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Cranial shape transformation in the evolution of the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca)

, : Cranial shape transformation in the evolution of the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca). Die Naturwissenschaften 98(2): 107-116

In this study, landmark-based methods of geometric morphometrics are used for investigating the main aspects of cranial shape transformation in the evolution of the giant panda, Ailuropoda melanoleuca. Specifically, we explore if the highly derived cranial adaptations for bamboo feeding of the living panda were developed early in the panda's lineage. Results obtained show that the overall cranial morphologies of the oldest known panda, the "pygmy" Ailuropoda microta, and the late Pleistocene Ailuropoda baconi are both very similar to that of their closest living relative, A. melanoleuca, which agrees with a previous proposal based on qualitative criteria. However, we also describe several differences between the crania of A. microta, A. baconi, and A. melanoleuca, including the development of the postorbital process, the orientation of the occipital region, and the expansion of the braincase. As a result, the cranial morphology of A. microta shows a less specialized morphology toward a fibrous and durophagous diet compared to the giant panda. These results are confirmed by a comparative analysis of the dimensions of the upper teeth in bears, which has revealed differences in relative tooth size between A. microta and A. melanoleuca, most probably as a result of mosaic evolution. Therefore, we conclude that cranial shape did not remain essentially uniform in the Ailuropoda lineage, as previously thought, but underwent a number of changes during more than 2 Myr.


PMID: 21132275

DOI: 10.1007/s00114-010-0748-x

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