Evolution of the Mammalian Neck from Developmental, Morpho-Functional, and Paleontological Perspectives

The mammalian neck adopts a variety of postures during daily life and generates numerous head trajectories. Despite its functional diversity, the neck is constrained to seven cervical vertebrae in (almost) all mammals. Given this low number, an unexpectedly high degree of modularity of the mammalian neck has more recently been uncovered. This work aims to review neck modularity in mammals from a developmental, morpho-functional, and paleontological perspective and how high functional diversity evolved in the mammalian neck after the occurrence of meristic limitations. The fixed number of cervical vertebrae and the developmental modularity of the mammalian neck are closely linked to anterior Hox genes expression and strong developmental integration between the neck and other body regions. In addition, basic neck biomechanics promote morpho-functional modularity due to preferred motion axes in the cranio-cervical and cervico-thoracic junction. These developmental and biomechanical determinants result in the characteristic and highly conserved shape variation among the vertebrae that delimits morphological modules. The step-wise acquisition of these unique cervical traits can be traced in the fossil record. The increasing functional specialization of neck modules, however, did not evolve all at once but started much earlier in the upper than in the lower neck. Overall, the strongly conserved modularity in the mammalian neck represents an evolutionary trade-off between the meristic constraints and functional diversity. Although a morpho-functional partition of the neck is common among amniotes, the degree of modularity and the way neck disparity is realized is unique in mammals.

Last Updated
February 18, 2021