How to "Read" a Skull: Teeth

Mammals, as well as some reptiles, amphibians and fish, have teeth. The teeth of an animal can tell you a lot about that animal's life. The type, shape and number of teeth an animal has can help determine its diet. If a mammal has long, sharp canines, it was most likely a predator. Canines are used for grabbing, holding and killing prey. Some meat eating mammals (carnivores) have sharp shearing cheek-teeth called carnassials. These teeth act like a scissor to cut through tough flesh and to break it into smaller pieces for swallowing and digestion. Examples of carnivores include cats, dogs and weasels.

Plant eating animals tend to have teeth specialized in chewing various parts of plants. Some plant eaters eat grasses (grazers), some eat twigs, leaves and berries (browsers) while others eat only specific plant parts (I.e. roots, fruit, etc.). In order to properly digest vegetation, an animal must chew its food to help break down the plant. Most herbivores have cheek teeth called molars. These molars help grind leaves, stems, grasses, fruit and even seeds before the animal swallows them. Examples of herbivores include deer, rabbits and cattle.

Some animals eat both plants and animals (omnivores) and have both types of teeth. Examples of omnivores include pigs, bears and humans!

* Visit our Education Programs page to see what your students can learn about Animal Dentition during a field trip to the museum, and how we can bring the concept into your classroom during an outreach visit.