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Early mammals used pelvic bones to trot, study finds

ATHENS, Ohio Scientists studying the earliest mammals have been stumped for centuries about the function of two pelvic bones found in the fossil record that most mammals don't have today. A study published in this week's issue of the journal Science suggests those bones were involved in locomotion and helped the animals become more mobile, a find that could help researchers pinpoint a key moment in the evolution of mammals.

Biologists at Ohio University and Buffalo State College studied modern-day relations to the earliest mammals opossums, one of the few types of animals alive today that still has the bones in question, called epipubic bones.

In opossums and a few other marsupials, the epipubic bones are attached to the pelvis and jut into muscles of the stomach. "Kind of like you had two pencils in your belly wall coming from your pelvis up to either side of your navel and they can move up and down," explained Steve Reilly, associate professor of biological sciences at Ohio University and lead author of the study.

Epipubic bones have been found in the earliest mammal fossils and remain in some of the marsupials still living today, and scientists had long thought they supported the animals' trademark pouch. If that were the case, the bones and attached muscles would move together on one side of the body when the animals walk. But when researchers placed opossums on a treadmill and observed their bones and muscles in motion with a videoflouroscope, they found that the bones move asymmetrically.

"Instead of moving together, one bone is going up and the other is going down," Reilly said. "The epipubic bones act like fishing poles within the belly wall to pull one at a time diagonally across the body, stiffening the body during each trotting step." And, he added, the support from the bones that stiffens the body allowed the animals -- and most likely their ancient ancestors -- to trot.

"These opossums are marsupials that look almost
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Contact: Steve Reilly
reilly@ohio.edu
740-593-0424
Ohio University
16-Jan-2003


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