Researchers have discovered an ancient kitten-sized predator that lived in Bolivia about 13 million years ago — one of the smallest species reported in the extinct order Sparassodonta. The species has the features of a tenacious hunter that could feed on animals its own size, the scientists say.
A Case Western Reserve University student and his mentor have discovered an ancient kitten-sized predator that lived in Bolivia about 13 million years ago — one of the smallest species reported in the extinct order Sparassodonta.
Third-year undergraduate student Russell Engelman and Case Western Reserve anatomy professor Darin Croft made the finding by analyzing a partial skull that had been in a University of Florida collection more than three decades.
The researchers report their finding in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
"The animal would have been about the size of a marten, a catlike weasel found in the Northeastern United States and Canada, and probably filled the same ecological niche," said Engelman, an evolutionary biology major from Russell Township, Ohio.
The researchers refrained from naming the new species mainly because the specimen lacks well-preserved teeth, which are the only parts preserved in many of its close relatives.
The skull, which would have been a little less than 3 inches long if complete, shows the animal had a very short snout. A socket, or alveolus, in the upper jaw shows it had large, canines, that were round in cross-section much like those of a meat-eating marsupial, called the spotted-tailed quoll, found in Australia today, the researchers said.
Although sparassodonts are more closely related to modern opossums than cats and dogs, the group included saber-toothed species that fed on large prey. This small Bolivian species probably fed on the ancient relatives of today's guinea pigs and spiny rats, the researchers said.
"Most predators don't go after animals of equal size, but these features indicate this small predator was a formidable hunter," Croft said.
The specimen had not been studied in detail after being collected. It was provisionally identified as belonging to a particular group of extinct meat-eating opossums, due in part to its small size. Further adding to the identity challenge, almost all small sparassodonts have been identified by their teeth and lower jaws, which this skull lacks.
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