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Conserved relative timing of cranial ossification patterns in early mammalian evolution


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SUMMARY We analyzed a comprehensive data set of ossification sequences including seven marsupial, 13 placental and seven sauropsid species. Data are provided for the first time for two major mammalian clades, Chiroptera and Soricidae, and for two rodent species; the published sequences of three species were improved with additional sampling. The relative timing of the onset of ossification in 17 cranial elements was recorded, resulting in 136 event pairs, which were treated as characters for each species. Half of these characters are constant across all taxa, 30% are variable but phylogenetically uninformative, and 19% potentially deliver diagnostic features for clades of two or more taxa. Using the conservative estimate of heterochronic changes provided by the program Parsimov, only a few heterochronies were found to diagnose mammals, marsupials, or placentals. A later onset of ossification of the pterygoid with respect to six other cranial bones characterizes therian mammals. This result may relate to the relatively small size of this bone in this clade. One change in relative onset of ossification is hypothesized as a potential human autapomorphy in the context of the sampling made: the earlier onset of the ossification of the periotic with respect to the lacrimal and to three basicranial bones. Using the standard error of scaled ranks across all species as a measure of each element's lability in developmental timing, we found that ossification of early, middle, and late events are similarly labile, with basicranial traits the most labile in timing of onset of ossification. Despite marsupials and placental mammals diverging at least 130 Ma, few heterochronic shifts in cranial ossification diagnose these clades.