Therian mammals experience an ecomorphological radiation during the Late Cretaceous and selective extinction at the K–Pg boundary
Grossnickle et al
It is often postulated that mammalian diversity was suppressed during the Mesozoic Era and increased rapidly after the Cretaceous–Palaeogene (K–Pg) extinction event. We test this hypothesis by examining macroevolutionary patterns in early therian mammals, the group that gave rise to modern placentals and marsupials. We assess morphological disparity and dietary trends using morphometric analyses of lower molars, and we evaluate generic level taxonomic diversity patterns using techniques that account for sampling biases. In contrast with the suppression hypothesis, our results suggest that an ecomorphological diversification of therians began 10–20 Myr prior to the K–Pg extinction event, led by disparate metatherians and Eurasian faunas. This diversification is concurrent with ecomorphological radiations of multituberculate mammals and flowering plants, suggesting that mammals as a whole benefitted from the ecological rise of angiosperms. In further contrast with the suppression hypothesis, therian disparity decreased immediately after the K–Pg boundary, probably due to selective extinction against ecological specialists and metatherians. However, taxonomic diversity trends appear to have been decoupled from disparity patterns, remaining low in the Cretaceous and substantially increasing immediately after the K–Pg extinction event. The conflicting diversity and disparity patterns suggest that earliest Palaeocene extinction survivors, especially eutherian dietary generalists, underwent rapid taxonomic diversification without considerable morphological diversification.