Repatterning of mammalian backbone regionalization in cetaceans


The reinvasion of the aquatic realm by cetaceans is one of the most iconic ecological transitions that led to drastic modifications of the mammalian body plan, especially the axial skeleton. Relative to the vertebral column of other mammals that is subdivided into numerous anatomical regions, regional boundaries of the cetacean backbone appear obscured. Whether the traditional mammalian regions are present in cetaceans but hard to detect due to anatomical homogenization or if regions have been entirely repatterned remains unresolved. Here we combine a segmented linear regression approach with spectral clustering to quantitatively investigate the number, position, and homology of vertebral regions across species from all major cetacean clades. We propose the new “Nested Regions” hypothesis under which the cetacean backbone is composed of six homologous modules subdivided into six to nine post-cervical regions, with the degree of regionalization dependent on vertebral count and ecology. Compared to terrestrial mammals, the cetacean backbone is less regionalized in the precaudal segment but more regionalized in the caudal segment, indicating repatterning of the vertebral column associated with the transition from limb-powered to axial-driven locomotion.

biorxiv. 2024.03.15.585285
Amandine Gillet
Amandine Gillet
Marie Sklodowska-Curie Research Fellow