Thursday, July 14, 2016

You can tell when you talk to KU paleontologist David Burnham that he is anxious to return to the dig site of a Tyrannosaurus rex.

Rains have made parts of the two-track road that leads to the site impossible to pass for two days. And the clock is running: the KU paleontology expedition in Montana will stop at the end of July.

Still, calling in from the small hotel in Jordan, Montana, where he is waiting out the weather, Burnham beams about what has been found so far: 37 fossil fragments including teeth and part of a lower jaw.

“It’s a matter of following the debris field, bit by bit,” he said.

Burnham is leading an ever-changing roster of volunteers, students and staff for the nearly four-week expedition. The team’s goal is to add to the fossils already previously recovered at the site and displayed at the KU Natural History Museum. To date, 15 percent of the fossil has been found at the Hell Creek Formation site since excavations began there in 2006.

A crowdfunding campaign – the museum’s first for an expedition – and a family with a passion for paleontology made the expedition possible.

The campaign, “Bring the KU T. rex Home,” began in May with a goal of raising $16,700 to fund the expedition. More than 80 donors have pushed the total raised to $24,730. Funds raised in excess of this particular expedition’s needs will support more T. rex research at KU, the exhibition of fossils, and the involvement of students in the project.

A plastic Tyrannosaurus rex has been a mascot for the campaign and the museum has featured it through events and social media such as the museum’s Facebook page. As the fundraising effort draws to a close this week, the tiny T. rex will be packed up and head north to Montana with museum staff, where it will be featured at the excavation it has helped inspire.

Leonard Krishtalka, director of the KU Biodiversity Institute, said the campaign would not have been a success without KU student Kyle Atkins-Weltman and his parents, John Weltman and Cliff Atkins of Boston, Mass. They were the first and lead supporters of the project.

Kyle, a biology student who works in the herpetology department at the Biodiversity Institute, said he has been passionate about dinosaurs all of his life. He is a leading contributor for Dinosaur Battlegrounds.

“Paleontology is the ideal kind of work for me,” Kyle said. “I am comfortable working on the same thing for hours; you get into a zone. So slowly seeing something jutting out of the rock, and seeing it slowly reveal itself, is exciting to me.”

Cliff and John said Kyle fueled their enthusiasm for the project.

“When you have children, you want to invest in the things that excite them,” John said. “We also believe strongly in supporting education. And whatever knowledge one gains from the excavation – we wanted to help that on a broader scale.”

The family plans to volunteer at the dig site in July, he added.

“Kyle has gotten us so interested in dinosaurs,” John said. “I love Jurassic Park. I feel like an 8 year old – I’m excited to volunteer at the site.”

In Montana, Burnham is hoping a forecast for sunny weather next week will hold true. 

“I wake up full of excitement every day knowing that a discovery isn't too far away,” he said. “All the pieces we find are clues leading us closer. The only obstacle is the hard stubborn rock, but I know we must move slowly and carefully, as the next bone could be anywhere.”

Vertebrate Paleontology
Wednesday, June 15, 2016

LAWRENCE — A study appearing in the journal PLOS ONE this week shows that bioluminescence — the production of light from a living organism — is more widespread among marine fishes than previously understood.

Most people are familiar with bioluminescence in fireflies, but the phenomenon is found throughout the ocean, including in fishes. Indeed, the authors show with genetic analysis that bioluminescence has evolved independently 27 times in 14 major fish clades — groups of fish that come from a common ancestor.

“Bioluminescence is a way of signaling between fishes, the same way that people might dance or wear bright colors at a nightclub,” said W. Leo Smith, assistant curator with the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute, who co-authored the paper. He added that some fish also are thought to use bioluminescence as camouflage.

Smith said the huge variety in ways bony fish can deploy bioluminescence — such as leveraging bioluminescent bacteria, channeling light though fiber-optic-like systems or using specialized light-producing organs — underlines the importance of bioluminescence to vertebrate fish in a major swath of the world’s deep seas called the “deep scattering layer.”

“When things evolve independently multiples times, we can infer that the feature is useful,” Smith said. “You have this whole habitat where everything that’s not living at the top or bottom of the ocean or along the edges — nearly every vertebrate living in the open water — around 80 percent of those fish species are bioluminescent. So this tells us bioluminescence is almost a requirement for fishes to be successful.”

Indeed, the KU researcher said the most common vertebrate species on the planet lives within this habitat and is bioluminescent. 

“The bristlemouth is the most abundant vertebrate on Earth,” Smith said. “Estimates of the size are thousands of trillions of bristlemouth fish in the world’s oceans.”

Smith and colleagues Matthew P. Davis of St. Cloud State University and John S. Sparks of the American Museum of Natural History found all fish they examined evolved bioluminescence between the Early Cretaceous, some 150 million years ago, and the Cenozoic Era.

Further, the team shows that once an evolutionary line of fish developed the ability to produce light, it tended soon thereafter to branch into many new species.

“Many fish proliferate species when they evolve this trait — they differentiate, but we don’t know why,” Smith said. “In the ocean, there are no physical barriers to separate groups of deep sea fishes, so why are there so many species of anglerfishes, for example? When they start using bioluminescence for species recognition, they diversify into a lot more species.”

To follow this line of inquiry, Smith and his co-authors now are working with a grant from the National Science Foundation to identify specific genes associated with the production of bioluminescence in fish.

In May, Smith and his two colleagues returned after taking a KU-chartered vessel to sea from the West Coast to collect samples of bioluminescent fish for analysis.

“We need fresh specimens for modern genetic approaches,” he said. “We’ll catch fishes and look at their mRNA to see what genes are being expressed. In the groups that produce their own light, we want to get the mRNA from the light organs themselves. With this information we can begin to trace the variation within the system, including the possibility of uncovering how this system evolved.”

- Brendan Lynch, KU News

Photos: A top, a Midshipman (Porichthys) emitting light from ventral photophores. Photo by Matt Davis. Top left, a preserved Black Dragonfish (Idiacanthus) with bioluminescent barbel. Photo by Matt Davis. Bottom left, a recently collected Deep-sea Hatchetfish (Sternoptyx) with bioluminescent ventral organs. Photo by Rene Martin.

Ichthyology
Monday, May 9, 2016
Ron Seidel

By Ron Seidel

 Raintree students examine prints of various beetles during their Art Engagement class-Photo credit Caroline Chaboo.

Students at Raintree Montessori School in Lawrence are turning their research of the natural world into art, and in turn, are helping educate others.
 

Caroline Chaboo, curator of entomology, brought large prints of beetles into Raintree’s art engagement class, which is led by Cindy Sears. The class of 12 students, ranging from seven to 10 years old, were captivated by the beetles’ ornate structures. After viewing the prints, the students decided to work together to research the beetles and curate an exhibit in Raintree.
 

The student-led research branched out to include staff and resources outside of their arts engagement class. For example, Raintree Latin instructor Will Sharp helped students learn to translate the scientific Latin names of beetles. The students were encouraged to pursue their interests as far as they wish, whether it be in arts, science, music, or other endeavors.
 

“When a child finds something they are truly passionate about, they want to return to the feeling again and again,” said Lleanna McReynolds, head of school at Raintree, “this can only happen when students are given time to pursue subjects of interest”
 

The students’ partnership with the Biodiversity Institute helps them to do just that. The students plan a series of bug-related events such as outdoor collecting, and watching and drawing insects and plants. Caroline connected the students with undergraduate entomology researchers who plan to volunteer their time at the events.

 

Students prepare the beetle exhibit, through which they will lead informative tours-Photo credit Cindy Sears.
 

By giving students resources to explore their interests beyond the classroom, McReynolds believes the students experience true development.

“Watching these children in the hallways of Raintree, using a level to adjust the artwork, writing the common names from the Latin and preparing to take visitors on tours and talk about what they have learned, that is when truly learning takes place,” said McReynolds, “there is nothing better.”

 

 

Entomology
Monday, May 9, 2016
Ron Seidel

By Ron Seidel

 Raintree students examine prints of various beetles during their Art Engagement class-Photo credit Caroline Chaboo.

Students at Raintree Montessori School in Lawrence are turning their research of the natural world into art, and in turn, are helping educate others.
 

Caroline Chaboo, curator of entomology, brought large prints of beetles into Raintree’s art engagement class, which is led by Cindy Sears. The class of 12 students, ranging from seven to 10 years old, were captivated by the beetles’ ornate structures. After viewing the prints, the students decided to work together to research the beetles and curate an exhibit in Raintree.
 

The student-led research branched out to include staff and resources outside of their arts engagement class. For example, Raintree Latin instructor Will Sharp helped students learn to translate the scientific Latin names of beetles. The students were encouraged to pursue their interests as far as they wish, whether it be in arts, science, music, or other endeavors.
 

“When a child finds something they are truly passionate about, they want to return to the feeling again and again,” said Lleanna McReynolds, head of school at Raintree, “this can only happen when students are given time to pursue subjects of interest”
 

The students’ partnership with the Biodiversity Institute helps them to do just that. The students plan a series of bug-related events such as outdoor collecting, and watching and drawing insects and plants. Caroline connected the students with undergraduate entomology researchers who plan to volunteer their time at the events.

 

Students prepare the beetle exhibit, through which they will lead informative tours-Photo credit Cindy Sears.
 

By giving students resources to explore their interests beyond the classroom, McReynolds believes the students experience true development.

“Watching these children in the hallways of Raintree, using a level to adjust the artwork, writing the common names from the Latin and preparing to take visitors on tours and talk about what they have learned, that is when truly learning takes place,” said McReynolds, “there is nothing better.”

 

 

Entomology
Thursday, May 5, 2016
Ron Seidel

Six new fossil species form 'snapshot' of Asian primates stressed by ancient climate change

 


LAWRENCE — In a study to be published this week in the journal Science, researchers describe unearthing a “mother lode” of a half-dozen fossil primate species in southern China.

These primates eked out an existence just after the Eocene-Oligocene transition, some 34 million years ago. It was a time when drastic cooling made much of Asia inhospitable to primates, slashing their populations and rendering discoveries of such fossils especially rare.

“At the Eocene-Oligocene boundary, because of the rearrangement of Earth’s major tectonic plates, you had a rapid drop in temperature and humidity,” said K. Christopher Beard, senior curator at the University of Kansas’ Biodiversity Institute and co-author of the report. “Primates like it warm and wet, so they faced hard times around the world — to the extent that they went extinct in North America and Europe. Of course, primates somehow survived in Africa and Southern Asia, because we’re still around to talk about it.”

Because anthropoid primates — the forerunners of living monkeys, apes and humans— first appeared in Asia, understanding their fate on that continent is key to grasping the arc of early primate and human evolution.

“This has always been an enigma,” Beard said. “We had a lot of evidence previously that the earliest anthropoids originated in Asia. At some point, later in the Eocene, these Asian anthropoids got to Africa and started to diversify there. At some point, the geographic focal point of anthropoid evolution — monkeys, apes and humans — shifted from Asia to Africa. But we never understood when and why. Now, we know. The Eocene-Oligocene climate crisis virtually wiped out Asian anthropoids, so the only place they could evolve to become later monkeys, apes and humans was Africa.”

The paper is the product of a decade’s worth of fieldwork at a site in southern China, where the primates likely sought warmer temperatures. Beard and his colleagues Xijun Ni, Qiang Li and Lüzhou Li of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology describe the six new species from jaw and tooth fragments, which survived the ages due to their tough enamel surfaces and serve as “fingerprints” to identify ancient animals.

“The fossil record usually gives you a snapshot here or there of what ancient life was like. You typically don’t get a movie,” Beard said. “We have so many primates from the Oligocene at this particular site because it was located far enough to the south that it remained warm enough during that cold, dry time that primates could still survive there. They crowded in to the limited space that remained available to them.”

Like most of today’s primates, the KU researcher said the ancient Chinese primates were tropical tree-dwellers. One of the species, which the research team has named Oligotarsius rarus, was “incredibly similar” to the modern tarsier found today only in the Philippine and Indonesian islands.

“If you look back at the fossil record, we know that tarsiers once lived on mainland Asia, as far north as central China,” Beard said. “The fossil teeth described in this paper are nearly identical to those of modern tarsiers. Research shows that modern tarsiers are pretty much living fossils — those things have been doing what they do ever since time immemorial, as far as we can tell.”

Beard said that if not for the intense global cooling of the Eocene-Oligocene transition, the main stage of primate evolution may have continued to be in Asia, rather than transitioning to Africa where Homo sapiens eventually emerged.

Indeed, the team’s findings underscore a vulnerability to climate change shared by all primates. 

“This is the flip side of what people are worried about now,” he said. “The Eocene-Oligocene transition was the opposite of global warming — the whole world was already warm, then it cooled off. It’s kind of a mirror image. The point is that primates then, just like primates today, are more sensitive to a changing climate than other mammals.” 

Top Image: One of the fossil species, which the research team has named Oligotarsius rarus, is “incredibly similar” to the modern tarsier found today only in the Philippine and Indonesian islands. (Courtesy Andrew Cunningham)

Left: Researchers identified the six fossil species from fragments of jaws and teeth.” (Courtesy IVPP, Chinese Academy of Sciences)

By Brendan Lynch
Vertebrate Paleontology
Thursday, May 5, 2016
Ron Seidel

Six new fossil species form 'snapshot' of Asian primates stressed by ancient climate change

 


LAWRENCE — In a study to be published this week in the journal Science, researchers describe unearthing a “mother lode” of a half-dozen fossil primate species in southern China.

These primates eked out an existence just after the Eocene-Oligocene transition, some 34 million years ago. It was a time when drastic cooling made much of Asia inhospitable to primates, slashing their populations and rendering discoveries of such fossils especially rare.

“At the Eocene-Oligocene boundary, because of the rearrangement of Earth’s major tectonic plates, you had a rapid drop in temperature and humidity,” said K. Christopher Beard, senior curator at the University of Kansas’ Biodiversity Institute and co-author of the report. “Primates like it warm and wet, so they faced hard times around the world — to the extent that they went extinct in North America and Europe. Of course, primates somehow survived in Africa and Southern Asia, because we’re still around to talk about it.”

Because anthropoid primates — the forerunners of living monkeys, apes and humans— first appeared in Asia, understanding their fate on that continent is key to grasping the arc of early primate and human evolution.

“This has always been an enigma,” Beard said. “We had a lot of evidence previously that the earliest anthropoids originated in Asia. At some point, later in the Eocene, these Asian anthropoids got to Africa and started to diversify there. At some point, the geographic focal point of anthropoid evolution — monkeys, apes and humans — shifted from Asia to Africa. But we never understood when and why. Now, we know. The Eocene-Oligocene climate crisis virtually wiped out Asian anthropoids, so the only place they could evolve to become later monkeys, apes and humans was Africa.”

The paper is the product of a decade’s worth of fieldwork at a site in southern China, where the primates likely sought warmer temperatures. Beard and his colleagues Xijun Ni, Qiang Li and Lüzhou Li of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology describe the six new species from jaw and tooth fragments, which survived the ages due to their tough enamel surfaces and serve as “fingerprints” to identify ancient animals.

“The fossil record usually gives you a snapshot here or there of what ancient life was like. You typically don’t get a movie,” Beard said. “We have so many primates from the Oligocene at this particular site because it was located far enough to the south that it remained warm enough during that cold, dry time that primates could still survive there. They crowded in to the limited space that remained available to them.”

Like most of today’s primates, the KU researcher said the ancient Chinese primates were tropical tree-dwellers. One of the species, which the research team has named Oligotarsius rarus, was “incredibly similar” to the modern tarsier found today only in the Philippine and Indonesian islands.

“If you look back at the fossil record, we know that tarsiers once lived on mainland Asia, as far north as central China,” Beard said. “The fossil teeth described in this paper are nearly identical to those of modern tarsiers. Research shows that modern tarsiers are pretty much living fossils — those things have been doing what they do ever since time immemorial, as far as we can tell.”

Beard said that if not for the intense global cooling of the Eocene-Oligocene transition, the main stage of primate evolution may have continued to be in Asia, rather than transitioning to Africa where Homo sapiens eventually emerged.

Indeed, the team’s findings underscore a vulnerability to climate change shared by all primates. 

“This is the flip side of what people are worried about now,” he said. “The Eocene-Oligocene transition was the opposite of global warming — the whole world was already warm, then it cooled off. It’s kind of a mirror image. The point is that primates then, just like primates today, are more sensitive to a changing climate than other mammals.” 

Top Image: One of the fossil species, which the research team has named Oligotarsius rarus, is “incredibly similar” to the modern tarsier found today only in the Philippine and Indonesian islands. (Courtesy Andrew Cunningham)

Left: Researchers identified the six fossil species from fragments of jaws and teeth.” (Courtesy IVPP, Chinese Academy of Sciences)

By Brendan Lynch
Vertebrate Paleontology
Wednesday, May 4, 2016
Ron Seidel

‘Eve’ and descendants shape global sperm whale population structure, researchers say

 

NEWPORT, OREGON — Although sperm whales have not been driven to the brink of extinction as have some other whales, a new study has found a remarkable lack of diversity in the maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA within the species.

In fact, the mitochondrial DNA from more than a thousand sperm whales examined during the past 15 years came from a single “Eve” sperm whale tens of thousands of years ago, the researchers say.

Results of the study are being published this week in the journal Molecular Ecology.

While the exact origins of this sperm whale “Eve” remain uncertain, the study shows the importance of her female descendants in shaping global population structure, according to Alana Alexander, a University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute researcher who conducted the study while a doctoral student at Oregon State University.

“Although the male sperm whale is more famous in literature and cinema through ‘Moby Dick’ and ‘In the Heart of the Sea,’ the patterns in mitochondrial DNA show that female sperm whales are shaping genetic differentiation by sticking close to home,” Alexander said.

Working in the genetic lab of Scott Baker, associate director of Oregon State’s Marine Mammal Institute, Alexander combined DNA information from 1,091 previously studied samples with 542 newly obtained DNA profiles from sperm whales. The new samples were part of a global sampling of sperm whale populations made possible by the Ocean Alliance’s “Voyage of the Odyssey,” a five-and-a-half year circumnavigation of the globe, including some of the most remote regions of the world.

The new sampling, including sperm whales from the previously unsampled Indian Ocean, revealed global patterns of genetic differentiation and diversity.

“Sperm whales have been in the fossil record for some 20 million years,” said Baker, a co-author on the study, “so the obvious question is how one maternal lineage could be so successful that it sweeps through the global population and no other lineages survive? At this point, we can only speculate about the reasons for this success, but evolutionary advances in feeding preferences and social strategies are plausible explanations.”

The researchers say female sperm whales demonstrate strong fidelity to local areas, and both feeding habits and social structure are important to determine to better manage the species.

“There is a real risk of long-term declines in response to current anthropogenic threats, despite the sperm whale’s large worldwide population,” the authors wrote.

“One concern is that this very strong local fidelity may slow expansion of the species following whaling,” said Baker, who works at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon. “The Sri Lanka sperm whales, for example, don’t seem to mix with the Maldives whales, thus local anthropogenic threats could have a negative impact on local populations.”

The researchers note that while males are important for describing patterns in the nuclear DNA of sperm whales, ultimately the females shape the patterns within the species’ mitochondrial DNA.

“Although there is low mitochondrial DNA diversity there are strong patterns of differentiation, which implies that the global population structure in the sperm whale is shaped by females being ‘home-bodies’ – at the social group, regional and oceanic level,” Alexander said.

The study was funded by a Mamie Markham Award and a Lylian Brucefield Reynolds Award from the Hatfield Marine Science Center; a 2008-11 International Fulbright Science & Technology award to Alexander; and co-funded by the ASSURE program of the Department of Defense in partnership with the National Science Foundation REU Site program. Publication of the paper was supported in part by the Thomas G. Scott Publication Fund.

Other authors include Debbie Steel of OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute; Kendra Hoekzema, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife; Sarah Mesnick, NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center; Daniel Engelhaupt, HDR Inc., and Iain Kerr and Roger Payne, Ocean Alliance.

Photo courtesy Oregon State University, via Flickr.

 

By Alana Alexander

 

Monday, April 4, 2016
Ron Seidel

Biodiversity Informatics Training on Demand and no Fee-per-View 

 

National Biodiversity Diagnoses Instructor Team in Uganda: (L to R) Kate Ingenloff, Town Peterson, Lindsay Campell, and Arturo Ariño.

Over the past four years, the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute (JRS grant page), lead by Dr. Town Peterson and Co-Director Dr. Kate Ingenloff, has had the ambitious goal to build a comprehensive package of biodiversity informatics educational materials that would be accessible for free to anyone – literally anyone – who wanted to learn about how to gather, manage, and use biodiversity data. Now, they have announced that they have done just that. The JRS Biodiversity Foundation aims to increase the capacity for biodiveristy informatics in sub-Saharan Africa by investing in the institutions and people that create and share biodiversity data and information. By providing formal and experiential training, road tested in Africa, and making it widely and freely available, the University of Kansas team has demonstrated a fresh and a notably dedicated approach to biodiversity informatics capacity building.

In a paper in the journal Biodiversity Informatics, Peterson and Ingenloff introduce the Biodiversity Informatics Training Curriculum (BITC), version 1.2, the first complete training curriculum in biodiversity informatics – the discipline is so new that there are no degree programs or existing textbooks synthesizing and translating the field. Major advancements in data availability and computing power have, over the past decade, enabled the development of new and powerful approaches to answering questions about the earth’s biodiversity, from basic questions such as, “what plants and animals live where?”, and extending to more complex scenarios, envisioning the effects of future climate or land use change on habitat connectivity. This knowledge base, and the techniques to implement informatics, are often learned one at a time, drawn from disparate sources. The new curriculum steps logically through the informatics approach, from data collection and management, to analyses, and applications in conservation and public health.

Students and instructors from the Biodiversity Indices and Species Descriptions course workshops, held in Cameroon, March 2015.

This training curriculum is noteworthy, not only for meeting the need of a growing discipline, but also because it trains young scientists through online resources and experiential training. Rather than presenting the curriculum as a standard textbook, inert and destined to become outdated, the BITC is constructed as an online course series and academic community. Each topic in the series, such as Biodiversity Data Analysis, is a modular course, originally implemented as a series of training workshops for scientists in Africa. It can be taken as 12 stand-alone components or as part of the entire series. Online resources include a webinar series and an active Facebook community to take advantage of widely-available web platforms, such as YouTube, and together create a resource that is responsive to new ideas and technologies, and an interactive opportunity to support educational goals of young scientists and managers worldwide.

The BITC team is committed to accelerating the transfer and dissemination of new and more powerful tools in biodiversity informatics and conservation with particular emphasis on the developing world. The goal of the BITC is to make this information as accessible as possible. The team offers to mail the compiled information in a USB memory drive to anyone who cannot access it via YouTube and is developing a semi-automated workflow to translate lectures subtitles into as many languages as possible. Future plans include creating a certification or degree program built around the curriculum.

Capacity Building in biodiversity informatics is one of JRS’ three core grantmaking Programs, and underpins nearly all JRS-funded projects. Training courses like the BITC enhance the technical capacity of African countries to manage biodiversity for sustainable growth and promote communities of learning that will sustain the demand for biodiversity data.

Check out the BITC YouTube channel and Facebook group. The entire curriculum is available on the BITC site.

By Emily Grason

Informatics
Wednesday, March 30, 2016

anoleHerpetologist Rich Glor was on KCUR to discuss how anoles branch into various species and his research on what defines a species. Listen to the broadcast here.

Herpetology
Wednesday, March 30, 2016

proto spider

A team of researchers have discovered the fossil of a 305 million-year-old arachnid, which will help scientists to understand more about the early origins of modern-day spiders. 

The new species, named Idmonarachne brasieri in honor of Professor Martin Brasier, University of Oxford, who passed away in December 2014, was found in Montceau-les-Mines, France, and researchers from The University of Manchester, Berlin’s Museum für Naturkunde, the University of Kansas and Imperial College London have worked with the Natural History Museum and the UK’s Diamond Light Source to scan and examine the fossil in detail.

Details of the origins of spiders remain limited, with little knowledge of their predecessors and no insights into character acquisition early in their evolution. This fossil was preserved in 3D, which enabled the researchers to investigate its minute anatomical details. 

Scientists have known since 2008 that a group called the uraraneids were a sister group to true spiders - they could make silk, but probably laid it down in sheets, rather than spinning it as modern spiders do. They also had a tail-like structure at the end called a flagellum. 

Analysis of Idmonarachne brasieri suggests that as the spider lineage evolved, the animals lost their tail-like structure, and developed spider-like fangs and limbs. Whilst they could likely make silk, the ancestors lacked the ability to spin it using specialised appendages called spinnerets. These are the features that define true spiders, and give them more control over the use and distribution of silk. 

The work was published by Paul Selden of the University of Kansas, together with colleagues from Hampden-Sydney College, Virginia and the University of London, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 

Author Paul Selden, of KU’s Biodiversity Institute and Department of Geology, said “the new fossil occupies a key position in the evolution of spiders. It isn’t a true spider, but has provided new information regarding the evolution of the various features we associate with spiders, such as silk and venom, appeared through geological time.”

This is part of an ongoing effort to look at early arachnids, and see what this can tell us about the early evolution of the group, how they came onto land and what their evolutionary tree looks like. Arachnids as a whole are a very diverse group, but working out how they are all related to each other has proved a challenge. The authors hope that by better understanding these fossils, they can help fill in some of the blanks.