To main content

Evidence for a trade-off between early growth and tooth wear in Svalbard reindeer


1. Ruminants depend on efficient physical degradation of forage through chewing to increase the surface area of the food particles presented to the microflora. Fossil evidence suggests that increased molar height is an adaptation for wear tolerance in dry ecosystems with sparse vegetation, but no study has shown selection pressure for hypsodonty in contemporary ruminants.
2. We explored the relationships between particle size in rumen, tooth wear (scanned molar occlusal topography), age and body mass of female Svalbard reindeer living in an arctic desert at 78° latitude on Svalbard.
3. We predicted that (H1) if the rumen particle size is determined mainly by constraints due to tooth wear, and if tooth wear is mainly a function of age, average particle size in rumen should increase with age. From allometric relations it is known that larger individuals can survive on a lower-quality diet, we therefore predicted (H2) larger particle sizes with increases in (ln) body mass, irrespective of age and wear. Lastly, if there is a trade-off between growth and tooth wear in dry ecosystems (a selection pressure for hypsodonty), we predicted (H3) that teeth of heavier animals should be more worn than those of lighter animals of the same age.
4. The proportion of small particles (<1·0 mm) decreased rapidly with increasing age (consistent with H1). Heavier females within an age class had more worn teeth (consistent with H3) than lighter ones. A close-to-isometric relationship between particle size and body mass suggested that heavier animals partly compensated for reduced tooth efficiency by chewing more.
5. We provide the first evidence of a trade-off between fast early growth and wear (a somatic cost) of a senescence-related trait – the structure and height of the molar – in a wild ruminant inhabiting an arctic desert where selection pressure for increased tooth height is expected. This suggests that foraging conditions are more extreme than the environment in which the species originally evolved.


Academic article


  • Research Council of Norway (RCN) / 179569




  • Vebjørn Veiberg
  • A Mysterud
  • Eirin Bjørkvoll
  • Rolf Langvatn
  • Leif Egil Loe
  • Justin Irvine
  • C. Bonenfant
  • F. Couweleers
  • Nils Christian Stenseth


  • The University Centre in Svalbard
  • Norwegian University of Science and Technology
  • The James Hutton Institute
  • University Claude Bernard (Lyon I)
  • University of Oslo



Published in

Journal of Animal Ecology




John Wiley & Sons




1139 - 1148

View this publication at Cristin