Paleontologist names a carnivorous reptile that preceded dinosaurs

Finding a new species of dinosaur is pretty rare. Getting a hand in the discovery and naming of one — that’s rarer still.

Or it would be for anyone other than 32-year-old Sterling Nesbitt, an assistant professor of geological sciences in the College of Science and the newest addition to Virginia Tech’s paleontology team.
Nesbitt has been responsible for naming more than half a dozen reptiles (including dinosaurs) in his young career.
His latest addition to the paleontological vernacular is Nundasuchus, (noon-dah-suh-kis) a 9-foot-long carnivorous reptile with steak knifelike teeth, bony plates on the back, and legs that lie under the body.
Nundasuchus is not a dinosaur, but one of the large reptiles that lived before dinosaurs took over the world.
“The full name is actually Nundasuchus songeaensis,” Nesbitt explained. “It’s Swahili mixed with Greek.”
The basic meaning of Nundasuchus, is “predator crocodile,” “Nunda” meaning predator in Swahili, and “suchus” a reference to a crocodile in Greek.
“The ‘songeaensis’ comes from the town, Songea, near where we found the bones,” Nesbitt said. “The reptile itself was heavy-bodied with limbs under its body like a dinosaur, or bird, but with bony plates on its back like a crocodilian.”
The new, albeit ancient, reptile, is featured online in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
“We discovered the partial skeleton in 2007 when I was a graduate student, but it took some years to piece the bones together as they were in thousands of pieces,” Nesbitt said.
Although a large number of skeleton bones were found, most of the skull was not recovered despite three trips to the site and more than 1,000 hours spent painstakingly piecing the bones back together and cleaning them.
Nundasuchus was found in southwestern Tanzania, while Nesbitt and a team of researchers were looking for prehistoric relatives of birds and crocodiles, but not really expecting to find something entirely new.
“There’s such a huge gap in our understanding around the time when the the common ancestor of birds and crocodilians was alive — there isn’t a lot out there in the fossil record from that part of the reptile family tree,” Nesbitt said. “This helps us fill in some gaps in reptile family tree, but we’re still studying it and figuring out the implications.”
The find itself was a bit of a “eureka moment” for the team. Nesbitt said he realized very quickly what he had found.
“Sometimes you know instantly if it’s new and within about 30 seconds of picking up this bone I knew it was a new species,” he said. “I had hoped to find a leg bone to identify it, and I thought, This is exactly why we’re here’ and I looked down and there were bones everywhere. It turns out I was standing on bones that had been weathering out of the rock for hundreds of years — and it was all one individual of a new species.”
Nesbitt says he has been very lucky to put himself in the right position for finding bones, but it also takes a lot of work doing research on what has been found in various locations through previous research; what type of animals were known to inhabit certain areas; and research into the geological maps of areas to determine the most likely places to find fossils.
Nesbitt has been involved in naming 17 different reptiles, dinosaurs, and dinosaur relatives in the last 10 years, including seven of which he discovered.

Preserved fossil represents oldest record of parental care in group of prehistoric reptiles

New research details how a preserved fossil found in China could be the oldest record of post-natal parental care from the Middle Jurassic.

The specimen, found by a farmer in China, is of an apparent family group with an adult, surrounded by six juveniles of the same species. Given that the smaller individuals are of similar sizes, the group interpreted this as indicating an adult with its offspring, apparently from the same clutch.
A fossil specimen discovered by a farmer in China represents the oldest record of post-natal parental care, dating back to the Middle Jurassic.
The tendency for adults to care for their offspring beyond birth is a key feature of the reproductive biology of living archosaurs — birds and crocodilians — with the latter protecting their young from potential predators and birds, not only providing protection but also provision of food.
This behaviour seems to have evolved numerous times in vertebrates, with evidence of a long evolutionary history in diapsids — a group of amniotes which developed holes in each side of the skull about 300 million years ago and from which all existing lizards, snakes and birds are descended
However, unequivocal evidence of post-natal parental care is extremely rare in the fossil record and is only reported for two types of dinosaurs and varanopid ‘pelycosaurs’ — a reptile which resembled a monitor lizard.
A new study by the Institute of Geology, Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences, Beijing; the University of Lincoln, UK; and Hokkaido University, Japan, presents new evidence of post-natal parental care in Philydrosauras, a choristodere from the Yixian Formation of western Liaoning Province, China. Choristoderes are a group of relatively small aquatic and semi-aquatic diapsid reptiles which emerged in the Middle Jurassic Period more than 160 million years ago.
The team reviewed the fossil record of reproduction in this group using exceptionally preserved skeletons of the aquatic choristoderan Philydrosauras. The specimen was donated to the Jinzhou Paleontological Museum in Jinzhou City four years ago by a local farmer who discovered the skeleton.
The skeletons are of an apparent family group with an adult, surrounded by six juveniles of the same species. Given that the smaller individuals are of similar sizes, the group interpreted this as indicating an adult with its offspring, apparently from the same clutch.
Dr Charles Deeming, from the School of Life Sciences, University of Lincoln, UK, said: “That Philydrosauras shows parental care of the young after hatching suggests protection by the adult, presumably against predators. Their relatively small size would have meant that choristoderes were probably exposed to high predation pressure and strategies, such as live birth, and post-natal parental care may have improved survival of the offspring. This specimen represents the oldest record of post-natal parental care in diapsids to our knowledge and is the latest in an increasingly detailed collection of choristoderes exhibiting different levels of reproduction and parental care.”
A test of whether post-natal parental care is an ancestral behaviour that has persisted in the evolutionary development of amniotes will depend on future fossil discoveries.
The study is published in Geosciences Journal.

Did the Anthropocene begin with the nuclear age?

Scientists identify July 16 1945 as key time boundary in Earth history.
An international group of scientists has proposed a start date for the dawn of the Anthropocene — a new chapter in the Earth’s geological history.
Humans are having such a marked impact on the Earth that they are changing its geology, creating new and distinctive strata that will persist far into the future. This is the idea behind the Anthropocene, a new epoch in Earth history proposed by the Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen just 15 years ago. Since then the idea has spread widely through both the sciences and humanities.
But if the Anthropocene is to be a geological epoch — when should it begin? Humans have long affected the environment, and ideas as to when the Anthropocene might start range from the thousands of years ago with the dawn of agriculture, to the Industrial Revolution — and even to the future (for the greatest human-made changes could still be to come).
Now, members of the international working group formally analysing the Anthropocene suggest that the key turning point happened in the mid-twentieth century. This was when humans did not just leave traces of their actions, but began to alter the whole Earth system. There was a ‘Great Acceleration’ of population, of carbon emissions, of species invasions and extinctions, of earth moving, of the production of concrete, plastics and metals.
It included the start, too, of the nuclear age, when artificial radionuclides were scattered across the Earth, from the poles to the Equator, to be leave a detectable signal in modern strata virtually everywhere.
The proposal, signed up to by 26 members of the working group, including lead author Dr Jan Zalasiewicz, who also chairs the working group, and Professor Mark Williams, both of the University of Leicester’s Department of Geology, is that the beginning of the Anthropocene could be considered to be drawn at the moment of detonation of the world’s first nuclear test: on July 16th 1945. The beginning of the nuclear age, it marks the historic turning point when humans first accessed an enormous new energy source — and is also a time level that can be effectively tracked within geological strata, using a variety of geological clues.
Dr Zalasiewicz said: “Like any geological boundary, it is not a perfect marker — levels of global radiation really rose in the early 1950s, as salvoes of bomb tests took place. But it may be the optimal way to resolve the multiple lines of evidence on human-driven planetary change. Time — and much more discussion — will tell.”
This year, the Anthropocene Working Group will put together more evidence on the Anthropocene, including discussion of possible alternative time boundaries. In 2016, the group aims to make recommendations on whether this new time unit should be formalized and, if so, how it might be defined and characterised.

Two-faced fish clue that our ancestors ‘weren’t shark-like’

An investigation of a 415 million year-old fish skull strongly suggests that the last common ancestor of all jawed vertebrates, including humans, was not very shark-like. It adds further weight to the growing idea that sharks are not ‘primitive’.

The fossil skull’s external features meant it had always been thought to belong to the bony fishes (osteichthyans), a group which includes familiar fishes such as cod and tuna as well as all land-dwelling creatures with backbones. But when scientists from Oxford University and Imperial College London used X-ray CT scanning to look inside the skull they found the structure surrounding the brain was reminiscent of cartilaginous fishes (chondrichthyans) such as sharks and rays. The fish fossil’s ‘two faces’ led to it being named Janusiscus after the double-faced Roman god Janus.
A report of the research is published in the journal Nature.
‘This 415 million year-old fossil gives us an intriguing glimpse of the ‘Age of Fishes’, when modern groups of vertebrates were really beginning to take off in an evolutionary sense,’ said Dr Matt Friedman of Oxford University’s Department of Earth Sciences, an author of the report. ‘It tells us that the ancestral jawed vertebrate probably doesn’t fit into our existing categories.’
Chondrichthyans have often been viewed as primitive, and treated as proxies for what the ‘ancestral’ jawed vertebrate would have looked like. A key component of this view is the lack of a bony skeleton in cartilaginous fishes.
‘The results from our analysis help to turn this view on its head: the earliest jawed vertebrates would have looked somewhat more like bony fishes, at least externally, with large dermal plates covering their skulls,’ said Sam Giles of Oxford University’s Department of Earth Sciences, first author of the report. ‘In fact, they would have had a mix of what are now viewed as cartilaginous- and bony fish-like features, supporting the idea that both groups became independently specialised later in their separate evolutionary histories.’
Dr Friedman said: ‘This mix of features, some reminiscent of bony fishes and others cartilaginous fishes, suggests that humans may have just as many features that you might call ‘primitive’ as sharks.’
The fossil skull was originally found near the Sida River in Siberia in 1972 and is currently held in the Institute of Geology at the Tallinn University of Technology, Estonia. Study author Martin Brazeau of Imperial College London spotted the specimen in an online catalogue and the team decided it would be worth studying in greater detail using modern investigative techniques.
The team then used X-ray CT (computed tomography) to ‘virtually’ cut through the fossil. Different materials attenuate X-rays to different amounts — just as in a hospital X-ray, bones show up brighter than muscles and skin. This same principle can be applied to fossils, as fossilised bone and rock attenuate X-rays to different degrees. This technique was used to build a 3D virtual model of the fossil, enabling its internal and external features to be examined in great detail. Traces left by networks of blood vessels and nerves, often less than 1/100th of a centimetre in diameter, could then be compared to structure in a variety of jawed vertebrate groups, including sharks and bony fishes.
‘Losing your bony skeleton sounds like a pretty extreme adaptation,’ said Dr Friedman, ‘but with remarkable discoveries from China, Janusiscus strongly suggests that that the ancient ancestors of modern sharks and their kin started out just as ‘bony’ as our own ancestors.’

Ancient fossils reveal rise in parasitic infections due to climate change

When seeking clues about the future effects of possible climate change, sometimes scientists look to the past. Now, a paleobiologist from the University of Missouri has found indications of a greater risk of parasitic infection due to climate change in ancient mollusk fossils. His study of clams from the Holocene Epoch (that began 11,700 years ago) indicates that current sea level rise may mimic the same conditions that led to an upsurge in parasitic trematodes, or flatworms, he found from that time. He cautions that an outbreak in human infections from a related group of parasitic worms could occur and advises that communities use the information to prepare for possible human health risks.

rematodes are internal parasites that affect mollusks and other invertebrates inhabiting estuarine environments, which are the coastal bodies of brackish water that connect rivers and the open sea. John Huntley, assistant professor of geological sciences in the College of Arts and Science at MU, studied prehistoric clam shells collected from the Pearl River Delta in China for clues about how the clams were affected by changes caused from global warming and the resulting surge in parasites.
“Because they have soft bodies, trematodes do not leave body fossils,” Huntley said. “However, infected clam shells develop oval-shaped pits where the clam grew around the parasite in order to keep it out; the prevalence of these pits and their makeup provide clues to how the clams adapted to fight trematodes. When compared to documented rises in sea level more than 9,300 years ago, we found that we currently are creating conditions for an increase in trematodes in present-day estuarine environments. This could have harmful implications for both animal and human health, including many of the world’s fisheries.”
Modern-day trematodes will first infest mollusks like clams and snails, which are eaten by shore birds and mammals including humans. Symptoms of infection in humans range from liver and gall bladder inflammation to chest pain, fever, and brain inflammation. The infections can be fatal. At least 56 million people globally suffer from one or more foodborne trematode infections, according to the World Health Organization.
Huntley and his team compared these findings to those from his previous study on clams found in the Adriatic Sea. Using data that includes highly detailed descriptions of climate change and radiocarbon dating Huntley noticed a rising prevalence of pits in the clam shells, indicating a higher prevalence of the parasites during times of sea level rise in both the fossils from China and Italy.
“By comparing the results we have from the Adriatic and our new study in China, we’re able to determine that it perhaps might not be a coincidence, but rather a general phenomenon,” Huntley said. “While predicting the future is a difficult game, we think we can use the correspondence between the parasitic prevalence and past climate change to give us a good road map for the changes we need to make.”

Study casts doubt on mammoth-killing cosmic impact

Rock soil droplets formed by heating most likely came from Stone Age house fires and not from a disastrous cosmic impact 12,900 years ago, according to new research from the University of California, Davis. The study, of soil from Syria, is the latest to discredit the controversial theory that a cosmic impact triggered the Younger Dryas cold period.

The Younger Dryas lasted a thousand years and coincided with the extinction of mammoths and other great beasts and the disappearance of the Paleo-Indian Clovis people. In the 1980s, some researchers put forward the idea that the cool period, which fell between two major glaciations, began when a comet or meteorite struck North America.
In the new study, published online in the Journal of Archaeological Science, scientists analyzed siliceous scoria droplets — porous granules associated with melting — from four sites in northern Syria dating back 10,000 to 13,000 years ago. They compared them to similar scoria droplets previously suggested to be the result of a cosmic impact at the onset of the Younger Dryas.
“For the Syria side, the impact theory is out,” said lead author Peter Thy, a project scientist in the UC Davis Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. “There’s no way that can be done.”
The findings supporting that conclusion include:
The composition of the scoria droplets was related to the local soil, not to soil from other continents, as one would expect from an intercontinental impact.
The texture of the droplets, thermodynamic modeling and other analyses showed the droplets were formed by short-lived heating events of modest temperatures, and not by the intense, high temperatures expected from a large impact event.
And in a key finding, the samples collected from archaeological sites spanned 3,000 years. “If there was one cosmic impact,” Thy said, “they should be connected by one date and not a period of 3,000 years.”
So if not resulting from a cosmic impact, where did the scoria droplets come from? House fires. The study area of Syria was associated with early agricultural settlements along the Euphrates River. Most of the locations include mud-brick structures, some of which show signs of intense fire and melting. The study concludes that the scoria formed when fires ripped through buildings made of a mix of local soil and straw

First herbivorous ornithischian dinosaur fossil from Malaysia

UMs palaeontologists, Masatoshi Sone and Teng Yu He, reveal that the dinosaur remain is identified to be a tooth of an ornithischian dinosaur, known herbivorous. The new dinosaur tooth (UM10580) is about 13 mm long and 10.5 mm wide in preserved dimension. It is medium to large size for an herbivorous ornithischian tooth.

The tooth has a defined neck and a large expanded crown with a cingulum, a thick ridge round the base of the crown, indicative of an ornithischian tooth. The new material was discovered from a Cretaceous sedimentary rock formation in Pahang, where the carnivorous spinosaurid teeth were reported earlier this year.
In addition to the last carnivorous dinosaur discovery, the present find implies the fact that there was an established vegetated terrestrial ecosystem in Peninsular Malaysia during the Cretaceous period (65–145 million years ago) of late Mesozoic time.
It is plausible that large dinosaur fossil deposits still remain in Malaysia. UM’s research team has currently carried out extensive field investigation around the country that may disclose more significant finds in a near future.

Oldest stone tool ever found in Turkey discovered

Scientists have discovered the oldest recorded stone tool ever to be found in Turkey, revealing that humans passed through the gateway from Asia to Europe much earlier than previously thought, approximately 1.2 million years ago.

According to research published in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews, the chance find of a humanly-worked quartzite flake, in ancient deposits of the river Gediz, in western Turkey, provides a major new insight into when and how early humans dispersed out of Africa and Asia.
Researchers from Royal Holloway, University of London, together with an international team from the UK, Turkey and the Netherlands, used high-precision equipment to date the deposits of the ancient river meander, giving the first accurate timeframe for when humans occupied the area.
Professor Danielle Schreve, from the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway, said: “This discovery is critical for establishing the timing and route of early human dispersal into Europe. Our research suggests that the flake is the earliest securely-dated artefact from Turkey ever recorded and was dropped on the floodplain by an early hominin well over a million years ago.”
The researchers used high-precision radioisotopic dating and palaeomagnetic measurements from lava flows, which both pre-date and post-date the meander, to establish that early humans were present in the area between approximately 1.24 million and 1.17 million years ago. Previously, the oldest hominin fossils in western Turkey were recovered in 2007 at Koçabas, but the dating of these and other stone tool finds were uncertain.
“The flake was an incredibly exciting find,” Professor Schreve said. “I had been studying the sediments in the meander bend and my eye was drawn to a pinkish stone on the surface. When I turned it over for a better look, the features of a humanly-struck artefact were immediately apparent.
“By working together with geologists and dating specialists, we have been able to put a secure chronology to this find and shed new light on the behaviour of our most distant ancestors.”