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First Mammal

February 8th, 2013 - 10:52 am

Meet your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother:

In a comprehensive six-year study of the mammalian family tree, scientists have identified and reconstructed what they say is the most likely common ancestor of the many species on the most abundant and diverse branch of that tree — the branch of creatures that nourish their young in utero through a placenta. The work appears to support the view that in the global extinctions some 66 million years ago, all non-avian dinosaurs had to die for mammals to flourish.

Scientists had been searching for just such a common genealogical link and have found it in a lowly occupant of the fossil record, Protungulatum donnae, that until now has been so obscure that it lacks a colloquial nickname. But as researchers reported Thursday in the journal Science, the animal had several anatomical characteristics for live births that anticipated all placental mammals and led to some 5,400 living species, from shrews to elephants, bats to whales, cats to dogs and, not least, humans.

They have got to come up with a better name than “Protungulatum donnae.”

RELATED: Dinosaurs went extinct immediately following Mexico asteroid impact. It wasn’t the only factor in their demise, but new dating techniques have the timing down to “a gnat’s eyebrow.”

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