Form and function of the craniomandibular complex in subterranean rodents

McIntosh, Andrew Fergus

March 2016

Thesis or dissertation

© 2016 Andrew Fergus McIntosh. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Rodents are the most speciose mammalian order and are represented in arboreal, semiaquatic, subterranean and terrestrial niches. To flourish in such environments, rodents must exhibit morphological traits that can reflect functions that are needed to survive. This thesis focuses on the functional morphology of digging subterranean rodents and in particular, African mole-rats (Bathyergidae). Species dependent, subterranean rodents dig using a number of different methods. This thesis concentrates on the morphological differences in the craniomandibular complex in scratch digging and chisel-tooth digging subterranean rodents. Scratch digging rodents use only their claws to remove softer soil whilst their chisel-tooth digging counterparts use their incisors in concert with their powerful masticatory muscles to remove harder soils.

Chapter two looks at morphological traits associated with bite force and gape in African mole-rats (Bathyergidae). The study shows that chisel-tooth digging rodents have morphological traits that are associated with a larger bite force at wider gapes, which is probably achieved by having a temporalis with a greater mechanical advantage.

Chapter three examines a selection of chisel-tooth digging, scratch digging and terrestrial rodents. It shows that the upper incisors of chisel-tooth digging rodents have a larger radius of curvature. Also, it shows that chisel-tooth digging rodent cranial shape converges in morphospace and covaries with the upper incisors, although these results were not significant when phylogeny was accounted for.

Chapter four shows that, using finite element analysis, the cranium of a chisel-tooth digging mole-rat can create larger bite forces at wider gapes, compared to a scratch digging mole-rat. Using a novel method of combining geometric morphometrics with finite element analysis, this study also shows that the cranium of the chisel-tooth digging rodent deforms less, making it more efficient at performing chisel-tooth digging tasks.

Overall, this thesis shows that the craniomandibular form of subterranean rodents can be strongly influenced by function. The digging method used by a subterranean rodent is therefore important to how they have evolved.

[Thesis also includes article published in:
Biological journal of the Linnean Society
DOI: 10.1111/bij.12691 ]

Hull York Medical School, The University of Hull and the University of York
Cox, Philip G.
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