December 22, 2016
Many mammals and birds are remarkable athletes; mice work hard to dig burrows for protection and sparrows fight gravity with each flap of their wings. In order to have the energy to sustain vigorous exercise, the body's tissues need a steady supply of oxygen, and red blood cells (RBCs) are the center of the oxygen delivery system. Size matters, too; athletic mammals and birds have much smaller RBCs than other vertebrates with lesser capacities for exercise. Biologists have long been puzzled over the evolutionary origins of RBC size. Were predecessors of mammals and birds—including dinosaurs—athletes and did they have tiny red blood cells? How do you measure the blood of extinct animals?
Now, biologists at the University of Utah and the Natural History Museum of Utah have established a 'fossilizable' indicator of athleticism in the bones of extinct vertebrates.
The study, which published online in Current Biology on Dec. 22, is the first to draw a link between RBC size and the microscopic traces of blood vessels and bone cells inside the bone. The researchers measured the bony channels that deliver oxygen to bone tissue to pinpoint when our mammal ancestors, bird and dinosaur predecessors evolved small RBCs. They found that extinct mammal relatives, or cynodonts, and extinct bird relatives had smaller RBCs and were likely better athletes than earlier terrestrial vertebrates. The timing of RBC-size reduction coincided with the greatest mass extinction event on Earth 252 million years ago, an event that paved the way for the age of the dinosaurs.
"Some people look at fossils, and they see rocks—but these were living and breathing organisms. To be able to find proxies that tell us something like this, it gets us to think about living organisms in their environments," says lead author Adam Huttenlocker of the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, who completed the research as a postdoctoral fellow at the U and THE MUSEUM. "It allows us to think about the overall implications for mass extinction. What were some of the physiological innovations that allowed them to be successful? That's really exciting."