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Giant fossil “groundhog” (66-70 mya) clue to early mammal evolution?

dinosaur-age Vintana Sertichi/Lucille Betti-Nash

From ScienceDaily:

The new fossil mammal is named Vintana sertichi. Vintana belongs to a group of early mammals known as gondwanatherians, which previously were known only from isolated teeth and a few scrappy jaw fragments. The well-preserved skull allows the first clear insight into the life habits and relationships of gondwanatherians.

“The discovery of Vintana will likely stir up the pot,” added Krause. “Including it in our analyses reshapes some major branches of the ‘family tree’ of early mammals, grouping gondwanatherians with other taxa that have been very difficult to place in the past.” The skull is huge, measuring almost five inches long, twice the size of the previously largest known mammalian skull from the entire Age of Dinosaurs of the southern supercontinent of Gondwana. At a time when the vast majority of mammals were shrew- or mouse-sized, living in the shadows of dinosaurs, Vintana was a super heavyweight, estimated to have had a body mass of about 20 pounds, twice or even three times the size of an adult groundhog. Adding to the intrigue is the fact that the cranium of Vintana has a peculiar shape, being very deep, with huge eye-sockets, and long, scimitar-shaped flanges for the attachment of massive chewing muscles.

Dr. Krause emphasizes that a major question remains for scientists: How did such a peculiar creature evolve?

With its long-term isolation from the rest of the world, Madagascar had been an island for over 20 million years prior to the time in which the strata containing Vintana were deposited. Dr. Krause and his team theorize that the very primitive features of the cranium are holdovers from when the ancient lineage that ultimately produced Vintana was marooned on the island. It was this isolation, first from Africa, then Antarctica/Australia, and finally the Indian subcontinent, that allowed for the evolution of unique and bizarre features amidst Vintana’s primitive foundation of characteristics.

Not sure exactly what mysteries Vintana solves re mammal evolution, especially given “primitive” cranium, but for sure it is interesting! For one thing, it shows that average size mammals could indeed survive during that period.

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