Animals

Illustration depicting Falcatakely amid nonavian dinosaurs and other creatures during the Late Cretaceous in Madagascar. (Credit: Mark Witton)

By Daniel Dunaief

Dromomeron and Falcatakely lived nowhere near each other. They also lived millions of years apart, offering the kind of evolutionary pieces to different puzzles that thrill paleontologists.

Left, Alan Turner holds a model of the maxilla of Falcatakely, with a CT reconstruction on his computer screen.

These two creatures, the first a three-foot long dinosaur precursor discovered in Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, and the second a crow-sized bird fossil discovered in Madagascar, have taken center stage in recent scientific circles.

What they have in common is Alan Turner, Associate Professor in the Department of Anatomical Sciences at the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University.

The discoveries, which were made over a decade ago, were recently parts of publications in consecutive issues of the prestigious journal Nature. “It’s really exciting,” Turner said. “I definitely feel fortunate” to contribute to these two publications.

Turner, who is not the lead author in either study, emphasized that these papers were only possible through teamwork. “These large, collaborative efforts are one of the ways these really significant discoveries can happen,” he said.

The work that includes Dromomeron, in particular, is one that “any one of our groups couldn’t have done [alone]. It hinged on a series of discoveries across multiple continents.”

Each paper helps fill out different parts of the evolutionary story. The Dromomeron discovery helps offer an understanding of a major evolutionary transition from the Triassic Period, while the Falcatakely find offers a look at the diversification of birds during the Cretaceous Period.

Dromomeron

Starting with the paper in which Dromomeron appears, researchers used a collection of dinosaur precursor fossils to study a smaller group of animals called lagerpetids, whose name means “rabbit lizard” or “rabbit reptile.”

These creatures lived during the age of the earliest relatives of lizards, turtles and crocodylians.

Above, a reconstruction of a pterosaur, a lagerpetid from the Triassic Period/Rodolfo Nogueria

Pterosaurs, which have a characteristic elongated fourth finger that forms a large portion of their wing, lived 160 million years ago, which means that the earlier, flightless lagerpetids roamed the Earth about 50 million years before pterosaurs.

Turner discovered Dromomeron in Ghost Ranch, New Mexico 14 years ago. Since then, other scientists have unearthed new bones from this prehistoric rabbit lizard group in North America, Brazil, Argentina and Madagascar.

Scientists involved in this paper used micro-CT scans and 3D scanning to compare lagerpetid and pterosaur skeletal fossils to demonstrate overlaps in their anatomy. The shape and size of the brain and inner ear of these lagerpetid fossils share similarities with pterosaurs.

The inner ear, Turner explained, is particularly important for animals like the pterosaur, which likely used it the way modern birds do when they are in flight to help determine their location in space and to keep their balance.

Lagerpetids, however, didn’t fly, so paleontologists aren’t sure how these ancient rabbit lizards used their inner ear.

Turner said the Dromomeron discovery was initially more of a curiosity. In fact, when researchers found it, “we had a blackboard in this collection space where we were working,” Turner recalled. “It was unceremoniously referred to as ‘Reptile A.’ There weren’t a lot of things to compare it to. At that point we knew we had a thing but we didn’t know what it was.”

A colleague of Turners, Randall Irmis, Chief Curator and Curator of Paleontology, Associate Professor of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Utah, traveled to Argentina, where he noticed a creature that was similar to the find in New Mexico.

Irmis’s trip “allowed our team to confirm our comparison [between Dromomeron and Lagerpeton] first-hand. From there, we were able to build out the larger evolutionary context,” Turner explained in an email.

Falcatakely

Meanwhile, Turner and Patrick O’Connor, Professor of Anatomy and Neuroscience at Ohio University and lead author on the study, shared their discovery of a bird they located in Madagascar that they called Falcatakely.

The bird’s name is a combination of Latin and Malagasy, the language of the island nation of Madagascar, which means “small scythe” and describes the beak shape.

Right, an artist reconstruction of the Late Cretaceous enantiornithine bird Falcatakely forsterae with its unique beak/Sketch by Mark Witton

The scientists found a partial skull in a quarry in Madagascar. The fossil was embedded in rocks. Turner and O’Connor analyzed it through CT scanning and through careful physical and digital preparation by their colleague Joe Groenke, laboratory coordinator for the O’Connor lab.

The discovery of grooves on the side of the face for a beak took the researchers by surprise.

“As the face began to emerge from the rock, we immediately knew that it was something very special, if not entirely unique,” O’Connor said in a press release. 

“Mesozoic birds with such high, long faces are completely unknown, with Falcatakely providing a great opportunity to reconsider ideas around head and beak evolution in the lineage leading to modern birds.”

As with the Dromomeron find, the discovery of Falcatakely didn’t provide a eureka moment when the scientists found it 10 years ago.

“We didn’t know [what we had] when we collected this material,” Turner said. “It wasn’t until we CT scanned the block in an effort to begin the preparation that we said, ‘Wait a second. There’s something really weird in this block. The flat part turned out to be the side of the face.”

Turner originally thought it could have been the breast bone of a larger dinosaur. During the pandemic, he has come back to projects that have been sitting around for several years. Some have “probably danced on the periphery that have now come to the dance,” in terms of his focus.

In looking back on the ingredients that made these two Nature papers possible, Turner added another element. These publications underline “the importance of investing in long term field work expeditions,” he said.

By John L. Turner

Situated a mile east of Orient Point, the eastern tip of the North Fork and separated from it by Plum Gut, lies Plum Island, an 822-acre pork-chop shaped island that is owned by you and me (being the federal taxpayers that we are). 

The island’s most well-known feature is the Plum Island Animal Disease Center (PIADC), situated in the northwestern corner of the property, but Plum Island is so much more. On the western edge lays the Plum Island lighthouse which was built in 1869 to warn mariners of the treacherous currents of Plum Gut. On the east there’s the brooding presence of Fort Terry, a relict of the Spanish-American War, with scattered evidence in the form of barracks, gun batteries, and the tiny tracks of a toy gauge railroad once used to move cannon shells from storage to those concrete batteries. (The cannons never fired except during drills).

And there’s the stuff that excites naturalists:

■ The largest seal haul-out site in southern New England located at the eastern tip of the island where throngs of harbor and grey seals swim along the rocky coastline or bask, like fat sausages, on the off-shore rocks that punctuate the surface of the water.

■ The more than 225 different bird species, one-quarter of all the species found in North America, that breed here (like the bank swallows that excavate burrows in the bluff face on the south side of the island), or pass through on their seasonal migratory journeys, or overwinter.

■ Dozens of rare plants, like ladies’-tresses orchids, blackjack oak, and scotch lovage that flourish in the forests, thickets, meadows, and shorelines of Plum Island.

■ A large freshwater pond in the southwestern section of the island that adds visual delight and biological diversity to the island. 

■ And, of course, the ubiquitous beach plums that gave the island its name!

For the past decade a struggle has ensued to make right what many individuals, organizations of all sorts (including the more than 120-member Preserve Plum Island Coalition), and many public officials consider a significant wrong — Congress’s order to sell Plum Island to the highest bidder, forever losing it as a public space. 

This ill-conceived path of auctioning the island was set in motion by a half-page paragraph buried in a several thousand- page bill to fund government agencies in 2009. Fortunately, this struggle has been won — the wrong has been righted — as language included in the recently adopted 2021 budget bill for the federal government, repeals the requirement that the General Services Administration sell the island. 

Thank you to Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Senators Christopher Murphy and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and members of Congress Lee Zeldin,Tom Suozzi, Rosa DeLauro and Joe Courtney!

Thanks is also due to New York State Assemblyman Steve Englebright who sponsored legislation that was signed into law creating a Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle area in the waters surrounding Plum Island.

While this victory is a vital and necessary step to ultimately protect Plum Island, it is a temporary and incomplete one since the island can still be sold to a private party through the normal federal land disposition process if no government agency at the federal, state, or local level steps up to take title to the island. 

The Coalition’s next task, then, is to ensure that a federal agency such as the National Park Service (National Monument?), U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (National Wildlife Refuge?) or the state of New York (New York State Park Preserve?) expresses a willingness to accept stewardship of this magnificent island, since they get first dibs to the island if they want it. A key enticement toward this end is the $18.9 million commitment in the budget to clean up the few contaminated spots on the island.

Why the sale in the first place? Since 1956 PIADC has been conducting top level research on highly communicable animal diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease. To this end, several years ago staff developed a vaccine for this highly contagious disease that holds great promise in controlling the disease globally.

Despite this successful research, Congress determined the facility was obsolete and should be replaced, approving the construction of a new state-of-the-art facility, known as the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF), to be located on the campus of Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas. NBAF is complete and will soon be fully operational so as a result PIADC is no longer needed; PIADC is expected to transfer all operations to Kansas and close for good in 2023.

Plum Island is a rare place — a remarkable asset that holds the promise of enriching Long Islanders’ lives —your family’s lives, if we can keep it in public ownership. The Preserve Plum Island Coalition, with the input from hundreds of Long Islanders, has painted a vision for the island … so, imagine throwing binoculars, a camera, and a packed lunch enough for you and your family into your backpack and participating in this realized vision by:

— Taking a ferry across to the island, debarking to orient your island adventure by visiting a museum interpreting the cultural and natural riches and fascinating history of the island before you wander, for countless hours, to experience the wild wonders of the island. A most worthwhile stop is the island’s eastern tip where, through a wildlife blind, you enjoy watching dozens of bobbing grey and harbor seals dotting the water amidst the many partially submerged boulders.

— Standing on the edge of the large, tree-edged pond, watching basking turtles and birds and dragonflies flitting over the surface.

-Birdwatching on the wooded trails and bluff tops to view songbirds, shorebirds, ospreys and other birds-of-prey, swallows, sea ducks and so many other species. Perhaps you’ll see a peregrine falcon zipping by during fall migration, sending flocks of shorebirds scurrying away as fast as their streamlined wings can take them.

— Strolling along the island’s eight miles of undisturbed coastline, with the beauty of eastern Long Island before you, offering distant views of Great Gull, Little Gull and Gardiner’s Islands, Montauk Point, and the Connecticut and Rhode Island coastlines.

— Lodging at the Plum Island lighthouse, converted into a Bed & Breakfast and enjoying a glass of wine as the sun sets over Plum Gut and Orient Point.

— Learning about the role Fort Terry played in protecting the United States and the port of New York as your explore the many parts of the fort — the barracks where soldiers stayed, the gun batteries that once housed the cannons angled skyward to repel a foreign attack.

— At the end of day, if you don’t stay over, taking the ferry back to the mainland of the North Fork, tired after many miles of hiking in the salt air of the East End stopping at a North Fork restaurant to share a chat among friends and family about what you’ve learned relating to this fascinating place.

This legislation has given Plum Island (based on the above perhaps we should call it Treasure Island!) a second chance and an opportunity for us to achieve this vision. But this law is only the first step. We need to take the vital second step of new ownership and management in the public interest if all of the above adventures are to become realities. We collectively need to tell those elected officials who represent us, and who can make a difference in determining the island’s fate, that we want Plum Island protected in perpetuity and the opportunity for its many wonders to become interwoven into the fabric of life on Long Island. 

Go to www.preserveplumisland.org to learn more about the Coalition, receive updates, and what you can do to help.

John Turner is the spokesperson for the Preserve Plum Island Coalition.

Stock photo

Join the staff at Caleb Smith State Park Preserve, 581 W. Jericho Turnpike, Smithtown for a family program, Who’s Been Walking in the Snow?, on Jan. 16 from 1:30 to 3 p.m. Families will become nature detectives as they unravel the clues left behind by the park’s wildlife. Follow the signs and hopefully find the creatures that made them! Dress for the weather. Masks are mandatory. $4 per person. Preregistration required by calling 265-1054.

This week’s shelter pets are Batman, Joker, Penguin & Wonder Woman, six- month-old siblings up for adoption at the Smithtown Animal Shelter. These kittens are shy with strangers, so they are overlooked time and again. With a little time and patience, they are sweet, playful and loving. 

The quartet come spayed or neutered, microchipped and are up to date on their vaccines. If you are interested in meeting  these DC Comic Cats, please call ahead to schedule an hour to properly interact with them.

The Smithtown Animal & Adoption Shelter is located at 410 Middle Country Road, Smithtown. Shelter operating hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the week, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on the weekend. For more information, please call 631-360-7575 or visit www.smithtownanimalshelter.com.

K9 Agar

The Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office recently welcomed two new canines to its Deputy Sheriff K9 Unit. K9 Agar and K9 Reis began their service with the Sheriff’s Office in the fall of 2020.

The Sheriff’s Office has a total of six canine teams; three for the police division and three for the correction division. The mission of these New York State certified canine teams is to support the daily operations of the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office as well as other law enforcement agencies upon request.

The Sheriff’s Office Police Division canines are bred in Europe before being purchased by a third-party vendor and flown to the United States. The police dogs may receive some preliminary protection dog training in Europe but receive their police-specific training in the United States with our trainers.

K9 Reis

Both the dogs and their handlers spend 6 to 10 weeks in Columbus, Ohio for their basic certifications. K9 Agar and K9 Reis are certified in scent detection, narcotics detection, criminal apprehension, and handler protection. The canine teams are ready to serve the people of Suffolk County upon their return from Ohio and will conduct weekly in-service training for the length of their service to maintain New York State standards.

Sheriff’s Office canines have an average service length of about eight years. Considering that they are usually 1 to 2 years of age when entering service, they retire around the age of 9 or 10. Once canines are retired, they live out the remainder of their lives at home with their handlers and family.

K9 Agar is a 22-month-old sable colored German Shepherd from the Netherlands. K9 Agar is handled by Deputy Sheriff Kevin Tracy, a four-time experienced canine handler. Agar is a high drive, soft tempered dog with a sharp focus for his work.

K9 Reis is a 19-month-old dark brindle colored Dutch Shepherd also from the Netherlands. K9 Reis is handled by Deputy Sheriff Jason Korte, a second-time canine handler. Reis is named for Fallen Correction Officer Andrew P. Reister. Reis is a high drive, strong willed dog that exhibits a uniquely high level of courage.

Sheriff Errol Toulon was pleased to welcome these new canines. “The Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office is proud to have these highly trained K9 Teams join our ranks. These dogs will work tirelessly to help fight crime, detect drugs, and keep Suffolk County safe,” he said in a statement.

For more information on Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office, visit www.SuffolkSheriff.com.

Microplastic scooped from the surf off Kamilo Beach, Hawaii, where there seems to be more plastic than sand. Photo by Erica Cirino
Erica Cirino

Northport-East Northport Public Library presents a virtual program via Zoom titled Exploring the Pacific Ocean and Beyond: A Discussion about Plastic Pollution, Science, and Solutions on Tuesday, Jan. 12 at 7 p.m.

Science writer and artist Erica Cirino has explored many of the oceans, lands, and ecosystems of the Earth with a single purpose: find out the truths about plastic pollution and what it is doing to the planet, wildlife and people. Ms. Cirino will share her findings and testimony as a journalist, illustrated by amazing photography, during the presentation. Open to all.

Registration is underway at www.nenpl.org. Code: NENA979

Questions? Call 631-261-6930.

Dean

MEET DEAN!

This week’s shelter pet is Dean, a large statured cat that was found as a stray and brought to the Smithtown Animal Shelter. Estimated to be around 2 years young, he is loving and outgoing with people and other cats.  He is a complete love!

Dean does have chronic discharge from his eyes that needs to be wiped away regularly, but he enjoys the attention and never gives you a hard time about it. He is otherwise completely healthy! He comes neutered, up to date on his vaccines and microchipped.

If you are interested in meeting Dean, please call ahead to schedule an hour to properly interact with him in the Meet and Greet Room.

The Smithtown Animal & Adoption Shelter is located at 410 Middle Country Road, Smithtown. Shelter operating hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the week, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on the weekend. For more information, please call 631-360-7575 or visit www.smithtownanimalshelter.com.

Mia!

MEET MIA!

This week’s shelter pet is Mia, a loving and energetic two year-old Pit/Lab Mix currently waiting at the Smithtown Animal Shelter for her furever home.

Equal parts goofy and affectionate, Mia came to the shelter as a stray after being hit by a car and fortunately sustaining only minor injuries. She loves to whip around her rope toys and chase after balls and thinks she is a lap dog and will crawl in your lap and shower you with kisses.

Mia was a yard dog, so she is protective of her space when it comes to strangers, and she will require a home that can properly introduce her to new people. Once she meets a new friend, she loves them unconditionally. Mia would be best as the only pet in the home. She comes spayed, up to date on her vaccines and microchipped.

If you are interested in meeting Mia, please call ahead to schedule an hour to properly interact with her in a domestic setting, which includes a Meet and Greet Room, the dog runs, and a Dog Walk trail. Family Pet Meet and Greets and at home interactions are also welcome and an integral part of the adoption process.

The Smithtown Animal & Adoption Shelter is located at 410 Middle Country Road, Smithtown. Shelter operating hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the week, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on the weekend. For more information, please call 631-360-7575 or visit www.smithtownanimalshelter.com.

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Motor. Photo courtesy of Smithtown Animal Shelter

MEET MATTY, MOTOR AND SID!

Shy cats need love too! 

This week’s shelter pets are, from top, Matty, Motor and Sid, 1-year-old cats at the Smithtown Animal Shelter that are overlooked time and again because they are shy. 

All 3 grew up in the shelter and watched their more outgoing siblings get happy homes. They may take time to let you in, but when they do, they are loving, playful and sweet. These three boys are buds but not bonded. They’d love to be homed together, but will adjust if they aren’t. 

Shy cats need quiet homes with patience and lots of love to give but  they are worth it! The trio come spayed, microchipped and is up to date on their vaccines.

If you are interested in meeting  Matty, Motor and Sid, please call ahead to schedule an hour to properly interact with them.

The Smithtown Animal & Adoption Shelter is located at 410 Middle Country Road, Smithtown. Shelter operating hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the week, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on the weekend. For more information, please call 631-360-7575 or visit www.smithtownanimalshelter.com.