Forgotten women of Paleontology: The Newnham quartet.


Ethel Skeat (right) and Margaret Crosfield (middle) at Oswestry, 1908 (From Burek and Malpas, 2007)

Women have played  various and extensive roles in the history of geology. In the 18th and 19th centuries women’s access to science was limited, and science was usually a ‘hobby’ for intelligent wealthy women. They collected fossils and mineral specimens, and were allowed to attend scientific lectures, but they were barred from membership in scientific societies. It was common for male scientists to have women assistants, often their own wives and daughters. A good example of that was Mary Lyell (1808–1873), daughter of the geologist Leonard Horner and the wife of eminent geologist Charles Lyell. Unfortunately, their contribution has not been widely recognised by the public or academic researchers.

Newnham Hall was founded by Henry Sidgwick in 1875, and was the second Cambridge College to admit women after Girton College. The co-founder of the college was Millicent Garrett Fawcett, primarily known for her work as a suffragist. In 1879, Professor Charles Lapworth, the man who solved the great Cambro-Silurian controversy, encouraged a small group of women at Newnham College to investigate the Silurian and Ordovician rocks of North Wales. Those women were: Gertrude Elles, Ethel Shakespear (née Wood), Ethel Woods (née Skeat) and Margaret Chorley Crosfield.

Newnham began as a house for five students in Regent Street in Cambridge in 1871

Newnham began as a house for five students in Regent Street in Cambridge in 1871

Ethel Gertrude Skeat was born on 14 May, 1865, in Cambridge, England. She was the third daughter of Professor William Walter Skeat. In 1891, she went to Newnham College, Cambridge, at the same time as Gertrude Elles and Ethel Wood. In Newham, she also met  her life-long friend and collaborator, Margaret Crosfield. She completed the Natural Science Tripos certificate part 1, gaining a Class 1 at the age of 29, but without being awarded a degree. In 1893, she joined the Geologists’ Association (GA) and collaborated with her long-time friend, Margaret Crosfield, on their first paper on Welsh stratigraphy in the Carmarthen area, which was published in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society in 1896. Ethel won a Bathurst Studentship which she used to go to Munich to work with Karl Alfred von Zittel. She was the first woman to be admitted as a guest to scientific lectures at Munich University after a petition by Professor Zittel. She also collaborated with Victor Madsen on an important work on the Glacial Boulders of the Mesozoic of Denmark. In 1908, she was awarded the Murchison Fund by the Geological Society of London and became the 8th woman to receive any kind of funding from the Geological Society . In 1911, a few months after her marriage with Henry Woods, she became a lecturer at the Cambridge Training College for Women and remained there for 2 years. She died on 26 January 1939 in Meldreth, England.

Margaret Crosfield on a Geologists’ Association fieldtrip to Leith Hill with Professor Lapworth (From Burek and Malpas, 2007).

Margaret Crosfield on a Geologists’ Association field trip to Leith Hill with Professor Lapworth (From Burek and Malpas, 2007).

Margaret Chorley Crosfield was born on 7 September 1859 in Reigate, Surrey. She entered Newnham in 1879 at the age of 20 years but her studies there were interrupted by ill health. She returned to complete her studies 10 years later and with the permission of the authorities she only took geology as a subject. She joined the GA in 1892 and 17 years later she was among the first group of women to be elected Fellows of the Geological Society of London. She published three important papers. The first was on Carmarthen with Ethel Skeat that formed the basis of the geological map produced by the British Geological Survey for the area. In 1914, Margaret published with Mary Johnston a work on the Wenlock limestone of Shropshire. Later, in 1925, she published her second paper with Ethel Skeat (now Mrs. Woods) on the geology of the Silurian rocks of the Clwydian Range. She was also a great promoter of women’s suffrage and some of her field notes are written on the back of suffragette notepaper. She died October 13, 1952.

Dr Gertrude Elles (1872-1960), pioneer woman geologist (Image: Sedgwick Museum archives)

Dr Gertrude Elles (1872-1960), pioneer woman geologist (Image: Sedgwick Museum archives)

Gertrude Lilian Elles was born in Wimbledon on 8 October 1872. She attended Newnham College, Cambridge, at the age of 19 and studied under the guidance of Thomas McKenny Hughes and John Edward Marr, two of the leading geologists of the period. She travelled to Trinity College, Dublin, as one of the ‘Steamboat Women’ to receive her DSc in 1905. Elles was a field geologist, stratigrapher and palaeontologist. Her major work concerned the interpretation of graptolite zones of Lower Palaeozoic strata. Graptolites are extinct marine creatures that formed net-like colonies composed of one or more branches. In the late 1890s, she and her Newnham friend and colleague Ethel Wood began the preparation of British Graptolites (1901-1918), a monograph which was produced in parts over the next twenty years under the general editorship of  Professor Charles Lapworth. In 1919 she won the Murchison Medal and became one of the first female Fellows of the Geological Society. She had not an official university position at Cambridge until 1926 when she was appointed to a university lectureship. Ten years later, she became the first woman Reader. She died on November 18, 1960.

Ethel Wood (1871–1945)

Ethel Wood (1871–1945).

Ethel Reader Wood was born on on 17 July 1871 at Biddenham, near Bedford. Her lifelong friendship with Gertrude Elles began in 1891 when she went up to Newnham College where she obtained a First Class degree specializing in geology. Her first work was a study of rocks in the Lake District, suggested by Professor Marr and undertaken jointly with Elles. The results were published in the Geological Magazine in 1895. A year later, she went to Birmingham University as research assistant to Charles Lapworth. Two of her own publications from this period were especially important. The first was a 1900 paper on the Ludlow formations. The second was her paper on the Tarannon series published in 1906, almost a small monograph on those beds, which made plain their stratigraphic relationship to the better-known Upper Llandovery horizon. In 1904 she won the Wollaston Fund from the Geological Society and the following year she was elected an Associate of Newnham College. She became a Fellow of the Geological Society in 1919 and the following year, shortly after the last part of the monograph came out, was awarded the Murchison Medal. Like Marie Stopes, she gained national recognition not for her geological work but for her social activities, specifically her efforts during World War I. For her public service she received an MBE in 1918 and a DBE in 1920. She died of cancer in 1946.

Thanks to the pioneer work of these women, the 20th century saw the slow but firm advance of women from the periphery of science towards the center of it.


Burek, C.V., and J.A. Malpas, (2007). “Rediscovering and conserving the Lower Paleolithic ‘treasures’ of Ethel Woods (née Skeat) and Margaret Crosfield in northeast Wales.” In Cynthia V. Burek and Bettie Higgs, eds., The Role of Women in the History of Geology. London: Geological Society, Special Publications, vol. 281, pp. 203–226.

C. V. Burek (2007). The role of women in geological higher education – Bedford College, London (Catherine Raisin) and Newnham College, Cambridge, UK, Geological Society, London, Special Publications, eds Burek C. V., Higgs B. 281, pp 9–38. 

Creese, Mary R. S.; Creese, Thomas M. (2009). “British women who contributed to research in the geological sciences in the nineteenth century”. The British Journal for the History of Science. 27 (01): 23. doi:10.1017/S0007087400031654

An avian vocal organ from the Mesozoic.

The Vegavis iaai specimen showing the location of the syrinx. (Adapted from Clarke et al., 2016)

The Vegavis iaai specimen showing the location of the syrinx. (Adapted from Clarke et al., 2016)

Birds originated from a theropod lineage more than 150 million years ago. Their evolutionary history is one of the most enduring and fascinating debates in paleontology. In recent years, several discovered fossils of theropods and early birds have filled the morphological, functional, and temporal gaps along the line to modern birds. The earliest diversification of extant birds (Neornithes) occurred during the Cretaceous period and after the mass extinction event at the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) boundary, the Neoaves, the most diverse avian clade, suffered a rapid global expansion and radiation. Today, with more than 10500 living species, birds are the most species-rich class of tetrapod vertebrates.

In the mid-nineteenth century, T. H. Huxley recognized that birds were most closely related to dinosaurs. He also named the unique vocal organ in birds as the syrinx. Located at the base of a bird’s trachea, the syrinx consists of specialised cartilaginous structures, connective tissue masses, membranes and muscles. The oldest known remains of a syrinx was found within the fossilised, partial skeleton of a bird, known as Vegavis iaai, from the Late Cretaceous (66 mya) of Antarctica.

Vegavis iaai by Gabriel Lio. / Photo: CONICET

Vegavis iaai by Gabriel Lio. / Photo: CONICET

The Vegavis iaai holotype specimen from Vega Island, western Antarctica, was discovered in 1992 by a team from the Argentine Antarctic Institute, but was only described as a new species in 2005 (Clarke et al., 2005). It belonged to the clade Anseriformes, a group that includes ducks, geese and swans. Vegavis exhibits the fusion of cartilage rings and asymmetry between the left and right sides of the syrinx, that are useful for making comparisons with structural data from the present-day birds. Fused rings in Vegavis form a well-mineralized pessulus, a derived neognath bird feature, proposed to anchor enlarged vocal folds or labia. Although mineralized structures of the syrinx in Vegavis and many parts of extant Anatidae show asymmetry, Presbyornis, Chauna and Galliformes lack this feature. The absence of known tracheobronchial remains in all other Mesozoic dinosaurs may be indicative that a complex syrinx was a late arising feature in the evolution of birds, well after the origin of flight and respiratory innovations.



Julia A. Clarke, Sankar Chatterjee, Zhiheng Li, Tobias Riede, Federico Agnolin, Franz Goller, Marcelo P. Isasi, Daniel R. Martinioni, Francisco J. Mussel and Fernando E. Novas. Fossil evidence of the avian vocal organ from the Mesozoic. Nature, 2016 DOI: 10.1038/nature19852

Clarke, J. A., C. P. Tambussi, J. I. Noriega, G. M. Erickson, and R. A. Ketcham. 2005. Definitive fossil evidence for the extant avian radiation in the Cretaceous. Nature 433:305-308.

Larsen, O. N.; Franz Goller (2002). “Direct observation of syringeal muscle function in songbirds and a parrot”. The Journal of Experimental Biology. 205 (Pt 1): 25–35.

Xing Xu, Zhonghe Zhou, Robert Dudley, Susan Mackem, Cheng-Ming Chuong, Gregory M. Erickson, David J. Varricchio, An integrative approach to understanding bird origins, Science, Vol. 346 no. 6215, DOI: 10.1126/science.1253293.

A brief history of Pterosaurs.


Holotype specimen of Pterodactylus antiquus,

Pterodactylus antiquus, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA (From Wikipedia Commons)

In 1784, Cosimo Alessandro Collini, a former secretary of Voltaire and curator of the natural history cabinet of Karl Theodor, Elector of Palatinate and Bavaria, published the first scientific description of a pterosaur. The specimen came from one of the main sources of such fossils, the Late Jurassic lithographic limestones of northern Bavaria, and Collini, after much deliberation, interpreted it as the skeleton of an unknown marine creature. In 1801, on the basis of Collini’s description, George Cuvier identified the mysterious animal as a flying reptile. He later coined the name “Ptero-Dactyle”. This discovery marked the beginning of pterosaur research.

Pterosaurs are an extinct monophyletic clade of ornithodiran archosauromorph reptiles from the Late Triassic to Late Cretaceous. The group achieved high levels of morphologic and taxonomic diversity during the Mesozoic, with more than 150 species recognized so far. Pterosaurs have traditionally been divided into two major groups, “rhamphorhynchoids” and “pterodactyloids”. Rhamphorhynchoids are characterized by a long tail, and short neck and metacarpus. Pterodactyloids have a much larger body size range, an elongated neck and metacarpus, and a relatively short tail. Darwinopterus from the early Late Jurassic of China appear to be a transitionary stage that partially fills the morphological gap between rhamphorhynchoids and pterodactyloids.

The fossil remains of the animal kingdom London :Whittaker, Treacher,1830.

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

The second pterosaur to be discovered also came from the Solnhofen Limestone and was named Ornithocephalus brevirostris by Samuel Thomas von Sömmerring in 1817. The specimen was even smaller than Pterodactylus antiquus, with a wingspan of only 25 cm. On December of 1828, Mary Anning 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 animal had a wingspan of around 1.4 m with an elongate tail. The specimen was twice the size of Pterodactylus antiquus. 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 the 1850s, another specimen was found, this time with a skull at Lyme and another skull was found later. The skulls of the Lyme Regis pterosaurs bore no resemblance to those of the Solnhofen Limestone in Germany, so Richard Owen erected the new generic name Dimorphodon (Martill, 2013).

Water colour by the Reverend G. E. Howman (From Martill 2015)

Water colour by the Reverend G. E. Howman (From Martill 2015)

In 1829 the Reverend George Howman painted the earliest restoration of a pterosaur. The watercolour also incorporates a ruined castle and a ship, but amazingly predicts aspects of the anatomy of pterosaurs not brought to light by fossils discovered until a few decades later. There’s little doubt that the watercolour by Howman was intended to represent the Pterodactylus discovered by Mary Anning. A label on the back of the work reads: ‘By the Revd G. Howman from Dr [Burckhardt’s] account of a flying dragon found at Lyme Regis supposed to be noctivagous’ . The watercolour Duria Antiqior by Henry de la Beche, also represents several pterosaurs flitting over a scene of ichthyosaur and plesiosaur, representing the Liassic Sea based on fossils found by Mary Anning.

Skull of Pteranodon sp. in the American Museum of Natural History (From Wikipedia Commons)

Skull of Pteranodon sp. in the American Museum of Natural History (From Wikipedia Commons)

In 1845, James Scott Bowerbank exhibited a portion of the snout of ‘a new and gigantic species of Pterodactyl’ at a meeting of the Geological Society of London. The specimen was named Pterodactylus giganteus. He also considered that many of the bones described as avian by Richard Owen, were most likely to be from ‘pterodactyls’.

The discovery of Pteranodon by O.C. Marsh in 1870, eclipsed previous pterosaur discoveries. Pteranodon was the first pterosaur found outside of Europe. Marsh’s discoveries were made in the Late Cretaceous Smoky Hill Chalk deposits of western Kansas. Prior to this discovery, the largest pterosaur fossils known were fragmentary remains from the Cretaceous Chalk of southern England. Edward Drinker Cope, Marsh’s rival, also unearthed several specimens of large North American pterosaur.

Quetzalcoatlus skeleton. (Image Credit: Texas Tech University)

Quetzalcoatlus skeleton. (Image Credit: Texas Tech University)

The first evidence of non-American pterosaurs that rivalled Pteranodon in size was made by C. A. Arambourg around 1940. The specimen was named Titanopteryx philidelphiae. But it was not until the 1970s, that relatively frequent discoveries of giant pterosaurs began again. In 1971,  Douglas A. Lawson, a geology graduate student from the University of Texas, found a 544-mm long humerus and other elements of a huge wing in the Maastrichtian Javelina Formation of Texas. The specimen was named Quetzalcoatlus after the Mexican deity Quetzalcoatl, who was worshipped by the Aztecs in the form of a feathered snake. In 1975, Lawson reidentified Arambourg’s pterosaur metacarpal as a cervical vertebra from a Quetzalcoatlus-like animal, and one with similar proportions to Quetzalcoatlus northropi.


Illustration from the original serialization of The Lost World.

Jules Verne was the first to introduce Pterosaurs into popular fiction in his novel ”Journey to the Centre of the Earth”, published in France in 1874. In “The Lost World” written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which appeared in The Strand Magazine from April through November of 1912, pterosaurs are central figures. At the beginning of the novel, Professor George Edward Challenger claims to have captured and subsequently lost, a living specimen in South America. After being ridiculed for years, he invites E. Malone, a reporter for the Daily Gazette, Professor Summerlee and Lord John Roxton, an adventurer who knows the Amazon to join him to a trip to South America and prove his story. Later, the crew were attacked by pterodactyls in a swamp. Doyle compares the place with one of the Seven Circles of Dante and described as followed: “The place was a rookery of pterodactyls. There were hundreds of them congregated within view. All the bottom area round the water-edge was alive with their young ones, and with hideous mothers brooding upon their leathery, yellowish eggs”. Doyle completes the scenes by describing the males: “Their huge, membranous wings were closed by folding their fore-arms, so that they sat like gigantic old women, wrapped in hideous web-coloured shawls, and with their ferocious heads protruding above them. Large and small, not less than a thousand of these filthy creatures lay in the hollow before us”.

The Lost World novel has been so immensely popular that it has had a lasting effect, and has contributed significantly to the fascination with dinosaurs and pterodactyls. In 1994, Arthurdactylus a genus of pterodactyloid pterosaur from the Lower Cretaceous  of Brazil was named in honor of Arthur Conan Doyle.


Martill, D.M., 2010. The early history of pterosaur discovery in Great Britain. In: Moody, R.T.J., Buffetaut, E., Naish, D., Martill, D.M. (Eds.), Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Saurians: A Historical Perspective. Geological Society, London, Special Publications 343, 287–311.

Martill, D.M., Dimorphodon and the Reverend George Howman’s noctivagous flying dragon: the earliest restoration of a pterosaur in its natural habitat. Proc. Geol. Assoc. (2013),

Martill, D. M, and Pointon, Tony, Dr Arthur Conan Doyle’s contribution to the popularity of pterodactyls, Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 375, 2013, doi:10.1144/SP375.19

WITTON, M. P., 2010 Pteranodon and beyond: the history of giant pterosaurs from 1870 onwards. In: Moody, R.T.J., Buffetaut, E., Naish, D., Martill, D.M. (Eds.), Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Saurians: A Historical Perspective. Geological Society, London, Special Publications 343, 287–311.

P. Taquet, K. Padian, The earliest known restoration of a pterosaur and the philosophical origins of Cuvier’s Ossemens Fossiles, C. R. Palevol 3 (2004).

The Early Aptian Oceanic Anoxic Event.


The Early Cretaceous (Aptian Age), 120 Ma.

The geological records show that large and rapid global warming events occurred repeatedly during the course of Earth history. The growing concern about modern climate change has accentuated interest in understanding the causes and consequences of these ancient abrupt warming events. The early Aptian Oceanic Anoxic Event (OAE1a, 120 Ma) represents a geologically brief time interval characterized by rapid global warming, dramatic changes in ocean circulation including widespread oxygen deficiency, and profound changes in marine biotas. During the event, black shales were deposited in all the main ocean basins. It was also associated with the calcification crisis of the nannoconids, the most ubiquitous planktic calcifiers during the Early Cretaceous. Their near disappearance is one of the most significant events in the nannoplankton fossil record.


Scanning electron microscope photos of different nannofossil assemblages from Early Cretaceous chalks from the North Sea (adapted from Mutterlose & Bottini, 2013)

Calcareous nannoplankton represent a major component of oceanic phytoplankton. Their calcareous skeletons can be found in fine-grained pelagic sediments in high concentrations and the biomineralization of coccoliths is a globally significant rock-forming process. The ‘nannoconid decline’ is related to the emplacement of the Ontong Java Plateau (OJP). The  CO2 released by the flood basalts was the main player in the climatic events. However, records from the Pacific and Tethys realms demonstrate that during OAE 1a the  major shift in global oceanic osmium composition occurs well after the onset of the nannoconid crisis. Previous studies argued that the nannoconid crisis was caused by ocean acidification due to numerous pulses of CO2 and methane. The Ontong Java Plateau is a massive, submerged seafloor.  It covers an area of about 1,900,000 square kilometers. It  was emplaced ca. 120 Ma, with a much smaller magmatic pulse of ca. 90 Ma. The CO2 release was too late, and too gradual, to have caused the calcification crisis in the nannoconids by ocean acidification


Naafs, B. D. A. et al., Gradual and sustained carbon dioxide release during Aptian Oceanic Anoxic Event 1a, Nature Geosci. (2016)

Jenkyns, H. C. (2010), Geochemistry of oceanic anoxic events, Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst., 11, Q03004, doi:10.1029/2009GC002788.

Sea level regulated tetrapod diversity dynamics through the Jurassic/Cretaceous interval.

The Jurassic/Cretaceous Boundary

Map of the Jurassic/Cretaceous Boundary by C. Scotese.

The Jurassic/Cretaceous (J/K) boundary, 145 Myr ago, remains as the less understood of major Mesozoic stratigraphic boundaries. Sedimentological, palynological and geochemical studies, indicate a climatic shift from predominantly arid to semi arid conditions in the latest Jurassic to more amicable humid conditions in the earliest Cretaceous. The continued fragmentation of Pangaea across the Late Jurassic and Early Cretaceous led to large-scale tectonic processes, on both regional and global scale, accompanied by some of the largest volcanic episodes in the history of the Earth; eustatic oscillations of the sea level; potentially heightened levels of anoxia, oceanic stagnation, and sulphur toxicity; along with two purported oceanic anoxic events in the Valanginian and Hauterivian. There’s also evidence of three large bolide impacts in the latest Jurassic, one of which might have been bigger than the end-Cretaceous Chicxulub impact.

Painting of a late Jurassic Scene on one of the large island in the Lower Saxony basin in northern Germany (From Wikimedia Commons)

Painting of a late Jurassic Scene on one of the large island in the Lower Saxony basin in northern Germany (From Wikimedia Commons)

The J/K interval represents a period of elevated extinction, and involves the persistent loss of diverse lineages, and the origins of many major groups that survived until the present day (e.g. birds). The magnitude of this drop in diversity ranges from around 33% for ornithischians to 75–80% loss for theropods and pterosaurs. Mammals suffered an overall loss of  diversity of 69%. Crocodyliforms suffered a major  decline across the Jurassic/Cretaceous boundary in both the marine and terrestrial realms; while non-marine turtles declined by 33% of diversity through the J/K boundary. In contrast, lepidosauromorphs greatly increased in diversity (48%) across the J/K boundary, reflecting the diversification of major extant squamate clades, including Lacertoidea, Scincoidea and Iguania.

In the marine realm, sauropterygians and ichthyosaurs show evidence for a notable decline in diversity across the J/K boundary, which continued into the Hauterivian for both groups.

Stratigraphic ranges of major Jurassic–Cretaceous theropod (A), sauropod (B), and ornithischian (C) dinosaur clades through the Middle Jurassic to Early Cretaceous (From Tennant et al,. 2016)

Stratigraphic ranges of major Jurassic–Cretaceous theropod (A), sauropod (B), and ornithischian (C) dinosaur clades through the Middle Jurassic to Early Cretaceous (From Tennant et al,. 2016)

Eustatic sea level is the principal mechanism controlling the Jurassic–Cretaceous diversity of tetrapods. Rising sea levels leads to greater division of landmasses through creation of marine barriers, modifying the spatial distribution of near-shore habitats and affecting the species–area relationship, which can lead to elevated extinctions. This fragmentation can also be a potential driver of biological and reproductive isolation and allopatric speciation, the combination of which we would expect to see manifest in the diversity signal. Additionally, the diversity of fully marine taxa was more probably affected by the opening and closure of marine dispersal corridors, whereas that of terrestrial and coastal taxa was more probably dependent on the availability of habitable ecosystems, including the extent of continental shelf area (Tennant, et al., 2016).


Tennant J,P., Mannion P. D., Upchurch P., Sea level regulated tetrapod diversity dynamics through the Jurassic/Cretaceous interval, Nature Communications, ISSN: 2041-1723 DOI: 10.1038/ncomms12737

Tennant, J. P., Mannion, P. D., Upchurch, P., Sutton, M. D. and Price, G. D. (2016), Biotic and environmental dynamics through the Late Jurassic–Early Cretaceous transition: evidence for protracted faunal and ecological turnover. Biol Rev. doi:10.1111/brv.12255 

Butler, R. J., Benson, R. B. J., Carrano, M. T., Mannion, P. D. & Upchurch, P. Sea level, dinosaur diversity and sampling biases: investigating the ‘common cause’ hypothesis in the terrestrial realm. Proc. R. Soc. B 278, 1165–1170 (2011).

“Where No Dinosaur Has Gone Before”

The Starship Enterprise flies over an orange planet in 'The Man Trap,' the premiere episode of 'Star Trek,' which aired on September 8, 1966. (CBS via Getty Images)

The Starship Enterprise flies over an orange planet in ‘The Man Trap,’ the premiere episode of ‘Star Trek,’ which aired on September 8, 1966. (CBS via Getty Images)

Star Trek has been a cult phenomenon for decades. The Original Series premiered on September 8, 1966, and has spawned four successor shows starting in the 1980s and 13 feature films , comic books, novels and an animated series. Star Trek also influenced generations of viewers about advanced science and engineering. Of course, geology played an important role on the show. In the episode “That Which Survives”, we met the senior geologist D’Amato when the USS Enterprise investigates a planet similar to Earth . Unfortunately, D’Amato was soon killed by the hologram of a beautiful woman, Losira, the last survivor of a Kalandan outpost.

Lieutenant D'Amato, the senior geologist aboard the USS Enterprise serving under Captain James T. Kirk.

Lieutenant D’Amato, the senior geologist aboard the USS Enterprise serving under Captain James T. Kirk.

Every incarnation of Star Trek introduced several alien life forms, including the Gorn, a reptilian alien race, a common motif in mythology, folklore, science fiction, conspiracy theories, ufology, and cryptozoology. In the episode “Distant Origin” (Star Trek: Voyager, 1997), the Voth, an ancient civilization in the Delta Quadrant, discovered  the remains of a human Voyager crew member on the planet Hanon IV. Voth scientist Gegen believes he finally has confirmation of his “distant origin” theory. According to Gegen, the Voth actually migrated to the Delta Quadrant from an original planet far away. Later, we discovered that the Voth presumably descended from Parasaurolophus.

The episode, a metaphor for the relationship between Galileo Galilei and the Catholic Church, plays with the infamous “Dinosauroid  Hypothesis” (a.k.a. Sapient Dinosaurs). In the early 1980s, paleontologist Dale Russell, curator of vertebrate fossils at the National Museums of Canada, in Ottawa, speculates about a possible evolutionary path for Troodon, suggesting that it could have evolved into intelligent beings similar in body plan to humans. Troodon, a relatively small theropod, comparable in size to Deinonychus and Unenlagiahad a very large brain for its size, stereoscopic vision, raptorial hands and an enlarged sickle− shaped claw on the foot, indicative of a predatory lifestyle. In the novel First Frontier (Star Trek, Book 75) written by Diane Carey and Dr. James I. Kirkland, a paleontologist who discovered the famous Utahraptor, we found that the U.S.S. Enterprise is caught in an alternative reality where the Earth is a vast jungle-like paradise  ruled by the Clan Ru, an alien race, descendant of Earth’s raptor dinosaurs. The Clan Ru posses two fingers on each hand with an opposable thumb as in Russell’s model for Troodon evolution.

Sin título



Russell, D. A., & Séguin, R. 1982. “Reconstruction of the small Cretaceous theropod Stenonychosaurus inequalis and a hypothetical dinosauroid.” Syllogeus 37, 1-43.

Junchang Lü; Li Xu; Yongqing Liu; Xingliao Zhang; Songhai Jia; Qiang Ji (2010). “A new troodontid (Theropoda: Troodontidae) from the Late Cretaceous of central China, and the radiation of Asian troodontids.” Acta Palaeontologica Polonica. 55 (3): 381–388. doi:10.4202/app.2009.0047.

Diane Carey, James I. Kirkland, First Frontier (Star Trek, Book 75) Paperback, August 1, 1995.

A brief introduction to the Carnotaurus family tree.


Skull and neck of Carnotaurus sastrei

Skull and neck of Carnotaurus sastrei (From Novas et al., 2013)

The Abelisauridae represents the best-known carnivorous dinosaur group from Gondwana. Their fossil remains have been recovered in Argentina, Brazil, Morocco, Niger, Libya, Madagascar, India, and France. The oldest records of abelisauroid theropods are from the Early Jurassic. These ceratosaurian theropods exhibit spectacular cranial ornamentation in the form of horns and spikes; and strongly reduced forelimbs and hands. The group was erected by Jose Bonaparte with the description of  Abelisaurus Comahuensis. Although represented by relatively well-known skeletons, the phylogenetic relationships within abelisaurids remain debated. The Argentinean record of abelisauroid theropods begins in the Middle Jurassic (Eoabelisaurus mefi) and spans most of the Late Cretaceous, from Cenomanian (Ilokelesia, Xenotarsosaurus, and Ekrixinatosaurus) to Campanian–Maastrichtian (Abelisaurus, Carnotaurus, Aucasaurus, and Noasaurus).

Abelisauroidea has been divided into two main branches: the Noasauridae and the Abelisauridae. The Noasauridae are known from Cretaceous beds in northern Argentina, Madagascar, India, and Niger. They are small and slender with sizes that range from 1 to 3 metres in length. The best-preserved and most complete noasaurid is Masiakasaurus knopfleri from the Maastrichtian of Madagascar. The Abelisaurids are medium to large, robust animals, such as the Carnotaurus and the Majungasaurus of Madagascar. The group exhibits short, round snouts; thickened teeth; short, stocky arms; and highly reduced forearms.

Masiakasaurus on display at the Royal Ontario Museum.

Masiakasaurus on display at the Royal Ontario Museum.

Carnotaurus sastrei is the most advanced member of Abelisauridae. It was collected in the lower section of La Colonia Formation, Chubut Province, Argentina, by an expedition led by Argentinian paleontologist José Bonaparte. In 1985, Bonaparte published a note presenting Carnotaurus sastrei as a new genus and species and briefly describing the skull and lower jaw. The skull of Carnotaurus is complete, measuring 60 cm from the tip of the premaxillae to the distal tip of the paroccipital process. The most distinctive features of Carnotaurus are the two robust conical horns that extend from the frontals. The horns are dorsoventrally compressed, and 146 mm long on both sides. The dorsal surface of each horn is ornamented with a series of longitudinal grooves. Because relatively few abelisaurid braincases are known, the description of the Carnotaurus braincase is important for understanding the variability of this structure within the clade (Carabajal 2011). C. sastrei would have had a comparatively weak muscle-driven bite.

The forelimbs of Carnotaurus show an extreme reduction, proportionally greater than the reduction observed in tyrannosaurids, although the radius, ulna and humerus are very robust. The hand has four digits, including a large, conical-shaped metacarpal IV lacking an articulation for a phalanx.



Novas, F.E., et al., Evolution of the carnivorous dinosaurs during the Cretaceous: The evidence from Patagonia, Cretaceous Research (2013),

Bonaparte, José F.; Novas, Fernando E.; Coria, Rodolfo A. (1990). “Carnotaurus sastrei Bonaparte, the horned, lightly built carnosaur from the Middle Cretaceous of Patagonia”, Contributions in Science (Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County) 416.

Mazzetta, Gerardo V.; Fariña, Richard A.; Vizcaíno, Sergio F. (1998). “On the palaeobiology of the South American horned theropod Carnotaurus sastrei Bonaparte”, Gaia 15: 185–192.

Ruiz, Javier; Torices, Angélica; Serrano, Humberto; López, Valle (2011). “The hand structure of Carnotaurus sastrei (Theropoda, Abelisauridae): implications for hand diversity and evolution in abelisaurids”. Palaeontology 54 (6): 1271–1277.

Late Cretaceous and modern diatom ecology: implications for our changing oceans

Sin título

Photomicrographs of diatom resting spores. Scale bars =10 mm (From Davies and Kemp, 2016)

Diatoms are unicellular algae with golden-brown photosynthetic pigments with a fossil record that extends back to Early Jurassic. They live in aquatic environments, soils, ice, attached to trees or anywhere with humidity, and their remains accumulate forming diatomite, a type of soft sedimentary rock. The most distinctive feature of diatoms is their siliceous skeleton known as frustule that comprise two valves. The formation of this opaline frustule is linked  in modern oceans with the biogeochemical cycles of silicon and carbon.

Past fluctuations in global temperatures are crucial to understand Earth’s climatic evolution. During the Late Cretaceous the global climate change has been associated with episodes of outgassing from major volcanic events, orbital cyclicity and tectonism before ending with the cataclysm caused by a large bolide impact at Chicxulub, on the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico. Following a major diatom radiation after the Cenomanian-Turonian anoxic event, the development of the first extensive diatomites provides the earliest widespread geological evidence for the rise to prominence of diatoms in ocean biogeochemistry. Studies of the greenhouse Cretaceous climates are especially topical since such warm, high CO2 periods of the past are often invoked as potential analogues for present warming trends (Davies and Kemp, 2016).

A. Chain of Stephanopyxis turri (From

A. Chain of Stephanopyxis turri (From Davies and Kemp, 2016)

Because their abundance and sensitivity to different parameters,  diatoms play a key role in Paleoceanography, particularly for evidence of climatic cooling and changing sedimentation rates in the Arctic and Antarctic oceans and to estimate sea surface temperature. Like Stephanopyxis, a common planktonic genus in the present oceans distinguished by its long stratigraphic range from the Albian to modern. Stephanopyxis can be found in tropical or warm water regions and evidence suggests a similar ecological adaptation during the Cretaceous. Meanwhile, resting spore development is generally associated with the onset of unfavourable environmental conditions and sporulation generally occurs in response to a sudden change in one or more environmental factors.

Since the start of the Industrial Revolution the anthropogenic release of CO2 into the Earth’s atmosphere has increased a 40%. In this context, warming of the present surface ocean is  leading to increased stratification in both hemispheres. Based on traditional views of diatom ecology, ocean stratification would  lead to decreased diatom production and a reduced effectiveness of the marine biological carbon pump. But recent ocean surveys, and records of the stratified seas of the Late Cretaceous, suggest that increased stratification may lead to increased rather than decreased diatom production and export. This would then result in a negative-rather than positive feedback to global warming (Davies and Kemp, 2016).



A. Davies, A.E.S. Kemp, Late Cretaceous seasonal palaeoclimatology and diatom palaeoecology from laminated sediments, Cretaceous Research 65 (2016) 82-111

Martin, R. E. and Quigg, A. 2012 Evolving Phytoplankton Stoichiometry Fueled Diversification of the Marine Biosphere. Geosciences. Special Issue on Paleontology and Geo/Biological Evolution. 2:130-146.

Forgotten women of Paleontology: Erika von Hoyningen-Huene

Erika von Huene in the lates 1920s at the Tuebingen University.

Erika von Huene at the Tuebingen University.

Erika Martha von Hoyningen-Huene was born in Tübingen, Germany, on September 30, 1905.  Descendant of a noble Baltic German family, Erika grew up in a deeply religious home. Her father,  Professor Dr Friedrich Freiherr (Baron) von Hoyningen, better known as Friedrich von Huene (1875–1969), was a world expert palaeontologist, whose life and research were strongly influenced by his beliefs. Von Huene wrote several books, papers and articles, spanning 65 years, but he never gained a full professorial position. Instead, he took the position of  Konservator at the University of Tübingen. As a young girl, Erika helped her father in the Institute and Museum of Geology and Palaeontology and studied under his strong influence.

She was one of only two female vertebrate palaeontologists in the pre-World War II history of Germany.  She completed her doctorate under the supervision of Prof. Dr Edwin Hennig in 1933, the same year that Hitler came to power. She later contributed with George Gaylord Simpson with her pioneering work on early mammals. But  the Nazi regime affected her life and work. During those difficult years, her father used his influence to help persecuted colleagues, such as ‘Tilly’ Edinger. However, after the events that followed the infamous “Kristallnacht” (Night of the Broken Glass), Tilly Edinger’s paleontological career in Germany ended abruptly.

Friedrich on Huene contemplating the placement of a rib on a South African dicynodont specimen (From Turner 2009)

Friedrich von Huene contemplating the placement of a rib on a South African dicynodont specimen (From Turner 2009)

When World War II began, Erika moved to Berlin invited by her former professor Otto H. Schindewolf, and carried out some work for him in the geological survey. After the war ended, Erika lost her job. For a time, she assisted his father and published her last paper in 1949. Her last years were devoted to managing nursing homes in Tübingen and Berlin. She died in Berlin, almost a week after her father’s death, on April 9, 1969.

During her scientific career, Erika wrote only seven papers. She suffered the consequences of the discrimination against women in Germany and finally gave up. In the year that Erika gained her doctorate, promotion for women in Germany was denied and women in higher positions were downgraded, and by the time  the war ended and men returned to their jobs, most women returned to the “safety of their homes”.


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

S. Turner, 2009, Reverent and exemplary: ‘Dinosaur man’ Friedrich von Huene (1875-1969), Geological Society London Special Publications 310(1):223-243

Murusraptor barrosaensis, a new species in the megaraptorid clade.

Body reconstruction of Murusraptor barrosaensis (From Coria et al., 2016)

Body reconstruction of Murusraptor barrosaensis (From Coria et al., 2016)

Patagonia has yielded the most comprehensive fossil record of Cretaceous theropods from Gondwana, including Megaraptora, a clade of medium-sized and highly pneumatized theropods represented by Megaraptor, Orkoraptor and Aerosteon, and characterized by the formidable development of their manual claws on digits I and II and the transversely compressed and ventrally sharp ungual of the first manual digit (Novas et al, 2013). The enigmatic nature of this group has been a matter of discussion since the description of the first megaraptoran, Megaraptor namunhaiquii. For years, Megaraptor has been alternatively interpreted as belonging to different theropod lineages: as basal coelurosaurians (Novas,1998), basal tetanurans (Calvo et al.,2004; Smith et al., 2008), and allosauroids closely related with carcharodontosaurids (Smith et al., 2007; Benson et al., 2010; Carrano et al., 2012). The main reason for so many different interpretations is the incomplete nature of most available megaraptorid skeletons and the little information about their cranial anatomy.

Murusraptor barrosaensis, from the Upper Cretaceous of Neuquén Province, Argentina, belongs to a Patagonian radiation of megaraptorids together with Aerosteon, Megaraptor and Orkoraptor. Murusraptor, meaning “Wall Raptor”, was discovered in a canyon wall in 2001 during an expedition to Sierra Barrosa in northwestern Patagonia. The holotype specimen includes much of the skull, axial skeleton, pelvis and tibia. The braincase is intact and most of the sutures are still visible, indicating that this was not a fully mature animal.

Different appendicular elements of Murusraptor in their original burial positions (From Coria et al., 2016)

Different appendicular elements of Murusraptor in their original burial positions (From Coria et al., 2016)

Murusraptor barrosaensis is unique in having anterodorsal process of lacrimal longer than height of preorbital process; sacral ribs hollow and tubelike; short ischia distally flattened and slightly expanded dorsoventrally.

Murusraptor shares with all Megaraptoridae two unambiguous synapomorphies: teeth with no enamel wrinkles (interpreted as a reversion to primitive condition in Theropoda); and anterior caudal vertebrae with neural arch bearing prominent centrodiapophysial laminae that define a deep infradiapophysial fossa. Murusraptor also exhibits some characters that are interpreted as convergencies of this taxon with non-tyrannosauroid theropods, including lacrimal with a small pneumatic recess; and a highly pneumatic braincase (Coria et al., 2016)


Rodolfo A. Coria, Philip J. Currie. A New Megaraptoran Dinosaur (Dinosauria, Theropoda, Megaraptoridae) from the Late Cretaceous of Patagonia. PLOS ONE, 2016; 11 (7): e0157973 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0157973

Porfiri, J. D., Novas, F. E., Calvo, J. O., Agnolín, F. L., Ezcurra, M. D. & Cerda, I. A. 2014. Juvenile specimen of Megaraptor (Dinosauria, Theropoda) sheds light about tyrannosauroid radiation. Cretaceous Research 51: 35-55.