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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — About 185 million years ago, a hairy, beagle-size animal celebrated motherhood by having 38 babies in the same clutch, according to a new study of the skeletal remains of both mama and babes.
The animal, known as Kayentatherium wellesi, wasn't quite a mammal, but rather a cynodont, a mammal relative that lived during the Jurassic period. And the prodigious number of babies she had is more than twice the average litter size of any mammal living today, meaning that K. wellesi reproduced more like a reptile, the researchers said.
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The discovery of the mother and her 38 offspring is extraordinarily rare, because these are the only known babies of a mammal precursor on record, the researchers said. Even though no eggshells were found at the site, the young were likely still developing inside eggs or had just hatched when they met their untimely deaths, according to the study, which was published online Aug. 29 in the journal Nature and presented here Oct. 18 at the 78th annual Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting.
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"These babies are from a really important point in the evolutionary tree," study lead researcher Eva Hoffman, a graduate student of geosciences at the University of Texas, said in a statement. "They had a lot of features similar to modern mammals, features that are relevant in understanding mammalian evolution."
The fossils were discovered more than 18 years ago in the early Jurassic Kayenta Formation of northeastern Arizona by study co-researcher Timothy Rowe, a professor of geoscience at the University of Texas. At first, Rowe thought the rock chunk he had excavated contained a single specimen. It wasn't until Sebastian Egberts, a former graduate student and fossil preparator at the University of Texas, began unpacking the slab in 2009 that he noticed a...
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