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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Ancestral feeding state of ruminants reconsidered: earliest grazing adaptation claims a mixed condition for Cervidae

Daniel DeMiguel12*, Mikael Fortelius3, Beatriz Azanza12 and Jorge Morales1

Author Affiliations

1 Departamento de Paleobiología, Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, José Gutiérrez Abascal 2, 28006 Madrid, Spain

2 Departamento de Ciencias de la Tierra, Facultad de Ciencias, 50009, Universidad de Zaragoza, Spain

3 Department of Geology, Division of Geology and Paleontology, PO Box 11 FIN-00014, University of Helsinki, Finland

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2008, 8:13  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-8-13

Published: 18 January 2008



Specialised leaf-eating is almost universally regarded as the ancestral state of all ruminants, yet little evidence can be cited in support of this assumption, apart from the fact that all early ruminants had low crowned cheek teeth. Instead, recent years have seen the emergence evidence contradicting the conventional view that low tooth crowns always indicate leaf-eating and high tooth crowns grass-eating.


Here we report the results of two independent palaeodietary reconstructions for one of the earliest deer, Procervulus ginsburgi from the Early Miocene of Spain, suggesting that despite having lower tooth crowns than any living ruminant, this species included a significant proportion of grass in its diet.


The phylogenetic distribution of feeding styles strongly supports that leaf-grass mixed feeding was the original feeding style of deer, and that later dietary specialization on leaves or grass occurred independently in several lineages. Evidence for other ruminant clades suggests that facultative mixed feeding may in fact have been the primitive dietary state of the Ruminantia, which would have been morphologically expressed only under specific environmental factors.