A study of the Baltic specimen offers new insights into what Europe’s climate was like some 35 million years ago.
There’s rarely time to write about every cool science-y story that comes our way. So this year, we’re once again running a special Twelve Days of Christmas series of posts, highlighting one science story that fell through the cracks in 2022, each day from December 25 through January 5. Today: Why dinosaur “mummies” might not be as rare as scientists believed.
Under specific conditions, dinosaur fossils can include exceptionally well-preserved skin—an occurrence long thought to be rare. But the authors of an October paper published in the journal PLoS ONE suggested that these dinosaur “mummies” might be more common than previously believed, based on their analysis of a mummified duck-billed hadrosaur with well-preserved skin that showed unusual telltale signs of scavenging in the form of bite marks.
In this case, the term “mummy” refers to fossils that with well-preserved skin and sometimes other soft tissue. As we’ve reported previously, most fossils are bone, shells, teeth, and other forms of “hard” tissue, but occasionally rare fossils are discovered that preserve soft tissues like skin, muscles, organs, or even the occasional eyeball. This can tell scientists much about aspects of the biology, ecology, and evolution of such ancient organisms that skeletons alone can’t convey.
How smushed shells could help to resolve paleontological mysteries.
For decades, paleontologists have tried to explain what they assumed was a 230-million-year-old scene of mass death.
The field of conservation paleobiology is helping scientists to bring living things back to parts of the Los Angeles River.
Finding any fossil skin is extraordinary; finding dinosaur skin is that much more rare. So when Tess Gallagher and her mom excavated patches of skin from one of the largest dinosaurs to exist, there was reason for jubilation.
More than a year later, that glee disintegrated—right along with the skin they excavated. But what could have been the end of a sad story was merely the beginning of another exciting chapter, one that could potentially broaden our understanding of how these enormous creatures cooled themselves.
Found and lost
Gallagher, now a paleontologist and paleobiology graduate student at the University of Bristol, and her mother, Lisa Marshall, were part of a team excavating a site called the Mother’s Day Quarry in Montana. The site has produced, among other things, 15 individual Diplodocus juveniles from about 145 million years ago.
A dinosaur named for a demon dog in “Ghostbusters” had a sledgehammer attached to its rear. A new study found it could both shatter shins and woo potential mates.
The duck-size animal’s body was streamlined for pursuing prey underwater, researchers say. Other paleontologists say more work is needed to confirm the finding.
Fossils are fetching millions at auction, inspiring legal disputes and introducing intellectual property rights, trademarks and nondisclosure agreements to the world of paleontology.
Gigantic extinct sharks have something to tell us from millions of years ago, and paleontologists are only just beginning to unravel that message. In a series of firsts, paleontologists have identified a growing number of paleo-nurseries, ancient sanctuaries where young sharks may have been born and where they grew until they were big enough to survive on their own in the larger sea. It’s a strategy some sharks continue to employ today, meaning it has been a successful evolutionary tactic for at least 23 million years.
The most abundant remnants we have of these apex predators are the teeth they shed over their lifetime. Cartilage, the major component of internal shark structure, doesn’t tend to survive fossilization. Given the considerable dearth of fossils, how can paleontologists ascertain the types and ages of extinct sharks? And how are paleontologists able to determine the site of a paleo-nursery from tens of millions of years ago in areas that are no longer underwater?
Answers with teeth
The answers lie with fossil teeth, from which paleontologists can determine species and estimate sizes—and, remarkably, the temperature and salinity of the water where the sharks lived. Although scientists aren’t yet able to establish the precise age of a shark from a fossil tooth, they can narrow it down to whether the shark was a neonate, juvenile, or adult, according to Matthew Gibson, the natural history curator at The Charleston Museum.
The whale fossil, a cherished local attraction, was taken from a riverbank in broad daylight by two men with a rock saw and chisel, residents say.
Study of the hadrosaur found a new explanation for how dinosaurs could be mummified with their skin preserved through the eons.
A team of Australian scientists has discovered the world’s oldest heart, part of the fossilized remains of an armored fish that died some 380 million years ago. The fish also had a fossilized stomach, liver, and intestine. All the organs were arranged much like similar organs in modern shark anatomy, according to a recent paper published in the journal Science.
As we’ve reported previously, most fossils are bone, shells, teeth, and other forms of “hard” tissue, but occasionally fossils are discovered that preserve soft tissues like skin, muscles, organs—or even the occasional eyeball. This can tell scientists much about aspects of the biology, ecology, and evolution of such ancient organisms that skeletons alone can’t convey.
For instance, earlier this year, researchers created a highly detailed 3D model of a 365 million-year-old ammonite fossil from the Jurassic period by combining advanced imaging techniques, revealing internal muscles that had never been previously observed. Among other findings, the researchers observed paired muscles extending from the ammonite’s body, which they surmise the animal used to retract itself further into its shell to avoid predators.
Several significant discoveries have started with a construction worker unearthing a bone and calling in an expert.
Rocks collected by Perseverance are filled with organic molecules, and they formed in a lake that would have been habitable a few billion years ago.
Sometimes science can be a messy endeavor—not to mention “disgusting and smelly.” That’s how British researchers described their experiments monitoring dead sea bass carcasses as they rotted over the course of 70 days. In the process, they gained some fascinating insights into how (and why) the soft tissues of internal organs can be selectively preserved in the fossil record, according to a new paper published in the journal Palaeontology.
Most fossils are bone, shells, teeth, and other forms of “hard” tissue, but occasionally rare fossils are discovered that preserve soft tissues like skin, muscles, organs, or even the occasional eyeball. This can tell scientists much about aspects of the biology, ecology, and evolution of such ancient organisms that skeletons alone can’t convey. For instance, earlier this year, researchers created a highly detailed 3D model of a 365-million-year-old ammonite fossil from the Jurassic period by combining advanced imaging techniques, revealing internal muscles that had never been previously observed.
“One of the best ways that soft tissue can turn into rock is when they are replaced by a mineral called calcium phosphate (sometimes called apatite),” said co-author Thomas Clements of the University of Birmingham. “Scientists have been studying calcium phosphate for decades trying to understand how this process happens—but one question we just don’t understand is why some internal organs seem more likely to be preserved than others.”
A team of researchers published a rebuttal to an argument advanced by another group earlier in the year. The disagreement over the king of dinosaurs is far from over.
A group of researchers has recently made an astounding discovery.
Using an innovative imaging technique, an international team of scientists has uncovered remarkable details of a pterosaur’s soft tissue. Despite an age of approximately 145–163 million years, the wing membrane and the webbing between both feet managed to survive fossilization.
Armed with new data, the team used modeling to determine that this little pterosaur had the capacity to launch itself from the water. Their findings are published in Scientific Reports.
Fossils found in southwestern China give a hint to the development of the panda’s sixth digit — a rudimentary, thumblike bone extension.
The origin of the domestic fowl is more recent than previously thought, but it may have taken them thousands of years to become food.
Evolutionary theories said giraffes developed their height to get to better eats, but ancestors may have gained the advantage through head-butting battles.
The largest shark that ever lived may have vanished in part because the comparatively smaller great white had a taste for the same prey.
Scientists directly measured the metabolic rate of extinct animals, which revealed that some giant dinosaurs became coldblooded.
An extraordinarily well-preserved fossil owl was described in PNAS this past March. Owls are not new to the fossil record; evidence of their existence has been found in scattered limbs and fragments from the Pleistocene to the Paleocene (approximately 11,700 years to 65 million years ago). What makes this fossil unique is not only the rare preservation of its near-complete articulated skeleton but that it provides the first evidence of diurnal behavior millions of years earlier than previously thought.
In other words, this ancient owl didn’t stalk its prey under the cloak of darkness. Instead, the bird was active under the rays of the Miocene sun.
Seeing the light
Its eye socket was key to making this determination. Dr. Zhiheng Li is lead author on the paper and a vertebrate paleontologist who focuses on fossil birds at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) in China. He explained in an email that the large bones around the eyes of birds (but not mammals) known as the scleral ossicles offer information about the size of the pupil they surround. In this case, the pupils of this fossil owl were small. And if the pupil is small, he wrote, it “means they can obtain good vision with a smaller eye opening.”
A molar discovered in a cave in Laos shows where the enigmatic Denisovans could have interbred with the ancestors of modern humans.
A meme about the transitional fossil Tiktaalik argues that although we did emerge from the sea, we aren’t doing just fine.
Researchers described Annakacygna, a family of flightless ancient swans that were filter-feeders.
Scientists have long puzzled over the exceptional preservation of certain fossils of Cenozoic-era biota, including plants, fish, amphibians, spiders, and other insects. The secret: The presence of mats comprised of single-celled microalgae (diatoms) created an anaerobic environment for fossilization and chemically reacted with the spiders’ organic polymers to turn them into thin carbon-rich films. The process is similar to a common industrial treatment to preserve rubber, according to a recent paper published in the journal Communications Earth & Environment.
Most fossils are basically mineralized body parts: shells, bones, and teeth. But softer tissues are far more likely to decay than fossilize, including chitinous exoskeletons, skin, and feathers. Soft-tissue organisms tend to be under-represented among fossils, except for unusual deposits (called Fossil-Lagerstätten) that boast rich arrays of such fossils in remarkable preservation.
“Most life doesn’t become a fossil,” said Alison Olcott, a geologist at the University of Kansas. “It’s hard to become a fossil. You have to die under very specific circumstances, and one of the easiest ways to become a fossil is to have hard parts like bones, horns, and teeth. So, our record of soft-body life and terrestrial life, like spiders, is spotty—but we have these periods of exceptional preservation when all circumstances were harmonious for preservation to happen.”
They were the largest land creatures the Earth has ever known. But what survived millions of years of fossilization in one specific area of the Ponte Alta region of Brazil was not their massive bones, rather, it was their rare and relatively tiny eggs. And many of them! The first titanosaur nesting site in the country was recently announced in a paper published in Scientific Reports.
Sauropods, a group of long-necked herbivores, were a diverse type of dinosaur that lived from the Jurassic era through the Cretaceous, a period spanning from 201 million years to 66 million years ago. Titanosaurs were a clade of sauropod—a group with a common ancestor—that was the last of this lineage to exist on this planet in the Late Cretaceous. While their name justifiably implies an enormous size, not all of them were huge.
South America is well-known for its titanosaur fossils, particularly in Argentina, home to some of the world’s most spectacular titanosaur nesting sites and embryonic remains. Titanosaur eggshells and egg fragments are known in Uruguay, Peru, and Brazil, but a fossilized egg here and there doesn’t provide evidence of a nesting site. Several egg clutches, numerous eggs and egg fragments in more than one layer of sediment, does.
In a North Dakota deposit far from the Chicxulub crater in Mexico, remains of the rock from space were preserved within amber, a paleontologist says.
A team of Italian scientists describe what they believe is a gaping scar from one of these ancient battles on the neck frill of the Triceratops.
The bird, which sought prey in a part of China 6 million years ago, had eyes shaped in a way that suggest it was not nocturnal like most owls living today.
The “king” of the trilobites was snacking on whatever it could eat some 514 million years ago in the Cambrian era, even shelled creatures of its own species.
A Tyrannosaurus rex fossil known as “Stan” that drew a record price at auction in 2020 — $31.8 million — will be part of a new natural history museum in the United Arab Emirates.
Paleontologists believe they have discovered a new genus and species of extinct cephalopod with ten functional arms, similar to a vampire squid. The 328-million-year-old fossil is the earliest known example of a vampyropod (ancient soft-bodied cephalopods) to date, pushing back the earliest evidence by 82 million years, according to a new paper published in the journal Nature Communications. Other paleontologists aren’t so sure, believing the specimen might represent a different known species of ancient cephalopods and calling for a full chemical analysis to confirm the species one way or the other.
The fossil was excavated from Bear Gulch Limestone in Montana. The fossils found there tend to be exceptionally well-preserved—sometimes even showing vascularization—thanks to the impact of seasonal monsoons. That heavy rainfall rapidly deposited sediments and other biological matter into the bay, in turn feeding algal blooms. Those algal blooms resulted in temporary oxygen-deprived zones, while the sudden infusion of fresh water from the rain would have lowered saline levels, according to the authors.
The fossil was donated to the Royal Ontario Museum in 1988, and there it sat, unnoticed for decades, until co-author Christopher Whalen, a postdoc in paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, was perusing the collection and spotted the arms. When he looked at the specimen more closely under the microscope, he noticed small suckers on those arms, making this an incredibly rare find, since suckers are typically not preserved.
Scientists describe a new species of vampyropod from a 328-million-year-old, 10-armed fossil found in Montana.
The specimen shows that modern tuataras found in New Zealand are little changed from ancestors that lived 190 million years.
The premise, put forth in a new paper, highlights an assortment of tensions in dinosaur paleontology, including how subjective the naming of species can be.
Some 66 million years ago, a catastrophic event wiped out three-quarters of all plant and animal species on Earth, most notably taking down the dinosaurs. The puzzle of why so many species perished while others survived has long intrigued scientists.
A new paper published in the journal Nature concludes that one reason for this evolutionary selectivity is the timing of the impact. Based on their analysis of fossilized fish killed immediately after the impact, the authors have determined that the extinction event occurred in the spring—at least in the Northern Hemisphere—interrupting the annual reproductive cycles of many species.
As we’ve reported previously, the most widely accepted explanation for what triggered that catastrophic mass extinction is known as the “Alvarez hypothesis,” after the late physicist Luis Alvarez and his geologist son, Walter. In 1980, they proposed that the extinction event may have been caused by a massive asteroid or comet hitting the Earth.
A new study examining fossils of fish suggests animals were wiped out by a massive meteor at a time when they were just emerging from hibernation and having offspring.
A team of researchers say that rather than occupying their own branch in the history of life on Earth, horseshoe crabs are in the same group as spiders and scorpions.
A fossilized cranium of an extinct species of stargazer fish was stuffed with tiny fecal pellets known as coprolites, according to a recent paper published in the journal Rivista Italiana di Paleontologia e Stratigrafia—the first known skull in the fossil record to be completely filled with fecal pellets. This is a joint study by paleontologists at the University of Pisa in Italy, and the Calvert Marine Museum in Maryland, who proposed that tiny scavenging worms ate their way into the dead fish’s skull and pooped out the pellets.
It was a 19th century British fossil hunter named Mary Anning (recently portrayed by Kate Winslet in the 2020 film Ammonite) who first noticed the presence of so-called “bezoar stones” in the abdomens of ichthyosaur skeletons around 1824. When she broke open the stones, she often found the fossilized remains of fish bones and scales. A geologist named William Buckland took note of Anning’s observations five years later, suggesting that the stones were actually fossilized feces. He dubbed them coprolites.
Coprolites aren’t quite the same as paleofeces, which retains a lot of organic components that can be reconstituted and analyzed for chemical properties. Coprolites are fossils, so most organic components have been replaced by mineral deposits like silicate and calcium carbonates. It can be challenging to distinguish the smallest coprolites from eggs, for example, or other kinds of inorganic pellets, but they typically boast spiral or annular markings, and, as Anning discovered, often contain undigested fragments of food.
Scientists say rocks on the English coast contain clues of the processes that drove the end-Triassic event that killed as much as a quarter of all life on Earth.
A study of fossils from Colombia suggests that a prehistoric shellfish hunted prey with remarkably sharp vision.
The fossilized remains of the marine reptile, often referred to as a “sea dragon” and believed to be 180 million years old, were discovered at a nature reserve.
The find suggests overlooked rocks across the continent may contain more fossilized surprises.
Researchers created a highly detailed 3D model of a 365-million-year-old ammonite fossil from the Jurassic period by combining advanced imaging techniques, revealing internal muscles that have never been previously observed, according to a paper published last month in the journal Geology. Another paper published last month in the journal Papers in Paleontology reported on the creation of 3D virtual models of the armored plates from fossilized skeletons of two new species of ancient worms, dating from 400 million years ago.
The ammonite fossil used in the Geology study was discovered in 1998 at the Claydon Pike pit site in Gloucestershire, England, which mostly comprises poorly cemented sands, sandstone, and limestone. Plenty of fragmented mollusk shells are scattered throughout the site, but this particular specimen was remarkably intact, showing no signs of prolonged exposure via scavenging, shell encrustation, or of being exhumed from elsewhere and redeposited. The fossil is currently housed at the National Museum Wales, Cardiff.
“When I found the fossil, I immediately knew it was something special,” said co-author Neville Hollingworth, public engagement manager at the Science and Technology Facilities Council. “The shell split in two and the body of the fossil fell out revealing what looked like soft tissues. It is wonderful to finally know what these are through the use of state-of-the-art imaging techniques.”
His discoveries of ancient human skulls and skeletons, including the famed “Turkana Boy,” helped cement Africa’s standing as the cradle of humanity.
Scientists have described a giant new species of ichthyosaur that evolved its 55-foot-long body size only a few million years after the lizards returned to the seas.
Something has been discovered in Tennessee—something that only exists in one museum. It’s something enormous, slightly puzzling, and possibly the first of its kind discovered. Five years after its excavation, it remains incomplete.
The mastodon skeleton slowly taking shape in Tennessee is no secret. Pictures and descriptions of its progress have been posted on social media from the beginning, and while those who are aware of it are intrigued, it hasn’t made many headlines. Yet.
Out of the gray
The Gray Fossil Site near Gray, Tennessee, was found by accident during road construction in 2000. Thanks to the efforts of local people and the state government who recognized the importance of the site, construction halted. A museum was erected several years later. Bits of bones and one shattered tusk were all that had been found when the site was preserved, but the area is proving to be voluminous in its fossil content.