Paleontologists find the darndest things — including evidence for the longest-known sauropod neck, and fossils that literally turn their assumptions upside down. Check out these fresh developments from the fossil record:
The dinosaur formerly known as Brontosaurus could certainly do a lot of damage with its long tail — but just how fast could that tail whip?
Years ago, a team of researchers — including Nathan Myhrvold, a former Microsoft executive who’s now the CEO of Bellevue, Wash.-based Intellectual Ventures — built a quarter-scale dinosaur tail from 3-D printed vertebrae and a bullwhip popper, and thrashed it around. Their aim was to show that the diplodocid dinosaur now known as Apatosaurus louisae could whip its tail with a supersonic crack more than 150 million years ago.
The team determined that the tail could indeed go supersonic, producing a crack as loud as the report of a naval gun and most likely scaring off potential predators. But now other researchers say their computer modeling shows that Apatosaurus’ tail wasn’t structurally strong enough to sustain a supersonic crack.
“Such an elongated and slender structure would allow achieving tip velocities in the order of 30 m/s, or 100 km/h (62 mph), far slower than the speed of sound,” a team led by Simone Conti of Portugal’s NOVA School of Science and Technology asserted this week in Scientific Reports.
Suffice it to say that Myhrvold isn’t convinced.
It’s long been accepted that birds are essentially modern dinosaurs, but does that mean an ancient dinosaur could have looked and acted like a duck? Paleontologists are pointing to fossils from Mongolia’s Gobi Desert to make that argument.
In a study published by Communications Biology, researchers say that a well-preserved skeleton dated to the Upper Cretaceous period, between 100 million and 66 million years ago, exhibits streamlined features that would have been well-adapted to swimming. Back then, the region that’s now arid desert would have been much more hospitable to ducks and their kin — offering forests, streams and lakes.
The fossilized species was named Natovenator polydontus, a Latinized scientific name meaning “swimming hunter with many teeth.”
“This dinosaur, a carnivorous theropod that walked on two legs, is the first non-avian dinosaur to evolve into a streamlined body and start living in the water,” Yuong-Nam Lee, a vertebrate paleontologist at Seoul National University, told South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.
Theropods and Triceratops and hadrosaurs, oh my! Seattle’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture is making significant additions to its dinosaur holdings, thanks to a summer expedition to Montana’s Hell Creek Formation.
Four distinct dinosaurs were dug up, and all of the fossils will be brought back to the Burke Museum on the University of Washington’s campus, where the public can watch paleontologists remove the surrounding rock in the museum’s fossil prep lab.
This year’s finds follow up on the museum’s earlier Hell Creek discoveries, including a magnificent Tyrannosaurus rex skull that’s been one of the centerpieces of the collection since the New Burke’s opening in 2019.
Like that T. rex skull, the newly discovered fossils date back more than 66 million years, to the age just before the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs (except, of course, for the line that led to modern birds).
“Each fossil that we collect helps us sharpen our views of the last dinosaur-dominated ecosystems and the first mammal-dominated ecosystems,” Gregory Wilson Mantilla, the Burke Museum’s curator of vertebrate paleontology and a biology professor at UW, said today in a news release. “With these, we can better understand the processes involved in the loss and origination of biodiversity and the fragility, collapse and assembly of ecosystems.”
After days of puzzling over secondhand reports, anyone with an internet connection can now read a research paper about a fossil graveyard in North Dakota that appears to document the day nearly 66 million years ago when an asteroid pushed the dinosaurs and many other species into extinction.
Even scientists who criticized the way the news about the site came out on March 29 acknowledged that the discovery, as described in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was astounding.
“I am very much looking forward to the crowd-sourced opinions of everyone,” University of Edinburgh paleontologist Steve Brusatte said in a tweet. “There is a real thrill and a real mystery around this discovery, and it is EXCITING! Let’s see where the evidence leads.”
The study documents fossil evidence for a catastrophic fish kill that did in many other organisms as well. Intermixed with the fossilized remains were tiny beads of glass that had turned to clay. Some of those beads were found embedded in the gills of the fish.
The evidence led the research team, headed by paleontologist Robert DePalma, to conclude that the Cretaceous creatures were washed up onto a sandbar by a giant wave of water. Then they were pelted by hot droplets of molten rock, known as tektites, which were thrown up into the stratosphere by an asteroid impact thousands of miles away.
In the paper, the research team lays out a scenario suggesting that the impact produced a magnitude 10 to 11 earthquake, which sparked a standing wave in the body of water where the fish had lived. Such a wave, known more scientifically as a seiche (pronounced like “saysh”), could have done as much damage as a tsunami within an hour after the asteroid hit. That scenario would leave enough time for the tektites to deliver the coup de grace.
One of the study authors who came up with that scenario is Mark Richards, a geophysicist who left the University of California at Berkeley last July to become the University of Washington’s provost and executive vice president for academic affairs.
Today, Richards said the seiche scenario isn’t the only possibility for explaining what happened in North Dakota during what’s known as the Cretaceous-Paleogene or Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction.
“I think that the surge, unless it was some freak coincidence with something else, was likely seismically induced,” Richards told GeekWire. “Now, it could have been from a seiche. Also, for example, you could have had a local landslide that was triggered by seismic waves. We have to be pretty cautious.”
First, there was a violent shock. Then, there was the roar of a 30-foot-high wave of water, throwing fish onto a sandbar in what is now North Dakota. Then there was a hail of molten rock, pelting dying fish and soon-to-be-dying land creatures. Then the fires began.
That’s how the doom of the dinosaurs began, nearly 66 million years ago, according to a study to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences next week.
Stealing a sneak peek at the University of Washington’s new Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture is like looking at the mastodon skeleton in the old Burke Museum: It’s not fleshed out, but it gives you an idea how impressive the real thing can be.
In the mastodon’s case, we’re talking about a creature that lived 10,000 years ago. But when it comes to the New Burke, we’re talking about a modernistic, airy museum that’s 66 percent larger than the Old Burke next door.
The exterior construction part of the $99 million project is essentially complete, and the next phase — creating the exhibits and workspaces, and transferring an estimated 16 million objects from the Old Burke to the New Burke — will begin within just a few weeks.
To mark the transition (and kick off a fundraising campaign), the Burke’s staff gave journalists as well as museum members and donors a first look at the new building, plus a behind-the-scenes look at the collections in the 56-year-old building that currently serves as the museum’s home.
“Jurassic Park” may be all the rage this summer, but a research team led by the University of Washington’s Christian Sidor is kicking it up a notch with a batch of 13 studies focusing on fossils from the Triassic period (252 million to 199 million years ago), which came just before the Jurassic.
The only Tyrannosaurus rex skull to go on public display in Washington state is getting its unveiling at Seattle’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture – and the best part is that you can watch as more and more of the skull is revealed.
“You can see those teeth coming out,” University of Washington biologist Greg Wilson, the museum’s curator of vertebrate paleontology, told GeekWire today at the big reveal. “And those teeth are gorgeous.”
As he spoke, a team of paleontologists and trained volunteers worked methodically in a glassed-in room, chipping at and brushing away the rock and sand that surrounded the fossil skull.
Researchers ran into a problem when they tried to scan and study the hole-ridden jawbone from Sue, the Field Museum of Natural History’s famous T. rex skeleton in Chicago. The jaw was just too big for their high-resolution 3-D scanner. So they turned to MIT Media Lab’s Camera Culture group, which has created a low-cost 3-D scanning system that uses Microsoft’s Kinect video-game camera. The MIT team scanned the entire 5-foot-long skull to a resolution of 500 micrometers, taking advantage of free software and a hardware rig that cost only $150.