x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Fossils of extinct rat found in Abu Dhabi

The proto-hummus dango, which resembles a modern cane rat, was so named because of its small, round yellow teeth.

The tooth that gave away the proto-hummus dango’s long secret existence is the one in the top middle of the dirham coin, above. Courtesy Faysal Bibi
The tooth that gave away the proto-hummus dango’s long secret existence is the one in the top middle of the dirham coin, above. Courtesy Faysal Bibi

DUBAI // Fossils of a long-extinct breed of cane rat have been found in Abu Dhabi and the creature has been named after a local chickpea dish called dango.

The animal was named proto-hummus dango because of its small, round, yellow teeth. It is the first time evidence of its existence has been found.

“The small teeth look just like chickpeas do when you cook them and they get slightly squished,” said Mark Beech, coastal heritage and palaeontology manager of historic environment at Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority.

The teeth of the dango rat were found in the Western Region in an area palaeontologists call the Baynunah Formation.

The species bears a close resemblance to the contemporary African cane rat except for the teeth, suggesting a different diet.

It existed six to eight million years ago in the UAE, along with other animals including horses, hippos, crocodiles, giraffes and elephants.

Back then, the country was quite different, with several huge rivers, said Brian Kraatz, an assistant professor at California’s Western University of Health Sciences.

“Given that cane rats today live in wet, marsh conditions, the presence of this animal in the Baynunah fauna is important as it supports the notion that the Baynunah animals lived in conditions that were more wet and hospitable than what we see in the area today,” Dr Kraatz said.

He believes the proto-hummus dango may have been an evolutionary missing link between a much older species in Africa and Pakistan and the modern cane rat.

Results of a study to identify the fossil, carried out by Faysal Bibi of the American Museum of Natural History and Andrew Hill of Yale University, were published last month in the science journal Naturwissenschaften.

Dr Beech was responsible for the excavation that led to the discovery. He said that, over years of digging at the Baynunah Formation, he had found fossils as large as 2.5-metre-long elephant tusks, and that there was a risk that fragments of the rat’s teeth, measuring no more than 2 millimetres, would go unnoticed.

“They’re very tiny – they are less than half the size of your fingernail,” he said. “We spent hundreds and hundreds of hours sifting sand across the coast to recover these fragments.

“It’s quite rare to find such tiny teeth in the first place and it’s quite rare that they belong to a unique species.”

To ensure efficient excavation, the desert sands of the Baynunah area were divided up in a grid and excavated section by section.
“You had to know where the sand you were excavating was coming from,” said Dr Beech.

“People sometimes don’t appreciate that palaeontology is a very painstaking procedure. In order to find that one superb fossil, it may require hundreds of hours behind the scenes.

“Of course you find exciting things but the secret behind science is painstaking methodology, patience and hard work. You get hot, dirty and sweaty.”

So far, two other previously unknown species have been found in fossilised form in the Baynunah area – a gerbil named Abudhabia baununensis and a primitive, three-toed horse known as Hipparion abudhabiense.

Dr Beech said the gerbil was interesting because although it was named after the UAE capital, it was later found in Pakistan and China.

The rat teeth were found in 2011 and it took two years of taxonomy research to identify both the family of the animal and double check similar findings.

“The UAE had a whole range of interesting animals that are now extinct,” he said.

“It shows that the UAE was in a very strategic location, and the fossils found here tell us a great deal about the evolutionary steps in a number of species.”

mcroucher@thenational.ae