The impact of gape on the performance of the skull in chisel-tooth digging and scratch digging mole-rats (Rodentia: Bathyergidae)

Andrew McIntosh, Philip Graham Cox

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The African mole-rats (Bathyergidae) are a family of rodents highly adapted for life underground. Previous research has shown that chisel-tooth digging mole-rats (which use their incisors to dig burrows) are clearly distinguishable from scratch diggers (which only use the forelimbs to tunnel) on the basis of morphology of the skull, and that the differences are linked to the production of high bite forces and wide gapes. We hypothesized that the skull of a chisel-tooth digging mole-rat would perform better at wider gapes than that of a scratch digging mole-rat during incisor biting. To test this hypothesis, we created finite-element models of the cranium of the scratch digging Bathyergus suillus and the chisel-tooth digging Fukomys mechowii, and loaded them to simulate incisor bites at different gapes. Muscle loads were scaled such that the ratio of force to surface area was the same in both models. We measured three performance variables: overall stress across the cranium, mechanical efficiency of biting and degree of deformation across the skull. The Fukomys model had amore efficient incisor bite at all gapes, despite having greater average stress across the skull. In addition, the Fukomys model deformed less at wider gapes, whereas the Bathyergus model deformed less at narrower gapes. These properties of the cranial morphology of Fukomys and Bathyergus are congruent with their respective chisel-tooth and scratch digging behaviours and, all other factors being equal, would enable the more efficient production of bite force at wider gapes in Fukomys. However, in vivo measurements of muscle forces and activation patterns are needed to fully understand the complex biomechanics of tooth digging.

Original languageEnglish
Article number160568
JournalRoyal Society Open Science
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2016

Bibliographical note

© 2016, The Authors.


  • Bathyergidae
  • Chisel-tooth digging
  • Cranial biomechanics
  • Finite-element analysis
  • Scratch digging

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