Feathered Dinosaurs: Questions and Answers

Dr Maria McNamara (Image: UCC/Tomas Tyner)

Dr Maria McNamara (Image: UCC/Tomas Tyner)

BEES scientist Dr Maria McNamara is part of an international research team who published a paper on a new species of dinosaur this week. The discovery suggests that all dinosaurs were feathered. More on this story here.

How do we know how old the dinosaurs are?

The Kulinda locality is Middle to Late Jurassic in age, about 169-144 million years ago, and probably in the older part of this range, say from 169-150 million years ago. Its age is established from regional mapping in Siberia and from preliminary K/Ar dating. The Kulinda locality rocks belong to the lower part of the Ukureyksaya Formation, which covers large areas around Kulinda, and this geological formation (body of rocks with a certain thickness and geographic extent) is dated from associated plant and insect fossils which can be compared, and correlated, with fossils from other places to give the age. More exact study is needed, and perhaps some radiometric dates from the volcanic rocks at the Kulinda locality to narrow down the age range more closely.

How does the age of these specimens compare with that of other feathered dinosaurs?

The Russian feathered dinosaurs are similar in age to some of the feathered Chinese dinosaurs, such as Anchiornis from the Tiaojishan Formation in NE China. In fact, neither the Russian nor the Chinese rock formations are really well dated, and it will take further work by geologists in both China and Russia to determine the ages of the rocks better, and then to discover whether the Kulinda or Tiaojishan fossils are older.

What environments did they live in?

The Kulinda dinosaur bones are associated with abundant, well preserved fossils of plants, insect larvae, and freshwater crustaceans that suggest deposition in a low-energy, likely lacustrine, fresh-water environment. Probably Kulindadromeus fed on the plants that are found with it, including conifers, seed ferns, and horsetails. The dinosaur bones are not in the form of complete skeletons, which indicates that the bones have been transported by rivers, but not far, because some elements are associated, such as bones of an arm or leg, and the skin, bearing scales and feathers, is close to the relevant bones.

How are the ‘feathers’ preserved?

The feathers and scales are preserved as carbon-rich films on the rock. These show three types of scales on the lower legs and along the tail, and three types of feather-like structures. The carbon within the feathers and scales appears to have survived (but not necessarily the original biomolecules such as proteins), and so the fine detail of the scales and feathers is preserved with high fidelity.

Why are the feathers preserved?

Normally hair, scales, and feathers disappear during fossilization. This usually happens very early in the long road from the dead animal to the fossil. After the dinosaur died, its carcass would have been picked over by scavengers, including flesh-eating dinosaurs, and perhaps some early mammals, as well as insects. These might well remove all flesh from the bones over a week or so. In the case of the Kulinda dinosaurs, their carcasses did not undergo this scavenging phase, but they were probably washed away by a river and dumped on a slow-moving stretch, perhaps at a bend in the river. They were rapidly covered with muddy sand, and, together with plant and other debris, quickly buried. The mud seems to be still rich in organic matter, so this suggests that there was not a great deal of oxygen in these river-bottom sediments, and the whole site might have been black and sulphurous, so inhibiting further decay.

How important is this new locality?

The Kulinda locality opens a new window on ecosystem evolution. Middle Jurassic terrestrial sites are very rare worldwide, being known mainly from England and China so far. To find a nearly complete ecosystem, from plants to dinosaurs, is very exciting, and each group of fossils requires detailed study. The fossils are also immensely abundant – there are dozens of dinosaur individuals represented – so a detailed ecosystem reconstruction can be made. Of course, to find diverse feather types in an ornithischian dinosaur is of key importance.

How were the specimens discovered?

The site was discovered by Sofia M. Sinitsa, and her team from the Institute of Natural Resources, Ecology, and Cryology, Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, while they were conducting a geological survey in the Olov Depression along the small Kulinda River, close to Chernyshevsk village, in 2009. Four trenches were opened in the lower part of the Ukureyskaya Formation, and they found dinosaur bones. Then, they conducted a further series of excavations nearby in 2010 onwards (during the summer – winters in Siberia are not a good time for such work). In 2012, they invited Dr Pascal Godefroit from the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences , a world expert on ornithischian dinosaurs, to be involved.

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How common are ornithischians?

Ornithischians represent about half of all dinosaurs, and all of them were plant-eaters. They include unarmoured, two-legged forms that ranged in length from 1-10 m, such as Iguanodon and Lambeosaurus. The most abundant were the hadrosaurs of the Late Cretaceous. Other ornithischians sported armour of various kinds, such as the stegosaurs, with bony plates and spikes down their backs and tails, the ankylosaurs, enclosed in a chain mail of armour plates, the thick-headed pachycephalosaurs, and the ceratopsians, with bony frills over their necks and horns over their eyes and snouts. There are 300 or more species of ornithischians so far known, and they have been found worldwide. Dinosaurs are, however, rare in Russia, with only isolated finds reported from Siberia before.

What is the key significance of the new find?

The new find proves that all dinosaurs had feathers.

Up to now, feathers have been reported from numerous species of theropod dinosaurs, the flesh-eating groups, and this has confirmed a remarkable evolution in feather type and complexity through 50 million years of the Late Jurassic and Cretaceous. Feathers in theropods had begun as simple bristles that provided two functions: insulation and signalling (through bright colours and patterns). They were associated with miniaturization of the advanced theropods, called Paraves, and their wide experimentation with flight.

‘Feathers’ have been reported before in two ornithischians, Tianyulong and Psittacosaurus, but palaeontologists had been cautious about the significance of these because they appeared to be rather simple quills, and perhaps limited in extent over the body. Our new find shows that feathers occurred all over the body in a primitive ornithischian, and that there were three types of feathers, including branching, down-type feathers.

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The Ranging Behaviour of Domestic Cats

CatDid you ever wonder what your cat gets up to when you put it out?

by Sheila Murphy, School of BEES

Many animals move within characteristic areas called home ranges in the search for food, shelter, or mates. While it is not always obvious why individual animals move, particular patterns of movement can sometimes be explained. For my final year BSc Zoology research project I investigated the ranging behaviour of domestic cats. I used a combination of GPS tagging of individual cats and an online questionnaire completed by cat owners to try and determine the main factors influencing how far cats range. I hypothesised that, due to differences in habitat and lifestyle (for example, less physical barriers and competition with neighbouring cats, and less regulated eating habits), rural cats range farther and hunt more often than suburban cats.

Figure 1: Cat with tracker

Figure 1: Cat with tracker

There was a great response to the online questionnaire, with over 250 completed, providing lots of interesting information. Ten cats were tracked using a GPS tracker attached to the cat’s collar. Figure 1 shows a cat wearing the GPS tracker.

The results of this study indicate that the sex of a cat, as well as the type of area in which a cat lives, are significant influences on how often a cat is seen with prey and how often a cat stays out at night. Responses to questionnaires showed that a higher than expected number of females was never seen with prey and a higher than expected number of males was sometimes and often seen with prey (Figure 2).

Fig2Cat owners reported that more males than females stay out at night (Figure 3).

Fig3The type of area in which a cat lives is also a significant influence on whether or not cats are observed with prey. A higher than expected proportion of rural cats was seen with prey (sometimes and often), and a higher than expected proportion of urban and suburban cats was never seen with prey (Figure 4).

Fig4The GPS results showed that cats often followed roads and pathways while out and about (Figure 5). The majority of cat owners commented that their cat was most active at night and that cats from multi-cat households kept different schedules to other cats in the house. Only one of the cats tracked in this study lived in a house without other animals, and it would be interesting to further investigate the influence other animals in the home have on the ranging behaviour of cats.

Tracking data also showed that rural cats travelled farther than suburban cats and that male cats travelled farther than female cats. All cats in the study were well fed so I will need further data to examine the question of food supply and distances travelled.

Fig5While a much more in-depth investigation is needed to determine exactly what impact cats are having on native wildlife, this study has successfully shown that certain factors have a significant influence on the ranging and hunting behaviour of domestic cats. As cats do not hunt only to feed, it is not too surprising that diet may not be a significant influence on hunting behaviour; keeping a cat well fed will not necessarily reduce its likelihood of killing wildlife.

I would like to extend my thanks to all the people who completed the questionnaire survey and to those who allowed me to track their cats.

This project was supervised by Dr Fidelma Butler and Dr Amy Haigh (School of BEES).

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MSc in Organic Horticulture – an inspiring year

Elaine McKeogh, a graduate of the MSc Organic Horticulture writes about her year at UCC: 

The first graduating class of the MSc Organic Horticulture

The first graduating class of the MSc Organic Horticulture

My year spent studying for an MSc in Organic Horticulture is now  complete, with the graduation ceremony held in UCC recently. It was a fantastic year, and a real luxury (in a hard work sort of way!) to have time to sit and think and talk and study about why it is that we grow the way we do, why it’s important to work with the natural resources and biodiversity around us and to minimise the impact that we have on our soils and our environment where we can.

Our type of small scale horticultural enterprise is a model for how to use the land to produce the maximum variety and quality of food without destroying wildlife or the soil on which it all depends. From a small field we are able to produce over 50 different food crops, from salads and herbs to cucumbers and chillis, as well as a variety of soft and top fruits and nuts. We have our own eggs, meat and preserves from various fruits. All in all we produce a lot of the food for our family and supply produce to many families in our area.

We use as much natural fertility from compost, manures and green manures (eg. clover, ryegrass) as possible to make the most of on-site resources. We plant flower strips, have beetle banks and nettle strips and encourage as many beneficial insects as we can, to help us manage levels of pests around our crops and provide habitats for bees. We were doing all of this before the MSc, but now it’s nice to be able to pinpoint exactly why all of this is important and helps our small piece of the planet to stay healthy and keep us healthy too!

I am very aware that we are extremely lucky to have the space in our garden to make this happen, and have also been lucky to have had fantastic teachers over the years, both in UCC (thanks Peter, Eoin and Klaus), and from the start from Jim Cronin in Bridgetown. My overall impression on reflection is that everyone should and can have a little piece of the planet producing at least some of their food for them. It doesn’t have to be a full scale farm, it doesn’t even need to be a field. If you have a corner of your garden that can be used to grow you will be amazed that in no time you can be eating several meals a week with food that has every vitamin intact, no chemical residue and has travelled a total of zero food miles. Window boxes, patio containers and even compost bags can be used to supply regular salads, herbs or a crop of potatoes if no garden space is possible. Growing can be on any scale and the food you grow yourself is the best tasting food you will ever eat. The more people who grow the more we realise how precious food is and how important it is to protect the resources that we have to make this magic happen.

With all of this in mind I am keen to share whatever I know about growing food and self-sufficiency with anyone who has an interest and would like to produce some of their own. Our Good & Green training group started recently for homegrowers who would like to learn or improve their growing skills to get reliable results for their efforts. We will run a weekly low cost training session  and support group with specific topics and advice on all of the main crops in our garden.

The debate about how we can feed the world starts in all of our own homes. We can all grow the best food for ourselves – but be warned… it’s addictive!

The MSc Organic Horticulture is now accepting applications for the academic year beginning September 2014. See here for details.

Elaine runs Good and Green in Ogonnelloe, Co Clare. More information on her work at goodandgreen.ie and a snapshot in the video below.

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Great Tit Project by Will O’Shea

One of our nest-boxes in Bandon and nest building progression from left to right over the last two weeks. The final picture is of a nest ready for eggs.

One of our nest-boxes in Bandon and nest building progression from left to right over the last two weeks. The final picture is of a nest ready for eggs.

Great tits are one of the most common bird species found in Ireland. As regular visitors to garden feeders, their scientific importance can easily be overlooked. For my PhD, I’m using great tits to investigate the impact that certain behavioural and cognitive traits have on the lives of individuals living in different habitats.

Our study is based on 8 populations in West Cork over which 305 nest-boxes are spread. From the first week in April, the boxes are closely monitored as nests progress from construction to egg laying and finally fledging of juveniles. Last year we had 83 pairs nesting in various sites, which included great tits, blue tits and coal tits. This year we’re expecting an increase on that figure, which will keep us very busy for the next few weeks!

Currently the birds in our sites are still at the nest building phase, however we’re expecting to find our first egg in the very near future. I’ll keep this blog post updated regularly with news from the nests!

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UCC Swiftboxes

nestboxes2John O’Halloran gives us the background to the UCC swiftboxes at the School of BEES.

Inspired by some photos taken by Derek Mooney in Azerbaijan of Swift nest boxes and the conservation status of this poorly known bird, we decided to erect nest boxes with webcams at the School of Biological Earth and Environmental Sciences , University College Cork .

The Common Swift Apus apus (or Swift) is a medium sized bird somewhat similar to Swallow, but much larger, a faster flier and noisier!  Soon they will arrive in Ireland and spend about three months in our cities and towns, screaming across the sky.  It is one of my strongest childhood memories of spring, when swifts used to arrive in our primary school yard and nested under the eaves of my old primary school.  I remember, as a young child, watching and listening to them as they screamed and flew into the school yard, having traveled thousands of miles from Africa, oblivious to the cacophony of children screaming in the yard.  This experience in part inspired me in my career in ornithology and zoology; the fact that these birds spend their entire lives in the air, only dropping from the sky to nest in buildings in our cities and towns since ancient Roman times.  Amazing!

nestboxFeedThese amazing birds will arrive in early May,  some weeks after our Swallows and Martins and will depart early too in August, choosing to spend their short summer in Northern Europe. Their scientific Apus apus name comes from an ancient Greek word ‘without feet’.  These birds have legs so short they are almost invisible and never choosing to land except briefly to cling to buildings to build their nests.  In fact, if they do land on the ground they are helpless and vulnerable to predation.

Back in my primary school days, I recall finding a young Swift apparently having fallen from its nest (most likely premature fledging) being helpless and picking it up and making it airborne by casting it gently to the wind.  Today many modern school yards are silent to the sound of the Swift as refurbished buildings have excluded them from nesting.  Nest boxes can replace these lost nesting habitats.

At University College Cork in collaboration with RTE’s Derek Mooney we have set up 6 swift nest boxes with web cams deployed.  We hope to attract these iconic birds to nest in these boxes in the coming days. To help attract them to the boxes we have been playing a recording of Swift calls for 24 hours, seven days a week for the last 10 days.  We hope that these recordings will attract the birds to nest in the boxes and by observing them using the nest cameras we will gain a deeper understanding of their biology and gain a glimpse of secret lives of these amazing birds.

We wait in hope!

John O’Halloran, Professor of Zoology, University College Cork

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Algarve day 7- Project work By: Katie O’Donovan

Alg4So after six long days of work I’m about to set off on my final day in the Algarve, a total scorcher much to my delight. Today is the second day of our project work. The previous day was spent setting plots in the three different habitats (grassland, woodland and matas) in our project site, which was just a short stroll from the hotel.

The day was spent with each group collecting each of the invertebrates in their respective plots. We used different capturing techniques like sweep netting, pooting, soil searching and bashing to ensure, excuse the phrase no rock was left unturned in our search for invertebrates. After all our data and weather conditions was collected, we returned to the hotel for a much deserved dip in the pool before meeting with Fildelma to get names for all the invertebrates collected.

Alg5I was extremely lucky to have the privilege of doing my project work under the wise and watchful eyes of Prof. Matthijs Schouten and Dr. Monqiue Nooren.  Before we went to Portugal Gavin said it would be hard for Matty and Monique to be able to name all the plants down to their at least species name. Unfortunately for them we are a very inquisitive class and managed to find a plant they were not able to name. As they left us with our mountain of work, we left them scratching their heads and some research work of their own to do.

Alg6Alg7

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Algarve day 7: Project day 2 (by Michael Allshire)

Alg1Monday morning brought another sleep in and a second day of work in our project groups. I had chosen to join Dr. John Quinn with the bird study group. We had spent Sunday camped out at the edge of the Alvor estuary, near the beach, observing a small flock of flamingos. We worked in pairs recording sweep scans and focal samples of their feeding and general behaviour.
After Sunday’s long day of work we had all the data we needed for the project write-up so John had decided we could afford to spend most of the day on Monday searching for some more uncommon species and take a trip back to the Lagoa dos Salgados to have a closer look at the species in the lagoon.

Alg3The day started with an unpleasant surprise, our trusty rental van had been broken into overnight! Thankfully nothing had been left inside and there was no damage to speak of. Laden down with our telescopes and tripods we loaded up the van and set off. After a few wrong turns and a long drive in the heat, we reached the lagoon.

We settled in and spent a few hours spotting from the new bird watching hide at the water’s edge. There had been word of a booted eagle, the Algarve’s largest raptor, in the area but unfortunately it never reappeared for us. We did get some fantastic views of spoonbills, a stone curlew, purple swamphens, glossy ibis and hoopoes amongst others.

Alg2Back at the hotel, we hit the pool for some well-deserved R&R in the sun. That evening everyone gathered for a slideshow of the trip’s photos and the presentation of some awards for the best of the photos. Our last night in Portugal was rounded off with a traditional meal together in a local restaurant before everyone wandered out on the town to make the most of the last night of the trip.

I honestly didn’t know what to expect from such a long field trip but the week was easily one of the best experiences I’ve had in university. You don’t really know your classmates until you’ve lived with 40 or so of them for a solid week! I’d like to thank the all of the staff that travelled with us and made the experience so valuable, particularly Prof. Schouten and Dr. Nooren who flew from the Netherlands to lend their expertise. The Algarve is truly a stunning region to study and our time there provided us with an insight into the realities of practical field work.

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Algarve day 6: Project day 1 (by Aaron Bowen)

hard at workWEBSunday saw us being split into different groups for projects, each led by a staff member who is an expert in their chosen field. Dr. John Quinn took his budding ornithologists for another bird practical.  Dr. Fidelma Butler ran a practical on beetles in the sand dunes, Dr. Ruth Ramsey and Dr. Sarah Culloty chosen to hold her practical on fowling in rocky shore ecology in the local beach, Dr. Gavin Burnel squeezed for lucky students into his rental car and drove to Salgados for a more in depth practical on the fiddler crabs. I myself elected to go with Prof. Matthijs Schouten and his talented assistant Monique to assess the floral and faunal composition of an area of abandoned farm land.

So at 11.00 am (the first lie in we have had) we departed on foot through the beautiful town on Alvor and we arrived at the farmland and where Prof. Matthijs (or Matty as I am sure he is tired of us butchering the pronunciation of his name) gave us a detailed introduction about how we will carry out the floral habitat assessment in our selected areas of Woodland, Grassland and Matos(open shrub land).

the plant that broke MattyWEB

With our heads full to the brim with information about the habitats we set to work. In our chosen zone we mapped out the area and collected all the relevant data which would be later used for our project and also collected samples of all the types of plants we could find in our area. I actually found a plant the Matty couldn’t identify, which I didn’t think was possible! He restored my faith by not only identifying all the other plants but also finding 30% more plants that I had missed on my walkthrough! We collated our data with the other groups and we left all happy with our days’ work.

What I am staggered by is how much we have learned this week. We went from a group of students who refused to even answer a question about the Algarve for fear of looking stupid to confidently identifying the soil type, type of habitat, as well as most of the plants by their Latin name! This last week has been amazing and for any second years presented with the opportunity to go on this trip it is a must!

Too enthusiastic_WEB

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ALGARVE DAY 4: Monchique (by Ciara Beausang)

AsphodelusWEBSaturday brought with it a change of scenery and an entirely new perspective on landscapes in the Algarve for 45 third year BEES students.

We travelled from the sea at Alvor,  ascending the hills and mountains of Monchique, to Mt Foia at a height of 902m. With Prof Matthijs Schouten guiding us through the wide variety of habitats encountered, we were certainly in safe hands. We made various stops along our journey and I was delighted that we got to put our few days experience identifying species in the Algarve to good use. Asphodelus was one species of flower we found in the mountain zone (pictured). We were all quite excited to see a short-toed eagle soaring overhead at the foot of the mountain. Other novel species we noticed included Geckos and Tree frogs.

Prof Matthijs Schouten with the studentsWEB

I was particularly interested hearing Prof Schouten talk about the important role of wildfires in the Monchique region. There may be up to 2000 wild fires in Portugal every year. We saw Rockrose (Cistus sp) flowers on our travels, which contain aromatic oils, and when they evaporate the plant can ignite spontaneously at a temperature of 33 C! Many species in this habitat are specially adapted to survive wildfires, for example Quercus suber (Cork Oak) has a very thick bark. Many other plant species have thick seed coats, and fire is necessary for these seeds to germinate.

It was fascinating to hear how the land use has changed in the region, and we could see this for ourselves, with plantations of Quercus suber for cork production for wine and plantations of Euclyptus which is pulped to make paper.

Before we knew it, it was time to hop back onto the bus and make our journey back down the mountain towards to sea. The first five days of this field trip have gone by so fast, our adventure will be coming to an end all too soon…

ciara beausangWEB

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ALGARVE DAY 3: BIRD PRACTICAL AND FIDDLER CRAB (by Gavin Arneill)

 

black winged stilt in courtship flightWEBToday, the 4th of April, we returned to Salgados for the morning and thankfully had the first day of constant sun and high temperatures. There were two tasks for the morning so the group was split into two.

The first group was led by Dr John Quinn where we identified and mapped the species on and around the brackish lake. The other task was led by Dr Ruth Ramsay and Dr Sarah Culloty where we constructed an Ethogram (behaviour log) on two species of our choice. This introduced everyone to scan and focal sampling. As I plan on specialising in ornithology this was my favourite part of the trip and John’s enthusiasm for the task meant that even non ‘birdy’ folk felt the same.

A few new species to us included the Greater Flamingo, Black-winged stilt, and the Purple Swamphen, and the Caspian tern. And the kestrel (a small falcon) is always nice to see, even if also common back in Ireland.

kestrelWEB

After lunch in the sun, and too many minutes watching an ant nest tackle a cracker, we were back on the bus heading for Faro. We successfully carried out the Fiddler Crab behaviour study which built on the techniques we were introduced to in the morning. The crabs showed a variety of behaviours which ranged from courtship (‘the come hither wave’ – as Dr Ruth Ramsay liked to describe it), to combat (‘aggressive open armed hug’), which were humorous to watch. It was separated into male, female and left or right handed males. It was a day for the Zoologists where everyone learnt a lot of practical field skills.

male fiddler crab arm waving to a femaleWEB

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