Journal of Mammalian Evolution

, Volume 12, Issue 1, pp 183-194

First online:

Aquatic Adaptation and Swimming Mode Inferred from Skeletal Proportions in the Miocene Desmostylian Desmostylus

  • Philip D. GingerichAffiliated withDepartment of Geological Sciences and Museum of Paleontology, The University of Michigan Email author 

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Desmostylians are enigmatic, extinct, semiaquatic marine mammals that inhabited coastlines of the northern Pacific Rim during the late Oligocene through middle Miocene. Principal components analysis (PCA) of trunk and limb proportions provides a rational multivariate context for separating living semiaquatic mammals on three orthogonal axes: a size axis (PC-I), a degree of aquatic adaptation axis (PC-II), and a forelimb- versus hind-limb-dominated locomotion axis (PC-III). The necessary skeletal measurements are available for Desmostylus hesperus but not for other desmostylians. Among species similar in size to Desmostylus in the study set, the one most similarly proportioned is the polar bear. Projection of Desmostylus on PC-II shows it to have been more aquatic than a polar bear (indicated by its relatively short ilium and femur, combined with relatively long metapodals and phalanges). Projection of Desmostylus on PC-III suggests that its aquatic locomotion was even more forelimb-dominated than that of a bear (indicated by its relatively long metacarpal III and corresponding proximal phalanx, combined with a relatively short metatarsal III and corresponding proximal phalanx). Desmostylians were different from all living semiaquatic mammals, and desmostylians are properly classified in their own extinct order, but their skeletal proportions suggest that bears provide an appropriate baseline for imagining what desmostylians were like in life.


Swimming style Locomotion Semiaquatic mammals Desmostylus Desmostylia