Old Fossil Gains New Identity

The curiosity of one paleontology student from the University of Oregon led to the reclassifying of a 40 million year old fossil.  

The fossil in question is a jawbone, found in the John Day Fossil Beds northeast of Bend. It sat in the University of Oregon’s Museum of Natural and Cultural History for 50 years before a class research project brought it before Selina Robinson, a paleontology student at UO.   

Robinson’s task was to identify the fossil as what previous paleontologists previously thought it was, a bear-like creature called Hemipsalodon. But she stuck to her belief that the fossil was misidentified entirely. Research now shows the jawbone belongs to Harpagolestes, an animal that more closely resembles a pig crossed with a hyena.   

“Imagine a pig that specializes in eating only bones,” said Nicholas Famoso, chief of paleontology at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.  

It is the first fossil of a mammal of this kind found in the Pacific Northwest.  

Famoso said Robinson’s discovery warrants a reexamination of their current collection, as new technology allows researchers to more closely examine these fossils without damaging them. The team which identified the jawbone did so using a CT machine at a Eugene hospital.  

By Ian MacRonald