New species of dinosaur increases the already unexpected diversity of ‘whiplash dinosaurs’

Researchers from Italy and Portugal describe yet another new sauropod species from 150 million years ago, from Wyoming, USA.

The new species, Galeamopus pabsti, is the most recent dinosaur to be described by paleontologists from the Department of Earth Sciences of the University of Turin, Italy; the Faculty of Science and Technology, Universidade Nova de Lisboa, and the Museum of Lourinhã in Portugal. This Jurassic dinosaur was originally excavated in 1995 by a Swiss team, led by Hans-Jakob “Kirby” Siber and Ben Pabst, in Wyoming, in the United States and is the latest in a series of new discoveries by the paleontologists Emanuel Tschopp and Octávio Mateus, which started in 2012 with Kaatedocus siberi. The paper describing the new species was published online in the open access scientific journal PeerJ on Tuesday, May 2.

Galeamopus pabsti is similar to the famous dinosaur Diplodocus, but with more massive legs, and a particularly high and triangular neck close to the head. It is the second species of the genus Galeamopus to be shown to be different to Diplodocus by the same researchers (the first being published in 2015, in a paper which also reinstated the brontosaurus as a distinct genus). The new species is dedicated to Ben Pabst, who found the skeleton, and prepared it for mounting at the Sauriermuseum Aathal in Switzerland, where it is one of the main attractions of the permanent exhibit.

Diplodocid sauropods are among the most iconic dinosaurs. With their greatly elongated necks and tails, they represent the typical body shape of sauropods. Species of this group occur also in Africa, South America, and Europe, but the highest diversity is known from the USA: more than 15 species of these gigantic animals are known from there, also including the famous Brontosaurus. Researchers are still baffled by this high diversity of giants, and are continuing their studies to understand how such a diversity could be maintained by the ecosystem in which they lived.

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Earliest relative of Brachiosaurus dinosaur found in France

Scientists have re-examined an overlooked museum fossil and discovered that it is the earliest known member of the titanosauriform family of dinosaurs.

The fossil, which the researchers from Imperial College London and their colleagues in Europe have named Vouivria damparisensis, has been identified as a brachiosaurid sauropod dinosaur.

The researchers suggest the age of Vouivria is around 160 million years old, making it the earliest known fossil from the titanosauriform family of dinosaurs, which includes better-known dinosaurs such as the Brachiosaurus. When the fossil was first discovered in France in the 1930s, its species was not identified, and until now it has largely been ignored in scientific literature.

The new analysis of the fossil indicates that Vouivria died at an early age, weighed around 15,000 kilograms and was over 15 metres long, which is roughly 1.5 times the size of a double-decker bus in the UK.

It had a long neck held at around a 45 degree angle, a long tail, and four legs of equal length. It would have been a plant eater.

Dr Philip Mannion, the lead author of the study from the Department of Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial College London, said: “Vouivria would have been a herbivore, eating all kinds of vegetation, such as ferns and conifers. This creature lived in the Late Jurassic, around 160 million years ago, at a time when Europe was a series of islands. We don’t know what this creature died from, but millions of years later it is providing important evidence to help us understand in more detail the evolution of brachiosaurid sauropods and a much bigger group of dinosaurs that they belonged to, called titanosauriforms.”

Titanosauriforms were a diverse group of sauropod dinosaurs and some of the largest creatures to have ever lived on land. They lived from at least the Late Jurassic, right to the end-Cretaceous mass extinction, when an asteroid wiped out most life on Earth.

A lack of fossil records means that it has been difficult for scientists to understand the early evolution of titanosauriforms and how they spread out across the planet. The re-classification of Vouivria as an early titanosauriform will help scientists to understand the spread of these creatures during the Early Cretaceous period, a later period of time, after the Jurassic, around 145 — 100 million years ago.

The team’s incorporation of Vouivria into a revised analysis of sauropod evolutionary relationships shows that by the Early Cretaceous period, brachiosaurids were restricted to what is now Africa and the USA, and were probably extinct in Europe.

Previously, scientists had suggested the presence of another brachiosaurid sauropod dinosaur called Padillasaurus much further afield in what is now South America, in the Early Cretaceous. However, the team’s incorporation of Vouivria into the fossil timeline suggests that Padillasaurus was not a brachiosaurid, and that this group did not spread as far as South America.

The Vouivria fossil was originally discovered by palaeontologists in the village of Damparis, in the Jura Department of eastern France, in 1934. Ever since, it has been stored in the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris. It was only briefly mentioned by scientists in studies in the 1930s and 1940s, but it was never recognised as a distinct species. It has largely been ignored in the literature, where it has often been referred to simply as the Damparis dinosaur.

Now, a deeper analysis of the fossil is also helping the scientists in today’s study to understand the environment Vouivria would have been in when it died, which was debated when it was initially found. The researchers believe Vouivria died in a coastal lagoon environment, during a brief sea level decline in Europe, before being buried when sea levels increased once more. When the fossil was first discovered, in rocks that would have originally come from a coastal environment, researchers suggested that its carcass had been washed out to sea, because sauropods were animals that lived on land.

Today’s team’s examination of Vouivria, coupled with an analysis of the rocks it was encased in, provides strong evidence that this was not the case.

The genus name of Vouivria is derived from the old French word ‘vouivre’, itself from the Latin ‘vipera’, meaning ‘viper’. In French-Comte, the region in which the specimen was originally discovered, ‘la vouivre’ is a legendary winged reptile. The species name damparisensis refers to the village Damparis, from which the fossil was originally found.

The research was carried out in conjunction with the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle and the CNRS/Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, with funding from the European Union’s Synthesys programme.

Currently, titanosauriforms from the Late Cretaceous are poorly understood compared to their relatives in the Late Jurassic. So, the next step for the researchers will see them expanding on their analysis of the evolutionary relationships of all species in the titanosauriform group. The team are also aiming to find more sauropod remains from older rocks to determine in more detail how they spread across the continents.

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Australia’s Jurassic Park’ the world’s most diverse

An unprecedented 21 different types of dinosaur tracks have been identified on a 25-kilometre stretch of the Dampier Peninsula coastline dubbed “Australia’s Jurassic Park.”

A team of palaeontologists from The University of Queensland’s School of Biological Sciences and James Cook University’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences braved sharks, crocodiles, massive tides and the threat of development to unveil the most diverse assemblage of dinosaur tracks in the world in 127 to 140 million-year-old rocks in the remote Kimberley region of Western Australia.

Lead author Dr Steve Salisbury said the diversity of the tracks around Walmadany (James Price Point) was globally unparalleled and made the area the “Cretaceous equivalent of the Serengeti.”

“It is extremely significant, forming the primary record of non-avian dinosaurs in the western half the continent and providing the only glimpse of Australia’s dinosaur fauna during the first half of the Early Cretaceous Period,” Dr Salisbury said.

“It’s such a magical place — Australia’s own Jurassic Park, in a spectacular wilderness setting.”

In 2008, the Western Australian Government selected Walmadany as the preferred site for a $40 billion liquid natural gas processing precinct.

The area’s Traditional Custodians, the Goolarabooloo people, contacted Dr Salisbury and his team, who dedicated more than 400 hours to investigating and documenting the dinosaur tracks.

“We needed the world to see what was at stake,” Goolarabooloo Law Boss Phillip Roe said.

The dinosaur tracks form part of a song cycle that extends along the coast and then inland for 450 km, tracing the journey of a Dreamtime creator being called Marala, the Emu man.

“Marala was the Lawgiver. He gave country the rules we need to follow. How to behave, to keep things in balance,” Mr Roe said said.

“It’s great to work with UQ researchers. We learnt a lot from them and they learnt a lot from us.”

Dr Salisbury said the surrounding political issues made the project “particularly intense,” and he was relieved when National Heritage listing was granted to the area in 2011 and the gas project collapsed in 2013.

“There are thousands of tracks around Walmadany. Of these, 150 can confidently be assigned to 21 specific track types, representing four main groups of dinosaurs, ” Dr Salisbury said.

“There were five different types of predatory dinosaur tracks, at least six types of tracks from long-necked herbivorous sauropods, four types of tracks from two-legged herbivorous ornithopods, and six types of tracks from armoured dinosaurs.

“Among the tracks is the only confirmed evidence for stegosaurs in Australia. There are also some of the largest dinosaur tracks ever recorded. Some of the sauropod tracks are around 1.7 m long.”

“Most of Australia’s dinosaur fossils come from the eastern side of the continent, and are between 115 and 90 million years old. The tracks in Broome are considerably older.”

The research has been published as the 2016 Memoir of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.

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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.”

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Exceptionally preserved Jurassic sea life found in new fossil site

A trove of exceptionally preserved Jurassic marine fossils discovered in Canada, rare for recording soft-bodied species that normally don’t fossilize, is expanding scientists’ view of the rich marine life of the period.

The preservation of the fossils — which include soft body parts as well as shells and bones — ranks the site among the highest quality sources of Jurassic (183 million year old) marine fossils in the world, and the only such site in North America. A paper describing the site and fossils recovered from it was published online in the journal Geology in January.

The presence of fossilized soft tissue is especially significant because it offers a more complete view of life in ancient ecosystems and can help fill the gaps in knowledge connecting extinct organisms to those living today, said Rowan Martindale, a professor at The University of Texas at Austin’s Jackson School of Geosciences who led research on the fossils.

“In a normal fossil deposit, you only preserve a fraction of the organisms that were alive in the past. When you get an extraordinary fossil deposit with soft tissues preserved, you see significantly more of the community that would have been alive,” said Martindale, a paleontologist in the Department of Geological Sciences. “Normally, we wouldn’t find many of the animals because they lack a skeleton or have a very soft skeleton.”

Collaborators include researchers from Harvard University, Virginia Tech and Florida State University.

The new site was found on the Parks Canada Ya Ha Tinda Ranch near Banff National Park in southwest Alberta. Co-author Benjamin Gill, a professor at Virginia Tech, spotted the first exceptional fossil when he noticed his Ph.D. student and co-author, Theodore Them, standing right on top of a lobster.

“The lighting was just right to make out the outline of the lobster,” Gill said. “Then we looked around and noticed fossils all around us.”

The lobster was the first sign the site could be special because lobsters’ flexible exoskeletons usually aren’t preserved as fossils. Other unusual fossils recovered from the site include delicate shrimp, complete fish skeletons with scales and gills, large dolphin-like marine reptiles called ichthyosaurs, as well as “vampyropods” (related to modern vampire squid and octopus) with their delicate ink sacks still intact.

The presence of many well-preserved, soft-bodied animals marks the new site as a “Konservat-Lagerstätte,” a term for fossil beds that preserve an array of organisms with soft tissues as well as hard ones. These sites are rare. There are only three other sites, all located in Europe, that are known to contain fossils from the Early Jurassic like the Ya Ha Tinda site. Another famous example of a Canadian Lagerstätte is the Burgess Shale, which preserves a community of soft tissue organisms from the Cambrian Explosion (540 million years ago), named for the burst of animal diversity that appears in the fossil record from this time.

The new site is about 183 million years old, meaning the fossilized life was alive during the Early Jurassic. At this time, Ya Ha Tinda and the similarly aged European sites were on opposite sides of an ancient continent that became modern-day North America and parts of Europe. Having an array of well-preserved fossils from marine ecosystems on opposite sides of the continent will help scientists understand the distribution of sea life millions of years ago.

“This is the first time we have a site like this outside of Europe, so the Ya Ha Tinda fossilized community will give us a unique snapshot of life in the Early Jurassic Panthalassa Ocean,” Martindale said.

The researchers have been visiting the site every summer since 2013 and have recovered dozens of fossils, including some that are probably newly discovered species. Notable specimens include a lobster with bulky arms capped with diminutive, scissor-like claws, and 16 new vampyropod specimens, a number that Gill estimates increases known diversity of specimens from North America by threefold.

“Every time we’ve gone, we’ve found something new,” Gill said. “It’s a really abundant place.”

The next step of the research is to investigate how so many diverse organisms were fossilized together. Researchers think that the high-quality preservation is related to a widespread extinction of marine life caused by a period of extremely low levels of oxygen in parts of the Jurassic oceans. Free of most scavengers, these low oxygen areas could have been an ideal place for a carcass to lay undisturbed and become beautifully fossilized.

“If a carcass sinks into anoxic water, you’re more likely to get the conditions that will favor the preservation of soft tissues, feathers and articulated skeletons,” Martindale said. “These ‘fossil jackpots’ are really special.”

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Ancient, scary and alien-looking specimen forms a rarity in the insect world — a new order

Researchers at Oregon State University have discovered a 100-million-year-old insect preserved in amber with a triangular head, almost-alien and “E.T.-like” appearance and features so unusual that it has been placed in its own scientific “order” — an incredibly rare event.

There are about 1 million described species of insects, and millions more still to be discovered, but every species of insect on Earth has been placed in only 31 existing orders. Now there’s one more.

The findings have been published in the journal Cretaceous Research and describe this small, wingless female insect that probably lived in fissures in the bark of trees, looking for mites, worms or fungi to feed on while dinosaurs lumbered nearby. It was tiny, but scary looking.

“This insect has a number of features that just don’t match those of any other insect species that I know,” said George Poinar, Jr., an emeritus professor of entomology in the OSU College of Science and one of the world’s leading experts on plant and animal life forms found preserved in the semi-precious stone amber.

“I had never really seen anything like it. It appears to be unique in the insect world, and after considerable discussion we decided it had to take its place in a new order.”

Perhaps most unusual, Poinar said, was a triangular head with bulging eyes, with the vertex of the right triangle located at the base of the neck. This is different from any other known insect, and would have given this species the ability to see almost 180 degrees by turning its head sideways.

The insect, probably an omnivore, also had a long, narrow, flat body, and long slender legs. It could have moved quickly, and literally seen behind itself. It also had glands on the neck that secreted a deposit that scientists believe most likely was a chemical to repel predators.

The insect has been assigned to the newly created order Aethiocarenodea, and the species has been named Aethiocarenus burmanicus, in reference to the Hukawng Valley mines of Myanmar — previously known as Burma — where it was found. Only one other specimen of this insect has been located, also preserved in Burmese amber, Poinar said.

Those two specimens, which clearly belong to the same species, now comprise the totality of the order Aethiocarenodea. The largest order of insects, by comparison, is Coleoptera, the beetles, with hundreds of thousands of known species.

Needless to say, this species from such ancient amber is long extinct. It obviously had special features that allowed it to survive in the forests of what is now Burma, 100 million years ago, but for some unknown reason it disappeared. Loss of its preferred habitat is a likely possibility.

“The strangest thing about this insect is that the head looked so much like the way aliens are often portrayed,” Poinar said. “With its long neck, big eyes and strange oblong head, I thought it resembled E.T. I even made a Halloween mask that resembled the head of this insect. But when I wore the mask when trick-or-treaters came by, it scared the little kids so much I took it off.”

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South American fossil tomatillos show nightshades evolved earlier than thought

Delicate fossil remains of tomatillos found in Patagonia, Argentina, show that this branch of the economically important family that also includes potatoes, peppers, tobacco, petunias and tomatoes existed 52 million years ago, long before the dates previously ascribed to these species, according to an international team of scientists.

Tomatillos, ground cherries and husk tomatoes — members of the physalis genus — are unusual because they have papery, lantern-like husks, known to botanists as inflated calyces that grow after fertilization to extend around their fleshy, often edible berries. They are a small portion of the nightshade family, which includes many commercially, scientifically and culturally valuable plants among its more than 2,400 living species. This entire family has had a notably poor fossil record, limited to tiny seeds and wood with little diagnostic value that drastically limited understanding of when and where it evolved.

The researchers examined two fossil lantern fruit collected at Laguna del Hunco, Chubut, Patagonia, Argentina, in an area that was temperate rainforest when the plants grew, 52 million years ago. These are the only physalis fossils found among more than 6,000 fossils collected from this remote area, and they preserve very delicate features such as the papery husk and the berry itself. The fossil site, which has been the focus of a Penn State, Museo Palentologico Egidio Feruglio, Trelew, Argentina, and Cornell University project for more than a decade, was part of terminal Gondwana, comprised of the adjacent landmasses of South America, Antarctica and Australia during a warm period of Earth history, just before their final separation.

“These astonishing, extremely rare specimens of physalis fruits are the only two fossils known of the entire nightshade family that preserve enough information to be assigned to a genus within the family,” said Peter Wilf, professor of geosciences, Penn State. “We exhaustively analyzed every detail of these fossils in comparison with all potential living relatives and there is no question that they represent the world’s first physalis fossils and the first fossil fruits of the nightshade family. Physalis sits near the tips of the nightshade family’s evolutionary tree, meaning that the nightshades as a whole, contrary to what was thought, are far older than 52 million years.”

Typically, researchers look for fossilized fruits or flowers as their first choice in identifying ancient plants. Because the fruits of the nightshade family are very delicate and largely come from herbaceous plants with low biomass, they have little potential to fossilize. The leaves and flowers are also unknown from the fossil record. This presents a problem for understanding when and where the group evolved and limits the use of fossils to calibrate molecular divergence dating of these plants.

Molecular dating of family trees relies on actual dates of fossils in the family to work from. Because the previous dated fossils had little diagnostic value beyond their membership in the large nightshade family, molecular dating was difficult.

The researchers note in Science that “The fossils are significantly older than corresponding molecular divergence dates and demonstrate an ancient history for the inflated calyx syndrome.”

Molecular dates calibrated with previous fossils had placed the entire nightshade family at 35 to 51 million year ago and the tomatillo group, to which the 52 million year old fossils belong, at only 9 to 11 million years ago.

Using direct geologic dating of materials found with the fossils — argon-argon dating of volcanic tuffs and recognition of two magnetic reversals of the Earth’s poles — the team had previously dated the rocks containing the fossil fruit to 52 million years ago.

“Paleobotanical discoveries in Patagonia are probably destined to revolutionize some traditional views on the origin and evolution of the plant kingdom,” said N. Rubén Cúneo, CONICET, Museo Palentológico Egidio Feruglio. “In this regard, the Penn State/ MEF/Cornell scientific partnership is showing the strength of international collaborations to bring light and new challenges to the exciting world of discovering the secrets of Earth life.”

Mónica Carvalho, former Penn State M.S. student now a Ph.D. student at the School of Integrative Plant Science, Cornell, and Wilf did the evolutionary analysis of the morphology of current members of the family and the fossils, combined with genetic analysis of the living species.

“These fossils are one of a kind, since the delicate papery covers of lantern fruits are rarely preserved as fossils,” Carvalho said. “Our fossils show that the evolutionary history of this plant family is much older than previously considered, particularly in South America, and they unveil important implications for understanding the diversification of the family.”

All members of the physalis genus are New World species inhabiting South, Central and North America. Their center of diversity is Mexico.

The researchers note that the physalis fossils show a rare link from late-Gondwanan Patagonian to living New World plants, but most other fossil plants, such as eucalyptus, found at the site have living relatives concentrated in Australasia. That pattern reflects the ancient overland connection across terminal Gondwana from South America to Australia through Antarctica. The new research raises the possibility that more, potentially much older, nightshade fossils may be found at far southern locations.

“Our results reinforce the emerging pattern wherein numerous fossil plant taxa from Gondwanan Patagonia and Antarctica are substantially older than their corresponding molecular dates, demonstrating Gondwanan history to groups conjectured to have post-Gondwanan origins under entirely different paleogeographic and paleoclimatic scenarios,” the researchers wrote.

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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.

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No teeth? No problem: Dinosaur species had teeth as babies, lost them as they grew

Researchers have discovered that a species of dinosaur, Limusaurus inextricabilis, lost its teeth in adolescence and did not grow another set as adults. The finding, published today in Current Biology, is a radical change in anatomy during a lifespan and may help to explain why birds have beaks but no teeth.

The research team studied 19 Limusaurus skeletons, discovered in “death traps,” where they became mired in mud, got stuck and died, in the Xinjiang Province of China. The dinosaurs ranged in age from baby to adult, showing the pattern of tooth loss over time. The baby skeleton had small, sharp teeth, and the adult skeletons were consistently toothless.

“This discovery is important for two reasons,” said James Clark, a co-author on the paper and the Ronald Weintraub Professor of Biology at the George Washington University’s Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. “First, it’s very rare to find a growth series from baby to adult dinosaurs. Second, this unusually dramatic change in anatomy suggests there was a big shift in Limusaurus’ diet from adolescence to adulthood.”

Limusaurus is part of the theropod group of dinosaurs, the evolutionary ancestors of birds. Dr. Clark’s team’s earlier research of Limusaurus described the species’ hand development and notes that the dinosaur’s reduced first finger may have been transitional and that later theropods lost the first and fifth fingers. Similarly, bird hands consist of the equivalent of a human’s second, third and fourth fingers.

These fossils indicate that baby Limusaurus could have been carnivores or omnivores while the adults were herbivores, as they would have needed teeth to chew meat but not plants. Chemical makeup in the fossils’ bones supports the theory of a change in diet between babies and adults. The fossils also could help to show how theropods such as birds lost their teeth, initially through changes during their development from babies to adults.

“For most dinosaur species we have few specimens and a very incomplete understanding of their developmental biology,” said Josef Stiegler, a graduate student at George Washington University and co-author. “The large sample size of Limusaurus allowed us to use several lines of evidence including the morphology, microstructure and stable isotopic composition of the fossil bones to understand developmental and dietary changes in this animal.”

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New prehistoric bird species discovered

A team of geologists at the University of Rochester has discovered a new species of bird in the Canadian Arctic. At approximately 90 million years old, the bird fossils are among the oldest avian records found in the northernmost latitude, and offer further evidence of an intense warming event during the late Cretaceous period.

“The bird would have been a cross between a large seagull and a diving bird like a cormorant, but likely had teeth,” says John Tarduno, professor and chair of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University and leader of the expedition.

Tarduno and his team, which included both undergraduate and graduate students, named the bird Tingmiatornis arctica; “Tingmiat” means “those that fly” in the Inuktitut language spoken in the central and eastern Canadian Arctic (Nunavut territory).

Their findings, published in Scientific Reports, add to previous fossil records Tarduno uncovered from the same geological time period and location in previous expeditions. Taken together, these fossils paint a clearer picture of an ecosystem that would have existed in the Canadian Arctic during the Cretaceous period’s Turonian age, which lasted from approximately 93.9 to 89.8 million years ago.

“These fossils allow us to flesh out the community and add to our understanding of the community’s composition and how it differed from other places in the world,” says Donald Brinkman, vertebrate paleontologist and director of preservation and research at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta, Canada.

Building historic climate records further helps scientists determine the effects of climate on various communities, ecosystems, and the distribution of species and could help predict the effects of future climatic events.

“Before our fossil, people were suggesting that it was warm, but you still would have had seasonal ice,” Tarduno says. “We’re suggesting that’s not even the case, and that it’s one of these hyper-warm intervals because the bird’s food sources and the whole part of the ecosystem could not have survived in ice.”

From the fossil and sediment records, Tarduno and his team were able to conjecture that the bird’s environment in the Canadian Arctic during the Turonian age would have been characterized by volcanic activity, a calm freshwater bay, temperatures comparable to those in northern Florida today, and creatures such as turtles, large freshwater fish, and champsosaurs — now-extinct, crocodile-like reptiles.

“The fossils tell us what that world could look like, a world without ice at the arctic,” says Richard Bono, a PhD candidate in earth and environmental sciences at the University and a member of Tarduno’s expedition. “It would have looked very different than today where you have tundra and fewer animals.”

The Tingmiatornis arctica fossils were found above basalt lava fields, created from a series of volcanic eruptions. Scientists believe volcanoes pumped carbon dioxide into Earth’s atmosphere, causing a greenhouse effect and a period of extraordinary polar heat. This created an ecosystem allowing large birds, including Tingmiatornis arctica, to thrive.

Tarduno’s team unearthed three bird bones: part of the ulna and portions of the humerus, which, in birds, are located in the wings. From the bone features, as well as its thickness and proportions, the team’s paleontologist, Julia Clarke of the University of Texas, was able to determine the evolutionary relationships of the new birds as well as characteristics that indicate whether it likely was able to fly or dive.

“These birds are comparatively close cousins of all living birds and they comprise some of the oldest records of fossil birds from North America,” Clarke says. “Details of the upper arm bones tell us about how features of the flightstroke seen in living species came to be.”

Previous fossil discoveries indicate the presence of carnivorous fish such as the 0.3-0.6 meter-long bowfin. Birds feeding on these fish would need to be larger-sized and have teeth, offering additional clues to Tingmiatornis arctica’s characteristics.

Physiological factors, such as a rapid growth and maturation rate, might explain how this line of bird was able to survive the Cretaceous-Paleogene mass extinction event that occurred approximately 66 million years ago and eliminated approximately three-quarters of the plant and animal species on Earth.

These physiological characteristics are still conjecture, Tarduno emphasizes, but he says the bird’s environment gives clear indications as to why the bird fossils were found in this location.

“It’s there because everything is right,” Tarduno says. “The food supply was there, there was a freshwater environment, and the climate became so warm that all of the background ecological factors were established to make it a great place.”

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

Journal Reference:

Richard K. Bono, Julia Clarke, John A. Tarduno, Donald Brinkman. A Large Ornithurine Bird (Tingmiatornis arctica) from the Turonian High Arctic: Climatic and Evolutionary Implications. Scientific Reports, 2016; 6: 38876 DOI: 10.1038/srep38876

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University of Rochester. “New prehistoric bird species discovered.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 19 December 2016. .