The fossil remains of a flipper-free mammal related to modern seals have been discovered in Nunavut by Ottawa researchers who stumbled upon them after their ATV ran out of gas.
Natalia Rybczynski, a paleontologist at the Canadian Museum of Nature, and her research team found the first bone of the ancient pinniped — the scientific group that includes seals, sea lions and walruses — while waiting for other team members to return with a jerry can of fuel during an expedition to a former crater lake on Devon Island in 2007.
The findings from the study, published in Thursday’s edition of Nature, suggest pinnipeds evolved in the Arctic from freshwater animals.
“It fills the gap between the land-living ancestor and the flippered seal-like animal that we see around us today,” Rybczynski said Wednesday.
The animal had a long, streamlined body with heavy limbs, suggesting it had well-developed muscles. It had a long tail and likely moved much more easily over land than modern seals. It was little longer than a cat from the tip of its nose to the tip of its tail (about 110 centimetres). It didn’t have flippers, but had flattened digits that suggest webbed feet. Its canine teeth were large, indicating a meat eater, and it had a short snout and muscular jaw.
An artist’s conception shows Puijila darwini as otter-like, with a long tail and webbed feet. (Mark A. Klingler/Carnegie Museum of Natural History)