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New Fossil Seal Species Rewrites History

An international team of biologists, led by Monash University, has discovered a new species of extinct monk seal from the Southern Hemisphere — describing it as the biggest breakthrough in seal evolution in 70 years.

The discovery, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, radically changes scientists’ understanding of how seal species evolved around the world.

It came after researchers examined seven preserved fossil specimens, including a complete skull, found by local fossil hunters on south Taranaki beaches in New Zealand between 2009 and 2016.

The new species is named Eomonachus belegaerensis, (meaning “dawn monk seal from Belegaer”) after the sea of Belegaer, which lies west of Middle Earth in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

Paleontologist and Monash PhD student James Rule with the complete skull of Eomonachus belegaerensis. (Image: Monash University)

Around 2.5 metres in length and weighing around 200-250 kg, Eomonachus belegaerensis lived in the waters around New Zealand some 3 million years ago.

It was previously thought that all true seals originated in the North Atlantic, with some later crossing the equator to live as far south as Antarctica.

Pieces of the fossil specimens discovered. (Image: Monash University)

Eomonachus now shows that many ancient seals, including the ancestors of today’s monk, elephant and Antarctic seals, actually evolved in the Southern Hemisphere.

Monash paleontologist James Rule, a Ph.D. candidate at the Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute (BDI), led the research as part of a trans-Tasman collaboration involving Monash University and Museums Victoria in Australia, and Te Papa and Canterbury Museum in New Zealand.

Scale illustration. The extinct Eomonachus belegaerensis is thought to have resembled the Hawaiian monk seal. (Image: illustration by Jaime Bran for Te Papa Museum)

The study was supervised and co-authored by Dr Justin Adams (Monash BDI), Dr. Erich Fitzgerald (Museums Victoria), and Associate Professor Alistair Evans (School of Biological Sciences). Mr. Rule said:

“This new species of extinct monk seal is the first of its kind from the Southern Hemisphere. Its discovery really turns seal evolution on its head. Until now, we thought that all true seals originated in the Northern Hemisphere, and then crossed the equator just once or twice during their entire evolutionary history. Instead, many of them appear to have evolved in the southern Pacific, and then criss-crossed the equator up to eight times.”

Te Papa Museum of New Zealand curator of marine mammals and study collaborator Dr. Felix Marx said the discovery was a triumph for citizen science:

“This new species has been discovered thanks to numerous, exceptionally well-preserved fossils – all of which were found by members of the public.”

Dr. Marx is hopeful about future discoveries of new species in New Zealand’s ancient past, saying:

“New Zealand is incredibly rich in fossils, and so far we have barely scratched the surface. Who knows what else is out there?”

Provided by: Monash University [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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Troy Oakes
Troy was born and raised in Australia and has always wanted to know why and how things work, which led him to his love for science. He is a professional photographer and enjoys taking pictures of Australia's beautiful landscapes. He is also a professional storm chaser where he currently lives in Hervey Bay, Australia.

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