Monday, December 11, 2017

Nesophontes: The Discovery of the first Greater Antillean Island Slayer

Nesophontes are a small group of shrew-like mammals with a very primitive past that reaches as far back as the Cretaceous - when the dinosaurs roamed this planet. We owe its discovery to Harold H. Anthony, one of the most proliferous pioneers of Caribbean vertebrate paleontology.

Original illustration of the type description of Nesophontes edithae H. E. Anthony 1916

The genus Nesophontes is today grouped within the Eulipotyphla order. This is a group of basal placental mammals that are today considered ancestrally associated to Solenodon and other North American extinct shrew-like micromammals, but surprisingly, not to the African tenrecs.  They were small, likely venomous, nocturnal and semi-fossorial mammals endemic to the Great Antilles, where they had a widespread distribution, with the interesting exception of The Bahamas and Jamaica.

Solenodon paradoxus from Hispaniola at the Mammalogy collection of the AMNH

By 1915, H. E. Anthony had a hint of the existence of Nesophontes from fossils found in the island of Puerto Rico. Dr. Franz Boas, the German-American father of modern anthropology, had sent material from his expedition in Puerto Rico to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City (AMNH) that same year. Anthony worked as a paleontologist there, and from Boas's material he extracted the first incomplete specimens of Nesophontes. But these were not enough to describe a new species.

Left: Franz Boas, German American Anthropologist, circa 1916. Right: Harold H. Anthony, circa 1930s.

In fact, it was Dr. Anthony's wife, Edith I. Anthony, who on July 19, 1916, discovered the first undoubtable evidence of the existence of this peculiar mammal in Cueva Clara, near Morovis, Puerto Rico. Anthony, in honor of its wife, named the type species Nesophontes edithae.

Type specimen of Nesophontes edithae AMNH 14174, collected by Mrs. Anthony in 1916

The study of Nesophontes is forever tied to the efforts of Anthony, the discovery of his wife and the material sent by Franz Boas. Gerritt S. Miller and Glover M. Allen, in addition, played a role too in the further discovery and study of these peculiar extinct mammals. In 1919, Anthony described a new species, Nesophontes longirostris, this time from a cave deposit in Daiquiri, southeastern Cuba.

H. E. Anthony would continue to work for the AMNH until the 1960's as one of the museum's most respected mammalogists, paleontologists, and curators.

Please stay tuned for an upcoming post on Solendon!

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