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March 28, 2011

Funky Fossil Finds

New fossil species are discovered all the time. Each individual specimen provides new information to the scientific community. Sometimes, these fossils are of species we've seen before. Other times, we find things that are totally new. There have been a couple new species published over the past couple of weeks, that I find fascinating and bizarre, that I'd like to share.

(c) National Geographic
Easter's in about a month. Instead of your common bunny rabbit, how would you like Naralagus rex for the Easter Bunny? This new species of rabbit, found in Spain, weighed in at an estimated 26 pounds (12 kilograms), and would have been about 6 times the size of the common European rabbit. It had no natural predators, which allowed it to get so big. It also didn't look or act much like a rabbit; due to its stiff backbone, it would have been unable to hop about. It also had very short ears, making it look more like a giant guinea pig than a rabbit. It lived about 4 million years ago, and likely went extinct due to changes in climate and environment.

from LiveScience
Now, as weird as gigantic rabbits are, they still look somewhat like their modern cousins. The other bizarre new find looks like nothing alive. The so-called "walking cactus," discovered in China, looks exactly like its nickname.
(c) National Geographic
Diania cactiformis has a long, thin, spiky body and jointed legs. It is these legs that are particularly exciting; most creatures 500 million years ago, at the start of the Cambrian period, had fleshy "legs", not rigid jointed structures. The legs of the walking cactus resemble a crude form of the arthropod leg, exemplified in modern crabs and insects. This strange animal could be the ancestor of all bugs and crustaceans today.

Finding weird creatures like these are part of what makes me excited about paleontology. It reveals the unexpected, the bizarre, and the wonderful history of life on Earth, and how much this planet has changed over the past 4.6 billion years. We live in a tiny snapshot of this ever-changing world, and so cannot pretend that this is how it has always been and will always be. If discoveries like these two teach us anything, it is that the world is far stranger, and more spectacular, than we can ever guess.