Development of the hypothalamus and pituitary in platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) and short-beaked echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus)


Prof. Ken Ashwell, Department of Anatomy, School of Medical Sciences, The University of New South Wales, Sydney 2052, NSW, Australia. T: + 61 2 93852482; F: + 61 2 93852866; E:


The living monotremes (platypus and echidnas) are distinguished by the development of their young in a leathery-shelled egg, a low and variable body temperature and a primitive teat-less mammary gland. Their young are hatched in an immature state and must deal with the external environment, with all its challenges of hypothermia and stress, as well as sourcing nutrients from the maternal mammary gland. The Hill and Hubrecht embryological collections have been used to follow the structural development of the monotreme hypothalamus and its connections with the pituitary gland both in the period leading up to hatching and during the lactational phase of development, and to relate this structural maturation to behavioural development. In the incubation phase, development of the hypothalamus proceeds from closure of the anterior neuropore to formation of the lateral hypothalamic zone and putative medial forebrain bundle. Some medial zone hypothalamic nuclei are emerging at the time of hatching, but these are poorly differentiated and periventricular zone nuclei do not appear until the first week of post-hatching life. Differentiation of the pituitary is also incomplete at hatching, epithelial cords do not develop in the pars anterior until the first week, and the hypothalamo-neurohypophyseal tract does not appear until the second week of post-hatching life. In many respects, the structure of the hypothalamus and pituitary of the newly hatched monotreme is similar to that seen in newborn marsupials, suggesting that both groups rely solely on lateral hypothalamic zone nuclei for whatever homeostatic mechanisms they are capable of at birth/hatching.