Australia using drones to combat rising number of shark attacks


Australia saw a rise in shark attacks during 2015. (iStock)

Australia’s sharks have been in the news a lot recently, as the country has one of the highest rates of shark attacks on earth. In New South Wales alone, there have been 13 reported incidents so far this year, and summer beach season is just about to start.

Authorities in New South Wales are worried about beachgoers getting bit… or worse. They are also concerned that tourists might be dissuaded from visiting beaches in the Sydney area because they are afraid of being attacked (even though the odds of encountering the menacing fish are very, very low).

A new approach to protecting people from shark attacks

Instead of starting to cull sharks that swim too close to shore, NSW authorities will take a high-tech approach to keeping swimmers and surfers safe. They will rely on helicopter and drone surveillance, while also deploying next-generations sonar equipment to get real-time shark locations in popular beach areas.

Despite being billed as a “high-tech solution,” the drones will actually help make shark surveillance cheaper in the long run. The initial plan calls for a budget of $16 million. Although choppers will still make shark-spotting flights, drones, which are cheaper to operate, can take over some of the workload and keep the overall price tag for ongoing surveillance to a minimum.

Another, more traditional, step will involve tagging sharks so that they can be tracked even if the drones are grounded.

Sharing shark locations with the public

How safe should beachgoers feel? This is a five-year plan, though it is starting right away. Once all sonar buoys are deployed and drone flights mapped out, a testing phase will begin.

It will be some time before all the features are in place and testing is complete. Once the “beta phase” ends, it will be very easy to access information about the latest shark locations. The goal is to be able to share the data with the public via a smartphone app. This will not only tell people when it is time to get out of the water, it can also help them see which beaches might experience closures in the near future because of shark activity.

Putting everyone’s mind at ease

The timing for this plan is certainly good. Though there has only been one fatality in NSW from shark attacks this year, there has been a significant rise in the number of encounters (13 total). In 2014, there were only three recorded shark attacks, two of which proved fatal. The increase has made headlines and, at the very least, made people think twice about getting in the water.

When you think about the tens of thousands of people who get in the water every day in the Sydney area, the chances of becoming the victim of a shark attack are very small. Nonetheless, the increase in encounters with the toothy fish has forced authorities’ hand. The plan will, ideally, ease people’s minds and appease conservationists at the same time.


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Could some vultures disappear from Africa?

Gyps rueppellii erlangeri, Rueppell's Vulture, Ethiopia

Gyps rueppellii erlangeri, Rueppell’s Vulture, Ethiopia (Andy & Gill Swash (

More than half of Africa’s vultures are facing a growing risk of extinction, due to widespread poisoning and targeting by poachers, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The troubling state of vultures is part of a growing trend for birds around the world with 24 species in total being classified as having a higher risk of extinction, according to the latest assessment of birds for the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, which was carried out by BirdLife International.

Of the 11 vultures that patrol the skies in Africa, six saw their status upgraded including four that are now listed as critically endangered. They included the hooded vulture (Necrosyrtes monachus) upgraded from endangered to critically endangered, the whit-backed vulture (Gyps africanus) upgraded from endangered to critically endangered, the white-headed vulture (Trigonoceps occipitalis) upgraded from vulnerable to critically endangered and Rüppell’s Vulture (Gyps rueppellii) upgraded from endangered to critically endangered.

Related: Colony of Rare Vultures Found in Cambodia

“As well as robbing the African skies of one of their most iconic and spectacular groups of birds, the rapid decline of the continent’s vultures has profound consequences for its people – as vultures help stop the spread of diseases by cleaning up rotting carcasses,”  Julius Arinaitwe, BirdLife International’s Africa Programme Director, said in a statement.

“However, now we are becoming aware of the sheer scale of the declines involved, there is still just enough time for conservationists to work with law-makers, faith-based organizations, government agencies and local people, to make sure there is a future for these magnificent scavengers,” he added.

Simon Stuart, chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, pointed out that vultures play critical roles in the African ecosystem. Among the ugliest birds on the planet, vultures play  nature’s garbagemen – helping cleanup carcarasses and prevent the spread of disease.

“Their decline can have serious knock-on effects on other species and the many benefits provided by nature,” Stuart said, in a statement. “While it is encouraging to see some positive outcomes of conservation action, this update is an important wake-up call, showing that urgent efforts need to be taken to protect these species.”

Earlier this year, a study in Conservation Letters documented the dramatic decline of these scavengers across Africa. In their study, an international team found that populations of eight species declined by an average of 62 percent and that seven had declined at a rate of 80 percent or more over three generations.

The African vultures’ demise echoes similar troubles for the birds in Asia, where tens of millions of vultures have died as a result of eating cattle and buffalo carcasses containing the painkiller diclofenac. It was also banned for veterinary use in India in 2006 because of its lethal effects but human formulations of the drug have been illegally used to treat animals until recently.

Related: Cattle Medicine Blamed for Deaths of Indian Vultures

Worldwide, 40 more bird species are now classified as having a higher risk of extinction in the 2015 Red List. Besides the vultures, these include many wading shorebirds, and other iconic species like helmeted hornbill, swift parrot, Atlantic puffin, and European turtle-dove.

In a bit of good news, 23 species have been downgraded to lower threat categories. In cases of the Seychelles Warbler and Chatham Petrel, their improved status was the result of improved conservation efforts.


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6 hospitalized after bee attack in Arizona

Six people were sent to the hospital Saturday afternoon after a swarm of bees attacked residents in a subdivision, the Maricopa, Arizona, fire department said.

The bees hit the Rancho El Dorado subdivision about 5 p.m. and attacked people in a two-block-long area, the department said in a news release. People ran and screamed for help.

Three adults and three children were taken to a nearby hospital for treatment of the stings, the department said. One of the adults had nearly 300 bee stings counted at the hospital. Two firefighters who were also stung during the rescue did not need treatment at the hospital, the department said.

It took fire crews about two hours to find the hive in an opened water valve box at one of the homes, the department said. The bees were sprayed with foam, and the hive was contained and killed.

A particularly aggressive strain of honeybee menaced parts of Arizona during the summer, with some people getting stung so many times that they were hospitalized.

Experts say the state is dealing with the Africanized honeybee, also known as the killer bee, which is a crossbreed between the European honeybee and the African honeybee.

The killer bee is the result of experiments in Brazil decades ago, and the insects migrated to the U.S. The bees are more prevalent in warm Southwestern states such as Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. If their hives are disrupted, they become especially aggressive.

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Army takes aim with more M4 weapons

Spc. Ethan Esposito, Joint Multinational Training Command, fires his M4 carbine rifle during United States Army Europe's Best Warrior Competition in Grafenwoehr, Germany, July 31, 2012. (U.S. Army)

Spc. Ethan Esposito, Joint Multinational Training Command, fires his M4 carbine rifle during United States Army Europe’s Best Warrior Competition in Grafenwoehr, Germany, July 31, 2012. (U.S. Army)

Fan of the M4A1 and M4? So is the U.S. Army. More of the popular weapons will be making their way into the hands of troops.

The Army has ordered $212 million worth of M4 and M4A1 carbines from Colt Defense and FN America.


A classic, the M4 combines lightweight mobility with effective firepower. The 5.56-mm carbine was designed to meet the U.S. military’s high performance standards.

Related: Marine Corps’ new helicopter completes its first flight

It’s got a 14 and a half-inch barrel and with the stock extended the weapon is 33 inches long. The rate of fire is 700 to 950 RPM and the M4 has an effective range of about 600 meters, or 1,969 feet.

In 2013, the military placed a $77 million order with FN for 120,000 M4s. Attempts to replace the popular M4 with another weapon, however, have not been successful. Instead, the weapon has been improved through programs like M4s to M4A1s and the M4A1+ initiative.


The M4A1 has been popular with special operations warriors for about two decades.

Last year, the Army began modifying nearly half a million M4s to upgrade them to M4A1s. And these M4A1 carbine rifles have been rolling out in stages to soldiers. The Army is expected to finish the conversion of M4s to M4A1s by 2020.

Related: Navy taps Raytheon for sophisticated ‘last chance’ gun system

The conversions mean that the M4A1s weigh a bit more, but once modified they can offer a lot of advantages, such as in suppressing fire.

The barrel is heavier by a few ounces, but it provides better resistance to heat and it enables shooting longer strings of fire with accuracy.

The conversion also includes a shift from three-round burst to fully automatic. And good news for lefties, this version provides ambidextrous safety controls.


The M4A1+ program aims to further enhance the weapon.

The “plus” in M4A1 includes changes like an extended 12-inch forward Picatinny rail. This lets soldiers attach more accessory advantages like laser sights, optics, lights and pointers. The front and rear iron sights will be removable.

Related: Meet ‘Viper’ – the newest F-16 Fighter

M4A1+ is meant to have better accuracy – no farther than five inches from the target at 300 meters, or 984 feet, throughout the life of the barrel. The shift to a floating barrel will help to improve accuracy.

An advanced flash suppressor reduces firing signatures during both night and day missions. The “plus” also provides an optional sniper-style single-stage trigger.

The contract to supply the new M4s and M4A1s runs through 2020. The Army also recently ordered $84 million worth of M240 machine guns from FN America.

Shopping for a Colt?

For consumers, from now through Dec. 31, Colt is offering purchasers of a new Government Model or Defender pistol a free Colt Carry Kit. The kit includes one hundred dollars worth of Blade-Tech holster, additional magazine, and cap.

Ballet dancer turned defense specialist Allison Barrie has traveled around the world covering the military, terrorism, weapons advancements and life on the front line. You can reach her at or follow her on Twitter@Allison_Barrie.

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10-year-old boy survives shark bite, says he kicked it in nose to get away

1030 shark attack.jpg

Oct. 29, 2015: Signs warning of a shark sighting are posted at Makaha Beach Park in Waianae, Hawaii. (AP)

A 10-year-old boy said Thursday that he kicked out at a shark to scare it off after it bit him in the waters off a Hawaii beach on Wednesday.

The boy was recovering from his injuries the day after the attack and said the shark “popped out of nowhere” at Makaha Beach Park near Oahu. State Department of Land and Natural Resources spokesman Brett Anderson said the boy should be out of the hospital soon.

Officials are going to include the attack in the International Shark Database in Gainesville, Florida, as  Anderson said “all evidence, including eyewitness reports, points to this being a shark bite.”

The attack was Hawaii’s seventh confirmed shark encounter of the year. The average number of shark bites per year has doubled over the past decade, but scientists say that’s because there are more people in the water, providing more opportunities for encounters. There has been an average of about nine shark bites per year over the past five years.

“I was on the boogie board just waiting for a wave and then it just popped out of nowhere and then bit my leg,” the 10-year-old told reporters Thursday at The Queen’s Medical Center in Honolulu.

He said he kicked the shark in the nose, but he wasn’t afraid.

On Thursday morning, two surfers were in the water at Leftovers Beach Park on Oahu’s North Shore when a 10-foot shark chased them onto shore, Honolulu Department of Emergency Services spokeswoman Shayne Enright said. Leftovers is the same beach where another man lost his leg when a tiger shark bit him on Oahu’s North Shore in early October.

Officials put up signs and warned beachgoers of the sighting, but surfers entered the water anyway.

Brian Keaulana, a professional surfer and son of famed surfer Buffalo Keaulana who was at Makaha on Thursday, said fishermen have been seeing tiger sharks eating pig carcasses a short way up the coast.

Enright said that the pigs were still being spotted on Thursday, prompting officials to keep warning signs posted and people out of the water.

“The boy was part of our community,” Keaulana, who used to be a lifeguard at the beach and was born and raised in the area, said. “So when he got attacked, the response was really quick and fast.”

Anderson said this is the first shark bite at Makaha Beach Park in 46 years. In 1969, a surfer was injured by a great white shark in the area.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Electric embrace: Eels curl up to supercharge shocks


An electric eel curls its body to deliver a powerful shock to a prey item. (Kenneth C. Catania)

It’s kind of like walking straight into an electric fence, or getting shot with a stun gun. That’s how one biologist describes the experience of getting zapped by an electric eel.

“You wouldn’t voluntarily do it over and over again,” said Kenneth Catania, a professor of biological sciences at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and author of a new study about the electric eels’ shocking behavior.

Catania has been zapped a few times since he began studying the electric eel (Electrophorus electricus), a fish that’s indigenous to the murky waters of the Amazon. Endowed with three electricity-producing organs, E. electricus can send a pulse, or volley, of high-voltage electricity through the water toward prey items. These shocks aren’t meant to kill the prey, just demobilize it so the eel can more easily consume its victims, Catania told Live Science. [Video: Watch an Electric Eel Curl Around Its Prey]

To envision how the eel uses its electric charge, try picturing the critter’s long, thin body as a skinny magnet. Like a magnet, the eel has two ends, or poles. When the animal sends out an electric pulse, most of the charge comes from its head, which Catania calls the “positive pole.” The eel’s tail serves as the “negative pole,” sending out a much weaker electric pulse than the head, Catania said.

Most of the time, E. electricus just needs the charge from its head to demobilize prey. However, the tail end of the eel is actually quite important, Catania’s new study shows. By bringing its tail around toward its head, an electric eel can double the strength of the electric pulse it sends out into the water, allowing it todemobilize larger prey items, the study found.

To measure the energy output of a curling eel, Catania rigged up a sort of eel chew toy by attaching a dead fish to a piece of wire. The fish was fitted with electrodes that could measure the voltage produced by the eel. Then, Catania stuck the chew toy in the tank with the eel and wiggled the toy around, simulating struggling prey. Sure enough, the eels tended to wrap themselves around the fish, and when they did so, they delivered at least twice their usual zap of electricity, Catania found.

To understand how the eel doubles its charge, try picturing the critter in the shape of a horseshoe magnet. In one of these U-shaped magnets, the north and south poles of a single magnet are brought into close proximity to one another, which creates a strong magnetic field. When the eel curls up in this horseshoe shape, something similar happens — it produces a strong electric field.

“When the eel curls its positive and negative poles together and sandwiches the prey in between, you get a focusing of the electric field,” Catania said.

But electric eels don’t actually double the amount of electricity they produce when they go after large prey; they just direct the charges from both ends of their bodies to one specific area, which makes the charge feel more powerful to unfortunate prey items. This is a good tactic for an eel to use, said Catania, adding that the zappy critters don’t have to expend any more energy than usual when they curl up like this, but they could still end up with a bigger meal.

Small eels (some are just a few inches long) do a lot of curling, said Catania, who pointed out that these little animals need to focus their zaps to stun prey into submission. But big eels, which can measure a meter or two in length, engage in this behavior, as well. Catania said he’d like to know more about what kinds of prey items these large eels can take down with their powerful electric charges.

“There’s virtually no evidence of what electric eels actually eat. But these guys get really big, and they live in the Amazon, where there’s a huge diversity of potential prey,” said Catania, who added that electric eels could wrestle all kinds of creatures. He said he hopes his new study might get other researchers wondering just what the electric eel is capable of hunting in the wild.


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

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Tourist captures image of mysterious sea monster off Grecian coastline


A strange looking creature was photographed swimming of Greece’s west coast. (Courtesy Harvey Robertson)

A Scottish tourist unwittingly captured an unidentifiable sea monster while vacationing in Greece.

Harvey Robertson was on a boat cruise off the coast of Parga, sailing through sea caves with his family. He was initially just trying to capture the unusual color of the surrounding water with his iPhone camera.

What he shot instead has baffled those across the Internet—and marine scientists. Looking back through his camera, Robertson saw that he had captured a grey creature that resembles an elongated manatee. The strange animal appears to pop out of the water in one photo, then disappears under the greenish water in the next.

“I didn’t actually see the animal at the time as was trying to capture the water color (fluorescent blue) at the point before becoming black,” Robertson told via email. “You can only imagine my surprise when I was looking back through my photos.”

Some say it could be a Cuvier’s beaked whale, which have been known to frequent the Mediterranean,others have speculated that it could be the “love child of a hippo and crocodile”—but so far, even scientists are baffled.

Robertson says “I have no idea what it is, I’ve sent them to various marine biologists across the planet and no one has any idea.”

Asked whether the legendary Loch Ness Monster could have followed a fellow Scotsman all the way to Greece, Robertson is doubtful.

“I also doubt it’s Nessie as he’s none too fond of Greek salad.”


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Ancient super-predators could take down young mammoths

Biologists have found that a pack of hypercarnivores, such as saber-toothed cats (shown here fighting with adult Colombian mammoths over a young mammoth carcass), could have taken down juveniles of Earth's largest herbivores.

Biologists have found that a pack of hypercarnivores, such as saber-toothed cats (shown here fighting with adult Colombian mammoths over a young mammoth carcass), could have taken down juveniles of Earth’s largest herbivores.(Painting courtesy of Mauricio Anton)

Nearly a million years ago, a cave hyena could have taken down a 5-year-old mastodon weighing more than a ton. And in packs, the predators may have been equipped to demolish a 9-year-old mastodon weighing a hefty 2 tons.

That’s according to new computer models that can calculate how big a target an ancient hypercarnivore, such as the cave hyena and the saber-toothed cat that rely solely on meat for sustenance, might have tackled, researchers say.

These findings show how ancient super-predators far larger than the wolves, lions and hyenas of today once kept megaherbivores such as mammoths, mastodons and giant ground sloths in check, researchers said. [Photos: Autopsy of a 40,000-Year-Old Mammoth]

“The probable role these large predators played in maintaining stable ecosystems hasn’t been recognized until now,” said the study’s lead author, Blaire Van Valkenburgh, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Herbivores in check

Nowadays large herbivores such as elephants and white-tailed deer can have devastating effects on the environment by stripping it of vegetation through overgrazing (eating ground plants) or overbrowsing (eating leaves off trees). This brings up the question of what prevented widespread habitat destruction in the Pleistocene epoch, which lasted from about 1 million to 11,000 years ago. Back then, a much greater diversity of megaherbivores — plant-eaters 1,760 lbs. and larger — roamed the Earth.

Modern research suggests that current megaherbivores like elephants are largely immune to predators. However, scientists now find that ancient hypercarnivores had the ability to, and likely did, limit megaherbivore numbers.

The impact of ancient hypercarnivores on past megaherbivores may have been difficult to appreciate because many extinct hypercarnivores such as saber-toothed cats have no close living counterparts, the researchers noted. This makes it difficult to deduce what they might have preyed on.

Still, the researchers noted there was once a much greater diversity of predators than exists today, many of which were significantly larger than their modern analogs — for the ones that do have analogs. This diversity suggests there was once intense competition between these carnivores, perhaps leading some to specialize in hunting megaherbivores.

Pleistocene teeth

To deduce the potential impact of ancient hypercarnivores, the researchers analyzed the fossil record to gauge size ranges for Pleistocene predators larger than about 45 lbs. Whereas modern hypercarnivores average 116 to 138 lbs., fossil hypercarnivores spanned 211 to 297 lbs. on average.

“Scientists didn’t really understand how much bigger some of these Pleistocene predators were than modern ones,” Van Valkenburgh told Live Science.

Previous research then helped the scientists develop estimates of an animal’s size based on just its first molar. “In the fossil record, the one thing we’ve got a lot of is teeth,” Van Valkenburgh said in a statement.

The researchers next estimated the sizes of ancient mammoths and mastodons. To do so, they developed mathematical formulas for the relationship of shoulder height to body mass from previous research on modern captive elephants.

By looking at the sizes of modern carnivores and the preferred sizes of their victims, the scientists then estimated what sizes of prey ancient predators might have targeted. They concluded that juvenile mastodons and mammoths would have been susceptible to many past hypercarnivores, especially ones that hunted in groups such as prides, clans and packs.

Indirect evidence that ancient predators hunted in larger groups than they do today may come from fossil teeth. Among modern carnivores, when competition over prey is high, prey is more difficult to capture, and carnivores make the most out of carcasses by eating more bone, leading to higher rates of broken teeth. When it came to large predators of the New World during the Pleistocene, tooth fracture rates were as much as three to five times that of their modern counterparts, suggesting higher densities of predators to prey than seen now.

“The group sizes of predators were considerably larger in the past than they are today, which would have made it easier for them to take down large prey,” Van Valkenburgh said.

More work is needed to reconstruct Pleistocene ecosystems, “which were clearly hugely different from today,” Van Valkenburgh said. “By understanding what we lost, what the productivity of the planet was, we can learn more about the time in which our species evolved and maybe why we’ve done so well.”

Van Valkenburgh and her colleagues detailed their findings online Oct. 26 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


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New species of tortoise found on Galapagos island

This is an image of C. donfaustoi, a new species of turtle found on the Galapagos island of Santa Cruz. (Washington Tapia)

This is an image of C. donfaustoi, a new species of turtle found on the Galapagos island of Santa Cruz. (Washington Tapia)

There are few species that symbolize the Galapagos archipelago more than the giant tortoises found there.

By some accounts, they were so numerous when Spanish explorers arrived that they named the island chain after them and they helped inspire Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.

Scientists in the coming decades would name 15 species – four of them now extinct. But there was thought to be only one species, Chelonoidis porteri, on the island of Santa Cruz – until now.

Related: Famed Galapagos tortoise Lonesome George dies

Thanks to DNA testing from tortoise bones that were almost a century old and found in museums in Wisconsin, the United Kingdom and Galapagos, an international team writing in the journal PLOS One this week has identified a second species on the island.

They concluded that a few hundred giant tortoises living on the eastern side of Santa Cruz are distinct from a second, larger population living less than 6.2 miles away on the western side. The new species, C. donfaustoi, is named after a retiring park ranger who spent decades protecting the tortoises.

Adalgisa “Gisella” Caccone, a senior research scientist at Yale who was the lead author on the study, said her team was inspired to take a closer look at the turtles by retired USGS herpetologist Tom Fritts, who noted slight differences in the shells of the tortoises.

“We didn’t know what to expect,” Caccone told “Fritts had this hunch. The answer was pretty clear because they weren’t even closely related to each other.”

Related: Galapagos researchers find ‘extinct’ tortoises are still alive

Caccone said the findings are helping scientists better understand just how these tortoises made it to Santa Cruz and the process that led to their diversity on the island.

“We were very surprised but also very intrigued,” she said. “The closest relative of C. donfaustoi lived on an island west of Santa Cruz named San Cristóbal. We figured the colonization of the tortoises on Santa Cruz happened twice – once they colonized the western flank and then the eastern flank.”

Caccone said the discovery of the new species also could go a long ways to conserving the tortoises, given that they face a range of threats – from farming that overlaps with their ranges as well as hotels and other tourism-related developments.

“From a conservation standpoint, recognition of this new species will help promote efforts to protect and restore it, given that its low abundance, small geographic range, and reduced genetic diversity make it vulnerable,” Caccone and the other authors wrote. “In particular, further investigation is needed to better determine C. donfaustoi‘s population size and structure, range, movement patterns, location of nesting zones, and habitat requirements, as well as ongoing threats and effective ways to mitigate them.”

Related: Imported tortoises could replace Madagascar’s extinct ones

While the larger western population on the island numbers about 2,000 and lives mostly in a protected national park, the smaller number of newly designated Eastern Santa Cruz tortoises – estimated at around 250 – are more vulnerable.

“Maintaining the two species’ biological isolation is critical,” the researchers wrote. “Of particular importance is ensuring that no human-mediated transport of tortoises occurs between the two sides of Santa Cruz Island given that the two species’ ranges are now linked via a single agricultural zone.”

This map shows the ranges of the two species of
Galapagos tortoises found on the island of Santa Cruz. (Nikos Poulakakis)



Originally available here

Meet Jane, the most complete adolescent T rex ever found

A 3D printout of the skull and jaws of Jane, a rare subadult T. rex that fills in the gap between small juveniles and larger subadults. The real skull is less complete than this 3D image, but researchers filled in the gaps with mirrored bones f

A 3D printout of the skull and jaws of Jane, a rare subadult T. rex that fills in the gap between small juveniles and larger subadults. The real skull is less complete than this 3D image, but researchers filled in the gaps with mirrored bones f(Print produced by Steve Clawson, and assembled by S. Clawson and Thomas D. Carr.)

An adolescent Tyrannosaurus rex named Jane may settle a dispute more than 70 years in the making: Whether small carnivorous dinosaurs are younger versions of T. rex, or another species altogether, a new study finds.

The authors of the new study contend that small and slender Jane is a young, 11-year-old T. rex. In fact, as the most complete adolescent T. rex unearthed to date, her detailed anatomy is helping researchers understand the different life stages of these top carnivores, which lived during the Cretaceous period, more than 66 million years ago, researchers report in a new, unpublished study presented at the 75th annual Society of Vertebrate Paleontology conference in Dallas on Friday, Oct. 16.

Before Jane, there was a critical gap between juvenile and adult T. rex dinosaur specimens, and it was unclear how their body structures changed over time, said study lead researcher Thomas Carr, an associate professor of biology at Carthage College in Wisconsin. [Gory Guts: Photos of a T. Rex Autopsy]

“Jane is simply the best preserved and most complete example of a publicly accessible, subadult Tyrannosaurus rex in the world,” study co-author Scott Williams, director of science and exhibits at the Burpee Museum of Natural History in Illinois, said in a statement. “The quality of the specimen and its availability will undoubtedly provide researchers decades of important data regarding the ontogeny [aging process] of the most recognized dinosaur species in the world.”

A paleontology field crew from the Burpee Museum discovered Jane in Ekalaka, Montana, in 2001. They noticed her bones poking out of the rock of the Hell Creek Formation, and quickly got to work excavating the remains of the half-grown, 20-foot-long T. rex.

However, Jane isn’t the first “little” T. rex specimen on record. In 1942, scientists found a small and lightly built tyrannosaur skull near Ekalaka. The finding sparked a debate about how much T. rex changed as it grew from infancy to adulthood. The skull sat for about 50 years on display in the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, but triggered another controversy in 1988, when famed paleontologist Robert Bakker analyzed it and announced that it wasn’t a T. rex, but a newfound species.

Bakker called the new species Nanotyrannus lancensis and proposed that it was a smaller and sleeker cousin of T. rex.

In 1999, Carr suggested that Nanotyrannus wasn’t a separate species, but in fact a juvenile T. rex. Many paleontologists were doubtful of this hypothesis, unsure that a dinosaur could change so drastically as it grew older, the researchers on the new study said.

“The extreme changes from the sleek skull of juveniles to the robust skull of adults were too much for some people to believe,” Carr said. “For example, they didn’t like to hear that T. rex lost tooth positions as it grew from a juvenile with many teeth, to an adult with fewer teeth. Regardless, the search was on for a transitional specimen that could test the hypothesis.”

Jane may help clear up that confusion. Her slender skull and skeleton are intermediate in size and shape between the Cleveland skull and other adult T. rex skulls.

“Jane shows us that the gap is, in fact, bridgeable because many features seen in her are more similar to adult T. rex than to the Cleveland skull,” Carr said. “The features are exactly what we’d predict are necessary to make the change to a full adult.” [Avian Ancestors: Dinosaurs That Learned to Fly]

But Bakker isn’t budging, and maintains that Nanotyrranus is a separate species,according to the journal Science. (Bakker contends that Carr hasn’t properly studied the Nanotyrranus fossil, but few people have since its owners tried to unsuccessfully auction it for millions of dollars, leading many paleontologists to refrain from studying it until it is donated or acquired by a museum, Science said.)

Regardless, Jane is only one piece of the developmental puzzle. The researchers of the new study are still hoping to find other fossils that will fill in the gap between the adolescent skulls and the robust, imposing features of adult T. rex skulls, they said.

Once the researchers are done studying Jane, her skull will go on display at a public museum. Usually, museums pay hefty price tags to acquire new fossils, but one lucky museum will get her for free because paleontologists discovered her on public land.

“Dinosaur fossils such as this emphasize the importance of accredited institutions collecting on public lands, which makes the specimens on them available for scientific study,” Carr said.


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