Savannasaurus : New Australian sauropod

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The Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum today announced the naming of Savannasaurus elliottorum, a new genus and species of dinosaur from western Queensland, Australia. The bones come from the Winton Formation, a geological deposit approximately 95 million years old.

The paper naming the new dinosaur was published on Thursday October 20 at 2pm BST (Friday October 21 at 12am AEST) inScientific Reports — an open access, online journal published by Nature.

Savannasaurus was discovered by David Elliott, co-founder of the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum, while mustering sheep in early 2005. As Elliott recalled yesterday, “I was nearly home with the mob — only about a kilometre from the yards — when I spotted a small pile of fossil bone fragments on the ground. I was particularly excited at the time as there were two pieces of a relatively small limb bone and I was hoping it might be a meat-eating theropod dinosaur.” Mr Elliott returned to the site later that day to collect the bone fragments with his wife Judy, who ‘clicked’ two pieces together to reveal a complete toe bone from a plant-eating sauropod. The Elliotts marked the site and made arrangements to hold a dig later that year.

Type site map showing the approximate association of the bones. Scale bar = 1 m.

Type site map showing the approximate association of the bones . Scale bar = 1 m.

                                                         Savannasaurus elliottorum gen. et sp. nov., holotype specimen AODF 660.

The site was excavated in September 2005 by a joint Australian Age of Dinosaurs (AAOD) Museum and Queensland Museum team and 17 pallets of bones encased in rock were recovered. After almost ten years of painstaking work by staff and volunteers at the AAOD Museum, the hard siltstone concretion around the bones was finally removed to reveal one of the most complete sauropod dinosaur skeletons ever found in Australia. More excitingly, it belonged to a completely new type of dinosaur.

The new discovery was nicknamed Wade in honour of prominent Australian palaeontologist Dr Mary Wade. “Mary was a very close friend of ours and she passed away while we were digging at the site,” said Mr Elliott. “We couldn’t think of a better way to honour her than to name the new dinosaur after her.”

“Before today we have only been able to refer to this dinosaur by its nickname,” said Dr Stephen Poropat, Research Associate at the AAOD Museum and lead author of the study. “Now that our study is published we can refer to Wade by its formal name,Savannasaurus elliottorum,” Dr Poropat said. “The name references the savannah country of western Queensland in which it was found, and honours the Elliott family for their ongoing commitment to Australian palaeontology.”


(a–e) Dorsal vertebrae (left lateral view). (f) Sacrum (ventral view). (g,h) Caudal vertebrae (left lateral view). (i) Left coracoid (lateral view). (j) Right sternal plate (ventral view). (k) Left radius (posterior view). (l) Right metacarpal III (anterior view). (m) Left astragalus (anterior view). (n) Coossified right and left pubes (anterior view). A number of ribs were preserved but have been omitted for clarity. Scale bar = 500 mm.

(a–e) Dorsal vertebrae (left lateral view). (f) Sacrum (ventral view). (g,h) Caudal vertebrae (left lateral view). (i) Left coracoid (lateral view). (j) Right sternal plate (ventral view). (k) Left radius (posterior view). (l) Right metacarpal III (anterior view). (m) Left astragalus (anterior view). (n) Coossified right and left pubes (anterior view). A number of ribs were preserved but have been omitted for clarity. Scale bar = 500 mm.

                                                                            Savannasaurus elliottorum gen. et sp. nov., holotype specimen AODF 660.

In the same publication, Dr Poropat and colleagues announced the first sauropod skull ever found in Australia. This skull, and the partial skeleton with which it was associated, has been assigned to Diamantinasaurus matildae — a sauropod dinosaur named in 2009 on the basis of its nickname Matilda. “This new Diamantinasaurus specimen has helped to fill several gaps in our knowledge of this dinosaur’s skeletal anatomy,” said Poropat. “The braincase in particular has allowed us to refine Diamantinasaurus’ position on the sauropod family tree.”

Dr Poropat collaborated with British sauropod experts Dr Philip Mannion (Imperial College, London) and Professor Paul Upchurch (University College, London), among others, to work out the position of Savannasaurus (and refine that of Diamantinasaurus) on the sauropod family tree. “Both Savannasaurus and Diamantinasaurus belong to a group of sauropods called titanosaurs. This group of sauropods includes the largest land-living animals of all time,” said Dr Mannion. “Savannasaurus and the new Diamantinasaurus specimen have helped us to demonstrate that titanosaurs were living worldwide by 100 million years ago.”

Poropat and his colleagues suggest that the arrangement of the continents, and the global climate during the middle part of the Cretaceous Period, enabled titanosaurs to spread worldwide.

“Australia and South America were connected to Antarctica throughout much of the Cretaceous,” said Professor Upchurch. “Ninety-five million years ago, at the time that Savannasaurus was alive, global average temperatures were warmer than they are today. However, it was quite cool at the poles at certain times, which seems to have restricted the movement of sauropods at polar latitudes. We suspect that the ancestor of Savannasaurus was from South America, but that it could not and did not enter Australia until approximately 105 million years ago. At this time global average temperatures increased allowing sauropods to traverse landmasses at polar latitudes.”

Savannasaurus was a medium-sized titanosaur, approximately half the length of a basketball court, with a long neck and a relatively short tail. “With hips at least one metre wide and a huge barrel-like ribcage, Savannasaurus is the most rotund sauropod we have found so far — even more so than the somewhat hippopotamus-like Diamantinasaurus,” said Dr Poropat. “It lived alongside at least two other types of sauropod (Diamantinasaurus and Wintonotitan), as well as other dinosaurs including ornithopods, armoured ankylosaurs, and the carnivorous theropod Australovenator.”

Mr Elliott is relieved that Wade can now join “Matilda” and the other new dinosaur species on display in the Museum’s Holotype Room. “That this dinosaur specimen can now be displayed for our visitors is a testament to the efforts of numerous volunteers who have worked at the Museum on the fossils over the past decade,” he said. Mr Elliott and Dr Poropat agree that the naming of Savannasaurus, the fourth new species published by the AAOD Museum, is just the tip of the iceberg with respect to the potential for new dinosaur species in western Queensland. “The Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum has a massive collection of dinosaur fossils awaiting preparation and the number of specimens collected is easily outpacing the number being prepared by volunteers and staff in our Laboratory,” Mr Elliott said. “The Museum already has the world’s largest collection of bones from Australia’s biggest dinosaurs and there is enough new material to keep us working for several decades.”

Source: Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum of Natural History. “New Cretaceous dinosaur from Queensland: Australian researchers shed light on global sauropod evolution.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 20 October 2016. <

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WFS News: How Earth’s oldest animals were fossilized

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The fossils are among the strangest ever found: a corkscrew-shaped tube, an eight-armed spiral, and a mysterious ropelike creature that might have engaged in the oldest known sexual reproduction among animals. They are Earth’s oldest complex organisms, dating back to 571 million years ago, and found on every continent except Antarctica. Their bizarre forms defy classification; some have been described alternately as jellyfish or worms, algae or fungi. But scientists have for years been chasing an even bigger mystery about the so-called Ediacara biota: How could these mostly soft-bodied animals be preserved in rock? Now, one team of scientists has an answer. Their research suggests that in the ancient oceans, silica—the primary compound in quartz—precipitated out of the seawater, then covered and entombed the organisms before they decayed.

“[This paper] will change our way of thinking about Ediacara-type preservation,” says James Schiffbauer, a paleontologist at the University of Missouri in Columbia, who was not involved in the new study. He adds that the process might not be as straightforward as scientists thought.

Aspidella, one of the most common fossils of the enigmatic Ediacara biota.

Aspidella, one of the most common fossils of the enigmatic Ediacara biota.

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Most fossils exist thanks to how they were buried plus the makeup of their original tissues. Bones and shells from hard-bodied creatures like dinosaurs and oysters preserve more easily than soft tissues, which decay rapidly after death. That means that most of the fossil record is biased in favor of creatures with hard components. “One of the big questions that we have in really all of paleontology … is how accurately can we read the fossil record as the history of life?” Schiffbauer says.

Before the appearance of the Ediacara biota, named for the Ediacara Hills in South Australia where scientists first found these fossils, all known life on Earth was microscopic. That’s because scientists hadn’t found any evidence of complex life until the “geologically abrupt” entrance of the Ediacaran fossils, says Yale University paleontologist Lidya Tarhan, lead author on the new study. But is this sudden explosion of the fossil record just a preservation bias or is it a sign of a massive environmental trigger for the biota’s emergence? Finding out how the group became fossils “is one of the most important steps in resolving what these organisms are and where they fall in our sense of the evolution of complex life,” she says.

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So Tarhan and her team set out to find the answer. They knew the animals lived in shallow waters on the sea floor, and that sand stirred by storms would sometimes cover the organisms. The leading theory for their preservation was that these sand grains molded around dead bodies, and the mold continued to exist long after the bodies decayed. For that to happen, “you have to cement those grains, and you have to do it early,” Tarhan says. Previous work hadn’t addressed how that cementing could have happened. But Tarhan’s team had a theory: Researchers knew the Ediacaran oceans contained far more dissolved silica than modern ones, in part because creatures that soak up silica, like sponges, were rare. So silica was the perfect candidate for a prehistoric glue.

To test their hypothesis, the team took fossils from the South Australian outback and sawed them into slivers of rock so thin that light, passing through them under a microscope, illuminated the ancient grains. “The grains are pretty much floating in what looks like a sea of cement, and they’re not very compacted,” Tarhan says. Her team confirmed that the “sea” was indeed silica. And because the grains weren’t compacted, they must have been loose as the silica cement formed around them. Finally, the team concluded that the silica-based cements were not chemically identical to the silica found in the quartz sand grains, leaving them with only one source for the cement: seawater.

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Because this style of siliceous fossilization extends long before and after the Ediacaran, the biota’s appearance—and disappearance—was not just an accident of the fossil record, Tarhan says. Instead, they must represent the group’s actual evolutionary beginning as well its ultimate extinction. “It makes a lot of sense,” says Shuhai Xiao, a geobiologist at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, who was also not involved in the study. “The next step is to take this model somewhere else, and to test it to see if it works” at other Ediacaran sites around the world.

Courtesy: Article By Lucas Joel in

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WFS News: Skin impressions of dinosaur found

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Researchers from the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB) in collaboration with the Institut Català de Paleontologia Miquel Crusafont (ICP), have discovered in Vallcebre (Barcelona) an impression fossil with the surface of the skin of a dinosaur from the Late Cretaceous, a period right before their extinction. Its characteristics make it a unique discovery in Europe.

A geological research conducted in the village of Vallcebre, near Barcelona, to study the origins of rock sediments from the Late Cretaceous period (approx. 66 million years ago) has revealed an extraordinary artefact. Researchers discovered the impression of skin scales left by a dinosaur which had lain down in the mud. During that period, the area was a muddy region corresponding to the banks of a river. As chance had it, that muddy region where the animal’s scales had left their mark was later covered with sand which, in the course of thousands of years, finally petrified to form sandstone and thus become the sedimentary rock which preserves the impression recently discovered by the researchers. The sand acted as a mould and therefore, what actually can be seen on the rock is not really the impression, but the relief of the animal’s original skin.

Dinosaur skin impression on rock. Credit: Víctor Fondevilla/UAB

Dinosaur skin impression on rock.Credit: Víctor Fondevilla/UAB

The characteristics of the discovery are unique, given that the Late Cretaceous period corresponds to the moment short before dinosaurs became extinct, there are few places on Earth containing sandstone from this period, and characterising these dinosaurs is very important in order to understand how and why they disappeared. “This is the only registry of dinosaur skin from this period in all of Europe, and it corresponds to one of the most recent specimens, closer to the extinction event, in all of the world,” highlights UAB researcher Victor Fondevilla, main author of the research. “There are very few samples of fossilised skin registered, and the only sites with similar characteristics can be found in United States and Asia,” Fondevilla states. He goes on to say: “Other dinosaur skin fossils have been found in the Iberian Peninsula, in Portugal and Asturias, but they correspond to other more distant periods.”

The shape of the scales observed on the rock show a pattern characteristic of the skin of some dinosaurs: in a form of a rose with a central bump in the shape of a polygon, surrounded by five or six more bumps. However, the scales are large, too large for the typical size of carnivorous dinosaurs and hadrosaurs roaming this area 66 million years ago. “The fossil probably belongs to a large herbivore sauropod, maybe a titanosaurus, since we discovered footprints from the same species very close to the rock with the skin fossil” Fondevilla says.

In fact, two skin impressions were found, one measuring approximately 20 centimetres wide, and the other slightly smaller, measuring only 5 centimetres wide, separated by a 1.5 metre distance and probably made by the same animal. “The fact that they are impression fossils is evidence that the animal is from the sedimentary rock period, one of the last dinosaurs to live on the planet. When bones are discovered, dating is more complicated because they could have moved from the original sediment during all these millions of years,” Fondevilla states.

The finding verifies the excellent fossil registry of the Pyrenees in terms of dinosaurs living in Europe little before they became extinct throughout the planet. “The sites in Berguedà, Pallars Jussà, Alt Urgell and La Noguera, in Catalonia, have provided proof of five different groups of dinosaurs: titanosaurs, ankylosaurids, theropods, hadrosaurs and rhabdodontids,” explains Àngel Galobart, head of the Mesozoic research group at the ICP and director of the Museum of Conca Dellà in Isona. “The sites in the Pyrenees are very relevant from a scientific point of view, since they allow us to study the cause of their extinction in a geographic point far away from the impact of the meteorite,” Galobart explains.

The research, published in Geological Magazine, was led by Víctor Fondevilla and Oriol Oms from the UAB Department of Geology, in collaboration with Bernat Vila and Àngel Galobart, both from the Institut Català de Paleontologia Miquel Crusafont (ICP) and the Museum of Conca Dellà.

Citations:VÍCTOR FONDEVILLA, BERNAT VILA, ORIOL OMS, ÀNGEL GALOBART. Skin impressions of the last European dinosaurs. Geological Magazine, 2016; 1 DOI:10.1017/S0016756816000868 & Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. “Unique skin impressions of the last dinosaurs from what is now Europe.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 13 October 2016. <>.

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WFS News: Stegosaurus plates may have differed between male, female

Stegosaurus, a large, herbivorous dinosaur with two staggered rows of bony plates along its back and two pairs of spikes at the end of its tail, lived roughly 150 million years ago during the Late Jurassic in the western United States.

Some individuals had wide plates, some had tall, with the wide plates being up to 45 per cent larger overall than the tall plates. According to the new study, the tall-plated Stegosaurus and the wide-plate Stegosaurus were not two distinct species, nor were they individuals of different age: they were actually males and females.

Professor Michael Benton, Director of the Masters in Palaeobiology at the University of Bristol said: “Evan made this discovery while he was completing his undergraduate thesis at Princeton University. It’s very impressive when an undergraduate makes such a major scientific discovery.”

Some Stegosaurus had wide plates, some had tall, with the wide plates being up to 45 percent larger overall than the tall plates. According to a new study by University of Bristol, UK student, Evan Saitta, the tall-plated Stegosaurus and the wide-plated Stegosaurus were not two distinct species, nor were they individuals of different age: they were actually males and females. This is the first convincing evidence for sexual differences in a species of dinosaur. Credit: Copyright Evan Saitta

Some Stegosaurus had wide plates, some had tall, with the wide plates being up to 45 percent larger overall than the tall plates. According to a new study by University of Bristol, UK student, Evan Saitta, the tall-plated Stegosaurus and the wide-plated Stegosaurus were not two distinct species, nor were they individuals of different age: they were actually males and females. This is the first convincing evidence for sexual differences in a species of dinosaur.
Credit: Copyright Evan Saitta

Sexual dimorphism (a term used to describe distinct anatomical differences between males and females of the same species) is common in living animals — think of the manes of lions or the antlers of deer — yet is surprisingly difficult to determine in extinct species.

Despite many previous claims of sexual dimorphism in dinosaurs, current researchers find them to be inconclusive because they do not rule out other possible explanations for why differences in anatomy might be present between fossil specimens. For example, two individuals that differ in anatomy might be two separate species, a young and an old individual, or a male and a female individual.

Having spent six summers in central Montana as part of an excavation crew digging up the first ever Stegosaurus‘graveyard’, Evan Saitta was able to test these alternative explanations and others in the species Stegosaurus mjosi.

The group of dinosaurs excavated in Montana demonstrated the coexistence of individuals that only varied in their plates. Other skeletal differences indicating separation of ecological niches would have been expected if the two were different species.

The study also found that the two varieties were not a result of growth. CT scanning at Billings Clinic in Montana, as well as thin sections sampled from the plates for microscope analysis, showed that the bone tissues had ceased growing in both varieties. Neither type of plate was in the process of growing into the other.

With other possibilities ruled out, the best explanation for the two varieties of plates is that one type belonged to males and the other, females.

Speculating about which is which, Evan Saitta said: “As males typically invest more in their ornamentation, the larger, wide plates likely came from males. These broad plates would have provided a great display surface to attract mates. The tall plates might have functioned as prickly predator deterrents in females.”

Stegosaurus may not have been the only dinosaur to exhibit sexual dimorphism. Other species showed extra-large crests or nose horns, which were potentially sexual features. Male animals often fight or display for mates, just like red deer or peacocks today.

Not only does Saitta’s work show that dinosaurs exhibited sexual dimorphism, it suggests that the ornamentation of at least some species was used for sexual display.

The presence of sexual dimorphism in an extinct species can provide scientists with a much clearer picture of its behaviour than would otherwise be possible.

Source: Saitta ET (2015). Evidence for Sexual Dimorphism in the Plated Dinosaur Stegosaurus mjosi (Ornithischia, Stegosauria) from the Morrison Formation (Upper Jurassic) of Western USA. PLoS ONE, 2015 DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0123503 & Science Daily.

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WFS News: The first sea turtle??

Several 80-million-year-old fossils found in Alabama are from a species of sea turtle that is the oldest known member of the lineage that gave rise to all modern species of sea turtle, according to new research from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Researchers from the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Biology worked with two relatively complete turtle skeletons, along with several smaller pieces, that are housed at Birmingham’s McWane Science Center, to unearth the evolutionary clues tying the ancient turtles to modern sea turtles, and confirm the existence of that ancient species, previously known only from a few isolated fragments.

The McWane fossils help solve a long-standing debate as to whether this animal was a unique species. They also provide insights into the evolutionary history of living species of sea turtles, including the Kemp’s Ridley, Loggerhead and the endangered Green sea turtle.

According to research published in the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology, the fossils belong to Ctenochelys (tee-no-key-lees) acris, a marine-adapted turtle that lived in the shallow, subtropical sea that once covered most of Alabama. By dating the rock formation from which these fossils were recovered, C. acris is presumed to have lived more than 80 million years ago, during the Late Cretaceous, a period of time when sea turtle diversity was at an all-time high.

“Climatic warming during the mid-Cretaceous resulted in elevated sea levels and temperatures that, in turn, provided an abundance of new niches for marine turtles to invade,” said Drew Gentry, a UAB biology doctoral student and the lead researcher on the project. “Represented today by only seven living species, sea turtles were once one of the most diverse lineages of marine reptiles. Before the cataclysm that claimed the dinosaurs, there may have been dozens of specialized species of sea turtle living in different oceanic habitats around the world.”

Before this research, so little fossil evidence for C. acris had been documented that most paleontologists doubted the species was real. Not only do the newly discovered fossils prove C. acrisexisted, they may also be a critical piece in a much larger puzzle of sea turtle evolution.

Silhouette of Ctenochelys acris overlaid with some of the fossils used to reconstruct the species. Credit: Drew Gentry, UAB

Silhouette of Ctenochelys acris overlaid with some of the fossils used to reconstruct the species.Credit: Drew Gentry, UAB

“There is strong evidence which indicates freshwater turtles may have evolved to occupy marine environments at several points in the past,” Gentry said. “But most of those lineages went extinct, making the exact origins of living or ‘true’ sea turtles somewhat of a mystery.”

Evidence gathered from the fossils of C. acris suggests the earliest ancestors of modern sea turtles may have come from the Deep South. By comparing the skeleton of C. acris with those of both extinct and living species of turtles, Gentry discovered thatC. acris possessed traits of both sea turtles and their closest living turtle relatives, snapping turtles.

“This animal was a bottom-dwelling sea turtle that fed primarily on mollusks and small invertebrates,” he said. “Unlike the ‘rudder-like’ hind-limbs of today’s sea turtles, C. acris had large, powerful hind-limbs to help push it through the water, a lot like a modern-day snapping turtle.

“Data from C. acris tell us not only that marine turtles are capable of occupying specialized oceanic niches, but also that many of the sea turtles we know today may have gotten their evolutionary start as something similar to an oversized snapping turtle in what eventually became the southeastern United States.”

Studying the diversity and evolutionary history of sea turtles during previous periods of climate change can provide meaningful insights into what effects climate and environmental changes might have on modern marine turtle populations.

“An important, yet often overlooked, aspect of sea turtle research is their evolutionary history,” Gentry said. “By analyzing the remains of fossil species, we can begin to understand the origins of these animals and how they’ve adapted to different environments over time.”

The fossils that led to this research were discovered in 1986 and contributed to what was then the Red Mountain Museum. The McWane Science Center was founded in 1998 by the merger of the Red Mountain Museum and a nearby children’s museum, Discovery Place.

The paleontological and archaeological collection at McWane is one of the largest in the southeastern U.S. and houses a number of significant finds from across Alabama, including the recently announced Eotrachodon, a type of duck-billed dinosaur.

“We are always making discoveries from the specimens housed at McWane that give us new respect for the individuals who contributed to this collection,” Gentry said.

Citation : University of Alabama at Birmingham. “Fossil from oldest ancestor of modern sea turtles.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 3 October 2016. <>.

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WFS News: New species of Jurassic reptile (Ichthyosaur)

A new species of British ichthyosaur has been identified using skeletal remains which have been on display at the University of Bristol’s School of Earth Sciences for many years.

Ichthyosaurs lived during the age of the dinosaurs but were ocean dwelling reptiles that resembled dolphins or sharks.They were fierce predators, some growing up to 15 metres long.The newly identified species lived around 200 million years ago in the early Jurassic period, a time when the UK was a small series of islands.The six year study, led by the University of Manchester, and published today in Papers in Palaeontology, set out to search for British examples of ichthyosaurs and researchers were able to identify features in the skull and fins of fossilised remains that distinguished the new species from others.

The research was carried out by Dean Lomax (Honorary Scientist at The University of Manchester) and Professor Judy Massare (Brockport College, New York).Specimen ‘25300’ (the complete skeletal remains of the large ichthyosaurus found in Walton, Somerset) was donated to the University of Bristol around 80 years ago by the City Museum.It was originally part of the Chaning Pearce collection purchased by the museum in 1915 and donated to the university in 1930.

Jonathan Hanson with the ichthyosaur skeleton at the School of Earth Sciences. Credit: Image courtesy of University of Bristol

Jonathan Hanson with the ichthyosaur skeleton at the School of Earth Sciences.
Credit: Image courtesy of University of Bristol

Joseph Chaning Pearce (1811-1847) was born and lived in Bradford-on-Avon in Wiltshire and during his life built up one of the largest collections of fossils in the country in the early 19thcentury.

Dean Lomax, Honorary Scientist at the University of Manchester, said: “It’s quite amazing — hundreds of people must walk past this skeleton every day, yet its secrets have only just been uncovered.

“We’ve named the species Ichthyosaurus larkini in honour of the British palaeontologist Nigel Larkin — the name Larkin actually means ‘fierce’ so it’s quite fitting for a fast-moving predator.”

Jonathan Hanson, Collections and Practical Manager from the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol, said: “Ichthyosaurs, with their similarities to both modern fish and dolphins, are among the more arresting and captivating fossil specimens known; we are very lucky to have two such specimens on display in the Wills Memorial Building, as part of the University of Bristol School of Earth Sciences Collection.

“There is no greater honour for a fossil than to be named as a type specimen for a species, and we are very happy to meaningfully contribute to the understanding of the history of life on Earth by supporting the discovery of Ichthyosaurus larkini.”

Source: University of Bristol. “New species of Jurassic reptile.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 7 October 2016.

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WFS News: Drepanosaurus ( small reptile with a fearsome finger)

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Newly recovered fossils confirm thatDrepanosaurus, a prehistoric cross between a chameleon and an anteater, was a small reptile with a fearsome finger. The second digit of its forelimb sported a massive claw.

Scientists analyzed 212-million-year-old Drepanosaurus arm fossils that were discovered at the Hayden Quarry in Ghost Ranch, New Mexico. The researchers describe their findings in a paper in the Sept. 29 edition of the journal Current Biology.

This graphic shows examples of forelimb anatomy in a number of extinct and living reptiles, showing the consistency in the paralleling of forearm bones and the shortness of the carpal bones. The forelimb of Drepanosaurus violates all of these patterns. Credit: Adam Pritchard et al.

This graphic shows examples of forelimb anatomy in a number of extinct and living reptiles, showing the consistency in the paralleling of forearm bones and the shortness of the carpal bones. The forelimb of Drepanosaurus violates all of these patterns.Credit: Adam Pritchard et al.

Drepanosaurus is neither a dinosaur nor a lizard. It is a one- to two-foot long reptile from an extinct group of animals called drepanosaurs, and shares a common ancestry with lizards, crocodiles, and dinosaurs. The only other known Drepanosaurusfossil was a badly crushed skeleton found in northern Italy more than 30 years ago.

“This animal stretches the bounds of what we think can evolve in the limbs of four-footed animals,” said Adam Pritchard, a postdoctoral researcher at Yale and first author of the study. “Ecologically, Drepanosaurus seems to be a sort of chameleon-anteater hybrid, which is really bizarre for the time. It possesses a totally unique forelimb.”

Four-limbed animals with a backbone are called tetrapods. In nearly all tetrapods, the forearm is made up of two, elongate and parallel bones — the radius and the ulna. These bones connect to a series of much shorter, wrist bones at the base of the hand.

Drepanosaurus, however, has radius and ulna bones that are not parallel. Instead, the ulna is a flat, crescent-shaped bone. Also, the two wrist bones that meet the end of the ulna are long rather than short. They are longer than the radius, in fact.

“The bone contacts suggest that the enlarged claw ofDrepanosaurus could have been hooked into insect nests,” Pritchard said. “The entire arm could then have been powerfully retracted to tear open the nest. This motion is very similar to the hook-and-pull digging of living anteaters, which also eat insects.”

Drepanosaurus also had grasping feet and a claw-like structure at the tip of its tail. The finding suggests that tetrapods developed specialized, modern ecological roles more than 200 million years ago.

Pritchard is a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Bhart-Anjan Bhullar in the Department of Geology and Geophysics at Yale. Co-authors of the study were Alan Turner of Stony Brook University, Randall Irmis of the University of Utah, Sterling Nesbitt of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and Nathan Smith of the Dinosaur Institute at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

Citation: Yale University. “Ancient reptile fossils claw for more attention.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 29 September 2016. <>

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WFS News: Watery secret of the dinosaur death pose

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Recreating the spectacular pose many dinosaurs adopted in death might involve following the simplest of instructions: just add water.

When palaeontologists are lucky enough to find a complete dinosaur skeleton – whether it be a tiny Sinosauropteryxor an enormous Apatosaurus – there’s a good chance it will be found with its head thrown backwards and its tail arched upwards – technically known as the opisthotonic death pose. No one is entirely sure why this posture is so common, but Alicia Cutler and colleagues from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, think it all comes down to a dip in the wet stuff.

fossil condition of Apatosaurus

            fossil condition of Apatosaurus

Cutler placed plucked chickens – both fresh and frozen – on a bed of sand for three months to see if desiccation would lead to muscle contractions that pulled the neck upwards – a previously suggested explanation for the death pose. The chickens decayed without contorting. When seven other chickens were placed into cool, fresh water, however, their necks arched and their heads were thrown back within seconds. Sustained immersion of the birds for up to a month slightly increased the severity of the pose, but the major movement of the head occurred almost immediately.

 The result contrasts with a study carried out in 2007 by Cynthia Marshall Faux at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana, and Kevin Padian at the University of California in Berkeley. The pair found that salty water did not alter the pose of dead quails. They concluded that the arched back seen in so many fossils was instead the result of the expiring dinosaur’s final death throes (Paleobiology, DOI: 10.1666/06015.1) – an idea that was first suggested by pathologist Roy Moodie in 1918.
 Why dunking dead birds in water produced different results in the two studies is not clear. It’s possible that the salt content of the water was a factor – but Cutler has confidence in her freshwater study: “Although the roads to the opisthotonic death pose are many, immersion in water is the simplest explanation.”

Cutler presented the findings at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, earlier this month.

Source: article by Brian Switek,New Scientist magazine

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WFS News: Strange reptile fossil (Drepanosaurus) puzzles scientists

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A 200-million-year-old reptile is rewriting the rulebooks on how four-legged animals conquered the world.Newly discovered fossils suggest Drepanosaurus had huge hooked claws to dig insects from bark, much like today’s anteaters in the forests of Central and South America.Scientists say the creature defies the convention on how reptiles evolved and flourished.

Drepanosaurus ripped away tree bark with a massive claw to get at hidden insects

Drepanosaurus ripped away tree bark with a massive claw to get at hidden insects

Their research is published in the journal Current Biology.

The new fossils, found in a New Mexico quarry, suggest Drepanosaurus was the size of a cat and lived in the trees.It had a bird-like head on a chameleon-like body, but the most unusual feature was its forearms, said Dr Adam Pritchard, of Yale University, who led the research.

Massive arms

Drepanosaurus itself has extremely massive arms and forearms – very muscular,” he said.

“The index finger is much much larger than any of the other fingers and supports this gigantic claw, which is easily the most massive bone of the entire arm.”

The forelimbs of tetrapods are known for their versatility, used to walk, dig, fly or swim.However, the basic plan of the forelimb has stayed much the same throughout 375 million years of evolution.

“The arm of tetrapod animals almost always follows some very consistent rules,” Dr Pritchard said.

Melting pot

The US team made 3D reconstructions of the reptile based on micro-CT (computerised tomography) scans of dozens of bones.

Other fossils that have been unearthed were partly crushed, making interpretation difficult.

The Pygmy anteater has similar adaptations for digging

  The Pygmy anteater has similar adaptations for digging

“In your forearm, in the forearm of Tyrannosaurus rex, in the forearm of an elephant, you have two bones – the radius and the ulna, which manifest as these elongate, slender, parallel shafts,” he explained.

But the Drepanosaurus did not have these parallel bones.

“So all of these consistent patterns that we see across a huge range of tetrapods, regardless of their ecology, regardless of their ancestry, are violated by this animal,” Dr Pritchard said.

“On the one hand, it extends the bounds of what we think the arm of tetrapod animals – those four-footed animals in the world – is capable of in terms of its development, in terms of evolution.

“And, it is also remarkable in what it evidences about the ecology, the lifestyle of the animal, in that it seems to have quite independently developed adaptations that we see today in modern groups like anteaters.”

Palaeontologist Dr Nicholas Fraser, of National Museums Scotland said the Triassic period was a “melting pot of experimentation”.

“The unconventional rules in the Triassic,” he said.

“Here is another animal which is completely unconventional in the way it has got this system of bones in the limb to help it dig – those are massive claws too.”

Invaded land

Drepanosaurus disappeared at the end of the Triassic and did not lend its form to any future creatures.

“It was only useful in this one particular instance, where you have got a really specialised fossorial animal – a digger,” Dr Fraser said.

“But it is the first real departure like this in the basic ground plan that you see ever since the first tetrapods invaded land 365 million years ago.”

The researchers say they are continuing to excavate the quarries in New Mexico, with the hope of finding more discoveries.

“There’s a lot – especially in terms of the smaller animals in the fossil record – that has remained undiscovered,” said Dr Pritchard. “I don’t see an end to it.”

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WFS News: Triopticus shows dinosaurs copied body, skull shapes of distant relatives

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Iconic dinosaur shapes were present for at least a hundred million years on our planet in animals before those dinosaurs themselves actually appeared.

In a study in today’s (Sept. 22) issue of Current Biology, a multi-institutional team of paleontologists including Virginia Tech College of Science researcher Michelle Stocker have identified and named a new species of extinct reptile estimated to be 230 million years old — predating dinosaurs.

Called Triopticus primus — meaning the “First of Three Eyes” because the large natural pit in the top of its head lends the appearance of an “extra”eye — Triopticus bears an extremely thickened skull roof, just like the very distantly related pachycephalosaur dinosaurs that lived more than 100 million years later. And even more unexpected, many of the other extinct animals found with Triopticus resemble later dinosaurs as well.

“Triopticus is an extraordinary example of evolutionary convergence between the relatives of dinosaurs and crocodylians and later dinosaurs that is much more common than anyone ever expected,” Stocker said. “What we thought were unique body shapes in many dinosaurs actually evolved millions of years before in the Triassic Period, about 225 million years ago.”

Convergence — where distantly related animals evolve to look very similar to each other — is a widely-recognized phenomenon in evolutionary biology. A classic example of this is a bird wing and a bat wing — both animals use their wings for flight, but the inner details of those wings are different and evolved independently.

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The preserved remains of Triopticus (left) show the evolution of a thickened domed skull in the Triassic Period, 150 million years before the evolution of the famous dome-headed pachycephalosaur dinosaurs, such as Stegoceras (right). The background image shows the field site in Texas where Works Progress Administration crews in 1940 found the curious fossils of Triopticus. Credit: Virginia Tech

The preserved remains of Triopticus (left) show the evolution of a thickened domed skull in the Triassic Period, 150 million years before the evolution of the famous dome-headed pachycephalosaur dinosaurs, such as Stegoceras (right). The background image shows the field site in Texas where Works Progress Administration crews in 1940 found the curious fossils of Triopticus. Credit: Virginia Tech

Many of the other Triassic reptiles buried with Triopticus in the Otis Chalk fauna display structures that are easily recognized in later dinosaurs as well, such as the long snouts of Spinosaurus, the toothless beaks of ornithomimids, and the armor plates of ankylosaurs. Researchers said it is extremely rare to have so many diverse species in a single ancient community be converged upon over a broad swath of later geologic time.

“The Otis Chalk fauna is an amazing single snapshot of geologic time where you have this extraordinary range of animal body plans all present at the same time living together,” Stocker said. “Among the animals preserved in the Otis Chalk fauna, Triopticus exemplifies this phenomenon of body-shape convergence because its skull shape was repeated by very distantly-related dome-headed dinosaurs more than 100 million years later.”

Dinosaurs, like these distant cousins from the Triassic Period, are all reptiles. Reptiles rapidly evolved in terms of numbers of species soon after the greatest mass extinction of all time on Earth, at the end of the Permian Period.

“After the enormous mass extinction 250 million years ago, reptiles exploded onto the scene and almost immediately diversified into many different sizes and shapes. These early body shapes were later mimicked by dinosaurs,” said Sterling Nesbitt, an assistant professor of paleontology at Virginia Tech and co-author of the study. The mimicry in body shape appears to evolve only after the extinction of the first group of reptiles.

Researchers said an important component of the study involved the use of CT technology, more commonly associated with patients, not fossils.

The specimen underwent a detailed CT scan at The University of Texas at Austin in order to reconstruct the brain anatomy, which had been rotted away millions of years ago when the animal was fossilized.

“This project combines both old-school and high-tech approaches,” said co-author Lawrence Witmer of Ohio University’s Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine. “Careful excavation and cleaning of the fossils showed the team that we had something special in Triopticus, but being able to peer inside the skull with X-ray CT scanning was a game-changer.”

Not only is the external skull shape of Triopticus eerily reminiscent of the dome-headed dinosaurs, the internal parts of its head followed suit.

“CT scanning showed us that the similarity of Triopticus with the much later dome-headed pachycephalosaur dinosaurs was more than skin deep, extending to the structure of the bone and even the brain.” Witmer said.

“With a combination of CT scans and fossil comparisons we were able to give this old fossil new life,” said Katharine Criswell, a co-author and doctoral student at the University of Chicago.

Complete details of what Triopticus primus looked like and how big it was are not yet known, though it was likely no bigger than an alligator. For now, researchers only have a fragment of skull. The remainder of the face and jaw, the vertebrae, and the rest of the skeleton is missing, either long lost to natural elements, waiting to be found in the field still, or inside a plaster jacket not yet opened at the lab at UT Austin.

Though many fossils are uncovered during long stints of dusty fieldwork in far-off places, the team’s discovery of this specimen — originally collected near Big Spring, Texas, by the Works Progress Administration in 1940 — happened in the Texas Vertebrate Paleontology Collections in 2010, where it had been lying in plain sight for 70 years.

It is not uncommon for new species to be found in fossil ‘libraries’ around the world. The Works Progress Administration, part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s monumental effort to put Americans back to work at end the Great Depression, found so many fossils during its short span of work that they didn’t have time to clean all of them.

“We can gain new insights into the history of life because specimens like Triopticus have been curated into museum collections like the one at UT Austin,” said Matthew Brown, co-author and director of the Texas Vertebrate Paleontology Collections at The University of Texas at Austin. “These collections are the foundation of natural history research, and this new animal illustrates how exciting discoveries are continually made thanks to the forethought and investment of past generations. It will be fascinating to see what the students of tomorrow find next.”

Citation: 1.Current Biology, 2016 DOI:10.1016/j.cub.2016.07.066 , Virginia Tech. “Bizarre new species of extinct reptile shows dinosaurs copied body, skull shapes of distant relatives.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 22 September 2016. <>

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