Biomechanical consequences of rapid evolution in the polar bear lineage

PLoS One. 2010 Nov 5;5(11):e13870. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0013870.


The polar bear is the only living ursid with a fully carnivorous diet. Despite a number of well-documented craniodental adaptations for a diet of seal flesh and blubber, molecular and paleontological data indicate that this morphologically distinct species evolved less than a million years ago from the omnivorous brown bear. To better understand the evolution of this dietary specialization, we used phylogenetic tests to estimate the rate of morphological specialization in polar bears. We then used finite element analysis (FEA) to compare the limits of feeding performance in the polar bear skull to that of the phylogenetically and geographically close brown bear. Results indicate that extremely rapid evolution of semi-aquatic adaptations and dietary specialization in the polar bear lineage produced a cranial morphology that is weaker than that of brown bears and less suited to processing tough omnivorous or herbivorous diets. Our results suggest that continuation of current climate trends could affect polar bears by not only eliminating their primary food source, but also through competition with northward advancing, generalized brown populations for resources that they are ill-equipped to utilize.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Biomechanical Phenomena
  • Carnivora / anatomy & histology
  • Carnivora / classification
  • Carnivora / physiology
  • Finite Element Analysis
  • Male
  • Muscle, Skeletal / physiology*
  • Phylogeny
  • Skull / anatomy & histology*
  • Ursidae / anatomy & histology
  • Ursidae / classification*
  • Ursidae / physiology