The fossil record is widely informative about evolution, but fossils are not systematically used to study the evolution of stem-cell-driven renewal. Here, we examined evolution of the continuous growth (hypselodonty) of rodent molar teeth, which is fuelled by the presence of dental stem cells. We studied occurrences of 3,500 North American rodent fossils, ranging from 50 million years ago (mya) to 2 mya. We examined changes in molar height to determine whether evolution of hypselodonty shows distinct patterns in the fossil record, and we found that hypselodont taxa emerged through intermediate forms of increasing crown height. Next, we designed a Markov simulation model, which replicated molar height increases throughout the Cenozoic and, moreover, evolution of hypselodonty. Thus, by extension, the retention of the adult stem cell niche appears to be a predictable quantitative rather than a stochastic qualitative process. Our analyses predict that hypselodonty will eventually become the dominant phenotype.
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