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Articles, features and information which have slightly more scientific content with an emphasis on palaeontology, such as updates on academic papers, published papers etc.

23 11, 2017

Scaling the Heights of Feather Evolution

By | November 23rd, 2017|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Palaeontological articles|0 Comments

How Reptilian Scales Became Feathers

Birds and alligators might look very different, but they are related, belonging to the Archosauria clade, that diverse and extensive group of diapsids that dominated life on Earth during the Mesozoic. There are a number of groups of reptiles that are more closely related to birds than alligators, for instance there is the Dinosauria.  At least dinosaurs and birds belong to the same sub-clade of the Archosaurs (the Avemetatarsalia), whereas, in contrast, alligators and their crocodilian cousins are placed in the other major sub-clade of the Archosaurs – the Crurotarsi.

A team of scientists based at the University of Southern California have shed light on the evolutionary process that led to the development of feathers from reptilian scales.  The manipulation of genes in embryonic alligator skin and developing chicks has enabled the researchers to replicate the evolutionary process that led to the development of primitive feathers within members of the Archosauria.

Numerous Feathered Dinosaur Have Been Described – But How Did Feathers Evolve?

Huanansaurus dinosaur illustrated.

A new feathered dinosaur from China, but how did feathers evolve from the scales of reptiles?

Picture Credit: Chuang Zhao

Genetic Research Maps the Transition from Scaly Skin to Filamentous Feathers

Most scientists believe that feathers evolved primarily for insulation or display and that powered flight was secondary.  Over the last two decades or so, there have been remarkable dinosaur fossil discoveries, mainly from the Cretaceous deposits in Liaoning Province (north-eastern China), that have revealed a myriad of different types of feathered dinosaur, but the mechanism for feather evolution was poorly understood.  For example, many different types of feather-like structures have been identified in the fossil record, the famous Archaeopteryx (A. lithographica) from the Upper Jurassic limestone deposits of Solnhofen, Germany, has asymmetrical flight feathers, very similar to those found in living birds.  These feathers are more complex than those seen in non-avian, non-volant dinosaurs of the Jehol Biota, that lived some 30 million years after Archaeopteryx was flying around.

Archaeopteryx Possessed Both Asymmetrical Flight Feathers and Symmetrical Feathers

Feather preservation on Archaeopteryx.

Excellent feather preservation.  Asymmetrical feathers (flight feathers on the wings), whilst the hind limbs of Archaeopteryx had symmetrical feathers that probably played very little role in powered flight.

Picture Credit: Helmut Tischlinger with additional labelling by Everything Dinosaur

What are Feathers and Reptile Scales Made Of?

The feathers of birds and the scales of reptiles are essentially, made of the same protein – keratin.  However, there are subtle differences in the composition of the keratin that makes up feathers and scales.  It has been known for more than ten years, that the type of keratin that forms feathers is present in embryonic alligator scales.  This form of feather-forming keratin, is suppressed by the expression of genetic information during the embryological development of the alligator, and as a result, as far as we at Everything Dinosaur know, the form of keratin that leads to feathers has not been detected within the dermal scales of adult crocodilians.  The presence of this homologous keratin in both chicks and alligators suggests that this trait was inherited from a common ancestor, a member of the Archosaur clade (Archosauriformes), that existed prior to the evolution of the two basic types of Archosaur based on their ankle bones (Avemetatarsalia and the Crurotarsi).

An Evolutionary Heritage Embedded in the DNA of Living Archosaurs

A team of scientists, led by researchers from the University of Southern California have started to unravel the genetic mechanisms that dictate how the outer skin and related tissues of living Archosaurs is formed.  They have been able to focus in on the variety of genes that are involved in scale and feather development.  The scientific paper detailing this research has been published in the academic journal “Molecular Biology and Evolution”.

Commenting on this new study, corresponding author for the paper, Dr Cheng-Ming Choung (Department of Pathology, Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California), stated:

“We now have a potential molecular explanation for these hypothesised missing links.  Our analyses led to the identification of five morpho-regulatory modules that are essential for modern feather formation.  We propose that these modules may originally evolve as different strategies for better adaptation.  Eventually, the integrative combination of five morpho-regulatory modules achieves the highly successful feather architecture today, allows the Aves class to claim most of the open sky as their ecological niche.”

In this study, the scientists first mapped the genes of developing chicks and embryonic alligators to identify the differences in gene expression between the two Archosaurs and to pin-point the key genes involved in the formation of feathers or scales.  Once this phase of the research had been concluded, the team then placed the genes associated with feather development in chicks into alligator eggs to see if the alligator genes for scales could be overridden by switching on the chicken feather genes.

Highly-magnified Thin Slice Through an Alligator Scale Showing Filamentous Development

Growing feathers in embryonic alligator skin cells.

Normal embryonic alligator scales (left) compared with the elongated feather-like appendage following genetic manipulation of the alligator scales (right).

Picture Credit: University of Southern California

In addition, the gene replacement led to the identification of several intermediate types of shape from scales to more complex forms of filamentous feathers.  Some of the shapes identified resemble the filamentous appendages associated with feathered dinosaur fossils, whilst other shapes formed have similar characteristics to those found in the feathers of modern birds.  This research has provided a further insight into how a new organ might evolve and has significantly increased the list of genes and molecules known to influence feather development.  It has also highlighted the growing role of developmental biology and genetic mapping when it comes to interpreting the fossil record.

The scientific paper: “Multiple Regulatory Modules are Required for Scale-to-Feather Conversion” by Ping Wu Jie Yan Yung-Chih Lai Chen Siang Ng Ang Li Xueyuan Jiang Ruth Elsey Randall Widelitz Ruchi Bajpai Wen-Hsiung Li Cheng-Ming Chuong and published in the journal of Molecular Biology and Evolution.

For an article on a recently described feathered, terrestrial dinosaur: Silky Dinosaur Ruffles Feathers

To read a recent article on the discovery of a troodontid dinosaur with pennaceous feathers: Chinese Dinosaur with Pennaceous Feathers

16 11, 2017

Cataloguing the Ancient Forests of Antarctica

By | November 16th, 2017|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Geology, Main Page, Palaeontological articles, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Permian, Triassic and Jurassic-aged Forests Explored on the Coldest Continent

Over the next few months, a team of intrepid scientists will be hoping to continue their exploration of some of the most remote fossil locations in the world.  Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee have been mapping the sedimentary deposits at McIntyre Promontory, at the head of the Ramsey Glacier in Antarctica.  To date, the team have recorded an extensive series of strata ranging in ages from the Late Permian to the Jurassic, the numerous plant fossils found are helping the scientists to better understand the evolution of forests and their flora over the southernmost portions of Gondwana.

Remains of Prehistoric Forests Uncovered in Antarctica

Prehistoric tree trunk (geology hammer provides scale).

An ancient tree trunk discovered in Antarctica.

Picture Credit: University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Antarctica in the Late Permian Period

A total of thirteen trees have been found with numerous fragmentary fossils of other plants, including Ginkgos and Glossopteris.  The oldest plants described by this research team, date from the Late Permian of around 260 million years ago.  Some of the fossils have stems and roots attached and have been preserved “in situ”.  No transport of fossil material is involved, the fossils are preserved where the plants grew.  The flora of this southerly habitat has been preserved thanks to occasional volcanic events that buried the primitive forests in ash.

Commenting on the significance of the Antarctic ancient flora, palaeoecologist and visiting assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Department of Geosciences, Erik Gulbranson stated:

“People have known about the fossils in Antarctica since the 1910-12 Robert Falcon Scott expedition.  However, most of Antarctica is still unexplored.  Sometimes, you might be the first person to ever climb a particular mountain.”

Beautifully Preserved Plant Fossils

Ancient plant fossils from Antarctica.

Ancient plant fossil remains.

Picture Credit: University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

The Late Permian forests preceded the most extensive mass extinction event in the Phanerozoic (end Permian mass extinction event),  the scientists are hoping to use their growing knowledge of the ancient Antarctic forests to look at the possible impact on global warming on extant plant communities.  In addition, as the Antarctic forests grew at polar latitudes where plants can’t grow today, Gulbranson believes that the trees were an extremely hardy species and he and his colleagues are trying to determine why they died out.

Just like their modern counterparts, prehistoric tree fossils can reveal seasonal growth rings.  These rings when examined in microscopic detail can reveal patterns of seasonal growth.  Antarctica during the Late Permian was further north than it is today, even so, despite the milder climate, the forests would have had to endure prolonged periods of darkness, when the sun never emerged above the horizon.  The research team hopes to use the ancient growth rings to learn more about how these forests coped with such extremes.

Ancient Tree Trunks Can Help Decipher Seasonal Growth Patterns

Antarctic prehistoric plant life.

Ancient trees can reveal evidence of seasonal growth.

Picture Credit: University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Climate Change and the End Permian Mass Extinction Event

The cause or causes of the end Permian extinction event remain an area of controversy within palaeontology, although many scientists now believe that a huge increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases such as methane and CO2 which resulted from extensive global volcanic activity led to world-wide climate change.  John Isbell (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee), has visited Antarctica before, on this expedition he examined the matrix and other sediments surrounding the in situ fossils to determine how these plant remains fitted into the geology of Antarctica.

To read an article written by Everything Dinosaur in 2015, that explains how rocks from South Africa are helping scientists to unravel global extinction events: Karoo Rocks Provide a Fresh Insight into Extinction Events

The Plant Fossils Might Represent New Species

The prehistoric forests of Antarctica.

Delicate plant fronds have been preserved.

Picture Credit: University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

The extensive forests may have stretched across the whole of the super-continent Gondwana.  Evidence of Glossopteris fossils and other plant remains have been used to help substantiate the theory of continental drift.  These Permian forests would have looked very different from today’s temperate woodlands, the flora would have been dominated by mosses, ferns, Pteridosperms (seed ferns) and conifers.

Erik Gulbranson explained that the Antarctic fossils have provided important information about plant diversity at higher latitudes. During the Permian, forests were a potentially low diversity assemblage of different plant types with specific functions that affected how the entire forest responded to environmental change.  This is in direct contrast to today’s high-latitude forests that display greater plant diversity.

Gulbranson added:

“This plant group must have been capable of surviving and thriving in a variety of environments.  It’s extremely rare, even today, for a group to appear across nearly an entire hemisphere of the globe.”

Tough Forests Failed to Survive Climate Change

The researchers conclude that these tough trees and plants did not survive the climate change that marked the end of the Permian.  Younger plant fossils from Triassic and Jurassic sediments provide evidence of the changing Antarctic flora over time, but many of the types of plants found in the Permian forests, despite their resilience, died out.

Erik Gulbranson Can Study the Permian Plant Fossils in the University Laboratory

Plant fossils being examined.

Examining the Permian plant fossils (Erik Gulbranson – University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee).

Picture Credit: University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee/Troye Fox

By analysing the preserved tree growth rings, the scientists have found that these trees transitioned from summer activity to winter dormancy very rapidly, perhaps within a few weeks.  Extant plants make the same transition over the course of several months and also conserve water by making food during the day and resting at night.  Scientists don’t yet know how months of perpetual light would have affected the plants’ day-and-night cycles.

The team hope to return to the various Antarctic dig sites in the early part of 2018.  They hope to learn more about the annual growth cycles of the trees and to determine how the forests coped with rising levels of greenhouse gases and a warming climate.  It is hoped that by studying the Permian flora of Antarctica, models looking at how living plants will cope with climate change can be developed.

13 11, 2017

“Thunderfoot” A Real “Ground Shaker”

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

Brontopodus plagnensis – New Ichnospecies Named for Giant Sauropod Tracks

A series of dinosaur footprints, made by a giant, long-necked, plant-eating dinosaur have been assigned an ichnospecies name.  The tracks from the Jura plateau of France, located near the village of Plagne not too far from the Swiss border are, at around 155 metres in length, the longest Sauropod trackways known to science.  The ichnospecies has been named Brontopodus plagnensis, this translates as “thunderfoot of Plagne”.  The ichnogenus Brontopodus has had a number of ichnospecies assigned to it already, including tracks from the southern United States and dinosaur footprints found in Early Cretaceous rocks in China.

A View of Part of the Sauropod Trackway

Sauropod Tracks (Brontopodus plagnensis).

A picture of the Sauropod trackway (Plagne, France).

Picture Credit: P. Dumas/Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique

To read an article about Sauropod tracks found on the Isle of Skye: Isle of Skye Sauropods and their Water World

Enormous Stride Length = Enormous Dinosaur

The stride length of this huge Sauropod has been measured at 2.7 metres, the dinosaur was walking at around 4 kilometres/hour, which means that the average human would have had no trouble keeping up with it, however, you might have had to jog alongside, as its huge strides would have meant that it covered a great deal of ground with every pace.  From the footprints, the scientists, which included French palaeontologist Jean-Michel Mazin, have calculated that this dinosaur might have been around 35 metres in length and weighed perhaps as much as forty tonnes.

Early Tithonian Trackways

The research team, writing in the journal “Geobios” have precisely dated the tracks to the Early Tithonian faunal stage of the Late Jurassic, the prints are approximately 150 million years old.  The footprints show varying degrees of preservation along the trackway, the palaeoenvironment has been described as a littoral mudflat, a flat area close to a shoreline.  During the Late Jurassic, much of western Europe was covered by a warm tropical sea, the presence of large dinosaurs indicates that there must have been enough food resources on the archipelago of islands in the area to sustain megaherbivores.   Perhaps, these tracks represent a dinosaur crossing mudflats at low tide walking between islands.  Numerous dinosaur tracks are known from this region, including a series of tridactyl (three-toed prints), assigned to the ichnogenus Megalosauripus.  The prefix ichno- is added when a taxon is described based solely on trace fossils of an animal, rather than on anatomical remains such as its bones and teeth.

An Illustration of Brontopodus plagnensis and an Estimation of Its Size

A drawing of Brontopodus plagnensis.

An illustration of Brontopodus plagnensis.

Picture Credit: A. Bénéteau, photography Dinojura

To read Everything Dinosaur’s 2009 article about the original discovery of the trackways: On the Trail of Big Foot – Giant Sauropod Trackways Discovered in France

The scientific paper: “The Dinosaur Tracksite of Plagne (Early Tithonian, Late Jurassic; Jura Mountains, France): The Longest Known Sauropod Trackway” by Jean-Michel Mazin, Pierre Hantzpergue and Nicolas Olivier published in the journal Geobios.

24 10, 2017

The Biosignature of an Ichthyosaur

By | October 24th, 2017|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Palaeontological articles|1 Comment

Future Marine Biologists Could Study Ichthyosaur Biology

Over the last two decades or so, a number of remarkable discoveries concerning soft tissue preservation within the fossil record have been made.  Work pioneered by the remarkable Professor Mary Schweitzer (North Carolina State University), has led to evidence of dinosaur blood and traces of molecular biomarkers that represent preserved proteins such as collagen.  It may seem extraordinary, that such delicate evidence of organic remains can be preserved over huge amounts of time, but there is a growing body of data that indicates that such soft tissue preservation might be more common than previously thought.  Under exceptional preservational circumstances soft tissue remnants could persist at the molecular level.  A team of scientists led by researchers from Curtin University (Western Australia), have found red blood cells, collagen, white blood cells, platelet-like structures and cholesterol from the back-bone of an Early Jurassic Ichthyosaur.

In the future, marine biologists could study the biology of a long extinct marine reptile…

Study Finds Soft Tissue Preservation in an Early Jurassic Marine Reptile

Picture Credit: Curtin University

Carbonate Concretion Gives Up Its Secrets

The researchers, led by organic geochemist John Curtin, analysed a dorsal vertebra from a 182.7 million-year-old Ichthyosaur fossil from the world-famous Posidonienschiefer (Posidonia Oil Shales), of south-western Germany.  Although vertebrate remains tend to be disarticulated, a lack of oxygen on the sea bed (anoxic conditions) at this location led to exceptional preservation conditions, there were few organisms present to decompose organic remains. These conditions, in conjunction with rapid burial in the sediment has permitted remarkable fossil preservation to take place. Ichthyosaur carcasses have been preserved with soft tissue outlines intact, showing dorsal fins and tails, ink sacs and body outlines of belemnites such as Passaloteuthis sp. have also been preserved, allowing palaeontologists to vastly improve their understanding of the biology of these marine creatures.  The high organic material content of the sediments permitted the formation of numerous carbonate concretions, these concretions isolate fossil material contained therein and can promote exceptional preservation of fragile tissues and biomolecules.

Ichthyosaur Fossils

Stenopterygius Ichthyosaur fossil.

Important Ichthyosaur fossil showing evidence of a tail.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Stenopterygius Vertebra Studied

A single vertebra (back-bone) from a genus of Ichthyosaur known as Stenopterygius was subjected to a range of microanalytical techniques, including scanning electron microscopy and microscopic calcite deposit removal at the molecular level using focused applications of acetic acid.  Entombed inside the concretion, the internal structure of the vertebra, the spongy, trabecular bone, revealed biosignatures that represent the remnants of cholesterol, blood cells as well as straw-like structures that suggest the preservation of collagen fibres.

Scanning Electron Microscopy Reveals Collagen Fibres

Soft tissue preservation in Ichthyosaur back-bone

Early Jurassic Stenopterygius vertebra reveals soft tissue preservation. (collagen fibres).

Picture Credit: Curtin University/Scientific Reports

Co-author of the research paper, published this week in the academic journal “Scientific Reports”, Distinguished Professor Kliti Grice (Curtin University), explained:

“A carbonate concretion encapsulated the Early Jurassic period vertebra, forming a tight seal that helped protect its tissue and cellular remains from full decomposition.”

Compact and Trabecular Bone Studied

As well as the spongy, trabecular bone, the research team also examined the compact, cortical bone.  Isotopic analysis of the cholesterol biomolecules is consistent with the view that Ichthyosaurs dined on cephalopods and fish.  Helping to reaffirm studies of coprolites and stomach cavity contents as to where in the marine food web these reptiles were situated.

Red Blood Cell Structures Identified in the Fossil Material

Red blood cells in Ichthyosaur fossil bone.

Red blood cell-like structures identified in fossil bone (Ichthyosaur).

Picture Credit: Curtin University/Scientific Reports

The Size of Red Blood Cells – Adaptations to Low Oxygen Levels

The doughnut shaped objects in the photograph (above), were identified as red blood cells.  These cells were assessed to be up to five times smaller than those seen in extant animals.  This finding led the researchers to propose the small size of these blood cell structures was related to the Ichthyosaur’s evolutionary adaptation to environmental conditions – the lower oxygen levels associated with much of the Mesozoic.

Chloe Plet, a PhD student at Curtin University and a co-author of the scientific study stated:

“Ichthyosaurs evolved during a time when atmospheric oxygen levels were continuously low over a period of 70 million years.  We propose that small red blood cells were favourably produced by the species to provide efficient oxygen transport and diffusion.  For example, modern-day mammals living at elevated altitudes with lower oxygen levels make small and abundant red blood cells.”

Similarly sized red blood cells have been reported from dinosaurs (fossil material from the Upper Cretaceous), dinosaurs too, would have had to adapt to low atmospheric oxygen levels.

The team conclude that the extraordinary preservation conditions associated with carbonate concretions could play a significant role in helping scientists to investigate the palaeobiology of long extinct species.  Perhaps, one day in the future marine biologists will be able to study the biology of Ichthyosaurs.

The scientific paper: “Palaeobiology of Red and White Blood Cell-like Structures, Collagen and Cholesterol in an Ichthyosaur Bone” by Chloé Plet, Kliti Grice, Anais Pagès, Michael Verrall, Marco J. L. Coolen, Wolfgang Ruebsam, William D. A. Rickard & Lorenz Schwark published by “Scientific Reports”.

14 10, 2017

Everything Dinosaur Prepares for TetZooCon 2017

By | October 14th, 2017|Dinosaur Fans, Everything Dinosaur News and Updates, Main Page, Palaeontological articles, Photos of Everything Dinosaur Products|0 Comments

Slides Prepared for TetZooCon 2017

Not long to go now until the fourth, annual Tetrapod zoology conference (TetZooCon), opens its doors.  The conference is on Saturday, October 21st and once again the organisers have put on an amazing and varied agenda.  Everything Dinosaur is proud to be associated with this fantastic event and team members are busy finishing off the slides to be played in between the presentations, seminars, palaeoart activities and conference speaker slots.

Everything Dinosaur Prepares Slides for Use at TetZooCon 2017

TetZooCon 2017 Everything Dinosaur slides.

TetZooCon slide 3 from Everything Dinosaur (2017).

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

What is TetZooCon?

TetZooCon, is an annual meeting themed around the contents and remit of the world-famous blog “Tetrapod Zoology”, currently in its twelfth year, the blog having started at around the same time as Everything Dinosaur’s blog began.  Written by vertebrate palaeontologist and author Darren Naish, “Tetrapod Zoology” covers topics as diverse as turtle evolution, the life and times of Secretary Birds (Sagittarius serpentarius), fossil discoveries, animals of myth and legend as well as model collecting.  TetZooCon provides an opportunity for fans of cryptozoology, palaeontology, zoology and evolutionary history to indulge in their passion.  Co-organiser, talented artist John Conway, has used his considerable influence to bring together some of the great and the good in scientific illustration and a number of palaeoart workshops and book signings have been organised as part of the day of activities.  You might even be able to snap up a few signed prints too.

Everything Dinosaur Stocks a Lot of Models

TetZooCon 2017 Everything Dinosaur slides.

TetZooCon slide 2 from Everything Dinosaur (2017).

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Bigger and Better Than Ever

The fourth annual TetZooCon promises to be bigger and better than ever.  Over 120 people are expected to attend this event, held at the prestigious central London venue appropriately called “The Venue”, located on Malet Street, WC1E.  Doors open at 9 am and the packed programme includes talks on the history of zoos, marine reptiles of the Mesozoic, an update on Thylacine research and an insight into the latest developments in the fascinating world of cryptozoology.

For further information about this year’s exciting TetZooCon: TetZooCon Tickets and Conference Information

Everything Dinosaur Highlighting the Company’s Range of Replicas

TetZooCon 2017 Everything Dinosaur slides.

TetZooCon slide 1 from Everything Dinosaur (2017).

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Everything Dinosaur Supports TetZooCon

Everything Dinosaur has provided a range of wonderful, prehistoric animal themed goodies to help support this year’s event. These will be available as prizes at the end of conference quiz.  A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur commented:

“TetZooCon is getting bigger and better each year!  Fans of palaeoart, palaeontology, biology and other related academic disciplines can feel a bit intimidated by the rarefied atmosphere of many scientific conferences, but not so with TetZooCon  This annual gathering brings together genuine enthusiasts with shared passions and as such, it is a unique event.  We congratulate the organisers for compiling such an amazing agenda and we compliment all those involved, helping to educate, inform and inspire the next generation of scientists.”

20 09, 2017

Beelzebufo ampinga- Consumer of Dinosaurs

By | September 20th, 2017|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Palaeontological articles|0 Comments

Giant Prehistoric Frog Capable of Tackling Small Dinosaurs

Ever since it was formally named and described back in 2008, the beach-ball-sized Late Cretaceous frog Beelzebufo (B. ampinga) has fascinated scientists.  The fossil record of frogs (Order Anura), is very poor, although these small, usually unobtrusive creatures have a long evolutionary history.  Imagine the surprise of palaeontologists when they discovered the fossilised remains of a 68 million-year-old monster frog in Upper Cretaceous deposits in Madagascar.

The Late Cretaceous Giant Frog Beelzebufo Compared to an Extant Bull Frog

Beelzebufo (Late Cretaceous) compared to an extant Bull Frog.

Beelzebufo ampinga illustrated.

Picture Credit: Associated Press

It had been speculated that this huge frog could have eaten small dinosaurs.  Writing in the scientific journal “Scientific Reports”, a team of researchers including scientists from the University of Adelaide have concluded that “the frog from hell” had a strong bite capable of tackling relatively large prey, including, potentially, reptiles, birds and mammals.  Small dinosaurs and juveniles of larger species of dinosaur could have been on Beelzebufo’s menu!

Scaling up the Bite Forces from South American Horned Frogs

The vast majority of the frogs and toads alive today have relatively weak jaws.  Most of these amphibians specialise in attacking prey much smaller than themselves such as insects and slugs.   However, one living group of frogs, the South American horned frogs (genus Ceratophrys), are an exception.  These large-mouthed frogs have voracious appetites and their comically big heads allow them to tackle much more substantial prey items.  By scaling up the bite force readings from these types of frogs, the researchers concluded that a frog the size of Beelzebufo could have had a bite force in excess of 2,200 newtons, that’s about twice as much force as a typical adult human can generate when the force of the bite from their molars is assessed.

Measuring the Bite Force of Ceratophrys

Measuring the bite force in extant horned frogs.

An individual Ceratophrys cranwelli biting a force transducer.

Picture Credit: University of Adelaide

One of the paper’s authors, Dr Marc Jones (University of Adelaide) explained:

“Unlike the vast majority of frogs which have weak jaws and typically consume small prey, horned frogs ambush animals as large as themselves, including other frogs, snakes, and rodents.  Their powerful jaws play a critical role in grabbing and subduing the prey.”

The study found that small horned frogs, with a head width of about 4.5 centimetres, can bite with a force of 30 newtons (N) or about 3 kg of pressure.  When these readings were scaled up to take into account much larger extant species, such as the horned frogs from South America, the researchers concluded that for frogs with a head width of around 10 centimetres a bite force of almost 500 newtons could be generated.

Based on their scaling data, the scientists estimated the bite force of the giant extinct frog Beelzebufo may have been up to 2,200 N, comparable to formidable mammalian predators such as female tigers and wolves.

Dr Jones stated:

“At this bite force, Beelzebufo would have been capable of subduing the small and juvenile dinosaurs that shared its environment.”

Persuading Frogs to Bite onto a Custom-made Force Transducer

Corresponding author for the scientific paper, Professor Kristopher Lappin of the Biological Sciences Department, California State Polytechnic University, (California), outlined how the study was undertaken.  The scientists managed to persuade their amphibian subjects to bite down onto leather straps attached to a custom-made force transducer.  This device provided an accurate measurement of the amount of force being applied by the animal.

Professor Lappin said:

“This is the first time bite force has been measured in a frog and speaking from experience, horned frogs have quite an impressive bite and they tend not to let go.  The bite of a large Beelzebufo would have been remarkable, definitely not something I would want to experience.”

It seems those assumptions made by the original researchers back in 2008 were right, based on this evidence Beelzebufo would have been more than capable of snapping up a small dinosaur for dinner.

To read Everything Dinosaur’s 2008 article about the discovery of Beelzebufo and its implications for the radiation of frogs: Beelzebufo – The Frog from Hell

18 09, 2017

Mysterious Dickinsonia Definitely an Animal

By | September 18th, 2017|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Palaeontological articles|0 Comments

Soft-bodied Dickinsonia – An Animal

The Late Proterozoic saw the evolution of a variety of bizarre, multi-cellular organisms, fossils of which, are extremely rare and what evidence we have, does little to shed light on where on the tree of life these organisms would sit.  Food chains existed but the organisms that made up the biota are so strange and so unlike anything alive today, it’s almost as if palaeontologists looking at Ediacaran fauna are studying life on another planet.  True, Earth back in the Ediacaran geological period (635 to 542 million years ago), was a very different place than it is now.  However, one group of scientists studying one type of Ediacaran organism – Dickinsonia, have confirmed previous studies that place this peculiar disc-shaped organism as definitely belonging to the Kingdom Animalia.  Dickinsonia, looks like nothing alive today, but it has been classified as metazoan, or possibly a placozoan – that puts it in the same Kingdom as you and me.

Dickinsonia – Classified as an Animal

Ediacaran fossils (Dickinsonia)

Dickinsonia confirmed as an animal in new study.

Picture Credit: University of Oregon

What on Earth was Dickinsonia?

Living more than 550 million years ago, Dickinsonia fossils do not resemble any living organism.  It is round or oval in shape, segmented with a distinct “head” and “tail” end, but which was the front and which was the back is debated and whether the terms “head” and “tail” are applicable at all is disputed.  As far as we at Everything Dinosaur are aware, no evidence of a gut or other internal structures have been found.  These fossils, some of which are up to a metre in diameter have been described as early jellyfish, segmented worms, fungi and even an early form of lichen.

Hundreds of examples showing all stages of growth (ontogeny) and in various states of preservation have been found, most famously from the Ediacara Hills in South Australia, from which this geological period is named. In 1946, geologist Reginald Spriggs discovered fossilised imprints in rocks in this area that represent a marine biota, an ancient sea floor.  This was the first known fossil record of multi-cellular life on Earth that predates the Cambrian.  This diverse and exquisitely preserved community of ancient organisms represents a significant snapshot of our planet’s geological heritage, but working out what these fossils represent and where they fit in with the evolution of Cambrian organisms (if they do fit in), is very much open to debate.

In a new study, carried out by scientists at Bristol, Cambridge and Oxford universities in conjunction with the British Geological Survey, strong support is provided for the theory that Dickinsonia was an animal, that it has affinities with the Metazoa, specifically the Eumetazoa plus the Placozoa.  The research is published in the “Proceedings of the Royal Society B”.

Finding a Place in Biology for Dickinsonia

Dickinsonia costata fossil.

The Ediacaran fossil Dickinsonia costata, specimen P40135 from the collections of the South Australia Museum

Picture Credit: Dr Alex Liu (Cambridge University)

The Metazoa are a very basal clade of the Kingdom Animalia.  They are animals that have three types of tissue layer in the embryo and are multi-cellular).  Metazoans are regarded as a sister group to the Porifora (Sponges).  The Placozoa are associated with the metazoans, they are represented by one living genus – Trichoplax and they are flattened, multi-cellular organisms that absorb nutrients through their surface area.

Dr Renee Hoekzema (Oxford University) and one of the authors of the research paper explained:

“Dickinsonia belongs to the Ediacaran biota, a collection of mostly soft-bodied organisms that lived in the global oceans between roughly 580 and 540 million years ago.  They are mysterious because despite there being around two hundred different species, very few of them resemble any living or extinct organism and therefore what they were, and how they relate to modern organisms, has been a long-standing palaeontological mystery.”

The team examined a large number of Dickinsonia fossils, of varying growth stages and applied a quantitative method for plotting the development of the organism, essentially how the animal grew and changed as it got bigger.  An assumption was made as to which fossils represented juveniles and which ones were adults and based on this, the researchers concluded that the growth body plan for Dickinsonia placed it within the Animalia.

This study was undertaken using the principle that growth and development are “conserved” within lineages.  To put it another way, the way a group of organisms grows today would not have changed significantly from the way its ancestors grew hundreds of millions of years ago.

Dickinsonia is composed of multiple “units” that run down the length of its body.  The researchers counted the number of these units in numerous specimens, measured their lengths and plotted these against the relative “age” of the unit, assuming growth from a particular end of the organism.  This data produced a plot with a series of curves, each of which tracked how the organism changed in the size and number of units with age, enabling the researchers to produce a computer model to replicate growth in the organism and test previous hypotheses about where and how growth occurred.

Dr Hoekzema added:

“We were able to confirm that Dickinsonia grows by both adding and inflating discrete units to its body along its central axis.  But we also recognised that there is a switch in the rate of unit addition versus inflation at a certain point in its life cycle.  All previous studies have assumed that it grew from the end where each “unit” is smallest, and was therefore considered to be youngest. We tested this assumption and interpreted our data with growth assumed from both ends, eventually coming to the conclusion that people have been interpreting Dickinsonia as having grown at the wrong end for the past seventy years.”

The First of the Ediacaran Biota to be Described

Dickinsonia was the first organism from the Ediacaran fossil material (Flinders Range), to be described (1947).  Using this computer model, the researchers were able to cross-reference data with studies into how this organism may have moved across the seabed and concluded that it was an early animal, belonging to either the Placozoa or the Eumetazoa.

An Illustration of Life in the Ediacaran Period

Ediacaran marine life.

Life in the Ediacaran.  The brown elongated disc in the centre of the picture is Dickinsonia.

Picture Credit: John Sibbick

Dr Hoekzema went onto state:

“This is one of the first times that a member of the Ediacaran biota has been identified as an animal on the basis of positive evidence.”

The methodology used in this study could be applied to other Ediacaran organisms, so long as there are sufficient fossils to comprise a significant data set.

Co-author Dr Liu stated:

“This finding demonstrates that animals were present among the Ediacaran biota and importantly confirms a number of recent findings that suggest animals had evolved several million years before the “Cambrian Explosion” that has been the focus of attention for studies into animal evolution for so long.  It also allows Dickinsonia to be considered in debates surrounding the evolution and development of key animal traits such as bilateral symmetry, segmentation and the development of body axes, which will ultimately improve our knowledge of how the earliest animals made the transition from simple forms to the diverse range of body plans we see today.”

16 09, 2017

Highly Respected Palaeontologist Dies at Dig Site

By | September 16th, 2017|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Palaeontological articles|0 Comments

Palaeontologist Mike Getty Dies Unexpectedly

Celebrated fossil hunter and chief fossil preparator at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, Mike Getty, has died unexpectedly whilst working on a Triceratops excavation north of Denver (Colorado).  A Triceratops fossil, most probably a young adult, was discovered by chance as a construction crew was removing top soil as part of the initial groundworks prior to the building of a new fire and police station.  Mike was part of a field team from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science helping to excavate and jacket the fossil bones.  Much of the material had already been removed, but Mike and some colleagues were still working on the site Monday, when he was suddenly taken ill.

Mike Getty – Famous Palaeontologist Dies Suddenly at Dig Site

Mike Getty

Renowned palaeontologist Mike Getty sadly passed away on Monday.

Picture Credit: Denver Museum of Nature and Science

A Career Dedicated to the Earth Sciences and Education

Raised in western Canada, Mike discovered a fascination for palaeontology and dinosaurs as a child, his enthusiasm was fired as a result of frequent visits to the Badlands of Alberta.  He developed a keen interest in fossils and quickly earned a reputation for being able to detect and identify fossils in the field.  He attended the University of Calgary (Alberta) and went on to lead many field teams in the world-famous Dinosaur Park Formation, uncovering and helping to map several Ceratopsian bonebeds.  Mike joined the Natural History Museum of Utah and took part in numerous excavations and helped prepare for research and public display a large number of fossil vertebrates.  He joined the Denver Museum of Nature and Science four years ago and his sudden death, at fifty years of age, has shocked and greatly saddened all his colleagues and co-workers.

Mike Getty Working at the Thornton Triceratops Excavation

Mike Gerry (chief fossil preparator - Denver Museum of Nature and Science).

Mike Getty working on a Triceratops excavation.

Picture Credit: Denver Museum of Nature and Science

A Dedicated Scientist and Teacher

Described as a dedicated scientist with a quirky, fun-loving personality, Mike’s contribution to palaeontology was recognised in 2010 when the horned dinosaur Utahceratops (U. gettyi) was named in his honour, a reflection on his contribution to the study of dinosaur fossils found in southern Utah.

Utahceratops gettyi – The Species Name Honours Mike Getty

Utahceratops scale drawing.

The species name of U. gettyi honours Mike Getty’s contribution to palaeontology.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The species name honours Mike Getty of the Utah Museum of Natural History who has been prominent in the study of dinosaur fossils found in southern Utah.  One of Mike’s last public engagements was presenting to the media an update on the Thornton Triceratops excavation.  As a skilled preparator, he knew what was required in order to ensure the preservation of delicate fossil material and the dinosaur fossil record of the western United States and Canada would have been much poorer but for the efforts of Mike.

Mike Getty Talking with the Media (Thornton Triceratops)

Mike Getty (Denver Museum of Nature and Science)

Mike Getty meeting the press discussing the Triceratops excavation at Thornton.

Picture Credit: Joe Amon (Denver Post)

Dr Andrew Farke of the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Palaeontology (Claremont, California), who worked with Mike on the Utahceratops study commented:

“He was a character in every sense of the word.  He was quirky, he had a personality and he was one of those people… it’s really hard to imagine that he’s gone now.”

To read Everything Dinosaur’s article on the discovery of Utahceratops: The Curious Ceratopsians Just Got Even More Curious

A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur said:

“Our thoughts are with family and friends.  We have had the very great pleasure of being able to write about Mike’s numerous achievements in the field of palaeontology on this blog and he will be sadly missed.  We were due to write about the Thornton Triceratops excavation and the discovery of a broken Tyrannosaur tooth amongst the horned dinosaur’s fossil bones.  It was thanks to Mike’s diligence and skill that small fragmentary fossils such as this Tyrannosaur tooth could be preserved and studied, adding to our knowledge about the dinosaurs that once roamed western North America.”

11 09, 2017

500 Million-Year-Old Trace Fossils Shed Light on Animal Evolution

By | September 11th, 2017|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Main Page, Palaeontological articles|0 Comments

Tracing the Traces of Early Animal Life

Darwin was aware of the problem, Huxley and Owen had considered it too.  The American Charles Walcott, in 1909*, literally stumbled across evidence to support the idea of a bizarre array of early animal forms, but the fossil evidence that helps to pinpoint and then map the evolution of the Kingdom Animalia in deep geological time, is scarce to say the very least.  How and when did the first animals evolve?  What type of creatures were they?  These are the questions that taxed the minds of some of the greatest scientists in history, now, thanks to some new research published today, the way we think about how all animals evolved on Earth might just change.

Scientists have discovered microscopic traces of animal life more than half-a-billion years old.  The international team, including scientists from Manchester University, have identified trace fossils left by some of the first ever organisms capable of active movement.

Plotting the Evidence of Ancient Burrowing Creatures

The first animals (trace fossils).

Evidence of the first animals (burrows and borings).

Picture Credit: Manchester University

The picture above might look like a Jackson Pollock, but the image shows a computer generated, three-dimensional model of the trace fossils found by the scientists.  Trace fossils preserve evidence of the activity of organisms.  They are often the only evidence palaeontologists have for extinct animals whose bodies lacked any hard parts.  No physical remains of the microscopic worms that made these burrows have been found, but the researchers suggest that they were made by a type of nematoid-like worm, an animal with bilateral symmetry, making these organisms more closely related to Chordates (animals with notochords and spinal columns), than creatures like jellyfish and corals.

The fossils were discovered in sediment in the Corumbá region of western Brazil, close to the border with Bolivia.  The burrows are extremely small.  They measure from less than fifty to six hundred micrometres or microns (μm) in diameter.  That means the tiny creatures that made them were similar in size to a human hair, which can range from forty to three hundred microns wide.  One micrometre is just one thousandth of a millimetre.

The Research Team Carefully Mapped the Intricate Burrows in the Ancient Sediment

Ancient roundworm trace fossils.

Trace fossils indicate the first animals capable of independent movement.

Picture Credit: Manchester University

Commenting on the significance of this research, Dr Russell Garwood (University of Manchester School of Earth and Environmental Sciences), stated:

“This is an especially exciting find due to the age of the rocks, these fossils are found in rock layers which actually pre-date the oldest fossils of complex animals – at least that is what all current fossil records would suggest.”

The Ediacaran-Cambrian Transition

The fossils found date back to a geological and evolutionary period known as the Ediacaran–Cambrian transition.  This was when the Ediacaran Period, which spanned 94 million years from the end of the Cryogenian Period, 635 million years ago, moved into the Cambrian Period around 541 million years ago.  To put that into context, dinosaurs lived between 235 and 66 million years ago in the Mesozoic Era and our human species (H.sapiens), may have been present on this planet for around 250,000 years or so.

Dr Garwood explained:

“The evolutionary events during the Ediacaran–Cambrian transition are unparalleled in Earth history.  That’s because current fossil records suggest that many animal groups alive today appeared in a really short time interval.”

The scientists suggest these burrows were created by “nematoid-like organisms”, similar to a modern-day roundworm, that used an undulating locomotion to move through the sediment, leaving these trace fossils behind.  This is important because current DNA studies, known as “molecular clocks”, which are used to estimate how long ago a group animals originated, suggests the first animals appeared before these trace fossils.  The research paper published in the academic journal “Nature Ecology and Evolution”, demonstrates that these trace fossils pre-date similar animals known from the fossil record.

Luke Parry, the lead author of the paper (Bristol University) stated:

“Our new fossils show that complex animals with muscle control were around approximately 550 million years ago, and they may have been overlooked previously because they are so tiny.  The fossils that we describe were made by quite complex animals that we call bilaterians.  These are all animals that are more closely related to humans, rather than to simple creatures like jellyfish.  Most fossils of bilaterian animals are younger, first appearing in the Cambrian period.”

*It was the American Charles Walcott who discovered the Burgess Shale deposits of British Columbia, that first provided palaeontologists with a window into the radiation and diversity of the Animalia during the Middle Cambrian.  The unique taphonomy of these shales permitted the preservation of a multitude of marine invertebrates including thousands of specimens of soft-bodied creatures.

Mapping the Extensive Network of Trails

Ancient trace fossils.

The different colours mark different burrows.

To find such tiny fossils the team used X-ray microtomography, a special technique that uses X-rays to create a virtual, three-dimensional model of something without destroying the original object.

Paper Reference – ‘Ichnological evidence for meiofaunal bilaterians from the terminal Ediacaran and earliest Cambrian of Brazil ‘ is being published in Nature Ecology & Evolution – DOI 10.1038/s41559-017-0301-9

Further Reading:

Cambrian worm discovery: It was a Worm’s World Back in the Cambrian

A potential transitional fossil between worms and Arthropoda: Transitional “Cactus-like” Fossil Between a Worm and an Arthropod

9 09, 2017

Has Human Evolution Tripped Us Up?

By | September 9th, 2017|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Main Page, Palaeontological articles|0 Comments

5.7 Million-year-old Hominin Footprints on Crete

The chance discovery of hominin fossilised footprints on the Mediterranean island of Crete, has challenged the accepted theory of human evolution.  The footprints, which have been dated to around 5.7 million years ago, were formed when all other hominins known to science were restricted to Africa and they had much more ape-like feet.  If the series of tracks prove to be accurately dated, then this challenges the idea that hominins (those species more closely related to us than they are to a chimpanzee), evolved in Africa.  Has someone just rocked the “cradle of humanity”?

A Photograph of the Tracks (Ancient Hominin Footprints)

Hominin fossil footprints from Crete.

Fossilised hominin footprints from Crete.

Picture Credit: Andrzej Boczarowski

The Out of Africa Theory

With the discovery of the Laetoli footprints in Tanzania in the mid 1970’s (believed to have been made by a small group of Australopithecus afarensis), which were formed some 3.7 million years ago, our species (H. sapiens) and our direct ancestors were thought to have originated in Africa.  These footprints, show very human-like feet with a distinctive shape, a big toe and a human gait.   The gait of these early humans was “heel-strike” (the heel of the foot hits first) followed by “toe-off” (the toes push off at the end of the stride), the same way that modern humans walk.  Early hominins were thought to have remained isolated in Africa before dispersing to Europe and Asia, hundreds of thousands of years after they first evolved.  The discovery of approximately 5.7 million-year-old human-like footprints from Crete, published online this week by an international team of researchers, including scientists from Uppsala University (Sweden), overturns this rather simple picture and suggests a more complicated evolutionary path for our ancestors.

A Close View of One of the Footprints (right foot)

Fossilised hominin footprint from Crete

A fossilised hominin footprint from Trachilos (western Crete). The right footprint is estimated to be 5.7 million-years-old.

Picture Credit: Andrzej Boczarowski

The picture above shows a close-up of one of the footprints, the big toe can be clearly seen.  Our feet have a very distinctive shape.  We have five short toes without claws, the hallux (big toe), is much larger than the other toes and our foot has a long sole.  The feet of the great apes, are very different.  They resemble a human hand with a thumb-like hallux that sticks out to the side.  The Laetoli footprints, ascribed to A. afarensis, are quite similar to those of modern humans except that the heel is narrower and the sole lacks a proper arch.  The 4.4 million-year-old Ardipithecus ramidus from Ethiopia, the oldest hominin known from reasonably complete fossils, has an ape-like foot.   The researchers who described Ardipithecus argued that it is a direct ancestor of later hominins, implying that a human-like foot evolved later.

The Trachilos Tracks

The newly described tracks from Trachilos in western Crete bear a close resemblance to a human footprint.  The big toe has similar morphology and there seems to be a distinct “ball” on the sole, which is absent in primates.  The sole of the foot is proportionately shorter than in the Laetoli prints, but it has the same general form.  The prints do look as if they were made by a hominin.

The Foot of a Great Ape (Note the Position of the Big Toe)

A photograph of the foot of an ape.

The foot of an ape.

Approximately fifty tracks were made when bipeds walked across a sandy area and although many large apes are known from the Late Miocene of Europe, no hominin was thought to have migrated into Europe for millions of years after the tracks were made.

Professor Per Ahlberg (Uppsala University), the lead author of the study commented:

“What makes this controversial is the age and location of the prints.”

At approximately 5.7 million years, they are younger than the oldest known fossil hominin, Sahelanthropus from Chad, and contemporary with Orrorin (O. tugenensis), from Kenya, but more than a million years older than Ardipithecus ramidus with its ape-like feet.

This fossil find throws into question the hypothesis that Ardipithecus is a direct ancestor of later hominins.  In addition, until this year, all fossil hominins older than 1.8 million years (the age of early Homo fossils from Georgia), came from Africa, leading most researchers to conclude that this was where the group evolved.  However, the Trachilos footprints are securely dated using a combination of foraminifera (marine micro-fossils) from over and underlying bedding planes, plus the fact that they lie just below a very distinctive sedimentary rock formed when the Mediterranean Sea temporarily evaporated around 5.6 million years ago.  Coincidentally, earlier this year, another group of researchers, led by Professor Madelaine Böhme of the University of Tübingen, (Germany), writing in the Journal PLOS One, reinterpreted the fragmentary 7.2 million-year-old primate Graecopithecus freybergi from Greece and Bulgaria as a hominin.

Professor Ahlberg added:

“This discovery challenges the established narrative of early human evolution head-on and is likely to generate a lot of debate.  Whether the human origins research community will accept fossil footprints as conclusive evidence of the presence of hominins in the Miocene of Crete remains to be seen.”

The eastern Mediterranean in the Late Miocene consisted of extensive, arid grasslands, the Sahara Desert did not exist and Crete was still part of the Greek mainland.  Early hominins could have ranged along this habitat moving from Africa to south-eastern Europe, with one group leaving their footprints on the shores of the Mediterranean that would one-day form part of the island of Crete.

The scientific paper: Possible Hominin Footprints from the Late Miocene (c. 5.7 Ma) of Crete?   Gierlinski, G. D. et al. 2017. published in the Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association.

Everything Dinosaur acknowledges the help of an Uppsala University press release in the compilation of this article.

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