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Keywords:

  • bite force;
  • Canidae;
  • computed tomography;
  • ecology;
  • feeding;
  • Felidae;
  • Hyaenidae;
  • skull;
  • Ursidae

The Carnivora occupy a wide range of feeding niches in concordance with the enormous diversity in their skull and dental form. It is well established that differences in crown morphology are linked to variations in the material properties of the foods ingested and masticated. However, how tooth root form is related to dietary specialization is less well known. In the present study, we investigate the relationship between tooth root morphology and dietary specialization in terrestrial carnivores (canids, felids, hyaenids, and ursids). We specifically address the question of how variation in tooth root surface area is related to bite force potentials as one of the crucial masticatory performance parameters in feeding ecology. We applied computed tomography imaging to reconstruct and quantify dental root surface area in 17 extant carnivore species. Moreover, we computed maximal bite force at several tooth positions based on a dry skull model and assessed the relationship of root surface area to skull size, maximal bite force, food properties, and prey size. We found that postcanine tooth root surface areas corrected for skull size serve as a proxy for bite force potentials and, by extension, dietary specialization in carnivores. Irrespective of taxonomic affinity, species that feed on hard food objects have larger tooth roots than those that eat soft or tough foods. Moreover, carnivores that prey on large animals have larger tooth root surface areas. Our results show that tooth root morphology is a useful indicator of bite force production and allows inferences to be made about dietary ecology in both extant and extinct mammals. © 2011 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2012, 105, 456–471.