Habitat influences how carnivoran skulls are shaped and how they function as “food processing tools,” new research reveals

Jack Tseng and master's student Connor Grabowski study a skull in blue light

Jack Tseng and Anatomical Sciences master's student Connor Grabowski study a black bear skull using a high-resolution surface scanner.

Digital and biomechanical models of more than 50 living species helped researchers determine how skulls in this widely disparate mammal group evolved

Release Date: February 7, 2018

Portrait of Jack Tseng
“One of the main findings from this paper is that the anatomical variations we observed across species are related as intimately to diet as they are to several environmental factors.”
Jack Tseng, PhD, Assistant professor, Department of Pathology and Anatomical Sciences
Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Differences in skull shape and function across carnivorans stem not just from diet, as has long been observed, but also from a range of environmental factors in the animal’s habitat, according to a paper published today in Science Advances. Carnivorans are the large mammalian order including dogs, cats and bears.

The research, by scientists at the American Museum of Natural History and the University at Buffalo, demonstrates that there is far more variability in environmental influences of skull function and shape in carnivorans than has been understood.

“One of the main findings from this paper is that the anatomical variations we observed across species are related as intimately to diet as they are to several environmental factors,” said lead author Jack Tseng, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Pathology and Anatomical Sciences in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB and research associate at the museum. “These factors don't necessarily have to do with feeding behavior or preference, but still can significantly influence how different skulls function as food processing tools.”

Together with co-author John Flynn, the Frick Curator of Fossil Mammals in the museum’s Division of Paleontology, Tseng developed sophisticated structural and biomechanical models of a broad range of skulls from carnivorans with every imaginable type of diet. They used the models to see how skull shape and size are related to and influenced by the environments of each species.

They describe the research in this video.

They found that, for example, sexual maturity and precipitation-related arboreality (how much rain falls in a habitat influences what species eat and how they interact with their environment) can generate structure-function relationships in the skulls of carnivorans that correlate with “masticatory performance.”

“This is a common theme between my different model organisms (carnivorans vs. humans),” Tseng explains. “The relationships between structure and function allow us to make predictions about how well parts of our body work given their anatomy, but factors influencing those anatomical variations do not necessarily have to be directly related to the functions those variations affect.

“In other words, understanding the proximal mechanisms of a structural system (be it a bone-crushing carnivore skull or a patient suffering from temporomandibular joint pain) is not the same as understanding the systemic pathways that underlie an evolutionarily adapted system or development of a pathological condition,” Tseng said.

The work was funded by the National Science Foundation and the Frick Fund of the American Museum of Natural History.

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