127-million-year-old baby bird fossil sheds light on avian evolution

The tiny fossil of a prehistoric baby bird is helping scientists understand how early avians came into the world in the Age of Dinosaurs.

The fossil, which dates back to the Mesozoic Era (250-65 million years ago), is a chick from a group of prehistoric birds called, Enantiornithes. Made up of a nearly complete skeleton, the specimen is amongst the smallest known Mesozoic avian fossils ever discovered.

It measures less than five centimetres — smaller than the little finger on an average human hand — and would have weighed just three ounces when it was alive. What makes this fossil so important and unique is the fact it died not long after its birth. This is a critical stage in a bird’s skeletal formation. That means this bird’s extremely short life has given researchers a rare chance to analyse the species’ bone structure and development.

Studying and analysing ossification — the process of bone development — can explain a lot about a young bird’s life the researchers say. It can help them understand everything from whether it could fly or if it needed to stay with its parents after hatching or could survive on its own.

The lead author of the study, Fabien Knoll, from The University of Manchester’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Ancient Life (ICAL), School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, and the ARAID — Dinopolis in Spain explains: ‘The evolutionary diversification of birds has resulted in a wide range of hatchling developmental strategies and important differences in their growth rates. By analysing bone development we can look at a whole host of evolutionary traits.’

With the fossil being so small the team used synchrotron radiation to picture the tiny specimen at a ‘submicron’ level, observing the bones’ microstructures in extreme detail.

Knoll said: ‘New technologies are offering palaeontologists unprecedented capacities to investigate provocative fossils. Here we made the most of state-of-the-art facilities worldwide including three different synchrotrons in France, the UK and the United States.’

The researchers found the baby bird’s sternum (breastplate bone) was still largely made of cartilage and had not yet developed into hard, solid bone when it died, meaning it wouldn’t have been able to fly.

The patterns of ossification observed in this and the other few very young enantiornithine birds known to date also suggest that the developmental strategies of this particular group of ancient avians may have been more diverse than previously thought.

However, the team say that its lack of bone development doesn’t necessarily mean the hatchling was over reliant on its parents for care and feeding, a trait known as being ‘altricial’. Modern day species like love birds are highly dependent on their parents when born. Others, like chickens, are highly independent, which is known as ‘precocial’. Although, this is not a black-and-white issue, but rather a spectrum, hence the difficulty in clarifying the developmental strategies of long gone bird species.

Luis Chiappe, from the LA Museum of Natural History and study’s co-author added: ‘This new discovery, together with others from around the world, allows us to peek into the world of ancient birds that lived during the age of dinosaurs. It is amazing to realise how many of the features we see among living birds had already been developed more than 100 million years ago.’

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‘Rainbow’ dinosaur had iridescent feathers like a hummingbird

Scientists discovered a dinosaur fossil with feathers so well-preserved that they were able to see the feathers’ microscopic color-bearing structures. By comparing the shapes of those feather structures with the structures in modern bird feathers, they’re able to infer that the new dino, Caihong juji (‘rainbow with the big crest’) had iridescent rainbow feathers like a hummingbird.

Birds are the last remaining dinosaurs. They’re also some of the most vibrantly colored animals on Earth. A new study in Nature Communications reveals that iridescent feathers go way back — a newly discovered species of dinosaur from 161 million years ago had rainbow coloring.

Caihong juji was tiny, about the size of a duck, with a bony crest on its head and long, ribbon-like feathers. And, based on analysis of its fossilized feathers, the feathers on its head, wings, and tail were probably iridescent, with colors that shimmered and shifted in the light. Its name reflects its appearance — in Mandarin, it means, “rainbow with the big crest.” The new species, which was first discovered by a farmer in northeastern China, was described by an international team of scientists led by Dongyu Hu, a professor in the College of Paleontology at the Shenyang Normal University in China.

“When you look at the fossil record, you normally only see hard parts like bone, but every once in a while, soft parts like feathers are preserved, and you get a glimpse into the past,” says Chad Eliason, a postdoctoral researcher at The Field Museum and one of the study’s authors. Eliason, who began work on the project as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas at Austin, added, “The preservation of this dinosaur is incredible, we were really excited when we realized the level of detail we were able to see on the feathers.”

When the scientists examined the feathers under powerful microscopes, they could see the imprints of melanosomes, the parts of cells that contain pigment. For the most part, the pigment that was once present was long gone, but the physical structure of the melanosomes remained. As it turns out, that was enough for scientists to be able to tell what color the feathers were.

That’s because color isn’t only determined by pigment, but by the structure of the melanosomes containing that pigment. Differently shaped melanosomes reflect light in different colors. “Hummingbirds have bright, iridescent feathers, but if you took a hummingbird feather and smashed it into tiny pieces, you’d only see black dust. The pigment in the feathers is black, but the shapes of the melanosomes that produce that pigment are what make the colors in hummingbird feathers that we see,” explains Eliason.

The scientists were able to match the shapes of the pancake-shaped melanosomes in Caihong with the shapes of melanosomes in birds alive today. By finding birds with similarly shaped melanosomes, they were able to determine what kinds of colors Caihong may have flashed. The best matches: hummingbirds.

Colorful plumage is used in modern birds to attract mates — the rainbow feathers of Caihong might be a prehistoric version of a peacock’s iridescent tail. Caihong is the oldest known example of platelet-shaped melanosomes typically found in bright iridescent feathers.

It’s also the earliest known animal with asymmetrical feathers — a feature used by modern birds to steer when flying. Caihong couldn’t fly, though — its feathers were probably primarily used to attract mates and keep warm. While modern birds’ asymmetrical feathers are on their wingtips, Caihong’s were on its tail. “The tail feathers are asymmetrical but wing feathers not, a bizarre feature previously unknown among dinosaurs including birds,” said co-author Xing Xu of the Chinese Academy of Science. “This suggests that controlling [flight] might have been first evolved with tail feathers during some kind of aerial locomotion.”

But while Caihong’s feathers were a first, it had other traits associated with much earlier species of dinosaurs, including the bony crest on its head. “This combination of traits is rather unusual,” says co-author Julia Clarke of the University of Texas at Austin. “It has a velociraptor-type skull on the body of this very avian, fully feathered, fluffy kind of form.”

This combination of old and new traits, says Eliason, is evidence of mosaic evolution, the concept of different traits evolving independently from each other. “This discovery gives us insight into the tempo of how fast these features were evolving,” he adds.

For Eliason, the study also illuminates the value of big data. “To find the color of Caihong’s feathers, we compared its melanosomes with a growing database of thousands of measurements of melanosomes found in modern birds,” he says. It’s also broadened his own research interests.

“I came out of the project with a whole different set of questions that I wanted answers to — when I open up a drawer full of birds in the Field Museum’s collections, now I want to know when those iridescent feathers first developed, and how.”

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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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Feathered dinosaurs were even fluffier than we thought

A University of Bristol-led study has revealed new details about dinosaur feathers and enabled scientists to further refine what is potentially the most accurate depiction of any dinosaur species to date.

Birds are the direct descendants of a group of feathered, carnivorous dinosaurs that, along with true birds, are referred to as paravians — examples of which include the infamous Velociraptor.

Researchers examined, at high resolution, an exceptionally-preserved fossil of the crow-sized paravian dinosaur Anchiornis — comparing its fossilised feathers to those of other dinosaurs and extinct birds.

The feathers around the body of Anchiornis, known as contour feathers, revealed a newly-described, extinct, primitive feather form consisting of a short quill with long, independent, flexible barbs erupting from the quill at low angles to form two vanes and a forked feather shape.

The observations were made possible by decay processes that separated some of these feathers from the body prior to burial and fossilisation, making their structure easier to interpret.

Such feathers would have given Anchiornis a fluffy appearance relative to the streamlined bodies of modern flying birds, whose feathers have tightly-zipped vanes forming continuous surfaces. Anchiornis’s unzipped feathers might have affected the animal’s ability to control its temperature and repel water, possibly being less effective than the vanes of most modern feathers. This shaggy plumage would also have increased drag when Anchiornis glided.

Additionally, the feathers on the wing of Anchiornis lack the aerodynamic, asymmetrical vanes of modern flight feathers, and the new research shows that these vanes were also not tightly-zipped compared to modern flight feathers. This would have hindered the feather’s ability to form a lift surface. To compensate, paravians like Anchiornis packed multiple rows of long feathers into the wing, unlike modern birds, where most of the wing surface is formed by just one row of feathers.

Furthermore, Anchiornis and other paravians had four wings, with long feathers on the legs in addition to the arms, as well as elongated feathers forming a fringe around the tail. This increase in surface-area likely allowed for gliding before the evolution of powered flight.

To assist in reconstructing the updated look of Anchiornis, scientific illustrator Rebecca Gelernter worked with Evan Saitta and Dr Jakob Vinther, from the University of Bristol’s School of Earth Sciences and School of Biological Sciences, to draw the animal as it was in life.

The new piece represents a radical shift in dinosaur depictions and incorporates previous research.

The color patterns for Anchiornis are known from fossilised pigment studies, the outline of the flesh of the animal has been constructed by examining fossils under laser fluorescence, and previous work has described the multi-tiered layering of the wing feathers.

Evan Saitta said: “The novel aspects of the wing and contour feathers, as well as fully-feathered hands and feet, are added to the depiction.

“Most provocatively, Anchiornis is presented in this artwork climbing in the manner of hoatzin chicks, the only living bird whose juveniles retain a relic of their dinosaurian past, a functional claw.

“This contrasts much previous art that places paravians perched on top of branches like modern birds.

“However, such perching is unlikely given the lack of a reversed toe as in modern perching birds and climbing is consistent with the well-developed arms and claws in paravians.

“Overall, our study provides some new insight into the appearance of dinosaurs, their behavior and physiology, and the evolution of feathers, birds, and powered flight.”

Rebecca Gelernter added: “Paleoart is a weird blend of strict anatomical drawing, wildlife art, and speculative biology. The goal is to depict extinct animals and plants as accurately as possible given the available data and knowledge of the subject’s closest living relatives.

“As a result of this study and other recent work, this is now possible to an unprecedented degree for Anchiornis. It’s easy to see it as a living animal with complex behaviours, not just a flattened fossil.

“It’s really exciting to be able to work with the scientists at the forefront of these discoveries, and to show others what we believe these fluffy, toothy almost-birds looked like as they went about their Jurassic business.”

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Bryozoans: Fossil fills missing evolutionary link

Lurking in oceans, rivers and lakes around the world are tiny, ancient animals known to few people. Bryozoans, tiny marine creatures that live in colonies, are “living fossils” — their lineage goes back to the time when multi-celled life was a newfangled concept. But until now, scientists were missing evidence of one important breakthrough that helped the bryozoans survive 500 million years as the world changed around them.

Today, the diverse group of bryozoans that dominate modern seas build a great range of structures, from fans to sheets to weird, brain-like blobs. But for the first 50 or 60 million years of their existence, they could only grow like blankets over whatever surface they happened upon.

Scientists recently announced the discovery of that missing evolutionary link — the first known member of the modern bryozoans to grow up into a structure. Called Jablonskipora kidwellae, it is named after UChicago geophysical scientists David Jablonski and Susan Kidwell.

Both are prominent scholars in their fields: Jablonski in origins, extinctions and other forces shaping biodiversity across time and space in marine invertebrates; Kidwell in the study of how fossils are preserved and the reliability of paleobiologic data, especially for detecting recent, human-driven changes to ecosystems. They also happen to be married.

“We were absolutely thrilled. What a treat and an honor, to have this little guy named after us,” said Jablonski, the William R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Service Professor of Geophysical Sciences.

“I never expected to have a fossil named after me,” said Kidwell, the William Rainey Harper Professor in Geophysical Sciences, “and here it’s one that is an evolutionary breakthrough. We’re still smiling about it.”

Jablonskipora kidwellae lived about 105 million years ago, latching on to rocks and other hard surfaces in shallow seas — a bit like corals, though they’re not related. The fossils came from southwest England, along cliffs near Devon, originally collected in 1903 and analyzed by co-discoverers Paul Taylor and Silviu Martha from London’s Natural History Museum.

Bryozoans never figured out a symbiotic partnership with photosynthetic bacteria, as coral did, so their evolution took a different turn. Each one in a colony is genetically identical, but they have specialized roles, like ants or bees. Their shelly apartment complexes house thousands of the creatures, which have soft bodies with tiny tentacles to catch nutrients.

Growing upright was an evolutionary hack for Jablonskipora kidwellae, the two professors said: building bigger colonies extending upward from just a tiny attachment site was a good evolutionary move, allowing it to tap the water flowing above the sea floor — both for food and to scatter its offspring further. “This is a huge competitive advantage for them,” Jablonski said, “but it required some evolutionary organization to create a vertical structure.” Kidwell added: “This is the next level of cooperation among these individuals within the colony.”

They expressed a fondness for the creature, which they said was, like other bryozoans, “small and slow, but fierce.” Bryozoan fossils are sometimes found having bulldozed right over neighboring colonies in an intense battle for growing space. In a manner of speaking: this all would have taken place in extremely slow motion.

“They’re pretty fabulous little animals,” Kidwell said.

Jablonski and Kidwell have been friends with Taylor, one of the discoverers, since they spent summers on various research at the London Natural History Museum in the 1980s, but they said his news took them both completely by surprise. Jablonski had previously co-authored one paper with Taylor; Kidwell is currently collaborating with him on a study of bryozoan skeletal debris in modern sediments from the Channel Islands off Los Angeles.

It is the second honor of the year for both Kidwell and Jablonski: In April she received the Moore Medal from the Society for Sedimentary Geology, and in October he received the Paleontological Society Medal, that society’s highest honor.

Jablonski had one previous species named after him — a tiny clam — but Jablonskiporawill now be a genus in addition to a species.

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Colorado River’s connection with the ocean was a punctuated affair

The Colorado River’s initial trip to the ocean didn’t come easy, but its story has emerged from layers of sediment preserved within tectonically active stretches of the waterway’s lower reaches.

A scientific team, led by geologist Rebecca Dorsey of the University of Oregon, theorizes that the river’s route off the Colorado Plateau was influenced by a combination of tectonic deformation and changing sea levels that produced a series of stops and starts between roughly 6.3 and 4.8 million years ago.

Dorsey’s team lays out its case in an invited-research paper in the journal Sedimentary Geology. The team’s interpretation challenges long-held conventional thinking that once a river connects to the ocean it’s a done deal.

“The birth of the Colorado River was more punctuated and filled with more uneven behavior than we expected,” Dorsey said. “We’ve been trying to figure this out for years. This study is a major synthesis of regional stratigraphy, sedimentology and micropaleontology. By integrating these different datasets we are able to identify the different processes that controlled the birth and early evolution of this iconic river system.”

The region covered in the research stretches from the southern Bouse Formation, near present-day Blythe, California, to the western Salton Trough north of where the river now trickles into the Gulf of California. The Bouse Formation and deposits in the Salton Trough have similar ages and span both sides of the San Andreas Fault, providing important clues to the river’s origins.

Last year, in the journal Geology, a project led by graduate student Brennan O’Connell, a co-author on the new study, concluded that laminated sediments found in exposed rock along the river near Blythe were deposited by tidal currents 5.5 million years ago. The Gulf of California, it was argued, extended into the region, but the age of the deposits and tectonic and sea level changes at work during that time were not well understood.

Analyses by Kristin McDougall, a micropaleontologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and co-author on the new paper, helped the team better pinpoint the timing of the limestone deposits to about 6 million years ago, when tiny marine organisms lived in the water and were deposited at the same time.

About 5.4 million years ago, conditions changed. Global sea level was falling but instead of bay water levels declining, as would be expected, the water depth increased due to tectonic subsidence of the crust, the researchers discovered.

The basal carbonate material left by marine organisms was then inundated by fresh water as the river swept down into lower elevations, bringing with it clay and sand from mountain terrain, they found.

“The bay filled up with river sediment as the sediment migrated toward the ocean,” Dorsey said. “As more sediment came in, transport processes caused the delta front to move down the valley, transforming the marine bay into a delta and then the earliest through-flowing Colorado River.”

The river had arrived in the gulf, but only temporarily. A tug-of-war lasting for 200,000 to 300,000 years began some 5.1 million years ago, when the river stopped delivering sediments from upstream. The delta retreated and seawater returned to the lower Colorado River valley for a short time. The evidence is in the stratigraphy and fossils. Researchers found that clay and sand from the river became mixed with and then covered by marine sediment.

Something, Dorsey said, apparently was happening upstream, trapping river sediment. A good bet, the researchers think, is tectonic activity, perhaps earthquakes along a fault zone in the river’s northern basin that created subsidence in the riverbed or deep lakes along the river’s path.

At roughly 4.8 million years ago, the river resumed depositing massive amounts of sediment back into the Salton Trough and began rebuilding the delta. Today’s view of the delta, however, reflects human-made modern disturbances to the river’s sediment discharge and flow of water reaching the gulf.

To meet agricultural demands for irrigation and drinking water for human consumption, Hoover Dam was constructed on the river to form Lake Mead during the 1930s. In 1956-1966, Glen Canyon Dam was built, forming Lake Powell.

“If we could go back to 1900 before the dams that trap the sediment and water, we would see that the delta area was full of channels, islands, sand bars and moving sediment. It was a very diverse, dynamic and rich delta system. But humanmade dams are trapping sediment today, eerily similar to what happened roughly 5 million years ago,” Dorsey said.

The bottom line of the research, she said, is that no single process controlled the Colorado River’s initial route to the sea. “Different processes interacted in a surprisingly complicated sequence of events that led to the final integration of that river out to the ocean,” she said.

The research, Dorsey said, provides insights that help scientists understand how such systems change through time. The Colorado River is an excellent natural laboratory, she said, because sedimentary deposits that formed prior to and during river initiation are well exposed throughout the lower river valley.

“This research,” Dorsey said, “is very relevant to today because we have global sea level rising, climate is warming, coastlines are being inundated and submerged, and the supply of river sediment exerts a critical control on the fate of deltas where they meet the ocean. Documenting the complex interaction of these processes in the past helps us understand what is happening today.”

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World’s longest sauropod dinosaur trackway brought to light

In 2009, the world’s largest dinosaur tracks were discovered in the French village of Plagne, in the Jura Mountains. Since then, a series of excavations at the site has uncovered other tracks, sprawling over more than 150 meters. They form the longest sauropod trackway ever to be found. Having compiled and analyzed the collected data, which is published in Geobios, scientists from the Laboratoire de Géologie de Lyon (CNRS / ENS de Lyon / Claude Bernard Lyon 1 University), the Laboratoire Magmas et Volcans (CNRS / Université Clermont Auvergne / Université Jean Monnet / IRD), and the Pterosaur Beach Museum conclude these tracks were left 150 million years ago by a dinosaur at least 35 m long and weighing no less than 35 t.

In 2009, when sauropod tracks were discovered in the French village of Plagne — near Lyon — the news went round the world. After two members of the Oyonnax Naturalists’ Society spotted them, scientists from the Paléoenvironnements et Paléobiosphère research unit (CNRS / Claude Bernard Lyon 1 University) confirmed these tracks were the longest in the world. Between 2010 and 2012, researchers from the Laboratoire de Géologie de Lyon supervised digs at the site, a meadow covering three hectares. Their work unearthed many more dinosaur footprints and trackways. It turns out the prints found in 2009 are part of a 110-step trackway that extends over 155 m — a world record for sauropods, which were the largest of the dinosaurs.

Dating of the limestone layers reveals that the trackway was formed 150 million years ago, during the Early Tithonian Age of the Jurassic Period. At that time, the Plagne site lay on a vast carbonate platform bathed in a warm, shallow sea. The presence of large dinosaurs indicates the region must have been studded with many islands that offered enough vegetation to sustain the animals. Land bridges emerged when the sea level lowered, connecting the islands and allowing the giant vertebrates to migrate from dry land in the Rhenish Massif.

Additional excavations conducted as late as 2015 enabled closer study of the tracks. Those left by the sauropod’s feet span 94 to 103 cm and the total length can reach up to 3 meters when including the mud ring displaced by each step. The footprints reveal five elliptical toe marks, while the handprints are characterized by five circular finger marks arranged in an arc. Biometric analyses suggest the dinosaur was at least 35 m long, weighted between 35 and 40 t, had an average stride of 2.80 m, and traveled at a speed of 4 km/h. It has been assigned to a new ichnospecies1: Brontopodus plagnensis. Other dinosaur trackways can be found at the Plagne site, including a series of 18 tracks extending over 38 m, left by a carnivore of the ichnogenus Megalosauripus. The researchers have since covered these tracks to protect them from the elements. But many more remain to be found and studied in Plagne.

1 The prefix ichno- indicates that a taxon (e.g., a genus or species) has been defined on the basis of tracks or other marks left behind, rather than anatomical remains like bones.

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Finger and toe fossils belonged to tiny primates 45 million years ago

At Northern Illinois University, Dan Gebo opens a cabinet and pulls out a drawer full of thin plastic cases filled with clear gelatin capsules. Inside each numbered capsule is a tiny fossil — some are so small they rival the diminutive size of a mustard seed.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone would be able to recognize these flecks as fossils, much less link them to an ancient world that was very different from our own, yet has quite a bit to do with us — or the evolution of us.

The nearly 500 finger and toe bones belonged to tiny early primates — some half the size of a mouse. During the mid-Eocene period, about 45 million years ago, they lived in tree canopies and fed on fruit and insects in a tropical rainforest in what is now China.

The fossilized phalanges are described in detail in a new study by Gebo and colleagues, published online this fall ahead of print in the Journal of Human Evolution.

Representing nine different taxonomic families of primates and as many as 25 species, the specimens include numerous fossils attributed to Eosimias, the very first anthropoid known to date, and three fossils attributed to a new and much more advanced anthropoid. The anthropoid lineage would later include monkeys, apes and humans.

“The fossils are extraordinarily small, but in terms of quantity this is the largest single assemblage of fossil primate finger and toe specimens ever recorded,” said Gebo, an NIU professor of anthropology and biology who specializes in the study of primate anatomy.

All of the finger and toe fossils imply tree-dwelling primates with grasping digits in both hands and feet. Many of the smaller fossils are between 1 and 2 millimeters in length, and the animals would have ranged in full body size from 10 to 1,000 grams (0.35 to 35.3 ounces).

“The new study provides further evidence that early anthropoids were minuscule creatures, the size of a mouse or smaller,” Gebo said. “It also adds to the evidence pointing toward Asia as the initial continent for primate evolution. While apes and fossil humans do come from Africa, their ancestors came from Asia.”

The newly described fossils were originally recovered from a commercial quarry near the village of Shanghuang in the southern Jiangsu Province of China, about 100 miles west of Shanghai. In recent decades, Shanghuang has become well-known among paleontologists.

“Shanghuang is truly an amazingly diverse fossil primate locality, unequaled across the Eocene,” Gebo said. “Because no existing primate communities show this type of body-size distribution, the Shanghuang primate fauna emphasizes that past ecosystems were often radically different from those we are familiar with today.”

Co-author Christopher Beard, a paleontologist at the University of Kansas in Lawrence who has been working on Shanghuang fossils for 25 years, said the limestone in the quarry is of Triassic age — from the very beginning of the Age of Dinosaurs some 220 million years ago. Owing to a subsequent phase of erosion, the limestone developed large fissures containing fossil-rich sediments dating to the middle Eocene, after dinosaurs went extinct.

In the early 1990s, more than 10 tons of fossil-bearing matrix were collected from the fissures and shipped to the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. There, the matrix was washed and screened, yielding fossil bones and teeth from ancient mammals, many of which remain to be identified.

“Because of commercial exploitation of the quarry site, the fossil-bearing fissure-fillings at Shanghuang are now exhausted,” Beard said. “So, the fossils that we currently have are all that will ever be found from this site.”

Gebo was initially recruited during the late 1990s to spearhead research on primate limb and ankle bones from Shanghuang. That led to two publications in 2000, when he and colleagues first announced the discovery of 45 million-year-old, thumb-length primates, the smallest ever recovered, from this same site. The work identifying body parts also helped cement the status of Eosimias, first identified by Beard on the basis of jaw fragments discovered at the site, as an extremely primitive anthropoid lying at the very beginning of our lineage’s evolutionary past.

In more recent years, Gebo found additional specimens, sifting through miscellaneous elements from Shanghuang both at the Carnegie Museum and the University of Kansas. He brought the delicate and minuscule finger and toe fossils to NIU for study using traditional and electron-scanning microscopes.

The fossils that endured the millennia may be small but still have a story to tell. “We can actually identify different types of primates from the shapes of their fingers and toes,” Gebo said.

Primates are mammals, characterized by having bigger brains, grasping hands and feet, nails instead of claws and eyes located in the front of the skull. Living prosimians, or living lower primates, include lemurs and tarsiers, and have broader fingertips. In contrast, most living anthropoids, also known as higher primates, have narrow fingertips.

Fossils from the unnamed advanced anthropoid are narrow, Gebo said.

“These are the earliest known examples of those narrow fingers and toes that are key to anthropoid evolution,” he added. “We can see evolution occurring at this site, from the broader finger or toe tips to more narrow.”

Unlike other prehistoric forests across the globe that have a mixture of large and small primates, Shanghuang’s fossil record is unique in being nearly absent of larger creatures.

The unusual size distribution is likely the result of a sampling bias, Gebo said. Researchers might be missing the larger primate fauna because of processes affecting fossil preservation, and for similar reasons scientists at other Eocene localities could be missing the small-sized fauna.

“Many of the fossil specimens from Shanghuang show evidence of partial digestion by predatory birds, which may have specialized on preying upon the small primates and other mammals that are so common at Shanghuang, thus explaining the apparent bias toward small fossil species there,” Beard added.

Some of the primate fossils found in Shanghuang are found in other countries. Eosimias fossils have been recovered in Myanmar, for example. But Shanghuang stands out because of the presence of more advanced anthropoids and the sheer diversity of primates.

“You don’t find all of these fossil primates in one place except at Shanghuang,” Gebo said.

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