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11 Posts tagged with the palaeontology_news tag

The evolutionary rates of sea urchins are more complex than previously thought, a finding that could apply across the evolutionary tree.


Evolution within groups of organisms was first thought to occur continuously, at a constant rate. Fossil-based analyses soon led to the belief that many groups quickly reach maximum diversity early on in their history, followed by a decline in evolutionary rates as habitat types fill up.


Now, in a detailed analysis of a group of marine invertebrates called echinoids, Dr Melanie Hopkins of the American Museum of Natural History and Museum palaeobiologist Dr Andrew Smith have found a branch of the evolutionary tree that has increased its evolutionary rate over time.

Slow starters

Modern echinoids originated 265 million years ago, just before the Permian-Triassic mass extinction, an event that wiped out around 96% of all marine species. They still exist today as sea urchins and sand dollars.


Despite the abundance of ecological space left behind after the mass extinction, Dr Hopkins and Dr Smith found that echinoids experienced the lowest rates of evolutionary diversification during this early phase. Said Dr Smith of the result:

This slow start is very different from the standard model of high initial rates of diversification followed by a slowing down as ecological space gets filled that we have come to expect.

Bursts of diversity

When they looked in more detail at sub-groups of echinoids through time, they discovered that some that underwent episodes of 'early bursts' in evolution, primarily associated with the adoption of new feeding strategies.


For example, one particular group of echinoids - the sand dollars - evolved a novel method of 'deposit-feeding' that allowed them to filter nutrients from the sand, and this innovation coincided with a marked increase in morphological innovation.



Regular echinoids like the sea urchin (left) have five-fold symmetry and can head in any direction, whereas irregular echinoids, like the sand dollar (right) have two-fold symmetry, with defined 'front' and 'back' ends.


A question of scale

The overall pattern of slowing evolutionary rates punctuated by smaller 'early burst' events within certain subgroups points to the importance of considering scale when assessing the evolutionary history of any group. Said Dr Smith:

Rates of evolution turn out to be quite different when viewed at different scales, and both 'continuous' and 'early burst' patterns of evolution may apply to the same group depending upon how you view them.


More information:


An innovative jaw bone study has revealed that a Jurassic fish ate like modern sea breams.


By measuring the jaws of 89 examples of the fish Dapedium, including specimens from the Natural History Museum, University of Bristol undergraduate Fiann Smithwick was able to recreate how it ate. He said:

My work indicates that Dapedium was well adapted to crush shells, feeding on bivalves and other hard-shelled creatures that it could scrape from the sea floor.


A Dapedium specimen from our collections.


The good preservation of the fossil fish specimens allowed Fiann to use a mechanical model developed to understand modern fishes in his study. By calculating the positions and orientations of the jaw muscles, he was able to determine that Dapedium's jaws moved slowly but strongly, allowing it to work on the hard shells of its prey.


In contrast, other families of fish can have faster but weaker jaws, adapted for feeding on fish prey that are speedier and slipperier.

Ancient fish, historic collections

Dapedium lived 200 million years ago during the Jurassic period, and is one of many ancient sea creatures discovered by Mary Anning in the rocks around Lyme Regis, Dorset.


Museum fossil fish curator Emma Bernard said:

Dapedium is an iconic fossil from Lyme Regis and can be found on many postcards and souvenirs from Lyme Regis. If you are lucky you may even find one when fossil hunting in Lyme Regis.

Viewed from the side, Dapedium was a flat, deep-bodied fish that could grow up to half a metre in length. It had jutting front teeth with a mass of blunt teeth behind. Emma said Fiann was a pleasure to work with as he grasped the importance of our historic collections:

This study would not have been possible without the extensive fossil collections we house, which show a variety of characteristics that Fiann used for his study. His work helps us build up a picture of how Dapedium lived and what it ate.

The study appears in the prestigious journal Palaeontology - a rare achievement for an undergraduate.


Finds from Taiwan and Israel shed light – and confusion – on the story of ancient human species.

Find 1: A mysterious jawbone from Penghu, Taiwan

Discovered by chance by fishermen off the coast of Taiwan, an unusually thick and primitive human jawbone shows a challenging mix of features. While no DNA has yet been recovered from the specimen, its characteristics make it difficult to classify into existing groups.


The jawbone is short and wide, with a thick body and large teeth. It dates within the last 450,000 years, and most likely within the last 200,000.


The jawbone, left, and a reconstruction of the jaw, right © Yousuke Kaifu.


A partial Homo erectus skull from the Chinese mainland has some large associated teeth and could be 400,000 years old, so the new jawbone may belong to the same group. But it could also be one of the elusive ‘Denisovans’, a group known only by DNA from a fragmentary fossil finger bone and two very large molar teeth in a Siberian cave.


Museum human origins expert Prof Chris Stringer said this could be an interesting development:

I have considered the Denisovans as an Asian sister group of the Neanderthals, and like them, derived from Homo heidelbergensis, but if Penghu is indeed a long-awaited Denisovan jawbone, it looks more primitive than I would have expected.

He said of the find:

As the authors note, this enigmatic fossil is difficult to classify, but it highlights the growing and not unexpected evidence of human diversity in the Far East, with the apparent co-existence of different lineages in the region prior to, and perhaps even contemporary with, the arrival of modern humans some 55,000 years ago.

Read the original paper


Find 2: The skull of a possible early migrant, from northern Israel

A later and much better-dated specimen, the partial skull of an early modern human from Manot Cave dates to a time of migration out of Africa and interbreeding with Neanderthals. At about 55,000 years old, it sits comfortably in the timeframe estimated for early modern human and Neanderthal interbreeding, 50-60,000 years ago.


The skull itself has characteristics indicative of early modern humans, and without DNA it is impossible to say yet whether interbreeding with Neanderthals had an impact on the individual. Nonetheless, Prof Stringer said it is a critical find for examining possible migrant populations:

Manot might represent some of the elusive first migrants in the hypothesised out-of-Africa event about 60,000 years ago, a population whose descendants ultimately spread right across Asia, and also into Europe. Its discovery raises hopes of more complete specimens from this critical region and time period.

Read the original paper


Related human origins posts:


Professor Richard Fortey, one of the world’s leading palaeontologists, has been awarded the Lapworth Medal this week at the annual meeting of the Palaeontological Association.


The award recognises Professor Fortey’s contribution to palaeontology over his entire career, more than 40 years of which have been at the Museum.


Said Prof Fortey of receiving the honour:

‘It is a great honour to receive the Lapworth Medal, which is the only ‘lifetime achievement’ medal in British palaeontology. Charles Lapworth, after whom the medal is named, was one of the great nineteenth century scientists - and the originator of the Ordovician period, the age of the rocks on which I have spent much of my research life. And my old professor Harry Whittington was the first ever recipient of the same medal.


Diverse  research


Prof Fortey’s research career has focused around the evolution of some of the earliest animals, but he has contributed to a wide variety of geological and palaeontological topics.


Fellow palaeontologist Professor Derek Briggs of Yale University, one of those who nominated Prof Fortey, commented:

Richard’s research is remarkable for its breadth, covering topics as diverse as Palaeozoic biostratigraphy and biogeography, the evolutionary history and biology of trilobites and graptolites, and the emergence of major groups during the Cambrian explosion.

Prof Fortey began his career at the Museum more than 40 years ago, and still works here as a research associate. Throughout this time he has received numerous honours and awards. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1997.

The great thing about palaeontology is that it is always moving somewhere new. There are always new and wonderful fossils to be discovered, so really the ‘book of life’ is constantly being rewritten.

A major part of Prof Fortey’s research has focused on one group of ancient marine animals, the trilobites, of which he says:

[They] may seem rather esoteric, but the fact that trilobites were around for nearly 300 million years and number many thousands of species, with more being discovered all the time, means that there is no shortage of new work to do.



One of Prof Fortey's seven general-audience books


Public engagement

Prof Fortey says he dislikes the ‘ivory tower’ view of science and has combatted this through seven critically-acclaimed books aimed at a general audience. These include: Life, an unauthorized biography (1998), which tells the story of the evolution of life on earth as seen through his scientific experience, and Dry Store Room No. 1, about the weird and wonderful secrets of the Museum’s collections. He is also a TV presenter, with his most recent series, Fossil Wonderland, airing on BBC Four earlier this year.


Related links



To celebrate the countdown to Christmas, two of our geology curators have been revealing daily treats from their collections.


Last December, micropalaeontology curator Dr Giles Miller tweeted a series of patterned slides made up of microfossils including a miniature Christmas card, and this year he’s back with something a little bigger.


Model of Globigerinoides 'Santa' sacculifer.


In fact, the specimens are 10s to 100s of times larger than they are in real life – they’re samples from our new microfossil tree. The tree is a gift from scientist Zheng Shouyi of the Institute of Oceanology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, who oversaw the creation of a foraminiferal sculpture park in Zhongshan City, China.


The tree is made up of 120 plastic models of usually microscopic single-celled marine organisms. The delicate models represent the wide variety of shell compositions and structures found in nature.



The microfossil tree.


The tree is not only full of beautiful specimens, but a welcome addition to our collections. Says Dr Miller:

It helps us explain the relevance of tiny objects normally hidden behind the scenes and illustrate our science. Eleven of the species modelled are species for which we hold the type specimen and are amongst the specimens that I curate.

The tree was first unveiled at this year’s Science Uncovered event, and while a permanent spot in the galleries is found for it, a few examples of the little sculptures will be on display in 2015.


In the meantime, you can get a sneak preview by following Dr Miller on Twitter where he’s posting a different specimen every day in the run-up to Christmas using the hashtag #MicropalaeoAdvent.

micro1.jpgFlintinoides labiosa (in fancy dress as Blitzen!) showing off its aperture.


Although not dressed up in festive gear, Dr Miller’s favourite specimens tweeted so far are the star-like pair of Hantkeninids, which he says are ‘amazingly beautiful and scientifically important for climate change studies’.


Ore-some festive treats


Ores collection curator Helena Toman decided to highlight a select few samples from the Museum’s extensive collection of ores - naturally-occurring minerals or assemblage of minerals from which economically important constituents, particularly metals, can be extracted.

I like to think of economic geology as occupying one of those crucial interfaces between science and society and so one of my challenges is to make the science accessible to society.


I wanted people to understand just how crucial economic geology is to their everyday lives - how each and every one of us act as a catalyst for mining.

ore-some-reveal.jpgGo to the ore-some Christmas reveal calendar >



She had a lot of choice for specimens – the collection began its life in the Museum of Practical Geology in 1838, and has now grown to more than 16,000 specimens, representing one of the best historical records for global mining activities.


The collection is very active – constantly growing through fieldwork, donations and acquisitions, and being used for research and public outreach.


One of her favourites even made it to Parliament this year to help inform ministers about the importance and relevance of the UK’s geological heritage. The sample is from the famous Geevor tin mine in Cornwall, and includes veins of copper.



Sample of ore from the Geevor tin mine.


Another favourite is a stunning example of cobalt ore from Morocco, which Helena collected herself on a recent fieldtrip.

This sample not only represents the experience of a wonderful and successful fieldtrip but also highlights the cutting edge research that Museum scientists are taking part in, using microbes to extract metals from their ores. The textures within this sample are also incredible – ores rarely get prettier!


Cobalt ore from Morocco.


All our curators are enthusiastic about their collections, and Helena hopes her and Dr Miller’s efforts will inspire others to dust off some of their favourite specimens:

I would love the format to be adopted by other curators as an annual method by which the Museum promotes the important work that curators have done, behind the scenes, that year. The calendar is a fun, approachable method that allows curators to have a voice/corner in which to show the world why our collections matter.


The femur of a man found near Ust'-Ishim, Siberia, has yielded the oldest modern human genome yet recovered.


The DNA of the 45,000-year-old man contains Neanderthal DNA in a similar proportion to modern non-African people, as reported in the journal Nature.

When did we meet Neanderthals?


Modern humans migrating out of Africa interbred with Neanderthals somewhere in Asia, leaving today's non-African people with an imprint of around two per cent Neanderthal DNA in their genome.


However, exactly when this interbreeding occurred was previously unknown. Estimates based on the chunks of Neanderthal DNA present in humans today gave a range of 37,000-86,000 years ago for the interbreeding event, but new data from the ancient Siberian man has considerably narrowed this estimate.



Models of an early modern human (left) and a Neanderthal (right)


While the Siberian man had a similar proportion of Neanderthal DNA to living humans, the individual chunks of DNA were more intact. The longer it has been since the interbreeding event, the more the chunks of DNA get broken up and shortened.


So, the Siberian man lived closer to the time of the original event than we do, and using the information from his DNA, scientists have estimated the interbreeding occurred between 7,000-13,000 years before he lived; no more than 60,000 years ago.


How many times did we leave Africa?


The timing of Neanderthal interbreeding has important implications for theories of early human migration out of Africa.


Skeletons of early modern humans have been found in the Middle East that date back to 100,000 years ago. One theory states that these bones represent an early dispersal of modern humans into Asia and beyond, reaching Australia and New Guinea. A second dispersal of early humans out of Africa, around 60,000 years ago, would then have spread to Europe and Asia.


A second theory states that the Middle Eastern skeletons represent a failed early migration of humans, and that the migration at 60,000 years ago was the one that dispersed people across Asia, Europe and Australasia.


However, Museum human origins expert Prof Chris Stringer thinks that the new data from the Siberian man lends more support to the second model.


The same stream


Modern Australasian people have the same approximate percentage of Neanderthal DNA as other modern non-Africans, so would have been the result of the same interbreeding event, which is now shown to have happened no more than 60,000 years ago.


This means that modern Australasians cannot be the descendants of an early migration out of Africa, but from the same migration 60,000 years ago that also spawned modern Europeans and Asians. As Prof Stringer says:

While it is still possible that modern humans did traverse southern Asia before 60,000 years ago, those groups could not have made a significant contribution to the surviving modern populations outside of Africa which contain evidence of interbreeding with Neanderthals.



Stencils of hands and figurative drawings of animals in Indonesian caves show that expressive art existed in southern Asia and Europe at the same time.

A team of Australian and Indonesian researchers dated art in several caves on the Indonesian Island of Sulawesi and found that some were at least 35,000 years old.


Advanced cave art depicting animals and people has been found in sites across Europe, with some dated to around 35,000 years old, but this is the first time that art of this age has been identified in southern Asia.


Art out of Africa


The finding challenges a traditional view that palaeoart originated in Europe as simple geometric designs and evolved there into expressive and figurative art.


40,000 years ago, Europe and southeast Asia were at nearly opposite ends of the Palaeolithic world, following two main migration routes out of Africa some 20,000 years before. Advanced cave art in both these places suggests that art originated before early modern humans reached Europe, spreading out of Africa with them.



Modern hand stencils created in the style of ancient cave paintings at our Science Uncovered event.


Artistic roots and routes


Museum human origins expert Prof Chris Stringer thinks this is a blow to the view that art in southern Asia or Australia would be younger than that in Europe, and had either developed by the spread of ideas from Europe, or by independent developments of artistic expression after modern humans settled in those regions.


I think these exciting discoveries allow us to move away from Eurocentric ideas on the development of figurative art to consider the alternative possibility that such artistic expression was a fundamental part of human nature 60,000 years ago, when modern humans not only occupied most of Africa but were beginning to disperse out towards Europe and the Far East.


I predict that even older examples of cave art will be discovered on Sulawesi, and in mainland Asia, and ultimately in our African homeland dating to more than 60,000 years ago.

The research team that dated the Indonesian art think that similar art found in southeast Asia and northern Australia could be the same age, expanding the range of early human artistic expression.



The skeletons of ancient marine reptiles were home to deep-sea communities in the same way that whale carcasses on the ocean floor are today, scientists have discovered.


Modern whale carcasses that drop to the bottom of the sea provide food and shelter for deep-sea creatures such as bone-eating worms, flesh-eating fish and grazing sea urchins, in what are known as whale fall communities.

Modern whale fall communities evolved from ancient deep-sea creatures


And now a fossilised skeleton of a 157-million-year-old ichthyosaur, a dolphin-like toothed reptile, has revealed that the carcasses of marine reptiles that fell to the seabed in the late Jurassic period also housed and fed deep-sea animals.

A reptile under the roadway


The ichthyosaur skeleton was discovered in 1991 during the construction of the A303 Zeals-Bourton bypass in Wiltshire. More than half of the creature’s ribs were recovered, as well as vertebrae, limb bones and parts of its paddles and skull.


A team of scientists, including the Museum palaeontologist Prof Richard Twitchett and researchers from the University of Plymouth, have been studying the fossilised skeleton.


Itchy fish.jpg

An Ophthalmosaurus icenius specimen, a common ichthyosaur species, in the Museum's collection

Careful cleaning to reveal remains


The ichthyosaur specimen was preserved at the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery. The researchers painstakingly cleared the mud and rock off the skeleton without damaging the remains of animals that lived on and in the bones. They then discovered evidence of an array of deep-sea life that proves that modern whale fall communities evolved from similar communities on ancient reptile carcasses, as Prof Twitchett explains:

The bones themselves are horribly scattered and look quite grotty – as one might expect given their lengthy exposure on the Jurassic sea floor – but their surfaces preserve some wonderful fossils, including beautiful, intricate carvings made by the teeth of grazing sea urchins, and a stunning array of tiny tunnels a fraction of the width of a human hair and made by colonising microbes.


Find out more about the Museum's ocean studies:



Some of the earliest mammals had more specialised diets than previously thought, leading to key evolutionary traits we carry today.


Shrew-sized mammals living 200 million years ago in the Jurassic period were thought to be opportunistic insect-eaters with a generalised diet. But a new study by a team of researchers including the Museum's Nature Live science communicator Dr Nick Crumpton shows that two core taxa of early mammals had teeth and jaws adapted to specific kinds of insects.


At this time, small early mammals were known to be evolving the precise chewing and better hearing that are traits of mammals worldwide today. However, it was thought that, because of their general diets, these traits did not evolve in response to different hunting and feeding behaviours.


The new research shows teeth and jaws of early mammals were in fact becoming specialised as a response to different diets.



The Early Jurassic basal mammals, Morganucodon and Kuehneotherium, hunting their prey on the small island they shared in what is now Glamorgan, southern Wales. © John Sibbick.


Dr Crumpton said this gives us new ideas on how the earliest mammals lived:


The idea of the first mammals eking out a meagre living, hiding in the shadows whilst dinosaurs ruled the land is a pervasive one, but we have revealed that even the earliest mammals were already showing specialisations for certain lifestyles.


Tale of the teeth


The team, led by the Universities of Bristol and Leicester, analysed 2cm long jaws and tiny teeth from the mammals Morganucodon and Kuehneotherium found in Glamorgan, South Wales. When the creatures were alive 200 million years ago, the area was made up of small islands in a shallow sea.


Bits and pieces of jaw were scanned and the images stitched together to allow the researchers to determine the bite and strength of the creatures' jaws. This was combined with evidence of 'microwear' on the teeth, patterns of pits and scratches that indicate what the animal was eating.


The patterns on the ancient mammal teeth were compared to those of insect-eating bats alive today that have specialised diets. The combined evidence shows that Morganucodon favoured harder, crunchier food such as beetles, while Kuehneotherium prefered softer prey such as moths and scorpion flies.


Old specimens, new techniques


Dr Crumpton said this research also highlights the importance of specimens that may have been in the collections for decades, but still have stories to tell:


Although our methods were very modern, the fossils themselves had been stored in collections including the Natural History Museum for decades. It's work like this that shows how important museum collections are, and that even though those techniques didn't exist in the 1950s, we were able to study them in fresh new ways in order to discover the secrets they held.



A group of bones discovered ten years ago in Indonesia were determined to be a new human species that lived about 17,000 years ago. The only skull, with very small proportions, earned the species the ‘hobbit’ nickname.


Now, a new paper suggests that the hobbit is just an individual with Down syndrome, but Museum human origins expert Prof Chris Stringer doubts the conclusions.


The find, on the island of Flores, included bones from several individuals, but only one had a complete skull and leg bones, from which the original calculations of height and brain capacity were made.


Standing at approximately 1.06m (3.5ft) tall and with a brain only a third of the size of modern humans, the bones seemed to belong to a new species, which was named Homo floresiensis.



A copy of the Homo floresiensis skull.
Credit: Ghedoghedo, Wikimedia Creative Commons.


A new analysis of the skull and thigh bones, published this week in a paper in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA (PNAS), suggests that these estimates are too low, and a slightly bigger individual actually lies within the range of modern humans with Down syndrome.


The authors support their claims with other evidence, including the asymmetry of the skull, a condition common in modern individuals with Down syndrome. They conclude this one individual had a developmental disorder, and all the remains were in fact modern humans.


Still a new species?


However, Prof Stringer is sceptical of the conclusions. Although there are no other complete skulls, there is another jaw that has similar proportions and characteristics.


Both appear to have no chin, instead showing internal bony reinforcements similar to those found in prehuman fossils from at least two million years ago. This feature is not found in Down syndrome. The wrist bones of two individuals also show features previously unknown in humans from the last one million years, further indicating a unique species.


Weight of evidence


New human species are often difficult for the scientific community to accept, especially from so few bones. Prof Stringer, however, sees parallels between the stories of H. floresiensis and the Neanderthals, originally described from a single site:

A number of pathological conditions were advanced to explain away the distinctive morphology of the Neander Valley skeleton, but other finds gradually forced the acceptance of the Neanderthals as a distinct and extinct human group.

Prof Stringer acknowledges that more H. floresiensis individuals are needed to establish the range of sizes and shapes there may have been, but he thinks this new analysis does not shake the foundations of the species:

In my view this paper does not provide a sound basis to challenge the basic conclusion that a primitive human-like species persisted on the island of Flores within the last 100,000 years.



Fossil foragers

Posted by Hayley Dunning Jul 15, 2014

Researchers discover evidence of optimal foraging strategies, which are found across the animal kingdom today, in 50-million-year-old sea creatures.


How do you find food in a wide landscape? Foraging for scarce resources requires an optimal walking strategy: you have to cover lots of ground without going back over your trail or getting disoriented by obstacles.


The optimal strategy is a mathematical pattern called a Lévy walk, and researchers - including Museum palaeontologist Prof Richard Twitchett - have just discovered that it appeared at least 50 million years ago in ancient sea urchins.


Walking to the same beat


A Lévy walk consists of lots of shorter steps, indicating an intense hunt for food in one area, interspersed with a few longer steps, as the animal travels between searching areas. It's observed today in everything from sharks and insects to modern human hunter-gatherer tribes.


By analysing trace fossils - the trails imprinted in rocks by creatures walking over the sea bed - Prof Twitchett and colleagues were able to find the first evidence of Lévy walks in extinct animals. They think the foraging strategy of a Lévy walk may have arisen as a response to decreased food availability after past climate change and mass extinctions.



A: Trace fossil trail of an ancient urchin. B: Digitised version of the trail, showing a Lévy walk pattern.


Window on the past


Prof Twitchett said:

'It's amazing to think that 50 million year old fossil burrows and trails have provided us with the first evidence of foraging strategies in animals that live on and in the deep-sea floor - studies which would be nearly impossible and very expensive to do in modern oceans. Trace fossils are remarkable and beautiful records of the movements of ancient animals which have been frozen in time and tell us so much about the evolution of life on Earth and the environments of the past.'