Ancestor of the earthen wolf lived in China

(ORDO NEWS) — Today in Africa lives a peculiar relative of the hyena that feeds on termites – the earthen wolf. However, 15 million years ago, its closest relative lived several thousand kilometers to the east, in northern China, and was the first hyena to dilute its meat diet with insect “seasonings”.

The earthwolf ( Proteles cristatus ) today can only be found in eastern and southern Africa: it is a relatively small animal, the size of a small dog, secretive and even timid, avoiding any contact with humans. This animal is active mainly at night, while it spends the day in deep holes, thanks to which it got its name.

The main difference between the earthen wolf and other hyenas is its diet: it feeds almost exclusively on termites , rarely diluting its menu with other invertebrates. It is for this reason that he has a wide and muscular tongue, sticky saliva and simplified molars, not adapted to cutting meat.

According to genetic analysis, the evolutionary lineage of the earthwolf diverged from other hyenas about 15 million years ago, after which it developed independently of its relatives.

Nevertheless, the first fossil bones, undoubtedly belonging to this species, appear in the fossil record only four million years ago, and until recently, scientists did not know where and how the ancestors of this unusual beast arose.

Now it seems that paleontologists have their first clue: in the Chinese province of Gansu , two fossilized skulls were found, which differed in anatomy rather strange for hyenas.

The new species, called the big-eared gansuena, or Gansuyaena megalotis , had a wide palate like an earthwolf, relatively large eye sockets, and huge auditory bullae , which indicate that the animal has very acute hearing.

Ancestor of the earthen wolf lived in China 2
The modern earthwolf: pay attention to the large ears it needs to navigate the desert at night and catch the movement of termites underground

Most likely, the gansuena was only the first animal that began to dilute the “classic” meat diet of its relatives with insects and set foot on the path of specialization, which eventually led to the earthen wolf.

Of course, it is impossible to absolutely confidently assert that it was she who was the direct ancestor of the modern wolf (after all, almost ten million years passed between her extinction and his appearance!).

But, having studied her fossils, scientists finally got the first clues about the beginning of evolutionary history of this strangest of modern hyenas.


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