SANTIAGO – Universidad de Chile researchers unearthed the remains of a mammal that lived alongside dinosaurs 72 to 74 million years ago. A fossil found in the Magallanes region leads scientists to believe the species is similar to a modern-day skunk. It is one of many recent discoveries in the region.
A team led by Chilean scientists Alexander Vargas and Sergio Soto, and a group of Argentinean researchers, discovered the “five teeth beast” (Orretherium tzen), a skunk-like mammal that inhabited Patagonia towards the end of the Mesozoic era. The omnivorous creature shared the region with the titanosaurus, and other species that have recently been discovered in the area.
The find occurred in the Río de las Chinas Valley, east of Torres del Paine National Park in the Magallanes region. It provides additional insight into evolution, and the presence of other mammals in the southern cone a lot earlier than originally thought. It also complements a similar unearthing in 2020 of the Magallanodon baikashkenke, another creature believed to have coexisted with the Orretherium tzen. The group’s initial findings were published in Scientific Reports, an open access journal from the publishers of Nature.
The five teeth beast gets its scientific name, Orretherium tzen, from a mix of Greek (therium, meaning beast), and the local Aonikenk indigenous language words orre (teeth) and tzen (five). Vargas said the discovery “is a breakthrough to discuss the evolutionary origin of an important family of mammals, the Mesungulatidae, and the excellent preservation of fossils, added to the previous discovery of Magallanodon, it places the Magallanes region as a worldwide epicenter for future advancements in the evolution of mammals.”
Mammals in the Mesozoic
This newly-found species coexisted with the Magallanodon and the long-necked titanosaurus, and scientists believe it was similar in size and eating habits to modern-day skunks and opossums. Researchers determined this by examining the fossil of the animal’s jaw and teeth. Soto said the animal was most likely omnivorous and ate plants and insects, given its five teeth.
Soto highlighted the significance of the discovery: “this is important, because very little is known about this group of animals. We know more about dinosaurs, reptiles, and other abundant species in the Mesozoic, but little is known about mammals, and – despite this – mammals can be evolutionarily traced back to the origin of dinosaurs.”
Researchers will now look into the relationship between this animal and other South American creatures, and investigate how they made it to the Magallanes region.
Francisco is finishing his degree in Journalism at Universidad Finis Terrae in Santiago.