Energetic benefits and adaptations in mammalian limbs: Scale effects and selective pressures

Evolution. 2015 Jun;69(6):1546-1559. doi: 10.1111/evo.12675. Epub 2015 Jun 9.


Differences in limb size and shape are fundamental to mammalian morphological diversity; however, their relevance to locomotor costs has long been subject to debate. In particular, it remains unknown if scale effects in whole limb morphology could partially underlie decreasing mass-specific locomotor costs with increasing limb length. Whole fore- and hindlimb inertial properties reflecting limb size and shape-moment of inertia (MOI), mass, mass distribution, and natural frequency-were regressed against limb length for 44 species of quadrupedal mammals. Limb mass, MOI, and center of mass position are negatively allometric, having a strong potential for lowering mass-specific locomotor costs in large terrestrial mammals. Negative allometry of limb MOI results in a 40% reduction in MOI relative to isometry's prediction for our largest sampled taxa. However, fitting regression residuals to adaptive diversification models reveals that codiversification of limb mass, limb length, and body mass likely results from selection for differing locomotor modes of running, climbing, digging, and swimming. The observed allometric scaling does not result from selection for energetically beneficial whole limb morphology with increasing size. Instead, our data suggest that it is a consequence of differing morphological adaptations and body size distributions among quadrupedal mammals, highlighting the role of differing limb functions in mammalian evolution.

Keywords: Adaptation; allometry; macroevolution; mammals; morphological evolution; phylogenetics.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological*
  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution
  • Body Size / physiology
  • Extremities / anatomy & histology*
  • Extremities / physiology*
  • Locomotion / physiology
  • Mammals / anatomy & histology*
  • Mammals / physiology
  • Species Specificity