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A miniature hedgehog smaller than a mouse and a pint-sized tapir are the first mammals ever found at a fossil site in British Columbia known for exquisitely preserved plants, insects and fish.

The new fossils date back about 50 million to 53 million years ago, to the warm Eocene Epoch, when British Columbia's climate was similar to that of Portland, Oregon, today. These are the first two mammals ever found at the dig site in Driftwood Canyon Provincial Park, and they fill in a gap the size of Canada.

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"We know a lot about this time interval in Wyoming and Colorado. We know a bit about it in the high Arctic," said study researcher Jaelyn Eberle, the curator of fossil vertebrates at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History. "But we know nothing about what was going on in between."

Image: An artist's rendering shows Silvacola acares, an ancient relative of modern tapirs, with the small proto-hedgehog in foreground
An artist's reconstruction shows a newfound tapiroid drinking in the shallows of an Eocene lake in British Columbia, with the small, newly identified, proto-hedgehog in the foreground.Handout / Reuters

Scientists made this gap-filling discovery by accident. Study researcher David Greenwood of Brandon University in Manitoba and his colleagues were quarrying for plant fossils in the lakebed shales of Driftwood Canyon Provincial Park, when a student cracked open a rock and found a miniscule bone inside. [ See Images of the New Hedgehog & Tapir Fossils ]

The bone turned out to be a partial jaw and some teeth belonging to a previously unknown species of hedgehog, dubbed Silvacola acares, from the words for "tiny forest dweller" in Greek and Latin.

This little hedgehog would have been only about 2 inches (5 centimeters) long, smaller than a house mouse. Its molars were a mere millimeter (0.04 inches) long, so small that paleontologists declined to chip the animal's tiny jaw from the rock surrounding it. Instead, the study researchers sent the whole hunk to Penn State University to be scanned with high-resolution computed tomography (CT), a technique that yields virtual slices of the interior of an object.

The tapir was equally surprising. Greenwood and his colleagues found it in coal-rich rock beds in the park, the site of a swampy spot in the Eocene and a rare place to find vertebrate fossils.

The researchers reported their findings Tuesday (July 8) in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

— Stephanie Pappas, Live Science

This is a condensed version of a report from Live Science. Read the full report. Follow Stephanie Pappas on Twitter and Google+. Follow us @livescience, Facebook & Google+.

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