Birmingham recently hosted the British Science Festival, with many fantastic public events and talks here on the UoB campus and across the city. It was an exhausting week, but very rewarding! I organised an event on "Virtual Palaeontology", co-sponsored by the Palaeontological Association and the Lapworth Museum of Geology, with Imran Rahman and Russell Garwood giving great talks on how they use CT scanning in their research on Palaeozoic fossils. On the Sunday of the festival, we welcomed around two thousand people, mostly families with young children, into the Lapworth Museum, for a range of exciting activities relating to fossils and rocks. On the same day, I had the honour of giving the Halstead Lecture, sponsored by the Geological Association and the British Science Association. I spoke to a packed room on the origin and evolutionary rise of dinosaurs. My talk picked up a bit of media interest, with an article appearing in the Sunday Times, and two articles in Forbes.
Me speaking at the British Science Festival. Image by Chloe Wilson (@_Chloewilson)
I'm a bit delayed posting this, but together with a team of researchers from the UK, Switzerland, and the USA, I was recently involved in the description of the first dinosaur from Venezuela, which we named Laquintasaura venezuelae in a paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Laquintasaura is exciting for a number of reasons: it is the first dinosaur from northern South America, a rare example of a dinosaur from the palaeoequatorial region, and perhaps the earliest evidence for social behaviour in ornithischian dinosaurs. However, the most exciting thing is that our new radioisotopic data reveals that Laquintasaura came from rocks that might be less than a million years younger than the Triassic-Jurassic mass extinction, and so provides a rare window into how dinosaurs fared in the immediate aftermath of that event. It seems that ornithischian dinosaurs, at least, were doing pretty well!
Life reconstruction of Laquintasaura by Dr Mark Witton.
I did an interview for BBC West Midlands on this new discovery, which you can watch below.
Barrett, P. M., BUTLER, R. J., Mundil, R., Scheyer, T. M., Irmis, R. B. & Sánchez-Villagra, M. R. 2014. A palaeoequatorial ornithischian and new constraints on early dinosaur diversification. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 281: 20141147.
Spiegel Wired National Geographic I am joint lead author with my friend and colleague Steve Brusatte on a new review paper on the dinosaur extinction, published yesterday in the journal Biological Reviews. The paper is currently free to download. To write this paper we brought together an international team of 11 dinosaur and Cretaceous-Palaeogene boundary researchers, to attempt to reach a consensus on the causes and dynamics of the dinosaur extinction. Our primary conclusion is that the asteroid impact was indeed the main killing mechanism, but that dinosaur ecosystems may have been particularly vulnerable to the effects of this impact due to losses in biodiversity among some large herbivorous groups. These biodiversity declines may have been the result of other environmental changes occurring during the Late Cretaceous, such as sea level falls and massive Deccan volcanism. As you might expect, we received a fair degree of media coverage. I did a live TV interview with BBC World/BBC4, radio interviews with the Today programme (BBC Radio 4), BBC Wales, and Radio Forth, and spoke to journalists from the UK, USA, Canada, Spain and Chile. Steve did lots of media, including CBS Evening News, and other members of the research team including Paul Barrett and Phil Mannion also did live TV and radio interviews. I've posted a selection of links to news stories below:
Back in 2009, Octavio Mateus, Steve Brusatte and I took a short trip down to the Algarve in southern Portugal to search for Triassic vertebrate fossils. We were attempting to relocate a bonebed that had been discovered by a German geology student in the early 1980s, and from which he had collected some rather scrappy remains of large amphibians (temnospondyls). We managed to find the site, which actually turned out to be an extremely rich horizon, with multiple complete skulls of a new species of the temnospondyl genus Metoposaurus. With support from several funding agencies, including the German Research Foundation (DFG) and the Jurassic Foundation, we excavated parts of the bonebed in 2010 and 2011, together with a large team including Sébastien Steyer and Jessica Whiteside. In addition to the amphibian material, an exciting discovery from a slightly higher stratigraphic level at the same site was a lower jaw of a phytosaur. Phytosaurs are a group of Late Triassic reptiles that were very crocodile-like in morphology (and probably ecology), and which are well known from central Europe (Germany, Poland, Italy) and from other continents (particularly North America). However, this group had never previously been discovered on the Iberian Peninsula. The association of a phytosaur and the temnospondyl genus Metoposaurus is very similar to early Late Triassic sites in Poland and Germany, and suggests strong faunal similarities across Europe at that time.
Above: Right lower jaw of the Portuguese phytosaur in lateral view. The anterior end of the mandible is missing.
Our new paper on this phytosaur jaw is the first fully published result of our fieldwork. Another paper on the temnospondyl fossils is currently in press, also at Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. Fieldwork itself is currently on hold, but we hope to get this project up and running again in the near future.
Mateus, O., BUTLER, R. J., Brusatte, S. L., Steyer, J. S. & Whiteside, J. H. 2014. The first phytosaur (Diapsida, Archosauriformes) from the Late Triassic of the Iberian Peninsula. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 34:970-975.
It has been a busy few months in terms of papers. As always, a full list of papers is available here. I don't have time to mention everything that we have published, but a few highlights include: In January, Martin published a new paper in PLOS ONE on the possible proterosuchid reptile Tasmaniosaurus from the Lower Triassic of Australia. This paper resulted from Martin's visit to Hobart in Australia in 2012, and includes a comprehensive reassessment of the anatomy of this enigmatic taxon.
Left: Skull reconstruction of the Early Triassic archosauromorph Tasmaniosaurus, modified from Ezcurra (2014).
In February, Martin and I published in PLOS ONE together with Torsten Scheyer of the University of Zurich a comprehensive reassessment of the Permian fossil record of Sauria, one of the most important groups of vertebrates (which includes within it lizards, snakes, birds, crocodiles, and dinosaurs). This included a major new phylogenetic analysis of the evolutionary interrelationships of saurians and their fossil relatives, and has implications for understanding the early evolutionary history of saurians, the impact of the Permo-Triassic mass extinction, and the timing of the bird-lizard split. We named a new genus and species of Permian archosauromorph, Aenigmastropheus parringtoni, based on material collected from Tanzania. This paper results from two year’s worth of intensive research by Martin involving data collection in museums on six continents, including in Russia, China, Argentina, South Africa, Australia and the USA, and forms a key part of his PhD thesis.
Right: Dorsal vertebra of the new archosauromorph Aenigmastropheus, from the late Permian of Tanzania.
In March, I was a coauthor on a paper published in Nature Communications and led by Roger Benson of the University of Oxford that examined body size evolution in the Mesozoic flying reptiles, the pterosaurs. In this paper we examined pterosaur body size evolution over 150 million years of the Mesozoic. We demonstrated that early pterosaur body size evolution was relatively constrained, but that from the Late Jurassic onwards pterosaurs underwent strong evolutionary pressures towards the evolution of larger body sizes. This evolutionary trend culminated in giant pterosaurs with wing spans of 10 metres or more. We proposed that our results provide support for controversial hypotheses that pterosaurs were competitively replaced by the adaptive radiation of Mesozoic birds.
Left. Pterosaur wingspan plotted against time, and across pterosaur phylogeny.
Finally, just this month we published a paper in BMC Evolutionary Biology, together with Liu Jun and Corwin Sullivan of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing, on the phylogeny of early archosaurs. This paper grew out of our visit to Beijing in 2013, when we examined two species of enigmatic early archosaur from the Middle Triassic of China: Turfanosuchus dabanensis and Yonghesuchus sangbiensis. In this paper we propose that these two species form a previously unrecognised clade of early archosaurs, Gracilisuchidae, together with Gracilisuchus stipanicicorum from the Middle Triassic of Argentina, and we examine the biogeographical and evolutionary implications.
Left: holotype skull of the Middle Triassic archosaur Turfanosuchus dabanensis from China in left lateral and dorsal views.
Back in January, I was awarded a Marie Curie Career Integration Grant for the project “ARCHOSAUR RISE – The early Mesozoic rise of archosaurs: New insights into an exemplar evolutionary radiation”. The grant is worth €100,000, will run from 2014-2018, and is focused on understanding faunal changes during the Triassic period that led to the rise of dinosaur-dominated ecosystems. The grant is already underway, and has already been used to purchase a dedicated workstation for CT analysis with Avizo software, and to support fieldwork in South Africa during May. More updates as the grant progresses!
In late May, we completed two weeks fieldwork in South Africa, working together with a team of local researchers led by Dr Jonah Choiniere of the University of the Witwatersrand. We were working on remote farmland in Eastern Cape Province, eight hours drive south of Johannesburg. The aim of our fieldwork, which was partially funded by a Marie Curie Career Integration Grant from the European Union, was to hunt for vertebrate fossil localities in the Middle Triassic Burgersdorp Formation. In particular, we were interested in the uppermost part of the Burgersdorp Formation (Cynognathus Assemmblage Zone, Subzone C), which is around 240 million years old, and has previously yielded fossils of cynodonts, dicynodonts and temnospondyls.
Above: Field team for the South African expedition. L-R: Roland Sookias, Jonah Choiniere, Blair McPhee, Kathleen Dollman, Martin Ezcurra, Richard Butler (photograph by Mike Day).
The expedition was very successful, identifying new localities and good new fossil material for all of these groups, as well as the first potential archosauromorph remains from this horizon. The best discoveries were made on a game farm, where we were treated to regular sightings of springbok, wildebeest, ostrich, and rather noisy baboons. Detailed study of these fossils is now planned for early 2015, and will be combined with further fieldwork.
Above: Roland Sookias with a large piece of temnospondyl jaw found as float.
Following the fieldwork, Martin and Roland travelled on to Cape Town to study fossils at the Iziko South African Museum, as part of the final phase of data collection for their PhDs.
Once again, I've allowed way too much time to pass since updating our news page. I'm going to attempt to remedy this with some updates on some of the most important things that we've been up to over the last six months or so. I'm very pleased that we are currently hosting Dr Felipe Montefeltro, from UNESP (São Paulo State University) in São Paulo, Brazil. Felipe has joined us as a University of Birmingham Brazilian Visiting Fellow, and is in Birmingham from May to July. Felipe is currently carrying out postdoctoral research looking at the evolution of the ear among crocodilians and their extinct relatives (crocodylomorphs), and particularly at the ear morphology in crocodylomorphs with extreme morphologies or which occupied unusual ecological niches.
While in Birmingham, Felipe has been working on two fossil crocodylomorph species from the Mesozoic of the UK: the basal eusuchian Hylaeochampsa vectiana and the marine crocodylomorph Pelagosaurus typus. We've micro-CT scanned specimens of both of these taxa at the Natural History Museum in London, and Felipe is currently working on segmenting these datasets using our new dedicated workstation for CT analysis.
Above: Felipe with the CT scanner in the basement of the NHM in London during CT scanning of the Pelagosaurus skull.
While in Europe, Felipe is also taking the opportunity to visit fossil collections in Germany, Belgium, London, Warwick and Shropshire, and is working together with our team on the description of a new rhynchosaur taxon from South Africa. We'll provide updates on the results of his research as the project progresses.