Species "undiscovered" after Natural History Museum CT scans mouse-sized mid-Jurassic fossil found on Isle of Skye

By Ben Miller | 16 November 2015

Fossilised teeth found on Isle of Skye could turn three species into one

A photo of a series of archaeological fossil remains in the shape of coloured teeth
A tiny, 170-million-year-old fossil on the Isle of Skye has led researchers to conclude that three previously recognised species are in fact just one© Roger Close
A lucky discovery of a mouse-sized Jurassic fossil, found on a rock during an otherwise-uneventful trip to Scotland by a group of researchers, has resulted in the “undiscovery” of two species of ancient relatives of rodents, marsupials and other mammals.

A high-resolution x-ray CT scan on the tiny complete left lower jaw, carried out at London’s Natural History Museum, created a detailed 3D model of the fossil.

Experts from the University of Oxford’s Department of Earth Sciences then systematically compared the shape of each tooth to ones found in similar specimens, including a rich set of records discovered at Kirtlington Quarry, ten miles north of Oxford.

A photo of a series of archaeological fossil remains in the shape of coloured teeth
The new find is a tiny lower jaw bearing 11 teeth© Roger Close
“The new find shows that we should be cautious about naming new types of animals on the basis of individual teeth,” says Dr Roger Close, who believes the teeth, which had been thought to reflect at least three distinct types of “sterm therians” - Palaeoxonodon ooliticus, Palaeoxonodon freemani and Kennetheridium leesi -  in fact represent only one species.

“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. Then, by chance, we spotted this specimen on the surface of a boulder.

A photo of a series of archaeological fossil remains in the shape of coloured teeth
© Roger Close
“Over half of the fossil is still buried in the rock. The CT scan allows us to virtually remove this and explore the whole specimen in exquisite detail.

“In effect, we've 'undiscovered' two species.”

A photo of a series of archaeological fossil remains in the shape of coloured teeth
The paper has been published in Palaeontology© Roger Close
Identifying their new find as the Palaeoxonodon ooliticus, the team’s report suggests a strong evolution of a set of molars instrumental in processing food.

“Towards the front, three sharp cusps allow the animal to slice up the food, while at the back a flatter, grinding surface crushes it,' says 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.”

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Three museums to see amazing mammals in

Cliffe Castle Museum, Keighley
The house is now a large museum with a wide variety of displays. These include an array of glittering minerals, local rocks and fossils (including a 2m long fossil amphibian), mounted birds and local mammals, original furnished rooms with chandeliers, William Morris stained glass, old dolls, toys and domestic items and a programme of temporary exhibitions.

Warrington Museum and Art Gallery
More than 80 colourful birds and other taxidermy items have been primped and preened by specialist natural history conservators in The Cabinet of Curiosities. They are displayed alongside old favourites such as the Woolston seal and more exotic creatures like the giant anteater in a new interpretation of the old gallery’s menagerie.

Zoology Museum, Aberdeen
Aberdeen University has the only large, international collection of zoological specimens in the north of Scotland. The Zoology Museum’s collections are worldwide in scope and cover more than 200 years of biological study at the University. Highlights on display include a stuffed Bengal tiger, great ape skeletons, and historic blue whale limbs and whale skeletons
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