REMAINS of a giant monk seal weighing 250 kilos have been discovered in New Zealand.
Scientists have discovered that the species, unknown until now, lived three million years ago in the Southern Hemisphere, thanks to fossils found in the Tasman Sea around New Zealand. The fossils show that it was around 2.5 metres long and are the oldest of their kind in the world. The scientists describe this as the biggest breakthrough in seal evolution in 70 years.
The seal has been named Eomonachus belegaerensis (Dawn Monk Seal of Belegaer) in reference to the sea of Belegaer, which lies west of Middle Earth in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the main author of the study, James Rule, of Monash University, explained. The discovery, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, radically changes scientists’ understanding of how seal species evolved around the world.
Meanwhile, Te Papa Museum of New Zealand curator of marine mammals and study collaborator Dr Felix Marx said the discovery was a triumph for citizen science. “This new species has been discovered thanks to numerous, exceptionally well-preserved fossils – all of which were found by members of the public.”
Researchers examined seven preserved fossil specimens, including a complete skull, found by local fossil hunters on south Taranaki beaches in New Zealand between 2009 and 2016. It was previously thought that all true seals originated in the North Atlantic, with some later crossing the equator to live as far south as Antarctica.
Eomonachus now shows that many ancient seals, including the ancestors of today’s monk, elephant and Antarctic seals, actually evolved in the Southern Hemisphere.
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