Czech palaeontologists find remains of prehistoric animal belonging to previously unknown species
Palaeontologists have discovered that the jaw of a prehistoric animal, found a few years ago near the town of Valeč in the Karlovy Vary region, belongs to a hitherto unknown species of mammal. The unique find is the oldest evidence of a cat-like animal in Europe.
The left lower jaw of the creature was discovered in 2017 during a geological survey by National Museum palaeontologist Boris Ekrt and his colleague Lucia Kunstmülerová from Charles University. On closer examination, it turned out to be a previously unknown species, Fejfarictis valecensis, named after the respected Czech palaeontologist and populariser of the field, Professor Oldřich Fejfar, and the place the fossil was found.
The jaw was found in rock strata dating to the mid-to-late Palaeogene period, i.e. 33 to 34 million years ago – a period from which not many beasts of prey have been found in Europe. Following several years of research by specialists from the Czech National Museum, Charles University’s Faculty of Natural Sciences, the Czech Geological Survey and the French University in Poitiers, the jaw was found to belong to a very early member of the suborder Feliformia, a group of animals consisting of "cat-like" animals, including today’s large and small cats, hyenas, and mongooses.
Boris Ekrt from the National Museum participated in the research together with his colleague Jan Wagner and the French palaeontologist Louis de Bonis.
"After the discovery of the jaw in 2017, it became clear that the research would be more time-consuming than expected, because the jaw was very unusual and we were also dealing with problems in the dating of the geological layers. The research involved fine dissection and the uncovering of the other side of the teeth, which had been hidden in the rock until then. By the morphology of the teeth, we were subsequently able to discern that it is a so-far unknown species."
This species, together with the French genus Anictis, provide the first evidence of cat-like animals in Europe. Fejfarictis valecensis differs from Anictis in that its teeth were not yet adapted exclusively to hunting and a carnivorous diet. These cat-like animals first appeared on the continent about 34 million years ago after a period of significant global cooling which caused ocean levels to drop, allowing them to migrate between Asia and Europe.
As well as providing evidence of the earliest known migration of a member of Feliformia to Europe, Fejfarictis valecensis also proves the presence of small cat-like omnivorous animals in Europe, which palaeontologists were not aware of until now. The most similar known finds thus far come from the same period or slightly earlier in Mongolia.
The fossilised jaw will be on display in the National Museum’s natural history section as part of the exhibition “Window into Prehistory” from June. Michal Lukeš, director of the National Museum, says that the discovery is a win for the museum and the country.
"The discovery by our palaeontologists once again proves that the National Museum is not only a repository and cultural institution, but also an important scientific institution, whose experts achieve top scientific results at the international level."