Constraints on the morphological evolution of marsupial shoulder girdles

Karen E. Sears

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Throughout their evolutionary histories, marsupial mammals have been taxonomically and morphologically less diverse than their sister taxa the placentals. Because of this, it has been proposed that the evolution of marsupials has been constrained by the functional requirements of their mode of reproduction. Marsupials give birth after short gestation times to immature neonates that immediately crawl, under the power of their precociously developed shoulder girdles, to the teat where they attach and complete their early development. Using a novel approach incorporating adult and embryological morphological data, this study is the first to both: (1) statistically support adult patterns of morphological divergence consistent with the constraint hypothesis, and (2) identify ontogenetic patterns of morphological change that demonstrate that the constraint was responsible, at least in part, for their formation. As predicted by the marsupial constraint, the shoulder girdles of adult marsupials are less diverse than those of adult placentals, and adult marsupial scapulae are less morphologically diverse than adult marsupial pelves. Furthermore, marsupials that complete an extensive crawl to the teat are restricted to a common pattern of ontogenetic scapular shape change, strongly supporting the hypothesis that the morphological development of the marsupial scapula has been limited evolutionarily by its obligate role in the crawl to the teat. Because this study establishes that ontogenetic and evolutionary morphological change is correlated within mammalian scapulae, it is probable that the marsupial constraint also restricted the morphological divergence of the scapula over evolutionary time by limiting ontogenetic change in the scapula. These findings, coupled with the importance of the shoulder girdle in mammalian locomotor specialization, support the conclusion that the low morphological diversity of marsupial forms over evolutionary time could be directly due to the constraint on marsupial morphological evolution caused by the functional requirements of the crawl to the teat.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2353-2370
Number of pages18
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2004
Externally publishedYes


  • Development
  • Evolutionary constraint
  • Mammalia
  • Marsupial
  • Reproductive mode
  • Scapula
  • Shoulder girdle

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Genetics
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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