38. The Early Bird in Jordan 42 Million Years Ago
OCT. 21, 2021
Pete goes prehistoric when he takes Ryan on a voyage to discover The Early Bird, in Jordan during the Paleogene period.
In this episode Pete goes prehistoric when he takes Ryan on a voyage to discover The Early Bird, in Jordan during the Paleogene period.
The place - Jordan
The country is formally known as the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. This is after the Hashemites aka the House of Hashim, who are the royal family of Jordan, which they have ruled since 1921.
Jordan is approximately 89,342 sq km, making it 16.2% the size of France and it has a population of 10,658,123 people.
The area has been inhabited since the stone age and has been included in a selection of empires that have risen and fallen since then. Latterly they formed part of the Ottoman empire, whom they attempted to overthrow by playing their part in the Great Arab Revolt. In support of the uprising against their Ottoman enemy, the British promised to support the creation of a large unified arab state. Unfortunately they then reneged on their promise after the Ottoman empire was broken up in the wake of World War One and instead Britain and France sat down together with pencils and a ruler and marked the whole of the Middle East in zones of British or French influence respectively.
The Emirate of Transjordan was
95% of the country's population, is Sunni Muslim, with a native Christian minority.
Famous parts of Jordan include the Dead Sea, an inland sea with such high concentration of minerals and salts a human swimming in it cannot sink. The waters have also long been considered a boon to health, and Herod the Great visited here, making it one of the world’s first health resorts!
You can also visit Petra, the ancient "Red Rose City" named for the colour of the stone from which it is carved. This has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985 and in 2007 was also voted one of the New 7 Wonders of the World.
Another famous site in Jordan is Wadi rum. This is basically a valley with a barren, Mars-like landscape of red desert and rock which has featured in at least five different movies playing the part of the red planet.
The time – the Paleogene.
The Paleogene is a geologic time period. But what’s a period? In geology time is broken into a number of groupings of decreasing size.
• Eon – the biggest of the groups. There have been four Eons in the history of the Earth.
The Hadean, named after Hades the Greek God of the Underworld. This was a time before the Earth had cooled to solid rock. Then, there was som planetary cooling which led to the formation of solid rock in the Earth’s crust, known as the Archean Eon.
The end of this eon saw the first single cell life appearing, then as oxygen levels rose, life began to become more complex, marking the start of the Proterozoic Eon. This saw the rise of more complex animals in the oceans, such as jellyfish and trilobites. But there was still no life on land, as the atmosphere was just beginning to accumulate the oxygen required for higher-order animals to survive.
Together these three Eons are considered the Precambrian supereon- a massive time period spanning 4.6 billion to 542 Million Years Ago
The final eon, and the eon we are currently living in, is the Phanerozoic Eon – lasting from 542 million years ago to ‘just now’. This derives from the Ancient Greek words (phanerós), meaning visible, and (zōḗ), meaning life, and it will not surprise you to learn is when life as we know it today developed.
An Eon is a long time, though, so these are broken down into eras. The Phanerozoic Eon is broken into three basic eras
Paleozoic Era: 542 Million to 250 Million Years Ago
This began with the ‘Cambrian Explosion’ in which loads of life started appearing. Ocean life moved onto the land, starting with plants then invertebrates, then vertebrates.
This was all fun and games, until the era ended with the largest mass extinction in the history of life on Earth, wiping out 95% of marine life and nearly 70% of life on land – the Permian extinction. This rather cleared the game board and opened the way for the…
Mesozoic Era: 250 Million to 65 Million Years Ago
The Permian Extinction was fresh start for a wide variety of new species who evolved and thrived during the Mesozoic Era. Dinosaur. In fact this is known as the "age of the dinosaurs" who lived in a very humid and tropical, Earth with lush, green plants sprouted all over the Earth.
Dinosaurs started off small and grew larger and small mammals came into existence as well.
But then, suddenly, the part was over once again when a huge meteor crashed to earth, sparking another mass extinction across the Earth.
In with a bang, then, was the Cenozoic Era - 65 Million Years Ago to today.
In this era the world started to look like it does today as the continents floated around to current positions. The loss of dinosaurs opened up opportunities for the mammals to evolve and they came to dominate this age.
In this time all species of life—including humans—evolved into their present-day forms.
But an era is still a mighty long time, so it was felt that something smaller was needed. So the Eras were themselves broken down into smaller chunks, known as Periods.
The Cenozioc – the age we’re in now – was thus divided into
The Paleogene 66 million years ago to 12 million years ago. This saw the blossoming of life after the extinction event. It also marked an end to the hot and humid conditions of the late Mesozoic Era and began a cooling and drying trend.
This was followed by the Neogene period, 23.03 million years ago to 2.58 million years ago. This saw the North and South American continents join at the Isthmus of Panama, which cut off the warm ocean currents from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean. It also saw the continuation of planetary cooling.
Then the final period fog this era is the Quaternary, taking us from 2.58 million years ago to now. In this time, recognisable humans existed, as proven by an ancient jawbone which was found in Ethiopia.
The topic – The Early bird
Sometime in the 1930s or 1940s, in the country of Jordan, a railway worker during repairs on the Amman-Damascus railroad near Russeifa found a two foot long fossil bone.
This was a relatively featureless tube, but interesting enough to keep hold of and tell people about until, in 1943 it was acquired by the director of a nearby phosphate mine, Amin Kawar.
The bone was sent to Paris to the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle where it was looked at by palaeontologist Camille Arambourg. He identified it as a metacarpal of a large pterosaur, a type of flying lizard. A metacarpal is like afinger, but in a bird-like creature it’s in the wing, just as it’s in the fin of a whale.
Arambourg suspected this might be a new type of pterosaur and he wrote it up in a 1954 paper identifying it as an extinct genus of azhdarchid - a pterosaur from the Late Cretaceous period named after the Persian word azhdar, a persion mythology dragonish creature.
He names his discovery Titanopteryx philadelphiae or titan wing. The problem with that, though, is that in the 1980s someone noticeds there was already a black fly called Titanopteryx so they have to change the name of the giant lizard. And so they do - in honour of Camille – calling it Arambourgiania – Arambourg’s giant.
Then, in 1975 paleontologist Douglas A. Lawson concluded the bone was not a metacarpal and needed further investigation. In early 1995, paleontologists David Martill and Eberhard Frey traveled to Jordan and, in a cupboard of the office of the Jordan Phosphate Mines Company they discovered some other pterosaur bones: a smaller vertebra and the proximal and distal extremities of a wing phalanx.
But none of these was the original bone, which remained lost until 1996 when the bone was tracked down to the University of Jordan who had been given it, and still had it.
The bone was restudied by Martill and Frey and they concluded it was a cervical vertebra – a neck bone. A 2 foot long neck bone.
From this it was possible to conclude Arambourgiania had a very long neck, not mobile like swan, but stiff, like a flying giraffe – and even bigger than a giraffe at that. This creature was massive, one of the largest flying animals ever known with a wingspan of 7 – 13 metres, making it about the size of a light aircraft. Whilst these bones were found in Jordan, others have . been found in North America suggesting that in the cretaceous period, when the world was largely hot and humid, and palm trees were growing in Greenland, these bird like creatures could actually be found all over the world.
BUT, it’s a pterasuar, not a bird.
So where did all our birds today come from?
The answer is the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) extinction.
This is the extinction event marks the boundary of the cretaceous and Paleogene periods. 66 million years ago, the planet had an unexpected, rocky, visitor.
A massive comet or asteroid 10 to 15 km (6 to 9 mi) wide crashed to Earth in Mexico in a place known as the Chicxulub crater. This crash landing left a hole estimated to be 150 kilometers (93 miles) in diameter and 20 kilometers deep
The shockwave of the impact threw debris thrown into the air drastically altering the climate. We know this because in the geologic record, the K–Pg event is marked by a thin layer of sediment called the K–Pg boundary, which can be found throughout the world in both marine and terrestrial rocks. This clay shows unusually high levels of the metal iridium, which is more common in asteroids than in the Earth's crust.
In addition the fossil-bearing layers of rock have been found to contain tiny glass bits called tektites—likely blobs of melted rock kicked up by the impact that solidified in the atmosphere and then rained down over Earth.
Then, to make things even more uncomfortable, heat and fires spread throughout the world, obliterating the forests that had covered most of the earth’s surface. We know this because Antoine Bercovici, a paleobotanist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., amassed data on fossil spore and pollen counts in rocks from many regions of the world, including New Zealand and the U.S. He found evidence of an increase in the number of fern flora, saying “This fern spike represents evidence of ‘disaster flora,’ where pioneer species are rapidly recolonizing open ground, as seen today when ferns recolonize lava flows in Hawaii or landslides after volcanic eruptions,”.
The net result was 70 – 80 % of all species were destroyed and you don’t find dinosaur fossils above the K-Pg boundary. And that includes Ambourgiania
In fact, birds descend from a group of dinosaurs called therapods – a group including tyrannosaurus rex and velociraptor.
Prior to the meteor’s impact there was a wide variety of birds occupying an array of environmentl niches. “All the things that make birds, birds, were already in place well before the mass extinction,” explained University College London anatomist Ryan Felice.
But very few of them survived. In fact, Felice added, “When we think about hypotheses of traits that let birds survive, we need to take into account that it was only a small sliver of diversity that made it to the other side,” Felice says.
One study, by Derek Larson, suggested the beak was one key element of this saying,“we propose that diet may have been an extinction filter and suggest that granivory associated with an edentulous beak was a key ecological trait in the survival of some lineages.”
But even better than a beak, was the beak and gizzard combination (a gizzard being a muscular, thick-walled part of a bird's stomach for grinding food, typically with grit or small stones). Just having a beak was not enough,” King’s College London anatomist Abigail Tucker said. Rather, it’s that birds with beaks and powerful gizzards capable of crushing tough seeds had an unexpected advantage that increased their chances of survival.
Finally another study concluded that the birds that survived were the ones who lived on the ground, not in trees. Daniel Field from the University of Bath, in the United Kingdom said “We concluded that the devastation of forests in the aftermath of the asteroid impact explains why tree-dwelling birds failed to survive across this extinction event. The ancestors of modern tree-dwelling birds did not move into the trees until forests had recovered.”
“Today, birds are the most diverse and globally widespread group of terrestrial vertebrate animals – there are nearly 11,000 living species,”
“Only a handful of ancestral bird lineages succeeded in surviving the K-Pg mass extinction event 66 million years ago, and all of today’s amazing living bird diversity can be traced to these ancient survivors.”