Jurassic period saw fastest mammal evolution

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Published: July 20, 2015 8:22:17 PM

Mammals underwent a rapid 'burst' of evolutionary change that reached its peak around the middle of the Jurassic period around 145-200 million years ago, a new Oxford-led study has found.

Mammals underwent a rapid ‘burst’ of evolutionary change that reached its peak around the middle of the Jurassic period around 145-200 million years ago, a new Oxford-led study has found.

Mammals were evolving up to ten times faster in the middle of the Jurassic than they were at the end of the period, coinciding with an explosion of new adaptations, researchers said.

Early mammals lived alongside the dinosaurs during the Mesozoic era (252-66 million years ago).

They were once thought to be exclusively small nocturnal insect-eaters, but fossil discoveries of the past decade u2013 particularly from China and South America u2013 have shown that they developed diverse adaptations for feeding and locomotion, including gliding, digging, and swimming.

To find out when and how rapidly these new body shapes emerged a team led by Oxford University researchers did the first large-scale analysis of skeletal and dental changes in Mesozoic mammals.

By calculating evolutionary rates across the entire Mesozoic, they show that mammals underwent a rapid ‘burst’ of evolutionary change that reached its peak around the middle of the Jurassic (200-145 million years ago).

The team comprised researchers from Oxford University in the UK and Macquarie University in Australia.

“What our study suggests is that mammal ‘experimentation’ with different body-plans and tooth types peaked in the mid-Jurassic,” said Dr Roger Close of Oxford University’s Department of Earth Sciences, lead author of the report.

“This period of radical change produced characteristic body shapes that remained recognisable for tens of millions of years,” said Close.

The team recorded the number of significant changes to body plans or teeth that occurred in mammal lineages every million years.

During the mid-Jurassic the frequency of such changes increased to up to 8 changes per million years per lineage, almost ten times that seen at the end of the period.

This is exemplified by therian mammals, the lineage leading to placental mammals and marsupials, which were evolving 13 times faster than average in the mid-Jurassic, but which had slowed to a rate much lower than average by the later Jurassic.

This ‘slow-down’ occurred despite the increase in the number of mammal species seen in this later period.

“We don’t know what instigated this evolutionary burst. It could be due to environmental change, or perhaps mammals had acquired a ‘critical mass’ of ‘key innovations’ u2013 such as live birth, hot bloodedness, and fur u2013 that enabled them to thrive in different habitats and diversify ecologically,” said Close.

“Once high ecological diversity had evolved, the pace of innovation slowed,” Close added.

The research was published in the journal Current Biology.

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