, Volume 13, Issue 1, pp 11-36
Date: 18 Mar 2006

Coevolution of Tooth Crown Height and Diet in Oreodonts (Merycoidodontidae, Artiodactyla) Examined with Phylogenetically Independent Contrasts

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The evolution of increased tooth crown height is considered to be an adaptation for coping with excessive rates of dental wear associated with abrasive herbivorous diets, such as grazing and(or high levels of exogenous grit (e.g. dust, sand, ash). Evolutionary trends in the crown heights of North American ungulates are grossly consistent with a transition from closed forests in the early Eocene to open grasslands in the late Miocene. However, the evolutionary proliferation of hypsodonty (high crowned teeth) in the early and middle Miocene occurs later than the apparent origin of open grassland habitats in North America. The paleoecology of species from the interval between the appearance of grasslands and the evolutionary proliferation of hypsodonty is critical to understanding the role of Cenozoic climate change in mammalian evolution. The paleodiets of late Eocene to middle Miocene oreodonts (Merycoidodontidae) were reconstructed by examining the relative facet development of molars (mesowear). A two-phase diet trend was discovered. Phase 1 suggests either an average reduction in the amount of exogenous grit from the late Eocene to early Oligocene or a decrease in fruit consumption related to the disappearance of more wooded habitats. Phase 2 is a gradual transition from early Oligocene low-abrasion browsing to high abrasion diets similar to mixed feeding and grazing in the Miocene. According to mesowear data, oreodont diets similar to those of modern grazers in terms of abrasion are not seen until the early Miocene (early Hemingfordian land mammal age). The coevolutionary relationship of molar crown height and diet, as represented by mesowear, was examined using phylogenetically independent contrasts. No significant coevolutionary relationship was found. In several instances, diet was found to shift over time despite morphological stasis (i.e. within a single species). These results do not clearly indicate that the overall trend of increasing dietary abrasion imposed sufficient selection to drive crown height evolution in oreodonts. Therefore, direct fossil evidence of dietary abrasion as a causal factor in the evolution of crown height, at least in this clade, is elusive.