Ancient four-legged whale discovery in Peru


This 4 April 2019 video says about itself:

Four-legged whale ancestors reached South America in an otter-like swimming style

A four-legged whale from Peru indicates that early whales crossed the South Atlantic before 42.6 million years ago and may have propelled like otters: with a robust tail and webbed fingers on their long feet.

Production: Stéphane Van Israël, Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences

From ScienceDaily:

Ancient, four-legged whale with otter-like features found along the coast of Peru

April 4, 2019

Cetaceans, the group including whales and dolphins, originated in south Asia more than 50 million years ago from a small, four-legged, hoofed ancestor. Now, researchers reporting the discovery of an ancient four-legged whale — found in 42.6-million-year-old marine sediments along the coast of Peru — have new insight into whales’ evolution and their dispersal to other parts of the world. The findings are reported in the journal Current Biology on April 4.

The presence of small hooves at the tip of the whale’s fingers and toes and its hip and limbs morphology all suggest that this whale could walk on land, according to the researchers. On the other hand, they say, anatomical features of the tail and feet, including long, likely webbed appendages, similar to an otter, indicate that it was a good swimmer too.

“This is the first indisputable record of a quadrupedal whale skeleton for the whole Pacific Ocean, probably the oldest for the Americas, and the most complete outside India and Pakistan”, says Olivier Lambert of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences.

Some years ago, study co-author Mario Urbina of Museo de Historia Natural-UNMSM, Peru, discovered a promising area for digging fossils in the coastal desert of southern Peru, named Playa Media Luna. In 2011, an international team, including members from Peru, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Belgium, organized a field expedition, during which they excavated the remains of an ancient whale they’ve since named Peregocetus pacificus. It means “the traveling whale that reached the Pacific.”

“When digging around the outcropping bones, we quickly realized that this was the skeleton of a quadrupedal whale, with both forelimbs and hind limbs,” Lambert says.

With the help of microfossils, the sediment layers where the skeleton was positioned were precisely dated to the middle Eocene, 42.6 million years ago. Anatomical details of the skeleton allowed them to infer that the animal was capable of maneuvering its large body (up to 4 meters long, tail included), both on land and in the water. For instance, features of the caudal vertebrae (in the tail) are reminiscent of those of beavers and otters, suggesting a significant contribution of the tail during swimming.

The geological age of the new four-limbed whale and its presence along the western coast of South America strongly support the hypothesis that early cetaceans reached the New World across the South Atlantic, from the western coast of Africa to South America, the researchers report. The whales would have been assisted in their travel by westward surface currents and by the fact that, at the time, the distance between the two continents was half what it is today. The researchers suggest that, only after having reached South America, the amphibious whales migrated northward, finally reaching North America.

The international team continues to study the remains of other whales and dolphins from Peru. “We will keep searching in localities with layers as ancient, and even more ancient, than the ones of Playa Media Luna, so older amphibious cetaceans may be discovered in the future,” Lambert says.

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Fossil sharks, rays discovery in Madagascar


Eocene shark teeth from northwestern Madagascar. Credit: Samonds et al, 2019

From PLOS:

A rare assemblage of sharks and rays from nearshore environments of Eocene Madagascar

This finding, including one new shark species, fills a gap in the known marine record of Madagascar

February 27, 2019

Eocene-aged sediments of Madagascar contain a previously unknown fauna of sharks and rays, according to a study released February 27, 2019 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Karen Samonds of Northern Illinois University and colleagues. This newly-described fauna is the first report of sharks and rays of this age in Madagascar.

The Mahajanga basin of northwestern Madagascar yields abundant fossil remains of terrestrial and marine ecosystems, but little is known about fossil sharks and rays during the Eocene Epoch, 55-34 million years ago, in this region. This is in contrast to the numerous shark and ray faunas known from other Eocene sites around the globe, and to shark and ray ecosystems known from older and younger sediments in the Mahajanga basin.

In this study, Samonds and colleagues collected isolated teeth, dental plates, and stingray spines from ancient coastal sediments of the Ampazony and Katsepy regions of the basin, dated to the middle to late Eocene. They identified at least 10 species of sharks and rays, including one new species, Carcharhinus underwoodi. This is the oldest named species of Carcharhinus, a genus that has been globally distributed for the past 35 million years but is known only rarely from the Eocene.

Aside from the new species, the fauna of Eocene Madagascar shares many species with Eocene ecosystems across North Africa, suggesting these animals were widespread in southern seas at that time. On the other hand, the Madagascar fauna is uniquely lacking in sandsharks and dominated by eagle rays, indicating a somewhat unusual ecosystem, unsurprising given Madagascar’s long history of isolation. The authors caution that this study provides an incomplete picture given that they collected only fossils larger than 2 millimeters. They recommend that future studies target smaller material for a more complete view of the ancient ecosystem.

Oldest seed-eating perching bird discovered


This 7 February 2019 video is called Ancestor to modern day sparrows flew around 52 million years ago.

From the Field Museum in the USA:

Earliest known seed-eating perching bird discovered in Fossil Lake, Wyoming

February 7, 2019

Summary: The ‘perching birds‘, or passerines, are the most common birds in the world today — they include sparrows, robins, and finches. They used to be very rare. Scientists have just discovered some of the earliest relatives of the passerines, including a 52-million-year-old fossil with a thick, curved beak for eating seeds.

Most of the birds you’ve ever seen — sparrows, finches, robins, crows — have one crucial thing in common: they’re all what scientists refer to as perching birds, or “passerines”. The passerines make up about 6,500 of the 10,000 bird species alive today. But while they’re everywhere now, they were once rare, and scientists are still learning about their origins. In a new paper in Current Biology, researchers have announced the discovery of one of the earliest known passerine birds, from 52 million years ago.

“This is one of the earliest known perching birds. It’s fascinating because passerines today make up most of all bird species, but they were extremely rare back then. This particular piece is just exquisite,” says Field Museum Neguanee Distinguished Service Curator Lance Grande, an author of the paper. “It is a complete skeleton with the feathers still attached, which is extremely rare in the fossil record of birds.”

The paper describes two new fossil bird species — one from Germany that lived 47 million years ago, and another that lived in what’s now Wyoming 52 million years ago, a period known as the Early Eocene. The Wyoming bird, Eofringillirostrum boudreauxi, is the earliest example of a bird with a finch-like beak, similar to today’s sparrows and finches. This legacy is reflected in its name; Eofringilllirostrum means “dawn finch beak.” (Meanwhile, boudreauxi is a nod to Terry and Gail Boudreaux, longtime supporters of science at the Field Museum.)”

The fossil birds’ finch-like, thick beaks hint at their diet. “These bills are particularly well-suited for consuming small, hard seeds,” says Daniel Ksepka, the paper’s lead author, curator at the Bruce Museum in Connecticut. Anyone with a birdfeeder knows that lots of birds are nuts for seeds, but seed-eating is a fairly recent biological phenomenon. “The earliest birds probably ate insects and fish, some may have been eating small lizards,” says Grande. “Until this discovery, we did not know much about the ecology of early passerines. E. boudreauxi gives us an important look at this.”

“We were able to show that a comparable diversity of bill types already developed in the Eocene in very early ancestors of passerines,” says co-author Gerald Mayr of the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt. “The great distance between the two fossil sites implies that these birds were widespread during the Eocene, while the scarcity of known fossils suggests a rather low number of individuals,” adds Ksepka.

While passerine birds were rare 52 million years ago, E. boudreauxi had the good luck to live and die near Fossil Lake, a site famous for perfect fossilization conditions.

“Fossil Lake is a really graphic picture of an entire community locked in stone — it has everything from fishes and crocs to insects, pollen, reptiles, birds, and early mammals,” says Grande. “We have spent so much time excavating this locality, that we have a record of even the very rare things.”

Grande notes that Fossil Lake provides a unique look at the ancient world — one of the most detailed pictures of life on Earth after the extinction of the dinosaurs (minus the birds) 65 million years ago. “Knowing what happened in the past gives us a better understanding of the present and may help us figure out where we are going for the future.”

With that in mind, Grande plans to continue his exploration of the locale. “I’ve been going to Fossil Lake every year for the last 35 years, and finding this bird is one of the reasons I keep going back. It’s so rich,” says Grande. “We keep finding things that no one’s ever seen before.”

Ancient baleen whale evolution, new research


This March 2014 video says about itself:

A prehistoric whale graveyard was discovered in a Chilean desert a few years ago, and no one could figure out how the whales all died together half a mile from the coast… until now. Anthony is here to tell you how something as small as algae might have killed dozens of whales at once.

From the University of Otago in New Zealand:

Piece to the puzzle of baleen whales’ evolution

January 22, 2019

An Otago researcher has added another piece to the puzzle of the evolution of modern baleen whales with a world-first study examining the teeth and enamel of baleen whales’ ancestors.

Modern baleen whales have no teeth when adults, instead they use large keratin plates called baleen to filter prey from large volumes of seawater. However, millions of years ago their ancestors had teeth as most mammals do.

Lead author of the research just published in the Journal of Mammalian Evolution, Dr Carolina Loch from the Faculty of Dentistry, explains scientists are still trying to understand how and why this process happened. The research she carried out together with colleagues from the National Scientific and Technical Research Council in Argentina, CONICET, and the Swedish Museum of Natural History has provided more information.

They studied details of the inside structure of the teeth of two fossil whales from around 35 million years ago. These teeth were collected in Antarctica by the Argentinian and Swedish study co-authors Monica Buono and Thomas Mörs. Because teeth are naturally heavily mineralised, they preserve well in the fossil record and can provide clues of how extinct animals lived.

“We looked at how the enamel — the hard outside cover of teeth — and dentine, the core ‘living’ part, were structured and how similar or different they were from teeth of living whales, other fossil whales and other mammals,” Dr Loch explains.

“Both fossil whales we analysed (basilosaurid and fossil mysticete) had a complex enamel layer with biomechanical structures that suggest they were capable of heavy shearing and processing of their prey”, she says.

The enamel layer of the fossil mysticete they studied was the thickest enamel layer ever observed among cetaceans, both extinct and living.

“This is quite puzzling; baleen whales’ ancestors had teeth with complex and thick enamel, but millions of years later the teeth were ‘lost’ and replaced with large keratin plates called baleen”, Dr Loch says.

Because of the rarity of the material examined, Dr Loch says it is quite significant that the researchers were able to study them.

“Scanning electron microscopy is considered a ‘destructive’ type of analysis because the specimens need to be cut, polished and gold coated. It is fantastic that some museum curators are open to facilitate this kind of research and allow us to unravel new and important information.”

The study of the structure of the enamel and dentine of animals, both fossil and living, is a strength of Dr Loch’s research programme. Last year, the University of Otago highlighted another of her projects examining bottlenose dolphin teeth to help understand coastal contamination.

She hopes to continue studying teeth to help learn about how past animals lived and interacted with the environment, showing the breadth of the multidisciplinary research carried out in the University’s Faculty of Dentistry.

“As more fossil whales and other mammals are discovered and described, there is more material to be studied. I will continue working in partnership with colleagues overseas and in New Zealand in order to add small pieces to this puzzle — one tooth at a time.”

Ancient whale Basilosaurus, new research


This is a BBC Basilosaurus video.

From PLOS:

15-meter-long ancient whale Basilosaurus isis was top marine predator

Fossils from ‘Valley of Whales’ suggest B. isis predated smaller whales and fish

January 9, 2019

The stomach contents of ancient whale Basilosaurus isis suggest it was an apex predator, according to a study published January 9, 2019 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Manja Voss from the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, Germany, and colleagues.

The authors uncovered an adult B. isis specimen in 2010 in the Wadi Al Hitan (“Valley of Whales”) site in Cairo, Egypt. This site was once a shallow sea during the late Eocene period and is remarkable for its wealth of marine fossils. While excavating this main B. isis specimen, the authors also revealed the remains of sharks, large bony fish, and, most numerously, bones from Dorudon atrox, a smaller species of ancient whale. The Basilosaurus skeleton was distinct from other skeletons in the cluster, containing pointed B. isis incisors and sharp cheek teeth as well as bones. Most of the fish, and Dorudon whale remains showed signs of breakage and bite marks, were fragmented, and tended to be clustered within the body cavity of the B. isis specimen.

One hypothesis to explain the clustering of these remains was that D. atrox had scavenged the B. isis carcass and fish. However, the D. atrox were juveniles, capable only of drinking mother’s milk. Bite marks on prey skulls also indicated predation rather than scavenging, since predators commonly target the head. The authors therefore position B. isis as a top predator which ate its prey live, rather than by scavenging. They propose that the remains of fish and juvenile D. atrox in the cluster are remnants of previous B. isis meals, while the teeth of sharks indicate postmortem scavenging.

Voss and colleagues draw a comparison with the modern-day killer whale (Orcinus orca), another toothed whale apex predator which often feeds on smaller whales and frequently hunts humpback whale calves during humpback calving season. The authors hypothesize that the Wadi Al Hitan site was a whale calving site for prey whale Dorudon, making it a hunting site for top predator B. isis during the late Eocene.

Primates’ origin in North America, not Asia?


This 29 November 2018 video from the USA says about itself:

Early primate ancestor may have come from North America

A mouse-sized primate known as Teilhardina eventually gave rise to today’s monkeys, apes and humans. But one of the persistent mysteries about this distant relative of ours is where it came from. New research by University of Florida doctoral graduate Paul Morse shows that Teilhardina brandti, a species found in Wyoming, is as old or older than its Asian and European relatives, upending the prevailing hypothesis that this early primate first appeared in China.

From the Florida Museum of Natural History in the USA:

Oldest-known ancestor of modern primates may have come from North America, not Asia

November 29, 2018

Summary: A new fossil analysis suggests the earliest-known ancestor of modern primates may have come from North America, not Asia, as previously thought.

About 56 million years ago, on an Earth so warm that palm trees graced the Arctic Circle, a mouse-sized primate known as Teilhardina first curled its fingers around a branch.

The earliest-known ancestor of modern primates, Teilhardina’s close relatives would eventually give rise to today’s monkeys, apes and humans. But one of the persistent mysteries about this distant cousin of ours is where it originated.

Teilhardina (ty-hahr-DEE’-nuh) species quickly spread across the forests of Asia, Europe and North America, a range unparalleled by all other primates except humans. But where did its journey begin?

New research shows that Teilhardina brandti, a species found in Wyoming, is as old or older than its Asian and European relatives, upending the prevailing hypothesis that Teilhardina first appeared in China.

Teilhardina’s origins, however, remain a riddle.

“The scientific conclusion is ‘We just don’t know,'” said Paul Morse, the study’s lead author and a recent University of Florida doctoral graduate. “While the fossils we’ve found potentially overturn past hypotheses of where Teilhardina came from and where it migrated, they definitely don’t offer a clearer scenario.”

What is clear, Morse said, is that T. brandti had a wide variety of features, some of which are as primitive as those found in Teilhardina asiatica, its Asian cousin, previously thought to be the oldest species in the genus.

To make this determination, Morse studied 163 teeth and jaws in the most comprehensive analysis of T. brandti to date.

Teeth contain a treasure-trove of information and often preserve better than bone, thanks to their tough enamel. They can reveal clues about an animal’s evolutionary past, its size, diet and age as an individual and in geological time.

Primate teeth have particularly distinct structures that are immediately recognizable to the trained eye, said Jonathan Bloch, study co-author and curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

“Identifying differences between primate teeth is not so different from a biker recognizing that a Harley is different from a scooter or an art critic evaluating whether an image was created by Picasso or Banksy,” he said. “In detail, they are very different from each other in specific, predictable ways.”

While Teilhardina bones are very rare in the fossil record, its teeth are more plentiful — if you know how to find them. Bloch’s team of paleontologists, Morse included, have spent years combing the surface of Wyoming’s Bighorn Basin on hands and knees and then packing out 50-pound bags of soil to a river to screen wash. The remaining bits of bones and teeth — which can be smaller than a flea — are examined under a microscope back at the museum.

This painstaking search has built up the dental record of T. brandti from a single molar — used to first describe the species in 1993 — to hundreds of teeth, providing a broad look at the primate’s population-level variation.

Still, Morse and Bloch were unprepared for the peculiar variation exhibited by specimen UF 333700, a jagged piece of jaw with T. brandti teeth.

“Jon and I started arguing about the alveoli” — empty tooth sockets — “and how they didn’t look right at all,” said Morse, now a postdoctoral researcher at Duke University. “By the end of the day, we realized that specimen completely overturned both the species definition of T. asiatica and part of the rationale for why it is the oldest Teilhardina species.”

Studies based on a small number of teeth simply missed the diversity in Teilhardina’s physical characteristics, Morse said.

“There’s likely a tremendous amount of variation in the fossil record, but it’s extremely difficult to capture and measure when you have a small sample size,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons collecting additional fossils is so important.”

The analysis also reshuffled the Teilhardina family tree, reducing the number of described species from nine to six and reclassifying two species as members of a new genus, Bownonomys, named for prominent vertebrate paleontologist Thomas Bown.

But the precise ages of Teilhardina species are still impossible to pinpoint and may remain that way.

Teilhardina appeared during the geological equivalent of a flash in the pan, a brief 200,000-year period known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, or PETM. This era was characterized by a massive injection of carbon into the Earth’s atmosphere, which sent global temperatures soaring. Sea levels surged by 220 feet, ecosystems were overhauled and the waters at the North Pole warmed to 74 degrees.

Scientists can use the distinct carbon signature of the PETM to locate this period in the rock record, and carbon isotopes in teeth can also be used to identify fossil animals from the era.

But among Teilhardina fossil sites across the globe, only Wyoming has the uninterrupted, neatly demarcated layers of rock that allow paleontologists to hone in on more precise dates.

“The humblest statement would be to say that these species are essentially equivalent in age,” Bloch said. “Determining which came earlier in the PETM probably surpasses the level of resolution we have in the rock record. But what we can say is that the only place where you can really establish where Teilhardina appears in this climate event with confidence is in the Bighorn Basin.”

As the Earth warmed, plants and animals expanded their ranges northward, returning south as temperatures cooled at the end of the PETM.

“This dance of plants and animals with climate change happened over vast landscapes, with forests moving from the Gulf Coast to the Rocky Mountains in just a few thousand years,” Bloch said.

Teilhardina likely tracked the shifts in its forest habitats across the land bridges that then connected North America, Greenland and Eurasia, he said.

“Teilhardina is not throwing its bag over its shoulder and walking,” he said. “Its range is shifting from one generation to the next. Over 1,000 years, you get a lot of movement, and over 2,000-3,000 years, you could easily cover continental distances.”

While it was well-suited to Earth’s hothouse environment, Teilhardina disappeared with the PETM, replaced by new and physically distinct primates. It’s a sobering reminder of what can happen to species — including humans — during periods of swift climatic changes, Bloch said.

“A changing planet has dramatic effects on biology, ecosystems and evolution. It’s part of the process that has produced the diversity of life we see today and mass extinctions of life that have happened periodically in Earth’s history,” Bloch said. “One of the unexpected results of global warming 56 million years ago is that it marks the origin of the group that ultimately led to us. How we will fare under future warming scenarios is less certain.”

Prehistoric parasitic wasps discovered


This 6 September 2018 video says about itself:

New Species of Parasitic Wasps Found in Fossil Flies | National Geographic

When scientists scanned 35 million-year-old fly pupae, they discovered a hidden intruder—fossilized parasitic wasps.

Out of 1,510 ancient fly pupae that were discovered at a site in France, 55 housed the parasitic invaders. Several species of parasitic wasp injected their eggs into the pupae as the maggots transformed into flies. The wasps hatched inside the fly pupae and ate the young flies. Scientists identified four new wasp species among the cache of fossils.

Read more here.