Reconstruction: A prehistoric tapir (left) hangs out with the thumb-sized apparent ancestor of the hedgehog (foreground).

(Photo: Courtesy University of Colorado Boulder)
African pygmy hedgehogs have become quite the rage as pets in recent years. Pictures online show the small, teddybear-like creatures lounging on pillows, taking baths in sinks and scrunching up their whiskered faces.

As it turns out, the smallest of hedgehogs may have waddled about the Earth millions of years ago.

University of Colorado Boulder paleontologist Jaelyn Eberle and a team of researchers have discovered the fossilized fragments of a jawbone that appears to belong to a long lost ancestor of the modern-day hedgehog.

The little creature, dubbed “Silvacola acares,” or “tiny forest dweller,” lived in what used to be a cool rainforest, where spruce and palm trees coexisted, in northern British Columbia.

Researchers also discovered the remains of a tapir, a creature that looks like a pig with an elongated snout.

Beyond being a relic of something that was probably quite cute, the findings are significant because there had been a geographical gap in mammal remains from the Eocene period, about 56-34 million years ago. Prior to the finding of the hedgehog bone fragments, mammal remains from that period were found in Colorado and Wyoming and, traveling far north, not again until the Arctic.

The hedgehog was about two inches long, about the size of a human thumb. Living on the site of an ancient lake bed some 52 million years ago, it likely feasted on insects, plants and seeds, Eberle says.

In turn, the hedgehog was likely a bite-sized snack for predators. It’s just “speculation,” Eberle says, but the hedgehog fossil may have been pooped out or spit up by a bird.

“That has been suggested by some scientists who have looked at this site,” she says.

The findings were published this month in the “Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.”  Eberle’s co-authors include researcher Natalia Rybczynski of the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, Ontario, and Professor David Greenwood of Brandon University in Brandon, Manitoba.

The discovery was made in 2009 by accident by a student working with Greenwood to collect insect and plant fossils. That student, Meghan Gilbert, had previously worked on mammal digs in Canada and noticed the tiny jaw and set of teeth, Greenwood says. The tapir jaw was also found by chance, in 2011.

Eberle is optimistic that the region could yield further findings.

“I think it holds promise for more discoveries,” she says, adding even, perhaps, primate remains.