Herbivore teeth predict climatic limits in Kenyan ecosystems

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


A major focus in evolutionary biology is to understand how the evolution of organisms relates to changes in their physical environment. In the terrestrial realm, the interrelationships among climate, vegetation, and herbivores lie at the heart of this question. Here we introduce and test a scoring scheme for functional traits present on theworn surfaces of large mammalian herbivore teeth to capture their relationship to environmental conditions. We modeled local precipitation, temperature, primary productivity, and vegetation index as functions of dental traits of large mammal species in 13 national parks in Kenya over the past 60 y. We found that these dental traits can accurately estimate local climate and environment, even at small spatial scales within areas of relatively uniform climate (within two ecoregions), and that they predict limiting conditions better than average conditions. These findings demonstrate that the evolution of key functional properties of organisms may be more reflective of demands during recurring adverse episodes than under average conditions or during isolated severe events.


  • Indre Žliobaite
  • Janne Rinne
  • Anikó B. Tóth
  • Michael Mechenich
  • Liping Liu
  • Anna K. Behrensmeyer
  • Mikael Fortelius
External organisations
  • University of Helsinki
  • Swedish Museum of Natural History
  • Aalto University
  • National Museum of Natural History, Washington
  • Macquarie University, Sydney
  • University of Oslo
  • Humboldt University of Berlin
Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Ecology
  • Geology


  • Dental traits, Ecometrics, Herbivorous mammals, Kenya, Paleoecology
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)12751-12756
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number45
Publication statusPublished - 2016 Nov 8
Publication categoryResearch