Weaning, parturitions and illnesses are recorded in rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta) dental cementum microstructure

Paola Cerrito, Leonardo Cerrito, Bin Hu, Shara E. Bailey, Rachel Kalisher, Timothy G. Bromage

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Many open questions in evolutionary studies relate to species' physiological adaptations, including the evolution of their life history and reproductive strategies. There are few empirical methods capable of detecting and timing physiologically impactful events such as weaning, parturition and illnesses from hard tissue remains of either extant or extinct species. Cementum is an incremental tissue with post eruption annual periodicity, which covers the tooth root and functions as a recording structure of an animal's physiology. Here we test the hypothesis that it is possible to detect and time physiologically impactful events through the analysis of dental cementum microstructure. Our sample comprises 41 permanent and deciduous teeth from male and female rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta) with known medical, lifestyle and life history information. We develop a semi-automated method of cementum histological analysis for the purpose of event detection and timing, aimed at significantly reducing the amount of intra- and interobserver errors typically associated with histological analyses. The results of our work show that we were able to detect known events including weaning, parturition, illness and physical trauma with high accuracy (false negative rate = 3.2%; n = 1), and to time them within an average absolute difference of 0.43 years (R2 =.98; p <.05). Nonetheless, we could not distinguish between the several types of stressful events underlying the changes in cementum microstructure. While this study is the first to identify a variety of life history events in macaque dental cementum, laying foundations for future work in conservation and evolutionary studies of both primates and toothed mammals at large, there are some limitations. Other types of analyses (possibly chemical ones) are necessary to tease apart the causes of the stressors.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere23235
JournalAmerican Journal of Primatology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2021


  • dental cementum
  • evolutionary primatology
  • life history

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


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