Eyeing echidnas: Study models echidna forelimbs to help shed new light on mammal evolution

Credit: CC0 Public Domain

These days, mammals can use their forelimbs to swim, jump, fly, climb, dig and just about everything in between, but the question of how all that diversity evolved has remained a vexing one for scientists.

To help answer it, Harvard are turning to one of the most unusual mammals around—echidnas. These sprawling, egg-laying mammals have many in common with earlier ancestors, and so can help bridge the gap between extinct and other modern-day mammals.

Using a highly-detailed musculoskeletal model of an forelimb, Sophie Regnault, a Post-Doctoral Fellow and Stephanie Pierce, Associate Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, were able to not only shed more light on how the little-studied echidna's forelimb works, but also open a window into understanding how extinct mammals might have used their . The model is described in a November 14 paper published in Royal Society Open Science.

"Echidnas are not very well-studied, and little is known about their biomechanics." Regnault says. "There are few , and echidnas themselves can be difficult to study because they have very large spines hiding underlying movements. We made this virtual model using CT scans that allow us to look in closer detail at how the skeleton and muscles interact with one another."

The researchers discovered that the bony anatomy and muscles work together to optimize limb leverage and mobility for certain kinds of movements. In particular, the configuration of muscles support limb rotation important for the echidna's sprawling gait.

"This model gives us unique insight into not only the echidna but can also guide reconstructions of extinct mammals," Pierce says. "The similarities between the echidna forelimb skeleton and transitional animals can help us to understand the evolution of forelimb diversity in modern mammals."

"If we find certain muscles have lots of leverage, it might suggest that certain postures or types of movement are more likely," Regnault add. "We're continuing to add data to our echidna model, and one thing we're hoping to do is to understand how things like mobility and leverage can be used to predict how an animal might have stood or what kind of movements it could have made."

"This study is part of a much larger project," Pierce says. The researchers' ultimate goal is to reconstruct the evolution of the mammal forelimb by building similar models for fossils at key stages. The echidna is a first step in understanding the relationships between form and function of the forelimb.

By looking at how the mammal forelimb changed through time, they hope to reveal how modifications to the skeleton led to the ecological and behavioral diversity we see today.

Explore further

Citizen Scientists wanted to solve echidna mysteries

More information: Sophie Regnault et al. Pectoral girdle and forelimb musculoskeletal function in the echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus): insights into mammalian locomotor evolution, Royal Society Open Science (2018). DOI: 10.1098/rsos.181400
Journal information: Royal Society Open Science

Provided by Harvard University
Citation: Eyeing echidnas: Study models echidna forelimbs to help shed new light on mammal evolution (2018, November 17) retrieved 22 October 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2018-11-eyeing-echidnas-echidna-forelimbs-mammal.html
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Nov 18, 2018
"...the question of how all that diversity evolved has remained a vexing one for scientists."

For some scientists. Maybe they should very seriously consider the possibility that animals haven't evolved, and it would answer many of their difficult questions. After all, there is to this day zero proof whatsoever that evolution is real. It is really all made up.

Nov 18, 2018
Please provide proof that they were all just zapped into existence one day....
You have a theory, now prove it.

Nov 19, 2018
Maybe they should very seriously consider the possibility that animals haven't evolved

Only someone who does not really care enough about the science to study it would troll it so ineptly.

This is what biologists and others have done for century after discovering evolution. No serious contender ever presented itself, and of course with genome evidence adding to earlier fossil and biogeographical evidence it is not expected - 3 independent observation series say the same thing.

And of course it would take anyone a few minutes (well, hours the first time, while learning how) to see the evidence for themselves by running their Own Private Test(TM) on open databases and software provided by, say, NCBI. Just apply some elbow grease for once in your life - engage brain before engaging mouth. Then come back and try to tell us there is a possibility that what you saw was not what you saw.

Instead we get witless trolling.

Nov 19, 2018
>Bjorn, bjorn, Yes, I agree.
Chromosome painting reveals echidnas probable hybrid orgins with a 9 sex chromosome system

Now let's see who can predict what their mtDNA looks like

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more