Open Access Highly Accessed Open Badges Research article

Functional constraints on tooth morphology in carnivorous mammals

Peter D Smits* and Alistair R Evans

Author Affiliations

Department of Biological Sciences, Monash University, Melbourne, VIC, 3800, AUS

For all author emails, please log on.

BMC Evolutionary Biology 2012, 12:146  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-12-146

Published: 16 August 2012



The range of potential morphologies resulting from evolution is limited by complex interacting processes, ranging from development to function. Quantifying these interactions is important for understanding adaptation and convergent evolution. Using three-dimensional reconstructions of carnivoran and dasyuromorph tooth rows, we compared statistical models of the relationship between tooth row shape and the opposing tooth row, a static feature, as well as measures of mandibular motion during chewing (occlusion), which are kinetic features. This is a new approach to quantifying functional integration because we use measures of movement and displacement, such as the amount the mandible translates laterally during occlusion, as opposed to conventional morphological measures, such as mandible length and geometric landmarks. By sampling two distantly related groups of ecologically similar mammals, we study carnivorous mammals in general rather than a specific group of mammals.


Statistical model comparisons demonstrate that the best performing models always include some measure of mandibular motion, indicating that functional and statistical models of tooth shape as purely a function of the opposing tooth row are too simple and that increased model complexity provides a better understanding of tooth form. The predictors of the best performing models always included the opposing tooth row shape and a relative linear measure of mandibular motion.


Our results provide quantitative support of long-standing hypotheses of tooth row shape as being influenced by mandibular motion in addition to the opposing tooth row. Additionally, this study illustrates the utility and necessity of including kinetic features in analyses of morphological integration.

Three-dimensional reconstruction; Carnivora; Dasyuromorphia; Ecomorphology; Integration