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Modern Mammal Origins: Evolutionary Grades in the Early Cretaceous of North America

Louis L. Jacobs, Dale A. Winkler and Phillip A. Murry
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Vol. 86, No. 13 (Jul. 1, 1989), pp. 4992-4995
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/34031
Page Count: 4
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Modern Mammal Origins: Evolutionary Grades in the Early Cretaceous of North America
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Abstract

Major groups of modern mammals have their origins in the Mesozoic Era, yet the mammalian fossil record is generally poor for that time interval. Fundamental morphological changes that led to modern mammals are often represented by small samples of isolated teeth. Fortunately, functional wear facets on teeth allow prediction of the morphology of occluding teeth that may be unrepresented by fossils. A major step in mammalian evolution occurred in the Early Cretaceous with the evolution of tribosphenic molars, which characterize marsupials and placentals, the two most abundant and diverse extant groups of mammals. A tooth from the Early Cretaceous (110 million years before present) of Texas tests previous predictions (based on lower molars) of the morphology of upper molars in early tribosphenic dentitions. The lingual cusp (protocone) is primitively without shear facets, as expected, but the cheek side of the tooth is derived (advanced) in having distinctive cusps along the margin. The tooth, although distressingly inadequate to define many features of the organism, demonstrates unexpected morphological diversity at a strategic stage of mammalian evolution and falsifies previous claims of the earliest occurrence of true marsupials.

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