The shape of an animal’s teeth tells us what kind of food it eats. All animals have teeth that are adapted to eating certain types of food.
Herbivores, because they are plant eaters, have strong and flat molars that are made for grinding leaves and small or non-existent canine teeth. Carnivores, the meat eaters of the animal world, have very defined canine teeth for tearing at meat, combined with a sometimes limited number of molars.
Omnivores, because they eat both meat and plants, have a combination of sharp front teeth and molars for grinding.
Herbivores have teeth that are highly specialized for eating plants. Because plant matter is often difficult to break down, the molars of herbivores are wider and flatter, designed to grind food, and aid in digestion. Herbivore incisors are sharp for tearing plants, but they may not be present on both the upper and lower jaw. White tail deer are a perfect example of an herbivore that has only lower incisors and a rigid upper jaw that assists in the tearing of plants.
Many animals, such as horses and cows, have jaws that are capable of moving sideways. Elephants are herbivores, and their incisors are unlike those found in other animals. Odd as it may sound, a tusk is actually a tooth, an incisor, that has evolved into a different type of tool, often used for defense.
Carnivores have a set of teeth that are very different from herbivores’. This makes sense, because they also have a different diet. A carnivore will use its teeth to kill a prey item before eating it. The sharp incisors and pointed canine teeth are perfectly designed for both incapacitating and eating a meal.
A canine tooth can be easily identified, as it is the longer, pointed tooth located on either side of the incisors. The molars are fewer in number than other animals may have, mainly because so much of the work is done by the teeth in the front of the mouth. While the presence of canine teeth does not guarantee that an animal is a carnivore, it is an indicator that meat is some part of the diet.
Humans are omnivores, meaning we eat a variety of foods, including meat and plant matter. A quick glance at your own teeth will give you a sense of the variety of shapes and sizes of teeth an omnivore can have. Human teeth are not indicative of exactly what you will see in the mouth of all omnivores. Each omnivore will have teeth that are specifically adapted to the diet these animals consume.
Animals with teeth like humans that use their molars for grinding and their incisors and canines for ripping or tearing are said to have heterodont dentition. Each tooth is designed for a specific role in processing the food eaten. Homodont dentition, found in most omnivorous reptiles, occurs when the teeth are all relatively the same size and shape. These teeth are used more for the acquisition of food than for the processing of that food.
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