The most likely ancestors of birds evolved in the Jurassic from a group of nimble and mainly carnivorous theropod dinosaurs known as Deinonychosaurs, which included the now famed Velociraptor. One of the oddest fossils ever found was the skeleton of one of these preserved together with eggs of what were originally thought to have been laid by Protoceratops. This Mongolian animal, seemingly caught in the act, was given the name Oviraptor or ‘egg seizer’. Specimens of Oviraptor and closely related dinosaurs found subsequently show them sitting on eggs; clear evidence of bird-like brooding. If this wasn’t a sufficient surprise, the clutches were enormous: 20 to 30 eggs. Detailed study of the skeletons shows that they are all males (Varricchio, D.J. et al. 2008. Avian parental care had dinosaur origin. Science, v. 322, p. 1826-1828). About 90% of all living bird species involve males in care of chicks, including sharing of incubation (5% of mammals share parental care). However, only among ratites (ostriches and the like) and tinamous do males brood eggs clutches continuously. This behaviour is generally associated with polygamy and large clutches. So the misnamed Oviraptor and its kin were not only progenitors of birds but may well have passed on the peculiarities of avian parenting.
Molecular evidence for the environment of the universal ancestor
If ever there were a ‘holy grail’ for palaeobiologists, it would be the nature and ecology of the original beings from which all life on Earth subsequently evolved. That is, the primitive organism – among perhaps many that were extinguished ‘intestate’ – whose genetic ‘footprint’ alone survived to be common to all three domains of modern life: Archaea, Bacteria and Eucarya. For some time, attention has focused on extant heat-tolerant Archaea and Bacteria species (hyperthermophiles; ³ 80ºC)) found in hot springs, whose genetics seem primitive. This, together with other features such as the adaptation of heat-shock proteins to other functions and the abundance of metals at the cores of other widespread proteins, has led to notions that life originated under high-temperature conditions such as those around sea-floor hydrothermal vents. The ongoing explosion in nucleic acid analysis and software to sift through vast amounts of molecular data from many sources potentially may provide the key to more concrete ideas of the origin of Earth’s life. A recent comparative study of both ribosomal RNA and protein sequences among representatives of all three of life’s domains gives a clue to surprises ahead for palaeobiologists (Boussau, B. et al. 2008. Parallel adaptations to high temperatures in the Archaean eon. Nature, v. 456, p. 942-945). ‘Exobiologists’, who nurture great, but perhaps folorn, hopes of being alive and sentient when extraterrestrial life forms are ‘bagged’ may also find themselves perplexed; such is the fate of hubris without substance.
The team of francophone biochemists claims that their analyses show signs of a two-fold adaptation to changing environments during the earliest period of surviving life. Rather than having emerged from high-temperature conditions, the last common universal ancestor, or LUCA, probably adapted to more temperate conditions (£ 50ºC), the hyperthermophile Bacteria, Archaea and Eucarya evolving from it. Heat tolerance then declined as the later mass of life forms developed. Sadly, the authors do not address the issue of deep ocean-floor origins in their discussion, preferring to speculate about Archaean climate change and rather odd notions about adaptation to high-temperature meteoritic ejection from extraterrestrial sources. It may be that they too are in for surprises when more mature investigations hit the press.
When bacteria became more sturdy
It’s easy for geologists to forget that most of the genetic diversity on Earth is and always has been in organisms that rarely if ever fossilise; those with only a single cell, among the Archaea, Bacteria and Eucarya. All that is known is from those still alive, and they occupy a vast range of environments, most of which are not ‘friendly’ to multi-celled eukaryotes. Unsurprisingly, they don’t look very different from one another; just tiny bags full of water and a tiny amount of complicated biochemistry. They become distinct from their molecular make-up and also from what they do and where they live, some tending to reproduce best within the bodies of eukaryotes, such as ourselves sometimes with no noticeable effect, sometimes beneficially, but most spectacularly when they make us ill. Bacteria and Archaea have long histories, so their genetic material and proteins are easily distinguishable from group to group. This makes them amenable to the use of a ‘molecular clock’ approach in seeking out when and how they evolved. Analysis of these differences among more than 250 species of bacteria in the context of their living in water or under terrestrial conditions has thrown up some surprises (Battistuzzi, F.U. & Hedges, S.B. 2008. A major clade of prokaryotes with ancient adaptations to life on land. Molecular Biology and Evolution, doi:10.1093/molbev/msn247). Two thirds seem to stem from a common ancestor that had colonised the land around 3.2 Ga ago, 800 Ma before preservation of the first undisputed fossils. To live on the continental surface, all have to have evolved or inherited resistance to environmental hazards such as drying out, UV radiation and high salinity. Many pathogenic bacteria belong to the Gram-positive group, whose cell walls are distinctly adapted to terrestrial life. Despite having to live in eukaryote-free world for a billion years or more, their ancestors were especially well-suited to infesting multi-celled life when it emerged, and to being notoriously adaptable when they are threatened with toxicity themselves.