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/Palaeontological articles

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

30 03, 2020

Pterosaurs, Pterosaurs and Even More Pterosaurs

By | March 30th, 2020|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal Drawings, Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Palaeontological articles|0 Comments

The “Golden Age” of Pterosauria Research

In the last few weeks, a number of scientific papers have been published detailing new pterosaur discoveries and fossil finds.  We really do seem to be living in a “golden age” of flying reptile research.  For example, researchers have identified the fragmentary fossil remains of three types of pterosaur from the famous Cretaceous Kem Kem beds of Morocco (Anhanguera, Coloborhynchus and Ornithocheirus).  Even before the dust had settled on that publication, another scientific paper, published this week, describes Afrotapejara zouhri, the newest member of the Tapejaridae, fossils of which also come from the enigmatic Kem Kem beds.

The “Golden Age” of Pterosaur Research – Illustration of Three of the New Pterosaur Types Described

New pterosaur genera described from the Kem Kem Beds of Morocco.

The pterosaur Anhanguera soars over the skies of North Africa with Coloborhynchus and Ornithocheirus to keep it company.

Picture Credit: Megan Jacobs (Baylor University, Texas)

Cretaceous Fossils Mixed Up in a Blender

The Kem Kem Formation is exposed in south-eastern Morocco and neighbouring Algeria.  The extensive deposits represent an inter-tidal, estuarine environment with large, wide lagoons and a broad floodplain criss-crossed by numerous rivers.  These sediments were laid down in the Albian to Cenomanian faunal stages of the Cretaceous, approximately 100 to 95 million years ago.  The terrestrial landscape was dominated by dinosaurs, surprisingly, there seems to have been an overabundance of big theropods present – Spinosaurus, Rugops (other abelisaurs), Sauroniops, Deltadromeus, Carcharodontosaurus, potential dromaeosaurids and a wealth of other fossil bones and isolated teeth that represent indeterminate species.

Trouble is, the transport of material due to river and tidal action has resulted in a mixing up of fossil material.  Fossil beds contain a vast array of jumbled up, disarticulated material, much of which may also have been re-deposited from its original stratigraphic layer.  These deposits have been colourfully described as representing fossils that have been put in a blender, such is their mixing and depositional status.

Typical Isolated and Fragmentary Vertebrate Fossil Remains from the Kem Kem Beds

Fossil remains (Kem Kem beds).

Assorted vertebrate fossil remains from the Kem Kem beds of Morocco.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Pterosaurs as Piscivores

In the first scientific paper, researchers from the University of Portsmouth, Baylor University (Waco, Texas), the University of Detroit Mercy (Detroit), Leicester University, the Laboratoire Santé et Environnement (Morocco) and the University of Bath report on the discovery of fragmentary jaws and associated teeth that led to the identification of three new types of pterosaur.  The remains suggest three ornithocheirid pterosaurs, a second species of Coloborhynchus and an Ornithocheirus reminiscent of Ornithocheirus fossil material known from the Cambridge Greensand deposits of southern England.  In addition, a portion of a lower jaw (mandibular symphysis), closely resembles that of the South American ornithocheirid Anhanguera piscator, fossils of which are known from the roughly contemporaneous Romualdo Member of the Santana Formation (Brazil).

An Illustration of Anhanguera (Ornithocheiridae Family)

An illustration of Anhanguera.

A typical member of the Anhanguera genus.  Note the large and very prominent, conical teeth in the jaw.  All three newly described genera are believed to have been primarily fish-eating (piscivores).

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

As well as representing a turbulent depositional environment, the fossiliferous beds of south-eastern Morocco provide an additional challenge for scientists.  Local residents mine the sedimentary rocks, often using only rudimentary tools and materials, so that they can sell their fossil finds to dealers and collectors.  Fortunately, in this case, the fragments of jaw were acquired by scientists enabling a proper academic investigation to be carried out.  The teeth of these pterosaurs suggest that they were probably piscivores, the largest of which probably had a wingspan in excess of four metres.

In the paper, the researchers conclude that the Kem Kem fossil assemblage includes at least nine species of pterosaur, of which the majority (five), are members of the Ornithocheiridae.  These strata help to support the theory that toothed pterosaurs remained diverse throughout the late Early Cretaceous, before going into decline and eventually disappearing after the Cenomanian faunal stage.

And There’s More – Another Moroccan Pterosaur This Time a Tapejarid

New pterosaur discoveries are behaving a bit like buses at the moment (prior to the coronavirus pandemic), three come along and then shortly afterwards another one turns up.  Many of the same scientists from the first academic paper, have published, albeit a little earlier than expected, another paper, this time naming a new species tapejarid pterosaur.  Unlike the other three, this flying reptile was edentulous (no teeth in the jaws).  The newly described tapejarid has been named Afrotapejara zouhri, based on yet more fragmentary material including jaw elements.

A Typical Illustration of a Tapejarid Pterosaur

Tupandactylus illustration.

A scale drawing of the tapejarid Pterosaur Tupandactylus imperator.  A typical tapejarid – a family of pterosaurs famed for their striking and often over-sized head crests.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Fossil jaws seem to be taphonomically selected for in the Kem Kem beds.  Other pterosaur remains have been frequently reported from these deposits, but rarely are the fossils diagnostic.  Isolated mandibular material had hinted at the present of tapejarids in northern Africa in the Early Cretaceous, but Afrotapejara is the first genus to be erected.  It represents the fourth example of a toothless pterosaur taxon to have been described from the Kem Kem beds and it provides the first unambiguous evidence to support the presence of the Tapejaridae in Africa.  The genus name translates as “African tapejarid”, whilst we suspect that the specific name honours Samir Zouhri, one of the authors of the first pterosaur paper reported upon in this blog post.

Based on this evidence, it seems that we really are living in a “golden age” of pterosaur research.

The first scientific paper: “New toothed pterosaurs (Pterosauria: Ornithocheiridae) from the middle Cretaceous Kem Kem beds of Morocco and implications for pterosaur palaeobiogeography and diversity” by Megan L. Jacobs, David M. Martill, David M. Unwin, Nizar Ibrahim, Samir Zouhri and Nicholas R. Longrich published in Cretaceous Research.

The second scientific paper: “A new tapejarid (Pterosauria, Azhdarchoidea) from the mid-Cretaceous Kem Kem beds of Takmout, southern Morocco” by David M. Martill, Roy Smith, David M. Unwin, Alexander Kao, James McPhee and Nizar Ibrahim published in Cretaceous Research.

26 03, 2020

Late Cretaceous Southern United States Had “Raptors” Too

By | March 26th, 2020|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Palaeontological articles, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Dineobellator notohesperus – A Velociraptorine with Extra Attitude!

Scientists have described a new species of “raptor” from the Late Cretaceous of New Mexico.  Described from fragmentary remains, this two-metre-long carnivore was related to Velociraptor.  It may have been roughly the same size as the Mongolian genus, but it probably was even more agile with a stronger grip.  Its discovery suggests that the dromaeosaurids were diversifying right up to the end of the Age of Dinosaurs.

Life Reconstruction Dineobellator notohesperus (Maastrichtian of New Mexico)

Dineobellator Life Reconstruction

A trio of the newly described dromaeosaurid from the Late Cretaceous of New Mexico (Dineobellator) gather at a waterhole.  The titanosaur Alamosaurus passes by in the background and in the distance a tyrannosaur is approaching.

Picture Credit: Sergey Krasovskiy

Writing in the academic journal “Scientific Reports”, the researchers from The University of Pennsylvania and the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, describe a partial, skeleton excavated from the Bisti/De-na-zin Wilderness of New Mexico, found within a few metres above the base of the Naashoibito Member.  The coarse sandstone deposits are notoriously difficult to date, these sediments were deposited towards the end of the Cretaceous between 70 and 66.3 million years ago (Maastrichtian faunal stage).

Fossil material includes parts of the skull, elements from the jaws, fragments of vertebrae, tail bones (caudal vertebrae), one rib with other pieces of rib and limb bones including a nearly complete right upper arm bone (humerus) and a nearly complete right ulna (bone from the forearm).  The first fossilised remains were found in 2008, subsequent field work carried out in 2009, 2015 and 2016 yielded more fossil material, mostly very fragmentary in nature.  It is believed all the fossil material, including a claw from the right hand, represents the remains of a single dinosaur.

A Skeletal Reconstruction of Dineobellator notohesperus

Known fossil material and skeletal reconstruction of Dineobellator.

A silhouette and postulated skeleton of Dineobellator (known fossil material in white).

Picture Credit: Jasinski et al/Scientific Reports

A Small but Dangerous Dinosaur

Dineobellator notohesperus is the first dromaeosaurid to be described from the southern United States.  It would have lived in the south of the Cretaceous landmass of Laramidia.  Although no evidence of feathers has been found, the ulna shows evidence of a row of small rounded pits in the bone, interpreted as anchor points for large feathers on the arm (ulna papillae).  Analysis of the forelimbs suggest that Dineobellator had stronger arms with a more powerful grip.  A study of the tail bones suggest that the tail had greater movement which would have made this dinosaur adept at making sharp turns and agile changes of direction.  The researchers suggest these anatomical traits provide an insight into how this small theropod hunted and behaved.

The researchers, which include Dr Steven Jasinski (Department of Earth and Environmental Science, University of Pennsylvania), postulate that Dineobellator was an active predator that occupied a discrete ecological niche in the food chain whilst living in the shadow of Tyrannosaurus rex.  The newest North American “raptor” Dineobellator notohesperus is pronounced dih-nay-oh-bell-ah-tor noh-toh-hes-per-us and the genus name comes from the native Navajo word “Diné”, a reference to the Navajo Nation and the Latin word “bellator” which means warrior.  The trivial name has been erected to acknowledge the location of the fossil find.  The word “noto” is from the Greek meaning southern and “hesper” the Greek for western.  This is an acknowledgement that Dineobellator roamed the south-western part of the United States.  In addition, Hesperus is a reference to a Greek god, the personification of the evening star (Venus) and by extension “western”.

Dr Jasinski has already had a considerable impact on the Dromaeosauridae family.  Back in 2015, Everything Dinosaur reported on the formal description of Saurornitholestes sullivani, a dinosaur named by Steven Jasinski whilst a PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania.  To read more about S. sullivaniSniffing Out a New Dinosaur Species.

An Illustration of Saurornitholestes sullivani

Saurornitholestes sullivani illustrated

An agile dinosaur, an illustration of Saurornitholestes sullivani.  Although the fossil material associated with this species was found in New Mexico, S. sullivani lived several million years earlier than Dineobellator notohesperus.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

A Tough Life for a Tough Dinosaur

A phylogenetic analysis undertaken by the research team places Dineobellator within the Velociraptorinae subfamily of the Dromaeosauridae.  Other Maastrichtian “raptors” known from North America are few and far between (Acheroraptor and Dakotaraptor – both from the Hell Creek Formation).  The discovery of Dineobellator suggests that dromaeosaurids were still diversifying at the end of the Cretaceous and as an velociraptorine, its fossils lend further weight to the idea that faunal interchange between Asian and North American dinosaurs took place sometime during the Campanian/Maastrichtian.

It is not known whether Dineobellator notohesperus was a pack hunter.  The fossilised remains do indicate that this was one very tough dinosaur but it did not have everything its own way.  A rib shows a deformity, suggesting that this bone was broken, but the animal suffered this trauma a while before it died as the break is healed.  Intriguingly, the scientists identified a prominent gouge mark preserved on the hand claw (manual ungual).  This gouge mark, which measures nearly a centimetre long, terminates in a small depression.  The scientists suggest that this damage was not caused by disease or by any process associated with the preservation of the fossil bones.  The team suggest that this was an injury that occurred close to, or at the time of this dinosaur’s demise.

The researchers speculate that this Dineobellator received an injury in a fight with another Dineobellator or perhaps this damage to its hand claw was inflicted upon it by another type of predatory theropod.

Views of the Hand Claw of  Dineobellator notohesperus Showing Damage Interpreted as a Wound Inflicted by Another Theropod Dinosaur

The manual ungual of Dineobellator.

Views of the hand claw of Dineobellator.  The right manual ungual of Dineobellator notohesperus (I) lateral view, with (J) a silhouette of the transverse plane of the right manual ungual near the distal end.  Image (K) shows the claw in media view with the dashed area highlighted in (K) showing the gouge mark (L).  The red arrow indicates the pathology.  Scale bars equal 1 mm, please note (L) is not to scale.

Picture Credit: Jasinski et al/Scientific Reports with additional annotation by Everything Dinosaur

The scientific paper: “New Dromaeosaurid Dinosaur (Theropoda, Dromaeosauridae) from New Mexico and Biodiversity of Dromaeosaurids at the end of the Cretaceous” by Steven E. Jasinski, Robert M. Sullivan and Peter Dodson published in Scientific Reports.

23 03, 2020

Discovery of the Oldest Bilaterian – Ikaria wariootia

By | March 23rd, 2020|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Main Page, Palaeontological articles, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Meet Your Oldest Ancestor – Ikaria wariootia 

A team of international scientists have identified the first ancestor of animals that show bilateral symmetry, in ancient marine sediment around 555 million years old.  Palaeontologists had predicted that such an organism would be identified in Ediacaran sediments, essentially a creature with a body plan that has been adopted by the majority of the Kingdom Animalia, now thanks to the use of sophisticated three-dimensional laser scans funded by NASA, the “smoking gun” evidence has been found.

A Life Reconstruction of the Earliest Bilaterian Known to Date (I. wariootia)

Ikaria wariootia the earliest known bilaterian.

Ikaria wariootia life reconstruction.

Picture Credit: Sohail Wasif/University California Riverside

Ikaria wariootia – The Size of a Rice Grain but a Big Discovery!

Writing in the journal “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America”, the researchers, which included scientists from University California Riverside and the South Australian Museum, examined tiny trace fossils, essentially burrows and borings into an ancient Ediacaran seabed (Ediacara Member, South Australia).  Proximal to some of these traces were very small oval impressions.  Thanks to funding from a NASA exobiology grant, the team were able to employ a sophisticated three-dimensional laser scanner to map these depressions in the ancient rock.  Computer-generated images revealed a worm-like organism with a cylindrical body and faintly grooved musculature.  A distinct head and tail were also identified.  This little animal represents the earliest bilaterian, a hugely significant step in the evolution of life on Earth.

The transition from simple, microscopic forms of life to the abundance and variety of complex creatures in the Cambrian remains quite poorly understood.  However, the beautifully preserved remains of soft-bodied organisms, many of which look like nothing alive today, associated with the ancient strata of the Ediacara Hills of South Australia have permitted palaeontologists the opportunity to learn about life on our planet prior to the evolution of hard body parts such as shells and exoskeletons.  Many of the creatures identified from their fossils had bizarre body forms such as the circular Dickinsonia (below), but scientists had predicted that animals with bilateral symmetry would be present in this ecosystem, it was just a question of finding them.

A Circular Impression of an Organism from the Ediacara Hills (South Australia) – Dickinsonia costata Fossil

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 development of bilateral symmetry was a critical step in the evolution of animal life, giving organisms the ability to move purposefully and a common, yet successful way to organise their bodies.  In the scientific paper, the research team describe Ikaria wariootia as ranging in size between 2 and 7 millimetres in length and being around 1 to 2.5 millimetres wide.   The largest specimens were about the size of a grain of rice, just the right size to have made the burrows and borings (trace fossils).

The discovery of Ikaria wariootia is consistent with predictions based on modern animal phylogenetics, that the last ancestor of all bilaterians was simple and small and represents a rare link between the Ediacaran and the subsequent record of animal life.  Put simply, I. wariootia is on the same part of the animal family tree as the majority of animals alive today and that includes us (Homo sapiens).

Ikaria wariootia Impressions Preserved in Ancient Marine Sediment

Ikaria wariootia impressions.

Ikaria wariootia impressions preserved in ancient marine sediments.

Picture Credit: Droser Laboratory/University of California Riverside

Commenting on the significance of the discovery, one of the authors of the scientific paper, Scott Evans (University of California Riverside), stated:

“We thought these animals should have existed during this interval [Ediacaran], but always understood they would be difficult to recognise.  Once we had the 3-D scans, we knew that we had made an important discovery.”

Analysis of modern animals and Ediacaran trace fossils predicted that the oldest bilaterians would be very small with simple body plans.  The research team found that the size and shape of Ikaria matched the predictions that had been made with regards to the maker of the trace fossil Helminthoidichnites, indicating sediment displacement and purposeful animal movement.  Importantly, in the Ediacara Member, Helminthoidichnites occurs stratigraphically below classic Ediacara body fossils such as Dickinsonia.  Together, these suggest that Ikaria represents one of the oldest total group bilaterians identified to date, with very little deviation from the characters and traits predicted for their last common ancestor.

In addition, these trace fossils persist into the Phanerozoic Eon (from the Cambrian Period onwards),  providing a critical link between the Ediacaran and Cambrian biota.

A Three-Dimensional Laser Image of a Scan of a Rock Depression Revealing the Body Plan of Ikaria wariootia

Three-dimensional laser scan of an Ikaria wariootia impression.

A three-dimensional laser scan of an Ikaria wariootia impression.

Picture Credit: Droser Laboratory/University of California Riverside

What’s in a Name?

The genus name comes from Ikara, which means “meeting place” in the local Adnyamathanha dialect.  It is the Adnyamathanha term for a grouping of mountains known as Wilpena Pound.  The trivial name comes from Warioota Creek, which runs from the Flinders Ranges to Nilpena Station in the Ediacara Hills.  It may look a fairly simple animal to us, but back in the Ediacaran Ikaria was one of the most complex organisms around.  It burrowed in thin layers of well-oxygenated sand on the ocean floor in search of organic matter, indicating rudimentary sensory abilities.  The depth and curvature of Ikaria represent clearly distinct front and rear ends, supporting the directed movement found in the burrows.  The walls of the burrows preserve evidence of “v-shaped” ridges, which indicate that Ikaria moved by contracting muscles across its body like an earthworm.  This is known as peristaltic locomotion.

Everything Dinosaur acknowledges the assistance of a media release from the University of California Riverside in the compilation of this article.

The scientific paper: “Discovery of the oldest bilaterian from the Ediacaran of South Australia” by Scott D. Evans, Ian V. Hughes, James G. Gehling and Mary L. Droser published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

15 03, 2020

Casting Doubt over Oculudentavis

By | March 15th, 2020|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Palaeontological articles, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Is Oculudentavis a Member of the Archosauria?

On the 11th March (2020), Everything Dinosaur posted up a blog article featuring the discovery of a remarkably well-preserved fossil skull that had been found in amber from northern Myanmar.

To read our blog post: Hummingbird-sized Dinosaur from Burmese Amber.

Following publication, a number of academics have questioned the conclusions made by Xing et al with regards to this fossil representing a member of the Maniraptora.  It is certainly true that the validity of the interpretation of the fossil skull as maniraptoran has subsequently been challenged post publication (Wang Wei et al).  They comment that the shape of the skull is not unique to archosaurs, many lizards for example, show similar characteristics, the phylogenetic analysis is questioned, along with the apparent absence of an antorbital fenestra (an opening in the skull of all known archosaurs between the orbit and the naris).

The Very Bird-like Skull of Oculudentavis khaungraae But Can Appearances be Deceptive?

Oculudentavis khaungraae computer generated image of the skull.

Oculudentavis khaungraae computer generated image of the skull (left lateral view).

Picture Credit: Xing et al (Nature)

It is suggested that the skull actually comes from a lizard and that the specimen is not from an archosaur at all.

The original publication noted that the spoon-shaped bones that make up the sclerotic ring were reminiscent of that seen in the eye sockets of lizards.  Scleral bones of this shape have never been found in a dinosaur or a bird, it is suggested that these bones support the idea that the fossil is that of a lizard and not a member of the Archosauria.

Trouble with the Teeth

The roots of the tiny teeth do not seem to be located in sockets in the jawbone (thecodont dentition).  This was a peculiar feature remarked upon by a number of academics once this paper had been widely circulated.  Teeth located in sockets is a characteristic of toothed-archosaurs such as crocodilians and the dinosaurs.  Other types of tetrapod also show this tooth morphology, but in Oculudentavis the teeth are not in sockets but either fused to the jaw (acrodont dentition) or located within grooves that can be found along the length of the jaw bones (pleurodont dentition).

The number of teeth in the jaw far exceeds that known for any type of ancient bird.  The tooth line extending under the eye-socket (orbit), is also highly unusual.  Such anatomical traits are associated with the Squamata (lizards and snakes), not with the Archosauria.

These arguments (along with others, such as the absence of feathers), have led some scientists to question the conclusions made in the original Nature publication.  Oculudentavis might not be a bird or a dinosaur, it might represent the preserved remains of a lizard.

An Anolis Lizard (A. equestris) Displaying its Throat Sac

Is the skull that of a lizard?

An Anolis lizard, note the long snout, large eyes and the jaw that extends under the orbit.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The scramble to publish can sometimes lead to a lack of peer review opportunities and a foreshortening of pre-publication correspondence amongst academics.  When the “Nature” paper was published it certainly created a great deal of interest in the wider media.  Sadly, we suspect that any challenge to the original paper’s conclusions or subsequent revision will not attract anywhere near as much publicity.

We shall await developments.

Perhaps, in future we could refer to such controversies as “Oculudentavism”

13 03, 2020

Telling the Time in the Late Cretaceous

By | March 13th, 2020|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Main Page, Palaeontological articles, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Fossil Clam Helps Scientists to Tell the Time

Researchers from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel and the University of Ghent have used 70 million-year-old fossil bivalves to gain information about day length and seasonal variations during the Late Cretaceous.  Tyrannosaurids and duck-billed dinosaurs had days that were approximately 30 minutes shorter than ours, as a consequence of this their year was about a week longer.

Writing in the academic journal Paleoceanography and Paleoclimatology, the researchers conducted a series of tests on the fossilised shells of a type of bivalve (Torreites sanchezi).  The fossil was found on a mountainside in Oman, but back in the Campanian stage of the Late Cretaceous, this area was a shallow, subtropical sea.

Daily Growth Rings Preserved in Fossil Bivalves Can Provide Scientists with Data About Ancient Planetary Systems

Fossil bivalves can help scientists understand planetary systems.

The growth rings laid down by rudist bivalves can help scientists to better understand ancient planetary systems.  An example of a bivalve fossil (Spondylus) from the Cretaceous.  This type of bivalve evolved in the Early Jurassic and can still be found today in tropical seas.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Laser Used to Bore a Hole in the Shell

Many types of molluscs grow quickly and they lay down discernible growth rings on their shells every day.  Scientists can conduct a series of tests on these markers and identify useful information about the climate and the environment in which the mollusc lived.  For example, using the growth rings, the researchers were able to determine that the fossil specimen died when it was around nine years of age.

A laser was used to bore a series of tiny holes in the shell, samples were taken and analysed for trace elements.  Using this information, the scientists were able to gain information on the temperature and the chemistry in the sea water in the reef environment where the mollusc lived.  The marine temperatures fluctuated between summer and winter, with a peak of around 40 ˚ Celsius in summer and 30 ˚ Celsius in winter.  The average annual sea temperatures were warmer than previously thought.

The Rings on the Bivalve Shell Can Provide a Lot of Information

Fossil Bivalves provide dating data.

Microscopic analysis of the fossil shell can help scientists work out day length and seasonal variations in the past.

Picture Credit: Niels de Winter et al

In addition, the scientists determined that the bivalve grew much faster during the day than it did at night.  This phenomenon is not uncommon with bivalves today, some species form symbiotic relationships with algae, it is thought that the Cretaceous species was in a similar relationship.  A combination of counting layers, spectral analysis of chemical cyclicity and chemical layer counting shows that the mollusc laid down 372 daily laminae per year, demonstrating that length of day has increased since the Late Cretaceous, as predicted by numerous astronomical models and previous studies of fossil molluscs.  However, this study represents the most accurate assessment of seasonal growth, day length and annual environmental changes recorded in a fossil from the Late Cretaceous.

The Earth’s orbit around the sun does not alter that much, the extra 7 days recorded in a year, are not really a record of the Earth taking longer to make its orbit, but a reflection of the fact that the Earth was spinning faster on its axis 70 million years ago.  With the Earth turning faster, a day was slightly shorter compared to what we experience in the 21st century.  A day in the Cretaceous would have lasted approximately 23 1/2 hours.

An Explanation – Why is the Rotation of the Earth Slowing Down?

The Earth’s orbit around the sun does not change a great deal, but the length of a day on Earth has been steadily increasing since our planet and its moon were formed.  The moon’s gravity is acting on our planet, it creates friction from ocean tides and this is gradually slowing the Earth’s rotation.  At the same time, Earth’s own gravity is having an effect on the moon.  The pull of the tides accelerates the moon, so the satellite is being pushed away from our planet.  When the Torreites sanchezi bivalve was alive, a dinosaur on the beach at night would have seen a moon that looks bigger than the one we see today, it was several thousand metres closer to Earth.

The research team conclude that as bivalve shell calcite preserves quite well, this study permits further work using other fossils to determine seasonality, marine temperatures and day length.  This should help to document environmental change in warming ecosystems and widen our understanding of the magnitude of short‐term changes during greenhouse climates.

The scientific paper: “Subdaily-Scale Chemical Variability in a Torreites sanchezi Rudist Shell: Implications for Rudist Paleobiology and the Cretaceous Day-Night Cycle” by Niels J. de Winter, Steven Goderis, Stijn J.M. Van Malderen, Matthias Sinnesael, Stef Vansteenberge, Christophe Snoeck, Joke Belza, Frank Vanhaecke, and Philippe Claeys published in Paleoceanography and Paleoclimatology.

12 03, 2020

Scottish Stegosaurs

By | March 12th, 2020|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Palaeontological articles, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Scottish Island – A Dinosaur Stomping Ground Complete with Stegosaurs

Scientists led by researchers from Edinburgh University have reported the discovery of dozens of dinosaur footprints preserved in exposed mudstones at two locations on the Isle of Skye.  The trace fossils preserve evidence of a variety of different types of dinosaurs, which helps palaeontologists to gain a better understanding of dinosaur distribution and diversity during the Middle Jurassic.

The tracks indicate a variety of dinosaur trackmakers, including bipedal theropods of various sizes, possible ornithopods and a quadrupedal ornithischian dinosaur, the tracks of which show a resemblance to the ichnotaxon Deltapodus, which is believed to represent a stegosaur.  If these prints do represent a member of the Stegosauria, then this is the first time that evidence for this type of armoured dinosaur has been discovered on the Isle of Skye.

Dinosaurs Congregating Around Mudflats on the Isle of Skye (Middle Jurassic)

Dinosaurs on a mudflat (Isle of Skye).

Life reconstruction of the Isle of Skye mudflat.  Note no sauropod tracks have been identified to date at the two sites described in the newly published scientific paper.

Picture Credit: Jon Hoad

Globally Important Fossil Discovery

During the Middle Jurassic the Dinosauria rapidly diversified and many new types evolved.  Unfortunately, the fossil record for terrestrial vertebrates from the Middle Jurassic is particularly poor.  The abundant trace fossils associated with the Isle of Skye are globally important, providing scientists with an opportunity to plot which types of dinosaurs are associated with this location.  Since the first dinosaur footprint in Scotland was found in the 1980’s numerous tracksites representing several ichnotaxa have been recorded.

Writing in the academic journal PLOS One, the researchers describe two new tracksites from Rubha nam Brathairean (Brothers Point).  The sites are referred to as BP1 and BP3, site BP2, which revealed sauropod and theropod prints has already been reported upon: Isle of Skye Steps into the Jurassic Spotlight (2018).

An Aerial View and Line Drawing of BP1 Showing the Distribution of the Dinosaur Tracks

BP1 site of dinosaur tracks (

Isle of Skye dinosaur tracks (BP1).  All three sites BP1, BP2 and BP3 were discovered between 2015 and 2017.

Picture Credit: PLOS One

An Insight into the Fauna Around a Subtropical Coastal Area

The trace fossils at both BP1 and BP3 were formed when mudflats were exposed and dinosaurs walked over them.  Today, the mudstones comprise part of the Lealt Shale Formation of the Great Estuarine Group.  The dinosaurs inhabited a coastal environment in what was a subtropical climate.  The fossil bearing rocks might be exposed on the coast today, but the climate on the Isle of Skye today is very different to what it was like around 170 million years ago.  The notorious Scottish weather prevented the researchers from using drones on several occasions in their attempts to photograph and map the sites.

An Aerial View of BP3 and Accompanying Line Drawing Showing the Various Dinosaur Tracks

Isle of Skye dinosaur tracks (BP3).

Skye dinosaur tracks (BP3).

Picture Credit: PLOS One

The tracks at both sites are preserved as impressions (concave epirelief) and the signs of mud cracks associated with the trace fossils suggest that the surfaces of both sites were briefly exposed before being quickly reclaimed by the return of brackish water.  Whilst the dinosaur tracks at BP3 were being mapped, an articulated pterosaur skeleton was found in the overlying limestone layer.  The state of the bones (largely unfractured) and the articulated skeleton suggest that the overlying limestone was deposited in a relatively low energy environment.  The pterosaur is currently being studied and will be covered in a future scientific paper.

Evidence of a Stegosaur

One of the tracks at location BP1 (BP1_Twy-01) shows a series of prints made by a quadrupedal dinosaur.  Although the tracks are a little distorted, distinctions between the pes (rear foot) and the manus (front foot) can be made.  The researchers conclude that these prints and other, single prints from this site are similar to the ichnotaxon Deltapodus.  Evidence of a potential armoured dinosaur from the Isle of Skye adds to the diversity of dinosaur types known from this location.

Mapping the Ornithischian Tracks (Potential Stegosaur – Ichnotaxon Deltapodus)

The quadrupedal trackway (BP1_Twy_01).

Potential Stegosaur tracks from the Isle of Skye.  The photograph (above) shows (a) an aerial overview of the site, (b) a line drawing showing the position of the tracks and (c), a false colour rendering of the tracks showing topography.

Picture Credit: PLOS One

Together these two new tracksites demonstrate the wide variety of different types of dinosaur present in the area and will help palaeontologists gain more data on the early evolution and radiation of the Dinosauria.  As the researchers conclude, essentially BP1 and BP3 provide a snapshot of a “day in the life” of a Middle Jurassic ecosystem.

A Palaeontological Puzzle

No sauropod tracks have been described to date from BP1 or BP3, although they have been found at BP2.  The absence of sauropod evidence could be coincidental or perhaps an indication that during the time the mudflats were exposed, these large herbivores were not present in the area.  Environmental factors could help to explain the absence of sauropods.  Site BP2 represents a shallow lagoon, whilst BP1 and BP3 represent mudflats.  The sauropods may have preferred to occupy the lagoons.

The scientific paper: “Novel track morphotypes from new tracksites indicate increased Middle Jurassic dinosaur diversity on the Isle of Skye, Scotland” by Paige E. dePolo, Stephen L. Brusatte, Thomas J. Challands, Davide Foffa, Mark Wilkinson, Neil D. L. Clark, Jon Hoad, Paulo Victor Luiz Gomes da Costa Pereira, Dugald A. Ross and Thomas J. Wade published in the journal PLOS One.

11 03, 2020

Hummingbird-sized Dinosaur from Burmese Amber

By | March 11th, 2020|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Palaeontological articles, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Oculudentavis khaungraae – Tiny Fossil Skull Could Represent the Smallest Dinosaur

Team members at Everything Dinosaur had been aware that something big was brewing amongst those members of the academia with an interest in vertebrate palaeontology.  An academic paper published in the journal “Nature”, describes the beautifully preserved but very small skull of a theropod dinosaur preserved in Cretaceous amber from northern Myanmar (Burma).  The fossil might just represent the smallest dinosaur known to science.

The fossil might be tiny but this wonderful discovery could have very big implications when it comes to understanding how miniaturisation occurs within vertebrates.  It also provides yet another remarkable insight into the types of creatures that shared the Late Cretaceous with non-avian dinosaurs and pterosaurs.  Named Oculudentavis khaungraae it probably weighed about as much as the smallest living bird, the Bee Hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae), which weighs about two grammes, that is about half the weight of a single sheet of A4 paper.

The Polished Amber Nodule Reveals a Bounty of Preserved Material Including the Tiny Skull of Oculudentavis khaungraae

Oculudentavis khaungraae skull in amber.

Tiny fossil skull preserved in amber (Oculudentavis khaungraae).

Picture Credit: Lida Xing et al

When we Say Tiny we Mean Tiny!

The amber nodule containing the beautifully preserved skull, complete with the tongue, measures a little over three centimetres in length.  The skull, with its tiny jaws, lined with miniscule but pointed teeth, measures less than 1.5 cm long.  It is estimated that Oculudentavis had a total body length including tail of about 9 cm.  Palaeontologists have speculated that “microsaurs” – tiny dinosaurs co-existed with the giants, just as African spiny mice (genus Acomys), can be found today in the same habitats as the largest, terrestrial animals – elephants (Loxodonta).

Tantalising fossil footprints had been found that hinted at the possible existence of “microsaurs” or “tinysaurs” if you will – assuming of course that these trace fossils were not made by very young animals, with a lot of growing to do.

To read about the smallest dinosaur tracks: Smallest Dinosaur Tracks Known to Science Discovered.

A Life Reconstruction of the Tiny Oculudentavis khaungraae

Life reconstruction of Oculudentavis.

A life reconstruction of Oculudentavis.  It may have been small but the numerous teeth (23 teeth in the upper jaw alone), indicate that it was a predator probably hunting insects.

Picture Credit: Han Zhixin

A Possible Member of the Enantiornithes Clade

Where Oculudentavis sits on the Dinosauria family tree is uncertain.  Whilst the cranial material has provided the authors, which include researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, with a wealth of data, interpreting the taxonomy is somewhat troublesome.  If it is a member of the Maniraptora, this large clade includes dinosaurs as well as true birds (avians).  Just how closely related to the birds or whether it is a highly specialised dinosaur remains open to debate.  Oculudentavis could be an enantiornithine bird, an extinct lineage of avians that were the most common birds of the Cretaceous, or it might be more closely related to the dinosaur end of the Maniraptora spectrum.

It may be small, but the specimen does not represent a juvenile or young animal, the skull bones are sufficiently fused for scientists to confidently state that the tiny creature is an adult or at least a sub-adult.

Eye Tooth Bird

Oculudentavis demonstrates a suite of unusual anatomical characteristics.  The eyes for example, are located on the side of the head, helpful for providing all round vision but not capable of delivering stereoscopic vision to aid in the capture of small prey.  The orbits are huge, the eyes would have bulged out of the head somewhat and the bones that make up the sclerotic ring (the circle of bones in the orbit) are spoon shaped, which is a morphology previously only known in lizards.  These scleral ossicles form a cone, similar to the bones in the eyes of owls, so it can be deduced that just like owls, Oculudentavis had exceptional vision.  What is a little more surprising is that the opening at the centre of the ossicles is narrow and restricted.  This would have limited the amount of light coming into the eye, so unlike most owls this little Cretaceous creature probably operated in bright, sunny conditions – it was most likely diurnal.

A Computer Generated Image of the Skull of O. khaungraae

Oculudentavis khaungraae computer generated image of the skull.

Oculudentavis khaungraae computer generated image of the skull (left lateral view).  Note the huge size of the orbits, the small teeth in the jaws and the scale bar denoting the size of the specimen.

Picture Credit: Xing et al (Nature)

Such is the size and extent of the eye socket, that they extend over the jaws and some of the upper jaw teeth are located directly under the orbit.  It is this characteristic and those large eyes, that gives Oculudentavis its name, from the Latin for eye “oculus”, “dentes” teeth and “avis” for bird.  The species name honours Khaung Ra who donated the specimen to the Hupoge Amber Museum.

The Fossil Specimen (HPG-15-3) with Computer Generated Images and Accompanying Line Drawings

Oculudentavis images.

Photograph, computed tomography scans and interpretive drawings of the HPG-15-3 holotype of O. khaungraae.  Scale bar size equals 5 millimetres.

Picture Credit: Xing et al (Nature)

The photograph (above), shows the amber piece (a), a scan of the skull (b) with line drawing (c).  Images d, f and h represent other views of the scans, whilst images e, g and h represent the associated line drawings.  The amber specimen comes from the Angbamo site, close to the township of Tanai (Myitkyina district, Hukawng valley, Kachin province) in northern Myanmar.  The strata are believed to represent the Cenomanian stage of the Late Cretaceous, the fossil therefore is approximately 99 million years old.

Living on an Island?

The fossil discovery represents the smallest known dinosaur of the Mesozoic and it highlights the importance of amber as a means of permitting scientists to gain an insight into the ecology of a habitat thanks to the preservation of small animals and other material that would not necessarily have been preserved under other taphonomic processes.  Specimens preserved in amber are rapidly emerging as an exceptional way to study tiny vertebrates from the Late Cretaceous.

Miniaturisation in animals is commonly associated with living in isolated environments where resources are limited.  The tiny Oculudentavis lends weight to the idea that the amber deposits in northern Myanmar were produced in forests that existed on islands.  In addition, the size and morphology of this species suggest a previously unknown bauplan and a previously undetected ecology.

To read more articles about amazing fossil discoveries made in Burmese amber:

Ammonite shell discovery: Ammonite Shell Found in Amber Nodule.

Baby snake found in amber: Baby Prehistoric Snake – Xiaophis myanmarensis Preserved in Amber.

Ancient lice feeding on feathers: Lice Feeding on Feathers Entombed in Amber.

Tiny frogs preserved in Cretaceous amber: Tiny Frogs Trapped in Cretaceous Amber.

Post Publication Doubts?

Following publication, a number of academics have questioned the conclusions made by Xing et al with regards to this fossil representing a member of the Maniraptora.  It is certainly true that the validity of the interpretation of the fossil skull as maniraptoran has subsequently been challenged post publication (Wang Wei et al).  They comment that the shape of the skull is not unique to archosaurs, many lizards for example, show similar characteristics, the phylogenetic analysis is questioned, along with the apparent absence of an antorbital fenestra (an opening in the skull of all known archosaurs between the orbit and the naris).

It is suggested that the skull actually comes from a lizard and that the specimen is not from an archosaur at all.

The original publication noted that the spoon-shaped bones that make up the sclerotic ring were reminiscent of that seen in the eye sockets of lizards.  Scleral bones of this shape have never been found in a dinosaur or a bird, it is suggested that these bones support the idea that the fossil is that of a lizard and not a member of the Archosauria.

The roots of the tiny teeth do not seem to be located in sockets in the jawbone (thecodont dentition).  This was a peculiar feature remarked upon by a number of academics once this paper had been widely circulated.  Teeth located in sockets is a characteristic of toothed-archosaurs such as crocodilians and the dinosaurs.  Other types of tetrapod also show this tooth morphology, but in Oculudentavis the teeth are not in sockets but either fused to the jaw (acrodont dentition) or located within grooves that can be found along the length of the jaw bones (pleurodont dentition).

The number of teeth in the jaw far exceeds that known for any type of ancient bird.  The tooth line extending under the eye-socket (orbit), is also highly unusual.  Such anatomical traits are associated with the Squamata not with the Archosauria.

These arguments (along with others, such as the absence of feathers), have led some scientists to question the conclusions made in the original Nature publication.  Oculudentavis might not be a bird or a dinosaur, it might represent the preserved remains of a lizard.

8 03, 2020

Little Bird Plugs 15 Million-year Fossil Gap

By | March 8th, 2020|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Main Page, Palaeontological articles, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Tiny Partial Shoulder Girdle Bone Fills 15 Million-year Fossil Gap

A tiny, partial bone from the left shoulder girdle of an ancient bird discovered in Utah, has helped fill a gap in the fossil record of the early relatives of chickens and turkeys (Galliformes).  In addition, the fossil specimen named UMNH.VP.30891, from the Eocene Uinta Formation shares a number of anatomical traits with fossils found in Uzbekistan and Namibia which suggests the ancestors of chickens, turkeys, quail, pheasants and guineafowl, were widespread.  This fossil bird has been assigned to the Paraortygidae, an extinct group of birds that were the ancestors of modern game birds.  The tiny fossil fits in a nearly 15 million-year gap in the fossil record of the galliform lineage in North America.

The Tiny Fossil Bone from the Left Shoulder Girdle of an Unnamed Member of the Paraortygidae

Tiny shoulder bone fills 15 million year fossil gap.

The coracoid of the newly described Uintan paraortygid.

Picture Credit: Patricia Holroyd (University of California)

Writing in the academic journal Diversity, the researchers, which included scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences along with colleagues from Midwestern University (Arizona) and the Museum of Paleontology (University of California), describe the tiny fossil bone which was found in 44-million-year-old fluvial deposits in north-eastern Utah.

Commenting on the importance of this tiny fossil, which measures less than one centimetre in length, one of the co-authors of the paper, Dr Beth Townsend (Midwestern University), stated:

“The new Uinta bird fills not only a time gap, but also helps us better understand the animal community at this time.  The Uinta Basin is important for understanding ecosystems during times of global warm temperatures, when forests, primates and early horses were spread across an area that is now desert.”

A Life Reconstruction of the Uinta Bird

Life reconstruction of the Uintan paraortygid.

Newly described Uintan paraortygid life reconstruction.

Picture Credit: Thomas Stidham (Chinese Academy of Sciences)

The fossil coracoid represents a new species, but it has yet to be named.  It has been informally termed the “Uintan paraortygid”.  This quail-sized bird from Utah is the oldest known member of the Paraortygidae.  It is approximately the same body size and shape of other early paraortygids and given their widespread distribution in the fossil record (Namibia, Uzbekistan and the United States), it suggests that these little birds were confident, capable fliers.  In addition, it seems likely that these birds had a flexible biology or diet that allowed them to occupy a diversity of habitats from forests and coasts to semi-arid savannahs.

The scientific paper: “Evidence for Wide Dispersal in a Stem Galliform Clade from a New Small-sized Middle Eocene Pangalliform (Aves: Paraortygidae) from the Uinta Basin of Utah (USA)” by Thomas A. Stidham, K. E. Beth Townsend, and Patricia A. Holroyd published in Diversity.

3 03, 2020

Has Dinosaur DNA Been Found?

By | March 3rd, 2020|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Palaeontological articles, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Cartilage, Proteins, Potential DNA Preserved in Juvenile Duck-billed Dinosaur

Whisper it quietly, but the debate about how long organic materials such as DNA can remain preserved with fossils without complete destruction and decay is about to be reignited.  An international team of researchers have identified possible evidence of fossilised cell nuclei, chromosomes with indications of DNA within the preserved, calcified cartilage of a baby duck-billed dinosaur that roamed Montana around 75 million years ago.

This discovery does not take us one step nearer to a “Jurassic Park” scenario, but it does challenge current thinking about how long delicate organic material such as DNA can persist.

A View of the Skull Bone (Supraoccipital) of the Juvenile Hypacrosaurus

Skull bone of a juvenile Hypacrosaurus.

An isolated supraoccipital (So) of Hypacrosaurus in dorsal view.  Note the scale bar equals 2 cm.

Picture Credit: A. Bailleul et al (National Science Review)

Writing in the journal “National Science Review”, researchers from the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology (Chinese Academy of Sciences), report their findings in collaboration with Mary Schweitzer of North Carolina State University, a pioneer in dinosaur soft tissue research.

The fossil material was collected in 1988 by American palaeontologist Jack (John) Horner.  It heralds from the Two Medicine Formation (Campanian faunal stage of the Late Cretaceous), in north-western Montana.  The fossilised bone comes from a genus of the lambeosaurine hadrosaur Hypacrosaurus (H. stebingeri).   The scientists conducted a microscopic analysis of fragmentary skull bones (supraoccipital bone – located towards the back of the skull), associated with very young animals (skull length about 20 cm and total body length less than 2 metres).  Corresponding author of the scientific paper, Alida Bailleul (Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology), noticed a handful of beautifully preserved cell-like structures within the calcified cartilage on the edges of the skull bone.  Two cartilage cells were still linked together by an intercellular bridge, morphologically consistent with the end of cell division.

Hypacrosaurus DNA Study

Emu skull and stained sections of Hypacrosaurus skull showing potential organic structures.

Caudal view of a juvenile emu skull (∼8–10 months old) showing the So and exoccipitals (Exo) in articulation.  (F, G) Ground section (stained with Toluidine blue) of calcified cartilage from this emu skull showing cell doublets (pink arrows) with remnants of nuclei (white arrows) and others without intracellular content (green arrow).

Picture Credit: A. Bailleul et al (National Science Review)

Dark Elongated Structures Within the Cells

Inside the cells, dark material resembling the cell nucleus was identified.  One cartilage cell preserved dark, elongated thread-like structures morphologically consistent with chromosomes.

Bailleul and Schweitzer, in collaboration with Zheng Wenxia (North Carolina State University), then set out to determine whether original molecules were also preserved in the dinosaur cartilage.  The researchers performed immunological and histochemical analyses on the skull of another nestling Hypacrosaurus from the same nesting ground.  The immunological test supports the presence of remnants of original cartilaginous proteins in this dinosaur.

The researchers also isolated individual Hypacrosaurus stebingeri cartilage cells and applied two DNA stains, DAPI and PI.  These bind specifically to DNA fragments in extant material and some of the isolated dinosaur cells showed internal, positive binding in the same pattern seen in modern cells.  In essence, the fragments reacted positively to the staining suggesting some original dinosaur DNA may be preserved.

Commenting on the significance of this study, Alida Bailleul stated:

“These new, exciting results add to growing evidence that cells and some of their biomolecules can persist for a long time.  They suggest DNA can be preserved for tens of millions of years and we hope this study will encourage scientists working on ancient DNA to push current limits and use new methodology in order to reveal all the unknown molecular secrets that ancient tissues have.”

Can DNA Survive for Millions of Years?

This research is likely to court controversy.  The possibility that DNA can survive for seventy-five million years is not widely accepted by the scientific community.  It is generally believed that the half-life of DNA is around five hundred years and that it does not persist in any form after several hundred thousand years.

For example, in 2013, Everything Dinosaur reported upon the discovery of a DNA sequence preserved in the fossil leg bone of an ancient horse that roamed Canada around 700,000 years ago. To read more about this research: Ancient Fossil Helps to Decode Horse Evolution.

If these results can be replicated and the data verified, then this would indicate that DNA, in some form, although highly degraded, might persist in the fossil record for tens of millions of years.   It might be possible to recover and sequence other samples of DNA from long extinct creatures.

A Life Reconstruction of the Hypacrosaurus stebingeri Nursery

Hypacrosaurus nesting site life reconstruction.

A life reconstruction of the Hypacrosaurus nesting site. A young dinosaur has died and is lying in a pool, whilst the mother investigates the corpse.

Picture Credit: Michael Rothman/Science China Press

However, this study does not mean that a dinosaur-themed safari park as depicted in the “Jurassic Park” franchise is just around the corner.

Bailleul explained:

“Here we have probably fossilised remnants, very minute amounts of fossilised dinosaur DNA, but that is a hypothesis at this stage.  The original dinosaur DNA might be transformed chemically during fossilisation.  No one really understands what happens to DNA in material so old, but our study encourages more research in ancient DNA to understand the processes of DNA fossilisation.  Our data suggest some DNA may still be preserved in these dinosaur cells, but it will never be possible to recreate a dinosaur.  Once a species goes extinct, it’s extinct forever.”

The research team conclude that the identification of chemical markers of DNA in Hypacrosaurus suggest DNA may preserve much longer than originally proposed.  Even though it is clear that contamination does exist in fossil material and complicates identifications of original organic molecules, it can be accounted for with proper controls.

This research does not suggest that dinosaurs can be resurrected and brought back from extinction, but this study might represent a significant landmark in how ancient DNA could be identified and used to trace the evolution of life.

Related articles: Researchers Confirm Dinosaur Collagen.

In addition: Dinosaur Claw Proteins Preserved in 75 million-year-old Dinosaur.

Everything Dinosaur acknowledges the assistance of a media release from North Carolina State University in the compilation of this article.

The scientific paper: “Evidence of proteins, chromosomes and chemical markers of DNA in exceptionally preserved dinosaur cartilage” by Alida M Bailleul, Wenxia Zheng, John R Horner, Brian K Hall, Casey M Holliday and Mary H Schweitzer published in National Science Review.

27 02, 2020

One-billion-year-old Greens

By | February 27th, 2020|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Main Page, Palaeontological articles, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

One-billion-year-old Green Seaweeds

This week has seen the publication of a remarkable paper that documents the discovery of tiny one-billion-year-old fossils of green seaweeds that could be the ancestor of the first land plants.

Writing in the academic journal “Nature Ecology and Evolution”, the researchers from Virginia Tech (USA) and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, describe abundant millimetre-sized, multicellular fossils that were preserved in ancient marine sediments close to the city of Dalian in Liaoning Province (northern China).

Evidence of Ancient Green Seaweed

Ancient green seaweed fossil.

Proterocladus antiquus fossil material.  A photograph of a green seaweed fossil preserved in rocks around 1,000 million years old.  The dark colour of this fossil was created by adding a drop of mineral oil to the rock in which it’s embedded, to create contrast.

Picture Credit: Virginia Tech

Proterocladus antiquus

The microscopic fossils, measuring around two millimetres in length are described as a new species of green algae (Proterocladus antiquus).  The fossil material is interpreted as benthic (living on the sea floor) and members of the Chlorophyta Phylum, which means that these ancient marine plants were photosynthesising 1,000 million years ago and that the fossils are the oldest evidence of green seaweeds known to science.

Shuhai Xiao (Geosciences and Global Change Centre at Virginia Tech), one of the co-authors of the scientific paper commented:

“These new fossils suggest that green seaweeds were important players in the ocean long before their land-plant descendants moved and took control of dry land.  The entire biosphere is largely dependent on plants and algae for food and oxygen, yet land plants did not evolve until about 450 million years ago.  Our study shows that green seaweeds evolved no later than 1 billion years ago, pushing back the record of green seaweeds by about 200 million years.  What kind of seaweeds supplied food to the marine ecosystem?”

Land Plants Evolved from Green Seaweeds

One of the theories proposed for the evolution of land plants is that they originated from marine chlorophytes.  These plants adapted to a life on dry land, the scientists propose that these Chinese fossils represent the ancestors of modern land plants that we see today.

However, Xiao added that not all geobiologists agree with this hypothesis, the debate as to how land plants originated goes on.  For example, some scientists think that green plants first evolved in freshwater environments before adapting to a terrestrial existence.

A Life Reconstruction of the Ancient Green Seaweed P. antiquus

Life reconstruction of Proterocladus antiquus overlaid on the fossil material.

A digital reconstruction of the ancient green algae (Proterocladus antiquus).

Picture Credit: Dinghua Yang/Virginia Tech

Different Types of Seaweed

There are three main kinds of seaweed, commonly referred to by their predominant colour.  There is brown (Phaeophyceae), green (Chlorophyta) and red (Rhodophyta).  There are thousands of species of each kind.  Rhodophyta (red seaweed), have a fossil record that also dates back to more than a billion years ago.

Xiao added:

“There are some modern green seaweeds that look very similar to the fossils that we found.  A group of modern green seaweeds, known as siphonocladaleans, are particularly similar in shape and size to the fossils we found.”

The discovery of such an early photosynthetic plant represents a significant landmark in helping scientists to better understand the evolution and development of planetary ecosystems.  Plants that photosynthesise are essential to the ecological balance of our planet.  They produce carbon and oxygen through the process of photosynthesis and they are regarded as primary producers and comprise the basic components of most food chains.

It was Qing Tang of Virginia Tech, who discovered the micro-fossils of the ancient seaweeds, electron microscopy was used to spot the tiny specimens.  To more easily see the fossils, mineral oil was dripped onto the fossil to create a strong contrast.

Tang commented:

“These seaweeds display multiple branches, upright growths, and specialised cells known as akinetes that are very common in this type of fossil.  Taken together, these features strongly suggest that the fossil is a green seaweed with complex multicellularity that is circa 1 billion years old.  These likely represent the earliest fossil of green seaweeds.  In short, our study tells us that the ubiquitous green plants we see today can be traced back to at least 1 billion years.”

Everything Dinosaur acknowledges the assistance of a press release from Virginia Tech in the compilation of this article.

The scientific paper: “A one-billion-year-old multicellular chlorophyte” by Qing Tang, Ke Pang, Xunlai Yuan and Shuhai Xiao published in Nature Ecology and Evolution.

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