They had a mixture of anatomical features similar to true seals, sea lions, and walruses, but weren’t actually the ancestors of any of those modern groups. Instead they seem to have just been their own separate thing, a very early diverging “cousin” lineage of pinnipeds that convergently developed close resemblances to their later relatives.
It would have been a sea lion-like animal, able to walk on all fours when hauled out on land, and showed distinct sexual dimorphism, with males growing to sizes of around 4m long (13′) and females being somewhat smaller. It powered its swimming using its front flippers, and may have mostly foraged in deep dark waters, using both keen vision and sensitive whiskers to locate prey.
The nasal region of its skull also shows some similarities to modern elephant seals, and some reconstructions depict males with the same sort of large proboscis.
We have a fairly good picture of the evolutionary origins of most groups of aquatic mammals – except for the pinnipeds. The fossil record of early seals is still rather sparse, and for a long time the earliest known species was Enaliarctos, an animal that was already very seal-like and didn’t help much in figuring out whether seals’ closest living relatives are bears or musteloids.
But then Puijila darwini was found in the late 2000s, a transitional form with a near-complete skeleton, filling in a gap in our understanding so conveniently it almost seems too good to be true.
Discovered in Nunavut, Canada, Puijila dates to the early Miocene, about 23-20 million years ago. It was a small freshwater otter-like animal, about 1m long (3’3″), with a long tail and webbed feet adapted for paddling with all four of its limbs.
It lived at around the same time as the more specialized Enaliarctos, so it wasn’t a direct ancestor of modern seals, instead being part of an early offshoot lineage that retained more basal characteristics – but it does gives us a clue as to what the earliest pinnipeds looked like. Along with genetic studies it also helped to clarify that seals’ closest relatives are indeed the musteloids, although they’re estimated to have last shared a common ancestor around 45 million years ago so there’s still a lot of time unaccounted for in the proto-seal fossil record.
Several other fossil species that were previously thought to be musteloids have now also been recognized as close relatives of Puijila, and it seems that they were a fairly widespread group basically filling the ecological niche of otters at a time before true otters existed.
Most surprising and frustrating of all, however, is that some of these other otter-seals actually survived all the way into the Pleistocene, only going completely extinct sometime in the last 2 million years.
At just 1.65m long (5′5″) it was only about half the size of living walruses, making it the smallest member of the group ever discovered and leading to it being given the nickname “smallrus”.
It probably occupied a similar sort of fish-eating ecological niche as true sea lions – which eventually replaced it in the region after its extinction – and since it lived alongside several other larger species of walrus it may have become dwarfed to avoid direct competition with them.
Measuring about 1.5m long (5′), it was a transitional form between modern seals and their more otter-like ancestors. It was well-adapted for swimming with a flexible spine and flipper-like limbs, but unlike most modern pinnipeds it probably used both its front and hind flippers for propulsion.
Its teeth also still resembled those of terrestrial carnivores, with slicing carnassials at the back of its jaws. This suggests that it had to drag larger prey items back to shore in order to tear them apart and eat them, similar to the behavior of modern otters.