Rat-Sized Animal May Be Man's Ancestor

Saturday, 09 Feb 2013 03:56 PM

By Marti Lotman

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Mankind’s most common mammalian ancestor may have been a rat-sized animal that weighed no more than half a pound, had a long, furry tail, and lived on insects, according to a six-year study of the mammalian family tree.

Scientists have identified what they say is the most common ancestor of humankind based on those species that nourish their young in utero through a placenta, reports The New York Times.

The link is found in a lowly inhabitant of the fossil record, Protungulatum donnae, that lacks a colloquial nickname because of its obscurity.

The animal had many anatomical characteristics for live births, much like placental mammals, and led to over 5,400 living species, according to the Times based on research reported in the journal Science. Species may have included everything from shrews to elephants, bats, whales, cats, dogs, and even humans.

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The discovery sheds light on the pattern and timing of early mammal life, according to the team of researchers.

The data shows that the ancestor emerged within 200,000 to 400,000 years after the great dying at the end of the Cretaceous period, Maureen A. O’Leary of Stony Brook University on Long Island, a leader of the project and the principal author of the report, said.

Researchers used combined fossil evidence and genetic data encoded in DNA to evaluate the ancestor’s position as an early placental mammal.

The Protungulatum species was discovered to have a two-horned uterus and a placenta.

The species was found in North America, but may have existed on other continents as well.

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