Little boy discovers extinct elephant fossil


This video from the USA says about itself:

9-Year-Old Boy Literally Stumbled On A 1.2 Million-Year-Old Stegomastodon Skull

19 July 2017

A 9-year-old boy who was out hiking with his family last November accidentally discovered a rare prehistoric stegomastodon skull in New Mexico’s Las Cruces desert.

From National Geographic in the USA:

Boy Found Million-Year-Old Fossil by Tripping Over It

While walking through the desert near Las Cruces, New Mexico, a now 10-year-old boy stumbled over one of the state’s rarest finds.

Boy Trips While Hiking, Discovers Million-Year-Old Fossil

By Sarah Gibbens

PUBLISHED July 19, 2017

“There are more fossils than I’ll ever be able to count in New Mexico,” said Spencer Lucas, curator of paleontology at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science.

Lucas was commenting on the recent excavation of a fossil found near the Las Cruces, New Mexico, desert last November.

While exploring the region’s Organ Mountains with his parents and two brothers, then 9-year-old Jude Sparks tripped over something protruding from the earth.

In an interview with El Paso ABC affiliate KVIA, Sparks told reporters he immediately revealed the find to his brother, Hunter.

“Hunter said it was just a big fat rotten cow. I didn’t know what it was. I just knew it wasn’t usual.”

The find was in fact not a big fat rotten cow but a stegomastodon, an ancient, primitive mammal that lived an estimated 1.2 million years ago. (Stegomastodons were early tuskers from the animal family Gomphotheres, a distant cousin of ancient mammoths and modern day elephants.)

Later that night, Jude’s parents reached out to New Mexico State University Professor Peter Houde, who they discovered from a previous interview he gave on similar subjects. Houde and the Sparks family returned to the discovery site, finding an entire skull.

After securing funding, finding volunteers, and coordinating when the dig would take place, the university team and the Sparks family returned to the site to excavate the remains. A week after careful excavation, the fragile pieces, which Houde described as “egg-shell thin” to National Geographic.

Houde hopes the fossil will eventually be available for exhibit.

The Fossil State

This isn’t the first time a stegomastodon has been found in New Mexico. In 2014, a bachelor party stumbled across a nearly intact fossil that was collected by the New Mexico Natural History Museum.

Coming across a stegomastodon fossil is considered a rare find. Lucas explained that fossils like those belonging to mammoths are relatively abundant in western portions of North America but for reasons not quite known, stegomastodons are less frequently found. According to Lucas, only a couple hundred have been found in the world.

One theory for why stegomastodons went extinct correlates to the arrival of mammoths.

Lucas’s theory is that the ancient animals couldn’t compete with mammoths. Both animals grazed on their surroundings, and could have competed for resources.

Houde theorized that climate change could have caused the animal’s demise.

“They existed during a time when it was wetter and cooler,” said Houde. “Las Cruces is now a desert.”

Researchers don’t know how many fossils lie buried in the desert, but if they’re to be found anywhere in America, the southwest is a likely location. The region’s naturally dry, rocky terrain create conditions needed to preserve bones for millions of years.

In interviews with local news, the Sparks family speculated that the recent rains in the area before the discovery might have helped to expose the fossil. Lucas agreed that this was well within the realm of possibility. He says that as rain erodes more sediment, discoveries are always possible.

“Erosion is a paleontologist’s best friend.”

Earliest Australians earlier than thought


This video says about itself:

Australian Cave Painting Found To Be One of World’s Oldest

18 June 2012

An archaeologist discovered an aboriginal cave painting in the Australian outback that was created 28,000 years ago.

Bryce Barker, from the University of Southern Queensland, originally made the find last year. Because most rock art is made with mineral paint, it’s difficult to get an accurate measure of age. But Barker’s find at the Nawarla Gabarnmang cave dwelling was created using charcoal, so he was able to employ radiocarbon dating, which gave him the astonishing age of the art—now believed to be one of the oldest in the world.

Spain’s El Castillo still has seniority over Australia’s find by about 12,000 years. But the Australian shelter may have had dwellers—if not decorations—for just as long.

From the University of Washington in the USA:

Artifacts suggest humans arrived in Australia earlier than thought

July 19, 2017

Summary: Archeologists have found and dated artifacts in northern Australia that indicate humans arrived there about 65,000 years ago — more than 10,000 years earlier than previously thought.

When and how the first humans made their way to Australia has been an evolving story.

While it is accepted that humans appeared in Africa some 200,000 years ago, scientists in recent years have placed the approximate date of human settlement in Australia further and further back in time, as part of ongoing questions about the timing, the routes and the means of migration out of Africa.

Now, a team of researchers, including a faculty member and seven students from the University of Washington, has found and dated artifacts in northern Australia that indicate humans arrived there about 65,000 years ago — more than 10,000 years earlier than previously thought. A paper published July 20 in the journal Nature describes dating techniques and artifact finds at Madjedbebe, a longtime site of archaeological research, that could inform other theories about the emergence of early humans and their coexistence with wildlife on the Australian continent.

The new date makes a difference, co-author and UW associate professor of anthropology Ben Marwick said. Against the backdrop of theories that place humans in Australia anywhere between 47,000 and 60,000 years ago, the concept of earlier settlement calls into question the argument that humans caused the extinction of unique megafauna such as giant kangaroos, wombats and tortoises more than 45,000 years ago.

“Previously it was thought that humans arrived and hunted them out or disturbed their habits, leading to extinction, but these dates confirm that people arrived so far before that they wouldn’t be the central cause of the death of megafauna,” Marwick said. “It shifts the idea of humans charging into the landscape and killing off the megafauna. It moves toward a vision of humans moving in and coexisting, which is quite a different view of human evolution.”

Since 1973, digs at Madjedbebe, a rock shelter in Australia’s Northern Territory, have unearthed more than 10,000 stone tools, ochres, plant remains and bones. Following the more recent excavations in 2012 and 2015, a University of Queensland-led research team, which included the UW, evaluated artifacts found in various layers of settlement using radiocarbon dating and optical stimulated luminescence (OSL).

The new research involved extensive cooperation with the local Aboriginal community, Marwick added. The Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation, representing the Mirarr people, joined much of the excavation and reviewed the findings, Marwick said. Researchers had both a memorandum of understanding and a contract with the community, which gave control to the Mirarr as senior custodians, oversight of the excavation and curation of the finds. The Mirarr were interested in supporting new research into the age of the site and in knowing more about the early human occupants, particularly given environmental threats posed by nearby modern-day mining activities.

Noteworthy among the artifacts found were ochre “crayons” and other pigments, what are believed to be the world’s oldest edge-ground hatchets, and evidence that these early humans ground seeds and processed plants. The pigments indicate the use of paint for symbolic and artistic expression, while the tools may have been used to cut bark or food from trees.

Labs in Australia used OSL to identify the age range, Marwick explained. Radiocarbon dating, which requires a certain level of carbon in a substance, can analyze organic materials up to about 45,000 or 50,000 years old. But OSL is used on minerals to date, say, the last time a sand grain was exposed to sunlight — helpful in determining when an artifact was buried — up to 100,000 years ago or more. That process measured thousands of sand grains individually so as to establish more precise ages.

The UW researchers worked in the geoarchaeology lab on the Seattle campus, testing sediment samples that Marwick helped excavate at Madjedbebe. One graduate student and six undergraduate students studied the properties of hundreds of dirt samples to try to picture the time in which the ancient Australian humans lived.

Using a scanning electron microscope, the students examined the composition of the sediment layers, the size of the grains of dirt and any microscopic plant matter. For another test, the students baked soil samples at various temperatures, then measured the mass of each sample, said UW doctoral student Gayoung Park, another author on the paper. Because organic matter turns into gases at high heat, a loss of mass indicated how much matter was in a given sample. This helped create a picture of the environments across the sedimentary layers of the site. The team found that when these human ancestors arrived, northern Australia was wetter and colder.

“Together, we were working on establishing questions: What kind of environments did these people live in? What was the climate like? Were there any disturbances to the site, and were artifacts mixed up from different ages?” Marwick said. “I’m proud of being able to involve UW students in this research in a really substantial way.”

One of the authors, Mara Page, was a senior double-majoring in archaeology and Earth and space sciences when she joined the project. She analyzed stable carbon isotopes found in sediment, which can reveal the types of plants present in the past and the kinds of environments they lived in. She determined that the vegetation at Madjedbebe remained stable during the time of human occupation, which suggests that there was no major environmental change that might have prompted humans to leave the area.

“I feel that I contributed something important by being able to rule something out of the story we were telling,” Page explained.

By placing the date of Australian settlement at around 65,000 years ago, researchers confirm some of the shifting theories about when the first humans left Africa. A common view is that humans moved into Asia 80,000 years ago, and if they migrated to Australia some to 15,000 years later, it means those ancestors co-existed with another early human in Asia, Homo florensiensis. It also means that these early Australians preceded early Europeans, who are believed to have entered that continent 45,000 years ago. A related question is whether these early human species left Africa at one time, gradually spreading the population through Asia, Europe and Australia, or whether there were multiple waves of migration.

In recent years, new evidence, obtained through DNA testing of a 90-year-old hair sample of an Aboriginal Australian man, suggests Australia was settled as far back as 70,000 years ago.

Marwick believes the Madjedbebe results, because they rely on so many artifacts and intensive analysis of sediment samples, confirm that early humans occupied Australia at least 65,000 years ago and support the theory that Homo sapiens, the species of modern-day humans, evolved in Africa before dispersing to other continents. The findings also suggest Homo sapiens’ predecessors, Neanderthals and Denisovans, overlapped with humans for a long period of time, and suggest a larger role for Australia, and the Eastern Hemisphere in general, in the story of humankind.

Marwick, who advocates for open science, particularly in data collection and the code used to analyze it, noted that the Nature paper is also pushing new frontiers because it combines three strands of reproducibility. Researchers examined a field site that has been excavated in the past; they’ve made available their raw data and code; and they consulted an outside lab for third-party OSL verification.

Pliocene big marine life extinction discovered


This video from the USA says about itself:

Pliocene Epoch – Florida Fossils: Evolution of Life and Land

2 February 2010

This video from the Museum’s Florida Fossils exhibit describes the Pliocene Epoch, 5 million to 2 million years ago The formation of a land bridge across Panama in Central America about 3 million years ago was a major biotic event. Both North and South America had been previously isolated for millions of years. Each had evolved its own unique flora and fauna.

Contact between North and South America allowed for the overland dispersal of organisms between the two continents. Mammals living in North America invaded South America, and South American mammals moved north. The closure of the seaway between North and South America apparently resulted in extinctions of many marine organisms. However, newly formed habitats also promoted the evolution of many new species.

Produced, directed and filmed for the Florida Museum of Natural History by Wes C. Skiles/Karst Productions, Inc.

From the University of Zurich in Switzerland:

Previously unknown extinction of marine megafauna discovered

June 26, 2017

Summary: Over two million years ago, a third of the largest marine animals like sharks, whales, sea birds and sea turtles disappeared. This previously unknown extinction event not only had a considerable impact on the earth’s historical biodiversity but also on the functioning of ecosystems.

The disappearance of a large part of the terrestrial megafauna such as saber-toothed cat and the mammoth during the ice age is well known. Now, researchers at the University of Zurich and the Naturkunde Museum in Berlin have shown that a similar extinction event had taken place earlier, in the oceans.

New extinction event discovered

The international team investigated fossils of marine megafauna from the Pliocene and the Pleistocene epochs (5.3 million to around 9,700 years BC). “We were able to show that around a third of marine megafauna disappeared about three to two million years ago. Therefore, the marine megafaunal communities that humans inherited were already altered and functioning at a diminished diversity,” explains lead author Dr. Catalina Pimiento, who conducted the study at the Paleontological Institute and Museum of the University of Zurich.

Above all, the newly discovered extinction event affected marine mammals, which lost 55 per cent of their diversity. As many as 43 per cent of sea turtle species were lost, along with 35 per cent of sea birds and 9 per cent of sharks. On the other hand, the following new forms of life were to develop during the subsequent Pleistocene epoch: Around a quarter of animal species, including the polar bear Ursus [maritimus], the storm petrel Oceanodroma or the penguin Megadyptes had not existed during the Pliocene. Overall, however, earlier levels of diversity could not be reached again.

Effects on functional diversity

In order to determine the consequences of this extinction, the research team concentrated on shallow coastal shelf zones, investigating the effects that the loss of entire functional entities had on coastal ecosystems. Functional entities are groups of animals not necessarily related, but that share similar characteristics in terms of the function they play on ecosystems. The finding: Seven functional entities were lost in coastal waters during the Pliocene.

Even though the loss of seven functional entities, and one third of the species is relatively modest, this led to an important erosion of functional diversity: 17 per cent of the total diversity of ecological functions in the ecosystem disappeared and 21 per cent changed. Previously common predators vanished, while new competitors emerged and marine animals were forced to adjust. In addition, the researchers found that at the time of the extinction, coastal habitats were significantly reduced due to violent sea levels fluctuations.

Large warm-blooded marine animals are more vulnerable to global environmental changes

The researchers propose that the sudden loss of the productive coastal habitats, together with oceanographic factors such as altered sea currents, greatly contributed to these extinctions. “Our models have demonstrated that warm-blooded animals in particular were more likely to become extinct. For example, species of sea cows and baleen whales, as well as the giant shark Carcharocles megalodon disappeared,” explains Dr. Pimiento. “This study shows that marine megafauna were far more vulnerable to global environmental changes in the recent geological past than had previously been assumed.” The researcher also points to a present-day parallel: Nowadays, large marine species such as whales or seals are also highly vulnerable to human influences.

Fossil giant brush turkey discovery in Australia


A reconstruction of Progura gallinacea (right), alongside a kangaroo and modern bush turkey (Alectura lathami). Image credit: Elen Shute / Kim Benson / Tony Rodd / Aaron Camens

From Sci-News.com:

Giant Flying Turkeys Lived in Australia 1-3 Million Years Ago

June 15, 2017

Progura gallinacea, a species of extinct giant brush turkey that lived in Australia during the Late Pliocene and Early Pleistocene (1-3 million years ago), is among five megapode birds described (or redescribed) by Flinders University paleontologists.

After carefully comparing megapode fossils from Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia, the paleontologists have concluded that the remains belong to five different extinct species: Garrdimalga mcnamarai (new species), Progura gallinacea and P. campestris (new species), Latagallina naracoortensis and L. olsoni (new species).

All five birds were chunky relatives of extant malleefowl (Leipoa ocellata) and brush turkeys (Alectura lathami), but Progura gallinacea soars above the others.

The earliest-described extinct megapode, Progura gallinacea had an estimated mass of 7.7 kg.

Progura campestris, Latagallina naracoortensis, Garrdimalga mcnamarai and Latagallina olsoni had average masses of 6.2 kg, 5.2 kg, 5.2 kg and 2.9 kg, respectively.

Progura gallinacea had long, slender legs. Latagallina naracoortensis and L. olsoni had shorter legs and broad bodies.

These giant megapodes lived during the Pleistocene, between 5 million and 11,000 years ago, alongside Australia’s giant extinct marsupials such as diprotodons, marsupial lions and short-faced kangaroos.

It seems that none of these birds built mounds like their living Australian cousins because they lacked the large feet and specialized claws seen in mound-builders.

It’s more likely that they buried their eggs in warm sand or soil, like some living megapodes in Indonesia and the Pacific.

Unlike many large extinct birds, such as dodos, these megapodes were not flightless.

While big and bulky, their long, strong wing bones show they could all fly, and probably roosted in trees.

“These discoveries are quite remarkable because they tell us that more than half of Australia’s megapodes went extinct during the Pleistocene, and we didn’t even realize it until now,” said Elen Shute, a PhD candidate at Flinders University and lead author of a paper in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

“Given several of the largest birds to have lived in Australia in recent times have escaped detection in the fossil record until now, our research shows how little we know of Australia’s immediate pre-human avifauna,” said co-author Dr. Trevor Worthy, an associate professor at Flinders University.

“Probably many smaller extinct species also await discovery by paleontologists.”

‘Oldest human fossils discovered in Morocco’


This video says about itself:

2 June 2017

Caption: Composite reconstruction of the earliest known Homo sapiens fossils from Jebel Irhoud (Morocco) based on micro computed tomographic scans of multiple original fossils. Dated to 300 thousand years ago these early Homo sapiens already have a modern-looking face that falls within the variation of humans living today. However, the archaic-looking virtual imprint of the braincase (blue) indicates that brain shape, and possibly brain function, evolved within the Homo sapiens lineage.

Credit: Philipp Gunz, MPI EVA Leipzig

From the University of California – Davis in the USA:

Moroccan fossils show human ancestors’ diet of game

June 7, 2017

Summary: New fossil finds from Morocco do more than push back the origins of our species by 100,000 years. They also reveal what was on the menu for our oldest-known Homo sapiens ancestors 300,000 years ago: Plenty of gazelle.

New fossil finds from the Jebel Irhoud archaeological site in Morocco do more than push back the origins of our species by 100,000 years. They also reveal what was on the menu for our oldest-known Homo sapiens ancestors 300,000 years ago:

Plenty of gazelle meat, with the occasional wildebeest, zebra and other game and perhaps the seasonal ostrich egg, says Teresa Steele, a paleoanthropologist at the University of California, Davis, who analyzed animal fossils at Jebel Irhoud.

Steele, who studies how food sources and environmental change influenced human evolution and migration, was part of the international research team that began excavating at the site in 2004. She is the co-author of one of two papers featured on the cover of the June 8 issue of Nature: “Human origins: Moroccan remains push back date for the emergence of Homo sapiens.”

Jebel Irhoud has been well known since the 1960s for its human fossils and for its Middle Stone Age artifacts, but the geological age of those fossils was uncertain.

The new excavation project — led by Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and Abdelouahed Ben-Ncer of the National Institute for Archaeology and Heritage (INSAP) in Rabat, Morocco — uncovered 16 new Homo sapiens fossils along with stone tools and animal bones. The remains comprise skulls, teeth, and long bones of at least 5 individuals.

Thermoluminescence dating of heated flints yielded an age of approximately 300,000 years ago — 100,000 years earlier than the previously oldest Homo sapiens fossils.

Analysis of the animal fossils provided additional evidence to support the date. Dating of rodent remains suggested they were 337,000 to 374,000 years old.

Gazelle Bones Common

Steele sifted through hundreds of fossil bones and shells, identifying 472 of them to species as well as recording cut marks and breaks indicating which ones had been food for humans.

Most of the animal bones came from gazelles. Among the other remains, Steele also identified hartebeests, wildebeests, zebras, buffalos, porcupines, hares, tortoises, freshwater molluscs, snakes and ostrich egg shells.

Small game was a small percentage of the remains. “It really seemed like people were fond of hunting,” she said.

Cuts and breaks on long bones indicate that humans broke them open, likely to eat the marrow, she said. Leopard, hyena and other predators’ fossils were among the finds, but Steele found little evidence that the nonhuman predators had gnawed on the gazelle and other prey.

Steele said the findings support the idea that Middle Stone Age began just over 300,000 years ago, and that important changes in modern human biology and behaviour were taking place across most of Africa then.

“In my view, what it does is to continue to make it more feasible that North Africa had a role to play in the evolution of modern humans.”

See also here.

Elephant evolution, new research


This is a 2015 Italian video on on the extinct elephant species Elephas antiquus, aka Palaeoloxodon antiquus.

A new theory on elephant evolution. Though not as as drastic as the recent theory advocating major changes in the dinosaur family tree.

From the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the USA:

Genetic study shakes up the elephant family tree

June 6, 2017

Summary: New research reveals that a species of giant elephant that lived 1.5 million to 100,000 years ago — ranging across Eurasia before it went extinct — is more closely related to today’s African forest elephant than the forest elephant is to its nearest living relative, the African savanna elephant. Understanding elephant evolution is key to protecting present-day elephants from extinction, researchers say.

New research reveals that a species of giant elephant that lived 1.5 million to 100,000 years ago — ranging across Eurasia before it went extinct — is more closely related to today’s African forest elephant than the forest elephant is to its nearest living relative, the African savanna elephant.

The study challenges a long-held assumption among paleontologists that the extinct giant, Palaeoloxodon antiquus, was most closely related to the Asian elephant. The findings, reported in the journal eLife, also add to the evidence that today’s African elephants belong to two distinct species, not one, as was once assumed.

Understanding their genetic heritage is key to keeping today’s elephants from going extinct, said University of Illinois animal sciences professor Alfred Roca, a co-author of the new study. Roca led research in the early 2000s that provided the first genetic evidence that African elephants belonged to two distinct species. Subsequent studies have confirmed this, as does the new research.

“We’ve had really good genetic evidence since the year 2001 that forest and savanna elephants in Africa are two different species, but it’s been very difficult to convince conservation agencies that that’s the case,” Roca said. “With the new genetic evidence from Palaeoloxodon, it becomes almost impossible to argue that the elephants now living in Africa belong to a single species.”

For the new analysis, scientists looked at two lines of evidence from African and Asian elephants, woolly mammoths and P. antiquus. They analyzed mitochondrial DNA, which is passed only from mothers to their offspring, and nuclear DNA, which is a blend of paternal and maternal genes.

The researchers relied on the most sensitive laboratory techniques to extract and amplify the DNA in P. antiquus bones from two sites in Germany — among the first DNA successfully collected from such ancient bones from a temperate climate.

“Up until now, genetic research on bones that are hundreds of thousands of years old has almost exclusively relied on fossils collected in permafrost,” said Matthias Meyer, a researcher from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and first author of the paper. “It is encouraging to see that recent advances in laboratory methods are now enabling us to recover very old DNA sequences also from warmer places, where DNA degrades at a much faster rate.”

The mitochondrial analysis revealed that a shared ancestor of P. antiquus and the African forest elephant lived sometime between 1.5 million and 3.5 million years ago. Their closest shared ancestor with the African savanna elephant lived between 3.9 and 7 million years ago.

The nuclear DNA told the same story, the researchers report.

“From the study of bone morphology, people thought Palaeoloxodon was closer to the Asian elephant. But from the molecular data, we found they are much closer to the African forest elephant,” said research scientist Yasuko Ishida, who led the mitochondrial sequencing of modern elephants with Roca.

“Palaeoloxodon antiquus is a sister to the African forest elephant; it is not a sister to the Asian elephant or the African savanna elephant,” Roca said.

“Paleogenomics has already revolutionized our view of human evolution, and now the same is happening for other mammalian groups,” said study co-author Michael Hofreiter from the University of Potsdam, an expert on evolutionary genomics. “I am sure elephants are only the first step and in the future, we will see surprises with regard to the evolution of other species as well.”

Understanding the genetic heritage of elephants is vital to protecting the living remnant populations in Africa and beyond, Roca said.

“More than two-thirds of the remaining forest elephants in Africa have been killed over the last 15 years or so,” Roca said. “Forest elephants are among the most endangered elephant populations on the planet. Some conservation agencies don’t recognize African forest elephants as a distinct species, and these animals’ conservation needs have been neglected.”

See also here.