Robert Boessenecker, a paleontologist from the University of Otago of New Zealand, was looking through a collection of various fossils from the D. Cooper Archaeological and Paleontological Center in Orange County, California, when he found the oldest fur seal fossils yet.
The fossil consisted of the partial jaw and a row of well-preserved teeth. The bones were discovered in the 1980s in a rock formation from Southern California. The fossils are said to be approximately 15 to 17 million years old.
Initially, the fossils were said to have belonged to a small species of walrus called Neotherium, but when Boessenecker saw the remains he recognized them as being the fossils of an early species of fur seal.
Boessenecker explained that the discovery is a very exciting one for paleontologists because there are very few fossils of sea lions and fur seals, and the ones that exist date back to approximately 10-12 million years ago.
Boessenecker added that the fossil record of walruses and fur seals goes back to approximately 16-17 million years ago, because the walrus, which is the closest living relative of the otariids, goes back that far.
According to Boessenecker, until now, there wasn’t any evidence for the first five million years of sea lion and fur seal evolution.
Boessenecker explained that the oldest fur seal fossils identified recently are an important piece because of it teeth.
The teeth place the fossils in the middle ground between the teeth of modern sea lions and the more complex teeth found in the earliest species of pinnipeds. The oldest species of sea lions had teeth that resembled bear teeth.
The pinnipeds is the scientific name for the group that included all species of seals.
The fur seal whose fossils the scientists recently identified was a very small creature, a little bigger that sea otters and approximately the size of a young New Zealand fur seal.
Boessenecker wonders why there is only one of these species of fur seals ever discovered, especially since the rocks of California have been extensively excavated.
The news study on the oldest fur seal fossils has been published in UK Royal Society journal called Biology Letters.
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