New insights on equid locomotor evolution from the lumbar region of fossil horses

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The specialization of equid limbs for cursoriality is a classic case of adaptive evolution, but the role of the axial skeleton in this famous transition is not well understood. Extant horses are extremely fast and efficient runners, which use a stiff-backed gallop with reduced bending of the lumbar region relative to other mammals. This study tests the hypothesis that stiff-backed running in horses evolved in response to evolutionary increases in body size by examining lumbar joint shape from a broad sample of fossil equids in a phylogenetic context. Lumbar joint shape scaling suggests that stability of the lumbar region does correlate with size through equid evolution. However, scaling effects were dampened in the posterior lumbar region, near the sacrum, which suggests strong selection for sagittal mobility in association with locomotor–respiratory coupling near the lumbosacral joint. I hypothesize that small-bodied fossil horses may have used a speed-dependent running gait, switching between stiff-backed and flex-backed galloping as speed increased.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)20152947
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1829
Early online date27 Apr 2016
Publication statusPublished - 27 Apr 2016


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