Biomechanical consequences of rapid evolution in the polar bear lineage.

Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California Los Angeles, Los Angeles, California, United States of America.
PLoS ONE (Impact Factor: 3.53). 11/2010; 5(11):e13870. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0013870
Source: PubMed

ABSTRACT 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.

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    ABSTRACT: Percentages of tooth fracture and mandible shape are robust predictors of feeding habits in Carnivora. If these parameters co‐vary above the species level, more robust palaeobiological inferences could be made on fossil species. A test of association is presented between mandible shape and tooth fracture in a subset of extant carnivorans together with large Pleistocene fossil predators from Rancho La Brea (Canis dirus, Panthera atrox, and Smilodon fatalis). Partial least square (PLS) and comparative methods are employed to validate co‐variation of these two parameters in extant carnivorans. Association between mandible shape and percentage of tooth fracture is strongly supported, even if both blocks of data exhibit a phylogenetic signal to a different degree. Dietary adaptations drive shape/fracture co‐variation in extant species, although no significant differences occur in the PLS scores between carnivores and bone/hard food consumers. The fossil species project into PLS morphospace as outliers. Their position suggests a unique feeding behaviour. The increase in the size of prey, together with consumption of skin and hair from carcasses in a cold environment, might have generated unusual tooth breakage patterns in large predators from Rancho La Brea. © 2012 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2012, 106, 70–80.
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