‘The Dawn of Mammals’ YouTube video illuminates systematic problems

Sorry, looks like video was yanked off of YouTube.

Part of this YouTube video (see below, click to view)
pits DNA paleontolgist, Dr. Olaf Bininda-Emonds (U. Oldenburg), against bone trait paleontologist, Dr. John Wible (Carnegie Museum of Natural History) in their common and contrasting search for basal placental mammals. Both realize that DNA cladograms do not replicate bone cladograms and DNA cannot be utilized with ancient fossils.

Dr. Bininda-Emonds, used molecular clocks
in living taxa to hypothetically split marsupials from placentals about 160 mya ago (Late Jurassic).

By contrast, Dr. Wible reports (28:53),
“Our study supported the traditional view that there were no fossils living during the Cretaceous [that] were members of the placental group itself. There were only ancestors of the placentals living.” (unscripted verbatim)

The impulse for this argument
came from the discovery of Maelestes (Wible et al. 2007a,b; 28:30 on the video) from the Late Cretaceous (75 mya). Dr. Wible’s paper nested Maelestes with the pre-placental, Asiorcytes, another tree-shrew-like mammal from the Late Cretaceous.

The large reptile tree
 (subset in Fig. 2) nests the first known placental mammals at the 160 mya mark, matching the DNA predictions of Dr. Bininda-Emonds et al. A long list of taxa, including Maelestes, nest in the Jurassic and Cretaceous, contra Wible et al. Only more complete taxa are tested in the LRT and dental traits are not emphasized.

Figure 2. Mesozoic time line showing the first appearances of several fossil mammals and the clades they belong to. Many, if not most of the listed taxa are late survivors of earlier radiations, sometimes much earlier radiations. Monodelphis and Didelphis are extant animals that originated in the Early Jurassic at the latest. Note also the large gaps over tens of millions of years, highlighting the rarity of fossil bearing locales.

Figure 2. Mesozoic time line showing the first appearances of several fossil mammals and the clades they belong to. Many, if not most of the listed taxa are late survivors of earlier radiations, sometimes much earlier radiations. Monodelphis and Didelphis are extant animals that originated in the Early Jurassic at the latest. Note also the large gaps over tens of millions of years, highlighting the rarity of fossil bearing locales.

In the video Dr. Wible says, “Many modern groups, according to the molecular clock analysis, actually are, they should be, present in the Cretaceous fossil record. We can’t find them.” Actually Dr. Wible already found them, but does not recognize them for what they are. That’s a common problem in paleontology, largely due to taxon exclusion, that we’ve seen before here, here, here and here. And in dozens of other mislabeled clades, like multituberculates.

The Bininda-Edmonds et al. paper reports,
“Here we construct, date and analyse a species-level phylogeny of nearly all extant Mammalia to bring a new perspective to this question. Our analyses of how extant lineages accumulated through time show that net per-lineage diversification rates barely changed across the Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary. Instead, these rates spiked significantly with the origins of the currently recognized placental superorders and orders approximately 93 million years ago, before falling and remaining low until accelerating again throughout the Eocene and Oligocene epochs. Our results show that the phylogenetic ‘fuses’ leading to the explosion of extant placental orders are not only very much longer than suspected previously, but also challenge the hypothesis that the end-Cretaceous mass extinction event had a major, direct influence on the diversification of today’s mammals.”

The LRT agrees with the timing indicated by the DNA analysis
Placentals are indeed found in the LRT Cretaceous and Jurassic fossil record (Fig. 2). They were not recognized by traditional workers using smaller taxon lists, for what they were. The LRT minimizes taxon exclusion and so solves many paleo problems with an unbiased and wide gamut approach currently unmatched in the paleo literature. Extant birds have a similar deep time record based on a few recent finds.

Perhaps overlooked
there are currently large gaps spanning tens of millions of years, highlighting the rarity of fossil bearing locales. All Mesozoic mammals are rare.

The DNA tree
of the Bininda-Emonds team correctly splits monotremes from therians, but incorrectly nests ‘Afrotherians‘ with Xenarthrans at the base of all mammals followed by moles + shrews, bats + carnivores + hoofed mammals + whales, followed by primates and rodents. As anyone can see, this is a very mixed up order, placing small arboreal taxa in derived positions and stiff-backed elephants and in in basal nodes. This DNA analysis is not validated by the LRT.

To its credit, basal mammals in the LRT
greatly resemble their marsupial ancestors. Then derived mammals become generally larger, with derived tooth patterns, stiffer dorsal/lumbar areas and longer pregnancies with more developed (precocious) young.

Given three cladograms of placental relationships,
none of them identical, how does one choose which one is more accurate? Here’s my suggestion: look at each sister at each node and see where you best find a gradual accumulation of derived traits, without exception. And look at outgroups leading to basal members of the in group.

Some readers are still having a hard time realizing
that someone without direct access to fossils and without a PhD is able to recover a more highly resolved cladogram that features gradual changes between every set of sister taxa than trees published over the last ten years in the academic literature. I agree. This should not be taking place. This is not what I expected to find when I started this 7-year project. One tends to trust authority. It’s been an eye-opening journey. In nearly all tested studies overlooking relevant taxa continues to be the number one shortcoming. The LRT minimizes that issue. The number two problem is blind faith in DNA results. The number three problem is an apparent refusal to examine phylogenetic results to weed out mismatched recovered sister taxa.

The video spends also some time with Zhangheotherium,
which we looked at earlier here and here. The interviewed workers talk about the ankle spur, but as a venom injector, as in the duckbill, Ornithorhynchus, not as a membrane frame, like a calcar bone, as in bats.

The video considers Repenomamus a large Early Cretaceous mammal
but the LRT nests Repenomamus as a late-surviving synapsid pre-mammal, derived from a sister to Pachygenelus, as we learned earlier here.

PS. As touched on earlier,
many basal arboreal mammals were experimenting with gliding (e.g. Volaticotherium and Maiopatagaium), but only one clade, bats, experimented with flapping. This was, perhaps not coincidentally, during the Middle to Late Jurassic (Oxordian, 160 mya). Remember, these gliding membranes were all extensions of the infant nursery membrane found in colugos and other volatantians, not far from the basalmost placental, Monodelphis.

References
Bininda-Emonds ORP, et al., (9 co-authors) 2007. The delayed rise of present-day mammals. Nature 446(7135):507-512.
Wible JR, Rougier GW, Novacel MJ and Asher RJ 2007a. The eutherian mammal Maelestes gobiensis from the Late Cretaceous of Mongolia and the phylogeny of Cretaceous Eutheria. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 327:1–123.
Wible JR, Rougier GW, Novacek MJ and Asher RJ 2007b. Cretaceous eutherians and Laurasian origin for placental mammals near the K/T boundary.” Nature, 447: 1003-1006.

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