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Amazing Mammalian Fossil Discovered in Madagascar

Dec 10, 2014 02:17 PM EST

An amazing mammalian fossil was recently discovered in Madagascar, and is helping to shed light on a group of enigmatic and mysterious animals known as gondwanatherians, according to a new study.

The existence of the new species Vintana sertichi was first described in a scientific journal just last month, but this latest study delves far deeper into the morphology and paleoecology of this ancient animal.

Previously known fossils of gondwanatherians - which are named based on their geographic distribution on the supercontinent known as Gondwana - consisted only of isolated teeth and a few fragmentary lower jaw specimens. Unlike those sparse finds, the specimen of Vintana is nearly complete, helping scientists better piece together the puzzle of these extinct and poorly understood creatures.

"We hope that the memoir will serve as a useful reference for all future discoveries and analyses of gondwanatherian mammals represented by craniodental material," David W. Krause of Stony Brook University, lead investigator on the project, said in a statement.

The new fossil also included a slightly distorted cranium that was painstakingly removed from a large block of sediment, and later micro-CT scanned to provide fine details of both the external and internal anatomy of Vintana. Through these scans scientists were additionally able to virtually dissect the specimen, separating individual cranial bones, without damaging the fossil.

Their analysis revealed some bizarre features of Vintana, including enlarged flanges for attachment of chewing muscles, a strangely tilted braincase, and large eye sockets.

Mammals that lived during the time of the dinosaurs are often portrayed as passive, small-bodied creatures that just tried to avoid getting stepped over by larger, meat-eating predators. But Vintana changes this previous conception. It turns out the gondwanatherian mammal was an herbivore about the size of a modern-day badger, and was agile, active, and had a keen sense of smell, vision, and hearing.

"With this monograph, the shroud of mystery over the enigmatic, extinct mammal clade Gondwanatheria is lifted," added expert John Wible, who was involved in the study.

Though these mysterious mammals still hold many secrets, the fossil of Vintana helps to shed some light on the little guys that roamed among the dinosaurs.

The latest findings are published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

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