Technology & Science

Newly identified prehistoric mammal roamed Alberta

A furry creature the size of a hedgehog with unusual hourglass-shaped teeth was likely a top predator in Central Alberta about 60 million years ago, say paleontologists.

A furry creature the size of a hedgehog with unusual hourglass-shaped teeth was likely a top predator in Central Alberta about 60 million years ago, say paleontologists.

Researchers from the University of Alberta recently detailed the first account of the extinct mammal they're calling Horolodectes sunae. Horolodectes means "hourglass biter" in Greek.

"In an area of North America that's been fairly well studied, it's unusual to have a new critter pop up," Craig Scott, a University of Alberta PhD student and lead author of the study, told the Globe and Mail. "It's not known anywhere else, just in Alberta. And it's quite distinct."

In 1977, a University of Alberta genetics professor was looking for insect fossils along the Blindman River north of Red Deer when he discovered bits of sharp, pointy prehistoric teeth, says paleontologist Richard Fox, professor emeritus at the university and co-author of the study published in the Journal of Paleontology.

Because the creature's upper and lower teeth were never found together, it took nearly 30 years for scientists to work out that they belonged to an animal never before identified.

While paleontologists do not have a complete skeleton to work with, they estimate the mammal was between 10 and 15 centimetres long, including its tail, making it larger than most of its contemporaries. It likely ate insects and grubs and lived in trees.

Horolodectes sunae roamed what is now central Alberta about 10 million years after the extinction of dinosaurs, when mammals became dominant.

Scott says the small mammal was an evolutionary "dead end" with no modern descendants, and likely lived only in Alberta.

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