Adaptive landscapes challenge the “lateral-to-sagittal” paradigm for mammalian vertebral evolution

Katrina Elizabeth Jones, Blake Dickson, Kenneth D Angielczyk, Stephanie E Pierce

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The evolution of mammals from their extinct forerunners, the non-mammalian synapsids, is one of the most iconic locomotor transitions in the vertebrate fossil record. In the limb skeleton, the synapsid-mammal transition is traditionally characterized by a shift from a sprawling limb posture, resembling that of extant reptiles and amphibians, to more adducted limbs, as seen in modern-day mammals. Based on proposed postural similarities between early synapsids and extant reptiles, this change is thought to be accompanied by a shift from ancestral reptile-like lateral bending to mammal-like sagittal bending of the vertebral column. To test this “lateral-to-sagittal” evolutionary paradigm, we used combinatorial optimization to produce functionally informed adaptive landscapes and determined the functional trade-offs associated with evolutionary changes in vertebral morphology. We show that the synapsid adaptive landscape is different from both extant reptiles and mammals, casting doubt on the reptilian model for early synapsid axial function, or indeed for the ancestral condition of amniotes more broadly. Further, the synapsid-mammal transition is characterized not only by increasing sagittal bending in the posterior column, but also high stiffness, and increasing axial twisting in the anterior column. Therefore, we refute the simplistic lateral-to-sagittal hypothesis, and instead suggest the synapsid-mammal locomotor transition involved a more complex suite of functional changes linked to increasing regionalization of the backbone. These results highlight the importance of fossil taxa for understanding major evolutionary transitions.
Original languageEnglish
JournalCurrent Biology
Publication statusPublished - 2021


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