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The earliest known fully quadrupedal sirenian


Modern seacows (manatees and dugongs; Mammalia, Sirenia) are completely aquatic, with flipperlike forelimbs and no hindlimbs1,2. Here I describe Eocene fossils from Jamaica that represent nearly the entire skeleton of a new genus and species of sirenian—the most primitive for which extensive postcranial remains are known. This animal was fully capable of locomotion on land, with four well-developed legs, a multivertebral sacrum, and a strong sacroiliac articulation that could support the weight of the body out of water as in land mammals. Aquatic adaptations show, however, that it probably spent most of its time in the water. Its intermediate form thus illustrates the evolutionary transition between terrestrial and aquatic life. Similar to contemporary primitive cetaceans3, it probably swam by spinal extension with simultaneous pelvic paddling, unlike later sirenians and cetaceans, which lost the hindlimbs and enlarged the tail to serve as the main propulsive organ. Together with fossils of later sirenians elsewhere in the world1,4,5,6,7, these new specimens document one of the most marked examples of morphological evolution in the vertebrate fossil record.

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Figure 1: Reconstructed composite skeleton of Pezosiren portelli.
Figure 2: Pezosiren portelli.


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I thank J. Bailey, B. Beatty, D. Da Silva, H. Dixon, S. K. Donovan, R. J. Emry, C. Flemming, F. Grady, H. and J. Halvorson, J. Herrera, K. Hickey-Commins, S. Hutchens, S. Jabo, D. Jones, I. A. Koretsky, J. Kramer, B. J. MacFadden, C. MacGillivray, R. D. E. MacPhee, S. Mitchell, R. W. Portell, T. Radenbaugh, K. S. Schindler, T. A. Stemann, C. Terranova, and B., R. and J. Toomey. Field work was funded by the National Geographic Society; B. and R. Toomey; the Potomac Museum Group; the University of the West Indies; the American Museum of Natural History; and R. Liberman.

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Domning, D. The earliest known fully quadrupedal sirenian. Nature 413, 625–627 (2001).

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