Thursday, 11 August 2016

Evolution of altriciality

Kangaroo Joey inside the pouch
Photo by Geoff Shaw, Zoology, Melbourne, Australia CC BY-SA 3.0)
Marsupials and so-called placental mammals share a common ancestor yet pursue very different reproductive strategies. This led Ingmar Werneberg and colleagues to ask what reproduction was like in the common ancestor of marsupials and placentals (here).
They sampled data from the literature and examined specimens in the Hill and Hubrecht Collections at Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin. (In published sources they found examination of photographs and drawings more reliable than verbal descriptions.) There is a huge data set in the Supporting Information.

Altricial and precocial neonates exemplified by the
mouse (above) and guinea pig
It was estimated that the last common ancestor of placental mammals had a gestation of around 4 months and a litter of 3-5 young. The newborn were altricial and had closed eyes and almost naked skin at birth. The precocial lifestyle of hoofed mammals and the guinea pig is a derived feature (previous post). The newborn of marsupials are, of course, highly altricial.

A reconstruction was attempted of the neonate of the therian ancestor. This suggested it was anatomically more like extant placentals than extant marsupials. In contrast, the preweaning period was very long compared to intrauterine gestation and thus infancy in this ancestor was more marsupial-like. The relative timing of eye opening was between that of placental and marsupial mammals. Gestation lasted 31 days in this hypothetical ancestor. It was reduced to 21 days in the marsupial lineage while increasing fourfold in the placental lineage.

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