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‘Enormously thrilling’ fossils present in NSW opal area counsel Australia had ‘age of monotremes’

May 26, 2024

A while about 100m years in the past in what’s now an Australian opal area, a bizarre, furry, egg-laying, rabbit-sized mammal was gliding by means of a waterhole throughout a large polar floodplain.

This mammal – Opalius splendens however which scientists have fortunately blessed with the nickname “echidnapus” – was among the many historical descendants of one of many planet’s most unusual orders of animals, the monotremes.

New scientific analysis launched on Monday confirmed the echidnapus had traits of the final two remaining members of their tribe.

Trendy Australia is the stronghold for the one monotreme species – the supremely odd platypus, a nipple-free Aussie mammal with a duck-like invoice, and the spiky echidna with it’s over-stretched snout, which additionally lives on New Guinea.

Prof Tim Flannery: ‘It’s like discovering an entire new civilisation.’ {Photograph}: James Alcock/Australian Museum

However the discovery of echidnapus and two extra historical monotremes within the opal area fossils means a minimum of six monotreme species existed in what’s now the far north New South Wales outback.

“It’s like discovering an entire new civilisation,” mentioned Prof Tim Flannery, the lead creator of the brand new analysis, revealed in palaeontology journal Alcheringa.

“At this time Australia is named the land of the marsupials, however discovering these new fossils is the primary indication that Australia was beforehand residence to range of monotremes.

Within the area the place the fossils had been discovered, “there are not any other forms of mammals. It suggests Australia skilled an age of monotremes once they had been the dominant mammal.”

The invention of the opalised jawbones in an space referred to as Lightning Ridge nearly by no means occurred. Elizabeth Smith, of the Australian Opal Centre, and her daughter Clytie discovered the specimens about 25 years in the past whereas going by means of the tailings heap of an opal mine.

“It was largely luck that I discovered the items,” she mentioned. “However I instantly knew it was a mammal and subsequently actually vital.”

She donated the specimens to the Australian Museum at in regards to the flip of the millenium. Nowadays her finds and people which are despatched to her by opal miners keep on the not-for-profit opal centre.

“These specimens are a revelation,” she mentioned. “It’s enormously thrilling. They present the world that lengthy earlier than Australia turned the land of pouched mammals, marsupials, this was a land of furry egg-layers – monotremes.”

The three species are described within the journal from opalised jaws courting again to an age of the Cretaceous between 102m and 96.6m years in the past.

A second new historical monotreme, Parvopalus clytiei, was a tiny terrestrial mammal. A 3rd, Dharragarra aurora, seemed “remarkably like a contemporary platypus,” Flannery mentioned.

Prof Kris Helgen: ‘Its total anatomy might be fairly just like the platypus however with options of the jaw and snout a bit extra like an echidna – you would possibly name it an “echidnapus”.’ {Photograph}: James Alcock/Australian Museum

Prof Kris Helgen, director of the Australian Museum Analysis Institute, mentioned Opalios splendens had traits of the earliest recognized monotremes however different options pointing to the trendy echidna and platypus.

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He mentioned: “Its total anatomy might be fairly just like the platypus however with options of the jaw and snout a bit extra like an echidna – you would possibly name it an ‘echidnapus’.”

Echidnapus couldn’t have been the instant ancestor as a result of it was too previous, mentioned Flannery. Nevertheless it had a slim beak like an echidna and 5 molars like a contemporary platypus.

One curiosity of the trendy platypus – an animal so odd that 18th-century British scientist George Shaw thought it a possible hoax – is the way it misplaced its tooth (juveniles lose their molar tooth as they turn out to be adults).

“It’s a thriller we predict we might have solved,” mentioned Flannery. About two million years in the past, the Australian water rat – referred to as the rakali – arrived in Australia.

Palaeontologist Dr Elizabeth Smith and her husband Robert, looking for fossils over 20 years in the past at Lightning Ridge. {Photograph}: Robert A Smith

This, Flannery mentioned, in all probability induced the platypus to search for “softer, slipperier meals finest processed with the leathery pads that adults use right now.”

He mentioned all six of Lightning Ridge’s monotremes “maintain probably evolutionary destinies” that might have cut up off in all method of instructions, however had been “deep distant ancestors and relations of the present dwelling monotremes”.

However a while between 100m and 54m years in the past, the monotreme range disappeared. “Was it because of the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs? Did they arrive into competitors with the marsupials? We don’t know, however there was change.”

Dr Matthew McCurry, curator of palaeontology on the Australian Museum, mentioned: “We’ve got only a few monotreme fossils, and so discovering new fossils can inform us extra about the place they lived, what they seemed like and the way modifications within the surroundings influenced their evolution.

“Each vital monotreme fossil at the moment recognized matches into this evolutionary story, from Teinolophos, the tiny shrew-like creature in Antarctica 130m years in the past, to the current day.”

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