Real-life Scrat unearthed
The animators of Ice Age might not have been too far off the mark when the created the loveable sabre-toothed squirrel Scrat.
Researchers from the University of Louisville have unearthed two skulls in Argentina of an animal that remarkably resembles Scrat: an animal the size of a shrew, with extremely long canine teeth. Their discovery breaks a 60-million-year gap in what is known about South American mammals and their evolution.
“It looks somewhat like Scrat,” said palaeontologist Guillermo Rougier. “The comparison with Scrat is superficial, but it just goes to show how diverse ancient mammals are, that we can just imagine some bizarre critter and later find something just like it.”
The critter has been named Cronopio dentiacutus – Cronopio after a fictional beast central to stories by Argentine writer Julio Cortázar, dentiactutus which is Latin for sharp acute teeth. Researchers are not sure what the oversized fangs were used for, but canine teeth of similar proportions are found in modern insect eaters – meaning acorns were not Scrat’s likely food source.
C. dentiactus belongs to an extinct group of animals distantly related to today’s marsupials and placentals – the dryolestoid. The skulls were discovered in 2002, embedded in rock in a remote area of northern Patagonia and the researchers spent several years removing them from the rock. Their finding represents the first time scientists have been able to reconstruct the whole shape of the dryolestoid skull.
“The skull provides us with features of the biology of the animal, making it possible for us to determine this is the first of its kind dating back to the early Late Cretaceous period in South America,” said Rougier. “This time period in South American was somewhat of a blank slate to us. Now we have a mammal as a starting point for further study of the lineage of all mammals, humans included.
The researchers have published their findings in Nature.