Teeth and Diet

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DOWNLOAD a pdf outline of feeding and locomotor adaptations


  1. Much of the adaptive success of mammals is related to teeth
  2. Mammals are the only vertebrates that masticate
  3. Mammalian teeth are adapted for various diets
  4. Note the relationship between dentition and feeding pattern and how this impacts shape and structure of jaw and associated musculature
    1. Figure to right of Model of the skull and jaw muscles of the Jamaican fruit bat (Artibeus lituratus). Major jaw muscle group: temporalis (red/pink), masseter (teal/green), medial pterygoid (yellow) and digastric (purple). Photo: Abby Vander Linden. from  Burke Museum
  5. The mammalian fossil record is typically teeth (and isolated jaws) 
  1. Learn more about teeth from the University of Michigan's Museum of Zoology
Tooth Structure
  1. thecodont (rooted)
    1. gomphodont: multiple roots
    2. alveolus (-i): socket(s)
  2. parts
    1. crown--above the alveolus
    2. root--in alveolus, below the gum line
  3. composition (Fig. 3-24)
    1. enamel--outer layer 97% hydroxyapatite, 3% organics [ectodermal]
    2. dentine--inner layer, 70% hydroxyapatite, 30% organics [dermal]
    3. cementum--spongy, bone-like material; holds tooth to socket;
    4. pulp cavity--within the dentine, holds blood vessels and nerves.


image courtesy of BIODIDAC

Kinds of teeth

  1. only mammals have differentiated (heterodont) teeth
    1. incisors-anterior-most teeth [uppers occur on premaxilla]
    2. canines--longer, conical teeth used for grasping
    3. cheek teeth--post canine
      1. premolars--cheek teeth that have deciduous predecessors (milk dentition)
        1. molariform teeth, squarish teeth used for grinding food
      2. molars--cheek teeth that do not have deciduous predecessors
  2. NOTE that some mammals (e.g., armadillos, toothed whales) have homodont dentitions.
  3. edentulous (edentate - without permanent teeth)



  1. typically mammals are diphyodont--have a single deciduous milk dentition followed by permanent teeth
  2. some are polyphyodont--have multiple replacement sets (Trichechidae, manatees, have 30+ molars)
  3. toothed whales (e.g., dolphins, porpoises, sperm whales) are monophyodont--have only a single set
  4. Most tooth replacement is vertical.
  5. Trichechids, Elephantids,and rock wallabies among others have horizontal tooth replacement (Fig. 9-7)


Dental Formulae

teeth are listed and counted in the order they occur in each half (quadrant) the of the upper and lower jaw; upper jaw is listed over lower. 

e.g., 3/2 1/1 4/4 3/3 = 42 total teeth
e.g., 1/1 0/0 4/4 3/3 indicates no canines
P3 or P3 indicates the third lower or upper premolars
p3 and P3 indicates the third lower and third upper premolars
1/1 0/0 5/4 means the post-canine teeth are lumped together

Primitive dental formula

  • placental mammals -  3/3 1/1 4/4 3/3 = 44 teeth
  • marsupial mammals -  5/4 1/1 3/3 4/4 = 50 teeth
dental formulae

Dental anomalies

  1. supernumerary teeth: extra teeth
  2. agenesis or hypodontia: absent teeth

Evolution of multicusped tooth pattern (cheek teeth)

  1. triconodonts have three linearly arranged cusps (Fig. 2-15 top)
  2. evolution of triangular, multicusped cheek-teeth (Fig. 3-20C) in the symmetrodonts improved transverse shearing action by increasing the surface area of tooth
  3. tribosphenic tooth (Figs. 3-21; 3-22, 3-26)
    1. evolved in primitive therians with the evolution of the neomorph protocone and talonid
    2. characteristic of primitive (arthropodophagous) marsupials and placentals
    3. upper molars with three prominent cusps
      1. trigon--triangle formed by the paracone, metacone, and protocone: the apex of triangle on lingual side
    4. lower molars with three prominent cusps (trigonid) plus basin (talonid)
      1. trigonid--a triangle formed by the paraconid, metaconid, and the labial protoconid
      2. talonid--a posterior extension of lower tooth that accommodates the protocone. contains entoconid, hypoconid, and hypoconulid.
    5. specialized independent occlusal functions
      1. points puncture
      2. crests shear
      3. protocone and talonid function together to crush and grind

Modifications of the Tribosphenic Pattern

  1. many mammals have a square molariform tooth
    1. results from the addition of the hypocone to the trigon (=euthemorphic) [Fig. 3-26C, D]
  2. Modifications of euthemorphic produce a variety of cusp patterns  [Fig. 3-25]
  1. quadritubercular--4 main cusps (e.g. humans, pigs) that are
    1. typically, bunodont--hemispherical cusps
  2. lophodont--occlusal surface of lophs (ridges), that typically run the width of the tooth
  3. selenodont-- crescent-shaped lophs
  1. Fusion of two or more cusps to form a cutting edge.
    1. sectorial dentition (secodont)-occlusal surface has shearing or cutting edge.
    2. carnassial teeth--shearing teeth, have blade-like (sectorial) scissors action [Fig. 16-5]. 
      1.  In the Order Carnivora they are always P4 and m1. (image of carnassials of an Eurasian wolf from Wikipedia)
Wolf dentition showing carnassials
  1. Some other terms
    1. brachydont--low crowned teeth, e.g. sheep;
      1. always closed-rooted; wear with age
    2. hypsodont--high crowned teeth, e.g. horses
      1. can be open rooted and ever-growing
    3. diastema--gap in the tooth row


Structure of the lower jaw: mandibular condyle and muscle groups  in
  1. carnivores
    • condyle at the same level as tooth row, scissors-like occlusion, temporalis is the main muscle
    • image courtesy of BIODIDAC


  1. herbivores:
    • condyle above the level of tooth row, occlusion of cheek teeth at same time, masseter is the main muscle
    • note the long diastema between the incisors and the cheek teeth
    • image courtesy of BIODIDAC




  1. Herbivore
    1. Grazer
    2. Browser
    3. Folivore
    4. Frugivore.
    5. Nectivore
    6. Granivore
  2. Carnivore
    1. Sarcophage 
    2. piscivore
    3. molluscivore
  3. Omnivore
  4. Insectivore
    1. myrmecophage
      1. convergence in anteaters
  5. Sanguivore
  6. Filter feeder (Planktivore)


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