Royal Society Publishing

Relationships between oral morphology and feeding style in the Ungulata: a phylogenetically controlled evaluation

F. J. Pérez–Barbería, I. J. Gordon


In ungulates it is argued that specialization in the consumption of a particular type of food (feeding style) is reflected in morphological adaptations of the organs involved in the selection, processing and digestion of food. We analysed the differences in size and morphology of some oral traits that have been functionally related to food–selection ability (muzzle width, incisor–arcade shape, incisor shape), prehension of food (incisor protrusion), food comminution (molar occlusal surface area, hypsodonty (high–crowned molars)) and intake rate (incisor breadth) between ungulate species with different feeding styles (browser, mixed feeder, grazer). Grazers were characterized by large–body–size species. After controlling only for body mass, we found that grazers had wider muzzles and incisors, more–protruding incisors and more–bulky and higher–crowned molars than did mixed feeders and browsers. When the analyses took into account both body mass and phylogeny, only body mass and two out of the three hypsodonty indexes used remained significantly different between feeding styles. Browsers were smaller, on average, than mixed feeders and grazers, whilst grazers and mixed feeders did not differ in size. Also, browsers had shorter and less–bulky molars than did mixed feeders and grazers; the latter two feeding styles did not differ from each other in any of the hypsodonty indexes. We conclude that the adaptation to different dietary types in most of the oral traits studied is subsumed by the effects of body mass and the sharing of common ancestors. We hypothesize that differences in the ability to exploit different food resources primarily result from differences in body mass between species, and also discuss why hypsodonty characterizes feeding styles.