55 million-year-old ancestor of lions, tigers, and bears (oh my!) has been discovered

Charlène Letenneur (MNHN) and Pascale Golinvaux (RBINS)

Some of the coolest carnivores on Earth, like bears and big cats, all share a fairly recent (geologically speaking) common ancestor. A recent discovery gives new insight to what their last common ancestor looked like and how it may have behaved.  The results come from a research team led by Floréal Solé and were published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Mammalian carnivores can trace their lineage back to a creature in the early Eocene, 55 million years ago. Fossils that were discovered in Belgium have gotten researchers one step closer to finding the ancestor of these animals. The name, Dormaalocyon latouri, an homage to the Dormaal region where the fossil was located. The team was able to describe the animal based on over 250 teeth and bones located in the ankle. These newly discovered bones add to two teeth that were found previously. 

Dormaalocyon lived after the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), which was a period of time in which global temperatures rose by 11F (6C), causing massive changes in biodiversity. After this event, conditions in the area were very humid and there would have been expansive wooded regions. This leads researchers to believe that Dormaalocyon was arboreal and may have been able to travel through the trees into North America.

Like any good discovery, the discovery of this new species asks as many questions as it answers. Because there appear to have been several mammalian carnivores at the time Dormaalocyon lived in the early Eocene, the ancestor must have come about in the Paleocene. Researchers can now seek out the predecessor of Dormaalocyon to determine these elusive origins. If those fossils are discovered, it will give added insight into how these placental mammalian carnivores first emerged. Right now, researchers believe that ancestor is probably located in Europe and is a close relative of Dormaalocyon

The Cretaceous-Paleogene mass extinction event 65 million years ago didn’t only wipe out dinosaurs; it drastically altered food chains and affected nearly every creature on Earth. At least half of all biodiversity was lost, forcing a new food chain to emerge. Mammals actually fared pretty well during this event, and the lack of competition in the aftermath allowed them to expand into different ecological niches, with one eventually becoming the sought-after ancestor of Dormaalocyon and several other carnivores.

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