Fossil insect discovery in Indian amber


This video says about itself:

Frauke and Nina collecting Cambay Amber in Vastan, India in 2012. Video by Keith Luzzi.

From ScienceDaily:

Time flies: Insect fossils in amber shed light on India’s geological history

A new species of fungus gnat in Indian amber closely resembles its fossil relatives from Europe, disproving the concept of a strongly isolated Indian subcontinent

May 17, 2017

Summary: Researchers have identified three new species of insects encased in Cambay amber dating from over 54 million years ago. Researchers describe the new species of fungus gnats, which provide further clues to understanding India’s past diversity and geological history.

A new species of fungus gnat in Indian amber closely resembles its fossil relatives from Europe, disproving the concept of a strongly isolated Indian subcontinent.

Researchers have identified three new species of insects encased in Cambay amber dating from over 54 million years ago. In a new study published by PeerJ, researchers describe the new species of fungus gnats, which provide further clues to understanding India’s past diversity and geological history.

The most interesting finding from the discovery of these new gnat species is related to India´s plate tectonic history: Palaeognoriste orientale in Cambay amber belongs to a group that has previously been reported from slightly younger Baltic amber only. The species in Indian amber closely resembles its fossil relatives from Europe and therefore adds further evidence to regular faunal exchange between India and Europe while disproving the concept of a strongly isolated Indian subcontinent.

India, which was one part of the ancient supercontinent, Gondwana, started separating and heading north about 130 million years ago, finally collided with Asia some 59 million years ago, resulting in the Himalayan mountains. The time of formation of this amber (or at least its burial) is most likely around the time of collision of the Indian subcontinent with Asia.

The fossils of long beaked fungus gnats (Lygistorrhinidae) found in the Cambay amber are an exciting discovery. The name of this group refers to one of their most conspicuous characters: an elongated proboscis, which is presumably for feeding from flowers. This small family of tropical flies is known by only seven fossil and eight living genera. Given the rareness of this group Indian amber has revealed a surprising diversity with three species in three different fossil and modern genera. This even exceeds the number of known species in the well-studied Baltic amber, from which only two species are reported.

Cambay amber from India has only been studied for a few years, but is already providing an important role in uncovering secrets regarding the origins of India´s fauna. For many years, the well-established theory stated that India formed an isolated continent during its drift, allowing a highly endemic biota to develop. However, flies and other insects entrapped in Indian amber continue to reveal faunal connections to different epochs and regions of the world.

Though the exact mechanisms of faunal exchange remain unclear so far, dispersal might have been facilitated by an island chain system between India and Europe, as has already been suggested for biting midges.

Baleen whales’ ancestry, new study


This video from Australia says about itself:

How suction feeding preceded filtering in baleen whale evolution

29 November 2016

A remarkable 25-million-year-old whale fossil called ‘Alfred’ has provided long-sought evidence of how whales evolved from having teeth to hair-like baleen – triggering their rise as the largest creatures on Earth.

From ScienceDaily:

Baleen whales’ ancestors were toothy suction feeders

May 11, 2017

Summary: Modern whales’ ancestors probably hunted and chased down prey, but somehow, those fish-eating hunters evolved into filter-feeding leviathans. An analysis of a 36.4-million-year-old whale fossil suggests that before baleen whales lost their teeth, they were suction feeders that most likely dove down and sucked prey into their mouths. The study also shows that whales most likely lost the hind limbs that stuck out from their bodies more recently than previously estimated.

Modern whales’ ancestors probably hunted and chased down prey, but somehow, those fish-eating hunters evolved into filter-feeding leviathans. An analysis of a 36.4-million-year-old whale fossil suggests that before baleen whales lost their teeth, they were suction feeders that most likely dove down and sucked prey into their large mouths. The study published on May 11 in Current Biology also shows that whales most likely lost the hind limbs that stuck out from their bodies more recently than previously estimated.

The specimen, which researchers unearthed in the Pisco Basin in southern Peru, is the oldest known member of the mysticete group, which includes the blue whale, the humpback whale, and the right whale. At 3.75-4 meters long, this late Eocene animal was smaller than any of its living relatives, but the most important difference was in the skull. Modern mysticetes have keratin fibers — called baleen — in place of teeth that allow them to trap and feed on tiny marine animals such as shrimp. However, the newly described whale has teeth, so the paleontologists dubbed it Mystacodon, meaning “toothed mysticete.”

“This find by our Peruvian colleague Mario Urbina fills a major gap in the history of the group, and it provides clues about the ecology of early mysticetes,” says paleontologist and study co-author Olivier Lambert of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences. “For example, this early mysticete retains teeth, and from what we observed of its skull, we think that it displays an early specialization for suction feeding and maybe for bottom feeding.”

Mystacodon’s teeth exhibit a pattern of wear that differs from more archaic whales, the basilosaurids. Many basilosaurids were probably active hunters, similar to modern orcas, with mouths that were suited for biting and attacking, but Mystacodon has a mouth more suited for sucking in smaller animals, leading the researchers to conclude that Mystacodon most likely represents an intermediate step between raptorial and filter feeding and between the ancient basilosaurids and modern mysticetes.

“For a long time, Creationists took the evolution of whales as a favorite target to say that, ‘Well, you say that whales come from a terrestrial ancestor, but you can’t prove it. You can’t show the intermediary steps in this evolution,'” says Lambert. “And that was true, maybe thirty years ago. But now, with more teams working on the subject, we have a far more convincing scenario.”

Mystacodon bolsters that argument by displaying features of both basilosaurids and mysticetes. “It perfectly matches what we would have expected as an intermediary step between ancestral basilosaurids and more derived mysticetes,”says Lambert. “This nicely demonstrates the predictive power of the theory of evolution.”

Lambert and his colleagues think that Mystacodon may have started suction feeding in response to ecological changes. In illustrated reconstructions, Mystacodon is depicted diving down to the sea floor in a shallow cove, but based on this initial analysis, the researchers aren’t sure to which extent Mystacodon was adapted to bottom feeding. “We will look inside the bone to see if we can find some changes that may be correlated with this specialized behavior,” says Lambert. “Among marine mammals, when a slow-swimming animal is living close to the sea floor, generally the bone is much more compact, and this is something we want to test with these early mysticetes.”

The fossil’s pelvis offered another surprise: Mystacodon had fully articulated, tiny vestigial hind limbs that would have stuck out away from the whale’s body. Previously, paleontologists had thought that whales lost the hip articulation during the basilosaurid phase of their evolution, before baleen whales and modern toothed whales diverged. Though Mystacodon’s hind limbs were already tiny and well down the path toward being vestigial and useless, their articulation with the pelvis suggests that mysticetes and modern toothed whales may have lost this feature independently.

“For a long time, our comprehension of whale evolutionary history was hampered by the fact that most paleontologists were searching for bones relatively close to home, in Europe and North America,” Lambert says. “However, key steps in whales’ evolution happened in areas now occupied by India, Pakistan, Peru, and even Antarctica.” Lambert and his colleagues plan to return to the excavation site in Peru to see if they can find more whale fossils from different epochs.

See also here.

In a recent paper published in PLOS One, Saint Louis University professor of physics Jean Potvin, Ph.D., and biologist Alexander Werth, Ph.D. at Hampden-Sydney College, detail for the first time how baleen whales use crossflow filtration to separate prey from water without ever coming into contact with the baleen: here.

Earliest nightshade plant fossil discovered


This video is called Biology: Morphology of Flowering Plants: Solanaceae.

From Science News:

Tomatillo fossil is oldest nightshade plant

Pocketed berry is millions of years older than earlier estimates

By Meghan Rosen

2:14pm, January 5, 2017

Two tiny tomatillo fossils have kicked the origin of nightshade plants back to the age of dinosaurs.

The fossils, pressed into 52-million-year-old rock, suggest that the nightshade family originated millions of years earlier than scientists had suspected, researchers report in the Jan. 6 Science.

Nightshades include roughly 2,500 species of plants, from tomatoes to eggplants to tobacco. Previous estimates had dated the family to some 30 to 51 million years ago. And scientists had suggested that tomatillos, specifically, arose even more recently, around 10 million years ago.

Paleontologist Peter Wilf and colleagues have nixed that timeline. They uncovered the roughly 2-centimeter-tall fossils from an ancient lake in what is now [Argentinian] Patagonia. Each fossil preserves the delicate, tissue-paper-like sheath that typically covers a tomatillo’s central berry, like a candle inside a paper lantern. In one fossil, evidence of a berry (now turned to coal) still remains.

“This is like an impossible fossil,” says Wilf, of Pennsylvania State University in University Park. “That you could preserve something this delicate — this little papery structure. It’s unheard of.”

The outer structures may keep tomatillo berries dry — and afloat. “You’ve got an umbrella and a life raft,” Wilf says. And it’s built right in.

The fossils represent a new species of tomatillo, called Physalis infinemundi, Wilf and colleagues at Cornell University and the Paleontological Museum Egidio Feruglio in Patagonia report. Infinemundi is Latin for “at the end of the world.”

Fifty-two million years ago puts these tomatillos deep in the southern hemisphere during the final days of the supercontinent Gondwana, before Antarctica split from Australia and the southern tip of South America.

Ancient Indian primates discovered


This video is called 54 Million Year Old Fossils Point To India As Key In Primate Evolution.

From Science News:

Fossils hint at India’s crucial role in primate evolution

Limb bones may reveal what common ancestor looked like

By Bruce Bower

9:00am, September 8, 2016

Remarkably preserved bones of rat-sized creatures excavated in an Indian coal mine may come from close relatives of the first primatelike animals, researchers say.

A set of 25 arm, leg, ankle and foot fossils, dating to roughly 54.5 million years ago, raises India’s profile as a possible hotbed of early primate evolution, say evolutionary biologist Rachel Dunn of Des Moines University in Iowa and her colleagues. Bones from Vastan coal mine in Gujarat, India’s westernmost state, indicate that these tiny tree-dwellers resembled the first primates from as early as 65 million years ago, the scientists report in the October Journal of Human Evolution.

These discoveries add to previously reported jaws, teeth and limb bones of four ancient primate species found in the same mine. “The Vastan primates probably approximate a common primate ancestor better than any fossils found previously,” says paleontologist and study coauthor Kenneth Rose of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

The Vastan animals were about the size of living gray mouse lemurs and dwarf lemurs, weighing roughly 150 to 300 grams (roughly half a pound), the investigators estimate. Dunn’s group has posted 3-D scans of the fossils to Morphosource.org (SN: 3/19/16, p. 28) so other researchers can download and study the material.

Most Vastan individuals possessed a basic climbing ability unlike the more specialized builds of members of the two ancient primate groups that gave rise to present-day primates, the researchers say. One of those groups, omomyids, consisted of relatives of tarsiers, monkeys and apes. The other group, adapoids, included relatives of lemurs, lorises and bushbabies. The Indian primates were tree-dwellers but could not leap from branch to branch like lemurs or ascend trees with the slow-but-sure grips of lorises, the new report concludes.

Vastan primates probably descended from a common ancestor of omomyids and adapoids, the researchers propose. India was a drifting landmass headed north toward a collision with mainland Asia when the Vastan primates were alive. Isolated on a huge chunk of land, the Indian primates evolved relatively slowly, retaining a great number of ancestral skeletal traits, Rose suspects.

“It’s possible that India played an important role in primate evolution,” says evolutionary anthropologist Doug Boyer of Duke University. A team led by Boyer reported in 2010 that a roughly 65-million-year-old fossil found in southern India might be a close relative of the common ancestor of primates, tree shrews and flying lemurs (which glide rather than fly and are not true lemurs).

One possibility is that primates and their close relatives evolved in isolation on the island continent of India between around 65 million and 55 million years ago, Boyer suggests. Primates then spread around the world once India joined Asia by about 50 million years ago.

That’s a controversial idea. An increasing number of scientists suspect primates originated in Asia. Chinese primate fossils dating to 56 million to 55 million years ago are slightly older than the Vastan primates (SN: 6/29/13, p. 14; SN: 1/3/04, p. 4). The Chinese finds show signs of having been omomyids.

And in at least one respect, Boyer says, some of the new Vastan fossils may be more specialized than their discoverers claim. Vastan ankle bones, for instance, look enough like those of modern lemurs to raise doubts that the Indian primates were direct descendants of primate precursors, he holds.

Dunn, however, regards the overall anatomy of the Vastan fossils as “the most direct evidence we have” that ancestors of early primates lacked lemurs’ leaping abilities, contrary to what some researchers have argued.

Giant bird Gastornis in Arctic, 53 million years ago


This video says about itself:

This is a World were Birds Eat Horses- (C) Walking with Beasts

The first episode depicts the warm tropical world of the early Eocene which was 16 million years after the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs. Birds, including the giant carnivorous Gastornis, rule this world, while mammals are still very small. The setting is near the Messel pit in Germany. Due to volcanic activity, sudden bulk escapes of carbon dioxide trapped underneath lakes are a hazard. The episode centers around a Leptictidium family foraging for food. The Leptictidium is a small leaping shrew-like mammal. While the family is foraging, a female Gastornis who has been taking care of the single egg in her nest successfully hunts down a Propalaeotherium who has been slowed down by eating fermenting grapes.

Walking with Beasts thought Gastornis was carnivorous; contrary to later theories.

From Wildlife Extra:

Flightless giant bird roamed the Arctic 53m years ago

A giant, flightless bird with a head the size of a horse’s roamed the Arctic 53m years ago when the icy wilderness was more like a swamp, scientists have confirmed.

A joint study by American and Chinese institutions found that the massive beast, known as Gastornis, existed on what is now known as Ellesmere island, found above the Arctic circle. It’s estimated the bird was 6ft tall and weighed several hundred pounds.

The evidence for Gastornis’s presence in the Arctic comes from a single fossil toe bone, found by researchers in the 1970s. Scientists have now finally confirmed that the bone matches that of a fossilized Gastornis of similar age found in Wyoming.

“I couldn’t tell the Wyoming specimens from the Ellesmere specimen, even though it was found roughly 4,000km (2,500 miles) to the north,” said Prof Thomas Stidham of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. Stidham and his colleague Jaelyn Eberle, of the University of Colorado Boulder, matched the bones through techniques such as studying where muscle attachments lay. The research has been published in Scientific Reports.

The research raises some interesting questions over the behavior of Gastornis. The giant bird may have migrated south during winters in the Arctic, where darkness envelops the region for months at a time. The species was originally thought to be a formidable carnivore but recent research suggests that Gastornis was probably a vegan, using its huge beak to munch through leaves, nuts, seeds and fruit.

Eberle said bird fossils found in the Arctic are “extremely rare” and that the researchers aren’t sure whether Gastornis lived in the area year round.

“There are some sea ducks today that spend the winter in the cold, freezing Arctic, and we see many more species of waterfowl that are only in the Arctic during the relatively warmer spring and summer months,” she said.

Canada’s Ellesmere island is the 10th largest island in the world and lies adjacent to Greenland. Riven with fjords and attached to vast aprons of ice, Ellesmere is one of the coldest, driest and most remote places on Earth. Temperatures can reach -40C (-40F) in winter.

It was a very different place 53m years ago, however, during the Eocene epoch. During this time, Antarctica was still attached to Australia and global temperatures were unusually warm, which meant the world was mostly ice-free. Ellesmere island would have been covered in the sort of cypress swamps now found much farther south in the US, with evidence that the area hosted turtles, alligators, primates and even large hippo-like and rhino-like mammals.

While apes and alligators won’t be returning to Ellesmere any time soon, the researchers said that the discovery of Gastornis provided a better understanding of the consequences of a changed climate.

“Permanent Arctic ice, which has been around for millennia, is on track to disappear,” Eberle said.

“I’m not suggesting there will be a return of alligators and giant tortoises to Ellesmere island any time soon. But what we know about past warm intervals in the Arctic can give us a much better idea about what to expect in terms of changing plant and animal populations there in the future.”

Eocene fossil ant discovery in Montana, USA


Crematogaster aurora queen. This specimen is the oldest known species in its genus

From Smithsonian Science News in the USA:

New Montana ant species emerge from 46-million-year-old rock

By John Barrat

8 January 2016

She was a stunning brown queen; drowned some 46 million years ago in a shallow lake in Montana. Her remains, recently recovered along the Flathead River, consist of a shadowy silhouette pressed upon a piece of reddish brown shale. Named Crematogaster aurora, this winged female ant is the only known member of her species. Her discovery is raising eyebrows among scientists who study ants.

“Molecular data from living ants suggested that the genus Crematogaster had evolved more recently,” explains Dale Greenwalt, a paleontologist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. “Now, this 46-million-year-old specimen is requiring scientists to completely rethink when this genus and its related forms appeared. It is obvious it has been around much longer than previously calculated.”

Crematogaster aurora is one of 12 new prehistoric ant species discovered in Kishenehn Formation shale in northwestern Montana by Greenwalt. They are newly described and named in a paper in the journal Sociobiology by Greenwalt and ant expert J.S. LaPolla of Towson University in Maryland. All 12 represent species new to science, known only from the locality in Montana. All are long extinct yet some represent genera that still exist.

These Kishenehn fossils are from the middle Eocene (46 million years ago), a period of great interest for understanding the “evolution of ants and in particular, their march to terrestrial dominance,” the researchers say. It was during the Eocene that many of today’s ecologically dominant and species rich ant families emerged.

Factors that led to this diversification included the evolution and appearance of many new species of flowering plants, as well as high temperatures—in the early Eocene it was as much as 15 degrees C. warmer worldwide than it is today. “A lot of people also think the meteorite that caused the disappearance of the dinosaurs and ended the Cretaceous kind of reset the table for a lot of new things to evolve and diversify,” Greenwalt adds. “This maybe what happened with the ants.”

While LaPolla and Greenwalt name 12 new fossil species in their paper, the specimens are from a much larger pool of 249 ant fossils examined for the study. The majority of the ants discovered are alates, “which are simply winged forms of the ants,” Greenwalt says. “Workers and soldiers don’t have wings and pretty much stayed on land.”

The alates were able to fly over the lake that formed the Kishenehn shale and many of them fell into the water and ended up on the bottom. Almost all of the fossil ants in the Kishenehn are winged, many of them queens.

By comparing Kishenehn ant species and genera with other North American Eocene fossil deposits such as the Green River Deposit along the Green River in Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah (48 million years old) and the Florissant Formation in Colorado (34 million years old) scientists can gradually piece together the abundance and distribution of North American ants during this period.

What can the Eocene epoch teach us about today’s global warming? Here.

Extinct horse with fossil uterus discovery


A skeleton of a Eurohippus messelensis mare is shown with its fetus (white ellipse). (photo: Sven Traenkner)

From the Los Angeles Times in the USA:

Oldest preserved uterus found in ancient horse-like fossil

Deborah Netburn

October 7, 2015

Talk about a mother of a discovery: Researchers in Germany have found the fossil of a 48-million-year-old pregnant horse relative, her fetus and bits of her preserved uterus as well.

It is the oldest and only the second fossil uterus ever described, according to Jens Franzen of the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt, Germany.

Franzen and his colleagues described the find in a paper published Wednesday in PLOS One.

Less than 2% of fossil mammal finds have yielded anything more than fragments of jaw material and other bones, which makes this discovery particularly unexpected.

The primitive horse relative is known as Eurohippus messelensis. It was much smaller than modern-day horses. Even fully grown, the ancient equine was about the size of a fox terrier — about 12 inches high at the shoulders. It was discovered in Grube Messel, near Darmstadt, Germany.

In the picture above, you are looking mostly at the fossilized remains of the mare. The fetus is located in the white oval.

Franzen and his colleagues report that the 48-million-year-old uterus looks nearly identical to those found in modern horses. This suggests that the uteral system was already well developed by the Eocene period (56 to 34 million years ago), and may date back to the Paleocene era (66 million to 56 million years ago) or even earlier.

Grube Messel is a former shale quarry that is famous for its complete vertebrate skeletons. Back in the time when Eurohippus messelensis roamed, it was a freshwater lake, surrounded by a tropical rainforest.

Animals that fell in the lake were preserved thanks to an interaction between bacteria in the lake and iron in the water.

After a dead animal was submerged in the lake, bacteria gathered on its soft tissue and started producing CO2. The CO2 reacted with the iron in the lake to form iron carbonate minerals. This material hardened on the bacteria, creating a fixed bacterial mat that exactly followed the lines of the decomposing soft tissue.

“The bacteria petrified themselves,” Franzen said.

The preserved bit of uterus was not immediately obvious, however. The researchers said they first noticed a “conspicuous gray shadow” between the fetus and the lumbar vertebrae of the mother, after taking a micro X-ray of the fossil.

They eliminated the possibility that the shadow was an artifact of preparation or an abdominal muscle. Eventually, they concluded that they were looking at the oldest bit of fossilized uterus ever seen.

The authors are still not sure what killed the mother Eurohippus messelensis, but it is unlikely that childbirth was to blame. Although the fetus was near term when its mother died, it was not yet positioned to enter the birth canal.

See also here. And here.