53 million-year-old rabbit fossil discovered in India


This National Geographic video is called Golden Eagle vs. Hare.

From Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions in the USA:

Good luck indeed: 53 million-year-old rabbit’s foot bones found

One day last spring, fossil hunter and anatomy professor Kenneth Rose, Ph.D. was displaying the bones of a jackrabbit’s foot as part of a seminar at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine when something about the shape of the bones looked oddly familiar.

That unanticipated eureka moment has led researchers at the school to the discovery of the oldest known record of rabbits. The fossil evidence in hand, found in west-central India, predates the oldest previously known rabbits by several million years and extends the record of the whole category of the animal on the Indian subcontinent by 35 million years.

Published online in the February Proceedings of the Royal Society, the investigators say previous fossil and molecular data suggested that rabbits and hares diverged about 35 million years ago from pikas, a mousy looking member of the family Ochotonidae in the order of lagomorphs, which also includes all of the family Leporidae encompassing rabbits and hares.

But the team led by Johns Hopkins’s Rose found that their rabbit bones were very similar in characteristics to previously unreported Chinese rabbit fossils that date to the Middle Eocene epoch, about 48 million years ago. The Indian fossils, dating from about 53 million years ago, appear to show advanced rabbit-like features, according to Rose.

“What we have suggests that diversification among the Lagamorpha group-all modern day hares, rabbits and pikas-may already have started by the Early Eocene,” says Rose, professor in the Center for Functional Anatomy and Evolution at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Rose says the new discovery was delayed a few years because the researchers had not been looking specifically to determine the age of rabbits. “We found these bones on a dig in India a few years ago and didn’t know what animal they came from, so we held onto them and figured we’d look at them later,” he says. “It didn’t occur to us they would be rabbits because there were no known rabbits that early in time and the only known rabbits from that part of the world are from central Asia.”

But one day, while using the jackrabbit foot bones as a teaching tool for a class, the shape of the bones in the class struck him as something he’d seen before among his collection of unidentified bones.

Sure enough, the tiny bones about a quarter of an inch long from India looked remarkably similar to ankle and foot bones from modern day jackrabbits, which are 4 to 5 times bigger.

Rose and his team set out and measured every dimension of their Indian bones and compared them to eight living species of rabbits and hares. They also compared them to two species of the related pika-that mouse-like, mountain-dwelling critter that lives in the Rocky Mountains of North America, among other places.

Using a technique called character analysis, the team first recorded measurements of 20 anatomical features of the bones, which showed that the bones are definitely Lagomorph and closer to rabbits than pikas. The scientists then ran a series of statistical tests on the individual measurements to see how they compared with the Chinese fossils as well as living rabbits and pikas. They found that although the Indian fossils resemble pikas in some primitive features, they look more like rabbits in specialized bone features.

Asked how many years of good luck one gets with a 53 million-year-old rabbit foot bone, Rose quipped that he “already got lucky with the feet, but what we really would like are some teeth that tell how different these animals really were.”

See also here.

Eastern Cottontail Sylvilagus floridanus: here.

Cottontail rabbits are disappearing from New England: here.

Mountain Cottontail Sylvilagus nuttallii: here.

Denial of global warming threat to the American pika means no protection from U.S.: here.

ScienceDaily: American pikas: Contemporary climate change alters the pace and drivers of extinction: here.

The Plateau Pika, Ochotona curzoniae, is listed as ‘Least Concern’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. It is a small lagomorph that inhabits the alpine meadows of the Tibetan Plateau, living in family groups that occupy an interconnected burrow system; here.

6 thoughts on “53 million-year-old rabbit fossil discovered in India

  1. Global warming threatens small mammal, lawsuit charges
    Posted on Tue, Aug. 19, 2008

    By LES BLUMENTHAL

    McClatchy Newspapers

    * http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/species/mammals/American

    WASHINGTON — Compared to the polar bear, the American pika is downright tiny.

    Weighing only 4 ounces to 6 ounces, this small, rabbitlike mammal with thick brown hair that lives on boulder-covered slopes near alpine meadows in Western mountain ranges, could represent the latest effort to use the Endangered Species Act to combat global warming.

    Environmentalists filed a lawsuit Tuesday in U.S. district court in Sacramento, Calif., to force the Bush administration to decide whether to list the pika for protection under the act. The lawsuit claims the animal is threatened by rising temperatures and says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has dragged its feet for months on whether to list it.

    In May, the polar bear was protected as a threatened species under the act. But Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne made clear at the time that the Endangered Species Act was not intended to regulate global climate change.

    Kempthorne said it would be “inappropriate” to use the Endangered Species Act to control greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles, power plants and other sources. He said the polar bear listing would be accompanied by “administrative guidance” and an administrative rule to limit any unintended harm to the U.S. economy.

    Environmentalists dispute the White House approach.

    “We disagree with the administration that the Endangered Species Act isn’t a perfectly appropriate act to address global warming,” said Greg Loarie of Earthjustice, an environmental legal firm representing the Center for Biological Diversity in the lawsuit.

    Loarie said the pika (PIE-kah), which is intolerant of high temperatures, is an appropriate animal to test their contention.

    “The pika is very much the polar bear of the Lower 48,” he said.

    The Fish and Wildlife Service had no comment on the lawsuit.

    In addition to the polar bear, Loarie said, a type of coral and the Antarctic penguin are the only other species linked to global warming and the Endangered Species Act.

    The pika’s range includes the western U.S. and Canada in the Rocky Mountains from New Mexico to British Columbia, the Great Basin and the Sierra Nevada in California through the Cascade Range in Oregon and Washington.

    More than a third of the documented pika populations in Nevada and Oregon have disappeared, and elsewhere they are moving upslope to avoid rising temperatures, said Shaye Wolf, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. They can die when exposed to temperatures of 80 degrees Fahrenheit or higher for a few hours, Wolf said.

    “The pika is the American West’s canary in the coal mine,” Wolf said. “As temperatures rise, pika populations at lower elevations are being driven to extinction, pushing pikas further upslope until they have nowhere else to go.”

    More information on the pika can be found at:

    http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/species/mammals/American – pika/index.html.

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  2. Apr 4, 7:00 AM EDT

    As West warms, some fear for tiny mountain dweller

    By MIKE STARK
    Associated Press Writer

    SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The American pika – a short-legged, hamster-sized fur ball that huddles in high mountain slopes – isn’t built for long-distance travel.

    So as the West’s climate warms, the tiny pika has little choice but to scurry a little farther upslope to beat the heat.

    Problem is, in some places, they’ve run out of room to run, according to scientists. Without cool rocky refuges, the finicky pika can’t survive.

    Soon, if conservationists have their way, the pika could be the first species in the lower 48 states to get federal endangered species protections primarily because of the effects of climate change.

    “It’s feeling an exaggerated brunt of global warming,” said Greg Loarie, an Earthjustice attorney involved with lawsuits to get the pika protections. “Unlike others, it can’t move north. It’s stuck.”

    The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is scheduled to decide by May 1 whether to take an in-depth look at the pika – a diminutive relative of the rabbit that inhabits 10 Western states – and whether it may need to be on the endangered species list.

    The polar bear is already listed because of threats of global warming. The pika could be next. And more petitions naming climate change as a cause of species decline are likely in the coming years, said Dan Ashe, science adviser to the head of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

    “It’s like the ‘check engine’ light that comes on in your car. It tells you something’s going on here,” Ashe said.

    For pikas in the Great Basin, which includes parts of Nevada and Utah, the news is already grim.

    Donald Grayson, a University of Washington archaeologist, studied 57 archaeological sites dating back 40,000 years. Where pikas once typically lived at about 5,700 feet above sea level, they are now averaging higher than 8,000 feet, according to Grayson’s research published in 2005.

    “In the Great Basin, pikas now are at such high elevations, there’s not any place for them to go any higher,” he said. “I actually think that pikas in the Great Basin are probably doomed.”

    The pika also lives in parts of California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming.

    A study in 2003 found six of 25 previously known pika populations in the Great Basin had disappeared. Researchers have returned to the 25 sites since then but their results have not yet been published.

    “Climate seems to be the single strongest driver but it’s interacting” with other factors such as grazing, habitat loss, roads and human disturbance, said Erik Beever, a U.S. Geological Survey ecologist in Anchorage, Alaska, who studied pikas for about 15 years, including the 2003 study in the Great Basin when he was a graduate student.

    Part of the problem is that the pika’s peculiar traits are suited for alpine conditions: dense fur, slow reproductivity and a thermal regulation system that doesn’t do well when temperatures get above about 78 degrees.

    “There’s not a lot of wiggle room with these guys,” Beever said, referring to the small difference between pikas’ mean body temperature and the temperature at which they die.

    That could spell trouble for the pika, especially in parts of the West where climate change is expected to produce some of the most significant temperature changes in the country.

    But pikas aren’t running into trouble everywhere.

    Connie Millar, an alpine ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service, spends much of her research time in the Sierra Nevada mountains. On her travels, she notes signs of pikas: sightings, distinctive squeaks, telltale heaps of grasses the animals gather and save for winter munching.

    Over the last two years, she found only 2 percent of 279 pika sites were abandoned, and in some places pikas were showing up at lower-than-expected elevations. In parts of the western Great Basin she checked, about 17 percent of expected pikas sites showed no signs of the animals.

    Climate change, interacting with complex ecosystems, isn’t likely to have uniform effects, especially on a widespread species such as the pika.

    “What it’s doing in one place, it might not be doing elsewhere,” Millar said.

    Teams fanned out across Utah last summer looking for pikas at 113 spots where they might be living. Of those, about 75 percent had signs, state officials said.

    Although pikas are well-known to hikers along high, rocky slopes in several flagship national parks, including Yellowstone, Glacier and Yosemite, population studies have been sporadic across their range.

    The Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group, sued the federal government to protect the pika under the Endangered Species Act. A similar suit was also filed against the state of California.

    The federal lawsuit resulted in a settlement in February requiring a decision from the Fish and Wildlife Service by May 1. A hearing on the lawsuit in California – where state wildlife officials have disputed the assertion that pikas are threatened – is scheduled for later this month.

    “What the loss of the pika shows us is that global warming is impacting wildlife here in our own backyard,” said Shaye Wolf, a San Francisco-based biologist for the environmental group. “It provides an early indicator of what’s to come if we don’t reduce our greenhouse gas pollution.”

    But listing the pika or any other species because of threats from global warming raises a new set of questions for wildlife managers.

    The Bush administration listed the polar bear as a threatened species in 2008, the first to be protected because of the threats of global warming. Officials quickly completed regulations, though, to ensure the listing couldn’t be used to block projects that contribute to global warming. That decision is now being challenged in court.

    Ashe said it’s unclear exactly what steps could be taken to protect the pika from climate change. Recovery plans could address other specific threats such as grazing or roads – or target certain pika subspecies – but climate change has international causes and implications.

    For wildlife managers, it’s a new and shifting territory. But that doesn’t mean efforts shouldn’t be made, said Loarie, the Earthjustice attorney.

    “The pika is the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “Scientists are saying if global warming continues on this track, there are more extinctions coming. I don’t think that most people are willing to accept that.”

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