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Keywords:

  • confocal microscopy;
  • dental microwear;
  • quantification

Abstract

Dental microwear analysis is among the most commonly used approaches to reconstructing the diets of extinct animal species and past peoples. The usual procedure involves imaging tooth wear surfaces by scanning electron microscopy (SEM). Surfaces are characterized quantitatively by measurement of individual wear features (pits and scratches) on photomicrographs. Recent studies of living animals have shown associations between diets on one hand and patterns of dental microwear on the other. Furthermore, patterns on fossil teeth have been used to reconstruct diets in extinct forms. However, conventional methods for microwear analysis are limited. Scanning electron microscopy does not provide a true representation of these surfaces in three dimensions, and identification and measurement of individual features is time consuming, subjective, and subject to high interobserver error. This paper describes a new approach to the analysis of dental microwear using tandem scanning confocal microscopy and scale-sensitive fractal analyses. The instrument used in this study provides three-dimensional coordinates representing surfaces at a resolution equivalent to that employed by most SEM microwear studies. Fractal analyses offer objective, repeatable, quantitative characterization of surfaces. This approach eliminates major sources of error and increases power to resolve differences between species. Moreover, rapid surface characterization will allow examination of large samples to assess within species variation and to make finer distinctions between species.