Since the last couple of weeks have featured marine mammals, let’s have one more! This time not a cetacean but a member of the other group of fully aquatic mammals still alive today: the sirenians.
Although commonly known as “sea-cows” due to their herbivorous grazing habits, sirenians’ closest living relatives are actually modern elephants. They’re thought to have originated in Africa over 50 million years ago, starting off as pig-like or hippo-like semi-aquatic animals — but they must have been good swimmers capable of crossing oceans very early in their evolutionary history, since some of the earliest known sirenian fossils actually come from the other side of the Atlantic on the Caribbean island of Jamaica.
Sobrarbesiren cardieli here extends some of our knowledge of early four-legged sirenians to Europe, dating to the mid-Eocene about 42 million years ago. Hundreds of bones were found in Northeastern Spain, representing at least six different individuals and giving us a fairly complete idea of this species’ anatomy.
It was smaller than modern sea-cows, reaching about 2m long (6’6″), and seems to represent a transitional point between the semi-aquatic ancestral sirenians and fully aquatic later forms. It had a head very similar to its modern relatives, and probably a tail fin, but also still retained small functional hind limbs.
It was initially thought to still be somewhat semi-aquatic and capable of quadrupedal locomotion on land, but a later analysis of its hind limb bones suggests that it may actually have been much more aquatic than that. Its hind legs had a wide range of motion and were probably used for otter-like swimming, undulating the body while paddling, but might not have been capable of supporting its weight on land. So if Sobrarbesiren did still haul out of the water, it may have had to move more like a seal.
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.
This is the equivalent of Archaeopteryx for seals.
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.
We barely missed having them still alive today!
Enaliarctos mealsi, an early seal from the Late Oligocene and Early Miocene of California, USA (~23-20 mya).
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.