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Bug-eating animal may be earliest ancestor to mammals

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A 0.2-kilogram, furry-tailed animal that probably ate bugs may have been the earliest ancestor of mammals, a group of more than 5,100 species including humans, according to the largest-ever study of the group's ancestry.

Researchers mapped genetic data with fossil evidence, creating a new family tree with the hypothetical ancestor, according to a study in the journal Science. They focused on placental mammals, such as humans, dogs and cats, that develop a placenta to nourish the young before a live birth. Scientists have debated the time period when these mammals came into existence. Fossil evidence suggested that after the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event when the dinosaurs died, mammals quickly evolved to fill now-empty ecological niches. Genetic data suggested mammals may have evolved earlier. The two were combined for the finding published Thursday, which uses a data set more than 10 times larger than any previous study of mammalian anatomical relationships. "There are many more species to add, and I want to continue to look for fossils that will fit on this tree and tell us more about it, either on the dinosaur or mammal side," said Maureen O'Leary, a study author and paleontologist at the Stony Brook University School of Medicine.

-- Bloomberg News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 9, 2013 A23

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