Canadian Museum of Nature

Canadian Museum of Nature

April 22, 2009 13:23 ET

Canadian Museum of Nature/Darwin's Missing Link in Early Seal Evolution Found in Canadian Arctic

OTTAWA, ONTARIO--(Marketwire - April 22, 2009) - A Canadian Museum of Nature scientist's exciting discovery in Canada's High Arctic has yielded the 20-to-24-million-year-old fossil skeleton of a previously unknown mammal-a breakthrough that sheds new light on the early evolution of pinnipeds (the group that includes seals, sea lions and walruses). The results will be published on April 23, 2009 by Dr. Natalia Rybczynski and co-authors in the prestigious journal Nature.

"The land-to-sea transition in pinnipeds has been difficult to study because the fossil evidence has been weak and contentious," explains Rybczynski, a vertebrate palaeontologist with the Canadian Museum of Nature (CMN) who led the scientific expedition. "Puijila is important because it provides a first glimpse into the earliest stages of this important evolutionary transition".

The fossil was found in the summer of 2007 during a fieldwork expedition on Devon Island, Nunavut in a meteor impact crater. The new animal, a carnivore named Puijila darwini, has a body resembling that of an otter but a skull that is more closely related to seals. A "walking seal", Puijila had legs like a terrestrial mammal, but the feet are webbed, and adapted for swimming. This surprisingly complete skeleton (about 65%) is the most primitive pinniped skeleton found so far.

"Puijila is the first fossil evidence that early pinnipeds lived in the Arctic," explains Rybczynski. "This discovery supports the hypothesis that the Arctic may have been a geographic centre in pinniped evolution."

Rybczynski co-authored the report with Dr. Mary Dawson, Curator Emeritus of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh and Dr. Richard Tedford of the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Puijila means a young sea mammal in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit people in Nunavut. The species name darwini pays homage to Charles Darwin who predicted this transitional land-to-sea animal in On the Origin of Species. This year marks the 150th anniversary of this seminal work.

Puijila darwini will be on display at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa from April 28 to May 10, 2009. A model of the skeleton will be included in Extreme Mammals, an exhibition opening May 16, 2009 at the American Natural History Museum in New York.

This project was supported by the Canadian Museum of Nature (Canada's national museum of natural history), Carnegie Museum of Natural History, American Museum of Natural History, Polar Continental Shelf Program (field transportation and logistics); Northern Scientific Training Program; Government of Nunavut, Department of Culture, Language, Elders and Youth; Qikiqtani Inuit Association and the hamlet of Grise Fiord (Nunavut).

Read more about the animal and the discovery at the Web site, nature.ca/newspecies.

NOTES TO MEDIA: Dr. Rybczynski is available for interviews. Photos of the skeleton and the Devon Island site are available upon request, as are illustrations of Puijila. Visit www.nature.ca.

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