The African savannah was inhabited with embrithopods, which roamed the land long before rhinoceros, giraffes, hippos or other mammals. One of the embrithopods was a mammal that looked like a rhinoceros, called Arsinoitherium. This species more was related to elephants, sea cows, and hyraxes than to rhinoceros.
On June 28, a study reported in Current Biology shows that researchers have found the most ancient embrithopod so far. It dates 55 million years back, and it was found in the Ouled Abdoun phosphate basin in Morocco. Scientists found fossilized dental remains of two new species belonging to the genus Stylolophus. The previous discoveries were found in Africa and Turkey, scientists finding 48-million-year-old fossils.
Large and Strange African Mammals
Emmanuel Gheerbrant of CNRS-MNHN (Paris, France) explains how embrithopods looked:
“The embrithopods were large and strange extinct mammals that belonged, together with hyraxes and elephants, to the early megaherbivorous mammalian fauna that inhabited the island Africa, well before the arrival about 23 million years ago of the Eurasian ungulate lineages such as the artiodactyls, including giraffes, buffalos, hippopotamus, and antelopes, and the perissodactyls, including zebras and rhinoceros. They belong to the old endemic African fauna.”
Gheerbrant added that they haven’t yet found out the origins of embrithopods. They found two families that co-existed in Africa and in Turkey and Romania. Gheerbrant said that they compared the older specimens with the newest ones found in Morocco and found interesting things about the structure of the teeth:
“The specialized design of the teeth with two transverse ridges, known in the most advanced forms such as Arsinoitherium, is a convergence of the embrithopods and the extant group of tethytheres, including manatees and elephants, towards leaf-eating, which was favored by the ancient herbivorous niches available on the African island.”
The newly found specimen was small – almost similar in size to a sheep. It is the first that shows the presence of enlarged incisors, an incipient form of tusks, making them the early ancestors of a group which includes elephants.
The researchers will continue to study the evolutionary history of the mammals in Africa, including a search for afrotherian mammals and placental mammals, and search for their early roots that date back to the Cretaceous Period.
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