Paris - Conventional wisdom holds that during the Mesozoic Era, mammals were small creatures that held on at life's edges, but now scientists say at least one mammal group flourished.
Rodent-like creatures called multituberculates appeared during the last 20 million years of the dinosaurs' reign and survived after dinosaurs became extinct 66 million years ago.
New research led by a University of Washington palaeontologist suggests that the multituberculates did so well in part because they developed numerous tubercles (bumps, or cusps) on their back teeth that allowed them to feed largely on angiosperms, flowering plants that were just becoming commonplace.
"These mammals were able to radiate in terms of numbers of species, body size and shapes of their teeth, which influenced what they ate," said Gregory P Wilson, a UW assistant professor of biology.
He is the lead author of a paper documenting the research, published on Wednesday in the online edition of Nature.
Some 170 million years ago, multituberculates were about the size of a mouse.
Angiosperms started to appear about 140 million years ago and after that the small mammals' body sizes increased, eventually ranging as large as a beaver.
Following the dinosaur extinction, multituberculates continued to flourish until other mammals - mostly primates, ungulates and rodents - gained a competitive advantage. That ultimately led to multituberculate extinction about 34 million years ago.
The scientists examined teeth from 41 multituberculate species kept in fossil collections worldwide, to determine in which direction various patches of the tooth surfaces were facing.
They used laser and computed tomography (or CT) scanning to create 3D images of the teeth in very high resolution, less than 30 microns (smaller than one-third the diameter of a human hair).
Using geographic information system software, they analysed the tooth shape much as a geographer might in examining a mountain range when charting topography, Wilson said.
Carnivores have relatively simple teeth, with perhaps 110 patches per tooth row, because their food is easily broken down, Wilson said.
But animals that depend more on vegetation for sustenance have teeth with substantially more patches because much of their food is broken down by the teeth.
In some multituberculates, sharper bladelike teeth situated toward the front of the mouth became less prominent over time and the teeth in the back became very complex, with as many as 348 patches per tooth row, ideal for crushing plant material.
The researchers concluded that some angiosperms apparently suffered little from the dinosaur extinction event, since the multituberculates that ate them continued to prosper.
As the plants spread, the population of insect pollinators likely grew too and species feeding on insects also would have benefited, Wilson said.
The paper's authors are Alistair Evans of Monash University in Australia; Ian Corfe, Mikael Fortelius and Jukka Jernvall of the University of Helsinki in Finland; and Peter Smits of the UW and Monash University.
The research was funded by the National Science Foundation, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, the University of Washington, the Australian Research Council, Monash University, Academy of Finland and the European Union's Synthesis of Systematic Resources.