Therapsida is a group of synapsids that includes mammals and their ancestors. Many of the traits today seen as unique to mammals had their origin within early therapsids, including having their four limbs extend vertically beneath the body, as opposed to the sprawling posture of other reptiles. The earliest fossil attributed to Therapsida is Tetraceratops insignis from the Lower Permian.
Therapsids evolved from pelycosaurs (specifically sphenacodonts) 275 million years ago. They replaced the pelycosaurs as the dominant large land animals in the Middle Permian and were replaced, in turn, by the archosauromorphs in the Triassic, although one group of therapsids, the kannemeyeriiforms, remained diverse in the Late Triassic.
The therapsids included the cynodonts, the group that gave rise to mammals in the Late Triassic around 225 million years ago. Of the non-mammalian therapsids, only cynodonts and dicynodonts survived the Triassic–Jurassic extinction event. The last of the non-mammalian therapsids, the tritylodontid cynodonts, became extinct in the Early Cretaceous, approximately 100 million years ago.
Legs and feet
Therapsid legs were positioned more vertically beneath their bodies than were the sprawling legs of reptiles and pelycosaurs. Also compared to these groups, the feet were more symmetrical, with the first and last toes short and the middle toes long, an indication that the foot’s axis was placed parallel to that of the animal, not sprawling out sideways. This orientation would have given a more mammal-like gait than the lizard-like gait of the pelycosaurs.
Jaw and teeth
Therapsids’ temporal fenestrae were larger than those of the pelycosaurs. The jaws of some therapsids were more complex and powerful, and the teeth were differentiated into frontal incisors for nipping, great lateral canines for puncturing and tearing, and molars for shearing and chopping food.
Fur and endothermy
Several characteristics in therapsids have been noted as being consistent with the development of endothermy: the presence of turbinates, erect limbs, highly vascularized bones, limb and tail proportions conducive to the preservation of body heat, and the absence of growth rings in bones. Therefore, like modern mammals, non-mammalian therapsids were most likely warm-blooded.
Recent studies on Permian coprolites showcase that hair was present in at least some therapsids. Hair is by any means present in the docodont Castorocauda and haramiyidan Megaconus, and whiskers are inferred from therocephalians and cynodonts.
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