Mammalian hearing adaptation is made possible by a sophisticated middle ear of three tiny bones, known as the hammer (malleus), the anvil (incus) and the stirrup (stapes), plus a bony ring for the eardrum (tympanic membrane).
The mammal middle ear bones evolved from the bones of the jaw hinge in their reptilian relatives. However, paleontologists long have attempted to understand the evolutionary pathway via which these precursor jaw bones became separated from the jaw and moved into the middle ear of modern mammals.
"Now we have a definitive piece of evidence, in a beautifully preserved fossil split on two rock slabs," said Luo. "Yanoconodon clearly shows an intermediate condition in the evolutionary process of how modern mammals acquired their middle ear structure."
Yanoconodon is about 5 inches (or 15 cm) long and estimated to weigh about 30 grams. Its teeth are notable for the three cusps in a straight line on molars (thus known as a triconodont) for feeding on insects and worms. It has a long body, short and sprawling limbs and claws that were ideal for either digging or living on the ground.
In addition to its unique ear structure, Yanoconodon also has a surprisingly high number of 26 thoracic ("chest") and lumbar ("waist") vertebrae, unlike most living and extinct terrestrial mammals that commonly have 19 or 20 thoracic and lumbar vertebrae. The extra vertebrae give Yanoconodon a more elongated body form, in contrast to its relatively shorter and very primitive limb and foot structures. The new mammal also has lumbar ribs, a rare feature among modern mammals.
"The discoveries of exquisitely preserved Mesozoic mammals from China have built the evidence such that biologists and paleontologists are able to make sense of how developmental mechanisms have impacted the morphological evolution of the earliest mammals," said Luo.
Source:National Science Foundation