Posts Tagged ‘palaeontology’

Gratuitous extant collembolan picture.

Fossilized amber famously can preserve insects trapped in it. Sometimes we’re lucky enough to get a glimpse of a bug’s life from these specimens. One such fossil, found in a mine in the Dominican Republic, preserves a tiny springtail piggybacking on a larger fishfly (or mayfly, if you like). Springtails (subclass Collembola – close relatives of insects and teddy bears*) are wingless, but so small that they can easily disperse by hitching a ride on a larger insect. This individual was caught in the act, and in fact represents the first known case of such hitchiking (the technical term is phoresy) on a fishfly (order Ephemeroptera). Here’s part of the figure from the paper that described this fossil, showing the miniscule springtail clinging to the fishfly’s back. There’s also a video in the supplemental section of the paper showing a 3D reconstruction of the bugs.

Figure 1B from Penney et al. 2012: thorax of a fishfly with springtail on the upper edge, just left of where the wing attaches.


The second unusual fossil o’the day is one that it never occurred to me could be fossilized: a bird’s nest. And not just any bird’s nest: an ancient flamingo’s! The 18-million-year-old nest consists of leafy twigs and contains five eggs. It is thought that it was abandoned and sank to the bottom of the saline lake in which it was built before becoming fossilized. This sort of habitat is much like the ones flamingos inhabit today. The authors examined the eggshells microscopically to identify them as flamingo eggs, but, interestingly, the nest characteristics and egg number and size resemble those of grebes, the flamingo order’s closest living relatives.

So, two strange fossils that shed a bit of light on prehistoric animals’ behaviour. This is the sort of thing that makes me say “Yay science!”


Gratuitous flamingo picture. There are two species here – can you ID them?

*Not intended to be a factual statement.


Gerald Grellet-Tinner, Xabier Murelaga, Juan C. Larrasoaña, Luis F. Silveira, Maitane Olivares, Luis A. Ortega, Patrick W. Trimby, Ana Pascual (2012). The First Occurrence in the Fossil Record of an Aquatic Avian Twig-Nest with Phoenicopteriformes Eggs: Evolutionary Implications PLoS ONE, 7 (10) : 10.1371/journal.pone.0046972

David Penney, Andrew McNeil, David I. Green, Robert S. Bradley, James E. Jepson, Philip J. Withers, Richard F. Preziosi (2012). Ancient Ephemeroptera–Collembola Symbiosis Fossilized in Amber Predicts Contemporary Phoretic Associations PLoS ONE, 7 (10) : 10.1371/journal.pone.0047651


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Two news stories that have warmed my heart in the past couple of weeks both involve non-scientists making important scientific discoveries. If you follow any biology blogs, you’ve probably heard about the new species of lacewing that was discovered on Flickr (here’s the paper describing it). Semachrysa jade was photographed by Gueg Hock Ping in Malaysia, and when entomologist Shaun Winterton saw the photo on Flickr, realized it was an undescribed species. Guek captured a specimen—necessary to confirm that the species was new—the following year. Along with Steve Brooks, another entomologist, they published the description in the open-access journal Zookeys. Interestingly, they found a second specimen of S. jade, already in a museum collection—one of perhaps millions of specimens that no one has yet realized represent new taxa.

The second story is a bit more old fashioned but exciting for a Mary Anning fan like me. The Keating family, while walking their dog, stumbled across a spectacular fossil on a rocky Nova Scotia beach. The beast is a juvenile sail-backed mammal-like reptile (maybe something like Dimetrodon) from the Carboniferous period (i.e. pre-dinosaurs). While this discovery is more low-tech than the lacewing from Flickr, what they both have in common is (1) someone with a keen eye getting out in nature and (2) the layperson connecting with scientists who can properly identify and document their find. In one case, a scientist reached out to the photographer, while in the other the family sought out experts when they found the fossil. Anyone could make the next cool biology headline.

So, in the words of Ms. Frizzle, get out there and explore!

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(Replacing Pantydraco)

Via this talk about dinosaurs, we learn of the radiolarian Rectotormentum fornicatum, named, of course, from the Latin words “rectus”, meaning “correct, in good order”; “tormentum”, meaning “missile stone”; and “fornicatus”, meaning “arched, vaulted”.

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New species and weird scientific name news that has found its way to my browser over the past few months. Enjoy.

Pictures of tropical fish that will BLOW YOUR MIND. New and non-new species.

Potential cryptic species of sharks

Giant extinct turtle

Random Wikipedia browsing reveals that there is at least one species (a spider) named for Cthulhu

More cryptic species, in this case of skinks

The Taxonomic Name Resolution Service – searchable record of plant scientific names, including all documented synonyms – important for those describing new species, as well as for those trying to find historical research on species whose names have changed

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ResearchBlogging.orgFor those of you who never had a childhood dinosaur obsession, or a dinosaur-obsessed child, Pachycephalosaurus was a “dome-headed” dinosaur: it and its relatives had extremely thick (like, ten inches) skulls, often dome-shaped and fringed with an array of spikes and other protrusions. It is thought—but the idea is controversial—that these dinosaurs engaged in head-butting fights like male goats and sheep do today with their horns. (An alternative is that they head-butted their opponent’s sides, rather than engaging in extremely risky head-on fights.)

A new analysis of a Pachycephalosaurus skull has found evidence of a healed injury or injuries from such a battle. The top of the animal’s cranial dome has two large depressions—and by large, I mean 5 cm across and up to 1.6 cm deep—in addition to a scattering of smaller pits concentrated towards the front end of the skull. The shape of these scars led the authors to rule out postmortem damage by erosion or scavengers as causes. Instead, they believe the dinosaur sustained a skull fracture—and survived, but with a nasty infection. A CT scan showed evidence that the wound had at least partly healed before the animal died.

While there are no modern analogues for skull-bashing dinosaurs, the authors compared the fracture to those sustained by birds flying into windows. They were able to find skeletons of some birds that had survived such a trauma long enough to heal, and they did indeed have large, round depressions on their skulls (though, from the figure, there don’t seem to be any smaller pits—perhaps the bird’s wound wasn’t infected, or perhaps the pits could be attributed to the spikes and nobs also found on Pachycephalosaurus‘s skull).

The authors note that many instances of apparent damage on pachycephalosaur skull fossils have been dismissed as erosion, and that a closer look at many specimens could show similar examples of healed wounds. While such injuries wouldn’t prove whether these dinosaurs were head-butting each other, or just hitting head-to-flank, or for that matter running into things, they would suggest that those thick skulls weren’t just for show.

I note with interest the names of two other pachycephalosaurs mentioned in this study (which may actually be juvenile Pachycephalosaurus, and thus not validly named, unfortunately): Stygimoloch spinifer (the horned devil from the Styx) and Dracorex hogwartsia (the dragon king of Hogwarts).

Peterson, J., & Vittore, C. (2012). Cranial Pathologies in a Specimen of Pachycephalosaurus PLoS ONE, 7 (4) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0036227

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Have I accumulated enough taxonomy-related links for another roundup? Am I too exhausted/lazy from field work to do any proper blogging? Yes and yes.

First, and most importantly, the NCSU Insect Museum has announced the winners of its awesome annual Hexapod Haiku contest. My favourite among the runners-up:

all the insects
I’ve killed–waiting
in the other world

The new species in this instalment are a UV-reflecting scorpion, a monstrous fossil that may or may not be called Godzillus, and a shockingly purple crab.

A short collection of goofy scientific names. I don’t understand why so few people want to do taxonomy. Think of the power you’d have, naming tiny primitive insects after Tolkien characters!

Random, related thought: describing a new species is like developing a DnD character. Except that you’ve lost your set of dice and your Player’s Handbook. (Actually, I think someone’s already indirectly made this parallel, viz. the Phylo, formerly Phylomon, card game.)

I’ve saved the best for last. This list of dinosaurs that “aren’t what they were” is frakking great. When I was just starting to be obsessed with dinosaurs, the idea that they were warm-blooded and related to birds was just becoming widely accepted. My childhood collection of dinosaur books was thus a mixture of those with illustrations of plodding stupid heavy-tailed brutes and those with lean and nimble, even graceful, beasts. But by the time I was in high school, things had changed even more: people had found fossil feathers. A lot of them. Now virtually every theropod (the predatory dinosaurs from which birds evolved), and even many non-theropods, is illustrated with at least a proto-feathery covering. The quill-like things on Psittacosaurus and Triceratops are pretty wicked. (A funny thing to note is that the Jurassic Park movies have always tended to be ahead of the mainstream idea of dinosaurs, first with the warm-bloodedness, then with the feathers and badass Spinosaurus.)

Okay, one more link, because the last one reminded me of it: T. rex trying, my favourite thing on the internet these days.

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For those of you who didn’t spend your entire childhoods alternately wanting to be a palaeontologist and wishing you were a dinosaur, ceratopsians are large, typically quadrupedal herbivores with bony frills extending from the backs of their skulls and, often, various spikes, bumps, or horns on their heads (“ceratops”, a traditional part of many names in this taxon, means, roughly, horned-face in Greek). Think Triceratops. Their elaborate headgear could be defensive or a sexual ornament; probably a bit of both.

I was looking through this list of dinosaurs described in 2010 and noticed that many of the new ceratopsians had wickedly badass names. Hence this post, which will feature genera both new and old. (more…)

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