New Jurassic Pterosaur Unearthed in Chile

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Life reconstruction of a rhamphorhynchine pterosaur from the Cerro Campamento Formation, Chile. Image credit: Universidad de Chile.

Paleontologists have unearthed and described the fragmentary fossilized remains of a non-pterodactyloid pterosaur in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile.

The newly-described pterosaur inhabited the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana some 160 million years ago (Oxfordian age of the Late Jurassic period).

It was a large-sized flying reptile with an elongated tail, pointed forward-facing teeth, and a long snout.

It belongs to a group of pterosaurs called Rhamphorhynchinae, which also includes Jurassic pterosaurs from Europe, Asia, and North America.

“These pterosaurs had wing spans, tip to tip, of up to 1.8-2 m (5.9-6.6 feet),” said first author Dr. Jhonatan Alarcón-Muñoz from the Universidad de Chile and colleagues.

“Our specimen is quite large, comparable to Rhamphorhynchus, which is the largest member of this family.”

The specimen was collected in 2009 from the fossil-bearing Cerro Campamento Formation near the locality of Cerritos Bayos in northern Chile.

“The specimen represents to date the oldest record of a pterosaur found in Chile, and the first confidently referrable to the Rhamphorhynchinae clade so far known in Gondwana,” the paleontologists said.

“It also represents the first pterosaur of the Oxfordian age known from this supercontinent.”

“However, the absence of more complete and diagnostic material precludes a generic and specific referral for the moment.”

The discovery is reported in a paper published online in the journal Acta Palaeontologica Polonica.


Jhonatan Alarcón-Muñoz et al. 2021. First record of a Late Jurassic rhamphorhynchine pterosaur from Gondwana. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 66; doi: 10.4202/app.00805.202


The Mysterious Sex Lives of Dinosaurs

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Tyrannosaurus rex dinosaurs mating - like most dinosaur species, the creatures mated like dogs

Dinosaurs must have had sex to reproduce but how they did it -- with their neck frills, armored plates and tails tipped with spikes -- isn't exactly clear.

No fossil has revealed two dinosaurs caught in the act -- the only known vertebrates to be unequivocally preserved mating are a pair of 47 million-year-old turtles that were attached by their genitals as they got buried alive.

It's also not possible to easily determine whether a dinosaur is male or female from fossilized bones.

Fossils that preserve elements of dinosaur behavior are very rare. However, with close analysis and insights from what we know about living animals, particularly birds, paleontologists are beginning to piece together the sex lives of dinosaurs.

The oldest known vertebrates to be fossilized while mating are a pair of 47 million-year-old turtles, which were attached by their genitals as they got buried alive.

Sex differences

Many species of animals show a difference in appearance between the sexes -- what's called sexual dimorphism. Think of a lion's mane, a peacock's feathers or a stag's antlers. Such features are surprisingly difficult to determine in extinct species.

Despite many earlier claims, including that female T. rexes were bigger than males, such findings are now thought inconclusive. Differences in anatomy could point to a young and old individual or two separate species, or just variations that have nothing to do with sex.

"We really don't know, 100%. I could not confidently hold my hands up and say you know what, this T. rex is male, this T. rex is female. It's unfortunate because as a paleontologist it's a fascinating and fun area to explore," said paleontologist Dean Lomax, a visiting scientist at The University of Manchester's department of Earth and environmental sciences.

One exception to this is Confuciusornis, a 125 million-year-old dinosaur that has many features in common with modern bird species and shows a remarkable difference in plumage between male and female specimens.

Some fossils show body-length ribbonlike tail feathers -- a feature that had been interpreted as being used for sexual display. Scientists were able to find indisputable proof that females did not have this ornamental plumage.

Researchers identified evidence of the medullary bone -- calcium-rich tissue present during a short period of time in a reproductively active female bird used to make eggshells -- in the ancient birds that did not sport the long plumage.

Work in the past decade on the cells that contain color pigments in the exquisitely preserved fossils of feathered dinosaurs have revealed that some dinosaurs were brightly colored -- perhaps surprisingly so, given how popular culture historically portrayed them as grayish green. Lomax believes it's possible that in the future we'll find a fossil that shows clear evidence of sexual dimorphism.

"In the future, probably from China, I imagine you'll find two distinct dinosaurs found with color, their anatomies will match, but they'll be very different in their coloration," said Lomax, who is also the author of "Locked in Time: Animal Behavior Unearthed in 50 Extraordinary Fossils."

'Prehistoric foreplay'

Thanks largely to the discovery of once-controversial feathered fossils from China in the 1990s, we now know that birds are the only living relative of dinosaurs -- specifically, therapods, part of the same family as T. rex and Velociraptor.

"You go back 20 or 30 years, and you still have scientists saying birds aren't dinosaurs, but now we have so much more evidence that they are. So you can look at the behavior of birds and work out how some of these dinosaurs behaved," Lomax said.

Case in point is a type of scratching that male ground-nesting birds do to signal they are strong and good nest builders. It's part of behavior called lekking, when males, typically in groups, competitively dance and perform other courtship rituals to attract the attention of females.

Dinosaurs engaged in similar mating behavior, according to fossilized "scrapes" left behind in 100 million-year-old rocks in the prehistoric Dakota Sandstone of western Colorado. One site revealed more than 60 distinct scrapes in a single area of up to 164 feet (50 meters) long and 49 feet (15 meters) wide.

"The scrape evidence has significant implications," Martin Lockley, professor emeritus of geology at the University of Colorado Denver, said when the study was released in 2016.

"This is physical evidence of prehistoric foreplay that is very similar to birds today. Modern birds using scrape ceremony courtship usually do so near their final nesting sites. So the fossil scrape evidence offers a tantalizing clue that dinosaurs in 'heat' may have gathered here millions of years ago to breed and then nest nearby."

Pelecanimimus dinosaurs mating - these bird-like creatures lived 120 million years ago during the Cretaceous period

Flirty frills

The large bony frill that skirts the skull of Protoceratops dinosaurs, part of the same family as Triceratops, is also thought to be used as a signal to prospective mates, a recent study of 30 complete skulls suggested.

It's not a feature found in living animals today, and paleontologists have long debated what the function was of the diverse array of frills and horns in ceratopsians. Perhaps, scientists thought, it was to regulate body heat or defense.

Three-dimensional analysis showed that the frill formed an independent region of the skull that grew much more rapidly than any other region of the head -- a pattern that is often seen with sexual selection -- the idea that certain traits are favored by the opposite sex and so over time become more elaborate.

In the case of Protoceratops, however, the researchers concluded that both males and females would have sported the distinctive frill and that it wouldn't have varied dramatically between the sexes.

On display at the Field Museum in Chicago, Sue the T. Rex is the world's most complete T. Rex fossil, but scientists don't know if it's male or female. Sue is named for Sue Hendrickson, who discovered the dino in 1990 during a commercial excavation trip north of Faith, South Dakota.

Dino sex

So what would dinosaur mating have actually looked like?

While most mammals have separate holes for bodily functions, many other animals -- including birds and reptiles -- have just one and it's known as the cloaca.

A big clue to understanding dinosaur sex was revealed earlier this year when paleontologists at the University of Bristol and the University of Massachusetts Amherst announced in the journal Current Biology that they had found a dinosaur cloaca belonging to a Psittacosaurus, a Labrador-size dinosaur.

Most birds mate by "cloacal kissing" -- by pressing together their openings. Some paleontologists think dinosaurs may have mated like this.

Jakob Vinther, a paleontologist and senior lecturer at the University of Bristol's School of Earth Sciences, however, believes that male Psittacosaurus would have had a penis -- the fossilized opening is more similar to a crocodile's, which do, and some birds, like ostriches and ducks, that also have penises.

"From what we can see, this cloaca would not have been suitable for cloacal kissing," Vinther said. "It looks like it would have been penetrative sex."

But this was the first time a dinosaur cloaca had been studied, and much of the mechanics of dinosaur sex defies the imagination, particularly for creatures like the Stegosaurus, with its armored plates and pointed tail.

"If the female doesn't like the male, and it's swinging its spiked tail around, that's a problem. You look at the potential angles. It could be that they moved together tail to tail for a cloacal kiss -- a quick bang and that's it," Lomax said.

"Potentially it could have mounted at the back but (I) think that's more unlikely because of the friction of the spikes. Another possibility is that the female Stegosaurus could have lied down and the male mounted from the side.

"But it's hard to know. We really don't know the sex lives of these animals."


11-Million-Year-Old Fossil of Large-Sized Otter Found in Germany

Saturday, September 18, 2021

The dispersal of Vishnuonyx otters from the Indian subcontinent to Africa and Europe about 13 million years ago; HAM 4 is the position of the Hammerschmiede site. Image credit: Nikos Kargopoulos.

A new species of the extinct genus Vishnuonyx has been identified from the 11.4-million-year-old lower jaw found at the Upper Miocene site of Hammerschmiede in the Allgäu region of Germany.

Vishnuonyx is an extinct genus of mid-sized otters (10-15 kg) that lived between 14 and 12.5 million years ago in the major rivers of Southern Asia.

Commonly known as the Vishnu otters, they were first discovered in sediments in the foothills of the Himalayas.

The new species differs from the already known members of the genus in size — intermediate between the African Vishnuonyx angololensis and the Asiatic Vishnuonyx chinjiensis — and morphology.

Named the Neptune’s Vishnu otter (Vishnuonyx neptuni), it represents the first occurrence of the genus in Europe and its most northern and western record.

“Recent finds showed that Vishnu otters reached East Africa about 12 million years ago,” said Dr. Nikolaos Kargopoulos, a paleontologist in the Department of Geosciences at the Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen, and his colleagues.

“The discovery is the first evidence that they also occurred in Europe — possibly spreading from India throughout the entire Old World.”

“Its enormous dispersal of more than 6,000 km across three continents was made possible by the geographic situation 12 million years ago.”

“The newly formed mountain ranges from the Alps in the west to the Iranian Elbrus Mountains in the east separated a large ocean basin from the Tethys Ocean, the forerunner of the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean.”

“This created the Paratethys, a vast Eurasian body of water that extended from Germany to beyond today’s Aral Sea in Kazakhstan.”

“About 12 million years ago, it had only a narrow connection to the Indian Ocean, the so-called Araks Strait in the area of modern-day Armenia.”

“We assume that Vishnuonyx neptuni followed this connection to the west and reached southern Germany, the Ancient Guenz, and the Hammerschmiede via the emerging delta of the Ancient Danube to the west of what is now the city of Vienna.”

The researchers used computer-tomographic methods to visualize the finest details in Vishnuonyx neptuni’s teeth.

“We suggest that Vishnuonyx neptuni was feeding mainly on fish and less on bivalves or plant material, resembling the living giant otter Pteronura brasiliensis.”

The discovery of Vishnuonyx neptuni is reported in the Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology.


Nikolaos Kargopoulos et al. New Early Late Miocene species of Vishnuonyx (Carnivora, Lutrinae) from the hominid locality of Hammerschmiede, Bavaria, Germany. Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology, published online September 16, 2021; doi: 10.1080/02724634.2021.1948858


Footprints of Newborn Straight-Tusked Elephants Found in Spain

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Ichnological evidence and reconstruction of Palaeoloxodon antiquus social interactions deduced from the Matalascañas Trampled Surface, Spain: (a-c) two adult (presumably female) ‘A1 & A2’ and one juvenile trackway ‘c’ showing convergence (the toe impressions indicate opposite orientation of movement); note overstepping of pes over manus in the main adult trackways that is not seen in the smaller tracks, in this case because the small juvenile may have stopped just after the larger animal slowly passed by (interpretation in c); (d) example of a young mother-newborn Loxodonta africana interaction; (e) reconstitution of mother-newborn interaction in the Matalascañas Trampled Surface. Image credit: J. Galán / Neto de Carvalho et al., doi: 10.1038/s41598-021-96754-1.

Paleontologists have discovered tracks and trackways of newborns, calves and juveniles attributed to straight-tusked elephants (Palaeoloxodon antiquus) at the Upper Pleistocene site in Huelva, Spain.

The straight-tusked elephant is a species of giant elephant that lived between 1.5 million and 100,000 years ago.

This animal with very wide heads and extremely long tusks is among the most powerful proboscideans (elephants and their extinct relatives) that has ever lived.

Based on well-preserved skeletons, estimates of maximum shoulder height vary from 3 to 4.2 m (10-14 feet) and body mass from 4.5-5.5 to 13 tons for females and males, respectively.

“In the Iberian Peninsula, straight-tusked elephants prevailed in Mediterranean evergreen woodland which was widespread during the interglacial periods,” said University of Lisbon’s Dr. Carlos Neto de Carvalho and colleageus.

“This is especially true in southern Spain, where they replaced steppe mammoths (Mammuthus trogontherii) during Middle Pleistocene.”

In the research, the paleontologists examined 34 sets of footprints at a site called the Matalascañas Trampled Surface in Huelva, Spain.

Based on the rounded-elliptical shape of the prints and other criteria, they attributed the tracks to straight-tusked elephants.

To determine the age of individual animals, the researchers calculated shoulder height and body mass based on footprint length.

They identified footprints of 14 calves, which they estimate as having been between newborns and two years of age. Their body mass was estimated to have been between 70 and 200 kg.

The scientists also categorized tracks from eight juveniles (two to seven years old) and six adolescents (eight to 15 years old).

Additionally, they identified adult tracks possibly made by three adult females (over 15 years) based on the tracks’ close proximity to those of young calf footprints.

Only two tracks were identified as having been made by males, with much larger footprints (over 50 cm, or 1.6 feet, in length) and estimated body masses of over 7 tons.

“The high frequency of young elephants may indicate that the area, which once had an interdune pond, was a reproductive site for elephant herds, with the surrounding vegetation providing a food source for young elephants unable to travel long distances to other food sources,” the authors said.

The team’s paper was publisherd in the journal Scientific Reports.


C. Neto de Carvalho et al. 2021. First tracks of newborn straight-tusked elephants (Palaeoloxodon antiquus). Sci Rep 11, 17311; doi: 10.1038/s41598-021-96754-1


New Bird Species from Cretaceous Period Had Long Pintail

Saturday, September 18, 2021

An illustration showing what Yuanchuavis kompsosoura might have looked like in life. Image credit: Haozhen Zhang.

Paleontologists in China have identified a new species of pengornithid enantiornithine bird with a pair of elaborate tail feathers.

Enantiornithes are the most successful group of Mesozoic birds, arguably representing the first global avian radiation.

They are known exclusively from the Cretaceous period, predominantly from fossils discovered in Asia, and commonly resolved as the sister to Ornithuromorpha, the group within which all living birds are nested.

The new species is a member of the family Pengornithidae, one of the earliest diverging enantiornithine groups.

Named Yuanchuavis kompsosoura, it lived approximately 120 million years ago in what is now northeastern China and belonged to the famous Jehol Biota.

It was a small bird, about the size of a bluejay, but its tail was more than 150% the length of its body.

Yuanchuavis kompsosoura had a fan of short feathers at the base and then two extremely long plumes,” said Dr. Jingmai O’Connor, a paleontologist at the Field Museum.

“The long feathers were dominated by the central spine, called the rachis, and then plumed at the end.”

“The combination of a short tail fan with two long feathers is called a pintail, we see it in some modern birds like sunbirds and quetzals.”

“We’ve never seen this combination of different kinds of tail feathers before in a fossil bird.”

Fossil of Yuanchuavis kompsosoura, with illustration indicating the fossil’s tail feathers. Scale bar – 2 cm. Image credit: Min et al., doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2021.08.044.

Yuanchuavis kompsosoura is the first documented occurrence of a pintail in Enantiornithes.

“Notably, the morphology preserved in Yuanchuavis kompsosoura essentially represents a combination of the two tail morphologies previously recognized in other enantiornithines which are most closely related to Yuanchuavis kompsosoura,” said Dr. Wang Min, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

“Its tail fan is aerodynamically functional, whereas the elongated central paired plumes are used for display, which together reflect the interplay between natural selection and sexual selection.”

In other words, Yuanchuavis kompsosoura would have been able to fly well, but its long tail feathers that might have helped it find mates didn’t make flying any easier — its fancy tail was literally a drag.

This balance between natural and sexual selection has interested scientists since the time of Darwin: if evolution produces organisms that are better able to meet the pressures of the world around them, then why would an animal develop traits that make it worse at flying or more noticeable to its predators?

“Scientists call a trait like a big fancy tail an ‘honest signal,’ because it is detrimental, so if an animal with it is able to survive with that handicap, that’s a sign that it’s really fit,” Dr. O’Connor said.

“A female bird would look at a male with goofily burdensome tail feathers and think, ‘Dang, if he’s able to survive even with such a ridiculous tail, he must have really good genes’.”

“It is well known that sexual selection plays a central role in speciation and recognition in modern birds, attesting to the enormous extravagant feathers, ornaments, vocals, and dances,” Dr. Wang said.

“However, it is notoriously difficult to tell if a given fossilized structure is shaped by sexual selection, considering the imperfect nature of the fossil record.”

“Therefore, the well-preserved tail feathers in this new fossil bird provide great new information about how sexual selection has shaped the avian tail from their earliest stage.”

“The complexity we see in Yuanchuavis kompsosoura’s feathers is related to one of the reasons we hypothesize why living birds are so incredibly diverse, because they can separate themselves into different species just by differences in plumage and differences in song,” Dr. O’Connor said.

“It’s amazing that Yuanchuavis kompsosoura lets us hypothesize that that kind of plumage complexity may already have been present in the Early Cretaceous.”

The study was published in the journal Current Biology.


Min Wang et al. An Early Cretaceous enantiornithine bird with a pintail. Current Biology, published online August 16, 2021; doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2021.08.044


Jurassic Park Horror Game Rumoured To Be Under Development

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Several leaks claim that the Jurassic Park Horror FPS Game is in the works. According to some leaks and rumours, the game will be developed by the same team that also made the game, Alien Isolation. This information was first disclosed on 4chan which may as well not be very reliable but could be true.

The leaks describe the Jurassic Park game to be one of the semi open-world first-person games. As for the story, leakers claim that the main character will be a gun for hire trying to survive on the island. Both the Velociraptor and the ‘t rex look-alike are supposed to be the main enemies in the game.

The game is also going to be a mature game with a lot of gore elements filled. While this may not be great for older gen consoles, but the post says that this game is only going to come to next-gen consoles that include PS5 and Xbox Series S and X. If you have played Alien Isolation, then you may know how well the stealth elements are mixed with the game, so we can expect something similar here too.

As said before, the game is being made by the same team that made Alien Isolation, so we should expect it to have a lot of jumpscares and the enemy AI could also be on a whole another level. As we haven’t really seen a lot of horror FPS games aside from Resident Evil 8 in the recent times, it would be interesting to see how the team manages to make it a good horror game while still making it look like a Jurassic Park game.

The game is expected to be called LOST WORLD: Jurassic Park. Also, while this sounds really cool, you may want to keep your expectations low at the moment, as it seems highly unlikely that this Jurassic Park game will be coming anytime soon. As there’s no information about the game being under development.


Kairuku waewaeroa: New Giant Penguin Species Unearthed in New Zealand

Friday, September 17, 2021

Life reconstruction of giant penguins. Image credit: Simone Giovanardi.

Kairuku waewaeroa roamed Earth during the Oligocene Epoch, between 27 and 35 million years ago.

“The penguin is similar to the Kairuku giant penguins first described from Otago but has much longer legs,” said Dr. Daniel Thomas, a senior lecturer in zoology in the School of Natural and Computational Sciences at Massey University.

“These longer legs would have made the penguin much taller than other Kairuku while it was walking on land, perhaps around 1.4 m (4.6 feet) tall, and may have influenced how fast it could swim or how deep it could dive.”

The holotype skeleton of Kairuku waewaeroa was discovered in 2006 by a group of school children on a Hamilton Junior Naturalist Club (JUNATS) fossil hunting field trip in Kawhia Harbour.

The specimen, which came from the Oligocene deposits of the Glen Massey Formation, is one of the most complete skeletons of a giant penguin yet uncovered.

Kairuku waewaeroa is emblematic for so many reasons,” Dr. Thomas said.

“The fossil penguin reminds us that we share Zealandia with incredible animal lineages that reach deep into time, and this sharing gives us an important guardianship role.”

“The way the fossil penguin was discovered, by children out discovering nature, reminds us of the importance of encouraging future generations to become kaitiaki guardians.”

“It is something the children involved will remember for the rest of their lives,” said Mike Safey, President of the Hamilton Junior Naturalist Club.

“It was a rare privilege for the kids in our club to have the opportunity to discover and rescue this enormous fossil penguin.”

“We always encourage young people to explore and enjoy the great outdoors. There’s plenty of cool stuff out there just waiting to be discovered.”

The discovery is described in a paper published today in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.


Simone Giovanardi et al. A giant Oligocene fossil penguin from the North Island of New Zealand. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, published online September 16, 2021; doi: 10.1080/02724634.2021.1953047


Jurassic World Evolution: Tips For Making Money Quickly

Thursday, September 16, 2021

These quick tips will help you earn more money fast in Jurassic World Evolution, so you can afford more dinosaurs.

The aim of the game in Jurassic World Evolution is to create a successful park where your guests won't be eaten by dinosaurs. The key to having any successful business is for it to make money and sometimes you will need to do this quickly to stop your park from going into debt.

Once your park is making a loss it can take quite a bit of effort to get it back to the stage where it's making a profit. This will become increasingly more difficult if you have no money at all. This is where understanding and knowing how to make money quickly will come in handy. Here are some tips to help.

Have A Large Variety Of Dinosaurs In Your Park

Dinosaurs cost money to breed and money to keep, but they're also a brilliant way of making money really quickly. This can be done in two ways. The first way would be to sell one of your Dinosaurs as they usually sell for a good amount and the rarer breeds, such as ones with genetic alterations, can sell for more.

The other way is that having dinosaurs in your park will attract visitors and the more dinosaur types that you have, the more guests will come to your park. Having guests equals earning money, so you want to try to attract as many as possible.

Make Sure Guests Are Catered For

There is no point in having guests in your park if they're going to be unhappy. Having a good guest rating will ultimately attract more guests, so you want to keep them happy. You can go into management view on the side menu to see what guests need across different areas of the park.

Of course, to make money you need to be smart with how you spend it. If you will only get a slight guest improvement from purchasing a new restroom then it may not be worth the immediate financial investment. At the end of the day, you are still trying to make money.

Open Shops And Set Your Prices

As you go through the campaign, you can purchase shops under the Guest Facilities menu. You can have anything from Fast Food shops to a Clothes Shop where your guests can buy a Dinosaur Onesie. In these types of shops, you can choose what merchandise you are going to sell and you can set the prices.

This is where you need to be a little ruthless in terms of fairness. It will cost you to run the shop and the products you are going to sell will cost you some more. To make money fast you should set the price of each item to at least double its original cost. That way you will be getting the money back that you invested in the product, plus a little extra.

Have A Good Reputation Rating With The Divisions

When you complete contracts for one of the three Divisions within the park (Security, Entertainment, and Science), you will gain reputation with them. By having a good reputation with any of them you will be opening yourself up to perks like new buildings or big cash rewards for completing their contracts.

There is a lot to know about contracts in the game but the bottom line is, they're a really easy way to make money quickly if you find yourself in a bit of trouble.

Only Buy What You Need

To make money you sometimes need to save money and this can mean being really stingy when it comes to buying things. If you've got an enclosure full of Herbivores then you might be able to get away with only having to buy one feeder for all of them. This means that you will have to re-fill it more, but the re-fill costs are far cheaper than purchasing multiple feeders.

The same goes with guest facilities such as a Storm Shelter. This building provides safety for guests during Tropical Storms or when a Dinosaur goes on the rampage. There isn't a limit to the number of people that can fit within a Shelter, so as long as you place them in easy to reach areas of the park, you shouldn't need too many of them.

Demolish Buildings That You Don't Need

On one of the Campaign Islands, you are stepping into a park that already has quite a few buildings but it failed financially. This is where demolishing buildings that you don't need will come in useful. When you demolish certain items in the park such as buildings or substations, you will be given a small refund when you do so.

You will not be given back the full cost of the building but you at least get something back and if you demolish enough items that you do not need, the money will eventually add up into a decent amount.

Sell Fossils

When your expedition team returns they will almost always bring back Fossils with them. If you're looking to make money quickly then selling Fossils is one of the best ways to do it. The ones that are of a higher grade will sell for more and the lower grade ones will sell for less.

If you're not desperate to extract DNA for a specific breed of dinosaur, then the easiest way to make money quickly is to sell all of the Fossils as they come in. As with any business, you will need to spend a bit of money to make it but the profit you can earn from Fossils completely outweigh the expedition costs.


What Did T. Rex Really Look Like?

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Paleontology has underlying assumptions about how the past is imagined. Hypotheses about the behavior, locomotion, and ecology of extinct animals depend on scientists’ perception of modern animals along with their intuitive interpretation of fossil specimens (and it is to some degree intuitive, whether they admit or not). In turn, those hypotheses, once published for other scientists and the public to digest, feed the collective imagination and discourse around paleontology. 

Perhaps no other subject illustrates this principle more than the ongoing popular and academic controversy over dinosaur integument, or body coverings. In fact, we can go further and center that debate on one genus and species – Tyrannosaurus rex

A favorite of fanatics and professors, T. rex, alongside it’s toothy relatives, draws intense scientific and media interest. This has been the case since the first mounted skeleton debuted in New York in the early twentieth century, and only escalated after that same skeleton’s silhouette graced the cover of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park in the late 1980sJust one Tyrannosaurus specimen (Stan) has been featured in over fifty scientific publications, and that same specimen sold for over thirty million to an undisclosed buyer in October of 2020. The scientific significance fed the public’s appetite for this real-life monster, and the allure of studying this toothy critter in turn fueled generations of researchers, fossil hunters, and paleo-artists. 

What did T. rex look like when it was alive? One early discovery supposed the animal might have had crocodilian armored scutes, but it was later found the armor was from a different, herbivorous dinosaur. Regardless, up until the 2000s, illustrations ubiquitously painted the animal as generically scaly, with an integument that couldn’t be readily distinguished as anything other than vaguely reptilian. Other dinosaurs had yielded skin fossils, particularly the duck-billed hadrosaurs. In general, these specimens exhibited small, wrinkly scales, more like the skin seen on the feet of tortoises and birds than the overlapping scales of snakes and lizards.

The discovery of small meat-eating dinosaurs from China preserved with primitive, simple, feathers changed this paradigm. The gradation from dinosaur to bird became blurred, not just in the evolutionary sense, but also in the lens dinosaur devotees used to look at bygone Mesozoic era. This stream of discoveries culminated in the discovery of Yutyrannus, a two ton meat-eating cousin of Tyrannosaurus. Suddenly, a feathered T. rex wasn’t such a crazy idea. As the distribution of feathers in dinosauria became wider and wider, some proposed that the group was ancestrally fluffy and that the scales recovered previously were outliers, or at least weren’t telling the complete story.  

In fact, to people invested in paleontology, the subject became something of shibboleth. Did you favor the old, scaly depictions that spoke of a primitive world on the savage path to modernity, ascending Aristotle’s “great chain of being?” Or were you committed to a much fuzzier breed of saurian, one that attested to a tightly interconnected, predictable world that easily slotted into the modern paleontological synthesis? 

Since Yutyrannus, some direct fossil evidence has come to light. Small skin impressions from T. rex and other tyrant dinosaurs – described in detail by researcher Phil Bell and others in 2017 –  have shown finely grained, pebbly skin – not quite feathers, but also not the rugged, draconian look that decades past have shown. Nor are these skin samples concrete evidence of T. rex’s fashion sense – the recovered skin only covers a small area, with the largest segment measuring only several square centimeters. Extant dinosaurs in the form of birds are covered in feathers, but they often have naked skin on the neck and head. Ostriches even have bare skin on their thigh and lower torso, and this epidermis sometimes resembles the pebbly texture seen in T. rex. And if the geologically older and related Yutyrannus possessed feathers, why not T. rex

On the other hand, large animals often have trouble disposing of excess warmth. For the heaviest land animals today, overheating is a very real problem. This is why elephants, rhinos, hippos, and even water buffalo have only a sparse covering of fur, despite the likelihood that their smaller ancestors were shaggy like most other mammals. Because those animals live in hot climates, their high mass means that they retain more heat than they shed. From what we know, T. rex weighed up to eight and half tons and lived in a climate much like that of Holocene (our current Geological epoch) Florida, so it probably faced similar physiological challenges. It’s possible T. rex might have evolved from feathered ancestors but became secondarily naked to cope with the stresses of gigantism. Embryological studies have shown that the ‘scales’ on bird feet are actually developmentally stunted feathers, and there is no biological law preventing that process from occurring all over a theropod’s body. 

All of this also glosses over the important fact of taphonomy – the processes and stresses an organism undergoes as it passes from the world of the living to the world of rock and stone. The fossil record already has a bias against soft-tissue, so any scales or feathers we find must not necessarily be taken at face value. After all, sixty six-plus million years in the ground can facilitate all kinds of distortion. 

Perhaps, given the data accumulated so far, paleontologists and dinosaur enthusiasts should allow for a certain degree of flexibility in dinosaurs and their kin. The ‘scales’ some clearly possessed were not those of snakes, nor were they really like the armor of crocodilians. Instead, they were more often than not a kind of pebbly, cornified, epidermis, allowing for protection and flexibility like that of modern animals. On the  other hand, as avian feathers evolved we should expect to see a variety of filamentous body coverings, some perhaps suspiciously similar to each other. The development of different integument across different lineages over nearly two hundred million years should give those angling for easy answers pause. Convergence and atavism exist, even and especially among closely related clades. This messiness is the rule in nature, and not the exception. 

In the end, whether or not T. rex appeared reptilian or avian (or some combination of the two) is of little relevance to the big paleontological questions of evolution and extinction. It does not help us solve our climate crisis. There is nothing we could learn about thermoregulation in large animals from this fossil species that we could not learn from living ones. However, what it does shed light on are different visions of our shared natural history. If you’ve ever been concerned about the accuracy of dinosaurs in Jurassic World or complained that “Science ruined dinosaurs,” you’re a part of this imaginative landscape. Whether you’ve adopted a retrograde or progessive stance, you’ve invested energy in bringing prehistory to life. To paraphrase famed paleontologist Dr. Robert T. Bakker, “the best and only time machine we will ever have is the one between our ears.”


Scientists Say They Could Bring Back Woolly Mammoths. But Maybe They Shouldn’t

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

An artist's impression of a woolly mammoth in a snow-covered environment. Image credit: Leonello Calvetti/Stocktrek Images

Using recovered DNA to “genetically resurrect” an extinct species — the central idea behind the Jurassic Park films — may be moving closer to reality with the creation this week of a new company that aims to bring back woolly mammoths thousands of years after the last of the giants disappeared from the Arctic tundra.

Flush with a $15 million infusion of funding, Harvard University genetics professor George Church, known for his pioneering work in genome sequencing and gene splicing, hopes the company, in the bold words of its news release, can usher in an era when mammoths “walk the Arctic tundra again.” He and other researchers also hope that a revived species can play a role in combating climate change.

To be sure, what Church’s company, Colossal, is proposing would actually be a hybrid created using a gene-editing tool known as CRISPR-Cas9 to splice bits of DNA recovered from frozen mammoth specimens into that of an Asian elephant, the mammoth’s closest living relative. The resulting animal — known as a “mammophant” — would look, and presumably behave, much like a woolly mammoth.

Some say reintroduced mammoths could help reverse climate change

Church and others believe that resurrecting the mammoth would plug a hole in the ecosystem left by their decline about 10,000 years ago (although some isolated populations are thought to have remained in Siberia until about 1,700 B.C.). The largest mammoths stood more than 10 feet at the shoulder and are believed to have weighed as much as 15 tons.

Mammoths once scraped away layers of snow so that cold air could reach the soil and maintain the permafrost. After they disappeared, the accumulated snow, with its insulating properties, meant the permafrost began to warm, releasing greenhouse gases, Church and others contend. They argue that returning mammoths — or at least hybrids that would fill the same ecological niche — to the Arctic could reverse that trend.

Love Dalén, a professor in evolutionary genetics at the Stockholm-based Centre for Palaeogenetics, is skeptical of that claim.

“I personally do not think that this will have any impact, any measurable impact, on the rate of climate change in the future, even if it were to succeed,” he tells NPR. “There is virtually no evidence in support of the hypothesis that trampling of a very large number of mammoths would have any impact on climate change, and it could equally well, in my view, have a negative effect on temperatures.”

The techniques might be better used to help endangered species

But even if the researchers at Colossal can bring back mammoths — and that is not certain — the obvious question is, should they?

“I can see some reasons to do the first steps where you are tinkering with cell lines and editing the genomes,” Dalén says. “I think there is a lot of technological development that can be done [and] we can learn a lot about how to edit genomes, and that could be really useful for endangered species today.”

Joseph Frederickson, a vertebrate paleontologist and director of the Weis Earth Science Museum in Menasha, Wis., was inspired as a child by the original Jurassic Park movie. But even he thinks that the more important goal should be preventing extinction rather than reversing it.

“If you can create a mammoth or at least an elephant that looks like a good copy of a mammoth that could survive in Siberia, you could do quite a bit for the white rhino or the giant panda,” he tells NPR.

Especially for animals that have “dwindling genetic diversity,” Frederickson says, adding older genes from the fossil record or entirely new genes could increase the health of those populations.

Speaking with NPR in 2015, Beth Shapiro, a paleogeneticist at the University of California, Santa Cruz and author of How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction, said emphatically, “I don’t want to see mammoths come back.”

“It’s never going to be possible to create a species that is 100% identical,” she said. “But what if we could use this technology not to bring back mammoths but to save elephants?”

Mammoths might upset existing ecosystems

Colossal’s expressed aim of allowing woolly mammoths to “walk the Arctic tundra again” by the thousands also brings up another ethical concern: Although the extinction of the mammoth thousands of years ago left a gap in the ecosystem, that ecosystem has presumably now adapted, at least imperfectly, to their absence.

“There is a new normal that has existed for thousands of years that has adapted to the continually changing climate,” Frederickson says. “Bringing back something that has all the characteristics that would have thrived in the Pleistocene doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to survive today, especially when you’re mixing in the unknowns of other genes that are acting in a warm-weather tropical animal and then trying to move it to a new environment.”

“There were plants and animals that were living alongside the mammoth that are now long gone or have drastically shrunk in the range, and just bringing back the mammoth won’t bring those back,” he says.

In a different sense, there’s the question of how mammoths might fit in.

“The proposed ‘de-extinction’ of mammoths raises a massive ethical issue. The mammoth was not simply a set of genes — it was a social animal, as is the modern Asian elephant,” Matthew Cobb, a professor of zoology at the University of Manchester, told The Guardian, in 2017. “What will happen when the elephant-mammoth hybrid is born? How will it be greeted by elephants?”

Predicted six-year timeline would be exceptionally short

All of this, of course, assumes that producing a mammophant is even possible. Colossal says it hopes to produce an embryo in six years. But with an estimated 1.4 million individual genetic mutations separating the ancient creatures from Asian elephants, the task of gene splicing could prove a mammoth undertaking.

Perhaps an even bigger hurdle will be developing an artificial uterus for gestating the embryos. Even Church acknowledges that this might not be so easy.

“Is this going to happen anytime soon? The answer is absolutely not,” says Frederickson.

Dalén agrees that the six-year timeline is “exceptionally short.” “It seems pretty ambitious,” he says.

But Church and his colleagues aren’t alone in their ambition. The idea of mammoth de-extinction has been around for some time, and other groups, such as the California-based nonprofit Revive & Restore, which last year managed the first-ever clone of an endangered species, the black-footed ferret, have also been working on a mammoth-elephant hybrid.

The traditional scientific view is that our ancestors hunted the mammoth to extinction, while more recent theories point to habitat destruction at the end of the last ice age as the biggest factor, but with humans still copping part of the blame.

Frederickson thinks that’s one of the reasons that the question of de-extinction — fueled by pop culture and real-world advances in science — is raised so frequently by the patrons at the museum he heads. “I think, as humans, we have a little bit of guilt in us, still knowing that we almost certainly contributed to that extinction event.”

“This may be a way of getting that burden off of our backs,” he says.