STL Science Center

STL Science Center

09 February 2019

Fancy Pets

The "Mexican Walking Fish" (Ambystoma mexicanum) is probably one of the first non-mammalian animals that I ever interacted with (aside from actual fish) in an extended capacity. My mother was tasked with feeding the Ambystoma in one of Indiana University Bloomington's biology research labs back in the late 1980's. This is also where I first hung out (I was maybe 8 so "was tolerated" may be a better description) with graduate students and learned how to play Tetris, but those are stories for another time. We generally do not call Ambystoma Mexican Walking Fish, which is good because in the traditional nomenclature sense they are actually salamanders and not fish at all. Most know them as those strangely adorable pink aquatic pets known as Axolotl.

The story of Axolotl is amazing, endearing, and almost somewhat ridiculous; but we are not going to learn much more about Axolotl today as they are a means to an end for us here. I will share that they love uncooked beef liver. Also, I was inspired to talk about them today because a friend that works at the Boston Museum of Science shared a post about an upcoming exhibit featuring these adorable little salamanders. Salamanders in general are fairly recognizable by most, though there is sometimes confusion over names (e.g. newt vs. salamander) and appearance (think Axolotl vs. any other generic "salamander" that comes to mind). We could discuss how newts are salamanders and why Axolotl look different from Tiger Salamanders (which they are closely related to), but we are going to talk, now that we all have a picture of salamanders in our heads, about fossil salamanders from the Permian known as Apateon.

Senckenberg Museum of Frankfurt
Photo  by Ghedoghedo

Often preserved as flat impressions on slabs, these Permian temnospondyls are primitive amphibians that, like the Axolotl, are neotenic; meaning that they retain juvenile traits, such as the external gills seen in Axolotls, in their mature adult forms. This is often referred to as pedomorphosis also. Researchers have shown that these traits are retained in large numbers of these animals and they were so populous that we have a wide swath of ontogenetic or life cycle examples of animals in this genus to show that we are not just looking at odd young from many different groups. We have, of course, living examples to draw from as well. Many interesting things are known from these fossils, but probably one of the most intriguing things, to me, is the number of large group fossils and the detail in both the large group fossil assemblages and single animal fossil slabs that exist for Apateon. The genus Apateon actually consists of 7 species with Apateon pedestris von Meyer 1840 containing the holotype for the genus. As with many exquisitely preserved slab fossils, Apateon was originally discovered in Germany, a country with a rich history of excellent freshwater fossil diversity and preservation, and specimens have been dated from 295.0 to 290.1 million years ago.

Apateon pedestris Natural History Museum, Bonn University
Photo by Ghedoghedo

The skeleton of these Permian amphibians can be seen in this image from the Natural History Museum of Bonn University, which is actually quite a feat. The skeletons of Apateon are very weakly ossified, so the identifiable vertebrae, ribs, and limbs are truly exceptional and speak directly to the preservation of the fossil. Additionally, the orbits are fairly identifiable and, because we can see where the eyes would have been, we can see that the snout and the area of the skull directly caudal, or behind the eyes, are very short. We can say that Apateon had a very small head rostrocaudally (front to back) but also a very wide skull and very large eyes. If we turn our attention to those limbs we can just make out the digits. We know from more splayed out fossils of the limbs that there were four digits on the forelimb (on the "hand") and the hindlimb as well.

02 February 2019

Groundhog Day

In 2014 a fossil skull from Madagascar introduced us to a "groundhog-like" mammal of the Late Cretaceous. The animal was named Vintana sertichi in Krause et. al, 2014. This mammal was estimated to weigh approximately 9.1 kg (20 lbs) and was relatively short, as we can see in Nobu Tamura's reconstruction below. Flanges found in the skull are not well understood and appear to have no homologous structure in modern relatives, but their purpose could still be discovered with more discoveries of the fossils or further investigation into the family as a whole. Regardless, the endocast of the brain did reveal very large olfactory bulbs. We know from this that Vintana had a good sense of smell and likely used this trait actively and frequently in its normal day to day life. It may seem that a single skull of a small mammal is not that important, however, mammologists and mammal paleontologists think this skull is pretty amazing. The reason that they feel this way is because this fossil skull represents possibly the best preserved skull of any gondwanatheres; a group of southern hemisphere cynodonts that lived from the Cretaceous to the Miocene. Actually, another interesting facet of Vintana is that, though it was discovered in Madagascar off the east coast of the African continent, it belongs to the mammalian sudamericidae family which translates literally to the South American family of mammals. In fairness, a largenumber of gondwanatheres belong to this family and have been discovered in Africa, making Vintana not the first and probably not the last
©Nobu Tamura