Fossils reveal the complex evolutionary history of the mammalian regionalized spine

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Science  21 Sep 2018:
Vol. 361, Issue 6408, pp. 1249-1252
DOI: 10.1126/science.aar3126

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Early shifts lead to big changes

Mammals represent one of the most morphologically diverse taxonomic groups. One of the unique features underlying this diversity is variability of the spine, which facilitates everything from flexibility for speedy running and support for upright walking. Jones et al. studied a group ancestral to modern mammals—nonmammalian synapsids, or mammal-like reptiles. As forelimb function diversified, the spine developed distinct regions. These regions then differentiated further, leading to the highly varied mammalian forms we see today.

Science, this issue p. 1249


A unique characteristic of mammals is a vertebral column with anatomically distinct regions, but when and how this trait evolved remains unknown. We reconstructed vertebral regions and their morphological disparity in the extinct forerunners of mammals, the nonmammalian synapsids, to elucidate the evolution of mammalian axial differentiation. Mapping patterns of regionalization and disparity (heterogeneity) across amniotes reveals that both traits increased during synapsid evolution. However, the onset of regionalization predates increased heterogeneity. On the basis of inferred homology patterns, we propose a “pectoral-first” hypothesis for region acquisition, whereby evolutionary shifts in forelimb function in nonmammalian therapsids drove increasing vertebral modularity prior to differentiation of the vertebral column for specialized functions in mammals.

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