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250-million-year-old fossil unveiled by modern scanning techniques

Thousands of years ago, right before the dinosaurs roamed the earth, there lived a pig-like, tusked creature known as Gordonia traquairi, an ancient cousin of today’s mammals.

For the first time, experts can now dig deep into the anatomy and evolution of this species through hi-tech scanning of an ancient fossil, which was encapsulated in sandstone between 252–254 million years ago.

This fascinating exploration of our evolutionary past was carried out by a team of experts led by the esteemed University of Edinburgh, in collaboration with the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, the University of Birmingham, and the Hunterian Museum.

The Elgin Marvel

An authority on paleontology, Hady George, from the University of Bristol and a former research student in paleontology and geobiology at the School of GeoSciences, shares his thoughts on this remarkable find.

“The Elgin Marvel is a fascinating fossil of an ancient mammal relative that is among the best-preserved of the world-renowned Elgin Reptiles,” George says.

“These famous fossils were mostly found over a century ago, and it’s only now that new technologies are allowing us to finally reveal them in detail and glean valuable insights into their skull and brain anatomy as well as their genealogy.”

The specimen under scanner, known as the Elgin Marvel, is amongst the best preserved from the series of fossils discovered near Elgin, in northeast Scotland.

Although referred to as the Elgin Reptiles, some of them, including Gordonia, share a closer relationship with mammals. The Elgin Reptiles depict the only known example of this type of fossil in Western Europe.

Gordonia traquairi: An unconventional mammal

Gordonia traquairi hails from an extinct group of species called dicynodonts, celebrated for their squat bodies, beaks and tusks.

Life on Earth looked significantly different during Gordonia‘s time, with all continents merged together forming a single land mass known as Pangea.

Gordonia traquairi illustration. Credit: Hady George/University of Edinburgh
Gordonia traquairi illustration. Credit: Hady George/University of Edinburgh

Gordonia lived shortly before the Great Dying, history’s worst mass extinction event that wiped out much of life on our planet around 252 million years ago.

Understanding dicynodonts

These creatures, whose name translates to ‘two dog teeth’, were a group of herbivorous therapsids, beings that bear an uncanny resemblance to mammals, yet graciously tread along the line of reptilian features as well. Their existence dates back to the Permian and Triassic eras, a period between 270 to 201 million years ago.

Dicynodonts came in all sizes, some as small as a domestic dog while others grew as large as a cow. A distinctive feature that set them apart was their skull structure, reminiscent of a turtle’s, complete with a beak-like mouth.

This feature was used as a survival tool used for cropping vegetation. Many species also sported tusks, tools that were probably used for digging out food or as a means of defense.

Dicynodonts’ habitats and diet

Dicynodonts were all about adaptability. They thrived in diverse environments, from the arid extremities of deserts to the lush expanses of forested areas.

Their diet mirrored nature’s bounty as they primarily indulged in plant-based foods. Thanks to their unique jaws and beaks, dicynodonts could process a wide array of vegetation proficiently.

Evolutionary significance

Dicynodonts were the dominant herbivores of their time, a testament to their evolutionary prowess. In a constant display of adaptability, these creatures evolved and thrived in a variety of environments.

It is believed that this trait played a key role in their extensive existence that spanned over 100 million years.

Sadly, like all good things, the reign of the dicynodonts came to an end by the close of the Triassic era. Although extinct, their legacy is far from forgotten.

As part of the lineage that eventually evolved into modern mammals, they hold the secrets of the transition from reptilian ancestors to our very own species.

Story behind the Gordonia traquairi fossil

This fossil tells a truly global story, sharing many physical characteristics with fossils found in China. This discovery indicates that the dicynodonts were expanding their presence across the globe just before the cataclysmic Great Dying.

The specialized team from the University of Edinburgh used micro-CT scans to render a high-resolution, 3D image of a cavity created by the animal in sandstone before its bones degraded.

This imaging technique offers a three-dimensional representation of the animal’s skull and a peek into its brain.

Learning from these details could lead to a better understanding of Gordonia‘s likely behaviors and the biology underlying them, offering invaluable insights into the evolution of this and other species.

Seeing the future through the past

“As hard as it is to imagine, around 250 million years ago Scotland was a desert covered in sand dunes, and ancient cousins of mammals such as Gordonia had dominion in this world. By studying them, we can learn about some of the earliest phases of our own evolution,” says Professor Steve Brusatte, a professor of paleontology and evolution at the School of GeoSciences.

Increasing use of micro-CT scanning, in combination with an inclination towards open sharing of data, promises to add to the scientific discourse about our evolutionary past.

This ever-evolving field continually reshapes our understanding of the world we inhabit today and lends itself to exciting new discoveries about where we came from.

Lessons learned from Gordonia traquairi

In summary, the scans of Gordonia traquairi give us an in-depth look at an ancient relative of mammals, revealing new details about its anatomy, evolution and behaviors.

This research represents a remarkable scientific achievement and also a time capsule, providing a glimpse into ancient life on Earth, something that continually enhances our understanding of the world we inhabit today.

As we continue to explore our prehistoric past, the scans of the future promise to reveal even more secrets from these fossilized remnants of life from millions of years ago.

The work done on the Elgin Marvel is a testament to how new technologies can enable us to delve deeper into our world’s rich evolutionary history, guiding us towards a more complete understanding of the myriad forces that have shaped life as we know it.

The full study was published in the journal Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.


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