Decades-old amber collection offers new views of a lost world: Tiny grasshopper encased in amber

Scientists are searching through a massive collection of 20-million-year-old amber found in the Dominican Republic more than 50 years ago, and the effort is yielding fresh insights into ancient tropical insects and the world they inhabited.
When the collection is fully curated, a task that will take many years, it will be the largest unbiased Dominican amber collection in the world, the researchers report.

Perhaps the most striking discovery thus far is that of a pygmy locust, a tiny grasshopper the size of a rose thorn that lived 18- to 20-million years ago and fed on moss, algae and fungi. The specimen is remarkable because it represents an intermediate stage of evolution in the life of its subfamily of locusts (known as the Cladonotinae). The most ancient representatives of this group had wings, while modern counterparts do not. The newly discovered locust has what appear to be vestigial wings — remnant structures that had already lost their primary function.

The discovery is reported in the journal ZooKeys.

“Grasshoppers are very rare in amber and this specimen is extraordinarily well-preserved,” said Sam Heads, a paleontologist at the Illinois Natural History Survey, a division of the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois.

Heads, laboratory technician Jared Thomas and study co-author Yinan Wang found the new specimen a few months after the start of their project to screen more than 160 pounds of Dominican amber collected in the late 1950s by former INHS entomologist Milton Sanderson. Sanderson described several specimens from the collection in a paper in Science in 1960, a report that inspired a generation of scientists to seek out and study Dominican amber, Heads said.

The bulk of the Sanderson amber collection remained in storage, however, until Heads uncovered it in 2010.

Heads has named the new pygmy locust Electrotettix attenboroughi, the genus name a combination of electrum (Latin from Greek, meaning “amber”) and tettix (Greek, meaning “grasshopper”). The species is named for Sir David Attenborough, a British naturalist and filmmaker (not to be confused with Richard Attenborough, David’s actor brother who appeared in the movie “Jurassic Park”).

“Sir David has a personal interest in amber, and also he was one of my childhood heroes and still is one of my heroes and so I decided to name the species in his honor — with his permission of course,” Heads said. (Attenborough narrates and appears in a new video about the Sanderson collection and the specimen that bears his name.)

The process of screening the amber is slow and painstaking. Much of the amber is clouded with oxidation, and the researchers must carefully cut and polish “windows” in it to get a good look at what’s inside. In addition to the pygmy locust, Heads and his colleagues have found mating flies, stingless bees, gall midges, Azteca ants, wasps, bark beetles, mites, spiders, plant parts and even a mammal hair.

The pygmy locust was found in a fragment that also contained wasps, ants, midges, plant remnants and fungi. Such associations are rich in information, Heads said, offering clues about the creatures’ physiological needs and the nature of their habitat.

“Fossil insects can provide lots of insight into the evolution of specific traits and behaviors, and they also tell us about the history of the time period,” Heads said. “They’re a tremendous resource for understanding the ancient world, ancient ecosystems and the ancient climate — better even, perhaps, than dinosaur bones.”

The National Science Foundation supports this work. Heads and his colleagues are digitizing the best specimens, and will upload the images onto a publicly available website.

Dinosaurs fell victim to perfect storm of events, study shows

Dinosaurs might have survived the asteroid strike that wiped them out if it had taken place slightly earlier or later in history, scientists say.
A fresh study using up-to-date fossil records and improved analytical tools has helped palaeontologists to build a new narrative of the prehistoric creatures’ demise, some 66 million years ago.

They found that in the few million years before a 10km-wide asteroid struck what is now Mexico, Earth was experiencing environmental upheaval. This included extensive volcanic activity, changing sea levels and varying temperatures.

At this time, the dinosaurs’ food chain was weakened by a lack of diversity among the large plant-eating dinosaurs on which others preyed. This was probably because of changes in the climate and environment.

This created a perfect storm in which dinosaurs were vulnerable and unlikely to survive the aftermath of the asteroid strike.

The impact would have caused tsunamis, earthquakes, wildfires, sudden temperature swings and other environmental changes. As food chains collapsed, this would have wiped out the dinosaur kingdom one species after another. The only dinosaurs to survive were those who could fly, which evolved to become the birds of today.

Researchers suggest that if the asteroid had struck a few million years earlier, when the range of dinosaur species was more diverse and food chains were more robust, or later, when new species had time to evolve, then they very likely would have survived.

An international team of palaeontologists led by the University of Edinburgh studied an updated catalogue of dinosaur fossils, mostly from North America, to create a picture of how dinosaurs changed over the few million years before the asteroid hit. They hope that ongoing studies in Spain and China will aid even better understanding of what occurred.

Their study, published in Biological Reviews, was supported by the US National Science Foundation and the European Commission. It was led by the Universities of Edinburgh and Birmingham in collaboration with the University of Oxford, Imperial College London, Baylor University, and University College London. The world’s top dinosaur museums — The Natural History Museum, the Smithsonian Institution, the Royal Ontario Museum, the American Museum of Natural History and the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science — also took part.

Dr Steve Brusatte, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences, said: “The dinosaurs were victims of colossal bad luck. Not only did a giant asteroid strike, but it happened at the worst possible time, when their ecosystems were vulnerable. Our new findings help clarify one of the enduring mysteries of science.”

Dr Richard Butler of the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Birmingham, said: “There has long been intense scientific debate about the cause of the dinosaur extinction. Although our research suggests that dinosaur communities were particularly vulnerable at the time the asteroid hit, there is nothing to suggest that dinosaurs were doomed to extinction. Without that asteroid, the dinosaurs would probably still be here, and we very probably would not.”

Age-old relationship between birds and flowers: World’s oldest fossil of a nectarivorous bird

Scientists of the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt have described the oldest known fossil of a pollinating bird. The well-preserved stomach contents contained pollen from various flowering plants. This indicates that the relationship between birds and flowers dates back at least 47 million years. The fossil comes from the well-known fossil site “Messel Pit.” The study was published today in the scientific journal Biology Letters.
They fly from flower to flower, and with their long, slender bills they transfer the pollen required for the plants’ reproduction. Particularly in the tropics and subtropics, birds, besides insects, serve as the most important pollinators.

“While this process is well known and understood in the present, geological history has offered very little evidence of pollination through birds,” says Dr. Gerald Mayr, head of the Ornithological Section at the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt. He adds, “there have been occasional hints, such as characteristic bill shapes, that nectarivorous birds occurred in the past, but, so far, there existed no conclusive evidence.”

Now, however, the ornithologist from Frankfurt and his colleague, paleobotanist Dr. Volker Wilde, have found this evidence. In the well-preserved stomach contents of a fossil bird unearthed in the Messel Pit, the scientists discovered fossilized pollen grains.

“This is another discovery that underlines the unique significance of the Messel fossil site,” exclaims a delighted Dr. Wilde. “Not only does the presence of pollen offer direct evidence of the bird’s feeding habits, but it shows that birds already visited flowers as long as 47 million years ago!”

Fossil evidence for the existence of pollinating insects dates back to the Cretaceous period. Until now, however, there had been no information at what time pollination through vertebrates, and birds in particular, came into existence. To date, the oldest indication of an avian pollinator came from the early Oligocene, about 30 million years ago. “But this hummingbird fossil only offers indirect evidence of the existence of nectarivorous birds,” explains Mayr. “Thanks to the excellent state of preservation of the Messel bird, we were able to identify two different types of pollen, which is the first conclusive proof of nectarivory.”

Large numbers of differently sized pollen grains were found in the stomach contents of the completely preserved avian fossil. “Along with the bird’s skeletal anatomy, this indicates that we indeed have the fossil of a nectarivorous bird” explains Wilde.

And the spectacular discovery also suggests another conclusion: If a pollinating bird lived as much as 47 million years ago, it must be assumed that some representatives of the flora at that time had already adapted to this mode of pollination.

“To date, there are no fossil plants from this geological era that offer proof of the existence of ornithophily — i.e., the pollination of flowers through birds,” adds paleobotanist Wilde.

“However, the characteristic traits of bird-pollinated plants, such as red flowers or a lack of scent, do not fossilize,” elaborates Mayr. This lends an even greater importance to discoveries such as the Messel bird to understand the interactions between birds and flowers through geological time.

Computer rendering: Graduate student brings extinct plants ‘back to life’

Jeff Benca is an admitted über-geek when it comes to prehistoric plants, so it was no surprise that, when he submitted a paper describing a new species of long-extinct lycopod for publication, he ditched the standard line drawing and insisted on a detailed and beautifully rendered color reconstruction of the plant. This piece earned the cover of March’s centennial issue of the American Journal of Botany

Benca described this 400-million-year-old fossil lycopod, Leclercqia scolopendra, and created a life-like computer rendering. The stem of the lycopod is about 2.5 millimeters across.
“Typically, when you see pictures of early land plants, they’re not that sexy: there is a green forking stick and that’s about it. We don’t have many thorough reconstructions,” said Benca, a graduate student in the Department of Integrative Biology and Museum of Paleontology at UC Berkeley. “I wanted to give an impression of what they may have really looked like. There are great color reconstructions of dinosaurs, so why not a plant?”
Benca’s realistic, full-color image could be a life portrait, except for the fact that it was drawn from a plant that lay flattened and compressed into rock for more than 375 million years.
Called Leclercqia scolopendra, or centipede clubmoss, the plant lived during the “age of fishes,” the Devonian Period. At that time, lycopods — the group Leclercqia belonged to — were one of few plant lineages with leaves. Leclercqia shoots were about a quarter-inch in diameter and probably formed prickly, scrambling, ground-covering mats. The function of Leclercqia’s hook-like leaf tips is unclear, Benca said, but they may have been used to clamber over larger plants. Today, lycopods are represented by a group of inconspicuous plants called club mosses, quillworts and spikemosses.
Both living and extinct lycopods have fascinated Benca since high school. When he came to UC Berkeley last year from the University of Washington, he brought a truckload of some 70 different species, now part of collections at the UC Botanical Garden.
Now working in the paleobotany lab of Cindy Looy, Berkeley assistant professor of integrative biology, Benca continues to establish a growing list of living lycopod species, several of which will eventually be incorporated into the UC and Jepson Herbaria collections.
Visualizing plant evolution
Benca and colleagues wrote their paper primarily to demonstrate a new technique that is helping paleobotanists interpret early land plant fossils with greater confidence. Since living clubmosses share many traits with early lycopods, the research team was able to test their methods using living relatives Benca was growing in greenhouses.
Early land plant fossils are not easy to come by, but they can be abundant in places where rocks from the Devonian Period form outcrops. But a large portion of these are just stem fragments with few diagnostic features to distinguish them, Benca said.
“The way we analyzed Leclercqia material makes it possible to gain more information from these fragments, increasing our sample size of discernible fossils,” he said.
“Getting a better grip on just how diverse and variable Devonian plants were will be important to understanding the origins of key traits we see in so many plants today.” Looy said. Benca’s co-authors are Maureen H. Carlisle, Silas Bergen and Caroline A. E. Strömberg from the University of Washington and Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, Seattle.

Rare leafcutter bee fossils reveal Ice Age environment at the La Brea Tar Pits

Concerns about climate change and its impact on the world around us are growing daily. New scientific studies at the La Brea Tar Pits are probing the link between climate warming and the evolution of Ice Age predators, attempting to predict how animals will respond to climate change today.

The La Brea Tar Pits are famous for the amazing array of Ice Age fossils found there, such as ground sloths, mammoths, and predators like saber-toothed cats and powerful dire wolves. But the climate during the end of the Ice Age (50,000-11,000 years ago) was unstable, with rapid warming and cooling. New research reported here has documented the impact of this climate change on La Brea predators for the first time.

Two new studies published by research associates at of the Page Museum document significant change over time in the skulls of both dire wolves and saber-toothed cats. “Different tar pits at La Brea accumulated at different times,” said F. Robin O’Keefe of Marshall University, lead author on the dire wolf study. “When we compare fossils deposited at different times, we see big changes. We can actually watch evolution happening.”
After the end of the last Ice Age, La Brea dire wolves became smaller and more graceful, adapting to take smaller prey as glaciers receded and climate warmed. This rapidly changing climate drove change in saber-toothed cats as well. “Saber-toothed cats show a clear correlation between climate and shape. Cats living after the end of the Ice Age are larger, and adapted to taking larger prey,” said Julie Meachen of Des Moines University, lead author on the sabertooth study.
The two scientists discuss their work in a video here:
“We can see animals adapting to a warming climate at La Brea,” said O’Keefe. “Then humans show up and all the big ones disappear. We haven’t been able to establish causality there yet. But we are working on it.”
The emerging links between climate change and evolution needs further study. There are many unanswered questions; such as why predators change in the ways that they do, the importance of factors other than climate, and whether the arrival of humans played a role in the mass extinction at the end of the Ice Age. “There is much work to be done on the specimens from the tar pits. We are working actively to bring together the researchers and resources needed to expand on these discoveries,” says John Harris, chief curator at the Page Museum. “Climate change is a pressing issue for all of us, and we must take advantage of what Rancho La Brea can teach us about how ecosystems react to it.”

Ancient whodunit may be solved: Methane-producing microbes did it!

Evidence left at the crime scene is abundant and global: Fossil remains show that sometime around 252 million years ago, about 90 percent of all species on Earth were suddenly wiped out — by far the largest of this planet’s five known mass extinctions. But pinpointing the culprit has been difficult, and controversial.
Now, a team of MIT researchers may have found enough evidence to convict the guilty parties — but you’ll need a microscope to see the killers.
The perpetrators, this new work suggests, were not asteroids, volcanoes, or raging coal fires, all of which have been implicated previously. Rather, they were a form of microbes — specifically, methane-producing archaea called Methanosarcina — that suddenly bloomed explosively in the oceans, spewing prodigious amounts of methane into the atmosphere and dramatically changing the climate and the chemistry of the oceans.
Volcanoes are not entirely off the hook, according to this new scenario; they have simply been demoted to accessories to the crime. The reason for the sudden, explosive growth of the microbes, new evidence shows, may have been their novel ability to use a rich source of organic carbon, aided by a sudden influx of a nutrient required for their growth: the element nickel, emitted by massive volcanism at just that time.
The new solution to this mystery is published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by MIT professor of geophysics Daniel Rothman, postdoc Gregory Fournier, and five other researchers at MIT and in China.
The researchers’ case builds upon three independent sets of evidence. First, geochemical evidence shows an exponential (or even faster) increase of carbon dioxide in the oceans at the time of the so-called end-Permian extinction. Second, genetic evidence shows a change in Methanosarcina at that time, allowing it to become a major producer of methane from an accumulation of carbon dioxide in the water. Finally, sediments show a sudden increase in the amount of nickel deposited at exactly this time.
The carbon deposits show that something caused a significant uptick in the amount of carbon-containing gases — carbon dioxide or methane — produced at the time of the mass extinction. Some researchers have suggested that these gases might have been spewed out by the volcanic eruptions that produced the Siberian traps, a vast formation of volcanic rock produced by the most extensive eruptions in Earth’s geological record. But calculations by the MIT team showed that these eruptions were not nearly sufficient to account for the carbon seen in the sediments. Even more significantly, the observed changes in the amount of carbon over time don’t fit the volcanic model.
“A rapid initial injection of carbon dioxide from a volcano would be followed by a gradual decrease,” Fournier says. “Instead, we see the opposite: a rapid, continuing increase.”
“That suggests a microbial expansion,” he adds: The growth of microbial populations is among the few phenomena capable of increasing carbon production exponentially, or even faster.
But if living organisms belched out all that methane, what organisms were they, and why did they choose to do so at that time?
That’s where genomic analysis can help: It turns out that Methanosarcina had acquired a particularly fast means of making methane, through gene transfer from another microbe — and the team’s detailed mapping of the organism’s history now shows that this transfer happened at about the time of the end-Permian extinction. (Previous studies had only placed this event sometime in the last 400 million years.) Given the right conditions, this genetic acquisition set the stage for the microbe to undergo a dramatic growth spurt, rapidly consuming a vast reserve of organic carbon in the ocean sediments.
But there is one final piece to the puzzle: Those organisms wouldn’t have been able to proliferate so prodigiously if they didn’t have enough of the right mineral nutrients to support them. For this particular microbe, the limiting nutrient is nickel — which, new analysis of sediments in China showed, increased dramatically following the Siberian eruptions (which were already known to have produced some of the world’s largest deposits of nickel). That provided the fuel for Methanosarcina’s explosive growth.
The resulting outburst of methane produced effects similar to those predicted by current models of global climate change: a sudden, extreme rise in temperatures, combined with acidification of the oceans. In the case of the end-Permian extinction, virtually all shell-forming marine organisms were wiped out — consistent with the observation that such shells cannot form in acidic waters.
“A lot of this rests on the carbon isotope analysis,” Rothman says, which is exceptionally strong and clear in this part of the geological record. “If it wasn’t such an unusual signal, it would be harder to eliminate other possibilities.”
While no single line of evidence can prove exactly what happened in this ancient die-off, says Rothman, who is also director of MIT’s Lorenz Center, “the cumulative impact of all these things is much more powerful than any one individually.” While it doesn’t conclusively prove that the microbes did it, it does rule out some alternative theories, and makes a strong and consistent case, he says.

Mass strandings of marine mammals blamed on toxic algae: Clues unearthed in ancient whale graveyard

Mass strandings of whales have puzzled people since Aristotle. Modern-day strandings can be investigated and their causes, often human-related, identified. Events that happened millions of years ago, however, are far harder to analyze — frequently leaving their cause a mystery. A team of Smithsonian and Chilean scientists examined a large fossil site of ancient marine mammal skeletons in the Atacama Desert of Northern Chile — the first definitive example of repeated mass strandings of marine mammals in the fossil record. The site reflected four distinct strandings over time, indicating a repeated and similar cause: toxic algae. The team’s findings will be published Feb. 26 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The site was first discovered during an expansion project of the Pan-American Highway in 2010. The following year, paleontologists from the Smithsonian and Chile examined the fossils, dating 6-9 million years ago, and recorded what remained before the site was paved over.

The team documented the remains of 10 kinds of marine vertebrates from the site, named Cerro Ballena — Spanish for “whale hill.” In addition to the skeletons of the more than 40 large baleen whales that dominated the site, the team documented the remains of a species of sperm whale and a walrus-like whale, both of which are now extinct. They also found skeletons of billfishes, seals and aquatic sloths.

What intrigued the team most, however, was how the skeletons were arranged. The skeletons were preserved in four separate levels, pointing to a repeated and similar underlying cause. The skeletons’ orientation and condition indicated that the animals died at sea, prior to burial on a tidal flat.

Effects of Toxic Algae

Today, toxins from harmful algal blooms, such as red tides, are one of the prevalent causes for repeated mass strandings that include a wide variety of large marine animals.

“There are a few compelling modern examples that provide excellent analogs for the patterns we observed at Cerro Ballena — in particular, one case from the late 1980s when more than a dozen humpback whales washed ashore near Cape Cod, with no signs of trauma, but sickened by mackerel loaded with toxins from red tides,” said Nicholas Pyenson, paleontologist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and lead author of the research. “Harmful algal blooms in the modern world can strike a variety of marine mammals and large predatory fish. The key for us was its repetitive nature at Cerro Ballena: no other plausible explanation in the modern world would be recurring, except for toxic algae, which can recur if the conditions are right.”

Harmful algal blooms are common along the coasts of continents; they are enhanced by vital nutrients, such as iron, released during erosion and carried by rivers flowing into the ocean. Because the Andes of South America are iron-rich, the runoff that has occurred along the west coast of South America for more than 20 million years has long provided the ideal conditions for harmful algal blooms to form.

From their research, the scientists conclude that toxins generated by harmful algal blooms most likely poisoned many ocean-going vertebrates near Cerro Ballena in the late Miocene (5-11 million years ago) through ingestion of contaminated prey or inhalation, causing relatively rapid death at sea. Their carcasses then floated toward the coast, where they were washed into a tidal flat by waves. Once stranded on the tidal flat, the dead or dying animals were protected from marine scavengers, and there were no large-land scavengers in South America at this time. Eventually, the carcasses were buried by sand. Because there are four layers at Cerro Ballena, this pathway from sea to land occurred four different times during a period of 10,000 to 16,000 years in the same area.

“Cerro Ballena is the densest site for individual fossil whales and other extinct marine mammals in entire world, putting it on par with the La Brea Tar Pits or Dinosaur National Monument in the U.S.,” Pyenson said. “The site preserves marine predators that are familiar to modern eyes, like large whales and seals. However, it also preserves extinct and bizarre marine mammals, including walrus-like whales and aquatic sloths. In this way, the site is an amazing and rare snapshot of ancient marine ecosystems along the coast of South America.”

3-D Technology at Cerro Ballena

Because the site was soon to be covered by the Pan-American Highway, time was very limited for the researchers. A major solution came in the form of 3-D technology. Pyenson brought a team of Smithsonian 3-D imaging experts to Chile, who spent a week scanning the entire dig site.

Although all the fossils found from 2010 to 2013 have been moved to museums in the Chilean cities of Caldera and Santiago, the Smithsonian has archived the digital data, including the 3-D scans, from the site at There, anyone can download or interact with 3-D models of the fossil whale skeletons, scan Google Earth maps of the excavation quarries, look at a vast collection of high-resolution field photos and videos or take 360-degree tours of the site.

The enormous wealth of fossils that the team examined represents only a fraction of the potential at Cerro Ballena, which remains unexcavated. The scientists conservatively estimate that the entire area preserves several hundred fossil marine mammal skeletons, awaiting discovery. Pyenson’s colleagues at the Universidad de Chile in Santiago are actively working to create a research station near the fossils of Cerro Ballena so that those that have been collected and those still covered by sediments can be protected for posterity.

First discovery of dinosaur fossils in Malaysia

A team of palaeontology researchers from the Department of Geology, Faculty of Science, University of Malaya and Japanese universities (Waseda University and Kumamoto University) has found dinosaur fossil teeth in the rural interiors of Pahang — the first known discovery of dinosaur remains in Malaysia.

We have started our collaboration and carried out field expeditions to search for potential dinosaur deposits in Malaysia since Sep. 2012. Recently, we have successfully confirmed the presence of dinosaur remains (fossilised teeth) in Pahang,” said lead researcher, Dr. Masatoshi Sone.

“Acting as a team leader, and one of the collaborators, Professor Ren Hirayama from Waseda University (Tokyo), a specialist in reptile palaeontology, identified that one of the teeth, Sample UM10575, belongs to a spinosaurid dinosaur (known as a carnivorous “fish-eating” dinosaur),” he added.

UM10575 is about 23mm long and 10mm wide. It develops fairly distinct carinae (front and rear edges) with serrations, typical to a tooth of a theropod (carnivorous dinosaur). Well-marked coarse ridges are developed on the surface of the tooth, and the surface bears micro-ornament (very fine sculptures); these characterise a spinosaurid tooth.

The new fossils were found from sedimentary rock strata of late Mesozoic age, most likely Cretaceous (ca. 145-75 million years ago). In the interior of Peninsular Malaysia, Jurassic¬-Cretaceous sediments are known to be widely distributed, so that the team researchers have targeted a potential dinosaur deposit there since.

It is expected that large deposits of dinosaur fossils still remain in Malaysia. We currently continue further research and hope to conduct more extensive field investigations that may disclose more significant finds.

Alongside making the public announcement of this discovery, it is urgent to take measures for the protection and conservation of the present fossil site (and to make it accessible only to the qualified researchers). Since the site is in the open area, it is concerned that, once the public is aware, some destruction due to lawless excavations by private fossil collectors and/or robbers may happen, as has happened, for example, in Thailand, Laos, and Mongolia.

It is also hoped that the current discovery can lead to development of palaeontology study in the country and to eventually establish a Malaysian dinosaur museum in a near future.

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.”


‘Steak-knife’ teeth reveal ecology of oldest land predators

The first top predators to walk on land were not afraid to bite off more than they could chew, a University of Toronto Mississauga study has found.

Graduate student and lead author Kirstin Brink along with Professor Robert Reisz from U of T Mississauga’s Department of Biology suggest that Dimetrodon, a carnivore that walked on land between 298 million and 272 million years ago, was the first terrestrial vertebrate to develop serrated ziphodont teeth.

According to the study published in Nature Communications, ziphodont teeth, with their serrated edges, produced a more-efficient bite and would have allowed Dimetrodon to eat prey much larger than itself.

While most meat-eating dinosaurs possessed ziphodont teeth, fossil evidence suggests serrated teeth first evolved in Dimetrodon some 40 million years earlier than theropod dinosaurs.

“Technologies such as scanning electron microscope (SEM) and histology allowed us to examine these teeth in detail to reveal previously unknown patterns in the evolutionary history of Dimetrodon,” Brink said.

The four-meter-long Dimetrodon was the top of the terrestrial food chain in the Early Permian Period and is considered to be the forerunner of mammals.

According to Brink and Reisz’s research, Dimetrodon had a diversity of previously unknown tooth structures and were also the first terrestrial vertebrate to develop cusps — teeth with raised points on the crown, which are dominant in mammals.

The study also suggests ziphodont teeth were confined to later species of Dimetrodon, indicating a gradual change in feeding habits.

“This research is an important step in reconstructing the structure of ancient complex communities,” Reisz said.

“Teeth tell us a lot more about the ecology of animals than just looking at the skeleton.”

“We already know from fossil evidence which animals existed at that time but now with this type of research we are starting to piece together how the members of these communities interacted.”

Brink and Reisz studied the changes in Dimetrodon teeth across 25 million years of evolution.

The analysis indicated the changes in tooth structure occurred in the absence of any significant evolution in skull morphology. This, Brink and Reisz suggest, indicates a change in feeding style and trophic interactions.

“The steak knife configuration of these teeth and the architecture of the skull suggest Dimetrodon was able to grab and rip and dismember large prey,” Reisz said.

“Teeth fossils have attracted a lot of attention in dinosaurs but much less is known about the animals that lived during this first chapter in terrestrial evolution.”