Rare fossil bird deepens mystery of avian extinctions

During the late Cretaceous period, more than 65 million years ago, birds belonging to hundreds of different species flitted around the dinosaurs and through the forests as abundantly as they flit about our woods and fields today.

But after the cataclysm that wiped out most of the dinosaurs, only one group of birds remained: the ancestors of the birds we see today. Why did only one family survive the mass extinction?

A newly described fossil from one of those extinct bird groups, cousins of today’s birds, deepens that mystery.

The 75-million-year-old fossil, from a bird about the size of a turkey vulture, is the most complete skeleton discovered in North America of what are called enantiornithines (pronounced en-an-tea-or’-neth-eens), or opposite birds. Discovered in the Grand Staircase-Escalante area of Utah in 1992 by University of California, Berkeley, paleontologist Howard Hutchison, the fossil lay relatively untouched in University of California Museum of Paleontology at Berkeley until doctoral student Jessie Atterholt learned about it in 2009 and asked to study it.

Atterholt and Hutchison collaborated with Jingmai O’Conner, the leading expert on enantiornithines, to perform a detailed analysis of the fossil. Based on their study, enantiornithines in the late Cretaceous were the aerodynamic equals of the ancestors of today’s birds, able to fly strongly and agilely.

“We know that birds in the early Cretaceous, about 115 to 130 million years ago, were capable of flight but probably not as well adapted for it as modern birds,” said Atterholt, who is now an assistant professor and human anatomy instructor at the Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, California. “What this new fossil shows is that enantiornithines, though totally separate from modern birds, evolved some of the same adaptations for highly refined, advanced flight styles.”

The fossil’s breast bone or sternum, where flight muscles attach, is more deeply keeled than other enantiornithines, implying a larger muscle and stronger flight more similar to modern birds. The wishbone is more V-shaped, like the wishbone of modern birds and unlike the U-shaped wishbone of earlier avians and their dinosaur ancestors. The wishbone or furcula is flexible and stores energy released during the wing stroke.

If enantiornithines in the late Cretaceous were just as advanced as modern birds, however, why did they die out with the dinosaurs while the ancestors of modern birds did not?

“This particular bird is about 75 million years old, about 10 million years before the die-off,” Atterholt said. “One of the really interesting and mysterious things about enantiornithines is that we find them throughout the Cretaceous, for roughly 100 million years of existence, and they were very successful. We find their fossils on every continent, all over the world, and their fossils are very, very common, in a lot of areas more common than the group that led to modern birds. And yet modern birds survived the extinction while enantiornithines go extinct.”

One recently proposed hypothesis argues that the enantiornithines were primarily forest dwellers, so that when forests went up in smoke after the asteroid strike that signaled the end of the Cretaceous — and the end of non-avian dinosaurs — the enantiornithines disappeared as well. Many enantiornithines have strong recurved claws ideal for perching and perhaps climbing, she said.

“I think it is a really interesting hypothesis and the best explanation I have heard so far,” Atterholt said. “But we need to do really rigorous studies of enantiornithines’ ecology, because right now that part of the puzzle is a little hand-wavey.”

Atterholt, Hutchison and O’Connor, who is at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing, China, published an analysis of the fossil today in the open-access journal PeerJ.

Theropod dinosaurs evolved into birds

All birds evolved from feathered theropods — the two-legged dinosaurs like T. rex — beginning about 150 million years ago, and developed into many lineages in the Cretaceous, between 146 and 65 million years ago.

Hutchison said that he came across the fossil eroding out of the ground in the rugged badlands of the Kaiparowits formation in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Garfield County, Utah, just inside the boundary of the recently reduced monument. Having found bird fossils before, he recognized it as a late Cretaceous enantiornithine, and a rare one at that. Most birds from the Americas are from the late Cretaceous (100-66 million years ago) and known only from a single foot bone, often the metatarsus. This fossil was almost complete, missing only its head.

“In 1992, I was looking primarily for turtles,” Hutchison said. “But I pick up everything because I am interested in the total fauna. The other animals they occur with tells me more about the habitat.”

According to Hutchison, the area where the fossil was found dates from between 77 and 75 million years ago and was probably a major delta, like the Mississippi River delta, tropical and forested with lots of dinosaurs but also crocodiles, alligators, turtles and fish.

Unlike most bird fossils found outside America, in particular those from China, the fossil was not smashed flat. The classic early Cretaceous bird, Archaeopteryx, was flattened in sandstone, which preserved a beautiful panoply of feathers and the skeletal layout. Chinese enantiornithines, mostly from the early Cretaceous, are equally beautiful and smashed flatter than a pancake.

“On one hand, it’s great — you get the full skeleton most of the time, you get soft tissue preservation, including feathers. But it also means everything is crushed and deformed,” she said. “Not that our fossils have zero deformation, but overall most of the bones have really beautiful three-dimensional preservation, and just really, really great detail. We see places where muscles and tendons were attaching, all kinds of interesting stuff to anatomists.”

Once Hutchison prepared the fossils and placed them in the UC Museum of Paleontology collection, they drew the attention of a few budding and established paleontologists, but no one completed an analysis.

“The stuff is legendary. People in the vertebrate paleontology community have known about this thing forever and ever, and it just happened that everyone who was supposedly working on it got too busy and it fell by the wayside and just never happened,” Atterholt said. “I was honored and incredibly excited when Howard said that I could take on the project. I was over the moon.”

Her analysis showed that by the late Cretaceous, enantiornithines had evolved advanced adaptations for flying independent of today’s birds. In fact, they looked quite similar to modern birds: they were fully feathered and flew by flapping their wings like modern birds. The fossilized bird probably had teeth in the front of its beak and claws on its wings as well as feet. Some enantiornithines had prominent tail feathers that may have differed between male and female and been used for sexual display.

“It is quite likely that, if you saw one in real life and just glanced at it, you wouldn’t be able to distinguish it from a modern bird,” Atterholt said.

This fossil bird is also among the largest North American birds from the Cretaceous; most were the size of chickadees or crows.

“What is most exciting, however, are large patches on the forearm bones. These rough patches are quill knobs, and in modern birds they anchor the wing feathers to the skeleton to help strengthen them for active flight. This is the first discovery of quill knobs in any enantiornithine bird, which tells us that it was a very strong flier.”

Atterholt and her colleagues named the species Mirarce eatoni (meer-ark’-ee ee-tow’-nee). Mirarce combines the Latin word for wonderful, which pays homage to “the incredible, detailed, three-dimensional preservation of the fossil,” she said, with the mythical Greek character Arce, the winged messenger of the Titans. The species name honors Jeffrey Eaton, a paleontologist who for decades has worked on fossils from the Kaiparowits Formation. Eaton first enticed Hutchison to the area in search of turtles, and they were the first to report fossils from the area some 30 years ago.

Thousands of such fossils from the rocks of the Kaiparowits Formation, many of them dinosaurs, contributed to the establishment of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996.

“This area contains one of the best Cretaceous fossil records in the entire world, underscoring the critical importance of protecting and preserving these parts of our natural heritage,” Atterholt said. “Reducing the size of the protected area puts some of our nation’s most valuable natural and scientific resources at risk.”

Hutchison’s field work was supported by the Annie M. Alexander endowment to the UCMP.

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Tiny footprints, big discovery: Reptile tracks oldest ever found in Grand Canyon

A geology professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, has discovered that a set of 28 footprints left behind by a reptile-like creature 310 million years ago, are the oldest ever to be found in Grand Canyon National Park.

The fossil trackway covers a fallen boulder that now rests along the Bright Angel Trail in the national park. Rowland presented his findings at the recent annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.

“It’s the oldest trackway ever discovered in the Grand Canyon in an interval of rocks that nobody thought would have trackways in it, and they’re among the earliest reptile tracks on earth,” said Rowland.

Rowland said he’s not prepared to say that they’re the oldest tracks of their kind ever discovered, but it’s a possibility, as he’s still researching the discovery.

“In terms of reptile tracks, this is really old,” he said, adding that the tracks were created as the supercontinent Pangaea was beginning to form.

Rowland was first alerted to the tracks in spring 2016 by a colleague who was hiking the trail with a group of students. The boulder ended up along the trail after the collapse of a cliff.

A year later, Rowland studied the footprints up close.

“My first impression was that it looked very bizarre because of the sideways motion,” Rowland said. “It appeared that two animals were walking side-by-side. But you wouldn’t expect two lizard-like animals to be walking side-by-side. It didn’t make any sense.”

When he arrived home, he made detailed drawings, and began hypothesizing about the “peculiar, line-dancing gait” left behind by the creature.

“One reason I’ve proposed is that the animal was walking in a very strong wind, and the wind was blowing it sideways,” he said.

Another possibility is that the slope was too steep, and the animal sidestepped as it climbed the sand dune. Or, Rowland said, the animal was fighting with another creature, or engaged in a mating ritual.

“I don’t know if we’ll be able to rigorously choose between those possibilities,” he said.

He plans to publish his findings along with geologist Mario Caputo of San Diego State University in January. Rowland also hopes that the boulder is soon placed in the geology museum at the Grand Canyon National Park for both scientific and interpretive purposes.

Meanwhile, Rowland said that the footprints could belong to a reptile species that has never yet been discovered.

“It absolutely could be that whoever was the trackmaker, his or her bones have never been recorded,” Rowland said.

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The teeth of Changchunsaurus: Rare insight into ornithopod dinosaur tooth evolution

The teeth of Changchunsaurus parvus, a small herbivorous dinosaur from the Cretaceous of China, represent an important and poorly-known stage in the evolution of ornithopod dentition, according to a study released November 7, 2018 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Jun Chen of Jilin University in China and colleagues.

Ornithischian (“bird-hipped”) dinosaurs developed an incredible diversity of teeth, including the famously complex dental batteries of derived ornithopods, but little is known about how these intricate arrangements arose from the simple tooth arrangements of early dinosaurs. Changchunsaurus parvus belongs to an early branch at or near the origins of the ornithopods, and thus may provideinsight into the ancestral state of ornithopod tooth development. In this study, Chen and colleagues took thin sections from five jaw bones of Changchunsaurus to investigate tooth composition as well as how the teeth are maintained throughout the life of the animal using histological techniques.

Among the notable features of Changchunsaurus dentition is a unique method of tooth replacement that allowed it to recycle teeth without disrupting the continuous shearing surface formed by its tooth rows. The authors also found that the teeth feature wavy enamel, a tissue type formerly thought to have evolved only in more derived ornithopods. The authors suspect these features may have arisen early on as this group of dinosaurs became specialized for herbivory.

Features of the jaws and teeth are often used to assess dinosaur phylogeny. In addition to investigating the evolution of ornithopod dentition, this study also identifies new dental traits that might help sort out ornithischian relationships in future analyses. But the authors note that this is only the first in-depth study at a dinosaur near the base of the ornithopod family tree, and that more studies on more dinosaurs will be needed to fill in the full picture of this group’s evolution.

Professor Chen Jun summarizes: “These tissue-level details of the teeth of Changchunsaurus tell us that their teeth were well-adapted to their abrasive, plant-based diets. Most surprisingly, the wavy enamel described here, presumably to make it more resistant to wear, was previously thought to be exclusive to their giant descendants, the duckbilled dinosaurs.”

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Journal Reference:

Jun Chen, Aaron R. H. LeBlanc, Liyong Jin, Timothy Huang, Robert R. Reisz. Tooth development, histology, and enamel microstructure in Changchunsaurus parvus: Implications for dental evolution in ornithopod dinosaurs. PLOS ONE, 2018; 13 (11): e0205206 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0205206

New species of ‘missing link’ between dinosaurs and birds identified

Known as the ‘Icon of Evolution’ and ‘the missing link’ between dinosaurs and birds, Archaeopteryx has become one of the most famous fossil discoveries in Palaeontology.

Now, as part of an international team of scientists, researchers at The University of Manchester have identified a new species of Archaeopteryx that is closer to modern birds in evolutionary terms.

Dr John Nudds, from the University’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, and the team have been re-examining one of the only 12 known specimens by carrying out the first ever synchrotron examination, a form of 3D X-ray analysis, of an Archaeopteryx.

Thanks to this new insight, the team says that this individual Archaeopteryx fossil, known as ‘specimen number eight’, is physically much closer to a modern bird than it is to a reptile. Therefore, it is evolutionary distinctive and different enough to be described as a new species — Archaeopteryx albersdoerferi.

The research, which is being published in journal Historical Biology, says that some of the differing skeletal characteristics of Archaeopteryx albersdoerferi include the fusion of cranial bones, different pectoral girdle (chest) and wing elements, and a reinforced configuration of carpals and metacarpals (hand) bones.

These characteristics are seen more in modern flying birds and are not found in the older Archaeopteryx lithographica species, which more resembles reptiles and dinosaurs.

Specimen number eight is the youngest of all the 12 known specimens by approximately half a million years. This age difference in comparison to the other specimens is a key factor in describing it as a new species.

Dr Nudds explains: “By digitally dissecting the fossil we found that this specimen differed from all of the others. It possessed skeletal adaptations which would have resulted in much more efficient flight. In a nutshell we have discovered what Archaeopteryx lithographica evolved into — i.e. a more advanced bird, better adapted to flying — and we have described this as a new species of Archaeopteryx.”

Archaeopteryx was first described as the ‘missing link’ between reptiles and birds in 1861 — and is now regarded as the link between dinosaurs and birds. Only 12 specimens have ever been found and all are from the late Jurassic of Bavaria, now Germany, dating back approximately 150 million years.

Lead author, Dr Martin Kundrát, from the University of Pavol Jozef Šafárik, Slovakia, said: “This is the first time that numerous bones and teeth of Archaeopteryx were viewed from all aspects including exposure of their inner structure. The use of synchrotron microtomography was the only way to study the specimen as it is heavily compressed with many fragmented bones partly or completely hidden in limestone.”

Dr Nudds added: “Whenever a missing link is discovered, this merely creates two further missing links — what came before, and what came after! What came before was discovered in 1996 with the feathered dinosaurs in China. Our new species is what came after. It confirms Archaeopteryx as the first bird, and not just one of a number of feathered theropod dinosaurs, which some authors have suggested recently. You could say that it puts Archaeopteryx back on its perch as the first bird!”

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Journal Reference:

Martin Kundrát, John Nudds, Benjamin P. Kear, Junchang Lü, Per Ahlberg. The first specimen of Archaeopteryx from the Upper Jurassic Mörnsheim Formation of Germany. Historical Biology, 2018; 31 (1): 3 DOI: 10.1080/08912963.2018.1518443

Newly described fossils could help reveal why some dinos got so big

By the time non-avian dinosaurs went extinct, plant-eating sauropods like the Brontosaurus had grown to gargantuan proportions. Weighing in as much as 100 tons, the long-neck behemoths are the largest land animals to ever walk the earth.

How they grew so large from ancestors that were small enough to be found in a modern-day petting zoo has remained a mystery. A new, in-depth anatomical description of the best preserved specimens of a car-sized sauropod relative from North America could help paleontologists with unraveling the mystery.

Adam Marsh, a paleontologist at Petrified Forest National Park, led the description of the dinosaur while earning his master’s degree from The University of Texas at Austin Jackson School of Geosciences. The findings were published on Oct. 10 in the journal PLOS ONE. Marsh co-authored the paper with his advisor, Jackson School Professor Timothy Rowe.

The dinosaur — called Sarahsaurus aurifontanalis — lived about 185 million years ago during the Early Jurassic. It could hold important clues about sauropods’ size because it belonged to the dinosaur grouping that preceded them. Its evolutionary placement combined with the exquisite preservation of the specimens is giving researchers a detailed look into its anatomy and how it relates to its larger cousins.

“Sarahsaurus preserves in its anatomy the anatomical changes that were happening in the Late Triassic and Early Jurassic that were occurring in the evolutionary lineage,” Marsh said. “It can help tell us how getting big happens.”

The description is based on two skeletons discovered in Arizona by Rowe in 1997. The bones belong to the Navajo Nation, which owns the land where the fossils were discovered, and are curated by the Jackson School Museum of Earth History Vertebrate Paleontology Collections. The bones are slightly crushed, and in some cases still linked together into body parts such as the hand and tail. The only major missing part is the skull.

“The specimens are well preserved in three dimensions and remarkably complete, which is very rare in the fossil record,” said collections Director Matthew Brown. “Such complete specimens help paleontologists better understand the fragmentary and incomplete fossils remains we typically find.”

Marsh describes Sarahsaurus as a “ground sloth-like” dinosaur. It stood upright, walked on its hind-legs and had powerful forelimbs with a large, curved claw capping the first finger of each hand. It had a lot in common with the earliest sauropod ancestors — like walking on two legs — but it was also starting to show features that would foreshadow how its massive relatives would evolve — such as an increase in body size and a lengthening of the neck vertebrae.

“It’s starting to gain the characters of getting large compared to the earliest members of the group,” Marsh said.

Size and neck-length are features that sauropods would take to extremes as they evolved. By studying these traits and others in Sarahsaurus, and seeing how they compare to those of other dinosaurs, scientists can help reveal how these changes occurred across evolutionary history and how different dinosaurs relate to one another.

For example, the anatomical review helped clarify the relationship between Sarahsaurus and two other sauropod relatives that lived in North America during the Early Jurassic. The researchers found that the three don’t have a common North American ancestor — instead they evolved from dinosaur lineages that came to North America independently.

Marsh is currently working on another study that could shed more light on how sauropods evolved. Led by Sterling Nesbitt, an assistant professor at Virginia Tech and research associate at the Jackson School’s vertebrate collections, the project involves tracking anatomical differences in dinosaur limb bones to determine which features relate to evolution and which relate to the age of an animal. Marsh said that the two Sarahsaurus skeletons examined for this paper are a great addition to the project.

“We’ve got two individuals from basically the same hole in the ground with different bumps and grooves on their femora,” Marsh said. “It lends itself really well to this comprehensive anatomical description and it’s going to be really important for comparisons of early dinosaur anatomy.”

The research was funded by the Jackson School of Geosciences and the National Science Foundation. The Sarahsaurus specimens were collected under permit from the Navajo Nation Minerals Department.

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