MessageToEagle.com - For more than 100 years, scientists have struggled to solved a mystery of the so-called “grave robber,”
Necrolestes patagonensis - fossil mammal from South America - and its underground and burrowing lifestyle.
“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,’” says co-author John Wible, Carnegie Museum of Natural History mammalogist and
member of the discovery team that also includes researchers from Australia and Argentina.
Now, an international team of researchers, including John Wible, can finally solve the much-debated paleontological problem,
placing this strange 16-million-year-old creature, with its upturned snout and large limbs for digging, in the mammal
Since its discovery in Patagonia in 1891, Necrolestes has been an enigma.
The Miocene mammal Necrolestes patagonensis ventures out of its burrow 16 million years ago in Patagonia, present-day
Argentina. Necrolestes is now recognized as a member of a group long thought to have become extinct shortly after the
extinction of the large dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period.
Credit: Reconstruction by Jorge Gonzalez, copyright Guillermo W. Rougier for PNAS use as needed.
Situating Necrolestes among its relatives in the fossil record answers one long-held question, but creates others; it
reminds us that there is a lot we don’t yet know about the global impacts of the massive extinction event 65 million
years ago and it challenges assumptions that the well-documented effects that occurred in western North America were
This finding unexpectedly moves forward the endpoint for the fossil’s evolutionary lineage by 45 million years, showing that
this family of mammals survived the extinction event that marked the end of the Age of Dinosaurs.
This is an example of the Lazarus effect, in which a group of organisms is found to have survived far longer than originally thought.
Despite being excellently preserved, the mysterious fossils moved from institution to institution and researcher to researcher,
the classification of Necrolestes changing with each new move.
As recently as a few years ago, Necrolestes still could not be definitively classified in a mammal group. A CAT scan of
the ear region in 2008 led to another research team’s hypothesis that Necrolestes was a marsupial.
This classification intrigued Wible’s co-author on the paper, Guillermo Rougier from the University of Louisville, Kentucky.
As a specialist in South American mammals, Rougier was not convinced that the marsupial identification was accurate, and he
embarked on his own attempt to make a classification.
“This project was a little daunting, because we had to contradict 100 years of interpretation,” admits Rougier. During the
process of preparing the fossil for further study, Rougier uncovered characteristics of the skull anatomy that had previously
gone unnoted. Based on these newly revealed features, the research team came to the groundbreaking realization that
Necrolestes belonged to neither the marsupial nor placental lineages to which it had historically been linked.
Rather, Necrolestes actually belonged in a completely unexpected branch of the evolutionary tree which was thought to have died out
45 million years earlier than the time of Necrolestes.
Part of the riddle of Necrolestes has always been its seemingly mismatched anatomical features, which never seemed to fit
any single classification.
Reconstruction of the mysterious mammal, Necrolestes patagonensis, of Early Miocene Patagonia, often thought
to be a marsupial, as a mole-like animal. Credits: Stanton F. Fink
Based on its decidedly upturned snout, sturdy body structure, and short, wide leg bones, researchers
had always agreed that it must be fossorial—a burrowing mammal, specialized for digging and tunneling, perhaps even more
than any other known burrowing mammal—but this trait didn’t make classification any easier.
This trait, however, didn’t make classification any easier.
In 2011, a newly discovered extinct mammal named Cronopio contributed to unlocking the mystery of the burrowing enigma.
Discovered by co-author Guillermo Rougier from the University of Louisville, Kentucky, in South America, Cronopio belongs
to the Meridiolestida, a little-known group of extinct mammals found in the Late Cretaceous and early Paleocene
(100–60 million years ago) of South America.
Not only were Cronopio and Necrolestes found to have remarkable similarities, they are the only known mammals to have
single-rooted molars—most mammals have double-rooted molars. This conclusively showed that Necrolestes was neither a marsupial
nor a placental mammal, and was in fact the last remaining member of the Meridiolestida lineage, thought to have gone extinct
45 million years earlier.
“If we didn’t know those fossils,” says Wible of Cronopio, “we might have come to the same conclusion that everybody else
had—that the relationships of Necrolestes were unknowable.”
The mass extinction that ended the Age of Dinosaurs wiped out thousands of species. Included in the devastation were the Meridiolestida,
the mammal group to which Cronopio and Necrolestes belong, cutting short their evolutionary lineage—or so scientists thought.
Before the conclusive identification of Necrolestes, only one member of the Meridiolestida was known to have survived the extinction
event, and that species died out soon after, early in the Tertiary Period (65–1.8 million years ago). Necrolestes is therefore the
only remaining member of a supposedly extinct group.
“It’s the supreme Lazarus effect,” comments Wible. “How in the world did this animal survive so long without anyone knowing about it?”
In the Lazarus effect, a species previously thought to be extinct is rediscovered—sometimes living, sometimes elsewhere in
the fossil record. The Lazarus effect is well represented by the ginkgo tree, thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered
growing in China in the 17th century.
The researchers believe that Necrolestes’s supreme burrowing adaptations are exactly what enabled it to survive for 45 million years
longer than its relatives.
The researchers believe that Necrolestes’s supreme burrowing adaptations are exactly what enabled it to survive for 45 million
years longer than its relatives. “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.
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