Hedgehog fossil discovery in Canada


This video is called Tiny Hedgehog Fossil Could Answer Climate-Change Questions.

From Wildlife Extra:

Fossils of tiny, unknown, hedgehog found in Canada

Fossil remains of a tiny hedgehog, about two inches long, that lived 52 million years ago have been discovered in British Columbia by scientists from University of Colorado Boulder.

Named Silvacola acares, which means tiny forest dweller, it is perhaps the smallest hedgehog ever to have lived and is both a genus and species new to science.

“It is quite tiny and comparable in size to some of today’s shrews,” said lead author Jaelyn Eberle.

“We can’t say for sure it had prickly quills, but there are ancestral hedgehogs living in Europe about the same time that had bristly hair covering them, so it is plausible Silvacola did, too.”

The fossils were found in north-central British Columbia at a site known as Driftwood Canyon Provincial Park that was likely to have been a rainforest environment during the Early Eocene Epoch.

See also here. And here.

Egyptian fossil relatives of Madagascar bats discovered


This video from the USA says about itself:

26 Sep 2012

Dr. Nancy Simmons specializes in the morphology and evolutionary biology of bats (Chiroptera). Together with several collaborators, she is developing a data set of morphological characters scored in species representing all major clades of bats. These data include new information gained from high-resolution CT scans of rare bats and are being combined with DNA sequence data to develop a robust higher-level phylogeny for Chiroptera.

With collaborators, she is doing an in-depth study of the evolution of megabats — flying foxes and their relatives — using both molecular and morphological data. Dr. Simmons is also working with an expert on echolocation behavior to develop a method for coding features of echolocation calls for phylogenetic analysis.

From the American Museum of Natural History in the USA:

Sucker-Footed Bat Fossils Broaden the Bat Map

by AMNH on 02/04/2014 05:00 pm

Today, Madagascar sucker-footed bats are found only on their island home, but new research from the American Museum of Natural History and Duke University shows that wasn’t always the case. The discovery of two extinct relatives in northern Egypt suggests the unusual creatures, which evolved sticky footpads to roost on slick surfaces, are primitive members of a group of bats that evolved in Africa and ultimately went on to flourish in South America.

A team of researchers described the two bat species from several sets of fossilized jawbones and teeth unearthed in the Sahara. The findings, reported on February 4 in the journal PLOS ONE, represent the first formal description of the family in the fossil record and show the sucker-footed bat family to be at least 36 million years older than previously known.

“We’ve assumed for a long time that they were an ancient lineage based on DNA sequence studies that have placed them close to very old groups in the bat family tree,” said Nancy Simmons, co-author on the study and a curator in the Department of Mammalogy.

But until now, scientists lacked any fossil evidence to confirm it.

Today, the sucker-footed bats consist of two species, Myzopoda aurita (see images of these bats here) and M. schliemanni, endemic to Madagascar. In contrast to almost all other bats, they don’t cling upside-down to cave ceilings or branches. Sucker-footed bats roost head-up, often in the furled leaves of the traveler’s palm, a plant in the bird-of-paradise family. To stick to such a smooth surface, the bats evolved cup-like pads on their wrists and ankles. Scientists previously suspected the pads held the bats up by suction, but recent research has demonstrated the bats instead rely on wet adhesion, like a tree frog.

The two extinct species, Phasmatonycteris phiomensis and P. butleri, date to 30 and 37 million years ago, respectively, when the environment was drastically different. Northern Africa was more tropical, said Dr. Simmons, and home to a diverse range of mammals, including primates and early members of the elephant family.

“The habitat was probably fairly forested, and there was likely a proto-Nile River, a big river that led into the ancient Tethys Ocean,” said Gregg Gunnell, director of the Duke University Lemur Center‘s Division of Fossil Primates and a co-author on the paper.

The fossilized teeth imply that, like their living relatives, the ancient bats fed on insects. It’s impossible to know from the fossils if the extinct species had already evolved their characteristic sucker-feet, but the teeth shed light on another aspect of bat evolution. The presence of sucker-footed bats in Africa at least 37 million years ago supports the theory that this family is one of the most primitive members of a lineage that now dominates South America.

From vampires to fruit- and nectar-eaters to carnivores, the majority of South America’s bats belong to one large superfamily, known as Noctilionoidea.

“We think that the superfamily originated in Africa and moved eastward as Gondwana was coming apart,” Gunnell said. “These bats migrated to Australia, then actually went through Antarctica and up into South America using an ice-free corridor that connected the three continents until about 26 million years ago.”

According to this hypothesis, the sucker-footed bat fossils showed up right where scientists expected to find them: at the literal and figurative base of the Noctilionoidea family tree.

“Now, we can unambiguously link them through Africa,” Simmons said.

You can read the scientific paper here.

Like Darwin’s Finches, But Weirder, Bat Faces Showcase Amazing Adaptations: here.

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Tunisian fossil primate discovery


This video from the USA says about itself:

NOVA scienceNOW: 41 – First Primates.

From ScienceDaily:

Fossil Primate Shakes Up History of Tooth-Combed Primates

Dec. 11, 2013 — Fossils discovered in Tunisia challenge several hypotheses concerning the origin of tooth-combed primates (Malagasy lemurs, Afro-Asian lorises and African galagos). The fossils are of a small primate called Djebelemur, which lived around 50 million years ago. They were discovered by a French-Tunisian team from the Institut des Sciences de l’Evolution in Montpellier (CNRS/Université Montpellier 2/IRD) and the Office National des Mines (ONM) in Tunis.

According to the paleontologists, Djebelemur was probably a transitional form leading to the appearance of tooth-combed primates. However, according to genetic data, these primates appeared at least 15 million years earlier. Djebelemur therefore challenges the hypotheses put forward by molecular biology. The work, which has just been published in PLoS One, makes it possible to reconstruct a chapter in the evolutionary history of this lineage. In addition, it may help to refine genetic models.

Tooth-combed primates, also called strepsirrhines, comprise lemurs and lorisiforms (small primates which include lorises and galagos). In these primates, the anterior teeth of the lower jaw take the form of a comb. This is mainly used for grooming, but also, in some species, for procuring the natural gums that make up part of their diet.

A key question debated by primatologists concerns the time when strepsirrhine primates first appeared. Recent genetic data dates the origin of lemurs and lorises to the onset of the Tertiary period, just after the disappearance of the dinosaurs (approximately 65 million years ago). Some molecular biologists even believe that divergence of the two groups occurred 80 million years ago. However, paleontological data does not corroborate these hypotheses: the oldest known lorisiform fossil dates from a mere 37 million years ago. Could this simply be due to a gap in the fossil record? The fossils discovered by the Institut des Sciences de l’Evolution in Montpellier (CNRS/Université Montpellier 2/IRD) and the ONM in Tunis suggest otherwise: it is the genetic models that may need to be revised.

Discovered in the sediments of a former lake in Djebel Chambi National Park, Tunisia, the approximately 50 million-year-old fossils belong to a small primate called Djebelemur (lemur of the Djebel). This was a tiny animal weighing scarcely 70 g. It was most certainly nocturnal, a predator of insects and a tree-dweller. Some of its morphological characteristics suggest that it was a distant relative of lemurs, galagos and lorises. However, although it did not yet have such a specialized toothcomb, it exhibited a tooth structure that had already been transformed, an early stage of the anterior dentition of today’s strepsirrhines.

Djebelemur thus appears to be a transitional form, pre-dating the lorisiform-lemuriform divergence. Therefore, tooth-combed primates probably did not originate as early as molecular biologists have claimed. This is likely to have occurred less than 50 million years ago, the age of the Djebelemur fossil.

This is not the first time that genetic data disagrees with paleontological data. For many groups of mammals, geneticists tend to put forward earlier dates of origin than those provided by direct observation of the fossil record. Molecular biology increasingly seeks to refine its models by constraining them with fossil data. In the case of the origin of tooth-combed primates, Djebelemur could prove to be a significant milestone making it possible to reset the molecular clock and improve estimates of divergence dates derived from molecular phylogenies.

‘New’ prehistoric lizard called after Jim Morrison


This video, in Spanish, is about the discovery of the fossil lizard Barbaturex morrisoni.

From The Sticky Tongue Project blog:

New Species of Lizard Discovered

A new species of lizard doesn’t come along every day. Even less common is a new lizard species named for a 1960s rock star. But that’s exactly what University of Iowa paleoanthropologist Russell Ciochon and his co-authors reveal in an article published in the June 5 issue of the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. (The complete paper can be found here.)

The lizard was a plant-eater, like present-day iguanas, that lived in the jungles in Southeast Asia about 40 million years ago. At some 60 pounds and six feet in length, the lizard was one of the largest of its kind—making it a veritable “king” of land-dwelling lizards.

As for the name, “Barbaturex morrisoni,” the researchers say it just fit.

“Barbatus” is from the Latin, which means “bearded,” and “rex,” means “king”—so the name refers to the presence of ventral ridges along the underside of the mandible, as well as the giant size of the lizard, says Ciochon (pronounced sha-HAHN).

“The species name honors vocalist Jim Morrison,” Ciochon says. “We did take some liberty in naming the new species after rock legend Jim Morrison, who is known as the ‘Lizard King.’”

Because of the lyrics of his song Celebration Of The Lizard.

This music video from the USA is called Jim Morrison – Celebration Of The Lizard (Full Version).

Lead author Jason Head of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln says, “I was listening to The Doors quite a bit during the research. Some of their musical imagery includes reptiles and ancient places, and Jim Morrison was of course ‘The Lizard King,’ so it all kind of came together.”

Ciochon says the lizard itself was a product of its times, evolving about 40 million years ago when the climate was as much as 9 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than it is today. A warmer and moister environment would have encouraged the growth and evolution of subtropical vegetation, which would have provided resources allowing for larger reptiles and mammals. Likewise, it was probably climate change and cooler temperatures that altered the food supply and led to the eventual extinction of Barbaturex morrisoni, he says.

“Species that are adapted to narrow niches often go extinct when the niche changes or disappears completely,” Ciochon says.

Surprisingly, the research that resulted in Barbaturex morrisoni almost never came about because the discovery is based upon fossils that Ciochon helped find some 35 years ago in Burma and which had been stored in California for decades.

“The fossils were found on Dec. 25, 1978, on my second expedition to Burma (Myanmar) at the beginning of my career,” says Ciochon.

Ciochon and University of California, Berkeley, Professor Donald E. Savage, who died in 1999, collected many vertebrate fossils, including the primate fossils that were the focus of their expedition. The lizard fossils were stored in the University of California Museum of Paleontology and forgotten until about 15 years ago when another trip to Burma caused Ciochon to remember them. Eventually, Ciochon and colleagues contacted Jason Head of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and requested his help in describing the find.

When Head first examined the fossils (a total of 10 specimens of the same species), he noticed the creature’s bones were characteristic of a group of modern lizards that includes bearded dragons, chameleons and plant-eaters like spiny-tailed lizards.

Head says: “I thought, ‘That’s neat. Based on its teeth, it’s a plant-eating lizard from a time period and a place from which we don’t have a lot of information.’ But when I started studying its modern relatives, I realized just how big this lizard was. It struck me that we had something here that was quite large, and quite unique.”

See also here.

Manatees’ ancestors discovery


A reconstruction of the early sirenian Pezosiren. Photo by Thesupermat, image from Wikipedia

From Smart News blog:

January 18, 2013 2:44 pm

Sea Cows Used To Walk on Land in Africa And Jamaica

Sea cows, also known as manatees, were not always the Florida-dwelling gentle giants of the sea that they are today. In fact, they once walked on land. Their 48-million-year-old ancestor, Pezosiren, ran all over prehistoric Jamaica and resembled a hippo at first glance. But sea cows also share ancestry with elephants, which first appeared in Africa around 66 million years ago. Paleontologists, however, have always drawn a blank on the evolutionary link between the manatee’s African and Jamaican relatives—until now. Researchers digging around in Tunisia found a skill fragment that fills the missing piece of the puzzle. National Geographic continues:

That might not seem like much to go on, yet the intricate, complicated features in this single bone allowed Benoit and coauthors to confirm that it belonged to a sirenian rather than an early elephant or hyrax. The researchers have wisely avoided naming the animal on the basis of such limited material. They simply call the mammal the Chambi sea cow.

The fact that the mammal lived in Africa confirms what zoologists and paleontologists suspected based upon genetics and anatomical traits shared with elephants and other paenungulates.

The bone is about 50 million years old. The researchers guess the animal it once belonged to resembled Pezosiren more than the modern sea cow, though the bone also hints that the Chambi manatee spent a lot of time in the water since the inner ear resembles that of whales.

The fossil, however, may raise more questions than provide answers. Like, if the Chambi manatee and the Jamaican one are about the same age, when did the dispersal event occur that first separated those animals? How did legged sea cows first make their way across the Atlantic? In the absence of other bones, what did the Chambi manatee look like? As NatGeo writes, paleontologists are slowly assembling the outline of how sea cows evolved, bone by bone.

See also here.

Antarctic prehistoric bird tracks discovered


This video is called Antarctic Fossils Paint a Picture of a Much Warmer Continent.

From Antarctic Science:

New Avian tracks from the lower to middle Eocene at Fossil Hill, King George Island, Antarctica

Abstract

Trace fossils are long known to exist in the Fossil Hill Formation (lower to middle Eocene) at Fildes Peninsula, King George Island, Antarctica. During fieldwork in 2009, abundant new avian tracks were recovered, which are analysed here. Three avian ichnotaxa are distinguished. The most common impressions are tridactyls and tetradactyls with slender digit imprints II–IV and a posterior hallux. They are included in the ichnogenus Gruipeda.

In addition tridactyl and tetradactyl footprints with short and thick digit impressions are conferred to Uhangrichnus. The third ichnotaxon is a tridactyl impression with broad and short digits assigned to Avipeda. The latter taxon is here documented for the first time from Antarctica. These avian tracks are preserved in volcaniclastic sediments consisting in reddish-brown layers of mudstone intercalated with coarse sandstone. The sequence represents lacustrine environments which seasonally dried and were episodically refilled.

In early 1995, I led a Greenpeace expedition to Antarctica during which, among other things, we stopped off at King George Island, in the South Shetland Islands just off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, to pay an official but cordial visit to some of the bases there: here.

Fossil insects discovered in Indian amber


This video is called David Attenborough on fossils in amber, part 1.

Parts 2, 3, 4, and 5 are here.

From the BBC:

25 October 2010 Last updated at 19:49 GMT

Ancient bugs found in 50-million-year-old Indian amber

By Katia Moskvitch Science reporter, BBC News

More than 700 new species of ancient insect have been discovered in 50-million-year-old amber.

The discoveries come from some 150kg of amber produced by an ancient rainforest in India.

Scientists say in the journal PNAS that many insects are related to species from far-away corners of the world.

This means that, despite millions of years in isolation in the ocean, the region was a lot more biologically diverse than previously believed.

The amber, dubbed Cambay amber, was found in lignite mines in the Cambay Shale of the Indian state of Gujarat.

Jes Rust from the University of Bonn in Germany led an international team of researchers from India, Germany and the US.

According to a predominant theory of continents’ formation, at first there were only two so-called supercontinents on Earth. The one in the north was called Laurasia and the other one, located more towards the south, Gondwana.

Drifting away

When Gondwana split up into several smaller pieces in the mid-Jurassic, some 160 million years ago, most of its parts stayed in the southern hemisphere, but one started drifting towards the north.

Having shifted for at least 100 million years at a remarkable rate of 15-25cm per year, the plate eventually collided with Asia and became what we know today as the Indian subcontinent. In the process, the Himalayas were formed.

It has long been believed that drifting in complete isolation would have contributed to a potentially unique plant and animal life, found only in the region.

But the mostly tropical climate of India is known to be unfavourable to the preservation of fossils and not much has been found to confirm this hypothesis of what biologists call “endemism”. But the present study says the vertebrate fossil record discovered so far reveals little endemism.

Most of the recently discovered bugs also show links to modern insects as well as those that lived millions of years ago in different parts of the world, including Asia, Australia, and even South America.

The lead author Dr Rust told BBC News that this could be explained by land-bridge connections – possibly small islands that formed before the collision with Asia, in the Eocene – between the Indian “ferry” and other landmasses.

“It is possible for plants to drift hundreds of kilometres on open ocean currents, and in the case of insects, some can fly,” said Dr Rust.

There are those that are only able to fly during mating, but they can fly at least a few kilometres.

“Not many are able to cross open seaways, but [they can] drift with plant material. Then there are also very tiny insects and they sometimes simply get blown away, up to the jet stream.”

Rainforest’s age

The study says the resin that later became Cambay amber originated from an ancient tropical rainforest.

“The Indian amber is from the Lower Eocene and was likely produced by flowering hardwood trees called Dipterocarpaceae, [trees] that predominate in the forests of southeast Asia today,” Paul Nascimbene of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, told BBC News.

To determine where the amber came from, the scientists chemically fingerprinted it. …

The team also said that it was able to determine the age of the modern rainforest.

Up until now, many experts used to suggest that this type of tropical rainforest, found today all over the southeast Asia, first originated in the Miocene some 20 or 25 million years ago.

But the recent discovery challenged that idea.

David Grimaldi from the American Museum of Natural History and another co-author told BBC News that the rainforest is at least 60 million years old.

“What we have here from India is the earliest fossil evidence of a modern type of tropical rainforest [of the Dipterocarpaceae family] in Asia,” he said.

“Before, we just had no idea to how ancient the dipterocarp forests that occur in southeast Asia today really are; there really was no indication.” …

The researcher said that this amber deposit was the first important one found in India.

Though this natural yellow-brownish substance is quite widespread all over the world, the best-known amber deposits are in the Dominican Republic, Mexico and the Baltic region, where some 80% of the world’s known amber is found.

“There are tonnes of amber [in this Indian deposit], and what is interesting about it is that it was produced in the tropics, the most highly diverse areas in respect to species diversity,” said Dr Rust.

“And the fossil record of the terrestrial tropics is not so good, because usually all the organic material gets rotten very quickly.”

With tonnes of amber at their disposal, the researcher said his team hoped to uncover many more secrets of the peculiar world that existed millions of years ago.

See also here. And here.

Non-biting midges of the tribe Tanytarsini in Eocene amber from the Rovno region (Ukraine): a pioneer systematic study with note s on the phylogeny (Diptera: Chironomidae): here.

About 100 million years ago in a forest in Myanmar, a dragonfly lost its head to a hungry lizard. But the lizard didn’t get away. The ghoulish moment—decapitated dragonfly and parts of the fleeing lizard—were captured and entombed in sticky tree sap, says George Poinar, a paleontologist at Oregon State University, Corvallis, who describes this last meal in the December issue of Palaeodiversity. Poinar discovered the two animals preserved together in a golden piece of amber. The dragonfly (top)—which represents a new sub-family, Paleodisparoneurinae—is nearly intact, aside from its head. But only the foot and tail of the hungry lizard remain (bottom). “It probably had the dragonfly’s head in its mouth,” says Poinar. Both died, one as dinner, and one as a prisoner of its appetite: here .

In the mating game, some female mites are mightier than their mates, new research at the University of Michigan and the Russian Academy of Sciences suggests. The evidence comes, in part, from 40 million-year-old mating mites preserved in Baltic amber: here.

How long can insect species exist? Evidence from extant and fossil Micromalthus beetles: here.

Experts have confirmed a sighting of the rarest ant in North America—the Bigfoot of ants—in Cary, NC: here.

‘Terrible hairy fly’ rediscovered in Kenya: here.

Global Warming and Insect Abundance: here.

Eocene mantidfly-and spider in amber: here.

Eogyropsylla sedzimiri sp. nov. from Eocene Baltic amber (Sternorrhyncha: Psylloidea): here.

Three new species of eriophyoid mites (Acari: Prostigmata) from Montenegro: here.

Jurassic pain: Giant ‘flea-like’ insects plagued dinosaurs 165 million years ago: here.

Quality of [Eocene] insect fossils from Montana’s Flathead River astounds scientists: here.

Flightless’ birds rise after dinosaur extinction


This video is about Eocene birds and mammals.

This video is called CHEETAH vs OSTRICH.

From COSMOS magazine:

Dino extinction brought birds back to earth

Friday, 22 January 2010

by Meghan Bergamin
Cosmos Online

SYDNEY: Large, flightless birds such as ostriches and emus, originated in the northern hemisphere, according to an Australian study that suggests they became grounded after dinosaurs went extinct.

Reconstructed migration patterns have raised questions about whether flightless birds could have their evolutionary origins in the planet’s north.

Until now, most scientists thought these birds originated in the southern behemoth Gondwanaland, according to the study published in Systematic Biology.

Birds were no longer eaten by dinos

Matthew Phillips of the Australian National University and his team have also dismissed previous theories that asserted all large, flightless birds – or ‘ratites‘ – share a flightless common ancestor.

Instead, they propose that species lost the ability to fly independently of one another at around the time dinosaurs became extinct, about 65 million years ago.

Without predation and competition from larger dinosaurs, some species of bird were able to shed the limitations flight imposes on body size and weight to evolve into the species of the order Struthioniformes, which includes ostriches, emus, cassowaries and kiwis.

Flightless birds fattened up

The removal of dinosaur predation and competition for food resources allowed ratites to remain grounded. “Birds tend to lose flight,” says Phillips, “Particularly in island situations, unless it is crucial for finding food or escaping predators.”

A glut of food would have allowed individuals to grow larger, and the lack of predators meant that there would no longer have been the need to fly away from danger.

These factors, along with the high-energy requirements of flight and of maintaining associated wing and pectoral apparatus could have led to the loss of flight altogether, say the researchers.

New genetic evidence, including DNA from the extinct giant moa of New Zealand, has shown that the common ancestor of ratites was a bird similar to today’s tinamous, a native of South America that resembles a quail.

Phillips and his team also found that the moa’s closest living genetic relatives were the tinamous, rather than kiwis, emus or any other ratite as was previously thought. …

Further research is needed, but … the theory already has some strong support, given that some of the earliest ratite fossils – dated at around 40 to 50 million years old – have been found in central Europe.

The fossils themselves were not considered sufficient evidence to rethink the origins of ratites, as they can be difficult to indisputably identify.

Trevor Worthy of the University of New South Wales, a palaeozoologist known for his research on the moa, says that although it is no surprise that ratites are not closely related to one another, confirmation that several species became flightless independently is an important development.

“Ratites aren’t all closely related,” he says. “People just assume that because they’re all big and flightless; but in fact they haven’t shared a common ancestor in 60 to 70 million years.”

Worthy was also aware of the fossilised “flying ostriches in Eurasia,” and was excited to discover more concrete evidence in favour of ostriches and other ratites having first emerged from the northern continents.

Volcanic activity may have led to nearly a third of marine life being wiped out around 100 million years ago, research suggests: here.

Tiny shelled creatures shed light on extinction and recovery 65 million years ago: here.

A sudden change in the Atlantic Gulf Stream, which new research has linked to the mass extinction of dinosaurs, may happen again, many scientists fear: here.

Rare kiwi hatches in quake-hit N.Zealand: here.

August 2011. As Colchester Zoo‘s charity, Action for the Wild, continues work to develop the UmPhafa Private Nature Reserve in South Africa. 10 ostrich have been released onto UmPhafa. Ostrich live in groups of between five and fifty individuals; so a group of ten is perfect. They often travel together with grazing animals, such as zebra and antelope, and it is hoped they will ‘team up’ with some of the resident game: here.

Dinosaur-Killing Asteroid Triggered Global Winter 66 Million Years Ago – National Geographic: here.

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New Eocene discoveries from Messel, Germany


From ScienceDaily:

Gaping Gila Monsters, Buzzing Insects, Clambering Ungulates: New Finds From Germany’s Messel Pit

(Aug. 25, 2009) — Today, anyone who looks into the Messel Pit, about 20 kilometres southeast of Frankfurt, Germany, will see scattered groups of trees, bushes and grasses. Underlying the vegetation, however, are richly fossiliferous shales. Some astonishingly well-preserved fossil finds were recently recovered by scientists from these deposits, laid down in the former volcanic lake, and add exotic colour and diversity to the Eocene “Messel world” of 47 million years ago. Some representative finds of animals discovered in 2007 and 2008 were recently exhibited.

Not only the world-famous primeval horse browsed at the shores of the lake in the warm, wet climate prevailing at that time (average annual temperature, 25°C). Around Lake Messel, which emerged in a volcanic crater and was surrounded back then by dense primeval forest, lived early ungulates and rodents; the ancestors of today’s birds flew over the cloudy water; insects buzzed through the air; and cold-blooded reptiles basked lazily in the sun. 47 million years ago, Messel was located at the present latitude of Siciliy.

In the annual digs that the Senckenberg Research Institute carries out in the Messel Pit, an average of 3,000 fossil remains are recovered from the shale in this UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site. Some particularly well-preserved fossils discovered in 2007 and 2008 were recently exhibited.

Bulldog of the lizard world

A reptile find about 80 centimetres long has been identified as an early representative of the beaded lizards and Gila monsters (Helodermatidae). This family, known to have existed since the Cretaceous, is found today in the southwest of the USA and Central America. These lizards are renowned not only for a curious combination of strength, tenacity and deliberateness but also for being venomous. Although it is primitive in many ways, the skeleton found in Messel already shows incipient canals in its teeth which lead us to believe that this species was already producing venom.

“The warm climate of the Eocene may have allowed this lineage to migrate along high-latitude routes to Europe. From studies of the limbs and chemical analyses of the bones, we hope to learn more about evolutionary rates and the biology of primitive members of this unique group,” explains Dr. Krister Smith. This young reptile expert from the USA developed a special interest in the pink-spotted descendants of these primeval-looking animals whilst still a schoolboy.

Beautiful beetles, weaver ants, leafcutter bees

A metallically gleaming jewel beetle belonging to the family Buprestidae and the genus Psiloptera still shows off its beautiful coloration, even after 47 million years. “The exquisite coloration is created by refraction at different layers of the chitin carapace,” explains Dr. Sonja Wedmann. The living representatives of the genus can now only be found in the Tropics.

The insect finds of the last two years also include a queen weaver ant that fell into the former Messel Lake during her nuptial flight and drowned there. The living representatives of the Oecophylla genus occur today in the Tropics of Africa and Southeast Asia. Their nests are made of leaves which the female workers weave together with silk from their larvae. “Since we have not yet found any nests in Messel, it has not yet been possible to ascertain whether the weaver ants that lived 47 million years ago could already do that,” says Dr. Sonja Wedmann.

The special fossil evidence of insects includes the discovery of a completely preserved leaf-cutting bee. However, morphological features show that the species found in Messel is not a true member of the leaf-cutter group. In contrast to “real” leafcutter bees, Friccomelissa schopowi apparently built its nest without using plant discs.

Rodent in a fur coat, archaic stars, clambering ungulates

The new find of a Masillamys has been recovered nearly whole and allows identification of the fossilised remains of its stomach contents. The extremely well-preserved outlines of the body reveal a shadow on the skin that leads us to the conclusion that this ancient rodent had a thick, short-haired coat of fur. “The key feature, the single pair of morphologically specialised chisel-shaped incisors, allow the ‘real’ rodent to be instantly recognised,” explains scientist Dr. Thomas Lehmann, who is working on this animal. This individual, which was discovered just before the end of the digging season in September 2007, shows the short legs typical of the genus that lead one to assume that the rodent once lived on the floor of the primeval forest surrounding Messel.

As has happened before, the new find of a Leptictidium auderiense in September 2008 created a certain amount of excitement. Thanks to the BBC documentary “Walking with Beasts,” this archaic mammal became a star among the Messel fossils. Last year’s new find is the first juvenile animal of this genus, which died out at the end of the Eocene. In contrast to its still-primitive teeth, Leptictidium had a highly specialised locomotor system. Its extraordinarily long tail with 40 vertebrae, long back legs and reduced front ones point to a bipedal gait. “However, since features of the lumbar vertebrae might also indicate a hopping gait, we are looking forward to new findings from the fossil discovered in 2008,” explains Thomas Lehmann; he hopes that a new imaging technique will reveal details that cannot yet be discerned.

The new finds also include a Kopidodon macrognathus. Distinct shadows show the long tail to have been bushy, which is typical of the species. The marked bony crest on its skull and the developing permanent tooth in the area of the right canine of the upper jaw indicate that it is an infant male. Although the long canines suggest a predator, the molars indicate that this was a plant-eating ungulate. “We do not yet know enough about the animal’s lifestyle. Some features of the locomotor system, such as the very versatile shoulder, elbow and hip joints as well as the gripping ability of the front limbs indicate a tree-dwelling fruit-eater,” explains Thomas Lehmann. It is an open question whether this species lived in trees or simply moved among the branches. This mammal expert is awaiting further findings from the well-preserved stomach contents of the new find. He remarks that seeds, which are quite often found in the Messel shales, might even put them on the track of the Kopidodon’s favourite fruit.

The missing pieces of the jigsaw are falling into place

Among the total of 6,773 finds that were recovered from the digs in the Messel Pit in 2007 and 2008, there were 1,929 fossilised remains of vertebrates, 1,403 insects and 3,441 plant remains. The information contained in the finds provide the scientists of the Senckenberg Research Institute data on the occurrence of individual species, their bodily structures and lifestyles, and the evolutionary history of animal groups. In addition, the research results help to reconstruct the Eocene environment and give clues to the relationship between climate and biodiversity.

See also here.

Messel bats: here.

North American Eocene: here.

A unique image, for the first time, has mapped organic compounds that are still surviving in a 50-million-year-old sample of reptile skin: here.