Category Archives: CHINA

Cannabis originated in China, genetic analysis reveals

Cannabis originated in China, genetic analysis reveals

People feeling the effects of marijuana are prone to what scientists call “divergent thinking,” the process of searching for solutions to a loosely defined question. Here is one to ponder: Where did the weed come from? No, not where it was bought, but where and when was the plant first domesticated.

Many botanists believe that the Cannabis sativa plant was first domesticated in Central Asia. But a study published Friday in the journal Science Advances suggests that East Asia is the more likely source and that all existing strains of the plant come from an “ancestral gene pool” represented by wild and cultivated varieties growing in China today.

The study’s authors found that the plant was a “primarily multipurpose crop” grown about 12,000 years ago during the early Neolithic period, probably for fibre and medicinal uses.

Farmers began breeding the plant specifically for its mind-altering properties about 4,000 years ago, as cannabis began to spread into Europe and the Middle East, the authors of the study said.

Cannabis originated in China, genetic analysis reveals
Cannabis landraces in Qinghai province, central China have been determined as the forerunners of cannabis domestication. A landrace refers to a domesticated, locally adapted, traditional variety of a species of animal or plant that has developed over time.

Michael Purugganan, a professor of biology at New York University who read the study, said the usual assumption about early humans was that they domesticated plants for food.

“That seems to be the most pressing problem for humans then: How to get food,” said Purugganan, who was not involved in the research. “The suggestion that even early on they were also very concerned with fibre and even intoxicants is interesting. It would bring to question what were the priorities of these Neolithic societies.

A 2016 study by other scientists said that the earliest records for cannabis were mostly from China and Japan, but most botanists believe that it was probably first domesticated in the eastern part of Central Asia, where wild varieties of the plant are widespread.

Gene study

Genetic sequencing for the latest study suggests that the species has a “single domestication origin” in East Asia, the researchers wrote. By sequencing genetic samples of the plant, they found that the species had most likely been domesticated by the early Neolithic period. They said their conclusion was supported by pottery and other archaeological evidence from the same period that was discovered in present-day China, Japan and Taiwan.

But Purugganan said he was sceptical about conclusions that the plant was developed for drug or fibre use 12,000 years ago since archaeological evidence show the consistent use or presence of cannabis for those purposes began about 7,500 years ago. “I would like to see a much larger study with a larger sampling,” he said.

Luca Fumagalli, an author of the study and a biologist in Switzerland who specialises in conservation genetics, said the theory of a Central Asian origin was largely based on observational data of wild samples in that region. “It’s easy to find feral samples, but these are not wild types,” Fumagalli said. “These are plants that escaped captivity and readapted to the wild environment. “By the way, that’s the reason you call it to weed, because it grows anywhere,” he added.

Wild agricultural hemp growing in the countryside.

The study was led by Ren Guangpeng, a botanist at Lanzhou University in the western Chinese province of Gansu. Ren said in an interview that the original site of cannabis domestication was most likely northwestern China and that the finding could help with current efforts in the country to breed new types of hemp.

Hemp was likely the first stage in cannabis domestication as a food source and for making rope.

To conduct the study, Ren and his colleagues collected 82 samples, either seeds or leaves, from around the world. The samples included strains that had been selected for fibre production and others from Europe and North America that were bred to produce high amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the plant’s most mood-altering compound.

Fumagalli and his colleagues then extracted genomic DNA from the samples and sequenced them in a lab in Switzerland. They also downloaded and reanalyzed sequencing data from 28 other samples. The results showed that the wild varieties they analyzed were in fact “historical escapes from domesticated forms,” and that existing strains in China — cultivated and wild — were their closest descendants of the ancestral gene pool.

“Although additional sampling of feral plants in these key geographical areas is still needed, our results, which are based on very broad sampling already, would suggest that pure wild progenitors of C. Sativa have gone extinct,” they wrote As hemp’s function as a global source for textiles, food and oilseed dried up in the 20th century, the use of cannabis as a recreational drug increased, the new study noted. But there are still “large gaps” in knowledge about its domestication history, it said, in large part because the plant is illegal in many countries.

It can also be hard to understand precisely how plant species are domesticated in the first place, said Catherine Rushworth, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Minnesota who studies plant evolution.

Although scientists can make some basic predictions about how a given plant species will diverge in nature, she added, such predictions “go out the window” when a natural selection process is driven by humans. “So, for example, we might think that species would diverge when they’re adapting to different habitats, or to different pollinators,” she said. “But people are often the pollinators and people have created those habitats.

Fossil hunters uncover complete 252 million-year-old underwater world

Fossil hunters uncover complete 252 Million year-old underwater world

Fossil hunters have uncovered the remains of an ancient marine ecosystem that arose in the aftermath of the most devastating mass extinction in Earth’s history. The spectacular haul of 20,000 fossils from a hillside in southwestern China represents the first discovery of a complete ecosystem that bounced back afterlife was nearly wiped off the face of the planet 252m years ago.

Fossil hunters uncover complete 252 Million year-old underwater world
This Ichthyosaur fossil was one of more than 20,000 that were recently uncovered in Luoping, China.

The beautifully preserved remains include molluscs, sea urchins and arthropods, alongside much larger animals that occupied the top of the food chain, such as carnivorous fish and the first ichthyosaur’s, predatory marine reptiles that grew to four metres long.

Among the remnants are rare fragments of land life that survived the same period, including part of a conifer plant and the tooth of an archosaur reptile.

The fossils were excavated from rocks that formed when ocean sediments settled out and solidified many millions of years ago in what is now Luoping county in the Yunnan Province of China.

The Earth has witnessed several mass extinctions in its 4.5bn year history, but the event that struck at the end of the Permian was unequalled in scale. Some 96% of marine species and 70% of land vertebrates were lost in what has been called “the great dying”.

What caused such global havoc is still open to debate, but Michael Benton, a palaeontologist at Bristol University who led the latest research, said evidence points to prolonged and violent eruptions from the Siberian Traps, a huge region of volcanic rock.

In this scenario, mass eruptions triggered environmental catastrophe by belching an overwhelming quantity of gas into the atmosphere for half a million years.

“The main follow on was a flash warming of the Earth. That caused stagnation in the oceans, as normal circulation shut down.

On land, the consequence of all the carbon dioxide and other gases appears to have been massive acid rain that killed the forests and stripped the landscape bare,” Benton said. “This was the greatest of all mass extinctions, the time when life was most nearly completely wiped out.”

What life survived became the starting point for a recovery that played out over the next ten million years.

Some of these organisms, known as “disaster species” clung on through sheer hardiness, somehow coping with the harsh conditions of scarce food, wild variations in temperature and little oxygen in the oceans.

By studying the fossils, Benton and his colleagues at the Chengdu Institute of Geology and Mineral Resources and the University of Western Australia, hope to piece together how life can come back from the brink.

“The recovery from mass extinction touches on current concerns about biodiversity and conservation. Why do certain species go extinct? Which species come back? How do you rebuild an ecosystem and how long does it take?” said Benton. The study appears in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The Luoping fossils show that many small organisms at the bottom of the food chain came back within two to three million years. Once their populations stabilised, other creatures that could feed on them recovered, including molluscs and shellfish.

The familiar spiralled ammonites bounced back surprisingly fast. Only later did the larger predators reappear in the oceans.

The loss of so many species at the end of the Permian gave new creatures the chance to take their place. Before the mass extinction, the top ocean predators were primitive sharks. Some survived and recovered, but they were joined by the first predatory ichthyosaurs. “Part of it is a rebuilding of the ecosystem from the grim survivors, but there are also opportunities for new groups. There were essentially no marine reptiles before the extinction, but this gave them a way in,” said Benton.

Palaeontologists have unearthed other fossils that give a glimpse of life coming back from the Permian extinction, but the extensive remains at Luoping are unique in having the rich biodiversity of a fully functioning ecosystem, from the lowliest plankton to carnivorous apex predators.

Chinese scientists uncover 4,000-year-old bowl of noodles

Chinese scientists uncover 4,000-year-old bowl of noodles

Chinese scientists uncover 4,000-year-old bowl of noodles
A 4,000-year-old bowl of noodles unearthed in China is the earliest example ever found of one of the world’s most popular foods, scientists reported today. It also suggests an Asian—not Italian—origin for the staple dish.

Since 1999, when Lajia villagers are busy with the autumn harvest every autumn, it is also the time for archaeologists to actively carry out their work. For six years, Ye Maolin, an archaeologist at the Institute of Archaeology of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, has been working hard at the Lajia site.

God rewards hard work. God will also prefer people who work hard. Important research results from the Lajia site follow one after another, many of which are results. Going internationally, it has attracted worldwide attention.

On November 22, 2002, archaeologists carried out excavations on the eastern platform of the Lajia site.

This platform was very special. The hard soil surface was found in its Qijia cultural strata, which means that there used to be a lot of people collectively.

The trample is a square. In the northern part of this platform, traces of settlement sacrificial sites were once found. The work on the 22nd was just north of the platform. Cai Linhai of the Qinghai Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology unearthed an orange-red pottery bowl.

This kind of pottery bowl can be seen everywhere in the Lajia ruins. It is very common and extraordinary. When the soil in the bowl is poured, it is found to be white noodles.

The relics have been weathered, leaving only a thin skin, but the noodle-like shape remains the same, with a length of tens of centimetres. The experienced researcher Ye Maolin quickly put the noodle-like relics back into the bowl, covered the soil intact, did some simple treatments, and brought them back to Beijing.

After Ye Maolin asked researcher Lu Houyuan from the Institute of Geology and Geophysics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences to do the ancient work. In botanical identification, researcher Lu Houyuan used a technique called plant silicate to identify this noodle-like relic.

It is indeed food noodles, but it is not noodles made with the wheat flour we use today, but with millet and a small amount. It is made of millet, figuratively speaking, it is a bowl of miscellaneous noodles.

The so-called plant silicate technology means that the roots of plants absorb silicon during the growth process. They accumulate in the tissue cells of the plant in the form of hydrated silicon and aggregate into various forms of opal minerals. This is plant silicate.

It is generally deposited in situ and can be stored for a long time. Different plant types have different plant silicates. Therefore, plant silicates can be used to distinguish plant families, genera and even species.

Experts estimate that this bowl of noodles may be used for sacrifices. It was placed at the ceremonial place in the square. When an earthquake occurred, the pottery bowl was inverted in the soil, sealing the pottery bowl and isolating the air, so the noodles were well preserved. . What a blessing! The nightmare earthquake destroyed everything but saved us a bowl of precious noodles.

This is a bowl of noodles 4000 years ago! It is the oldest noodle found in the world so far. In October 2005, the world’s authoritative scientific magazine, the British “Nature”, published the research results of Ye Maolin and Lu Houyuan. This is an affirmation of their years of hard work and a demonstration of the value of the Lajia site.

Qinghai Lajia National Archaeological Site

Talking about his work, Ye Maolin was very humble. He said this: “Over the years, there have been some new discoveries and new developments in the excavations of the Lajia site almost every year. Of course, this is mainly because the Lajia site is important.

The special burial phenomenon and the special preservation environment of China contain rich connotations and precious remains. As long as the ground is broken, special new discoveries may appear. Our work only conforms to the actual situation.”

3000-year-old Wine Vessel Unearthed in Shaanxi

3000-year-old Wine Vessel Unearthed in Shaanxi

Wine dating back 3,000 years has been unearthed in a nobleman’s tomb in Shaanxi province, northwest China, and is said to be the earliest wine in China’s history.

A bronze wine vessel from the West Zhou Dynasty

According to Chinese news wire Xinhua, the wine was found inside an ancient bronze vessel from the West Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC-771 BC) in the city of Baoji.

“The liquid is likely the oldest wine discovered in China”, said Liu Jun, director of the Baoji Archaeology Institute, which is in charge of the excavation project.

According to Jun, the discovery of the liquid was made when the vessel – one of six found in the tomb – was shaken.

However, the cover of the vessel remains tightly shut, and with no appropriate tools to open it at the excavation site, the liquid inside has yet to be identified.

3000-year-old Wine Vessel Unearthed in Shaanxi
A large “Jin” and several bronze wares discovered in the noble tomb in Shaanxi province

“Wine became a symbol of corruption during the Shang Dynasty (1600BC-1046BC) as officials drank to excess.

“This leads to the emergence of prohibition devices during the succeeding Zhou dynasty, which was put on the table to remind people to drink in moderation,” Jun said.

A 95cm-long “prohibition device” was unearthed with the vessels in the tomb, the first of its kind found in Baoji.

Excavation work is still underway at the site, with more bronze devices expected to be discovered in the next few days.

The Shang dynasty’s decline is sometimes attributed to its rulers’ heavy drinking habits.

Ancient wine isn’t unknown in China, which boasts one of the oldest wine traditions in the world.

The residue of wine over 9,000 years old has been found in ancient Chinese vessels.

In a 2004 BBC report, archaeo-chemist Patrick McGovern reported the liquid was composed of “rice, honey and fruit.”

The second oldest evidence of wine, dating back 7,000 years, hails from Iran.

Massive Early Human Skull Found in China Examined

Massive Early Human Skull Found in China Examined

According to a Science Magazine report, palaeontologist Qiang Ji of Hebei GEO University and his colleagues have examined a hominin skull discovered on the banks of the Songhua River in northeastern China in 1933.

A massive, remarkably complete skull from China may reveal the long-sought face of a Denisovan.

Almost 90 years ago, Japanese soldiers occupying northern China forced a Chinese man to help build a bridge across the Songhua River in Harbin. While his supervisors weren’t looking, he found a treasure: a remarkably complete human skull buried in the riverbank.

He wrapped up the heavy cranium and hid it in a well to prevent his Japanese supervisors from finding it. Today, the skull is finally coming out of hiding, and it has a new name: Dragon Man, the newest member of the human family, who lived more than 146,000 years ago.

In three papers in the year-old journal The Innovation, palaeontologist Qiang Ji of Hebei GEO University and his team call the new species Homo longi. (Long means dragon in Mandarin.) They also claim the new species belongs to the sister group of H. sapiens, and thus, an even closer relative of humans than Neanderthals. Other researchers question the idea of a new species and the team’s analysis of the human family tree.

But they suspect the large skull has an equally exciting identity: They think it may be the long-sought skull of a Denisovan, an elusive human ancestor from Asia known chiefly from DNA.

Paleoanthropologist Marta Mirazón Lahr of the University of Cambridge, who was not involved in the work, says she’s “skeptical of the statements about humans’ long-lost sister lineage.” But she and others are thrilled with the find. “It’s a wonderful skull; I think it’s the best skull of a Denisovan that we’ll ever have,” says paleoanthropologist Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

The stunning skull was brought to light by the bridge builder’s grandchildren, who retrieved it from the well after their grandfather told them about it on his deathbed. They donated it to the Geoscience Museum at Hebei GEO University. But before Ji could ask him precisely where he found the fossil, the man died, leaving the researchers uncertain of its geological context.

With no geological context, Ji enlisted several researchers to help date the skull. Griffith University, Nathan, geochronologist Rainer Grün and colleagues linked strontium isotopes in sediment encrusted in its nasal cavities to a specific layer of sediments around the bridge, which they dated to between 138,000 and 309,000 years ago. Uranium-series dating on the bone also gives it a minimum age of 146,000 years.

Next, the researchers tried to identify the skull. Paleoanthropologist Xijun Ni of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Hebei GEO University, who led the effort, was initially puzzled: The massive skull had a brain comparable in size to that of modern humans. But it couldn’t be a member of H. sapiens because it had larger, almost square eye sockets, thick brow ridges, a wide mouth, and a huge molar.

Ni, who is also a palaeontologist who studies fossil dinosaurs and primates, used computational statistical methods to build and analyze a data set of more than 600 traits from the skull, such as measurements of its length and brow size, as well as the presence or absence of traits such as wisdom teeth. He compared 55 traits from 95 other fossilized skulls, jaws, or teeth from the genus Homo from around the world.

The computer model sorted the fossils into family trees, finding the tree that fits best with the data had four main clusters. The new skull nestled in a cluster whose branches included several skulls from China’s Middle Pleistocene, a period 789,000 to 130,000 years ago when several lineages of hominins coexisted.

Within the cluster of Chinese fossils, the new skull was most closely related to a jawbone from Xiahe Cave on the Tibetan Plateau. Proteins in that jawbone, as well as ancient DNA in the sediments of the cave, strongly suggest it was a Denisovan, a close relative of Neanderthals who lived in Denisova Cave in Siberia off and on from 280,000 to 55,000 years ago and left traces of its DNA in modern people.

To date, the only clearly identified Denisovan fossils are a pinkie bone, teeth, and a bit of skull bone from Denisova Cave. But the enormous, “weird” molar from the new find fits with the molars from Denisova, says Bence Viola, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Toronto who analyzed them with Hublin.

The paper authors acknowledge that the find could be a Denisovan. And Chris Stringer, a paleoanthropologist at London’s Natural History Museum and co-author on two of the papers, says so directly: “I think it probably is a Denisovan.”

But the team has not yet tried to extract ancient DNA or proteins from the skull or molar to test that idea. In the meantime, their analysis showed the cluster of Chinese fossils was closer to early H. sapiens than to Neanderthals who were alive at the same time, Ni says. “It is widely believed that the Neanderthal belongs to an extinct lineage that is the closest relative of our own species. However, our discovery suggests that the new lineage we identified that includes Homo longi is the actual sister group of H. sapiens.”

Although other researchers are stunned by the size and completeness of the skull, many are critical of the analysis. “When I saw this analysis, I nearly fell off my chair,” Hublin says.

They question how the skull was found to be closely related to the Xiahe jawbone because there are no overlapping traits to compare as the skull has no jawbone. Also, DNA studies reveal modern humans are more closely related to Neanderthals than Denisovans; if the Xiahe jawbone is indeed from a Denisovan, the new skull’s closest relative is likely a Neanderthal, not H. sapiens. “It’s premature to name a new species, especially a fossil with no context, with contradictions in the data set,” says María Martinón-Torres, a paleoanthropologist at CENIEH, the national centre for research on human evolution in Spain.

For now, the paper authors say they do not want to risk destroying the tooth or other bone to get DNA or protein. But other researchers hope that work happens soon. Viola, for one, says he hopes that one day, “I can finally look into the eyes of a Denisovan.”

Palaeontologists discover nearly complete dinosaur skeleton in China – fossil is ’70 per cent intact’

Palaeontologists discover nearly complete dinosaur skeleton in China – fossil is ’70 per cent intact’

Palaeontologists in southwest China have unearthed a fossil from the Jurassic period that is 70 per cent intact and belongs to a dinosaur believed to be nearly 8 metres in length.

The fossil, which dates back 180-million-years, was discovered in late May in the city of Lufeng, which is in the province of Yunnan in Southern China.

Following the groundbreaking discovery, staff with the Dinosaur Fossil Conservation and Research Center started carrying out emergency excavations to help prevent damage to the remaining bones. It was done quickly as the area is prone to soil erosion, according to reports.

Palaeontologists discover nearly complete dinosaur skeleton in China - fossil is '70 per cent intact'
Lufengosaurus is a genus of massospondylid dinosaurs who lived in the early Jurassic period in what is now known as southwestern China.

Wang Tao, Head of the Dinosaur Fossil Conservation and Research Center of Lufeng City, said finding a nearly complete Lufengosaurus is very rare, adding that the find is a ‘national treasure’.

“Such a highly complete dinosaur fossil is a rare find around the world. Based on the fossil that was have discovered over the years, on its tail, and thigh bones, we believe this is a type of giant Lufengosaurus, which lived during the Early Jurassic period,” he said.

Photos were taken at the excavation site show workers delicately brushing the red soil to uncover the skeleton.

Lufengosaurus is a genus of massospondylid dinosaurs who lived in the early Jurassic period in what is now known as southwestern China.

The species grabbed international headlines in 2017 when scientists found 195-million-year-old collagen protein in the rib of a Lufengosarus fossil.

This isn’t the only significant dino fossil find in China this year. Back in January, a 120-million-year-old fossil helped researchers and scientists to bridge the gap between dinosaurs and modern birds.

After researchers analysed and studied the fossil, the species was dubbed as ‘Wulong bohaiensis’ or ‘the dancing dragon’ and described as a strange mix between a bird and a dinosaur.

The researchers from China and the United States said the dinosaur was about the size of a raven with a long and bony tail.

Further study revealed its body was covered with feathers with two plumes at the end of the tail.

Ancient Chinese tomb dating back 2,500 years uncovered to shed light on the obscure kingdom

Ancient Chinese tomb dating back 2,500 years uncovered to shed light on obscure kingdom

Archaeologists in Luoyang, central China, unveiled a 2,500-year-old tomb they’ve been excavating since 2009.

The tomb contained copper bells and ceremonial pots. It is the largest site of around 200 tombs in the area. There was also a horse burial pit that contained whole horse skeletons and chariots.

Experts believe that the burial site belongs to a nobleman or royal of a little-known kingdom, called Lukun, that only existed between 638 BC to 525 BC, reported People’s Daily Online.

Ancient Chinese tomb dating back 2,500 years uncovered to shed light on obscure kingdom
Archaeologists found a horse burial pit in Luoyang, China which contained several whole skeletons and chariots
The area had ground water damage, which needed to be pumped out (above), but it was still well preserved despite the damage

The local government has been excavating in the Yinchuan area, just south of Luoyang city, since 2009 after a spate of grave robberies. An initial survey of the area revealed around 200 rectangular gravesites, eight horse and carriage burial pits, 30 storage pits and 10 kilns.

The largest site had a tomb that around approximately three feet below ground. It measured 21 feet long, 17 feet wide and 28 feet deep.

Due to groundwater in the area, the exterior of the tomb already has visible water damage. There were also signs of damage as a result of grave robbery. 

However, the interior coffin was protected by plaster and coffin board. It was in the space between the plaster and the coffin board that the copper wares were discovered.

The relics from the tomb have yet to be catalogued but they showed influences from the neighbouring regions at the time

The full count of the relic has yet to be completed but owing to its size, experts believe that the site was for a noble family, which didn’t have great political power.

At a nearby site, excavation of a horse burial site has been carried out since 2013. In a pit that measured 25 feet long, 20 feet wide and nine feet deep, a total of 13 horses and six chariots were found.

The horses had been neatly arranged and were left on their side. They even had decorative items on top. In a corner of the pit, there were also large quantities of cow and sheep heads and hooves.

Experts believe that the shape of the items belonged to a kingdom called Luhun, which existed between 638 BC to 525 BC. It had been detailed in historic texts but little was known about the kingdom since it only lasted for a short time.

The horses carried intricate adornments on them (pictured), giving archaeologists clues to the period that the tombs were built
Cow and sheep’s heads and hoofs were also found in the burial site, which was said to be a Luhun Kingdom tradition at the time
Experts hope the site will help them uncover and track the movements of the ethnic minority groups in the area during that time

Experts now believe that the burial showed evidence of the Luhun people’s migration.

The Rong people, an ethnic minority group who made up the population of the kingdom, had a tradition of burying the cattle parts in the horse burial pits, which was not seen in other burial sites of the same period. 

However, the designs of the objects that were buried also showed the stylistic influence from the surrounding regions during the Spring-Autumn period (722 BC to 481 BC).

This showed that the country had absorbed influences from its surroundings and combined them with its own traditions.

It is now hoped that the site will help historians and archaeologists uncover the movements of the ethnic minority groups in the area.  

Meet Shuvuuia deserti, a nocturnal dinosaur that lived 70 million years ago

Meet Shuvuuia deserti, a nocturnal dinosaur that lived 70 million years ago

Under the cover of darkness in desert habitats about 70 million years ago, in what is today Mongolia and northern China, a gangly looking dinosaur employed excellent night vision and superb hearing to thrive as a menacing pint-sized nocturnal predator.

Scientists said on Thursday an examination of a ring of bones surrounding the pupil and a bony tube inside the skull that houses the hearing organ showed that this dinosaur, called Shuvuuia deserti, boasted visual and auditory capabilities akin to a barn owl, indicating it could it hunt in total darkness.

Their study, published in the journal Science, showed that predatory dinosaurs overall generally possessed better-than-average hearing — helpful for hunters — but had vision optimized for daytime. In contrast, Shuvuuia loved the nightlife.

The fossilized skeleton of the small bird-like dinosaur Shuvuuia deserti is seen in this undated handout image.

Shuvuuia was a pheasant-sized, two-legged Cretaceous Period dinosaur weighing about as much as a small house cat. Lacking the strong jaws and sharp teeth of many carnivorous dinosaurs, it had a remarkably bird-like and lightly built skull and many tiny teeth like grains of rice.

Its mid-length neck and small head, coupled with very long legs, made it resemble an awkward chicken. Unlike birds, it had short but powerful arms ending in a single large claw, good for digging.

“Shuvuuia might have run across the desert floor under cover of night, using its incredible hearing and night vision to track small prey such as nocturnal mammals, lizards and insects.

With its long legs it could have rapidly run down such prey, and used its digging forelimbs to pry prey loose from any cover such as a burrow,” said palaeontologist Jonah Choiniere of the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, the study’s first author.

“It’s such a strange animal that palaeontologists have long wondered what it was actually doing,” added palaeontologist Roger Benson of the University of Oxford in England, who helped lead the study.

Professor Jonah Choiniere of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, is seen holding a 3D printed model of the lagena, an inner-ear structure, of the small bird-like dinosaur Shuvuuia deserti, in this undated handout photograph.

The researchers looked at a structure called the lagena, a curving and finger-like sac that sits in a cavity in the bones surrounding the brain and is connected to the part of the ear that lets reptiles and birds keep balance and move their heads while walking.

Acute hearing helps nocturnal predators locate prey. The longer the lagena, the better hearing an animal has.

The barn owl, a proficient nocturnal predator even in pitch-black conditions, has the proportionally longest lagena of any living bird. Shuvuuia is unique among predatory dinosaurs with a hyper-elongated lagena, almost identical in relative size to a barn owl’s.

The researchers also looked at a series of tiny bones called the scleral ring that encircles the pupil of the eye. It exists in birds and lizards and was present in the ancestors of today’s mammals. Shuvuuia had a very wide scleral ring, indicating an extra-large pupil size that made its eye a specialized light-capture device.

The study found that nocturnality was uncommon among dinosaurs, aside from a group called alvarezsaurs to which Shuvuuia belonged. Alvarezsaurs had a nocturnal vision very early in their lineage, but super-hearing took more time to evolve.

“Like many palaeontologists, I once considered that nighttime in the age of dinosaurs was when the mammals came out of hiding to avoid predation and competition.

The importance of these findings is that it forces us to imagine dinosaurs like Shuvuuia evolving to take advantage of these nocturnal communities,” Choiniere said.

Benson added, “This really shows that dinosaurs had a wide range of skills and adaptations that are only just coming to light now. We find evidence that there was a thriving ‘nightlife’ during the time of dinosaurs.”