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J Morphol. 2013 May;274(5):557-69. doi: 10.1002/jmor.20120. Epub 2013 Jan 28.

Conservation of placentation during the tertiary radiation of mammals in South America.

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Department of Cardiovascular and Renal Research, Institute of Molecular Medicine, University of Southern Denmark, Odense, Denmark.


The eutherian placenta is considered to possess great plasticity, but it is not clear how this variation reflects adaptation to different ecological niches. Because South America was isolated for most of the Tertiary, it represents a natural laboratory to examine this question. We here describe placentation in three South American groups: Xenarthra have been part of the fauna from at least the mid-Paleocene whereas caviomorph rodents and Neotropical primates are each derived from a single founder that reached South America in the Eocene and Oligocene, respectively. The common ancestor of Xenarthra had a villous, haemochorial placenta, from which the labyrinthine, endotheliochorial placenta of sloths later evolved. Placentation in Caviomorpha follows an extraordinary stable pattern, characterized by a haemomonochorial, labyrinthine and highly lobed structure with specialized growing areas. This pattern was present before arrival of these rodents in South America and enabled a successful radiation especially during the spread of grasslands. Neotropical primates have haemochorial, trabecular placentas with a specialized maternal blood supply; a pattern that contrasts with that of Old World monkeys and may have been present in the founder generation on arrival in South America. In conclusion, there is a dichotomy within Xenarthra but otherwise the ancient South American mammals do not show much variation in principal placental characters. Thus, the successful radiation of these three groups, and their adaptation to diverse ecological niches, did not require substantial alterations in placentation.

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