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2 01, 2022

Mary Anning Statue Approved by Dorset Council

By | January 2nd, 2022|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Famous Figures, Main Page, Press Releases, Teaching|1 Comment

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 Statue Approved
Approval has been given for the erection of a permanent statue honouring Mary Anning. Picture credit: Denise Sutton/Mary Anning Rocks.

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.

Part of the coastal defences of Lyme Regis
Part of the coastal defences at Lyme Regis. The statue commemorating Mary Anning is likely to be located at the end of the town’s sea defences to the east of Lyme Regis.

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.”

Mary and Joseph Anning are buried here.
The grave of Mary and Joseph Anning. Visitors to St Michael’s Church at Lyme Regis leave fossils found on the beach on the grave.

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).

22 12, 2021

Exquisitely Preserved Dinosaur Embryo Found Inside Fossilised Egg

By | December 22nd, 2021|Adobe CS5, Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Palaeontological articles, Photos/Pictures of Fossils, Teaching|0 Comments

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.

Dinosaur embryo close-to-hatching.
Life reconstruction of a close-to-hatching oviraptorosaur dinosaur embryo, based on the new specimen “Baby Yingliang”. Picture credit: Lida Xing.

“Baby Yingliang”

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.

The oviraptorosaur embryo known as "Baby Yingliang"
The oviraptorosaur embryo known as “Baby Yingliang”, one of the best-preserved dinosaur embryos ever reported. Picture credit: Xing et al.

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.”

Oviraptorosaur embryo line drawing.
A line drawing of the oviraptorosaur embryo known as “Baby Yingliang”. Picture credit: Xing et al.

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.

18 10, 2021

Scientists Find Remnants of Organic Molecules in the Cells of a Caudipteryx

By | October 18th, 2021|Adobe CS5, Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Key Stage 3/4, Main Page, Palaeontological articles, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

An almost perfectly preserved specimen of the very bird-like theropod Caudipteryx has provided researchers with evidence of organic molecule preservation at a cellular and nuclear level. Writing in “Communications Biology”, scientists from the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, in collaboration with colleagues from the Shandong Tianyu Museum of Nature (Shandong Province, eastern China), report on a study of fossilised cells from cartilage associated with a Caudipteryx thigh bone that reveal exquisite molecular preservation.

Photograph and line drawing of Caudipteryx specimen number STM4-3
Photograph of the Caudipteryx specimen (A) with (B) a close-up of the femur showing the extracted fragment outlined in yellow. Illustrative line drawing (C). Picture credit: Xiaoting Zheng et al.

Fragments from a Femur

The specimen (number STM4-3), is in the Shandong Tianyu Museum of Nature vertebrate fossil collection, one of the largest collections of dinosaur fossils in the world. It was collected from the Yixian Formation near Chaoyang City, Dapingfang Town (Liaoning Province) and is almost complete and partially articulated. Gastroliths are preserved in the stomach cavity and the outline of some feathers can also be seen. A right femur, measuring 15 cm in length was examined, a fragment removed representing cartilage and divided into three portions to permit detailed scanning electron microscopy (SEM), histochemical staining, energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (EDS) and transmission electron microscopy (TEM) along with chemical analysis.

The research team realised that some cells had been mineralised by silicification after the death of the animal. This silicification is most likely what permitted the excellent preservation of these cells.

Cauditperyx.
A model of the theropod dinosaur Caudipteryx.

Li Zhiheng, an Associate Professor at the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology and a co-author of the study commented that the discovery of cellular preservation in the cartilage was not unexpected stating:

“Geological data has accumulated over the years and shown that fossil preservation in the Jehol Biota was exceptional due to fine volcanic ashes that entombed the carcasses and preserved them down to the cellular level”.

Healthy Cells and Unhealthy, Dying Cells

The researchers discovered two main types of cells, cells that were healthy at the time of fossilisation, along with unhealthy cells that were porous and fossilised while in the process of dying.

Co-author Alida Bailleul (Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology), explained:

“It is possible that these cells were already dying even before the animal died”.

Cell death is a process that occurs naturally throughout the lives of all organisms. But being able to identify a fossilised cell at a specific life stage within the cell cycle is quite new in palaeontology.

Staining the Nuclei of Dinosaur Cells

The team isolated some cells and stained them with a purple chemical used by biologists to identify nuclei material. This chemical, hematoxylin, is known to bind to the nuclei of cells. Cells from a chicken were also stained to provide an extant comparison. One dinosaur cell showed a purple nucleus with some darker purple threads. This provides strong evidence to support the idea that the 125-million-year-old dinosaur cell has a nucleus so well-preserved that it retains some original biomolecules and threads of chromatin.

Chromatin is found within the cells of all living organisms. It consists of tightly packed DNA molecules. The results of this study thus provide preliminary data suggesting that remnants of original dinosaur DNA may still be preserved.

Caudipteryx cells from the femur
Photographs of three cartilage cells from the femur of Caudipteryx. The purple chemical hematoxylin binds to the nuclei of cells. After the dinosaur cells were stained one cell showed a purple nucleus, this suggests that the 125-million-year-old fossil cell is so well preserved it has retained some original biomolecules and threads of chromatin. This cell replicated the reaction to hematoxylin expected from a cell of a living chicken. Picture credit: Alida Bailleul.

Much Further Work is Required

Whilst highlighting the significance of this study, after all discovering that 125-million-year-old dinosaur cells react to hematoxylin staining in the same way as living cells is remarkable, the researchers concede that a much more refined and precise approach will be required if dinosaur DNA is to be identified and recovered in any quantity.

The Jehol Biota.
The Jehol Biota approximately 125 million years ago. The corpse of the Caudipteryx lies on the lake shore whilst a pair of Psittacosaurus wander past and pterosaurs fly overhead. A Confuciusornis bird perches on a tree, undeterred by the erupting volcano nearby. Picture credit: Zheng Qiuyang.

In 2020, Everything Dinosaur reported upon the discovery of chromosome-like chromatin threads preserved in the fossilised cartilage of a 75-million-year-old hadrosaur (Hypacrosaurus stebingeri). This study identified nuclear and cellular preservation which was previously unknown in a Cretaceous fossil specimen. To read our article: Cartilage, Proteins and Potential Dinosaur DNA?

The scientific paper: “Nuclear preservation in the cartilage of the Jehol dinosaur Caudipteryx” by Xiaoting Zheng, Alida M. Bailleul, Zhiheng Li, Xiaoli Wang and Zhonghe Zhou published in Communications Biology.

14 09, 2021

Modern Snakes Evolved from a Handful of Species

By | September 14th, 2021|Animal News Stories, Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Key Stage 3/4, Main Page, Palaeontological articles, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

New research published in the journal “Nature Communications” suggests that all extant snakes evolved from just a handful of species that survived the K-Pg extinction event 66 million years ago. The researchers conclude that this catastrophic extinction event, that wiped out the non-avian dinosaurs and something like 75% of all terrestrial life, was a form of “creative destruction” leading to a burst of evolutionary development within the Serpentes.

Snakes benefitted from the End-Cretaceous extinction event.
Snakes benefitted from the End-Cretaceous extinction event. It enabled them to evolve rapidly and to exploit new, ecological niches. Picture credit: Joschua Knüppe.

Snakes benefited from the extinction event, the loss of so many competitors allowed them to diversify rapidly and to occupy new niches in food chains.

The Snake Fossil Record

The fossil record of snakes is relatively poor because snake skeletons are typically small and fragile making the preservation of fossil material a rare event.

It is generally accepted that snakes (Suborder Serpentes), evolved from lizards. Snakes gradually losing their limbs, whether the first snakes were burrowers and evolved from burrowing lizards or whether the first snakes were adapted to a life in marine environments is an area of on-going debate between vertebrate palaeontologists. For example, in 2016 a team of scientists challenged the conclusions from the paper that described Tetrapodophis amplectus, a primitive snake-like animal from the Lower Cretaceous of Brazil. It had been suggested that T. amplectus, which had been described and named the year before, was adapted to a life underground, however, researchers from Canada and Australia challenged this view and proposed a marine habit for this 20 cm long animal that has been classified as being close to the base of the evolutionary lineage of true snakes.

Tetrapodophis Illustrated
The tiny limbs of Tetrapodophis may have been used to hold prey. Scientists are uncertain whether this animal was a burrower or adapted to a marine environment. Picture credit: Julius Csotonyi.

To read more about this research: Were the Very First Snakes Marine Reptiles?

Studying Fossils and the Genomes of Living Snakes

The research, led by scientists at the University of Bath in collaboration with researchers from Cambridge, Bristol and Germany, involved examining snake fossils and an analysis of the genomes of living snakes to pinpoint genetic differences permitting a picture of modern snake evolution to be built up.

The results indicate that despite the great variety of snakes alive today – cobras, vipers, pythons, boas, sea snakes and blind, burrowing snakes for example, all extant snakes can be traced back to a handful of species that survived the K-Pg extinction event that took place 66 million years ago.

A scientist examines a venomous Bushmaster snake (genus Lachesis), a type of pit viper known from Central and South America. Picture credit: Rodrigo Souza/Serra Grande Center.

Snake Survival Strategy

The authors postulate that the ability of snakes to shelter underground and go for long periods without food helped them survive the destructive effects of the bolide impact event. In the aftermath, the extinction of their competitors including Cretaceous snakes and small theropod dinosaurs, permitted snakes to move into new niches, new habitats and new parts of the world. Today, snakes are found in all but the highest latitudes and are present on every continent except Antarctica.

The researchers, which included lead author Dr Catherine Klein, a former graduate of Bath University but now based at the Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU) in Germany, state that modern snake diversity – including tree snakes, sea snakes, venomous vipers and cobras, and huge constrictors like boas and pythons – emerged only after the non-avian dinosaur extinction.

Dr Klein commented:

“It’s remarkable, because not only are they surviving an extinction that wipes out so many other animals, but within a few million years they are innovating, using their habitats in new ways.”

A Change in Snake Vertebrae

Fossils also show a change in the shape of snake vertebrae in the aftermath, resulting from the extinction of Cretaceous lineages and the appearance of new groups, including giant sea snakes, such as Gigantophis garstini from the Eocene of northern Africa which may have reached a length of ten metres. Gigantophis was scientifically described in 1901, it was thought to have been the largest snake to have ever lived, until in 2009 when the giant, South American boa – Titanoboa cerrejonensis was described.

Rebor Titanoboa Museum Class Maquette Monty Resurgent.
The Rebor Titanoboa Museum Class Maquette Monty Resurgent. A model of the largest snake known to science.

Rapidly Spreading Around the Globe

The research team also suggest that snakes began to spread rapidly around the globe. The “Greenhouse Earth” conditions that occurred close to the boundary between the Palaeocene and Eocene Epochs that led to the establishment of extensive tropical forests in the Northern Hemisphere, would have facilitated the geographical spread of cold-blooded animals such as snakes.

Although the ancestor of living snakes probably lived somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere, snakes first appear to have spread to Asia after the extinction event.

Corresponding author, Dr Nick Longrich, from the Milner Centre for Evolution (University of Bath), explained:

“Our research suggests that extinction acted as a form of “creative destruction”- by wiping out old species, it allowed survivors to exploit the gaps in the ecosystem, experimenting with new lifestyles and habitats. This seems to be a general feature of evolution – it’s the periods immediately after major extinctions where we see evolution at its most wildly experimental and innovative. The destruction of biodiversity makes room for new things to emerge and colonise new landmasses. Ultimately life becomes even more diverse than before.”

Further Serpentes Evolution Driven by Climate Change

The researchers also found evidence for a second major diversification event around the time that the world shifted from a warm and moist climate to a colder, more seasonal climate (Oligocene Epoch).

It seems, that for the snakes at least, global catastrophes can have their upsides. The patterns seen in snake evolution hint at the key role played by mass extinction events – they are the catalysts for driving rapid evolutionary changes.

The scientific paper: “Evolution and dispersal of snakes across the Cretaceous-Paleogene mass extinction” by Catherine G. Klein, Davide Pisani, Daniel J. Field, Rebecca Lakin, Matthew A. Wills and Nicholas R. Longrich published in Nature Communications.

1 09, 2021

Exclusive T. rex Secret Science Symposium

By | September 1st, 2021|Dinosaur Fans, Educational Activities, Main Page, Teaching|0 Comments

Wollaton Hall’s resident T. rex will provide the impressive backdrop to a trio of exclusive palaeontology themed workshops taking place on Saturday 25th September (2021). Organised as part of the “Titus: T. rex is King” exhibition that Everything Dinosaur team members were lucky enough to visit back in July, ticket holders will be able to meet experts and get access to presentations and workshops and participate in a private guided tour of the giant Tyrannosaurus rex exhibit led by Nottingham’s resident T. rex expert Martin Nunn.

Titus the T.rex exhibit
The spectacular Titus the T. rex exhibit at Wollaton Hall. On Saturday 25th September (2021), three interactive science workshops will be delivered by a panel of experts specially assembled to mark the first time in a hundred years that real T. rex fossils have been put on display in England.

Limited Numbers of Tickets Available

The Prehistoric Secret Science Show for European Researchers’ Night is open to adults and children (over the age of ten) and numbers will be limited. The workshops will run from 2pm until 6.30pm and they have been designed to offer the opportunity for those eager to learn more about prehistoric life to delve deeper into the research that is currently taking place.

Organisers of the “Titus: T. rex is King” exhibition report that the exhibition has been very popular over the summer with ticket sales for the rest of the year continuing to exceed expectations. Such is the level of interest in dinosaurs and prehistoric animals that the Wollaton Hall staff in collaboration with academics and researchers based in the Midlands, wanted to do more to help inspire and educate the next generation of scientists. Speakers at this special event will include marine reptile expert and author Dr Adam Smith, pterosaur aficionado and palaeobiologist Dr Jordan Bestwick (University of Birmingham), along with Nottingham University’s Dr Susannah Lydon, (Assistant Professor in Plant Science) who will deliver a presentation entitled “Plants from the Time of T. rex”.

Titus: T. rex is King
If you are in the dark about the latest research on the Dinosauria, the workshops will shed light on some of the ground-breaking studies currently being undertaken.

A Packed Programme

The packed programme will include:

  • “Prehistoric animals and what is swimming now” by Dr Tom Hartman, Programme Chair of the Masters in Biological Photography and Imaging and Tim Sexton, Species and Recording Officer from Rutland Water Nature Reserve.
  • Palaeoartist Jed Taylor, will be running a T. rex palaeoart workshop – how to create dinosaur illustrations with the help of the latest scientific knowledge.
  • “Plants from the time of T. rex” by palaeobotanist Dr Susannah Lydon, Assistant Professor in Plant Science at the University of Nottingham.
  • A presentation from palaeontologist Dr Adam Smith and author Jonathan Emmett, who will be discussing their latest foray into the world of children’s books – “The Plesiosaur’s Neck”.
  • A talk by Dr Barry Lomax (Nottingham University), an expert on how our planet’s climate has changed over Deep Time.
  • A presentation from palaeobiologist Dr Jordan Bestwick.

Nottingham City Council’s Portfolio Holder for Leisure and Culture, Councillor Eunice Campbell-Clark, commented:

“We are thrilled that the Titus: T. rex is King has been so successful that it has enabled the Nottingham City Museums to create a symposium in September, offering expert talks and workshops in palaeontology. Witnessing Titus the T. rex and hearing from specialists will be a unique experience allowing visitors for Nottingham and beyond to delve into the world of a T. rex and discover palaeontology.”

Event Details

The Prehistoric Secret Science Show for European Researchers’ Night.
Saturday September 25th, 2:00pm – 6:30pm.
Ticket Price is £25.00 for an adult which includes a guidebook and bag, and £18.00 for a child which includes a pencil case and bag (plus booking fee).

For further information and to purchase tickets: Prehistoric Secret Science Show.

9 07, 2021

Providing Advice About Visiting Lyme Regis

By | July 9th, 2021|Dinosaur Fans, General Teaching, Geology, Main Page|0 Comments

As Everything Dinosaur team members have written quite a lot about staying safe when visiting the beaches around Lyme Regis on the famous Jurassic Coast of southern England, we are now receiving emails from first time visitors to Dorset asking for our advice.

Our dedicated team members are happy to provide assistance and to direct these enquiries to the local tourist information office and various visitor centres.

Some of the recently built sea defences around Lyme Regis. Stonebarrow and Golden Cap can be seen in the background. The stunning and very beautiful part of the UNESCO World Heritage site around the picturesque town of Lyme Regis (Dorset) – the “Jurassic Coast”.

Our Advice

As the school holidays approach many families are wanting to have a vacation in the UK rather than travel abroad. The Dorset coast is a popular destination and first-time visitors have turned to Everything Dinosaur for advice on staying safe when visiting the beaches. Whilst team members can provide general information and guidance it is important that visitors obey any local notices that have been posted up.

Avoid the cliffs, don’t go near them and whatever you do please do not attempt to climb them. For further information about visiting the beaches around Lyme Regis: Visiting Lyme Regis in Summer. If you are at Charmouth, pop into the local Heritage Centre and ask their advice, you may also be able to book a fossil walk or at least enquire about availability.

Supervised fossil walks are always a good idea, most are now fully booked but it might be worthwhile emailing local guides and enquiring. Brandon Lennon is one of the most respected in the area, he can be contacted here: Lyme Regis Fossil Walks.

For further advice you can visit the local Lyme Regis Tourist Information centre located in the town centre of Lyme Regis – 62, Church Street, Lyme Regis DT7 3BS. Local knowledge can be invaluable.

If you want specific information about tides and beach safety, you can enquire at the lifeboat station down on the Cobb at Lyme Regis. Alternatively, there are a number of websites that provide information about high and low tides on this part of the coast, or for a small fee, an annual tide timetable can be purchased.

It is a good idea to go fossil collecting on a falling tide and to keep away from the steep cliffs. Everything Dinosaur team members provide general advice and guidance to visitors to Lyme Regis and Charmouth.
20 05, 2021

Horned Crocodile Gets a Home

By | May 20th, 2021|Animal News Stories, Key Stage 3/4, Main Page, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Specimens of a strange, recently extinct crocodile housed at the American Museum of Natural History (New York), have helped unravel a mystery surrounding the evolutionary relationships of crocodilians. The skulls belong to the horned crocodile of Madagascar (Voay robustus) and a research team has demonstrated that it was closely related to “true crocodiles” – Crocodylus, making it the closest species to the common ancestor of the crocodile genus.

Voay robustus - horned crocodile skull
A skull of Voay robustus collected at Ampoza during the joint mission Franco-Anglo-American expedition from 1927–1930 (White, 1930). Picture credit: Hekkala et al.

Recently Extinct

When the first Europeans came to Madagascar the native Malagasy people told them about two distinct types of crocodiles that lived on their island. There was a gracile form that preferred rivers, this was identified as a population of Nile crocodiles (Crocodylus niloticus), but the swamps and lakes were home to a crocodile that the early explorers had never seen before. This second type was a much more heavy-set and powerful animal with two, bony bumps at the top of its skull.

When first named and described in 1872 (Grandidier and Vaillant), it was thought to be a species of true crocodile – a member of the Crocodylus genus. More recent studies have suggested affinities with the dwarf crocodiles (Osteolaeminae), however, with an estimated length of around 5 metres V. robustus was much larger than any other species assigned to this group.

New research published in the academic journal Communications Biology, which used DNA extracted from the American Museum of Natural History specimens, has resolved the phylogeny of this enigmatic reptile. Carbon dating of the material used in the study confirms that the horned crocodile probably survived until just a few hundred years ago.

Voay robustus phylogeny
The DNA study places the horned crocodile right next to the true crocodile branch of the evolutionary tree, making it the closest species to the common ancestor of the crocodiles alive today.

One of the authors of the scientific paper, Evon Hekkala, a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History stated:

“This crocodile was hiding out on the island of Madagascar during the time when people were building the pyramids and was probably still there when pirates were getting stranded on the island. They blinked out just before we had the modern genomic tools available to make sense of the relationships of living things. And yet, they were the key to understanding the story of all the crocodiles alive today.”

Mitochondrial DNA extracted from sub-fossil specimens found during a Franco-Anglo-American expedition to south-western Madagascar (1927 to 1930), demonstrates that V. robustus was not a true crocodile but very closely related to that lineage that led to them. Being placed next to the true crocodiles on an evolutionary tree suggests that it was the closest species to the common ancestor of extant members of the Crocodylus genus.

Voay robustus lower jaw.
The tip of the lower jaw (dentary) of the horned crocodile from Madagascar (Voay robustus). Carbon dating of the subfossils suggests that they are less than 1,400 years old. Picture credit: The American Museum of Natural History.

Co-author George Amato, (American Museum of Natural History), explained:

“This is a project we’ve tried to do on and off for many years, but the technology just hadn’t advanced enough, so it always failed. But in time, we had both the computational setup and the paleogenomic protocols that could actually fish out this DNA from the fossil and finally find a home for this species.”

“Teasing apart the relationships of modern crocodiles is really difficult because of the physical similarities,” Hekkala added. “Many people don’t even realise that there are multiple species of crocodiles, and they see them as this animal that’s unchanging through time. But we’ve been trying to get to the bottom of the great diversity that exists among them.”

Surprising Results

The close affinity of Voay to Crocodylus lends weight to the idea that Crocodylus originated in Africa and then dispersed into the Americas and Asia/Australia. Competing theories have proposed an Asian origin for Crocodylus but as Voay was restricted to Madagascar and has been cited as the closest species to the true crocodiles, this DNA analysis lends weight to the “African origins” idea.

The scientific paper: “Paleogenomics illuminates the evolutionary history of the extinct Holocene “horned” crocodile of Madagascar, Voay robustus” by E. Hekkala, J. Gatesy, A. Narechania, R. Meredith, M. Russello, M. L. Aardema, E. Jensen, S. Montanari, C. Brochu, M. Norell and G. Amato published in Communications Biology.

7 05, 2021

Nocturnal Dinosaurs Hunting in the Dark

By | May 7th, 2021|Adobe CS5, Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Key Stage 3/4, Main Page, Palaeontological articles, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Scientists have proposed that the bizarre, chicken-sized alvarezsaurid Shuvuuia (S. deserti) had amazing eyesight and owl-like hearing, adaptations for a nocturnal hunter in its Late Cretaceous desert environment.

The Mongolian alvarezsaurid hunting at night
Shuvuuia deserti artist’s life reconstruction. Picture credit: Viktor Radermacher.

A Very Bizarre, Tiny Theropod

Named and described in 1998 from fossil material associated with the famous Djadochta Formation (Campanian faunal stage), Shuvuuia has been assigned to the Alvarezsauridae family of theropods. It may have been small (around 60 cm in length), but its skeleton shows a range of bizarre anatomical adaptations. It had long legs, a long tail, short but powerful forelimbs that ended in hands with greatly reduced, vestigial digits except for the thumb which was massive and had a large claw. The skull was very bird-like with disproportionately large orbits.

Photograph of fossilised Shuvuuia deserti skeleton.
Photograph of fossilised Shuvuuia deserti skeleton. Picture credit: Mick Ellison (American Museum of Natural History).

Writing in the academic journal “Science” a team of scientists led by Professor Jonah Choiniere (University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa), used sophisticated computerised tomography to examine the skull of Shuvuuia and to map this dinosaur’s sensory abilities, as part of a wider study into non-avian dinosaur sensory abilities.

Shuvuuia deserti fossil skull
Photograph of fossilised Shuvuuia deserti skull. Picture credit: Mick Ellison (American Museum of Natural History).

The international team of researchers used CT scanning and detailed measurements to collect data on the relative size of the eyes and inner ears of nearly 100 living bird and extinct dinosaur species. There are more than 10,000 species of bird (avian dinosaurs) alive today, but only a few have evolved sensory abilities that enable them to track and hunt prey at night. Owls are probably the best known, but not all owls are nocturnal. Kiwis hunt at night using their long, sensitive beaks to probe in the leaf litter for worms, whilst another bird endemic to New Zealand, the large, flightless Kakapo (a member of the parrots – Order Psittaciformes), is also nocturnal. Other birds active at night include the globally widespread black-capped night heron and the Stone-curlew (Burhinus oedicnemus) which is an occasional visitor to East Anglia in the UK.

To measure hearing ability, the team measured the length of the lagena, the organ that processes incoming sound information (known as the cochlea in mammals). The barn owl, which can hunt in complete darkness using hearing alone, has the proportionally longest lagena of any bird.

Barn owl skull CT scan showing lagena
Barn owl skull CT scan showing lagena. Picture credit: Jonah Choiniere/Wits University.

Assessing Vision

To examine vision, the team looked at the scleral ring, a series of bones surrounding the pupil, of each species. Like a camera lens, the larger the pupil can open, the more light can get in, enabling better vision at night. By measuring the diameter of the ring, the scientists could estimate how much light the eye can gather.

The researchers found that many carnivorous theropods such as large tyrannosaurs and the much smaller Dromaeosaurus had vision optimised for the daytime, and better-than-average hearing presumably to help them hunt. However, Shuvuuia, had both extraordinary hearing and night vision. The extremely large lagena of this species is almost identical in relative size to today’s barn owl, suggesting that Shuvuuia could have been a nocturnal hunter. With many predators sharing its Late Cretaceous desert environment, a night-time existence may have proved to be an effective strategy to avoid the attentions of much larger theropods.

Side by side comparison of the lagena of a Barn owl and Shuvuuia deserti
Side by side comparison of the lagena of a Barn owl (left) and Shuvuuia deserti (right). Picture credit: Jonah Choiniere/Wits University.

Commenting on the significance of this discovery, joint first author of the scientific paper, Dr James Neenan exclaimed:

“As I was digitally reconstructing the Shuvuuia skull, I couldn’t believe the lagena size. I called Professor Choiniere to have a look. We both thought it might be a mistake, so I processed the other ear – only then did we realise what a cool discovery we had on our hands!”

Extremely Large Eyes

The eyes of Shuvuuia were also remarkable. Skull measurements suggest that this little dinosaur had some of the proportionally largest pupils yet measured in birds or dinosaurs, suggesting that they could likely see very well at night.

Professor Jonah Choiniere holding a 3D Print of a Shuvuuia lagena
Professor Jonah Choiniere holding a 3D printed model of the lagena of Shuvuuia deserti. Picture credit: Jonah Choiniere/Wits University.

The Alvarezsauridae remain one of the most unusual of all the types of non-avian dinosaur known to science. Their place within the ecosystems of the Late Cretaceous remains controversial. Geographically widespread, a recently described alvarezsaurid from China Qiupanykus zhangi may have been a specialised ovivore (egg-eater), whilst other palaeontologists have postulated that these theropods used their strong forelimbs and large thumb claws to break into termite mounds. Perhaps, these small (most probably feathered), dinosaurs occupied a number of niches within Late Cretaceous ecosystems – including that of a nocturnal hunter of small vertebrates and insects.

Shuvuuia deserti artist's reconstruction.
Shuvuuia deserti artist’s reconstruction. Picture credit: Viktor Radermacher.

To read Everything Dinosaur’s blog article about Qiupanykus zhangi and the evidence behind the egg-eating theory: Did Alvarezsaurids Eat Eggs?

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

The scientific paper: “Evolution of vision and hearing modalities in theropod dinosaurs” by Jonah N. Choiniere, James M. Neenan, Lars Schmitz, David P. Ford, Kimberley E. J. Chapelle, Amy M. Balanoff, Justin S. Sipla, Justin A. Georgi, Stig A. Walsh, Mark A. Norell, Xing Xu, James M. Clark and Roger B. J. Benson published in the journal Science.

11 04, 2021

“The Plesiosaur’s Neck”

By | April 11th, 2021|Adobe CS5, Book Reviews, Dinosaur Fans, Early Years Foundation Reception, Key Stage 1/2, Main Page, Teaching|0 Comments

“The Plesiosaur’s Neck” by Dr Adam S. Smith and Jonathan Emmett with illustrations by Adam Larkum.

Expert on the Plesiosauria, Dr Adam S. Smith (Curator of Natural Sciences at the Nottingham Natural History Museum at Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire), has teamed up with award-winning children’s author Jonathan Emmett to create a delightful tale explaining how some prehistoric marine reptiles developed long necks.

"The Plesiosaur's Neck"
“The Plesiosaur’s Neck” by Dr Adam S. Smith and Jonathan Emmett with illustrations by Adam Larkum.

Poppy is an Albertonectes, a plesiosaur named after the Canadian province of Alberta, where fossils of this giant with a seven-metre-long neck have been found, but what was that extremely long neck used for?

Poppy the Plesiosaur

Did Poppy use her enormous neck to help keep herself free of parasites? Or was she the equivalent of an electric eel generating electricity to shock any unsuspecting fish that happened to swim too close? In “The Plesiosaur’s Neck”, budding young palaeontologists get the opportunity to explore these entertaining hypotheses in a plesiosaur-themed prehistoric puzzle.

At more than eleven metres long, Albertonectes was a giant. The huge neck made up almost two-thirds of the animal’s entire body length and this delightful book examines some of the ideas that palaeontologists have proposed to explain this peculiar, plesiosaur body plan.

Checking over an exhibit.
Dr Adam Smith examining a cast of dinosaur vertebrae for an exhibition at Wollaton Hall. The talented Curator of Natural Sciences at the Nottingham Natural History Museum has helped to write a children’s book entitled “The Plesiosaur’s Neck”.

Prehistoric Puns

A mixture of playful, rhyming text and prehistoric puns guides the reader through the story. Members of the Mollusca have a prominent role to play with Alfie the ammonite and Bella the belemnite chiming in with cheeky comments whilst Dr Adam Smith ensures a smorgasbord of facts and information about life in the sea during the time of the dinosaurs. The book will entertain and inform children from 5 years and upwards in equal measure.

Beautifully illustrated by Adam Larkum, a graduate of the Edinburgh College of Art, “The Plesiosaur’s Neck” combines colourful characters with a cornucopia of fun facts. It is an entertaining exploration of a genuine palaeontological puzzle focused on a plesiosaur with an astonishing seventy-six bones in its neck.

Published in May 2021

“The Plesiosaurs Neck” ISBN number 9781912979424 is due to be published on the 6th of May (2021), by Uclan Publishing. Priced at £7.99 it can be purchased here: Purchase “The Plesiosaur’s Neck”.

3 04, 2021

Extra-terrestrial End-Cretaceous Impact Gave Rise to the Amazon Rainforest

By | April 3rd, 2021|Adobe CS5, Animal News Stories, Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Key Stage 3/4, Main Page, Palaeontological articles|0 Comments

The Amazon rainforest is an extremely important low latitude habitat with a huge diversity of animals, fungi and plant species. Described as the “lungs of the planet”, this tropical rainforest is at the very centre of many global conservation efforts. New research suggests that it was the extra-terrestrial impact event some 66 million years ago that led to the rise of this angiosperm dominated ecosystem.

Earth impact event.
Cataclysmic impact event that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs and lots of other animal life. New research suggests that the dinosaur-killing bolide also gave rise to the Amazon rainforest ecosystem. Picture credit: Don Davis (commissioned by NASA).

K/Pg Extinction Event

Approximately 66 million years ago a rock from space smashed into our planet. This triggered a sudden mass extinction event devastating around 75% of all the animal and plant terrestrial species, many of which subsequently became extinct. At this time the dinosaurs, their cousins the pterosaurs and the majority of marine reptiles died out.

The end of the non-avian dinosaurs.
An artist’s impression of the bolide about to impact with the Gulf of Mexico 66 million years ago. This devastating event wiped out a large number of animals and plants, very probably contributing to the extinction of many different families including all the non-avian dinosaurs. Picture credit: Chase Stone.

Analysis of Fossil Pollen and Study of Fossil Leaves

Writing in the journal “Science”, researchers from the Southern Methodist University (Texas) and the University of Wyoming report on the study of tens of thousands of fossil pollen specimens along with thousands of leaf fossils from Cretaceous-aged strata and deposits laid down after the K/Pg extinction event. The scientists, which include co-author Dr Ellen Currano (Department of Botany, University of Wyoming), found that the types of plant creating tropical forests were very different pre and post the extra-terrestrial impact. In the Late Cretaceous tropical forests were dominated by conifers and they were much more open than the dense, angiosperm forests that came about during the Palaeocene.

Cretaceous maniraptora.
Study suggests the floral composition of tropical rainforests changed dramatically after the extra-terrestrial impact event. During the Late Cretaceous tropical forests were dominated by conifers and forest canopies were less dense. Picture Credit: Danielle Dufault.

A Thick Forest Canopy Denying Access to Light

The scientists discovered that the fossil pollen and leaves show a marked transition in tropical forest flora. After the extra-terrestrial impact forests developed a thick canopy blocking much of the light from reaching the ground and angiosperms became more dominant.

A view of a modern tropical rainforest canopy.
An aerial view of the dense angiosperm dominated canopy of a modern rainforest. Picture credit: BBC.

How Did These Changes Come About?

As well as the documenting the turnover in flora and the transition from one tropical forest environment to a different type of rainforest in the Palaeocene, the researchers propose three possible explanations for this change:

  1. The absence of large megaherbivores, specifically dinosaurs allowed plant densities in forests to increase. The extinction of giant plant-eating dinosaurs such as the Ceratopsia, hadrosaurs, armoured dinosaurs and the titanosaurs allowed plants to grow at lower levels as they were not being trampled or consumed by herbivorous dinosaurs.
  2. Several types of fern and conifer became extinct during the K/Pg transition permitting new types of angiosperm (flowering plants) to evolve and exploit the vacated niches.
  3. Falling ash from the impact enriched soils throughout the tropics, provided an advantage to faster-growing angiosperms.
The floral composition of rainforests radically altered after the K/Pg extinction event.
The floral composition of rainforests radically altered after the K/Pg extinction event. Picture Credit: BBC.

The scientists conclude that the three hypotheses are not mutually exclusive and that a combination of factors could have led to the change in the flora as recorded in the fossil record.

A Significant Lesson for Today

Today, a rapidly changing climate, largely caused by the actions of our own species is having a dramatic effect on the world’s forests. The researchers note that the fossil record demonstrates that rainforests do not simply “bounce back”, after a catastrophe. They can take millions of years to recover and a very different type of ecosystem is likely to emerge.

The scientific paper: “The impactful origin of neotropical rainforests” by Bonnie F. Jacobs and Ellen D. Currano published in the journal Science.

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