Tiny bones rewrite textbooks

Dec 13, 2006

Small but remarkable fossils found in New Zealand will prompt a major rewrite of prehistory textbooks, showing for the first time that the so-called "land of birds" was once home to mammals as well.

The tiny fossilised bones - part of a jaw and a leg - belonged to a unique, mouse-sized land animal unlike any other mammal known. They were unearthed from the rich St Bathans fossil bed, in the Central Otago region of South Island.

But the real shock to scientists was that it was there at all: until now, decades of searching had shown no hint that furry, warm-blooded animals had ever trodden on New Zealand soil, despite them having thrived so widely in other lands.

The fact that even one land mammal lived there, at least 16 million years ago, has put paid to the theory that New Zealand's diverse prehistoric bird fauna had evolved there because they had no competition from land mammals.

An international team led by Trevor Worthy, of the University of Adelaide, Alan Tennyson, of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, and Mike Archer, of the University of New South Wales, note that New Zealand separated from the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana more than 80 million years ago. The research has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"This amazing find suggests that other mammals are waiting to be found there, and that New Zealand belonged to the birds only in more recent times," says Mr Worthy.

"It also suggests that New Zealand was not completely submerged, as some scientists thought, when sea levels were high about 25 to 30 million years ago."

The team believes that more mammal specimens may emerge, perhaps even species that pre-date the split between pouched marsupials and live-bearing placental mammals.

The St Bathans fossil field - which has also produced many other species of animals, including fish and birds - also promises to shed new light on climate change in the Australasian region, recording a massive shift from a warm, wet phase to a much cooler and drier period.

"This promises to be a richly rewarding fossil field and the heraldic discovery of New Zealand's first non-flying mammal represents just the first page of a fascinating new chapter in the history of the world's mammals," says Professor Archer.

The Australian Research Council recently awarded the team a $500,000 grant over the three years to further explore the St Bathans site.

Source: University of New South Wales

Explore further: Researchers create methylation maps of Neanderthals and Denisovans, compare them to modern humans

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Japan says no decision on 2015-16 whaling

Apr 14, 2014

Japan on Monday insisted it had made no decision on whether to resume whaling in the Southern Ocean next year, after a militant environmental group said Tokyo intended to evade an international court ruling.

Whale watching book questions industry sustainability

Apr 07, 2014

Whale and dolphin watching may not be the low-impact, sustainable industries many believe them to be according to a new evidence-based book, co-edited by Associate Professor Lars Bejder of the Murdoch University ...

Japan whaling fleet returns from Antarctic

Apr 05, 2014

A whaling fleet anchored at a Japanese port Saturday after Tokyo said it would cancel its annual hunt for the first time in more than 25 years to abide by a UN court ruling.

Japan cancels next Antarctic whaling hunt after ICJ ruling

Apr 03, 2014

Japan said Thursday it was cancelling its annual Antarctic whaling hunt for the first time in more than a quarter of a century in line with a UN court ruling that the programme was a commercial activity disguised ...

Boaters need to be mindful of dolphins

Jan 31, 2014

Boaties heading out into the Hauraki Gulf over the summer need to take greater care in sharing the water, Massey researchers say, as they uncover the impact of collisions between vessels and marine mammals ...

Fossil porpoise has a chin for the ages

Mar 13, 2014

Scientists have identified a new species of ancient porpoise with a chin length unprecedented among known mammals and suggest the animal used the tip of its face to probe the seabed for food.

Recommended for you

Crowd-sourcing Britain's Bronze Age

Apr 17, 2014

A new joint project by the British Museum and the UCL Institute of Archaeology is seeking online contributions from members of the public to enhance a major British Bronze Age archive and artefact collection.

Roman dig 'transforms understanding' of ancient port

Apr 17, 2014

(Phys.org) —Researchers from the universities of Cambridge and Southampton have discovered a new section of the boundary wall of the ancient Roman port of Ostia, proving the city was much larger than previously ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Study finds law dramatically curbing need for speed

Almost seven years have passed since Ontario's street-racing legislation hit the books and, according to one Western researcher, it has succeeded in putting the brakes on the number of convictions and, more importantly, injuries ...

Continents may be a key feature of Super-Earths

Huge Earth-like planets that have both continents and oceans may be better at harboring extraterrestrial life than those that are water-only worlds. A new study gives hope for the possibility that many super-Earth ...

Researchers successfully clone adult human stem cells

(Phys.org) —An international team of researchers, led by Robert Lanza, of Advanced Cell Technology, has announced that they have performed the first successful cloning of adult human skin cells into stem ...