Near to the common ancestor

A recent article published in the scientific journal PLOS One, “Potential hominin affinities of Graecopithecus from the Late Miocene of Europe”, presents the provocative hypothesis that the earliest human ancestor evolved not in Africa, as all previous evidence indicates, but rather in southeastern Europe.

The article describes two fossil specimens, a mandible from Greece, originally discovered in 1944, and a single tooth from Bulgaria found in 2009, which are both assigned to the genus Graecopithecus. The authors propose that these remains, dating to roughly 7.175 and 7.24 million years ago (mya), respectively, represent a very early hominin species (humans and their non-ape ancestors) that existed shortly after the evolutionary split in the common ancestor of both modern apes and humans. No fossils purported to be from this close to the ape/human divergence have previously been reported.

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Oldest Homo sapiens fossil claim rewrites our species’ history

Researchers say that they have found the oldest Homo sapiens remains on record in an improbable place: Morocco. At an archaeological site near the Atlantic coast, finds of skull, face and jaw bones identified as being from early members of our species have been dated to about 315,000 years ago. That indicates H. sapiens appeared more than 100,000 years earlier than thought. decade-long excavation at the Moroccan site, called Jebel Irhoud.

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Oldest evidence of life on land found in 3.48 billion-year-old Australian rocks

Fossils discovered by UNSW scientists in 3.48 billion year old hot spring deposits in the Pilbara region of Western Australia have pushed back by 580 million years the earliest known existence of microbial life on land. Previously, the world’s oldest evidence for microbial life on land came from 2.7- 2.9 billion-year-old deposits in South Africa containing organic matter-rich ancient soils.

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400,000-year-old fossil human cranium is oldest ever found in Portugal

A large international research team, directed by the Portuguese archaeologist João Zilhão and including Binghamton University anthropologist Rolf Quam, has found the oldest fossil human cranium in Portugal, marking an important contribution to knowledge of human evolution during the middle Pleistocene in Europe and to the origin of the Neandertals.

The cranium represents the westernmost human fossil ever found in Europe during the middle Pleistocene epoch and one of the earliest on this continent to be associated with the Acheulean stone tool industry. In contrast to other fossils from this same time period, many of which are poorly dated or lack a clear archaeological context, the cranium discovered in the cave of Aroeira in Portugal is well-dated to 400,000 years ago and appeared in association with abundant faunal remains and stone tools, including numerous bifaces (handaxes).

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280 Million-Year-Old Fossil Reveals Origins of Chimaeroid Fishes

High-definition CT scans of the fossilized skull of a 280 million-year-old fish reveal the origin of chimaeras, a group of cartilaginous fish related to sharks. Analysis of the brain case of Dwykaselachus oosthuizeni, a shark-like fossil from South Africa, shows telltale structures of the brain, major cranial nerves, nostrils and inner ear belonging to modern-day chimaeras.

This discovery, published early online in Nature on Jan. 4, allows scientists to firmly anchor chimaeroids—the last major surviving vertebrate group to be properly situated on the tree of life—in evolutionary history, and sheds light on the early development of these fish as they diverged from their deep, shared ancestry with sharks.

“Chimaeroids belong somewhere close to the sharks and rays, but there’s always been uncertainty when you search deeper in time for their evolutionary branching point,” said Michael Coates, PhD, professor of organismal biology and anatomy at the University of Chicago, who led the study.

“Chimaeras are unusual throughout the long span of their fossil record,” Coates said. “Because of this, it’s been difficult to understand how they got to be the way they are in the first place. This discovery sheds new light not only on the early evolution of shark-like fishes, but also on jawed vertebrates as a whole.”

Chimaeras include about 50 living species, known in various parts of the world as ratfish, rabbit fish, ghost sharks, St. Joseph sharks or elephant sharks. They represent one of four fundamental divisions of modern vertebrate biodiversity. With large eyes and tooth plates adapted for grinding prey, these deep-water dwelling fish are far from the bloodthirsty killer sharks of Hollywood.

For more than 100 years, they have fascinated biologists. “There are few of the marine animals that on account of structure and relationships to other forms living and extinct have as great interest for zoologists and palaeontologists as the Chimaeroids,” wrote Harvard naturalist Samuel Garman in 1904. More than a century later, the relationship between chimaeras, the earliest sharks, and other early jawed fishes in the fossil record continues to puzzle paleontologists.

Chimaeras—named for their similarities to a mythical creature described by Homer as “lion-fronted and snake behind, a goat in the middle”—are unusual. Their anatomy comprises features reminiscent of sharks, ray-finned fishes and tetrapods, and their form is shaped by hardened bits of cartilage rather than bone. Because they are found in deep water, they were long considered rare. But as scientists gained the technology to explore more of the ocean, they are now known to be widespread, but their numbers remain uncertain.

After a 2014 study detailing their extremely slow-evolving genomes was published in Nature, interest in chimaeras blossomed. Of all living vertebrates with jaws, chimaeras seemed to offer the best promise of finding an archive of information about conditions close to the last common ancestor of humans and a Great White.

Like sharks, also reliant on cartilage, chimaeras rarely fossilize. The few known early chimaera fossils closely resemble their living descendants. Until now, the chimaeroid evolutionary record consisted mostly of isolated specimens of their characteristic hyper-mineralized tooth plates.

The Dwykaselachus fossil resolves this issue. It was originally discovered by amateur paleontologist and farmer Roy Oosthuizen when he split open a nodule of rock on his farm in South Africa in the 1980s. An initial description named it based on material visible at the broken surface of the nodule. It was carefully archived in the South African Museum in Cape Town, where its splendor awaited technology able to unwrap its long-shrouded secrets.

In 2013, when the University of the Witwatersrand Evolutionary Studies Institute obtained a micro CT scanner, Dr. Robert Gess, a South African Centre of Excellence in Palaeosciences partner and co-author of this study, began scanning Devonian shark fossils while he was based at the Rhodes University Geology Department. Coates encouraged him to investigate Dwykaselachus.

At the surface, Dwykaselachus appeared to be a symmoriid shark, a bizarre group of 300+ million-year-old sharks, known for their unusual dorsal fin spines, some resembling boom-like prongs and others surreal ironing boards.

CT scans showed that the Dwykaselachus skull was remarkably intact, one of a very few that had not been crushed during fossilization. The scans also provide an unprecedented view of the interior of the brain case.

“When I saw it for the first time, I was stunned,” Coates said. “The specimen is remarkable.”

The images, one reviewer commented, are “almost dripping with data.”

They show a series of telltale anatomical structures that mark the specimen as an early chimaera, not a shark. The braincase preserves details about the brain shape, the paths of major cranial nerves and the anatomy of the inner ear. All of which indicate that Dwyka belongs to modern-day chimaeras. The scans reveal clues about how these fish began to diverge from their common ancestry with sharks.

A large extinction of vertebrates at the end of the Devonian period, about 360 million years ago, gave rise to an explosion of cartilaginous fishes. Instead of what became modern-day sharks, Coates said, revelations from this study indicate that “much of this new biodiversity was, instead, early chimaeras.”

“We can now say that the first radiation of cartilaginous fishes after the end Devonian extinction was chimaeras, in abundance.” Coates said. “It’s the inverse of what we’ve got today, where sharks are far more common.”

The study, “A symmoriiform chondrichthyan braincase and the origin of chimaeroid fishes,” was supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Research Foundation (NRF) / Department of Science and Technology South African Centre of Excellence in Palaeosciences, and the NRF African Origins Programme. Additional authors include John Finarelli from the University College Dublin, Ireland, and Katharine Criswell and Kristen Tietjen from the University of Chicago.

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The marine creatures evolved over 530 million years ago during the Cambrian period

A team of scientists led by University of Toronto undergraduate student Joseph Moysiuk has finally determined what a bizarre group of extinct cone-shaped animals actually are. Known as hyoliths, these marine creatures evolved over 530 million years ago during the Cambrian period and are among the first animals known to have produced mineralized external skeletons. Long believed to belong to the same family as snails, squid and other molluscs, a study published today in the prestigious scientific journal Nature shows that hyoliths are instead more closely related to brachiopods – a group of animals which has a rich fossil record, although few living species remain today.

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Oxygen levels were key to early animal evolution

It has long puzzled scientists why, after 3 billion years of nothing more complex than algae, complex animals suddenly started to appear on Earth. Now, a team of researchers has put forward some of the strongest evidence yet to support the hypothesis that high levels of oxygen in the oceans were crucial for the emergence of skeletal animals 550 million years ago.

The new study is the first to distinguish between bodies of water with low and high levels of oxygen. It shows that poorly oxygenated waters did not support the complex life that evolved immediately prior to the Cambrian period, suggesting the presence of oxygen was a key factor in the appearance of these animals.

The research, based on fieldwork carried out in the Nama Group in Namibia, is published in the journal Nature Communications.

Lead author Dr Rosalie Tostevin completed the study analyses as part of her PhD with UCL Earth Sciences, and is now in the Department of Earth Sciences at Oxford University. She said: ‘The question of why it took so long for complex animal life to appear on Earth has puzzled scientists for a long time. One argument has been that evolution simply doesn’t happen very quickly, but another popular hypothesis suggests that a rise in the level of oxygen in the oceans gave simple life-forms the fuel they needed to evolve skeletons, mobility and other typical features of modern animals.

‘Although there is geochemical evidence for a rise in oxygen in the oceans around the time of the appearance of more complex animals, it has been really difficult to prove a causal link. By teasing apart waters with high and low levels of oxygen, and demonstrating that early skeletal animals were restricted to well-oxygenated waters, we have provided strong evidence that the availability of oxygen was a key requirement for the development of these animals. However, these well-oxygenated environments may have been in short supply, limiting habitat space in the ocean for the earliest animals.’

The team, which included other geochemists, palaeoecologists and geologists from UCL and the universities of Edinburgh, Leeds and Cambridge, as well as the Geological Survey of Namibia, analysed the chemical elemental composition of rock samples from the ancient seafloor in the Nama Group – a group of extremely well-preserved rocks in Namibia that are abundant with fossils of early Cloudina, Namacalathus and Namapoikia animals.

The researchers found that levels of elements such as cerium and iron detected in the rocks showed that low-oxygen conditions occurred between well-oxygenated surface waters and fully ‘anoxic’ deep waters. Although abundant in well-oxygenated environments, early skeletal animals did not occupy oxygen-impoverished regions of the shelf, demonstrating that oxygen availability (probably >10 micromolar) was a key requirement for the development of early animal-based ecosystems.

Professor Graham Shields-Zhou (UCL Earth Sciences), one of the co-authors and Dr Tostevin’s PhD supervisor, said: ‘We honed in on the last 10 million years of the Proterozoic Eon as the interval of Earth’s history when today’s major animal groups first grew shells and churned up the sediment, and found that oxygen levels were important to the relationship between environmental conditions and the early development of animals.’

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