New Evidence Dinosaurs Were Strong Swimmers

Apr. 8, 2013 — A University of Alberta researcher has identified some of the strongest evidence ever found that dinosaurs could paddle long distances.

Working together with an international research team, U of A graduate student Scott Persons examined unusual claw marks left on a river bottom in China that is known to have been a major travel-way for dinosaurs.

Alongside easily identified fossilized footprints of many Cretaceous era animals including giant long neck dinosaur’s researchers found a series of claw marks that Persons says indicates a coordinated, left-right, left-right progression.

“What we have are scratches left by the tips of a two-legged dinosaur’s feet,” said Persons. “The dinosaur’s claw marks show it was swimming along in this river and just its tippy toes were touching bottom.”

The claw marks cover a distance of 15 meters which the researchers say is evidence of a dinosaur’s ability to swim with coordinated leg movements. The tracks were made by carnivorous theropod dinosaur that is estimated to have stood roughly 1 meter at the hip.

Fossilized rippling and evidence of mud cracks indicate that over 100 million years ago the river, in what is now China’s Szechuan Province, went through dry and wet cycles. The river bed, which Persons describes as a “dinosaur super-highway” has yielded plenty of full foot prints of other theropods and gigantic four-legged sauropods.

With just claw scratches on the river bottom to go with, Persons says the exact identity of the paddling dinosaur can’t be determined, but he suspects it could have been an early tyrannosaur or a Sinocalliopteryx. Both species of predators were known to have been in that area of China.

Persons is a U of A, PhD candidate and co-author of the research. It was published April 8 in the journal Chinese Science Bulletin.

Diversification in Ancient Tadpole Shrimps Challenges the Term ‘Living Fossil’

Apr. 2, 2013 — The term ‘living fossil’ has a controversial history. For decades, scientists have argued about its usefulness as it appears to suggest that some organisms have stopped evolving. New research has now investigated the origin of tadpole shrimps, a group commonly regarded as ‘living fossils’ which includes the familiar Triops. The research reveals that living species of tadpole shrimp are much younger than the fossils they so much resemble, calling into question the term ‘living fossil’.

Darwin informally introduced the term ‘living fossil’ in On the Origin of Species when talking about the platypus and lungfish, groups that appear to have diversified little and appear not to have changed over millions of years. For him living fossils were odd remnants of formerly more diverse groups, and suggestive of a connection between different extant groups. Ever since, the term has been widely used to describe organisms such as the coelacanth, the horseshoe crab and the ginkgo tree. The term has been controversial, as it appears to suggest that evolution has stopped altogether for these organisms, and some scientists have argued that it should be abandoned.

Tadpole shrimps are a small group of ancient crustaceans (a group which includes the familiar Triops) that are often called ‘living fossils’, because the living species look virtually identical to fossils older than the dinosaurs. Analysing DNA sequences of all known tadpole shrimps, and using fossils from related crustacean groups — such as the water flea and the brine shrimp — the team of researchers, from the University of Hull, University of Leicester and the Natural History Museum in London, showed that tadpole shrimps have in fact undergone several periods of radiation and extinction. The new study is published today in PeerJ, a new peer reviewed open access journal in which all articles are freely available to everyone (

Different species of tadpole shrimp often look very similar (they are called ‘cryptic species’), and so it is only with the advent of DNA sequencing that scientists have realized that they are a surprisingly diverse group. The team’s results uncovered a total of 38 species, many of them still undescribed. This abundance of ‘cryptic species’ makes it very difficult for fossils to be assigned to any particular species as they all look remarkably similar. For example, 250-million-year-old fossils have been assigned to the living European species Triops cancriformis whereas the team’s results indicate that the living T. cancriformis evolved less than 25 million years ago. First author Tom Mathers says “In groups like tadpole shrimps where cryptic speciation is common, the fossil record says very little about patterns of evolution and diversification and so the term ‘living fossil’ can be quite misleading. For this reason, we used fossils from related groups to gain an understanding about the evolution of tadpole shrimps.”

The lead author Africa Gómez said, “Living fossils evolve like any other organism, they just happen to have a good body plan that has survived the test of time. A good analogy could be made with cars. For example the Mini has an old design that is still selling, but newly made Minis have electronic windows, GPS and airbags: in that sense, they are still ‘evolving’, they are not unchanged but most of the change has been ‘under the hood’ rather than external. By comparison, organisms labeled as ‘living fossils’ such as tadpole shrimps, are constantly fine-tuning their adaptation to their environment. Although outwardly they look very similar to tadpole shrimp fossils from the age of the dinosaurs, their DNA and reproductive strategies are relatively hidden features that are constantly evolving. The flexibility of their reproductive strategies, which our research has revealed, could be the evolutionary trick that has allowed them to persist as a morphologically conservative group for so long.”


Tadpole shrimps include the familiar Triops — which is often sold as dried eggs in toy shops — that can easily be grown at home. Their fossils can be found from the Carboniferous, 300 million years ago, and the group has survived several mass extinction events. Currently, tadpole shrimps occupy a range of temporal aquatic habitats with different water chemistry conditions, such as hypersaline Australian lakes, rice fields, coastal pools, river floodplains and arctic ponds. Their eggs can survive in a dry state for several decades, only hatching when suitable conditions return.

New Dinosaur Species: First Fossil Evidence Shows Small Crocs Fed On Baby Dinosaurs

Feb. 28, 2013 — A South Dakota School of Mines & Technology assistant professor and his team have discovered a new species of herbivorous dinosaur and today published the first fossil evidence of prehistoric crocodyliforms feeding on small dinosaurs.

Research by Clint Boyd, Ph.D., provides the first definitive evidence that plant-eating baby ornithopod dinosaurs were a food of choice for the crocodyliform, a now extinct relative of the crocodile family. While conducting their research, the team also discovered that this dinosaur prey was a previously unrecognized species of a small ornithopod dinosaur, which has yet to be named.

The evidence found in what is now known as the Grand Staircase Escalante-National Monument in southern Utah dates back to the late Cretaceous period, toward the end of the age of dinosaurs, and was published today in the online journal PLOS ONE. The complete research findings of Boyd and Stephanie K. Drumheller, of the University of Iowa and the University of Tennessee, and Terry A. Gates, of North Carolina State University and the Natural History Museum of Utah, can be accessed online (see journal reference below).

A large number of mostly tiny bits of dinosaur bones were recovered in groups at four locations within the Utah park — which paleontologists and geologists know as the Upper Cretaceous (Campanian) Kaiparowits Formation — leading paleontologists to believe that crocodyliforms had fed on baby dinosaurs 1-2 meters in total length.

Evidence shows bite marks on bone joints, as well as breakthrough proof of a crocodyliform tooth still embedded in a dinosaur femur.

The findings are significant because historically dinosaurs have been depicted as the dominant species. “The traditional ideas you see in popular literature are that when little baby dinosaurs are either coming out of a nesting grounds or out somewhere on their own, they are normally having to worry about the theropod dinosaurs, the things like raptors or, on bigger scales, the T. rex. So this kind of adds a new dimension,” Boyd said. “You had your dominant riverine carnivores, the crocodyliforms, attacking these herbivores as well, so they kind of had it coming from all sides.”

Based on teeth marks left on bones and the large amounts of fragments left behind, it is believed the crocodyliforms were also diminutive in size, perhaps no more than 2 meters long. A larger species of crocodyliform would have been more likely to gulp down its prey without leaving behind traces of “busted up” bone fragments.

Until now, paleontologists had direct evidence only of “very large crocodyliforms” interacting with “very large dinosaurs.”

“It’s not often that you get events from the fossil record that are action-related,” Boyd explained. “While you generally assume there was probably a lot more interaction going on, we didn’t have any of that preserved in the fossil record yet. This is the first time that we have definitive evidence that you had this kind of partitioning, of your smaller crocodyliforms attacking the smaller herbivorous dinosaurs,” he said, adding that this is only the second published instance of a crocodyliform tooth embedded in any prey animal in the fossil record.

“A lot of times you find material in close association or you can find some feeding marks or traces on the outside of the bone and you can hypothesize that maybe it was a certain animal doing this, but this was only the second time we have really good definitive evidence of a crocodyliform feeding on a prey animal and in this case an ornithischian dinosaur,” Boyd said.

The high concentrations of tiny dinosaur bones led researchers to conclude a type of selection occurred, that crocodyliforms were preferentially feeding on these miniature dinosaurs. “Maybe it was closer to a nesting ground where baby dinosaurs would have been more abundant, and so the smaller crocodyliforms were hanging out there getting a lunch,” Boyd added.

“When we started looking at all the other bones, we starting finding marks that are known to be diagnostic for crocodyliform feeding traces, so all that evidence coming together suddenly started to make sense as to why we were not finding good complete specimens of these little ornithischian dinosaurs,” Boyd explained. “Most of the bites marks are concentrated around the joints, which is where the crocodyliform would tend to bite, and then, when they do their pulling or the death roll that they tend to do, the ends of the bones tend to snap off more often than not in those actions. That’s why we were finding these fragmentary bones.”

In the process of their research, the team discovered through diagnostic cranial material that these baby prey are a new, as yet-to-be-named dinosaur species. Details on this new species will soon be published in another paper.

Dinosaur Shook Tail Feathers for Mating Show

Jan. 4, 2013 — A University of Alberta researcher’s examination of fossilized dinosaur tail bones has led to a breakthrough finding: some feathered dinosaurs used tail plumage to attract mates, much like modern-day peacocks and turkeys.

U of A Paleontology researcher Scott Persons followed a chain of fossil evidence that started with a peculiar fusing together of vertebrae at the tip of the tail of four different species of dinosaurs, some separated in time and evolution by 45 million years.

Persons says the final vertebrae in the tails of a group of dinosaurs called oviraptors were fused together forming a ridged, blade-like structure. “The structure is called a pygostyle” says Persons. “Among modern animals only birds have them.”

Researchers say fossils of Similicaudiptery, an early oviraptor, reveal feathers radiating from the fused bones at the tail tip. Similicaudiptery was not known to be a flying dinosaur and Persons contends its tail feathers evolved as a means of waving its feathered tail fans.

No direct fossil evidence of feathers has been found with the fossils of the oviraptors that followed Similicaudiptery, but Persons says there is still strong evidence they had a feathered tail.

Persons reasons that because the later oviraptor had the same tail structure as the feathered Similicaudipteryx, the tails of later oviraptors’ still served the same purpose, waving feathered tail fans.

Persons says the hypothesis of oviraptor tail waving is supported by both the bone and muscle structure of the tail.

Individual vertebrae at the base of an oviraptor’s tail were short and numerous, indicating great flexibility. Based on dissections of modern reptile and bird tails, Persons reconstruction of the dinosaur’s tail muscles revealed oviraptors had what it took to really shake their tail feathers.

Large muscles extended far down the tail and had a sufficient number of broad connection points to the vertebrae to propel oviraptor’s tail feathers vigorously from side to side and up and down.

Oviraptors were two-legged dinosaurs that had already gone through major diversifications from the iconic, meat eating dinosaur family. Oviraptors were plant eaters that roamed parts of China, Mongolia, and Alberta during the Cretaceous period, the final age of the dinosaur.

“By this time a variety of dinosaurs used feathers for flight and insulation from the cold, “said Persons. “This shows that by the Late Cretaceous dinosaurs were doing everything with feathers that modern birds do now,” said Persons.

In addition to feathered-tail waving, oviraptors also had prominent bone crests on their head, which Persons says the dinosaur also may have used in mating displays.

“Between the crested head and feathered-tail shaking, oviraptors had a propensity for visual exhibitionism,” said Persons.

Giant Fossil Predator Provides Insights Into the Rise of Modern Marine Ecosystem Structures

Jan. 7, 2013 — An international team of scientists has described a fossil marine predator measuring 8.6 meters in length (about 28 feet) recovered from the Nevada desert in 2010 as representing the first top predator in marine food chains feeding on prey similar to its own size.

A paper with their description will appear the week of Jan. 7, 2013 in the early electronic issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Scientists who studied the fossil include lead author Dr. Nadia Fröbisch and Prof. Jörg Fröbisch (both at Museum für Naturkunde Leibniz-Institut für Evolutions- und Biodiversitätsforschung), Prof. P. Martin Sander (Steinmann Institute of Geology, Mineralogy, and Paleontology, Division of Paleontology, University of Bonn), Prof. Lars Schmitz (W. M. Keck Science Department, Claremont McKenna, Pitzer, and Scripps Colleges, Claremont, California) and Dr. Olivier Rieppel (The Field Museum, Chicago, Illinois).

The 244-million-year-old fossil, named Thalattoarchon saurophagis (lizard-eating sovereign of the sea) is an early representative of the ichthyosaurs, a group of marine reptiles that lived at the same time as dinosaurs and roamed the oceans for 160 million years. It had a massive skull and jaws armed with large teeth with cutting edges used to seize and slice through other marine reptiles in the Triassic seas. Because it was a meta-predator, capable of feeding on animals with bodies similar in size to its own, Thalattoarchon was comparable to modern orca whales.

Remarkably, only eight million years prior to the appearance of Thalattoarchon, a severe extinction at the end of the Permian period killed as many as 80 to 96 percent of species in the Earth’s oceans. The rise of a predator such as Thalattoarchon documents the fast recovery and evolution of a modern ecosystem structure after the extinction.

“Everyday we learn more about the biodiversity of our planet including living and fossil species and their ecosystems” Dr. Fröbisch said. “The new find characterizes the establishment of a new and more advanced level of ecosystem structure. Findings like Thalattoarchon help us to understand the dynamics of our evolving planet and ultimately the impact humans have on today’s environment.”

“This discovery is a good example of how we study the past in order to illuminate the future,” said Dr. Rieppel of The Field Museum.

The ichthyosaur was recovered from what is today a remote mountain range in central Nevada. Most of the animal was preserved, including the skull (except the front of the snout), parts of the fins, and the complete vertebral column up to the tip of the tail. Supported by a grant from the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration, the team of paleontologists took three weeks to unearth the ichthyosaur and prepare it for its transport by helicopter and truck out of the field.

New Study Sheds Light On Dinosaur Size

Dec. 19, 2012 — Dinosaurs were not only the largest animals to roam the Earth — they also had a greater number of larger species compared to all other back-boned animals — scientists suggest in a new paper published in the journal PLOS ONE.

The researchers, from Queen Mary, University of London, compared the size of the femur bone of 329 different dinosaur species from fossil records. The length and weight of the femur bone is a recognised method in palaeontology for estimating a dinosaur’s body mass.
They found that dinosaurs follow the opposite pattern of body size distribution as seen in other vertebrate species. For example, within living mammals there tends to be few larger species, such as elephants, compared to smaller animals, such as mice, which have many species. The evidence from fossil records implies that in contrast there were many species of larger dinosaurs and few small species.
Dr David Hone from Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, explains: “What is remarkable is that this tendency to have more species at a bigger size seemed to evolve quite early on in dinosaurian evolution around the Late Triassic period, 225 million years ago, raising questions about why they got to be so big.
“Our evidence supports the hypothesis that young dinosaurs occupied a different ecological niche to their parents so they weren’t in competition for the same sources of food as they ate smaller plants or preyed on smaller size animals. In fact, we see modern crocodiles following this pattern — baby crocodiles start by feeding off insects and tadpoles before graduating onto fish and then larger mammals.”
Dr Eoin Gorman, also from Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences added: “There is growing evidence that dinosaurs produced a large number of offspring, which were immediately vulnerable to predation due to their smaller size. It was beneficial for the herbivores to grow to large size as rapidly as possible to escape this threat, but the carnivores had sufficient resources to live optimally at smaller sizes.
“These differences are reflected in our analyses and also offer an explanation why other groups do not follow a similar pattern. Several modern-day vertebrate groups are almost entirely carnivorous, while many of the herbivores are warm-blooded, which limits their size.”

Researchers Find First Evidence of Ice Age Wolves in Nevada

Dec. 13, 2012 — A University of Nevada, Las Vegas research team recently unearthed fossil remains from an extinct wolf species in a wash northwest of Las Vegas, revealing the first evidence that the Ice Age mammal once lived in Nevada.

The metapodial, or foot bone, was uncovered late last year by UNLV geologist Josh Bonde during a survey of the Upper Las Vegas Wash. They have now confirmed that the bone comes from a dire wolf.

The discovery site is near the proposed Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument, a fossil-rich area known for its diversity and abundance of Ice Age animal remains. Scientists estimate the fossil to be 10,000 to 15,000 years old during the Late Pleistocene period.

“Dire wolves are known to have lived in almost all of North America south of Canada, but their historical presence in Nevada has been absent until now,” said Bonde, a UNLV geology professor. He was a Ph.D. student at the university when he discovered the bone.

“The Tule Springs area has turned up many species, but it’s exciting to fill in another part of the map for this animal and reveal a bit more about the Ice Age ecosystem in Southern Nevada.”

The dire wolf, a larger relative of the gray wolf, was present in much of North and South America for more than a million years. Scientists theorize that competition from other wolf species and a possible food scarcity led to its extinction roughly 10,000 years ago.

Foot bones of the extinct dire wolf are difficult to distinguish from those of the gray wolf. Researchers conclude bone is likely from a dire wolf because of the abundance of dire wolf fossils―and scarcity of gray wolf fossils―in similar-aged excavation sites throughout the Southwest.

Fossil remains of dire wolves are abundant in the La Brea tar pits and have been found in other Southwestern states. Many of the same species of Ice Age animals found at La Brea have also been recovered in the Las Vegas Valley, including Columbian mammoths, camels, horses, bison, and ground sloths.

“This discovery helps flesh out Southern Nevada’s Pleistocene ecosystem and shows that there are still important discoveries to be made in the Upper Las Vegas Wash,” said UNLV geology professor Steve Rowland, a collaborator with Bonde on the study of local Ice Age fossils. “To understand why certain species became extinct and others did not, we need to learn as much as possible about predatory habits and which species were especially sensitive to changes in the environment.”

The announcement comes on the heels of a recent discovery in the same wash of a saber-tooth cat by researchers from the San Bernardino County Museum. Like dire wolves, saber-tooth cats were Pleistocene predators that had been conspicuously absent from the Southern Nevada fossil record.

According to Rowland, Tule Springs was a spring-fed, swampy area during periods of the Late Pleistocene, an ideal spot for plant-eating animals and their carnivorous predators.

The recent discoveries come exactly 50 years after scientists conducted a ‘big dig’ at Tule Springs, revealing the site to be rich with Ice Age fossils.

“Tule Springs likely had the highest density of large animals in the area during the Late Pleistocene, and the marshy environment was very good for preserving at least some of the bones and teeth of animals that died there,” said Rowland.

“In the 50 years since the ‘big dig,’ the scientists have confirmed that humans interacted with Ice Age animals. We now have a new list of questions about life and death in the Pleistocene, and a new tool kit of research techniques to help us get the answers.”

The identity of the find was confirmed by Xiaoming Wang of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, an expert on extinct species of the dog family. Bonde has been surveying the Tule Springs area since 2007, and he and a group of UNLV undergraduate studentss are prospecting for more fossils.

The center of the original ‘big dig’ is on the same parcel of land where Bonde discovered the wolf fossil.

The dire wolf bone, in addition to other bones collected by UNLV researchers, are cataloged, studied, and stored at UNLV.

Rare Fossil Related to Crabs, Lobsters, Shrimp: Exceptionally Well Preserved, Including Shell and Soft Parts

Dec. 12, 2012 — An international team of researchers have made an extremely rare discovery of a species of animal — related to crabs, lobsters and shrimps — that is new to science.

Scientists from the universities of Leicester, Oxford, Imperial and Yale have announced their discovery of a new and scientifically important fossil species of ostracod in the journal Proceedings of The Royal Society B. The research was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council.

The discovered species, which is up to 10 millimetres long, is special because it is exceptionally well preserved, complete with not only the shell but also the soft parts — its body, limbs, eyes, gills and alimentary system. Such discoveries are extremely rare in the fossil record.

The discovery of the tiny shelled arthropod was made in 425 million year old rocks in Herefordshire, Welsh Borderland. The rocks at the site date to the Silurian period of geological time, when southern Britain was a sea area on a small continent situated in warm, southerly subtropical latitudes. The ostracods and associated marine animals living there were covered by a fall of volcanic ash that preserved them frozen in time.

Professor David Siveter, of the University of Leicester Department of Geology, said: “The two ostracod specimens discovered represent a genus and species new to science, named Pauline avibella. The genus is named in honour of a special person and avibella means ‘beautiful bird’, so-named because of the fancied resemblance of a prominent feature of the shell to the wing of a bird.”

“Ostracods are the most abundant fossil arthropods, occurring ubiquitously as bivalved shells in rocks of the last 490 million years, and are common in most water environments today. The find is important because it is one of only a handful preserving the fossilised soft-tissues of ostracods. Its assignment to a particular group of ostracods based on knowledge of its biology is at odds with its shell form, thus urging caution in interpreting the classification of fossil ostracods based on shell characters alone.”

“The preservation of soft-parts of animals is a very rare occurrence in the fossil record and allows unparalleled insight into the ancient biology, community structure and evolution of animals — key facts that that would otherwise be lost to science. The fossils known from the Herefordshire site show soft-part preservation and are of global importance.”

The fossils were reconstructed ‘virtually’, by using a technique that involves grinding each specimen down, layer by layer, and photographing it at each stage. Ten millimetres is relatively tiny, but at an incremental level of 20 µm (micrometres) that yields 500 slices, which can then be pieced together in a computer to provide a full, three-dimensional image of each fossil, outside and in.

Professor Siveter added: “Fossil discoveries in general help elucidate our own place in the tree of life. This discovery adds another piece of knowledge in the jigsaw of understanding the diversity and evolution of animals.”

“It is exciting to discover that a common group of fossils that we thought we knew a lot about may well have been hood-winking us as to their true identity, which we now realise because we have their beautifully fossilised soft-parts. A case of a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’.”

The research was undertaken together with Professor Derek Siveter and Dr Sarah Joomun (Oxford), Dr Mark Sutton (Imperial College London) and Professor Derek Briggs (Yale, USA).

Note: The genus is named in honour of Pauline Siveter, in memoriam, late wife of the lead author of the paper.

Asteroid That Killed the Dinosaurs Also Wiped out the ‘Obamadon’

Dec. 10, 2012 — The asteroid collision widely thought to have killed the dinosaurs also led to extreme devastation among snake and lizard species, according to new research — including the extinction of a newly identified lizard Yale and Harvard scientists have named Obamadon gracilis.

“The asteroid event is typically thought of as affecting the dinosaurs primarily,” said Nicholas R. Longrich, a postdoctoral associate with Yale’s Department of Geology and Geophysics and lead author of the study. “But it basically cut this broad swath across the entire ecosystem, taking out everything. Snakes and lizards were hit extremely hard.”

The study was scheduled for online publication the week of Dec. 10 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Earlier studies have suggested that some snake and lizard species (as well as many mammals, birds, insects and plants) became extinct after the asteroid struck Earth 65.5 million years ago, on the edge of the Yucatan Peninsula. But the new research argues that the collision’s consequences were far more serious for snakes and lizards than previously understood. As many as 83 percent of all snake and lizard species died off, the researchers said — and the bigger the creature, the more likely it was to become extinct, with no species larger than one pound surviving.

The results are based on a detailed examination of previously collected snake and lizard fossils covering a territory in western North America stretching from New Mexico in the southwestern United States to Alberta, Canada. The authors examined 21 previously known species and also identified nine new lizards and snakes.

They found that a remarkable range of reptile species lived in the last days of the dinosaurs. Some were tiny lizards. One snake was the size of a boa constrictor, large enough to take the eggs and young of many dinosaur species. Iguana-like plant-eating lizards inhabited the southwest, while carnivorous lizards hunted through the swamps and flood plains of what is now Montana, some of them up to six feet long.

“Lizards and snakes rivaled the dinosaurs in terms of diversity, making it just as much an ‘Age of Lizards’ as an ‘Age of Dinosaurs,'” Longrich said.

The scientists then conducted a detailed analysis of the relationships of these reptiles, showing that many represented archaic lizard and snake families that disappeared at the end of the Cretaceous, following the asteroid strike.

One of the most diverse lizard branches wiped out was the Polyglyphanodontia. This broad category of lizards included up to 40 percent of all lizards then living in North America, according to the researchers. In reassessing previously collected fossils, they came across an unnamed species and called it Obamadon gracilis. In Latin, odon means “tooth” and gracilis means “slender.”

“It is a small polyglyphanodontian distinguished by tall, slender teeth with large central cusps separated from small accessory cusps by lingual grooves,” the researchers write of Obamadon, which is known primarily from the jaw bones of two specimens. Longrich said the creature likely measured less than one foot long and probably ate insects.

He said no one should impute any political significance to the decision to name the extinct lizard after the recently re-elected U.S. president: “We’re just having fun with taxonomy.”

The mass (but not total) extinction of snakes and lizards paved the way for the evolution and diversification of the survivors by eliminating competitors, the researchers said. There are about 9,000 species of lizard and snake alive today. “They didn’t win because they were better adapted, they basically won by default, because all their competitors were eliminated,” Longrich said.

Co-author Bhart-Anjan S. Bhullar, a doctoral student in organismic and evolutionary biology at Harvard University, said: “One of the most important innovations in this work is that we were able to precisely reconstruct the relationships of extinct reptiles from very fragmentary jaw material. This had tacitly been thought impossible for creatures other than mammals. Our study then becomes the pilot for a wave of inquiry using neglected fossils and underscores the importance of museums like the Yale Peabody as archives of primary data on evolution — data that yield richer insights with each new era of scientific investigation.”

Jacques A. Gauthier, professor of geology and geophysics at Yale and curator of vertebrate paleontology and vertebrate zoology, is also an author.

The paper is titled “Mass Extinction of Lizards and Snakes at the Cretaceous-Paleogene Boundary.” The National Science Foundation and the Yale Institute for Biospheric Studies supported the research.

Scientists Find Oldest Dinosaur — Or Closest Relative Yet

ScienceDaily (Dec. 4, 2012) — Researchers have discovered what may be the earliest dinosaur, a creature the size of a Labrador retriever, but with a five foot-long tail, that walked the Earth about 10 million years before more familiar dinosaurs like the small, swift-footed Eoraptor and Herrerasaurus.

The findings mean that the dinosaur lineage appeared 10 million to 15 million years earlier than fossils previously showed, originating in the Middle Triassic rather than in the Late Triassic period.

“If the newly named Nyasasaurus parringtoni is not the earliest dinosaur, then it is the closest relative found so far,” according to Sterling Nesbitt, a University of Washington postdoctoral researcher in biology and lead author of a paper published online Dec. 5 in Biology Letters, a journal of the United Kingdom’s Royal Society.

“For 150 years, people have been suggesting that there should be Middle Triassic dinosaurs, but all the evidence is ambiguous,” he said. “Some scientists used fossilized footprints, but we now know that other animals from that time have a very similar foot. Other scientists pointed to a single dinosaur-like characteristic in a single bone, but that can be misleading because some characteristics evolved in a number of reptile groups and are not a result of a shared ancestry.”

The researchers had one humerus — or upper arm bone — and six vertebrae to work with. They determined that the animal likely stood upright, measured 7 to 10 feet in length (2 to 3 meters), was as tall as 3 feet at the hip (1 meter) and may have weighed between 45 and 135 pounds (20 to 60 kilograms).

The fossilized bones were collected in the 1930s from Tanzania, but it may not be correct to say dinosaurs originated in that country. When Nyasasaurus parringtoni lived, the world’s continents were joined in the landmass called Pangaea. Tanzania would have been part of Southern Pangaea that included Africa, South America, Antarctica and Australia.

“The new findings place the early evolution of dinosaurs and dinosaur-like reptiles firmly in the southern continents,” said co-author Paul Barrett at the Natural History Museum, London.

The bones of the new animal reveal a number of characteristics common to early dinosaurs and their close relatives. For example, the bone tissues in the upper arm bone appear as if they are woven haphazardly and not laid down in an organized way. This indicates rapid growth, a common feature of dinosaurs and their close relatives.

“We can tell from the bone tissues that Nyasasaurus had a lot of bone cells and blood vessels,” said co-author Sarah Werning at the University of California, Berkeley, who did the bone analysis. “In living animals, we only see this many bone cells and blood vessels in animals that grow quickly, like some mammals or birds.”

“The bone tissue of Nyasasaurus is exactly what we would expect for an animal at this position on the dinosaur family tree,” she added. “It’s a very good example of a transitional fossil; the bone tissue shows that Nyasasaurus grew about as fast as other primitive dinosaurs, but not as fast as later ones.”

Another example is the upper arm bone’s distinctively enlarged crest, needed to anchor the upper arm muscles. The feature, known as an elongated deltopectoral crest, is also common to all early dinosaurs.

“Nyasasaurus and its age have important implications regardless of whether this taxon is a dinosaur or the closest relatives of dinosaurs,” Nesbitt said. “It establishes that dinosaurs likely evolved earlier than previously expected and refutes the idea that dinosaur diversity burst onto the scene in the Late Triassic, a burst of diversification unseen in any other groups at that time.”

It now appears that dinosaurs were just part of a large diversification of archosaurs. Archosaurs were among the dominant land animals during the Triassic period 250 million to 200 million years ago and include dinosaurs, crocodiles and their kin.

“Dinosaurs are just part of this archosaur diversification, an explosion of new forms soon after the Permian extinction,” Nesbitt said.

The specimen used to identify the new species is part of the collection at the Natural History Museum, London. Four vertebrae from a second specimen of Nyasasaurus, which were also used in this research, are housed in the South African Museum in Cape Town. The work was funded by the National Science Foundation and the Natural History Museum, London. The fourth co-author on the paper is Christian Sidor, UW professor of biology.

The name Nyasasaurus parringtoni is new, but “Nyasasaurus” — combining the lake name Nyasa with the term “saurus” for lizard — is not. The late paleontologist Alan Charig, included as a co-author on the paper, named the specimen but never documented or published in a way that was formally recognized. “Parringtoni” is in honor of University of Cambridge’s Rex Parrington, who collected the specimens in the 1930s.

“What’s really neat about this specimen is that it has a lot of history. Found in the ’30s, first described in the 1950s but never published, then its name pops up but is never validated. Now 80 years later, we’re putting it all together,” Nesbitt said.

“This work highlights the important role of museums in housing specimens whose scientific importance might be overlooked unless studied and restudied in detail,” Barrett said. “Many of the more important discoveries in paleontology are made in the lab, or museum storerooms, as well as in the field.”