The youngest pangolin (Mammalia, Pholidota) from Europe
Claire E. Terhune, Timothy Gaudin, Sabrina Curran, Alexandru Petculescu
Summarized by Isabelle Snowball, a fourth-year geology student at the University of South Florida. She has a particular interest in GIS. In her free time, she enjoys various forms of art and spending time with her friends.
Key Terms: Pangolin – an armadillo-like mammal with scales covering its body, a long snout, long tapered tail, and long tongue which it uses to catch and eat insects; humerus – the bone in the upper arm of an organism; synapomorphy – a characteristic shared exclusively by a species and its descendants.
What data were used: Scientists in Graunceau, Romania uncovered a pangolin humerus–the youngest ever found in Europe. Specimens from this fossil collection are estimated to be from the Villafranchian age, a period of time ranging from the Late Pliocene to Early Pleistocene in an area scientists think represented a woodland environment. This dates the specimen to be around 1.8-2.2 million years old (Ma). The specimen is stored at the ISER (Institute of Speleology, Bucharest, Romania). Data from currently surviving species of pangolin were used to compare other humeri measurements to those of the Smutsia olteniensis humerus, the fossil central to this study.
Methods: The pangolin humerus (Fig. 1) was appropriately photographed and cataloged, which included creating a 3-D model by scanning the specimen with an HDI 120 Blue Light scanner. The humerus was compared to data collected from the humeri of twelve other pangolin specimens—specifically examining measurements for length and width of a number of shoulder, arm, and leg bones.
Results: Scientists determined that the newly found specimen had all of the features of a modern pangolin, or Pholidota. Specifically, this specimen is more closely related to modern species of pangolin. Still, it boasted enough unique traits to earn its place as a new species of pangolin, Smutsia olteniensis. Given the woodland environment of the Graunceau site, we know it is possible that Smutsia olteniensis was open-adapted, meaning it preferred open woodlands as opposed to the tropical environments modern pangolins prefer.
Why is this study important? Little is known about the fossil record of the pangolin. They are believed to have emerged in Europe during the Eocene and disappeared from the European geologic record during the Miocene, potentially in search of warmer, more tropical environments. Up until now, the only evidence of pangolins’ existence during the Plio-Pleistocene came from Africa.
The big picture: With this newfound specimen dating back to the early Pleistocene, it appears that not only did pangolins stick around Europe longer than previously thought, but that they may have occupied a wider geographic range as well. Scientists have concluded two possibilities—the first being that pangolins may have remained in Europe as late as the Pleistocene, and the second being that they did migrate to Africa, but eventually made their way back to Europe by the Pleistocene.
Citations: Claire E. Terhune, Timothy Gaudin, Sabrina Curran & Alexandru Petculescu (2021) The youngest pangolin (Mammalia, Pholidota) from Europe, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, DOI: 10.1080/02724634.2021.1990075
Lorenzo Rook, Bienvenido Martínez-Navarro, Villafranchian: The long story of a Plio-Pleistocene European large mammal biochronologic unit, Quaternary International, Volume 219, Issues 1–2, 2010, Pages 134-144, ISSN 1040-6182, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quaint.2010.01.007. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1040618210000170)