Temporal range: non-mammalian synapsids: Upper Carboniferous – Lower Cretaceous
|Dimetrodon grandis skeleton at the National Museum of Natural History, U.S.A.|
|Orders & Suborders|
For complete phylogeny, see text.
Synapsids ('fused arch'), is a taxonomic class of tetrapods. This class includes mammals and earlier groups related to mammals. Synapsids are one of the two major groups of amniotes. The sister group, which gave rise to the reptiles, is the Sauropsida. Both groups evolved from early amniotes about 345 million years ago during the early or mid Carboniferous period.
The pelycosaurs were dominant on land in the Permian, and went under at the Permian–Triassic extinction event. The therapsids were dominant on land in the Lower Triassic, but by the Upper Triassic the dinosaurs had taken over.
Primitive and advanced synapsids
The mammal-like reptiles are traditionally divided into a primitive group and an advanced group, known respectively as pelycosaurs and therapsids. Pelycosaurs are a paraphyletic group of six primitive families of synapsids.120 They were all rather lizard-like with sprawling gait and possibly horny scutes. The therapsids contain the more advanced synapsids, having a more erect pose and possibly hair, at least in some forms. The latter are the ancestors of mammals. Thus both of the two synapsid groups represent evolutionary grades: the pelycosaurs have given rise to the therapsids, who in their turn have given rise to the mammals.
Mammals and reptiles
The therapsids ('beast face') used to be called mammal-like reptiles. This was a mistake, because they were never reptiles. The split between Synapsids and Sauropsids (the group which gave rise to reptiles) took place long before therapsids evolved.
There are a number of characteristics which cannot be seen on fossils, but which are of great importance. Mammals are distinguished from reptiles by fundamental differences in the development of the blood system. These differences are such that it would be almost impossible for mammals to be derived from reptiles.
- " It is clearly quite impossible for the condition found in birds and modern reptiles to have arisen from that found in mammals or vice versa". Kermack.6
This supports the division of amniotes into sauropsida and synapsida.
A parallel development took place in the diapsida, who evolved two rather than one opening behind each eye.
The trend towards differentiation is found in some labyrinthodonts and early anapsid reptilians. They have enlarged first teeth on the maxilla, forming a form of proto-canines. This trait was subsequently lost in the sauropsid line, but developed further in the synapsids. Early synapsids could have 2 or even 3 enlarged 'canines', but in the therapsids, the pattern had settled to one canine in each upper jaw half. The lower canines developed later.
Archaeothyris and Clepsydrops, the earliest known synapsids, lived in the Pennsylvanian subperiod (323-299 Mya) of the Carboniferous period and belonged to the series of primitive synapsids which are conventionally grouped as pelycosaurs. The pelycosaurs spread and diversified, becoming the largest terrestrial animals in the latest Carboniferous and Early Permian periods, ranging up to 6 metres (20 ft) in length. They were sprawling, bulky, possibly cold-blooded, and had small brains. Some, such as Dimetrodon, had large sails that might have helped raise their body temperature. A few relict groups lasted into the later Permian but, by the middle of the Late Permian, all of the pelycosaurs had either died off or evolved into their successors, the therapsids.
The therapsids, a more advanced group of synapsids, appeared during the Middle Permian and included the largest terrestrial animals in the Middle and Late Permian. They included herbivores and carnivores, ranging from small animals the size of a rat (e.g.: Robertia), to large, bulky herbivores a ton or more in weight (e.g.: Moschops). After flourishing for many millions of years, these successful animals were all but wiped out by the Permian-Triassic mass extinction about 250 mya, the largest known extinction in Earth's history, possibly related to the Siberian Traps volcanic event.
Only a few therapsids went on to be successful in the new early Triassic landscape; they include Lystrosaurus and Cynognathus, the latter of which appeared later in the early Triassic. Now, however, they were accompanied by the early archosaurs (soon to give rise to the dinosaurs). Some of these, such as Euparkeria, were small and lightly built, while others, such as Erythrosuchus, were as big as or bigger than the largest therapsids.
After the Permian extinction, the synapsids did not count more than three surviving clades. The first comprised the therocephalians, which only lasted the first 20 million years of the Triassic period. The second were specialised, beaked herbivores known as dicynodonts (such as the Kannemeyeriidae), which contained some members that reached large size (up to a tonne or more). And finally there were the increasingly mammal-like carnivorous, herbivorous, and insectivorous cynodonts, including the eucynodonts from the Olenekian age, an early representative of which was Cynognathus.
Unlike the dicynodonts, which were large, the cynodonts became progressively smaller and more mammal-like as the Triassic progressed, though some forms like Trucidocynodon remained large. The first mammaliaforms evolved from the cynodonts during the early Norian age of the Late Triassic, about 225 mya.
During the evolutionary succession from early therapsid to cynodont to eucynodont to mammal, the main lower jaw bone, the dentary, replaced the adjacent bones. Thus, the lower jaw gradually became just one large bone, with several of the smaller jaw bones migrating into the inner ear and allowing sophisticated hearing.
Whether through climate change, vegetation change, ecological competition, or a combination of factors, most of the remaining large cynodonts (belonging to the Traversodontidae) and dicynodonts (of the family Kannemeyeriidae) had disappeared by the Rhaetian age, even before the Triassic-Jurassic extinction event that killed off most of the large nondinosaurian archosaurs. The remaining Mesozoic synapsids were small, ranging from the size of a shrew to the badger-like mammal Repenomamus.
During the Jurassic and Cretaceous, the remaining nonmammalian cynodonts were small, such as Tritylodon. No cynodont grew larger than a cat. Most Jurassic and Cretaceous cynodonts were herbivorous, though some were carnivorous. The family Tritheledontidae, that first appeared near the end of the Triassic, was carnivorous and persisted well into the Middle Jurassic. The other, Tritylodontidae, first appeared at the same time as the tritheledonts, but was herbivorous. This group became extinct at the end of the Early Cretaceous epoch. Dicynodonts are thought to have become extinct near the end of the Triassic period, but there is evidence this group survived. New fossil finds have been found in the Cretaceous rocks of Gondwana.
Today, the 5,500 species of living synapsids, known as the mammals, include both aquatic (whales) and flying (bats) species, and the largest animal ever known to have existed (the blue whale). Humans are synapsids, as well. Most mammals are viviparous and give birth to live young rather than laying eggs with the exception being the monotremes.
Triassic and Jurassic ancestors of living mammals, along with their close relatives, had high metabolic rates. This meant consuming food (generally thought to be insects) in much greater quantity. To facilitate rapid digestion, these synapsids evolved mastication (chewing) and specialized teeth that aided chewing. Limbs also evolved to move under the body instead of to the side, allowing them to breathe more efficiently during locomotion. This helped make it possible to support their higher metabolic demands.
Images for kids
The sea otter has the densest fur of modern mammals.
Synapsid Facts for Kids. Kiddle Encyclopedia.