Dinosaurs were thriving before asteroid strike that wiped them out

Dinosaurs were unaffected by long-term climate changes and flourished before their sudden demise by asteroid strike.

Scientists largely agree that an asteroid impact, possibly coupled with intense volcanic activity, wiped out the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period 66 million years ago.

However, there is debate about whether dinosaurs were flourishing before this, or whether they had been in decline due to long-term changes in climate over millions of years.

Previously, researchers used the fossil record and some mathematical predictions to suggest dinosaurs may have already been in decline, with the number and diversity of species falling before the asteroid impact.

Now, in a new analysis that models the changing environment and dinosaur species distribution in North America, researchers from Imperial College London, University College London and University of Bristol have shown that dinosaurs were likely not in decline before the meteorite.

Lead researcher Alessandro Chiarenza, a PhD student in the Department of Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial, said: “Dinosaurs were likely not doomed to extinction until the end of the Cretaceous, when the asteroid hit, declaring the end of their reign and leaving the planet to animals like mammals, lizards and a minor group of surviving dinosaurs: birds.

“The results of our study suggest that dinosaurs as a whole were adaptable animals, capable of coping with the environmental changes and climatic fluctuations that happened during the last few million years of the Late Cretaceous. Climate change over prolonged time scales did not cause a long-term decline of dinosaurs through the last stages of this period.”

The study, published today in Nature Communications, shows how the changing conditions for fossilisation means previous analyses have underestimated the number of species at the end of the Cretaceous.

The team focused their study on North America, where many Late Cretaceous dinosaurs are preserved, such as Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops. During this period, the continent was split in two by a large inland sea.

In the western half there was a steady supply of sediment from the newly forming Rocky Mountains, which created perfect conditions for fossilising dinosaurs once they died. The eastern half of the continent was instead characterised by conditions far less suitable for fossilisation.

This means that far more dinosaur fossils are found in the western half, and it is this fossil record that is often used to suggest dinosaurs were in decline for the few million years before the asteroid strike.

Co-author Dr Philip Mannion, from University College London, commented: “Most of what we know about Late Cretaceous North American dinosaurs comes from an area smaller than one-third of the present-day continent, and yet we know that dinosaurs roamed all across North America, from Alaska to New Jersey and down to Mexico.”

Instead of using this known record exclusively, the team employed ‘ecological niche modelling’. This approach models which environmental conditions, such as temperature and rainfall, each species needs to survive.

The team then mapped where these conditions would occur both across the continent and over time. This allowed them to create a picture of where groups of dinosaur species could survive as conditions changed, rather than just where their fossils had been found.

The team found habitats that could support a range of dinosaur groups were actually more widespread at the end of the Cretaceous, but that these were in areas less likely to preserve fossils.

Furthermore, these potentially dinosaur-rich areas were smaller wherever they occurred, again reducing the likelihood of finding a fossil from each of these areas.


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New species of tiny tyrannosaur foreshadows rise of T. rex

A newly discovered, diminutive — by T. rexstandards — relative of the tyrant king of dinosaurs reveals crucial new information about when and how T. rex came to rule the North American roost.

Meet Moros intrepidus, a small tyrannosaur who lived about 96 million years ago in the lush, deltaic environment of what is now Utah during the Cretaceous period. The tyrannosaur, whose name means “harbinger of doom,” is the oldest Cretaceous tyrannosaur species yet discovered in North America, narrowing a 70-million-year gap in the fossil record of tyrant dinosaurs on the continent.

“With a lethal combination of bone-crunching bite forces, stereoscopic vision, rapid growth rates, and colossal size, tyrant dinosaurs reigned uncontested for 15 million years leading up to the end-Cretaceous extinction — but it wasn’t always that way,” says Lindsay Zanno, paleontologist at North Carolina State University, head of paleontology at the North Carolina Museum of Sciences and lead author of a paper describing the research. “Early in their evolution, tyrannosaurs hunted in the shadows of archaic lineages such as allosaurs that were already established at the top of the food chain.”

Medium-sized, primitive tyrannosaurs have been found in North America dating from the Jurassic (around 150 million years ago). By the Cretaceous — around 81 million years ago — North American tyrannosaurs had become the enormous, iconic apex predators we know and love. The fossil record between these time periods has been a blank slate, preventing scientists from piecing together the story behind the ascent of tyrannosaurs in North America. “When and how quickly tyrannosaurs went from wallflower to prom king has been vexing paleontologists for a long time,” says Zanno. “The only way to attack this problem was to get out there and find more data on these rare animals.”

That’s exactly what Zanno and her team did. A decade spent hunting for dinosaur remains within rocks deposited at the dawn of the Late Cretaceous finally yielded teeth and a hind limb from the new tyrannosaur. In fact, the lower leg bones of Moros were discovered in the same area where Zanno had previously found Siats meekerorum, a giant meat-eating carcharodontosaur that lived during the same period. Moros is tiny by comparison — standing only three or four feet tall at the hip, about the size of a modern mule deer. Zanno estimates that the Moros was over seven years old when it died, and that it was nearly full-grown.

But don’t let the size fool you. “Moros was lightweight and exceptionally fast,” Zanno says. “These adaptations, together with advanced sensory capabilities, are the mark of a formidable predator. It could easily have run down prey, while avoiding confrontation with the top predators of the day.

“Although the earliest Cretaceous tyrannosaurs were small, their predatory specializations meant that they were primed to take advantage of new opportunities when warming temperatures, rising sea-level and shrinking ranges restructured ecosystems at the beginning of the Late Cretaceous,” Zanno says. “We now know it took them less than 15 million years to rise to power.”

The bones of Moros also revealed the origin of T. rex’s lineage on the North American continent. When the scientists placed Moroswithin the family tree of tyrannosaurs they discovered that its closest relatives were from Asia. “T. rex and its famous contemporaries such as Triceratops may be among our most beloved cultural icons, but we owe their existence to their intrepid ancestors who migrated here from Asia at least 30 million years prior,” Zanno says. “Moros signals the establishment of the iconic Late Cretaceous ecosystems of North America.”

The research appears in Communications Biology, and was supported in part by Canyonlands Natural History Association. Lecturer Terry Gates, postdoctoral research scholar Aurore Canoville and graduate student Haviv Avrahami from NC State, as well as the Field Museum’s Peter Makovicky and Ryan Tucker from Stellenbosch University, contributed to the work.


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Marsupial lived among Arctic dinosaurs

A research team has discovered a previously unknown species of marsupial that lived in Alaska’s Arctic during the era of dinosaurs, adding a vivid new detail to a complex ancient landscape.

The thumb-sized animal, named Unnuakomys hutchisoni, lived in the Arctic about 69 million years ago during the late Cretaceous Period. Its discovery, led by scientists from the University of Colorado and University of Alaska Fairbanks, is outlined in an article published in the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology.

The discovery adds to the picture of an environment that scientists say was surprisingly diverse. The tiny animal, which is the northernmost marsupial ever discovered, lived among a unique variety of dinosaurs, plants and other animals.

Alaska’s North Slope, which was at about 80 degrees north latitude when U. hutchisoni lived there, was once thought to be a barren environment during the late Cretaceous. That perception has gradually changed since dinosaurs were discovered along the Colville River in the 1980s, with new evidence showing the region was home to a diverse collection of unique species that didn’t exist anywhere else.

Finding a new marsupial species in the far north adds a new layer to that evolving view, said Patrick Druckenmiller, the director of the University of Alaska Museum of the North.

“Northern Alaska was not only inhabited by a wide variety of dinosaurs, but in fact we’re finding there were also new species of mammals that helped to fill out the ecology,” said Druckenmiller, who has studied dinosaurs in the region for more than a decade. “With every new species, we paint a new picture of this ancient polar landscape.”

Marsupials are a type of mammal that carries underdeveloped offspring in a pouch. Kangaroos and koalas are the best-known modern marsupials. Ancient relatives were much smaller during the late Cretaceous, Druckenmiller said. Unnuakomys hutchisoniwas probably more like a tiny opossum, feeding on insects and plants while surviving in darkness for as many as four months each winter.

The research team, whose project was funded with a National Science Foundation grant, identified the new marsupial using a painstaking process. With the help of numerous graduate and undergraduate students, they collected, washed and screened ancient river sediment collected on the North Slope and then carefully inspected it under a microscope. Over many years, they were able to locate numerous fossilized teeth roughly the size of a grain of sand.

“I liken it to searching for proverbial needles in haystacks — more rocks than fossils,” said Florida State University paleobiologist Gregory Erickson, who contributed to the paper.

Jaelyn Eberle, curator of fossil vertebrates at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History, led the effort to examine those teeth and a few tiny jawbones. Their analysis revealed a new species and genus of marsupial.

Mammal teeth have unique cusps that differ from species to species, making them a bit like fingerprints for long-dead organisms, said Eberle, the lead author of the study.

“If I were to go down to the Denver Zoo and crank open the mouth of a lion and look in — which I don’t recommend — I could tell you its genus and probably its species based only on its cheek teeth,” Eberle said.

The name Unnuakomys hutchisoni combines the Iñupiaq word for “night” and the Greek word “mys” for mouse, a reference to the dark winters the animal endured, and a tribute to J. Howard Hutchison, a paleontologist who discovered the fossil-rich site where its teeth were eventually found.

Other co-authors of the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology paper include William Clemens, of the University of California, Berkeley; Paul McCarthy, of UAF; and Anthony Fiorillo, of the Perot Museum of Nature and Science.


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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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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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How long did it take to hatch a dinosaur egg? 3-6 months

A human typically gives birth after nine months. An ostrich hatchling emerges from its egg after 42 days. But how long did it take for a baby dinosaur to incubate?

Groundbreaking research led by a Florida State University professor establishes a timeline of anywhere from three to six months depending on the dinosaur.

In an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, FSU Professor of Biological Science Gregory Erickson and a team of researchers break down the complicated biology of these prehistoric creatures and explain how embryonic dental records solved the mystery of how long dinosaurs incubated their eggs.

“Some of the greatest riddles about dinosaurs pertain to their embryology — virtually nothing is known,” Erickson said. “Did their eggs incubate slowly like their reptilian cousins — crocodilians and lizards? Or rapidly like living dinosaurs — the birds?”

Scientists had long theorized that dinosaur incubation duration was similar to birds, whose eggs hatch in periods ranging from 11-85 days. Comparable-sized reptilian eggs typically take twice as long — weeks to many months.

Because the eggs of dinosaurs were so large — some were about 4 kilograms or the size of a volleyball — scientists believed they must have experienced rapid incubation with birds inheriting that characteristic from their dinosaur ancestors.

Erickson, FSU graduate student David Kay and colleagues from University of Calgary and the American Museum of Natural History decided to put these theories to the test.

To do that, they accessed some rare fossils — those of dinosaur embryos.

“Time within the egg is a crucial part of development, but this earliest growth stage is poorly known because dinosaur embryos are rare,” said co-author Darla Zelenitsky, assistant professor of geoscience at University of Calgary. “Embryos can potentially tell us how dinosaurs developed and grew very early on in life and if they are more similar to birds or reptiles in these respects.”

The two types of dinosaur embryos researchers examined were those from Protoceratops — a sheep-sized dinosaur found in the Mongolian Gobi Desert whose eggs were quite small (194 grams) — and Hypacrosaurus, an enormous duck-billed dinosaur found in Alberta, Canada with eggs weighing more than 4 kilograms.

Erickson and his team ran the embryonic jaws through a CT scanner to visualize the forming dentition. Then, they extracted several of the teeth to further examine them under sophisticated microscopes.

Researchers found what they were looking for on those microscope slides. Growth lines on the teeth showed researchers precisely how long the dinosaurs had been growing in the eggs.

“These are the lines that are laid down when any animal’s teeth develops,” Erickson said. “They’re kind of like tree rings, but they’re put down daily. We could literally count them to see how long each dinosaur had been developing.”

Their results showed nearly three months for the tiny Protoceratops embryos and six months for those from the giant Hypacrosaurus.

“Dinosaur embryos are some of the best fossils in the world,” said Mark Norell, Macaulay Curator for the American Museum of Natural History and a co-author on the study. “Here, we used spectacular fossils specimens collected by American Museum expeditions to the Gobi Desert, coupled them with new technology and new ideas, leading us to discover something truly novel about dinosaurs.”

The implications of long dinosaur incubation are considerable.

In addition to finding that dinosaur incubation was similar to primitive reptiles, the researchers could infer many aspects of dinosaurian biology from the results.

Prolonged incubation put eggs and their parents at risk from predators, starvation and other environmental risk factors. And theories that some dinosaurs nested in the more temperate lower latitude of Canada and then traveled to the Arctic during the summer now seem unlikely given the time frame for hatching and migration.

The biggest ramification from the study, however, relates to the extinction of dinosaurs. Given that these warm-blooded creatures required considerable resources to reach adult size, took more than a year to mature and had slow incubation times, they would have been at a distinct disadvantage compared to other animals that survived the extinction event.

“We suspect our findings have implications for understanding why dinosaurs went extinct at the end of the Cretaceous period, whereas amphibians, birds, mammals and other reptiles made it through and prospered,” Erickson said.

This research was supported by the National Science Foundation.

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Fossils found in Siberia suggest all dinosaurs could have been feathered

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dinosaurs fell victim to perfect storm of events, study shows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nearly complete ‘chicken from hell,’ from mysterious dinosaur group

A Team of researchers has announced the discovery of a bizarre, bird-like dinosaur, named Anzu wyliei, that provides paleontologists with their first good look at a dinosaur group that has been shrouded in mystery for almost a century. Anzu was described from three specimens that collectively preserve almost the entire skeleton, giving scientists a remarkable opportunity to study the anatomy and evolutionary relationships of Caenagnathidae (pronounced SEE-nuh-NAY-thih-DAY) — the long-mysterious group of theropod dinosaurs to which Anzu belongs.

The three described fossil skeletons of Anzu were unearthed in North and South Dakota, from roughly 66 million-year-old rocks of the Hell Creek Formation, a rock unit celebrated for its abundant fossils of famous dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops. The scientific paper describing the discovery appears today in the freely-accessible journal PLOS ONE.

The team of scientists who studied Anzu was led by Dr. Matthew Lamanna of Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. Dr. Lamanna’s collaborators include Dr. Hans-Dieter Sues and Dr. Tyler Lyson of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, and Dr. Emma Schachner of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. According to Dr. Lamanna, “Anzu is far and away the most complete caenagnathid that has ever been discovered. After nearly a century of searching, we paleontologists finally have the fossils to show what these creatures looked like from virtually head to toe. And in almost every way, they’re even weirder than we imagined.”

Hell’s Chicken

At roughly 11 feet long and five feet tall at the hip, Anzu would have resembled a gigantic flightless bird, more than a ‘typical’ theropod dinosaur such as T. rex. Its jaws were tipped with a toothless beak, and its head sported a tall, rounded crest similar to that of a cassowary (a large ground bird native to Australia and New Guinea). The neck and hind legs were long and slender, also comparable to a cassowary or ostrich. Although the Anzu specimens preserve only bones, close relatives of this dinosaur have been found with fossilized feathers, strongly suggesting that the new creature was feathered too. The resemblance to birds ends there, however: the forelimbs ofAnzu were tipped with large, sharp claws, and the tail was long and robust. Says Dr. Lamanna, “We jokingly call this thing the ‘Chicken from Hell,’ and I think that’s pretty appropriate. So we named it after Anzu, a bird-like demon in ancient mythology.”

The species is named for a Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh Trustee’s grandson, Wylie.

Not only do the fossils of Anzu wyliei paint a picture of this particular species, they shed light on an entire group of dinosaurs, the first evidence of which was discovered almost 100 years ago. In 1924, paleontologist Charles Whitney Gilmore described the species Chirostenotes pergracilis from a pair of fossil hands found a decade earlier in ~74 million-year-old rocks in Alberta, Canada. Later, in 1940, Caenagnathus collinsiwas named, based on a peculiar lower jaw from the same beds. More recently, after studies of these and other fragmentary fossils, Hans Sues and other paleontologists determined that Chirostenotes and Caenagnathus belonged to the same dinosaur group, Caenagnathidae, and that these animals were close cousins of Asian oviraptorid theropods such as Oviraptor.

Asian relations

Oviraptor (‘egg thief’) is widely known because the first fossil skeleton of this animal, described in 1924, was found atop a nest of dinosaur eggs, suggesting that the creature had died in the act of raiding the nest. This thinking prevailed until the 1990s, when the same type of egg was found with a baby oviraptorid inside, demonstrating that, rather than a nest plunderer, Oviraptor was a caring parent that perished while protecting its eggs. More than a dozen oviraptorid species have been discovered, all in Mongolia and China, and many are known from beautifully-preserved, complete or nearly complete skeletons. Additionally, beginning in the 1990s, several small, primitive relatives of oviraptorids were unearthed in much older, ~125 million-year-old rocks in northeastern China. Many of these are also represented by complete skulls or skeletons, some of which preserve fossilized feathers. Researchers have established that caenagnathids, oviraptorids, and these more archaic Chinese species are closely related to one another, and have united them as the theropod group Oviraptorosauria. The occurrence of oviraptorosaurs in both Asia and North America was not a surprise to paleontologists, because these continents were frequently connected during the Mesozoic Era (the ‘Age of Dinosaurs’), allowing dinosaurs and other land animals to roam between them. However, because their fossils were so incomplete, caenagnathids remained the most poorly known members of Oviraptorosauria, and indeed, one of the least understood of all major dinosaur groups. “For many years, caenagnathids were known only from a few bits of the skeleton, and their appearance remained a big mystery,” says Dr. Sues.

More fossils, more knowledge

The nearly completely represented skeleton of Anzu opens a window into the anatomy of this and other caenagnathid species. Armed with this wealth of new information, Dr. Lamanna and his team were able to reconstruct the evolution of these extraordinary animals in more detail than ever before. Analysis of the relationships of Anzureaffirmed that caenagnathids form a natural grouping within Oviraptorosauria: Anzu,CaenagnathusChirostenotes, and other North American oviraptorosaurs are more closely related to each other than they are to most of their Asian cousins — a finding that had been disputed in recent years. Furthermore, the team’s analysis confirmed the recent hypothesis that the enormous (and aptly-named) Gigantoraptor — at a weight of at least 1.5 tons, the largest oviraptorosaur known to science — is an unusual member of Caenagnathidae as well, instead of an oviraptorid as had initially been proposed. “We’re finding that caenagnathids were an amazingly diverse bunch of dinosaurs,” says Dr. Lamanna. “Whereas some were turkey-sized, others — like Anzuand Gigantoraptor — were the kind of thing you definitely wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley. Apparently these oviraptorosaurs occupied a much wider range of body sizes and ecologies than we previously thought.”

The anatomy and ancient environment of Anzu provide insight into the diet and habitat preferences of caenagnathids as well. Although the preferred food of these oviraptorosaurs remains something of a puzzle, Dr. Lamanna and collaborators think that caenagnathids were probably omnivores — like humans, animals that could eat either meat or plants. Moreover, studies of the rocks in which several of the most complete caenagnathid skeletons have been found show that these strata were laid down in humid floodplain environments, suggesting that these dinosaurs favored such habitats. In this way, caenagnathids appear to have differed greatly from their oviraptorid cousins, all of which have been found in rocks that were deposited under arid to semi-arid conditions . “Over the years, we’ve noticed that Anzu and some other Hell Creek Formation dinosaurs, such as Triceratops, are often found in mudstone rock that was deposited on ancient floodplains. Other dinosaurs, like duckbills, are found in sandstone deposited in or next to rivers,” says Dr. Lyson, who found his first Hell Creek fossil on his family’s ranch in North Dakota when he was only six years old.

Anzu led a life that was fraught with danger. In addition to sharing its Cretaceous world with the most notorious carnivore of all time — T. rex — this oviraptorosaur seems to have gotten hurt a lot as well. Two of the three specimens show clear evidence of injuries: one has a broken and healed rib, while the other has an arthritic toe bone that may have been caused by an avulsion fracture (where a tendon ripped a piece off the bone to which it was attached). Says Dr. Schachner, “These animals were clearly able to survive quite a bit of trauma, as two of the specimens show signs of semi-healed damage. Whether these injuries were the result of combat between two individuals or an attack by a larger predator remains a mystery.”

As much insight as the Anzu skeletons provide, paleontologists still have much to learn about North American oviraptorosaurs. Ongoing studies of these and other important fossils promise to remove more of the mystery surrounding these remarkable bird-like creatures. “For nearly a hundred years, we paleontologists knew almost nothing about these dinosaurs,” concludes Dr. Lamanna. “Now, thanks to Anzu, we’re finally starting to figure them out.”

A fully-articulated cast of Anzu wyliei is on public view in Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Dinosaurs in Their Time exhibition.