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  • Catching Up With Plain Dealer Reporter John Mangels

    [caption id="attachment_4450" align="alignleft" width="89" caption="John Mangels"]Mangels[/caption]

    Get the latest scientific news and updates in Cleveland with Plain Deal writer John Mangels!

    Forty-five million years ago or thereabouts, a bedraggled band of small African rodents resembling mice found themselves clinging to a tangle of trees and brush, adrift in the vast Atlantic Ocean.

    They had ended up on this makeshift raft by accident, perhaps seeking refuge from a storm that washed them first into a river and, ultimately, out to sea. Now, the unwitting castaways were on a journey that would dramatically alter their evolutionary fate, and that of an entire continent.

    The creatures survived long enough for their lifeboat to make landfall in a strange new place. South America wasn't yet connected by a land bridge to its northern neighbor, and the huge island continent was devoid of any rodents of its own, though there were lots of other unusual inhabitants. The isolation lets evolution run in odd, unique directions.

    The immigrants scampered off to do what rodents do best -- make more of themselves. Their descendents gradually spread southward, adapting to fit the varied habitats they encountered. Millennia later, the great-great-great-grandbabies of the original African colonists are the furry chinchillas, squeaky guinea pigs, spiny porcupines and hog-sized capybera -- the world's largest rodent – that populate South America.

    View full sizePierre-Olivier AntoineThese 41 million-year-old teeth, smaller than BBs, are upper molars and pre-molars rom an ancient species of South American rodent named Canaanimys maquiensis. The teeth have five distinctive crests, which probably helped the animals chew a diet of seeds.

    For decades, scientists have debated the timing and mechanism of rodents' mysterious origins in South America. With the discovery, announced this week, of the oldest known rodent fossils from that continent, an international research team including a Cleveland paleontologist makes a strong case for the out-of-Africa scenario outlined above.

    The dozens of 41 million-year-old rodent teeth, each smaller than a rice grain, that Case Western Reserve University's Darin Croft and his colleagues painstakingly plucked from a muddy Peruvian stream bank are strikingly similar to those of ancient African rodents. That indicates a shared ancestor.

    DNA studies of living rodents show the South American and African lineages split about 45 million years ago. So the teeth Croft and his collaborators found belong to some of the earliest settlers and first members of the South American rodent clan, called caviomorphs.

    The fossils date from a time when the drifting African and South American continental plates still were close enough -- about 870 miles apart, compared to today's 1,800-mile separation -- to enable small animals to survive the ocean crossing without food.

    Based on the age of previously discovered fossils, "we thought we knew that rodents didn't get to South America until 31 million years ago," Croft said. The new find "shows they were there much longer, and it hints that there is a whole world of paleontology of the northern two-thirds of South America that we've just barely begun to scratch."

    South America isn't the easiest place in the world to look for fossils, especially not the tiny, fragile remains of ancient rodents. Lush vegetation covers much of the continent, obscuring whatever bones may have survived the ravages of time.

    Most South American fossils have been found in Argentina. The northern portion was largely untapped, but there were some tantalizing clues of what might be waiting.

    More than 60 years ago, Harvard University geologist Bernhard Kummel trekked across the Contamana region of Peru, making notes of what he observed. In a 1948 research paper, Kummel mentioned seeing fossils along the Cachiyacu River, although he didn't classify the finds.

    Read more at The Plain Dealer

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