Skip to main content

Macalester fossil hunters help find 'bizarre' mammal skull

  • Author:
  • Updated:

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.

This embed is invalid

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.

Next Up


Hero dad who stopped carjacker who fled with his kids identified

A GoFundMe has been set up to support Derek Gotchie and his family following the incident.

Screen Shot 2022-12-03 at 4.35.18 PM

Watch: New London-Spicer wins 3A championship on incredible walk-off TD

New London-Spicer defeated the unbeaten Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton in remarkable circumstances.


Suspect in woman's killing in Moorhead is arrested

James Kollie Jr. was arrested Friday evening.

Jennifer Carnahan

Former chair Jennifer Carnahan sues Minnesota GOP, which is suing her back

Carnahan stepped down under a cloud of controversy in August 2021.

Minneapolis Fire Department

One injured after leaping from burning vacant building in Minneapolis

Authorities say the building is known to be used by squatters.


Head-on crash leaves two drivers dead in southeastern Minnesota

The crash happened in Houston County just before 4 p.m. Friday.


Charges: Armed man made death threats at Minneapolis LGBTQ bar

The man allegedly used derogatory terms while threatening to kill someone.


FDA pulls last COVID-19 monoclonal antibody treatment as new variants rise

A therapy used to treat more than 11,000 Minnesotans is no longer authorized amid a surge in the latest COVID-19 variants.

Austin Robert LeClaire

Charges: Plymouth man shot girlfriend in head after birthday party

The 23-year-old victim is in critical condition as of Friday.


State announces $2.5M in grants for child care providers

Child care providers in roughly a dozen communities will receive funds to help grow the supply of affordable, quality child care.


Probe of Golden Valley police uncovers racism, alleged misconduct

One officer was terminated for alleged racist comments and violations of state law.

blowing snow

Blowing snow Friday in Minnesota; will it snow next week?

Winds could gust up to 50 mph Friday afternoon and night.


Rock hunter finds chunk of human skull along Minnesota River

A man scouring ground near Mankato over the weekend found what experts say is a piece of a human skull. Local police are looking into it but have no open cases on missing persons. An anthropologist says the skull is probably much older and might have come from a Native American or early settler.

Should this be the official state mammal?

First-graders are behind a push to make the black bear the state mammal, and a bill filed in the House on Wednesday would make it so. But, as MPR's Bob Collins points out, past ideas for state mammals haven't fared well at the Legislature.

Macalester helps students catch some Zzz's

As students return to campus, college health officials are trading popular handouts of coupons and credit cards for ear plugs and sleep shades.