Sunday, November 17, 2019

Your Friends The Titanosaurs, part 18: Mendozasaurus, Microcoelus, and Mnyamawamtuka

The three guests for this entry are Mendozasaurus neguyelap from Argentina, Microcoelus patagonicus also from Argentina, and Mnyamawamtuka moyowamkia from Tanzania. Mn. moyowamkia is one of the most recent additions to Titanosauria, Me. neguyelap is a reliable sort that doesn't get a lot of publicity outside of the technical literature, and Mi. patagonicus is more or less a historical afterthought.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Ferrisaurus sustutensis

You may have come across a reference to the Sustut dinosaur over the years. It's now been formally described as a new genus and species of leptoceratopsid dinosaur: Ferrisaurus sustutensis. Victoria Arbour, as lead author and someone who has dealt with this specimen for nigh-on fifteen years, has a personal take over at Pseudoplocephalus. For those of you playing along at home, Ferrisaurus is the first named nonavian dinosaur from British Columbia.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

At the Grand Canyon

When I left off back in October, we'd just left Flagstaff for Grand Canyon National Park. The object of my visit was to support a paleontology project at Grand Canyon National Park, including our big National Fossil Day event.

The event is over now, but you can still see things like this display put together by GIPs Diana and Klara with park staff. As usual, I was too caught up in working the event to take a lot of pictures.

Of course, people who are interested in geology hardly need to be told to go to the Grand Canyon.

Pictured: geology, as far as the eye can see.

With billions of years of geological history on display, showing evidence of everything from high-grade metamorphism, to volcanic eruptions, to sea level changes, to eolian processes, to cave formation, there's something there for just about every area of geological study. Granted, a lot of things aren't immediately accessible due to the whole "enormous canyon" factor, but even if you've only got a few hours you can visit the historic Yavapai Geology Museum and take a quick tour of the park's geological formations on the Trail of Time.

Left: entering the trail. Right: a time marker, from near the "present" end of the trail, where time is less compressed.

The Trail of Time uses a series of time markers spaced evenly along the trail, with a couple of shifts in the order of magnitude. For example, starting from the Yavapai Geology Museum, the first markers are yearly. Pretty soon, though, the markers are for every million years. As you go along, stones from the various formations are placed according to their ages.

A couple of examples. Left: a close view of the stromatolitic rock chosen to represent the Awatubi Member of the Kwagunt Formation. Right: the Sixtymile Formation is one of the most obscure units of the Grand Canyon, and actually has had its age revised significantly since the Trail opened in 2010; it's now known to be early Cambrian in age (Karlstrom et al. 2018). This particular sample bears a striking resemblance to a Nut Goodie bar.

Once you get used to the rocks, you'll become able to pick out the different formations at long distances.

As the display shows, the top four formations of the Canyon can be readily picked out. Below the Hermit Formation is the Supai Group, which is responsible for giving the underlying steep cliffs of the Redwall Limestone its red walls (it's naturally gray).

There are also many trails which offer glorious views and the opportunity to commune closely with the rocks. (Don't plan on hiking to the bottom and back up in one day, though!) I went down part of the Grandview Trail as part of a day survey.

And it certainly lives up to its name! Try identifying the upper formations using the previous image.

There's also some human geological history of the Canyon at the Grand Canyon Pioneer Cemetery, where several notable geologists and paleontologists have been laid to rest. Edwin "Eddie" McKee is the person most indelibly associated with the Canyon, having quite literally written the book on most of the sedimentary formations of the park, but there are also: Bill Breed of the Museum of Northern Arizona; John Maxson of the California Institute of Technology; Glen Sturdevant, the park's first naturalist; and David White, who described the park's plant fossils in the 1920s. Some of the species described by White are depicted on his monument.

It's a little difficult to make out the plants, but they are present in three of the four corners of White's plaque.

Just keep an eye open for wildlife...

Foggy mornings are a lot less frequent than elk.

Aphonopelma marxi (a.k.a. A. behlei) enjoying a walk on the Trail of Time.


Karlstrom, K., J. Hagadorn, G. Gehrels, W. Matthews, M. Schmitz, L. Madronich, J. Mulder, M. Pecha, D. Giesler, and L. Crossey. 2018. Cambrian Sauk transgression in the Grand Canyon region redefined by detrital zircons. Nature Geoscience 11:438–443. doi:10.1038/s41561-018-0131-7.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Hyoliths IV: The Quest For Hyoliths

For being a pretty obscure group of long-extinct shelled invertebrates, hyoliths get a fair amount of study. What's been going on since we checked in a little over a year ago?

Back in the Hyolithening we looked at soft-tissue discoveries that indicated the enigmatic hyoliths were actually closely related to brachiopods. Later, in the Season of the Hyolith, came evidence of pedicles in early hyoliths, further linking hyoliths to brachiopods. Settled stuff, right? Hey, this is paleontology; we can always complicate things. There's also the hard parts of hyoliths to consider. It's been known for a while that hyolith shells and mollusk shells have certain structural similarities which must be due to either common ancestry or convergent evolution. Li et al. (2019) opted to go down to the early days of Hyolitha, publishing on the microstructure of Cambrian hyolith shells. The microstructural fabrics of the shells are more similar to what is seen in Cambrian mollusks than Cambrian brachiopods, being lamellar (fine layers of alternating materials) and composed of tiny "blade or lath-like" aragonite or calcite crystals. Li et al. (2019) interpreted the shell similarities as evidence of homology, not convergence. Would this make hyoliths mollusks? Well, no, not necessarily; it just means the mollusk line and the hyolith line diverged after evolution of the common shell structure. Li et al. proposed that the hyoliths were intermediates between mollusks and lophophorates (brachiopods, bryozoans, and horseshoe worms), with the common ancestor of the hyoliths and lophophorates evolving the basic lophophore feeding anatomy, but the lophophorates dropping the mollusk-like shell and evolving different shell structures. Under this hypothesis, you might think of a hyolith as something like sticking a brachiopod-like animal in a mollusk-like shell.

As we saw back in the Hyolithening, hyoliths were equipped with a sort of mustache of tiny tentacles for feeding. This is not the end of the digestive story, though. Berg-Madsen et al. (2018) recently described the fossilized digestive tract of the orthothecid hyolith Circotheca johnstrupi from the early Cambrian of the Læså Formation, Denmark. The guts of this hyolith formed a series of 20+ loops in a chevron pattern going off to the small pointy end of the shell, turning into a simple tube leading back to the wide end for the return chute. The chevron loops are interpreted as ventrally positioned (which would be along the flat side of the shell) and the anal tube as dorsally positioned. Based on the small number of preserved hyolith digestive tracts, the orthothecids had much more complex tracts than the hyolithids, which had a simple "U", suggesting an ecological difference. Interestingly, juvenile orthothecids also had simple "U"-shaped tracts, which may indicate the ecological factor appeared later in life (and that juvenile orthothecids were doing something different than adults) (Devaere et al. 2014).

An odd aspect of hyoliths is that they seem to have been very handy as hard substrates for epibionts. For example, Zicha et al. (in press) found that in the Middle Ordovician Šárka Formation, 60% of the colonized shells were hyolith conchs, with edrioasteroid echinoderms being particularly selective for them. Wen et al. (2019) also commented on the edrioasteroid fondness for hyoliths. They described the earliest known such colonizer, Totiglobis spencensis from the Cambrian Spence Shale (roughly what we used to call the Middle Cambrian). It was attached to a specimen of the hyolith Haplophrentis; based on the hyolith's operculum being adjacent, it seems that the hyolith acquired the epibiont during life and the two grew and prospered together.


Berg-Madsen, V., M. Valent, and J. O. R. Ebbestad. 2018. An orthothecid hyolith with a digestive tract from the early Cambrian of Bornholm, Denmark. GFF 140(1):25–37. doi:10.1080/11035897.2018.1432680.

Devaere, L., S. Clausen, J. J. Alvaro, J. S. Peel, and D. Vachard. 2014. Terreneuvian orthothecid (Hyolitha) digestive tracts from northern Montagne Noire, France: Taphonomic, ontogenetic and phylogenetic implications. PLoS One 9(2):e88583. doi:10.1371/journal.pone0088583.

Li,  L., X. Zhang, C. B. Skovsted, H. Yun, B. Pan, and G. Li. 2019. Homologous shell microstructures in Cambrian hyoliths and molluscs. Palaeontology 62(4):515–532. doi:10.1111/pala.12406.

Wen, R., L. E. Babcock, J. Peng, and R. A. Robison. 2019. New edrioasteroid (Echinodermata) from the Spence Shale (Cambrian), Idaho, USA: further evidence of attachment in the early evolutionary history of edrioasteroids. Bulletin of Geosciences 94(1):115–124.

Zicha, O., J. Bruthansová, and P. Kraft. In press. Epibionts on shells in the Šárka Formation: a sparsely occupied niche in the lower to middle Darriwilian (Oretanian, Ordovician) in the Prague Basin (Czech Republic). Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology. doi:10.1016/j.palaeo.2019.109401.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Your Friends The Titanosaurs, part 17: Malawisaurus, Mansourasaurus, and Maxakalisaurus

A pair of African titanosaurs (Malawisaurus dixeyi and Mansourasaurus shahinae) get the call this week, along with Maxakalisaurus topai from Brazil. It's also the second consecutive entry where there are rumblings of an imminent redescription of one of the guests: last month it was the Magyarosaurus complex, this month it's M. dixeyi. What's going on with probably the most widely known African titanosaur? Read on to find out!

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Compact Thescelosaurus Year Four

It's time for the annual update to The Compact Thescelosaurus, now entering its fifth year. This time, ichthyosaurs join the group, which is really stretching it for me, but hopefully it's not entirely in vain. Ichthyosaurs fared a bit better than plesiosaurs in that *only* 91 of the 224 species (40.6%) included are of questionable validity, rather than 173 of 318 (54.4%). (Only.) My go-to work was McGowan and Motani 2003 on Ichthyopterygia (Handbook of Paleoherpetology 8), just to figure out what was there. Ichthyosaurus itself, like Plesiosaurus, accumulated an awe-inspiring retinue of species over the years, but it's not alone. A couple of areas of ichthyosaur taxonomy are pretty volatile at the moment as massively specious genera are re-evaluated, so expect revision. (Also expect the usual formatting bugs and obvious corrections that come with a new sheet.)

Sure, like you don't know what an ichthyosaur looks like. This was found at Wikimedia Commons, but originally came from a short item by William Diller Matthew in the American Museum Journal for January 1908.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

What I Did While I Was Out: On the Way to the Grand Canyon

As I mentioned a few months ago, I've been spending a lot of time on the fossils and rocks of Grand Canyon National Park this year. Part of why I've been doing this culminated on Saturday, September 28: our special National Fossil Day event, held at the park as part of their centennial festivities. (You can see the whole group that worked the event here.) We've been working for months on a Grand Canyon NP paleontological inventory, and to further that work as well as help at the public event, I spent the end of September in Arizona, visiting various places.