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Text: "Puijila" in Inuktitut. Puijila: A Prehistoric Walking Seal. Photo collage: Scheuchzer's cotton-grass (Eriophorum scheuchzeri), the research team at work in the field, a reconstruction of the Puijila darwini fossil, an ejector block in the Haughton Crater, two palaeontologists shaking a dry screen.
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Text: "Inuktitut" in Inuktitut syllabics.
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A Missing Link

A Freshwater Phase

Puijila is providing insight into the evolutionary history of characteristics in the land-to-sea transition, and that includes behavioural characteristics. For example, Puijila was found in a freshwater lake deposit. This fact suggests that in pinnipeds, the land-to-sea transition did not occur on the shores of an ocean, but rather, included a freshwater phase.

Image 1) Natalia Rybczynski at an open collection storage drawer with Puijila darwini skull, collection number NUFV405, and Steller sea lion (Eumetopias jubata) skull, collection number CMNMA2609. Background: a harbour seal (Phoca vitulina) skeleton, collection number CMNMA32190.

Natalia Rybczynski compares the fossil skull of Puijila (in her left hand) to the skull of a Steller sea lion in the osteology collection of the museum. A mounted skeleton of a harbour seal is in the background.

Charles Darwin foretold of an animal such as Puijila. While musing about pinnipeds in On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859), he predicted

"A strictly terrestrial animal, by occasionally hunting for food in shallow water, then in streams or lakes, might at last be converted into an animal so thoroughly aquatic as to brave the open ocean."

Needless to say, naming the animal Puijila darwini in his honour seemed appropriate.

Arctic Origins?

Puijila may also offer clues on the role of the environment and geography in early pinniped evolution. For example, Puijila is the first fossil pinniped found in the High Arctic. Finding such a primitive fossil there may indicate that the Arctic region was a centre of dispersal for early pinnipeds. This contrasts with the prevailing hypothesis, which holds that pinnipeds originated on the Pacific coast of North America.

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Image 3) Natalia Rybczynski holding the braincase of Puijila darwini (collection number NUFV405).