WFS News: Exceptional soft tissues preservation in a mummified frog-eating Eocene salamander

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Synchrotron tomography permitted access to the inside of the "mummy". The skeleton and several organs are perfectly preserved. Credit: Jérémy Tissier; CC BY

Synchrotron tomography permitted access to the inside of the “mummy”. The skeleton and several organs are perfectly preserved.Credit: Jérémy Tissier; CC BY

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

Specimen MNHN.F.QU17755, holotype of Phosphotriton sigei. (A and B) Fossil in dorsal and ventral views. Some characteristics of urodeles, such as costal grooves or scaleless skin, are observable on the external aspect of the specimen. The cloaca and vertebral column are visible. The dotted line represents the position of the tomogram illustrated in Fig. 1C. (C) Tomogram of the tail part of the animal showing the muscles, in green, ventral and lateral to the vertebrae, and the spinal cord preserved inside the neural canal of a vertebra. Bony material is characterized by a dark grey shade, because of its light density, compared to the mineral matrix (grey or white) and void (black). Soft-tissues are also mostly darker than the mineral matrix, but are mainly recognizable by their structure and shape, on tomograms or in 3D. (D) 3D reconstruction of undetermined tail muscles, in green, which could attach to the ischium or femur. Dotted line represents the position of the tomogram illustrated in Fig. 1C.

Specimen MNHN.F.QU17755, holotype of Phosphotriton sigei.
(A and B) Fossil in dorsal and ventral views. Some characteristics of urodeles, such as costal grooves or scaleless skin, are observable on the external aspect of the specimen. The cloaca and vertebral column are visible. The dotted line represents the position of the tomogram illustrated in Fig. 1C. (C) Tomogram of the tail part of the animal showing the muscles, in green, ventral and lateral to the vertebrae, and the spinal cord preserved inside the neural canal of a vertebra. Bony material is characterized by a dark grey shade, because of its light density, compared to the mineral matrix (grey or white) and void (black). Soft-tissues are also mostly darker than the mineral matrix, but are mainly recognizable by their structure and shape, on tomograms or in 3D. (D) 3D reconstruction of undetermined tail muscles, in green, which could attach to the ischium or femur. Dotted line represents the position of the tomogram illustrated in Fig. 1C.

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

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

Exceptional preservation of nerves, digestive tract and stomachal content. (A and B) 3D reconstructions of the pelvic section of MNHN.F.QU17755, in laterodorsal (A) and ventral (B) views. The lumbosacral plexus (in blue) is partly preserved. Nerves exit the last trunk, the sacral and the first caudosacral vertebrae through the spinal nerve foramina. (C) Preserved bones of an anuran frog (ranoid?), in green, inside the digestive tract (not shown, to better reveal its content; see Fig. 3F) of MNHN.F.QU17755. (D) Anuran humerus found inside digestive tract of MNHN.F.QU17755, in lateral and ventral views. (E) Anuran vertebrae found inside digestive tract of MNHN.F.QU17755. The centrum is very thin; the holes may represent segmentation artifacts. (F) 3D reconstruction of MNHN.F.QU17755 in ventral view, showing the nearly complete digestive tract. The caudal end is very close to the cloaca, and is bordered near the pelvic girdle by presumed dorsal cloacal glands (see Fig. 4A). The dotted line represents the position of the virtual section illustrated in Fig. 3G. (G) Virtual section of the trunk, showing the digestive tract (in yellow) and its content (frog bones).

Exceptional preservation of nerves, digestive tract and stomachal content.
(A and B) 3D reconstructions of the pelvic section of MNHN.F.QU17755, in laterodorsal (A) and ventral (B) views. The lumbosacral plexus (in blue) is partly preserved. Nerves exit the last trunk, the sacral and the first caudosacral vertebrae through the spinal nerve foramina. (C) Preserved bones of an anuran frog (ranoid?), in green, inside the digestive tract (not shown, to better reveal its content; see Fig. 3F) of MNHN.F.QU17755. (D) Anuran humerus found inside digestive tract of MNHN.F.QU17755, in lateral and ventral views. (E) Anuran vertebrae found inside digestive tract of MNHN.F.QU17755. The centrum is very thin; the holes may represent segmentation artifacts. (F) 3D reconstruction of MNHN.F.QU17755 in ventral view, showing the nearly complete digestive tract. The caudal end is very close to the cloaca, and is bordered near the pelvic girdle by presumed dorsal cloacal glands (see Fig. 4A). The dotted line represents the position of the virtual section illustrated in Fig. 3G. (G) Virtual section of the trunk, showing the digestive tract (in yellow) and its content (frog bones).

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

Thanks to recent synchrotron technology, its skeleton1 and various organs2 could be studied. The specimen was scanned at the ID19 beamline of the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble (France). This modern technology gave access to an incredible level of details that could never have been achieved before without slicing the specimen into a series of thin sections.

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

Exceptional preservation of cloacal glands (?) and lung. (A) 3D reconstruction of supposed dorsal and ventral cloacal glands, in ventral view, under the two ischia (not shown). The dorsal cloacal glands are located between the first and second caudosacral vertebrae and the digestive tract (see Fig. 4B). The ventral cloacal glands are located under the digestive tract and anterodorsal to the cloaca. The dotted line represents the position of the virtual section illustrated in Fig. 4B. (B) Virtual section of the pelvic girdle, illustrating the digestive tract and the dorsal cloacal glands, between a caudal vertebra and the two ischia. (C) 3D reconstruction of the incomplete lung (in blue), inside the specimen MNHN.F.QU17755, in oblique anterior view. It is located lateroventrally to the trunk vertebrae, in the anteriormost preserved part of the fossil. The dotted line represents the position of the tomogram illustrated in Fig. 4D. (D) Virtual section of the anteriormost preserved part of MNHN.F.QU17755, showing the inside of the lung in lateral view.

Exceptional preservation of cloacal glands (?) and lung.
(A) 3D reconstruction of supposed dorsal and ventral cloacal glands, in ventral view, under the two ischia (not shown). The dorsal cloacal glands are located between the first and second caudosacral vertebrae and the digestive tract (see Fig. 4B). The ventral cloacal glands are located under the digestive tract and anterodorsal to the cloaca. The dotted line represents the position of the virtual section illustrated in Fig. 4B. (B) Virtual section of the pelvic girdle, illustrating the digestive tract and the dorsal cloacal glands, between a caudal vertebra and the two ischia. (C) 3D reconstruction of the incomplete lung (in blue), inside the specimen MNHN.F.QU17755, in oblique anterior view. It is located lateroventrally to the trunk vertebrae, in the anteriormost preserved part of the fossil. The dotted line represents the position of the tomogram illustrated in Fig. 4D. (D) Virtual section of the anteriormost preserved part of MNHN.F.QU17755, showing the inside of the lung in lateral view.

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

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

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

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  1. Jérémy Tissier, Jean-Claude Rage, Michel Laurin. Exceptional soft tissues preservation in a mummified frog-eating Eocene salamander. PeerJ, 2017; 5: e3861 DOI: 10.7717/peerj.3861
  2. Source: ScienceDaily, 3 October 2017. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/10/171003093929.htm

WFS News: The first known neonate Ichthyosaurus communis skeleton

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Scientists from the UK have identified the smallest and youngest specimen of Ichthyosaurus communis on record and found an additional surprise preserved in its stomach.

The ichthyosaur fossil has a total length of just around 70 cm and had the remains of a prehistoric squid in its stomach. Ichthyosaurus communis was the first species of ichthyosaur, a group of sea-going reptiles, to be properly recognised by science, in 1821.

The University of Manchester palaeontologist and ichthyosaur expert, Dean Lomax, said: “It is amazing to think we know what a creature that is nearly 200 million years old ate for its last meal. We found many tiny hook-like structures preserved between the ribs. These are from the arms of prehistoric squid. So, we know this animal’s last meal before it died was squid.

This is the specimen. It has a total length of around 70 cm. The specimen is on display at the Lapworth Museum of Geology, University of Birmingham. Credit: Dean Lomax

This is the specimen of Ichthyosaurus communis . It has a total length of around 70 cm. The specimen is on display at the Lapworth Museum of Geology, University of Birmingham.Credit: Dean Lomax

“This is interesting because a study by other researchers on a different type of ichthyosaur, called Stenopterygius, which is from a geologically younger age, found that the small — and therefore young — examples of that species fed exclusively on fish. This shows a difference in prey-preference in newborn ichthyosaurs.”

Many early ichthyosaur examples were found by Victorian palaeontologist, Mary Anning, along the coast at Lyme Regis, Dorset. It is one of the most common Early Jurassic fossil reptiles in the UK.

The new specimen is from the collections of the Lapworth Museum of Geology, University of Birmingham. Palaeontologist Nigel Larkin, a research associate of The University of Cambridge, cleaned and studied the specimen in 2016, and recognised that it was important. The cleaning provided Dean with the opportunity to examine the fossil in detail.

Dean, who recently described the largest Ichthyosaurus on record, identified this specimen as a newborn Ichthyosaurus communis, based on the arrangement of bones in the skull. He added: “There are several small Ichthyosaurus specimens known, but most are incomplete or poorly preserved. This specimen is practically complete and is exceptional. It is the first newborn Ichthyosaurus communis to be found, which is surprising considering that the species was first described almost 200 years ago.”

Unfortunately, no record of the specimen’s location and age exists. However, with permission, Nigel removed some of the rock from around the skeleton. He passed this on to Ian Boomer (University of Birmingham) and Philip Copestake (Merlin Energy, Resources Ltd) so that they could analyse the rock for microscopic fossils. Based on the types of microfossil preserved, they were able to identify that this ichthyosaur was around 199-196 million years old, from the Early Jurassic.

Nigel added, “Many historic ichthyosaur specimens in museums lack any geographic or geological details and are therefore undated. This process of looking for microfossils in their host rock might be the key to unlocking the mystery of many specimens. Thus, this will provide researchers with lots of new information that otherwise is lost. Of course, this requires some extensive research, but it is worth the effort.”

As part of the study, the skeleton was Micro CT-scanned and a three-dimensional digital model was created by Steve Dey of ThinkSee3D Ltd. Using medical imaging software, Steve converted the 3 sets of CT cross-sectional images (from scans of the tail, middle section and head) into a single digital 3D model of the whole animal then digitally measured key metrics as required by the science.

The perfect newborn ichthyosaur is on display in the recently refurbished Lapworth Museum of Geology, University of Birmingham.

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  1. Dean R. Lomax, Nigel R. Larkin, Ian Boomer, Steven Dey, Philip Copestake. The first known neonate Ichthyosaurus communis skeleton: a rediscovered specimen from the Lower Jurassic, UK. Historical Biology, 2017; 1 DOI: 10.1080/08912963.2017.1382488
  2. University of Manchester. “Prehistoric squid was last meal of newborn ichthyosaur 200 million years ago.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 3 October 2017. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/10/171003093944.htm>

WFS News: Helicopter lifts chasmosaur fossil with ‘frill’ in Alberta

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Two years after paleontologist Jordan Mallon of the Canadian Museum of Nature and his team discovered the skull of a chasmosaur while going through a dinosaur bonebed in Alberta, he finally got to see a helicopter lift it into the air.

“There’s no roads down to the site, it’s very remote,” Mallon said Tuesday from Brooks, Alta., where the chopper was refuelling as it made its way from the spot along the South Saskatchewan River back to Calgary after completing the lift last month.

Comparing it to “a rhinoceros on steroids,” Mallon said this particular chasmosaur has turned out to be a particularly rare specimen with a long brow horn.The unusual looking dinosaur, which had a frill resembling a giant flap behind its head, was a plant-eater that lived about 75 million years ago. A relative of triceretops, but smaller, the chasmosaur walked on all fours and had horns.

The chasmosaur is shown in a late Cretaceous forest in this handout illustration. Two years after paleontologist Jordan Mallon of the Canadian Museum of Nature and his team discovered the skull of a chasmosaur while going through a dinosaur bonebed in Alberta, he finally got to see a helicopter lift it into the air."There's no roads down to the site, it's very remote," Mallon said Tuesday from Brooks, Alta., where the chopper was refuelling as it made its way from the spot along the South Saskatchewan River back to Calgary after completing the lift last month. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Julius Csotonyi *MANDATORY CREDIT* - The Canadian Press, 2017

The chasmosaur is shown in a late Cretaceous forest in this handout illustration. Two years after paleontologist Jordan Mallon of the Canadian Museum of Nature and his team discovered the skull of a chasmosaur while going through a dinosaur bonebed in Alberta, he finally got to see a helicopter lift it into the air.”There’s no roads down to the site, it’s very remote,” Mallon said Tuesday from Brooks, Alta., where the chopper was refuelling as it made its way from the spot along the South Saskatchewan River back to Calgary after completing the lift last month. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO – Julius Csotonyi *MANDATORY CREDIT* – The Canadian Press, 2017

Mallon said that while other fossils of the long-brow species — Chasmosaurus canadensis — already exist, they were found about 100 years ago and accurate records about the locations of their discoveries aren’t available.

With this specimen, Mallon said they know where it came from, which will help determine the evolution of the animal.

“We can place it in the fossil record and have context for how it’s related to other horned dinosaurs,” he explained.

“We’ve got one of those rare long-horned types right now and that’s one of the reasons we’re so excited about it.”

Even with the assistance of a helicopter, lifting the 2,000-pound skull that’s encased in protective plaster from the hillside to a waiting truck about 500 metres away was challenging.In August 2016, the specimen was prepped and coated in a protective plaster jacket. The team returned in August of this year to prepare the skull for transport.

A Chasmosaur skull in plaster is shown after being airlifted out of the Alberta badlands in this Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017 handout photo. Two years after paleontologist Jordan Mallon of the Canadian Museum of Nature and his team discovered the skull of a chasmosaur while going through a dinosaur bonebed in Alberta, he finally got to see a helicopter lift it into the air."There's no roads down to the site, it's very remote," Mallon said Tuesday from Brooks, Alta., where the chopper was refuelling as it made its way from the spot along the South Saskatchewan River back to Calgary after completing the lift last month. (Canadian Museum of History/The Canadian Press)

A Chasmosaur skull in plaster is shown after being airlifted out of the Alberta badlands in this Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017 handout photo. Two years after paleontologist Jordan Mallon of the Canadian Museum of Nature and his team discovered the skull of a chasmosaur while going through a dinosaur bonebed in Alberta, he finally got to see a helicopter lift it into the air.”There’s no roads down to the site, it’s very remote,” Mallon said Tuesday from Brooks, Alta., where the chopper was refuelling as it made its way from the spot along the South Saskatchewan River back to Calgary after completing the lift last month. (Canadian Museum of History/The Canadian Press)

The helicopter lift was originally supposed to happen in August but was delayed twice due to rain. Winds in the badlands start to pick up in October, and Mallon said if the skull couldn’t be carried out this month, it might have had to wait until next year.

Early 20th Century paleontologists who needed to move heavy, plaster-encased fossils had to rely on horse-pulled wagons or river scows to get their specimens out of rough Alberta terrain.

But according to a paper by Darren Tanke at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alta., the last time anyone used horses was 1954 when the Royal Ontario Museum used them in today’s Dinosaur Provincial Park.By then, work horses capable of hauling heavy goods in tough terrain were becoming fossils themselves.

Tanke wrote that a the first use of a helicopter to lift fossils was September 19, 1967, when a Canadian Armed Forces twin-rotor Voyageur helicopter lifted an ornithomimid skeleton of the badlands for the University of Alberta in today’s Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park.

The chasmosaur skull that Mallon and his team extracted is being driven to the Royal Tyrrell Museum. Sometime this fall, it will be shipped to the Canadian Museum of Nature for preparation and study.Pieces of the frill are back in Ottawa already.”The frill looks really good so we think it’s going to be a nice skull,” Mallon said.

Source: By Rob Drinkwater, The Canadian Press

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WFS News: how Earth was first formed?

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Oxford University scientists have shed new light on how Earth was first formed.

Based on observations of newly-forming stars, scientists know that the solar system began as a disc of dust and gas surrounding the centrally-growing sun. The gas condensed to solids which accumulated into larger rocky bodies like asteroids and mini-planets. Over a period of 100 million years these mini-planets collided with one another and gradually accumulated into the planets we see today, including Earth.

Although it is widely understood that Earth was formed gradually, from much smaller bodies, many of the processes involved in shaping our growing planet are less clear. In a new study featured on the cover of the latest edition of Nature, researchers from the University of Oxford’s Department of Earth Sciences untangle some of these processes, revealing that the mini-planets added to Earth had previously undergone melting and evaporation. They also address another scientific conundrum: Earth’s depletion in many economically important chemical elements.

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This is an image illustrating the late-stage building blocks of planetary formation (planetessimals and proto-planets) and the extensive volatile degassing that took place. Credit: Ashley Norris, Oxford University

This is an image illustrating the late-stage building blocks of planetary formation (planetessimals and proto-planets) and the extensive volatile degassing that took place.Credit: Ashley Norris, Oxford University

It is well known that Earth is strongly depleted, relative to the solar system as a whole, in those elements which condensed from the early gas disc at temperatures less than 1000°C (for example, lead, zinc, copper, silver, bismuth, and tin). The conventional explanation is that Earth grew without these volatile elements and small amounts of an asteroidal-type body were added later. This idea cannot, however, explain the “over abundance” of several other elements — notably, indium, which is now used in semiconductor technologies, as well as TV and computer screens.

Postgraduate student Ashley Norris and Bernard Wood, Professor of Mineralogy at Oxford’s Department of Earth Sciences, set out to uncover the reasons behind the pattern of depletion of these volatile elements on Earth and for the “overabundance” of indium. They constructed a furnace in which they controlled the temperature and atmosphere to simulate the low oxidation state of the very early Earth and planetesimals. In a particular series of experiments they melted rocks at 1300°C in oxygen-poor conditions and determined how the different volatile elements were evaporated from the molten lava.

During the experiments each of the elements of interest evaporated by different amounts. The lava samples were then rapidly cooled and the patterns of element loss determined by chemical analysis. The analyses revealed that the relative losses (volatilities) measured in the molten lava experiments agree very closely with the pattern of depletion observed in Earth. In particular, indium volatility agrees exactly with its observed abundance in Earth — its abundance, turns out not to be an anomaly.

Professor Bernard Wood said: “Our experiments indicate that the pattern of volatile element depletion in the Earth was established by reaction between molten rock and an oxygen-poor atmosphere. These reactions may have occurred on the early-formed planetesimals which were accreted to Earth or possibly during the giant impact which formed the moon and which is believed to have caused large-scale melting of our planet.”

Having focused their original experiments on 13 key elements, the team are in the process of looking at how other elements, such as chlorine and iodine, behave under the same conditions.

Ashley Norris said: “Our work shows that interpretation of volatile depletion patterns in the terrestrial planets needs to focus on experimental measurement of element volatillities.”

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  1. C. Ashley Norris, Bernard J. Wood. Earth’s volatile contents established by melting and vaporization. Nature, 2017; 549 (7673): 507 DOI: 10.1038/nature23645
  2. University of Oxford. “The volatile processes that shaped Earth.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 27 September 2017. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/09/170927133627.htm

WFS News: Utah Paleontologists Turn to Crowdfunding for Raptor Project

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Millions of years ago, on a mud flat somewhere in Cretaceous Utah, a group of Utahraptors made a grave mistake: They tried to hunt near quicksand. The pack’s poor fortune has given modern paleontologists an opportunity to decode the giant raptor — its appearance, growth and behavior — but only if they can raise the money.

Enter “The Utahraptor Project,” started on GoFundMe last year with a $100,000 goal. It offers backers access to a field worker’s blog, a live “Raptor Cam” and digital models of the find put together through the process of photogrammetry. While it is far from reaching its goal, the team is optimistic.

An artist’s rendering of a Utahraptor, several specimens of which were found in a massive slab of sandstone in eastern Utah in 2001. Scientists are seeking to raise money to remove the remaining bones from the giant trove of fossils, a slow and painstaking process. Credit Elena Duvernay/Stocktrek Images, via Science Source

An artist’s rendering of a Utahraptor, several specimens of which were found in a massive slab of sandstone in eastern Utah in 2001. Scientists are seeking to raise money to remove the remaining bones from the giant trove of fossils, a slow and painstaking process. Credit Elena Duvernay/Stocktrek Images, via Science Source

“Once we get this up and running, with all the cameras and gizmos to record the action on a micro and macro level,” said Scott Madsen, a fossil preparator, “I think we can give the public a good show for their money.”

Utahraptor, 23 feet long and weighing over a ton, was one of the largest dromaeosaurs, feathered, sickle-clawed dinosaurs closely related to birds. Since its discovery in 1991, it has been the subject of a popular novel, assorted documentaries and tie-in toys from “Jurassic Park.” But for all its fame, the predator has been known primarily from only a few remains. That changed in 2001, when a geology student found a leg bone emerging from a hillside in the Cedar Mountain formation in eastern Utah.

Over 12 field seasons, a team of paleontologists with the Utah Geological Survey found an ever-expanding tangle of bones in the 126-million-year-old rock. When the final slab of sandstone was removed in 2014, said Jim Kirkland, Utah state paleontologist, it weighed nine tons and contained the skeletons of a herbivorous dinosaur, a 16-foot adult Utahraptor, four juveniles and a recent hatchling.

A dog nestled under the sandstone block of Utahraptor bones, which was coated with plaster to protect the fossils at the quarry site in Utah. Credit Scott Madsen

A dog nestled under the sandstone block of Utahraptor bones, which was coated with plaster to protect the fossils at the quarry site in Utah. Credit Scott Madsen

The block proved too heavy for the lab at the University of Utah, and in 2015 ended up on reinforced floors at the Museum of Ancient Life at Thanksgiving Point. Mr. Madsen, then an employee of the Utah Geological Survey with experience preparing fossils at Dinosaur National Monument, began the long process of cleaning the bones. Two months later, he had been laid off: The agency’s budget, which is partly funded by the proceeds from drilling on state land, was hit hard by the 2014 plunge in oil prices. There wasn’t any money to pay him.

Without Mr. Madsen, the Utahraptor block sat in limbo. Attempts to find outside funding didn’t go well, Dr. Kirkland said: The Museum of Ancient Life declined to help raise money for the block over concerns it would conflict with the museum’s own fund-raising efforts. With attempts to get corporate sponsors coming to nothing, Mr. Madsen suggested a crowdfunding campaign to pay for the setup and hours of labor needed to properly document the fossils.

Paleontologists have turned to crowdfunding before, though usually only for a few thousand dollars at most, Mr. Madsen said. The size of the block required a more ambitious funding push.

Left: The teeth of a young Utahraptor excavated from the slab, next to a penny to show scale. Right: Serrated Utahraptor teeth embedded in the slab, viewed through a preparation microscope. Credit Left: Jim Kirkland; right: Scott Madsen The block proved

Left: The teeth of a young Utahraptor excavated from the slab, next to a penny to show scale. Right: Serrated Utahraptor teeth embedded in the slab, viewed through a preparation microscope. Credit Left: Jim Kirkland; right: Scott Madsen
The block proved

The Utahraptor Project has attracted interest from dinosaur enthusiasts on social media and paleontology blogs. But while donations ranging from $5 to $1,500 have trickled in, the campaign has raised only $15,150 over the past 10 months. That is enough to buy some basic tools and begin work, Mr. Madsen said, but not enough for the team’s more ambitious goals.

Mr. Madsen has yet to be paid for his efforts. “I’m in a personally awkward place doing this crowdfunding thing, not least of which because I’m asking for money to pay myself for this work.”

The contents of the block already offer some intriguing possibilities, Dr. Kirkland said. They represent the remains of predators that stumbled into quicksand while pursuing trapped prey, one of the first such cases in the fossil record. Dr. Kirkland wants to determine whether each of the seven animals arrived at different times, or whether a single pack was buried at once. If the bones are interlaced, or show signs of equivalent amounts of weathering, that would be good evidence for a rich family life for Utahraptor.

The exposed bones also suggest that Utahraptor looked quite different from previous projections. While the juveniles are long and lanky in the classic raptor mold, the adult appears to have packed on mass to deal with bigger prey. “The front end of the jaw is unlike any other meat-eating dinosaur I’ve ever seen,” Dr. Kirkland said. “It’s not just a blown-up Velociraptor. This thing is built like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Or a Sherman tank.”

Other paleontologists are watching the project with interest. “We already know there are many bones in this block which fill in the anatomy of Utahraptor, but there are probably plenty more surprises in there,” said Tom Holtz, a University of Maryland paleontologist specializing in predatory dinosaurs. “We won’t know until the lab has worked its way through the rock.”

The giant slab of Utahraptor fossils, examined with an articulating microscope that was purchased with funds from the GoFundMe campaign. Credit Scott Madsen

The giant slab of Utahraptor fossils, examined with an articulating microscope that was purchased with funds from the GoFundMe campaign. Credit Scott Madsen

Future plans for the campaign include a panel at the Salt Lake Comic Con next month, said B. J. Nicholls, the social media coordinator for the project. Organizers hope the publicity will help drive donations; the search for corporate sponsors continues as well. For Dr. Kirkland, Utahraptor is part of his legacy: he named the species and has long been associated with it. For years, he has dreamed of a state park with the Utahraptor block as its centerpiece. But he will settle for making sure the find is treated properly before he retires.

“We can’t do this over again,” he said. “We may never find another site like this. I’d rather let it sit than not do it with the very best data collection and the finest preparators we can have work on it.”

“We worked to get this block down the hill for 10 years,” he added. “We can’t screw it up.”

Source: Article By Asher Elbein,NewYork times

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WFS news: new fossil discovery suggests Life on Earth could be nearly four billion years old

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Life on Earth could be nearly four billion years old, new fossil evidence suggests.

Researchers analysed rocks found in Saglek in northern Labrador, Canada, which were dated to at least 3.95 billion years ago. At that time, the Earth was still relatively young – it was formed about 4.5 billion years ago – and was probably still being bombarded by asteroids.Tests on grains of graphite found in the sedimentary rocks found that they had been produced by living organisms, thought to be single-celled plants capable of photosynthesis.

The scientists also concluded that the graphite had been created at the same time as the rock and had not been incorporated into it at a later date.Last year scientists unveiled fossilised stromatolites – sediments created by layer upon layer of micro-organisms – which were dated to 3.7 billion years ago. Speaking about that discovery, a Nasa expert said it showed that life was “not a fussy, reluctant and unlikely thing” but could exist in extremely hostile conditions, increasing the chances that it would be found on Mars or other parts of our solar system.

This unprepossessing splodge of graphite in sample of chert rock could be the earliest known sign of life on Earth Tsuyoshi Komiya et al, Nature

This unprepossessing splodge of graphite in sample of chert rock could be the earliest known sign of life on Earth Tsuyoshi Komiya et al, Nature

And, writing in the journal Nature, researchers in Japan said the “discovery of the biogenic graphite … will provide insight into early life not only on Earth but also on other planets”.

“The presence of life on early Earth is still controversial owing to the scarcity and poor preservation of the Eoarchean [the period from about four billion to 3.6 billion years ago] records,” they wrote. “Here we report for the first time, to our knowledge, on the occurrence and geochemical characteristics of the oldest graphite.”

Rocks of this age are scarce and usually poorly preserved, making it difficult to establish the presence of the first signs of life. Sedimentary rock cannot be dated, but igneous rock that intruded into it was dated to 3.95 billion years, making this a minimum date.

The researchers pointed out that other rock formations of a similar age from Akilia, Greenland, and Nuvvuagittuq, Canada, had not showed signs of biologically produced graphite. They found graphite in 54 out of 156 samples of sedimentary rock taken from the Saglek area.

Twenty-eight rocks with higher levels of graphite were then crushed, treated with acid and kept at 60C  for several days. They were then washed with pure water, freeze-dried and then burned in oxygen at a temperature of 1,100C.The scientists then analysed the different carbon isotopes present and concluded this showed that graphite produced by some kind of life was present.

Dr Mark Sutton, a palaeontologist at Imperial College London, said there had been claims of evidence of life from even earlier in Earth’s history, but these were “more or less disputed”.

“This would probably be the oldest convincing [evidence of life] … I think the evidence itself is reasonably convincing,” he said. hj”If it was a modern rock you would be pretty confident it was biogenic. It sounds like they are reasonably confident this is evidence of biogenic stuff.

“This takes you back into the late ‘heavy bombardment’ times [by asteroids].”

Some researchers believe this period would have been so hostile, with the surface of the Earth still mostly molten, that no life would be possible.Dr Sutton said the exact dates of the asteroid bombardment and how bad it would have been were open to question but “it would certainly have made life difficult”.

The rocks studied showed no signs of having been formed in an extreme situation.

“They are normal sedimentary rocks [made from] mud at the bottom of the sea or a lack in a normalish sort of environment … there’s no evidence that the environment was particularly hostile,” Dr Sutton said.

The discovery has two implications for the search for extra-terrestrial life. One is that the earlier life is found to have begun on Earth, the more likely it is that it will be found elsewhere.The other is that it increases the amount of time it took for complex life and intelligent life to form on Earth, which might mean that is a relatively rare occurrence – although little can be deduced from a sample size of one

It is thought photosynthesising life would have arisen after a more primitive form, which if correct would push the date of the origin of life on Earth back further. “It looks like they [life-forms] arose pretty much as soon as they could,” Dr Sutton said.

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Source: article by Ian Johnston Science Correspondent,independent.co.uk

WFS News: 3-D scanning methods allow an inside look into fossilized feces

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 Coprolites are fossilized feces that give evidence of an organism’s behavior and often contain food residues, parasite remains and other fossils that provide clues to ancient paleoecological relations. Many of the inclusions in coprolites are delicate and fossilized soft tissues, which in many cases are more likely preserved within the coprolites than in other rocks. However, the composition, size and organization of the inclusions within the coprolites make them difficult to analyze. Classic techniques, such as looking at thin sections under the microscope or Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) require destructive preparation and can destroy the specimens. In a new study being presented at the annual Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting in Alberta, Canada researchers use synchrotron microtomography to understand as much of the content of the coprolites as possible.
This is a coprolite with fish remains. Credit: Martin Qvarnström

This is a coprolite with fish remains.Credit: Martin Qvarnström

Contents from coprolites from the Upper Triassic bone beds Poland were segmented into 3D models. As researcher Martin Qvarnström explains, “Examples from two feces of Triassic age (230 million years old) include delicate remains of beetles in one, and a half-complete fish and fragments of crushed bivalves in the other.” The coprolite with fish remains including fin rays, scales and bones that were fractured and sheared during ingestion/digestion was likely produced by a lungfish. The other coprolite contains various fully three-dimensional beetle remain and was produced by a medium-sized terrestrial animal that evidently targeted small beetles as prey. Likely candidates include animals like cynodonts and archosaurs.

These examples underline the importance of coprolites, which have an underestimated potential in unraveling paleoecological relations from ancient ecosystems. Qvarnström explains, “I investigate the content of vertebrate coprolites with the aim to reconstruct trophic food webs of ancient ecosystems.” Using these new advanced techniques give a rare glimpse into the paleodiets of organisms that lived over 200 million years ago.

Materials provided by Society of Vertebrate Paleontology

Source: Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. “3-D scanning methods allow an inside look into fossilized feces.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 24 August 2017.

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WFS News: Early trilobites had stomachs?

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Exceptionally preserved trilobite fossils from China, dating back to more than 500 million years ago, have revealed new insights into the extinct marine animal’s digestive system. Published today in the journal PLOS ONE, the new study shows that at least two trilobite species evolved a stomach structure 20 million years earlier than previously thought.

“Trilobites are one of the first types of animals to show up in large numbers in the fossil record,” said lead author Melanie Hopkins, an assistant curator in the Division of Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History. “Their exoskeletons were heavy in minerals, and so they preserved really well. But like all fossils, it’s very rare to see the preservation of soft tissues like organs or appendages in trilobites, and because of this, our knowledge of the trilobite digestive system comes from a small number of specimens. The new material in this study really expands our understanding.”

A specimen of the trilobite Palaeolenus lantenoisi from the Guanshan Biota in southern Yunnan Province, China. Rarely are internal organs preserved in fossils, but this specimen shows the digestive system preserved as reddish iron oxides. The digestive system is comprised of a crop (inflated region at top of specimen), lateral glands, and a central canal that runs along the length of the body; the iron oxides that extend beyond the fossil are the remains of gut contents that were extruded during preservation. Credit: © F. Chen Read more at: https://phys.org/news/2017-09-early-trilobites-stomachs-fossil.html#jCp

A specimen of the trilobite Palaeolenus lantenoisi from the Guanshan Biota in southern Yunnan Province, China. Rarely are internal organs preserved in fossils, but this specimen shows the digestive system preserved as reddish iron oxides. The digestive system is comprised of a crop (inflated region at top of specimen), lateral glands, and a central canal that runs along the length of the body; the iron oxides that extend beyond the fossil are the remains of gut contents that were extruded during preservation. Credit: © F. Chen

Trilobites are a group of extinct marine arthropods—distantly related to the horseshoe crab—that lived for almost 300 million years. They were extremely diverse, with about 20,000 species, and their fossil exoskeletons can be found all around the world. Most of the 270 specimens analyzed in the new study were collected from a quarry in southern Kunming, China, during an excavation led by Hopkins’ co-author, Zhifei Zhang, from Northwest University in Xi’an.

Previous research suggests that two body plans existed for trilobite digestive systems: a tube that runs down the length of the trilobite’s body with lateral digestive glands that would have helped process the food; or an expanded stomach, called a “crop”, leading into a simple tube with no lateral glands. Until now, only the first type had been reported from the oldest trilobites. Based on this, researchers had proposed that the evolution of the crop came later in trilobite evolutionary history and represented a distinct type of digestive system.

The Chinese trilobite fossils, about 20 percent of which have soft tissue preservation, are dated to the early Cambrian, about 514 million years ago. Contradictory to the previously proposed body plans, the researchers identified in two different species within this material. In addition, they found a single specimen that has both a crop and digestive glands—suggesting that the evolution of trilobite digestive systems is more complex than originally proposed.

The study backs up an earlier announcement made by a separate research team, which found evidence for the unusual crop and gland pairing in a single juvenile trilobite specimen from Sweden from the late Cambrian. But the Chinese material presents the oldest example of this complex digestive system in a mature trilobite, wiping away doubts that the dual structures might just be part of the animal’s early development.

“This is a very rigorous study based on multiple specimens, and it shows that we should start thinking about this aspect of trilobite biology and evolution in a different way,” Hopkins said.

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Source:phys.org/news/2017-09-early-trilobites-stomachs-fossil.html

WFS News: Tracking brain-skull transition from dinosaurs to birds

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The dramatic, dinosaur-to-bird transition that occurred in reptiles millions of years ago was accompanied by profound changes in the skull roof of those animals — and holds important clues about the way the skull forms in response to changes in the brain — according to a new study.

It is the first time scientists have tracked the link between the brain’s development and the roofing bones of the skull. The findings appear in the Sept. 11 edition of the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

These are CT scan images of the skull roof (front bone in pink, parietal in green) and brain (in blue) of, top to bottom, a chicken, the birdlike dinosaur Zanabazar, the primitive dinosaur Herrerasaurus, and Proterosuchus, an ancestral form that diverged before the bird/crocodile split. Credit: Yale University

These are CT scan images of the skull roof (front bone in pink, parietal in green) and brain (in blue) of, top to bottom, a chicken, the birdlike dinosaur Zanabazar, the primitive dinosaur Herrerasaurus, and Proterosuchus, an ancestral form that diverged before the bird/ crocodile split.    Credit: Yale University

“Across the dinosaur-bird transition, the skull transforms enormously and the brain enlarges. We were surprised that no one had directly addressed the idea that the underlying parts of the brain — the forebrain and midbrain — are correlated or somehow developmentally related to the overlying frontal and parietal bones,” said co-senior author Bhart-Anjan Singh Bhullar, an assistant professor of geology and geophysics at Yale University and assistant curator of vertebrate paleontology and vertebrate zoology at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.

Matteo Fabbri, a graduate student in Bhullar’s lab, is the first author of the study.

Although previous studies have shown a general relationship between the brain and skull, associations between specific regions of the brain and individual elements of the skull roof have remained unclear. This has led to conflicting theories on some aspects of skull development.

Bhullar and his colleagues set out to trace the evolution of brain and skull shape not simply in the dinosaurs closest to birds, but in the entire lineage leading from reptiles to birds. They discovered that most reptile brains and skulls were markedly similar to each other. It was the dinosaurs most closely related to birds, as well as birds themselves, that were divergent, with enlarged brains and skulls ballooning out around them.

“We found a clear relationship between the frontal bones and forebrain and the parietal bones and midbrain,” Bhullar said. The researchers confirmed this finding by looking at embryos of lizards, alligators, and birds using a new contrast-stained CT scanning technique.

“We suggest that this relationship is found across all vertebrates with bony skulls and indicates a deep developmental relationship between the brain and the skull roof,” Bhullar said. “What this implies is that the brain produces molecular signals that instruct the skeleton to form around it, although we understand relatively little about the precise nature of that patterning.”

Bhullar added: “Ultimately, one of the important messages here is that evolution is simpler and more elegant than it seems. Multiple seemingly disparate changes — for instance to the brain and skull — could actually have one underlying cause and represent only a single, manifold transformation.”

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  1. Matteo Fabbri, Nicolás Mongiardino Koch, Adam C. Pritchard, Michael Hanson, Eva Hoffman, Gabriel S. Bever, Amy M. Balanoff, Zachary S. Morris, Daniel J. Field, Jasmin Camacho, Timothy B. Rowe, Mark A. Norell, Roger M. Smith, Arhat Abzhanov, Bhart-Anjan S. Bhullar. The skull roof tracks the brain during the evolution and development of reptiles including birds. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 2017; DOI: 10.1038/s41559-017-0288-2
  2. Yale University. “Scientists track the brain-skull transition from dinosaurs to birds.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 11 September 2017.

WFS News: Measuring a crucial mineral in the mantle

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University of Delaware professor Jessica Warren and colleagues from Stanford University, Oxford University and University of Pennsylvania, reported new data that material size-effects matter in plate tectonics.

Plate tectonics, the way the Earth’s plates move apart and come back together, has been used since the 1960s to explain the location of volcanoes and earthquakes.

The study (link here) published Wednesday, Sept. 13 in the American Association for the Advancement of Science journal Science Advances, resolves 40 years of disagreement in datasets about the strength of olivine, the most abundant mineral found in the upper 250 miles or so of the Earth, known as the mantle.

“Measuring the strength of olivine is critical to understanding how strong tectonic plates are, which, in turn, matters to how plates break and create subduction zones like those along the Cascadia plate, which runs down the west coast of Canada to the west coast of the United States,” said Warren, a geologist in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment. It’s also important for understanding how plates move around over the million-year time scales.

Olivine, the most abundant mineral found in the Earth's mantle, is considered to be a robust model of the interior of the Earth's composition. Credit: Evan Krape/ University of Delaware

Olivine, the most abundant mineral found in the Earth’s mantle, is considered to be a robust model of the interior of the Earth’s composition.Credit: Evan Krape/ University of Delaware

The paper demonstrated that olivine’s strength is size-sensitive and that olivine is stronger the smaller the volume that is measured, something that has been known in materials science for many metals and ceramics, but has not been studied in a geological material before.

Warren explained that the problem with studying rocks on the earth’s surface is that they are no longer subjected to the high pressures found inside the earth that cause materials to flow (like ice in a glacier). Recreating these elevated pressures in the laboratory is difficult, making it hard for scientists to study material strength in the lab.

The researchers used a technique, called instrumented nanoindentation, to measure olivine’s strength. The technique allowed them to recreate pressure conditions similar to those inside the earth by pressing a diamond tip that was carefully machined to a specific geometry into the olivine crystal to measure the material’s response. The diamond tips ranged in size from 5 to 20 microns (0.000001 meter). The researchers performed hundreds of indentation tests on tiny olivine crystals less than a centimeter square and found that the olivine crystal became weaker as the size of the diamond tip increased.

To validate this size-effect, the researchers reviewed the available literature data on the strength of olivine to determine the sizes and areas that had been tested in previous experiments dating to the late 1970s. The size-effect showed up in the old data, too.

“The reason 40 years’ worth of data don’t agree from one experiment to the next is because scientists were measuring different sizes or areas of olivine,” Warren said. “But if you plot the same information as a function of the sample size, the datasets, in fact agree, and display the same general trend — the larger the indentation in the material tested, the weaker the olivine becomes.”

Now that Warren and her colleagues understand this size-effect, they are turning their attention to how temperature affects the strength of olivine, and more broadly, on where tectonic plates might break and give rise to potential subduction zones.

Temperatures inside the earth are much hotter than on the surface and can range from 1,470 to 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit (800 to 1,200 degrees Celsius).

The team also will consider what role water plays in the structure of olivine minerals and rocks in the earth. According to Warren, current estimates suggest the earth contains the equivalent of 50 percent to 4 times the amount of water found in the global ocean.

“When geologists look at how faults buckle and deform, it is at a very small length scale where conditions in size effect really matter, just like our olivine tests in the laboratory,” Warren said. “But this size effect disappears when you get to a large enough length scale on tectonic plates, so we need to consider other things like when temperature and water begin to play a role.”

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Citation:University of Delaware. “Measuring a crucial mineral in the mantle: New research resolves 40 years of debate on the strength of olivine, the most abundant mineral in the Earth’s mantle.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 13 September 2017. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/09/170913192943.htm