nandi's blog

Antarctanax shackletoni: Iguana-Sized Reptile Roamed Antarctica 250 Million Years Ago

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Along the banks of a river, three archosaur inhabitants of the dense Voltzia conifer forest cross paths: Antarctanax shackletoni sneaks up on an early titanopetran insect, Prolacerta broomi lazes on a log, and an enigmatic large archosaur pursues two unsuspecting dicynodonts, Lystrosaurus maccaigi. Image credit: Adrienne Stroup, Field Museum.

Some 250 million years ago (early Triassic period), an early relative of dinosaurs and crocodiles lived in what is now a frozen continent, Antarctica, according to an international team of paleontologists from the United States and South Africa.

The ancient creature, named Antarctanax shackletoni, was a carnivore that hunted bugs, early mammal relatives, and amphibians.

Its small, incomplete skeleton was collected from Graphite Peak in the Transantarctic Mountains during a 2010-2011 expedition.

The fossil specimen consists of portions of the backbone, limbs and skull.

Antarctanax shackletoni was an archosaur, an early relative of crocodiles and dinosaurs,” said lead author Dr. Brandon Peecook, a paleontologist at Field Museum.

“On its own, it just looks a little like a lizard, but evolutionarily, it’s one of the first members of that big group. It tells us how dinosaurs and their closest relatives evolved and spread.”

The most interesting thing about Antarctanax shackletoni, though, is where it lived, and when.

“The more we find out about prehistoric Antarctica, the weirder it is. We thought that Antarctic animals would be similar to the ones that were living in southern Africa, since those landmasses were joined back then. But we’re finding that Antarctica’s wildlife is surprisingly unique,” Dr. Peecook said.

About two million years before Antarctanax shackletoni lived Earth underwent its biggest-ever mass extinction event — the end-Permian mass extinction. Climate change, caused by volcanic eruptions, killed 90% of all animal life.

The years immediately after that extinction event were an evolutionary free-for-all — with the slate wiped clean by the mass extinction, new groups of animals vied to fill the gaps.

The archosaurs, including dinosaurs, were one of the groups that experienced enormous growth.

“Before the mass extinction, archosaurs were only found around the equator, but after it, they were everywhere,” Dr. Peecook said.

“And Antarctica had a combination of these brand-new animals and stragglers of animals that were already extinct in most places — what paleontologists call ‘dead clades walking.’ You’ve got tomorrow’s animals and yesterday’s animals, cohabiting in a cool place.”

The discovery of Antarctanax shackletoni bolsters the idea that Antarctica was a place of rapid evolution and diversification after the end-Permian mass extinction.

“The more different kinds of animals we find, the more we learn about the pattern of archosaurs taking over after the mass extinction,” Dr. Peecook said.

“Antarctica is one of those places on Earth, like the bottom of the sea, where we’re still in the very early stages of exploration.”

Antarctanax shackletoni is our little part of discovering the history of Antarctica.”

“Fossil exploration in Antarctica is really difficult, given all of the logistics involved. But since so little work has been done the potential for making important new discoveries is high — and that’s what Antarctanax shackletonirepresents,” said senior author Professor Christian Sidor, a researcher at the University of Washington and curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Burke Museum of Natural History & Culture.

“The same rocks that yielded Antarctanax shackletoni also yield some of the earliest mammal relatives from after the mass extinction.”

The study was published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.


Brandon R. Peecook et al. A novel archosauromorph from Antarctica and an updated review of a high-latitude vertebrate assemblage in the wake of the end-Permian mass extinction. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, published online January 31, 2019


Scientists Find Bird Foot in Dinosaur-Era Amber

Friday, February 1, 2019

A team of Chinese, American and Canadian researchers have discovered amber containing a bird foot dating back around 100 million years.

The specimen was excavated at Hukawng Valley in northern Myanmar, an area rich in amber fossil discoveries. The result of the research was published by Scientific Reports.

"The bird foot is less than 7 millimeters long and well-preserved," said Bai Ming from the Institute of Zoology under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, co-author of the paper.

"This allows the researchers to build a high-definition three-dimensional model of the foot through computed tomography (CT)," Bai said.

The researchers found ragged fractures on the model, suggesting the bird foot was already broken before it was encased in resin which later formed into amber, according to Xing Lida, a leading scientist of the study from the China University of Geosciences in Beijing.

"The foot was probably left by predators or scavengers," Xing said.


Koreamegops samsiki: New Fossil Spiders With 'Glowing' Eyes Gound in South Korea

Friday, February 1, 2019

The defining specimen of Koreamegops samsiki, a newfound species of spider that lived in what is now South Korea between 106 and 112 million years ago. PHOTOGRAPH BY PAUL ANTONY SELDEN

The ancient arachnids had eyes that shone in the dark—a key adaptation for night vision.

IF YOU COULD time-travel to Korea 110 million years ago, you'd see an eerie spectacle if you walked out at night with a flashlight: Each sweep of your beam would make the landscape sparkle as innumerable spider eyes glinted in the dark.

In a new study in the Journal of Systematic Paleontology, a team led by Korea Polar Research Institute paleontologist Tae-Yoon Park unveils ten fossils of tiny spiders, each less than an inch wide. The remains contain two new species and a first for paleontology: a spider's version of night-vision goggles.

In some animals' eyeballs, a membrane called the tapetum (tuh-PEE-tuhm) sits behind the retina and reflects light back through it. If you've ever seen a cat's eyes seem to glow green at night, that's their tapeta at work. By giving the retinas a second chance to absorb light, tapeta boost the night vision of moths, cats, owls, and many other nocturnal animals. So, too, in these ancient spiders, whose silvery tapeta still shine in the fossils.

Two fossil specimens from the extinct spider family Lagonomegopidae had reflective eyes, a feature still apparent under light. Image credit: Paul Selden.

“They're so reflective—they clearly stick out at you,” says study coauthor Paul Selden, a paleontologist at the University of Kansas. “That was a sort of eureka moment.”

The find sheds further light on the ancient behavior of spiders, some of modern Earth's most important predators by mass.

“These fossils are extraordinary, and it’s always a thrill when something of the visual system is preserved,” Nathan Morehouse, a University of Cincinnati biologist who studies spider vision, writes in an email. “More exciting to me and other vision scientists is the glimpse that the tapetum offers into the lifestyle of these ancient animals. They were likely nocturnal hunters!”

The eyes have it

Some of the newfound spiders belong to an extinct group known as the lagonomegopids, some of which loosely resembled today's jumping spiders. The new fossils are the first lagonomegopids ever found in rock—all previous fossils of the group come from amber, or fossilized tree resin.


The 210-million-Year-Old Smok Was Crushing Bones Like a Hyena

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Coprolites, or fossil droppings, of the dinosaur-like archosaur Smok wawelski contain lots of chewed-up bone fragments. This led researchers at Uppsala University to conclude that this top predator was exploiting bones for salt and marrow, a behavior often linked to mammals but seldom to archosaurs. Credit: Jakub Kowalski

Coprolites, or fossilized droppings, of the dinosaur-like archosaur Smok wawelski contain lots of chewed-up bone fragments. This led researchers at Uppsala University to conclude that this top predator was exploiting bones for salt and marrow, a behavior often linked to mammals but seldom to archosaurs.

Most predatory dinosaurs used their blade-like teeth to feed on the flesh of their prey, but they are commonly not thought to be much of bone crushers. The major exception is seen in the large tyrannosaurids, such as Tyrannosaurus rex, that roamed North America toward the end of the age of dinosaurs. The tyrannosaurids are thought to have been osteophagous (voluntarily exploiting bone) based on findings of bone-rich coprolites, bite-marked bones, and their robust teeth being commonly worn.

The researchers found several crushed teeth in the fossil droppings, probably belonging to Smok wawelski itself. The teeth were crushed against hard food items and involuntarily ingested. Credit: Gerard Gierlinski

In a study published in Scientific Reports, researchers from Uppsala University were able to link 10 large coprolites to Smok wawelski, a top predator of a Late Triassic (210 million year old) assemblage unearthed in Poland. This bipedal, 5-6 meters long animal lived some 140 million years before the tyrannosaurids of North America and had a T. rex-like appearance, although it is not fully clear whether it was a true dinosaur or a dinosaur-like precursor.

Three of the coprolites were scanned using synchrotron microtomography. This method has just recently been applied to coprolites and works somewhat like a CT scanner in a hospital, with the difference that the energy in the X-ray beams is much stronger. This makes it possible to visualize internal structures in fossils in three dimensions.

Coprolites, or fossil droppings, of the dinosaur-like archosaur Smok wawelski contain lots of chewed-up bone fragments. This led researchers at Uppsala University to conclude that this top predator was exploiting bones for salt and marrow, a behavior often linked to mammals but seldom to archosaurs. Credit: Martin Qvarnström

The coprolites were shown to contain up to 50 percent of bones from prey animals such as large amphibians and juvenile dicynodonts. Several crushed serrated teeth, probably belonging to the coprolite producer itself, were also found in the coprolites. This means that the teeth were repeatedly crushed against the hard food items (and involuntarily ingested) and replaced by new ones.

Further evidence for a bone-crushing behaviour can also be found in the fossils from the same bone beds in Poland. These include worn  and bone-rich fossil regurgitates from Smok wawelski, as well as numerous crushed or bite-marked bones.

Reconstructed skeleton, University of Warsaw

Several of the anatomical characters related to osteophagy, such as a massive head and robust body, seem to be shared by S. wawelski and the tyrannosaurids, despite them being distantly related and living 140 million years apart. These large predators therefore seem to provide evidence of similar feeding adaptations being independently acquired at the beginning and end of the age of dinosaurs.

More information: Martin Qvarnström et al, Tyrannosaurid-like osteophagy by a Triassic archosaur, Scientific Reports (2019). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-018-37540-4

Provided by: Uppsala University


How we Know that Ancient African People Valued Fossils and Rocks

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The trilobite manuport (Bainella sp) from Robberg on the Cape south coast was carried at least 10 km to a small cave shelter. For scale, the bar is 10 cm long. Author Supplied

It's been nearly 50 years since geologist and author Dorothy Vitaliano coined the term "geomythology". This refers to the study of oral traditions from around the world that explain geological and other natural phenomena through metaphor and myth. Geomythology also involves investigating how pre-scientific cultures interpreted the geological and fossil phenomena they encountered in the world around them.

There are many benefits to this work. One is that it confirms how much knowledge and insight existed in pre-scientific cultures. Another is that a knowledge of local geomythology can help palaeontologists to identify and study important fossil sites.

There's a lot of information about geomythology from places like North AmericaEurope and China. But very little is known about this field on the African continent, and particularly in southern Africa. We found this surprising: the region is home to the "Cradle of Humankind", a world heritage site. It's of critical importance in the origin of modern humans and has a tremendous fossil record, which includes numerous vertebrate trackways – the footprints that ancient species left as they moved around the landscape.

This evidence, coupled with the remarkable tracking ability of groups like the San, suggests that early southern African cultures might have been aware of this evidence in stone and what it represented: remarkable creatures that no longer existed.

We set out to better understand southern Africa's geomythology. This was done using our combined knowledge, as well as literature searches. Our study features 21 sites across southern Africa – and also lists sites elsewhere in Africa, like Uganda, Tanzania, Cameroon and Algeria – that show evidence of geomythology among pre-scientific societies.

Our hope is that this work will form a foundation for further studies, and that in time a diverse non-western, indigenous palaeontological and geomythological heritage will become evident in southern Africa. The resulting knowledge may shed new light on how our ancestors thought and behaved.

Two categories

Two main categories of geomythology emerged in our study. The first were manuports. These are unmodified objects like fossils or quartz crystals that are found in places where they couldn't possibly have occurred naturally. Manuports would have made people curious enough to pick them up, carry them and store them.

We found examples of these in several places in South Africa and Lesotho. One of the most fascinating manuports was the remarkable fossil of a Karoo reptile, which was reportedly found being used as a pot lid in a Griqua hut around 1830. This specimen went on to become very important in the elaboration of the study of continental drift.

Quartz – and its relationship to beliefs on spiritual sight – figured prominently in our findings. One notable example was a large quartz crystal manuport from the southern Cape: it was found wedged into the eye socket of an infant in a burial site in a cave shelter.

Arguably the most famous and certainly the oldest known manuport in the world is the "Makapansgat cobble". It resembles a human face, and has been dated to 2.95 million years. The inference is that someone appreciated the facial likeness – and maybe the red colour – and picked it up in the earliest known example of symbolic thinking.

The second major category involved spatial associations between rock art and dinosaur skeletons and trackways, particularly in South Africa's eastern Free State and Lesotho.

The most compelling example was at Mokhali Cave. This is a rock art site containing an image of a dinosaur footprint beside bird-like images, close to dinosaur trackways and dinosaur bones.

Buttressing such evidence were ethnographic studies which document myths of prehistoric monsters that may have made the tracks. These examples were complemented by a petroglyph resembling a dinosaur track in the northern Cape and  in the Cederberg with images that resemble mammal-like reptiles from the Permian period. These images were perhaps inferred from people's awareness of trackways and fossils, and what these represented.

Future inspiration

These sites, and others we studied, share some commonalities with sites on other continents. But they have a uniquely African flavour, such as the San in the Kalahari Desert carrying fulgurites (rocks created by the fusion of sand during lightning strikes) to use in ceremonies to ward off lightning or to summon rain.

And, as we suggest in our study, geomythology – and those curious collectors from so long ago – can be a powerful way to inspire more people on the continent to become interested in Africa's palaeoscience.


Long-Necked Dinosaurs Rotated Their Forefeet To The Side

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Family Gathering by Gorgonzola

Long-necked dinosaurs (sauropods) could orient their forefeet both forward and sideways. The orientation of their feet depended on the speed and centre of mass of the animals. An international team of researchers investigated numerous dinosaur footprints in Morocco at the foot of the Atlas Mountains using state-of-the-art methods. By comparing them with other sauropods tracks, the scientists determined how the long-necked animals moved forward. The results have now been published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

"Long-necked dinosaurs" (sauropods) were among the most successful herbivores of the Mesozoic Era -- the age of the dinosaurs. Characteristic for this group were a barrel-shaped body on columnar legs as well as an extremely long neck, which ended in a relatively small head. Long-necked dinosaurs existed from about 210 to 66 million years ago -- they thus had been able to assert themselves on earth for a very long period. Also their gigantism, with which they far surpassed other dinosaurs, points at their success.

Sauropods included the largest land animals in Earth history, some over 30 metres long and up to 70 tonnes in weight. "However, it is still unclear how exactly these giants moved," says Jens Lallensack, paleontologist at the Institute of Geosciences and Meteorology at the University of Bonn in Germany. The limb joints were partly cartilaginous and therefore not fossilised, allowing only limited conclusions about the range of movement.

Detective work with 3D computer analyses

The missing pieces of the puzzle, however, can be reconstructed with the help of fossil footprints of the giants. An international team of researchers from Japan, Morocco and Germany, led by the University of Bonn, has now investigated an unique track site in Morocco at the foot of the Atlas Mountains. The site consists of a surface of 54 x 6 metres which was vertically positioned during mountain formation and shows hundreds of individual footprints, some of which overlap. A part of these footprints could be assigned to a total of nine trackways (sequences of individual footprints). "Working out individual tracks from this jumbled mess of footprints was detective work and only possible through the analysis of high-resolution 3D models on the computer," says Dr. Oliver Wings of the Zentralmagazin Naturwissenschaftlicher Sammlungen der Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg in Germany.

The researchers were amazed by the results: the trackways are extremely narrow -- the right and left footprints are almost in line. Also, the forefoot impressions are not directed forwards, as is typical for sauropod tracks, but point to the side, and sometimes even obliquely backwards. Even more: The animals were able to switch between both orientations as needed. "People are able to turn their palms downwards by crossing the ulna and radius," says Dr. Michael Buchwitz of the Museum für Naturkunde Magdeburg. However, this complicated movement is limited to mammals and chameleons in today's terrestrial vertebrates. It was not possible in other animals, including dinosaurs. Sauropods must therefore have found another way of turning the forefoot forwards.

How can the rotation of the forefoot be explained?

How can the rotation of the forefoot in the sauropod tracks be explained? The key probably lies in the mighty cartilage layers, which allowed great flexibility in the joints, especially in the shoulder. But why were the hands rotated outwards at all? "Outwardly facing hands with opposing palms were the original condition in the bipedal ancestors of the sauropods," explains Shinobu Ishigaki of the Okayama University of Science, Japan. The question should therefore be why most sauropods turned their forefeet forwards -- an anatomically difficult movement to implement.

A statistical analysis of sauropod tracks from all over the world could provide important clues: Apparently the animals tended to have outwardly directed forefeet when the foreleg was not used for active locomotion but only for carrying body weight. Thus the forefeet were often rotated further outwards when the animal moved slowly and the centre of mass of the body was far back. Only if the hands were also used for the forward drive, a forefoot directed to the front was advantageous. The analysis furthermore showed that the outer rotation of the forefeet was limited to smaller individuals, whereas in larger animals they were mostly directed forward. The large animals apparently could no longer rotate their forefeet sideways. "This loss of mobility was probably a direct result of their gigantism," says Lallensack.

Story Source:

Materials provided by University of BonnNote: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. Jens N. Lallensack, Shinobu Ishigaki, Abdelouahed Lagnaoui, Michael Buchwitz, Oliver Wings. Forelimb Orientation and Locomotion of Sauropod Dinosaurs: Insights from the ?Middle Jurassic Tafaytour Tracksites (Argana Basin, Morocco)Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 2019; 1 DOI: 10.1080/02724634.2018.1512501


Fossil Feathers of Anchiornis Give Clues to How and When Dinosaurs Took Flight

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Anchiornis dinosaur feathers were likely an evolutionary intermediate on the way to flight. ROBERT CLARK/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

It isn't clear how and when feathered dinosaurs, the ancestors of present day birds, started to fly. Analysis of the fossilized remains of a winged dinosaur that lived in China 160 million years ago, however, offered clues on the evolution of flight.

The crow-sized dinosaur called Anchiornis lived 10 million years before the Archaeopteryx, the first recognized bird.


Modern vertebrates that walk on land have the protein called keratin. Alpha-keratins (α-keratins) are in the 10 nanometer-wide filaments of the hair, skin, and nails of humans and other mammals.

In reptiles and birds, beta-keratins (β-keratins) form the narrower but more rigid filaments that make up the beaks, claws, and feathers.

Study researcher Mary Schweitzer, from North Carolina State University in Raleigh, explained that modern bird feathers are primarily composed of β-keratin. Feathers, however, differ from other beta-keratin tissues because the feather protein is modified in a way that made it more flexible and more conducive to flight.

"At some point during the evolution of feathers, one of the β-keratin genes underwent a deletion event, making the resultant protein slightly smaller. This deletion changed the biophysics of the feather to something more flexible — a requirement for flight," Schweitzer said.

The researchers said that knowing when and in what organisms the deletion event occurred can provide researchers a better understanding of how flight evolved when dinosaurs transitioned to birds.

The Anchiornis specimen studied at the Chinese Academy of Science. Credit: WANG Xiaoli

Anchiornis Feathers Have Both Alpha-keratins And Beta-keratins

Using high-resolution electron microscopy, as well as chemical and immunological techniques, researchers took a closer look at the fossilized feathers of the Anchiornis and compared these to those of younger fossil birds and modern birds at the molecular level.

The researchers found that the feathers of the Anchiornis is composed of both β-keratins and α-keratins, which is surprising since α-keratin is present in only small amounts in modern feathers. The Anchiornis feathers has also already undergone the deletion event that made feathers different from other tissues.

The findings suggest that during the transition to flight, the β-keratin gene was duplicated many times in the genomes of some dinosaurs. As these animals evolved, some of the extra copies mutated into the truncated form that made flight possible.

This allowed the feathered dinosaurs such as the Archaeopteryx to take flight around 150 million years ago and gave rise to modern-day birds.

Researchers said that the Anchiornis feathers were not likely suitable for flight, but represents an intermediate stage in the evolution toward flight feathers.

The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Paleontologists in Cambridgeshire Have Discovered the Skull of an Extinct Buffalo that Lived 150,000 Years Ago

Sunday, January 20, 2019


Paleontologists have stumbled upon the 150,000-year-old skull of an extinct bison priscus, and this discovery marks the first time that a complete skull has been discovered at this particular Cambridgeshire quarry site.

Paleontologists in Cambridgeshire, England have recently discovered the skull of a prehistoric and extinct buffalo that roamed the Earth 150,000 years ago after unearthing the animal’s skull in a quarry.

As the Daily Mail reports, the surprising discovery was made by a fossil enthusiast who is a frequent visitor to the quarry, and despite finding hundreds of buffalo bones at this location, this fossilized skull is the first time that a complete skull has been discovered here.

It has been determined that the extinct bison priscus was 6.5 feet tall and weighed an enormous 2,000 pounds. Jamie Jordan, the man responsible for this unique discovery, runs Fossils Galore museum in Cambridgeshire, and has described the moment when he first stumbled upon the 150,000-year-old buffalo skull.

“As we were going through the quarry we saw some splintered pieces of bone on top of the surface, and I thought to myself, that’s a bit strange. I have mainly come across maybe one half of a skull at a time so it is very unusual to find everything together. I had a closer look and it turned out to be a horn cone from a buffalo and removed the loose horn core and there was still a large bone underneath.”

After further excavation, paleontologists discovered the other pieces of the buffalo’s skull and, as Jordan noted, despite having been thoroughly crushed, the Ice Age animal’s skull was nevertheless complete, even down to its massive jaws.

Once washed and weighed, the skull of this extinct buffalo was determined to be between 45 and 55 pounds, and Jordan now believes that other bones that were found at the Cambridgeshire quarry may have come from this same animal, and he intends to conduct further investigation to see if he can find other missing pieces of the bison priscon.

It is being reported that Jordan and his team were also the individuals who were responsible for the astonishing discovery of an Iguanodon skeleton that was found in a quarry in Surrey in 2017, and which had been buried at the site for around 132 million years.

The complete skull of the 150,000-year-old buffalo that was found in the Cambridgeshire quarry will be worked on over the next two months so that it will be perfectly preserved and will then be shown to the public, along with many of the other amazing finds of Jamie Jordan.


Could Evolution Ever Bring Back the Dinosaurs?

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Credit: shutterstock

Did you watch the 1993 movie blockbuster "Jurassic Park" and wonder, "Could this happen for real? Could the dinosaurs ever come back?" The idea that these mighty creatures could wander our Earth again some day is for most humans both fascinating and terrifying in equal measure.

Even real-life scientists are intrigued as to whether the evolutionary process could bring us back to the time of the Tyrannosaurs. But Susie Maidment, a vertebrate paleontologist at London's Natural History Museum, quickly dismissed the notion that a DNA-filled mosquito preserved in amber for millions of years — as in "Jurassic Park" — could ever help recreate an extinct dinosaur.

"We do have mosquitos and biting flies from the time of the dinosaurs, and they do preserve in amber," Maidment said in a statement. "But when amber preserves things, it tends to preserve the husk, not the soft tissues. So, you don't get blood preserved inside mosquitos in amber."

Researchers have found blood vessels and collagen in dinosaur fossils, but these components don't have actual dinosaur DNA in them. Unlike collagen or other robust proteins, DNA is very fragile, and sensitive to the effects of sunlight and water. The oldest DNA in the fossil record is around 1 million years old, and the dinosaurs died out about 66 million years ago.

Maidment added: "Although we have what appears to be blood from mosquitos up to 50 million years old, we haven't found DNA, and in order to reconstruct something, we need DNA."

Jamal Nasir, a geneticist at the University of Northampton in the United Kingdom, said he wouldn't rule out the idea of dinosaurs evolving back from the dead. In his opinion, evolution isn't fixed or planned. In other words, anything could happen. "Evolution is largely stochastic [randomly determined], and evolution doesn't necessarily have to go in a forward direction; it could have multiple directions. I would argue that going back to dinosaurs is more likely to happen in reverse, because the building blocks are already there."

Of course, Nasir pointed out, the right conditions would have to exist for dinosaurs to reappear. "Clearly, one could imagine viral pandemics that might disrupt our genomes, our physiology and behavior beyond our control," he told Live Science. This, in turn, could create the right conditions for evolution to take a path toward reinventing the ancient reptiles.

However, while evolution might not be directional in any particular sense, something we do know is that we don't see the same animal evolving again, Maidment countered. "We can see an animal that is closely related occupying a similar ecological niche — for example, ichthyosaurs were marine reptiles with long pointy snouts and dolphin-like body shapes and tails," she told Live Science. "Today we see the dolphin, and they probably occupy a similar ecological niche. But we wouldn't describe a dolphin as an ichthyosaur because they don't possess the anatomical characteristics that allow them to be ichthyosaurs."

Besides, dinosaurs never quite died out in the first place, Maidment said. Birds evolved from meat-eating dinosaurs, and thus in strict biological definition, everything that evolved from this common ancestor is a dinosaur, sharing the same anatomical characteristics, she said.

"Dinosaurs are still with us," Maidment said. "They say dinosaurs went extinct, but only the non-avian dinosaurs went extinct. Birds are dinosaurs, and birds are still evolving, so we will certainly see new species of birds evolving — and those will be new species of dinosaur."

Some scientists are even dabbling with the evolution process by trying to reverse engineer a chicken into a dinosaur, dubbed the "chickenosaurus." However, this beast, if it ever comes to fruition, would not be a replica of a dinosaur, but rather a modified chicken, Jack Horner, a research associate at the Burke Museum at the University of Washington, previously told Live Science.

Things have changed drastically over 66 million years, and if one day a dinosaur evolved back onto Earth, it would be to a very different world.

"An animal that died out naturally, perhaps 150 million years ago, is not going to recognize anything in this world if you bring it back," Maidment noted "What is it going to eat when grass hadn't [yet] evolved back then? What is its function, where do we put it, does anyone own it?"

That said, it may be best to let sleeping dinosaurs lie, she said.

Originally published on Live Science.

Jurassic Park Recipe? Ancient Insect Found Preserved Inside Opal

Friday, January 25, 2019

Photo: Brian Berger

An opal, purchased a year ago, produced a most unusual discovery, as it contained an ancient insect embedded within it.

In his post for Entomology Today, gemologist Brian Berger shared pictures of an opal he bought during a trip to the Indonesian island of Java. Inside the crystal was an insect frozen in a dramatic pose. The specimen was examined by the Gemological Institute of America, a nonprofit research institute, which authenticated it as a real opal with a fossil inclusion.

The fact that the insect was stuck within the crystal means that the opal itself isn’t just an opal, but opalized amber. Some trees exude a sticky sap that can immobilize bugs, leaves, seeds, and other ancient life forms. After being buried in the right sedimentary conditions, the sap transforms into a soft material called copal, and then, over the course of millions of years of underground pressure and heat it hardens into amber – a bright-yellow or orange stone, with an ancient lifeform inside.

However, it is unusual for amber to become opal, as most of the Indonesian opals found are of volcanic origin. Opalization occurs when dissolved silicates are swept into cracks and cavities by water or other ground liquids, where they harden into opals, but amber located in the presence of hot siliceous fluids is extremely rare.

The opalization of the amber is only one of the theories, he noted, and he is hoping that in collaboration with other experts, including an expert on insect fossils, they would be able to investigate the insect inclusion further.