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Decoupled form and function in disparate herbivorous dinosaur clades

Lautenschlager, S and Brassey, CA and Button, DJ and Barrett, PM (2016) Decoupled form and function in disparate herbivorous dinosaur clades. Scientific Reports, 6. ISSN 2045-2322

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Abstract

Convergent evolution, the acquisition of morphologically similar traits in unrelated taxa due to similar functional demands or environmental factors, is a common phenomenon in the animal kingdom. Consequently, the occurrence of similar form is used routinely to address fundamental questions in morphofunctional research and to infer function in fossils. However, such qualitative assessments can be misleading and it is essential to test form/function relationships quantitatively. The parallel occurrence of a suite of morphologically convergent craniodental characteristics in three herbivorous, phylogenetically disparate dinosaur clades (Sauropodomorpha, Ornithischia, Theropoda) provides an ideal test case. A combination of computational biomechanical models (Finite Element Analysis, Multibody Dynamics Analysis) demonstrate that despite a high degree of morphological similarity between representative taxa (Plateosaurus engelhardti, Stegosaurus stenops, Erlikosaurus andrewsi) from these clades, their biomechanical behaviours are notably different and difficult to predict on the basis of form alone. These functional differences likely reflect dietary specialisations, demonstrating the value of quantitative biomechanical approaches when evaluating form/function relationships in extinct taxa.

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