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Comparative Finite Element Analysis of the Cranial Performance of Four Herbivorous Marsupials

Sharp, A.C.
Journal of Morphology, 276 (10): 1230-1243
Wallabia bicolor, Wallabia bicolor, Phascolarctos cinereus
Marsupial herbivores exhibit a wide variety of skull shapes and sizes to exploit different ecological niches. Several studies on teeth, dentaries and jaw adductor muscles indicate that marsupial herbivores exhibit different specializations for grazing and browsing. No studies, however, have examined the skulls of marsupial herbivores to determine the relationship between stress and strain, and the evolution of skull shape. The relationship between skull morphology, biomechanical performance and diet was tested by applying the finite element method to the skulls of four marsupial herbivores: the common wombat (Vombatus ursinus), koala (Phascolarctos cinereus), swamp wallaby (Wallabia bicolor) and red kangaroo (Macropus rufus). It was hypothesized that grazers, requiring stronger skulls to process tougher food, would have higher biomechanical performance than browsers. This was true when comparing the koala and wallaby (browsers) to the wombat (a grazer). The cranial model of the wombat resulted in low stress and high mechanical efficiency in relation to a robust skull capable of generating high bite forces. However, the kangaroo, also a grazer, has evolved a very different strategy to process tough food. The cranium is much more gracile and has higher stress and lower mechanical efficiency, but they adopt a different method of processing food by having a curved tooth row to concentrate force in a smaller area and molar progression to remove worn teeth from the tooth row. Therefore, the position of the bite is crucial for the structural performance of the kangaroo skull, while it is not for the wombat which process food along the entire tooth row. In accordance with previous studies, the results from this study show the mammalian skull is optimized to resist forces generated during feeding. However, other factors, including the lifestyle of the animal and its environment, also affect selection for skull morphology to meet multiple functional demands.