Tuesday, January 1, 2013

2012 in Paleontology

It’s time for a retrospective of year 2012 in the paleontological field. Many species were described that year and apart from a few obvious ones, it was quite difficult to decide what should make up the top ten stories. After multiple hesitations, here is my pick (not in particular order of importance):

1.- The Kelheim theropod unveiled in 2011 received its official scientific name as Sciurumimus albersdoerferi. More surprisingly, it turns out to be a Megalosauroid, making it the theropod the most distantly related to birds to show direct evidence of feathers.

Reference: O. W. M. Rauhut, C. Foth, H. Tischlinger and M. A. Norell. 2012. Exceptionally preserved juvenile megalosauroid theropod dinosaur with filamentous integument from the Late Jurassic of Germany. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 29:11746-11751.

2.- At 9 meter in length, Yutyrannus huali is the largest dinosaur showcasing direct evidence of feathers. Yutyrannus is also a tyrannosauroid, moving the at least partial feather coverage idea for Tyrannosaurus rex, from good probability to almost certainty.

Reference: X. Xu, K. Wang, K. Zhang, Q. Ma, L. Xing, C. Sullivan, D. Hu, S. Cheng, and S. Wang. 2012. A gigantic feathered dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of China. Nature 484:92-95

3.- Echinoderms (starfish, urchins, sea lilies, etc…) are unique among animals in having a body with a fivefold symmetry. We know from embryology that they must have evolved from bilateral ancestors. The fossil record finally confirmed this with the discovery of Ctenoimbricata spinosa, a sea floor spiny animal which proved to be an early echinoderm with bilateral symmetry.

Reference: S. Zamora, I. A. Rahman, and A. B. Smith. 2012. Plated Cambrian Bilaterians Reveal the Earliest Stages of Echinoderm Evolution. PLoS ONE 7(6):e38296:1-e38296:11.

4.- Microraptor, the four-winged dinosaur that already made the headlines last year when it was discovered to feed on birds, reveals its true colors: the study of fossil pigments indicates it had the plumage of a crow: metallic black.

Reference: Q. Li. 2012. Reconstruction of Microraptor and the Evolution of Iridescent Plumage. Science 335: 1215-1219.

5.- Evidence of feathers was also found in the North American ostrich-mimic dinosaur Ornithomimus edmontonicus. While the body was covered with downy feathers, the arms in the adults had wing feathers, suggesting that mating display was the initial purpose of those, not flight.

Reference: D. K. Zelenitsky, F. Therrien, G. M. Erickson, C. L. Debuhr, Y.  Kobayashi, D. A.  Eberth, F.  Hadfield,   2012. Feathered Non-Avian Dinosaurs from North America Provide Insight into Wing Origins. Science 338 (6106): 510.

6.-  Mosasaurs form a group of highly specialized predators from the Late Cretaceous period,  related to modern day monitor lizards and perfectly adapted for swimming. The fossil of Pannoniasaurus inexpectatus is the first evidence that these predominantly marine creatures have also conquered freshwater.

Reference: L. Makádi, M. W. Caldwell, and A. Osi. 2012. The first freshwater mosasauroid (Upper Cretaceous, Hungary) and a new clade of basal mosasauroids. PLoS ONE 7(12):e51781.

7.-  Nyasasaurus parringtoni known from very fragmentary remains might have been the earliest representative of the dinosaur clade.

Reference: S. J. Nesbitt, P. M. Barrett, S. Werning, C. A. Sidor, and A. J. Charig. 2013. The oldest dinosaur? A Middle Triassic dinosauriform from Tanzania. Biology Letters 9(1):1-5.

8.- A morphometric study of archosaur skulls indicate that birds have the skull of baby dinosaurs. Our avian friends may have therefore evolved from neotenic dinosaurs retaining their juvenile characteristics through adulthood.

Reference: Bhullar, B., Marugán-Lobón, J., Racimo, F., Bever, G., Rowe, T., Norell, M., & Abzhanov, A. 2012. Birds have paedomorphic dinosaur skulls. Nature, 487, 223-226.

9.- A new phylogenetic analysis of the enigmatic Miocene creature known as Necrolestes patagonensis indicates that it was a survivor of an ancient lineage of primitive mammals thought to have disappeared at the end of the Cretaceous: the Meridiolestids.

Reference: G. W. Rougier, J. R. Wible, R. M. D. Beck and S. Apesteguía. 2012. The Miocene mammal Necrolestes demonstrates the survival of a Mesozoic nontherian lineage into the late Cenozoic of South America. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 109 (49): 20053–20058.

10.- The Cetotheriids are a family of baleen whales that appeared during the Late Oligocene and thought to be extinct since the Late Pliocene. Not anymore: a new phylogenetic analysis indicates that the living Pygmy Right Whale (Caperea marginata) is in fact a modern surviving representative of this family.

Reference: R. E. Fordyce and F. G. Marx. 2013. The pygmy right whale Caperea marginata: the last of the cetotheres. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 280 (1753): 20122645.

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