Placoderms had the “fun kind” of sex

Dunkleosteus, a Devonian placoderm. Pencil drawing, digital coloring, Nobu Tamura, Obtained from Wikimedia Commons.

Timeline, 2008: From about 420 to 350 million years ago, the rulers of Earth’s seas were an unattractive-looking armored fish known today as the placoderms. This group, consisting of many species, were the bulldogs of the fish world, heavy-bodied with big ugly mouths full of protruding, potentially dangerous bony plates. Some of them were quite small, but a few species grew as large as 20 feet in length. They were the dominant vertebrate worldwide for about 70 million years.

Conventional scientific wisdom would say that these ancient fish reproduced the way modern representatives of ancient lineages do: external fertilization, the sperm fertilizing the egg with a little help from water. The wisdom was so conventional, in fact, that experts placed the rise of internal fertilization—delivery of the sperm into the female via an act of copulation—a good 200 million years after the placoderms swam the seas.

A catastrophe on the reef

In what is now Western Australia, something terrible happened about 380 million years ago in the shallow seas covering a coral reef: the oxygen that fed the reef suddenly plummeted, leaving the coral starved and unable to support the food web built around it. The outcome was a rapid, catastrophic loss of all of the species on the reef, including the placoderms. Thanks to stable plate tectonics and some good sediment coverage, these hapless animals remained preserved for the subsequent millions of years until a team of fossil hunters uncovered them. They now populate one of the most famous fossil finds in the world, the Gogo fossil sites, which are packed with perfect specimens of long-lost species.

The role of Sir David Attenborough, the world’s coolest naturalist

Among those perfect specimens—so perfect, in fact, that three-dimensional samples are available—is a species that now has the name Materpiscis attenboroughi. The name means “Attenborough’s mother fish” and requires a bit of explanation. Back in the late 1970s, Sir David Attenborough produced a wonderful nature and science series called Life on Earth. In the series, he highlighted the Gogo sites, and his interest led researchers to name the fish after him. But the first part of the name, the genus name Materpiscis, means “Mother fish.” Why? Because when this 10-inch fish died during that catastrophic reef loss, she died just before becoming a mother.

We know this because a couple of researchers working on her fossilized remains decided at the last minute to expose the fossil to one more round of acid treatment. They had pretty much decided to write her up as she was, which would have been plenty because of the preserved 3D perfection of her remains. But they agreed to that last treatment, which gently etches away layers of the fossil to reveal what lies beneath. They are glad they did, because what that last treatment exposed, inside of the adult fish, is a tiny, fossilized fish embryo, about a quarter of the size of its mother.

Eureka! Again, and again, and again

Anyone looking at that embryo, inside of that fish, might have had any number of “Eureka” thoughts in that moment. Eureka! It’s a fish embryo, 380 million years old! There aren’t that many of those lying around. But even more important, Eureka! It’s a fish embryo inside of the mother. That means that the egg was fertilized inside of the mother, where the embryo grew, nourished in her body, just as mammals do it. The embryo was even attached by a tiny, fossilized umbilical cord. A final Eureka! just might be that we can confirm the sex of this fish just based on the fact that she was pregnant when she died.

This just in: Sex is fun

The presence of an internally developing embryo in this placoderm sets the assumed evolutionary timing of internal fertilization back about 200 million years. No one would have guessed that these ancient, armored bulldog-like fish would represent the earliest-known internal fertilization. And the fact that fertilization was internal means that these animals must have copulated, the standard mechanism for getting sperm into the female to meet the egg. That recognition led one of the embryo’s discoverers to remark that this animal represents the earliest example a species engaging in “sex that was fun.”

Giant Mesozoic badger turned mammalian dogma on its head

Juvenile badger with dinosaur dinner

Check your biology book. If it says anything about mammals during the age of dinosaurs, it probably depicts the mammals as small, shrew-like animals scuttering around at night, barely scratching out a living as they scurry away from the thudding feet of a Tyrannosaurus rex.

Mammals ate dinosaurs–tasted like chicken

Banish the thought and rewrite the book. Yes, many of the mammals that lived in the Mesozoic—from about 248 to 65 million years ago—were shrew- or rat-like critters that probably stayed out of the way of most dinosaurs. But recent fossil finds demonstrate that some of the mammals in the age of the dinosaur not only got in the path of dinosaurs, they ate them.

In China, there is a famous fossil bed best known for the fossils of feathered dinosaurs it has yielded. But paleontologists have also turned up some other intriguing remnants, among them the mineralized bones of species from the Repenomamus genus. These animals were long, squat-bodied creatures with strong jaws and very sharp, pointy teeth. Researchers at the site had already reported finding R. robustus, a carnivorous mammal weighing in at about 15 pounds.

Giganticus, indeed

But two other finds reported in Nature flip common Mesozoic mammal dogma upside down. The first discovery was that of a fossil species now dubbed Repenomamus giganticus, a cousin of R. robustus, but with some distinctive features: this specimen probably weighed about 30 pounds and grew to be up to a meter long. Think about a mid-sized dog, say a large basset hound, with a badger-like face and rodent-like sharp teeth, and you’ve got your R. giganticus. Not something you’d want to go hand-to-tooth with when it’s in a bad mood.

Died with dinner inside (& more dog breed comparisons)

That, at least, is what researchers concluded after their second find: a fossil of R. robustus, the smaller species, with a juvenile dinosaur skeleton where the R. robustus stomach would have been. Not only did these hardy Repenomamus species look scary, for juvenile, leaf-eating dinosaurs, they were deadly. Experts estimate, based on mammalian habits of today, that mammals can kill and consume prey that is up to half of their body weight. If R. robustus could snack on a 5-inch dinosaur baby, then presumably R. giganticus could have put back a dinosaur the size of a dachshund.

The scientists who identified and named R. giganticus had a couple of hurdles to overcome. First, they had to determine that this was a genuine average version of R. giganticus, not simply R. robustus with a pituitary problem. The error that would result would be akin to finding the skeleton of the world’s tallest man and assuming that it represented our entire species.

Badger or human, your teeth show your age

But they looked at the teeth that accompanied the skull and jaw fossils, and the molars held the clues to the animal’s age at death. The last molar of the lower jaw appeared to have just erupted when the animal died, and it had little wear. Based on this clue, the researchers concluded that fossilized remains were from a juvenile representative of the new R. giganticus species.

Making the case that a Mesozoic mammal had actually consumed a dinosaur also required some consideration and discarding of various possibilities. The little dinosaur skeleton, from a Psittacosaurus, was a small patch of bones within the ribcage of some R. robustus fossil remains. The bones were located right where the stomach is on today’s mammals, and appeared to have been broken, torn apart, and displaced from one another. The fossil bones of the accompanying R. robustus skeleton were not in this condition. The Psittacosaurus specimen also had teeth, most of which were worn, implying that this animal was not scavenged from an egg as an embryo. Based on these clues, the researchers concluded that this R. robustus had caught and eaten the hapless Psittacosaurus—dismembering it and swallowing it in chunks—shortly before meeting its own death.

Has the ivory-billed woodpecker left the building?

Watercolor painting of ivory-billed woodpeckers from Audubon's Birds of America, 1826.

Imagine waking up one morning to real film footage of a duckbill dinosaur wandering around the Great Plains. Your reaction might be similar to that of birders around the world when Science magazine reported in 2005 that the ivory-billed woodpecker, thought for 60 years to have been extinct in the United States, still existed.

A forest bird of legend

The woodpecker entered birder and ecologist lore when its numbers declined in the early part of the 20th century. Its habitat was bottomland forest in the southeastern United States and Cuba, and its niche included drilling into mature trees. When people came along, logging away the woodpeckers’ homes, the bird appeared to vanish. By the 1920s, we thought it had disappeared forever, although in 1943, there was a single confirmed sighting of a lone female, flying over the stumps of an old-growth forest. She became a central figure in a PhD thesis in 1944. Then for 60 years, silence.

False calls

Well, not complete silence. There were many reports of sightings, but most were traced to another woodpecker species, the pileated woodpecker. The ivory-billed woodpecker differs distinctly from its pileated cousin in beak color, in having white patches on its back when perched, and in its size and the solid-black crest of the female. It has a three-foot wing span, which is huge for a woodpecker, and can grow as large as 20 inches long. It is a big, beautiful, and surprising bird, with a bright red crest on the males that must be startling to see among the cypress of a bottomland forest.

A mesmerizing obsession

Birders, possibly the most obsessive of any taxon fan club, had long wandered into the swampy bottomlands of Arkansas and Louisiana, trying to find ivory-billed woodpeckers. There was a confirmed sighting in Cuba in the ‘80s, and over the decades, people have claimed sightings or reported having heard the ivory-billed’s call. Professionals and amateurs alike have waded among snakes and fought off bugs, playing tapes of the call and listening for a response. At one point, searchers found a nest that had an ivory-billed look to it and trained a remote-sensing camera on it, but saw nothing.

And then in 1999, a kayaker thought that he had seen a pair of the birds. His report received serious attention from the government, local papers, and academic groups interested in the woodpecker both for its inherent beauty and for its status as a symbol of the price of our destructive tendencies. Soon, the old forests of the southeast were crawling with ornithologists, all hoping to catch a glimpse, take a picture, and emerge with definitive proof that a bird long thought to be extinct had survived.

The beat of the forest, revived?

Some people heard the drumming sounds the woodpecker is known to make. A handful of people who really knew their woodpeckers reported sightings. But it was a four-second video of the shy, reclusive bird that clinched it. The video is short and blurry, taken from a kayak in late April of 2004 on a camcorder. But even its poor quality couldn’t hide the distinctive markings and features of the ivory-billed woodpecker.

The confirmation set the world of ornithology astir, but it also reverberates among ecologists and environmentalists. The fact that at least one male ivory-billed woodpecker exists indicates that at least one breeding pair must have survived into the 1990s because the birds live 15 to 20 years at most. And it also might have meant a second chance for us and the woodpecker. Unfortunately, according to a recent report from Cornell researchers who have spent five years looking for more signs of the bird, “it’s unlikely that there are recoverable populations” of the bird where they’ve been searching.

Did division of labor defeat the Neanderthals?

According to some anthropologists, the classic depiction of Paleolithic man as a few strapping cavemen ganging up on a mammoth with their spears might need to be replaced with dioramas of women gathering seeds or a man scraping an animal carcass from the ground to take home for dinner. In addition, this division of labor between men and women may have given Homo sapiens the upper hand when it came to their competition with Neanderthals in the Upper Paleolithic, about 45,000 to 10,000 years ago.

You may be familiar with some of the usual reasons proposed for the extinction of the Neanderthals and the supremacy of H. sapiens in the competition for resources: The wily H. sapiens swarmed the Neanderthals, defeating them in war with superior weaponry or a greater ability to resist disease or defy climate change. Some experts have proposed that a combination of these climatological and cultural factors may have contributed to the Neanderthal’s loss. But until now, no one had focused on differences in division of labor as giving H. sapiens the advantage.

The crushing hand of the Neanderthal woman

Evidence shows that Neanderthal men and women may have shared similar robust builds. In addition to bone finds that suggest as much, a researcher who focuses on hand mechanics has found that the Neanderthal female hand could exert as much force as that of a male. In addition, Neanderthal home sites rarely include artifacts such as tools for grinding seeds or trapping small animals, or even evidence of clothing production, such as needles. Thus, it seems that the Neanderthals may have, as a group—men, women, and children—spent their time focusing on one thing: big game.

Hunting a large animal that has defense ranging from tooth to antler to hoof to claw is a dangerous business, more so when your only weapon is a pointed stone attached to the end of a stick. Neanderthals got a big payoff when their spears worked, however, in the form of calorie- and protein-rich meat for the group. Evidence suggests that the whole group participated in this dangerous task—the bones of females as well as males bear the signs of many fractures, possibly the result of this dangerous lifestyle. Women and children may have been responsible for driving game or forging escape routes should the angered and frightened animal have turned on the group.

The pitfalls of group big-game hunting

This focus on a single kind of food source can have predictable consequences. In times of scarcity, the Neanderthals lacked other options. If they had no training or skills to obtain other food sources, then scarce big game translated into scarce Neanderthals. Homo sapiens, on the other hand, may have developed a division of labor between men and women before emerging from Africa 150,000 years after the Neanderthals, equipped with women who knew how to make protective clothing, trap small animals, and collect and prepare seeds and vegetation, and men with advanced weaponry who could efficiently hunt game. In addition, these people may have relied on scavenging as well as hunting to boost their food supply.

Division of labor gave H. sapiens the upper (non-crushing) hand?

The division of labor, which in some societies was reversed or not allocated in the same way between men and women, allowed Homo sapiens to adjust when food was scarce and boom when food was plentiful, or so some researchers now argue. These archaic humans could use their clothes-making skills to handle climate change and their efficient allocation of time resources to bring in food simultaneously from different sources, even when times were tough. Their booming population may have given them the numbers they needed to outcompete the Neanderthals.

…Or maybe not

Some researchers disagree with this hypothesis, suggesting that evidence of a division of labor dates back one or two million years, and there have been some predictable references in the news media to men’s and women’s roles today. One of the authors of the “division of labor” study explicitly cautions that what was beneficial 40,000 years ago isn’t necessarily a guide to what is beneficial today. Traits that provide a competitive edge are after all entirely reliant on context: What’s good in one environment may not necessarily be that helpful in a different set of circumstances.

Ancient warfare captured in amber

The soldier vs. the cockroach

About 100 million years ago, a soldier beetle of an ancient type found itself under investigation by the antennae of a much larger animal, possibly a giant cockroach. Understandably alarmed, the small soldier beetle, only about a quarter of an inch long, immediately fired off a shot of offensive chemical from one of its rear glands. Just as it released its toxic dose, a wave of sap engulfed it, forever freezing the moment in amber and taking with it the antennae of the larger predator.

We would never know a thing about this tiny event from millions of years ago were it not for the preservative properties of amber. It starts out as sap dripping down a tree but has captured for us some of the most amazing, ancient finds in the history of fossils. Recent reports have included the discovery of the oldest bee species and even the presence of the malaria pathogen in the blood of an amber-preserved mosquito. Finds like this make amber a window into an ancient world showing us things we otherwise would never see.

Small-scale wars in a big world

The scene between the cockroach and the soldier bug would have been lost to history without the amber. But now we know that chemical warfare, today widely practiced by a variety of insect species, existed at the time of the dinosaurs. As Tyrannosaurus rex made its way across the landscape leaving its tri-toed footprints in the mud, soldier beetles were busy waging their war against killers on a much smaller scale.

Insects today employ this tactic so frequently that it featured as the central trait of the most frightful insect villain in movie history, the sulfuric-acid squirting super-killer in the Alien series. Some modern insects do actually shoot acid as a form of defense; in fact, the modern version of the soldier beetle fires off a mean shot of carboxylic acid at anything trying to eat it. Other nasty mixtures insects use today include chemicals that make the predator vomit or at least spit out the intended snack.

The amber that captured the David vs. Goliath battle between the hapless soldier beetle and its cockroach attacker was found in an amber mine in Myanmar, formerly Burma. This mine has been a treasure trove of biological finds trapped in amber, discoveries that tell us things about ancient ecosystems that we otherwise never would know.

What we do know is that this ancient species of soldier beetle liked to eat aphids, other little insects, and plant pollen, which may have been why it was on the tree in the first place. It had seven pairs of chemical-firing glands along its abdomen and was able to pick and choose which ones to use, depending on the angle of the predator. In the case of the amber-encased soldier beetle, it was employing only one gland and had actually achieved a successful shot, engulfing the predator’s antennae in the presumably noxious chemical before succumbing to the flowing sap.

Don’t crack my amber!

No one knows exactly what the chemical was because the person who owns the amber and the scientist who discovered the beetle refuse to allow eager entomologists to examine the encased remains. Many entomologists would be thrilled to extract DNA from this specimen, to be able to compare it to other sequenced ancient and modern samples. Others would like to identify what this earliest known practitioner of chemical warfare was using in those seven accurately firing glands. But to get at these samples, the entire specimen would have to be ground up and completely destroyed, something the amber’s owner, a collector of such pieces, refuses to allow.

And, for the geeks…a new dating for the soldier beetle?

As consolation, entomologists will have to accept another prize. This particular fossil pushes the dating of this species of soldier beetle back by 60 million years, newly placing the little bug squarely in the time of the dinosaurs.

A gal for George, the world’s loneliest tortoise?

Long-lived, lonely: The tragic fate of Lonesome George

George has seen a lot in his life. He was born sometime between 80 and 200 years ago, so what exactly he’s seen remains speculative. What we do know is that in 1971, some goat herders spotted George on the island of Pinta in the Galapagos, and George’s life changed significantly. Researchers rushed to the site to find the tortoise. The reason for the rush? They thought George was the very last of his subspecies, the lone denizen of Pinta, a survivor of the combined adverse effects of whalers and goats in the Galapagos.

George’s people+goats problem

Probably within George’s memory—if he could form such memories—whalers arrived at the Galapagos islands and decimated tortoise populations by eating the animals, whose abundant meat proved irresistible to the protein-starved mariners. With the people came the goats, and the goats proceeded to eat their way through everything on Pinta that the tortoises like to eat, too, destroying all of the tortoise’s nesting sites in the process. By the 1970s, biologists were pretty sure that there were no longer any Geochelone nigra abingdonii, George’s subspecies, living on the island. Then George popped up his wrinkled head just as the goatherders were walking by.

George elicits some bizarre human behavior, ignores tortoise females

The people took George to a tortoise sanctuary, where they attempted to introduce him to the joys of female companionship. Because George was alone, species-wise, they selected a couple of females from a closely related subspecies, Geochelone nigra becki, who hailed from Wolf Island, part of the Galapagos island chain. There, George lived with the females for 30 years with nary a leering glance at them, much less successful mating. One frustrated researcher went so far as to join George in his pen, where she covered herself in eau d’ female tortoise, excretions from the female that presumably carried male-attracting pheromones. During her time with George, the male tortoise appeared to have a sort of sexual awakening, showing a bit of interest and exhibiting signs of sexual activity. The researcher even confirmed that George was indeed male and that everything appeared to be functioning normally.

Then, her research period at the sanctuary ended, and George lost his trainer in the romantic arts. Bachelor and celibate, his claim to fame remained that he was the world’s loneliest animal. He even made it into the Guinness Book of World Records as the rarest creature on Earth. His sobriquet became Lonesome George, and thousands of people came to view him at his island sanctuary. Over time, he has had his trials: a caretaker who let him eat too much, periodic overindulgence in cactus—a tortoise delicacy—that led to constipation, and a fall that almost killed him. But still, no mating.

Will George find his Ms. Right?

Then, a group of researchers tackled the job of drawing blood from tortoises on the nearby island of Isabela, where a different subspecies of tortoise lives. They performed microsatellite DNA analysis on the blood, a type of analysis that produces a DNA fingerprint that can be used to characterize a species. To their surprise, they found a tortoise among their samples who appeared to be half-George. The male tortoise had a microsatellite DNA pattern that was a 50% match for George, meaning that somewhere on the island of Isabela, a possibly-female G. n. abindonii lurked and, apparently, mated.

Now the search is on for the individual who may blow George’s place in the record books but also be the last hope for their mutual species to persist on the planet. If the tortoise is female, researchers hope to introduce her to George, possibly awakening his long-dormant libido. Meanwhile, George’s former island home of Pinta could be a tortoise Eden for the pair: the goats are gone and much of the vegetation has returned to its original ecological state. If they can find George a mate, he may very well cease to be Lonesome George and become his species’ Adam, partner to the as-yet-unidentified Eve.

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