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Katharina Bastl wins Academy of Sciences Young Scientist Prize

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(Wien, 01 Februaray 2017) Katharina Bastl, biologist at MedUni Vienna, has been awarded the Austrian Academy of Sciences Young Scientist Prize. The researcher receives the Palaeobiology Prize for her research into the biology of the hyaenodon species.

In her three papers, Katharina Bastl investigated the development and way of life of an extinct form of predator. This involved working with fossils such as teeth and bones as parts of the puzzle, to provide a better understanding of the development, way of life and relationship of these animals.

It does not always have to be high-tech. For example, x-ray images of jaw bones and teeth can provide information about the stage of development of the dead animal. Like humans, hyaenodon, so named because of its apparent similarity to today's hyenas, to which it is not related, however, also had milk teeth. The sequence of eruption of certain milk teeth provides information about the relationship in the group, since such characteristics only change slowly. The milk teeth of certain European species of hyaenodon look different from those of Asiatic or North American species. This points to the existence of an independent European line of hyaenodon.

Bild: ÖAW
Katharina Bastl and Georg Brasseur, president of the division of mathematics and the natural sciences

Such x-ray images also illustrate the complete process of the changeover to secondary dentition, from the youngest known stage to the adult animal. This has now been described for the European and the American hyaenodon. This means that, for the very first time, the complete development path and sequence of tooth eruption for both the upper and lower jaws are known and backed up by finds.

The finds from Europe, both previously described and new finds, were processed and regions that provide a lot of information about evolution, such as the jaw, were scanned using computer tomography, the status of secondary dentition determined and micro-abrasions to the teeth evaluated to determine their ecological significance. By comparing them with finds from North America and Asia, it was possible to analyse them in terms of ecology and relationship and to classify them.

In Europe, the species was primarily represented by hyaenodons of fox-like size. The oldest finds from this group are documented from Asia. Since, at that time, Europe and Asia were still separated by a strip of sea (Turgai Strait), the theory was that these forms came to North America and from there on to Europe. However, the investigations, especially of the secondary dentition and milk teeth, point to independent development of the European species of hyaenodon, because their development followed a different course from that of the American species.

Hence, secondary dentition as an indicator of development lines provides extra information about migration routes. This indicates that Asiatic forms came to Europe, where they developed independently. This therefore contradicts the North America theory.

Bild: Katharina Bastl
Skull and lower jaw with dentition of Hyaenodon (Copyright: Katharina Bastl)

140 kg "hyenas"
However, large forms of predators were also found in Europe: Kerberos, the largest terrestrial predator of its time around 40 million years ago, was the first to be described and is ecologically comparable with the spotted hyenas of today.  

Kerberos, named after Cerberus, the mythical dog guarding the underworld, was the largest predator of its time in Europe. It lived approximately 40 million years ago and could have weighed up to 140 kg. The remains of teeth and bones paint a picture of a predator with a predilection for crunching bones and powerful head musculature that lived on land and had plantigrade locomotion. From an ecological perspective, Kerberos would have filled the niche occupied by today's spotted hyena.

About Katharina Bastl
Katharina Bastl is a graduate biologist (University of Vienna) and has worked at the Austrian Pollen Monitoring Service at MedUni Vienna since 2012. She has been a university assistant since 2013. In 2012, she was awarded the Tilly Edinger Prize (Palaeontology Society) and the Award of Excellence (Federal Ministry of Science and Research). In July 2013, she successfully attended the 11th European Course on Basic Aerobiology. In November 2014, she won the Siegfried Jäger scholarship (EAS EAN Meeting in Vienna) and in August 2015 she successfully attended the 9th Advanced Course of Aerobiology.