Modular evolution of the Cetacean vertebral column

Evol Dev. May-Jun 2007;9(3):278-89. doi: 10.1111/j.1525-142X.2007.00160.x.


Modular theory predicts that hierarchical developmental processes generate hierarchical phenotypic units that are capable of independent modification. The vertebral column is an overtly modular structure, and its rapid phenotypic transformation in cetacean evolution provides a case study for modularity. Terrestrial mammals have five morphologically discrete vertebral series that are now known to be coincident with Hox gene expression patterns. Here, I present the hypothesis that in living Carnivora and Artiodactyla, and by inference in the terrestrial ancestors of whales, the series are themselves components of larger precaudal and caudal modular units. Column morphology in a series of fossil and living whales is used to predict the type and sequence of developmental changes responsible for modification of that ancestral pattern. Developmental innovations inferred include independent meristic additions to the precaudal column in basal archaeocetes and basilosaurids, stepwise homeotic reduction of the sacral series in protocetids, and dissociation of the caudal series into anterior tail and fluke subunits in basilosaurids. The most dramatic change was the novel association of lumbar and anterior caudal vertebrae in a module that crosses the precaudal/caudal boundary. This large unit is defined by shared patterns of vertebral morphology, count, and size in all living whales (Neoceti).

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Artiodactyla / anatomy & histology
  • Artiodactyla / physiology
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Carnivora / anatomy & histology
  • Carnivora / physiology
  • Cetacea / anatomy & histology*
  • Cetacea / physiology*
  • Fossils
  • Homeodomain Proteins / metabolism
  • Spine / anatomy & histology*
  • Spine / physiology*


  • Homeodomain Proteins