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Concept: Monotreme


Monotremes are the only oviparous mammals and exhibit a fascinating combination of reptilian and mammalian characters. They represent a component of synapsidal reproduction by laying shelled eggs which are incubated outside the mother’s body. This is accompanied by a prototherian lactation process, marking them as representatives of early mammals. The only extant monotremes are the platypus, and the short- and long- beaked echidnas, and their distributions are limited to Australia and New Guinea. Apart for a short weaning period, milk is the sole source of nutrition and protection for the hatchlings which are altricial and immunologically naive. The duration of lactation in these mammals is prolonged relative to the gestational length and period of incubation of eggs. Much of the development of monotreme young occurs in the non-sterile ex-utero environment. Therefore the role of milk in the growth, development and disease protection of the young is of significant interest. By sequencing the cDNA of cells harvested from monotreme milk, we have identified a novel monotreme- specific transcript, and the corresponding gene was designated as the EchAMP. The expression profile of this gene in various tissues revealed that it is highly expressed in milk cells. The peptides corresponding to the EchAMP protein have been identified in a sample of echidna milk In silico analysis indicated putative antimicrobial potential for the cognate protein of EchAMP. This was further confirmed by in vitro assays using a host of bacteria. Interestingly, EchAMP did not display any activity against a commensal gut floral species. These results support the hypothesis of enhancement of survival of the young by antimicrobial bioactives of mammary gland origin and thus emphasize the protective, non- nutritional role of milk in mammals.

Concepts: Gene expression, Milk, Lactation, Mammal, Mammary gland, Monotreme, Platypus, Echidna


BACKGROUND: In contrast to placental neonates, in which all cranial bones are ossified, marsupial young have ossified only the bones of the oral region and the exoccipital at birth, in order to facilitate suckling at an early stage of development. Here, we test whether this heterochronic shift in the timing of cranial ossification has constrained cranial disparity in marsupials relative to placentals. 3-D landmark data were collected from the crania of a wide range of extant placentals and marsupials, as well as six fossil metatherians (the clade including extant marsupials and their stem relatives), using a laser scanner and a 3-D digitizer. Principal components analysis and delta variance tests were used to investigate the distribution and disparity of cranial morphology between different landmark sets (optimizing either number of landmarks or number of taxa) of the whole skull and of individual developmental or functional regions (neurocranium, viscerocranium, oral) for extant placentals and marsupials. Marsupial and placental data was also compared based on shared ecological aspects including diet, habitat and time of peak activity. RESULTS: Results showed that the extant marsupial taxa investigated here occupy a much smaller area of morphospace than the placental taxa, with a significantly (p <0.01) smaller overall variance. The inclusion of fossil taxa did not significantly increase the variance of metatherian cranial shape. Fossil forms generally plotted close to or within the realm of their extant marsupial relatives. When the disparities of cranial regions were investigated separately, significant differences were observed between placentals and marsupials for the viscerocranial and oral region, but not for the neurocranial region. CONCLUSION: These results support the hypothesis of developmental constraint limiting the evolution of the marsupial skull, and further suggest that the marsupial viscerocranium as a whole is developmentally constrained, rather than just the early ossifying oral region.

Concepts: Bone, Skull, Mammal, Marsupial, Eutheria, Metatheria, Theria, Monotreme


As one of the earliest-known mammaliaforms, Haramiyavia clemmenseni from the Rhaetic (Late Triassic) of East Greenland has held an important place in understanding the timing of the earliest radiation of the group. Reanalysis of the type specimen using high-resolution computed tomography (CT) has revealed new details, such as the presence of the dentary condyle of the mammalian jaw hinge and the postdentary trough for mandibular attachment of the middle ear-a transitional condition of the predecessors to crown Mammalia. Our tests of competing phylogenetic hypotheses with these new data show that Late Triassic haramiyids are a separate clade from multituberculate mammals and are excluded from the Mammalia. Consequently, hypotheses of a Late Triassic diversification of the Mammalia that depend on multituberculate affinities of haramiyidans are rejected. Scanning electron microscopy study of tooth-wear facets and kinematic functional simulation of occlusion with virtual 3D models from CT scans confirm that Haramiyavia had a major orthal occlusion with the tallest lingual cusp of the lower molars occluding into the lingual embrasure of the upper molars, followed by a short palinal movement along the cusp rows alternating between upper and lower molars. This movement differs from the minimal orthal but extensive palinal occlusal movement of multituberculate mammals, which previously were regarded as relatives of haramiyidans. The disparity of tooth morphology and the diversity of dental functions of haramiyids and their contemporary mammaliaforms suggest that dietary diversification is a major factor in the earliest mammaliaform evolution.

Concepts: Mammal, Horse, Teeth, Monotreme, Dinosaur, Platypus


Stem mammaliaforms are Mesozoic forerunners to mammals, and they offer critical evidence for the anatomical evolution and ecological diversification during the earliest mammalian history. Two new eleutherodonts from the Late Jurassic period have skin membranes and skeletal features that are adapted for gliding. Characteristics of their digits provide evidence of roosting behaviour, as in dermopterans and bats, and their feet have a calcaneal calcar to support the uropagatium as in bats. The new volant taxa are phylogenetically nested with arboreal eleutherodonts. Together, they show an evolutionary experimentation similar to the iterative evolutions of gliders within arboreal groups of marsupial and placental mammals. However, gliding eleutherodonts possess rigid interclavicle-clavicle structures, convergent to the avian furculum, and they retain shoulder girdle plesiomorphies of mammaliaforms and monotremes. Forelimb mobility required by gliding occurs at the acromion-clavicle and glenohumeral joints, is different from and convergent to the shoulder mobility at the pivotal clavicle-sternal joint in marsupial and placental gliders.

Concepts: Evolution, Mammal, Marsupial, Eutheria, Metatheria, Theria, Monotreme, Jurassic


The modern platypus, Ornithorhynchus anatinus, has an eye structure similar to aquatic mammals; however, platypuses also have a “sixth sense” associated with the bill electro- and mechanoreception that they use without opening their eyes underwater. We hypothesize that Ornithorhynchus and the Miocene taxon Obdurodon have different sensory capacities, which may have resulted from differences in foraging behavior. To estimate differences in foraging, sensory systems, and anatomical divergence between these monotremes, we compared their skull morphologies. Results indicate that the bill of Obdurodon is more dorsally deflected than that of Ornithorhynchus, suggesting a pelagic foraging behavior in Obdurodon compared to the bottom-feeding behavior in Ornithorhynchus. The infraorbital foramen of Obdurodon, through which the maxillary nerve passes sensory data from the bill to the brain, is relatively less developed than that of Ornithorhynchus. Whereas bill-focused sensory perception was likely shared among Mesozoic monotremes, the highly developed electrosensory system of Ornithorhynchus may represent an adaptation to foraging in cloudy water. Computed tomography imagery indicates that the enlarged infraorbital canal of Ornithorhynchus restricts the space available for maxillary tooth roots. Hence, loss of functional teeth in Ornithorhynchus may possibly have resulted from a shift in foraging behavior and coordinate elaboration of the electroreceptive sensory system. Well-developed electroreceptivity in monotremes is known at least as far back as the early Cretaceous; however, there are differences in the extent of elaboration of the feature among members of the ornithorhynchid lineage.

Concepts: Mammal, Sensory system, Sense, Cretaceous, Monotreme, Platypus, Echidna, Ornithorhynchidae


Theria comprises all but three living mammalian genera and is one of the most ecologically pervasive clades on Earth. Yet, the origin and early history of therians and their close relatives (i.e., cladotherians) remains surprisingly enigmatic. A critical biological function that can be compared among early mammal groups is mastication. Morphometrics and modeling analyses of the jaws of Mesozoic mammals indicate that cladotherians evolved musculoskeletal anatomies that increase mechanical advantage during jaw rotation around a dorsoventrally-oriented axis (i.e., yaw) while decreasing the mechanical advantage of jaw rotation around a mediolaterally-oriented axis (i.e., pitch). These changes parallel molar transformations in early cladotherians that indicate their chewing cycles included significant transverse movement, likely produced via yaw rotation. Thus, I hypothesize that cladotherian molar morphologies and musculoskeletal jaw anatomies evolved concurrently with increased yaw rotation of the jaw during chewing cycles. The increased transverse movement resulting from yaw rotation may have been a crucial evolutionary prerequisite for the functionally versatile tribosphenic molar morphology, which underlies the molars of all therians and is retained by many extant clades.

Concepts: Species, Mammal, Horse, Paleontology, Monotreme, Platypus


In 1942, Walls described the concept of a ‘nocturnal bottleneck’ in placental mammals, where these species could survive only by avoiding daytime activity during times in which dinosaurs were the dominant taxon. Walls based this concept of a longer episode of nocturnality in early eutherian mammals by comparing the visual systems of reptiles, birds and all three extant taxa of the mammalian lineage, namely the monotremes, marsupials (now included in the metatherians) and placentals (included in the eutherians). This review describes the status of what has become known as the nocturnal bottleneck hypothesis, giving an overview of the chronobiological patterns of activity. We review the ecological plausibility that the activity patterns of (early) eutherian mammals were restricted to the night, based on arguments relating to endothermia, energy balance, foraging and predation, taking into account recent palaeontological information. We also assess genes, relating to light detection (visual and non-visual systems) and the photolyase DNA protection system that were lost in the eutherian mammalian lineage. Our conclusion presently is that arguments in favour of the nocturnal bottleneck hypothesis in eutherians prevail.

Concepts: Mammal, Marsupial, Eutheria, Metatheria, Theria, Monotreme


The early Miocene mammal Necrolestes patagonensis from Patagonia, Argentina, was described in 1891 as the only known extinct placental “insectivore” from South America (SA). Since then, and despite the discovery of additional well-preserved material, the systematic status of Necrolestes has remained in flux, with earlier studies leaning toward placental affinities and more recent ones endorsing either therian or specifically metatherian relationships. We have further prepared the best-preserved specimens of Necrolestes and compared them with newly discovered nontribosphenic Mesozoic mammals from Argentina; based on this, we conclude that Necrolestes is related neither to marsupials nor placentals but is a late-surviving member of the recently recognized nontherian clade Meridiolestida, which is currently known only from SA. This conclusion is supported by a morphological phylogenetic analysis that includes a broad sampling of therian and nontherian taxa and that places Necrolestes within Meridiolestida. Thus, Necrolestes is a remnant of the highly endemic Mesozoic fauna of nontribosphenic mammals in SA and extends the known record of meridiolestidans by almost 45 million years. Together with other likely relictual mammals from earlier in the Cenozoic of SA and Antarctica, Necrolestes demonstrates the ecological diversity of mammals and the mosaic pattern of fauna replacement in SA during the Cenozoic. In contrast to northern continents, the Cenozoic faunal history of SA was characterized by a long period of interaction between endemic mammalian lineages of Mesozoic origin and metatherian and eutherian lineages that probably dispersed to SA during the latest Cretaceous or earliest Paleocene.

Concepts: Mammal, Cretaceous, Marsupial, Eutheria, Metatheria, Theria, Monotreme, Dinosaur


We provide here unique data on elephant skeletal ontogeny. We focus on the sequence of cranial and post-cranial ossification events during growth in the African elephant (Loxodonta africana). Previous analyses on ossification sequences in mammals have focused on monotremes, marsupials, boreoeutherian and xenarthran placentals. Here, we add data on ossification sequences in an afrotherian. We use two different methods to quantify sequence heterochrony: the sequence method and event-paring/Parsimov. Compared with other placentals, elephants show late ossifications of the basicranium, manual and pedal phalanges, and early ossifications of the ischium and metacarpals. Moreover, ossification in elephants starts very early and progresses rapidly. Specifically, the elephant exhibits the same percentage of bones showing an ossification centre at the end of the first third of its gestation period as the mouse and hamster have close to birth. Elephants show a number of features of their ossification patterns that differ from those of other placental mammals. The pattern of the initiation of the ossification evident in the African elephant underscores a possible correlation between the timing of ossification onset and gestation time throughout mammals.

Concepts: Mammal, Xenarthra, Elephant, Marsupial, Eutheria, Metatheria, Monotreme, Mammals


Passive electroreception is a sensory modality in many aquatic vertebrates, predominantly fishes. Using passive electroreception, the animal can detect and analyze electric fields in its environment. Most electric fields in the environment are of biogenic origin, often produced by prey items. These electric fields can be relatively strong and can be a highly valuable source of information for a predator, as underlined by the fact that electroreception has evolved multiple times independently. The only mammals that possess electroreception are the platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) and the echidnas (Tachyglossidae) from the monotreme order, and, recently discovered, the Guiana dolphin (Sotalia guianensis) from the cetacean order. Here we review the morphology, function and origin of the electroreceptors in the two aquatic species, the platypus and the Guiana dolphin. The morphology shows certain similarities, also similar to ampullary electroreceptors in fishes, that provide cues for the search for electroreceptors in more vertebrate and invertebrate species. The function of these organs appears to be very similar. Both species search for prey animals in low-visibility conditions or while digging in the substrate, and sensory thresholds are within one order of magnitude. The electroreceptors in both species are innervated by the trigeminal nerve. The origin of the accessory structures, however, is completely different; electroreceptors in the platypus have developed from skin glands, in the Guiana dolphin, from the vibrissal system.

Concepts: Species, Animal, Mammal, Vertebrate, Chordate, Monotreme, Platypus, Echidna