Four million years ago, during an age known as the Lower Pliocene, Teruel It was an area more similar to the African savannah than to the landscape that we can see with our eyes today. There, long before humans made their appearance, the ‘great-great-grandparents’ of horses, antelopes or modern giraffes roamed free. His story was buried and, now, a group of researchers from the Teruel-Dinópolis Paleontological Complex Foundation and from National Museum of Natural Sciences-CSIC they strive to bring to light that prehistoric life from one of the richest sites in the country. And, just a week after starting work on this campaign, they have already revealed some interesting surprises.
The team focuses on a deposit of prehistoric mammals known as Glory 4 (one of the most important of the Neogene Trench of Alfambra-Teruel), a stone’s throw from the famous cultural and scientific park Dinopolis, a garden of dinosaur fossils. But, apart from the thousands of bones of those giants, paleontologists have found dozens of remains of mammals (such as antelopes, gazelles, hyenas, mice or bats), invertebrates of the past (such as ammonites), pollen or substrate that can provide large clues to what the world was like four million years ago. And, at that time, Teruel was a sedimentary basin that met the ideal conditions to preserve the traces of all that life.
“It is a happy coincidence that for millions of years this area was an environment conducive to the fossilization of all those remains that today form a huge record,” he explains to ABC Eduardo Espílez, paleontologist of the Dinópolis Foundation and co-director of the excavation and who has been working in the area for more than two decades, whose paleontological potential It was discovered in 1978 and was excavated in the eighties, although today it already has 60 deposits discovered only of mammals. “Everything we have discovered in recent years has grown exponentially.”
A giraffe similar to its current ‘cousins’
Only in the current 2021 campaign have important remains have been found, such as several teeth of Hipparion (a primitive horse that has three fingers, instead of one of its more modern relatives), a skull of a medium-sized antelope, and a jawbone of a small hyena of the genus Plioviverrops. However, what has most attracted the attention of paleontologists has been a astragalo and one tibia of a primitive giraffe which, after analysis, promises to offer many of the keys to the life of large mammals in the area four million years ago.
«It is inevitable to think of animals with immense and elongated necks, but this specimen was more similar to the okapi, the current ‘cousins’ of giraffes, with a somewhat shorter throat. Even so, preliminary analyzes of the remains found suggest that this animal it measured four meters to the horn, and about two and a half to the cross», Says Espílez.
Most of the fossils found in La Gloria 4 are from hervíboros, which further supports the theory that surely the area had then seasonal lakes in which these animals went to drink and were surprised by some predator. “But it could also be a flood caused by a great storm, because all the accumulation of remains was instantaneous, from the same time, “explains the paleontologist, who is cautious until later analyzes reveal the true history of that fauna, of which they have been found up to 41 species to date.
As for the ‘king’ of that food chain, the most fearsome predator in Teruel from 4 million years ago, there is still no fossil record. “At that time big cats, like saber teeth, dominated; and there should be remains, but, unfortunately, so far we have not found any bones, “says Espílez, who emphasizes the youth of the excavations – the team first arrived at La Gloria 4 in the 2016 campaign. “The work that remains is abysmal. We continually find signs of new deposits. As I always say, in these places there is work for several generations of paleontologists.