Eli goes to Stuttgart SMNS

In March, Eli Amson will begin a new job as Curator of Fossil Mammals at the Stuttgart Museum of Natural History. Congratulations Eli!

Eli was previously an Alexander von Humboldt postdoctoral fellow with John Nyakatura at Humboldt University then holder of a 3-year DFG project (Eigene Stelle) with our group at the MfN. Now we have a man on the inside at Stuttgart. Prost Eli! 🍻

Who’s a Bonehead? Novel Insights into Evolutionary History from Reptilian Skull Roof Structure

Read Roy Ebel and Eli Amson’s post describing their new paper just published in Nature Ecology and Evolution.

Through investigating the reptile skull roof by means of high-resolution computed tomography (µCT), we unveiled a hitherto unknown case of convergent evolution and provide novel insights into the lifestyle of extinct species.
— Read on natureecoevocommunity.nature.com/posts/who-s-a-bonehead-novel-insights-into-evolutionary-history-from-reptilian-skull-roof-structure

Sara Varela awarded ERC!

Postdoctoral researcher Sara Varela has been awarded an ERC Starting Grant for her project MAPAS: Mapping Biodiversity Cradles and Graves

Sara’s project seeks to understand where and why biodiversity originates and disappears. To do so, MAPAS will use modeling and mapping of species originations and extinctions in deep time and to test the influence of different biotic and abiotic drivers in generating biodiversity.

MAPAS will be based at the University of Vigo, Spain, and will start in 2021.

Congratulations Sara! 🍾

Congratulations Roy!

Roy Ebel successfully defended his master’s thesis on the Convergent Evolution of Microanatomical and Morphological Traits in the Skull Roof of Fossorial Lizards and Snakes. For this project Roy processed CT-scans of the skulls of 99 squamate species and analyzed the morphology of the skull roof in relation to locomotory behaviors.

The thesis was supervised by Eli Amson and Johannes MĂĽller, examiners were Nadia Fröbisch and John Nyakatura, and the master’s was undertaken through the Institute for Biology at the Faculty of Life Sciences, Humboldt Unitversity.

For his work, Roy received a mark 1.0 and was ranked 1st in his graduating class! Congrats Roy!

Elephant research featured in PBS documentary

Work on the Miocene fossil record of Abu Dhabi – namely the trackways of the extinct elephant Stegotetrabelodon – has made it into the PBS documentary When Whales Walked: Journeys in Deep Time.

The teaser above doesn’t show the elephant or the site, but the full trailer here does: http://pbsinternational.org/video/3sze48o2d6/4804/m2ztc/

And if you’re in the US, you can watch the whole documentary here: https://www.pbs.org/video/when-whales-walked-journeys-in-deep-time-sn9pvf/

This is based on the study of the Mleisa 1 proboscidean trackway site: Bibi, F., Kraatz, B. P., Craig, N., Beech, M., Schuster, M., & Hill, A. (2012). Early evidence for complex social structure in Proboscidea from a late Miocene trackway site in the United Arab Emirates. Biology Letters, 8(4), 670-673.

Fieldwork in Sudan – 2019

Our team led by Bibi has just returned from a month’s fieldwork in the Pleistocene deposits of the upper Atbara River in eastern Sudan. This was the second season there and the first of a 3 year project funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG). Lots of cool fossils found! Besides the Museum für Naturkunde, our team includes partners from Alneelain University, the International African University, and the University of Khartoum, as well as Technical University (Berlin), the Leibniz Institute for Applied Geophysics (Hannover), Western University (USA), and the University of Bordeaux. Fossils and lithics en route to Berlin for study, rock samples for paleoenvironmental analysis and OSL and ESR dating. Stay tuned.

Elephants of Abu Dhabi

Faysal Bibi just returned from Abu Dhabi for filming part of a documentary by PBS and Smithsonian Channel on the evolution of elephants. Shooting took place at the site of Mleisa 1, which records the trackways of prehistoric elephants that walked across the Abu Dhabi landscape 7 million years ago. The site is important because it preserves the footprints of a herd of individuals, suggesting that Miocene elephants exhibited similar social structure as elephants today.

New Pleistocene fieldwork in Sudan

In January 2018, Faysal Bibi led an international team in a paleontological survey of the upper Atbara River and Setit River Valleys in eastern Sudan. Previous work had documented the presence of middle to late Pleistocene sites in the region and our team discovered many more new localities and a diverse fauna. This work was supported by a National Geographic Explorer’s Grant and the German Research Foundation (DFG), and included Johannes MĂĽller (MfN), Robert Bussert (TU Berlin), Brian Kraatz (Western U.), and colleagues Ali Eisawi from Neelain University and Omer el Bedri from African University in Khartoum.

A new fossil hippo from Abu Dhabi

NHM M49464, holotype mandible of A. qeshta

In April 2017, our team described a new species of fossil hippopotamus from the late Miocene Baynunah Formation in the United Arab Emirates. In a study published in the journal Palaeovertebrata, scientists led by Jean-Renaud Boisserie described the species Archaeopotamus qeshta, a primitive hippo with close relatives previously described from late Miocene to early Pleistocene sites in Kenya and possibly Tanzania. The new species name ‘queshta’ comes from the Egyptian name for the modern hippopotamus ‘sayed qeshta’ (سيد قشطى) which means ‘Mr. Cream’.

Reference: Boisserie, J.-R., M. Schuster, M. Beech, A. Hill, and F. Bibi. 2017. A new species of hippopotamine (Cetartiodactyla, Hippopotamidae) from the late Miocene Baynunah Formation, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Palaeovertebrata 41:doi: 10.18563/pv.41.1.e2

A Fossil Guenon Monkey from the United Arab Emirates

Our team has just announced the discovery of a cheek tooth of a fossil monkey from the Al Gharbia region of Abu Dhabi Emirate, United Arab Emirates. This research is published today in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The fossil monkey tooth just moments after discovery. Shuwaihat, 2nd January 2009 (photo: Brian Kraatz).

The fossil monkey tooth just moments after discovery. Shuwaihat, 2nd January 2009 (photo: Brian Kraatz).

From anatomical comparisons, we determined that the UAE fossil monkey was related to  the ancestors of living guenon monkeys. Guenon monkeys are today known only from Africa south of the Sahara, and are especially diverse in the rain forests of Central and West Africa. Interestingly, guenons were only known from a scant fossil record as old as 4 million years ago, and only from Africa. Until now. At around 7 million years old, the Al Gharbia fossil monkey is the oldest guenon monkey known in the world, and the first record that guenons ever ranged outside of Africa.

The discovery of a fossil guenon monkey in the U.A.E. offers another reminder of how different Arabian climate and environments must have been 7 million years ago. The presence of rivers and woodland areas fits with our team’s previous discoveries of fossil hippopotamus, crocodiles, swamp rats, fish, turtles, and other water-loving animals and even fossil tree trunks in the Al Gharbia region.

The vervet monkey, a living guenon that is widespread in sub-Saharan Africa today (photo: Andrew Hill).
The vervet monkey, a living guenon that is widespread in sub-Saharan Africa today (photo: Andrew Hill).

The Al Gharbia fossil guenon is only the second specimen of a fossil monkey known from the entire Arabian Peninsula (the first is also from Al Gharbia but was less informative).

The fossil tooth is very small (just over half a centimeter in length) and was found by our team on the island of Shuwaihat. We were in the process of sieving through sands looking for tiny fossils such as rodent teeth and snake bones. We estimate the body mass of the Al Gharbia fossil monkey to have been between 4 and 6 Kg, which is similar to many guenons living today.

Our team sieving the sands for remains of tiny fossil animals. Shuwaihat, 2nd January 2009 (photo: Mark Beech).

Though it is only known from a single tooth, the Al Gharbia fossil guenon provides compelling evidence of the existence of these animals in Arabia in the past, far beyond their modern-day range. It also highlights that monkeys living seven million years ago had no problems dispersing between Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. This matches with the many fossil antelopes, hippos, crocodiles, rodents, giraffes, elephants, and carnivores that we have found in Al Gharbia to date that also indicate strong and continuous faunal connections with Africa.

CT scans of the fossil monkey tooth in different views. The tooth is just over half a centimeter long (photo: Christopher Gilbert).

Images of the fossil tooth in multiple angles. Scale bar = 5mm. Photo by E. Lazlo-Wasem.

Images of the fossil tooth in multiple angles. Scale bar = 1mm. (photo: Erik Lazo-Wasem)

Read the full press release here.

Abu Dhabi Authority for Tourism and Culture Arabic language press release here.

Reference: Christopher C. Gilbert, Faysal Bibi, Andrew Hill, and Mark J. Beech. 2014. Early guenon from the late Miocene Baynunah Formation, Abu Dhabi, with implications for cercopithecoid biogeography and evolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1323888111