Cryptic complexity in felid vertebral evolution: shape differentiation and allometry of the axial skeleton

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Randau, M. ; Goswami, A. ; Hutchinson, J. R. ; Cuff, A. R. ; Pierce, S. E. (2016)

Members of the mammalian family Felidae (extant and extinct cats) are grossly phenotypically similar, but display a 300-fold range in body size, from less than 1 kg to more than 300 kg. In addition to differences in body mass, felid species show dietary and locomotory specializations that correlate to skull and limb osteological measurements, such as shape or cross-sectional area. However, ecological correlates to the axial skeleton are yet untested. Here, we build on previous studies of the biomechanical and morphological evolution of the felid appendicular skeleton by conducting a quantitative analysis of morphology and allometry in the presacral vertebral column across extant cats. Our results demonstrate that vertebral columns of arboreal, scansorial and terrestrial felids significantly differ in morphology, specifically in the lumbar region, while no distinction based on dietary specialization was found. Body size significantly influences vertebral morphology, with clear regionalization of allometry along the vertebral column, suggesting that anterior (cervicals and thoracics) and posterior (lumbar) vertebrae may be independently subjected to distinct selection pressures.
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