Literature Review: Mammal Evolution

by Carl Strang

Today’s collection of notes from the 2013 scientific literature focuses on mammals and their evolution. As the notes reveal, some of these topics are controversial among researchers.

This migrating bat chose a famous resting place during its journey: the Aldo Leopold shack in Wisconsin. Bats are the subject of two of the following studies.

This migrating bat chose a famous resting place during its journey: the Aldo Leopold shack in Wisconsin. Bats are the subject of two of the following studies.

Chang-Fu Zhou, Shaoyuan Wu, Thomas Martin, Zhe-Xi Luo. 2013. A Jurassic mammaliaform and the earliest mammalian evolutionary adaptations. Nature 500 (7461): 163 DOI: 10.1038/nature12429  They described a newly discovered Jurassic proto-mammal, Megaconus mammaliaformis, and found evidence that traits such as hair and fur originated well before the rise of the first true mammals. The squirrel-sized Megaconus had a heel spur, similar to poisonous spurs found on modern egg-laying mammals, such as male platypuses. It had mammalian dental features, and legs and feet that point to a gait similar to that of modern armadillos. At the same time it had a reptilian middle ear, ankle bones and vertebral column.

O’Leary, Maureen, et al. 2013. The placental mammal ancestor and the post-K-Pg radiation of placentals. Science 339:662-667. Using fossil materials and an extensive character analysis, they conclude that the ancestral placental mammal from which all major surviving groups evolved lived just after the beginning of the Paleocene. This conflicts with molecular clock data that place the appearance of many groups including bats, rodents, and even-toed ungulates back in the Cretaceous. They combine the characters of the early fossils to produce a hypothetical common ancestor, an insectivorous animal resembling a shrew with a long tail.

Zhang, Guojie, et al. 2013. Comparative analysis of bat genomes provides insight into the evolution of flight and immunity. Science 339: 456-460. They did whole-genome comparisons of nuclear DNA of a Myotis and a flying fox. Significant sequences were found which may relate to the development of flight ability, and the immune systems also are different from those of other mammals. When compared to the genomes of other mammals, bats fall out most closely related to perissodactyls, then carnivores, with those groups splitting apart at an estimated time in the Cretaceous.

Ni, Xijun, et al. 2013. The oldest known primate skeleton and early haplorhine evolution. Nature 498 (7452): 60 DOI: 10.1038/nature12200  They describe a 55mya (early Eocene) Chinese fossil that is in the tarsier line but has features showing it to be close to the branch point leading to the tarsiers in one direction, anthropoids (primates including monkeys, apes and humans) on the other. It is tiny, the animal around 1 ounce in weight. Asia appears to be the likely center of early primate evolution.

Cahill JA, Green RE, Fulton TL, Stiller M, Jay F, et al. 2013. Genomic evidence for island population conversion resolves conflicting theories of polar bear evolution. PLoS Genet, 9(3): e1003345; DOI: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1003345  This most recent examination of polar bear and brown bear genetics concluded that, on the whole, polar bears have been separate from brown bears for about half the time that brown bears have been separate from black bears. The connections previously noted between the two species in southeast Alaska, and possibly in Ireland, appear to be the result of small polar bear populations being isolated during ice ages, and being swamped then by an influx of male brown bears. The polar bear is a more ancient species than that.

Zigouris J, Schaefer JA, Fortin C, Kyle CJ. 2013. Phylogeography and post-glacial recolonization in wolverines (Gulo gulo) from across their circumpolar distribution. PLoS ONE 8(12): e83837. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0083837  Their analysis of mitochondrial and nuclear genes points to a single population of wolverines surviving the glacial maximum in a refugium somewhere in the Old World, then expanding into North America across the Bering Sea land bridge as the glaciers retreated. Subsequently, several North American populations differentiated. The fossil record likewise has them only in Eurasia prior to the late Pleistocene.

Andrew M. Minnis, Daniel L. Lindner. 2013. Phylogenetic evaluation of Geomyces and allies reveals no close relatives of Pseudogymnoascus destructans, comb. nov., in bat hibernacula of eastern North America. Fungal Biology, DOI: 10.1016/j.funbio.2013.07.001  As described in a ScienceDaily article. The closest relatives of the fungus causing white nose syndrome are species that live in European caves. This supports the idea that the fungus is an invasive species here, but one with which European bats coevolved and so have some immunity.


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