Scientists say they’ve found a “missing link” in the early evolution of seals and walruses — the skeleton of a web-footed, otter-like creature that was evolving away from a life on land. Those feet and other anatomical features show an early step on the way to developing flippers and other adaptations for a life in the sea, the scientists said.
One expert called it “a fantastic discovery” that fills a crucial gap in the fossil record.
The 23 million-year-old creature was not a direct ancestor of today’s seals, sea lions and walruses, a group known collectively as pinnipeds. It’s from a different branch. But it does show what an early direct ancestor looked like, said researcher Natalia Rybczynski.
The fossil was found on Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic, bolstering the notion that the far north was an early center of pinniped evolution, she said.
Rybczynski, a researcher at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, and colleagues from the United States report the find in Thursday’s issue of the journal Nature.
They named the creature Puijila darwini (“pew-YEE-lah dar-WIN-eye”). That combines an Inuit word for “young sea mammal,” often a seal, with an homage to Charles Darwin. The famed naturalist had written that a land animal “by occasionally hunting for food in shallow water, then in streams or lakes, might at last be converted into an animal so thoroughly aquatic as to brave the open ocean.”
Scientists already knew that pinnipeds evolved from land animals. But the earliest known fossil from that group already had flippers. So Puijila shows an earlier stage of evolution, the researchers said.
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