Tiny prehistoric hedgehog and tapir discovered in British Columbia

Very little is known about mammalian life in British Columbia during the Eocene Epoch, roughly 50-53 million years ago. The only fossils from that era come from the Arctic, or from Wyoming and Colorado.

However, a new study in the latest issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology helps to make the picture a little clearer. Researchers have identified two new species of mammals that lived 52 million years ago in what is now Driftwood Canyon Provincial Park.

“Within Canada, the only other fossil localities yielding mammals of similar age are from the Arctic, so these fossils from British Columbia help fill a significant geographic gap,” said Dr. Natalia Rybczynski of the Canadian Museum of Nature in a statement.

The first of the animals identified is a hedgehog, related to the modern hedgehogs of Europe, Asia and Africa. The tiny pre-historic animal, Silvacola acares was only a few inches long. It’s name means ’tiny forest dweller’.

The fossil of the tiny hedgehog were examined using a scanned with an industrial, high resolution CT (computed tomography) scanner at Penn State University. Because the animal was so small, researchers believed that attempting to excavate it could damage the remains.

The second mammal discovered Heptodon, is a relative of the modern tapirs. Tapirs are similar to rhinos but lack the horns and have a short trunk.

“Heptodon was about half the size of today’s tapirs, and it lacked the short trunk that occurs on later species and their living cousins. Based upon its teeth, it was probably a leaf-eater, which fits nicely with the rainforest environment indicated by the fossil plants at Driftwood Canyon,” said Dr. Jaelyn Eberle of the University of Colorado, lead author of the study.

The fossil bearing rocks of Driftwood Canyon, which once rested at the bottom of a lake, have yielded many well preserved fish, insects and leaves but this is the first time mammal bones have been found at the site.

“The discovery in northern British Columbia of an early cousin to tapirs is intriguing because today’s tapirs live in the tropics. Its occurrence, alongside a diversity of fossil plants that indicates a rainforest, supports an idea put forward by others that tapirs and their extinct kin are good indicators of dense forests and high precipitation,” said Eberle.

Plant fossils from the region indicate that it rarely froze and likely, at the time, had a climate similar to Portland, Oregon 700 miles to the south.

“Driftwood Canyon is a window into a lost world – an evolutionary experiment where palms grew beneath spruce trees and the insects included a mixture of Canadian and Australian species. Discovering mammals allows us to paint a more complete picture of this lost world,” said Dr. David Greenwood of Brandon University