Month of Mesozoic Mammals #22: Mole-Mimics


Some of the closest cousins to the therians, or perhaps even their direct ancestors, dryolestoids first appeared in the mid-Jurassic (~168 mya) and were found throughout North America, Eurasia, and North Africa up until the Early Cretaceous (~125 mya). But despite mostly disappearing from the northern hemisphere fossil record at that point, they moved into South America and flourished, becoming some of the most diverse and common mammals there during the Late Cretaceous.

A few even survived the end-Cretaceous mass extinction, with one of the largest members of the group known from the start of the Cenozoic. Then they disappeared again, only for a final survivor to turn up in the Miocene – just 17.5 million years ago.

(There’s also a fringe proposal that modern marsupial moles might even be living dryolestoids – but that paper hasn’t been peer-reviewed and genetic analyses still place them firmly as true marsupials.)

Paurodon lived during the Late Jurassic of western North America (155-145 mya). Although known only from jaws and teeth, the fossil material seems to represent a series of different growth stages, and it was probably a mouse-sized animal growing to about 10-15cm long (4-6″)

Although some of its close relatives appear to have been tree-climbers, Paurodon’s jaws strongly resemble those of modern golden moles – suggesting it was similarly specialized for a diet of earthworms, and may even have had a subterranean mole-like lifestyle.

Month of Mesozoic Mammals #21: Small Climbers


Now we move further along the theriiform branch of the mammal family tree, into a group known as the trechnotherians. This is the lineage that contains modern marsupials and placentals (therians) along with their closest relatives – including today’s subject, the symmetrodonts.

Symmetrodonts are known throughout most of the Cretaceous period, with one possible late-surviving member in the early Cenozoic. They were small mammals with distinctively-shaped teeth specialized for carnivorous and insectivorous diets, and their skeletons show an odd mix of therian-like and monotreme-like anatomy – although the more “primitive” features are thought to be due to either convergent evolution or an evolutionary reversion.

One species, Spalacotheridium noblei, is known from some especially tiny teeth, and may have been one of the smallest mammals to ever live.

At first symmetrodonts were known only from fossil teeth and jaws, but Zhangheotherium was the first to be discovered with a complete skeleton. Living during the Early Cretaceous of China (130-122 mya), it had a body length of 15cm (6″) – similar in size to a hamster – and a total length including the tail of about 25cm (10″).

It had spurs on its ankles that may have been venomous, and a more sprawling posture than therian mammals, along with limb proportions that suggest it was adapted for climbing.

It was sometimes preyed upon by theropod dinosaurs, as a specimen of Sinosauropteryx is known with Zhangheotherium bones in its stomach.