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Keywords:

  • tail length;
  • vertebrae;
  • convergent evolution;
  • sacrum;
  • functional morphology

ABSTRACT

Tail reduction/loss independently evolved in a number of mammalian lineages, including hominoid primates. One prerequisite to appropriately contextualizing its occurrence and understanding its significance is the ability to track evolutionary changes in tail length throughout the fossil record. However, to date, the bony correlates of tail length variation among living taxa have not been comprehensively examined. This study quantifies postsacral vertebral morphology among living primates and other mammals known to differ in relative tail length (RTL). Linear and angular measurements with known biomechanical significance were collected on the first, mid-, and transition proximal postsacral vertebrae, and their relationship with RTL was assessed using phylogenetic generalized least-squares regression methods. Compared to shorter-tailed primates, longer-tailed primates possess a greater number of postsacral vertebral features associated with increased proximal tail flexibility (e.g., craniocaudally longer vertebral bodies), increased intervertebral body joint range of motion (e.g., more circularly shaped cranial articular surfaces), and increased leverage of tail musculature (e.g., longer spinous processes). These observations are corroborated by the comparative mammalian sample, which shows that distantly related short-tailed (e.g., Phascolarctos, Lynx) and long-tailed (e.g., Dendrolagus, Acinonyx) nonprimate mammals morphologically converge with short-tailed (e.g., Macaca tonkeana) and long-tailed (e.g., Macaca fascicularis) primates, respectively. Multivariate models demonstrate that the variables examined account for 70% (all mammals) to 94% (only primates) of the variance in RTL. Results of this study may be used to infer the tail lengths of extinct primates and other mammals, thereby improving our understanding about the evolution of tail reduction/loss. Anat Rec, 298:354–375, 2015. © 2014 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.