New orchid discovery on Schiermonnikoog island


Northern marsh orchid, photo by Hans Dekker

On 25 July 2015, Hans Dekker published his new book, Orchideeën van Noord-Nederland (Orchids of the northern Netherlands).

He had to make a last-minute addition. On 28 June this year, Dekker discovered on Schiermonnikoog island a northern marsh orchid, a species, new for the Netherlands.

Big dinosaur age shark discovery


Cretaceous fossil sharks reconstruction. Credit: Frederickson et al.

From LiveScience:

20-Foot Monster Shark Once Trolled Mesozoic Seas

by Tia Ghose, Senior Writer

June 03, 2015 02:01pm ET

A giant shark the size of a two-story building prowled the shallow seas 100 million years ago, new fossils reveal.

The massive fish, Leptostyrax macrorhiza, would have been one of the largest predators of its day, and may push back scientists’ estimates of when such gigantic predatory sharks evolved, said study co-author Joseph Frederickson, a doctoral candidate in ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Oklahoma.

The ancient sea monster was discovered by accident. Frederickson, who was then an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, had started an amateur paleontology club to study novel fossil deposits. In 2009, the club took a trip to the Duck Creek Formation, just outside Fort Worth, Texas, which contains myriad marine invertebrate fossils, such as the extinct squidlike creatures known as ammonites. About 100 million years ago the area was part of a shallow sea known as the Western Interior Seaway that split North America in two and spanned from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic, Frederickson said.

While walking in the formation, Frederickson’s then-girlfriend (now wife), University of Oklahoma anthropology doctoral candidate Janessa Doucette-Frederickson, tripped over a boulder and noticed a large vertebra sticking out of the ground. Eventually, the team dug out three large vertebrae, each about 4.5 inches (11.4 centimeters) in diameter. [See Images of Ancient Monsters of the Sea]

“You can hold one in your hand,” but then nothing else will fit, Frederickson told Live Science.

The vertebrae had stacks of lines called lamellae around the outside, suggesting the bones once belonged to a broad scientific classification of sharks called lamniformes that includes sand tiger sharks, great white sharks, goblin sharks and others, Frederickson said.

After poring over the literature, Frederickson found a description of a similar shark vertebra that was unearthed in 1997 in the Kiowa Shale in Kansas, which also dates to about 100 million years ago. That vertebra came from a shark that was up to 32 feet (9.8 meters) long.

By comparing the new vertebra with the one from Kansas, the team concluded the Texas shark was likely the same species as the Kansas specimen. The Texan could have been at least 20.3 feet (6.2 m) long, though that is a conservative estimate, Frederickson said. (Still, the Texas shark would have been no match for the biggest shark that ever lived, the 60-foot-long, or 18 m, Megalodon.)

By analyzing similar ecosystems from the Mesozoic Era, the team concluded the sharks in both Texas and Kansas were probably Leptostyrax macrorhiza. Previously, the only fossils from Leptostyrax that paleontologists had found were teeth, making it hard to gauge the shark’s true size. The new study, which was published today (June 3) in the journal PLOS ONE, suggests this creature was much bigger than previously thought, Frederickson said.

Still, it’s not certain the new vertebrae belonged to Leptostyrax, said Kenshu Shimada, a paleobiologist at DePaul University in Chicago, who unearthed the 1997 shark vertebra.

“It is also entirely possible that they may belong to an extinct shark with very small teeth so far not recognized in the present fossil record,” Shimada, who was not involved in the current study, told Live Science. “For example, some of the largest modern-day sharks are plankton-feeding forms with minute teeth, such as the whale shark, basking shark and megamouth shark.”

Either way, the new finds change the picture of the Early Cretaceous seas.

Previously, researchers thought the only truly massive predators of the day were the fearsome pliosaurs, long-necked, long-snouted relatives to modern-day lizards that could grow to nearly 40 feet (12 m) in length. Now, it seems the oceans were teeming with enough life to support at least two top predators, Frederickson said.

As for the ancient shark’s feeding habits, they might resemble those of modern great white sharks, who “eat whatever fits in their mouth,” Frederickson said. If these ancient sea monsters were similar, they might have fed on large fish, baby pliosaurs, marine reptiles and even full-grown pliosaurs that they scavenged, Frederickson said.

First four-legged snake fossil discovery


This video says about itself:

Tetrapodophis amplectus – A four-legged snake from the Early Cretaceous of Gondwana

24 July 2015

Tetrapodophis amplectus appears to be a four-legged snake from the Early Cretaceous of Gondwana. Dr. Dave Martill, from the University of Portsmouth, says that this discovery could help scientists to understand how snakes lost their legs.

From the BBC:

Four-legged snake ancestor ‘dug burrows’

By Jonathan Webb Science reporter, BBC News

24 July 2015

A 113-million-year-old fossil from Brazil is the first four-legged snake that scientists have ever seen.

Several other fossil snakes have been found with hind limbs, but the new find is estimated to be a direct ancestor of modern snakes.

Its delicate arms and legs were not used for walking, but probably helped the creature to grab its prey.

The fossil shows adaptations for burrowing, not swimming, strengthening the idea that snakes evolved on land.

That debate is a long-running one among palaeontologists, and researchers say wiggle room is running out for the idea that snakes developed from marine reptiles.

“This is the most primitive fossil snake known, and it’s pretty clearly not aquatic,” said Dr Nick Longrich from the University of Bath, one of the authors of the new study published in Science magazine.

Speaking to Science in Action on the BBC World Service, Dr Longrich explained that the creature’s tail wasn’t paddle-shaped for swimming and it had no sign of fins; meanwhile its long trunk and short snout were typical of a burrower.

“It’s pretty straight-up adapted for burrowing,” he said.

When Dr Longrich first saw photos of the 19.5cm fossil, now christened Tetrapodophis amplectus, he was “really blown away” because he was expecting an ambiguous, in-between species.

Instead, he saw “a lot of very advanced snake features” including its hooked teeth, flexible jaw and spine – and even snake-like scales.

“And there’s the gut contents – it’s swallowed another vertebrate. It was preying on other animals, which is a snake feature.

“It was pretty unambiguously a snake. It’s just got little arms and little legs.”

Deadly embrace?

At 4mm and 7mm long respectively, those arms and legs are little indeed. But Dr Longrich was surprised to discover that they were far from being “vestigial” evolutionary leftovers, dangling uselessly.

“They’re actually very highly specialised – they have very long, skinny fingers and toes, with little claws on the end. What we think [these animals] are doing is they’ve stopped using them for walking and they’re using them for grasping their prey.”

That comparatively feeble grasp, which may have also been applied during mating, is where the species gets its name. Tetrapodophis, the fossil’s new genus, means four-footed snake, but amplectus is Latin for “embrace”.

“It would sort of embrace or hug its prey with its forelimbs and hindlimbs. So it’s the huggy snake,” Dr Longrich said.

In order to try to pinpoint the huggy snake’s place in history, the team constructed a family tree using known information about the physical and genetic make-up of living and ancient snakes, plus some related reptiles.

That analysis positioned T. amplectus as a branch – the earliest branch – on the the very same tree that gave rise to modern snakes.

Neglected no more

Remarkably, this significant specimen languished in a private collection for decades, before a museum in Solnhofen, Germany, acquired and exhibited it under the label “unknown fossil”.

It was there that Dr Dave Martill, another of the paper’s authors, stumbled upon it while leading a student field trip. He told the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 they were principally visiting to see the museum’s famous Archaeopteryx fossil.

“All of a sudden my jaw absolutely dropped, when I saw this little fossil like a piece of string,” said Dr Martill, from the University of Portsmouth.

As he peered closer, he managed to spot the four tiny legs – and immediately asked the museum for permission to study the creature.

Dr Bruno Simoes, who studies the evolution of snake vision at the Natural History Museum in London, told the BBC he was impressed by the new find because the snake’s limbs are so well preserved, and appear so well developed.

“It’s quite a surprise, especially because it’s so close to the crown group – basically, the current snakes,” he said.

“It gives us a good idea of what the ancestral snake was like.”

Dr Simoes suggested that alongside several other recent findings, this new fossil evidence had clinched the argument for snakes evolving on land.

“All [the latest findings] suggest that the ancestor of all snakes was a terrestrial animal… which lived partially underground.”

Zebra finch parenting, new research


This video says about itself:

Zebra finch courtship song

15 November 2012

A Zebra finch male sings to a female that he thinks is attractive. She’s just not that into him though. Better luck next time fella.

From the Washington Post in the USA:

Bad parenting? Baby zebra finch don’t tolerate it. They look for better role models

By Darryl Fears

July 23 at 12:00 PM

Bad parenting is for the birds. Even baby zebra finch know this.

Newly hatched chicks whose parents are poor foragers often get stressed from lack of food, leading them to quickly write off mom and dad. Babies a few days old run off in search of better role models — adults that know what they’re doing.

In a two-year study that followed chicks from the moment they were hatched to the moment they were ready to leave the nest a little more than a month later, researchers found that “stressed chicks got away from their parents earlier,” said Neeltje Boogert, a biologist at the University of Cambridge who led the research. “They didn’t copy their parents behavior.”

Dumping clueless parents for better fill-ins is a positive sign for the finch. “If you had a rough start early in life, you might not be doomed,” Boogert explained. Nothing in the study suggested this behavior is applicable to other animals, or showed any parallels to humans, Boogert said.

Scientists have long studied the consequences of stress on individual animals to examine its impact on their behaviors, Boogert said. She wanted to take it another step by studying social animals such as the finch to determine how they coped. Boogert and her co-authors were slightly surprised to see youngsters diss their parents so quickly. The findings were published Thursday in the journal Current Biology.

When food is scarce, or the temperature in a habitat is too cold, resulting from bad parenting, stress hormones are chronically elevated. The consequence in animals, like humans, is often depression, anxiety, panic attacks, sleep disorder and other detrimental impacts.

The question no one had sought to answer, as far is Boogert knew, is how a social animal would compensate. A study authored by Boogert last year said adding stress hormones to the diets of baby finch had a positive effect because they ended up with more friends by adulthood than young birds that were not stressed. But that study didn’t tell researchers why stressed chicks were making so many friends.

For the more recent research, Boogert fed stress hormones inserted in oils to newly hatched chicks in a lab at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Each finch in the small colony observed for the study was labeled with a bar code for tracking.

Observers noticed right away that finch chicks with elevated stress hormones followed adults different from their parents to feeding stations. In this case, the parents hadn’t done anything wrong — but the artificially stressed out chicks didn’t know that.

The study didn’t bother with studying how parents react to the put-down of being replaced. Clinical stares were glued on the jittery chicks.

“You can turn to other sources of information,” the author said. “I think it is actually a positive message. Instead of being stuck you can change who you’re going to follow and make a better life for yourself.”

See also here.

Rare African mongoose rediscovered after twenty years


Pousargues’s mongooses © African Parks

From Africa Geographic:

Pousargues’s mongoose rediscovered after 20 years

July 20, 2015

With only 31 museum specimens and a handful of possible sightings over the last twenty years, the Pousargues’s or savanna mongoose (Dologale dybowskii) is one of the least known carnivores in the world. But now we can learn more about them.

During our field work between 2011 to 2015 in the south eastern part of Central African Republic, we have discovered a population of this forgotten dwarf mongoose in the Chinko Project Area, a conservation zone recently founded and now part of the African Parks network.

Before we started the first expedition almost nothing was known about the wildlife in the east of Central African Republic. Thanks to direct field observations as well as strategically placed camera traps installed around termite mounds, occupied by Pousargues’s mongoose, we now have a better understanding of this small carnivore and its social structures. Astonishingly, the Pousargues’s mongoose shares its jungle home with eight different species of mongoose.

Observations from the Chinko show that Pousargues’s mongoose lives in small groups ranging from three to 12 individuals which move between their favourite termite mounds on a regular basis. Breeding has been observed taking place in mid-May during the early rainy season. A small group of three adults have been observed caring for an infant, carrying it around in their mouths. A first genetic survey based on collected scat samples, shows the Pousargues’s mongoose being a close relative of the forest dwelling Kusimanse crossarchus.

Based on more than 1,500km of walked transects, over 14,500 camera traps, days spent in more than 400 different locations and countless hours of field observations, Pousargues’s Mongoose seem to occur in much lower densities than most other mongoose in the Chinko Project Area. Habitat preferences and their ecological recommendations are still largely unknown so further studies are still needed. The vegetation is relatively pristine in eastern CAR, South Sudan and northern DRC due to less human interference in these areas and as such it can be assumed that the habitat of Pousargues’s mongoose is still available in large scale.

Poaching and overgrazing pose a serious threat to animals like lions, elephants, wild dogs and possibly this little mongoose in the Central African Republic. Therefore, it is important to manage large scale reserves like the Chinko Project Area to secure a functional ecosystem and the long term survival of a diverse wildlife community including nondescript dwarfs like the Pousargues’s mongoose.

‘Dutch’ wolf killed by truck in Germany


This video says about itself:

Wolf spotted in Netherlands for first time in over 100 years

13 March 2015

A wolf has been seen in the Netherlands for the first time in over a century, with footage showing the predator trotting around near a railway track in Noord-Sleen.

Translated from the Dutch ARK conservationists:

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The wolf which this spring briefly visited the Netherlands was killed. On April 15, a dead wolf was found on the A7 motorway at Berkhof in Germany. DNA research has shown that this was the same animal which visited the Netherlands and Lower Saxony, say Landesjägerschaft Lower Saxony and Lower Saxony Wolfsbüro.

Research shows that the animal was killed by a truck.

Ichthyosaurs, why did they become extinct?


This video says about itself:

Prehistoric News: The Ichthyosaur Graveyard

23 June 2014

Dozens of nearly complete skeletons of ichthyosaurs have been uncovered near a melting glacier in southern Chile.

From LiveScience:

An Asteroid Didn’t Wipe Out Ichthyosaurs — So What Did?

by Laura Geggel, Staff Writer

July 23, 2015 08:05am ET

During the dinosaur age, ichthyosaurs — large marine reptiles that look like dolphins — flourished in prehistoric oceans, living in all kinds of watery environments near and far from shore. But as competition in these areas grew, ichthyosaurs lost both territory and species before gradually going extinct, a new study finds.

In fact, the ichthyosaur extinction has stumped scientists for years. Ichthyosaurs likely evolved from land reptiles that dove into the ocean about 248 million years ago, researchers said. After living along the coast for millions of years, they left for the open water. They disappeared about 90 million years ago, going extinct about 25 million years before the dinosaur-killing asteroid slammed into Earth.

So, if the asteroid didn’t kill the ichthyosaurs, what did? To learn more, researchers looked at ichthyosaur fossils and determined what kinds of specialized environments, or niches, the animals likely inhabited. [In Images: Graveyard of Ichthyosaur Fossils Found in Chile]

“In most studies, the niche of the animal is predicted based on a single trait, usually the shape of the teeth,” said lead researcher Daniel Dicks, a doctoral student in paleontology at the Natural History Museum in Stuttgart, Germany. In the new study, the researchers looked at several traits, he said.

For instance, they analyzed the ichthyosaurs’ body sizes and teeth shapes. They also determined each animal’s feeding strategy, such as whether ichthyosaurs were ambush predators (less powerful swimmers) or pursuit predators (fast swimmers), Dicks said.

Ichthyosaur arrangements

After examining 45 ichthyosaur genuses, Dicks and his colleague Erin Maxwell, a vertebrate paleontologist at the museum, used an analysis that grouped the ichthyosaurs into seven categories, called ecotypes.

For instance, the ichthyosauriform genus, Cartorhynchus, is so unique that it has its own ecotype. It was likely a small suction feeder and lived in shallow water, Dicks told Live Science.

Another ecotype represents the majority of the genuses that lived during the Early to Middle Triassic period, he said. Animals of this ecotype were less than 6.5 feet (2 meters) long, and had robust and blunt teeth, suggesting they ate hard-shelled prey, such as coral and shelled mollusks, Dicks said. They didn’t have elongated bodies, so they probably didn’t live in the open water, where they would have needed to swim far distances, he added.

Two genuses — Eurhinosaurus and Excalibosaurus — owe their unique ecotype to their swordfishlike jaws, which indicate they used a slashing method to demolish prey, Dicks said. Their long bodies also indicate they lived in the open water, far from shore, he said.

Not all seven ecotypes existed at once, although five existed simultaneously during the Early Jurassic period, when ichthyosaurs experienced a boom in diversity.

By the Middle Jurassic, the number of ichthyosaur ecotypes decreased. Specialized feeders, such as the swordfishlike Eurhinosaurus, and apex predators, including Temnodontosaurus, went extinct, leaving only two ecotypes, both of which lived in the open water.

These last two ecotypes included ichthyosaur genuses with large bodies and robust teeth for crushing bony fish or hard cephalopods, such as ammonites. The other ecotype was more dolphinlike; it had small teeth and likely ate soft prey, such as squid (also cephalopods), Dicks said.

Ichthyosaur extinction

Ichthyosaurs eventually met their end during the Cenomanian-Turonian extinction event, in which spinosaurs (carnivorous swimming dinosaurs), plesiosaurs (long-necked marine reptiles) and roughly one-third of marine invertebrates (animals without a backbone) also went extinct, Dicks said. [In Images: Digging Up a Swimming Dinosaur Called Spinosaurus]

With only two ecotypes of ichthyosaurs left, they would have been easily wiped out, Dicks said.

“It’s a slow ecological war of attrition, where they become more and more stranded on a single niche, and then the entire [group] is depending on that niche remaining sustainable,” he said. “And if that became unsustainable, then the entire group would become extinct.”

It’s unclear why ichthyosaurs lost their earlier niches, but they were likely “replaced, outcompeted by other species that adapted better,” Dicks said. For instance, plesiosaurs took over many of the near-shore niches, he said.

The study sheds light on ichthyosaurs’ evolution and extinction, said Neil Kelley, a postdoctoral research fellow of paleobiology at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., who was not involved in the new research.

According to the study, “[ichthyosaurs] get more and more confined to a specialized lifestyle,” Kelley said. “Ultimately, they can never seem to re-evolve some of these more transitional lifestyles and body types that you see early on.”

However, the study takes a broad view encompassing roughly 158 million years, so it loses some nuance in how these animals lived and why they went extinct, Kelley told Live Science. Furthermore, “just one weird fossil could totally rewrite that picture of what happened,” by adding another ecotype, Kelley said.

The study was published online July 8 in the journal Biology Letters.