Comparative skeletal anatomy of neonatal ursids and the extreme altriciality of the giant panda.
Mammalian neonates are born at a wide range of maturity levels. Altricial newborns are born with limited sensory agency and require extensive parental care. In contrast, precocial neonates are relatively mature physically and often capable of independent function shortly after birth. In extant mammals, placental newborns vary from altricial to precocial, while marsupials and monotremes are all extremely altricial at birth. Bears (family Ursidae) have one of the lowest neonatal-maternal mass ratios in placental mammals, and are thought to also have the most altricial placental newborns. In particular, giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) are thought to be exceptionally altricial at birth, and possibly marsupial-like. Here we used micro-computer (micro-computed) tomography scanning to visualize the skeletal anatomy of ursid neonates and compare their skeletal maturity with the neonates of other caniform outgroups. Specifically, we asked whether ursid neonates have exceptionally altricial skeletons at birth compared with other caniform neonates. We found that most bear neonates are similar to outgroup neonates in levels of skeletal ossification, with little variation in degree of ossification between ursine bears neonates (i.e. bears of the subfamily Ursinae). Perinatal giant pandas, however, have skeletal maturity levels most similar to a 42-45-day-old beagle fetus (~70% of total beagle gestation period). No bear exhibits the skeletal heterochronies seen in marsupial development. With regards to skeletal development, ursine bears are not exceptionally altricial relative to other caniform outgroups, but characterized largely by the drastic difference between newborn and adult body sizes. A review on the existing hypotheses for ursids' unique reproductive strategy suggests that the extremely small neonatal-maternal mass ratio of ursids may be related to the recent evolution of large adult body size, while life history characteristics retained an ancestral condition. A relatively short post-implantation gestation time may be the proximal mechanism behind the giant panda neonates' small size relative to maternal size and altricial skeletal development at birth.
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