New Jurassic non-avian theropod dinosaur sheds light on origin of flight in Dinosauria

New Jurassic non-avian theropod dinosaur sheds light on origin of flight in Dinosauria

origin of flight Ambopteryx longibrachium
a. Fossil; b. restoration, scale bar equal 10 mm; c. melanosomes of the membranous wing (mw); d. histology of the bony stomach content (bn). st, styliform element; gs, gastroliths. Credit: WANG Min

A new Jurassic non-avian theropod dinosaur from 163 million-year-old fossil deposits in northeastern China provides new information regarding the incredible richness of evolutionary experimentation that characterized the origin of flight in the Dinosauria.

Drs. WANG Min, Jingmai K. O'Connor, XU Xing, and ZHOU Zhonghe from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences described and analyzed the well-preserved skeleton of a new species of Jurassic scansoriopterygid dinosaur with associated feathers and membranous tissues. Their findings were published in Nature.

The new species, named Ambopteryx longibrachium, belongs to the Scansoriopterygidae, one of the most bizarre groups of non-avian theropods. The Scansoriopterygidae differ from other theropods in their body proportions, particularly in the proportions of the forelimb, which supports a bizarre wing structure first recognized in a close relative of Ambopteryx, Yi qi.

Unlike other flying dinosaurs, namely birds, these two species have membranous wings supported by a rod-like wrist bone that is not found in any other dinosaur (but is present in pterosaurs and flying squirrels).

Until the discovery of Yi qi in 2015, such a flight apparatus was completely unknown among theropod dinosaurs. Due to incomplete preservation in the holotype and only known specimen of Yi qi, the veracity of these structures and their exact function remained hotly debated.

As the most completely preserved specimen to date, Ambopteryx preserves membranous wings and the rod-like wrist, supporting the widespread existence of these wing structures in the Scansoriopterygidae.

WANG and his colleagues investigated the ecomorphospace disparity of Ambopteryx relative to other non-avian coelurosaurians and Mesozoic birds. The results showed dramatic changes in wing architecture evolution between the Scansoriopterygidae and the avian lineage, as the two clades diverged and underwent very different evolutionary paths to achieving flight.

Interestingly, forelimb elongation, an important characteristic of flying dinosaurs, was achieved in scansoriopterygids primarily through elongation of the humerus and ulna, whereas the metacarpals were elongated in non-scansoriopterygid dinosaurs including Microraptor and birds.

In scansoriopterygids, the presence of an elongated manual digit III and the rod-like wrist probably compensated for the relatively short metacarpals and provided the main support for the membranous wings. In contrast, selection for relatively elongated metacarpals in most birdlike dinosaurs was likely driven by the need for increased area for the attachment of the flight feathers, which created the wing surface in Microraptor and birds.

The co-occurrence of short metacarpals with membranous wings, versus long metacarpals and feathered wings, exhibits how the evolution of these two significantly different flight strategies affected the overall forelimb structure. So far, all known scansoriopterygids are from the Late Jurassic and their unique membranous wing structure did not survive into the Cretaceous.

This suggests that this wing structure represents a short-lived and unsuccessful attempt to fly. In contrast, feathered wings, first documented in Late Jurassic non-avian dinosaurs, were further refined through the evolution of numerous skeletal and soft tissue modifications, giving rise to at least two additional independent origins of dinosaur flight and ultimately leading to the current success of modern birds.

Life reconstruction of the bizarre membranous-winged Ambopteryx longibrachium. Credit: Chung-Tat Cheung

Press release from the Chinese Academy of Sciences


Cambrian explosion oxygen

Oxygen variation behind evolutionary surges and extinctions during the Cambrian explosion

Oxygen variation controls episodic pattern of Cambrian explosion: study

Early Cambrian sections of the Lena River in Siberia. Credit: ZHU Maoyan

The Cambrian Explosion around 540 million years ago was a key event in the evolutionary history of life. But what exactly controlled the Cambrian Explosion has been a subject of scientific debate since Darwin's time.

A multidisciplinary study, published on May 6 in Nature Geoscience by a joint China-UK-Russia research team, gives strong support to the hypothesis that the oxygen content of the atmosphere and ocean was the principal controlling factor in early animal evolution.

In past decades, important fossil discoveries revealed a puzzling pattern of episodic radiations and extinctions in early animal evolution. This pattern coincides with dramatic fluctuations in the carbon isotopic composition of seawater, according to study co-author ZHU Maoyan from the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Lower Cambrian strata along the Aldan and Lena rivers in Siberia consist of continuous sequences of limestone with abundant fossils and reliable age constraints, making these rocks ideal for analysing ancient seawater chemistry. The isotopic signatures of the rocks correlate with the global production of oxygen, allowing the team to determine oxygen levels in shallow sea water and the atmosphere during the Cambrian Period.

The study is the first to show that the pattern of episodic radiations and extinctions in early animal evolution closely matches extreme changes in atmospheric and oceanic oxygen levels. This result strongly suggests that oxygen played a fundamental role in the Cambrian Explosion of animals.

"The complex creatures that came about during the Cambrian Explosion were the precursors to many of the modern animals we see today. By analysing carbon and sulphur isotopes found in ancient rocks, we are able to trace oxygen variations in Earth's atmosphere and shallow oceans during the Cambrian Explosion. We found that evolutionary radiations follow a pattern of 'boom and bust' in tandem with the oxygen levels," said Dr. HE Tianchen, study lead author and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Leeds.

According to Prof. Graham Shields, study co-author from UCL Earth Sciences, this is the first study to show clearly that our earliest animal ancestors experienced a series of evolutionary radiations and bottlenecks caused by extreme changes in atmospheric oxygen levels. The result was a veritable explosion of new animal forms during more than 13 million years of the Cambrian Period.

Study co-author Dr. Benjamin Mills, from the School of Earth and Environment at Leeds, said, "The Siberian Platform gives us a unique window into early marine ecosystems. This area contains over half of all currently known fossilised diversity from the Cambrian Explosion."

"This has been an incredibly successful and exciting joint study. The question of the Cambrian Explosion trigger has puzzled scientists for years. Now, the results give us convincing evidence to link the rapid appearance of animals as well as mass extinction during the early Cambrian with oxygen," said co-author Andrey Yu Zhuravlev from Lomonosov Moscow State University.

Study co-author YANG Aihua from Nanjing University said, "In the last decade, progress has been made in the Cambrian Explosion; this study shows the interactions between the biodiversity of animal and environment during the early Cambrian."

Press release from the Chinese Academy of Sciences

Oxygen linked with the boom and bust of early animal evolution

Cambrian explosion oxygen
This is a fossilized trilobite Aldonaia from the Cambrian Period. Credit: Andrey Zhuravlev, Lomonosov Moscow State University

Extreme fluctuations in atmospheric oxygen levels corresponded with evolutionary surges and extinctions in animal biodiversity during the Cambrian explosion, finds new study led by UCL and the University of Leeds.

The Cambrian explosion was a crucial period of rapid evolution in complex animals that began roughly 540 million years ago. The trigger for this fundamental phase in the early history of animal life is a subject of ongoing biological debate.

The study, published today in Nature Geoscience by scientists from the UK, China and Russia, gives strong support to the theory that oxygen content in the atmosphere was a major controlling factor in animal evolution.

The study is the first to show that during the Cambrian explosion there was significant correlation between surges in oxygen levels and bursts in animal evolution and biodiversity, as well as extinction events during periods of low oxygen.

Dr Tianchen He, study lead author and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Leeds, began this research while at UCL. He said: "The complex creatures that came about during the Cambrian explosion were the precursors to many of the modern animals we see today. But because there is no direct record of atmospheric oxygen during this time period it has been difficult to determine what factors might have kick started this crucial point in evolution.

"By analysing the carbon and sulphur isotopes found in ancient rocks, we are able to trace oxygen variations in Earth's atmosphere and shallow oceans during the Cambrian Explosion. When compared to fossilised animals from the same time we can clearly see that evolutionary radiations follow a pattern of 'boom and bust' in tandem with the oxygen levels.

"This strongly suggests oxygen played a vital role in the emergence of early animal life."

Study co-author Professor Graham Shields from UCL Earth Sciences, said: "This is the first study to show clearly that our earliest animal ancestors experienced a series of evolutionary radiations and bottlenecks caused by extreme changes in atmospheric oxygen levels.

"The result was a veritable explosion of new animal forms during more than 13 million years of the Cambrian Period. In that time, Earth went from being populated by simple, single-celled and immobile organisms to hosting the wonderful variety of intricate, energetic life forms we see today."

Cambrian explosion oxygen
This is a fossilized giant arthropod Phytophilaspis from the Cambrian Period. Credit: Andrey Zhuravlev, Lomonosov Moscow State University

The team analysed the carbon and sulphur isotopes from marine carbonate samples collected from sections along the Aldan and Lena rivers in Siberia. During the time of the Cambrian explosion this area would have been a shallow sea and the home for the majority of animal life on Earth.

The lower Cambrian strata in Siberia are composed of continuous limestone with rich fossil records and reliable age constraints, providing suitable samples for the geochemical analyses. The isotope signatures in the rocks relate to the global production of oxygen, allowing the team to determine oxygen levels present in the shallow ocean and atmosphere during the Cambrian Period.

This is the Lena River in Sakha (Yakutia), Siberia. Credit: Andrey Zhuravlev, Lomonosov Moscow State University

Study co-author Dr Benjamin Mills, from the School of Earth and Environment at Leeds, said: "The Siberian Platform gives us a unique window into early marine ecosystems. This area contains over half of all currently known fossilised diversity from the Cambrian explosion.

"Combining our isotope measurements with a mathematical model lets us track the pulses of carbon and sulphur entering the sediments in this critical evolutionary cradle. Our model uses this information to estimate the global balance of oxygen production and destruction, giving us new insight into how oxygen shaped the life we have on the planet today."

Study co-author Maoyan Zhu from Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, said: "Understanding what triggered the Cambrian explosion requires multidisciplinary study. That's why with Graham Shields we organized together such a multidisciplinary team funded by NERC and NSFC in past years. I am so excited about the results through this collaborative project."

"On the other hand, it took a long time to get this result. We already got samples from Siberia in 2008. The sections in Siberia are difficult to access. It took time for us to organize the expedition and collect the samples there. Without support from Russian colleagues, we could not do the project."

Study co-author Andrey Yu Zhuravlev from Lomonosov Moscow State University said: "This has been an incredibly successful and exciting joint study. The question of the Cambrian Explosion trigger has puzzled scientists for years. Now, the results give us convincing evidence to link the rapid appearance of animals as well as mass extinction during the early Cambrian with oxygen."

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Further information

The paper Possible links between extreme oxygen perturbations and the Cambrian radiation of animals is published in Nature Geoscience 06 May 2019. (DOI: 10.1038/s41561-019-0357-z)

Full list of authors: Tianchen He, Maoyan Zhu, Benjamin J. W. Mills, Peter M. Wynn, Andrey Yu. Zhuravlev, Rosalie Tostevin, Philip A. E. Pogge von Strandmann, Aihua Yang, Simon W. Poulton and Graham A. Shields

This work was facilitated and supported by a joint Sino-UK-Russia research collaboration.

UK institutes: UCL; University of Leeds; Lancaster University; University of Oxford

Chinese institutes: Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology, CAS; University of Chinese Academy of Sciences; Nanjing University

Russian institute: Lomonosov Moscow State University

 

Press release from the University of Leeds

 


freshwater mussel shells mother-of-pearl

Freshwater mussel shells were material of choice for prehistoric craftsmen

Freshwater mussel shells were material of choice for prehistoric craftsmen

A new study suggests that 6000-years-ago people across Europe shared a cultural tradition of using freshwater mussel shells to craft ornaments.

freshwater mussel shells mother-of-pearl
These are prehistoric shell ornaments made with freshwater mother-of-pearl. Credit: Jérôme Thomas (UMR CNRS 6282 Biogeosciences, University of Burgundy-Franche-Comté)

An international team of researchers, including academics from the University of York, extracted ancient proteins from prehistoric shell ornaments - which look remarkably similar despite being found at distant locations in Denmark, Romania and Germany - and discovered they were all made using the mother-of-pearl of freshwater mussels.

The ornaments were made between 4200 and 3800 BC and were even found in areas on the coast where plenty of other shells would have been available.

Archaeological evidence suggests the ornaments, known as "double-buttons", may have been pressed into leather to decorate armbands or belts.

Cross-cultural tradition

Senior author of the study, Dr Beatrice Demarchi, from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York and the University of Turin (Italy), said: "We were surprised to discover that the ornaments were all made from freshwater mussels because it implies that this material was highly regarded by prehistoric craftsmen, wherever they were in Europe and whatever cultural group they belonged to. Our study suggests the existence of a European-wide cross-cultural tradition for the manufacture of these double-buttons".

Freshwater molluscs have often been overlooked as a source of raw material in prehistory (despite the strength and resilience of mother-of-pearl) because many archaeologists believed that their local origin made them less "prestigious" than exotic marine shells.

Co-author of the paper, Dr André Colonese, from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, said: "The ornaments are associated with the Late Mesolithic, Late Neolithic and Copper Age cultures. Some of these groups were still living as hunter gatherers, but in the south they were farmers with switching to a more settled lifestyle.

"The fact that these ornaments look consistently similar and are made from the same material suggests there may have been some kind of interaction between these distinct groups of people at this time.

"They may have had a shared knowledge or tradition for how to manufacture these ornaments and clearly had a sophisticated understanding of the natural environment and which resources to use."

Evolution

Mollusc shells contain a very small proportion of proteins compared to other bio-mineralised tissues, such as bone, making them difficult to analyse.

The researchers are now working on extracting proteins from fossilised molluscs, a method which they have dubbed "palaeoshellomics". These new techniques could offer fresh insights into some of the earliest forms of life on earth, enhancing our knowledge of evolution.

Dr Demarchi added: "This is the first time researchers have been able to retrieve ancient protein sequences from prehistoric shell ornaments in order to identify the type of mollusc they are made from.

"This research is an important step towards understanding how molluscs and other invertebrates evolved. We hope that using these techniques we will eventually be able to track an evolutionary process which began at least 550 million years ago."

###

"Palaeoshellomics" reveals the use of freshwater mother-of-pearl in prehistory is published in the journal eLife.

The research was carried out by researchers at the University of York, University of Turin and Ca' Foscari University (Italy), Universities of Burgundy-Franche-Comté and Lille (France), the University of Bradford (UK), the Moesgaard Museum (Denmark), the Landesamt für Denkmalpflege im Regierungspräsidium Stuttgart and the Niedersächsisches Landesamt für Denkmalpflege (Germany).

 

Press release from University of York


Suskityrannus hazelae

Suskityrannus hazelae: a new 3-foot-tall relative of Tyrannosaurus rex

New 3-foot-tall relative of Tyrannosaurus rex

A new relative of the Tyrannosaurus rex - much smaller than the huge, ferocious dinosaur made famous in countless books and films, including, yes, "Jurassic Park" - has been discovered and named by a Virginia Tech paleontologist and an international team of scientists.

The newly named tyrannosauroid dinosaur - Suskityrannus hazelae - stood rougly 3 feet tall at the hip and was about 9 feet in length, the entire animal only marginally longer than the just the skull of a fully grown Tyrannosaurus rex, according to Sterling Nesbitt, an assistant professor with Department of Geosciences in the Virginia Tech College of Science. In a wild twist to this discovery, Nesbitt found the fossil at age 16 whilst a high school student participating in a dig expedition in New Mexico in 1998, led by Doug Wolfe, an author on the paper.

In all, Suskityrannus hazelae is believed to have weighed between 45 and 90 pounds. The typical weight for a full-grown Tyrannosaurus rex is roughly 9 tons. Its diet likely consisted of the same as its larger meat-eating counterpart, with Suskityrannus hazelae likely hunting small animals, although what it hunted is unknown. The dinosaur was at least 3 years old at death based on an analysis of its growth from its bones.

Suskityrannus hazelae
Sterling Nesbitt and fossil remains of Suskityrannus hazelae, which he found at age 16 in 1998. Credit: Virginia Tech

The fossil dates back 92 million years to the Cretaceous Period, a time when some of the largest dinosaurs ever found lived.

"Suskityrannus gives us a glimpse into the evolution of tyrannosaurs just before they take over the planet," Nesbitt said. "It also belongs to a dinosaurian fauna that just proceeds the iconic dinosaurian faunas in the latest Cretaceous that include some of the most famous dinosaurs, such as the Triceratops, predators like Tyrannosaurus rex, and duckbill dinosaurs like Edmontosaurus."

The findings are published in the latest online issue of Nature Ecology & Evolution. In describing the new find, Nesbitt said, "Suskityrannus has a much more slender skull and foot than its later and larger cousins, the Tyrannosaurus rex. The find also links the older and smaller tyrannosauroids from North America and China with the much larger tyrannosaurids that lasted until the final extinction of non-avian dinosaurs.

(Tyrannosaurus rex small arm jokes abund. So, if you're wondering how small the arms of Suskityrannus were, Nesbitt and his team are not exactly sure. No arm fossils of either specimen were found, but partial hand claws were found. And, they are quite small. Also not known: If Suskityrannus had two or three fingers.)

Two partial skeletons were found. The first included a partial skull that was found in 1997 by Robert Denton, now a senior geologist with Terracon Consultants, and others in the Zuni Basin of western New Mexico during an expedition organized by Zuni Paleontological Project leader Doug Wolfe.

The second, more complete specimen was found in 1998 by Nesbitt, then a high school junior with a burgeoning interest in paleontology, and Wolfe, with assistance in collection by James Kirkland, now of the Utah Geological Survey. "Following Sterling out to see his dinosaur, I was amazed at how complete a skeleton was lying exposed at the site," Kirkland said.

For much of the 20 years since the fossils were uncovered, the science team did not know what they had.

"Essentially, we didn't know we had a cousin of Tyrannosaurus rex for many years," Nesbitt said. He added the team first thought they had the remains of a dromaeosaur, such as Velociraptor. During the late 1990s, close relatives Tyrannosaurus rex simply were not known or not recognized. Since then, more distant cousins of Tyrannosaurus rex, such as Dilong paradoxus, have been found across Asia.

The fossil remains were found near other dinosaurs, along with the remains of fish, turtles, mammals, lizards, and crocodylians. From 1998 until 2006, the fossils remain stored at the Arizona Museum of Natural History in Mesa, Arizona. After 2006, Nesbitt brought the fossils with him through various postings as student and researcher in New York, Texas, Illinois, and now Blacksburg. He credits the find, and his interactions with the team members on the expedition, as the start of his career.

"My discovery of a partial skeleton of Suskityrannus put me onto a scientific journy that has framed my career," said Nesbitt, also a member of the Virginia Tech Global Change Center. "I am now an assistant professor that gets to teach about Earth history."

The name Suskityrannus hazelae is derived from "Suski," the Zuni Native American tribe word for "coyote," and from the Latin word 'tyrannus' meaning king and 'hazelae' for Hazel Wolfe, whose support made possible many successful fossil expeditions in the Zuni Basin. Nesbitt said permission was granted from the Zuni Tribal Council to use the word "Suski."

 

Funding for Nesbitt and his team’s research into Suskityrannus came from the Discovery Channel, the Virginia Tech Department of Geosciences, and the American Museum of Natural History. Additional scientists on the team come from the University of Edinburgh, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, the University of Utah, and several more institutions.

Suskityrannus hazelae
An artist's rendering of how Suskityrannus hazelae may have looked. Credit: Virginia Tech, Andrey Atuchin

Press release from Virginia Tech


ayahuasca Cueva del Chileno Bolivia

Ayahuasca fixings found in 1,000-year-old bundle in the Andes

Ayahuasca fixings found in 1,000-year-old bundle in the Andes

New evidence that the mind-blowing brew goes back millennia

ayahuasca Cueva del Chileno Bolivia
Ritual bundle with leather bag, carved wooden snuff tablets and snuff tube with human hair braids, pouch made of three fox snouts, camelid bone spatulas, colorful textile headband and wool and fiber strings. Credit: Photos courtesy of Juan Albarracín-Jordán and José Capriles.

Today's hipster creatives and entrepreneurs are hardly the first generation to partake of ayahuasca, according to archaeologists who have discovered traces of the powerfully hallucinogenic potion in a 1,000-year-old leather bundle buried in a cave in the Bolivian Andes.

Led by University of California, Berkeley, archaeologist Melanie Miller, a chemical analysis of a pouch made from three fox snouts sewn together tested positive for at least five plant-based psychoactive substances. They included dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and harmine, key active compounds in ayahuasca, a mind-blowing brew commonly associated with the Amazon jungle.

"This is the first evidence of ancient South Americans potentially combining different medicinal plants to produce a powerful substance like ayahuasca," said Miller, a researcher with UC Berkeley's Archaeological Research Facility who uses chemistry and various technologies to study how ancient humans lived.

She is lead author of the study, published today (Monday, May 6) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Miller's analysis of a scraping from the fox-snout pouch and a plant sample found in the ritual bundle -- via liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry -- turned up trace amounts of bufotenine, DMT, harmine, cocaine and benzoylecgonine. Various combinations of these substances produce powerful, mind-altering hallucinations.

The discovery adds to a growing body of evidence of ritualistic psychotropic plant use going back millennia, said Miller, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Otago in New Zealand who conducted the research during her doctoral studies at UC Berkeley.

"Our findings support the idea that people have been using these powerful plants for at least 1,000 years, combining them to go on a psychedelic journey, and that ayahuasca use may have roots in antiquity," said Miller.

The remarkably well-preserved ritual bundle was found by archaeologists at 13,000-foot elevations in the Lipez Altiplano region of southwestern Bolivia, where llamas and alpacas roam. The leather kit dates back to the pre-Inca Tiwanaku civilization, which dominated the southern Andean highlands from about 550 to 950 A.D.

In addition to the fox-snout pouch, the leather bundle contained intricately carved wooden "snuffing tablets" and a "snuffing tube" with human hair braids attached, for snorting intoxicants; llama bone spatulas; a colorful woven textile strip and dried plant material. All the objects were in good shape, due to the arid conditions of the Andean highlands.

Though the cave where the artifacts were found appeared to be a burial site, an excavation did not turn up human remains. Moreover, the plants found in the bundle do not grow at those altitudes, suggesting the bundle's owner may have been a traveling shaman or another expert in the rituals of psychotropic plant use, or someone who was part of an extensive medicinal plant trading network.

"A lot of these plants, if consumed in the wrong dosage, could be very poisonous," Miller said. "So, whoever owned this bundle would need to have had great knowledge and skills about how to use these plants, and how and where to procure them."

Of particular fascination to Miller is the pouch made of three fox snouts. She describes it as "the most amazing artifact I've had the privilege to work with."

"There are civilizations who believe that, by consuming certain psychotropic plants, you can embody a specific animal to help you reach supernatural realms, and perhaps a fox may be among those animals," Miller said.

Ayahuasca is made from brewing the vines of Banisteriopsis Caapi and the leaves of the chacruna (Psychotria viridis) shrub. The leaves release DMT, and the vines release harmine -- and therein lies the secret of the ayahuasca effect.

"The tryptamine DMT produces strong, vivid hallucinations that can last from minutes to an hour, but combined with harmine, you can have prolonged out-of-body altered states of consciousness with altered perceptions of time and of the self," Miller said.

Once the drugs take effect, ayahuasca users typically enter a purgative state, which means they vomit a lot.

Though its use is currently fashionable among Silicon Valley techies, Hollywood celebrities and spiritual awakening-seekers worldwide, Miller says these latest archaeological findings pay homage to ayahuasca's ancient history.

Miller joined the Cueva del Chileno excavation project when archaeologists Juan Albarracín-Jordán of the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés in Bolivia and José Capriles of Pennsylvania State University sought her expertise to identify the plant matter they had found in the bundle.

She traveled for two days to reach the cave site near the remote south Bolivian village of Lipez and helped with the final phases of the excavation. The bundle was transported to a laboratory in La Paz and, once permits were in place, samples were exported to the lab of Christine Moore, chief toxicologist with the Immunalysis Corp. in Pomona, California.

Moore's lab provided the liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry technology needed to conduct toxicology tests on the samples. Once the contents of the Andean bundle tested positive for five kinds of psychotropic substances, Miller's research team was over the moon.

"We were amazed to see the incredible preservation of these compounds in this ritual bundle," said Miller. "I feel very lucky to have been a part of this research."

 

Press release from University of California Berkeley

Ancient ritual bundle contained multiple psychotropic plants

ayahuasca Cueva del Chileno
The researchers found a ritual bundle in the Cueva del Chileno rock shelter located in southwestern Bolivia. Credit: Jose Capriles, Penn State

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- A thousand years ago, Native Americans in South America used multiple psychotropic plants -- possibly simultaneously -- to induce hallucinations and altered consciousness, according to an international team of anthropologists.

"We already knew that psychotropics were important in the spiritual and religious activities of the societies of the south-central Andes, but we did not know that these people were using so many different compounds and possibly combining them together," said Jose Capriles, assistant professor of anthropology, Penn State. "This is the largest number of psychoactive substances ever found in a single archaeological assemblage from South America."

The researchers were searching for ancient occupations in the dry rock shelters of the now-dry Sora River valley in southwestern Bolivia when they found a ritual bundle as part of a human burial. The bundle -- bound in a leather bag -- contained, among other things, two snuffing tablets (used to pulverize psychotropic plants into snuff), a snuffing tube (for smoking hallucinogenic plants), and a pouch constructed of three fox snouts.

The team used accelerator mass spectrometry radiocarbon dating to determine the age of the outer leather bag and found that it was about 1,000 years old.

"This period in this location is associated with the disintegration of the Tiwanaku state and the emergence of regional polities," said Capriles.

The team found psychoactive compounds in an animal-skin pouch constructed of three fox snouts stitched together. Credit: Jose Capriles, Penn State

In addition, the team used a scalpel to obtain a tiny scraping from the interior of the fox-snout pouch and analyzed the material using liquid chromatography with tandem mass spectrometry.

"This method is highly sensitive and very effective for detecting the presence of minute amounts of specific compounds from very small samples," said Melanie Miller, postdoctoral fellow at the University of Otago, New Zealand, and research affiliate at the University of California, Berkeley, who was responsible for analyzing the samples.

The researchers identified the presence of multiple psychoactive compounds -- cocaine, benzoylecgonine (the primary metabolite of cocaine), harmine, bufotenin, dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and possibly psilocin (a compound found in some mushrooms) -- from at least three different plant species (likely Erythroxylum coca, a species of Anadenanthera and Banistesteriopsis caani). The results will appear during the week of May 6 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

According to Capriles, the fox-snout pouch likely belonged to a shaman.

"Shamans were ritual specialists who had knowledge of plants and how to use them as mechanisms to engage with supernatural beings, including venerated ancestors who were thought to exist in other realms," said Capriles. "It is possible that the shaman who owned this pouch consumed multiple different plants simultaneously to produce different effects or extend his or her hallucinations.'"

Capriles noted that the co-occurrence of harmine and DMT, which are the primary ingredients of ayahuasca -- a beverage that is reported to induce hallucinations and altered consciousness -- in the pouch suggests the use of this beverage as one of the drugs in the shaman's kit.

The ritual bundle included two carved and decorated wooden snuffing tablets that would have been used as a platform on which to pulverize psychotropic plants. Credit: Jose Capriles, Penn State

"Some scholars believe that ayahuasca has relatively recent origins, while others argue that it may have been used for centuries, or even millennia," said Capriles. "Given the presence of harmine and DMT together in the pouch we found, it is likely that this shaman ingested these simultaneously to achieve a hallucinogenic state, either through a beverage, such as ayahuasca, or through a composite snuff that contained these plants in a single mixture. This finding suggests that ayahuasca may have been used up to 1,000 years ago."

Not only does the presence of numerous compounds suggest simultaneous use of drugs and earlier use of ayahuasca, in particular, but it also indicates intricate botanical knowledge by the owner of the pouch and an effort to acquire hallucinogenic plants, as the plants came from different regions of mostly tropical South America.

"The presence of these compounds indicates the owner of this kit had access to at least three plants with psychoactive compounds, but potentially even four or five," said Miller. "None of the psychoactive compounds we found come from plants that grow in this area of the Andes, indicating either the presence of elaborate exchange networks or the movement of this individual across diverse environments to procure these special plants. This discovery reminds us that people in the past had extensive knowledge of these powerful plants and their potential uses, and they sought them out for their medicinal and psychoactive properties."

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Other authors on the paper include Juan Albarracin-Jordan, research associate, Universidad Mayor de San Andrés, Bolivia; and Christine Moore, chief toxicologist at Immunalysis Corporation.

The National Geographic Society Grant and the Bartolome de Las Casas Foundation supported this research.

Press release from Penn State

 


Da Vinci's hand impairment caused by nerve damage, not stroke, suggests new study

Da Vinci's hand impairment caused by nerve damage, not stroke, suggests new study

New analysis of 16th-century drawing by Italian doctors concludes da Vinci's right hand affected by ulnar palsy, rather than stroke

Leonardo da Vinci hand
Leonardo da Vinci, presumed self-portrait (WGA12798), red chalk on paper, 333x213 mm, Royal Library of Turin. Public Domain

A fainting episode causing traumatic nerve damage affecting his right hand could be why Leonardo da Vinci's painting skills were hampered in his late career. While the impairment affected his ability to hold palettes and brushes to paint with his right hand, he was able to continue teaching and drawing with his left hand. According to most authors, the origin of da Vinci's right hand palsy was related to a stroke.

Doctors writing in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine reached a different conclusion after analysing a 16th-century drawing of an elderly da Vinci, together with a biography and an engraving of the Renaissance polymath artist and inventor in earlier years.

The authors, Dr Davide Lazzeri, a specialist in plastic reconstructive and aesthetic surgery at the Villa Salaria Clinic in Rome, and Dr Carlo Rossi, a specialist in neurology at the Hospital of Pontedera, focused on a portrait of da Vinci drawn with red chalk attributed to 16th-century Lombard artist Giovan Ambrogio Figino*. The drawing is a rare rendering of da Vinci's right arm in folds of clothing as if it was a bandage, with his right hand suspended in a stiff, contracted position.

Dr Lazzeri said: Rather than depicting the typical clenched hand seen in post-stroke muscular spasticity, the picture suggests an alternative diagnosis such as ulnar palsy, commonly known as claw hand."

He suggests that a syncope, or faint, is more likely to have taken place than a stroke, during which da Vinci might have sustained acute trauma of his right upper limb, developing ulnar palsy. The ulnar nerve runs from the shoulder to little finger and manages almost all the intrinsic hand muscles that allow fine motor movements.

While an acute cardiovascular event may have been the cause of da Vinci's death, his hand impairment was not associated with cognitive decline or further motor impairment, meaning a stroke was unlikely. Dr Lazzeri said: "This may explain why he left numerous paintings incomplete, including the Mona Lisa, during the last five years of his career as a painter while he continued teaching and drawing."

 

*Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, unknown date (16th century), Giovan Ambrogio Figino, red chalk or sanguine drawing, 41.6  28.2 cm (16.3  11.1 in.) [from the Museum of Gallerie dell’Accademia, Gabinetto dei Disegni e Stampe, n. 834, Venice, Italy; reprinted in the journal with permission of Ministero dei Beni e delle Attivita` Culturali e del Turismo].

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horse genetic history

A genomic tour-de-force reveals the last 5,000 years of horse history

A genomic tour-de-force reveals the last 5,000 years of horse history

horse genetic history
This image shows a herd of Kazakh horses in the Pavlodar region of Kazakhstan in August 2016. Credit: Ludovic Orlando

Each year on the first Saturday in May, Thoroughbred horses reach speeds of over 40 miles per hour as they compete to win the Kentucky Derby. But the domestic horse wasn't always bred for speed. In fact, an international team now has evidence to suggest that the modern horse is genetically quite different from the horses of even just a few hundred years ago.

Their work, appearing May 2 in the journal Cell, constructs the genetic history of the domestic horse across the world over the last 5,000 years by using the largest genome collection ever generated for a non-human organism. The findings identify two new horse lineages that are now extinct and suggest that familiar traits such as speed were only selected for more recently in their history.

"The horse has impacted human history like no other animal," says Ludovic Orlando (@LudovicLorlando), a research director with CNRS and the University of Toulouse and a Professor of Molecular Archaeology at the University of Copenhagen. "If you look at the historical record from the Bronze Age onward, horses are always part of the equation up until very recent times, connecting civilizations and impacting transportation, warfare, and agriculture. Our goal was to understand how humans and their activities transformed the horse throughout history to fit their purposes--and how these changes in biology influenced human history."

The team responsible for this project consisted of 121 collaborators, including geneticists, archaeologists, and evolutionary biologists from 85 institutions around the world, and examined genome-scale data from 278 horse specimens from across Eurasia over the last 42,000 years.

"Such a large collection of data means that we can build a much more precise understanding of horse domestication and management through space and time," Orlando says. "But it was truly an interdisciplinary effort because of course it takes a lot more than just DNA to understand such a story. We had to integrate all these social, historical, and geographical aspects."

This graphical abstract summarizes horse genetic history over the last 5,000 years. Credit: Fages et al./Cell

Overall, the team's findings suggest that equine history was much more complex than was previously realized. Today, there are only two known lineages of horses, the domestic horse and the Przewalski's horse. But the researchers here identified two additional now-extinct lineages of horses, one from the Iberian Peninsula and one from Siberia, both of which still existed 4,000-4,500 years ago. "We found two lineages of horses at the far ends of Eurasia that are not related to what we call the domestic horse today, nor to the Przewalski's horse. They are a sort of horse equivalent of what Neanderthals are to modern humans," Orlando says.

The researchers also found a major shift in the genetic makeup of horses in Europe and Central Asia in the 7th to 9th centuries and say this shift probably corresponds to Islamic expansions. The horses common in Europe before that time are now only found in regions such as Iceland; the new European horses after that time were much more similar to horses found in Persia during the Sassanid Empire. When the team performed a scan to identify genes that had been selected for in these Persian horses, they found evidence of selection in genes associated with body shape.

"It was a moment in history that reshaped the landscape of horses in Europe. If you look at what we today call Arabian horses, you know that they have a different shape--and we know how popular this anatomy has been throughout history, including in racing horses. Based on the genomic evidence, we propose that this horse was so successful and influential because it brought a new anatomy and perhaps other favorable traits," he says.

The researchers found that there have been additional significant and recent changes in the domestic horse. Similar selection scans indicate that only in the last 1,500 years did traits such as ambling and speed over short distances become more actively sought. And when they looked at the overall genetic diversity of the domestic horse, the researchers found a sharp decline in the last 200 to 300 years. They believe this decline corresponds with new breeding practices that were introduced with the rise of the concept of "pure" breeds.

"What we picture as a horse today and what we picture as a horse from a thousand years ago or two thousand years ago was likely actually very different. Some of those traits that we are most familiar with are only a modern invention, and in the last few hundred years, we have actually impacted the horse genome a lot more than in the previous 4,000 years of domestication," says Orlando.

This map shows the locations of the archaeological sites where horse remains were found. Credit: Fages et al./Cell

He believes that this research can tell us a lot about both the past and the present. "Our findings show that the past is a lot more diverse than we thought it was and that it cannot be imagined or inferred through modern-day variation. But ancient DNA tells us a lot about today as well, because it teaches us about the consequences of some shifts in breeding practices," he says. And that, he believes, can also affect the way we think about conservation and modern agricultural practices.

Of course, our understanding of the domestic horse's history is far from complete. Orlando acknowledges that there are geographic and temporal gaps in his story. Perhaps mostly glaringly, we still don't know when and or where the horse was domesticated. "Horse domestication is central to human history, and in 2019, we still don't understand where it started. That's mind-blowing," he says.

He looks forward to filling in those blanks. "Whenever I'm asked about what finding I'm most excited about, I always say, the next one. Because this research opens the door for so many possibilities to be studied now."

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Notre Dame acoustics

Reconstructing the Acoustics of Notre Dame

Reconstructing the Acoustics of Notre Dame

Notre Dame acoustics
Brian FG Katz and colleagues set up an artificial head to take acoustical measurements at Notre Dame in 2013. Image by Brian FG Katz/CNRS

The April 15 fire that devastated the roof of the 850-year-old Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral left many people around the globe wondering whether it’s possible to rebuild it in a way that can recreate the cultural icon’s complex signature acoustics.

Other cathedrals may seem to have similar acoustics, but no two are the same in the way sound soars and reverberates inside. Myriad nuances and details are unique -- many of which are likely to change during the course of centuries as furnishings and renovations evolve.

Six years ago, on April 24, 2013, Brian FG Katz, a Fellow of the Acoustical Society of America and CNRS research director at Sorbonne Université, and colleagues obtained detailed measurements of the acoustics of the main space within Notre Dame.

Those measurements and the methods his team used to obtained them were detailed in several publications in the ASA's flagship publication, the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, and one of Katz's students is presenting some of the work later this month at the 177th Meeting of Acoustical Society of America in Louisville, Kentucky.

These measurements hold new significance now, Katz said. They document the acoustic conditions of the cathedral before the fire and can be used during its restoration. He is available to answer questions from reporters about the work and reconstructing the complex acoustics of Notre Dame.

“The acoustics of worship spaces has long been a topic of interest and is an active area of study right now,” said Katz. “Acoustics within churches and places of worship, in general, vary greatly with the associated religious practices. Some emphasize the intelligibility of the spoken word, while others focus on the ritual aspects and musical nature. A grand church organ, for example, played within a dry room suited to speech can sound more like an accordion -- without the reverberation mixing effect of the acoustics.”

How they captured the acoustics of Notre Dame

“The basic practice of measuring the acoustics of rooms is common across spaces,” Katz said. “We don’t use any special cathedral protocols. But for the long reverberation time and the considerable volume, we had to work to get our signal-to-noise level to an adequate level.”

Measurements were made using a collection of omnidirectional, 3D (first order ambisonic), and dummy head (binaural) microphones. Several dodecahedron loudspeakers were situated at key positions inside the cathedral, representing either typical source positions or those measurement positions of a series of measurements carried out by the same lab in 1987.

“We also included several balloon bursts as a safeguard, well aware of their acoustic limitations,” Katz said. That work was published in 2011 in JASA (see https://asa.scitation.org/doi/10.1121/1.3518780).

The researchers use mostly pro-audio hardware because it often provides a better signal-to-noise ratio and the installation is easier than laboratory measurement equipment.

“Technically speaking, we used a 20-second exponential sweep-sine signal, or chip, and deconvolution to obtain the room impulse response. This response, or the acoustic signature, for each source/receiver pair in effect characterizes how the room transforms the sound from source to receiver,” Katz said. “Once set up, the measurements took a little more than one hour and mostly involved moving microphones around.”

Getting access to iconic sites like Notre Dame is always difficult, and the time inside to record measurements always goes by fast. “One advantage of such a space is the relatively flat floor, which allowed us to have the majority of our equipment on a cart that can be rolled down the aisle,” Katz said. “This is in stark contrast to when we do measurements within concert halls with different levels and balconies.”

"Reverberant energy" -- Notre Dame's full sound

With a 6-second reverberation time at mid-frequencies, Katz describes Notre Dame’s sound as being “as full as you can imagine, with the reverberant energy coming from all around. As you move within the space, the acoustics varies due to changes in ceiling height, for example. This is very noticeable and can be heard on our online simulation example as you travel around the cathedral.”

From the measurements and other documentation they were able to obtain at Notre Dame, Katz and colleagues created a geometrical acoustic room model and calibrated it to the measured responses’ acoustic parameters using CATT-Acoustics (http://www.catt.se), a numerical simulation software used by acoustic consultants. That work was published in JASA in 2016 (see https://asa.scitation.org/doi/10.1121/1.4971422).

“Using this model, we simulated new room impulse responses that correspond to an orchestra configuration of a close-mic recording session made within the cathedral by the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de Paris (CNSMDP), a college of music and dance,” Katz explained. “By feeding these recordings to the appropriate source positions in the model, we were able to recreate the acoustic performance of this concert -- allowing the listener to move within the cathedral to explore and experience the complex acoustics of this large and historic space.” They described this work in JASA in 2017 (see https://asa.scitation.org/doi/abs/10.1121/1.4987161).

For these simulations, “the sheer size and long reverberation time of the cathedral means longer calculation times, longer impulse responses, longer processing times, and more computational requirements,” Katz added. “These demands were far beyond what we experienced with other sites, and small fluctuations in air temperature resulted in misalignment of impulse responses. This, in turn, resulted in artificially reduced reverberation times for averaged measurements, so we developed a method to correct for it that can also be used as a way to measure small changes in mean temperature” -- work published in 2016 (see https://asa.scitation.org/doi/10.1121/1.4955006).

Play it forward: The reconstruction of Notre Dame

How can Katz’s acoustic measurements help with the reconstruction of Notre Dame Cathedral? First, the existence of acoustic documentation of the cathedral is a huge benefit.

“It can help during renovation works when considering how the impact of any choices might change the acoustics, such as choice of materials,” Katz said. “It’s not clear yet what state the interior finishes are in, but the wooden panels and paintings within the cathedral are not at all insignificant when it comes to acoustics. Compared to the raw stone structure, these small elements act as possible acoustic absorption and diffusion and can have significant impacts on the resulting acoustics.”

The second benefit is virtual reconstruction -- essentially providing a way for people to listen to performances within the “lost” acoustics. “This could be via working with the CNSMDP to process the full recording of the concert we presented an excerpt of on YouTube, or to process other recordings made using the same procedure. This approach can also be used to listen to ‘new’ performances within the cathedral that never occurred there -- enabling even live performances to be broadcast as a concert within the virtual Notre Dame. These could be of interest during the reconstruction, while the building is inaccessible to the public.”

 

Press release from the American Institute of Physics


balena di Matera Balaenoptera cf. musculus di Matera

The largest fossil whale ever found

The largest fossil whale ever found

New fossils shed light on the evolution of extreme gigantism of whales in a study involving palaeontologists from the University of Pisa

 

A new study just published in the international journal Biology Letters, published by the prestigious Royal Society of London, describes the enormous skeleton of a fossil blue whale, discovered in 2006 on the edge of Lake San Giuliano near Matera (southern Italy). This research involved the palaeontologists Giovanni BianucciAlberto CollaretaWalter LandiniCaterina Morigi and Angelo Varola of the Department of Earth Sciences of the University of PisaAgata Di Stefano of the Department of Biological Geological and Environmental Sciences of the University of Catania, and Felix Marx of the Directorate Earth and History of Life of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels.

balena di Matera Balaenoptera cf. musculus di Matera
Excavation of the fossil skeleton of Balaenoptera cf. musculus on the edge of San Giuliano Lake, Matera, Italy (photo G. Bianucci).

Giovanni Bianucci, who took part in the excavation and coordinated the study of the fossil, explains: "The shape of its bones clearly identifies the Matera fossil as a close relative of the living blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus), the largest animal that ever lived. This idea also fits with the estimated length of the new specimen, which at 26 meters is the largest whale fossil ever described, and perhaps the largest whale that ever swam in the Mediterranean Sea. This finding is important not just because it is a world record, but above all because of its implications for the evolution of extreme size".

balena di Matera Balaenoptera cf. musculus di Matera
Comparison between the ear bones of the extant blue whale and the fossil from Matera, highlighting similar features (photo and composition by F. Marx and G. Bianucci).

Gigantism is a phenomenon that has emerged, independently and at different times, in many vertebrate lineages. Large body size is thought to confer some form of competitive advantage, but exactly how and why it evolved remains a matter of debate. In recent years, research into vertebrate gigantism has focused especially on baleen whales (Mysticeti), which include the largest animals on Earth. By far the biggest is the blue whale, which can exceed 30 meters in length and reach up to 180 tonnes in weight.

Skull of Balaenoptera cf. musculus from Matera (left), next to an explanatory drawing showing the position of the preserved bones in the complete skull (photo of the skull by Akhet s.r.l.; drawing and composition by G. Bianucci and F. Marx).

Unlike most other mammals, mysticetes lack teeth, and instead use comb-like keratinous plates hanging from their upper jaw to trap tiny prey like krill. Their extremely large size has been interpreted as a way to avoid predation, e.g. by the - now extinct - gigantic sperm whale Livyatan melvillei, or the equally impressive megatooth shark Carcharocles megalodon; or as the result of a recent change in the availability and distribution of prey, which would have forced whales to move between distant feeding and/or breeding grounds.

balena di Matera Balaenoptera cf. musculus di Matera
Artistic reconstruction of the Matera whale (drawing by Alberto Gennari).

"Most fossil whales are much smaller than their living relatives" explains Alberto Collareta, "which has led to the idea that baleen whale gigantism is a relatively recent phenomenon. For example, one recent study modelled the evolution of mysticete body size over time, and found that extremely large whales only arose during the past 2-3 million years. Unfortunately, the mysticete fossil record of this period is rather poor, which means that scientists so far had to rely mainly on data from the living species".

Fossils from the past 2-3 million years are rare, because sea levels during this period were often lower than today. Most of the fossils that formed were drowned when the water rose again, and now lie inaccessible beneath the ocean floor. There are, however, some exceptions, such as the new blue whale from Matera. Agata di Stefano and Caterina Morigi analysed microfossils found with the specimen, which showed that the animal lived sometime between 1.49 and 1.25 million years ago. Its size demonstrates that extremely large whales already existed back then, and likely arose earlier than previously thought. 

"Together, the Matera whale and some other, even older finds from Peru show that large whales evolved earlier, and probably more gradually, than previously thought. These ocean giants play a crucial role as ecosystem engineers, and probably have done so for quite some time." says Felix Marx.

Giovanni Bianucci concludes: "The profound impact of baleen whales on the modern ocean highlights the need to understand their deep-time ecology. Doing so will help us gain a better understanding of the evolutionary dynamics of the marine environment, and the delicate balance of the biological communities within it".

Mysticete body length plotted against time. Red circles indicate the position of the Matera whale and three new fossil mysticetes from Peru (diagram modified by Graham J. Slater et al.; drawing of Balaenoptera cf. musculus by Carl Buell).

 

Press release from the University of Pisa


Genome analysis of yams reveals new cradle of crop domestication in West Africa

Genome analysis of yams reveals new cradle of crop domestication in West Africa

Yam genomics supports West Africa as a major cradle of crop domestication

yams
Wild yams, photo credits: Marco Schmidt [1], CC BY-SA 2.5
Yams as seen today in West Africa descended from a forest species, a new study finds. The results challenge the hypothesis that domestication of sub-Saharan African plants mostly arose in tropical savannahs. Critically, they also advance researchers' understanding of West African crops' domestication history, helping to identify a major cradle of domestication around the Niger River. One of the best-known domestication cradles in the world is the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East, where wheat, barley, oat, lentil and chickpea, among other crops, first appeared in the archaeological records.

The history of crop domestication is much less documented in sub-Saharan Africa, in part because archaeological studies are largely fragmentary. Previous studies of domestication in Africa suggest an origin encompassing a large area from Senegal to Somalia, while more recent studies have challenged this hypothesis - proposing a more restricted domestication origin near the Niger River Basin. To assess whether areas near the Niger Basin could be considered major hotspots of domestication, Nora Scarcelli and colleagues investigated the domestication of yam, a major staple crop originating from Africa. They used genome re-sequencing to analyze 167 "wild" and domesticated yam species from the country.

Their analysis, which included sophisticated statistical modeling, suggests that that cultivated yam was domesticated from a forest species, D. praehensilis, starting in the Niger River basin. Its domestication process involved adaptations to the open field environment and human selection that increased tuber size and starch content in the cultivated yam. The study further suggests that the Niger River region played a major role in African agriculture, comparable to the Fertile Crescent in the Near East.

 

Press release from the American Association for the Advancement of Science