Friday, September 22, 2006

Ping Pong Fish and Prehistoric Flying Squirrels

While Lucy's daughter is getting lots of science media coverage here are a couple of under-reported Fossil stories from my backyard in Alberta. Remember that the Tar Sands after all is the blood of dinosaurs.

Pregnant Prehistoric Fossil Offers Clues to Past

University of Alberta scientists have named a new species of ancient marine reptile , fondly called the Ping Pong Ichthyosaur for the spot the prehistoric creature called home for the last 25 years. Embryos found within the body of a pregnant fossil also mark the most recent record of a live birth and the physically smallest known ichthyosaur embryos.

“It was pretty amazing to realize this valuable discovery had sat under a ping pong table for 25 years,” said Dr. Michael Caldwell, paleontologist at the U of A. “But I suppose that after 100 millions of years in the dirt, it’s all relative.”

A few decades ago graduate students and a technician from the Faculty of Science collected several ichthyosaur specimens—the marine animals resembled dolphins and fish--from the Loon River Formation at Hay River, NWT.

Working with Erin Maxwell, an undergraduate student at the U of A at the time, Caldwell soon learned the bones were from the Lower Cretaceous period, or about 100 million years old. This finding was significant since it bridged a huge gap--the previous set of pregnant ichthyosaur specimens was dated 80 millions earlier. The Loon Lake collection was also the most northern record of ichthyosaur remains from Canada.

Ancient birds flew on all-fours

The earliest known ancestor of modern-day birds took to the skies by gliding from trees using primitive feathered wings on their arms and legs, according to new research by a University of Calgary paleontologist. In a paper published in the journal Paleobiology, Department of Biological Sciences PhD student Nick Longrich challenges the idea that birds began flying by taking off from the ground while running and shows that the dinosaur-like bird Archaeopteryx soared using wing-like feathers on all of its limbs. "The discussions about the origins of avian flight have been dominated by the so-called 'ground up' and 'trees down' hypotheses," Longrich said. "This paper puts forward some of the strongest evidence yet that birds descended from arboreal parachuters and gliders, similar to modern flying squirrels."

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