Fossil Discoveries in Niger with Dr. Ralf Kosma

“I often wrapped wet clothes around my head in order to cool my brain during digging.”

Dr. Ralf Kosma, curator of paleontology at the State Museum of Natural History in Braunschweig, Germany, was part of an international team that excavated fossils in Niger during the late 2000s.

“[T]he heat was incredible,” he wrote in an email, “especially in April/May. Usually I can stand the heat, and I did in Niger, but many colleagues in our team (both German and Nigerien) became ill as a result of the horrifying heat.”

Embed from Getty Images

 

Much of the country—particularly in the northern region, which is where Dr. Kosma and team excavated–is in the Sahara desert.  In an area devoid of many trees (hence, shade), where temperatures are regularly above 100 degrees Fahrenheit and where water is in short supply, heat is a crucial concern.

Word of a large dinosaur bone traveled from Niger to Germany by way of Edgar Sommer, both a friend of State Museum of Natural History Director Dr. Ulrich Joger and someone with ties to an educational organization in Niger.

Paleontologists from the museum worked together with those from the local Aderbissinat community: a people comprised—like the country (and the continent!) entire—of various cultures.  Among those cultures are the Tuareg, the Hausa, and the Fulani people.

“This was organized,” Dr. Kosma wrote, describing who they hired from the community, “by Ahmad Bahani, our local Tuareg partner, and Mohammed Echika, Tuareg Chief and Mayor of the village Tadibene…”

Photo courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

Photo courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

 

Photo courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

Photo courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

Back row from left to right: Sidi Bahani, Dr. Ralf Kosma (Braunschweig), Abdul Khader, Achim Ritter (Braunschweig, technican and artist), Prof. Dr. Ulrich Joger (Director of our museum, the State Museum of Natural History in Braunschweig, Germany), Hanna Joger (daughter of Ulrich Joger) from Darmstadt, Germany, Jannis Joger (with colorful turban; son of Ulrich Joger from Darmstadt, Germany), Fritz J. Krüger (Braunschweig, paleontological volunteer of the SNHM), Michel Rabe (with hat, Braunschweig, also museum volunteer), Azziz Bahani.

Front row from left to right: Moussa, Aghali, Abdul Raman, Mohammed, Dr. Alexander Mudroch (Paleontologist, Hannover, Germany), Jörg Faust (camera assistant, from Berlin)

Picture was taken in spring 2007 in Aderbissinat at our field camp at the Spinophorosaurus site.

Photo and caption courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

 

Proud Tuareg camel riders celebrating the “Festival of Salt” in Agadez, 2007. Photo and caption courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

Photo courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

 

They camped in the field—using a campfire to cook food, some of it local, some of it brought with them in tins from Germany.  Along with the heat, they dealt with several sandstorms.

“It was peeling our skin. One was really hard and we took shelter in our laboratory truck.”

But they were also excavating at a time when civil war broke out within the country.

“We were,” he wrote, “protected by the army and by Mayor Mohammed Echika.”

 

“We encountered snakes, scorpions, a monitor lizard, geckoes, skinks and a variety of toads, birds and mammals. Due to our director being a herpetologist we were well prepared against bites of venomous snakes. At night we went snake hunting with [flashlights].” – Dr. Ralf Kosma.  Caption and photo courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

 

Between 2005 and 2008, the team excavated several places near Aderbissinat.  Petrified wood fossils of Taxodioideae amongst other conifers, fossil crocodile teeth, and ganoid fish scales indicate that the arid area of today was actually swampy and wet in the Jurassic.  Perhaps their most exciting finds: a partial sauropod skeleton and 5 individual theropod trackways.

Excavation of the sauropod took place in 2007; removal of the fossil occurred in 2008, when it was taken to the State Museum of Natural History in Braunschweig. Now on permanent display in its dinosaur hall, the partial sauropod is 8 meters long: 37 caudal vertebrae and 5 fused sacral vertebrae.

Specimen 1 from Spinophorosaurus nigerensis [a different fossil and species from the one discussed in this blog], directly after excavating in November 2006. The specimen was almost completely articulated. This specimen was later taken by a Spanish team and brought to the paleontological museum of Elche in the vicinity of Alicante in Spain. The person on the picture is Ahmed Bahani, our Tuareg coordinator. Photo and caption courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

Photo courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

Photo courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

Fossilized tree trunk on top of the cliffs of Tiguidit. 2008. Probably Cretaceous. (Attention! If you thought this is a sauropod vertebrae – it is not!) Photo and caption courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

 

Further study by Dr. Emanuel Tschopp and team indicates the sauropod might be Jobaria tiguidensis.  Research undertaken by Florian Witzmann, Oliver Hampe, Bruce Rothschild, Ulrich Joger, Ralf Kosma, Daniela Schwarz and Patrick Asbach reveals that the poor Jobaria may have suffered from a painful bone pathology.

There is a debate—since soft-tissues rarely fossilize—about what existed between vertebrae in dinosaurs.  What connected the bones, of what did that connection consist, and how exactly did it make that connection to the bone?  We don’t know.  But research gives us insightful clues.

Dr. Witzmann and team, in their 2016 paper (Subchondral cysts at synovial vertebral joints as analogies of Schmorl’s nodes in a sauropod dinosaur from Niger), looked to the work of Steve Salisbury and Eberhard Frey.  Comparing extant and extinct crocodile vertebrae with that of mammalian vertebrae, they found evidence pointing to synovial joints in dinosaurs.  This is in direct contrast to the discovertebral junctions known in mammals. The two are shaped differently, enable different range of movement within the joints, and are comprised of different substances.

Ultimately, we don’t know for certain whether dinosaurs had a discovertebral junction or whether they had synovial joints. This is important because these distinctions impact our understanding of the Nigerien sauropod’s pathology.

A 1978 paper by Resnick and Niwayama suggests subchondral cysts near synovial joints result in the same pathology as “Schmorl’s nodes,” a pathology that presents as holes or lesions in the bone. This is particularly interesting, as, thus far, only extant mammals (animals with discovertebral junctions) have exhibited traces of Schmorl’s nodes. (Only one case of possible Schmorl’s nodes in a reptile was published in 2001.)

Schmorl’s Nodes from Wikipedia credit: By J. Lengerke 22:47, 12. Jan. 2010 (CET) (Praxis Dr. Jochen Lengerke) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0), CC BY-SA 3.0 de (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

CT scanning provided further insight into the sauropod vertebrae.  While the team wondered whether the holes might be the work of ancient insects, this was discounted because there are no traces of insect mandibles and the holes are too large.  As the vertebrae were articulated when they were discovered, it was determined the space was too small for tiny mammals to make any impact postmortem.  The team therefore suggests that the lesions on the sauropod vertebrae are subchondral cysts, perhaps an analog to Schmorl’s nodes.

 

Photo courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

 

Photo courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

Photo courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

Preparing the ribs of Spinophorosaurus nigerensis, specimen 2, for transportation in spring 2007. Aderbissinat. Constructing plaster jackets. Persons from left to right: Tuareg helper Aghali, our museum volonteer Fritz J. Krüger (from Braunschweig, Germany), and me (Dr. Ralf Kosma, Staatliches Naturhistorisches Museum, Braunschweig, Germany). Photo and caption courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

 

The fossil footprints—120 tracks thus far, all of which remain in-situ in Niger—were discovered in 2007 and 2008.  Researchers from the Archaeological Institute of the University Abdou Moumouni (Institut de Recherches en Sciences Humaines, Niamey) and paleontologists from the German Museum worked together to both find and study them (Alexander Mudroch, Ute Richter, Ulrich Joger, Ralf Kosma, Oumarou Idé, Abdoulaye Maga in their 2011 paper: Didactyl Tracks of Paravian Theropods (Maniraptora) from the ?Middle Jurassic of Africa).

Casts and molds were taken of the tracks, of which, it was determined there are 5 distinct trackways.  Their unique shape gave rise to a new ichnotaxon: Paravipus didactyloides.

Although found in an area believed to be by a stream or lake during the Jurassic, the footprints are not believed to be swim traces.  Nothing in the sediment supports this.

There is, however, indication that two individual dinosaurs walked together at one point.  The size and shape of the footprints suggest those dinosaurs were theropods, possibly Deinonychus.

Figure 2. Map of dinosaur localities in the vicinity of Agadez, Rep. Niger. Generated with GoogleEarth MapMaker Utility 2009. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0014642.g002
Taking casts of the perfectly preserved Paravipus didactyloides trackways. About 1 mile SE of the Spinophorosaurus site, Aderbissinat. These tracks were later scientifically described in PlosOne by our team. They were caused by rather large dromaeosaurids (“raptors”). The tracks are numerous, large, perfectly preserved, the first proof for this group from rocks as old als middle Jurassic and, last but not least, the first proof for this group in subsaharan Africa. The person with hat is Michel Rabe, volunteer at our museum. The three guys to the right are Tuareg and Hausa helpers. Photo and caption courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma
Photo courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

After removing the silicone mould of the Paravipus tracks. Michel Rabe (with hat) and me (with turban). Photo and caption courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

 

In 2009, the State Museum of Natural History in Braunschweig opened “Projekt Dino,” an exhibition highlighting dinosaurs from West Africa.

“It was open to public for 4 months until March 2010, as far as I remember,” wrote Dr. Kosma. “Afterwards Spinophorosaurus [nigerensis—another sauropod from Niger] and Jobaria [tiguidensis] were moved to our main building.  Since 2010, the Niger-story is represented in our permanent exhibition…[W]e dedicated a complete hall–our dinosaur hall–to that topic.  Visitors of all ages are very fascinated by these skeletons. They are a central point of interest and strongly help the understanding of Earth history…Many school classes come here to learn about the giants of the Mesozoic.”

Photo courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

The acknowledgments at the end of “Subchondral cysts at synovial vertebral joints as analogies of Schmorl’s nodes in a sauropod dinosaur from Niger” state: “We also thank the people of Aderbissinat, Niger, for all the support and help they have offered us during our field campaigns.”

At the beginning of “Didactyl Tracks of Paravian Theropods (Maniraptora) from the ?Middle Jurassic of Africa,” it is noted that in exchange for paleontological work and recovery of fossils, part of the funds donated for the research were given toward building a local school, providing food for the children and 20,000 school books.

In corresponding with Dr. Kosma, one of his comments struck a personal chord with me:

“We all miss Niger very much: the country, the people, the desert, and would like to go there again digging for dinosaurs. We are still in contact with the local people, and they tell us the situation of the civil war is getting better right now.”

 

 

References:

  1. Florian Witzmann, Oliver Hampe, Bruce M. Rothschild, Ulrich Joger, Ralf Kosma, Daniela Schwarz & Patrick Asbach (2016) Subchondral cysts at synovial vertebral joints as analogies of Schmorl’s nodes in a sauropod dinosaur from Niger, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 36:2, DOI: 10.1080/02724634.2016.1080719
  2. Mudroch A, Richter U, Joger U, Kosma R, Idé O, Maga A (2011) Didactyl Tracks of Paravian Theropods (Maniraptora) from the ?Middle Jurassic of Africa. PLoS ONE 6(2): e14642. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0014642
  3. Salisbury, S, and E. Frey.  2001. A biomechanical transformation model for the evolution of semi-spheroidal articulations between adjoining vertebral bodies in crocodilians; pp. 85 – 134 in G. C. Grigg, F. Seebacher, and C. E. Franklin (eds.), Crocodilian Biology and Evolution. Surrey Beatty and Sons, Chipping Norton, England.

 

An absolutely tremendous and heartfelt thank you to Dr. Ralf Kosma, who was not only very generous with the pictures he provided of his experiences, but with his help and patience with this blog.  It took much longer to write this post than normal; he was exceedingly kind throughout the process.

An equally heartfelt thank you to Dr. Florian Witzmann, who not only put me in touch with Dr. Kosma, but helped clarify some points on his research.

A special thank you to Dr. Emanuel Tschopp who kindly confirmed the species of sauropod to be Jobaria tiguidensis (so far!)

Stegodon: Does this ancient elephant have origins in Asia?

So much has been said in recent years about the wealth of fossils in China. Almost all of it about dinosaurs: exciting new species, feathered fossils, nest upon nest of dinosaur eggs.  There is no doubt that China holds exciting clues to the history of our planet; one has only to wait to hear of the next discovery.

Within the past few months, yet another exciting find was revealed, but this time about a little known mammalian ancestor: Stegodon.

 

Stegodon by artist Hannah Stephens

Painting of a Stegodon by artist Hannah Stephenshannahleestudio.com.

 

The name Stegodon, to me, evokes ‘dinosaur’, not ‘mammal,’ but this was, indeed, an ancient animal.  Its fossils resemble those of other similar mammals, from mastodons to mammoths to today’s elephants.

 

 

Alexandra van der Geer - shrinking elephants

Figure 1: Reconstruction of four insular dwarf proboscideans with their respective mainland ancestors. Mainland proboscideans: 1, Palaeoloxodon antiquus; 2, Mammuthus columbi; 3, Stegodon zdanskyi [stegodon found in China]. Insular proboscideans: 4, Palaeoloxodon ‘mnaidriensis’; 5, Palaeoloxodon falconeri; 6, Mammuthus exilis; 7, Stegodon aurorae [a type of dwarf stegodon found in Japan]. Based on skeletons at Museo di Paleontología, University of Rome, Italy (1), American Museum of Natural History, New York (2), Taylor Made Fossils, U.S. (3), Museo di Paleontología e Geología G.G. Gemmellaro, Palermo, Italy (4), Forschungsinstitut und Naturmuseum Senckenberg, Frankfurt, Germany (5), Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, Santa Barbara, U.S. (6), Taga Town Museum, Honshu, Japan (7). Photos 1–2, 4–7 George Lyras, photo 3 courtesy of TaylorMadeFossils.com, reproduced here with permission.

From The effect of area and isolation on insular dwarf proboscidea by Alexandra A. E. van der Geer et al; photo and caption courtesy of Dr. Alexandra van der Geer.

 

When Stegodon skulls with tusks attached have been found, many (but not all) of the tusks are close together–preventing the trunk (the ‘proboscis,’ from which this group gets its name; proboscis —> proboscidea) from hanging between them.

They lived in what is now Africa and Asia, causing continued debate over its place of origin. Until recently, the oldest known Stegodon fossil, a 6.5+ million-year-old partial molar from Kenya, was described by William J. Sanders in 1999.  That record changed this past December when Dr. Hong Ao and his colleagues published their results dating the sediment in the Lanzhou Basin, China, from which a number of fossils–including that of a Stegodon–were found.

And that Stegodon was found to be between 8 – 11 million years old.

 

GSA Geologic Time Scale - Neogene

Detail of the Geologic Time Scale, created by the Geological Society of America.  Stegodon is believed to have existed between the Miocene to the Pleistocene, a relatively small segment of time in Earth’s overall history, but still considerably longer than that of our own species!  (You can view the time scale in much better detail here.) 

 

The fossils of the Stegodon, along with at least 5 other species, were actually found in the 1980s by Professor Xing Zhang of Northwest University in China.  Given the length of time between the fossil excavations and the recent dating of these fossils, one might wonder why determining the fossil age took so long.

Dr. Ao, a scientist at the State Key Laboratory of Loess and Quaternary Geology, Institute of Earth Environment, Chinese Academy of Sciences, and his colleagues state that western China does not have suitable material for radiometric dating, an oft-used method for this purpose.

When I asked why this was so, Dr. Ao replied by email, “Because volcanic activities are rare in western China during the late Cenozoic, it is difficult to find  in situ tephros or tuffs for radiometric dating (e.g., 40Ar/39Ar dating).”

Instead, they conducted a magnetostratigraphic study, one in which they determined the age of the rock through the polar reversal record.  Combining this with analysis of the fossils provided evidence that this Stegodon is 2 – 5 million years older than that of the Kenyan partial molar.

“We are indeed surprised by our dating results,” Dr. Ao continued, “which document that the Lanzhou Stegodon is the oldest Stegodon worldwide, although the Stegodon  fossil [was] not discovered by us. However, our dating results document it to be the oldest known Stegodon fossil.”

Dr. Hong Ao 1

 

Dr. Hong Ao 2

Dr. Hong Ao 3

Dr. Hong Ao 4

Images of Professor Yongxiang Li (from Northwest University) and his master student as well as several employed workers who helped to excavate mammal fossils, Lanzhou Basin, China; photos courtesy of Dr. Hong Ao.

 

indricotherine fossil

indricotherine fossil2

indricotherine fossil3

Images of indricotherine fossils found in Lanzhou Basin, China; photos courtesy of Dr. Hong Ao.

 

Dr. Ao himself has been working with fossils in the Lanzhou Basin for 5 years.  When asked how  he and his co-authors chose to work together on this recent paper, he wrote, “I have collaborated with them on broad subjects before, thus I [invited] them to join [in] this research.”

Finding information about this extinct species is difficult.  Unlike mammoths or mastodons, Stegodon does not appear to be a popular ancient animal.

Fortunately, Dr. Alexandra van der Geer–paleontologist, indologist, ethno-zoologist and author –has not only studied this species, she very generously made herself available for questions.  Currently, Dr. van der Geer is an Associate Researcher at both the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens and the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in the Netherlands. She is part of the Isolario project, a project that studies biodiversity and cultural evolution within an island context.

When I asked why there was such a dearth of information on Stegodon, she wrote, “We can think of several reasons for this.”

“First of all, stegodons typically are the elephants of Southeast and East Asia, where most countries did not have the resources and opportunities most Western countries had when it comes to scientific research and excavations. These activities are costly, and since they don’t have a direct use in the sense that they don’t advance the medical, technical or economic levels of a country, they have, understandably, a lower priority. Furthermore, because of this region, half the publications (especially before the 1990s or so) you can find are in Chinese or Japanese, which is not very helpful to the [English-speaking] world.

“Secondly, stegodons are forest elephants. Forest areas are very unlikely places for the long-term preservation of organic materials: everything is eaten, digested or otherwise broken down into smaller components in no time. The tropical (warm, humid) climate of these forests is not helpful either, as decomposition is much faster here. Stegodon remains only have a chance to be preserved when (1) they are covered fast, such as with river sediments, volcanic ashes etc., (2) or are in an oxygen-free environment, such as sunken deeply into a swamp, (3) or were deposited in a natural fridge such as limestone caves where they are gradually covered in clayish sediment or [travertines]. The same is valid for Palaeoloxodon, the Old World fossil elephant, but Europe has many limestone caves, which are excellent for preservation (for a nice [travertine]-preserved negative skull, see Stuttgart museum: skull cast SMNS nr. 32888 from Bad Cannstatt).

“As you can deduct from these preservation issues, it is more likely to find molars and tusks than skeletal material, which is much softer. The vast majority of proboscidean findings all over the planet consists of molars and tusks, and that is not for nothing. Inherently this means that there is much more information about their dentition and diet than about their bodies.”

I was interested in understanding why Stegodons are portrayed as hairless animals, so very similar to contemporary elephants.  Was this just an artistic guess?

“The hairlessness of stegodons is not an artistic guess but a scientific guess instead,” Dr. van der Geer answered.  “Very large animals with thick skins (pachyderms) in a (sub)tropical environment are unlikely to have a significant hair covering. Elephants lost their hairs secondarily. The information for hair growth is not lost, and baby elephants still have a thin, woolly coat. Woolly mammoths lived in the cold, temperate zones, and needed hair, so they were covered in a thick layer of hairs, and for this is evidence (mummies preserved in the permafrost), but the other mammoths (M. meridionalis, M. columbi, M. exilis, etc.), [did] not, and it’s generally assumed that they had a light coat fitting to the temperate zones.

“Tropical and subtropical stegodons almost certainly did not have any coat that’s worth mentioning. Stegodons of temperate zones, however, may have been more hairy. Indeed, the lack of hairs makes them look more like today’s elephants.”

 

Alexandra van der Geer - Stegodon ganesa-model-I.Vjdchauhan-SiwalikHills

Photo of the two life-size models of Stegodon ganesa;photo courtesy of Dr. Gerrit van den Bergh (University of Woolongong, Australia); special thanks to Dr. Alexandra van der Geer.

 

“Note, however, that the proboscis is carried very differently. Their tusks are set very close to each other, so the proboscis doesn’t fit in between as in modern elephants, Asian and African alike. This means that the mobility of their proboscis was more restricted, relative to their living relatives.”

 

Alexandra van der Geer - Flores-excavation-31-stegodon-florensis

Fossils of Stegodon florensis insularis, from Flores, Indonesia; photo courtesy of Dr. John de Vos (Naturalis, the Netherlands); special thanks to Dr. Alexandra van der Geer.

 

Alexandra van der Geer - stegodon-timorensis-mandible

Mandible (and holotype!) of  Stegodon timorensis; photo courtesy of Eelco Kruidenier (Naturalis, the Netherlands); special thanks to Dr. Alexandra van der Geer.  Anyone familiar with proboscidean teeth and jaws will recognize the similarities instantly.

 

But how do we know that Stegodon–a rather enormous animal–evolved into something smaller?

“[D]warfs and giants are relative. Something can be a dwarf, yet have a considerable size. When we speak of dwarf stegodons, we mean stegodons that are much smaller than their ancestors. For this, you have of course to have identical or otherwise similar elements from both the descendant and the ancestor in order to compare reliably,” she continued.

“The expectation is that dwarf stegodons must have existed on the islands, following the so-called island rule, according to which large animals get smaller in isolation. There is sound evidence that this rule still stands, and is even more pronounced for fossil species (see Lomolino et al., 2013, in Journal of Biogeography).

“Indeed, the many fossil molars from the Southeast Asian islands (‘Wallacea’) are all much and much smaller than the same molars from their mainland ancestors (see Van den Bergh, 1999). True, you first have to know what is the ancestor, and for this you need information about morphology, or how the molars, tusks, skulls and postcranial elements look like. After that, you compare the sizes.

“Note that if a molar is, for example, half the length of the same molar of its ancestral species, the body weight of that animal must have been a quarter of that of its ancestor! (the cubic law: linear reduction 50% means volume reduction 50% of 50%).”

Alexandra van der Geer - Flores-stegodon-florensis

Molar of Stegodon florensis; photo courtesy of Dr. Gerrit van den Bergh (University of Woolongong, Australia); special thanks to Dr. Alexandra van der Geer.  

 

“The most interesting dwarf stegodon is Stegodon sondaari, named after the Dutch palaeontologist Paul Yves Sondaar (1934-2003), expert in fossil insular mammals. This stegodon lived on the island of Flores about a million years ago, and weighted only about 15% of the weight of its ancestral species, S. elephantoides (see Van der Geer et al., 2016, in Journal of Biogeography, doi:10.1111/jbi.12743).

“Sondaar’s dwarf stegodon is not the smallest stegodon, that honour goes to the Sumba stegodon (S. sumbaensis), of only 8% of the original weight. Sondaar’s stegodon is interesting because it may have witnessed the arrival of early humans, possibly the ancestors of the Hobbit, or Homo floresiensis. Its fossils are contemporaneous with primitive lithic artefacts, dated to about a million years ago (see Brumm et al., 2010, in Nature 464, pp. 748–752).”

 

Alexandra van der Geer - Sumba-stegodon-sompoensis-holotype-in-Naturalis-Leiden-2

Molar (and holotype!) of Stegodon sompoenisphoto courtesy of Dr. Gerrit van den Bergh (University of Woolongong, Australia); special thanks to Dr. Alexandra van der Geer.  

 

“[R]ecently,” she concluded, “one of the island dwarf stegodons (S. timorensis of Timor) has been dated to about 130 thousand years ago (see Louys et al., 2016, in PeerJ 4:e1788). This excludes, according to the authors, an anthropogenic cause for its extinction, because humans had not yet arrived at the island.”

 

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So many people helped with this blog post!  (But please remember that any errors are my own.)

Many, many thanks to Dr. Hong Ao (Dr. Ao Hong) from the State Key Laboratory of Loess and Quaternary Geology (Chinese Academy of Sciences) for his fascinating responses and the great images of fossil excavations in the Lanzhou Basin.  I am thrilled that he was willing to answer questions about his research and that of his colleagues! It was a great honor and a pleasure connecting with him!

I am indebted to Dr. Alexandra Van der Geer, who very kindly (and so very quickly–despite everything else she has going on!!) answered specific questions about Stegodon that I could not find anywhere else and who provided pictures of dwarf Stegodon fossils.  It was an equally great honor and pleasure connecting with her!

A mastodon-sized thank you to the amazing Dr. Katy Smith for providing needed and hard-to-find material on Stegodon fossils!

And an enormous thank you to artist Hannah Stephens for her depiction of a Stegodon as it may have appeared in life.  I am particularly moved by the warmth of its intelligent-looking eyes, and I love the tones within its skin.  I adore this picture.  I am grateful to have it in this post;  I am thrilled to have the actual painting hanging on my wall!  Please be sure to check out her artwork at: http://hannahleestudio.com or http://hstephens.blogspot.com

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References from Dr. Alexandra Van der Geer:

  1. Brumm A, Jensen GM, van den Bergh GD, Morwood MJ, Kurniawan I, Aziz F, Storey M (2010) Hominins on Flores, Indonesia, by one million years ago. Nature 464, 748–752.
  2. Lomolino MV, van der Geer AAE, Lyras GA, Palombo MR, Sax DF, Rozzi R (2013) Of mice and mammoths: generality and antiquity of the island rule. Journal of Biogeography 40, 1427–1439.
  3. Louys J, Price GJ, O’Connor S. (2016) Direct dating of Pleistocene stegodon from Timor Island, East Nusa Tenggara. PeerJ 4:e1788
  4. van den Bergh GD (1999) The Late Neogene elephantoidbearing faunas of Indonesia and their palaeozoogeographic implications; a study of the terrestrial faunal succession of Sulawesi, Flores and Java, including evidence for early hominid dispersal east of Wallace’s line. Scripta Geologica 117, 1–419.
  5. van der Geer AAE, van den Bergh GD, Lyras GA, Prasetyo UW, Due RA, Setiyabudi E, Drinia H (2016) The effect of area and isolation on insular dwarf proboscideans. Journal of Biogeography, doi: 10.111/jbi.12743

References used in this blog post:

  1. New magnetochronology of Late Miocene mammal fauna, NE Tibetan Plateau, China: Mammal migration and paleoenvironments; by Hong Ao, Peng Zhang, Mark J. Dekkers, Andrew P. Roberts, Zhisheng An, Yongxiang Li, Fengyan Lu, Shan Lin, Xingwen Li; Earth and Planetary Science Letters; 1o December 2015
  2. Oldest record of Stegodon (Mammalia: Proboscidea); by William J. Sanders; Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology; Vol. 19, No. 4, Dec. 13, 1999, pp. 793 – 797
  3. Fossil elephantoids, Awash paleolake basins, and the Afar triple junction, Ethiopia; by Jon E. Kalb; Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology; 1995, pp. 357 – 368
  4. The effect of area and isolation on insular dwarf proboscidea; by Alexandra A. E. van der Geer, Gerrit D. van den Bergh, George A. Lyras, Unggul W. Prasetyo, Rokus Awe Due, Erick Setiyabudi, and Hara Drinia; Journal of Biogeography; 11 March 2016.
  5. Magnetostratigraphy – concepts, definitions, and applications, by Cor G. Langereis, Wout Krijgsman, Giovanni Muttoni, and Manfred Menning; Newsletter on Stratigraphy, Vol. 43/3: 207–233, April 2010
  6. Mammoths and Mastodons of the Ice Age, by Adrian Lister, Firefly Books, 2014
  7. Mammoths, by Adrian Lister and Paul Bahn, University of California Press, 2007
  8. The Proboscidea: Evolution and Palaeoecology of Elephants and Their Relatives, Edited by Jeheskiel Shoshani and Pascal Tassy, Oxford Science Publications, 1996
  • Stegodontidae: evolutionary relationships by Haruo Saegusa, pp. 178 – 190, The Proboscidea: Evolution and Palaeoecology of Elephants and Their Relatives
  • Palaeobiogeography of late Neogene African and Eurasian Elephantoidea by Jon E. Kalb, David J. Froehlich, and Gordon L. Bell, pp. 117 – 123, The Proboscidea: Evolution and Palaeoecology of Elephants and Their Relatives

Fossilized Footprints – Dr. Karen Chin on the work of Dr. Martin Lockley

There is something uniquely spectacular about trace fossils.

Trace fossils—or ichnofossils—are fossilized remnants of animal activity. They are echoes of animal life, many that are millions of years old, that we can see and touch, tantalizing clues into their behavior and environment.

These traces take a number of forms, including coprolites (feces), gastroliths (stones ingested to help digestion), burrows, nests, and footprints.

 

 

[image of dinosaur tracks, Colorado, courtesy of David Parsons and Getty Images]

Footprints are the focus of Dr. Martin Lockley’s work.  Over 30 years of his fossilized track research now resides at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Dr. Karen Chin, another trace fossil specialist with decades of experience, is widely known for her work on coprolites.

Coprolite - Dr. Chin MOS

 

MOS - Dr. Karen Chin coprolite

 

[images of coprolite and display info from the Boston Museum of Science, taken by the author]

The work of these two scientists comes together in the exhibit “Steps in Stone,” now at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History.  Showcasing some of Dr. Lockley’s extensive collection, the exhibit is curated by Dr. Chin.

Steps in Stone entrance

[image of exhibit entrance, courtesy of the CU Museum of Natural History]

Originally from the UK, Dr. Martin Lockley began teaching at the University of Colorado Denver in the 1980’s.  He retired in 2010, but his research continues today.

“When he decided to retire from his professor position,” Dr. Chin explained in a phone interview, “he wanted his research collection to go to a place where it would be cared for in perpetuity and would still be available for people to study.  And since the University of Colorado Boulder is a sister institution to the University of Colorado Denver, it made sense for the collection to come to us.”

An accompanying website, with text written by Allison Vitkus—one of Dr. Chin’s graduate students—Dr. Karen Chin and Dr. Martin Lockley, describes in more detail the type of tracks Dr. Lockley has collected and donated to the University.

“Because of Prof. Lockley’s efforts, the University of Colorado’s Fossil Tracks Collection is exceptional in having specimens that represent tremendous temporal, taxonomic, and geographic breadth. It includes around 3,000 original or replica specimens of footprints and trackways, as well as about 1,600 full-size acetate footprint and trackway tracings. These specimens come from over 20 countries on five continents (including 21 states within the USA).” – Allison Vitkus, Dr. Karen Chin

http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/science/trackways/index.php

Moving such a collection from one university to another is not a small enterprise.

“Martin Lockley and I applied for and received an NSF (National Science Foundation) grant to help us transfer the tracks to our museum.”

Dr. Chin described the process of creating the current exhibit, a team effort of about 15 people from various departments within the Museum of Natural History.

“Allison and I had already been writing about different aspects of fossil track research.  We sat down and asked, ‘what are the things that we think are the most fundamental and interesting concepts of fossil tracks that would be interesting for people to learn about?’  We then put together a list of things we wanted to write about and matched that with tracks in the collection.”

Dr. Karen Chin and docents

 

[image of Dr. Karen Chin and exhibit docents, courtesy of the CU Museum of Natural History]

“We decided we wanted people to think about the concept of ‘moving’ and to recognize that fossil tracks tell us about locomotion in the past. ”

In other words, it is not just a look backward in time; it encourages the visitor to think about movement in all forms today and the evolution of that movement over Earth’s history.

Embed from Getty Images

Consider, for example, how fish might make tracks: fins brush the ground while swimming in shallow water.  Consider, too, the tracks animals make while running, walking, limping, or even swimming.   The type of footprint remaining and the length between each step (or stroke) offers valuable insight to scientists. Insects, mammals, birds, pterosaurs, dinosaurs….all of these species have left their marks in stone, and all of them are represented in this exhibit.

To help highlight how different body structures affect the type of tracks an animal leaves, members of the museum’s educational department procured imitation animal tails that kids can wear.  Kids are also encouraged to ‘Walk Like a Pterosaur!’ in which they can don representations of pterosaur forelimbs with wings.

“There’s a portion of the exhibit that’s called ‘Locomotion Without Legs,’ that reminds us that not all animals that leave tracks or traces have legs,” said Dr. Chin. “Modern snails and sea urchins and are good examples of this.”

“We discuss the oldest evidence that we know of for movement in the fossil record, which is about 565 million years. We don’t know what kind of animal made the trace. It may have been something like a sea urchin, but we just don’t know.”

“There are a certain number of deposits around the world that preserve weird impressions of animals from before the Cambrian,” she continued. “Actually, we don’t even know whether all of them were animals or plants! There are no modern analogues of these organisms because they went extinct.”

“One of the oldest deposits of this particular biota comes from Newfoundland.  Researchers found an unusual trace in this deposits that extends for several inches.  The trace appears to provide evidence of locomotion.  This suggests that an animal had the capacity to move itself, which further suggests that it had muscles.  This is a huge deal because the fossil trace is so old. I think this is very cool because we often take our ability to move for granted.”

This particular trace fossil was described by Dr. Alexander Liu, Dr. Duncan McIlroy, and Dr. Martin Brasier in 2010.  How fascinating to think that something this small and from an organism that remains a mystery provides important evidence for movement when the Earth was still relatively young. (First evidence for locomotion in the Ediacaran biota from the 565 Ma Mistaken Point Formation, Newfoundland) The actual trace fossil is not part of the exhibit, but its image is available for visitors to see.

“We often automatically think that animals have the ability to move from point A to point B,” Dr. Chin mused. “But there are a number of very successful animals that live without relocating from one place to another, such as sponges and corals.   So it is interesting to think about when animals first developed the ability to move. ”

Another example of the variety and importance of tracks are the Laetoli trackway: a set of prints from Tanzania.  The exhibit displays a life-sized cast of the trackway, footprints from two hominin adults and a smaller set of footprints that might have been a child.

“Their footprints were preserved when they walked on recently deposited volcanic ash. These tracks are important because they provide some of the earliest evidence that our ancient relatives, the australopithecines, walked bipedally.”

“As Dr. Lockley has continued his research on tracks,” explained Dr. Chin, “he has often acquired replicas of fossil tracks from around the world.  That is what is great about tracks: that you can make a lot of different casts of them.”

“It’s an intense process,” Dr. Chin stated, referring to the creation of an exhibit. “There are so many details. But I gained new appreciation for the great work that the exhibit designers and the museum education people do.”

In response to whether it was a positive experience, she said, “I did enjoy it!”

“Now, I have to say,” she laughed, “it’s a lot of work.  I didn’t mind the work, it’s just that I’m also teaching and doing research, so it’s kind of hard to juggle doing all of that at the same time.”

“I think there are two larger points that I’d like people to take away from the exhibit.

“I want people to gain a sense of appreciation for the tremendous amount of research Dr. Lockley has done on fossil tracks all over the world.

“I also want people to appreciate the informative value of tracks and other trace fossils.”

Dr. Karen Chin and docents 2

[image of Dr. Karen Chin and docents, courtesy of the CU Museum of Natural History]

“At many times we tend to focus on body fossils: the bones of mammoths and the bones of dinosaurs, for example. They are very interesting, and they really fire up our imagination in considering what those ancient animals were like.

“But, I also want people to appreciate that trace fossils–which provide evidence organisms’ activity—also offer important information on the history of life.

“It’s very much akin to walking on a trail these days and looking for animal sign.  You look for tracks and scat and scratches and toothmarks.  And we do the same when we look for trace fossils in the fossil record.  Tracks are just one exciting example of trace fossils.”

 

Embed from Getty Images

——————–

A Mammuthus columbi-sized THANK YOU to Dr. Karen Chin for her time, her fascinating insight and for generously helping me understand Ediacaran biota!  It was a tremendous honor and pleasure for me to connect with her.  An enormous thank you to Cathy Regan as well for providing wonderful images of the exhibit!

Steps in Stone” is available through December 31, 2015: http://cumuseum.colorado.edu

If you are interested in learning more about trace fossils, Dr. Martin Lockley has written a number of books.  Dinosaurs Without Bones by Dr. Anthony J. Martin was published this year, and this author highly recommends it!

The Elephant Listening Project – Communication and Conservation

“One thing that surprised me was how much noise they made when they rubbed their bodies on tree-trunks (which they do a lot) and flapped their ears.”

Liz Rowland, data analyst for the Elephant Listening Project, recalled one of her few field trips in Gabon.  In this instance, she and Peter Wrege—director of the ELP (Elephant Listening Project)—were observing elephants at night with the help of infrared floodlights and night-vision binoculars.

“It was also obvious how great their sense of smell was. If the wind was going from us to them, they’d often all put up their trunks in the air (called periscoping) to smell us. Quite amusing.”

Sierra Exif JPEG

[Image of elephants in Dzanga Bai (Central African Republic) drinking at the mineral pits taken by Andrea Turkelo, courtesy of the Elephant Listening Project]

Gabon is one of the African countries in which the ELP works and one of the limited places left in the world home to wild herds of elephants.

“The only staff employed in ELP are me and Peter,” Liz continued, “and we’re here in Ithaca nearly all the time, so our fieldwork is quite limited. Mostly, it involves just Peter Wrege going out to an area and trekking through the forest to put up recording units. He’s been going out to one area or another a few times per year.”

Andrea Turkalo, a scientist who has studied elephants for over 20 years, is another member of the team, even if she is not technically employed by the ELP.

What has become standard practice—regularly recording and analyzing elephant sounds–was an original idea in the 1980’s.  The ELP’s founder, Katy Payne, had spent fifteen years listening to whales with her then-husband, Roger Payne. Her curiosity as an acoustics biologist veered toward elephants in 1984. So she visited the Washington Park Zoo in Portland, Oregon, to listen to the Asian elephants residing there.

In her book Silent Thunder, Katy Payne describes her introduction to those zoo elephants, to the social hierarchy evident in that brief visit, and, eventually, of six trunks extending through the bars, “gently surrounding [her] with whiffing” [page 17], as they explored her scent.  It was that visit, in which she felt rather than heard a throbbing in the air, that prompted her to question whether elephants made sounds that humans might not be able to detect.

She acknowledges that she was not necessarily the first to make this observation.  She points to M. Krishan, who made such a suggestion in 1972, and to Judith Berg of the San Diego Zoo. (page 44)  Elephant scientists such as Cynthia Moss and Joyce Poole in Kenya as well as Iain Douglas-Hamilton in Tanzania had wondered how elephants could appear to communicate without any apparent sound over long distances. (page 43)

Katy Payne was, it seems, the first to act upon it and undertake ongoing studies to research it further.  Her tape recordings of elephants at the zoo revealed communication through infrasound.

Her research in the 80’s and 90’s took her to a number of African countries: Amboseli Park in Kenya, Etosha National Park in Namibia, and the Sengwa Wildlife Research Area in Zimbabwe.

Her teams’ recordings were brought back to Cornell University, situated in the rolling hills of Ithaca, NY.  And there, they were further analyzed. The Elephant Listening Project found its home in–of all places–the Ornithology program within that institution.

“[I]ndeed, people are usually surprised that we’re based at the Lab of Ornithology!” Liz Rowland explained. “The reason is to do with acoustics. I think there was already a sound library here for bird song when Katy established ELP. There was also another link I think. Chris Clark was already here at the Lab as head (and founder) of the Bioacoustics Research Program, working on whale sounds. Chris had previously worked as an assistant to Katy when she was working on whales. So I think that helped get Katy started here.”

Over the years, the areas in which the ELP works have changed slightly.

“Peter works with people based in Africa, often associated with the Wildlife Conservation Society, who suggest or request sites,” Liz wrote.

ELP - Langoue_grp

[Image taken by Peter Wrege, courtesy of the Elephant Listening Project]

“There’s usually a specific need for information about the elephant and/or poaching activity. For example, Parks’ or Wildlife Conservation Society staff might be especially concerned about poaching in an area, or local people might be thinking of setting up an ecotourism project and would like to know when/where best to set up a platform [for wildlife viewing.]”

“[It’s] really only Peter that goes out to the field, although I did go with him once when we did a project that did need field observations. This was to confirm earlier studies by ELP where we found that the number of elephant calls recorded was a good indicator of the number of elephants observed at a forest clearing. So, we had to both make acoustic recordings and visual observations at a clearing.”

Communication between humans over such geographic distance offers its own obstacles.

“Unless he’s in one of the towns en route to the field, [Peter] doesn’t have any contact [with other ELP sites] except by expensive satellite phone.  Andrea Turkalo is usually based in Dzanga National Park, [Namibia], where she has limited email access and a satellite phone.”

When asked about the greatest challenge to the ELP, however, Liz responded, “Funding! We’re always on the edge of having no money at all! There are only 2 of us and although we both work full time, we don’t have funding to cover that in salary. We really need to be able to pay skilled computer programmers to help us progress, and although there are several people here in the Bioacoustics Research Program (of which we are a part), ELP has to be able to pay for their time if we want their help. Funding from grants has been increasingly difficult to obtain.”

The feeling that she’s “doing something to help conserve an extremely endangered species” is what Liz notes as the most rewarding aspect of her job at ELP.

“My interests have always been with animal behavior and conservation.”  She noted that living in South Africa for several years prompted her love of Africa in general. “Communication and social behavior of mammals, especially African mammals, has always held a special lure for me.”

“I used to work in a different department at Cornell (Natural Resources),” she continued, “which was quite interesting work, but was geared towards figuring out how to ‘manage’ wildlife (finding effective repellents, etc.), which was the wrong angle for me!”

ELP - Unequal V, VI 7

[Image of elephants in Dzanga Bai (Central African Republic) drinking at the mineral pits taken by Andrea Turkelo, courtesy of the Elephant Listening Project]

“Katy Payne used to give talks on campus every now and then about her work with the elephants so naturally I went along to them and was hooked! I kept asking if she had positions free but of course ELP had no spare funding. Eventually my contract with Natural Resources expired and Katy took me on as a volunteer. Then ELP got a little bit of money so they actually employed me, and so it’s been (on and off!) since then. Although I rarely get to actually see elephants, or even video of them, my motivation is that I’m helping to provide information that is needed to conserve them.”

Learning about elephants—let alone for a piece like this; one can only imagine what it is like in the field—is fraught with emotional highs and lows.

There are the beautiful anecdotes that demonstrate how highly intelligent and social these animals are.  One recognizes traits within elephant families that human families share: the adult tenderness with the youth in the group; baby elephants playing with one another; mischief created by the youth that is tolerated (or not!) by the adults; and the seemingly obvious grief for and memory of an elephant that has died, as the other elephants will touch and smell the bones of that elephant for years afterwards.

In one particularly amusing moment in Silent Thunder, Katy Payne describes how several juvenile male elephants—enormous creatures with an enormous combined weight—are stopped by the sight of a butterfly and then flee. (page 73)

One recognizes personalities within elephants.  One can see—from observers such as those at the ELP, who record interactions and describe them for those of us unable to witness them—how connected the elephants within each family or bond group truly are.

But then one cannot ignore the overwhelming information about elephant destruction: their numbers are dwindling at an alarming rate.

Most of their deaths are directly attributed to the ivory trade, an illegal market that kills thousands of these animals each year.  The reasons behind it and the people involved—from those with great economic need to those who are organized, well-funded and feeding an international demand—make this human/animal conflict messy, complicated and constant.

These numbers were painful almost two decades ago when Katy Payne wrote about them in Silent Thunder.  The numbers have only increased since then.

“[F]orest elephants are being killed at the rate of about 10,000 per year,” wrote Liz Rowland. “There may be only 100,000 forest elephants left.”

National Geographic included devastating statistics of elephant deaths throughout the world in  Bryan Christy’s 2012 article about the ivory trade. Within Central Africa, 90% percent of elephant deaths were attributed to ivory poaching; within Eastern Africa, those same figures were at 59%; in Western Africa, 84%; and in Southern Africa, 51%.  In that same article, it was estimated that African elephants alone numbered at 1.3 million in 1979.  In 2007, their numbers had fallen to a mere 472,000 – 690,000. (You can see that graphic and those figures here.) Given the annual death rate to the ivory market, today’s numbers can only be smaller.

Liz Rowland emphasizes this when she wrote, “The current threat to elephants is the ivory trade – mainly from the Chinese market. Everyone should do all they can to educate people about this whenever they have the opportunity (especially to those people who might consider buying ivory!)”

Also important, she noted, “Andrea and Peter are in the process of analyzing the data from [Andrea’s] 22-year long observational study at Dzanga National Park, and it shows that the reproductive rate is much slower than that of their savannah cousins, making them even more vulnerable to extinction.”

The length of time these researchers and their colleagues have spent in the field observing elephants is important. They have compiled a wealth of data that only continues to grow.

Even initially, Katy Payne mentions the creation of an elephant dictionary based upon their research.  Peter Wrege, in a relatively recent 60 Minute video, explains that the dictionary is still in its infancy.  It is one thing to learn another human language; the complexity of learning and accurately interpreting the language of another species altogether seems staggering.  It would be a remarkable achievement.

The members of ELP are not yet able to identify specific elephants by sound.

Wrote Liz, “At the moment, we’re too concerned with just getting the basic information about where elephants are, patterns of activity, etc., because this is essential for conservation planning, and we’re too short-staffed to do anything but the essentials.

“Andrea’s work is a separate project in a sense. There is one elephant there that has a unique call, but other than him, even Andrea isn’t able to ID the elephants by their calls.

“However, we think it’s very likely that the elephants recognize each other from their calls, and there has been some research on the Savannah elephant that shows that they are able to distinguish familiar from non-familiar individuals. The rumbles are very varied, so it makes sense that they can recognize calls. It would take a lot of work (time synchronized multi-channel audio recordings so that we could figure out where the elephant was when it called, with time synchronized video recordings) to figure this out.”

ELP - Thomas_ele

[A forest elephant named Thomas, taken by Peter Wrege, courtesy of the Elephant Listening Project]

As Katy Payne mused in Silent Thunder, “The more closely you watch elephants, the more complexity you see in their communities.” (page 63)

————————–

An absolutely enormous thank you to Liz Rowland of the Elephant Listening Project, who took precious time to respond to my questions and did so very generously!  An equally large thank you to everyone at the ELP, including Andrea Turkelo, and everyone within various African countries that work to preserve these animals.  And finally, a big thank you to my mom, who introduced me to Katy Payne and the Elephant Listening Project by giving me the book Silent Thunder.

Books (and magazine article) referenced:

  1. Silent Thunder: In the Presence of Elephants, Katy Payne, 1998, Simon & Schuster
  2. Ivory, Horn and Blood: Behind the Elephant and Rhinoceros Poaching Crisis, Ronald Orenstein, 2013, Firefly Books
  3. The Elephant’s Secret Sense: The Hidden Life of the Wild Herds of Africa, Caitlin O’Connell, 2007, Free Press
  4. Ivory Worship, Bryan Christy, National Geographic, October, 2012

You can help!  Adopt-an-elephant: http://www.birds.cornell.edu/brp/elephant/adoption/adoption.html

The Elephant Listening Project: http://www.birds.cornell.edu/brp/elephant/index.html

More info about Andrea Turkelo from NPR: http://www.npr.org/2014/05/08/309089369/civil-war-invades-an-elephant-sanctuary-one-researchers-escape

12.9.2014: Important updates on the ivory trade: two articles related to the massive number of elephant deaths for the ivory trade.  These two point to China as the major market behind this, adding that selling mammoth tusks is legal in that country.

(translate.google.com – if you need)

http://www.slateafrique.com/539707/ivoire-les-elephants-dafrique-menaces-dextinction-en-une-generation

http://www.tdg.ch/savoirs/environnement/chine-detient-cle-avenir-elephants/story/10373546:

“Le massacre des éléphants d’Afrique et le commerce de leur ivoire en Chine sont «hors de contrôle» et pourraient provoquer leur extinction d’ici une génération.”