Washington, July 29 (ANI): A team of paleontologists from the Field Museum, US, has described the first vertebrate to live in trees as the small plant-eating synapsid, which lived in the Late Paleozoic, 260 million years ago.
Elongated fingers, an opposable "thumb," and a grasping tail of Suminia getmanovi demonstrate that this small plant-eating synapsid is the earliest known tree-climbing vertebrate. uminia was relatively small, about 20 inches from its nose to the tip of its tail.
The tree-climbing lifestyle of this Paleozoic relative of mammals is particularly important because for the first time in vertebrate evolution, it gives access to new food resources high off the ground, and also provides protection from ground-dwelling predators.
The evidence for this lifestyle is based on several excellent skulls and more than a dozen exceptionally well preserved, complete skeletons from a single large block of red mudstone that was discovered in central Russia's Kirov region.
Having so many individual specimens, some of mature individuals and some of youngsters, was helpful in providing a complete picture of the animal's skeletal anatomy, according to Jorg Frobisch, a Field Museum paleontologist.
"It's relatively rare to find several animals locked on a single block. We have examples of virtually every bone in their bodies," he said.
Finding that vertebrates took to trees so early in Earth's evolution was unexpected.
"It's a surprise, but it makes sense," Frobisch said. "It was a new niche for vertebrates. There was food available and they avoided predators on the ground," he added.
The study also provides the first evidence in the fossil record of food partitioning between small climbing and large ground-dwelling plant-eaters and this happens shortly after the establishment of the modern terrestrial ecosystem with large numbers of plant-eaters supporting few top predators.
Earlier, terrestrial vertebrate communities did not have this modern hierarchy, but instead were composed of various-sized predators and relatively few plant-eaters, with most of the food resources being provided by insects and aquatic organisms. (ANI)