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'Missing link' fossil seal walked By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website
It may look like a cross between a seal and an otter; but an Arctic
fossil could, scientists say, hold the secret of seal evolution in its
A skeleton unearthed in northern Canada shows a creature with feet that were
probably webbed, but were not flippers.
Writing in the journal Nature, scientists suggest the 23
million-year-old proto-seal would have walked on land and swum in fresh
It is the oldest seal ancestor found so far and has been named Pujilla darwini.
Pujilla is the term for "young sea mammal" in the Inuktitut language, spoken by
Inuit groups in Devon Island where the fossil was found.
“ Pujilla is the evolutionary evidence we have been lacking for so long ”
Mary Dawson Carnegie Museum of Natural History
And the reference to Charles Darwin honours the famous biologist's
contention that land mammals would naturally move into the marine
environment via a fresh water stage, just as pinnipeds - seals,
sealions and walruses - have apparently done.
"The find suggests that pinnipeds went through a fresh
water phase in their evolution," said Natalia Rybczynski from the
Canadian Museum of Nature (CMN) in Ottawa, who led the fieldwork.
"It also provides us with a glimpse of what pinnipeds looked like before they
The skeleton was about 65% complete, which enabled the researchers to
reconstruct what the animal would have looked like in remarkable
The legs suggest it would have walked upright on land;
but the foot bones hint strongly at webbed feet. The fact that the
remains were found in a former crater lake that has also yielded fossil
fish from the same period was additional evidence for a semi-aquatic
"The remarkably preserved skeleton of Pujilla had heavy limbs, indicative of
well developed muscles, and flattened
phalanges (finger or toe bones) which suggest that the feet were webbed
- but not flippers," said Mary Dawson from the Carnegie Museum of
Natural History in Pittsburgh, US, another of the scientists involved.
"This animal was likely adept at both swimming and walking on land. Pujilla is
the evolutionary evidence we have been lacking for so long."
Until now, the most primitive fossil pinniped was a creature called Enaliarctos
that dates from about the same period and appears to have lived in the sea
along the northwestern coasts of North America.
Enaliarctos had flippers, but may have had to bring its prey to the shore for
eating, whereas modern pinnipeds manage it at sea.
Intriguingly, different species of present-day seal swim in different
ways - either rotating their flippers, or waving their hind-quarters
from side to side, using the hind limbs for propulsion.
Enaliarctos appears to have been capable of both modes of swimming - and as a
four-legged animal with four webbed feet, Pujilla is a logical fore-runner of
this creature which could swim with all four limbs.
The new discovery also shows, the scientists say, that seals, sealions
and walruses very likely had their origins in the Arctic.
Darwin forecast the transition from land to sea via
fresh water in his seminal work On the Origin of Species, published 150
years ago this year.
"A strictly terrestrial animal, by occasionally hunting
for food in shallow water, then in streams or lakes, might at last be
converted in an animal so thoroughly aquatic as to brace the open
ocean," he wrote.
Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2009/04/22 19:27:50 GMT
© BBC MMIX
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