Heterochrony and patterns of cranial suture closure in hystricognath rodents

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Sutures, joints that allow one bone to articulate with another through intervening fibrous connective tissue, serve as major sites of bone expansion during postnatal craniofacial growth in the vertebrate skull and represent an aspect of cranial ontogeny which may exhibit functional and phylogenetic correlates. Suture evolution among hystricognath rodents, an ecologically diverse group represented here by 26 species, is examined using sequence heterochrony methods, i.e. event pairing and parsimov. Although minor nuances in suture closure sequence exist between species, the overall sequence was found to be conserved both across the hystricognath group and, to an increasing degree, within selected clades. At species level, suture closure pattern exhibited a significant positive correlation with patterns previously reported for hominoids. Patterns for most clades revealed the first sutures to close are those contacting the exoccipital, interparietal, and palatine bones. Heterochronic shifts were found along 19 of 35 branches within the hystricognath phylogeny. The number of shifts per node ranged from one to seven events and, overall, involved 21 of 34 suture sites. The topology generated by parsimony analyses of the event pair matrix yielded only one grouping that was congruent with the evolutionary relationships, compiled from morphological and molecular studies, taken as framework. Sutures contacting the exoccipital displayed the highest levels of most complete closure across all species. Level of suture closure is negatively correlated with cranial length (P < 0.05). Differing life history and locomotory strategies are coupled in part with differing suture closure patterns among several species.

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