Morphological convergence obscures functional diversity in sabre-toothed carnivores
Lautenschlager, Stephan; Figueirido, Borja; Cashmore, Daniel D.; Bendel, Eva-Maria; Stubbs, Thomas L.
The acquisition of elongated, sabre-like canines in multiple vertebrate clades during the last 265 Myr represents a remarkable example for convergent evolution. Due to striking superficial similarities in the cranial skeleton, the same or similar skull and jaw functions have been inferred for sabre-toothed species and interpreted as an adaptation to subdue large-bodied prey. However, although some sabre-tooth lineages have been classified into different ecomorphs (dirk-tooths and scimitar-tooths) the functional diversity within and between groups and the evolutionary paths leading to these specializations are unknown. Here, we use a suite of biomechanical simulations to analyse key functional parameters (mandibular gape angle, bending strength, bite force) to compare the functional performance of different groups and to quantify evolutionary rates across sabre-tooth vertebrates. Our results demonstrate a remarkably high functional diversity between sabre-tooth lineages and that different cranial function and prey killing strategies evolved within clades. Moreover, different biomechanical adaptations in coexisting sabre-tooth species further suggest that this functional diversity was at least partially driven by niche partitioning.
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