Origins of photosynthesis in plants dated to 1.25 billion years ago

The world’s oldest algae fossils are a billion years old, according to a new analysis by earth scientists at McGill University. Based on this finding, the researchers also estimate that the basis for photosynthesis in today’s plants was set in place 1.25 billion years ago.

The study, published in the journal Geology, could resolve a long-standing mystery over the age of the fossilized algae, Bangiomorpha pubescens, which were first discovered in rocks in Arctic Canada in 1990. The microscopic organism is believed to be the oldest known direct ancestor of modern plants and animals, but its age was only poorly dated, with estimates placing it somewhere between 720 million and 1.2 billion years.

The new findings also add to recent evidence that an interval of Earth’s history often referred to as the Boring Billion may not have been so boring, after all. From 1.8 to 0.8 billion years ago, archaea, bacteria and a handful of complex organisms that have since gone extinct milled about the planet’s oceans, with little biological or environmental change to show for it. Or so it seemed. In fact, that era may have set the stage for the proliferation of more complex life forms that culminated 541 million years ago with the so-called Cambrian Explosion.

“Evidence is beginning to build to suggest that Earth’s biosphere and its environment in the latter portion of the ‘Boring Billion’ may actually have been more dynamic than previously thought,” says McGill PhD student Timothy Gibson, lead author of the new study.

Pinpointing the fossils’ age

To pinpoint the fossils’ age, the researchers pitched camp in a rugged area of remote Baffin Island, where Bangiomorpha pubescens fossils have been found There,despite the occasional August blizzard and tent-collapsing winds, they collected samples of black shale from rock layers that sandwiched the rock unit containing fossils of the alga. Using the Rhenium-Osmium (or Re-Os) dating technique, applied increasingly to sedimentary rocks in recent years, they determined that the rocks are 1.047 billion years old.

“That’s 150 million years younger than commonly held estimates, and confirms that this fossil is spectacular,” says Galen Halverson, senior author of the study and an associate professor in McGill’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. “This will enable scientists to make more precise assessments of the early evolution of eukaryotes,” the celled organisms that include plants and animals.

Because Bangiomorpha pubescens is nearly identical to modern red algae, scientists have previously determined that the ancient alga, like green plants, used sunlight to synthesize nutrients from carbon dioxide and water. Scientists have also established that the chloroplast, the structure in plant cells that is the site of photosynthesis, was created when a eukaryote long ago engulfed a simple bacterium that was photosynthetic. The eukaryote then managed to pass that DNA along to its descendants, including the plants and trees that produce most of the world’s biomass today.

Origins of the chloroplast

Once the researchers had gauged the fossils’ age at 1.047 billion years, they plugged that figure into a “molecular clock,” a computer model used to calculate evolutionary events based on rates of genetic mutations. Their conclusion: the chloroplast must have been incorporated into eukaryotes roughly 1.25 billion years ago.

“We expect and hope that other scientists will plug this age for Bangiomorpha pubescens into their own molecular clocks to calculate the timing of important evolutionary events and test our results,” Gibson says. “If other scientists envision a better way to calculate when the chloroplast emerged, the scientific community will eventually decide which estimate seems more reasonable and find new ways to test it.”

Synchrotron sheds light on the amphibious lifestyle of a new raptorial dinosaur

An exceptionally well-preserved dinosaur skeleton from Mongolia unites an unexpected combination of features that defines a new group of semi-aquatic predators related to Velociraptor. Detailed 3D synchrotron analysis allowed an international team of researchers to present the bizarre 75 million-year-old predator, named Halszkaraptor escuilliei, in Nature. The study not only describes a new genus and species of bird-like dinosaur that lived during the Campanian stage of the Cretaceous in Mongolia but also sheds light on an unexpected amphibious lifestyle for raptorial dinosaurs.

Theropods encompass all carnivorous dinosaurs, including the largest land-living predators in the history of life on Earth, such as Tyrannosaurus, and iconic agile hunters like Velociraptor. During 160 million years of the Mesozoic Era, theropods became the dominant predators on all continents, yet never conquered aquatic environments. Although some theropods reportedly incorporated fish in their diet, proposed indications for aquatic locomotion associated with exclusively aquatic lifestyles remain controversial.

A swan-necked and flipper-forelimbed new dinosaur species that combines an unexpected mix of features now demonstrates that some bird-like dinosaurs did adopt a semi-aquatic lifestyle. The fossil, nicknamed “Halszka” for Halszkaraptor escuilliei, was found at Ukhaa Tolgod. This locality in southern Mongolia has been known by palaeontologists for decades and is often targeted by poachers. “Illicit fossil trade presents a great challenge to modern palaeontology and accounts for a dramatic loss of Mongolian scientific heritage,” says Pascal Godefroit of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels. “Illegally exported from Mongolia, Halszka resided in private collections around the world before it was acquired in 2015 and offered to palaeontologists for study and to prepare its return to Mongolia.”

Although several important groups of predatory dinosaurs have been discovered in Mongolia, Halszka does not belong to any of them, having a number of strange features that are mostly absent among dinosaurs, but are shared by reptilian and avian groups with aquatic or semiaquatic ecologies. “The first time I examined the specimen, I even questioned whether it was a genuine fossil” says Andrea Cau of the Geological Museum Capellini in Bologna. Although Halszka is unique in many ways, certain parts of the skeleton, including the sickle-shaped “killer claws” on its feet, are shared with well-known dinosaurs such as Velociraptor. “This unexpected mix of traits makes it difficult to place Halszka within traditional classifications,” Cau remarks.

In order to ascertain the integrity of the fossil, the specimen was visualised and reconstructed in three dimensions using synchrotron multi-resolution X-ray microtomography. “This technique is currently the most powerful and sensitive method to image internal details without damaging invaluable fossils. The ESRF has become the worldwide leader for high quality X-ray imaging of such precious specimens,” notes Paul Tafforeau of the ESRF. “We had to mobilise an ESRF team of palaeontologists to study the complete anatomy of Halzka. So far, it’s the specimen for which the greatest number of experiments were made on a single fossil,” adds Tafforeau.

“Our first goal was to demonstrate that this bizarre and unexpected fossil is indeed a genuine animal: multi-resolution scanning confirmed that the skeleton is not a composite assembled from parts of different dinosaurs,” explains Dennis Voeten of the ESRF. “We implemented new methods for the acquisition and optimisation of tomographic scan data, which not only confirmed the integrity of the specimen, but also revealed additional palaeontological information,” Vincent Fernandez of the ESRF clarifies.

The synchrotron was even able to reveal, in astonishing detail, those parts of the skeleton that have remained deep within the rock ever since the dinosaur got buried. “Our analysis demonstrated that numerous teeth, which are not visible externally, are still preserved inside the mouth,” says Vincent Beyrand of the ESRF. “We also identified a neurovascular mesh inside its snout that resembles those of modern crocodiles to a remarkable degree. These aspects suggest that Halszka was an aquatic predator.”

The ESRF data revealed that the fossil represents a new genus and species of amphibious dinosaur that walked on two legs on land, with postural adaptations similar to short-tailed birds (like ducks), but used its flipper-like forelimbs to manoeuvre in water (like penguins and other aquatic birds), relying on its long neck for foraging and ambush hunting.

This new species was named Halszkaraptor escuilliei. Its generic name honours the late palaeontologist Halszka Osmólska. “This important genus is named in recognition of Halszka’s contribution to the study of Mongolian dinosaurs from the Gobi,” comments Rinchen Barsbold of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences. “The specific name refers to François Escuillié and thereby acknowledges his role in the first recognition and in the return of this specimen to Mongolia,” adds Khishigjav Tsogtbaatar of the Institute of Paleontology and Geology in Ulaanbaatar.

Halszkaraptor is not the only strange dinosaur recovered from the Gobi. Several previously described enigmatic Mongolian theropods were closely related to the new species, the study found. United in a new group, named Halszkaraptorinae, “is an unexpected subfamily of dromaeosaurs — the group colloquially known as raptors. This bizarre subfamily appears to have evolved a lifestyle different from all other predatory dinosaurs,” says Philip Currie of the University of Alberta.

“When we look beyond fossil dinosaurs, we find most of Halszkaraptor’s unusual features among aquatic reptiles and swimming birds,” concludes lead author Andrea Cau. “The peculiar morphology of Halszkaraptor fits best with that of an amphibious predator that was adapted to a combined terrestrial and aquatic ecology: a peculiar lifestyle that was previously unreported in these dinosaurs. Thanks to synchrotron tomography, we now demonstrate that raptorial dinosaurs not only ran and flew, but also swam!”

Early avian evolution: The Archaeopteryx that wasn‘t

Paleontologists at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich correct a case of misinterpretation: The first fossil “Archaeopteryx” to be discovered is actually a predatory dinosaur belonging to the anchiornithid family, which was previously known only from finds made in China.

Even 150 million years after its first appearance on our planet, Archaeopteryx is still good for surprises. The so-called Urvogel has attained an iconic status well beyond the world of paleontology, and it is one of the most famous fossils ever recovered. In all, a dozen fossil specimens have been assigned to the genus. Archaeopteryx remains the oldest known bird fossil, not only documenting the evolutionary transition from reptiles to birds, but also confirming that modern birds are the direct descendants of carnivorous dinosaurs. LMU paleontologist Oliver Rauhut and Christian Foth from the Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde in Stuttgart have re-examined the so-called Haarlem specimen of Archaeopteryx, which is kept in Teylers Museum in that Dutch city and has gone down in history as the first member of this genus to be discovered.

In the journal BMC Evolutionary Biology, Foth and Rauhut now report that this fossil differs in several important respects from the other known representatives of the genus Archaeopteryx. In fact, their taxonomic analysis displaces it from its alleged perch on the phylogenetic tree: “The Haarlem specimen is not a member of the Archaeopteryx clade,” says Rauhut, a paleontologist in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at LMU who is also affiliated with the Bavarian State Collections for Paleontology and Geology in Munich.

Instead, the two scientists assign the fossil to a group of bird-like maniraptoran dinosaurs known as anchiornithids, which were first identified only a few years ago based on material found in China. These rather small dinosaurs possessed feathers on all four limbs, and they predate the appearance of Archaeopteryx. “The Haarlem fossil is the first member of this group found outside China. And together with Archaeopteryx, it is only the second species of bird-like dinosaur from the Jurassic discovered outside eastern Asia. This makes it even more of a rarity than the true specimens of Archaeopteryx,” Rauhut says.

Made in China

The Haarlem specimen was found about 10 km to the northeast of the closest Archaeopteryx locality known (Schamhaupten) a full four years before the discovery of the skeleton that would introduce the Urvogel to the scientific world in 1861. Schamhaupten was once part of the so-called Solnhofen archipelago in the Altmühl Valley in southern Bavaria, the area from which all known specimens of the genus Archaeopteryx originated. Its taxonomic reassignment therefore provides new insights into the evolution of the bird-like dinosaurs in the Middle to Late Jurassic. “Our biogeographical analysis demonstrates that the group of dinosaurs that gave rise to birds originated in East Asia — all of the oldest finds have been made in China. As they expanded westward, they also reached the Solnhofen archipelago,” says Christian Foth. Thus, the fossil hitherto incorrectly assigned to the genus Archaeopteryx must have been one of the first members of the group to arrive in Europe.

Around 150 million years ago, the area known today as the Altmühl Valley was dotted with the coral and sponge reefs and lagoons of the Solnhofen archipelago, and the open sea lay to the West and South. The Haarlem fossil was originally recovered from what was then the eastern end of the archipelago, quite close to the mainland. Unlike Archaeopteryx, anchiornithids were unable to fly, and might not have been able to reach areas further offshore. On the other hand, all true fossils of Archaeopteryx found so far were recovered from the lithographic limestone strata further to the west, closer to the open sea. Based on the new findings, Rauhut argues that other known Archaeopteryx fossils may need reassessment: “Not every bird-like fossil that turns up in the fine-grained limestones around Solnhofen need necessarily be a specimen of Archaeopteryx,” he points out.

The authors of the new study have proposed that the Haarlem specimen be assigned to a new genus, for which they suggest the name Ostromia — in honor of the American paleontologist John Ostrom, who first identified the fossil as a theropod dinosaur.

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