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Meet Mnyamawamtuka: The New Tanzanian Titanosaur

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Mnyamawamtuka

Its name isn’t the only big thing about Mnyamawamtuka moyowamkia, a new titanosaur from Tanzania rendered here with a whiff of whimsical romance, just in time for Valentine’s Day (“I bless the rains down in Aaaaaafrica…”). (Credit: Mark Witton)

Hailing from East Africa, the newly described giant, plant-eating dinosaur Mnyamawamtuka moyowamkia lived around 100-110 million years ago, during the middle of the Cretaceous. The animal, a member of the titanosaur lineage, is helping paleontologists understand how, where and when the mightiest of land animals evolved.

Sauropodomorphs are some of the most common and geographically diversely dinosaurs in the fossil record, and their shape — small head, long neck, big torso, elephant-like limbs and a long tail — is one of the most iconic body plans, instantly recognizable even to people who don’t care about dinosaurs (perish the thought!).

The basic body plan of sauropodomorphs, including titanosaurs, is so recognizable that companies such as Sinclair Oil Corporation have used it in logos, where an instant read is everything. Yes, the Sinclair mascot Dino is depicted as a tail-dragger, now known to be anatomically incorrect. Complain to them, not me, about it. (Credit: Sinclair Oil Corporation)

The basic body plan of sauropodomorphs, including titanosaurs, is so recognizable that companies such as Sinclair Oil Corporation have used it in logos, where an instant read is everything. Yes, I know the Sinclair mascot is depicted as a tail-dragger, now known to be anatomically incorrect. Complain to them, not me, about it. (Credit: Sinclair Oil Corporation)

Among the sauropodomorphs, titanosaurs were Earth’s largest land animals, reaching their apex, so to speak, in the Late Cretaceous. But the full story of how they evolved to stand more than 60 feet tall — and weigh in at an estimated 100 tons-plus — has remained murky due to scant fossil evidence from their earlier days.

Early titano-finds are few and far between, and most of the titanosaurs from the middle of the Cretaceous, about 100 million years ago, have been found in South America. As paleontologists focus on rocks of that age elsewhere in the world, however, they’re finding more and more evidence that these earlier animals were as widely dispersed as their descendants.

The Gondwana Connection

The continent of Africa in particular is emerging as one of the most promising landmasses for learning the full titanosaur story. Last year, for example, Egyptian paleontologists announced the new titanosaur Mansourasaurus, found in the country’s Western Desert region. Other titanosaurs have been found in Tanzania, in the same rock formation as Mnyamawamtuka, as well as in Malawi, just to the southwest.

It makes sense that paleontologists would find early titanosaurs throughout both South America and Africa, since the landmasses were once side-by-side as part of the supercontinent Gondwana. Although Gondwana broke up during the Jurassic (and tens of millions of years before the Cretaceous), similarities in animal and plant life across its disparate parts persist, even today.

Now, every new titanosaur found in Africa expands not just the fossil record of that continent, but the story of the lineage’s evolution.

“This discovery adds a critical piece to the puzzle of early titanosaurian evolution, as Mnyamawamtuka is one of the better preserved specimens from this part of their family tree,” says Ohio University paleontologist Patrick O’Connor, a co-author of the new paper. “Titanosaurians from this part of the Southern Hemisphere have been a bit more challenging to discover and excavate — but nothing that climbing ropes and enthusiastic field teams cannot overcome.”

Tiny Titan

Although titanosaurs include the largest known land animals, the Mnyamawamtuka specimen isn’t going to break any size records.

“The skeleton of Mnyamawamtuka is actually small,” said Eric Gorscak, the other co-author of the study and a paleontologist at both Midwestern University and Chicago’s Field Museum. The animal likely weighed only about a ton, and if you were to stand next to it, you’d probably be about eye level with its hips. That doesn’t mean the species in general was short stuff.

“Based on some of the bones, this specimen of Mnyamawamtuka is of a juvenile and would have grown to be much larger,” Gorscak added. “We’re just not sure how much larger until we find more skeletons of this dinosaur.”

The partial skeleton of the new titanosaur was unearthed during a series of digs more than a decade ago in southwestern Tanzania; it’s not unusual for so much time to pass between discovery and formal classification because fossils need to be prepared — freed from the surrounding rock — and thoroughly analyzed before paleontologists can determine what they represent.

Anatomy of a “Beast”

The fossil finds included elements from the neck, tail, torso and limbs, providing enough anatomical detail for the researchers to place Mnyamawamtuka in or near the very base of the Lithostrotia lineage, which became the most significant line of titanosaurs in the Late Cretaceous.

Among the unusual anatomical traits of the new dinosaur: a small sternal plate. Most titanosaurs have large sternal plates — the bone is the dinosaur version of a human sternum — which likely played a role in how they got so huge by the Late Cretaceous.

“Part of the small size could be due to the juvenile life stage,” said Gorscak. “It is not unusual for different body parts to develop and grow at different rates until the animal is fully mature.”

(Credit: Mark Witton/https://doi. org/10.1371/journal.pone.0211412)

Although not a complete specimen, the fossils found provided paleontologists with a wealth of information about the enormous animal. (Credit: Mark Witton/https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0211412)

What’s In A Name?

If you’re wondering about its name, it comes from Kiswahili, the language spoken in the region (Kiswahili translates as “the language of the Swahili people;” it’s a more accurate word for the language sometimes called Swahili).

Its genus, Mnyamawamtuka, means “beast of the Mtuka” (the river drainage system where the fossils were found). The species name, moyowamkia, translates as “heart of the tail,” a nod to its unusually shaped tail vertebrae, which have a heart shape when viewed from a certain angle.

No word on whether the whole heart-shaped piece of tail thing is a tie-in to the pre-Valentine’s Day timing of the paper’s publication, but based on the artist’s romance-ready rendering of the animals, I’m going to guess it’s more than pure coincidence.

The open-access study appears today in PLOS One.

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Ecology

Yukon and Northern BC First Nations tackle climate change using Indigenous knowledge and science

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YUKON, June 18, 2021 /CNW/ – The Government of Canada is working together in partnership with Indigenous and Northern communities in finding solutions to adapt to the impacts of climate change in the North.

Today, Minister of Northern Affairs, Daniel Vandal, along with Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Economic Development and Official Languages (Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency), Larry Bagnell, highlighted progress on three unique, Indigenous-led projects that are helping communities in Yukon and Northern British Columbia adapt to the challenges posed by climate change.

The Minister and Parliamentary Secretary met virtually with Carcross/Tagish First Nation (C/TFN) to learn about their community-led climate change monitoring program. C/TFN has partnered with Tsay Keh Dene Nation (TKDN) and Chu Cho Environmental of Prince George, British Columbia, to build a community-led monitoring project that examines environmental data and Indigenous knowledge to create a holistic picture of how the climate is changing across C/TFN and TKDN traditional territories. The project combines tracking of current and historical climate trends with knowledge shared by Elders while also providing opportunities for youth mentorship and climate change awareness.

The Taku River Tlingit First Nation (TRTFN) is also leading a unique project to assess the impacts of climate change within their traditional territory. Climate change is causing many of the culturally significant ice patches to melt, exposing organic artifacts to oxygen and leading to rapid deterioration. The TRTFN ice patch mapping project will involve performing archaeological assessments to prevent the degradation of artifacts. Research will be guided by traditional knowledge, Elders and oral histories, when available, and heavily involve community, Elders, youth and Knowledge Keepers.

The Pelly Crossing Selkirk Development Corporation is leading the Selkirk Wind Resource Assessment project through the installation of a Sonic Detection and Ranging (SODAR) system. The initiative includes a feasibility study leading up to the construction of a renewable energy facility, including wind, solar and battery energy storage. Expanding clean energy within the region will have direct benefits for communities, including reduced reliance on diesel, job creation and revenue generation for Selkirk First Nation. 

These projects are delivering important environmental, social and economic benefits that lead to healthier, more sustainable and resilient communities across Yukon and Northern British Columbia. They also build community clean energy capacity and help to avoid the impacts of climate change.

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Ecology

Atlantic Provinces Ready For Aquaculture Growth

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Aquaculture is an important economic driver for rural, coastal and Indigenous communities, and Atlantic Canada is well positioned to increase aquaculture production as global demand for sustainably sourced seafood grows.

That is why the ministers responsible for aquaculture in the Atlantic provinces have agreed to the ongoing development and management of their industries based on common principles. A new memorandum of understanding has been signed by the four ministers, which extends the previous agreement signed in 2008.

“In a time when food security is especially important, it is good to see our aquaculture industry has grown steadily and is poised for continued growth in 2021 based on environmentally responsible, science-based policies and practices,” said Keith Colwell, Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture for Nova Scotia. “Our Atlantic partnership continues to help the industry grow sustainably.”

Cooperation between the provinces and the aquaculture industry has led to improvements in pest management, environmentally sustainable aquaculture methods, aquatic animal health and policies to support the shared use of marine and freshwater resources. It also aims to align regulation and policy between the provinces to make the regulatory requirements easier to understand by industry and the public.

Each province has a comprehensive and robust legislative and regulatory framework to ensure environmental sustainability, economic prosperity and public accountability. The provinces update their legislation and regulations regularly. Nova Scotia revamped its regulatory framework in 2015; New Brunswick received Royal Assent for a new Aquaculture Act in 2019 and is working on the supporting regulations; Newfoundland and Labrador completely revised its aquaculture policy in 2019; and Prince Edward Island has recently drafted a new Aquaculture Act.

The ministers have agreed to continue to use science-based evidence for management decisions, thereby increasing public and investor confidence in the Atlantic Canadian aquaculture industry.

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Ecology

COMING SOON: A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy 2.0

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We all want the same thing: a clean and responsible energy future for our children and future generations while continuing to enjoy a high standard of living.

On December 11, 2020, the Prime Minister announced a new climate plan which he claimed will help achieve Canada’s economic and environmental goals.

The proposed plan by Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) entitled “A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy” will have an initial investment of $15 billion of taxpayer’s money. It is built on 5 pillars of action:

  1) Making the Places Canadians Live and Gather More Affordable by Cutting Energy Waste

2) Making Clean, Affordable Transportation and Power Available in Every Community

3) Continuing to Ensure Pollution isn’t Free and Households Get More Money Back

4) Building Canada’s Clean Industrial Advantage

5) Embracing the Power of Nature to Support Healthier Families and More Resilient Communities  

In my paper, “A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy 2.0” I will objectively critique each pillar in the government’s new climate plan and provide alternative solutions to the same issues.

  This is an alternative plan that supports workers, protects lower income earners and creates economic growth while respecting the environment and focusing on the dignity of work.

  This plan abandons virtue-signaling projects and relies on Canadian ingenuity to build our economy and restore Canada’s role of responsible leadership in the world.

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