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Dinosaur Teeth

Almost every child develops a fascination with dinosaurs early in their childhood. There is something about the constant discovery and changing theories that lends itself to a sense of wonder and dreams. Dinosaur bones have been found and excavated since before the Jin Dynasty in Ancient China (265-316). Around the same time and long after, dinosaur bones found in England were thought to be bones of ancient giants and other biblical beings and creature. And the part that every child loves, dinosaur bones are still being found regularly today. A child falls in love with the idea of finding a dinosaur in their backyard. Of discovering something. And with dinosaurs, it is a true possibility. Ancient civilizations like the Mayans, Egyptians and Romans have been discovered, studied and finalized to a point that leaves very little for newcomers to find. With dinosaurs, new things are being discovered and researched all the time, and that allows children to dream!

One of the things that is under constant study is how dinosaurs survived. How did they fight? What did they eat? And to find out the answers to these questions paleontologists can look at the dinosaur’s teeth for information and evidence.

What Can We Learn From Dinosaur Teeth?

Dinosaur teeth are just like any other species of teeth, made of super-hard minerals and enamels that make them perfect candidates for fossilization. Which means they can tell us so much about the dinosaur, its environment and its eating habits.The most obvious piece of information we learn from dinosaur teeth is whether it was a carnivore (strict meat-eater), an herbivore (strict vegetarian) or an omnivore (enjoys a little of everything offered).

utah raptor rendering
A rendering of a Utah Raptor.

Another interesting piece of the dinosaur puzzle is how dinosaur teeth can shed some light on the environment in which the dinosaur lived. There are 4 eras of the dinosaur’s reign on Planet Earth:

  1. Triassic Period (which was over 231.4 million years ago)
  2. Jurassic Period (remember the movie/novel? Those dinos weren’t actually from the Jurassic period)
  3. Cretaceous Period (this would have been a more accurate title, but less catchy)
  4. Mesozoic Period (the end of the dino-era)

Paleontologists can determine which era the dinosaur teeth hail from by several different pieces of evidence. The first and most popular way to determine the age of dinosaur teeth, much like determining the age of bone, is through carbon dating. But that only tells the age of the tooth, the time period from which it came. To fully understand the environment of that time period paleontologists look directly at the dinosaurs teeth. They look at the markings– a tyrannosaurus rex tooth might have some chips, deep grooves or even blood stains caused from the horns, bones and plates of its prey. Finding carnivorous dinosaur teeth with information about what it was eating/fighting just before it died can lead the scientist to find the prey animal. The prey animal would have typically been an herbivore, so finding the prey animal would help the scientist find out what vegetation was around during that dinosaurs time. A brachiosaurus tooth might have leftover plant material embedded in the grooves and wear of its teeth. All these things can give a trained investigator, like a paleontologist, information about when the dinosaur lived, what it ate and even how it died.

The Different Types of Dinosaur Teeth

There are a lot of different kinds of dinosaurs, right? But there are only two groups of dinosaurs, based on hip structure; Ornithischian Dinosaurs and Saurischian Dinosaurs. Ornithischian dinosaurs had hips much like birds (though they are not the ancestors of birds). Saurischians are the ancestors of birds but had hips similar to lizards. And those two groups are then broken into subcategories based on size, whether they are bipedal or quadrupedal, what they ate and how they ate.

T. Rex had sharp, pointy slightly curved teeth perfect for ripping flesh from prey
T. Rex had sharp, pointy slightly curved teeth perfect for ripping flesh from prey

Let’s start by looking at the teeth of Theropods which is a subcategory of the saurischian dinosaur. They are fast moving, bipedal carnivores with grasping hands and clawed digits. Think tyrannosaurus rex, giganotosaurus, Allosaurus or spinosaurus. These dinosaur teeth are sharp, pointed and slightly curved specifically made to tear flesh and crush bones. Theropods, much like sharks, do not chew their food. They merely rip chunks of flesh and meat from their prey and swallow it whole.

the teeth of this Brachiosaurus are rounded, peg-like and act like a rake.
The teeth of this Brachiosaurus are rounded, peg-like and act like a rake.

Sauropods, the only other subcategory of the saurischian, were large quadrupedal herbivores with very long necks and counterbalancing long tails and huge guts. Brachiosaurus, brontosaurus, diplodocus and the ultrasaurus all belong to the sauropod category. These dinosaur teeth are large, rounded and peg-like, positioned in the front of the mouth, used to strip leaves and bark from trees. Basically, their teeth were like rakes. And again, these teeth were not used for chewing. In fact, sauropods do not chew their food either. They swallow the pieces whole and use their large guts, possibly in fermentation chambers, and frequently with the aid of gastroliths, stones the dinos swallowed to help grind up the leaves and twigs.

you can see the flat-topped teeth laying in the jaw behind the bill
You can see the flat-topped teeth laying in the jaw behind the bill.

Ornithopods are a subcategory of the ornithischian dinosaurs. These dinosaurs had beaks, walked on 2 legs or with both 2 and 4 legs, were herbivores and did not have body plating/armor. Think iguanodon, edmontosaurus (duck-billed) and dryosaurus. These dinosaurs have a beak or bill at the front of their mouths and can have up to several hundred tiny flat-topped teeth in the back. The beak or bill is perfect for breaking twigs, pulling up plants, picking berries/fruit and other vegetation from stems and bark, and the teeth grind the materials. These dinos actually chewed their food.

The skull of an Ankylosaurus with it's grinding teeth
The skull of an Ankylosaurus with its grinding teeth.

Thyreophorans were quadrupedal herbivores with boney body armor (spikes, plates or scutes). Ankylosaurus, stegosaurus, sauropelta and the nodosaurus are popular examples of thyreophorans. The teeth of these dinosaurs were broad, leaf-shaped teeth in the middle of the jaws also used to grind plant matter.

look at the choppers on that Triceratops!
Look at the choppers on that Triceratops!

Marginocephalians are the last subcategory of ornithischian dinosaurs. They are quadrupedal herbivores with a distinctive bony skull structure. Dinosaurs that belong to this subcategory include the triceratops, protoceratops, styracosaurus and the pachycephalosaurus. Marginocephalians have a toothless beak that were used to gather food, and several, flat topped teeth positioned at the back of the mouth. These teeth resemble human incisors, tapering from the root to the top to create a tooth perfect for chopping and slicing through tough, fibrous plant material.

Now you can see how dinosaur teeth are grouped into 4 basic categories:

  1. choppers (marginocephalians)
  2. strippers (sauropods)
  3. grinders (ornithopods and thyreophorans)
  4. rippers (theropods)

Dinosaurs have fascinated mankind since the dawn of their discovery, and probably well before that. It’s amazing to realize how old our planet is, and learn about the kind of amazing creatures we’ve shared it with. Teeth have always been a basic component in studying past human civilizations, and ancient animals. They can hold many secrets and truths about where our planet once was, and what the creatures that roamed its surface, swam in its waters and flew in its air. Remember that as you care for your teeth. In a couple hundred years, when a future scientist finds your remains, what will he/she learn of you and your time on this planet? Here’s the importance of preventive care.

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