Tag Archives: #dinosaur

Researchers Uncovered Australia’s Largest and Fearsome Flying Reptile (Paleontology)

Australia’s largest flying reptile has been uncovered, a pterosaur with an estimated seven-metre wingspan that soared like a dragon above the ancient, vast inland sea once covering much of outback Queensland.

University of Queensland PhD candidate Tim Richards, from the Dinosaur Lab in UQ’s School of Biological Sciences, led a research team that analysed a fossil of the creature’s jaw, discovered on Wanamara Country, near Richmond in North West Queensland.

“It’s the closest thing we have to a real life dragon,” Mr Richards said.

Tim Richards with the skull of an anhanguerian pterosaur. © Tim Richards

“The new pterosaur, which we named Thapunngaka shawi, would have been a fearsome beast, with a spear-like mouth and a wingspan around seven metres.

“It was essentially just a skull with a long neck, bolted on a pair of long wings.

“This thing would have been quite savage.

“It would have cast a great shadow over some quivering little dinosaur that wouldn’t have heard it until it was too late.”

Mr Richards said the skull alone would have been just over one metre long, containing around 40 teeth, perfectly suited to grasping the many fishes known to inhabit Queensland’s no-longer-existent Eromanga Sea.

Reconstruction of the skull of Thapunngaka shawi (KKF494). From Richards et al. (2021) © Tim Richards

“It’s tempting to think it may have swooped like a magpie during mating season, making your local magpie swoop look pretty trivial – no amount of zip ties would have saved you.

“Though, to be clear, it was nothing like a bird, or even a bat – Pterosaurs were a successful and diverse group of reptiles – the very first back-boned animals to take a stab at powered flight.”

The new species belonged to a group of pterosaurs known as anhanguerians, which inhabited every continent during the latter part of the Age of Dinosaurs.

Being perfectly adapted to powered flight, pterosaurs had thin-walled and relatively hollow bones.

Given these adaptations their fossilised remains are rare and often poorly preserved.

Hypothetical outlines of Australian pterosaurs showing relative wingspan sizes. 1.8 m human for scale. © Tim Richards.

“It’s quite amazing fossils of these animals exist at all,” Mr Richards said.

“By world standards, the Australian pterosaur record is poor, but the discovery of Thapunngaka contributes greatly to our understanding of Australian pterosaur diversity.”

It is only the third species of anhanguerian pterosaur known from Australia, with all three species hailing from western Queensland.

Dr Steve Salisbury, co-author on the paper and Mr Richard’s PhD supervisor, said what was particularly striking about this new species of anhanguerian was the massive size of the bony crest on its lower jaw, which it presumably had on the upper jaw as well.

“These crests probably played a role in the flight dynamics of these creatures, and hopefully future research will deliver more definitive answers,” Dr Salisbury said.

The fossil was found in a quarry just northwest of Richmond in June 2011 by Len Shaw, a local fossicker who has been ‘scratching around’ in the area for decades.

Hypothetical outline of Thapunngaka shawi with a 7 m wingspan, alongside a wedge-tailed eagle (2.5 m wingspan) and a hang-glider (10 m ‘wingspan’). © Tim Richards

The name of the new species honours the First Nations peoples of the Richmond area where the fossil was found, incorporating words from the now-extinct language of the Wanamara Nation.

“The genus name, Thapunngaka, incorporates thapun [ta-boon] and ngaka [nga-ga], the Wanamara words for ‘spear’ and ‘mouth’, respectively,” Dr Salisbury said.

“The species name, shawi, honours the fossil’s discoverer Len Shaw, so the name means ‘Shaw’s spear mouth’.”

The fossil of Thapunngaka shawi is on display at Kronosaurus Korner in Richmond.

The research has been published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology (DOI: 10.1080/02724634.2021.1946068).

Featured image: Artist’s impression of the fearsome Thapunngaka shawi. © Adobe stock.

Reference: Łukasz Czepiński, Dawid Dróżdż, Tomasz Szczygielski, Mateusz Tałanda, Wojciech Pawlak, Antoni Lewczuk, Adam Rytel & Tomasz Sulej (2021) An Upper Triassic Terrestrial Vertebrate Assemblage from the Forgotten Kocury Locality (Poland) with a New Aetosaur Taxon, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, DOI: 10.1080/02724634.2021.1898977

Provided by University of Queensland

New Beetle Found in Fossil Feces Attributed to Dinosaur Ancestor (Paleontology)

The tiny beetle Triamyxa coprolithica is the first-ever insect to be described from fossil faeces. The animal the researchers have to thank for the excellent preservation was probably the dinosaur ancestor Silesaurus opolensis, which 230 million years ago ingested the small beetle in large numbers.

In a recently published study in Current Biology, vertebrate palaeontologists from Uppsala University and entomologists from National Sun Yat-sen University (Taiwan), Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena (Germany), and Universidad de Guadalajara (Mexico) used synchrotron microtomography to 3D-reconstruct the beetles while they were still trapped within the fossilised faecal matter. The coprolite contained abundant beetle body parts, most belonging to the same small species. A few specimens were found nearly complete, with much of the delicate legs and antennae still intact. The well-preserved state of these fossils made it possible to produce a detailed description of the new beetle genus and to compare it with more modern ones. Triamyxa coprolithica represents a previously unknown extinct lineage of the suborder Myxophaga, whose modern representatives are small and live on algae in wet environments.

The tiny beetle Triamyxa coprolithica is the first-ever insect to be described from fossil feces. © Qvarnström et al.

“We were absolutely amazed by the abundance and fantastic preservation of the beetles in the coprolite fragment. In a way, we must really thank Silesaurus, which likely was the animal that helped us accumulating them,” says Martin Qvarnström, researcher at Uppsala University and one of the co-authors of the paper.

Silesaurus opolensis – the probable producer of the coprolite – was a relatively small dinosaur ancestor with an estimated body weight of 15 kilograms that lived in Poland approximately 230 million years ago. In a previous study, the authors assigned coprolites with disarticulated beetle remains to Silesaurus based on the size and shape of the coprolites as well as several anatomical adaptations in the animal. Silesaurus possessed a beak at the tip of its jaws that could have been used to root in the litter and perhaps peck insects off the ground, somewhat like modern birds. But although Silesaurus ingested numerous individuals of Triamyxa coprolithica, the beetle was likely too small to have been the only targeted prey. Instead, Triamyxa likely shared a habitat with larger beetles, which are represented by disarticulated remains in the coprolites, and other prey, which never ended up in the coprolites in a recognisable shape.

The tiny beetle Triamyxa coprolithica is the first-ever insect to be described from fossil feces. © Qvarnström et al.

“I never thought that we would be able to find out what the Triassic precursor of the dinosaurs ate for dinner,” says Grzegorz Niedwiedzki, palaeontologist at Uppsala University and one of the co-authors of the paper.

The preservation of the beetles in the coprolite is similar to specimens from amber, which normally yield the best-preserved insect fossils. Amber, however, was mainly formed during relatively recent geological time. This study shows that coprolites may be valuable for studying early insect evolution and, at the same time, the diet of extinct vertebrates.

The synchrotron scanning was carried out at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble.

Featured image: The animal the researchers have to thank for the excellent preservation of the beetle Triamyxa coprolithica was was probably the dinosaur ancestor Silesaurus opolensis. © Magorzata Czaja

Provided by Uppsala University

Decline of Dinosaurs Under Way Long Before Asteroid Fell (Paleontology)

Ten million years before the well-known asteroid impact that marked the end of the Mesozoic Era, dinosaurs were already in decline. That is the conclusion of the Franco-Anglo-Canadian team led by CNRS researcher Fabien Condamine from the Institute of Evolutionary Science of Montpellier (CNRS / IRD / University of Montpellier), which studied evolutionary trends during the Cretaceous for six major families of dinosaurs, including those of the tyrannosaurs, triceratops, and hadrosaurs.

The last march of dinosaurs, painting.
© Jorge Gonzalez

Using a novel statistical modelling method that limited bias associated with gaps in the fossil record, they demonstrated that, for dinosaurs 76 million years ago, extinctions outpaced speciations. The impact of a 12-km-wide asteroid 66 million years ago was thus the coup de grâce for an animal group already struggling. 

These findings, published in Nature Communications on 29 June, show that the demise of dinosaurs was probably tied to global cooling towards the end of the Cretaceous,1 when the mean global temperature fell by 7 °C.

According to the researchers, herbivores were particularly affected by the first extinctions of this period, and this may have disturbed the equilibrium of ecosystems, setting off cascading extinctions among the other dinosaur families.


  1. Changes to oceanic circulation patterns then resulted in a decrease in atmospheric CO2 levels.

Featured image: Graphs showing how speciation rate (blue) dipped and extinction rate (red) rose sharply in the last 10 million years of the age of dinosaurs. Run together, this corresponds to a rapid reduction in the number of species (black) just before the impact of the asteroid 66 million years ago.  © Fabien L. Condamine / ISEM / CNRS


Dinosaur biodiversity declined well before the asteroid impact, influenced by ecological and environmental pressures, Fabien L. Condamine, Guillaume Guinot, Michael J. Benton & Philip J. Currie. Nature Communications, 29 June 2021. DOI: 10.1038/s41467-021-23754-0

Provided by CNRS

Multiple Dinosaur Species Not Only Lived in the Arctic, They Also Nested There (Paleontology)

In the 1950s, researchers made the first unexpected discoveries of dinosaur remains at frigid polar latitudes. Now, researchers reporting in the journal Current Biology on June 24 have uncovered the first convincing evidence that several species of dinosaur not only lived in what’s now Northern Alaska, but they also nested there.

“These represent the northernmost dinosaurs known to have existed,” says Patrick Druckenmiller of the University of Alaska Museum of the North. “We didn’t just demonstrate the presence of perinatal remains–in the egg or just hatched–of one or two species, rather we documented at least seven species of dinosaurs reproducing in the Arctic.”

Previous studies at a handful of other sites provided tantalizing bits of evidence that one or two species of indeterminate dinosaurs were capable of nesting near or just above the Arctic or Antarctic circles, he says, but this study is the first to show unequivocal evidence of nesting at extremely high latitudes. Environmental conditions at this time and place indicate challenging seasonal extremes, with an average annual temperature of about 6 degrees Celsius (about 40 degrees Fahrenheit). There also would have been about four months of full winter darkness with freezing conditions.

Druckenmiller and co-author Gregory Erickson from Florida State University have a longstanding project to document the ancient Arctic ecosystem of the Prince Creek Formation in Northern Alaska, including its dinosaurs, mammals, and other vertebrates. They also want to know how they lived there, given the challenging environment. The environment is also a difficult place to work.

This photograph shows perinatal (baby) dinosaur bones and teeth from the Prince Creek Formation, northern Alaska (penny is 19 mm in diameter). © Patrick Druckenmiller

“The field season is short in the Arctic and access is very difficult–aircraft and small boats are required,” Druckenmiller says. “To make matters more challenging, the only way to see the rocks is in river-cut steep bluffs along the largest river in Northern Alaska, the Colville. These bluffs are dangerous, prone to catastrophic collapses, making it hard to safely find and extract fossils. As such, we have focused on finding discrete bonebed horizons where we can more efficiently excavate many bones. In the process, we’ve also discovered numerous new microfossil deposits that have provided for a wealth of new knowledge about the whole ecosystem that lived in the Arctic over 70 million years ago.”

Over the course of about a decade of painstaking work, the researchers, aided by many students they’ve enlisted over the years, have now found hundreds of small baby dinosaur bones, including tiny teeth from individuals that were either still in the egg or had just hatched out. The Arctic dinosaurs they’ve uncovered include small- and large-bodied herbivorous species including hadrosaurids (duck-billed dinosaurs), ceratopsians (horned dinosaurs and leptoceratopsians), thescelosaurs and carnivores (tyrannosaurs, troodontids, and dromaeosaurs).

“It wasn’t that long ago that the idea of finding any dinosaurs in such extreme latitudes and environments was a surprise,” Druckenmiller says. “To then find out that most if not all of those species also reproduced in the Arctic is really remarkable. We have long been asked, ‘Have you found any eggs?’ To that we have, and still answer ‘no.’ But, we have something much better: the actual baby dinosaurs themselves.”

The findings add to evidence that the dinosaurs didn’t just spend time at these extreme latitudes, but they most likely lived there as year-round residents. Their evidence suggests both smaller dinosaurs and larger species, such as duck-billed dinosaurs, horned dinosaurs, and a tyrannosaur that more likely could have migrated to warmer climes, resided in the Arctic.

“Year-round residency in the Arctic provides a natural test of dinosaurian physiology,” Erickson says. “Cold-blooded terrestrial vertebrates like amphibians, lizards, and crocodilians have yet to be found, only warm-blooded birds and mammals–and dinosaurs. I think that this is some of the most compelling evidence that dinosaurs were in fact warm-blooded.”

Erickson says they now have new questions about how dinosaurs survived Arctic winters. It’s likely they had unique strategies to cope with darkness, cold temperatures, and food limitation, the researchers say.

Current Biology, Druckenmiller et al.: “Nesting at Extreme Polar Latitudes by Non-Avian Dinosaurs” https://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(21)00739-9

Featured image: This is an artistic depiction of the tyrannosaur Nanuqsaurus with its young. © James Havens

Provided by Cell Press

Meet Australia’s Largest Dinosaur — Australotitan, The Southern Titan! (Paleontology)

What’s as long a basketball court, taller than a b-double and has just stomped into the record books as Australia’s largest dinosaur? It’s time to meet Australotitan cooperensis – a new species of giant sauropod dinosaur from Eromanga, southwest Queensland.

Australotitan, “the southern titan”, has been scientifically described and named by Queensland Museum and Eromanga Natural History Museum palaeontologists.

It is estimated to have reached a height of 5-6.5 metres at the hip and 25- 30 metres in length and sits within the top 10-15 largest dinosaurs world-wide, representing Australia’s entry into the largest species to have ever walked the Earth.

The fossilised skeleton was originally nicknamed ‘Cooper’ after Cooper Creek, when first discovered in 2007 by the Eromanga Natural History Museum. It now represents the largest species of dinosaur ever found in Australia.

The scientific publication marks a seventeen-year long culmination of the joint effort between Queensland Museum and Eromanga Natural History Museum palaeontologists, fossil preparators, geologists, and countless volunteers.

Australotitan adds to the growing list of uniquely Australian dinosaur species discovered in Outback Queensland, and just as importantly showcases a totally new area for dinosaur discovery in Australia,” Dr Hocknull said.

“To make sure Australotitan was a different species, we needed to compare its bones to the bones of other species from Queensland and globally. This was a very long and painstaking task.”

Dinosaur bones are enormous, heavy and fragile, and are kept in museums 100s-1000s of kilometres apart, making scientific study very difficult. For the first time, the team used new digital technology to 3-D scan each bone of Australotitan and compare them to the bones of its closest relatives. These scans will form part of the museum’s digital collection that is powered by Project DIG, a partnership between Queensland Museum Network and BHP.

“The 3-D scans we created allowed me to carry around 1000s of kilos dinosaur bones in a 7kg laptop. Better yet, we can now share these scans and knowledge online with the world,” Dr Hocknull said.

The study found that Australotitan was closely related to three other Australian sauropods that lived during the Cretaceous Period (92-96 million years ago).

3D reconstruction Cooper humerus 2015. (C) Rochelle Lawrence

“We compared the three species found to the north, near Winton, to our new Eromanga giant and it looks like Australia’s largest dinosaurs were all part of one big happy family.

“We found that Australotitan was the largest in the family, followed by Wintonotitan with big hips and long legs, whilst the two smaller sauropods, Diamantinasaurus and Savannasaurus were shorter in stature and heavily-set.” Dr Hocknull said along with the description of Australotitan, the study has also revealed a swathe of new discoveries in the area awaiting full scientific study.

“Over the last 17-years numerous dinosaur, skeletons have been found, including one with an almost complete tail. The discovery of a rock-shelf, almost 100 metres long, represents a sauropod pathway, where the dinosaurs walked along trampling mud and bones into the soft ground,” Dr Hocknull said. “Discoveries like this are just the tip of the iceberg. Our ultimate goal is to find the evidence that tells the changing story of Queensland, hundreds of millions of years in the making. A grand story all scientists, museums and tourists can get behind.”

Minister for Arts Leeanne Enoch said the exciting new discovery helps to cement Queensland as Australia’s dinosaur capital.

“Discoveries like Australotitan tell the story of a time when dinosaurs roamed Queensland,” Minister Enoch said.

“Queensland Museum experts have been on the ground, sharing their knowledge with regional museums and helping to preserve and better understand the diverse paleontological hi story of our state.

“These unique outback discoveries are supporting Queensland as we deliver our economic recovery plan creating local jobs in regional and cultural tourism.” Robyn Mackenzie, General Manager of Eromanga Natural History Museum said it’s an exciting culmination of a major amount of work.

“Finding Cooper has changed the course of our lives and led to the establishment of the Eromanga Natural History Museum,” Ms Mackenzie said.

“Working with Queensland Museum to formally describe Cooper has helped put our little town of Eromanga in Quilpie Shire South West Qld on the map. Australotitan is just the start, we have many more discoveries awaiting full scientific study.

“It’s amazing to think from the first bones discovered by our son, the first digs with the Queensland Museum, through to the development of a not-for-profit museum that runs annual dinosaur digs, all have helped us to get to this point, it’s a real privilege.”

Queensland Museum Network CEO Dr Jim Thompson said this represented the first dinosaur discovery in this corner of south-west Queensland.

“In the early 2000s Australia was at the beginning of a dinosaur-rush,with a number of significant new species of dinosaurs and megafauna being discovered in the past 20 years. Australia is one of the last frontiers for dinosaur discovery and Queensland is quickly cementing itself as the palaeo- capital of the nation – there is still plenty more to discover,” Dr Thompson said.

“I am proud that Queensland Museum palaeontologists have been part of many of these amazing discoveries and are leaders in their fields.”

The new paper was published recently in PeerJ – the Journal of Life and Environmental Sciences

Link to the Published Version of the article (quote this link in your story – the link will ONLY work after the embargo lifts): https://peerj.com/articles/11317/ your readers will be able to freely access this article at this URL.

Citation to the article: https://peerj.com/articles/11317/

Press Pack: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/yinoxajhh599ah6/AADjadszbaL9uxYbp2tdFvSma?dl=0

About Australotitan cooperensis Hocknull et al., 2021 (“Cooper” – Australia’s largest dinosaur)

  • Name: Australotitan cooperensis
  • Pronounced: Australo – titan ; cooper – en – sis
  • Meaning: Southern Titan from the Cooper (Cooper Creek)
  • Found: West of Eromanga, South-west Queensland, Australia
  • Age: Approximately 92-96 million years ago. Cretaceous Period, Cenomanian – Turonian Epoch.
  • Size: Based on the prepared remains of Australotitan cooperensis, it’s estimated that the species could reach 25-30 metres long and 5-6.5 metres high (ground to hip).
  • Type: Giant titanosaurian sauropod (long-necked, plant-eating sauropod)
  • Formation: Winton Formation, Eromanga Basin.


  • Sauropod dinosaurs were herbivores and had very long necks, long tails, small heads and four thick, pillar-like legs. They are known for their enormous size and includes some of the largest animals to ever have lived on land.
  • The name Sauropoda was coined by OC Marsh in 1878 and is derived from the Greek meaning ‘Lizard Foot’
  • They are one of the most recognisable groups of dinosaurs in the world.

Fast facts about Australotitan:

  • Largest skeletal remains of a dinosaur ever to be discovered in Australia.
  • Based on skeletal measurements, Australotitan is within the top 10-15 largest dinosaurs world-wide.
  • Australotitan is a titanosaurian sauropod. Titanosaurians are one of the last remaining sauropod groups in the Cretaceous Period and also were the largest ever land -dwelling animals.
  • Fossils of Australotitan was found on a tributary of the famous inland river system, Cooper Creek in the Cooper/Eromanga Basin and this is where the nickname came from
  • Titanosaurians have been found across the globe, however, little is known of the Australian dinosaur species world.
  • Australotitan comes from the Winton Formation, one of the largest geological layers in Australia from the time of the dinosaurs.
  • Australotitan is closely related to other sauropod species found in the Winton Formation, Diamantinasaurus, Wintonotitan and Savannasaurus.
  • Determining the mass of Australotitan is very difficult. Scientists estimate it weighed between 23,000 – 74,000 kg, possibly as much as 67,000 kg.?

Featured image: Australotitan cooperensis Konstantinov. (c)Eroman Museum

Reference: Hocknull SA, Wilkinson M, Lawrence RA, Konstantinov V, Mackenzie S, Mackenzie R. 2021. A new giant sauropod, Australotitan cooperensis gen. et sp. nov., from the mid-Cretaceous of Australia. PeerJ 9:e11317 https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.11317

Provided by PEERJ

Dinosaur-age Fossils Provide New Insights into Origin of Flowering Plants (Paleontology)

Flowering plants (angiosperms) dominate most terrestrial ecosystems, providing the bulk of human food. However, their origin has been a mystery since the earliest days of evolutionary thought.

Angiosperm flowers are hugely diverse. The key to clarifying the origin of flowers and how angiosperms might be related to other kinds of plants is understanding the evolution of the parts of the flower, especially angiosperm seeds and the fruits in which the seeds develop.

Fossil seed-bearing structures preserved in a newly discovered Early Cretaceous silicified peat in Inner Mongolia, China, provide a partial answer to the origin of flowering plants, according to a study led by Prof. SHI Gongle from the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Paleontology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (NIGPAS).

The study was published in Nature on May 26.

Fossil cupules from the Early Cretaceous Zhahanaoer chert locality, three-dimensional reconstructions from segmented Micro-CT data. © NIGPAS

The fossils, which date from about 126 million years ago, support an earlier idea that the distinctive outer covering of developing seeds of flowering plants–the so-called second integument–is fundamentally comparable to structures that occur in certain extinct non-angiosperm seed plants from the “Age of Dinosaurs.”

The seeds of cycads, ginkgo and conifers are enclosed and protected by a single integument, which is believed to correspond to the inner integument in flowering plants. However, the outer (second) integument is a unique structure. Its development is linked to its curious recurved form and is controlled by different genes than those responsible for the development of the inner integument.

These fossils, exceptionally well preserved and abundant in the silicified peat from China, have two seeds enclosed inside a specialized recurved structure–the cupule.

Similar cupules occur in several groups of extinct plants from the Mesozoic that are known only from fossils, and while it has been suggested some of these cupules may be precursors of the second integument of flowering plants, discussions have been hampered by inadequate information.

The new fossils from China, along with the reexamination of previously described fossils, suggest that the recurved cupules found in several groups of extinct seed plants from the Mesozoic are all fundamentally similar and are likely the precursors of the second integument of flowering plants.

The recurved structure seen in the young seeds of flowering plants is therefore a holdover from an earlier pre-angiosperm phase of evolution. Variation among extinct Mesozoic seed plants in the number of seeds per cupule and other features likely reflect differences relating to pollination, as well as seed output, protection and dispersal.

Recognition of extinct seed plants with a structure comparable to a key feature of living angiosperms provides a partial answer to the question of flowering plant origins. It also helps focus future work on understanding how living and fossil groups of seed plants are interrelated, and has important implications for ideas on the origin of another diagnostic feature of flowering plants that evidently came later–the carpel–the structure that forms the fruit wall in which the seeds develop.

This research was supported by the Youth Innovation Promotion Association of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the U.S. National Science Foundation, the Strategic Priority Research Program of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the National Natural Science Foundation of China and the Oak Spring Garden Foundation.

Featured image: The silicified material was studied using the traditional technique of cellulose acetate peels (C, D) supplemented by X-ray computed micro-tomography (A, B). © NIGPAS

Reference: Shi, G., Herrera, F., Herendeen, P.S. et al. Mesozoic cupules and the origin of the angiosperm second integument. Nature (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-021-03598-w

Provided by Chinese Academy of Sciences

Southern African Dinosaur Had Irregular Growth (Paleontology)

Anyone who’s raised a child or a pet will know just how fast and how steady their growth seems to be. You leave for a few days on a work trip and when you come home the child seems to have grown 10cm! That’s all well and good for the modern household, but how did dinosaurs grow up? Did they, too, surprise their parents with their non-stop growth?

A new study lead by Dr Kimberley Chapelle of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and Honorary Research Fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand suggests NOT. At least for one iconic southern African dinosaur species. By looking at the fossil thigh bones under a microscope, researchers can count growth lines, like those of a tree. This allows them to study how much the individuals grew each year. By looking at growth rings in the bones of Massospondylus carinatus, Dr Chapelle was able to show that its growth varied season-to-season, more like a tree than a puppy or a baby human.

“These things were just all over the show” said Chapelle, “one year they might gain 100kg of body weight and the next year they’d only grow by 10kg!”

Massospondylus was a medium sized dinosaur, up to 500kg in body weight, that lived in the Early Jurassic, so 200 million years ago. It fed on plants like ferns. The study suggests that Massospondylus’ growth directly responded to its environmental conditions. In a good year with lots of rain and food, the species might race ahead, almost doubling their size. In a bad year where nutrients were scarce, it might hardly grow at all.

Cross section of a Massospondylus carinatus thigh bone, showing the growth rings, similar to those of a tree © Kimi Chapelle

Chapelle and her colleagues suggest that such a growth strategy might have helped Massospondylus cope with the harsh environmental conditions following the end-Triassic Mass Extinction 200 million years ago, when more than 50% of species were wiped out.

“Massospondylus was one of the first Southern African dinosaurs named back in 1854 and we are still learning so much from it. It teaches us so much about our past environments and what southern Africa was like 200 million years ago” said Chapelle.

“This study shows the power of big sample sizes,” said Jonah Choiniere, Professor at Wits University and co-author of the study, “when we can study a dinosaur from embryo to adult, like Massospondylus, we can begin to understand them as living animals.”

“It is exciting to see such varied growth patterns in a dinosaur, showing us there is still so much to learn about these unique creatures!” said Dr Jennifer Botha from the National Museum, Bloemfontein, a co-author on the study.

Featured image: Reconstruction of Massospondylus carinatus © Dorling Kindersley

Provided by University of Witwatersrand

Newly Described Horned Dinosaur from New Mexico Was the Earliest of its Kind (Paleontology)

With a frilled head and beaked face, Menefeeceratops sealeyi lived 82 million years ago, predating its relative, Triceratops. Researchers including Peter Dodson, of the School of Veterinary Medicine, and Steven Jasinski, who recently earned his doctorate from the School of Arts & Sciences, describe the find.

A newly described horned dinosaur that lived in New Mexico 82 million years agois oneof the earliest known ceratopsid species, a group known as horned or frilled dinosaurs. Researchers reported their findings in a publication in the journal PalZ (Paläontologische Zeitschrift). 

Menefeeceratops sealeyi adds important information to scientists’ understanding of the evolution of ceratopsid dinosaurs, which are characterized by horns and frills, along with beaked faces. In particular, the discovery sheds light on the centrosaurine subfamily of horned dinosaurs, of which Menefeeceratops is believed to be the oldest member. Its remains offer a clearer picture of the group’s evolutionary path before it went extinct at the end of the Cretaceous.

Steven Jasinski, who recently completed his Ph.D. in Penn’s Department of Earth and Environmental Science in the School of Arts & Sciences, and Peter Dodson of the School of Veterinary Medicine and Penn Arts & Sciences, collaborated on the work, which was led by Sebastian Dalman of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science. Spencer Lucas and Asher Lichtig of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science in Albuquerque were also part of the research team.

“There has been a striking increase in our knowledge of ceratopsid diversity during the past two decades,” says Dodson, who specializes in the study of horned dinosaurs. “Much of that has resulted from discoveries farther north, from Utah to Alberta. It is particularly exciting that this find so far south is significantly older than any previous ceratopsid discovery. It underscores the importance of the Menefee dinosaur fauna for the understanding of the evolution of Late Cretaceous dinosaur faunas throughout western North America.”

The fossil specimen of the new species, including multiple bones from one individual, was originally discovered in 1996 by Paul Sealey, a research associate of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, in Cretaceous rocks of the Menefee Formation in northwestern New Mexico. A field crew from the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science collected the specimen. Tom Williamson of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science briefly described it the following year, and recent research on other ceratopsid dinosaurs and further preparation of the specimen shed important new light on the fossils. 

Based on the latest investigations, researchers determined the fossils represent a new species. The genus name Menefeeceratops refers to the rock formation in which it was discovered, the Menefee Formation, and to the group of which the species is a part, Ceratopsidae. The species name sealeyi honors Sealey, who unearthed the specimen.

Menefeeceratops is related to but predates Triceratops, another ceratopsid dinosaur. However Menefeeceratops was a relatively small member of the group, growing to around 13 to 15 feet long, compared to Triceratops, which could grow to up to 30 feet long. 

Horned dinosaurs were generally large, rhinoceros-like herbivores that likely lived in groups or herds. They were significant members of Late Cretaceous ecosystems in North America. “Ceratopsids are better known from various localities in western North America during the Late Cretaceous near the end of the time of dinosaurs,” says Jasinski. “But we have less information about the group, and their fossils are rarer, when you go back before about 79 million years ago.”

Although bones of the entire dinosaur were not recovered, a significant amount of the skeleton was preserved, including parts of the skull and lower jaws, forearm, hindlimbs, pelvis, vertebrae, and ribs. These bones not only show the animal is unique among known dinosaur species but also provide additional clues to its life history. For example, the fossils show evidence of a potential pathology, resulting from a minor injury or disease, on at least one of the vertebrae near the base of its spinal column. 

Some of the key features that distinguish Menefeeceratops from other horned dinosaurs involve the bone that make up the sides of the dinosaur’s frill, known as the squamosal. While less ornate than those of some other ceratopsids, Menefeeceratops’ squamosal has a distinct pattern of concave and convex parts.

Comparing features of Menefeeceratops with other known ceratopsid dinosaurs helped the research team trace its evolutionary relationships. Their analysis places Menefeeceratops sealeyi at the base of the evolutionary tree of the centrosaurines subfamily, suggesting that not only is Menefeeceratops one of the oldest known centrosaurine ceratopsids, but also one of the most basal evolutionarily. 

Menefeeceratops was part of an ancient ecosystem with numerous other dinosaurs, including the recently recognized nodosaurid ankylosaur Invictarx and the tyrannosaurid Dynamoterror, as well as hadrosaurids and dromaeosaurids. “Menefeeceratops was part of a thriving Cretaceous ecosystem in the southwestern United States with dinosaurs that predated a lot of the more well-known members closer to end of the Cretaceous,” says Jasinski.

While relatively less work has been done collecting dinosaurs in the Menefee Formation to date, the researchers hope that more field work and collecting in these areas, together with new analyses, will turn up more fossils of Menefeeceratops and ensure a better understanding of the ancient ecosystem of which it was part.

Peter Dodson is a professor of anatomy in the School of Veterinary Medicine and a professor of earth and environmental science in the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.

Steven E. Jasinski is a curator of paleontology and geology at the State Museum of Pennsylvania and corporate faculty at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology. He earned his doctoral degree in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science in the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Arts & Sciences.

Sebastian G. Dalman is a research associate at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science in Albuquerque. 

Spencer G. Lucas is a curator of paleontology at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science in Albuquerque. 

Asher J. Lichtig is a research associate at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science in Albuquerque. 

Jasinski was supported by Geo. L. Harrison and Benjamin Franklin fellowships while attending the University of Pennsylvania. The research was also partially funded by a Walker Endowment Research Grant and a University of Pennsylvania Paleontology Research Grant. 

Featured image: Ateam from Penn and the New Mexico Museum of Natural History described Menefeeceratops sealeyi, a horned dinosaur found in New Mexico that predates its relative Triceratops. (Image: Sergey Kasovskiy

Reference: Dalman, S.G., Lucas, S.G., Jasinski, S.E. et al. The oldest centrosaurine: a new ceratopsid dinosaur (Dinosauria: Ceratopsidae) from the Allison Member of the Menefee Formation (Upper Cretaceous, early Campanian), northwestern New Mexico, USA. PalZ (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12542-021-00555-w

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What Can A Dinosaur’s Inner Ear Tell Us? Just Listen (Paleontology)

If paleontologists had a wish list, it would almost certainly include insights into two particular phenomena: how dinosaurs interacted with each other and how they began to fly.

The problem is, using fossils to deduce such behavior is a tricky business. But a new, Yale-led study offers a promising entry point — the inner ear of an ancient reptile.

According to the study, the shape of the inner ear offers reliable signs as to whether an animal soared gracefully through the air, flew only fitfully, walked on the ground, or sometimes went swimming. In some cases, the inner ear even indicates whether a species did its parenting by listening to the high-pitched cries of its babies.

“Of all the structures that one can reconstruct from fossils, the inner ear is perhaps that which is most similar to a mechanical device,” said Yale paleontologist Bhart-Anjan Bhullar, senior author of the new study, published in the journal Science.

“It’s so entirely dedicated to a particular set of functions. If you are able to reconstruct its shape, you can reasonably draw conclusions about the actual behavior of extinct animals in a way that is almost unprecedented,” said Bhullar, who is an assistant professor of earth and planetary sciences in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and an assistant curator at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.

Working with colleagues at the American Museum of Natural History, Bhullar and first author Michael Hanson of Yale compiled a matrix of inner ear data for 128 species, including modern-day animals such as birds and crocodiles, along with dinosaurs such as HesperornisVelociraptor, and the pterosaur Anhanguera.

Hesperornis, an 85-million-year-old bird-like species that had both teeth and a beak, was the inspiration for the research. The Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History has the world’s only three-dimensional fossil that preserves a Hesperornis inner ear.

illustration of bird like dinosaur with their babies.
A troodontid dinosaur parent glides down to its nest, using its specialized vestibular system to coordinate its landing and its elongated cochlea to hear its babies’ chirps. (Image: Michael Hanson and Bhart-Anjan S. Bhullar)

“I was aware of literature associating cochlear dimensions with hearing capability, and semicircular canal structure with locomotion in reptiles and birds, so I became curious as to how Hesperornis would fit into the picture,” said Hanson, a graduate student at Yale.

Hanson and Bhullar analyzed the Hesperornis inner ear with CT scanning technology to determine its three-dimensional shape.

Next, the researchers conducted the same analysis with a variety of other fossils — and current species — to determine whether the inner ear provided strong indications of behavior. In many cases, the researchers created 3D models from crushed or partially-crushed skull fossils.

After assembling the data, the researchers found clusters of species with similar inner ear traits. The clusters, they said, correspond with the species’ similar ways of moving through and perceiving the world.

Several clusters were the result of the structure of the top portion of the inner ear, called the vestibular system. This, said Bhullar, is “the three-dimensional structure that tells you about the maneuverability of the animal. The form of the vestibular system is a window into understanding bodies in motion.”

One vestibular cluster corresponded with “sophisticated” fliers, species with a high level of aerial maneuverability. This included birds of prey and many songbirds.

Another cluster centered around “simple” fliers like modern fowl, which fly in quick, straight bursts, and soaring seabirds and vultures. Most significantly, the inner ears of birdlike dinosaurs called troodontids, pterosaurs, Hesperornis, and the “dino-bird” Archaeopteryx fall within this cluster.

The researchers also identified a cluster of species which had a similar elongation of the lower portion of the inner ear — the cochlear system — that has to do with hearing range. This cluster featured a fairly large group of species, including all modern birds and crocodiles, which together form a group called archosaurs, the “ruling reptiles.”

Bhullar said the data suggest that the cochlear shape’s transformation in ancestral reptiles coincided with the development of high-pitched location, danger, and hatching calls in juveniles.

It implies that adults used their new inner ear feature to parent their young, the researchers said.

“All archosaurs sing to each other and have very complex vocal repertoires,” Bhullar said. “We can reasonably infer that the common ancestors of crocodiles and birds also sang. But what we didn’t know was when that occurred in the evolutionary line leading to them. We’ve discovered a transitional cochlea in the stem archosaur Euparkeria, suggesting that archosaur ancestors began to sing when they were swift little predators a bit like reptilian foxes.”

Co-authors of the study are Mark Norell and Eva Hoffman of the American Museum of Natural History.

The Yale Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences, the Yale Institute for Biospheric Studies, the American Museum of Natural History, and the National Science Foundation funded the research.

Featured image: Hesperornis image provided by the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. (Photo: Robert Lorenz)

Reference: Michael Hanson, Eva A. Hoffman, Mark A. Norell, Bhart-Anjan S. Bhullar, “The early origin of a birdlike inner ear and the evolution of dinosaurian movement and vocalization”, Science  07 May 2021: Vol. 372, Issue 6542, pp. 601-609 DOI: 10.1126/science.abb4305

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