PALEOBIOLOGY OF EXTINCT CARNIVORA


        The order Carnivora is a group of mammals that evolved as specialized carnivores. The order contains many species, including many familiar groups such as dogs, cats, bears, and weasels. Unfortunately, the name of the order leads to some confusion because "carnivore" is used in two rather different ways by biologists. In a general sense, any animal that kills and consumes other animals is a carnivore (i.e., it is carnivorous). When used in a restricted sense, a "true carnivore" is a member of the mammalian order Carnivora. To confuse matters still further, not all "true carnivores" are carnivorous; for example, the black bear (Euarctos americanus) is highly omnivorous, while the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) feeds almost exclusively on bamboo. Despite such dietary complexities, members of the order Carnivora share a number of features. First, and most characteristically, they have specialized carnassial teeth for slicing the flesh of their prey. The carnassial teeth are the fourth upper premolar and first lower molar on each side of the jaws.

Other extinct carnivorous mammals, such as the creodonts, have independently evolved carnassial slicing teeth, but never of this pattern. Second, they have large canines for grasping and dispatching prey. Unlike the carnassials, large canines are not unique to the Carnivora, occurring in several other mammal groups. Finally, most Carnivora feed primarily on vertebrate prey. Even largely herbivorous species, like the giant panda, are known to occasionally capture and eat smaller tetrapods.

        The overall purpose of this laboratory exercise is to use morphological data from living canids (= dogs, wolves and foxes) and felids (= cats) to evaluate the likely biology of extinct carnivores. In part 1, morphometric data is used to obtain allometric relationships between different skeletal measurements and body mass. These relationships will then be used to (1) determine the reliability of different skeletal measurements for predicting body mass; (2) reconstruct body sizes for four extinct Carnivora based on skeletal measurements; (3) determine whether body parts scale similarly or differently between extinct and extant Carnivora. In part 2, morphometric data is used in a biomechanical model to (1) evaluate the functional morphology of canine teeth, and (2) reconstruct feeding behavior for extinct Carnivora.