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Tiny hedgehogs roamed B.C. 50 million years ago

Paleontologists work on fossil-bearing sediments at the "North Face" fossil site in Driftwood Canyon Provincial Park, British Columbia, where the extinct hedgehog fossils were collected, in 2010.

Dave Greenwood/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Tiny, ancient hedgehogs and prehistoric tapirs once roamed the Bulkley Valley in northern British Columbia, many millennia ago when the area was a temperate oasis from the surrounding tropics, a new study says.

An expedition of scientists found fossils of the estimated 50-million-year-old mammals in Driftwood Canyon near Smithers, B.C. – the first mammal remains found preserved in the well-known fossil beds of the provincial park.

A fingernail-sized hedgehog jawbone was found in 2010 and a hand-sized tapir jaw was discovered the following year by expeditions led by Brandon University in Manitoba, said university biologist David Greenwood.

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"In the case of our little hedgehog, perhaps it was being eaten by an owl or some other predator," Dr. Greenwood said.

The area was once a lake bottom that has produced plant and insect fossils from the early Eocene era and the team believes the hedgehog remains were dropped there by a predator.

"It might be that that was what happened – it was an owl's meal and it coughed up the pellet and that's how it ended up in the lake. That's pure speculation but that seems a reasonable supposition.

"Our tapir though, that was probably where it lived – in a swamp – and it just died there and preserved," he said of the rhino-like creature that was about the size of a medium dog.

Finding the fossils was just the first hurdle. Identifying them was another.

The hedgehog jawbone was broken into two slabs of rock. The animal would have been about 2.5 centimetres long and the jawbone is only about a centimetre, so it was not possible to extract the remains from the rock and reassemble them, as normal.

Enter technology.

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The specimen was sent to Natalia Rybczynski, a palaeobiologist at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa and co-author of the study.

"We didn't touch the specimen at all. You could not handle it," she said.

A micro CT scan was used to create a 3D version of the remains, which were then reassembled into a virtual version that could be compared with existing specimens. It was a species previously unknown to science.

For now, the hedgehog jaw remains at the Canadian Museum of Nature but it will be sent to the Royal British Columbia museum in Victoria in the near future.

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