Comparisons between mountain ranges and tiny teeth come naturally to Pineda-Munoz because she studies animals’ mouths with a tool used by mapmakers: GIS, for geographic information system. The technology lets researchers take spatial and geographic data — whether it’s the distance between cusps or between peaks — and then quantify and analyze it.
Pineda-Munoz, an evolutionary biologist at the National Museum of Natural History, has used GIS to create a database of mammal teeth. The pearly whites of more than 100 species are characterized via six measurable features that are related to food processing and give clues about an animal’s diet. Each of those characteristics gets a number.