off the ground, although it does slope downwards and most of those conical spikes have gone.  The limbs are held more directly beneath the body but this dinosaur is depicted as a solitary creature, one that did not live in herds (or flocks), unlike the more social (and therefore more interesting to the viewers), Iguanodonts.  In the book that accompanied this series, Polacanthus does get mention, albeit a brief one and in our edition (a first edition), there is a type layout error in the middle of the Polacanthus passage.

Polacanthus Fossil Illustrations and Explanations

The book features lots of colour plates showing Polacanthus fossil material.

The book features lots of colour plates showing Polacanthus fossil material.

Picture Credit: Sir Scientific Press

It is good to see that this book redresses the balance somewhat.  It provides a comprehensive overview of the known polacanthid fossil material.  After a short introduction to armoured dinosaurs, the history of the fossil discoveries is covered and the reader is taken through a tour of the anatomy of these heavily armoured dinosaurs.  With a focus on British polacanthids very much in evidence, it was good to see that the author had dedicated one special chapter to the fossils of members of the Polacanthidae found elsewhere in the world.  The final chapter, brings Polacanthus very much up to date with a detailed overview of HORSM 1988.1546 which leads to the establishment of a new genus.

To read more about HORSM 1988.1546: A New British Dinosaur is Announced

It is almost 150 years to the day since the genus Polacanthus was erected (Owen), it is great to see the publication of a book solely dedicated to these most fascinating of creatures.  We wonder what the Crystal Palace statue of Hylaeosaurus would make of it all…

10 09, 2015

Homo naledi – New Species of Hominin from South Africa

By | September 10th, 2015|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Main Page, Palaeontological articles|0 Comments

New Human-Like Species Homo naledi

Researchers from the Evolutionary Studies Institute (University of Witwatersrand), in association with National Geographic, the Department of Science and Technology and the National Research Foundation of South Africa have announced the discovery of a new species of hominin whose fossils were found in an almost inaccessible chamber in a cave system located in the Cradle of Human Kind, on the outskirts of Johannesburg (South Africa).  This new species named Homo naledi shows a mixture of Autstralopithecine traits such as primitive hips and shoulders, but size of the teeth, the slender jaw and wrist bones are remarkably like our own.  Cautious not to refer to this new species as a “missing link” in our own evolution, anthropologists have suggested that the fossils will provide an unprecedented amount of data on how the human family evolved.  As for brain size, the brain of this new species was roughly the size of an extant gorilla.

In total, an astonishing 1,550 bones were recovered from the chamber, these represent fifteen individuals ranging from young children, to adults to the elderly.  The discovery is the largest single collection of hominin fossils found together in the whole of Africa.  Researchers are confident that these fossils will change our ideas about human ancestry.

An Amazing Fossil Hominin Collection (Homo naledi)

The most extensive hominin fossil find from Africa

The most extensive hominin fossil find from Africa

Picture Credit: John Hawks/University of Wisconsin-Madison/University of Witwatersrand

The first set of fossils were discovered in 2013 in a cavern known as the Rising Star (Dinaledi Cave) by Witwatersrand students and volunteer cavers.  The fossils were found in a chamber, some ninety metres from the actual main cave entrance.  The passage to the cavern where the bones lay was so narrow that only small members of the exhibition team could squeeze through to retrieve them.

For Professor Lee Berger (Evolutionary Studies Institute), he had to watch via a video relay, as the students and volunteers carefully removed the bones.

Professor Berger commented:

With almost every bone in the body represented multiple times, Homo naledi is already practically the best-known member of our lineage.”

This new species of hominin was named after the cave in which the fossils were found.  In the local Sesotho language, the caves are known as Dinaledi, the naledi component means “star”.

A Reconstruction of the Face of Homo naledi

Image credit National Geographic

Image credit National Geographic

Picture Credit: National Geographic

A clearly delighted Professor Berger, was astonished to have so many fossils of the same species to study thanks to the meticulous efforts of the team in the cavern to recover the bones.

The professor explained:

“We are going to know everything about this species.  We are going to know when its children were weaned, when they were born, how they developed, the speed at which they developed, the difference between males and females at every developmental stage from infancy, to childhood to teens to how they aged and how they died.”

A Comparison of the Right Hand of H. naledi with the Right Hand of  Homo sapiens

Very similar wrist bones but curved finger bones more like an ape.

Very similar wrist bones but curved finger bones more like an ape.

Picture Credit: Peter Schmid SPL/University of Witwatersrand

The wrist bones are very similar to a modern human’s but the finger bones are more curved, a primitive trait associated with an ancestry of tree climbing (gripping branches).

How Did the Bones Get into the Cavern?

One of the mysteries about the fossil find is how did the bones get into the cavern?  The entrance to the cavern does not seem to have been exposed at the surface and the entrance to the chamber has always been small according to the research team.  There is no evidence of a predator having dragged the bones into its den (no signs of feeding on the bones).  In addition, there is no evidence that the bones were washed into the cave by flood waters, there is an absence of other material in the cave to suggest that this had happened.  The only other bones found are those of small birds and mice, animals that probably wandered into the cave and became trapped.

It has been proposed that this group of human-like creatures fled into the cave for some reason and died there, but an alternative theory, one that has significant implications for our own species and what defines us as “human”, is that the cavern could have been a burial chamber for these hominins.  If a member of the group died, the body was carried into the depths of the cave and purposefully deposited at that location.   This could be evidence of one of the first ever burial sites known from the hominin fossil record.

A Reconstructed skull of Homo naledi

A new species of South African hominin

A new species of South African hominin

Picture Credit:Witwatersrand University

The implications of this hypothesis were succinctly summed up by Professor Berger when he stated:

“We are going to have to contemplate some very deep things about what it is to be human.  Have we been wrong all along about this kind of behaviour that we thought was unique to modern humans?”

If indeed Homo naledi was capable of some form of ritualistic behaviour towards its own dead, what prompted such actions?  Could this hominin have been capable of abstract, symbolic thought – something that has only been associated with much more recent humans, within the last 200,000 years or so.  Is altruistic thinking such as having a sense of bereavement or reverence for the dead an inherited behaviour that runs deep within the human evolutionary line?

How Old are the Fossils?

The age of the fossils is proving a little difficult to assess.  The lack of mammalian bones that are contemporaneous prevents an assessment of age based on a faunal study.  There is a lack of strata to date from within the cave so analysis of any surrounding matrix is not appropriate for this location.  This species could have lived quite recently but it is also possible that Homo naledi could have lived more than three million years ago.  More dating evidence is required to permit scientists to place this new species in the appropriate point in the hominin evolutionary tree.

A note of praise to the brave cavers and student volunteers, most of them women who had to brave a claustrophobic crawl through narrow tunnels before squeezing through one last tight spot to get to the chamber where the bones lay.

Girls Rock!  Some of the Student Volunteers who Helped Remove the Bones

You had to be small to enter the cavern entrance.

You had to be small to enter the cavern entrance.

Picture Credit: Witwatersrand University

The excavation team were nicknamed “underground astronauts”, thanks to all the field team for helping to bring together such a huge amount of data (the paper has just been published in Elife).

The final word should go to Professor Berger, when asked where does Homo naledi fit in with our own evolution, the Professor said:

“What we are seeing is more and more species of creatures that suggests that nature was experimenting with how to evolve humans, thus giving rise to several different types of human-like creatures originating in parallel in different parts of Africa.  Only one line eventually survived to give rise to us.”

9 09, 2015

The Deadly Predator “Lightning Claw”

By | September 9th, 2015|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page|0 Comments

Fragmentary Fossils from Australia Provide Clues to the Origins of the Megaraptorids

Meet Australia’s largest known Theropod, a predator that would have exceeded seven metres in length and a dinosaur armed with dreadfully sharp and powerful claws.  Claws, that unlike the dromaeosaurids the famous “raptors”, with their sickle-toe killing claws, were found on the hands.  Say hello to the newest member of a bizarre group of Theropods the megaraptorids, although you can’t be formally introduced yet, as this meat-eater does not have a scientific name.

Australia’s Largest Meat-Eating Dinosaur Known to Date

An Early Cretaceous predator.

An Early Cretaceous predator.

Picture Credit: Julius T. Csotonyi

The megaraptorids are represented by a number of genera, most of which are known from very few, fragmentary fossils.  Their phylogenetic relationship with other Theropods remains in doubt, some palaeontologists have suggested that this group of meat-eating dinosaurs from the southern hemisphere may be related to the Coelurosauria clade, whilst other scientists have proposed that this group should be nested within the allosaurids.  Whatever the exact taxonomic relationship, these dinosaurs are characterised by having large hand claws, specifically an oversized first digit (thumb claw).  This new Australian dinosaur, whose fossils were found in an opal mine back in 2005, is no exception, based on a partial manual ungual (claw bone), it has been estimated that this carnivore had a twenty-five centimetre long thumb claw.

This newest member of the Theropod family of Australia, is just one of two meat-eating dinosaurs to be known from more than a single bone* from “Down Under”.  It has been nicknamed “Lightning Claw”, this has nothing to do with this dinosaur’s imagined reactions, but a reference to the outback town of Lightning Ridge in New South Wales, where the fossils were found by opal miners Rob and Debbie Brogan.  The fossils are natural casts of opal and consist of a metatarsal, parts of the forearm, pieces of rib, fragments of the pelvis and a partial giant claw from the right hand.

Views of the Natural Cast of the Proximal End of the Claw

The strong hands with their highly recurved claws could have been used to dismember prey.

The strong hands with their highly recurved claws could have been used to dismember prey.

Picture Credit: Bell et al 2015

* The other Australian Theropod dinosaur known from more than one bone is Australovenator (Australovenator wintonensis) the fossils of which come from Queensland but were found in strata at least 10 million years younger than the New South Wales fossil find.

Since Australovenator also possessed over-sized hand claws, it is likely that these two dinosaurs were related, the interpretation of “Lightning Claw” created by the very talented Julius Csotonyi, is based on more substantial dinosaur remains including those of Australovenator.

A Model of the Dinosaur Called Australovenator

The CollectA Australovenator replica.

The CollectA Australovenator replica.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Lead author of the scientific paper, just published in the journal “Gondwana Research”, Dr. Phil Bell (University of New England), explained the significance of these opalised fossils:

“I immediately recognised this fossil was something new.  When I compared it to other Australian and South American dinosaurs, it was clear it was a megaraptorid which is a relatively rare group of dinosaurs, mostly known from Argentina.”

Dr. Bell along with co-authors from the University of Bologna (Italy) and Elizabeth Smith of the Australian Open Centre, which received the fossils as a donation from Rob and Debbie Brogan, have stated that the nasty predator with grappling hooks for hands, a sort of Freddy Krueger of the Dinosauria, roamed the flood plains of New South Wales around 110 million years ago (Albian faunal stage).  The age of the strata is significant as this makes “Lightning Claw” the earliest representative of the megaraptorids known.  Australia’s Cretaceous dinosaur fauna is largely made up of dinosaurs that are known from elsewhere on the landmasses that once made up the super-continent of Gondwana.  It had been thought that the majority of the Australian dinosaurs were immigrant taxa.  This may be a too simple explanation and a more complex two-way faunal interchange between Australia, Antarctica and South America may have taken place.

Commenting on this Dr. Bell stated:

“What is fascinating about this discovery is it changes the popular notion that Australian dinosaurs came from ancestors derived from Africa and South America – instead the “Lightning Claw” appears to be the ancestor of all megaraptorids, meaning this group appeared first in Australia.”

8 09, 2015

A New British Dinosaur is Announced – Horshamosaurus

By | September 8th, 2015|Book Reviews, Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page|0 Comments

Many Spined Polacanthus Makeover

If you ask dinosaur fans to name an English dinosaur then many will, no doubt propose Iguanodon, Megalosaurus or Baryonyx.  True, these are all members of the Dinosauria clade whose fossils have been found in Britain, but examples of fossils that represent these three genera can be cited from other countries as well.  For example, Iguanodon fossils are also known from Belgium, Baryonyx material has been collected in Spain and Megalosaurus has become a bit of a taxonomic waste basket for all sorts of Jurassic Theropod fossils from Europe.

We suspect that if a survey of this sort was to be conducted, there would be very few mentions of Polacanthus, a dinosaur which could, with some justification, lay claim to being truly English*.  However, following a reassessment of the fossil material, one of the two species of armoured dinosaur assigned to the Polacanthus genus has been set apart and placed into its own genus.  Polacanthus rudgwickensis has been placed in the newly erected genus Horshamosaurus.  This latest twist in the story of Polacanthus comes almost 150 years to the day when Richard Owen first introduced the term to the wider public in an anonymously written article that appeared in the “Illustrated London News” of September 1865.  The name Polacanthus had originally been proposed the year before at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in response to armoured dinosaur fossils discovered on the Isle of Wight.

An Illustration of Polacanthus

Lovely example of a customer's artwork

Lovely example of a Polacanthus

Picture Credit: Chris

Polacanthus rudgwickensis was described by William T. Blows in 1996.  Now retired after a long and distinguished career lecturing in the neurosciences (City University, London), a 220 page book written by William T. Blows, that provides a comprehensive account of the history of British polacanthids, has just been published by Siri Scientific Press.

The book entitled “British Polacanthid Dinosaurs – Observations on the History and Palaeontology of the UK Polacanthid Armoured Dinosaurs and their Relatives” is available at the link below:

UK Polacanthid Armoured Dinosaurs: Siri Scientific Press

This publication contains a complete description of the new genus and includes detailed illustrations of all the fossilised elements that have been assigned to this new genus, the very latest addition to the compendium of British dinosaurs.  The Horshamosaurus material comes from exposed Lower Cretaceous Barremian Wealden deposits located at an old brickworks – Rudgwick quarry, approximately six miles west of the town of Horsham in West Sussex.  The fossil material was discovered in 1985 and put on display at local Horsham Museum, where it had been labelled as a specimen of an Iguanodon.

The Location of the Fossil Finds Now Assigned to Horshamosaurus

Rudgwick quarry the location of the Polacanthus fossil discovery.

Rudgwick quarry the location of the Polacanthus fossil discovery.

The picture above shows the brickworks quarry at Rudgwick.  The specimen of Horshamosaurus was found approximately where the man is standing (left of the photograph).  The fossil material consists of one partial dorsal vertebra, a dorsal vertebra centrum, an anterior caudal vertebra, fragments of other bones from the spine, part of the left shoulder blade (scapula), with a fused coracoid fragment, pieces of rib and limb bones (part of a humerus, a nearly complete right tibia).

The Nearly Complete Dorsal Vertebra of the Specimen

Seen in posterior, lateral and anterior view.

Seen in posterior, lateral and anterior view.

The Polacanthus genus was one of the first armoured dinosaurs to be scientifically described, it was named long before the more famous Thyreophorans such as Stegosaurus and Ankylosaurus and thanks to the fossil material from the Isle of Wight and southern England, Polacanthus can be regarded very much as an English dinosaur.

*Fragmentary remains tentatively assigned to Polacanthus have been excavated from Lower Cretaceous deposits in Europe, but due to the paucity of these fossil finds and their poor state of preservation demonstrating any unique traits diagnostic for this genus (autapomorphies) has proved controversial.  Perhaps the best known of all the Polacanthidae family is Gastonia (G. burgei), fossils of which come from similarly aged strata (Barremian faunal stage) found in Utah (United States).

An Illustration of Gastonia (Gastonia burgei)

A drawing of the heavily armoured Gastonia.

A drawing of the heavily armoured Gastonia.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

All About British Polacanthids

Written by William T. Blows.

Written by William T. Blows.

The name Polacanthus (pronounced Pole-ah-can-thus) translates as “many or multiple spines” a reference to this quadruped’s extensive dermal armour.

7 09, 2015

Role Models in the Earth Sciences – Girls Rock

By | September 7th, 2015|General Teaching, Key Stage 1/2, Key Stage 3/4|Comments Off on Role Models in the Earth Sciences – Girls Rock

Role Models in the Sciences – Go for it Girls!

One of the challenges faced by teaching teams is to encourage classes to adopt a more scientific approach to investigation and exploring the properties of materials.  The new national curriculum of England places great emphasis on working scientifically and with subject areas like adaptation, rocks, fossils and natural selection now part of the science element of this new scheme of work, teachers might struggle to identify suitable role models for the children.

Mary Anning (1799-1847), might be a strong candidate for consideration when thinking of historical figures that can inspire and enthuse girls, but there are a number of fantastically dedicated female scientists around today, extending our knowledge life on Earth and long-extinct animals.

Take for example, Canadian Victoria Arbour, whose work on Ankylosaurs is helping to unravel some of the mysteries surrounding these armoured dinosaurs.  Victoria is happy to confess that she never grew out of her “dinosaur phase” and her career in palaeontology has taken her to some amazing places in a bid to excavate more fossilised bones.  Victoria is currently working as a postdoctoral researcher at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and North Carolina State University (USA).

Providing a Role Model for Girls as Well as Boys when it Comes to  Considering Science Careers

Providing insights into armoured dinosaurs.

Providing insights into armoured dinosaurs.

Picture Credit: Angelica Torices

Commenting on her current role, Dr. Arbour stated:

“Every day I walk past a Tyrannosaurus skeleton to get to my office, and my office is part of the exhibits at the museum, which means I get to see people enjoying that same Tyrannosaurus as much as I do.   In the summers I head out to the field to dig up dinosaurs in places like Utah, Alberta, and even sometimes Mongolia!  The rest of the time, I’m thinking about Ankylosaurs, the armoured dinosaurs with lots of spikes.”

It’s important for educationalists to recognise the wide range of science careers that are now available and the tremendous contribution being made to palaeontology and related fields by women.

An Illustration of a Typical Armoured Dinosaur (Ziapelta sanjuanensis)

A typical member of the Ankylosauridae

A typical member of the Ankylosauridae from the Upper Cretaceous of New Mexico.

Picture Credit: Sydney Mohr (Arbour et al. 2014, PLOS ONE:e108804).

Why the Ankylosauria?

Having undertaken her MSc and PhD degrees at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, a part of Canada with a wealth of Late Cretaceous dinosaur fossils to study, it’s not surprising that Victoria would find her academic career having a strong bias towards the Dinosauria, but why armoured dinosaurs (Ankylosauria)?  After all, Ankylosaur remains are relatively rare in central and southern Alberta compared to other Ornithischians – the duck-billed dinosaurs and the horned dinosaurs for example.

Victoria explained:

“I became particularly interested in them [armoured dinosaurs] when I started to think about what kind of project I wanted to do for my MSc thesis.  I kept seeing pictures in books of Ankylosaurs using their tail clubs to defend themselves from predators and I wondered if there was a way we could figure out if they could have done that.  Some of the first projects I worked on looked at how fast and hard Ankylosaurs could swing their tail into something and what would happen to the tail when they smashed into another object.”

Dr. Arbour’s research has revealed lots of different aspects about armoured dinosaurs, from naming new species to learning about Ankylosaur biology and potential behaviour, even looking at how these plant-eaters moved between continents.

For any young boys and girls considering a career in the Earth Sciences, researchers like Victoria provide an excellent example of what can be achieved.  It is important that teachers gain an appreciation of the growing number of female role models working in scientific disciplines.  There’s no need to worry about running out of dinosaurs to study, as Victoria is the first to admit, once you try to answer one question, new ones keep popping up and we still have so much more to learn about these amazing creatures that once roamed our planet.

7 09, 2015

Helping to Inspire Young People to Study Earth Sciences

By | September 7th, 2015|Educational Activities, Famous Figures, Main Page, Teaching|0 Comments

A Role Model for Young People – Dr. Victoria Arbour

With the changes to the England’s national curriculum for schools and the greater emphasis on scientific working, team members at Everything Dinosaur often get asked to provide information about inspirational scientists to help enthuse and motivate young people.  With many schools adopting dinosaurs or the “Jurassic Forest” as a term topic and with rocks and fossils part of the curriculum at Key Stage 2, the number of requests for advice is on the increase.

The story of Mary Anning (1799-1847), the Dorset woman of “she sells sea shells on the seashore” fame is highly appropriate.  Mary’s contribution to palaeontology and geology is well-documented, as is sadly, her shabby treatment by the male dominated academia of the 19th Century.  For those teachers, homeschoolers and educationalists who want to inspire their pupils looking at the role of a scientist working today, then the work of Dr. Victoria Arbour and her research on armoured dinosaurs is worth exploring.

Dr. Victoria Arbour  (Vertebrate Palaeontologist)

Victoria next to a skull of a Euoplocephalus tutus (University of Alberta)

Victoria next to a skull of a Euoplocephalus tutus (University of Alberta)

Picture Credit: Angelica Torices

Here is a short biography of Dr. Arbour, in her own words (mostly):

I’m one of those kids that never grew out of their “dinosaur phase”.  I have been interested in palaeontology as far back as I can remember.  I knew that I wanted to pursue palaeontology as a career, or find an interesting field of science related to palaeontology.  So far, so good: I’m currently working as a postdoctoral researcher at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina (United States).  Prior to this, I did my MSc and PhD degrees at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta, (Canada).

My home town is Halifax, (Nova Scotia, Canada) and I studied for my BSc degree in Earth Sciences and Biology at Dalhousie University (Halifax, Nova Scotia).

Taking a break from her studies in the summer, Victoria spent some time identifying calcareous nannofossils (coccoliths and coccospheres et al) from the Scotian Slope, an area off the coast of the Canadian province.  However, whilst at university, Victoria helped to study the first dinosaur fossils that had ever been collected in British Columbia.  These were from a small plant-eating dinosaur, but unfortunately the remains were too fragmentary to figure out exactly what species it was.

Now based in North Carolina, Dr. Arbour focuses on the Dinosauria and her office is situated in a very inspiring location.  She continues:

Every day I walk past a Tyrannosaurus skeleton to get to my office, and my office is part of the exhibits at the museum, which means I get to see people enjoying that same Tyrannosaurus as much as I do.  In the summers I head out to the field to dig up dinosaurs in places like Utah, Alberta, and even sometimes Mongolia!  The rest of the time, I’m thinking about Ankylosaurs, the armoured dinosaurs with lots of spikes.

Why the Ankylosauridae?

I’ve always liked Ankylosaurs (well, I’ve always liked all dinosaurs!), but I became particularly interested in them when I started to think about what kind of project I wanted to do for my MSc thesis.  I kept seeing pictures in books of armoured dinosaurs using their tail clubs to defend themselves from predators, and I wondered if there was a way we could figure out if they could have done that.  So, some of the first projects I worked on looked at how fast and hard these dinosaurs could swing their tail into something, and what would happen to the tail when they smashed it into another object.

Teachers have no need to worry about whether or not all that can be discovered about dinosaurs will have been documented by the time their young charges are ready to choose further education options.  New dinosaurs are being named and described all the time.  For example, in a few days, Everything Dinosaur will be writing a short article on the very latest armoured dinosaur to be described – Horshamosaurus a member of the Ankylosauria clade, but a polacanthid, an armoured dinosaur that once roamed around West Sussex (southern England).

The Ankylosauria is Turning Out to be a Very Diverse Clade

Close inspection of the dinosaur models

Lots of armoured dinosaurs to study.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

When asked why she specialises in studying the armoured dinosaurs, Victoria replied:

“The sneaky thing about science is that as you try to answer one question, you end up with more than you started with!  One thing led to another, and I’ve been studying lots of different aspects of Ankylosaur biology – like how many species there were, how they moved between continents, and how their tail clubs evolved – and I still have lots of questions left to answer about these cool dinosaurs.”

For further information about Everything Dinosaur’s work in schools, including how to access free, downloadable educational resources with a dinosaur theme: Dinosaurs for Schools

6 09, 2015

Dinosaur Footprint Discovered In British Columbia

By | September 6th, 2015|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page|0 Comments

Tyrannosaur Footprint Found in British Columbia

Palaeontologists and ichnologists (scientists who study trace fossils including footprints), are examining the preserved impression of a three-toed footprint made by a large dinosaur during the Late Cretaceous.  The single print measures fifty-nine centimetres long and it may have been made by a substantial tyrannosaurid.  The footprint was found approximately ten kilometres from the small settlement of Tumbler Ridge.  Something like fifteen Tyrannosaur footprints have been discovered to date, from locations as far apart as New Mexico, Alberta and Mongolia, but this is the ninth print to have been reported from British Columbia.  The print was found by Carina Helm, a geography student at the University of British Columbia who was out working in the area with her father.  The track was found on August 20th.

Explaining the circumstances behind the discovery, Carina explained:

“My dad and I were returning in the evening from repairing boardwalks on one of the hiking trails, when I told him I knew of some big exposed rock slabs.  We worked out that these were maybe from an age that could feature dinosaur tracks, so we decided to make a detour to have a look.”

The father and daughter team did not have to search for long to find the fossil.

The Three-Toed Dinosaur Footprint

The white line helps to show the outline of the track.

The white line helps to show the outline of the track.

Picture Credit: The Helm Family

Looks like mobile phones have lots of uses, for example, the phone in the picture helps to show scale.

Carina added:

“The very first rock I went to, right beside the road, had this huge track-shape on it with three toes.  I thought, surely, that is too big to be a footprint?  I showed it to my dad and next thing he was on his cell-phone to Rich McCrea telling him about the find.”

Rich McCrea, is one of the palaeontologists at the The Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre (P.R.P.R.C.), based in Tumbler Ridge.  This institute was founded in 2003 to help excavate, preserve and showcase the vertebrate body and trace fossils associated with this part of the Canadian Province.  Most of the footprints alleged to have come from large Theropods that have been found in this region have come from remote, difficult to access locations.  In contrast, this new find was close to a road and is much more accessible.

Rich and colleague Lisa Buckley were able to confirm that this track was most likely made by a tyrannosaurid.  Although the print measures fifty-nine centimetres long, the foot that made it would actually have been bigger, the tip of the longest toe and its claw impression have been eroded away.  When asked to speculate the type of Tyrannosaur that might have made this track, the P.R.P.R.C. palaeontologists have suggested that this track could  have been made by an Albertosaurus.

A Model of an Albertosaurus (Large, Late Cretaceous Tyrannosaur)

Albertosaurus (Carnegie Collectibles)

Albertosaurus (Carnegie Collectibles)

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Outlining how the scientists concluded that this was indeed the footprint of a Tyrannosaur, Rich McCrea stated:

“It can sometimes be a challenge to identify the maker of a single print, especially one that has been weathered by the elements.  Even with the tips of the digits (the claw impressions), eroded away, the footprint found by Carina Helm still possesses characteristics that make it identifiable as the product of a meat-eating (Theropod) dinosaur.  In addition to the morphological features of the footprint, which bears great similarity to the ones discovered in the Autumn of 2011 and subsequently ascribed to the ichnospecies Bellatoripes fredlundi, the size of the print and the age of the rocks it was found in provide further evidence that the track-maker was a tyrannosauroid.”

This fossil is posing a bit of a problem for the Tumbler Ridge Museum Foundation, the organisation that established the P.R.P.R.C., the fossil is close to a road and therefore it could be vandalised or stolen.  Attempts could be made to remove the specimen, but this too, presents problems.  The slab of rock containing the print is large and transporting the fossil to Tumbler Ridge would present quite a logistical challenge.

Young Carina is proving to have quite a knack for finding trace fossils, earlier in the Summer, she was part of a team that found two other trackways preserved in much older rocks in the Tumbler Ridge area.

5 09, 2015

Study Suggests Chelonia Evolved from Diapsids

By | September 5th, 2015|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Palaeontological articles|0 Comments

Turtles and their Kin Diapsids Not Anapsids

A study into an ancestral form of the Chelonia (turtles, tortoises and terrapins) has revealed that the skull had a pair of holes in it just behind the eye.  So what, you might say, but this is a big deal, a very big deal, as it means that the history of the reptiles and any subsequent cladograms (family trees), constructed will have to be fundamentally changed.  This new research using the skulls of 260 million-year-old South African Permian reptiles suggests that turtles and their kin are not anapsid reptiles but that this group evolved from diapsids.

Chelonia – Very Ancient Reptiles

Unravelling the history of the Reptilia is a very complicated process.  However, a tenet in helping to establish evolutionary relationships between different types of reptile is the anatomy of their skulls.  It is differences in the number of holes found in the skull behind the eye socket that has helped palaeontologists to understand more about how the first reptiles evolved from amphibians.  Skull anatomy has been used to map the radiation of different forms of reptile, those that led to the birds, crocodiles and the dinosaurs and those who took a different evolutionary line eventually leading to mammals.  Some of this may have to be re-examined in the light of new research conducted by Dr. Gaberiel Bever (Honorary Research Associate at Witwatersrand University and scientist at the New York Institute of Technology) with co-author of the scientific paper, just published in “Nature”, Dr Tyler Lyson of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.  Three-dimensional models of the skull of the ancestral turtle, a primitive reptile named Eunotosaurus have revealed that this reptile was a diapsid, suggesting that the tortoises and turtles evolved from diapsids and not from what are thought to be more primitive reptiles with anapsid skulls.

Four Basic Types of Reptile Skull

anapsid, synapsid, euryapsid and diapsid

anapsid, synapsid, euryapsid and diapsid

Picture Credit: Before the Ark/BBC

A traditional method of attempting to unravel the phylogeny of early reptiles is to examine the layout of the bones in the skull.  There are four basic skull patterns for reptiles (living and extinct forms):

  • Anapsid – the most simple skull type with the skull bones only having holes for the eyes and the nostrils. Up until this research was published, turtles, tortoises and terrapins were thought to belong to this group.
  • Synapsid – has one hole behind the eye socket on either side of the skull between the squamosal and the postorbital skull bones (sq and po), the lower opening when compared to diapsids.
  • Euryapsid – has one hole behind the eye socket above the squamosal and the postorbital skull bones (sq and po), the upper opening when compared to diapsids.
  • Diapsid – has two holes behind the eye socket on either side of the skull (lower and upper openings in the skull between the squamosal and postorbital bones.

Helping in the research effort involved using CT scans and computer modelling techniques to produce three-dimensional images of the fossil skulls, were Yale University’s Daniel Field and Bhart-Anjan Bhullar (Assistant Professor, Department of Geology & Geophysics).

The fossilised skulls come from the famous Karoo Basin and are assigned to an ancient ancestor of modern turtles called Eunotosaurus africanus, Everything Dinosaur reported on the significance of these fossils in terms of tracing the evolutionary history of the turtle family back in 2013.

To read more about E. africanusHow the Turtle Got Its Shell

Commenting on their research Dr. Gaberiel Bever stated:

“Eunotosaurus is a critical link connecting modern turtles to their evolutionary past.”

Dr. Bever and his co-workers examined high-resolution images created by computer tomography (CT scans).  Their research revealed the complex anatomy of the Permian skulls and supports the theory that animals like Eunotosaurus are indeed the ancestors of today’s tortoises, terrapins and turtles.  Once the skull anatomy had been mapped, the team re-drew the cladogram of the Reptilia based on their findings.

Dr. Bever explained:

“Using imaging technology gave us the opportunity to take the first look inside the skull of Eunotosaurus.  What we found not only illuminates the close relationship of Eunotosaurus to turtles, but also how turtles are related to other modern reptiles.”

A key finding of the study was that Eunotosaurus had a pair of openings set behind the eyes. Eunotosaurus was a diapsid.

The Chelonia Are More Closely Related to Other Reptiles Than Previously Thought

Eunotosaurus a diapsid reptile.

Eunotosaurus a diapsid reptile.

Picture Credit: Witwatersrand University with additional annotation by Everything Dinosaur

This suggests that the ancestors of the turtle lineage were not very primitive anapsids, with skulls similar to those found in amphibians, they were diapsids and therefore the turtle family is more closely related to crocodiles, lizards, snakes, birds and dinosaurs than previously thought.

The holes behind the eye socket served to lighten the skull to help make it more manoeuvrable.  The jaw muscles were able to lengthen and flex to a greater degree, this would have given Eunotosaurus a more powerful and quicker bite than modern tortoises and their kin.

Explaining the significance of this study Dr. Bever stated:

“We can now draw the well-supported and satisfying conclusion that Eunotosaurus is the diapsid turtle.”

In linking turtles to their diapsid ancestry, the skull of Eunotosaurus also reveals how the evidence of that ancestry became obscured during later stages of turtle evolution.

“The skull of Eunotosaurus grows in such a way that its diapsid nature is obvious in juveniles but almost completely obscured in adults.  If that same growth trajectory was accelerated in subsequent generations, then the original diapsid skull of the turtle ancestor would eventually be replaced by an anapsid skull, which is what we find in modern turtles.”

This new study means that the reptile cladogram will have to be re-drawn.  This research helps to cement the phylogenetic relationships between different reptile groups, but the researchers admit that this study is not the end of the matter, merely a beginning.

Witwatersrand University Professor Bruce Rubidge, who has been leading the collaborative effort to explore the rich vertebrate fossil assemblage of the Karoo Basin, explained that although the focus of the research had been on piecing together evidence to outline the diverse fauna of the Middle and Late Permian, their work had implications for studying modern reptiles too.

He stated:

“This is a major step towards understanding the interrelationships of reptiles.  Also of great significance is that Eunotosaurus, which is known only from South Africa, is a critical transitional form in the origin of tortoises and this finding indicates that the tortoise lineage had its origins in Gondwana.”

Dr. Bever summarised the way forward for the research team:

“There is still much we don’t know about the origin of turtles or which of the other diapsid groups form their closest cousin?  What were the ecological conditions that led to the evolution of the turtle’s shell and the anapsid skull?  How much of the deep history of turtle evolution can be discovered by studying the genes and developmental pathway of modern turtles.”

One thing that is for sure, most of the published works on the phylogenetic relationships between the Reptilia (alive and extinct) have just become in need of an update.

4 09, 2015

A Tale of Ancient Tails in the Ankylosauridae

By | September 4th, 2015|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page|0 Comments

How Did the Ankylosaur Get Its Club Tail?

Ankylosaurs are often described as “living tanks” these quadrupeds seemed to have taken body armour to the extremes with some specimens such as Saichania from Asia and the Late Cretaceous North American ankylosaurids Euoplocephalus and Ankylosaurus even having armoured eyelids.  They were a very diverse and widespread group of Ornithischian dinosaurs, in every sense of the world.  True, Ankylosaur fossils have been recorded from China, Mongolia, Canada, the United States, Australia and there have even been fragmentary bones attributed to an Ankylosaur found near Folkestone (Kent, England).  In addition, these animals have very wide pelvic regions in proportion to the rest of their robust bodies.  The wide pelvis is an adaptation to accommodate a large gut.

Heavily Armoured Dinosaurs with a Long Evolutionary History

Armoured dinosaur models.

Armoured dinosaur models.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Most children can describe these herbivores, they may be very well known members of the Dinosauria, with an albeit brief appearance in the film “Jurassic World” adding to their popularity, however, a mystery surrounding the Ankylosauridae may finally have been solved.

How did the Ankylosaur Get Its Tail Club?

By mapping the evolutionary history of these armoured dinosaurs from their Jurassic origins through to the very end of the Cretaceous the answer as to how some members of the Ankylosauridae developed that distinctive tail club may have finally been resolved.  According to research published in the academic publication “The Journal of Anatomy”, the fused tail came first and the bony club evolved later. Postdoctoral researcher Victoria Arbour (North Carolina State University and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences), authored the report, a study she started when at the University of Alberta under the tutelage and guidance of renowned palaeontologist Professor Phil Currie. Victoria has spent a large part of her career studying the Ankylosauridae and she is viewed by Everything Dinosaur team members as the “go to” person when it comes to the ankylosaurids.  For example, back in October 2014, Everything Dinosaur reported on a new species assigned to the Ankylosauridae named by Victoria – Zaraapelta (Z. nomadis), fossils of which were found during an expedition to Mongolia led by Professor Currie.

To read more about Zaraapelta: Zaraapelta – In Praise of Victoria Arbour

This new study involved examining the fossilised remains of some of the earliest known ankylosaurids, dinosaurs like the Chinese Liaoningosaurus from Yixian County, Liaoning Province (north-eastern China), as well as many Late Cretaceous forms.  An Ankylosaur’s tail is composed of a handle and a bony knob.  The knob is comprised of fused osteoderms, a special kind of bone formed in the skin.  The handle is represented by the distal end of the tail (caudal vertebrae) that support the weight of the knob.

Victoria explained:

“In order for an Ankylosaur to be able to support the weight of a knob and swing it effectively, the tail needs to be stiff, like an axe handle.  For that to occur, the vertebrae along the tail had to become less flexible, otherwise the momentum generated by the knob’s weight could tear muscle or dislocate vertebrae.”

Gobisaurus – A 90 Million Year Old Ankylosaur

Tracing the tale of the Ankylosaurus tail.

Tracing the tale of the Ankylosaurus tail.

Picture Credit: Sydney Mohr

Other ankylosaurids included in the analysis were Gobisaurus (Turonian faunal stage of the Cretaceous) and Pinacosaurus from the younger Campanian faunal stage of the Cretaceous.

Three Ways in Which the Ankylosaurid Tail Could Have Evolved

There are three ways in which the bony club and the fused, stiffened tail could have evolved:

  1. Bony club first – early ankylosaurids would show evidence of osteoderms forming and enveloping the end of the tail
  2. Handle first – primitive members of this family would have overlapping or fused tail bones
  3. The club and handle could have evolved simultaneously, if this was the case, then Early Cretaceous ankylosaurids would show both anatomical features, perhaps with tails getting stronger and tail clubs getting heavier over time

How Did the Ankylosaurs Get their Unusual Tails?

Three different theories of ankylosaurid tail evolution.

Three different theories of ankylosaurid tail evolution.

Picture Credit: Journal of Anatomy

The comparative analysis revealed that by the Early Cretaceous, ankylosaurids had begun to develop stiff tails with fused caudal vertebrae.  The bony knob feature did not appear in the fossil record until the Late Cretaceous.

Dr. Arbour concluded:

“While it’s possible that some of the species could still have developed the handle and knob in tandem,” it seems most likely that the tail stiffened prior to the growth of the osteoderm knob, in order to maximise the tail’s effectiveness as a weapon.”

The upshot of this conclusion is that Ankylosaurs used their tails as defensive weapons first and then only later did the heavy club on the tail evolve.   Commenting on this work a spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur stated:

“This is a fascinating study, one can speculate that the bony club tail evolved in response to the emergence of bigger and more dangerous Theropod predators such as the tyrannosaurids that could be regarded as the apex terrestrial predators in the northern hemisphere towards the end of the Mesozoic.”

The Tail Bones of Ankylosaurs

Caudal anatomy of Ankylosaurs.

Caudal anatomy of Ankylosaurs.

Picture Credit: Journal of Anatomy

The picture above shows (A) an oblique dorsal view of the tail club of Dyoplosaurus acutosquameus from Canada, the fossils of which are around 76 million years old (Campanian).  This is typical of the derived Ankylosaurine tail  with a fused tail and a bony club.  Gobisaurus (G. domoculus) line drawing is (B) a left lateral view of this earlier ankylosaurid’s tail showing fusing of the bones.  Picture (C) shows the same fossil specimen as (B), but this time viewed from the other side, the deep groove running along the bottom is the haemal canal.  X-ray (D) and the interpretive drawing (E) are from an ankylosaur tail from Alberta, the last tail bone is small and rounded when compared to the long distal caudal bones.  Picture (F) shows two tail bones from Mymoorapelta maysi, a basal member of the Ankylosauria known from the Late Jurassic of the United States.  This anatomy is typical of nodosaurids and other basal Ankylosaurs, the prezygapophyses (forward projecting points of bone located on the neural arch of the vertebrae), overlap the adjacent vertebrae by about 25% of the centrum (the main part of the vertebra situated below the neural arch).  In contrast, picture (G) shows the fossilised remains of Liaoningosaurus (L. paradoxus) which dates from the Aptian faunal stage making the fossil some 120 million years old.  The boxed area in (G) is highlighted and magnified (H).  In Liaoningosaurus the prezygopophyses overlap the preceding vertebra by at least 50% including a much more fused and stiffened tail, more typical of later ankylosaurids.

 This research has provided new evidence to help scientists understand the evolution of ankylosaurid tails.  Fossils from China such as those of Liaoningosaurus suggest that the mechanism to support a tail club may have evolved at least forty million years before it was taken to extremes by the Late Cretaceous Ankylosaurs such as Euoplocephalus and Pinacosaurus.  Early ankylosaurids evolved the handle first, those distal ossified osteoderms came later.

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