The structure, physiology, and endocrinology of the yolk sac placenta of different marsupial groups is compared and phylogenetically analyzed to provide information on placental characters in the marsupial stem species. We conclude that the marsupial stem species possessed a functional yolk sac placenta. Histotrophic nutrition by uterine secretion decreased during late pregnancy and at least half of the yolk sac was vascularized at the time of shell coat rupture. Due to yolk sac fusion, the larger part of the avascular, bilaminar yolk sac could not serve as a placenta at late gestation in the polyovular marsupial stem species. The bilaminar yolk sac gained a relatively greater importance for nutrition in monovular australidelphians. In macropodids a greater proportion of the yolk sac remained bilaminar at the time of shell coat rupture than in the stem species. Another derived feature of macropodids is the sustained plasma progesterone synthesis that is in turn responsible for an extended secretory phase of the uterus and a lengthened gestation. The placenta of the marsupial stem species was probably capable of metabolising histo- and hemotrophes. Recognition of pregnancy during early stages of development is a derived character of macropodids that we suggest did not occur in the marsupial stem species. However, birth and birth behaviour were apparently induced by prostaglandins in the marsupial stem species. Although the yolk sac formed the definitive placenta, it is likely that the allantois provided a supplementary placental function in the marsupial stem species, but that the role of the allantois became progressively less important during the evolution of marsupial placentation.
Copyright 2003 Wiley-Liss, Inc.