Nature communications

Habitat changes and changing predatory habits in North American fossil canids.

PMID 26285033


The spread of open grassy habitats and the evolution of long-legged herbivorous mammals with high-crowned cheek teeth have been viewed as an example of coevolution. Previous studies indicate that specialized predatory techniques in carnivores do not correlate with the spread of open habitats in North America. Here we analyse new data on elbow-joint shape for North American canids over the past ∼37 million years and show that incipiently specialized species first appeared along with the initial spread of open habitats in the late Oligocene. Elbow-joint morphologies indicative of the behavior of modern pounce-pursuit predators emerged by the late Miocene coincident with a shift in plant communities from C3 to C4 grasses. Finally, pursuit canids first emerged during the Pleistocene. Our results indicate that climate change and its impact on vegetation and habitat structure can be critical for the emergence of ecological innovations and can alter the direction of lineage evolution.