понедельник, 13 апреля 2020 г.

Synchrotron X-ray sheds light on some of the world's oldest dinosaur eggs

An international team of scientists led by the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, has been able to reconstruct, in the smallest details, the skulls of some of the world's oldest known dinosaur embryos in 3D, using powerful and non-destructive synchrotron techniques at the ESRF, the European Synchrotron in France. They found that the skulls develop in the same order as those of today's crocodiles, chickens, turtles and lizards. The findings are published today in Scientific Reports.

Synchrotron X-ray sheds light on some of the world's oldest dinosaur eggs
Some of the world's oldest known dinosaur eggs and embryos. The clutch of Massospondylus
carinatus eggs discovered in 1976 in Golden Gate Highland National Park, South Africa
[Credit: Brett Eloff]

University of the Witwatersrand scientists publish 3D reconstructions of the ~2cm-long skulls of some of the world's oldest dinosaur embryos in an article in Scientific Reports. The embryos, found in 1976 in Golden Gate Highlands National Park (Free State Province, South Africa) belong to South Africa's iconic dinosaur Massospondylus carinatus, a 5-meter long herbivore that nested in the Free State region 200 million years ago.

The scientific usefulness of the embryos was previously limited by their extremely fragile nature and tiny size. In 2015, scientists Kimi Chapelle and Jonah Choiniere, from the University of Witwatersrand, brought them to the European Synchrotron (ESRF) in Grenoble, France for scanning. At the ESRF, an 844 metre-ring of electrons travelling at the speed of light emits high-powered X-ray beams that can be used to non-destructively scan matter, including fossils. The embryos were scanned at an unprecedented level of detail - at the resolution of an individual bone cell. With these data in hand, and after nearly 3 years of data processing at Wits' laboratory, the team was able to reconstruct a 3D model of the baby dinosaur skull. "No lab CT scanner in the world can generate these kinds of data," said Vincent Fernandez, one of the co-authors and scientist at the Natural History Museum in London (UK). "Only with a huge facility like the ESRF can we unlock the hidden potential of our most exciting fossils. This research is a great example of a global collaboration between Europe and the South African National Research Foundation", he adds.

Up until now, it was believed that the embryos in those eggs had died just before hatching. However, during the study, lead author Chapelle noticed similarities with the developing embryos of living dinosaur relatives (crocodiles, chickens, turtles, and lizards). By comparing which bones of the skull were present at different stages of their embryonic development, Chapelle and co-authors can now show that the Massospondylus embryos were actually much younger than previously thought and were only at 60% through their incubation period.

The team also found that each embryo had two types of teeth preserved in its developing jaws. One set was made up of very simple triangular teeth that would have been resorbed or shed before hatching, just like geckos and crocodiles today. The second set were very similar to those of adults, and would be the ones that the embryos hatched with. "I was really surprised to find that these embryos not only had teeth, but had two types of teeth. The teeth are so tiny; they range from 0.4 to 0.7mm wide. That's smaller than the tip of a toothpick!", explains Chapelle.

Synchrotron X-ray sheds light on some of the world's oldest dinosaur eggs
Watercolour painting of the Massospondylus carinatus dinosaur embryos at 17% through the incubation
period, 60% through the incubation period and 100% through the incubation period
[Credit: Melanie Saratori]

The conclusion of this research is that dinosaurs developed in the egg just like their reptilian relatives, whose embryonic developmental pattern hasn't changed in 200 million years. "It's incredible that in more than 250 million years of reptile evolution, the way the skull develops in the egg remains more or less the same. Goes to show - you don't mess with a good thing!", concludes Jonah Choiniere, professor at the University of Witwatersrand and also co-author of the study.

The team hopes to apply their method to other dinosaur embryos to estimate their level of development. They will be looking at the rest of the skeleton of the Massospondylus embryos to see if it also shares similarities in development with today's dinosaur relatives. The arms and legs of the Massospondylus embryos have already been used to show that hatchlings likely walked on two legs (see Palaeontology, 2019).

* This article was originally published here

Ancient teeth from Peru hint now-extinct monkeys crossed Atlantic from Africa

Four fossilized monkey teeth discovered deep in the Peruvian Amazon provide new evidence that more than one group of ancient primates journeyed across the Atlantic Ocean from Africa, according to new USC research just published in the journal Science.

Ancient teeth from Peru hint now-extinct monkeys crossed Atlantic from Africa
New research suggests African monkeys crossed to South America earlier
than previously thought [Credit: Shutterstock]

The teeth are from a newly discovered species belonging to an extinct family of African primates known as parapithecids. Fossils discovered at the same site in Peru had earlier offered the first proof that South American monkeys evolved from African primates.

The monkeys are believed to have made the more than 900-mile trip on floating rafts of vegetation that broke off from coastlines, possibly during a storm.

"This is a completely unique discovery," said Erik Seiffert, the study's lead author and Professor of Clinical Integrative Anatomical Sciences at Keck School of Medicine of USC. "It shows that in addition to the New World monkeys and a group of rodents known as caviomorphs - there is this third lineage of mammals that somehow made this very improbable transatlantic journey to get from Africa to South America."

Ancient teeth from Peru hint now-extinct monkeys crossed Atlantic from Africa
Tiny molar teeth of the parapithecid monkey Ucayalipithecus
 from the Oligocene of Peru [Credit: Erik Seiffert]

Researchers have named the extinct monkey Ucayalipithecus perdita. The name comes from Ucayali, the area of the Peruvian Amazon where the teeth were found, pithikos, the Greek word for monkey and perdita, the Latin word for lost.

Ucayalipithecus perdita would have been very small, similar in size to a modern-day marmoset.

Dating the migration

Researchers believe the site in Ucayali where the teeth were found is from a geological epoch known as the Oligocene, which extended from about 34 million to 23 million years ago. 

Ancient teeth from Peru hint now-extinct monkeys crossed Atlantic from Africa
Erik Seiffert identifying a small fossil from the Santa Rosa site where Ucayalipithecus
was found, in Amazonian Peru [Credit: Dorien de Vries]

Based on the age of the site and the closeness of Ucayalipithecus to its fossil relatives from Egypt, researchers estimate the migration might have occurred around 34 million years ago.

"We're suggesting that this group might have made it over to South America right around what we call the Eocene-Oligocene Boundary, a time period between two geological epochs, when the Antarctic ice sheet started to build up and the sea level fell," said Seiffert. "That might have played a role in making it a bit easier for these primates to actually get across the Atlantic Ocean."

An improbable discovery

Two of the Ucayalipithecus perdita teeth were identified by Argentinean co-authors of the study in 2015 showing that New World monkeys had African forebears. When Seiffert was asked to help describe these specimens in 2016, he noticed the similarity of the two broken upper molars to an extinct 32 million-year-old parapithecid monkey species from Egypt he had studied previously.

Ancient teeth from Peru hint now-extinct monkeys crossed Atlantic from Africa
Paleontologists dry sediment collected from the Santa Rosa site where Ucayalipithecus
was found, in Amazonian Peru [Credit: Erik Seiffert]

An expedition to the Peruvian fossil site in 2016 led to the discovery of two more teeth belonging to this new species. The resemblance of these additional lower teeth to those of the Egyptian monkey teeth confirmed to Seiffert that Ucayalipithecus was descended from African ancestors.

"The thing that strikes me about this study more than any other I've been involved in is just how improbable all of it is," said Seiffert. "The fact that it's this remote site in the middle of nowhere, that the chances of finding these pieces is extremely small, to the fact that we're revealing this very improbable journey that was made by these early monkeys, it's all quite remarkable."

* This article was originally published here


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