First evidence of fossilized ‘earstones’ in Cretaceous-aged cephalopods

First Cretaceous cephalopod statoliths fill the gap between Jurassic and Cenozoic forms

Summarized by: Gabrielle Scrogham completed her Bachelor’s of Marine Biology degree in 2020 and is currently a Geology Master’s student at the University of South Florida, Tampa. She is studying methods for tracking changes in diet of fish over time based on stable isotope and trace metal analysis. Their interests include marine ecology and biogeochemistry. Outside of academia, Gabrielle enjoys snorkeling, painting, and practicing martial arts.  

What was the hypothesis being tested? Cephalopods are a group of animals which include octopuses and squids. In this paper, researchers compared recently discovered fossils of cephalopod statoliths, also known as earstones, from the Cretaceous Period (145 – 66 million years ago) to older earstone fossils from the Jurassic Period (201 – 145 million years ago) and to earstones found in modern squid and cuttlefish to see how they change over time. Earstones are small, calcified parts found in the head of animals to help with navigation, movement, and balance. Earstones, or other structures for sensing balance, are found in most animals and even some plants. Statoliths in cephalopods are analogous to structures called otoliths in bony fish, as they perform the same function. The researchers hypothesized that differences in the shapes and abundances of earstone fossils would reflect evolutionary changes in cephalopod lineages. They also hypothesized these newly discovered fossils would support evidence from other paleontologists that a large-scale shift in animal dominance from cephalopods to fish occurred during the Cretaceous. 

What data were used? Five fossilized cephalopod earstones were collected from two sites in Poland and England. Several images from scanning electron microscopes were used in this study, including the newly collected earstones, a Jurassic earstone fossil, and earstones from modern squids and cuttlefish. This allowed for detailed comparisons of their shapes. The earstone structures were then compared to data compiled from previous studies on cephalopod lineages. The number of earstones found for both cephalopods and fish from each time period were also counted. 

Methods: Sediments were wet sieved using a fine (0.375 mm) mesh to separate fossils from the clay and silts in the rocks. Both collection sites were chosen due to being known Lower Cretaceous formations and for being uniquely accessible at the time of sampling. The collection site in Poland is now flooded, meaning additional samples from this area cannot be accessed. Once identified, the fossils were photographed using a scanning electron microscope. 

Results: The shape of the single earstone fossil from Poland differ than those found in England, which are more similar to earstones from Jurassic fossils. Some differences in traits include the shape and angle of the rostrum, the spur, and the lateral dome (see Figure 1 for what these features look like). Since the earstone from Poland has unique features not seen in other fossils, this likely represents a new lineage of cephalopod. There are some indications that the Poland specimen may have been a juvenile organism, so in addition to only having one fossil available, this data cannot be considered comprehensive. The earstones from England are more similar to fossils from the Jurassic, which means they may be more closely related. In addition to the analysis of the shape differences, the number of cephalopod and fish earstones were compared. Cephalopod earstones were more abundant than fish earstones in the Jurassic sediments, while fish earstones become more dominant in Cretaceous sediments. Thus, this is evidence for a shift in dominance from cephalopods to fish around 145 million years ago.

Four rows of earstone fossils pictured at different angles with significant features labelled. Figures are labelled by letter for specimen and by number for angle, with a total of six angles showing differences in the structures. Most are shaped loosely like ovals, but have thicker and thinner parts to them distorting the shape. Average size is just over 200 microns.
Images from scanning electron microscope comparing cephalopod earstones, also called statoliths, from different angles. Four samples are represented including A: modern pygmy squid; B: Cretaceous cephalopod fossil from Poland; C: Jurassic cephalopod fossil from Poland, and D: modern cuttlefish. Some distinguished features include the rostrum (r), spur (sp), and the lateral dome (ld). Scale bar = 200 microns.

Why is this study important?: Cephalopod statoliths have been found and recorded from both the Jurassic and the Cenozoic (modern), but not from the time period between those two, which is the Cretaceous (145 – 66 million years ago). This type of comparative data can reflect changes in animal lifestyle, such as shallow versus deep water environments, which can be used to reconstruct ancient habitats. Similarities between these fossils also allow researchers to look for connections in evolutionary lineages over time. Some of these fossils are also collected from sites that are no longer accessible, increasing their scientific value as it would be difficult to collect new evidence from the same regions. 

Broader Implications beyond this study: This study documents shapes of new cephalopod earstones, which could be used to examine ancient environments and reconstruct what types of animals lived in those habitats. The proposed shift in dominance of cephalopods during the Middle Jurassic to a dominance of bony fish in the Early Cretaceous would demonstrate a large-scale change in marine ecology. This dominance shift would also additionally explain the noticeable increase of fish abundance over cephalopods in the fossil record and modern oceans.

Citation: Pindakiewicz, M, K., Hyrniewicz, K., Janiszewska, K., & Kaim, A.  (2022). First Cretaceous cephalopod statoliths fill the gap between Jurassic and Cenozoic forms. Comptes Rendus Palevol, 21, 801–813. 

New spider family discovered in Europe

First Record of the spider family Hersiliidae from the Mesozoic of Europe

Summarized by Devan Legendre, a geology major at the University of South Florida. He is currently a senior in his last semester. Once he earns his degree, he plans to work in the geotechnical industry and gain experience to actively promote himself within the field. When he’s not studying geology, he enjoys running long distances to clear his head and gain new insight. 

Hypothesis: The aim of this study is to describe a new male spider found in ajkaite (sulfur-bearing resin found in brown coal) from the Ajka Coal Formation in Hungary and place the male spider in a new taxonomic group. The climate and the environment in which the resin was found was used to evaluate the current environmental description for the Ajka Coal Formation and better predict past environments. 

Data used: Arachnid fossils that are found preserved in amber resin offer a unique glimpse into the build of arachnid fossils, which usually don’t have their legs preserved.  The amber provides a preservation that is often entirely complete, shows the entire body build, and has a level of detail not often found in other methods of preservation for fossils. This can also help to understand the behavior and ecology of arachnids. The amber fossils used in this study are from the Ajka Coal Formation in Hungary that is one of two areas known for Mesozoic amber inclusions dated between 86 to 83 million years of age.

Methods: The chunk of ajkaite resin for this study was almost completely opaque, making it too dark for examination by light microscope. An X-ray tomograph from the University of Pannonia in Veszprem, Hungary was used to scan the large chunk of ajkaite. Upon scanning, multiple arthropod inclusions were discovered inside the chunk, including a relatively large sized spider. To achieve a better resolution scan on the spider, the ajkaite was broken to a smaller size for easier scans. A micro-computed tomography scanner in Hamburg, Germany used multiple images taken at various specifications along with specialized computer programs in Matlab, and the Astra Toolbox. 

Results: The images taken allowed scientists to identify a short third pair of legs and lateral spinnerets unique to the Hersiliidae family of spiders, that differs from the extinct and extant families. The specimen can be seen in Figure 1.  This is why scientists proposed the Hungarosilia genus to accommodate the new arachnid fossil. Based on drill cores samples, the climate for the Ajka Coal Formation has been projected as tropical, with large amounts of rain. The forests were likely fern dominated in the subtropical or tropical environment.

A dark mass with multiple protruding stick like objects (the spider body and limbs), as well as two pointy objects coming from the rear of said dark mass. The pointy objects are the spinnerets, it appears. Entire body is about 3 mm in height; with legs, about 6 mm in width.
An image of the spider scanned from the amber inclusion, that was found in the Ajka Coal Formation in Europe. Hails from the Mesozoic time period. Scale bar = 2 mm

Why is this study important? This specimen is unique in that it is a new genus of spider from the Mesozoic. The only other genera in this spider family that have been described so far are Burmesiola and Spinasilia, both of which were found in amber from Myanmar. These two genera have distinct differences that set them apart from the newly found specimen, which differs mainly with the longer rear end, triangular separation between the spinnerets, and short middle section. 

Broader implications beyond this paper: Up until this specimen was found, there have been very few spiders or spider-related inclusions found in the Ajka Coal Formation . With the identification of this specimen, the Hersiliidae family of spider establishes the oldest known record for this family in Europe, as well as being the second record of this fossil from the Mesozoic. The discovery of this specimen has greatly improved the knowledge on the Mesozoic diversity of the family Hersiliidae, and the Ajka Coal formations paleoenvironment. Further specimens may help to expand the diversity of spiders in the Mesozoic of Europe.

Citation: Szabo, Marton, Jörg U. Hammel, Danilo Harms, Ulrich Kotthoff, Emese Bodor, Janos Novak, Kristof Kovacs, and Attila Ősi. “First record of the spider family Hersiliidae (Araneae) from the Mesozoic of Europe (Bakony Mts, Hungary).” Cretaceous Research 131 (2022): 105097.

Determining the Maturity of Bivalves in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic to Determine Historical Processes that Affected Deposition

Strontium Isotope Stratigraphy for Oligocene-Miocene Carbonate Systems in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic: Implications for Caribbean Processes Affecting Depositional History

Ortega-Ariza, D., Franseen, E. K., Santos-Mercado, H., Ramírez-Martínez, W. R., and Core-Suárez, E. E.

Summarized by Andrea Gann, a graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in Environmental Science and Policy at The University of South Florida. Currently, she is in her second year. After graduation, she plans to work as an environmental science analyst for an environmental consulting firm in Tampa. When she’s not studying environmental science, she enjoys kayaking and swimming in the many springs located in Florida. 

What was the hypothesis being tested? This paper aims to establish the ages of two fossil clam species, Kuphus incrassatus and Ostrea haitensis, by using absolute dating methods. Absolute dating is when scientists calculate the amount of radioactive decay in the isotopes of minerals found inside the fossil. Isotopes are known as elements that share the same number of protons while differing in their number of neutrons. This data was used to better understand under what conditions certain shallow marine systems in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic were deposited. 

What data were used? The data collected in this study is called strontium (Sr) isotope data. Strontium is known as a common trace element, which is a chemical component present in many organisms that includes both essential and non-essential elements. For example, zinc is considered an essential element in most organisms, while other elements like aluminum or uranium are deemed non-essential. To study and determine the ages of certain fossils – in this case, bivalves – the authors are applying the 87Sr/86Sr ratio. Within strontium are four isotopes, and these two are the closest to each other in abundance. The ratio involves the decay of rubidium isotope 87Rb, a trace element, into  87Sr over geologic time. By studying the increase of 87Sr/86Sr, researchers can determine the absolute age and origin of certain fossils by calculating ratios.  

Methods: The researchers began by collecting shell samples of both Kuphus incrassatus and Ostrea haitensis bivalves and drilling small amounts of their shell to chemically analyze. These shells are composed of low-magnesium calcite, which means that they tend to be fairly stable where other forms of minerals would change in the fossilization process.  Scientists compared the ratio of the bivalve fossils to modern-day fossils to ensure no chemical changes would have affected the 87Sr/86Sr ratio. Here, a Thermo- Finnigan MAT 253 isotope ratio mass spectrometer was used to calculate the isotopic ratios of the bivalves, which were then juxtaposed with the ratios of modern mollusks. Concentration levels of other trace elements such as iron and manganese were also confirmed and compared with Sr values as another indicator of chemical alteration. Finally, the Sr isotope ratio produced three values – each with a corresponding minimum and maximum age. The 87Sr/86Sr ratio value reflects the mean age, while the minimum and maximum values exist as a range for any error or uncertainty.  

Results: 117 samples were collected, and 41 of those samples were at values expected of a shallow-water environment. . The authors also discovered a depletion in carbon values that could have been caused by freshwater runoff or an insufficiency of open-ocean water interchange. The absolute age of the bivalves, used to determine the ages of the rocks in which they were found, were included in the results. For example, the San Sebastian Formation in Northern Puerto Rico was set in the middle-late Oligocene at a mean age range of 29.78 to 26.51 Ma. Another formation named the Yanigua-Los Haitises Formations were set in the Middle Miocene at a mean age range of 15.75 to 15.25 Ma.

A four panel figure labeled A to D. A- shelly layer of fossils with a sharpie for scale. B- shelly layer of fossils with a pointer finger indicating to a zigzag break in the structure. C-horizontally striped microstructures that appear similar to a ripple effect. D. layered fossilized tissue with round edges and smooth overlapping structure that resembles a palmetto leaf.
The images above display the samples of Kuphus incrassatus and Ostrea haitensis bivalves tested in the study. Images (A) and (C) are Kuphus incrassatus which show that the interior shell texture is still intact, as well as the outer layers which have recrystallized. Images (B) and (D) display Ostrea haitensis bivalves with consecutive layers of preserved tissue and partially recrystallized shell texture. The condition of these bivalves demonstrates the lack of chemical alteration found in the study.

Why is this study important? The framework created in this study provides insight into how the chronostratigraphy of bivalves is directly correlated with time and surrounding local processes and regional processes. The meaning behind chrono is time, while the meaning behind strat is ‘layer’. Thus, chronostratigraphy is the analysis of rock layers over time. By identifying the absolute age of these shells, the authors can then determine what global and local processes influenced its deposition. 

Broader Implications beyond this study: This model will allow other stratigraphers and geologists to replicate this study with bivalves or other shells in their own regions globally. The authors describe methods using multiple pieces of scientific equipment (e.g., a Thermo- Finnigan MAT 253 isotope ratio mass spectrometer, microscope-mounted dental drill, transmitted light microscope petrography, plasma atomic emission spectroscope, and more). There is in-depth detail about the formulas utilized to calculate for chemical alteration that can help guide other geologists with their own chronostratigraphy and absolute dating analyses. Overall, absolute dating helps construct a structured timeline and establishes the depositional conditions and processes that were occurring. 

Citation: Ortega-Ariza, D., Franseen, E. K., Santos-Mercado, H., Ramírez-Martínez, W. R., & Core-Suárez, E. E. (2015). Strontium Isotope Stratigraphy for Oligocene-Miocene Carbonate Systems in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic: Implications for Caribbean Processes Affecting Depositional History. The Journal of Geology, 123, 539–560.

Diversification Patterns of Trilobites during the Ordovician

Post-Ordovician Trilobite Diversity and Evolutionary Faunas

Bault, V., Balseiro, D., Monnet, C., and Crônier, C.

Summarized by Alexa Milcetic, a senior at the University of South Florida studying geology, with minors in astronomy and geographic information systems (GIS). She plans on furthering her education by obtaining a master’s degree in planetary geology. After she earns her degree, she plans to work for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). When she isn’t studying geology, she loves to listen to music, watch movies, and read.

What was the hypothesis being tested? The hypothesis being tested required an investigation of the evolutionary history of trilobites, marine fossils, after the Late Ordovician Mass Extinction (LOME). Scientists wanted to evaluate the amount of diversity of trilobites after the LOME and understand the shifts in the broad groupings of diversity, called ‘evolutionary faunas’. Researchers asked what kind of environment did these different groups of trilobites live in? How did their differing regions they were acclimated to help or harm them during extinction events that happened after the LOME. 

What data were used? Trilobite data was downloaded from the Paleobiology Database which spanned 23 families. Where they were found, specifically the rock they were found in (lithology), can be used to estimate where they lived and where in the ocean they were found. For this, the Paleobiology Database was primarily used. This database was used to determine the post-Ordovician biodiversity of trilobites. Essentially, researchers put the data into the database, and these scientists then downloaded the information. This was then represented through the creation of a plotted graph (Figure 1), showing the diversity of trilobites throughout this range in geologic time. Using this same database, habitat conditions and the location of where these organisms lived was also collected. The lithology (the geology of their habitat) data became separated into the categories of carbonate, siliciclastic, or mixed. The preference for sediment that these trilobites had changed throughout time, and scientists wanted to see if there was any correlation with this preference and how certain groups became extinct. Bathymetrical data also became separated into categories of shallower or deeper, showing if a certain group preferred living in a certain region of the water where another group would not be able to survive. The latitude locations of their habitats also became separated into categories of low latitude, middle latitude (equatorial), and high latitude.

Methods: These trilobites within this period of the Post-Ordovician were in four distinct groups according to their similar characteristics, environments, and time they lived in. These were then used as variables to evaluate the evolutionary faunas. What the fauna was made of was determined by the latitude, lithology, and overall environment of the habitat they lived in. They looked at who was present, and the features of their environments, to better understand if things like lithology, etc. might explain more of their survival. They took all the data and ran tests to determine if there were patterns driving the biodiversity in these trilobites and tested the results to see if they were statistically significant. 

Results: Four groupings of trilobites showed up in four different chunks of time from the Silurian until the Permian–Triassic extinction (444 to 252 million years ago), where trilobites ultimately went extinct. Throughout the Silurian period, trilobites were highly diverse (i.e., many genera were present; more genera means more diversity). These are called the Silurian fauna. During this same period, these trilobites still maintained a high diversity even at higher latitudes and in richer siliciclastic (i.e., more sand and mud instead of limestone) environments, especially when compared to the more recent faunas. Next, there is the Devonian fauna, where especially in the Early Devonian there was the highest post-Ordovician diversity found within this study. In the Middle Devonian, there was a large reduction in trilobite diversity. This was likely due to the decrease in the amount of atmospheric oxygen, as well as with changes in sea level. The evolutionary fauna that developed here, within the Devonian, occurred during environmental changes, like an increased greenhouse environment, more carbonate environments, and high sea levels, indicating  a warmer climate. In the Late Devonian, diversity within trilobites was still low and the fauna is called the Kellerwasser Fauna.This was still due to the abrupt environmental changes that occurred during the Middle Devonian, that decimated previous evolutionary faunas. After this, there was the Hangenberg Event, known as the end-Devonian Extinction, which affected all existing trilobite groups. The survivors of this are called the Late Paleozoic Fauna (Figure 2). Since there was a decrease in diversity during the Mississippian (Early Carboniferous), there were only a select few faunas able to survive until the Permo-Triassic extinction. 

Figure showing 11 different types of trilobite groups that lived and or died during the time of the Cambrian (521 million years ago) to the end of the Permian (252 million years ago). The great diversity when many of these groups lived, ended as the Devonian ended (360 million years ago). Since this study focuses on Post-Ordovician, the diversity during this time interval was greatest in the Early Devonian. Overall, the diversity of trilobites was greatest in the Ordovician.
Figure 1: Evolutionary history of the different types of trilobites, from the Cambrian where they are first found in the geologic record, to the Permian-Triassic extinction where all trilobites became extinct. The Y-Axis is time in a Logarithmic scale.

Why is this study important? In the trilobites, the diversity ranged vastly across different geologic times, which allowed them to make it through multiple extinction events. With this, we can begin to study who survived and who didn’t, and the common characteristics they shared or did not share with each other, such as: what made them more likely to live, and what characteristics made it more likely for them to die. This study is important because trilobites were an extremely common part of the early Paleozoic and why they went extinct in the pattern that they did (across multiple mass extinctions) isn’t well understood. The variables that likely controlled this include climate change and the environment each of these distinct trilobite groups lived in. While they never recovered from the Late Ordovician mass extinction, there were slight increases in diversity in the Early Devonian, possibly caused by warmer climates and large inland seas. 

Broader Implications beyond this study: These trilobites left us a blueprint. Since something with so much diversity has died out, it is important to find out what could have caused this. Their extinction was heavily affected by high greenhouse gasses. It is important to use this information in the past to decide how to best mitigate and protect the organisms we have today, as human activity is releasing high greenhouse gasses today. Understanding how trilobites responded to these mass extinctions can help us understand how other animals did too. We can use this information to see how current and future trends in climate will affect organisms today.  

Citation: Bault, V., Balseiro, D., Monnet, C., & Crônier, C. (2022). Post-Ordovician trilobite diversity and evolutionary faunas. Earth-Science Reviews, 230.

Small tracks found in Southern Colorado, USA show scientists details about the fossil record in an area that experienced volcanism

Small bird and mammal tracks from a mid-Cenozoic volcanic province in Southern Colorado: implications for paleobiology

Lockley, M. G., Goodell, Z., Evaskovich, J., Krall, A., Schumacher, B. A., and Romilio, A.

Summarized by Brysen Pierce, a geology major, working on Geographic Information Systems and Technology, as well as environmental science and policy minors. Currently, he is a senior who has not decided what to do for his career path. When he is not studying geology, he enjoys watching movies and hiking. 

What was the hypothesis being tested? Several fossilized animal tracks have been discovered in Rio Grande National Park (Colorado, USA). After locating samples containing tracks near the first site, the authors hypothesized that since there was already one set of tracks located, there could be others nearby in a similar geologic setting. The purpose of this study was to define the tracks and identify what kind of creatures may have made them.

What data were used? Samples were collected from the field and analyzed. The source of the data was in southwestern Colorado in the San Juan Volcanic Field and from a smaller site in New Mexico. At the first site, there were two tracks that indicated two different birds and another unfinished track, which contained small prints that did not follow a distinct trail or were not able to be identified. The second site had four completed tracks that were left by birds and mammal traces that formed another track and there were some more traces that did not complete tracks. 

Methods: The tracks were found close to fifty meters apart from each other in two different locations. The tracks were preserved in a piece of a volcanic block, which had since been moved from its original position; once the rock had been moved, it became exposed. A volcanic block is a piece of a solidified fragment that has been ejected thrown from a volcano by an eruption and is measured to be larger than sixty-four millimeters in diameter. Since these trace fossils were the first of their kind that have been recorded in this type of volcanic environment, researchers wanted to expand on this topic. From here, the scientists were able to collect samples and take casts so that they could do measurements of the prints and better analyze the trace fossils and define what they could have been from. 

Results: Three total samples were collected or casted and brought to museums to study. Three species were identified in this study: two of them were bird species and the last was a species of mammal related to modern day rodents. The birds were some of the smallest found in the fossil record and have relations to creatures like the sandpiper whose habitat is shorelines. Some tracks were not easily identifiable because they are incomplete. The bird tracks in this area were identified Avipeda circumontis named after the region it was found in and the mammal tracks are Musvesigium minutus whose name means small mouse footprints. Both species share similarities between other closely related species that are found in the western United States, which makes identification of the species difficult.

This image shows three smaller images labeled a, b, and c. a) is a picture of the broken off block that is showing the tracks with a measuring tape across the broken surface that measures across at about 23 inches. b) is a drawn model of the block that includes two complete fossil tracks and other markings around the surface that measures 23 inches and shows a 30 cm scale next to it. This image is reversed from a) and shows the clear impressions compared to the photograph. This bird is tridactyl and we can see 8 steps in a row and another set of a couple steps following a separate path in a similar direction of northeast. c) is a 3d modeled created from images of the surface that shows the fossil tracks and two small measuring tools to show the scale of the sample measuring 23 inches and scale of 25 centimeters.
These images show the first site where the bird tracks can be located. a) is the image of the bird tracks in the block which it was found inside of. b) shows a drawn replication of the bird tracks but flipped it. c) a 3d model of the bird tracks on the block in situ. This is telling us that fossil tracks are visibly seen on this site and shows in varying amounts of detail.

Why is this study important? This study is important because it shows us that trace fossils can be found in a volcanic setting, which has previously been unreported. The study shows us what kind of species lived in this area during the mid-Cenozoic and could provide additional information about an environment that has not been preserved in the past with fossils. New types of trace fossils were identified in a setting that previously had produced no fossils. We learned that not only small birds, but also small mammals, once lived in the volcanic province of south Colorado. 

Broader Implications beyond this study: Since this is the first study that has described animal tracks found preserved in volcaniclastic setting, this could lead to other discoveries within similar environments in the geologic record . There is a lot to learn from sites like this because the species that the footprints were left by were previously undiscovered. The bird and mammal fossil tracks found here could be unique to this setting, but this means that tracks are able to be preserved in this type of environment and that the animals were, in fact, leaving evidence behind.

Citation: Lockley, M. G., Goodell, Z., Evaskovich, J., Krall, A., Schumacher, B. A., & Romilio, A. (2022). Small bird and mammal tracks from a mid-Cenozoic volcanic province in Southern Colorado: implications for palaeobiology. Historical Biology34, 130-140.

Fossilized Lynx skulls from Southern Italy provide a window into the Evolutionary History of the Endangered Lynx pardinus

The tale of a short-tailed cat: New outstanding late Pleistocene fossils of Lynx pardinus from southern Italy

Mecozzi, B., Sardella, R., Boscaini, A., Cherin, M., Costeur, L., Madurell-Malapeira, J., Pavia, M., Profico, A., & Iurino, D. A.

Summarized by Vincent Levin, a geology major at the University of South Florida in his third year. He loves geochemistry and is contemplating graduate school. While he isn’t splitting rocks with a tile saw, Vincent loves to spend time at the USF Catholic Student Union, where he is a very active member and part of their leadership team. He also enjoys video games and playing the bass guitar. 

What data were used? This study was conducted on the fossilized remains of a group of large cats, the lynxes, and particularly the Iberian lynxes (Lynx pardinus) (L. pardinus). These fossils were found at the site of Ingarano in Foggia, South Italy. Unearthed there were 415 late Pleistocene Lynx remains. Of these remains, this study focuses exclusively on craniodental fossils, or fossils of the skull and teeth. 

Methods: The fossils were gathered throughout the 1990s by different researchers. To collect the data used in the study, they used CT scans and CT imaging software on the complete skull fossils. This allowed them to create 3D models of the two skulls. They also used ZBrush 4R6, a modeling software, to restore missing points of the skull. They also incorporated other Lynx fossil data from different sites in France, Spain, and other parts of Italy. Lastly, they estimated Lynx body mass using a method that uses skull measurements to determine overall body mass.

This is a map of Europe and part of the middle east. The fossils of Lynx issiodorensis, Lynx pardinus, Lynx lynx, Lynx sp., and the Lynx remains from the Ingarano site are listed here. Lynx pardinus fossils have been found ranging from the middle to late Pleistocene, moving from France and Italy into Spain. The Lynx remains from the Ingarano site are represented by a pink circle in Southern Italy.
The geographic distribution of Pliocene and Pleistocene lynx fossils in Europe. This figure covers a large portion of Europe and shows the distribution of the different species of lynx. In pink is the Ingarano site in southern Italy. The Iberian Lynx, in green, is shown to arise in the early Pleistocene and spread into the Iberian peninsula and into modern day France and Italy.

Results: Researchers determined that all of the cranial remains contained permanent teeth, indicating that they were all from adult cats. Many of the skull pieces and whole skulls still retained many upper teeth, which were beneficial in the final analysis. The lower teeth and mandibles (jawbones) also showed that all the remains were from adult specimens. However, these fossils showed much more size variation, and none of the lower incisors were preserved.

All the characteristics of the fossils found fit the overall morphology of L. pardinus. Overall, the Ingarano samples have larger cranial dimensions than other data sets. They concluded that there was also little sexual dimorphism, with the male to female body mass ratio being mostly equal. Sexual dimorphism is what accounts for biological differences between the sexes of a species.. Due to the limited sample size, it is hard to determine a correlation between Lynx body size and any potential environmental factors.

The most important result of this study was found in the cranium (skull) fossils. The cranium fossils provided a new insight into the evolutionary history of Lynx issiodorensis (L. issiodorensis) as a possible ancestor to Lynx pardinus and the still-living Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx). L. issiodorensis, hypothesized to be representative of an ancestor of the modern Lynx, was shown to have similar cranial features to L. pardinus. The data found in this study supported the hypothesis that these cranial features were homologous, or features inherited from an ancestor. 

Why is this study important? This study compiled data on 68 craniodental (skull and teeth) Lynx fossils. Teeth and skulls are an important window into the morphology, what it looked like, and ecology, how it lived and interacted with its environment. Many of the studies done on Lynx fossils have lacked any substantial cranium (skull) data. This study was able to add that to the overall discussion on Lynx evolutionary history. Lynx evolutionary history was hard to nail down due to the coexistence of the two modern species of Lynx, Lynx pardinus and Lynx lynx, during the same time period. The addition of the cranium data added some clarity to the overall discussion.

The big picture: The Iberian Lynx (L. pardinus) is currently endangered. This study adds to a decades-long effort to better understand the ecological and biological characteristics of these cats. This could add data to create better conservation efforts for the preservation of this species against natural and manmade threats. 

Citation: Mecozzi, B., Sardella, R., Boscaini, A., Cherin, M., Costeur, L., Madurell-Malapeira, J., Pavia, M., Profico, A., & Iurino, D. A. (2021). The tale of a short-tailed cat: New outstanding Late Pleistocene fossils of Lynx pardinus from southern Italy. Quaternary Science Reviews, 262, 106840.

Birds are more Vulnerable to Climate Change Impacts than Small Mammals in the Mojave Desert

Exposure to climate change drives stability or collapse of desert mammal and bird populations

E.A. Riddell, K.J. Iknayan, L. Hargrove, S. Tremor, J.L. Patton, R. Ramirez, B.O. Wolf, S.R. Beissinger

Summarized by Anna Geldert

What data were used? Researchers compared climate change responses in desert species, including 34 small mammal species and 135 bird species. Surveys were conducted at 151 sites throughout the Mojave Desert, concentrated mostly in Death Valley National Park, Mojave National Preserve, and Joshua Tree National Park (California, USA). Modern observations were compared to historical observations by Joseph Grinnell and colleagues in the early 20th century to assess change over time.

Methods: The authors used a dynamic multi-species occupancy model to determine how the proportion of sites that a species occupied changed over time. In summary, this approach assessed the probability of detecting a species  at different time periods, and used this data to determine the change in occupancy (likelihood of a species occupying a site), change in species richness (number of species at a site), colonization probability (likelihood of expanding to new sites), and persistence (long-term survival of a species at a site) probability. This model also factored in the impacts of climate change and habitat loss. The authors also estimated the degree of exposure (or how greatly an organism is affected by climatic changes) in small mammals and birds by simulating the “cooling costs” of each species. Cooling costs represent the water required for evaporative cooling to maintain a stable body temperature and were based on the species’ behavior, morphology, and microhabitat conditions.

Results: Overall, modern bird species declined in occupancy when compared to historical records, while small mammal occupancy remained relatively consistent. The model estimated that the occupancy of 29% of bird species decreased, 70% were unchanged, and only 1% increased. Meanwhile, only 9% of small mammals saw an occupancy decrease, while 79% stayed constant and 12% increased. Similarly, bird species richness decreased at 90.1% of sites and only 3.3% of sites for small mammals. The authors also found that bird populations experienced higher exposure to climate change than small mammals. The exposure model estimated that cooling costs were approximately 3.3 times higher in birds than they were in mammals, with this number projected to increase to 3.8 times by 2080. Finally, the level of adaptation and specialization among species of both groups had little influence on changes in cooling costs, suggesting that microhabitat conditions and their behavioral ability to “buffer” against climatic changes had a much greater impact.

The figure shows a histogram graph, labeled ‘B’, which represents the change in species occupancy over time for both birds and small mammals. The x-axis is labeled “change in occupancy,” and ranges from -0.6 to 0.4, increasing by a factor of 0.5. Two y-axises appear stacked vertically on top of one another so that data on birds and small mammals can be graphed separately; both are labeled “number of species.” On the top right corner of each graph is the black silhouette of a bird on the top graph, and a small rodent on the bottom graph. The top axis, which shows data for birds, ranges from 0 to 30. Gray bars (roughly 70% of total) represent no significant change in occupancy compared to historical records, while red bars (roughly 30%) represent significant increases and decreases. Occupancy bars for birds are concentrated left of zero, indicating an overall decrease in species occupancy. The number of species is highest for changes in occupancy of -0.1 and -0.05, which each have about 25 species. As change in occupancy continues to decrease, the number of species slopes off rapidly, with only 5 species or less for occupancies lower than -0.35. Only 3 bird species have a positive change in occupancy, with probability values at 0.1, 0.15, and 0.4. The bottom y-axis ranges from 0 to 15, and represents data for small mammals. Gray bars (roughly 80% of total) again represent no significant change, while blue bars represent significant increases or decreases. Change in occupancy for small mammals is much less skewed than occupancy for birds. The change in occupancy of 0 has the highest number of species, at roughly 15. All other occupancies have 7 species or less, and quickly decrease to zero on either side by -0.2 and 0.3 change in occupancy. Small mammals, therefore, have a much lower range in change of occupancy probability than birds. Occupancy probabilities are also much more similar to historical records for small mammals than for birds.
Fig. 1 Change in occupancy (modern – historical) of bird and small mammal species in the Mojave desert. Changes in occupancy were estimated using a dynamic multi-species occupancy model based on survey data collected during two different time periods: first, by Joseph Grinnell and colleagues in the early 20th century (historical), and second, by the authors of this paper in 2007-2018 (modern). The gray bars represent the number of species with no significant change in occupancy between modern and historical records, while colored bars (red for birds; blue for small mammals) indicate significant increases or decreases over time.

Why is this study important? This study counters the traditional approach of assessing impacts from climate change, which often assumes that exposure within an ecosystem is uniform across all species. This study revealed that in the same locations birds were more severely impacted by climate change than small mammals, as shown by the lower occupancy probability, lower species richness, and higher cooling costs in birds. Additionally, this study highlighted the importance of microhabitat buffering potential, which may be a driving factor as to why small mammals were sheltered in their burrows during the day  from the worst of the impacts of heat, while birds were not.

The big picture: As the impacts of climate change on animal populations progress, desert communities remain especially vulnerable. In order to minimize these impacts, it is important to understand how ecosystems respond to climate changes. This study suggests that impacts should be considered at the population level, rather than the community level, as species responses varied greatly even within the same ecosystem. Furthermore, the results suggest that microhabitat buffering is especially important in reducing impacts from climate change, and should be given greater attention in conservation efforts and future studies.

Citation: Riddell, E. A., Iknayan, K. J., Hargrove, L., Tremor, S., Patton, J. L., Ramirez, R., … Beissinger, S. R. (2021). Exposure to climate change drives stability or collapse of desert mammal and bird communities. Science, 371(6529), 633–636.

Impacts From Climate Change and Other Threats Increase for At-Risk Canadian Wildlife

Increasing importance of climate change and other threats to at-risk species in Canada

Catherine Woo-Durand, Jean-Michel Matte, Grace Cuddihy, Chloe L. McGourdji, Oscar Venter and James W.A. Grant

Summarized by Anna Geldert

What data were used? In this study, researchers assessed threats to biodiversity in Canada. They drew upon the methods of a previous study by Venter et al. (2006), which recognized six primary threats to biodiversity in Canada: habitat loss, introduced (non-native) species, over-exploitation (i.e., excessive hunting or harvest), pollution, native species interactions, and natural causes. They also assessed the threat of climate change. In total, researchers assessed threats to 820 species from 12 taxa, including: vascular plants (e.g., trees, flowering plants, ferns, clubmosses, etc), freshwater fishes, marine fishes, marine mammals, terrestrial mammals, birds, reptiles, molluscs, amphibians, arthropods, mosses, and lichens. All of these species were classified as at-risk (in decreasing severity: extinct, extirpated, endangered, threatened, or of “special concern”) by COSEWIC (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada).

Methods: Between October 2018 and September 2019, researchers examined the COSEWIC website for evidence of Venter et al.’s six primary threats, where threatened species and the reasons they are threatened are cataloged . They looked at COSEWIC’s “Reason for Designation” statement, as well as details from the Assessment and Status Report. Any mention of any of the six major threats was recorded, so that multiple threats could be identified for each species. This data was compared to data from Venter et al. (2006) to determine changes in prevalence over time. Additionally, researchers noted mentions of climate change threats to species on the COSEWIC website. Climate change threats were classified as current, probable, or future based on a list of keywords. All seven of the biodiversity threats were assessed over time by comparing their prevalence to species with multiple COSEWIC status reports, including a total of 188 species.

Results: 814 of the 820 species studied were impacted by at least one of the six primary threats to biodiversity. Habitat degradation was the most significant threat, affecting 81.8% of species, followed by natural causes (51.0%), over-exploitation (46.9%), introduced species (46.4%), pollution (35.1%) and native species dynamics (27.2%). This represented an overall increase in threats compared to Venter et al., though introduced species and natural causes were the only threats that increased with statistical significance. Climate change impacted a total of 37.7% of species, with 13.3% of species impacted by current climate change, and 14.7% and 9.7% that will likely be impacted by probable and future climate change, respectively.

The figure shows a bar graph comparing the prevalence of the primary threats to biodiversity in the modern 2018 study and the 2005 Venter et al. study. In the top right corner, a legend indicates that white bars represent data from 2005, which included 488 species total, and black bars represent data from 2018, which included 814 species total. The x-axis shows the biodiversity threats, including habitat loss, introduced species, over-exploitation, pollution, native species interactions, natural causes, and current climate change. For each threat category, a pair of historical and modern bars are shown, with the exception of current climate change, which only has a bar for 2018. The y-axis is labeled “percentage of at-risk species,” and ranges from 0 to 90, increasing at increments of 10. For modern data, habitat loss is the most prevalent threat, affecting 81.8% of species, followed by natural causes, over-exploitation and introduced species, which all affected roughly 45-50% of species. Pollution and native species interactions (affecting 35.1% and 27.2% of species respectively) were moderate threats, while climate change was the lowest, affecting only 13.3%. For the 2005 Venter et al. data, habitat loss was also the most significant threat and was slightly more prevalent than it is today, affecting 83.8% of species. Native species interactions were also slightly higher in the 2005 study than the 2018 study, though not enough to be significant. All other threats were higher in the modern study, though introduced species and natural causes were the only categories that increased with statistical significance.
Fig 1. Percentage of at-risk species in Canada that were impacted by the six primary threats to biodiversity, comparing modern data from December 2018 and data recorded by Venter et al. in June 2005. The modern threat of climate change is also included, though there is no corresponding 2005 record. N represents the number of species (n=488 in 2005, n=814 in 2018).

The analysis comparing threats to species with multiple COSEWIC status reports found an average increase from 2.5 to 3.5 threats per species in newer reports. The prevalence of many threats also increased significantly over time, including a 27.6% increase in introduced species, a 13.3% increase in over-exploitation, and a 10.1% increase in pollution. Mentions of the threat of climate change also increased from 11.7% in the oldest reports to 49.5% in the newest reports.

Why is this study important? This study reveals that threats to biodiversity continue to increase today, despite protections that have been put in place. In particular, the threat of introduced species has increased significantly in recent years, reflecting rises in globalization and human-environmental interactions. Overall, researchers were surprised by the relatively low percentage of species currently impacted by climate change (13.3%), as this topic has gained so much global attention. The authors suggested the unexplained increase in death by natural causes compared to the Venter et al. report may actually account for impacts from climate change, as climate change has increased the severity of storms, droughts, and other weather events worldwide.

The big picture: This study emphasizes the importance of wildlife conservation, in Canada and all over the world. On-going threats such as habitat loss, pollution and overexploitation continue to impact hundreds of species in Canada, so it is likely that stricter protections are needed to enact effective change. Additionally, this study indicates that climate change is among the most significant threats to biodiversity and is projected to continue increasing in prevalence in the future. Although it was not considered to be one of the six primary threats by Venter et al. in 2005, it should definitely be recognized as one today.

Citation: Woo-Durand, C., Matte, J.-M., Cuddihy, G., McGourdji, C. L., Venter, O., & Grant, J. W. A. (2020). Increasing importance of climate change and other threats to at-risk species in Canada. Environmental Reviews, 28(4), 449–456.

From Lynx to Coyotes: How Climate Change Has Impacted Hare Predation

Climate change increases predation risk for a keystone species of the boreal forest

By: Michael J.L. Peers, Yasmine N. Majchrzak, Allyson K. Menzies, Emily K. Studd, Guillaume Bastille-Rousseau, Rudy Boonstra, Murray Humphries, Thomas S. Jung, Alice J. Kenney, Charles J. Krebs, Dennis L. Murray, and Stan Boutin

Summarized by: Anna Geldert

What data were used? Researchers observed 321 snowshoe hares in southwestern Yukon from 2015-2018. Researchers also monitored changes in weather and snow conditions within the study region, including temperature, snow depth, snow hardness and daily snowfall.

Methods: Hares were captured in live traps and given collars with mortality sensors before being released back into the wild. In the event of hare death, researchers visited the site to identify any predators responsible for the death by looking for tracks, scat, and other indicators in the surrounding area. Researchers recorded data on weather and snow conditions at three different sites throughout the study region on a nearly daily basis, as well as at each kill site. They then used a computer model to compare the likelihood of hare death under different weather conditions (e.g., temperature, snow depth, and snow hardness), and generated a best fit line to model these relationships. Similar models compared weather conditions to hare predation from lynx and coyote, hare death by age group, and hare foraging time by age group. The models were tested by inputting randomized data and estimating uncertainty.

Results: Researchers found that 153 hares died of predation. Lynx and coyote were the most common predators, accounting for 59.4% and 25.5% of deaths respectively. Hare survival was lowest in 2015-2016, countering the predicted increase in hare populations based on predator-prey cycles. Low survival rates were correlated with shallow snow depth and high snow hardness. . The relationships between hare survival and these weather conditions are most likely due to changes in predator threats, not changes in foraging behavior. While lynx predation remained relatively constant across a wide range of snow conditions, coyote predation increased by a factor of 1.155 with higher snow depth and 1.244 with lower snow hardness.

The figure graphs the relationship between snow depth and hare predation risk by lynx and coyotes. The x-axis is labeled “snow depth (cm),” and ranges from 20 to 70, increasing at intervals of 10. The y-axis is labeled “risk (relative to baseline),” and ranges from 0 to 15, increasing at intervals of 5. A legend indicates that the purple line represents risk from lynx while the red line represents risk from coyotes. At a risk measurement of 1, a dotted line runs horizontally (slope=0) across the graph; this represents baseline risk. The risk from lynx almost exactly coincides with the baseline risk, indicating that snow depth has little impact. On the other hand, the risk for coyote has an inverse relationship with snow depth. At a snow depth of 20 centimeters (the lowest depth represented), risk from coyotes is approximately 10. The risk line then decreases exponentially, crossing the baseline risk at approximately 35 centimeters and plateauing close to a risk of zero around 50 centimeters.
Fig. 1. Hare predation risk by lynx and coyotes at different snow depths. The dotted line represents a baseline risk, while shaded regions represent standard errors.

Why is this study important? This study is an important example of the cascading effects that climate change can have on ecosystems in the boreal forest. Increasing temperatures due to climate change have altered traditional snow conditions in the Yukon, leading to lower snow depth and snow hardness in recent years. Coyotes – who, unlike lynx, are not well adapted to harsh winters – have gained a relative advantage in these milder conditions, leading to increased hare predation. Risk has increased so much, in fact, that they disrupted the natural rise and fall of hare populations due to existing predator-prey cycles. If these trends continue, they could potentially impact other aspects of boreal forest ecosystems.

The big picture: It is widely recognized that climate change threatens the survival of many species and ecosystems around the globe. However, this is most often talked about in terms of direct threats, such as increasing temperature, increasing severe weather conditions, etc. This article demonstrates that a further concern, particularly in boreal forests, is the impact of changing climatic conditions on food webs and predation threats. Further research is needed to determine if the changing predator-prey relationships between hares and coyotes in this study are consistent in other regions of boreal forest, and whether similar trends are reflected in other biomes as well.

Citation: Peers, M. J. L., Majchrzak, Y. N., Menzies, A. K., Studd, E. K., Bastille-Rousseau, G., Boonstra, R., … Boutin, S. (2020). Climate change increases predation risk for a keystone species of the boreal forest. Nature Climate Change, 10(12), 1149–1153.

How climate change is affecting Pacific species

Assessing the vulnerability of marine life to climate change in the Pacific Islands region

Giddens J, Kobayashi DR, Mukai GNM, Asher J, Birkeland C, Fitchett M, et al.

Summarized by Habiba Rabiu, a student of environmental geosciences at Fort Hays State University. Habiba is interested in all aspects of environmental science and conservation & sustainability. She would like to work in educating others about those topics. In her free time, she likes to read, write, and bake.

What data were used? The researchers assessed 83 species grouped into six functional groups based on range size and habitat: pelagic, shark, deep-slope, coastal, coral reef, and invertebrate species. The “coral reef” group of fishes contained many species, so it was further divided into JEGS (Jacks, Emperors, Groupers, Snappers), parrotfishes, surgeon fishes, and “other coral reef” fishes. The species were chosen based on expert opinion, importance of their ecosystem function, records of food fish, and cultural and conservation importance. The species came from a wide range of locations in the Central, West, and South Pacific Ocean. 

To determine the climate change vulnerability of the species, the researchers considered two components: exposure and sensitivity. Exposure was defined as to what degree an organism is likely to experience a negative change in a particular physical variable. Sensitivity was considered a biological trait-based variable, which the researchers determined by review of existing literature and expert opinion. 

Methods: To assess exposure, data from various sources was compiled based on certain variables that were the most significant for species living in the Pacific Islands Region: temperature (surface and bottom), salinity (surface and bottom), ocean acidification (pH), mixed layer depth, precipitation, current velocity, wind stress, surface oxygen, sea level rise, wave height, chlorophyll, and primary productivity. To determine sensitivity, experts were asked to identify the six most important sensitivity attributes for each species out of 12: habitat specificity; prey specificity, complexity in reproductive strategy, sensitivity to ocean acidification, early life history survival and settlement requirements, dispersal of early life stages, sensitivity to temperature, population growth rate, stock size/status, adult mobility, spawning cycle, and other stressors (including habitat degradation, pollution, disease, or changes in the food web). 

For each species, a component score was calculated for both exposure and sensitivity based on the number of factors/attributes that passed a certain threshold. Then, the overall climate change vulnerability rank was calculated by multiplying the exposure and sensitivity component scores. The numerical values for the climate vulnerability rank were the following: 1–3 (low), 4–6 (moderate), 8–9 (high), and 12–16 (very high).

Grid where each square shows what percentage of a species is considered “moderate”, “high”, or “very high” in vulnerability. The squares are shown in greyscale, with 0% being white and 100% being black. Approximate values: Pelagic: 90% moderate, 10% high Shark: 10% moderate, 30% high, 60% very high Deep slope: 60% moderate, 40% high Coastal: 100% moderate Coral reef JEGS: 80% moderate, 20% high Coral reef parrotfish: 60% moderate, 30% high, 10% very high Coral reef surgeonfish: 25% moderate, 75% high “Other” coral reef: 65% moderate, 25% high, 10% very high Invertebrate: 10% moderate, 30% high, 60% very high
The percentage of species within the group that fell within each vulnerability ranking.

Results: All species ranked “very high” in the overall exposure component of vulnerability. It was determined that this was caused by three influences: decrease in oxygen concentration, rise in sea surface temperature, and increase in ocean acidification (decrease in surface pH). In the sensitivity component, it was found that the groups that were made up of larger-bodied species shared similar sensitivity scores, while the groups with smaller and site-attached species tended to differ.

In the overall assessment of climate change vulnerability, the species showed a wide range in vulnerability across the functional groups. The larger and more wide-ranging pelagic and coastal species were scored as the least vulnerable, while the smaller and more site-attached species (small coral reef fishes and invertebrates) were the most vulnerable. Some groups had a more general ranking across all the included species (for example in the coastal group all the species were ranked as “moderate”), while in others there was a wider distribution across vulnerability rankings. 

Why is this study important? Most studies on the effect of climate change of ocean ecosystems focus on a particular or particular type of species, or on singular factors. This study assessed many factors affecting many species, which creates a more all-encompassing view of the effects of climate change and enables focus on the ecosystem as a whole rather than looking at it in pieces. 

The big picture: Well-functioning ocean ecosystems are essential to the health of the planet, but there is still a lack of both information about the ecosystems and the organization and usage of that information. Collecting data on marine species and the environmental factors that affect them (and to what degree) is necessary to their preservation.

Citation: Giddens J, Kobayashi DR, Mukai GNM, Asher J, Birkeland C, Fitchett M, et al. (2022) Assessing the vulnerability of marine life to climate change in the Pacific Islands region. PLoS ONE 17(7): e0270930.