TIME Paleontology

Possible Complete Mammoth Skeleton Found in Idaho

Mammoth Bones Found
Idaho State University geology students Casey Dooms, left, and Jeff Castro brush and clean a mammoth skull discovered near American Falls Reservoir near American Falls, Idaho, on Oct. 16, 2014 Dave Walsh—AP

Experts estimate the mammoth was about 16 years old and lived about 70,000 to 120,000 years ago

(AMERICAN FALLS, IDAHO) — A portion of a an mammoth skull and tusks have been uncovered in southeastern Idaho, and experts say a rare entire skeleton might be buried there.

Experts estimate the mammoth was about 16 years old and lived about 70,000 to 120,000 years ago in what was a savanna-like country populated with large plant-eaters and predators.

The skeleton was spotted earlier this month by a fossil hunter working as a volunteer for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation near American Falls Reservoir. It was partially excavated by students and instructors from Idaho State University.

But the team had to postpone their work Oct. 18 as the reservoir’s water level rose, completing some of their tasks while standing in water. They plan to return next summer when the reservoir drops.

“It gives us a little more time to prepare if this is a complete mammoth, to get the funds together,” said Mary Thompson, Idaho Museum of Natural History collections manager and a university instructor. “This is going to be substantial to go out and excavate a complete mammoth.”

She said more bones and tusks remained in the bank that couldn’t immediately be removed.

“There may be a whole mammoth there, so that is rare,” she said.

Workers built a barrier to keep the fossil in place while underwater.

The area, Thompson said, has produced fossils of various extinct species over the decades, ranging from saber-toothed cats, short-nosed bears that were larger than grizzlies, and giant sloths. One of the most often found fossils are from bison latifrons, somewhat similar to modern bison but larger and with giant horns. Their image is part of the museum’s logo.

“It’s a very important North American Pleistocene site,” Thompson said, naming a time period that runs from 1.8 million years ago to 10,000 years ago. “We have researchers from all over the world coming here to study the fossils from American Falls.”

Besides fossils, there are also tracks of mammoths, large cats, canines and other animals where they crossed then muddy areas eons ago.

Thompson said she hopes to have the portions of the mammoth the team managed to get out put on display early next year.

“My crew is mainly students,” she said. “These are things I can’t teach in the classroom or in the lab. It’s a very unusual opportunity.”

TIME Paleontology

Newly Discovered Fossils Reveal Goofy-Looking Dinosaur

Odd Dinosaur
This undated handout image provided by Michael Skrepnick, Dinosaurs in Art, Nature Publishing Group, shows a deinocheirus Michael Skrepnick—AP

"This creature wasn’t built for speed. That’s pretty obvious”

Scientists in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert have unearthed fossils that have allowed them for the first time to build a complete picture of one of the more bizarre-looking dinosaurs.

Deinocheirus mirificus, which means “unusual horrible hand” in Latin, has stunned scientists with its strange combination of features, according to a study in the journal Nature.

The recently discovered 70 million-year-old fossils suggest deinocheirus was humpbacked, had a ”beer-belly,” tufts of feathers and wide hips and feet that caused it to waddle.

“This is an entirely new body plan,” said Stephen Brusatte, a paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh in the U.K.

The fossils add to bones that were discovered 50 years ago. Back then scientists thought deinocheirus was smaller and fiercer, now they believe it was about the size of Tyrannosaurus rex, Nature reports.

“This creature wasn’t built for speed,” says Brusatte. “That’s pretty obvious.”

Scientists used data gathered from the fossils to create a video of what the dinosaur may have looked like and how it may have walked.

[Nature]

TIME Paleontology

Meet the Dinosaur With the Biggest Nose

"This dinosaur has a huge nose"

It’s easy to get excited about the biggest dinosaur ever found, or the baddest, or some other impressive superlative. But the one with the biggest nose? Somehow, it just doesn’t have the same impact.

Yet that’s what a team of paleontologists are reporting in the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology. The newly described dino is a hadrosaur, the group that includes the so-called duck-billed dinosaurs. Many of these plant-eating creatures sported huge bony crests atop their heads.

Not this one. “…instead,” reads a press release announcing the discovery, and calling a spade a spade, “this dinosaur has a huge nose.” What else to call it but Rhinorex, or “King Nose.” It was, says the release, the “Jimmy Durante of dinosaurs.” (If you’re under 50 or so, you’ll have to lo0k it up.)

The obvious question is: why would a dinosaur need a gigantic nose? We know why T. Rex sported long, dagger-like teeth and velociraptors needed razor-sharp claws. It’s clear why apatosaurus—better known to many, including Fred Flintstone, as brontosaurus—had such a long neck (like the giraffe’s, it was for more effective browsing).

But paleontologists Terry Gates of North Carolina State University and Rodney Sheetz of Brigham Young, who found the fossil embedded in sandstone in a Brigham Young Museum of Paleontology storage area, haven’t got a clue. It probably wasn’t for smell, but more likely for easy recognition by others of its species, or for knocking down edible plants, or—strange though it might sound—attracting mates.

“We are already sniffing out answers to these questions,” Gates said in a statement. He’s probably already regretting it.

TIME Dinosaur

The Biggest, Baddest Dinosaur Ever Has Been Discovered

Spinosaurus at National Geographic
Pedestrians walk past the newly erected replica of the Spinosaurus, the largest predatory dinosaur to ever roam the Earth, in front of the National geographic Society in Washington on Sept. 8, 2014. Bill Clark—CQ-Roll Call

Most of North Africa is no more than a sun-scorched desert today, but 95 million years ago the landscape was crisscrossed by rivers, dotted with marshes and populated with all sorts of reptilian monsters. The German paleontologist Ernst Stromer stumbled on this lost world back in 1912. Among the fossils he brought back to Munich were a few bones from a strange-looking predator he called Spinosaurus aegyptiacus—notably a long, thin jawbone studded with sharp teeth and a backbone festooned with enormous spines. The animal was clearly a predator, and the bones were so huge that this new creature could, he thought, be even bigger than T. Rex.

Unfortunately, most of Stromer’s fossil collection was destroyed in an Allied bombing raid during World War II, leaving just his drawings and descriptions. That record has obsessed University of Chicago paleontologist Nizar Ibrahim since he read about them as a child, and, says Nizar, “I always wanted to go back to do the same thing Stromer did a century ago.”

A few years ago, he did. The results have just appeared in a new report in Science. And it turns out that Spinosaurus was even stranger than Stromer realized. “There are so many ways it was unusual,” says Ibrahim, “that it’s hard to come up with my top three favorites.” At nearly 50 ft. long, he says the creature was in fact bigger than T. Rex—the biggest predatory dinosaur ever found, by about nine feet. “It had a long snout like a crocodile,” he says. “It had a big sail on its back.”

And perhaps most important from a scientific perspective, Spinosaurus is the first swimming dinosaur ever discovered (ichthyosaurs weren’t dinosaurs, so they don’t count). “It had relatively puny hind legs,” says Ibrahim’s University of Chicago colleague Paul Sereno, who co-authored the new paper, “with wide feet and flat claws that are ideal for paddling.”

Its tail, unlike that of T. Rex, was flexible, which would have helped propel it through the water, and its nostrils were high up on its head, allowing it to breathe as it searched for its underwater prey—freshwater sharks, among other things. “The skull,” says Ibrahim, “resembles the skull of fish-eating crocodiles, and the tip of the snout, with its slanted, interlocking teeth, is like a fish-catching trap.” The sail—the biggest ever found on a dinosaur—was almost certainly used to attract females, since it didn’t have a rich system of blood vessels that would have marked it as an adaptation for getting rid of excess heat. For that reason, says, Sereno, “It was probably brightly colored.”

If Spinosaurus is the biggest, weirdest predatory dino ever found, and the tale of its discovery a mystery story lasting nearly a century, the way it was reconstructed was almost equally unusual: the scientists digitized Stromer’s old drawings of the bones he’d found, digitized images of the bones they’d found, and merged them with a computer to figure out what the whole creature must have looked like—a process you’ll see, along with the story of Spinosaurus’ discovery and rediscovery, on a National Geographic/NOVA special airing on PBS on Nov. 5 at 9 p.m. You can see Spinosaurus itself, meanwhile, at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C., starting September 12.

And if Spinosaurus itself isn’t strange enough to grab you, there’s plenty more to come. “We’ve collected an entire menagerie of strange predators,” says “Ibrahim, “and we’ll be publishing more papers. I’m interested in Spinosaurus, but also in the world it lived in. Spinosaurus had bizarre adaptations,” he says, “but they make sense once you understand the bizarre river system it ruled.”

 

 

 

 

TIME Paleontology

New Dinosaur Species Unearthed in Tanzania

Rukwa Rift Basin Project field team members constructing a litter in order to carry large plaster jacket containing the Rukwatitan skeleton.
Rukwa Rift Basin Project field team members constructing a litter in order to carry large plaster jacket containing the Rukwatitan skeleton. P. O’Connor—Ohio University

The massive, plant-eating sauropod may have weighed as much as several elephants

Paleontologists have unearthed a new species of dinosaur in Tanzania, a long-necked, plant-eating giant that crops up in varied forms on every continent, but rarely ever has been found in the continent of Africa.

The fossils of the newly minted Rukwatitan bisepultus were spotted in in the Rukwa Rift Basin of southwestern Tanzania, embedded into a cliff wall. Paleontologists from the University of Ohio excavated the fossils over several months, unearthing vertebrae, ribs, limbs and pelvic bones.

A silhouette of Rukwatitan showing the recovered skeleton and general shape of the titanosaurian. Eric Gorscak

The fossils clearly belonged to a creature within the family tree of sauropods, the long-necked giants that frequently turn up in the soil of South America, but CT scans revealed a distinct species that had developed unique traits from its cousins across the pond. The bones offer new evidence that the flora and fauna of the region, some 100 million years ago, may have been uniquely adapted to the area’s prehistoric environment. “With the discovery of Rukwatitan and study of the material in nearby Malawi, we are beginning to fill a significant gap from a large part of the world,” said study author Eric Gorscak.

TIME Research

Humans and Neanderthals Were Actually Neighbors

Paleontologists know plenty about our nearest human cousins, the Neanderthals. They know that this highly successful species walked the Earth for some 300,000 years (we’ve been around for less than 200,000). They know the Neanderthals kept their caves surprisingly tidy; that they ate things other than raw meat; that they practiced recycling, wore jewelry and were generally much more sophisticated than their popular reputation would suggest.

Yet it didn’t take long after our own species invaded their last known outpost in Europe that the Neanderthals went utterly extinct. Now a new paper in Nature suggests it happened over a period of between 2,600 and 5,400 years or so—which is twice as fast as anyone had thought. The two groups did, evidently, coexist: “They lived in Europe at the same time,” says lead author Tom Higham, of Oxford, “although they were spatially separated. It was like a mosaic.” Agrees William Davies, of the University of Southampton, who wrote a commentary on the new research, also in Nature, “It’s not a neat story. It’s quite complex.”

The key to the new analysis was an unusually large sample of human and Neanderthal remains from 40 different sites across Europe, along with improved methods for filtering out contaminants from the samples before attempting to date them. In many cases, the remains weren’t bones but rather stone tools thought to characteristic of one species or the other—so-called Mousterian and Châtelperronian tools for the Neanderthals and Uluzzian tools for our own ancestors.

That raises, if not a red flag, then at least a sort of pinkish one, according to Davies. “In the old days, we had very few assemblages of tools, so it was quite easy to say that Mousterian tools represented Neanderthals, while tools with longer blades reflect anatomically modern humans.” But with more and more tools in their collections, paleontologists have become less sure. “The whole thing has become more blurred and less certain.”

The new analysis doesn’t depend entirely on who made what tools, however, and, says Davies, “the areas they’ve chosen to analyze are places where we can be more confident than most.” What makes the work so potentially important, he says, is that it gives a much finer-grained picture than ever before of where Neanderthals and modern humans lived and when, and how those patterns changed as Neanderthal numbers dwindled, then vanished.

That in turn will help anthropologists figure out how the Neanderthals vanished—what force or forces drove them extinct by about 40,000 years ago. “We think the Neanderthals had very low population numbers when modern humans arrived,” says Higham, perhaps in part because Europe was in the throes of an Ice Age at the time, so they were struggling against harsh conditions that couldn’t support large numbers of individuals. Modern humans, Higham observes, had been living in Africa, which was much more benign. “Modern humans also seemed to have more modern technology,” he says, “which wouldn’t have been a huge advantage, but over the long duration might have given them an edge.”

Scientists also know that Neanderthals and modern humans interbred at some level, which is why about 2% of our genes, on average, are Neanderthal in origin. The details of those interactions are still completely unknown—for now, anyway. “For me,” says Davies, “the big achievement here is that we now have a way of getting much more information out of both skeletal and archaeological remains. We can look at the molecular level on genetic inheritance, movement patterns, even what they were eating.”

The mystery of when and where the Neanderthals made their last stand may be just about wrapped up. And the answer to why they disappeared might not be a mystery for much longer.

 

TIME Paleontology

Want to See a Live Dinosaur? Set Up a Bird Feeder

An exciting new study lays out in detail how our fine feathered friends evolved from the same ancestors as the T. Rex and velociraptors over the course of millions of years, and how they managed to avoid the same doomed fate as their dinosaur cousins

When the theory first arose that birds evolved directly from dinosaurs, it was enormously controversial. It was even more contentious when some paleontologists argued that birds are dinosaurs—the only branch of the family that survived a cataclysmic asteroid strike 65 million years ago.

That initial controversy has largely vanished, thanks to a series of astonishing discoveries over the past 20 years or so—for example, that many dinosaur species sported feathers, and that the bone structures of birds and dinos are similar in all sorts of ways. “We now know birds are a subgroup of dinosaurs, like humans are a subgroup of apes,” says paleontologist Michael Lee, of the South Australian Museum, in Adelaide.

Now a new report in Science by Lee and several colleagues has laid out in unprecedented detail the exact bird branch of the dinosaur tree that sprouted and evolved over some 50 million years—and how that evolution may have saved birds from extinction when the asteroid struck.

The study is based on a cross-species analysis of more than 1,500 anatomical features across 120 species of early birds and therapod dinosaurs—the branch that includes velociraptors and T. Rex, and which is most closely related to birds. Of all the evolutionary changes that reshaped the bird lineage, says Michael Benton, a paleontologist at the University of Bristol in the UK, writing in a commentary on the new paper that also appears in Science, “The key seems to be miniaturization.”

Starting about 200 million years ago, the paper shows, one group of therapods began to shrink rapidly, from an average weight of more than 350 lb. to less than two. Not only that, says Lee, but, “It turns out that birds and their direct ancestors evolved about four times faster than other dinosaurs over that time.”

It’s not unusual to see different rates of evolution in related species, he says. “Rodents are the most successful mammals by far, for example,” Lee says, “and one reason is that they have the most rapidly evolving DNA.” Rapid evolution could be one reason there are now 10,000 species of birds, but only a few dozen species of crocodiles, even though both are equally ancient.

Shrinkage isn’t the only change that transformed therapods into birds, says Benton. “There was miniaturization, but also modifications to the eyes, the elaboration of feathers, the development of wings out of the small, silly-looking forelimbs therapods have.”

These changes might have been driven by their helpfulness in letting birds adapt to living in trees—previously uninhabited ecological niche. It’s still just a hypothesis, says Benton, but “there might have been an opportunity to conquer a new habitat by getting smaller, developing the ability to climb and to glide, developing better vision so you don’t go banging into branches.”

The changes could also have given birds a huge advantage over other dinosaurs when the asteroid finally struck. “Birds obviously didn’t evolve knowing in advance that it would hit,” says Lee, “but the adaptations might have incidentally helped them survive—they could warm themselves with feathers [when dust from the asteroid cooled the Earth], fly long distances for food.”

What most people don’t realize, says Lee, is that birds didn’t show up just as the other dinosaurs were dying out. “They shared the world for 100 million years.” The quintessential proto-bird, Archaeopteryx, lived 150 million years ago, he points out. But the terrifying T. Rex wouldn’t show up until many tens of millions of years later.

 

TIME Paleontology

What Killed The Dinosaurs? Bad Luck, Study Suggests

The asteroid was simply the straw that broke the camptosaurus's back

While it’s widely accepted that dinosaurs were made extinct by a six-mile long asteroid that hit Earth, a new study posits that the asteroid was simply the last piece of bad fortune in a run of poor luck that killed the species.

According to the newly released paleontology report titled ‘The Extinction of the Dinosaurs’ – published by the journal Biological Reviews - the dinosaurs could have likely survived the asteroid, had it not been for the unfortunate environmental conditions they were already facing as a species.

Hebrivores were already decreasing in population at the time, says the report, and the loss in biodiversity created a great deal of problems for dinosaurs, most specifically less food available at the bottom of the food chain.

“If the asteroid hit a few million years earlier, when dinosaurs were more diverse, or a few million years later, when they had a chance to recover as they often had done before after diversity losses, then dinosaurs probably wouldn’t have gone extinct,” said University of Edinburgh paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Brusatte, who led the study.

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.

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