Abstract

Morphological features of the terminal phalanges of extinct tetrapods can be used to infer whether or not keratinous claws were present even though these structures are not preserved in the fossil record. Such features as dense vascularization grooves and foramina, and a general claw-like morphology, are present in some of the earliest fully terrestrial tetrapods, the Permo-Carboniferous synapsids. Early synapsids are represented by a rich fossil record that preserves the detailed anatomy of the terminal phalanges and allows for an examination of the early evolution of these structures in a well-resolved phylogenetic context. The pattern of change in the morphology of the terminal phalanges of five basal synapsids, Cotylorhynchus romeri, Varanops sp., Edaphosaurus boanerges, Haptodus garnettensis, and Dimetrodon limbatus, reveals a clear trend from a broad, flat, and spatulate morphology in the basal taxa to a tall, narrow, and curved structure. This trend in overall shape change does not reflect changes in feeding behaviour. The size and shape of the flexor tubercle appears to be a factor of size and function, rather than possessing a phylogenetically informative signal. The osteological features used to infer the presence of a keratinous sheath in the synapsids are also observed in the non-amniote taxon Diadectes absitus. This indicates that claws were not an amniote innovation and that they instead originated somewhere outside the crown group Amniota.

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