Michael Laaß and Anders Kaestner (2017)
Evidence for convergent evolution of a neocortex-like structure in a late Permian therapsid.
Journal of Morphology (advance online publication)
The special sensory, motor, and cognitive capabilities of mammals mainly depend upon the neocortex, which is the six-layered cover of the mammalian forebrain. The origin of the neocortex is still controversial and the current view is that larger brains with neocortex first evolved in late Triassic Mammaliaformes. Here, we report the earliest evidence of a structure analogous to the mammalian neocortex in a forerunner of mammals, the fossorial anomodont Kawingasaurus fossilis from the late Permian of Tanzania. The endocranial cavity of Kawingasaurus is almost completely ossified, which allowed a less hypothetical virtual reconstruction of the brain endocast to be generated. A parietal foramen is absent. A small pit between the cerebral hemispheres is interpreted as a pineal body. The inflated cerebral hemispheres are demarcated from each other by a median sulcus and by a possible rhinal fissure from the rest of the endocast. The encephalization quotient estimated by using the method of Eisenberg is 0.52, which is 2–3 times larger than in other nonmammalian synapsids. Another remarkable feature are the extremely ramified infraorbital canals in the snout. The shape of the brain endocast, the extremely ramified maxillary canals as well as the small frontally placed eyes suggest that special sensory adaptations to the subterranean habitat such as a well developed sense of touch and binocular vision may have driven the parallel evolution of an equivalent of the mammalian neocortex and a mammal-like lemnothalamic visual system in Kawingasaurus. The gross anatomy of the brain endocast of Kawingasaurus supports the Outgroup Hypothesis, according to which the neocortex evolved from the dorsal pallium of an amphibian-like ancestor, which receives sensory projections from the lemnothalamic pathway. The enlarged brain as well as the absence of a parietal foramen may be an indication for a higher metabolic rate of Kawingasaurus compared to other nonmammalian synapsids.