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Updated 11:29 AM EDT, Tue, Jun 16, 2020

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Hippos are Relatives of Whales, New Fossils Uncover

Hippo

(Photo : REUTERS/ PETER GRESTE) A one year-old baby Hippotamus gets close to his adopted mother a giant male Aldabran tortoise at Haller Park in Mombasa.

Researchers reported the discovery of a new species, one identified by 30 million-year-old molars found in Kenya that reunites the modern hippo with its family tree.

The teeth belong to a newly identified hippo ancestor named Epirigenys lokonensis. This extinct species links the oldest known family of hippos in Africa with their earlier Asia-dwelling ancestors, researchers from France and Kenya reported.

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"We know quite well the story of whales, because lots of people are looking for fossils of whales, and we have a complete evolutionary history of them. But for the hippo, we only knew what was going on in the past 20 million years. Earlier than that, we couldn't recognize anything as a hippo," said lead study author Fabrice Lihoreau of the University of Montpellier.

The first molar was actually found in 1994 in an expedition led by Meave Leakey, but the new study's authors returned to the former African lake bed in 2007 after realizing the specimen might be the missing link they'd been seeking.

Grooves in the teeth of E. lokonensis have similar patterns to those in teeth of anthracotheres, a family of extinct relatives of hippos and whales that lived about 40 million years ago in what is now Southeast Asia.

But the enamel on E. lokonensis' teeth is thicker and the points are blunter. The shape of the premolars is also more similar to that of hippo relatives that roamed Uganda about 21 million years ago.

But this anthracothere seems to be a clear transitional link between those previously discovered and the modern hippo.

For now, the team only has teeth. These are often the last parts of a skeleton to survive. But because Lokone seems to have had an abundance of the creatures, Lihoreau and his colleagues are hopeful they'll find a complete skeleton to study soon.

The new findings were published in the journal Nature Communications.

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