The following appeared in the December 21, 2010 edition of PhysOrg.com, an online science publication. SMU paleontologist Alisa J. Winkler is an expert on rodent and rabbit fossils
December 21, 2010
By Margaret Allen
(PhysOrg.com) — Rodents get a bad rap as vermin and pests because they seem to thrive everywhere. They have been one of the most common mammals in Africa for the past 50 million years.
From deserts to rainforests, rodents flourished in prehistoric Africa, making them a stable and plentiful source of food, says paleontologist Alisa J. Winkler, an expert on rodent and rabbit fossils. Now rodent fossils are proving their usefulness to scientists as they help shed light on human evolution.
Rodents can corroborate evidence from geology and plant and animal fossils about the ancient environments of our human ancestors and other prehistoric mammals, says Winkler, a research professor at Southern Methodist University.
"Rodents are often known in abundance, and there are many different kinds from a number of famous hominid and hominoid localities," says Winkler. "Many paleoanthropologists are very interested in the faunal and ecological context in which our own species evolved."
Rodents — rats, mice, squirrels, porcupines, gerbils and others — are the largest order of living mammals, constituting 42 percent of the total mammalian diversity worldwide. That's according to data drawn from the research literature in an analysis by Winkler and her paleontology colleagues Christiane Denys, of the Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris, and D. Margaret Avery of the Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town.
Their review documents more than 130 formally named genera in "Fossil Rodents of Africa," the first comprehensive summary and distribution analysis of Africa's fossil rodents since 1978.
The analysis is a chapter in the new 1008-page scientific reference book "Cenozoic Mammals of Africa" (University of California Press, 2010), the first comprehensive scientific review of Africa's fossil mammals in more than three decades. The book comprises 48 chapters by 64 experts, summarizing and interpreting the published fossil research to date of Africa's mammals, tectonics, geography, climate and flora of the past 65 million years.
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