Functional morphology, comparative behaviour, and adaptation in two sympatric subterranean rodents genus Ctenomys (Caviomorpha: Octodontidae)

Authors

  • Aldo I. Vassallo

    Corresponding author
    1. Departamento de Biología, Facultad de Ciencias Exactas y Naturales, Universidad Nacional de Mar del Plata, Casilla de Correo 1245 (7600) Mar del Plata, Argentina
      All correspondence to: Dr A. Vassallo, Departamento de Biología, Universidad Nacional de Mar del Plata, Casilla de Correo 1245 (7600), Mar del Plata, Argentina.
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All correspondence to: Dr A. Vassallo, Departamento de Biología, Universidad Nacional de Mar del Plata, Casilla de Correo 1245 (7600), Mar del Plata, Argentina.

Abstract

Two species of tuco-tucos, Ctenomys talarum and C. australis, overlap geographically in south-eastern Buenos Aires Province, Argentina. C. talarum (100-180 g) occupies habitats with clayey and harder soils, while the larger C. australis (300-600 g) occupies sandy and quite friable soils. This study compares the digging apparatus and digging performance of both species, and also provides additional ecological data to describe the adaptations of both species. When confronted with sandy, friable soils, both tuco-tucos exclusively use their forelimbs (‘scratch digging’ mode) to break the soil. When confronted with harder and clayey soils, C. australis used its forelimbs and, less frequently, its incisors, but no appreciable effectiveness was observed in breaking the soil. On the other hand, C. talarum behaved as a ‘scratch’ and ‘chisel-tooth digger’ species, using both forelimbs and incisors to dig tunnels in extremely hard soils. C. talarum showed relatively larger forelimb extensors than C. australis. Moreover, I hypothesize that the structure of the ulna in C. talarum may increase the effective forces of the digital and carpal flexors, thus accounting for the enhanced digging ability in this species. Outward forces exerted by the distal elements (claws-digits-carpals) when forelimbs impact the soil appear to be a critical factor in loosening soil fragments. In addition, the increased upper incisor procumbency of C. talarum correlated with an effective chisel-tooth digging behaviour. Finally, I briefly examine phylogenetic and biogeographical factors that may account for some C. australis morphological and physiological traits. It is suggested that the digging ability of C. australis could be a by-product of its larger size, a likely adaptation to evade predation.

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