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Keywords:

  • Primate dentition;
  • Dental variability;
  • Dental fields

Abstract

Published data on tooth size in 48 species of non-human primates have been analyzed to determine patterns of variability in the primate dentition. Average coefficients of variation calculated for all species, with males and females combined, are greatest for teeth in the canine region. Incisors tend to be somewhat less variable, and cheek teeth are the least variable. Removing the effect of sexual dimorphism, by pooling coefficients of variation calculated for males and females separately, reduces canine variability but does not alter the basic pattern. Ontogenetic development and position in functional fields have been advanced to explain patterns of variability in the dentition, but neither of these appears to correlate well with patterns documented here. We tentatively suggest another explanation. Variability is inversely proportional to occlusal complexity of the teeth. This suggests that occlusal complexity places an important constraint on relative variability within the dentition. Even when the intensity of natural selection is equal at all tooth positions, teeth with complex occlusal patterns must still be less variable than those with simple occlusion in order to function equally well. Hence variability itself cannot be used to estimate the relative intensity of selection. Low variability of the central cheek teeth ( equation image and equation image) makes them uniquely important for estimating body size in small samples, and for distinguishing closely related species in the fossil record.