The skull of Nyctereutes lockwoodi as seen from the side and above. From Geraads et al, 2010.
In 2006 paleoanthropologists working in Ethiopia made a spectacular announcement – they had found the well-preserved remains of a juvenile Australopithecus afarensis, one of our prehistoric hominin relatives. Quickly dubbed “Lucy’s baby” this 3.4 million year old specimen graced the cover of Nature and numerous news reports, yet its description represents only a fraction of the paleontological work being done in the area. Many other fossil animals have been found along the banks of the Awash, too, and in the latest issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology scientists Denis Geraads, Zeresenay Alemseged, Ren√© Bobe, Denn√© Reed have described a previously unknown species of dog which would have lived alongside the australopithecines.
The new canid, a relative of the living raccoon dog dubbed Nyctereutes lockwoodi in honor of paleontologist Charles Lockwood, is represented by a complete skull and a smattering of other material. As far as is presently known, it was a small dog – only about the size of a black-backed jackal – but it is the only canid species to be found at the site. Nyctereutes lockwoodi was not an apex predator. Instead it may have been more of a scavenger or an ecological opportunist, consuming a variety of foods rather than focusing solely upon meat.
Frustratingly, however, the habits and relationships of this canid are difficult to determine for certain. Despite their hypothesis that Nyctereutes lockwoodi may have been a generalist carnivore, the authors acknowledge that not enough is known about the paleoecology of the site to tell for sure. Furthermore, the authors are unsure about whether this dog belongs in a new genus – they have a hunch that it might, but they cannot find enough differences from Nyctereutes to make the distinction. Indeed, while it is interesting to hear the news about this canid, very little is known about it at present, and hopefully further discoveries will allow paleontologists to gain a clearer picture of how it lived and what it was related to.
DENIS GERAADS, ZERESENAY ALEMSEGED, RENE BOBE, and DENNE REED (2010). NYCTEREUTES LOCKWOODI, N. SP., A NEW CANID (CARNIVORA: MAMMALIA) FROM THE
MIDDLE PLIOCENE OF DIKIKA, LOWER AWASH, ETHIOPIA Journal of Verterbrate Paleontology, 30 (3), 981-987 : 10.1080/02724631003758326