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

  • Nature Ecology & Evolutionvolume 1pages18891895 (2017)
  • doi:10.1038/s41559-017-0366-5
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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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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.).

Author information


  1. School of Zoology, George S. Wise Faculty of Life Science, Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv, 6997801, Israel

    • Roi Maor
    •  & Tamar Dayan
  2. Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research, Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment, University College London, Gower Street, London, WC1E 6BT, UK

    • Roi Maor
    • , Henry Ferguson-Gow
    •  & Kate E. Jones
  3. The Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv, 6997801, Israel

    • Tamar Dayan
  4. Institute of Zoology, Zoological Society of London, Regent’s Park, London, NW1 4RY, UK

    • Kate E. Jones


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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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Roi Maor or Kate E. Jones.

Electronic supplementary material

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary figure and table.

  2. Life Sciences Reporting Summary

  3. Supplementary Table

    Table with activity pattern data for 2415 mammalian species.