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Implications of predatory specialization for cranial form and function in canids


  • Editor: Andrew Kitchener

Graham J. Slater, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California, Los Angeles, 621 Charles E. Young Drive South, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1606, USA.


The shape of the cranium varies widely among members of the order Carnivora, but the factors that drive the evolution of differences in shape remain unclear. Selection for increased bite force, bite speed or skull strength may all affect cranial morphology. We investigated the relationship between cranial form and function in the trophically diverse dog family, Canidae, using linear morphometrics and finite element (FE) analyses that simulated the internal and external forces that act on the skull during the act of prey capture and killing. In contrast to previous FE-based studies, we compared models using a newly developed method that removes the effects of size and highlights the relationship between shape and performance. Cranial shape varies among canids based on diet, and different selective forces presumably drove evolution of these phenotypes. The long, narrow jaws of small prey specialists appear to reflect selection for fast jaw closure at the expense of bite force. Generalists have intermediate jaw dimensions and produce moderate bite forces, but their crania are comparable in strength to those of small prey specialists. Canids that take large prey have short, broad jaws, produce the largest bite forces and possess very strong crania. Our FE simulations suggest that the remarkable strength of skulls of large prey specialists reflect the additional ability to resist extrinsic loads that may be encountered while struggling with large prey items.