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Craniodental traits predict feeding performance and dietary hardness in a community of Neotropical free-tailed bats (Chiroptera: Molossidae)


Villalobos Chaves, David (2022), Craniodental traits predict feeding performance and dietary hardness in a community of Neotropical free-tailed bats (Chiroptera: Molossidae), Dryad, Dataset,


Form-function studies have established a strong link between dental morphology and the mechanical properties of food items, with animals evolving tooth shapes theoretically ideal for their diets. However, information on how teeth perform under natural conditions is rare, which limits our understanding of how dental morphology influences dietary ecology and niche partitioning within animal communities.

Free-tailed bats (Chiroptera: Molossidae) are a diverse clade of aerial insectivorous mammals that exhibit an outstanding variation in size and craniodental traits, which have been directly related to ecological segregation among sympatric species.

We investigate the mechanisms that allow functional dietary specialization and trophic segregation among sympatric free-tailed bat species inhabiting a Neotropical forest. To do so, we coupled data on 3D dental topographic metrics, head and skull dimensions, field-collected feeding performance and dietary hardness measurements.

We found that evolved differences in molar topography and skull size vary in tandem with the mechanical demands of prey items naturally consumed by sympatric molossid species. This may be explained by feeding performance capabilities resulting from both molar shape and the overall size of the feeding apparatus, which seem to allow efficient processing of prey items with specific mechanical properties. For instance, smaller bats with higher molar topographic values (sharper, more complex molars) and more gracile heads mainly feed on softer insects, whereas bigger bats with lower molar topographic values (blunter, less complex molars) and more robust heads mostly feed on tougher insects. Species with a broader range of sizes, craniodental morphologies, and insect hardness are also present in the community.

Our results illustrate how the morphology and size of feeding structures, and how they perform, may facilitate trophic segregation among sympatric insectivorous bats. Similar mechanisms may help structure other communities of insectivorous mammals, therefore the approaches presented here could be used to generate a better understanding of the ecomorphological traits and processes that underlie their diversity.