Is vertebral count in mammals influenced by developmental temperature? A study with Dasypus novemcinctus
Body temperatures, life history, and skeletal morphology in the nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus)
Recommendation: posted 31 March 2020, validated 03 April 2020
Sobral, M. (2020) Is vertebral count in mammals influenced by developmental temperature? A study with Dasypus novemcinctus. Peer Community in Ecology, 100050. 10.24072/pci.ecology.100050
Mammals show a very low level of variation in vertebral count, both among and within species, in comparison to other vertebrates . Jordan’s rule for fishes states that the vertebral number among species increases with latitude, due to ambient temperatures during development . Temperature has also been shown to influence vertebral count within species in fish , amphibians , and birds . However, in mammals the count appears to be constrained, on the one hand, by a possible relationship between the development of the skeleton and the proliferations of cell lines with associated costs (neural malformations, cancer etc., ), and on the other by the cervical origin of the diaphragm .
Knight et al.  investigate the effect of intrauterine temperature variation on skeletal morphology during development, and focus on a particular mammal, Dasypus novemcinctus, or nine-banded armadillo. Armadillos (Xenarthra) and are characterized by relatively low body temperatures and low basal rates of metabolism. Dasypus novemcinctus is the only xenarthran mammal to have naturally expanded its range into the middle latitudes of the U.S., and one of the few mammals that invaded North America from South America. It is one of few placentals that withstand considerable decrease of body temperature without torpor. It presents a resting body temperature that is low and variable for a placental mammal of its size  and is the only vertebrate that gives birth to monozygotic quadruplets. Among 42 monotreme, marsupial and placental genera, Dasypus novemcinctus shows the highest variation of thoracolumbar vertebral count .
The particularities of Dasypus novemcinctus regarding vertebral count variation and ability to withstand variable temperature qualify it as a target organism for study of the relationship between skeleton morphology and temperature in mammals.
Knight et al.  explored variability in vertebral count within Dasypus novemcinctus to understand whether temperature during development determines skeleton morphology. To this end they experimented with 22 armadillos (19 with data) and litters from 12 pregnant females, in two environments, for three years — an impressive effort and experimental setup. Moreover, they used a wide variety of advanced experimental and analytical techniques. For example, they implanted intra-abdominal, long-term temperature recorders, which recorded data every 6 to 120 minutes for up to several months. They analysed body temperature periodicity by approximation of the recordings with Fourier series, and they CT-scanned fetuses.
All 19 individuals (from which data could be gathered) exhibited substantial daily variation in body temperature. Several intriguing results emerged such as the counter-intuitive finding that the mammals’ body temperature fluctuates more indoors than outdoors. Furthermore, three females (out of 12) were found to have offspring with atypical skeletons, and two of these mothers presented an extremely low internal temperature early in pregnancy. Additionally, genetically identical quadruplets differed skeletally among themselves within two litters.
Results are not yet definitive about the relationship of temperature during development and vertebral count in Dasypus novemcinctus. However, Knight et al.  demonstrated that nine-banded armadillos survive with high daily internal temperature fluctuations and successfully bring to term offspring which vary in skeletal morphology among and within genetically identical litters despite major temperature extremes.
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The recommender in charge of the evaluation of the article and the reviewers declared that they have no conflict of interest (as defined in the code of conduct of PCI) with the authors or with the content of the article. The authors declared that they comply with the PCI rule of having no financial conflicts of interest in relation to the content of the article.
Evaluation round #2
DOI or URL of the preprint: https://doi.org/10.17863/CAM.50971
Version of the preprint: rev1
Author's Reply, 11 Mar 2020
Decision by Mar Sobral, posted 13 Feb 2020
Dear Professor Asher and collaborators
I am definitely interested in recommending your preprint, which I really enjoyed.
However before I do so, I would like you to ask you for three main changes. A conceptual one, a formal one and a technic one. The conceptual change is very important to me.
Firstly, The technical issue which is in my opinion improvable is the use and description of statistical analyses troughput the paper. I believe the paper would be improved if stats are used systematically for all results and not only for some.
Secondly, there are (in my opinion) too many tables and even figures which are not necessary in the main body of the manuscript, please remove those which are not necessary to understand the message to suplemmmentary materials so that the manuscript bcames easier to digest and more atractive. Also try to cut a bit on superfluos text whenever possible.
Thirdly, the conceptual change; I completely agree with you in that (as you explained to one of the referees) the fact that two dams had genetically indentycal quadruplets with polymorphic skeletons is potentially very important. I wonder whether different skeletons have similar rates of survival and reproduction on the first hand and if we dont know this, what can we speculate about it?. On the second, I would like a deeper consideration of this fact troughput the paper. Which could be the evolutionary causes and consequences of this fact? How genetically determined are phenotypes in the wild? What do we know about other mammals regarding phenotypic lability or plasticity? Can we expect different epigenetic processes going on the different offsprings from the same dam? consider if including something about this also in the title.
I hope this is enough information for you to perform a last revision before recommendation.
Evaluation round #1
DOI or URL of the preprint: https://osf.io/q8ndp
Author's Reply, 22 Jan 2020
Decision by Mar Sobral, posted 08 Jan 2020
Two reviewers and myself have thought the manuscript is clear and interesting.
Some comments have been made by reviewers which are easy to implement and will improve the manuscript.
Please send a revision having into account the comments made by the two reviewers.