Is Phascolotherium a basal mammal? Perhaps not…

Yesterday we looked at the origin of mammals and noted the Rowe 1988 considered the fossil mandible Phascolotherium bucklandi (Middle Jurassic; Owen 1838; Fig. 1) one of the earliest known mammals. Unfortunately, the mandible specimen does not have enough traits to nest Phascolotherium in the large reptile tree (LRT, 1011 taxa) with complete resolution.

that doesn’t stop one from visually comparing Phascolotherium to more complete taxa.

Figure 1. Phacolotherium compared to the tritylodontid Jeholodens.

Figure 1. Phacolotherium compared to the tritylodontid Jeholodens. The smaller Jeholodens image is to scale with the much larger Phacolotherium specimen.

There’s a pretty good match for Phascolotherium
with Jeholodens  (Ji et al. 1999); non-mammalian cynodont/tritylodontid/mammaliaform known from the Middle Cretaceous. The Jeholodens mandible is smaller than Phascolotherium, It has an unerupted 4th molar, which would indicate immaturity if it was a mammal. Only mammals do not replace molars.

Of Jeholodens
Ji et al. 1999 reported, “The postcranial skeleton of this new triconodont shows a mosaic of characters, including a primitive pelvic girdle and hindlimb but a very derived pectoral girdle that is closely comparable to those of derived therians. Given the basal position of this taxon in mammalian phylogeny, its derived pectoral girdle indicates that homoplasies (similarities resulting from independent evolution among unrelated lineages) are as common in the postcranial skeleton as they are in the skull and dentition in the evolution of Mesozoic mammals.”

There’s a postscript
Take another look at the mandible of Jeholodens (Fig. 1). Note the giant incisor 1 and the robust jaw articulation. Where else do we see this combination in small mammals? In Multituberculata and Haramiyidae, but both nest with rodents, plesiadapids and carpolesteids in the LRT. Traditional cladograms nest Multituberculata and Haramiyidae either before Mammalia or between monotremes and therians as very basal mammals. I have long wondered, if this was so, which basal pre-mammals or mammals look most like multituberculates and might therefore be most closely related? Could it be Jeholodens? So it was time for a test. Shifting the multituberculates to Jeholodens currently adds 34 steps to the LRT. Let’s see what happens when multis are re-scored with prejudice toward Jeholodens

So what happened?
The multis and haramiyids did not shift. The tree topology did not change. Apparently any resemblance between Jeholodens and these two clades must have been by convergence. Or the amount of convergence is overtaking the true relationship. Since everything in science is provisional we’ll keep testing.

Ji Q, Luo Z and Ji S 1999. A Chinese triconodont mammal and mosaic evolution of the mammalian skeleton. Nature 398:326-330. online.
Owen R 1838
. On the jaws of the Thylacotherium prevostii (Valenciennes) from Stonesfield. Proceedings of the Geological Society of London 3, 5–9.

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