Adaptation and constraint in the evolution of the mammalian backbone

Katrina E Jones, Lorena Benitez, Kenneth D Angielczyk, Stephanie E Pierce

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The axial skeleton consists of repeating units (vertebrae) that are integrated through their development and evolution. Unlike most tetrapods, vertebrae in the mammalian trunk are subdivided into distinct thoracic and lumbar modules, resulting in a system that is constrained in terms of count but highly variable in morphology. This study asks how thoracolumbar regionalization has impacted adaptation and evolvability across mammals. Using geometric morphometrics, we examine evolutionary patterns in five vertebral positions from diverse mammal species encompassing a broad range of locomotor ecologies. We quantitatively compare the effects of phylogenetic and allometric constraints, and ecological adaptation between regions, and examine their impact on evolvability (disparity and evolutionary rate) of serially-homologous vertebrae.

Although phylogenetic signal and allometry are evident throughout the trunk, the effect of locomotor ecology is partitioned between vertebral positions. Lumbar vertebral shape correlates most strongly with ecology, differentiating taxa based on their use of asymmetric gaits. Similarly, disparity and evolutionary rates are also elevated posteriorly, indicating a link between the lumbar region, locomotor adaptation, and evolvability.

Vertebral regionalization in mammals has facilitated rapid evolution of the posterior trunk in response to selection for locomotion and static body support.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)172
Number of pages1
JournalBMC Evolutionary Biology
Issue number1
Early online date16 Nov 2018
Publication statusPublished - 16 Nov 2018


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