Temporal niche expansion in mammals from a nocturnal ancestor after dinosaur extinction

Abstract

Most modern mammals, including strictly diurnal species, exhibit sensory adaptations to nocturnal activity that are thought to be the result of a prolonged nocturnal phase or ‘bottleneck’ during early mammalian evolution. Nocturnality may have allowed mammals to avoid antagonistic interactions with diurnal dinosaurs during the Mesozoic. However, understanding the evolution of mammalian activity patterns is hindered by scant and ambiguous fossil evidence. While ancestral reconstructions of behavioural traits from extant species have the potential to elucidate these patterns, existing studies have been limited in taxonomic scope. Here, we use an extensive behavioural dataset for 2,415 species from all extant orders to reconstruct ancestral activity patterns across Mammalia. We find strong support for the nocturnal origin of mammals and the Cenozoic appearance of diurnality, although cathemerality (mixed diel periodicity) may have appeared in the late Cretaceous. Simian primates are among the earliest mammals to exhibit strict diurnal activity, some 52–33 million years ago. Our study is consistent with the hypothesis that temporal partitioning between early mammals and dinosaurs during the Mesozoic led to a mammalian nocturnal bottleneck, but also demonstrates the need for improved phylogenetic estimates for Mammalia.

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Fig. 1: Activity pattern distributions across the SF and LF estimates of mammalian evolution.
Fig. 2: PP density of ancestral activity pattern reconstructions of the MRCA of crown-group Mammalia from SF and LF phylogenies.
Fig. 3: Reconstruction of ancestral activity patterns and character accumulation across the SF hypothesis of mammalian evolution.
Fig. 4: Reconstruction of ancestral activity patterns and character accumulation across the LF hypothesis of mammalian evolution.

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Acknowledgements

We thank T. C. D. Lucas, S. Meiri, E. E. Dyer, O. Comay and I. Pizer-Mason for technical assistance and providing data, and N. Kronfeld-Schor for discussion. This work was funded with support from Israel Science Foundation grant 785/09 (to T.D.), the Tel Aviv University Global Research and Training Fellowship fund and Naomi Kadar Foundation (to R.M.), and a NERC Open CASE PhD studentship (NE/H018565/1) (to H.F.-G.).

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R.M., T.D. and K.E.J. developed the overall study design. R.M. collected and processed the data and carried out the analyses with assistance from H.F.-G. R.M. and K.E.J. led on the writing of the paper with significant contributions from all authors.

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Correspondence to Roi Maor or Kate E. Jones.

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Table with activity pattern data for 2415 mammalian species.

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Maor, R., Dayan, T., Ferguson-Gow, H. et al. Temporal niche expansion in mammals from a nocturnal ancestor after dinosaur extinction. Nat Ecol Evol 1, 1889–1895 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-017-0366-5

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