Biting through constraints: cranial morphology, disparity and convergence across living and fossil carnivorous mammals

Anjali Goswami, Nick Milne, Stephen Wroe


Carnivory has evolved independently several times in eutherian (including placental) and metatherian (including marsupial) mammals. We used geometric morphometrics to assess convergences associated with the evolution of carnivory across a broad suite of mammals, including the eutherian clades Carnivora and Creodonta and the metatherian clades Thylacoleonidae, Dasyuromorphia, Didelphidae and Borhyaenoidea. We further quantified cranial disparity across eutherians and metatherians to test the hypothesis that the marsupial mode of reproduction has constrained their morphological evolution. This study, to our knowledge the first to extensively sample pre-Pleistocene taxa, analysed 30 three-dimensional landmarks, focused mainly on the facial region, which were digitized on 130 specimens, including 36 fossil taxa. Data were analysed with principal components (PC) analysis, and three measures of disparity were compared between eutherians and metatherians. PC1 showed a shift from short to long faces and seemed to represent diet and ecology. PC2 was dominated by the unique features of sabre-toothed forms: dramatic expansion of the maxilla at the expense of the frontal bones. PC3, in combination with PC1, distinguished metatherians and eutherians. Metatherians, despite common comparisons with felids, were more similar to caniforms, which was unexpected for taxa such as the sabre-toothed marsupial Thylacosmilus. Contrary to previous studies, metatherian carnivores consistently exhibited disparity which exceeded that of the much more speciose eutherian carnivore radiations, refuting the hypothesis that developmental constraints have limited the morphological evolution of the marsupial cranium.

  • Received September 22, 2010.
  • Accepted November 3, 2010.
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