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.

Story Source:

Materials provided by University of Chicago. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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.”

Story Source:

Materials provided by University of Oregon. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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.

Story Source:

Materials provided by CNRS. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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.

Story Source:

Materials provided by Northern Illinois University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Humankind’s earliest ancestors discovered in southern England

Fossils of the oldest mammals related to humankind have been discovered on the Jurassic Coast of Dorset.
The two teeth are from small, rat-like creatures that lived 145 million years ago in the shadow of the dinosaurs. They are the earliest undisputed fossils of mammals belonging to the line that led to human beings.

They are also the ancestors to most mammals alive today, including creatures as diverse as the Blue Whale and the Pigmy Shrew. The findings are published in the Journal, Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, in a paper by Dr Steve Sweetman, Research Fellow at the University of Portsmouth, and co-authors from the same university. Dr Sweetman, whose p

rimary research interest concerns all the small vertebrates that lived with the dinosaurs, identified the teeth but it was University of Portsmouth undergraduate student, Grant Smith who made the discovery.

Dr Sweetman said: “Grant was sifting through small samples of earliest Cretaceous rocks collected on the coast of Dorset as part of his undergraduate dissertation project in the hope of finding some interesting remains. Quite unexpectedly he found not one but two quite remarkable teeth of a type never before seen from rocks of this age. I was asked to look at them and give an opinion and even at first glance my jaw dropped!”

“The teeth are of a type so highly evolved that I realised straight away I was looking at remains of Early Cretaceous mammals that more closely resembled those that lived during the latest Cretaceous — some 60 million years later in geological history. In the world of palaeontology there has been a lot of debate around a specimen found in China, which is approximately 160 million years old. This was originally said to be of the same type as ours but recent studies have ruled this out. That being the case, our 145 million year old teeth are undoubtedly the earliest yet known from the line of mammals that lead to our own species.”

Dr Sweetman believes the mammals were small, furry creatures and most likely nocturnal. One, a possible burrower, probably ate insects and the larger may have eaten plants as well.

He said: “The teeth are of a highly advanced type that can pierce, cut and crush food. They are also very worn which suggests the animals to which they belonged lived to a good age for their species. No mean feat when you’re sharing your habitat with predatory dinosaurs!”

The teeth were recovered from rocks exposed in cliffs near Swanage which has given up thousands of iconic fossils. Grant, now reading for his Master’s degree at The University of Portsmouth, said that he knew he was looking at something mammalian but didn’t realise he had discovered something quite so special. His supervisor, Dave Martill, Professor of Palaeobiology, confirmed that they were mammalian, but suggested Dr Sweetman, a mammal expert should see them.

Professor Martill said: “We looked at them with a microscope but despite over 30 years’ experience these teeth looked very different and we decided we needed to bring in a third pair of eyes and more expertise in the field in the form of our colleague, Dr Sweetman.

“Steve made the connection immediately, but what I’m most pleased about is that a student who is a complete beginner was able to make a remarkable scientific discovery in palaeontology and see his discovery and his name published in a scientific paper. The Jurassic Coast is always unveiling fresh secrets and I’d like to think that similar discoveries will continue to be made right on our doorstep.”

One of the new species has been named Durlstotherium newmani, christened after Charlie Newman, the landlord of the Square and Compass pub in Worth Matravers, close to where the fossils were discovered.

Story Source:

Materials provided by University of Portsmouth. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Scientists make new discovery about bird evolution

In a new paper published in National Science Review, a team of scientists from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, the Shandong Tianyu Museum of Nature, and the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Paleontology (all in China) described the most exceptionally preserved fossil bird discovered to date.

The new specimen from the rich Early Cretaceous Jehol Biota (approximately 131 to 120 million years old) is referred to as Eoconfuciusornis, the oldest and most primitive member of the Confuciusornithiformes, a group of early birds characterized by the first occurrence of an avian beak. Its younger relative Confuciusornis is known from thousands of specimens but this is only the second specimen of Eoconfuciusornis found. This species comes only from the 130.7 Ma Huajiying Formation deposits in Hebei, which preserves the second oldest known fossil birds. Birds from this layer are very rare.

This new specimen of Eoconfuciusornis, housed in the Shandong Tianyu Museum of Nature, in Eastern China, is a female. The ovary reveals developing yolks that vary in size, similar to living birds. This suggests that confuciusornithiforms evolved a period of rapid yolk deposition prior to egg-laying (crocodilians, which are archosaurs like birds, deposit yolks slowly in all eggs for months with no period of rapid yolk formation), which is indicative of complex energetic profiles similar to those observed in birds.

This means Eoconfuciusornis and its kin, like living birds, was able to cope with extremely high metabolic demands during early growth and reproduction (whereas energetic demands in crocodiles are even, lacking complexity). In contrast, other Cretaceous birds including the more advanced group the Enantiornithes appear to have lower metabolic rates and have required less energy similar to crocodilians and non-avian dinosaurs (their developing yolks show little size disparity indicating no strong peak in energy associated with reproduction, and much simpler energetic profiles, limited by simpler physiologies).

Traces of skin indicate that the wing was supplemented by flaps of skin called patagia. Living birds have numerous wing patagia that help the bird to fly. This fossil helps show how bird wings evolved. The propatagium (the flap of skin that connects the shoulder and wrist) and postpatagium (the flap of skin that extends off the back of the hand and ulna) evolved before the alular patagium (the flap of skin connecting the first digit to the rest of the hand), which is absent in Eoconfuciusornis. Even more unique is the preservation of the internal structure of the propatagium which reveal a collagenous network identical to that in living birds. This internal network gives the skin flap its shape, allowing it to generate aerodynamic lift and aid the bird in flight.

The nearly complete plumage preserves remnants of the original plumage pattern, revealing the presence of spots on the wings and the earliest documentation of sexual differences in plumage within birds. This new specimen suggests that female Eoconfuciusornis were smaller than males and lacked tail feathers, similar to many sexually dimorphic living birds and the younger Confuciusornis in which the plumage of the males and females are different from each other. Samples of the feathers viewed under a microscope reveal differences in color characteristics, allowing scientists to reconstruct the plumage. Female Eoconfuciusornis had black spotted wings and gray body with a red throat patch.

Researchers have not found fossils from any other bird from the Jehol period that reveal so many types of soft tissue (feathers, skin, collagen, ovarian follicles). These remains allow researchers to create the most accurate reconstruction of a primitive early bird (or dinosaur) to date. This information provides better understanding of flight function in the primitive confuciusornithiforms and of the evolution of advanced flight features within birds.

“This new fossil is incredible,” said co-author Dr. Jingmai O’Connor. “With the amount of information we can glean from this specimen we can really bring this ancient species to life. We can understand how it grew, flew, reproduced, and what it looked like. Fossils like this one from the Jehol Biota continue to revolutionize our understanding of early birds.”

Story Source:

Materials provided by Oxford University Press USA. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

280 million-year-old fossil reveals origins of chimaeroid fishes

High-definition CT scans of the fossilized skull of a 280 million-year-old fish reveal the origin of chimaeras, a group of cartilaginous fish related to sharks. Analysis of the brain case of Dwykaselachus oosthuizeni, a shark-like fossil from South Africa, shows telltale structures of the brain, major cranial nerves, nostrils and inner ear belonging to modern-day chimaeras.

This discovery, published early online in Nature on Jan. 4, allows scientists to firmly anchor chimaeroids — the last major surviving vertebrate group to be properly situated on the tree of life — in evolutionary history, and sheds light on the early development of these fish as they diverged from their deep, shared ancestry with sharks.

“Chimaeroids belong somewhere close to the sharks and rays, but there’s always been uncertainty when you search deeper in time for their evolutionary branching point,” said Michael Coates, PhD, professor of organismal biology and anatomy at the University of Chicago, who led the study.

“Chimaeras are unusual throughout the long span of their fossil record,” Coates said. “Because of this, it’s been difficult to understand how they got to be the way they are in the first place. This discovery sheds new light not only on the early evolution of shark-like fishes, but also on jawed vertebrates as a whole.”

Chimaeras include about 50 living species, known in various parts of the world as ratfish, rabbit fish, ghost sharks, St. Joseph sharks or elephant sharks. They represent one of four fundamental divisions of modern vertebrate biodiversity. With large eyes and tooth plates adapted for grinding prey, these deep-water dwelling fish are far from the bloodthirsty killer sharks of Hollywood.

For more than 100 years, they have fascinated biologists. “There are few of the marine animals that on account of structure and relationships to other forms living and extinct have as great interest for zoologists and palaeontologists as the Chimaeroids,” wrote Harvard naturalist Samuel Garman in 1904. More than a century later, the relationship between chimaeras, the earliest sharks, and other early jawed fishes in the fossil record continues to puzzle paleontologists.

Chimaeras — named for their similarities to a mythical creature described by Homer as “lion-fronted and snake behind, a goat in the middle” — are unusual. Their anatomy comprises features reminiscent of sharks, ray-finned fishes and tetrapods, and their form is shaped by hardened bits of cartilage rather than bone. Because they are found in deep water, they were long considered rare. But as scientists gained the technology to explore more of the ocean, they are now known to be widespread, but their numbers remain uncertain.

After a 2014 study detailing their extremely slow-evolving genomes was published in Nature, interest in chimaeras blossomed. Of all living vertebrates with jaws, chimaeras seemed to offer the best promise of finding an archive of information about conditions close to the last common ancestor of humans and a Great White.

Like sharks, also reliant on cartilage, chimaeras rarely fossilize. The few known early chimaera fossils closely resemble their living descendants. Until now, the chimaeroid evolutionary record consisted mostly of isolated specimens of their characteristic hyper-mineralized tooth plates.

The Dwykaselachus fossil resolves this issue. It was originally discovered by amateur paleontologist and farmer Roy Oosthuizen when he split open a nodule of rock on his farm in South Africa in the 1980s. An initial description named it based on material visible at the broken surface of the nodule. It was carefully archived in the South African Museum in Cape Town, where its splendor awaited technology able to unwrap its long-shrouded secrets.

In 2013, when the University of the Witwatersrand Evolutionary Studies Institute obtained a micro CT scanner, Dr. Robert Gess, a South African Centre of Excellence in Palaeosciences partner and co-author of this study, began scanning Devonian shark fossils while he was based at the Rhodes University Geology Department. Coates encouraged him to investigate Dwykaselachus.

At the surface, Dwykaselachus appeared to be a symmoriid shark, a bizarre group of 300+ million-year-old sharks, known for their unusual dorsal fin spines, some resembling boom-like prongs and others surreal ironing boards.

CT scans showed that the Dwykaselachus skull was remarkably intact, one of a very few that had not been crushed during fossilization. The scans also provide an unprecedented view of the interior of the brain case.

“When I saw it for the first time, I was stunned,” Coates said. “The specimen is remarkable.”

The images, one reviewer commented, are “almost dripping with data.”

They show a series of telltale anatomical structures that mark the specimen as an early chimaera, not a shark. The braincase preserves details about the brain shape, the paths of major cranial nerves and the anatomy of the inner ear. All of which indicate that Dwyka belongs to modern-day chimaeras. The scans reveal clues about how these fish began to diverge from their common ancestry with sharks.

A large extinction of vertebrates at the end of the Devonian period, about 360 million years ago, gave rise to an explosion of cartilaginous fishes. Instead of what became modern-day sharks, Coates said, revelations from this study indicate that “much of this new biodiversity was, instead, early chimaeras.”

“We can now say that the first radiation of cartilaginous fishes after the end Devonian extinction was chimaeras, in abundance.” Coates said. “It’s the inverse of what we’ve got today, where sharks are far more common.”

Story Source:

Materials provided by University of Chicago Medical Center. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

How long did it take to hatch a dinosaur egg? 3-6 months

A human typically gives birth after nine months. An ostrich hatchling emerges from its egg after 42 days. But how long did it take for a baby dinosaur to incubate?

Groundbreaking research led by a Florida State University professor establishes a timeline of anywhere from three to six months depending on the dinosaur.

In an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, FSU Professor of Biological Science Gregory Erickson and a team of researchers break down the complicated biology of these prehistoric creatures and explain how embryonic dental records solved the mystery of how long dinosaurs incubated their eggs.

“Some of the greatest riddles about dinosaurs pertain to their embryology — virtually nothing is known,” Erickson said. “Did their eggs incubate slowly like their reptilian cousins — crocodilians and lizards? Or rapidly like living dinosaurs — the birds?”

Scientists had long theorized that dinosaur incubation duration was similar to birds, whose eggs hatch in periods ranging from 11-85 days. Comparable-sized reptilian eggs typically take twice as long — weeks to many months.

Because the eggs of dinosaurs were so large — some were about 4 kilograms or the size of a volleyball — scientists believed they must have experienced rapid incubation with birds inheriting that characteristic from their dinosaur ancestors.

Erickson, FSU graduate student David Kay and colleagues from University of Calgary and the American Museum of Natural History decided to put these theories to the test.

To do that, they accessed some rare fossils — those of dinosaur embryos.

“Time within the egg is a crucial part of development, but this earliest growth stage is poorly known because dinosaur embryos are rare,” said co-author Darla Zelenitsky, assistant professor of geoscience at University of Calgary. “Embryos can potentially tell us how dinosaurs developed and grew very early on in life and if they are more similar to birds or reptiles in these respects.”

The two types of dinosaur embryos researchers examined were those from Protoceratops — a sheep-sized dinosaur found in the Mongolian Gobi Desert whose eggs were quite small (194 grams) — and Hypacrosaurus, an enormous duck-billed dinosaur found in Alberta, Canada with eggs weighing more than 4 kilograms.

Erickson and his team ran the embryonic jaws through a CT scanner to visualize the forming dentition. Then, they extracted several of the teeth to further examine them under sophisticated microscopes.

Researchers found what they were looking for on those microscope slides. Growth lines on the teeth showed researchers precisely how long the dinosaurs had been growing in the eggs.

“These are the lines that are laid down when any animal’s teeth develops,” Erickson said. “They’re kind of like tree rings, but they’re put down daily. We could literally count them to see how long each dinosaur had been developing.”

Their results showed nearly three months for the tiny Protoceratops embryos and six months for those from the giant Hypacrosaurus.

“Dinosaur embryos are some of the best fossils in the world,” said Mark Norell, Macaulay Curator for the American Museum of Natural History and a co-author on the study. “Here, we used spectacular fossils specimens collected by American Museum expeditions to the Gobi Desert, coupled them with new technology and new ideas, leading us to discover something truly novel about dinosaurs.”

The implications of long dinosaur incubation are considerable.

In addition to finding that dinosaur incubation was similar to primitive reptiles, the researchers could infer many aspects of dinosaurian biology from the results.

Prolonged incubation put eggs and their parents at risk from predators, starvation and other environmental risk factors. And theories that some dinosaurs nested in the more temperate lower latitude of Canada and then traveled to the Arctic during the summer now seem unlikely given the time frame for hatching and migration.

The biggest ramification from the study, however, relates to the extinction of dinosaurs. Given that these warm-blooded creatures required considerable resources to reach adult size, took more than a year to mature and had slow incubation times, they would have been at a distinct disadvantage compared to other animals that survived the extinction event.

“We suspect our findings have implications for understanding why dinosaurs went extinct at the end of the Cretaceous period, whereas amphibians, birds, mammals and other reptiles made it through and prospered,” Erickson said.

This research was supported by the National Science Foundation.

Story Source:

Materials provided by Florida State University. Original written by Kathleen Haughney. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Fossilized water fleas: Evolution of the micro-crustacean group Cladocera

Scientists of the Senckenberg Institute have studied the evolutionary history of the so-called “water fleas.” These tiny crustaceans from the order Cladocera form the basis of the trophic pyramid and therefore play an important role in modern ecosystems. Due to the fact that they are rarely preserved as fossils, little is known about the water fleas’ evolution. In their study, which was recently published in the scientific journal “Earth-Science Reviews,” the team of scientists presents the first comprehensive inventory of all Cladocera fossils in an ecological context. The scientists show that the animals’ morphology has undergone very little change over the course of geological history. Nevertheless, the water fleas demonstrate a high adaptability to changes in environmental conditions.

A search for organisms in any lake or puddle will very likely turn up a representative of the Cladocera. With more than 700 species, these tiny animals — commonly referred to as “water fleas” due to their bouncing locomotion — inhabit almost all types of freshwater environments. “Despite this wealth of species and habitats, little is known about the evolutionary history of the Cladocera,” explains Dr. Kay Van Damme of the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt, and he continues, “Since the animals do not possess a calcareous shell or carapace, they are only rarely preserved as fossils.”

For the first time, Van Damme and his colleague, Prof. Alexey A. Kotov of the A.N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution in Moscow, have now compiled a complete inventory of all known Cladocera species. “The Cladocera constitute a crucial group in our effort to understand the development of freshwater ecosystems throughout geological history,” says Van Damme in explanation of the team’s motivation. Even today, water fleas still form the basis of many food chains, which makes them an important component of aquatic ecosystems.

Moreover, the tiny crustaceans are very sensitive to environmental changes and can thus be used to monitor water quality — for years, the genus Daphnia has served as a model organism in this regard. “In addition, Daphnia is the first representative of the crustaceans whose genome has been published — therefore, water fleas play a similar role in aquatic environmental genomics as does the fruit fly Drosophila in terrestrial environments,” adds Van Damme.

According to the team of researchers, the first representatives of the water fleas appeared in the early Jurassic, about 180 million years ago. “Since then, the basic design of the Cladocera has hardly changed,” says the biologist from Frankfurt, and he continues, “Nevertheless, this ‘living fossil’ was able to adapt very well to a variety of different environmental conditions.” For example, the water fleas developed various defense mechanisms to escape predators. “Daphnia and company were even able to survive the massive extinction event at the Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary, which, among others, claimed all of the terrestrial dinosaurs,” says Van Damme in closing.

Story Source:

Materials provided by Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Mammals in age of dinosaurs packed powerful bite

Move over, hyenas and saber-toothed cats; there’s a mammal with an even stronger bite. A new study by Burke Museum and University of Washington paleontologists describes an early marsupial relative called Didelphodon vorax that lived alongside ferocious dinosaurs and had, pound-for-pound, the strongest bite force of any mammal ever recorded.

Published in the journal Nature Communications, the team’s findings suggest mammals were more varied during the Age of Dinosaurs than previously believed. Didelphodon was able to eat a variety of foods, and was likely a scavenger-predator who could eat prey ranging from snails to small dinosaurs.

In addition, the team re-traced the origins of marsupials. Previous theories attribute South America as the origin of marsupials, but anatomical features of the Didelphodon point to marsupials originating in North America 10-20 million years earlier than originally thought, and later dispersing and diversifying in South America.

“What I love about Didelphodon vorax is that it crushes the classic mold of Mesozoic mammals,” Dr. Gregory P. Wilson, Burke Museum Adjunct Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology and University of Washington Associate Professor of Biology, said. “Instead of a shrew-like mammal meekly scurrying into the shadows of dinosaurs, this badger-sized mammal would’ve been a fearsome predator on the Late Cretaceous landscape — even for some dinosaurs.”

All of these findings are made possible by four fossil specimens recently discovered in the 69-66 million-year-old deposits of the Hell Creek Formation in Montana and North Dakota. Prior to these discoveries, the 60 known species of metatherians (marsupials and their closest relatives) from the Cretaceous of North America — including Didelphodon — were almost all identified through fragments of jaw bones or teeth, providing a limited glimpse into marsupials’ closest relatives. These four fossils include a nearly-complete skull from the North Dakota Geological Survey State Fossil collection, a partial snout and an upper jaw bone from the Burke Museum’s collections, and another upper jaw from the Sierra College Natural History Museum.

By analyzing never-before-seen parts of Didelphodon’s anatomy, Dr. Wilson and his colleagues were able to determine these marsupial relatives were about the size of today’s Virginia opossum and were the largest metatherian from the Cretaceous. With a nearly complete skull to measure, they were able to estimate the overall size of Didelphodon, which ranged from 5.3-11.5 pounds. To test the bite force of Didelphodon, Abby Vander Linden, a UW Biology research technician in Burke Museum Curator of Mammalogy Dr. Sharlene Santana’s lab and now a graduate student at University of Massachusetts Amherst, CT-scanned the fossils and compared the gaps in reconstructed skulls where jaw muscles would go to present-day mammals with known bite forces. Bite force measurements indicate that pound-for-pound, Didelphodon had the strongest bite force of any mammal that has ever lived. In addition to the bite force, Didelphodon’s canines were similar to living felines and hyenas — suggesting they could handle biting into bone, biting deep and killing prey. Its shearing molars and big rounded premolars, combined with powerful jaws and jaw muscles indicate it had a specific niche in the food web as a predator or scavenger capable of crushing hard bone or shells, and was capable of eating prey as big as it was — even possibly small dinosaurs.

“I expected Didelphodon to have a fairly powerful bite based on the robust skull and teeth, but even I was surprised when we performed the calculations and found that, when adjusted for body size, it was capable of a stronger pound-for-pound bite than a hyena,” Vander Linden said. “That’s a seriously tough mammal.”

Co-author Dr. Jonathan Calede, former UW Biology graduate student and now a visiting assistant professor at Bucknell University, also examined “microwear” patterns, or tiny pits and scratches on the specimens’ teeth, to indicate what the animals were eating as their “last suppers” (most likely one-to-two days before the animals died). By comparing the microwear patterns from Didelphodon to the teeth of other fossilized species and current-day mammals with known diets from the Burke’s mammal collection, Calede found Didelphodon was an omnivore that likely consumed a range of vertebrates, plants and hard-shelled invertebrates like molluscs and crayfish, but few insects, spiders and annelids (earthworms and leeches).

“The interesting thing about these fossils is that they allowed us to study the ecology of Didelphodon from many angles,” Calede said. “The strength of the conclusions come from the convergence of microwear with bite force analysis, studies of the shape and breakage of the teeth, as well as the shape of the skull as a whole.”

In addition to learning much more about the biology of Didelphodon, the newly-described skull features on these fossils provide clues that help clarify the origin of all marsupials. The team found five major lineages of marsupial ancestors and marsupials themselves diverged in North America 100-85 million years ago. Marsupial relatives also got larger and ate a wider variety of foods, coinciding with an increase in diversity of other early mammals and flowering plants. Most of this North American diversity was then lost gradually from the late Campanian to Maastrichtian (79-66 million-years-ago) and then abruptly during the Cretaceous-Palaeogene (66 million-years-ago) mass extinction that also killed all dinosaurs except birds. Around this time, marsupials’ diversity and evolution shifted to South America.

“Our study highlights how, despite decades of paleontology research, new fossil discoveries and new ways of analyzing those fossils can still fundamentally impact how we view something as central to us as the evolution of our own clade, mammals,” Dr. Wilson said.