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Strange, Short-Lived Marine Mammal Species Discovered in Dutch Harbor

First Posted: Oct 07, 2015 12:40 PM EDT

A new fossil of a species that once belonged to the marine group Desmostylia is telling scientists a bit more about this strange animal group. Unlike other marine animals alive today, every single species of Desmostylians lived and then went extinct in an interval between 33 million and 10 million years ago.

The new species was a large, hippo-sized animal with a long snout and tusks. It actually has a unique tooth and jaw structure that indicates it sucked vegetation from shorelines like a vacuum cleaner. The odd style of eating actually doesn't occur in any other mammal.

While alive, this mammal lived in what is now Unalaska's Dutch Harbor. To eat, the animals buttressed their lower jaw with their teeth against the upper jaw. Then, they used the powerful muscles that attached there, along with the shape of the roof of their mouth, to suction-feed vegetation from coastal bottoms. Big muscles in the neck would help to power their tusks, and big muscles in the throat would help with suction.

The animal would have probably swum like a polar bear, using strong front limbs to power through the water. In addition, it walked on land, lumbering like a sloth.

The new species shows that the desmostylian group was larger and more diverse than previously thought. While these animals were relatively short-lived, they were successful with great biodiversity.

Currently, the researchers hope to find out why this group died out so completely. For now, though, the new findings reveal a bit more about the diversity of this group.

The findings are published in the journal Historical Biology.

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