Cretaceous reptile-like mammal discovery in Utah, USA


Cifelliodon wahkarmoosuch reconstruction. Illustration by Jorge A. Gonzalez

From the University of Southern California in the USA:

Utah fossil reveals global exodus of mammals’ near relatives to major continents

A small fossil is evidence that Earth’s ancient supercontinent, Pangea, separated some 15 million years later than previously believed

May 23, 2018

A nearly 130-million-year-old fossilized skull found in Utah is an Earth-shattering discovery in one respect.

The small fossil is evidence that the super-continental split likely occurred more recently than scientists previously thought and that a group of reptile-like mammals that bridge the reptile and mammal transition experienced an unsuspected burst of evolution across several continents.

“Based on the unlikely discovery of this near-complete fossil cranium, we now recognize a new, cosmopolitan group of early mammal relatives”, said Adam Huttenlocker, lead author of the study and assistant professor of clinical integrative anatomical sciences at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

The study, published in the journal Nature on May 16, updates the understanding of how mammals evolved and dispersed across major continents during the age of dinosaurs. It suggests that the divide of the ancient landmass Pangea continued for about 15 million years later than previously thought and that mammal migration and that of their close relatives continued during the Early Cretaceous (145 to 101 million years ago).

“For a long time, we thought early mammals from the Cretaceous (145 to 66 million years ago) were anatomically similar and not ecologically diverse”, Huttenlocker said. “This finding by our team and others reinforce that, even before the rise of modern mammals, ancient relatives of mammals were exploring specialty niches: insectivores, herbivores, carnivores, swimmers, gliders. Basically, they were occupying a variety of niches that we see them occupy today.”

The study reveals that the early mammal precursors migrated from Asia to Europe, into North America and further onto major Southern continents, said Zhe-Xi Luo, senior author of the study and a paleontologist at the University of Chicago.

Fossil find: a new species

Huttenlocker and his collaborators at the Utah Geological Survey and The University of Chicago named the new species Cifelliodon wahkarmoosuch.

Found in the Cretaceous beds in eastern Utah, the fossil is named in honor of famed paleontologist Richard Cifelli. The species name, “wahkarmoosuch” means “yellow cat” in the Ute tribe‘s language in respect of the area where it was found.

Scientists used high-resolution computed tomography (CT) scanners to analyze the skull.

“The skull of Cifelliodon is an extremely rare find in a vast fossil-bearing region of the Western Interior, where the more than 150 species of mammals and reptile-like mammal precursors are represented mostly by isolated teeth and jaws”, said James Kirkland, study co-author in charge of the excavation and a Utah State paleontologist.

With an estimated body weight of up to 2.5 pounds, Cifelliodon would seem small compared to many living mammals, but it was a giant among its Cretaceous contemporaries. A full-grown Cifelliodon was probably about the size of a small hare or pika (small mammal with rounded ears, short limbs and a very small tail).

It had teeth similar to fruit-eating bats and could nip, shear and crush. It might have incorporated plants into its diet.

The newly named species had a relatively small brain and giant “olfactory bulbs” to process sense of smell. The skull had tiny eye sockets, so the animal probably did not have good eyesight or color vision. It possibly was nocturnal and depended on sense of smell to root out food, Huttenlocker said.

Supercontinent existed longer than previously thought

Huttenlocker and his colleagues placed Cifelliodon within a group called Haramiyida, an extinct branch of mammal ancestors related to true mammals. The fossil was the first of its particular subgroup — Hahnodontidae — found in North America.

The fossil discovery emphasizes that haramiyidans and some other vertebrate groups existed globally during the Jurassic-Cretaceous transition, meaning the corridors for migration via Pangean landmasses remained intact into the Early Cretaceous.

Most of the Jurassic and Cretaceous fossils of haramiyidans are from the Triassic and Jurassic of Europe, Greenland and Asia. Hahnodontidae was previously known only from the Cretaceous of Northern Africa. It is to this group that Huttenlocker argues Cifelliodon belongs, providing evidence of migration routes between the continents that are now separated in northern and southern hemispheres.

“But it’s not just this group of haramiyidans”, Huttenlocker said. “The connection we discovered mirrors others recognized as recently as this year based on similar Cretaceous dinosaur fossils found in Africa and Europe.”

See also here.

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Spinosaurus dinosaur research, video


This video says about itself:

The Weird, Watery Tale of Spinosaurus

8 May 2018

In 1912, a fossil collector discovered some strange bone fragments in the eerie, beautiful Cretaceous Bahariya rock formation of Egypt. Eventually, that handful of fossil fragments would reveal to scientists one of the strangest dinosaurs that ever existed — the world’s only known semi-aquatic dinosaur.

From dinosaur mouth to bird beak, new research


This video from the USA says about itself:

17 April 2018

Yale University paleontologist Bhart-Anjan Bhullar talks about Ichthyornis dispar, an iconic, toothed bird from 100 million years ago that shows what the bird beak looked like as it first appeared in nature.

From Yale University in the USA:

Scientists find the first bird beak, right under their noses

May 2, 2018

Researchers have pieced together the three-dimensional skull of an iconic, toothed bird that represents a pivotal moment in the transition from dinosaurs to modern-day birds.

Ichthyornis dispar holds a key position in the evolutionary trail that leads from dinosaurian species to today’s avians. It lived nearly 100 million years ago in North America, looked something like a toothy seabird, and drew the attention of such famous naturalists as Yale’s O.C. Marsh (who first named and described it) and Charles Darwin.

Yet despite the existence of partial specimens of Ichthyornis dispar, there has been no significant new skull material beyond the fragmentary remains first found in the 1870s. Now, a Yale-led team reports on new specimens with three-dimensional cranial remains — including one example of a complete skull and two previously overlooked cranial elements that were part of the original specimen at Yale — that reveal new details about one of the most striking transformations in evolutionary history.

“Right under our noses this whole time was an amazing, transitional bird,” said Yale paleontologist Bhart-Anjan Bhullar, principal investigator of a study published in the journal Nature. “It has a modern-looking brain along with a remarkably dinosaurian jaw muscle configuration.”

Perhaps most interesting of all, Bhullar said, is that Ichthyornis dispar shows us what the bird beak looked like as it first appeared in nature.

“The first beak was a horn-covered pincer tip at the end of the jaw”, said Bhullar, who is an assistant professor and assistant curator in geology and geophysics. “The remainder of the jaw was filled with teeth. At its origin, the beak was a precision grasping mechanism that served as a surrogate hand as the hands transformed into wings.”

The research team conducted its analysis using CT-scan technology, combined with specimens from the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History; the Sternberg Museum of Natural History in Fort Hays, Kan.; the Alabama Museum of Natural History; the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute; and the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research.

Co-lead authors of the new study are Daniel Field of the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University of Bath and Michael Hanson of Yale. Co-authors are David Burnham of the University of Kansas, Laura Wilson and Kristopher Super of Fort Hays State University, Dana Ehret of the Alabama Museum of Natural History, and Jun Ebersole of the McWane Science Center.

“The fossil record provides our only direct evidence of the evolutionary transformations that have given rise to modern forms”, said Field. “This extraordinary new specimen reveals the surprisingly late retention of dinosaur-like features in the skull of Ichthyornis — one of the closest-known relatives of modern birds from the Age of Reptiles.”

The researchers said their findings offer new insight into how modern birds’ skulls eventually formed. Along with its transitional beak, Ichthyornis dispar had a brain similar to modern birds but a temporal region of the skull that was strikingly like that of a dinosaur — indicating that during the evolution of birds, the brain transformed first while the remainder of the skull remained more primitive and dinosaur-like.

“Ichthyornis would have looked very similar to today’s seabirds, probably very much like a gull or tern“, said Hanson. “The teeth probably would not have been visible unless the mouth was open but covered with some sort of lip-like, extra-oral tissue.”

In recent years Bhullar’s lab has produced a large body of research on various aspects of vertebrate skulls, often zeroing in on the origins of the avian beak. “Each new discovery has reinforced our previous conclusions. The skull of Ichthyornis even substantiates our molecular finding that the beak and palate are patterned by the same genes”, Bhullar said. “The story of the evolution of birds, the most species-rich group of vertebrates on land, is one of the most important in all of history. It is, after all, still the age of dinosaurs.”

See also here.

Tyrannosaurus rex life, video


This video says about itself:

T-Rex Fights For Survival Against Vicious Enemies | Clash Of The Dinosaurs

25 April 2018

The T-Rex hunts for food after laying her eggs, but has many different enemies that will attack her to prevent her from looking after her babies and raising them to be deadly predators.

Dinosaur age sea turtle discovery in Alabama, USA


This is a reconstruction of the new species (Peritresius martini). Credit: Drew Gentry CC-BY

From PLOS:

New ancestor of modern sea turtles found in Alabama

April 18, 2018

A sea turtle discovered in Alabama is a new species from the Late Cretaceous epoch, according to a study published April 18, 2018 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Drew Gentry from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Alabama, USA, and colleagues.

Modern day sea turtles were previously thought to have had a single ancestor of the Peritresius clade during the Late Cretaceous epoch, from about 100 to 66 million years ago. This ancestral species, Peritresius ornatus, lived exclusively in North America, but few Peritresius fossils from this epoch had been found in what is now the southeastern U.S., an area known for producing large numbers of Late Cretaceous marine turtle fossils. In this study, the research team analyzed sea turtle fossils collected from marine sediments in Alabama and Mississippi, dating from about 83 to 66 million years ago.

The researchers identified some of the Alabama fossils as representing a new Peritresius species, which they named Peritresius martini after Mr. George Martin who discovered the fossils. Their identification was based on anatomical features including the shape of the turtle’s shell. Comparing P. martini and P. ornatus, the researchers noted that the shell of P. ornatus is unusual amongst Cretaceous sea turtles in having sculptured skin elements which are well-supplied with blood vessels. This unique feature may suggest that P. ornatus was capable of thermoregulation, which could have enabled Peritresius to keep warm and survive during the cooling period of the Cretaceous, unlike many other marine turtles that went extinct.

These findings extend the known evolutionary history for the Peritresius clade to include two anatomically distinct species from the Late Cretaceous epoch, and also reveal that Peritresius was distributed across a wider region than previously thought.

Drew Gentry says: “This discovery not only answers several important questions about the distribution and diversity of sea turtles during this period but also provides further evidence that Alabama is one of the best places in the world to study some of the earliest ancestors of modern sea turtles.”

Dinosaurs extinct, fish survived


This 2017 video is called Fish | Educational Video for Kids.

From the University of California – Los Angeles in the USA:

Marine fish won an evolutionary lottery 66 million years ago

The rapid proliferation of acanthomorphs was a response to a mass extinction

April 17, 2018

Why do our oceans contain such a staggering diversity of fish of so many different sizes, shapes and colors? A UCLA-led team of biologists reports that the answer dates back 66 million years, when a six-mile-wide asteroid crashed to Earth, wiping out the dinosaurs and approximately 75 percent of the world’s animal and plant species.

Slightly more than half of today’s fish are “marine fish“, meaning they live in oceans. And most marine fish, including tuna, halibut, grouper, sea horses and mahi-mahi, belong to an extraordinarily diverse group called acanthomorphs. (The study did not analyze the large numbers of other fish that live in lakes, rivers, streams, ponds and tropical rainforests.)

The aftermath of the asteroid crash created an enormous evolutionary void, providing an opportunity for the marine fish that survived it to greatly diversify.

“Today’s rich biodiversity among marine fish shows the fingerprints of the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous period“, said Michael Alfaro, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology in the UCLA College and lead author of the study.

To analyze those fingerprints, the “evolutionary detectives” employed a new genomics research technique developed by one of the authors. Their work is published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

When they studied the timing of the acanthomorphs’ diversification, Alfaro and his colleagues discovered an intriguing pattern: Although there were many other surviving lineages of acanthomorphs, the six most species-rich groups of acanthomorphs today all showed evidence of substantial evolutionary change and proliferation around the time of the mass extinction. Those six groups have gone on to produce almost all of the marine fish diversity that we see today, Alfaro said.

He added that it’s unclear why the other acanthomorph lineages failed to diversify as much after the mass extinction.

“The mass extinction, we argue, provided an evolutionary opportunity for a select few of the surviving acanthomorphs to greatly diversify, and it left a large imprint on the biodiversity of marine fishes today”, Alfaro said. “It’s like there was a lottery 66 million years ago, and these six major acanthomorph groups were the winners.”

The findings also closely match fossil evidence of acanthomorphs’ evolution, which also shows a sharp rise in their anatomical diversity after the extinction.

The genomic technique used in the study, called sequence capture of DNA ultra-conserved elements, was developed at UCLA by Brant Faircloth, who is now an assistant professor of biological sciences at Louisiana State University. Where previous methods used just 10 to 20 genes to create an evolutionary history, Faircloth’s approach creates a more complete and accurate picture by using more than 1,000 genetic markers. (The markers include genes and other DNA components, such as parts of the DNA that turn proteins on or off, and cellular components that play a role in regulating genes.)

The researchers also extracted DNA from 118 species of marine fish and conducted a computational analysis to determine the relationships among them. Among their findings: It’s not possible to tell which species are genetically related simply by looking at them. Seahorses, for example, look nothing like goatfish, but the two species are evolutionary cousins — a finding that surprised the scientists.

“We demonstrate this approach works, and that it sheds new light on evolutionary history for the most species-rich group of marine vertebrates”, Alfaro said.

Dinosaur age ‘alga’, ‘squid’ fossil is really a fish


A photo of the Platylithophycus cretaceum specimen. The scale bar is 5 centimeters. Credit: © Mike Eklund

From the American Museum of Natural History in the USA:

First an alga, then a squid, enigmatic fossil is actually a fish

New study suggests that Cretaceous fossil discovered 70 years ago is a large ray

April 16, 2018

A fossil slab discovered in Kansas 70 years ago and twice misidentified — first as a green alga and then as a cephalopod —

Maybe misidentified a third time: as a Angiospermopsida seed plant

has been reinterpreted as the preserved remains of a large cartilaginous fish, the group that includes sharks and rays. In a study published in the Journal of Paleontology, American Museum of Natural History researchers describe the fishy characteristics of the animal, which lived between 70-85 million years ago.

“There are many examples of temporarily misplaced taxa in paleontological history, including ferns that were once thought to be sponges and lungfish teeth thought to be fungi“, said the lead author, Allison Bronson, a comparative biology Ph.D.-degree student in the Museum’s Richard Gilder Graduate School. “In this case, the misidentification didn’t happen because of a lack of technology at the time — scientists familiar with cartilage structure could easily see this was a chondrichthyan fish. The researchers used reasonable arguments for their interpretations, but didn’t look outside of their own fields.”

The enigmatic specimen, Platylithophycus cretaceum, is roughly 1.5-feet long by 10-inches wide and from the Niobrara Formation in Kansas. The Niobrara Formation is one of the most diverse fish-fossil sites in North America, preserving late Cretaceous animals that lived in and around the Western Interior Seaway, a broad expanse of water that split North America into two land masses.

In 1948, two paleobotanists from the Colorado School of Mines and Princeton University compared the texture of the fossil slab with that of green algae. They described two parts of a plant: surfaces covered with hexagonal plates, which they called “fronds”, and supposedly calcium carbonate-covered thread-like filaments. In 1968, two researchers from Fort Hays Kansas State College studying cephalopods from the Niobrara Formation compared the specimen with a cuttlefish, based primarily on its textural similarities to a cuttlebone — the unique internal shell of cuttlefish. The reclassification made Platylithophycus the oldest sepiid squid then on record.

In both of these earlier studies, the hard tissue was assumed to be composed of calcium carbonate, but no tests were performed. For the new study, Bronson and co-author John Maisey, a curator in the Museum’s Division of Paleontology, applied a small amount of dilute organic acid to the specimen — a method that has been widely used in paleontology since the time of the initial description of Platylithophycus. If there is a reaction, the fossilized material is likely made from calcium carbonate. But if there is no reaction, which was the case when Bronson and Maisey performed the test, it is likely made from calcium phosphate, as are the fossilized skeletons of cartilaginous fish like sharks and rays.

The most obvious clue that Platylithophycus was a cartilaginous fish are the hexagonal plates on the surface of the specimen. After taking a closer look with a scanning electron microscope, Bronson and Maisey reinterpreted that feature as tessellated calcified cartilage, found on both extinct and living sharks and rays. The new study suggests that the “filaments” earlier described are actually part of the gill arches, made up of tessellated cartilage. Gill arches are cartilaginous curved bars along the pharynx, or throat, that support the gills of fish. The “fronds” are reinterpreted as gill rakers, finger-like projections that extend from the gill arches and help with feeding.

“We think this was a rather large cartilaginous fish, possibly related to living filter-feeding rays such as Manta and Mobula“, Maisey said. “This potentially expands the range of diversity in the Niobrara fauna.”

But because this fossil only preserves the animal’s gills and no additional identifying features like teeth, it cannot be given a new name or reunited with an existing species. So until then, this fish will still carry the name of a plant.