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Fossils reveal origins of ancient African fauna

A new study shows that embrithopods likely originated in Africa.

Remains uncovered in Morocco by international scientists are the oldest embrithopod fossils ever found, a new study published in Current Biology reports.

Many animals roamed the Earth during the Cretaceous Period tens of millions years ago. One such group were embrithopods — hoofed, now-extinct mammals that inhabited our planet after the dinosaurs died off.

However, while scientists are aware of the group’s existence, a lack of fossils make them hard to study. The new finding helps shed light on the creatures and shows where they may have come from.

The new fossils — which consist of a jaw bone and various teeth — depict two different embrithopod species that date back 55 million years and belong to the genus Stylolophus.

In addition, the giant mammals were quite sturdy. Though the smaller of the two newfound species was only the size of a sheep, it was much denser and heavier.

The specimens are not the first embrithopods on record, but they are the first to show that the group likely originated from Africa.

“The specialized design of the teeth with two transverse ridges, known in the most advanced forms such as Arsinoitherium, is a convergence of the embrithopods and the extant group of tethytheres, including manatees and elephants, towards leaf eating, which was favored by the ancient herbivorous niches available on the African island,” said lead author Emmanuel Gheerbrant, a researcher at Centre de Recherche sur la Paléobiodiversité et les Paléoenvironnements, according to Phys.org.

While the ancient group resembled modern day rhinoceroses, they were related to the animals that would evolve into elephants and sea cows.

In that way, better understanding the group may not just shed light on the extinct species, but on many modern mammals as well.

“This evidence brings all of these groups way back in time into Africa,” said Erik Seiffert, a paleontologist at the University of Southern California who was not involved in the study, told Gizmodo. “It strongly supports that there actually is an ancient African group that had a common origin.”

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