Fish Fossils of Tujiaaspis vividus Breathe New Life into Fin and Limb Evolutionary Hypothesis

A trove of fossils, unearthed in rock from China dating back some 436 million years, has revealed for the first time that the mysterious galeaspids, members of an extinct clade of jawless fish, possessed paired fins.

The discovery, by an international team led by Prof. ZHU Min from the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology (IVPP) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Prof. Philip Donoghue from the University of Bristol, shows the primitive condition of paired fins before they separated into pectoral and pelvic fins, the forerunner of arms and legs.

The findings were published in Nature on Sept. 28.

Fish fossils of Tujiaaspis vividus breathe new life into fin and limb evolutionary hypothesis. Fig. 1 Life reconstructions of Tujiaaspis vividus (Image by ZHENG Qiuyang)

Until now, the only surviving galeaspid fossils were heads, but these new fossils comprise whole bodies. They were found in rocks in Hunan Province and Chongqing and were named Tujiaaspis after the indigenous Tujia people who live in the region.

Fig. 3 The holotype specimen and its interpretative drawing of Tujiaaspis vividus from 436 million years old rocks of Chongqing, China (Image by Gai, et al.)

Theories abound about the evolutionary beginnings of vertebrate fins and limbs—the evolutionary precursors of arms and legs—and are mostly based on comparative embryology. There is a rich fossil record of early vertebrate , but they either had separated paired fins or they didn’t. There has been little evidence for the gradual evolution of fins.

According to first author GAI Zhikun, a professor at IVPP, “The anatomy of galeaspids has been something of a mystery since they were first discovered more than half a century ago. Tens of thousands of fossils are known from China and Vietnam, but almost all of them are just heads—nothing has been known about the rest of their bodies—until now.”

The new fossils are spectacular, preserving the whole body for the first time and revealing that these animals possessed paired fins that extended all the way from the back of the head to the very tip of the tail. This is a great surprise since scientists had thought galeaspids lack paired fins altogether.

Tujiaaspis breathes new life into a century old hypothesis for the evolution of paired fins, through differentiation of pectoral (arms) and pelvic (legs) fins over evolutionary time from a continuous head-to-tail fin precursor,” said corresponding author Prof. Donoghue.

This “fin-fold” hypothesis has been very popular, but it has lacked any supporting evidence until now. The discovery of Tujiaaspis resurrects the fin-fold hypothesis and reconciles it with contemporary data on genetic control of the embryonic development of fins in living vertebrates.

Tujiaaspis shows the “primitive condition” for the evolution of paired fins, according to Prof. ZHU, who said that later jawless fish showed the first evidence for the separation of this fin-fold into pectoral and pelvic fins. Prof. ZHU also noted that the vestiges of elongate fin-folds could be seen in the embryos of living jawed fishes, which could be manipulated to produce them. 

Fig. 2 3D reconstruction of Tujiaaspis vividus (Image by YANG Dinghua)

Bristol’s Dr. Humberto Ferron, a co-author, used computational engineering approaches to simulate the behaviour of models of Tujiaaspis with and without the paired fins. He said,

“The paired fins of Tujiaaspis act as hydrofoils, passively generating lift for the fish without any muscular input from the fins themselves. The lateral fin-folds of Tujiaaspis allowed it to swim more efficiently.”

“Our new analyses suggest that the ancestor of jawed vertebrates likely possessed paired fin-folds, which became separated into pectoral and pelvic regions,” said co-author Dr. Joseph Keating from the University of Bristol.

He noted that the primitive fins evolved musculature and skeletal support that allowed our fish ancestor to better steer their swimming and add propulsion.

“It is amazing to think that the evolutionary innovations seen in Tujiaaspis underpin locomotion in animals as diverse as birds, whales, bats, and humans,” he said.

Press release from the Chinese Academy of Sciences

Fanjingshania renovata, an Ancient ‘Shark’ from China Is Humans’ Oldest Jawed Ancestor

Palaeontologists discover a 439-million-year-old ‘shark’ that forces us to rethink the timeline of vertebrate evolution

Living sharks are often portrayed as the apex predators of the marine realm. Paleontologists have been able to identify fossils of their extinct ancestors that date back hundreds of millions of years to a time known as the Palaeozoic period. These early “sharks,” known as acanthodians, bristled with spines. In contrast to modern sharks, they developed bony “armor” around their paired fins.

A recent discovery of a new species of acanthodian from China surprised scientists with its antiquity. The find predates by about 15 million years the earliest acanthodian body fossils and is the oldest undisputed jawed fish.

These findings were published in Nature on Sept. 28.

Fanjingshania renovata, an ancient 'Shark' from China is Humans' oldest jawed ancestor; the study has been published on Nature
Fig. 1 Life reconstruction of Fanjingshania renovata. (Image by ZHANG Heming)


Fanjingshania renovata, an ancient 'Shark' from China is Humans' oldest jawed ancestor; the study has been published on Nature
Fig. 2 Life reconstruction of Fanjingshania renovata. (Image by ZHANG Heming)

Reconstructed from thousands of tiny skeletal fragments, Fanjingshania, named after the famous UNESCO World Heritage Site Fanjingshan, is a bizarre fish with an external bony “armor” and multiple pairs of fin spines that set it apart from living jawed fish, cartilaginous sharks and rays, and bony ray- and lobe-finned fish.

Examination of Fanjingshania by a team of researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Qujing Normal University, and the University of Birmingham revealed that the species is anatomically close to groups of extinct spiny “sharks” collectively known as acanthodians. Unlike modern sharks, acanthodians have skin ossifications of the shoulder region that occur primitively in jawed fish.

Fig. 3 Life reconstruction of Fanjingshania renovata. (Image by FU Boyuan and FU Baozhong)

The fossil remains of Fanjingshania were recovered from bone bed samples of the Rongxi Formation at a site in Shiqian County of Guizhou Province, South China.

These findings present tangible evidence of a diversification of major vertebrate groups tens of millions of years before the beginning of the so called “Age of Fishes” some 420 million years ago.

Fig. 4 Fragment of the pectoral dermal skeleton (part of a pectoral spine fused to shoulder girdle plate) of Fanjingshania renovata shown in ventral view. (Image by Andreev, et al.)

The researchers identified features that set apart Fanjingshania from any known vertebrate. It has dermal shoulder girdle plates that fuse as a unit to a number of spines—pectoral, prepectoral and prepelvic. Additionally, it was discovered that the ventral and lateral portions of the shoulder plates extend to the posterior edge of the pectoral fin spines. The species has distinct trunk scales with crowns composed of a row of tooth-like elements (odontodes) adorned by discontinuous nodose ridges. Peculiarly, dentine development is recorded in the scales but is missing in other components of the dermal skeleton such as the fin spines.

“This is the oldest jawed fish with known anatomy,” said Prof. ZHU Min from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. “The new data allowed us to place Fanjingshania in the phylogenetic tree of early vertebrates and gain much needed information about the evolutionary steps leading to the origin of important vertebrate adaptations such as jaws, sensory systems, and paired appendages.”

From the outset, it was clear to the scientists that Fanjingshania’s shoulder girdle, with its array of fin spines, is key to pinpointing the new species’ position in the evolutionary tree of early vertebrates. They found that a group of acanthodians, known as climatiids, possess the full complement of shoulder spines recognized in Fanjingshania. What is more, in contrast to normal dermal plate development, the pectoral ossifications of Fanjingshania and the climatiids are fused to modified trunk scales. This is seen as a specialization from the primitive condition of jawed vertebrates where the bony plates grow from a single ossification center.

Unexpectedly, the fossil bones of Fanjingshania show evidence of extensive resorption and remodelling that are typically associated with skeletal development in bony fish, including humans.

“This level of hard tissue modification is unprecedented in chondrichthyans, a group that includes modern cartilaginous fish and their extinct ancestors,” said lead author Dr. Plamen Andreev, a researcher at Qujing Normal University. “It speaks about greater than currently understood developmental plasticity of the mineralized skeleton at the onset of jawed fish diversification.”

The resorption features of Fanjingshania are most apparent in isolated trunk scales that show evidence of tooth-like shedding of crown elements and removal of dermal bone from the scale base. Thin-sectioned specimens and tomography slices show that this resorptive stage was followed by deposition of replacement crown elements. Surprisingly, the closest examples of this skeletal remodelling are found in the dentition and skin teeth (denticles) of extinct and living bony fish. In Fanjingshania, however, the resorption did not target individual teeth or denticles, as occurred in bony fish, but instead removed an area that included multiple scale denticles. This peculiar replacement mechanism more closely resembles skeletal repair than the typical tooth/denticle substitution of jawed vertebrates.

A phylogenetic hypothesis for Fanjingshania that uses a numeric matrix derived from observable characters confirmed the researchers’ initial hypothesis that the species represents an early evolutionary branch of primitive chondrichthyans. These results have profound implications for our understanding of when jawed fish originated since they align with morphological clock estimates for the age of the common ancestor of cartilaginous and bony fish, dating it to around 455 million years ago, during a period known as the Ordovician.

These results tell us that the absence of undisputed remains of jawed fish of Ordovician age might be explained by under sampling of sediment sequences of comparable antiquity. They also point towards a strong preservation bias against teeth, jaws, and articulated vertebrate fossils in strata coeval with Fanjingshania.

“The new discovery puts into question existing models of vertebrate evolution by significantly condensing the timeframe for the emergence of jawed fish from their closest jawless ancestors. This will have profound impact on how we assess evolutionary rates in early vertebrates and the relationship between morphological and molecular change in these groups,” said Dr. Ivan J. Sansom from the University of Birmingham.


Press release from the Chinese Academy of Sciences

Rare Fossil Teeth from China Overturn Long-held Views about Evolution of Vertebrates

An international team of researchers has discovered 439-million-year-old remains of a toothed fish that suggest the ancestors of modern osteichthyans (ray- and lobe-finned fish) and chondrichthyans (sharks and rays) originated much earlier than previously thought.

Related findings were published in Nature on Sept. 28.

Rare Fossil Teeth from China Overturn Long-held Views about Evolution of Vertebrates
Rare Fossil Teeth from China Overturn Long-held Views about Evolution of Vertebrates. Fig. 1 Life reconstruction of Qianodus duplicis. (Image by ZHANG Heming)

A remote site in Guizhou Province of south China, containing sequences of sedimentary layers from the distant Silurian period (around 445 to 420 million years ago), has produced spectacular fossil finds, including isolated teeth identified as belonging to a new species (Qianodus duplicis) of primitive jawed vertebrate. Named after the ancient name for modern-day Guizhou, Qianodus possessed peculiar spiral-like dental elements carrying multiple generations of teeth that were added throughout the life of the animal.

The tooth spirals (or whorls) of Qianodus turned out to be one of the least common fossils recovered from the site. They are small elements that rarely reach 2.5 mm and as such had to be studied under magnification with visible light and X-ray radiation.

A conspicuous feature of the whorls is that they contained a pair of teeth rows set into a raised medial area of the whorl base. These so-called primary teeth show an incremental increase in size towards the inner (lingual) portion of the whorl. What makes the whorls of Qianodus unusual in comparison with those of other vertebrates is the clear offset between the two primary teeth rows. A similar arrangement of neighboring teeth rows is also seen in the dentitions of some modern sharks but has not been previously identified in the tooth whorls of fossil species.

The discovery indicates that the well-known jawed vertebrate groups from the so-called “Age of Fishes” (420 to 460 million years ago) were already established some 20 million years earlier.

Qianodus provides us with the first tangible evidence for teeth, and by extension jaws, from this critical early period of vertebrate evolution,” said LI Qiang from Qujing Normal University.

Unlike the continuously shedding teeth of modern sharks, the researchers believe that the tooth whorls of Qianodus were kept in the mouth and increased in size as the animal grew. This interpretation explains the gradual enlargement of replacement teeth and the widening of the whorl base as a response to the continuous increase in jaw size during development.

For the researchers, the key to reconstructing the growth of the whorls was two specimens at an early stage of formation, easily identified by their noticeably smaller sizes and fewer teeth. A comparison with the more numerous mature whorls provided the palaeontologists with a rare insight into the developmental mechanics of early vertebrate dentitions. These observations suggest that primary teeth were the first to form whereas the addition of the lateral (accessory) whorl teeth occurred later in development.

Fig. 2 Volumetric reconstruction of a tooth whorl viewed from its lingual side (holotype of Qianodus duplicis). The specimen is just over 2 mm in length. (Image by Zhu, et al.)

“Despite their peculiarities, tooth whorls have, in fact, been reported in many extinct chondrichthyan and osteichthyan lineages,”said Plamen Andreev, the lead author of the study. “Some of the early chondrichthyans even built their dentition entirely from closely spaced whorls.”

The researchers claim that this was also the case for Qianodus. They made this conclusion after examining the small (1–2 mm long) whorls of the new species with synchrotron radiation—a CT scanning process that uses high energy X-rays from a particle accelerator.

“We were astonished to discover that the tooth rows of the whorls have a clear left or right offset, which indicates positions on opposing jaw rami,” said Prof. ZHU Min from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Fig. 3 Virtual section along the length of a tooth whorl in side view (holotype of Qianodus duplicis). The specimen is just over 2 mm in length (Image by Zhu, et al.)

These observations are supported by a phylogenetic tree that identifies Qianodus as a close relative to extinct chondrichthyan groups with whorl-based dentitions.

“Our revised timeline for the origin of the major groups of jawed vertebrates agrees with the view that their initial diversification occurred in the early Silurian,” said Prof. ZHU.

The discovery of Qianodus provides tangible proof for the existence of toothed vertebrates and shark-like dentition patterning tens of millions of years earlier than previously thought. The phylogenetic analysis presented in the study identifies Qianodus as a primitive chondrichthyan, implying that jawed fish were already quite diverse in the Lower Silurian and appeared shortly after the evolution of skeletal mineralization in ancestral lineages of jawless vertebrates.

“This puts into question the current evolutionary models for the emergence of key vertebrate innovations such as teeth, jaws, and paired appendages,” said Ivan Sansom, a co-author of the study from the University of Birmingham.

Press release from the Chinese Academy of Sciences about the fossil teeth overturning long-held views on the evolution of vertebrates

Dawn of Fishes — Early Silurian Jawed Vertebrates Revealed Head to Tail

A newly discovered fossil “treasure hoard” dating back some 436 million years to the early Silurian period reveals, for the first time, the complete body shape and form of some of the first jawed fishes.

The discovery was published in Nature on Sept. 28 by an international team led by Prof. ZHU Min from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Prof. Per E. Ahlberg from Uppsala University, as the cover story and one in a series of four papers in the same issue.

The Gnathostomata or jawed vertebrates, which include not only almost all the backboned animals you see in zoos and aquariums but humankind as well, have a mysterious origin. The so-called molecular clock, which deduces the age of the most recent common ancestor of two animals by evaluating the difference between the two sets of DNA, suggests that the most recent common ancestor of all modern jawed vertebrates lived 450 million years ago during the Ordovician period. As a result, the origin of jaws cannot be later than that.

However, the fossil record of jawed vertebrates only becomes abundant from the Early Devonian (~419 million years ago), i.e., the beginning of the “Age of Fishes.” Only in the past 10 years have scientists found several complete jawed fishes from the Late Silurian (~425 million years ago). Even so, these records are still more than 25 million years later than when jaws should have originated. The dearth of earlier fossils means that jawed vertebrates are a “ghost lineage” in the early Silurian.

Silurian jawed fishes
Fig. 3 Slab containing the holotypes of Shenacanthus vermiformis and Xiushanosteus mirabilis (Image by Zhu, et al.)

The remarkable discovery of complete early Silurian jawed fishes is the result of 20 years of continuous effort by the authors searching for fossil fishes in all possible Silurian rock strata in China. The breakthrough was finally made in late 2020, when complete early Silurian fishes were found in Xiushan County, Chongqing.

LI Qiang and CHEN Yang, both co-authors and leaders of the fieldtrips, recalled their research:

“We remember it was a rainy day. We climbed a mountain ghat. At the 38th turn we found a complete Silurian fish, which initiated an explosion of discoveries in this area in the next two years.”

Fig. 1 Life reconstruction of Xiushanosteus mirabilis (Image by ZHANG Heming)

The authors reported two species. The first one and the most abundant species was named Xiushanosteus mirabilis. It is a tiny, 3-cm-long placoderm or armored jawed fish. The flat and semicircular head, along with the trunk armor, are reminiscent of its jawless ancestors, but its paired fins and powerful tail made Xiushanosteus a much more capable swimmer.

First author ZHU You’an, associate research professor at IVPP and also an Uppsala University alumnus, said,

“As a placoderm expert, I am dazzled by the early age and completeness of Xiushanosteus. It is like a dream. A lot of the anatomical features make perfect sense; it was an ‘Oh, now I know’ moment in my career.”

Fig. 2 Life reconstruction of Shenacanthus vermiformis (Image by ZHANG Heming)

The second fish reported is named Shenacanthus vermiformis. Also very small, it is an early shark relative. However, all the sharks we know are covered in tiny scales, or at most small mosaic plates. Shenacanthus instead has prominent “shoulder armor” made of several large plates that completely encircle its body. This feature, thought to be exclusive in placoderms, provides a strong hint that the first cartilaginous fishes were armored, similar to placoderms.

“Only 20 years ago it was still believed that sharks are primitive and other jawed fish evolved from a shark-like archetype. Now with the discovery of Shenacanthus, we can finally make certain that the opposite is true,” said Prof. ZHU You’an.

“Previously we could only dream of such exceptional and early fossils,” said corresponding author Prof. Ahlberg. “However, they are more than curiosities; they are first and foremost crucial data to test—and either support or confound—our long-held hypotheses regarding the rise of our lineage.”

“The excavation continues to yield remarkable materials,” said Prof. ZHU Min, who led the project and is also a CAS academician. “The Chongqing Lagerstätte, like the Chengjiang and Jehol biotas, will become a world-famous paleontological heritage and will provide key evidence for how the extraordinary diversity of the jawed vertebrates we see today arose.”

Press release from the Chinese Academy of Sciences

New species of stegosaur is oldest discovered in Asia, and possibly the world

Bashanosaurus primitivus roamed the earth around 168 million years ago during the Middle Jurassic period, suggesting that stegosaurs may have originated in Asia

Bashanosaurus primitivus species Stegosaurs Asia
Bashanosaurus primitivus – the newest and oldest species of stegosaur in Asia. Bashanosaurus primitivus roamed the earth around 168 million years ago during the Middle Jurassic period, suggesting that stegosaurs may have originated in Asia. Credits: Credit Banana Art Studio

Relatively small, but fearsome-looking stegosaur measured about 2.8 metres (9 feet) from nose to tail—but scientists can’t tell whether the remains are those of an adult or juvenile.

A new species of one of the most recognisable types of dinosaur is the oldest stegosaur ever found in Asia, and one of the earliest unearthed anywhere in the world, according to research published today in the peer-reviewed Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Remains of the stegosaur, which included bones from the back, shoulder, thigh, feet, and ribs, as well as several armour plates, date to the Bajocian stage of the Middle Jurassic period – much earlier than most known stegosaurs.

A team from the Chongqing Bureau of Geological and Mineral Resource Exploration and Development in China and London’s Natural History Museum named it Bashanosaurus primitivus – “Bashan” in reference to the ancient name for the area of Chongqing in China where the dinosaur was found, and the Latin for ‘first’ – primitivus.

The new dinosaur, which roamed the planet 168 million years ago, plays a part in uncovering how the stegosaurs evolved – of which, to this day, little is known.

It has a smaller and less developed should blade, narrower and thicker bases to its armour plates and other features that are different from all other Middle Jurassic stegosaurs discovered so far. However, it does have similarities with some of the first armoured dinosaurs, which are over 20 million years older.

“All these features are clues to the stegosaurs’ place on the dinosaur family tree”, says Dr Dai Hui from Chongqing Bureau of Geological and Mineral Resource Exploration and Development who led the research. “Bashanosaurus can be distinguished from other Middle Jurassic stegosaurs, and clearly represents a new species.

“What’s more, our analysis of the family tree indicates that it is one of the earliest-diverging stegosaurs along with the Chongqing Lizard (Chungkingosaurus) and Huayangosaurus. These were all unearthed from the Middle to Late Jurassic Shaximiao Formation in China, suggesting that stegosaurs might have originated in Asia”, adds Hui.

Instantly recognisable by the huge back plates, long tail spikes and tiny head, stegosaurs were four-legged, plant-eating dinosaurs that lived during the Jurassic and early Cretaceous periods. Stegosaur fossils have been found on all continents except for Antarctica and Australia, and 14 species of stegosaur have been identified so far.

Well-known members of Stegosauria include Huayangosaurus (one of the most primitive stegosaurs), Gigantspinosaurus, notable for its enormous shoulder spines, and Miragaia for its extremely long neck. However, the fragmentary fossil material has hindered attempts to understand how the stegosaurs evolved and how they relate to one another.

With the discovery of this new species the mystery has started to clear up. Bashanosaurus primitivus has several primitive features that are similar to the earliest stegosaurs like Huayangosaurus and Gigantspinosaurus and early-branching thyreophorans (armoured dinosaurs). These include longer tail vertebrae, a shoulder blade that is narrower and flares out, and features of the back vertebrae that are similar to the early armoured dinosaur Scelidosaurus, which lived during the Early Jurassic.

The fossilised remains of Bashanosaurus also reveal a host of features that make it unique from other known stegosaurs. For example, the bony point at the end of the shoulder blade is small and less well developed than in other stegosaurs; a bony projection of the thighbone (fourth trochanter) is positioned below the middle of the shaft; and the bases of the armour plates curve outwards and are thicker than the plates on the backs of its later relatives.

“The discovery of this stegosaur from the Middle Jurassic of China adds to an increasing body of evidence that the group evolved in the early Middle Jurassic, or perhaps even in the Early Jurassic, and as such represent some of the earliest known bird-hipped dinosaurs,” says Dr Susannah Maidment, co-author and palaeontologist at London’s Natural History Museum.

“China seems to have been a hotspot for stegosaur diversity, with numerous species now known from the Middle Jurassic right the way through until the end of the Early Cretaceous period.”


New stegosaurs from the Middle Jurassic Lower Member of the Shaximiao Formation of Chongqing, China, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology (4/03/2022), DOI: 10.1080/02724634.2021.1995737


Press release from Taylor & Francis Group.

Traffic density, wind and air stratification influence concentrations of air pollutant NO2

Leipzig researchers use a calculation method to remove weather influences from air pollution data

traffic air pollutant nitrogen dioxide COVID-19
Traffic density, wind and air stratification influence the pollution with the air pollutant nitrogen dioxide, according to the conclusion of a TROPOS study commissioned by the LfULG. Credits: Burkhard Lehmann, LfULG

Leipzig/Dresden. In connection with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, satellite measurements made headlines showing how much the air pollutant nitrogen dioxide (NO2) had decreased in China and northern Italy.  In Germany, traffic density is the most important factor. However, weather also has an influence on NO2 concentrations, according to a study by the Leibniz Institute for Tropospheric Research (TROPOS), which evaluated the influence of weather conditions on nitrogen dioxide concentrations in Saxony 2015 to 2018 on behalf of the Saxon State Office for Environment, Agriculture and Geology (LfULG). It was shown that wind speed and the height of the lowest air layer are the most important factors that determine how much pollutants can accumulate locally.

In order to determine the influence of various weather factors on air quality, the team used a statistical method that allows meteorological fluctuations to be mathematically removed from long-term measurements. The air quality fluctuates, in some cases very strongly, due to different emissions and the influence of the weather. Until now, however, it has been difficult to estimate, what share legal measures such as low emission zones or diesel driving bans have and what share the weather influences have in the actual air quality? With the method used, this will be easier in the future.

Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is an irritant gas which attacks the mucous membrane of the respiratory tract, causes inflammatory reactions as an oxidant and increases the effect of other air pollutants. As a precursor substance, it can also contribute to the formation of particulate matter. Limit values have been set in the EU to protect the population: For nitrogen dioxide, an annual average value of 40 micrograms per cubic metre of air applies (μg/m³). To protect the health of the population, measures must be taken if these limit values are not complied with. In 2018/2019, for example, various measures were taken in Germany, ranging from a reduction in the number of lanes (e.g. in Leipzig) to driving bans for older diesel vehicles (e.g. in Stuttgart).

To evaluate the effectiveness of such measures, it would be helpful to determine the exact influence of weather conditions. The Saxon State Office for Environment, Agriculture and Geology (LfULG) therefore commissioned TROPOS to carry out a study on the influence of weather factors on NO2 concentrations and provided its measurement data from the Saxon air quality measurement network and meteorological data for this purpose. The researchers were thus able to evaluate data from 29 stations in Saxony over a period of four years, which represent a cross-section of air pollution – from stations at traffic centres to urban and rural background stations and stations on the ridge of the Erzgebirge mountains. They also calculated the height of the lowest layer in the atmosphere and incorporated data from traffic counting stations in Leipzig and Dresden into the study. A method from the field of machine learning was used for the statistical modelling, the application of which in the field of air quality was first published by British researchers in 2009.

In this way, the study was able to demonstrate that the traffic density at all traffic stations is most significantly responsible for nitrogen oxide concentrations. However, two weather parameters also have a significant influence on nitrogen dioxide concentrations: wind speed and the height of the so-called mixing layer. The latter is a meteorological parameter that indicates the height to which the lowest layer of air, where the emissions mix, extends. “It was also shown that high humidity can also reduce the concentration of nitrogen dioxide, which could be due to the fact that the pollutants deposit more strongly on moist surfaces. However, the exact causes are still unclear,” says Dominik van Pinxteren.

The statistical analysis has also enabled the researchers to remove the influence of the weather from the time series of pollutant concentrations: Adjusted for the weather, the concentration of nitrogen oxides (NOx) decreased by a total of 10 micrograms per cubic meter between 2015 and 2018 on average over all traffic stations in Saxony. In urban and rural areas and on the ridge of the Erzgebirge, however, NOx concentrations tend to remain at the same level. Even though there have been some improvements in air quality in recent years, there are good scientific arguments for further reducing air pollution.

In a way, this also applies to premature conclusions from the corona crisis: in order to find out how strong the influence of the initial restrictions on air quality actually was, the influence of the weather would have to be statistically removed in a longer series of measurements. To this end, investigations for the Leipzig area are currently underway at TROPOS, as is a Europe-wide study of the EU research infrastructure for short-lived atmospheric constituents such as aerosol, clouds and trace gases (ACTRIS), the German contribution to which is coordinated by TROPOS.


Dominik van Pinxteren, Sebastian Düsing, Alfred Wiedensohler, Hartmut Herrmann (2020): Meteorological influences on nitrogen dioxide: Influence of weather conditions and weathering on nitrogen dioxide concentrations in outdoor air 2015 to 2018. Series of publications of the LfULG, issue 2/2020 (in German only)
This study was commissioned by the State Office for Environment, Agriculture and Geology (LfULG).


LfULG-Projekt „Meteorologische Einflüsse auf Stickstoffdioxid“:


Press release on traffic density, wind and air stratification influence concentrations of air pollutant NO2 by Tilo Arnhold from the Leibniz Institute for Tropospheric Research (TROPOS)

Predicted versus observed epidemic curves over time. (copyright: Nature) Our model aggregates population outflow from Wuhan from January 1 to 24, 2020 to provide a reference growth pattern (i.e. epidemic curves) for COVID-19’s spread. Differences in the predicted and confirmed growth in confirmed cases can signal higher levels of COVID-19 community transmission.

An international research team led by the University of Hong Kong (HKU) developed a new method to accurately track the spread of COVID-19 using population flow data, and establishing a new risk assessment model to identify high-risk locales of COVID-19 at an early stage, which serves as a valuable toolkit to public health experts and policy makers in implementing infectious disease control during new outbreaks.  The study findings have been published in the journal Nature today (April 29).

Dr. Jayson Jia, Associate Professor of Marketing at the Faculty of Business and Economics of HKU and lead author of the study, and his co-authors used nation-wide data provided by a major national carrier in China to track population movement out of Wuhan between 1 January and 24 January 2020, a period covering the annual Chunyun mass migration before the Chinese Lunar New Year to a lockdown of the city to contain the virus. The movement of over 11 million people travelling through Wuhan to 296 prefectures in 31 provinces and regions in China were tracked.

Differing from usual epidemiological models that rely on historical data or assumptions, the team used real-time data about actual movements focusing on aggregate population flow rather than individual tracking. The data include any mobile phone user who had spent at least 2 hours in Wuhan during the study period.  Locations were detected once users had their phones on. As only aggregate data was used and no individual data was used, there was no threat to consumer privacy.

Combining the population flow data with the number and location of COVID-19 confirmed cases up to 19 February 2020 in China, Dr Jia’s team showed that the relative quantity of human movement from the disease epicentre, in this case, Wuhan, directly predicted the relative frequency and geographic distribution of the number of COVID-19 cases across China. The researchers found that their model can explain 96% of the distribution and intensity of the spread of COVID-19 across China statistically.

COVID-19 big data
Illustrative example of using model to track COVID-19 community spread risk. (copyright: Nature) Our model uses population movement to predict expected cases. The predicted spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus can be used as a benchmark to identify which locales are ‘outliers’, which have significantly more or less cases than expected (given the movement data). The graph is an illustration of what our model showed on January 29. Prefectures to the left of the dashed line are outliers that have significantly more than expected cases, i.e., a higher level of unexplained or community transmission. Our model identified Wenzhou as having the most severe community transmission risk on January 29, 2020. The government announced a full quarantine of the prefecture on February 2, 2020.

The research team then used this empirical relationship to build a new risk detection toolkit. Leveraging on the population flow data, the researchers created an “expected growth pattern” based on the number of people arriving from the risk source, i.e. the disease epicentre. The team thereby developed a new risk model by contrasting expected growth of cases against the actual number of confirmed cases for each city in China, the difference being the “community transmission risk”.

“If there are more reported cases than the model expected, there is a higher risk of community spread. If there are fewer reported cases than the model expected, it means that the city’s preventive measures are particularly effective or it can indicate that further investigation by central authorities is needed to eliminate possible risks from inaccurate measurement,” explained Dr Jia.

“What is innovative about our approach is that we use misprediction to assess the level of community risk.  Our model accurately tells us how many cases we should expect given travel data.  We contrast this against the confirmed cases using the logic that what cannot be explained by imported cases and primary transmissions should be community spread. ” He added.

The approach is advantageous because it requires no assumptions or knowledge of how or why the virus spreads, is robust to data reporting inaccuracies, and only requires knowledge of relative distribution of human movement. It can be used by policy makers in any nation with available data to make rapid and accurate risk assessments and to plan allocation of limited resources ahead of ongoing disease outbreaks.

“Our research indicates that geographic flow of people outperforms other measures such as population size, wealth or distance from the risk source to indicate the gravity of an outbreak.” said Dr Jia.

Dr Jia is currently exploring with fellow researchers the feasibility of applying this toolkit to other countries, and extending it to situations where there are multiple COVID-19 epicentres. The team is working with other national telecom carriers and seeking additional data partners.



The study’s co-authors are Jianmin Jia, Presidential Chair Professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen (corresponding author); Nicholas A. Christakis, Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science at Yale; Xin Lu, the National University of Defense Technology in Changsha, China, and the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden; Yun Yuan, Southwest Jiaotong University; Ge Xu, Hunan University of Technology and Business.

Press release from The University of Hong Kong.

Plastic is a kind of widely used artificial material. The invention of plastic gives us a lightweight, strong and inexpensive material to use but also bring us the plastic apocalypse. Many of the unrecycled plastic waste ends up in the ocean, Earth’s last sink. Broken by waves, sunlight and marine animal, a single plastic bag can be broken down into 1.75 million microscopic fragments, which is called microplastics. Those microplastics might finally end up in our blood and system through the fish we eat or the water we drink.

During the long-term evolution of most plants on the earth, cellulose-based materials have been developed as their own structural support materials. Cellulose in plants mainly exists in the form of cellulose nanofibers (CNF), which have excellent mechanical and thermal properties. CNF, which can be derived from plant or produced by bacteria, is one of the most abundant all-green resources on Earth. CNF is an ideal nanoscale building block for constructing macroscopic high-performance materials, as it has higher strength (2 GPa) and modulus (138 GPa) than Kevlar and steel and lower thermal expansion coefficient (0.1 ppm K-1) than silica glass. Based on this bio-based and biodegradable building block, the construction of sustainable and high-performance structural materials will greatly promote the replacement of plastic and help us avoid the plastic apocalypse.

plastic substitute cellulose nanofiber plate
The cellulose nanofiber-derived bulk CNFP structural material and its characterization. (a) Photograph of large-sized CNFP with a volume of 320 × 220 × 27 mm3. (b) The robust 3D nanofiber network of CNFP. Numerous CNFs are intertwined with each other and combined together by hydrogen bonds. (c) Parts with different shapes of CNFP produced by a milling machine. (d) Ashby diagram of thermal expansion versus specific strength for CNFP compared with typical polymers, metals, and ceramics. (e) Ashby diagram of thermal expansion versus specific impact toughness for CNFP compared with typical polymers, metals, and ceramics. Copyright 2020, American Association for the Advancement of Science. Credit: Shu-Hong Yu

Nowadays, a team lead by Prof. Shu-Hong Yu from the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC) report a high-performance sustainable structural material called cellulose nanofiber plate (CNFP) (Fig. 1a and c) which is constructed from bio-based CNF (Fig. 1b) and ready to replace the plastic in many fields. This CNFP has high specific strength (~198 MPa/(Mg m-3)), which is 4 times higher than that of steel and higher than that of traditional plastic and aluminum alloy. In addition, CNFP has higher specific impact toughness (~67 kJ m-2/(Mg m-3)) than aluminum alloy and only half of its density (1.35 g cm-3).

Unlike plastic or other polymer based material, CNFP exhibit excellent resistance to extreme temperature and thermal shock. The thermal expansion coefficient of CNFP is lower than 5 ppm K-1 from -120 °C to 150 °C, which is close to ceramic materials, much lower than typical polymers and metals. Moreover, after 10 times of rapid thermal shock between 120 °C bake oven and -196 °C liquid nitrogen, CNFP remain its strength. Those result shows its outstanding thermal dimensional stability, which allow CNFP to own great potentials used as structural material under extreme temperature and alternate cooling and heating. Owing to its wide range of raw materials and bio-assisted synthesis process, CNFP is a kind of low-cost material with the cost of only 0.5 $/kg, which is lower than most of plastic. With low density, outstanding strength and toughness, and great thermal dimensional stability, all of those properties of CNFP surpass those of traditional metals, ceramics and polymers (Fig. 1d and e), making it a high-performance and environmental-friendly alternative for engineering requirement, especially for aerospace application.

CNFP not only has the power to replace plastic and saves us from drowning in them, but also has great potential as the next generation of sustainable and lightweight structural material.


Press release from the University of Science and Technology of China