Mammalian molar complexity follows simple, predictable patterns.

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Identifying developmental explanations for the evolution of complex structures like mammalian molars is fundamental to studying phenotypic variation. Previous study showed that a "morphogenetic gradient" of molar proportions was explained by a balance between inhibiting/activating activity from earlier developing molars, termed the inhibitory cascade model (ICM). Although this model provides an explanation for variation in molar proportions, what remains poorly understood is if molar shape, or specifically complexity (i.e., the number of cusps, crests), can be explained by the same developmental model. Here, we show that molar complexity conforms to the ICM, following a linear, morphogenetic gradient along the molar row. Moreover, differing levels of inhibiting/activating activity produce contrasting patterns of molar complexity depending on diet. This study corroborates a model for the evolution of molar complexity that is developmentally simple, where only small-scale developmental changes need to occur to produce change across the entire molar row, with this process being mediated by an animal's ecology. The ICM therefore provides a developmental framework for explaining variation in molar complexity and a means for testing developmental hypotheses in the broader context of mammalian evolution.





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Selig, Keegan R, Waqqas Khalid and Mary T Silcox (2021). Mammalian molar complexity follows simple, predictable patterns. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 118(1). p. e2008850118. 10.1073/pnas.2008850118 Retrieved from

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Keegan Rayne Selig

Assistant Research Professor in the Department of Evolutionary Anthropology

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