This week my colleagues and I announced the discovery of a new species of mammal from the time of dinosaurs. It is one of two rare skeletons we’re studying from the Isle of Skye in Scotland. These mouse-like animals lived in the Middle Jurassic (166 million years ago), and tell us about the evolution of mammals in the time of dinosaurs.
The two fossils belong to Borealestes serendipitous and Borealestes cuillinensis. B. serendipitous was the first Jurassic mammal ever found in Scotland, known originally from pieces of fossil jaw found on Skye in 1971. In our new paper, we describe the skull of a partial skeleton of this species, found in 1972 by the original discoverer of the site, Dr Michael Waldman and his colleague Prof Robert Savage. But this exceptional fossil lay unstudied for over 40 years. Only now is it giving up its secrets thanks to powerful synchrotron X-ray scans, which reveal the anatomy in incredible detail.
The other fossil skeleton was found in 2018 by my colleague Prof Richard Butler. After taking it back to the lab and CT-scanning it, we realised it was a new species. We named it Borealestes cuillinensis in honour of the Cuillin mountain range on Skye (Gaelic: An Cuiltheann), a stunningly jagged set of peaks that overlooks where the discovery was made.
Most ancient mammals are only known from a few teeth and jaws, so these skeletons are exceptionally rare. They are currently the most complete Jurassic mammals described from the UK.
The Middle Jurassic is an important time in animal evolution, because it marks an increase in the diversity of lots of different groups. Just afterwards, in the Late Jurassic, there are many new species of mammals, amphibians, small reptiles and dinosaurs, which flourish into the Cretaceous period. All of this diversity began in the Middle Jurassic, but fossils from that time are rare, making it difficult to unpick the causes of these changes. This means that any material from that time period is extremely important to our understanding of the course of evolution, and the drivers of animal diversity.
Our team have been carrying out fieldwork and research on Skye for the last decade. It includes researchers from National Museums Scotland and the universities of Oxford and Birmingham. We are working on many more exciting fossils from the island, so keep an eye out for the next discovery!
Read the paper ‘New species of mammaliaform and the cranium of Borealestes (Mammaliformes: Docodonta) from the Middle Jurassic of the British Isles’ published today in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.
Top image: Digital reconstruction of two Jurassic mammal skulls. (c) Matt Humpage
This article is taken from European research magazine Horizon as part of our partnership to share natural environment science stories with readers of More than a Dodo.
In the summer of 2014 a strange building began to take shape just outside MoMA PS1, a contemporary art centre in New York City. It looked like someone had started building an igloo and then got carried away, so that the ice-white bricks rose into huge towers. It was a captivating sight, but the truly impressive thing about this building was not so much its looks but the fact that it had been grown.
The installation, called Hy-Fi, was designed and created by The Living, an architectural design studio in New York. Each of the 10,000 bricks had been made by packing agricultural waste and mycelium, the fungus that makes mushrooms, into a mould and letting them grow into a solid mass.
This mushroom monument gave architectural researcher Phil Ayres an idea. ‘It was impressive,’ said Ayres, who is based at the Centre for Information Technology and Architecture in Copenhagen, Denmark. But this project and others like it were using fungus as a component in buildings such as bricks without necessarily thinking about what new types of building we could make from fungi.
That’s why he and three colleagues have begun the FUNGAR project – to explore what kinds of new buildings we might construct out of mushrooms.
Mushrooms might sound like an outlandish building material. But there is certainly good reason to drastically rethink construction. Buildings and construction are responsible for 39% of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions – and a whopping 21% of those emissions come just from the making of steel and concrete. Construction also uses vast amounts of natural resources. Take sand, one of the principal ingredients in concrete. It takes a special sort, with just the right roughness, to make concrete. These days it is a lucrative commodity and controlled in some parts of the world by sand mafias and stolen by the boatload from islands.
Such troubles are set to worsen over the next decades as the world’s population grows faster and gets wealthier. We need a lot more homes and if you do the maths, the amount we need to build is staggering. ‘It’s like building a Manhattan every month for the next 40 years,’ said Ayres, borrowing a line from Bill Gates.
Can fungi really help? Absolutely, says mycologist Professor Han Wosten at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Fungi are not consumers of CO2 like plants are. They need to digest food and so produce carbon dioxide, like animals do. However, the organic waste streams (such as straw or other low value agricultural waste) that the fungi digest would be degraded to CO2 anyway, either by composting or burning. Plus, fungi bricks permanently fix some of that waste inside them and so act as a store of carbon. All this makes fungi buildings a climate win – and certainly miles better than using concrete, steel and bricks.
The FUNGAR project began in late 2019 and so far Prof. Wosten has been experimenting with how to make building materials. At Prof. Wosten’s lab in Utrecht, the team have been combining mycelium, the ‘roots’ of fungi, with agricultural waste such as straw. Then they allow the fungi to grow for about two weeks, until the fungus has colonised the straw. This binds the straw together, producing a white-ish foam-like material. Then they heat-treat it to kill the organism. They can also process it, for example by applying coatings or by squashing it. ‘If we press it we can get a material like hardboard,’ said Prof. Wosten. By varying the type of fungi and agricultural waste, the growth conditions and the post-processing, Prof. Wosten says they are getting all sorts of candidate building materials with different mechanical properties.
‘It’s very early days to start saying your house will be made entirely of fungus,’ said Ayres. But parts of it already can be. Mogu, a company based near Milan in Italy, already produces and sells sound-dampening velvet-textured wall tiles and floor tiles based on mycelium foam. The company’s chief technology officer Antoni Gandia is another FUNGAR project partner. He said that Mogu is also developing mycelium-based insulation material for buildings.
Ayres is hoping that the FUNGAR project will go way beyond just using fungi-based products as components in existing building designs. He wants to think about what entirely new kinds of building might be made from fungi. Foremost in his mind is building with living fungus.
‘It’s very early days to start saying your house will be made entirely of fungus.’
Phil Ayres, Centre for Information Technology and Architecture, Copenhagen, Denmark
There are two principal advantages to this. First, living fungus might behave as a self-healing material, simply re-growing if it becomes damaged. Second, mycelium networks are capable of information processing. Electrical signals run through them and change over time in a manner almost akin to a brain. ‘We’ve discovered that fungal materials respond to tactile stimulation and illumination by changing their patterns of electrical activity,’ said Prof. Andrew Adamatzky at the University of the West of England in Bristol, UK, who is coordinating the project with Ayres.
The idea is that perhaps the very structure of a mushroom building might sense and respond to its environment independently. It might for instance sense when CO2 levels from the mycelium are building up and open the windows to release the gas, according to Gandia.
Building with living mycelium will be a big challenge. This is because the longer it grows, the more of the substrate material – the straw, or whatever waste – it decomposes. Since the straw gives the materials their structural integrity, allowing the fungi to grow for too long isn’t desirable. There may be ways around this though. Depriving the fungi of water puts it into a dormant state: alive but not growing. And so one of Ayres’ ideas is to construct walls with two layers of dead fungus enclosing a layer of living fungus inside. This set up would shut out water from the inner layer, keeping the fungus there dormant.
One of the few other people who have explored working with fungi in construction is Jonathan Dessi Olive at Kansas State University in the US. He says that working with living mycelium is a very interesting new idea because it offers the possibility of the building being able to heal itself. But for him the real attraction of what he calls ‘myco-materials’ is that they ‘give us a way of reshaping how we think about the permanence of architecture.
‘What if some – not all – of our buildings were meant to only last a couple of years and could thereafter be recycled into shelter, food, or energy?’ he said.
The next major goal for the FUNGAR project is to build a small, freestanding building. They plan to pull that off within a year and then spend time monitoring it as it ages. It is crucial, says Ayres, to be able to monitor the living structure and see how it changes. It isn’t yet clear exactly what sorts of structures might end up being made from fungi, but they will probably start small. ‘I wouldn’t be crossing a bridge made of fungi, would you?’ joked Prof. Wosten.
You might be wondering what happened to Hy-Fi, that igloo-like structure in New York. The answer points to one of the most beautiful things about mycelium buildings. No wrecking ball or slow decay for them. It was taken down and composted.
The research in this article was funded by the EU. If you liked this article, please consider sharing it on social media.
Elaine Charwat has been on a journey into the attic storerooms behind the scenes of the Museum to discover 19th-century wax models of parasites. A strange occupation you might think, but it’s all part of her doctoral research programme with the Arts and Humanities Research Council to learn about the use of models and replicas in science, past and present. In the podcast above Elaine meets Mark Carnall, Zoology Collections Manager at the OUMNH, who talks about the differences between models and the thousands of specimens he looks after, and Dr Péter Molnár, Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Toronto, who offers important insights into current research using mathematical models.
Different types of models and replicas are everywhere in the Museum, and they tell us much about the organisms they represent or reconstruct, but even more about processes in research and science. Made to communicate and produce data, these larger-than-life objects are as fascinating as their subjects…
Top image: Wax models of Sarcoptes scabiei (itch mite) produced by Rudolf Weisker, Leipzig (Germany), probably late 1870s or early 1880s. These models are listed as having been on public display at the Museum in 1911, labelled: “Sarcoptes scabiei: enlarged wax models, male & female + mouth parts”.
Elsa Panciroli recently joined the Museum research team as an Early Career Leverhulme Research Fellow. Elsa is a Scottish palaeontologist, whose studies focus on the early evolutionary origins of mammals, working extensively on fossils from the Isle of Skye. Here she tells us how her work will combine studies of mammal evolution with stunning new fossil finds from Scotland.
We are mammals. This means we share a common ancestor with creatures as different as hippos, opossums and platypuses. All of us are united in one taxonomic group by a suite of characteristics in our bodies, but principally, that we feed our young on milk. Every mammal from a baboon to a blue whale produces milk for their offspring, and this makes us unique among animals alive on Earth today.
But not all mammals bring their young up in the same way; raising a kitten is nothing like raising a kangaroo or a platypus. Kittens are born stumbling around with their eyes closed, while platypus babies are laid in eggs – yes eggs – and when they hatch they look like little scampi. Both are underdeveloped at birth or hatching, but that’s nothing compared to kangaroos. They leave the womb only millimetres in length, and wriggle their way like living jellybeans toward a teat in the marsupial pouch, where they latch on. Only after two months of milk-drinking are they able to hop for themselves and leave the pouch.
The different ways that mammals are born and grow is a huge area of scientific research. But there are still some major questions to answer about the evolution of these growth patterns. When did the ancestors of mammals stop laying eggs? Were they born defenceless, or able to fend for themselves? How quickly did they grow up and how long did they live?
Over the next three years at the Museum, I’ll be looking for evidence in the fossil record to help us try and answer some of these questions. I’ll study living mammals to understand how they are born and grow, combining this information with data from some of the amazing fossils being found on the Isle of Skye. With collaborators in South Africa I’ll try and work out how the ancestors of mammals developed, and what this means for the bigger picture of the origin of mammals as a group.
Alongside my main research I hope to share lots of stories about our fossil past through the museum’s fantastic public engagement programme. I’m also very active on social media, and I write about science for online and in print publications. So if you see me on your next visit to the building, or find me online, feel free to ask about my research! I look forward to seeing you, and sharing more about the elusive and exciting origins of mammals – and ourselves.
When the campaign to build the Museum was launched, science at Oxford was understood as natural theology. By the time the Museum opened in 1860, a new secular approach to science was on the rise.
In this last episode of the Temple of Science podcast series we see how the art and science of the Museum responded to the challenge posed by Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution and natural selection, and the scientific naturalism that they epitomised.
The Museum was not originally simply a museum as we understand it today: It was an entire science faculty. In episode four of the Temple of Science podcast series we see how the museum’s overarching principle of design – that art should be used to teach science and to inspire generations of scientists – was put into practice in some of its less familiar but no less beautiful spaces.