Three homo skulls and two thigh bones.

9 funky stories for Fossil Day

Happy Fossil Day! Here at Cosmos, we love a good yarn about fossils, from dinosaurs to ancient humans to the earliest animals on the planet. Today we celebrate the exceptionally old specimens that harken from a time past.

Here are 9 of our favourite funky fossil stories to get the old bones going!

1. Junior fossil hunters discover extinct giant penguin

Penguins in Kawhia. Credit: Simone Giovanardi.

Back in 2006, children from the Hamilton Junior Naturalist Club went on a fossil-hunting field trip and stumbled across the bones of a giant fossil penguin. Little did they know that those bones belonged to an entirely new species.

The fossilised penguin had to be cut out of the rock where it was found in Kawhia Harbour, in New Zealand (Aotearoa). It was dated to between 27–36.6 million years old, from a time when the region was underwater.

Now, researchers from Massey University in NZ have identified the bones as belonging to a 1.4-metre tall penguin – a new species.

“The penguin is similar to the Kairuku giant penguins first described from Otago but has much longer legs, which the researchers used to name the penguin waewaeroa – Te reo Māori for ‘long legs’,” says Daniel Thomas, senior author of the study, which was published in The Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology.

2. Meet Australia’s largest dinosaur

Australotitan cooperensis. Credit: Vlad Konstantinov/Scott Hocknull/Eromanga Natural History Museum

Palaeontologists have just officially named and described Australia’s biggest dinosaur – Australotitan cooperensis, the southern titan.

This colossal sauropod was as long as a basketball court (25–30 metres) and up to 6.5 metres tall at the hip. This places it in the top 15 largest dinosaurs around the globe – and makes it the largest ever found in Australia.

Nicknamed “Cooper”, the long-necked, plant-eating giant walked the earth around 90 million years ago. Fossils of this species were first discovered in 2007 in Eromanga in southwest Queensland, which used to be home to an inland sea and forested vegetation.

3. How a 310-million-year-old brain works

(A) Specimen of the fossil horseshoe crab Euproops danae from Mazon Creek, Illinois, USA, preserved with its brain intact. (B) Close-up of brain, as indicated by box in image (A). (C) Reconstruction of Euproops danae, including the position and anatomy of the brain. Image credit: Russell Bicknell.

While hard appendages like bone and shell can be preserved as fossils for millions of years, palaeontology’s enduring problem has been a dearth of soft tissues in the fossil record. As a result, there are huge knowledge gaps about the evolution of soft tissues – including internal organs like the brain – among early life.

A new study, published today in Geology, has filled one such knowledge gap, describing the preserved brain and central nervous system (CNS) of a 310-million-year-old horseshoe crab (Euproops danae) that lived during the Carboniferous Period.

Australian lead author Russell Bicknell, of the University of New England (UNE), says that the discovery is unique because brain tissues are generally only preserved in amber deposits or Cambrian Burgess-Shale deposits, both of which are limited to certain windows of prehistory.

4. Incredible ancient footprints are oldest trace of people in North America

Ancient footprints found at the New Mexico site. The tracks were dated to between 21,000 and 23,000 years old, and probably belonged to children and teenagers.Credit: National Park Service, USGS and Bournemouth University

They say that children are the future but this time they’re also the past.

Researchers have found ancient footprints in New Mexico, US, that may be the oldest traces of people in the Americas – and they may have belonged to children and teenagers.

The footprints were embedded in what was once a muddy lakeshore between 21,000 and 23,000 years ago.

5. Found: Oldest bilby and bandicoot fossils

Illustration of Bulbadon warburtonae Aldridge and image of fossil. Credit George Aldridge (Artist) and WA Museum.

A scientist from the Western Australian Museum has discovered the oldest known fossils of two iconic Australian animals – the bilby and the bandicoot – which had been kept for decades at the University of Washington, US.

Kenny Travouillon, curator of mammalogy at the Western Australian Museum, made the discovery while visiting the US as part of a Churchill Fellowship. Judd Case, of Eastern Washington University, had invited Travouillon to examine his collection of fossilised Australian animals, collected during the 1980s and 1990s. Travouillon was able to identify two new species in the collection, which turned out to be the record-breaking marsupials.

6. Fossils of extinct “giant cloud rats” found in the Philippines

Illustration showing how the three new species of fossil cloud rats might have looked. Credit: © Velizar Simeonovski, Field Museum.

Piecing together fossil remains of jaws and teeth in the Philippines, archaeologists have unearthed evidence of three new giant cloud rat species that lived in the treetops until just a few thousand years ago.

Two of the species, which come from the Phloeomyini tribe, would have been around for about 60,000 years, they report in the Journal of Mammalogy, suggesting the mammals were extremely resilient before they suddenly disappeared.

“Our records demonstrate that these giant rodents were able to survive the profound climatic changes from the Ice Age to current humid tropics that have impacted the earth over tens of millennia,” says co-author Philip Piper from the Australian National University.

“The question is, what might have caused their final extinction?”

7. World’s smallest stegosaur footprint

A stegosaur footprint from the same site (more than 30cm long), Xingjiang, China. Photo credit: Lida Xing

It’s possible the cutest fossil around.

An international team of paleontologists has discovered a single footprint of a tiny stegosaur, left 100 million years ago in what is now the Xinjiang Province in northern China.

“This footprint was made by a herbivorous, armoured dinosaur known broadly as a stegosaur – the family of dinosaurs that includes the famed stegosaurus,” says Anthony Romilio, a palaeontologist from the University of Queensland who was part of the research team.

“Like the stegosaurus, this little dinosaur probably had spikes on its tail and bony plates along its back as an adult.”

8. Zlatý kůň: The oldest human genome

Lateral view of the mostly complete skull of Zlatý kůň. Credit: Martin Frouz

Scientists have identified potentially the oldest human genome from a 45,000-year-old skull.

A team of researchers, led by Cosimo Posth from the University of Tübingen in Germany, analysed the DNA of an ancient skull belonging to a female individual called Zlatý kůň and found that she lived around 47,000 – 43,000 years ago – possibly the oldest genome identified to date.

9. Odd jobs: Paleodermatologist

Dinosaur Skin Fossil. Credit: Phil Bell

All manner of unusual jobs exist in science, but perhaps one of the most remarkable is the expertise of Phil Bell, of the University of New England. Bell is a dinosaur-skin specialist, a field so niche that he’s the only person in Australia who can claim the title.

This type of specialisation doesn’t even have a name, although Bell jokes that it could be “palaeodermatologist”.