News

Monday, April 1, 2019

tangled mass of articulated fish from the Tanis inundation surge depositA study to be published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences offers a scientific first: a detailed snapshot of the terrible moments right after the Chicxulub impact — the most cataclysmic event known to have befallen life on Earth.

At a site called Tanis in North Dakota’s Hell Creek Formation, a team of paleontologists whose headquarters are at the University of Kansas unearthed a motherlode of exquisitely-preserved animal and fish fossils — creatures that lived in and around a deeply chiseled river connected to the ancient Western Interior Seaway — that were killed suddenly in events triggered by the Chicxulub impact.

The fossils were crammed into a “rapidly emplaced high-energy onshore surge deposit” along the KT boundary that contained associated ejecta and iridium impactite associated with the impact about 66 million years ago — an impact that eradicated about 75 percent of Earth’s animal and plant species.

field research with Robert DePalma at left and Peter Larson at right examining the site“A tangled mass of freshwater fish, terrestrial vertebrates, trees, branches, logs, marine ammonites and other marine creatures was all packed into this layer by the inland-directed surge,” said lead author Robert DePalma, a KU doctoral student in geology who works in the KU Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum. “Timing of the incoming ejecta spherules matched the calculated arrival times of seismic waves from the impact, suggesting that the impact could very well have triggered the surge.”

DePalma, who discovered the fossil motherlode, said the find outlines how the impact could have devastated areas very far from the crater quite rapidly.

“A tsunami would have taken at least 17 or more hours to reach the site from the crater, but seismic waves — and a subsequent surge — would have reached it in tens of minutes,” he said.

DePalma and his colleagues describe the rushing wave that shattered the Tanis site as a “seiche.”

“As the 2011 Tohoku earthquake in Japan showed us, seismic shaking can cause surges far from the epicenter,” he said. “In the Tohoku example, surges were triggered nearly 5,000 miles away in Norway just 30 minutes after impact. So, the KT impact could have caused similar surges in the right-sized bodies of water worldwide, giving the first rapid ‘bloody nose’ to those areas before any other form of aftermath could have reached them.”

According to KU researchers, even before the surge arrived, Acipenseriform fish (sturgeon) found at the site already had inhaled tiny spherules ejected from the Chicxulub impact.

micro-CT image showing cutaway of clay-altered ejecta spherule with internal core of unaltered impact glass“The fish were buried quickly, but not so quickly they didn’t have time to breathe the ejecta that was raining down to the river,” said co-author David Burnham, preparator of vertebrate paleontology at the KU Biodiversity Institute. “These fish weren’t bottom feeders, they breathed these in while swimming in the water column. We’re finding little pieces of ejecta in the gill rakers of these fish, the bony supports for the gills. We don’t know if some were killed by breathing this ejecta, too.”

The number and quality of preservation of the fossils at Tanis are such that Burnham dubs it the “lagerstätte” of the KT event — paleontologist-speak for a landmark sedimentary deposit with exceptionally intact specimens. He said this is especially true as the fish are cartilaginous, not bony, and are less prone to fossilization.

“The sedimentation happened so quickly everything is preserved in three dimensions — they’re not crushed,” Burnham said. “It’s like an avalanche that collapses almost like a liquid, then sets like concrete. They were killed pretty suddenly because of the violence of that water. We have one fish that hit a tree and was broken in half.”

Indeed, the Tanis site contains many hundreds of articulated ancient fossil fish killed by the Chicxulub impact’s aftereffects and is remarkable for the biodiversity it reveals alone.

“At least several appear to be new species, and the others are the best examples known of their kind,” DePalma said. “Before now, fewer than four were known from the Hell Creek, so the site was already magnificently significant. But we quickly recognized that the surrounding sediment was deposited by a sudden, massive rush of water, and that the surge was directed inland, away from an ancient nearby seaway. When we noticed asteroid impact debris within the sediment and a compact layer of KT boundary clay resting on top of it from the long-term fallout, we realized that this unusual site was right at the KT boundary.”

According to Burnham, the fossil trove fills a void in scientific knowledge with vivid new detail.

Researchers at the site posing: Jan Smit, Robert DePalma, Walter Alvarez and David Burnham wit a box core sample“We’ve understood that bad things happened right after the impact, but nobody’s found this kind of smoking-gun evidence,” he said. “People have said, ‘We get that this blast killed the dinosaurs, but why don’t we have dead bodies everywhere?’ Well, now we have bodies. They’re not dinosaurs, but I think those will eventually be found, too.”

DePalma said his find provides spectacular new detail to what is perhaps the most important event to ever affect life on Earth.

“It’s difficult not to get choked up and passionate about this topic,” he said. “We look at moment-by-moment records of one of the most notable impact events in Earth’s history. No other site has a record quite like that. And this particular event is tied directly to all of us — to every mammal on Earth, in fact. Because this is essentially where we inherited the planet. Nothing was the same after that impact. It became a planet of mammals rather than a planet of dinosaurs.

"As human beings, we descended from a lineage that literally survived in the ashes of what was once the glorious kingdom of the dinosaurs. And we’re the only species on the planet that has ever been capable of learning from such an event to the benefit of ourselves and every other organism in our world.”

At KU, DePalma and Burnham worked with Loren Gurche of the Biodiversity Institute. Other co-authors are Jan Smit and Klaudia Kuiper of VU University Amsterdam; Phillip Manning of the University of Manchester; Anton Oleinik of Florida Atlantic University; Peter Larson of the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research Inc.; Florentin Maurrasse of Florida International University; Johan Vellekoop of VU Leuven; and Mark A. Richards and Walter Alvarez of the University of California at Berkeley. 

-- by Brendan Lynch, KU News
Original KU News link 

Images: Top, intertangled mass of articulated fish from the Tanis inundation surge deposit. Middle top, Robert DePalma and Peter Larson conduct field research in Tanis. Middle bottom, micro-CT image showing cutaway of clay-altered ejecta spherule with internal core of unaltered impact glass. Bottom, researchers from left to right, Jan Smit, Robert DePalma, Walter Alvarez, David Burnham, with a collected box core sample of the KT boundary from Tanis. Images courtesy Robert DePalma.

News Type:
Research News
Friday, June 2, 2017

LAWRENCE — Most people think of picks, dental tools or small hand-held spades as the tools of the paleontologist’s trade. But today, when University of Kansas paleontologist David Burnham heads back to Montana for an expedition, he’s calling in much larger tools: a jackhammer, a demolition hammer and a backhoe.

These will help clear a new area of a cliffside near Jordan, Montana, where Burnham, students and volunteers are excavating a Tyrannosaurus rex bit by bit and bringing it back to KU. 

Burnham and expedition team members have so far found about 25 percent of the skull, about 60 percent of the hips and 45 percent of the legs of a juvenile, female T. rex. There are teeth and many fragments, too. Much of what has been found so far is on display at the KU Natural History Museum. 

The expeditions wouldn’t be possible without the help of dozens of donors, who have so far given more than $15,000 through a crowdfunding campaign on KU Endowment’s LaunchKU site. The campaign continues until June 5. Although it has already exceeded its goal of $14,500, the more funds that are raised, the more resources Burnham will have for the expedition and to hire students to prepare the fossils and to study and display them. 

The campaign began with a major contribution from Boston residents John Weltman and Cliff Atkins, whose son, Kyle Atkins-Weltman, is a KU student and paleontology enthusiast.

When he first arrives, Burnham will work on setting up the field site, which is on federal land. The crew will set up a new large shade tent; last year’s tent was destroyed by storms and wind. They will concentrate on a small ledge of “bone zone” where a femur was found in the last few days of the 2016 expedition.

“We will be carefully looking for plants and rock samples since we will need these to document the site, which may be the first occurrence of T. rex in the Hell Creek Formation,” Burnham said.

The backhoe operator will then remove more of the cliff, or overburden, to make it easier to access fossils. 

“The weeks that follow bring us into the unknown,” Burnham said. “We certainly expect to find more of the T. rex. Our hope is to get upper skull bones, more backbones, and the icing on the cake would be finding those tiny T. rex arms.”

The volunteers and students help the expedition run smoothly, Burnham said. 

“I really enjoy the revolving cast of characters that we interact with and there is a special camaraderie that develops while we are out there,” he said. “Everyone is so focused on the mission and it thrills me to have such enthusiasm. Each new crew member or volunteer breathes fresh life into the work as we go along.”

News Type:
Research News
Thursday, April 13, 2017

Desui Miao, collection manager of vertebrate paleontology, and his colleagues, Feixian Wu, Mee-mann Chang, Gongle Shi, and Ning Wang have been published in Scientific Reports with an article titled, "Fossil Climbing Perch and Associated Plant Megafossils Indicate a Warm and Wet Central Tibet During the Late Oligocene." Their article provides a report on fossil biota with new insight on the Tibetan Plateau’s palaeogeography and palaeoenvironmemt, crucial information for understanding Asia’s climatic history. Miao and his co-authors' findings indicate a warm and humid environment in Tibet's past, which conflicts with previous reports of a “high and dry Tibet.” This research prompts re-evaluation of previous knowledge on this subject. Read the article here.

News Type:
Research News
Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Eocene Turkey

A $100,000 grant from the David B. Jones Foundation will help to develop a new generation of paleontologists at the University of Kansas, enabling students to pursue fieldwork in locations such as Wyoming and Turkey aimed at solving some of evolution’s deepest mysteries.

“This money can be used flexibly and broadly to support research training and educational outreach relating mainly to graduate and some undergraduate students at KU in vertebrate paleontology,” said K. Christopher Beard, Distinguished Foundation Professor, Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and senior curator at the KU Biodiversity Institute, who is heading up work under the new grant.

Beard’s research focuses on the early evolution of mammals, including primates. He said the first three David B. Jones Fellows in Vertebrate Paleontology — Matt Jones, Spencer Mattingly and Ryan Ridder — would begin training this spring.

“It’s often hard to get federal funding to support participation by graduate and undergraduate researchers, especially in my kind of research, which is field-based,” Beard said. “Costs can escalate, especially with international fieldwork, airfare and procurements beyond lodging and food — it really can skyrocket. But in paleontology, one of the most important components is to get students access to work in the field.”

The researcher said that student work and training would center on two locations: Wyoming and the nation of Turkey.

Eocene outcropsIn Turkey, Beard’s students will have the opportunity to piece together the ancient migration of mammals in the geographically unique Pontide region, which researchers believe 45 million years ago was an island treasure house of biodiversity, something like today’s Madagascar.

“We’re trying to determine if the Pontide terrain played a role in how animals were able to move back and forth between Asia and Africa, close to the appearance of anthropoid primates,” Beard said. “The more fossils we collected there, the weirder they got. This Pontide island had a unique fauna never found anywhere else but a couple of animals that clearly came from Africa. The most common mammals we’ve found there are primitive hoofed mammals, clearly related to animals common in western Europe, but millions of years earlier — and we’ve got a bat that seems related to Asia.”

In terms of migration of these animals, Beard sees the ancient Pontide region less as a stepping stone between Asia and Africa and more of a “cul-de-sac.”

“Animals were getting to the islands, but not leaving so much — they seemed to get stuck there,” he said.

Before undertaking fieldwork in Turkey, the David B. Jones Fellows will travel to Wyoming to conduct research to establish how mammals during the late Paleocene responded to a warming climate.  

“We’re using Wyoming fieldwork as a proving ground to give students experience in somewhat exotic but not crazy-exotic setting before we take them internationally,” Beard said. “In the southwestern part of the state, we’re establishing a record of how mammals evolved in response to climatic change in the Paleocene, right after the dinosaurs have died and mammals are beginning to evolve rapidly, and comparing that to other findings from the Bighorn Basin.”

Beard said his students would be surveying for fossils, excavating sites and screen-washing sediment for minuscule fossils, as well as partnering with geologists to learn to read the landscape.

“They’ll pick up how to interpret sedimentary rocks, to understand what the ancient environment would have been,” he said. “Are you looking at ancient marsh, lake, seashore or river floodplain? Those are basic skills associated with areas like sedimentology and stratigraphy.”

In addition to work in the field domestically and internationally, the David B. Jones Fellows studying with Beard will be trained in the full “assembly line” of paleontological research, including restoration of fossils, and learning how to mold and cast fossil specimens. The training will be carried out under guidance from David Burnham, preparator at KU’s Natural History Museum. Further, with KU’s Oscar Sanisidro, the fellows will learn techniques of scientific illustration.

A key goal of the grant is facilitation of student publishing of findings in peer-reviewed journals.

“We want to stimulate scholarly research on part of the graduate students,” Beard said. “KU paleontology already has a great reputation, but we want to push it to the top of the mountain nationally, and one way is to have graduate students publishing scholarly work and giving presentations at conferences. In this grant, there’s funding to support that as well.”

Additionally, the grant provides funds for KU paleontology students to receive training in pedagogy.

“It’s something I faced as a graduate student,” Beard said. “I wound up learning a lot about research, but nobody taught me anything about how to teach. Skills in basic pedagogy are too often lacking in an overall graduate curriculum.”

Finally, the students will develop and lead outreach programs and events at KU’s Natural History Museum to engage the public and young people. Public outreach is a key goal of the David B. Jones Foundation, with its mission to further “educational, research and charitable activities working in the science of paleontology who primarily promote those activities within the United States of America.”

“David B. Jones was an amateur paleontologist who was involved in using fossils to get kids interested in science in general,” Beard said. “For instance, he was active in the Boy Scouts. I think this lines up so well with the agenda of the foundation.” 

- Brendan Lynch, KU News

Photos: K. Christopher Beard, KU Foundation Distinguished Professor, and a student work at a field site in Turkey. Eocene rock outcrops yield fossils at these sites. Photos by Gregoire Metais.

News Type:
Award Grant News
Wednesday, January 11, 2017

field site in TurkeyA $100,000 grant from the David B. Jones Foundation will help to develop a new generation of paleontologists at the University of Kansas, enabling students to pursue fieldwork in locations such as Wyoming and Turkey aimed at solving some of evolution’s deepest mysteries.

“This money can be used flexibly and broadly to support research training and educational outreach relating mainly to graduate and some undergraduate students at KU in vertebrate paleontology,” said K. Christopher Beard, Distinguished Foundation Professor, Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and senior curator at the KU Biodiversity Institute, who is heading up work under the new grant.

Beard’s research focuses on the early evolution of mammals, including primates. He said the first three David B. Jones Fellows in Vertebrate Paleontology — Matt Jones, Spencer Mattingly and Ryan Ridder — would begin training this spring.

“It’s often hard to get federal funding to support participation by graduate and undergraduate researchers, especially in my kind of research, which is field-based,” Beard said. “Costs can escalate, especially with international fieldwork, airfare and procurements beyond lodging and food — it really can skyrocket. But in paleontology, one of the most important components is to get students access to work in the field.”

The researcher said that student work and training would center on two locations: Wyoming and the nation of Turkey.

In Turkey, Beard’s students will have the opportunity to piece together the ancient migration of mammals in the geographically unique Pontide region, which researchers believe 45 million years ago was an island treasure house of biodiversity, something like today’s Madagascar.

“We’re trying to determine if the Pontide terrain played a role in how animals were able to move back and forth between Asia and Africa, close to the appearance of anthropoid primates,” Beard said. “The more fossils we collected there, the weirder they got. This Pontide island had a unique fauna never found anywhere else but a couple of animals that clearly came from Africa. The most common mammals we’ve found there are primitive hoofed mammals, clearly related to animals common in western Europe, but millions of years earlier — and we’ve got a bat that seems related to Asia.”

In terms of migration of these animals, Beard sees the ancient Pontide region less as a stepping stone between Asia and Africa and more of a “cul-de-sac.”

“Animals were getting to the islands, but not leaving so much — they seemed to get stuck there,” he said.

Before undertaking fieldwork in Turkey, the David B. Jones Fellows will travel to Wyoming to conduct research to establish how mammals during the late Paleocene responded to a warming climate.  

“We’re using Wyoming fieldwork as a proving ground to give students experience in somewhat exotic but not crazy-exotic setting before we take them internationally,” Beard said. “In the southwestern part of the state, we’re establishing a record of how mammals evolved in response to climatic change in the Paleocene, right after the dinosaurs have died and mammals are beginning to evolve rapidly, and comparing that to other findings from the Bighorn Basin.”

Beard said his students would be surveying for fossils, excavating sites and screen-washing sediment for minuscule fossils, as well as partnering with geologists to learn to read the landscape.

“They’ll pick up how to interpret sedimentary rocks, to understand what the ancient environment would have been,” he said. “Are you looking at ancient marsh, lake, seashore or river floodplain? Those are basic skills associated with areas like sedimentology and stratigraphy.”

In addition to work in the field domestically and internationally, the David B. Jones Fellows studying with Beard will be trained in the full “assembly line” of paleontological research, including restoration of fossils, and learning how to mold and cast fossil specimens. The training will be carried out under guidance from David Burnham, preparator at KU’s Natural History Museum. Further, with KU’s Oscar Sanisidro, the fellows will learn techniques of scientific illustration.

field siteA key goal of the grant is facilitation of student publishing of findings in peer-reviewed journals. 

“We want to stimulate scholarly research on part of the graduate students,” Beard said. “KU paleontology already has a great reputation, but we want to push it to the top of the mountain nationally, and one way is to have graduate students publishing scholarly work and giving presentations at conferences. In this grant, there’s funding to support that as well.”

Additionally, the grant provides funds for KU paleontology students to receive training in pedagogy.

“It’s something I faced as a graduate student,” Beard said. “I wound up learning a lot about research, but nobody taught me anything about how to teach. Skills in basic pedagogy are too often lacking in an overall graduate curriculum.”

Finally, the students will develop and lead outreach programs and events at KU’s Natural History Museum to engage the public and young people. Public outreach is a key goal of the David B. Jones Foundation, with its mission to further “educational, research and charitable activities working in the science of paleontology who primarily promote those activities within the United States of America.”

“David B. Jones was an amateur paleontologist who was involved in using fossils to get kids interested in science in general,” Beard said. “For instance, he was active in the Boy Scouts. I think this lines up so well with the agenda of the foundation.” 

By Brendan Lynch 

Photos by Gregoire Metais

News Type:
Research News
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.”

News Type:
Research News
Thursday, July 14, 2016

Chris Beard’s article, “Out of Asia: Anthropoid Origins and the Colonization of Africa,” was recently published in the Annual Review of Anthropology. Previous research has attempted to explain the dispersed geographic distribution of anthropoid primates by hypothesizing tectonic rifts between South America and Africa as the cause, but Beard points out that those predictions conflict with the chronology and the topology of anthropoid evolution. In this article, Beard identifies and discusses biological and geological factors that support the assertion that the cause of dispersal was the crossing of marine barriers by early monkeys on natural rafts. To read the full article, please click here.

News Type:
Research News
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
News Type:
Research News
Monday, November 23, 2015

LAWRENCE — During upheaval in Libya in 2013, a window of opportunity opened for scientists from the University of Kansas to perform research at the Zallah Oasis, a promising site for unearthing fossils from the Oligocene period, roughly 30 million years ago.

From that work, the KU-led team last week published a description of a previously unknown anthropoid primate — a forerunner of today’s monkeys, apes and humans — in the Journal of Human Evolution. They’ve dubbed their new find Apidium zuetina.

Significantly, it’s the first example of Apidium to be found outside of Egypt.

“Apidium is interesting because it was the first early anthropoid primate ever to be found and described, in 1908,” said K. Christopher Beard, Distinguished Foundation Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and senior curator with KU’s Biodiversity Institute, who headed the research. “The oldest known Apidium fossils are about 31 million years old, while the youngest are 29 million. Before our discovery in Libya, only three species of Apidium were ever recovered in Egypt. People had come up with the idea that these primates had evolved locally in Egypt.”

Beard said evidence that Apidium had dispersed across North Africa was the key facet of the find. He believes shifting climatic and environmental conditions shaped the distribution of species of Apidium, which affected their evolution.

“We’ve found evidence that climate change — not warming, but cooling and drying — across the Eocene-Oligocene boundary probably is the root cause in kicking anthropoid evolution into overdrive,” he said. “All of these anthropoids, which were our distant relatives, were living up in the trees — none of them were coming down. When the world became cooler and dryer in this period, what was previously a continuous belt of forest became more fragmented. This created barriers to gene flow and movement of animals from one part of forest to what used to be adjacent forest.”

With a forest broken up, there was an inhibition of gene flow that through time resulted in speciation, or the creation of new species, according to the KU researcher.

“Animals that are sequestered become different species over millions of years,” Beard said. “As the climate oscillates again, you’ve got different species of Apidium. As forests expand and contract, now you’ve got competition between species of Apidium that have never seen each other before. One species outcompetes the other, the other goes extinct, and we think that’s what we’re picking up with this Libyan Apidium, which is related to the youngest and largest species of Apidium known from Egypt.”

Beard said that Apidium zuetina would have been physically similar to modern-day squirrel monkeys from South America, but with smaller brains, and would have dined on fruits, nuts and seeds.

“We know that Apidium was a very active arboreal monkey, a really good leaper,” he said. “We know they actually had fused lower-leg bones just above the ankle joint. That’s really unusual for anthropoid primates, and the only reason for it to happen is because you like to jump a lot, as it stabilized the join between those bones and the ankle.”

The team identified Apidium zuetina through detailed analysis of its teeth.

“All of the fossils we have so far are just teeth, not even jaw bones — but fortunately, the teeth of these anthropoids are so distinct and diagnostic that they function like fingerprints at a crime scene,” Beard said. “Studying details of cusps and crests on teeth, we can determine evolutionary relationships. It might sound like thin evidence, but I suspect even with whole skeletons we’d still be focused on teeth to determine relationships. This is because teeth evolve rapidly in response to shifting diets, while an animal’s skull and skeleton typically evolves more slowly. Fortunately for paleontologists, teeth are well-documented in the fossil record because tooth enamel is the hardest part of a mammal body, durable and easy to fossilize.”

Yet, the researchers chose to name Apidium zuetina not after any of its physical characteristics, but after the Zuetina Oil Company that made the dangerous Libyan fieldwork possible.

“Without their logistical support, we couldn’t have done this work at all,” Beard said. “We did this just after end of the Libyan civil war that led to the overthrow of Gadhafi.”

Beard said the discovery took place during a brief lull in violence in Libya. But the trip to the Zallah Oasis was precarious nonetheless.

“We knew it was risky, but we thought we could go because of our local collaborator, Mustafa Salem, a geology professor at Tripoli University,” he said. “He’s revered as a father figure among Libyan geologists. An oil facility was close to some interesting sites, and after Mustafa contacted a former student who was working there, they provided our team with charter flights to an airstrip near the oil facility. Without that alone, we couldn’t have done our fieldwork — the roads are too dangerous with bandits and the like. They also gave us lodging, food, water and security.”

Beard said armed guards accompanied the team everywhere, manning trucks mounted with antiaircraft guns.

“They never asked for a nickel from us in return,” said the KU researcher. “There was an Islamist attack on a gas facility at the same time near the Algerian-Libyan border, and they killed 30-40 workers. So the security protected us and potentially saved our lives.”

Beard’s research collaborators were Pauline M.C. Coster of KU; Yaowalak Chaimanee and Jean-Jacques Jaeger of the Université de Poitiers in France; and Mustafa Salem of Tripoli University in Libya.

The National Science Foundation supported this work. 

Photos: Above, armed guards accompanied researchers during their dangerous Libyan fieldwork. Below: Researchers analyzed fossil teeth to identify Apidium zuetina as a species new to science. Map: (A) location of Zallah Oasis in Libya’s Sirt Basin and (B) closeup of Zallah Oasis and surrounding area.

Written by Brendan M. Lynch

News Type:
Research News
Friday, October 30, 2015

Dakotaraptor

A research team led by a KU alumnus has identified a new giant raptor, the largest specimen ever found with wing feathers.

Named Dakotaraptor, the fossil from the Hell Creek Formation in South Dakota is thought to be about 17 feet long, making it among the largest raptors in the world.

“This new predatory dinosaur also fills the body size gap between smaller theropods and large tyrannosaurs that lived at this time,” KU Paleontologist and co-author David Burnham said. 

KU alumnus Robert DePalma, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Palm Beach Museum of Natural History and lead author of the research, led the expedition to South Dakota where the specimen was found. At the time, he was a graduate student studying with former KU paleontology professor and curator Larry Martin, who died in 2014.

“This Cretaceous period raptor would have been lightly built, and probably just as agile as the vicious smaller theropods, such as the Velociraptor,” DePalma said. He added that the both fossils showed evidence of “quill knobs” where feathers would have been attached to the forearm of the dinosaur.

The specimen also demonstrates that flightlessness evolved several times in this lineage leading to modern birds, he said.

The peer-reviewed research was published Oct. 30 in Paleontological Contributions. In addition to DePalma, Martin and Burnham, co-authors include Peter Larson of the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, and Robert Bakker of the Houston Museum of Natural Science. The specimen is being researched and curated by DePalma’s research team in Florida, associated with the Palm Beach Museum of Natural History.

News Type:
Research News