Seemingly Ordinary Fossils May Be Hiding Some Major Clues to the Past

Detail of a partially decalcified Allosaurus bone fossil at Yale Peabody Museum.

Detail of a partially decalcified Allosaurus bone fossil at Yale Peabody Museum.
Photo: Jasmina Wiemann

Paleontologists are lucky to find complete sets of fossilized bones. Sometimes, they get even luckier, finding preserved impressions of delicate features like feathers. Beyond those clues, though, most of the biology of extinct species—their DNA, internal organs, and unique chemistry—has been totally destroyed by the many millions of years that separate us. Except, what if it hasn’t? Some scientists now claim they can tease much more complex biological information out of apparently mundane fossils, including things that most paleontologists don’t expect to survive over millions of years, such as skin and eggshell.

Molecular paleobiologist Jasmina Wiemann has been on the forefront of this exciting research since 2018, co-authoring papers that reveal elements of fossils that cannot be immediately seen with our eyes but can be detected through a series of complex chemical and statistical analyses. Her recent paper, published this summer with Jason Crawford and Derek Briggs, builds upon other, similar research from the past two years. She and her co-authors claim they can determine the chemical signatures of skin, bone, teeth, and eggshell. Even better, they can train anyone else in the field within approximately 20 minutes to find these ancient traces using their techniques. It’s an opportunity they hope will be widely used within museum collections the world over.

Consider that most museums only display a small percentage of the fossils they have in their collection. Those fossils chosen for display are either partially complete skeletons or fossils that are readily recognizable to the general public. What remains in many collections’ storage rooms are shelves upon shelves of the rest: the less-flashy fossils that nonetheless offer insight into ancient life. What if they all could be tested for hidden biomarkers?

Fossilized dinosaur cells, blood vessel, and bone matrix.

Fossilized dinosaur cells, blood vessel, and bone matrix.
Image: Jasmina Wiemann

It takes a specific set of circumstances for something to survive thousands of years, much less millions. And if it does become fossilized, think about the incredible pressure and heat it undergoes over eons. While it’s remarkable that bones and other hard tissues survive, it is currently assumed that less hardy structures, such as cells, blood vessels, skin, and their molecular building blocks, will not, especially after hundreds of millions of years.

Biomolecules—the chemical building blocks for which these scientists search—are the molecules that make up all animal tissues: proteins, lipids, and sugars. The specific fossilization products of biomolecules indicate to which kind of animal a fossil tissue once belonged, if it was biomineralized, and exactly what type of tissue it represents.

“Until now, it was assumed that biological signals preserved in modern biomolecules were lost during fossilization,” explained Wiemann in a phone interview. “Our study represents the very first exploration of original biosignatures in complex, fossil organic matter. Contrary to previous targeted analyses, we wanted to objectively explore if there are any signals preserved and what they can actually tell us about

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Megalodon fossils discovered all over the world

Megalodons, the apex predator of the seas, may have gone extinct more than 3.5 million years ago, but experts may have discovered nurseries of the massive shark all around the world, according to a new study.

The research, published in Biology Letters, notes that nurseries of the megalodon have been found in northeastern Spain, with fossils of adult and younger megalodons discovered. In all, five potential nurseries may have been found, including in the Atlantic, Caribbean and Pacific basins, with fossils ranging from 16 million to 3 million years ago.

“Our analyses support the presence of five potential nurseries ranging from the Langhian (middle Miocene) to the Zanclean (Pliocene), with higher densities of individuals with estimated body lengths within the typical range of neonates and young juveniles,” the researchers wrote in the study’s abstract. “These results reveal, for the first time, that nursery areas were commonly used by O. megalodon over large temporal and spatial scales, reducing early mortality and playing a key role in maintaining viable adult populations.” 

3D rendering of an extinct Megalodon shark in the seas of the Cenozoic Era.

3D rendering of an extinct Megalodon shark in the seas of the Cenozoic Era.


The experts looked at 25 megalodon teeth in the Reverté and Vidal regions in Tarragona, Spain, using crown height to estimate size and age. The experts determined the younger sharks were roughly one month old and were 13 feet in length, while the older juvenile sharks were approximately 36 feet in length.

In September, a separate group of researchers determined the true size of an adult megalodon’s body, including its huge fins, based on fossils. A 52.5-foot-long megalodon likely had a head 15.3 feet long, a dorsal fin approximately 5.3 feet tall and a tail around 12.6 feet high, the scientists found.

The findings of the new study suggest that nurseries were prevalent for megalodons, feeding and protecting young members of the species, just as they are for modern sharks. However, the prevalence of nurseries may have resulted in the megalodon’s downfall, the scientists added.

“Ultimately, the presumed reliance of O. megalodon on the presence of suitable nursery grounds might have also been determinant in the demise of this iconic top predatory shark,” the study’s authors explained in the abstract.

Scientists continue to learn more about the history of sharks, which have survived all five global extinction events.

These three teeth depict more than 50 million years of shark teeth evolution. Megaldon's earliest ancestor, Otodos obliquus, from left, had smooth-edged teeth with a thick root and lateral cusplets, two mini-teeth flanking the main tooth. Another ancestor, Carcharocles auriculatus, had serrated teeth with lateral cusplets. Carcharocles megalodon had flattened bladel-ike teeth with uniform serrations and no cusplets. (Florida Museum, Kristen Grace)

These three teeth depict more than 50 million years of shark teeth evolution. Megaldon’s earliest ancestor, Otodos obliquus, from left, had smooth-edged teeth with a thick root and lateral cusplets, two mini-teeth flanking the main tooth. Another ancestor, Carcharocles auriculatus, had serrated teeth with lateral cusplets. Carcharocles megalodon had flattened bladel-ike teeth with uniform serrations and no cusplets. (Florida Museum, Kristen Grace)

Teeth of the monster of the deep that have been found are typically larger than a human hand, the researchers added. In recent memory, megalodon teeth have been found in North Carolina, South Carolina and Mexico.

In March 2019, a study suggested the giant shark spent

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Fossils show 66 million years of insects eating kauri trees

Fossils show 66 million years of insects eating kauri trees
Agathis microstachya and Agathis robusta growing near Lake Barrine, Australia. Credit: Cleveland Museum of Natural History

Exquisitely preserved feeding marks on fossil conifer leaves show that the same insect feeding and fungi persisted for millions of years on the same type of plant, from ancient Patagonian rainforests to the modern rainforests of the tropical West Pacific.

Over 50 million years ago, rainforests teeming with life stretched across the ancient supercontinent Gondwana, including what is now South America, Antarctica and Australia. Based on fossil evidence, many plants that now live in places like Australia, New Guinea and Borneo are survivors from the Gondwanan rainforest. Fossil leaves from the Patagonian region of southern Argentina also preserve an astonishing variety of insect-feeding damage traces like those seen in modern rainforests, showing that the Gondwanan forests were also home to diverse plant-feeding insect communities. Did those ancient plant-insect communities survive the breakup of Gondwana and the dramatic range changes of the host plants, and are they still alive today?

An international group of researchers focused on fossils of Agathis, a majestic, tall conifer commonly known as kauri, comparing thousands of modern specimens from Australasia and Southeast Asia to 482 Patagonian fossils ranging in age from 66 to 48 million years, latest Cretaceous to middle Eocene. Their findings were published today (Nov. 25) in Communications Biology.

Fossils show 66 million years of insects eating kauri trees
Leaf mine on a leaf of cf. Agathis from the latest Cretaceous Lefipán Formation, Chubut, Argentina. Similar blotch mines on Agathis from before and after the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction (when the non-avian dinosaurs went extinct) represent the first evidence of a probable surviving leaf mine association on the same plant genus during the mass extinction. Credit: Cleveland Museum of Natural History

“We found remarkably similar suites of insect and fungal damage on fossil and living Agathis leaves over a vast span of time and space,” said Dr. Michael Donovan, Senior Collections Manager of Paleobotany & Paleoecology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and lead author of the paper.

Insects have evolved many different plant-feeding strategies, and hundreds of damage types have been recognized in the fossil record. On both the fossil and modern Agathis leaves, the team found highly specialized leaf mines that insect larvae create as they tunnel through leaves, tumor-like galls, bite marks along leaf edges from hungry insects, the waxy protective armor of scale insects, and rust fungi.

Notably, the researchers found extremely similar elongated, blotchy leaf mines on Agathis at all the fossil sites and on multiple living species of the same conifer.

Fossils show 66 million years of insects eating kauri trees
Leaf mine, a tunnel made by a larval insect, on a leaf of Agathis zamunerae (a conifer in the family Araucariaceae) from Laguna del Hunco, an early Eocene fossil locality in Chubut, Argentina. Similar mines were found on fossil Agathis from the latest Cretaceous to middle Eocene in Patagonia and modern species in Australasia and Southeast Asia. Credit: Cleveland Museum of Natural History

“While working on a previous study on the recovery of insect feeding after the end-Cretaceous “dinosaur” extinction, I

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First exhaustive review of fossils recovered from Iberian archaeological sites

First exhaustive review of fossils recovered from Iberian archaeological sites
Lamp on fossil oyster. Credit: Universidad de Sevilla

Despite being rare, fossils nonetheless appear to be common elements in archeological records. Their presence is documented at some of the main Iberian archeological sites from the Paleolithic (Altamira, Parpalló, Reclau Viver, Aitzbitarte, La Garma, Rascaño, El Juyo and La Pileta) to the Metal Ages (Los Millares, Valencina, Los Castillejos, El Argar, Fuente Álamo, Vila Nova de São Pedro, etc.).

An interdisciplinary research team, comprised of archaeologists, archaeozoologists, palaeontologists and geologists from the Autonomous Universities of Madrid, Málaga, Granada, Córdoba and the Basque Country, as well as from the Altamira National Museum and Research Centre and the Andalusian Earth Sciences Institute (CSIC), coordinated by the Department of Prehistory and Archaeology of the University of Seville, joined forces to tackle the largest fossil record thus far from archeological sites in the Iberian Peninsula.

The researchers have analyzed a total of 633 specimens of scaphopods, molluscs, shark teeth and mammal remains from 82 archeological sites in different regions (Andalusia, Asturias, Cantabria, Castile-La Mancha, Castile-Leon, Valencia, Madrid, Murcia and the Basque Country in Spain, and Alentejo, the Algarve, Extremadura, Lisbon and Setubal in Portugal).

The vast majority of fossils were collected from areas close to archeological sites, suggesting their potential value as indicators of regional social and symbolic value during Iberian prehistory. However, there were changes throughout the period analyzed, indicating different cultural fashions and traditions.

First exhaustive review of fossils recovered from Iberian archaeological sites
Shark fossil tooth. Credit: Universidad de Sevilla

The Iberian Peninsula has one of the richest paleontological records in Western Europe. However, “there were generally only scarce indications of the collection and use of fossils at Iberian sites during Prehistory, and thus the documentation of this behavior presented an anomalous situation compared to other regions of Europe, where numerous studies have been published on this practice,” explained Miguel Cortés, Professor of Prehistory at the University of Seville and leader of the study.

On the other hand, this confirms the need to take an interdisciplinary methodological approach to detect and study the fossils that are surely still awaiting analysis in the zooarchaeological collections of museums and institutions. In this sense, this work offers a new approach to archaeo-zoological records from archeological sites, by identifying some cases where a review is needed.

First exhaustive review of fossils recovered from Iberian archaeological sites
Elephant fossil tooth. Credit: Universidad de Sevilla

“This work can serve to reappraise a little-known record and begin to solve the apparent anomaly of fossil collection by Iberian prehistoric communities compared to other areas of Western Europe,” added Dr. Cortés.

Bison engravings in Spanish caves reveal a common art culture across ancient Europe

More information:
Miguel Cortés-Sánchez et al, Fossils in Iberian prehistory: A review of the palaeozoological evidence, Quaternary Science Reviews (2020). DOI: 10.1016/j.quascirev.2020.106676
Provided by
University of Seville

First exhaustive review of fossils recovered from Iberian archaeological sites (2020, November 24)
retrieved 24 November 2020

This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no
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Fossils purported to be world’s earliest animals revealed as algae

Nov. 23 (UPI) — Fossils previously heralded as the earliest evidence of animal life have been revealed to be algae. The reinterpretation, announced Monday in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, will force scientists to reconsider early animal evolution.

“It brings the oldest evidence for animals nearly 100 million years closer to the present day,” study co-author Lennart van Maldegem said in a news release.

“We were able to demonstrate that certain molecules from common algae can be altered by geological processes — leading to molecules which are indistinguishable from those produced by sponge-like animals,” said van Maldegem, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Australian National University.

The new research reverses the trend of fresh discoveries pushing the emergence of animal life further and further back on the evolutionary timeline.

For decades, scientists have struggled to pinpoint the origins of animal life, but recently, a series of discoveries suggested sponge-like animals began proliferating in Earth’s oceans during the Ediacaran Period, as many 635 million years ago.

“Ten years ago, scientists discovered the molecular fossils of an animal steroid in rocks that were once at the bottom of an ancient sea in the Middle East,” said study co-author Jochen Brocks.

“The big question was, how could these sponges have been so abundant, covering much of the seafloor across the world, but leave no body fossils?” said Brocks, an ANU professor.

It turns out, sponges weren’t abundant — they didn’t exist yet.

Though it’s true that sponges remain the only organisms that produce the steroids of note, the latest research suggests ocean chemistry can convert algae sterols into ‘animal’ sterols.

“These molecules can be generated in the lab when simulating geological time and temperatures, but we also showed such processes did happen in ancient rocks,” said ANU researcher Ilya Bobrovskiy, who first discovered the steroid fossils 10 years ago.

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Antarctica yields oldest fossils of giant birds with 6.4-meter wingspans

Antarctica yields oldest fossils of giant birds with 21-foot wingspans
This five-inch segment of fossilized jaw, which was discovered in Antarctica in the 1980s, dates from 40 million years ago. The skull of the bird would have been about two feet long, while the pseudoteeth, which were originally covered with horny keratin, would have been up to an inch long. At this scale, the bird’s wingspan would have been 5 to 6 meters, or some 20 feet. Credit: UC Berkeley image by Peter Kloess

Fossils recovered from Antarctica in the 1980s represent the oldest giant members of an extinct group of birds that patrolled the southern oceans with wingspans of up to 21 feet (6.4 meters) that would dwarf the 11½-foot wingspan of today’s largest bird, the wandering albatross.

Called pelagornithids, the birds filled a niche much like that of today’s albatrosses and traveled widely over Earth’s oceans for at least 60 million years. Though a much smaller pelagornithid fossil dates from 62 million years ago, one of the newly described fossils—a 50 million-year-old portion of a bird’s foot—shows that the larger pelagornithids arose just after life rebounded from the mass extinction 65 million years ago, when the relatives of birds, the dinosaurs, went extinct. A second pelagornithid fossil, part of a jaw bone, dates from about 40 million years ago.

“Our fossil discovery, with its estimate of a 5-to-6-meter wingspan—nearly 20 feet—shows that birds evolved to a truly gigantic size relatively quickly after the extinction of the dinosaurs and ruled over the oceans for millions of years,” said Peter Kloess, a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley.

The last known pelagornithid is from 2.5 million years ago, a time of changing climate as Earth cooled, and the ice ages began.

Kloess is the lead author of a paper describing the fossil that appears this week in the open access journal Scientific Reports. His co-authors are Ashley Poust of the San Diego Natural History Museum and Thomas Stidham of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. Both Poust and Stidham received their Ph.Ds from UC Berkeley.

Birds with pseudoteeth

Pelagornithids are known as ‘bony-toothed’ birds because of the bony projections, or struts, on their jaws that resemble sharp-pointed teeth, though they are not true teeth, like those of humans and other mammals. The bony protrusions were covered by a horny material, keratin, which is like our fingernails. Called pseudoteeth, the struts helped the birds snag squid and fish from the sea as they soared for perhaps weeks at a time over much of Earth’s oceans.

Large flying animals have periodically appeared on Earth, starting with the pterosaurs that flapped their leathery wings during the dinosaur era and reached wingspans of 33 feet. The pelagornithids came along to claim the wingspan record in the Cenozoic, after the mass extinction, and lived until about 2.5 million years ago. Around that same time, teratorns, now extinct, ruled the skies.

The birds, related to vultures, “evolved wingspans close to what we see in

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