This Week in Science: 2/27 – 3/5


Bowie Funk, East Staff Writer

Eggshells Reveal a Long Lost Bird Lineage

(Paleontology and Fossils)

Elephant birds were some of the largest birds to ever live, standing ten to twelve feet tall and weighing 770 to 1,600 (upper estimates say up to 1,900) pounds based on the species. All of the species lived in Madagascar and Currently, there are five species condensed into three genera, all of which are from the Pleistocene epoch and died when humans arrived on the island from mainland Africa from 1,000 to 1,200 CE.

Published last week in Nature Communications, a study describes the discovery of a previously unknown, separate lineage of elephant bird that roamed the wet, forested landscapes on the northeastern side of Madagascar—a discovery made without access to any skeletal remains. It’s the first time that a new lineage of elephant bird has been identified from ancient eggshells alone, a pioneering achievement which will allow scientists to learn more about the diversity of birds that once roamed the world and why so many have since gone extinct in the past 10,000 years.

“This is the first time a taxonomic identification has been derived from an elephant bird eggshell and it opens up a field that nobody would have thought about before,” said paper co-author Gifford Miller, distinguished professor of geological sciences and faculty fellow at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) at CU (University of Colorado) Boulder. “Here may be another way of looking into the past and asking, ‘Was there more diversity in birds than we’re aware of?’”

What was done to reveal this lineage based on eggs was a simple comparison. Different birds who are related have similar, but not identical eggs, which is how unique eggshells found themselves as a new species.

Armored Dinosaurs May Have Cooed and Chirped

(Paleontology and Fossils)

Last week, a fossilized larynx of an armored dinosaur was analyzed by scientists at the Hokkaido University Museum in Japan and the American Museum of Natural History in New York. This specific species was Pinacosaurus grangeri and lived in Mongolia from 86 to 71 million years ago.

P. grangeri is actually quite an old species, being first described in 1933 by paleontologist Charles Gilmore. At the time, the AMNH (American Museum of Natural History) was sponsoring digs in a region known as the Djadokhta Formation in the south of Mongolia, so this genus has been studied quite a bit before.

In their new investigation, palaeontologist Dr. Junki Yoshida of the Hokkaido University Museum and her colleagues analyzed the fossil of a P. grangeri unearthed in Mongolia in 2005. Despite the initial assumption that the bones of the dinosaur’s throat were only used for breathing, closer examination revealed two of them to be parts of the creature’s larynx. This is the part of the throat that creates noise. They also found muscle attachment points on the bones next to the voice box.

One part of the larynx was actually quite large, making P. grangeri a rather loud animal. The paleontologists also found that certain parts of the larynx were elongated, allowing muscles in the windpipe to modify sounds as well.

Ohio’s Ancient Predator was Smaller Than Once Thought

(Paleontology and Fossils)

Dunkleosteus terrelli was a top predator in the Midwest, with most fossils of it coming from Ohio (because of course it would be Ohio). This animal lived about 350 million years ago and was unlike anything that came before or after it. Despite being a fish, it had no teeth, only two large bony plates that lined its jaws as well as its whole head, probably being armor for when two D. terrelli fought with each other.

In research published last week, a Case Western Reserve University scientist suggests the length of this prehistoric predator may have been greatly exaggerated and that it was much shorter and chunkier.

“Dunkleosteus is already a strange fish, but it turns out the old size estimates resulted in us overlooking a lot of features that made this fish even stranger, like a very tuna-like torso,” said Russell Engelman, a Case Western Reserve Ph.D. student in biology and lead author on a study published in the journal Diversity in February. “Some colleagues have been calling it ‘Chunky Dunk’ or ‘Chunkleosteus’ after seeing my research.” Engelman said he recognizes downsizing the iconic Dunkleosteus may not be welcome news because the big fish “is essentially Cleveland’s mascot when it comes to paleontology.”

Rare Insect Found at Arkansas Walmart

(Zoology and Ecology)

Last week, a huge bug was identified on the side of a Walmart in Arkansas, USA. It is called a giant lacewing (Polystoechotes punctata) and hasn’t been seen in the eastern United States in over fifty years and is the first individual identified in the state.

The giant lacewing was once widespread across the United States, but was seen less and less starting in 1950. This rare insect being found in the region lets scientists know that this bug is on the incline. It was first found by Michael Skvarla, director of Penn State’s Insect Identification Lab.

It was first found in 2012, but was misidentified, only to be reexamined in 2023. “I remember it vividly, because I was walking into Walmart to get milk and I saw this huge insect on the side of the building,” said Skvarla, who was a doctoral student at the University of Arkansas at the time. “I thought it looked interesting, so I put it in my hand and did the rest of my shopping with it between my fingers. I got home, mounted it, and promptly forgot about it for almost a decade.”

Skvarla first identified it as an adult antlion, which only lives for about a week to mate, but stays in its larval form for years. However, not all of the features of this creature match the antlion, and he thought it looked more like a lacewing. “We were watching what Dr. Skvarla saw under his microscope and he’s talking about the features and then just kinda stops,” said Codey Mathis, a doctoral candidate in entomology at Penn State. “We all realized together that the insect was not what it was labeled and was in fact a super-rare giant lacewing. I still remember the feeling. It was so gratifying to know that the excitement doesn’t dim, the wonder isn’t lost. Here we were making a true discovery in the middle of an online lab course.”