Extant ape dental topography and its implications for reconstructing the emergence of early Homo
Dental topography reflects diet accurately in several extant and extinct mammalian clades. However, dental topographic dietary reconstructions have high success rates only when closely related taxa are compared. Given the dietary breadth that exists among extant apes and likely existed among fossil hominins, dental topographic values from many species and subspecies of great apes are necessary for making dietary inferences about the hominin fossil record. Here, we present the results of one metric of dental topography, Dirichlet normal energy (DNE), for seven groups of great apes (Pongo pygmaeus pygmaeus, Pan paniscus, Pan troglodytes troglodytes and schweinfurthii, Gorilla gorilla gorilla, Gorilla beringei graueri and beringei). Dirichlet normal energy was inadequate at differentiating folivores from frugivores, but was adequate at predicting which groups had more fibrous diets among sympatric African apes. Character displacement analyses confirmed there is substantial dental topographic and relative molar size (M1:M2 ratio; length, width, and area) divergence in sympatric apes when compared to their allopatric counterparts, but character displacement is only present in relative molar size when DNE is also considered. Presence of character displacement is likely due to indirect competition over similar food resources. Assuming similar ecological conditions in the Plio-Pleistocene, the derived masticatory apparatuses of the robust australopiths and early Homo may be due to indirect competition over dietary resources between the taxa, causing dietary niche partitioning. Our results imply that dental topography cannot be used to predict dietary categories in fossil hominins without consideration of ecological factors, such as dietary and geographic overlap. In addition, our results may open new avenues for understanding the community compositions of early hominins and the formation of specific ecological niches among hominin taxa.