No need to thank dinosaur-killing asteroid for mammalian success

Athens, Ga. -- It is a natural history tale that every third grader knows: The dinosaurs ruled the Earth for hundreds of millions of years, until an asteroid struck the Yucatan Peninsula and triggered a mass extinction that allowed the ancestors of todays mammals to thrive.

The asteroid part of the story may still hold true, but a new study published in the March 29 issue of the journal Nature challenges the prominent hypothesis that a mass extinction of dinosaurs 65 million years ago played a major role in the diversification of todays mammals.

An international team of scientists including University of Georgia Institute of Ecology Director John Gittleman has constructed a complete evolutionary tree for mammals that puts the major diversification well after asteroid strike, casting into doubt the role the dinosaur die-off played in the success of mammals.

"The previous evidence showed that we did see a die-off of the dinosaurs and an increase in the rise of the mammals roughly 65 million years ago," Gittleman said. "But the fossil record, by its very nature, is patchy. We have found that when you fuse all of the molecular trees with the fossil evidence, the timing does not work. The preponderance of mammals really didnt take off until 10 to 15 million years after the demise of the dinosaurs."

Molecular evolutionary trees are constructed by comparing the DNA of species. Because genetic changes occur at a relatively constant rate, like the ticking of a clock, scientists can estimate the time the species diverged from their common ancestor by counting the number of mutations. Using radiocarbon dating, scientists can also estimate divergence times from the fossil record. Gittleman and his colleagues combined more than 2,500 partial trees constructed using molecular data and the fossil record to create the first virtually complete mammalian tree.

"The end result is that the mammals we know today are actually quite ol

Contact: Sam Fahmy
University of Georgia

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