Reilly and his collaborator Thomas White suspect that the development of epipubic bones made the prehistoric creatures more mobile. The increased locomotion made them better predators, helped them to escape predators and allowed them to forage more widely. "Locomotion contributed heavily to the evolution of mammals," Reilly said, "and these bones had something to do with increasing locomotor efficiency in the very earliest mammals."
As the mammals radiated after the dinosaurs went extinct, the epipubic bones in most mammals, including humans, became fused with the pelvis, which allowed mammals to use many gaits besides the trot.
The findings could have implications for paleontologists, Reilly said.
"If the function of the epipubic bone relates to locomotion, that makes the bones more important as a fossil indicator of increased locomotor efficiency," he said. If scientists study the fossil record and figure out when these bones first appeared, he added, it would shed light on a crucial step in the evolution of mammals.
The research is part of a larger study by Reilly and Ohio University colleague Audrone Biknevicius focusing on the evolution of locomotion, which is funded by a three-year, $295,000 National Science Foundation grant.