Prehistoric whales, new discovery


This 2014 video is called Evolution of Whales Animation.

From PLOS:

A new early whale, Aegicetus gehennae, and the evolution of modern whale locomotion

New whale represents an intermediate stage between foot-powered and tail-powered swimming

December 11, 2019

A newly discovered fossil whale represents a new species and an important step in the evolution of whale locomotion, according to a study published December 11, 2019 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Philip Gingerich of the University of Michigan and colleagues.

The fossil record of whale evolution tracks the transition from land-dwelling ancestors to ocean-dwelling cetaceans. Protocetids are a group of early whales known from the Eocene Epoch of Africa, Asia, and the Americas. While modern whales are fully aquatic and use their tails to propel themselves through the water, most protocetids are thought to have been semi-aquatic and swam mainly with their limbs. In this study, Gingerich and colleagues describe a new genus and species of protocetid, Aegicetus gehennae.

The new whale was discovered in 2007 in the Wadi Al Hitan World Heritage Site in the Western Desert of Egypt. It is the youngest-known protocetid, dating to around 35 million years ago, and is known from one exceptionally complete skeleton and a partial second specimen, making it among the best-preserved ancient whales. Compared with earlier whales, it has a more elongated body and tail, smaller back legs, and lacks a firm connection between the hind legs and the spinal column. These adaptations indicate an animal that was more fully aquatic and less of a foot-powered swimmer than its ancestors.

The body shape of Aegicetus is similar to that of other ancient whales of its time, such as the famous Basilosaurus. These animals appear to be well-adapted for swimming through undulation of the mid-body and the tail, somewhat as crocodiles swim today. The authors suggest that an undulatory swimming style might represent a transitional stage between the foot-powered swimming of early whales and the tail-powered swimming of modern whales.

The authors add: “Early protocetid whales living 47 to 41 million years ago were foot-powered swimmers, and later basilosaurid and modern whales — starting about 37 million years ago — were tail-powered swimmers. The late protocetid Aegicetus was intermediate in time and form, and transitional functionally in having the larger and more powerful vertebral column of a tail-powered swimmer.”

See also here.

Prehistoric insect evolution in the Eocene


This 17 July 2018 video says about itself:

The Mystery of the Eocene’s Lethal Lake

In 1800s, miners began working in exposed deposits of mud near the town of Messel, Germany. They were extracting oil from the rock and along with the oil, they found beautifully preserved fossils of animals from the Eocene. What happened to these Eocene animals? And why were their remains so exquisitely preserved?

Two additional notes!

-At 00:56, we incorrectly labelled a Darwinius fossil as Thaumaturus. Thaumaturus was a fish and the fossil we show is definitely not a fish.

-Also, an additional image credit is required: Dmitry Bogdanov illustrated the fish we used to show scavengers.

From the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München in Germany:

Insect evolution during the Eocene epoch

October 25, 2019

Scientists at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich have shown that the incidence of midge and fly larvae in amber is far higher than previously thought. The new finds shed light on insect evolution and the ecology in the Baltic amber forest during the Eocene epoch.

In the Eocene epoch — between 56 and 33.9 million years ago — much of Northern Europe was covered by a huge forest, now referred to as the Baltic amber forest. The forest was probably dominated by pines and oaks, but also comprised representatives of many other deciduous species and conifers, including tropical taxa. The resins produced by the forest account for all of Europe’s amber, including the samples in which the LMU zoologists Viktor Baranov, Mario Schädel and Joachim T. Haug have now discovered many examples of entrapped midge and fly larvae. In a paper published in the online journal PeerJ, they point out that these finds refute the widespread notion that amber is devoid of such fossils. Their analysis also provides new evidence in relation to the ecology of the amber forests of Eocene age, which supports a new interpretation of this habitat as a warm to temperate seasonal humid forest ecosystem.

Flies and midges (Diptera) make up one of the most diverse groups of insects found in Germany. Their larval forms are an important element of many ecosystems and play a significant role in, for example, the decomposition and recycling of biomass. In spite of their ecological prominence, little is known about the evolution of dipteran larvae, and the fossilized specimens that have so far come to light — in particular those characteristic of terrestrial ecosystems — have so far been little studied. The authors of the new study have now identified more than 100 larvae in amber inclusions assembled by collectors in Northern Germany. The samples described come from either the Baltic or the Bitterfeld section of the amber forest. Most of the dipterans identified, belong to the group known as Bibionomorpha, whose evolutionary history extends over a period of more than 200 million years. With a total of 35 specimens, the group most frequently represented is the genus Mycetobia, which belongs to the Family Anisopodidae (whose members are commonly known as window gnats). Thanks to the abundance of this material, the researchers were able to reconstruct the relative growth rate of these larvae based on the length and width of the head capsule. The results confirmed that these gnats went through four larval stages, just like the present-day representatives of the same group. In addition, their overall morphology is very similar to that of extant window gnats. “Since the morphologies of the other fossil bibionomorphan larvae are also very reminiscent of their recent relatives, we can safely assume that they occupied habitats similar to those of our contemporary forms,” says Baranov, first author of the new paper. The presence of large numbers of Mycetobia larvae among the specimens examined therefore implies that Europe’s amber forests were characterized by moist conditions and an abundance of decaying organic matter. Moreover, the researchers also discovered the first fossilized larva that could be assigned to the [genus] Pachyneura (Diptera, Pachyneuridae) … Recent [species] are associated with dead wood in undisturbed woodland.

“Within the scientific community, a new interpretation of Europe’s amber forests is currently emerging. This is based on paleobotanical and isotope evidence which suggests that these woods constituted a warm-to-temperate seasonal ecosystem. Our findings provide further support for this picture,” Baranov explains. He and his colleagues argue that it is quite conceivable that, under the climatic conditions prevailing in Europe during the Eocene, a subtropical, seasonal forest would have supplied abundant amounts of decaying organic matter in the form of leaf litter and dead plants and animals, as well as bacterial biofilms and fungi. In any case, the dipteran larvae provide an independent source of information that can be used to reconstruct the nature of the paleohabitats. “Perhaps our most surprising find is a larva which we identified as a representative of a previously unknown group,” says Baranov. While this larva belongs among the march flies (Diptera, Bibionidae), it exhibits a very unusual combination of morphological characters which finds no parallel among modern representatives of this group.” In Baranov’s opinion, the specimen may document an experimental phase of their evolution, during which different lineages independently “discovered” similar sets of morphological traits.

Antarctica, from greenery, land mammals, to ice


This 3 October 2019 video says about itself:

When Antarctica Was Green

Before the start of the Eocene Epoch about 56 million years ago–Antarctica was still joined to both Australia and South America. And it turns out that a lot of what we recognize about the southern hemisphere can be traced back to that time when Antarctica was green.

Thanks to Ceri Thomas for the Notiolofos and Antarctodon illustrations! Check out more of Ceri’s paleoart here.

And thanks to Julio Lacerda and Studio 252mya for the Antarctodolops illustrations. You can find more of their work here.

Dinosaurs extinct, Italian stingrays survived


This 2011 video is about the fossil fish of Monte Bolca in northeastern Italy.

From the University of Vienna in Austria:

Fossil fish gives new insights into evolution after end-Cretaceous mass extinction

October 2, 2019

An international research team led by Giuseppe Marramà from the Institute of Paleontology of the University of Vienna discovered a new and well-preserved fossil stingray with an exceptional anatomy, which greatly differs from living species. The find provides new insights into the evolution of these animals and sheds light on the recovery of marine ecosystems after the mass extinction occurred 66 million years ago. The study was recently published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Stingrays (Myliobatiformes) are a very diverse group of cartilaginous fishes which are known for their venomous and serrated tail stings, which they use against other predatory fish, and occasionally against humans. These rays have a rounded or wing-like pectoral disc and a long, whip-like tail that carries one or more serrated and venomous stings. The stingrays include the biggest rays of the world like the gigantic manta rays, which can reach a “wingspan” of up to seven meters and a weight of about three tons.

Fossil remains of stingrays are very common, especially their isolated teeth. Complete skeletons, however, exist only from a few extinct species coming from particular fossiliferous sites. Among these, Monte Bolca, in northeastern Italy, is one of the best known. So far, more than 230 species of fishes have been discovered that document a tropical marine coastal environment associated with coral reefs which dates back to about 50 million years ago in the period called Eocene.

This new fossil stingray has a flattened body and a pectoral disc ovoid in shape. What is striking is the absence of sting and the extremely short tail, which is not long as in the other stingrays, and does not protrude posteriorly to the disc. This body plan is not known in any other fossil or living stingray. Since this animal is unique and peculiar, the researchers named the new stingray Lessiniabatis aenigmatica, which means “bizarre ray from Lessinia” (the Italian area where Bolca is located).

More than 70 percent of the organisms, such as dinosaurs, marine reptiles, several mammal groups, numerous birds, fish and invertebrates disappeared during the fifth-largest extinction event in the Earth’s history occurred about 66 million years ago at the end of the Cretaceous. In marine environments, the time after this event is characterized by the emergence and diversification of new species and entire groups of bony and cartilaginous fishes (sharks and rays), which reoccupied the ecological niches left vacant by the extinction’s victims. The new species experimented sometimes new body plans and new ecological strategies.

“From this perspective, the emergence of a new body plan in a 50-million-year-old stingray such as Lessiniabatis aenigmatica is particularly intriguing when viewed in the context of simultaneous, extensive diversification and emergence of new anatomical features within several fish groups, during the recovery of the life after the end-Cretaceous extinction event,” states Giuseppe Marramà.

Eocene fossil crane-flies’ eyes, new research


This 15 August 2019 video says about itself:

Exceptionally Detailed Fossil [Crane-]Fly Eyes Discovered In Denmark

The ancient eyes, each just 1.25mm across, belonged to a tiny crane-fly that lived 54 million years ago. Discovered by Lund University researchers, evidence of pigment within them is shedding new light on the evolution of compound eyes.

From Lund University in Sweden:

Composition of fossil insect eyes surprises researchers

August 15, 2019

Eumelanin — a natural pigment found for instance in human eyes — has, for the first time, been identified in the fossilized compound eyes of 54-million-year-old crane-flies. It was previously assumed that melanic screening pigments did not exist in arthropods.

“We were surprised by what we found because we were not looking for, or expecting it,” says Johan Lindgren, an Associate Professor at the Department of Geology, Lund University, and lead author of the study published this week in the journal Nature.

The researchers went on to examine the eyes of living crane-flies, and found additional evidence for eumelanin in the modern species as well.

By comparing the fossilized eyes with optic tissues from living crane-flies, the researchers were able to look closer at how the fossilization process has affected the conservation of compound eyes across geological time.

The fossilized eyes further possessed calcified ommatidial lenses, and Johan Lindgren believes that this mineral has replaced the original chitinous material.

This, in turn, led the researchers to conclude that another widely held hypothesis may need to be reconsidered. Previous research has suggested that trilobites — an exceedingly well-known group of extinct seagoing arthropods — had mineralized lenses in life.

“The general view has been that trilobites had lenses made from single calcium carbonate crystals. However, they were probably much more similar to modern arthropods in that their eyes were primarily organic,” says Johan Lindgren.

Compound eyes are found in arthropods, such as insects and crustaceans, and are the most common visual organ seen in the animal kingdom. They are made up of multiple tiny and light-sensitive ommatidia, and the perceived image is a combination of inputs from these individual units.

Prehistoric birds’ blue feathers, new research


This 26 June 2019 video says about itself:

An ancient relative of today’s rollers with a deep blue hue adds to our understanding of nature’s prehistoric palette.

SOMEWHERE OVER THE rainbow 48 million years ago, a happy little blue bird flew—until it soared over a lake belching toxic gases and died. The lake’s sediments then entombed the bird’s body, exquisitely preserving the oldest fossil evidence of blue feathers ever found.

Described in a study published today in Journal of the Royal Society Interface, the feathers belong to an extinct bird, Eocoracias brachyptera, that was recovered from Germany’s Messel Pit. This wonderland of well-preserved fossils dates back to the Eocene period, which lasted from 56 to 33.9 million years ago.

Researchers could infer E. brachyptera’s blue color only because they could compare it with its modern relatives, the rollers. Tiny structures preserved in the fossilized feathers resemble those that give modern birds either blue or gray hues, depending on their arrangement.

And as far as we know, blue feathers have been fairly uncommon through time: Of the 61 lineages of living birds, only 10 have species with E. brachyptera’s most probable coloration. But since modern rollers are far likelier to have blue than gray feathers, the researchers conclude that the ancient bird was a deep blue. It’s the first time that such a feather color has been reconstructed from the fossil record. “I would say that, for me, that was the most exciting and important part of this research,” says lead study author Frane Babarović, a Ph.D. student at the University of Sheffield.

From the University of Bristol in England:

Blue color tones in fossilized prehistoric feathers

June 25, 2019

Examining fossilised pigments, scientists from the University of Bristol have uncovered new insights into blue colour tones in prehistoric birds.

For some time, paleontologists have known that melanin pigment can preserve in fossils and have been able to reconstruct fossil colour patterns.

Melanin pigment gives black, reddish brown and grey colours to birds and is involved in creating bright iridescent sheens in bird feathers.

This can be observed by studying the melanin packages called melanosomes, which are shaped like little cylindrical objects less than one-thousandth of a millimetre and vary in shape from sausage shapes to little meatballs.

However, besides iridescent colours, which is structural, birds also make non-iridescent structural colours.

Those are, for example, blue colour tones in parrots and kingfishers. Until now, it was not known if such colours could be discovered in fossils.

This blue structural colour is created by the dense arrangement of cavities inside feathers, which scatters the blue light. Underneath is a layer of melanin that absorbs unscattered light.

Paleontologists have shown that the feather itself, which is made of keratin, does not fossilise while the melanin does. Therefore, if a blue feather fossilised, the dark pigment may be the only surviving feature and the feather may be interpreted as black or brown.

Now researchers from the University of Bristol, led by Frane Barbarovic who is currently at the University of Sheffield, have shown that blue feather melanosomes are highly distinct from melanosomes that are from feathers expressing black, reddish-brown, brown and iridescent, but overlap significantly with some grey feather melanosomes.

By looking at plumage colourations of modern representatives of fossil specimen and reconstructing which colour was the most likely present in the fossil specimen, they were able to discriminate between melanosomes significant for grey and blue colour, leading to the reconstruction of prehistoric Eocoracias brachyptera as a predominantly blue bird.

Frane Barbarovic said: “We have discovered that melanosomes in blue feathers have a distinct range in size from most of colour categories and we can, therefore, constrain which fossils may have been blue originally.

“The overlap with grey colour may suggest some common mechanism in how melanosomes are involved in making grey colouration and how these structural blue colours are formed.

“Based on these results in our publication we have also hypothesized potential evolutionary transition between blue and grey colour.”

The research team now need to understand which birds are more likely to be blue based on their ecologies and modes of life. The blue colour is common in nature, but the ecology of this colour and its function in the life of birds is still elusive.

Frane Barbarovic added: “We also need to understand how grey colour is made. This is made in a very different way in birds than it is in mammals. We believe it is related to how the melanosome shape can result in a kind of self-assembling process in the feather and the surface tension of the melanosomes pull them into certain configurations inside a feather as it forms.”

Fossil oak tree relatives discovery in Argentina


This 2017 video is about Castanopsis trees.

From Penn State university in the USA:

Argentine fossils take oak and beech family history far into Southern Hemisphere

June 7, 2019

One of the world’s most important plant families has a history extending much farther south than any live or fossil specimen previously recorded, as shown by chinquapin fruit and leaf fossils unearthed in Patagonia, Argentina, according to researchers.

“The oak and beech family is recognized everywhere as one of the most important plant groups and has always been considered northern,” said Peter Wilf, professor of geosciences and associate in the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute, Penn State. “We’re adding a huge spatial dimension to the history of the Fagaceae family, and that’s exciting.” The plant family also includes chestnuts and the closely related chinquapins.

Common in the Northern Hemisphere and Asian tropics, Fagaceae cross the equator only in Southeast Asia, and even there just barely. The latest study, published today (June 7) in Science, extends the family’s biogeographical history and suggests a Gondwanan supercontinent legacy in Asian rainforests larger than previously thought.

The researchers first found fossils resembling some oak leaves, with straight secondary veins and one tooth per secondary vein, at Laguna del Hunco, Chubut province. The leaves comprise about 10 percent of the thousands of 52-million-year-old leaf fossils, representing almost 200 species, found at the site over two decades in a long-term project between Penn State, Cornell University and Museo Paleontológico Egidio Feruglio (MEF), Trelew, Argentina.

For years the researchers hesitated to classify the leaves, because paleobotanist Edward Berry had assigned similar fossils to another family, and any claim of Fagaceae at so remote a location would require much more supporting evidence.

Later, the team unearthed rare fruit fossils — two fruit clusters, one with more than 110 immature fruits — at the site and compared them to living relatives. They found that these were fossils of ancient Castanopsis, an Asian chinquapin that today dominates the biodiverse, lower elevation mountain rainforests of Southeast Asia.

“One of the first clues was a little lip where the fruit is splitting open,” Wilf said. “I recognized this lip as being similar to the fruit of the Japanese chinquapin. Then I realized there’s a nut inside.”

The nuts are fully encased in a scaly outer covering, or cupule, that splits open when the fruits mature. The cupules are arranged on a spike-like fruiting axis, and the young nuts retain delicate parts from their flowering stage. Their features are just like the living Castanopsis, Wilf said, and the fruits confirm that the leaves are Fagaceae.

“This is the first confirmed evidence that Fagaceae, considered restricted to the Northern Hemisphere, was in the Southern Hemisphere,” said Maria Gandolfo, associate professor, Cornell University. “This is remarkable and allows us to rethink the origins of the fossil flora.”

The fossils date to the early Eocene 52.2 million years ago. They are the only fossilized or living Fagaceae ever found south of the Malay Archipelago, the island chain just north of Australia.

During the globally warm early Eocene there was no polar ice, and South America, Antarctica and Australia had not completely separated, comprising the final stage of the Gondwanan supercontinent. The researchers think animals had helped disperse the chinquapin’s ancestors from North to South America at an earlier time. The plants thrived in the wet Patagonian rainforest, whose closest modern analog is the mountain rainforests of New Guinea.

“Before the current semi-desert conditions, trees covered Patagonia,” said Rubén Cúneo, director of MEF. “Changes in climatic conditions turned it into a shrubland, and the trees were displaced.”

The chinquapins may have also ranged into then-adjacent Antarctica and on to Australia, said Wilf. Castanopsis may have survived in Australia until the continent collided with Southeast Asia, where today chinquapins are keystone species, providing forest structure and food and habitat for birds, insects and mammals.

“We’re finding, in the same rocks as Castanopsis, fossils of many other plants that live with it today in New Guinea and elsewhere, including ferns, conifers and flowering plants,” said Wilf. “You can trace some of the associations with Castanopsis seen in Eocene Argentina to southern China and beyond.”

Today, Castanopsis plays an important role in intercepting year-round mountain precipitation that delivers clean water for drinking, fishing and agriculture to more than half a billion people and sustains diverse freshwater and coastal ecosystems. However, humans are clearing these rainforests for timber, development and crop cultivation, and modern climate change is increasing droughts and fire frequency.

“These plants are adaptable if given time and space,” Wilf said, adding Castanopsis’ trek from Patagonia to Southeast Asia occurred over millions of years and thousands of miles. “But the pace of change today is hundreds of times faster than in geologic time. The animals that depend on these plants are adaptable only to the extent that the plants are, and we are one of the animals that depend on this system. If we lose mountain rainforests, really fast we lose reliable water flows for agriculture, clean coral reefs offshore, biodiversity and much more.”

This study has implications for extinction in the face of climate change, according to Kevin Nixon, professor and L.H. Bailey Hortorium curator, Cornell University. He said Castanopsis went extinct in Patagonia due to a major extinction caused by the slow cooling and drying of the climate that occurred with the glaciation of Antarctica and the rise of the Andes.

“Those kinds of climate changes can have massive effects on biodiversity,” Nixon said. “The relevance of understanding this is we can start to look at extinction processes. The better we can understand what causes extinction, the better we can deal with it.”

The National Science Foundation, National Geographic Society and David and Lucile Packard Foundation funded this research.