Introducing Asteriornis maastrichtensis


Three-dimensional image of the skull of Asteriornis maastrichtensis.
Image credit: Daniel J. Field, University of Cambridge

The earliest diversification of extant birds (Neornithes) occurred during the Cretaceous period. 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. A genome-scale molecular phylogeny indicates that nearly all modern ordinal lineages were formed within 15 million years after the extinction, suggesting a particularly rapid period of both genetic evolution and the formation of new species. Today, with more than 10500 living species, birds are the most species-rich class of tetrapod vertebrates. The description of a new neornithine from the Late Cretaceous of Belgium shed new light on the evolution of birds.

Asteriornis maastrichtensis is a small member of the clade Pangalloanserae, the group that includes Galliformes and Anseriformes, with an estimated body weight of about 400 grams. The holotype (NHMM, 2013 008) includes a nearly complete, articulated skull with mandibles, and associated postcranial remains preserved in four blocks. The new specimen, dated between 66.8 and 66.7 million years ago, was collected in 2000 by Maarten van Dinther. The generic name is derived from the name of the Asteria, the Greek goddess of falling stars, and the Greek word ornis for bird. The specific name maastrichtensis honors the provenance of the holotype, the Maastricht Formation (the type locality of the Late Cretaceous Maastrichtian stage).

Artist’s reconstruction of Asteriornis maastrichtensis.
Illustration: Phillip Krzeminski

Asteriornis exhibits caudally pointed nasals that overlie the frontals and meet at the midline of the skull, and a slightly rounded, unhooked tip of the premaxilla. The new specimen reveals a previously undocumented combination of ‘galliform’ and ‘anseriform’ features that emphasizes the modular nature of the skull and bill of crown birds. The narrow and elongate hindlimbs and provenance from nearshore marine sediments suggest that Asteriornis might have had a shorebird-like ecology.



Field, D.J., Benito, J., Chen, A. et al. Late Cretaceous neornithine from Europe illuminates the origins of crown birds. Nature 579, 397–401 (2020).

A Short History of the Early Female Geoscientists from Argentina

Mathilde Dolgopol de Saez. Image credit: Asociación Paleontológica Argentina (A.P.A.)

Women have played various and extensive roles in the history of geology. Unfortunately, their contribution has not been widely recognised by the public or academic researchers. In the 18th and 19th centuries women’s access to science was limited, and science was usually a ‘hobby’ for intelligent wealthy women. Early female scientists were often born into influential families, like Grace Milne, the eldest child of Louis Falconer and sister of the eminent botanist and palaeontologist, Hugh Falconer; or Mary Lyell, the daughter of the geologist Leonard Horner. They collected fossils and mineral specimens, and were allowed to attend scientific lectures, but they were barred from membership in scientific societies. 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.

Edelmira Inés Mórtola (1894-1973)

In Argentina, during the 1870s, public schools were organized and expanded for the training of teachers in different cities of the country. North American teachers were hired, some of whom promoted among their students the interest in pursuing university studies. Cecilia Grierson (1859-1934) was the first woman to earn a PhD in Medicine and Surgery in 1889. She was an important reference for other women, collaborating in the women’s movement in the early twentieth century.

The first papers in natural sciences signed by women were published around 1910. Edelmira Inés Mórtola was the first woman to earn her Ph. D in geology in Argentina, in 1921. She was also the first woman to work for the Dirección General de Minas, Geología, e Hidrología (DGMGH) in 1919. She focus on teaching and was an inspiring figure for young women. In 1924, she was appointed Professor at the Universidad de Buenos Aires (UBA). The Museum of Mineralogy “Dr. E. Mórtola “, that she helped to organize, honors her extraordinary career. She died on May 28, 1973.

Noemí Violeta Cattoi. Image credit: Asociación Paleontológica Argentina (A.P.A.)

Mathilde Dolgopol de Saez was born on March 6, 1901. She was one of the first female paleontologist from Argentina (graduated in 1927), along with Ana Cortelezzi (1928?), Dolores López Aranguren (1930), Andreína Bocchino de Ringuelet (1930?) y Enriqueta Vinacci Thul (1930). Unfortunately, only her thesis and the one of López Aranguren were formally published. The mayor part of her research was focused on fossil fish and birds. She died on June 27, 1957.

Noemí Violeta Cattoi was born in Buenos Aires on December 23, 1911. She received her PhD degree in Natural Science at the University of Buenos Aires, but before her graduation she was trained at the Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales. She was head of Paleozoology at the Museum, and adjunt professor at the Museo de la Plata. Her research was mainly focused on extinct birds and mammals from South America. She was also one of the founding member of the Asociación Paleontológica Argentina (A.P.A), along with María Bonetti de Stipanicic, Andreína B. de Ringuelet, Elsa F. de Alvarez and Hildebranda A. Castellaro. Noemí Cattoi died on January 29, 1965.


Rafael Herbst, Luisa M. Anzótegui, Las mujeres en la paleontología argentina, Revista del Museo de La Plata (2016) Volumen 1, Número Especial: 130-13 DOI:

GARCIA, Susana V.. Ni solas ni resignadas: la participación femenina en las actividades científico-académicas de la Argentina en los inicios del siglo XX. Cad. Pagu [online]. 2006, n.27, pp.133-172


Soft-tissue evidence in a Jurassic ichthyosaur.

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

In 1811, in Lyme Regis, one of the richest fossil locations in England and part of a geological formation known as the Blue Lias, Mary Anning and her brother Joseph unearthed the skull of an enigmatic ‘sea monster’. A year later, Mary uncovered the torso of the same specimen. The Annings sold the fossil to the Lord of the Manor of Colway, Mr. Henry Henley, for £23. The specimen was described by Sir Everard Home in 1814. Although no name was proposed for the fossil, Home concluded that it represented a transitional form between fish and crocodiles. Later, in 1819, the skeleton was purchased by Karl Dietrich Eberhard Koenig of the British Museum of London who suggested the name Ichthyosaur (“fish lizard”) in 1817.
Ichthyosaurs are extinct marine reptiles that first diversified near the end of the Early Triassic and remained one of the main predators in the Mesozoic ocean until their disappearance near the Cenomanian-Turonian boundary, 30 million years before the end-Cretaceous mass extinction. They had the largest eyes of all vertebrates, sometimes exceeding 25 cm in maximum diameter. They also have one of the earliest records of live-birth in amniotes.

Stenopterygius specimen from the Holzmaden quarry. Credit: Johan Lindgren

Stephen Jay Gould said that the ichthyosaur was his favourite example of convergent evolution: “Consider my candidate for the most astounding convergence of all: the ichthyosaur. This sea-going reptile with terrestrial ancestors converged so strongly on fishes that it actually evolved a dorsal fin and tail in just the right place and with just the right hydrological design. These structures are all the more remarkable because they evolved from nothing— the ancestral terrestrial reptile had no hump on its back or blade on its tail to serve as a precursor.”

During the Norian, the evolution of ichthyosaurs took a major turn, with the appearance of the clade Parvipelvia (ichthyosaurs with a small pelvic girdle). They were notably similar in appearance to extant pelagic cruisers such as odontocete whales. An exquisitely fossilized parvipelvian Stenopterygius from the Early Jurassic (Toarcian) of the Holzmaden quarry in southern Germany, indicates that their resemblance with dolphin and whales is more than skin deep.

Structure and chemistry of MH 432 blubber. From Lindgren et. al. 2018.

The specimen (MH 432; Urweltmuseum Hauff, Holzmaden, Germany) reveals endogenous cellular, sub-cellular and biomolecular constituents within relict skin and subcutaneous tissue. The external surface of the body is smooth, and was presumably comparable in life to the skin of extant cetaceans. The histological and microscopic examination of the fossil, evinced a multi-layered subsurface architecture. The approximately 100-μm-thick epidermis retains cell-like structures that are likely to represent preserved melanophores. The subcutaneous layer is over 500 μm thick, and comprises a glossy black material superimposed over a fibrous mat. The anatomical localization, chemical composition and fabric of the subcutaneous material is interpreted as fossilized blubber, a hallmark of warm-blooded marine amniotes.



Lindgren, J., Sjövall, P., Thiel, V., Zheng, W., Ito, S., Wakamatsu, K., … Schweitzer, M. H. (2018). Soft-tissue evidence for homeothermy and crypsis in a Jurassic ichthyosaur. Nature. doi:10.1038/s41586-018-0775-x

Motani, R. (2005). EVOLUTION OF FISH-SHAPED REPTILES (REPTILIA: ICHTHYOPTERYGIA) IN THEIR PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENTS AND CONSTRAINTS. Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences, 33(1), 395–420. doi:10.1146/

Introducing Jinguofortis perplexus.

Photograph of main slab of J. perplexus (Credit: Wang et al., 2018)

Birds originated from a theropod lineage more than 150 million years ago. By the Early Cretaceous, they diversified, evolving into a number of groups of varying anatomy and ecology. 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. Most of these fossils are from the Jehol Biota of northeastern China, dated between approximately 130.7 and 120 million years ago. The Jehol Biota provides an incredibly detailed picture of early birds, including Jeholornis, slightly more derived than Archaeopteryx, that lived with Sapeornis, Confuciusornis, and the earliest members of Enantiornithes and Ornithuromorpha. The clade Ornithothoraces (characterized by a keeled sternum, elongate coracoid, narrow furcula, and reduced hand) along with Jeholornithiformes, Confuciusornithiformes and Sapeornithiformes, form the clade Pygostylia. Basal members of this clade are essential to understand the evolution of the modern avian bauplan. The trait that gives the group its name is the presence of a pygostyle, a set of fused vertebrae at the end of the tail.

Jinguofortis perplexus gen. et sp. nov., from the Early Cretaceous of China, exhibits a mosaic combination of plesiomorphic nonavian theropod features like a fused scapulocoracoid and more derived traits, including the earliest evidence of reduction in manual digits among birds. The generic name is derived from “jinguo” (Mandarin), referring to female warrior, and “fortis” for brave (Latin). The specific name is derived from Latin “perplexus,” and highlights the combination of plesiomorphic and derived features present in the holotype specimen.

Holotype of J. perplexus. (Scale bar, 5 cm.) From Wang et al., 2018.

The holotype (IVPP V24194) was collected near the village of Shixia, Hebei Province, China. Biostratigraphic correlation confirms that the fossil-bearing horizon belongs to the Lower Cretaceous Dabeigou Formation of the Jehol Biota (127 ± 1.1 Ma). The holotype of Jinguofortis is subadult or adult given the bone histology, the presence of a fused carpometacarpus, tarsometatarsus, and pygostyle. The body mass estimated is 250.2 g, the wing span is 69.7 cm, with a wing area of 730 cm2.

Jinguofortis exhibits the following features: dentary with at least six closely packed teeth; scapula and coracoid fused into a scapulocoracoid in the adult; sternum ossified; deltopectoral crest of humerus large and not perforated; minor metacarpal strongly bowed caudally; minor digit reduced with manual phalangeal formula of 2–3-2; metatarsals III and IV subequal in distal extent; pedal phalanx II-2 with prominent heel proximally; and forelimb 1.15 times longer than hindlimb. The highly vascularized fibro-lamellar bone tissue indicates that Jinguofortis grew rapidly in early development, but the growth rate had slowed substantially by the time of death. The histology of Jinguofortis is comparable to that of Chongmingia and Confuciusornis, suggesting a similar growth pattern shared among these basal pygostylians. The phylogenetic analysis recovered Jinguofortis as the sister to Chongmingia. The clade uniting these two specimens is Jinguofortisidae, and constitutes the second most basal pygostylian lineage.

Forelimb of Jinguofortis. (A) Photograph. (B) Line drawing. (Scale bar, 1 cm.) From Wang et al., 2018.

Early avian flight clearly underwent a series of evolutionary experiments, as demonstrated by the diverse combination of plesiomorphic and derived features found among early extinct birds. The most striking primitive feature present in the flight apparatus of Jinguofortis is the fused scapulocoracoid, present predominantly in nonavian theropods. The convergently evolved scapulocoracoid in jinguornithids and confuciusornithiforms suggests that these basal clades likely reacquired a similar level of osteogenesis (or gene expression) present in their nonavian theropod ancestors.



Wang, M., Stidham, T. A., & Zhou, Z. (2018). A new clade of basal Early Cretaceous pygostylian birds and developmental plasticity of the avian shoulder girdle. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201812176. doi:10.1073/pnas.1812176115

A very short history of Dinosaurs.

Evolutionary relationships of dinosaurs. From Benton 2018.

On 20 February 1824, William Buckland published the first report of a large carnivore animal: the Megalosaurus. The description was based on specimens in the Ashmolean Museum, in the collection of Gideon Algernon Mantell of Lewes in Sussex, and a sacrum donated by Henry Warburton (1784–1858). One year later, the Iguanodon entered in the books of History followed by the description of Hylaeosaurus in 1833. After examined the anatomy of these three genera, Richard Owen erected the clade Dinosauria in 1842.

Dinosaurs likely originated in the Early to Middle Triassic. The closest evolutionary relatives of dinosaurs include flying pterosaurs and herbivorous silesaurids. Early ecological divergences in dinosaur evolution are signaled by disparity in dental morphology, which indicates carnivory in early theropods, herbivory in ornithischians, and omnivory in sauropodomorph (subsequently sauropodomorphs underwent a transition to herbivory).

Eoraptor lunensis, outcropping from the soil. Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley), Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, Provincia de San Juan, Argentina.

The oldest dinosaurs remains are from the late Carnian (230 Ma) of the lower Ischigualasto Formation in northwestern Argentina. Similarly, the Santa Maria and Caturrita formations in southern Brazil preserve basal dinosauromorphs, basal saurischians, and early sauropodomorphs. In North America, the oldest dated occurrences of vertebrate assemblages with dinosaurs are from the Chinle Formation. Two further early dinosaur-bearing formations, are the lower (and upper) Maleri Formation of India and the Pebbly Arkose Formation of Zimbabwe. These skeletal records of early dinosaurs document a time when they were not numerically abundant, and they were still of modest size.

During the Late Triassic period numerous extinctions, diversifications and faunal radiations changed the ecosystems dynamics throughout the world. Nevertheless, dinosaurs exhibited high rates of survival. According to the competitive model, the success of dinosaurs was explained in terms of their upright posture, predatory skills, or warm-bloodedness. In the opportunistic model, dinosaurs emerged in the late Carnian or early Norian, and then diversified explosively. The current model contains some aspects of both the classic competition model and the opportunistic model. In this model, the crurotarsan-dominated faunas were replaced by a gradual process probably accelerated by the ecological perturbation of the CPE (Carnian Pluvial Episode).

Ingentia prima outcropping from the soil.

In the Jurassic and Cretaceous dinosaurs achieved enormous disparity. Sauropodomorphs achieved a worldwide distribution and become more graviportal and increased their body size. Gigantism in this group has been proposed as the result of a complex interplay of anatomical, physiological and reproductive intrinsic traits. For example, the upright position of the limbs has been highlighted as a major feature of the sauropodomorph bauplan considered an adaptation to gigantism. However, the discovery of Ingentia prima, from the Late Triassic of Argentina, indicates that this feature was not strictly necessary for the acquisition of gigantic body size.

Ornithischian were primitively bipedal, but reverted to quadrupedality on at least three occasions: in Ceratopsia, Thyreophora and Hadrosauriformes. The presence of early armored dinosaurs (thyreophorans) in North America, Asia, and Europe, but their absent from the southern African record, suggests some degree of provinciality in early ornithischian faunas.

Archaeopteryx lithographica, specimen displayed at the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin. (From Wikimedia Commons)

Theropod dinosaurs also increased their diversity and exhibit a greater range of morphological disparity. The group underwent multiple parallel increases in brain size. The volumetric expansion of the avian endocranium began relatively early in theropod evolution. For instance, the endocranium of Archaeopteryx lithographica is volumetrically intermediate between those of more basal theropods and crown birds. The digital brain cast of Archaeopteryx also present an indentation that could be from the wulst, a neurological structure present in living birds used in information processing and motor control with two primary inputs: somatosensory and visual. The extensive skeletal pneumaticity in theropods such as Majungasaurus demonstrates that a complex air-sac system and birdlike respiration evolved in birds’ theropod ancestors. Anatomical features like aspects of egg shape, ornamentation, microstructure, and porosity of living birds trace their origin to the maniraptoran theropods, such as oviraptorosaurs and troodontids. In addition, some preserving brooding postures, are known for four oviraptorosaurs, two troodontids, a dromaeosaur, and one basal bird providing clear evidence for parental care of eggs.

Nonavian dinosaurs disappeared more or less abruptly at the end of the Cretaceous (66 mya). Birds, the only living dinosaurs, with more than 10,500 living species are the most species-rich class of tetrapod vertebrates.



Benson, R. B. J. (2018). Dinosaur Macroevolution and Macroecology. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics, 49(1).  doi:10.1146/annurev-ecolsys-110617-062231

Michael J. Benton et al. The Carnian Pluvial Episode and the origin of dinosaurs, Journal of the Geological Society (2018). DOI: 10.1144/jgs2018-049

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.


Introducing Caelestiventus hanseni.

A 3D printed model of Caelestiventus skull.

Pterosaurs were the first flying vertebrates appearing initially in Late Triassic. The group achieved high levels of morphologic and taxonomic diversity during the Mesozoic, with more than 200 species recognized so far. From the Late Triassic to the end of the Cretaceous, the evolution of pterosaurs resulted in a variety of eco-morphological adaptations, as evidenced by differences in skull shape, dentition, neck length, tail length and wing span. Because of the fragile nature of their skeletons the fossil record of pterosaurs is strongly biased towards marine and lacustrine depositional environments. Therefore, Triassic pterosaurs are extraordinarily rare and consists of fewer than 30 specimens, including single bones. With the single exception of Arcticodactylus cromptonellus from fluvial deposits in Greenland, the other specimens are known from marine strata in the Alps.

Pterosaurs have 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.

a, Schematic silhouette of a dimorphodontid pterosaur in dorsal view. b, Preserved skull and mandible elements of C. hanseni. From Brooks B. Britt et al., 2018.

Caelestiventus hanseni, from the Upper Triassic of North America, is the oldest pterosaur ever discovered, and it predates all known desert pterosaurs by more than 65 million years. The generic name comes from the Latin language: caelestis, ‘heavenly or divine’, and ventus, ‘wind’. The species name, ‘hanseni’, honors Robin L. Hansen, a geologist, who facilitated work at the Saints & Sinners Quarry.

The holotype, BYU 20707, includes the left maxilla fused with the jugal, the right maxilla, the right nasal, the fused frontoparietals, the right and left mandibular rami, the right terminal wing phalanx and three fragments of indeterminate bones. The maxilla, jugal, frontoparietal, and mandibular rami of the specimen are pneumatic. The unfused skull and mandibular elements suggest that BYU 20707 was skeletally immature or had indeterminate growth. Based on the relationship between the length of the terminal wing phalanges and wing span in other non-pterodactyloid pterosaurs the new taxon would have a wing span greater than 1.5 m.

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

Caelestiventus hanseni is placed as sister taxon to Dimorphodon macronyx. Both share the following derived features: a ventral blade along the dentary that forms a rostral keel and becomes a flange distally; a diastema between the second large mandibular tooth and the following smaller teeth; the overall morphology of the maxilla; the shape of the external naris and antorbital fenestra; the external naris by far the largest skull opening; the orbit smaller than the antorbital fenestra; and teeth with bicuspid apices. But despite their morphological similarity, C. hanseni and D. macronyx lived in very different environments. Dimorphodon, discovered by Mary Anning, was an island dweller in a humid climate and was preserved in the marine Blue Lias of southern England.

The significance of C. hanseni lies in its exceptional state of preservation, and its close phylogenetic relationship with Dimorphodon macronyx, indicating that dimorphodontids originated by the Late Triassic and survived the end-Triassic extinction event.



Brooks B. Britt et al. Caelestiventus hanseni gen. et sp. nov. extends the desert-dwelling pterosaur record back 65 million years, Nature Ecology & Evolution (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41559-018-0627-y

Ingentia prima, the first giant

Skeletal anatomy of Ingentia prima (From Apaldetti et al., 2018)

During the Late Triassic period numerous extinctions, diversifications and faunal radiations changed the ecosystem dynamics throughout the world. Followed the extinction of rhynchosaurs in most, or all, parts of the world, there was a burst of dinosaurian diversity in the late Carnian, represented by the upper Ischigualasto Formation and coeval units, with mostly carnivorous small- to medium-sized dinosaurs. Then, the long span of the early Norian, from 228.5–218 Ma, during which dicynodonts and sauropodomorph dinosaurs were the major herbivores.

Sauropods evolved from small, gracile, bipedal forms, and it was long thought that acquisition of giant body size in this clade occurred during the Jurassic and was linked to several skeletal modifications. Ingentia prima — literally the “first giant” in Latin — from the Late Triassic of Argentina shed new lights on the origin of gigantism in this group. The holotype, PVSJ 1086, composed of six articulated posterior cervical vertebrae, glenoid region of right scapula and right forelimb lacking all phalanges, has been recovered from the southern outcrops of the Quebrada del Barro Formation, northwestern Argentina. Discovered in 2015 by Diego Abelín and a team led by Cecilia Apaldetti of CONICET-Universidad Nacional de San Juan, Argentina, this new fossil weighed up to 11 tons and measured up to 32 feet (10 meters) long.

Bones of Ingentia prima (Image credit: Cecilia Apaldetti, CONICET-Universidad Nacional de San Juan, Argentina)

Ingentia was unearthed with three new specimens of Lessemsaurus sauropoides. The four dinosaurs belongs to the clade Lessemsauridae, that differs from all other Sauropodomorpha dinosaurs in possessing robust scapulae with dorsal and ventral ends equally expanded; slit-shaped neural canal of posterior dorsal vertebrae; anterior dorsal neural spines transversely expanded towards the dorsal end; a minimum transverse shaft width of the first metacarpal greater than twice the minimum transverse shaft of the second metacarpal; and bone growth characterized by the presence of thick zones of highly vascularized fibrolamellar bone, within a cyclical growth pattern.

The age of the oldest lessemsaurid (mid-Norian) indicates the appearance of an early trend towards large body size at least 15 Myr earlier than previously thought. For a long time, gigantism in eusauropods has been proposed as the result of a complex interplay of anatomical, physiological and reproductive intrinsic traits. For example, the upright position of the limbs has been highlighted as a major feature of the sauropodomorph bauplan considered an adaptation to gigantism. However Lessemsaurids lacked the purported adaptations related to a fully erect forelimb and the marked modifications of the hindlimb lever arms in eusauropods, showing that these features were not strictly necessary for the acquisition of gigantic body size. Another feature interpreted as a key acquisition was the elongated neck. However, lessemsaurids also lacked an elongated neck as they had proportionately short cervical vertebrae, indicating that the neck elongation was not a prerequisite for achieving body sizes comparable to those of basal eusauropods or gravisaurians.



Cecilia Apaldetti, Ricardo N. Martínez, Ignacio A. Cerda, Diego Pol and Oscar Alcober (2018). An early trend towards gigantism in Triassic sauropodomorph dinosaurs. Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Mary Anning, ‘the greatest fossilist the world ever knew’.

Duria Antiquior famous watercolor by the geologist Henry de la Beche based on fossils found by Mary Anning. From Wikimedia Commons.

By the 19th century, the study of the Earth became central to the economic and cultural life of Great Britain. 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. England was ruled by an elite, and of course, these scholarly activities only occurred within the upper echelon of British society. Notwithstanding, the most famous fossilist of the 19th century was a women of a low social station: Mary Anning.

Mary Anning 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 that they sold as “curiosities”. The source of those fossils was the coastal cliffs around Lyme Regis, part of a geological formation known as the Blue Lias.

The shore of Lyme Bay where Mary Anning did most of her collecting.

Invertebrate fossils, like ammonoids or belemnites, were the most common findings. But when Mary was 12, her brother Joseph found a skull protruding from a cliff and few month later, Mary found the rest of the skeleton. 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.

In 1819 the Annings were in considerable financial difficulties. They were rescued by the generosity of Thomas James Birch (1768–1829), who arranged for the sale of his personal collection, largely purchased from the Annings, in Bullock’s Museum in London. The auction took place in May 1820, during which Georges Cuvier bought several pieces for the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle.

Mary Anning’s sketch of belemnites. From original manuscripts held at the Natural History Museum, London. © The Natural History Museum, London

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.

Autograph letter about the discovery of plesiosaurus, by Mary Anning. From original manuscripts held at the Natural History Museum, London. © The Natural History Museum, London

By the age of 27, Mary was the owner of a little shop: Anning’s Fossil Depot. Many scientist and fossil collectors from around the globe went to Mary´s shop. She was friend of Henry De la Beche, the first director of the Geological Survey of Great Britain, who knew Mary since they were both children and lived in Lyme Regis. De la Beche was a great supporter of Mary’s work. She also corresponded with Charles Lyell, William Buckland and Mary Morland, Adam Sedgwick and Sir Roderick Murchison.

It’s fairly to say that Mary felt secure in the world of men, and a despite her religious beliefs, she was an early feminist. In an essay in her notebook, titled Woman!, Mary writes: “And what is a woman? Was she not made of the same flesh and blood as lordly Man? Yes, and was destined doubtless, to become his friend, his helpmate on his pilgrimage but surely not his slave…”

A) Mary Anning (1799- 1847) B) William Buckland (1784- 1856)

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 1829, Mary Anning discovered Squaloraja polyspondyle, a fish. Unfortunately, the specimen was lost in the destruction of the Bristol Museum by a German bombing raid in November, 1940.
From her correspondence is clear that Mary learned anatomy by dissecting modern organisms. In a letter to J.S. Miller of the Bristol Museum, dated 20 January 1830, she wrote: “…I have dissected a Ray since I received your letter, and I do not think it the same genus, the Vertebrae alone would constitute it a different genus being so unlike any fish vertebrae they are so closely anchylosed that they look like one bone but being dislocated at two places show that each thin line is a separate vertebrae with the ends flat…”.

Sketch of Mary Anning by Henry De la Beche.

Mary Anning, ‘the greatest fossilist the world ever knew’, 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.

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.

Mary Anning’s Window, St. Michael’s Church. From Wikimedia Commons.

In February 1850 Mary was honoured by the unveiling of a new window in the parish church at Lyme, funded through another subscription among the Fellows of the Geological Society of London, with the following inscription: “This window is sacred to the memory of Mary Anning of this parish, who died 9 March AD 1847 and is erected by the vicar and some members of the Geological Society of London in commemoration of her usefulness in furthering the science of geology, as also of her benevolence of heart and integrity of life.”

In 1865, Charles Dickens wrote an article about Mary Anning’s life in his literary magazine “All the Year Round”, where emphasised the difficulties she had overcome: “Her history shows what humble people may do, if they have just purpose and courage enough, toward promoting the cause of science. The inscription under her memorial window commemorates “her usefulness in furthering the science of geology” (it was not a science when she began to discover, and so helped to make it one), “and also her benevolence of heart and integrity of life.” The carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it.”


Buckland, Adelene: Novel Science : Fiction and the Invention of Nineteenth-Century Geology, University of Chicago Press, 2013.

BUREK, C. V. & HIGGS, B. (eds) The Role of Women in the History of Geology. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 281, 1–8. DOI: 10.1144/SP281.1.

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.

Ichthyornis and the evolution of the avian skull.


Ichthyornis skull

Birds originated from a theropod lineage more than 150 million years ago. By the Early Cretaceous, they diversified, evolving into a number of groups of varying anatomy and ecology. Much of birds anatomical variety is related to their skulls and in particulary with their beaks.

Discovered in 1870 by Benjamin Franklin Mudge, a professor from Kansas State Agricultural College and good friend of Othniel Charles Marsh, Ichthyornis, which means‭ ‘‬fish bird‭’‭, was a small early ornithuromorph from the Late Cretaceous of North America. Ornithuromorphs, include Gansus, Patagopteryx, Yixianornis, and Apsaravis, which form a grade on the line to Ornithurae, a derived subgroup that includes modern birds and their closest fossil relatives.


3D reconstruction of the skull of I. dispar (From Field et al., 2018)

The skull of I. dispar shows a transitional point in the evolutionary history of birds. The upper margin of the beak is concave in profile, a derived condition shared with living birds. The fused, toothless premaxillae have a terminal hook, and occupy the anterior quarter of the rostrum. Neurovascular foramina indicate the presence of a highly keratinized region of rhamphotheca called the premaxillary nail. The maxilla is plesiomorphically long. The dentition is extensive in both upper and lower jaws. A sulcus on the rostral half of the maxilla suggests a broad naso-maxillary contact and a correspondingly broad postnarial bar. The palatine is narrow and elongate, unlike that of Archaeopteryx and more stemward theropods. The quadrate exhibits two rounded capitular condyles that fit into cotyles on the prootic and squamosal bones to form a mobile joint with the cranium. The arrangement of the rostrum, jugal, and quadratojugal, the mobile suspensorium and the narrow, linear palatine all indicate that I. dispar possessed a fully functional avian cranial kinetic system.

The endocranial cavity appears essentially modern in sagittal section. The forebrain was enlarged and posteroventrally rotated while the optic lobes were inflated and laterally shifted, as in living birds. The squamosal exhibits an archaic, deinonychosaur-like morphology. The zygomatic process is deep and triangular in lateral view. The nuchal crest extends from the midline of the skull onto the zygomatic process, forming the upper edge of the squamosal bone, as in non-avialan theropods.

Darwin’s letter to Marsh (Yale Peabody Museum Archives)

Since its discovery, Ichthyornis has been viewed as a classical example of evolution, due to the combination of an advanced postcranial morphology and retention of toothed jaws. In a letter, dated August 31, 1880, Charles Darwin thanks Marsh for a copy of his monograph Odontornithes, which reported two contrasting bird genera: Hesperornis, which was about 1.8 metres tall, and Ichthyornis, which had an average wingspan of about 60 centimetres. In his letter, Darwin wrote: “I received some time ago your very kind note of July 28th, & yesterday the magnificent volume. I have looked with renewed admiration at the plates, & will soon read the text. Your work on these old birds & on the many fossil animals of N. America has afforded the best support to the theory of evolution, which has appeared within the last 20 years.”



Daniel J. Field, Michael Hanson, David Burnham, Laura E. Wilson, Kristopher Super, Dana Ehret, Jun A. Ebersole & Bhart-Anjan S. Bhullar, Complete Ichthyornis skull illuminates mosaic assembly of the avian head, Nature (2018).
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.


An early juvenile enantiornithine specimen from the Early Cretaceous of Spain

The slab and counterslab of MPCM-LH-26189

Mesozoic remains of juvenile birds are rare. To date, the only records are from the Early Cretaceous of China and Spain, from the mid-Cretaceous of  Myanmar, and from the Late Cretaceous of Argentina and Mongolia. The most recent finding from the Early Cretaceous of Las Hoyas, Spain, provide an insight into the osteogenesis of the Enantiornithes, the most abundant clade of Mesozoic birds. Previous records of Enantiornithes from the Las Hoyas fossil site include: Eoalulavis hoyasi, Concornis lacustris, and Iberomesornis romerali.

The latest specimen, MPCM-LH-26189, a nearly complete and largely articulated skeleton (only the feet, most of its hands, and the tip of the tail are missing), is very small. The specimen died around the time of birth, a crucial moment to study the osteogenesis in birds. The skull, is partially crushed, and is large compared to the body size. The braincase is fractured. The frontals and the parietals form a uniformly curved cranial vault. The cerebrocast shows a very slight inflation, suggesting that the cerebral anatomy of MPCM-LH-26189 falls in between that of the Archaeopteryx, and the putative basal ornithurine Cerebavis, whose telencephalic expansion is close to most extant birds. The cervical series is composed of 9 vertebrae. There are 10  thoracic vertebrae, and the sacrum appears to be composed of 5–6 vertebrae. The prezygapophyses of the mid-thoracic vertebrae extend beyond the cranial articular surface. The thoracic ribs are joint to the thoracic vertebrae. The two coracoids, the furcula, and three sternal ossifications are preserved. The furcula is Y-shapped. Both humeri, ulnae, and radii are also preserved.

Reconstruction of MPCM-LH-26189 by Raúl Martín

The osteohistological analysis of the left humerus shows a dense pattern of longitudinal grooves. Those grooves correspond to primary cavities, which open onto the surface of the cortex in young and fast-growing bone. The shaft of the tibia and radius show very-thin cortices. In addition,  the primary nature of the vascularisation, the round shape of the osteocytes lacunae and the uneven peripheral margin of the medullary cavity (with no endosteal bone), strongly suggests that the bone was actively growing when the bird died.

Enantiornithines show a mosaic of characters, reflecting their intermediate phylogenetic position between the basal-pygostylians and modern bird. In this clade, the sternum adopts an elaborate morphology, and in adult Enantiornithes, no more than eight free caudal vertebrae precede the pygostyle. The differences observed in the ossification of the sternum and the number of free caudal vertebrae in MPCM-LH-26189, when it compared to other juvenile enantiornithines, reveal a clade-wide asynchrony in the sequence of ossification of the sternum and tail, suggesting that the developmental strategies of these basal birds may have been more diverse than previously thought.


Fabien Knoll, et al., “A diminutive perinate European Enantiornithes reveals an asynchronous ossification pattern in early birds,” Nature Communications, volume 9, Article number: 937 (2018) doi:10.1038/s41467-018-03295-9

Chiappe, L. M., Ji, S. & Ji, Q. Juvenile birds from the Early Cretaceous of China: implications for enantiornithine ontogeny. Am. Mus. Novit. 3594, 1–46 (2007).