Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Tiniest grazing mammal was a pig at the front, horse at the back

New Scientist Live:
24 August 2016

Zoologger is our weekly column highlighting extraordinary animals – and occasionally other organisms – from around the world

By Alice Klein
Species: Pig-footed bandicoot, Chaeropus ecaudatus
Habitat: Australia

It had a bizarre set of horse-like hind feet and pig-like fore feet, but it looked like a rat. A collection of fossils gathering dust on a back shelf has yielded new insights into one of Australia’s most mysterious marsupials, the pig-footed bandicoot, which went extinct in the 1950s.

It is the smallest grazing mammal ever documented, weighing about 200 grams, and had several unique features – including its feet. And it seems its grazing abilities evolved unusually quickly.

Kenny Travouillon at the Western Australian Museum in Perth studied three fossil teeth that had been languishing in the museum’s collection since they were dug up in New South Wales in the 1970s.

He found that Chaeropus ecaudatus evolved from an earlier omnivorous species – C. baynesi – which lived in Australia two million years earlier.

A rapidly drying climate may have prompted the switch to grazing, but two million years is an unusually short time frame, Travouillon says. “Evolution of diets usually takes many millions of years.”

Adding to the mystery is the fact that small mammals do not normally graze, he says. “They don’t have big enough stomachs to digest grass for a long time to extract the little nutrients.”

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