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High-level similarity of dentitions in carnivorans and rodents


The study of mammalian evolution depends greatly on understanding the evolution of teeth and the relationship of tooth shape to diet. Links between gross tooth shape, function and diet have been proposed since antiquity, stretching from Aristotle1 to Cuvier2, Owen3 and Osborn4. So far, however, the possibilities for exhaustive, quantitative comparisons between greatly different tooth shapes have been limited. Cat teeth and mouse teeth, for example, are fundamentally distinct in shape and structure as a result of independent evolutionary change over tens of millions of years5. There is difficulty in establishing homology between their tooth components or in summarizing their tooth shapes, yet both carnivorans and rodents possess a comparable spectrum of dietary specializations from animals to plants. Here we introduce homology-free techniques6,7,8 to measure the phenotypic complexity of the three-dimensional shape of tooth crowns. In our geographic information systems (GIS) analysis of 441 teeth from 81 species of carnivorans and rodents, we show that the surface complexity of tooth crowns directly reflects the foods they consume. Moreover, the absolute values of dental complexity for individual dietary classes correspond between carnivorans and rodents, illustrating a high-level similarity between overall tooth shapes despite a lack of low-level similarity of specific tooth components. These results suggest that scale-independent forces have determined the high-level dental shape in lineages that are widely divergent in size, ecology and life history. This link between diet and phenotype will be useful for inferring the ecology of extinct species and illustrates the potential of fast-throughput, high-level analysis of the phenotype.

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Figure 1: Dental and dietary diversity in carnivorans and rodents.
Figure 2: Dental complexity follows diet similarly in carnivorans and rodents.


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We thank G. Evans, K. Kavanagh, I. Salazar Ciudad, P. Wright, C. Strömberg, A. Gionis, G. Sanson, A. Lister, M. Skinner, I. Pljusnin and J. Eronen for comments and discussions on this work; E. Penttilä for scanning some of the rodents; M. Barbeitos for the suggestion to use information theory; and the following museum curators, collection managers and librarians for loans and reference material: O. Grönwall, R. Asher, M. Hildén, I. Hanski, K. Gully and M. Cytrynbaum. This study was supported by the Academy of Finland (J.J., M.F.), Synthesys (A.R.E.), the Centre for International Mobility (CIMO) (A.R.E.), and a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship (G.P.W.).

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Correspondence to Alistair R. Evans.

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Data deposition: the three-dimensional scans for this study are deposited in the MorphoBrowser database ( Reprints and permissions information is available at The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Supplementary Information

The file contains Supplementary Figures and Legends 1-2 and Supplementary Tables 1-8. Supplementary Figures show orientation patch count (OPC) versus two different measures of relative tooth size. Supplementary Tables list the species used in the study together with dietary information and references; data for some of the dental complexity measures; and the full results of statistical tests mentioned in the paper. (PDF 244 kb)

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Evans, A., Wilson, G., Fortelius, M. et al. High-level similarity of dentitions in carnivorans and rodents. Nature 445, 78–81 (2007).

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