Triassic beasts and where to find them

Sue Beardmore (UK) Located amid the scenic Southern Alps, on the Swiss-Italian border, is Monte San Giorgio, a mountain that rose up like many across Central Europe as a result of continental collision between Africa and Europe during the Alpine Orogeny. It is not particularly big or distinct by alpine standards but it is special, a status emphasised by the designation of its slopes as a UNESCO World Heritage site initially in 2003 for the Swiss part with the neighbouring Italian area added in 2010. To begin, the rocks outcropping on the mountain form an almost complete stratigraphic sequence from the Permian through to the Jurassic (Fig. 1), not only an extended interval of time but an important one around the massive Permo-Triassic extinction. The same rocks provide a context for the equally important Middle Triassic vertebrate, invertebrate and plant fossils, now numbering more than 20,000, that have been found at the locality over the last 170 years. Fig. 1. A stratigraphic section of the rocks at Monte San Giorgio. © Commissione Scientifica Transnazionale Monte San Giorgio, 2014. In particular, it is the diversity, relative abundance and excellent preservation of the vertebrate fossils that has thrown the locality into the spotlight. These occur in six main fossiliferous horizons deposited in a shallow marine basin, the Monte San Giorgio Basin, one of many depressions on a carbonate platform between the Eurasian continent to the north and west, and the open waters of the vast Tethys Ocean to the south and east. … Read More

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Fossil folklore: Some myths, monsters, swallows and butterflies

Paul D Taylor (UK) Myths are traditional stories embodying ancient yet false ideas. At the root of many myths lie unusual events, for example, extreme floods, or mysterious objects such as fossils. Numerous myths about different kinds of fossils can be found in the folklore of many countries around the world. Indeed, some ‘monsters’ or mythical creatures of legend – such as the Cyclops, griffins and dragons – may have their roots in findings of fossil bones. Angels’ Money and Slaves’ Lentils The Greek traveller and writer known as Strabo the Geographer (c. 63BC–21AD) visited the pyramids of Gizeh in Egypt, which were then some 2,500 years old (Fig. 1). Fig. 1. The pyramids of Gizeh, constructed of Eocene nummulitic limestone. The pyramids are constructed of Middle Eocene nummulitic limestone. Nummulites are a type of foraminifera. These single-celled protists lived on the seabed and secreted disc-like chambered shells up to 4cm in diameter (Fig. 2), the large size for animals having only one cell reflecting the presence of symbiotic algae in their tissues. Fig. 2. Eocene nummulites from Gizeh, Egypt. The block on the left contains both large and small specimens, ‘Angels’ Money’ and ‘Slaves’ Lentils, respectively. On the right are three specimens of ‘Angels’ Money’, weathered out of the limestone matrix. Fossil nummulites drop out of the limestone at Gizeh after weathering. Picking up examples of these fossils, Strabo was informed that they were the petrified remains of the food belonging to the workers who built the pyramids. Strabo … Read More

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Exceptional mammoth discovery from the North Sea

Dick Mol (The Netherlands) If we consider the huge number of fossil remains of ice age mammals dredged up from the floor of the North Sea, we can only conclude that the Pleistocene era must have resembled a paradise between what is now the UK and the Netherlands. The majority of the remains date from the late Pleistocene (somewhere between 100,000 and 10,000 years ago), and we are speaking of TONS of bones, mammoth molars, tusks, hooves, teeth, and so on. These are the remains of large grazers, especially the mammoths. It appears that the area between the UK and Holland was not the North Sea we know today. Rather, it was a huge, mostly treeless, dry steppe, where the Thames from the West and the Rhine, Meuse and Schelde from the East meandered into river deltas before entering the Atlantic Ocean way to the North. This was the typical landscape at that time, the megafauna steppe, found stretching across the land masses of the Northern Hemisphere in which the mammoths, rhinos, steppe bison and their associated, large predators were thriving. Mammoths The enormous amounts of mammoth remains in the North Sea suggest that large herds of these pachyderms roamed the area: in terms of a larger time frame, think of hundreds of thousands of animals. The most abundant remains are molars, due to their hardness and durability. The abundance of the last molars, the M3/m3, also reveals that animals were attaining advanced ages, suggesting good health and, therefore, suggests … Read More

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Sands of the Gobi Desert yield new species of nut-cracking dinosaur

Steve Koppes (USA) Plants or meat – that’s about all that fossils ever tell palaeontologists about a dinosaur’s diet. However, the skull characteristics of a new species of parrot-beaked dinosaur and its associated gizzard stones indicate that the animal fed on nuts and/or seeds. These characteristics present the first solid evidence of nut-eating in any dinosaur. Fig. 2. Artistic rendering of a newly discovered species of parrot-beaked dinosaur, Psittacosaurus gobiensis. Scientists first discovered psittacosaurs in the Gobi Desert in 1922, calling them “parrot-beaked” for their resemblance to parrots. Psittacosaurs evolved their strong-jawed, nut-eating habits 60 million years before the earliest parrot. Art Credit: Todd Marshall “The parallels in the skull to that in parrots, the descendants of dinosaurs most famous for their nut-cracking habits, are remarkable,” said Paul Sereno, a palaeontologist at the University of Chicago and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence. Sereno, and two colleagues from the People’s Republic of China, announced their discovery on 17 June 2008 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The palaeontologists discovered the new dinosaur, which they have named Psittacosaurus gobiensis, in the Gobi Desert of Inner Mongolia in 2001, and spent years preparing and studying the specimen. The dinosaur is approximately 110 million years old, dating from the mid-Cretaceous. The quantity and size of gizzard stones in birds correlates with dietary preference. Larger, more numerous gizzard stones point to a diet of harder food, such as nuts and seeds. “The psittacosaur at hand has a huge pile of stomach stones, more than 50, … Read More

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Baffling bones from Lyme Regis

Nigel R Larkin (UK) A recent find from Lower Jurassic marine deposits on the Dorset Coast consists of a curious association of bones and bone fragments that have so far eluded identification, despite being inspected by some top palaeontologists. Is it a shark? Not according to some shark specialists. Is it a fish? Probably, but despite the presence of several complete bones, none have been identified and there are no scales present. Is it regurgitate? Possibly, but there is at least one very long thin bone that is unlikely to have been swallowed and upchucked again whole, and the matrix in which the bones are preserved does vary. So, is it simply a mass of completely unassociated bones? Unlikely, as there are several examples of at least two types of bone within the fossil. So, they are not a random accumulation, but they do remain a mystery. Do you recognise any of the bones? Do take a look and tell me what you think. Discovery of the material Fig. 1. Richard Edmonds trying to work out which piece goes where. I found the first piece of this specimen on the beach beneath the Spittles Slip, east of Lyme Regis in Dorset, during the Symposium on Vertebrate Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy (SVPCA) meeting in the town in September 2011. It was a large block (approximately 40kg) from the Shales-with-Beef Member of the Charmouth Mudstone Formation (Lower Jurassic). Bones were visible in cross section on all four sides, within a layer about … Read More

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