Cosmic Science

Dinosaur super-necks, flipped fossils and other paleo bits

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:


Scientist’s tangle over the speed of a dinosaur’s tail

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.

Cosmic Science

If it looks like a duck, it might have been a dinosaur

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.

Cosmic Science

Hail to the Kraken: Sea monster gets a presidential name

What do you call a 328 million-year-old fossil octopus with 10 arms? A decapus? A kraken? The researchers who analyzed the fossilized monster from Montana went in a different direction — and came up with a name that pays tribute to President Joe Biden.

The scientific label for the sea monster from the days before the dinosaurs, Syllipsimopodi bideni, isn’t intended as a comment on the 79-year-old politician’s age. “Bideni” merely recognizes the fact that the paper describing the species was submitted to the journal Nature Communications not long after Biden’s inauguration in January 2021.

I wanted to somehow acknowledge the moment in a way that was more positive and forward-looking,” study lead author Christopher Whalen, a researcher at the American Museum of Natural History and Yale University, said in a news release. I was encouraged by the plans President Biden put forward to counter anthropogenic climate change, and his general sentiment that politicians should listen to scientists.”

“Syllipsimopodi” is the more scientifically meaningful part of the name: That genus designation comes from the Greek words for “prehensile foot,” and the researchers say Syllipsimopodi bideni is the oldest-known cephalopod to develop suckers on its 10 sinuous arms.

The specimen also appears to clear up some evolutionary questions about the common ancestor of present-day squids and octopuses.


Scientists trace the origin of tusks to Triassic creatures

Dental exams conducted on fossils from more than 200 million years ago suggest that the earliest true tusks were sported by breeds of weird-looking creatures known as dicynodonts.

The evidence, laid out today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, could shed light on how species ranging from elephants and walruses to warthogs and rabbit-like hyraxes came to have tusks.

“Tusks have evolved a number of times, which makes you wonder how — and why?” study co-author Christian Sidor, a biology professor at the University of Washington and a curator at UW’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, said in a news release. “We now have good data on the anatomical changes that needed to happen for dicynodonts to evolve tusks. For other groups, like warthogs or walruses, the jury is still out.”


Burke Museum makes four dinosaur finds in Montana

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.”

Cosmic Science

‘Dragon Man’ sparks debate over ancient human species

It’s time to add a new name to the list of ancient human species discovered in the fossil record — or is it?

The latest contender is a species dubbed Homo longi, created on the basis of a skull that was discovered in northern China in the 1930s, hidden for decades, and finally analyzed for a trio of research papers in The Innovation, an open-access journal published by Cell Press.

The almost perfectly preserved fossil is the largest skull ever found representing the genus that includes modern humans (Homo sapiens). Based on the skull’s morphology and geochemical dating techniques, researchers say it’s most likely to have come from a male who was about 50 years old when he died 146,000 years ago.

Researchers at Hebei GEO University have nicknamed the ancient individual “Dragon Man” in recognition of its Chinese origins. The species’ scientific name plays off the Chinese word for dragon (“long”) and the region around Harbin City where the fossil was found — Heilongjiang (“Black Dragon River”) province.

The skull could hold a brain comparable in size to ours, but had larger, almost square eye sockets, thick brow ridges, a wide mouth and oversized teeth. “While it shows typical archaic human features, the Harbin cranium presents a mosaic combination of primitive and derived characters setting itself apart from all the other previously named Homo species,” study author Qiang Ji, a paleontologist at Hebei GEO University, said in a news release.

Ji and his colleagues say the skull’s peculiarities justify its status as a species that’s distinct from Neanderthals and Denisovans and other extinct human ancestors. They even claim that Homo longi is more similar to humans of the Pleistocene era than those others.

“It is widely believed that the Neanderthal belongs to an extinct lineage that is the closest relative of our own species,” said study author Xijun Ni, a professor of primatology and paleoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Hebei GEO University. “However, our discovery suggests that the new lineage we identified that includes Homo longi is the actual sister group of H. sapiens.”

There’s some question about Dragon Man’s status, however.


Fossils flesh out the tale of the first primates

The shapes of fossilized teeth from 65.9 million-year-old, squirrel-like creatures suggest that the branch of the tree of life that gave rise to us humans and other primates flowered while dinosaurs still walked the earth. That’s the claim coming from a team of 10 researchers across the U.S., including biologists at Seattle’s Burke Museum and the University of Washington.

In a study published by Royal Society Open Science, the team lays out evidence that an ancient group of primates known as plesiadapiforms must have emerged before the mass-extinction event that killed off the dinosaurs. (Technically, modern-day birds are considered the descendants of dinosaurs, but that’s another story.)

The evidence comes from an analysis of tooth fossils that were unearthed in the Hell Creek area of northeastern Montana.


Co-author of extinction study looks ahead

Walter Alvarez and Mark Richards
Geophysicists Walter Alvarez (at left) and Mark Richards (in the background) examine a piece of impact ejecta at the North Dakota fossil site. (Jackson Leibach Photo via University of Kansas)

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.”

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‘Antarctic King’ reigned before the dinosaurs

Triassic creatures
Along the banks of a river, three archosaur inhabitants of an Early Triassic forest in Antarctica cross paths: Antarctanax shackletoni sneaks up on an early titanopteran insect, Prolacerta lazes on a log, and an enigmatic large archosaur stalks two unsuspecting dicynodonts known as Lystrosaurus maccaigi. (© Adrienne Stroup, Field Museum)

Tyrannosaurus rex may have reigned as “king of the tyrant lizards” 65 million years ago, but 185 million years before that, a reptile about the size of an iguana was the king of Antarctica.

At least that’s the message contained in the name of a fossil that’s described in a newly published research paper — and is now part of the permanent collection at Seattle’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture.

The fossil was collected during an expedition to the frozen continent led by Christian Sidor, who is the museum’s curator of vertebrate paleontology as well as a biology professor at the University of Washington. Sidor and two colleagues, the University of the Witwatersrand’s Roger Smith and Brandon Peecook of Chicago’s Field Museum, laid out the story behind the fossil in a paper published today by the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Antarctanax shackletoni takes its scientific name from the ancient Greek words for “Antarctic king” and from early-20th-century polar explorer Ernest Shackleton.

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