Increased variation in numbers of presacral vertebrae in suspensory mammals

Scott A. Williams, Jeffrey K. Spear, Lauren Petrullo, Deanna M. Goldstein, Amanda B. Lee, Amy L. Peterson, Danielle A. Miano, Elska B. Kaczmarek, Milena R. Shattuck

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Restricted variation in numbers of presacral vertebrae in mammals is a classic example of evolutionary stasis. Cervical number is nearly invariable in most mammals, and numbers of thoracolumbar vertebrae are also highly conserved. A recent hypothesis posits that stasis in mammalian presacral count is due to stabilizing selection against the production of incomplete homeotic transformations at the lumbo-sacral border in fast-running mammals, while slower, ambulatory mammals more readily tolerate intermediate lumbar/sacral vertebrae. We test hypotheses of variation in presacral numbers of vertebrae based on running speed, positional behaviour and vertebral contribution to locomotion. We find support for the hypothesis that selection against changes in presacral vertebral number led to stasis in mammals that rely on dorsomobility of the spine during running and leaping, but our results are independent of running speed per se. Instead, we find that mammals adapted to dorsostability of the spine, such as those that engage in suspensory behaviour, demonstrate elevated variation in numbers of presacral vertebrae compared to dorsomobile mammals. We suggest that the evolution of dorsostability and reduced reliance on flexion and extension of the spine allowed for increased variation in numbers of presacral vertebrae, leading to departures from an otherwise stable evolutionary pattern.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)949-956
    Number of pages8
    JournalNature Ecology and Evolution
    Issue number6
    StatePublished - Jun 1 2019

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
    • Ecology


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