A New Bird from New Zealand

Last week, a [paper] was published that described a new species of bird from New Zealand. New Zealand is an island nation in the Southern hemisphere, near Australia:

A map of New Zealand, with a star showing where the fossil was discovered. From Google.

New Zealand doesn’t have a huge fossil record, especially of birds, so this new discovery is exciting for several reasons. It adds to the record of bird fossils in the Southern hemisphere and in New Zealand, and comes right after the announcement of a discovery of a giant parrot from the same nation. This bird, however, is from a line of extinct birds called the Pelagornithids.

Protodontopteryx ruthae, the new species of pelagornithid. Made by Derek Only/Canterbury Museum.

These birds are known for having little ‘tooth-like’ pegs on their beaks. These are not teeth, however, just part of the edge of beak, hence how they got their name ‘pseudoteeth’ (=’false teeth’). They range in size from wingspans of 3 meters to 5-6 meters and were some of the largest birds to be able to fly. Their size restricted them to fly only in places with lots of wind, on which they would mostly glide.

The new species, Protodontopteryx ruthae, was smaller than all the others, with a wingspan of 1 meter. This smaller size indicates that this species may have been able to fly more actively than its larger relatives. In addition to the wings, the authors also describe the skull, hips, vertebrae, and the bones that connect the arms to the body, called the pectoral girdle.

The specimen of Protodontopteryx, photo on the left, CT image on the right. From Figure 1 of the paper.

Protodontopteryx is important for a few other reasons. Since it has pseudoteeth on its beak, it shows that those pegs evolved before the adaptations for gliding. It was found in sediments that are older than the locations for the other pelagornithids, and an analysis of evolutionary relationships indicated that it is a more basal (or earlier) member of the group. These two facts tell us that Protodontopteryxis the oldest and evolutionary earliest pelagornithid that we know, in addition to being the smallest. Let’s hope we find more amazing bird fossils in New Zealand!

Archosaur Air Conditioning

Today on DrNeurosaurus I want to talk about a [study] that came out in July of this year, but has recently been going around the media. This isn’t the typical study I talk about where some new fossil is discovered and described and celebrated for its novelty (new-ness) and scientific value. This is a different kind of study.

The authors wanted to take a closer look at a structure in the head of many archosaurs. You might remember archosaurs from other posts – they’re a group of animals that include the living crocodylians and birds, their ancestor, and all of its descendants:

This tree is modified from the one found [here], on Archosaur Musings.

All of these animals have openings in the top of the skull, that previous scientists thought were home to jaw muscles. The authors looked at these openings in over 100 specimens of lizards, turtles, crocodylians, and birds using CT, MRI, dissection, and other methods.

A crocodylian skull with the openings labeled. in the top of the skull. Source unknown.

They found that in many cases, the openings didn’t have muscles all the way through. Instead, the openings contained blood vessels just under the skin. When the authors looked at extinct animals like non-avian dinosaurs and extinct crocodylians, they did not find any evidence of muscles in those locations. Using comparison to living animals, they suggest that these openings housed blood vessels instead. But for what purpose?

Well, that depends on the animal. In animals with display structures like frills, those blood vessels could provide nutrients to the structure. 

A Triceratops. Its frill is a display structure – a structure that is used to communicate with other members of its species. From the Natural History Museum, London.

In animals without those structures, the blood vessels would act as a way to regulate their body temperature. To test this, the authors used thermal imaging cameras to take photos of living crocodylians. They found that those openings were cooler than the body in hot temperatures, and hotter than the body in cool temperatures. This suggests that their hypothesis (idea) has support!

Figure 11 from the paper: an artist rendition of thermal images of Daspletosaurus, Deinonychus, and two croc-line archosaurs. By Brian Engh.

Using lots of specimens and imaging methods, the authors were able to discover something completely new about animals we’ve known for a long time, including ones living today!

Opal, Ornithopods, and Australia

In early June, a discovery was published that made me say ‘Oh, cool!’ out loud. To be fair, a lot of things make me say that, but this discovery was rare.

In New South Wales, Australia, the bones of a new species of ornithopod (duckbill) dinosaur were unearthed in an opal mine. 

Map of Australia showing where the Shipyard Opal Fields are. From Google Maps.

The dinosaur is now called Fostoria dhimbangunmal(pronounced: fos-TO-ria dim-ban-GOON-mal) after Robert Foster who discovered the bone bed, and after the words for “sheep yard” for the Sheepyard opal fields where the bone bed is located. The words for sheep yard come from the language of the Yuwaalaraay, Yuwaalayaay, and Gamilaraay peoples, who are native peoples from Australia. 

Australia does not have a large fossil record of dinosaurs, so the discovery of Fostoriais important towards understanding what the continent was like in the Mesozoic. The description of the new dinosaur comes from potentially 4 individuals – they found four shoulder blades, three of which were right shoulders, which means there were at least 3 different animals there. Besides the shoulder blades, they found many elements of the arms, legs, vertebral column, and skull. And here’s the part that made me say “Oh, cool!”: the bones are preserved in opal! Opal is known for being a gemstone and is actually the national gemstone of Australia. In the case of these dinosaur bones, it’s a shade of blue, but it can come in a variety of colors.

Photo of one of the bones of Fostoria, preserved in opal. You can see a bit of translucent blue at the top. Photo by Robert A. Smith, Australian Opal Centre.

The bones that were found are all different sizes, representing animals of different ages that were living together. This is the first discovery of a dinosaur herd from Australia! And it’s preserved in opal! How neat is that?

A Young Paleontologist Goes Viral

Hello! It’s been a long year since you heard from me. Since you heard from me last, I moved to a new city (Boston!), had a baby (who now turned 1 year old), started a new job (Suffolk University!), bought a house (#adulting) and moved again. I’m finally able to make time for DrNeurosaurus again, so hopefully I still have some readers out there.

We’ve missed a lot of great news in the past year:

  • Baby pterosaurus, or [‘flaplings’] were probably able to fly
  • [Feathers] evolved way earlier than we had imagined
  • The head of a [wolf] was found in Siberia dating to 30,000 years ago, and it almost looks like it could be sleeping
  • A new bat-winged dinosaur: [Ambopteryx]
  • And many more!

Sadly I don’t have the time to review all of these, so instead today we’re going to talk about a young paleontologist from India.

Aswatha with a fossil. From The Better India (linked below)

She recently went viral on social media as the youngest paleontologist from India, so you may have heard of her. Her name is Aswatha Biju and she’s just 12 years old. At 5 years old, she saw a picture of an ammonite in an encyclopedia and her interest in paleontology took off. Her parents brought her to the [Egmore Museumwhere she could see ammonites and other fossils and she kept wanting to go back.

Aswatha giving a lecture. From The Better India (linked below)

From there, she started learning more about fossils and paleontology. She visited places where she could collect fossils and now has over 70! She’s become such an expert in Indian paleontology that she’s been invited to give seminars at schools and universities. Aswatha is well on her way to becoming one of the most knowledgeable paleontologists about Indian fossils. 

You can read more about her story at [The Better India].

Hello!

Remember me? A lot of things have happened since you last heard from me. I moved to a new city, had a baby, and got a tenure-track job. 2018 was quite the year. I’m hoping that 2019 is the year that I can make time to post on DrNeurosaurus again. However, since I’m still trying to make it through my first year in my new job, I will be posting less frequently, but I think I can do this once a month.

To that end, if you just can’t wait to hear from me, you don’t have to! Tonight, at 7pm eastern time, I will be live-streaming myself playing Jurassic World Evolution on Twitch. I can answer any questions on the dinosaurs you see, or general paleontology questions in REAL TIME! So come hang out with me tonight: twitch.tv/drneurosaurus.

Where in the World is DrNeurosaurus?

Hello friends. It’s been a while since I posted. I have not forgotten about you! I’m about 2 weeks away from meeting the tiny human I’ve been growing and have been running pretty low on energy. You may or may not know that the team involved in running DrNeurosaurus is just me. That means I don’t have any backup author to write posts when I can’t, and my recent life changes have made that more frequent than I would like.

Even though I’ve wanted to write posts each of these past weeks, I have not been able to. I will be returning to regular posting, but I need a few months off first. I will be starting a new job and caring for a new family member, and don’t anticipate much free time in the coming months. When I do return (hopefully in the early Fall), I will try to post at least once a month. As things normalize, I will hopefully be able to return to more frequent posting. See you soon!

A Giant Ichthyosaur from the United Kingdom

Last week, an [article] came out about an ichthyosaur from the United Kingdom. Ichthyosaurs are marine reptiles the lived during the Mesozoic. They had bodies shaped like dolphins and gave birth to their babies instead of laying eggs.

An ichthyosaur. From here.

This article described a few new specimens that were found in the United Kingdom. The specimens are pieces of the lower jaw bone, from slightly different time periods, but all from the Triassic (251-199 million years ago). Now, usually isolated pieces of bone do not make the news, but these lower jaw pieces are HUGE.

Figure 5A from the paper showing one of the jaw pieces.

The authors compared the pieces to other ichthyosaurs of the time and place and found that in one case, the animal could have measured 20-25 meters long. That’s almost the size of a blue whale! In the case of the other specimen, it might have been even larger.

A drawing of Shonisaurus, a related ichthyosaur. By N. Tamura.

Even though large mammals are found in our oceans today, during the Triassic, there was a broad diversity of reptiles ruling the seas.

The Short-Faced Reptile from Connecticut

Last week, a new little reptile was [described] from the Late Triassic (around 212 million years ago) of Connecticut (USA). The specimen was originally found in 1965, but it took almost 30 years before its first description was published in 1993. This new study adds in modern scanning and analysis techniques to get a better idea of what this animal was and how it lived.

A couple of rhynchosaurians with human legs for scale. From Pinterest.

The reptile is a rhyncosaurian, a type of reptile distantly related to crocodiles, dinosaurs, and birds. Rhyncosaurians lived only during the Triassic and were typically small, but some could grow up to 2 meters long. This new rhynchosaur is named Colobops novaportensis, meaning ‘short-faced’ and ‘from New Haven,’ the area where is was discovered. Colobops is interesting because of its small size and because of a few features of its head.

Figure 1A of the paper showing the top of the skull. The front of the skull is pointing up. This image was made using CT scans.

To start, the part of the face in front of the eyes, called the rostrum, is very short. It’s only about a quarter of the length of the skull! That’s very small for a reptile. Its whole skull is only 2.5 cm (1 inch) long. So, this is a very small rhynchosaurian. Secondly, the skull has features that indicate very large muscles for biting. Even though the muscles themselves do not fossilize, the space those muscles occupy and their bony attachment points do fossilize. These bones can give us an estimate of how large the muscles were. Altogether, this species is very small and its bite was much stronger than expected for its size.

An artist reconstruction of Colobops. By M. Hanson.

This study shows that we can always learn more about animals by using up-to-date techniques that were not always available. It also shows how science can occur in a series of steps that build on each other.

An Ammonite in Oregon

Today we’re focusing on a little story out of Bend, Oregon. A 6-year-old girl named Naomi Vaughan went off to play in the sagebrush as her mom cheered on a JV soccer team, and she found something extraordinary.

A map of the United States from Google, showing where Bend, Oregon is located.

Naomi decided to dig in the dirt, and in her explorations, she found a shiny, spiral-shaped fossil. The fossil was an ammonite! These extinct, marine animals are related to today’s squids, octopuses, and nautilis. They lived during the Paleozoic and Mesozoic (400-66 million years ago) and went extinct when the non-avian dinosaurs did at the end of the Mesozoic.

A picture of ammonites. Drawn by Ray Troll.

But how did Naomi’s ammonite make it to Bend? Ammonites aren’t known from Bend, but are common 80 miles away. Paleontologists think that her ammonite was brought in from another state, and maybe tossed away or lost in the field. One paleontologist narrowed down the age of the fossil to somewhere between 100 and 66 million years old.

Naomi Vaughan holding her fossil. Photo by Joe Kline/Bulletin photo.

One thing is for sure, Naomi is now the proud discoverer of a new ammonite fossil.

A New Baby Bird

This week, a [paper] came out describing a new baby enantiornithine. Enantiornithines are early birds that are closely related to the birds we see today, but part of a separate group. All enantiornithines went extinct at the end of the Cretaceous.

An enantiornithine. By S. Abramowicz.

This paper describes a fossil from the Early Cretaceous of Spain that preserves most of the skeleton. It is a remarkable specimen because it died around the time of birth. Because of its young age, it can give us a special glimpse of how the skeletons of enantiornithines developed in their lives.

Figure 1 from the paper showing the fossil. The head is up and the face is pointing to the right.

Of all the bones in this fossil, the sternum and the tail give us the most information into enantiornithine skeletons. The sternum is the large breastbone in birds that anchor the flight muscles. Enantiornithines also have a large sternum. This fossil shows that the sternum starts to ossify (or turn into bone) later than the other bones in the skeleton. It does this in a complicated pattern that is different from what we see in other enantiornithines and modern birds.

Figure 4g from the paper showing the ossification pattern of the sternum. It starts out as cartilage (grey) and it starts to ossify in the red, blue, and yellow sections. The bone grows out from there until the whole sternum is made of bone.

The tail in birds is usually fused into a bone called the pygostyle. In young birds, the vertebrae are still separate. This fossil has more separate vertebrae than the adult enantiornithines.

Figure 4 d and e from the paper showing a tail from an adult enantiornithine on the left and the baby on the right.

Both of these characteristics are slightly different than in other enantiornithines and in modern birds. This tells us that though very similar to modern birds on the outside, enantiornithines were developing their skeletons slightly differently. Ultimately, this could shed light on the different developmental strategies that we see in modern birds (how some can walk or fly at hatching and some take weeks or years to mature fully).

Figure 7 from the paper showing a reconstruction of the baby bird. The silhouettes show how big the baby would have been compared to a cockroach of the time. By R. Martín.