66-million-year-old mammal discovered by University of Edinburgh scientists

University of Edinburgh researchers have discovered the remains of a nearly 66 million year-old mammal that appears to have survived the dinosaur extinction.

The finding, discovered in conjunction with the University of Nebraska and the New Mexico Museum of National History and Science, is teaching scientists about the evolutionary process following the mass extinction of dinosaurs.

According to lead researcher Dr Stephen Brusatte, the fossil belonged to a a small mammal that looked similar to a modern-day beaver.

The new creature, named Kimbetopsalis simmonsae, lived “just a few hundred thousand years” after the asteroid-induced mass dinosaur extinction, Brusatte told The Student.

For Brusatte and other scientists, the 10 to 30 kilogram Kimbetopsalisrelatively large compared to mammals who lived alongside dinosaurs—is evidence of how quickly mammals started to evolve after they “survived the extinction and freed themselves from dinosaurs.”

One of the most important pieces of evidence that signified an accelerated evolutionary process were Kimbetopsalis’ teeth, Brusatte explained. The mammal’s teeth indicate that it ate a diet of plants, a characteristic that was rare in mammals before the dinosaurs died off.

“This was an evolutionary explosion,” Brusatte explained to The Student. “And it set the stage for today’s mammal-dominated world. This rapid period of evolution led to primates, which ultimately led to us.”

For Dr Brusatte, the now-extinct Kimbetopsalis simmonsae is his second discovery announced in just a few months.

In August, he uncovered a 125 million-year-old winged dinosaur in China that he referred to as a “fluffy feathered poodle from hell.”

The findings help the University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences department maintain its reputation as leaders in research, according to Dr. Ian Main, the School’s Director of Research.

Speaking on Dr Brusatte, Main told The Student: “Stephen has made a huge contribution to this effort. Not just in the discovery or identification of many new and exciting individual fossils, but also in understanding how these species relate to each other in terms of their evolutionary family trees, and to the environment prevailing at the time.

“This allows us to look at the natural world in the deep past, and to understand how we got to where we are now.”

The university’s School of GeoSciences came in first place in 2014 for Research Excellence Framework, a method for measuring research quality in the United Kingdom, in research power in the Earth System and Environmental Science category.

But Brusatte maintains his group is just getting started.

“I think we have one of the UK’s best palaeontology research groups here in Edinburgh,” Brusatte told The Student.

“We’re studying all kinds of different things–dinosaurs, mammals, sea-living reptiles, crocodiles, you name it. What we really want to do is understand how evolution works over long time scales, and what happens during mass extinctions. We are building up a huge palaeontology research group and all of these discoveries are a testament to the exciting things we’re working on, and also how the public is hugely interested in these things, as some of these discoveries have become big news stories.  We’re so excited about it all!”

 

Image: Sarah Shelley’s impression of how Kimbetopsalis simmonsae may have looked reveals a beaver-like creature.

Image credit: Sarah Shelley

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