Mammals have short necks because of local maxima
September 30, 2012
Having taken time to discuss at length why we posted our neck-anatomy paper on arXiv, let’s now return to the actual content of the paper. You may remember from the initial post, or indeed from the paper itself, that Table 3 of the paper summarises its conclusions:
Needless to say, we puny humans lack all seven of the features that were discussed as contributing to long necks, while sauropods have them all. But it’s interesting to look at the giraffe and Paraceratherium, the two longest-necked mammals, and see what they have in common. They share quadrupedal stance; the giraffe has elongated cervical vertebrae; and Paraceratherium has absolutely large body size. But they both lack all four of the other features:
- Small, light head
- Numerous cervical vertebrae
- Air-sac system
- Vertebral pneumaticity
And they lack them for the same reason: because they are mammals. The same is true of all mammals, and the individual reasons for those four missing long-neck features are all the same: because mammals have hit local maxima, and can’t evolve away from them.
Mammals’ heads, for example, are all set up for extensive oral processing of food — certainly among large herbivores. (I think pretty much all the toothless mammals are insectivores.) They’ve got very good at it, and there’s no evolutionary pathway that can take a giraffe from its current lifestyle to a sauropod-like crop-and-swallow strategy without passing through an adaptive valley on the way. That means they are stuck with big, solid teeth and heavily engineered jaws, which means they can’t have light heads.
In the same way, mammals have much more efficient lungs than those of their reptile-like forebears, the common ancestors that they share with birds. They have evolved to a point where their lungs are too complex and effective to easily evolve into a different shape — yet by doing so, they have cut themselves off from the yet more efficient avian lung (shared by sauropods) that is capable of extracting twice as much oxygen as our lungs.
And of course in the absence of an avian-style lung, there can be no soft-tissue diverticula or air-sacs, and so no pneumatic invasion of the vertebrae.
A final nail in the coffin of mammal neck length is that we seem to be strongly wired to have exactly seven cervical vertebrae — no more, no less. The exceptions are very few and far between: sloths and sirenians, and even then they don’t vary from the seven-cervical pattern by more than one or two vertebrae.
As for why we can’t get past seven, or at most nine, cervicals — that’s harder to answer. There’s no reason why seven should be an adaptive maximum, so it seems that the reason is genetic: the instructions to produce seven cervicals are part of the same gene complex that gives us an advantage in some other way. I have vague memories of an excellent talk at the Bristol SVP suggesting that cervical-count is linked to cancer resistance, but I can’t remember any of the details.
Anyone able to elaborate?
Anyway: this is how evolution works, and why it doesn’t make organisms (including us) as perfect as we might wish. It has no goal in mind — such as a long neck — and blindly follows the path that at that moment gives the organism the best chance of reproducing successfully. That means an animal like a giraffe, even though it is clearly selecting for neck length, is trapped on an adaptive hill and can’t get down across the valley to a higher peak.