Canine size, shape, and bending strength in primates and carnivores

J. Michael Plavcan, Christopher B. Ruff

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

30 Scopus citations


Anthropoid primates are well known for their highly sexually dimorphic canine teeth, with males possessing canines that are up to 400% taller than those of females. Primate canine dimorphism has been extensively documented, with a consensus that large male primate canines serve as weapons for intrasexual competition, and some evidence that large female canines in some species may likewise function as weapons. However, apart from speculation that very tall male canines may be relatively weak and that seed predators have strong canines, the functional significance of primate canine shape has not been explored. Because carnivore canine shape and size are associated with killing style, this group provides a useful comparative baseline for primates. We evaluate primate maxillary canine tooth size, shape and relative bending strength against body size, skull size, and behavioral and demographic measures of male competition and sexual selection, and compare them to those of carnivores. We demonstrate that, relative to skull length and body mass, primate male canines are on average as large as or larger than those of similar sized carnivores. The range of primate female canine sizes embraces that of carnivores. Male and female primate canines are generally as strong as or stronger than those of carnivores. Although we find that seed-eating primates have relatively strong canines, we find no clear relationship between male primate canine strength and demographic or behavioral estimates of male competition or sexual selection, in spite of a strong relationship between these measures and canine crown height. This suggests either that most primate canines are selected to be very strong regardless of variation in behavior, or that primate canine shape is inherently strong enough to accommodate changes in crown height without compromising canine function.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)65-84
Number of pages20
JournalAmerican journal of physical anthropology
Issue number1
StatePublished - May 2008


  • Canine teeth
  • Carnivora
  • Primates

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anatomy
  • Anthropology


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