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Biophysics - Ecology - Physiology


Insights into the Ecology and Evolutionary Success of Crocodilians Revealed through Bite-Force and Tooth-Pressure Experimentation
Published: Wednesday, March 14, 2012
Author: Gregory M. Erickson et al.

by Gregory M. Erickson, Paul M. Gignac, Scott J. Steppan, A. Kristopher Lappin, Kent A. Vliet, John D. Brueggen, Brian D. Inouye, David Kledzik, Grahame J. W. Webb

Background

Crocodilians have dominated predatory niches at the water-land interface for over 85 million years. Like their ancestors, living species show substantial variation in their jaw proportions, dental form and body size. These differences are often assumed to reflect anatomical specialization related to feeding and niche occupation, but quantified data are scant. How these factors relate to biomechanical performance during feeding and their relevance to crocodilian evolutionary success are not known.

Methodology/Principal Findings

We measured adult bite forces and tooth pressures in all 23 extant crocodilian species and analyzed the results in ecological and phylogenetic contexts. We demonstrate that these reptiles generate the highest bite forces and tooth pressures known for any living animals. Bite forces strongly correlate with body size, and size changes are a major mechanism of feeding evolution in this group. Jaw shape demonstrates surprisingly little correlation to bite force and pressures. Bite forces can now be predicted in fossil crocodilians using the regression equations generated in this research.

Conclusions/Significance

Critical to crocodilian long-term success was the evolution of a high bite-force generating musculo-skeletal architecture. Once achieved, the relative force capacities of this system went essentially unmodified throughout subsequent diversification. Rampant changes in body size and concurrent changes in bite force served as a mechanism to allow access to differing prey types and sizes. Further access to the diversity of near-shore prey was gained primarily through changes in tooth pressure via the evolution of dental form and distributions of the teeth within the jaws. Rostral proportions changed substantially throughout crocodilian evolution, but not in correspondence with bite forces. The biomechanical and ecological ramifications of such changes need further examination.

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