Computer game on evolution of bird flight

This video from the USA says about itself:

Flap to the Future – American Robin

7 February 2017

HELFUL TIP: I play through the level twice. Skip to 3:02 for former personal best time.

Wowza, wowza! A bird game! Of course I’m going to play it longer than I should.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology sent out an email today about this game, so I tried it out and maybe got somewhat good at the American Robin stage. It’s a super easy stage assuming you have a good path routed and can pull off a few tight maneuvers. Though my time is very beatable, I’ll leave it as is since it seems that my new best times aren’t being posted on the leaderboards for some reason. I could always go back and restart my file to have a new best time posted, but I really don’t want to lose the random generated name I currently have on my account. I’ll just have to deal with my initial 05:30.17 minute clear time on the leaderboards.

EDIT: The leaderboards are now functional beyond the initial completion of a level! However, I accidentally reset my game like an idiot, and as such, Lilac-feathered Friendly Heron will forever be displayed with mediocre completion times.

My current mobile name is now Agile Tourmaline-backed Heron, and my current PC name is Least-bearded Fluffheron.

From the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in the USA:

Video Game Lets You Scamper, Glide, and Flap Through the Evolution of Flight

Skip through time and explore how birds mastered the skies with our new video game. Start as an earthbound dinosaur and then feel the thrill of feathered wings and flapping flight. Then jump ahead 100 million years from now to imagine the future of flight. The game is free, mobile-friendly, and runs in a web browser. There’s no app download necessary—just an interest in dinosaurs, flight, or video games. Visit Bird Academy to play (and—bonus—find out your very own fanciful bird name).

Dinosaur discoveries in China

This video says about itself:

Zhejiang Museum of Natural History – Hangzhou – Zhejiang – China


From the Daily Star in Britain:

Real life Jurassic Park uncovered as scientists find DINOSAUR fossils hidden underground

A REAL life Jurassic Park once home to six species of dinosaur has been uncovered after researchers found almost 100 fossil sites.

By Jess Bell / Published 12th February 2017

A team of experts carrying out a six-year survey in east China’s Zhejiang Province have shared their incredible findings.

They found 82 fossil sites and 25 types of eggs during the excavation between 2006 and 2013.

Scientists from the Zhejiang Institute of Hydrogeology and Engineering Geology and the Zhejiang Museum of Natural History worked together on the research.

They used a range of techniques from geology and paleobiology to chronostratigraphy which identifies the deposition of rocks.

Experts also combined site inspections and excavations to scour the site in minute detail.

The survey covered a vast area of 11,000 square kilometres [around] the province’s capital Hangzhou.

Jin Xingsheng, deputy curator of the Zhejiang Museum of Natural History, said: “It has been proved that a large quantity of dinosaurs lived in Zhejiang during the Cretaceous period, about 65 million to 145 million years ago.

“Compared with other southeastern provinces, Zhejiang has the largest amount of dinosaur fossils.”

The researchers’ new findings also provide evidence that a comet or asteroid was responsible for wiping out the dinosaurs.

Scientists discovered the sedimentary rocks, where most of the fossils were discovered, were encased by layers of volcanic rocks. Experts studying the volcanic Deccan Traps recently revealed new details of a double disaster which could have been responsible for the dinosaur extinction.

Their findings show two plumes of magma could have combined with a devastating asteroid hit to ravage the Earth 65 million years ago.

South African boy discovers dinosaur tooth

This video from South Africa says about itself:

Dinosaur find in Knysna

6 February 2017

Ben Ingel, a learner at Oakhill School, found the tooth of a 120 million year-old dinosaur.

Video Elaine King, Knysna-Plettt Herald.

Read more here.

From in South Africa:

Grade 8 pupil discovers tooth of dinosaur in Knysna

Wednesday 8 February 2017 – 5:33am

JOHANNESBURG – Knysna has landed itself prominently on the archaeological map.

Thirteen-year-old Grade 8 pupil, Benjamin Ingel discovered a tooth there — and it very likely comes from a dinosaur.

Ingel reportedly found the tooth while walking near Knysna lagoon. He brought it home to show his family.

Ingel’s grandfather, Vernon Rice, approached some experts to verify the authenticity of the find. Geologists Rob Muir and Roger Schoon agreed to come to his house to have a look.

Rice said: “They took one look and I could see from their faces we had something.”

Palaeontologist Robert Gess at the Albany Museum in Grahamstown invited Ben and his grandfather to the museum to allow palaeontologists to examine the specimen more closely.

Wits University palaeontologist Jonah Choiniere, who has seen photographs of the tooth, believes that it is about 140 million years old and belonged to a carnivorous theropod.

Choiniere believes the dinosaur weighed between 500kg and a ton.

“This was a meat-eater of considerable size; his head would bump on the ceiling of my house,” said palaeontologist Dr Billy de Klerk, who has also seen the tooth.

“These teeth are so rare that in a span of 30 years I have only seen 15 decent teeth,” De Klerk added.

Ingel is prepared to donate the tooth to a museum after he shows it to his friends at school.

Probably, the teeth belongerd to an individual of the Allosaurus family.

Dinosaur soft tissue discovery

This video from the USA says about itself:

7 March 2016

Mary Higby Schweitzer is a paleontologist at North Carolina State University, who is known for leading the groups that discovered the remains of blood cells in dinosaur fossils and later discovered soft tissue remains in a Tyrannosaurus rex specimen.

From AFP news agency:

Dino rib yields evidence of oldest soft tissue remains

January 31, 2017

The rib of a long-necked, plant-eating dinosaur that lived 195 million years ago has yielded what may be the oldest remains of soft tissue ever recovered, scientists said Tuesday.

The find promises a chance to extract rare clues about the biology and evolution of long-extinct animals, a team wrote in the journal Nature Communications.

Such information is mostly missing from preserved hard skeletons, which form the bulk of the fossil record.

“We have shown the presence of protein preserved in a 195 million-year-old dinosaur, at least 120 million years older than any other similar discovery,” study co-author Robert Reisz of the University of Toronto Mississauga, told AFP.

“These proteins are the building blocks of animal soft tissues, and it’s exciting to understand how they have been preserved,” he added.

Reisz and a team scanned a rib bone of Lufengosaurus, a common dinosaur in the Early Jurassic period. Fully grown, these lizards

Dinosaurs are not really closely related to lizards.

measured about eight metres (26 feet).

The researchers used a photon beam at the National Synchrotron Radiation Research Center in Taiwan to examine the insides of the bone, specifically its chemical contents.

They found evidence of collagen proteins within tiny canals in the rib and concluded they were “probably remnants of the blood vessels that supplied blood to the bone cells in the living dinosaur.”

Most previous studies had extracted organic remains by dissolving away other parts of the fossil, the team said.

With the synchrotron method, this is not necessary, and even older remains may be uncovered without damaging dinosaur bones in future.

Does it bring us any closer to recovering DNA from which dinosaurs may one day be cloned?

“No, that is still fantasy,” said Reisz.

The previous oldest find of suspected and collagen fibres was reported in 2013, in that lived about 75 million years ago.

Proteins and other organic remains usually decay soon after an animal dies. During fossilisation, the space they occupied within bone is filled by mineral deposits carried by groundwater.

Finding fossilised soft tissue is very rare indeed.

Snow dinosaur in the USA

This video from Minnesota in the USA says about itself:

MN Family Builds Giant Snow Dinosaur

27 January 2017

One should hope this snow dinosaur will fare better than snow camels in Saudi Arabia.

Dinosaurs’ horns, crests, why?

This video is called Carnotaurus vs. iguanodon.

From Science News:

Bony head ornaments signal some supersized dinosaurs

Accents like bumps and horns on theropod skulls linked to evolution of bigger bodies

By Helen Thompson

1:46pm, January 25, 2017

Dinosaur fashion, like that of humans, is subject to interpretation. Bony cranial crests, horns or bumps may have served to woo mates or help members of the same species identify one another. While the exact purpose of this skull decor is debated, the standout structures tended to come with an even more conspicuous trait: bigger bodies.

Terry Gates, a paleontologist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, and colleagues noticed an interesting trend in the fossil record of theropods, a group of dinosaurs that includes Tyrannosaurus rex and the ancestors of birds. Bigger beasts often sported skeletal headgear.

Across the family tree, Gates and his team analyzed 111 fossils dating from 65 million to 210 million years ago, and the trend held true. It makes sense: “Dinosaur size matters in terms of how they will be visually talking to one another,” says Gates. “When you’re smaller, your means of visual communication would be different than when you’re giant.”

The researchers also calculated that over time, theropod lineages with head ornaments evolved giant bodies (larger than 1,000 kilograms) 20 times faster on average than those without. Ornaments might have supersized some dinos, but researchers aren’t sure. The analysis, which appeared September 27 in Nature Communications, suggests theropods had to reach at least 55 kilograms to grow the headgear.

But among big-boned relatives of modern birds, skull toppers weren’t in vogue. Many of these dinos grew heavier than 55 kilograms, but they instead sported feathers that resembled those used by modern birds for flight. That might be because bigger, bolder feathers and showy headwear served similar ends. Gates speculates: “Once you have a signaling device in the form of a feather, why grow a bony cranial crest?” For these plumed dinosaurs, feathers were in and bony ornaments were out.

Devastation detectives try to solve dinosaur disappearance. Retracing the terrifying, mysterious final days of the dinosaurs. By Thomas Sumner, 2:30pm, January 25, 2017: here.

Mammals and extinction of dinosaurs

This video says about itself:

31 December 2015

The world after the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs, when giant birds hunted mammals before they ruled the earth.

From Science News:

With dinosaurs out of the way, mammals had a chance to thrive

After the extinction event, a new crowd of animals had room to explore a reshaped world

By Meghan Rosen

2:30pm, January 25, 2017

For dinosaurs, the end of the world began in fire.

The space rock that stamped a Vermont-sized crater into the Earth 66 million years ago packed a powerful punch. Any animal living within about a thousand miles of the impact zone was probably vaporized, says paleontologist Stephen Brusatte of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

“Everything would have been toast.”

But outside of the impact zone, amid the smoking ruins of the battered planet, some survivors emerged.

Life there was no picnic. Wave after wave of life-threatening disasters pummeled the animals that remained, says paleontologist Nicholas Longrich of the University of Bath in England. Earthquakes. Wildfires. Volcanoes. Acid rain. Dust and gunk in the air, blotting out the sun. “It’s this series of biblical plagues,” Longrich says.

With little light, much plant life perished, and entire food webs collapsed, life would have been like an ancient Hunger Games, with all living creatures as contestants. The odds were not in their favor. From sea to land to lake to sky, animals suffered incredible losses.

“You’re basically losing all the big herbivores, all the big carnivores, apex predators in the oceans, entire guilds — wiped out overnight,” Longrich says. On land, he adds, anything bigger than a beaver went extinct. Just a few places in North America offer a fossil record of the early years after the extinction, he says, but “there’s no evidence for anything over 10 kilos surviving.”

Tyrannosaurus rex, Triceratops, Ankylosaurus and all other nonavian dinosaurs gone.

A lucky few animals managed to cope with the dramatic changes reshaping their environment, Brusatte says. But why exactly some animal groups survived and others bit the dust is still one of paleontology’s biggest mysteries.

New fossil research is now helping scientists peer back through time, offering glimmers of what might have been: How some animals made it through one of the worst extinction events the planet has ever seen — and how mammals, in particular, came to dominate.

Sussing out animals’ survival strategies could offer hints about how animals today might handle a changing climate, Brusatte says. It might even expose the evolutionary drivers that shaped modern life. After the extinction, evolution went wild, he says. The survivors “had a new world to play in — a new world to conquer.”

Cretaceous catastrophe

Near the very end of the Late Cretaceous Epoch, right before the world blew up, one of the largest mammals in North America may have been noshing on bones.

Didelphodon vorax, a honey badger–looking creature with oddly bulbous teeth, was petite by today’s standards — weighing just about five kilograms. But it was no lightweight. “Pound for pound, it had the greatest bite force of any mammal we’ve ever measured,” says paleontologist Gregory Wilson of the University of Washington in Seattle.

Wilson and colleagues estimated Didelphodon’s bite force from the shape of its fossilized skull. The mammal could snap its jaws together with about 50 pounds of force — enough to crush bones and crack shells, the team reported December 8 in Nature Communications.

This fearsome skill wasn’t enough to save it: After the asteroid hit and global disasters descended, Didelphodon went extinct — just like duck-billed dinosaurs and Pteranodon.

The colossal wipeout of Didelphodon and so many others is plain to see in the fossil record. In Montana’s badlands, where Wilson and colleagues hunt for ancient teeth and bones, tributaries of the Missouri River carve steep bluffs into the earth, exposing slabs of sandstone and siltstone rock. Montana is part of the Western Interior, an ancient seaway that once cut a wide aisle through North America from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic.

Much of what scientists know about the dino-killing event, called the Cretaceous–Paleogene, or K–Pg, extinction, traces back to this sweeping tract of land. The area has rocks with fossils from before and after the extinction event. “We haven’t found many places in the world like it,” Wilson says. Spain, France and Romania hold a few dinosaur and mammalian fossils from this time period (and a handful of underexplored spots in India and South America may offer more). But so far, the Western Interior is home to the best land-based record scientists have.

In Montana, the rocks capture a snapshot of time from about 2 million years before the extinction to roughly 1.5 million years after. A thin layer of reddish-brown clay marks the before and after of the asteroid’s impact. “It’s a line in the sand, almost literally,” Brusatte says. Within the clay, here and elsewhere in the world, scientists find elevated levels of iridium, a silvery-white metal carried to Earth via asteroid. Though not visible by eye (scientists need chemical tests to spot it), the metallic dust marks a memory of the impact known as Chicxulub.

All around the globe, Brusatte says, scientists see “a knife-edge separation in the rock” before and after Chicxulub hit. “For over 150 million years you have tons and tons of dinosaur bones, and then literally — Bam! There’s nothing.”

Dinosaurs were among the animal groups hit hardest by the extinction. Others suffered fewer casualties. In what is now northeastern Montana, about half of fish species survived, Wilson reported at an Origins Project workshop at Arizona State University in 2015. Turtles and salamanders seemed to fare the best, losing only roughly a quarter of their species, Wilson and colleagues reported in a series of studies in 2014.

“Most people think that mammals did awesome,” Wilson says. But at least 75 percent of mammals were snuffed out, according to his analysis, which compared fossils present before and after the extinction. Longrich and colleagues put the number even higher: Of 59 mammalian species living in North America during the Late Cretaceous Epoch, about 93 percent died out after the asteroid hit. Those calculations appeared in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology in August 2016.

Still, some species found a way to endure.

Survival strategies

A small body. An aquatic lifestyle. Night vision. An unfussy palate. Any one of these features could have helped survivors withstand the relentless undoing of their ecosystems.

It makes sense. Small animals would have required less food than large ones and may have had an easier time finding shelter. Animals that lived in water could have been buffered from dramatic temperature swings.

Nocturnal animals would have been able to hunt for food when debris-filled skies wrapped the world in gloom. The right diet, in fact, could have been one of the biggest tickets to survival. Among insects, for instance, the difference between survival and demise depended on dietary diversity.

Some insects are adventurous eaters: They feed on lots of different kinds of plants. Other insects are pickier. Leaf miners, for example, typically dine on just one plant species, or a few closely related ones, which made it hard to survive the cataclysm.

These insects burrow through leaves, leaving behind a distinctive trail. Cataloging the trails and other damage patterns on fossil leaves can give researchers a rough idea of the kinds of insects that went extinct — or survived, says Penn State paleontologist Michael Donovan. It’s like a calling card stamped into stone.

Donovan examined 3,646 fossil leaves found in Patagonia, Argentina, from slices of time bracketing the Chicxulub impact. The leaf-mining patterns seen before the impact vanished after the asteroid hit, he and colleagues reported in Nature Ecology & Evolution in 2016.

That suggests a major extinction of leaf-mining insects, a find echoed in previous results from North Dakota. (Though not all perished. Donovan saw new leaf-mining patterns after the extinction). Other types of leaf damage did persist through the extinction event — damage made by insects that eat many plant species. Unlike leaf miners, these insects took what they could get in the dark days after the impact. “That’s probably a good way to survive,” Donovan says.

This type of strategy may have helped some species adapt to their new habitat, Longrich says, which after the K–Pg extinction “happened to be this post-apocalyptic wasteland world.” It’s like Mad Max of the movies, he says. “A guy who’s super versatile — good at many different things,” Longrich says, “that’s who’s likely to live through an apocalypse.”

Some animals may have already been plugged into the right food chain. When dinosaurs began dying and leaves fell from trees, the bodies and detritus would have littered the ground and washed into rivers and lakes. That would have been a bonanza for the garbage disposal crew. Decaying matter could feed microbes and fish and insects, which could then feed larger animals, like crocodiles and mammals.

Birdlike dinosaurs with beaks could have cracked into another Cretaceous leftover: seeds. The calorie-rich food could have lasted for decades, says paleontologist Derek Larson of the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum in Alberta and the University of Toronto. Other birdlike dinosaurs, with sharp teeth but no beaks, would have had trouble eating seeds. That might explain why they succumbed, while their close relatives — ancestors of modern birds — survived, he and colleagues suggested last year in Current Biology (SN: 5/14/16, p. 11).

Making it as a mammal

Mammals seemed to capitalize on the detritus-based food chain too, Wilson says. He and University of Washington student Stephanie Smith studied fossils found in northeastern Montana from a 1.2-million-year window after the impact. “Fossil mammals are mostly just teeth,” Smith said at the 2016 Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting in Salt Lake City. “Luckily, teeth contain a lot of information.”

Smith compared the intricate details of fossil teeth with those from living mammals to learn about the ancient animals’ diets. In Montana, at least, mammals that lived during the first 200,000 years after the extinction event tended to have teeth that were good for crunching insects — “sharp and pointy,” Wilson says. These animals would have had a reliable source of supper. But plant eaters, which have teeth with big basins for grinding and crushing, would have seen their food supplies wither.

For some mammals, a sharp sense of smell could also have offered a competitive edge. Onychodectes tisonensis, a bull dog–sized mammal that lived about 350,000 years after the extinction, had one of the largest olfactory bulbs of any mammal (relative to the cerebrum) — bigger than those found in even expert sniffers like modern dogs and pigs. The smell organs look like two almonds sticking out from the front of the brain, says James Napoli of Brown University in Providence, R.I., who reported the results at the paleontology meeting last year. He and colleagues built a digital model based on a CT scan of an Onychodectes skull unearthed in New Mexico in 1892.

Having big olfactory bulbs means the animal would have been good at nosing out meals, a valuable skill when food is scarce, Napoli says.

Onychodectes belongs to a weird group of mammals called taeniodonts, says study coauthor Thomas Williamson of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science in Albuquerque. “They have bizarre-looking skulls, enlarged forearms, big claws,” he says. The animals may have survived by digging up and eating tough roots and tubers. “We call them the pigs of the Paleocene.”

Paleontologists don’t know for sure if this group of animals lived through the asteroid crash, or if they arose afterward. There’s just one reported taeniodont fossil from the Late Cretaceous — a partial skull from Alberta, Canada.

If taeniodonts did make it through the impact and its aftermath, an aptitude for rooting out hidden food caches would have been useful. If, instead, the animal group emerged later, Onychodectes could have been one of the early examples of mammalian experimentation.

For more than 150 million years, mammals had been “kept under the thumb of the dinosaurs,” Wilson says. After the extinction, with dinosaurs out of the picture, the “Age of Mammals” could begin.

Boomtime for mammals

In the years after the impact, the world was like a school playground that had banished the big kids.

The animals that survived the early hard years gave rise to a slew of new species able to fill the niches left behind by dinosaurs — and all the other creatures that didn’t make it. Before the impact, humans’ ancestors mostly scurried along the ground. But afterward, with fewer predators and competitors, they were free to try out new lifestyles, like living in trees and gliding.

Placental mammals, a group that includes humans, elephants and most mammals living today, experienced a big evolutionary boom, says Thomas Halliday, a paleobiologist at University College London. “Diversification exploded.”

Without dinosaurs breathing down their necks and with fewer competitors, placental mammals had “freedom to evolve in a variety of new directions,” Halliday says. It’s like they were “exploring almost every aspect of the ways of being a mammal.”

When exactly these mammals arose and how much dinosaurs were holding them back remains controversial: Molecular evidence places their origin tens of millions of years before the dinosaurs died. Fossil evidence puts it closer to the K–Pg extinction.

In a series of papers published in 2015 and 2016, Halliday and colleagues analyzed mammalian fossils to sketch out a clearer picture of placental mammals’ history. First, the team built a family tree focused on placental mammals that lived in the Paleocene, the 10-million-year epoch immediately following the extinction. That’s no easy feat, Halliday says, because these animals tend to lack the kind of standout features that would clearly label them as members of one group or another.

So he and colleagues created an exhaustive catalog of 680 body features (such as skull length, tooth number and molar shape) in 177 genera of extinct and living placental mammals and their close relatives. Presumably, animals that shared features were more closely related than those that didn’t. With so many species, the web of potential relationships was astronomical, Halliday says. “There were more possible arrangements … than there are hydrogen atoms in the universe.” The team plugged the data into a computer, which chugged through all the possibilities and came up with the most likely family tree.

Then, the researchers used the tree to calculate rates of evolution. Placental mammals, they found, probably did originate in the Late Cretaceous, but they evolved three times faster after the extinction event than in the 80 million years before it. “We’re talking about new anatomical innovations,” Halliday says: molars good for grinding leaves, limbs adapted for climbing or swimming.

One of these early innovators was Periptychus carinidens, a muscular animal that walked like a bear and had five toes with “weird little hooves,” says University of Edinburgh paleontologist Sarah Shelley. “It’s not like anything alive today.”

Shelley, Williamson and Brusatte described Periptychus fossils found in New Mexico’s San Juan Basin at the 2016 paleontology meeting. “They have really strange cheek teeth,” Williamson says. The teeth are enlarged and conical with big ridges that run from the base to the tip. He thinks Periptychus used its weird chompers to eat hard objects — seeds, perhaps, or unripe fruit.

Periptychus was among the first plant-eating placental mammals to emerge after the extinction — and for a few million years it flourished. Fossils of the animal have been found from West Texas to eastern Montana, Williamson says. “It must have been a highly successful mammal.” But Periptychus couldn’t cope with changes that came later — it died out about 60 million years ago. The animals “were early experiments,” he says, “but they were ultimately dead ends.”

That’s how it goes with evolution, Halliday says. After the dinosaurs died and mammals tested out different modes of life, some found success and others fizzled. “The most successful strategies are honed and the less successful ones are pared away,” he says.

What’s left is what we have today: more than 5,400 different mammal species spread across the world. But descending from an evolutionary winner doesn’t guarantee a safe future. As species carve out an ever more ideal niche, they become more and more vulnerable to extinction, Halliday says. Animals built for a narrow mode of living tend to have a hard time handling disruptions to their environment. And as the climate changes, some species have already begun to suffer. “In the metaphorical sense, we are in the middle of the asteroid strike right now,” he says.

Already, a changing climate has erased pockets of plants and animals across the globe, John Wiens of the University of Arizona in Tucson reported in December 2016 in PLOS Biology. Further warming in coming decades could ramp up extinctions, he warns.

That’s why studying life and death 66 million years ago is still relevant today, Brusatte says. “It’s not just storytelling about the ancient past,” he says. “It can help us understand our modern world,” and maybe even influence conservation strategies to mitigate some of the changes that are happening now.