NEW YORK - The big dinosaur extinction of 65 million years ago didn't produce a flurry of new species in the ancestry of modern mammals after all, says a huge study that challenges a long-standing theory.
Scientists who constructed a massive evolutionary family tree for mammals found no sign of such a burst of new species at that time among the ancestors of present-day animals.
Only mammals with no modern-day descendants showed that effect.
"I was flabbergasted," said study co-author Ross MacPhee, curator of vertebrate zoology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
At the time of the dinosaur demise, mammals were small, ranging in size between shrews and cats. The long-held view has been that once the dinosaurs were gone, mammals were free to exploit new food sources and habitats, and as a result they produced a burst of new species.
The new study says that happened to some extent, but that the new species led to evolutionary dead ends. In contrast, no such burst was found for the ancestors of modern-day mammals like rodents, cats, horses, elephants and people.
Instead, they showed an initial burst between 100 million about 85 million years ago, with another between about 55 million and 35 million years ago, researchers report in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.
The timing of that first period of evolutionary development generally agrees with the conclusions of some previous studies of mammal DNA, which argue for a much earlier origin of some mammal lineages than the fossil record does.
The second burst had shown up in the fossil record, MacPhee said. But he said the new study explains why scientists have been unable to find relatively modern-looking ancestors of the creatures known from that time: without any evolutionary boost from the dinosaur demise, those ancestors were still relatively primitive.
comments powered by Disqus