New research offers detail, insight into deep-time evolution of animal life on islands

KU News Headlines

LAWRENCE — Islands have been vital laboratories for advancing evolutionary theory since the pioneering work of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace in the 19th century. 

Now, a new paper appearing in PLOS ONE from an international team of investigators describes two new fossil relatives of marsupials that shed light on how a unique island ecosystem evolved some 43 million years ago during the Eocene.

“Evolution in many ways is easier to study in an island context than on a large continent like North America because it’s a simpler ecosystem,” said co-author K. Christopher Beard, Distinguished Foundation Professor of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the University of Kansas and senior curator with KU’s Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum. “Evolutionary biologists have been focusing on islands ever since Darwin and Wallace independently formulated their ideas about evolution based on their observations of plants and animals living on the Galapagos and the Malay archipelago, which is modern Indonesia.”

However, Beard said a poor fossil record for animals living on islands through “deep time,” or across a multimillion-year time frame, has hampered our understanding of exactly how island ecosystems are assembled. The new paper describes two new fossil species, identified from their teeth, that inhabited the Pontide region of modern-day north-central Turkey.

During the Eocene, the Pontide region was an island in a larger version of the modern Mediterranean Sea called Tethys. At that time, Africa and Eurasia were not connected as they are today in the Middle East, but Africa was drifting northward due to plate tectonics and would eventually collide with Eurasia millions of years later. The Pontide region was sandwiched between these converging continents. This geological setting makes the Pontide region similar to the island of Sulawesi in the Indonesian archipelago, which is similarly sandwiched between the converging continents of Asia and Australia.

“No other ecosystem on the face of …

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