Fossils in South Africa Reveal Dinosaur Nesting Site: 190 Million Years Old

ScienceDaily (Jan. 23, 2012) — An excavation at a site in South Africa has unearthed the 190-million-year-old dinosaur nesting site of the prosauropod dinosaur Massospondylus — revealing significant clues about the evolution of complex reproductive behaviour in early dinosaurs.

A new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), was led by Canadian palaeontologist Prof. Robert Reisz, a professor of biology at the University of Toronto at Mississauga, and co-authored by Drs. Hans-Dieter Sues (Smithsonian Institute, USA), Eric Roberts (James Cook University, Australia), and Adam Yates (Bernard Price Institute (BPI) for Palaeontological Research at Wits).

The study reveals clutches of eggs, many with embryos, as well as tiny dinosaur footprints, providing the oldest known evidence that the hatchlings remained at the nesting site long enough to at least double in size.

Prof. Bruce Rubidge, Director of the BPI at Wits, says: “This research project, which has been ongoing since 2005 continues to produce groundbreaking results and excavations continue. First it was the oldest dinosaur eggs and embryos, now it is the oldest evidence of dinosaur nesting behaviour.”

The authors say the newly unearthed dinosaur nesting ground is more than 100 million years older than previously known nesting sites.

At least ten nests have been discovered at several levels at this site, each with up to 34 round eggs in tightly clustered clutches. The distribution of the nests in the sediments indicate that these early dinosaurs returned repeatedly (nesting site fidelity) to this site, and likely assembled in groups (colonial nesting) to lay their eggs, the oldest known evidence of such behaviour in the fossil record.

The large size of the mother, at six metres in length, the small size of the eggs, about six to seven centimetres in diameter, and the highly organised nature of the nest, suggest that the mother may have arranged them carefully after she laid them.

“The eggs, embryos, and nests come from the rocks of a nearly vertical road cut only 25 metres long,” says Reisz. “Even so, we found ten nests, suggesting that there are a lot more nests in the cliff, still covered by tons of rock. We predict that many more nests will be eroded out in time, as natural weathering processes continue.”

The fossils were found in sedimentary rocks from the Early Jurassic Period in the Golden Gate Highlands National Park in South Africa. This site has previously yielded the oldest known embryos belonging to Massospondylus, a relative of the giant, long-necked sauropods of the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods.

“Even though the fossil record of dinosaurs is extensive, we actually have very little fossil information about their reproductive biology, particularly for early dinosaurs,” says David Evans, a University of Toronto at Mississauga alumnus and a curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology at the Royal Ontario Museum.

“This amazing series of 190 million year old nests gives us the first detailed look at dinosaur reproduction early in their evolutionary history, and documents the antiquity of nesting strategies that are only known much later in the dinosaur record,” says Evans.

Ancient domesticated dog skull found in Siberian cave: 33,000 years old

ScienceDaily (Jan. 23, 2012) — A 33,000-year-old dog skull unearthed in a Siberian mountain cave presents some of the oldest known evidence of dog domestication and, together with an equally ancient find in a cave in Belgium, indicates that modern dogs may be descended from multiple ancestors.

If you think a Chihuahua doesn’t have much in common with a Rottweiler, you might be on to something.

An ancient dog skull, preserved in a cave in the Altai Mountains of Siberia for 33,000 years, presents some of the oldest known evidence of dog domestication and, together with equally ancient dog remains from a cave in Belgium, indicates that domestication of dogs may have occurred repeatedly in different geographic locations rather than with a single domestication event.

In other words, man’s best friends may have originated from more than one ancient ancestor, contrary to what some DNA evidence previously has indicated.

“Both the Belgian find and the Siberian find are domesticated species based on morphological characteristics,” said Greg Hodgins, a researcher at the University of Arizona’s Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Laboratory and co-author of the study that reports the find.

“Essentially, wolves have long thin snouts and their teeth are not crowded, and domestication results in this shortening of the snout and widening of the jaws and crowding of the teeth.”

The Altai Mountain skull is extraordinarily well preserved, said Hodgins, enabling scientists to make multiple measurements of the skull, teeth and mandibles that might not be possible on less well-preserved remains. “The argument that it is domesticated is pretty solid,” said Hodgins. “What’s interesting is that it doesn’t appear to be an ancestor of modern dogs.”

The UA’s Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Laboratory used radiocarbon dating to determine the age of the Siberian skull.

Radioactive carbon, or carbon-14, is one of three carbon isotopes. Along with naturally occurring carbon dioxide, carbon-14 reaches the surface of Earth by atmospheric circulation, where plants absorb it into their tissues through photosynthesis.

Animals and humans take in carbon-14 by ingesting plants or other animals that have eaten plants. “Carbon-14 makes it into all organic molecules,” said Hodgins. “It’s in all living things.”

“We believe that carbon-14 production is essentially constant over time,” said Hodgins. “So the amount of carbon-14 present in living organisms in the past was similar to the levels in living organisms today. When an animal or plant dies, the amount of carbon-14 in its remains drops at a predictable rate, called the radioactive half-life. The half-life of radiocarbon is 5,730 years.”

“People from all over the world send our laboratory samples of organic material that they have dug out of the ground and we measure how much carbon-14 is left in them. Based on that measurement, and knowing the radiocarbon half-life, we calculate how much time must have passed since the samples had the same amount of carbon-14 as plants and animals living today.”

The researchers use a machine called an accelerator mass spectrometer to measure the amount of radioactive carbon remaining in a sample. The machine works in a manner analogous to what happens when a beam of white light passes through a prism: White light separates into the colors of the rainbow.

The accelerator mass spectrometer generates a beam of carbon from the sample and passes it through a powerful magnet, which functions like a prism. “What emerges from it are three beams, one each of the three carbon isotopes,” said Hodgins. “The lightest carbon beam, carbon-12, bends the most, and then carbon-13 bends slightly less and carbon-14 bends slightly less than that.”

The relative intensities of the three beams represent the sample’s carbon mass spectrum. Researchers compare the mass spectrum of an unknown sample to the mass spectra of known-age controls and from this comparison, calculate the sample’s radiocarbon age.

At 33,000 years old, the Siberian skull predates a period known as the Last Glacial Maximum, or LGM, which occurred between about 26,000 and 19,000 years ago when the ice sheets of Earth’s last ice age reached their greatest extent and severely disrupted the living patterns of humans and animals alive during that time. Neither the Belgian nor the Siberian domesticated lineages appear to have survived the LGM.

However, the two skulls indicate that the domestication of dogs by humans occurred repeatedly throughout early human history at different geographical locations, which could mean that modern dogs have multiple ancestors rather than a single common ancestor.

“In terms of human history, before the last glacial maximum people were living with wolves or canid species in widely separated geographical areas of Euro-Asia, and had been living with them long enough that they were actually changing evolutionarily,” said Hodgins. “And then climate change happened, human habitation patterns changed and those relationships with those particular lineages of animals apparently didn’t survive.”

“The interesting thing is that typically we think of domestication as being cows, sheep and goats, things that produce food through meat or secondary agricultural products such as milk, cheese and wool and things like that,” said Hodgins.

“Those are different relationships than humans may have with dogs. The dogs are not necessarily providing products or meat. They are probably providing protection, companionship and perhaps helping on the hunt. And it’s really interesting that this appears to have happened first out of all human relationships with animals.”