Dryolestes leiriensis is a Late Jurassic fossil mammal of the dryolestoid superfamily in the cladotherian clade that includes the extant marsupials and placentals. We used high resolution micro-computed tomography (µCT) scanning and digital reconstruction of the virtual endocast of the inner ear to show that its cochlear canal is coiled through 270°, and has a cribriform plate with the spiral cochlear nerve foramina between the internal acoustic meatus and the cochlear bony labyrinth. The cochlear canal has the primary bony lamina for the basilar membrane with a partially formed (or partially preserved) canal for the cochlear spiral ganglion. These structures, in their fully developed condition, form the modiolus (the bony spiral structure) of the fully coiled cochlea in extant marsupial and placental mammals. The CT data show that the secondary bony lamina is present, although less developed than in another dryolestoid Henkelotherium and in the prototribosphenidan Vincelestes. The presence of the primary bony lamina with spiral ganglion canal suggests a dense and finely distributed cochlear nerve innervation of the hair cells for improved resolution of sound frequencies. The primary, and very probably also the secondary, bony laminae are correlated with a more rigid support for the basilar membrane and a narrower width of this membrane, both of which are key soft-tissue characteristics for more sensitive hearing for higher frequency sound. All these cochlear features originated prior to the full coiling of the therian mammal cochlea beyond one full turn, suggesting that the adaptation to hearing a wider range of sound frequencies, especially higher frequencies with refined resolution, has an ancient evolutionary origin no later than the Late Jurassic in therian evolution. The petrosal of Dryolestes has added several features that are not preserved in the petrosal of Henkelotherium. The petrosal characters of dryolestoid mammals are essentially the same as those of Vincelestes, helping to corroborate the synapomorphies of the cladotherian clade in neural, vascular, and other petrosal characteristics. The petrosal characteristics of Dryolestes and Henkelotherium together represent the ancestral morphotype of the cladotherian clade (Dryolestoidea + Vincelestes + extant Theria) from which the extant therian mammals evolved their ear region characteristics.
© 2012 The Linnean Society of London, Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2012, 166, 433–463.