Analyses of limb joint morphology in nonmammalian therapsid “mammal-like reptiles” have suggested that among many lineages, individual animals were capable of shifting between sprawling and upright hindlimb postures, much like modern crocodilians. The ability to use multiple limb postures thus might have been ancestral to the generally more upright posture that evolved during the transition from “mammal-like reptiles” to mammals. Here I derive a biomechanical model to test this hypothesis through calculations of expected posture-related changes in femoral stress for therapsid taxa using different limb postures. The model incorporates morphological data from fossil specimens and experimental data from force platform experiments on iguanas and alligators.
Experimental data suggest that the evolutionary transition from sprawling to nonsprawling posture was accompanied by a change in the predominant loading regime of the limb bones, from torsion to bending. Changes in the cross-sectional morphology of the hindlimb bones between sphenacodontid “pelycosaurs” and gorgonopsid therapsids are consistent with the hypothesis that bending loads increased in importance early in therapsid evolution; thus, bending stresses are an appropriate model for the maximal loads experienced by the limb bones of theriodont therapsids. Results from the model used to estimate stresses in these taxa do not refute the use of both sprawling and more upright stance among basal theriodont therapsids. Thus, the hypothesis that the use of multiple postures was ancestral to the more upright posture typical of most mammals is biomechanically plausible. Model calculations also indicate that the axial rotation of the femur typical in sprawling locomotion can reduce peak bending stresses. Therefore, as experimental data from alligators and iguanas suggest, the evolution of nonsprawling limb posture and kinematics in therapsids might have been accompanied by increased limb bone bending stress.