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Fossils Enrich Theory Of Evolution, Study Reveals New Findings

First Posted: Dec 18, 2015 12:53 PM EST

Researchers are shedding new light on how fossils can broaden our knowledge and understanding of evolution and how it affected various species for millions of years, according to a new study at the University of Bristol.

The researchers focused on the evolutionary changes among mammalian animals known as Afrotheria, which are a group of African mammals such as elephants, manatees and elephant shrews. The most interesting part of their research was the evolution of body mass in Afrotheria and how we interpret the fossil findings of their extinct relatives.

"Most of life is extinct, so if we analyze evolutionary change without considering fossils we are not using all the available evidence," Mark Puttick, lead author of the study, said in a news release. "Afrotheria are an excellent case to study evolutionary changes in size through time as they vary so much in body mass: from the five ton elephant to a few grams in some tenrecs."

The majority of evolutionary research is conducted by using data from living species. However, the researchers found that adding fossils to studies can produce new and distinctive results. A typical example was a fossil elephant, which could enable scientists to have a better and more accurate understanding of the evolution of the species' body mass and size over time.  

"Surprisingly, we found that if we include or ignore the fossil evidence we see similar patterns. High rates of evolution lead to the larger taxa, such as elephants, manatees, and hyraxes," Puttick said. "Although our results show agreement between fossils and extant taxa, we feel it is vital to include fossils in future analyses, to better understand the evolution of life."

The researchers' study also sheds light on different methods of assessing evolutionary changes.

The findings of this study were published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

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