Protostega was a large sea turtle the lived in the ocean that covered Kansas and central North America 80 million years ago. New research by FHSU paleontologist Dr. Laura Wilson shows that the bone tissue microstructure (osteohistology) of Protostega reveals growth patterns similar to modern leatherback sea turtles (the largest sea turtles alive today) with rapid growth to large body size. Leatherbacks don’t have a typical reptile metabolism; they have high resting metabolic rates and can hold a body temperature higher than their surroundings. If Protostega had similar bone growth patterns to leatherbacks, it’s hypothesized they had a similar metabolism.
What’s more, for sea turtles rapid growth to adult body size also means rapid growth to reproductive maturity. Growing quickly and reproducing early are great survival strategies in an ocean filled with big bony fish, bigger sharks, and even bigger mosasaurs.
Comparing Protostega to its more basal relative Desmatochelys shows that not all protostegid sea turtles had the same growth patterns. Desmatochelys had a slower growth rate more similar to living green and loggerhead sea turtles. Rapid growth to large size evolved late within the lineage, perhaps in response to the evolution of large tylosaurid mosasaurs. Given uncertainties in the phylogenetic placement of protostegids relative to living sea turtles, it is unclear if the evolution of rapid growth rates and possible elevated metabolism is convergent with modern leatherbacks or if the two are more closely related.
Eighty-five million years ago, a seabird called Ichthyornis (which means “fish bird”) lived and died over the ocean that covered Kansas and much of central North America. With well-developed wings, hollow bones, and a body roughly the size and shape of a tern’s, Ichthyornis looked like modern birds and was clearly capable of flying. However, odd features like teeth illustrate the bird’s dinosaurian ancestry. A new study featuring Sternberg Museum fossils collected in western Kansas (and co-authored by the Curator of Paleontology, Dr. Laura Wilson) reveals just how similar and different Ichthyornis was to living birds. This research sheds new light on the details of its skeleton and supports previous hypotheses that Ichthyornis is very closely related to modern birds. The bones of forty different fossil specimens were studied, making these birds one of the better-known fossil bird species. With so many individual specimens, paleontologists can now start answering questions about how Ichthyornis lived its life and evolved as the Age of Dinosaurs came to a close.
Paleontologists and science educators at Fort Hays State University’s Sternberg Museum of Natural History were recently in the news for their contributions to Kansas paleontology. Reporter David Condos of High Plains Public Radio and Kansas New Service wrote a wonderful piece (audio and text) on Kansas paleontology featuring stories and quotes from Curator of Paleontology Dr. Laura Wilson, Paleontology Collections Manager Dr. Aly Baumgartner, and Camps Director Mr. David Levering. Check it out!
Paleo Nerds is hosted by paleoartist Ray Troll and ventriloquist David Strassman. Ray and David never lost their childhood enthusiasm for science and all things paleontology, and now share their enthusiasm through engaging interviews with paleontologists and science educators from around the world. Check out past podcasts for a spectacular line up!