Ancient Giant Turtle Fossil Was Size of Smart Car

ScienceDaily (May 17, 2012) — Picture a turtle the size of a Smart car, with a shell large enough to double as a kiddie pool. Paleontologists from North Carolina State University have found just such a specimen — the fossilized remains of a 60-million-year-old South American giant that lived in what is now Colombia.
he turtle in question is Carbonemys cofrinii, which means “coal turtle,” and is part of a group of side-necked turtles known as pelomedusoides. The fossil was named Carbonemys because it was discovered in 2005 in a coal mine that was part of northern Colombia’s Cerrejon formation. The specimen’s skull measures 24 centimeters, roughly the size of a regulation NFL football. The shell which was recovered nearby — and is believed to belong to the same species — measures 172 centimeters, or about 5 feet 7 inches, long. That’s the same height as Edwin Cadena, the NC State doctoral student who discovered the fossil.

“We had recovered smaller turtle specimens from the site. But after spending about four days working on uncovering the shell, I realized that this particular turtle was the biggest anyone had found in this area for this time period — and it gave us the first evidence of giantism in freshwater turtles,” Cadena says.

Smaller relatives of Carbonemys existed alongside dinosaurs. But the giant version appeared five million years after the dinosaurs vanished, during a period when giant varieties of many different reptiles — including Titanoboa cerrejonensis, the largest snake ever discovered — lived in this part of South America. Researchers believe that a combination of changes in the ecosystem, including fewer predators, a larger habitat area, plentiful food supply and climate changes, worked together to allow these giant species to survive. Carbonemys’ habitat would have resembled a much warmer modern-day Orinoco or Amazon River delta.

In addition to the turtle’s huge size, the fossil also shows that this particular turtle had massive, powerful jaws that would have enabled the omnivore to eat anything nearby — from mollusks to smaller turtles or even crocodiles.

Thus far, only one specimen of this size has been recovered. Dr. Dan Ksepka, NC State paleontologist and research associate at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, believes that this is because a turtle of this size would need a large territory in order to obtain enough food to survive. “It’s like having one big snapping turtle living in the middle of a lake,” says Ksepka, co-author of the paper describing the find. “That turtle survives because it has eaten all of the major competitors for resources. We found many bite-marked shells at this site that show crocodilians preyed on side-necked turtles. None would have bothered an adult Carbonemys, though — in fact smaller crocs would have been easy prey for this behemoth.”

The paleontologists’ findings appear in the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology. Dr. Carlos Jaramillo from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama and Dr. Jonathan Bloch from the Florida Museum of Natural History contributed to the work. The research was funded by grants from the Smithsonian Institute and the National Science Foundation

Were Dinosaurs Undergoing Long-Term Decline Before Mass Extinction?

ScienceDaily (May 1, 2012) — Despite years of intensive research about the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs about 65.5 million years ago, a fundamental question remains: were dinosaurs already undergoing a long-term decline before an asteroid hit at the end of the Cretaceous? A study led by scientists at the American Museum of Natural History gives a multifaceted answer.
The findings, published online May 1 in Nature Communications, suggest that in general, large-bodied, “bulk-feeding” herbivores were declining during the last 12 million years of the Cretaceous. But carnivorous dinosaurs and mid-sized herbivores were not. In some cases, geographic location might have been a factor in the animals’ biological success.

“Few issues in the history of paleontology have fueled as much research and popular fascination as the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs,” said lead author Steve Brusatte, a Columbia University graduate student affiliated with the Museum’s Division of Paleontology. “Did sudden volcanic eruptions or an asteroid impact strike down dinosaurs during their prime? We found that it was probably much more complex than that, and maybe not the sudden catastrophe that is often portrayed.”

The research team, which includes Brusatte; Mark Norell, chair of the Museum’s Division of Paleontology; and scientists Richard Butler of Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich and Albert Prieto-M‡rquez from the Bavarian State Collection for Palaeontology, both in Germany, is the first to look at dinosaur extinction based on “morphological disparity”-the variability of body structure within particular groups of dinosaurs. Previous research was based almost exclusively on estimates of changes in the number of dinosaur species over time. However, it can be very difficult to do this accurately.

“By looking just at trends in taxonomic diversity, you get conflicting answers about the state of dinosaurs prior to extinction,” Brusatte said. “This is because the results can be biased by uneven sampling of the fossil record. In places where more rock and fossils were formed, like in America’s Great Plains, you’ll find more species. We wanted to go beyond a simple species count for this study.”

By looking at the change in biodiversity within a given dinosaur group over time, researchers can create a rough snapshot of the animals’ overall well-being. This is because groups that show an increase in variability might have been evolving into more species, giving them an ecological edge. On the other hand, decreasing variability might be a warning sign of extinction in the long term.

The researchers calculated morphological disparity for seven major dinosaur groups using databases that include wide-ranging characteristics about the intricate skeletal structure of nearly 150 different species.

“People often think of dinosaurs as being monolithic-we say ‘The dinosaurs did this, and the dinosaurs did that,'” Butler said. “But dinosaurs were hugely diverse. There were hundreds of species living in the Late Cretaceous, and these differed enormously in diet, shape, and size. Different groups were probably evolving in different ways and the results of our study show that very clearly.”

The researchers found that hadrosaurs and ceratopsids, two groups of large-bodied, bulk-feeding herbivores-animals that did not feed selectively-may have experienced a decline in biodiversity in the 12 million years before the dinosaurs ultimately went extinct. In contrast, small herbivores (ankylosaurs and pachycephalosaurs), carnivorous dinosaurs (tyrannosaurs and coelurosaurs), and enormous herbivores without advanced chewing abilities (sauropods) remained relatively stable or even slightly increased in biodiversity.

As a complication, hadrosaurs showed different levels of disparity in different locations. While declining in North America, the disparity of this dinosaur group seems to have been increasing in Asia during the latest Cretaceous.

“These disparity calculations paint a more nuanced picture of the final 12 million years of dinosaur history,” Brusatte said. “Contrary to how things are often perceived, the Late Cretaceous wasn’t a static ‘lost world’ that was violently interrupted by an asteroid impact. Some dinosaurs were undergoing dramatic changes during this time, and the large herbivores seem to have been mired in a long-term decline, at least in North America.”

In North America, extreme fluctuations of the inland Western Interior Sea and mountain building might have affected the evolution of dinosaurs in distinct ways from species on other continents. Therefore, the authors say, the North American record might not be representative of a global pattern, if one exists. They also note that there is no way to tell whether a declining dinosaur group would have survived if the asteroid had not struck Earth.

“Even if the disparity of some dinosaur clades or regional faunas were in decline, this does not automatically mean that dinosaurs were doomed to extinction,” Norell said. “Dinosaur diversity fluctuated throughout the Mesozoic, and small increases or decreases between two or three time intervals may not be noteworthy within the context of the entire 150-million-year history of the group.”

Funding for this study was provided by the National Science Foundation through the Division of Earth Sciences, the Division of Biological Infrastructure, a Graduate Research Fellowship, and a Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant; the German Research Foundation’s Emmy Noether Programme; the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation; the Charlotte and Walter Kohler Charitable Trust; the American Museum of Natural History; and Columbia University.

Old Fish Makes New Splash: Coelacanth Find Rewrites History of the Ancient Fish

ScienceDaily (May 2, 2012) — Coelacanths, an ancient group of fishes that were once thought to exist only in fossils, made headlines in 1938 when one of their modern relatives was pulled alive from the ocean. Now coelacanths are making another splash — and University of Alberta researchers are responsible for the discovery.
Lead U of A researcher Andrew Wendruff identified coelacanth fossils that he says are so dramatically different from previous finds, they shatter the theory that coelacanth evolution was stagnant in that their body shape and lifestyle changed little since the origin of the group.

Wendruff says his one-metre-long, fork-tailed coelacanth was one of an “offshoot” lineage that lived 240 million years ago. It falls between the earliest coelacanth fossils dating back 410 million years and the latest fossils dated about 75 million years ago, near the end of the age of dinosaurs.

“Our coelacanth had a forked tail, indicating it was a fast-moving, aggressive predator, which is very different from the shape and movement of all other coelacanths in the fossil record,” said Wendruff.

The researchers say all other ancient coelacanth fossils, and even the modern living coelacanths, have very different bodies.

The first modern coelacanth, or “living fossil,” was captured 74 years ago off the coast of South Africa. Since then, others have been caught in southern oceans near the Comoros Islands, Tanzania and Indonesia.

The fork-tailed fossils described by the U of A team were found in the Rocky Mountains near Tumbler Ridge, British Columbia. Wilson says the eastern range of the Rockies 240 million years ago was a very different place from what it is today. “The area was underwater, lying off the western coast of the supercontinent Pangaea.”

Wendruff’s research co-author, U of A professor emeritus Mark Wilson, describes typical coelacanths as having chunky bodies, fins of varying size and broad, flexible tails. “These fish were slow-moving and probably lay in wait for their prey,” said Wilson.

Wendruff’s coelacanth is so different from all others that it’s been given its own name, Rebellatrix, which means “rebel coelacanth.” The researchers say Rebellatrix came along after the end-Permian mass extinction 250 million years ago, an event so lethal it wiped out 90 per cent of marine life.

Rebellatrix filled a previously occupied predator niche, but it didn’t fare well.

“Rebellatrix was likely a spectacular failure in the evolution of cruising predation,” said Wendruff. “Clearly, some other fish groups with forked tails must have outperformed this coelacanth, as it does not appear later in the fossil record.” Wilson notes that one group of fishes that may have outperformed Rebellatrix were sharks, fossils of which were found in the same rocks.

The research by Wendruff and Wilson was published May 2 as the cover article in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.