Ancient eggshells unlock discovery of extinct elephant bird lineage – Phys.org
More than 1,200 years ago, flightless elephant birds roamed the island of Madagascar and laid eggs bigger than footballs. While these ostrich-like giants are now extinct, new research from CU Boulder and Curtin University in Australia reveals that their eggshell remnants hold valuable clues about their time on Earth.
Published today in Nature Communications, the 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 Boulder. “Here may be another way of looking into the past and asking, ‘Was there more diversity in birds than we’re aware of?'”
Akin to a small continent, Madagascar has been separated from Africa and neighboring continents by deep ocean water for at least 60 million years. This geology has allowed evolution to run wild, producing lemurs, elephant birds, and all kinds of animals that exist nowhere else on the planet.
For the Polynesian peoples who arrived here around 2,000 years ago, the largest of the elephant birds, Aepyornis, was a feathery terror to behold: at more than 9 feet tall, weighing more than 1,500 pounds each, and outfitted with a pointy beak and deadly foot talons, it was Madagascar’s largest land animal.
Due to limited skeletal remains—and the fact that bone DNA degrades quickly in warm, humid areas—it was not known until recently where the birds fit into the evolutionary tree. The most scientists knew was that they were part of the flightless ratite family, a genetic sister to the New Zealand kiwi, the world’s smallest living ratite.
Ancient eggshell DNA, however, has confirmed not only where the elephant birds sit in this tree, but revealed more about the diversity within the lineage.
“While we found that there were fewer species living in southern Madagascar at the time of their extinction, we also uncovered novel diversity from Madagascar’s far north,” said lead author Alicia Grealy, who conducted this research for her doctoral thesis at Curtin University in Australia. “These findings are an important step forward in understanding the complex history of these enigmatic birds. There’s surprisingly a lot to discover from eggshell.”
An eggshell-ent idea
Miller has analyzed eggshell remains in Australia and around the world for more than 20 years—one of few scientists who study these fragments. So, in 2005, when he was awarded $25,000 as part of the Geological Society of America’s Easterbrook Distinguished Scientist Award, Miller gathered a small team to study the evolutionarily elusive elephant bird.
The team initially set out in 2006 to collect elephant bird eggshells from the dry, southern half of the island. When an unaffiliated researcher used bone fragments to solve this evolutionary mystery before they could, Miller and Grealy’s team turned their attention to the wet, forested north half of the island, hoping to better understand the bird in a different biome.
Using high-resolution satellite imagery, the team scouted locations where winds had blown the sands away and exposed ancient eggshells. No birds of any similar size currently live on the island, so the cracked pieces are easily recognizable to the naked eye. After the team traversed the island and gathered more than 960 ancient eggshell fragments from 291 locations, the challenging work began: analyzing the ancient DNA.
Due to their chemical makeup, skeletons can be “leaky” with their DNA, making them less ideal for this kind of work. In comparison, the physical chemistry of these thick eggshells locks in its organic matter for up to 10,000 years and protects its DNA like it did the baby bird that once grew inside of it. This means it can be rather difficult to extract for analysis.
Another problem is finding long enough strands of DNA to analyze, as ancient DNA is often degraded. As a result, the scientists pieced together the shorter fragments in a kind of “genetic jigsaw puzzle”—with no idea it would lead them to discover a new type of elephant bird.
“Science often advances in obscure pathways. You don’t always find what you were looking for,” said Miller, director for the Center for Geochemical Analysis of the Global Environment (GAGE) at CU Boulder. “And it’s much more interesting to find what you didn’t know you were looking for.”
The human or the egg?
Miller studies the “Quaternary,” the most recent geological period in Earth’s history and when humans first appeared on the landscape. When humans appeared, he said, often large animals went extinct—but scientists still don’t know why the elephant bird was one of them.
“What is it that early humans are doing that’s resulting in extinction of big animals, especially? This is a debate that’s been going on for my whole life,” said Miller, whose career now spans five decades.
If geologists, archaeologists and biologists are able to gather and date more eggshell fragments from around the world, however, Miller and Grealy’s pioneering work in the field of eggshell DNA science could lead to a better understanding of why large animals like the elephant bird went extinct after the arrival of humans.
“With lots of little contributions from a whole bunch of people, you actually can solve some interesting questions,” said Miller. “This might open up a new way of looking at things.”
Alicia Grealy et al, Molecular exploration of fossil eggshell uncovers hidden lineage of giant extinct bird, Nature Communications (2023). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-023-36405-3
University of Colorado at Boulder
Ancient eggshells unlock discovery of extinct elephant bird lineage (2023, February 28)
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Bothwell woman gets experience of a lifetime witnessing natural wonder – BlackburnNews.com
Bothwell woman gets experience of a lifetime witnessing natural wonder
March 25, 2023 5:40am
A Bothwell woman is thanking her lucky stars for checking off an important item off her bucket list.
Joanna, who didn’t want her last name used, told CK News Today that seeing the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis so far south Thursday night at around 11 p.m. just outside of Newbury was a bucket list moment achieved.
“It’s actually been on my bucket list for a very long time. Last month I was even looking at flights out to Manitoba hoping that we might get lucky and catch them out there, but I ended up seeing them close to home instead,” said Joanna.
Joanna said she was completely taken by surprise to see such a rare southwestern Ontario sighting of the Northern Lights on her way home.
“Captivating, it was just the beauty of it. We stopped on the side of the road and our mouths dropped just taking it all in. It was captivating and breathtaking, the fact that we may never get this chance to see this, especially on our side of Ontario,” she said.
Joanna said the sighting was phenomenal, amazing, and filled her heart with joy.
“Made a trip out to Banff, Lake Louise in 2021 and found a lot of inner peace. So, since then, I’ve been chasing and checking things off on my bucket list and that being one of them was fantastic,” Joanna added.
She added seeing the Northern Lights up close also gave her a deeper appreciation for how beautiful our planet is.
There were several sightings of the Northern Lights reported dancing across southern Ontario skies on Thursday night.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) can be seen further south when space weather activity increases and more frequent and larger storms and sub-storms occur.
Northern Lights are the result of accelerated electrons following Earth’s magnetic field to the poles and colliding with oxygen and nitrogen atoms and molecules in the upper atmosphere, according to NOAA.
“In these collisions, the electrons transfer their energy to the atmosphere thus exciting the atoms and molecules to higher energy states. When they relax back down to lower energy states, they release their energy in the form of light. This is similar to how a neon light works,” said NOAA.
NOAA reported a major magnetic storm Thursday night and said during major geomagnetic storms the aurora ovals expand away from the poles so much that aurora can be seen over most of the United States.
The aurora typically forms 80 to 500 kilometres above Earth’s surface.
Bison bone found in Prince Albert, Sask., area points to human life there more than 8,000 years ago
Community-oriented historian David Rondeau found a bison shoulder blade that is more than 8,000 years old at a cut bank near the North Saskatchewan river in Prince Albert, Sask.
“It’s in itself quite surprising. It’s about a thousand years older than what was previously thought for habitation in our area,” Rondeau, also a consultation co-coordinator for Crutwell Metis Local 66, said.
“The dark lines in the hill, or paleosols, are indicative of human life. They are organic remains from habitation. There is a lot of evidence indicating that this was a large-scale bison processing area.”
The site had been on Rondeau’s radar for years, as he would often discover debitage — material produced during the production of stone tools and weapons — at the surface level.
Artifacts like an ovoid knife found at the site indicate people used to process animals there, removing the hides or flesh, Rondeau said.
Rondeau showed CBC many lithic and bone materials from the site, illustrating the evolution of habitations there. There was debitage material about 2,500 years old found just below the surface, and much older animal remains much further below the ground.
“This site is already telling the history, but there’s no record of it in any history book, and I’m honoured to put this on the map to make it real for the people and children who live here.”
Rondeau suspects the hill could have been a bison jump. He said holding the bone of a bison makes it real for him and the nearby community of Sturgeon Lake First Nation, connecting them with the history.
Oldest intact human site in Prince Albert area
David Meyer, professor emeritus of archaeology and anthropology at University of Saskatchewan, inspected the site along with Rondeau last year.
Meyer said the thick layer of old black soil had bits of bison bones sticking out of it and sharp quartz flakes, indicating human presence. He said a piece of the bison shoulder blade was removed and sent for radiocarbon dating at a University of Ottawa laboratory.
“It came back as some 8,200 years old. I knew it was old and was thinking in the 6,000 years range, but this is remarkably old,” he said.
“It’s the oldest intact human occupation area that has been found in the Prince Albert area.”
Meyer said equally old material had also been found along the South Saskatchewan river at St. Louis bridge, 35 kilometres south of Prince Albert, in the past.
Up to 11,000 years ago, the whole central Saskatchewan area was covered with glacial ice. Meyer said it would have become hospitable for human habitation around 10,500 years ago.
He said around 8,000 years ago, a cultural group called Nipawin complex, from the Great Plains, lived in these regions.
“Certainly, these people seemed to have been the first really widespread, well-established societies, and hunter and gatherers of course,” he said.
“They were hunting the older species of bison and buffalo with spear throwing or atlatls [a spear or dart throwing device], as bows and arrows were not yet invented.”
Some atlatl dart points dating 8,500 to 11,000 years have been found close to the Montana border and around southern Saskatchewan. Similar atlatl points have been found at Besnard Lake and Buffalo Narrows in northern Saskatchewan.
“The Prince Albert find will provide important information about that region.”
Rondeau said a geoarcheologist from the University of Calgary is expected to assess the site in the spring. Among other things, she is expected to take samples of soil, ancient pollen and phytoliths, which will illustrate what the landscape was like at that time.
“This is pretty early,” Meyer said of the work being done at the site. “It is quite significant but more needs to be found.”
When And Where To See The Big ‘City Killer’ Asteroid Called ‘Dizzy’ Whizz Close To Earth This Weekend
Astronomers have spotted a large asteroid destined to whizz unusually close to Earth. First noticed just three weeks ago, asteroid 2023 DZ2—and already nicknamed “Dizzy”—will safely cruise past Earth on Saturday, March 25 at 17,000 mph.
How close will the ‘Dizzy’ asteroid get to Earth?
While most asteroids spotted tend to get no closer than the orbit of the Moon, “Dizzy” is going to come within less than half the distance from the Earth to the Moon. At its closest point at 19:50 UTC (15:50 EDT) on March 25 it will get to within 109,000 miles/175,000 kilometers.
Will the ‘Dizzy’ asteroid collide with Earth?
“Dizzy” was originally thought to be on a collision course with Earth during a future close pass in 2026, but refined orbital calculations have since ruled this out. “You may have seen news of this asteroid online in recent davs,” said Richard Moissi, Head of the European Space Agency’s Planetary Defence Office. “There is no chance of this “city killer” striking Earth, but its close approach offers a great opportunity for observations.”
Is the ‘Dizzy’ asteroid a ‘city killer?’
To be termed a “city killer” as asteroid has to be in the range of around 165-460 feet/50-140 meters in diameter. “Dizzy” is thought to measure between 130-330 feet/40-100 meters miles in diameter.
Asteroids vary in size, from 33 feet/10 meters to the largest known asteroid, Vesta, which has a diameter of 329 miles/530 kilometers and is the brightest asteroid visible from Earth, according to NASA.
How, and where to see the ‘Dizzy’ asteroid
Technically, you could use a large telescope to get a close-up of “Dizzy”, but by far the easiest way is watch live streams from robotic telescopes.
- The Virtual Telescope Project will stage an online observation of the asteroid’s close pass starting at 23:30 UTC (19:30 EDT) on March 25. It will livestream images of 2023 DZ2 through a 17-inch robotic telescope in Ceccano, Italy.
- Slooh’s online telescopes will broadcast a live public Star Party on Friday at 20:00 EDT with live telescope views of “Dizzy” as it approaches Earth.
When was the ‘Dizzy’ asteroid first discovered?
Astronomers first detected 2023 DZ2 on February 27, 2023 using the 100-inch Isaac Newton Telescope at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory on La Palma in the Canary Islands
Is NASA tracking the ‘Dizzy’ asteroid?
2023 DZ2 features on NASA’s regularly updated “Asteroid Watch Dashboard,” which hosts a constantly updated list of incoming asteroids that are predicted to get within 4.6 million miles/7.5 million kilometers of Earth. That’s 19.5 times the distance to the Moon.
What kind of asteroid is 2023 DZ2?
“Dizzy” is an Apollo-class asteroid, which means its orbit crosses the path of Earth’s orbit around the Sun. Apollo asteroids are called “near-Earth objects” (NEOs) and can be classed as “potentially hazardous,” but that doesn’t mean they will strike Earth—just that they could at some point in the future.
What is an asteroid?
Asteroids are debris from the formation of our solar system about 4.6 billion years ago. Most of them exist within the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.
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