We as a species often enjoy looking into the past. As science enthusiasts, this becomes all the more important to properly see into the mistakes made, and what we may learn from them. Today, the world of science changes rapidly, and nowhere is this change clearer than in paleontology. Today’s paleontologists use the latest in computer technology, from scanners to 3D-modeling software and a number of other methods to gather data from whatever is dug up. And the power of social networking helps to publicize the latest news much faster than ever before.
This is a list of the top ten animal fossil discoveries of 2015, not a simple list to compile when considering the number of new animals unearthed and the breakthroughs made in the field. Most findings are revealed, only to be shelved away and forgotten by the public. But every so often something bizarre may turn up. They may just be old bones that are getting new names, or may indeed be new animals that have helped to rewrite the history of life on the planet.
Sometimes, the newest discoveries are so surprising that they break the internet with little effort. For example, nobody guessed that a little dragon-winged dinosaur might reach meme status overnight, or that a new ancestor of mankind would be discovered. And nobody guessed that a prehistoric okapi would wear a fictional character’s headdress on its skull. The most talented artists have now joined us to bring you the best of the best, the top ten fossil finds of the year.
The straight-tusked elephant Palaeoloxodon is known from numerous finds from all over the world, from Europe to Japan but only one stands head and shoulders above them. This is the Indian giant species, P. namadicus. While it too is a relatively old fossil discovery, with bones found in the Narsinghpur area since at least the 19th Century, the new data uncovered may help to enlarge land mammals by a slight percentage, but nothing more. All that was used in the new study was a single massive thigh bone, a femur.
Thanks to cutting-edge research and volumetric scaling by Asier Larramendi, we now know that P. namadicus was the largest land mammal in history. The new finds were quite shocking to most as the giant, long-necked, long-legged rhino Paraceratherium was often given this title with the largest fossil elephants taking second and third places. The research indicates that Palaeoloxodon namadicus grew five meters in shoulder height and tipped the scales at 24 tons.
It’s not often that 408-million-year-old marine monsters are pulled out of the Moroccan deserts but when they are, they turn out to be massive. This creature, called Aegirocassis is also the largest of the anomalocaridids, a family of odd creatures that dominated the seas for a while as top predators. At two meters in length, it was the largest animal on Earth during the Early Ordovician and the first big filter feeder in the fossil record, the blue whale of its era. At this time nothing lived on land and nothing on the planet had a backbone. Most members of its family are known from crushed fossils, but the remains of Aegirocassis were preserved in exquisite three-dimensional detail, thus making the task of reconstructing it that much easier.
While it may not be as imposing as Aegirocassis, Collinsium ciliosum is every bit as weird. It predates the giant by a good hundred million years, back to the Cambrian when life underwent an explosion of diversity. Collinsium gets its name from Desmond Collins, the animal’s discoverer, and hails from rocks in Southern China.
The animal was named by Jie Yang of Yunnan University. It was a distant cousin of the soft-bodied and innocuous-looking velvet worms. But it was nothing like its modern relatives, instead being as spiky as a pincushion. Collinsium was obviously using these spikes as its primary means of defense, and it is one of the very first fossil animals to do so. This weird little animal may have walked on the seabed on a set of tentacle-like legs, brandishing the spikes on its back with an air of relative nonchalance.
The dinosaur era may have ended at the end of the Late Cretaceous, 66 million years ago but new and exciting fossils are always being found that help to rewrite the story of their final days. Dakotaraptor was one of the largest and also among the last of its kind. This relatively giant dromaeosaur or “raptor” dinosaur was revealed courtesy of Robert dePalma and took the world by storm. The fossils were found in the Hell Creek Formation of South Dakota, in rocks 66 million years old. This, coincidentally, is the home of the mighty Tyrannosaurus itself. Of course this in no way means that the two did constant battle with one another. Dakotaraptor is surprisingly rare, while Tyrannosaurus is one of the commonest large dinosaurs in the Hell Creek, a surprising twist that helps put their relationship into perspective.
Dakotaraptor’s importance stems from the discovery of feather attachment points or quill knobs, and it was the largest dinosaur to be preserved with them. It is also the biggest dromaeosaur to be discovered with evidence of advanced birdlike plumes. Also, at 5.5 meters long and roughly as tall as a man, it was dwarfed by its 9-ton well-known contemporary. Whatever its relationship with the tyrant king was, Dakotaraptor was a fast, fierce predator all on its own and sheds more light onto how the Hell Creek ecosystem really worked.
Alberta, Canada is full of dinosaur bonebeds, and the Oldman Formation is one of the best-known. This is a massive deposition that runs from 79 to about 75 million years ago, through the Late Cretaceous. Not all the animals here lived at the same time, and certainly Wendiceratops failed to meet some of the later creatures. First and foremost, its age means that it is one of North America’s oldest horned dinosaurs. It gets its name from Wendy Sloboda, the fossil hunter who discovered the beds in 2010. The naming was done by paleontologists David Evans and Michael Ryan.
The Cretaceous rocks of the continent have revealed countless horned dinosaurs or ceratopsids, all living for just a million years or so and in one small area. While under normal circumstances it might be classed off as just another North American horned dinosaur, Wendiceratops is the first of these with a prominent nose horn. Its head on the whole has exquisite ornamentation for such an early animal, with two horns above the eyes and curved ones on its bony frill. It was not close to Triceratops though, instead belonging to the same group that would later give us such creatures as the spiky-crested Styracosaurus and other short-frilled species. It does show that these nasal horns evolved more than once, in both families of ceratopsids.
The St. Mary River Formation, also a Canadian fossil bed, has been just as kind to us in terms of ceratopsid discoveries. Regaliceratops is actually much closer to Triceratops, being a long-frilled ceratopsid. It hails from rocks just around 68 million years old. Not only is it eleven million years younger than Wendiceratops but it also shows that ceratopsian diversity didn’t wane even as the age of dinosaurs drew to its end.
Instead, they were still well at their peak and showed zero signs of waning away. Regaliceratops gets its name from the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Alberta but is better known as ‘Hellboy’. This rather appropriate nickname is due to the presence of several flat-ended horns lining its crest. The horns of Regaliceratops’ face though were nothing spectacular, with three thin, almost pin-like projections. For example, the nose horn was longer than the brow horns. This arrangement however, has more akin to Wendiceratops’ later relatives, and not the famous Triceratops, thus suggesting evolutionary convergence of some sort.
Among the strangest relatives of the modern giraffe and okapi goes by the name of Xenokeryx amidalae, a rather evocative name to say the least. It is also richly deserving, having a set of horns roughly similar to those of Queen Padme Amidala’s headdress. Or at least somewhat akin to a T-shape with a curved top, with two more horns crowning its forehead. This animal comes from Spain’s La Retama Formation, a Miocene fossil site roughly 16 million years old.
Xenokeryx is not technically a giraffe ancestor, but a palaeomerycid, a close evolutionary cousin. These creatures are known for their strange headgear, ranging from moose-like antlers to thin, long horns and other bizarre ornaments. They were also once thought to be relatives of deer, an idea that has now been put to rest. It is thanks to Dr. Israel Sanchez, the scientist who named Xenokeryx that this notion was finally killed, so the creature in itself has been instrumental in establishing the evolutionary connections of giraffes in general. A combination of pointed fangs and Star Wars headdresses make Xenokeryx the strangest in its group, no doubt.
The biggest mammal discovery of the year was barely even publicized. Most importantly though, this animal was a holdover from the Age of Dinosaurs. Its fossils hail from one of the most important post-dinosaur mammal sites in North America, the San Juan Basin of northern New Mexico. Named Kimbetopsalis simmonsae, it was unrelated to modern mammals, being a multituberculate. These were rodent-like mammals that thrived alongside these giants, eating low-lying vegetation and remaining hidden from hungry eyes.
Although not rodents, they were about as diverse, and Kimbetopsalis was, for lack of a better word, a land beaver. It was even the same size but lacked the trademark flattened tail of a beaver. It also lived just 64.5 million years ago, barely a million years after the extinction of the dinosaurs, which makes it one of the earliest good-sized mammals known from that era. The multituberculates, or “multis” for short, went extinct roughly thirty million years later but they still stand as one of the longest-lived families of mammals. Kimbetopsalis was probably not the most massive multituberculate but it is certainly one of the most important fossils out there, a testament to the adaptability of both “multis” and mammals in general.
The aptly-named ‘Carolina butcher’ was one of the fiercest predators in North America at the time, and the news of this animal’s discovery took many by surprise. It lived about 231 million years, far before the earliest dinosaur discoveries in the continent. Plus, this animal reveals that the then-supercontinent of Pangaea had far more diversity in its ecosystems than once believed. Carnufex carolinensis was closer to crocodiles than to the dinosaurs though, and it walked on two muscular legs while holding its arms against its body. Quite a shocking feature to those familiar with the four-legged “belly run” of modern crocodiles.
It may have evolved its two-footed stance independently of its relaives and used this to its full advantage. Certainly this beast of three meters long was a terrifying sight to behold in the Mid-Triassic landscapes of the Pekin Formation in North Carolina. Revealed to the world by Dr. Lindsay Zanno, Carnufex was on top of its food chain, an ambush predator with a crushing bite. Perhaps the luckiest of all was the inclusion of skull bones, allowing artists to bring it to life a lot more easily.
The little legged snake from Early Cretaceous Brazil may not be the first-known prehistoric snake fossil known but whereas others had just two limbs, the aptly named Tetrapodophis had four. The creature is just fifteen centimeters in length, and its body was as snakelike as one might imagine instead of being just a generic lizard or a similar reptile. The legs, while present, were tiny and may not have helped the animal to burrow or swim. Instead it was a small constrictor, and might have used these limbs to hold onto its struggling victims, a rather novel method of killing one’s prey and unlike anything thus far documented. Both swimming and burrowing lifestyles have been ascribed to ancestral snakes in the past, with the former being the likeliest.
While it hails from the Crato Formation of Brazil, its fossil had found a home in the least likely of places. It was labeled as an unknown animal and placed in the Burgermeister Muller Museum in Solnhofen, Germany. Rediscovered by an apparently wonderstruck David Martill, and given its current name, Tetrapodophis now rubs shoulders with other great misunderstandings in the paleontological world. Its describer even likened it to the famous “missing link” between birds and dinosaurs, the oft-debated Archaeopteryx.
The Tiaojishan Formation of China dates back to the Middle Jurassic, about 165 million years ago. It has in the recent past, revealed a number of exquisite fossils of animals with connections to bird, mammal and pterosaur evolution. The name of Yi qi, or ‘strange wing’ conjures up images of a pigeon-sized dinosaur with wings of skin stretched between its arms. The rest of its body was covered in birdlike feathers, with a soft covering of plumes cloaking parts of the wing membranes. And that was precisely what it was, perhaps the best-known and strangest fossil discovery of the year. It even became a popular meme via social media and started a massive artistic bandwagon.
The discovery of this creature was somewhat unexpected at the time. It managed to make the dragon body plan, once consigned to myth and legend, a possibility. Yi was not a powered flier per se, but a glider, almost a dragon-ish flying squirrel. It belonged to a rather newly-established family of dinosaurs called the scansoriopterygids or “scansors” for short. All “scansors” were limited to this one time and place. Yi was, by coincidence, the largest and most completely known of these animals. This isn’t saying much, for the others were no larger than sparrows. Whether or not the others had similar skin membranes connected to their long fingers is unknown. But what we do know is that Yi at least provides us a clue that anything is possible in evolution, and that sometimes nature may surprise us in ways we never thought possible.
The face that changed the story of human evolution comes from the Rising Star Cave from the aptly-named Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site in South Africa. Its name is Homo naledi, the hominid with the face and shoulders of an of an ape but still human enough to be recognized as a proper archaic man. Not since Lucy has such a monumental discovery been unearthed from the continent. The discovery was indeed publicized by several sources, with the famous portrait of the creature gracing every cover possible.
Homo naledi was found by a pair of cavers, and finally was named and scientifically described by well-known paleontologist and paleoanthropologist Lee Berger from the University of Witwatersrand. He has been credited with the discovery of another groundbreaking discovery, Australopithecus sediba, but this was a closer relative to the ancient Lucy than to us. It was not even a proper human unlike H. naledi.
As for naledi itself, its name means “star man”, as it was found in a cave chamber called Dinaledi. Clearly a fitting name for being a true star of paleontology these days. It is older than either the famous Homo erectus and Homo habilis but its actual age is as yet undetermined. Even its brain is far smaller than that of anatomically modern humans, at a measly 560 cubic centimeters, just half as big as ours. This puts Homo naledi as the true winner by a massive margin, a new ancient human that brings us closer to understanding ourselves and our origins.
And there we have it, a list of the finest fossil discoveries of the year. While there are many more finds from all over the world, these were the only ones that truly gripped us, thus making this countdown possible. Here’s to another wonderful year in paleontology and another incredible top ten fossils in 2017.