Puijila darwini Makes a "Splash" in the Paleo World
April 29, 2009 3:39 PM   Subscribe

On April 23, 2009 Natalia Rybczynski, Mary R. Dawson, and Richard H. Tedford published their paper "A semi-aquatic Arctic mammalian carnivore from the Miocene epoch and origin of Pinnipedia" in the journal, Nature, detailing their 2007 discovery of the species they have named Puijila darwini. The carnivorous marine mammal, which lived about 21 to 24 million years ago, was discovered practically by accident, but as a "transitional fossil" is re-writing our understanding of pinniped evolution. It could also be noted that it was most likely cute as all get out, and is already the star of it's own mini documentary.
posted by vertigo25 (28 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
All fossils are transitional.
posted by Flunkie at 3:56 PM on April 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

But how did it taste?
posted by digitalprimate at 4:05 PM on April 29, 2009

"All fossils are transitional." Quite true. That's why I used quotes. It's a term that bugs me, too.

"But how did it taste?" I would suspect it was pretty gamey.
posted by vertigo25 at 4:09 PM on April 29, 2009

...and otters!
posted by Artw at 4:11 PM on April 29, 2009

All fossils are transitional.

Ya, and there's no such thing as a "missing link." Still, these concepts can be useful when discussing the evolution of certain behaviors or morphologies. For things like bird flight "transitional" fossils are certainly useful for connecting the dots between point A and B, and can certainly provide insight towards the structure of the modern form.

That being said, this is a pretty amazing find. The transition of a land based carnivore into a marine one makes some sense, but I would love to hear more about what drove it into the sea, its feeding habits, etc. If it could truly hunt on both land and see, that would definitely be a huge advantage. And was it to cold for sharks? Where was the competition?

posted by rosswald at 4:16 PM on April 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Ah, lakes right.
posted by rosswald at 4:19 PM on April 29, 2009

I would love to hear more about what drove it into the sea

Ooh-- I know this one:
It was hungry.
posted by amphioxus at 4:34 PM on April 29, 2009

Aww, wook at da cute wibble otter thingy, isn't he swee ... OH JESUS HE'S GOT ME HELP HE'S GOT ME...
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:37 PM on April 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

But how did it taste?

You're alluding to The Gulag Archipelago?
posted by orthogonality at 4:42 PM on April 29, 2009

Finding this fossil is kind of a dubious prize for the scientests. On the one hand you're showered with academic acclaim, tenure track positions, and grant money. On the other hand, you'll be expected to spend even more time digging in the clammy frozen earth of northern Canada. I bet a small part of the them wishes they had gone searching for transitional porpoises in Palau right about now.
posted by Panjandrum at 4:49 PM on April 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Douglas Dixon illustrated a book called After Man, now out of print, about the future of evolution -- animals that could be conjectured to exist (like The Future is Wild, only twenty years earlier). One of the creatures that he invented was a "porpin," an entirely aquatic dolphin-shaped penguin that savaged fish with its beak.

Why do I bring this up? In order to agree that everybody, including me and this little dog in my lap, is a transitional fossil waiting to happen.
posted by Countess Elena at 4:51 PM on April 29, 2009

I read that as "pimped evolution" and the mental image was Xzibit bolting spinning rims to the fins of a giant whale.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 5:07 PM on April 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seals are the love of my life. Thanks so much...
posted by johannahdeschanel at 5:08 PM on April 29, 2009

It looks like an otter.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:11 PM on April 29, 2009

I only watched the film so if this is in the other links, sorry: how do they know it went from land to sea instead of vice versa?

In addition, I coulda swore Kirk Cameron insisted there was no CrocoDuck. Was he lying?!
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 5:15 PM on April 29, 2009

might this bring back aquatic ape theory?
posted by kliuless at 5:16 PM on April 29, 2009

I saw this on Wikipedia the other day and spent a couple of hours delving into mammalian evolution. Fascinating!
posted by blue_beetle at 5:31 PM on April 29, 2009

LOLPuijila darwini just doesn't have the same ring to it. I CAN HAZ HORSESHOE CRAB? Sorry. No.
posted by jimmythefish at 5:31 PM on April 29, 2009

I would love to hear more about what drove it into the sea, its feeding habits, etc.

If it was anything like other wild Canadian species I've encountered, probably the prospect of shotgunning a beer while wakeboarding.
posted by mannequito at 5:32 PM on April 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

All fossils are transitional.

Yes, but some are more transitional than others.
posted by !Jim at 5:33 PM on April 29, 2009

As featured this past weekend on CBC Radio's Quirks and Quarks (scroll down to the second download, or grab the whole episode at the top).
posted by Decimask at 5:34 PM on April 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

MetaFilter: I coulda swore Kirk Cameron insisted there was no CrocoDuck.
posted by jimmythefish at 5:35 PM on April 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

All fossils are transitional.

All things are transitional, sage Heraclitus said.
posted by ornate insect at 5:59 PM on April 29, 2009

And, plus ... having an aquatic mammal within the ... city ... that ain't legal either, Dude.
posted by Astro Zombie at 6:53 PM on April 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Looks like a fisher cat.
posted by vrakatar at 7:43 PM on April 29, 2009

You Should See The Other Guy, If that is a honest question here is one of the answers: All OLDER fossils of similar animals are of the terrestrial kind, many YOUNGER fossils of similar animals are aquatic. There are no older fossils of similar animals that are "more aquatic" than this one.
posted by dirty lies at 8:22 PM on April 29, 2009

I would love to hear more about what drove it into the sea.

A new niche due to food and climate creates a perfect base for ocean-based mammalian evolution. The early Miocene is a time of great adjustment in the circulation of the world's oceans, beginning with the initiation of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current approximately ~23.5 million years ago; a reversal in the Panamanian Seaway (which was open before the Isthmus of Panama closed) which brought in cold water from the Pacific to the Atlantic instead of warm water to the Pacific; closure of the Tethys Seaway in Europe (the remnants today of this seaway are the Black and Caspian Seas); and most importantly, subsidence of the Greenland-Svalbard sill and opening of the Fram Strait into the Arctic. A significant enough deepening of the strait finished ~18 Ma and greatly affected oceanic circulation, as cold Arctic water and warm Atlantic water started exchanging flow, initiating what is called "proto" North Atlantic Deep Water, or NADW.

This little guy started evolving as Antarctic glaciation started taking off but before permanent ice sheets, and appeared during a big glaciation event. The Early Miocene fluctuated somewhat from cold to warm periods, but except for a brief period from approximately 15-17 Ma when it was "warmer" (also the height of mammalian evolution in North America), it was mostly cold. The change in ocean circulation, along with increased volcanism as the North Atlantic was rifting apart (basalts can introduce nutrients and minerals into the water; how much is speculated) meant a huge change in nutrient exchange in the area. Lots of nutrients mean lots of plankton, and lots of plankton mean lots of little fishies, and lots of little fishies means lots of big fishies. The change in circulation and the march towards permanent glaciation created a huge new niche for an animal who could take the cold water and eat the new numbers of big and small fishies. This guy also appeared during a significant drop in sea level and would have evolved during a significant, long sea level rise.

So to sum up, he's on an island in the Arctic in an increasingly colder world just as ocean circulation has a major change, and this occurs just as mammalian evolution explodes. A beautiful situation, beautiful! Here come the seals and sea-lions and better whales. Also interesting is what drove him and his ancestors to an island in the Arctic in the first place?

What a great find.
posted by barchan at 6:57 AM on April 30, 2009 [4 favorites]

Not so cute: Predator X.
posted by homunculus at 9:37 AM on April 30, 2009

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