Giraffe ancestry, new research

This video is about giraffes in Africa.

From Science journal:

Odd creature was ancient ancestor of today’s giraffes

By Sid Perkins

24 November 2015 7:15 pm

A distant relative of today’s giraffes was a bit of an odd creature: It was about the size of a bull moose, but it had a long neck that could stretch both up to eat tree leaves and down to eat grass. That’s the conclusion of the first comprehensive analysis of a complete set of fossilized neck bones from the animal, known as Samotherium major. Samotherium, which lived in the open woodlands of Eurasia about 7 million years ago, had a neck about 1 meter long—about half the length of that of today’s giraffes. (And like the vast majority of mammals, from tiny mice to towering giraffes, it had seven neck vertebrae.)

Some scientists have long presumed today’s giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis), which includes a handful of subspecies scattered throughout sub-Saharan Africa, evolved from an animal that looked like its close cousin the okapi (Okapia johnstoni), which lives in the tropical forests of central Africa. The team’s analyses of bones from all three animals bolster that notion—and not just because the neck bones are of a length between the giraffe’s and the okapi’s. For example, ridges and other features that are prominent on the okapi’s neck bones and missing entirely on the giraffe’s are typically present but smaller on Samotherium’s, the researchers report online today in Royal Society Open Science.

See also here.

Fossil seal discovered in South America

Figure 6, from Valenzuela-Toro et al. (2015) shows the relative size of Australophoca changorum (number 12 in the figure) to other assemblages of fossil and living pinnipeds, from other places (based on latitude) and geologic times

This picture shows the relative size of newly discovered fossil seal Australophoca changorum (number 12 in the figure) to other fossil and living pinnipeds (seal relatives), from other places (based on latitude) and geologic times.

From Pyenson Lab:


by Ana Valenzuela-Toro

Australophoca, a new dwarf fossil seal from South America

Today, my South American colleagues and I announce the publication of a new species of fossil seal from the western coast of South America. The name of the new genus and species, Australophoca changorum, reflects its austral origin from Chile and Peru, and honors the Changos, a coastal tribe of indigenous people who lived in the Atacama (from northern Chile to southern Peru), and were short in stature. The description, published in Papers in Palaeontology, provides a scientific name for a dwarf species of true seal from the late Miocene Bahía Inglesa and Pisco formations of Chile and Peru, respectively. One of the paratype specimens that we identified was originally recovered from Cerro Ballena in the Atacama Region of Chile; the type specimen is USNM 438707.

This tiny fossil seal was smaller than a living harbor seal (Phoca vitulina), and ranks among the smallest true seals ever described, including both living and fossil ones. Interestingly, in the past ~11-3 million years, the western coast of South America seems to have been only occupied by true seals (or phocids), a fact that stands in stark difference to what we know about pinniped communities from other parts of the world, and other time[s] in the geologic record. This unusual feature of the pinniped community in western South America fits into a broader pattern of ecological turnover seen in the fossil record of marine consumers, including pinnipeds and seabirds, throughout the Southern Hemisphere, since the late Miocene.

Fossil bat discovery in New Zealand

This video says about itself:

27 June 2012

On Little Barrier Island in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf you can get a small glimpse of how New Zealand would have looked before humans arrived around 1000 years ago. Short-tailed bats (Mystacina tuberculata) are a threatened species of bat found only in NZ that are uniquely adapted for crawling on the ground… which makes them ideal pollinators for flowers that are arranged in large clusters.

From Business Insider Australia:

Scientists have discovered a giant dinosaur bat that walked on four legs

Chris Pash

17 June 2015

Fossils of a bat species which walked on four limbs and was three times larger than today’s average bat have been discovered in New Zealand.

The remains were found near Central Otago in sediment left over from a prehistoric body of water known as Lake Manuherikia which was part of warmer subtropical rainforest during the early Miocene era between 16 million and 19 million years ago

The species, Mystacina miocenalis, described in the journal PLOS ONE, is related to another bat, Mystacina tuberculata, which still lives in New Zealand’s old growth forests.

“Our discovery shows for the first time that Mystacina bats have been present in New Zealand for upwards of 16 million years, residing in habitats with very similar plant life and food sources,” says lead author and vertebrate palaeontologist, Suzanne Hand from the University of New South Wales.

New Zealand’s only native terrestrial mammals are three species of bat, including two belonging to the Mystacina genus – one of which was last sighted in the 1960s.

They are known as burrowing bats because they forage on the ground under leaf-litter and snow, as well as in the air, scuttling on their wrists and backward-facing feet, while keeping their wings tightly furled.

“This helps us understand the capacity of bats to establish populations on islands and the climatic conditions required for this to happen,” says Associate Professor Hand.

Bats are important pollinators and seed dispersers that keep forests healthy. Understanding the connectivity between the bat faunas of different landmasses is important for evaluating biosecurity threats and conservation priorities for fragile island ecosystems.”

The new species has similar teeth to its contemporary relative, suggesting a broad diet that included nectar, pollen and fruit, as well as insects and spiders.

At an estimated 40 grams, the fossil bat is roughly three times heavier than its living cousin.

15-million-year-old snaggletooth shark discovery in Maryland, USA

This video from the USA says about itself:

7 November 2014

Snaggletooth Shark Skeleton quarried in Chesapeake Beach on Halloween. Found by the Gibson family in their back yard.
This is the first articulated snaggletooth shark from Calvert Cliffs, if not the world.

From Associated Press today:

Md. family uncovers 15-million-year-old skeleton during dig

JULIE ZAUZMER | Updated 22 hours ago

SOLOMONS, Md. (AP) — Donald Gibson found the first vertebra Oct. 23, just as he had begun to dig out the space for the sunroom he had promised to build in the back yard of his parents’ home in Calvert County.

Over the following week, his brother, Shawn, found another vertebra, and then another, and then a few more — each one about 18 inches deep into the ground. Soon, Shawn Gibson’s 7-year-old, Caleb, joined in on the digging. He’s at an age of being “thrilled to go out and not just play in the dirt, but actually find pieces,” Gibson said of his son.

After all, it’s not that unusual to dig up fossils in the Calvert Cliffs neighborhood. But then they found something more: a straight column of vertebrae, two feet long. And at the end, a tooth.

The digging stopped.

What the Gibsons unearthed were the remains of a 15-million-year-old snaggletooth shark, which paleontologists say is more complete than any other fossil of its kind in the world.

Stephen Godfrey, curator of paleontology for the Calvert Marine Museum, said that the Gibsons’ discovery is so unusual because of the number of bones they found — more than 80 vertebrae and hundreds of teeth, all from the same shark — as well as the position they were in and their unusually good preservation.

In fact, the discovery is so rare that when Shawn Gibson called museum officials and asked them to come out immediately — on Halloween night — Godfrey said he had his doubts.

The description Gibson provided — of a complete snaggletooth shark skeleton, including the spine and the skull cavity — seemed so outlandish to Godfrey that he could scarcely believe it.

But he and John Nance, an assistant curator, were intrigued enough to hop in the car right away.

“While we’re driving up there, I’m thinking to myself, ‘This can’t be an actual fossil of a shark,'” Godfrey said. “But it couldn’t be a horse or a cow. It had to be a shark.”

Once he laid eyes on it, he had no doubt.

“It was immediately obvious,” he said. “It was a genuine article.”

The Gibsons showed him about 50 vertebrae they had unearthed, and Godfrey was grateful that they had stopped digging once they reached the teeth. Godfrey and Nance wrapped the entire skull cavity in a stiff plaster cast, like one used to set a broken bone.

Sharks’ skulls are made mostly of cartilage, not bone, so they almost never withstand the ravages of time, Godfrey said. Yet somehow, the shark that came to rest in the Gibsons’ backyard sank belly-up when it died during the Miocene Epoch. It became buried in sand, then by sediment eroding from the Appalachian Mountains. And its skull cavity — containing hundreds of the distinctively shaped teeth, up to an inch-and-a-half long, that give the snaggletooth its name — kept its shape.

Using a microscope, the scientists digging in the Gibsons’ yard were able to see the distinctive hexagonal shape of shark cartilage, fossilized and preserved.

Donald Gibson said he had pulled vertebrae out of the ground, one by one in a straight line, just as they were positioned in the back of the shark, which Godfrey said was 8 to 10 feet long during its life.

Having preserved the teeth and surrounding remnants of cartilage in exactly the positions they were found in, the paleontologists will be able to take CT scans of the cast and analyze the specific three-dimensional layout of the prehistoric shark‘s mouth, something scientists have never done.

“For the first time, we’re going to be able to know what the dentition — what the teeth — looked like in this kind of shark,” Godfrey said.

Then they will remove the cast, gently clean each piece and put the discovery on exhibit.

Shawn Gibson said that his parents had lent the fossil to the museum but might bring it home eventually.

“Obviously, we wanted to make sure it was able to be studied,” he said. “We wanted to make sure that the historical significance was documented and the specimen’s there to be studied. But it came from the yard, and it was a family affair. ”

There’s also the issue of the value of the fossil. Shawn Gibson said he doesn’t know what the shark might be worth.

“There’s obviously not a Blue Book for shark fossils and certainly not a one-of-a-kind find,” he said.

Godfrey said he is receiving emails from paleontologists up and down the East Coast who are excited about the discovery.

The skeleton will allow scientists to compare the prehistoric snaggletooth, an extinct species, and modern snaggletooths, a descendant species that lives in the Pacific.

Comparing the teeth of snaggletooths then and now will help scientists understand the workings of shark evolution, the likely diet of prehistoric species and the climate during the Miocene Epoch.

And the fact that the spine and the skull cavity of the shark found by the Gibsons are definitively associated with each other, the most complete snaggletooth skeleton ever found will allow scientists to identify whether smaller pieces of future fossils come from snaggletooths or other species.

“When in the future we find just a single vertebra, we’ll be able to say, ‘This comes from that kind of shark.’ And only because we have this association being made,” Godfrey said. “It’s just incredibly unlikely that we would make this kind of discovery.”

As for the Gibsons, the family now has a new hobby. While the sunroom goes up in the backyard, they have continued to dig. Caleb has found less-valuable bits of four more shark species.

“He had the day off of school for Election Day. I told him we could go fishing,” Shawn Gibson said. “He said, ‘I’d like to go look for shark’s teeth.'”

Fossil giant tortoise discovery in Madrid, Spain

This video is called Evolution of the Turtle Shell (Illustrated).

From daily The Guardian in Britain:

Researchers discover new genus of giant tortoise

Titanochelon was 2 metres long and roamed the ‘streets of Madrid’ between 20m and 2m years ago, study finds

Ashifa Kassam in Madrid

Thursday 6 November 2014 18.23 GMT

These days it is dominated by shops and throngs of people. But millions of years ago, Madrid’s Gran Via belonged to herds of 2-metre-long tortoises.

That’s the conclusion of a study published by Spanish and Greek researchers in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society. Wrapping up a 10-year study, researchers describe a genus of giant tortoises, previously unknown to science, that lived in Europe and western Asia between 20m and 2m years ago.

“We’re not just talking about any tortoise; this is the largest that lived in Europe, whose size likely exceeded that of the tortoises living today in the Galapagos Islands,” said researcher Adán Pérez-García, of Spain’s National University of Distance Education and the University of Lisbon.

The Titanochelon – a name inspired by their titanic size – was short, wide and strong, and its large shell was covered with ossified scales for protection, he said.

Spanish palaeontologists hinted at the existence of the Titanochelon genus in the 1920s, but the civil war ended their research. Pérez-García and his team picked up where they left off, assuming that most of the material had disappeared.

But they found a wealth of fossils in Madrid’s National Museum of Natural Sciences, most of which had been untouched since the war. “The fossils were broken, samples were mixed up, it wasn’t clear where the material had come from,” he said. “But that’s what happens in a war. At least the material was there.”

The material turned out to be some of the best ever found of giant tortoises in Europe, said Pérez-García, citing the discovery of near-complete skeletons. “It allows us to imagine, with great precision, how millions of years ago, herds of giant tortoises wandered around what is now Gran Via.”

Whale fossil discovery in California

This video is called Rare Whale Fossil Pulled From Calif. Backyard.

From Associated Press:

Rare whale fossil pulled from Calif. yard


Saturday, August 2, 2014 1:06 AM EDT

RANCHO PALOS VERDES, Calif. — A search-and-rescue team pulled a rare half-ton whale fossil from a Southern California backyard Friday, a feat that the team agreed to take on as a makeshift training mission.

The 16- to 17-million-year-old fossil from a baleen whale is one of about 20 baleen fossils known to exist, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County paleontologist Howell Thomas said. Baleen is a filter made of soft tissue that is used to sift out prey, like krill, from seawater.

The fossil, lodged in a 1,000-pound boulder, was hoisted from a ravine by Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department search-and-rescue volunteers. Using pulleys and a steel trolley, crews pulled the fossil up a steep backyard slope and into a truck bound for the museum.

Gary Johnson, 53, first discovered the fossil when he was a teen exploring the creek behind his family’s home.

At the time, he called another local museum to come inspect the find, but officials passed on adding it to their collection. In January, a 12-million-year-old sperm whale fossil was recovered at a nearby school, prompting Johnson to call the Natural History Museum.

“I thought, maybe my whale is somehow associated,” said Johnson, who works as a cartoonist and art director.

Thomas wanted to add the fossil to the county museum’s collection of baleen whale fossils, but was puzzled over how to get the half-ton boulder from Rancho Palos Verdes, located on a peninsula about 25 miles southwest of downtown Los Angeles.

The sheriff’s department search-and-rescue unit declined to send a helicopter, but offered to use the fossil recovery as a training mission. The volunteer crew typically rescues stranded hikers and motorcyclists who careen off the freeway onto steep, rugged terrain, search-and-rescue reserve chief Mike Leum said.

“We’ll always be able to say, ‘it’s not heavier than a fossil,”‘ Leum said.

Lyme disease ticks discovery, 15 million years old

This video is called The amber fossils secret – Dominican Republic.

From LiveScience:

Ancient Lyme Disease Bacteria Found in 15-Million-Year-Old Tick Fossils

By Megan Gannon, News Editor | May 30, 2014 05:18pm ET

The oldest known evidence of Lyme disease may lie in ticks that were entombed in amber at least 15 million years ago, scientists announced.

The researchers investigated four fossilized ticks that had been trapped in chunks of amber found in the Dominican Republic. Inside the ticks’ bodies, the scientists saw a large population of cells that looked like the squiggly shaped spirochete cells of the Borrelia genus — a type of bacteria that causes Lyme disease today.

Bacteria, which arose on the planet 3.6 billion years ago, rarely survive in the fossil record. But amber, the hardened resin from oozing trees, can preserve soft tissues and microscopic cells that would otherwise degrade over time. In recent years, scientists have discovered the 100-million-year-old gut microbes of a termite and 40-million-year-old sperm from an insect-like springtail, both trapped in amber. [Photos: Ancient Life Trapped in Amber]

The newfound bacteria species was dubbed Palaeoborrelia dominicana. The findings suggest illnesses like Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases may have been plaguing animals long before humans ever walked Earth.

Today, ticks are more significant disease-carrying insects

They are arachnids, not insects

than mosquitos in the United States, Europe and Asia, said entomologist George Poinar, Jr., a professor emeritus at Oregon State University, lead author of the study detailed in the journal Historical Biology last month.

“They can carry bacteria that cause a wide range of diseases, affect many different animal species, and often are not even understood or recognized by doctors,” Poinar said in a statement. “It’s likely that many ailments in human history for which doctors had no explanation have been caused by tick-borne disease.”

Lyme disease, for example, wasn’t formally recognized until the 1970s even though it affects thousands of people each year. In 2009, there were 30,000 confirmed cases of Lyme disease in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Humans acquire the disease when bitten by ticks that carry Borrelia bacteria. But because it has symptoms that overlap with many other disorders — including rash, aches, fatigue and fever — Lyme disease is often misdiagnosed.

The oldest documented case of Lyme disease in humans comes from the famous 5,300-year-old ice mummy dubbed Ötzi, discovered in the Eastern Alps about 20 years ago. In a 2012 study detailed in the journal Nature Communications, scientists said they found genetic material for the Borrelia bacteriain the iceman.

“Before he was frozen in the glacier, the iceman was probably already in misery from Lyme disease,” Poinar said. “He had a lot of health problems and was really a mess.”

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