Media Releases

UTSC research gives new insight into prehistoric mammal

November 1, 2010

TORONTO, ON – A University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC) researcher, in collaboration with scientists at the University of Florida, has presented new evidence of the evolutionary path of a 55-million-year-old North American mammal, suggesting  that it shares a common ancestor with rodents, rabbits and primates, including humans.
The study describes in detail the cranial anatomy of the extinct mammal, Labidolemur kayi (L. kayi)  and appeared in the Oct. 11 online edition of the Zoological Journey of the Linnean Society.  It garnered international interest in the scientific community.

With the high-quality of the specimens and the use of high resolution CT scanners, researchers were able to glean a detailed analysis of various aspects of the skull, including the minute pathways of blood vessels and nerves, a level of detail not possible before.

Researchers said this new information will help scientists better understand primate evolution in future studies.
“It’s rare to find samples of apatemyid skeletons and skulls that are three-dimensional,” says study lead-author Mary Silcox, professor of social sciences at UTSC and research assistant at the Florida Museum of Natural History. “Most of the time we find them completely flat.”
Scientists have disputed the relationships of Apatemyidae, the family that includes L. kayi, for more than a century because of their unusual physical characteristics. With can opener-shaped upper front teeth  and two unusually long skeletal fingers, apatemyids have been compared to a variety of animals, from opossums to woodpeckers.

Like a woodpecker’s method of feeding, L. kayi used percussive foraging, or tapping on trees, to locate food much like the aye-aye lemurs of Madagascar. After successfully locating insects, L. kayi would gouge into the wood with their big teeth and then reach in with their very long fingers to pull out any grubs that might be hiding. It stood less than a foot tall, was capable of jumping between trees and looked like a squirrel. “They are profoundly weird critters,” said Silcox, “There aren’t a lot of other examples of ecological adaptations like this.”

Jonathan Bloch, an associate curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida, Doug Boyer of Brooklyn College, and Peter Houde of New Mexico State University also co-authored the study as part of the team’s larger research to understand the relationships of primates and their close kin to other mammals. Silcox and her colleagues are currently writing a detailed analysis of L. kayi’s skeleton.

For more information, please contact:

Mary Silcox, lead author: 416-208-5132 or mary.silcox@utsc.utoronto.ca

Jonathan Bloch, co-author, 352-273-1938 or jbloch@flmnh.ufl.edu

Karen Ho, media and communications assistant: 416-208-5149 or karen.ho@utsc.utoronto.ca