Mammal-like reptile discovery in Greenland

A team of scientists led by Grzegorz Nied?wiedzki from Uppsala University have investigated the jaw anatomy and tooth structure of a recently described new mammaliaform species named Kalaallitkigun jenkinsi. Credit: Marta Szubert

From Uppsala University in Sweden:

A tiny jaw from Greenland sheds light on the origin of complex teeth

October 13, 2020

A team of scientists led from Uppsala University have described the earliest known example of dentary bone with two rows of cusps on molars and double-rooted teeth. The new findings offer insight into mammal tooth evolution, particularly the development of double-rooted teeth. The results are published in the scientific journal PNAS.

The first mammals originated in the latest Triassic period, around 205 million years ago. An ancestor to mammals were the therapsids, “mammal-like reptiles” referred to as stem mammals or proto-mammals, which originated about 320-300 million years ago. One unique characteristic of the lineage that included mammals and animals related to mammals (synapsids) was that they developed complex occlusion. Close ancestors to mammals, called mammaliaforms, developed rows of cusps on molar-like teeth adapted for more omnivorous feeding. The origin of this multicusped pattern and double-rooted tooth has thus far remained unclear.

A team of scientists led by Grzegorz Niedzwiedzki from Uppsala University have investigated the jaw anatomy and tooth structure of a recently described new mammaliaform species named Kalaallitkigun jenkinsi. It was discovered on the eastern coast of Greenland and was a very small, shrew-like animal, probably covered with fur. It would have been the size of a large mouse and lived during the Late Triassic, around 215 million years ago.

“I knew it was important from the moment I took this 20 mm specimen off the ground,” says Niedzwiedzki, researcher at Uppsala University and the corresponding author of the publication.

Kalaallitkigun jenkinsi exhibits the earliest known dentary with two rows of cusps on molars and double-rooted teeth. The anatomical features place Kalaallitkigun jenkinsi as an intermediate between the mammals and the insectivorous morganucodontans, another type of mammaliaform.

The researchers believe that the structural changes in the teeth are related to changed feeding habits. In this case study, the animals were switching to a more omnivorous/herbivorous diet and the tooth crown was expanding laterally. Broader teeth with “basins” on the top surface are better for grinding food. This development also forced changes in the structure of the base of the tooth.

The biomechanical analysis that was carried out within the study found that multi-rooted teeth are better able to withstand mechanical stresses, including those of upper and lower tooth contact during biting, compared to single-rooted teeth. Human teeth, for instance, have this characteristic. The results suggest that the development of molar-like teeth with complex crowns may have developed together with biomechanically optimised dual roots.

“The early evolution of mammals is a particularly interesting topic in evolutionary studies. This tiny jaw from Greenland shows us how complex mammalian teeth arose and why they appeared,” says Niedzwiedzki.

“Our discovery of the oldest mammalian ancestor with double-rooted molars shows how important the role of teeth was in the origin of mammals. I had this idea to look at the biomechanics and the collaboration with the engineers turned out great,” says Tomasz Sulej, researcher at the Polish Academy of Sciences, first author of the publication.

“It seems that the fossils of close mammalian ancestors must be looked for in even older rocks,” says Sulej.

Ancient Indian Triassic amphibians, new research

This 2016 video says about itself:


by Sanjukta Chakravorti

Recorded at XIV Annual Meeting of the European Association of Vertebrate Palaeontologists, Teylers Museum, Haarlem, Netherlands.

From the University of Bonn in Germany:

Fossil growth reveals insights into the climate

Researchers examined bones of the puzzling Panthasaurus maleriensis

September 8, 2020

Panthasaurus maleriensis lived about 225 million years ago in what is now India. It is an ancestor of today’s amphibians and has been considered the most puzzling representative of the Metoposauridae. Paleontologists from the universities of Bonn (Germany) and Opole (Poland) examined the fossil’s bone tissue and compared it with other representatives of the family also dating from the Triassic. They discovered phases of slower and faster growth in the bone, which apparently depended on the climate. The results have now been published in the journal PeerJ.

Temnospondyli belong to the ancestors of today’s amphibians. This group of animals became extinct about 120 million years ago in the Early Cretaceous. The Temnospondyli also include the Metoposauridae, a fossil group that lived exclusively in the Late Triassic about 225 million years ago. Remains of these ancestors are present on almost every continent. In Europe, they are found mainly in Poland, Portugal and also in southern Germany.

Panthasaurus maleriensis, the most puzzling representative of the Metoposauridae to date, lived in what is now India, near the town of Boyapally. “Until now, there were hardly any investigation opportunities because the fossils were very difficult to access,” explains Elzbieta Teschner from the University of Opole, who is working on her doctorate in paleontology in the research group of Prof. Dr. Martin Sander at the University of Bonn. Researchers from the Universities of Bonn and Opole, together with colleagues from the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata (India), have now examined the tissue of fossil bones of a metoposaur from the Southern Hemisphere for the first time. The amphibian, which resembled a crocodile, could grow up to three meters in length.

Valuable insight into the bone interior

“The investigated taxon is called Panthasaurus maleriensis and was found in the Maleri Formation in Central India,” notes Teschner with regard to the name. So far, the fossil has only been examined morphologically on the basis of its external shape. “Histology as the study of tissues, on the other hand, provides us with a valuable insight into the bone interior,” says Dr. Dorota Konietzko-Meier from the Institute for Geosciences at the University of Bonn. The histological findings can be used to draw conclusions about age, habitat and even climate during the animal’s lifetime.

The histological examinations revealed that the young animals had very rapid bone growth and that this growth decreased with age. The Indian site where the bones were found provides evidence of both young and adult animals, in contrast to Krasiejów (south-western Poland), where only young animals were found. Geological and geochemical data show that the Late Triassic consisted of alternating dry and rainy periods, as in the present monsoon climate of India. “This sequence is also reflected in the material examined,” says Teschner. “There are phases of rapid growth, known as zones, and a slowdown, known as annulus.” Normally, one can still observe stagnation lines in the bones, which develop during unfavorable phases of life, for example during very hot or very cold seasons.

In Panthasaurus maleriensis, however, growth never comes to a complete cessation. In comparison: the Polish Metoposaurus krasiejowensis shows the same alternation of zones and annuli in one life cycle and no stagnation lines, whereas the Moroccan representative of the metoposaurs Dutuitosaurus ouazzoui shows stagnation lines — that is, a complete stop in growth — in each life cycle.

The different growth phases in the bones allow for a comparison of climatic conditions. This means that the climate in the Late Triassic would have been milder in Central India than in Morocco, but not as mild as in the area that today belongs to Poland. Sander: “Fossil bones therefore offer a window into the prehistoric past.”

Triassic Antarctic Lystrosaurus, new research

This BBC video is called Walking with Monsters – “Lystrosaurus“.

From the University of Washington in the USA:

Fossil evidence of ‘hibernation-like’ state in 250-million-year-old Antarctic animal

August 27, 2020

Summary: Scientists report evidence of a hibernation-like state in Lystrosaurus, an animal that lived in Antarctica during the Early Triassic, some 250 million years ago. The fossils are the oldest evidence of a hibernation-like state in a vertebrate, and indicate that torpor — a general term for hibernation and similar states in which animals temporarily lower their metabolic rate to get through a tough season — arose in vertebrates even before mammals and dinosaurs evolved.

Hibernation is a familiar feature on Earth today. Many animals — especially those that live close to or within polar regions — hibernate to get through the tough winter months when food is scarce, temperatures drop and days are dark.

According to new research, this type of adaptation has a long history. In a paper published Aug. 27 in the journal Communications Biology, scientists at the University of Washington and its Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture report evidence of a hibernation-like state in an animal that lived in Antarctica during the Early Triassic, some 250 million years ago.

The creature, a member of the genus Lystrosaurus, was a distant relative of mammals. Antarctica during Lystrosaurus’ time lay largely within the Antarctic Circle, like today, and experienced extended periods without sunlight each winter.

The fossils are the oldest evidence of a hibernation-like state in a vertebrate animal, and indicates that torpor — a general term for hibernation and similar states in which animals temporarily lower their metabolic rate to get through a tough season — arose in vertebrates even before mammals and dinosaurs evolved.

“Animals that live at or near the poles have always had to cope with the more extreme environments present there,” said lead author Megan Whitney, a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard University who conducted this study as a UW doctoral student in biology. “These preliminary findings indicate that entering into a hibernation-like state is not a relatively new type of adaptation. It is an ancient one.”

Lystrosaurus lived during a dynamic period of our planet’s history, arising just before Earth’s largest mass extinction at the end of the Permian Period — which wiped out about 70% of vertebrate species on land — and somehow surviving it. The stout, four-legged foragers lived another 5 million years into the subsequent Triassic Period and spread across swathes of Earth’s then-single continent, Pangea, which included what is now Antarctica.

“The fact that Lystrosaurus survived the end-Permian mass extinction and had such a wide range in the early Triassic has made them a very well-studied group of animals for understanding survival and adaptation,” said co-author Christian Sidor, a UW professor of biology and curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Burke Museum.

Paleontologists today find Lystrosaurus fossils in India, China, Russia, parts of Africa and Antarctica. These squat, stubby, creatures — most were roughly pig-sized, but some grew 6 to 8 feet long — had no teeth but bore a pair of tusks in the upper jaw, which they likely employed to forage among ground vegetation and dig for roots and tubers, according to Whitney.

Those tusks made Whitney and Sidor’s study possible. Like elephants, Lystrosaurus tusks grew continuously throughout their lives. The cross-sections of fossilized tusks can harbor life-history information about metabolism, growth and stress or strain. Whitney and Sidor compared cross-sections of tusks from six Antarctic Lystrosaurus to cross-sections of four Lystrosaurus from South Africa.

Back in the Triassic, the collection sites in Antarctica were at about 72 degrees south latitude — well within the Antarctic Circle, at 66.3 degrees south. The collection sites in South Africa were more than 550 miles north during the Triassic at 58-61 degrees south latitude, far outside the Antarctic Circle.

The tusks from the two regions showed similar growth patterns, with layers of dentine deposited in concentric circles like tree rings. But the Antarctic fossils harbored an additional feature that was rare or absent in tusks farther north: closely-spaced, thick rings, which likely indicate periods of less deposition due to prolonged stress, according to the researchers.

“The closest analog we can find to the ‘stress marks’ that we observed in Antarctic Lystrosaurus tusks are stress marks in teeth associated with hibernation in certain modern animals,” said Whitney.

The researchers cannot definitively conclude that Lystrosaurus underwent true hibernation — which is a specific, weeks-long reduction in metabolism, body temperature and activity. The stress could have been caused by another hibernation-like form of torpor, such as a more short-term reduction in metabolism, according to Sidor.

Lystrosaurus in Antarctica likely needed some form of hibernation-like adaptation to cope with life near the South Pole, said Whitney. Though Earth was much warmer during the Triassic than today — and parts of Antarctica may have been forested — plants and animals below the Antarctic Circle would still experience extreme annual variations in the amount of daylight, with the sun absent for long periods in winter.

Many other ancient vertebrates at high latitudes may also have used torpor, including hibernation, to cope with the strains of winter, Whitney said. But many famous extinct animals, including the dinosaurs that evolved and spread after Lystrosaurus died out, don’t have teeth that grow continuously.

“To see the specific signs of stress and strain brought on by hibernation, you need to look at something that can fossilize and was growing continuously during the animal’s life,” said Sidor. “Many animals don’t have that, but luckily Lystrosaurus did.”

If analysis of additional Antarctic and South African Lystrosaurus fossils confirms this discovery, it may also settle another debate about these ancient, hearty animals.

“Cold-blooded animals often shut down their metabolism entirely during a tough season, but many endothermic or ‘warm-blooded’ animals that hibernate frequently reactivate their metabolism during the hibernation period,” said Whitney. “What we observed in the Antarctic Lystrosaurus tusks fits a pattern of small metabolic ‘reactivation events’ during a period of stress, which is most similar to what we see in warm-blooded hibernators today.”

If so, this distant cousin of mammals isn’t just an example of a hearty creature. It is also a reminder that many features of life today may have been around for hundreds of millions of years before humans evolved to observe them.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation.

Ichthyosaur ate other big prehistoric marine reptile

Ichtyosaur ate thalattosaur

From iScience:

Evidence Supporting Predation of 4-m Marine Reptile by Triassic Megapredator


A new fossil of a 5-m ichthyosaur contains remains of a 4-m thalattosaur

It likely represents the oldest record of megafaunal predation by a marine reptile

More Mesozoic marine reptiles than previously conceived likely fed on megafauna

Megafaunal predation simultaneously started in a few lineages of marine reptiles

Air-breathing marine predators have been essential components of the marine ecosystem since the Triassic. Many of them are considered the apex predators but without direct evidence—dietary inferences are usually based on circumstantial evidence, such as tooth shape.

Here we report a fossil that likely represents the oldest evidence for predation on megafauna, i.e., animals equal to or larger than humans, by marine tetrapods—a thalattosaur (∼4 m in total length) in the stomach of a Middle Triassic ichthyosaur (∼5 m). The predator has grasping teeth yet swallowed the body trunk of the prey in one to several pieces. There were many more Mesozoic marine reptiles with similar grasping teeth, so megafaunal predation was likely more widespread than presently conceived. Megafaunal predation probably started nearly simultaneously in multiple lineages of marine reptiles in the Illyrian (about 242–243 million years ago).

Triassic fossil amphibian and reptile, video

This 20 August 2020 video says about itself:

The Oddest Couple in the Fossil Record

To figure out how Thrinaxodon and Broomistega became entombed together, scientists looked at the burrow itself, along with their fossilized bones. And it looks like their luck ran out, when a behavior that usually would’ve helped them survive just didn’t work.

Thrinaxodon was a mammal-like reptile. Broomistega was an amphibian. They lived during the Triassic in South Africa.

Tanystropheus Triassic reptiles, marine, not on land

This 7 August 2020 video says about itself:

For more than a hundred years, the fossil of the Tanystropheus has puzzled scientists. The strange reptile — resembling a real-life Loch Ness Monster or a prehistoric crocodile crossed with a giraffe — was first described in 1852 and first reconstructed in 1973.

Paleontologists have long known that the species once lived in Switzerland’s Monte San Giorgio basin during the Middle Triassic period (about 242 million years ago). They also knew the bizarre-looking 20-foot creature had a remarkably long neck, which at 10 feet long was half of its entire length. But the remaining details surrounding the remained fuzzy and have been much debated. Did these #animals live on land or in the water? What did their young look like? And how did they interact with the other species in their environment? No one knew — until now.

Scientists used computed tomography (CT) scan technology to digitally reconstruct the crushed skulls of the fossils, which revealed evidence that these reptiles were water-dwelling, according to new research published in Current Biology.

From the Field Museum in the USA:

Fossil mystery solved: Super-long-necked reptiles lived in the ocean, not on land

Twenty-foot-long specimens described as separate species from their cousins, named after mythology’s Hydra

August 6, 2020

A fossil called Tanystropheus was first described in 1852, and it’s been puzzling scientists ever since. At one point, paleontologists thought it was a flying pterosaur, like a pterodactyl, and that its long, hollow bones were phalanges in the finger that supported the wing. Later on, they figured out that those were elongated neck bones, and that it was a twenty-foot-long reptile with a ten-foot neck: three times as long as its torso. Scientists still weren’t sure if it lived on land or in the water, and they didn’t know if smaller specimens were juveniles or a completely different species — until now. By CT-scanning the fossils’ crushed skulls and digitally reassembling them, researchers found evidence that the animals were water-dwelling, and by examining the growth rings in bones, determined that the big and little Tanystropheus were separate species that could live alongside each other without competing because they hunted different prey.

“I’ve been studying Tanystropheus for over thirty years, so it’s extremely satisfying to see these creatures demystified,” says Olivier Rieppel, a paleontologist at the Field Museum in Chicago and one of the authors of a new paper in Current Biology detailing the discovery.

Tanystropheus lived 242 million years ago, during the middle Triassic. On land, dinosaurs were just starting to emerge, and the sea was ruled by giant reptiles. For a long time, though, scientists weren’t sure whether Tanystropheus lived on land or in the water. Its bizarre body didn’t make things clear one way or the other.

“Tanystropheus looked like a stubby crocodile with a very, very long neck,” says Rieppel. The larger specimens were twenty feet long, with their necks making up ten feet of that length. Oddly for animals with such long necks, they only had thirteen neck vertebrae, just really elongated. (We see the same thing with giraffes, which have only seven neck bones, just like humans.) And their necks were rather inflexible, reinforced with extra bones called cervical ribs.

In the same region where many of the big Tanystropheus fossils were found, in what’s now Switzerland, there were also fossils from similar-looking animals that were only about four feet long. So not only were scientists unsure if these were land-dwellers or marine animals, but they also didn’t know if the smaller specimens were juveniles, or a separate species from the twenty-footers.

To solve these two long-standing mysteries, the researchers used newer technologies to see details of the animals’ bones. The large Tanystropheus fossils’ skulls had been crushed, but Stephan Spiekman, the paper’s lead author and a researcher at the University of Zurich, was able to take CT scans of the fossil slabs and generate 3D images of the bone fragments inside.

“The power of CT scanning allows us to see details that are otherwise impossible to observe in fossils,” says Spiekman. “From a strongly crushed skull we have been able to reconstruct an almost complete 3D skull, revealing crucial morphological details.”

The skulls had key features, including nostrils on top of the snout like a crocodile’s, that suggested Tanystropheus lived in the water. It probably lay in wait, waiting for fish and squid-like animals to swim by, and then snagged them with its long, curved teeth. It may have come to land to lay eggs, but overall, it stayed in the ocean.

Rieppel wasn’t surprised that evidence pointed to a water-dwelling Tanystropheus. “That neck doesn’t make sense in a terrestrial environment,” he says. “It’s just an awkward structure to carry around.”

So that answered one question, about where Tanystropheus lived. To learn whether the small specimens were juveniles or a separate species, the researchers examined the bones for signs of growth and aging.

“We looked at cross sections of bones from the small type and were very excited to find many growth rings. This tells us that these animals were mature,” says Torsten Scheyer, the study’s senior author and a researcher at University of Zurich.

“The small form is an adult, which basically sealed the case,” says Rieppel. “It’s proven now that these are two species.” The researchers named the larger one Tanystropheus hydroides, after the long-necked hydras in Greek mythology. The small form bears the original name Tanystropheus longobardicus.

“For many years now we have had our suspicions that there were two species of Tanystropheus, but until we were able to CT scan the larger specimens we had no definitive evidence. Now we do,” says Nick Fraser, Keeper of Natural Sciences at National Museums Scotland and a co-author of the paper. “It is hugely significant to discover that there were two quite separate species of this bizarrely long-necked reptile who swam and lived alongside each other in the coastal waters of the great sea of Tethys approximately 240 million years ago.”

The animals’ different sizes, along with cone-shaped teeth in the big species and crown-shaped teeth in the little species, meant they probably weren’t competing for the same prey.

“These two closely related species had evolved to use different food sources in the same environment,” says Spiekman. “The small species likely fed on small shelled animals, like shrimp, in contrast to the fish and squid the large species ate. This is really remarkable, because we expected the bizarre neck of Tanystropheus to be specialized for a single task, like the neck of a giraffe. But actually, it allowed for several lifestyles. This completely changes the way we look at this animal.”

This “splitting up” of a habitat to accommodate two similar species is called niche partitioning. “Darwin focused a lot on competition between species, and how competing over resources can even result in one of the species going extinct,” says Rieppel. “But this kind of radical competition happens in restricted environments like islands. The marine basins that Tanystropheus lived in could apparently support niche partitioning. It’s an important ecological phenomenon.”

“Tanystropheus is an iconic fossil and has always been,” adds Rieppel. “To clarify its taxonomy is an important first step to understanding that group and its evolution.”

Triassic dinosaurs family tree, new research

This 2016 video says about itself:


Dinosaurs are a diverse group of animals of the clade Dinosauria. They first appeared during the Triassic period, 231.4 million years ago, and were the dominant terrestrial vertebrates for 135 million years, from the start of the Jurassic (about 200 million years ago) until the end of the Cretaceous (66 million years ago), when the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event led to the extinction of most dinosaur groups at the end of the Mesozoic Era.

The fossil record indicates that birds are modern feathered dinosaurs, having evolved from theropod ancestors during the Jurassic Period. Birds were the only dinosaurs to survive the extinction event that occurred 66 million years ago.

From the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the USA:

Study sheds light on the evolution of the earliest dinosaurs

Geological evidence suggests the known dinosaur groups diverged early on, supporting the traditional dinosaur family tree

July 29, 2020

Summary: Geological evidence suggests the known dinosaur groups diverged early on, supporting the traditional dinosaur family tree.

The classic dinosaur family tree has two subdivisions of early dinosaurs at its base: the Ornithischians, or bird-hipped dinosaurs, which include the later Triceratops and Stegosaurus; and the Saurischians, or lizard-hipped dinosaurs, such as Brontosaurus and Tyrannosaurus.

In 2017, however, this classical view of dinosaur evolution was thrown into question with evidence that perhaps the lizard-hipped dinosaurs evolved first — a finding that dramatically rearranged the first major branches of the dinosaur family tree.

Now an MIT geochronologist, along with paleontologists from Argentina and Brazil, has found evidence to support the classical view of dinosaur evolution. The team’s findings are published today in the journal Scientific Reports.

The team reanalyzed fossils of Pisanosaurus, a small bipedal dinosaur that is thought to be the earliest preserved Ornithiscian in the fossil record. The researchers determined that the bird-hipped herbivore dates back to 229 million years ago, which is also around the time that the earliest lizard-hipped Saurischians are thought to have appeared.

The new timing suggests that Ornithiscians and Saurischians first appeared and diverged from a common ancestor at roughly the same time, giving support to the classical view of dinosaur evolution.

The researchers also dated rocks from the Ischigualasto Formation, a layered sedimentary rock unit in Argentina that is known for having preserved an abundance of fossils of the very earliest dinosaurs. Based on these fossils and others across South America, scientists believe that dinosaurs first appeared in the southern continent, which at the time was fused together with the supercontinent of Pangaea. The early dinosaurs are then thought to have diverged and fanned out across the world.

However, in the new study, the researchers determined that the period over which the Ischigualasto Formation was deposited overlaps with the timing of another important geological deposit in North America, known as the Chinle Formation.

The middle layers of the Chinle Formation in the southwestern U.S. contain fossils of various fauna, including dinosaurs that appear to be more evolved than the earliest dinosaurs. The bottom layers of this formation, however, lack animal fossil evidence of any kind, let alone early dinosaurs. This suggests that conditions within this geological window prevented the preservation of any form of life, including early dinosaurs, if they walked this particular region of the world.

“If the Chinle and Ischigualasto formations overlap in time, then early dinosaurs may not have first evolved in South America, but may have also been roaming North America around the same time,” says Jahandar Ramezani, a research scientist in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences, who co-authored the study. “Those northern cousins just may not have been preserved.”

The other researchers on the study are first author Julia Desojo from the National University of La Plata Museum, and a team of paleontologists from institutions across Argentina and Brazil.

“Following footsteps”

The earliest dinosaur fossils found in the Ischigualasto Formation are concentrated within what is now a protected provincial park known as “Valley of the Moon” in the San Juan Province. The geological formation also extends beyond the park, albeit with fewer fossils of early dinosaurs. Ramezani and his colleagues instead looked to study one of the accessible outcrops of the same rocks, outside of the park.

They focused on Hoyada del Cerro Las Lajas, a less-studied outcrop of the Ischigualasto Formation, in La Rioja Province, which another team of paleontologists explored in the 1960s.

“Our group got our hands on some of the field notes and excavated fossils from those early paleontologists, and thought we should follow their footsteps to see what we could learn,” Desojo says.

Over four expeditions between 2013 to 2019, the team collected fossils and rocks from various layers of the Las Lajas outcrop, including more than 100 new fossil specimens, though none of these fossils were of dinosaurs. Nevertheless, they analyzed the fossils and found they were comparable, in both species and relative age, to nondinosaur fossils found in the park region of the same Ischigualasto Formation. They also found out that the Ischigualasto Formation in Las Lajas was significantly thicker and much more complete than the outcrops in the park. This gave them confidence that the geological layers in both locations were deposited during the same critical time interval.

Ramezani then analyzed samples of volcanic ash collected from several layers of the Las Lajas outcrops. Volcanic ash contains zircon, a mineral that he separated from the rest of the sediment, and measured for isotopes of uranium and lead, the ratios of which yield the mineral’s age.

With this high-precision technique, Ramezani dated samples from the top and bottom of the outcrop, and found that the sedimentary layers, and any fossils preserved within them, were deposited between 230 million and 221 million years ago. Since the team determined that the layered rocks in Las Lajas and the park match in both species and relative timing, they could also now determine the exact age of the park’s more fossil-rich outcrops.

Moreover, this window overlaps significantly with the time interval over which sediments were deposited, thousands of kilometers northward, in the Chinle Formation.

“For many years, people thought Chinle and Ischigualasto formations didn’t overlap, and based on that assumption, they developed a model of diachronous evolution, meaning the earliest dinosaurs appeared in South America first, then spread out to other parts of the world including North America,” Ramezani says. “We’ve now studied both formations extensively, and shown that diachronous evolution isn’t really based on sound geology.”

A family tree, preserved

Decades before Ramezani and his colleagues set out for Las Lajas, other paleontologists had explored the region and unearthed numerous fossils, including remains of Pisanosaurus mertii, a small, light-framed, ground-dwelling herbivore. The fossils are now preserved in an Argentinian museum, and scientists have gone back and forth on whether it is a true dinosaur belonging to the Ornithiscian group, or a ” basal dinosauromorph” — a kind of pre-dinosaur, with features that are almost, but not quite fully, dinosaurian.

“The dinosaurs we see in the Jurassic and Cretaceous are highly evolved, and ones we can nicely identify, but in the late Triassic, they all looked very much alike, so it’s very hard to distinguish them from each other, and from basal dinosauromorphs,” Ramezani explains.

His collaborator Max Langer from the University of São Paulo in Brazil painstakingly reanalyzed the museum-preserved fossil of Pisanosaurus, and concluded, based on certain key anatomical features, that it is indeed a dinosaur — and what’s more, that it is the earliest preserved Ornithiscian specimen. Based on Ramezani’s dating of the outcrop and the interpretation of Pisanosaurus, the researchers concluded that the earliest bird-hipped dinosaurs appeared around 229 million years ago — around the same time as their lizard-hipped counterparts.

“We can now say the earliest Ornithiscians first showed up in the fossil record roughly around the same time as the Saurischians, so we shouldn’t throw away the conventional family tree,” Ramezani says. “There are all these debates about where dinosaurs appeared, how they diversified, what the family tree looked like. A lot of those questions are tied to geochronology, so we need really good, robust age constraints to help answer these questions.”

This research was mainly funded by the National Council for Scientific and Technical Research (Argentina) and the São Paulo State Research Support Foundation (Brazil). Geochronologic research at the MIT Isotope Lab has been supported in part by the U.S. National Science Foundation.

Prehistoric amphibians, four or five fingers?

This 2016 video says about itself:


By Kamil Gruntmejer

Recorded at XIV Annual Meeting of the European Association of Vertebrate Palaeontologists, Teylers Museum, Haarlem, Netherlands.

From the University of Bonn in Germany:

Fossil tracks: Wrong number of fingers leads down wrong track

July 24, 2020

Have you ever wondered why our hands have five fingers? And what about amphibians? They usually only have four. Until now it was assumed that this was already the case with the early ancestors of today’s frogs and salamanders, the Temnospondyli. However, a new find of the crocodile-like Temnospondyl Metoposaurus krasiejowensis from the late Triassic (about 225 million years old) in Poland shows five metacarpal bones and thus five fingers. As the researchers from the Universities of Bonn and Opole (Poland) note, this finding is very important, because until now, fossil animal tracks may have been wrongly assigned. The results have now been published in the Journal of Anatomy.

Modern amphibians usually have four fingers on the forelimb (and never more), which is called a “four-rayed hand,” as opposed to our five-rayed hand. Of all groups of terrestrial vertebrates, amphibians show the greatest variation in the number of frontfingers. Reptiles are the most conservative and usually have five. In birds, the finger bones in the wing have been lost completely. In mammals, the number of toes in the forelimb also varies greatly: Primates and raccoons have five, in horses only the third has survived, while in cattle and other even-toed ungulates fingers three and four remain. What they all have in common, however, is that this loss of toes or fingers originates from a five-ray pattern, which is why amphibians cannot be the ancestors of all these terrestrial vertebrate groups.

Exact number of toes is controversial

It has been known for some time that the earliest quadrupeds had significantly more fingers than five, such as Acanthostega, which had eight in the forelimb, or Ichthyostega with seven in the hind foot. As early as 300 million years ago, all but the five-fingered forms became extinct. The five-ray pattern was then retained in the real land animals, but was reduced again and again (see horses). The ancestors of today’s amphibians, the Temnospondyli, presented contradictory evidence of skeletons with four fingers, but also tracks that had five.

Temnospondyli is an important group of the early, very diverse quadrupeds. Some temnospondyls became as big as crocodiles, others were rather small. However, like all amphibians, they were dependent on water during their larval stage. Their most famous representatives include Eryops or Mastodonsaurus. “It’s also important to understand the evolution of modern amphibians, as this group probably evolved from the Temnospondyli,” says Dr. Dorota Konietzko-Meier from the Institute for Geosciences at the University of Bonn, who discovered and prepared the left forelimb of a Metoposaurus krasiejowensis in Krasiejów (southwest Poland).

However, despite the long history of research, the exact number of fingers in Metoposaurus and other temnospondyls is still controversial. “It’s remarkable that even in the case of the very well-researched Eryops, the skeletal reconstruction exhibited at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris has five fingers, while only four fingers can be seen at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington,” says Ella Teschner, a doctoral student from Bonn and Opole. Lately, science has assumed that, similar to most modern amphibians, all Temnospondyli have only four toes in their forelimbs. This resulted in the five-toed footprints common in the Permian and Triassic periods being almost automatically assumed to not belong to Temnospondyli.

“The find from the famous Upper Triassic site Krasiejów in Poland therefore offers a new opportunity to study the architecture and development of the hand of the early quadrupeds,” says paleontologist Prof. Dr. Martin Sander from the University of Bonn. A considerably broader view of the entire group of Temnospondyli did not show a clear trend with regard to the five-ray pattern and suggested that the number of digits was not as limited in the phylogenetic context as was assumed. “Evidently, the temnospondyls were already experimenting with the four-ray pattern, and the five-ray pattern died out before the emergence of modern amphibians,” adds Sander.

Five fingers on each hand?

“Even if the ossification of five metacarpal bones described here was only a pathology, it still shows that a five-ray pattern was possible in Temnospondyli,” says Konietzko-Meier. However, it could not be assumed with certainty that the reduction in the number of fingers/digits from five to four always affected the fifth place on the hand in these fossil taxa. The possibility that some of the four-fingered taxa were caused by the loss of the first ray cannot be excluded. Sander: “The new finding of a five-fingered hand is particularly important for the interpretation of tracks, as it shows that a five-fingered forefoot print could also belong to the Temnospondyli and thus indicate a considerably wider distribution area of these animals.”

These results are also of general importance, since limb development plays an important role in evolutionary biology and medicine, and fossils may therefore provide important information for the evaluation of theories of hand development.

Triassic era catastrophes and wildlife

This 18 June 2020 video from the USA says about itself:

Big Amphibians of the Chinle Formation!

Dinosaur Journey Re-Opens today! And to celebrate we wanted to share a video of Dr. Julia McHugh talking amphibians. Ever noticed the large red rock base of Independence Monument?! Well, that’s the Triassic age rock these amazing creatures were discovered. WATCH now to learn more!

From the University of Texas at Austin in the USA:

Arizona rock core sheds light on Triassic dark ages

July 20, 2020

A rock core from Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona, has given scientists a powerful new tool to understand how catastrophic events shaped Earth’s ecosystems before the rise of the dinosaurs.

The quarter-mile core is from an important part of the Triassic Period when life on Earth endured a series of cataclysmic events: Our planet was struck at least three times by mountain-sized asteroids, chains of volcanoes erupted to choke the sky with greenhouse gases, and tectonic movement tore apart Earth’s single supercontinent, Pangea.

Among the chaos, many plants and animals, including some of the long-snouted and armored reptiles that ruled Pangea throughout the Triassic, vanished in a possible shake-up of life on Earth that scientists have yet to explain.

The study, published July 20 in GSA Bulletin, offers scientists a foundation to explain the changes in the fossil record and determine how these events may have shaped life on Earth.

By determining the age of the rock core, researchers were able to piece together a continuous, unbroken stretch of Earth’s history from 225 million to 209 million years ago. The timeline offers insight into what has been a geologic dark age and will help scientists investigate abrupt environmental changes from the peak of the Late Triassic and how they affected the plants and animals of the time.

“The core lets us wind the clock back 225 million years when Petrified Forest National Park was a tropical hothouse populated by crocodile-like reptiles and turkey-size early dinosaurs,” said Cornelia Rasmussen, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics (UTIG), who led the analysis that determined the age of the core.

“We can now begin to interpret changes in the fossil record, such as whether changes in the plant and animal world at the time were caused by an asteroid impact or rather by slow geographic changes of the supercontinent drifting apart,” she said.

Petrified Forest National Park’s paleontologist Adam Marsh said that despite a rich collection of fossils from the period in North America, until now there was little information on the Late Triassic’s timeline because most of what scientists knew came from studying outcrops of exposed rock pushed to the surface by tectonic movements.

“Outcrops are like broken pieces of a puzzle,” said Marsh, who earned his Ph.D. from The University of Texas at Austin’s Jackson School of Geosciences. “It is incredibly difficult to piece together a continuous timeline from their exposed and weathered faces.”

Marsh was not an author of the study but is part of the larger scientific coring project. UTIG is a unit of the Jackson School.

The Petrified Forest National Park core overcomes the broken puzzle problem by recovering every layer in the order it was deposited. Like tree rings, scientists can then match those layers with the fossil and climate record.

To find the age of each layer, the researchers searched the rock core for tiny crystals of the mineral zircon, which are spewed into the sky during volcanic eruptions. Zircons are a date stamp for the sediments with which they are buried. Researchers then compared the age of the crystals with traces of ancient magnetism stored in the rocks to help develop a precise geologic timeline.

Geoscience is rarely so simple, however, and according to Rasmussen, the analysis of the core gave them two slightly different stories. One shows evidence that a shake-up in the species might not be connected to any single catastrophic event and could simply be part of the ordinary course of gradual evolution. The other shows a possible correlation between the change in the fossil record and a powerful asteroid impact, which left behind a crater in Canada over 62 miles wide.

For Marsh, the different findings are just part of the process to reach the truth.

“The two age models are not problematic and will help guide future studies,” he said.

The research is the latest outcome of the Colorado Plateau Coring Project. The research and the coring project were funded by the National Science Foundation and International Continental Drilling Program.

Small ancestor of dinosaurs and pterosaurs discovered

Life restoration of Kongonaphon kely, a newly described reptile near the ancestry of dinosaurs and pterosaurs, in what would have been its natural environment in the Triassic (~237 million years ago). © Alex Boersma

From the American Museum of Natural History in the USA:

A tiny ancient relative of dinosaurs and pterosaurs discovered

New study suggests a miniaturized origin for some of the largest animals ever to live on Earth

July 6, 2020

Dinosaurs and flying pterosaurs may be known for their remarkable size, but a newly described species from Madagascar that lived around 237 million years ago suggests that they originated from extremely small ancestors. The fossil reptile, named Kongonaphon kely, or “tiny bug slayer”, would have stood just 10 centimeters (or about 4 inches) tall. The description and analysis of this fossil and its relatives, published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, may help explain the origins of flight in pterosaurs, the presence of “fuzz” on the skin of both pterosaurs and dinosaurs, and other questions about these charismatic animals.

“There’s a general perception of dinosaurs as being giants,” said Christian Kammerer, a research curator in paleontology at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and a former Gerstner Scholar at the American Museum of Natural History. “But this new animal is very close to the divergence of dinosaurs and pterosaurs, and it’s shockingly small.”

Dinosaurs and pterosaurs both belong to the group Ornithodira. Their origins, however, are poorly known, as few specimens from near the root of this lineage have been found. The fossils of Kongonaphon were discovered in 1998 in Madagascar by a team of researchers led by American Museum of Natural History Frick Curator of Fossil Mammals John Flynn (who worked at The Field Museum at the time) in close collaboration with scientists and students at the University of Antananarivo, and project co-leader Andre Wyss, chair and professor of the University of California-Santa Barbara’s Department of Earth Science and an American Museum of Natural History research associate.

“This fossil site in southwestern Madagascar from a poorly known time interval globally has produced some amazing fossils, and this tiny specimen was jumbled in among the hundreds we’ve collected from the site over the years,” Flynn said. “It took some time before we could focus on these bones, but once we did, it was clear we had something unique and worth a closer look. This is a great case for why field discoveries — combined with modern technology to analyze the fossils recovered — is still so important.”

“Discovery of this tiny relative of dinosaurs and pterosaurs emphasizes the importance of Madagascar’s fossil record for improving knowledge of vertebrate history during times that are poorly known in other places,” said project co-leader Lovasoa Ranivoharimanana, professor and director of the vertebrate paleontology laboratory at the University of Antananarivo in Madagascar. “Over two decades, our collaborative Madagascar-U.S. teams have trained many Malagasy students in paleontological sciences, and discoveries like this helps people in Madagascar and around the world better appreciate the exceptional record of ancient life preserved in the rocks of our country.”

Kongonaphon isn’t the first small animal known near the root of the ornithodiran family tree, but previously, such specimens were considered “isolated exceptions to the rule,” Kammerer noted. In general, the scientific thought was that body size remained similar among the first archosaurs — the larger reptile group that includes birds, crocodilians, non-avian dinosaurs, and pterosaurs — and the earliest ornithodirans, before increasing to gigantic proportions in the dinosaur lineage.

“Recent discoveries like Kongonaphon have given us a much better understanding of the early evolution of ornithodirans. Analyzing changes in body size throughout archosaur evolution, we found compelling evidence that it decreased sharply early in the history of the dinosaur-pterosaur lineage,” Kammerer said.

This “miniaturization” event indicates that the dinosaur and pterosaur lineages originated from extremely small ancestors yielding important implications for their paleobiology. For instance, wear on the teeth of Kongonaphon suggests it ate insects. A shift to insectivory, which is associated with small body size, may have helped early ornithodirans survive by occupying a niche different from their mostly meat-eating contemporaneous relatives.

The work also suggests that fuzzy skin coverings ranging from simple filaments to feathers, known on both the dinosaur and pterosaur sides of the ornithodiran tree, may have originated for thermoregulation in this small-bodied common ancestor. That’s because heat retention in small bodies is difficult, and the mid-late Triassic was a time of climatic extremes, inferred to have sharp shifts in temperature between hot days and cold nights.

Sterling Nesbitt, an assistant professor at Virginia Tech and a Museum research associate and expert in ornithodiran anatomy, phylogeny, and histological age analyses, is also an author on this study.

This study was supported, in part, by the National Geographic Society, a Gerstner Scholars Fellowship from the Gerstner Family Foundation and the Richard Gilder Graduate School, the Division of Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History, and a Meeker Family Fellowship from the Field Museum, with additional support from the Ministry of Energy and Mines of Madagascar, the World Wide Fund for Nature (Madagascar), University of Antananarivo, and MICET/ICTE (Madagascar).