Tree of Life: The Controversy of the Egg & the Arrival of Mammals

in steemstem •  6 months ago

A Quick Refresher:

Without going all the way back to my first post on this series 5 months ago, we have gone from the dawn of life to a mere 320 million years ago.

We have acquired multi-cellular-ism, a backbone, a face, bipedal-ism, a whole bunch more, and we just figured out how to crawl up onto land. The goal, as always, is to work our way to the Homo Sapiens - us. So what next?

Well, as we crawl onto land and our lungs develop in a specific way, we and amphibians part ways, with amphibians going into the class of anamniotes, and us into amniotes. Easy to remember, that. But herein lies a problem.

Going up on land and enjoying all the niche benefits is great... For a couple of years. But what happens when you want to settle down, start a family of your own, dominate the landscape? At this point, everybody is still laying their eggs in water - quite limiting. So what did the amniotes do to solve this?


Source: Petter Bøckman, CC BY-SA 2.0

Amniote is a greek term, of course, meaning 'membrane surrounding the fetus' which should give you a pretty good idea of what defines them - primarily the existence of a membrane surrounding the fetus.

Basically, we're talking eggs today.

Within this clade, you will find reptiles, birds and indeed mammals. Traditionally, the amniotes will have laid their eggs on the ground, eggs that have protection via membranes such as the amniotic sac. This now of course still applies to mammals, which carry their eggs inside the womb, with some weird freak exceptions. In fact early mammals may all have laid eggs, but more on that later.

The exact moment ground-laying eggers evolved is uncertain because the things that define them - reproductive organs - don't exactly fossilize well, or at all, but the earliest we know of is about 312 million years ago when the group Reptiliomorpha took to land and was pressured by this now inconvenient habit of needing water to lay eggs.

The process of adapting to land-egging is a complex one, but the most obvious is probably the hard, porous shell. Indeed modern day eggs are in fact porous, which is why an egg gone bad will float in water, having very slowly allowed air to seep inside.

There are three primary factors that define an amniote via the egg - and the image may prove useful here:

  • Allantois. In short, Oxygen that seeps through the hard shell will be absorbed into the fluid of the allantois where it can oxygenate the embryo. As the oxygenated fluid empties out, it gets replaced by waste produce.

  • Amnion. Literally translated as 'little lamb', it is essentially a gooey membrane that fills with amniotic fluid and develops into the amniotic sac where the fetus grows.

  • Chorion. Another membrane that forms from the yolk and forms another part of the amniotic sac and, among other things, allow the flow of nutrients from the blood of the mother to the child.

Interestingly these were not vital evolutionary steps, but did allow them to grow larger than 1 cm or so, a limitation occurring as a result of the ratio of surface area and volume affecting the rate of diffusion.

Indeed, amphibians lack these advanced features and are mostly limited to laying their eggs in water the old-fashioned way. At first, this was the case for every terrestrial creature, before moving to dark, moist terrestrial areas such as shallow ponds or moist under-log. But their gelatinous outer egg was slowly replaced with the hard shell which not only allowed things to get bigger, but also increase the rate of gas exchange. this is what was essential.


I came across a paper titled: 'Has the importance of the amniote egg been overstated?'*. It's an old paper from 1998 but let's hear it out. The author Joseph Skulan coins the term the Haeckelian framework, a series of apparently false assumptions that construct the argument that the amniote egg was the only way to lay eggs in the rough and tough conditions of land.

Skulan shows that the environment may have actually been easier to lay eggs than in water with surprisingly mild conditions bountiful, and that the view of amphibian eggs being more 'primitive' is simply false:

According to the Haeckelian framework, full liberation from standing water in vertebrates was made possible by the amniote egg. But the importance of the amniote egg in the history of vertebrate terrestrialization has been exaggerated. The amniote egg didn’t solve the problem of how to reproduce on land, because this wasn’t a problem in the first place.

So if animals didn't need to adapt in order to lay eggs on land, why did it even happen? Well, the above provides this answer too. By moving eggs onto land, animals can enjoy even greater freedom in evolution of their eggs:

If anything, the transition from water to land relaxed rather than tightened physical constraints on the vertebrate egg, and can have allowed terrestrial eggs to evolve in ways that would have been impossible in aquatic environments. Thick, calcareous shells, rapid development coupled with hatching at an advanced stage, and high metabolic rate are traits that could not easily have evolved in water.

Skulan's argument makes sense. Rather than evolving from a point of struggle, somehow desperately figuring out how to make things work their way, animals evolved from a point of opportunity, having already made it upon land and enjoyed freedom of adaptation. Not only that, but it was far away from those pesky fish and sharks. Perfect.

The allantois, amnion and chorion were simply adaptations that arose from this opportunity which now defines the amniotes; birds, reptiles and mammals.

Which came first, the mammal or the egg?

Obviously the Egg, I just felt it was a catchy subtitle. But things aren't as simple as they seem. As you probably guessed, we humans don't lay eggs. Most of us, anyway. Most of the internal workings of the amniote egg still exists in mammals, internally, with the exception of the hard, calcified shell.

The benefits are probably obvious; protection first and foremost, but the transition is quite a remarkable step, and we've managed to observe this in extant animals today - the skink.

Skinks are lizards, and lizards lay eggs, right? The yellow-bellied three-toed skink is no exception... with a few exceptions. There have been individuals observed of the species that happen to live higher up mountains that instead give birth to live young!

Another skink and a type of lizard are also known to practice both methods, but up to 20% of modern snakes and lizards give birth only to live young. This is amazing, but animals that do both? That's a whole other level and gives us a lovely glimpse into the evolutionary steps we mammals took.

The problem here is nutrients. In mammals, nutrients come from the placenta, but reptiles rely on the yolk. For calcium, they depend on the actual shell itself to make deposits. When eggs are kept inside the body like in fish, that wall of calcium is thinned back into a membrane that lacks this calcium - not good.

This skink demonstrates a process that allows calcium to pass from the uterus of the mother to the child inside her - an early form of a mammalian placenta in a reptile. For the yellow-bellied three-toed skink, the benefits of either method depend on its living conditions, but for us, live birth simply proved more successful on the whole.

But don't forget, Platypus and echidna are mammals that still lay eggs, presumably for the opposite reasons as the live-birthing skinks.

This is all to say that, when mammals separated from birds and reptiles 180 million years ago, we may have still been laying eggs - but as mentioned above, they don't tend to fossilize well so it's kinda hard to be sure.


We're finally breaking from the rest of the animal kingdom into our own class, mammalia! Specifically, 'Endothermic amniotes'. We're almost home! (I said that months ago, but whatever).

Thanks for reading =)

References: Allantois | Amnion | Amniote | Chorion | Has the importance of the amniote egg been overstated? | Reptiliomorpha | Evolution in Action: Lizard Moving From Eggs to Live Birth | The Evolution of Live-Bearing in Lizards and Snakes

SteemSTEM is a community project with the goal to promote and support Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics on the Steem blockchain. If you wish to support the steemSTEM project you can:

Contribute STEM content using the #steemstem tag | Support steemstem authors | Join our curation trail | Visit our Discord community | Delegate SP to steemstem

Convenient Delegation Links:

50 SP | 100SP | 500SP | 1,000SP | 5,000SP | 10,000SP | 50,000SP

Authors get paid when people like you upvote their post.
If you enjoyed what you read here, create your account today and start earning FREE STEEM!
Sort Order:  

As you probably guessed, we humans don't lay eggs. Most of us, anyway.

Well, there is a solution for everything.


Haha wow... I wonder under what context the idea of this came up??


Maybe someone wanted to experience tentacle porn in real life?

I have learnt a lot from your series,i have followed a lot of your articles, and I believe you are doing a very good job, goodluck

Truly tree of life

I got confuse or probably might have gotten a wrong message....

we humans don't lay eggs. Most of us, anyway

Are there humans that do lay egg... That is new

Nice content sir... We would definitely get home I wish I was here when this series started


Lol, It was just a little joke =P


Better.... Fingers crossed


This is difficult to refute. A couple of my friends are under suspicion. :D


I'm looking at you, to be honest


I do not practice it !!! I have many witnesses. )))

Though human don't lay eggs but human is a product of fussion of ovum(egg )and spermatozoa. So human give birth alive, at least we are not ovoviviparous. Well done @mobbs

The exact moment ground-laying eggers evolved is uncertain because the things that define them - reproductive organs - don't exactly fossilize well

I thought penises other than human had a bone in them.

Then again, I am not exactly sure what kind of creature I'm supposed to be imagining here.


Actually most animals don't have a bony penis, although I was mostly thinking of female internal organs =P You should ask trumpman on this, he's the expert after all

Hello @mobbs

But don't forget, Platypus and echidna are mammals that still lay eggs...

I am really enthralled about this; mammal laying eggs!

Evolutionary biology is such an interesting subject, and you really covered the kingdom reptilia in this post. Looking forwards to lessons on mammalia kingdom.


@eurogee of @euronation community


Yeah I bet it's hard to teach because no matter what you say, you always have to follow up with 'But there are exceptions'. Crazy stuff



Thank you for posting this educating post. It's amazing what can million of years of evolution can make to life, thanks to these changes we came to be. There is a lot of complexity and elegant associated with life.


More than we can possibly know with modern technology =)

As you probably guessed, we humans don't lay eggs. Most of us, anyway.

When i read this i giggled, lolz. Is it possible that some humans still lay eggs? That is if they ever did.

It was really important i guess for the amniote to start laying eggs on land. If not, mammals would never have been born- brought to existence.

Sometimes i just like to believe we never went through all this evolutionary process to get to were we are. I prefer it when I read God made man, as we are... No need for evolution.


Yes, mammals are largely defined by the features within the egg which could only have manifested on land. But, there are now mammals back in the water - whales etc.

I prefer it when I read God made man

I super disagree with this. This to me is the easy way out, and although it's good to be lazy, evolution is so much more fascinating and beautiful than just saying 'God did it'. The more we learn about evolution, the more beautiful it gets, it just keeps giving and giving inspiration and wonder. 'God did it' is pretty boring and doesn't really clarify anything. We are animals of knowledge and intrigue!


I completely agree with you, evolution is something beautiful. Thinking about the whole process since the first cell originated until now, has no price!


I... actually agree with you... I need to say it.

no need for evolution is the best path !!

also, #reptilians? :o lol in the crazy fiction universe where they are real, this is what they would do, they would lay eggs, no?

well, who cares, it really is funny to see eggs this way ....

now about embrios, it would be impossible for one to be gestated and born without a mother, right? so what makes people ask the question in the first place?

the species must have evolved BEFORE the embriotic stages were even possible...

Out of all that your first responses were about humans laying or not laying eggs. Pffff. Apart from the 'funny' I think one point is that had we not evolved to intro-carrying we could've traversed many different roads. Marsupial hominids. Egg laying two leggers. Have they ever even been in the equation? Or has upright homo sapien/ ape /mammalian been entirely dependent on the production process to evolve further towards modern human (or mammal in general)? You tell us @mobbs ;)


Well, two-legged dinosaurs presumably laid eggs so it's certainly possible. I think the idea of 'evolving further towards modern humans' was never a goal or and end-result. It's just one of many. And it's not even a result, since we might evolve later to start laying eggs for all we know!

thank you! i loved reading this! its so amazing the journey our ancestors made :)

you said that "The benefits are probably obvious" about live birth, im curious also about the trade off? when is it better the lay eggs? thanks :)


This is where that skink comes into play, the conditions changed rapidly within the species environment so the trade-offs were balanced. In colder climates, it would have been safer to keep the egg inside ready for live birth, with access to the warmth but the trade-off of using more nutrients and energy from the mother.

Those in warmer climates get deposited as regular external eggs, so they're in a bit more danger but not likely to freeze, and saves the mum's resources for herself.

So it will likely depend within each species and environment they live in =)

Hi @mobbs!

Your post was upvoted by in cooperation with steemstem - supporting knowledge, innovation and technological advancement on the Steem Blockchain.

Contribute to Open Source with

Learn how to contribute on our website and join the new open source economy.

Want to chat? Join the Utopian Community on Discord

Skink? First time I’ve heard of this reptile. Just like the snakes about 30 percent of them give birth to live young ones.

Mammals may have been laying eggs by that time but I sincerely can’t imagine a woman literally laying eggs :) lol

This is an interesting piece by the way @mobbs


Yeah skinks are pretty unknown even though there's almost 2,000 species =)

Thanks for reading!

The fact that amnion translates to little lamb is amazing!

The Skulan paper is a really excellent find! It's a huge mistake to dismiss papers just because they're a bit older- a 1996 scientific paper featured heavily in my last post on the Dolomite Problem, for instance.

Quite an informative and mind-twisting piece @mobbs.
Meanwhile, the thought of this line....

when mammals separated from birds and reptiles 180 million years ago, we may have still been laying eggs so unnerving on so many levels. I'm glad we are particularly considered as higher developed and "supposedly" superior species now. There's nothing cool about the thought of homo-sapiens laying eggs anyway.

"Amniote is a greek term, of course, meaning 'membrane surrounding the fetus' which should give you a pretty good idea of what defines them - primarily the existence of a membrane surrounding the fetus."

Somebody is proud of this paragraph.

Nice job on the Skulan section showing how scientific thought can change over time.


Lol I did chuckle inside just a little bit at that...

Excellent information, as a biologist I am delighted with this interesting topic. I was intrigued by the quote you mentioned about Joseph Skulan. Is there a chance that you can pass me the bibliography?

Evolution theory is one of the greatest proves of the origin of life forms .

Man can not completely be so different than his contemporaries in the water. Every gland of man is moisturized by some sort of fluid.

The aquatic is the mother of all other basic forms of life that ever evolved.

Lovely indeed, I also learnt some basic writing format from you and I have used this #steemstem photo on my #steemstem post. Haaahhaha @mobbs. Thanks a lot

This post is looking really nice, but you guys are forgetting something (or maybe dismissing it altogether): it really doesn't matter what came first xD what if God created all things during Creation, and actually made both at the same time? EGG AND MAMMAL, or "egg and hen" as we say in Spanish... Lovely post, I'll add it to reading list and did also re-steem it, i will read in-depth later


Well, I'm an atheist so I don't have that concern =P But eggs existed long before mammals, no question!