Earliest evidence of mammalian social behaviour in the basal Tertiary of Bolivia

Earliest evidence of mammalian social behaviour in the basal Tertiary of Bolivia

Nature 474, 7349 (2011). doi:10.1038/nature09987

Authors: Sandrine Ladevèze, Christian de Muizon, Robin M. D. Beck, Damien Germain & Ricardo Cespedes-Paz

The vast majority of Mesozoic and early Cenozoic metatherian mammals (extinct relatives of modern marsupials) are known only from partial jaws or isolated teeth, which give insight into their probable diets and phylogenetic relationships but little else. The few skulls known are generally crushed, incomplete or both, and associated postcranial material is extremely rare. Here we report the discovery of an exceptionally large number of almost undistorted, nearly complete skulls and skeletons of a stem-metatherian, Pucadelphys andinus, in the early Palaeocene epoch of Tiupampa in Bolivia. These give an unprecedented glimpse into early metatherian morphology, evolutionary relationships and, especially, ecology. The remains of 35 individuals have been collected, with 22 of these represented by nearly complete skulls and associated postcrania. These individuals were probably buried in a single catastrophic event, and so almost certainly belong to the same population. The preservation of multiple adult, sub-adult and juvenile individuals in close proximity (<1 m2) is indicative of gregarious social behaviour or at least a high degree of social tolerance and frequent interaction. Such behaviour is unknown in living didelphids, which are highly solitary and have been regarded, perhaps wrongly, as the most generalized living marsupials. The Tiupampan P. andinus population also exhibits strong sexual dimorphism, which, in combination with gregariousness, suggests strong male–male competition and polygyny. Our study shows that social interactions occurred in metatherians as early as the basal Palaeocene and that solitary behaviour may not be plesiomorphic for Metatheria as a whole.