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Abstract

Do closely related marsupial herbivores (Diprotodontia) conserve a common masticatory motor pattern or are motor patterns linked to the structure and function of the masticatory apparatus? We recorded the sequence and duration of activity of the individual jaw closing muscles during rhythmic chewing in koalas and then compared their motor pattern with that of their closest extant relatives, wombats, and their more distant marsupial relatives, macropodoids. These three lineages prove to have fundamentally different motor patterns and jaw movements during mastication. Each motor pattern represents independent modifications of an earlier motor pattern that was probably present in an ancestral diprotodontian. We show that koalas evolved a motor program that is in many aspects similar to that of placental herbivores with a fused mandibular symphysis (artiodactyls, perissodactyls, and higher primates) and almost identical to one artiodactyl, viz. alpacas. Anatomically, koalas are convergent on placental herbivores because they lost the inflected mandibular angle and large external part of the medial pterygoid muscle characteristic of other marsupials. We support the view that many different motor programs evolved for the control of transverse jaw movements, but identical motor programs for the control of transverse jaw movements can evolve independently in distantly related taxa. J. Exp. Zool. 313A:564–578, 2010. © 2010 Wiley-Liss, Inc.