University of Colorado Boulder researchers have discovered the fossilized remains of a teeny mammal in Canada that could well be the smallest known species of hedgehog. The species, which was previously unknown to science, has been named Silvacola acares, which means “tiny forest dweller.” The findings have been published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
Researchers discovered the ancient hedgehog fossil whilst working at a site in British Columbia called Driftwood Canyon Provincial Park. The tiny specimen was around 2 inches long and dates back to the Early Eocene, roughly 52 million years ago. Due to the diverse plant life discovered within fossils here, it’s thought that the area would have been a dense forest during this period which marked the height of global warming.
The scientists speculate that the shrew sized mammal probably fed on insects, plants and maybe seeds. Did this species don spines like modern day hedgehogs? “We can’t say for sure,” lead author Jaelyn Eberle said in a news-release. “But there are ancestral hedgehogs living in Europe about the same time that had bristly hair covering them, so it is plausible Silvacola did too.”
The researchers also discovered the fossilized remains of a small tapir-like mammal, Heptodon, at the same site. According to Eberle, this species would have been around half the size of modern day tapirs and also lacked the characteristic trunk that we see today. “Based upon its teeth, it was probably a leaf-eater, which fits nicely with the rainforest environment indicated by the fossil plants at the site,” she added.
While fossils of various different leaves, fishes and insects had previously been found in the Driftwood Creek beds, no mammals had been found here before. This meant that researchers previously knew little about mammalian diversity in North America during the early Eocene.
According to Eberle, the discovery of an early relative of tapirs is particularly interesting because modern day tapirs are found in the tropics. “Its occurrence, alongside a diversity of fossil plants that indicates a rainforest, supports an idea put forward by others that tapirs and their extinct kin are good indicators of dense forests and high precipitation,” she added.
“Driftwood Canyon is a window into a lost world, an evolutionary experiment where palms grew beneath spruce trees and the insects included a mixture of Canadian and Australian species,” said co-author David Greenwood. “Discovering mammals allows us to paint a more complete picture of this world.”