Axial allometry in a neutrally buoyant environment: effects of the terrestrial‐aquatic transition on vertebral scaling

Katrina E Jones, Stephanie E Pierce

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Ecological diversification into new environments presents new mechanical challenges for locomotion. An extreme example of this is the transition from a terrestrial to an aquatic lifestyle. Here, we examine the implications of life in a neutrally buoyant environment on adaptations of the axial skeleton to evolutionary increases in body size. On land, mammals must use their thoracolumbar vertebral column for body support against gravity and thus exhibit increasing stabilization of the trunk as body size increases. Conversely, in water, the role of the axial skeleton in body support is reduced, and, in aquatic mammals, the vertebral column functions primarily in locomotion. Therefore, we hypothesize that the allometric stabilization associated with increasing body size in terrestrial mammals will be minimized in secondarily aquatic mammals. We test this by comparing the scaling exponent (slope) of vertebral measures from 57 terrestrial species (23 felids, 34 bovids) to 23 semi‐aquatic species (pinnipeds), using phylogenetically corrected regressions. Terrestrial taxa meet predictions of allometric stabilization, with posterior vertebral column (lumbar region) shortening, increased vertebral height compared to width, and shorter, more disc‐shaped centra. In contrast, pinniped vertebral proportions (e.g. length, width, height) scale with isometry, and in some cases, centra even become more spool‐shaped with increasing size, suggesting increased flexibility. Our results demonstrate that evolution of a secondarily aquatic lifestyle has modified the mechanical constraints associated with evolutionary increases in body size, relative to terrestrial taxa.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Evolutionary Biology
Publication statusPublished - 2016


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