The adaptive significance of mandibular symphyseal fusion in mammals


  • J. E. SCOTT,

    1. Department of Biological Sciences, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN, USA
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  • A. S. HOGUE,

    1. Department of Biological Sciences, Salisbury University, Salisbury, MD, USA
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  • M. J. RAVOSA

    1. Departments of Biological Sciences, Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering and Anthropology, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN, USA
    2. Department of Zoology, Mammals Division, Field Museum, Chicago, IL, USA
    3. Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology, Indiana University School of Medicine-South Bend, South Bend, IN, USA
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Matthew J. Ravosa, Professor, Department of Biological Sciences, Galvin Life Science Center, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN 46556, USA. Tel.: +1 574 631 2556; fax: +1 574 631 7413; e-mail:


The mandibular symphyseal joint is remarkably variable across major mammalian clades, ranging in adults from unfused (amphiarthrosis) to partially fused (synarthrosis) to completely ossified (synostosis). Experimental work conducted on primates suggests that greater ossification of the symphysis is a response to increased recruitment of the balancing-side (i.e. nonchewing side) jaw-adductor muscles during forceful unilateral biting and chewing, with increased fusion strengthening the symphysis against correspondingly elevated joint stresses. It is thus expected that species with diets composed primarily of foods that require high-magnitude bite forces and/or repetitive loading to process will be characterized by greater degrees of symphyseal ossification than species with relatively easy-to-process diets (i.e. food items typified by low toughness and/or low stiffness). However, comparative support for this idea is limited. We tested this hypothesis in four dietarily diverse mammalian clades characterized by variation in symphyseal fusion – the Strepsirrhini, Marsupialia, Feliformia, and Caniformia. We scored fusion in adult specimens of 292 species, assigned each to a dietary category based on literature accounts, and tested for an association between these two variables using Pagel’s test for the correlated evolution of binary characters. Results indicate that greater fusion is associated with diets composed of resistant items in strepsirrhines, marsupials, and feliforms, providing some support for the hypothesis. However, no such relationship was detected in caniforms, suggesting that factors other than dietary mechanical properties influence symphyseal ossification. Future work should focus on such factors, as well as those that favour an unfused mandibular symphysis.