. Scientific Frontline: Paleontology
Showing posts with label Paleontology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Paleontology. Show all posts

Tuesday, November 7, 2023

‘Neglected’ Dinosaur Had Super Senses

A family of Thescelosaurus emerges from safety to forage in the forests of the Hell Creek Formation, 66 million years ago.
Illustration Credit: Anthony Hutchings.

A CT scan of an often-overlooked, plant-eating dinosaur’s skull reveals that while it may not have been all that “brainy,” it had a unique combination of traits associated with living animals that spend at least part of their time underground, including a super sense of smell and outstanding balance. The work is the first to link a specific sensory fingerprint with this behavior in extinct dinosaurs.

The dinosaur in question, Willo, is a specimen housed at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Willo is a Thescelosaurus neglectus – a small (12 feet or 3.6 meters long) but heavy (750 pounds or 340 kilograms) herbivore that lived in what is now North America just before the end-Cretaceous mass extinction event, 66 million years ago.

Willo’s scientific name roughly translates to “wonderful, overlooked lizard.” But David Button, a former Brimley Postdoctoral Scholar at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and North Carolina State University, decided to look more closely at this “overlooked” dinosaur’s skull. Button is currently a research associate at the University of Bristol in the U.K.

Friday, October 13, 2023

Boom in “ice ivory” trade of mammoth tusks presents new threat to elephants and environment

A new study warns the close similarities between the tusks of elephants and mammoths poses threats to conservation and environment efforts

Conservationists fear a rise in the buying and selling of mammoth tusks, known as the “ice ivory” trade, poses a new threat to elephants.

A UK-wide ban on the sale of ivory came into force in 2018, following a University of Portsmouth led investigation into the British antiques trade of the material.

Earlier this year, it was announced the Ivory Act would be extended to protect five more endangered CITES-listed species, including the hippopotamus, walrus, narwhal, orca and sperm whale.

However, a new study has warned that the sale of mammoth tusks is an unregulated aspect of the ivory trade that needs to be addressed. The species falls outside of the regulation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES); a multi-government agreement set up to ensure the survival of animals and plant species.

Thursday, October 5, 2023

New type of tiny wasp comes with mysterious, cloud-like structures at ends of antennae

Fossil researchers have discovered a novel genus and species of tiny wasp with a mysterious, bulbous structure at the end of each antenna.
Photo Credit: George Poinar Jr.

Fossil researchers have discovered a novel genus and species of tiny wasp with a mysterious, bulbous structure at the end of each antenna.

The female micro-wasp was described from 100-million-year-old Burmese amber in a study led by George Poinar Jr., who holds a courtesy appointment in the Oregon State University College of Science.

Poinar and Fernando Vega, an independent researcher based in Silver Spring, Maryland, have some ideas about the “clouds” on the antennae, but they don’t know for sure what they are.

“We could find no fossil or extant insect with such antennal structures,” said Poinar, an international expert in using plant and animal life forms preserved in amber to learn about the biology and ecology of the distant past. “We wondered how it could still fly with that weight.”

Feather-tailed possums in New Guinea were originally Aussies: fossil study

The New Guinean feather-tailed possum, Distoechurus pennatus, never developed gliding.
Photo Credit: UNSW Sydney

Scientists have long known that the miniature feather-tailed possums in Australia and the island of New Guinea – members of the marsupial family Acrobatidae – were evolutionary cousins, but where they started their long evolutionary journey has been a bit of a mystery – until now.

According to recently published research in Alcheringa: An Australasian Journal of Paleontology, paleontologists from UNSW Sydney say the modern-day animals on either side of the Torres Strait came from common ancestors in Australia before diverging into their living gliding and non-gliding descendants, known as Acrobates pygmaeus in Australia and Distoechurus pennatus in New Guinea.

Professor Mike Archer from UNSW’s School of Biological Earth and Environmental Sciences says that in an analysis of extinct species found at Riversleigh World Heritage Area fossil deposits in north-western Queensland revealed that ancestors of both groups of possums were present in Australia by at least 25 million years ago.

“As Riversleigh started revealing its prehistoric treasures, we discovered four different species of feathertail possums, the first ‘deep-time’ fossil record known for the whole family,” he says.

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Paleontologists Discovered Unique Remains of Paleogene Reptiles in the Urals

Rare remains have been found in the Sverdlovsk and Kurgan Regions
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Ural Federal University

At the river Miass (Kurgan Region) paleontologists of the Ural Branch of the Institute of Ecology of Animals and Plants of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Ural Federal University discovered rare for the Urals and Siberia finds - vertebrae of a sea snake and a piece of a turtle shell. Approximate dating of bones - 45-35 million years, but the exact figures have not yet been established. The findings were sent to the Paleontological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow for further research.

"This is the second such unique find, and we were lucky to study both of them. The fact is that fossil remains of Paleogene snakes from the territory of Western and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia are quite well described, but such finds are not known in the Urals and Western Siberia. Last year we managed to find a vertebra of a sea snake on the Dernei River in the Sverdlovsk Region. This year, our friend and paleontology enthusiast Alexey Sofrygin showed us a snake vertebra from a new spot - the Miass River. Unfortunately, we did not find any other vertebrae when we conducted a complete study of the Miass River sediments. However, we did find a piece of a turtle shell. This is also an extremely rare find," says Dmitry Gimranov, Head of Research, Senior Researcher at the Laboratory of Natural Science Methods in Humanities of the Ural Federal University.

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

First side-necked turtle ever discovered in UK

The fossil was found on a National Trust beach on the Isle of Wight
Photo Credit: Courtesy of University of Portsmouth

The first side-necked turtle ever to be found in the UK has been discovered by an amateur fossil collector and paleontologists at the University of Portsmouth.

The fossil remains are the earliest of a so-called side-necked pan-pleurodiran turtle, named as such because they fold their neck into their shell sideways when threatened. This does mean they can only see out with one eye.

Originally found on a beach on the Isle of Wight, the turtle fossil is an almost complete shell with cervical, dorsal and caudal vertebrae, scapulae, pelvic girdle and appendicular bones. Sadly, the skull was missing.

Lead author, Megan Jacobs, said: “This is an amazing discovery because it’s the first time this type of turtle has been found in the UK. Even more exciting is that we used a new technique of radiometric dating to determine the age of the fossil beyond any doubt. And to top it off, CT scanning revealed all the tiny bones inside. It’s really incredible for what looks like a rolled beach pebble!”

Dynamic plants: Origin and geographic evolution of cycads clarified

The African cycad Encephalartos altensteinii Lehm is widely cultivated in botanical gardens around Europe (like this one in the Botanical Garden of the University of Naples "Federico II"), including one specimen that was brought from South Africa to the UK in 1775 and that is still alive today. Large Encephalartos are highly prized as ornamental plants, and unfortunately many species have been brought to the brink of extinction by poaching.
Photo Credit: Mario Coiro

Paleobotanist Mario Coiro of the Institute of Paleontology at the University of Vienna and colleagues at the University of Montpellier (France) have made an important breakthrough in understanding the origin and geographic distribution of cycads. By combining genetic data with leaf morphological data from both fossil and living species for the first time, the researchers created a phylogenetic tree of these fascinating and endangered plants. The results of the study, which was funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF, have now been published in the journal New Phytologist.

Cycads (order Cycadales) are an evolutionarily very old and once very diverse group of palm-like plants that were widespread worldwide at the time of the dinosaurs. Now their distribution is limited to subtropical regions of the earth with low latitudes, and some of them have been considered as "living fossils". Until now, little was known about the origin of these plants, which are also highly valued by garden lovers and collectors, and their evolutionary distribution paths – a fact that Mario Coiro's team have actively challenged. To this end, the researchers developed an innovative research approach that actually makes a significant contribution to clarifying the biogeographical distribution of cycads.

Friday, June 9, 2023

Ancient herbivore’s diet weakened teeth leading to eventual starvation

Reconstruction of the rhynchosaur Bentonyx from the Middle Triassic of Devon, about 245 million years ago.
Illustration Credit: Reconstruction artwork by Mark Witton

A team of researchers from the University of Bristol have shed light on the life of the ancient reptile Rhynchosaur, which walked the earth between 250-225 million years ago, before being replaced by the dinosaurs.

Rhynchosaurs are a little-understood group of roughly sheep-sized ancient reptiles that thrived during the Triassic Period, a time of generally warm climates and tough vegetation.  

In the new study, the researchers studied specimens found in Devon and used CT scanning to see how the teeth wore down as they fed, and how new teeth were added at the backs of the tooth rows as the animals grew in size.

The findings, published today in Palaeontology, show that these early herbivores likely eventually starved to death in old age, the vegetation taking its toll on their teeth.

“I first studied the rhynchosaurs years ago,” said team-leader Professor Mike Benton from Bristol’s School of Earth Sciences, “and I was amazed to find that in many cases they dominated their ecosystems. If you found one fossil, you found hundreds.

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

New Dino, ‘Iani,’ Was Face of a Changing Planet

Illustration Credit: Jorge Gonzalez
(CC BY-NC 4.0)

A newly discovered plant-eating dinosaur may have been a species’ “last gasp” during a period when Earth’s warming climate forced massive changes to global dinosaur populations.

The specimen, named Iani smithi after Janus, the two-faced Roman god of change, was an early ornithopod, a group of dinosaurs that ultimately gave rise to the more commonly known duckbill dinosaurs such as Parasaurolophus and Edmontosaurus. Researchers recovered most of the juvenile dinosaur’s skeleton – including skull, vertebrae and limbs – from Utah’s Cedar Mountain Formation.

Iani smithi lived in what is now Utah during the mid-Cretaceous, approximately 99 million years ago. The dinosaur’s most striking feature is its powerful jaw, with teeth designed for chewing through tough plant material.

The mid-Cretaceous was a time of big changes, which had big effects on dinosaur populations. Increased atmospheric carbon dioxide during this time caused the Earth to warm and sea levels to rise, corralling dinosaurs on smaller and smaller landmasses. It was so warm that rainforests thrived at the poles. Flowering plant life took over coastal areas and supplanted normal food sources for herbivores.

Thursday, May 18, 2023

Fossil of mosasaur with bizarre “screwdriver teeth” found in Morocco

The strange ridges on the teeth indicate a specialised feeding strategy, however its diet remains a mystery.
Photo Credit: Dr Nick Longrich

Scientists have discovered a new species of mosasaur, a sea-dwelling lizard from the age of the dinosaurs, with strange, ridged teeth unlike those of any known reptile. Along with other recent finds from Africa, it suggests that mosasaurs and other marine reptiles were evolving rapidly up until 66 million years ago, when they were wiped out by an asteroid along with the dinosaurs and around 90% of all species on Earth.

The new species, Stelladens mysterious, comes from the Late Cretaceous of Morocco and was around twice the size of a dolphin.

It had a unique tooth arrangement with blade-like ridges running down the teeth, arranged in a star-shaped pattern, reminiscent of a cross-head screwdriver.

Most mosasaurs had two bladelike, serrated ridges on the front and back of the tooth to help cut prey, however Stelladens had anywhere from four to six of these blades running down the tooth.

“It’s a surprise,” said Dr Nick Longrich from the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University of Bath, who led the study. “It’s not like any mosasaur, or any reptile, even any vertebrate we’ve seen before.”

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Giants of the Jurassic seas were twice the size of a killer whale

An artist’s impression of the pliosaur
Illustration Credit: Megan Jacobs, University of Portsmouth

Over 20 years ago, the BBC’s "Walking with Dinosaurs" TV documentary series showed a 25-meter long Liopleurodon. This sparked heated debates over the size of this pliosaur as it was thought to have been wildly overestimated and more likely to have only reached an adult size of just over six meters long.

The speculation was set to continue, but now a chance discovery in an Oxfordshire museum has led to University of Portsmouth paleontologists publishing a paper on a similar species potentially reaching a whopping 14.4 meters - twice the size of a killer whale. 

Professor David Martill from the University of Portsmouth’s School of the Environment, Geography and Geosciences, said: “I was a consultant for the BBC’s pilot program ‘Cruel Sea’ and I hold my hands up - I got the size of Liopleurodon horrendously wrong. I based my calculations on some fragmentary material which suggested a Liopleurodon could grow to a length of 25 meters, but the evidence was scant and it caused a lot of controversy at the time.

“The size estimate on the BBC back in 1999 was overdone, but now we have some evidence that is much more reliable after a serendipitous discovery of four enormous vertebrate.”

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Earth’s first animals had particular taste in real estate

Obamus coronatus.
Photo Credit: Mary Droser/University of California, Riverside

Even without body parts that allowed for movement, new research shows — for the first time — that some of Earth’s earliest animals managed to be picky about where they lived.

These creatures from the Ediacaran Period, roughly 550 million years ago, are strangely shaped soft-bodied animals that lived in the sea. Researchers have long considered them enigmatic. 

“It’s not like studying dinosaurs, which are related to birds that we can observe today,” said Phillip C. Boan, UC Riverside paleontology graduate student and lead author of the new study. “With these animals, because they have no modern descendants, we’re still working out basic questions about how they lived, such as how they reproduced and what they ate.”

For this particular research project, the researchers focused on understanding where in the sea the animals spent their lives. 

The ancient sea was also a largely foreign place compared to today’s marine environments. It was dominated by a mat on the sea floor composed of bacteria and layers of other organic materials. In addition, predatory creatures were uncommon.

Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Fossil find in California shakes up the natural history of cycad plants

Three-dimensional reconstruction of the whole cone and different views of the same cone scale. Scale bar: cone = 400 microns; cone scales = 200 microns.
Image Credit: Andres Elgorriaga, Brian Atkinson

Cycads, a group of gymnosperms which can resemble miniature palm trees (like the popular sago palm houseplant) were long thought to be “living fossils,” a group that had evolved minimally since the time of the dinosaurs. Now, a well-preserved 80-million-year-old pollen cone discovered in California has rewritten scientific understanding of the plants.

The findings are detailed in a paper by two University of Kansas paleobotanists just published in the journal New Phytologist.

“Cycads aren’t well-known but make up a significant part of plant diversity, accounting for around 25% of all gymnosperms,” said lead author Andres Elgorriaga, postdoctoral researcher with the KU Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and KU Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum3. “Cycads are plants that have thick stems and short stature, with thick, palm-like leaves on top. They produce cones like pine cones and are related to other seed-bearing plants that also don’t produce flowers, like Ginkgo and the monkey puzzle tree. But they’re also highly endangered, with the highest level of endangerment among all plant groups. Trafficking of cycads also is a significant issue.”

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Swimming secrets of prehistoric reptiles unlocked by new study

Paleobiologist Dr Susana Gutarra taking measurements from a very complete specimen of Liopleurodon, a plesiosaur from the Middle-Late Jurassic of Germany (Museum of Paleontology in Tübingen).
Photo Credit: Dr Susana Gutarra

Some of the most extraordinary body transformations in evolution have occurred in animals that adapted to life in water from land-living ancestors, such as modern whales, turtles and seals. During the Mesozoic, from 252 to 66 million years ago, while the dinosaurs stomped about on land, many groups of reptiles took to the seas, such as the iconic ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, crocodiles and mosasaurs.

In a new paper, published in the journal Palaeontology, a Bristol team of paleobiologists used state-of-the-art statistical methods to perform a large-scale quantitative study, the first of its kind, on the locomotion of Mesozoic marine reptiles.

The researchers collected measurements from 125 fossilized skeletons, and used these to explore changes in swimming styles within lineages and through time, discovering that there was no explosive radiation at the beginning of the Mesozoic, but a gradual diversification of locomotory modes, which peaked in the Cretaceous period.

Monday, April 17, 2023

New details of Tully monster revealed

The Tully monster.
Discovered in the 1950s and first described in a paper in 1966, the Tully monster, with its stalked eyes and long proboscis, is difficult to compare to all other known animal groups. Unique to Illinois in the U.S., it became its state fossil in 1989.
Image Credit: © 2023 Takahiro Sakono

For more than half a century, the Tully monster (Tullimonstrum gregarium), an enigmatic animal that lived about 300 million years ago, has confounded paleontologists, with its strange anatomy making it difficult to classify. Recently, a group of researchers proposed a hypothesis that Tullimonstrum was a vertebrate similar to cyclostomes (jawless fish like lamprey and hagfish). If it was, then the Tully monster would potentially fill a gap in the evolutionary history of early vertebrates. Studies so far have both supported and rejected this hypothesis. Now, using 3D imaging technology, a team in Japan believes it has found the answer after uncovering detailed characteristics of the Tully monster which strongly suggest that it was not a vertebrate. However, its exact classification and what type of invertebrate it was is still to be decided.

In the 1950s, Francis Tully was enjoying his hobby fossil hunting in a site known as Mazon Creek Lagerstätte in the U.S. state of Illinois, when he discovered what would later become known as the Tully monster. This 15-centimeter (on average), 300-million-year-old marine “monster” turned out to be an enigma, as ever since its discovery researchers have debated where it fits in the classification of living things (its taxonomic position). Unlike dinosaur bones and hard-shelled creatures that are often found as fossils, the Tully monster was soft-bodied. The Mazon Creek Lagerstätte is one of the few places in the world where the conditions were just right for imprints of these marine animals to be captured in detail in the underwater mud, before they could decay. In 2016, a group of scientists in the US proposed a hypothesis that the Tully monster was a vertebrate. If this was the case, then it could be a missing piece of the puzzle on how vertebrates evolved.

Thursday, April 13, 2023

Apes may have evolved upright stature for leaves, not fruit, in open woodland habitats

Artistic rendering of the open woodland habitat reconstruction at Moroto II with Morotopithecus bishopi vertically climbing with infant on back and juvenile below. Active volcano (Mount Moroto) is in background. Fossil relative of an elephant (Prodeinotherium) is foraging in center back.
Illustration Credit: Corbin Rainbolt

Anthropologists have long thought that our ape ancestors evolved an upright torso in order to pick fruit in forests, but new research from the University of Michigan suggests a life in open woodlands and a diet that included leaves drove apes’ upright stature.

The findings shed light on ape origins and push back the origin of grassy woodlands from between 7 million and 10 million years ago to 21 million years ago in equatorial Africa, during the Early Miocene.

Fruit grows on the spindly peripheries of trees. To reach it, large apes need to distribute their weight on branches stemming from the trunk, then reach out with their hands toward their prize. This is much easier if an ape is upright because it can more easily grab onto different branches with its hands and feet. If its back is horizontal, then its hands and feet are generally underneath the body, making it much harder to move outward to the smaller branches of a tree—especially if the ape is large bodied.

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Small and simple key to evolution success of mammals

Artistic reconstruction of early mammal ancestors (species: Hadrocodium wui) shown hunting insect prey, illustrating how the adoption of an insectivorous diet and miniaturization played an important role in mammal evolution.
Illustration Credit: Dr Stephan Lautenschlager, University of Birmingham

Ancestors of modern mammals evolved into one of the most successful animal lineages by starting out small and simple, researchers have found.

A new study, published today in Communications Biology, shows that skull bones were successively reduced in early mammals around 150 to 100 million years ago.  

The research further demonstrated that alongside the reduction of skull bones, early mammals also became a lot smaller, some of which had a skull length of only 10-12 mm. This miniaturization considerably restricted the available food sources and early mammals adapted to feeding mostly on insects, allowing them to thrive in the shadows of dinosaurs.

In many vertebrate groups (animals with a back bone), such as fishes and reptiles, the skull and lower jaw are composed of numerous bones. This was also the case in the earliest ancestors of modern mammals over 300 million years ago.

95-million-year-old sauropod dinosaur skull first of its kind in Australia

Diamantinasaurus matildae head.
Illustration Credit: Elena Marian/ Australian Age of Dinosaurs Musuem of Natural History

A Curtin University-led research team has analyzed Australia’s first nearly complete sauropod dinosaur skull found in Queensland, Australia, gaining a better understanding of the animal’s anatomy, relationships to other sauropods, and feeding habits.

The research, published in Royal Society Open Science and completed in collaboration with the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum of Natural History, found that the skull – belonging to a dinosaur nicknamed ‘Ann’ – was from the species Diamantinasaurus matildae. Diamantinasaurus is a member of the dinosaur group Sauropoda, known for having small heads, long necks and tails, barrel-like bodies, and four columnar legs.

Lead researcher and paleontologist Dr Stephen Poropat, from Curtin’s School of Earth and Planetary Sciences, said ‘Ann’ is the first sauropod dinosaur found in Australia to include most of the skull, and also the first Diamantinasaurus specimen to preserve a back foot.

“I was lucky enough to be involved in this Australian-first discovery. Being able to lead the research on these fossils was a huge privilege. This skull gives us a rare glimpse into the anatomy of this enormous sauropod that lived in northeast Australia almost 100 million years ago,” Dr Poropat said.

Thursday, March 30, 2023

Predatory dinosaurs such as T. rex sported lizard-like lips

A juvenile Edmontosaurus disappears into the enormous, lipped mouth of Tyrannosaurus.
Illustration Credit Dr Mark Witton

A new study suggests that predatory dinosaurs, such as Tyrannosaurus rex, did not have permanently exposed teeth as depicted in films such as Jurassic Park, but instead had scaly, lizard-like lips covering and sealing their mouths.

Researchers and artists have debated whether theropod dinosaurs, the group of two-legged dinosaurs that includes carnivores and top predators like T. rex and Velociraptor, as well as birds, had lipless mouths where perpetually visible upper teeth hung over their lower jaws, similar to the mouth of a crocodile.

However, an international team of researchers challenge some of the best-known depictions, and say these dinosaurs had lips similar to those of lizards and their relative, the tuatara - a rare reptile found only in New Zealand, which are the last survivors of an order of reptiles that thrived in the age of the dinosaurs.

In the most detailed study of this issue yet, the researchers examined the tooth structure, wear patterns and jaw morphology of lipped and lipless reptile groups and found that theropod mouth anatomy and functionality resembles that of lizards more than crocodiles. This implies lizard-like oral tissues, including scaly lips covering their teeth.

“Exquisite” sabertooth skull offers clues about Ice Age predator

Dave Easterla, left, Distinguished University Professor Emeritus of Biology at Northwest Missouri State University and Matthew Hill, associate professor of anthropology at Iowa State, with a fossilized complete skull from a sabertooth cat from southwest Iowa.
Photo Credit: Christopher Gannon/Iowa State University.

The recent discovery of a sabertooth cat skull in southwest Iowa is the first evidence the prehistoric predator once inhabited the state.

The chance of finding any fossilized remains from a sabertooth cat is slim, said Matthew Hill, an associate professor of archaeology at Iowa State and expert on animal bones. The remarkably well-preserved skull found in Page County is even rarer, and its discovery offers clues about the iconic Ice Age species before its extinction roughly 12-13,000 years ago.

“The skull is a really big deal,” said Hill. “Finds of this animal are widely scattered and usually represented by an isolated tooth or bone. This skull from the East Nishnabotna River is in near perfect condition. It’s exquisite.”

Hill analyzed the specimen in collaboration with David Easterla, Distinguished University Professor Emeritus of Biology at Northwest Missouri State University. Their findings are newly published in Quaternary Science Reviews.

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