Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Nanokogia isthmia un nuevo cachalote fósil de Panamá

Una especie nueva de cachalote ha sido descrita en un artículo publicado hoy en la revista PLOS ONE (Velez-Juarbe et al., 2015). La nueva especie vivió alrededor de 7 millones de años atrás en lo que es hoy día la costa del Caribe panameño. Bautizada como Nanokogia isthmia en honor al Istmo de Panamá, la nueva especie nos da una mejor idea de la diversidad de este misterioso grupo de ballenas, y pinta una historia evolutiva más compleja para el grupo. El artículo lo pueden descargar gratis aquí.
El cráneo de Nanokogia isthmia en vista lateral, la parte anterior del cráneo está hacia la derecha (Tomado de Velez-Juarbe et al., 2015).
Los cachalotes y el órgano de espermaceti
El cachalote o ballena de esperma es el odontoceto (cetáceos dentados) más grande que existe hoy día, con algunos llegando a 16 metro (52 pies) de largo y pesando más de 50 toneladas. A esta especie  que se le encuentra en los océanos alrededor del mundo se le conoce también por su nombre científico de Physeter macrocephalus. La segunda parte de ese nombre científico hace alusión al enorme tamaño de su cabeza, lo cual resulta por un órgano especial, llamado órgano de espermaceti que está alojado en la parte superior del cráneo. El órgano de espermaceti es parte importante del sistema de ecolocalización y es característico de esta gigante ballena, y de sus parientes cercanos, el cachalote pigmeo (Kogia breviceps) y el cachalote enano (Kogia sima) los cuales no sobrepasan de los 3.8 metros (12 pies) y 2.7 metros (9 pies) respectivamente. En adición a la gran diferencia en tamaño de estas últimas dos con el cachalote, existen otras características del cráneo que las separa y se les clasifica bajo dos familias distintas, Physeteridae para el cachalote, y Kogiidae para el cachalote pigmeo y enano. Pero como mencioné anteriormente estas especies poseen el órgano de espermaceti, característica que no vemos en ninguna otra ballena o delfín. Sin embargo, como pueden apreciar en la ilustración abajo, en los Kogiidae este órgano está reducido. El cuando y por qué de esta reducción es una interesante pregunta. Afortunadamente, la base del órgano de espermaceti está alojada en una cavidad especial en la parte superior del cráneo de estas ballenas, así que podemos recurrir al registro fósil para tratar de determinar cuándo ocurrió esta reducción evolutiva.
Comparación entre las distintas especies de cachalotes. Los diagramas muestran  la localización del órgano de espermaceti (en rojo) en estas especies. (Diagramas modificados de Cranford et al., 1996; Cranford, 1999.)
Nanokogia y otros cachalotes fósiles y modernos
Como parte del estudio de Nanokogia realizamos un análisis filogenético de los cachalotes. Este tipo de análisis se usa para generar árboles evolutivos que nos ayudan a determinar como distintas especies están relacionadas entre sí, al igual que nos ayuda a determinar los cambios evolutivos que han ocurrido en el grupo que se está estudiando. Nuestros resultados, combinados con un estudio detallado de la morfología nos ayudó a determinar que este fósil de Panamá representaba una especie completamente nueva, lo cual nos dio la oportunidad de asignarle un nombre científico, algo que no pasa todos los días. En adición, notamos que ancestralmente los cachalotes tienen un órgano de espermaceti agrandado, ocupando una cavidad grande en la parte dorsal del cráneo. En la figura de abajo, pintado en naranja, pueden observar el tamaño y forma de esa cavidad en algunas especies de cachalotes fósiles y modernos.
Relaciones evolutivas entre cachalotes fósiles y modernos. Nanokogia pertenece al mismo grupo que el cachalote pigmeo y enano (denle click a la figura para que la vean más grande).
Lo otro que notamos es que aunque en el cachalote pigmeo y enano el órgano de espermaceti está reducido, algunas de las especies extintas, como por ejemplo Scaphokogia cochlearis, el órgano era mucho más grande (ilustrado en la figura arriba). Mientras que en otra especie, llamada Thalassocetus antwerpiensis la cavidad donde descansaba el órgano de espermaceti era mucho más pequeña, muy parecido a la de las especies modernas. Thalassocetus y las especies modernas están separadas por varias especies extintas, esto nos da a entender que el órgano de espermaceti se ha reducido al menos en dos ocasiones durante la historia evolutiva del grupo. La primera reducción ocurrió en Thalassocetus hace unos 17 millones de años atrás y la segunda 10 millones de años después en el ancestro de Nanokogia y las especies modernas. Esto nos demuestra otra vez más que la evolución no es un proceso lineal, sino que es como un árbol con muchas ramas, algunas que dan lugar a otras especies, otras que llevan a la extinción.
Relaciones evolutivas entre los cachalotes mostrando el origen del órgano de espermaceti agrandado, y cuando ha ocurrido reducción evolutiva en el mismo (denle click a la figura para que la vean más grande).
Sin embargo, todavía queda tratar de descifrar el porque de esas reducciones. Para eso, necesitaremos encontrar fósiles más completos de este increíble grupo de ballenas.

Referencias
Cranford, T.W. 1999. The sperm whale's nose: sexual selection on a grand scale? Marine Mammal Science 15:1133-1157.

Cranford, T.W., M. Amundin, and K.S. Norris. 1996. Functional morphology and homology in the odontocete nasal complex: implications for sound generation. Journal of Morphology 228:223-285.

Velez-Juarbe, J., A.R. Wood, C. De Gracia, and A.J.W. Hendy. 2015. Evolutionary patterns among living and fossil kogiid sperm whales: evidence from the Neogene of Central America. PLoS ONE 10(4):e0123909

Friday, March 13, 2015

There are sharks in those hills!

It was late January, when, alongside some of my colleagues from Vertebrate Paleontology, we headed north towards California's Central Valley, leaving behind the heavy traffic and skyscrapers of LA. More specifically, we were heading to Bakersfield to spend part of the weekend excavating at the world-renowned paleontological site of Sharktooth Hill.
Left: shark teeth are abundant in this area, hence the name. Right: the Sharktooth Hill National Natural Landmark, some of the earlier localities are around this hill, like the pits on the middle of the hillside towards the right. These photos were taken in the spring of 2014.
The hills northeast of Bakersfield where Sharktooth Hill is located; this photo was taken earlier this year (my personal favorite time to go there). 
A brief introduction to STH
Ancient marine deposits known as the Round Mountain Silt are exposed throughout the hills northeast of Bakersfield. Within this deposit there is a particularly dense accumulation of bones of (mainly) marine organisms, known as the Sharktooth Hill (STH) Bonebed. Since the early 1900's, many fossils have been discovered and described from this site, including cetaceans, birds, pinnipeds, and turtles (e.g. Kellogg, 1931; Howard, 1966; Mitchell, 1966; Barnes, 1988; Lynch and Parham, 2003). The bonebed is regarded as one of the most densest accumulation of marine organisms, and is one of the densest accumulation of fossil whales, rivaled only by Cerro Ballena in Chile (Pyenson et al., 2009; Pyenson et al., 2014)!
The Sharktooth Hill Bonebed, here we can see some large ribs of a mysticete being cleaned and you can get an idea of the high density of bones. 
This accumulation was deposited in the seafloor between 15.9-15.2 million years ago, and for many years after its discovery, there were a variety of hypotheses as to what caused such a high concentration of bones. It wasn't until 2009, when Nick Pyenson and his colleagues published the results of a very thorough study detailing how it came to be. The major finding was that the bonebed formed during a period of low sediment deposition that lasted about 700 thousand years. Because of the slow sedimentation, the bones of the dead organisms were not buried soon after death and were easily scavenged and scatters throughout the ocean floor, resulting in a mélange of bones. The paper also highlights that the assemblage may not represent a single snapshot ancient ocean life in California, but that researchers have to keep in mind that these organisms died over a period of several hundred thousand years. This makes the STH bonebed different from other dense marine tetrapod assemblages such as Cerro Ballena where the bonebeds were formed over much shorter spans and can be considered as more precise snapshots in time.

The ongoing NHM dig
The Natural History Museum of LA has had a long history of digging at STH, going back more than 50 years, and we probably hold the largest collection of material from that site. Recently, after a long hiatus, we've had the opportunity to start an excavation at a new site in the area*. At this new site the bonebed is close to the surface, which reduces the amount of time we spend removing overburden.
Setting up our quarry. Vanessa (middle) and Sam (far right) prepare the grid that marks our site. Lisa (far left) picks to tools of the trade she'll be using this day.
For now, a lot of what we do during our digs is carefully removing overburden and exposing the bonebed square meter by square meter. It may sound a bit slow, but we do it this way as part of our plan is to eventually be able to reconstruct the bonebed digitally and have a really good record of how the different bones at our excavation were related to each other before removal. So as you may guess, once a square meter(s) of the bonebed are exposed, we make sure we take a lot of photos before removing the fossils from the ground. The work is methodical and can be tedious at some times (i.e. when you're not finding bones) but in the end it is very rewarding.
Vanessa and Sam work on the northeast corner of our quarry. To the left are a bunch of mysticete ribs, and a few vertebrae and skull fragment all jumbled up.
What's next?
Even after so many years of work at the STH Bonebed, there are still mysteries to solve, new species to be described and/or redescribed based on new finding. So, as we continue our dig at STH, stay tuned for more updates as well as upcoming publication on fossils from this amazing and unique deposit!

*Our dig is possible thanks to the generosity of the landowners who are really supportive of our work out there, and also very enthusiastic, often participating in the dig as well; and to people who have donated money to cover for expenses.

References

Barnes, L. G. 1988. A new fossil pinniped (Mammalia: Otariidae) from the middle Miocene Sharktooth Hill Bonebed, California. Contributions in Science 396:1-11.

Howard, H. 1966. Additional avian records from the Miocene of Sharktooth Hill, California. Contributions in Science 114:1-11.

Kellogg, R. 1931. Pelagic mammals from the temblor Formation of the Kern River region, California. Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences 19:217-397.

Lynch, S. C., and J. F. Parham. 2003. The first report of hard-shelled sea turtles (Cheloniidae sensu lato) from the Miocene of California, including a new species (Euclastes hutchisoni) with unusually plesiomorphic characters. PaleoBios 23:21-35.

Mitchell, E. D. 1966. The Miocene pinniped Allodesmus. University of California Publications in Geological Sciences 61:1-46.

Pyenson, N. D., C. S. Gutstein, J. F. Parham, J. P. Le Roux, C. Carreño Chavarría, A. Metallo, V. Rossi, H. Little, A. M. Valenzuela-Toro, J. Velez-Juarbe, C. M. Santelli, D. Rubilar Rogers, M. A. Cozzuol, and M. E. Suárez. 2014. Repeated mass stranding of Miocene marine mammals from the Atacama of Chile point to sudden death at sea. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 281:20133316.

Pyenson, N. D., R. B. Irmis, L. B. Barnes, E. D. Mitchell Jr., S. A. McLeod, and J. H. Lipps. 2009. Origin of a widespread marine bonebed deposited during the middle Miocene Climatic Optimum. Geology 37:519-522.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Its the 11th installment of Fossil Sirenia of the West Atlantic and Caribbean Region!

Today sees the publication of the most recent addition to the series on fossil sirenians from the Western Atlantic and Caribbean (WAC) region (Velez-Juarbe and Domning, 2015). In our new paper we describe another new taxon from Puerto Rico (in July 2014 we described Priscosiren atlantica Velez-Juarbe and Domning, 2014). The material we describe in this new paper includes cranial and postcranial material from several individuals (Figures 1-5) and collected from several adjacent localities of the late Oligocene Lares Limestone in northwestern Puerto Rico*. We dubbed this new taxon Callistosiren boriquensis which translates into "Boriquen's most beautiful sirenian". Boriquén is the aboriginal name for the island of Puerto Rico, and "most beautiful" is in reference to the superb preservation of the type material (Figure 4).
*I've actually written and shown images of this fossil previously on this blog (hereherehere and here).
Figure 1. Callistosiren boriquensis is known from multiple elements of about five individuals (each color represents elements known from one or more specimens; white = unknown). Outline of skeleton modified from Cope (1890).
(Click on the image to see larger version.)
The material we described in our paper includes two skulls, which actually account for the first and second sirenian skulls I found and collected, one in 2003, the other in 2005! The rest of the material we described which consists of ribs and vertebrae, was collected during an NSF-funded trip in 2009 with co-author Daryl Domning and with the help of my undergraduate advisor Hernán Santos and my colleagues Alvin Bonilla and Diana Ortega.
Figure 2. Left, me at the type locality during the first day (April 9, 2005) digging around the holotype skull (USNM 540765) (photo by MPT); top right, the skull (USNM 540765) during the second day (April 10, 2005) and ready to be jacketed; bottom right, early stages of preparation of the holotype skull (September 7, 2005).
Figure 3. Top, some of the postcranial material referred to Callistosiren boriquensis prior to being collected, including the third lumbar (L3), sacral (S1) caudal (Ca1-4) vertebrae, and two chevrons (Ch). Below, my co-author Daryl Domning collecting other postcranial elements at type locality. Collected in June 2009.
What is Callistosiren?
Callistosiren is a dugongine, which is the name given to the group of seacows that are more closely related to the dugong (Dugong dugon) of the Indopacific region than to Steller's seacow (Hydrodamalis gigas) and manatees. In fact, dugongines seemed to have originated and diversified in the Western Atlantic and Caribbean region and the group was present there until the mid to late Pliocene (Domning, 2001). Although one of the oldest dugongines, Callistosiren has morphological features that groups it amongst more derived members of the group. One of these features is that the enlarged tusks (I1 in Figure 4) of Callistosiren had enamel is confined to the medial (inner) surface, while the outside consist only of dentine. The result of this is that the lower edge of the tusks would wear off unevenly, forming a self-sharpening edge. This is something we also see in other dugongines such as some Dioplotherium and would presumably have been advantageous when cutting and uprooting seagrasses.

Figure 4. Dorsal, ventral and right lateral views of skull of Callistosiren boriquensis (modified from Velez-Juarbe and Domning, 2015:figs.1-3).
Figure 5. Comparison between vertebrae (top) and ribs (bottom) of Callistosiren boriquensis (left) and Priscosiren atlantica (right). (Click on image to see larger version.) 

A lightweight among sirenians
When I first encountered the ribs and vertebrae of Callistosiren I was surprised by how skinny they were relative to those of other similarly sized sirenians such as Priscosiren (Figure 5). You see, sirenian bones are usually pachyosteosclerotic which means that they are dense and thickened (Domning and Buffénil, 1991). This is an adaptation that evolved very early in the evolutionary history of the group, with pachyostosis (thickened) and lightly osteosclerotic (dense) bones already present in one of the oldest sirenians, the middle Eocene Pezosiren portelli, and apparently becoming fully pachyosteosclerotic by the late Eocene (Buffrénil et al., 2010). This adaptation helps sirenians achieve neutral buoyancy and move in the water column with minimal effort, functioning in a similar fashion as a divers weight belt. There are few exceptions where sirenian bones deviate from this condition. One of these are the protosirenids, an extinct group of early sirenians, Callistosiren and extant dugong. One possible explanation for the lack of pachyostosis in dugong is that this species occasionally dives to depths greater than 10 meters, which is around when lungs begin to collapse, thus reducing buoyancy (Domning and Buffrénil, 1991). This may have been the case in Callistosiren, whose vertebrae and ribs are osteosclerotic, but not pachyostotic. Interestingly, Domning (2001) predicted the discovery of Caribbean sirenians with reduced ballast as another strategy for niche partitioning in sirenian multispecies communities and has now become true with the discovery of Callistosiren.


References

Buffrénil, V. de, A. Canoville, R. D'Anastasio, and D. P. Domning. 2010. Evolution of sirenian pachyosteosclerosis, a model-case for the study of bone structure in aquatic tetrapods. Journal of Mammalian Evolution 17:101-120.

Cope, E. D. 1890. The extinct Sirenia. American Naturalist 24:697-702.

Domning, D. P. 2001. Sirenians, seagrasses, and Cenozoic ecological change in the Caribbean. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 166:27-50.

Domning, D. P. and V. de Buffrénil. 1991. Hydrostasis in the Sirenia: quantitative data and functional interpretations. Marine Mammal Science 7:331-368.

Velez-Juarbe, J., and D. P. Domning. 2014. Fossil Sirenia of the West Atlantic and Caribbean region. XI. Priscosiren atlantica, gen. et sp. nov. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 34:951-964.

Velez-Juarbe, J., and D. P. Domning. 2015. Fossil Sirenia of the West Atlantic and Caribbean region. XI. Callistosiren boriquensis, gen. et sp. nov. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology e885034

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Por invitación: Catalina Pimiento nos habla de cuando se extinguió el Megalodón

La entrada de hoy es una especial. Primero tenemos el honor de tener aquí a mi colega Catalina Pimiento que nos hablará de su más reciente publicación sobre tiburones fósiles. Segundo, es la primera vez que hago un "guest blog post" y espero no sea el último!
Catalina tomando los datos de unas vértebras fósiles de tiburón que encontramos en la Formación Chagres, en la costa caribeña de Panamá.
Catalina, de nacionalidad colombiana, es actualmente candidata doctoral en la Universidad de Florida en Gainesville y además está asociada al Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute en Panamá. Durante su maestría, y ahora doctorado ha estudiado tiburones fósiles, con énfasis en material de Panamá (Pimiento et al., 2013a,b), y en descifrar la vida y existencia del tiburón más grande que ha existido, el Carcharocles megalodon (Pimiento et al., 2010; Pimiento and Clements, 2014). Sin más preámbulo los dejo con Catalina.

El Megalodón se extinguió hace 2.6 millones años
La semana pasada salió publicado en la revista de acceso libre PLoS ONE, mi mas reciente estudio sobre el Megalodón, el tiburón más grande que ha existido (descargue el artículo aquí gratis!). Éste trabajo fue el resultado de un proyecto colaborativo con Chris Clements -experto en métodos matemáticos que permiten calcular fechas de extinción- y es parte de un proyecto más amplio, donde pretendo reconstruir la extinción de este gigante.

¿Por qué estudiar la extinción del Megalodón?
El Megalodón resulta ser una especie muy importante, ya que era un súper-depredador. Los súper-depredadores son aquellos animales que están en lo más alto de la cadena trófica, y que no tienen amenazas por parte de otros depredadores. Éstos animales entonces mantienen la estabilidad de los ecosistemas a medida que controlan las poblaciones de sus presas. Por lo tanto, su eliminación produce efectos en cascada (afectando todos los niveles tróficos) con efectos catastróficos.

Dada su importancia, la extinción de los súper-predadores ha sido ampliamente estudiada por la ecología moderna. Estos estudios, sin embargo, han sido realizados en escalas temporales y geográficas muy limitadas y por lo general, con base en especies pequeñas. Asimismo, lo que se sabe sobre las extinciones de los súper-depredadores está basado en declives poblaciones o extirpaciones locales. El estudio de la extinción del Megalodón tiene entonces el potencial de ofrecer una perspectiva más amplia, no solo porque es una especie gigante y cosmopolita, sino porque tiene un amplio registro fósil que abarca millones de años.
Algunos ejemplares de dientes de Megalodón, en este caso todos provenientes de Panamá. (Tomado de Pimiento et al., 2010.)
Es por esto que la extinción del Megalodón ocupa desde hace ya algunos años la mayor parte de mi tiempo. Pero para lograrlo, el primer paso es saber cuándo sucedió. La extinción de las especies es algo que no podemos observar directamente. Aunque muchos científicos usan la fecha del fósil más reciente como una medida de la fecha de extinción, lo cierto es que las especies se extinguen tiempo después de la última vez que fueron registradas. Para calcular la fecha más probable de extinción, varios métodos basados en los últimos registros de las especies han sido desarrollados.

Los beneficios de las conferencias científicas
El año pasado, tuve el privilegio de asistir a una conferencia de Ecología (INTECOL) en Londres. Allí asistí a una charla sobre un trabajo experimental que probaba la eficacia de uno de los métodos que se han propuesto para calcular fechas de extinción. Me pareció paradójico que una charla donde se hablaba de protistas me resultara tan interesante, y decidí invitar al expositor (Chris Clements) a la charla que yo daría al día siguiente. En mi charla, hablé sobre mis estudios de la evolución del tamaño corporal del Megalodón, y de mis intenciones de hacer un meta-análisis de su registro fósil con el fin de reconstruir la extinción. Chris y yo nos reunimos más tarde ese día y decidimos estudiar la fecha de extinción del Megalodón, combinando los métodos con los que el trabaja, y mis ideas y resultados del meta-análisis.

El estudio
Empezamos por reunir los registros más recientes de la especie. Para eso, usamos como plataforma la Base de Datos de Paleobiología (PaleoBioDB). Como esta base de datos estaba incompleta (para Megalodón), colectamos todos los artículos que reportan la especie, y los adherirlos a la PaleoBioDB. Todos estos datos están accesibles al público.

Una vez construido el archivo de datos (#20 en la PaleoBioDB), evaluamos cada uno para asegurarnos de incluir en el análisis sólo aquellos que reportaban suficiente evidencia sobre la edad de los fósiles. Con este sub-grupo de datos, usamos el modelo de estimación linear óptima (OLE), el cual ha sido usado antes para calcular la fecha de extinción del Dodo. Este método calcula la fecha de extinción con base en la distribución de los registros más recientes. Como en nuestro caso, los registros no tienen una fecha absoluta, sino un rango de tiempo, re-muestreamos la edad de cada registro 10000 veces, desde su valor más alto, al mas bajo.

Los resultados sugieren que el Megalodón se extinguió hace 2.6 millones de años. Ya que se ha sugerido esta especie interactuaba con distintos grupos de ballenas, procedimos a contrastar los resultados con los patrones que se conocen de la evolución y diversificación de cetáceos.


Gráfica de distribución temporal de las fechas de extinción del Megalodón utilizando el modelo de estimación linear óptima. El área naranja representa la distribución de las fechas de extinción a través del tiempo, note que el pico está en el límite entre los periodos Plioceno y Pleistoceno. Las Barras horizontales en azul representan el rango de tiempo de los fósiles que fueron utilizados en el estudio, mientras que las barras grises fueron registros de fósiles cuyas edades no pudieron ser corroboradas y por ende no se utilizaron en el estudio. (Tomado de Pimiento and Clements, 2014.)
¡Oh, sorpresa!
La fecha de extinción del Megalodón, coincide con el límite entre los periodos Plioceno y Pleistoceno. Durante el Pleistoceno, las ballenas barbadas alcanzaron sus tamaños modernos gigantes. Por lo tanto, en nuestro estudio proponemos que el tamaño, y por ende, la función ecológica de las ballenas modernas, se estableció una vez se extinguió el tiburón más grande del mundo, el Megalodón.

Por ahora nuestro estudio solo proporciona la fecha de tan importante evento, y reconoce la coincidencia con la evolución del gigantismo en las ballenas modernas. Saber si un evento causó el otro, es nuestro siguiente paso.

Referencias
Pimiento, C., and C. F. Clements. 2014. When did Carcharocles megalodon become extinct? A new analysis of the fossil record. PLoS ONE 9(10):e111086.

Pimiento, C., D. J. Ehret, B. J. MacFadden, and G. Hubbell. 2010. Ancient nursery area for the extinct giant shark Megalodon from the Miocene of Panama. PLoS ONE 5:e10552.

Pimiento, C., G. González-Barbam D. J. Ehret, A. J. W. Hendy, B. J. MacFadden, and C. Jaramillo. 2013a. Sharks and rays (Chondrichthyes, Elasmobranchii) from the late Miocene Gatun Formation of Panama. Journal of Paleontology 87:755-774.

Pimiento, C., G. González-Barba, A. J. W. Hendy, C. Jaramillo, B. J. MacFadden, C. Montes, S. C. Suarez, and M. Shippritt. 2013. Early Miocene chondrichthyans from the Culebra Formation, Panama: a window into marine vertebrate faunas before the closure of the Central American Seaway. Journal of South American Earth Sciences 42:159-170.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

New paper on fossil plant from the Neotropics

Yes, fossil plants! This is a first in this blog, which is otherwise, heavily biased towards marine tetrapods. However, that doesn't mean that when I do fieldwork I only focus on collecting fossil vertebrates. this of course has resulted in a number of publication on fossil invertebrates (e.g. Schweitzer et al., 2006), and now plants. The paper which was just published in the journal International Journal of Plant Sciences is a collaborative work led by former Florida Museum of Natural History colleague Fabiany Herrera, one of the few experts on fossil plants from the Neotropics, and his former advisors Steven R. Manchester and Carlos Jaramillo. The paper is a follows up on a previous paper published about four years ago in the same journal (Herrera et al., 2010), and that seeks to better understand the evolutionary and paleobiogeographic history of a group of plants called Humiriaceae that are found in the Neotropics, and western Africa. This group is mainly composed of large trees, most greater than 20 meters tall, and fruits have woody parts with very particular morphology, which results in a relatively high preservation and identification potential.
Map showing the distribution of fossil Humiriaceae endocarps (symbols) and extant genera (dashed lines) (modified from Herrera et al., 2010:fig. 1).
In the paper we describe fossilized endocarps (the inside part of the fruit) from the early Oligocene of Peru and Puerto Rico, and the late Miocene of Panama, and fossilized wood from the late Eocene of Panama (Herrera et al., 2014). The fossilized fruit from the Oligocene of Peru, which we dubbed Duckesia berryi, represents a new species of a tree that is nowadays only found in Amazonia, and is the oldest record of that genus. This not only shows that this particular taxon has an older history than previously thought, but it also shows that its former distribution was much more widespread. In addition to that, the fossil wood we describe, called Humiriaceoxylon ocuensis, shows that by the late Eocene parts of what is now Panama, was forested by large trees belonging to this particular group of plants. In addition, Fabiany had previously described a fossil Humiriaceae endocarp which he names Lacunofructus cuatrecasana from a locality near where the wood was found, and it may actually be that they represent the same tree (Herrera et al., 2012, 2014)*. This is a really cool find, as the region and where the fossils were collected, was not connected by land to neither North or South America, showing again, that overwater dispersal is not as much a problem for plants.
*Paleobotanists use different scientific names for the different parts of a plant as they are usually found separate, hence the endocarp has a name, and the wood another, even though they may be the same plant.
The fossil endocarp Duckesia berry (A-L) from the Oligocene of Peru, compared with the endocarp of the modern species D. verrucosa (M-O). (Modified from Herrara et al., 2014:fig. 1.)
The fossil from Puerto Rico consists of an endocarp of Sacoglottis tertiaria, otherwise known from the Neogene of Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Panama (Herrera et al., 2010). Several species of the genus Sacoglottis are still found today, in the Amazonian region and west Africa. The fossil from Puerto Rico is from the early Oligocene San Sebastian Formation, one of my favorite formations where I've spent many hours searching for fossils. Actually, the locality where I found the endocarp is not far from where Aktiogavialis puertoricensis, Priscosiren atlantica, and a Caviomorph rodent tooth were collected (Velez-Juarbe et al., 2007; Velez-Juarbe and Domning, 2014; Velez-Juarbe et al., 2014).
The fossil endocarp Sacoglottis tertiaria from the early Oligocene San Sebastian Formation of Puerto Rico.
Fossil plants were previously described from the San Sebastian Fm. by previous workers, mainly, Arthur Hollick (1928) and Alan Graham and David Jarzen (1969). But none of the material they described indicated the presence of Humiriaceae in the island. In fact, they list many plant groups present in San Sebastian Fm. which are now absent from the flora of the island, now the Humiriaceae can be added to that list. As I recently said in a newspaper interview, Puerto Rico during the Oligocene was very different from nowadays, and there is still more to be discovered!

Assorted Musing
The fossil endocarp from Puerto Rico, was previously featured on this blog, it was the only thing I found in my two days of fieldwork in January 2009. I was a bit disappointed at first, but not any more!

I should also acknowledge my wife, it was because of her that I ended up visiting the Florida Museum of Natural History in the fall of 2012, which is where I met Fabiany, told him about the fossil endocarp, and I ended up being a co-author in his paper.

References

Graham, A., and D. M. Jarzen. 1969. Studies in Neotropical paleobotany. I. The Oligocene communities of Puerto Rico. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 56:308-357.

Herrera, F., S. R. Manchester, and C. Jaramillo. 2012. Permineralized fruits from the late Eocene of Panama give clues of the composition of forests established early in the uplift of Central America.

Herrera, F., S. R. Manchester, J. Velez-Juarbe, and C. Jaramillo. 2014. Phytogeographic history of the Humiriaceae (Part 2). International Journal of Plant Sciences 175:828-840.

Herrera, F., S. R. Manchester, C. Jaramillo, B. MacFaddem, S. A. da Silva-Caminha. 2010. Phytogeographic history and phylogeny of the Humiriaceae. International Journal of Plant Sciences 171:392-408.

Hollick, A. 1928. Paleobotany of Porto Rico. Scientific Survey of Porto Rico and the Virgin Islands 7(3):177-393.

Schweitzer, C. E., M. Iturralde-Vinent, J. L. Hetler, and J. Velez-Juarbe. 2006. Oligocene and Miocene decapods (Thalassinidea and Brachyura) from the Caribbean. Annals of Carnegie Museum 75:111-136.

Velez-Juarbe, J., and D. P. Domning. 2014. Fossil Sirenia of the West Atlantic and Caribbean region: X. Priscosiren atlantica, gen. et sp. nov. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 34:951-964.

Velez-Juarbe, J., C. A. Brochu, and H. Santos. 2007. A gharial from the Oligocene of Puerto Rico: transoceanic dispersal in the history of a non-marine reptile. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 274:1245-1254.

Velez-Juarbe, J. T. Martin, R. D. E. MacPhee, and D. Ortega-Ariza. 2014. The earliest Caribbean rodents: Oligocene caviomorphs from Puerto Rico. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 34:157-163.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Its the 10th installment of Fossil Sirenia of the West Atlantic and Caribbean Region!

Today came out the most recent issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. Amongst many other interesting papers, there is one by yours truly and former PhD advisor Daryl Domning. In our paper we describe a new sirenian taxon from early Oligocene deposits in Puerto Rico and South Carolina, its our second new species this year, as some months ago we published the description of Metaxytherium albifontanum Velez-Juarbe and Domning, 2014 (read more about it here). The fossil from Puerto Rico, which is fairly complete, comes from the same overall locality as some other fossils I've mentioned in previous posts, like Aktiogavialis puertoricensis Velez-Juarbe et al., 2007, and the oldest West Indian rodent (Velez-Juarbe et al., 2014).  This paper also marks the Tenth (!!!!) installment of the series on Fossil Sirenia of the West Atlantic and Caribbean Region, which Daryl started in 1988 (Domning, 1988)! Such long-lasting series are very uncommon!

The last time a new species of sirenian was described from Puerto Rico was 1959, when Roy H. Reinhart in his monumental work on Sirenia and Desmostylia, described Caribosiren turneri (see picture below) from the San Sebastian Formation in the northwestern part of the island. Caribosiren is a weird dugongid, it has a rostral deflection (downturning of the snout) of nearly 90º, and apparently no tusks!!
Caribosiren turneri Reinhart, 1959, from the San Sebastian Formation of Puerto Rico. Notice the extremely downturned snout  which always reminds me of Gonzo! The tip of the snout, although not preserved very well, hints at a lack of tusks.
(Photo courtesy of N.D. Pyenson) (Click on image to see larger version.)
The new fossil is from the same formation as Caribosiren. We named our new species Priscosiren atlantica, in reference to its ancestral relationship to other fossil dugongids (prisco means ancient, former) and its occurrence in the Western Atlantic region.
Priscosiren atlantica is known from multiple elements of two individuals, one from the Puerto Rico (USNM 542417) the other from South Carolina (SC 89.254). Its one of the most complete early Oligocene sirenians known. (Outline of skeleton modified from Cope, 1890).
(Click on image to see larger version.)

Slides from a talk that Daryl and I gave at the 2013 SVP annual meeting. Here we point out to several of the characters that diagnose Priscosiren atlantica as well as its relationship to other dugongids.
(Click on image to see larger version.)
 Priscosiren is represented by at least two individuals (an adult and a subadult), with associated cranial and postcranial material, making it one of the best known early Oligocene sirenians. This species occupies a special place amongst other dugongids as it seems to be ancestral (hence its name) to a clade that includes Metaxytherium spp. + Hydrodamalinae, and Dugonginae (see above). More interestingly, is that Priscosiren is found in the same formation as Caribosiren in Puerto Rico, and Crenatosiren olseni in South Carolina, and hints at the presence of sirenian multispecies communities (Velez-Juarbe et al., 2012) during the early Oligocene.

The day we found the holotype specimen of Priscosiren (USNM 542417) was the same day we found the holotype of Aktiogavialis puertoricensis, which we were able to collect that same day. In contrast, collecting Priscosiren was an ordeal, it is a long story, of discovery, failed attempts at collecting it, loss of parts, and final recovery. So stay tuned for an upcoming post about that story!

References

Domning, D. P. 1988. Fossil Sirenia of the West Atlantic and Caribbean Region. I. Metaxytherium floridanum Hay, 1922. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 8:395-426.

Reinhart, R. H. 1959. A review of the Sirenia and Desmostylia. University of California Publications in Geological Sciences 36(1):1-146.

Velez-Juarbe, J., C. A. Brochu, and H. Santos. 2007. A gharial from the Oligocene of Puerto Rico: transoceanic dispersal in the history of a nonmarine reptile. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 274:1245-1254.

Velez-Juarbe, J., and D. P. Domning. 2014. Fossil Sirenia of the West Atlantic and Caribbean Region. IX. Metaxytherium albifontanum. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 34:444-464.

Velez-Juarbe, J., and D. P. Domning. 2014. Fossil Sirenia of the West Atlantic and Caribbean Region. X. Priscosiren atlantica gen. et sp. nov. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 34:951-964.

Velez-Juarbe, J., D. P. Domning, and N. D. Pyenson. 2012. Iterative evolution of sympatric seacow (Dugongidae, Sirenia) assemblages during the past ~26 million years. PLoS ONE 7:e31294.

Velez-Juarbe, J., T. Martin, R. D. E. MacPhee, and D. Ortega-Ariza. 2014. The earliest Caribbean rodents: Oligocene caviomorphs from Puerto Rico. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 34:157-163.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Time for a brief update!

Dear readers, things have been a bit quiet here, mostly because lots of exciting things have been happening! To begin, earlier this year Caribbean Paleobiology moved to the West Coast, after spending most of the last 6 and a half years between Washington DC, Florida and Panama. The reason for the move is that I am now an NSF Postdoctoral Fellow based with Jim Parham and at the John D. Cooper Archaeological and Paleontological Center, Department of Geological Sciences, California State University-Fullerton, and also, starting next month, I'll be the new curator of Marine Mammals (living and extinct) at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County!!
My postdoc project will be sort of a follow-up on a paper I published on sirenian multispecies assemblages a couple of years ago, now it will be taxonomically broader and focused on a different part of the world. By taxonomically broader I mean sirenians, desmostylians and aquatic sloths! All which were, or are considered, marine mammal herbivores.

Since arriving in California I've been busy visiting some sites like Sharktooth Hill, and museum collections, including the San Diego Natural History Museum, the museum at the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California, in Ensenada, and a return trip to Washington DC to attend the 2014 Secondary Adaptations meeting and of course the collections at the National Museum of Natural History in DC.
Sharktooth Hill National Natural Landmark in Bakersfield, California. The famous bone bed is about 10 meters or so below the car.
Tania (my wife) hold the first neck vertebra of Hydrodamalis cuestae, which was the largest species of sea cow, ever! It reached more than 8 meters in length, large for a sea cow, but small when compared to some whales.
One of the highlights of the 2014 SecAd meeting. We got a brief lecture on beaked whales from Jim Mead curator emeritus of marine mammals at the Smithsonian and one of the Worlds expert on that group of whales.

The other thing that's has kept me busy is that back in May, I was in Baja California Sur with several colleagues from Howard University (HU), New York Institute of Technology (NYIT), Universidad Autónoma de Baja California (UABC), and Universidad Autónoma de Baja California Sur (UABCS), most which you can see in the picture below. This trip was a continuation of work we did back in 2012 (see previous post about that trip). The trip was fun, and we found many interesting fossils.
Part of the BCS Paleo Project 2014 reopening the main quarry. From left to right, Arely Cedillo (UABCS), Gerardo González (UABCS), Ehecatl Hernández (UABCS), Brian Beatty (NYIT), Daryl Domning (HU), and Lizeth González (UABCS). Missing from the picture Azucena Solis (UABCS) and Fernando Salinas (UABC). Click on the picture to see the larger version.
So, stay tune as new papers will be coming out soon and I'll get around to post some more about the Baja trip!!