Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Two New Dinosaurs Discovered in Canada

Scientists Name Two New Species of Horned Dinosaur

Cleveland, OH--Two new horned dinosaurs have been named based on fossils collected from Alberta, Canada. The new species, Unescoceratops koppelhusae and Gryphoceratops morrisoni, are from the Leptoceratopsidae family of horned dinosaurs. The herbivores lived during the Late Cretaceous period between 75 to 83 million years ago. The specimens are described in research published in the Jan. 24, 2012, online issue of the journal Cretaceous Research.

Unescoceratops koppelhusae (upper right)
and Gryphoceratops morrisonii (lower left),
new leptoceratopsid dinosaurs from Alberta, Canada.
© Julius T. Csotonyi
“These dinosaurs fill important gaps in the evolutionary history of small-bodied horned dinosaurs that lack the large horns and frills of relatives like Triceratops from North America,” said Michael Ryan, Ph.D., curator of vertebrate paleontology at The Cleveland Museum of Natural History, lead author on the research. “Although horned dinosaurs originated in Asia, our analysis suggests that leptoceratopsids radiated to North America and diversified here, since the new species, Gryphoceratops, is the earliest record of the group on this continent.”

Unescoceratops koppelhusae lived approximately 75 million years ago. It measured about one to two meters (6.5 feet) in length and weighed less than 91 kilograms (200 pounds). It had a short frill extending from behind its head but did not have ornamentation on its skull. It had a parrot-like beak. Its teeth were lower and rounder than those of any other leptoceratopsid. In addition, its hatchet-shaped jaw had a distinct portion of bone that projected below the jaw like a small chin.

The lower left jaw fragment of Unescoceratops was discovered in 1995 in Dinosaur Provincial Park, a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site by Philip Currie, Ph.D., now of the University of Alberta. Originally described in 1998 by Ryan and Currie, the dinosaur was referred to as Leptoceratops. Subsequent research by Ryan and David Evans, Ph.D., of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada, determined the specimen was a new genus and species. The genus is named to honor the UNESCO World Heritage Site designation for the locality where the specimen was found and from the Greek “ceratops,” which means “horned face.” The species is named for Eva Koppelhus, Ph.D., a palynologist at the University of Alberta and wife of Currie.
Label from Dr. Phil Currie's home brewed beer.
Label design by Mark Schultz

Gryphoceratops morrisoni lived about 83 million years ago. It had a shorter and deeper jaw shape than any other leptoceratopsid. Researchers believe the individual was a full-grown adult. Based on unique characteristics of the jaw and its size, the researchers believe that Gryphoceratops was an adult that did not exceed one-half meter in length. This means it is the smallest adult-sized horned dinosaur in North America and one of the smallest adult-sized plant-eating dinosaurs known.

Lower right jaw fragments of Gryphoceratops were discovered in southern Alberta in 1950 by Levi Sternberg while he worked for the Royal Ontario Museum. The genus is named for “Gryphon,” a mythological Greek figure with the body of a lion and the head of an eagle, which is a reference to the animal’s beaked face. The species name honors Ian Morrison, a Royal Ontario Museum technician, who discovered how the bones fit together.

Second author Evans, associate curator of vertebrate palaeontology at the Royal Ontario Museum and assistant professor at the University of Toronto, said, “Small-bodied dinosaurs are typically poorly represented in the fossil record, which is why fragmentary remains like these new leptoceratopsids can make a big contribution to our understanding of dinosaur ecology and evolution.”

Contributing authors are Philip Currie, Ph.D., of the University of Alberta; Caleb Brown of the University of Toronto; and Don Brinkman, Ph.D., of the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology.

The Cleveland Museum of Natural History, incorporated in 1920, is one of the finest institutions of its kind in North America. It is noted for its collections, research, educational programs and exhibits. The collections encompass more than 5 million artifacts and specimens, and research of global significance focuses on 11 natural science disciplines. Museum visitors broaden their perspectives of the natural world through exhibits, educational programs, lectures, live animal programs and planetarium shows. The Museum is located at 1 Wade Oval Drive, University Circle, Cleveland, OH 44106. 216-231-4600 or 800-317-9155.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Block Island Birds

An interesting idea for photographing taxidermied bird specimens in museums.

Katherine Wolkoff

Yellow Warbler, Dendroica petechia.
Immature, storm victim, found by Elizabeth Dickens.
August 2, 1946.

A Cretaceous Grackle

Microraptor restoration by Jason Brougham
A team of researchers with the American Museum of Natural History have furthered our understanding of the coloration of feathers in prehistoric animals.

In the most recent study, published in the jouranl Science, the researchers revealed that the non-avian dinosaur, Microraptor sp., was covered in completely black plumage that was somewhat irridescent.

Common Grackle photo by Casey Tucker
The researchers were given access to a well preserved specimen of Microraptor which allowed them to sample 29 sites from all over the small dinosaur.  The number and location of the samples allowed them to determine that the animal was probably covered completely in the black plumage.

The plumage found in the Microraptor is probably comparable to what is seen in modern crows or grackles.

In addition to the publication on the feather coloration, the team also learned that Microraptor tails were narrower than previously thought and tipped with two long feathers.  These longer tail feathers are seen in a number of different extant and extinct bird species and are thought to be used to attract mates.

Microraptor specimen at Cincinnati Museum of
Natural History

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Pluck You!

Recently, Target stores have been running a colorful commercial with a catchy little French tune performed by The Delta Rhythm Boys.

It's a song that I loved when I was a kid, and hadn't thought much about it until I heard it used in the commercial.  The song's title is Alouette.  When I was younger I had no idea what the song was about, but having been around the world a little now and having been exposed to some of the world's languages I recognize the word Alouette as being French for 'little bird.'  I was curious about what the rest of the song was about so I did a little investigating.

It turns out that the song may have its origins in parts of French-speaking Canada and describes the plucking of a small gamebird. The lyrics and their translation follows:

Alouette, gentille Alouette =Little bird, nice little bird
Alouette, je te plumerai =Little bird, I shall pluck you

Je te plumerai la tête =I shall pluck your head
   (Je te plumerai la tête)=(I shall pluck your head)

Et la tête =And your head
   (Et la tête) =(And your head)

Alouette=Little bird 
   (Alouette) =(Little bird)


Alouette, gentille Alouette =Little bird, nice little bird
Alouette, je te plumerai =Little bird, I shall pluck you

Je te plumerai le bec=I shall pluck your beak
   (Je te plumerai le bec)=(I shall pluck your beak)

Et le bec=And your beak
  (Et le bec)=(And your beak)

Et la tête =And your head
  (Et la tête) =(And your head)

Alouette=Little bird
   (Alouette) =(Little bird)


Each verse involves another part of the bird being plucked as follows:

Et le cou=And your neck
Et le dos=And your back
Et les ailes=And your wings
Et les pattes=And your feet
Et la queue=And your tail
La Conclusion=The Ending


Alouette, gentille Alouette =Little bird, nice little bird

Alouette, je te plumerai =Little bird, I shall pluck you

This song makes me think that it could be used in a two-fold fashion to help introduce people to the French language, but also to introduce people to avian feather topography.  Artist David Sibley has had an on-going series on his blog regarding feathers and feather topography on his blog in recent weeks.

Likewise, this song reminds me of a great resource that I first became aware of via Dr. Larry Witmer of Ohio University.  Ghetie's Atlas of Avian Anatomy (1976) is a very detailed anatomical resource for birds written in four different languages (Romanian, French, English, & Russian).  The detail of the internal anatomy presented in this book is amazing, but the description of the feather regions is comparable to what you might get from the song above.

Interestingly, The Delta Rhythm Boys are probably better known for another anatomically-oriented song that many parents have used with their kids over the years.  The song's title is "Dry Bones", but most people probably know it better as " 'Dem Bones."

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Giant Ground Sloth; the Other White Meat

I'm always a little skeptical when I read reports about conclusive evidence of early humans feeding on ice age animals.  I'm sure it happened, but I have a difficult time believing that scratches and scrapes on fossilized bones are evidence for human tool use to butcher ice age animals.  It just seems that there are so many potential sources for scrapes and scratches on fossilized bone from animal scavengers to aspects of the decay and fossilization process to environmental processes post fossilization.

Jefferson's Ground Sloth
Orton Geology Museum
Ohio State University
That being said, researchers from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History have published in the February issue of the journal World Archaeology that they have discovered evidence of human feeding on Jefferson's Ground Sloth based on cut marks found on bones of the species.

This is the first time evidence have been found of humans potentially feeding on a giant sloth.  Other previous studies have looked at remains of mammoths and mastodons for potential evidence of human tool use.

Researchers examined 10 animal bones that were discovered in 1998.  The bones were discovered in the collections of the Firelands Historical Society Museum in Norwalk, Ohio.  The bones were thought to have originally been discovered in a small wetland in Huron County, Ohio, though the exact location is not exactly known.

The left femur of the sloth shows evidence of 41 incision marks.  The bone was radiocarbon dated to somewhere between 13,435 to 13,738 years old.  The age of the bones and the incision marks suggest that this is the earliest evidence of prehistoric human activity in Ohio.

Jefferson's Ground Sloth model
Cincinnati Museum of Natural History

There have only been three specimens of Giant Ground Sloth found in Ohio and this specimen--known as the "Firelands Ground Sloth"--is considered to be one of the largest specimens of the species discovered anywhere.  In life, it weighed well over a ton.

The determination that the incisions on the bones were made with human-made, non-metallic tools, was made through microscopic analyses.

Modern paleontological techniques have revealed evidence of the colors of various prehistoric animals, the presence of bio-molecules preserved in bone, and many other advances.  I'd eventually like to see similar techniques, beyond just microscopic evaluation, used on ice age bone material to provide better support for the use of human-made tools on bones.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Flower Offers New Hope for Pleistocene Park

Arctic Ground Squirrel in
Denali National Park
Scientists with the Russian Academy of Science in Moscow have reported that they have successfully germinated a flower from a 32,000 year old seed-bearing fruit.  The fruit was collected and deposited in a midden by an ancient Arctic Ground Squirrel.  The ground squirrels create the middens, stuffed with seeds, fruits, and other food sources to help them during periods when food is scarce.

The midden, and its fruit, were discovered in the arctic tundra of Siberia.  The middens that researchers, Svetlana Yashina and the late David Gilichinsky, were searching for were sealed by wind-blown sediment and buried 125 feet below the surface where they were less likely to be contaminated by extant rodents depositing extant arctic plant seeds.  Some of the excavated ancient burrows contained more than 600,000 fruits and seeds.

Flower grown from 32,000 year old seeds. 
Photo by Svetlana Yashina/AP
Additionally, the depth of the middens in the tundra soil means that they were permanently frozen at -7 deg. C.  This cool temperature may have acted as a storage freezer to help preserve the seeds, however in some experiments freezing temperatures have also been shown to damage seeds and severely reduce the likelihood of successful germination.

The germinated ancient flowers share similiarities with modern Narrow-leafed Campion (Silene stenophylla), but exhibit some small differences like narrower petals that are more splayed apart and slower average root growth.

The age of the seeds was verified through radiocarbon dating of the placenta in the fruit from which the seeds originated.  Additionally, a chemical analysis of the placenta exhibited high levels of sucrose and phenols, both of which help provide freeze tolerance for some organisms.

If the age of the flowers can be independently verified, and seeds can be successfully germinated again in other labs, then this discovery may bode well for resurrecting other plant species, including those that may have gone extinct.  This would be good news for researchers trying to recreate Pleistocene ecological conditions in the tundra of Siberia.

Caribou male in Denali
National Park
Researchers with Pleistocene Park have been working to (re)introduce large grazing herbivorous species back into parts of Siberia in an effort to recreate ecological conditions similar to those that would have been present during the Pleistocene Epoch, which included grassland steppe habitat.

The ability to re-introduce extinct plants from the Pleistocene may increase our understanding of the ecological interactions between steppe plants and grazers, which included mammoths, moose, bison, musk ox, horses, and caribou. 

Monday, February 13, 2012

Darwin Day 2012

Yesterday, February 12th, 2012, would have been the 203rd birthday of Charles Darwin. The unofficial holiday, commemorated as International Darwin Day, made me think about ways in which we could and should celebrate Darwin's accomplishments and the importance of his work on our everyday lives.

I should clarify that when I say that we should celebrate this occasion I mean that it provides us with an opportunity to appreciate the natural world and how Darwin's theory has allowed us to better understand that world and our place in it.  I definitely do not mean conducting various ritual or rites based on tradition in the manner that people celebrate religious holidays.

Below are some of my suggestions for "celebrating" Darwin's birthday and the Theory of Evolution.

1.) Re-familiarize (or familiarize) yourself with Darwin's writings via the Complete Works of Charles Darwin On-Line.  This resource allows you to not only explore Darwin's writings, but also different editions of his books.

2.) Watch Creation the movie.  This movie explores Darwin's family life, how the death of his daughter influenced his view of god and religion, and how, in spite of her mis-givings about his work, his wife's support allowed him to continue on and publish his book.

3.) Visit your local Natural History Museum.  Explore the many collections illustrating the diversity and history of life on Earth.  Look for shared characteristics between different organisms over time.

4.) Visit your local Zoo.  Zoo's provide people with a unique opportunity to compare and contrast many related organisms in one location.

A series of adult male American Robin specimens, from the
Cincinnati Museum of Natural History, illustrating a
range of phenotypic diversity within the species. 
5.) Visit your local park or nature center to observe a specific group of organisms (e.g. male Northern Cardinals) to learn more about natural variation within populations and species.

6.) Watch Inherit the Wind; a re-creation of the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 in which a high school teacher was taken to trial for teaching evolution in the classroom.

While Darwin's birthday comes but once a year, these are things that can be done throughout the year to reconnect ourselves with the natural world and better understand how the Theory of Evolution unifies everything in it.