Dental measurement and diet data for mammals
Because teeth are the most easily preserved part of the vertebrate skeleton and are particularly morphologically variable in mammals, studies of fossil mammals rely heavily on dental morphology. Dental morphology is used both for systematics and phylogeny as well as for inferences about paleoecology, diet in particular. We analyze the influence of evolutionary history on our ability to reconstruct diet from dental morphology in the mammalian order Carnivora, and we find that much of our understanding of diet in carnivorans is dependent on the phylogenetic constraints on diet in this clade. Substantial error in estimating diet from dental morphology is present regardless of the morphological data used to make the inference, although more extensive morphological datasets are more accurate in predicting diet than more limited character sets. Unfortunately, including phylogeny in making dietary inferences actually decreases the accuracy of these predictions, showing that dietary predictions from morphology are substantially dependent on the evolutionary constraints on carnivore diet and tooth shape. The "evolutionary ratchet" that drives lineages of carnivorans to evolve greater degrees of hypercarnivory through time actually plays a role in allowing dietary inference from tooth shape, but consequently requires caution in interpreting dietary inference from the teeth fossil carnivores. These difficulties are another reminder of the differences in evolutionary tempo and mode between morphology and ecology.
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