Resolving the timing and pattern of early placental mammal evolution has been confounded by conflict among divergence date estimates from interpretation of the fossil record and from molecular-clock dating studies. Despite both fossil occurrences and molecular sequences favouring a Cretaceous origin for Placentalia, no unambiguous Cretaceous placental mammal has been discovered. Investigating the differing patterns of evolution in morphological and molecular data reveals a possible explanation for this conflict. Here, we quantified the relationship between morphological and molecular rates of evolution. We show that, independent of divergence dates, morphological rates of evolution were slow relative to molecular evolution during the initial divergence of Placentalia, but substantially increased during the origination of the extant orders. The rapid radiation of placentals into a highly morphologically disparate Cenozoic fauna is thus not associated with the origin of Placentalia, but post-dates superordinal origins. These findings predict that early members of major placental groups may not be easily distinguishable from one another or from stem eutherians on the basis of skeleto-dental morphology. This result supports a Late Cretaceous origin of crown placentals with an ordinal-level adaptive radiation in the early Paleocene, with the high relative rate permitting rapid anatomical change without requiring unreasonably fast molecular evolutionary rates. The lack of definitive Cretaceous placental mammals may be a result of morphological similarity among stem and early crown eutherians, providing an avenue for reconciling the fossil record with molecular divergence estimates for Placentalia.
|Number of pages||10|
|Journal||Royal Society of London. Proceedings B. Biological Sciences|
|Publication status||Published - 6 Mar 2019|
- molecular clock