Ancient mouse-size creature uproots mammal family tree

An illustration of Haramiyavia, the earliest known proto-mammal, whose identity is based on a reconstruction of its 210-million-year-old fossil jaw (superimposed on bottom illustration). (April Neander)

An illustration of Haramiyavia, the earliest known proto-mammal, whose identity is based on a reconstruction of its 210-million-year-old fossil jaw (superimposed on bottom illustration). (April Neander)

Three-dimensional computer models of fossils from a tiny mouse-size creature that lived about 210 million years ago in what is now Greenland clear up a long-standing mammal mystery.

The high-tech analysis of the fossils suggests that mammals originated more than 30 million years more recently than previously suggested, the researchers say.

Paleontologists analyzed fossils of haramiyids, extinct relatives of modern mammals that lived about 210 million years ago. For decades, researchers only had isolated teeth from haramiyids, stymying investigations into where these creatures fit on the mammalian family tree. [See Images of 2 Tiny Early Mammals from China]

This uncertainty about where haramiyids belonged raised two possibilities. One was that haramiyids were crown mammals — the branch of the mammal family tree that all modern mammals descend from — suggesting that mammals began to diversify more than 210 million years ago in the Triassic Period. The other was that haramiyids occupied a separate branch at the base of the mammal family tree, suggesting instead that mammalian diversification began about 175 million years ago in the Jurassic Period.

To help solve this mystery, scientists analyzed a remarkably well-preserved jaw from a haramiyid species known as Haramiyavia clemmenseni, discovered in Greenland in 1995.

“These fossils are extremely rare,” study lead author Zhe-Xi Luo, a paleontologist at the University of Chicago, told Live Science. “You have to go into the Arctic tundra and search for tiny little bits of fossils.”

The paleontologists theorized that Haramiyavia was a small creature, weighing from 50 to 70 grams, or about twice as much as an adult mouse.

“As the earliest known haramiyid, Haramiyavia is the key piece of evidence for inferences about the timeline of early mammalian evolution,” Luo said in a statement.

The researchers used high-resolution computed tomography (CT) scans to develop 3D computer models of the jaw that helped them investigate this specimen in unprecedented detail.

“With the CT scans, we were able to see every little piece of this fossil,” Luo said.

This high-tech analysis revealed many primitive structures in the haramiyid jaw, including a trough in the back of the jaw that would have been connected to a primitive middle ear, and a bony prominence on the hinge of the jawbone. These two features provide strong evidence that haramiyids are more primitive than true mammals. This theory is supported by the lack of these two jaw features in the multituberculates, a group of early mammals that prior research suggested was closely related to the haramiyids.

“This was clearly a dead branch of the mammal family tree, going off to the side,” Luo said, referring to the haramiyids.

The scientists also created virtual animations that showed how Haramiyaviateeth functioned. Their research showed that haramiyids possessed incisors for cutting and complex cheek teeth for grinding plant food, suggesting that they were omnivores or herbivores. In contrast, other early proto-mammalian groups had less complex teeth, which were adapted for eating insects or worms.

“They broke away from being insectivores and carnivores and invaded an herbivorous-eating niche, opening up a whole new world for themselves,” Luo said.

Plant-eating mammals did later evolve complex teeth similar to those of haramiyids, despite the fact that they were not direct descendants of haramiyids. This is a striking example of convergent evolution, a bit like how flapping wings evolved from arms in birds, pterosaurs and bats.

“This herbivory adaptation evolved many times,” Luo said.

Many questions remain about how haramiyids lived. “Now that we know their address on the evolutionary tree, we want to better understand how they went about their daily lives — for instance, we’d like to know how they moved about,” Luo said.

The scientists detailed their findings online Nov. 16 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Copyright 2015 LiveScience, a Purch company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Take a look at this bizarre, head-banging bee


If there was a heavy metal rock fan in the natural world, it would have to be the Australian native blue banded bee.

As you can see from this video, this bee with its distinctive black and blue stripes is a head banger. But rather than jamming to the latest Metallica song, this is actually the bee’s unusual approach to pollination. It uses its head to shake loose the pollen, a contrast to the conventional methods of brushing up against flowers so the pollen stick to the hairs of a bee.

“I initially though it was one bee doing something weird, so I went back the next day to try to get some up-close videos of the bees,” Harvard’s Callin Switzer told “When I looked at those videos, I spent a bunch of time trying to figure out why they would behave so differently. Then I immediately though about putting some music in the background and making a silly video to share with my colleagues!”

Related: Global warming, evolution reshaping bodies of bumblebees, study says

To the naked eye, it’s almost impossible to see the head banging – since its done up to 350 times a second. This video, however, slows things down so you can see the violent head shaking and how this technique causes vibrations that release the pollen into the air – which helps pollinate the flower.

The researchers from RMIT, University of Adelaide, Harvard University and University of California, Davis compared the pollination techniques of Australian native blue banded bees with North American bumblebees, which are commonly used overseas to commercially pollinate tomato plants.

Related: Tiny flies create zombie honeybees that take night flights, then die

While their American counterparts grabbed the anther of the tomato plant flower with their mandibles before tensing their wing muscles to shake the pollen out, super slow motion footage revealed the bee from down under prefers a “hands-free” approach.

And by recording the audio frequency and duration of the bees’ buzz, RMIT’s Sridhar Ravi, Switzer and the University of Adelaide’s Katja Hogendoorn were able to prove the Aussie bee vibrates the flower at a higher frequency than overseas bees and spend less time per flower.

But it remains a mystery why the bees take this approach.

“I can’t explain why they use this behavior, though I have a few guesses,” Switzer said.

“Maybe their mandibles are too small or too weak to hold onto the anther while vibrating at 350 Hz. Maybe the impact forces actually loosen pollen better than the relatively smooth motion that would occur if they grasped the anthers with their mandibles,” he said.  “I also don’t know if they’re alone in this behavior — I think that question is really hard to answer, since it’s not a behavior you can see with your naked eye.”

The researchers said they were “absolutely surprised” by the findings and argued the results, which will soon appear in the journal Arthropod-Plant Interactions, could open the door to improving the efficiency of certain crop pollination as well as better understanding of such things as muscular stress and the development of miniature flying robots.

Related: Study shows popular pesticide hurting health of wild bees _ not honeybees _ out in the field

“Our earlier research has shown that blue-banded bees are effective pollinators of greenhouse tomatoes,” Hogendoorn said. “This new finding suggests that blue-banded bees could also be very efficient pollinators ─ needing fewer bees per hectare.”

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Spaniel-size Triceratops cousin walked on its two hind legs

An artist's interpretation of Hualianceratops wucaiwanensis, a dinosaur that lived about 160 million years ago. (Credit: Portia Sloan Rollings)

An artist’s interpretation of Hualianceratops wucaiwanensis, a dinosaur that lived about 160 million years ago. (Credit: Portia Sloan Rollings)

The discovery of a spaniel-size ceratopsian that walked on its two hind legs reveals that Late Jurassic horned dinosaurs were much more diverse than previously thought, a new study finds.

Researchers uncovered the remains of the 160-million-year-old, plant-eating creature in China’s Gobi desert. The new specimen has a unique ornamental texture on its skull, and it’s much smaller than its famous distant cousin,Triceratops, which lived about 95 million years later in North America during the Late Cretaceous, the researchers said.

Though its anatomy suggests the newfound beast was an early horned dinosaur, it didn’t sport any horns. That’s no surprise — other early horned dinosaurs, including the small bipedal Yinlong downsi, which the researchers found in the same Gobi desert fossil bed, didn’t have horns, either, the researchers said. [Photos: Oldest Known Horned Dinosaur in North America]

“It looks like Yinlong downsi, but much larger,” said study lead author Fenglu Han, a postdoctoral student in the School of Earth Sciences at the China University of Geosciences. “Most of the skull bones [of the new species] are sculpted.”

After analyzing the fossils — a partial skull and foot — the researchers named the newly identified species Hualianceratops wucaiwanensis (HWAL-ee-on SAR-ah-tops woo-sigh-wahn-EN-sis). In Mandarin, Hualian means “ornamental face,” referring to the unique texture on its skull, and ceratops means “horned face” in Greek. The wucaiwan part of the species name refers to the area in which the fossil was discovered, and means “five color bay” in Mandarin.

When the researchers uncovered H. wucaiwanensis in 2002, they initially thought it was an ankylosaur, Han told Live Science. But a detailed study confirmed that, like Yinlong downsithe newfound plant eater is among the oldest ceratopsians known to science, he said.

Finding these two species in the same fossil beds reveals there was more diversity there than we previously recognized,” study co-author Catherine Forster, a professor of biology at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., said in a statement. “It suggests that the ceratopsian dinosaurs already had diversified into at least four lineages by the beginning of the Jurassic period.”

A comparison of H. wucaiwanensis with other ceratopsians is helping researchers reassess the pace and pattern of horned-dinosaur evolution, the researchers said. For instance, little is known about the evolution of the small, parrot-beaked horned dinosaur group Psittacosaurus, which lived in China during the Early Cretaceous.

Hualianceratops preserved some derived features of Psittacosaurus, and may provide more information of the origin of Psittacosaurus,” Han said.

Moreover, H. wucaiwanensis lived at the same time and place as Guanlong, an early relative of Tyrannosaurus rex. It’s possible that Guanlong hunted H.wucaiwanensis, but more evidence is needed to say for sure, Han said.

The new study is “an exciting paper,” said Caleb Brown, a paleobiologist at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Canada, who was not involved in the study. “These small, early ceratopsians are important because they can tell us about the early evolution of this iconic group.”

The analysis suggests that the evolutionary split between Neoceratopsia (a group that includes Triceratops) and Psittacosaurus is older than previously thought, Brown said.

“Given the pattern of relationships revealed by the new animal and new analysis, the paper also suggests that there are many more, and more varied, species of these small …horned dinosaurs during the initial evolution of this group,” Brown told Live Science.

The study was published online Dec. 9 in the journal PLOS ONE.

Copyright 2015 LiveScience, a Purch company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Cheetah genome shows a cat with nine lives

This undated photo provided by the Indianapolis Zoo shows Pounce, a cheetah who escaped from its exhibit Sunday, Sept. 6, 2015 (Indianapolis Zoo)

This undated photo provided by the Indianapolis Zoo shows Pounce, a cheetah who escaped from its exhibit Sunday, Sept. 6, 2015 (Indianapolis Zoo)

Cheetahs may be one of nature’s great survivors.

A new study this week found that the world’s fastest cat has managed to overcome two population bottlenecks over tens of thousands of years that could have led to its extinction.

By sequencing the cheetah’s genome, an international team writing in the journalGenome Biology concluded that the first one came 100,000 years ago when Acinonyx jubatus first migrated out of North American across the Beringian landbridge to Asia and then eventually south to Africa. This was a time when all the Pleistocene megafauna went extinct, including sabretooths, mammoths and the woolly rhino.

Related: Genome sequencing in babies to begin as part of study

The second bottleneck came around 10,000-12,000 years ago, further reducing its numbers and causing a major reduction in the gene pool that remains today.

“It was an extinction event in North America and a near extinction among the survivors that already made it to Asia,” Stephen J. O’Brien, a co-author on the study and a chief scientific officer at the Theodosius Dobzhansky Center for Genome Bioinformatics at St. Petersburg State University, told

“Both of these represent a dropping of population size to such low numbers that their genome diversity reflects it,” he said. “It allows you to say wow, there was an event that probably was a brush with extinction – I mean the tigers had one about 75,000 years ago when there was an eruption of some volcano in Southeast Asia.”

To understand its evolutionary history, researchers that also included members of the Beijing Genomics Institute and the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) sequenced the genome from a male Namibian cheetah named ‘Chewbaaka’, and six other wild cheetahs from Tanzania and Namibia.

Related: Can world’s biggest shark help humans?

What they found was troubling.

The cheetah’s genome was in poor shape, resulting in elevated rates of juvenile mortality and the extreme abnormalities in sperm development and increases vulnerability to infectious disease outbreaks. The variation in the cheetah genome is far below that observed in inbred dogs and cats, with researchers showing that the cheetah has lost 90-99 percent of the genetic variation typically seen in outbred mammals.

“The cheetahs themselves look as if they were deliberately inbred because the amount of variation they have overall throughout the entire genome is really off the scale as far as being lower than anything else we have ever seen,” O’Brien said. “The cheetah is like the winner of the lowest variation of a natural population. To get down that low, you have to drop down to numbers that are so low that you start inbreeding with close relatives – even though you have an instinctive avoidance of it – because there is nothing else to breed with it.”

A total of 18 cheetah genes showed damaging mutations and one gene in particular, AKAP4, showed a large number of mutations. This can harm sperm development and may explain why cheetahs have a large proportion of defective sperm, and hence low reproductive success.

“There are a handful of genes involved in reproduction that have been clearly disarmed or dismantled,” O’Brien said,” noting that most cat species have only 30 percent of sperm malformed while the cheetah has around 80 percent.

“The gene (AKAP4) … is known in humans and mice to being a very important gene and it’s only expressed in testis and it’s only involved in making proper sperm,” he said. “So, if you knock it out in other species, you end up with malformed sperm and that is what we got in cheetahs.”

But the cheetah’s genome wasn’t completely flawed. The researchers also found genes that demonstrated just why the cheetah has evolved to be the Usain Bolt of the African savannah.

“There are regions that are good, regions that show remarkably fast evolution,” O’Brien said. “That is the signal of natural selection and adaptation and those regions include genes involved with energy metabolism, stress response and are probably associated with the development of this high speed sprinting, aerodynamic skull, large heart muscles – all these things associated with the high speed the cheetah demonstrates.”

The University of Edinburgh’s Ross Barnett, who did not take part in the study, called the research “pretty solid” and said that it serves to confirm what many already believed about the cheetah.

“What’s interesting to me is that they seem to pick up and confirm the hypothesis that was developed in earlier studies: that cheetahs are extremely lacking in diversity. It has long been known that cheetahs had many unusual features that suggested they lacked diversity but this genome data seems to confirm it for sub-saharan African cheetah,” he said by email. “What I would have liked to have seen would have been comparison to the severely endangered Persian cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus). Other studies of limited mtDNA and neutral micro satellite data that include Asiatic cheetah suggest that the lack of diversity in cheetah might be a regional artefact.”

Related: New DNA codes for mammoths: Step toward bringing them back?

O’Brien said he hopes their work can not only spell out the evolution of cheetahs but provide data that could help ensure their survival.  Deemed vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, there are less than 10,000 in the wild with almost all of them in South Africa and Eastern Africa.

The cheetah numbers are declining – they have fallen 90 percent in the past 100 years – mostly due to a loss of habitat, illegal trade of the live animals and death from illegal hunters, angry farmers as well as motorists hitting  them on highways.

“Sequencing the cheetah genome illuminates our understanding of the species’ evolutionary past and aids us in efforts to sustain and increase cheetah populations in their present and former range,”  Laurie Marker, the founder and executive director of the CCF and a co-author on the study, said by email.

“By understanding the history of the species’ migration, its
population bottlenecks and lack of genetic diversity, scientists and conservationists can work together to develop informed strategies to protect the species,” she said. “Although human
intervention has caused many problems for the cheetah, humans also have the ability to change the cheetah’s future.”

Related: MIT’s ‘cheetah-bot’ can now jump over hurdles

And as researchers consider measures to save the cheetah, O’Brien and others said the genome – as flawed as it is – offers plenty of hope these speedy cats.

“Yes, the cheetah does show the correlates of inbreeding expressed in reproduction, expressed in immune response genes. However, those traits – as recognizable as they are – have not been rate limiting on the cheetah’s expansion,” O’Brien said.

“The cheetah’s last bottleneck was 10,000 years ago so that means we have had 2,000 generations where the cheetahs have risen up to hundreds of thousands. That means they are able to breed, overcome these problems,” he continued. “They are able to have offspring even though their sperm is bad, even though some of them are infertile. All of these problems that we are seeing are not a death sentence but actually the cheetah is a success story for overcoming it.”

Original available here

Scientists remain baffled by blue tarantulas

This photo shows a Chromatopelma Cyanopubescens tarantula, a green-bottle blue male originally from Venezuela.

This photo shows a Chromatopelma Cyanopubescens tarantula, a green-bottle blue male originally from Venezuela. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Next time a big, blue tarantula comes crawling over, just ask yourself, “Why is it blue?” At least that’s what a group of researchers did, and they realized it’s a tough question, National Geographic reports.

The Verge reports there are at least 40 tarantula species that are colored blue; inthis study, researchers analyzed eight. The species ranged from the critically endangered Poecilotheria metallica to the big, aggressive, Singapore-blueLampropelma violaceopes, and the researchers found the coloration appeared to evolve separately eight times in tarantulas.

Even more fascinating, the color’s source isn’t a pigment, but rather nanocrystals in the spiders’ hair that reflect blue light—and the nanostructures aren’t the same in every species.

This suggests the trait “it is not related to a different trait such as an ability to repel water,” per a press release. “The blue color definitely has a major function, and it’s very specific why they need this color,” says study co-author Bor-Kai Hsiung—and attracting a mate likely isn’t it.

Tarantulas’ eight eyes don’t see very well, so Hsiung and his colleagues tossed that theory. Their conclusion? The blue “might be a signal to predators, or maybe it’s a blue that’s not particularly bright in a rainforest environment … and it makes it harder to … track … the spider?” study co-author Todd Blackledge tells theAtlantic.

“It really is a situation where we’ve thrown our hands up. I’m actually waving my hands as I’m talking to you.” On the upside, “tarantula blue” isn’t iridescent—meaning it doesn’t change hue at different angles—so it could show us how to build better screens for phones and TVs, the Verge reports.

(Cops recently responded to a domestic violence call—against a spider.)

This article originally appeared on Newser: Why Blue Tarantulas Are Baffling

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Dad attacks and kills massive cobra in viral revenge video


Man attacks and kills cobra in viral revenge video. (

A man attacks and kills a massive King Cobra snake with his bare hands reportedly to avenge the death of his son.

In shocking footage, the man can be seen grabbing the venomous snake from a tree in a fit of rage and smashing it against the ground repeatedly.

The dust flies up as the man swings the reptile by its tail into the dirt seven times before releasing it — all without a care for his own safety.

The Sun reports that having reportedly bit and killed his son, the snake is seen slithering to the side of the dirt track before lying motionless.

The man, from southern India, is just wearing shorts when he grabs the dangerous reptile.

The video was posted on YouTube and has gone viral, with over 700,000 views.

But his actions have been condemned in some quarters say he is guilty of animal cruelty.

Click for more from

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Burglary suspect hides in Florida lake, where gator eats him

Alleged burglar eaten by alligator while hiding from police

A suspected burglar jumped in a Florida lake apparently hiding from law enforcement before an 11-foot alligator killed him, investigators said Monday. His hand and foot reportedly turned up inside the animal’s stomach.

Brevard County Sheriff’s Maj. Tod Goodyear says 22-year-old Matthew Riggins told his girlfriend he would be in Barefoot Bay to commit burglaries with another suspect. Authorities received calls Nov. 13 about two suspicious men in black walking behind homes and investigated. Riggins was reported missing the next day.

Goodyear said sheriff’s divers recovered Riggins’ body 10 days later in a nearby lake, and that the injuries suggested the alligator had pulled him below the surface. “He hid in the wrong place,” resident Laura Farris told Bay News 9.

Authorities said Riggins drowned and the alligator, which behaved aggressively toward divers, was trapped and euthanized.

Florida Today reports a second person was taken into custody.

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Ancient tiny whale hunted with pointy teeth, oversize gums

The sharp and pointy teeth of <i>Fucaia buelli</i>.

The sharp and pointy teeth of Fucaia buelli. (Courtesy of R. Ewan Fordyce)

Before baleen whales developed their iconic bristled filter-feeding structures, they relied on their pointy teeth and a suctioning method to nab and gulp down prey, a new study finds.

The findings are based on the fossilized remains of a newfound species of early baleen whale. Paleontologists Jim Goedert and Bruce Crowley, both researchers at the Burke Museum at the University of Washington in Seattle, discovered the fossilized whale off the northern tip of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.

At 30 million to 33 million years old, the newly identified species of whale is one of the oldest and smallest known baleen whales to swim around Earth’s oceans, said Felix Marx, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Museum of Nature and Science of Japan and the study’s lead researcher. [Whale Album: Photos Reveal Giants of the Deep]

The whale measured just over 6.5 feet long, making it much smaller than today’s smallest baleen whale, the 21-foot-long  pygmy right whale, and almost 14 times smaller than the 90-foot-long blue whale, the largest modern baleen whale.

Moreover, the newfound whale skeleton has 17 preserved teeth — a finding that reveals information about how these early whales hunted and fed, Marx said.

He and his colleagues named the new species Fucaia buelli after the Strait of Juan de Fuca, where they found the whale, and Carl Buell, an illustrator known for drawing living and extinct marine animals.

Toothy whales

Modern baleen whales don’t have teeth.

“Instead, they filter small animals directly from the water using a series of comblike baleen plates suspended from their upper jaws,” Marx told Live Science in an email.

But the baleen whales’ ancestors — including F. buelli — did have teeth, raising the question of how baleen whales lost their teeth without losing the ability to hunt and feed during the transition to baleen-only feeding. Some studies suggest that ancient whales had teeth and then developed baleen before losing their teeth.

“However, Fucaia now shows that the transition was probably more complex,” Marx said. “The teeth of Fucaia are so large that they line the entire upper jaw, and thus simply leave no room for baleen. Wear on the teeth also shows that the upper and lower teeth sheared against each other as the mouth opened and closed; thus, any baleen that might have been present would constantly have been caught between the teeth.”

Even without baleen plates, F. buelli would have been a successful hunter, Marx said. The researchers suggested that the whale used its teeth and a suctioning technique to capture prey, or at least it caught prey with its teeth, and then sucked it to the back of its mouth to swallow it.

“Suction feeding is common among living marine mammals, and seen in many [living] toothed whales and dolphins, as well as the gray whale,” Marx said.

Two key features suggest that F. buelli used this suctioning to filter food from the water, he said. First, the fossils indicate that the whale had large gums, which could have helped the creature seal off the sides of its mouth when its jaws were slightly opened.

“The effect of this would be to reduce the size of the mouth opening, and thus to concentrate the flow created by suction at the tip of the snout,” Marx said. [Marine Marvels: Spectacular Photos of Sea Creatures]

Secondly, living whales create suction in their mouths by using strong muscles to pull the tongue and throat backward and downward. Fossil evidence suggests that some of these muscles were well developed in F. buelli, Marx said.

This suctioning technique could have eased the transition from toothy to baleen-only whales, he said.

“As whales evolved better suction, they were able to catch smaller prey than teeth alone could handle but, at the same time, needed a more efficient way to expel the water sucked in with the food,” Marx said. “This need is perfectly matched by baleen, which developed from the already enlarged gums and provided an easy way to expel excess water while, at the same time, retaining the prey inside the mouth.”

The new study is an exciting “solid paper,” said Jorge Velez-Juarbe, a curator of marine mammals at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County who was not involved in the new study.

“The description is fantastic,” Velez-Juarbe said. “I think it helps us understand the early evolution of this group of whales.”

The study was published online Dec. 2 in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

Copyright 2015 LiveScience, a Purch company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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These dinosaurs liked to get their feet wet

Artist's impression of sauropod dinosaurs on Skye.

Artist’s impression of sauropod dinosaurs on Skye. (Jon Hoad)

Paleontologists have found what they believe is the biggest dinosaur site in Scotland, one that includes hundreds of huge footprints from plant-eating sauropods dating to around 170 million years ago.

The discovery on the Isle of Skye of the footprints and hand prints is helping provide fresh insight into the huge, long-necked animals, which were the biggest of the dinosaurs. A land mammal that fed on plants, this discovery offers the strongest proof yet that they weren’t afraid to occasionally dip their toes into the water.

“This find clearly establishes the Isle of Skye as an area of major importance for research into the Mid-Jurassic period,” University of Edinburgh’s Tom Challands, who took part in the discovery that was detailed in a study Tuesday in the Scottish Journal of Geology, said in a statement. “It is exhilarating to make such a discovery and being able to study it in detail, but the best thing is this is only the tip of the iceberg. I’m certain Skye will keep yielding great sites and specimens for years to come.”

Related: With new discovery, Bolivia has most dinosaur footprints on earth

Scientists had gone to Isle of Skye in April on of their annual fossil trips and stumbled upon the footprints by chance. Heading back from a long day of fossil digging on the island’s isolated far northeast, the team led by Steve Brusatte noticed depressions -some as big as 27 inches in diameter – in the rocks and quickly realized they had found something significant.

“As we were walking back to the cars, we noticed this big depression in the rock, this platform of rock that juts out into the Atlantic. It kind of looked like a pot hole,” Brusatte told  “Then, we noticed another one and another one in a zigzag pattern. It dawned on us pretty quickly that we had seen similar things in other parts of the world and that these were footprints of these big sauropods.”

Related: Huge trove of dinosaur footprints discovered in Alaska

The site had been visited by other geologists but the foot prints probably were missed because the area is a tidal site often covered by water, seaweed and sand.

“We were just there at a lucky time,” Brusatte said of the footprints, which were the first sauropod tracks to be found in Scotland. Until now, the only evidence that sauropods lived in Scotland came from a small number of bone and teeth fragments.

“When we looked closely at them, we could see the individual digits, impressions of the fingers and toes and the claws. Really, it was in a few minutes that we figured it out,” Brusatte said. “Just right place at the right time and it came together. We frantically started taking a lot of photos, measurements and notes because it was getting dark and the tide was coming in.”

By analyzing the footprints, the team believes that the dinosaurs that lived here were early, distant relatives of more well-known species, such as Brontosaurus and Diplodocus. The Skye dinosaurs likely grew to at least 49 feet in length and weighed more than 10 tons – though they haven’t found any bones that would have come from the dinosaurs because they most likely washed out to sea or were taken away by predators.

Related: Area with 200-plus dinosaur tracks opening to public soon

The tracks are also helping scientists get a clearer idea of habitat and behavior of these behemoths that are believed to have lived alongside other meat-eaters, armored dinosaurs like stegosaurus as well as small mammals.

Together with similar tracks found recently in other parts of the world, the Skye trackways reveal that sauropods spent lots of time in coastal areas and shallow water – and were not solely land based. There have been previous discovers suggesting this was the case but Brusatte said Skye was a “slam dunk site” that supported that theory.

“The reason why the site is so important is that these footprints were made in a lagoon. We know from the geology this was a lagoon,” Brusatte said. “Sauropods were making their foot prints while they were wading in the water … We have three different layers so that is three different time intervals.  This is telling us these huge dinosaurs lived or at least moved through these lagoons fairly regularly over time. This was a normal part of their repertoire.”

But what were they doing there?

“They weren’t sharks or whales but they were at home in shallow water,” Brusatte said.

“It doesn’t seem like it was some kind of fluke or random occurrence that they were there They must have just been at home in these environments,” he continued. “Maybe they were eating there. Maybe it was a place where there weren’t so many predators so they were a bit safer. Maybe it was a way for them to cool themselves down. We don’t really know. This is a whole new question now that is kind of emerging.”

“Any dinosaur remains such as these Middle Jurassic remains are extremely rare world-wide and are important additions to our knowledge of this poorly represented time period,” added Neil Clark curator of Palaeontology at the The Hunterian museum in Glasgow. “Scotland is fast becoming one of the most important sources of Middle Jurassic dinosaurs with new discoveries being made almost every year.”

Originally available here

Dinosaur nesting may have led to the rise of the modern bird

Children watch a life-sized Tyrannosaurus Rex dinosaur model in Vienna February 7, 2014. (REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader)

Children watch a life-sized Tyrannosaurus Rex dinosaur model in Vienna February 7, 2014. (REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader)

Researchers have recently discovered that dinosaurs had an innovative nesting style that may have led to the evolutionary success of modern birds. The study, published in the journal Plos One, details for the first time the link between dinosaur eggshell porosity and different nesting types, and shows how the prehistoric creatures’ nesting styles correlate with the way crocodiles and birds –  the dinosaurs’ closest living relatives – nest.

The question of how dinosaurs incubated their eggs has been debated among scientists for years.

“Nest structures are usually not preserved in the fossil record, making it difficult to determine if dinosaurs buried their eggs during incubation like crocodiles, or if they were incubated in more open nests as in brooding birds,” study co–author Kohei Tanaka of the University of Calgary told “There are many papers that seek the incubation method of dinosaurs, but our research is one of the most comprehensive studies in that it analyzes large datasets on the eggs of both living and fossil species.”

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Tanaka and his team, under the supervision of dinosaur egg and nesting site expert Darla Zelenitsky, studied the fossilized eggshell porosity of 30 different dinosaur species before comparing them with the porosity of eggs belonging to 120 species of birds and crocodiles.

“Fossil eggs are more challenging to study because fossil specimens are often incomplete,” Tanaka said. “However, some of the microscopic features of the eggshell, such as porosity, are preserved, and can be used to infer the types of nests in dinosaurs in the absence complete nests.”

Brooding birds’ eggs, which are incubated in open nests, have a low porosity while crocodile and megapode (also known as incubator or mound–building) bird eggs are highly porous and incubated in buried nests. Most dinosaurs, such as long–necked sauropods and carnivorous theropods, laid low porosity eggs, thus the researchers were able to conclude that they buried their eggs like the modern crocodile. The researchers also found that advanced theropods, including the bird–like maniraptorans, produced high porosity eggshells, hence their eggs were more likely to have been incubated in open nests like those of their closely related living birds.

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“We were surprised that although previous studies on the eggs of oviraptorids suggested they were buried, our results reveal that their eggs were exposed similar to modern bird nests,” Tanaka said.

Still, the team did find evidence that the theropods did partly bury their eggs as well, leading them to conclude that it wasn’t until the arrival of modern birds that open nests with fully exposed eggs began to appear. This would indicate an evolutionary shift in nest and incubation styles between dinosaurs and birds. A switch from buried nests to open nesting and brooding would ensure that the eggs of advanced theropods (including birds) would be safe from ground predators, which may have played a large role in their evolutionary success.

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“Our results suggest that the change in nesting style occurred in small meat-eating dinosaurs that are closely related to birds,” Tanaka explained. “To better understand dinosaur nesting styles, however, future discoveries of fossil eggs will hopefully fill in the gaps in the dinosaur family tree where eggs are currently unknown.”

The team is planning on using their research to answer other prehistoric nesting questions, such as the length of time it took for dinosaur eggs to hatch.


Originally available here