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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Ancient Mongolian skull is the earliest modern human yet found in the region

A much debated ancient human skull from Mongolia has been dated and genetically analysed, showing that it is the earliest modern human yet found in the region, according to new research from the University of Oxford. Radiocarbon dating and DNA analysis have revealed that the only Pleistocene hominin fossil discovered in Mongolia, initially called Mongolanthropus, is in reality a modern human who lived approximately 34,000 to 35,000 years ago.

The skullcap, found in the Salkhit Valley northeast Mongolia is, to date, the only Pleistocene hominin fossil found in the country.

The skullcap is mostly complete and includes the brow ridges and nasal bones. The presence of archaic or ancient features have led in the past to the specimen being linked with uncharacterized archaic hominin species, such as Homo erectus and Neanderthals. Previous research suggested ages for the specimen ranging from the Early Middle Pleistocene to the terminal Late Pleistocene.

The Oxford team re-dated the specimen to 34,950 — 33,900 years ago. This is around 8,000 years older than the initial radiocarbon dates obtained on the same specimen.

To make this discovery, the Oxford team employed a new optimised technique for radiocarbon dating of heavily contaminated bones. This method relies on extracting just one of the amino acids from the collagen present in the bone. The amino acid hydroxyproline (HYP), which accounts for 13% of the carbon in mammalian collagen, was targeted by the researchers. Dating this amino acid allows for the drastic improvement in the removal of modern contaminants from the specimens.

The new and reliable radiocarbon date obtained for the specimen shows that this individual dates to the same period as the Early Upper Palaeolithic stone tool industry in Mongolia, which is usually associated with modern humans. The age is later than the earliest evidence for anatomically modern humans in greater Eurasia, which could be in excess of 100,000 years in China according to some researchers.

This new result also suggests that there was still a significant amount of unremoved contamination in the sample during the original radiocarbon measurements. Additional analyses performed in collaboration with scientists at the University of Pisa (Italy) confirmed that the sample was heavily contaminated by the resin that had been used to cast the specimen after its discovery.

“The research we have conducted shows again the great benefits of developing improved chemical methods for dating prehistoric material that has been contaminated, either in the site after burial, or in the museum or laboratory for conservation purposes.” said Dr Thibaut Devièse first author on the new paper and leading the method developments in compound specific analysis at the University of Oxford. “Robust sample pretreatment is crucial in order to build reliable chronologies in archaeology.”

DNA analyses were also performed on the hominin bones by Professor Svante Pääbo’s team at the Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. Diyendo Massiliani and colleagues reconstructed the complete mitochondrial genome of the specimen. It falls within a group of modern human mtDNAs (haplogroup N) that is widespread in Eurasia today, confirming the view of some researchers that the cranium is indeed a modern human. Further nuclear DNA work is underway to shed further light on the genetics of the cranium.

‘This enigmatic cranium has puzzled researchers for some time,” said Professor Tom Higham, who leads the PalaeoChron research group at the University of Oxford. “A combination of cutting edge science, including radiocarbon dating and genetics, has now shown that this is the remain of a modern human, and the results fit perfectly within the archaeological record of Mongolia which link moderns to the Early Upper Palaeolithic industry in this part of the world.”

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Journal Reference:

  1. Thibaut Devièse, Diyendo Massilani, Seonbok Yi, Daniel Comeskey, Sarah Nagel, Birgit Nickel, Erika Ribechini, Jungeun Lee, Damdinsuren Tseveendorj, Byambaa Gunchinsuren, Matthias Meyer, Svante Pääbo, Tom Higham. Compound-specific radiocarbon dating and mitochondrial DNA analysis of the Pleistocene hominin from Salkhit MongoliaNature Communications, 2019; 10 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-08018-8

The 210-million-year-old Smok was crushing bones like a hyena

Coprolites, or fossil droppings, of the dinosaur-like archosaur Smok wawelski contain lots of chewed-up bone fragments. This led researchers at Uppsala University to conclude that this top predator was exploiting bones for salt and marrow, a behavior often linked to mammals but seldom to archosaurs.

Most predatory dinosaurs used their blade-like teeth to feed on the flesh of their prey, but they are commonly not thought to be much of bone crushers. The major exception is seen in the large tyrannosaurids, such as Tyrannosaurus rex, that roamed North America toward the end of the age of dinosaurs. The tyrannosaurids are thought to have been osteophagous (voluntarily exploiting bone) based on findings of bone-rich coprolites, bite-marked bones, and their robust teeth being commonly worn.

In a study published in Scientific Reports, researchers from Uppsala University were able to link ten large coprolites to Smok wawelski, a top predator of a Late Triassic (210 million year old) assemblage unearthed in Poland. This bipedal, 5-6 meters long animal lived some 140 million years before the tyrannosaurids of North America and had a T. rex-like appearance, although it is not fully clear whether it was a true dinosaur or a dinosaur-like precursor.

Three of the coprolites were scanned using synchrotron microtomography. This method has just recently been applied to coprolites and works somewhat like a CT scanner in a hospital, with the difference that the energy in the x-ray beams is much stronger. This makes it possible to visualize internal structures in fossils in three dimensions.

The coprolites were shown to contain up to 50 percent of bones from prey animals such as large amphibians and juvenile dicynodonts. Several crushed serrated teeth, probably belonging to the coprolite producer itself, were also found in the coprolites. This means that the teeth were repeatedly crushed against the hard food items (and involuntarily ingested) and replaced by new ones.

Further evidence for a bone-crushing behaviour can also be found in the fossils from the same bone beds in Poland. These include worn teeth and bone-rich fossil regurgitates from Smok wawelski, as well as numerous crushed or bite-marked bones.

Several of the anatomical characters related to osteophagy, such as a massive head and robust body, seem to be shared by S. wawelski and the tyrannosaurids, despite them being distantly related and living 140 million years apart. These large predators therefore seem to provide evidence of similar feeding adaptations being independently acquired at the beginning and end of the age of dinosaurs.

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Reconstruction of trilobite ancestral range in the southern hemisphere

The first appearance of trilobites in the fossil record dates to 521 million years ago in the oceans of the Cambrian Period, when the continents were still inhospitable to most life forms. Few groups of animals adapted as successfully as trilobites, which were arthropods that lived on the seabed for 270 million years until the mass extinction at the end of the Permian approximately 252 million years ago.

The longer ago organisms lived, the more rare are their fossils and the harder it is to understand their way of life; paleontologists face a daunting task in endeavoring to establish evolutionary relationships in time and space.

Surmounting the difficulties inherent in the investigation of a group of animals that lived such a long time ago, Brazilian scientists affiliated with the Biology Department of São Paulo State University’s Bauru School of Sciences (FC-UNESP) and the Paleontology Laboratory of the University of São Paulo’s Ribeirão Preto School of Philosophy, Science and Letters (FFCLRP-USP) have succeeded for the first time in inferring paleobiogeographic patterns among trilobites.

Paleobiogeography is a branch of paleontology that focuses on the distribution of extinct plants and animals and their relations with ancient geographic features. The study was conducted by Fábio Augusto Carbonaro, a postdoctoral researcher at UNESP’s Bauru Macroinvertebrate Paleontology Laboratory (LAPALMA) headed by Professor Renato Pirani Ghilardi. Other participants included Max Cardoso Langer, a professor at FFCLRP-USP, and Silvio Shigueo Nihei, a professor at the same university’s Bioscience Institute (IB-USP).

The researchers analyzed the morphological differences and similarities of the 11 species of trilobites described so far in the genus Metacryphaeus; these trilobites lived during the Devonian between 416 million and 359 million years ago (mya) in the cold waters of the sea that covered what is now Bolivia, Peru, Brazil, the Malvinas (Falklands) and South Africa.

The Devonian Period is subdivided into seven stages. Metacryphaeus lived during the Lochkovian (419.2-410.8 mya) and Pragian (410.8- 407.6 mya) stages, which are the earliest Devonian stages.

The results of the research were published in Scientific Reportsand are part of the project “Paleobiogeography and migratory routes of paleoinvertebrates of the Devonian in Brazil,” which is supported by São Paulo Research Foundation -FAPESP and Brazil’s National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq). Ghilardi is the project’s principal investigator.

“When they became extinct in the Permian, 252 million years ago, the trilobites left no descendants. Their closest living relatives are shrimps, and, more remotely, spiders, scorpions, sea spiders and mites,” Ghilardi said.

Trilobite fossils are found abundantly all over the world, he explained — so abundantly that they are sometimes referred to as the cockroaches of the sea. The comparison is not unwarranted because anatomically, the trilobites resemble cockroaches. The difference is that they were not insects and had three longitudinal body segments or lobes (hence the name).

In the northern hemisphere, the trilobite fossil record is very rich. Paleontologists have so far described ten orders comprising over 17,000 species. The smallest were 1.5 millimeters long, while the largest were approximately 70 cm long and 40 cm wide. Perfectly preserved trilobites can be found in some regions, such as Morocco. These can be beautiful when used to create cameos or intaglio jewelry. Trilobite fossils from Brazil, Peru and Bolivia, in contrast, are often poorly preserved, consisting merely of the impressions left in benthic mud by their exoskeletons.

“Although their state of preservation is far from ideal, there are thousands of trilobite fossils in the sediments that form the Paraná basin in the South region of Brazil, and the Parnaíba basin along the North-Northeast divide,” said Ghilardi, who also chairs the Brazilian Paleontology Society.

According to Ghilardi, their poor state of preservation could be due to the geological conditions and climate prevailing in these regions during the Paleozoic Era, when the portions of dry land that would one day form South America were at the South Pole and entirely covered by ice for prolonged periods.

During the Devonian, South America and Africa were connected as part of the supercontinent Gondwana. South Africa was joined with Uruguay and Argentina in the River Plate region, and Brazil’s southern states were continuous with Namibia and Angola.

Parsimonious analysis

The research began with an analysis of 48 characteristics (size, shape and structure of organs and anatomical parts) found in some 50 fossil specimens of the 11 species of Metacryphaeus.

“In principle, these characteristics serve to establish their phylogeny — the evolutionary history of all species in the universe, analyzed in terms of lines of descent and relationships among broader groups,” Ghilardi said.

Known as a parsimonious analysis, this method is widely used to establish relationships among organisms in a given ecosystem, and in recent years, it has also begun to be used in the study of fossils.

According to Ghilardi, parsimony, in general, is the principle that the simplest explanation of the data is the preferred explanation. In the analysis of phylogeny, it means that the hypothesis regarding relationships that requires the smallest number of characteristic changes between the species analyzed (in this case, trilobites of the genus Metacryphaeus) is the one that is most likely to be correct.

The biogeographic contribution to the study was made by Professor Nihei, who works at IB-USP as a taxonomist and insect systematist. The field of systematics is concerned with evolutionary changes between ancestries, while taxonomy focuses on classifying and naming organisms.

“Biogeographic analysis typically involves living groups the ages of which are estimated by molecular phylogeny, or the so-called molecular clock, which estimates when two species probably diverged on the basis of the number of molecular differences in their DNA. In this study of trilobites, we used age in a similar manner, but it was obtained from the fossil record,” Nihei said.

“The main point of the study was to use fossils in a method that normally involves molecular biogeography. Very few studies of this type have previously involved fossils. I believe our study paves the way for a new approach based on biogeographic methods requiring a chronogram [a molecularly dated cladogram] because this chronogram can also be obtained from fossil taxa such as those studied by paleontologists, rather than molecular cladograms for living animals.”

As a vertebrate paleontologist who specializes in dinosaurs, Langer acknowledged that he knows little about trilobites but a great deal about the modern computational techniques used in parsimonious analysis, on which his participation in the study was based. “I believe the key aspect of this study, and the reason it was accepted for publication in as important a journal as Scientific Reports, is that it’s the first ever use of parsimony to understand the phylogeny of a trilobite genus in the southern hemisphere,” he said.

Gondwanan dispersal

The results of the paleobiogeographical analyses reinforce the pre-existing theory that Bolivia and Peru formed the ancestral home of Metacryphaeus.

“The models estimate a 100% probability that Bolivia and Peru formed the ancestral area of the Metacryphaeus clade and most of its internal clades,” Ghilardi said. Confirmation of the theory shows that parsimonious models have the power to suggest the presence of clades at a specific moment in the past even when there are no known physical records of that presence.

In the case of Metacryphaeus, the oldest records in Bolivia and Peru date from the early Pragian stage (410.8-407.6 mya), but the genus is believed to have evolved in the region during the Lochkovian stage (419.2-410.8 mya).

Parsimony, therefore, suggests Metacryphaeus originated in Bolivia and Peru some time before 410.8 mya but not earlier than 419.2 mya. In any event, it is believed to be far older than any known fossils.

According to Ghilardi, the results can be interpreted as showing that the adaptive radiation of Metacryphaeus to other areas of western Gondwana occurred during episodes of marine transgression in the Lochkovian-Pragian, when the sea flooded parts of Gondwana.

“The dispersal of Metacryphaeus trilobites during the Lochkovian occurred from Bolivia and Peru to Brazil — to the Paraná basin, now in the South region, and the Parnaíba basin, on the North-Northeast divide — and on toward the Malvinas/Falklands, while the Pragian dispersal occurred toward South Africa,” he said.

Fossil trilobites have been found continuously in the Paraná basin in recent decades. Trilobites collected in the late nineteenth century in the Parnaíba basin were held by Brazil’s National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, which was destroyed by fire in September 2018.

“These fossils haven’t yet been found under the rubble and it’s likely that nothing is left of them. They were mere shell impressions left in the ancient seabed. Even in petrified form, they must have dissolved in the blaze,” Ghilardi said.

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Fossils suggest flowers originated 50 million years earlier than thought

Scientists have described a fossil plant species that suggests flowers bloomed in the Early Jurassic, more than 174 million years ago, according to new research in the open-access journal eLife.

Before now, angiosperms (flowering plants) were thought to have a history of no more than 130 million years. The discovery of the novel flower species, which the study authors named Nanjinganthus dendrostyla, throws widely accepted theories of plant evolution into question, by suggesting that they existed around 50 million years earlier. Nanjinganthus also has a variety of ‘unexpected’ characteristics according to almost all of these theories.

Angiosperms are an important member of the plant kingdom, and their origin has been the topic of long-standing debate among evolutionary biologists. Many previously thought angiosperms could be no more than 130 million years old. However, molecular clocks have indicated that they must be older than this. Until now, there has been no convincing fossil-based evidence to prove that they existed further back in time.

“Researchers were not certain where and how flowers came into existence because it seems that many flowers just popped up in the Cretaceous from nowhere,” explains lead author Qiang Fu, Associate Research Professor at the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Paleontology, China. “Studying fossil flowers, especially those from earlier geologic periods, is the only reliable way to get an answer to these questions.”

The team studied 264 specimens of 198 individual flowers preserved on 34 rock slabs from the South Xiangshan Formation — an outcrop of rocks in the Nanjing region of China renowned for bearing fossils from the Early Jurassic epoch. The abundance of fossil samples used in the study allowed the researchers to dissect some of them and study them with sophisticated microscopy, providing high-resolution pictures of the flowers from different angles and magnifications. They then used this detailed information about the shape and structure of the different fossil flowers to reconstruct the features of Nanjinganthus dendrostyla.

The key feature of an angiosperm is ‘angio-ovuly’ — the presence of fully enclosed ovules, which are precursors of seeds before pollination. In the current study, the reconstructed flower was found to have a cup-form receptacle and ovarian roof that together enclose the ovules/seeds. This was a crucial discovery, because the presence of this feature confirmed the flower’s status as an angiosperm. Although there have been reports of angiosperms from the Middle-Late Jurassic epochs in northeastern China, there are structural features of Nanjinganthus that distinguish it from these other specimens and suggest that it is a new genus of angiosperms.

Having made this discovery, the team now wants to understand whether angiosperms are either monophyletic — which would mean Nanjinganthus represents a stem group giving rise to all later species — or polyphyletic, whereby Nanjinganthus represents an evolutionary dead end and has little to do with many later species.

“The origin of angiosperms has long been an academic ‘headache’ for many botanists,” concludes senior author Xin Wang, Research Professor at the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Paleontology. “Our discovery has moved the botany field forward and will allow a better understanding of angiosperms, which in turn will enhance our ability to efficiently use and look after our planet’s plant-based resources.”

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New discovery pushes origin of feathers back by 70 million years

An international team of palaeontologists, which includes the University of Bristol, has discovered that the flying reptiles, pterosaurs, actually had four kinds of feathers, and these are shared with dinosaurs — pushing back the origin of feathers by some 70 million years.

Pterosaurs are the flying reptiles that lived side by side with dinosaurs, 230 to 66 million years ago. It has long been known that pterosaurs had some sort of furry covering often called ‘pycnofibres’, and it was presumed that it was fundamentally different to feathers of dinosaurs and birds.

In a new work published today in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, a team from Nanjing, Bristol, Cork, Beijing, Dublin, and Hong Kong show that pterosaurs had at least four types of feathers:

  • simple filaments (‘hairs’)
  • bundles of filaments,
  • filaments with a tuft halfway down
  • down feathers.

These four types are now also known from two major groups of dinosaurs — the ornithischians, which were plant-eaters, and the theropods, which include the ancestors of birds.

Baoyu Jiang of Nanjing University, who led the research, said: “We went to Inner Mongolia to do fieldwork in the Daohugou Formation.

“We already knew that the sites had produced excellent specimens of pterosaurs with their pycnofibres preserved and I was sure we could learn more by careful study.”

Zixiao Yang, also of Nanjing University, has studied the Daohugou localities and the pterosaurs as part of his PhD work. He said: “This was a fantastic opportunity to work on some amazing fossils.

“I was able to explore every corner of the specimens using high-powered microscopes, and we found many examples of all four feathers.”

Maria McNamara of University College Cork, added: “Some critics have suggested that actually there is only one simple type of pycnofibre, but our studies show the different feather types are real.

“We focused on clear areas where the feathers did not overlap and where we could see their structure clearly. They even show fine details of melanosomes, which may have given the fluffy feathers a ginger colour.”

Professor Mike Benton from the University of Bristol’s School of Earth Sciences, said: “We ran some evolutionary analyses and they showed clearly that the pterosaur pycnofibres are feathers, just like those seen in modern birds and across various dinosaur groups.

“Despite careful searching, we couldn’t find any anatomical evidence that the four pycnofibre types are in any way different from the feathers of birds and dinosaurs. Therefore, because they are the same, they must share an evolutionary origin, and that was about 250 million years ago, long before the origin of birds.”

Birds have two types of advanced feathers used in flight and for body smoothing, the contour feathers with a hollow quill and barbs down both sides.

These are found only in birds and the theropod dinosaurs close to bird origins. But the other feather types of modern birds include monofilaments and down feathers, and these are seen much more widely across dinosaurs and pterosaurs.

The armoured dinosaurs and the giant sauropods probably did not have feathers, but they were likely suppressed, meaning they were prevented from growing, at least in the adults, just as hair is suppressed in whales, elephants, and hippos. Pigs are a classic example, where the piglets are covered with hair like little puppies, and then, as they grow, the hair growth is suppressed.

Professor Benton added: “This discovery has amazing implications for our understanding of the origin of feathers, but also for a major time of revolution of life on land.

“When feathers arose, about 250 million years ago, life was recovering from the devasting end-Permian mass extinction.

“Independent evidence shows that land vertebrates, including the ancestors of mammals and dinosaurs, had switched gait from sprawling to upright, had acquired different degrees of warm-bloodedness, and were generally living life at a faster pace.

“The mammal ancestors by then had hair, so likely the pterosaurs, dinosaurs and relatives had also acquired feathers to help insulate them.

“The hunt for feathers in fossils is heating up and finding their functions in such early forms is imperative. It can rewrite our understanding of a major revolution in life on Earth during the Triassic, and also our understanding of the genomic regulation of feathers, scales, and hairs in the skin.”

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‘Treasure trove’ of dinosaur footprints found in southern England

More than 85 well-preserved dinosaur footprints — made by at least seven different species — have been uncovered in East Sussex, representing the most diverse and detailed collection of these trace fossils from the Cretaceous Period found in the UK to date.

The footprints were identified by University of Cambridge researchers between 2014 and 2018, following periods of coastal erosion along the cliffs near Hastings. Many of the footprints — which range in size from less than 2 cm to over 60 cm across — are so well-preserved that fine detail of skin, scales and claws is easily visible.

The footprints date from the Lower Cretaceous epoch, between 145 and 100 million years ago, with prints from herbivores including IguanodonAnkylosaurus, a species of stegosaur, and possible examples from the sauropod group (which included Diplodocus and Brontosaurus); as well as meat-eating theropods. The results are reported in the journal Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology.

Over the past 160 years, there have been sporadic reports of fossilised dinosaur footprints along the Sussex coast, but no new major discoveries have been described for the past quarter century and the earlier findings were far less varied and detailed than those described in the current research.

The area around Hastings is one of the richest in the UK for dinosaur fossils, including the first known Iguanodon in 1825, and the first confirmed example of fossilised dinosaur brain tissue in 2016. However, trace fossils such as footprints, which can help scientists learn more about the composition of dinosaur communities, are less common in the area.

“Whole body fossils of dinosaurs are incredibly rare,” said Anthony Shillito, a PhD student in Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences and the paper’s first author. “Usually you only get small pieces, which don’t tell you a lot about how that dinosaur may have lived. A collection of footprints like this helps you fill in some of the gaps and infer things about which dinosaurs were living in the same place at the same time.”

The footprints described in the current study, which Shillito co-authored with Dr Neil Davies, were uncovered during the past four winters, when strong storms and storm surges led to periods of collapse of the sandstone and mudstone cliffs.

In the Cretaceous Period, the area where the footprints were found was likely near a water source, and in addition to the footprints, a number of fossilised plants and invertebrates were also found.

“To preserve footprints, you need the right type of environment,” said Davies. “The ground needs to be ‘sticky’ enough so that the footprint leaves a mark, but not so wet that it gets washed away. You need that balance in order to capture and preserve them.”

“As well as the large abundance and diversity of these prints, we also see absolutely incredible detail,” said Shillito. “You can clearly see the texture of the skin and scales, as well as four-toed claw marks, which are extremely rare.

“You can get some idea about which dinosaurs made them from the shape of the footprints — comparing them with what we know about dinosaur feet from other fossils lets you identify the important similarities. When you also look at footprints from other locations you can start to piece together which species were the key players.”

As part of his research, Shillito is studying how dinosaurs may have affected the flows of rivers. In modern times, large animals such as hippopotamuses or cows can create small channels, diverting some of the river’s flow.

“Given the sheer size of many dinosaurs, it’s highly likely that they affected rivers in a similar way, but it’s difficult to find a ‘smoking gun’, since most footprints would have just washed away,” said Shillito. “However, we do see some smaller-scale evidence of their impact; in some of the deeper footprints you can see thickets of plants that were growing. We also found evidence of footprints along the banks of river channels, so it’s possible that dinosaurs played a role in creating those channels.”

It’s likely that there are many more dinosaur footprints hidden within the eroding sandstone cliffs of East Sussex, but the construction of sea defences in the area to slow or prevent the process of coastal erosion may mean that they remained locked within the rock.

The research was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

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Biggest mass extinction caused by global warming leaving ocean animals gasping for breath

The largest extinction in Earth’s history marked the end of the Permian period, some 252 million years ago. Long before dinosaurs, our planet was populated with plants and animals that were mostly obliterated after a series of massive volcanic eruptions in Siberia.

Fossils in ancient seafloor rocks display a thriving and diverse marine ecosystem, then a swath of corpses. Some 96 percent of marine species were wiped out during the “Great Dying,” followed by millions of years when life had to multiply and diversify once more.

What has been debated until now is exactly what made the oceans inhospitable to life — the high acidity of the water, metal and sulfide poisoning, a complete lack of oxygen, or simply higher temperatures.

New research from the University of Washington and Stanford University combines models of ocean conditions and animal metabolism with published lab data and paleoceanographic records to show that the Permian mass extinction in the oceans was caused by global warming that left animals unable to breathe. As temperatures rose and the metabolism of marine animals sped up, the warmer waters could not hold enough oxygen for them to survive.

The study is published in the Dec. 7 issue of Science.

“This is the first time that we have made a mechanistic prediction about what caused the extinction that can be directly tested with the fossil record, which then allows us to make predictions about the causes of extinction in the future,” said first author Justin Penn, a UW doctoral student in oceanography.

Researchers ran a climate model with Earth’s configuration during the Permian, when the land masses were combined in the supercontinent of Pangaea. Before ongoing volcanic eruptions in Siberia created a greenhouse-gas planet, oceans had temperatures and oxygen levels similar to today’s. The researchers then raised greenhouse gases in the model to the level required to make tropical ocean temperatures at the surface some 10 degrees Celsius (20 degrees Fahrenheit) higher, matching conditions at that time.

The model reproduces the resulting dramatic changes in the oceans. Oceans lost about 80 percent of their oxygen. About half the oceans’ seafloor, mostly at deeper depths, became completely oxygen-free.

To analyze the effects on marine species, the researchers considered the varying oxygen and temperature sensitivities of 61 modern marine species — including crustaceans, fish, shellfish, corals and sharks — using published lab measurements. The tolerance of modern animals to high temperature and low oxygen is expected to be similar to Permian animals because they had evolved under similar environmental conditions. The researchers then combined the species’ traits with the paleoclimate simulations to predict the geography of the extinction.

“Very few marine organisms stayed in the same habitats they were living in — it was either flee or perish,” said second author Curtis Deutsch, a UW associate professor of oceanography.

The model shows the hardest hit were organisms most sensitive to oxygen found far from the tropics. Many species that lived in the tropics also went extinct in the model, but it predicts that high-latitude species, especially those with high oxygen demands, were nearly completely wiped out.

To test this prediction, co-authors Jonathan Payne and Erik Sperling at Stanford analyzed late-Permian fossil distributions from the Paleoceanography Database, a virtual archive of published fossil collections. The fossil record shows where species were before the extinction, and which were wiped out completely or restricted to a fraction of their former habitat.

The fossil record confirms that species far from the equator suffered most during the event.

“The signature of that kill mechanism, climate warming and oxygen loss, is this geographic pattern that’s predicted by the model and then discovered in the fossils,” Penn said. “The agreement between the two indicates this mechanism of climate warming and oxygen loss was a primary cause of the extinction.”

The study builds on previous work led by Deutsch showing that as oceans warm, marine animals’ metabolism speeds up, meaning they require more oxygen, while warmer water holds less. That earlier study shows how warmer oceans push animals away from the tropics.

The new study combines the changing ocean conditions with various animals’ metabolic needs at different temperatures. Results show that the most severe effects of oxygen deprivation are for species living near the poles.

“Since tropical organisms’ metabolisms were already adapted to fairly warm, lower-oxygen conditions, they could move away from the tropics and find the same conditions somewhere else,” Deutsch said. “But if an organism was adapted for a cold, oxygen-rich environment, then those conditions ceased to exist in the shallow oceans.”

The so-called “dead zones” that are completely devoid of oxygen were mostly below depths where species were living, and played a smaller role in the survival rates. “At the end of the day, it turned out that the size of the dead zones really doesn’t seem to be the key thing for the extinction,” Deutsch said. “We often think about anoxia, the complete lack of oxygen, as the condition you need to get widespread uninhabitability. But when you look at the tolerance for low oxygen, most organisms can be excluded from seawater at oxygen levels that aren’t anywhere close to anoxic.”

Warming leading to insufficient oxygen explains more than half of the marine diversity losses. The authors say that other changes, such as acidification or shifts in the productivity of photosynthetic organisms, likely acted as additional causes.

The situation in the late Permian — increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that create warmer temperatures on Earth — is similar to today.

“Under a business-as-usual emissions scenarios, by 2100 warming in the upper ocean will have approached 20 percent of warming in the late Permian, and by the year 2300 it will reach between 35 and 50 percent,” Penn said. “This study highlights the potential for a mass extinction arising from a similar mechanism under anthropogenic climate change.”

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Materials provided by University of Washington. Original written by Hannah Hickey. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:

Justin L. Penn, Curtis Deutsch, Jonathan L. Payne, Erik A. Sperling. Temperature-dependent hypoxia explains biogeography and severity of end-Permian marine mass extinction. Science, 2018 DOI: 10.1126/science.aat1327