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Michael Berthaume

Michael Berthaume. Photo: Manjari Jyoti

Photo: Manjari Jyoti

Department visited

Department of Zoology

How long will you stay at the museum, and what will you be working with? Can you very briefly explain to the laymen what your research is about?

I stayed at the museum for a week and worked with the skeletal great ape material. In particular, I focused on the collection of Gorilla beringei beringei from the Virunga Mountains.

For my work, I investigate how diet, which is inferred from tooth shape, changes in the great apes depending on if they are competing with each other for food resources or not. If they are competing with each other, this can lead to splitting of home ranges (so they do not compete), localized extinctions, or for the great apes to develop slightly different diets. This last option is an evolutionary phenomenon known as character displacement. As the great apes have not split their ranges and localized extinctions have not occurred, I am interested in investigating if character displacement has occurred in diet. To test this, I must quantify tooth shape in great apes that are sympatric (overlapping home ranges) and allopatric (non-overlapping home ranges). If when chimpanzees and gorillas are sympatric, differences in tooth shape are greater than when they are allopatric, this suggests character displacement has occurring in tooth shape and diet.

I went to Stockholm because they have collections of Gorilla beringei beringei from the Virunga Mountains. There are about 350 Virunga gorillas in the wild, making them rare in museum collections. They are unique among gorillas in that they are the most folivorous (foliage eating) extant gorillas due to the lack of fruit that grows in the mountains (due to their elevation). They are also the only population of gorillas in the world living allopatric to chimpanzees, making them vital to my study. In addition to these gorillas, Stockholm has other well preserved great ape material that is vital for my work.

What is the major objective to achieve during your stay at NRM?

To study the great ape material and take molds and pictures of the teeth.

What attracted you to apply for a SYNTHESYS grant, and in particular for SYNTHESYS grant to visit NRM?

I heard about the SYNTHESYS grant from a coworker, and thought it would be a great opportunity to visit this incredibly unique and valuable collection.

Which university are you from, and what is your position and daily work there?

Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology, postdoctoral researcher. I conduct research on masticatory biomechanics.

What is your experience with the visiting department, the collections and the museum so far? For example is there anything which is very different from your home institution?

Daniela Kalthoff, the curator, and everyone else I talked to was incredibly friendly and helpful. The facilities were very well kept up and looked after. It was a pleasure to work there.

Did you have time to look around in Stockholm, or if you plan to do so, what do you intend to visit?

I went into town for dinner one night, but would continue my work after I left the museum until I went to bed, organizing pictures taken that day, creating “boats” for my tooth molds, and preparing myself for the next day.

Something else you want to tell other European scientists about the SYNTHESYS programme or our museum?

Keep the program going!!


A jaw of a large Gorilla beringei beringei from NRM’s collections. Photo: Michael Berthaume

A jaw of a large Gorilla beringei beringei from NRM’s collections. Photo: Michael Berthaume

Project Summary

My research focuses on the interface between mechanical engineering and biological anthropology, in an effort to better understand functional morphology from an engineering perspective. In particular, I am interested in tooth biomechanics, dietary mechanical properties, cross-sectional geometry and long bones, and the application of finite element analysis (FEA) to biological systems.

Currently, I am working on two projects at the MPWC. The first involves using FEA to better understand how extrinsic and intrinsic food properties affect the ways in which teeth wear. The second involves using dental topography and physical experimentation to understand the relationship between tooth shape, function, and diet, in the extant and extinct hominoids.