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The top pal[a]eontology stories of 2015

Crikey, 2015 was an absolute blast for the field of paleontology! Almost every couple of weeks, a new species of dinosaur popped up the ground, and we began to see the revolution of ‘big data’ in exploring the fossil record continue to gain momentum. Here are just a few of our favourite studies from the PLOS archives this year. Enjoy, and Happy New Year!

Sarah’s Top Picks

There are so many awesome papers published in PLOS ONE in 2015, it is really hard to pin down my favorites of the year. So these are just three of the many, many papers that really captured my interest from the start, the ones that I could not download fast enough. (As the resident non-tetrapod paleontologist, there miiiiight be a fishy trend, although I was amazed by all of the amazing tetrapod papers and methods papers in PLOS ONE, this really is a tough choice!).

Belonostomus cf. kochi (JME-ETT123, from Plattenkalk I), with a specimen of Orthogonikleithrus hoelli in its mouth! From Ebert et al. (2015)
Belonostomus cf. kochi (JME-ETT123, from Plattenkalk I), with a specimen of Orthogonikleithrus hoelli in its mouth! From Ebert et al. (2015)
  1. I feel like a kid in a candy shop when I look at fossils from the Jurassic Solnhofen Lagerstätte. Although the Solnhofen is famous for those beautiful Archaeopteryx specimens revered around the globe, the fish fossils from these Late Jurassic deposits are just as exquisitely preserved, providing a beautiful picture of the biodiversity and evolutionary history of the region. A study in PLOS ONE by Ebert et al. (2015), examines an assemblage from one of the Solnhofen basins in Ettling, and begins to reconstruct the ecology and trophic niches of a vast assemblage of fishes and other organisms (including the beautiful turtle fossil shown above as the Featured Image). They present a captivating picture of the predator-prey relationships found in Ettling, backed by beautiful fossils.
  2. Moving out of the water (well, sort of), this paper that came out in March by Porro et al. (2015) describes the anatomy of the skull of Acanthostega in great detail. Using CT scan data, they reconstructed the skull using novel methods, allowing a thorough reexamination of this iconic fossil.
  3. I can’t help but select the paper by Kaye et al. (2015) on laser-stimulated fluorescence (LSF) in paleontology, because of its usefulness as a method to all vertebrate paleontologists. In fact, we had a great Ask Me Anything in October with the lead author, Tom Kaye, to discuss the methods and their application to several subjects. (Read my post about it here). LSF is an affordable and useful technique that I think more people should give a shot, let’s see what cool new things we discovery about our beloved critters!
Andy Farke’s Top Picks

As I started putting together my top picks, I got bogged down within moments. There is, literally, way too much awesome for 2015. Just looking at the 300+ paleontology-related papers for PLOS ONE, it was hard to pick any one in particular. So, I decided to limit myself to four papers, each one from a different category. The selection process was more-or-less random, so there are probably another 10 different candidates for each.

Favorite Paleobotany Paper: Heinrichs and colleagues published a fascinating study melding fossils in amber with molecular and morphological data from modern plants, to figure out liverworts from European amber. Although liverworts are “primitive” in many features, they have a rich fossil record and are still widely distributed today. It turns out that some of the fossil liverworts have close connections with modern species, and others probably less so. It’s a good example of how paleontology can help inform our understanding of diversity in modern organisms.

Favorite Dinosaur Paper: Because this is my research specialty, it was really, really difficult to pick just one. So, I closed my eyes and chose one at random. Which was…a ceratopsian paper, of course! I have no choice but to highlight Wendiceratops, from Evans and Ryan. Cool name, cool backstory, and Danielle Dufault’s reconstruction (below) was the flagship image for the PLOS Paleontology Community launch.

Wendiceratops, by Danielle Dugault
Wendiceratops, by Danielle Dufault, on display in Texas this year!

Favorite Invertebrate Paleontology Paper: This is a pretty darned broad category, but I really liked a study from Solórzano Kraemer et al. on unraveling biases in the kinds of organisms that get stuck in amber. Basically, they set a bunch of different kinds of traps in a Mexican tropical forest and looked to see what kind of trap best matched ancient deposits from a similar environment. This is a really clever and important study, and a good reminder that what you see in the fossil record is only a shadow of what actually lived long ago.

Favorite Non-Dinosaur Paper in Vertebrate Paleontology: I just love Xenokeryx amidalae, published in December by Sánchez and colleagues. It’s a cool-looking beast, with a name that just happens to reference a character in a certain line of popular movies. Even better, the animal helps to unravel the relationships within horned and antlered mammals, as detailed in my recent blog post.

Jon’s Top Picks

This post was a bad idea. There really has just been so much badass research published in PLOS ONE alone this year, that filtering it down to a few top picks is near-impossible. Thankfully, it’s a nice break from the festivities, so here are a few of my favourites from 2015!

  1. Braaaaaains.. Research by Fabien Knoll and colleagues went beyond bones, unraveling the mysteries of the neurology of sauropod dinosaurs, including nerves and all!
  2. Insects, swarms of them! David Nicholson investigated the evolutionary dynamics of insects over 100s of millions of years, looking at how their biodiversity and extinction changed through time.
  3. Romer’s Gap is a break in the fossil record in the earliest Carboniferous period, and a new tetrapod fauna helps to shed some much needed light on this important phase in the water-land transition.

    How cool is it that we can visualise the brains of an animal that has been extinct for millions of years?!
    How cool is it that we can visualise the brains of an animal that has been extinct for millions of years?!
  4. For a double-whammy, sexual dimorphism in dinosaurs remains a hot topic, with studies on Stegosaurus and Protoceratops causing a bit of a rumble in the research community.
  5. A recent study by Aki Watanabe and colleagues explored the vertebral column in an ornithomimosaur dinosaur in intricate detail, finding that a highly pneumatised (holey!) axial skeleton evolved multiple times in dinosaurs around the ancestors of birds.
  6. And last but not least, EXTINCTION! Just because there’s nothing more seasonal than a catastrophic loss of life on Earth, this really neat investigation by Andrew Klug and Mark Patzkowsky tried to work out whether your chance of going extinct could be a product of who you’re related to.

That’s just a small sample of the epic variety published by an amazing community of researchers this year, and I look forward to seeing what 2016 can bring! We’ll keep doing our best to bring you the top stories (and the rest..) on a daily basis, and hope you enjoy tagging along with us!

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