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J Exp Biol. 2012 Nov 1;215(Pt 21):3703-10. doi: 10.1242/jeb.057380. Epub 2012 Aug 1.

Precocial hindlimbs and altricial forelimbs: partitioning ontogenetic strategies in mallards (Anas platyrhynchos).

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  • 1Department of Biology, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT 84102, USA.


Precocial development, in which juveniles are relatively mature at hatching or birth, is more common among vertebrates than altricial development, and is likely to be the basal condition. Altricial development characterizes many birds and mammals and is generally viewed as an alternate strategy, promoting fast growth rates, short developmental periods and relatively poor locomotor performance prior to attaining adult size. Many aquatic birds such as Anseriformes (ducks, geese and swans), Charadriformes (gulls and terns) and Gruiformes (rails) undergo distinctive developmental trajectories, in that hatchlings are able to run and swim the day they hatch, yet they do not begin to fly until fully grown. We hypothesized that there should be tradeoffs in apportioning bone and muscle mass to the hindlimb and forelimb that could account for these patterns in locomotor behavior within the mallard (Anas platyrhynchos). Growth of the musculoskeletal system in the forelimbs and hindlimbs was measured and compared with maximal aquatic and terrestrial sprint speeds and aerial descent rates throughout the 2-month-long mallard ontogenetic period. At 30 days post hatching, when body mass is 50% of adult values, hindlimb muscle mass averages 90% and forelimb muscle mass averages 10% of adult values; similarly, bone growth (length and width) in the hindlimbs and forelimbs averages 90 and 60% of adult values, respectively. The attainment of mallard locomotor performance parallels the morphological maturation of forelimb and hindlimb morphometrics - hindlimb performance initiates just after hatching at a relatively high level (~50% adult values) and gradually improves throughout the first month of development, while forelimb performance is relatively non-existent at hatching (~10% adult values), experiencing delayed and dramatic improvement in function, and maturing at the time of fledging. This divergence in ontogenetic strategy between locomotor modules could allow developing Anseriformes to inhabit aquatic, predator-reduced refuges without relying on flight for juvenile escape. Furthermore, by freeing the forelimbs from locomotor demand early in ontogeny, Anseriformes may bypass the potential canalization (i.e. retention) of juvenile form present within their precocial hindlimbs, to dramatically depart in forelimb form and function in the adult.

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