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Biol Lett. 2012 Dec 23;8(6):1028-31. doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2012.0462. Epub 2012 Jul 18.

Evolution of the turtle bauplan: the topological relationship of the scapula relative to the ribcage.

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Department of Geology and Geophysics, Yale University, New Haven, CT 06511, USA.


The turtle shell and the relationship of the shoulder girdle inside or 'deep' to the ribcage have puzzled neontologists and developmental biologists for more than a century. Recent developmental and fossil data indicate that the shoulder girdle indeed lies inside the shell, but anterior to the ribcage. Developmental biologists compare this orientation to that found in the model organisms mice and chickens, whose scapula lies laterally on top of the ribcage. We analyse the topological relationship of the shoulder girdle relative to the ribcage within a broader phylogenetic context and determine that the condition found in turtles is also found in amphibians, monotreme mammals and lepidosaurs. A vertical scapula anterior to the thoracic ribcage is therefore inferred to be the basal amniote condition and indicates that the condition found in therian mammals and archosaurs (which includes both developmental model organisms: chickens and mice) is derived and not appropriate for studying the developmental origin of the turtle shell. Instead, among amniotes, either monotreme mammals or lepidosaurs should be used.

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