Long-Toed Bird Preserved In Amber For 99 Million Years

By Gemma Tarlach | July 11, 2019 10:00 am
A long-toed bird preserved in amber from Myanmar is the first of its kind. (Credit: Lida Xing)

Smaller than a sparrow, a bird that lived 99 million years ago in what’s now Southeast Asia had legs unlike any other avian. The bird’s hindlimb features one toe longer than its entire lower leg bone.

Lucky for paleontologists, a piece of amber has preserved the animal’s odd anatomy.

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MORE ABOUT: amber, paleontology

Apidima Skull Is Earliest Homo Sapiens Outside Africa, Say Researchers

By Gemma Tarlach | July 10, 2019 12:00 pm
The skull fragment known as Apidima 1 (right) is about 210,000 years old, according to a new analysis. Seen from the rear (middle) and side (left) in a reconstruction, the partial skull’s rounded shape shares a unique feature of modern humans. (Credit: Katerina Harvati, Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen)

A scrap of skullcap collected in 1978 and stored for decades in an Athens museum may rewrite the timeline of our species leaving our ancestral African homeland.

A new analysis of the Apidima 1 fossil, named for the Greek cave where it was found, suggests it’s 210,000 years old, which would make it the oldest evidence of Homo sapiens outside Africa.

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MORE ABOUT: human evolution

Some Ancient Crocodiles Went Vegan

By Gemma Tarlach | June 27, 2019 10:00 am
This American alligator, like crocodiles and other related species, is a meat-eating power biter. (Credit: US Fish & Wildlife Service)

Someone says “crocodiles” and the image that comes to mind is probably a toothy one. Modern crocodilians are power biters, and many species are apex predators. But it wasn’t always that way.

Paleontologists believe that multiple extinct species preferred plants over prey.

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Really Big Bird Found In Crimea

By Gemma Tarlach | June 26, 2019 7:00 pm
big bird found in crimea
Artist’s rendering of the Black Sea big bird Pachystruthio, which researchers estimate was comparable to Madagascar’s elephant birds and New Zealand’s moa. (Credit: Andrey Atuchin)

Towering more than ten feet tall and weighing in at about 1,000 pounds, big bird Pachystruthio was a big deal. The animal, which weighed about as much as a male polar bear, roamed the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea. That’s thousands of miles — and across the equator — from the better-known avian giants.

The earliest members of the genus Homo outside of Africa may have hunted Pachystruthio. But it’s unclear whether they would have been successful. The researchers behind the find say, unlike Madagascar’s large but lumbering elephant birds, this big bird was fast.

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MORE ABOUT: paleontology

Fossil Find Is First Evidence Of Arctic Hyenas

By Gemma Tarlach | June 18, 2019 5:00 am
An artist’s rendering of ancient Arctic hyenas belonging to the genus Chasmaporthetes, now known to have roamed Canada’s Yukon Territory. (Credit: Julius T. Csotonyi)

You might associate hyenas with Africa’s sprawling savannas, but the animals were once right at home above the Arctic Circle.

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MORE ABOUT: Beringia, paleontology

Catching A Whiff Of T. Rex’s Sense Of Smell

By Gemma Tarlach | June 11, 2019 6:01 pm
Did Sue the T. rex and other members of the species have a great sense of smell? (Credit: The Field Museum)

As fascinating and awe-inspiring as fossils are, the ancient bones tell us only so much about how an animal actually lived.

Take T. rex, for example: How did the animal find food, through sharp sight, great hearing or a keen sense of smell? The nose knows, say authors of a new paper on the iconic dinosaur’s olfactory ability.

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Ancient DNA Study Reveals Deep Roots of Modern Grapevines

By Gemma Tarlach | June 10, 2019 10:00 am
New research into the genetic backstory of ancient French grapevines reveals that some varieties cultivated today haven’t changed for centuries. (Credit: Victor Grigas/Wikimedia Commons)

Consider this the next time you toast a friend and wish them long life: The wine swishing around your glass may have come from grapevines with very long-lived lineages indeed. Researchers analyzing genetic material from ancient grape seeds turned up evidence of varieties almost unchanged for nearly 2,000 years. Another variety cultivated today is identical to grapevines propagated 900 years ago.

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MORE ABOUT: viniculture, wine

Billion-Year-Old Fossil Fungi, Oldest Known, Revises Broader Evolution Timeline

By Gemma Tarlach | May 22, 2019 12:00 pm


A billion-year-old fungi microfossil includes the earliest documented presence of chitin, a fibrous substance found today not only in fungi cell walls but also arthropod exoskeletons and fish scales. (Credit: Loron et al 2019, DOI:10.1038/s41586-019-1217-0)

The fungus among us is a key player in the ecosystem — and was part of the world hundreds of millions of years before we were. Hold on, make that potentially a billion years before we came along. Fungi microfossils from the Canadian Arctic are 900 million-1 billion years old, pushing back the fossil record for these organisms by at least 450 million years.

This discovery is about more than the very distant evolutionary kin of mushrooms, however. The microfossils include the earliest documented presence of a fibrous substance called chitin, found in living fungi and animals as varied as insects and fish. The fossils change our story, too: Their age pushes back the broader timeline for the evolution of not just fungi, but also animals.
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Amber Preserves Rare Snapshot Of Coastal Life 99 Million Years Ago

By Gemma Tarlach | May 13, 2019 2:00 pm

Amber from Myanmar, dated to be about 99 million years old, preserves a rare snapshot of coastal life, including an ammonite (at right). (Credit: NIGPAS)

Amber from Myanmar preserves a rare snapshot of coastal life 99 million years ago, including a marine mollusk called an ammonite (at right). (Credit: NIGPAS)

Amber, being fossilized tree resin, usually preserves scenes from an ancient forest. The latest stunning find from Myanmar, however, is a souvenir from a day at the beach 99 million years ago, including the first ammonite, a marine animal, preserved in amber. Read More

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Was Australopithecus Sediba Our Ancestor?

By Gemma Tarlach | May 8, 2019 1:00 pm

Composite reconstruction of Au. sediba. For comparison, a small-bodied female modern H. sapiens is shown on the left, and a male Pan troglodytes on the right. (Credit: Lee R. Berger/University of the Witwatersrand)

Australopithecus sediba (center) has a unique mix of anatomical traits that has led to debate over its proper place in the hominin family tree. For comparison: a small-bodied female modern human (left), and a male chimp (right). (Credit: Lee R. Berger/University of the Witwatersrand)

Remember Australopithecus sediba? The convention-challenging South African hominin, announced with much fanfare in 2010, has gotten lost in a torrent of other recent fossil finds from our family tree. A new study adds insult to injury, stacking the odds against A. sediba‘s place in our distant evolutionary past.
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