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Open Access Research article

Craniodental variation among Macaques (Macaca), nonhuman primates

Ruliang Pan12* and Charles E Oxnard1

Author Affiliations

1 School of Anatomy and Human Biology, The University of Western Australia, Crawley Perth, Western Australia, 6009, Australia

2 Department of Systematic Zoology, Kunming Institute of Zoology, Kunming, Yunnan, China

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2002, 2:10  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-2-10

Published: 8 May 2002



In terms of structure and function, the skull is one of the most complicated organs in the body. It is also one of the most important parts in terms of developmental and evolutionary origins. This complexity makes it difficult to obtain evolutionary assessments if, as is usually the case with fossils, only part of the skull is available. For this reason this study involves a set of comparisons whereby the smallest functional units are studied first, and these built up, through a triple-nested hierarchical design, into more complex anatomical regions and eventually into the skull-as-a-whole. This design has been applied to macaques (Macaca) in order to reveal patterns of variation at the different levels. The profiles of such variation have been obtained both within and between species. This has lead to a search for the skull parts that have undergone similar selection pressures during evolution and comparable development patterns in both ontogeny and phylogeny.


Morphometric analysis (Principal Components) was used to obtain these profiles of species and sex separations based on 77 cranial variables from 11 species of macaques. The results showed that 7 functional units could be aggregated into three functionally reasonable anatomical regions on the basis of similarities in profiles. These were: the masticatory apparatus containing mandible, lower teeth and upper teeth, the face as a whole combining maxilla (actually lower face) and upper face, and the cranium as a whole involving cranium and calvaria. Twenty-six variables were finally selected for analyzing the morphology of the whole skull. This last showed an overall profile similar to that revealed in the masticatory apparatus but also contained additional information pertaining to individual species and species-groups separations.


The study provides a model for carrying out analysis of species separations and sex variation simultaneously. Through this design it seems possible to see cranio-dental elements that may result from similar developmental processes, have similar functional adaptations, and show an appropriately integrated structure morphologically. This study also implies that the biological information drawn from part of skull alone, e.g. as in studies of incomplete fossils may provide misleading information.