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Given how cats seem to have so much trouble getting down from trees, it must be embarrassing for them to admit that their prehistoric ancestor was a tree-dweller.
New fossils of Dormaalocyon latouri, a 55 million-year-old species believed to be closely linked to the origin of carnivoraformes – carnivorous mammals such as cats, dogs, bears, and weasels – were recently uncovered by scientists in the village of Dormaal (after which the animal’s genus was named) in Belgium.
Credit: Charlene Letenneur and Pascale Golinvaux, via National Geographic
The researchers examined the newly discovered specimens closely, providing a clearer look at the characteristics of the Eocene-era creature, as well as shedding light on the evolutionary development of today’s warm-blooded carnivores.
“Its description allows better understanding of the origination, variability and ecology of the earliest carnivoraforms,” explained study lead Dr Floréal Solé, a paleontologist from the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels. The team’s findings were published in the most recent issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
A tree of knowledge
Estimated to have been close to a foot in length and about a kilogram (approximately 2 pounds) in weight, the scientists surmised that Dormaalocyon lived on a diet consisting of small prey, like insects and smaller mammals.
The scientists were able to confirm that 280 of the nearly 14,000 teeth specimens that they found in Dormaal’s soil belonged to the ancient tree mammal. Remarkably, the team even found an entire row of the pint-sized prehistoric predator’s deciduous ("baby") teeth. This was a big step up from previous searches, which only yielded two of the carnivore’s upper molars.
Based on the scientists’ findings, the primitive structure and age of Dormaalocyon’s teeth places it very close to the carnivoraforms’ evolutionary roots. Carnivoraforms lived during the Paleocene (66-55 million years ago) and Eocene (56-33.9 million years ago) epochs, and are believed to have originated in Europe.
“The understanding of the origination of the carnivoraforms is important for reconstructing the adaptation of placental mammals to carnivorous diet,” remarked Dr Solé.
Dr Solé’s team also discovered a few samples of Dormaalocyon’s ankle bones, which revealed that the creature spent most of its time scurrying from tree to tree in the warm, humid woodlands of its time. This supposedly occurred after the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), an extremely warm period of time that affected the evolution of carnivoraforms and other mammalian groups.
According to Dr Solé, Dormaalocyon’s arboreal (tree-dwelling) nature “supports the existence of a continuous evergreen forest belt at high latitudes during the PETM,” especially since carnivoraforms began spreading to North America during this period.
In an interview with LiveScience, Solé confirmed that Dormaalocyon “is one of the oldest carnivorous mammals which is related to present-day carnivores.”
Much like its domesticated descendants, Dormaalocyon wasn’t Tyrannosaurus rex-levels of terrifying. “It wasn't frightening. It wasn't dreadful,” assured Solé. Dormaalocyon is described to have looked like a cross “between a tiny panther and a squirrel, with a long tail and a catlike snout.”
However, the scientists believe that the origin of carnivoraforms can be traced to an even more primitive group in an earlier era than Dormaalocyon’s - perhaps during the Paleocene, as previous studies suggest.
Additionally, the new discoveries reveal the possibility that carnivoraforms may have actually originated from Asia, spreading through Europe and then reaching North America.
“Therefore, Dormaalocyon provides information concerning the evolution of placental mammals after the disappearance of the largest dinosaurs (at the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event,” observed Dr Solé. “Our study shows that the carnivoraforms were very diversified at the earliest Eocene, which allows hypothesizing that they were probably already diversified during the latest Paleocene.”
Unfortunately, their findings still don’t explain why cats and dogs seem to hate each other so much. — TJD, GMA News