Ancient Mammal Thrills Paleontologists
By Gary Gerhardt
Rocky Mountain News
04/04/05 8:27 AM PT
Popeye is the only mammal of its kind ever found, says Dr. Zhe- Xi Luo, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. The small, powerful mammal evolved highly specialized techniques for feasting on termites.
An amateur paleontologist hunting for fossils in a quarry near his home in Grand Junction, Colo., has found something no one had ever seen before.
G.W. "Wally" Windscheffel, 77, a retired Navy master chief and electrical contractor with a passion for writing and paleontology, discovered the fossil remains of a termite-eating mammal that lived in Colorado 150 million years ago.
The Jurassic-era creature was found in a clump of bentonite near Fruita, west of Grand Junction.
Windscheffel's discovery, reported this week in the journal Science, was formally named Fruitafossor windscheffeli -- "Fruita" for where it was found; "fossor," which is Latin for digger; and "windscheffeli" in honor of its discoverer.
The small, powerful mammal evolved highly specialized techniques for feasting on termites, according to the Science report.
It had hollow teeth lacking enamel, much like today's armadillos, although it lived more than a million years before the appearance of the armadillo.
Fruitafossor windscheffeli had such strong forearms, it is nicknamed "Popeye" for the cartoon character.
Popeye is the only mammal of its kind ever found, says Dr. Zhe- Xi Luo, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh.
"This is a new lineage in that great diversification back in Jurassic, but it has no relatives in modern mammals," Luo said.
Popeye's kin probably met an evolutionary dead-end sometime in the latter stages of the Jurassic era 145 million years ago, Luo said.
Windscheffel, who was born in Denver but grew up in Kansas, returned to Colorado in 1985 on a trip with the Earthwatch Institute and became friends with George Callison, of the Museum of Western Colorado in Grand Junction.
Windscheffel now lives 12 minutes from the quarry at Fruita, a town of 6,400 residents west of Grand Junction known for mountain biking, its Mike the Headless Chicken Festival, and Dinosaur Days.
"I found Popeye when I noticed a black spot on a fist-sized rock that I knew was a bone. I dug up the rock and put it in a box," Windscheffel said.
The fossil languished for several months in his home laboratory before he started working on it.
"As soon as I put it under the microscope, I saw it was a jaw with teeth, which is very unusual," he said.
"I found another bone on the other end of the rock that was a tailbone and wondered if this could be a complete fossil in the rock, a rarity beyond belief."
It took a couple years of careful, tedious work to extract the fossil while looking through a microscope and picking away the rock a particle at a time with medical needles.
When Windscheffel finally freed the enormous arms and shoulders, he updated Callison, who called Luo, who flew to Grand Junction with a colleague, Dr. John Wible.
"We were taken to Wally's home and he showed us a fossil that we knew was something exceptional. But we were very puzzled about its anatomical structure," Luo said.
"Most fossils are only fragments, a piece of leg or something. This one was remarkable in the fact that it was about 40 percent intact, a very complete skeleton."
Luo and his associates eventually ruled out all other mammals and declared Popeye unique.
"We were fascinated that the teeth were like a modern armadillo, an animal that started evolving about 60 million years ago, but the jaw was different.
"The jaw in Popeye was very similar to the contemporary Jurassic mammals," Luo said.
Since Popeye was found on Bureau of Land Management property, federal policy states that the fossil goes to the museum that had the permit where it was found.