Anthropologists help solve mystery of 250 million-year-old strange bedfellows

Jul 17, 2013
An artist's rendering reimagines the injured amphibian entering the burrow of the resting early mammal Thrinaxodon liorhinus.

(Phys.org) —They were strange bedfellows in a 250 million-year-old burrow: the sleeping, cat-size mammal forerunner Thrinaxodon liorhinus and the slightly smaller amphibian Broomistega putterilli that crawled in after, suffering from labored breathing caused by fractures on seven ribs.

An international team of scientists that includes two Indiana University anthropologists said the unique mixed-species association ended abruptly when a tidal rush of wet sand entombed the two in South Africa's Karoo region shortly after the geologic event known as the Great Dying. The team also confirmed the first of any species of the rare amphibian's order (Temnospondyli) to be found in a burrow.

Mammal-like and carnivorous, T. liorhinus was the initial resident of the burrow. It was likely aestivating—in a self-induced state of torpor used by mammals to survive hot, —when B. putterilli visited in search of a protective retreat after having suffered a single, crushing blow to the thorax. For brevity, the researchers identify the two in conversation as "Broom" and "Thrin."

"Half the ribs on one of the Broom's ribcage were broken and in various stages of healing," IU anthropology professor Della Collins Cook said. "Breathing and walking would have been painful, and the Broom must have lived with these injuries for several weeks."

Collaborating with the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France, the team transported the burrow cast, which had resided at the University of the Witwatersrand since its collection in 1975, to Grenoble for scanning. After reconstructing digital images, they were able to determine the general health and age of the two animals, their exact positions in the burrow, and the influences that several flooding events had on their condition.

A 3-D image shows the two animals viewed from above, with the amphibian Broomistega putterilli on top and with belly up, and the mammal forerunner below it, curled up with belly and side down.

A synchrotron uses magnetic fields to bend accelerated electron beams and convert high-energy electron energy into bright X-ray radiation. It is useful in fields as diverse as earth science, paleontology, chemistry and protein crystallography. In this case, the researchers were able to scan the large fossilized burrow cast in a nondestructive way, unveiling the rare example of cohabitation by two different animals within the very sediments in which they were entombed.

"Recent developments in synchrotron imaging are offering new opportunities to visualize burrow contents that facilitate a more thorough understanding of the lifestyle of ancient organisms, including therapsids, and specifically cynodonts such as Thrin that eventually gave rise to mammals," said Kristian J. Carlson, a senior researcher and research associate in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Anthropology.

"Cohabitation by different species is difficult to interpret, particularly in the fossil record when behavioral information of the host and the intruder are not directly observable," he added.

In this case, the researchers surmise, T. liorhinus—"Thrin"—may have tolerated the arrival of the injured amphibian because of its semi-conscious state during active aestivation.

The team noted no evidence of T. liorhinus having attacked the amphibian. Based on modern comparative examples of cohabitation, the profile of these two types of animals was not consistent with conscious toleration by the host Thrin.

Either way, the two died either slightly before or during a rapid flooding event that quickly deposited a layer of sand that encased and nearly covered them sometime after the Permian-Triassic extinction (the Great Dying) when 9 of 10 marine species and 7 of 10 land species vanished from the planet.

Lead author on the paper with Carlson and Cook was Vincent Fernandez of Witwatersrand. Additional co-authors were Fernando Abdala, Bruce S. Rubidge and Adam Yates, all also of Witwatersrand, and Paul Tafforeau of the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility. Carlson is also affiliated with Witwatersrand, Fernandez with the ESRF, and Yates with the Museum of Central Australia in Alice Springs, Australia.

Carlson, who received his M.A. and Ph.D. in anthropology at IU Bloomington, made international news in 2010 as part of a Witwatersrand-based team of scientists that announced discovery of a new species of fossil hominin, Australopithecus sediba, which was suggested to be ancestral to genus Homo. He then led research more closely examining brain development in the 2 million-year-old hominin.

Explore further: Short-necked Triassic marine reptile discovered in China

Related Stories

Human brain evolution, new insight through X-rays

Sep 08, 2011

A paper published today in Science reveals the highest resolution and most accurate X-ray scan ever made of the brain case of an early human ancestor. The insight derived from this data is like a powerful ...

Australopithecus Sediba could be direct ancestor of Homo

Apr 20, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- Last year Lee Berger from the University of the Witwatersrand and his team discovered the skeletal remains of two specimens they determined to be a new species of human called Australopithecus se ...

Recommended for you

Short-necked Triassic marine reptile discovered in China

Dec 17, 2014

A new species of short-necked marine reptile from the Triassic period has been discovered in China, according to a study published December 17, 2014 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Xiao-hong Chen f ...

Gothic cathedrals blend iron and stone

Dec 17, 2014

Using radiocarbon dating on metal found in Gothic cathedrals, an interdisciplinary team has shown, for the first time through absolute dating, that iron was used to reinforce stone from the construction phase. ...

Research shows Jaws didn't kill his cousin

Dec 16, 2014

New research suggests our jawed ancestors weren't responsible for the demise of their jawless cousins as had been assumed. Instead Dr Robert Sansom from The University of Manchester believes rising sea levels ...

User comments : 4

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

billyc69
1 / 5 (10) Jul 17, 2013
The 'great event' was actually called the Great Flood and evidence show us it was world wide!

Funny how 6 major worldwide cultures all have a flood story with one surviving family

but none have a story of how life spontaneously appeared from rain on a rock!

Still a shill for the religion of Darwin?

His only degree in Theology! Makes you all religious boobs! LOL!
rug
3.7 / 5 (6) Jul 17, 2013
"The 'great event' was actually called the Great Flood and evidence show us it was world wide!"

You are obviously trying to say the " Permian-Triassic extinction (the Great Dying)" was the flood that described in the overly translated and modified book some people decided is the word of "God". The question I have for you is why would that killed "9 of 10 marine species "? Oh yeah, that's right, your book never covers that does it?

"Funny how 6 major worldwide cultures all have a flood story with one surviving family
but none have a story of how life spontaneously appeared from rain on a rock!"

Hmm, lets see, stories get passed from one area to another. Someone new comes around the first thing we do is swap stories. It has always been that way and most likely will always be. Now the question for you. How would anyone have a story of how life got started when there was no one around to see it happen,because there was no life!

Then you have the nerve to call anyone a "religious boob"?
Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
5 / 5 (5) Jul 17, 2013
Since when was mainstream biology a "religion"? I dare anyone to come up with magical thinking within science. On the other hand:

- "the Great Flood". Pattern match, magical and/or pseudoscience thinking. Acceptance of a myth as potentially having a map to reality instead of being entirely made up. Rejection of archaeological and historical evidence that conclusively shows that it was entirely made up.
- "6 major worldwide cultures all have a flood story with one surviving family". Pattern match. Acceptance of myth. Rejection of history, where myths and especially religions evolve from each other, like languages do.
- "none have a story of how life spontaneously appeared from rain on a rock!" Rhetoric by strawman, a theological tool. Not having studied and understood his own myths, where humans appeared magically (spontaneously, for an observer) from wet mineral (clay), another religious tool.

Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
5 / 5 (5) Jul 17, 2013
That most gall me with creationists, as I'm interested in astrobiology, is their total ignorance of the science they try to criticize. So they criticize it much less efficiently than the internal criticism of scientists themselves, where all valid arguments have been seen before.

And trust me, no valid criticism has ever been produced by creationists, despite their flawed thinking that effective criticism would somehow make _their_ idea valid.

For example, is the process of chemical to biological evolution "spontaneous"? No, of course not, variation and selection among chemical populations are as valid as within biological! And indeed, thermodynamics are as valid as within metabolism: it is now known that free energy of activated nucleotides will crystallize a replicator strand out of an non-ordered strand "gas" in ~ 30 ky. You can not *not* have life when you have alkaline hydrothermal vents around, who produce, concentrate and cycle such organics by remelting RNA duplex strands.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.