Seasonal Mortality Patterns in Primates: Implications for the Interpretation of Dental Microwear


  • Jan F. Gogarten,

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    • Jan F. Gogarten is a graduate student in the Department of Biology, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec. His research interests are in the area of behavioral ecology. He is conducting his doctoral dissertation research on the environmental and social predictors of primate parasites. The impetus for this article was developed in a graduate course on human evolution at Stony Brook University. Email:

  • Frederick E. Grine

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    • Frederick E. Grine is a Professor in the Departments of Anthropology and Anatomical Sciences, Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, New York. His research is broadly concerned with interpreting the hominin fossil record, particularly with regard to the dietary ecology and trophic adaptations of our extinct relatives. Email:


The microscopic traces of use wear on teeth have been extensively studied to provide information that will assist in elucidating the dietary habits of extinct hominin species.[1-13] It has been amply documented that dental microwear provides information pertaining to diet for living animals, where there is a strong and consistent association between dental microwear patterns and different types of foods that are chewed. The details of occlusal surface wear patterns are capable of distinguishing among diets when the constituent food items differ in their fracture properties.[14-20] For example, the microwear traces left on the teeth of mammals that crush hard, brittle foods such as nuts are generally dominated by pits, whereas traces left on the teeth of mammals that shear tough items such as leaves tend to be characterized by scratches. These microwear features result from and thus record actual chewing events. As such, microwear patterns are expected to be variably ephemeral, as individual features are worn away and replaced or overprinted by others as the tooth wears down in subsequent bouts of mastication. Indeed, it has been demonstrated, both in the laboratory and the wild, that short-term dietary variation can result in the turnover of microwear.[17, 21-23] Because occlusal microwear potentially reflects an individual's diet for a short time (days, weeks, or months, depending on the nature of the foods being masticated), tooth surfaces sampled at different times will display differences that relate to temporal (for example, seasonal) differences in diet.[24]