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Quantitative Variation in Elephant Dentitions: Implications for the Delimitation of Fossil Species

  • V. Louise Roth (a1)

Dental measurements are commonly used in the diagnosis of fossil elephant species, yet elephant teeth develop slowly, within a highly dynamic context that enhances opportunities for physical deformation (or its subtler manifestation, quantitative phenotypic variation). This paper examines intraspecific variation in elephant teeth and compares it with variability in other mammals (83 species in 7 orders). I conclude that (1) male elephants tend to have slightly larger cheek teeth than females, though the difference is not marked; (2) of the full complement of six cheek teeth per jaw quadrant, no single tooth consistently varies less than the others (so on this basis, for taxonomic decisions no tooth is preferable to the customarily used M3 = tooth VI); (3) single-population samples vary less than more inclusive, geographically heterogeneous samples of elephant teeth; (4) although differential wear and eruption are important sources of variation in dental measurements, complete elephant teeth are consistently more variable in length and width than the cheek teeth of other mammals; (5) variability in dental dimensions of recognized fossil species of elephants is in general not grossly inconsistent with variability noted in modern elephants, but there are some exceptions. With the information and guidelines presented here, consideration of variability, and assessment of the statistical power permitted by available samples, can enhance confidence and precision in the delimitation of species and provide a firmer basis for macroevolutionary inferences.

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