High-tech analysis of proto-mammal fossil clarifies the mammalian family tree


Haramiyavia clemmenseni. The CT reconstructed jaw of its fossil is superimposed on the bottom illustration. Credit: April Neander

The stereotypical picture of mammals during the age of the dinosaurs was that of tiny furry critters that scurried around in the dark, hiding from their reptilian overlords. But a wealth of recent fossil finds, most prominently from China, have shown that the earliest mammals and mammalian relatives were remarkably diverse. They swam, climbed trees and dug into the earth. They had spines and protective plates, and ate insects and seeds and even gum sap.

However, these discoveries have also raised a debate over the timeline of when mammals began to evolve this remarkable diversity. And at the center of this debate is a group known as the haramiyids. Haramiyids are one of the earliest proto-mammal lineages, arising in the Triassic period around 210 million years ago. Known only through isolated teeth, haramiyids were largely mysterious until the discovery of the remarkably well-preserved jaw of Haramiyavia clemmenseni—with intact molars, nearly complete mandibles and postcranial skeletal bones—in Greenland in 1995 by a team including Neil Shubin, Robert R. Bensley Distinguished Service Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy, Stephen Gatesy, professor of biology at Brown University, and the late Farish Jenkins, former professor of zoology at Harvard University.

A photo from Shubin and Jenkin’s original expedition to Greenland, where Haramiyavia was discovered.

The initial analysis of Haramiyavia relied on painstaking manual preparation by the late William Amaral, former fossil preparator at Harvard University, and significant portions of the fossil were not fully described. Consequently, this gap in knowledge led to questions over the shape of the mammalian evolutionary tree: Did haramiyids belong on the crown mammal branch, from which all modern mammals descend, suggesting that mammals began to diversify more than 210 million years ago in the Triassic? Or did haramiyids occupy a separate, more ancestral branch at the base of the family tree, suggesting mammal diversification occurred more than 30 million years later in the Jurrasic?

To resolve this question, Shubin, Gatesy, and Zhe-Xi Luo, professor of organismal biology and anatomy, reexamined the entirety of the Haramiyavia specimen using a suite of modern technological tools, including high-resolution computed tomography (CT) scans and 3D reconstruction. Coupled with exhaustive documentation from the initial fossil preparation, the team was able to describe Haramiyavia in unprecedented detail and clarify the timeline of early mammalian evolution.

The findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Nov 16, 2015, confirms previous suggestions that mammal diversification occurred in the Jurassic around 175 million years ago—more than 30 million years after Haramiyavia and other forerunners to mammals diversified in the Triassic.

Neil Shubin, PhD, Robert R. Bensley Distinguished Service Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy

“This fossil is a unique representative from an incredibly important era in the evolution of mammals; the ecosystem of the whole world changed as the Triassic transitioned into the Jurassic,” Shubin said. “When you look at the entirety of the Haramiyavia jaw and its primitive features, it’s clear that this group sat at the very base of the mammalian family tree, much in the same way that Tiktaalik roseae sat at the base of the tetrapod tree.”

The team found many primitive structures in the Haramiyavia jaw, including a postdentary trough that is connected to a primitive middle ear. This was strong evidence that haramiyids were unrelated to other crown mammals—in particular, the multituberculates, a group of early mammal that has previously been thought to have been a close relative.

The finding places Haramiyavia and all other members of the haramiyid lineage on a more ancestral position in the mammalian evolutionary tree, on a separate branch from mammals. This then reaffirms previous arguments that the explosion of modern mammal diversification did not occur in the Triassic period, but many millions of years later in the Jurassic.

Zhe-Xi Luo, PhD

Zhe-Xi Luo, PhD, Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy

“As the earliest known haramiyid, Haramiyavia is the key piece of evidence for inferences about the timeline of early mammalian evolution,” Luo said. “With CT and other new technologies, we can extract anatomical insights that were not possible to obtain in the past, allowing us to more accurately interpret mammalian evolution. Haramiyavia establishes the ancestral morphology for the haramiyid group, which can now be clearly placed at the base of the mammalian family tree.”

The team also created virtual animations that showed how the teeth of Haramiyavia actually functioned 210 million years ago. Analyses with scanning electron microscopy revealed Haramiyavia possessed complex teeth that indicated an herbivorous diet, including incisors for cutting and complex cheek teeth for grinding plant food. Later herbivorous mammals evolved similar complex teeth, despite not being directly descended from the haramiyids—a striking example of convergent evolution.

The feeding habits made Haramiyavia the earliest known herbivore among mammalian ancestors and placed them apart from other early proto-mammal groups, which had teeth adapted to insect or worm-based diets. This suggests that the early forerunners to mammals diversified in the Triassic, branching out into multiple ecological niches that likely shaped later mammalian evolution.

“When we worked on the Haramiyavia fossil in the 90s, we had to literally scrape at it with a needle under a microscope. It took months to years to come up with sketches and clay models,” Shubin said. “It’s really fun for me to see how it worked back then, and today study the fossil with computer reconstructions and 3D printed models. It’s an amazing demonstration of how new technology can transform an old discovery.”

About Kevin Jiang (147 Articles)
Kevin Jiang is a Science Writer and Media Relations Specialist at the University of Chicago Medicine. He focuses on neuroscience and neurosurgery, orthopedics, psychology, genetics, biology, evolution, biomedical and basic science research.
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