Organisms Diversity & Evolution

, Volume 16, Issue 3, pp 641–657 | Cite as

Phylogeny and evolution of body mass in didelphid marsupials (Marsupialia: Didelphimorphia: Didelphidae)

  • Lucila I. AmadorEmail author
  • Norberto P. Giannini
Original Article


Most extant New World marsupials belong in the Didelphidae, which comprises ca. 110 currently recognized species of opossums. Didelphids are small mammals with their mean body mass, at species level, ranging from ca. 7 g to 2.2 kg. The largest species belong in a single clade, while substantial variation remains scattered across the remaining groups. We seek out to explore the details of this mass variation in an evolutionary framework. To this end, we first reconstructed the phylogeny of didelphids based on an extensive, although fragmentary sample of sequences from ten genes. We recovered a fully resolved, highly robust phylogeny that tested and confirmed most previously reported groupings, providing a simultaneous depiction of phylogenetic relationships for 81 % of currently recognized species and all relevant supra-specific clades. As much as 69 % of total body mass variation in didelphids was explained by this phylogenetic hypothesis. Mapped on it, mass variation evolved as much as 6.8 kg of total changes, starting from a reconstructed ancestral body mass range of 22–33 g. No single, family-wide pattern was evident; in fact, the dominant pattern for mass variation was that of increases in body mass along a few successive branches, or phyletic giantism, followed by apomorphic nanism, i.e., decreases localized in single terminal branches. Phyletic trends indicated the persistence of gradual, directional changes along considerable spans of geological time and show that substantial variation of interest resides in this and perhaps most groups of small mammals.


Didelphidae Body mass Phylogeny Character mapping Phyletic giantism Nanism 



We thank Diego Astúa, David Flores, Sergio Solari, Pablo Teta, and Robert Voss for providing us with unpublished body mass data and Rubén Barquez and Mónica Díaz (CML) for granting access to specimens under their care. Special thanks to Santiago Catalano for his help with using his program GB-to-TNT. We acknowledge support from Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas (CONICET), Argentina, and grant PICT 2008–1798 to NPG.

Data archiving

Data are archived in TreeBASE (

Supplementary material

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Copyright information

© Gesellschaft für Biologische Systematik 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Unidad Ejecutora Lillo (UEL: CONICET-FML)TucumánArgentina
  2. 2.Facultad de Ciencias Naturales e Instituto Miguel LilloTucumánArgentina
  3. 3.Department of MammalogyAmerican Museum of Natural HistoryNew YorkUSA

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