The origin of the animals smaller than rhinos but with tiny tusks similar to elephants has been identified through a 55-million-year-old teeth fossil found in Morocco.
In the era after the Cretaceous period, right after dinosaurs went extinct, a group of animals called the embrithopods roamed the Earth. These animals had hooves, were heavy, and sturdy. The smallest size of the species was estimated to be about the size of a sheep but with much bigger built and more sinewy bodies. They resemble a miniature elephant but more closely related to the hyraxes, which were commonly mistaken to belong to the family of rodents.
The place from where the embrithopods came from had remained a stumbling block for scientists who had been studying the species. Now, a 55-million-year-old teeth fossil found in Morocco can put an end to that question. The analysis of the fossil suggested that embrithopods originated in Africa.
55-Million-year-old Moroccan fossil
The embrithopods origin had always been uncertain because some of their fossils were found in Africa, Turkey, and Romania.
The most known embrithopods were the arsinoitherium that had been found to live in Africa and Arabia between 35 million and 24 million years ago. Arsinoitherium closely resembled the rhinoceros but more related biologically to the elephants, sea cows, and hyraxes. There had also been fossils of smaller types of embrithopods that were found in Africa and Turkey.
All these fossils had only made the study of the origin of embrithopods more perplexing for the experts. This had been the case until the recent uncovering of the 55-Million-year-old Moroccan fossil.
Through a comparative anatomy of the Moroccan fossils, which was detailed in a paper published in the Current Biology on June 28, the researchers found that embrithopods had two more member species classified under the genus stylolophus.
The Genus Stylolophus
The stylolophus had teeth similar to elephants, sea cows, and hyraxes. Specifically, the teeth had two slanted edges seen in arsinoitherium and an extended group of species that fed on leaves. These distinct teeth appearance could only be favored by the ancient herbivorous species that were found on the African island. The stylolophus also had W-crested molars that were seen in some of the oldest hyracoids.
The stylolophus were also found to have frontal incisors that looked like tiny tusks that were just in the early stages of coming out from the mouth.
"The embrithopods were large and strange extinct mammals that belonged, together with hyraxes and elephants, to the early megaherbivorous mammalian fauna that inhabited the island Africa, well before the arrival about 23 million years ago of the Eurasian ungulate lineages such as giraffes, buffalos, hippopotamus, and antelopes, and the perissodactyls, including zebras and rhinoceros," explained Emmanuel Gheerbrant, one of the researchers for the study.
This simply means that embrithopods belonged to the old endemic African fauna, he added.