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Ecomorphological diversity of Mesozoic mammals was presumably constrained by selective pressures imposed by contemporary vertebrates. In accordance, Mesozoic mammals for a long time had been viewed as generalized, terrestrial, small-bodied forms with limited locomotor specializations. Recent discoveries of Mesozoic mammal skeletons with distinctive postcranial morphologies have challenged this hypothesis. However, ecomorphological analyses of these new postcrania have focused on a single taxon, a limited region of the skeleton, or have been largely qualitative.
For more comprehensive locomotor inference in Mesozoic mammals, we applied multivariate analyses to a morphometric data set of extant small-bodied mammals. We used 30 osteological indices derived from linear measurements of appendicular skeletons of 107 extant taxa that sample 15 orders and eight locomotor modes. Canonical variate analyses show that extant small-bodied mammals of different locomotor modes have detectable and predictable morphologies. The resulting morphospace occupation reveals a morphofunctional continuum that extends from terrestrial to scansorial, arboreal, and gliding modes, reflecting an increasingly slender postcranial skeleton with longer limb output levers adapted for speed and agility, and extends from terrestrial to semiaquatic/semifossorial and fossorial modes, reflecting an increasingly robust postcranial skeleton with shorter limb output levers adapted for powerful, propulsive strokes. We used this morphometric data set to predict locomotor mode in ten Mesozoic mammals within the Docodonta, Multituberculata, Eutriconodonta, “Symmetrodonta,” and Eutheria. Our results indicate that these fossil taxa represent five of eight locomotor modes used to classify extant taxa in this study, in some cases confirming and in other cases differing from prior ecomorphological assessments. Together with previous locomotor inferences of 19 additional taxa, these results show that by the Late Jurassic mammals had diversified into all but the saltatorial and active flight locomotor modes, and that this diversification was greatest in the Eutriconodonta and Multituberculata, although sampling of postcranial skeletons remains uneven across taxa and through time.