Plesiadapiforms were among the most diverse and abundant of North American mammalian groups during the Paleocene epoch. Their decline and extinction has been attributed to a variety of causes, including competitive exclusion by rodents and/or by primates of modern aspect (euprimates), and the effects of late Paleocene–early Eocene climatic warming. However, analyses of generic and species richness and relative abundance patterns indicate that the decline of plesiadapiforms was more complex than usually supposed. The two major superfamilies, Plesiadapoidea and Microsyopoidea, exhibited very different patterns of decline. Microsyopoids and paromomyid plesiadapoids do not exhibit a pronounced decline in taxonomic richness and relative abundance during the Early Tertiary. Non-paromomyid plesiadapoids do decline markedly, but, when their taxonomic richness and relative abundance patterns are compared with those of potentially competing taxa (rodents and euprimates) only non-paromomyid plesiadapoids and rodents show the inverse relationship consistent with taxonomic displacement. Euprimates appear in North America after non-paromomyid plesiadapoids were virtually extinct. Analyses of body size, diet, diel activity patterns, and locomotion support the hypothesis that rodents and non-paromomyid plesiadapoids may have competed for the same resources; their paleobiogeographic histories also are consistent with the competition argument.
Currently available paleoclimatological data for the Early Tertiary largely pertain to global temperature trends and are not detailed enough to demonstrate unequivocally whether the decline of non-paromomyid plesiadapoids coincided with climatic change. A more complete record of paleoclimatic indicators, especially from the Western Interior of North America, is needed to test the climate hypothesis adequately. The several independent lines of evidence considered here and elsewhere in reference to other mammalian taxa strongly support the hypothesis that competition with rodents was an important factor in a major restructuring of Early Tertiary mammalian communities in North America.