How Could Dinosaurs Weigh Up to 80 Tons? New Research On Sauropod Gigantism

Jan. 14, 2014 — Sauropods, the largest land animals in Earth’s history, are still mightily puzzling the scientists. These plant-eating dinosaurs with their long necks and small heads could reach a height of 10 meters or more and dominated all other land vertebrates in terms of size. They could weigh up to 80 tons, more than any other known land vertebrate. One question that has been intensely debated is how these giants of the animal kingdom regulated their own body temperature.

According to the calculations of the Mainz-based ecologist, the body temperature of these animals did not increase with body weight. Her estimates indicate that sauropods may have had an average body temperature of some 28 degrees Celsius. The upper limit for the body temperature that can be tolerated by vertebrate species living today is 45 degrees Celsius. The body temperatures that Griebeler postulates for the sauropods are thus well below those of today’s endothermic vertebrates but consistent with those of ectothermic monitor lizards. Her calculations of sauropod body temperature take into account the relationship between the maximum rate of growth and the basal metabolic rate of an animal, whereby the latter is largely determined by body temperature.

Griebeler’s work is part of a collection that brings together the results of recent research into sauropod gigantism. The gigantism of these vertebrates, unique in the history of Earth, raises many questions, such as why no other land creatures have ever achieved this size and what their bauplan, physiology, and life cycle would have been like. The collection put together by the leading open access journal PLOS ONE consists of 14 contributions from the fields of ecology, morphology, animal nutrition, and paleontology that all address the fundamental question of how the sauropods managed to become so extraordinarily massive.

“We are pleased that this new research is freely accessible not only to other scientists, but also to sauropod fans,” said PD Dr. Eva Maria Griebeler. She and Dr. Jan Werner are members of the research group “Biology of the Sauropod Dinosaurs: The Evolution of Gigantism (FOR 533),” funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG). The collection was initiated as a result of a related international conference on this subject. Both scientists from the Ecology division at the Institute of Zoology at Mainz University have been working for more than six years within this research group. They have written three of the 14 contributions in the collection.

In one article, Jan Werner and his colleague Koen Stein of the University of Bonn describe a new method of determining the density of bone tissue and juxtapose sauropod data and results extrapolated for comparable endothermic mammals. Although the bone structure and the density of certain tissues of sauropods were similar to those of today’s mammals, the results do not conclusively demonstrate that sauropods were also endothermic animals. Other functional aspects, such as similar weight-bearing stresses, could have resulted in the development of convergent forms of bone tissue.

Another article looks at the reproductive biology of sauropods. Here Werner and Griebeler discuss the hypothesis that a high rate of reproduction contributed to the gigantism of the large dinosaurs. They discovered that the reproductive pattern of most dinosaurs was similar to that of modern reptiles and birds. The reproductive pattern of theropods, i.e., ancestors of the modern birds, turned out to be comparable with that of birds, prosauropods, and sauropods rather than reptiles. However, contrary to the assumptions of previous studies, the calculations of the Mainz scientists did not corroborate the hypothesis that the large dinosaurs would have laid a particularly large number of eggs. In terms of total eggs produced annually, this number could not have exceeded 200 to 400 eggs for a sauropod weighing 75 tons. Today’s large sea turtles are known to lay clutches in this range.

First Dinosaurs Identified from Saudi Arabia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The teeth and bones are approximately 72 million years old.

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

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

Mapping the Demise of the Dinosaurs

Dec. 9, 2013 — About 65 million years ago, an asteroid or comet crashed into a shallow sea near what is now the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico. The resulting firestorm and global dust cloud caused the extinction of many land plants and large animals, including most of the dinosaurs. At this week’s meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco, MBARI researchers will present evidence that remnants from this devastating impact are exposed along the Campeche Escarpment — an immense underwater cliff in the southern Gulf of Mexico.

The ancient meteorite impact created a huge crater, over 160 kilometers across. Unfortunately for geologists, this crater is almost invisible today, buried under hundreds of meters of debris and almost a kilometer of marine sediments. Although fallout from the impact has been found in rocks around the world, surprisingly little research has been done on the rocks close to the impact site, in part because they are so deeply buried. All existing samples of impact deposits close to the crater have come from deep boreholes drilled on the Yucatán Peninsula.

In March 2013, an international team of researchers led by Charlie Paull of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) created the first detailed map of the Campeche Escarpment. The team used multi-beam sonars on the research vessel Falkor, operated by the Schmidt Ocean Institute. The resulting maps have recently been incorporated in Google Maps and Google Earth for viewing by researchers and the general public.

Paull has long suspected that rocks associated with the impact might be exposed along the Campeche Escarpment, a 600-kilometer-long underwater cliff just northwest of the Yucatán Peninsula. Nearly 4,000 meters tall, the Campeche Escarpment is one of the steepest and tallest underwater features on Earth. It is comparable to one wall of the Grand Canyon — except that it lies thousands of meters beneath the sea.

As in the walls of the Grand Canyon, sedimentary rock layers exposed on the face of the Campeche Escarpment provide a sequential record of the events that have occurred over millions of years. Based on the new maps, Paull believes that rocks formed before, during, and after the impact are all exposed along different parts of this underwater cliff.

Just as a geologist can walk the Grand Canyon, mapping layers of rock and collecting rock samples, Paull hopes to one day perform geologic “fieldwork” and collect samples along the Campeche Escarpment. Only a couple of decades ago, the idea of performing large-scale geological surveys thousands of meters below the ocean surface would have seemed a distant fantasy. Over the last eight years, however, such mapping has become almost routine for MBARI geologists using underwater robots.

The newly created maps of the Campeche Escarpment could open a new chapter in research about one of the largest extinction events in Earth’s history. Already researchers from MBARI and other institutions are using these maps to plan additional studies in this little-known area. Detailed analysis of the bathymetric data and eventual fieldwork on the escarpment will reveal fascinating new clues about what happened during the massive impact event that ended the age of the dinosaurs — clues that have been hidden beneath the waves for 65 million years.

In addition to the Schmidt Ocean Institute, Paull’s collaborators in this research included Jaime Urrutia-Fucugauchi from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico and Mario Rebolledo- Vieyra of the Centro de Investigación Científica de Yucatán. Paull also worked closely with MBARI researchers, including geophysicist and software engineer Dave Caress, an expert on processing of multibeam sonar data, and geologist Roberto Gwiazda, who served as project manager and will be describing this research at the AGU meeting.

Functional Importance of Dinosaur Beaks Illuminated

Dec. 2, 2013 — Why beaks evolved in some theropod dinosaurs and what their function might have been is the subject of new research by an international team of palaeontologists published this week in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

Beaks are a typical hallmark of modern birds and can be found in a huge variety of forms and shapes. However, it is less well known that keratin-covered beaks had already evolved in different groups of dinosaurs during the Cretaceous Period.

Employing high-resolution X-ray computed tomography (CT scanning) and computer simulations, Dr Stephan Lautenschlager and Dr Emily Rayfield of the University of Bristol with Dr Perle Altangerel (National University of Ulaanbaatar) and Professor Lawrence Witmer (Ohio University) used digital models to take a closer look at these dinosaur beaks.

The focus of the study was the skull of Erlikosaurus andrewsi, a 3-4m (10-13ft) large herbivorous dinosaur called a therizinosaur, which lived more than 90 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period in what is now Mongolia, and which shows evidence that part of its snout was covered by a keratinous beak.

This new study reveals that keratinous beaks played an important role in stabilizing the skeletal structure during feeding, making the skull less susceptible to bending and deformation.

Lead author Dr Stephan Lautenschlager of Bristol’s School of Earth Sciences said: “It has classically been assumed that beaks evolved to replace teeth and thus save weight, as a requirement for the evolution of flight. Our results, however, indicate that keratin beaks were in fact beneficial to enhance the stability of the skull during biting and feeding.”

Co-author Dr Emily Rayfield, Reader of Palaeobiology at Bristol said: “Using Finite Element Analysis, a computer modelling technique routinely used in engineering, we were able to deduce very accurately how bite and muscle forces affected the skull of Erlikosaurus during the feeding process. This further allowed us to identify the importance of soft-tissue structures, such as the keratinous beak, which are normally not preserved in fossils.”

Co-author Lawrence Witmer, Chang Professor of Paleontology at the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine said: “Beaks evolved several times during the transitions from dinosaurs to modern birds, usually accompanied by the partial or complete loss of teeth and our study now shows that keratin-covered beaks represent a functional innovation during dinosaur evolution.”

This work was funded by a research fellowship to Stephan Lautenschlager from the German Volkswagen Foundation and grants from the National Science Foundation to Lawrence

CT and 3-D Printers Used to Recreate Dinosaur Fossils

Nov. 20, 2013 — Data from computed tomography (CT) scans can be used with three-dimensional (3-D) printers to make accurate copies of fossilized bones, according to new research published online in the journal Radiology.

Fossils are often stored in plaster casts, or jackets, to protect them from damage. Getting information about a fossil typically requires the removal of the plaster and all the sediment surrounding it, which can lead to loss of material or even destruction of the fossil itself.

German researchers studied the feasibility of using CT and 3-D printers to nondestructively separate fossilized bone from its surrounding sediment matrix and produce a 3-D print of the fossilized bone itself.

“The most important benefit of this method is that it is non-destructive, and the risk of harming the fossil is minimal,” said study author Ahi Sema Issever, M.D., from the Department of Radiology at Charité Campus Mitte in Berlin. “Also, it is not as time-consuming as conventional preparation.”

Dr. Issever and colleagues applied the method to an unidentified fossil from the Museum für Naturkunde, a major natural history museum in Berlin. The fossil and others like it were buried under rubble in the basement of the museum after a World War II bombing raid. Since then, museum staff members have had difficulty sorting and identifying some of the plaster jackets.

Researchers performed CT on the unidentified fossil with a 320-slice multi-detector system. The different attenuation, or absorption of radiation, through the bone compared with the surrounding matrix enabled clear depiction of a fossilized vertebral body.

After studying the CT scan and comparing it to old excavation drawings, the researchers were able to trace the fossil’s origin to the Halberstadt excavation, a major dig from 1910 to 1927 in a clay pit south of Halberstadt, Germany. In addition, the CT study provided valuable information about the condition and integrity of the fossil, showing multiple fractures and destruction of the front rim of the vertebral body.

Furthermore, the CT dataset helped the researchers build an accurate reconstruction of the fossil with selective laser sintering, a technology that uses a high-powered laser to fuse together materials to make a 3-D object.

Dr. Issever noted that the findings come at a time when advances in technology and cheaper availability of 3-D printers are making them more common as a tool for research. Digital models of the objects can be transferred rapidly among researchers, and endless numbers of exact copies may be produced and distributed, greatly advancing scientific exchange, Dr. Issever said. The technology also potentially enables a global interchange of unique fossils with museums, schools and other settings.

“The digital dataset and, ultimately, reproductions of the 3-D print may easily be shared, and other research facilities could thus gain valuable informational access to rare fossils, which otherwise would have been restricted,” Dr. Issever said. “Just like Gutenberg’s printing press opened the world of books to the public, digital datasets and 3-D prints of fossils may now be distributed more broadly, while protecting the original intact fossil.”

Big-Nosed, Long-Horned Dinosaur Discovered in Utah: Dinosaur in Same Family as Triceratops

July 17, 2013 — A remarkable new species of horned dinosaur has been unearthed in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, southern Utah. The huge plant-eater inhabited Laramidia, a landmass formed when a shallow sea flooded the central region of North America, isolating western and eastern portions for millions of years during the Late Cretaceous Period. The newly discovered dinosaur, belonging to the same family as the famous Triceratops, was announced today in the British scientific journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
The study, funded in large part by the Bureau of Land Management and the National Science Foundation, was led by Scott Sampson, when he was the Chief Curator at the Natural History Museum of Utah at the University of Utah. Sampson is now the Vice President of Research and Collections at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Additional authors include Eric Lund (Ohio University; previously a University of Utah graduate student), Mark Loewen (Natural History Museum of Utah and Dept. of Geology and Geophysics, University of Utah), Andrew Farke (Raymond Alf Museum), and Katherine Clayton (Natural History Museum of Utah).

Horned dinosaurs, or “ceratopsids,” were a group of big-bodied, four-footed herbivores that lived during the Late Cretaceous Period. As epitomized by Triceratops, most members of this group have huge skulls bearing a single horn over the nose, one horn over each eye, and an elongate, bony frill at the rear. The newly discovered species, Nasutoceratops titusi, possesses several unique features, including an oversized nose relative to other members of the family, and exceptionally long, curving, forward-oriented horns over the eyes. The bony frill, rather than possessing elaborate ornamentations such as hooks or spikes, is relatively unadorned, with a simple, scalloped margin. Nasutoceratops translates as “big-nose horned face,” and the second part of the name honors Alan Titus, Monument Paleontologist at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, for his years of research collaboration.

For reasons that have remained obscure, all ceratopsids have greatly enlarged nose regions at the front of the face. Nasutoceratops stands out from its relatives, however, in taking this nose expansion to an even greater extreme. Scott Sampson, the study’s lead author, stated, “The jumbo-sized schnoz of Nasutoceratops likely had nothing to do with a heightened sense of smell — since olfactory receptors occur further back in the head, adjacent to the brain — and the function of this bizarre feature remains uncertain.”

Paleontologists have long speculated about the function of horns and frills on horned dinosaurs. Ideas have ranged from predator defense and controlling body temperature to recognizing members of the same species. Yet the dominant hypothesis today focuses on competing for mates — that is, intimidating members of the same sex and attracting members of the opposite sex. Peacock tails and deer antlers are modern examples. In keeping with this view, Mark Loewen, a co-author of the study claimed that, “The amazing horns of Nasutoceratops were most likely used as visual signals of dominance and, when that wasn’t enough, as weapons for combatting rivals.”

A Treasure Trove of Dinosaurs on the Lost Continent of Laramidia

Nasutoceratops was discovered in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM), which encompasses 1.9 million acres of high desert terrain in south-central Utah. This vast and rugged region, part of the National Landscape Conservation System administered by the Bureau of Land Management, was the last major area in the lower 48 states to be formally mapped by cartographers. Today GSENM is the largest national monument in the United States. Sampson proclaimed that, “Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is the last great, largely unexplored dinosaur boneyard in the lower 48 states.”

For most of the Late Cretaceous, exceptionally high sea levels flooded the low-lying portions of several continents around the world. In North America, a warm, shallow sea called the Western Interior Seaway extended from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, subdividing the continent into eastern and western landmasses, known as Appalachia and Laramidia, respectively. Whereas little is known of the plants and animals that lived on Appalachia, the rocks of Laramidia exposed in the Western Interior of North America have generated a plethora of dinosaur remains. Laramidia was less than one-third the size of present day North America, approximating the area of Australia.

Most known Laramidian dinosaurs were concentrated in a narrow belt of plains sandwiched between the seaway to the east and mountains to the west. Today, thanks to an abundant fossil record and more than a century of collecting by paleontologists, Laramidia is the best known major landmass for the entire Age of Dinosaurs, with dig sites spanning from Alaska to Mexico. Utah was located in the southern part of Laramidia, which has yielded far fewer dinosaur remains than the fossil-rich north. The world of dinosaurs was much warmer than the present day; Nasutoceratops lived in a subtropical swampy environment about 100 km from the seaway.

Beginning in the 1960’s, paleontologists began to notice that the same major groups of dinosaurs seemed to be present all over this Late Cretaceous landmass, but different species of these groups occurred in the north (for example, Alberta and Montana) than in the south (New Mexico and Texas). This finding of “dinosaur provincialism” was very puzzling, given the giant body sizes of many of the dinosaurs together with the diminutive dimensions of Laramidia. Currently, there are five giant (rhino-to-elephant-sized) mammals on the entire continent of Africa. Seventy-six million years ago, there may have been more than two dozen giant dinosaurs living on a landmass about one-quarter that size. Co-author Mark Loewen noted that, “We’re still working to figure out how so many different kinds of giant animals managed to co-exist on such a small landmass?” The new fossils from GSENM are helping us explore the range of possible answers, and even rule out some alternatives.

During the past dozen years, crews from the Natural History Museum of Utah, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science and several other partner institutions (e.g., the Utah Geologic Survey, the Raymond Alf Museum of Paleontology, and the Bureau of Land Management) have unearthed a new assemblage of more than a dozen dinosaurs in GSENM. In addition to Nasutoceratops, the collection includes a variety of other plant-eating dinosaurs — among them duck-billed hadrosaurs, armored ankylosaurs, dome-headed pachycephalosaurs, and two other horned dinosaurs, Utahceratops and Kosmoceratops — together with carnivorous dinosaurs great and small, from “raptor-like” predators to a mega-sized tyrannosaur named Teratophoneus. Amongst the other fossil discoveries are fossil plants, insect traces, clams, fishes, amphibians, lizards, turtles, crocodiles, and mammals. Together, this diverse bounty of fossils is offering one of the most comprehensive glimpses into a Mesozoic ecosystem. Remarkably, virtually all of the identifiable dinosaur remains found in GSENM belong to new species, providing strong support for the dinosaur provincialism hypothesis.

Andrew Farke, a study co-author, noted that, “Nasutoceratops is one of a recent landslide of ceratopsid discoveries, which together have established these giant plant-eaters as the most diverse dinosaur group on Laramidia.”

Eric Lund, another co-author as well as the discoverer of the new species, stated that, “Nasutoceratops is a wondrous example of just how much more we have to learn about with world of dinosaurs. Many more exciting fossils await discovery in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.”

Tooth Is ‘Smoking Gun’ Evidence That Tyrannosaurus Rex Was Hunter, Killer

July 16, 2013 — Tyrannosaurus rex has long been popular with kids and moviemakers as the most notorious, vicious killing machine to roam the planet during the age of the dinosaurs.


So, it may come as a shock that for more than a century some paleontologists have argued that T. rex was a scavenger, not a true predator — more like a vulture than a lion. Indeed, a lack of definitive fossil proof of predation in the famous theropod has stirred controversy among scientists — until now.

“T. rex is the monster of our dreams,” said David Burnham, preparator of vertebrate paleontology at the Biodiversity Institute at the University of Kansas. “But ever since it was discovered in Montana and named in the early 1900s, there’s been a debate about whether these large carnivores were scavengers or predators. Most people assume they were predators, but the scientific evidence for predation has been really elusive. Yes, we’ve found lots of dinosaur skeletons with tooth marks that had been chewed up by something. But what did that really prove? Yes, these large carnivores fed on other dinosaurs — but did they eat them while they were alive or dead? That’s where the debate came in. Where was the evidence for hunt and kill?”

Now, Burnham is part of a team that has unearthed “smoking gun” physical proof that T. rex was indeed a predator, hunter and killer. In the Hell Creek Formation of South Dakota, Burnham and colleagues discovered the crown of a T. rex tooth lodged in the fossilized spine of a plant-eating hadrosaur that seems to have survived the attack. The team describes the find in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Burnham’s KU co-authors are Bruce Rothschild and the late Larry Martin, along with former KU student Robert DePalma II of The Palm Beach Museum of Natural History and Peter Larson of the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research.

“Robert DePalma was a student here at KU doing his master’s thesis in the Hell Creek formation,” said Burnham. “He found a specimen that represents the tail of one of these hadrosaurs. It had a distorted-looking bone growth. He came to me and said, ‘What do you think is causing this?’ So we cleaned it and could see a tooth embedded in one of these duck-billed dinosaur vertebrae. Then we went to Lawrence Memorial Hospital and used a CT machine to scan the bones — and we saw all of the tooth.”

Previous evidence for predation included T. rex fossil discoveries with preserved stomach contents that included the bones of a young ceratopsian (e.g., Triceratops or one of its kin). However, there was no evidence to conclude whether the ceratopsian was alive or dead when the T. rex made a snack of it.

By contrast, Burnham said the tooth was definitive evidence of hunting, after carefully measuring its length and the size of its serrations to ensure that it came from the mouth of a T. rex.

“Lo and behold, the tooth plotted out just exactly with T. rex — the only known large theropod from the Hell Creek formation,” he said. “We knew we had a T. rex tooth in the tail of a hadrosaur. Better yet, we knew the hadrosaur got away because the bone had begun to heal. Quite possibly it was being pursued by the T. rex when it was bitten. It was going in the right direction — away. The hadrosaur escaped by some stroke of luck. The better luck is finding this fossil with the preserved evidence.”

Because T. rex regularly shed its teeth, the predator went away hungry, but otherwise no worse for the encounter. It would have grown a new tooth to replace the one left behind in the hadrosaur’s tail. This could have been a typical example of T. rex’s hunting efforts, even if it didn’t result in a meal.

“To make an analogy to modern animals, when lions go attack a herd of herbivores, they go after the sick and the slow,” Burnham said. “Most of the time, hadrosaurs traveled in packs. This hadrosaur may have been a little slower, or this T. rex may have been a little faster — at least fast enough to almost catch a duck-billed dinosaur.”

This concrete proof of T. rex’s predation continues a long relationship between KU paleontologists and the theropod, which lived in North America during the Late Cretaceous, some 65 million years ago. KU graduate Barnum Brown discovered the first documented remains of the dinosaur in Wyoming in 1900.

Mum and Dad Dinosaurs Shared the Work

May 15, 2013 — A study into the brooding behaviour of birds has revealed their dinosaur ancestors shared the load when it came to incubation of eggs.


Research into the incubation behaviour of birds suggests the type of parental care carried out by their long extinct ancestors.

The study aimed to test the hypothesis that data from extant birds could be used to predict the incubation behaviour of Theropods, the group of carnivorous dinosaurs from which birds descended.

The paper, out today in Biology Letters, was co-authored by Dr Charles Deeming and Dr Marcello Ruta from the University of Lincoln’s School of Life Sciences and Dr Geoff Birchard from George Mason University, Virginia.

By taking into account factors known to affect egg and clutch size in living bird species, the authors — who started their investigation last summer at the University of Lincoln’s Riseholme campus — found that shared incubation was the ancestral incubation behaviour. Previously it had been claimed that only male Theropod dinosaurs incubated the eggs.

Dr Deeming said: “In 2009 a study in the journal Science suggested that it was males of the small carnivorous dinosaurs Troodon and Oviraptor that incubated their eggs. Irrespective of whether you accept the idea of Theropod dinosaurs sitting on eggs like birds or not, the analysis raised some concerns that we wanted to address. We decided to repeat the study with a larger data set and a better understanding of bird biology because other palaeontologists were starting to use the original results in Science in order to predict the incubation behaviour of other dinosaur species. Our analysis of the relationship between female body mass and clutch mass was interesting in its own right but also showed that it was not possible to conclude anything about incubation in extinct distant relatives of the birds.”

Palaeobiologist Dr Ruta was involved in mapping the parental behaviour in modern birds on to an evolutionary tree.

Dr Ruta said: “As always in any study involving fossils, knowledge of extant organisms helps us make inferences about fossils. Fossils have a unique role in shaping our knowledge of the Tree of Life and the dynamics of evolutionary processes. However, as is the case with our study, data from living organisms may augment and refine the potential of fossil studies and may shift existing notions of the biology and behaviour of long extinct creatures.”

Dr Birchard added: “The previous study was carried out to infer the type of parental care in dinosaurs that are closely related to birds. That study proposed that paternal care was present in these dinosaurs and this form of care was the ancestral condition for birds. Our new analysis based on three times as many species as in the previous study indicates that parental care cannot be inferred from simple analyses of the relationship of body size to shape, anatomy, physiologyand behaviour. Such analyses ought to take into account factors such as shared evolutionary history and maturity at hatching. However, our data does suggest that the dinosaurs used in the previous study were likely to be quite mature at birth.”

The project has helped in understanding the factors affecting the evolution of incubation in birds. More importantly it is hoped that the new analysis will assist palaeontologists in their interpretation of future finds of dinosaur reproduction in the fossil record.

Four New Dinosaur Species Identified

May 8, 2013 — Just when dinosaur researchers thought they had a thorough knowledge of ankylosaurs, a family of squat, armour plated, plant eaters, along comes University of Alberta graduate student, Victoria Arbour.
Arbour visited dinosaur fossil collections from Alberta to the U.K. examining skull armour and comparing those head details with other features of the fossilized ankylosaur remains. She made a breakthrough that resurrected research done more than 70 years ago.

Arbour explains that between 1900 and 1930 researchers had determined that small variations in the skull armour and the tail clubs in some ankylosaurs constituted four individual species of the dinosaurs.

“In the 1970s the earlier work was discarded and those four species were lumped into one called species Euoplocephalus,” said Arbour.

“I examined many fossils and found I could group some fossils together because their skull armour corresponded with a particular shape of their tail club,” said Arbour.

Finding common features in fossils that come from the same geologic time is evidence that the original researchers were right says Arbour. “There were in fact four different species represented by what scientists previously thought was only one species, Euoplocephalus.”

The four species span a period of about 10 million years. Arbour’s research shows three of those ankylosaurs species lived at the same time in what is now Dinosaur Provincial Park in southern Alberta.

Arbour says this opens the door to new questions.

“How did these three species shared their habitat, how did they divide food resources and manage to survive?” said Arbour.

Arbour will also look into how slight differences in skull ornamentation and tail shape between the species influenced the animals’ long reign on Earth.

Arbour’s research was published May 8, in the journal PLOS ONE.

Oldest? New ‘Bone-Head’ Dinosaur Hints at Higher Diversity of Small Dinosaurs

May 7, 2013 — Scientists have named a new species of bone-headed dinosaur (pachycephalosaur) from Alberta, Canada. Acrotholus audeti (Ack-RHO-tho-LUS) was identified from both recently discovered and historically collected fossils. Approximately six feet long and weighing about 40 kilograms in life, the newly identified plant-eating dinosaur represents the oldest bone-headed dinosaur in North America, and possibly the world.
Dr. Michael Ryan, curator of vertebrate paleontology at The Cleveland Museum of Natural History, co-authored research describing the new species, which was published May 7, 2013 in the journal Nature Communications.

Acrotholus means “high dome,” referring to its dome-shaped skull, which is composed of solid bone over 10 centimeters (two inches) thick. The name Acrotholus audeti also honors Alberta rancher Roy Audet, on whose land the best specimen was discovered in 2008. Acrotholus walked on two legs and had a greatly thickened, domed skull above its eyes, which was used for display to other members of its species, and may have also been used in head-butting contests. Acrotholus lived about 85 million years ago.

The new dinosaur discovery is based on two skull ‘caps’ from the Milk River Formation of southern Alberta. One of these was collected by the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) more than 50 years ago. However, a better specimen was found in 2008 by University of Toronto graduate student Caleb Brown during a field expedition organized by Dr. David Evans of the Royal Ontario Museum and University of Toronto, and Ryan.

“Acrotholus provides a wealth of new information on the evolution of bone-headed dinosaurs. Although it is one of the earliest known members this group, its thickened skull dome is surprisingly well-developed for its geological age,” said lead author Evans, ROM curator, vertebrate palaeontology. “More importantly, the unique fossil record of these animals suggests that we are only beginning to understand the diversity of small-bodied plant-eating dinosaurs.”

Small mammals and reptiles can be very diverse and abundant in modern ecosystems, but small dinosaurs (less than 100 kg) are considerably less common than large ones in the fossil record. Whether this pattern is a true reflection of dinosaur communities, or is related to the greater potential for small bones to be destroyed by carnivores and natural decay, has been debated. The massively constructed skull domes of pachycephalosaurs are resistant to destruction, and are much more common than their relatively delicate skeletons — which resemble those of other small plant-eating dinosaurs. Therefore, the researchers suggest that the pachycephalosaur fossil record can provide valuable insights into the diversity of small, plant-eating dinosaurs as a whole.

“We can predict that many new small dinosaur species like Acrotholus are waiting to be discovered by researchers willing to sort through the many small bones that they pick up in the field,” said co-author Ryan of The Cleveland Museum of Natural History. “This fully domed and mature individual suggests that there is an undiscovered, hidden diversity of small-bodied dinosaurs. So when we look back, we need to reimagine the paleoenvironment. There is an evolutionary history that we just don’t know because the fossil record is incomplete. This discovery also highlights the importance of landowners, like Roy Audet, who grant access to their land and allow scientifically important finds to be made.”

This dinosaur is the latest in a series of new finds being made by Evans and Ryan as part of their Southern Alberta Dinosaur Project, which aims to fill in gaps in of the record of Late Cretaceous dinosaurs and study their evolution. This project focuses on the palaeontology of some of the oldest dinosaur-bearing rocks in Alberta, which have been studied less intensely than those of the famous badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park and Drumheller.

Acrotholus was identified by a team comprising of palaeontologists Evans, of the Royal Ontario Museum; and Ryan, of The Cleveland Museum of Natural History; as well as Ryan Schott, Caleb Brown, and Derek Larson, all graduate students at the University of Toronto who studied under Evans.