Paleontology News for October 2017.

The science of paleontology has been a very active and exciting field of research over the past few years and this past month has seen the announcement of several new discoveries. I’ve chosen three items to discuss in today’s post.

The first discovery I’d like to discuss concerns new evidence about the appearance and skin colouration of dinosaurs. Now everybody knows that most of the dinosaur fossils that are found are just the bones of the animals. And you certainly can’t tell what colour a creature was from its bones. Impressions of the skin of dinosaurs are rare and those impressions with traces of skin colour rarer still.

Because of this fact for many years dinosaurs were usually portrayed as having rather bland colouration, normally just a shade of green. The illustration below from Sinclair Oil Company (Their symbol is an Apatasaurus) shows what we thought dinosaurs looked like in the 1950s and 60s. Notice how the animals are all green or gray and even on those with strips the strips are just a different shade of the main colour.

Dinosaur Colouration as imagined in the 1950s (Credit: Sinclair Oil, Matthew Kalmenoff)

Scientists are a patient bunch however, they kept looking for evidence of soft tissue and there are a lot of fossils out there to find. Over the last twenty years a number of fossil specimens have been found that now tell us a great deal about dinosaur appearance. It turns out that some dinosaurs at least had either vibrant colours or elaborate patterns, or both on their skins, or feathers! Yes, we also now know that many dinosaurs were covered in feathers to keep them warm.

In fact a recent paper published in the journal ‘Current Biology’ describes how small theropod dinosaur from China called Sinosauropteryx, in addition to being feathered was also decked out in alternating dark and light bands similar to the way a raccoon looks. The image below shows what the animal looked like according to co-author Fiann Smithwick of Bristol University.

Drawing of Sinosauropteryx (Credit: Robert Nicholls)

Doctor Smithwick and his colleagues came to their conclusions after an extensive study of three excellently preserved specimens of Sinosauropteryx. The specimens were not only examined under a microscope but the researchers also used cross-polarized filters to bring out the contrast in the colour patters. The image below shows one of the fossils used in the study as seen under cross-polarized light, the areas of light and dark pigmentation are evident.

Sinosauropteryx Fossil (Credit: Jacob Vinther)

This pattern of colouration is known as counter shading and is a common pattern in living animals. Doctor Smithwick suggests that the dark patches around the eyes may have served to reduce glare the same way that athletes today paint a dark stripe under their eyes.

The second news item I’d like to discuss is about the discovery of two-foot long footprints of a predatory dinosaur from Lesotho in southern Africa. While not as large as Tyrannosaurus Rex the theropod that made the footprints came from a much earlier time, the beginning of the Jurassic period about 100 million years before T rex.

According to paleontologist Fabien Knoll of the University of Manchester “Our finding corroborates the hypothesis that theropods reached a great size relatively early in the course of their evolution, but apparently not before the Triassic-Jurassic boundary.” Despite the fact that no remains of the animal have been found so far it is estimated to have been about 10 meters in length and has been given the name Kayentapus ambrokholohali. The picture below shows the footprints of Kayentapus ambrokholohali.

Footprints of Kayentapus ambrokhlolhali (Credit: Reuters)

Finally, we don’t often hear about fossil discoveries from India so the discovery of a well preserved specimen of an ichthyosaur certainly deserves a quick mention. For those who don’t know ichthyosaurs were reptile versions of dolphins that lived during the time of the dinosaurs. Returning to the sea their ancestors had left behind these air breathing lizards evolved fins in place of legs and a fish like tail. The image below shows a typical ichthyosaur.

Ichthyosaur Illustration (Credit: Sedgwick Museum)

The specimen was discovered near the Indian city of Kutch in the province of Gujarat. According to Guntupalli Prasad of the University of Delhi the 5.5 meter fossil is believed to belong to the ichthyosaur family Ophthalmosauridae and lived between 90 and 165 million years ago. The photo below shows the ichthyosaur fossil as it was being unearthed.

Fossil Ichthyosaur in India (Credit: The Hindu)

With these and other exciting fossil finds coming to light on a regular basis this is obviously a good time to be a paleontologist.

Paleontology News for Aug 2017

The very word Dinosaur means terrible lizard and ever since human science realized that huge reptiles once dominated the Earth the search has been on for paleontologists to find the biggest, the most awe inspiring dinosaur of them all. The first specimens of Brontosaurus stunned the public with their size but they soon gave way to the Diplodocus who in its turn was outclassed and outmassed by the Seimosaurus. These huge long necked, long tailed sauropod dinosaurs have even been given the group name of Titanosaurs to convey their immensity.

Now a new contender for the title of world’s largest animal has been announced and named. Based on fossils discovered in the Patagonian region of Argentina, Patagotitan mayorum is believed to have measured more than 35 meters in length and to have possessed a mass of greater than 60,000 kilos, about 12 times the mass of the current largest land animal the African Elephant. The picture below shows the assembled skeleton of Patagotitan mayorum in a warehouse.

Patagotitan mayorum skeleton (Credit: Museo Egidio Feruglio)

 

The bones of Patagotitan Mayorum were first discovered in 2014 by the Argentinean paleontologists Jose Luis Carballido and Diego Pol of Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council. The two scientists have spent the last three years carefully digging up and analyzing the bones before officially naming their prize. In addition to its extreme size the fossils of Patagotitan discovered are also an unusually complete skeleton and researchers hope this specimen will enable us to learn more about how the sauropod dinosaurs evolved into such behemoths.

As exciting as the announcement of Patagotitan Mayorum is I have to wonder why three different news stories insisted on proclaiming the find as “New Dinosaur bigger than T-rex”! That’s a bit like saying a new species of Elephant has been discovered and it’s huge “Bigger than a lion!” Yes, plant eaters are often considerably larger than their predators (Think Bison and Wolves) and T-rex is not the standard against which every dinosaur has to be measured.

Another important fossil discovery announced this past week concerns our own species and our closest relatives the great apes. Now to remind you, in the world today there are four species of great apes: chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and ourselves, along with one species of lesser ape the gibbons. That’s all that are left in the world today but 10 to 20 million years ago there were dozens of other now extinct species of ape in the world.

Recently a nearly complete 13 million year old skull of a baby ape was discovered in Kenya. Nicknamed ‘Alesi’ by its discoverer John Ekusi the creature was likely a fruit eating, climbing primate that resembled a gibbon. The image below shows the fossil skull of Alesi.

Alesi Skull (Credit: Fred Spoor)

According to the study’s co-author Craig Feibel, chair of the anthropology department at Rutgers University in New Jersey, the age and location of this fossil make it very important. “The…locality offers us a rare glimpse of an African landscape 13 million years ago.” It is hoped that Alesi will tell scientists a great deal about how the great apes, including our ancestors, split off from the many species of lesser apes.

An examination of the unerupted adult teeth indicates that Alesi belonged to an already established genus of apes called Nyanzapithecus but to a new species that has been named Nyanzapithecus alesi.

The authors of the study are unsure how Alesi died but a layer of volcanic ash from a huge eruption that occurred in eastern Africa 13 million years ago covered the skull and it is possible that Alesi died in that eruption.

If you’d like to read more about the discovery of Alesi click on the link below to be taken to the Scientific American article.

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/fossil-reveals-what-last-common-ancestor-of-humans-and-apes-looked-liked/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Studies give a more accurate picture of T-Rex, and the fossil in your backyard

Two new studies by two separate teams of paleontologists have been published recently giving new details into the appearance and behavior of everybody’s favourite extinct predator, Tyrannosaurus-rex, better know simply as T-rex.

The first study dealt with the question of whether or not T-rex may have sported a colourful coating of feathers on at least portions of its body. After all T-rex is a member of the line of dinosaurs that paleontologists are convinced are closest to, maybe even ancestors of the birds. There is also growing evidence that T-rex’s smaller relatives were in fact covered in insulating feathers, not flight feathers, insulating feathers to help keep the animal warm. (See my post of 16Dec2016 about a feathered dino tail encased in amber!)

With these facts in mind Professor Phil R. Bell of the University of New England in Australia led a team of researchers to examine all of the available fossil evidence to find an answer. Now because skin impressions of dinosaurs are very rare, especially T-rex, Professor Bell and his colleagues also examined the fossils of T-rex’s close and large relatives such as Albertosaurus, Gorgosaurus and Tarbousaurus.

Based on the evidence they found Professor Bell and his fellow paleontologists have concluded that T-rex and the other large Theropod predators did not possess feathers, not even over portions of their bodies. Like any reptile today, T-rex was covered in scales. Professor Bell theorizes that since large, active animals have more problems with overheating than keeping warm T-rex shed whatever insulation its smaller ancestors may have had. The picture below shows a fossilized impression of the skin of a T-rex.

Impression of neck skin from a T-rex (Credit: Black Hills Institute of Geologic Research)

The second study was conducted at the University of Manchester in England and led by Professor William Sellers. Professor Sellers and his team used biometric and biomechanical software programs to study how T-rex would have walked and whether or not T-rex could have run at all as depicted in all those recent Jurassic Park movies. (By the way I hope everyone is aware that T-rex actually lived in the Cretaceous not the Jurassic period!)

Now it a plain fact of nature that as an animal grows larger its weight increases much faster than the strength of its legs. This is why, relatively speaking, the legs of an elephant are considerably thicker than the legs of your dog or cat. Now a T-rex is even heavier than an elephant, and remember T-rex only has two legs on spread its weight on! The possibility that T-rex might have difficulty walking let alone running has to be considered.

Professor Sellers and his colleagues used the latest software biomechanical modeling programs to do just that. Earlier studies had suggested that T-rex might have been capable of speeds as high as 50kph but the new research provided strong evidence that even half that speed would cause ‘unacceptably high skeletal loads’ on the bones in T-rex’s legs.

It appears then that these two recent studies reinforce the picture we had when I was a child of T-rex being a big lumbering reptile. I’m going to try to imbed a short video provided by Professor Sellers and his team showing some of the modeling that they used in their analysis. The link below that will take you to the University of Manchester’s official announcement of the research.

http://www.manchester.ac.uk/discover/news/tyrannosaurus-rex-couldnt-run-says-new-research/

Now, it was just a week ago (15 July 2017) that I posted about my first fossil collecting trip of the year and I’d like to close with a nice little story about keeping your eyes open and maybe you too can make an important fossil discovery.

Jude Sparks, a 10-year old boy who lives in Las Curces, New Mexico was recently playing in his own backyard when he spotted something eroding out of the ground that he thought was the skull of a cow. Doing a little digging Jude quickly realized his skull was too large to be a cow’s. While it was still in the ground, Jude showed what he found to his parents who contacted paleontologists at New Mexico State University.

What Jude had actually discovered was the 1.2 million year old skull of a Stegomastadon, a relative of the more famous Mastodon. The scientists have excavated the skull and hope that more of the animal’s remains may be buried nearby. The picture below shows Jude with his find.

Jude Sparks with his Stegomastadon (Credit: Peter Houde)

A big part of science is really nothing more than keeping your eyes open and knowing enough to be able to say, ‘Hey, that looks different. I wonder what it is?”

Paleontology News for April2017

There’s been some interesting new discoveries in the world of fossil hunters so I though I’d catch up on.

First up there’s been a new study of the ancient animals known as Eurypterids or Sea Scorpions by Scott Persons and John Acorn of the University of Alberta. Now about 450-300 million years ago Eurypterids were the top predator on Earth. growing to up to two meters in length they are the ancestors of modern lobsters, spiders and ticks. See the picture below.

Eurypterid feeding on a jawless Fish

Eurypterids are uncommon but still well known and well studied animals from the Paleozoic era. I have several fragments in my collection and would love to find a nice complete one.

For many years scientists have debated just how the Sea Scorpions actually captured and killed their prey. In particular the question of whether or not they relied solely on the claws near their mouth or did they strike with that pointy tail as a modern scorpion would.

What Doctors Persons and Acorn have succeeded in doing is finding enough well preserved specimens to show that the Eurypterid species Slimonia acuminate was able to turn its tail completely around and attack with a serrated tail spine. See picture below.

Eurypterid flexible tail with spine.

Now all Eurypterids may not have had such a lethal tail but the fact that Slimonia acuminate did answers a lot of questions as well as showing the early stages of the development of the striking tail of a modern scorpion. If you’d like to read more about the research of Doctors Persons and Acorn click on the link below.

http://www.sci-news.com/paleontology/sea-scorpions-weapon-04794.html

In another story one of the world’s most important fossil sites, a location in China where the remains of some of the earliest multi-cellular life forms have been found, is threatened by mining activities. Part of the Doushantuo formation in southern China the site dates back 600 million years and has yielded important finds including some showing evidence of the development of bilateral symmetry in animals!

Zhu Maoyan of the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Paleontology has been able to obtain a court order protecting the original site but a more recently discovered site has already been completely stripped by phosphate mining. This is just one example of valuable fossil sites being lost to development. Just last year my personal favourite site in Schuylkill County was just covered over by a highway expansion.

Finally one last story that may appeal to fans of the Jurassic Park movies. A blood engorged tick was recently found in a piece of amber estimated to be 15-45 million years old.

Tick in Amber

While not old enough to have dinosaur blood according to Professor George Poinar Jr. of Oregon State University two small holes in the back of the tick indicate that it was removed from its host and dropped into tree sap in a way reminiscent of the grooming habits of monkeys! Could the blood contained in this tick be that of 30-40 million year old primates! Some of the blood that had trickled out of the tick is already being examined and perhaps a DNA analysis will soon be carried out. If you’d like to read more about this discovery click on the link below.

http://www.sci-news.com/paleontology/blood-engorged-tick-dominican-amber-04757.html

Speaking of fossils, with the weather here in Philadelphia warming up hopefully I’ll soon be doing a little paleontology of my own. I’ll let you know if I find anything interesting.

 

 

After 175 Years of Mystery, Hyoliths have finally been Classified

Just this week an article has been published in the scientific journal Nature that clears up a problem that has plagued paleontologists for over 175 years. The paper by Joseph Moysiuk and Jean Bernard Caron of the University of Toronto along with Martin R. Smith of Cambridge University examined over 1500 specimens of Hyoliths, a rather common Paleozoic marine fossil whose shell resembles an ice cream cone with a lid on top and a spine coming out each side, see picture below.

A Fossil Hyolith

Because only the hard parts of extinct animals are usually preserved the exact kind of animal that lived inside the Hyolith shell remained a mystery. The most common guess was that Hyoliths were a mollusk, that they were either a snail or clam of some kind. However, using specimens from the famous Burgess Shale formation in British Columbia Professor Moysiuk et al succeeded in finding enough of the soft tissue of Hyoliths to be able to determine their feeding mechanism and it turns out that Hyoliths are not mollusks at all but instead are related to Brachiopods, a ancient and very common type of fossil but a phylum which today contains only a few rare species. See the picture below for a reconstruction of a Hyolith.

What a living Hyolith looked like

Compare this to a modern Brachiopod.

Internal structure of a Brachiopod

Whereas Brachiopods attach themselves to the sea bottom by means of a fleshy “pedicle” the Hyoliths seem to have pushed their conic shell into the sand and raised themselves up on their two spines. Because of this difference the scientists maintain that Hyoliths are related to the Brachiopods within a larger group called Lophophorates instead of being a Brachiopod.

The small tentacles reaching out of the Hyolith is the lophophore, the feeding structure common between the Hyoliths and Brachiopods and which gives the larger group its name. If you’d like to read an article in Sci-News about the work of Professor Moysiuk et al click on the link below.

http://www.sci-news.com/paleontology/hyoliths-cambrian-lophophorates-04531.html

I have two specimens of Hyoliths in my fossil collection, along with thousands of Brachiopods so this discovery by Professor Moysiuk et al is of particular interest to me. Like Dinosaurs and Trilobites I think that the more we learn about the animals that once lived on this Earth the more fascinating they become.

Maybe one day I’ll get to do a post on Nidulites, a rarer and more mysterious Paleozoic marine fossil of which I have about a dozen specimens. Till then.

 

 

 

Feathered Dinosaur Tail encased in Amber!

Remember in the movie Jurassic Park where Richard Attenborough tells Sam Neil et al that his scientists obtained Dino DNA from prehistoric mosquitoes that had been encased in amber. Well wouldn’t it be better just to have the dinosaur itself be encased in amber, or at least a part of one. Well it’s happened, a Chinese paleontologist named Xing Lida found the remarkable specimen in an amber market in northern Myanmar.

Feathered Dinosaur Tail encased in Amber

The specimen is just a portion of the tail of a very small dinosaur, and it’s covered in feathers. Now, it’s not a bird, X-rays revel that the tail bones are arranged differently than those in birds. In fact paleontologists have identified the fragment as belonging to a member of the coelurosaurian group and therefore a relative of the Mighty T-Rex and the well known velociraptors. Although this animal probably only grew to the size of a small bird.

Artists Impression of Bird sized Dinosaur

Researchers haven’t been able to obtain any DNA but they have found soft tissue and decayed blood. This specimen has already given scientists a better idea of how dinosaurs, at least some, where covered in feathers rather than scales making them better able to control their body temperature and could provide the final proof that at least some dinosaurs were warm blooded.

Looking for ordinary fossils is like looking for a needle in a haystack but trying to find such spectacular specimens in amber is certainly needle in a haystack squared. Nevertheless you can be confident that dino hunters out there will be on the lookout and before to long maybe they will find that one specimen that does give us our first actual sample of Dino DNA.

P.S. A couple of posts back I talked a little bit about Cosmic Inflation after the Big Bang and how some cosmologists, and me, think that a simpler model is to look at the Big Bang as a Big Bounce from a previously contracting Universe. Well, Nova Next from PBS just released an article which goes deeper into that very subject. If you’re as interested as I am you can check it out by clicking below.

Did the Universe Start with a Bounce Instead of a Bang?