How mice and rats developed a unique masticatory apparatus making them evolutionary champions

October 28, 2013
This image shows the tooth of an herbivorous rodent studied with three different indices. (A) The height of the tooth crown represents the height of the tooth divided by its length. An herbivorous diet is considered abrasive and requires a very high tooth to compensate for the effect of wear. (B)The complexity of the tooth is represented by the number of patches that can be seen in (B). The more complex the tooth, the greater is its capacity to break down food during chewing (which is what is required for plants). The volumetric index represents the volume of the tooth divided by the total volume (in purple) shown in (C) and (D). Elaborated and tested in this study, it refers to the bluntness or, conversely, the sharpness of teeth according to diet. Credit: Vincent Lazzari

The subfamily of rodents known as Murinae (mice, rats, etc.), which first appeared in Asia 12 million years ago, spread across the entire Old World (Eurasia, Africa, Australia) in less than 2 million years, a remarkably fast rate. Researchers have long suspected that one of the reasons for their evolutionary success is related to their unique masticatory apparatus. Now, researchers have used the brilliant X-ray beams produced at the European Synchrotron (ESRF) to study several hundred specimens, both extant and extinct, to describe the evolutionary processes that caused rats and mice to acquire this characteristic feature. The study was published in the journal Evolution on November 28, 2013.

The research team, from the Institut de Paléoprimatologie, Paléontologie Humaine: Évolution et Paléoenvironnements (CNRS / Université de Poitiers), was able to determine the diet of and to trace the of these rodents. Today, the Murinae comprise 584 species, which represents over 10% of the diversity of present day mammals.

In their study the researchers were able to identify two key evolutionary moments in the acquisition of this masticatory apparatus.

The first one occurred around 16 million years ago when the ancestors of the Murinae changed from a herbivorous diet to an insectivorous diet. This new diet was encouraged by the acquisition of chewing movements that are unusual in mammals, forwardly directed but continuing to interlock opposing teeth. This aquisition helped them reduce tooth erosion and better preserve pointed cusps, which are used to puncture the exoskeletons of insects.

Then, twelve million years ago, the very earliest Murinae returned to a herbivorous diet, while at the same time retaining their chewing motion. This also enabled them to use both their mandibles simultaneously during mastication. The change in diet gave way to the formation of three longitudinal rows of cusps on their teeth. Their ancestors, like other related rodents such as hamsters and gerbils, only have two rows, as do humans.

To reconstruct this series of evolutionary events, the scientists studied several hundred teeth belonging to extant or extinct rodents at the European Synchrotron (ESRF) in Grenoble. The team applied methods originally used in map-making to analyze 3D digital models of the dental morphology of these species. Comparison of the dental structures of present day and fossil rodents enabled them to determine the of the extinct species. In addition, studying the wear on their teeth allowed them to reconstruct the chewing motion, either directed forwardly or obliquely, of these animals.

The study traces the way in which evolution progresses by trial and error, ending up with a morphological combination that lies behind the astonishing of an animal family.

The innovative methods used by the researchers to analyze and compare masticatory systems could be used to study dietary changes in other extinct mammals. This might prove to be especially interesting with regard to primates, since, before the appearance of hominids, primates underwent several dietary changes that affected their subsequent evolutionary history.

Explore further: New study traces the evolutionary history of what mammals eat

More information: Correlated changes in occlusal pattern and diet in stem murinae during the onset of the radiation of old world rats and mice. Coillot Tiphaine, Chaimanee Yaowalak, Charles Cyril, Gomes-Rodrigues Helder, Michaux Jacques, Tafforeau Paul, Vianey-Liaud Monique, Viriot Laurent, Lazzari Vincent. Evolution. Volume 67, Issue 11, pages 3323, November 2013.

Related Stories

Research shows rats have best bite of rodent world

April 27, 2012

Scientists at the University of Liverpool have found that mice and rats have evolved to gnaw with their front teeth and chew with their back teeth more successfully than rodents that 'specialise' in one or other of these ...

Elephant tooth evolution rooted in grass

June 26, 2013

Once they developed a taste for grass, the ancestors of today's elephants swiftly broadened their leaf-only diet and placed their progeny on a new evolutionary track, a study said Wednesday.

Sinking teeth into the evolutionary origin of our skeleton

October 16, 2013

Did our skeletons evolve for protection or for violence? The earliest vestiges of our skeleton are encountered in 500 million-year-old fossil fishes, some of which were armor-plated filter feeders, while others were naked ...

Recommended for you

Plastic in 99 percent of seabirds by 2050

August 31, 2015

Researchers from CSIRO and Imperial College London have assessed how widespread the threat of plastic is for the world's seabirds, including albatrosses, shearwaters and penguins, and found the majority of seabird species ...

Researchers unveil DNA-guided 3-D printing of human tissue

August 31, 2015

A UCSF-led team has developed a technique to build tiny models of human tissues, called organoids, more precisely than ever before using a process that turns human cells into a biological equivalent of LEGO bricks. These ...

Study shows female frogs susceptible to 'decoy effect'

August 28, 2015

(Phys.org)—A pair of researchers has found that female túngaras, frogs that live in parts of Mexico and Central and South America, appear to be susceptible to the "decoy effect." In their paper published in the journal ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.