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Two fossils, categorized as “mammaliamorphs” (the ancestors of organisms in the Class Mammalia), hailing from the Early Cretaceous epoch, were recently discovered to be the first “scratch-diggers” in the Jehol Biota of northeastern China, an ecosystem that garnered global fame from the discovery of feathered dinosaurs and other fantastical creatures.
The organisms lived roughly 145-100 million years ago, or “mya.” Yet, recently published research has introduced us to all-new perspectives on what their lives might have been.
A Rare Find: Fossiomanus
The first species uncovered in this groundbreaking discovery is Fossiomanus sinensis.
It’s the first-ever tritylodontid found at such a late stage of the Jehol Biota and believed to be the “youngest survivor of non-mammalian synapsids,” a 300-million-year-old group of organisms, including mammals, that roamed the earth during the Permian and Triassic periods.
(A “tritylodontid” is a highly specialized herbivorous animal, believed to be closely related to mammals.)
Skeletal specimens of tritylodontids are notoriously rare, so Mao et al.’s find breaks ground on numerous levels.
It was unearthed in the Jiufotang Formation, located in the Liaoning province, and is the first F. sinensis to ever be discovered in the area.
A Ghost of Mammalia: Jueconodon cheni
The second of the two fossils found by Mao et al. is Juecondon cheni, a eutriconodontan. (Eutriconodontans were mammals that existed during the Mesozoic era, around 251-200 mya. They were the size of relatively large cats, with strong teeth that excelled at shearing meat. Because of these features, they’re assumed to have been carnivorous.)
The scientists reported that this fossil is the first eutriconodontan in the Jehol Biota to display “convincing evidence” that it used digging as a primary means of interacting with its terrestrial environment.
What’s the Big Deal?
Every discovery of prehistoric life fills in a void of knowledge, informing us of how extant (living, the opposite of “extinct”) mammals and other organisms came to be and the environmental conditions that drove life to evolve to its current state.
The study’s authors found that these two species evolved under similar pressures powered by natural selection, leading them to develop adaptations that formed a common ground, despite the evolutionary distance between them.
Particularly, Mao et al. stated that these fossils will help “shed light” on mammaliamorph skeletal development, which has been at the center of numerous studies on vertebrate evolution and developmental biology.
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