Deja vu: the evolution of feeding morphologies in the Carnivora

Integr Comp Biol. 2007 Jul;47(1):147-63. doi: 10.1093/icb/icm016. Epub 2007 May 22.


The fossil record of the order Carnivora extends back at least 60 million years and documents a remarkable history of adaptive radiation characterized by the repeated, independent evolution of similar feeding morphologies in distinct clades. Within the order, convergence is apparent in the iterative appearance of a variety of ecomorphs, including cat-like, hyena-like, and wolf-like hypercarnivores, as well as a variety of less carnivorous forms, such as foxes, raccoons, and ursids. The iteration of similar forms has multiple causes. First, there are a limited number of ways to ecologically partition the carnivore niche, and second, the material properties of animal tissues (muscle, skin, bone) have not changed over the Cenozoic. Consequently, similar craniodental adaptations for feeding on different proportions of animal versus plant tissues evolve repeatedly. The extent of convergence in craniodental form can be striking, affecting skull proportions and overall shape, as well as dental morphology. The tendency to evolve highly convergent ecomorphs is most apparent among feeding extremes, such as sabertooths and bone-crackers where performance requirements tend to be more acute. A survey of the fossil record indicates that large hypercarnivores evolve frequently, often in response to ecological opportunity afforded by the decline or extinction of previously dominant hypercarnivorous taxa. While the evolution of large size and carnivory may be favored at the individual level, it can lead to a macroevolutionary ratchet, wherein dietary specialization and reduced population densities result in a greater vulnerability to extinction. As a result of these opposing forces, the fossil record of Carnivora is dominated by successive clades of hypercarnivores that diversify and decline, only to be replaced by new hypercarnivorous clades. This has produced a marvelous set of natural experiments in the evolution of similar ecomorphs, each of which start from phylogenetically and morphologically unique positions.