Updated: Apr 20
As we reach the end of 2022, for better or for worse, I thought it would be great to look over some of the most exciting discoveries in paleontology of 2022! Just what it says on the tin, so let's jump right in!
Kicking off our list is the discovery of a new pterosaur, specifically a new azhdarchid. Why is Thanatosdraken amaru a cool new discovery of 2022? Well, for a start, the name literally translates to 'dragon of death', which is kick-ass. On top of that, it is now the earliest known Quetzocoatline as well as the largest flying animal to have ever come out of the southern hemisphere with an estimated wingspan of around 30 feet!
Continuing on with the discovery of new genera that has happened this year, we move swiftly on to Bisticeratops froeseorum. Hailing from the Campanian (late Cretaceous) outcrops of New Mexico, this chasmosaurine ceratopsian was actually leaked to the general public by accident back in 2021 before the official naming of the genus in 2022...woops!
Tyrannosaurus imperator/regina debate
Oooooh here is one that ruffled some dinosaurian feathers. To be honest, it always happens when some absolute anarchist paleontologist decides to mess with everyone's favourite dinosaur once again. Back in January 2022, Gregory Paul, W. Scott Persons and Jay Van Raalte re-evaluated several specimens of Tyrannosaurus rex from over the years. In their study, they concluded that these specimens had enough differences in their robustness that correlated with dental and chronological differences to suggest the naming of two extra species. Tyrannosaurus imperator and Tyrannosaurus regina translate to tyrant emperor and tyrant queen respectfully, with T.regina being the smallest and most gracile and T.imperator being the biggest.
Of course, doubt has been cast on this proposal, namely on how so many species that are apex predators can exist within a single area in such a short timespan, which the paper argues is partly due to anagenesis.
The dinosaurs survived a mass extinction partly due to keeping toasty in the cold
Feathers on dinosaurs is something that may have been mentioned...once or twice... in the past. Recently, however, it has been found that these feathers helped greatly in expanding and thriving during the Triassic-Jurassic extinction. This year, paleontologists discovered dinosaurs existing at freezing temperatures as a result of volcanic induced winters, made possible by those luscious coats!
Other theropods may have have had better bone crushing teeth than we thought
A study comapring dental microwear texture of Allosaurus and tyrannosaurid theropods is published by Winkler et al. (2022), who confirm that younger theropods occupied different dietary niches to adult individuals, but don't find evidence indicating that tyrannosaurids consumed bones more frequently than Allosaurus.
Since technology has advanced, we have been able to see details on fossils much more minute than once thought possible. An example of this, is the discovery this year of dental micro-wear texture (DMT) on famous theropods such as T.rex and Allosaurus sp.! 2022 actually marks the first time DMT analysis has been used on dinosaurs! In short, microscopic scratches on their teeth can reveal what they did (or didn't) eat.
What was interesting about this study is the comparisons made between the aforementioned Tyrannosaurus and Allosaurus. Arguably the two most famous large theropods, these two dinosaurs have long been thought to have very different feeding strategies, with Tyrannosaurus sporting a heavy, robust skull with thick bone-crushing teeth and Allosaurus having a much more gracile skull and blade-like teeth, likely using its head more like a hatchet.
However, these two dinosaurs show similar DMT meaning that either Allosaurus ate harder foods than we thought, or Tyrannosaurus partook in bone munching less than we thought. This research was also carried out on juveniles of the same species, showing that the younger members of the species were likely partaking in more scavenging behaviour!
Social behaviour and more found in tracks
2 for the price of 1 here! 2022 has been been a great year for ichno-geeks like myself, with some exciting dinosaur tracks being discovered! Two examples have been found in Alberta, Canada.
The first of these are from the St. Mary River Formation and show what appear to be small to medium sized ornithopods as well as large ornithomimids and some baby tyrannosaurids. What is amazing here is that the hatchling tyrannosaurids appear to be travelling together, showing they may have formed a group. The same can be said for the ornithopods, with the tracks running parrallel, at the same speed and turning together.
The second of these is from the Wapiti formation and and is nicknamed the Tyrant's Aisle. With more than 100 tracks, this site shows similar social behaviour in hadrosaurids, as well as plenty of of tracks from the likes of tyrannosaurids, troodontids and even some possible azhdarchids (the group that have behemoths such as Thanotosdraken mentioned above).
Climate change played key role in dinosaur success story
Not only did dinosaurs manage to survive volcanic induced winters thanks to those stylish coats, they were also able to thrive from conditions that warmed the planet during the same time!
During the Triassic-Jurassic extinction event, many groups of animals suffered. However, similar to how the mammals benefitted from the end Cretaceous mass extinction, dinosaurs seemed to thrive during this time. It was initially thought that this was thanks to reduced competition, however, paleontologists discovered this year that the change in temperature conditions after the extinction event may have had more to do with it.
Computer models of climate conditions were compared with the paleogeography of certain dinosaurs, showing that expansion aligns more closely with temperature change rather than with the disappearance of competition.
Scientists discover what was on the menu of the first dinosaurs
The earliest dinosaurs included carnivorous, omnivorous and herbivorous species, according to a team of palaeobiologists
More computational modelling has also been used in 2022 to simulate dinosaur tooth function. Published this very month, paleontologists at the university of Bristol compared these functions to modern reptiles and found that early dinosaurs ate things that were much different to their more famous descendants.
For example, early prosauropods (ancestors to favourites like Brachiosaurus, Diplodocus and Apatosaurus), were actually omnivorous and sometimes ate meat!
Two-million-year-old DNA has been identified
You read that right folks, the world's oldest DNA has been discovered! You may have (embarrassingly) read here before that DNA breaks down completely once the fossilisation process has completed, after around 30,000 years, but it turns out that is somewhat inaccurate!
Microscopic fragments of DNA of various organisms including mammals, plants and micro-organisms were found within the frozen clay of the København Formation within a fjord in Greenland, giving paleontologists more insight into the ecosystem that was present at the time as well as the potential to help predict the long term future of today's climate change with more accuracy!
Ankylosaurs battled each other as much as they fought off T. rex
An exceptional fossil of the ankylosaur Zuul crurivastator shows spikes along its sides that were broken and re-healed while the dinosaur was alive. These injuries have been shown to have been made by another member of the same species.
This research has had fascinating implications, showing that most, if not all, ankylosaurs used those tail clubs for more than defence against predators. Ankylosaurs fighting each other actually show rather complex social behaviours, battling for dominance over territory or even social dominance. Another likely explanation could also be that males would often fight it out during mating season, adding once more to dinosaur gregarious complexity!
Two mummified Lystrosaurus'
Deep within the southern Karoo Basin of South Africa, paleontologists discovered this year evidence for a mass death caused by episodes of drought. Various tetrapod fossils were found here, but the most prominent of these were up to eight closely-spaced Lystrosaurus skeletons. These animals likely dies due to starvation, having been one of the very few survivors of the end-Permian mass extinction event, the worst extinction event to ever occur.
Even more fascinating, is that two of these specimens show very minor mummification! These findings have further proved the hypothesis of various episodes of drought induced mass deaths brought on by the aftermath of the end-Permian mass extinction.
We have another new species of dromaeosaur named in 2022! Found in the Longjiang formation in China, Duarlong wangi lived during the Early Cretaceous and was around 5 feet long, being related to classics as such as Velociraptor. Not only this, but it was also found to have preserved intestinal tracts!
Another new species to be named is Jakapil kaniukura. Found in the Candeleros formation in Argentina, this strongly jawed fellow was also around 5 feet long and has been hypothesised to be ancestral to stegosaurs and ankylosaurs. This, however, has been disputed by some paleontologists, who think it may have more relation to ceratopsians or even a completely new group of ornithischians entirely!
Shall we go a little bit bigger? Maip macrothorax was also found in Argentina within the Chorrollo formation, meaning it was likely around to see the end-Cretaceous mass extinction. Maip was actually named in 2021, but was considered an informal genus due to issues with the publication, however, it has been officially recognised as a formal genus in 2022 and is the largest megaraptorid known!
You still want to go bigger? You got it. Miraxes gigas was a carcharodontosaurid from the late Cretaceous of Patagonia and was a whopping 10 metres (33 feet) long. The coolest part of this dino though? It is literally named after a dragon from Game of Thrones!
Dinosaur toe beans
Here is the 2022 discovery that served as a teaser trailer for this post on instagram (which, if you haven't followed yet, you should!). Pittman et al. performed a study in which laser microscopy was used to look at the foot scales, claw shape and toe pads of various flying and ground dwelling theropods.
The findings of this study have given amazing insight into the ecology of theropods (including early birds), showing how different morphologies can tell us how they lived, hunted and even how some evolved into tree dwelling organisms!
And there we have it! Of course, countless other discoveries have been made within paleontology in 2022, but these are some of my personal highlights.
Happy New Year everyone, here's to hoping for 2023 to bring us more amazing discoveries!