All about dinosaurs, fossils and prehistoric animals by Everything Dinosaur team members.
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21 07, 2018

Akainacephalus johnsoni – Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder

By | July 21st, 2018|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Akainacephalus johnsoni – One of the Oldest “Swingers” from North America

On Thursday of last week, a scientific paper was published in the on-line open access journal PeerJ, that described the discovery of a new species of armoured dinosaur from Utah.  The armoured dinosaur was named Akainacephalus johnsoni, the genus name is derived from the Greek meaning “spiky” or “thorn”, a reference to the large number of bony scales (caputegulae) located on the top and sides of the skull.  The species name honours Randy Johnson, a volunteer preparator at the Natural History Museum of Utah, who skilfully and patiently prepared the skull and lower jaws of this newly described Ornithischian.

A Close-up View of the Bony and Scaly Head of Akainacephalus

Akainacephalus johnsoni illustrated.

A close up of the ornate head of Akainacephalus.

Picture Credit: Andrey Atuchin (Denver Museum of Nature and Science)

Secondary Functions of the Dermal Armour

This was one very heavily armoured ankylosaurid, with a face described by many media outlets as “ugly” or being one that only a “mother could love”.  The fossilised skull, which is nearly complete reveals an extensive amount of armour and ornamentation.  For example, the snout is particularly bony, covered in large osteoderms and above each eye there is a substantial horn.  Although this armour would have served as protection against attack, the degree of ornamentation in Akainacephalus was quite remarkable, it is likely that these osteoderms, the various lumps and bumps on the dinosaur’s body and head, served a number of functions.

Suggested functions for the extensive ornamentation of A. johnsoni

  • Anti-glare and anti-dazzle for the eyes.  If you look at the close-up view of the head of Akainacephalus in the illustration (above), the eye is shaded.  The various projections along the broad snout could have obscured the animal’s vision, but the eye would have been shaded from direct sunlight, a positive advantage in the Late Cretaceous of Utah.
  • Sexual selection – the greater the ornamentation the more imposing the individual.  Just as with peacocks and their impressive tails, deer and their antlers, the greater the number of bumps and lumps could have been a sign of the animal’s fitness to mate.  It might be one very ugly looking dinosaur to us, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the lumpier the Akainacephalus the greater the appeal of that individual.
  • In a similar vein to the point made above, the ornamentation could have played a role in display, intimidating rivals as part of ritualistic intraspecific combat or helping to put off the unwanted attentions of any large Theropod that had decided to try and make a meal of this four-metre-long armoured dinosaur.
  • Thermoregulation – the dermal armour of crocodilians serves a number of functions, one of which is to help to regulate the animal’s body temperature.  The wide gut of ankylosaurids gave them a large surface area for the sun to beat down onto.  By pumping blood into the osteoderms the animal could cool down, helping to maintain its body temperature.

The Fossil Remains of Akainacephalus and two Skeletal Reconstructions

Akainacephalus fossils and a skeletal reconstruction.

The skeletal remains of Akainacephalus with two line drawings (dorsal and lateral views). Known fossil bones are highlighted in orange.

Picture Credit: PeerJ

Armoured Dinosaur Mixed Up with Lots of Other Fossils

The first fossils were found in 2008, in a quarry which contained a mixed assemblage of vertebrate remains.  Finds at the site, known as the Horse Mountain Gryposaur quarry, include a nearly complete skull of the hadrosaurid Gryposaurus, turtle fossil remains (Arvinachelys goldeni), a skull and postcranial remains of a new taxon of alligatoroid and a poorly preserved partial skull of a small Theropod.

Akainacephalus Wanders Past Ancient Crocodilians

Akainacephalus johnsoni.

The Akainacephalus drawing shows some of the fauna associated with the dig site – crocodiles and a small freshwater turtle (right) – Arvinachelys goldeni.

Picture Credit: Andrey Atuchin (Denver Museum of Nature and Science)

The Amazing Kaiparowits Formation

The fossils were excavated from sediments associated with the Kaiparowits Formation, which provides a unique perspective on the biota of south/central Laramidia during the Campanian faunal stage of the Late Cretaceous.  This thick succession of sandstones and mudstones was deposited at an unusually rapid rate within a time frame of less than two million years, making it one of the most rapidly deposited terrestrial formations in the world.  Akainacephalus dates from 76.2 to 75.9 million years ago, as such it is one of the oldest ankylosaurids known from North America.  It is also the first documented example of ankylosaurid skull and postcranial bones from the Kaiparowits Formation.  Although, some of the fossil bones are in a better condition than others, the fossils, including that amazing tail club are remarkably complete.

Views of the Caudal Vertebrae and the Tail Club of A. johnsoni

Akainacephalus tail club and caudal bones.

Akainacephalus caudal bones and tail club.

Picture Credit: PeerJ

Dinosaur Immigrants from Asia

Those lumps and bumps on the skull (cranial ornamentation), are reminiscent of an armoured dinosaur from New Mexico (Nodocephalosaurus kirtlandensis), the researchers postulate that these dinosaurs might be closely related.  However, it is worth noting that Nodocephalosaurus is around three million years younger than Akainacephalus.  Both Nodocephalosaurus and Akainacephalus are also similar to Asian ankylosaurids such as Saichania chulsanensis, Pinacosaurus grangeri, and the spectacularly horned Minotaurasaurus ramachandrani.   The discovery of Akainacephalus adds support to the idea that ankylosaurids migrated across an ancient land bridge from Asia into North America prior to 76 million years ago.

The addition of this new ankylosaurid taxon from southern Utah provides further information on ankylosaurid diversity and supports the theory regarding there being regional variations in dinosaur biota across Laramidia during the later stages of the Cretaceous.

Indicating that Ankylosaurids Migrated from Asia into North America (Akainacephalus johnsoni)

Akainacephalus johnsoni illustrated.

Akainacephalus illustrated.

Picture Credit: Andrey Atuchin (Denver Museum of Nature and Science)

20 07, 2018

Xiaophis myanmarensis – Dawn Snake of Myanmar

By | July 20th, 2018|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Baby Snake Preserved in Amber from Myanmar

A team of international researchers including scientists from the University of Alberta, Midwestern University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences have published a paper describing the remarkable discovery of the preserved remains of a baby snake entombed in amber from Myanmar (Burma).  Amber deposits from northern Myanmar are providing scientists with some amazing insights into life in a forest some 100 million years or so ago.  Other amber nodules, known as burmite have revealed the preserved remains of baby birds, a dinosaur tail, frogs and an astonishing range of invertebrates and plant material.  The amber is proving to be a treasure trove for palaeontologists helping them to map the biota of a Cretaceous environment.

The Polished Amber Nodule Revealing the Fossilised Remains of a Baby Snake

The fossilised remains of a baby snake preserved in amber

The preserved remains of a baby snake preserved in amber from Myanmar.

Picture Credit: Ming Bai (Chinese Academy of Sciences)

Xiaophis myanmarensis – Dawn Snake of Myanmar

The baby snake measures around eight centimetres in length.  The fossil reveals that the vertebrae are not yet fully formed and this indicates that the snake was very young when it got trapped in the sticky tree resin.  The snake has been named  Xiaophis myanmarensis, which means “dawn snake of Myanmar”.

The international research team, led by Dr Lida Xing (China University of Geosciences, Beijing and the Chinese Academy of Sciences) and Professor Mike Caldwell (University of Alberta), have described this discovery as a remarkable fossil find.

A Life Restoration of Xiaophis myanmarensis

Dawn snake of Myanmar (Xiaophis myanmarensis)

An illustration of Xiaophis myanmarensis (dawn snake of Myanmar).

Picture Credit: Cheung Chung Tat

Not One Fossil Snake but Two

Although the baby snake is missing its skull, ninety-seven vertebrae have been preserved along with associated fossil ribs.  The tiny reptile’s bones were analysed using a synchrotron to bombard the specimen with X-rays and plot the result.  The back bone is remarkably similar to those found in neonatal snakes today.  This suggests that the vertebrae of snakes have remained largely unchanged for 100 million years.

A second amber fossil was discovered, which preserves a piece of the shed skin of another, much larger snake.  It is unclear whether these two fossils represent the juvenile and adult of the same species.

The Skeleton of the Baby Snake As Modelled from the Synchrotron Data

The preserved skeleton of the baby snake Xiaophis myanmarensis.

The skeleton of the baby snake Xiaophis myanmarensis.

Picture Credit: Ming Bai (Chinese Academy of Sciences)

The discovery of this remarkable fossil, along with the piece of shed snake skin helps palaeontologists to build a picture of the evolution of snakes and how they spread following the break-up of the super-continents during the latter stages of the Mesozoic.

Dr Palci (Flinders University) and a co-author of the scientific paper published in the journal “Science Advances” commented:

“At 100 million years old, it dates back to the age of the dinosaurs, well before snakes started to differentiate into modern groups.  This Asian fossil helps shed light on how primitive snakes dispersed from the southern to the northern continents.  Although found in the northern hemisphere, it strongly resembles South American snakes that lived at the time.”

An Illustration of the Second Snake Specimen (Life Reconstruction)

Shed snake skin found in burmite.

The preserved skin of a second prehistoric snake has been found in amber from Myanmar.

Picture Credit: Yi Liu

During the Jurassic, the region that we now know as Myanmar was joined to Antarctica, Australia, Africa and South America, forming the giant, southern super-continent of Gondwana.  As the Mesozoic progressed so this landmass began to split apart, Myanmar separated from Gondwana and drifted north, eventually colliding with Asia.

This is the first baby snake fossil from the Mesozoic ever found and it, along with other remarkable specimens preserved in amber from Myanmar (burmite), are providing scientists with a unique window into the Late Cretaceous world.

19 07, 2018

How Much Food Did Sauropods Eat?

By | July 19th, 2018|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Palaeontological articles|0 Comments

New Research Examines the Diets of Giant Dinosaurs

How many plants would a ten tonne Diplodocus need to eat to keep it happy and healthy?  For that matter, what about one of its larger cousins such as the Macronarian Camarasaurus that tipped the scales at an estimated twenty tonnes?  If you had a pet Dreadnoughtus  (D. schrani), a long-necked, herbivorous dinosaur that was heavier than a dozen African elephants, how much food would you need to feed it each day?

Super-sized Sauropods and Their Super-sized Digestive Tracts

Paleaontologist Dean Lomax explores a Ceitiosaurus.

A belly up view of “Whale Lizard”.  Palaeontologist Dean Lomax tackling the tummy of Cetiosaurus.  How much food did “Whale Lizard” eat?

Picture Credit: Dean Lomax

Palaeontologists have puzzled over the dietary requirements of these super-sized animals for many years.  One of the theories put forward to explain the huge size of Sauropods is that they needed to grow big so that they could carry around their vast digestive tracts that were needed to process the huge volumes of plant matter required to provide them with enough energy to do what dinosaurs needed to do.

Sauropoda body mass becomes a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.  You grow up fast and grow big to avoid predation, so you require a lot food to sustain your body, the bigger you get the more food you need to keep you going, the larger the stomach, especially as your teeth don’t play any role in helping to break up tough stems and foliage.

A Novel Approach

A team of scientists, including researchers from Leeds University, Nottingham University and the University of Göttingen (Germany), have conducted a novel piece of research so that the dietary needs of the largest terrestrial vertebrates can be better understood.  The team grew their own dinosaur food in atmospheric conditions that replicated the environment of the Late Jurassic.  Writing in the journal “Palaeontology”, the research team report on an experiment in which they grew typical plants that would have played a role in the diet of giant, herbivorous dinosaurs, ferns, horsetails, monkey puzzle trees and ginkgos.

The Ancient Ginkgo (Maidenhair) Tree – Dinosaur Food Assessed in this Plant Growth Experiment

A Ginkgo biloba tree.

A small Ginkgo tree (G. biloba).  Typical of the canopy plants that would have been fed upon by Sauropods.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Plants of the Jurassic Had a Low Nutritional Value

It had been thought that plants growing in an atmosphere with a high amounts of carbon dioxide had low nutritional value.  As a result, herbivorous dinosaurs had to consume vast quantities of plant material in order to obtain enough energy to sustain themselves.  A new experimental approach led by Dr Fiona Gill (School of Earth & Environment, Leeds University), has demonstrated that this may not be the case.  To explore the nutrition of a typical Sauropod’s diet, a range of plants were chosen.  Plants representing the understory community, such as a fern (Polypodium vulgare), a type of horsetail (Equisetum hyemale) as well as Ranunculus acris, a member of the buttercup family to represent an early Cretaceous angiosperm (flowering plant), were selected.  Plants representing the forest canopy included the Ginkgo (G. biloba), Araucaria araucana, the monkey puzzle tree and a type of redwood conifer (Metasequoia glyptostroboides).

The atmosphere was controlled as the plants were grown in walk-in growth chambers and the carbon dioxide concentrations were selected to represent a range of recent estimated CO2 values for the Mesozoic.  Although we are seeing a rise in atmospheric amounts of carbon dioxide today, it has been estimated that during the Age of Dinosaurs there was considerably more CO2 in the atmosphere.  By simulating prehistoric atmospheres, the research team could then cut leaves from the plants and test their nutritional value.  The understory plants were exposed to a Mesozoic climate for three months, the slower growing plants representing the canopy were give six months in the Mesozoic atmospheric conditions.

The Researchers Set Out to Create a Growing Room Atmosphere that Replicated the Conditions of the Mesozoic

A Jurassic scene

Turning walk-in growing rooms into the Jurassic!

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

An Artificial Sauropod Stomach

An artificial fermentation system was used to simulate digestion of the plant leaves in the Sauropods’ enormous stomachs.  This permitted the research team to calculate the leaves’ nutritional value.  The results showed many of the plants had significantly higher energy and nutrient levels than previously believed.  The scientists concluded that these megaherbivores would have needed to consume much less plant material per day than previously thought.  Dinosaur numbers may not have been as constrained by the amount of plant food available.  Ecosystems could have potentially supported a much bigger dinosaur population density.  This might go some way to helping to explain the presence of lots of megaherbivores, including several different genera of Sauropod present in the Upper Jurassic Morrison Formation of the United States.

Lead author Dr Gill, explained:

“The climate was very different in the Mesozoic Era, when the huge Brachiosaurus and Diplodocus lived with possibly much higher carbon dioxide levels.  There has been the assumption that as plants grow faster and/or bigger under higher CO2 levels, their nutritional value decreases.  Our results show this isn’t the case for all plant species.”

Having modelled the effect of different food metabolisable energy (ME), contents in digested plants and plotted this against estimated energy requirements for different sized Sauropods, the scientists concluded that instead of having to consume over a hundred kilograms of plants per day much smaller quantities would be required.  For example, a 10 tonne Diplodocus with an assumed energy requirement of 280 kJ of metabolisable energy per kilogram of body weight per day, feeding exclusively on ferns would need to eat 33.2 kg per day.  If it dined exclusively on horsetails it would need to eat 23.8 kilograms per day.  An elephant, although smaller, as an endothermic mammal has a much greater energy requirement and would need to consume around 40 kilograms of plant material to sustain it.

An African Elephant Compared to a Diplodocid

Comparing the food requirements of megaherbivores.

The nutritional requirements of dinosaurs have been compared to those of megaherbivores today.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Dr Gill stated:

“The large body size of Sauropods at that time would suggest they needed huge quantities of energy to sustain them.  When the available food source has higher nutrient and energy levels it means less food needs to be consumed to provide sufficient energy, which in turn can affect population size and density.  Our research doesn’t give the whole picture of dinosaur diet or cover the breadth of the plants that existed at this time, but a clearer understanding of how the dinosaurs ate can help scientists understand how they lived.”

This research is not limited to the Dinosauria, the same methodology can be utilised to model the atmospheric conditions at other points in geological deep time, to assess the nutritional requirements and feeding habits of long extinct, Miocene and Oligocene mammals for example.

The scientific paper: “Diets of Giants: the Nutritional Value of Sauropod Diet during the Mesozoic” by Fiona L. Gill, Jürgen Hummel, A. Reza Sharifi, Alexandra P. Lee, and Barry H. Lomax published in Palaeontology, the journal of the Palaeontological Association.

18 07, 2018

The Dinosaur Park and Hell Creek Formations

By | July 18th, 2018|Adobe CS5, Dinosaur Fans, Everything Dinosaur News and Updates, Geology, Main Page|0 Comments

The Dinosaur Park Formation (DPF) and the Hell Creek Formation (HCF)

We have been asked to give a brief explanation of the different dinosaurs associated with two famous North America rock formations.  A comment on the different dinosaur faunas associated with the Dinosaur Park Formation (DPF) of southern Alberta and the Hell Creek Formation (HCF), which is mostly associated with the state of Montana but also outcrops in North and South Dakota as well as Wyoming.

The Badlands of the Dinosaur Park Formation (DPF) – Hunting for Dinosaur Fossils

Looking for Late Cretaceous dinosaur fossils.

A typical view of the “Badlands” of the Dinosaur Park Formation.  The red arrow in the picture highlights the layer in which the fossils of a new type of horned dinosaur were discovered.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The Badlands

Both the Hell Creek Formation and the Dinosaur Park Formation are referred to as “Badlands”, this term is derived from the French phrase “les mauvaises terres” and dates back to the early years of exploration of these vast tracts of land.  The term describes an area largely devoid of vegetation that is subjected to rapid erosion caused by wind, rain and running water.  The DPF is older, the strata were laid down between 76.5 and 75 million years ago in the Late Cretaceous (Campanian faunal stage).  In contrast, the Hell Creek Formation is younger.  The rocks were formed at the very end of the Cretaceous (Maastrichtian faunal stage) and the strata records the transition from the end of the Cretaceous into the Palaeocene, the first Epoch of the Cenozoic.  The HCF spans approximately 66.8 to 66 million years ago and documents evidence of an extra-terrestrial impact event preserved as a thin clay layer that contains large quantities of the rare Earth element iridium, marking the Cretaceous-Palaeogene boundary, representing an extinction event denoting the end of the age of the dinosaurs and the start of the Cenozoic.

Looking for Fossils – Hell Creek Formation

Looking for fossils - Hell Creek Formation.

Prospecting for fossils – Hell Creek Formation (Montana).

Picture Credit: University of California Museum of Palaeontology

The Ancient Environments

The strata that forms the DPF represents a coastal plan environment, crossed by numerous large rivers.  The majority of the rocks are sandstones and mudstones, although there are layers of volcanic ash (bentonite), which resulted from the sporadic eruptions of volcanoes in the region. In the upper part of the DPF, coal deposits can be found (Lethbridge coal zone), representing deposition in a swampy environment.  The sea gradually encroached onto this coastal plain and the area was eventually flooded, resulting in the deposition of the marine shales that represent the Bearpaw Formation that overlies the DPF.

The Hell Creek Formation was created under similar circumstances.  It too represents clays, mudstones and sandstones deposited on a delta, a low-lying flood plain crossed by many rivers.  The HCF also has peaty, coal-like deposits (lignite), representing deposition in coastal swampy environments.

The Palaeoenvironment of the Dinosaur Park Formation

The fauna and flora of Alberta 75 million years ago

Alberta around 75 million years ago (Dinosaur Park Formation).

Picture Credit: Julius Csotonyi

A Chasmosaurus and a Lambeosaurus feeding during the late evening, a typical scene representing the biota associated with the DPF.

The Palaeoenvironment of the Hell Creek Formation

Triceratops dinosaur illustration.

Triceratops was one of the last dinosaurs to evolve.  A resident of the Hell Creek Formation.

Picture Credit: Julius Csotonyi

A Triceratops grazes next to a palm tree on the coastal plain that is represented by deposits that help to make up the Hell Creek Formation of Montana.

Different Time Periods – Different Dinosaurs

Both the HCF and the DPF are famous for extensive dinosaur fossils.  It is worth remembering that numerous other kinds of animal (and plants) are represented in the fossil record of these two formations.  Although, the dinosaur fauna is similar between the DPF and the HCF, for example the terrestrial large herbivores are dominated by duck-billed dinosaurs and Ceratopsians, the genera represented are very different.

In simple terms, the stage scenery might be similar and the cast of characters reminiscent but the actors on the stage are different.

Typical Dinosaurs from the Dinosaur Park Formation (Campanian Faunal Stage of the Cretaceous)

Dinosaur Park Formation dinosaurs.

Typical dinosaur fauna of the Dinosaur Park Formation (Alberta, Canada).

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Typical Dinosaurs from the Hell Creek Formation (Maastrichtian Faunal Stage of the Cretaceous)

Dinosaurs of the Hell Creek Formation.

Typical dinosaurs of the Hell Creek Formation.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

We are looking forward to our visit to the Beacon Museum at Whitehaven (Cumbria).  Everything Dinosaur will be taking visitors on a fossil hunt and we hope to be able to give away real dinosaur bones.

17 07, 2018

Sad “tail” of a Spanish Plesiosaur

By | July 17th, 2018|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Fossil Discovery Hints at Spanish Elasmosaurid

Recently printed in the academic journal “Cretaceous Research”, a trio of scientists have published details about a new Plesiosaur specimen discovered in Late Cretaceous sediments in Guadalajara Province in central Spain.  Plesiosaur specimens are exceptionally rare from the Late Cretaceous of Europe and although the fossil material is indistinct in terms of any autapomorphies (unique features), that would permit the establishment of a new species, the fragmentary fossils, including a single tail bone, represent an important discovery nonetheless.

An Illustration of a Typical Member of the Plesiosauridae

Attenborosaurus conybeari.

Plesiosaurs swam in the Cenomanian seas of Europe.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The First Plesiosauria from Algora

The fossils consist of elements from a pelvic girdle and a caudal vertebra (tail bone).  They are the first evidence of a Plesiosaur in the coastal marine outcrops of Algora (Castilla-La-Mancha), Spain.  It is one of only a handful of such specimens reported from the Cretaceous of Spain.

The Pelvic Girdle Fossil Bones with an Accompanying Line Drawing

Late Cretaceous Plesiosaur fossils from Spain.

The fossils making up part of the pelvic girdle with a line drawing (right).

Picture Credit: N. Bardet, M. Segura and A. Pérez-García/Cretaceous Research

An Elasmosaurid

The fossils probably represent a single individual, as such, it is the only Plesiosaur specimen from central Spain that is known from several bones.  The researchers conclude that the material represents an indeterminate member of the Elasmosauridae.  Elasmosaurids were a type of Plesiosaur that had a wide geographical range during the Late Cretaceous and one that persisted to the end of the Maastrichtian faunal stage.

Views of the Caudal Vertebra (Indeterminate Elasmosaurid)

Photographs (various views) of a Plesiosaur caudal vertebra.

Images of a caudal vertebra (Late Cretaceous Plesiosaur).

Picture Credit: N. Bardet, M. Segura and A. Pérez-García/Cretaceous Research

The authors of the scientific paper include a researcher from the Natural History Museum of Paris (Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle), as well as two researchers based in Spain.  They suggest that the fossils represent an individual that either died further out to sea and was washed into a bay (thanatocoenosis), or the remains of an animal that lived in a near-shore environment (biocoenosis).

The scientific paper: “A Plesiosaur (Reptilia, Sauropterygia) from the Cenomanian (Late Cretaceous) of Algora (Guadalajara Province, Central Spain)” by N. Bardet, M. Segura and A. Pérez-García published in Cretaceous Research.

16 07, 2018

Does the Fossil Record Represent True Diversity?

By | July 16th, 2018|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Palaeontological articles, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

How Helpful is the Fossil Record When it Comes to Extinct Animal Diversity?

When it comes to understanding biodiversity in ancient palaeoenvironments, scientists have to rely on the fossil record for their information. Ghost lineages can be inferred, the likelihood of related genera can be proposed using cladistics and phylogeny, but ultimately it is the fossils that form the basis of our understanding about how diverse life was in the past.  This reliance on fossil material has numerous drawbacks.  The fossil record is very incomplete and there is a large preservation bias between different organisms and different environments.  For example, a snail with its hard shell, living on the muddy bottom of a shallow sea has got more chance of becoming a fossil than a soft-bodied mushroom living in a temperate forest.

Palaeontologists have to ask themselves: can the fossil record can be trusted to provide information about biodiversity?

Tyrannosaurus rex Might Be Popular with Museum Visitors but Other Meat-eating Dinosaurs Have a Much Less Complete Fossil Record

T. rex skeleton at the Frankfurt Natural History Museum

T. rex might be very popular with museum visitors, but in reality most of the Tyrannosauroidae are very poorly known.

Mosasaurs Help to Provide Some Insight

Species are often named and described on the flimsiest of evidence, take for example famous dinosaurs such as Trachodon and Troodon, dinosaurs that were first named based on the finding of isolated teeth.  Fortunately, these days ,there is a higher bar set when it comes to establishing that a fossil represents an animal new to science, although some new species are still named based on very fragmentary fossils.

Could it be that our understanding of past biodiversity is simply related to the quality of fossil material in different geological rock formations through time?  This question relates to a fundamental debate within palaeontology about the quality and trustworthiness of the fossil record.

Researchers from Bristol University and Leeds University set out to explore the relationship between the number and quality of fossils and their relationship with past diversity.  Writing in the journal “Palaeontology”, the scientists focused on the Mosasauridae, that family of marine reptiles closely related to today’s snakes and lizards that thrived in the Late Cretaceous before meeting their demise at the same time as the dinosaurs.

Using Mosasaur Fossils to Examine the Diversity of Extinct Animals

A Mosasaur exhibit on display.

Apex predator of the Late Cretaceous – looking at Mosasaur fossils to understand the diversity of extinct groups of animals

Picture Credit: Bonhams

Mosasaurs evolved into a number of different forms during the Cretaceous, some were giants, measuring more than thirteen metres in length and were the apex predators of marine ecosystems.  Other species were much smaller such as the five-metre-long Platecarpus that fed on fish, squid and ammonites.  Scientists have even identified a possible freshwater species of Mosasaur (Pannoniasaurus inexpectatus).

The Fossil Record Indicates Diversity Amongst the Mosasauridae

Illustrating the diversity of the Mosasaurs.

Fossils illustrate the diversity of the Mosasauridae.

Picture Credit: Tom Stubbs and Dan Driscoll

The picture (above), illustrates some of the diversity found in the Mosasauridae.  Some species are known from very fragmentary remains such as isolated bones and teeth, other species have been named based on far more complete skeletons.  The partial lower jaw (top picture), shows the rounded teeth, almost ball-like teeth of a member of the Globidensini tribe of Mosasaurs.   A group of Mosasaurs that evolved specialised teeth to cope with hard-shelled prey such as ammonites and crustaceans (durophagous diet).  The photograph (far right), shows a single Mosasaur tooth.  It is very large and the crown is robust and pointed, typical dentition associated with predatory behaviour, attacking and consuming other large vertebrates.  The picture (bottom), shows a complete, restored skull of a Mosasaur with a jaw containing small, recurved teeth indicative of a diet of fish or other small slippery creatures such as squid.

Dr Dan Driscoll (Bristol University), the lead author of the research stated:

“Mosasaurs have one of the richest vertebrate fossil records and have attracted study for over two centuries.  The first Mosasaur described was in 1808!  Often, studies of fossil record quality have focused simply on the numbers of fossil species, however, it is important to consider the completeness of individual fossil specimens, and whether this distorts our view of diversity.  To do this, robust statistical analysis is required.”

Using Mathematical Models to Test the Completeness of the Mosasaur Fossil Record

The researchers documented over four thousand and eighty Mosasaur specimens and scored them for their degree of completeness.  This is the largest quantitative analysis of its kind undertaken to date.  By using mathematical modelling, the scientists were able to demonstrate that fossil completeness does not bias the fossil record of Mosasaurs and that the rich fossil record of the Mosasauridae does provide an accurate illustration of the diversity and evolutionary history of these marine reptiles.

The Diverse Mosasauridae Family Occupied a Number of Niches within Marine Ecosystems

Tylosaurus attacks.

Fearsome marine reptiles such as Tylosaurus were apex predators.

Picture Credit: BBC Worldwide

Bristol University’s Dr Tom Stubbs, a co-author of the study explained:

“Mosasaurs were key players in Late Cretaceous marine ecosystems.  Our study confirms that Mosasaurs were a successful group of animals that continued to diversify through their evolutionary history, before being abruptly wiped out by the extinction event that also impacted dinosaurs and many other groups.”

The conclusions provided by this new research reveals new insights into the evolution of the Mosasauridae, and highlights that, although the fossil record is most definitely incomplete, variable fossil completeness does not appear to bias large scale evolutionary and ecological patterns.

Co-author, Dr Alex Dunhill, (School of Earth and Environment at the University of Leeds), added:

“Palaeontologists often presume that the vertebrate fossil record is heavily biased by sampling.  This may be so but, here we show that variation in the completeness of fossil specimens does not appear to bias large scale evolutionary patterns.”

The scientific paper: “The Mosasaur Fossil Record Through the Lens of Fossil Completeness” by D. Driscoll, A. Dunhill, T. Stubbs and M. Benton published in Palaeontology.

15 07, 2018

Carboniferous Fossils on a Welsh Hillside

By | July 15th, 2018|Geology, Main Page, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Mynydd Marian Nature Reserve and Fossils

Overlooking the Welsh coast between Llandudno and Rhyl is the beautiful but quite compact nature reserve of Mynydd Marian.  It forms part of a range of low limestone hills that can be found along this part of the coast of North Wales.  The location, a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest), is popular with walkers keen to spot the myriad of different insects and the orchids that thrive on the limestone soils.  The exposed cliffs that were once quarried for their limestone, attract local climbing groups.  However, there is plenty to see for fossil hunters too.  The strata were laid down over 320 million years ago (Carboniferous), it was formed from the compressed shells of countless marine invertebrates that thrived in a warm, shallow sea.  If the numerous stone walls are examined carefully, then lots of fossils of brachiopods and the button-like segments of marine crinoids can be spotted.

A Crinoid Segment Spotted in a Dry-stone Wall (Mynydd Marian)

Spotting a piece of a Carboniferous crinoid.

A crinoid stem exposed in a stone wall at Mynydd Marian nature reserve.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

There is little scree to be found and we would not advise climbing the steep faces of the quarry but if the rocks that comprise the stone walls are examined, then many fossils can be seen.

Spotting Fossils at Mynydd Marian Nature Reserve

Spotting fossils at Mynydd Marian

A crinoid segment (red arrow) and a mould revealing the impression of a brachiopod shell (green arrow) on the surrounding rock.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The picture (above), shows two fossils preserved in the rocks of a dry-stone wall.  The red arrow is pointing to a crinoid segment, whilst the green arrow indicates a mould left in the surrounding matrix by a brachiopod shell.  There is no need to disturb the rocks in the wall, careful observation is all that is required and you will soon start to discern the different types of fossil.

An Impression of the Shell of a Brachiopod preserved in the Limestone

A view of a lost world, an impression of the shell of a brachiopod preserved in the limestone rock.

A glimpse into a lost world, an impression of the shell of a brachiopod preserved in the limestone.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

14 07, 2018

Rare Gomphotherium Skull from France

By | July 14th, 2018|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Main Page, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Local Farmer Gives Up His Gomphotherium Skull Secret

Sacré bleu!  A French farmer working on his land using a large excavator uncovered the fossilised remains of a prehistoric elephant.  However, rather than notify the authorities, it was decided to keep quiet about the fossil find, complete with tusks and large molars, some of which measured more than ten centimetres in length.  The discovery was made in the summer of 2014 by an inhabitant of the village of L’Isle-en-Dodon, about forty-five miles south-west of Toulouse in southern France.  However, the accidental unearthing of a large elephant skull, must have weighed heavy on the person’s conscience, as three years later, scientists from the Musee d’Histoire Naturelle de Toulouse (Natural History Museum of Toulouse), were informed and a field team was despatched to excavate the site and to remove the prehistoric elephant skull so that this important discovery could be properly prepared and studied.

The Gomphotherium Skull at the Natural History Museum of Toulouse

A fossil Gomphotherium skull from south-west France.

The Gomphotherium fossil skull from south-west France.

Picture Credit: Musee d’Histoire Naturelle de Toulouse

Gomphotherium – A Rare Fossil Skull

Gomphotheres (Gomphotheriidae), were a large and very diverse group of prehistoric elephants that had a wide temporal and geographical distribution.  Fossils of these elephants, only distantly related to today’s elephants, have been found in Asia, Africa, North and Central America as well as Europe and a number of species have been named and described.  The first scientific descriptions of these members of the Order Proboscidea was made by the French naturalist Georges Cuvier in the early part of the nineteenth century.  Ironically, much of Cuvier’s research was based on elephant fossils discovered in south-western France, the same part of France, where this fossil skull was uncovered.  Cuvier recognised that the fossils (mostly molars), represented elephants and he erected the species name Mastodon angustidens.  It was the German zoologist Karl Hermann Konrad Burmeister, who revised Cuvier’s work, distinguishing these elephants from the Mastodonts and erected their own taxonomic family – the Gomphotheres.

A Scale Drawing of a Typical Gomphothere (G. angustidens)

Gomphotherium scale drawing.

A scale drawing of a Gomphotherium.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Concerned About Amateur Fossil Hunters

The farmer, who remains anonymous, wished to avoid the attentions of amateur fossil hunters.  It was feared that if news of the fossil discovery had got out, the farm might have been inundated by fossil collectors keen to find more prehistoric animal remains.

A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur commented:

“The unwanted attention that such an important fossil find could have generated would have proved very disruptive for the farm, so it is understandable that the farmer did not want to attract too much publicity.  However, it is pleasing to note that the appropriate authorities have been informed and that this important specimen can be studied properly.”

A Still from a Video Shows the Gomphotherium Skull being Examined

Discussing the French Gomphotherium fossil skull.

Examining the Gomphotherium fossil skull.

Picture Credit: France TV/Musee d’Histoire Naturelle de Toulouse

The model manufacturer CollectA has recently introduced a 1:20 scale Gomphotherium replica into their Deluxe Prehistoric Life model range.  A picture of this new CollectA Gomphotherium replica can be seen below.

The New for 2018 CollectA Gomphotherium Model

CollectA Gomphotherium.

The CollectA 1:20 scale Gomphotherium model.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

To view the CollectA Deluxe range of prehistoric animal models including the recently introduced Gomphotherium: CollectA Deluxe Prehistoric Animal Models

The fossil skull will take about six to nine months to prepare, the researchers at the Natural History Museum of Toulouse hope to learn more about southern European Gomphotheres from this specimen, it is likely that this significant fossil discovery will be put on public display at the museum, providing an opportunity for visitors to learn more about the areas prehistoric past.

A View of the Upper Tusks Protruding from the Gomphotherium Skull

One of two pairs of tusks associated with Gomphotherium skull material.

A close view of the upper tusks of the Gomphotherium skull fossil.

Picture Credit: France TV/Musee d’Histoire Naturelle de Toulouse

13 07, 2018

Young Palaeontologist Asks Questions About Dinosaurs

By | July 13th, 2018|Educational Activities, Main Page, Teaching|0 Comments

Ethan Asks About Dinosaurs

Budding young palaeontologist Ethan and his friends at Longmoor Community Primary School in Liverpool (north-west England), have been learning all about dinosaurs and life in the past this term, aided and supported by their Reception class teachers.  Whilst on a visit to the school to work with class 1 and class 2 to deliver a dinosaur and fossil themed workshop, our dinosaur expert was presented with a list of questions that Ethan had prepared.

Ethan’s Questions About Dinosaurs

Asking questions about dinosaurs.

Ethan presented Everything Dinosaur with some questions.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur/Longmoor Community Primary School

Questions About Dinosaurs Prepared at Home

Ethan’s teacher informed us that many of the children had thought of questions about prehistoric animals as they progressed through their term topic.  These questions had been pinned up onto the classroom display board and the eager fossil hunters in the Reception classes had set about researching the answers as they enthusiastically learned about dinosaurs.  Ethan had prepared his questions at home, he had set his own homework.  The classroom was filled with lots of examples of the children’s work, including super writing, “cotton bud skeletons” and dinosaur fact sheets that the children had made.  The classes had even built their own dinosaur museum!

Drawings of Dinosaurs Produced by Reception Class

Dinosaur drawings from Reception.

Class 2 produced some wonderful dinosaur drawings.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur/Longmoor Community Primary School

Ethan’s Questions

Ethan wanted to know did Tyrannosaurus rex eat meat?

T. rex was definitely a meat-eater (carnivore).  Palaeontologists can get a good idea about what an extinct animal ate by studying their fossil teeth.  Tyrannosaurus rex is regarded as a hypercarnivore, this means that it got at least 70% of its food from eating other animals.  Cats are also regarded as hypercarnivores, which means, if you have a pet cat, it probably loves eating meat as much as T. rex did!

Ethan asked does a Spinosaurus eat fish?

The jaws of Spinosaurus were very long and they were filled with up to two hundred, sharp and very pointed teeth.  These teeth would have been ideal for catching and holding slippery fish.  Palaeontologists know that when Spinosaurus roamed North Africa about 100 million years ago, there were lots of large lakes and rivers that teemed with fish.  Fossils of this large, dinosaur are usually found near ancient sources of water.  In 1975, part of a fossilised jaw of a Spinosaurus was found and it had a bone from a huge sawfish called Onchopristis (Onk-coe-pris-tis) stuck in it.  Palaeontologists also believe that Spinosaurus spent a lot of its time in water, so it is very likely that Spinosaurus did eat fish.  An animal that eats fish is called a piscivore (pie-see-vore).

A Picture of a Spinosaurus Going for a Swim

Spinosaurus swimming.

Spinosaurus – very much at home in the water.  An Onchopristis (sawfish) is trying to avoid being eaten.

Picture Credit: Davide Bonadonna, Nizar Ibrahim, Simone Maganuco

Pelicans, otters and penguins are also piscivores, can you name any other animals that also eat fish?

Ethan and his friends in the Reception classes at Longmoor Community Primary have had great fun learning all about dinosaurs this term.

12 07, 2018

In the Pink! Life’s First Colour

By | July 12th, 2018|Geology, Main Page, Palaeontological articles|0 Comments

Scientists Identify the World’s Oldest Biological Colours

A team of international scientists including researchers from the University of Liège, Florida State University and the Australian National University, in collaboration with a colleague based in Japan have discovered the oldest colours preserved in the fossil record.  An analysis of the remains of microscopic, 1.1 billion-year-old cyanobacteria suggest that life back in the Proterozoic was “in the pink”.  Pink coloured pigments have been extracted from ancient marine shales that form part of the Taoudeni Basin of Mauritania (north-western Africa).

When Held Up in the Light the Pink Colouration can be Seen

A vial of pink pigments porphyrins - representing the oldest intact pigments in the world.

The oldest colours found to date.

Picture Credit: Australian National University

One of the authors of the scientific paper, published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA”, Dr Nur Gueneli (Australian National University), explained that the pigments taken from the marine black shales were more than six hundred million years older than previous pigment discoveries.

Dr Gueneli commented:

“The bright pink pigments are the molecular fossils of chlorophyll that were produced by ancient photosynthetic organisms inhabiting an ancient ocean that has long since vanished.”

Samples of the shales laid down during the Stenian, the last geological period of the Mesoproterozoic Era, were ground into fine powder before the ancient molecules of long extinct cyanobacteria could be extracted and analysed.  The fossils reveal a range of colours from a blood red to a deep purple in their concentrated form, but when diluted, it is the colour pink that dominates.

Dr Gueneli, who undertook this research whilst studying for a PhD added:

“The precise analysis of the ancient pigments confirmed that tiny cyanobacteria dominated the base of the food chain in the oceans a billion years ago, which helps to explain why animals did not exist at the time.”

Lack of Things for Higher Organisms to Eat

Complicated animal life was not able to evolve, according to one hypothesis, as it was restrained by the lack of food in the ocean.  In essence, life on Earth could not pick up the evolutionary pace as food webs were constrained by the amount of primary producers in the ecosystem.  Through the team’s discovery of molecular fossils of the photopigment chlorophyll in 1.1-billion-year-old marine sedimentary rocks, they were able to quantify the abundance of different organisms that uses the sun’s energy to produce food (phototrophs).  Nitrogen isotopic values of the fossil pigments revealed that the Pan-African Ocean was dominated by cyanobacteria, while larger planktonic algae were very scarce.  These findings support the hypothesis that small cells at the base of the food chain limited the flow of energy to higher trophic levels, potentially retarding the emergence of large and complex life.

Associate Professor Jochen Brooks, of the Research School of Earth Sciences (Australian National University), one of the authors of the scientific paper, stated that the emergence of more complex life forms was likely to have been restricted by the limited supply of larger food particles, such as algae.

Associate Professor Brooks explained:

“Algae, although still microscopic, are a thousand times larger in volume than cyanobacteria, and are a much richer food source.  The cyanobacterial oceans started to vanish about 650 million years ago, when algae began to rapidly spread to provide the burst of energy needed for the evolution of complex ecosystems, where large animals, including humans, could thrive on Earth.”

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