Now, for the first time, fossil jaw measurements have demonstrated this gap in evolutionary development.
Scientists from the University of Lincoln (UK), the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and the University of Oxford (UK), examined the lower jaws of 89 fossils of early tetrapods (four-footed animals) and their fish-like predecessors.
The fossils ranged in age from about 300 to 400 million years old and the team were interested in how the mechanical properties of the jaws of these animals differed through time.
They used 10 biomechanical metrics to describe jaw differences. One of these, called mechanical advantage, measured how much force an animal can transfer to its bite.
Dr Marcello Ruta, from the School of Life Sciences, University of Lincoln, said: “Our study is the first of its kind to address changes in biomechanical properties of the lower jaw across the transition from fish to land vertebrates using a diverse range of extinct species. This work paves the way to in-depth analyses of the rates of evolutionary transformation in other anatomical structures during this major episode in vertebrate history. It also lays the foundations for integrative research that explores themes as diverse as the origin of the first terrestrial food webs, the impact of acquisition of new structures on the diversification of major animal groups, and patterns and processes of functional change.”
So it turns out that just moving into a new environment is not always enough to trigger functional adaptations.
The team discovered that the mechanical properties of tetrapod jaws did not show significant changes in patterns of terrestrial feeding until some 40 to 80 million years after the four-legged creatures initially came out of the water. Until then, tetrapod jaws were still very fish-like, even though their owners had weight-bearing limbs and the ability to walk on land.
In the paper, which has been published in an early online edition of the journal Integrative and Comparative Biology, the authors say the results may be explained by an earlier hypothesis: a shift from gilled to lung breathing in later four-footed animals was necessary before they could adapt their jaw structure to eating plants.
This finding suggests tetrapods may have shown a limited variety of feeding strategies in the early phases of their evolution on land.
Lead author Dr Phil Anderson, from the University of Massachusetts, said: “The basic result was that it took a while for these animals to adapt their jaws for a land-based diet. They stayed essentially fish-like for a long time.”
Dr Matt Friedman, lecturer in palaeobiology at the University of Oxford, said: "The thing that is really interesting is that the diversity of jaw function didn't really take off until around the origin of amniotes - creatures that lay hard-shelled eggs on land rather than being tied to water for reproduction like fishes and amphibians. It is in amniotes and their closest relatives that we see the first evidence for dedicated herbivory - until that point tetrapods had basically been carnivores. So this means it took at least 50 million years of evolution after the origin of features like limbs, fingers and toes before tetrapods achieved dietary diversity that began to resemble what we see today."
The statistical methods developed in this work could be used in future studies of more subtle biomechanical patterns in fossil animals that may not be initially clear.