The fossil record is rich and diverse however, it only represents a tiny fraction of all the life that has ever existed on Earth. In addition, some fossils can be easily confused and misinterpreted, for example, we recall an incident that occurred when visiting the National Museum Cardiff (Wales). We overhead a conversation in the Evolution of Wales gallery, a mother was pointing out a dinosaur jaw fossil to her children.
The object was not the fossilised remains of a dinosaur, this was not a jaw at all, but the preserved remains in lateral view of the claw of a large sea scorpion (eurypterid).
We can understand how the confusion arose, the fossilised claw does resemble a jaw. The fossil exhibit featuring several examples of Palaeozoic invertebrates was clearly labelled and the gallery layout guides readers from the Big Bang to the present day in chronological order. There are plenty of helpful panels providing information and explanations, all helping to educate and inform.
One of the children corrected the grown-up, pointing out that the dinosaurs lived in the Mesozoic.
We shared a smile and moved on to view some of the other amazing exhibits housed in this excellent museum.
In episode four (Ice Worlds) of the acclaimed television series “Prehistoric Planet”, a troodontid dinosaur is depicted deliberately spreading a forest fire. Is this behaviour plausible? This Apple TV+ series has been praised for depicting prehistoric animals not as movie monsters but as animals capable of complex behaviours as seen in living relatives. The behaviour of many of the dinosaurs in the documentary series reflects behaviour observed and documented in birds.
Lead scientific consultant for the five-part, nature documentary series, vertebrate palaeontologist and author Darren Naish has used his extensive knowledge of the living world to create realistic scenarios illustrating behaviours of long extinct creatures.
For example, the troodontid is depicted carefully selecting a burning ember and carrying it to another, as yet unburnt, part of the forest in order to deliberately start a fire. Fire starting is a behaviour that has been observed in some species of birds.
Forest Fires Provide an Opportunity for Hunters
Flames and smoke from a forest fire, presumably started by lightning would cause animals to flee and a hunter like a troodontid could patrol the fringes of the fire and ambush any small mammal, lizards or birds that had been panicked and were attempting to avoid the flames.
In the scene which features the troodontid, this clever little dinosaur (troodontids having relatively large brains in proportion to their body size), chooses an ember and deliberately carries it to another part of the forest to in order to spread the fire.
Australian Fire Hawks
Indigenous Australians have reported that certain types of bird intentionally spread fires in order to exploit feeding opportunities. People in northern Australia have considered the black kite (Milvus migrans), the whistling kite (Haliastur sphenurus) and the brown falcon (Falco berigora) to be “fire hawks” picking up smouldering debris moving it some distance and then dropping it in a bid to spread the conflagration. Some of the observations and anecdotes were reported in a scientific paper published in the “Journal of Ethnobiology”.
The paper attempted to document evidence supporting the theory that many birds of prey used fires to help them find food, making easy meals out of insects and other small animals attempting to avoid the blaze.
Co-author of the scientific paper, which was published in 2017, Mark Bonta (Pennsylvania State University), commented:
“We’re not discovering anything. Most of the data that we’ve worked with is collaborative with Aboriginal peoples. They’ve known this for probably 40,000 years or more.”
Other Scientists are Sceptical
Some experts have expressed scepticism, whether these birds were intentionally spreading fires or were seen to pick up sticks as a consequence of darting down to capture prey but missing their intended target.
Anthony Molyneux of the Alice Springs Desert Park commented:
“If [hawks] have missed the prey and perhaps grabbed a stick, they will drop that stick or rock. If the stick is smouldering or on fire, then it will start another fire.”
In a 2016 interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Bob Gosford, an Australian indigenous-rights lawyer and ornithologist explained that these raptors thrive in areas where wildfires are common.
In the interview he stated:
“It’s a feeding frenzy, because out of these grasslands come small birds, lizards, insects, everything fleeing the front of the fire.”
There have been many first-hand accounts of hawks and other birds of prey picking up burning sticks in their claws and dropping them in a fresh area of dry grass several hundred metres away to start another fire.
No one can ever know whether troodontids or other theropod dinosaurs indulged in this fire-spreading behaviour, but research is on-going to determine whether their close relatives (birds) deliberately spread fires.
It certainly made an intriguing and thought-provoking segment in the documentary series.
The scientific paper: “Intentional Fire-Spreading by “Firehawk” Raptors in Northern Australia” by Mark Bonta, Robert Gosford, Dick Eussen, Nathan Ferguson, Erana Loveless, Maxwell Witwer published in the Journal of Ethnobiology.
Those enthusiastic scientists and educationalists at Wollaton Hall (Nottingham), are hosting an exclusive “Prehistoric Secret Science Show” on Tuesday 24th May, 2022 (4.30pm to 8.45pm). It will feature a veritable cornucopia of talks, presentations and workshops plus the chance to meet professionals engaged in current scientific research on Tyrannosaurus rex!
An Exclusive Event
Organised by those dedicated and talented members of Nottingham City Museum’s Learning and Education team, this evening event “Prehistoric Secret Science Show”, will showcase a range of speakers from the University of Birmingham, Rutland Water Nature Reserve and the University of Nottingham. Palaeontologist Dr Adam Smith (Nottingham Museum’s Curator of Natural Sciences), a world authority on Mesozoic marine reptiles will also be presenting.
This exclusive event is ideal for anyone interested in prehistoric life, palaeontology, Natural Science and dinosaurs, it has been especially designed for children at upper primary or secondary school, college, university and adults. It looks set to be an interesting evening that covers a wide range of topics, plus gives everyone the opportunity to meet “Titus” the Tyrannosaurus rex exhibit too!
Schools and other large groups have one free adult per ten children with additional adults at the usual £15. Contact the event organisers for more information.
Event is open to all ages, including children at secondary school, college, university and adults. It is aimed especially for children over ten years old, although anyone with a keen interest in dinosaurs would be welcome.
Free entry for carers when accompanying a paid ticket. Please note car parking charges apply.
It can be difficult to visualise the immensely long geological time scale and to demonstrate what lifeforms developed along the way, so, why not knit one and use prehistoric animal models to illustrate key moments in the history of life on Earth.
That’s exactly what Sue Mallender, Learning Programmes Science Officer, (Nottingham City Museums) and the Learning and Engagement team did – creating a colourful and striking depiction of the evolution of life on Earth.
Visualising Geological Time
In order to study the history of life, scientists need to locate important evolutionary events such as the development of animals with exoskeletons and the evolution of vertebrates within the geological time scale. Planet Earth was formed around 4.57 billion years ago. Geologists have divided the history of our planet into time intervals of varying duration. This time scale was devised in the 19th century, (although amendments to it and revisions continue to be made). The boundaries between the time intervals mark notable events such as dramatic changes in the type of fossils found in strata.
It is difficult to understand geological time and a knitted time scale, with each boundary carefully produced in a contrasting-coloured wool provides a novel and very innovative way of demonstrating this fundamental aspect of geology.
This colourful visualisation of the age of our planet was created by dedicated knitter Helen Crowfoot.
The “Slow Burning Fuse” to Complex Life
The long interval of time from the origin of the Earth to the start of the Cambrian is referred to as the Cryptozoic Eon (meaning hidden life). This enormous time interval is also referred to as the Precambrian. Its length in comparison to the Phanerozoic Eon (visible life) – the time interval to the present day, is dramatically demonstrated in the knitted time scale by the burgundy-coloured strip.
Some palaeontologists have described the Cryptozoic Eon as the “slow burning fuse to complex life.”
A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur commented that they had been contacted about this innovative project and ask to recommend prehistoric animal models that could be placed along the time scale to depict the sort of creatures that evolved during the main geological periods.
The Everything Dinosaur spokesperson explained:
“We started with the Cambrian, suggesting some figures that could represent some of the first, large complex animals and then worked forwards from there recommending various models that could be used to populate the knitted time scale.”
The spokesperson added:
“What a super idea! This is a fantastic way to visualise geological time and we congratulate Sue and the Learning and Engagement team for such an innovative and creative way of demonstrating how life on our planet has changed over millions of years.”
One in five species of reptile is threatened with extinction. A team of international scientists including researchers from the Zoological Society of London, the University of Witwatersrand (Johannesburg, South Africa), Monash University (Victoria, Australia) and the Biodiversity Assessment Unit, IUCN-Conservation International based in Washington DC (USA), have conducted a comprehensive extinction-risk assessment of the class Reptilia. Writing in the academic journal “Natural” the team conclude that at least 1,829 out of 10,196 species of reptile (21.1%) are threatened.
Agriculture, Logging, Urban Development and Invasive Species
A global assessment of the risk of extinction to species of reptile has been lacking, although similar studies have been undertaken for the other tetrapods such as amphibians, mammals and birds. The researchers conclude that reptiles are threatened by the same major factors that threaten other tetrapods— agriculture, logging, urban development and invasive species, although the threat posed by climate change remains uncertain. Many species of reptile live in extremely arid or desert regions, this comprehensive study reveals that it is those reptiles that live in forests that face the greatest threat.
The scientists discovered that birds, mammals and amphibians are unexpectedly good surrogates for the conservation of reptiles. The study revealed that efforts to conserve other threatened tetrapods (mammals, birds and amphibians) are more likely than expected to co-benefit many threatened species of reptile. Although reptiles are well known to inhabit arid habitats such as deserts and scrubland, most reptile species occur in forested habitats, where they and other vertebrate groups, suffer from threats such as logging and conversion of forest to agriculture. The study found that 30% of forest-dwelling reptiles are at risk of extinction, compared with 14% of reptiles in arid habitats.
An Urgent Multifaceted Plan is Needed
Neil Cox, co-leader of the study and Manager of the IUCN-Conservation International Biodiversity Assessment Unit in Washington DC stated:
“The results of the Global Reptile Assessment signal the need to ramp up global efforts to conserve them. Because reptiles are so diverse, they face a wide range of threats across a variety of habitats. A multifaceted action plan is necessary to protect these species, with all the evolutionary history they represent.”
The report states that although some reptiles including most species of crocodiles and turtles require urgent, targeted action to prevent extinctions, efforts to protect other tetrapods, such as habitat preservation and control of trade and invasive species, will probably also benefit many reptiles.
Everything Dinosaur acknowledges the assistance of a media release from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in the compilation of this article.
The scientific paper: “A global reptile assessment highlights shared conservation needs of tetrapods” by Neil Cox, Bruce E. Young, Philip Bowles, Miguel Fernandez, Julie Marin et al published in Nature.
At Everything Dinosaur, we are always amazed by the variety of prehistoric animal themed products that are available to fans of prehistoric life. Take for example, a new board game in development that has been inspired by palaeontology. We were contacted by Brett, one of the developers of “Holotype”, a fast-paced, worker placement game designed for 2-5 participants. Players get the chance to role play the life and work of a vertebrate palaeontologist.
A Kickstarter Project
This innovative, light-strategy board game has its own kickstarter funding page and the project has already received hundreds of backers.
Brett very kindly provided more details to Everything Dinosaur, commenting that the object of the game was to further the field of palaeontology by collecting specimens, undertaking research and getting findings published in scientific journals. “Holotype” focuses on the major fossil formations and prehistoric animals associated with North America, but other regional variations of this game, such as a version exploring the prehistoric animals of Europe, have been proposed.
Throughout the gameplay, players deploy their palaeontologist, graduate student and field assistant workers to perform various actions. Players can search for fossils by rolling fossil dice on field expeditions, conduct research at the university library and access museum collections to exchange fossils and to further their ambitions.
By making discoveries and expanding scientific knowledge, players ultimately aim to have their research on holotypes published in prestigious scientific journals. Victory points are awarded as the player’s career in palaeontology advances.
As the game progresses, special milestones are unlocked to make each player’s gameplay unique. Semi-collaborative global objectives and private personal objectives ensure that every game will be different.
With a playing time estimated at around 1-2 hours, the winner is the person who has gained the most points through their research which resulted in published holotypes and the achievement of personal and global objectives.
The media release sent to Everything Dinosaur states:
“The goal of the developers was to create a game that would appeal to avid board gamers and palaeontology fans alike. The game features 60 unique dinosaurs and marine reptiles from the Mesozoic Era across North America, fossil-bearing geologic formations, and objectives referencing modern palaeontology concepts such as cladistics and taxonomy.”
Scientists from the University of Tel Aviv in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Napoli have published a study that suggests having a small brain relative to your body size predisposed Late Quaternary mammals to extinction. If you were a “smart” mammal, with a relatively big brain in proportion to your body size, you were less likely to become extinct.
The Extinction of Megafauna
The Late Quaternary is marked by a drastic global extinction event, mainly of large-bodied, land mammals. Causes proposed for these extinctions include overhunting by an increasing human population, particularly in areas such as the Americas and Oceania where modern humans had been largely absent previously. Earlier papers had proposed that species with traits that make them less prone to human hunting (arboreal, nocturnal, or forest dwelling) were more likely to survive.
However, the rapid decline and extinction of large, terrestrial animals is linked to the end of the last glacial period (25,000 to 12,000 years ago) which saw dramatic climate change. The research team hypothesised that the large mammals that survived the extinctions might have been endowed with larger brain sizes than those that perished. Larger brains might have helped these animals to adapt better and to cope with the wild fluctuations in climate.
To test this idea, the scientists assembled data on the brain size of 291 living mammal species plus 50 more that went extinct during the Late Quaternary.
The team found that models that used brain size in addition to body size predicted extinction status better than models that used only body size. It was concluded that possessing a large brain was an important, yet so far neglected and rarely studied characteristic of surviving megafauna species.
Implications for Large Mammals Living Today
One prominent feature shared by many extinct taxa was their large body size. In mammals, body size is correlated with several traits, including low population density, small population size, long lifespans, extended gestation periods along with prolonged inter-birth intervals and low fecundity.
Brain size is strongly correlated with body size as well and yet, mammals of similar size can have greatly different brain sizes.
In studies of modern birds and mammals, large brains have been found to improve survivability as these animals can modify their behaviour and adapt to rapidly changing environments and new threats such as an expanding human population.
When considering which animals around today might be under the most severe threat of extinction, brain-size should be considered when calculating the risk factors.
The paper published as an open access document in “Scientific Reports”
The scientific paper: “Small brains predisposed Late Quaternary mammals to extinction” by Jacob Dembitzer, Silvia Castiglione, Pasquale Raia and Shai Meiri published in Scientific Reports.
Today, Tuesday the 8th of March is International Women’s Day, a day that is celebrated across the world, recognising the achievements of women in business, the arts, politics and of course in the sciences. A movement that began in the early years of the 20th century has expanded to encompass all aspects of gender equality.
The theme for International Women’s Day 2022 is “breaking the bias”.
Using the hashtag #BreaktheBias the official website states that whether deliberate or unconscious, bias makes it difficult for women to move ahead. Knowing that bias exists is not enough. Action is needed to level the playing field. Many academic institutions, museums and educational bodies are working to improve opportunities and to support gender equality.
Imagine a world with gender equality, collectively we can all #BreakTheBias.
Marvellous news for the start of 2022, the plans to locate a permanent statue commemorating the work of Mary Anning and her contribution to the Earth sciences have been approved by Dorset Council. The idea to erect a permanent memorial to the most famous former resident of Lyme Regis had been proposed in the past, but it was young, fossil fan Evie Swire and her mum who kick-started the project once more in 2018 with the launch of their charity Mary Anning Rocks.
Plans have been approved to erect a life-size bronze sculpture of Mary Anning. The memorial, designed by Denise Dutton, is likely to be unveiled in the late spring of 2022 and it will, in a small way, help to redress the great imbalance between statues of men and women in the UK. Approximately eighty-five percent of all the statues erected in Great Britain acknowledge the achievements of men. It is therefore fitting that a memorial to Mary Anning should be put on permanent display close to where she made some of her most important scientific discoveries.
Mary Anning Rocks
The charity, which team members at Everything Dinosaur have supported, has raised over £100,000 and plans are well advanced to place a statue of Mary Anning overlooking the beach to the east of the town of Lyme Regis. The charity wants to acknowledge and remember Mary Anning and her contribution to the nascent science of palaeontology. The statue will commemorate Mary and her dog Tray, which accompanied her on her fossil hunts. Unfortunately, the dog was killed in a landslide. The statue which will be within sight of Black Ven and Golden Cap will also provide a reminder to visitors of the dangers of straying too close to the cliffs as well as providing tourists with a focal point for remembrance and respect.
Unveiled in May 2022
A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur commented:
“This is fantastic news! We congratulate all those involved in helping to create this memorial to Mary Anning. The bronze, life-size statue will make a fitting tribute to one of the most influential figures in the early years of the science of palaeontology and perhaps help to inspire more girls to take up a career in the sciences.”
A date for the unveiling ceremony has yet to be confirmed but it has been suggested that the unveiling will take place on Saturday 21st May (2022).
An exquisite dinosaur embryo from southern China has shed new light on the evolutionary link between the Dinosauria and modern birds. The beautifully preserved embryo of an oviraptorosaur has a posture inside the egg reminiscent of a late-stage modern bird embryo. This pre-hatching behaviour, previously considered unique to the Aves (birds), originated in the Theropoda.
Writing in the journal “iScience”, the researchers who include Professor Lida Xing from the China University of Geosciences (Beijing), Professor Steve Brusatte (University of Edinburgh) and PhD student Fion Waisum Ma (University of Birmingham), describe the dinosaur embryo, nicknamed “Baby Yingliang”. Study of the fossilised remains preserved inside the egg (in-ovo), demonstrates that the head of the baby dinosaur lies ventral to the body, with the feet on either side and the back is curled along the blunt end of the egg. This posture had not been recorded in dinosaur embryos before. In modern birds, this posture is referred to as “tucking” – a behaviour controlled by the central nervous system and critical for hatching success.
An Oviraptorosaur Embryo
The fossil comes from Upper Cretaceous deposits from Ganzhou Province (southern China). It is believed to be between 72 and 66 million years old. Lead author of the study, Professor Lida Xing explained that the fossil was acquired by the director of Yingliang Group, Mr Liang Liu, during the construction of Yingliang Stone Nature History Museum.
The embryo is articulated in its life position without much disruption from fossilisation. It has been identified as an oviraptorosaur, a toothless theropod dinosaur and a member of the Maniraptora, so it was closely related to the dinosaur lineage that led to modern birds. The elongatoolithid egg measures 17 cm in length and the embryo inside measures 27 cm long.
Joint first author of the scientific paper, Fion Waisum Ma stated:
“Dinosaur embryos are some of the rarest fossils and most of them are incomplete with the bones dislocated. We are very excited about the discovery of ‘Baby Yingliang’. It is preserved in a great condition and helps us answer a lot of questions about dinosaur growth and reproduction. It is interesting to see this dinosaur embryo and a chicken embryo pose in a similar way inside the egg, which possibly indicates similar prehatching behaviours.”
Plotting the Evolution of “Tucking” Behaviours
Birds develop this tucking posture, prior to hatching. Embryos that fail to adopt this posture have a higher chance of dying during the hatching process. By comparing this oviraptorosaur embryo with the embryos of other theropods, long-necked sauropod dinosaurs and birds, the researchers postulate that tucking behaviour, which was considered unique to birds, first evolved in theropod dinosaurs. Pinning down just when in geological time this behaviour evolved is dependent on the discovery of more dinosaur embryo fossils.
Co-author of the study, Steve Brusatte commented:
“This dinosaur embryo inside its egg is one of the most beautiful fossils I have ever seen. This little prenatal dinosaur looks just like a baby bird curled in its egg, which is yet more evidence that many features characteristic of today’s birds first evolved in their dinosaur ancestors.”
Everything Dinosaur acknowledges the assistance of a media release from the University of Birmingham in the compilation of this article.
The scientific paper: “An exquisitely preserved in-ovo theropod dinosaur embryo sheds light on avian-like prehatching postures” by Lida Xing, Kecheng Niu, Waisum Ma, Darla K. Zelenitsky, Tzu-Ruei Yang, Stephen L. Brusatte published in iScience.