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Macalester fossil hunters help find 'bizarre' mammal skull

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A team of paleontologists, including a professor from Macalester College in St. Paul, recently discovered the fossilized skull of an extinct mammal that lived in the time of dinosaurs.

The creature's existence came as quite a surprise to the researchers because of its large size and strange features, according to their findings which were published online Wednesday by the journal Nature.

Macalester geology professor Ray Rogers and undergraduate student Madeline Marshall were part of the team that found the skull on the island of Madagascar in 2010.

As Rogers (in photo at left) described it to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the discovery of the skull was an accident. The team, which was led by scientists from Stony Brook University in New York, was doing ongoing fossil research on the west coast of Madagascar when some of them came across a large block of soft rock that was filled with fish fossils.

When they sent the 150 lb. block back to Stony Brook to be scanned, they found the entire mammal skull deep within the rock.

It took six months to extract the fossil skull from the rock, and when they did, the scientists realized it came from a creature they did not know existed, according to the National Science Foundation, which is one of the funders of the research.

They named it Vintana sertichi. Vintana means luck in the Malagasy language of Madagascar, and sertichi refers to its discoverer, researcher Joe Sertich, then of Stony Brook University.

Vintana lived some 68 million years ago, at a time when dinosaurs roamed the earth and other mammals were tiny things, about the size of a rat.

By contrast, Vintana had a head about five inches long and a body about 20 pounds. Lead researcher David Krause of Stony Brook described the creature as "bizarre in being so humongous," like a groundhog on steroids, according to National Geographic.

Vintana also had bizarre features, researchers said. The skull has an unusual shape, with deep, huge eye sockets, and long, blade-like flanges for attachment of massive chewing muscles, which suggest Vintana had a very powerful jaw even though it was a plant eater.

Macalester's Ray Rogers told the Pioneer Press it also had amazingly keen senses.

"A great sense of smell, and big eyes for navigation in low light. It was big, agile, and in tune with its environment," he said. "It had to be on guard given the abundant dinosaurs that lived in the same ecosystem."

This video explains more about Vintana.

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Vintana is part of a group of early mammals called gondwanatherians that lived in the Southern Hemisphere. They went extinct long ago and don't have any descendants living today, Rogers told the Pioneer Press.

Not much is known about them until now because paleontologists had only had bone fragments and teeth to study.

The major question for scientists is, how did such an unusual creature evolve? Researchers say the Vintana skull may help them find some answers.

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