Clay haloes preserve ancient fossils: an Infrared view

A UK-US collaboration has shed light on the preservation of ancient microfossils. As outlined in Interface Focus, the presence of kaolinite haloes surrounding the tiny fossils is believed to have kept destructive bacteria at bay, stopping decay. The small molecular differences of the clay around the fossils called for the Synchrotron IR microbeam.

Fossils that are over 500 million years old are extremely rare because early organisms were microscopic, only the thickness of a hair, and lacked hard parts that can resist decay. To understand how these early organisms could be preserved, IR microspectroscopy was performed using the Multimode InfraRed Imaging and Microspectroscopy (MIRIAM) beamline at Diamond Light Source. IR microanalysis allowed researchers to identify at the micron scale the minerals surrounding 800–1,000 million-year-old microfossils, and it was determined that an aluminium-rich clay known as kaolinite was responsible for their preservation. Kaolinite was previously shown to be toxic to bacteria, so its presence prevented the early organisms from being destroyed.

These observations suggest that the early fossil record might be biased to regions that are rich in kaolinite, such as the tropics. Moreover, the lack of animal fossils in these samples, despite having favourable fossilisation conditions demonstrates that animals were yet to evolve 800 million years ago.

Read more on the Diamond Light Source website

Image: Light microscopy images (left) indicating the position of the microfossils (red boxes) and Synchrotron-based IR maps (right) showing the compositional variation of the clay around the fossil (as ratio of 3694 cm^-1 band vs the M-OH region). 

Credit: Data taken at MIRIAM beamline B22 at Diamond.

Synchrotron X-ray sheds light on some of the world’s oldest dinosaur eggs

An international team of scientists led by the University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa), has been able to reconstruct the skulls of some of the world’s oldest known dinosaur embryos in 3D at the ESRF.

They found that the skulls develop in the same order as those of today’s crocodiles and chickens. The findings are published today in Scientific Reports.
University of the Witwatersrand scientists publish 3D reconstructions of the ~2cm-long skulls of some of the world’s oldest dinosaur embryos in an article in Scientific Reports. The embryos, found in 1976 in Golden Gate Highlands National Park (Free State Province, South Africa) belong to South Africa’s iconic dinosaur Massospondylus carinatus, a 5-meter long herbivore that nested in the Free State region 200 million years ago.

The scientific usefulness of the embryos was previously limited by their extremely fragile nature and tiny size. In 2015, scientists Kimi Chapelle and Jonah Choiniere, from the University of Witwatersrand, brought them to the European Synchrotron (ESRF) in Grenoble, France for scanning. At the ESRF, an 844 metre-ring of electrons travelling at the speed of light emits high-powered X-ray beams that can be used to non-destructively scan matter, including fossils. The embryos were scanned at an unprecedented level of detail – at the resolution of an individual bone cell.

>Read more on the ESRF website

Image: Watercolour painting of the Massospondylus carinatus embryos at 17% through the incubation period, 60% through the incubation period and 100% through the incubation period.
Artwork: Mélanie Saratori.

Lucy had an ape-like brain, but prolonged brain growth like humans

A study led by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology reveals that Lucy’s species, Australopithecus afarensis, had an ape-like brain.

However, the protracted brain growth suggests that infants may have had a long dependence on caregivers, as in humans. The study, in collaboration with the ESRF, is published in Science Advances.

The species Australopithecus afarensis, well-known as Lucy’s species, inhabited East Africa more than three million years ago, and occupies a key position in the hominin family tree.. “Lucy and her kind provide important evidence about early hominin behavior. They walked upright, had brains that were around 20 percent larger than those of chimpanzees and may have used sharp stone tools,” explains senior author Zeresenay Alemseged from the University of Chicago, who directs the Dikika field project in Ethiopia, where the skeleton of an Australopithecus afarensis child, known as Dikika child and nicknamed Selam, was found in the year 2000. “Our new results show how their brains developed, and how they were organized,” adds Alemseged.

>Read more on the European Synchrotron website

Image: Brain imprints in fossil skulls of the speciesAustralopithecus afarensis(famous for “Lucy” and the “Dikika child” from Ethiopia pictured here) shed new lighton the evolution of brain growth and organization. The exceptionally preservedendocranial imprint of the Dikika child reveals an ape-likebrain organization, and nofeatures derived towards humans.
Credit: Philipp Gunz, MPI EVA Leipzig.

Rare dinosaur skin offers insights into evolution

International team of scientists finds rare piece of preserved dinosaur skin and, in a world first, compares it directly to modern animals to gain insight into evolution.

Mauricio Barbi has loved dinosaurs for as long as he can remember and dreamed of one day being a paleontologist. “When I was a kid, I loved space, stars, and dinosaurs,” he said.
Fast-forward a few years, and Barbi is trekking through the Alberta Badlands alongside famous paleontologist Philip Currie, whose professional life became the inspiration for characters in the Jurassic Park movies. During this fieldwork, he also met paleontologist and rising star, Phil Bell, who had recently found a well-preserved hadrosaur. When he joined Bell in the excavations, Barbi was shocked and thrilled by what they discovered.

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Picture of the dig site.

Analyzing the world’s oldest woddy plant fossil

Scientists investigate the early evolution of tissue systems in plants.

Mapping the evolution of life on Earth requires a detailed understanding of the fossil record, and scientists are using synchrotron-based technologies to look back—way, way back—at the cell structure and chemistry of the earliest known woody plant. Dr. Christine Strullu-Derrien and colleagues used the Canadian Light Source’s SM[1] beamline at the University of Saskatchewan to study Armoricaphyton chateaupannense, an extinct woody plant that is about 400 million years old. Their research focused on lignin, an organic compound in the plant tracheids, elongated cells that help transport water and mineral salts. Lignin makes the cells walls rigid and less water permeable, thereby improving the conductivity of their vascular system.
Strullu-Derrien, a scientific associate at the Natural History Museum in London, England and the Natural History Museum in Paris, France, had described A. chateaupannense some years ago and returned to it for this project.
“Studies have been done previously on Devonian plants but they were not woody,” she said. “A. chateaupannense is the earliest known woody plant and it’s preserved in both 2D form as flat carbonaceous films and 3D organo-mineral structures. This allows for comparison to be done between the two types of preservation,” she said.
Although the fossils used in the study were collected in the Armorican Massif, a geologically significant region of hills and flatlands in western France, Strullu-Derrien said early Devonian woody plants have also been found in New Brunswick and the Gaspé area in Quebec “although these are 10 million years younger than the French one.”

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: A, photograph of Armoricaphyton chateaupannense preserved in 2D as carbonaceous thin films. B, SEM image of a transverse section of an axis of a specimen of A. chateaupannense preserved in 3D showing the radially aligned tracheids.

3D X-ray view of an amber fossil

Research team unravels secrets of 50-million-year-old parasite larvae

With the intense X-ray light from DESY’s particle accelerator PETRA III, researchers have investigated an unusual find: a 50-million-year-old insect larva from the era of the Palaeogene. The results offer a unique insight into the development of the extinct insect, as the team reports in the journal Arthropod Systematics & Phylogeny.
When the biologist Hans Pohl from the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena tracked down an insect fossil trapped in amber on eBay, the joy of discovery was great: it was a special specimen, a 50-million-year-old larva of an extinct twisted-wing insect from the order of Strepsiptera. But in order to be able to investigate it in detail, he needed the help of materials researchers from the Helmholtz Centre in Geesthacht, which operates a beamline at DESY’s X-ray source PETRA III.
Strepsiptera are parasites that infest other insects, such as bees and wasps, but also silverfish. “In most of the approximately 600 known species, the females remain in their host throughout their lives,” says Pohl. “Only the males leave it for the wedding flight, but then live only a few hours.” But there are exceptions: In species that infest silverfish, the wingless females also leave their host.

>Read more on the PETRA III at DESY website

Image: The fossil in amber. Its age lies between 42 to 54 million years. This fossil was scientifically examined at the Institute for Zoology and Evolutionary Research at the University of Jena.
Credit: FSU, Hans Pohl 

In a first, researchers identify reddish coloring in an ancient fossil mouse

X-rays reveal an extinct mouse was dressed in brown to reddish fur on its back and sides and had a tiny white tummy.

Researchers have for the first time detected chemical traces of red pigment in an ancient fossil – an exceptionally well-preserved mouse, not unlike today’s field mice, that roamed the fields of what is now the German village of Willershausen around 3 million years ago.
The study revealed that the extinct creature, affectionately nicknamed “mighty mouse” by the authors, was dressed in brown to reddish fur on its back and sides and had a tiny white tummy. The results were published today inNature Communications.
The international collaboration, led by researchers at the University of Manchester in the U.K., used X-ray spectroscopy and multiple imaging techniques to detect the delicate chemical signature of pigments in this long-extinct mouse.

>Read more on the SSRL at SLAC Lab website

Image: In this image showing the fossil chemistry of an ancient mouse, blue represents calcium in the bones, green is the element zinc which has been shown to be important in the biochemistry of red pigment and red is a particular type of organic sulfur. This type of sulfur is enriched in red pigment. When combined, regions rich in both zinc and sulfur appear yellow on this image, showing that the fur on this animal was rich in the chemical compounds that are most probably derived from the original red pigments produced by the mouse. (10.1038/s41467-019-10087-2)

Coelacanth reveals new insights into skull evolution

A team of researchers, in conjunction with the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, presents the first observations of the development of the skull and brain in the living coelacanth Latimeria chalumnae.

The study, published in Nature, uses data from beamline ID19 and provides new insights into the biology of this iconic animal and the evolution of the vertebrate skull.
The coelacanth Latimeria is a marine fish closely related to tetrapods, four-limbed vertebrates including amphibians, mammals and reptiles. Coelacanths were thought to have been extinct for 70 million years, until the accidental capture of a living specimen by a South African fisherman in 1938. Eighty years after its discovery, Latimeria remains of scientific interest for understanding the origin of tetrapods and the evolution of their closest fossil relatives – the lobe-finned fishes.

>Read more on the European Synchrotron website

Image: Overall anterolateral view of the skull of the coelacanth foetus imaged on beamline ID19. The brain is in yellow.
Credit: H. Dutel et al.

X-ray fluorescence sheds light on the growth patterns of extinct hyaena

A novel synchrotron technique examines growth patterns in fossil bones

Until recently, it was thought that warm-blooded animals experienced uninterrupted high rates of growth, whilst cold-blooded animals showed zonal growth – alternating periods of fast and slow growth. The identification of zonal growth in a range of mammals and birds disproved that theory, but as yet we don’t know how widespread zonal growth is in vertebrates, or which factors affect the speed of bone growth. Conventional techniques lack the resolution to correlate variations in bone chemistry with histological features, but in work recently published in the Journal of Analytical Atomic Spectrometry, an international team of researchers carried out the first direct comparison between optical histology (bone tissue identification) and synchrotron-based chemical mapping, quantification, and characterisation of trace elements (biochemistry) within cyclic growth tissues, and reported the first case of zonal tissue within the Hyaenidae.

>Read more on the Diamond Light Source website

Image: Lead author Jennifer Anné with a spotted hyaena mount.

Biological material discovered in Jurassic fossil

Ichthyosaurs were reptiles that roamed the Jurassic oceans 180 million years ago. They are extremely well studied and the form will probably be instantly recognisable from museums and textbooks. They resemble modern toothed whales such as dolphins and this similarity led researchers to hypothesise that the two creatures had similar strategies for survival in the marine environment. However, until now, there was little evidence to support this hypothesis. The research team led by Lund researcher Johan Lindgren went on the search for biological material within fossils to help solve this puzzle. After a lot of preparation in the lab and traveling around the world to perform experiments, they discovered that the fossil contained remnants of smooth skin and subcutaneous blubber. This is compelling evidence that the Ichthyosaurs were indeed warm-blooded and confirms the previous hypothesis. Lindgren showed visible delight when he described how you could see that the 180-million-year-old blubber was indeed visibly flexible after treatment in his laboratory.

>Read more on the MAX IV Laboratory website

Image: MAX IV’s Anders Engdahl was part of a team that published a landmark study about biological tissue found in a Jurassic fossil. The work published this week in Nature is one of the most comprehensive studies of its kind and sheds new light on the life of a prehistoric sea creature.

Megachirella -the mother of all lizards

A new international research rewrites the history of reptiles starting from a fossil found in the Dolomites.

The origin of lizards and snakes should be pushed back by about 75 million years, as documented by a small reptile, Megachirella wachtleri, found almost 20 years ago in the Dolomites and rediscovered today thanks to cutting-edge techniques in the field of 3D analysis and the reconstruction of evolutionary relationships. Evidence to this effect has been provided by an international paleontological research with the participation of the MUSE Science Museum of Trento, in collaboration with the “Abdus Salam” International Centre of Theoretical Physics of Trieste, the Enrico Fermi Centre of Rome and Elettra Sincrotrone Trieste. The results have been published in the prestigious science journal Nature, which has also dedicated its cover image to research.

The international team has identified Megachirella wachtleri – a small reptile which lived approximately 240 million years ago in what are today the Dolomites – the most ancient lizard in the world thereby providing key insight into the evolution of modern lizards and snakes.
The data – obtained by 3D X-ray imaging techniques and the analysis of DNA sequences – suggest that the origin of “squamates”, i.e. the group comprising lizards and snakes,is older than previously thought and that it can be dated to approximately 250 million years ago, before the most extensive mass extinction in history.

>Read more on the Elettra Sincrotrone Trieste website
>Watch here a video about the scientific discovery

Image: Megachirellawandering amidst the lush vegetation that approximately 240 million years ago surrounded the dolomitic beaches.
Credit: Davide Bonadonna

 

What makes pollen walls the most durable biological material?

Sporopollenin is the most durable biological material in nature and is a major component of the outer wall of pollen.

Scientists at the Natural History Museum (UK) and the ESRF are investigating the structure of the pollen wall this past weekend, on ID16A, to find out why this material is so resistant.

This experiment would not have taken place if chance, luck, but mostly curiosity had not played a major role in this story. ESRF post-doctoral researcher Ruxandra Cojocaru was talking to colleagues at the facility, looking for an appropriate material for a sedimentation study. Many discussions later, she ended up finding what she needed at the Natural History Museum in London, where curator and pollen specialist Stephen Stukins works.

Several exchanges later, and with an approved proposal for a different project than the original, they are now on ID16A to study the structure of pollen at nanolevel. “Throughout time, there have been species that have disappeared, yet the major plant groups have been relatively resistant to extinction. This may be due to the resistant sporopollenin material that was adapted for plant survival on land, especially exposure to UV radiation”, explains Stukins. With fellow NHM microfossil curator Giles Miller, he has brought fossil samples of Bathonian age, from the Jurassic era, that are part of the museum collection. “What we want to see is the structure of pollen, and more precisely of the sporopollenin outer wall. This is an almost inert biological polymer and we think it is key to the properties of pollen”, says Stukins.

>Read more on the European Synchrotron website

Image: the sample in its set-up at the European Synchrotron.
Credit: Montserrat Capellas Espuny

Research on the teeth of a prehistoric fetus

It gives us information about the last months of a mother and child, who lived 27.000 years BP.

Fossil records enable a detailed reconstruction of our planet’s history and of the evolution of our species. Dental enamel is a sort of biological archive that constantly tracks periods of good and bad health, while forming. Prenatal enamel, which grows during intrauterine life, reports the mother’s history as well.

We have studied fossil records found in the “Ostuni 1” burial site, discovered in Santa Maria di Agnano in Puglia in 1991 by Donato Coppola (Università di Bari, Italy) and dated back over 27,000 years. More specifically, we were interested in the teeth of a fetus found in the pelvic area of the skeleton of a young girl. By analysing the still forming teeth of the baby, it has been possible to obtain information about the health condition of the mother during the last months of pregnancy, to establish the gestational age of the fetus, and also to identify some specificities of the embryonal development. For the first time, it has been possible to reconstruct life and death of an ancient fetus and, at the same time, to shed light on its mother’s health.

Three still-forming incisors, belonging to the fetus, have been visualized and analyzed by means of X-ray microtomography at Elettra. The preliminary analysis on a portion of the fetal mandible, realized at the TomoLab laboratory allowed us to study the still-forming incisor contained within it (see Fig. 1). Thanks to the unique properties of synchrotron radiation and using a specifically-developed methodology, a high resolution 3D analysis has been carried out on the teeth at the SYRMEP beamline. This approach, allowed us to carry out a virtual histological analysis of the precious fossil teeth, revealing the finest structures of the dental enamel in a non-destructive way.

>Read more on the Elettra website

Image:  Pseudo color rendering of the virtual histological section of the Ostuni1b’s upper left deciduous central incisor. The corresponding CT scan has been acquired at the SYRMEP beamline in phase-contras mode.