Open main menu
This page needs to be proofread.
778
MARSUPIALIIA

the south. But the Northern army, the main hope of the Royalist cause, was destroyed.


MARSUPIALIA (from Lat. marsupium, a “pouch, ” or “ bag”), the group of mammals in which the young are usually carried for some time after birth in a pouch on the under-surface of the body of the female. The group, which has also the alternative title of Didelphia, is by some authorities regarded as a sub-class of the mammalia of equal rank with the Monotremata, while by others it is brigaded with the placentals, so that the two together form a sub-class of equal grade with the one represented by the monotremes. There is much to be urged in favour of either view; and in adopting the former alternative, it must be borne in mind that the difference between monotremes and marsupials is vastly greater than that which separates the latter from placentals. In elevating the marsupials to the rank of a sub-class the name Metatheria has been suggested as the title for the higher. grade, with Marsupialia as the designation for the single order by which they are now represented. It is, however, less liable to cause confusion, and in many other ways more convenient to employ the better known term Marsupialia in both senses. Marsupials may be defined as viviparous (that is non-egg laying) mammals, in which the young are born in an imperfect condition, and almost immediately attached to the teats of the mammary glands; the latter being generally enclosed in a pouch, and the front edge of the pelvis being always furnished with epipubic or “ marsupial” bones. As a rule there is no allantoic placenta forming the means of communication between the blood of the parent and the foetus, and when such a structure does occur its development is incomplete. In all cases a more or less full series of teeth is developed, these being differentiated into incisors, canines, premolars and molars, when all are present; but only a single pair of teeth in each jaw has deciduous predecessors.

The pouch from which the marsupials take their name is supported by the two epipubic bones, but does not 'correspond to the temporary breeding-pouch of the monotremes. It may open either forward or backwards; and although present in the great majority of the species, and enclosing the teats, it may, as in many of the opossums, be completely absent, when the teats extend in two rows along the whole length of the under-surface of the body. Whether a pouch is present or not, the young are born in an exceedingly imperfect state of development, after a very short period of gestation, and are immediately transferred by the female parent to the teats, where they remain firmly attached for a considerable time; the milk being injected into their mouths at intervals by means of a special muscle which compresses the glands. In the case of the great grey kangaroo, for instance, the period of gestation is less than forty days, and the newly-born embryo, which is blind, naked, and unable to use its bud-like limbs, is little more than an inch in length. As additional features of the subclass may be mentioned the absence of a corpus callosum connecting the right and left hemispheres of the brain, ' and of a fossa in the septum between the two auricles of the heart. In the skull there are always vacuities, or unossified spaces in the bones of the palate, while the “ angle, " or lower hind extremity of each half of the lower jaw is strongly bent inwards so as to form a kind of shelf, and the alisphenoid bone takes a share in the formation of the tympanum, or auditory bladder, or bulla. Didelphia, the alternative name of the group was given in allusion to the circumstance that the uterus has two separate openings; while other features are the inclusion of the openings of the alimentary canal and the urino-genital sinusin a common sphincter muscle, and the position of the scrotum in advance of the penis. The bandicoots alone possess a placenta. Lastly the number of trunk-vertebrae is always nineteen, while there are generally thirteen pairs of ribs.

As regards the teeth, in all cases except the wombats the number of upper incisors differs from that of the corresponding lower teeth. As already stated, there is no vertical displacement and succession of the functional teeth except in the case of a single tooth on each side of each jaw, which is the third of the premolar series, and is preceded by a tooth having more or less of the characters of a molar (see fig. I). In some cases (as in rat-kangaroos) this tooth retains its place and function until the animal has nearly, if not quite,

The presence or absence of the corpus callosurn has been much disputed; the latest researches, however, indicate its absence.

attained its full stature, and is not shed and replaced by its successor until after all the other teeth, including the molars, are in place and use. In others, as the thylacine, it is rudimentary, being shed or absorbed before any of the other teeth have cut the gum, and therefore functionless. It may be added that there are some marsupials, such as the Wombat, koala, marsupial ant-eater and the dasyures,

FIG. I.-Teeth of Upper law of Opossum (Dfidelphys marsupfialfis), all of which are unchanged, except the third premolar, the place of which is occupied in the young animal by a molariform tooth, represented in the figure below the line of the other teeth. in which no such deciduous tooth, even in a rudimentary state, has been discovered. In addition to this replacement of a single pair of functional teeth in each jaw, it has been discovered that marsupials possess rudimentary tooth-germs which never cut the gum. According to one theory, these rudimentary teeth, together with the one pair of functional teeth in each jaw that has vertical successors, represent the milk-teeth of placental mammals. On the other hand, there are those who believe that the functional dentition (other than the replacing premolar and the molars) correspond to the milk-dentition of placentals, and that the rudimentary tooth-germs represent a “ prelacteal ” dentition. The question, however, is of academic rather than of practical interest, and whichever way it is answered does not affect our general conception of the nature and relationships of the group.

Unfortunately the homology of the functional series does not by any means end the uncertainty connected with the marsupial dentition; as there is also a difference of opinion with regard to the serial homology of some of the cheek-teeth. For instance, according to the older view, the dental formula in the thylacine or Tasmanian wolf is i. § , c, #}, p. § , m. § =46. On the other hand, in the opinion of the present writer, this formula, so far as the cheek-teeth are concerned, should be altered to p. 1, m. § , thus bringing it in accord, so far as these teeth are concerned, with the placental formula, and making the single pair of replacing teeth the third premolars. It may be added that the formula given above shows that the marsupial dentition may comprise more teeth than the 44 which form the normal full placental complement. gg

As regards geographical distribution, existing marsupials, with the exception of two families, Didelphyidae and Epanorthidae, are mainly limited to the Australian region, forming the chief mammalian fauna of Australia, New Guinea, and some of the adjacent islands. The- Didelphyidae are almost exclusively Central and South American, only one or two species ranging into North America. Fossil remains of members of this family have also been found in Europe in strata of the Oligocene period.

History.-The origin and evolution of the Australian marsupials have been discussed by Mr B. A. Bensley. In broad contrast to the views of Dr A. R. Wallace, this author is of opinion that marsupials did not effect an entrance into Australia till about the middle of the Tertiary period, their ancestors being probably opossums of the American type. They were then arboreal; but they speedily entered upon a rapid, although short-lived, course of evolution, during which leaping terrestrial forms like the kangaroos were developed. The short period of this evolution is at least one factor in the primitive grade of even the most specialized members of the group. In the advance of their molar teeth from a tritubercular to a grinding type, the author traces a curious parallelism between marsupials and placentals. Taking opossums to have been the ancestors of the group, the author considers that the present writer may be right in his view that marsupials entered Australia from Asia by way of New Guinea. On the other hand there is nothing absolutely decisive against their origin being southern.

Again, taking as a text Mr L. Dollo's view that marsupials were originally arboreal, that, on account of their foot-structure, they could not have been the ancestors of placentals, and that they themselves are degenerate placentals, Mr Bensley contrasts this with Huxley's scheme of mammalian evolution. According