Friday, November 28, 2014

Ancient penguin was a giant of NZ birdlife

Jamie Morton is science reporter at the NZ Herald.

Dr Daniel Thomas holds a thigh bone from the fossil penguin which would have stood 30cm taller than an emperor penguin today (left).
Dr Daniel Thomas holds a thigh bone from the fossil penguin which would have stood 30cm taller than an emperor penguin today (left).
A giant ancient penguin far taller than any species alive today has been described for the first time after its fossil remains sat for decades inside an Auckland storage shed.

The fossilised bones of the penguin, yet to be named, were found in North Waikato in 1971, but had been largely ignored until recently rediscovered by Massey University zoologist Dr Daniel Thomas.
The unusual features of the 28-million-year-old specimen have convinced Dr Thomas it is a new species, and the first of its kind to be discovered in the North Island.

Dr Thomas estimates the bird would have stood at 1.3m - slightly taller than the ancient Kairuku penguin discovered in 2012, and about 30cm taller than today's largest penguin, the emperor. "I imagine an emperor would have run away scared," said Dr Thomas, when asked how the two birds would compare. It was likely the bird would have been a deep-diving penguin, like the emperor, and been preyed upon by sharks and dolphins.

He learned about the remains shortly after returning to New Zealand from overseas and searching through old research papers. Because there was little to compare the remains against when they were discovered, the specimens were not fully classified and were eventually shelved in a Tamaki storage shed operated by the University of Auckland. "It turned out there was a raft of other specimens as well - it was a treasure trove of some really incredible stuff."

It was when he came upon the right leg bone of the penguin - enough to immediately tell him much about the bird - that the significance of the discovery struck him. "I couldn't stop grinning, to be honest ... I was looking at this thing and thinking, how has no one worked on this for 40 years?"

Dr Thomas had the bones 3-D-scanned and sent the prints to colleague Dr Dan Ksepka in the United States for further analysis. Features in the bones of the fossil penguin were different from any of the 50 discovered so far, and Dr Thomas and his colleagues now have only to confirm its status as a juvenile or adult before they can prepare a paper for peer review.

The find was especially exciting for Dr Thomas as the fossil was recovered near where he grew up, and he sees potential for many more new discoveries to be made in the North Island. He is keen to hear from Waikato and King Country farmers with limestone quarries who could help with the hunt.

3 Penguin facts

1. An unnamed ancient penguin whose fossilised bones were recently rediscovered in an Auckland storage shed lived 28 million years ago when most of New Zealand was underwater. 2. It is likely to have stood just over 1.3m tall - slightly taller than the recently discovered ancient Kairuku penguin and 30cm taller than the largest existing penguin, the emperor.
3. It is believed to be the first specimen of its type discovered in the North Island and raises exciting possibilities of what other wonders may lie preserved inside the North Island's hills and limestone quarries.



Fossil find reveals new giant penguin

Olivia Allison, Environment/Science Reporter 
28 November 2014
Scientists have discovered a new species of giant penguin that lived in waters around Waikato about 27 to 28 million years ago
Dr Daniel Thomas with  the fossil.
Dr Daniel Thomas with the fossil.
Photo: RNZ / Olivia Allison

Fossils were found in the 1970s, but scientists could not say for sure if it was a new species of penguin, so they stayed in storage at Auckland University. That is, until the invention of 3D printing.
This has allowed Massey University's Dr Daniel Thomas to scan the bones to American paleontologist Dr Daniel Ksepka. Both were then able to determine that they are "almost certain" it was a new type of giant penguin.

The penguin was dated by taking a fragment of the rock the bones were encased in and looking at fossil plankton. Records of fossil plankton are vast, so Dr Thomas said it was easier to determine the date.

Dr Thomas said penguin fossils become accessible as parts of the North Island that were once under water rose up over time. He could tell it was a giant penguin by comparing the thigh bone of the fossil to other penguins.

Emperor penguins are about 1 metre tall and have a thigh bone half the size of the fossil bone. Dr Thomas said it had been compared with another fossil giant penguin also, allowing them to guess that it was about 1.3 metres tall.

Dr Thomas said it did not appear to have any links to emperor penguins, other than the fact they were both penguins. "Because it lived so far back in time, it's not a close link - they'd be very distant relatives. Definitely not a cousin or step-cousin."

As researchers only have one leg bone and other fragments, they could not tell what body shape the penguin had or its weight. But they could guess with near certainty that it was black and white, just like penguins today.

Dr Thomas said it was likely the penguin would have been a deep diver, travelling offshore to find fish. He said the discovery was very big, as it was the first North Island fossil giant penguin to be discovered. "Africa has fossil humans, America has fossil dinosaurs, we have a few dinosaurs, but I like to think of New Zealand as a place with giant penguins. It feeds into the idea that New Zealand is really special."


Thursday, November 6, 2014

Taking a deeper look at 'ancient wing'


November 5, 2014


Society of Vertebrate Paleontology


In order to determine the feather color of ancient organisms such as Archaeopteryx, microscopic melanin-containing structures called melanosomes have been compared in a variety of living and fossil birds. However, might there be another explanation for the presence of these structures? This research uses scanning electron microscopy and high-sensitivity molecular techniques to respond to alternative interpretations and shed light -- and color -- on Jurassic feathers.

The fossil feather and skeleton of the iconic dinosaur Archaeopteryx.
Credit: Copyright Museum für Naturkunde Berlin

Reconstructing ancient life has long required a certain degree of imagination. This is especially true when considering the coloration of long-extinct organisms. However, new methods of investigation are being incorporated into paleontology that may shed light (and color) on fossils. Research presented at the recent Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting shows the importance of using new imaging technologies in reconstructing the color of Archaeopteryx, one of the most famous and important fossils species.
Ryan Carney of Brown University incorporated scanning electron microscopy in a 2012 study to identify melanosomes (melanin-containing pigment structures) in modern feathers to reconstruct the feather color of the iconic Archaeopteryx, the so-called "missing link" -- or more appropriately, evolutionary intermediate -- between non-avian dinosaurs and birds. Archaeopteryx has also been referred to as the "Mona Lisa of paleontology," a fossil taxon with great scientific, historical, and cultural importance.

However, after Carney's original publication, there has been some recent controversy with respect to two competing papers that offer alternative interpretations. The first was that the Archaeopteryx feather was both black and white, based on the distribution of organic sulfur imaged via synchrotron. The second was that the fossilized microbodies in the feather represent bacteria instead of melanosomes, given their similarities in size and shape.

The results of Carney's new research address these alternative interpretations and provide new insights into the Archaeopteryx feather. "The inner vane of the Archaeopteryx feather, which they claimed was white, we instead found to be packed with black melanosomes," said Carney. "This is critical because white feather color is only produced in the absence of melanosomes."

Furthermore, Carney and his Swedish colleagues have investigated the preservation of melanosomes in a variety of other fossils, utilizing additional new analytical methods such as Time-of-Flight Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometry (ToF-SIMS). Carney added, "We are not contending that every fossilized microbody is a melanosome. However, this new chemical method has allowed us to detect actual melanin molecules, which are associated with the melanosome-like microbodies in fossilized feathers and skin, from both terrestrial and marine environments. This integrated structural and direct chemical evidence provides the definitive proof that melanosomes can indeed be preserved in the fossil record."

Together, this new research paints the final picture of the famous wing feather as matte black with a darker tip, coloration that would have provided structural advantages to the plumage during this early evolutionary stage of dinosaur flight.

The application of such high-sensitivity analytical techniques is ushering in a new age of paleontological investigations. What once was artistic license, such as the appearance of ancient organisms, is now revealing itself in living color. As analytical methods in paleontology keep a pulse on technological advancements, we will continue to gain understanding of how fossil animals once lived and looked.

Story Source:
The above story is based on materials provided by Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. "Taking a deeper look at 'ancient wing'." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 5 November 2014. <>.

How the shape of eggs can help explain the evolutionary history of birds

November 5, 2014
University of Lincoln
The eggs of amniotes - mammals, reptiles and birds – come in a remarkable variety of shapes and sizes. Evolutionary biologists have now addressed shape variety in terrestrial vertebrates' eggs, pinpointing morphological differences between the eggs of birds and those of their extinct relatives, the theropod dinosaurs.

Theropod Troodon clutch.
Credit: Charles Deeming

The eggs of amniotes -- mammals, reptiles and birds -- come in a remarkable variety of shapes and sizes.
Evolutionary biologists have now addressed shape variety in terrestrial vertebrates' eggs, pinpointing morphological differences between the eggs of birds and those of their extinct relatives, the theropod dinosaurs.

Researchers from the University of Lincoln, UK, examined eggshell geometry from the transition of theropods -- a sub-order of the Saurischian dinosaurs -- into birds, based on fossil records and studies of their living species.

The results suggest that the early birds from the Mesozoic (252 to 66 million years' ago) laid eggs that had different shapes to those of modern birds. This may suggest that egg physiology and embryonic development was different in the earliest birds and so this may have implications for how some birds survived the Cretaceous-Palaeocene extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs.

Their findings are published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

Author Dr Charles Deeming, from Lincoln's School of Life Sciences, explained: "These results indicate that egg shape can be used to distinguish between different types of egg-laying vertebrates. More importantly they suggest Mesozoic bird eggs differ significantly from modern day bird eggs, but more recently extinct Cenozoic birds do not. This suggests that the range of egg shapes in modern birds had already been attained in the Cenozoic."

The origin of the amniotic egg (an egg which can survive out of water) is one of the key adaptations underpinning vertebrates' transition from sea to land more than 300 million years ago. Modern amniotic eggs vary considerably in shape and size and it is believed this variety may reflect the different patterns of egg formation and development in these taxa.
Dr Deeming added: "From a biological perspective, it is self-evident that different egg shapes by birds, both past and present, might be associated with different nesting behaviours or incubation methods. However, hardly any research has been carried out on this topic and fossil data are insufficient to draw firm conclusions. We hope that future discoveries of associated fossil eggs and skeletons will help refine the general conclusions of this work."

Dr Deeming and co-author Dr Marcello Ruta, also from the University of Lincoln, are now investigating how the highly variable amounts of yolk and albumen (egg white) in eggs of different species could be a possible determinant of bird egg shape.

Story Source:
The above story is based on materials provided by University of Lincoln. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Journal Reference:
  1. D. Charles Deeming and Marcello Ruta. Egg shape changes at the theropod-bird transition, and a morphometric study of amniote eggs. Royal Society Open Science, 2014 DOI: 10.1098/rsos.140311

University of Lincoln. "How the shape of eggs can help explain the evolutionary history of birds." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 5 November 2014. <>.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Could hand-reared penguins help seed new colonies?

Along the Western Cape of South Africa lives a group of endangered African penguins. These penguins breed from February through September, and then moult sometime between September and January. During the moulting period, the penguins are deprived of their waterproof feathers. That’s 21 days in which they’re prevented from diving for food and must rely on stored up fat for nutrition until their new feathers grow in. But if they begin the moult while they still have penguins in the nest, the chicks – who rely on their parents for food – could go hungry.

To help guard against starvation, the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) rescues these so-called “abandoned” penguins chicks whose parents just went and started moulting, leaving their precious babies to slowly starve to death. Once the penguin chicks grow up a bit, SANCCOB releases them back into their breeding colonies. In 2007, they cared for more than 480 such chicks, and nearly twice as many the year before.

What University of Cape Town animal demographer Richard B. Sherley wanted to know was whether the birds who wound up being released back into the wild fared at least as well as those who were raised by their parents, as nature intended.

In both 2006 and 2007, SANCOBB rescued a number of orphaned Africa penguin chicks. Many of them were starving because their parents began to moult, others were abandoned by their parents after their nest sites became flood, and still others were left alone after their parents themselves had to be rehabilitated due to oiling. Of those brought in for care, 91% were released in 2006, and 73% were healthy enough to release in 2007.

Before being released, many of the birds were banded so that researchers could track their progress. The researchers estimated that 11% of rehabilitated and released penguins were recruited into breeding populations, with around 14% surviving to breeding age.

These may seem like low odds, but they compare favorably to both the likelihood of penguin survival following oil spill-related rehabilitation, and even to the likelihood of survival when penguin chicks are reared by their own parents, free of human intervention.

Half of those who were confirmed breeders had returned to their birth colony, while half had joined other colonies. That suggests that hand-rearing is a viable, if labor-intensive and costly, means to bolster the size of individual penguin colonies. It also suggests that abandoned chicks could be a useful way to help establish new breeding colonies, in better areas. “As the situation for African penguin has continued to deteriorate on the West Coast, plans have been developed to use conservation translocations to establish new breeding colonies in areas of higher prey availability along the South African coast,” write the researchers.

Despite the fact that half of penguins in the current study found their way back to their birth colony, penguins aren’t stupid. “Translocated individuals will take some prospecting behaviour to evaluate the quality of their new habitat,” Sherley explains. If they’re released into a high-quality site with lots of prey, they might just stay.

It’s not just that penguins are adorable, iconic critters. As a group, seabirds are some of the most endangered birds on the planet. Nearly half of seabird species are declining, with nearly a third having earned a spot on the IUCN Red List. African penguins in particular declined by some seventy percent in the last 15 years, mainly owing to declines in their preferred prey, small baitfish like sardine and anchovy. By combining the hand-rearing of malnourished chicks with the establishment of new colonies at more optimal locations, researchers and conservationists might be able to help ensure a bright, fishy future for these most charismatic of seabirds. 

– Jason G. Goldman | 05 November 2014

Source: Sherley R.B., Venessa Strauss, Deon Geldenhuys, Les G. Underhill & Nola J. Parsons (2014). Hand-Rearing, Release and Survival of African Penguin Chicks Abandoned Before Independence by Moulting Parents, PLoS ONE, 9 (10) e110794. DOI:

Header image:


Saturday, November 1, 2014

Seeing dinosaur feathers in a new light

October 30, 2014
Universität Bonn
Why were dinosaurs covered in a cloak of feathers long before the early bird species Archaeopteryx first attempted flight? Researchers postulate that these ancient reptiles had a highly developed ability to discern color. Their hypothesis: The evolution of feathers made dinosaurs more colorful, which in turn had a profoundly positive impact on communication, the 
selection of mates and on dinosaurs’ procreation.

Feathers close up (stock image). The researchers' hypothesis: The evolution of feathers made dinosaurs more colorful, which in turn had a profoundly positive impact on communication, the selection of mates and on dinosaurs' procreation.
Credit: © thawats / Fotolia
Why were dinosaurs covered in a cloak of feathers long before the early bird species Archaeopteryx first attempted flight? Researchers from the University of Bonn and the University of Göttingen attempt to answer precisely that question in their article "Beyond the Rainbow" in the latest issue of the journal Science. The research team postulates that these ancient reptiles had a highly developed ability to discern color. Their hypothesis: The evolution of feathers made dinosaurs more colorful, which in turn had a profoundly positive impact on communication, the selection of mates and on dinosaurs' procreation.
The suggestion that birds and dinosaurs are close relatives dates back to the 19th century, the time when the father of evolutionary theory, Charles Darwin, was hard at work. But it took over 130 years for the first real proof to come to light with numerous discoveries of the remains of feathered dinosaurs, primarily in fossil sites in China. Thanks to these fossil finds, we now know that birds descend from a branch of medium-sized predatory dinosaurs, the so-called theropods. Tyrannosaurus rex and also velociraptors, made famous by the film Jurassic Park, are representative of these two-legged meat eaters. Just like later birds, these predatory dinosaurs had feathers -- long before Archaeopteryx lifted itself off the ground. But why was this, particularly when dinosaurs could not fly?

Dinosaurs' color vision

"Up until now, the evolution of feathers was mainly considered to be an adaptation related to flight or to warm-bloodedness, seasoned with a few speculations about display capabilities" says the article's first author, Marie-Claire Koschowitz of the Steinmann Institute for Geology, Mineralogy and Paleontology at the University of Bonn. "I was never really convinced by any of these theories. There has to be some particularly important feature attached to feathers that makes them so unique and caused them to spread so rapidly amongst the ancestors of the birds we know today," explains Koschowitz. She now suggests that this feature is found in dinosaurs' color vision. 

After analyzing dinosaurs' genetic relationships to reptiles and birds, the researcher determined that dinosaurs not only possessed the three color receptors for red, green and blue that the human eye possesses, but that they, like their closest living relatives, crocodiles and birds, were probably also able to see extremely short-wave and ultraviolet light by means of an additional receptor. "Based on the phylogenetic relationships and the presence of tetrachromacy in recent tetrapods it is most likely that the stem species-of all terrestrial vertebrates had photo receptors to detect blue, green, red and uv," says Dr. Christian Fischer of the University of Göttingen.

This makes the world much more colorful for most animals than it is for human beings and other mammals. Mammals generally have rather poor color vision or even no color vision at all because they tended to be nocturnal during the early stages of their evolution. In contrast, numerous studies on the social behavior and choice of mates among reptiles and birds, which are active during the day, have shown that information transmitted via color exerts an enormous influence on those animals' ability to communicate and procreate successfully.

Feathers allowed for more visible signals than did fur

We know from dinosaur fossil finds that the precursors to feathers resembled hairs similar to mammals' fur. They served primarily to protect the smaller predatory dinosaurs -- which would eventually give rise to birds -- from losing too much body heat. The problem with these hair-like forerunners of feathers and with fur is that neither allow for much color, but tend instead to come in basic patterns of brown and yellow tones as well as in black and white. Large flat feathers solved this shortcoming by providing for the display of color and heat insulation at the same time. Their broad surface area, created by interlocked strands of keratin, allows for the constant refraction of light, which consequently produces what is referred to as structural coloration. This refraction of light is absolutely necessary to produce colors such as blue and green, the effect of metallic-like shimmering or even colors in the UV spectrum. "Feathers enable a much more noticeable optical signaling than fur would allow. Iridescent birds of paradise and hummingbirds are just two among a wealth of examples," explains Koschowitz.

This work means we must see the evolution of feathers in a whole new light. They provided for a nearly infinite variety of colors and patterns while simultaneously providing heat insulation. Prof. Dr. Martin Sander of the University of Bonn's Steinmann Institute summarizes the implications of this development: "This allowed dinosaurs to not only show off their colorful feathery attire, but to be warm-blooded animals at the same time -- something mammals never managed."

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Universität Bonn. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Journal Reference:
  1. M.-C. Koschowitz, C. Fischer, M. Sander. Beyond the rainbow. Science, 2014; 346 (6208): 416 DOI: 10.1126/science.1258957

Universität Bonn. "Seeing dinosaur feathers in a new light." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 30 October 2014. <>.