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Keywords:

  • Dromaius;
  • heterochrony;
  • Ratitae;
  • Rhea;
  • Struthio;
  • Tinamidae

Palaeognaths constitute one of the most basal lineages of extant birds, and are also one of the most morphologically diverse avian orders. Their skeletal development is relatively unknown, in spite of their important phylogenetic position. Here, we compare the development of the postcranial skeleton in the emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae), ostrich (Struthio camelus), greater rhea (Rhea americana) and elegant crested-tinamou (Eudromia elegans), focusing on ossification. All of these taxa are characterized by element loss in the appendicular skeleton, but there are several developmental mechanisms through which this loss occurs, including failure to chondrify, failure to ossify and fusion of cartilages prior to ossification. Further evidence is presented here to support a reduction in size of skeletal elements resulting in a delay in the timing of ossification. This study provides an important first look at the timing and sequence of postcranial ossification in palaeognathous birds, and discusses the influence of changes in the pattern of skeletal development on morphological evolution.