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Fossil Friday: Eurotamandua — Anteater or Not Even Close?

Photo: Eurotamandua joresi holotype, by Günter Bechly 2009.

A very well-preserved fossil mammal from the Middle Eocene Messel pit in Germany was discovered in 1974 and described by Storch (1981) as Eurotamandua joresi. Famous German vertebrate paleontologist Gerhard Storch considered the fossil not only as the oldest fossil anteater (about 47 million years old) but also as the first European representative of this mammal order. This was a true sensation for paleontologists and zoologists alike. The simple reason is that anteaters belong to the group Xenarthra, which includes sloths, armadillos, and anteaters, and is generally believed to have always been an endemic to the neotropical region. 

Extensive Phylogenetic Studies

A pitched controversy about the biogeographic and evolutionary implications resulted, and speculations ran wild. Extensive phylogenetic studies either affirmed the attribution of Eurotamandua to neotropical Xenarthra (Storch & Habersetzer 1991Szalay & Schrenk 1994Höss et al. 1996Branham & Gaudin 1997Gaudin & Branham 1998) or challenged it as uncertain (Gaudin 1999), or placed it closer to Pholidota (pangolins) and its fossil relatives Palaeanodonta (Rose & Emry 1993, Shoshani et al. 1997Rose 1999Delsuc et al. 2001), or attributed it to a totally independent lineage called Afredentata (Szalay & Schrenk 1998). All these scientists came to very different conclusions, even though they all worked with the same single fossil and its published description. 

Finally, a study by Gaudin et al. (2009) established Eurotamandua as a fossil pangolin, contrary to their own earlier study. This was also supported by the more recent phylogenetic analysis of Kondrashov & Agadjanian (2012). An interesting detail is that Xenarthra and Pholidota were classically considered as related toothless mammals (Edentata) based on morphological similarities, but were shown to be totally unrelated and far removed in the mammalian tree of life based on molecular data (Xenarthra at the very base of mammals or as sister group to Afrotheria, but Pholidota as closest relative to carnivorans deeply nested within Laurasiatheria). 

Yet More Controversy

However, an attribution of Eurotamandua to pangolins did not prevent further controversy. Szalay & Schrenk (1998) considered the Messel pholidote Eomanis krebsi (attributed to Euromanis by Gaudin et al. 2009) as a juvenile Eurotamandua and thus as synonym of this taxon. This was strongly rejected by Horovitz et al. (2005) based on the leg morphology. By the way: the apparent typical xenarthran joints described by Storch (1981) as a crucial character could not be corroborated by other studies (Rose & Emry 1993, Szalay & Schrenk 1994Gaudin 1999) and ultimately turned out to be mere artifacts of preparation and restoration of the fossil (Storch 2003). All the other unique anatomical similarities between Eurotamandua and anteaters, that were previously considered as unequivocal synapomorphies (Branham & Gaudin 1997), are now considered evolutionary convergences. These include quite complex features such as horizontal palatal plates and a supplementary bulla tympanica (Storch & Habersetzer 1991). 

Darwinists thus have to appeal to the ad hoc hypothesis of convergent adaptation to similar lifestyles, which of course increases the problem of how a blind evolutionary search process could stumble upon the same complex solutions multiple times. A design perspective can explain such incongruent data much better than a Darwinian perspective, because intelligent designers typically reuse the same innovations and principles in different instantiations.


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