Wednesday, 31 March 2021

ETHELDRED'S HOPLITES

Hoplites (Hoplites) bennettiana (Sowerby, 1826)
A beautiful example of the ammonite, Hoplites (Hoplites) bennettiana (Sowerby, 1826), from Early Albian localities in the Carrière de Courcelles Villemoyenne, Région de Troyes, near Champagne in northeastern France.

The species name is an homage to Etheldred Benett, an early English geologist often credited with being the first female geologist — a fossil collector par excellence.

She was also credited with being a man  —  the Natural History Society of Moscow awarding her membership as Master Etheldredus Benett in 1836. The confusion over her name — it did sound masculine — came again with the bestowing of a Doctorate of Civil Law from Tsar Nicholas I.

The Tsar had read Sowerby's Mineral Conchology, a major fossil reference work which contained the second-highest number of contributed fossils of the day, many the best quality available at the time. Forty-one of those specimens were credited to Benett. Between her name and this wonderous contribution to a growing science, the Russian Tsar awarded the Doctorate to what he believed was a young male scientist on the rise. He believed in education, founding Kiev University in 1834, just not for women. He was an autocratic military man frozen in time — the thought that this work could have been done by a female unthinkable. Doubly charming is that the honour from the University of St Petersburg was granted at a time when women were not allowed to attend St. Pete's or any higher institutions. That privilege arrived in 1878, twenty years after Nicholas I's death.

Benett took these honours (and social blunders) with grace. She devoted her life to collecting and studying fossils from the southwest of England, amassing an impressive personal collection she openly shared with geologist friends, colleagues and visitors to her home. Her speciality was fossils from the Middle Cretaceous, Upper Greensand in the Vale of Wardour — a valley in the county of Wiltshire near the River Nadder.

Etheldred Benett was born on 22 July 1775 at Pyt House, Tisbury, Wiltshire, the eldest daughter of the local squire Thomas Benett.

Etheldred's interest was cultivated by the botanist Aylmer Bourke Lambert (1761-1842), a founding member of the Linnean Society. Benett's brother had married Lucy Lambert, Aylmer's half-sister. Aylmer was a Fellow of the Royal Society and the Society of the Arts. He was also an avid fossil collector and member of the Geological Society of London. The two met and got on famously.

Aylmer kindled an interest in natural history in both of Benett's daughters. Etheldred had a great fondness in geology, stratigraphy and all things paleo, whilst her sister concentrated on botany. Etheldred had a distinct advantage over her near contemporary, the working-class Mary Anning (1799-1847), in that Benett was a woman of independent wealth who never married — and didn't need to — who could pursue the acquisition and study of fossils for her own interest.

While Anning was the marine reptile darling of the age, she was also greatly hindered by her finances. "She sells, seashells by the seashore..." while chanted in a playful spirit today, was not meant kindly at the time.

Aylmer's encouragement emboldened Etheldred to go into the field to collect for herself — and collect she did. Profusely.

Benett’s contribution to the early history of Wiltshire geology is significant. She corresponded extensively with the coterie of gentlemen scientists of the day —  Gideon Mantell, William Buckland, James Sowerby, George Bellas Greenough and, Samuel Woodward. She also consorted with the lay folk and had an ongoing correspondence with William Smith, whose stratigraphy work had made a favourable impression on her brother-in-law, Aylmer.

Her collections and collaboration with geologists of the day were instrumental in helping to form the field of geology as a science. One colleague and friend, Gideon Mantell, British physician, geologist and palaeontologist, who discovered four of the five genera of dinosaurs and Iguanadon, was so inspired by Benett's work he named this Cretaceous ammonite after her — Hoplites bennettiana.

Benett's fossil assemblage was a valuable resource for her contemporaries and remains so today. It contains thousands of Jurassic and Cretaceous fossil specimens from the Wiltshire area and the Dorset Coast, including a myriad of first recorded finds. The scientific name of every taxon is usually based on one particular specimen, or in some cases multiple specimens. Many of the specimens she collected serve as the Type Specimen for new species.

Fossil Sponge, Polypothecia quadriloba, Warminster, Wiltshire
Her particular interest was the collection and study of fossil sponges. Alcyonia caught her eye early on. She collected and recorded her findings with the hope that one of her colleagues might share her enthusiasm and publish her work as a contribution to their own. Alas, no one took up the helm — those interested were busy with other pursuits (or passed away) and others were less than enthusiastic or never seemed to get around to it.

To ensure the knowledge was shared in a timely fashion, she finally wrote them up and published them herself. You can read her findings in her publication, ‘A Catalogue of Organic Remains of the County of Wiltshire’ (1831), where she shares observations on the fossil sponge specimens and other invert goodies from the outcrops west of town.

She shared her ideas freely and donated many specimens to local museums. It was through her exchange of observations, new ideas and open sharing of fossils with Gideon Mantell and others that a clearer understanding of the Lower Cretaceous sedimentary rocks of Southern England was gained.

In many ways, Mantell was drawn to Benett as his ideas went against majority opinion. At a time when marine reptiles were dominating scientific discoveries and discussions, he pushed the view that dinosaurs were terrestrial, not amphibious, and sometimes bipedal. Mantell's life's work established the now-familiar idea that the Age of Reptiles preceded the Age of Mammals. Mantell kept a journal from 1819-1852, that remained unpublished until 1940 when E. Cecil Curwen published an abridged version. (Oxford University Press 1940). John A. Cooper, Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton and Hove, published the work in its entirety in 2010.

I was elated to get a copy, both to untangle the history of the time and to better learn about the relationship between Mantell and Benett. So much of our geologic past has been revealed since Mantell's first entry two hundred years ago. The first encounter we share with the two of them is a short note from March 8, 1819. "This morning I received a letter from Miss Bennett of Norton House near Warminster Wilts, informing me of her having sent a packet of fossils for me, to the Waggon Office..." The diary records his life, but also the social interactions of the day and the small connected community of the scientific social elite. It is a delight!

Though a woman in a newly evolving field, her work, dedication and ideas were recognized and appreciated by her colleagues. Gideon Mantell described her as, "a lady of great talent and indefatigable research," whilst the Sowerbys noted her, "labours in the pursuit of geological information have been as useful as they have been incessant."

Benett produced the first measured sections of the Upper Chicksgrove quarry near Tisbury in 1819, published and shared with local colleagues as, "the measure of different beds of stone in Chicksgrove Quarry in the Parish of Tisbury.” The stratigraphic section was later published by naturalist James Sowerby without her knowledge. Her research contradicted many of Sowerby’s conclusions.

She wrote and privately published a monograph in 1831, containing many of her drawings and sketches of molluscs and sponges. Her work included sketches of fossil Alcyonia (1816) from the Green Sand Formation at Warminster Common and the immediate vicinity of Warminster in Wiltshire.

Echinoids and Bivalves. Collection of Etheldred Benett (1775-1845)
The Society holds two copies, one was given to George Bellas Greenough, and another copy was given to her friend Gideon Mantell. This work established her as a true, pioneering biostratigrapher following but not always agreeing with the work of William Smith.

If you'd like to read a lovely tale on William's work, check out the Map that Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology by Simon Winchester. It narrates the intellectual context of the time, the development of Smith's ideas and how they contributed to the theory of evolution and more generally to a dawning realization of the true age of the earth.

The book describes the social, economic or industrial context for Smith's insights and work, such as the importance of coal mining and the transport of coal by means of canals, both of which were a stimulus to the study of geology and the means whereby Smith supported his research. Benett debated many of the ideas Smith put forward. She was luckier than Smith financially, coming from a wealthy family, a financial perk that allowed her the freedom to add fossils to her curiosity cabinet at will.

Most of her impressive collection was assumed lost in the early 20th century. It was later found and purchased by an American, Thomas Bellerby Wilson, who donated it to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. Small parts of it made their way into British museums, including the Leeds City Museum, London, Bristol and to the University of St. Petersburg. These collections contain many type specimens and some of the very first fossils found — some with the soft tissues preserved. When Benett died in 1845, it was Mantell who penned her obituary for the London Geological Journal.

Etheldred Benett (1776-1845)
In 1989, almost a hundred and fifty years after her death, a review of her collection had Arthur Bogen and Hugh Torrens remark that her work has significantly impacted our modern understanding of Porifera, Coelenterata, Echinodermata, and the molluscan classes, Cephalopoda, Gastropoda, and Bivalvia. A worthy legacy, indeed.

Her renown lives on through her collections, her collaborations and through the beautiful 110 million-year-old ammonite you see here, Hoplites bennettiana. The lovely example you see here is in the collection of the deeply awesome Christophe Marot.

Spamer, Earle E.; Bogan, Arthur E.; Torrens, Hugh S. (1989). "Recovery of the Etheldred Benett Collection of fossils mostly from Jurassic-Cretaceous strata of Wiltshire, England, analysis of the taxonomic nomenclature of Benett (1831), and notes and figures of type specimens contained in the collection". Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. 141. pp. 115–180. JSTOR 4064955.

Torrens, H. S.; Benamy, Elana; Daeschler, E.; Spamer, E.; Bogan, A. (2000). "Etheldred Benett of Wiltshire, England, the First Lady Geologist: Her Fossil Collection in the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, and the Rediscovery of "Lost" Specimens of Jurassic Trigoniidae (Mollusca: Bivalvia) with Their Soft Anatomy Preserved.". Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. 150. pp. 59–123. JSTOR 4064955.

Photo credit: Fossils from Wiltshire.  In the foreground are three examples of the echinoid, Cidaris crenularis, from Calne, a town in Wiltshire, southwestern England, with bivalves behind. Caroline Lam, Archivist at the Geological Society, London, UK. http://britgeodata.blogspot.com/2016/03/etheldred-benett-first-female-geologist_30.html

Photo credit: Fossil sponges Polypothecia quadriloba, from Warminster, Wiltshire. The genus labels are Benett’s, as is the handwriting indicating the species. The small number, 20812, is the Society’s original accession label from which we can tell that the specimen was received in April 1824. The tablet onto which the fossils were glued is from the Society’s old Museum.

https://www.strangescience.net/ebenett.htm

Tuesday, 30 March 2021

ANAHOPLITES PLANUS OF FRANCE

A beautiful specimen of the ammonite, Anahoplites planus (Mantell, 1822) from Albian deposits in Villemoyenne Quarry, Courcelles, Aube, north-central France. Anahoplites (Hyatt, 1900) is a genus of compressed hoplitid ammonites with flat sides, narrow, flat or grooved venters, and flexious ribs or striae arising from weak umbilical tubercles that end in fine dense ventrolateral nodes.

This lovely has attracted some roommates — an oyster, some bryozoans and worm tubes are attached to her shell.

Anahoplites is now included in the subfamily Anahoplitinae and separated from the Hoplitinae where it was placed in the older in the 1957 edition of the Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology, Part L (Ammonoidea). Genera of the Hoplitinae tend to be more robust, with broader whorls and stronger ribs.

Anahoplites is found in Cretaceous (Middle to the Late Albian) deposits from England, through Europe, all the way to the Transcaspian Oblast region in Russia to the east of the Caspian Sea. The Aube department, named after the local river, is the type locality of the Albian stage (d'ORBIGNY, 1842). 

A. planus from the French Coast
Two formations are recognized in the clay facies (the "Gault" auct.) of the stratotype, the Argiles tégulines de Courcelles (82 m), overlain by the Marnes de Brienne (43 m). The boundary between the two formations is well-defined at the top of an indurated bed and readily identifiable in the field.

This involute (113 mm) specimen shows evidence of cohabitation by some of his marine peers. We see two different bryozoa, an oyster and some serpulids making a living and leaving trace fossils on her flat sides. The top specimen was prepared with potase by José Juárez Ruiz of Spain. 

The lovely Anahoplites planus you see here to the lower right was found by Bertus op den Dries on the French coast in Albian deposits near Wissant, P5 and measures in at 8 cm. This on edge view gives you a very good sense of the keel.

Sunday, 28 March 2021

SPOTTED CLEANER SHRIMP

"Wash that for you, sir?" If you were a fish living in the warm turquoise waters off the coast of Bonaire in the southern Caribbean Sea, you may not hear those words, but you'd see the shrimp sign language equivalent. It seems Periclimenes yucatanicus or the Spotted Cleaner Shrimp are doing a booming business in the local reefs by setting up a Fish Wash service.

That's right, a Fish Wash. You'd be hard-pressed to find a terrestrial Molly Maid with two opposable thumbs as studious and hardworking as this wee marine beauty. You'll find them each day cleaning and snacking on a host of parasites. As many as twenty to thirty shrimp gather together to assemble a  highly-efficient marine cleaning station. They're even open to partnerships and mergers, partnering up with Cleaner Wrasse, or cleaner fish, for larger, high-end clients.

Spotted cleaner shrimp are about 2.5 cm long and have a delightful transparent body with telltale white and brown spots. Their legs, or chelae, are striped in purple, white and red. They live about 24 metres (or 79 ft) down on the seafloor in many of our planet's most beautiful waters. Aside from the Caribbean, they also enjoy the waters off of the Bahamas, southern Florida, Panama and Columbia. They are carnivorous crustaceans in the family, Palaemonidae.

This quiet marine mogul is turning out to be one of the ocean's top entrepreneurs. Keeping its host and diet clean and green, the spotted shrimp hooks up with the locals, in this case, local sea anemones and sets up a fish wash. Picture a car wash but without the noise and teenage boys. The signage posted is the shrimps' natural colouring which attracts fish from around the reefs. They sway back and forth to indicate that they are open for business.

Wash on, wash off.

Once within reach, the shrimp cleans the surface of the fish, giving the fish a buff and the shrimp its daily feed. This is good news for the shrimp, especially this time of year as they breed and brood their eggs in summer. 

After hatching, the larvae pass through a series of sadly, tasty planktonic stages before setting up a fish wash of their own. These cuties form a solid base for the oceanic food chain. Once they are older, they gain some protection from being eaten by their clients by a special signalling system that essentially shouts, "just here IN cooperation not as food." Here's to Periclimenes for keeping up the family business.

Saturday, 27 March 2021

ICHTHYOSAUR BASIOCCIPITAL BONE AND TELEOST FISH

Ichthyosaur Basioccipital Bone / Liam Langley
A very exciting find of an Ichthyosaur basioccipital bone. This is the bone next to the skull that connected to the vertebrae. He found this in situ so not very water warn as you might expect. This lovely bone was found by the deeply awesome Liam Langley on the Yorkshire Coast.

Ichthyosaurs became extinct during the Upper Cretaceous, about 30 million years before the K/T extinction event. There was an ocean anoxic event at the Cenomanian–Turonian stage boundary. The deeper layers of the seas became anoxic and poisoned by hydrogen sulphide. As life died off in the lower (benthos) levels of the sea, so did the predators at the top of the food chain. The last pliosaurs and ichthyosaurs became extinct.

Ichthyosaurs had been dwindling in numbers for some time; they were no longer the force they once were in the Upper Triassic and Lower Jurassic. By the middle Jurassic, it was thought they all belonged to the single clade, the Ophthalmosauridae. By the Cretaceous, it was thought that only three genera survived. For the last 50+ years, it has been thought that only one genus, Platypterygius, was known at the time of the anoxic event in the Upper Cretaceous.

Ichthyosaur Basioccipital Bone / Liam Langley
There was still diversity in ichthyosaurs a few million years before the extinction event. They may have survived right up to the extinction event. Ichthyosaurs had declined from their peak.

By the Cretaceous, they certainly had more competitors than in the Triassic and more elusive prey. The adaptive radiation of teleost fish meant their new prey was fast swimming and highly evasive.

The difference between teleosts and other bony fish lies mainly in their jawbones; teleosts have a movable premaxilla and corresponding modifications in the jaw musculature which make it possible for them to protrude their jaws outwards from the mouth.

This is of great advantage, enabling them to grab prey and draw it into the mouth. In more derived teleosts, the enlarged premaxilla is the main tooth-bearing bone, and the maxilla, which is attached to the lower jaw, acts as a lever, pushing and pulling the premaxilla as the mouth is opened and closed. Other bones further back in the mouth serve to grind and swallow food.

Another difference is that the upper and lower lobes of the tail (caudal) fin are about equal in size. The spine ends at the caudal peduncle, distinguishing this group from other fish in which the spine extends into the upper lobe of the tail fin.

The most basal of the living teleosts are the Elopomorpha, eels and their allies, and the Osteoglossomorpha, those whacky elephantfish and their friends. There are over 800 species of elopomorphs; each with thin leaf-shaped larvae known as leptocephali specialized for a marine environment.

Among the elopomorphs, eels have elongated bodies with lost pelvic girdles and ribs and fused elements in the upper jaw. The 200 species of osteoglossomorphs are defined by a bony element in the tongue. This element has a basibranchial behind it, and both structures have large teeth that are paired with the teeth on the parasphenoid in the roof of the mouth.

The clade Otocephala includes the Clupeiformes, tasty herrings, and Ostariophysi  — carp, catfish and their friends. Clupeiformes are made up of 350 living species of herring and herring-like fish. This group is characterized by an unusual abdominal scute and a different arrangement of the hypurals. In most species, the swim bladder extends to the braincase and plays a role in hearing. Ostariophysi, which includes most freshwater fishes, has developed some unique adaptations.

One is the Weberian apparatus, an arrangement of bones, called Weberian ossicles, connecting the swim bladder to the inner ear. This enhances their hearing, as sound waves make the bladder vibrate, and the bones transport the vibrations to the inner ear. They also have a chemical alarm system; when a fish is injured, the warning substance gets in the water, alarming nearby fish. Excellent for the predatory fish, less so for their poor injured brethren.

The teleosts included fast-swimming predatory fish, which would have been competing for similar food resources to our ichthyosaur friends. Had they complained about the teleosts they would have been deeply aghast to know what was coming next — big, hungry mosasaurs. The ichthyosaurs and pliosaurs were replaced in the marine ecology by the giant mosasaurs. The mosasaurs were probably ambush-hunters, whose sit-and-wait strategy apparently proved most successful. So, teleost fish, the ocean anoxic event and the rise of mosasaurs all contributed to the end of the ichthyosaurs.

Photos 1-2: By the awesome Liam Langley
Image 3: By Sir Francis Day - Fauna of British India, Fishes (www.archive.org), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1919094

Friday, 26 March 2021

LOPHIIFORMES: ANGLERFISH

Humpback Anglerfish, Melanocetus johnsonii
The festive lassie you see here with her toothy grin and solo birthday-candle-style light is an Anglerfish.

They are bony fish of the teleost order Lophiiformes (Garman, 1899) and one of the most interesting, intriguing yet creepy, species on this planet.

There are over 200 species of anglerfish, most living in the pitch-black depths of the Atlantic and Antarctic oceans. They always look to be celebrating a birthday of some kind, albeit solo. This party is happening deep in our oceans right now and for those that join in, I hope they like it rough. The wee candle you see on her forehead is a photophore, a tiny bit of luminous dorsal spine. Many of our sea dwellers have photophores. We see them in glowing around the eyes of some cephalopods.

These light organs can be a simple grouping of photogenic cells or more complex with light reflectors, lenses, colour filters able to adjust the intensity or angular distribution of the light they produce. Some species have adapted their photophores to avoid being eaten, in others, it's an invitation to lunch but not in the traditional sense of that invite. In the anglerfish' world, it's dead sexy, an adaptation used to attract prey and mates alike, sometimes at the same time.

Deep in the murky depths of the Atlantic and Antarctic oceans, hopeful female anglerfish light up their sexy lures. When a male latches onto this tasty bit of flesh, he fuses himself totally.

He might be one of several potential mates. Each will take a turn getting close to her to see if she's the one. For her, it's not much of a choice. She's not picky, just hungry.

Mating is a tough business down in the depths. A friend asked if anglerfish mate for life. Well, yes... yes, indeed they do. Lure. Feed. Mate. Repeat. Once connected, the attachment is permanent. Her body absorbs his over time until all that's left are his testes. While unusual, it is only one of many weird and whacky ways our fishy friends communicate, entice, hunt and creatively survive and thrive. Ah, this planet has some evolutionary adaptations that are enough to break your brain. Anglerfish are definitely in with that lot.


Thursday, 25 March 2021

VICTORASPIS LONGCORNUALIS

This lovely specimen, showing both the positive and negative of the fossil, is an armoured agnatha jawless bony fish, Victoraspis longicornualis, from Lower Devonian deposits of Podolia, Ukraine.

Podolia is a historic region in Eastern Europe in the west-central and south-western parts of the Ukraine. This area has had human inhabitants since at least the beginning of the Neolithic period. 

Herodotus mentions it as the seat of the Graeco-Scythian Alazones and possibly Scythian Neuri. Subsequently, the Dacians and the Getae arrived. The Romans left traces of their rule in Trajan's Wall, which stretches through the modern districts of Kamianets-Podilskyi, Nova Ushytsia and Khmelnytskyi.

During the Great Migration Period, many nationalities passed through this territory or settled within it for some time, leaving numerous traces in archaeological remains. Nestor in the Primary Chronicle mentions four apparently Slavic tribes: the Buzhans and Dulebes along the Southern Bug River, and the Tivertsi and Ulichs along the Dniester. The Avars invaded in the 7th century. The Bolokhoveni occupied the same territory in Early Medieval times but they were mentioned in chronicles only until the 14th century.

And, as you can see here, it boasts some wonderful Devonian deposits. Victoraspis longicornualis was named by Anders Carlsson and Henning Bloom back in 2008. The new osteostracan genus and species were described based on material from Rakovets' present-day Ukraine. This new taxon shares characteristics with the two genera Stensiopelta (Denison, 1951) and Zychaspis (Javier, 1985).

Agnatha is a superclass of vertebrates. This fellow looks quite different from our modern Agnatha, which includes lamprey and hagfish. Ironically, hagfish are vertebrates that do not have vertebrae. Sometime in their evolution, they lost them as they adapted to their environment. Photo: Fossilero Fisherman

Wednesday, 24 March 2021

MANATEES OF TEXAS

Manatees do not live year-round in Texas, but these gentle sea cows are known to occasionally visit, swimming in for a 'summer vacation' and returning to warmer waters for the winter. New research has found fossil evidence for manatees along the Texas coast dating back to the most recent ice age. 

The discovery raises questions about whether manatees have been visiting for thousands of years, or if an ancient population of ice age manatees once called Texas home somewhere between 11,000 and 240,000 years ago.

The findings were published in Palaeontologia Electronica by lead author Christopher Bell, a professor at the UT Jackson School of Geosciences with co-authors Sam Houston State University Natural History Collections curator William Godwin and SHSU alumna Kelsey Jenkins — now a graduate student at Yale University — and SHSU Professor Patrick Lewis.

The eight fossils described in the paper include manatee jawbones and rib fragments from the Pleistocene, the geological epoch of the last ice age. Most of the bones were collected from McFaddin Beach near Port Arthur and Caplen Beach near Galveston during the past 50 years by amateur fossil collectors who donated their finds to the SHSU collections.

The Jackson Museum of Earth History at UT holds two of the specimens. A lower jawbone fossil, which was donated to the SHSU collections by amateur collector Joe Liggio, jumpstarted the research.

Manatee jawbones have a distinct S-shaped curve that immediately caught Godwin's eye. But Godwin said he was met with scepticism when he sought other manatee fossils for comparison. He recalls reaching out to a fossil seller who told him point-blank "there are no Pleistocene manatees in Texas."

But an examination of the fossils by Bell and Lewis proved otherwise. The bones belonged to the same species of manatee that visits the Texas coast today, Trichechus manatus. An upper jawbone donated by U.S. Rep. Brian Babin was found to belong to an extinct form of the manatee, Trichechus manatus bakerorum.

The age of the manatee fossils is based on their association with better-known ice age fossils and paleo-Indian artefacts that have been found on the same beaches.

It's assumed that the cooler ice age climate would have made Texas waters even less hospitable to manatees than they are today. But the fact that manatees were in Texas — whether as visitors or residents — raises questions about the ancient environment and ancient manatees. The Texas coast stretched much farther into the Gulf of Mexico and hosted wider river outlets during the ice age than it does today. Either the coastal climate was warmer than is generally thought, or ice age manatees were more resilient to cooler temperatures than manatees of today.

Subsurface imaging of the now flooded modern continental shelf reveals both a greater number of coastal embayments and the presence of significantly wider channels during ice age times.

If there was a population of ice age manatees in Texas, it's plausible that they would have ridden out winters in these warmer river outlets similar to how they do today in Florida and Mexico.

Reference: Christopher Bell, William Godwin, Kelsey Jenkins, Patrick Lewis. First fossil manatees in Texas: Trichechus manatus bakerorum in the Pleistocene fauna from beach deposits along the Texas Coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Palaeontologia Electronica, 2020; DOI: 10.26879/1006

Tuesday, 23 March 2021

DUGONGIDAE: STELLAR SEA COW

One of the most delightful creatures to ever grace this planet is the dugong — a species of sea cow found throughout the warm latitudes of the Indian and western Pacific Oceans. 

It is one of four living species of the order Sirenia, which also includes three species of manatees — their large, fully aquatic, mostly herbivorous marine mammal cousins.

The closest living relatives of sirenians are elephants. Manatees evolved from the same land animals as elephants over 50 million years ago. If not for natural selection, we might have a much more diverse showing of the Sirenia as their fossil lineage shows a much more diverse group of sirenians back in the Eocene than we have today. It is the only living representative of the once-diverse family Dugongidae; its closest modern relative, Steller's sea cow, was hunted to extinction in the 18th century. 

While only one species of the dugong is alive today – a second, the Steller's sea cow only left this Earth a few years ago. Sadly, it was hunted to extinction within 27 years of its discovery – about 30 species have been recovered in the fossil record

The first appearance of sirenians in the fossil record was during the early Eocene, and by the late Eocene, sirenians had significantly diversified. Inhabitants of rivers, estuaries, and nearshore marine waters, they were able to spread rapidly.

The most primitive sirenian known to date, Prorastomus, was found in Jamaica, not the Old World; however, more recently the contemporary Sobrarbesiren has been recovered from Spain. The first known quadrupedal sirenian was Pezosiren from the early Eocene. The earliest known sea cows, of the families Prorastomidae and Protosirenidae, are both confined to the Eocene and were about the size of a pig, four-legged amphibious creatures. By the time the Eocene drew to a close, the Dugongidae had arrived; sirenians had acquired their familiar fully aquatic streamlined body with flipper-like front legs with no hind limbs, powerful tail with horizontal caudal fin, with up and down movements which move them through the water, like cetaceans.

The last of the sirenian families to appear, Trichechidae, apparently arose from early dugongids in the late Eocene or early Oligocene. The current fossil record documents all major stages in hindlimb and pelvic reduction to the extreme reduction in the modern manatee pelvis, providing an example of dramatic morphological change among fossil vertebrates.

Since sirenians first evolved, they have been herbivores, depending on seagrasses and aquatic angiosperms, tasty flowering plants of the sea, for food. To the present, almost all have remained tropical (with the notable exception of Steller's Sea Cow), marine, and angiosperm consumers. Sea cows are shallow divers with large lungs. They have heavy skeletons to help them stay submerged; the bones are pachyostotic (swollen) and osteosclerotic (dense), especially the ribs which are often found as fossils.

Eocene sirenians, like Mesozoic mammals but in contrast to other Cenozoic ones, have five instead of four premolars, giving them a 3.1.5.3 dental formula. Whether this condition is truly primitive retention in sirenians is still under debate.

Although cheek teeth are relied on for identifying species in other mammals, they do not vary to a significant degree among sirenians in their morphology but are almost always low-crowned —brachyodont — with two rows of large, rounded cusps — bunobilophodont. The most easily identifiable parts of sirenian skeletons are the skull and mandible, especially the frontal and other skull bones. With the exception of a pair of tusk-like first upper incisors present in most species, front teeth — incisors and canines — are lacking in all, except the earliest sirenians.

Monday, 22 March 2021

ICHTHYOSAURS, SHARKS AND BLUBBER

We've learned much about the mighty ichthyosaur since first discovering their bones in Wales back in 1699. That's over three hundred years of knowledge.

We have classified them as an extinct order of marine reptiles from the Mesozoic era. We know that they were visibly dolphin-like in appearance and share some other qualities as well. They were warm-blooded, used their colouration as camouflage and had insulating blubber to keep them warm.

Ichthyosaurs are interesting because they have many traits in common with dolphins, but are not at all closely related to those sea-dwelling mammals. We aren't exactly sure of their biology either. They have many features in common with living marine reptiles like sea turtles, but we know from the fossil record that they gave live birth, which is associated with warm-bloodedness. This study reveals some of those biological mysteries.

We find their fossil remains in outcrops spanning the mid-Cretaceous to the earliest Triassic. As we look through the fossils, we see a slow evolution in body design moving towards that enjoyed by dolphins and tuna by the Upper Triassic, albeit with a narrower, more pointed snout.

Johan Lindgren, Associate Professor at Sweden's Lund University and lead author on the paper,  described the 180 million-year-old specimen, Stenopterygius, from outcrops in the Holzmaden quarry in Germany.

Both the body outline and remnants of internal organs are clearly visible in the specimen. Remarkably, the fossil is so well-preserved that it is possible to observe individual cellular layers within its skin.

Stenopterygius quadriscissus
Researchers identified cell-like microstructures containing pigment organelles on the surface of the fossil.

This ancient skin revealed a feature we recognized from marine dwelling animals, the ability to change colour, providing camouflage from potential predators. They also found traces of what might have been the animal's liver.

When they put some of the tissue through chemical analysis, it was consistent with what we'd look for in adipose tissue or blubber. Not surprising as dolphins today use blubber for buoyancy and to help to thermally insulate for thermal regulation in cold seas. It's a highly useful adaptation and one that led me to wonder what other vertebrates might use blubber or some other adaptation to maintain a warmer body temperature independent of icy cold conditions.

Today, blubber is an important part of the anatomy of seals, walruses and whales. It covers the core of their bodies, storing energy, insulating them from cold seas and providing extra buoyancy. 

A rather fetching Walrus, Odobenus rosmarus
Fat and blubber are not the same. The main differences are their consistency and blood supply —  blubber contains many more blood vessels than fat, and is far denser because it's made up of a mix of collagen fibres and lipids.

Blubber layers can be incredibly thick. Walruses deposit most of their body fat into a thick layer of blubber — a layer of fat reinforced by fibrous connective tissue that lies just below the skin of most marine mammals.

This blubber layer insulates the walrus and streamlines its body. It also functions as an energy reserve. Blubber covers the core of their bodies but does not grace their fins, flippers and flukes.

Not all marine animals need blubber. Our cold-blooded marine friends: sharks, crabs, fish, are able to let their body temperatures dropdown to very chilly levels, some as low as 36 degrees Fahrenheit.

They have a few tricks up their sleeves to make this happen. Sharks have evolved specialized physiology to keep their metabolic rate high and their hearts are able to contract in the icy depths because of a special protein. These adaptations allow sharks to enjoy a wide range of habitats and follow their food from warm tropical seas to the icy waters of the North Pacific.

Gray Shark, Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos
With the advent of genetics, we've now learned that the Great White Shark’s genetic code and many of the proteins they use to control metabolism are more closely related to humans than zebrafish, the quintessential fish model.

In a very cool bit of science, researchers sequenced a shark's heart transcriptome – the messenger molecules produced from the shark’s genome, including those active in making proteins. Then they categorized the proteins based on their functions.

What they found that the proportions of white shark proteins in many categories matched humans more closely than zebrafish. Of particular interest was that white shark had a closer match to humans for proteins involved in metabolism. Great White Sharks have a rare trait in fish called regional endothermy. This allows them to keep the body temperature of some of their organs warmer than the ambient water — a highly useful trait for fast swimming, digestion and hunting in colder waters.

References and additional reading:

Fancy a read? Check out the work by Michael Stanhope, professor of evolutionary genomics at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine, and scientists at the Save Our Seas Shark Research Center at Nova Southeastern University (NSU). He published the shark genetic study in the November 2013 issue of BMC Genomics. It lays the foundation for genomic exploration of sharks and vastly expands genetic tools for their conservation.

Johan Lindgren, Peter Sjövall, Volker Thiel, Wenxia Zheng, Shosuke Ito, Kazumasa Wakamatsu, Rolf Hauff, Benjamin P. Kear, Anders Engdahl, Carl Alwmark, Mats E. Eriksson, Martin Jarenmark, Sven Sachs, Per E. Ahlberg, Federica Marone, Takeo Kuriyama, Ola Gustafsson, Per Malmberg, Aurélien Thomen, Irene Rodríguez-Meizoso, Per Uvdal, Makoto Ojika, Mary H. Schweitzer. Soft-tissue evidence for homeothermy and crypsis in a Jurassic ichthyosaur. Nature, 2018; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-018-0775-x

North Carolina State University. (2018, December 5). Soft tissue shows Jurassic ichthyosaur was warm-blooded, had blubber and camouflage. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 7, 2019, from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/12/181205134118.htm

Photo: By Haplochromis - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5825284

Sunday, 21 March 2021

OF LAND AND SEA

Our dear penguins, seals, sea lions, walruses, whales, crocodiles and sea turtles were once entirely terrestrial. Yes, they lived mostly or entirely on land. 

Many of these once land-dwelling animals returned to the sea throughout evolutionary history. We have beautifully documented cases from amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals from over 30 different lineages over the past 250 million years.

Some dipped a toe or two into freshwater ponds, but make no mistake, they were terrestrial. Each of these animals had ancestors that tried out the sea and decided to stay. They evolved and employed a variety of adaptations to meet their new saltwater challenges. Some adapted legs as fins, others became more streamlined, and still, others developed specialized organs to extract dissolved oxygen from the water through their skin or gills. The permutations are endless.

Returning to the sea comes with a whole host of benefits but some serious challenges as well. Life at sea is very different from life on land. Water is denser than air, impacting how an animal moves, sees and hears. More importantly, it impacts an air-breathing animal's movement on a pretty frequent basis. If you need air and haven't evolved gills, you need to surface frequently. Keeping your body temperature at a homeostatic level is also a challenge as water conducts heat much better than air. Even with all of these challenges, the lure of additional food sources and freedom of movement kept those who tried the sea in the sea and they evolved accordingly.

Most major animal groups appear for the first time in the fossil record half a billion years ago. We call this flourishing of species the Cambrian Explosion. While this was a hugely intense period of species radiation, the evolutionary origins of animals are likely to be significantly older. About 700 million years ago the Earth was covered in ice and snow. This was an ice age so intense we refer to this time in our ancient history as Snowball Earth. Once that ice receded, it exposed rocks that contained a variety of weird and wonderful fossils that speak to ancient animals that are only now being studied.

Dr Frankie Dunn, a palaeontologist and an Early Career Research Fellow at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and Merton College is one of the folks who are examining this early history of some of our first animals. Her research focuses on the origin and early evolution of animals and particularly on the fossil record of the late Ediacaran Period (570 – 540 million years ago).  Dr Dunn's research is exploring ancient species like the long-extinct Rangeomorpha to help understand how animal body plans evolved in deep time well before the divergence of the extant (living) animal lineages.

Andy Temple (bless him) sent me a link for an online talk Dr Dunn is giving, The Chronicles of Charnia, Wed, June 17th at 7PM. She's based in Oxford so adjust your timezone accordingly. The talk is free but booking is required. Here's the link: https://event.webinarjam.com/register/59/xyy07flg 

This is an interesting article from Alicia Ault writing for the Smithsonian who interviewed Nick Pysenson and Neil Kelley about some of their research that touches on this area. They published a paper on it in the journal Science. Here's the link: https://science.sciencemag.org/content/348/6232/aaa3716

And Ault's work is definitely worth a read: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/take-deep-dive-reasons-land-animals-moved-seas-180955007/

Saturday, 20 March 2021

HUMPBACK WHALES: MEGAPTERA NOVAENGLIAE

Humpback Whales, Megaptera novaeangliae, are a species of baleen whale. These are whales who feed on plankton and other wee oceanic tasties that they consume through their baleens, a specialised filter of keratin that frames their mouths.

There are 15 species of baleen whales. They inhabit all major oceans, in a wide band running from the Antarctic ice edge to 81°N latitude.

Humpback whales are rorquals, members of the Balaenopteridae family that includes the blue, fin, Bryde's, sei and minke whales. The rorquals are believed to have diverged from the other families of the suborder Mysticeti during the middle Miocene. While cetaceans were historically thought to have descended from mesonychids— which would place them outside the order Artiodactyla— molecular evidence supports them as a clade of even-toed ungulates — our dear Artiodactyla. Baleen whales split from toothed whales, the Odontoceti, around 34 million years ago.

It is one of the larger rorqual species, with adults ranging in length from 12–16 m (39–52 ft) and weighing around 25–30 metric tons (28–33 short tons). The humpback has a distinctive body shape, with long pectoral fins and a knobbly head. It is known for breaching and other distinctive surface behaviours, making it popular with whale watchers.

Both male and female humpback whales vocalize, but only males produce the long, loud, complex "song" for which the species is famous. Males produce a complex soulful song lasting 10 to 20 minutes, which they repeat for hours at a time. I imagine Gregorian Monks vocalizing their chant with each individual melody strengthening and complimenting that of their peers. All the males in a group produce the same song, which differed in each season. Its purpose is not clear, though it may help induce estrus in females and bonding amongst the males.

Humpback Whale, Megaptera novaeangliae
Found in oceans and seas around the world, humpback whales typically migrate up to 25,000 km (16,000 mi) each year. They feed in polar waters and migrate to tropical or subtropical waters to breed and give birth, fasting and living off their fat reserves. Their diet consists mostly of krill and small fish. Humpbacks have a diverse repertoire of feeding methods, including the bubble net technique.

Humpbacks are a friendly species that interact with other cetaceans such as bottlenose dolphins. They are also friendly and oddly protective of humans. You may recall hearing about an incident off the Cook Islands a few years back. In September of 2017, Nan Hauser was snorkelling and ran into a tiger shark. Two adult humpback whales rushed to her aid, blocking the shark from reaching her and pushing her back towards the shore. We could learn a thing or two from their kindness. We have not been as good to them as they have been to us.

Like other large whales, the humpback was a tasty and profitable target for the whaling industry. My grandfather and uncle participated in that industry out of Coal Harbour on northern Vancouver Island back in the 1950s. Six whaling stations operated on the coast of British Columbia between 1905 and 1976. Two of these stations were located in the Queen Charlotte Islands, one at Rose Harbour and the other at Naden Harbour. Over 9,400 large whales were taken from the waters around the Queen Charlotte Islands. The catch included blue whales, fin whales, sei whales, humpback whales, sperm whales and right whales. In the early years of the century, primarily humpback whales were taken. In later years, fin whales and sperm whales dominated the catch. 

Whales were hunted off South Moresby in Haida Gwaii, on the north side of Holberg Inlet in the Quatsino Sound region. It was the norm at the time and a way to make a living, especially for those who had hoped to work in the local coal mine but lost their employment when it shut down. 

My relatives participated in the hunt that nearly led to the extinction of our lovely Humpbacks before the process was banned back in the 1960s. The Coal Harbour Whaling Station closed in 1967. My grandfather Einar took to fishing and my uncle Harry lost his life when he slipped and fell over the side of the boat. He was crushed between the hull and a Humpback in rough seas. 

Humpback populations have partially recovered to build their population up to 80,000 animals worldwide since the 1960s but entanglement in fishing gear, collisions with ships, and noise pollution continue to negatively impact the species. So be kind if you see them. Turn your engine off and see if you can hear their soulful cries echoing in the water.

I did up a video on Humpback Whales over on YouTube so you could see them in all their majesty. Here is the link: https://youtu.be/_Vbta7kQNoM

Friday, 19 March 2021

HOODED SEALS: CYSTOPHORA CRISTATA

Hooded seals, Cystophora cristata, are large phocid seals in the family Phocidae, who live in some of the chilliest places on Earth, from 47° to 80° N in latitude. 

They frequent the eastern coast of North America north of Maine to the western tip of Europe, along the coast of Norway near Svalbard. 

These skilled divers are mainly concentrated around Bear Island, Norway, Iceland, and northeast Greenland. In rare cases, we find them in the icy waters in Siberia. They usually dive depths of 600 m (1,968 ft) in search of fishy treats but can go as deep as 1000 m (3,280 ft) when needed. That is deep into the cold, dark depths of our oceans. Sunlight entering the sea may travel as deep as 1,000 m (3,280 ft) into the ocean under the right conditions, but there is rarely any significant light beyond 200 meters (656 ft). 

Hooded seals have a sparse fossil record. One of the first fossils found was a Pliocene specimen from Anvers, Belgium discovered in 1876. In 1983 a paper was published claiming there were some fossils found in North America thought to be from Cystophora cristata. Of the three accounts, the most creditable discovery was from a sewer excavation in Maine, the northeasternmost U.S. state, known for its rocky coastline, maritime history and nature areas like the granite and spruce islands of Acadia National Park. A scapula and humeri were found among other bones and thought to date to the post-Pleistocene. 

Of two other accounts, one was later reassigned to another species and the other left unsolved. (Folkow, et al., 2008; Kovacs and Lavigne, 1986; Ray, 1983)

The seals are typically silver-grey or white in colour, with black spots that vary in size covering most of the body. Hooded seal pups are known as "blue-backs" because their coats are blue-grey on the back with whitish bellies, though this coat is shed after 14 months of age when the pups moult.

Hooded seals live primarily on drifting pack ice and in deep water in the Arctic Ocean and North Atlantic. Although some drift away to warmer regions during the year their best survival rate is in colder climates. They can be found on four distinct areas with pack ice: near Jan Mayen Island (northeast of Iceland); off Labrador and northeastern Newfoundland; the Gulf of St. Lawrence; and the Davis Strait (off midwestern Greenland). 

Hooded Seal and pup
Males appear to be localized around areas of complex seabeds, such as Baffin Bay, Davis Strait, and the Flemish Cap, while females concentrate their habitat efforts primarily on shelf areas, such as the Labrador Shelf. 

Females reach the age of sexual maturity between 2 and 9 years old and it is estimated that most females give birth to their first young at around 5 years of age. 

Males reach sexual maturity a little later around 4 to 6 years old but often do not mate until much later. Females give birth to one young at a time through March and April. The gestation period is 240 to 250 days. During this time the fetus - unlike those of other seals - sheds its lanugo (a covering of fine soft hair that is replaced by thicker pelage) in the uterus. These young are precocial and at birth are able to move about and swim with ease. They are independent and left to fend for themselves immediately after they have been weaned.

Hooded seals are known to be a highly migratory species that often wander long distances, as far west as Alaska and as far south as the Canary Islands and Guadeloupe. Prior to the mid-1990s, hooded seal sightings in Maine and the east Atlantic were rare but began increasing in the mid-1990s. From January 1997 to December 1999, a total of 84 recorded sightings of hooded seals occurred in the Gulf of Maine, one in France and one in Portugal. From 1996 to 2006, five strandings and sightings were noted near the Spanish coasts in the Mediterranean Sea. There is no scientific explanation for the increase in sightings and range of the hooded seal.

Cystophora means "bladder-bearer" in Greek and pays homage to this species' inflatable bladder septum on the heads of adult males. The bladder hangs between the eyes and down over the upper lip in the deflated state. In addition, the hooded seal can inflate a large balloon-like sac from one of its nostrils. This is done by shutting one nostril valve and inflating a membrane, which then protrudes from the other nostril. I was thinking of Hooded seals when contemplating the nasal bladders of Prosaurolophus maximum, large-headed duckbill dinosaurs, or hadrosaurid, in the ornithischian family Hadrosauridae. Perhaps both species used these bladders in a similar manner — to warn predators and attract mates.

The hooded seal is known for its uniquely elastic nasal cavity located at the top of its head, also known as the hood. Only males possess this display-worthy nasal sac, which they begin to develop around the age of four. The hood begins to inflate as the seal makes its initial breath prior to going underwater. It then begins to repetitively deflate and inflate as the seal is swimming. The purpose of this is acoustic signalling. It occurs when the seal feels threatened and attempt to ward off hostile species when competing for resources such as food and shelter. It also serves to communicate their health and superior status to both other males and females they are attempting to attract. 

In sexually mature males, a pinkish balloon-like nasal membrane comes out of the left nostril to further aid it in attracting a mate. This membrane, when shaken, is able to produce various sounds and calls depending on whether the seal is underwater or on land. Most of these acoustic signals are used in an acoustic situation (about 79%), while about 12% of the signals are used for sexual purposes.

References: Ray, C. 1983. Hooded Seal, Cystophora cristata: Supposed Fossil Records in North America. American Society of Mammalogists, Vol. 64 No. 3: 509-512; Cystophora cristata, Hooded Seal", 2007; "Seal Conservation Society", 2001; Kovacs and Lavigne, 1986.

Thursday, 18 March 2021

PROSAUROLOPHUS MAXIMUS

Reconstruction of Prosaurolophus maximus
Prosaurolophus maximus was a large-headed duckbill dinosaur, or hadrosaurid, in the ornithischian family Hadrosauridae.

The most complete described Prosaurolophus maximus specimen had a skull an impressive 0.9 metres (3.0 ft) long that graced a skeleton about 8.5 metres (28 ft) long. 

He had a small, stout, triangular crest in front of his eyes. The sides of the crest are concave, forming depressions. This crest grew isometrically — without changing in proportion — throughout the lifetime of each individual, leading one to wonder if Prosaurolophus had had a soft tissue display structure such as inflatable nasal sacs. We see this feature in hooded seals, Cystophora cristata, who live in the central and western North Atlantic today. Prosaurolophus maximus may have used their inflatable nasal sac for a display to warn a predator or to entice the ladies, attracting the attention of a female.

When this good looking fellow was originally described by Brown, Prosaurolophus maximus was known only from a skull and jaw. Half of the skull was badly weathered at the time of examination, and the level of the parietal was distorted and crushed upwards to the side. You can imagine that these deformations in preservation created some grief in the final description.

The different bones of the skull are easily defined with the exception of the parietal and nasal bones. Brown found that the skull of the already described genus Saurolophus was very similar overall, just smaller than the skull of Prosaurolophus maximus. The unique feature of a shortened frontal in lambeosaurines is also found in Prosaurolophus maximus, and the other horned hadrosaurines Brachylophosaurus, Maiasaura, and Saurolophus. Although they lack a shorter frontal, the genera Edmontosaurus and Shantungosaurus share an elongated dentary structure.

Prosaurolophus maximus, Ottawa Museum of Nature
Patches of preserved skin are known from two juvenile specimens, TMP 1998.50.1 and TMP 2016.37.1; these pertain to the ventral extremity of the ninth through fourteenth dorsal ribs, the caudal margin of the scapular blade, and the pelvic region. Small basement scales (scales that make up the majority of the skin surface), 3–7 millimetres (0.12–0.28 in) in diameter, are preserved on these patches - this is similar to the condition seen in other saurolophine hadrosaurs.

More uniquely, feature scales (larger, less numerous scales which are interspersed within the basement scales) around 5 millimetres (0.20 in) wide and 29 millimetres (1.1 in) long are found interspersed in the smaller scales in the patches from the ribs and scapula (they are absent from the pelvic patches). Similar scales are known from the tail of the related Saurolophus angustirostris (on which they have been speculated to indicate pattern), and it is considered likely adult Prosaurolophus would've retained the feature scales on their flanks like the juveniles.

Image: Three-dimensional reconstruction of Prosaurolophus maximus. Created using the skull reconstructions in the original description as reference. (Fig. 1 and 3 in Brown 1916). According to Lull and Wright (1942), the muzzle was restored too long in its original description. The colours and/or patterns, as with nearly all reconstructions of prehistoric creatures, are speculative. Created & uploaded to Wikipedia by Steveoc 86.

Wednesday, 17 March 2021

DR. DANNER: FOSSILS OF THE CHILLIWACK GROUP

In May 2001, Dr. Ted Danner, Professor Emeritus from UBC and my mentor gave a talk to the Vancouver Paleontological Society. For over fifteen years, we would meet for dinner on the third Thursday of every month. I would swing by to pick him up and we would head to his favourite restaurant for a meal and lively discussion. 

Dinner was a delight of banter, stories and paleontological debates. Dr. Danner had a keen mind and a sharp wit. The world lost a truly beautiful soul when he passed away in 2012. 

Wilbert R. Danner began teaching geology at UBC in 1954 and established the Beer-Pop Can-Bottle Deposit Refund Award in 1989 using proceeds from the return of bottles and cans collected on weekly scavenging treks on UBC’s Vancouver Campus.

Danner’s office was often full of cans ready to be taken to the recycling depot. He raised $46,000 from collected bottles and cans to support students before he passed away in 2012. He chose to name it the Beer-Pop Can-Bottle Deposit Refund Award to show that, over time, even small contributions can have a big impact.

“Ted taught UBC’s introductory geology course for many years,” says geologist and entrepreneur Ross Beaty, a former student of Danner and executor of his estate. “He was a quirky, enthusiastic professor who inspired many students to go into geoscience. What a wonderful legacy he’s now left for UBC and future generations of geologists.”

Danner’s bequest endows $320,000 for the Beer-Pop Can-Bottle Deposit Refund Award, which provides two awards annually to geology students who have demonstrated aptitude in fieldwork. Another $320,000 funds the newly established Ted Danner Memorial Entrance Bursary in Geology, provided to a student entering UBC enrolled in at least one geology course.

The estate also includes Danner’s extensive mineral collection, which now resides at UBC’s Pacific Museum of the Earth. It contains more than 2,000 specimens and is worth more than $500,000.

Beyond his annual award, Dr. Danner left a legacy in those he taught and mentored. Ted had a great fondness for the geology & fossils of the Chilliwack Group. A wonderful orator, Dr. Danner liked to reminisce about the Devonian quarry at Doaks Creek. He enjoyed hiking through the Late Mississippian limestone exposures on the east side of Red Mountain, where large crinoid columnals, corals and brachiopods have been found, sometimes partly silicified, on the weathered surfaces of the limestones and shales. 

Further up the west side of Red Mountain at the Kendle Quarry there are Late Mississippian exposures where you can find fragments of brachiopods & goniatites. Dr. Danner would often tell the tale of Reginald A. Daly who published a series of maps in 1912 of areas along the International Boundary where he found fusulinids in the Chilliwack Valley. It seems the markers Daly originally mapped have been slowly tipping to the south, with Canada gaining a small advantage over the United States each year.

Tuesday, 16 March 2021

CRESTED BEAUTY: PARASAUROLOPHUS

Parasaurolophus is a genus of herbivorous ornithopod dinosaur that lived in what is now North America and possibly Asia during the Late Cretaceous Period, about 76.5–73 million years ago. 

As a hadrosaurid, Parasaurolophus was a large bipedal/quadrupedal herbivore, eating plants with a sophisticated skull that permitted a grinding motion analogous to chewing. Its teeth were continually being replaced; they were packed into dental batteries containing hundreds of teeth, only a relative handful of which were in use at any time. It used its beak to crop plant material, which was held in the jaws by a cheek-like organ. Vegetation could have been taken from the ground up to a height of around 4 m (13 ft). As noted by the awesome Bob Bakker, lambeosaurines have narrower beaks than hadrosaurines, implying that Parasaurolophus and its relatives could feed more selectively than their broad-beaked, crestless counterparts.

Parasaurolophus was a hadrosaurid, part of a diverse family of Cretaceous dinosaurs known for their range of bizarre head adornments. This genus is known for its large, elaborate cranial crest, which at its largest forms a long curved tube projecting upwards and back from the skull. Charonosaurus from China, which may have been its closest relative, had a similar skull and potentially a similar crest. Visual recognition of both species and sex, acoustic resonance, and thermoregulation has been proposed as functional explanations for the crest. It is one of the rarer hadrosaurids, known from only a handful of well-preserved specimens.

Charles H. Sternberg
In 1921, Charles H. Sternberg recovered a partial skull (PMU.R1250) from what is now known as the slightly younger Kirtland Formation in San Juan County, New Mexico. 

Sternberg was an American fossil collector and palaeontologist active in both fields from 1876 to 1928. He collected fossils for Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel C. Marsh, and for the British Museum, the San Diego Natural History Museum and other museums. He sent his specimen to Uppsala, Sweden, where Carl Wiman described it as a second species, P. tubicen, in 1931. The specific epithet is derived from the Latin tǔbǐcěn "trumpeter." 

A second, nearly complete P. tubicen skull (NMMNH P-25100) was found in New Mexico in 1995. Using computed tomography scanning of the skull, Robert Sullivan and Thomas Williamson gave the genus a thorough analysis and interpretation of its anatomy and taxonomy, including various hypothesis for the functions of its crest. Williamson later published an independent review of the remains challenging the previous taxonomic placement.

John Ostrom described another good specimen (FMNH P27393) from New Mexico as P. cyrtocristatus in 1961. Ostrom was an American palaeontologist who revolutionized our understanding of dinosaurs in the 1960s. His find from New Mexico included a partial skull with a short, rounded crest, and much of the postcranial skeleton except for the feet, neck, and parts of the tail. Its specific name was derived from the Latin curtus "shortened" and cristatus "crested." The specimen was reported as being found at the top of the Fruitland Formation but was likely from the base of the overlying Kirtland Formation. 

The range of this species was expanded in 1979, when David B. Weishampel and James A. Jensen described a partial skull with a similar crest (BYU 2467) from the Campanian-age Kaiparowits Formation of Garfield County, Utah. Since then, another skull has been found in Utah with the short/round P. cyrtocristatus crest morphology.



References:
  • Abel, Othenio (1924). "Die neuen Dinosaurierfunde in der Oberkreide Canadas". Jarbuch Naturwissenschaften (in German). 12 (36): 709–716. Bibcode:1924NW.....12..709A. doi:10.1007/BF01504818.
  • Bakker, R.T. (1986). The Dinosaur Heresies: New Theories Unlocking the Mysteries of Dinosaurs and their Extinction. William Morrow. p. 194. ISBN 978-0-8217-2859-8.
  • Benson, R.J.; Brussatte, S.J.; Anderson; Hone, D.; Parsons, K.; Xu, X.; Milner, D.; Naish, D. (2012). Prehistoric Life. Dorling Kindersley. p. 342. ISBN 978-0-7566-9910-9.
  • Brett-Surman, Michael K.; Wagner, Jonathan R. (2006). "Appendicular anatomy in Campanian and Maastrichtian North American hadrosaurids". In Carpenter, Kenneth (ed.). Horns and Beaks: Ceratopsian and Ornithopod Dinosaurs. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. pp. 135–169. ISBN 978-0-253-34817-3.
  • Carr, T.D.; Williamson, T.E. (2010). "Bistahieversor sealeyi, gen. et sp. nov., a new tyrannosauroid from New Mexico and the origin of deep snouts in Tyrannosauroidea". Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. 30 (1): 1–16. doi:10.1080/02724630903413032.



Monday, 15 March 2021

SOUTH AMERICAN TAPIR

South American tapir, Tapirus terrestris
This little sweetie with his brown fur stripped and dotted with bits of white is a South American tapir, Tapirus terrestris.

He is a relative of the rhinoceros and like his rhino cousins, he loves the water. They play, swim, dive, and use it to protect themselves from predators.

Their feet are specially designed for swimming and walking on muddy shores. Each of their front feet has four splayed toes, a bit like having a fin or snowshoe on your feet. Their back feet have a similar design but with three toes. They nap and hide in the forest during the day and then head out at night to munch on leaves, shoots, fruit, and other green goodies in the Amazon Rainforest and the River Basin in South America, east of the Andes.

We find fossil remains of tapir first appearing in the middle Eocene, 41 million years ago. While many families of perissodactyls achieved very high levels of diversity, there have never been more than a few species of tapirs. Tapirs are also morphologically conservative - their teeth and skeletons resemble those of early ceratomorphs, and some have referred to them as living fossils. 

The skull is very specialized with many unique features related to the development of the proboscis. The four living species of tapirs use the prehensile proboscis to browse selectively on leaves, sprouts, and small branches, including aquatic plants and also ingest a great deal of fruit and seeds.

While modern tapir species are confined to tropical forests of South America and Asia, they originated and persisted for many millions of years in more northern regions, even during the ice ages, although their rarity as fossils suggests favourable habitats may have been scarce. Recently a huge fossil accumulation of late Miocene tapirs was discovered near Gray, Tennessee. It is the largest accumulation of fossil tapirs in the world and suggests that tapirs were once very common in some parts of North America.

Sunday, 14 March 2021

ANCIENT ARMADILLOS

Glyptodonts are the early ancestors of our modern armadillos that roamed North and South America during the Pleistocene. Armadillos have ranged in size from the size of an armoured car to the size of a small, family dog. It's quite a range and the more you move forward in time, the smaller they've become.

Glyptodonts became extinct at the end of the last ice age. They, along with a large number of other megafaunal species, including pampatheres, the giant ground sloths, and the Macrauchenia, left this Earth but their bones tell a story of brief and awesome supremacy.

Today, Glyptodonts live on through their much smaller, more lightly armoured and flexible armadillo relatives. They defended themselves against Sabre Tooth Cats and other predators but could not withstand the arrival of early humans in the Americas. Archaeological evidence suggests that these humans made use of the animal's armoured shells and enjoyed the meat therein. Glyptodonts possessed a tortoise-like body armour, made of bony deposits in their skin called osteoderms or scutes. Beneath that hard outer coating was a food source that our ancestors sought for their survival.

Each species of glyptodont had a unique osteoderm pattern and shell type. With this protection, they were armoured like turtles; glyptodonts could not withdraw their heads, but their armoured skin formed a bony cap on the top of their skull. Glyptodont tails had a ring of bones for protection. Doedicurus possessed a large mace-like spiked tail that it would have used to defend itself against predators and, possibly, other Doedicurus. Glyptodonts had the advantage of large size.

Many, such as the type genus, Glyptodon, were the size of modern automobiles. The presence of such heavy defences suggests they were the prey of a large, effective predator. At the time that glyptodonts evolved, the apex predators in the island continent of South America were phorusrhacids, a family of giant flightless carnivorous birds.

The ancient Armadillo Glyptodon asper
In physical appearance, glyptodonts superficially resembled the much earlier dinosaurian ankylosaurs and, to a lesser degree, the recently extinct giant meiolaniid turtles of Australia.

These are examples of the convergent evolution of unrelated lineages into similar forms. The largest glyptodonts could weigh up to 2,000 kilograms. Like most of the megafauna in the Americas, they all became extinct at the end of the last ice age 10,000 years ago. The deeper you get in time, the larger they were. Twenty thousand years ago, they could have ambled up beside you in what would become Argentina and outweighed a small car.

A few years back, some farmers found some interesting remains in a dried-out riverbed near Buenos Aires. The find generated a ton of palaeontological excitement. Fieldwork revealed this site to contain two adults and two younger specimens of an ancient armadillo. These car-size beasties would have been living and defending themselves against predators like Sabre Tooth Cats and other large predators of the time by employing their spiked club-like tails and thick bony armour.

Glyptodonts were unlikely warriors. They were grazing herbivores. Like many other xenarthrans, they had no incisor or canine teeth but had a number of cheek teeth that would have been able to grind up tough vegetation, such as grasses. They also had distinctively deep jaws, with large downward bony projections that would have anchored their powerful chewing muscle.

Image Two: By Arentderivative work: WolfmanSF (talk) -  http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bild:Glyptodon-1.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=665483

Saturday, 13 March 2021

CONLINOCERAS TARRANTENSE

Previously Calycoceras Tarrantense, this ammonite is now called Conlinoceras tarrantense after J.P. Conlin, a famous early 20th century Texas fossil collector.

Ammonite expert Bill Cobban used this collection to describe many Texas Cretaceous ammonites species including this species from Tarrant County, Arlington, Texas.

He was a surveyor by training and kept incredibly detailed notes on the context of his fossils.

Conlin donated his collection to the USGS and we’ve learned much by studying it along with other specimens from the Lone Star State. Almost a quarter of Texas is covered by Cretaceous strata, much of it fossiliferous. If we stepped back 95 million years, the world and what we now call Texas, was a very different place.

95 million years ago, during the Late Cretaceous, a shallow seaway separated North America into separate eastern and western landmasses. We have a pretty complete picture in the fossil record of the western groups of species but relatively little in comparison for their cohorts in the east.

At the time this fellow was swimming our ancient seas, he was sharing the Earth with carnivorous dinosaurs, duck-billed dinosaurs, mammals, crocodilians, turtles, a variety of amphibians, prehistoric bony fish, oddly prolific sea cucumbers, various invertebrates and plants. Many of these sites are just being written up now and contain new species just being discovered.

During the Late Cretaceous Period, a shallow seaway separated North America into separate eastern and western landmasses. The Woodbine Formation in Texas preserves a rare fossil record of this time for the east, but many of these fossils are isolated and incomplete, making interpretations more difficult. Preliminary excavations at the AAS are providing hints at a more complete ecosystem, preserving similar patterns of change to what we see in the west.

The AAS contains an extraordinary diversity, abundance, and quality of fossil material, preserving one of the most complete terrestrial ecosystems known for this time period and area.

The AAS has a lot to tell us about Late Cretaceous life in the east. Over 2200 individual specimens have been found belonging to numerous groups including carnivorous dinosaurs, duck-billed dinosaurs, crocodilians, turtles, mammals, amphibians, sharks, bony fish, invertebrates, and plants.

Many of the fossils found here represent brand new species and studying these fossils will help to establish the geographic and environmental forces that shaped Cretaceous ecosystems in North America by providing a necessary comparison to the fossil record of the west.

Friday, 12 March 2021

KOREA: KIM CHI AND DINOSAUR TRACKS

Many years ago, I was touring with a Canadian/Norwegian company that sold log homes to Japanese and Korean buyers eager to have a taste of the traditional Scandinavian aesthetic mixed with West Coast style. 

The opportunity to travel throughout Asia was very compelling and I am grateful to this day for those early trips as it has changed so much over the years. At the time, I was young and willing to work for my living allowance. No actual monies came my way, but my food, travel and accommodation were all taken care of.  

I had always thought I chosen for my language skills. It was years later, upon looking at old photographs, that it dawned on me why I had been chosen. I would stand at the front of the room flipping large photographs of log homes during afternoon presentations. At the end of the presentation, I would bow and present a bottle of maple syrup to each of the honoured guests. Yup, I was a Canadian/Norwegian Vanna White doing much the same task, only in budding Japanese. Konichiwa! 

This photograph was taken on a trip to Seoul, Korea, where we were meeting up with wholesalers and business folk eager to expand their networks. I spend a lovely afternoon visiting and enjoying a sizzling hot barbeque complete with beetles — meep, yes, beetles — and ample kimchi. Some of the staff agreed to join me outside for a photograph. As we posed, I thought how sweet the girls were in their traditional garb and how little they looked, delicate and certainly much shorter than me. Upon seeing the final photographs, however, I was shocked to realize I was shorter than all but one. Apparently, I am taller in my mind's eye. 

While in Korea, I did get to see some of their impressive Cretaceous dinosaur trackways, one of which is now proposed as a World Heritage Site. South Korea also boasts impressive trackways of shorebirds and bountiful petrified wood. Sadly, I do not have any photographs of those finds to share with you. I have included coordinates for a few sites well worth a visit. 

Fossil Sites of Korea: Uhang-ri, Hwangsan-myeon, Haenam-gun, Jeollanam-do: (34°45' N, 126°25' E) Bibong-ri, Deungnyang-myeon, Boseong-gun, Jeollanam-do: (34°45' N, 127°10' E) Sado-ri, Hwajeong-myeon, City of Yeosu, Jeollanam-do: (34°34'-37' N, 127°31'-34' E) Seoyu-ri, Buk-myeon, Hwasun-gun, Jeollanam-do: (35°09'51" N, 127°36'31" E) Deongmyeong-ri, Hai-myeon, Goseong-gun, Gyeongsangnam-do: (34°54' N, 128°08' E)