SCIENCE
03/16/2012 01:06 pm ET Updated May 15, 2012

During Demise Of Dinosaurs, Early Mammals Had Reason To Smile (VIDEO)

Dr. Gregory P. Wilson is an Adjunct Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology and Assistant Professor of Biology at the Burke Museum of the University of Washington. He is also the lead author of a study that was published in Nature only two days ago, titled Adaptive Radiation of Multituberculate Mammals Before the Extinction of Dinosaurs.

Wilson's findings challenge a long-held notion that the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) extinction event was the launchpad for mammalian evolution into a diverse and proliferative group. Because of the shape of their teeth, multituberculates (the proto-mammals Wilson and his colleagues studied) were able to adapt to a diet of newly evolved angiosperms, or flowering plants, that would later survive the K-T event. So although humans never walked with dinosaurs (you hear that, Santorum?), some of our earliest ancestors seem to have done so, coming out on the other side of one of the most famous catastrophes in the history of the planet. And there's good reason to think that they survived because of their amazing teeth. For more information, I Skyped with Wilson about his study. Click on the video above/see the transcript below, and don't forget to leave a comment. Talk nerdy to me!

CARA SANTA MARIA: Hi everyone! Cara Santa Maria, here. Do you think a lot of people believe that man walked with dinosaurs?

GREG WILSON: Unfortunately I think that it may be a common notion among a good proportion of the population.

CSM: Young earth creationists aside, why would this fundamentally unscientific idea persist?

GW: Um [laughs] probably because of the Flintstones!

CSM: Dr. Greg Wilson authored a study that was just published in Nature describing one of our earliest ancestors, multituberculates. Of course the Flintstones got it wrong. Cavemen didn't keep sauropods as pets or use other dinosaurs as household tools. But Dr. Wilson and his colleagues' work provides strong evidence that these little guys were on the scene and thriving well before the dinosaurs died out.

GW: The multituberculates and the dinosaurs co-existed for about 90 to 100 million years.

CSM: Multituberculates weren't exactly mammals. But they may be one of our earliest mammalian ancestors.

GW: We don't know exactly how closely we're related, as humans, to multituberculates. Their teeth are so different from ours. But they probably diverged from the lineage that we're on about 170 million years ago. Multituberculates had broad teeth in the back and many bumps and they also had, in the front, a big blade-like tooth and then these saber-like teeth in the very front.

CSM: Holy crap!

GW: Some of the multituberculates were herbivores. Particularly those that evolved 20 million years before dinosaurs went extinct.

CSM: See, scientists have known for some time that rodent-like mammals co-existed with dinosaurs. Until now, they thought that the dinosaurs prevented mammals from diversifying until after the extinction event of the late Cretaceous. But Dr. Wilson's research argues that the special teeth of multituberculates gave them a distinct advantage.

GW: Multituberculates evolved a diversity of tooth forms in correlation with the evolution of angiosperms, or flowering plants. And that probably allowed them to diversify the types of niches that they could be in. And allowed them to survive this catastrophe that killed off the dinosaurs.

CSM: Do you know someone who still believes that man walked with dinosaurs? If so, don't forget to send this video their way. I'd love to hear your thoughts. You can reach out to me on Twitter, Facebook, or leave a comment right here on The Huffington Post. Come on, talk nerdy to me!

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