Legged Sea Cow Fossil Found in Jamaica

By Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
October 10, 2001
The nearly complete skeleton of an ancient aquatic mammal with legs has been unearthed in Jamaica.

The 50-million-year old skeleton is one of the best examples so far of the evolution from a land animal to an aquatic animal, said Daryl Domning, a paleontologist at Howard University in Washington, D.C., who reported the discovery.

The skeleton found in Seven Rivers, Jamaica, is a new genus and species of the order Sirenia, which encompasses the ancestors of modern-day manatees and dugongs.

Commonly known as sea cows, sirenians are plant-eating mammals that spend their entire lives in water. They started out as land animals, however. This new find fills a significant gap in the fossil record, helping scientists complete the picture of how land animals evolved to sea creatures.

"This is the most primitive fossil found so far," said Domning. "We've found others with legs that couldn't support the animal's body weight. But this is the first whole skeleton with legs that could support the animal's body weight out of water, yet has clear adaptations for aquatic life.

"We essentially have every stage now," he added, "from a terrestrial animal to one that is fully aquatic."

From Land to Sea

Domning thinks sea cows may have made the transition from land to aquatic creature to benefit from a resource that wasn't being fully exploited—in this case, sea grass—and to avoid competition with other animals. Sea grass, he noted, has been present in coastal ecosystems since the Cretaceous era, 146 to 65 million years ago.

"Even today, sea turtles might use the resource a little," said Domning, "but there are still no large sea animals other than manatees and dugongs consuming sea grass."

The fossil skeleton Domning found is nearly 7 feet (2.1 meters) long. The animal probably weighed several hundred pounds when it was alive. It had four well-developed legs, which would have enabled it to move around on land.

But it also had anatomical features that obviously suited it for aquatic life. Its nostrils were enlarged and drawn backward into the skull. Its heavily boned skeleton would have acted as ballast, much as a weight belt serves the same purpose for a diver.

Like the hippo today, the fossilized animal could live on land or in water. "The hippo spends its days resting in the water and its nights on land searching for food," Domning said. "We think this animal spent much more of its time in the water."

Strong Support for Evolution

It probably took less than 10 million years—the blink of an eye in geological terms—for the former land mammal to become fully aquatic.

Gradually, the hind legs disappeared, replaced by a powerful tail. Flukes and flippers developed, and swimming style evolved. The sirenian's initial method of swimming probably wasn't too efficient, according to Domning. It essentially kicked backward and upward with its hind legs, like an otter.

About the same time, the ancestors of whales were moving into the water and undergoing the same stages of evolution.

"The fossil record for whales is more complete than for sea cows, but every day the fossil record is getting better," said Domning. "Major gaps are becoming minor gaps, and minor gaps are evaporating."

Only a few weeks ago, researchers reported finding two new species of primitive whales that had well-developed limbs. The fossils were found in Pakistan and reported in the September 21 issue of Science.

The findings should go a long way toward settling the debate between creationism and evolution, said Domning. Creationists claim there is no evidence of macro-evolution—intermediate forms of animals demonstrating the evolution from one kind of animal to another.

"We're finding more and more dramatic evidence by the day that major changes have occurred in both appearance and adaptation," said Domning. "It's no longer a matter of theory. We have actual bones in hand representing all phases of the evolution, from land animal to sea animal, in different groups of animals."

Domning's study, for which the National Geographic Society funded the field work, appears in the October 11 issue of Nature.

Research Supported by the National Geographic Society:

Daryl Domning is one of a distinguished group of scientists from around the globe, in fields ranging from astronomy to zoology, who have been awarded grants from the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration (CRE).

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