Fossil humans cast a long shadow over the past six million years of Africa's fossil record. The public could be forgiven for thinking that paleontologists haven't found much else other than the bones of early hominins in the Miocene, Pliocene, and Pleistocene rocks of the continent, with a smattering of more-or-less elephants, pretty-much-lions, and other familiar animals in the background. (Read Evolving Eden for a remedy to this.) Still, despite the imbalance in how such finds are integrated and communicated into the larger picture of life's history, the search for our ancient relatives has yielded new, nonhuman fossil species that we might have otherwise missed. The latest in this select group is Tchadailurus adei, a sabercat recovered from a site made famous by a controversial fossil ape.

The 7 million-year-old strata of Toros Menalla, Chad were made famous by the discovery of Sahelanthropus - a fossil hominid that may or may not be close to the origin of our own human lineage. But Sahelanthropus wasn't the only beast found here. Paleontologists working the site also recovered parts of many other mammals - including up to 23 different species of carnivorans - and Tchadailurus adds another to the faunal list.

Tchadailurus wasn't very large. Paleontologist Louis de Bonis and colleagues estimate that it was about the size of a lynx. In fact, it was even small compared to the seven other cat species found at Toros Menalla - the largest of which was about the size of the lion. And this is a little strange. Eight species of cat, found together, seems a little high compared to faunas found elsewhere in the latter part of the Cenozoic.

There's more than one possible explanation for such a wealth of fossil felines. It's possible, de Bonis and colleagues write, that Toros Menalla "indicates certainly a favourable environment for this group of meat eater predators." Back in the Miocene, this place could have offered such a rich and varied environment that eight different cat species could have all carved out their own living. Then again, we only know that these cats were found in the same deposits. We know about their burial, in other words, but not whether they really lived shoulder-to-shoulder at the exact same time or represent habitat shifts, species that wandered in from elsewhere, or other quirks of life that could have upped the count in the fossil graveyard. Whatever the case, however, Toros Menalla became a treasure trove of Miocene meat-eaters, offering a look at an as yet little-known time in carnivoran history.

Limb elements of Tchadailurus. Credit: de Bonis et al 2018

Name: Tchadailurus adei

Meaning: Tchadailurus means "Chad cat", and adei means small in the local Goran language where the fossil was found.

Age: Miocene, about 7 million years ago.

Where in the world?: Toros Menalla, Chad. 

What sort of organism?: A machairodont, or saber-toothed cat.

How much of the organism’s is known?: Parts of a skull and a partial skeleton.


More Paleo Profiles: de Bonis, L., Peigne, S., Mackaye, H., Likius, A., Vignaud, P., Brunet, M. 2018. New sabre toothed Felidae (Carnivora, Mammalia) in the hominid-bearing sites of Toros Menalla (late Miocene, Chad). Geodiversitas. doi: 10.5252/geodiversitas2018v40a3

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