steropodon
Steropodon galmani, a platypus-like monotreme from the Early Cretaceous of Australia, was the first Mesozoic mammal discovered from Australia. Image: Dr Anne Musser
Dr Anne Musser

Fast Facts

  • Classification
    Species
    galmani
    Genus
    Steropodon
    Family
    Steropodontidae
    Division
    Monotremata
    Superdivision
    Australosphenida
    Infraclass
    Holotheria
    Subclass
    Mammaliaformes
    Class
    Mammalia
    Series
    Amniota
    Super Class
    Tetrapoda
    Subphylum
    Vertebrata
    Phylum
    Chordata
    Kingdom
    Animalia
  • Size Range
    Approx. 35 cm long (head to tail)
  • View Fossil Record
    Fossil Record
    Cretaceous Period
    (141 million years ago - 65 million years ago)

Introduction

Steropodon galmani, a platypus-like monotreme from the Early Cretaceous of Australia, was the first Mesozoic mammal discovered from Australia. It is known from an opalised lower jaw with molar teeth found at the mining town of Lightning Ridge in north central New South Wales. The teeth of Steropodon are similar to those of later fossil platypuses although its molars are more archaic in form. Steropodon lived alongside dinosaurs, crocodiles, early birds and other early mammals on the forested shores of the inland Cretaceous Eromanga Sea.

Identification

Judging from the size of its jaw, Steropodon would have been a small mammal about the size of the living platypus. Like other monotremes, it probably had short, stout limbs held out from the body (a primitive mammalian posture) and would have been an egg-layer. Aside from the lower jaw, the rest of its anatomy is unknown.

Steropodon had a compound lower jaw, with reduced 'accessory jaw bones' (small bones on the inside of the jaw that later in mammalian evolution become the middle ear bones). The jaw of Steropodon was similar in this respect to the jaw of the ancestors of mammals, to other basal mammals and the Cretaceous monotreme Teinolophos trusleri. Steropodon had three lower molar teeth with well-developed, V-shaped transverse ridges, simpler in form than the molars of toothed platypuses but otherwise similar. The lower molars of Steropodon have two deep roots, as in most other mammals but not as in platypuses, which have shallow, multiple roots on all molar teeth.

Habitat

Lightning Ridge in the Early Cretaceous was close to the Antarctic Circle and along the shores of the Eromanga Sea, an inland sea that covered vast areas of inland Australia 110 million years ago. This high latitude position meant that the area experienced extremes of daylight during winter and summer months, although the climate was much milder then than it is today. Preserved plant material (tree branches, conifer cones) are evidence that the Lightning Ridge area was forested, with araucarian conifers the dominant canopy trees. The understory would have included ferns and cycads.

Distribution

Steropodon was found at Lightning Ridge in north-central New South Wales. To date, Steropodon has not been found at any other locality.

Feeding and diet

Steropodon probably had a diet similar to that of the living platypus, including aquatic invertebrates, yabbies (freshwater crayfish) and other small aquatic animals such as fish. The molar teeth of Steropodon were more well developed and deeply rooted than in platypuses, however, and Steropodon may have been able to handle larger, more active prey.


Steropodon galmani
Steropodon was the first Mesozoic mammal discovered in Australia. This platypus-like animal is one of the most primitive monotremes (egg-laying mammals). A lower jaw containing three molar teeth of Steropodon was found in early Cretaceous sediments (about 110 million years old) at Lightning Ridge, a mining town known for its black opal. During the fossilisation process, the original jawbone and teeth were dissolved by acidic groundwater and replaced by opal. Image: Abram Powell
Australian Museum

Fossils description

The opalised, fragmentary jaw of Steropodon has three molar teeth and a partial tooth socket for the last premolar. This specimen is held by the Australian Museum.

Evolutionary relationships

Relationships of monotremes to other mammals are hotly debated. They may be related to other Southern Hemisphere mammals with triangulated teeth and primitive jaws (the Australosphenida of Luo et al. 2001, 2002). They may alternatively have evolved from some other Mesozoic group, as yet unknown. They are undoubtedly very ancient - perhaps Jurassic or even Triassic in origin - and there is much that is still unknown about mammalian evolution in the Southern Hemisphere during this time.

References

  • Archer, M., Flannery, T.F., Ritchie, A. & Molnar, R.E. 1985. First Mesozoic mammal from Australia - an early Cretaceous monotreme. Nature 318, 363-366.
  • Luo, Z., Cifelli, R.L. & Kielan-Jaworowska, Z. 2001. Dual origin of tribosphenic mammals. Nature 409, 53-57.
  • Luo, Z., Kielan-Jaworowska, Z. & Cifelli, R. 2002. In quest for a phylogeny of Mesozoic mammals. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 47, 1-78.
  • Musser, A.M. 2006. Furry egg-layers: monotreme relationships and radiations. pp. 523-550 in Merrick, J., Archer, M., Hickey, G. and Lee, M. S. Y. (eds) Evolution and Biogeography in Australasia. Australian Scientific Publishing, Sydney.
  • Rich, T. H., Vickers-Rich, P., Trusler, P., Flannery, T. F., Cifelli, R. L., Constantine, A., Kool, L. and van Klaveren, N. 2001b. Monotreme nature of the Australian Early Cretaceous mammal Teinolophos trusleri. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 46, 113-118.

Further reading

  • Long, J. A. et al. 2002. Dinosaurs of Australia and New Zealand and Other Animals of the Mesozoic Era. New South Wales University Press, Sydney; 188 pp.
  • Long, J. A. et al. 2002. Prehistoric Mammals of Australia and New Guinea: One Hundred Million Years of Evolution. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 240 pp.