A new hero emerges: another exceptional mammalian spine and its potential adaptive significance

William T. Stanley, Lynn W. Robbins, Jean M. Malekani, Sylvestre Gambalemoke Mbalitini, Dudu Akaibe Migurimu, Jean Claude Mukinzi, Jan Hulselmans, Vanya Prévot, Erik Verheyen, Rainer Hutterer, Jeffrey B. Doty, Benjamin P. Monroe, Yoshinori J. Nakazawa, Zachary Braden, Darin Carroll, Julian C. Kerbis Peterhans, John M. Bates, Jacob A. Esselstyn

Abstract

The hero shrew's (Scutisorex somereni) massive interlocking lumbar vertebrae represent the most extreme modification of the vertebral column known in mammals. No intermediate form of this remarkable morphology is known, nor is there any convincing theory to explain its functional significance. We document a new species in the heretofore monotypic genus Scutisorex; the new species possesses cranial and vertebral features representing intermediate character states between S. somereni and other shrews. Phylogenetic analyses of DNA sequences support a sister relationship between the new species and S. somereni. While the function of the unusual spine in Scutisorex is unknown, it gives these small animals incredible vertebral strength. Based on field observations, we hypothesize that the unique vertebral column is an adaptation allowing these shrews to lever heavy or compressive objects to access concentrated food resources inaccessible to other animals.

  • Received May 25, 2013.
  • Accepted June 17, 2013.
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