Morganucodon, Our Oldest Mammal Ancestor

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If you ask a zoologist what would define or characterise most mammals, he or she would probably talk about their dentition, which has characteristically three different types of teeth combined: incisive, canines and molars.

All these types of teeth are known in species of different genera but all combined are typical of most mammals. Other genera, as we said, also sport them but like in the case of the dinosaurs, usually not combined, or at most, in pairs, but seldom in a triad.

Gea explorers collecting fossil samples.
Gea explorers collecting fossil samples.

A complex dentition structure seems to be one of the key aspects of the adaptability and versatility of mammals, which are animals that can easily conquer any sort of environment pretty soon. And in fact, whenever a scientist finds a new species of vertebrate, one of the first things studied are the teeth of the animal.

However, the evolution from reptile to mammal is not quite clear; while the late Triassic 'Morganucodon' is recognised and accepted as the oldest identified mammal, many of these primitive relatives of us share common structures with reptiles and dinosaurs.

A fossil has been found.
A fossil has been found.

The 'Heterodontosaurus' was a dinosaur that lived in what is now South Africa, during the late Jurassic. This animal had the three teeth types combined, like a mammal and curiously enough was similar in size and weight to a small child. It was also a bipedal animal.

The history of the evolution of mammals us also a tale of survival and adaptability; although the group to which we humans belong attained evolutionary supremacy after the K-T event, when dinosaurs and several other groups disappeared, the history of mammals - the biggest part of it, so far - has been market by endurance and survival in the shadows against all odds in a very hostile world.

These are not things usually learned during a course such as this one, but they are in fact the ones that make the difference between just learning, and learning the most.

While this ammonite, relative of modern day squids, was alive, there were already mammals and dinosaurs on Earth.
While this ammonite, relative of modern day squids, was alive, there were already mammals and dinosaurs on Earth.

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