Rats!? Fossils of mankind's earliest ancestor discovered in England

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Before we were apes, we were rats. 

Fossils of the oldest mammals related to mankind — small rat-like creatures — have been discovered in southern England, a new study released Tuesday reports.

The fossils were two teeth from the critters, which lived 145 million years ago in the shadow of the dinosaurs.

“The teeth are undoubtedly the earliest yet known from the line of mammals that led to our own species,” said study lead author Steve Sweetman of the University of Portsmouth in the U.K., in a statement.

In addition to humans, he said the animals are also the ancestors to most mammals alive today, including creatures as diverse as the blue whale and the pigmy shrew. 

Sweetman thinks the mammals were small, furry creatures and most likely nocturnal. One, a possible burrower, probably ate insects and the larger may have also eaten plants.

“The teeth are of a highly advanced type that can pierce, cut and crush food,” he said. “They are also very worn which suggests the animals to which they belonged lived to a good age for their species. No mean feat when you’re sharing your habitat with predatory dinosaurs!”

The teeth were discovered by an undergraduate student, Grant Smith, who was sifting through rocks and fossils in Swanage, Dorset, England, when he found the teeth. Smith showed them to his professor, who then showed them to Sweetman, a mammal expert. 

“The teeth are of a type so highly evolved that I realized straight away I was looking at remains of Early Cretaceous mammals,” said Sweetman.

One of the new species has been named Durlstotherium newmani in honor of Charlie Newman, the landlord of a pub near where the fossils were discovered.

The study was published online Tuesday in the peer-reviewed paleontology journal, Acta Palaeontologica Polonica.

 

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