LAWRENCE — During upheaval in Libya in 2013, a window of opportunity opened for scientists from the University of Kansas to perform research at the Zallah Oasis, a promising site for unearthing fossils from the Oligocene period, roughly 30 million years ago.
From that work, the KU-led team last week published a description of a previously unknown anthropoid primate — a forerunner of today’s monkeys, apes and humans — in the Journal of Human Evolution. They’ve dubbed their new find Apidium zuetina.
Significantly, it’s the first example of Apidium to be found outside of Egypt.
“Apidium is interesting because it was the first early anthropoid primate ever to be found and described, in 1908,” said K. Christopher Beard, Distinguished Foundation Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and senior curator with KU’s Biodiversity Institute, who headed the research. “The oldest known Apidium fossils are about 31 million years old, while the youngest are 29 million. Before our discovery in Libya, only three species of Apidium were ever recovered in Egypt. People had come up with the idea that these primates had evolved locally in Egypt.”
Beard said evidence that Apidium had dispersed across North Africa was the key facet of the find. He believes shifting climatic and environmental conditions shaped the distribution of species of Apidium, which affected their evolution.
“We’ve found evidence that climate change — not warming, but cooling and drying — across the Eocene-Oligocene boundary probably is the root cause in kicking anthropoid evolution into overdrive,” he said. “All of these anthropoids, which were our distant relatives, were living up in the trees — none of them were coming down. When the world became cooler and dryer in this period, what was previously a continuous belt of forest became more fragmented. This created barriers to gene flow and movement of animals from one part of forest to what used to be adjacent forest.”
With a forest broken up, there was an inhibition of gene flow that through time resulted in speciation, or the creation of new species, according to the KU researcher.
“Animals that are sequestered become different species over millions of years,” Beard said. “As the climate oscillates again, you’ve got different species of Apidium. As forests expand and contract, now you’ve got competition between species of Apidium that have never seen each other before. One species outcompetes the other, the other goes extinct, and we think that’s what we’re picking up with this Libyan Apidium, which is related to the youngest and largest species of Apidium known from Egypt.”
Beard said that Apidium zuetina would have been physically similar to modern-day squirrel monkeys from South America, but with smaller brains, and would have dined on fruits, nuts and seeds.
“We know that Apidium was a very active arboreal monkey, a really good leaper,” he said. “We know they actually had fused lower-leg bones just above the ankle joint. That’s really unusual for anthropoid primates, and the only reason for it to happen is because you like to jump a lot, as it stabilized the join between those bones and the ankle.”
The team identified Apidium zuetina through detailed analysis of its teeth.
“All of the fossils we have so far are just teeth, not even jaw bones — but fortunately, the teeth of these anthropoids are so distinct and diagnostic that they function like fingerprints at a crime scene,” Beard said. “Studying details of cusps and crests on teeth, we can determine evolutionary relationships. It might sound like thin evidence, but I suspect even with whole skeletons we’d still be focused on teeth to determine relationships. This is because teeth evolve rapidly in response to shifting diets, while an animal’s skull and skeleton typically evolves more slowly. Fortunately for paleontologists, teeth are well-documented in the fossil record because tooth enamel is the hardest part of a mammal body, durable and easy to fossilize.”
Yet, the researchers chose to name Apidium zuetina not after any of its physical characteristics, but after the Zuetina Oil Company that made the dangerous Libyan fieldwork possible.
“Without their logistical support, we couldn’t have done this work at all,” Beard said. “We did this just after end of the Libyan civil war that led to the overthrow of Gadhafi.”
Beard said the discovery took place during a brief lull in violence in Libya. But the trip to the Zallah Oasis was precarious nonetheless.
“We knew it was risky, but we thought we could go because of our local collaborator, Mustafa Salem, a geology professor at Tripoli University,” he said. “He’s revered as a father figure among Libyan geologists. An oil facility was close to some interesting sites, and after Mustafa contacted a former student who was working there, they provided our team with charter flights to an airstrip near the oil facility. Without that alone, we couldn’t have done our fieldwork — the roads are too dangerous with bandits and the like. They also gave us lodging, food, water and security.”
Beard said armed guards accompanied the team everywhere, manning trucks mounted with antiaircraft guns.
“They never asked for a nickel from us in return,” said the KU researcher. “There was an Islamist attack on a gas facility at the same time near the Algerian-Libyan border, and they killed 30-40 workers. So the security protected us and potentially saved our lives.”
Beard’s research collaborators were Pauline M.C. Coster of KU; Yaowalak Chaimanee and Jean-Jacques Jaeger of the Université de Poitiers in France; and Mustafa Salem of Tripoli University in Libya.
The National Science Foundation supported this work.
Photos: Above, armed guards accompanied researchers during their dangerous Libyan fieldwork. Below: Researchers analyzed fossil teeth to identify Apidium zuetina as a species new to science. Map: (A) location of Zallah Oasis in Libya’s Sirt Basin and (B) closeup of Zallah Oasis and surrounding area.
Written by Brendan M. Lynch
A research team led by a KU alumnus has identified a new giant raptor, the largest specimen ever found with wing feathers.
Named Dakotaraptor, the fossil from the Hell Creek Formation in South Dakota is thought to be about 17 feet long, making it among the largest raptors in the world.
“This new predatory dinosaur also fills the body size gap between smaller theropods and large tyrannosaurs that lived at this time,” KU Paleontologist and co-author David Burnham said.
KU alumnus Robert DePalma, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Palm Beach Museum of Natural History and lead author of the research, led the expedition to South Dakota where the specimen was found. At the time, he was a graduate student studying with former KU paleontology professor and curator Larry Martin, who died in 2014.
“This Cretaceous period raptor would have been lightly built, and probably just as agile as the vicious smaller theropods, such as the Velociraptor,” DePalma said. He added that the both fossils showed evidence of “quill knobs” where feathers would have been attached to the forearm of the dinosaur.
The specimen also demonstrates that flightlessness evolved several times in this lineage leading to modern birds, he said.
The peer-reviewed research was published Oct. 30 in Paleontological Contributions. In addition to DePalma, Martin and Burnham, co-authors include Peter Larson of the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, and Robert Bakker of the Houston Museum of Natural Science. The specimen is being researched and curated by DePalma’s research team in Florida, associated with the Palm Beach Museum of Natural History.
Graduate students Matt Jones and Joshua Schmerge both attended the Kansas Academy of Science annual meeting recently and were recognized for their presentations. Matt won the 3rd place award for a poster presentation (co-author Steve Hasiotis) by a Master's degree student, and Joshua won the 1st place award for an oral presentation (co-authors David Burnham and Don Rasmussen) given by a PhD student.
Christopher Beard and colleagues have published their first scientific paper based on field work in Libya that he and colleagues undertook just after the Libyan revolution that overthrew Qaddafi in early 2013. The paper, "A new early Oligocene mammal fauna from the Sirt Basin, central Libya: Biostratigraphic and paleobiogeographic implications,” was published in the Journal of African Earth Sciences:
We report the discovery of a new early Oligocene vertebrate fauna from the vicinity of Zallah Oasis in the Sirt Basin of central Libya. The Zallah Incision local fauna has been recovered from the base of a fluvial channel within a rock unit that has been mapped as ‘‘Continental and Transitional Marine Deposits.’’ This rock unit has produced fossil vertebrates sporadically since the 1960s, but the Zallah Incision local fauna is the most diverse assemblage of fossil mammals currently known from this unit. In addition to lower vertebrates, the fauna includes an indeterminate sirenian, the anthracothere Bothriogenys, a new species of the hyracoid genus Thyrohyrax, new species of the hystricognathous rodent genera Metaphiomys and Neophiomys, Metaphiomys schaubi, and a new species of the parapithecid primate genus Apidium. The Zallah Incision local fauna from Libya appears to be close in age to Fayum quarries V and G in the Jebel Qatrani Formation of Egypt and the Taqah locality in the Ashawq Formation of Oman. Considered together, these early Oligocene faunas support a modest level of faunal provincialism across the northern part of Afro-Arabia during the early Oligocene.
Libya hasn’t been terribly hospitable for scientific research lately.
Since the 2011 toppling of Muammar Gaddafi, fighters tied to various tribes, regions and religious factions have sewn chaos across that nation. Most recently, ISIS militants in Libya committed mass beheadings that triggered retaliatory bombings by neighboring Egypt.
“Currently, it is obviously very dangerous to be a Western scientist in Libya,” said Christopher Beard, Distinguished Foundation Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Kansas. “Even Libyan citizens are not immune to random violence.”
In spite of this turmoil, Beard and a team including fellow scientists from KU’s Biodiversity Institute have just published a discovery of mammal fossils uncovered in the Zallah Oasis in the Sirt Basin of central Libya. The fossils date back to the early Oligocene, between about 30 and 31 million years ago.
According to Beard, their paper in the Journal of African Earth Sciences sheds light on a poorly documented interval of our own evolutionary history, and shows climate and environmental change can utterly alter a local ecosystem — from a wet, subtropical forest in the Eocene to a dry desert today.
This valuable knowledge makes taking calculated risks in a war-torn land worth the risk.
“The most important factor is to have local collaborators who are experienced and who have a good feeling for what is impossible or dangerous,” Beard said. “Our Libyan collaborator is an experienced and highly accomplished professor of geology at Tripoli University. He has excellent ties to the Libyan petroleum industry, and he knows the Sahara Desert of Libya as well as anyone. We consulted closely with him prior to our 2013 expedition, and when he gave us the green light that it was safe to return to the country — thanks largely to his logistical arrangements with a local oil company — we felt safe about going back, despite State Department warnings against travel to Libya.”
Beard, who participated in both the Libyan fieldwork and subsequent analysis of the fossil finds, said taking care of logistics was the hardest part of the work.
“The arrangements were hard to put in place, because we had to coordinate among a team of four different nationalities, and we required the consent and active participation of our colleagues working at Zuetina Oil Company in Zallah,” he said.
Working in the Zallah Oasis in Libya’s Sirt Basin — an area that has “sporadically” produced fossil vertebrates since the 1960s — the team discovered a highly diverse and unique group of fossil mammals dating to the Oligocene, the final epoch of the Paleogene period, a time marked by a broad diversity of animals that would seem strange to us today, but also development of species critical to human evolution.
Beard said that the fossil species his team discovered in Libya were surprisingly different from previous fossils tied to the Oligocene discovered in next-door Egypt.
“The fact that we are finding different species in Libya suggests that ancient environments in northern Africa were becoming very patchy at this time, probably because of global cooling and drying which began a short time earlier,” he said. “That environmental patchiness seems to have promoted what we call ‘allopatric speciation.’ That is, when populations of the same species become isolated because of habitat fragmentation or some other barrier to free gene flow, given enough time, different species will emerge. We are still exploring how this new evolutionary dynamic may have impacted the evolution of primates and other mammals in Africa at this time.”
Because Beard’s work focuses on the origin and evolution of primates and anthropoids — the precursors to humans — he found the Libyan discovery of a new species of the primate Apidium to be the most exciting of the fossils uncovered by the team.
“These are the first anthropoid primate fossils known from the Oligocene of Libya and the only anthropoid fossils of this age known from Africa outside of Egypt,” said the researcher. “Earlier hypotheses suggested that anthropoids as a group may have evolved in response to the global cooling and drying that occurred at the Eocene-Oligocene boundary. Our new research indicates this was certainly not the case, because anthropoids had already been around for several million years in Africa prior to that boundary. But the climate change still had a deep impact on anthropoid evolution, because habitat fragmentation and an increased level of allopatric speciation took place as a result. Anthropoids, being forest dwellers, would have been particularly impacted by forest fragmentation during the Oligocene.”
Unfortunately, ongoing strife in Libya makes a return visit to the Sirt Basin site impossible at the moment. Indeed, armed conflict in that nation prohibits outside scientist from visiting to safely conduct any kind of field research.
“The window has now passed,” Beard said. “Field research like that which our team conducts cannot begin again until the country is stabilized and the personal security of scientific researchers in the field can be assured.”
The Biological Anthropology Program at the National Science Foundation funded the research. Beard collaborated with Pauline M.C. Coster at KU and colleagues from Tripoli University (Mustafa Salem) and the University of Poitiers in France (Jean-Jacques Jaeger and Yaowalak Chaimanee). Co-author Michel Brunet at Poitiers instigated paleoanthropological fieldwork in Libya during the mid-2000s and laid the groundwork for the most recent research. - Brendan Lynch, KU News
Desui Miao, collection manager for vertebrate paleontology, has been keeping busy with translations of Darwin’s works and been honored for his contributions.
His Chinese translation based on the 2nd edition of the Origin was selected by the Darwin scholars and readers in China as one of 108 "all-time must-read books.” Also, "The illustrated edition of the Origin for young readers", a book he adopted from Darwin's original and illustrated by a well-known Chinese artist and published in early 2014, has been selected by 8 major Chinese newspapers at the turn of the year as one of the "best books of 2014 in China."
The Chinese government just announced the 30 best books of 2014, and "The illustrated edition of the Origin for young readers" is ranked #3 in the Children book category out of 6 total books. Additionally, he is finishing the manuscript on "An abridged bilingual edition of the Origin of Species," based on the first edition and catered toward undergraduate and grad students in earth and life sciences who want to read the Origin and study English.
More information (in Chinese media reports) can be found here and here.
A new Mandarin translation of Charles Darwin’s "On the Origin of Species" is flying off bookstore shelves in China. The book previously was unavailable in that country except as translated from its sixth edition, which specialists today view as flawed.
"There have been at least half a dozen of versions available since the early 1950s, all based on the sixth — and the last — edition," said Desui Miao, collection manager with the Biodiversity Institute at the University of Kansas, who authored the new translation. "But the sixth edition represents Darwin’s back-paddling from his original views, concessions to some unfounded criticisms, and retreats from its earlier editions, and thus is now considered less favorably by Darwin scholars and evolutionary biologists."
Published last October to critical and academic acclaim, Miao’s Chinese translation already has sold about 10,000 copies — "phenomenal" sales for a book considered to be the foundation of evolutionary biology. Miao said that the concept for the translation began with a publishing house looking for the right person to bring Darwin’s ideas to a modern Chinese readership.
"The Darwin 200 Beijing International Conference was held at Peking University in fall of 2009 to commemorate Darwin’s 200-year birthday and the publication of the 'Origin of Species' for 150 years," he said. "A renowned publisher specialized in translation of foreign language books — mainly literature and humanity — into Chinese, Yilin Press, came to the conference to solicit a translator to translate the ‘Origin’ for their ‘Essential Ideas’ series. Although I was not present at the conference, my name was recommended to the publisher by several distinguished Chinese colleagues."
The KU researcher said that initially he felt reluctant to take on the work of translating the father of modern biology.
"I was approached by the publisher, and I first turned them down out of the fear it of being too time-consuming, which turns out to be correct," said Miao. "I later changed my mind after the publisher had convinced me of its importance to the Chinese audience."
Indeed, the effort took Miao about two years. He drew upon his expertise as a biologist as well as his skills with both the Chinese and English languages.
"Mandarin Chinese is my mother tongue; however, English has been my everyday working language for more than 30 years," he said. But even with Miao’s bilingual ability and scientific expertise, he found translating some of Darwin’s passages to be demanding. "Of course, it’s difficult to find the right words, mot juste, in Chinese to convey the exact meaning of their English counterparts," said Miao. "For example, ‘descent with modification’ was very difficult to translate, and I’m not entirely happy with what I’ve come up with. There are convoluted sentences in places throughout the book, but overall Darwin wrote clearly — because his thinking was crystal clear."
Unlike in the U.S., where Darwin’s theories have touched off controversies since their publication in the 19th century, Miao said China has never seen dissent over evolution "because the lack of religious zeal." But, he said there have been misunderstandings of the book. Perhaps the researcher’s new translation could help to clear up Darwin’s ideas and further boost China’s growing status in the field of evolutionary biology.
"They have strengths in several areas, such as paleobiology, vertebrate zoology and conservation biology," said Miao. "The 'Origin' is not an easy read, even in its English original, and thus is widely talked about but seldom read from cover to cover. This translation is more faithful to the original, easier to read and hopefully will encourage people to finish reading the book."
K. Christopher Beard, the Mary R. Dawson Chair of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and a world-renowned paleontologist, is joining the University of Kansas as its latest Foundation Distinguished Professor. Beard is the second eminent scholar to join KU as part of the Foundation Professor initiative.
“By any measure, Professor Beard is one of the most outstanding intellects in his field and the epitome of the collaborative scholar,” said Jeffrey S. Vitter, provost and executive vice chancellor. “His peers use phrases like ‘most brilliant of his generation,’ ‘an excellent teacher’ and ‘most important of the last 30 years’ in describing his work. I’m thrilled to add ‘Foundation Distinguished Professor’ and ‘Jayhawk’ to that list.”
Beard has served as Dawson Chair at the Carnegie Museum, widely regarded among the nation’s top-five natural history museums, since 2008. In 2000, he received a MacArthur Fellowship, often referred to as a “Genius Award,” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. He has served at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History since 1989.
“For a paleontologist in my field, access to fossil specimens is key, and when you consider KU’s combination of one the top ecology and evolutionary biology programs, the excellent Biodiversity Institute and its outstanding collections, I had a very strong attraction to this university,” Beard said. “I have worked with a number of KU graduates over the years, so I am very familiar with the quality of the program. I have been greatly impressed with the positive, collaborative environment and am eager to begin working in Lawrence.”
Beard’s publication record contains more than 100 peer-reviewed articles, including in top-ranked journals such as Nature, Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences and Proceedings of the Royal Society, and three books and edited volumes, including “The Hunt for the Dawn Monkey,” which received the 2005 W.W. Howells Book Award and the 2005 Science Book Award from the Phi Beta Kappa Society. He serves as editor on three professional journals and as an executive committee member of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.
Beard’s role at KU will be as a Foundation Distinguished Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and senior curator at the Biodiversity Institute. He will contribute to a KU paleontology program ranked No. 7 in the nation in the 2013 U.S. News & World Report graduate school rankings. He will join the KU faculty Tuesday, April 1.
“The addition of Professor Beard to one of our most outstanding disciplines promises to raise the level of comprehensiveness, authority and reputation of KU nationally and internationally,” said Danny Anderson, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “KU has a proud history in paleontology and a tremendous current collection of faculty and research talent, and now an even brighter future thanks to our newest Foundation Distinguished Professor. He is an excellent addition as a researcher, educator and mentor and ideally suited to play a leadership role in advancing paleontology at KU.”
Beard earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a doctorate from the functional anatomy and evolution program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1990.
Joining Beard at KU will be his wife and frequent collaborator, Sandra Olsen, who will serve as professor of museum studies and senior curator at the Biodiversity Institute. She will join the KU faculty on Aug. 18.
KU’s Foundation Professor initiative is a unique partnership between the university and the state of Kansas to attract eminent faculty members to support one of the university’s four strategic initiative themes. Beard is the second of 12 such eminent scholars who will join KU. In his role as Foundation Distinguished Professor, Beard will play a leadership role in advancing KU’s strategic initiative theme Harnessing Information, Multiplying Knowledge.
A group of University of Kansas researchers working with Chinese colleagues have discovered a venomous, birdlike raptor that thrived some 128 million years ago in China. This is the first report of venom in the lineage that leads to modern birds.
“This thing is a venomous bird for all intents and purposes,” said Larry Martin, KU professor and curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Institute. “It was a real shock to us and we made a special trip to China to work on this.”
The KU-China team’s findings will be published in the early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science this week.
“We think it’s going to make a big splash,” said Martin.
The article’s authors are Enpu Gong, geology department at Northeastern University in Shenyang, China, and researchers Martin, David Burnham and Amanda Falk at the KU Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Institute.
The dromaeosaur or raptor, Sinornithosaurus (Chinese-bird-lizard), is a close relative to Velociraptor. It lived in prehistoric forests of northeastern China that were filled with a diverse assemblage of animals including other primitive birds and dinosaurs.
“This is an animal about the size of a turkey,” said Martin. “It’s a specialized predator of small dinosaurs and birds. It was almost certainly feathered. It’s a very close relative of the four-winged glider called Microraptor.”
The venom most likely sent the victim into rapid shock, shrinking the odds of retaliation, escape or piracy from other predators while the raptor manipulated its prey.
“You wouldn’t have seen it coming,” said Burnham. “It would have swooped down behind you from a low-hanging tree branch and attacked from the back. It wanted to get its jaws around you. Once the teeth were embedded in your skin the venom could seep into the wound. The prey would rapidly go into shock, but it would still be living, and it might have seen itself being slowly devoured by this raptor.”
The genus had special depressions on the side of its face thought by the investigators to have housed a venom gland, connected by a long lateral depression above the tooth row that delivered venom to a series of long, grooved teeth on the upper jaw. This arrangement is similar to the venom-delivery system in modern rear-fanged snakes and lizards. The researchers believe it to be specialized for predation on birds.
“When we were looking at Sinornithosaurus, we realized that its teeth were unusual, and then we began to look at the whole structure of the teeth and jaw, and at that point, we realized it was similar to modern-day snakes,” Martin said.
Sinornithosaurus is represented by at least two species. These specimens have features consistent with a primitive venom-delivery system. The KU-China research team said it was a low-pressure system similar to the modern Beaded lizard, Heloderma, however the prehistoric Sinornithosaurus had longer teeth to break through layers of feathers on its bird victims.
The discovery of features thought to be associated with a venom-delivery system in Sinornithosaurus stemmed from a study of the anatomy and ecology of Microraptor by the joint Chinese-KU team. They now are seeking to discover if Microraptor may have possessed a similar poison-delivery system.
Vertebrate Paleontology graduate student Josh Schmerge took third place among winners of the graduate poster competition during the recent G-Hawk symposium