Evolutionary novelty in a rat with no molars

Jacob A. Esselstyn, Anang Setiawan Achmadi, Kevin C. Rowe

Abstract

Rodents are important ecological components of virtually every terrestrial ecosystem. Their success is a result of their gnawing incisors, battery of grinding molars and diastema that spatially and functionally separates the incisors from the molars. Until now these traits defined all rodents. Here, we describe a new species and genus of shrew-rat from Sulawesi Island, Indonesia that is distinguished from all other rodents by the absence of cheek teeth. Moreover, rather than gnawing incisors, this animal has bicuspid upper incisors, also unique among the more than 2200 species of rodents. Stomach contents from a single specimen suggest that the species consumes only earthworms. We posit that by specializing on soft-bodied prey, this species has had no need to process food by chewing, allowing its dentition to evolve for the sole purpose of procuring food. Thus, the removal of functional constraints, often considered a source of evolutionary innovations, may also lead to the loss of the very same traits that fuelled evolutionary diversification in the past.

  • Received June 15, 2012.
  • Accepted July 30, 2012.
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