Fossils found in Siberia suggest all dinosaurs could have been feathered

The first ever example of a plant-eating dinosaur with feathers and scales has been discovered in Russia. Previously only flesh-eating dinosaurs were known to have had feathers, so this new find raises the possibility that all dinosaurs could have been feathered.
The new dinosaur, named Kulindadromeus zabaikalicus as it comes from a site called Kulinda on the banks of the Olov River in Siberia, is described in a paper recently published in Science.

Kulindadromeus shows epidermal scales on its tail and shins, and short bristles on its head and back. The most astonishing discovery, however, is that it also has complex, compound feathers associated with its arms and legs.

Birds arose from dinosaurs over 150 million years ago so it was no surprise when dinosaurs with feathers were found in China in 1996. But all those feathered dinosaurs were theropods, flesh-eating dinosaurs that include the direct ancestors of birds.

Lead author Dr Pascal Godefroit from the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural History in Brussels said: “I was really amazed when I saw this. We knew that some of the plant-eating ornithischian dinosaurs had simple bristles, and we couldn’t be sure whether these were the same kinds of structures as bird and theropod feathers. Our new find clinches it: all dinosaurs had feathers, or at least the potential to sprout feathers.”

The Kulinda site was found in summer 2010 by Professor Dr Sofia Sinitsa from the Institute of Natural Resources, Ecology and Cryology SB RAS in Chita, Russia. In 2013, the Russian-Belgian team excavated many dinosaur fossils, as well as plant and insect fossils.

The feathers were studied by Dr Maria McNamara (University of Bristol and University College, Cork) and Professor Michael Benton (University of Bristol), who has also worked on the feathers of Chinese dinosaurs, and Professor Danielle Dhouailly (Université Joseph Fourier in Grenoble, France) who is a specialist on the development of feathers and scales in modern reptiles and birds.

Dr McNamara said: “These feathers are really very well preserved. We can see each filament and how they are joined together at the base, making a compound structure of six or seven filaments, each up to 15mm long.”

Professor Dhouailly said: “Developmental experiments in modern chickens suggest that avian scales are aborted feathers, an idea that explains why birds have scaly legs. The astonishing discovery is that the molecular mechanisms needed for this switch might have been so clearly related to the appearance of the first feathers in the earliest dinosaurs.”

Kulindadromeus was a small plant-eater, only about 1m long. It had long hind legs and short arms, with five strong fingers. Its snout was short, and its teeth show clear adaptations to plant eating. In evolutionary terms, it sits low in the evolutionary tree of ornithischian dinosaurs. There are six skulls and several hundred partial skeletons of this new dinosaur at the Kulinda locality.

This discovery suggests that feather-like structures were likely widespread in dinosaurs, possibly even in the earliest members of the group. Feathers probably arose during the Triassic, more than 220 million years ago, for purposes of insulation and signalling, and were only later co-opted for flight. Smaller dinosaurs were probably covered in feathers, mostly with colourful patterns, and feathers may have been lost as dinosaurs grew up and became larger.

Rare fossilized embryos more than 500 million years old found

The Cambrian Period is a time when most phyla of marine invertebrates first appeared in the fossil record. Also dubbed the “Cambrian explosion,” fossilized records from this time provide glimpses into evolutionary biology when the world’s ecosystems rapidly changed and diversified. Most fossils show the organisms’ skeletal structure, which may or may not give researchers accurate pictures of these prehistoric organisms. Now, researchers at the University of Missouri have found rare, fossilized embryos they believe were undiscovered previously. Their methods of study may help with future interpretation of evolutionary history.

“Before the Ediacaran and Cambrian Periods, organisms were unicellular and simple,” said James Schiffbauer, assistant professor of geological sciences in the MU College of Arts and Science. “The Cambrian Period, which occurred between 540 million and 485 million years ago, ushered in the advent of shells. Over time, shells and exoskeletons can be fossilized, giving scientists clues into how organisms existed millions of years ago. This adaptation provided protection and structural integrity for organisms. My work focuses on those harder-to-find, soft-tissue organisms that weren’t preserved quite as easily and aren’t quite as plentiful.”
Schiffbauer and his team, including Jesse Broce, a Huggins Scholar doctoral student in the Department of Geological Sciences at MU, now are studying fossilized embryos in rocks that provide rare opportunities to study the origins and developmental biology of early animals during the Cambrian explosion.
Broce collected fossils from the lower Cambrian Shuijingtuo Formation in the Hubei Province of South China and analyzed samples to determine the chemical makeup of the rocks. Soft tissue fossils have different chemical patterns than harder, skeletal remains, helping researchers identify the processes that contributed to their preservation. It is important to understand how the fossils were preserved, because their chemical makeups can also offer clues about the nature of the organisms’ original tissues, Schiffbauer said.
“Something obviously went wrong in these fossils,” Schiffbauer said. “Our Earth has a pretty good way of cleaning up after things die. Here, the cells’ self-destructive mechanisms didn’t happen, and these soft tissues could be preserved. While studying the fossils we collected, we found over 140 spherically shaped fossils, some of which include features that are reminiscent of division stage embryos, essentially frozen in time.”
The fossilized embryos the researchers found were significantly smaller than other fossil embryos from the same time period, suggesting they represent a yet undescribed organism. Additional research will focus on identifying the parents of these embryos, and their evolutionary position.
Schiffbauer and his colleagues published this and related research in a volume of the Journal of Paleontology which he co-edited.

Giant mass extinction quicker than previously thought: End-Permian extinction happened in 60,000 years

The largest mass extinction in the history of animal life occurred some 252 million years ago, wiping out more than 96 percent of marine species and 70 percent of life on land — including the largest insects known to have inhabited Earth. Multiple theories have aimed to explain the cause of what’s now known as the end-Permian extinction, including an asteroid impact, massive volcanic eruptions, or a cataclysmic cascade of environmental events. But pinpointing the cause of the extinction requires better measurements of how long the extinction period lasted.

Now researchers at MIT have determined that the end-Permian extinction occurred over 60,000 years, give or take 48,000 years — practically instantaneous, from a geologic perspective. The new timescale is based on more precise dating techniques, and indicates that the most severe extinction in history may have happened more than 10 times faster than scientists had previously thought.

“We’ve got the extinction nailed in absolute time and duration,” says Sam Bowring, the Robert R. Shrock Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at MIT. “How do you kill 96 percent of everything that lived in the oceans in tens of thousands of years? It could be that an exceptional extinction requires an exceptional explanation.”

In addition to establishing the extinction’s duration, Bowring, graduate student Seth Burgess, and a colleague from the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Paleontology also found that, 10,000 years before the die-off, the oceans experienced a pulse of light carbon, which likely reflects a massive addition of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. This dramatic change may have led to widespread ocean acidification and increased sea temperatures by 10 degrees Celsius or more, killing the majority of sea life.

But what originally triggered the spike in carbon dioxide? The leading theory among geologists and paleontologists has to do with widespread, long-lasting volcanic eruptions from the Siberian Traps, a region of Russia whose steplike hills are a result of repeated eruptions of magma. To determine whether eruptions from the Siberian Traps triggered a massive increase in oceanic carbon dioxide, Burgess and Bowring are using similar dating techniques to establish a timescale for the Permian period’s volcanic eruptions that are estimated to have covered over five million cubic kilometers.

“It is clear that whatever triggered extinction must have acted very quickly,” says Burgess, the lead author of a paper that reports the results in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “fast enough to destabilize the biosphere before the majority of plant and animal life had time to adapt in an effort to survive.”

Pinning dates on an extinction

In 2006, Bowring and his students made a trip to Meishan, China, a region whose rock formations bear evidence of the end-Permian extinction; geochronologists and paleontologists have flocked to the area to look for clues in its layers of sedimentary rock. In particular, scientists have focused on a section of rock that is thought to delineate the end of the Permian, and the beginning of the Triassic, based on evidence such as the number of fossils found in surrounding rock layers.

Bowring sampled rocks from this area, as well as from nearby alternating layers of volcanic ash beds and fossil-bearing rocks. After analyzing the rocks in the lab, his team reported in 2011 that the end-Permian likely lasted less than 200,000 years. However, this timeframe still wasn’t precise enough to draw any conclusions about what caused the extinction.

Now, the team has revised its estimates using more accurate dating techniques based on a better understanding of uncertainties in timescale measurements.

With this knowledge, Bowring and his colleagues reanalyzed rock samples collected from five volcanic ash beds at the Permian-Triassic boundary. The researchers pulverized rocks and separated out tiny zircon crystals containing a mix of uranium and lead. They then isolated uranium from lead, and measured the ratios of both isotopes to determine the age of each rock sample.

From their measurements, the researchers determined a much more precise “age model” for the end-Permian extinction, which now appears to have lasted about 60,000 years — with an uncertainty of 48,000 years — and was immediately preceded by a sharp increase in carbon dioxide in the oceans.

‘Spiraling toward the truth’

The new timeline adds weight to the theory that the extinction was triggered by massive volcanic eruptions from the Siberian Traps that released volatile chemicals, including carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere and oceans. With such a short extinction timeline, Bowring says it is possible that a single, catastrophic pulse of magmatic activity triggered an almost instantaneous collapse of all global ecosystems.

To confirm whether the Siberian Traps are indeed the extinction’s smoking gun, Burgess and Bowring plan to determine an equally precise timeline for the Siberian Traps eruptions, and will compare it to the new extinction timeline to see where the two events overlap. The researchers will investigate additional areas in China to see if the duration of the extinction can be even more precisely determined.

“We’ve refined our approach, and now we have higher accuracy and precision,” Bowring says. “You can think of it as slowly spiraling in toward the truth.”


First Dinosaurs Identified from Saudi Arabia

Jan. 7, 2014 — Dinosaur fossils are exceptionally rare in the Arabian Peninsula. An international team of scientists from Uppsala University, Museum Victoria, Monash University, and the Saudi Geological Survey have now uncovered the first record of dinosaurs from Saudi Arabia.

What is now dry desert was once a beach littered with the bones and teeth of ancient marine reptiles and dinosaurs.

A string of vertebrae from the tail of a huge “Brontosaurus-like” sauropod, together with some shed teeth from a carnivorous theropod represent the first formally identified dinosaur fossils from Saudi Arabia, and were found in the north-western part of the Kingdom along the coast of the Red Sea.

The remains were discovered during excavations conducted by a team of scientists working under the auspices of the Saudi Geological Survey, Jeddah.

The dinosaur finds were recently published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE and jointly authored by participating researchers from Sweden, Australia and Saudi Arabia.

“Dinosaur fossils are exceptionally rare in the Arabian Peninsula, with only a handful of highly fragmented bones documented this far” says Dr Benjamin Kear, based at Uppsala University in Sweden and lead author of the study.

“This discovery is important not only because of where the remains were found, but also because of the fact that we can actually identify them. Indeed, these are the first taxonomically recognizable dinosaurs reported from the Arabian Peninsula” Dr Kear continues.

“Dinosaur remains from the Arabian Peninsula and the area east of the Mediterranean Sea are exceedingly rare because sedimentary rocks deposited in streams and rivers during the Age of Dinosaurs are rare, particularly in Saudi Arabia itself” says Dr Tom Rich from Museum Victoria in Australia.

When these dinosaurs were alive, the Arabian landmass was largely underwater and formed the north-western coastal margin of the African continent.

“The hardest fossil to find is the first one. Knowing that they occur in a particular area and the circumstances under which they do, makes finding more fossils significantly less difficult” says Dr Rich.

The teeth and bones are approximately 72 million years old.

Two types of dinosaur were described from the assemblage, a bipedal meat-eating abelisaurid distantly related to Tyrannosaurus but only about six metres long, and a plant-eating titanosaur perhaps up to 20 metres in length.

Similar dinosaurs have been found in North Africa, Madagascar and as far away as South America.

Fossil Pigments Reveal the Colors of Ancient Sea Monsters

Jan. 8, 2014 — During the Age of the dinosaurs, huge reptiles, such as mosasaurs and ichthyosaurs, ruled the seas. Previously, scientists could only guess what colours these spectacular animals had; however, pigment preserved in fossilised skin has now been analysed at SP Technical Research Institute of Sweden and MAX IV Laboratory, Lund University, Sweden. The unique soft tissue remains were obtained from a 55 million-year-old leatherback turtle, an 85 million-year-old mosasaur and a 196-190 million-year-old ichthyosaur. This is the first time that the colour scheme of any extinct marine animal has been revealed.

“This is fantastic! When I started studying at Lund University in 1993, the film Jurassic Park had just been released, and that was one of the main reasons why I got interested in biology and palaeontology. Then, 20 years ago, it was unthinkable that we would ever find biological remains from animals that have been extinct for many millions of years, but now we are there and I am proud to be a part of it,” said Johan Lindgren about the discovery of the ancient pigment molecules.

Johan Lindgren is a scientist at Lund University in Sweden, and he is the leader of the international research team that has studied the fossils. Together with colleagues from Denmark, England and the USA, he now presents the results of their study in the scientific journal Nature. The most sensational aspect of the investigation is that it can now be established that these ancient marine reptiles were, at least partially, dark-coloured in life, something that probably contributed to more efficient thermoregulation, as well as providing means for camouflage and protection against harmful UV radiation.

The analysed fossils are composed of skeletal remains, in addition to dark skin patches containing masses of micrometre-sized, oblate bodies. These microbodies were previously interpreted to be the fossilised remains of those bacteria that once contributed to the decomposition and degradation of the carcasses. However, by studying the chemical content of the soft tissues, Lindgren and his colleagues are now able to show that they are in fact remnants of the animals’ own colours, and that the micrometre-sized bodies are fossilised melanosomes, or pigment-containing cellular organelles.

“Our results really are amazing. The pigment melanin is almost unbelievably stable. Our discovery enables us to make a journey through time and to revisit these ancient reptiles using their own biomolecules. Now, we can finally use sophisticated molecular and imaging techniques to learn what these animals looked like and how they lived,” said Per Uvdal, one of the co-authors of the study, and who works at the MAX IV Laboratory.

Mosasaurs (98-66 million years ago) are giant marine lizards that could reach 15 metres in body length, whereas ichthyosaurs (250-94 million years ago) could become even larger. Both ichthyosaurs and mosasaurs died out during the Cretaceous Period, but leatherback turtles are still around today. A conspicuous feature of the living leatherback turtle, Dermochelys, is that it has an almost entirely black back, which probably contributes to its worldwide distribution. The ability of leatherback turtles to survive in cold climates has mainly been attributed to their huge size, but it has also been shown that these animals bask at the sea surface during daylight hours. The black colour enables them to heat up faster and to reach higher body temperatures than had they instead been lightly coloured.

“The fossil leatherback turtle probably had a similar colour scheme and lifestyle as does Dermochelys. Similarly, mosasaurs and ichthyosaurs, which also had worldwide distributions, may have used their darkly coloured skin to heat up quickly between dives,” said Johan Lindgren.

If their interpretations are correct, then at least some ichthyosaurs were uniformly dark-coloured in life, unlike most living marine animals. However, the modern deep-diving sperm whale has a similar colour scheme, perhaps as camouflage in a world without light, or as UV protection, given that these animals spend extended periods of time at or near the sea surface in between dives. The ichthyosaurs are also believed to have been deep-divers, and if their colours were similar to those of the living sperm whale, then this would also suggest a similar lifestyle, according to Lindgren.

New Evidence for Warm-Blooded Dinosaurs

July 17, 2013 — University of Adelaide research has shown new evidence that dinosaurs were warm-blooded like birds and mammals, not cold-blooded like reptiles as commonly believed.
In a paper published in PLoS ONE, Professor Roger Seymour of the University’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, argues that cold-blooded dinosaurs would not have had the required muscular power to prey on other animals and dominate over mammals as they did throughout the Mesozoic period.

“Much can be learned about dinosaurs from fossils but the question of whether dinosaurs were warm-blooded or cold-blooded is still hotly debated among scientists,” says Professor Seymour.

“Some point out that a large saltwater crocodile can achieve a body temperature above 30°C by basking in the sun, and it can maintain the high temperature overnight simply by being large and slow to change temperature.

“They say that large, cold-blooded dinosaurs could have done the same and enjoyed a warm body temperature without the need to generate the heat in their own cells through burning food energy like warm-blooded animals.”

In his paper, Professor Seymour asks how much muscular power could be produced by a crocodile-like dinosaur compared to a mammal-like dinosaur of the same size.

Saltwater crocodiles reach over a tonne in weight and, being about 50% muscle, have a reputation for being extremely powerful animals.

But drawing from blood and muscle lactate measurements collected by his collaborators at Monash University, University of California and Wildlife Management International in the Northern Territory, Professor Seymour shows that a 200 kg crocodile can produce only about 14% of the muscular power of a mammal at peak exercise, and this fraction seems to decrease at larger body sizes.

“The results further show that cold-blooded crocodiles lack not only the absolute power for exercise, but also the endurance, that are evident in warm-blooded mammals,” says Professor Seymour.

“So, despite the impression that saltwater crocodiles are extremely powerful animals, a crocodile-like dinosaur could not compete well against a mammal-like dinosaur of the same size.

“Dinosaurs dominated over mammals in terrestrial ecosystems throughout the Mesozoic. To do that they must have had more muscular power and greater endurance than a crocodile-like physiology would have allowed.”

His latest evidence adds to that of earlier work he did on blood flow to leg bones which concluded that the dinosaurs were possibly even more active than mammals.

Fossil Saved from Mule Track Revolutionizes Understanding of Ancient Dolphin-Like Marine Reptile

May 14, 2013 — An international team of scientists have revealed a new species of ichthyosaur (a dolphin-like marine reptile from the age of dinosaurs) from Iraq, which revolutionises our understanding of the evolution and extinction of these ancient marine reptiles.
The results, produced by a collaboration of researchers from universities and museums in Belgium and the UK and published today (May 15) in Biology Letters, contradict previous theories that suggest the ichthyosaurs of the Cretaceous period (the span of time between 145 and 66 million years ago) were the last survivors of a group on the decline.

Ichthyosaurs are marine reptiles known from hundreds of fossils from the time of the dinosaurs. “They ranged in size from less than one to over 20 metres in length. All gave birth to live young at sea, and some were fast-swimming, deep-diving animals with enormous eyeballs and a so-called warm-blooded physiology,” says lead author Dr Valentin Fischer of the University of Liege in Belgium.

Until recently, it was thought that ichthyosaurs declined gradually in diversity through multiple extinction events during the Jurassic period. These successive events were thought to have killed off all ichthyosaurs except those strongly adapted for fast-swimming life in the open ocean. Due to this pattern, it has been assumed that ichthyosaurs were constantly and rapidly evolving to be ever-faster open-water swimmers; seemingly, there was no ‘stasis’ in their long evolutionary history.

However, an entirely new ichthyosaur from the Kurdistan region of Iraq substantially alters this view of the group. The specimen concerned was found during the 1950s by British petroleum geologists. “The fossil — a well-preserved partial skeleton that consists of much of the front half of the animal — wasn’t exactly being treated with the respect it deserves. Preserved within a large, flat slab of rock, it was being used as a stepping stone on a mule track,” says co-author Darren Naish of the University of Southampton. “Luckily, the geologists realized its potential importance and took it back to the UK, where it remains today,” adds Dr Naish, who is based at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton.

Study of the specimen began during the 1970s with ichthyosaur expert Robert Appleby, then of University College, Cardiff. “Robert Appleby recognised that the specimen was significant, but unfortunately died before resolving the precise age of the fossil, which he realised was critical,” says Jeff Liston of National Museums Scotland and manager of the research project. “So continuation of the study fell to a new generation of researchers.”

In the new study (which properly includes Appleby as an author), researchers name it Malawania anachronus, which means ‘out of time swimmer’. Despite being Cretaceous in age, Malawania represents the last-known member of a kind of ichthyosaur long believed to have gone extinct during the Early Jurassic, more than 66 million years earlier. Remarkably, this kind of archaic ichthyosaur appears characterised by an evolutionary stasis: they seem not to have changed much between the Early Jurassic and the Cretaceous, a very rare feat in the evolution of marine reptiles.

“Malawania’s discovery is similar to that of the coelacanth in the 1930s: it represents an animal that seems ‘out of time’ for its age. This ‘living fossil’ of its time demonstrates the existence of a lineage that we had never even imagined. Maybe the existence of such Jurassic-style ichthyosaurs in the Cretaceous has been missed because they always lived in the Middle-East, a region that has previously yielded only a single, very fragmentary ichthyosaur fossil,” adds Dr Fischer.

Thanks to both their study of microscopic spores and pollen preserved on the same slab as Malawania, and to their several analyses of the ichthyosaur family tree, Fischer and his colleagues retraced the evolutionary history of Cretaceous ichthyosaurs. In fact, the team was able to show that numerous ichthyosaur groups that appeared during the Triassic and Jurassic ichthyosaur survived into the Cretaceous. It means that the supposed end of Jurassic extinction event did not ever occur for ichthyosaurs, a fact that makes their fossil record quite different from that of other marine reptile groups.

When viewed together with the discovery of another ichthyosaur by the same team in 2012 and named Acamptonectes densus, the discovery of Malawania constitutes a ‘revolution’ in how we imagine ichthyosaur evolution and extinction. It now seems that ichthyosaurs were still important and diverse during the early part of the Cretaceous. The final extinction of the ichthyosaurs — an event that occurred about 95 million years ago (long before the major meteorite-driven extinction event that ended the Cretaceous) — is now even more confusing than previously assumed.

Bird Fossil Sheds Light On How Swift and Hummingbird Flight Came to Be

May 1, 2013 — A tiny bird fossil discovered in Wyoming offers clues to the precursors of swift and hummingbird wings. The fossil is unusual in having exceptionally well-preserved feathers, which allowed the researchers to reconstruct the size and shape of the bird’s wings in ways not possible with bones alone.

Researchers spotted the specimen — the nearly complete skeleton of a bird that would have fit in the palm of your hand and weighed less than an ounce — while working at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

The newly discovered bird was named Eocypselus rowei, in honor of John W. Rowe, Chairman of the Field Museum’s Board of Trustees.

First collected in southwestern Wyoming in a fossil site known as the Green River Formation, E. rowei lived roughly 50 million years ago, after the dinosaurs disappeared but before the earliest humans came to be.

E. rowei was a tiny bird — only twelve centimeters from head to tail. Feathers account for more than half of the bird’s total wing length.

To find out where the fossil fit in the bird family tree, the researchers compared the specimen to extinct and modern day species. Their analyses suggest that the bird was an evolutionary precursor to the group that includes today’s swifts and hummingbirds.

Given the differences in wing shape between these two closely related groups of birds, scientists have puzzled over how swift and hummingbird flight came to be. Finding fossil relatives like this specimen is key to figuring that out, the researchers say.

“This fossil bird represents the closest we’ve gotten to the point where swifts and hummingbirds went their separate ways,” said lead author Daniel Ksepka of the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in Durham, North Carolina.

Hummingbirds have short wings relative to their bodies, which makes them good at hovering in mid-air. Swifts have super-long wings for gliding and high-speed flight. But the wings of E. rowei were somewhere in between.

“[Based on its wing shape] it probably wasn’t a hoverer, like a hummingbird, and it probably wasn’t as efficient at fast flight as a swift,” Ksepka said.

The shape of the bird’s wings, coupled with its tiny size, suggest that the ancestors of today’s swifts and hummingbirds got small before each group’s unique flight behavior came to be. “Hummingbirds came from small-bodied ancestors, but the ability to hover didn’t come to be until later,” Ksepka explained.

Closer study of the feathers under a scanning electron microscope revealed that carbon residues in the fossils — once thought to be traces of bacteria that fed on feathers — are fossilized melanosomes, tiny cell structures containing melanin pigments that give birds and other animals their color. The findings suggest that the ancient bird was probably black and may have had a glossy or iridescent sheen, like swifts living today. Based on its beak shape it probably ate insects, the researchers say.

The other authors of this study were Julia Clarke, Sterling Nesbitt and Felicia Kulp of the University of Texas at Austin, and Lance Grande of the Field Museum of Natural History.

The results will appear in the May 1 issue of the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

First Snapshot of Organisms Eating Each Other: Feast Clue to Smell of Ancient Earth

Apr. 29, 2013 — Tiny 1,900 million-year-old fossils from rocks around Lake Superior, Canada, give the first ever snapshot of organisms eating each other and suggest what the ancient Earth would have smelled like.
The fossils, preserved in Gunflint chert, capture ancient microbes in the act of feasting on a cyanobacterium-like fossil called Gunflintia — with the perforated sheaths of Gunflintia being the discarded leftovers of this early meal.

A team, led by Dr David Wacey of the University of Western Australia and Bergen University, Norway, and Professor Martin Brasier of Oxford University, reports in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences the fossil evidence for how this type of feeding on organic matter — called ‘heterotrophy’ — was taking place. They also show that the ancient microbes appeared to prefer to snack on Gunflintia as a ‘tasty morsel’ in preference to another bacterium (Huroniospora).

‘What we call ‘heterotrophy’ is the same thing we do after dinner as the bacteria in our gut break down organic matter,’ said Professor Martin Brasier of Oxford University’s Department of Earth Sciences, an author of the paper. ‘Whilst there is chemical evidence suggesting that this mode of feeding dates back 3,500 million years, in this study for the first time we identify how it was happening and ‘who was eating who’. In fact we’ve all experienced modern bacteria feeding in this way as that’s where that ‘rotten egg’ whiff of hydrogen sulfide comes from in a blocked drain. So, rather surprisingly, we can say that life on earth 1,900 million years ago would have smelled a lot like rotten eggs.’

The team analysed the microscopic fossils, ranging from about 3-15 microns in diameter, using a battery of new techniques and found that one species — a tubular form thought to be the outer sheath of Gunflintia — was more perforated after death than other kinds, consistent with them having been eaten by bacteria.

In some places many of the tiny fossils had been partially or entirely replaced with iron sulfide (‘fool’s gold’) a waste product of heterotrophic sulfate-reducing bacteria that is also a highly visible marker. The team also found that these Gunflintia fossils carried clusters of even smaller (c.1 micron) spherical and rod-shaped bacteria that were seemingly in the process of consuming their hosts.

Dr Wacey said that: ‘recent geochemical analyses have shown that the sulfur-based activities of bacteria can likely be traced back to 3,500 million years or so — a finding reported by our group in Nature Geoscience in 2011. Whilst the Gunflint fossils are only about half as old, they confirm that such bacteria were indeed flourishing by 1,900 million years ago. And that they were also highly particular about what they chose to eat.’

New Evidence Dinosaurs Were Strong Swimmers

Apr. 8, 2013 — A University of Alberta researcher has identified some of the strongest evidence ever found that dinosaurs could paddle long distances.

Working together with an international research team, U of A graduate student Scott Persons examined unusual claw marks left on a river bottom in China that is known to have been a major travel-way for dinosaurs.

Alongside easily identified fossilized footprints of many Cretaceous era animals including giant long neck dinosaur’s researchers found a series of claw marks that Persons says indicates a coordinated, left-right, left-right progression.

“What we have are scratches left by the tips of a two-legged dinosaur’s feet,” said Persons. “The dinosaur’s claw marks show it was swimming along in this river and just its tippy toes were touching bottom.”

The claw marks cover a distance of 15 meters which the researchers say is evidence of a dinosaur’s ability to swim with coordinated leg movements. The tracks were made by carnivorous theropod dinosaur that is estimated to have stood roughly 1 meter at the hip.

Fossilized rippling and evidence of mud cracks indicate that over 100 million years ago the river, in what is now China’s Szechuan Province, went through dry and wet cycles. The river bed, which Persons describes as a “dinosaur super-highway” has yielded plenty of full foot prints of other theropods and gigantic four-legged sauropods.

With just claw scratches on the river bottom to go with, Persons says the exact identity of the paddling dinosaur can’t be determined, but he suspects it could have been an early tyrannosaur or a Sinocalliopteryx. Both species of predators were known to have been in that area of China.

Persons is a U of A, PhD candidate and co-author of the research. It was published April 8 in the journal Chinese Science Bulletin.