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Keywords:

  • apatemyids;
  • aye-aye;
  • convergence;
  • Dactylopsila;
  • Daubentonia;
  • Riversleigh

One of the most striking examples of convergent evolution within mammals is the suite of anatomical specializations shared by the primate Daubentonia of Madagascar and the marsupial Dactylopsila of Australia and New Guinea. Having last shared a common ancestor over 125 million years ago, these two genera have independently evolved extremely similar adaptations for feeding on xylophagous (wood-boring) insect larvae. These include enlarged incisors to gouge holes in wood, cranial modifications to strengthen the skull against the stresses generated by wood gouging and elongate manual digits that are used as probes to extract the larvae. Elsewhere in the world, the same ecological niche is filled by birds (woodpeckers or morphologically convergent forms) that use their beaks for wood gouging. An extinct group of eutherian mammals, the apatemyids, exhibit very similar craniodental and postcranial adaptations to Daubentonia and Dactylopsila and presumably also occupied the woodpecker niche. A qualitative analysis of characters of the skull and dentition of the enigmatic Oligo-Miocene Australian metatherian Yalkaparidon– specifically its combination of very large, open-rooted incisors, zalambdodont molars and features to strengthen the skull against rostral bending – supports the hypothesis that it is probably a fourth ‘mammalian woodpecker’. Discovery of the (as yet unknown) manus of Yalkaparidon will test this hypothesis by revealing whether any of its digits are elongate. © 2009 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2009, 97, 1–17.