Last Dinner on Noah's Ark: a new software application reconstructs the diets of humans and animals based on dental wear

MicroWeaR, developed by an international team directed by researchers at the Sapienza Department of Earth Sciences, is a cutting-edge tool that rapidly provides precise information on the diet, morpho-mechanics and, in general, biological characteristics of extinct animals. The study, which illustrates this tool’s many functions, has been published on Ecology and Evolution

The tool developed by an international team headed by Sapienza researchers analyses mastication traces that remain visible on the teeth of humans and animals from the past. This is a fundamental step to reconstruct their feeding habits.

An international team headed by researchers at Sapienza, in collaboration with the “Federico II” University of Naples and the Universities of Zaragoza and Helsinki, have developed a new open access software application to simplify the identification of the microscopic traces left by foods on human and animal teeth during the process of chewing their last meals.

“The study of fossil teeth and, in particular, the traces of wear on the dental surface provide us with important information concerning the diet, the morpho-mechanics and, more in general, the biology of extinct animals,” explains Flavia Strani, a doctoral student at the Sapienza Department of Earth Sciences. “The techniques used for this type of studies have been developed during the last decade, especially thanks to microscopy, but we still felt the need for further improvement.”

This led to the idea of the MicroWeaR. This is a software application that simplifies research and allows us to automatically measure, quantify and catalogue the microscopic traces of dental wear, thereby revealing the mastication method and the consumption of plant fibres, harder plant foods (tubers, seeds) and/or meat with great precision.

The study, which has just been published on the “Ecology and Evolution” Journal, illustrates the many uses of MicroWeaR for the quick and precise analysis of dental surfaces in both living and fossil species, along with a few concrete cases on which the researchers worked. In particular, the software was tested on two fossil specimens belonging to a primate living in the Miocene Era (Anoiapithecus brevirostris) and a Pleistocene deer (Cervus elaphus eostephanoceros).

The data extrapolated from the dental wear pattern were compared to those obtained with traditional methodologies. The results revealed that the information obtained with MicroWeaR is compatible. The results pointed to a frugivorous diet for Anoiapithecus brevirostris and an herbivorous diet for Cervus elaphus eostephanoceros.

“The software that we developed is open access and highly flexible,” explains Antonio Profico. “Thus, it can be used and implemented by other research teams, who will be able to custom-tailor this tool according to their needs and hopefully share the collected data”.



MicroWeaR: A new R package for dental microwear analysis – Flavia Strani, Antonio Profico, Giorgio Manzi, Diana Pushkina, Pasquale Raia, Raffaele Sardella, Daniel DeMiguel – Ecology and Evolution 


For further information

Flavia Strani, Department of Earth Sciences, Sapienza University

Antonio Profico, Department of Environmental Biology, Sapienza University


Wednesday, 20 June 2018

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