The evolution of bite force in horned lizards: the influence of dietary specialization

Jay J. Meyers, Kiisa C. Nishikawa, Anthony Herrel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


Dietary specialization is an important driver of the morphology and performance of the feeding system in many organisms, yet the evolution of phenotypic specialization has only rarely been examined within a species complex. Horned lizards are considered primarily myrmecophagous (ant eating), but variation in diet among the 17 species of horned lizards (Phrynosoma) makes them an ideal group to examine the relationship between dietary specialization and the resultant morphological and functional changes of the feeding system. In this study, we perform a detailed analysis of the jaw adductor musculature and use a biomechanical model validated with in vivo bite force data to examine the evolution of bite force in Phrynosoma. Our model simulations demonstrate that bite force varies predictably with respect to the gape angle and bite position along the tooth row, with maximal bite forces being attained at lower gape angles and at the posterior tooth positions. Maximal bite forces vary considerably among horned lizards, with highly myrmecophagous species exhibiting very low bite forces. In contrast, members of the short-horned lizard clade are able to bite considerably harder than even closely related dietary generalists. This group appears to be built for performing crushing bites and may represent a divergent morphology adapted for eating hard prey items. The evolutionary loss of processing morphology (teeth, jaw and muscle reduction) and bite force in ant specialists may be a response to the lack of prey processing rather than a functional adaptation per se.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)214-226
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Anatomy
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2018


  • biomechanical model
  • bite force
  • diet
  • jaw muscle
  • lizard

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anatomy
  • Histology
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Molecular Biology
  • Developmental Biology
  • Cell Biology


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