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31-Mar-2005

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American Association for the Advancement of Science

Termite-eating mammals lived with dinosaurs



When dinosaurs roamed the earth, termite-eating, chipmunk-sized, warm-blooded animals roamed as well, according to the scientists who report the discovery of the new termite-eater.

The new mammal's limbs and hollow teeth resemble the limbs and teeth of some of today's specialized termite-eaters, including aardvarks, anteaters and armadillos. But, this mammal and the modern-day termite eaters are only distantly related and appeared on Earth more than 100 million years apart.

Because this new animal, which is now extinct, is not a close ancestor of today's termite eaters despite important similarities, the scientists say the two groups "converged" on the same termite-eating technique. This is an example of "convergent evolution."

The similarities between the two groups of termite-eaters surprised and excited Zhe-Xi Luo and John Wible from Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Their analysis of the new creature is published in the 01 April, 2005 issue of the journal Science.

Specialized termite-eaters sit or stand on the termite colony and dig the insects out of the dirt with their front limbs. They trap the critters under their tongues and swallow them.

This mode of termite-feasting doesn't require much chewing, so the teeth developed into hollow structures lacking the hard enamel coating that helps provide a good chewing surface.

The new animal, named Fruitafossor windscheffeli, developed its termite-eating strategies about 150 million years ago during the Late Jurassic, during a time when dinosaurs were common and mammals were "the new kids on the block."

There is still a lot to learn about the mammals that lived along side the dinosaurs. This new discovery provides more evidence that many dinosaur-era mammals developed specific strategies to make the most of their environments.