News

Monday, December 19, 2011
Jennifer Humphrey 785.864.2344

Among the 51 new members to the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in December 2011 is Dr. Zhonghe Zhou, who earned his doctorate in 1999 at the University of Kansas.

Zhou is the Director of Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP), CAS, Beijing, China, which is an internationally known paleontological research institution.

Zhou studied at KU between 1995 and 1999 with Larry Martin, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Biodiversity Institute and professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

Zhou is regarded one of the most distinguished vertebrate paleontologists in the world. His research on early evolution of birds and flight has been published in several science journals, and he was elected a foreign member of the US National Academy of Sciences in 2010. He is also the Vice President of International Paleontological Association and of Paleontological Society of China.

At 46, he is the youngest member in the Division of Earth Sciences of CAS. Membership in CAS is considered the pinnacle of achievement for a scientist in China.

News Type:
Research News
Monday, December 19, 2011

Among the 51 new members to the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in December 2011 is Dr. Zhonghe Zhou, who earned his doctorate in 1999 at the University of Kansas.

Zhou is the Director of Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP), CAS, Beijing, China, which is an internationally known paleontological research institution.

Zhou studied at KU between 1995 and 1999 with Larry Martin, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Biodiversity Institute and professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

Zhou is regarded one of the most distinguished vertebrate paleontologists in the world. His research on early evolution of birds and flight has been published in several science journals, and he was elected a foreign member of the US National Academy of Sciences in 2010. He is also the Vice President of International Paleontological Association and of Paleontological Society of China.

At 46, he is the youngest member in the Division of Earth Sciences of CAS. Membership in CAS is considered the pinnacle of achievement for a scientist in China.

News Type:
Research News
Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Bird

A new discovery by researchers from the University of Kansas and China pushes back by millions of years proof that birds’ digestive systems have ancient origins. The investigators found fossil evidence of a crop — the muscular pocket in the esophagus that most modern birds use to store and soften seeds — in two avian species from the Early Cretaceous, the most recent period of the Mesozoic Era, about 130 million years ago.

Their discovery is to be published in a forthcoming edition of the influential journal Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences.

“We think that perhaps the development of a gizzard and a crop are specialization for eating seeds, and it was eating seeds that may have been one of the great motivations for birds to lose their teeth,” said Larry Martin, professor and senior curator at the KU Biodiversity Institute. “It shows that seed eating was an important driving force in the early diversification and radiation of modern-type birds.” 

The two species showing evidence of crops, Sapeornis and Hongshanornis, were located in the collection of the Tianya Museum of Nature in Shandong Province, China. Fossils of both species contained preserved seeds in the anatomical location of the crop in modern birds. Additionally, some specimens show a soft tissue structure that closely matches the outline of a crop in birds today.

According to Martin, the crop is an important clue to how birds evolved from the Mesozoic era, when the vast majority possessed teeth, to modern bird species that lack teeth.

“These animals that we’ve found that have crops and gizzards are also among the few Mesozoic birds that show a loss of teeth,” the KU researcher said. “So we think that development of a crop is related.”

Martin co-authored the paper with Xiaoting Zheng of Linyi University and the Tianya Museum of Nature, China; Zhonghe Zhou of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, China; and KU colleagues David Burnham and Desui Miao.

The two species found to have crops go far back in the evolution of birds, showing birds to be specialized eaters from close to the beginning of their development.

“These birds in question are around 130 million years old,” Marin said. “This is very early in bird evolution, about 10 million years after what was thought to be the first bird, Archaeopteryx.”

Of the two species found to have crops, Martin said that one belonged to a long-extinct evolutionary side-branch, while the other was a relative of modern birds.
“Sapeornis was a pretty fair-sized bird, about the size of an ordinary chicken,” said Martin. “It belongs to a group of basal birds that are related to, but actually separate from, the line that leads to modern birds. The other bird that we have, Hongshanornis, is a very early example of the group to which all modern birds belong. It’s essentially a modern bird, but an awfully old one — one of the oldest modern birds.”

The finding is the latest accomplishment in the long relationship between paleontologists from KU and China, where government support and large quarrying efforts have led to a boom in fossil findings.

“We’ve been working in China in the Early Cretaceous since the beginning of research in that area,” Martin said. “KU has in fact been the central institution for much of the research that’s been done there, especially on fossil birds for the Early Cretaceous. This is the oldest avian fauna that we can study in detail, and it’s produced thousands of complete skeletons, often with feathers, stomach contents and internal organs.”

News Type:
Research News
Monday, May 2, 2011

Una Farrell, Ph.D., Yale University, will be joining the Invertebrate Paleontology this summer as collections manager. She was a Ph.D. student in Derek Briggs' lab at Yale and also interim collections manager in theD ivision of Invertebrate Paleontology at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. We are very excited that she will be joining us.

News Type:
Event News
Thursday, February 18, 2010

Fish

Giant plankton-eating fishes roamed the prehistoric seas, including those over the land now known as Kansas, for more than 100 million years before they were wiped out in the same event that killed off the dinosaurs, new research shows.

 An international team that includes researchers from the University of Kansas describe how new fossils from Asia, Europe and the United States reveal a previously unknown dynasty of giant bony fishes that filled the seas of the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, between 66 million and 172 million years ago. The team reported their findings in the Feb. 19 edition of the journal Science.

Several of the most important new fossils came from the famous chalk deposits of western Kansas, with other remains from as far afield as Japan and from Dorset and Kent in the United Kingdom. Some members of this filter-feeding fish group are estimated to have been up to 30 feet long, a similar size to modern plankton-eating giants such as the basking shark. Revisiting previously collected fossils netted evidence that these fishes thrived for millions of years and colonized many parts of the globe.

The research team included Larry Martin, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the KU Biodiversity Institute, and researchers from Oxford University, DePaul University, Fort Hays State University, the University of Glasgow, Triebold Paleontology Inc. and the Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Research Centre.

Matt Friedman, lead author of the research and a lecturer at Oxford, said that because modern giant plankton feeders — such as baleen whales, basking sharks and manta rays — include the largest living vertebrate animals, scientists had long wondered why such animals were missing from the fossil record for hundreds of millions of years.

“We used to think that the seas were free of big filter feeders during the age of dinosaurs, but our discoveries reveal that a dynasty of giant fishes filled this ecological role in the ancient oceans for more than 100 million years,” Friedman said.

The big fishes were overlooked or misidentified because over time, the amount of bone in their skeletons diminished, probably to save weight. The only parts routinely found in the fossil record are their well-developed forefins. Martin said that this changed when the KU Biodiversity Institute acquired a more complete skeleton that revealed the unusual features of the giant fish’s head.

“Instead of finding a head with a long sword-like snout and jaws lined with predatory fangs, they found something completely different: long, toothless jaws supporting a gaping mouth and long, rod-like bones that contributed to the huge gill arches needed to filter out enormous quantities of tiny plankton,” Friedman said.

The team named the fish Bonnerichthys, after the Marion Bonner family. The Bonners are a Kansas family of fossil collectors who discovered the fossil fish as well as many other important specimens now housed at KU and the Sternberg Museum in Hays. The research was titled “100-Million-Year Dynasty of Giant Planktivorous Bony Fishes in the Mesozoic Seas.”

News Type:
Research News
Monday, January 25, 2010

MIcrofossil

Microraptor fossil

A joint team from the University of Kansas and Northeastern University in China says that it has settled the long-standing question of how bird flight began.

In the Jan. 25 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the KU-China researchers push their research into the origins of bird flight and the early evolution of birds with decisive flight tests of a model of the four-winged gliding raptor, called microraptor.

The team is led by David Alexander, KU assistant professor of biology and an expert on modern animal flight. Alexander is joined by KU colleagues Larry Martin, David Burnham and Amanda Falk, along with Enpu Gong from Northeastern University in China, who are engaged in a comprehensive study of the functional morphology and ecology of early birds from China.

“We’ve done the scientific work and flight tests to show that microraptor was a very successful glider,” said Burnham. “In 2003, they found one that was so well-preserved that you could count the feathers on its wings.”

A debate involving the KU scientists, recently documented by the PBS program “NOVA,” had flared over the question of whether evidence supported the theory that animals developed flight as ground dwellers, as a majority of paleontologists had asserted. But Martin and Burnham argue that flight originated above, in the trees. Such animals would have been gliders. The researchers say that fossils of the hawk-sized microraptor shore up their theory.

“The controversy was that these animals couldn’t spread their hind-wings to glide,” said Burnham. “But we’ve been able to articulate the bones in their hip socket to show that they could fly.”

The new flight model created by Martin and Burnham comes directly from a skeleton composed of casts of the original bones of a microraptor and the preserved impressions of feathers from specimens in Chinese museums. These astonishingly preserved fossils give a detailed image of the plumage in the gliding raptor and make possible the construction of an accurate model.

The fossils also show that an essentially sprawling posture was a plausible hind-limb wing position to provide stable flight with gliding parameters better than those of modern “flying lemurs.”

The competing “biplane posture” advanced by other researchers suggested that an upright stance provided for successful glides. But the KU-China team argues that this stance required an impossibly heavy head to maintain a proper center of gravity. Furthermore, the presence of seven-inch-long flight feathers on the feet would prohibit any extended stay on the ground. Thus, microraptor must have been completely arboreal.

“We decided that we would take the skeleton we had, put wings on it from the feather pattern and show that it could fly,” said Burnham. “If others think that it was a terrestrial runner, they should make a model and put it on a treadmill and show that it could run with those long feathers on its hind legs.”

Successful flight tests were conducted in the open air and under more controlled conditions in the Anschutz Sports Pavilion at KU. A video of some of the tests is available through KU University Relations.

Indeed, the KU-China team’s work provides such strong support for the trees-down model for the origin of avian flight that the alternative terrestrial (ground up) origin now may be abandoned.

Researchers Martin, Burnham and Falk, along with Gong, recently made headlines for their discovery of a venom-delivery system in sinornithosaurus, a cousin of microraptor. A paper detailing that finding was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last month.

News Type:
Research News
Monday, January 25, 2010

MIcrofossil

Microraptor fossil

A joint team from the University of Kansas and Northeastern University in China says that it has settled the long-standing question of how bird flight began.

In the Jan. 25 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the KU-China researchers push their research into the origins of bird flight and the early evolution of birds with decisive flight tests of a model of the four-winged gliding raptor, called microraptor.

The team is led by David Alexander, KU assistant professor of biology and an expert on modern animal flight. Alexander is joined by KU colleagues Larry Martin, David Burnham and Amanda Falk, along with Enpu Gong from Northeastern University in China, who are engaged in a comprehensive study of the functional morphology and ecology of early birds from China.

“We’ve done the scientific work and flight tests to show that microraptor was a very successful glider,” said Burnham. “In 2003, they found one that was so well-preserved that you could count the feathers on its wings.”

A debate involving the KU scientists, recently documented by the PBS program “NOVA,” had flared over the question of whether evidence supported the theory that animals developed flight as ground dwellers, as a majority of paleontologists had asserted. But Martin and Burnham argue that flight originated above, in the trees. Such animals would have been gliders. The researchers say that fossils of the hawk-sized microraptor shore up their theory.

“The controversy was that these animals couldn’t spread their hind-wings to glide,” said Burnham. “But we’ve been able to articulate the bones in their hip socket to show that they could fly.”

The new flight model created by Martin and Burnham comes directly from a skeleton composed of casts of the original bones of a microraptor and the preserved impressions of feathers from specimens in Chinese museums. These astonishingly preserved fossils give a detailed image of the plumage in the gliding raptor and make possible the construction of an accurate model.

The fossils also show that an essentially sprawling posture was a plausible hind-limb wing position to provide stable flight with gliding parameters better than those of modern “flying lemurs.”

The competing “biplane posture” advanced by other researchers suggested that an upright stance provided for successful glides. But the KU-China team argues that this stance required an impossibly heavy head to maintain a proper center of gravity. Furthermore, the presence of seven-inch-long flight feathers on the feet would prohibit any extended stay on the ground. Thus, microraptor must have been completely arboreal.

“We decided that we would take the skeleton we had, put wings on it from the feather pattern and show that it could fly,” said Burnham. “If others think that it was a terrestrial runner, they should make a model and put it on a treadmill and show that it could run with those long feathers on its hind legs.”

Successful flight tests were conducted in the open air and under more controlled conditions in the Anschutz Sports Pavilion at KU. A video of some of the tests is available through KU University Relations.

Indeed, the KU-China team’s work provides such strong support for the trees-down model for the origin of avian flight that the alternative terrestrial (ground up) origin now may be abandoned.

Researchers Martin, Burnham and Falk, along with Gong, recently made headlines for their discovery of a venom-delivery system in sinornithosaurus, a cousin of microraptor. A paper detailing that finding was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last month.

News Type:
Research News
Saturday, November 7, 2009

Authors of what began at the University of Kansas in the 1940s as a modest two-volume encyclopedia are celebrating publication of their 49th volume — weighing in at 956 pages — with an international video conference today.

Known worldwide as the most comprehensive reference for the study of invertebrate fossils, the “Treatise of Invertebrate Paleontology” is an ever-expanding project of the KU Paleontological Institute, housed in Lindley Hall. It involves more than 300 authors worldwide.

“The treatise is the gold standard of the science of invertebrates,” said Paul Selden, the Gulf-Hedberg Distinguished Professor of Geology and director of the Paleontological Institute. “Everything in the treatise is written by the experts, so it’s the last word for anyone studying these animals.”

The treatise keeps changing as discoveries in the field occur, Selden said. The original two volumes, spearheaded by the late KU professor Raymond C. Moore, were revised and expanded into six, for example.

“Like a dictionary,” Selden said, “entries in the volumes change, disappear or are modified over time as new science yields new information in the field.”

The two main organizers of the latest revision, Scottish researcher Sir Alwyn Williams and KU professor Roger Kaesler, did not live to see the most recent volume published and will be honored today during the international teleconference, hosted by KU. Kaesler, who died in August, was the director of the Paleontological Institute at KU for more than 20 years.

The teleconference, which will involve Lawrence, London and Glasgow, will bring together researchers worldwide and mark the formal completion of the latest volume. It is the first volume to include a CD-ROM of information. Selden said future versions of the treatise will be online.

In the meantime, it’s already time to begin revising the information contained in the 49th volume.

“The day it arrived in our offices, we had already received a call from one of the authors calling for revisions,” Selden said.

The Paleontological Institute is a unit of KU’s Biodiversity Institute, a university research unit that also includes the Natural History Museum.

News Type:
Event News