Thursday, June 27, 2013

Biomechanically Comparing Therian Sabretooths

Comparative Biomechanical Modeling of Metatherian and Placental Saber-Tooths: A Different Kind of Bite for an Extreme Pouched Predator


1. Stephen Wroe (a,b)
2. Uphar Chamoli (b,c)
3. William C. H. Parr (b)
4. Philip Clausen (a)
5. Ryan Ridgely (d)
6. Lawrence Witmer (d)


a. School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of New South Wales, Sydney, NSW, Australia

b. School of Engineering, University of Newcastle, Callaghan, NSW, Australia

c. St. George Clinical School, University of New South Wales, Sydney, NSW, Australia

d. Department of Biomedical Sciences, Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, Ohio University, Athens, Ohio, United States of America


Questions surrounding the dramatic morphology of saber-tooths, and the presumably deadly purpose to which it was put, have long excited scholarly and popular attention. Among saber-toothed species, the iconic North American placental, Smilodon fatalis, and the bizarre South American sparassodont, Thylacosmilus atrox, represent extreme forms commonly forwarded as examples of convergent evolution. For S. fatalis, some consensus has been reached on the question of killing behaviour, with most researchers accepting the canine-shear bite hypothesis, wherein both head-depressing and jaw closing musculatures played a role in delivery of the fatal bite. However, whether, or to what degree, T. atrox may have applied a similar approach remains an open question. Here we apply a three-dimensional computational approach to examine convergence in mechanical performance between the two species. We find that, in many respects, the placental S. fatalis (a true felid) was more similar to the metatherian T. atrox than to a conical-toothed cat. In modeling of both saber-tooths we found that jaw-adductor-driven bite forces were low, but that simulations invoking neck musculature revealed less cranio-mandibular stress than in a conical-toothed cat. However, our study also revealed differences between the two saber-tooths likely reflected in the modus operandi of the kill. Jaw-adductor-driven bite forces were extremely weak in T. atrox, and its skull was even better-adapted to resist stress induced by head-depressors. Considered together with the fact that the center of the arc described by the canines was closer to the jaw-joint in Smilodon, our results are consistent with both jaw-closing and neck musculature playing a role in prey dispatch for the placental, as has been previously suggested. However, for T. atrox, we conclude that the jaw-adductors probably played no major part in the killing bite. We propose that the metatherian presents a more complete commitment to the already extreme saber-tooth ‘lifestyle’.

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