The relationship between food habits, molar wear and life expectancy in wild sika deer populations


  • Editor: Andrew Kitchener

Mugino Ozaki, Department of Biological Sciences, Graduate School of Science, The University of Tokyo, 7-3-1 Hongo, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo, 113-0033 Japan. Tel: +81 3 5841 2843; Fax: +81 3 5841 8451


Functionality of cheek teeth is essential for ruminants to masticate plant materials thoroughly and promote microbial degradation in their rumens. Thus, an excessive rate of tooth wear is expected to lead to premature loss of tooth functionality, and hence to reduced longevity. So far, however, the relationships between food habits, molar wear and longevity have not been investigated. We first compared molar wear rates among nine sika deer Cervus nippon populations with different food habits. We then investigated correlations between molar wear rate and two ecological factors, percentage of graminoids in diet and annual precipitation, relating to intrinsic and extrinsic abrasiveness of the ingested food, respectively. Secondly, we estimated ‘retained molar durability’ (molar height at a given age divided by wear rate) at successive ages for each population, and tested for correlation between molar durability and life expectancy among populations. The M1 and M3 wear rates differed among the populations and showed a positive correlation with graminoid consumption and a negative correlation with precipitation, suggesting that both ecological factors influence molar wear rates in the Japanese sika deer. M3 durability had a stronger correlation with life expectancy than M1 durability, especially at the older age stages. This implies that the influence of M3 durability on life expectancy becomes stronger at the time when the M1 is severely worn and loses its functionality, and is therefore more important for life span elongation than the M1. These results are concordant with the fact that the M3 is the most hypsodont molar in many ungulates. In the Japanese sika deer, microevolutionary acquisition of hypsodonty appears to be the case in a northern population (the Kinkazan Island), whose molar wear rates are extremely rapid due to their food habits.