New Dinosaur Bones Discovered in Peace Country

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

 Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum in Wembley, Emma Mason

New dinosaur bones are being discovered by paleontologists at a bone bed in the area. Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum Curator Corwin Sullivan says bones found at the Spring Creek bone bed on the Wapiti River appear to be from duck-billed dinosaurs.

“Spring Creek is producing what seems to be the bones of juvenile duck-billed dinosaurs. We’re not sure exactly what kind of duckbill we have at this point or whether its a known species or a new species but that’s something we’re going to try and find out when we get the bones back to the University of Alberta to be studied.

The Peace Country has become a hot spot for paleontologists because it remains largely untouched. Sullivan says that paleontologists have generally focused on parts of southern Alberta instead of places in the area because fossils are more accessible due to a lack of plants and trees.

“What we have here is a dinosaur fauna that in many ways is poorly explored. There’s still a lot to find out and that’s what makes it exciting to work here.”

There are only a few days left in the current season before crews pack up for the winter. Sullivan says that the bones found this year will be cleaned, studied and prepared for display at the museum which could take at least a few years.

“Its only after this process that we can put the material on display with a sense of credibility because our interpretation of the material has been validated by peer review and we can now put it before the public and say alright this is what it is.”

Sullivan says crews are already planning to return to three bone beds in the area next season including Spring Creek, Nose Creek and the DC bone bed on the Wapiti River to collect more bones.


Winged Reptiles Thrived Before Dinosaurs

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

A 3D printed model of the pterosaur skull discovered in Utah. BRIGHAM YOUNG UNIVERSITY

Palaeontologists have found a new species of pterosaur - the family of prehistoric flying reptiles that includes pterodactyl.

It is about 210 millions years old, pre-dating its known relatives by 65 million years.

Named Caelestiventus hanseni, the species' delicate bones were preserved in the remains of a desert oasis.

The discovery suggests that these animals thrived around the world before the dinosaurs evolved.

Artist's impression of Caelestiventus hanseni. MICHAEL SKREPNICK

Pterosaurs are the oldest flying vertebrates; the first to crack the evolutionary puzzle of powered flight.

As a result of this engineering, their delicate, bird-like skeletons are often found in quite a crushed state.

"Most of them are heavily distorted; literally like roadkill," says lead author Prof Brooks Britt, from Brigham Young University in Utah.

Finding the perfectly preserved skull of this early species provided researchers with a rare opportunity to study its structure.

"The bones are so delicate, you can't take them all the way out of the rock because they would just fall apart," explains Prof Britt.

Instead, the team used a CT scanner to build a digital profile of the skull, and then printed a detailed 3D model.

This revealed a remarkably complex set of teeth, including sharp fangs protruding from the front of the mouth, and blade-like teeth along the lower jaw.


Dr Steve Brusatte, University of Edinburgh

Finding a pterosaur in an ancient Triassic-aged sand dune is a hugely pleasant surprise.

What makes this discovery so remarkable is that very few pterosaurs are known from the entire Triassic Period, which means that we have few fossils that tell the story of how these strange winged reptiles evolved during the first 30 million years of their history.

It's a trifecta: a Triassic pterosaur from a new place, preserved in an immaculate way, and found in rocks from an environment that we didn't think they lived in so early during their evolution. What this means is that pterosaurs were already geographically widespread and thriving in a variety of environments very early in their evolution.

They were not a fringe group restricted to a few habitats while their dinosaur cousins were rising up, but they were part of the fabric of the Triassic world, along with the earliest dinosaurs.

The new species is most closely related to an Early Jurassic-aged British pterosaur, which means that these primitive pterosaur groups not only were widespread, but they survived the great extinction at the end of the Triassic, when volcanoes welled up through the cracks of the fracturing supercontinent Pangaea and caused a runaway global warming event that may be similar to what we're experiencing today.

The pterosaur is a close relative of Dimorphodon, discovered by Mary Anning on Britain's Jurassic Coast. SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

The fossils come from a quarry in the Utah desert that was once a bustling oasis, about 210 million years ago.

"This one site we've pulled out 18,000 bones from an area the size of a good sized living room," says Prof Britt. "And there's only one pterosaur."

The specimen had not yet reached adulthood, but had a one-and-a-half metre wingspan.

"It was probably the biggest of its day. Among its peers, we have no evidence that any rival came close to that," adds Prof Britt.

The pterosaur may have hunted small vertebrates living in the underbrush around the oasis, and there are signs that it had a throat pouch similar to some modern birds.

Now, the team plan to do further research on the fossil, to better understand how it lived and what it ate.

The findings have been published in Nature Ecology & Evolution.


The Feathered Revolution: How Dinosaurs Became Birds

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Meet the ancestors: The feathered dinosaur Microraptor pounces on a nest of primitive birds (Sinornis). Both species lived during the Cretaceous Period (~120 million years ago) in what is now northern China. Image: Brian Choo.  Read more at

The evolutionary tale of birds is full of twists, turns and discoveries that continue to rewrite the history books. Paul Willis leads us through the maze.

After agonising over it for 20 years, Darwin finally published his theory of evolution, On The Origin Of Species, in 1859. But it was Darwin’s ‘bulldog’, Thomas Henry Huxley, who braced to defend the theory. To do so, Huxley desperately needed fossil evidence of a ‘missing link’ to show how animals had transitioned from one species to another – evidence that Darwin himself admitted was sadly lacking.

Just two years later in Bavaria, the Jurassic-aged limestone deposits yielded a near-perfect fossil of Archaeopteryx. It had blade-like serrated teeth and many other features across the skeleton and skull that showed it was a carnivorous dinosaur. But the crow-sized specimen was covered in the impressions of bird-like feathers. For Huxley, this was the transitional form he was seeking: a dinosaur on its way to becoming a bird. The Germans referred to it as Urvogel, the first bird (its scientific name is derived from the Greek words, ancient feathers).

It was a coup for Huxley. It was also the beginning of the feather revolution.

Archaeopteryx’s halo of feathery impressions may have been a 19th century game changer, but feathers were only just starting to overturn the evolutionary paradigm of the day.

Fast forward 137 years, and new discoveries of fossils with quills are continuing to rewrite the textbooks, not just on bird origins but across the entire dinosaur family tree.

The attempt by palaeontologists to retrace the path of bird evolution makes for a rolicking tale full of sudden twists and turns. For starters, Archaeopteryx did not settle the matter of bird origins. In the early years of the 20th century, Huxley’s proposition that birds descended from carnivorous dinosaurs, specifically the suborder known as theropods, fell out of favour.

One problem with the theory was that the skeletons of theropods were missing a crucial part of bird anatomy – the wishbone (furcula). It acts like a spring to assist flight and is made from the fusion of two collarbones. So for the first half of the 20th century, the search was on for a non-dinosaur ancestor to the birds.

Velociraptor. Not the Spielberg version: correctly drawn with feathers. CREDIT: 02 LEONELLO / GETTY IMAGES

The next twist in the tale of bird evolution was added by American palaeontologist John Ostrom. He resurrected Huxley’s theory by showing numerous similarities between the skeletons of Deinonychus, a theropod from the Montana Badlands, and Archaeopteryx. Ostrom was able to show that Deinonychus and other theropods did actually have a furcula; it had previously been mistaken for an extra pair of ventral ribs. Even more exciting was the fact that this fusion of the two collarbones had clearly occurred in the theropods well in advance of the evolution of flight capability.

But it was feathers that provided the final incontrovertible evidence that birds evolved from dinosaurs. In the early 1990’s researchers began recovering extraordinary fossils of a wide range of creatures from the late Jurassic and early Cretaceous periods (150 million to 100 million years ago).

They came from Liaoning province in northern China, and, unlike most fossils, their soft tissues were still preserved.

In 1996 the Liaoning deposits surrendered their first feathered dinosaur, the 1.5 metre long theropod dinosaur, Sinosauropteryx. While it had no wings, it was covered in a feathery fuzz.

Since then, a spectacular array of small, feathered dinosaurs have been recovered from Liaoning and a few other sites around the world, which plot every conceivable evolutionary step from small fuzz-covered, meat-eating theropods through to fully feathered and winged birds.

This transition is not so much a linear path as a dense maze, with many paths leading to dead ends.


It’s also clear now that Archaeopteryx was not the first bird-like dinosaur. That honour (at least for the time being) goes to Xiaotingia zhengi. Unearthed from Liaoning province in 2011, this feathered fossil is estimated to be at least five million years older than the dozen odd specimens of Archaeopteryx found to date. Xiaotingia displayed several primitive features, such as a sickle-shaped killing claw on the second toe of each foot – the type seen on Deinonychus and the villainous Velociraptor depicted in the movie Jurassic Park. (The movie version is actually about as big as Deinonychus while the real Velociraptor is about half that size).

Xiaotingia not only had fuzz, it had a set of feathered wings capable of gliding flight, probably an intermediate step toward fully powered flight.

While Xiaotingia had a single set of wings, other gliding protobirds like the slightly younger Microraptor developed two sets. Effectively they would have looked and functioned like the wings of a biplane, with the rear set held below the front pair to avoid turbulence. A number of other small dinosaur protobirds also had elongated feathers on their hind limbs; however, in most cases, these appear to be ornamental rather than flight worthy.

But it seems dinosaur flight experiments were not restricted to feathers. In 2015 came news of a very weird theropod named Yi qi that was only distantly related to the protobirds. Found in Hebei province, which borders Liaoning, Yi is around 160 million years old, the size of a small bantam and estimated to have weighed around 380 grams.

What was so weird about this little fella was only apparent because of the extraordinary preservation of skin and feathers alongside the front end of the skeleton. Similar to its close relatives, Yi had an elongated third finger as well as a bony strut extending from the wrist.

But the beautifully preserved specimen also shows a flap of skin stretching between that long finger, the bony strut and the side of the body. Rather than using its feathers for flight, Yi was gliding on bat-like wings.


With all this aerial experimentation going on, the question remains: why were all these dinosaurs seemingly hell bent on learning to fly, with feathers or without?

The short answer seems to be that small theropods had already taken to the trees. They probably did so to avoid larger predators and to source meaty prey such as insects and small vertebrates nestled among the branches. Their curved, needle-point theropod claws on both the fingers and toes weren’t just great for grabbing prey; they also made excellent grappling hooks for climbing.

Once they were arboreal (tree-dwellers), the ability to glide from tree to tree like flying lizards and possums do today could have allowed them to extend their range and chase other gliders while staying clear of dangers on the ground. When it came to evolving true aeronautical ability, they already had a head-start thanks to a suite of features they had inherited from their theropod ancestors.

For starters, they were lightweight. All theropods had hollow but strong bones, an adaptation their ancestors developed to be faster at hunting prey.

Being lightweight helped with gliding, but progressing to powered flight depended on another inherited feature. The shoulder sockets of theropods had rotated so that instead of swinging the arms backward and forward for walking, the arms could come together in front of the animal in a grasping motion to capture prey. This grappling action also appears to be assisted by the furcula acting in a spring-like manner, linking the muscles in the chest to the actions of the arms. Any gliding protobird using this grasping action would be performing the first down stroke of powered flight.

A further modification was the development of pockets extending from the lungs, which not only increased overall lung capacity but led to a one-way breathing system where air circulates continually through the lungs instead of being pumped in and out the way humans breathe. This breathing system, a characteristic of all modern birds, was also very useful for a pursuit predator. 

Feathers, which evolved alongside these other avian characteristics, would complete the journey towards modern birds. Beginning as simple downy filaments, they had probably originated to keep theropods warm – evidence supporting the theory that at least some dinosaurs were ‘warm-blooded’. They may also have served as ornaments. Festooned with arm feathers, smaller theropods’ plumage would have given them a degree of lift to chase flying insects.

This set of features – small with lightweight bones, rotated shoulder sockets with a furcula, turbocharged breathing systems and feathers – developed in theropods long before they took to the air and set the scene for protobirds.

Fossil quills have already forced multiple revisions of textbooks. And still, a finding just last year showed that feathers are not done with their revolutionary work.

For 130 years, we thought we understood the broad architecture of the dinosaur family tree. British palaeontologist Harry Seeley pointed out in 1887 that dinosaurs could be divided into two groups based on whether their hips were lizard-like (where the pubis points forward) or bird-like (where the pubis points back). Confusingly, it was members of the lizard-hipped rather than bird-hipped variety that gave rise to birds.

The lizard-hipped saurischians were in turn divided between the long-necked plant-eating sauropods, such as Brachiosaurus, and the meat-eating theropods.

The bird-hipped ornithischians included a huge variety of plant-eating dinosaurs that could be divided into three smaller groups: the armoured dinosaurs including Stegosaurus, the bird-footed ornithopods such as Iguanodon and the horned dinosaurs like Triceratops.


Bottom line: Brachiosaurus and Tyrannosaurus were relatively close cousins. IguanodonStegosaurus and Triceratops were more distantly related.

Palaeontologists were quite happy with this binary arrangement until 2017, when another British palaeontologist, Matthew Baron from Cambridge University, completely redrew the family tree.

Baron looked at 74 species of exceedingly rare early dinosaurs from the first half of the Age of Dinosaurs. By analysing a very large set of characters from all over the skeletons, he was able to tease out how the early branches divided right down at the base of the tree.

His first finding pushed back the origin of dinosaurs by around five million years to about 247 million years ago. The second completely rewrote dinosaurian prehistory. Instead of a neat, early split between the lizard-hipped and bird-hipped branches, Baron found an even earlier split that placed the lizard-hipped theropods onto the same branch as the bird-hipped group.

So now Tyrannosaurus is nestled in with Triceratops (see figure opposite).

This new and, at present, controversial arrangement of dinosaur relationships lay hidden in a soup of confusing lumps and bumps on bones; there was no single feature that you could point to and say “dinosaur X belongs on this branch or that”.

Except, perhaps, feathers.

Feathers and their hairy antecedents have been found on many theropod dinosaurs and also on several different bird-hipped dinosaurs. But they have never been found among the sauropods. So the new group of dinosaurs consisting of the theropods and the bird-hipped dinosaurs (which has been named the ornithoscelidans) may be defined by the presence of feathers or feather-like structures covering some portion of the animal.

So feathers may be telling us a lot more about the structure of the dinosaur’s family tree than simply “here are the birds”. They may actually be the defining feature of one of the most fundamental splits in the dinosaur tree that occurred very early in their evolution.

The revolution is still underway and many of the preliminary conclusions presented here are far from settled and confirmed. There is still a lot of work to be done, more species to find and classify.

Long live the revolution of the feather!

Incontrovertible evidence: the Sinosauropteryx fossil, discovered in Liaoning province in 1996, revealed a dinosaur covered in downy fuzz. CREDIT: NATURE


Mysterious, Plant-Like Fossil May Have Been One of the Earliest Animals

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

An Ediacaran fossil from the National Earth Science Museum, Namibia. (J. Hoyal Cuthill)  Read more: Give the gift of Smithsonian magazine for only $12! Follow us: @SmithsonianMag on Twitter

New research suggests that soft-bodied organisms called Ediacarans may have been related to an animal of the Cambrian period.

Hundreds of millions of years ago, before animals began to emerge en masse during the Cambrian period, the Earth’s seas were filled with mysterious, soft-bodied organisms known as “Ediacara biota.”

The first Ediacaran fossils were discovered in 1946, and ever since then, paleontologists have been grappling with how to classify these strange creatures. Some experts think Ediacarans were algae, others believe they were fungi, and still others have posited that they were a distinct kingdom of life unrelated to anything living today. Ediacarans have been described as a “failed experiment” in evolution, since they were believed to have died out before the emergence of animals. But as Colin Barras reports for Science, new research suggests that Ediacarans may have actually been the first animals to appear on Earth.

“Ediacara biota” is a collective name for a large group of around 200 types of fossils that have been found across the globe. Ediacaran fossils are diverse in appearance: some resemble “simple blobs,” some look more like worms, and some have an unusual, plant-like appearance—with branched fronds that take the form of fractals and subunits replicating the pattern of the entire frond itself—but have in fact been categorized as animalia. These creatures are believed to have died out just before the “Cambrian explosion” around 541 million years ago, when most major animal groups began to appear.

But a new study published in the journal Palaeontology offers evidence to suggest that Ediacarans may have survived into the Cambrian period. Jennifer Hoyal Cuthill of the Tokyo Institute of Technology and the University of Cambridge and Jian Han of Northwest University in Xi’an, China, noticed similarities between the plant-like Ediacarans and a type of marine creature called Stromatoveris psygmoglena.

Found only in China’s Chengjiang county, Stromatoveris psygmoglena is a Cambrian-era animal. After examining 200 Stromatoverisi fossils, Hoyal Cuthill and Han concluded that the creature has a very similar anatomy to seven members of the Ediacara biota. Like these Ediacarans, Stromatoverisi have “multiple, branched fronds which radiate outwards like seaweed,” Hoyal Cuthill writes in the Conversation.

The researchers also used a computer analysis to determine the evolutionary relationship between Ediacarans and a number of other groups, including Stromatoveris psygmoglena. They found that Ediacarans and Stromatoverisi belonged to their own branch on the evolutionary tree of life, which has been named “Petalonamae.” The analysis also revealed that Petalonamae are distinct from any other living animal group. But, according to Hoyal Cuthill and Han, both Ediacarans and Stromatoverisi were indeed animals.

“[W]e found that Stromatoveris psygmoglena provides a crucial link between the older period and the animals which appeared in startling number and diversity during the Cambrian period,” Hoyal Cuthill writes.

The new study has been met with some doubts; for instance, Simon Darroch, a geobiologist at Vanderbilt University, tells Barras that he is not entirely convinced Ediacarans and Stromatoverisi have the same fractal architecture. But Hoyal Cuthill and Han’s findings could have major implications for our understanding of evolutionary history. If Ediacarans can be correctly classified as animals, that means animals began to diversify some 30 million years before the Cambrian explosion; the earliest frond-like Ediacarans appear in the fossil record 571 million years ago.

“This could mean that the petalonamids adapted more successfully to the changes of the Cambrian period than had been thought,” Hoyal Cuthill writes in the Conversation, “or that the Ediacaran period and its animals were less alien and more advanced than previously realized.”


Paleontologists Uncover Complete Tyrannosaur in Montana

Monday, August 13, 2018

The first D. horneri skull ever found, next to an illustration of what the dinosaur may have looked like in real life. The skull is about 32 inches (89.5 cm) long. Credit: Copyright Dino Pulerà

Dickinson Paleontologist Denver Fowler and his team are continuing summer field work at Montana's Judith River Formation, where a complete, articulated tyrannosaur skeleton is being uncovered.

Fowler has called the Montana site "the most exciting I've ever found."
Last year, Fowler found three tyrannosaur sites there. One find had its feet sticking out of a cliff, with all of the bones attached. The feet were placed anatomically correct, both pointing toward each other and fully articulated.

That specimen has been further excavated, with bones from its feet and rib cage uncovered and being brought back to Dickinson Dinosaur Museum.

"They'll probably be able to give more information on the species once they get down to the skull," Robert Fuhrman, museum director, said. "It is in a heavily concreted mixture, which means it's difficult to extract, but it also means it's really well protected. (Dr. Fowler)'s very excited about the quality of what he's seen."

Four to five people work at the site at any time, including some University of North Dakota geology students. More of the specimen is expected to be uncovered in 2019.

"It will probably be toward the end of next summer that the major components of this piece can be recovered from this site," Fuhrman said. "It's a difficult extraction, just because it's located some distance off of any navigable road and it's going to be coming out in heavy chunks."

Destiny Wolf, museum fossil preparator working with Dr. Fowler, said excavation at the site, where temperatures can reach 108 degrees, is exciting.

"It's a long process, but it will be so worth it," she said.






Did You Know About Indian Dinosaurs? Meet the Rajasaurus

Monday, August 13, 2018

Restoration of Rajasaurus narmadensis based on GSI 21141/1–33.

Would you like to see and hold dinosaur fossils? Well, if you’re anywhere in India, they’re perhaps not too far from where you are!

The Wonderful Narmada: Our Fossil-Rich Heritage

Call her Narmada. Call her Nerbudda. Call her Rewa. Or call her Namade, as did the Greek geographer Ptolemy in his scripts from second century AD. This ancient, historic and holy river that flows across the breadth of India is the fifth-largest river in India and the largest river in the state of Madhya Pradesh (MP). Originating from the Narmada Kund, a small reservoir in the mighty Amarkantak Hills of MP, it flows through the Vindhya and Satpura mountain ranges. It is over 1,300 km long and travels through the states of MP, Gujarat and Maharashtra.

What is the Lameta Formation?

It is the most fossil-rich region of India. The Lameta Formation is a multilayered sedimentary belt that runs along the banks of the Narmada. It was formed in the Upper Cretaceous Period (100.5 mya to 66 mya). The fossils are found buried in marble and dolomitic cliffs, which are covered with sedimentary rocks for a stretch of nearly 200 km. These sedimentary deposits have helped preserve the fossils for millions of years.

Fossils of popular dinosaurs from India, such as the Titanosaurus, Indosaurus, Laevisuchus, Isisaurus and Jainosaurus, have been unearthed here!

The dinosaur trail along the Narmada river (Courtesy: HarperCollins Children’s Books)

Other Fossil-Rich Regions

Have you heard of the Maleri, Dharmaram and Kota Formations?

These formations, too, are fossil-rich sedimentary belts. They are found in Andhra Pradesh, along the banks of the rivers Pranhita and Godavari. They are home to the dinosaur fossils from the Late Triassic Period (251 mya to 200 mya) and Early Jurassic Period (200 mya to 146 mya), such as Alwalkeria maleriensis and Barapasaurus tagorei.

A significant number of fossilized bones of sauropods have also been discovered in the sedimentary formation called Mahadek Formation at Dirang, a small village near Ranikor, West Khasi Hills district, Meghalaya. Similarly, some areas of Kutch and Rajasthan, too, are considered fossil sites with high potential for discoveries.

Fossil Sites and Hatcheries in India

Would you like to see and hold dinosaur fossils? Well, if you’re anywhere in India, they’re perhaps not too far from where you are!

I get wide-eyed, astonished looks from most people when I tell them that India has some of the world’s largest fossil excavation sites and hatcheries! Of late, thanks to social media, people are becoming more and more aware about them. Still, most people are in the dark about where these sites are and what they contain.

Rahioli in Gujarat is the third-largest fossil excavation site and the second-largest hatchery in the world. (The other major nesting sites are in Aix-en-Provence in France and in Mongolia.) Located 70 km from Ahmedabad, Rahioli is home to the dinosaurs from the Cretaceous Period.

Another fossil excavation site is in Telangana, near Kota village. Dinosaur fossils from the Jurassic Period were discovered here.

What are Nesting Sites or Hatcheries?

Dinosaur nesting sites are places where dinosaurs made pits in the ground and laid eggs. However, these pits got buried under sand and rocks when a series of natural calamities—volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis—took place in different parts of the world.

The buried eggs were fossilized and are now being discovered during excavations. It is important to remember that finding fossilized eggs is an incredibly rare thing. Padma was a lucky girl!

Hold your breath! The largest Cretaceous site in the world is in central India and it extends from Kutch in the west to Nagpur in the east, then up to north of Hyderabad (Adilabad) and further down to Tamil Nadu. In all, it covers a whopping 10,000 sq. km! Phew!

Whose egg is this?

You can tell which dinosaur the egg fossil belongs to by looking at its shape.

Megaloolithus eggs: As the name suggests, these are ‘large eggs’, about 16 cm in diameter. They typically belong to sauropods.

Elongatoolithus eggs: These are elongated eggs and typically belong to theropods.

Ornithischian eggs: These are very tiny and belong to small dinosaurs.

Fun with Nomenclature

Did you ever wonder why most dinosaur names end with a ‘saurus’ or why they have such absurd names?

To start with, two Greek words, deinos (meaning terrible) and sauros (meaning lizard) were used to create the word Dinosaur!

But how do they get such strange-sounding, tongue-twisting names?

Typically, dinosaur names are indicative of their distinct physical features, their place of discovery, the name of the Palaeontologist who discovered them or the scientist who first described them in a research paper! They are a combination of two Greek or two Latin words, or one Greek and one Latin word, in the following order:

Genus + species

Did you know? Every dinosaur name must be approved by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature.

Also, most popular dinosaur names end in ‘saurus’ or ‘suchus’ or ‘raptor’. While sauros means ‘lizard’ in Greek, suchus means ‘crocodile’ (derived from the word ‘soukhos’, an Egyptian crocodile god) and raptor means a ‘bird of prey’ in Latin.

Don’t forget to italicize the genus and species names. It’s a rule!

Among the dinosaurs found in India, Alwalkeria maleriensis was named after the British Palaeontologist Alick Walker. His name forms the genus name of the dinosaur, while its species name comes from the Maleri Formation in Andhra Pradesh, where it was discovered. Bruhathkayosaurus means a huge-bodied lizard (‘bruhath’ means ‘huge’ and ‘kaya’ means ‘body’ in Sanskrit).

If you were a Palaeontologist, and you discovered a new dinosaur fossil, what would you name it?

Rajasaurus narmadensis

The 65 million year old Rajasaurus narmadensis, an abelisaurid theropod, was discovered by Palaeontologist Suresh Srivastava from Jaipur GSI in 1983, from the fossil graveyard at Rahioli, in the Kheda district of Gujarat. This region is close to the state highway and is called the Temple Hill.

The Rajasaurus sports a peculiar crest on its head, much like a crown. Hence the name Rajasaurus, which means ‘Royal Lizard’. The word narmadensis stands for the sediment-rich Narmada river belt where it was discovered. A bipedal carnivore, it is about 9 m long with a very robust built, and a strong skull and neck.

The most fascinating part of the discovery was that he found a completely intact braincase just 3.5 m away from the backbones. He meticulously cleaned them. Near Rajasaurus’s fossil bones, he discovered the fossil bones of individual sauropods, which meant that the Rajasaurus preyed on mighty sauropods like Mahaan and Baahu.


Cambrian-Aged Ediacaran Organism Reconfirms Explosiveness of the Cambrian Explosion

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Precambrian life, by Ghedoghedo [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], from Wikimedia Commons.

According to a new paper in the journal Palaeontology, for the first time it has been discovered that an organism from the Precambrian Ediacaran fauna may have survived into the Cambrian period. Some have proposed that the strange Ediacaran organisms were evolutionary precursors to the animals that appear in the Cambrian explosion, but this hypothesis has been highly disputed.

Evolutionary Precursors?

In Darwin’s Doubt, Stephen Meyer explained:

Most paleontologists doubt that well- known Ediacaran forms represent ancestors of the Cambrian animals and few think the late Precambrian fossil record as a whole makes the Cambrian explosion appreciably less explosive.

…[As] paleontologist Andrew Knoll and biologist Sean B. Carroll have argued: “It is genuinely difficult to map the characters of Ediacaran fossils onto the body plans of living invertebrates.” Although many paleontologists initially showed interest in the possibility that the Cambrian animal forms might have evolved from the Ediacaran organisms, paleontologist Peter Ward explains that “later study cast doubt on the affinity between these ancient remains preserved in sandstones [the Australian Ediacaran] and living creatures of today” (that is, animals representing phyla that first arose in the Cambrian). As Nature recently noted, if the Ediacaran fauna “were animals, they bore little or no resemblance to any other creatures, either fossil or extant.” 

(Darwin’s Doubt, pp. 79, 84-85)

Similarly, the technical paper about this Cambrian-aged Ediacaran fossil notes that “‘bizarre’ Ediacaran morphologies and mouldic preservation have frustrated comparison to later taxa” and observes that “evolutionary relationships of the Ediacaran macro‐biota have remained unresolved.”

Unlike Living Animals

The Cambrian-aged fossil that was discovered, Stromatoveris, is similar to other Ediacaran organisms in that it is fronded, containing “petaloids.” This morphology is unlike living animals, and the authors don’t think that the Ediacaran fauna are highly similar to modern animal phyla that appear in the Cambrian explosion. As Sciencereports:

They found that Stromatoveris and the other Ediacaran organisms don’t belong to any living animal group or “phylum.” Instead, they cluster on their own branch in the animal evolutionary tree, between the sponges and complex animals with a digestive cavity like worms, mollusks, and vertebrates, the team reports today in Palaeontology. “This branch, the Petalonamae, could well be its own phylum, and it apparently lacks any living descendants,” [Jennifer] Hoyal Cuthill says.

Some folks disagree with the interpretation that there are Ediacaran animals in the Cambrian:

Geobiologist Simon Darroch at Vanderbilt University in Nashville is also comfortable with the idea that the Ediacaran organisms were animals and that a few survived into the Cambrian. But on a first look he is not convinced that Stromatoveris was one such survivor; he thinks the evidence that it had the fractal architecture of an Ediacaran organism isn’t strong — yet he’s open to persuasion.

“Not Quite So Neat Anymore”

The Science article also notes that this discovery demolishes one explanation for the abrupt evolution in the Cambrian period:

If the new conclusion settles one mystery, though, it introduces another. The Ediacaran organisms represent the first major explosion of complex life on Earth, and they thrived for 30 million years. Their demise has been linked to the appearance of animals in the Cambrian Explosion, Hoyal Cuthill says. But that simple explanation doesn’t work as well if Ediacaran organisms were animals themselves, and some were still alive tens of millions of years later. “It’s not quite so neat anymore,” she says. “As to what led to their eventual extinction I think it’s very hard to say.”

But were the Ediacaran organisms actually animals? That still seems to be in dispute, and finding this strange, fronded fossil organism in Cambrian strata certainly doesn’t settle the debate. All it really shows is that the enigmatic Ediacaran fauna lived longer than we previously thought they had.


Caelestiventus hanseni: Newly-Discovered Triassic Pterosaur Lived in Harsh Desert

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Caelestiventus hanseni. Image credit: Michael Skrepnick / Brigham Young University.

Paleontologists have discovered what they say is a completely unexpected desert-dwelling pterosaur that lived in what is now Utah, the United States, about 210 million years ago. The discovery of this early pterosaur, reported in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, sheds new light on early pterosaur anatomy and development.

Pterosaurs were giant flying reptiles that flew over the heads of the dinosaurs. Soaring on skin wings supported by a single huge finger, they were the largest animals ever to take wing.

Originating in the Late Triassic epoch (around 215 million years ago), they thrived to the end of the Cretaceous period (66 million years ago).

Triassic pterosaurs are extraordinarily rare and are known exclusively from marine deposits in the Alps (Italy, Austria and Switzerland), except for Arcticodactylus cromptonellus from fluvial deposits in Greenland.

The new Triassic pterosaur is from the Saints & Sinners Quarry near Dinosaur National Monument in Utah.

Named Caelestiventus hanseni, the ancient flying reptile was comparatively large (wing span over 5 feet, or 1.5 m) and lived in harsh desert environments.

It is the only record of desert-dwelling non-pterodactyloid pterosaurs. It predates all known desert pterosaurs by more than 65 million years.

“We’re getting insights into the beginning of pterosaus. Ours shows that they’re extraordinarily diverse,” said Brigham Young University’s Dr. Brooks Britt.

A 3D-printed model of the Caelestiventus hanseni skull. Image credit: Nate Edwards / Brigham Young University.

Caelestiventus hanseni was found in sandstone so the bones were not crushed.

Rather than trying to extricate the thin bones from the sandstone, Dr. Britt and colleagues CT scanned the specimen and created 3D models of the bones for study.

“Most Triassic specimens consist of just a single bone: for example, a little phalanx from a finger or one vertebra from the neck,” Dr. Britt said.

“For this animal, we have the sides of the face and the complete roof of the skull, including the brain case, complete lower jaws and part of the wing.”

Caelestiventus hanseni’s 3D bones provide insights into the evolution of the earliest pterosaurs — especially the skull.

“These insights include the muscles attached and the nature of the teeth, which numbered about 112,” the paleontologists said.

“Furthermore, the skull roof preserves the impression of the brain, which reveals that even early pterosaurs had a poor sense of smell and well-developed vision.”

Caelestiventus hanseni is most closely related to Dimorphodon macronyx, known only from Lower Jurassic strata of Britain,” they said.

“This indicates that the family Dimorphodontidae originated in the latest Triassic and the lineage survived the Triassic-Jurassic mass extinction event.”


Brooks B. Britt et alCaelestiventus hanseni gen. et sp. nov. extends the desert-dwelling pterosaur record back 65 million years. Nature Ecology & Evolution, published online August 13, 2018; doi: 10.1038/s41559-018-0627-y


Coral Reefs 'Weathered Dinosaur Extinction'

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Australia's Great Barrier Reef is threatened by warming ocean temperatures

Corals may have teamed up with the microscopic algae which live inside them as much as 160 million years ago, according to new research.

The two organisms have a symbiotic relationship, meaning they need each other to survive.

But this partnership was previously thought to have developed about 60 million years ago.

The new findings suggest that reef algae may have weathered significant environmental changes over time.

This includes the mass extinction that wiped out most of the dinosaurs.

Algae's resilience to temperature changes has been of concern to scientists recently, as warming events on the Great Barrier Reef have seen the coral "bleached" of its algae.

The study, conducted by an international team of scientists, aimed to explore the diversity of algae species co-habiting with corals.

Looking at the species group Symbiodinium, the researchers found that it contained more varieties than previously thought. Although scientists had been aware of the algae's diversity, it had not been classified into many separate species - which now appears to be the case.

Using DNA analysis, the team found that these algae likely evolved and began their partnership with coral during the Middle Jurassic, well before the extinction event that affected the dinosaurs.

"Our recognition of the true origin of those microbes that give corals life is major revelation," lead author Prof Todd LaJeunesse told BBC News.

"They are way older than was previously estimated. Meaning that [this partnership has] been around for a hell of a long time!" added the Pennsylvania State University researcher.

Prof Mary-Alice Coffroth from the University of Buffalo, who was not involved in the study, hailed the new age estimate as "an important result."

"The threats of climate change and other anthropogenic perturbations have underscored the need for more intense study of reefs and coral resilience," she told the BBC.

The classification of more numerous Symbiodinium species is, she says, "a sorely-needed first step towards unravelling the mysteries of this important, but enigmatic group."

Prof LaJeunesse is optimistic about the study's implications for coral algae's resilience to climate change.

"It tells us that they are incredibly resilient and will likely be around for a long time. With that said, their survival of the current rapid changes in our climate may not be a pretty one. Ecosystem function may collapse," he said.

However researchers remain concerned that damage to coral reefs is accelerating in current conditions.

The team now hopes to study the various species of Symbiodinium more closely, comparing their genomes, ability to associate with different corals, and thermal tolerance to better understand how they will respond to the pressures of climate change.

The findings were published in the journal Current Biology.


These Half-Billion-Year-Old Creatures Were Animals—But Unlike Any Known Today

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Artist’s reconstruction of Stromatoveris, an ancient marine animal J. HOYAL CUTHILL

So-called Ediacaran organisms have puzzled biologists for decades. To the untrained eye they look like fossilized plants, in tube or frond shapes up to 2 meters long. These strange life forms dominated Earth’s seas half a billion years ago, and scientists have long struggled to figure out whether they’re algae, fungi, or even an entirely different kingdom of life that failed to survive. Now, two paleontologists think they have finally established the identity of the mysterious creatures: They were animals, some of which could move around, but they were unlike any living on Earth today.

Scientists first discovered the Ediacaran organisms in 1946 in South Australia’s Ediacara Hills. To date, researchers have identified about 200 different types in ancient rocks across the world. Almost all appear to have died out by 541 million years ago, just before fossils of familiar animals like sponges and the ancestors of crabs and lobsters appeared in an event dubbed the Cambrian explosion. One reason these creatures have proved so tricky to place in the tree of life is that some of them had an anatomy unique in nature. Their bodies were made up of branched fronds with a strange fractal architecture, in which the frond subunits resembled small versions of the whole frond.

Jennifer Hoyal Cuthill at the Tokyo Institute of Technology and the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom and Jian Han at Northwest University in Xi’an, China, have now found key evidence that the Ediacaran organisms were animals. They analyzed more than 200 fossils of a 518-million-year-old marine species named Stromatoveris psygmoglena. Paleontologists had previously concluded that the 10-centimeter-tall species was some sort of animal—in part, says Hoyal Cuthill, because it was found alongside other known animals, and all of the fossils are preserved in a similar way. Hoyal Cuthill and Han argue S. psygmoglena was also an Ediacaran organism, a rare “survivor” that somehow clung on through the Cambrian explosion.

he Stromatoveris fossils, which were all unearthed in Yunnan province in southwestern China, are beautifully preserved, Hoyal Cuthill says. As she examined specimen after specimen she became increasingly excited. “I began thinking: My goodness, I’ve seen these features before.” Like some of the strange Ediacaran organisms, Stromatoveris was made up of several radially repeated, branched fronds with a fractal internal architecture.

A fossil of one of the 200 or so types of Stromatoveris J. HOYAL CUTHILL

To find out what sort of animals Stromatoveris and the other Ediacaran organisms were, Hoyal Cuthill and Han ran a computer analysis that uses anatomical features to reconstruct evolutionary relationships. They found that Stromatoveris and the other Ediacaran organisms don’t belong to any living animal group or “phylum.” Instead, they cluster on their own branch in the animal evolutionary tree, between the sponges and complex animals with a digestive cavity like worms, mollusks, and vertebrates, the team reports today in Palaeontology. “This branch, the Petalonamae, could well be its own phylum, and it apparently lacks any living descendants,” Hoyal Cuthill says.

“It looks very likely [the Ediacaran organisms] are animals,” says Simon Conway Morris, a paleontologist at the University of Cambridge, who worked with Han on the first description of Stromatoveris in 2006, but who was not involved in the current study. At that point there were just a handful of known Stromatoveris fossils. The researchers argued that they were similar to some Ediacaran organisms, although others later questioned that link. Conway Morris says the new study “extends the story very nicely” by exploring the Ediacaran nature of Stromatoveris in more detail.

Geobiologist Simon Darroch at Vanderbilt University in Nashville is also comfortable with the idea that the Ediacaran organisms were animals and that a few survived into the Cambrian. But on a first look he is not convinced that Stromatoveris was one such survivor; he thinks the evidence that it had the fractal architecture of an Ediacaran organism isn’t strong—yet he’s open to persuasion.

If the new conclusion settles one mystery, though, it introduces another. The Ediacaran organisms represent the first major explosion of complex life on Earth, and they thrived for 30 million years. Their demise has been linked to the appearance of animals in the Cambrian Explosion, Hoyal Cuthill says. But that simple explanation doesn’t work as well if Ediacaran organisms were animals themselves, and some were still alive tens of millions of years later. “It’s not quite so neat anymore,” she says. “As to what led to their eventual extinction I think it’s very hard to say.”