Oldest Carnivoran Mammal of Europe Discovered



One of our palaeontologists, Floréal Solé, holding the mandible of the oldest carnivoran mammal of Europe. (Photo: Thierry Smith, RBINS)
Oldest Carnivoran Mammal of Europe Discovered
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Reinout Verbeke

Researchers of our Institute have described the oldest mammalian predator of Europe. Vassacyon prieuri from Northern France is 57 million years old and is considered the earliest ancestor of modern-day cats and dogs. “The fossil exemplifies the early flourishing of carnivoran mammals on our continent after the dinosaurs became extinct”, says RBINS palaeontologist Floréal Solé, who collaborated with Romanian and French colleagues.

The jawbone with three teeth on it is only three centimetres long, but palaeontologists can retrieve a lot of information out of it. It was a small meat-eating mammal of the Vassacyon genus and it weighed only 800 grams. From the layer in which it had been found, we are able to determine that the fossil is 57 million years old. In that time, the Latest Palaeocene, the area around the Rivecourt site in Northern France was covered with tropical forests. Along with a number of new tooth fragments of the Gracilocyon genus found in Romania, this small jawbone shows us the earliest indication of modern mammals on our continent.

Up until now, scientists situate the dawn of mammals one million years later during a hefty climate-warming episode in the Earliest Eocene. These fossils show us that mammals were already starting to get in their prime on our continent much earlier. “The World of today already began to take shape during that time”, says Floréal Solé, who led the study. “It is this animal group (Carnivoraformes) that later evolved into cats, dogs, bears, seals, and weasels among others.”

The Asian Cradle

Palaeontologists discovered another contemporary of the two European prehistoric predators in the Clarks Fork Yellowstone River Basin (Wyoming, USA): Uintacyon rudis. According to the researchers this suggests that the cradle of all carnivores was neither in America nor in Europe, but rather in Asia. “Carnivorans moved along the Bering Strait crossing to North America, others came to Europe during that same time”, says Solé. And it does not end there. “Later on in the Eocene, many species went from Europe to North America via a landbridge across Greenland.” A lot of more recent Vassacyon species have been found at the other side of the Atlantic.

Belgian fossil not the oldest anymore

Vassocyon prieuri in fact pushes a Belgian finding from its throne. In 2014, Dormaalocyon latouri, which was described by Solé et al., was the then oldest carnivoran mammal of Europe. Belgian palaeontologist Richard Smith had found its remains in the village of Dormaal (Flemish Brabant). “Dormaalocyon might even be a million years younger but its teeth appear to be more primitive than Vassacyon’s. Evolutionary speaking, something must have happened in that era but we are still guessing what that might be.”
Vassacyon prieuri is named after its finder Judicaël Prieur, a French amateur palaeontologist. The fossil was prepared by specialists of our Institute but its final destination is the Musée d'art et d'histoire Antoine Vivenel in Compiègne, close to its finding place. The description of the oldest European mammal predators, supported by Lafarge – the French industrial company that owns the Rivecourt quarry, is published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.


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