Exceptionally simple, rapidly replaced teeth in sauropod dinosaurs demonstrate a novel evolutionary strategy for herbivory in Late Jurassic ecosystems.BMC Ecol Evol. 2021 11 06; 21(1):202.BE
Dinosaurs dominated terrestrial environments for over 100 million years due in part to innovative feeding strategies. Although a range of dental adaptations was present in Late Jurassic dinosaurs, it is unclear whether dinosaur ecosystems exhibited patterns of tooth disparity and dietary correlation similar to those of modern amniotes, in which carnivores possess simple teeth and herbivores exhibit complex dentitions. To investigate these patterns, we quantified dental shape in Late Jurassic dinosaurs to test relationships between diet and dental complexity.
Here, we show that Late Jurassic dinosaurs exhibited a disparity of dental complexities on par with those of modern saurians. Theropods possess relatively simple teeth, in spite of the range of morphologies tested, and is consistent with their inferred carnivorous habits. Ornithischians, in contrast, have complex dentitions, corresponding to herbivorous habits. The dentitions of macronarian sauropods are similar to some ornithischians and living herbivorous squamates but slightly more complex than other sauropods. In particular, all diplodocoid sauropods investigated possess remarkably simple teeth. The existence of simple teeth in diplodocoids, however, contrasts with the pattern observed in nearly all known herbivores (living or extinct).
Sauropod dinosaurs exhibit a novel approach to herbivory not yet observed in other amniotes. We demonstrate that sauropod tooth complexity is related to tooth replacement rate rather than diet, which contrasts with the results from mammals and saurians. This relationship is unique to the sauropod clade, with ornithischians and theropods displaying the patterns observed in other groups. The decoupling of herbivory and tooth complexity paired with a correlation between complexity and replacement rate demonstrates a novel evolutionary strategy for plant consumption in sauropod dinosaurs.