Marine fish won an evolutionary lottery 66 million years ago

Why do our oceans contain such a staggering diversity of fish of so many different sizes, shapes and colors? A UCLA-led team of biologists reports that the answer dates back 66 million years, when a six-mile-wide asteroid crashed to Earth, wiping out the dinosaurs and approximately 75 percent of the world’s animal and plant species.

Slightly more than half of today’s fish are “marine fish,” meaning they live in oceans. And most marine fish, including tuna, halibut, grouper, sea horses and mahi-mahi, belong to an extraordinarily diverse group called acanthomorphs. (The study did not analyze the large numbers of other fish that live in lakes, rivers, streams, ponds and tropical rainforests.)

The aftermath of the asteroid crash created an enormous evolutionary void, providing an opportunity for the marine fish that survived it to greatly diversify.

“Today’s rich biodiversity among marine fish shows the fingerprints of the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous period,” said Michael Alfaro, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology in the UCLA College and lead author of the study.

To analyze those fingerprints, the “evolutionary detectives” employed a new genomics research technique developed by one of the authors. Their work is published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

When they studied the timing of the acanthomorphs’ diversification, Alfaro and his colleagues discovered an intriguing pattern: Although there were many other surviving lineages of acanthomorphs, the six most species-rich groups of acanthomorphs today all showed evidence of substantial evolutionary change and proliferation around the time of the mass extinction. Those six groups have gone on to produce almost all of the marine fish diversity that we see today, Alfaro said.

He added that it’s unclear why the other acanthomorph lineages failed to diversify as much after the mass extinction.

“The mass extinction, we argue, provided an evolutionary opportunity for a select few of the surviving acanthomorphs to greatly diversify, and it left a large imprint on the biodiversity of marine fishes today,” Alfaro said. “It’s like there was a lottery 66 million years ago, and these six major acanthomorph groups were the winners.”

The findings also closely match fossil evidence of acanthomorphs’ evolution, which also shows a sharp rise in their anatomical diversity after the extinction.

The genomic technique used in the study, called sequence capture of DNA ultra-conserved elements, was developed at UCLA by Brant Faircloth, who is now an assistant professor of biological sciences at Louisiana State University. Where previous methods used just 10 to 20 genes to create an evolutionary history, Faircloth’s approach creates a more complete and accurate picture by using more than 1,000 genetic markers. (The markers include genes and other DNA components, such as parts of the DNA that turn proteins on or off, and cellular components that play a role in regulating genes.)

The researchers also extracted DNA from 118 species of marine fish and conducted a computational analysis to determine the relationships among them. Among their findings: It’s not possible to tell which species are genetically related simply by looking at them. Seahorses, for example, look nothing like goatfish, but the two species are evolutionary cousins — a finding that surprised the scientists.

“We demonstrate this approach works, and that it sheds new light on evolutionary history for the most species-rich group of marine vertebrates,” Alfaro said.

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First an alga, then a squid, enigmatic fossil is actually a fish

A fossil slab discovered in Kansas 70 years ago and twice misidentified — first as a green alga and then as a cephalopod — has been reinterpreted as the preserved remains of a large cartilaginous fish, the group that includes sharks and rays. In a study published in the Journal of Paleontology, American Museum of Natural History researchers describe the fishy characteristics of the animal, which lived between 70-85 million years ago.

“There are many examples of temporarily misplaced taxa in paleontological history, including ferns that were once thought to be sponges and lungfish teeth thought to be fungi,” said the lead author, Allison Bronson, a comparative biology Ph.D.-degree student in the Museum’s Richard Gilder Graduate School. “In this case, the misidentification didn’t happen because of a lack of technology at the time — scientists familiar with cartilage structure could easily see this was a chondrichthyan fish. The researchers used reasonable arguments for their interpretations, but didn’t look outside of their own fields.”

The enigmatic specimen, Platylithophycus cretaceum, is roughly 1.5-feet long by 10-inches wide and from the Niobrara Formation in Kansas. The Niobrara Formation is one of the most diverse fish-fossil sites in North America, preserving late Cretaceous animals that lived in and around the Western Interior Seaway, a broad expanse of water that split North America into two land masses.

In 1948, two paleobotanists from the Colorado School of Mines and Princeton University compared the texture of the fossil slab with that of green algae. They described two parts of a plant: surfaces covered with hexagonal plates, which they called “fronds,” and supposedly calcium carbonate-covered thread-like filaments. In 1968, two researchers from Fort Hays Kansas State College studying cephalopods from the Niobrara Formation compared the specimen with a cuttlefish, based primarily on its textural similarities to a cuttlebone — the unique internal shell of cuttlefish. The reclassification made Platylithophycus the oldest sepiid squid then on record.

In both of these earlier studies, the hard tissue was assumed to be composed of calcium carbonate, but no tests were performed. For the new study, Bronson and co-author John Maisey, a curator in the Museum’s Division of Paleontology, applied a small amount of dilute organic acid to the specimen — a method that has been widely used in paleontology since the time of the initial description of Platylithophycus. If there is a reaction, the fossilized material is likely made from calcium carbonate. But if there is no reaction, which was the case when Bronson and Maisey performed the test, it is likely made from calcium phosphate, as are the fossilized skeletons of cartilaginous fish like sharks and rays.

The most obvious clue that Platylithophycus was a cartilaginous fish are the hexagonal plates on the surface of the specimen. After taking a closer look with a scanning electron microscope, Bronson and Maisey reinterpreted that feature as tessellated calcified cartilage, found on both extinct and living sharks and rays. The new study suggests that the “filaments” earlier described are actually part of the gill arches, made up of tessellated cartilage. Gill arches are cartilaginous curved bars along the pharynx, or throat, that support the gills of fish. The “fronds” are reinterpreted as gill rakers, finger-like projections that extend from the gill arches and help with feeding.

“We think this was a rather large cartilaginous fish, possibly related to living filter-feeding rays such as Manta and Mobula,” Maisey said. “This potentially expands the range of diversity in the Niobrara fauna.”

But because this fossil only preserves the animal’s gills and no additional identifying features like teeth, it cannot be given a new name or reunited with an existing species. So until then, this fish will still carry the name of a plant.

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Most primitive kangaroo ancestor rediscovered after 30 years in obscurity

A handful of tiny teeth have led scientists to identify the most distant ancestor of today’s kangaroos. The fossils were found in the desert heart of Australia, and then hidden away, and almost forgotten in a museum collection for over three decades. The findings are published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Kangaroos are icons of Australia’s unique living fauna. However, their earliest ancestry is shrouded in mystery. At the beginning of the 1980’s, a few enigmatic molar teeth were excavated by palaeontologists hunting for fossils around a dry salt lake in northern South Australia. The rare specimens were recognised as an ancient kangaroo ancestor, but had to wait for over 30 years before modern computer-based analyses could confirm the significance of the discovery.

Originally dubbed Palaeopotorous priscus, Latin for ‘[very] ancient’, ‘ancient rat-kangaroo’, by the now eminent Australian palaeontologists Prof. Tim Flannery (University of Melbourne) and Dr Tom Rich (Museums Victoria), the importance of these remains was suggested in their first unveiling to science.

“The teeth of Palaeopotorous were initially described in 1986. Even then they were stated as representing possibly the most primitive relative of the entire modern kangaroo radiation. Yet, nobody ever evaluated this claim, and despite being occasionally mentioned in the scientific literature, they were never again examined in detail,” said Dr Wendy den Boer, who studied the fossils as part of her recently awarded PhD from Uppsala University in Sweden.

“The name Palaeopotorous was established using a single molar tooth, although, eleven other anatomically very similar teeth were recovered during the expedition. None of these fossils were found in association, so it is still unclear whether we are dealing with one, or more species,” said Dr Benjamin Kear, Dr den Boer’s PhD supervisor and co-author on the published article. “This uncertainly means that we have had to use a complex series of analyses to assess its morphological similarity and evolutionary relationships relative to other members of the kangaroo family tree.”

“Our results showed that Palaeopotorous was most similar to living rat-kangaroos, as well as some other extinct kangaroo relatives. Using information from fossils, and the DNA of living species, we were able to further determine that at around 24 million years old, Palaeopotorous is not just primitive, but likely represents the most distant forerunner of all known kangaroos, rat-kangaroos and their more ancient ancestors,” said Dr den Boer.

“Palaeopotorous was about the size of a small rabbit, and probably did not hop, but would have bounded on all four legs. Nevertheless, a few bones found at the same site in central Australia indicate that the earliest kangaroos already possessed some key adaptations for hopping gaits,” said Dr Kear.

Palaeopotorous lived at a time when central Australia was much wetter than it is today. Its fossils were buried in clay deposits left by a river, but these earliest kangaroo ancestors would have foraged amongst vegetation growing nearby and along the banks. The teeth of Palaeopotorous were washed into the river after death, along with the remains of many other ancient marsupials.

The dinosaur menu, as revealed by calcium

By studying calcium in fossil remains in deposits in Morocco and Niger, researchers have been able to reconstruct the food chains of the past, thus explaining how so many predators could coexist in the dinosaurs’ time. This study, conducted by the Laboratoire de géologie de Lyon: Terre, planètes et environnement (CNRS/ENS de Lyon/Claude Bernard Lyon 1 University), in partnership with the Centre for Research on Palaeobiodiversity and Palaeoenvironments (CNRS/French National Museum of Natural History/Sorbonne University), is published on April 11, 2018 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B.

A hundred million years ago, in North Africa, terrestrial ecosystems were dominated by large predators — giant theropod dinosaurs, large crocodiles — with comparatively few herbivores. How were so many carnivores able to coexist?

To understand this, French researchers have studied fossils in the Gadoufaoua deposits in Niger (dating from 120 million years ago) and the Kem Kem Beds in Morocco (dating from 100 million years ago). These two sites are characterized by an overabundance of predators compared to the herbivorous dinosaurs found in the locality. More specifically, the researchers measured the proportions of different calcium isotopes(1) in the fossilized remains (tooth enamel and fish scales).

Among vertebrates, calcium is almost exclusively derived from food. By comparing the isotopic composition of potential prey (fish, herbivores) with that of the carnivores’ teeth, it is thus possible to retrace the diet of those carnivores.

The data obtained show similar food preferences at the two deposits: some large carnivorous dinosaurs (abelisaurids and carcharodontosaurids) preferred to hunt terrestrial prey such as herbivorous dinosaurs, while others (the spinosaurids) were piscivorous (fish-eating).(2) The giant crocodile-like Sarcosuchus had a diet somewhere in between, made up of both terrestrial and aquatic prey. Thus, the different predators avoided competition by subtly sharing food resources.

Some exceptional fossils, presenting traces of feeding marks and stomach content, had already provided clues about the diet of dinosaurs. Yet such evidence remains rare. The advantage of the calcium isotope method is that it produces a global panorama of feeding habits at the ecosystem scale. It thus opens avenues for further study of the food chains of the past.

Rare Scottish dinosaur prints give key insight into era lost in time

Dozens of giant footprints discovered on a Scottish island are helping shed light on an important period in dinosaur evolution.

The tracks were made some 170 million years ago, in a muddy, shallow lagoon in what is now the north-east coast of the Isle of Skye.

Most of the prints were made by long-necked sauropods — which stood up to two metres tall — and by similarly sized theropods, which were the older cousins of Tyrannosaurus rex.

The find is globally important as it is rare evidence of the Middle Jurassic period, from which few fossil sites have been found around the world.

Researchers measured, photographed and analysed about 50 footprints in a tidal area at Brothers’ Point — Rubha nam Brathairean — a dramatic headland on Skye’s Trotternish peninsula.

The footprints were difficult to study owing to tidal conditions, the impact of weathering and changes to the landscape. In spite of this, scientists identified two trackways in addition to many isolated foot prints.

Researchers used drone photographs to make a map of the site. Additional images were collected using a paired set of cameras and tailored software to help model the prints.

Analysis of the clearest prints — including the overall shape of the track outline, the shape and orientation of the toes, and the presence of claws — enabled scientists to ascribe them to sauropods and theropods.

The study, carried out by the University of Edinburgh, Staffin Museum and Chinese Academy of Sciences, was published in the Scottish Journal of Geology. It was supported by a grant from the National Geographic Society, and subsidiary funding from the Association of Women Geologists, Derek and Maureen Moss, Edinburgh Zoo and Edinburgh Geological Society.

Paige dePolo, who led the study, conducted the research while an inaugural student in the University’s Research Master’s degree programme in palaeontology and geobiology.

Ms dePolo said: “This tracksite is the second discovery of sauropod footprints on Skye. It was found in rocks that were slightly older than those previously found at Duntulm on the island and demonstrates the presence of sauropods in this part of the world through a longer timescale than previously known. This site is a useful building block for us to continue fleshing out a picture of what dinosaurs were like on Skye in the Middle Jurassic.”

Dr Steve Brusatte of the University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences, who led the field team, said: “The more we look on the Isle of Skye, the more dinosaur footprints we find. This new site records two different types of dinosaurs — long-necked cousins of Brontosaurus and sharp-toothed cousins of T. rex — hanging around a shallow lagoon, back when Scotland was much warmer and dinosaurs were beginning their march to global dominance.”

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