TIME Paleontology

17 430,000-Year-Old Skulls Discovered in ‘Pit of Bones’

These skulls, which precede the Neanderthals, enrich our understanding of early humans

Researchers believe 17 skulls discovered in northern Spain’s “Pit of Bones” cave belonged to early human ancestors that preceded the Neanderthals, according to a study published in the journal Science. The skulls, estimated to be about 430,000 years old, may shed new insights on how early humans evolved.

The skulls have thick brows and heavy jaws, but not the larger brain cavities seen in early Neanderthals, suggesting that evolution may have occured in distinct phases, with bigger brows and jaws arriving before bigger brains. These characteristics may have evolved separately, and very slowly, over hundreds of thousands of years, as the study’s lead researcher, Juan Luis Arsuaga, explained to National Geographic.

Jean-Jacques Hublin, who studies at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, told NPR of the discovery that “if we understand how Neanderthals evolved and what has been going on, exactly, in the course of Neanderthal evolution, then we could say what is special with us, what is different.”


TIME Paleontology

Scientists Have Discovered a New Dinosaur That Had Weird Frilly Protrusions on Its Head

Dinosaur Provincial Park near Brooks UNESCO World Heritage Site
The Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta is one of the most important fossil beds in the world Eye Ubiquitous—UIG via Getty Images

A team of paleontologists has discovered a new kind of horned dinosaur

Paleontologists have discovered a new genus of ceratopsian — that’s a horned dinosaur — named Mercuriceratops gemini in Montana’s Judith River Formation and Alberta’s Dinosaur Provincial Park.

The 77-million-year-old species has been named Mercuriceratops — Latin for horned-face Mercury — because of frilled, winglike bones on the side of its head that resemble the winged helmet of Mercury, the Roman messenger god. The second part of its name, gemini, or Latin for twin, refers to the fact that the skulls found in Montana and Alberta were identical.

Mercuriceratops gemini, a relative of the well-known triceratops, was a 2-ton, 6-ft.-tall (1.82 m) plant eater from the late Cretaceous Period. The discovery of the two species with identical features proves that these dinosaurs were a distinct genus and not a mutation of a previously discovered species.

The journal Naturwissenschaften described the creatures’ uniquely shaped horns as an atypical feature that differentiated it from all other known species. “Mercuriceratops shows that evolution gave rise to much greater variation in horned-dinosaur headgear than we had previously suspected,” co-author David Evans said in a statement. The protrusions are thought to have served as protection and could have been a sexually advantageous adaption that attracted mates.

The discovery of the new species is the latest find in the Southern Alberta Dinosaur Project, which aims to study the evolution and movement of dinosaurs from the late Cretaceous Period.

“This discovery of a previously unknown species in relatively well-studied rocks underscores that we still have many more new species of dinosaurs to left to find,” co-author Mark Loewen said.

TIME Paleontology

Chilean Students Discover 7,000-Year-Old Mummy

A group of Chinchorro mummies -dated bet
A group of Chinchorro mummies — dated between 5000 B.C. and 3000 B.C. — are on display during the exhibition "Arica, a Thousand-Year-Old Culture," on Aug. 27, 2008, in the cultural center of the La Moneda presidential palace in Santiago, Chile Claudio Santana —AFP/Getty Images

A group of youths participating in an archaeology workshop dug up an ancient mummy in northern Chile over the weekend

Chilean students participating in an archaeological dig on Saturday near the Peruvian border hit paleontological gold after discovering the remains of a 7,000-year-old Chinchorro mummy.

Officials from the Chilean National Heritage Office were sent to the dig site in Chile’s Morro de Arica to commence a complete investigation into the recovered remains.

A large number of historical artifacts have reportedly been forced to the surface in swaths of the northern parts of the country following a massive 8.2 earthquake that rocked the area in April, according to AFP.

Mummies from the Chinchorro culture are among some of the oldest preserved cadavers to have ever been discovered.


TIME Paleontology

‘Biggest Dinosaur Ever’ Unearthed in Argentina

A technician lays next to the femur of a dinosaur -- likely to be the largest ever to roam the earth, in Rawson, Chubut, some 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) south of Buenos Aires, May 16, 2014. Museo Egidio Feruglio—AFP/Getty Images

Godzilla has company with this newly discovered, seven-stories-tall marvel of nature. Fortunately for other dinosaurs of the Late Cretaceous era, this titanosaur was an herbivore. The remains were discovered in Argentina, and about 150 bones have been unearthed

Move over, Godzilla.

The largest dinosaur ever known to walk the earth has been unearthed in Argentina, and it really is a monster.

Based on its thigh bones, the dinosaur was 130 feet long and 65 feet tall, and at 85 tons, it was the weight of 14 African elephants. Basically, picture a seven-story building as long as a large yacht, and then add a set of teeth.

Scientists believe it is a previously undiscovered species of titanosaur — a herbivore, luckily for other dinosaurs who lived during the Late Cretaceous period.

The remains were discovered in the desert La Flecha about 135 miles west of Patagonia by a local farm worker, and excavated by paleontologists from Museum of Palaeontology Egidio Feruglio. About 150 bones have been found “in remarkable condition,” researchers said.

The huge herbivore lived in the forests of Patagonia between 95 and 100 million years ago, the team said.


TIME Paleontology

World’s Oldest Sperm Found in Australia

The 17-million-year old sperm is many times the size of human sperm and comes from an unexpected source

Ancient, giant sperm have been found in a remote corner of Australia. The source? Tiny 17-million-year-old fossilized shrimp.

The fossilized sperm are the oldest ever discovered, according to researchers at the University of New South Wales Australia. Scientists also believe that the giant sperm are longer than the entire body of the freshwater crustaceans from which they originate — and at 1.3 millimeters long, the shrimp sperm are many times the length of human sperm, which are less than 0.1 millimeters long.

The fossils were discovered in what was once a cave where the tiny shrimp thrived in pools. Researchers said the shrimp were continually bombarded by bat droppings, which added phosphorous to the cave’s water, helping to preserve the soft sperm tissue.

The sperm were found in a remote region of northwestern Australia known for yielding other extraordinary remains, including fossilized giant toothed platypuses and flesh-eating kangaroos. Yep, flesh-eating kangaroos. You crazy, Australia.



TIME Paleontology

Researchers 3D Print a Whale Graveyard So They Can Study It Later


After road construction on the Pan-American Highway revealed a mysterious whale graveyard in Chile, researchers scrambled to figure out why so many of the mammals died in the same spot. After ongoing construction threatened to disrupt scientific studies at the site, Smithsonian paleontologists along with its 3D Digitization Program Office used 3D scanners to take a virtual “snapshot” of the site.

That snapshot — which is also being 3D-printed — is allowing researchers to continue their investigation of the site long after the fossils were moved to a local museum.

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