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Heather White: The Intertwined Evolution and Development of Sutures and Cranial Morphology

Phenotypic variation across mammals is extensive and reflects their ecological diversification into a remarkable range of habitats on every continent and in every ocean.

The skull performs many functions to enable each species to thrive within its unique ecological niche, from prey acquisition, feeding, sensory capture (supporting vision and hearing) to brain protection.

Diversity of skull function is reflected by its complex and highly variable morphology. Cranial morphology can be quantified using geometric morphometric techniques to offer invaluable insights into evolutionary patterns, ecomorphology, development, taxonomy, and phylogenetics.

Therefore, the skull is one of the best suited skeletal elements for developmental and evolutionary analyses. In contrast, less attention is dedicated to the fibrous sutural joints separating the cranial bones.

Throughout postnatal craniofacial development, sutures function as sites of bone growth, accommodating expansion of a growing brain. As growth frontiers, cranial sutures are actively responsible for the size and shape of the cranial bones, with overall skull shape being altered by changes to both the level and time period of activity of a given cranial suture. In keeping with this, pathological premature closure of sutures postnatally causes profound misshaping of the skull (craniosynostosis).

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