Cranial skeletal morphology, ontogeny and variation are examined in five species of Thorius, a genus of diminutive plethodontid salamanders that are among the smallest, extant, tailed tetrapods. The skull of adull Thorius is characterized by: (1) limited development or absence of several ossified elements and dentition; (2) increased inter-and intraspecific variability; (3) novel morphological configurations of the braincase and jaw suspensorium. Posthatching cranial mineralization in all species of Thorius is truncated precociously with respect to that typical of larger and more generalized plethodontid genera, such as Pseudoeurycea. These features implicate paedomorphosis as a predominant mechanism responsible for the evolution of decreased size in Thorius from larger plethodontid ancestors. Interspecific differences in cranial morphology are evident; species may be characterized by greater or lesser degrees of truncated development. However, there is no consistent relationship between degree of paedomorphosis and mean adult body size in interspecific comparisons. Adult morphology of several individual elements represent potentially useful taxonomic characters for distinguishing species.
Reduction, increased variability, and morphological novelty are common to many lineages of dwarfed taxa. They represent a null hypothesis for examination of the developmental mechanisms and morphological consequences of miniaturization in other groups.