A team of researchers from Oxford University has finally agreed that three fossil species found in the Isle of Skye in Scotland actually belonged to only one species, and the fossil is the remains of a mouse-like mammal that lived 170 million years ago in the Middle Jurassic Period.
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The researchers from the Department of Earth Sciences last year found the lower jaw of the animal with 11 teeth on it, each appearing to come from a different species; but recent analysis and development show the fossil was that of a single species.
Publishing their findings in the journal Palaeontology, the scientists establish that several fossils dating back to the Middle Jurassic period around 176 to 161 million years ago had been found in the Scottish Isles and near Oxfordshire, with some others found in Kirtlington Quarry 10 miles north of Oxford.
“We spent five days exploring the locality, finding nothing especially exciting, and were walking back along the beach to the house where we were staying,” said Dr. Roger Close, lead author of the study. “Then, by chance, we spotted this specimen on the surface of a boulder.”
A high-resolution x-ray CT scan of the complete left lower jaw of the animal carried out at the Natural History Museum in London allowed the scientists to see a 3D model of the fossil, helping them to determine its age and origin.
“Over half of the fossil is still buried in the rock,” explained Dr. Close. “The CT scan allows us to virtually remove this, and explore the whole specimen in exquisite detail.”
Funny enough, the shape of the teeth and the jaw resembled those of the Palaeoxonodon ooliticus, Palaeoxonodon freemani and Kennetheridium leesi, all identified from isolated teeth preserved in rocks of the same age from Oxfordshire.
The team identified their find as the Palaeoxonodon ooliticus and cautioned about naming new animal finds on the basis of individual teeth rather than a complete analysis of the animal in comparison with others.
The new discovery helps researchers to understand how the molar teeth evolved in modern mammals, and provides some understanding into how animals can process their food by their kinds of teeth.
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“Towards the front, three sharp cusps allow the animal to slice up the food, while at the back a flatter, grinding surface crushes it,” explained Dr. Close. “It's an evolutionary innovation that allowed much more versatile ways of feeding to evolve, and it may well have contributed to the long-term success of this group of mammals.”