Surfing The Wierd

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Unusual Earthquakes - Reno, Nevada

Scientists seek clues as Reno earthquakes keep shaking

A man who said his name was Juan cleans up the groceries that toppled from the shelves at Save Mart in Northwest Reno after Friday night's strong earthquake April 25, 2008. The quake had a preliminary reading of 4.7 and is the latest of 100's of earthquakes that have swarmed the northwest Reno area in the past six weeks with the quakes getting progressively stronger. (AP Photo/Reno Gazette Journal - Marilyn Newton)
AP Photo: A man who said his name was Juan cleans up the groceries that toppled from shelves at Save Mart in Northwest Reno after Friday night's strong earthquake April 25, 2008. The quake had a preliminary reading of 4.7 and is the latest of 100's of earthquakes that have swarmed the northwest Reno area in the past six weeks with the quakes getting progressively stronger. (AP Photo/Reno Gazette Journal - Marilyn Newton)...

By SANDRA CHEREB, Associated Press Writer 2 hours, 8 minutes ago

RENO, Nev. - Scientists at the University of Nevada, Reno are scrutinizing seismic readings and studying damage at residents' homes to try to figure out what's happening beneath the earth's surface under a northwest Reno neighborhood rocked by a seemingly endless string of earthquakes.

What they can't say is whether the hundreds of temblors that have rattled the area for two months — the largest a magnitude 4.7 Friday night — are subsiding or a prelude to bigger things to come.

"You're not going to get an earthquake prediction today," John Anderson, director of Seismology Laboratory at the University of Nevada, Reno, said Tuesday during a briefing with Gov. Jim Gibbons and emergency managers on the seismic activity.

Scientists are calling the swarm of temblors that began Feb. 28 the "Mogul earthquake sequence", in reference to the neighborhood where hundreds of mostly minor earthquakes have occurred.

But the shaking is unusual, seismologists say, because the intensity of the quakes has increased over the past few weeks. Generally, earthquakes tend to occur and are followed by smaller aftershocks.

In this case, the earth's rumblings have continued unabated, with barely negligible bumps occurring often minutes apart, followed by occasional larger shakers.

It's impossible to know if the temblors are foreshocks of a bigger quake to come, or aftershocks of what has been, experts said.

Up until April 15, sizable quakes that could be felt were occurring about once every third day.

Then, the rate increased, with about three, 2.0 or larger incidents occurring daily.

On April 24, when the first 4.2 quake was registered, "all of a sudden we were seeing 20 (of the magnitude) 2s and larger per day," said state geologist Jon Price.

"This is an exceptionally vigorous sequence of earthquakes," Price said.

During the past week alone, more than 500 occurrences have been recorded.

Most recently, two measuring 3.1 and 3.2 in magnitude occurred around 11 p.m. Monday. Another 3.1 was recorded at 9:15 a.m. Tuesday.

The largest so far was a 4.7 quake that was registered at 11:40 p.m. Friday. It was preceded 11 seconds earlier by a 3.3 quake, and followed 3 minutes later by one registering 3.4.

The temblors sent goods flying off shelves, cracked walls, broke glass and collapsed part of a water flume west of Reno. There were no injuries.

They are mostly shallow, occurring just beneath the surface to within a mile or two.

"Shallow makes us believe this is absolutely not volcanic," Price said.

Mapping of the quakes shows they are clustered around the Mogul and Somersett neighborhoods in northwest Reno, in an area about 2.5 miles long and 1/3 of a mile wide.

Craig dePolo with the Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology, said he understands the anxiety of residents who have lived with the persistent shaking.

"What's going on is extraordinary," he agreed. "People are being needled by little earthquakes ... for months."

"And the best we can say is we don't know what going to happen."

DePolo, who said he's been through many earthquakes, acknowledged that he, too, is "a little nervous."

The governor and emergency managers urged residents to be prepared by strapping down water heaters or any heavy items that could fall and injure people and to have first aid and food provisions on hand.

Frank Siracusa, head of the Nevada Division of Emergency Management, said state, regional and local agencies train constantly for disasters and have been in daily contact.

"I'd like to say we're prepared, but we can never be too prepared," he said.

The governor said he's "very concerned about the safety of the public," and stressed that residents need to be prepared to minimize risk in the event of a disaster.

Gibbons, himself a geologist, said the earth's movement is what makes the mountains and Nevada landscape so special.

"I find it fascinating about our earth and how it continually evolves over time," he said.

But with Nevada being the second most seismically active state in the continental U.S., he echoed the advice of experts who said large earthquakes are inevitable.

"At some point ... we are going to have a magnitude 6 or 7," Gibbons said.

Earthquake magnitudes are calculated according to ground motion recorded on seismographs. An increase in one full number — from 5.5 to 6.5, for example — means the quake's magnitude is 10 times as great.

A quake with a magnitude of 6 can cause severe damage, while one with a magnitude of 7 can cause widespread, heavy damage.


On the Net:

UNR Seismological Laboratory:

U.S. Geological Survey:


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Fast Track Evolution ? - Lizards

Lizards Rapidly Evolve After Introduction to Island

Kimberly Johnson for National Geographic News
April 21, 2008

Italian wall lizards introduced to a tiny island off the coast of Croatia are evolving in ways that would normally take millions of years to play out, new research shows.

In just a few decades the 5-inch-long (13-centimeter-long) lizards have developed a completely new gut structure, larger heads, and a harder bite, researchers say.

In 1971, scientists transplanted five adult pairs of the reptiles from their original island home in Pod Kopiste to the tiny neighboring island of Pod Mrcaru, both in the south Adriatic Sea.

Genetic testing on the Pod Mrcaru lizards confirmed that the modern population of more than 5,000 Italian wall lizards are all descendants of the original ten lizards left behind in the 1970s.

(Related: "Evolution's 'Driving Force' Shifts Based on Behavior, Study Says" [November 16, 2006].)

Lizard Swarm

While the experiment was more than 30 years in the making, it was not by design, according to Duncan Irschick, a study author and biology professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

After scientists transplanted the reptiles, the Croatian War of Independence erupted, ending in the mid-1990s. The researchers couldn't get back to island because of the war, Irschick said.

In 2004, however, tourism began to open back up, allowing researchers access to the island laboratory.

(Read: "Kayaking the New Croatia" in National Geographic Adventure Magazine.)

"We didn't know if we would find a lizard there. We had no idea if the original introductions were successful," Irschick said.

What they found, however, was shocking.

"The island was swarming with lizards," he said.

The findings were published in March in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Fast-Track Evolution

The new habitat once had its own healthy population of lizards, which were less aggressive than the new implants, Irschick said.

The new species wiped out the indigenous lizard populations, although how it happened is unknown, he said.

The transplanted lizards adapted to their new environment in ways that expedited their evolution physically, Irschick explained.

Pod Mrcaru, for example, had an abundance of plants for the primarily insect-eating lizards to munch on. Physically, however, the lizards were not built to digest a vegetarian diet.

Researchers found that the lizards developed cecal valves—muscles between the large and small intestine—that slowed down food digestion in fermenting chambers, which allowed their bodies to process the vegetation's cellulose into volatile fatty acids.

"They evolved an expanded gut to allow them to process these leaves," Irschick said, adding it was something that had not been documented before. "This was a brand-new structure."

Along with the ability to digest plants came the ability to bite harder, powered by a head that had grown longer and wider.

(Related news: "Komodo Dragon's Bite Is 'Weaker Than a House Cat's'" [April 18, 2008].)

The rapid physical evolution also sparked changes in the lizard's social and behavioral structure, he said. For one, the plentiful food sources allowed for easier reproduction and a denser population.

The lizard also dropped some of its territorial defenses, the authors concluded.

Such physical transformation in just 30 lizard generations takes evolution to a whole new level, Irschick said.

It would be akin to humans evolving and growing a new appendix in several hundred years, he said.

"That's unparalleled. What's most important is how fast this is," he said.

While researchers do know the invader's impact on its reptile brethren, they do not know how the species impacts local vegetation or insects, a subject of future study, Irschick said.

Dramatic Changes

The study demonstrates that a lot of change happens in island environments, said Andrew Hendry, a biology professor at Montreal's McGill University.

What could be debated, however, is how those changes are interpreted—whether or not they had a genetic basis and not a "plastic response to the environment," said Hendry, who was not associated with the study.

There's no dispute that major changes to the lizards' digestive tract occurred. "That kind of change is really dramatic," he added.

"All of this might be evolution," Hendry said. "The logical next step would be to confirm the genetic basis for these changes."


Legless Lizard - New Species?
A species of lizard of the genus Bachia in an undated photo released by Conservation International on April 29, 2008. Scientists have discovered a legless lizard, a toad and a dwarf woodpecker among 14 species believed to be new to science in central Brazil, a wildlife conservation group said on Tuesday. (Conservation International/Cristiano Nogueira/Handout/Reuters)
Reuters Photo: A species of lizard of the genus Bachia in an undated photo released by Conservation...
Slideshow: Legless lizard found in Brazil

Legless lizard found in Brazil may be new species

By Alister Doyle, Environment Correspondent Tue Apr 29, 12:17 PM ET

OSLO (Reuters) - Scientists have discovered a legless lizard, a toad and a dwarf woodpecker among 14 species believed to be new to science in central Brazil, a wildlife conservation group said on Tuesday.

A four-week expedition to the Cerrado region, a wooded savannah under threat from the expansion of farming, found eight apparently unknown types of fish, three reptiles, one amphibian, a mammal and a bird, Conservation International said.

"The lizard, of the Bachia genus, resembles a snake due to its lack of legs and pointed snout, which help it move across the predominantly sandy soil," U.S.-based Conservation International, a non-profit group, said in a statement.

Susan Bruce, a spokeswoman for Conservation International, said the lizard was about 15-20 cm (6-8 inches) long. Other legless lizards around the world include ones related to geckos in Australia or slow worms in Europe.

The lizard was found during the expedition to the Serra Geral do Tocantins Ecological Station, a 716,000 hectare (1.77 million acre) protected area in the Cerrado.

Other suspected new species include a dwarf woodpecker and horned toad. Conservation International seeks to preserve biodiversity and argues that human societies can live in harmony with nature.

"Protected areas such as the Ecological Station are home to some of the last remaining healthy ecosystems in a region increasingly threatened by urban growth and mechanized agriculture," said expedition leader Cristiano Nogueira.

The Cerrado region, part of Brazil's central high plains region that once covered an area half the size of Europe, is being converted to crops and ranch land at twice the rate of the nearby Amazon rainforest, Conservation International said.

The expedition also recorded threatened species such as the three-banded armadillo, the marsh deer and hyacinth macaw among more than 440 species documented in the expedition comprising 26 researchers. -- (Editing by Giles Elgood)


Most Overlooked Mysteries

History's Most Overlooked Mysteries

Though many of life's great mysteries remain unsolved, there are some lesser known ones that also have stumped researchers for centuries. While grand enigmas such as Egypt's great pyramids, Stonehenge, the Shroud of Turin and the downfall of Rome have garnered widespread interest, here are some perennial riddles that remain just as puzzling. -Tuan C. Nguyen


Top Ten Creation Myths

The Top 10 Intelligent Designs (or Creation Myths)

Several parents won a lawsuit against a Pennsylvania school district in 2005 that had added the controversial theory of "intelligent design" to its curriculum. Unlike the theory of evolution which is taught at most schools as a fact-based science, "intelligent design" -- as argued by the plaintiffs -- was nothing more than a philosophy predicated on the Judeo-Christian belief that the logical sequences found in nature are not random happenings or surprising mutations, but deftly managed events created by a greater omniscient and omnipresent intelligence with a specific plan. In short, the work of God. A federal judge thought otherwise.

But therein lies the rub: Which god? When the founding fathers established the Constitution of the United States, they chose to include the separation of church and state. This was to ensure that the state-sanctioned religious persecutions that plagued much of Europe during the 16th century would not despoil the young, yet grand experiment in democracy that was to become this Republic.

Scientific research has come a long way since Charles Darwin first posited the concept of "natural selection." In the intervening years, humanity has learned much about how we became the dominant species on the planet, how the Earth and the solar system were formed and the ever-changing development of the Universe. Over that time, how we understand the theory of evolution has also changed.

Scientists now think that there is an intrinsic logic to our reality, that there are absolutes, laws of nature. Much remains a mystery, and as one question is answered, many others arise. The question that faced Pennsylvania's Dover School District was whether or not the imposition of one creation belief on a multi-ethnic, secular student body is in keeping with the law that prohibits the creation of a state religion. If they allow one belief system to be taught, surely they must also teach others?

To help out with this dilemma, LiveScience presents a list of those Creation Myths that helped define civilizations both past and present... -- Tom X. Chao and Anthony Duignan-Cabrera


Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Index to More Dino finds

More National Geographic News Stories on Dinosaurs: Loch Ness Sea Monster Fossil a Hoax, Say Scientists Newly Rediscovered Dinosaur Fossil is Missing Link to Jurassic Giants Dinosaur Cannibal: Fossil Evidence Found in Africa Bizarre Dinosaurs Shed Light on Adaptation Robots Designed to Show How Dinosaurs Moved Dino Dung: Paleontology's Next Frontier? Do They Really Look Like That? The Science of Dino Art Dinosaur Footprints: Tracks Tell Prehistoric Secrets Four-Winged Dinosaurs Found in China, Experts Announce Utah Dinos May Have Been Killed By Drought Cuban Dinosaur: First Confirmed Remains Discovered Dinosaur Cannibal?—Mystery in New Mexico Tetrapod Fossil Found—First Ever in Asia New Picture of Dinosaurs Emerging Fossil Implies Our Early Kin Lived in Trees, Study Says Weird Buck-Toothed Dinosaur Found Dinosaur Tracks Preserved on Scottish Island Dinosaur Tracks Shed Light on Sauropod Evolution Comets May Have Led to Birth and Death of Dinosaur Era Fossil of Dog-Size Horned Dinosaur Unearthed in China Tyrannosaurus rex Was a Slowpoke Researchers Rethink Dinosaur Die Off Scenario Researchers Melt Polar Dinosaur Mysteries Scientist's Finds Spur New Thinking on Dino Evolution Dino-Era Vomit Fossil Found in England Study Paints New Picture of Dinosaur's Nose Skeleton of New Dinosaur "Titan" Found in Madagascar "Tidal Giant" Roamed Coastal Swamps of Ancient Africa "Feathered" Fossil Bolsters Changing Image of Dinosaurs Oddly Angled Teeth Make Masiakasaurus Stick Out New Find: Pterosaur Had Strange Crest, Fishing Style Dinosaur Beak Probably Used to Strain Food, Not Kill Prey

Additional Dinosaur Resources from National Geographic: Paul Sereno: National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and Dinosaur Hunter Dinorama Wanted: Albertosaurus Dinosaur Eggs Pterosaurs Destinations: Dinosaur National Monument

SuperCroc - fossils

D.L. Parsell National Geographic News
October 25, 2001

SuperCroc Photo Gallery: Go>>

Hey, Crocodile Dundee, try this on for size. Scientists have unearthed the remains of an ancient crocodile that was as long as a city bus and as heavy as a small whale.

The giant creature, which lived 110 million years ago, during the Middle Cretaceous, grew as long as 40 feet (12 meters) and weighed as much as eight metric tons (17,500 pounds).

Its jaws alone were nearly six feet (1.8 meters) long and its more than 100 teeth so powerful that the colossal creature probably consumed small dinosaurs as well as fish, the researchers say.

Paleontologist Paul Sereno and his colleagues pieced together a portrait of the monster—which they've dubbed SuperCroc—based on fossils they've collected at Gadoufaoua in Niger, a remote site in the Sahara Desert where Tuareg nomads roam.

The fossils are from an extinct species that first came to light more than 30 years ago. French paleontologists reported several skulls and other parts of the creature and named it Sarcosuchus imperator, meaning "flesh crocodile emperor."

Much about the giant croc remained a mystery, however, until Sereno's team began excavating at Gadoufaoua in 1997. "People hadn't gone back with any expedition capacity since then, so not much else was collected," said team member Hans Larsson.

The 1997 dig had barely begun when the team discovered the fossilized jaws, each as long as some members of the team. The group had traveled to the site—one of the richest fossil beds in Africa—to search for dinosaurs. But it was immediately clear that the giant jawbones had not come from a dinosaur, Sereno said.

"We had never seen anything like it," he said. "The snout and teeth were designed for grabbing prey—fish, turtles, and dinosaurs that strayed too close."

Other massive crocodiles have been reported, but Sarcosuchus imperator is the most complete specimen found so far and among the largest crocodilians that ever lived.

During expeditions in 1997 and 2000, Sereno's team found skulls, vertebrae, limb bones, and foot-long (30-centimeter) bony armor plates called scutes. From this trove of bones, the scientists were able to assemble about half of the giant croc's skeleton, providing a good picture of Sarcosuchus.

"The new material gives us a good look at hyper-giant crocodiles," said Sereno, an Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society and a professor at the University of Chicago. "There's been rampant speculation about what they looked like and where they fit in the croc family tree."

David Schwimmer, a paleontologist at Columbus State University in Georgia, said he was familiar with Sereno's discovery and was "thrilled with it" because it helps fill in the picture of giant crocs, which appeared repeatedly in evolutionary history. Schwimmer is an expert on a giant croc genus named Deinosuchus, which was prevalent in North America.

"SuperCroc" Fossil Found in Sahara

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Sereno and his colleagues announced their discovery October 25 at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C. The research expedition to Niger last year was funded in part by the National Geographic Society.

The announcement was made in conjunction with the publication of a scientific report on Sarcosuchus by the journal Science, which posted the paper on its Science Express Web site.

The co-authors of the Science paper are Sereno; Larsson, who is a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University and the University of Toronto; Christian Sidor of the New York College of Osteopathic Medicine in Old Westbury, New York; and Boubé Gado of the Institut de Recherches en Sciences Humaines in Naimey, Niger Republic.

Not a "Modern" Croc

SuperCroc lived in Africa during the Middle Cretaceous period, when broad rivers stretched across lush plains.

Larsson said Sarcosuchus was not from the same branch of the reptile family tree that gave rise to modern crocodilians, which consist of about 23 species that include alligators, crocodiles, caimans, and gharials. "It's not a modern croc, but they share an early common ancestor," he said.

The oldest precursors of crocodiles may have spent more time on land, but Sarcosuchus was a river dweller that appeared after early crocodilians had already split into two separate land-based and marine groups.

Sereno said Sarcosuchus probably spent most of its time underwater, "living an ambush lifestyle." Like the gharial, a large long-nosed crocodilian in India, the ancient croc had eye sockets that tilted upward, which helped it conceal its huge body underwater while scanning the river's edge.

Another distinctive feature that Sarcosuchus had in common with the gharial was a round bony protrusion at the tip of its snout that housed a large bowl-shaped inflatable nasal cavity, called a bulla. The function of the bulla isn't clear, but the researchers think it may have heightened the croc's sense of smell or enabled it to emit striking calls. Larsson said gharials are known to use the muscles around the bulla to make different kinds of sounds, especially for mating.

Sereno said some people have an erroneous image of crocodiles "as dumb, clumsy, silent creatures." But crocodiles "are anything but clumsy, and they communicate extensively by calling, even roaring and splashing," he said. "It looks as if Sarcosuchus did some of that too."

The narrow jaws of an adult Sarcosuchus housed more than 100 teeth, which Larsson likened to "railroad spikes." While the giant croc shared the water with large fish, its hearty teeth—which included bone-crushing incisors—suggest that Sarcosuchus "didn't seem limited to eating fish," Larsson said. Other prey may have been small dinosaurs and other terrestrial animals, such as turtles.

Overlapping rows of scutes covered the crocodile's body from head to tail, forming a tough protective armor. The scutes, like trees, have annual growth rings. By counting these rings in the fossilized scutes, the researchers estimated the giant croc's full life span as 50 to 60 years.

Unusual Diversity

The fossils unearthed at Gadoufaoua included bones from four other croc species of varying sizes that lived at the same time as Sarcosuchus. One specimen was the three-inch (eight-centimeter) skull of a new species of dwarf croc.

The discovery of five ancient species existing side by side was especially interesting, Larsson said, because such diversity at a single site is seldom seen today. "Most modern crocs are relatively similar," he explained. "Perhaps for that reason, you rarely get more than one species at a particular location."

"The reason why we can get five [ancient] species at the same time," he added, "is because of differences in size and antomy. They were not eating the same thing or competing for the same resources."

Early forms of crocodiles first appeared about 230 million years ago, during the late Triassic, and diverged into "an amazing number of forms," said Larsson.

The few existing fossils show that these earliest crocs didn't much resemble the crocodiles we know today. "They were more dog- or cat-size, with elongated limbs like those of a gazelle or antelope," Larsson said. "The skull also was not crocodilian at all, but more 'dog-faced.'"

These earliest forms of crocodiles were succeeded in the late Triassic by a diverse group of terrestrials with squat bodies and more croc-like skulls (Crocodyliformes). In the early Jurassic, crocodilians split into two distinct groups—one group living in water (even sporting tail fins), the other on land. Crocs most like modern ones, with amphibian bodies and distinctive skulls, began emerging in the Early Cretaceous.

Behemoth Rivals?

Although it's still uncertain, Sarcosuchus may have had some rivals throughout history that matched or exceeded it in size and weight.

As with dinosaurs, many branches of crocodilians spawned giants. "There are actually quite a few giant crocodilians," said Schwimmer. "The idea of really big crocs is a repeat theme in evolution."

Deinosuchus, the subject of much of Schwimmer's research, lived in the Late Cretaceous, which means it's younger than Sarcosuchus. The two species "were not closely related," Schwimmer noted.

The range of Deinosuchus was much of North America. It dwelled from New Jersey to Montana, and was especially common in Texas and Alabama. The first report of the species came in 1858, based on ancient teeth that were discovered in North Carolina, said Schwimmer, who has received research grants from the National Geographic Society.

A number of fairly complete skulls of Deinosuchus have been found, but "we haven't yet put together a full body reconstruction," said Schwimmer. Once that happens, he added, the analysis might show that Deinosuchus was similar in body size or even bigger than Sarcosuchus.

That conjecture is based in part on differences in the snouts of the two species. "Sarcosuchus had a long, narrow snout, so a lot of its length is in the snout," Schwimmer explained. "But Deinosuchus was broad-snouted, built more like an alligator, so a skull of the same length [as Sarcosuchus] would, based on proportional size, be an even bigger animal."

Why have giant crocs recurred throughout evolutionary history?

One reason, Schwimmer said, is because crocodilians have been primarily aquatic. Massive bodies, like those of whales, are especially suited to an aquatic environment because they can float, thereby diminishing the physical burden of size that would be more taxing on land.

Another advantage is that crocodiles have osteoderms, or skin armor, across their backs. These armor plates are embedded in the creatures' back tissue, helping to support the back "like an external flying buttress," Schwimmer said. Crocodiles also have very strong skulls, he added, "so they can bite hard and feed on big prey."

From the blistering sands of the Sahara, paleontologist Paul Sereno has pulled an incredible find: the nearly complete remains of Sarcosuchus imperator, one of the largest crocodilians to ever walk the Earth.

Zoom 1

As long as a city bus, and weighing in at about ten tons, “SuperCroc” lives up to its nickname.

Sarcosuchus imperator, or “flesh crocodile emperor,” lived roughly 110 million years ago, when rivers coursed over what is now sub-Saharan Africa. Sarcosuchus prowled the rivers’ banks, crushing fish—and other creatures—in its massive jaws.

Zoom 2

Paleontologists first gave Sarcosuchus imperator a name in the 1960s. Four decades later, in 2000, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Sereno and his team of fossil hunters found Sarcosuchus remains so enormous they dubbed the creature SuperCroc.

Zoom 3

Sereno and his team, funded in part by the National Geographic Society, pored through the hot sands of a fossil graveyard called Gadoufaoua in Niger, unearthing scores of Sarcosuchus remains, including vertebrae, limb bones, armor plates, jaws, and a nearly complete 6-foot (1.8-meter) skull.

From their find, Sereno believes SuperCroc weighed as much as ten tons and measured as long as 40 feet (12 meters).

Zoom 4

Now Sereno has teamed with National Geographic’s resident herpetologist, Brady Barr. They’re studying today’s tiny-by-comparison crocodilians—alligators, crocodiles, caimans, and gavials—to learn more about the giant SuperCroc, which is undoubtedly one of the largest crocs that ever lived.


Scientists have unearthed a giant crocodile which probably had dinosaurs for lunch.


Fossil of Monster Crocodile Found

Scientists have unearthed a giant crocodile which probably had dinosaurs for lunch.


Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Fossil Sea Monsters

PHOTO IN THE NEWS: New "Sea Monster" Species Identified

plesiosaur skeleton photo
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March 26, 2008—The remarkably well-preserved fossil of a dinosaur-era sea creature found in a Canadian mine is turning out to be a gold mine for paleontologists.

The Cretaceous-period reptile, dubbed Nichollsia borealis, is not only a new species—it represents a whole new genus, scientists announced on March 20.

It's also one of the oldest and most complete plesiosaur fossils ever unearthed in North America.

Plesiosaurs were carnivorous reptiles that roamed the seas between about 205 million to 65 million years ago.

Mine workers found the intact creature about 200 feet (60 meters) deep in a surface mine in Alberta in 1994. The Syncrude company extracts oil from the mine's sandy soil.

A "tomb" of sandstone preserved the 8.5-foot-long (2.6-meter-long) creature almost perfectly—unlike other plesiosaur fossils that are often found in porous shale.

The fossil ended up at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta, where University of Calgary paleontologists Patrick Druckenmiller and Anthony Russell recently ran 3-D CT scans of its braincase.

The scans and other analyses of the reptile have provided more detail than for any other plesiosaur ever found, they said.

The newfound reptile also gave them a window into an ancient seaway that once cut through North America and teemed with marine life.

(See pictures of a sea monster that lived in the Arctic.)

"This individual was a pioneer in the marine waters that would eventually become the Cretaceous Western Interior Seaway," Druckenmiller said in a statement.

"It represents the oldest known forerunner of this amazing period in North American prehistory."

Their research appeared in the German journal Palaeontographica Abteilung A.

N. borealis is now on display at the Discoveries Gallery at the Royal Tyrrell Museum.

—Christine Dell'Amore

Photograph courtesy Royal Tyrrell Museum, Drumheller, Alberta >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

''Sea Monster'' Graveyard Found in the Arctic

''Sea monster'' photo
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A 33-foot-long (10-meter-long) marine reptile dubbed the Monster leaps from the water to snare a smaller reptile known as a plesiosaur in this artist's interpretation. The Monster is a member of a group of dino-era sea creatures called pliosaurs. Its fossil was among 28 specimens of predatory sea reptiles recently found on the Arctic island of Spitsbergen in Norway's Svalbard archipelago. The 150-million-year-old graveyard was unearthed by a team from the University of Oslo's Natural History Museum, along with a paleontologist from Montana State University in Bozeman. The remains of the Monster may represent the largest complete pliosaur ever found. So far the team has uncovered a skull measuring 6.9 feet (2.1 meters) in length, dinner plate-size neck vertebrae, and portions of the lower jaw with huge teeth that the scientists say are as thick as cucumbers.
Illustration by Tor Sponga, courtesy Natural History Museum, University of Oslo, Norway >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Photo in the News: New Dino-Era Sea Predator Discovered

Dinosaur-era aquatic reptile, Umoonasaurus, illustration

July 11, 2006—Meet Umoonasaurus. About the size of a sea lion, the ancient marine reptile swam the shallow waters of an inland sea that covered Australia about 115 million years ago.

Distinguished by its relatively small size and three crestlike ridges on its skull, Umoonasaurus belonged to a group of ancient meat-eating marine animals known as plesiosaurs.

"The classic analogy for a plesiosaur is a snake threaded through the body of a turtle," said Benjamin Kear, a paleontologist at the University of Adelaide and the South Australian Museum.

"Imagine a sort of compact body with four flippers, a reasonably long neck, and a tail about half [as long] coming out the other end."

Kear and his colleagues identified the new species based on fossils of 30 individuals—including seven partial skeletons—found in old collections and recent excavations.

"The beauty of a lot of the Umoonasaurus material is that it comes out of opal mines," Kear said.

"You can imagine that these are quite spectacular-looking fossils, bright blue or green. You end up with this totally opalized skeleton."

The team named their archaic reptile swimmer after Umoona, the Aboriginal name for the South Australia region where the most complete Umoonasaurus skeleton was found—with a gut full of small fish.

A study describing the species appears in the latest online edition of the journal Biology Letters.

—Sean Markey

Illustration by Josh Lee/Adelaide/Biology Letters >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

'Godzilla' Fossils Reveal Real-Life Sea Monster

monster leaping from ocean
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Fossils from a real-life sea monster—a massive crocodile-like species—have been unearthed in Patagonia, Argentina. The animal likely measured 13 feet (4 meters) long from nose to tail. The researchers who made the discovery say the marine reptile, nicknamed Godzilla, lived about 135 million years ago. They describe their find in the November 11, 2005, issue of the journal Science. Details about the ancient predator will also appear in the December 2005 issue of National Geographic magazine. The article will feature exclusive images, like this illustration, of what the reptile might have looked like.
Illustration © 2005 National Geographic >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
James Owen for National Geographic News
October 6, 2005

The fossilized last meals of two giant marine reptiles show the ancient animals used their long necks to trawl for clams, snails, and crabs along the seabed, according to a new study.

The discovery, based on the remains of two plesiosaurs unearthed in Queensland, Australia, challenges the long-held idea that these impressive ocean predators targeted only fish, squid, and other free-swimming prey.

Study co-author Alex Cook, assistant curator of fossils at the Queensland Museum, says the team was surprised by the fossilized sea creatures' last meals, eaten between 100 and 110 million years ago.

"Throughout the stomach region [of one specimen] were bits of broken clam and snail shell," Cook said. "There was also a fossilized food mass from the intestine, which was basically a solid lump of broken shell.

"This elasmosaur wasn't bothering much with fish—it was feeding almost entirely on bottom-dwelling mollusks."

The other elasmosaur's stomach contained crab and crustacean fragments.

Writing in tomorrow's issue of the journal Science, the Australian study team says the animals' varied diet could help explain why plesiosaurs were so successful. The predators prowled the Earth's oceans for some 135 million years before going extinct with the dinosaurs.

"Multipurpose Tool"

The two new specimens, each measuring 16 to 20 feet (5 to 6 meters) long and weighing around 2,200 pounds (1,000 kilograms), are from the elasmosaur family. These plesiosaurs had the longest necks of all—more than twice the length of their body and tail put together.

The bizarre-looking creatures became the inspiration for the Loch Ness Monster myth.

Colin McHenry, a biology lecturer at the University of Newcastle, New South Wales, describes the elasmosaur's extraordinary neck as a "multipurpose tool" for catching both free-swimming and seabed-burrowing prey.

"These were the dominant marine reptiles for 135 million years," he said. "The idea that the long neck was a generalized feeding tool is consistent with this success—specialized forms rarely last long.

Long-Necked Sea Reptiles Had Unexpected Diet, Fossils Show

"The almost impossibly long neck of an elasmosaur was one of the most successful structures in the history of life in the sea," he added.

The team's discovery provides hard evidence for a theory first suggested as long ago as the 1920s, according to plesiosaur expert Richard Forrest of the New Walk Museum in Leicester, England.

"Some plesiosaurs have rather long and slender teeth, which it has been suggested were for straining [the ocean floor] rather than biting," he said.

Forrest says "enigmatic traces" of such feeding behavior have been found in ancient seabed sediments in Switzerland.

"There are grooves in the sediments where it looks as if something has swept through it, and it's been suggested that this was done by plesiosaurs," Forrest said.

Yet in England, where numerous plesiosaur fossils have been unearthed, no evidence for bottom-feeding has been found.

Forrest says fossilized gut remains found in the region are "highly consistent with plesiosaurs living on things that swam past, such as fish, belemnites [squid-like carnivores], and even other plesiosaurs."

The paleontologist adds that around 60 percent of the plesiosaur bones found in Oxford Clay, a fossil-rich marine deposit in central England, have bite marks on them.

"Some of those are very obviously from the teeth of big plesiosaurs," he said.

Forrest suggests that differences in feeding habits might be because the two Australian elasmosaurs lived during the early Cretaceous period (144 to 127 million years ago), around 90 million years later than the English specimens.

"When you start coming to the Cretaceous you have mosasaurs taking the top marine predator role," he said.

Mosasaurs grew to a huge size and were armed with massive jaws and teeth.

Predator Competition

Forrest says competition from larger marine reptiles may have forced plesiosaurs to adopt different feeding strategies.

"The big plesiosaurs seem to have pretty well vanished by the [late] Cretaceous," he added. "Instead we have very big mosasaurs which had big, sharp, pointy teeth for crunching other animals."

The Australian finds may also help solve the riddle of why fossilized plesiosaurs are often found with large polished pebbles in their stomachs.

The function of the pebbles, called gastroliths, has been debated for years. The leading theory is that they were swallowed as ballast to help plesiosaurs hunt at deeper depths and to stop them from floating to the surface.

One of the two Queensland elasmosaurs contained 135 gastroliths.

Given the food remains found inside the two fossil skeletons, McHenry of the University of Newcastle thinks the main role of these stones is now obvious: Gastroliths would have been a useful digestive aid, helping the sea reptiles to crush up clams and crustaceans.

"An animal with stones in its stomach is going to make short work of a shellfish meal," he said.

"This doesn't necessarily sink the alternative theory—that they helped control buoyancy—but means that at the least gastroliths had a dual role," he added.

Angela Milner, associate keeper of paleontology at the Natural History Museum in London, says this idea makes sense.

"I don't think it has been suggested before that [gastroliths] might have acted as a gastric mill, but there is no real reason why not," she said.



Plesiosaurus hawkinsi: Cast of juveile animal, found in Somerset

Plesiosaur means 'near lizard'.

It was once thought that plesiosaurs were the descendents of the more primitive nothosaurs. However, some features of plesiosaurs are less derived than those of nothosaurs. It may be that plesiosaurs evolved from a more primitive diapsid, and not nothosaurs.

Plesiosaurs were larger than nothosaurs, and were more specialised for marine life. They appeared at the Triassic/Jurassic boundary (200 million years ago), and persisted until the end of the Cretaceous Period (65 million years ago).

Plesiosaurs are divided into 2 groups: 1. More primitive Plesiosauridae (short neck, large head). 2. More specialised elasmosaurs (long neck, small head).

Both groups swam with limbs that had evolved into paddles. Hyperphalangy (addition of joints to toes) increased the size of the paddles, and made them more efficient in swimming. Plesiosaurs used these paddles for propulsion instead of the tail.

In both groups, the nostrils were high on the head and just in front of the eyes. The genus Elasmosaurus is found in the upper Cretaceous, and its' lineage can be traced back to Plesiosaurus in the lower Jurassic.

The Elasmosaurus line is characterised by a progressive increase in the length of the neck, and a reduction in the size of the head. The size of the paddles relative to body size decreases from the Jurassic to the Cretaceous.

Elasmosaurs were not very streamlined, and this streamlining became poorer as the neck became longer. Elasmosaurs were consequently not fast swimmers. They were also not able to make swift movements of the head to capture prey, as the neck vertebrae were very stiff and inflexible. They may instead have pivoted the entire body, swinging the head rapidly through a large arc and enabling them to catch prey efficiently.

Elasmosaurus, an advanced Plesiosaur

Pliosaurs and early elasmosaurs both started with a body form that was very similar, but they followed different evolutionary pathways. The pliosaur pathway led to increasingly streamlined forms - the neck became shorter, and the paddles larger. Some pliosaurs reached very large sizes (e.g. Liopleurodon was 12-15m long), and ate fish, as well as smaller ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs.

Liopleurodon, an advanced Pliosaur

Like nothosaurs, plesiosaurs probably had to return to land to lay eggs, despite their increased adaptation to aquatic life.



Sunday, April 6, 2008

Octopus Sex Life

PHOTO IN THE NEWS: Wild Octopuses Have Complex Sex

Octopi having wild sex -- photo

April 3, 2008—A male octopus (right) deposits a sperm packet into a female in this photo taken during a field study and released on Monday.

The study found that wild octopuses engage in "jealous murders," gender bending, and once-in-a-lifetime sex—unlike their seemingly shy, unromantic captive brethren.

The University of California, Berkeley, scientists watched the baseball-size Abdopus aculeatus octopus species off Indonesia for several weeks and published their findings recently in the journal Marine Biology.

The team witnessed picky, macho males carefully select mates. The octopuses would then guard their newly domesticated digs jealously—occasionally going so far as to use their 8- to 10-inch (20- to 25-centimeter) tentacles to strangle romantic rivals to death.

"This is not a unique species of octopus, which suggests others behave this way," said Berkeley biologist Roy Caldwell, who co-authored the new study.

The researchers also observed smaller males put on feminine airs. Some would keep their brown stripes—a male trait—hidden, perhaps to lull females into a false sense of safety before setting the scene for "seduction."

(Related photo: "Six-Legged 'Hexapus' Found" [March 5, 2008].)

Photograph by Roy L. Caldwell/UC Berkeley >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

PHOTO IN THE NEWS: Six-Legged "Hexapus" Discovered

Hexapus, six-legged octopus, picture

March 5, 2008—Six of one, half a dozen of another—it's all the same for this odd octopus.

Caretakers at a British aquarium recently discovered that one of its newest residents, an octopus named Henry, had six legs instead of the usual eight.

Workers at the Blackpool Sea Life Centre first noticed that Henry was—as it were—two feet short, as he was crawling up the wall of his glass tank.

Aquarium officials dubbed the creature a hexapus, saying he's the first of his kind ever documented.

"We've scoured the Internet and talked to lots of other aquariums, and no one has ever heard of another case of a six-legged octopus," aquarium supervisor Carey Duckhouse told the AFP news service.

The sea creature, technically known as a lesser octopus, was first found in a lobster trap off the coast of Wales two weeks ago.

The cephalopod's deficient limbs appear to be the result of a genetic mutation rather than an accident, and the animal doesn't represent a new species, experts said.

Henry will go on public display in about a month, and visitors will be able to see that he gets along just fine with what he has, officials added.

"He's a lovely little thing," an aquarium spokesperson told AFP.

Photograph courtesy Blackpool Sea Life Centre