Published October 18, 2016
A study published in Royal Society Open Science has shed light on the phylogeny of large, ferocious-looking animals called beardogs — neither bears nor dogs — that roamed the northern hemisphere between about 40 and 5 million years ago.
The research identifies two fossils previously thought to be generic carnivorans (a large, diverse order of mammals) as some of the earliest known members of the beardog family.
Until now, not much data on their earliest members has been available, and their evolutionary relationships and place on the tree of life has remained unclear.
The work reveals that while evidence of beardogs has been found throughout the Northern Hemisphere, they may have originated or initially diversified in parts of what is now the southwestern United States.
“Our research pinpoints the southwestern U.S. as a key region in understanding the diversification and proliferation of this once successful group of predators prior to their extinction millions of years ago,” says study co-author Jack Tseng, PhD, assistant professor of pathology and anatomical sciences.
First described back in 1986, fossils found in Texas of animals believed to be less than 5 pounds were originally assigned to the genus Miacis, a kind of “miscellaneous” category for early carnivores, based primarily on external features.
“It was the best that could be done at the time,” says Tseng, who did the work as a postdoctoral fellow at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
According to Tseng, the early anatomists based their hypothesis on superficial features like the shapes of the teeth and the locations of cranial openings where the blood vessels and nerves radiate from the brain and other external characteristics, assigning it to the genus Miacis.
“It’s a kind of ‘trash bin’ genus, when the question is, well, what else could it be?” Tseng explains. “Now we’ve taken these fossils out of the trash bin and put them at the base of the beardog tree.”
“We’re not saying we’ve solved where they fit on the tree of life, but it’s the most progress that’s been made in quite a while. Our work provides a clearer connection between the rest of the beardog family and their evolutionary roots.”
Susumu Tomiya, PhD, postdoctoral scholar at The Field Museum in Chicago, is lead author on the paper. He decided to study the fossils when he “stumbled” upon one of the specimens in the Field Museum collection.
“I thought it looked odd and too advanced for what it had been claimed to be — a more primitive carnivore,” says Tomiya. “It reminded me of some much larger beardogs, so I decided to take a closer look.”
That closer look included tapping Tseng’s expertise with high-resolution X-ray CT 3D reconstructions of the intracranial anatomy of the fossils. While CT scans of the skull already existed, Tseng conducted a much more detailed and time-consuming analysis through more than 1,000 slices of CT scans of the skull.
Adding to the difficulty of examining a very small skull — the whole animal was no larger than a Chihuahua — was the fact that the spaces inside the skull were still filled with rock.
Tomiya’s work conducting rigorous cladistic analyses (classification according to shared features) involved updating the taxonomy of these animals and their evolutionary relationships based on new phylogenetic affinities. He studied how the beardogs may be related to other carnivores that exist today, such as dogs, bears, raccoons and others.
More than two decades ago, Tseng’s mentor, Xiaoming Wang of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, had speculated that based on what could be seen externally, this animal was likely related to beardogs and may have had a deep embayment — a bone-enclosed space — in the region of its ear.
“The development of that feature is characteristic of beardogs,” says Tseng, “and it turns out that it actually is the case for the skull previously assigned to Miacis.”
According to Tseng, the ear is very important in understanding mammalian evolution. “The ear can be used to calibrate how species are related,” he says.
He notes that in other collaborative research, he is studying the ear’s bony labyrinth, which has a shape that may be correlated to the kinds of movements an animal can make.