Although "cute" isn't exactly a scientific term, University of Colorado researcher Jaelyn Eberle admits that the tiny hedgehog-like animal that lived in British Columbia 52 million years ago probably had its charms.
Eberle, associate professor of geological sciences, helped identify the fossil remains of a new genus and species called Silvacola acares, the tiny 2-inch early relative of the modern hedgehog discovered at the Driftwood Canyon Provincial Park lake deposit in north-central British Columbia.
"I'll be honest, I hadn't thought of it at first because as a fossil-mammal person, I look at teeth," said Eberle, who curates the fossil vertebrates at CU's Museum of Natural History. "But when we did the reconstruction (illustration), we had a lot of fun with that. When it was all said and done, I'm going, 'The whole idea of a 2, 2 1/2-inch-long hedgehog, that's pretty cute.' We don't put that in our diagnosis."
The hedgehog discovery, as well as the discovery of a tapir-like fossil, was published this week in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
Translated literally, the hedgehog's scientific name means "tiny forest dweller." Researchers chose the name because 52 million years ago during the Early Eocene era, the area where the fossil was discovered probably had a climate similar to Portland, Oregon.
Fossil plants at the site point to an ecosystem where palm trees lived next to spruce trees in a kind of cool-weather rainforest, Eberle said.
Though researchers had found mammal fossils from the Early Eocene era in Colorado and Wyoming, and in the higher arctic region of Canada, these were the first discovered between the two areas, Eberle said.
The fossils give researchers a clearer picture of what life was like during this era, said co-author David Greenwood, a researcher at Brandon University in Brandon, Manitoba.
"We want to reconstruct what the environment was like," Greenwood said "What was the forest like? What was the climate like? What kinds of other life was in this forest in and around the lake where the fossils were preserved? It fills the gap of our understanding of how the ecosystem functioned."
Greenwood and a group of graduate students stumbled upon the hedgehog and tapir fossils by accident on two separate expeditions in 2010 and 2011, he said.
A fossil of the hedgehog's tiny, tiny teeth — a molar measured one millimeter long — and a fossil of the tapir's human hand-sized jaw were discovered, giving researchers some hints about the two animals' lifestyles.
Both probably munched on insects, seeds and plants, Eberle said. Without a full fossil, it's tough to say if the hedgehog had quills, she added, though fossils of similar animals from that era indicate that it probably had coarse hair instead.
The Early Eocene era is interesting to many scientists, Eberle said, because it was the height of global warming after the dinosaurs' extinction. Many researchers hope that understanding this era could predict how the earth will change during future global warming, she said.
On both trips, Greenwood's teams were looking for plants and insects, not mammals. If their luck holds, they hope to find even more mammal fossils if they return.
"We want to go back and see if we can find more mammals," Greenwood said. "Because if you find two by sheer luck, if you're deliberate about it maybe you'll find more."
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