Fossils under your feet: Ancient sea cow found in Spanish street

October 28, 2016, Society of Vertebrate Paleontology
Scientist Oliver Hampe examines fossil remains of Prototherium in paving stones in Girona, Spain. Image by Manja Voss and Oliver Hampe. Credit: Society of Vertebrate Paleontology

Have you ever spotted something unexpected while walking down the street? Last December, paleontologists literally stumbled upon a new discovery of a fossil sea cow in a very unexpected place - in a limestone paving stone in Spain! Research presented this week at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah, describes this remarkable find and how it is changing our understanding of sea cow evolution.

The unusual pavement was spotted in the picturesque town of Girona, northern Spain. A local geologist first noticed the fossil and submitted it to the website 'http://www.paleourbana.com', an online database of urban fossils worldwide. As word of the fossil spread, paleontologists Dr. Manja Voss and Dr. Oliver Hampe, from the Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin, visited Girona to take a look.

Closer inspection of the paving stones by Dr. Voss and Dr. Hampe revealed that the complex array of shapes was slices of the backbone and skull of an ancient marine mammal. Based on the skull and teeth, they concluded that it was a sirenian, or sea cow, a member of a group of large, plant-eating marine mammals represented today by the living manatee and dugong.

Once the significance of the fossil was understood, Dr. Voss and Dr. Hampe worked with the mayoralty of Girona and local geologists to have the 50x30cm large paving stones removed for study. Since the rock was cut into slices to form the paving stones, the paleontologists had a cross-sectional view of the sea cow's skull, revealing many details of its anatomy. However, they also wanted to see inside the stones, so they took them to a medical hospital, the Clinica Girona, where they were CT-scanned.

The skull of Prototherium exposed on the paving slab, in cross-section, showing parts of snout and tooth sockets. Image by Manja Voss and Oliver Hampe Credit: Society of Vertebrate Paleontology

The scientists discovered that the 'Girona Sea Cow' is most likely a representative of Prototherium, a genus of extinct sea cows from Spain and Italy. However, this find is particularly important because the rocks from which the paving slabs were quarried are 40 million years old, explains Voss. "Hence the find represents one of the oldest sea cows in Europe, making it a unique opportunity to enhance our knowledge on the evolution and diversity of this marine mammal group that arose about 50 million years ago."

Next the scientists will use the CT scans to try to digitally piece together the separate skull slices of Prototherium. This can help them answer more questions, such as the animals' age when it died and its potential relationship to other fossil sea cows.

The Girona Sea Cow, which is providing clues into the evolution of in the ancient oceans of Europe, shows that fossils can be found in surprising locations. Voss says "While the limestone used to build the city of Girona are enriched by fossils—it is quite common to identify invertebrates for example—finding a marine mammal on which thousands of people walked over for the last two decades is indeed very peculiar."

Paving slabs were scanned in a medical CT scanner to reveal more about the fossils anatomy. Image by Manja Voss and Oliver Credit: Society of Vertebrate Paleontology

Explore further: Killing a name of an extinct sea cow species

Related Stories

Killing a name of an extinct sea cow species

April 2, 2014

Sirenians, or sea cows, are a particular group of mammals that superficially resembles whales in having, amongst other features, a streamlined-body and horizontal tail fluke. Though belonging to the so-called marine mammals, ...

Paleontologists discover major T. rex fossil (Update)

August 18, 2016

Paleontologists with the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture and the University of Washington have discovered a Tyrannosaurus rex, including a very complete skull. The find, which paleontologists estimate to be about ...

Ancient pygmy sea cow discovered

December 14, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- The discovery of a Middle Eocene (48.6-37.2 million years ago) sea cow fossil by McGill University professor Karen Samonds has culminated in the naming of a new species. This primitive "dugong" is among the ...

Recommended for you

Growing a dinosaur's dinner

July 13, 2018

Scientists have measured the nutritional value of herbivore dinosaurs' diet by growing their food in atmospheric conditions similar to those found roughly 150 million years ago.

A statistical study of the hot streak

July 12, 2018

An international team of researchers has conducted a statistical analysis of hot streaks to learn more about this mysterious facet of human nature. In their paper published in the journal Nature, the group describes how they ...

Study finds solos twice as common in sad songs

July 11, 2018

Music can transport a spirit from sullen to joyful. It can bring a concertgoer to unexpected tears. But the details of just how that connection between performance and emotion works remain largely mysterious.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.