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- Darwin's "Missing Link" in Early Seal Evolution Found in Canadian Arctic
Darwin's "Missing Link" in Early Seal Evolution Found in Canadian Arctic
Ottawa, April 22, 2009—A Canadian Museum of Nature scientist's exciting discovery in Canada's High Arctic has yielded the 24 to 20 million-year-old fossil skeleton of a previously unknown mammal—a breakthrough that sheds new light on the early evolution of pinnipeds (the group that includes seals, sea lions and walruses). The results will be published by Dr. Natalia Rybczynski and co-authors in the prestigious journal Nature (April 23, 2009 issue).
"The land-to-sea transition in pinnipeds has been difficult to study because the fossil evidence has been weak and contentious," explains Rybczynski, the vertebrate palaeontologist with the Canadian Museum of Nature who led the scientific expedition. "Puijila is important because it provides a first glimpse into the earliest stages of this important evolutionary transition."
The fossil was found in the summer of 2007 during a fieldwork expedition on Devon Island, Nunavut, in a meteor impact crater. The new animal, a carnivore named Puijila darwini, has a body resembling that of an otter, but a skull that is more closely related to seals. A "walking seal", Puijila had legs like a terrestrial mammal, but the feet were webbed and adapted for swimming. This surprisingly complete skeleton (about 65%) is the most primitive pinniped skeleton found so far.
"Puijila is the first fossil evidence that early pinnipeds lived in the Arctic," explains Rybczynski. "This discovery supports the hypothesis that the Arctic may have been a geographic centre in pinniped evolution."
Rybczynski co-authored the report with Dr. Mary Dawson, Curator Emeritus of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, and Dr. Richard Tedford of the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Puijila means a young sea mammal in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit people in Nunavut. The species name darwini pays homage to Charles Darwin, who predicted this transitional land-to-sea animal in his work, On the Origin of Species. This year marks the 150th anniversary of this seminal work.
Puijila darwini will be on display at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa from April 28 to May 10, 2009. A model of the skeleton will be included in Extreme Mammals, an exhibition opening May 16, 2009 at the American Natural History Museum in New York.
Photos and Illustrations
This project was supported by the Canadian Museum of Nature (Canada's national museum of natural history), Carnegie Museum of Natural History, American Museum of Natural History, Polar Continental Shelf Program (field transportation and logistics); Northern Scientific Training Program; Government of Nunavut, Department of Culture, Language, Elders and Youth; Qikiqtani Inuit Association and the hamlet of Grise Fiord (Nunavut).