Thursday, November 13, 1997 Published at 17:02 GMT
Despatches: Far East
A quarry in China has turned up a near perfect skeleton of a 140 million year
old mammal. The creature lived its life in the shadow of the dinosaurs and may
have died as food for the giant reptiles but was destined to take over the
world. Toby Murcott of BBC Science has this report:
"The Yixian Formation of rocks in China has produced some spectacular dinosaur fossils, and now comes the first skeleton of an ancient mammal. Mammals
evolved about 200 million years ago but our knowledge of the earliest species is
confined to a few teeth and slivers of bone. This nearly complete fossil
skeleton gives, for the first time, an idea of what it looked like in life.
The size of a small rat, with a pointed snout, it will have scuttled on its
wide-splayed legs in search of insects and avoiding being eaten by dinosaurs.
The scientists who reported the find in the journal Nature have named it
Zhangheotherium quinquecuspidens after Zhang He - who discovered the fossil - and its characteristic five-pointed lower teeth. This skeleton gives
palaeontologists a unique insight into the murky early history of mammals,
allowing them to trace mammalian lineage more accurately. Products of the first one 135 million years of mammalian evolution lived in comparative obscurity, overshadowed by the hugely successful dinosaurs. But they were just biding their time, and when the dinosaurs died out they blossomed. It could not have known, but million years after this particular Zhangheotherium died, its descendants took over the Earth."