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Study Says Dinosaurs Were Dying Off Long Before Massive Asteroid Hit Earth

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Your mental folder of dinosaur facts may need to be updated soon. Most people are taught at a young age that dinosaurs went extinct when a large asteroid struck Earth 66 million years ago, but according to new research, that may have been the last chapter of a 40-million-year-long story. As Discovery reports, a study published recently in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that dinosaurs were already on the decline for tens of millions of years before the asteroid delivered the final blow.

The researchers from the University of Bristol and the University of Reading used a statistical approach and data from the fossil record to determine that as far back as 50 million years before the asteroid, species from the three major dinosaur groups (Ornithischia, Sauropodomorpha, and Theropoda) were going extinct faster than new ones were emerging. "We were not expecting this result," lead author Manabu Sakamoto said. "While the asteroid impact is still the prime candidate for the dinosaurs' final disappearance, it is clear that they were already past their prime in an evolutionary sense."

The researchers told Discovery that there were other global factors contributing to the demise of the dinos, including changes in climate, rising seas, and the evolution of early mammals, who may have "outcompeted dinosaurs for resources, eaten their eggs, spread diseases or caused other problems for the once mighty dinos." While their numbers may have been dropping, University of Edinburg paleontologist Steve Brusatte believes that dinosaurs would have held on for some time had the asteroid not struck. "The asteroid hit at a time when dinosaurs had already been around for a long time, and had already endured their really prolific periods of evolution," he said. "But the way I see it, the dinosaur extinction still came down to the asteroid. No asteroid, no extinction."

[h/t Discovery]

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Carlos Vasquez Almazan
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Animals
5 Rediscovered Species That Made Headlines In 2017
Carlos Vasquez Almazan
Carlos Vasquez Almazan

We all thought they might be goners. Some of 2017’s best feel-good stories involved the sudden, dramatic reappearances of ultra-rare animals. One long-lost salamander crawled past a park ranger. In Australia, a little marsupial made a huge splash. And a husband/wife team identified a moth species which hadn’t been seen since the Gilded Age. Here are five thought-to-be-extinct species that were rediscovered in 2017.

1. ORIENTAL BLUE CLEARWING

Photo of the Oriental Blue Clearwing
Marta Skowron Volponi

Sometimes, the best defense is a great disguise. The oriental blue clearwing is a Malaysian moth that resembles a few of the bees and wasps in its native area. To pass itself off as a stinging insect, the creature’s evolved a bee-like color pattern. It also makes an ominous buzzing noise while flying. The species first came to scientific light in 1887, when a dead specimen was collected and shipped off to the Natural History Museum in Vienna. For 130 years, no other specimens—living or deceased—were reported. As such, scientists had no way of knowing if the oriental blue clearwing had succumbed to extinction. But now, the mystery has been put to rest.    

Marta Skowron Viloponi is a Polish entomologist (“insect expert”) at the University of Gdansk. Between 2013 and 2017, she and her husband, Paolo, photographed a handful of live oriental blue clearwings in southern Malaysia. After a DNA test confirmed that they had, indeed, rediscovered this long-lost species, the Viloponis announced their big find to the world in a paper published on November 24, 2017.

2. VANZOLINI'S BALD-FACED SAKI

A rare, New World monkey, the Vanzolini's bald-faced saki monkey is exceptionally good at playing hide and seek. Scientists first identified the dark-haired species in 1936, then it fell off our collective radar. While some dead specimens turned up in 1956, no confirmed sightings of a live monkey were made until this past February.

Ten months ago, a team set out to find proof of the Vanzolini's bald-faced saki's continued existence. Included in the quest were seven primatologists, multiple guides, some photographers, and even a couple of drone operators. Using a two-story houseboat as their mobile base of operations, the crew traveled through the Amazon basin. Their efforts were rewarded with multiple saki encounters along the Juruá, Tarauacá, and Liberdade Rivers. Unfortunately, the team was also reminded of the manmade challenges facing this species: There’s an abundance of logging sites within the animal’s current range and some local communities harvest monkey meat on a regular basis. As primatologist Laura Marsh, who headed the expedition, put it, “if no further controls on hunting and forest clearing are put into place… the saki’s conservation status may become critical.”

3. CREST-TAILED MULGARA

An illustration of the Crest-tailed Mulgara
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Like many Australian critters, crest-tailed mulgaras have suffered at the hands of invasive animals. The tiny, rodent-like marsupials are now at the mercy of cats, foxes, and other introduced species. Fossil evidence tells us that the mulgaras used to be a common sight Down Under, but those foreign mammals really drove their numbers down. Although a living population is at large in the state of South Australia, it was assumed that the creature must’ve long-since died out in neighboring New South Wales.

Happily, this isn’t the case. On December 15, the University of New South Wales, Sydney sent out a press release confirming that—for the first time in recorded history—a crest-tailed mulgara had been found within state lines. Specifically, a lone female was caught in Sturt National Park by a research team affiliated with the school. After taking some measurements, the scientists set her free.

4. JACKSON’S CLIMBING SALAMANDER

Jackson's climbing salamander
Carlos Vasquez Almazan

During a 1975 expedition into the forests of Guatemala, herpetologists Paul Elias and Jeremy Jackson discovered three then-unknown salamander species. One of these, the Jackson’s climbing salamander, was a vibrant yellow creature whose appearance earned it the nickname “golden wonder.” Yet, eye-catching as it is, the animal has proven quite elusive. In fact, after Jackson and Elias identified the critter in ’75, nobody would see one again for another 42 years. The situation looked especially hopeless in 2014, when Jackson and Elias themselves went on a follow-up trip through the same area. Though they carefully retraced the steps they’d taken decades earlier, not a single “golden wonder” was spotted this time.

Then along came a park ranger on a lunch break. In 2015, an international group known as Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC) helped establish the Finca San Isidro Amphibian Reserve in western Guatemala. Earlier this year, one of the rangers there—27-year old Ramos León-Tomás—was taking a break when he noticed an attractive yellow salamander. He photographed it and sent the pictures off to herpetologist Carlos Vasquez for identification. Sure enough, it was a Jackson’s climbing salamander. According to CBS Miami, León-Tomás “hopes the historic find will bring added recognition and pay for the guards at the reserve.”

5. TÁCHIRA ANTPITTA

Táchira Antpitta
Jhonathan Miranda

For the record, that’s pronounced “TAH-chee-rah ant-pit-ah.” It’s a little brown songbird named after a state in Venezuela. In 1955 and 1956, ornithologists discovered this species near the country’s Colombian border, and that’s the last anyone saw of it for a long while. Because no other sightings or encounters were announced over the following six decades, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) labeled the Táchira antpitta “critically endangered.”

This year, though, we learned about a 2016 expedition that verified that the species hasn’t perished. The trip in question was orchestrated by an international conservation partnership called the Red Siskin Initiative. Led by biologist Jhonathan Miranda, the team set out to find living specimens of near-extinct birds in western Venezuela. On the first full day of their trip, the team hit the jackpot when they became the first people to identify a Táchira antpitta’s distinctive cry since 1956. Later on, the explorers managed to photograph one of the birds. Altogether, they spotted two individuals and heard a total of four.

BONUS: THE NEW GUINEA HIGHLAND WILD DOG

A lot of controversy surrounds this animal. Scientists can’t reach a consensus on how the New Guinea highland wild dog should be classified. Some say it’s a valid canine species, others regard it as merely a dingo subspecies, and still others write off the creature as a primitive domestic dog breed.

In any event, the pooch is world famous for its weird, high-pitched howl. The first western scientist to learn of its existence was English zoologist Charles Walter Di Vis, who came across one on Mount Scratchley in Papua New Guinea back in 1897. A handful of these dogs were exported in the 1950s and today, captive-bred specimens can be found in zoos from Neumünster, Germany to Kansas City, Missouri.

But what happened to their wild counterparts? One free-roaming individual was photographed on New Guinea’s Star Mountains in 1989. However, no other verified encounters with these dogs in their natural habitat were made until September 2016, when researchers used camera traps to snag 140 photographs of a wild group of at least 15 canines. The participating adventurers also documented paw prints and gathered fecal material. News of their findings was broken in a March 24, 2017 press release from the New Guinea Highland Wild Dog Foundation, a nonprofit activist group.

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Food
How Mammoth Poop Gave Us Pumpkin Pie
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When it’s time to express gratitude for the many privileges bestowed upon your family this Thanksgiving, don’t forget to be grateful for mammoth poop. The excrement of this long-extinct species is a big reason why holiday desserts taste so good.

Why? Because, as Smithsonian Insider reports, tens of thousands of years ago, mammoths, elephants, and mastodons had an affinity for wild gourds, the ancestors of squashes and pumpkin. In a 2015 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a Smithsonian researcher and colleagues found that wild gourds—which were much smaller than our modern-day butternuts—carried a bitter-tasting toxin in their flesh that acted as a deterrent to some animals. While small rodents would avoid eating the gourds, the huge mammals would not. Their taste buds wouldn't pick up the bitter flavor and the toxin had no effect on them. Mammoths would eat the gourds and pass the indigestible seeds out in their feces. The seeds would then be plopped into whatever habitat range the mammoth was roaming in, complete with fertilizer.

When the mammoths went extinct as recently as 4000 years ago, the gourds faced the same fate—until humans began to domesticate the plants, allowing for the rise of pumpkins. But had it not been for the dispersal of the seeds via mammoth crap, the gourd might not have survived long enough to arrive at our dinner tables.

So as you dig into your pumpkin pie this year, be sure to think of the heaping piles of dung that made the delicious treat possible.

[h/t Smithsonian Insider]

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