Common Ancestor of Mammals Is Plucked From Obscurity
Humankind’s common ancestor with other mammals may have been a roughly rat-sized animal that weighed no more than a half a pound, had a long furry tail and lived on insects.
In a comprehensive six-year study of the mammalian family tree, scientists have identified and reconstructed what they say is the most likely common ancestor of the many species on the most abundant and diverse branch of that tree — the branch of creatures that nourish their young in utero through a placenta. The work appears to support the view that in the global extinctions some 66 million years ago, all non-avian dinosaurs had to die for mammals to flourish.
Scientists had been searching for just such a common genealogical link and have found it in a lowly occupant of the fossil record, Protungulatum donnae, that until now has been so obscure that it lacks a colloquial nickname. But as researchers reported Thursday in the journal Science, the animal had several anatomical characteristics for live births that anticipated all placental mammals and led to some 5,400 living species, from shrews to elephants, bats to whales, cats to dogs and, not least, humans.
A team of researchers described the discovery as an important insight into the pattern and timing of early mammal life and a demonstration of the capabilities of a new system for handling copious amounts of fossil and genetic data in the service of evolutionary biology. The formidable new technology is expected to be widely applied in years ahead to similar investigations of plants, insects, fish and fowl.
Pulled out of obscurity and given some belated stature by an artist’s brush, the animal hardly looks the part of a progenitor of so many mammals (which does not include marsupials, like kangaroos and opossums, or monotremes, egg-laying mammals like the duck-billed platypus).
Maureen A. O’Leary of Stony Brook University on Long Island, a leader of the project and the principal author of the journal report, wrote that a combination of genetic and anatomical data established that the ancestor emerged within 200,000 to 400,000 years after the great dying at the end of the Cretaceous period. At the time, the meek were rapidly inheriting the earth from hulking predators like T. rex.
Within another two million to three million years, Dr. O’Leary said, the first members of modern placental orders appeared in such profusion that researchers have started to refer to the explosive model of mammalian evolution. The common ancestor itself appeared more than 36 million years later than had been estimated based on genetic data alone.
Although some small primitive mammals had lived in the shadow of the great Cretaceous reptiles, the scientists could not find evidence supporting an earlier hypothesis that up to 39 mammalian lineages survived to enter the post-extinction world. Only the stem lineage to Placentalia, they said, appeared to hang on through the catastrophe, generally associated with climate change after an asteroid crashed into Earth.
The research team drew on combined fossil evidence and genetic data encoded in DNA in evaluating the ancestor’s standing as an early placental mammal. Among characteristics associated with full-term live births, the Protungulatum species was found to have a two-horned uterus and a placenta in which the maternal blood came in close contact with the membranes surrounding the fetus, as in humans.
The ancestor’s younger age, the scientists said, ruled out the breakup of the supercontinent of Gondwana around 120 million years ago as a direct factor in the diversification of mammals, as has sometimes been speculated. Evidence of the common ancestor was found in North America, but the animal may have existed on other continents as well.
The publicly accessible database responsible for the findings is called MorphoBank, with advanced software for handling the largest compilation yet of data and images on mammals living and extinct. “This has stretched our own expertise,” Dr. O’Leary, an anatomist, said in an interview.
“The findings were not a total surprise,” she said. “But it’s an important discovery because it relies on lots of information from fossils and also molecular data. Other scientists, at least a thousand, some from other countries, are already signing up to use MorphoBank.”
Michael J. Novacek, a paleontologist and provost for science at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, said the system could assess each mammal on the basis of more than 4,500 possible traits, which is 10 times larger than previous databases. “At one point, I didn’t think we would ever finish,” Dr. Novacek said.
John R. Wible, curator of mammals at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, who is another of the 22 members of the project, said the “power of 4,500 characters” enabled the scientists to look “at all aspects of mammalian anatomy, from the skull and skeleton, to the teeth, to internal organs, to muscles and even fur patterns” to determine what the common ancestor possibly looked like.
The project was financed primarily by the National Science Foundation as part of its Assembling the Tree of Life program. Other scientists from Stony Brook, the American Natural History Museum and the Carnegie Museum participated, as well as researchers from the University of Florida, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, the University of Louisville, Western University of Health Sciences, in Pomona, Calif., Yale University and others in Canada, China, Brazil and Argentina.
Outside scientists said that this formidable new systematic data-crunching capability might reshape mammal research but that it would probably not immediately resolve the years of dispute between fossil and genetic partisans over when placental mammals arose. Paleontologists looking for answers in skeletons and anatomy have favored a date just before or a little after the Cretaceous extinction. Those who work with genetic data to tell time by “molecular clocks” have arrived at much earlier origins.
The conflict was billed as “Fossils vs. Clocks” in the headline for a commentary article by Anne D. Yoder, an evolutionary biologist at Duke University, which accompanied Dr. O’Leary’s journal report.
Dr. Yoder acknowledged that the new study offered “a fresh perspective on the pattern and timing of mammalian evolution drawn from a remarkable arsenal of morphological data from fossil and living mammals.” She also praised the research’s “level of sophistication and meticulous analysis.”
Even so, Dr. Yoder complained that the researchers “devoted most of their analytical energy to scoring characteristics and estimating the shape of the tree rather than the length of its branches.” She said that “the disregard for the consequences of branch lengths,” as determined by the molecular clocks of genetics, “leaves us wanting more.”
John Gatesy, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Riverside, who was familiar with the study but was not an author of the report, said the reconstruction of the common ancestor was “very reasonable and very cool.” The researchers, he said, “have used their extraordinarily large analysis to predict what this earliest placental looked like, and it would be interesting to extend this approach to more branch points in the tree” including for early ancestors like aardvarks, elephants and manatees.
But Dr. Gatesy said the post-Cretaceous date for the placentals “will surely be controversial, as this is much younger than estimates based on molecular clocks, and implies the compression of very long molecular branches at the base of the tree.”