Prehistoric 'hobbit' creature discovery shows stunning evolution after dinosaur extinction

PALAEONTOLOGISTS have made the stunning discovery of a prehistoric “hobbit” creature that is providing a unique insight into the rapid evolution of mammals after the dinosaurs went extinct.

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Researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder say they have found three new ancient creatures that once roamed North America 66 million years ago. The creatures discovered are Miniconus Jeannine, Conacodon Hettinger, and Beornus Honeyi – with the latter named in homage to J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” character Beorn. Their discovery suggests that mammals diversified quicker than previously thought after the mass extinction of dinosaurs.

Lead author Madelaine Atteberry said: “I have always been a huge Tolkien fan, and there is a long-standing tradition of naming early Paleocene mammals after Tolkien characters.

“I chose Beornus Honeyi because of the large size and ‘inflated’ appearance of its teeth compared to the other mammals from this time period.”

Analysis of fossils reveals the three creatures are primitive ancestors of today’s hoofed mammals such as horses, elephants, cows and hippos.

They ranged in size from a ring-tailed cat to a modern house cat, which is much larger than the mostly mouse to rat-sized mammals that lived before it alongside the dinosaurs in North America.

A bizarre 'hobbit' creature was uncovered

A bizarre ‘hobbit’ creature was uncovered (Image: UNI OF COLORADO)

A number of fossils were found

A number of fossils were found (Image: UNI OF COLORADO)

All three had unique dental features, researchers said.

The period after the dinosaurs’ mass extinction event is known by many as the “Age of Mammals” because several types appeared for the first time immediately afterwards.

The team found parts of lower jawbones and teeth — which provide insights into the animals’ identity, lifestyle and body size — in Wyoming’s Great Divide Basin.

They say the three new species belong to the family Periptychidae that are distinguished from other ‘condylarths’ by their teeth, which have swollen premolars and unusual vertical enamel ridges.

Researchers believe they may have been omnivores because they evolved teeth that would have allowed them to grind up plants as well as meat.

READ MORE: Pompeii experts blown away by stunning discovery of ‘best-preserved remains ever found’

An artist's impression of the mammals

UNI OF COLORADO (Image: An artist’s impression of the mammals)

But this does not rule out them being exclusively herbivores.

Ms Atteberry added: “When the dinosaurs went extinct, access to different foods and environments enabled mammals to flourish and diversify rapidly in their tooth anatomy and evolve larger body size.

“They clearly took advantage of this opportunity, as we can see from the radiation of new mammal species that took place in a relatively short amount of time following the mass extinction.”

Ms Atteberry and co-author Jaelyn Eberle, also from the University of Colorado, studied the teeth and lower jawbones of 29 fossil ‘condylarth’ species to determine the anatomical differences between the species.


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One of the prehistoric mammals has been named after Beorn from The Hobbit

One of the prehistoric mammals has been named after Beorn from The Hobbit (Image: UNI OF COLORADO)

The finds were made at Wyoming's Great Divide Basin

The finds were made at Wyoming’s Great Divide Basin (Image: WIKI)

She added: “Previous studies suggest that in the first few hundred thousand years after the dinosaur extinction there was relatively low mammal species diversity across the Western Interior of North America.

“But the discovery of three new species in the Great Divide Basin suggests rapid diversification following the extinction.

“These new periptychid “condylarths” make up just a small percentage of the more than 420 mammalian fossils uncovered at this site.

“We haven’t yet fully captured the extent of mammalian diversity in the earliest Paleocene, and predict that several more new species will be described.”

Roy Walsh

Roy Walsh

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