Meet Xenoceratops: Canada’s Newest Horned Dinosaur

Nov. 8, 2012 — Scientists have named a new species of horned dinosaur (ceratopsian) from Alberta, Canada. Xenoceratops foremostensis (Zee-NO-Sare-ah-tops) was identified from fossils originally collected in 1958. Approximately 20 feet long and weighing more than 2 tons, the newly identified plant-eating dinosaur represents the oldest known large-bodied horned dinosaur from Canada
Research describing the new species is published in the October 2012 issue of the Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences.

“Starting 80 million years ago, the large-bodied horned dinosaurs in North America underwent an evolutionary explosion,” said lead author Dr. Michael Ryan, curator of vertebrate paleontology at The Cleveland Museum of Natural History. “Xenoceratops shows us that even the geologically oldest ceratopsids had massive spikes on their head shields and that their cranial ornamentation would only become more elaborate as new species evolved.”

Xenoceratops (Xeno + ceratops) means “alien horned-face,” referring to the strange pattern of horns on its head and the scarcity of horned dinosaur fossils from this part of the fossil record. It also honors the Village of Foremost, located close to where the dinosaur was discovered. Xenoceratops had a parrot-like beak with two long brow horns above its eyes. A large frill protruded from the back of its skull featuring two huge spikes.

“Xenoceratops provides new information on the early evolution of ceratopsids, the group of large-bodied horned dinosaurs that includes Triceratops,” said co-author Dr. David Evans of the Royal Ontario Museum and University of Toronto. “The early fossil record of ceratopsids remains scant, and this discovery highlights just how much more there is to learn about the origin of this diverse group.”

The new dinosaur is described from skull fragments from at least three individuals from the Foremost Formation originally collected by Dr. Wann Langston Jr. in the 1950s, and is currently housed in the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, Canada. Ryan and Evans stumbled upon the undescribed material more than a decade ago and recognized the bones as a new type of horned dinosaur. Evans later discovered a 50-year-old plaster field jacket at the Canadian Museum of Nature containing more skull bones from the same fossil locality and had them prepared in his lab at the Royal Ontario Museum.

This dinosaur is just the latest in a series of new finds being made by Ryan and Evans as part of their Southern Alberta Dinosaur Project, which is designed to fill in gaps in our knowledge of Late Cretaceous dinosaurs and study their evolution. This project focuses on the paleontology of some of the oldest dinosaur-bearing rocks in Alberta, which is less intensely studied than that of the famous badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park and Drumheller.

“This discovery of a previously unknown species also drives home the importance of having access to scientific collections,” says co-author Kieran Shepherd, curator of paleobiology for the Canadian Museum of Nature, which holds the specimen. “The collections are an untapped source of new material for study, and offer the potential for many new discoveries.”

Xenoceratops was identified by a team comprising palaeontologists Dr. Michael J. Ryan, curator of vertebrate paleontology at The Cleveland Museum of Natural History; and Dr. David Evans, curator, vertebrate palaeontology of the Department of Natural History at the Royal Ontario Museum; as well as Kieran Shepherd, curator of paleobiology for the Canadian Museum of Nature.

How Could Dinosaurs Weigh Up to 80 Tons? New Research On Sauropod Gigantism

Jan. 14, 2014 — Sauropods, the largest land animals in Earth’s history, are still mightily puzzling the scientists. These plant-eating dinosaurs with their long necks and small heads could reach a height of 10 meters or more and dominated all other land vertebrates in terms of size. They could weigh up to 80 tons, more than any other known land vertebrate. One question that has been intensely debated is how these giants of the animal kingdom regulated their own body temperature.

According to the calculations of the Mainz-based ecologist, the body temperature of these animals did not increase with body weight. Her estimates indicate that sauropods may have had an average body temperature of some 28 degrees Celsius. The upper limit for the body temperature that can be tolerated by vertebrate species living today is 45 degrees Celsius. The body temperatures that Griebeler postulates for the sauropods are thus well below those of today’s endothermic vertebrates but consistent with those of ectothermic monitor lizards. Her calculations of sauropod body temperature take into account the relationship between the maximum rate of growth and the basal metabolic rate of an animal, whereby the latter is largely determined by body temperature.

Griebeler’s work is part of a collection that brings together the results of recent research into sauropod gigantism. The gigantism of these vertebrates, unique in the history of Earth, raises many questions, such as why no other land creatures have ever achieved this size and what their bauplan, physiology, and life cycle would have been like. The collection put together by the leading open access journal PLOS ONE consists of 14 contributions from the fields of ecology, morphology, animal nutrition, and paleontology that all address the fundamental question of how the sauropods managed to become so extraordinarily massive.

“We are pleased that this new research is freely accessible not only to other scientists, but also to sauropod fans,” said PD Dr. Eva Maria Griebeler. She and Dr. Jan Werner are members of the research group “Biology of the Sauropod Dinosaurs: The Evolution of Gigantism (FOR 533),” funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG). The collection was initiated as a result of a related international conference on this subject. Both scientists from the Ecology division at the Institute of Zoology at Mainz University have been working for more than six years within this research group. They have written three of the 14 contributions in the collection.

In one article, Jan Werner and his colleague Koen Stein of the University of Bonn describe a new method of determining the density of bone tissue and juxtapose sauropod data and results extrapolated for comparable endothermic mammals. Although the bone structure and the density of certain tissues of sauropods were similar to those of today’s mammals, the results do not conclusively demonstrate that sauropods were also endothermic animals. Other functional aspects, such as similar weight-bearing stresses, could have resulted in the development of convergent forms of bone tissue.

Another article looks at the reproductive biology of sauropods. Here Werner and Griebeler discuss the hypothesis that a high rate of reproduction contributed to the gigantism of the large dinosaurs. They discovered that the reproductive pattern of most dinosaurs was similar to that of modern reptiles and birds. The reproductive pattern of theropods, i.e., ancestors of the modern birds, turned out to be comparable with that of birds, prosauropods, and sauropods rather than reptiles. However, contrary to the assumptions of previous studies, the calculations of the Mainz scientists did not corroborate the hypothesis that the large dinosaurs would have laid a particularly large number of eggs. In terms of total eggs produced annually, this number could not have exceeded 200 to 400 eggs for a sauropod weighing 75 tons. Today’s large sea turtles are known to lay clutches in this range.

Iconic Australasian Trees Found as Fossils in South America

Jan. 9, 2014 — Today in Australia they call it Kauri, in Asia they call it Dammar, and in South America it does not exist at all unless planted there. But 52 million years ago the giant coniferous evergreen tree known to botanists as Agathis thrived in the Patagonian region of Argentina, according to an international team of paleobotanists, who have found numerous fossilized remains there.

“These spectacular fossils reveal that Agathis is old and had a huge range that no one knew about — from Australia to South America across Antarctica,” said Peter Wilf, professor of geoscience, Penn State.

Agathis trees currently grow thousands of miles from Argentina, ranging from Sumatra to New Zealand. They often prefer mountain rainforests, where it is wet and warm all year round. They can grow as tall as 200 feet, but are usually between 130 and 150 feet at maturity. Economically, they are prized and heavily cut for their soft, workable wood. In the past, the Agathis resin, known as manila copal, was exploited for linoleum and varnishes, but synthetics replaced most of that use.

The researchers report in the current issue of American Journal of Botany that “Agathis was a dominant, keystone element of the Patagonian Eocene floras, alongside numerous other plant taxa that still associate with it in Australasia and Southeast Asia.”

“There is a fossil record of Agathis in Australia and New Zealand, where it still lives,” said Wilf. “However, Agathis fossils have never been found anywhere else until now, and they have never been as complete as these.”

Wilf and his colleagues work at two sites in Patagonia, Argentina: Laguna del Hunco that dates to the early Eocene at about 52.2 million years ago, and Río Pichileufú dating to about 47.7 million years ago.

“These sites were discovered in the 1920s and 1930s, but the remoteness of the locations and the hardness of the rock are why they hadn’t been investigated in detail before we started in 1999,” said Wilf. “Now, with modern amenities — satellite phones for example — and especially the presence of our partner institution, the Egidio Feruglio Museum, in the same region as the dig sites, recovering these fossils becomes much easier.”

Agathis grew in Patagonia when South America was part of the remainder of the southern supercontinent of Gondwana, composed of South America, Antarctica and Australia. Much earlier, India, Madagascar, New Zealand and Africa separated and moved north, but around the time of these fossils, South America was just beginning to part from Antarctica, which was not ice covered at the time.

“Agathis probably existed in all three areas, Australia, Antarctica and South America, at that time,” said Wilf. “Climate change in Antarctica — the cold and ice — killed them there, and a change to seasonal dryness in southern South America put an end to them in Patagonia.”

Subsequently, the trees, which are wind dispersed, moved away from the cooling south, and some left northward-moving Australia for southeast Asia, where they thrive except for human interference, but they no longer grow in cold, often dry, Patagonia.

Wilf ‘s team recovered not only leaves, but also numerous branches, pollen cones, seed cones and even a winged seed still attached to the cone. The various species of Agathis are usually identified by their pollen cones, so this is the first time that a fossil Agathis could be directly compared to trees growing today.

“We also went to Borneo and studied the most similar living relative of the fossil Agathis, a threatened species there,” said Wilf. “We collected DNA samples to better understand the fossil-modern relationship.”

According to the researchers, the Argentinian fossil Agathis clearly belongs to the same natural group as those living today up to almost 10,000 miles away in the tropical West Pacific.

“Agathis is a very dramatic example of survival via huge range shifts, from the far south to the tropics, in response to climate change and land movement over millions of years,” said Wilf. “It is not clear that Agathis can adapt to the severely more rapid human-induced pressures it is experiencing now from deforestation, selective logging and climate change.”

First Dinosaurs Identified from Saudi Arabia

Jan. 7, 2014 — Dinosaur fossils are exceptionally rare in the Arabian Peninsula. An international team of scientists from Uppsala University, Museum Victoria, Monash University, and the Saudi Geological Survey have now uncovered the first record of dinosaurs from Saudi Arabia.

What is now dry desert was once a beach littered with the bones and teeth of ancient marine reptiles and dinosaurs.

A string of vertebrae from the tail of a huge “Brontosaurus-like” sauropod, together with some shed teeth from a carnivorous theropod represent the first formally identified dinosaur fossils from Saudi Arabia, and were found in the north-western part of the Kingdom along the coast of the Red Sea.

The remains were discovered during excavations conducted by a team of scientists working under the auspices of the Saudi Geological Survey, Jeddah.

The dinosaur finds were recently published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE and jointly authored by participating researchers from Sweden, Australia and Saudi Arabia.

“Dinosaur fossils are exceptionally rare in the Arabian Peninsula, with only a handful of highly fragmented bones documented this far” says Dr Benjamin Kear, based at Uppsala University in Sweden and lead author of the study.

“This discovery is important not only because of where the remains were found, but also because of the fact that we can actually identify them. Indeed, these are the first taxonomically recognizable dinosaurs reported from the Arabian Peninsula” Dr Kear continues.

“Dinosaur remains from the Arabian Peninsula and the area east of the Mediterranean Sea are exceedingly rare because sedimentary rocks deposited in streams and rivers during the Age of Dinosaurs are rare, particularly in Saudi Arabia itself” says Dr Tom Rich from Museum Victoria in Australia.

When these dinosaurs were alive, the Arabian landmass was largely underwater and formed the north-western coastal margin of the African continent.

“The hardest fossil to find is the first one. Knowing that they occur in a particular area and the circumstances under which they do, makes finding more fossils significantly less difficult” says Dr Rich.

The teeth and bones are approximately 72 million years old.

Two types of dinosaur were described from the assemblage, a bipedal meat-eating abelisaurid distantly related to Tyrannosaurus but only about six metres long, and a plant-eating titanosaur perhaps up to 20 metres in length.

Similar dinosaurs have been found in North Africa, Madagascar and as far away as South America.

Fossil Pigments Reveal the Colors of Ancient Sea Monsters

Jan. 8, 2014 — During the Age of the dinosaurs, huge reptiles, such as mosasaurs and ichthyosaurs, ruled the seas. Previously, scientists could only guess what colours these spectacular animals had; however, pigment preserved in fossilised skin has now been analysed at SP Technical Research Institute of Sweden and MAX IV Laboratory, Lund University, Sweden. The unique soft tissue remains were obtained from a 55 million-year-old leatherback turtle, an 85 million-year-old mosasaur and a 196-190 million-year-old ichthyosaur. This is the first time that the colour scheme of any extinct marine animal has been revealed.

“This is fantastic! When I started studying at Lund University in 1993, the film Jurassic Park had just been released, and that was one of the main reasons why I got interested in biology and palaeontology. Then, 20 years ago, it was unthinkable that we would ever find biological remains from animals that have been extinct for many millions of years, but now we are there and I am proud to be a part of it,” said Johan Lindgren about the discovery of the ancient pigment molecules.

Johan Lindgren is a scientist at Lund University in Sweden, and he is the leader of the international research team that has studied the fossils. Together with colleagues from Denmark, England and the USA, he now presents the results of their study in the scientific journal Nature. The most sensational aspect of the investigation is that it can now be established that these ancient marine reptiles were, at least partially, dark-coloured in life, something that probably contributed to more efficient thermoregulation, as well as providing means for camouflage and protection against harmful UV radiation.

The analysed fossils are composed of skeletal remains, in addition to dark skin patches containing masses of micrometre-sized, oblate bodies. These microbodies were previously interpreted to be the fossilised remains of those bacteria that once contributed to the decomposition and degradation of the carcasses. However, by studying the chemical content of the soft tissues, Lindgren and his colleagues are now able to show that they are in fact remnants of the animals’ own colours, and that the micrometre-sized bodies are fossilised melanosomes, or pigment-containing cellular organelles.

“Our results really are amazing. The pigment melanin is almost unbelievably stable. Our discovery enables us to make a journey through time and to revisit these ancient reptiles using their own biomolecules. Now, we can finally use sophisticated molecular and imaging techniques to learn what these animals looked like and how they lived,” said Per Uvdal, one of the co-authors of the study, and who works at the MAX IV Laboratory.

Mosasaurs (98-66 million years ago) are giant marine lizards that could reach 15 metres in body length, whereas ichthyosaurs (250-94 million years ago) could become even larger. Both ichthyosaurs and mosasaurs died out during the Cretaceous Period, but leatherback turtles are still around today. A conspicuous feature of the living leatherback turtle, Dermochelys, is that it has an almost entirely black back, which probably contributes to its worldwide distribution. The ability of leatherback turtles to survive in cold climates has mainly been attributed to their huge size, but it has also been shown that these animals bask at the sea surface during daylight hours. The black colour enables them to heat up faster and to reach higher body temperatures than had they instead been lightly coloured.

“The fossil leatherback turtle probably had a similar colour scheme and lifestyle as does Dermochelys. Similarly, mosasaurs and ichthyosaurs, which also had worldwide distributions, may have used their darkly coloured skin to heat up quickly between dives,” said Johan Lindgren.

If their interpretations are correct, then at least some ichthyosaurs were uniformly dark-coloured in life, unlike most living marine animals. However, the modern deep-diving sperm whale has a similar colour scheme, perhaps as camouflage in a world without light, or as UV protection, given that these animals spend extended periods of time at or near the sea surface in between dives. The ichthyosaurs are also believed to have been deep-divers, and if their colours were similar to those of the living sperm whale, then this would also suggest a similar lifestyle, according to Lindgren.