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Swimming beaver-like mammal

Small mammals called triconodonts lived 200 million years in Liaoning. Triconodonts ranged in size from the size of a small lizard to a cat and endured for 100 million years. Triconodont fossil have been found in other places. The fossils found in Liaoning were the first complete skeletons.

A 195-million-year-old creature, the size of a paper clip, found in 1985 in the Yunnan province, is believed to be a missing link between reptiles and mammals. It has space in its skull for a relatively large brain and a jaw with reptile-like and mammal-like features.

In February 2006, a team lead by Zhe-Xi Luo of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History announced the discovery of a swimming, fish-eating, beaver-like creature that lived 164 million years at the Daohuguo site in Inner Mongolia. The mammal had a flat-scaly tail like a beaver and seal-like teeth and was called “Castorocaunda lutrasimilis”. This mammal and others found in China debunked the conventional view that dinosaur-age mammals were timid shrew-like creatures that slinked around in the shadows and became strong and powerful animals only after a dinosaur-killing asteroid hit the earth.

In December 2006, scientists announced the discovery of a 125-million-year-old mammal, “volaticotherium antiquius” that look remarkably like a modern flying squirrel. Discovered the Daohuguo site in Inner Mongolia, the same place the beaver-like mammal was discovered, it had webbing between its legs that it could use to sail through the trees. It was the earliest known example of gliding fight among mammals and showed that mammals were more sophisticated than previous thought and were experimenting with flight around the same time dinosaurs were. Before the discovery the earliest evidence of gliding mammals was among animals that lived 30 million years ago.

“Repenomanus robustus” was a cat-size, weasel-like mammal with large pointy teeth and powerful jaws that fed on small dinosaurs. One 130-million-year-old fossil specimen was found with the remains of a small beaked dinosaur called a Psittacosaurus in its stomach. The dinosaur was a juvenile. The remains suggest it was wolfed down in chunks rather than chewed. It is not known whether “Repenomanus robustus” hunted the dinosaur or scavenged it, but it had strong legs and sharp teeth and could have easily been a hunter.

“Repenomanus giganticus” was a similar creature whose fossils were also found in Liaoning. The largest dinosaur-age mammal every discovered, is weighed about 14 kilograms and was about a meter in length, making it about the size of a badger or a mid-size dog or about twice the size of Repenomanus robustus. Presumably it fed on small dinosaurs too.

Liaoning has also yielded a rat-size mammal known as “Gobicinodon zofiae” that lived 125 million years ago. The well-preserved fossil shows evidence of fur and placental birth. The creatures appears to have fed on insects and was capable of climbing trees.

Stone-Age-Era Mammals from China

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130-million-year-old mammals found in China
In ancient times parts of China were inhabited by giant orangutan-like apes, ancient hoses, saber toothed tigers, giant hyenas, mastodons, elephants, and ancestors of giant pandas.

The southeast side of Tianzhushan is Qianshan Basin, in Anhui controlled by Tan-Lu Fault Zone. The western basin is Dabieshan high mountainous area formed by ancient metamorphic rocks, the southeast side is strip-shaped low mountains formed by Paleozoic and Mesozoic stratums, and the inner basin developed a set of red detrital rocks. More than 50 species of mammalian and reptile fossils that are all mid-late Paleocene fossils were discovered in more than 50 Paleocene fossil sites, with a history of 60 million years. Newly found fossils which have been given names by experts are: Heomys orientalis, Anhuichelys tsienshanensis, Archaeolambda tabiensis, Sinostylops promissus, Diacronus wanghuensis, Obtususdon hanhuaensis, Mimotona wana, Agama sinensis, Anictops tabiepedis, etc, and Wanshuina lii found in 1991 is the first bird fossil in the stratum of Paleocene period. There is a special Paleocene fossil exhibition room in Qianshan County. Tianzhushan is internationally recognized as the most important place of Paleocene vertebrate fossils and the birthplace of rodents. [Source: National Commission of the People's Republic of China for UNESCO]

Prehistoric Giant Apes and Tibetan Wooly Rhinos

The largest primate ever was a Pleistocene ape that lived in southern China and Vietnam and had inch-wide teeth and is thought to have subsisted, like pandas, mainly on bamboo. A gigantic ape, standing over three meters (10 feet) tall and weighing up to 545 kilograms (1,200 pounds) lived roughly 2 million years ago to 300,000 years ago in Southeast Asia and China. This animal, Gigantopithecus blackii, was the largest primate ever. It may have co-existed with early homo species but unlikely lived at the same time modern men (homo sapiens). See Gigantopithecus Under PRIMATES — MONKEYS, MACAQUES, GIBBONS, AND LORISES—IN CHINA

Gigantopitjecus may lived as recently as 100,000 years ago, a time when humans were also thought to have inhabited the region. Jack Rink, a Canadian palaeontologist from McMaster University who is studying the creature, told the Times of London, “Probably the creature lived in the caves and fed in bamboo forests, while people were living lower in river valleys. It is quite likely that humans came face to face with the ape.”

Some scientists think Tibet the source of Ice Age mammals? Stephanie Pappas wrote in LiveScience: “High on the Tibetan Plateau, paleontologists have uncovered the skull of a previously unknown species of ancient rhino, a woolly furred animal that came equipped with a built-in snow shovel on its face. This curiosity, a flat, paddle-like horn that would have allowed it to brush away snow and find vegetation beneath, suggests the woolly rhinoceros was well-adapted for a cold, icy life in the Himalayas about 1 million years before the Ice Age. Those adaptations may have left the rhino perfectly poised to spread across Asia when global temperatures plummeted, ushering in the Ice Age. "We think that the Tibetan Plateau may be a cradle for the origins of some of the Ice Age giants," said study author Xiaoming Wang, a curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. Such large, furry mammals ruled the world during Earth's cold snap from 2.6 million to about 12,000 years ago. "It just happens to have the right environment to basically let animals acclimate themselves and be ready for the Ice Age cold." [Source: Stephanie Pappas, LiveScience, September 2, 2011; See Woolly Rhino Originated From Tibet? Under WOOLLY RHINOS AND CAVE BEARS ]

Oldest Big Cat Fossil Found in Tibet

Panthera blytheae

In November 2013, scientists announced they had discovered the oldest big cat fossils ever found — from a previously unknown species "similar to a snow leopard" — in the Himalayas in Tibet. The skull fragments of the newly-named Panthera blytheae have been dated between 4.1 and 5.95 million years old. The discovery, described by US and Chinese palaeontologists in an article published in the Royal Society journal Proceedings B supports the theory that big cats evolved in central Asia — not Africa — and spread outward. [Source: James Morgan, BBC, November 11, 2013]

The BBC reported: The scientists “used both anatomical and DNA data to determine that the skulls belonged to an extinct big cat, whose territory appears to overlap many of the species we know today. "This cat is a sister of living snow leopards — it has a broad forehead and a short face. But it's a little smaller — the size of clouded leopards," lead author Dr. Jack Tseng of the University of Southern California said. “This ties up a lot of questions we had on how big cats evolved and spread throughout the world>

“"Biologists had hypothesised that big cats originated in Asia. But there was a division between the DNA data and the fossil record." “The so-called "big cats" — the Pantherinae subfamily — includes lions, jaguars, tigers, leopards, snow leopards, and clouded leopards. DNA evidence suggests they diverged from their cousins the Felinae — which includes cougars, lynxes, and domestic cats — about 6.37 million years ago. But the earliest fossils previously found were just 3.6 million years old — tooth fragments uncovered at Laetoli in Tanzania, the famous hominin site excavated by Mary Leakey in the 1970s. Fossil skull of Panthera blytheae It is rare for such an ancient carnivore fossil to be so well preserved

“The new fossils were dug up on an expedition in 2010 in the remote Zanda Basin in southwestern Tibet, by a team including Dr Tseng and his wife Juan Liu — a fellow palaeontologist. They found over 100 bones deposited by a river eroding out of a cliff, including the crushed — but largely complete — remains of a big cat skull. "We were very surprised to find a cat fossil in that basin," Dr Tseng told BBC News. "Usually we find antelopes and rhinos, but this site was special. We found multiple carnivores — badgers, weasels and foxes."

“Among the bones were seven skull fragments, belonging to at least three individual cats, including one nearly complete skull. The fragments were dated using magnetostratigraphy — which relies on historical reversals in the Earth's magnetic field recorded in layers of rock.

Giant Rhino Species Found in Gansu: Among Largest Mammals Ever

In June 2021, researchers said they found a giant, new 26.5-million-year-old rhinoceros species — Paraceratherium linxiaense — in Gansu Province on the edge of northeastern Tibetan Plateau that is among largest mammals ever to walk the earth. The findings was published by a team led by Tao Deng, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, in the journal Communications Biology. The skulls and legs of a giant rhino are longer than those of all reported land mammals. [Source: Sudiksha Kochi, USA TODAY, June 18, 2021]

Paraceratherium transouralicum, different than the species described here

USA TODAY reportedl: “Researchers uncovered a completely preserved skull of the new species, which is said to have a deeper nasal cavity than other giant rhinoceros species. It also has a slender skull, short nose trunk and long neck. “"What's extraordinary about this particular thing is that it's a wonderfully preserved fossil, so it tells us a lot about the anatomy of the individual group," said Lawrence Flynn, a co-author of the study.

“The Paraceratherium linxiaense had a body weight of 24 tons, similar to the total weight of four large African elephants or eight white rhinos, according to Deng. It had a shoulder height of about 16 feet and a body length of about 26 feet. Its head could reach a height of about 23 feet to browse leaves of tree tops.

“The giant rhino populated Asia in areas including Pakistan, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan, and the genus Paraceratherium was the most widely distributed form of the giant rhino, according to researchers. Flynn says the most surprising part of the fossil discovery was that it revealed that vegetation productivity was high in China, Pakistan and other areas in Asia where these rhinos and other mammalian creatures lived. "To support an animal that size, there must have been a lot of vegetation," Flynn said. "What we see in terms of vegetation globally today is not an accurate picture of what was in the past because there was higher vegetation productivity in the past."

Image Sources: Chinese Academy of Sciences ; Wikimedia Commons, Panthera blytheae from

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated July 2022

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