All about dinosaurs, fossils and prehistoric animals by Everything Dinosaur team members.
/Animal News Stories

News stories and articles that do not necessarily feature extinct animals.

18 08, 2017

How the Chloroplast Got Started

By | August 18th, 2017|Adobe CS5, Animal News Stories, Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Main Page|0 Comments

The Origin of the Chloroplast

At the centre of most of our planet’s ecosystems are plants and algae that utilise sunlight and transform carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates and release oxygen.  These very specialised organisms can make their own food, by using light energy combined with CO2 and H2O.  As part of this process, the water molecule is split and oxygen is produced as a by-product.  This process takes place in specialised subunits within a cell called a chloroplast.

Plants and Algae are Fundamental to Most Food Chains on the Planet

Tropical ferns in the forest.

Plants and algae form the basis for most of Earth’s biota.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The theory as to how algae and plants evolved goes something like this – an ancient single-celled eukaryote absorbed a photosynthesising bacterium (blue-green algae otherwise known as photosynthesising cyanobacteria).  Such an event would normally have been disastrous for both parties, but for some reason, both the eukaryote and the cyanobacteria survived and this led to the development of a symbiotic association.  Whilst it is accepted that the cyanobacteria are the ancestors of the chloroplast, it is not clear which of the myriad of cyanobacteria are the closest relations of the chloroplast and when this association began, or indeed where on our planet this fortuitous event took place.

The Evolution of More Complex Life Via the Symbiotic Fusing of Different Kinds of Bacteria

The origins of complex life.

Complex eukaryote cells evolved by the symbiotic fusing of different kinds of bacteria.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The diagram above shows one theory of how more complex lifeforms evolved.  Four different types of bacteria, each with their own specific adaptations and biological characteristics may have merged to create the three main forms of multi-cellular life – animals, plants and fungi.

  • Merger 1 – Bacteria with the ability to produce food via fermentation merged with a swimming bacterium.
  • Merger 2 – An oxygen utilising bacterium invaded this first host and formed the cell mitochondria.
  • Merger 3 – Algae fused with photosynthesising cyanobacteria, which then became the cell chloroplast – the subject of the newly published study.

A team of scientists, including researchers from Bristol University, may have found the answers to these questions.  Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they postulate that the chloroplast lineage split from their closet cyanobacterial ancestor more than 2.1 billion years ago and this took place in low salinity environments.  The team conclude that it took another 200 million years for the chloroplast and the eukaryotic host to be fully united into a symbiotic relationship.  Marine algae groups diversified much later, at around 800 to 750 million years ago, sometime in the Neoproterozoic Era.

Lead author of the study, Dr Patricia Sanchez-Baracaldo (University of Bristol’s School of Geographical Sciences), commented:

“The results of this study imply that complex organisms such as algae first evolved in freshwater environments, and later colonised marine environments – these results also have huge implications to understanding the carbon cycle.  Genomic data and sophisticated evolutionary methods can now be used to draw a more complete picture of early life on land; complementing what has been previously inferred from the fossil record.”

Co-author, Professor Davide Pisani (Bristol University) added:

“Our planet is a beautiful place and it exists in such a sharp contrast with the rest of the solar system.  Think about those beautiful satellite pictures where you see the green of the forests and the blue/green tone of the water.  Well, Earth was not like that before photosynthesis.  Before photosynthesis it was an alien place, uninhabitable by humans.  Here we made some big steps to clarify how Earth become the planet we know today, and I think that that is just wonderful.”

The team used a combination of phylogenomic and Bayesian analytical methods to conclude that the chloroplast lineage branched deep within the cyanobacterial tree of life, around 2.1 billion years ago, and ancestral trait reconstruction places this event in low-salinity environments.  The chloroplast took another 200 million years to become established, with most extant (modern groups living today), forms originating much later.

Everything Dinosaur acknowledges the assistance of a Bristol University press release in the compilation of this article.

13 07, 2017

A Whale of a Time at the Natural History Museum

By | July 13th, 2017|Animal News Stories, Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page|0 Comments

Turning our Attention to Mantellisaurus

All change at the Natural History Museum in London with the refurbished main gallery (the Hintze Hall), opening to the public tomorrow.  Suspended over the hall, and replacing the Diplodocus cast (Dippy), will be “Hope” a 25.2-metre-long skeleton of a female Blue Whale (Balaenoptera musculus) symbolising the Museum’s focus on conservation and the natural world.

Ready to Greet Millions of Visitors – The Blue Whale Skeleton (Hintze Hall)

Blue Whale skeleton.

The female Blue Whale skeleton at the London Natural History Museum.

Picture Credit: The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

A Conservation Success – So Far

The whale skeleton, some 4.5 tonnes and all 221 bones of it, had previously been on display in the mammals gallery of the museum but it had been partially hidden from public view.  Newly restored and augmented, thanks to some subtle 3-D printing to supplement the bones in the right flipper, this spectacular exhibit is depicted plunging towards the main gallery entrance as if the leviathan is attempting to scoop up visitors.  The Blue Whale helps to highlight a conservation success story.  Fifty years ago, the Blue Whale population had plummeted to just a few hundred and this, the largest animal known to have existed, was on the verge of extinction.  International conservation efforts to help preserve and support populations of baleen whales have paid off, at least in the case of Balaenoptera musculus with an estimated 20,000 individuals swimming the oceans of the world today.  Still this represents less than one tenth of the estimated Blue Whale population at the beginning of the 19th Century.

A Spectacular Pose for “Hope” the Blue Whale Skeleton

The Blue Whale exhibit.

The Blue Whale exhibit (Hintze Hall).

Picture Credit: The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

A Nod to Whale Evolution

Visitors to the gallery, may miss a tiny pair of bones located under the massive spinal column of the beast.  If you look up around the mid-point of the spine you might just be able to make out two tiny triangular bones, supported by wires underneath a vertebra.  These are the remains of the hip bones and hind limbs.  These bones are not visible in the living animal, they serve no real purpose anymore, except to prove that whales are descended from four-legged, terrestrial animals.  In fact, whales (Cetacea), belong in the Order Artiodactyla, the even-toed hoofed mammals and molecular studies suggest their nearest land-living relatives today are the Hippopotamuses (hippos and whales are grouped into the Whippomorpha).

Proof that Whales are Descended from Terrestrial Mammals

Hind limbs of the blue whale.

Evidence of the hind limbs of the Blue Whale.

Picture Credit: The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

Lorraine Cornish, the Museum’s Head of Conservation, exclaimed:

“Hope is the only blue whale skeleton in the world to be hung in the diving lunge feeding position.  Suspending such a large, complex and historical specimen from a Victorian ceiling was always going to be challenging, but we were determined to show her in as lifelike position as possible and we are thrilled that the result is truly spectacular.”

Wonder Bays – Look out for Mantellisaurus

“Dippy” may have gone but the Hintze Hall will be home to one dinosaur at least.  In one of the side bays a mounted skeleton of the iguanodontid Mantellisaurus (M.atherfieldensis) has been put on display.

A Nod to Gideon Mantell – Mantellisaurus

Mantellisaurus on display.

Mantellisaurus on display in the Hintze Hall.

Picture Credit: The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

The mounted Mantellisaurus specimen represents one of the most complete dinosaur specimens excavated from the UK.  At Everything Dinosaur, we think the specimen is NHMUK R5764, if it is, this is the holotype and it was discovered in 1914, by a local fossil collector called Reginald Hooley whilst he was exploring several, large shale blocks near Atherfield Point (Isle of Wight).  During his lifetime, Sir Richard Owen, the anatomist who helped found what is now called the Natural History Museum, did a great deal to denigrate the work of his contemporary Gideon Mantell.  Dinosaur fans as well as distinguished palaeontologists we think, will approve of the Museum’s recognition of Mantell’s contribution to the nascent study of dinosaurs.  Owen’s statue might look down on the exhibits, but the mounted skeleton, once assigned to the Iguanodon genus, now stands proud on the eastern side of the Hintze Hall and it bears the name of one of the other great contributors to early palaeontology.

We look forward to visiting the Museum in the near future.  We will marvel at the spectacular Blue Whale nodding its head in our direction as we walk in, but in turn we will stand before the Mantellisaurus and nod our heads in recognition of the work of Gideon Mantell who did much to shine a light, where before there was only darkness.

6 06, 2017

Foul-mouthed Study – Variation in Duck and Goose Beaks

By | June 6th, 2017|Animal News Stories, Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page|0 Comments

Diet Shaped the Evolution of the Beaks of Ducks and Geese

For Aaron Olsen, a walk in a park to see the ducks and other birds serenely swimming on the local pond has added significance.  Ducks and geese, common waterfowl that we are all familiar with, have fascinated the postdoctoral researcher at Brown University (Rhode Island, USA).  For Aaron, seeing gaggles of geese and rafts of ducks has led him to question how such a myriad of different beak forms have evolved within the waterfowl clade (Anseriformes).  Publishing in the academic journal “Functional Ecology”, the scientist has concluded that different diets and different feeding strategies are the main drivers of beak shape.

The Beaks of Ducks and Geese Come in All Shapes and Sizes

Anseriformes - skulls variation due to dietary preferences.

From left to right a gradient of duck-to-goose-skulls.  Research shows that waterfowl beaks vary primarily because of differences in diet and feeding behaviour.

Picture Credit: Aaron Olsen

Ancient Anseriformes (Prehistoric Ducks)

The analysis of the relationship between beak shape and diet amongst waterfowl shows that feeding is most likely to be the major influence on bill shape, but it also suggests that the early members of the Anseriformes were more like ducks than geese.  The main evolutionary driver when it comes to the shape of the beaks of waterfowl is their diet.

Commenting on his research, Aaron Olsen, of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Brown University stated:

“This is the most comprehensive look to date at the relationship between diet and beak shape.”

The oldest member of the Anseriformes is Vegavis (V. iaai), fossils of which have been found in Upper Cretaceous rocks (Maastrichtian faunal stage) of Antarctica.  Waterfowl, the ancestors of today’s ducks and geese were present some 66 million years ago, although their evolutionary roots probably go back further into the Mesozoic.

Vegavis of Late Cretaceous Antarctica

The vocalisation of dinosaurs and birds.

Vegavis takes off whilst a male Theropod dinosaur vocalises close by.

Picture Credit: Nicole Fuller/Sayo Art for University of Texas at Austin

Scientists have identified the vocalisation organ of Vegavis, this bird may have made a honking sound.

To read more about this research: Ancient Bird Box Sheds Light on the Sounds of Early Anseriformes

Waterfowl – Different Beak Shapes

Whilst working at the University of Chicago and the nearby Field Museum of Natural History, Aaron set out to explore the reasons why waterfowl have such differently shaped beaks.  He suspected that diet and feeding behaviour might play a pivotal role in beak morphology, but rather than compare diets and feeding strategies he undertook a detailed three-dimensional analysis of bird skulls and their bills.  He then cross-referenced his findings with literature on the diet of each bird.  A total of 136 specimens were involved in the study, covering 46 genera and 51 species.  As well as looking at living species, the study included an analysis of the recently extinct, flightless duck Thambetochen chauliodous of the larger Hawaiian Islands (except Hawaii), which prior to the arrival of domesticated animals, were the main browsers of vegetation on the isolated archipelago.  The research also involved an analysis of the skull and beak of a much older water bird – Presbyornis spp. from the Palaeocene and the Eocene Epochs.

Extant Goose Skull and Extant Duck Skull Compared to the Ancient Anseriform Presbyornis

Comparing duck and goose skulls.

A Cape Barren goose skull (top) has a very different beak than that of a freckled duck (middle), which does resemble the fossil skull of Presbyornis (bottom).

Mathematical Analysis – Plotting Beak Evolution

Data analysis revealed that there was a strong correlation between dietary preferences and beak shape.  Ducks tend to have relatively long, wide-tipped beaks that can accommodate a lot of water. Ducks feed by filtering out food such as invertebrates and plant seeds from water, whereas geese evolved to feed on the leaves and roots of plants (although some still filter feed).  Most geese have shorter, narrower beaks better designed for browsing on plants.

Dr Olsen contends that the correlation between beak morphology and diet is so strong that other roles for beaks, such as preening and cooling would have had little influence, although he does not rule out these other functions having a role in the evolution of beak shape.

First Ducks Then Geese

In a review of the scientific literature, Aaron, a specialist in Anseriform research, suggests that the early ancestors of extant ducks, geese and other related waterfowl, were very duck-like.  Geese-like beaks evolved later, evolving several times in several places.  In summary, Dr Olsen concludes a duck-like beak is ancestral for most waterfowl with several independent transitions to a more goose-like beak shape occurring over time.

Next time you are in the park, take a look at the ducks and other water birds, the ancestors of these birds lived alongside the dinosaurs.  It’s also worth noting that ducks and geese are technically dinosaurs too, after all, they are all members of the Theropoda.

Non-Avian Dinosaurs and Avian Dinosaurs (Birds)

Dinosaurs and birds.

Avian and non-avian dinosaurs.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The scientific paper: “Feeding Ecology is the Primary Driver of Beak Shape Diversification in Waterfowl”, by Aaron M. Olsen published in Functional Ecology.

23 04, 2017

Happy St George’s Day

By | April 23rd, 2017|Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page|0 Comments

Dinosaur Names Related to Dragons – St George’s Day

Today, April 23rd, is St George’s Day, the national day for England (St George is the patron saint of England, a saint incidentally celebrated and revered by a number of other countries too).  The story about brave St George slaying a dragon might be a myth, but we thought just for fun we might try and list as many dinosaurs associated with dragons as we could.  This is harder than it seems, for example, St George is honoured in both western and eastern cultures and in China, the origin of the dragon legends could have originated from the discovery of fossils of dinosaurs.  Which dinosaurs?  We don’t think anyone can be sure.

The White Horse Prehistoric Chalk Figure at Uffington (Oxfordshire) Has Been Described as Dragon

The Uffington chalk figure.

Children draw the Uffington prehistoric chalk figure.

Picture Credit: Great Wood Primary School

Chinese Dragon Dinosaurs

The word “long” translated from the Chinese means “dragon” so we could have the Theropods Guanlong, Shaochilong, Zhenyuanlong, Dilong and Zuolong for starters.  To this list, we could add the basal Ceratopsian Yinlong (Y. downsi) and we must not forget the beautiful “sleeping dragon” fossil, representing a troodontid, named as Mei long.

An Illustration of the Sleeping Dragon (M. long)

Mei long illustration.

The sleeping dragon Mei long.

Dinosaurs and Dragons

As well as those dinosaurs from Asia with names that reference dragons, there are a number of genera named after the Latin for dragon “draco”. How many can we name?

Firstly, we have Dracoraptor hanigani, a very early Jurassic dinosaur from Wales, a country with its own dragon culture and stories.

An Illustration of the Welsh Theropod Dracoraptor (D. hanigani)

Dracoraptor hanigani.

An illustration of the Theropod dinosaur from Wales Dracoraptor hanigani.

Picture Credit: Bob Nicholls (National Museum of Wales)

In addition, we can add Pantydraco (P. caducus), a Late Triassic member of the Sauropodomorpha from the Vale of Glamorgan.  What other dinosaur dragons can we think of?

Here’s our list:

  • Dracovenator (D. regenti) – from the Early Jurassic of South Africa, believed to be a dilophosaurid.
  • Dracorex (D. hogwartsia) – A member of the bone-headed Pachycephalosauridae named and described in 2006
  • Draconyx (D. loureiroi) – from Portugal a possible iguanodontid.
  • Dracopelta (D. zbyszewskii) – from Portugal, fragmentary fossils indicate a Thyreophoran (armoured dinosaur affinity)
  • Dracoraptor (D. hanigani) – from Wales (see notes above)
  • Pantydraco (P. caducus) – (see above)

A Mounted Skeleton of Dracorex (D. hogwartsia)

Reconstruction of Dracorex.

Dracorex fossil skeleton.

Picture Credit: Indianapolis Children’s Museum

How many dragon inspired dinosaurs can you name?

5 04, 2017

Hunting for Tasmanian Tigers

By | April 5th, 2017|Animal News Stories, Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Main Page|0 Comments

Scientists Prepare to Set Camera Traps in Hunt for Thylacine

Ever since the last known Thylacine died in Hobart zoo back in 1936, there have been numerous “sightings” both in Tasmania and on the Australian mainland of this marsupial, frequently referred to as the “Tasmanian Tiger”.  Most of these reports have been dismissed either as hoaxes, or as observers mistaking foxes or feral dogs for the largest carnivorous marsupial known to have co-existed with modern man during the Holocene Epoch.

Grainy photographs and blurred film footage have come to prominence from time to time, helping to fuel the debate as to whether Thylacines (Thylacinus cynocephalus), which were believed to have been hunted to extinction, might just have survived, with a few scattered populations holding on.

A Picture of the Last Known Thylacine

A photograph of a Thylacine.

A picture of “Benjamin” the last known Thylacine to live in captivity.  This animal died in Hobart zoo (Tasmania) in 1936.

Picture Credit: David Fleay

Scientific Expedition to a Remote Location in Northern Queensland

A field team will be dispatched to the remote Cape York Peninsula (northern Queensland), in a bid to search for evidence of the existence of a surviving Thylacine population.  The team, led by Professor Bill Laurance of James Cook University (Queensland), hope to set fifty camera traps in the area so that photographic proof can be established.  The Cape York Peninsula has been chosen as a number of credible witness accounts of possible sightings, including one from a tourism operator and former park ranger, have occurred in the locality.

Professor Laurance commented:

“All observations of putative Thylacines to date have been at night, and in one case four animals were observed at close range, about 20 feet away, with a spotlight.  We have cross-checked the descriptions we received of eye shine colour, body size and shape, animal behaviour, and other attributes, and these are inconsistent with known attributes of other large-bodied species in north Queensland such as dingoes, wild dogs or feral pigs.”

The exact destination of the field team is being kept a closely guarded secret.  Nearly four thousand reported sightings have been recorded on the Australian mainland, it is the reports from qualified rangers, Aboriginal communities and the many credible witnesses that offer the tantalising prospect of a live population being identified.

Ranger Patrick Shears, explained that local Aboriginals call the beast the “moonlight tiger” and that many observers claim that these marsupials approach quite close, before turning their long, stiff tails and trotting away into the darkness.

A Reward Offered

Tasmanian tour operator Stuart Malcolm has offered an $1.75 million AUD (£1 million GBP), reward for proof that the Thylacine has survived to the present day.  Professor Laurance and his team are not interested in any reward money, after all, it was a bounty placed on each dead Thylacine recorded, that helped devastate the species in Tasmania.  The Professor is not particularly sanguine when it comes to the chances of the expedition being a success.  He has stated that it is very unlikely that the Thylacine has survived on the Australian mainland.   However, with a number of credible reports to guide them, it seems that if the Tasmanian Tiger has survived anywhere on the mainland of Australia, the Cape York Peninsula is a good place to start looking.

CollectA introduced a finely detailed model of a female Thylacine into their model range last year.  This model is quite hard to find, but not as difficult as a live Thylacine to track down.  Everything Dinosaur stocks this model, for the CollectA Thylacine and other rare CollectA models: CollectA Prehistoric Life Models

The CollectA Prehistoric Life Thylacine Model

The CollectA Thylacine replica.

The CollectA Thylacine model.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Everything Dinosaur intends to add a second Thylacine model to its already, extensive range later in the year.   Check this blog for more details about the model and also for updates on the Queensland expedition.

24 03, 2017

Queensland Residents Asked to Stay “CrocWise”

By | March 24th, 2017|Animal News Stories, Main Page|0 Comments

One Fatality and Another Person Badly Wounded in Separate Crocodile Attacks

The Estuarine crocodile that fatally attacked a spear fisherman in the far north of Queensland (Australia) has been caught and killed according to local officials.  Warren Hughes (35), was attacked at Palmer Point, near Innisfail, south of Cairns last Saturday.  His empty dinghy and spearfishing tackle was found on Saturday evening, but his body was not discovered until the following Monday.

In a statement released by the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection (EHP), the four-metre long reptile was captured on the evening of the 21st March (Tuesday), at the mouth of the Russell River, not far from the scene of the attack.

Saltwater Crocodiles are the World’s Largest Living Reptile

Saltwater crocodile (Estuarine crocodile).

A Saltwater crocodile.

Environment Minister Steven Miles commented that the wildlife officers were confident this crocodile was the animal responsible due to its size and the fact that it was found in close proximity to where the attack took place.

The minister added:

“I want to thank our incredible team of wildlife officers who do a difficult, and in cases like this, a very dangerous job.  This area is well within crocodile country and it is important that residents and visitors continue to exercise “CrocWise” behaviour at all times.”

Be “CrocWise”

“CrocWise” is a Northern Territory Government campaign to educate people about crocodiles and reduce the risk of attacks.   As the Saltwater (Estuarine) crocodile population has grown over the last fifty years or so, there has been an increase in crocodile attacks on swimmers and fisherman.  With Australian urban centres expanding further into, what was once wilderness, so there is an ever-increasing threat from encounters with these apex, highly dangerous predators.

Sadly, many people still don’t understand the threat that these crocodiles, some of which can grow to over six metres long, can pose.  On Saturday 18th March, a teenager, Lee de Paauw was badly mauled by a three to four-metre-long crocodile after jumping into a river, known to have a resident population of crocodiles, north of Queensland.  It seems the 18-year-old embarked on his foolish dip after being dared to do it by his friends.  Luckily, the young man managed to escape the attentions of the predator, however, he received severe injuries to his left arm.

This morning, (24th March), wildlife rangers trapped a large crocodile very close to where Lee was mauled.  The animal is being kept at a holding facility until it can be properly located.  The Australian Government has a capture and release programme in place to deal with dangerous crocodiles.  It is hoped that this particular crocodile will be relocated to an Australian zoo.

The Crocodile Suspected of the Attack on Lee de Paauw

Crocodile suspected of attack.

The crocodile believed to be responsible for the attack on a teenager.

Picture Credit: Drew Creighton

 

11 03, 2017

Frogspawn in the Office Pond

By | March 11th, 2017|Animal News Stories, Everything Dinosaur News and Updates, Main Page|0 Comments

Frogspawn in the Office Pond

We have frogspawn in the Everything Dinosaur office pond!  Early this morning two batches of frogspawn were laid.  We are expecting more as at least five frogs have been spotted in the pond this afternoon.  The frogs are all Common Frogs (Rana temporaria), the name is a bit of a misnomer as frog numbers, like most species of amphibians have declined substantially in recent years.  It’s great news for us, to have frogspawn in the pond once again.

Frogspawn and Mating Frogs in the Office Pond

We have frogspawn in the office pond.

Frogspawn in the office pond, with two frogs also in the picture.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

We have been fortunate to have had frogspawn in our small pond for many years now, hopefully, we shall be able to see some small frogs emerging later in the summer, helping to sustain the local frog population and doing our bit for conservation.

Helping to Conserve the Local Frog Population

Mating frogs (2017).

A pair of mating frogs (2017).

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

27 12, 2016

Scientists Build Three Dimensional Future Human

By | December 27th, 2016|Animal News Stories, Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Main Page|0 Comments

Researchers Create “Trillennium Man”

Interactive three-dimensional models of human joints, showing how common medical complaints have arisen and how we are likely to evolve in the future, have been created at Oxford University.  The research was led by Dr Paul Monk (Nuffield Department of Orthopaedics, Rheumatology and Musculoskeletal Sciences) and it has led to the creation of a computer model of a human skeleton, one that represents a possible individual living around the year 6017 AD.  This individual has been nick-named “Trillennium Man”.

The Research Team Plotted the Evolution of Key Tetrapod Joints

Studying how the human body will evolve.

“Trillennium Man” plotting the evolution of key joints in the human body.

Picture Credit: Oxford University

Dr Monk was interested in exploring why patients at his clinic presented with very similar orthopaedic problems.

He explained:

“We see certain things very commonly in hospital clinics, pain in the shoulder with reaching overhead, pain in the front of the knee, arthritis of the hip, and in younger people we see some joints that have a tendency to pop out.  We wondered how on earth we have ended up with this bizarre arrangement of bones and joints that allows people to have these problems.  And it struck us that the way to answer that is to look backwards through evolution.”

Computerised Tomography Used to Assess Three Hundred Specimens

A total of 224 bone specimens were scanned (CT scans), in order to assess how the human body and joints such as the shoulder, hip and knee have evolved and changed over time.  Specimens from the Smithsonian Institute (Washington) and the London Natural History Museum were used in this study.  Tetrapods involved in the research included members of the hominin tribe such as Homo ergaster and Homo erectus as well as a range of other fossils, including some that represent some of the very first terrestrial vertebrates to have lived.  The scans were than mapped using a computer programme to produce three-dimensional images to show how the bones and joints had changed.  This research has provided new insights into the morphological trends with common orthopaedic complaints such as shoulder pain and anterior knee discomfort.

The Bones of Australopithecus afarensis (Lucy) were Incorporated into the Study

"Lucy" A. afarensis discovered in 1974.

The fossilised bones of Lucy (approximately 40% of the skeleton).

Picture Credit: The Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia

Considering Future Potential Human Joint Problems 

By extrapolating the mathematical models, the research team could attempt to plot how our bodies and their key joints will evolve in the future.

Dr Monk added:

“Throughout our lineage we have been adapting the shape of our joints, which leads to a range of new challenges for orthopaedic surgeons.  Recently there has been an increase in common problems such as anterior knee pain, and shoulder pain when reaching overhead, which led us to look at how joints originally came to look and function the way they do.  These models will enable us to identify the root causes of many modern joint conditions, as well as enabling us to anticipate future problems that are likely to begin to appear based on lifestyle and genetic changes.”

Both quadrupeds and bipeds were included in the study, the research even involved examining how dinosaurs with their digitigrade and semi-digitigrade stance evolved and changed over time.

Commenting on the significance of this research, Dr Monk concluded:

“Current trends reveal that the modern shapes of joint replacements won’t work in the future, meaning that we will need to re-think our approach for many common surgeries.  We also wanted to see what we’re all going to look like in the future, and to answer questions such as ‘are we evolving to be taller and faster or weaker’, and ‘might we be evolving to need hip replacements earlier in the future?’”

Human Hip Bones Evolving

As our distant ancestors adopted a bipedal method of locomotion so the femur (thigh bone) changed.  The neck became gradually thicker to help support body weight.  The thicker the neck of the bone in the femur the greater the likelihood of arthritis in the hip joint.  Orthopaedics have suggested that this thickened neck of the femur might be a reason why our species is prone to hip problems.

Over Millions of Years the “Neck” of the Femur has Become Thicker

Human femur evolution.

Neck of the hominin thigh bone has become broader to support our weight.

Picture Credit: Oxford University

In the picture above, the proximal end of a human femur (H. sapiens), has been modelled using the CT scans (right) and this is compared to the model produced from scans of an early hominin (left).  The red arrows indicate the region of the neck of the thigh bone that has become thicker.

Everything Dinosaur acknowledges the assistance of the University of Oxford press room in the compilation of this article.

19 10, 2016

Hiding in Plain Sight the “Higgs Bison”

By | October 19th, 2016|Animal News Stories, Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Main Page|0 Comments

Cave Paintings Reveal Surprising Clues to Bovid Evolution

The cave paintings left by our ancestors can be very evocative.  The often elaborate and highly stylised frescoes represent life in the very distant past, a life so far removed from today.  However, the paintings, in most cases, a record of the animals that shared the environment with these hunter/gatherers, hide hidden clues regarding prehistoric animals that modern-day researchers are only just beginning to appreciate.

A report published in the journal “Nature Communications” by scientists from the University of Adelaide, documents the study of DNA recovered from fossil bones in order to map how climate change affects large animals.  A surprise awaited the scientists, they have discovered a previously unknown species of bison, only to find out that this bovine was already recorded on the walls of caves across Europe, such as in the Niaux Cave (south-western France).  These cave paintings are dated to around 17,000 years ago (Late Upper Palaeolithic).

Cave Paintings Thought to Be Stylised and Symbolic May Reflect Anatomical Accuracy

A Woolly Rhino depicted in a cave painting.

Cave art depicts a Woolly Rhinoceros

Picture Credit: BBC/inocybe

In 1999, the Australian-based research team commenced the study of DNA extracted from bison bones excavated from a number of sites located in the northern hemisphere, where the Steppe bison (Bison priscus) roamed.  The objective of the study was to assess the impact of changing global climate upon animal populations and in North America the fossil record for bison reflected the impact of a changing world.  Bison numbers crashed around the Last Glacial Maximum (between 18,000 and 21,000 years ago.)  Such data supports the idea that climate change played a significant role in the extinction of “megafauna”.

The scientists then expanded the boundaries of their research by examining data from South America, this also revealed that rapid warming events were a significant factor in large animal extinctions, often with species being further pushed towards extinction by the effect on animal populations by human hunters.

A Puzzle from Europe

When the focus of the research was directed at the fossil record and climate data from Europe, a rather puzzling picture emerged.  By studying mitochondrial DNA (which is inherited exclusively through the maternal line), recovered from fossilised remains, the team realised that the genetic signatures they were finding did not match those expected if the fossils had come from the Steppe bison (Bison priscus).  This was something of a puzzle as palaeontologists had thought that the Steppe bison was the only species to have been present in Europe before 10,000 years ago.

The researchers realised that there were looking at the genes of something novel, an unknown species distantly related to modern cattle and to the exceptionally rare European bison (Bison bonasus), also called the Wisent.  The European bison is Europe’s largest, native, extant terrestrial mammal.  Once widespread, this bovine is now found in a few, remote and protected forests, particularly the Białowieża Forest between Belarus and Poland.  In a story, somewhat similar to the more famous Przewalski’s horse, the last wild Wisent was shot in 1927, but the species clung on thanks to a handful of animals kept in protected reserves.  Modern herds are descended from just a dozen individuals, including one bull from the Caucasus.

The European Bison Also Known as the Wisent (Bison bonasus)

The Wisent (European bison).

The European bison.

Picture Credit: Rafał Kowalczyk

To read about the conservation of Przewalski’s horse: Przewalski’s Horse – A Conservation Success Story

The Elusive “Higgs Bison”

That famous Australian dry sense of humour came to the fore, when the DNA from the fossil bones proved to be neither Steppe bison or modern European bison, the team thought they had a new species but they could not be certain.  The elusive animal was nick-named “Higgs bison”, after all, the team had found evidence of something new, but they were not quite sure what this animal looked like, a parallel with physicists and their search for the Higgs boson particle.

In order to unravel this “Higgs bison” puzzle, the University of Adelaide research team set out to confirm their mitochondrial DNA results by obtaining nuclear DNA from the sixty-four European bison bones involved in the study.  Although, much harder to retrieve, nuclear DNA records all aspects of ancestry, not just the maternal line.  The small amount of nuclear DNA retrieved from the samples demonstrated that the “Higgs bison” was a hybrid, a cross between a female wild cow (extinct Aurochs) and a male Steppe bison.  The team dated this hybridisation event to more than 120,000 years ago.  This ancestry was the same for the Wisent and even though the mitochondrial DNA was different, a consequence of the recent near extinction event for the European bison, the “Higgs bison” was revealed as the ancestor of the Wisent.

Pressure on bovine populations as a result of rapid fluctuations in climate could have triggered the hybridisation process.

Male offspring of the Aurochs/Steppe bison cross were sterile, a common outcome for mammal hybrids.  As a result, several generations of females back-crossed with Steppe bison males (maybe even the same bull), resulting in a genetic ancestry of about 10 percent Aurochs and 90 percent Steppe bison.

Hybridisation Between Female Aurochs and Male Steppe Bison Leads to a New Species

The Evolution of the European bison.

Wisent evolution.

Picture Credit: Nature Communications

Genetics and cave art reveal the assymmetric hybridisation between female Aurochs and male Steppe bison. Male hybrid offspring are sterile, and female offspring backbred with Steppe bison for several generations, possibly the same bull.

Looking for More Evidence – the North Sea and Cave Paintings

Having reached this conclusion, the Australian team then set about finding other sources of evidence to support the idea of a newly discovered species of prehistoric bison, resulting from the cross breeding between wild cattle and Bison priscus.  Two strands of supporting evidence were identified, both from surprising sources.

  1. Scientists from Holland reported that amongst the many numerous Steppe bison and Aurochs bones dredged up by fisherman from the North Sea (for much of the Pleistocene Epoch sea levels were much lower and Scotland was joined to Denmark by a wide and extensive plain), bones of a less common, smaller bovine had been found.
  2. French cave art researchers had identified two distinct forms of bison depicted in the artwork of our ancestors, one type resembled the hump-backed, massive Steppe bison, whilst the other depiction was of a more evenly shaped animal with reduced horns, much like a modern-day Wisent.

Depicted in Prehistoric Cave Art – the Newly Discovered Species of Bison

A Wisent (European bison) depicted in Cave Art

820 examples of bison depicted in European cave art are known, two distinct forms have been identified, representing two different species.

Picture: D. Viat/Tourismeoccitanie

Radiocarbon dating of the artworks showed that the wedge-shaped form was drawn when Steppe bison were present on the landscape (around 18,000 years ago), while the small-horned version was drawn when the newly discovered species dominated Europe (after 17,000 years ago).  Each species appears to have dominated Europe for long periods of time, alternating in response to major climate changes.  Thanks to the accurate artwork of Stone Age people, scientists have a good understanding of what this new species of bison looked like.  It had been hiding in plain sight all along.

This study has thrown up a number of surprises.  Apparently, mammals can form new species by hybridisation, even if only rarely.  It also shows that despite the huge bison fossil record the depictions of these ancient creatures made many thousands of years ago, still have a lot to tell us about life in the past.

Everything acknowledges the help and support of “The Lead South Australia” in the compilation of this article.

The scientific paper: Soubrier, J. et al. Early cave art and ancient DNA record the origin of European bison. Nat. Commun. 7, 13158 doi: 10.1038/ncomms13158 (2016).

8 09, 2016

Spiny Plants, Ungulates and the Savannah Habitat

By | September 8th, 2016|Animal News Stories, Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Main Page|0 Comments

The Evolution of Spiny Plants Holds Key to the Establishment of the Savannah

The continent of Africa contains a wide diversity of habitats, dominating the south, central part of Africa are the grasslands, the extensive savannahs that are home to a great diversity of iconic animals.  A team of international scientists writing in the academic journal “The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences United States”, have mapped the origins of the African savannah and concluded that the emergence of this ecosystem is, at least in part, down to the grazing habits of antelopes and their kin.

Ancient Bovids Influenced Habitat Formation in Africa

Rusingoryx illustrated

Honking to communicate in the hot savannah.

Picture Credit: Todd Marshall

The picture above shows an illustration of Rusingoryx atopocranion a wildebeest from the Pleistocene Epoch.  Grazing bovids and antelopes may have had a remarkable impact on the evolution of plant communities.

In a study that plotted flora/faunal relationships on a continental scale, the researchers identified which mammal browsers are most closely associated with spiny communities of trees.  The team were able to show that over the last sixteen million years or so, plants from unrelated taxa developed spiny defences against being eaten a total of fifty-five times.  This pattern of convergent evolution suggests that the arrival and diversification of bovids in Africa changed the rules for persisting in woody communities.  Contrary to current understanding, this new data indicates that browsers predate fire by millions of years as agents driving the origin of the African savannah.

The study was conducted in an unorthodox manner.  The researchers, which included biologists from McGill University (Montreal, Quebec, Canada), started by observing fauna and flora relationships in Africa today and then working backwards in time to the middle of the Miocene Epoch.

An Arms Race Between Plants and Animals

Many browsers like gazelles, delicately pick leaves off branches full of wicked-looking spines that are several centimetres long.  The scientists were able to uncover what happened in the past by mapping the distribution and evolution of the spiny plants on which gazelles and their relatives like to feed today.

A Gerenuk Antelope Browsing

A Gerenuk Antelope Browsing

A Gerenuk Browsing on Trees.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Research team member, Jonathan Davies, (McGill University) commented:

“It’s been difficult to get a picture of how savannah ecosystems evolved because the conditions needed to preserve animal and plant fossils are very different from one another.  By working with the African Centre for DNA Bar-coding at the University of Johannesburg, we were able to sequence and compare DNA from nearly two thousand trees, and show that African plants only developed spines about fifteen million years ago. That was about the same time that a new type of mammal, antelope and their relatives, spread across the continent following the collision between the continental plates of Africa and Eurasia.”

Prior to this collision, the African continent had been dominated by the large, now extinct, ancestors of browsing elephants and hyrax.  These large herbivores would have bull-dozed trees and trampled vegetation, so spines were an ineffective defence against them according to the lead author of the study, Tristan Charles-Dominique (University of Cape Town).  However, antelopes and their relatives that arrived in Africa after the continental plate collision were highly efficient browsers, often using their delicate lips and prehensile tongue to remove leaves from branches.  It is likely that plants developed spines to defend themselves against these new plant “predators”.

Evolving a Spiny Defence Against Browsers

The study suggests a remarkable “arms race” between the trees and plant-eaters.  The arrival of new and efficient herbivores on the continent of Africa led to the evolution of more and more elaborate defences, including longer and longer spines.  One of the implications of this research is that the loss of large mammals like antelopes today, through human activities such as the bush meat trade, may have a substantial impact on the African landscape, with present day open savannahs being converted into thicket or brush.  Extensive forests may also make a comeback.

The Paper:  “Spiny Plants, Mammal Browsers and the Origin of the African Savannahs”.

Everything Dinosaur acknowledges the support of McGill University in the compilation of this article.

Load More Posts