Global climate shifts and ecological flexibility are two major factors that may affect rates of speciation and extinction across clades. Here, we connect past climate to changes in diet and diversification dynamics of ruminant mammals.
Using novel versions of Multi-State Speciation and Extinction models, we explore the most likely scenarios for evolutionary transitions among diets in this clade and ask whether ruminant lineages with different feeding styles (browsing, grazing and mixed feeding) underwent differential rates of diversification concomitant with global temperature change. The best model of trait change had transitions from browsers to grazers via mixed feeding, with appreciable rates of transition to and from grazing and mixed feeding. Diversification rates in mixed-feeder and grazer lineages tracked the palaeotemperature curve, exhibiting higher rates during the Miocene thermal maxima. The origination of facultative mixed diet and grazing states may have triggered two adaptive radiations—one during the Oligocene–Miocene transition and the other during Middle-to-Late Miocene. Our estimate of mixed diets for basal lineages of both bovids and cervids is congruent with fossil evidence, while the reconstruction of browser ancestors for some impoverished clades—Giraffidae and Tragulidae—is not. Our results offer model-based neontological support to previous palaeontological findings and fossil-based hypothesis highlighting the importance of dietary innovations—especially mixed feeding in the success of ruminants during the Neogene.