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

5 07, 2019

Repeated Evolution of Herbivorous Crocodyliforms

By | July 5th, 2019|Animal News Stories, Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Main Page, Palaeontological articles, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Fossil Teeth Suggests Lots of Different Types of Mesozoic Crocodiles

Researchers from the University of Utah have studied the teeth of extinct crocodyliforms and concluded that crocodiles occupied a large range of different ecological niches during the Age of Dinosaurs.  Furthermore, these geographically widespread and speciose reptiles adapted to a variety of diets and that herbivorous crocodyliforms evolved at least three times independently.  This suggests that plant-eating was a beneficial dietary strategy and not a unique occurrence.  Many of these crocodyliforms lived alongside omnivorous or herbivorous synapsids, illustrating an ecological partition that is not found today.

The Diets of Extinct Crocodyliforms were Diverse with Many Examples of Herbivory Identified

Extinct crocodyliforms had different shaped teeth.

Life reconstructions of extinct crocodyliforms. Differences in tooth shape are related to differences in diets.

Picture Credit: Jorge Gonzalez

Writing in the academic paper “Current Biology”, the researchers Keegan Melstrom and Randall Irmis at the Natural History Museum of Utah at the University of Utah, discovered that multiple ancient groups of crocodyliforms (the group including living and extinct relatives of crocodiles and alligators), were not all carnivorous.  Research has been conducted before on the various potential dietary niches of ancient crocodiles, but this new study proposes that vegetarianism arose at least three times within this group.

Commenting on the significance of this new study, doctoral student Keegan Melstrom stated:

“The most interesting thing we discovered was how frequently it seems extinct crocodyliforms ate plants.  Our study indicates that complexly shaped teeth, which we infer to indicate herbivory, appear in the extinct relatives of crocodiles at least three times and maybe as many as six.”

Teeth Variation within Crocodyliforms (Extinct and Extant)

Heterodonty in Crocodyliforms.

False colour 3-D images showing the range in shape of crocodyliform teeth.  Carnivores (left), such as the living Caiman, have simple teeth, whereas herbivores (right) have much more complex teeth.

Picture Credit: Keegan Melstrom (The Natural History Museum of Utah)

The Tip of the Crocodyliform Iceberg

The twenty plus species of crocodylians alive today possess a similar general body shape and ecology.  They are mainly generalist hypercarnivores and semi-aquatic, confined to lower latitudes.  Although, consuming fruit and vegetable matter has been observed in several extant species.  In 2013, Everything Dinosaur wrote an article about fruit consumption (frugivory), in crocodiles.

To read the article: New Study Suggests a Number of Different Types of Crocodylian Consume Fruit.

The crocodiles alive today, all have similar, simple conical teeth but the fossil record shows that extinct crocodyliforms were much more diverse.  Today’s crocodiles are just the remnants from a once much richer and more specious group of reptiles, consider the living crocodylians as the “tip of the crocodyliform iceberg”.

Living Crocodiles are Generalist Ambush Predators (Hypercarnivores)

Saltwater crocodile (Estuarine crocodile).

A Saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus), the largest living reptile which is an apex predator (hypercarnivore).

The researchers identified different teeth morphologies (heterodonty) and this suggests that in the past crocodile-like creatures had a variety of diets.

Melstrom added:

“Carnivores possess simple teeth whereas herbivores have much more complex teeth.  Omnivores, organisms that eat both plant and animal material, fall somewhere in between.  Part of my earlier research showed that this pattern holds in living reptiles that have teeth, such as crocodylians and lizards.  So, these results told us that the basic pattern between diet and teeth is found in both mammals and reptiles, despite very different tooth shapes, and is applicable to extinct reptiles.”

Keegan Melstrom (The Natural History Museum of Utah) with Some of the Casts Used in the Study

Examing three-dimensional prints of fossil jaws.

Keegan Melstrom, the study’s lead author, with the fossil jaw of Brachychampsa and 3-D prints of other extinct crocodyliforms (blue).

Picture Credit: The Natural History Museum of Utah

Comparing Tooth Complexity – Extinct versus Extant

To deduce what long dead crocodyliforms most likely consumed, Melstrom with the assistance of his graduate advisor ( Randall B. Irmis), compared the tooth complexity of extinct crocodyliforms to those of living animals using a research methodology originally designed to study mammalian heterodonty.  In total, 146 teeth from 16 different species of extinct crocodyliforms were incorporated into the study.

Using a combination of quantitative dental measurements and an assessment morphological features, the scientists reconstructed the diets of those extinct animals.  The results indicate that these animals had a wider range of dental complexities and presumed dietary ecologies than had been appreciated previously.  Quantitative analyses also revealed that some species with complex dentition were likely to be herbivorous.

The researchers conclude that plant-eating crocodyliforms appeared early in the group, perhaps shortly after the end-Triassic mass extinction event and herbivory persisted until the end of the Age of Dinosaurs.  The analysis suggests that herbivory arose independently a minimum of three times, and possibly six times, in Mesozoic crocodyliforms.

Melstrom stated:

“Our work demonstrates that extinct crocodyliforms had an incredibly varied diet.  Some were similar to living crocodylians and were primarily carnivorous, others were omnivores and still others likely specialised in eating plants.  The herbivores lived on different continents at different times, some alongside mammals and mammal relatives, and others did not.  This suggests that herbivorous crocodyliforms were successful in a variety of environments!”

As many of these herbivorous crocodyliforms co-existed with plant-eating synapsids including Mammaliaformes, some of which were the ancestors of today’s mammals, this was an ecological partition that is no longer found on our planet.

The scientific paper: “Repeated Evolution of Herbivorous Crocodyliforms during the Age of Dinosaurs” by Keegan M. Melstrom and Randall B. Irmis published in Current Biology.

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

28 06, 2019

The First Dinosaur from the Caiuá Group (Brazil)

By | June 28th, 2019|Adobe CS5, Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Palaeontological articles, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Vespersaurus paranaensis – A Desert Dwelling Dinosaur

Roaming the Late Cretaceous of Brazil some 90 to 85 million years ago, was a little, fast-running, carnivorous dinosaur with a unique way of getting about.  The dinosaur has been named Vespersaurus paranaensis and at an estimated length of just over a metre (maximum length 1.6 metres), this was no giant, but its discovery will help scientists to work out the taxonomic relationships amongst an obscure group of theropods known mainly from Gondwana and provide new insight into theropod locomotion.

Writing in the academic journal “Scientific Reports”, the researchers suggest that Vespersaurus supported its weight on just one digit (metatarsal III and toe III), it may have been essentially monodactyl i.e. it had one main, central weight-bearing toe.  The other toes associated with support and weight bearing in the Theropoda (digits II and IV), were very much smaller and may even have been held off the ground.

A Life Reconstruction of the Newly Described Brazilian Theropod Vespersaurus paranaensis

Vespersaurus life reconstruction.

A life reconstruction of the Brazilian dinosaur Vespersaurus.

Picture Credit: Rodolfo Nogueira

Affinities with the Abelisauroidea

Analysis of the fossil material, which includes vertebrae, elements from the pelvis and limbs along with fragmentary skull bones suggests that this little dinosaur is a member of the Abelisauroidea, specifically the Noasaurinae, an enigmatic subfamily collectively known from sparse fossil material mostly from southern latitudes.  For example, Vespersaurus has the reduced forelimbs which are characteristic of the abelisaurids and it is hoped that these fossils will help palaeontologists to better understand the phylogeny of these Late Cretaceous predators.  Although only about 40% of the skeleton is known, these fossils represent one of the best examples of a member of the Noasauridae family found to date and the most complete dinosaur specimen from the whole of the Bauru Sub-basin.  It is also the first dinosaur to be described from rocks that constitute part of this basin, the Caiuá Group.

Frontal (Skull Bone) and Views of an Isolated Tooth (Vespersaurus paranaensis)

A skull bone and an isolated tooth (Vespersaurus paranaensis).

Cranial and dental remains of Vespersaurus paranaensis, an isolated frontal and an isolated broken tooth.

Picture Credit: Scientific Reports (Langer et al)

A Late Cretaceous Desert Environment

The majority of the strata making up the Caiuá Group represent sandstones that were deposited by the action of wind (aeolian deposits).  During the Late Cretaceous, this region of Gondwana was an extensive desert.  The fossil record is particularly sparse with only a handful of animals recorded from what probably would have been oases.  Arguably, the most famous fossils from this part of the world represent a pterosaur monodominant bonebed (Caiuajara dobruskii).  Other than Caiuajara and this new dinosaur, the only other vertebrate fossils known from this area represent a lizard and a turtle.

Pectoral Elements and Limb Bones (V. paranaensis)

Front limb bones and elements from the pectoral girdle (Vespersaurus paranaensis).

Pectoral girdle and limb elements of Vespersaurus paranaensis.

Picture Credit: Scientific Reports (Langer et al)

To read about Caiuajara: New Species of Flying Reptile Identified from Pterosaur Graveyard

Strange Footprints

Examination of the foot bones and toes suggests that this dinosaur supported its weight on just a single, central digit.  Such an anatomical adaptation (a monodactyl stance), has not been recorded in the Archosauria before, but such a form of locomotion had been inferred by palaeontologists as numerous footprints indicating an enlarged weight-bearing toe in a theropod dinosaur have been found in rocks of the same age as the sediments that yielded the fossils of Vespersaurus.

A Close Up of the Foot Showing the Weight-bearing Toe

The foot of Vespersaurus

A close-up view of the foot of Vespersaurus showing the weight-bearing central toe.  Footprints suggesting a monodactyl stance have been found in the same stratigraphic unit that yielded the new dinosaur.

Video image credit: Universidade de Sáo Paulo et al

Helping to Classify the Noasaurinae

The Noasaurinae are a branch of the Abelisauroidea consisting of small, predatory theropods known from Upper Cretaceous strata mostly associated with Gondwana (southern latitudes).  Perhaps the best known noasaurid is Masiakasaurus knopfleri, from the latest Cretaceous (Maastrichtian) of Madagascar, but two other taxa from Argentina described from relatively fragmentary fossil material have been assigned to the Noasaurinae (Noasaurus leali and Velocisaurus unicus).  Other dinosaurs from outside South America have also been tentatively assigned such as an as yet, unnamed specimen from India, Deltadromeus agilis from Morocco and Genusaurus sisteronis from France.  It is hoped that this more complete fossil specimen will permit palaeontologists to better understand taxonomic relationships within the Noasaurinae and their wider placement within the Abelisauroidea.

Building a Family Tree of the Abelisauroidea

Classifying Vespersaurus.

Vespersaurus is assigned to the Noasaurinae, a sub-family of the Abelisauroidea clade of theropods.  The suggested position of Vespersaurus is shown by the red dinosaur silhouette.

Picture Credit: Scientific Reports (Langer et al)

Etymology of Vespersaurus

The generic name derives from the words “vesper” (Latin for evening/west) and “sauros” (Greek for lizard/saurian), in reference to the name of the town Cruzeiro do Oeste (Western Cross), where the fossils were found.  The specific epithet refers to the Paraná state, the authors report that V. paranaensis represents the first non-avian dinosaur from that area of Brazil.

The scientific paper: “A new desert-dwelling dinosaur (Theropoda, Noasaurinae) from the Cretaceous of south Brazil” by Max Cardoso Langer, Neurides de Oliveira Martins, Paulo César Manzig, Gabriel de Souza Ferreira, Júlio César de Almeida Marsola, Edison Fortes, Rosana Lima, Lucas Cesar Frediani Sant’ana, Luciano da Silva Vidal, Rosangela Honório da Silva Lorençato and Martín Daniel Ezcurra published in the journal Scientific Reports.

14 06, 2019

“King of the Trilobites” Discovered in South Australia

By | June 14th, 2019|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Main Page, Palaeontological articles, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Redlichia rex – Fearsome Predator of Trilobites

A team of scientists have described a new species of trilobite and at around thirty centimetres in length, this new species is the largest member of the Trilobita from Australia to have been described to date.  Writing in the academic publication, the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology, the team consisting of researchers from the University of Adelaide, South Australian Museum and the University of New England describe Redlichia rex and suggest that it probably specialised in attacking and eating smaller trilobites.  It might even have been a cannibal!

Lead author of the research, James Holmes, a PhD student at the University of Adelaide commented:

“We decided to name this new species of trilobite Redlichia rex (similar to Tyrannosaurus rex) because of its giant size, as well as its formidable legs with spines used for crushing and shredding food, which may have been other trilobites.”

A Life Reconstruction of the Newly Described Trilobite Species Redlichia rex

Redlichia rex life reconstruction.

A life reconstruction of the newly described Redlichia rex trilobite.

Picture Credit: Katrina Kenny

Exceptional State of Preservation

The fossil material comes from an exceptional Lagerstätte known as the Emu Bay Shale on Kangaroo Island, South Australia, these sediments represents shallow sea deposits laid down in the  Early Cambrian.  Around fifty different species of trilobite have been described from this location.  Well-preserved, fully articulated specimens from this deposit are known to reach lengths in excess of 25 centimetres, representing one of the largest known Cambrian trilobites.  Until now, all Redlichia specimens from the Emu Bay Shale have been referred to as Redlichia takooensis.

Previous studies recognised considerable differences in exoskeletal shape and morphology among specimens of varying sizes, which were thought to represent different growth stages of the same species (ontogeny).  However, close examination of a large collection of recently acquired specimens shows that this variation actually represents two distinct morphs, interpreted by the researchers as representing a distinct and larger species – Redlichia rex.

PhD Student James Holmes with a Fossil of R. rex

Redlichia rex fossil.

PhD student James Holmes and a fossil specimen of Redlichia rex.

Picture Credit: University of Adelaide

Many of the fossils demonstrated an exceptional state of preservation with soft parts such as the antennae and the legs preserved.  At around 30 centimetres in length, Redlichia rex is almost twice as big as most other Australian trilobites recorded from Cambrian-aged rocks.

Co-study author, Diego García-Bellido, from the University of Adelaide and the South Australian Museum added:

“Interestingly, trilobite specimens from the Emu Bay Shale, including Redlichia rex, exhibit injuries that were caused by shell-crushing predators.  There are also large specimens of fossilised poo (coprolites), containing trilobite fragments in this fossil deposit.  The large size of injured Redlichia rex specimens and the associated coprolites suggests that either much bigger predators were targeting Redlichia rex, such as Anomalocaris – an even larger shrimp-like creature – or that the new species had cannibalistic tendencies.”

Evidence of an Evolutionary Arms Race

The naming of this new species demonstrates the diversity of the marine biota within this ancient sea environment and supports the idea that one of the principle drivers of the “Cambrian explosion” was the evolutionary “arms race” between predators and prey species.  As predators became larger and more efficient hunters, so primary producers and secondary predators developed more effective defences, this in turn led to the evolution of more deadly predator species.

A Fossil Specimen (Redlichia rex)

Redlichia rex trilobite fossil.

A near complete specimen of the large Cambrian trilobite Redlichia rex.

Picture Credit: University of Adelaide

James Holmes commented:

“The overall size and crushing legs of Redlichia rex are a likely consequence of the arms race that occurred at this time.  This giant trilobite was likely the terror of smaller creatures on the Cambrian seafloor.”

Fossils of the amazing Cambrian marine biota including specimens of Redlichia rex are currently on display at the South Australian Museum (Adelaide).

The scientific paper: “The trilobite Redlichia from the lower Cambrian Emu Bay Shale Konservat-Lagerstätte of South Australia: systematics, ontogeny and soft-part anatomy” by James D. Holmes, John R. Paterson and Diego C. García-Bellido published in the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology.

13 06, 2019

Never Smile at a Texan Prehistoric Crocodile

By | June 13th, 2019|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Palaeontological articles|0 Comments

Scolomastax sahlsteini – A Fearsome Cretaceous Crocodile Critter

The Woodbine Formation of eastern Texas has provided palaeontologists with another crocodyliform to study.  The strata represent sediments laid down in a river delta system during the early stages of the Late Cretaceous (Cenomanian faunal stage).  The vertebrate fossils found include dinosaurs, turtles, lungfish and several different types of crocodile including the fearsome Deltasuchus (D. motherali), that was named and described in 2017: Deltasuchus – A Dinosaur Crunching Crocodile.

Joining the list of crocodiles known from this location is Scolomastax sahlsteini, a much smaller animal that probably specialised in hunting fish and other small vertebrates.  Its discovery reinforces the idea that there was niche partitioning in crocodyliforms associated with these sediments, that is, each genus focused on catching different types of prey and therefore avoided direct interspecific competition.

A Life Reconstruction of Scolomastax sahlsteini

Life reconstruction - Scolomastax.

Scolomastax a life reconstruction.

Picture Credit: Brenton Adrian (University of Tennessee)

An Insight into the Cretaceous Ecosystem of Appalachia

Scolomastax sahlsteini lived approximately 96 million years ago.  It has been described from a partial jawbone and this species differs from other prehistoric crocodyliforms associated with this fossil location in having a shortened mandible, reduced tooth count, heterodonty (teeth of different shapes), a dorsally expanded surangular and enlarged attachments for powerful jaw muscles.

Scolomastax may have been not much bigger than a dwarf crocodile (Osteolaemus spp.), the smallest living crocodile species, but at around 1.5 metres in length, it had a formidable bite and was probably best avoided.  Writing in the academic journal “The Anatomical Record”, the researchers conclude that Scolomastax may have specialised in eating shellfish, or turtles (durophagous diet).  Scolomastax may even have been an omnivore, supplementing its diet with plant material.  The fossils from this location (the Arlington Archosaur Site), have provided palaeontologists with an insight into the fauna of the eastern part of the North America (Appalachia).

Commenting on the significance of the discovery, one of the co-authors of the scientific paper, Stephanie Drumheller-Horton, a palaeontologist at the University of Tennessee stated:

“People sometimes think that crocs haven’t changed much since the age of dinosaurs, but that just isn’t true.  This little croc has several weird features that make us think it ate hard prey items and maybe even plants. We don’t have anything like it alive in the world today.”

A Geographical Puzzle

Co-author, Associate Professor Alan Turner (Stony Brook University), added:

“S. sahlsteini is part of a group of early croc relatives called paralligatorids.  Most members of this group are from Asia, but we are starting to have a few examples of them from Texas.  This helps us understand how groups were dispersing between Asia and North America prior to the closing of the Western Interior Seaway, the inland sea that split North America in two.”

The genus name means “pointed stake jaw”, whilst the species epithet honours long-time volunteer Arthur Sahlstein, who found the fossil jawbone.  A phylogenetic analysis places this new genus within the Eusuchia, specifically a member of the Paralligatoridae and a sister taxon to Paralligator gradilifrons, which is known from Upper Cretaceous rocks of the Gobi Desert (Mongolia).

Scolomastax sahlsteini extends the record of paralligatorids into the Late Cretaceous (Cenomanian faunal stage) of North America.  The jawbone fossil represents the first appearance of this clade on the poorly known landmass of Appalachia, supporting a biogeographic connection between North America and Asia in the Early Cretaceous prior to development of the Western Interior Seaway.  The authors of the paper conclude that further analysis of the Paralligatoridae family is required in order to determine appropriate phylogeny.

The scientific paper: “An Enigmatic Small Neosuchian Crocodyliform from the Woodbine Formation of Texas” by Christopher R. Noto, Stephanie K. Drumheller, Thomas L. Adams and Alan H. Turner published in The Anatomical Record.

Everything Dinosaur acknowledges the assistance of a press release from the University of Tennessee (Knoxville) in the compilation of this article.

8 06, 2019

Feathers Came First Then Birds Evolved

By | June 8th, 2019|Adobe CS5, Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Main Page, Palaeontological articles|0 Comments

Feathers Came First Then Birds Evolved

With the discovery of the amazing feathered dinosaur fossils from China, scientists have had to re-think their views about the appearance of dinosaurs, but the story of the evolution of the feather goes more than just skin deep.  In a follow up, to an earlier scientific paper published late last year that examined the evidence for four different types of feather in the Pterosauria, a team of researchers have concluded that the feather arose around 80 million years earlier than the first bird.  Furthermore, the study, led by scientists at the University of Bristol proposes that feathers played a significant role in helping to shape modern terrestrial ecosystems.

Not Just a Flight of Fancy – Feathers Change the Way We Look at Archosaurs

A fossilised feather from the Crato Formation

Numerous isolated feathers have been preserved indicating the presence of Avialae – primitive birds and theropod dinosaurs closely related to birds.  In addition, feather-like structures have been identified in pterosaurs.

Picture Credit: Museu Nacional

Changing Our Understanding of Feathers, Their Function and Role in Evolution

Writing in the academic journal “Trends in Ecology and Evolution”, the researchers develop the work undertaken last year that looked at evidence for feathers in flying reptile fossils from China and utilises techniques deployed in molecular biology to plot the development of integumentary producing genes within the Archosauria.  If feathers did evolve in the Pterosauria as well as the Dinosauria, then this suggests that their common ancestor may have been feathered to.  Feather-like structures probably arose relatively early in the evolution of the Archosaurs.

Lead author of the paper, Professor Mike Benton (Bristol University), commented:

“The oldest bird is still Archaeopteryx first found in the Late Jurassic of southern Germany in 1861, although some species from China are a little older.  Those fossils all show a diversity of feathers – down feathers over the body and long, vaned feathers on the wings.  But, since 1994, palaeontologists have been contending with the perturbing discovery, based on hundreds of amazing specimens from China, that many dinosaurs also had feathers.”

Archaeopteryx – An Early Bird But Not The First Creature to Have Feathers

An illustration of Archaeopteryx.

The first bird – “Urvogel”, the Archaeopteryx but not the first animal to have feathers.

Picture Credit: Carl Buell

Links Between Fish Teeth, Scales, Feathers and Mammalian Hair

Feathers are modified epidermal appendages that consist mainly of horn-like proteins (β-proteins).  Research has identified links at the genetic level between structures in vertebrates associated with shark teeth, dermal scales in teleost fishes, reptilian scales, feathers and mammalian body hair.  The discovery that genes specific to the production of feathers evolved at the base of the Archosauria clade rather than in association with stem members of the Avialae (birds), is supported by fossil evidence in the form of numerous examples of feathered dinosaurs including examples of feathers in Ornithischian dinosaurs as well as the Theropoda.  Many of the authors of this new paper also worked on the study into feathers in pterosaurs published in December last year.

A Genetic Link Between Dermal Coverings in Tetrapods and Teleost Fish Scales

Looking at the orgins of feathers, a link established between integumentary coverings and fish scales.

Fish scales linked to feathers in genome analysis.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

If feathers evolved before the evolution of flight, they probably arose first as simple monofilament structures most likely to aid the retention of body heat in the archosaurian ancestors of birds and dinosaurs, perhaps first appearing sometime in the Early Triassic, a time after the Permian mass extinction which had led to a massive terrestrial faunal turnover and the evolution of more active animals with upright, erect gaits.

Co-author of the study, Baoyu Jiang from the University of Nanjing (China), added:

“At first, the dinosaurs with feathers were close to the origin of birds in the evolutionary tree.  This was not so hard to believe.  So, the origin of feathers was pushed back at least to the origin of those bird-like dinosaurs, maybe 200 million years ago.  In fact, we have shown that the same genome regulatory network drives the development of reptile scales, bird feathers, and mammal hairs.  Feathers could have evolved very early.”

Pterosaurs Had Feathers

The breakthrough for the research team occurred when two new types of pterosaur from China were studied.  Their pycnofibres showed branching, they did not have monofilaments but tufts and downy-like feathers, this led to the conclusion that members of the Pterosauria had feathers too.

Baoyu Jiang continued: “The breakthrough came when we were studying two new pterosaurs from China.

Professor Benton postulated that this area of research indicates the origins of feathers some 250 million years ago.

The professor explained:

“The point of origin of pterosaurs, dinosaurs and their relatives.  The Early Triassic world then was recovering from the most devastating mass extinction ever, and life on land had come back from near-total wipe-out.  Palaeontologists had already noted that the new reptiles walked upright instead of sprawling, that their bone structure suggested fast growth and maybe even warm-bloodedness, and the mammal ancestors probably had hair by then.  So, the dinosaurs, pterosaurs and their ancestors had feathers too.  Feathers then probably arose to aid this speeding up of physiology and ecology, purely for insulation.  The other functions of feathers, for display and of course for flight, came much later.”

The Importance of Kulindadromeus

Co-author Dr Maria McNamara (University College Cork, Ireland), explained that the discovery of a feathered dinosaur not thought to be closely related to birds has changed the way some palaeontologists view the evolution of feathers.  In 2014, a formal paper was published on a small, bird-hipped dinosaur that was named Kulindadromeus.  Fossils of this small, Siberian herbivore showed that it had skin covered with scales on the legs and tail, but strange, feathery filaments over much of the rest of its body.

The article announcing the discovery of feathers on an Ornithischian dinosaur: Did All Dinosaurs Have Feathers?

A Scale Model of the Feathered Ornithischian Dinosaur Kulindadromeus (K. zabaikalicus)

A scale model of the feathered dinosaur Kulindadromeus.

A 1:1 scale model of Kulindadromeus (Kulindadromeus zabaikalicus)

Picture Credit: T. Hubin/RBINS

Dr McNamara commented:

“What surprised people was that this was a dinosaur that was as far from birds in the evolutionary tree as could be imagined.  Perhaps feathers were present in the very first dinosaurs.”

Fellow co-author Danielle Dhouailly (University of Grenoble, France), studies the development of feathers in baby birds, especially their genomic control.  Her research has demonstrated that modern birds such as chickens often have scales on their legs or necks, these are in fact evidence of reversal, what had once been feathers had reverted to their more ancient form, that of reptilian scales.

This research supports the idea that gene regulatory networks show that the development of scales, feathers and hairs are co-ordinated by a similar set of genes.  Feathers and body hair probably evolved in the Early Triassic with the ancestors of mammals and birds, at a time when synapsids (the lineage of tetrapods that led to mammals) and archosaurs (dinosaurs and birds), show independent evidence of higher metabolic rates.  It was the mass extinction event at the end of the Permian that re-set the evolutionary clock and permitted the evolution of more active land animals, setting terrestrial lifeforms on a course that would ultimately lead to the rise of the dinosaur, volant flight in the Dinosauria and of course the evolution of modern mammals including ourselves.

The scientific paper: “The Early Origin of Feathers” by M. J. Benton, D. Dhouailly, B. Jiang and M. McNamara published in Trends in Ecology & Evolution.

To read our earlier article (December 2018) that examined the evidence for four different kinds of feather-like structures associated with pterosaur fossils: Are the Feathers About to Fly in the Pterosauria?

To read an article from 2015 setting out a counter argument concluding that the majority of the Dinosauria probably did not have feathers: Most Dinosaurs Were Probably Scaly.

7 06, 2019

The Lost Creatures Exhibition – Queensland Museum

By | June 7th, 2019|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Main Page, Palaeontological articles, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Lost Creatures Exhibition – Queensland Museum

The “Lost Creatures” exhibition at the Queensland Museum (Australia), has been open for more than five years.  Hasn’t the time flown by.  The exhibition opened in December 2013, its aim was to document the amazing prehistoric creatures that once inhabited this part of Australia.  The skilfully designed displays to be found on level two of the museum, took visitors on a journey from around 250 million years ago to more recent times to meet ancient megafauna such as giant monitor lizards, terrifying marine reptiles and of course, dinosaurs.

The “Lost Creatures” Exhibition at the Queensland Museum (Opening Publicity Photograph)

The "Lost Creatures" Exhibition 2013.

Dinosaurs, pterosaurs and other prehistoric animals from Queensland feature in the “Lost Creatures” exhibition.

Picture Credit: Queensland Museum

Recently, Everything Dinosaur has produced a number of articles about Australian dinosaur discoveries, ironically, the most recent articles have featured dinosaur fossil finds, not from Queensland but from New South Wales.

To read about a recently described new Australian dinosaur: Have you Herd of Fostoria dhimbangunmal?

For a second article, published this year about Australian dinosaurs:  A New Australian Ornithopod – Galleonosaurus dorisae.

Queensland’s Long-lost Inhabitants

Commenting on the significance of the exhibition when it first opened the Minister for Science, Innovation, Information Technology and the Arts, at the time, Ian Walker stated:

“Lost Creatures tells an epic story of the struggle to survive and reveals which species survived extinction events in Queensland’s distant past.”

Remains of Armoured Dinosaurs on Display

Australian armoured dinosaur fossil display.

The remains of armoured dinosaurs make up part of the “Lost Creatures” exhibition.

Picture Credit: Queensland Museum

More than a Hundred Fossils on Display

The exhibition consists of more than one hundred fossil specimens which combine with beautiful three-dimensional animal reconstructions and fossil casts to bring Queensland’s prehistoric fauna to life.  Star attractions include the giant lizard Megalania, arguably Australia’s most famous dinosaur – Muttaburrasaurus and remains of ancient prehistoric mammals, some of the giant marsupials that dominated “down under”.

Giant Mammals and the Remains of Prehistoric Reptiles

Giant mammals and marine reptile fossils.

The remains of giant mammals and marine creatures on display.

Picture Credit: Queensland Museum

Exhibition Highlights

Exhibition highlights include remains of the enormous, prehistoric wombat Diprotodon as well as a life-size reconstruction of the hind leg of the sauropod Rhoetosaurus which stands over two metres high.  In addition, more than ninety square metres of the famed Lark Quarry dinosaur trackways are on display along with a video speculating how the numerous dinosaur tracks might have formed.

When this exhibit first opened it was hailed as one of the most comprehensive overviews of Australia’s ancient megafauna, it is pleasing to see that after nearly six years it is still attracting lots and lots of visitors.

30 05, 2019

Two New Theropod Dinosaurs from Thailand

By | May 30th, 2019|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Palaeontological articles, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Phuwiangvenator yaemniyomi and Vayuraptor nongbualamphuensis

Two new species of theropod dinosaur have been described from partial fossil remains excavated from strata associated with the Sao Khua Formation of north-eastern Thailand.  It is likely that both these meat-eating dinosaurs have affinities with the Megaraptora and their discovery lends weight to the idea that the Megaraptoridae and their near relatives probably originated in Asia.  The dinosaurs have been named Phuwiangvenator yaemniyomi and Vayuraptor nongbualamphuensis, Phuwiangvenator has been described as a megaraptoran whilst the exact taxonomic position of Vayuraptor remains uncertain, although the authors of the scientific paper suggest that it too was a member of the clade of dinosaurs with long-snouts, highly pneumatised skeletons and with large claws.

Bones in Approximate Life Position from the Right Foot of P. yaemniyomi

Bones from the foot of Phuwiangvenator yaemniyomi.

Bones and claws from the right foot of Phuwiangvenator yaemniyomi with an accompanying line drawing.

Picture Credit: Samathi et al

Lower Cretaceous Carnivorous Dinosaurs

The fossils were found nearly twenty-five miles apart, but the strata in which the fragmentary fossil material was found is contemporaneous and dated to the upper Barremian stage of the Lower
Cretaceous.  The first identified specimens of P. yaemniyomi were found by Preecha Sainongkham, a team member at the Phu Wiang Fossil Research Centre and Dinosaur Museum back in 1993.  The Phu Wiang Mountain region is highly fossiliferous and numerous vertebrate fossils representing the fauna of a low-lying, inland, lacustrine environment have been discovered over the years.  The first dinosaur bone known from Thailand was found in 1976, a scrappy bone fragment that was assigned to the Sauropoda.  This fossil was found by Sudham Yaemniyom, who was at the time a geologist with the country’s Department of Mineral Resources, Bangkok.  The species name of Phuwiangvenator yaemniyomi honours his contribution to the geology and palaeontology of Thailand.

Phuwiangvenator is the larger of the two Theropods, it is believed to have measured around 5.5 to 6 metres in length.  It is known from dorsal and sacral vertebrae plus elements of the hind limbs and feet.  All the fossil material was found within the same bedding plane and within an area of just 5 square metres.

Views of the Right Tibia (A1 – A6) and a Proximal View of the Left Tibia (P. yaemniyomi)

Phuwiangvenator yaemniyomi bones from the lower leg.

Right tibia (A) in various views with a proximal view (B) of the left tibia – Phuwiangvenator yaemniyomi.

Picture Credit: Samathi et al

Vayuraptor nongbualamphuensis – Raptor of the Wind God

The fossils associated with Vayuraptor were found in 1988.  It is known from a left tibia and ankle bones.  The genus name is from the Sanskrit for “Vayu”, a God of the Wind and the Latin term “raptor”, which means thief.  Analysis of the single lower leg bone indicates that like Phuwiangvenator, this dinosaur was a fast-running, cursorial predator.  The fossils of both dinosaurs are now part of the extensive dinosaur fossil collection at the Sirindhorn Museum in Kalasin Province.  This museum houses the largest collection of dinosaur fossil bones in north-eastern Thailand.

Analysis of the Tibia Suggests that Vayuraptor was a Fast Runner

Ankle and lower leg bone Vayuraptor.

Vayuraptor nongbualamphuensis views of the left tibia and ankle (A5 and A6).

Picture Credit: Samathi et al

Megaraptora Originated in Asia

The establishing of at least one of these dinosaurs as a member of the Megaraptora clade, possibly both, helps to support the hypothesis that in south-eastern Asia during the Early Cretaceous, it was the Megaraptora that were diverse and playing the role of apex predators.  This is in contrast to other ecosystems elsewhere in the world, that were dominated by different kinds of theropod dinosaur.  A basal member of the Megaraptora, Fukuiraptor kitadaniensis is known from the Lower Cretaceous (Barremian) of Japan, these two dinosaurs are also (most likely), from the Barremian.  Their identification supports the idea that these fast running, lightly built predators evolved in Asia.

A Model of the Basal Megaraptoran  Clade – Fukuiraptor

CollectA Fukuiraptor dinosaur model.

CollectA Fukuiraptor model.  It is likely that Phuwiangvenator yaemniyomi and Vayuraptor nongbualamphuensis were similar to Fukuiraptor kitadaniensis.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

An Early Cretaceous Heyday for the Megaraptorans

Fossils of this type of meat-eating dinosaur have been reported from the Barremian to the Aptian faunal stage of the Early Cretaceous.  The authors of the scientific paper, published in the scientific journal “Acta Palaeontologica Polonica”, note that several specimens of megaraptoran dinosaurs have been recorded from the Aptian of Australia and one reported from the later Albian faunal stage of South America.  Megaraptorans are known from the Late Cretaceous but seem to indicate that by around 90 million years ago, “megaraptors” had a more limited range and seem to have been confined mostly to South America.

A Typical Illustration of a Member of the Megaraptoridae Family of Theropod Dinosaurs

Roaming Patagonia 80 million years ago

A leggy, Late Cretaceous carnivore (Murusraptor).  Roaming Patagonia around 80 million years ago.  By the Late Cretaceous the Megaraptoridae may have been less widespread and more provincial.

Picture Credit: Jan Sovak (University of Alberta)

A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur commented:

“The identification of these theropod remains that had been known about for more than twenty-five years, has been partially resolved.  Hopefully, more fossil material associated with the Vayuraptor genus will be found in Thailand so that it too can be more definitively placed within the Megaraptora clade.  Given the extent of the fossil discoveries made from the Phu Wiang Mountain region thus far, it is highly likely that more new dinosaurs will be named and described from Thailand in the future.”

To read an article about a Late Cretaceous member of the Megaraptoridae family from South America that was reported upon in 2018: A New Member of the Megaraptoridae from the Late Cretaceous of South America (Tratayenia rosalesi)

The scientific paper: “Two new basal coelurosaurian theropod dinosaurs from the Lower Cretaceous Sao Khua Formation of Thailand” by A. Samathi, P. Chanthasit and P. Martin Sander published in  Acta Palaeontologica Polonica.

26 05, 2019

Some Baby Dinosaurs Crawled Before Learning to Walk on Two Legs

By | May 26th, 2019|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Palaeontological articles, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Mussaurus Switched from Four Legs to Two

A team of scientists, including researchers from the Royal Veterinary College based in London and Museo de La Plata and National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET) located in Argentina, have collaborated to produce a report on how a Late Triassic sauropodomorph changed as it grew up.  The dinosaur in question Mussaurus patagonicus is an ideal candidate for dinosaur growth studies as it is known from numerous partial to nearly complete skeletons from hatchlings to fully grown adults.  Writing in the academic journal the researchers conclude that Mussaurus could only move on four limbs once born but switched to two legs as it grew up, just as our species switches from all fours to bipedal walking as we grow.

Scientists Looked at How the Centre of Mass Changed in the Body of Mussaurus to Work Out How it Walked

Plotting changes in Mussaurus as it grew.

Mussaurus specimens. (a, b) hatchling, (c) yearling and (bottom) adult.  Scale bars represent 5 cm (a), (b) 15 cm (c) and 100 cm in the adult animal representation.

Picture Credit: Scientific Reports

An Argentinian Sauropodomorph

Fossils of Mussaurus come from southern Argentina, at birth this dinosaur was only a few centimetres in length, but it reached its adult size in around eight years.  Essentially, this dinosaur went from weighing about 60 grams to weighing an estimated 1,300 kilograms with a body length of approximately 8 metres.  The research team conclude that it might have barely been able to walk or run on two legs at the age of one, but would have only committed to being bipedal once it reached adulthood.  This study has implications for the largest terrestrial vertebrates that ever lived as Mussaurus is regarded as an ancestral form of the later sauropods, giants like Apatosaurus, Mamenchisaurus and Giraffatitan, that were to evolve in the Jurassic.

The team scanned key fossils of Mussaurus into three-dimensional models, connected the bones into digital skeletons, and added soft tissue to estimate the shape of the body and its major segments such as head, neck, torso, tail and limbs.  These computer models were then used to estimate the location of the animal’s centre of mass, the point at which all weight can be assumed to act through.  This estimate enabled the scientists to then test whether different models representing different growth stages of Mussaurus patagonicus could have stood on two legs or not, because the centre of mass must be placed under the feet in such poses.

Identifying the Centre of Mass as Mussaurus Grew Up

Mussaurus Locomotion Study

Plotting the ontogeny of Mussaurus (a) hatchling, (b) yearling and (c) adult animal and the subsequent effect on centre of mass and locomotion.

Picture Credit: Scientific Reports

From Four Legs to Two

One of the authors of the scientific paper, Dr Alejandro Otero (CONICET) stated:

“Mussaurus switched from four legs as a baby to two legs by adulthood, much as humans do.  It is important to notice that such locomotor switching is rare in nature and the fact that we were able to recognise it in extinct forms like dinosaurs highlights the importance of our exciting findings.”

Professor John Hutchinson of the Royal Veterinary College, an expert in animal locomotion and co-author of the paper commented:

“We created the first 3-D representation of the major changes of body form and function across the growth of a dinosaur.  And we were surprised to learn that enlargement of the tail and reduction of the neck had more of an effect on how Mussaurus stood than how long its forelimbs were, which is what people used to think.”

Implications for Giant Dinosaurs

At around eight metres in length, Mussaurus was one of the largest dinosaurs in southern South America during the Late Triassic (estimated to be Norian faunal stage), however, during the Jurassic and Cretaceous much larger lizard-hipped dinosaurs would evolve from this lineage.  By improving our understanding about how some of the sauropodomorphs moved this type of research can provide insights into how much bigger plant-eating, long-necked giants walked.  When adult, dinosaurs such as Diplodocus and Brachiosaurus were very much quadrupedal, although it has been suggested that when very young some of these dinosaurs might have been able to rear up onto their hind legs to escape danger.*

Mussaurus Scale Comparison

Mussasaurus scale comparison.

Mussaurus scale drawing compared to an adult human and the skeleton of a typical Late Jurassic sauropod.

Picture Credit: Scientific Reports with additional annotation and information from Everything Dinosaur

* To read an article from 2011 that looked at the research into trace fossils from the western United States that hinted that some very young sauropods may have been able to run on just their hind legs: Facultative Bipedalism in Sauropods

The research team hope to build on this work as they plan to use computer models to replicate in greater detail how Mussaurus may have actually moved, such as how fast it could walk or run.

Everything Dinosaur acknowledges the assistance of a press release from the Royal Veterinary College (London) in the compilation of this article.

The scientific paper: “Ontogenetic changes in the body plan of the sauropodomorph dinosaur Mussaurus patagonicus reveal shifts of locomotor stance during growth” by Alejandro Otero, Andrew R. Cuff, Vivian Allen, Lauren Sumner-Rooney, Diego Pol and John R. Hutchinson published in Scientific Reports.

23 05, 2019

Ammonite Shell Preserved in Amber from Myanmar

By | May 23rd, 2019|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Main Page, Palaeontological articles, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Ammonite Trapped in Nodule Helps to Date Myanmar Amber Fossils

This month has seen the publication of yet another remarkable paper detailing fossil discoveries found within amber nodules from northern Myanmar.  Writing an open article in the PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America), the researchers document a variety of terrestrial and marine invertebrates consisting of molluscs, insects, spiders and mites that have been preserved trapped in a piece of fossilised tree resin that dates from around 99 million years ago.  The organic remains consist of a mixed assemblage of intertidal and terrestrial floor organisms and suggests that the Cretaceous Myanmar forest was adjacent to a shifting and dynamic coastal environment.  The identification of the ammonite at the genus level has permitted the researchers to provide supporting evidence as to the age of the amber.  The ammonite shell is a juvenile Puzosia and its discovery adds weight to those academics proposing the dating of the amber to Late Albian–Early Cenomanian.

The Amber Nodule (Myanmar) with the Preserved Invertebrate Remains

Amber nodule preserves both terrestrial and marine organisms.

The amber nodule from Myanmar with a wide variety of both marine and terrestrial elements preserved within it.  The ammonite can be seen on the right of the picture, one of the gastropods is directly above it.

Picture Credit: PNAS

This is a rare example of a marine organisms associated with tree resin and also represents a rare instance of the dating of fossil tree resin using the remains of organisms trapped within an amber nodule.

X-ray-microcomputed Tomography (CT) Scans

The amber from northern Myanmar has provided palaeontologists with some fascinating fossils to study, including feathers, baby birds and even the partial tail of a feathered dinosaur.  The amber nodule in this study (BA18100), was obtained from an amber mine close to Noije Bum Village, Tanaing Town and it weighs a fraction over six grams.  Measuring 33 mm long, 9.5 mm wide and 29 mm high, it contains a diverse assemblage of at least forty individuals.  X-ray-microcomputed tomography (CT) scans was employed to help identify the fossil material.

Specimens from the Amber Nodule (BA18100)

A variety of invertebrates preserved in the amber nodule.

Mites, insects including flies and cockroaches and a spider preserved in the amber nodule.

Picture Credit: PNAS

The Ammonite Remains

The ammonite appears to be a juvenile and from a review of the septa (the complex boundary lines outlining the chambers), it has been identified as a member of the Puzosia genus.  This type of ammonite is known from the Cretaceous of the western Tethys Ocean, these fossils help to support the fossil record for this genus from the eastern Tethys region.  The ammonite has a diameter of around 12 mm and it appears to retain its original aragonite shell, that is the shell has not undergone any mineral replacement as expected during fossilisation.  The shell is almost complete, only the final body chamber is damaged as part of the umbilical wall extends beyond the fragmentary last part of the shell.

Views of the Ammonite Preserved within the Amber

Ammonite shell preserved in amber.

The juvenile ammonite has been identified as being from the Puzosia genus, it helps to date the amber nodule.  Scale bars equal 2 mm.

Picture Credit: PNAS

Marine Snail Shells (Gastropods)

The amber also contains the remains of marine snails.  Two of the gastropods have been identified as the genus Mathilda.  This type of marine snail is known from the western Tethys Ocean, but this is the first time that this marine snail genus has been recorded from the eastern Tethys.  The incomplete preservation and lack of soft body of the ammonite and marine gastropods suggest that they were dead and underwent abrasion on the seashore before entombment within the tree resin.

Views of the Marine Snail Shells (Gastropods)

Marine gastropods preserved in an amber nodule.

Four marine snails (gastropods) preserved in the amber of which two definitely represent the genus Mathilda.  Scale bars equal 1 mm.

Picture Credit: PNAS

Isopods

At least four isopods are also present.  Isopods are crustaceans and these creatures are known from terrestrial, brackish, freshwater as well as marine environments.  Unfortunately, the researchers were not able to identify the remains to the extent whereby it could be determined whether the preserved individuals came from the land or were aquatic.

Isopods Preserved within Amber

Isopods preserved in amber from Myanmar.

Four isopods and possibly three other specimens preserved in the amber that could be isopods but they are too badly damaged to be certain.  It is also not certain whether the isopods represent terrestrial, intertidal or marine forms.  Scale bars, 1 mm in A and C.  Scale bar, 0.5 mm in B and D.

Picture Credit: PNAS

How Did the Marine Assemblage End Up in the Tree Resin?

The scientists conclude that the tree resin fell onto the beach from coastal trees, for example araucarian conifers could have been growing close to the shore and the resin originated from one of these trees.  As it slid down the tree trunk it picked up terrestrial creatures and under gravity is moved across the sand picking up the shells on the beach.  It is remarkable that the tree resin survived the high-energy shore environment before being preserved as amber.  The authors, which include scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences suggest that resin ending up on the beach due to the proximity of the conifers could have been a relatively common event.  However, since this is the first time that an ammonite shell has been discovered entombed, the odds of fossilisation occurring and the material surviving long enough to turn into amber marks an exceptionally rare occurrence.

The dating of amber can be extremely difficult as these pieces can be reworked and redeposited.  The finding of an ammonite within a nodule, provides biostratigraphical dating support attesting to the 99-100 million-year-old estimate for these types of ancient tree resin from northern Myanmar.

The scientific paper: “An ammonite trapped in Burmese amber” by Tingting Yu, Richard Kelly, Lin Mu, Andrew Ross, Jim Kennedy, Pierre Broly, Fangyuan Xia, Haichun Zhang, Bo Wang, and David Dilcher published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

22 05, 2019

Fossilised Mouse Reveals Evolutionary Secrets of Colour

By | May 22nd, 2019|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Palaeontological articles, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Ancient Mouse Reveals a Colourful Mammalian Heritage

Many mammals are brightly coloured, we have golden marmosets, red pandas and of course, black and white zebras.  The evolutionary use of colour within the Kingdom Animalia has long held the fascination of scientists, academics and philosophers.  This week, an international team of researchers led by members of The University of Manchester have published a new study revealing the evidence of colourful pigments in the remains of a prehistoric mouse.

The Fossilised Remains of a Prehistoric Mouse

The fossilised remains of a mouse.

The well-preserved remains of a Pliocene mouse used in the study.

Picture Credit: The University of Manchester

Writing in the journal “Nature Communications”, this work marks a major breakthrough in our ability to define colour pigments within the fossilised remains of long extinct animals and emphasises the role colour plays in the evolution of life on our planet.  The paper entitled “Pheomelanin pigment remnants mapped in fossils of an extinct mammal”, outlines the use of X-ray imaging on the 3 million-year-old fossils in order to unravel the story of key pigments in ancient creatures and demonstrates how we might recognise the chemical signatures of specific red pigments in extinct animals to determine how they evolved.

Professor Phil Manning, (University of Manchester), the lead palaeontologist involved in this study explained:

“The fossils we have studied have the vast potential to unlock many secrets of the original organism.  We can reconstruct key facets from life, death and the subsequent events impacting preservation before and after burial.  To unpick this complicated fossil chemical archive requires an interdisciplinary team to combine their efforts to crack this problem.  In doing this, we unlock much more than just palaeontological information.”

Co-author, Professor Roy Wogelius, from the University’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, added:

“This was a painstaking effort involving physics, palaeontology, organic chemistry, and geochemistry.  By working as a team, we were able, for the first time, to discover chemical traces of red pigment in fossil animal material.  We understand now what to look for in the future and our hope is that these results will mean that we can become more confident in reconstructing extinct animals and thereby add another dimension to the study of evolution.”

This exciting, collaborative effort from numerous scientific disciplines reveals that within fossils with exceptionally preserved soft tissues, evidence of black pigmentation can be identified, but furthermore, traces of the much more elusive red animal pigment may be found.  The chemical residue of black pigment, which colours such animals as crows, was first resolved by this team in a previous study nearly ten years ago.  However, the red pigment, characteristic of animals such as foxes and red pandas, is far less stable over geological time and proved much more difficult to detect.

Apodemus atavus Life Reconstruction

Apodemus atavus - mouse from the Pliocene helps reveal the evolution of pigmentation.

A life reconstruction of the mouse from the Pliocene – Apodemus atavus.

Picture Credit: The University of Manchester

Professor Wogelius went on to say:

“We had data which suggested red pigment residue was present in several fossils, but there was no useful data available to compare this to pigmentation in modern organisms.  So, we needed to devote several years to analysing modern tissue before we could go back and review our results from some amazing fossil specimens.  In the end, we were able to prove that detailed chemical analysis can resolve such pigment residue, but along the way we learned so much more about the chemistry of pigmentation throughout the animal kingdom.”

Shining a Light on Pigmentation Thanks to the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource

To unlock the hidden data within the fossil material, the Manchester-based scientists collaborated with researchers at some of the brightest sources of light on the planet, using synchrotron radiation at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (USA), and also at the Diamond Light Source (located in Oxfordshire), to bombard the fossils with intense X-rays.  It is the interaction of these X-rays with the chemistry of these fossils that enabled the team to be the first to recognise the chemistry of red pigmentation (pheomelanin), in fur from the exceptionally well-preserved remains of a mouse that scuttled about in the Pliocene Epoch (Apodemus atavus).

The key to the study was identifying trace metals incorporated by ancient organisms into their soft tissues and comparing these to the modes of incorporation into living species.  The chemistry shows that the trace metals in the mouse fur are bonded to organic chemicals in exactly the same way that these metals are bonded to organic pigments in animals with high concentrations of red pigment in their tissue.

In order to confirm the team’s findings, modern comparison standards were analysed by synchrotron radiation and by specialists in pigment chemistry based at the Fujita Health University in Japan.

A False Colour Image of the Fossilised Mouse

A false colour image of the fossil mouse.

A false colour image of the 3 million-year-old fossil mouse used in the red pigment study.

Picture Credit: The University of Manchester

Summarising the significance of this research Professor Manning stated:

“Palaeontology offers research that is more than relevant to our everyday life.  Information gleaned from the fossil record is influencing multiple fields, including; climate research, the burial of biowaste and radwaste, the measure of environmental impact of oil spills on living species with techniques developed on fossil organisms.  Whilst our research is firmly anchored in the past, we set our sights on its application to the future.”

The scientific paper: “Pheomelanin pigment remnants mapped in fossils of an extinct mammal” by Phillip L. Manning, Nicholas P. Edwards, Uwe Bergmann, Jennifer Anné, William I. Sellers, Arjen van Veelen, Dimosthenis Sokaras, Victoria M. Egerton, Roberto Alonso-Mori, Konstantin Ignatyev, Bart E. van Dongen, Kazumasa Wakamatsu, Shosuke Ito, Fabien Knoll & Roy A. Wogelius and published in Nature Communications

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

Load More Posts