Solving the mystery of Megatherium diet.

Megatherium americanum, MACN.

Around 10,000 years ago, Argentina was home of numerous species of giant Xenarthrans, giant ground sloths (relative to tree sloth) and glyptodontids (relative to tiny extant armadillo). Sloths, characteristic of the mammal fauna of the Pleistocene of South America, show a great diversity with more than 80 genera, grouped in four families: Megatheriidae, Megalonychidae, Nothrotheriidae and Mylodontidae.

For more than a century different hypotheses on the dietary preferences of giant ground sloths have been proposed. In 1860, Owen gave an extensive explanations about their possible diet and behavior. He based his conclusions on the morphology of the skull, combined with peculiarities of the rest of the skeleton, but always by analogy with living tree sloth. He wrote: “Guided by the general rule that animals having the same kind of dentition have the same kind of food, I conclude that the Megatherium must have subsisted, like the Sloths, on the foliage of tree…”. In 1926, Angel Cabrera discussed the diet of Megatherium, rejecting some theories on myrmecophagy or insectivory, and agreed with Owen’s statements about a folivorous diet.

Megatherium americanum lower right tooth series. Scale bar: 5 cm (From M.S. Bargo and S.F. Vizcaíno, 2008)

The dietary preferences of extinct mammals can usually be evaluated through their tooth morphology, but the application of stable isotopes on fossil bones has yielded very important information to solve debates about the diet of extinct large mammal groups, by comparing the carbon and nitrogen isotopic composition of their bone collagen with those of coeval herbivorous and carnivorous taxa. Another isotopic approach is to mesure the difference between the carbon isotopic abundances of the collagen and the carbonate fractions of skeletal tissues. An animal with a herbivorous diet, exhibits significantly larger differences than a carnivore. The values measured on bone collagen from Megatherium, clearly fall in the same range as the large herbivores such as the equid Hippidion, the notoungulate Toxodon and the liptoptern Macrauchenia, for which there is no doubt about their herbivorous diet. Therefore, the hypotheses of insectivory or carnivory for these extinct mammals are not supported by the isotopic data.

 

References:

Hervé Bocherens et al. Isotopic insight on paleodiet of extinct Pleistocene megafaunal Xenarthrans from Argentina, Gondwana Research (2017). DOI: 10.1016/j.gr.2017.04.003

Bargo, M.S., Vizcaíno, S.F., 2008. Paleobiology of Pleistocene ground sloths (Xenarthra, Tardigrada): biomechanics, morphogeometry and ecomorphology applied to the masticatory apparatus. Ameghiniana 45: 175-196

Introducing Zhongjianosaurus.

 

Photograph of Zhongjianosaurus yangi holotype (From Xu & Qin, 2017).

Dromaeosaurids are a group of carnivorous theropods, popularly known as “raptors”. Most of them were small animals, ranging from about 0.7 metres in length to over 7 metres. They had a relatively large skull with a narrow snout and the forward-facing eyes typical of a predator. They also had serrated teeth, and their arms were long with large hands, a semi-lunate carpal, with three long fingers that ended in big claws. The earliest known representatives are from the Lower Cretaceous Jehol Group of western Liaoning, China. The most recent described dromaeosaurid is Zhongjianosaurus yangi. The new taxon was named in honor of  Yang Zhongjian, who is the founder of vertebrate paleontology in China.

The Early Cretaceous Jehol dromaeosaurids not only display a great size disparity, but also show a continuous size spectrum. Zhongjianosaurus represents the ninth dromaeosaurid species reported from the Jehol Biota. It was first reported in 2009, and is notable for its small size (about 25 cm tall), compact body, and extremely long legs.

Zhongjianosaurus yangi holotype. A. right scapulocoracoid in lateral view and furcula in posterior view; B. right humerus in anterior view; C. left ulna and radius in lateral view; D. ‘semilunate’ carpal, metacarpals II and III in ventral view and phalanges II-1 and -2 in lateral view; scale bars equal 5 mm (From Xu & Qin, 2017)

The holotype is an adult individual distinguishable from other microraptorines in possessing many unique features, most of them are present in the forelimbs. For example, the humerus has a strongly offset humeral head, a large fenestra near the proximal end, and a large ball-like ulnar condyle. Zhongjianosaurus also displays several other features which are absent in other Jehol dromaeosaurids. For instance, the uncinate processes are proportionally long and fused to the dorsal ribs, the caudal vertebral transitional point is located anteriorly, and the pes exhibits a full arctometatarsalian condition.

The coexistence of several closely related Jehol dromaeosaurids can be interpreted as niche differentiation. Tianyuraptor have limb proportions and dental morphologies typical of non-avialan carnivorous theropods, suggesting that they were ground-living cursorial predators, meanwhile Microraptor are more likely to have been arboreal or even gliding animals.

References:

Xu X , Qin Z C, 2017, in press. A new tiny dromaeosaurid dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous Jehol Group of western Liaoning and niche differentiation among the Jehol dromaeosaurids. Vertebrata PalAsiatica

Xu X, 2002. Deinonychosaurian fossils from the Jehol Group of western Liaoning and the coelurosaurian evolution. Ph.D thesis, Beijing: Chinese Academy of Sciences. 1–322

Tilly Edinger vs. the nazis.

Tilly Edinger (Photo,Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA)

“Tilly” Edinger was born on November 13, 1897 in Frankfurt, Germany. She was the youngest daughter of the eminent neurologist Ludwig Edinger and Dora Goldschmidt, a leading social advocate and activist. In 1914, her father became the first Chair of Neurology in Germany, at the newly founded University of Frankfurt. He encouraged her to take science courses at the Universities of Heidelberg, Frankfurt, and Munich. Her research at Frankfurt was directed by Fritz Drevermann, director of the Senckenberg Museum. After her graduation in 1921, Edinger worked as an assistant in the Geological Institute of Frankfurt University. In 1927, she was  named Curator of Fossil Vertebrates at the Senckenberg. At that time, she had no colleagues in vertebrate paleontology in Frankfurt with the exception of Drevermann. She described the positive and negative aspects of that environment in a letter addressed to A. S. Romer: “all fossil vertebrates [at the Senckenberg Museum] are entirely at my disposition: nobody else is interested in them . . . On the other hand, this means that I am almost autodidact”. 

Among her early projects were descriptions the endocranial casts of Mesozoic marine reptiles, pterosaurs and Archaeopteryx.  In 1929,  she published Die fossilen Gehirne (Fossil Brains), the book that established Edinger’s membership in the German and international paleontological communities. This work would serve as the major scientific support for her wartime immigration to the United States.

Senckenberg Naturmuseum (Senckenberg Museum of Natural History)

After the death of German President Paul von Hindenburg on August 2, 1934, Chancellor Adolf Hitler became Führer of Germany. In the months following Hitler’s ascension to the power, the Nazis took control of all of the nation institutions. The universities were not excepted. Soon, Jewish professors were dismissed, arrested, or simply disappeared. At the time, Tilly Edinger was working  as curator of fossil vertebrates at the Senckenberg Museum of Natural History in Frankfurt, so the influence of the new rules on her professional life was slower than on many other persons of Jewish descent because the Senckenberg was a private institution, and her position there was unsalaried. She continued working at the Museum thanks to protective actions of Rudolf Richter, the invertebrate paleontologist who had succeeded Drevermann at the Senckenberg.

Although urged by friends to leave the country, she chose to stay, as did their brother, Friedrich, who later (1942) became a victim of the Holocaust. But, on the night of 9–10 November 1938, her paleontological career in Germany ended.  Nearly 100 Jews were killed and thousands were imprisoned in the infamous “Kristallnacht” (Night of the Broken Glass). Decided to leave Germany as soon as possible, she wrote to her childhood classmate Lucie Jessner, a psychiatrist who had immigrated first to Switzerland in 1933 and then to the United States in early 1938. Jessner contacted the eminent Harvard paleontologist Alfred S. Romer (1884–1973), writing: “My friend—Dr. Tilly Edinger, paleontologist in Frankfurt am Main, Germany—wants me to ask you about different matters, very important for her. She believes you might know her name by several of her papers and you might be friendly enough to give me the opportunity to speak with you”

Interior of Berlin’s Fasanenstrasse Synagogue, opened in 1912, after it was set on fire during Kristallnacht on November 9, 1938

With the positive response from Romer, Edinger applied for an American visa at the American Consulate in Stuttgart on 1 August 1938. Forced to look for another, short-term solution, she contacted Philipp Schwartz, a former pathology professor at the University of Frankfurt who had established the Notgemeinschaft Deutscher Wissenschaftler im Ausland (Emergency Association of German Scientists in Exile), a society dedicated to helping scientific refugees from Nazi Germany. Waiting for a solution, she wrote to Rudolf Richter to thank him for his supportive testimonial. She shared her conviction that “One way (England) or the other (United States), fossil vertebrates will save me”. 

Thanks to her pioneering works and the contacts she made from a previous trip to London in 1926, Edinger emigrated to England in May 1939. She started working at the British Museum of Natural History, alternately translating texts and working on her own paleoneurological projects. She described her life in London as considerably freer than in Germany: “It sounds funny, to one who was ‘at home’ not allowed to enter even an open museum, or a cinema, or a café, to apply the word ‘restrictions’ anywhere in the beautifully free life I am leading here”

Tilly Edinger and colleagues at the Museum of Comparative Zoology. Sitting left to right: Tilly Edinger, Harry B. Whittington, Ruth Norton, Alfred S. Romer, Nelda Wright, and Richard van Frank. Standing left to right: Arnold D. Lewis, Ernest E.Williams, Bryan Patterson, Stanley J. Olsen, and Donald Baird. (Photo: David Roberts, from Buchholtz, 2001)

In 1940, with the support of Alfred S. Romer, she moved to Massachusetts to take a position at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. By the early 1950s, she was not only the major contributor to the field of paleoneurology but also the mentor to a younger generation that was following in her footsteps. She received several honorary doctorates for her achievements, including Wellesley College (1950), the University of Giessen (1957), and the University of Frankfurt  (1964). She was elected president of SVP in 1963. Her last book: “Paleoneurology 1804-1966. An annotated bibliography”, was completed by several of her colleagues and is considered the necessary starting point for any project in paleoneurology.

 

References:

Buchholtz, Emily A.; Seyfarth, Ernst-August (August 2001), “The Study of “Fossil Brains”: Tilly Edinger (1897–1967) and the Beginnings of Paleoneurology”, Bioscience 51 (8)

Susan Turner, Cynthia V. Burek and Richard T. J. Moody, Forgotten women in an extinct saurian (man’s) world, Geological Society, London, Special Publications 2010, v. 343, p. 111-153

 

 

Introducing Daspletosaurus horneri

D. horneri holotype skull (MOR 590, Museum of the Rockies, Bozeman, Montana, USA)

Tyrannosaurus rex, the most iconic dinosaur of all time, and its closest relatives known as tyrannosaurids, comprise the clade Tyrannosauroidea, a relatively derived group of theropod dinosaurs, more closely related to birds than to other large theropods such as allosauroids and spinosaurids. All tyrannosaurs were bipedal predators characterized by premaxillary teeth with a D-shaped cross section, fused nasals, extreme pneumaticity in the skull roof and lower jaws, a pronounced muscle attachment ridge on the ilium, and an elevated femoral head. The clade was a dominant component of the dinosaur faunas of the American West shortly after the emplacement of the Western Interior Seaway (about 99.5 Mya).

Daspletosaurus horneri, a new species of tyrannosaurid from the upper Two Medicine Formation of Montana, is the sister species of Daspletosaurus torosus. The new taxon was named in honor of Jack Horner, and inhabited northern Laramidia (what is now southern Alberta and northern Montana) about 75 million years ago. Paleontologist Vickie R. Clouse discovered the first specimen in 1989 and more individuals were uncovered in the following decades. The so-called Two Medicine tyrannosaurinemade its first appearance in a study co-written by Jack Horner in 1992, about the phyletic evolution in four lineages of dinosaurs, including tyrannosaurs, from the Late Cretaceous of the American West.

Phylogenetic relationships of tyrannosaurines calibrated to geological time (From Carr et al., 2017)

The holotype of Daspletosaurus horneri (MOR 590) consists of a complete skull, partial pectoral limb, and nearly complete hindlimb; and is estimated to be ~9.0 m in total length and 2.2 m tall.  D. horneri has taller skull than  D. torosus. Because of the excellent quality of preservation of these fossils it was possible to study the type of soft tissue that covered the face (premaxilla, maxilla, nasal, lacrimal, jugal, postorbital, squamosal, dentary). The study revealed that many of the tyrannosaur’s skull features are identical to those of crocodilians. Given the skeletal similarities with crocodylians, tyrannosaurids had a highly sensitive facial tactile system that functioned in prey capture, and object identification and manipulation, for detecting the optimal temperature of a nest site, and, in courtship, tyrannosaurids might have rubbed their sensitive faces together as a vital part of pre-copulatory play.

 

References:

Thomas D. Carr, David J. Varricchio, Jayc C. Sedlmayr, Eric M. Roberts, Jason R. Moore. A new tyrannosaur with evidence for anagenesis and crocodile-like facial sensory system. Scientific Reports, 2017; 7: 44942
doi:10.1038/srep44942

Horner, J. R., Varricchio, D. J. & Goodwin, M. B. Marine transgressions and the evolution of Cretaceous dinosaurs. Nature 358, 59–61 (1992) doi:10.1038/358059a0

 

Re-examining the dinosaur evolutionary tree.

Close up of “Sue” at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, IL (From Wikimedia Commons)

In the nineteen century, the famous Victorian anatomist Richard Owen diagnosed Dinosauria using three taxa: Megalosaurus, Iguanodon and Hylaeosaurus, on the basis of three main features: large size and terrestrial habits, upright posture and sacrum with five vertebrae (because the specimens were from all Late Jurassic and Cretaceous, he didn’t know that the first dinosaurs had three or fewer sacrals). Later, in 1887, Harry Govier Seeley summarised the works of Edward Drinker Cope, Thomas Huxley and Othniel Charles Marsh, and subdivide dinosaurs into Saurischians and the Ornithischians. He wrote: The characters on which these animals should be classified are, I submit, those which pervade the several parts of the skeleton, and exhibit some diversity among the associated animal types. The pelvis is perhaps more typical of these animals than any other part of the skeleton and should be a prime element in classification. The presence or absence of the pneumatic condition of the vertebrae is an important structural difference…” Based on these features, Seeley denied the monophyly of dinosaurs.

Seeley’s (1901) diagram of the relationships of Archosauria. From Padian 2013

At the mid 20th century, the consensual views about Dinosauria were: first, the group was not monophyletic; second almost no Triassic ornithischians were recognised, so they were considered derived morphologically, which leads to the third point, the problem of the ‘‘origin of dinosaurs’’ usually was reduced to the problem of the ‘‘origin of Saurischia,’’ because theropods were regarded as the most primitive saurischians. But the discovery of Lagosuchus and Lagerpeton from the Middle Triassic of Argentina induced a change in the views of dinosaurs origins. Also from South America came Herrerasaurus from the Ischigualasto Formation, the basal sauropodomorphs Saturnalia, Panphagia, Chromogisaurus, and the theropods Guibasaurus and Zupaysaurus, but no ornithischians except a possible heterodontosaurid jaw fragment from Patagonia. The 70s marked the beginning of a profound shift in thinking on nearly all aspects of dinosaur evolution, biology and ecology. Robert Bakker and Peter Galton, based on John Ostrom’s vision about Dinosauria, proposed, for perhaps the first time since 1842, that Dinosauria was indeed a monophyletic group and that it should be separated (along with birds) from other reptiles as a distinct ‘‘Class”. In 1986, the palaeontologist Jacques Gauthier showed that dinosaurs form a single group, which collectively has specific diagnostic traits that set them apart from all other animals.

The dinosaur evolutionary tree (From Padian, 2017.

Phylogenetic analyses of early dinosaurs have  supported the traditional scheme. But a new study authored by Matthew Baron, David Norman and Paul Barrett, reach different conclusions from those of previous studies by incorporating some different traits and reframing others. Baron and colleagues, analysed a wide range of dinosaurs and dinosauromorphs, including representatives of all known dinosauromorph clades. 74 taxa were scored for 457 characters. The team  arrived at a dinosaur evolutionary tree containing one main branch that subdivides into the groupings of Ornithischia and Theropoda, and a second main branch that contains the Sauropoda and Herrerasauridae (usually positioned as either basal theropods or basal Saurischia, or outside Dinosauria but close to it). The union between ornithischians and theropods is called Ornithoscelida. The term was coined in 1870 by Thomas Huxley for a group containing the historically recognized groupings of Compsognatha, Iguanodontidae, Megalosauridae and Scelidosauridae.

From Baron et al., 2017.

The synapomorphies that support the formation of the clade Ornithoscelida includes: an anterior premaxillary foramen located on the inside of the narial fossa; a sharp longitudinal ridge on the lateral surface of the maxilla; short and deep paroccipital processes; a post-temporal foramen enclosed within the paroccipital process; a straight femur, without a sigmoidal profile; absence of a medioventral acetabular flange; a straight femur, without a sigmoidal profile; and fusion of the distal tarsals to the proximal ends of the metatarsals.

Of course, those results have great implications for the very origin of dinosaurs. Ornithischia don’t begin to diversify substantially until the Early Jurassic. By contrast, the other dinosaurian groups already existed by at least the early Late Triassic. If the impoverished Triassic record of ornithischians reflects a true absence, ornithischians might have evolved from theropods in the Late Triassic (Padian, 2017). The study also suggest that dinosaurs might have originated in the Northern Hemisphere, because most of their basal members, as well as their close relatives, are found there. Furthermore, their analyses places the origin of dinosaurs at the boundary of the Olenekian and Anisian stages (around 247 Ma), slightly earlier than has been suggested previously.

 

References:

Baron, M. G., Norman, D. B. & Barrett, P. M. A new hypothesis of dinosaur relationships and early dinosaur evolution.  Nature 543, 501–506  (2017).  doi:10.1038/nature21700

Padian K. Dividing the dinosaurs. Nature 543, 494–495 (2017) doi:10.1038/543494a

Padian K. The problem of dinosaur origins: integrating three approaches to the rise of Dinosauria. Earth and Environmental Science Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Available on CJO 2013 doi:10.1017/S1755691013000431 (2013).

Seeley, H. G. On the classification of the fossil animals commonly named Dinosauria. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. 43, 165171 (1887).

Huxley, T. H. On the classification of the Dinosauria, with observations on the Dinosauria of the Trias. Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, London 26, 32-51. (1870).

 

Mammalian dwarfing during ancient greenhouse warming events.

Bighorn Basin, Wyoming (Image: University of New Hampshire, College of Engineering and Physical Sciences)

The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, known as PETM (approximately 55.8 million years ago), was a short-lived (~ 200,000 years) global warming event due to a rapid rise in the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. It was suggested that this warming was initiated by the melting of methane hydrates on the seafloor and permafrost at high latitudes. This event was accompanied by other large-scale changes in the climate system, for example, the patterns of atmospheric circulation, vapor transport, precipitation, intermediate and deep-sea circulation, a rise in global sea level and ocean acidification.

The second largest hyperthermal of the early Eocene, known as ETM2, occurred about 2 million years after the PETM (approximately 53.7 Ma). Another smaller-amplitude hyperthermal, identified as “H2,” appears in the marine record about 100,000 years after ETM2 (approximately 53.6 Ma).

Sifrhippus sp. restoration in the Naturhistoriska Riksmuseet, Stockholm, Sweden (From Wikimedia Commons)

Dwarfing of mammalian taxa across the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) was first described in the Bighorn Basin, Wyoming. The basin has a remarkably fossil-rich sedimentary record of late Palaeocene to early Eocene age. The interval of the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum is represented by a unique mammalian fauna composed by smaller, but morphologically similar species to those found later in the Eocene. Diminutive species include the early equid Sifrhippus sandrae, the phenacodontids Ectocion parvus and Copecion davisi. 

Fossils of early equids are common in lower Eocene deposits of the Bighorn Basin, making a comparison between the PETM and ETM2 hyperthermal events possible. Using tooth size as a proxy for body size, researchers found a statistically significant decrease in the body size of mammals’ during the PETM and ETM2. Teeth in adult mammals scale proportionally to body size. For instance, Sifrhippus demonstrated a decrease of at least 30% in body size during the first 130,000 years of the PETM, followed by a 76% rebound in body size during the recovery phase of the PETM. Arenahippus, an early horse the size of a small dog, decreased by about 14 percent in size during the ETM2. (D’Ambrosia et al., 2017)

Arenahippus jaw fragment (Image credit: University of New Hampshire)

Body size change during periods of climate change is commonly seen throughout historical and geological records. Studies of modern animal populations have also yielded similar body size results. Tropical trees, anurans and mammals have all demonstrated decreased size or growth rate during drought years. In the case of mammals, the observed decrease in the average body size could have been an evolutionary response to create a more efficient way to reduce body heat.

The combination of global warming and the release of large amounts of carbon to the ocean-atmosphere system during the PETM has encouraged analogies with the modern anthropogenic climate change, which has already led to significant shifts in the distribution, phenology and behaviour of organisms. Plus, the consequences of shrinkage are not yet fully understood. This underlines the urgency for immediate action on global carbon emission reductions.

 

 

References:

Abigail R. D’Ambrosia, William C. Clyde, Henry C. Fricke, Philip D. Gingerich, Hemmo A. Abels. Repetitive mammalian dwarfing during ancient greenhouse warming events. Science Advances, 2017; 3 (3): e1601430 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1601430

Rankin, B., Fox, J., Barron-Ortiz, C., Chew, A., Holroyd, P., Ludtke, J., Yang, X., Theodor, J. 2015. The extended Price equation quantifies species selection on mammalian body size across the Palaeocene/Eocene Thermal Maximum. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2015.1097

Burger, B.J., Northward range extension of a diminutive-sized mammal (Ectocion parvus) and the implication of body size change during the Paleoc…, Palaeogeogr. Palaeoclimatol. Palaeoecol. (2012), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.palaeo.2012.09.008

 

Mary Anning and the Hunt of Primeval Monsters.

mary_anning_plesiosaurus

Autograph letter concerning the discovery of plesiosaurus, from Mary Anning (From Wikimedia Commons)

Since the End of the 17th century to the beginning of the 19th, several discoveries of dinosaur remains and other large extinct ‘saurians’, were reported for first time. It was an exciting time full of discoveries and the concept of an ancient Earth became part of the public understanding. The most popular aspect of geology was  the collecting of fossils and minerals and the nineteenth-century geology, often perceived as the sport of gentlemen, was in fact, “reliant on all classes”.

The study of the Earth became central to the economic and cultural life of the Victorian Society and Literature influenced the pervasiveness of geological thinking. The Geological Society of London was founded on 13 October 1807 at the Freemasons’ Tavern, in the Covent Garden district of London, with the stated purpose of “…making geologists acquainted with each other, of stimulating their zeal, of inducing them to adopt one nomenclature, of facilitating the communications of new facts and of ascertaining what is known in their science and what remains to be discovered”. During this time, women were free to take part in collecting fossils and mineral specimens, and they were allowed to attend lectures but they were barred from membership in scientific societies. However, it was common for male scientists to have women assistants, often their own wives and daughters.

Plesiosaurus battling Temnodontosaurus (Oligostinus), front piece the Book of the Great Sea-Dragons by Thomas Hawkins.

Plesiosaurus battling Temnodontosaurus (Oligostinus), front piece the Book of the Great Sea-Dragons by Thomas Hawkins.

Mary Anning (1799-1847), was an special case. Despite her lower social condition, Mary became the most famous ‘fossilist’ of her time. She was born on Lyme Regis on May 21, 1799. Her father was a carpenter and an amateur fossil collector who died when Mary was eleven. He trained Mary and her brother Joseph in how to look and clean fossils. After the death of her father, Mary and Joseph used those skills to search fossils on the local cliffs,  that sold as “curiosities”. The source of the fossils was the coastal cliffs around Lyme Regis, one of the richest fossil locations in England and part of a geological formation known as the Blue Lias. The age of the formation corresponds to the Jurassic period. In 1811, she caught the public’s attention when she and her brother Joseph unearthed the skeleton of a ‘primeval monster’. They sold it for £23. Later, in 1819, the skeleton was purchased by Charles Koenig of the British Museum of London who suggested the name “Ichthyosaur” for the fossil.

On December 10, 1823, she discovered the first complete Plesiosaur skeleton at Lyme Regis in Dorset. The fossil was acquired by the Duke of Buckingham. Noticed about the discovery, George Cuvier wrote to William Conybeare suggesting that the find was a fake produced by combining fossil bones from different animals. William Buckland and Conybeare sent a letter to Cuvier including anatomical details, an engraving of the specimen and a sketch made by Mary Morland (Buckland’s wife) based on Mary Anning’s own drawings and they convinced Cuvier that this specimen was a genuine find. From that moment, Cuvier treated Mary Anning as a legitimate and respectable fossil collector and cited her name in his publications.

The holotype specimen of Dimorphodon macronyx found by Mary Anning in 1828 (From Wikimedia Commons)

On December of 1828, Mary found the first pterosaur skeleton outside Germany. William Buckland made the announcement of Mary’s discovery in the Geological Society of London and named Pterodactylus macronyx in allusion to its large claws. The skull of Anning’s specimen had not been discovered, but Buckland thought that the fragment of jaw in the collection of the Philpot sisters of Lyme belonged to a pterosaur.

In her later years, Mary Anning suffered some serious financial problems. She died of breast cancer on 9 March, 1847, at the age of 47. She was buried in the cemetery of St. Michaels. In the last decade of her life, Mary received  three accolades. The first was an annuity of £25, in return for her many contributions to the science of geology. The second was in 1846, when the geologists of the Geological Society of London organized a further subscription for her. The third accolade was her election, in July 1846, as the first Honorary Member of the new Dorset County Museum in Dorchester (Torrens, 1995). After her death, Henry de la Beche, Director of the Geological Survey and President of the Geological Society of London, wrote a very affectionate obituary published in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society on February 14, 1848, the only case of a non Fellow who received that honour.

References:

Davis, Larry E. (2012) “Mary Anning: Princess of Palaeontology and Geological Lioness,”The Compass: Earth Science Journal of Sigma Gamma Epsilon: Vol. 84: Iss. 1, Article 8.

Hugh Torrens, Mary Anning (1799-1847) of Lyme; ‘The Greatest Fossilist the World Ever Knew’, The British Journal for the History of Science Vol. 28, No. 3 (Sep., 1995), pp. 257-284. Published by: Cambridge University Press.

De la Beche, H., 1848a. Obituary notices. Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, v. 4: xxiv–xxv.

Dickens, C., 1865. Mary Anning, the fossil finder. All the Year Round, 13 (Feb 11): 60–63.

 

A Brief Introduction to Conservation Paleobiology

Richard Owen stands next to the largest of all moa, Dinornis maximus (now D. novaezealandiae). From Wikimedia Commons.

Richard Owen stands next to the largest of all moa, Dinornis maximus (now D. novaezealandiae). From Wikimedia Commons.

Over the past 50 years, the pace and magnitude of human-induced global changes has accelerated dramatically. The term defaunation was created to designate the declining of top predators and herbivores triggered by human activity, that results in a lack of agents that control the components of the ecosystems vegetation. Although anthropogenic climate change is playing a growing role, the primary drivers of modern extinctions seem to be habitat loss, human predation, and introduced species. The same drivers that contributed to ancient megafaunal and island extinctions.

The emerging discipline of conservation paleobiology is supplying necessary information to understand how ecosystems vary naturally through time and space and how they respond to major perturbations. The fossils that have provided such data include phytoplankton, zooplankton, fossil pollen, seeds, leaves, wood, invertebrate animals with hard parts, and vertebrate animals. They are particularly useful because they often show high fidelity to the living communities. Quaternary fossils have proven especially informative for addressing conservation questions, but useful information has also come from much older fossil deposits, reaching back millions of years.

1024px-bison_near_a_hot_spring_in_yellowstone

Bison near a hot spring in Yellowstone National Park (From Wikimedia Commons).

The analytical methods that allow comparing present with past fall into two main categories: taxon-based and taxon-free. Taxon-based methods rely on the presence, absence, or abundances of certain taxa and their underlying diversity. Taxon-free methods use metrics that reflect ecosystem function rather than structure. Depending on the availability of fossils and the type of conservation question being asked, one or the other approach may be more appropriate.

Taxon-based paleontological data are critical in deciding if a “natural” landscape represents a historical or a novel ecosystem. Historical ecosystems are those that still have at least 70% of the habitats that were present 500 years ago and that contain fewer than 5 people/km2. In the world’s first national park, Yellowstone National Park, USA, paleontological data influenced critical management decisions by demonstrating that Yellowstone preserves a historical ecosystem. Fossil deposits verified that almost all of the mammal species that had occupied the region for millennia are still present. Also, palynological records show that the current vegetation has persisted with only minor fluctuations in abundance of dominant taxa for at least 8000 years.

Lyuba, the best preserved mammoth mummy in the world, at the Field Museum of Natural History (From Wikimedia Commons).

Lyuba, the best preserved mammoth mummy in the world, at the Field Museum of Natural History (From Wikimedia Commons).

Taxon-free paleontological can often be related to environmental parameters with statistical significance data, and are critical for understanding whether certain ecosystems are approaching “tipping points,” as demonstrated by analysis of diatoms, pollen, and sediments from lake cores.

Fossils have also figured prominently  with efforts to reconstruct copies of species that humans have driven to extinction either recently (passenger pigeons) or in the deeper past (mammoths). Unfortunately, the ecosystems that supported many extinct species no longer exist, so survival outside of captivity would be difficult. In addition, preventing the extinction of extant species and habitats numbering in the thousands already is challenging, so the prospects of sustaining “de-extincted” species are poor at best. Media reports are presenting de-extinction in an optimistic framework, and conveying the impression that we face a real possibility of bringing mammoth back from extinction in  the near future. Of course, this is far from truth. We will never be able to recreate most extinct species in their purest form. Ultimately,  genetic engineering to simulate extinct life also raises ethical and legal concerns.

 

References:

Anthony D. Barnosky et al. Merging paleobiology with conservation biology to guide the future of terrestrial ecosystems. Science, 2017 DOI: 10.1126/science.aah4787

Rodolfo Dirzo et al., Defaunation in the Anthropocene, Science 345, 401 (2014); DOI: 10.1126/science.1251817

Braje, T.J., Erlandson, J.M., Human acceleration of animal and plant extinctions: A Late Pleistocene, Holocene, and Anthropocene continuum. Anthropocene (2013), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ancene.2013.08.003

Richmond, D.J., Sinding, M-H.S., Gilbert, M.T.P. (2016). The potential and pitfalls of de-extinction. — Zoologica Scripta, 45, 2236DOI: 10.1111/zsc.12212

Introducing Isaberrysaura

Isaberrysaura skull in lateral view and maxillary teeth (Adapted from Salgado et al., 2017)

Isaberrysaura mollensis gen. et sp. nov. is the first dinosaur recovered in the marine-deltaic deposits of the Los Molles Formation (Neuquén Province, Argentina), and the first neornithischian dinosaur known from the Jurassic of South America. So far, the South American record of Jurassic ornithischian dinosaurs was limited to a few specimens belonging to Heterodontosauriformes, a clade of small-sized forms that survived in Europe up to the Early Cretaceous. The name Isaberrysaura is derived from “Isa Berry” (Isabel Valdivia Berry, who reported the initial finding) and the Greek word “saura” (lizard).

The holotype of Isaberrysaura is an incomplete articulated skeleton with an almost complete skull, and a partial postcranium consisting of 6 cervical vertebrae, 15 dorsal vertebrae, a sacrum with a partial ilium and an apparently complete pubis, 9 caudal vertebrae, part of a scapula, ribs, and unidentifiable fragments. One of the most notable features of the discovery is the presence of permineralized seeds in the middle-posterior part of the thoracic cavity. The seeds were assigned to the Cycadales (Zamiineae) on the basis of a well-defined coronula in the micropylar region. The findings suggest the hypothesis of interactions (endozoochory) between cycads and dinosaurs, especially in the dispersion of seeds.

Gut content of Isaberrysaura mollensis gen. et sp. nov. (a–c), seeds of cycads (c), and other seeds (s); rib (r). From Salgado et al., 2017

The cranium of Isaberrysaura is reminiscent of that of the thyreophorans. The skull is estimated to be 52 cm long and 20 cm wide across the orbits. The jugal is triradiate and the nasals are ~20 cm long. There are two supraorbital bones; one is elongated (~10 cm), as in stegosaurs, and the other element interpreted as a posterior supraorbital is located on the posterior margin of the orbit. It has at least six premaxillary teeth, and there is no diastema between the premaxillary and the maxillary tooth row. Despite the many similarities between Isaberrysaura and the thyreophorans, the phylogenetic analysis indicates that Isaberrysaura is a basal ornithopod, suggesting that both Thyreophora and neornithischians could have achieved significant convergent features.

References:

Salgado, L. et al. A new primitive Neornithischian dinosaur from the Jurassic of Patagonia with gut contents. Sci. Rep. 7, 42778; doi: 10.1038/srep42778 (2017)

The legacy of Ernst Haeckel

Ernst Haeckel and his assistant Nicholas Miklouho-Maclay, photographed in the Canary Islands in 1866. From Wikimedia Commons.

Ernst Haeckel and his assistant Nicholas Miklouho-Maclay, photographed in the Canary Islands in 1866. From Wikimedia Commons.

Ernst Heinrich Philipp August Haeckel  was born on February 16, 1834, in Potsdam, Prussia. He wanted to be a botanist and his hero was Alexander Humboldt, but his father, a lawyer and government official, thought the career prospects in botany were poor. Following his father’s advice, he studied medicine at the University of Berlin and graduated in 1857.

The explorations of Humboldt and Darwin permanently impressed him, and in 1859, E. Haeckel travelled to Italy and  spent some time in Napoli, exploring and discovering his talent as an artist. Then he went to Messina, where began to study radiolarians. In 1864, he sent to Darwin, two folio volumes on radiolarians. Goethe was also a strong influence in Haeckel, and lead him to think of Nature in anthropomorphic terms.

Ernst Haeckel's ''Kunstformen der Natur'' (1904), showing Radiolarians of the order Stephoidea. From Wikimedia Commons.

Ernst Haeckel’s ”Kunstformen der Natur” (1904), showing Radiolarians of the order Stephoidea. From Wikimedia Commons.

He became the most famous champion of Darwinism in Germany and he was so popular that, previous to the First World War, more people around the world learned about the evolutionary theory through his work “Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte” (The History of Creation: Or the Development of the Earth and its Inhabitants by the Action of Natural Causes) than from any other source. He also wrote more than twenty monographs about systematic biology and evolutionary history. He formulated the concept of  ”ecology” and coined the terms of “protist”,  “ontogeny”, “phylum”, “phylogeny”,  “heterochrony”, and “monera”.

Along with many other scientists, Haeckel was asked by the managers of the Challenger Expedition to examine and report on the expedition’s collections specifically for radiolarians, sponges and jellyfish. Haeckel’s Report on Radiolaria took him almost a decade. He reported a total of 739 genera and 4318 species of Radiolaria (polycystines, acantharians and phaeodarians). 

Ernst Haeckel’s ”Kunstformen der Natur” showing various sea anemones classified as Actiniae. From Wikimedia Commons.

Ernst Haeckel’s ”Kunstformen der Natur” showing various sea anemones classified as Actiniae. From Wikimedia Commons.

His master work “Kunstformen der Natur” (Art forms of Nature) influenced not only science, but in the art, design and architecture of the early 20th century. Initially published in ten fascicles of ten plates each – from 1899 to 1904 -, coincided with his most intensive effort to popularise his monistic philosophy in Die Welträthsel and Die Lebenswunder.

But Haeckel was a man of contradictions. His belief in Recapitulation Theory (“ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”) was one of his biggest mistakes. His affinity for the German Romantic movement influenced his political beliefs and Stephen Jay Gould wrote that Haeckel’s biological theories, supported by an “irrational mysticism” and racial prejudices contributed to the rise of Nazism. Despite those faults, he made great contributions in the field of biology and his legacy as scientific illustrator is extraordinary. In 1908, he was awarded with the prestigious Darwin-Wallace Medal for his contributions in the field of science.

After the death of his wife in 1915, Haeckel became mentally frail. He died on 9 August 1919.

References:

Robert J. Richards, The Tragic Sense of Life: Ernst Haeckel and the Struggle over Evolutionary Thought, (2008), University of Chicago Press.

Breidbach, Olaf. Visions of Nature: The Art and Science of Ernst Haeckel. Prestel Verlag: Munich, 2006.

Heie, N. Ernst Haeckel and the Redemption of Nature, 2008.

Aita, Y., N. Suzuki, K. Ogane, T. Sakai & Y. Tanimura, 2009. Study and reexamination of the Ernst Haeckel Radiolaria Collection. Fossils (Japanese Journal of the Palaeontological Society of Japan), 85, 1–2.

David Lazarus, The legacy of early radiolarian taxonomists, with a focus on the species published by early German workers, Journal of Micropalaeontology 2014, v.33; p3-19.