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Missing Link Discovery Featured in Extreme Mammals

Puijila: A Prehistoric Walking Seal

All about an important "missing link" fossil found in the Arctic by a team from the museum.

Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature

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Alex Tirabasso © Canadian Museum of Nature

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How does a fossil animal from Canada's High Arctic make its way into an international, blockbuster that focuses on the extreme? Answer: The fossil is a "missing-link", "walking seal" scientific discovery that provides much-needed missing information about the evolution of pinnipeds (the group that includes seals, sea lions and walruses).

Until its discovery in 2007 in a 10 km-wide crater on Devon Island, Nunavut, the animal, a new genus now known as Puijila, was unknown to science. This semi-aquatic animal, which lived about 24 to 20 million years ago, had legs instead of flippers but was related to the seal group. The first bones of Puijila were discovered by an expedition led by Dr. Natalia Rybczynski, a palaeobiologist at the museum who specializes in the study of fossil mammals.

Since that amazing discovery (read the tale of luck and adventure), Natalia and various colleagues went to Devon Island each summer until 2010. On each trip, they retrieved more pieces of the skeleton, and the fossil is now 80% complete.

In April 2009, the scientific paper about Puijila was published in the prestigious journal Nature. It received considerable media coverage around the world.

Another interesting piece of the story was that Charles Darwin suggested a similar such animal in his 1859 publication On the Origin of Species. It seemed fitting that this important pinniped discovery be given the species name Puijila darwini.

But Puijila is not simply confined to a locked research lab or the pages of scientific papers, it has been recreated with the help of impressive, cutting-edge technology for all to enjoy. In the Extreme Mammals exhibition, visitors can see a reconstructed skeleton produced by specialists in the museum's own Arius3D Imaging Centre under scientific consultation. What's more, they can touch a beautiful bronze sculpture of Puijila that was specially created for the exhibit's debut in Ottawa. And, through exquisite illustrations, Puijila is artfully depicted in its habitat of long ago.

Come check out the animal that resembles an otter (but isn't)—the museum's own "missing link" and favourite pinniped: Puijila!

Extreme Mammals is on view at the Canadian Museum of Nature until November 6, 2011.