Paleontological Enigma Solved Thanks To Scrappy Grave Digger
November 20, 2012

This Scrappy Grave Digger Somehow Managed To Live Through Mass Extinction Event

Michael Harper for — Your Universe Online

There´s a popular cartoon geared towards adults which tells the story of a hapless young man who accidentally stumbles into a cryogenic capsule just moments before the turn of the century. The capsule just so happens to be set for 1,000 years, long enough for a couple of alien and robot uprisings and for the entire world our character knew to be virtually wiped away. The rest of the show is centered on how this 20th century guy manages in a 22nd century world.

While this concept makes for an interesting cartoon, scientists have now found evidence that this sort of accidental sleeping through the apocalypse may have happened once before.

Paleontologists have been riddled by the fossil of a creature they dubbed Necrolestes Patagonensis, or Grave Robber, which was found in South America. Now, another, much older fossil has been found, and paleontologists believe this creature was somehow able to survive the mass extinction event which killed the dinosaurs over 65 million years ago.

Finding proof of existence of a creature or species many years later after their assumed extinction is known as the Lazarus Effect, and according to John Wible, Natural History scientist at the Carnegie Museum, this is “supreme” example of this sort of phenomenon.

The Grave Robber, as it´s affectionately known, had an upturned snout and short, large legs used for digging. It´s believed these creatures could have buried themselves underground to protect themselves from the mass extinction event.

"Necrolestes is one of those animals in the textbooks that would appear with a picture and a footnote, and the footnote would say 'we don't know what it is,'" said Wible, according to a press statement.

While they weren´t quite sure what this creature was, paleontologists believed Necrolestes to be a marsupial. Even this classification didn´t line up with the typical definition of a marsupial, but it was the closest answer they could come to, given the scarcity of information about this grave robber.

Then, last year, another fossil was discovered in South America. The more these paleontologists looked at this new fossil, known as Cronopio, the more similarities to Necrolestes they began to notice. For instance, these 2 creatures are the only known mammals to have single-rooted molars as opposed to double-rooted molars. With this other fossil found, the scientists concluded that Necrolestes did not belong to the marsupial family, but instead was the last remaining creature in the Meridiolestida family. While Necrolestes was first thought to have become extinct 16 million years ago, the Meridiolestida family is believed to have become extinct some 60 million years ago. These scientists had effectively found the Grave Robber´s oldest ancestors, proving that these creatures somehow managed to live for 45 million years longer than they had previous assumed.

“If we didn´t know those fossils,” says Wible, speaking in the press statement, “we might have come to the same conclusion that everybody else had–that the relationships of Necrolestes were unknowable.”

“There´s no other mammal in the Tertiary of South America that even approaches its ability to dig, tunnel, and live in the ground,” explains Wible. “It must have been on the edges, in an ecological niche that allowed it to survive.”

Now, this research team is looking to fill in the 45 million year gap between these two fossils, looking for other traces of similar family members.