North African long billed Pterosaur fed like modern wading birds

A new species of pterosaur about the size of a Turkey has been discovered by UK researchers. About 110 million years old, this strange finding is key to understanding the true diversity of these ancient winged reptiles.

Discovered in Morocco, North Africa, the remains belonged to a small winged reptile, or pterosaur, called Leptostomia bagaaensis which lived during the middle cretaceous period, between 94 and 113 million years ago. The fossil consists of a pair of long, toothless and flattened jaws, which bear resemblance to the beak of a curlew, a type of wading bird common on British coastline.

The long, sensitive beak of Leptostomia would have been used to probe for aquatic prey
(© J. Dazley)

Although it is a common beak shape in birds, it was previously unheard of in pterosaurs, and originally was not thought to belong to a pterosaur at all. When researchers at the universities of Bath and Portsmouth analysed the mandibles, CT scanning revealed a network of internal canals – surface compressions across the surface of the beak – similar to those found in wading birds such as curlews and sand pipers. This made the beak highly sensitive to touch and it is very likely that this pterosaur could use its beak to detect prey.

Despite being a desert environment now, the Kem Kem formation of Morocco, where the specimen was found, would have been a rich habitat in the mid cretaceous period, consisting of rivers and estuaries. So this pterosaur, attracted to the area by the rich source of prey, would likely flock in large numbers, sifting through the water and probing for prey such as aquatic insects.

This is a really exciting find for researchers because it has revealed new feeding behaviours previously unknown in pterosaurs, further unearthing the diversity of these reptiles.

Leptostomia bagaaensis (© M. Jacobs, University of Portsmouth)

Predicting the dispersal and invasiveness of non-native freshwater fishes

Victoria Dominguez Almela

PhD at BU looking at the impact of invasive fish species and predicting their dispersal with the final goal of developing appropriate environmental management measures. This project covers the study of the dispersal mechanisms of invasive species using individual based models (IBMs), GIS mapping and R-based analysis.

The results from my first chapter revealed the importance of modelling to improve our understanding on invasive species and it predicted the dispersal dynamics of a non-native fish species using a combination of IBM and approximate Bayesian computation (Dominguez Almela et al, 2020).

Following this study, I used IBMs to predict how invasive species can be optimally managed. Major extant knowledge gaps in trade-offs between management effort and invasion outcomes were overcome, demonstrating that eradication of invaders is possible, but requires substantial management efforts (unpublished Dominguez Almela et al).  A complementary study looking at the landscape context specifically is under work now.

A final aspect of my work includes an empirical study assessing the ‘dispersal-enhancing’ traits of bitterling (non-native freshwater fish) in their invasion range to quantify the importance of trait plasticity in driving natural rates of diffusion. Progress to date has included completion of swimming performance and functional response experiments for these fish.

Left image: Assessing swimming performance on fish by using flumes based at Cardiff University

Right image: Picture 2. Sampling fish on the Gt Ouse River with the Environment Agency

Black bees reintroduced at Kingcombe centre, Dorset

Dorset wildlife trust has recently introduced a colony of black bees into the DWT Kingcombe in West Dorset. The aim of this project is to establish a successful regional population in the area and to study foraging habits and pollen preferences in the colony, to better understand these bees’ behavioural patterns. The colony was extracted from an already established and successful colony in South Wales, and introduced to the Kingcombe centre orchard.

The dark European honey bee (Apis mellifera mellifera)
Photo credit – V. White

Also known outside of the UK as the dark European honey bee (Apis mellifera mellifera), the black bee is a subspecies of the European honey bee (A. mellifera). UK populations of the black bee were thought to be extinct by the 19th century, mainly due to a proliferation of tracheal mites, tiny parasites which infect and reproduce in the breathing tubes of the bees, however small isolated populations were found in Wales and Scotland back in 2012.

Considered as the ‘native’ honeybee, the black bee is perfectly adapted to the colder climate of the UK, able to fly and survive in colder temperatures, considerably larger than the continental honeybees, and with longer hairs on the thorax. It is also thought that these bees are more resistant to some diseases, such as bacterial and amoebic infections.

It is hoped that the establishment of this colony will not only help to increase local pollinator diversity, contributing to local ecosystems by boosting pollination, but also prevents an exciting opportunity to understand more about the bees’ behaviour in order to conserve them and increase local biodiversity.

Elephant shrew species rediscovered in Africa after 50 years

A curious little mammal, a species of elephant shrew, has been rediscovered after being absent from scientific observation for 50 years. Despite some local sightings, the animal had been ‘missing’ from scientific records since the 1970s. It has now been seen again in the African nation of Djibouti. Previously known only from Somalia, the Somali Sengi, or elephant shrew is one of the most mysterious species of sengi, with only 39 specimens previously known to science.

Copyright: H. Rayaleh

The elephant shrew looks very much like a mouse, with a small furry body and long tail, and so named for its long, trunk-like proboscis, which they use to feed on insects. However, these curious little mammals are in fact part of a group called Afrotheres, which means they are more closely related to Elephants, Manatees and Dugongs, than to mice.

In the current environment where species are being lost at an alarming rate, this discovery is a highly important and positive one. The discovery proved puzzling to scientists, because as the name suggests, the Somali sengi was originally only known from Somalia. The next planned expedition will be to track these animals using GPS radio tracking to learn more about their movements and behaviour.

New dinosaur species related to T. Rex discovered on Isle of Wight

A new species of carnivorous dinosaur has been discovered from fossilised remains found by members of the public at Shanklin, Isle of Wight last year. The four bones were examined by researchers at the University of Southampton who believe they belong to a new species of theropod dinosaur (a group of carnivorous which also include modern birds and their famous Tyrannosaurus rex).

The carcass of the dinosaur likely washed into the sea. (Copyright: T. Wilson)

The dinosaur has been named Vectaerovenator inopinatus which means ‘unexpected air-filled hunter’. The name refers to the curious air-filled sacs in many of the bones of the creature, in the neck, back and tail. Indeed, these structures are also found in many other theropod dinosaurs, helping scientists to identify it.

These air sacs, which act as extensions of the lungs, are also found in modern birds, which not only make the skeletons much lighter, but also ensure much more efficient breathing.

The bones were found to contain many air holes, which helped to identify the fossils as a theropod dinosaur (Copyright: University of Southampton)

Living around 115 million years ago during the cretaceous period, Vectaerovenator was around 4 metres long, a relatively small size for Dinosaurs of this group, and although likely it would not have been the top predator, it would certainly have been an efficient carnivore, probably feeding on reptiles and small, herbivorous dinosaurs such as Hypsilophodon which was a common species at the time.

This exciting find is another example of how our understanding of prehistoric biodiversity is constantly changing with the discovery of many new prehistoric species.

Fungi and other soil organisms are key in preserving biodiversity

Fungi are often seen as fruiting bodies, or toadstools (© Camila Duarte)

Largely invisible and often overseen, fungi and other microscopic organisms are highly abundant in soils across the world, and play a fundamental in maintaining the biodiversity and nutrient balances in their ecosystem.

Fungi, although visible in the form of fruiting bodies, or toadstools, during certain times, are largely invisible, existing as microbial threads in the soil. It is estimated that there are some 3.8 million species of fungi, only a fraction of which have been formally described and identified. These organisms are incredibly abundant in soils around the world, an are a key component of biological nutrient cycling, as they break down organic matter, releasing key nutrients and compounds from dead bodies. Fungi are found in a variety of areas such as rainforest, woodland, grasslands and even rocky substrates (in the form of lichens) but are most abundant in open areas such as grasslands and Savannah, where they are important in helping poorer soil uptake nutrients.

Fungi exist mainly as a bundle of microbial threads called a mycelium (© Nigel Cattlin)

In the Amazon rainforest for example, fungi are surprisingly abundant and varied. For example, a teaspoon of rainforest soil is estimated to contain around 1800 species of microscopic organisms (according to a study carried out by Dr Camila Duarte of Germany), at least 400 of which are fungi. These fungi are so diverse and they occupy a variety of niches in the forest, such as lichen (a symbiotic relationship between fungi and microscopic plants), some living commensally in the roots of plants and some as plant pathogens and parasites. Each and every one of these plays a significant role on the forest floor, breaking down organic matter and releasing nutrients back into the soil, to be used by plants and animals.

In this sense, the sheer diversity of fungi in the soil means that it is essential to consider this hidden diversity in conservation efforts, particularly in such fragile ecosystems as the Amazon rainforests. Due to their inconspicuous nature fungi are often overlooked in biological surveys, but they are key for nutrient cycling and also act as carbon sinks, absorbing carbon dioxide from dead organisms.

An abundance of fungal species are found in the soils of the Amazon rainforest (© Nathalia Segato)

Some species are also edible, and are a source of medicine, indeed fungal compounds are being considered as new antibiotic sources in the light of antibiotic resistance. On the other hand, some fungi are considerable pests to crops, while others are disease-causing pathogens which cause disease in humans and animals. There is much to learn about soil fungal diversity, in order to incorporate these organisms into conservation efforts, and to help maintain biodiversity.

World Ocean Day 2020

Happy #WorldOceanDay, a day to celebrate our wonderful oceans and all the biodiversity that calls the ocean their home. Our oceans are so diverse, but we would like to focus on a fascinating species today:The Atlantic Salmon! Have a go at our poster, where you can learn the life cycle of the salmon and colour them in! Please share any completed activity sheets with us (drop us a message!) We love to hear from you 🙂

Atlantic Salmon Activity Sheet Answers

Here are the answers for the our ‘World Ocean Day 2020’ colouring sheet:

The figure has been adapted from:

Kryvi, H., Rusten, I., Fjelldal, P.G., Nordvik, K., Totland, G.K., Karlsen, T., Wiig, H. and Long Jr, J.H., 2017. The notochord in Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar L.) undergoes profound morphological and mechanical changes during development. Journal of anatomy, 231(5), pp.639-654.

Isle of Wight Pterosaur fossil hailed as UK first

A fossil recently discovered on the Isle of Wight has been revealed as a first of its kind to be found in the UK. The fossil belonged to an ancient flying reptile which would have soared through the skies of southern England 100 million years ago.

The fossilised jaw fragment was found by an amateur fossil hunter on Sandown beach, Isle of Wight. The delicate fossil was identified as a tapejarid (a type of medium-sized crested pterosaur) by scientists at the university of Portsmouth, recognisable by the characteristic shape of the jaw and minute holes in the jaw, which experts think were used to detect prey. The fossil has been donated to the IoW dinosaur museum for future display.

The fossilised jawbone of this animal was discovered on Sandown beach, IoW (credit: Portsmouth University)

So, what did this animal look like? These pterosaurs were small to medium sized and lived around 100 million years ago, during the cretaceous period. With more curved wings than other species, they are well known for the large bony crests on their heads. It is very likely that these crests would have been highly colourful in real life, almost twice the size of the skull, and probably used to communicate and attract partners, much like many bird species such as pheasants and birds of paradise. There has been much debate concerning the diet of these animals, but it is thought that they fed on plant material, especially considering that flowering plants were diversifying around the time these creatures appeared.

The crest of Tapejarids was likely very colourful and used in courtship (credit: national geographic society)

The fossil is a key finding for our understanding of these creatures; before the discovery of this specimen, the tapejarids were only known from Brazil, Morocco and China, and this find not only demonstrates a very wide distribution of these pterosaurs, but also showcases the diversity of mesozoic species on the island and surrounding area.

Fab Five: Week 4 Answers

Week Commencing 13/04/2020

Species 1: Manatee

1.What do I eat?

I am a herbivore and most of my diet is made up of different types of grass

2. Where do I live?

There are 3 different species of manatee, which is distinguished by where I live. The West Indian manatee ranges along the North American east coast from Florida to Brazil. The Amazonian manatee species inhabit the Amazon River and the African manatee swims along the west coast and rivers of Africa.

3. How large do I get?

I can grow up to 8-13 ft!

Species 2: Leopard

1.Am I diurnal or nocturnal?

I am mainly nocturnal

2. Where do I live?

I can be found in Africa and Asia, from the Middle Eastern nations to Russia, Korea, China, India and Malaysia

3. Do I like spending time on my own or in group?

I like spending time on my own as I am a solitary animal

Species 3: Hummingbird Hawkmoth

1.How big is my wingspan?

My wingspan is around two inches

2. Where do I live?

I spend the winter in Southern Europe and the summer in the U.K.

3. What do I like to eat?

I feed on the nectar of honeysuckle, red valerian and other flowers

Species 4: Dodo

1.What did I eat?

My diet included seeds, nuts, bulbs, roots and fallen fruit. I would also feed on palm fruit, shell fish and crabs

2. What Island did I live on?

I only lived on the island of Mauritius

3. When did I go extinct?

I went extinct in 1681

Species 5: Deer

1.What do I eat?

I am herbivorous, I only eat plants! This includes plants such as grass, bark, twigs, berries and young shoots

2. What do I use my antlers for?

I use my antlers for fighting with other males

3. How big can I grow up to?

I can grow up to 2 metres in length