Fossil of hairy, squirrel-sized creature sheds light on evolution of earliest mammals
Kevin Jiany (USA)
It appears that a 165myr-old omnivore may have had an armadillo-like gait. A newly discovered fossil has revealed the evolutionary adaptations of a 165myr-old proto-mammal, providing evidence that traits such as hair and fur originated well before the rise of the first true mammals. University of Chicago scientists have described the biological features of this ancient mammalian relative, named Megaconus mammaliaformis, in the August 2013 issue of Nature.
As Zhe-Xi Luo, professor of organismal biology and anatomy told me
We finally have a glimpse of what may be the ancestral condition of all mammals, by looking at what is preserved in Megaconus. It allows us to piece together poorly understood details of the critical transition of modern mammals from pre-mammalian ancestors,” .
Luo shared the details of this discovery with me during the summer of 2103 at a meeting in his third-floor office in the Anatomy Building on the UChicago campus. Discovered in Inner Mongolia, China, Megaconus is one of the best-preserved fossils of the mammaliaform groups, which are long-extinct relatives of modern mammals. Dated to be about 165myrs-old, Megaconus co-existed with feathered dinosaurs in the Jurassic, nearly 100myrs before Tyrannosaurus rex roamed the earth.
A terrestrial animal about the size of a large ground squirrel, Megaconus was probably an omnivore, possessing clearly mammalian dental features and jaw hinge. Its molars had elaborate rows of cusps for chewing on plants; and some of its anterior teeth possessed large cusps that allowed it to eat insects and worms, perhaps even other small vertebrates. It had teeth with high crowns and fused roots similar to more modern, but unrelated, mammalian species, such as rodents. Its high-crowned teeth also appeared to be slow-growing, like modern placental mammals.
The skeleton of Megaconus, especially its hind-leg bones and finger claws, likely gave it a gait similar to modern armadillos, a previously unknown type of locomotion in mammaliaforms. In addition, preserved in the fossil is a clear halo of guard hairs and underfur residue, making Megaconus only the second known, pre-mammalian fossil with fur. It was found with sparse hairs around its abdomen, leading the team to hypothesise that it had a naked abdomen. On its heels, Megaconus possessed a long, keratinous spur, which was possibly poisonous. Similar to spurs found on modern egg-laying mammals, such as male platypuses, the spur is evidence that this fossil was most likely a male member of its species.
Luo, who was also part of the team that first discovered evidence of hair in pre-mammalian species in 2006, told me that:
Megaconus confirms that many modern mammalian biological functions related to skin and integument had already evolved before the rise of modern mammals” (Science, 331: 1123-1127, DOI:10.1126/science.1123026).
However, Luo and his team identified clear, non-mammalian characteristics as well. Its primitive middle ear, still attached to the jaw, was reptile-like. Its anklebones and vertebral column are also similar to the anatomy of previously known mammal-like reptiles.
Luo also told me:
We cannot say that Megaconus is our direct ancestor, but it certainly looks like a great-great-grand uncle 165myrs removed. These features are evidence of what our mammalian ancestor looked like during the Triassic-Jurassic transition.”.
Megaconus shows that many adaptations found in modern mammals were already tried by our distant, extinct relatives. In a sense, the three big branches of modern mammals are all accidental survivors among many other mammaliaform lineages that perished in extinction.”
The fossil, now in the collections of the Palaeontological Museum of Liaoning in China, was discovered and studied by an international team of palaeontologists from the Palaeontological Museum of Liaoning, the University of Bonn in Germany and the University of Chicago.
The work was supported by the Key Lab for Palaeobiological Evolution of Northeastern Asia, the Ministry of Land Resources of China, Shenyang Normal University, the Paleontological Museum of Liaonig, the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsmeinschaft), the Alexander von Humbolt Foundation, the National Science Foundation and the University of Chicago.