Category Archives: Articles

Diomedavus, Ancient Albatross from Oligocene of Washington State

Albatrosses are a group of seabirds related to petrels that are specialized for soaring on long wings, and include the “great albatross” Diomedea, which has the largest wingspan (11+ feet) of any bird living today. (Some extinct types of seabirds (pelagornithids, not closely related to albatrosses) had estimated wingspans up to 24 feet!) A new paper describes fossils found in Washington state that add important details of the evolution of albatrosses. The material was found near Knappton in Pacific County by Burke associate and fossil collector Jim Goedert (one of the authors on the paper) and comes from two formations, the late Oligocene Lincoln Creek Formation and the middle Miocene Astoria Formation.

The Oligocene-age fossils include diagnostic material from wings, legs, and vertebrae, with additional material thought to be from the same species, including a partial pelvis. Because the anatomical details set the bird apart from any known form, the authors made it a new genus and species called Diomedavus knapptonensis. Diomedavus (“Diomedea ancestor”) was related to the modern great albatross but was much smaller and had notable differences in its wing structure.

The Miocene fossils also clearly come from some type of albatross, but don’t currently include parts that allow the ancient seabird to be rigorously compared at a species level with material known from other fossil albatrosses. Although it’s very likely that the fossils do belong to a new species, the authors have decided for now not to give it a formal scientific name and refer to it as the “Astoria Formation albatross.” The Miocene albatross was larger than the earlier Diomedavus and a bit smaller than the living black-browed albatross (Thalassarche melanophris).

Gerald Mayr & James L. Goedert (2017) Oligocene and Miocene albatross fossils from Washington State (USA) and the evolutionary history of North Pacific Diomedeidae. The Auk 134(3): 659–671

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Major New Dinosaur Finds from Montana and Alberta  

Daspletosaurus horneri, New Tyrannosaurus Relative from Montana

Tyrannosaurus rex remains the best known (and maybe the most popular) dinosaur, but the huge meat-eater had relatives that paleontologist are still discovering. The latest new member of the tyrannosaurid family was found in Montana and lived about 75 million years ago, about 10 million years before Tyrannosaurus. Paleontologist have named it Daspletosaurus horneri (in honor of Montana paleontologist Jack Horner!) and published a short description in a new scientific paper (available for free). The genus Daspletosaurus “frightful lizard” was first described from another species (Daspletosaurus torosus) that lived earlier and was found in Alberta in Canada. The new species D. horneri differs in a number of small ways from D. torosus, but may, in fact, be a direct evolutionary descendent of the earlier Alberta species, a process called anagenesis. Read More →

Jim Chatters Presents Naia’s Hard Life at Society for American Archaeology Meeting

During Jim Chatters’ presentation on March 26, NPA members and guests got an exclusive sneak preview of new discoveries coming out the Hoyo Negro underwater cave in Mexico, including some information that can’t be discussed pending formal scientific publication. One of topics that can be mentioned now was how X-rays of the bone structure of the teenage girl Naia’s skeleton reveal a hard life, with periods of nutritional stress, and evidence of pregnancy and injuries. On March 30, a few days after his NPA presentation, Chatters gave a more technical version of the Naia story at the 2017 meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in Vancouver, Canada, as reported in the journal Nature and elsewhere.   Read More →

Caroline Strömberg Gets Charles Schuchert Award

Burke Museum Curator of Paleobotany and UW professor Caroline Strömberg has received the 2017 Charles Schuchert Award from the Paleontological Society in recognition of her ground-breaking work on fossil phytoliths as a way to understand ancient plants and environments, and in particular grasses and the animals that feed on them. Phytoliths are tiny silica bodies that form in the tissues of some plants. Because phytoliths are made of mineral, they are preserved in soils when plants die and decompose, and thus may leave no other fossil traces. The microscopic shapes of phytoliths are distinctive to particular plant groups, sometimes down to the species level. However, the role they play in plants is not completely understood. Phytoliths make grasses gritty for animals to chew–according to traditional thinking, leading to the evolution of high-crowned (hypsodont) teeth that grow as they are worn away, as in horses and other grazing animals. Read More →

Extinction of Mainland and Island Mammoth Populations in Alaska 6,000 Years Ago

Duane Froese, University of Alberta, presents new research on the extinction of mammoths and other megafauna from Arctic North America.

How Baleen Evolved in Whales

A new study (that included Nicholas Pyenson from the Smithsonian and an Affiliate Curator Burke Museum) looked at the origin of baleen and how modern toothless baleen whales evolved from early toothed forms without baleen.  Baleen filter plates in whale jaws are unique among mammals, but are made of keratin similar to horns and hoofs.  The researchers reviewed the fossil evidence and looked at four possible evolutionary scenarios in which whales had both teeth and baleen at the same time or lost their teeth before they evolved baleen.  Other studies have suggested that suction feeding by toothed ancestors may have led to the development of baleen. The new study proposes that a toothless suction feeding stage may have come before baleen developed. Unfortunately, the embryonic development of tooth buds and baleen in modern whales is still not well understood.

Carlos Mauricio Peredo, Nicholas D. Pyenson and Alexandra T. Boersma (2017) Decoupling Tooth Loss from the Evolution of Baleen in Whales. Frontiers of Marine Science  4: Article 67

Major Reclassification of Dinosaurs Proposed

A team of researchers in Britain did a new analysis of hundreds of dinosaur skeletons and  have concluded that the current classification of dinosaurs into two major groups called the Saurischia (“lizard-hipped”) and Ornithischia (“bird-hipped”), first proposed in 1888, is not correct.  Read More →

Huge Skull from Alaska Supports Legends of Ancient Giant Polar Bear

An extremely large bear skull (dated to about 1,300 years ago) found in 2014 on a beach in Alaska could belong to a giant type of polar bear described in legends by Arctic people as distinct from and bigger than modern polar bears.

New Early Jurassic Marine Fossil Lagerstätte Found in Alberta

Paleontologists use the German term Lagerstätte [storage place] for fossil sites with exceptional preservation and abundant fossils. Such deposits are rare worldwide. Stonerose in Washington state is considered an example of a Lagerstätte for plant fossils.  Now a new Lagerstätte for marine animals (invertebrates and vertebrates) has been found at Ya Ha Tinda in Alberta, Canada, and dates from the same time period as similar marine fossil sites in Italy, Germany, and  Great Britain. The special preservation (including soft tissues) may be the result of low oxygen levels in the water at the time, preventing decay before the animals were buried in sediment.

Rowan C. Martindale, Theodore R. Them II, Benjamin C. Gill, Selva M. Marroquín, and Andrew H. Knoll (2017) A new Early Jurassic (ca. 183 Ma) fossil Lagerstätte from Ya Ha Tinda, Alberta, Canada. Geology 45:. 255-258, doi:10.1130/G38808.1

New Fossil Crabs From British Columbia and Oregon

Homolid crabs (known as “porter crabs” or “carrier crabs” ) are long-legged, deep water crabs that get their common name from carrying sponges, corals, and even urchins on the back of their carapace using a special pair of legs, a behavior thought to be a defense or camouflage against predators.  Their fossils have been rare from the West Coast.  A new paper names describes  a new genus of homolid crab (Cretalamoha) from the Pender Formation on Vancouver Island in British Columbia and a new species (Paromola roseburgensis) from the early Eocene Roseburg Formation in Oregon.  Another fossil homolid crab named Homola vancouverensis was found in the Eocene Hoko River Formation of Washington State and described in 2001.


Torrey Nyborg and Alessandro Garassino (2017) New Occurrences of Fossil Homolidae from the Eastern Pacific. Boletín de la Sociedad Geológica Mexicana 69(1): 135 ‒ 148