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Keywords:

  • Carnivora;
  • cursoriality;
  • functional morphology;
  • Mammalia;
  • morphometrics;
  • multivariate statistics;
  • principal components analysis;
  • truss network

Among the hunting strategies employed by members of the order Carnivora (Mammalia), two, stalk and ambush and sustained pursuit, are particularly prevalent among larger species of the order. It has been difficult to identify morphological traits that support this distinction and ecological observations have shown that most carnivorans adopt a continuum of strategies, depending on available habitat and prey. In this paper, the shape of the distal humerus articulation is analysed, with the aim of exploring the use of the forelimb in prey procurement, and as a guide to such behaviour among fossil carnivorans. The results suggest that manual manipulation and locomotion are conflicting functions. Elbow-joint morphology supports a division between grapplers (i.e. ambushers) and nongrapplers (i.e. pursuers). Joints of the former are characterized by being relatively wide and the latter, by being relatively narrow and box-like with pronounced stabilizing features. At intermediate and large body sizes, carnivorans show a pattern suggesting mutually exclusive feeding strategies that involve either grappling with prey or sustained pursuit. The former allows for large body sizes, such as pantherine felids and ursids; the latter includes species of only moderate size, such as hyenids and canids. Elbow-joint morphology is closely linked to phylogeny, but the morphology of the cheetah converges with that of nongrapplers, showing that strong selective forces may override the phylogenetic component. Two taxa of giant mustelids from the Miocene were analysed to test whether this sort of analysis is applicable to carnivorans of the past. The African Late Miocene species Ekorus ekakeran has a joint morphology comparable to that of modern-day nongrapplers. Two joint morphologies were found in the North American Late Oligocene-Early Miocene Megalictis ferox. The first morphology is comparable to that of modern pantherine cats and the second forms  an  intermediate  between  grapplers  and  nongrapplers  that  is  not  present  in  the  modern  carnivoran  fauna. © 2004 The Linnean Society of London, Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2004, 142, 91–104.