12 amazing fossil finds of 2015

Meet the oldest supershark, the newest Arctic dinosaur, the Carolina Butcher and more

Archaeornithura meemannae illustration

FOSSIL FINDS  Archaeornithura meemannae, a 130-million-year-old bird, was one of several fossil finds to dazzle and intrigue scientists in 2015.

Zongda Zhang

From a spongelike speck to a bird built to terrify, 2015’s fossil finds added details, drama — and some real characters — to the story of life on Earth. These specimens flesh out life’s timeline too, spanning nearly 600 million years of history.

Courtesy of Zongjun Yin

600 million years ago

Ancient sponge ancestor
Barely the size of a pinhead, this tiny creature (called Eocyathispongia qiania) had tubular chambers and surface cells that resemble those of modern sponges (SN: 4/4/15, p. 12). 


J. Lamsdell

460 million years ago

Earliest sea scorpion
The remains of this sea monster (Pentecopterus decorahensis) were found in an ancient impact crater in Iowa. It grew up to 1.7 meters long and had bristly, serrated limbs (SN: 11/14/15, p. 5).


John Maisey/AMNH

300 million years ago

Texas supershark
The oldest known supershark was 8.5 meters long, larger than today’s great whites. It swam in warm seas over what’s now Texas (SN Online: 10/20/15).


© Jorge Gonzales


231 million years ago

Carolina Butcher
This croc ancestor, Carnufex carolinensis, which stretched 3 meters and may have walked on two legs, was a top predator in what’s now North Carolina, hence its fearsome nickname (SN: 4/18/15, p. 16).


Michael Caldwell

167 million years ago

Jurassic snakes
Four newly identified species suggest that snakes appeared 70 million years earlier than thought, living alongside the dinosaurs (SN: 2/21/15, p. 11). The tip-off: skulls like modern snakes, with teeth that curve backward.


April I. Neander/Univ. of Chicago

165 million years ago

Early tree climber
Chinese fossils suggest this shrew-sized creature had curved claws for climbing. Agilodocodon scansorius is the oldest known tree dweller among docodonts, ancient kin of today’s mammals (SN Online: 2/12/15).


Fernando Novas

150 million years ago

Vegetarian T. rex relative
This dino, Chilesaurus diegosuarezi, had a T. rex’s tiny forearms and sturdy legs. But not-so-sharp teeth suggest it ate plants, a sign that not all theropods were carnivores (SN: 5/30/15, p. 8).


Zongda Zhang

130.7 million years ago

Oldest modern birds
Feather-flecked, hummingbird-sized fossils of this water wader, Archaeornithura meemannae, found in China, push the earliest record of modern bird relatives back 6 million years (SN: 6/27/15, p. 5).


Dave Martill, Univ. of Portsmouth

120 million years ago

Four-legged snake
An elusive link between snakes and lizards turned up in a German museum specimen. The leggy fossil find hints that snakes might have evolved on land (SN: 8/22/15, p. 10).


James Havens © 2014

69 million years ago

New Arctic dino
This newfound duck-billed dino, Ugrunaaluk kuukpikensis, joins about a dozen other dinosaurs that roamed the chilly, polar forests and endured long stretches of darkness (SN: 10/31/15, p. 5).  


Marta Palmero/Institut Català de Paleontologia Miquel Crusafont (ICP)

11.6 million years ago

Gibbonlike ape ancestor
The remains of a small tree dweller, dubbed Laia but officially Pliobates cataloniae, suggest that today’s apes descended from small primates instead of large ones, as scientists had believed (SN: 11/28/15, p. 10).

F. Degrange

3.5 million years ago

Terror bird
This South American predator (Llallawavis scagliai), one of many prowling the continent, stood 1.2 meters tall and used its extra sturdy beak as a hatchet when hunting (SN: 5/2/15, p. 11).


Meghan Rosen is a staff writer who reports on the life sciences for Science News. She earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology with an emphasis in biotechnology from the University of California, Davis, and later graduated from the science communication program at UC Santa Cruz.

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