Halloween Highlights: Crushing Jaws!

Happy Halloween to those goblins and ghouls amongst you! Before you go trick-or-treating tonight, let’s wrap up our month-long series on creepy critters and things that go bump in the night with one final critter and its modern-day cousin.

The unassuming reptile pictured above is the tuatara. The tuatara are found only in New Zealand, and are often called “living fossils” because of their physiological similarities to their ancient ancestors.

In research published today in PLOS ONE, researchers led by Dr. Oliver Rauhut discovered the fossil remains of an ancient relative of the tuatara, Oenosaurus muelheimensis. The species is named in honor of the Franconian Alb, the wine-growing region in Germany where the fossil was discovered, and the German village of Mühlheim.

Pictured to above is the Oenosaurus’ lower jaw, which in life featured a set of ever-growing tooth plates and multitudinous “pencil-like” teeth. Researchers posit that the arrangement and morphology of the lower jaw suggests that it moved in a crushing motion.

We recently invited Dr. Oliver Rauhut, the corresponding author of the paper, to share the group’s thoughts on their new findings. He writes:

The incentive for our research was the find of a new specimen of a rhynchocephalian from the Late Jurassic of Germany, which we name Oenosaurus muelheimensis. Rhynchocephalians are an ancient group of reptiles, today only represented by the Tuatara that lives on small islands off the coast of New Zealand and is regarded as a classic example of a living fossil. The new fossil has an extremely unusual dentition, and at first we were all at a loss as to what kind of animal this was, with ideas ranging from a chimeran fish to a rhynchosaur -[a] pig-like reptile that lived in the Triassic (which, incidently, is also reflected in the name…). After identifying the animal as a rhynchocephalian, we had a closer look at the dentition, which is unique amongst tetrapods in presenting large, continuously growing tooth plates. Such an extreme adaptation in a Jurassic rhynchocephalien contradicts the traditional idea that these animals were conservative and evolutionary inferior to lizards. Thus, we challenge the current opinion that the decline of rhynchocephalians during the later Mesozoic was mainly caused by selection pressure by radiating lizards and early mammals; instead climate change in the wake of continental break-up at that time might have been responsible.

This concludes our month-long celebration of some the spooktacular science you can find on PLOS ONE. If you are interested in learning about other creepy critters that we have covered in past years, please visit these links.

Have a safe and happy Halloween!



Rauhut OWM, Heyng AM, López-Arbarello A, Hecker A (2012) A New Rhynchocephalian from the Late Jurassic of Germany with a Dentition That Is Unique amongst Tetrapods. PLoS ONE 7(10): e46839. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0046839


The first image is provided courtesy of Helmut Tischlinger and can be found accompanying the institution’s press release.

The second image is Figure 2F in the manusript.

New Paleontology Guidelines Enforce Ethics, Reproducibility

Ethics is a cornerstone of science, informing everything from how we design our experiments to what we do with the resulting data. Given the diverse nature of the research results published in PLOS ONE, no short and simple set of ethical guidelines can cover every situation. Thus, it is important for the journal to adapt and expand its ethical standards as the journal itself expands.

The field of paleontology, by its very nature, presents some special situations in ethics. Although the fossil subjects are long-dead, rendering matters of patient consent or laboratory animal care non-existent, other complicated concerns ranging from legalities to reproducibility must be taken into account. Any journal that hopes to be a major player in the study of fossils must confront these issues head-on.

As the volunteer section editor for paleontology at PLOS ONE, I am thrilled by the growth in the number of high-quality publications related to my field. I also want to make sure that all of these papers are held to the highest ethical standards, and many of my colleagues and I felt it was important to provide explicit ethical guidelines focused on paleontology. After extensive and thoughtful discussion with the journal’s internal editors and other interested parties, I am happy to announce that a specific set of editorial standards for paleontology submissions is now in place.

Critically, reproducible research in paleontology requires a long-term guarantee of accessibility and safety for fossils. This means that all fossils should be deposited in a permanent repository, such as a museum or university collection. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that collections owned by private individuals—no matter how noble their intentions—will be accessible in the long-term. In one notable recent case, the family of a fossil enthusiast sold off the bulk of his scientifically important collection after he died. Some of the specimens had even been published in the peer-reviewed literature, but there is now little guarantee that any of those fossils will be accessible in fifty years, or even five. Moreover, not everything that calls itself a museum is a permanent collection; some are little more than showroom floors for a commercial fossil business. Some of these fossils do end up in permanent museum collections, but until this happens, it is extremely hazardous to publish on the specimens. Reproducibility and accessibility are key, as reflected in the new policies.

Ethical consideration is also critical for fossil collection in the field. Stories abound of skeletons in the Gobi Desert being looted for the most marketable parts (such as skulls or claws), which then end up for auction in Europe or North America. In fact, one recent PLOS ONE paper discussed dinosaur skin impressions salvaged from the mess left by fossil poachers who carted off more enticing pieces. Legal loopholes often mean that the specimens can then be traded or sold elsewhere, often accompanied by official-looking paperwork that purports to legitimize the original export. This horrible practice drains the world of its historical heritage and destroys scientific information. Thus, the new ethics policy explicitly prohibits publication of specimens that were obtained without permission or legal export.

This is a great day for paleontology at PLOS ONE, helping to ensure the journal’s future as a trustworthy publication with the highest ethical standards. I challenge everyone—authors, editors, readers, and reviewers—to carry the torch forward into a better world.

About the Author:  Dr. Andrew Farke is a vertebrate paleontologist and an academic editor at PLOS ONE. Andy also has his own blog, The Open Source Paleontologist, and can be found on Twitter @andyfarke.

Image: The fossil reptile Captorhinus (collection of Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology)