Le genre Plagiolophus (Palaeotheriidae, Perissodactyla, Mammalia): révision systématique, morphologie et histologie dentaires, anatomie crânienne, essai d'interprétation fonctionnelle
New taxa; Paleogene; perissodactyls; skull anatomy; tooth histology
The genus Plagiolophus is documented, almost solely in Western Europe, from the middle Eocene up to the mid Oligocene (MP 12 to MP 25), i.e. more than for 15 MY. Seventeen species are now recorded whose two of them are new, P. ringeadei nov. sp. and P. mamertensis nov. sp. Some anatomical variations and the deflection of certain evolutionary trends justify the distinction of three subgenera, Paloplotherium, Fraasiolophus nov. and Plagiolophus s.s. The genus displays a wide range in size and weight (between 10 and 150 kg). The detailed description of the skull of several species is here given for the first time.
Despite important evolutionary drifts during this long time span, the dentition shows a great structural homogeneity, which renders difficult the determination of fragmentary specimens or isolated teeth. It is characterized by a great heterodonty; premolars are little molarized and present a certain regression through time with paradoxically some progress in the molarization. The hypsodonty increases: the first Plagiolophus are hardly less brachyodont than Propalaeotherium, and the last ones are nearly as hypsodont as Merychippus from the early Miocene. The upper molars change from a wide crown pattern, with an open occlusal surface, lightly oblique transverse lophs and rounded internal cusps, to a narrower pattern, with a frontally constricted occlusal surface and internal lophs aligned parallel to the ectoloph. The M3/3 become always longer.
The dental enamel displays horizontal Schreger-bands with imprecise limits occupying only the middle part of the enamel layer. The dentine is remarkable by its high rate of pericanalicular dentine. The crown cementum, lacking in earlier forms, increases to the point where it fills the occlusal valleys of the
The masticatory musculature shows a increasing prominence of the temporal, with probably an important role devoted to the pterygoid muscles in lateral movements related to a two-phase type of chewing.
The evolution of the dentition, of the masticatory musculature and of the repartition of masticatory forces indicate that the Plagiolophus have known different diets through their long evolutionary history; at first browsers they became mixed feeders and finally grazers. Their relatively long neck allowed these animals to reach different vegetal layers. The strength of the nuchal crests also suggests that they were able to have strong backwards movements of the head to pull up their food.
This evolution of diet seems related to the slow degradation of environmental conditions attested during this period in western Europe, with the generalization of more open landscapes, increasing aridity and more marked seasons.
Besides, a remodeling of the face is ontogenetically and along time observed, in relation with the evolution of the masticatory apparatus and especially with that of the mandibular lever arm. The postcanine diastemata become longer in the course of evolution; the free extremities of the nasals are always relatively long which contradicts the hypothesis according to which Paloplotherium may have had a trunk. At last the lineage Fraasiolophus can be distinguished by the presence of a deep malar fossa, probably related to a strong development of the maxillo-labialis superior muscle.
The orbit is always large and tends to increase in size, which indicates a good development of the vision and its increasing role in the life relations. A peculiar type of epitympanic sinus could have been used as a resonance chamber insuring a certain amplification of sounds before their transmission to the eardrum. The endocranial cast reveals a relatively large brain with an advanced degree of gyrencephaly. Beside the role eventually played in food research and social relations, these neurophysiological abilities, also related to an advance in cursorial fitness, could have contributed to the survival of these animals facing the predation pressure of the first fissipede carnivores and the competition with new immigrant herbivores after the "Grande Coupure".
On the basis of some shared apomorphies with the Pachynolophinae, which prevent from considering the latter as Equidae (molarization of the premolars, reduction of the premaxilla dorsal apophysis, peculiar epitympanic sinus, splitting of the jugular process), the hypothesis of an autochthonous origin of Plagiolophus issued from a form near Propalaeotherium, is once again proposed and discussed. Finally, intra-generic relationships are taken into consideration.