Virtual experiments, physical validation: dental morphology at the intersection of experiment and theory

P. S. L. Anderson, E. J. Rayfield

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

22 Citations (Scopus)


Computational models such as finite-element analysis offer biologists a means of exploring the structural mechanics of biological systems that cannot be directly observed. Validated against experimental data, a model can be manipulated to perform virtual experiments, testing variables that are hard to control in physical experiments. The relationship between tooth form and the ability to break down prey is key to understanding the evolution of dentition. Recent experimental work has quantified how tooth shape promotes fracture in biological materials. We present a validated finite-element model derived from physical compression experiments. The model shows close agreement with strain patterns observed in photoelastic test materials and reaction forces measured during these experiments. We use the model to measure strain energy within the test material when different tooth shapes are used. Results show that notched blades deform materials for less strain energy cost than straight blades, giving insights into the energetic relationship between tooth form and prey materials. We identify a hypothetical 'optimal' blade angle that minimizes strain energy costs and test alternative prey materials via virtual experiments. Using experimental data and computational models offers an integrative approach to understand the mechanics of tooth morphology.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1846-1855
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of the Royal Society Interface
Issue number73
Publication statusPublished - 7 Aug 2012


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