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Biology doctoral alums Luke Weaver and Megan Whitney in Smithsonian Magazine on research about Jurassic mammals

Monday, November 14, 2022 - 16:45

Former Biology doctoral students Luke Weaver and Megan Whitney were featured in a Smithsonian Magazine article on research revealing that Jurassic mammals cared for their young.

They are the most successful mammals that you probably haven’t heard of. Multituberculates were squirrel-like mammals that first evolved in the Jurassic, about 170 million years ago, and survived until about 35 million years ago, an enviable length of time for any group of beasts. Multis, as they are affectionately known, were around for more than twice as long as primates have been around. And now, paleontologists have learned, multis were among the first to look after their offspring the way that many modern mammals do, keeping close to their young until they were weaned and ready to leave their mothers. The secret is in their bones.

How quickly young mammals grow and when they stop weaning from their mothers leaves telltale clues in the microscopic structure of their skeletons. By zooming in close to these details, paleontologists were able to discern that multituberculates raised their young more like most modern mammals than marsupials or egg-layers like the platypus, according to a recent American Naturalist study. That means mammal mothers were looking after their offspring back in the heyday of the dinosaurs.

Studying reproduction and parental care in the fossil record is a challenging task. Research often relies on rare discoveries such as nests or pregnant adults that were carrying their offspring inside them when they died. The sparseness of the fossil record has confounded attempts to understand the ways that prehistoric mammals gave birth and brought up their babies, leaving significant gaps in our understanding of our broader bestial family’s history. But paleontologists have found alternate paths to gain insights that were previously impossible, and new discoveries are changing our perception of when mammals started to care for their little ones.

First, let’s go back to the beginning. The earliest mammals, much like reptiles, laid eggs just as the duckbilled platypus and the echidna do today. The very ancient mode of reproduction goes all the way back to the last common ancestor of mammals and reptiles that lived over 300 million years ago. Sometime after the origin of the first true mammals over 210 million years ago, however, mammals started to reproduce in new ways. Some were like today’s marsupials, giving birth to very tiny, helpless babies that had to nurse for a very long time and required an extended period of growth before they could venture off on their own. Others were more like our own family, the placental mammals, where offspring gestated inside their mothers until they were more developed and then spent a comparatively shorter time nursing and growing before becoming independent.

Paleontologists used to think that these ways or reproducing developed one after another, from laying eggs to caring for underdeveloped offspring to our placental mode of reproduction. Given that multituberculates were a very, very old mammal group, some scientists thought that they reproduced much like opossums rather than like squirrels. But the new study by University of Washington paleontologist Lucas Weaver and colleagues has changed the story and affirmed that multituberculates were much more like placental mammals—perhaps moving the date for this particular way of raising young to a time millions of years before Stegosaurus and Allosaurus roamed the Earth.

More than one way can be used to learn about the life histories of creatures long extinct. And in this case, dinosaurs provided some inspiration. Back in 2016, Weaver recalls, he was watching University of Washington paleontologist Megan Whitney give a talk about understanding the lives of the long-necked sauropod dinosaurs through microscopic details in bone tissues. The tiny clues documented how fast the dinosaurs grew and outlined their developmental stages through hatchling, yearling, juvenile, subadult and mature animals, offering greater insight into the lives of these reptiles than experts previously knew.

Read the full article in Smithsonian Magazine.

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