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Open Access Highly Accessed Open Badges Research article

Forelimb preferences in quadrupedal marsupials and their implications for laterality evolution in mammals

Andrey Giljov1, Karina Karenina1 and Yegor Malashichev12*

Author affiliations

1 Department of Vertebrate Zoology, Saint Petersburg State University, Saint Petersburg, Russia

2 Department of Embryology, Saint Petersburg State University, St. Petersburg, Russia

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Citation and License

BMC Evolutionary Biology 2013, 13:61  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-13-61

Published: 6 March 2013



Acquisition of upright posture in evolution has been argued to facilitate manual laterality in primates. Owing to the high variety of postural habits marsupials can serve as a suitable model to test whether the species-typical body posture shapes forelimb preferences in non-primates or this phenomenon emerged only in the course of primate evolution. In the present study we aimed to explore manual laterality in marsupial quadrupeds and compare them with the results in the previously studied bipedal species. Forelimb preferences were assessed in captive grey short-tailed opossum (Monodelphis domestica) and sugar glider (Petaurus breviceps) in four different types of unimanual behaviour per species, which was not artificially evoked. We examined the possible effects of sex, age and task, because these factors have been reported to affect motor laterality in placental mammals.


In both species the direction of forelimb preferences was strongly sex-related. Male grey short-tailed opossums showed right-forelimb preference in most of the observed unimanual behaviours, while male sugar gliders displayed only a slight, not significant rightward tendency. In contrast, females in both species exhibited consistent group-level preference of the left forelimb. We failed to reveal significant differences in manual preferences between tasks of potentially differing complexity: reaching a stable food item and catching live insects, as well as between the body support and food manipulation. No influence of subjects’ age on limb preferences was found.


The direction of sex-related differences in the manual preferences found in quadrupedal marsupials seems to be not typical for placental mammals. We suggest that the alternative way of interhemispheric connection in absence of corpus callosum may result in a fundamentally distinct mechanism of sex effect on limb preferences in marsupials compared to placentals. Our data confirm the idea that non-primate mammals differ from primates in sensitivity to task complexity. Comparison of marsupial species studied to date indicate that the vertical body orientation and the bipedalism favor the expression of individual– and population–level forelimb preferences in marsupials much like it does in primates. Our findings give the first evidence for the effect of species-typical posture on the manual laterality in non-primate mammals.

Lateralization; Forelimb preference; Hand preference; Marsupial; Grey short-tailed opossum; Sugar glider; Sex effect; Postural effect; Quadruped