Skeletal ossification and sequence heterochrony in xenarthran evolution


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Previous analyses of how mammals vary in their ossification sequences have focused on monotremes, marsupials, and boreoeutherian placentals. Here, we focus on the sequence of cranial and postcranial ossification events during growth in the xenarthran skull and skeleton, including armadillos, anteaters, and sloths. We use two different methods to quantify sequence heterochrony: sequence analysis of variance (ANOVA) and event-paring/Parsimov. Our results indicate that Parsimov is conservative and does not detect clear heterochronic shifts between xenarthran and boreoeutherian placentals. Sequence-ANOVA performs better, but both methods exhibit sensitivity to the artifactual accumulation of ties. By controlling for ties and taking into account results that the methods have in common, our analysis suggests that xenarthrans significantly differ from other placentals by a late ossification of the sternum and an early ossification of the phalanges and pubis. We interpret these differences as showing that heterochrony plays a role in the skeletal development of xenarthrans, a change from previous studies that have emphasized the developmental homogeneity of the skeleton across placental mammals.