UW News

December 8, 2016

New study traces the marsupial origins in N. America, finds mammals during Age of Dinosaurs packed a powerful bite

Burke Museum

a picture of an extinct mammal

A rendering of the early marsupial relative, Didelphodon vorax.Misaki Ouchida

Move over, hyenas and saber-toothed cats; there’s a mammal with an even stronger bite. A new study by paleontologists at the Burke Museum of Natural History & Culture and the University of Washington describes an early marsupial relative called Didelphodon vorax that lived alongside dinosaurs and had, pound-for-pound, the strongest bite force of any mammal ever recorded.

Published in the journal Nature Communications, the team’s findings suggest mammals were more varied during the age of dinosaurs than previously believed. Didelphodon was able to eat a variety of foods and was likely a scavenger-predator who could eat prey ranging from snails to small dinosaurs.

In addition, the team re-traced the origins of marsupials. Previous theories attribute South America as the origin of marsupials, but anatomical features of the Didelphodon point to marsupials originating in North America 10 to 20 million years earlier than originally thought and later dispersing and diversifying in South America.

A scientist holding a skull

Greg Wilson holding a fossilized Didelphodon skull.Burke Museum of Natural History & Culture

“What I love about Didelphodon vorax is that it crushes the classic mold of Mesozoic mammals,” Greg Wilson, Burke Museum adjunct curator of vertebrate paleontology and UW associate professor of biology. “Instead of a shrew-like mammal meekly scurrying into the shadows of dinosaurs, this badger-sized mammal would’ve been a fearsome predator on the Late Cretaceous landscape — even for some dinosaurs.”

All of these findings are made possible by four fossil specimens recently discovered in the 66 to 69 million-year-old deposits of the Hell Creek Formation in Montana and North Dakota. Prior to these discoveries, the 60 known species of metatherians (marsupials and their closest relatives) from the Cretaceous of North America — including Didelphodon — were almost all identified through fragments of jaw bones or teeth, providing a limited glimpse into marsupials’ closest relatives. These four fossils include a nearly-complete skull from the North Dakota Geological Survey State Fossil collection, a partial snout and an upper jaw bone from the Burke Museum’s collections, and another upper jaw from the Sierra College Natural History Museum.

By analyzing never-before-seen parts of Didelphodon‘s anatomy, Wilson and his colleagues were able to determine these marsupial relatives were about the size of today’s Virginia opossum and were the largest metatherian from the Cretaceous. With a nearly complete skull to measure, they were able to estimate the overall size of Didelphodon, which ranged from 5.3 to 11.5 pounds.

A scientist holding a fossil.

A close-up of the snout of a Didelphodon from the Burke Museum’s collection.Burke Museum of Natural History & Culture

To test the bite force of Didelphodon, Abby Vander Linden, then a UW Biology research technician working with UW biology professor and Burke Museum curator Sharlene Santana, CT-scanned the fossils and compared the gaps in reconstructed skulls where jaw muscles would go to those of present-day mammals with known bite forces. Bite force measurements indicate that, pound-for-pound, Didelphodon had the strongest bite force of any mammal that has ever lived. In addition to the bite force, Didelphodon‘s canines were similar to living felines and hyenas — suggesting they could handle biting into bone, biting deep and killing prey. Its shearing molars and big rounded premolars, combined with powerful jaws and jaw muscles, indicate it had a specific niche in the food web as a predator or scavenger capable of crushing hard bone or shells, and was capable of eating prey as big as it was — even possibly small dinosaurs.

“I expected Didelphodon to have a fairly powerful bite based on the robust skull and teeth, but even I was surprised when we performed the calculations and found that, when adjusted for body size, it was capable of a stronger pound-for-pound bite than a hyena,” said Vander Linden, who is now a graduate student at University of Massachusetts Amherst. “That’s a seriously tough mammal.”

Fossils from extinct mammals.

Four fossilized specimens of Didelphodon vorax, including a partial snout (far-left), a mostly-complete skull (second-left) and two upper jaw bones (right).Burke Museum of Natural History & Culture

Co-author Jonathan Calede, former UW biology graduate student and now a visiting assistant professor at Bucknell University, also examined “microwear” patterns, or tiny pits and scratches on the specimens’ teeth, to indicate what the animals were eating as their “last suppers” a few days before the animals died. By comparing the microwear patterns from Didelphodon to the teeth of other fossilized species and current-day mammals from the Burke’s mammal collection, Calede found Didelphodon was an omnivore that likely consumed a range of vertebrates, plants and hard-shelled invertebrates like mollusks and crayfish, but few insects, spiders, earthworms or leeches.

“The interesting thing about these fossils is that they allowed us to study the ecology of Didelphodon from many angles,” said Calede. “The strength of the conclusions come from the convergence of microwear with bite force analysis, studies of the shape and breakage of the teeth, as well as the shape of the skull as a whole.”

The newly-described skull features on these fossils also provided clues that help clarify the origin of all marsupials. The team found five major lineages of marsupial ancestors and marsupials themselves diverged in North America 85 to 100 million years ago. Marsupial relatives also got larger and ate a wider variety of foods, which coincides with an increase in diversity of other early mammals and flowering plants. Most of this North American diversity was then lost gradually starting 79 million years ago, before abruptly dropping during the Cretaceous–Paleogene mass extinction 66 million years ago that also killed the dinosaurs. Around this time, marsupials’ diversity and evolution shifted to South America.

“Our study highlights how, despite decades of paleontology research, new fossil discoveries and new ways of analyzing those fossils can still fundamentally impact how we view something as central to us as the evolution of our own clade, mammals,” said Wilson.

Other co-authors were Eric Ekdale with San Diego State University and John Hoganson with the North Dakota Geological Survey. The research was funded by the University of Washington and the National Science Foundation.


For more information, contact Andrea Godinez at burkepr@uw.edu.

Adapted from a release by the Burke Museum.