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New species of extinct monk seal identified from fossils in New Zealand

Fossils found in New Zealand have led to the discovery of a previously unidentified species of extinct monk seal, which biologists say is the biggest breakthrough in seal evolution in seven decades.

The animal – named Eomonachus belegaerensis – was named after a sea in JRR Tolkien’s the Lord of the Rings, and has radically changed scientists’ understanding of how seal species have evolved around the world.

Eomonachus belegaerensis lived in the waters around New Zealand some three million years ago, and was 2.5 metres in length and weighed around 200-250kg.

Monash University palaeontologist James Rule, a PhD candidate in the Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology, worked with a team of Trans Tasman scientists on his paper.

“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,” Rule said.

“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.”

The equator usually acts as a barrier for marine animals crossing, Rule said, as the waters are so warm, so the discovery that seals crossed numerous times over their evolutionary history is significant. Read from source….