First contact: understanding the relationship between hominoid incisor curvature and diet.

Research paper by Andrew A Deane

Indexed on: 03 Mar '09Published on: 03 Mar '09Published in: Journal of Human Evolution


Accurately interpreting fossil primate dietary behaviour is necessary to fully understand a species' ecology and connection to its environment. Traditional methods developed to infer diet from hominoid teeth successfully group taxa into broad dietary categories (i.e., folivore, frugivore) but often fail to represent the range of dietary variability characteristic of living apes. This oversimplification is not only a consequence of poor resolution, but may also reflect the use of similar fallback resources by closely related taxa with dissimilar diets. This study demonstrates that additional dietary specificity can be achieved using a morphometric approach to hominoid incisor curvature. High-resolution polynomial curve fitting (HR-PCF) was used to quantify the incisor curvatures of closely related hominoid taxa that have dissimilar diets but similar morphological adaptations to specific keystone resources (e.g., Gorilla gorilla beringei vs. G. g. gorilla). Given the key role of incisors in food processing, it is reasonable to assume that these teeth will be at least partially influenced by the unique selective pressures imposed by the mechanical loading specific to individual diets. Results from this study identify a strong correlation between hominoid dietary proportions and incisor linear dimensions and curvature, indicating that more pronounced incisor curvature is positively correlated with higher levels of frugivory. Hard-object frugivores have the greatest mesiodistal and cervico-incisal curvature and dedicated folivores have the least curved incisors. Mixed folivore/frugivores are morphological intermediates between dedicated folivores and hard- and soft-object frugivores. Mesiodistal curvature varied only in the degree of curvature; however, cervico-incisal curvature was shown to differ qualitatively between more frugivorous and more folivorous taxa. In addition to identifying a greater range of dietary variability among hominoids, this study also demonstrates that HR-PCF is capable of identifying morphological distinctions between closely related taxa with overlapping diets that rely on similar fallback foods (e.g., Pan paniscus vs. P. troglodytes).