In 1958 in an Illinois creek bed, an amateur fossil collector named Francis Tully discovered the fossilized remains of a bizarre creature that resembled a mollusk, insect, and worm yet was none of those things. Since then, thousands of 300 million-year-old fossilized "Tully Monsters" have turned up and the creature was officially named as the Illinois state fossil. Read the rest
At a market in northern Myanmar (Burma), China University scientist Lida Xing found a piece of amber containing a remarkably well-preserved dinosaur tail, complete with feathers. It likely belonged to a coelurosaur, a birdlike beast that lived about 99 million years ago. National Geographic video above. Plans for future research below.
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This cartoony character is considered the most accurate model of a real dinosaur ever created. Paleoartist Bob Nicholls based his reconstruction of Psittacosaurus on an incredibly well-preserved fossil from China (image below) studied by University of Bristol paleontologist Jakob Vinther and colleagues. From The Guardian:
Psittacosaurus fossils are commonly found across most of Asia. The bipedal adults used their distinctive beaks to nibble through the vegetation of the Cretaceous, more than 100m years ago. The relatively large brain of Psittacosaurus leads scientists to suspect it may have been a relatively smart dinosaur, with complex behaviours. The large eyes hint that it had good vision....
The reconstruction is the culmination of around three months’ work, from detailed drawings to finished fibreglass model. Nicholls created a steel frame and bulked it out using polystyrene and wire mesh, before sculpting the surface in clay:.“This is where the subject finally comes to life,” he explains, “by adding all the skin details such as scales and wrinkles, and beaks and horns.” A master mould was made from this sculpture, allowing Nicholls to make fibreglass models ready to be painted.
I asked Nicholls what makes this Psittacosaurus so special? “The most surprising features include an unusually large and wide head, highly pigmented clusters of scales on the shoulders, robust limbs, patagiums (skin flaps) behind the hind limbs, and a highly pigmented cloaca.” These features make him confident this is the most accurate reconstruction ever produced: “When the anatomy surprises me – it confirms that I’ve followed the fossil evidence rather than any preconceived ideas of my own.”
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By studying the preserved poop of ancient cockroaches, scientists have determined that those roaches were, themselves, eating poop. Probably that of herbivorous dinosaurs. Isn't science glamorous? Read the rest
Scientists have found ancient fleas from the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. Some are nearly an inch long — compare to modern fleas that top out around half that size — and the fleas seem to be adapted to biting through the hides of dinosaurs. Read the rest
Here you can see a lump of rock with embedded fossils of bird bones trapped in the matrix. Below the rock are 3D printed models of those same fossils, created by paleontologist Brett Nachman. Other scientists captured the fossils inside the rock using CT scans that can see through the stone with the help of x-rays.
Last year, journalist Charles Choi wrote about the massive backlog of fossils in storage at most museums and suggested the possibility of using this kind of technology to study fossils that might not otherwise ever be removed from the hard matrix. Now, Charles is writing about people like Nachman who are doing just that — using technology to get at fossils that are too labor intensive to study. Read the rest
If paleoeschatologist Karen Chin is right, then the 2.4 liter fossilized fecal mass she found Saskatchewan could have been the work of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Read the rest
Brian Switek (America's fossil sweetheart) has some excellent tips on how to give your bones the best chance of ending up in a museum. Fossilization isn't as simple as just dropping dead. It involves a fairly particular set of environmental circumstances + a lot of luck. Step 1: Start with foregoing the coffin and cemetary and find yourself a nice spot in a floodplain with rapid sediment deposition, instead. Read the rest
Paleontology has a long history in the Americas, dating back to (at least) the Aztec and Inca, who excavated the bones of mammoths and other mega-fauna and showed them off to Spanish invaders. Read the rest
Yuka died 39,000 years ago, and is so well-preserved that we can tell she was a ginger. Read the rest
Thanks to Jurassic Park, we tend to focus on one use for the DNA of extinct creatures — resurrecting them, in full, to live here in the modern age. But it's not necessary to go that far to learn a lot about those animals, and the evolution of life, in general. At the Experimental Podcast, Stephanie Vogt talks about the paleophysiologists who are reconstructing the proteins of extinct animals using fragments of DNA found in long-dead remains. Those proteins, simple as they may seem, hold some amazing stories. For instance, reconstructed haemoglobin from wooly mammoths could someday help doctors get oxygen to the brains of high-risk human surgery patients. Read the rest
Here's a weird, great geological feature I spotted yesterday while out hiking in rural Oklahoma. We were out in a flat, flat plan that was dotted with a few tall, angular sandstone mounds and narrow sandstone canyons carved out by erosion. This rock was sticking out of the side of one of the mounds. It was the only place we saw anything like these vertical, tube-like structures, which stretched from the ground up to probably about my shoulder.
When I posted this image on Twitter yesterday, several people suggested that the tubes might be skolithos — tube-shaped fossils that were probably made by some kind of ancient worm creature and turn up sometimes in sandstones. While the pictures on Wikipedia don't look very similar to what I saw, there are apparently lots of different forms these things (and similar tube fossils) can take. Read the rest
Furry, shelled mammals the size of VW Beetles once roamed the Americas.
Superstorm Sandy brought fossils up from the ocean depths.
Duriavenator is a dinosaur — a kind of T.Rex-ish, pointy toothed dinosaur that lived in what is now England. But I think it sounds like the name of a 1950s vacuum cleaner company, don't you? Read the rest
With their big, bitey teeth and teeny, ineffectual arms, it can be difficult to picture how Tyrannosaurus Rex actually managed to eat anything. After all, all of our personal experience with eating involves an awful lot of gripping with the forearms. Some new research, takes a stab at understanding T. Rex table manners. The results are pretty neat — and they highlight the similarities between dinosaurs and birds — but I want to make a bit of a bigger deal out of the methodology.
Several times on this blog, we've talked about the importance of the vast archives of archaeological and paleontological specimens that are sitting around in storage at museums and universities. Some of these things have never even been removed from the matrix of burlap and plaster used to secure them for shipping. Some have sat there for decades, enjoying only a cursory glance from researchers. But when scientists finally start sifting through these unseen specimens, they often find fascinating things. Read the rest
At The Dinosaur Tracking blog, Brian Switek is starting a cool, new series meant to highlight the lesser-known dinosaurs that the public as long ignored. Sure, it's a bit easier to pronounce Tyrannosaurus, but Agujaceratops and Zalmoxes still deserve their 15 minutes of fame.
The alphabetical series kicks off today with the aforementioned Agujaceratops. Found in Texas, Agujaceratops is distinctly different, in several ways, from its cousins that have been found in the northern part of North America. In fact, writes Switek, Agujaceratops is so different, that it's making paleontologists reconsider ancient North American geography.
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At the species and genus levels, the southern dinosaurs are different. The big question is, why? Paleontologists know that a shallow, vanished seaway separated dinosaurs on eastern and western subcontinents for millions of years, but on that western subcontinent called Laramidia, there was apparently some other kind of barrier that isolated northern and southern dinosaur populations.
The hypothesis relies on basic evolutionary theory. Isolate populations of an ancestor species in different regions, and through factors such as natural selection and genetic drift, those populations will evolve in different ways. The fact that Agujaceratops, Kosmoceratops and Utahceratops are so different from Chasmosaurus and other northern cousins are a sign that such a barrier was in place. No one has found it yet, though, and a great deal of work remains to be done on whether all these dinosaurs were really contemporaries or reveal a much more complex evolutionary pattern. As these investigations continue, though, Agujaceratops will continue to play an important role as a symbol of isolation and evolution.