Three cat-sized mammals that thrived in the post-dinosaur world

Paleontologists have found fossilized teeth and jaws of three hitherto unrecognized mammals – Conacodon hettingeri, Miniconus jeanninae, beornus honeyi – in the Great Divide Basin of Wyoming. Fossils suggest that these mammals were no bigger than a giant rodent or a small cat and thrived during the early Puercana era, nearly 328,000 years after the dinosaurs disappeared. They belong to a group called condylars. They were somewhere related to the ungulate family, which also includes the ancestors of today’s hoofed mammals. The findings suggest that mammal diversification after the dinosaur extinction began much earlier than researchers predicted. The discovery of these three new species also demonstrates how many more “unique pockets of diversity” could have thrived in different locations during this era.

About 66 million years ago, a large asteroid hit Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and wiped dinosaurs off the face of the Earth. Researchers had previously agreed that all species that survived after the catastrophe would be the size of rats or mice. Previously discovered fossils suggested that condylars were the most abundant group of mammals in North America during the early Puercan era. However, researchers had to dig deep to place the new fossils into the established taxonomy of animals.

The team compared the fossilized teeth with specimens from 25 other condylars and another distantly related mammal. They used a computer program to analyze 64 characteristics of the teeth of each specimen and studied the proximity of these species to other mammal ancestors from the same period. Upon analysis, the researchers concluded that these species were part of a family called periptychids.

Periptychids are generally distinguished from other condylarths by their swollen teeth, suggesting that these species did not live on meat. beornus honeyi they had large premolars and inflated molars. Miniconus jeanninae had an unusual extra cusp in her molars while Conacodon hettingeri showed a short lobe on his last molar. The structure and hardness of the teeth suggest that these mammals survive on hard materials such as seeds. They could be omnivores.

The new findings were compiled in an article by Jaelyn Eberle and Madelaine Atteberryon in the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology. The specimens under investigation were kept at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History. The exhibited collection also includes more than 400 other specimens from the same location.

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