Limitations of a morphological criterion of adaptive inference in the fossil record

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Experimental analyses directly inform how an anatomical feature or complex functions during an organism's lifetime, which serves to increase the efficacy of comparative studies of living and fossil taxa. In the mammalian skull, food material properties and feeding behaviour have a pronounced influence on the development of the masticatory apparatus. Diet-related variation in loading magnitude and frequency induce a cascade of changes at the gross, tissue, cellular, protein and genetic levels, with such modelling and remodelling maintaining the integrity of oral structures vis-à-vis routine masticatory stresses. Ongoing integrative research using rabbit and rat models of long-term masticatory plasticity offers unique insight into the limitations of functional interpretations of fossilised remains. Given the general restriction of the palaeontological record to bony elements, we argue that failure to account for the disparity in the hierarchical network of responses of hard versus soft tissues may overestimate the magnitude of the adaptive divergence that is inferred from phenotypic differences. Second, we note that the developmental onset and duration of a loading stimulus associated with a given feeding behaviour can impart large effects on patterns of intraspecific variation that can mirror differences observed among taxa. Indeed, plasticity data are relevant to understanding evolutionary transformations because rabbits raised on different diets exhibit levels of morphological disparity comparable to those found between closely related primate species that vary in diet. Lastly, pronounced variation in joint form, and even joint function, can also characterise adult conspecifics that differ solely in age. In sum, our analyses emphasise the importance of a multi-site and hierarchical approach to understanding determinants of morphological variation, one which incorporates critical data on performance.

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