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Flintstones was (sort of) true: Mammals did well alongside dinosaurs

Fred and Barney would have been proto-mice not men, though

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Everyone knows that The Flintstones was wrong: not only did humans and dinosaurs not exist at the same time, even our earliest mammalian ancestors had barely come upon the world stage at the time when the great lizards departed it.

Not so, says paleontologist Gregory Wilson. He and his fellow bone-botherers have been probing the history of a group of proto-mammals called the multituberculates, and it seems that in fact these little chaps were already well on the road to furry live-birth dominance while the dinos were still very much on top.

Wilson and his fellow boffins worked this out, essentially, by analysing the bumpiness of the primitive, diminutive Barney Rubbles and Fred Flintstones' teeth. It seems that bumpier teeth are an indicator of herbivorous diet: the smoother gnasher is generally to be found on a meat-eater creature.

Using this crafty chomp analysis, the paleontologists were able to work out that the cunning multituberculates exploited a change in plant life to gain themselves a rich new source of food just a few million years before the dinos vanished. The early mammalians were feasting happily on new species of just-evolved flowering plants, having in many cases switched from a carnivorous life scoffing insects and small creatures and the like, when the great series of extinctions which saw off the dinosaurs swept the world.

It's generally thought that these may have been triggered by the upset following a massive asteroid strike, but whatever the cause it didn't affect the new trees, herbaceous plants and so forth which our small ancestors had switched to feeding upon. Thus the mammals were already gaining size and numbers, and stood poised already to conquer the planet as the cumbersome monstro-lizards made their exit.

So, while the Flintstones is still wrong, the new research indicates that it isn't quite as wrong as had been supposed.

You can read all about it courtesy of hefty boffinry mag Nature: or there's a layman's digest available from rival publication Science. ®

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