reconstruction of Dormaalcyon latouri
January 7, 2014

Newly Discovered Fossils Shed New Light On Origin Of Carnivoraforms

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Over 250 teeth and ankle bone fossils discovered in Belgium have allowed researchers to gain new insight into some of the best-known and most-loved mammals on Earth, according to a new study appearing in the latest edition of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

According to the study authors, the group of mammals known as carnivoraforms (which includes creatures such as cats, dogs, bears and seals) can trace its roots back to primitive carnivorous creatures that existed during the Eocene period some 55 million years ago. The newly published paper discusses both the origins of this group, and also describes new specimens of one of the earliest of this taxonomic group.

Lead author Floréal Solé of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences and his colleagues found new specimens of the Dormaalocyon latouri, a creature originally discovered in the Belgian district of Dormaal. These new fossils will allow for an improved characterization of the creature, and a clarification of its place in the evolutionary history of carnivores, the researchers explained.

“Its description allows better understanding of the origination, variability and ecology of the earliest carnivoraforms,” Solé said. While previous finds included a pair of upper molars, the discovery of the additional teeth will allow scientists to fully describe the entire tooth row of the Dormaalocyon.

“The new finds even include the deciduous teeth (or 'baby teeth'),” the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology said in a statement. “The fact that these teeth are very primitive looking, and from a very early time, implies that Dormaalocyon is close to the origin of carnivoraforms, and that this origin may have been in Europe.”

In addition, the ankle bones suggest that this creature lived in the forest. Previous reconstructions of the environment in the Dormaal region during the Eocene era suggested that the landscape was warm and humid, and that it was a wooded area. The time of the creature’s existence would have occurred in an extremely warm period of time that followed an event known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (or PETM).

This period influenced the evolution of several different types of mammals, including carnivoraforms. Given the fact that the Dormaalocyon was arboreal and that carnivoraforms reached North American around this same time, Dr. Solé said that the evidence “supports the existence of a continuous evergreen forest belt at high latitudes” during this era. However, the fossils also suggest that there was an even more primitive carnivoraform ancestor.

“The understanding of the origination of the carnivoraforms is important for reconstructing the adaptation of placental mammals to carnivorous diet,” Dr. Solé said. “Therefore, Dormaalocyon provides information concerning the evolution of placental mammals after the disappearance of the largest dinosaurs (at the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event).”

“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,” he added. However, the study authors note that there are undoubtedly more fossils out there that can provide yet more insight into the origin of these beloved modern mammals.