Am J Biol Anthropol. 2023 Nov 19. doi: 10.1002/ajpa.24875. Online ahead of print.
OBJECTIVES: Modular architecture of traits in complex organisms can be important for morphological evolution at micro- and sometimes macroevolutionary scales as it may influence the tempo and direction of changes to groups of traits that are essential for particular functions, including food acquisition and processing. We tested several distinct hypotheses about craniofacial modularity in the hominine skull in relation to feeding biomechanics.
MATERIALS AND METHODS: First, we formulated hypothesized functional modules for craniofacial traits reflecting specific demands of feeding biomechanics (e.g., masseter leverage/gape or tooth crown mechanics) in Homo sapiens, Pan troglodytes, and Gorilla gorilla. Then, the pattern and strength of modular signal was quantified by the covariance ratio coefficient and compared across groups using covariance ratio effect size. Hierarchical clustering analysis was then conducted to examine whether a priori-defined functional modules correspond to empirically recovered clusters.
RESULTS: There was statistical support for most a priori-defined functional modules in the cranium and half of the functional modules in the mandible. Modularity signal was similar in the cranium and mandible, and across the three taxa. Despite a similar strength of modularity, the empirically recovered clusters do not map perfectly onto our priori functional modules, indicating that further work is needed to refine our hypothesized functional modules.
CONCLUSION: The results suggest that modular structure of traits in association with feeding biomechanics were mostly shared with humans and the two African apes. Thus, conserved patterns of functional modularity may have facilitated evolutionary changes to the skull during human evolution.