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New Mesozoic Mammal

New Mesozoic Mammal

An international team of paleontologists has discovered a new species of mammal that lived 123 million years ago in what is now the Liaoning Province in northeastern China.

The newly discovered animal, Maotherium asiaticus, comes from famous fossil-rich beds of the Yixian Formation.

This new remarkably well preserved fossil, as reported in the October 9 issue of the journal Science, offers an important insight into how the mammalian middle ear evolved.

The discoveries of such exquisite dinosaur-age mammals from China provide developmental biologists and paleontologists with evidence of how developmental mechanisms have impacted the morphological (body-structure) evolution of the earliest mammals and sheds light on how complex structures can arise in evolution because of changes in developmental pathways.

"What is most surprising, and thus scientifically interesting, is this animal's ear," says Dr. Zhe-Xi Luo, curator of vertebrate paleontology and associate director of science and research at Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

"Mammals have highly sensitive hearing, far better than the hearing capacity of all other vertebrates, and hearing is fundamental to the mammalian way of life. The mammalian ear evolution is important for understanding the origins of key mammalian adaptations."

Thanks to their intricate middle ear structure, mammals (including humans) have more sensitive hearing, discerning a wider range of sounds than other vertebrates. This sensitive hearing was a crucial adaptation, allowing mammals to be active in the darkness of the night and to survive in the dinosaur-dominated Mesozoic.

Mammalian hearing adaptation is made possible by a sophisticated middle ear of three tiny bones, known as the hammer (malleus), the anvil (incus), and the stirrup (stapes), plus a bony ring for the eardrum (tympanic membrane).

These mammal middle ear bones evolved from the bones of the jaw hinge in their reptilian relatives. Paleontologists have long attempted to understand the evolutionary pathway via which these precursor jawbones became separated from the jaw and moved into the middle ear of modern mammals.

New Cretaceous mammal Maotherium

"The new Cretaceous mammal Maotherium is a chipmunk-sized nocturnal mammal. It lived 123 million years ago. It had terrestrial habits and scampered around on the ground. From its skeleton it is estimated to have weighed about 70-80 grams (2 ounces), and was about 15 cm (5 inches) in length. Maotherium is a generalized ground-living mammal. Because it is related to the common ancestor of marsupials and placentals, its tooth and skeletal structures show the ancestral condition from which marsupials and placentals could have evolved. (Credit: Mark A. Klingler/Carnegie Museum of Natural History)"

Source: Carnegie Museum of Natural History

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