The locomotion of primates differs from that of other mammals in three fundamental ways. During quadrupedal walking, primates use diagonal sequence gaits, protract their arms more at forelimb touchdown, and experience lower vertical substrate reaction forces on their forelimbs relative to their hindlimbs. It is widely held that the unusual walking gaits of primates represent a basal adaptation for movement on thin, flexible branches and reflect a major change in the functional role of the forelimb. However, little data on nonprimate arboreal mammals exist to test this notion. To that end, we examined the gait mechanics of the woolly opossum (Caluromys philander), a marsupial convergent with small-bodied prosimians in ecology, behavior, and morphology. Data on the footfall sequence, relative arm protraction, and peak vertical substrate reaction forces were obtained from videotapes and force records for three adult woolly opossums walking quadrupedally on a wooden runway and a thin pole. For all steps recorded on both substrates, woolly opossums always used diagonal sequence walking gaits, protracted their arms beyond 90 degrees relative to horizontal body axis, and experienced peak vertical substrate reaction forces on forelimbs that were significantly lower than on hindlimbs. The woolly opossum is the first nonprimate mammal to show locomotor mechanics that are identical to those of primates. This case of convergence between primates and a committed fine-branch, arboreal marsupial strongly implies that the earliest primates evolved gait specializations for fine-branch locomotion, which reflect important changes in forelimb function.
Copyright 2002 Wiley-Liss, Inc.