fossil news from issue 61

An example of a giant fish named Leedsichthys after it's first discoverer Alfred Leeds in 1889 existed from approximately 165 million years ago has been found relatively intact, previous remains haven't presented researchers with any evidence regarding it's physical dimensions. Researchers suggest it was the first of the giant plankton eaters that we know today similar in size to the modern day whale shark. Growing from 8-9m at approximately 20 years up to an estimated length of just over 16m at an age of 38 years old.

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rock and gem magazine issue 61 autumn 2013

Uniquely Leedsichthys developed with a honeycomb mesh type formation around it’s gill which was very efficient at trapping plankton.
(Ed-The discovery was made just outside Peterborough (England) by student researchers, just a few miles from the magazine HQ!)

A part of Alfred Leeds collection was acquired by the National Museum of Ireland and contains many notable fossils from the Oxford Clay near Peterborough collected on the family farm.

The oldest land animal to have existed in South Africa is currently a 350 million year old scorpion named Gondwanascorpio emzantsiensis. Gondwana was the name of the southern super continent land mass some 510 180 million years ago.

A particularly notable find because previously only evidence of land animals from this time had been found on the northerly land mass (Laurasia).

Southern Utah North America has been home to a new discovery, a large plant eating horned dinosaur , a member of the triceratops family. Nasutoceratops titusi had a large snout than other triceratops and large horns which are positioned over the eyes curling forwards, with a rather plain bony frill towards the back of the head.
Current thinking is that the frill and horns are more signs of gender for mating rituals rather than any functional use.

Always debated, are dinosaurs warm or cold blooded? University of Adelaide research has shown that it seems likely that they were warm blooded. Measuring samples from saltwater crocodiles against warm blooded mammals show that the cold blooded crocs although ‘powerful’ only attain approximately 14% of the strength of a similar sized mammal.

With so many megaherbivores roaming around, the question has often been how did thay all manage to get their square meals everyday? Well work at the University of Calgary has provided a possible answer or two.
Perhaps food was plentiful or the different creatures developed and fed on particular plants – called niche partitioning.

After studying 100 different fossil skulls originating from the Dinosaur Park Formation in Cananda it’s likely niche partitioning came into play. Twelve specific attributes of modern megaherbivores (elephants, hippo’s, rhinos’s etc) were measured and compared with the three major dinosaur groups hadrosaurs, ceratopsids and ankylosaurs that would’ve existed at a simliar time through a 1-1.5 million year period.
The results intimated that due to jaw sizes and strength the diets would have been very specific.
In Europe between 55 to 40 million years ago you may have been face with a 2m tall ‘terror bird’ however German researchers have been studying examples found in Saxony-Anhalt, Germany, suggest that the flightless bird might not have been a meat eater as suggested partly by it’s incredible beak biting force. Using modern technology they were able to measure the calcium isotopic composition of the creatures bones and the result was similar to herbivorous mammals.

The Australian Museum in Sydney will be showing a relative to Tyrannosaurus rex called Guanlong wucaii. Measuring 1.1 m tall it would have a feathered brightly coloured crest on it’s head. This is the first time ‘worldwide’ that an example of Guanlong wucaii has been on public display.

Adaptive as mammals are their ancient relatives not only survived the ‘mass extinction event some 252 million years ago but positively began to thrive afterwards.
Early examples included shrew type creatures which had fur, large brains and were warm blooded. These cynodont therapsids split into to two groups cynognathians and probainognathians, plant and flesh eater repectively, however the probainognathians eventually became the most diverse. According to recent studies by Universities of Lincoln, Bristol & National Museum in Bloemfontein, South Africa.

More on mammals, and maybe an insight into the transition to modern mammals – a squirrel sized great great great ancestor Megaconus found in Mongolia, China, is a superbly preserved fossil of the mammaliaform groups from 165 million years ago. Although Megaconus had some hair and shared similiarities to modern egg laying mammals and was most probably omnivore it still had reptile like features.

Oxford University scientists have been leading a study on early birds particularly the evolution of their tails. Examining early birds from all over the world researchers were able to conclude that key to their diversity was the reduction and loss of the bony tail which led to a wealth of hind limb development.

The genus Psittacosaurus until recently thought to represent three species has now been proved to be only one - P. lujiatunensis! University of Pennsylvania researchers uniquely used the latest technology (three-dimensional geometric morphometrics) to examine a variety of Psittacosaurus fossils.
This technique utilises lasers to measure the fossil characteristics. This creature were plant eaters and had beak like facial features. Traditional techniques were also used in the examination and with the combined information not only was the genus reduced but valuable information about how the fossilisation process can alter the remains was documented, it’s this process that most probably contributed to the original assumption. This research does suggest that many other genus’s might warrant re-examination.

Only a few miles from the famed Riversleigh World Heritage fossil site.
University of New South Wales Australia researchers remotely scanned the ares with satellite imagery looking for tell tale signs of previous fossil laden areas to identify this site. After an initial short exploration 1.8 tonnes of fossil laden rock has already been excavated including previously unseen creatures. Over 30 unknown cave systems and a limestone column have also been found.

A first is the discovery of fossilised whale poo or ambergris, used in the perfume industry, the material is produced by sperm whales to protect it’s digestive system from sharp objects. Discovered in a Pleistocene ocean from southwestern Umbria in central Italy.

Metoposaurus lived in Krasiejów, Poland some 230 million years ago the giant amphibian (diagnosticus) which grew to 10 feet long enjoyed a warm climate but burrowed underground during the extra dry seasons to wait out the arid conditions, researchers examined the annuli, growth type rings in it’s bone cross section in order to determine how it’s activities varied during the year.

Researchers have been studying how algae reacts to the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere at certain lower levels the organisms rely on alternate sources of carbon to survive, this can be measured from the fossils shells produced by some species over the last 60 million years, as recent as between 7 – 5 million years algae started to rely on alternate sources.

Kangeroos ate better 2.5 -5 million years ago! Researchers have discovered examining fossil teeth of kangeroos and other marsupials that the Southern Queensland area was made up of forest, grass and wetlands. The remaining carbon isotope ratios in the teeth suggest that the kangeroos of the time ate plants from a temperate tropical region.

450 million years ago major geological changes caused evolutionary shifts in an area which is now North America, scientists studied fossils of 53 species of brachiopods in order to understand the process as the geology changed over a period of a million years, invasive species flooded into the area and adapted to the environment a process known as Vicariance.

Questions have been raised about the validity of the standard tests for ecological stability in paleoecology and suggest more than single factors be considered.
Paleotologists have studied clam fossils from the middle Devonia era (380 millions years ago) in order to understand more about their ecology. Although species abundance was variable, the clam size and predation pressure was constant, which led researchers to relate the stability to that of the dynamics of food webs, where perhaps feeding switched to whichever species was more abundant.

Brazilan researchers have published detailed information regarding 30 species of pterosaurs from the Cretaceous period in England. A huge variety of fossils have been discovered in various conditions due to their localities. The research shows that the creatures differed greatly in appearance from having different teeth positions, teeth size and having head crests or not. The ‘English’ pterosaurs are also closely related to examples found in Brazil.

‘Walking with Dinosaurs’, well it is tv, Utah, Bristol & the Natural History Museum (London) experts have recently completed a new study on how flexible ostriches necks are, bearing in mind that the ostrich is the closest living relative to the rather long necked ancient sauropod. The team determined that the TV computer generated modelling may not have used the correct information in recreating the dinosaurs true range of movement, perhaps not allowing for the way in which it’s neck cartilage and soft tissue impeded it’s movement. Still it did look impressive!

Doors singer now named lizard Barbaturex morrisoni was a creature unusually large that lived 36-40 million years ago and grew to almost 6’ in length weighing up to 60 lb.
It’s thought a plant eater, which has been able to evolve to a larger size due to the warm climate and lack of mammal predation or competition. A team of researchers including those from Stony Brook University have been studying the impact of eating all that vegetation by large herbivore dinosaurs such as the sauropod’s. By counting the deposition lines within the creatures’ dentin, they suggest depending on the species that each tooth were replaced every 35-62 days. They discovered that Diplodocus had approximately 5 new teeth lined up for every functioning tooth.

The famed LA Brea tar pits have given up another secret, a question that’s been asked was just how long did the prehistoric creatures suffer for while being consumed by the pit. Well, after studying insects fossils, it’s been determined that it took 17- 20 weeks (in warm or hot weather).
Researchers took insects that are alive today and measured how long it took for them to ‘munch bone’ comparing it with the insect fossil tracts recovered from the asphalt pits, noting that far more damage was apparent to the herbivores probably due to their less protective skin.

Not a small example but close to the size of a modern horse was the fossil uncovered in the Yukon permafrost. Collagen, blood proteins and some DNA was recovered which has enabled researchers to determine the rate of mutation from this ancient horse (probably 700 000 years old) to the modern day!

European researchers have been examining the fossil remains of a fish discovered in the south of Zaragoza. The new species named Machaeracanthus goujeti from the relatively undescribed Acanthodii group often referred to as spiny sharks. The fossil indicated that the fish would grow up to 1m in size and lived in coastal waters.

Tiny micro fossils found in sediment rocks in Australia date back to over 3 billion years old which proved that oceans have had life for a huge period of time. The fossils no more than a mere 20-60 microns in size. Life in the rock was discovered by Isotopic analysis using secondary ion mass spectrometry which found the quantity of carbon 13 present to be from a biological source.


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