Entelognathus primordialis: This 419-Million-Year-Old Fish Has the World’s Oldest Known Face

Friday, September 27, 2013

A reconstruction of how the creature may have looked alive. Image via Brian Choo

The ancient fossil, just discovered in China, could upend our understanding of how all vertebrates evolved over time.

Sure, it’s not much to look at. But stare long enough, and you’ll see a jaw (jutting out towards the right), a pair of nostrils (small perforations directly above the mouth cavity) and even a tiny eye socket (just above the mouth, to the left of the nostrils, staring out sideways).

This admittedly homely fish fossil, the 419-million-year old Entelognathus primordialis, was recently discovered in China and described for the first time in an article published today in Nature. What makes it remarkable is everything that’s come after it: It’s the oldest known creature with a face, and may have given rise to virtually all the faces that have followed in the hundreds of millions of years since, including our own.

The uncommonly well-preserved, three-dimensional fossil, analyzed by a group of researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, was excavated near Xiaoxiang Reservoir in Southeast China, in a layer of sediment that dates to the Silurian period, which ranged from roughly 419 to 443 million years ago. All other fish specimens from this era are jawless fish (a group of more primitive creatures that still live on today as lampreys and hagfish), so this is the first one that has what we might call a face: a mouth, nose and two eyes.

It’s difficult to conclude very much about the behavior or lifestyle of the ancient creature, but we do know that it swam in water (land animals didn’t begin to evolve until the Devonian period, which spanned 359 to 419 million years ago) and was likely a top-level predator of the early ocean ecosystem.

What has scientists so excited, though, is that the particular anatomical features of this fossil could upend our understanding of how vertebrates evolved over time. “When I first saw this, I was completely blown away,” says Matt Friedman a paleobiologist at the University of Oxford that reviewed the paper and wrote an accompanying article in Nature. “It’s the kind of fossil you might see once or twice in your lifetime, as a research scientist.”

Friedman and others find the fossil so remarkable because it combines a series of characteristics from two different groups: placoderms, an ancient class of armored fish that went extinct millions of years ago, and bony fish, a lineage that gave rise to all modern fish with jaws and bone skeletons. Previously, it was assumed that placoderms died out completely (and that the other, more recent types of fish with similar armor plating had independently re-evolved it much later), while a different, shark-like group of fish called acanthodians led to the bony fishes.

“What a fossil like this shows is that maybe that’s not the case,” Friedman says. “Because if you look at just the top of the skull and the body, it looks like a placoderm. But when you look at the side, and the front, you see it has jaws that, bone for bone, closely resemble the jaws of bony fish.”

This is significant because of what happened next: bony fish gave rise to all modern vertebrate fish, along with all amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals, including ourselves. In other words, this fossil might mean that the placoderms didn’t go extinct, but rather evolved into the tremendous diversity of animals that live on both land and sea—and that this ancient, strange-looking face belongs to one of your oldest ancestors.

Scientists won’t immediately jump to reorganize their evolutionary family trees overnight, but the new finding will prompt a period of renewed scrutiny of the previous model. “It’s going to take a while for people to digest it and figure out what it all means,” Friedman says. “From a fossil like this, you’ve got a cascade of implications, and this is just the first paper to deal with them.”

Eventually, though, this finding could help transform our understanding of just how evolution occurred in our planet’s ancient oceans—and how the primitive creatures that swam in them eventually gave rise to the faces we see everyday.


New research solves the 60-year-old paleontological mystery of a 'phantom' dicynodont

Friday, March 16, 2018

Skeleton of the dicynodont Placerias, a close relative of the newly-discovered Pentasaurus, with dicynodont trackways (Pentasauropus). Credit: Christian Kammerer  Read more at:

A new study has re-discovered fossil collections from a 19th century hermit that validate 'phantom' fossil footprints collected in the 1950s showing dicynodonts coexisting with dinosaurs.

Before the dinosaurs, around 260 million years ago, a group of early mammal relatives called dicynodonts were the most abundant vertebrate land animals. These bizarre plant-eaters with tusks and turtle-like beaks were thought to have gone extinct by the Late Triassic Period, 210 million years ago, when dinosaurs first started to proliferate. However, in the 1950s, suspiciously dicynodont-like footprints were found alongside dinosaur prints in southern Africa, suggesting the presence of a late-surviving phantom dicynodont unknown in the skeletal record. These "phantom" prints were so out-of-place that they were disregarded as evidence for dicynodont survival by paleontologists. A new study has re-discovered fossil collections from a 19th century hermit that validate these "phantom" prints and show that dicynodonts coexisted with early plant-eating . While this research enhances our knowledge of ancient ecosystems, it also emphasizes the often-overlooked importance of trace fossils, like footprints, and the work of amateur scientists.

"Although we tend to think of paleontological discoveries coming from new field work, many of our most important conclusions come from specimens already in museums," says Dr. Christian Kammerer, Research Curator of Paleontology at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and author of the new study.

The re-discovered fossils that solved this mystery were originally collected in South Africa in the 1870s by Alfred "Gogga" Brown. Brown was an amateur paleontologist and hermit who spent years trying, with little success, to interest European researchers in his discoveries. Brown had shipped these specimens to the Natural History Museum in Vienna in 1876, where they were deposited in the museum's collection but never described.

"I knew the Brown collections in Vienna were largely unstudied, but there was general agreement that his Late Triassic collections were made up only of dinosaur fossils. To my great surprise, I immediately noticed clear dicynodont jaw and arm bones among these supposed 'dinosaur' fossils," says Kammerer. "As I went through this collection I found more and more bones matching a dicynodont instead of a dinosaur, representing parts of the skull, limbs, and spinal column." This was exciting—despite over a century of extensive collection, no  of a dicynodont had ever been recognized in the Late Triassic of South Africa.

Before this point, the only evidence of dicynodonts in the southern African Late Triassic was from questionable footprints: a short-toed, five-fingered track named Pentasauropus incredibilis (meaning the "incredible five-toed lizard foot"). In recognition of the importance of these tracks for suggesting the existence of Late Triassic dicynodonts and the contributions of "Gogga" Brown in collecting the actual fossil bones, the re-discovered and newly described dicynodont has been named Pentasaurus goggai ("Gogga's five-[toed] lizard").

"The case of Pentasaurus illustrates the importance of various underappreciated sources of data in understanding prehistory," says Kammerer. "You have the contributions of amateur researchers like 'Gogga' Brown, who was largely ignored in his 19th century heyday, the evidence from footprints, which some paleontologists disbelieved because they conflicted with the skeletal evidence, and of course the importance of well-curated museum collections that provide scientists today an opportunity to study specimens collected 140 years ago."

The paper, "The first skeletal evidence of a dicynodont from the lower Elliot Formation of South Africa," is published in the journal Palaeontologia Africana.

Provided by: North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences


Study Sheds Light on Different Ways Dinosaurs Hatched Eggs

Sunday, March 18, 2018

This artist's image shows a hadrosaurus, a dinosaur that is thought to have used heat from microbial decay to warm its eggs. (Image by Masato Hattori, courtesy of the Nagoya University Museum)

Some dinosaurs used heat of the sunlight or microbial decay to warm their eggs, while others brooded, a study by a team including a researcher from Nagoya University suggests.

The study by the team including Japanese researcher Kohei Tanaka was published online in the British journal Scientific Reports. While the fossils of dinosaur eggs and nests have been discovered across the globe, it was not clear how dinosaurs warmed their eggs.

To understand nesting habits, the team researched species including alligators and birds which take advantage of surrounding heat to warm their eggs, as they are similar to dinosaurs. They found that the nesters mainly used microbial decay to warm their eggs when the nesting material consisted of dirt or plants, and sunlight in sandy nesting locations. The researchers used this knowledge to analyze 192 fossilized dinosaur nests.

The nests of some sauropods -- giant herbivorous dinosaurs having a small head and a long neck -- were found in coarse-grained sediment such as sandstone. This led researchers to presume that these dinosaurs used solar radiation or geothermal heat to incubate their eggs.

For the hadrosaurus, a herbivorous dinosaur whose face is like the platypus, researchers concluded it was possible microbial decay was used for incubation because hadrosaurus nests were mainly discovered in fine-grained deposits such as mudstone.

The scientists also analyzed nests of troodontids, small carnivorous dinosaurs similar to birds, including eggs. The fossils were discovered in both fine-grained and coarse-grained deposits, indicating that the eggs were hatched in any type of environment. This supported the theory that these dinosaurs brooded.

Tanaka, who works as a special researcher at Nagoya University Museum, commented, "I want to utilize differences in the ways of warming eggs to shed light on the habitats of dinosaurs."


Kerygmachela kierkegaardi: 520-Million-Year-Old Predator’s Fossilized Brains Discovered

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Image Source: Rebecca Gelernterk, Near Bird Studios

Scientists have peered into the brain of a prehistoric creature that lived around 520 million years ago. Fifteen fossils of the ancient predator were recently discovered in Greenland, which had fortunately escaped the ravages of time and elements.

This allowed the creature’s nervous tissue to be fossilized, providing researchers with new insights into panarthropods' evolutionary developments. Panarthropods are an animal group that include creatures such as tardigrades or water bears, velvet worms and arthropods, such as insects.

“The findings shed light on the ancestral condition of the panarthropod brain and the origin of complex arthropod compound eyes. The new material, furthermore, provides novel information on the overall anatomy of Kerygmachela,” the researchers wrote in the new study, published in the journal Nature Communications.

The newly discovered fossils belonged to a now-extinct species called Kerygmachela kierkegaardi. The prehistoric creature swam across the Earth’s oceans during the Cambrian explosion — an era that saw the emergence of incredible and rapid diversity among life forms over a short period of time.

The ancient creature measures between one to ten inches and is flanked by 11 wrinkly flaps on both sides of the body. Photo: Tae-Yoon Park/Nature Communications

The ancient creature measured between one to ten inches and is flanked by 11 wrinkly flaps on both sides of the body. The predator also sported a round head and an elongated tail spine. United Kingdom-based paleontologist Jakob Vinther, who led the study along with Tae-Yoon Park of the Korea Polar Research Institute, told National Geographic the creature’s forward-facing appendages grabbed onto prey, “making lives miserable for other animals.”

The new study challenges previous theories that claimed the common ancestor of all panarthropods had complex three-part brain. Instead, the researchers argue the new evidence indicated the common ancestor of panarthropods, as well as invertebrate panarthropods and vertebrates, did not have complex brains.

Researchers believe despite its simple brain, the Kerygmachela’s eyes were likely complex enough to form images. The ancient predator’s eyes likely mirror the smaller and much simpler eyes of modern-day tardigrades and velvet worms, Science reported.

However, some scientists appear to be unconvinced of the new details.

“If they’re going to say that the brain of Kerygmachela is like that of a tardigrade, you have to be really, really careful,” Nicholas Strausfeld told National Geographic. “Because it might not be.”

“The discovery of the simple unipartite brain in stem-group euarthropods corroborates the ancestral simplicity of the panarthropod brain, and also suggests that the complex neural concentrations, such as tripartite brains in euarthropods and chordates, are the result of convergent adaptations,” the researchers concluded.


Extinct Bird with Dinosaur-Like Claw May Soon Be Resurrected

Monday, March 12, 2018

Preserved Megalapteryx (moa) foot, Natural History Museum (CC by SA 2.0)

A clawed, flightless bird that went extinct in New Zealand in the late 13th century might be brought back to life, claim scientists at Harvard University.

Nearly three decades ago, archaeologists exploring a cave system on Mount Owen in New Zealand discovered a dinosaur-like claw with flesh and scaly skin. After testing it proved to the a 3,300-year-old mummified remains of an upland moa (Megalapteryx didinus). A DNA analysis published in the  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences established that there were at least “ten species of moa which appeared around 18.5 million years ago” but they were all wiped from existence in what scientists call “the most rapid, human-facilitated megafauna extinction documented to date.”

Sir Richard Owen standing next to a moa skeleton and holding the first bone fragment belonging to a moa ever found. (public domain)

Using DNA recovered from the toe, Harvard scientists have now mapped and compiled the first almost complete genome of a “little bush moa,” moving closer to the possibility that extinct genomes will soon become “de-extinct.” The whole idea of bringing “vanished species back to life by slipping the genome into the egg of a living species,” has been regarded by some reviewers as equal to the dark fictional works of Dr Frankenstein, while to others, it has been described in a lighter light as being ‘Jurassic Park’-like,” according to an article on

Left: Illustration of a Moa. Right: Preserved footprint of a Moa (public domain)

Let’s not enter the moral debate, for that is wholly subjective, and look closer at the processes and innovations of Stewart Brand, the co-founder of the nonprofit conservation group Revive and Restore. Aiming to “resurrect vanished species” Brand’s team’s work on the DNA of the little bush moa was recently published in a non-peer-reviewed paper and Brand told reporters “De-extinction probability increases with every improvement in ancient DNA analysis.” The DNA was reconstructed from the sample taken from the creature’s toe but scientists know that “a lot of genetic restructuring is required before the creature can be reborn.” And with the prospects of a creature which stands as high as a teenager, scientists predict they might have to use a "6-inch long, 1-pound emu egg to incubate the moa”.

Stewart Brand had already mapped the passenger pigeon genome and the woolly mammoth, and speaking of this latest project to reporters at, Morten Erik Allentoft of the Natural History Museum of Denmark, an expert on moa DNA said it is “a significant step forward.” As well as the woolly mammoth and passenger pigeon, among the “nearly complete” extinct genomes, scientists have almost completed two of our human cousins, Neanderthals and Denisovans, the dodo, the Tasmanian tiger and the great auk, which dyed out in the North Atlantic in the mid-19th century.

Scientists have almost completed the mapping of the Tasmanian Tiger genome, another extinct species that may soon be revived (public domain).

According to Harvard’s Alison Cloutier, the little bush moa team tried to match “900 million nucleotides, scattered across millions of DNA pieces, and tried to match them to specific locations on the genome of the emu, a close relative of all nine moa species.” Bird genomes, including the eight other extinct moa species, “have similar genes for particular traits tend to be on the same chromosome and arranged relative to other genes in a similar way,” according to the article.

Similarly, according to Harvard’s George Church, who leads The Mammoth Project, “elephant chromosomes were studied to better know how mammoth DNA might be organized.” Scientists believe that herpes infections killed off the mammoth and if it was made ‘de-extinct’, its immune system could be enhanced to resist this virus. You might be asking, like I did, wasn’t all this DNA and genome mapping sorted out “before” the 1996 birth of Dolly the Sheep at the Roslin institute in Scotland?

“Kind of” is the answer, the problem is, putting DNA into an egg is infinitely more difficult than fertilizing mammals. The cloning method applied to make Dolly the Sheep is fine for a mammalian eggs, “but that doesn’t work in birds — “at least so far,” Brand told reporters.

There is no doubt the final parts in the cloning puzzle will be solved, and given enough time, maybe not in our lifetime, a country or a private enterprise will inevitably work out how to clone us.


Ash From Dinosaur-Era Volcanoes Linked With Shale Oil, Gas

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Nutrient-rich ash from an enormous flare-up of volcanic eruptions toward the end of the dinosaurs' reign kicked off a chain of events that led to the formation of shale gas and oil fields from Texas to Montana.

That's the conclusion of a new study by Rice University geologists that appears this week in Nature Publishing's online journal Scientific Reports.

"One of the things about these shale deposits is they occur in certain periods in Earth's history, and one of those is the Cretaceous time, which is around the time of the dinosaurs," said study lead author Cin-Ty Lee, professor and chair of Rice's Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences. "This was about 90 million to 100 million years ago, which is about the same time as a massive flare-up of arc volcanoes along what is today the Pacific rim of the Western United States."

Advances in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing over the past 20 years led to a U.S. energy boom in "unconventionals," a category that includes the shale gas and "tight" oil found in shale fields like the Cretaceous Eagle Ford and Mowry and older ones like the Barnett and Bakken.

An enormous volcanic flare-up at the end of the dinosaurs’ reign kicked off a chain of events that led to the formation of the U.S. shale oil and gas fields from Texas to Montana. Rice University geologists said older shale gas fields, like the Marcellus in Pennsylvania and Ohio, may have formed from similar volcanic flare-ups hundreds of millions of years earlier. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

"These types of natural gas and oil are in tiny, tiny pores that range from a few millionths of a meter in diameter to a few thousandths of a meter," Lee said. "The deposits are in narrow bands that can only be accessed with horizontal drilling, and the oil and gas are locked in these little pockets and are only available with techniques like hydraulic fracturing."

Lee said that there have always been hints of a connection between ancient volcanic eruptions and unconventional shale hydrocarbons. During field trips out to West Texas, he and Rice students noticed hundreds of ash layers in exposed rock that dated to the Cretaceous period when much of western North America lay beneath a shallow ocean.

One of these trips happened in 2014 while Lee and Rice colleagues also were studying how a flare-up of Cretaceous-era arc volcanoes along the U.S. Pacific rim had impacted Earth's climate through enhanced volcanic production of carbon dioxide.

"We had seen ash layers before, but at this site we could see there were a lot of them, and that got us thinking," Lee said. Lee, graduate student Hehe Jiang and Rice undergraduates Elli Ronay, Jackson Stiles and Matthew Neal decided to investigate the ash beds in collaboration with Daniel Minisini, a colleague at Shell Oil who had been doing extensive work on quantifying the exact number of ash beds.

"It's almost continuous," Lee said. "There's an ash layer at least every 10,000 years."

The eruption of Alaska’s Pavlof Volcano as seen from the International Space Station May 18, 2013. The volcano’s ash cloud rose to 20,000 feet and extended over hundreds of miles of the northern Pacific Ocean. Credit: NASA/ISS Crew Earth Observations experiment and Image Science and Analysis Laboratory, Johnson Space Center

Lee said the team determined that ash had come from hundreds of eruptions that spanned some 10 million years. The layers had been transported several hundred miles east of their volcanic source in California. The ash was deposited on the seafloor after being blown through plumes that rose miles into the atmosphere and drifted over the ocean. Lee and students analyzed samples of the ash beds in the geochemical facilities at Rice.

"Their chemical composition didn't look anything like it would have when they left the volcano," he said. "Most of the original phosphorus, iron and silica were missing."

That brought to mind the oceanic "dead zones" that often form today near the mouths of rivers. Overfertilization of farms pumps large volumes of phosphorus down these rivers. When that hits the ocean, phytoplankton gobble up the nutrients and multiply so quickly they draw all the available oxygen from the water, leaving a "dead" region void of fish and other organisms.

Lee suspected the Cretaceous ash plumes might have caused a similar effect. To nail down whether the ash could have supplied enough nutrients, Lee and his team used trace elements like zirconium and titanium to match ash layers to their volcanic sources. By comparing rock samples from those sources with the depleted ash, the team was able to calculate how much phosphorus, iron and silica were missing.

"Normally, you don't get any deposition of organic matter at the bottom of the water column because other living things will eat it before it sinks to the bottom," Lee said. "We found the amount of phosphorus entering the ocean from this volcanic ash was about 10 times more than all the phosphorus entering all the world's oceans today. That would have been enough to feed an oxygen-depleted dead zone where carbon could be exported all the way down to the sediment."

The combination of the ashfall and oceanic dead zone concentrated enough carbon to form hydrocarbons.

Oxygen-depleted “dead zones” often form in the northern Gulf of Mexico due to nutrient-rich runoff from the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers, which are seen here as tan and greenish-brown plumes visible from the International Space Station in 2012. Nutrient-rich volcanic ash may have fed similar dead zones that produced shale oil and gas fields from Texas to Montana. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Aqua MODIS

"To generate a hydrocarbon deposit of economic value, you have to concentrate it," Lee said. "In this case, it got concentrated because the ashes drove that biological productivity, and that's where the organic carbon got funneled in."

Lee said shale gas and tight oil deposits are not found in the ash layers but appear to be associated with them. Because the layers are so thin, they don't show up on seismic scans that energy companies use to look for unconventionals. The discovery that hundreds of closely spaced ash layers could be a tell-tale sign of unconventionals might allow industry geologists to look for bulk properties of ash layers that would show up on scans, Lee said.

"There also are implications for the nature of marine environments," he said. "Today, phosphorus is also a limiting nutrient for the oceans, but the input of the phosphorus and iron into the ocean from these volcanoes has major paleoenvironmental and ecological consequences."

While the published study looked specifically at the Cretaceous and North America, Lee said arc volcano flare-ups at other times and locations on Earth may also be responsible for other hydrocarbon-rich shale deposits.

"I suspect they could," he said. "The Vaca Muerta field in Argentina is the same age and was behind the same arc as what we were studying. The rock record gets more incomplete as you go further back in time, but in terms of other U.S. shales, the Marcellus in Pennsylvania was laid down more than 400 million years ago in the Ordovician, and it's also associated with ashes."

More information: Cin-Ty A. Lee et al. Volcanic ash as a driver of enhanced organic carbon burial in the Cretaceous, Scientific Reports (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-018-22576-3

Journal reference: Scientific Reports

Provided by: Rice University


'Sonora Lizard' could become Arizona's State Dinosaur

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Sonorasaurus is a genus of brachiosaurid dinosaur from around 93 million to 112 million years ago. It was a herbivorous sauropod whose fossils have been found in southern Arizona in the United States. Its name, which means “Sonora lizard,” comes from the Sonoran Desert where its fossils were first found. It is estimated to have been about 49 feet long and 27 feet tall, about one-third of the size of Brachiosaurus.  Wikipedia

A 27-foot-tall dinosaur that lived about 100 million years ago could soon have something in common with the cactus wren, the palo verde and even the Colt single-action revolver: becoming part of “official” Arizona.

Members of the House Government Committee on Thursday gave their unanimous endorsement to the pleas of 11-year-old Jax Weldon to designate the Sonorasaurus as the “official state dinosaur.” That sends SB 1517, which already has been approved by the Senate, to the full House.

Weldon, a self-proclaimed amateur paleontologist, told lawmakers he was inspired after California lawmakers voted last year to select the Augustynolophus as its official state dinosaur. His research, he said, led him to the Sonorasaurus.

The “why” behind that choice is a bit more complex.

There’s the sheer size of the enormous creatures, getting as tall as 27 feet and up to 49 feet long. That size allowed the vegetarian to graze in the treetops that other animals of its time could not reach.

It also lived in what is now Arizona, though at the time the climate and topography were vastly different than they are now.

And then there’s the fact that the huge creature was featured in “Jurassic Park.”

“I would not choose any other dinosaurs because they either are not relevant enough or not very well understood,” Weldon said. And he said he did not want to choose a dinosaur that might already be the official selection of some other state.

Weldon told lawmakers his interest in dinosaurs dates to when he was just 2.

“I think there was this little tiny globe that my parents had bought,” he said. “When you pressed it in a certain area it would say the name of a dinosaur and then it would like roar or something.”

If the bill becomes law, it would add Sonorasaurus to an ever-growing list of official state items.

Some are quite familiar, like the bloom of the giant saguaro as the state flower, the two-tailed swallowtail as the state butterfly or even the bola tie as official state neckwear.

Some of the choices have been more controversial, like the 2011 vote to declare the Colt single-action Army revolver to be the official state firearm.

Albert Hale, then a state representative from Window Rock, objected to providing official state recognition to “an instrument of destruction.” And Hale, a Navajo, said his people were all too often on the wrong end of that weapon.

“Does that mean we honor and celebrate the killing of my relatives?” he asked.

And controversy could be lurking in the wings even on this to designate the Sonorasaurus as the state dinosaur.

Two decades ago John Huppenthal, then a state senator, pushed a proposal by a 9-year-old boy to give that designation to the Dilophosaurus, a 20-foot-long dinosaur whose remains were discovered in 1940 near Tuba City.

That ran into opposition from volunteers from the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson who argued that the bones were spirited away by paleontologists from the University of California-Berkeley. But they had their own suggestion, that being the Sonorasaurus whose remains were being excavated at the time by Arizona paleontologists near Sonoita with plans to put them on display at the Tucson museum.

An attempt at compromise to name both ultimately faltered. And, in the end, neither prehistoric creature gained the designation.

And, as it turns out, there could still be other pretenders even today to giving the state’s official blessing to the Sonorasaurus.

The Museum of Northern Arizona has a potential entry, the Therizinosaur, whose bones are on display at that facility. And while it was unearthed in southern Utah, there is a belief it probably roamed farther south across the Colorado Plateau.

Official state emblems:

Colors -- Blue and old gold, with blue the same as U.S. flag

Fossil -- Petrified wood (araucarioxylon arizonicum)

Bird -- Coues' cactus wren (heleodytes brunneicapillus coures)

Flower -- The white waxy flower of the saguaro (cereus giganteus)

Tree -- Palo verde (genera cercidium)

Neckwear -- Bola tie

Gemstone -- Turquoise

Mammal -- Ringtail (bassariscus astutus)

Reptile -- Ridge-nosed rattlesnake (crotalus willardi)

Fish -- Arizona trout (salmo apache)

Amphibian -- Arizona tree frog (hyla eximia)

Butterfly -- Two-tailed swallowtail (papilionidae papilio multicaudata)

Nickname -- The Grand Canyon state

Firearm -- Colt single action Army revolver

Metal -- Copper

State mineral -- Wulfenite

-- Source: Arizona Revised Statutes &

Archaeopteryx Was Active Flyer, Paleontologists Say

Thursday, March 15, 2018

An artist’s impression of what Archaeopteryx lithographica, one of the earliest known birds, would have looked like in flight. Image credit: Carl Buell / Nicholas Longrich.

Archaeopteryx is an iconic fossil species with feathered wings from the Late Jurassic of Germany. The question of whether this dino-bird was an elaborately feathered ground dweller, a glider, or an active flyer has fascinated paleontologists for many years. European Synchrotron Radiation Facility researcher Dennis Voeten and colleagues have now analyzed new data from three Archaeopteryx specimens and found that the wing bones of the ancient creature were shaped for incidental active flight, but not for the advanced style of flying mastered by modern-day birds.

Was Archaeopteryx capable of flying, and if so, how? Although it is common knowledge that modern-day birds descended from extinct dinosaurs, many questions on their early evolution and the development of avian flight remain unanswered.

Traditional research methods have thus far been unable to answer the question whether Archaeopteryx flew or not.

Using synchrotron microtomography to probe inside Archaeopteryx fossils, Dr. Voeten and co-authors shed new light on this earliest of birds.

Reconstructing extinct behavior poses substantial challenges for paleontologists, especially when it comes to enigmatic animals such as Archaeopteryx. This well-preserved fossil species shows a mosaic anatomy that illustrates the close family relations between extinct raptorial dinosaurs and the birds.

Most modern bird skeletons are highly specialized for powered flight, yet many of their characteristic adaptations in particularly the shoulder are absent in Archaeopteryx specimens.

Although its feathered wings resemble those of modern birds flying overhead every day, the primitive shoulder structure is incompatible with the modern avian wing beat cycle.

“The cross-sectional architecture of limb bones is strongly influenced by evolutionary adaptation towards optimal strength at minimal mass, and functional adaptation to the forces experienced during life,” said Professor Jorge Cubo, from the Sorbonne University, France.

“By statistically comparing the bones of living animals that engage in observable habits with those of cryptic fossils, it is possible to bring new information into an old discussion,” added Dr. Sophie Sanchez, from Uppsala University, Sweden.

Archaeopteryx skeletons are preserved in and on limestone slabs that reveal only part of their morphology. Since these fossils are among the most valuable in the world, invasive probing to reveal obscured or internal structures is therefore highly discouraged.

“Fortunately, today it is no longer necessary to damage precious fossils,” said Dr. Paul Tafforeau, of the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility.

“The exceptional sensitivity of X-ray imaging techniques for investigating large specimens offers harmless microscopic insight into fossil bones and allows virtual 3D reconstructions of extraordinary quality.”

Scanning data unexpectedly revealed that Archaeopteryx’s wing bones, contrary to its shoulder girdle, shared important adaptations with those of modern flying birds.

“We focused on the middle part of the arm bones because we knew those sections contain clear flight-related signals in birds,” said Dr. Emmanuel de Margerie, from CNRS, France.

“We immediately noticed that the bone walls of Archaeopteryx were much thinner than those of earthbound dinosaurs but looked a lot like conventional bird bones,” Dr. Voeten said.

“Data analysis furthermore demonstrated that the bones of Archaeopteryx plot closest to those of birds like pheasants that occasionally use active flight to cross barriers or dodge predators, but not to those of gliding and soaring forms such as many birds of prey and some seabirds that are optimized for enduring flight.”

“We know that the region around Solnhofen in southeastern Germany was a tropical archipelago, and such an environment appears highly suitable for island hopping or escape flight,” said Dr. Martin Röper, from the Bürgermeister-Müller-Museum and the Bayerische Staatssammlung für Paläontologie und Geologie, Germany.

Archaeopteryx shared the Jurassic skies with primitive pterosaurs that would ultimately evolve into the gigantic pterosaurs of the Cretaceous. We found similar differences in wing bone geometry between primitive and advanced pterosaurs as those between actively flying and soaring birds,” said Dr. Vincent Beyrand, from the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility.

The findings are published in the journal Nature Communications.


Dennis F.A.E. Voeten et al. 2018. Wing bone geometry reveals active flight in ArchaeopteryxNature Communications 9, article number: 923; doi: 10.1038/s41467-018-03296-8


Flightless Bird Extinct for More Than 700 Years Can be Brought Back to Life, Say Scientists

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Museum host shows Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong a giant Moa bird during a visit to Te Papa Museum in Wellington. [Representational Image]

The little bush moa inhabited parts of New Zealand and went extinct in the late 13th century as a result of overhunting.

Scientists are a step closer to bringing back a species of flightless bird that has been extinct for almost 700 years. The little bush moa that inhabited parts of New Zealand went abruptly extinct as a result of overhunting in the late 13th century.

A team of researchers from Harvard University has assembled a nearly-complete genome of the extinct moa by extracting ancient DNA from the toe bone of a moa specimen held at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada.

The scientists now believe that they are closer to the goal of "de-extinction" — the vanished species can be brought back to life by slipping the genome into the egg of a living species, Statnews reported.

"High throughput sequencing has revolutionized the field of ancient DNA (aDNA) by facilitating recovery of nuclear DNA for greater inference of evolutionary processes of extinct species than is possible from mitochondrial DNA alone," according to the study.

Credit: J. Erxleben, Transactions of the Zoological Society of London v. 11, Wikimedia

The little bush moa was a part of the palaeognathae clade of birds and birds, and those like the kiwi, ostrich, and emu were considered its cousins. There were nine species of the moa but all of them are extinct now.

They roamed in the forests of the North and South Islands of New Zealand before they became extinct, the NZ Herald said. They were on an average four feet tall and weighed about 66 pounds.

Experts believe that the Harvard researchers' work could make it easier to bring back the long-lost species from extinction.

"The fact that they could get a genome from a little bush moa toe is a big deal since now we might be able to use their data to do other extinct bird species," Ben Novak, lead scientist at non-profit conservation group Revive and Restore, told Statnews.

"De-extinction could be useful for inspiring new science and could be beneficial for conservation if we ensure it doesn't reduce existing conservation resources," University of Queensland scientist Hugh Possingham said in a statement.

"However, in general, it is best if we focus on the many species that need our help now," he added.


Mongolia Struggles to Combat Dinosaur Fossil Smugglers

Monday, February 26, 2018

Visitors to a "ger" (tent) camp walk past large dinosaur sculptures used as a gimmick to promote the camp at the Terelj National Park near Ulan Bator, Mongolia. May 27, 2005. (File Photo /AP Archive)

Mongolia's Gobi desert is the world's biggest fossil reservoir. Many of the bones excavated have been lost to smugglers. The country now is campaigning to return the remains to their rightful home.

Mongolian laws have been strengthened to protect dinosaur fossils from being smuggled after the country lost some of the finest examples.

International co-operation to bring fossils back to Mongolia has been growing and has resulted in 22 returns in 2013 alone.