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posted 20. March 2003 16:51
Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 10.1073/pnas.0637016100
A solution to the worn tooth conundrum in primate functional anatomy
by Peter S. Ungar and Francis M'Kirera
Worn teeth are a bane to paleobiologists interested in the diets of human ancestors and other fossil primates. Although worn teeth dominate fossil assemblages, their shapes are usually not used to reconstruct the diets of extinct species. The problem is that traditional studies of primate dental functional anatomy have focused on unworn morphology. This has limited most functional analyses to only a few well-represented fossil species. This paper introduces a method to characterize and compare worn occlusal morphology in primates using laser scanning and geographic information systems technologies. A study of variably worn chimpanzee and gorilla molars indicates that differences between these species in tooth shape remain consistent at given stages of wear. Although cusp slope decreases with wear in both taxa, angularity values remain unchanged. These results indicate that African ape teeth wear in a manner that keeps them mechanically efficient for fracturing specific foods. Studies of changes in tooth shape with wear add a new dimension to dental functional anatomy, and offer a more complete picture of dental-dietary adaptations. Also, given how rare unworn teeth are in the fossil record, the ability to include worn specimens in analyses opens the door to reconstructing the diets of many more extinct primate groups, allowing us to better understand the adaptive radiation of our order.