Fossil of Bone-Crushing Mammal a First in the US Northwest

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Harpagolestes immanis by Rom-u

A fossil jaw bone misidentified for 50 years turns out to belong to a bone-crushing mammal and is the first to be found in the Northwest, scientists said.

Scientists tell the Bend Bulletin in a story that the 40-million-year-old fossil discovered at the John Day Fossil Beds in eastern Oregon is from a Harpagolestes. That’s a hoofed mammal that’s a cross between a pig and a hyena.

“Imagine a pig that specializes in eating only bones,” said John Day Fossil Beds National Monument Chief Paleontologist Nicholas Famoso.

He said scientists previously thought the fossil was from a polar bear-like creature.

University of Oregon paleontology student, Selina Robson, started investigating after becoming convinced the fossil was misidentified.

“We weren’t expecting her to say: ‘This isn’t what you think it is,’” Famoso said.

Fossils from the mammal have also been found in the Rocky Mountains and Southern California.

“They behaved like hyenas,” Famoso said. “They were running around Oregon being the first animals chewing on bones.”

The fossil sat for five decades in the University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History. The school and national monument are considering putting it on display at the museum and making a replica to display at the national monument.

Famoso said he wants to examine other fossils in the University of Oregon collection to see if they’re also misidentified.

“It definitely warrants reviewing some of the specimens we already have,” he said. “We need to double check.”