Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Two giant fossil penguins have been found in Peru and have overturned theories about the birds’ evolution. It was thought Penguins started out in cold habitats near the South Pole and migrated to equatorial regions during a cool period about 10 million years ago. These beasts, both 5 feet tall with beaks like javelins, were dated at 36 and 42 million years old, and lived in sun bleached tropics at a time before the earth had ice caps.

The oldest known evidence of animal life, remnants of steroids produced by sponges more than 635 millions years ago, have been found in Oman.

Titanuboa Cerrejonensis (big boa from Cerrejon, North East Columbia) has beaten all records for snakes, alive or dead. 180 vertebrae and ribs from a couple of dozen individuals were found at an open-pit coal mine and transported to the University of Florida Natural History Museum in Gainesville, Florida for study in 2007. They revealed a beast about 45 feet long weighing over one ton. It probably ate primitive crocodiles in its rainforest home 60 million years ago - lots of them - and spent most of it’s time in water.
The largest living snake on record was a 30ft long python, while the record for fossil snakes was a couple of feet more, held by a 40 million year old beast from Egypt.
As snakes are cold-blooded creatures their size is directly related to the climate. These fossils suggest equatorial temperatures were significantly warmer than they are now during a time when the world as a whole was warmer. In other words, contrary to common contemporary belief equatorial temperatures rose when mean global temperatures rose. This is bad news for today’s climate change!

Obesity has its roots in the dramatic growth of the human brain more than 2 million years ago. Nutritionally dense diets with higher calorie counts became necessary to fuel the energy demands of the uniquely large human brain. Modern humans use nearly ¼ of their resting energy to power up our brains....and as all men know, the more beer you drink, the cleverer you are.

A 2 ½ year research project using dozens of bones from sites in Croatia, Spain, Germany and Southern Russia, extracted enough Neanderthal DNA from 70 bones to decipher 60% of the Neanderthal genome. Dr Svante Poabo from the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany did the work and intends to use computers to fill in the gaps to explore just how closely related they were to us. Neanderthals lived from 500,000 years ago to 30,000 years ago, when it is thought our higher intelligence (!) drove them to extinction.
This research has so far shown that Neanderthals share two genetic changes with Homo sapiens, that differentiates them from Chimpanzees and enabled Homo sapiens and presumably Neanderthals, to talk.
As adults they were also lactose intolerant like the majority of modern humans so they could drink milk after childhood.

Brazilian fossils, especially the fish fauna from Ceara province (lower Cretaceous 110 million years old) are now officially legal...
The loose interpretation of the (non existent) law was that Brazilians could keep them in their home but that export on a large scale would be stamped on. This is a result of a law covering artefacts and a bunch of lazy territorial Brazilian academics who bent this law to their whims. It took a German part time resident and fossil dealer to bring the anomaly to light.
When accused of smuggling said fossils out of Brazil, he fought the case through the tangled Brazilian legal system for over 2 years until a judge declared that fossils were not man made and therefore not artefacts and were therefore not covered by said law.... or any other law.
Once out of the country however, the fossil could be traded legally ...except possibly in Australia and Canada, well known for their politically correct posture in such matters (I never used the word ‘anal’).
The fact is, the fossil beds are extensive and the fossils prolific. Furthermore, many are found as an offshoot of commercial quarrying for building stone and it would be daft (or criminal) to then destroy them. Certain fish are very common as are insects and plants. Flying reptiles, turtles, long fish etc are less common.... but not that uncommon!
British academic, plain speaking Dr Dave Martill of Portsmouth University, told a symposium some years ago how Brazilian academics warned him off the site and then offered to sell him any fossils he wanted. He subsequently visited the sites and published a number of papers which has made him a wanted man out there. He now concentrates on Moroccan fossils.
The word is that despite the new legal status of these fossils, if found with any in your possession in the area where they are found, you will have to contribute generously to the police benevolent fund if you value your freedom.

This year’s Association of Palaeontological Suppliers lecture, at Tuscan Gem Show in February, was given by the warden of Fossil Butte National Monument – the state park housing some of the Wyoming fossil fish sites. His subject was his project for calculating the climate at the time the fossils were alive, which he did by comparing the size of certain leaves found at the site to similar modern species (leafy dicods), whose size varies according to mean temperatures. By promoting good relations with the neighbouring commercial fossil quarries he was able to amass a decent study collection of leaves over the space of 5 years, as they were considered of little commercial value. The result – the average temperature of the area 50 million years ago was 22°! As Arnie the warden said, ‘it took 5 years to amass the evidence and 5 minutes to interpret it!’

APS (Association of Palaeontological Suppliers) are currently mounting opposition to a draft proposal that might go to the US senate in order to stop commercial diggers learning of new sites. No academic will be allowed to publish details of where the fossils he is studying comes from. This would make the United States the laughing stock of the academic world. Could it really pass such a law? Could someone really propose such a law? Don’t you believe me? Check the website www.aaps.net

Also at Tucson last February, the wedding of English fossil preparer extraordinaire, Terry Manning – possibly the greatest living fossil preparer today (...as he will tell you) to Claudine, a Tucson resident and polisher of dino bone. An impressively international company ate buffalo burgers, drank through the night and capered to an Arizona Celidh band.

Monday, 27 April 2009

Fossil Snippets...

Nine fossil teeth have been found in desert scrubland near Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which have been dated as 10 million years old, bearing big similarities with modern gorillas. This means the difference between gorillas and chimpanzees and humans must have happened before 10 million years ago. Once again this points to Africa being the place of origin of humans.

For a couple of million years after the permian extinction, around 251 million years ago, which wiped out 95% of living species at the time, piggy like animals ruled the world. They were called Lystrasaurs, they reached up to 3 metres in length, and they probably survived through the turbulence of volcanic action and climate and atmospheric change of their times by their ability to burrow and hibernate,

A tedious American academic has had our very own and famous Isle of Wight Iguanodon renamed Mantellisaurus as he says it differs too much from the most complete Iguanodons found, those from Bernissart, Belgium. Gideon Mantel, an obsessive and rather tragic Victorian dinosaur enthusiast certainly deserves more recognition – he was royally shafted in his lifetime by smug, wealthy and well connected Richard Owen, first head of the British Natural History Museum, who scorned amateur academics with a vengeance.
The first dinosaur to be named was Megalosaurus in 1824 from remains found in Oxfordshire, Gideon Mantel named Iguanodon one year later from remains found in Sussex.

In 2004 Dr Nudds and Dr Seldon, both from Manchester University, compiled ‘Evolution of Fossil Ecosystems’, a description of 14 of the most famous global lagerstatten – sites of extraordinary fine fossil preservation where as well as the hard bony parts of animals, also skin and soft parts are preserved.
They have now concentrated their energies on North America and published ‘Fossil Ecosystems of North America’. Good stuff. Check it out.

A new soft body fossil site has been found in Newfoundland. Dating from the Precambrian – actually called Ediacaran which is 630 – 542 million years old –fossils resemble nothing we would identify with living creatures. These exotic looking creatures are shaped like candelabras, rope ladders, spindles and discs with radiating tentacles.

A new site in Central Manitoba, Canada from the late Ordovician (450 million years ago) has yielded the earliest known specimen of horseshoe crab.

Whip spiders live today in tropical and subtropical areas. A recent study has shown that its relatives go back to the late Carboniferous period (325 million years) and have been found in coal deposits in Europe and North America. The fossils used in the study were from the collection at London’s Natural History Museum and were found in ironstone nodules from collieries in Staffordshire. The spiders were 11 – 15mm long.

George Poinar, the most prominent expert on Dominican amber which is 28 million years old, has turned his attention to the rare and usually badly preserved deposits of cretaceous amber from Canada, Lebanon and Burma for his new publication ‘What bugged the dinosaurs’ – insects, disease and death in the cretaceous.
He finds evidence of mosquitoes, biting flies, worms, lice, beetles, fleas living off dinosaurs and passing on all manner of diseases to them.

At the same time a French team based at Paris Natural History Museum have identified a carnivorous fungus found trapped in cretaceous amber deposits from South West France. It seems these fungi, which fed on nematodes or mud worms, had already developed to a point of complexity that matches that of modern species. To understand its roots a much older find will be required.

A team from the University of Oslo have found the largest known pliosaur in the world in the remote and inhospitable island of Spitzbergen. The 150 million year old monster, largest marine predator of the Jurassic, was 50 foot long. The team has to fly everything in by helicopter including shotguns to protect themselves from polar bears.

Two new species of bat have recently been described from Wyoming’s Green River Formation famous mostly for its prolific fish fauna. On rare occasions birds, crocodiles, a number of mammals and plant and tree remains have been found. Three years ago a small horse was found by commercial diggers (Current price $2 million, as yet unsold) and last year a stunningly well preserved snake was found by commercial diggers (also priced around $2 million and as yet unsold)

A skull and fragmentary body parts from the upper Devonian period (365 million years) of Latvia are from an animal half-way between an amphibian and a fish. Ventastega’s skull resembled a crocodile, and it had 4 primitive flippers, but otherwise its body was fish-like. Sediments suggest it lived in shallow waters but, while adapting to a land habitat, it found locomotion easier by swimming. While following as an evolutionary trend towards dwelling on land Ventastega itself was an evolutionary dead end which died out without further evolution,

Robert Makin, an amateur palaeontologist and professional reptile breeder has raised interesting questions about sauropod dinosaurs diets that have not yet been answered by academic experts. In the American publication ‘Fossil News’ he asks what infant sauropod dinosaurs ate in order to attain the massive size of their parents in a short time. The vegetation that was their parent’s diet was low in protein and particularly low in calcium required to form bones.
Today large herbivore reptiles eat food exclusively provided by their mothers until they have reached at least a quarter of adult size.

Modern herbivorous reptiles are insectivorous until they have reached adult size. For a dinosaur to do the same thing would be impractical. A large sauropod eating its own weight in plant matter daily would take 700 years to incorporate enough calcium to form bones. A calculation of the growth rate of Argentinasaurus, which reached an adult weight of 100 tons, is 1500kgs per month.

Some frogs make high protein food eggs for their young. As their stomachs were so far from their mouths it is unlikely (but not impossible) that adult sauropods regurgitated processed food. Perhaps they added a ‘milk’ of calcium and extra protein to their babies diet but how did they deliver it? As soft body preservation (of skin and organs) is so rare, there is little, if any, evidence to support any theory – but plenty of room for conjecture.

Any ideas?

An outstanding well preserved 50 million year old goose skull was found on the Isle of Sheppey recently and described by academics from Senkenberg Museum, Frankfurt. Dasornis had sharp teeth, a 16 foot wingspan and no doubt a voice like a foghorn!

Saturday, 7 February 2009

The most complete British dinosaur

The most complete dinosaur ever found in this country is on display in Bristol museum. The scelidosaurus, a four metre long armoured herbivorous dinosaur, was found in a mud slip over a five year period by David Sole, a professional collector. It was acid-prepared by David Cistun, a local, professional preparator. Skin and soft tissue is preserved. Only a small portion of the fossil is missing, which could have fallen into the sea before the rest of the skeleton was located.

Why terrestrial dinosaurs should be preserved in (albeit it shallow) marine sediments is under debate. The most convincing explanation is that this, and a few other scelidosaurs that have been found over the last century, were washed out to sea and drowned by a tsunami. Some fossilised semi-digested food in the animal’s gullet, which may have been vomited during the animal’s death throes, may support this theory.

The skeleton has been examined by many of the country’s leading experts, as well as others from America and Japan. Although David Sole is a professional collector, he has refused all offers to sell the dinosaur and hopes one day it will be a centrepiece in a display of West Dorset fossils. In the meantime, a cast of the fossil is on display at the Jurassic Coast Heritage Centre by the coastal car park at Charmouth, Dorset.

By Simon Cohen, reproduced by kind permission of Rock’n’Gem magazine.