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PeerJ. 2014 Apr 8;2:e325. doi: 10.7717/peerj.325. eCollection 2014.

Bone microstructure and the evolution of growth patterns in Permo-Triassic therocephalians (Amniota, Therapsida) of South Africa.

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Department of Biology and Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, University of Washington , Seattle, Washington , USA.
Department of Karoo Palaeontology, National Museum, Bloemfontein, South Africa ; Department of Zoology and Entomology, University of the Free State , Bloemfontein , South Africa.


Therocephalians were a speciose clade of nonmammalian therapsids whose ecological diversity and survivorship of the end-Permian mass extinction offer the potential to investigate the evolution of growth patterns across the clade and their underlying influences on post-extinction body size reductions, or 'Lilliput effects'. We present a phylogenetic survey of limb bone histology and growth patterns in therocephalians from the Middle Permian through Middle Triassic of the Karoo Basin, South Africa. Histologic sections were prepared from 80 limb bones representing 11 genera of therocephalians. Histologic indicators of skeletal growth, including cortical vascularity (%CV) and mean primary osteon diameters (POD), were evaluated in a phylogenetic framework and assessed for correlations with other biologically significant variables (e.g., size and robusticity). Changes in %CV and POD correlated strongly with evolutionary changes in body size (i.e., smaller-bodied descendants tended to have lower %CV than their larger-bodied ancestors across the tree). Bone wall thickness tended to be high in early therocephalians and lower in the gracile-limbed baurioids, but showed no general correlation with cross-sectional area or degree of vascularity (and, thus, growth). Clade-level patterns, however, deviated from previously studied within-lineage patterns. For example, Moschorhinus, one of few therapsid genera to have survived the extinction boundary, demonstrated higher %CV in the Triassic than in the Permian despite its smaller size in the extinction aftermath. Results support a synergistic model of size reductions for Triassic therocephalians, influenced both by within-lineage heterochronic shifts in survivor taxa (as reported in Moschorhinus and the dicynodont Lystrosaurus) and phylogenetically inferred survival of small-bodied taxa that had evolved short growth durations (e.g., baurioids). These findings mirror the multi-causal Lilliput patterns described in marine faunas, but contrast with skeletochronologic studies that suggest slow, prolonged shell secretion over several years in marine benthos. Applications of phylogenetic comparative methods to new histologic data will continue to improve our understanding of the evolutionary dynamics of growth and body size shifts during mass extinctions and recoveries.


Cortical vascularity; End-Permian extinction; Lilliput effect; Paleohistology; Synapsids; Triassic

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