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Furry, spiky mammal scampered among dinosaurs


MESOZOIC MAMMAL Spinolestes xenarthrosus lived 125 million years ago, weighed about as much as a possum and probably looked like small mammals do today.

When scales were all the rage, one early mammal sported fur and spines.

Unearthed in central Spain, a skeleton of the newly discovered small mammal, christened Spinolestes xenarthrosus, dates to 125 million years ago, paleontologist Thomas Martin of the University of Bonn in Germany and colleagues report in the Oct. 15 Nature. At the time, dinosaurs dominated the landscape.

All in all, S. xenarthrosus resembled a pretty ordinary mammal. Spikes like a hedgehog’s lined its back and provided protection from predators. The hand bones of the 24-centimeter-long mammal appear optimized for digging for insects.

This particular early Cretaceous fur ball met its end in a prehistoric swamp that preserved some skin, hair, spines and even organs — parts of an ear, lungs and liver. These samples represent the earliest well-preserved mammal hair and soft tissue, having outlasted the next in line by about 60 million years. The ancient specimen suggests that features like underbelly fur and spines appeared early in mammal evolution.

full skeleton

FOSSIL FUZZ In addition to a full skeleton, an S. xenarthrosus specimen contains patches of skin, hairs and spines, lending insight into how these structures developed in mammals.

Scientists Unearth New Species of Triceratops,Horned Dinosaur Fossil Adds Hooks to Evolutionary

New Species of Triceratops

A team of Canadian scientists announced that bones found in 2010 are from a new dinosaur they named Wendiceratops. DANIELLE DUFAULT/ROYAL ONTARIO MUSEUM

Scientists have discovered one of the oldest horned dinosaurs, a one-ton behemoth that had spikes above its eyes, on its nose and covering almost its entire neck.

The new dinosaur, named Wendiceratops pinhornensis, is described from over 200 bones representing the remains of four specimens from the group of large-bodied dinosaurs known as the Ceratopsidea. It lived about 79 million years ago, making it 13 million years older than its famous cousin Triceratops and one of the few specimens of this group from the late Campanian period, stretching from 90 million to 77 million years ago, found in North America.

It was found at a site in southern Alberta five years ago by Wendy Sloboda, a famous fossil hunter who has made hundreds of discoveries over the past three decades.

“She came across the site in 2010 and it actually had parts of the skull weathering out on the surface,” said Royal Ontario Museum’s David Evans, who co-authored a study on the find in PLOS One with the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s Michael Ryan. Sloboda was part of the research team.

“When she brought them to us, we were very excited because the parts she brought back were part of the frill which has that characteristic ornamentation,” he said of the back of a dinosaur’s head. “Right away, we knew we likely had a new species of dinosaur. The first season we starting digging in 2011, we found more of the frill. At that point, we were certain. So, the race was on to collect as much as we could.”

New Species of Triceratops

The skeleton is a 3-D printed model of a Wendiceratops based on the adult bones found at a Canadian site in 2010. BRIAN BOYLE

Evans said Wendiceratops, which means “Wendy’s horned-face” (it was named for Sloboda) could be the first of this dinosaur group to have a horn – or more accurately horns.

“The wide frill of Wendiceratops is ringed by numerous curled horns, the nose had a large, upright horn, and it’s likely there were horns over the eyes too,” he said. “The number of gnarly frill projections and horns makes it one of the most striking horned dinosaurs ever found.”

It featured a series of forward-curling hook-like horns that adorned the margin of the wide, shield-like frill that projects from the back of the Wendiceratops’ skull. The nasal bone, although represented by fragmentary specimens, likely supported a “prominent upright nose horn.”

“There is a huge diversity in horned dinosaurs. They are mostly differentiated from each other by the shapes, sizes and direction of the horns on their face and on their neck shield,” Evans said. “This particular one is really extravagant for any horned dinosaur. It has this array of large, forward-facing horns that surround the entire of margin of the neck shield. It would have looked like a halo of drooping horns all the way around the back of the skull.”

The nose horns, which scientists once thought were mostly for defense, are believed to have been used to attract mates and establish the dinosaurs rank in its herd – much like modern animals like antelope or water buffaloes use their horns.

It was probably even made from the same material as some modern animal horns, keratin.

The fact these fossils show horned dinosaurs go much further back than previously believed, Evans said, “helps us understand the early evolution of skull ornamentation in an iconic group of dinosaurs characterized by their horned faces.”

“We don’t actually have a good idea exactly what the nose horn looked like in terms of its overall shape,” he said, adding they had three partial specimens but no complete nose horn.


Field crew systematically excavating the

“But what we can say is that it looks transitional between its ancestors that lacked a horn and later horned dinosaurs that had very prominent, very tall conical horns over their nose,” he said. “This skull ornamentation devolved very rapidly in the diversification of horned dinosaurs which suggests that mating signals were key in the early radiation of the group.”

Andrew Farke, a paleontologist with Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology who last year discovered Aquilops, the oldest horned dinosaur in North America that lived as far back as 145 million years ago, said the latest discovery offers fresh insight into the dinosaur horn.

Horned dinosaurs were commonplace during the Cretaceous period but died out when the Earth was struck by what scientists believe was an asteroid. They then emerged again with the Ceratopsidea group that included Wendiceratops.

“Wendiceratops is the oldest known horned dinosaur to have a big nose horn, so it’s nice to help us figure out when and how that classic skull feature evolved,” he said in an email interview. “Most interestingly, it adds to a body of evidence that shows big nose horns evolved at least twice in horned dinosaurs. Again and again, distantly related species of these dinosaurs converged on similar anatomy.”

The other revelation was the sheer number of fossils found at this bone bed. There are signs that scores of Wendiceratops died here, possibly from a flood or some other natural catastrophe. Today, it’s a remote stretch of badlands but, in the day of Wendiceratops, it would have been a low-lying coastal plain that looked more like Louisiana.

“There is no sign of deposits running out so there could be dozens of individuals in the bone bed,” Evans said. “It actually reinforces that Wendiceratops was a social animal. We have evidence these animals died together so it’s likely therefore they were living together as part of a herd when they were struck by a catastrophe such as a flood.”


How do you tell a boy dinosaur from a girl dinosaur?

Illustrations of Stegosaurus with wide plates and tall plates are seen in a handout image from Evan Saitta, a student at Britain's University of Bristol.  REUTERS/Evan Saitta/Handout via Reuters

Illustrations of Stegosaurus with wide plates and tall plates are seen in a handout image from Evan Saitta, a student at Britain’s University of Bristol. REUTERS/Evan Saitta/Handout via Reuters

(Reuters) – For extinct creatures like dinosaurs known only from fossils, it is notoriously difficult to differentiate the males from the females of a species because sex distinctions are rarely obvious from the skeletons.

But in the case of the well-known Jurassic dinosaur Stegosaurus, a study published on Wednesday may provide a handy how-to guide on telling the boys from the girls based on the shape of the big bony plates protruding from its back.

Stegosaurus, which roamed the western United States about 150 million years ago, was a large, four-legged plant-eater with two rows of plates along its back, as well as two pairs of spikes at the end of its tail to clobber predators.

The largest Stegosaurus species reached about 30 feet (9 meters). The species in this study, Stegosaurus mjosi, measured roughly 21 feet (6.5 meters).

A Montana Stegosaurus “graveyard” contained fossils of several individuals, with plates coming in two distinct varieties: some wide, others tall. The wide ones reached sizes 45 percent larger in surface area than the taller ones, which were nearly 3 feet (90 cm) high.

“Males typically invest more into their ornamentation than do females, so the larger wide plates were likely from males,” said Evan Saitta, a 23-year-old paleontology graduate student at Britain’s University of Bristol whose study appears in the journal PLOS ONE.

“The broad, thin structure of the plates and their positioning on the back of the animal suggests that they were used in sexual display, analogous to the tail of a peacock. The broad, wide plates likely made a continuous display surface along the animal’s back to attract mates, like a billboard.”

To test whether the plate differences were instead because some individuals were young and others old, CT scans and microscopic analyses were performed that showed the bone tissue had ceased growing, meaning both varieties came from full-grown adults.

Anatomical and other differences between the sexes of a single species, like a male lion’s mane or a male deer’s antlers, are called sexual dimorphism.

Sexual dimorphism examples have been proposed in other dinosaurs, but many scientists find those inconclusive. Saitta said the Stegosaurus plates may be “the most convincing evidence for sexual dimorphism in dinosaurs to date.”

University of Bristol paleontologist Michael Benton added, “It suggests that many dinosaurs used sexual display, as birds and mammals do today, usually the males displaying or mock fighting to attract attention of females.”

(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Dinosaur Footprints Uncovered on Beach After Giant Tide


A giant tide on France’s North Atlantic coast, March 21, 2015, enabled paleontologists to find hundreds of dinosaur footprints on a beach in the Western region of Vendee.

A giant tide on France’s North Atlantic coast on Saturday enabled paleontologists to find hundreds of dinosaur footprints on a beach in the Western region of Vendee.

The 200 million-year-old footprints measure about 17 inches wide and are only visible when the tide is low. They were discovered in 1963 by a local engineer and chemist Gilbert Bessonnat.

“This open-air museum of dinosaur footprints counts among the richest we have from the Jurassic era,” local authorities said on the city hall website.

France’s National Hydrographic Service was expecting more than 15.3 yards difference between low tide on Saturday afternoon and high tide in the evening.

The trail would have been left by animals measuring between 8-feet 2-inches and 9-feet 10-inches, amateur paleontologists told French TV while visiting the site. A dozen different species are known to have lived on a 26,000-foot tall mountain, now a cliff eroding into a beach.


Before dinosaurs, the giant ‘Carolina Butcher’ was a North American terror


A reconstruction of Carnufex carolinensis. (Jorge Gonzales)

A new species found in North Carolina is one of the oldest and largest crocodile relatives ever known.

Back before dinosaurs were the big bads of our continent, Carnufex carolinensis ruled the scene. At nine feet long and walking on its hind legs, this croc would have been a fierce predator 230 million years ago. Researchers described the species (which translates to “Carolina Butcher,” which is awesome) for the first time Thursday in Scientific Reports.

[First ever evidence of a swimming, shark-eating dinosaur]

Its bones may have been found in a quarry, but back in the Butcher’s day North Carolina was a lush, warm, wet region just beginning to pull away from the supercontinent of Pangea. And in that region, it seems, an upright crocodile roamed.

The Carnufex carolinensis fossil was actually discovered a decade ago, but its bones have been sitting in the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences ever since.


This image shows a reconstructed skull of Carnufex carolinensis. 3-D surface models of skull bones are shown in white. Grey areas are missing elements reconstructed from close relatives of Carnufex. (Lindsay Zanno)

“When we got the bones out and prepared them, we found out that it was actually a really cool species,” said Lindsay Zanno, assistant professor at North Carolina State University and lead author of the new research paper. “It was one of the oldest and largest members of crocodylomorph — the same group that crocodiles belong to — that we’ve ever seen. And that size was really surprising.”

Most croc relatives from that time were smaller in size and seemed lower on the food chain. They were about the same size — and threat to prey — as a fox. But at nine feet long — a height it stretched to fully by walking on two legs — the Carolina Butcher would have been one of the fiercest animals around, if not the very fiercest.

[Peru was a crocodile paradise before the Amazon River went and ruined it]

In other regions, early dinosaurs were vying for top-dog status, causing something of a predator-pile-up. But this is the first time a croc ancestor has been shown in the mix.

“It was clearly a top predator,” Zanno said. “That’s a niche we didn’t know animals like this were filling.”

So why don’t we hang out with bipedal crocodiles of doom today? As the Triassic period ended, this glut of predators gave way to the reign of the dinosaurs. Big burly crocs couldn’t compete, but the little guys lived to see another day.



Dinosaur bones scanned to discover more about weighty issue


Palaeontologist Scott Hocknull analyses the Diamantinasaurus fossils at the Australian Age of Dinosaurs facility in Winton, Western Queensland.

It was a scan 100 million years in the making.

The bones of one of Queensland’s largest dinosaurs, Matilda, have undergone a CT scan to discover how her limbs coped with 20 tonnes of flesh on top.

University of New England PhD student Ada Klinkharmer borrowed some of the sauropod’s leg and hip bones from their home at Australian Age of Dinosaurs in Winton, and had them tested at Mt Isa Hospital.

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Artistic representations of the three dinosaur taxa described here. Australovenator (top); Wintonotitan (middle); Diamantinasaurus (bottom). Photo: Artwork by: T. Tischler, Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum of Natural History.


“We create 3D computer models and we can put forces on them, and measure the stress,” she said.
“We can look at the bones we’ve measured and look at how that stress is distributed around the limbs, and discover how these dinosaurs bore their weight.”Diamantinasaurus matildae was discovered in June 2005 at the Winton Formation. She would have been 15 to 16 metres long and 2.5 metres high at the hip.Ms Klinkharmer said it is a common supposition that the large, long-necked herbivores stood on hind legs to graze, but it’s never been proven.”Using this method, we can actually physically test if the bones were capable of sustaining 20 odd tonnes on just two legs,” she said.”Obviously they had to raise up onto their hind legs for mating, but whether or not they could do it for a sustained length of time is the question.”She said the CT scan was an interesting process.”You’ve got to be careful to make sure you don’t break anything in the process,” Ms Klinkharmer said.”But it works exactly the same as when you CT scan a person – you put it on the table, slide it in and scan it.”However, she admitted not being able to scan the thigh bone was disappointing.”It’s obviously made of rock now, and it’s so heavy, the CT scan can’t support the weight of the femur.”Ms Klinkharmer, whose work on biomechanics forms part of the Function, Evolution and Anatomy laboratory at UNE, hopes to publish her results early next year. Dinosaur fans will be able to see some theories about how dinosaurs may have moved at the Queensland  Discovery from March 27, which features more than 20 life-size dinosaur animatronics.


Dinosaur hunter makes rare discovery in North Carolina


Andrew Heckert, a professor at Appalachian State University, is the lead author of a paper detailing the discovery of a species that went extinct some 230 million years ago. (Photo: Dale Neal, Asheville (N.C.) Citizen-Times)


BOONE, N.C. — Andrew Heckert usually heads out west when he wants to go back in time, say about 230 million years ago.

But in recent years, the Appalachian State University professor could drive down the mountain to Raleigh to discover prehistoric fossils of a previously unknown species.

Eons before human politicians, Raleigh was a swamp and home to a creature known as the aetosaur. Think of a crocodile-like reptile with spiked armor.

But these weren’t the ferocious killers that crocodiles evolved into in Africa. Aetosaurs had blunt teeth and likely feasted on plants.

“Aetosaurs are an extinct group of reptiles from the Triassic period from the lineage that eventually evolved into crocodiles,” Heckert said. “They were not dinosaurs, but superficially look like some of the much larger armored dinosaurs that would evolve later.”


Andrew Heckert looks over a fossil of the snout of a phytosaur found in a clay-mining quarry near Wadesboro, N.C. (Photo: Dale Neal, Asheville (N.C.) Citizen-Times)


Heckert is the lead author of a new article published in The Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology about the discovery of a new species of aetosaur. Heckert, along with colleagues at the North Carolina Museum of Natural History, were able to identify an entirely new genus and species of these animals that died out millions of years ago.

The fossil’s name — Gorgetosuchus pekinensis — reflects the distinctive spikes around the neck and the rock formation in which the fossils were found.

The first half of the genus name “Gorgetosuchus” comes from gorget, which is the metal neck ring that knights once sported, while “suchus” is ancient Greek for crocodile. The species name “pekinenis” refers to the Upper Pekin Formation that runs through present-day central North Carolina where the fossils were uncovered.

The discovery was made near a mining operation where huge boulders had been shoved aside to get at the clay that could be used in brickmaking.

Experts were able to see a jumble of the spikes embedded in the Triassic rock. At first Heckert thought they had part of the creature’s tail. But as they studied the spikes closer and took 3-D printed molds, Heckert realized they were looking at the other end.

“We knew this specimen was spiny, and when we put the pieces together, we saw how some of the armor completely covered the neck,” Heckert said. “So this is the Pekin Formation neck collar crocodile.”

Aetosaur fossils have been found on continents around the world. And Raleigh wasn’t exactly on the map as we’re used to. North Carolina was actually mashed up against Morocco as part of the super-continent Pangea. After the land masses drifted apart, fossils of the aetosaur have been found around the world.

“North Carolina is typically not on anybody’s list for dinosaurs, even though we’ve been finding Triassic fossils here for the past 100 years,” Heckert said.


Andrew Heckert, a professor at Appalachian State University, looks over the leg bone of a hadrosaurus that he and his students found on a field trip to Arizona. (Photo: Dale Neal, Asheville (N.C.) Citizen-Times)

Dinosaurs are likely to be found in sedimentary rock formations out west, but most every state has areas where they roamed, died and were preserved underground.

Except for Western North Carolina, where the Appalachian Mountains predate the age of dinosaurs.

“There probably weren’t any life forms with skeletons when the Appalachians were being formed, only jellyfish,” Heckert said.

Boone is home to at least three paleontologists in the geology department.

“Andy’s a great addition to the faculty,” said William Anderson, who heads the department. “He has a different way of looking for fossils, working in clay pits and sieving through sediment.”

Heckert also heads the small but impressive fossil and mineral museum that the geology department has on campus.

Heckert’s love of dinosaurs dates to his childhood in Ohio. His father and grandfather were avid rockhounds, and like most children, he was fascinated by the dinosaur fossils in the Field Museum in Chicago.

Heckert went to New Mexico University for graduate studies in paleontology. Instead of the Tyrannosaurus Rex and the huge dinosaurs of the later Jurassic Age, Heckert decided to specialize on the earlier and smaller dinosaurs that evolved during the Triassic Age.

Heckert conveys that enthusiasm to undergraduate students, leading field trips each spring for digs in Arizona.

“It’s the coolest thing when you’re out in the field, digging up these bones. You’re holding a piece of the past in your hands,” said Chelsea Vaughn, a senior from Durham.


Eromanga dinosaur museum plans delayed as fossils move to new site


Plans to open a new dinosaur museum in south-west Queensland have been delayed.

The Eromanga Natural History Museum was hoping to open its $800,000 stage one for visitors in the coming months.

The Eromanga region is home to some of Australia’s largest dinosaurs, dated about 95 million years old.

Collections manager Robyn Mackenzie said it would be late this year at the earliest before the museum was ready for tourists and it was still looking for more funding.

“It is disappointing, particularly for people who have been waiting to see it,” she said.

“I actually feel very sorry for the local businesses and anyone who is waiting to use this opportunity to build a tourism business around it.

“It is difficult for us as well to answer emails and say, ‘no, I am sorry we are not open yet’.

“We are doing everything we can to get to that stage but there is still a lot ahead of us.”

Tonnes of dinosaur bones and fossils have now been moved.

The plaster jackets of ancient material had been stored in a field laboratory and in farm sheds on a remote sheep and cattle station near Eromanga but have been moved to the site of the natural history museum.

Ms Mackenzie said the fossils were safely on site.

“That was a bit of a procedure, because there was lots and lots – tonnes of material to come in,” she said.

“So cattle trucks, trailers, four-wheel drives, flat tyres – all these things happened in the process of moving the field jackets in but nothing was jeopardised and the field jackets are now safely housed on the palette racking and they look fantastic, so that was a really successful move.”

‘Fake’ fossil is actually 189 million-year-old remains of undiscovered species

ichremains1 ichremains2

For 30 years, an overlooked dinosaur fossil at the Doncaster Museum and Art Gallery in Doncaster, U.K. was believed to be a plastic replica of an ichthyosaur, a prehistoric aquatic reptile. Thanks to the work of one young paleontologist, not only was the fossil found to be real, but it is the 189 million-year-old remains of a previously unknown species of the ancient reptile.

Dean Lomax, 25, came across the fossil in 2008, coming to the conclusion that it was not a synthetic replica, but the real deal. Lomax recently published his findings in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

“We could see tiny hook-shaped features that were actually the hooks from the tentacles of squid,” Lomax told the BBC. “So we know what its last meal was.”

Lomax conducted his research alongside Judy Massare, a professor at the State University of New York, comparing the fossil to those of about 1,000 other ichthyosaur remains. Lomax said that there were small anatomical differences between the Doncaster specimen’s fin bones and those of the other fossils he and Massare examined.

What puzzled Lomax the most was how the fossil, which was discovered just off Dorset’s Jurassic Coast in the 1980s, was ever labeled a replica in the first place, reports the New York Daily News.

Lomax’s find has been called Ichthyosaurus Anningae – named in honor of Mary Anning, the first person to discover ichthyosaur remains around 1811.

“It is an honor to name a new species, but to name it after somebody with such an important role in helping sculpt the science of paleontology is something I’m very proud of,” Lomax told the BBC.

For some paleontologists in the field, Lomax’s discovery is just an example of just how many undiscovered ancient species still remain to be found.

Paleontology is a unique science because you don’t need an advanced degree or specialized training to find a fossil, just patience and a keen set of eyes,” University of Edinburgh paleontologist Stephen Brusatte told the BBC.

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