for National Geographic News
Scientists in China (map) have discovered a fossilized small, furry animal that walked like a platypus but looked like a shrew. The unusual find provides important new clues to the evolution of early mammals, the researchers say.
Found in the province of Liaoning in northeast China, the well-preserved fossil shows a previously unknown species of insect-eating mammal that lived alongside dinosaurs some 125 million years ago.
Measuring 4 inches (10 centimeters) long and weighing 15 to 20 grams (0.5 to 0.7 ounce), the shrewlike creature had a thick coat of fur.
Writing in tomorrow's issue of the journal Nature, paleontologists Gang Li and Zhe-Xi Luo say the animal reveals some unexpectedly primitive features, and that it strengthens Asia's claim as the site where the main mammal groups originated.
Named Akidolestes, the extinct animal had jaws, teeth, and forelimbs that identify it as a close relative of modern placental and marsupial mammals. Placental mammals give birth to fully developed young, while marsupials bear premature young that continue to develop outside the mother's body.
But the researchers noted a highly unusual back-half to its skeletonsimilar to that of primitive, egg-laying mammals known as monotremes.
The only living descendants of monotremes are the strange duck-billed platypus of Australia and two species of spiny anteaters, or echidnas.
"This new fossil is a chimera of body structures of different kinds of mammals," said Zhe-Xi Luo, curator of vertebrate paleontology at Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
"Its front half resembles those of more derived marsupials and placentals, but its back half is unmistakably monotreme-like."
Luo says the animal had a front posture and gait similar to that of a squirrel, with elbows tucked under its body, but its hind legs had the sprawling appearance of a lizard's.
"The walking and running movement in Akidolestes would be similar to the platypus," he said.
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