This study examines variability in masticatory morphology as a function of dietary preference among the African apes. The African apes differ in the degree to which they consume leaves and other fibrous vegetation. Gorilla gorilla beringei, the eastern mountain gorilla, consumes the most restricted diet comprised of mechanically resistant foods such as leaves, pith, bark, and bamboo. Gorilla gorilla gorilla, the western lowland gorilla subspecies, consumes leaves and other terrestrial herbaceous vegetation (THV) but also consumes a fair amount of ripe, fleshy fruit. In contrast to gorillas, chimpanzees are frugivores and rely on vegetation primarily as fallback foods. However, there has been a long-standing debate regarding whether Pan paniscus, the pygmy chimpanzee (or bonobo), consumes greater quantities of THV as compared to Pan troglodytes, the common chimpanzee. Because consumption of resistant foods involves more daily chewing cycles and may require larger average bite force, the mechanical demands placed on the masticatory system are expected to be greater in folivores as compared to primates that consume large quantities of fleshy fruit. Therefore, more folivorous taxa are predicted to exhibit features that improve load-resistance capabilities and increase force production.
To test this hypothesis, jaw and skull dimensions were compared in ontogenetic series of G. g. beringei, G. g. gorilla, P. t. troglodytes, and P. paniscus. Controlling for the influence of allometry, results show that compared to both chimpanzees and bonobos, gorillas exhibit some features of the jaw complex that are suggestive of improved masticatory efficiency. For example, compared to all other taxa, G. g. beringei has a significantly wider mandibular corpus and symphysis, larger area for the masseter muscle, higher mandibular ramus, and higher mandibular condyle relative to the occlusal plane of the mandible. However, the significantly wider mandibular symphysis may be an architectural response to increasing symphyseal curvature with interspecific increase in size. Moreover, Gorilla and Pan do not vary consistently in all features, and some differences run counter to predictions based on dietary variation. Thus, the morphological responses are not entirely consonant with predictions based on hypothesized loading regimes. Finally, despite morphological differences between bonobos and chimpanzees, there is no systematic pattern of differentiation that can be clearly linked to differences in diet. Results indicate that while some features may be linked to differences in diet among the African apes, diet alone cannot account for the patterns of morphological variation demonstrated in this study. Allometric constraints and dental development also appear to play a role in morphological differentiation among the African apes. Am J Phys Anthropol 117:133–156, 2002. © 2002 Wiley-Liss, Inc.