Fossil Find May Conclude Controversy Over Hippo Origins

Originally published on Thursday, March 5, 2015 at Bizarre Zoology

Two pygmy hippos (Choeropsis liberiensis) photographed at the Columbus Zoo by yours truly. The evolutionary origin of such mammals has been long unknown, although a recent study in Nature Communications proposes an answer.

A new paper published in the journal Nature Communications has shed crucial light on the ancestry of Africa’s sub-Saharan semiaquatic giant, the hippopotamus. The origins of these animals have long been shrouded in ambiguity but, according to the recent study, can now be definitively placed with the fossil ungulate family Anthracotheriidae. First found in coal deposits, the anthracotheres were aquatic browsers dating back to the late Eocene in Asia and North America.1 Anthracotheres were among the first animals to colonize Africa, although their range was quite diverse throughout the Oligocene and Miocene epochs.1 Morphological features such as the flaring snout, wide heavy feet, hippo-like lower jaw, cetacean-like premolars, and prominent tusks of anthracotheres like Elomeryx and Merycopotamus have been cited in support of a link with Hippopotamidae and Whippomorpha (the clade uniting whales and hippos) as a whole.1,2 The swamp-dwelling tendency of anthracotheres indicated by the presence of their fossil remains in remnant coal seams likely hints at what stimulated differences in morphology and specilization between the otherwise closely related whales and hippos. Stem-whales most probably evolved in coastal environments promoting a carnivorous diet whereas the anthracotherian hippo-progenitors inhabited habitats in which they were restricted to feeding on aquatic plants. As some extant ungulates like pigs occasionally exploit a carnivorous diet, it is not too difficult to imagine stem-whales adopting this trait under restrictive ecological pressures. While fossil stem-cetaceans are numerous and well documented, the ancestry of the ‘river horse’ has been quite the enigma with ghost lineages remaining between the known anthracothere lineages and the oldest fossil hippopotamus. However, the fossil material described in the Nature Communications publication may help to bridge this paleozoological gap.Read More »

New Fossils Reveal The Mother Continent for South American Monkeys

Originally published on February 8, 2015 at Bizarre Zoology

Illustration of Perupithecus ucayaliensis by Jorge González

Arguably one of the most appropriate nicknames for the continent Africa is that of ‘The Mother Continent’, a name owing to the fact that our own Mitochondrial Eve can be traced to this location. However, Homo sapiens was not the only primate species to derive out of Africa. A paper recently published in the journal Nature has revealed new fossil material which sheds light on the origins of South America’s iconic monkey species. Read More »

New Findings Suggest Odd-Toed Ungulates Originated On Continental “Noah’s Ark”

Originally published November 24, 2014 at Bizarre Zoology

Illustration of the compelling Cambaytherium thewissi by Elaine Kasmer.

As reported on the Science Daily website, John Hopkins University researchers excavating fossils at the edge of a coal mine in India have recently made a discovery which yields revelations on the origins of odd-toed ungulates. Although past research has traced the presence of these animals back to the early Eocene epoch fifty-six million years ago, details on their earlier evolution is shrouded in mystery. The odd-toed ungulates, classified in the order Perissodactyla, include modern day horses and rhinos and are distinguished from other orders due to their uneven number of toes and unique digestive system. Following the proposition of perissodactyls having their origins in Western India, the John Hopkins University research team took to Eocene sediments in this region and unearthed several remains of the little-known ungulate Cambaytherium thewissi. According to these researchers, the teeth, number of sacral vertebrae, and hand and feet bones of Cambaytherium suggest that it is the species most like a common ancestor to all members of Perissodactyla yet discovered. Apart from filling an evolutionary gap, this finding also supports the notion that a diverse number of early mammal groups might have evolved in India while it was still an isolated island continent. This isolation would allow the groups, which included lemur-like primates and both perissodactyls and the even-toed artiodactyls, to evolve without competition from other Paleocene animals. As detailed in Dr. Donald Prothero and Dr. Robert Shoch’s Horns, Tusks, and Flippers: The Evolution of Hoofed Mammals (a book I recently purchased which has rekindled my strong interest in the ungulates), several scientists have previously suggested that India acted as a sort of “Noah’s Ark” which allowed the dispersal of these groups to the rest of the globe following its collision with Asia at the start of the Eocene. The sudden presence of some mammal genera such as the chevrotain-like artiodactyl ancestor Diacodexis in Eocene sediments of Europe and North America without evolutionary precedent certainly suggests that such a hypothesis is more than plausible. The recent Cambaytherium discoveries have apparently yielded “the first concrete evidence” to support this hypothesis, and thus hold even more interesting implications as to the evolution of significant early mammal groups. It is my hope that future research from the aforementioned John Hopkins University researchers who are continuing their work at nearby mines will reveal more exciting data on the evolutionary history of ungulates and other primitive mammal groups.

Tim Morris‘ illustration of the ancestral artiodactyl Diacodexis, quite fittingly referred to as a “bunny deer” by some.

Unexpected Porpoise Predators Revealed As Formidable Gray Seals

Originally published November 26, 2014 at Bizarre Zoology

Your typical gray seal, Halichoerus grypus, a hunter of small cetaceans? (Source)

Following the regular discovery of mutilated harbor porpoise carcasses on Dutch beaches since 2003, a group of biologists began a ten year investigation into the situation’s cause.1 The usual suspects of boat propellers or hostile fishermen were dismissed after the deaths regularly continued their toll, and the enigma continued until a group of Belgian researchers came to a startling conclusion.1 In 2012, these researchers took note of apparent bite marks present in some of the wounds inflicted upon the thousands of porpoise carcasses.1 These matched the canine teeth of an unexpected yet certainly capable mammalian predator: the gray seal Halichoerus grypus. With bulls reaching up to almost eleven feet in length and weighing as much as 310 kilograms this was no huge surprise, especially considering their being relatives of animals like the formidable leopard seal. Further examination of the carcasses showed the marks of pinniped claws and signs of the seals having gone after the nourishment of a porpoise’s blubber1, yet the proposition was still subject to some debate.

Read More »

Gazing into the Zoological Mirror

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I have the immense pleasure of spending most mornings during the school year studying the beluga whales living at Marineland of Canada. Observing their social, playful, and inquisitive behavior provides a reminder that we as a species must act consciously so as to not bear the loneliness of a world without the humbling and enlightening presence of such cognition beyond human biases. Such experiences have been integral to inspiring the creation of this blog. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Michael Noonan)

Throughout my life, my mind has been devoted to a passionate interest in the anatomy, behavior, ecology, conservation, and evolutionary history of animals. For the past five years, I have been the author of a blog titled ‘Bizarre Zoology’ that began as a Blogspot site where it has received over 445,000 views and has continued as a WordPress site with over 4,000 views. This blog took on the hefty task of acting as an outlet for book reviews, summaries of academic papers, and commentary on related news on the wide-ranging topics of Zoology, Paleontology, Cryptozoology, and Anthropology. Facing difficulty to provide unique material on such a variety of topics, I have created ‘Animal in the Mirror’ as a distinct voice for a more narrow range of interests. This does not mean that I won’t occasionally write on Paleontology or even apply a critical lens to matters of Cryptozoology, but I cannot promise regular coverage of such a diversity of subjects. My starting “Animal in the Mirror” is the result of a year’s worth of formal education in Animal Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation at Canisius College that has challenged and altered how I view our relationship with nonhuman animals, as well as the best manner in which to seek to understand them. Apart from discussions relating to the study and preservation of our planet’s biodiversity, this blog’s topics will center around arguably one of the most bizarre human behaviors: our attempts at anthropocentric dominion often coupled with a denial of animal self. The focus on this topic will not seek to form ethical judgements of controversial human-nonhuman animal interactions, but to evoke readers’ reconsideration of their anthrozoological attitudes, as well as foster hope amidst the imposing Anthropocene. It is my hope that this blog will serve as a channel for my musings as a rising scientist, and actively inspire readers to live consciously in accord with the preservation and well-being of our nonhuman animal kin. The frequency of writing may be sparse due to my preoccupation with college as well as my writing internship with Bear Trust International (see their website here and please subscribe to e-newsletters to read my work with this fantastic group).  From here on, I will be reposting relevant articles from Bizarre Zoology to provide a background of my prior work, and hope to provide fresh publications as soon as possible. Thank you for joining me on this intellectual journey, and please feel free to contact me.

My blog's logo - Copy

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Logos from the two editions of the Bizarre Zoology blog, with the first by Thomas Finley and the second by Tyler Stone. It is my hope that “Animal in the Mirror” will continue this humble legacy.