Rodents of Unusual Size

As I was driving home from work yesterday, I was pondering what the next great bit of science would be that I should publish. I started thinking about this project that has been back-burnered for a while.

Projects in the sciences get back-burnered for many reasons. This particular one has been set aside as I wait for results from other colleagues from other institutions. This happens, and is a common occurrence in the sciences. But as I was driving, I realized that part of the project is complete and can be its own paper in the absence of the contributions from the others for the greater project.

Co-authors, get ready. There’s a manuscript coming together by ME!

So, what’s it about? And why is the title of this post “Rodents of Unusual Size”? ROUSes don’t exist anyway, so what am I worried about?

Well, there are some big rodents out there. The largest modern rodent is the Capypara (or Carpincho), which roam around in South America. These rodents average about 50 kg (110 pounds), so they are fairly large. But in the ancient past, South America hosted even larger species of rodents, including Arazamys, Isostylomys, and Josephoartigasia. The latter, is thought to have potentially weighed 1000kg (2200 pounds)! Now that’s a rodent of unusual size!!

Capybara Grazing (by FinlayCox143)

A common research question that I answer with my type of research is “what did the animal eat?” I can get at this using geochemical analysis of tooth enamel. The larger project that my colleagues and I are working on seeks to answer the question, “What did these giant fossil rodents eat?”

The obvious answer, of course is, “Anything it wants!” But we want to be a bit more specific. So how do we do this? By studying the isotope geochemistry of tooth enamel.

Diet recorded in tooth enamel

We joke in isotope geochemistry that “You are what you eat, plus a few permil.” When I’m analyzing samples, I’m comparing the amount of Carbon-13 (’heavy’ carbon, but not the radioactive stuff, Carbon-14) relative to the amount of Carbon-12 (the common carbon in the world). Slightly less than 99% of all carbon atoms in the universe are Carbon-12. Around 1% of all carbon atoms are Carbon-13. (And whatever is left is the radioactive Carbon-14). A mass spectrometer can measure the relative amounts of Carbon-12 to Carbon-13 and gives us a number, called a ‘delta value’ in units of ‘permil’ (‰).

We write this like: δ13C = -14‰ (said “delta 13-C equals minus fourteen permil”)

Depending upon what you’ve just measured the isotopes from, this delta value can be interpreted in a number of ways. For diet and tooth enamel, it goes like this:

Plants, in general, use one of two types of photosynthesis. These two types are called C3 and C4. C3 plants are typically trees and bushes (or occasionally grasses) that live in cooler moist environments. C4 plants are typically plants especially grasses that live in arid environments. (This is an over-generalization, of course, but is usually our first assumption.)

Luckily for us, C3 and C4 plants have different δ13C values. C3 plants are usually about -27‰; C4 plants usually around -13‰.

Now, let’s say an animal comes along and eats these plants. You are what you eat, they say. Plus a few permil… In the case of mammal tooth enamel and plants, it’s plus 14‰. So a bison grazing on C4 grasses has a tooth enamel  δ13C of about 1‰. A horse that prefers to eat the bushes with have a tooth enamel  δ13C of about -13‰.

The difference in  δ13C in tooth enamel reflects a difference in diet. In general, we assume that animals that show a C4 diet (tooth enamel  δ13C around 1‰) probably were grazing (grass-eaters) and those that show a C3 diet (tooth enamel  δ13C around -13‰) were probably browsing (leaf-eaters). Of course, there are animals that do some browsing and some grazing (horses in particular). We can tease out the relative amounts of grazing and browsing in a single animal too.

So the plan is to look at the tooth enamel of the giant rodents Arazamys, Isostylomys, and Josephoartigasia and figure out if they were browsing or grazing. We might assume that they were grazing, since some of the largest land mammals are also grazers (like elephants), but they might also be browsing, just to eat enough food to fuel such a giant body!

Capybara diets

It’s always a good idea to ground-truth your assumptions whenever you have the opportunity. There are lots of assumptions that go into inferring that an animal is either a browser or a grazer when there is only isotopic data to look at. We decided it would be worthwhile to examine the isotopes in modern giant rodents to see if our predictions and assumptions are borne out. Since capybaras are the largest modern rodents, we decided to study them.

Capybaras are known to be grazers. We can sit and watch them graze on grass in an environment where there is lots of C4 grass to be eaten. We also know that there are some C3 grasses in the places where capybaras live, but we might assume that since the majority of grasses are C4, then the majority of the capybara’s diet is C4 as well. Thus we predict that the tooth enamel  δ13C from a capybara would be around 1‰.

Well, guess what?

Capybaras selectively eat the C3 grasses. Their tooth enamel only reflects a C3 diet! But we didn’t know this until we ran the isotopes! We ran a couple hundred samples, so we know it’s not an error. This was completely unexpected. Seems like we have a problem, right?

Well, really, it’s not the end of the world. It is what it is. This is how science works. We know that capybaras are grazers, but if all we had to go on was tooth enamel, we’d get it wrong.

But we have other things. We have the shape of the teeth themselves. Long and rootless teeth are common in animals that eat an abrasive diet – and is a common characteristic among grazing animals. Have you ever looked at a horse tooth? Most rodents, including the capybara, have these long and rootless teeth.

We can also look at microwear on the surface of the tooth. An abrasive diet (actually, any diet) will scratch and wear the tooth surface, leaving tell-tale marks that we can observe using microscopes. Specific types of marks are associated with different diets: grazing, browsing, fruit-eating, etc. This is the realm of my colleagues. They are looking at the microwear on the teeth of the giant fossil rodents. Hopefully, they’ll get on that soon. I ought to start bugging them.

What does an ROUS eat?

The isotopic analyses from the fossil giant rodents are done. But in the light of what we learned from the capybaras, the interpretation is sketchy. I can’t say more than that right now. Until we have the microwear data, all we can say is “Huh.”

In the meantime, though, the conclusions of the capybara study are important and need to be published, since they kind of shake up some of our basic assumptions for interpreting diets from carbon in tooth enamel. Now all I gotta do is decide which journal. Hmm.

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