Neanderthal footprints found in Gibraltar

The  international journal Quaternary Science Reviews has just published a paper which has involved the participation of Gibraltarian scientists from The Gibraltar National Museum alongside colleagues from Spain, Portugal and Japan. The results which have been published come from an area of the Catalan Bay Sand Dune.

This work started ten years ago, when the first dates using the OSL method were obtained. It is then that the first traces of footprints left by vertebrates were found. In subsequent years the successive natural collapse of sand has revealed further material and has permitted a detailed study including new dates.

The sand sheets in the rampant dunes above Catalan Bay are a relic of the last glaciation, when sea level was up to 120 metres below present levels and a great field of dunes extended eastwards from the base of the Rock. The identified footprints correspond to species which are known, from fossil material, to have inhabited Gibraltar. The identified footprints correspond to Red Deer, Ibex, Aurochs, Leopard and Straight-tusked Elephant. In addition the scientists have found the footprint of a young human (106-126 cm in height), possibly Neanderthal, which dates to around 29 thousand years ago. It would coincide with late Neanderthal dates from Gorham’s Cave.

If confirmed to be Neanderthal, these dunes would become only the second site in the world with footprints attributed to these humans, the other being Vartop Cave in Romania. These findings add further international importance to the Gibraltar Pleistocene heritage, declared of World Heritage Value in 2016.

The research was supported by HM Government of Gibraltar under the Gibraltar Caves Project and the annual excavations in the Gibraltar Caves, with additional support to the external scientists from the Spanish EU project MICINN-FEDER: CGL2010-15810/BTE.

Minister for Heritage John Cortes MP commented, “This is extraordinary research and gives us an incredible insight into the wildlife community of Gibraltar’s past. We should all take a moment to imagine the scene when these animals walked across our landscape. It helps us understand the importance of looking after our heritage. I congratulate the research team on uncovering this fascinating, hidden evidence of our Rock’s past.”


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New dinosaur with heart-shaped tail provides evolutionary clues for African continent

A new dinosaur that wears its “heart” on its tail provides new clues to how ecosystems evolved on the African continent during the Cretaceous period according to researchers at Ohio University.

The OHIO team identified and named the new species of dinosaur in an article published this week in PLOS ONE. The new dinosaur, the third now described from southwestern Tanzania by the NSF-funded team, is yet another member of the large, long-necked titanosaur sauropods. The partial skeleton was recovered from Cretaceous-age (~100 million years ago) rocks exposed in a cliff surface in the western branch of the great East African Rift System.

The new dinosaur is named Mnyamawamtuka moyowamkia (Mm-nya-ma-wah-mm-too-ka mm-oh-yo-wa-mm-key-ah), a name derived from Swahili for “animal of the Mtuka (with) a heart-shaped tail” in reference to the name of the riverbed (Mtuka) in which it was discovered and due to the unique shape of its tail bones.

The initial discovery of Mnyamawamtuka took place in 2004, when part of the skeleton was discovered high in a cliff wall overlooking the seasonally dry Mtuka riverbed, with annual excavations continuing through 2008. “Although titanosaurs became one of the most successful dinosaur groups before the infamous mass extinction capping the Age of Dinosaurs, their early evolutionary history remains obscure, and Mnyamawamtuka helps tell those beginnings, especially for their African-side of the story,” said lead author Dr. Eric Gorscak, a recent Ph.D. graduate of Ohio University, current research associate at the Field Museum of Natural History (Chicago) and new assistant professor at the Midwestern University in Downers Grove, just outside of Chicago. “The wealth of information from the skeleton indicates it was distantly related to other known African titanosaurs, except for some interesting similarities with another dinosaur, Malawisaurus, from just across the Tanzania-Malawi border,” noted Dr. Gorscak.

Titanosaurs are best known from Cretaceous-age rocks in South America, but other efforts by the team include new species discovered in Tanzania, Egypt, and other parts of the African continent that reveal a more complex picture of dinosaurian evolution on the planet. “The discovery of dinosaurs like Mnyamawamtuka and others we have recently discovered is like doing a four-dimensional connect the dots,” said Dr. Patrick O’Connor, professor of anatomy at Ohio University and Gorscak’s advisor during his Ph.D. research. “Each new discovery adds a bit more detail to the picture of what ecosystems on continental Africa were like during the Cretaceous, allowing us to assemble a more holistic view of biotic change in the past.”

The excavation process spanned multiple years, and included field teams suspended by ropes and large-scale mechanical excavators to recover one of the more complete specimens from this part of the sauropod dinosaur family tree. “Without the dedication of several field teams, including some whose members donned climbing gear for the early excavations, the skeleton would have eroded away into the river during quite intense wet seasons in this part of the East African Rift System,” added O’Connor.

“This latest discovery is yet another fine example of how Ohio University researchers work the world over in their pursuit of scientific research,” Ohio University President M. Duane Nellis said. “This team has turned out a number of notable discoveries which collectively contribute significantly to our understanding of the natural world.”

Mnyamawamtuka and the other Tanzanian titanosaurs are not the only animals discovered by the research team. Remains of bizarre relatives of early crocodiles, the oldest evidence for “insect farming,” and tantalizing clues about the early evolution of monkeys and apes have been discovered in recent years. Such findings from the East African Rift provide a crucial glimpse into ancient ecosystems of Africa and provide the impetus for future work elsewhere on the continent.

“This new dinosaur gives us important information about African fauna during a time of evolutionary change,” said Judy Skog, a program director in the National Science Foundation’s Division of Earth Sciences, which funded the research. “The discovery offers insights into paleogeography during the Cretaceous. It’s also timely information about an animal with heart-shaped tail bones during this week of Valentine’s Day.”

Recent findings by the research team in the Rukwa Rift Basin include:

“The Tanzanian story is far from over but we know enough to start asking what paleontological and geological similarities and dissimilarities there are with nearby rock units. Revisiting Malawi is my top priority to address these broader, regional questions,” said Gorscak, who also participates in ongoing projects in Egypt and Kenya. “With Mnyamawamtuka and other discoveries, I’m not sure to view it as writing or reading the next chapters in the paleontological book of Africa. I’m just excited to see where this story is going to take us.”


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Science Newsfrom research organizations Earliest known seed-eating perching bird discovered in Fossil Lake, Wyoming

Most of the birds you’ve ever seen — sparrows, finches, robins, crows — have one crucial thing in common: they’re all what scientists refer to as perching birds, or “passerines.” The passerines make up about 6,500 of the 10,000 bird species alive today. But while they’re everywhere now, they were once rare, and scientists are still learning about their origins. In a new paper in Current Biology, researchers have announced the discovery of one of the earliest known passerine birds, from 52 million years ago.

“This is one of the earliest known perching birds. It’s fascinating because passerines today make up most of all bird species, but they were extremely rare back then. This particular piece is just exquisite,” says Field Museum Neguanee Distinguished Service Curator Lance Grande, an author of the paper. “It is a complete skeleton with the feathers still attached, which is extremely rare in the fossil record of birds.”

The paper describes two new fossil bird species — one from Germany that lived 47 million years ago, and another that lived in what’s now Wyoming 52 million years ago, a period known as the Early Eocene. The Wyoming bird, Eofringillirostrum boudreauxi, is the earliest example of a bird with a finch-like beak, similar to today’s sparrows and finches. This legacy is reflected in its name; Eofringilllirostrum means “dawn finch beak.” (Meanwhile, boudreauxi is a nod to Terry and Gail Boudreaux, longtime supporters of science at the Field Museum.)”

The fossil birds’ finch-like, thick beaks hint at their diet. “These bills are particularly well-suited for consuming small, hard seeds,” says Daniel Ksepka, the paper’s lead author, curator at the Bruce Museum in Connecticut. Anyone with a birdfeeder knows that lots of birds are nuts for seeds, but seed-eating is a fairly recent biological phenomenon. “The earliest birds probably ate insects and fish, some may have been eating small lizards,” says Grande. “Until this discovery, we did not know much about the ecology of early passerines. E. boudreauxi gives us an important look at this.”

“We were able to show that a comparable diversity of bill types already developed in the Eocene in very early ancestors of passerines,” says co-author Gerald Mayr of the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt. “The great distance between the two fossil sites implies that these birds were widespread during the Eocene, while the scarcity of known fossils suggests a rather low number of individuals,” adds Ksepka.

While passerine birds were rare 52 million years ago, E. boudreauxi had the good luck to live and die near Fossil Lake, a site famous for perfect fossilization conditions.

“Fossil Lake is a really graphic picture of an entire community locked in stone — it has everything from fishes and crocs to insects, pollen, reptiles, birds, and early mammals,” says Grande. “We have spent so much time excavating this locality, that we have a record of even the very rare things.”

Grande notes that Fossil Lake provides a unique look at the ancient world — one of the most detailed pictures of life on Earth after the extinction of the dinosaurs (minus the birds) 65 million years ago. “Knowing what happened in the past gives us a better understanding of the present and may help us figure out where we are going for the future.”

With that in mind, Grande plans to continue his exploration of the locale. “I’ve been going to Fossil Lake every year for the last 35 years, and finding this bird is one of the reasons I keep going back. It’s so rich,” says Grande. “We keep finding things that no one’s ever seen before.”


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