Life History of a Dinosaur: Maiasaura

Research published in the journal Paleobiology is showing more about the life history of Maiasaura peeblesorum than any other known dinosaur. Credit: Courtesy Holly Woodward
Research published in the journal Paleobiology is showing more about the life history of Maiasaura peeblesorum than any other known dinosaur.
Credit: Courtesy Holly Woodward

Decades of research on Montana’s state fossil — the “good mother lizard” Maiasaura peeblesorum — has resulted in the most detailed life history of any dinosaur known and created a model to which all other dinosaurs can be compared, according to new research published recently in the journal Paleobiology.

Researchers from Oklahoma State University, Montana State University and Indiana Purdue University used fossils collected from a huge bonebed in western Montana for their study.

“This is one of the most important pieces of paleontology involving MSU in the past 20 years,” said Jack Horner, curator of the Museum of the Rockies at MSU. “This is a dramatic step forward from studying fossilized creatures as single individuals to understanding their life cycle. We are moving away from the novelty of a single instance to looking at a population of dinosaurs in the same way we look at populations of animals today.”

The study was led by Holly Woodward, who did the research as her doctoral thesis in paleontology at MSU. Woodward is now professor of anatomy at Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences.

The Paleobiology study examined the fossil bone microstructure, or histology, of 50 Maiasaura tibiae (shin bones). Bone histology reveals aspects of growth that cannot be obtained by simply looking at the shape of the bone, including information about growth rate, metabolism, age at death, sexual maturity, skeletal maturity and how long a species took to reach adult size.

“Histology is the key to understanding the growth dynamics of extinct animals,” Woodward said. “You can only learn so much from a bone by looking at its shape. But the entire growth history of the animal is recorded within the bone.”

A sample of 50 might not sound like much, but for dinosaur paleontologists dealing with an often sparse fossil record, the Maiasaura fossils are a treasure trove.

“No other histological study of a single dinosaur species approaches our sample size,” Woodward said.

With it, the researchers discovered a wealth of new information about how Maiasaura grew up: it had bird-level growth rates throughout most of its life, and its bone tissue most closely resembled that of modern day warm-blooded large mammals such as elk.

Major life events are recorded in the growth of the bones and the rates at which different-aged animals died.

“By studying the clues in the bone histology, and looking at patterns in the death assemblage, we found multiple pieces of evidence all supporting the same timing of sexual and skeletal maturity,” said Elizabeth Freedman Fowler, curator of paleontology at the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum in Malta and adjunct professor at MSU, who performed the mathematical analyses for the study.

Sexual maturity occurred within the third year of life, and Maiasaura reached an average adult mass of 2.3 tonnes in eight years. Life was especially hard for the very young and the old. The average mortality rate for those less than a year of age was 89.9 percent, and 44.4 percent for individuals 8 years and older.

If Maiasaura individuals could survive through their second year, they enjoyed a six-year window of peak physical and reproductive fitness, when the average mortality rate was just 12.7 percent.

“By looking within the bones, and by synthesizing what previous studies revealed, we now know more about the life history of Maiasaura than any other dinosaur and have the sample size to back up our conclusions,” Woodward said. “Our study makes Maiasaura a model organism to which other dinosaur population biology studies will be compared.”

The 50 tibiae also highlighted the extent of individual size variation within a dinosaur species. Previous dinosaur studies histologically examined a small subset of dinosaur bones and assigned ages to the entire sample based on the lengths of the few histologically aged bones.

“Our results suggest you can’t just measure the length of a dinosaur bone and assume it represents an animal of a certain age,” Woodward said. “Within our sample, there is a lot of variability in the length of the tibia in each age group. It would be like trying to assign an age to a person based on their height because you know the height and age of someone else. Histology is the only way to quantify age in dinosaurs.”

Horner, a coauthor on the research and curator of the Museum of the Rockies at MSU where the Maiasaura fossils are reposited, discovered and named Maiasaura in 1979. He made headlines by announcing the world’s first discovery of fossil dinosaur embryos and eggs. Based on the immature development of the baby dinosaur fossils found in nests, Horner hypothesized that they were helpless upon hatching and had to be cared for by parents, so naming the dinosaur Maiasaura, Latin for “good mother lizard.”

Studies that followed revealed aspects of Maiasaura biology including that they were social and nested in colonies; Maiasaura walked on two legs when young and shifted to walking on all four as they got bigger; their preferred foods included rotting wood; and that their environment was warm and semi-arid, with a long dry season prone to drought.

The tibiae included in the Paleobiology study came from a single bonebed in western Montana covering at least two square kilometers. More than 30 years of excavation and thousands of fossils later, the bonebed shows no signs of running dry. Woodward plans to lead annual summer excavations of the Maiasaura bonebed to collect more data.

“Our study kicks off The Maiasaura Life History Project, which seeks to learn as much as possible about Maiasaura and its environment 76 million years ago by continuing to collect and histologically examine fossils from the bonebed, adding statistical strength to the sample,” she said.

“We plan to examine other skeletal elements to make a histological ‘map’ of Maiasaura, seeing if the different bones in its body grew at different rates, which would allow us to study more aspects of its biology and behavior. We also want to better understand the environment in which Maiasaura lived, including the life histories of other animals in the ecosystem,” she added.

The Maiasaura Life History Project will also provide opportunities for college-aged students accompanying Woodward in her excavations to learn about the fields of ecology, biology and geology, thereby encouraging younger generations to pursue careers in science.

In addition to Woodward, Horner and Freedman Fowler, James Farlow, professor emeritus of Geology at Indiana Purdue University, contributed to the Paleobiology paper.

Story Source:

The above post is reprinted from materials provided by Montana State University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. Holly N. Woodward, Elizabeth A. Freedman Fowler, James O. Farlow, John R. Horner. Maiasaura, a model organism for extinct vertebrate population biology: a large sample statistical assessment of growth dynamics and survivorship. Paleobiology, 2015; 1 DOI: 10.1017/pab.2015.19

Tales from a Martian rock: Clues to planet’s history of habitability

The surface of Mars was once wet, but no water flows there now. UC San Diego chemists and others took a close look at meteorite that may have been blasted from this huge rift across the planet’s surface. The image is a composite of hundreds of photos taken by NASA’s Viking missions in the 1970s. Credit: USGS, NASA

[dropcap]A[/dropcap] new analysis of a Martian rock that meteorite hunters plucked from an Antarctic ice field 30 years ago this month reveals a record of the planet’s climate billions of years ago, back when water likely washed across its surface and any life that ever formed there might have emerged.

Scientists from the University of California, San Diego, NASA and the Smithsonian Institution report detailed measurements of minerals within the meteorite in the early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last December.

“Minerals within the meteorite hold a snapshot of the planet’s ancient chemistry, of interactions between water and atmosphere,” said Robina Shaheen, a project scientist at UC San Diego and the lead author of the report.

The unlovely stone, which fell to Earth 13 thousand years ago, looked a lot like a potato and has quite a history. Designated ALH84001, it is the oldest meteorite we have from Mars, a chunk of solidified magma from a volcano that erupted four billion years ago. Since then something liquid, probably water, seeped through pores in the rock and deposited globules of carbonates and other minerals.

The carbonates vary subtly depending on the sources of their carbon and oxygen atoms. Both carbon and oxygen occur in heavier and lighter versions, or isotopes. The relative abundances of isotopes forms a chemical signature that careful analysis and sensitive measurements can uncover.

Mars’s atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide but contains some ozone. The balance of oxygen isotopes within ozone are strikingly weird with enrichment of heavy isotopes through a physical chemical phenomenon first described by co-author Mark Thiemens, a professor of chemistry at UC San Diego, and colleagues 25 years ago.

“When ozone reacts with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, it transfers its isotopic weirdness to the new molecule,” said Shaheen, who investigated this process of oxygen isotope exchange as a graduate student at the University of Heidelberg in Germany. When carbon dioxide reacts with water to make carbonates, the isotopic signature continues to be preserved.

The degree of isotopic weirdness in the carbonates reflects how much water and ozone was present when they formed. It’s a record of climate 3.9 billion years ago, locked in a stable mineral. The more water, the smaller the weird ozone signal.

This team measured a pronounced ozone signal in the carbonates within the meteorite, suggesting that although Mars had water back then, vast oceans were unlikely. Instead, the early Martian landscape probably held smaller seas.

“What’s also new is our simultaneous measurements of carbon isotopes on the same samples. The mix of carbon isotopes suggest that the different minerals within the meteorite had separate origins,” Shaheen said. “They tell us the story of the chemical and isotopic compositions of the atmospheric carbon dioxide.”

ALH84001 held tiny tubes of carbonate that some scientists saw as potential evidence of microbial life, though a biological origin for the structures has been discarded. On December 16, NASA announced another potential whiff of Martian life in the form of methane sniffed by the rover Curiosity.

Carbonates can be deposited by living things that scavenge the minerals to build their skeletons, but that is not the case for the minerals measured by this team. “The carbonate we see is not from living things,” Shaheen said. “It has anomalous oxygen isotopes that tell us this carbonate is abiotic.”

By measuring the isotopes in multiple ways, the chemists found carbonates depleted in carbon-13 and enriched in oxygen-18. That is, Mars’s atmosphere in this era, a period of great bombardment, had much less carbon-13 than it does today.

The change in relative abundances of carbon and oxygen isotopes may have occurred through extensive loss of Martian atmosphere. A thicker atmosphere would likely have been required for liquid water to flow on the planet’s chilly surface.

“We now have a much deeper and specific insight into the earliest oxygen-water system in the solar system,” Thiemens said. “The question that remains is when did planets, Earth and Mars, get water, and in the case of Mars, where did it go? We’ve made great progress, but still deep mysteries remain.”

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of California – San Diego. The original article was written by Susan Brown. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. Robina Shaheen, Paul B. Niles, Kenneth Chong, Catherine M. Corrigan, and Mark H. Thiemens. Carbonate formation events in ALH 84001 trace the evolution of the Martian atmosphere. PNAS, December 22, 2014 DOI:10.1073/pnas.1315615112