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Early Extinct Mammal Suffered From Prehistoric Hair Loss, Say Researchers

Oct 15, 2015 01:21 PM EDT

Well-preserved 125 million-year-old fossils are shedding light on how an ancient rat-sized mammal, known as Spinolestes, may have gone extinct. Researchers from the University of Bonn have examined furs preserved in fossils and have concluded that the animals suffered from a common hair fungal infection that also affects modern mammals. 

After analyzing fossils of this species collected from the Las Hoyas fossil site in Spain, researchers determined that Spinolestes belonged to a new species with many unique features. For example, the hairs of the Cretaceous mammal were fused to small spines much like the pelts of modern hedgehogs, and part of its animal's back was covered in a horny, bony plate, similar to those of turtles. Spinolestes also exhibited similar characteristics seen in modern armadillos, anteaters and the African hero shrew, possessing a spine with individual interlocking vertebrae. All that made for a very strong back. 

"We are familiar with these characteristics in modern spiny mice from Africa and Asia Minor," said Dr. Thomas Martin, a professor from the Steinmann Institute of Geology, Mineralogy and Paleontology at the University of Bonn. "If a predator grabs them by the back, the spines detach from the skin. The mouse can escape and the attacker is left with nothing more than a mouthful of spines."

While researchers believe the newly identified mammal is very distantly related to mice, they were unable to classify it under any group of mammals alive today, Dr. Martin explained.

"It displays characteristics which we also find in today's mammals. However, these are not signs of relatedness but rather they developed independently – throughout the course of evolution, they have been 'invented' many times," he explained.

Researchers from the University of Bonn were joined by colleagues from Spain, France, and the U.S. in examining the preserved hairs. Their study was published in the journal Nature and was the first to identify spines in a fossil from the Mesozoic era, according to a news release

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