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Monday, February 6, 2012

Saber Tooth Squirrels?

Scientists have reported the discovery of a saber tooth squirrel. It seems squirrels have managed to survive a VERY long time. In the journal Nature, lead researcher Guillermo Rougier, a professor from the University of Louisville, reported that the study team believes they have found the fossilized remains of a creature known as Cronopio dentiacutus. Drawings of Cronopio dentiacutus resemble some of the animals seen in the movie "Ice Age."

Photo courtesy of CNN blog "Lightyears"

Previously there has been a large gap in the fossil record of mammals in South America from about 60 million to 120 million years ago.  Cronopio dentiacutus was a mouse-size squirrel whose teeth were very long in proportion to the rest of his body, and technically wasn't really saber toothed or a squirrel.  This mouse-sized squirrel with proportionally long teeth, was technically speaking neither a squirrel nor saber-toothed. The extinct mammal, who lived approximately 94 million years ago was the forerunner of today's marsupials and placental animals. It has been extinct for about 60 million years. 

When Rougier and his colleagues examined the unique skull of this animal they report "It was a lot more primitive than we are with regard to the way in which the skull was put together; the teeth were very primitive," and "The skull is about an inch long." 

They believe the animal was an insectivore which is common for small mammals today. They had teeth that appeared to be specialized for crushing and cutting; Cronopio dentiacutus could puncture right through small insects. Rougier said if you want to imagine what they looked like think what you would look like if your teeth came down below your chin. (Now that's an attractive picture!)

These primitive animals lived during the same time period as snakes with legs, small carnivorous dinosaurs and terrestrial crocodiles. They lived in the flood plains of Argentina that today is a desert area in Patagonia. At the time they existed most mammals were very small. It was not until later when big dinosaurs were extinct that mammals grew to be the size of large cats and dogs. Rougier says "These were the tiny little guys that would squirrel in between the toes of the dinosaurs trying not to get stepped on." 

I guess the next time I'm complaining about the squirrels eating the birdseed it could be worse, they could be tryin to hide between my toes!

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