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The end-Cretaceous extinction led to a massive faunal turnover, with placental mammals radiating in the wake of nonavian dinosaurs. Fossils indicate that Cretaceous stem placentals were generally insectivorous, whereas their earliest Cenozoic descendants occupied a variety of dietary niches. It is hypothesized that this dietary radiation resulted from the opening of niche space, following the extinction of dinosaurian carnivores and herbivores. We provide the first genomic evidence for the occurrence and timing of this dietary radiation in placental mammals. By comparing the genomes of 107 placental mammals, we robustly infer that chitinase genes (CHIAs), encoding enzymes capable of digesting insect exoskeletal chitin, were present as five functional copies in the ancestor of all placental mammals, and the number of functional CHIAs in the genomes of extant species positively correlates with the percentage of invertebrates in their diets. The diverse repertoire of CHIAs in early placental mammals corroborates fossil evidence of insectivory in Cretaceous eutherians, with descendant lineages repeatedly losing CHIAs beginning at the Cretaceous/Paleogene (K/Pg) boundary as they radiated into noninsectivorous niches. Furthermore, the timing of gene loss suggests that interordinal diversification of placental mammals in the Cretaceous predates the dietary radiation in the early Cenozoic, helping to reconcile a long-standing debate between molecular timetrees and the fossil record. Our results demonstrate that placental mammal genomes, including humans, retain a molecular record of the post-K/Pg placental adaptive radiation in the form of numerous chitinase pseudogenes.
Emerling, C. A., Delsuc, F., & Nachman, M. W. (2018). Chitinase genes (CHIAs) provide genomic footprints of a post-Cretaceous dietary radiation in placental mammals. Science Advances, 4(5), 1-10. https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.aar6478