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UMass anthropologist investigates dental development and body size in primates

AMHERST, Mass. University of Massachusetts anthropologist Laurie R. Godfrey is a member of a team of researchers that finds a number of species of living and recently extinct lemurs living on Madagascar share very accelerated development of their teeth and can chew leaves and other hard-to-process foods soon after birth. The findings are published in the April 30 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Godfrey, along with Gary Schwartz of George Washington University, and Karen Samonds of Stony Brook University, examined the teeth of an extinct species of large chimpanzee-sized sloth lemurs, Palaeopropithecus, and found that like some existing lemurs, the indris and sifakas, they were born with highly developed teeth. By weaning, they are, in effect, little chewing machines with mouths full of adult teeth, Godfrey says. This would have helped them to survive in the precarious and unpredictable environment of Madagascar.

The findings are significant because ape-sized primates chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and humans develop their teeth very slowly, Godfrey says. In chimpanzees, the young dont see molars begin to erupt, or push through the gums, until about age 3, and dental eruption is not complete until age 13. In humans, the first permanent molars erupt at age 6 and it takes until past age 20 for molars to completely erupt, she says. The rapid development of teeth is probably a survival mechanism for the lemurs, Godfrey says, giving them the ability to chew solid food shortly after they are born. The study of the teeth of the extinct Palaeopropithecus was conducted by looking at the microstructure of its teeth to calculate how long it took for the animals tooth crowns to form, and how soon before birth tooth crown formation began, she says.

Godfrey has spent nearly three decades investigating fossils in Madagascar and has specialized in studying lemurs. Madagascar is a large island off the east coast of Afric
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Contact: Elizabeth Luciano
luciano@journ.umass.edu
413-545-0444
University of Massachusetts at Amherst
30-Apr-2002


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