Dietary adaptations in the teeth of murine rodents (Muridae): a test of biomechanical predictions

Research paper by Stephanie A. Martin, Bader H. Alhajeri, Scott J. Steppan

Indexed on: 14 Jun '16Published on: 13 Jun '16Published in: Biological Journal of the Linnean Society


Functional dental theory predicts that tooth shape responds evolutionarily to the mechanical properties of food. Most studies of mammalian teeth have focused on qualitative measures of dental anatomy and have not formally tested how the functional components of teeth adapt in response to diet. Here we generated a series of predictions for tooth morphology based on biomechanical models of food processing. We used murine rodents (Old World rats and mice) to test these predictions for the relationship between diet and morphology and to identify a suite of functional dental characteristics that best predict diets. One hundred and five dental characteristics were extracted from images of the upper and lower tooth rows and incisors for 98 species. After accounting for phylogenetic relationships, we showed that species evolving plant‐dominated diets evolved deeper incisors, longer third molars, longer molar crests, blunter posteriorly angled cusps, and more expanded laterally oriented occlusal cusps than species adapting to animal‐dominated diets. Measures of incisor depth, crest length, cusp angle and sharpness, occlusal cusp orientation, and the lengths of third molars proved the best predictors of dietary adaptation. Accounting for evolutionary history in a phylogenetic discriminant function analysis notably improved the classification accuracy. Molar morphology is strongly correlated with diet and we suggest that these dental traits can be used to infer diet with good accuracy for both extinct and extant murine species.