The Late Permian herbivore Suminia and the early evolution of arboreality in terrestrial vertebrate ecosystems

Jörg Fröbisch, Robert R. Reisz


Vertebrates have repeatedly filled and partitioned the terrestrial ecosystem, and have been able to occupy new, previously unexplored habitats throughout their history on land. The arboreal ecospace is particularly important in vertebrate evolution because it provides new food resources and protection from large ground-dwelling predators. We investigated the skeletal anatomy of the Late Permian (approx. 260 Ma) herbivorous synapsid Suminia getmanovi and performed a morphometric analysis of the phalangeal proportions of a great variety of extant and extinct terrestrial and arboreal tetrapods to discern locomotor function and habitat preference in fossil taxa, with special reference to Suminia. The postcranial anatomy of Suminia provides the earliest skeletal evidence for prehensile abilities and arboreality in vertebrates, as indicated by its elongate limbs, intrinsic phalangeal proportions, a divergent first digit and potentially prehensile tail. The morphometric analysis further suggests a differentiation between grasping and clinging morphotypes among arboreal vertebrates, the former displaying elongated proximal phalanges and the latter showing an elongation of the penultimate phalanges. The fossil assemblage that includes Suminia demonstrates that arboreality and resource partitioning occurred shortly after the initial establishment of the modern type of terrestrial vertebrate ecosystems, with a large number of primary consumers and few top predators.


    • Received May 27, 2009.
    • Accepted July 6, 2009.
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