Obligatory Nocturnalism in Triassic Archaic Mammals: Preservation of Sperm Quality?

Physiol Biochem Zool. 2019 Nov/Dec;92(6):544-553. doi: 10.1086/705440.


Archaic mammals became exclusively nocturnal by the Late Triassic, and today, the majority of extant mammals remain nocturnal. Although there is ample morphological and physiological evidence supporting Late Mesozoic nocturnalism, a succinct hypothesis for why mammals became nocturnal remains elusive. Here, I propose a hypothesis that, with the onset of body size miniaturization in the Triassic and the concomitant evolution of fur and increased mass-specific metabolic rate and hence body temperature, small mammals became obligatorily nocturnal in order to avoid poor sperm quality, hyperthermia, and high rates of evaporative water loss and to maximize foraging time. The hypothesis hinges heavily on the assumption that, with the absence of externalized testes, the maximum optimum temperature of about 36°C for spermatogenesis was subject to strong stabilizing selection that placed a ceiling on increases in metabolic rate and body temperature. Heat-dissipating capacity during the daytime during the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous was thereby compromised. The release from the constraint of the optimum temperature of spermatogenesis occurred in placental mammals only with the advent of the externalization of testes in the scrotum in Boreotheria in the Cenozoic or, with the recent claim that the scrotum is plesiomorphic in mammals, as early as the Jurassic with the origin of the marsupials.

Keywords: Triassic; body size miniaturization; body temperature; endothermy; mammals; nocturnalism; spermatogenesis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Body Temperature Regulation / physiology
  • Circadian Rhythm*
  • Genitalia, Male / physiology
  • Male
  • Mammals*
  • Spermatozoa / physiology*