First appearing in the mid-Jurassic, about 168 million years ago, a group of mammals called dryolestoids were some of the closest known relatives to the therians (the group that contains modern marsupials and placentals). They were found throughout North America, Eurasia, and North Africa up until the Early Cretaceous (~125 mya), but then mostly disappeared from the northern continents and instead migrated into South America – where they went on to flourish and became some of the most common mammals in the continent by the Late Cretaceous.
Although mostly known from only teeth and jaw fragments, the dryolestoids seem to have been a pretty diverse group of mammals during the Mesozoic, adapting to a variety of different diets and lifestyles ranging from small insectivores to relatively large herbivores.
Despite being absent from the fossil record for over 40 million years, the dryolestoids reappeared again in the Early Miocene of Patagonia (~21-17.5 mya) with a single late-surviving member: Necrolestes patagonensis.
The known Necrolestes fossils are surprisingly well-preserved compared to most other dryolestoids, with about a third of its skeleton represented. It was a small mole-like burrowing animal, about 10-15cm long (4-6″), with large canine teeth and an upturned snout. The cartilage in its nose was ossified into bone, strengthening it and probably supporting a pad of thick toughened skin – and also suggesting that it was a “head-lift digger”, using its snout like a shovel to dig through the soil.
While it superficially resembled the earlier mole-like dryolestoid Paurodon, it was actually much closer related to more generalist Mesozoic forms like the sabertoothed Cronopio.
After Necrolestes there’s no further evidence of dryolestoids living any closer to modern day. Much like the late-surviving gondwanatheres they lived alongside, these last dryolestoids may have specialized themselves so much that they couldn’t cope with sudden environmental changes, and the Middle Miocene extinction could have finished them off entirely.
Most dryolestoids seem to have been insectivores and omnivores, but one group known as the mesungulatids specialized for herbivory. Although mostly known only from teeth and skull fragments, the size of these pieces indicates that they were surprisingly large compared to their other close relatives – making them some of the biggest mammals around at the time.
They had fairly long blunt snouts with strong jaws and teeth adapted for crushing and grinding plants, and may even have been able to chew with a side-to-side motion similar to placental ungulates. In fact, mesungulatids were initially mistaken for early ungulates based on how convergently similar their teeth looked, hence their group’s name.
Known from the Late Cretaceous of Argentina (72-66 mya), Coloniatherium was one of the bigger mesungulatids (although not as large as the dog-sized Cenozoic Peligrotherium). Its full body size is uncertain, but it might have been similar to a modern marmot at around 50cm in length (1′8″).
It lived in a coastal plain or estuary environment and was one of the most common mammals in its ecosystem, suggesting mesungulatids were a particularly successful lineage despite reaching sizes where they would potentially have been directly competing with small herbivorous dinosaurs.
Cronopio was one of the earliest South American dryolestoids, living during the start of the Late Cretaceous of Argentina (100-94 mya). Known only from partial skull material, it had a long snout and enlarged canine teeth which gave it a superficial resemblance to the fictional “sabertoothed squirrel” Scrat from the Ice Age film series.
Although its full size and appearance is unknown, it’s estimated to have measured about 15cm long (6″). It was probably an insectivore or an omnivore, but the rather delicate nature of its snout and fangs suggest it had a weak bite and relied on strong jaw muscles to chew up its food with a specialized rotating motion. It’s also not clear whether its saberteeth had a function for feeding, or if they were used for display and fighting like in somemoderndeer.
And while I’ve reconstructed Cronopio here with ankle spurs, it’s actually unknown whether dryolestoids had this feature. They occupied an evolutionary position between mammals that definitely had spurs (symmetrodonts) and ones that definitely didn’t (therians), but fossil remains of dryolestoid ankles are poorly-preserved and incomplete.
(I also wanted to do a depiction that wasn’t so blatantly Scrat-like, because that’s become sort of a paleoart meme. Soft-tissue and long fur can really change the outward appearance of mammals, so enjoy this weird tiny pig-rat version of Cronopio.)