Littlest hedgehog fossil found in British Columbia
Silvacola acares, or ‘tiny forest dweller’, measures just 5cm
On right, the tiny hedgehog previously unknown to science that lived in a British Columbia rainforest some 50 million years ago; left, an ancient relative of the modern tapir known as Heptodon. Image: Julius Csotonyi
Scientists have unearthed a fossil of the earliest hedgehog yet known. The critter, which is also the smallest hedgehog species ever found, lived 52 million years ago.
Its scientific name, Silvacola acares, or “tiny forest dweller”, pretty much sums it up: it measures just 5cm. It lived in a rainforest in what is now British Columbia in a very warm spell during the Eocene Epoch 50-53 million years ago.
A fellow forest dweller’s fossil was found with the animal: that of the tapir-like mammal Heptodon, which is about as big as a medium-sized dog. It too was located in Driftwood Canyon Provincial Park in Canada. Details of the pair are described in a paper published in the Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology yesterday.
The fossil hunters from the University of Colorado Boulder view it as a very big find, even though the hedgehog is no bigger than your thumb. S acares is a new discovery, according to the lead author of the study, Prof Jaelyn Eberle of the university’s geological sciences department.
“It is quite tiny and comparable in size to some of today’s shrews,” she says.
It likely fed on insects, plants and maybe seeds, she suggests, but nothing much bigger, given the size of its jaws. The hedgehog would hardly have made a meal for the Heptodon, although it and its modern-day relatives are herbivores and would have passed up this particular snack.
The scientists are unable to say whether it had quills like hedgehogs found hiding under leaves and logs today.
“We can’t say for sure, but there are ancestral hedgehogs living in Europe about the same time that had bristly hair covering them, so it is plausible Silvacola did too,” says Prof Eberle.