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Concept: Fossils


A newly discovered assemblage of predominantly small tracks from the Cretaceous Patuxent Formation at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Maryland, reveals one of the highest track densities and diversities ever reported (~70 tracks, representing at least eight morphotypes from an area of only ~2 m2). The assemblage is dominated by small mammal tracks including the new ichnotxon Sederipes goddardensis, indicating sitting postures. Small crow-sized theropod trackways, the first from this unit, indicate social trackmakers and suggest slow-paced foraging behavior. Tracks of pterosaurs, and other small vertebrates suggest activity on an organic-rich substrate. Large well-preserved sauropod and nodosaurs tracks indicate the presence of large dinosaurs. The Patuxent Formation together with the recently reported Angolan assemblage comprise the world’s two largest Mesozoic mammal footprint assemblages. The high density of footprint registration at the NASA site indicates special preservational and taphonomic conditions. These include early, penecontemporaneous deposition of siderite in organic rich, reducing wetland settings where even the flesh of body fossils can be mummified. Thus, the track-rich ironstone substrates of the Patuxent Formation, appear to preserve a unique vertebrate ichnofacies, with associated, exceptionally-preserved body fossil remains for which there are currently no other similar examples preserved in the fossil record.

Concepts: Cretaceous, Taphonomy, Trace fossil, Fossils, Paleontology, Fossil, Dinosaur


The record of arthropod body fossils is traceable back to the “Cambrian explosion,” marked by the appearance of most major animal phyla. Exceptional preservation provides crucial evidence for panarthropod early radiation. However, due to limited representation in the fossil record of internal anatomy, particularly the CNS, studies usually rely on exoskeletal and appendicular morphology. Recent studies [1-3] show that despite extreme morphological disparities, euarthropod CNS evolution appears to have been remarkably conservative. This conclusion is supported by descriptions from Cambrian panarthropods of neural structures that contribute to understanding early evolution of nervous systems and resolving controversies about segmental homologies [4-12]. However, the rarity of fossilized CNSs, even when exoskeletons and appendages show high levels of integrity, brought into question data reproducibility because all but one of the aforementioned studies were based on single specimens [13]. Foremost among objections is the lack of taphonomic explanation for exceptional preservation of a tissue that some see as too prone to decay to be fossilized. Here we describe newly discovered specimens of the Chengjiang euarthropod Fuxianhuia protensa with fossilized brains revealing matching profiles, allowing rigorous testing of the reproducibility of cerebral structures. Their geochemical analyses provide crucial insights of taphonomic pathways for brain preservation, ranging from uniform carbon compressions to complete pyritization, revealing that neural tissue was initially preserved as carbonaceous film and subsequently pyritized. This mode of preservation is consistent with the taphonomic pathways of gross anatomy, indicating that no special mode is required for fossilization of labile neural tissue.

Concepts: Dinosaur, Cambrian, Arthropod, Fossils, Evolution, Paleontology, Fossil


The lack of fossil tetrapod bearing deposits in the earliest Carboniferous (‘Romer’s Gap’) has provoked some recent discussions regarding the proximal cause, with three explanations being offered: environmental, taphonomic, and collection failure. One of the few, and earliest, windows into this time is the locality of Blue Beach exposed in the Tournaisian deposits at Horton Bluff lying along the Avon River near Hantsport, Nova Scotia, Canada. This locality has long been known but, because the fossils were deposited in high energy settings they are almost always disarticulated, so the fauna has not been described in detail. Recent intensive collection has revealed a diverse assemblage of material, including for the first time associated elements, which permits an evaluation of the faunal constituents at the locality. Although not diagnosable to a fine taxonomic level, sufficient apomorphies are present to identify representatives from numerous clades known from more complete specimens elsewhere. The evidence suggests a diverse fauna was present, including whatcheeriids and embolomeres. A single humerus previously had been attributed to a colosteid, but there is some uncertainty with this identification. Additional elements suggest the presence of taxa otherwise only known from the late Devonian. Depositional biases at the locality favor tetrapod fossils from larger individuals, but indirect evidence from trackways and tantalizing isolated bones evidences the presence of small taxa that remain to be discovered. The fossils from Blue Beach demonstrate that when windows into the fauna of ‘Romer’s Gap’ are found a rich diversity of tetrapods will be shown to be present, contra arguments that suggested this hiatus in the fossil record was due to extrinsic factors such as atmospheric oxygen levels. They also show that the early tetrapod fauna is not easily divisible into Devonian and Carboniferous faunas, suggesting that some tetrapods passed through the end Devonian extinction event unaffected.

Concepts: Coelacanth, Fossils, Tetrapod, Dinosaur, Fossil, Carboniferous, Paleontology, Devonian


Crinoids, members of the phylum Echinodermata, are passive suspension feeders and catch plankton without producing an active feeding current. Today, the stalked forms are known only from deep water habitats, where flow conditions are rather constant and feeding velocities relatively low. For feeding, they form a characteristic parabolic filtration fan with their arms recurved backwards into the current. The fossil record, in contrast, provides a large number of stalked crinoids that lived in shallow water settings, with more rapidly changing flow velocities and directions compared to the deep sea habitat of extant crinoids. In addition, some of the fossil representatives were possibly not as flexible as today’s crinoids and for those forms alternative feeding positions were assumed. One of these fossil crinoids is Encrinus liliiformis, which lived during the middle Triassic Muschelkalk in Central Europe. The presented project investigates different feeding postures using Computational Fluid Dynamics to analyze flow patterns forming around the crown of E. liliiformis, including experimental validation by Particle Image Velocimetry. The study comprises the analysis of different flow directions, velocities, as well as crown orientations. Results show that inflow from lateral and oral leads to direct transport of plankton particles into the crown and onto the oral surface. With current coming from the “rear” (aboral) side of the crinoid, the conical opening of the crown produces a backward oriented flow in its wake that transports particles into the crown. The results suggest that a conical feeding position may have been less dependent on stable flow conditions compared to the parabolic filtration fan. It is thus assumed that the conical feeding posture of E. liliiformis was suitable for feeding under dynamically changing flow conditions typical for the shallow marine setting of the Upper Muschelkalk.

Concepts: Crinoidea, Bioerosion, Fossils, Echinoderms, Fluid mechanics, Crinoid, Fluid dynamics, Computational fluid dynamics


The fossil record of Ginkgo leaf and reproductive organs has been well dated to the Mid-Jurassic (170 Myr). However, the fossil wood record that can safely be assigned to Ginkgoales has not yet been reported from strata predating the late Early Cretaceous (ca. 100 Myr). Here, we report a new fossil wood from the Mid-Late Jurassic transition deposit (153-165 Myr) of northeastern China. The new fossil wood specimen displays several Ginkgo features, including inflated axial parenchyma and intrusive tracheid tips. Because it is only slightly younger than the oldest recorded Ginkgo reproductive organs (the Yima Formation, 170 Myr), this fossil wood very probably represents the oldest bona fide fossil Ginkgo wood and the missing ancestral form of Ginkgo wood evolution.

Concepts: Fossils, Trace fossil, Evolution, Bioerosion, Geology, Dinosaur, Fossil, Ginkgo


The first evidence of the partial infant Neandertal skeleton La Ferrassie 8 (LF8) was discovered in 1970, although most of the remains were found in 1973 as part of the 1968-1973 work at the site by H. Delporte. This individual and the other Neandertal children from La Ferrassie were published in the early 1980s by J.-L. Heim, and since then LF8 has been regarded as coming from a poorly documented excavation. The recent rediscovery of the box that contained the hominin bones given by Delporte to Heim in the Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle (MNHN) collection provided new fossils and helped to locate LF8 in the site: level M2 in square 1. Two visits to the Musée d'Archéologie nationale et Domaine national de Saint-Germain-en-Laye (MAN) yielded additional fossil remains from both the 1970 and 1973 excavations and resulted in the discovery of all of the notes from the excavation of H. Delporte between 1968 and 1973. Here the new fossil remains (47 after performing all possible refits), representing significant portions of the cranium, mandible, and vertebral column together with fragmentary hand and costal remains, are described. Unsurprisingly, the morphology of the bony labyrinth and of a complete stapes from the nearly complete left temporal show clear Neandertal affinities. Additionally, a complete reassessment of the original LF8 collection has resulted in the identification of several errors in the anatomical determination. Despite the significant increase in the anatomical representation of LF8, the skeletal remains are still limited to the head, thorax, pelvis, and four hand phalanges, with some very fragile elements relatively well preserved. Different hypotheses are proposed to explain this anatomical representation, which can be tested during future fieldwork.

Concepts: Temporal bone, Human anatomy, Skull, Vertebra, Skeleton, Skeletal system, Bone, Fossils


The upper Triassic deposits of the Selous Basin in south Tanzania have not been prospected for fossil tetrapods since the middle of last century, when Gordon M. Stockley collected two rhynchosaur bone fragments from the so called “Tunduru beds”. Here we present the results of a field trip conducted in July 2015 to the vicinities of Tunduru and Msamara, Ruvuma Region, Tanzania, in search for similar remains. Even if unsuccessful in terms of fossil discoveries, the geological mapping conducted during the trip improved our knowledge of the deposition systems of the southern margin of the Selous Basin during the Triassic, allowing tentative correlations to its central part and to neighbouring basins. Moreover, we reviewed the fossil material previously collected by Gordon M. Stockley, confirming that the remains correspond to a valid species, Supradapedon stockleyi, which was incorporated into a comprehensive phylogeny of rhynchosaurs and found to represent an Hyperodapedontinae with a set of mostly plesiomorphic traits for the group. Data gathered form the revision and phylogenetic placement of Su. stockleyi helps understanding the acquisition of the typical dental traits of Late Triassic rhynchosaurs, corroborating the potential of hyperodapedontines as index fossils of the Carnian-earliest Norian.

Concepts: Fossils, Phylogenetics, Ruvuma Region, Fossil, Triassic, Geology, Paleontology, Dinosaur


New Pleistocene fossilized turtle remains from five localities of western Ecuador (Santa Elena Province) are described here. All these shell (carapace and plastron) fossil remains come from the Tablazo Formation and belong to three different lineages of cryptodires (“hidden-necked” turtles). The most abundant remains belong to geoemydids, attributed here to the genus Rhinoclemmys (indeterminate species). Less abundant in occurrence are the kinosternidids, attributed to Kinosternon (indeterminate species), and the first fossil record of chelydrids, Chelydra(indeterminate species), in the entirety of Central and South America.

Concepts: Fossils, Charles Darwin, Geologic time scale, Kinosternidae, Evolution, Plastron, Turtle


A series of recent studies on extant coelacanths has emphasised the slow rate of molecular and morphological evolution in these species. These studies were based on the assumption that a coelacanth is a ‘living fossil’ that has shown little morphological change since the Devonian, and they proposed a causal link between low molecular evolutionary rate and morphological stasis. Here, we have examined the available molecular and morphological data and show that: (i) low intra-specific molecular diversity does not imply low mutation rate, (ii) studies not showing low substitution rates in coelacanth are often neglected, (iii) the morphological stability of coelacanths is not supported by paleontological evidence. We recall that intra-species levels of molecular diversity, inter-species genome divergence rates and morphological divergence rates are under different constraints and they are not necessarily correlated. Finally, we emphasise that concepts such as ‘living fossil’, ‘basal lineage’, or ‘primitive extant species’ do not make sense from a tree-thinking perspective. Editor’s suggested further reading in BioEssays Tree thinking for all biology: the problem with reading phylogenies as ladders of progress Abstract.

Concepts: Fossils, Biology, Paleontology, Lazarus taxon, Extinction, DNA, Fossil, Evolution


In 1673, Martin Lister explored the preservation of ‘St Cuthbert’s beads’ plus other fossil crinoid remains from approximately 350 Ma Carboniferous limestone in northern England. He used taphonomic evidence (transport, disarticulation, burial and cementation) to infer an origin as petrified plant remains, in contrast with his views expressed elsewhere that fossil mollusc shells could have formed abiogenically, by ‘plastic forces’ within rock. Lister also observed pentagonal symmetry, now seen as characteristic of living echinoderm skeletons. A postscript from John Ray supports Lister’s ‘taphonomic’ observations and accepts the biogenicity of these fossil ‘vegetables’. Ray then concluded with a prophecy, predicting the discovery of comparable living fossils in remote ocean waters. These early discussions compare with current debates about the character of candidate microfossils from the early Earth and Mars. Interesting biomorphs are now tested against the abiogenic null hypotheses, making use of features such as those pioneered by Lister, including evidence for geological context, rules for growth and taphonomy. Advanced techniques now allow us to extend this list of criteria to include the nanoscale mapping of biology-like behaviour patterns plus metabolic pathways. Whereas the science of palaeobiology once began with tests for biogenicity, the same is now true for geobiology and astrobiology. This commentary was written to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

Concepts: Fossils, Observation, Scientific method, Geology, Taphonomy, Hypothesis, Paleobiology, Fossil