In contrast to placentals, marsupials are born with forelimbs that are greatly developmentally advanced relative to their hind limbs. Despite significant interest, we still do not know why this is the case, or how this difference is achieved developmentally. Studies of prechondrogenic and chondrogenic limbs have supported the traditional hypothesis that marsupial forelimb development is accelerated in response to the functional requirements of the newborn's crawl to the teat. However, limb ossification studies have concluded that, rather than the forelimb being accelerated, hind limb development is delayed. By increasing the taxonomic coverage and number of prechondrogenic events relative to previous studies, and combining traditional phylogenetic analyses of event sequences with novel analyses of relative developmental rates, this study demonstrates that the timing of limb development in marsupials is more complex than commonly thought. The marsupial phenotype was derived through two independent evolutionary changes in developmental rate: (1) an acceleration of the forelimb's first appearance and (2) a delay of hind limb development from the bud stage onward. Surprisingly, this study also provides some support for an evolutionary acceleration of the marsupial hind limb's first appearance. Further study is needed on the developmental and genetic mechanisms driving these major evolutionary transitions.
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Vol. 63 • No. 8