The prevalence and meaning of morphological trends in the fossil record have undergone renewed scrutiny in recent years. Studies have typically focused on trends in body size evolution, which have yielded conflicting results, and have only rarely addressed the question as to whether other morphological characteristics show persistent directionality over long time scales. I investigated reduction in number of skull and lower jaw bones (through loss or fusion) over approximately 150 million years of premammalian synapsid history. The results of a new skull simplification metric (SSM), which is defined as a function of the number of distinct elements, show that pronounced simplification is evident on both temporal (i.e., stratigraphic) and phylogenetic scales. Postcranial evolution exhibits a similar pattern. Skull size, in contrast, bears little relationship with the number of distinct skull bones present.
Synapsid skulls carried close to their observed maximum number of elements for most of the Late Carboniferous and Early Permian. The SSM decreased in the Late Permian but, coincident with the radiation of early therapsids, the range of observed SSM values widened during this interval. From derived nonmammalian cynodonts in the Early Triassic through the earliest mammals in the Early Jurassic, both the minimum and maximum SSM decreased. Data from three representative modern mammals (platypus, opossum, and human) suggest that this trend continues through the Cenozoic.
In a phylogenetic context, the number of skull elements present in a taxon shows a significant negative relationship with the number of branching events passed from the root of the tree; more deeply embedded taxa have smaller SSM scores. This relationship holds for various synapsid subgroups as well. Although commonly ascribed to the effects of long-term selection, evolutionary trends can alternatively reflect an underlying intrinsic bias in morphological change. In the case of synapsid skull bones (and those of some other tetrapods lineages), the rare production of novel, or neomorphic, elements may have contributed to the observed trend toward skeletal simplification.
Corresponding Editor: M. Zelditch