Why are mammals so successful? It’s the teeth!

mammal teeth
From Vetebrate Life 4th Edition by P. Harvey Pough et al.

The great Jean Léopold Nicolas Frédéric Cuvier also referred to as the father of paleontology once boasted that

“..from a single bone, or even a portion of a bone, the anatomist can reconstruct an entire animal..”

There is some truth to this assertion despite the note of bombast attached to it. It is particularly true in the case of mammals and their teeth. You can truly determine the order or even family of a mammal using just it’s teeth because this class has such a diversity of eating habits.

The order has expanded from an insectivore with limited dentition to include animals that range from whales that feed through these string like structures called baleen to ant eaters who have done away with teeth all together.

Courtesy Getty Images






Most mammals have two sets of teeth, the milk teeth in the young and more permanent teeth in adult creatures. However, there are exceptions like elephants with permanently replaced molars and rodents with continuously growing incisors.

In general (one can’t be specific with this order. Their teeth are all over the place. It’s chaos here, I tell you!), all mammals have four kinds of teeth.

The incisors are used to bring food into the mouth in small chewing morsels. They can be specialized like rodents and rabbits. Rats have permanently growing incisors that have to be kept in check by constant gnawing. Elephants and narwhals have grown these into specialized tusks for digging and as weapons.

elephant tusks







The canines are right beside the incisors and are specially important for the meat-eaters in this class, mostly the dog and cat families. They are used to bite and hold prey and are consequently sharp and razor-edged. Look at this set on a Lion!









Premolars are the teeth that can quickly determine the kind of diet the animal is on. For meat-eaters, these teeth are very strong and sharp, necessary to crush and grind meat and bones. Whereas for vegetarians they are used for shearing vegetation.








Molars come right after premolars and here is where the last bit of processing is done before the food is swallowed. They can be simple like pegs in dolphins or can be quite complex like elephants. The function of these with the premolars is to further break the food down to even smaller and digestible chunks. They come in use for ruminants to chew cud too.


elephant molars








Mammals dominate ecological niches and are usually top predators because they have evolved to produce any kind of dentition required to rule a habitat. Of course, it could also be that because they are warm-blooded and need a lot of nutrition, they have evolved more specialized teeth.  Be that as it may, just look at this lads set of teeth.

Wouldn’t you like a set like that!!!


About mammal 73 Articles
I blog about mammals and all the interesting and fun-filled facts about them will be welcome additions to this blog.

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