Trial and Error

A previously unknown species of bird-like dinosaur with pterosaur-like wings has been discovered by a team of paleontologists working with the Chinese Academy of Science. The discovery, reported in the May 9 issue of the journal Nature, sheds some new light on the origins of avian flight. A nearly complete skeleton of Ambopteryx longibrachium was unearthed near Wubaiding Village in China’s Liaoning Province.

Named Ambopteryx longibrachium, the new dinosaur lived approximately 163 million years ago (Jurassic period) in modern day China. The prehistoric creature had a body length of about 12.6 inches (32 cm) and an estimated body mass of 300 g. It belongs to Scansoriopterygidae, an extinct family of climbing and gliding non-avian theropod dinosaurs.

Unlike other flying dinosaurs, namely birds, this species has 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. These wing structures represent a short-lived and unsuccessful attempt to fly, according to scientists.

Ambopteryx longibrachium. Image credit: Chung-Tat Cheung & Min Wang / Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

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.

That’s How it Begins

A team of paleontologists from Bulgaria and Germany has found the surprisingly unusual and perfectly preserved millipede in 99-million-year-old amber from Myanmar.

Burmanopetalum inexpectatum. Image credit: Leif Moritz.

I saw this in a movie once…

Millipedes are a highly diverse but also a largely understudied group of arthropods with over 11,000 known species. The actual number of species is estimated to be between 15,000 and 80,000.

The Mesozoic Era, an interval of geological time from about 252 to 66 million years ago, is poor in millipede fossils, with less than a dozen know species.

Dubbed Burmanopetalum inexpectatum, the newly-discovered millipede species lived approximately 99 million years ago (the Cretaceous period).

The ancient creature, only about 8.2 mm long, is encased in amber from the Hukawng Valley, Kachin State, northern Myanmar.

With the next-generation micro-CT and the associated image rendering and processing software, scientists were able to reconstruct the whole animal and observe the tiniest morphological traits which are rarely preserved in fossils.

It came as a surprise that this animal cannot be placed in the current millipede classification. Even though their general appearance have remained unchanged in the last 100 million years, as the planet has undergone dramatic changes several times during this period, some morphological traits in Callipodida lineage have evolved significantly.

The discovery is described in a paper in the journal ZooKeys.

Making Australia Slightly Less Dangerous

Scientists think they have discovered an antidote to the sting delivered by the box jellyfish Chironex fleckeri, which is considered to be one of the most venomous animals on Earth. The antidote blocks the symptoms of a box jellyfish sting if administered to the skin within 15 minutes of contact. It was shown to suppress tissue necrosis and pain in mice and to work on human cells outside the body.

Commonly known as the sea wasp, the box jellyfish has about 60 tentacles that can grow up to 10 feet (3 m) long. Each tentacle has millions of microscopic hooks filled with venom, a mixture of bioactive proteins that can cause potent hemolytic activity, cytotoxicity, membrane pore formation and inflammation.

Image result for box jellyfish

A single sting to a human will cause necrosis of the skin, excruciating pain and, if the dose of venom is large enough, cardiac arrest and death within minutes. Scientists at the University of Sydney used the gene-editing tool CRISPR-Cas9 to identify how box jellyfish venom works. Using CRISPR genome editing techniques, scientists could quickly identify how the venom kills human cells.

Luckily, there was already a drug that could act on the pathway the venom uses to kill cells, and when scientists tried the drug as an antivenom on mice, they found it could block the tissue scarring and pain related to jellyfish stings.

The study authors took a vat of millions of human cells and knocked out a different human gene in each one. Then they added the box jellyfish venom and looked for the cells that survived. From the whole genome screening, they identified the factors that are required for the venom to work.

The jellyfish venom pathway identified in the study requires cholesterol, and since there are lots of drugs available that target cholesterol, scientists could try to block this pathway to see how it impacted venom activity. They took one of those drugs, which was known to be safe for human use, and used it against the venom, and it worked.

The scientists think the drug will stop the necrosis, skin scarring and the pain completely when applied to the skin. What they don’t know yet is if it will stop a heart attack. That will need more research.

The discovery is described in a paper published online April 30 in the journal Nature Communications.

More Horrors from the Deep

An international team of paleontologists have found an exceptionally preserved fossilized remains of an enigmatic new type of crab, Callichimaera perplexa, which lived approximately 95 million years ago (mid-Cretaceous period) in what are now Colombia and the United States.

Callichimaera perplexa (perplexing beautiful chimera) was about the size of a quarter and had large and unprotected compound eyes, bent claws, leg-like mouth parts, exposed tail, and small body.

Callichimaera perplexa. Image credit: Elissa Martin, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.

It is the earliest example of a swimming arthropod with paddle-like legs since the extinction of sea scorpions more than 250 million years ago.

The ancient creature is so unique and strange that it can be considered the ‘platypus of the crab world.’ It hints at how novel forms evolve and become so disparate through time.

Normally, we think of crabs as big animals with broad carapaces, strong claws, small eyes in long eyestalks, and a small tail tucked under the body. Callichimaera perplexa defies these crabby features and forces a re-think of the definition of what makes a crab a crab.

The discovery is reported in the journal Science Advances.

The Madness from the Sea

Paleontologists have discovered a real-life version of one of the most feared monsters in fiction… only smaller. And probably not an eldritch horror from beyond the stars.

An international team of researchers unveiled the fossilized remains of an ancient relative of the sea cucumber. It had 45 tentacles and lurked at the bottom of the seas some 430 million years ago.

They have dubbed it Sollasina cthulhu, after the tentacled Great Old One of H.P. Lovecraft’s tales, a study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B said.

Unlike the massive Cthulhu of fiction, the creature unveiled by scientists this week was quite tiny, with the fossil measuring about an inch across. However, the researchers said those 45 “tube feet” extended out in every direction and would make it seem much larger as it sat on the ocean floor, waiting and dreaming…

Sleep well…

Despite its diminutive size, the creature still manages to pack a lot of nightmare fuel. Those 45 tentacles were used to snatch up food, creep along the ocean floor, and scare off predators.

Oh, and those “tubes” also had their own armor.

The tube feet of living echinoderms are naked, but in the ophiocistioids they were plated, strongly suggesting that ophiocistioids diverged from the line leading to modern sea cucumbers.