Monday, 1 June 2015

Yorkshire’s oldest new addition to the ‘Jurassic World’

Our team from the University of Manchester have identified Britain’s oldest sauropod dinosaur from a fossil bone discovered on the Yorkshire coast. The vertebra (backbone) originates from a group of dinosaurs that includes the largest land animals to have ever walked on Earth. This new sauropod dinosaur, from the Middle Jurassic Period at about 176 million years old, was found near Whitby, Yorkshire, after it fell out of a cliff face. This find represents the earliest skeletal record of this type of dinosaur from the United Kingdom and adds to existing evidence from Yorkshire dinosaur tracks that this part of the country was once Britain’s very own ‘Jurassic World’.

Sauropods (often referred to as ‘brontosaurs’) include some of the largest plant-eating dinosaurs to have roamed the Earth and were a successful group for nearly 150 million years. They possessed distinctive long necks and tails, small heads, a large body and walked on all fours. Some species such as the Argentinosaurus grew up to 115 feet (35 metres) long and possibly weighed as much as 80 tonnes.

The fragmentary nature of the new find from Yorkshire means it is not possible to generate a new species of dinosaur. However, this fossil clearly belongs to this distinctive group of titanic sized animals, the sauropods.  This dinosaur fossil is an extremely rare find, given the Middle Jurassic rocks of the world are only exposed in a few areas, such as China and Argentina where similar-aged dinosaur fossils originate.

Professor Phil Manning and his team from The University of Manchester used X-Ray Tomography to study the fossil bone, which is now held in the collections at the Yorkshire Museum in York (UK). They present their description of this new sauropod dinosaur in a paper published today in the Journal PLOS ONE.

Tail (caudal) vertebra of the new sauropod dinosaur from the Middle Jurassic of Yorkshire.
Professor Manning said: “Many scientists have worked on the amazing dinosaur tracks from the Middle Jurassic rocks of Yorkshire. It was a splendid surprise to come face-to-face with a fossil vertebra from the Jurassic rocks of Yorkshire that was clearly from a sauropod dinosaur
“This fossil offers the earliest ‘body fossil’ evidence for this important group of dinosaurs in the United Kingdom, but it is impossible to define a new species based upon this single bone." Whilst this is clearly frustrating for the team, there is possibly more of this Jurassic titan still to be discovered in the future and only then might it get a new species name. Until more bones are discovered the team have simply nicknamed Britain’s oldest sauropod dinosaur, ‘Alan’, after the finder of this prehistoric beastie (Alan Gurr).

Reconstruction of 'Alan' the Middle Jurassic Yorkshire sauropod (image by Jason Poole)
Dr Victoria Egerton (co-author on the paper) added: “The Jurassic Park that was once Yorkshire clearly has much more to offer science in our understanding of the distribution and evolution of dinosaurs.”

Dr Mike Romano, another co-author on the paper said: “Dinosaur remains of Middle Jurassic age are generally rare, even on a global scale.  So, to find a single distinctive vertebra of that age on the beach at Whitby, and one that represents a new taxon of sauropod dinosaurs, is indeed a (white) feather in the cap for Yorkshire.”

Professor Manning and Dr Egerton will be talking this week at the Times Cheltenham Science Festival.

Jane Furze, Director of the Festival, said: “At Cheltenham Science Festival we strive to showcase ground-breaking research and introduce audiences to some of the world’s greatest thinkers. The Manchester team clearly is one such pioneering group who has transformed much of what we thought we knew about dinosaurs. This latest discovery will further advance this field and we’re honoured to have the new Sauropod ‘unearthed’ at the Cheltenham Science Festival, which has become a hub for cutting-edge news.”

The vertebra will be on show at the Yorkshire Museum from Monday June 8. For more information visit

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Newfoundland to Alaska....and back again!

The past few weeks have been a little hectic....this is possibly the biggest understatement of my career. I started a few weeks ago by flying from Manchester to Newark and then headed straight-up to Newfoundland. This was my first stop on my Distinguished Lecturer tour for the American Museum of Natural History (AAPG) who kindly asked that I spread the work on our work at the University of Manchester. Since that first stop I have worked my way across North America giving a series of lectures in St. Johns, Idaho, Anchorage, Calgary, Billings, Kansas City, Casper, and New York. The last stop at the Wyoming Geological Society in Casper (Wyoming) also allowed me time to visit the splendid Tate Museum. An amazing place, with an inspirational team of staff and volunteers who are geographically located in an epicentre of paleontological wealth. As the staff and volunteers gave me the tour of their labs and exhibitions, my jaw continuously dropped in amazement...from one stunning fossil to another, from an articulated T. rex to a 50 million year old turtle that looked like it was only just buried yesterday.

Jean-Pierre (JP) Cavigelli gently sheds light on the dorsal series of their most lickable T. its plaster sarcophagus!
I also had the pleasure of meeting with a fellow rock-hound, Dr. Kent Sundell...a most splendid chap who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the beasties that once lived in what is now the White River Badlands (some 30-40 million years old). Seeing some of the most amazing fossils of the gorgeous artiodactyl oreodonts and not to mention their art nemesis Dinictis, a splendid day was had ogling at their delicate fossil remains.  I have to admit, that talking to folks like Kent, remind me of why I became a palaeontologist....the fossils are simply beautiful and tell us amazing stories of lost worlds and forgotten lives.

In a few days I have to hop back on a plane that will whisk me back to Blighty. After lecturing over the Easter weekend at the Edinburgh Science Festival, I will then be helping my Manchester colleagues take 70 undergraduates to sample the delights of South Devon (UK) on our one week-long field-camp.  Sadly, no Dinictis or T. rex in South Devon, but there will be the delights of the Torquey Limestone!

Monday, 19 January 2015

Jurassic Park IV on the horizon....

Ancient, or prehistoric DNA (usually abbreviated to aDNA) has been of interest to palaeontologists ever since the remote possibility that it might be recovered began to be entertained. The improvement of molecular biological techniques such as the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and the development of laboratory equipment for dealing with and sequencing DNA has greatly expanded the scope of possible research on aDNA, with the result that the field is presently one of active exploration.

Sadly, the breakdown of DNA from a dead organism, over long periods of time, leaves the original molecules separated into multiple short sections. These remnant sections may number only a few hundred base pairs out of hundreds of millions in the original sequence, and the remnant sections themselves may feature damage of various kinds. To recover a fragmentary DNA sequence from one chromosome in a fossil is thus a very long way from recovering an entire genome complete in every chromosome, just as the recovery of one sentence or even a word, is not the same as having the entire works of William Shakespeare. This matter of short sequences versus a complete genome is a primary separation of reality from Jurassic Park.  

Another division between Jurassic Park’s scenario and reality is the durability of DNA, given it is truley the 'delicate molecule of life'. Can aDNA last for hundreds of millions of years? Ancient DNA studies were launched in 1984, when Berkeley researchers collected DNA from an 150 year old museum specimen of a recently extinct Zebra relative, the quagga (Equus quagga quagga). This was the beginning of a quest into the past for DNA, which had been thought to deteriorate too badly for study soon after death. Researcher Svante Paabo became a major pioneer of this field. He applied DNA extraction techniques to Egyptian mummies and other ancient human remains, successfully producing sequences from bodies thousands of years old. DNA from animals dead a few thousand years, such as extinct moas (Dinornis robustus and Dinornis novaezelandiae), has allowed for comparisons with living species in order to determine the evolutionary distance from living relatives.

When an organism shuffles off its coil, its DNA is subject to breakdown due to the nuclease enzymes naturally occurring within the cells, and the end result of this process if completed would be the complete reduction of DNA to mononucleotides, the links from which the chain was made. At that point all the DNA information would be destroyed. However, several factors can slow-down nuclease activity and DNA breakdown: cold temperatures, rapid drying, and salt are primary conserving influences. However, even under optimal conditions, DNA continues to break down through oxidation and other chemical processes, until finally its identity is erased or so blurred that it could have originated from a Blue Whale (Balaenotera musculus) or my brother (Stevenus manningii)!

So, once again we will creep toward a summer of speculation as folks claim to have dinosaur DNA in their impeccably preserved samples....but for me, if the movie sparks an interest in science for another generation, it has done a splendid job!