Abu Dhabi: A scientific exploration of prehistoric life in the Western Region has unearthed a new fossil of teeth representing an animal — a large cane rat — previously unknown to science.
The find, discovered through the screening of sand along Al Gharbia’s coast, has been given the Latin name ‘Protohummus dango’ to recognise the similarity in colour and nature of the fossil teeth and chickpeas found in the traditional Emirati dish, dango. The almost minuscule teeth are somewhat round and stained yellowish-brown by the fossilisation process.
“From an evolutionary analysis, we concluded that Protohummus is a sort of ‘missing link’ in the evolution of the cane rat family (thryonomyidae). Previous thryonomyid fossils were either already very similar to the living species, or else differed in many features. At seven million years in age, Protohummus from Arabia fills an evolutionary gap between the thryonomyid Paraulacodus, an older, more conservative form known from Africa and Pakistan, and the living thryonomys , known only from Africa,” said assistant professor Brian Kraatz, part of the discovery team.
The study is part of the Baynunah Paleontology Project, which has made previous fossil discoveries in Al Gharbia and which explores sediments of the Baynunah Formation for fossil vertebrates.
An international team from the US and the UAE has now published the study online in Naturwissenschaften – the monthly peer-reviewed scientific journal published by Springer Science+Business Media covering all aspects of the natural sciences relating to questions of biological significance. The authoring team, led by Asst Prof Kraatz of California’s Western University of Health Sciences, includes Faysal Bibi of the American Museum of Natural History, Andrew Hill of Yale University and Dr Mark Beech, Coastal Heritage and Palaeontology Manager in the Historic Environment Department at TCA-AD.
“The teeth were discovered during the January 2011 fossil field season, but the analysis and identification of them was only completed recently and led to the scientific publication,” explained Jasem Al Darmaki, Deputy Director General, TCA Abu Dhabi. “The find has yielded a new fossil mammal that shows close relationship to living cane rats of Africa and gives us a greater understanding of the area’s natural history.”
A previous study by the Baynunah Paleontology Project has shown that a large river system was present in the area around seven million years ago. To date, the project has identified a diverse range of animals that lived in Al Gharbia at that time, including fossils of elephants, horses, giraffes, birds, crocodiles, fish, hippopotamus and small mammals.
But the UAE cane rat has opened up new insights into a local eco-system of millions of years ago.
“Given that cane rats today live in wet, marsh conditions, the presence of this animal in the Baynunah fauna is important as it supports the notion that the Baynunah animals lived in conditions that were more wet and hospitable than what we see in the area today,” explained Kraatz.
The Baynunah Paleontology Project is a collaboration between Yale University’s Peabody Museum of Natural History and the TCA-AD.