Most people would class the Cenozoic (the period of time spanning from 66 Ma to the present) as the Age of Mammals. Certainly the diversity of mammals exploded and the majority of modern groups evolved after the demise of the non-avian dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous. However, what a lot of people don’t realise when they think about mammals is that they have been around for a lot longer than 66 Ma. The oldest known definite mammals date to around 165 Ma but the actual origins of the group would have been some time previous to that but remains uncertain, primarily due to the fact that most early mammals are known only from isolated teeth.
Two remarkable new finds, both from the Middle – Late Jurassic Tiaojishan Formation in the Hebei Province of China, have provided new food for thought in this debate, whilst not necessarily providing any definitive answers. The two new species, described in separate papers in last week’s issue of Nature preserve not only teeth, but skull material and post-cranial elements such as vertebrae, limb bones and even fur. Both species belong to an extinct group of mammals known as the haramiyids.
The first new species, Arboroharamiya jenkinsi, described by Zheng et al., was an omnivore or herbivore that had several adaptations for living in trees, such as elongated digits. The morphology of its caudal (tail) vertebrae also hints at it possessing a prehensile tail. It has been dated to 160 Ma.
The second new species, Megaconus mammmaliaformis, described by Zhou et al., was herbivore that lived on the ground, with its morphology indicating it had an ambulatory (walking) gait similar to that of a modern day armadillo. Megaconus was more primitive than Arboroharamiya and is also slightly older, dating to around 164 – 165 Ma.
Now, so far so good. But where these two studies provide conflicting opinions about the early mammal evolution is in their phylogenetic analyses. The Zheng et al. paper groups Arboroharamiya and all other haramiyids as the sister group to the multituberculates within Mammalia. This puts the origin of mammals at around 215 Ma, in the Late Triassic, much older than most palaeontologists would estimate, but in agreement with molecular estimates. The Zhou et al. paper on the other hand, placed Megaconus and all other haramiyids outside of Mammalia, meaning they are not closely related to multituberculates and also estimates the origin of mammals at around 180 Ma, a figure more in line with palaeontologists expectations given what fossils are currently known.
So, which tree is the correct one? Well, neither probably. There are several factors why this will most likely turn out to be the case. One is that these two phylogenies don’t contain the other new species, a potential next move for the authors of these two papers is to combine their data a produce a phylogeny with both new taxa to see where the haramiyids place. Another is that although these fossils are relatively well preserved, there is still a lot of anatomical and morphological data missing from them, with Arboroharamiya possessing less than a quarter of the 436 characters used in the Zheng et al. study and Megaconus possessing less than half of the 475 characters used in the Zhou et al. study. A third factor is that whilst these two new taxa might be relatively well preserved, the majority of other early mammal taxa are poorly preserved or are only known from teeth. More fossils of the quality of these two new specimens would help resolve the origin of the mammals.
Finally, there is also a little lesson to be learnt here about cladistics, the method by which phylogenies are now generated. Whilst this method is undoubtedly the best and most powerful tool we possess for distinguishing relationships between species at present, there are many different cladistic techniques that scientists can employ, and it will often depend which technique is used as to which phylogeny they end up obtaining. So don’t always accept the phylogenetic position of taxa just because there’s a phylogeny showing it that way, try to look at what methods they’ve used to obtain their results. Remember, good scientists will question everything!
Cifelli, R. L. & Davis, B. M. 2013. Jurassic fossils and mammalian antiquity. Nature 500, 160–161.
Zheng, X., Bi, S., Wang, X. & Meng, J. 2013. A new arboreal haramiyid shows the diversity of crown mammals in the Jurassic period. Nature 500, 199–202.
Zhou, C.-F., Wu, S., Martin, T. & Luo, Z.-X. 2013. A Jurassic mammaliaform and the earliest mammalian evolutionary adaptations. Nature 500, 163–167.