Name: Vulpes mathisoni
Meaning: “Mathison’s fox”, in honor of the fossil’s collector Mark Mathison.
Age: About 4 million years ago.
Where in the world?: Southern Ethiopia.
What sort of critter?: A fox belonging to the same genus of living species.
Size: Similar to today’s African sand fox.
How much of the creature’s body is known?: A skull, lower jaw, and first vertebra of the neck.
Claim to fame: While we were hanging out at a conference mixer a while back, paleontologist Bill Parker reminded me that every species alive today has a fossil record. We don’t have every single species in the ancient Tree of Life, true, but you can pick basically any modern animal and trace it back to some ancient relative with a close resemblance. A new fossil fox named by Sorbonne University paleontologist Denis Geraads and colleagues is a reminder of that fact.
At about four million years old, Vulpes mathisoni lived at a time when our own ancestors were just getting the hang of walking upright. Superficially, the canid probably didn’t look very much different from foxes, like the sand fox, you can see padding around Africa today. Still, its age and anatomy indicate that it was probably one of the earliest foxes belonging to a group that subsequently proliferated through southern Africa. These foxes weren’t as carnivorous as those to the north. Their back teeth had expanded space for crushing, Geraads and coauthors note, making them scrappy little generalists that ate what they could and avoided competition with the larger, more carnivorous cats and dogs they lived alongside.
Geraads, D., Drapeau, M., Bob, R., Fleagle, J. 2015. Vulpes mathisoni, sp. nov., a new fox from the Pliocene Mursi Formation of Southern Ethiopia and its contribution to the origin of African foxesVulpes mathisoni, sp. nov., a new fox from the Pliocene Mursi Formation of Southern Ethiopia and its contribution to the origin of African foxes. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. doi: 10.1080/02724634.2014.943765