Mesozoic mammals: Two views

Smith 2011 reported,
at the beginning of the Eocene, 55mya, “the diversity of certain mammal groups exploded.” These modern mammals”, according to Smith, ‘ consist of rodents, lagomorphs, perissodactyls, artiodactyls, cetaceans, primates, carnivorans and bats. Although these eight groups represent 83% of the extant mammal species diversity, their ancestors are still unknown. A short overview of the knowledge and recent progress on this research is here presented on the basis of Belgian studies and expeditions, especially in India and China.’

Contra the claims of Smith 2011
in the large reptile tree (LRT, 1354 taxa, subsets Figs. 2–4) prototherians are known from the late Triassic (Fig. 1). Both metatherians and eutherians are known from the Middle Jurassic. Many non-mammal cynodonts survived throughout the Mesozoic. In addition, the ancestors of every included taxon are known back to Devonian tetrapods.

Noteworthy facts after an LRT review (Fig. 1):

  1. All known and tested Mesozoic mammals (Fig. 1) are either small arboreal taxa or small burrowing taxa (out of sight of marauding theropods).
  2. All Mesozoic monotremes are more primitive than Ornithorhynchus and Tachyglossus (both extant).
  3. All Mesozoic marsupials are more primitive than or include Vintana (Late Cretaceous).
  4. All Mesozoic placentals are more primitive than Onychodectes (Paleocene).
Figure 1. Select basal cynodonts and mammals set chronologically. The divergence times for placentals (Eutheria), marsupials (Metatheria) and monotremes (Mammalia) are estimated here.

Figure 1. Select basal cynodonts and mammals set chronologically. The divergence times for placentals (Eutheria), marsupials (Metatheria) and monotremes (Mammalia) are estimated here.

Given those parameters
we are able to rethink which mammals were coeval with dinosaurs back on phylogenetic bracketing (= if derived taxa are present, primitive taxa must have been present, too).

Smith reports, “The earliest known mammals are about as old as the earliest dinosaurs and appeared in the fossil record during the late Trias around two hundred and twenty million years ago with genera such as Sinoconodon (pre-mammal in the LRT), Morganucodon (basal therian in the LRT) and Hadrocodium (basal therian in the LRT). However, the earliest placental mammals (Eutheria) were not known before the Early Cretaceous. Eomaia scansoria (not eutherian in the LRT) from the Barremian of Liaoning Province, China is the oldest definite placental and is dated from a hundred and thirty million years ago.”

Mesozoic Prototherians

  1. All included fossil taxa are Mesozoic. Two others are extant (Fig. 2).
Figure 2. Mesozoic prototherians + Megazostrodon, the last common ancestor of all mammals. Only two taxa (gray) are post-Cretaceous.

Figure 2. Mesozoic prototherians + Megazostrodon, the last common ancestor of all mammals. Only two taxa (gray) are post-Cretaceous.

Mesozoic Metatherians (Marsupials)

  1. Derived Vincelestes is Early Cretaceous, which means Monodelphis and Chironectes were present in the Jurassic.
  2. Derived Didelphodon is Late Cretaceous, which means sisters to Thylacinus through Borhyaena were also present in the Mesozoic.
  3. Derived Vintana is Late Cretaceous, which means sisters to herbivorous marsupials were also present in the Mesozoic.
Figure 3. Mesozoic metatherians (in black), later taxa in gray. Whenever derived taxa are present in the Mesozoic (up to the Late Cretaceous) then ancestral taxa, or their sisters, were also present in the Mesozoic. Didelphis is extant, but probably unchanged since the Late Jurassic/Early Cretaceous.

Figure 3. Mesozoic metatherians (in black), later taxa in gray. Whenever derived taxa are present in the Mesozoic (up to the Late Cretaceous) then ancestral taxa, or their sisters, were also present in the Mesozoic. Didelphis is extant, but probably unchanged since the Late Jurassic/Early Cretaceous.

Mesozoic Eutherians (= Placentals)

  1. Rarely are placental mammals identified from the Mesozoic, because many are not considered placentals.
  2. Placentals (in the LRT) are remarkably rare in the Mesozoic, but sprinkled throughout the cladogram, such that all taxa more primitive than the most derived Mesozoic taxon (Maelestes and derived members of the clade Glires, Fig. 4, at present a number of multituberculates) must have had Mesozoic sisters (Carnivora, Volitantia, basal Glires). 
Figure 4. Mesozoic euthrerians (placentals, in black). Later taxa in light gray. All taxa more primitive than Mesozoic taxa were likely also present in the Jurassic and Cretaceous. None appear after Onychodectes. Madagascar separated from Africa 165-135 mya, deep into the Cretaceous with a population of tenrecs attached. No rafting was necessary. 

Figure 4. Mesozoic euthrerians (placentals, in black). Later taxa in light gray. All taxa more primitive than Mesozoic taxa were likely also present in the Jurassic and Cretaceous. None appear after Onychodectes. Madagascar separated from Africa 165-135 mya, deep into the Cretaceous with a population of tenrecs attached. No rafting was necessary.

The above represents what a robust cladogram is capable of,
helping workers determine the likelihood of certain clades appearing in certain strata, before their discovery therein, based on their genesis, not their widest radiation or eventual reduction and extinction. In other words, we might expect sisters to basal primates, like adapids and lemurs, to be present in the Mesozoic, but not sisters to apes and hominids. We should expect sisters to all tree shrews and rodents to be recovered in Mesozoic strata. We should expect to see sisters to Caluromys, Vulpavus and other small arboreal therians/carnivorans in Mesozoic strata, but not cat, dog and bear sisters.

References
Smith T 2011. Contribution of Asia to the evolution and paleobiogeography of the earliest modern mammals. Bulletin des séances- Académie royale des sciences d’outre-mer. Meded. Zitt. K. Acad. Overzeese Wet.57: 293-305

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