Pygmy right whales, new discoveries


This video says about itself:

Walvis Bay, Namibia (14.2.2013) Very few people have ever seen a pygmy right whale. This kind of whale belongs to the smallest whales and can reach about 6 meters in length and 3,500 kg and lives only in the southern hemisphere.

This one was a young female of about 4 meters and 500 kg. Many people were involved in this rescue. Thanks to Antonie Potgieter and colleagues at the saltworks, who stood by until the rest of the rescue-team like Naude Dreyer & Nico Robberts, three tourists (Lionel Husser, Peter Poller and Marc Vogt) from France, Namibia and Switzerland and the Namibian Dolphin Project Team arrived and helped the poor fellow to bring it back to the sea. We will never forget this unbelievable moment in our life.

From Science News:

Ancient whale turns up on wrong side of the world

The rarely seen pygmy right whale may once have cruised northern waters

by Laurel Hamers

12:00pm, October 9, 2017

A new discovery is turning the hemispheric history of a mysterious whale species upside-down. Two fossils recently unearthed in Italy and Japan suggest that a southern whale was briefly a denizen of northern waters more than half a million years ago.

Until now, all available evidence suggested that the pygmy right whale, Caperea marginata, and its ancestors have been steadfast Southern Hemisphere residents for the past 10 million years.

Pygmy right whales are so rarely sighted that scientists know very little about their lifestyle, and the fossil record is sparse, too. The new Northern Hemisphere fossils both closely resemble other confirmed specimens of the whales, researchers report October 9 in Current Biology. The fossils include a fragmented skull with ear bones dating to 0.5 to 0.9 million years ago, and a bone containing parts of the middle and inner ear that’s 1.7 million to 1.9 million years old.

Glaciation near the South Pole during the Pleistocene Ice Age may have temporarily pushed Caperea further north, the researchers propose. Then, as the glaciers melted, the whale migrated south again. Because the new fossils are separated in age by about a million years, it’s hard to say whether the whales crossed the equator multiple times or briefly established a longer-term population in the Northern Hemisphere.

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New ichthyosaur species discovery in England


This video from Britain says about itself:

10 October 2017

A new species of a marine [reptile] has been discovered from a fossil which has been stored in the University of Nottingham’s engineering collection for more than 50 years. The fossil was of a type of ichthyosaur, a [group of] sea-dwelling animals which grew to up to 16 metres in length and survived until around 90 million years ago.

It has today been announced as Protoichthyosaurus applebyi, a holotype, or original specimen that describes a new species. It is the first known fossil of its kind anywhere in the world. The specimen has previously been used for teaching and outreach work while visiting primary schools to encourage children to explore science and engineering by Dr David Large, a geologist and Head of the Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering at the university. The fossil was a hit with children but was forgotten about for years, and until recently had been sitting on a shelf in a storeroom.

Dean Lomax, a palaeontologist and Visiting Scientist at The University of Manchester, contacted Dr Large in 2014 while searching for another ichthyosaur fossil, and was unaware that the newlyfound specimen even existed as it had not been scientifically examined before. Eventually it was determined that this specimen is of a species new to science.

It has been hailed as a major step in uncovering Britain’s early fossil past and understanding ichthyosaur evolution. He said “This ichthyosaur is an essential part of Nottingham’s scientific collection and I’d like to thank David for bringing it to my attention. As part of our study we have identified over 20 specimens of Protoichthyosaurus, but only one example of P. applebyi, making this the only known specimen recorded so far. I’m confident that there will be more out there.”

From the University of Manchester in England:

‘Fake fin’ discovery reveals new ichthyosaur species

October 10, 2017

An ichthyosaur first discovered in the 1970s but then dismissed and consigned to museum storerooms across the country has been re-examined and found to be a new species.

In 1979, after inspecting several ichthyosaurs from the UK, palaeontologist Dr Robert Appleby announced a new type of ichthyosaur called Protoichthyosaurus. He also named two species, P. prostaxalis and P. prosostealis. Other scientists, however, dismissed the discovery of Protoichthyosaurus and suggested that it was identical with Ichthyosaurus, a very common UK ichthyosaur.

Now a detailed study led by palaeontologists Dean Lomax (The University of Manchester) and Professor Judy Massare (State University of New York), has re-examined and compared Protoichthyosaurus and Ichthyosaurus. It found major differences in the number of bones in the front fin, or forefin, of both species. This fundamental difference probably reflects the way both species used them to manoeuvre whilst swimming. Differences were also found in the skulls. But it was another discovery about the fins that also got the team’s attention.

Lomax explains: “This unusual forefin structure was originally identified by Robert Appleby in 1979, but some of the historic specimens he examined had been ‘faked’, and this fakery had been missed until now. In some instances, an isolated fin of an Ichthyosaurus had been added to a Protoichthyosaurus skeleton to make it appear more complete, which led to the genuine differences being missed. This has been a major problem because it stopped science from progressing. We also found some pathological fins, including Ichthyosaurus fins with pathologies that mimic the Protoichthyosaurus forefin structure.”

Lomax and Massare also teamed up with former undergraduate student Rashmi Mistry (University of Reading), who had been studying an unusual ichthyosaur in the collections of the Cole Museum of Zoology, University of Reading, for her undergraduate dissertation.

“Whilst doing my dissertation in 2016, I studied several ichthyosaurs in the collections, including a very small skeleton. It had an unusual forefin that matched Protoichthyosaurus, which I understood to be a widely unrecognised genus. However, when I contacted Dean, he was very excited. He told me that this little skeleton is the only known small juvenile Protoichthyosaurus,” added Rashmi.

Over 20 specimens of Protoichthyosaurus were identified as part of this study. This is significant as each specimen (with a forefin) has the same structure. The specimens are from the Jurassic Period, between 200 — 190 million years old, and come from Somerset, Dorset, Leicestershire, Warwickshire, Nottinghamshire, England, and Glamorgan, Wales.

Whilst searching through collections, Dean also came across a skeleton at The University of Nottingham. This specimen is different to all other known examples of Protoichthyosaurus in the skull and humerus and it has been identified as a new species, which the team have called Protoichthyosaurus applebyi, in honour of Robert Appleby. It is currently on display as part of the ‘Dinosaurs of China’ exhibition at Lakeside Arts, University of Nottingham.

What a prehistoric salamander ate


Phosphotriton sigei

This picture shows a three-dimensional reconstruction of the skeleton of Phosphotriton sigei gen. et sp. nov. (B), scaled to the same length as other Eurasian urodeles: a European plethodontid, Hydromantes italicus Dunn, 1923 (A), and two salamandrids, Hypselotriton orientalis (David, 1873) (C) and Salamandra salamandra (Linnaeus, 1758) (D).

From ScienceDaily:

Ancient petrified salamander reveals its last meal

Researchers identify frog bones within the stomach of a 35 million year old ‘mummified’ salamander fossil using advanced x-ray imaging techniques. At least six kinds of organs are preserved in almost perfect condition

October 3, 2017

A new study on an exceptionally preserved salamander from the Eocene of France reveals that its soft organs are conserved under its skin and bones. Organs preserved in three dimensions include the lung, nerves, gut, and within it, the last meal of the animal, according to a study published in the peer-reviewed journal PeerJ by a team of palaeontologists from France and Switzerland.

Accessing the complete anatomy of an extinct animal, i.e. both its external and internal aspects, has often been the dream of palaeontologists. Indeed, in 99% of cases, fossils are only represented by hard parts: bones, shells, etc. Fossils preserving soft tissues exist, but they are extremely rare. However, their significance for science is enormous. What did the animal look like? What did they eat? How did they live? Most of these questions can be answered by exceptionally preserved fossils.

The newly studied fossil externally looks like a present-day salamander, but it is made of stone. This fossil “mummy” is the only known specimen of Phosphotriton sigei, a 40-35 million years old salamander and belongs to the same family as the famous living fire salamander (Salamandra salamandra).

It is unfortunately incomplete: only the trunk, hip and part of hind legs and tail are preserved. Until very recently, the only thing palaeontologists could tell about this specimen was visible anatomical details, such as the cloaca, the orifice used for reproduction and by digestive and urinary canals. Indeed, though it was discovered in the 1870s, it was never studied in detail.

Thanks to recent synchrotron technology, its skeleton and various organs could be studied. The specimen was scanned at the ID19 beamline of the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble (France). This modern technology gave access to an incredible level of details that could never have been achieved before without slicing the specimen into a series of thin sections.

The quality of preservation is such that looking at the tomograms (equivalent of radiograms) feels like going through an animal in the flesh. At least six kinds of organs are preserved in almost perfect condition, in addition to the skin and skeleton: muscles, lung, spinal cord, digestive tract, nerves, and glands.

But the most incredible is the preservation of frog bones within the stomach of the salamander. Salamanders almost never eat frogs or other salamanders, though they are known to be quite opportunistic. Was it a last resort meal or a customary choice for this species? This, unfortunately, will probably never be known.

These new results are described by Jérémy Tissier from the Jurassica Museum and the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, and Jean-Claud Rage and Michel Laurin, both from the CNRS/Museum national d’histoire naturelle/UPMC in Paris.

Author Michel Laurin notes, “This fossil, along with a few others from the same lost site, is the most incredibly well-preserved that I have seen in my entire career. And now, 140 years after its discovery, and 35 million years after the animal died, we can finally study it, thanks to modern technology. The mummy returns!”

Madagascar whirligig beetles, from the Triassic till now


This video says about itself:

This video shows the Malagasy striped whirligig beetle (Heterogyrus milloti) in its habitat in Ranomafana National Park, Fianarantsoa, Madagascar, during the 2014 expedition.

From the University of Kansas in the USA:

Meet Madagascar‘s oldest animal lineage, a whirligig beetle with 206-million-year-old origins

October 4, 2017

Summary: A new study suggests the Malagasy striped whirligig beetle Heterogyrus milloti boasts a genetic pedigree stretching back to the late Triassic period.

There are precious few species today in the biodiversity hotspot of Madagascar that scientists can trace directly back to when all of Earth’s continents were joined together as part of the primeval supercontinent Pangea.

But a new study in the journal Scientific Reports suggests the Malagasy striped whirligig beetle Heterogyrus milloti is an ultra-rare survivor among contemporary species on Madagascar, boasting a genetic pedigree stretching back at least 206 million years to the late Triassic period.

“This is unheard of for anything in Madagascar“, said lead author Grey Gustafson, a postdoctoral research fellow in ecology & evolutionary biology and affiliate of the Biodiversity Institute at the University of Kansas. “It’s the oldest lineage of any animal or plant known from Madagascar.”

Gustafson and his co-authors’ research compared the living striped whirligig found in Madagascar with extinct whirligig beetles from the fossil record. They then used a method called “tip dating” to reconstruct and date the family tree of whirligig beetles.

“You examine and code the morphology of extinct species the same as you would living species, and where that fossil occurs in time is where that tip of the tree ends,” he said. “That’s how you time their evolutionary relationships. We really wanted the fossils’ placement in the tree to be backed by analysis, so we could say these are the relatives of the striped whirligig as supported by analysis, not just that they looked similar.”

Gustafson noted one major hurdle for the team was the “painful” incompleteness of the fossil record for establishing all the places where relatives of the striped whirligig beetle once lived.

“All of the fossils come from what is today Europe and Asia — we don’t have any deposits from Madagascar or Africa for this group of insects,” he said. “But they likely were very widespread.”

Today, whirligig beetles are a family of carnivorous aquatic beetles with about 1,000 known species dominated by members of a subfamily called the Gyrininae. But the Gyrininae are young upstarts compared with the striped whirligig beetle, the last remaining species of a group dominant during the time of the dinosaurs. This group according to Gustafson was decimated by the same asteroid impact that cut down the dinosaurs and caused the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event.

“The remoteness of Madagascar is what may have saved this beetle,” Gustafson said. “It’s the only place that still has the striped whirligig beetle because it was already isolated at the time of the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event — so the lineage was able to persist, and now it’s surviving in a marginal environment.”

Even today, the ageless striped whirligig beetle keeps its own company, preferring to skitter atop the surface of out-of-the-way forest streams in southeastern Madagascar — not mixing with latecomers of the subfamily Gyrininae who have become the dominant whirligig beetles on Madagascar and abroad.

Indeed, Gustafson is one of the few researchers to locate them during a 2014 fieldwork excursion in Madagascar’s Ranomafana National Park.

“This one is pretty hard to find,” he said. “They like these really strange habitats that other whirligigs aren’t found in. We have video of them in a gulch in a mountain range clogged with branches and debris — there are striped whirligigs all over it.”

Unfortunately, the KU researcher said the remote habitats of the striped whirligig beetle in Malagasy national parks were threatened today by human activity on Madagascar.

“It’s a socioeconomic issue,” Gustafson said. “In the national park where first specimens of the striped whirligig beetle were discovered, there are local people who use the forest as a refuge for zebu cattle because they’re concerned about zebu being robbed. Their defecation can disturb the nutrient lode in aquatic ecosystems. Part of the problem is finding a way for local people to be able to make their livelihood while preserving natural ecosystems. But it’s a hard balance to strike. A lot of original forest cover also has been slashed and burned for rice-field patties to feed people.”

Gustafson hopes the primal origins of the striped whirligig beetle can draw attention to the need for protecting aquatic habitats while conceding that conservation efforts usually are aimed at bigger and more cuddly species, like Madagascar’s famous lemurs, tenrecs and other unique carnivorans.

“One of the things that invertebrate species suffer from is a lack of specific conservation efforts,” he said. “It’s usually trickle-down conservation where you find a charismatic vertebrate species to get protected areas started. But certain invertebrates will have different requirements, and right now invertebrate-specific conservation efforts are lacking. We propose the striped whirligig beetle would make for an excellent flagship species for conservation.”

Big Jurassic crocodile discovery in Britain


This video says about itself:

2 October 2017

British waters are reassuringly free of deadly reptiles today – but 163 million years ago a sea crocodile dubbed the ‘Melksham monster’ lurked on our shores.

Scientists have established that the 10-foot long creature, named after the town in Wiltshire where its fossil was unearthed, lived in the warm, shallow seas that covered much of what is now Europe.

The heavily damaged fossil had been sitting in the archives of London’s Natural History Museum since 1875.

Its identification reveals that an extinct group of aquatic reptiles evolved millions of years earlier than was previously thought.

The creature’s powerful jaws and large, serrated teeth allowed it to feed on large prey including prehistoric squid, and it was one of the most fearsome predators of its day.

Modern crocodiles are largely found in tropical regions of Africa, Asia, the Americas and Australia. Their ancient ancestor is named Ieldraan melkshamensis after the Wiltshire town of Melksham where it was found preserved in clay.

Its name also means ‘older one’ because it was thought until now that the sub-family of prehistoric crocodiles to which it belongs – known as Geosaurini – originated in the Late Jurassic period, between 152 and 157 million years ago.

In fact, the latest discovery – together with detailed re-analysis of existing fossil evidence – suggests the group arose millions of years earlier, in the Middle Jurassic.

It was identified as a new species based on distinctive features of its skull, lower jaw and, in particular, its teeth.

Dr Steve Brusatte, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences, who was involved in the study, said: ‘The Melksham Monster would have been one of the top predators in the oceans of Jurassic Britain, at the same time that dinosaurs were thundering across the land.’

From the University of Edinburgh in Scotland:

Monstrous crocodile fossil points to early rise of ancient reptiles

October 2, 2017

A newly identified prehistoric marine predator has shed light on the origins of the distant relatives of modern crocodiles.

The discovery reveals that an extinct group of aquatic reptiles evolved millions of years earlier than was previously thought, researchers say.

Palaeontologists at the University of Edinburgh discovered the new species — which dates back 163 million years — by studying a heavily damaged fossil which was held in the Natural History Museum‘s archives for almost 150 years.

The ancient reptile — called Ieldraan melkshamensis — has been nicknamed the Melksham Monster after the town in England where it was unearthed.

Until now, it was thought that the sub-family of prehistoric crocodiles to which the new species belongs — known as Geosaurini — originated in the Late Jurassic period, between 152 and 157 million years ago.

However, the latest discovery — together with detailed re-analysis of existing fossil evidence — suggests that the group arose millions of years earlier, in the Middle Jurassic, the team says.

The little-studied specimen — acquired by the museum in 1875 — was identified as a new species based on distinctive features of its skull, lower jaw and, in particular, its teeth.

The study, published in the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology, was carried out in collaboration with the Natural History Museum, London. The research was funded by Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions.

Davide Foffa, a PhD student in the University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences, who led the study, said: “It’s not the prettiest fossil in the world, but the Melksham Monster tells us a very important story about the evolution of these ancient crocodiles and how they became the apex predators in their ecosystem. Without the amazing preparation work done by our collaborators at the Natural History Museum, it would not have been possible to work out the anatomy of this challenging specimen.”

Mark Graham, Senior Fossil Preparator at the Natural History Museum, said: “The specimen was completely enclosed in a super-hard rock nodule with veins of calcite running through, which had formed around it during the process of fossilisation. This unyielding matrix had to be removed by force, using carbon steel tipped chisels and grinding wheels encrusted with industrial diamonds. The work took many hours over a period of weeks, and great care had to be taken to avoid damaging the skull and teeth as they became exposed. This was one tough old croc in life and death!”

What baby ichthyosaurs ate


This video is called Sea Reptile Birth – Walking with Dinosaurs in HQ – BBC.

By Helen Thompson, 2:00am, October 3, 2017:

A baby ichthyosaur’s last meal revealed

As far as last meals go, squid isn’t a bad choice. Cephalopod remains appear to dominate the stomach contents of a newly analyzed ichthyosaur fossil from nearly 200 million years ago.

The ancient marine reptiles once roamed Jurassic seas and commonly pop up in England’s fossil-rich coast near Lyme Regis. But a lot of ichthyosaur museum specimens lack records of where they came from, making their age difficult to place.

Dean Lomax of the University of Manchester and his colleagues reexamined one such fossil. Based on its skull, they identified the creature as a newborn Ichthyosaurus communis. Microfossils of shrimp and amoeba species around the ichthyosaur put the specimen at 199 to 196 million years old, the researchers estimate.

Tiny hook structures stand out in the newborn’s ribs — most likely the remnants of prehistoric black squid arms. Another baby ichthyosaur fossil that lived more recently had a stomach full of fish scales. So the new find suggests a shift in the menu for young ichthyosaurs at some point in their evolutionary history, the researchers write October 3 in Historical Biology.

See also here. And here.

Saber-toothed kittens and other kittens


This video from Los Angeles in California in the USA says about itself:

Saber-toothed cat struts down Wilshire Blvd in L.A. and comes home to the Tar Pits!

On Sept. 5 2012, our Saber-toothed cat took a stroll down to Wilshire Blvd. to announce that Ice Age Encounters will be at the La Brea Tar Pits every Wednesday and Saturday! Our favorite Smilodon even got the CoolHaus ice cream truck to stop by with some delicious Ice Age-themed treats. Ice Age Encounters transports you to the Los Angeles of the Late Pleistocene. While on this journey, you’ll meet the extinct creatures that lived in pre-historic L.A., and witness the natural processes that preserved their remains for thousands of years. You’ll even survive a close encounter with a Saber-Toothed Cat — and meet the scientists who study its fossils at the Page Museum!

By Alan Gilman in the USA:

Saber-toothed kittens may have been born with thicker bones than other contemporary cats

The pattern of bone development for saber-toothed cats mirrors that of contemporary cats

September 28, 2017

Saber-toothed kittens may have been born with thicker bones compared to other contemporary cats, but they have a similar pattern of bone development, according to a study published September 27, 2017 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Katherine Long from California State Polytechnic University, USA and colleagues.

Saber-toothed cats (Smilodon fatalis) from the Pleistocene (37,000 to 9,000 years ago) have been previously recognized as having more robust skeletons compared to other wild cats. However, how and when saber-toothed cats developed these strong bones is a mystery.

To better understand the growth of Smilodon bones in comparison to a similar species, Long and colleagues measured and analyzed hundreds of bones at various stages of development from both Smilodon and the contemporary tiger-sized cat Panthera atrox in the La Brea Tar Pits museum.

The researchers found that while Smilodon bones were more robust than the Panthera bones, they did not increase in robustness with age as expected, but were born with more robust bones to begin with. They found that the growth of Smilodon bones followed a similar pattern to other primitive cat species, where the bones actually grow longer and more slender than they grow thick. This finding suggests that the growth and development of feline species is more tightly constrained than previously thought, even with species with very different bone structures.

“Saber-tooth cats had extraordinarily strong front limbs for tackling and subduing prey before they slashed their throats or bellies with their saber-like canine teeth,” says co-author Don Prothero. “Using the extraordinary collection of limb bones of saber-tooth kittens at La Brea tar pits, we found that their limbs don’t become more robust as they grew up, but instead retain the stereotypical growth pattern where the limbs grow longer more quickly than they grow thick. To compensate, saber-tooth kittens were born with unusually robust limbs and retained that pattern as they grew.”