Australian dinosaur tracks, world’s most diverse


This 27 March 2017 video is called Dinosaur tracks found at ‘Australia’s Jurassic Park‘ in Walmadany.

From the University of Queensland in Australia:

‘Australia’s Jurassic Park’ the world’s most diverse

March 27, 2017

Summary: An unprecedented 21 different types of dinosaur tracks have been identified on a 25-kilometer stretch of the Dampier Peninsula coastline dubbed ‘Australia’s Jurassic Park.’ A team of paleontologists has unveiled the most diverse assemblage of dinosaur tracks in the world in 127 to 140 million-year-old rocks in the remote Kimberley region of Western Australia.

An unprecedented 21 different types of dinosaur tracks have been identified on a 25-kilometre stretch of the Dampier Peninsula coastline dubbed “Australia’s Jurassic Park.”

A team of palaeontologists from The University of Queensland’s School of Biological Sciences and James Cook University‘s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences braved sharks, crocodiles, massive tides and the threat of development to unveil the most diverse assemblage of dinosaur tracks in the world in 127 to 140 million-year-old rocks in the remote Kimberley region of Western Australia.

Lead author Dr Steve Salisbury said the diversity of the tracks around Walmadany (James Price Point) was globally unparalleled and made the area the “Cretaceous equivalent of the Serengeti.”

“It is extremely significant, forming the primary record of non-avian dinosaurs in the western half the continent and providing the only glimpse of Australia’s dinosaur fauna during the first half of the Early Cretaceous Period,” Dr Salisbury said.

“It’s such a magical place — Australia’s own Jurassic Park, in a spectacular wilderness setting.”

In 2008, the Western Australian Government selected Walmadany as the preferred site for a $40 billion liquid natural gas processing precinct.

The area’s Traditional Custodians, the Goolarabooloo people, contacted Dr Salisbury and his team, who dedicated more than 400 hours to investigating and documenting the dinosaur tracks.

“We needed the world to see what was at stake,” Goolarabooloo Law Boss Phillip Roe said.

The dinosaur tracks form part of a song cycle that extends along the coast and then inland for 450 km, tracing the journey of a Dreamtime creator being called Marala, the Emu man.

“Marala was the Lawgiver. He gave country the rules we need to follow. How to behave, to keep things in balance,” Mr Roe said said.

“It’s great to work with UQ researchers. We learnt a lot from them and they learnt a lot from us.”

Dr Salisbury said the surrounding political issues made the project “particularly intense,” and he was relieved when National Heritage listing was granted to the area in 2011 and the gas project collapsed in 2013.

“There are thousands of tracks around Walmadany. Of these, 150 can confidently be assigned to 21 specific track types, representing four main groups of dinosaurs, ” Dr Salisbury said.

“There were five different types of predatory dinosaur tracks, at least six types of tracks from long-necked herbivorous sauropods, four types of tracks from two-legged herbivorous ornithopods, and six types of tracks from armoured dinosaurs.

“Among the tracks is the only confirmed evidence for stegosaurs in Australia. There are also some of the largest dinosaur tracks ever recorded. Some of the sauropod tracks are around 1.7 m long.”

“Most of Australia’s dinosaur fossils come from the eastern side of the continent, and are between 115 and 90 million years old. The tracks in Broome are considerably older.”

The research has been published as the 2016 Memoir of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Adder wakes up, video


This 28 March 2017 video shows an adder which has woken up after hibernation, and looks for a sunny spot to warm up.

Gerrit Kamphuis from the Netherlands made this video.

Dinosaur family tree, new theory


Dinosaur family trees, K. Padian/Nature 2017

From Science News:

Anatomy analysis suggests new dinosaur family tree

Proposal would radically alter century-old groupings

By Rachel Ehrenberg

2:06pm, March 22, 2017

Relative rethink

Scientists have long-divided the dinosaurs into two main groups, the bird-hipped and the reptile-hipped (top). A new analysis breaks up the reptile-hipped lineage and suggests the bird-hipped group shares recent ancestors with meat-eating theropods (bottom). Scientists have been unsure where to put the confusing two-legged, meat-eating herrerasaurids (red lines, top). The new analysis suggests they are close relatives of the sauropods (bottom).

The standard dinosaur family tree may soon be just a relic.

After examining more than 400 anatomical traits, scientists have proposed a radical reshuffling of the major dinosaur groups. The rewrite, reported in the March 23 Nature, upsets century-old ideas about dinosaur evolution. It lends support to the accepted idea that the earliest dinosaurs were smallish, two-legged creatures. But contrary to current thinking, the new tree suggests that these early dinosaurs had grasping hands and were omnivores, snapping up meat and plant matter alike.

“This is a novel proposal and a really interesting hypothesis,” says Randall Irmis, a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum of Utah and the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Irmis, who was not involved with the work, says it’s “a possibility” that the new family tree reflects actual dinosaur relationships. But, he says, “It goes against our ideas of the general relationships of dinosaurs. It’s certainly going to generate a lot of discussion.”

The accepted tree of dinosaur relationships has three dominant branches, each containing critters familiar even to the non–dinosaur obsessed. One branch leads to the “bird-hipped” ornithischians, which include the plant-eating duckbills, stegosaurs and Triceratops and its bony-frilled kin. Another branch contains the “reptile-hipped” saurischians, which are further divided into two groups: the plant-eating sauropods (typically four-legged, like Brontosaurus) and the meat-eating theropods (typically two-legged, like Tyrannosaurus rex and modern birds).

This split between the bird-hipped and reptile-hipped dinos was first proposed in 1887 by British paleontologist Harry Seeley, who had noticed the two strikingly different kinds of pelvic anatomy. That hypothesis of dinosaur relationships was formalized and strengthened in the 1980s and has been accepted since then.

The new tree yields four groups atop two main branches. The bird-hipped ornithischians, which used to live on their own lone branch, now share a main branch with the reptile-hipped theropods like T. rex. This placement suggests these once-distant cousins are actually closely related. It also underscores existing questions about the bird-hipped dinos, an oddball group with murky origins; they appear late in the dinosaur fossil record and then are everywhere. Some scientists have suggested that they evolved from an existing group of dinosaurs, perhaps similarly herbivorous sauropods. But by placing the bird-hipped dinos next to the theropods, the tree hints that the late-to-the-party vegetarian weirdos could have evolved from their now close relatives, the meat-eating theropods.

Sauropods (like Brontosaurus) are no longer next to the theropods but now reside on a branch with the meat-eating herrerasaurids. Herrerasaurids are a confusing group of creatures that some scientists think belong near the other meat eaters, the theropods, while others say the herrerasaurids are not quite dinosaurs at all.

The new hypothesis of relationships came about when researchers led by Matthew Baron, a paleontologist at the University of Cambridge and Natural History Museum in London, decided to do a wholesale examination of dinosaur anatomy with fresh eyes. Using a mix of fossils, photographs and descriptions from the scientific literature, Baron and colleagues surveyed the anatomy of more than 70 different dinosaurs and non-dino close relatives, examining 457 anatomical features. The presence, absence and types of features, which include the shape of a hole on the snout, a cheekbone ridge and braincase anatomy, were fed into a computer program, generating a family tree that groups animals that share specialized features.

In this new interpretation of dinosaur anatomy and the resulting tree, many of the earliest dinosaurs have grasping hands and a mix of meat-eating and plant-eating teeth. If the earliest dinos were really omnivores, given the relationships in the new four-pronged tree, the evolution of specialized diets (vegetarians and meat eaters) each happened twice in the dinosaur lineage.

When the researchers saw the resulting tree, “We were very surprised — and cautious,” Baron says. “It’s a big change that flies in the face of 130 years of thinking.”

The arrangement of the new tree stuck even when the researchers fiddled around with their descriptions of various features, Baron says. The close relationship between the bird-hipped, plant-eating ornithischians and the reptile-hipped, meat-eating theropods, for example, isn’t based on one or two distinctive traits but on 21 small details.

“The lesson is that dinosaur groups aren’t characterized by radical new inventions,” says paleontologist Kevin Padian of the University of California, Berkeley. “The relationships are read in the minutiae, not big horns and frills.” That said, Padian, whose assessment of the research also appears in Nature, isn’t certain that the new tree reflects reality. Such trees are constructed based on how scientists interpret particular anatomical features, decisions that will surely be quibbled with. “The devil is in the details,” Padian says. “These guys have done their homework and now everyone’s going to have to roll up their sleeves and start checking their work.”

Feathered dinosaurs, new research


This video says about itself:

29 July 2015

“Anchiornis” is a genus of small, feathered, eumaniraptoran dinosaurs. The genus “Anchiornis” contains only the type species “Anchiornis huxleyi“. It was named in honor of Thomas Henry Huxley, an early proponent of biological evolution, and the first to propose a close evolutionary relationship between birds and dinosaurs. The generic name “Anchiornis” means “near bird”, and its describers cited it as important in filling a gap in the transition between the body plans of birds and dinosaurs.

“Anchiornis huxleyi” fossils have been found in the Tiaojishan Formation of Liaoning, China, in rocks dated to the late Jurassic period, 161.0–160.5 million years ago.

Given the exquisite preservation of one of the animal’s fossils, “Anchiornis huxleyi” became the first dinosaur species for which almost the entire life coloration could be determined.

“Anchiornis huxleyi” was a small, paravian dinosaur with a triangular skull bearing several details in common with dromaeosaurids and troodontids. “Anchiornis” had very long legs, usually an indication that they were strong runners. However, the extensive leg feathers indicate that this may be a vestigial trait, as running animals tend to have reduced, not increased, hair or feathers on their legs. The forelimbs of “Anchiornis” were also very long, similar to archaeopterygids.

The first fossil was recovered from the Yaolugou locality, Jianchang County, western Liaoning, China; the second, at the Daxishan locality of the same area. The deposits are lake sediment, and are of uncertain age. Radiological measurements indicate an early Late Jurassic age for them, between 161 and 151 million years ago.

From Science News:

Under lasers, a feathered dino shows some skin

Geochemical fluorescence method illuminates Anchiornis soft tissue, but some remain skeptical

By Helen Thompson

2:40pm, March 20, 2017

What happens when you shoot lasers at a dinosaur fossil? Some chemicals preserved in the fossil glow, providing a nuanced portrait of the ancient creature’s bones, feathers and soft tissue such as skin.

Soft tissue is rarely preserved in fossils, and when it is, it can be easily obscured. A technique called laser-stimulated fluorescence “excites the few skin atoms left in the matrix, making them glow to reveal what the shape of the dinosaur actually looked like,” says Michael Pittman, a paleontologist at the University of Hong Kong.

Pittman and colleagues turned their lasers on Anchiornis, a four-winged dinosaur about the size of a pigeon with feathered arms and legs. It lived around 160 million years ago during the Jurassic Period. The researchers imaged nine specimens under laser light and used the photos to reconstruct a model of Anchiornis that shows an exceedingly birdlike body, the team writes March 1 in Nature Communications.

In the crooks of its elbows and wrists, the dinosaur had what looks like taut tissues called patagia, a feature in modern bird wings. “The wings of Anchiornis are reminiscent of the wings of some living gliding and soaring birds,” Pittman says. Plus, the images capture minute details like feather follicles and scales, and confirm some characteristics of Anchiornis long surmised by scientists: that it had drumstick-shaped legs, pads on the balls of its feet and a slim tail.

Still, it’s unclear what geochemicals are actually fluorescing in the fossils because the team didn’t perform any chemical analyses to determine the organic compounds or minerals present. “The images are very cool,” says Mary Schweitzer, a paleontologist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. But, she cautions, a few hurdles remain, including testing fluorescence in different fossil types and verifying how skin glows under laser light in modern bird fossils.

Scientists normally rely on light-based methods and skeletal data to reconstruct the appearance of dinosaurs and other ancient creatures. Ultraviolet fluorescence works similarly to the new method, but the laser technique captures greater resolution. If laser-stimulated fluorescence lives up to its promise, it could help discern fossilized features that are invisible to the naked eye.

Functional form

Drawing from Anchiornis fossil specimens housed in a Chinese museum, researchers used measurements from laser-stimulated fluorescence images to create a more refined outline of the dinosaur’s body.

New unique Madagascar lizard discovery


This video says about itself:

7 February 2017

In Ankarana National Park, Antsiranana Province, north Madagascar, researchers discovered a new species of fish-scale gecko: Geckolepis megalepis. To escape from predators, the gecko can lose its scales at the slightest touch. The scales grow back, scar-free, in a matter of weeks.

From Science News:

Detachable scales turn this gecko into an escape artist

Newly discovered lizard leaves predators with a mouth full of the largest scales yet

By Elizabeth Eaton

7:00am, March 17, 2017

Large, detachable scales make a newly discovered species of gecko a tough catch. When a predator grabs hold, Madagascar’s Geckolepis megalepis strips down and slips away, looking more like slimy pink Silly Putty than a rugged lizard.

All species of Geckolepis geckos have tear-off scales that regrow within a few weeks, but G. megalepis boasts the largest. Some of its scales reach nearly 6 millimeters long. Mark Scherz, a herpetologist and taxonomist at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, and colleagues describe the new species February 7 in PeerJ.

The hardness and density of the oversized scales may help the gecko to escape being dinner, Scherz says. Attacking animals probably get their claws or teeth stuck on the scales while G. megalepis contracts its muscles, loosening the connection between the scales and the translucent tissue underneath. The predator is left with a mouthful of armor, but no meat. “It’s almost ridiculous,” Scherz says, “how easy it is for these geckos to lose their scales.”

From BirdLife:

Some places are so rich in natural wonders, so extraordinary, so important for people, and yet so threatened, that we must pull out all the stops to save them. Madagascar, the “island continent”, with its flora and fauna so unlike any other, is one such place. Tsitongambarika, then, is even more special: forest unique even within Madagascar, with bizarre-looking Ground-rollers, local species of lemur, and species known only from this site. It is no wonder that this highly-threatened Important Bird & Biodiversity Area (IBA) – the only remaining area in the south of the country that supports significant areas of lowland rainforest, but with unprecedented rates of deforestation – has inspired a magnificent donation from Birdfair.

Birdfair, the annual British celebration of birdwatching, raised an incredible £350,000 last year at its 2016 event, and now this special funding is now going to the protection of IBAs in danger in Africa. This money will not only go towards the immediate protection of Tsitongambarika, through supporting national BirdLife Partner, Asity Madagascar, and local communities; but the future of other threatened sites in Africa will be bettered thanks to capacity building of other BirdLife Partners to advocate their protection, and to a new awards scheme.

American king snakes, new research


This 2012 video from the USA is called King Snake vs Rattlesnake.

From Science News in the USA:

A king snake’s strength is in its squeeze

Studies suggest how the snake coils matters more than muscle size

By Elizabeth Eaton

2:47pm, March 17, 2017

It’s not the size of a snake’s muscles that matter, but how it uses them. King snakes can defeat larger snakes in a wrestling match to the death because of how they coil around their prey, researchers report March 15 in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

King snakes wrap around their food and squeeze with about twice as much pressure as rat snakes do, says David Penning, a functional morphologist at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin. Penning, along with colleague Brad Moon at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, measured the constriction capabilities of almost 200 snakes. “King snakes are just little brutes,” Penning says.

King snakes, which are common in North American forests and grasslands, are constrictor snakes that “wrestle for a living,” Penning says. They mainly eat rodents, birds and eggs, squeezing so hard, they can stop their prey’s heart (SN: 8/22/15, p. 4). In addition, about a quarter of the king snake diet is other snakes. King snakes can easily attack and eat vipers because they’re immune to the venom, but when they take on larger constrictors, such as rat snakes, it has been unclear what gives them the edge. “That’s not how nature goes,” Penning says, because predators are usually larger than their prey.

King snakes, though, can eat snakes up to 35 percent larger than themselves. One of the largest king snake conquests on record, from 1893, is of a 5-foot-3-inch rat snake, about 17 percent larger than the 4-foot-6-inch king snake that consumed it, Penning says.

“David Penning is really one of the first researchers that has been looking at the anatomy, physiology and function of these snakes” to understand how king snakes are superior to rat snakes, says Anthony Herrel, a functional morphologist and evolutionary biologist at the French National Museum of Natural History in Paris.

To determine what makes these snakes kings, Penning and Moon compared their muscle size, ability to escape attack and the strength of their squeeze to that of rat snakes. In one test, the researchers shook dead rodents enticingly in front of the snakes to goad them into striking and squeezing. Sensors on the rodents recorded the pressure of the squeeze.

The king snakes constricted with an average pressure of about 20 kilopascals, stronger than the pumping pressure of a human heart. Rat snakes in the same tests applied only about 10 kilopascals of pressure.

But the king snakes weren’t bigger body builders. Controlling for body size, the two kinds of snakes “had the exact same quantity of muscle,” Penning says.

The snakes’ more powerful constriction is probably due to how they use their muscles, not how much muscle they have, the researchers conclude. They observed that the majority of king snakes in the study wrapped around their food like a spring in what Penning calls the “curly fry pattern.” Rat snakes didn’t always coil in the same way and often ended up looking like a “weird pile of spaghetti,” he says.

Penning plans to study how other factors influence constriction as well, such as how long the king snakes can squeeze, how hungry they are and the temperature of their environment.

Journey to Cuba’s birds


This video says about itself:

Full Documentary: Cuba, Natural Paradise

15 March 2016

The Cuban mangrove forest is still an unknown world concealing biological mysteries and treasures which will astonish the world; a forgotten paradise ruled over by an impenetrable hell of dangerous crocodiles, manatees, birds, hutia, marshy labyrinths, and myriads of mosquitoes.

Science has not yet studied the complexity of its creatures and the balance of its ecosystems. And that is part of the charm of the Cuban mangrove forest, knowing that it remains exactly as it always has been, impenetrable, solitary, virgin. It is such a complex world that virtually nothing is known about it. And nonetheless, all its strength and complexity, all its biodiversity and richness, are due to tiny, intrepid travellers that still today, faithful to their spirit, continue to set out on anonymous journeys, crossing the sea and sowing the seeds of paradise.

The mangrove’s success in colonising is due both to its extraordinary evolutionary adaptations, making it possible to live in an acid, briny environment, and to its incredible method of reproduction.

When the mangroves reproduce, they develop what will be the most astonishing means of genetic expansion, colonisers equipped to travel vast distances: their seeds.

A coral world surrounds the Cuban archipelago.

Enormous coral structures, the result of thousands of years of patient calcareous construction, constitute the reefs which fill the coasts of Cuba with life. The coral reef is composed of millions of tiny filtering polyps capable of turning the solar energy and the scarce nutrients in the water into organic matter available for other organisms in the coral community. Starting with them, the chain becomes increasingly complex, and thousand of different life forms develop, from the fragile invertebrates to the most highly evolved, complex fish.

Because Cuba is an island, there are many endemic species, living only in Cuba. 95% of Cuba’s 62 amphibian species are endemic. So are 37% of its 57 freshwater fish species; 79% of its 155 reptile species; and 32% of its 52 mammal species. As for birds, 26 species live only in Cuba. Also, 22 species live only in Cuba plus on a few other islands like the Bahamas.

On 5 March 2017, our journey to the wildlife of Cuba started.

Our plane was already above the Atlantic ocean, west of Scotland, when one of the passengers had heart problems. The plane had to go back east, to Manchester airport in England, so the patient could go to a hospital.

Then, we flew west again, over Ireland; then, the Atlantic.

Plane wing, 5 March 2017

This photo, a cellphone photo like the others of this blog post, shows a wing of the plane.

Hours later, we reached eastern Canada. Frozen lakes; snowy ground.

Frozen lakes and snow in Canada

This photo shows lakes in Canada.

We then flew over Maine in the USA. Still snowy ground, but already a bit less snowy than Canada.

As we went further south along the United States east coast, the snow got less and less. Still later, it disappeared.

We passed New York City.

Clouds off Georgia, USA

Clouds over the Atlantic east of Georgia.

Then, the sea between Florida and Cuba.

Finally, our plane arrived at Varadero airport in Cuba.

Stay tuned for more blog posts on Cuba, and its birds!