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Structure-function covariation with nonfeeding ecological variables influences evolution of feeding specialization in Carnivora


Skull shape convergence is pervasive among vertebrates. Although this is frequently inferred to indicate similar functional underpinnings, neither the specific structure-function linkages nor the selective environments in which the supposed functional adaptations arose are commonly identified and tested. We demonstrate that nonfeeding factors relating to sexual maturity and precipitation-related arboreality also can generate structure-function relationships in the skulls of carnivorans (dogs, cats, seals, and relatives) through covariation with masticatory performance. We estimated measures of masticatory performance related to ecological variables that covary with cranial shape in the mammalian order Carnivora, integrating geometric morphometrics and finite element analyses. Even after accounting for phylogenetic autocorrelation, cranial shapes are significantly correlated to both feeding and nonfeeding ecological variables, and covariation with both variable types generated significant masticatory performance gradients. This suggests that mechanisms of obligate shape covariation with nonfeeding variables can produce performance changes resembling those arising from feeding adaptations in Carnivora.

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