Date of Award


Document type


Access Type

Open Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Program

Mechanical Engineering

First Advisor

Ian R. Grosse

Second Advisor

Frank Sup

Third Advisor

Elizabeth R. Dumont

Subject Categories

Biomechanics and Biotransport | Mechanical Engineering


Tooth cusp radius of curvature (RoC) has been hypothesized to play an important role in food item breakdown, but has remained largely unstudied due to difficulties in measuring and modeling RoC in multicusped teeth. We tested these hypotheses using a parametric model of a four cusped, maxillary, bunodont molar in conjunction with finite element analysis. When our data failed to support existing hypotheses, we put forth and tested the Complex Cusp Hypothesis which states that, during brittle food items breakdown, an optimally shaped molar would be maximizing stresses in the food item while minimizing stresses in the enamel. After gaining support for this hypothesis, we tested the effects of relative food item size on optimal molar morphology and found that the optimal set of RoCs changed as relative food item size changed. However, all optimal morphologies were similar, having one dull cusp that produced high stresses in the food item and three cusps that acted to stabilize the food item.

We then set out to measure tooth cusp RoC in several species of extant apes to determine if any of the predicted optimal morphologies existed in nature and whether tooth cusp RoC was correlated with diet. While the optimal morphologies were not found in apes, we did find that tooth cusp RoC was correlated with diet and folivores had duller cusps while frugivores had sharper cusps. We hypothesize that, because of wear patterns, tooth cusp RoC is not providing a mechanical advantage during food item breakdown but is instead causing the tooth to wear in a beneficial fashion. Next, we investigate two possible relationships between tooth cusp RoC and enamel thickness, as enamel thickness plays a significant role in the way a tooth wears, using CT scans from hundreds of unworn cusps. There was no relationship between the two variables, indicating that selection may be acting on both variables independently to create an optimally shaped tooth. Finally, we put forth a framework for testing the functional optimality in teeth that takes into account tooth strength, food item breakdown efficiency, and trapability (the ability to trap and stabilize a food item).