Update on giant fossil squirrel

Eleven years on from his announcement in March 2003 of a giant member of the Family Sciuridae (squirrels) found in a lateritic lagerstätte in the Western Ghats of Karnataka State in India (see http://geocities.yahoo.com/pusiffli/squirrels.html – note: this site may no longer be extant) Professor Pandit U. Siffli of the emeritus faculty at the Sringeri Institute of Palaeontology has sent me further news of his investigations. The clay-filled pocket within the mottled zone has proved astonishingly fruitful now that Pandit Unmer has more free time following his retirement. He and his recently graduated colleague, Dr G.B. Harm, have unearthed several more exquisite specimens of Titanosciurus sringeriensis – long-standing readers will recall that the body cavity of the child-sized type specimen of T. sringeriensis contained bones of primitive hamsters, that no doubt the squirrel had consumed, confirming Siffli’s speculation that the creature was the only known member of the Sciuridae that was an obligate carnivore. This view stemmed originally from its formidable dentition.

Laterite (credit: Paul J. Morris)

Confirmation of this astounding revelation comes from two new lines of evidence discovered by Harm – the principle excavator since Siffli became encumbered by what he has described to me as his ‘blessed game leg’. In his letter he says, ‘young Grivas Bodili has informed me in a mood of solemn gaiety that there are burrows in the lagerstätte which contain complete skeletons of hamsters in a cowering posture. There are also abundant coprolites associated with one of the more corpulent specimens of T. sringeriensis that are a rich source of tiny hamster bones and one example of a partly digested avian flight feather’. The pair now have a paper in press (Harm, G.B. & Siffli, P.U. in press 2014. A large predatory sciurid from the Kudremukh laterites, Karnataka, India: evidence from a well-preserved rodent warren. Earth and Sanitary Appliance Letters, doi:11.3319/esal55164).
It seems likely that the early squirrels and hamsters borrowed into the laterite soon after intense tropical weathering has ceased due to climatic cooling associated with the onset of glaciation in Antarctica, probably in late-Eocene times. At that stage the upper laterite must have been soft enough for early mammals to dig into it. Subsequently the palaeosol became indurated as a result of regional desiccation, allowing exquisite preservation. Exact dating by the Ar-Ar method may soon be possible, given samples containing potassium-rich authigenic minerals. The search is now surely on for similar subterranean lagerstätten in the lateritic veneers covering vast tracts of the southern continents, whose formation probably came to a close at roughly the same time as did those of South India.

Artist's impression of the Sringeri carnivorous squirrel (credit: network54.com)
Artist’s impression of T. sringeriensis (credit: network54.com)

Prof Siffli tells me he would welcome communications from other sciurid and laterite researchers at pusiffli@gmail.com

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