Friday, February 24, 2006

Jurassic Beaver-Otter Fossil Shows Diversity of Early Mammals

AUTHOR: John Noble Wilford

SOURCE: New York Times

COMMENTARY: Allen MacNeill (following the article)

In the conventional view, the earliest mammals were small, primitive, shrew-like creatures that did not begin to explore the world's varied environments until the dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago. But scientists are reporting today that they have uncovered fossils of a swimming, fish-eating mammal that lived in China fully 164 million years ago, well before it was thought that some mammals could have spent much of their lives in water.

The extinct species appears to have been an amalgam of animals. It had a broad, scaly tail, flat like a beaver's. Its sharp teeth seemed ideal for eating fish, like an otter's. Its likely lifestyle — burrowing in tunnels on shore and dog-paddling in water — reminds scientists of the modern platypus. Its skeleton suggests that it was about 20 inches long, from snout to the tip of its tail, about the length of a small house cat.

The surprising discovery, made in 2004 in the abundant fossil beds of Liaoning Province, China, is being reported in the journal Science by an international team led by Ji Qiang of Nanjing University. In the article, Dr. Ji and other researchers from the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences in Beijing and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh said the fossil skeleton showed that some mammals occupied more diverse ecological niches than had been suspected in the Jurassic Period, an age dominated by dinosaurs.

Thomas Martin, an authority on early mammals at Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt, said the find pushed back "the mammalian conquest of the waters by more than 100 million years" and "impressively contradicts" the conventional view.

"This exciting fossil," he wrote in a commentary accompanying the report, "is a further jigsaw puzzle piece in a series of recent discoveries, demonstrating that the diversity and early evolutionary history of mammals were much more complex than perceived less than a decade ago."

Despite similarities with some modern animals, the Jurassic mammal has no modern descendants and is not related to any existing species. The discoverers have given it the name Castorocauda lutrasimilis, Latin for "beaver-tail" and "similar to an otter".

Zhe-Xi Luo, one of the discoverers and the curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Carnegie museum, said the specimen was well preserved, unlike the surviving fragments of bone and tooth of most mammals from the dinosaur age. The skeleton is accompanied by fur and scale imprints and the suggestion of soft-tissue webbing in the hind limbs. Dr. Luo said the fur was to keep water from the animal's skin. It is the most primitive known mammal to be preserved with hair, evidence for its evolution before the appearance of more complex mammals. The scientists said the tail and limbs of the newfound specimen were well developed for aquatic life. They surmised that like the platypus, Castorocauda swam in rivers and lakes, ate aquatic animals and insects and built nests in burrows along the shore. The animal had molars specialized for feeding on small fish and small aquatic invertebrates.

"So far, it is the only semiaquatic mammal from the Jurassic," Dr. Luo said.

The skeleton was found by peasants in Liaoning, the province in northeast China that in recent years has produced several notable discoveries of mammal diversity. The semiaquatic mammal was uncovered in the same hilly country where paleontologists have collected fossils of feathered dinosaurs and two 130-million-year-old animals that did not fit the lowly image of mammals of that period. One of them, the size of an opossum, had feasted on a small dinosaur just before dying.

Jin Meng of the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, one of the discoverers of previous Liaoning mammals but who was not involved in the most recent one, said in a telephone interview that more than a dozen new mammals from that area had recently produced "real evidence to show the diversity of lifestyles and behaviors of mammals" in the age of dinosaurs.

"We have been seeing mammals at that time that were larger than a mouse or rat, some that climbed trees, and now we see some that could swim in water," Dr. Meng said.


In the outdated phylogeny of eukaryotic evolution that I was taught in high school, mammals were supposed to have diverged from the reptiles at about the same time as the birds – that is, at around the time of the extinction of the dinosaurs near the end of the Cretaceous period (~ 65 million years ago). What I didn't know then was that this picture of the linear evolution of tetrapod vertebrates – from amphibians to reptiles to birds and mammals – was entirely erroneous.

Instead, the evolution of tetrapod vertebrates looks like a bush, with amphibians and the so-called "stem reptiles" diverging in the late Paleozoic (about 250 million years ago), and ancestral mammal-like therapsids radiating during the Triassic and Jurassic periods. As the article implies, these early mammals lived alongside the much larger dinosaurs throughout the entire Mesozoic era (i.e. the "Age of Dinosaurs"). The distribution of the fossils of these Mesozoic mammals indicates that they tended to exploit habitats that reptiles don't: places and times where endothermy (generating your own body heat and retaining it with insulating hair and fur) gave the mammals an advantage over their ectothermic reptilian cousins, such as higher latitudes, elevations, and at night (i.e. nocturnality).

With the extinction of the dinosaurs following the K-T asteroid collision, the mammals radiated widely, essentially filling the ecological niches left vacant by the missing dinosaurs. This radiation, which is often emphasized in accounts of the evolution of mammals, was not the first adaptive radiation of mammals, however. As this fossil discovery indicates, there was a much earlier adaptive radiation of ancient mammals during the early Mesozoic, into ecological niches now filled by such mammals as the platypus, beaver, and otter. It's interesting to note in this context that there appear to have been relatively few small archosaurs that were adapted to the kind of habitats in which these mammals (and their Mesozoic equivalents) lived. The only exceptions were/are the crocodilians. However, nearly all fossil crocodillians from the Mesozoic era are much larger than living forms (such as Florida alligators and crocodiles), and the biogeographic ranges of the living species do not widely overlap. Beavers and otters, in particular, are rarely found in the same streams and rivers as alligators and crocodiles, and vice versa.

So, this new discovery of a Mesozoic beaver-otter doesn't contradict the emerging picture of mammalian evolution. Rather, it adds depth and detail to the story of the adaptive radiations of the mammal-like tetrapods, and integrates that story into the developing chronology of historical geology/climatology and evolutionary biogeography now being elaborated by geologists, paleontologists, and evolutionary biologists.



Location Online: New York Times

Original posting/publication date timestamp:
Published: February 24, 2006


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At 2/26/2006 01:48:00 PM, Blogger M.C. said...

I found this web site about adaptive radiations of Anole Lizards and parallel evolution in the Carribean of great interest. Why does evolution keep molding different ancestors into the same patterns? We see this same phenomena again and again from leaf morphology to butterfly pattern duplication (even among species with no intersecting ranges) to the Australian marsupial faunas convergence with various placental species.

There are other features of evolution that put into question currently accepted models of how it works.

At 4/20/2006 07:19:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you have any hypothesis about why mammals in the Mesozoic era tended to be less diverse in general?

At 4/20/2006 08:31:00 PM, Blogger Allen MacNeill said...

One hypothesis to explain the relative lack of diversity among Mesozoic mammals is that most of the niches were filled with archosaurs, rather than mammals.


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