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"Drawer Bones" -- The Discovery Files

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Paleontologists at Ohio University have discovered a new species of meat-eating mammal larger than a polar bear, with a skull as large as that of a rhinoceros and enormous, piercing, canine teeth. The 22-million-year-old fossils were unearthed decades ago, then placed in a drawer at the National Museums of Kenya. They remained there without a great deal of attention until National Science Foundation-funded scientists rediscovered them, recognizing their significance.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

I'll take drawer number -- whaaaaaat?

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files, from the National Science Foundation.

A storage drawer at the National Museum of Kenya. Some Ohio University paleontologists analyzing samples come upon a row of huge, meat-eating teeth -- 22-million-year-old fossils they quickly ID as "clearly belonging to a species new to science." Using the teeth to estimate the creature's size, it's likely the mammal was bigger than a polar bear, with a skull the size of a rhino.

The fossils in the drawer had been forgotten for decades; remnants of a previous search for evidence of ancient apes. The new creature was dubbed "simbakubwa kutokaafrica" sim back koob wah, koo tah ka africa], Swahili for "Big lion coming from Africa." Though probably lion-like, they're not even related to lions or any other meat-eating mammal alive today. They were part of a completely different group of animals called "hyaenodonts" [hi ee nah dahnts] -- Africa's first mammalian carnivores. At the top spot in the food chain, hyaenodonts had a good run for millions of years, till they went extinct. Most likely because of changing ecosystems and drier conditions.

The discovery could help us understand how species adapt -- or, in this case, fail to adapt -- to a rapidly changing global climate.

Had this gone differently, would I be tossing a tennis ball to my pet hyaenodont? (Sound effect: low roar) Nope, no, boy put me down.

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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